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Princeling: a petty ruler.

—Dictionary definition.


CHAPTER ONE

He kept us waiting, of course.

It was a damp, chill-filled night, with frost crackling underfoot. The air was colder than an icicle except where the hissing fire tried to scare away the winter. Selig had placed me next to the fire, both as a way to emphasize my honor – what little honor I had left – and as a way to keep me from dying of a chill. He had made it more than clear during the past three years that he considered me a frail creature, incapable of enduring the hardened life of a soldier. But, then, his opinion was shared by all in the Tascanian Army.

Our own King was late as well, but for a different reason: he stayed until the last moment in the forest south of the truce ground, giving Eimund his instructions. The rest of us, princes and aldermen alike, stamped our numb feet and blew on our hands, huddling in one unranked mass like apprentices seeking each other's warmth on a cold night.

"Cold I can stand," commented Marlin, "and darkness I can tolerate. But a night like this, cold as death and darker than dried blood . . . Why, you can't see so much as a tree outside the firelight."

"I remember a night like this, oh, about forty years ago," said Janarius, a tall, deep-voiced alderman who had reached the age where he was given to reliving battles in his mind. "Cameron had us attack the Fossenvites' winter camp by starlight alone, and we nearly slaughtered their army then. If Cameron had only managed to reach their King . . . Still, we're close to the final victory now. We'll win this year."

"You say that every year." Selig kept his comment under his breath; I suspected I was the only one who heard him, for he and I were standing shoulder to shoulder. His arms vibrated as he rubbed them energetically against the icy breath of the wind.

"No starlight tonight to guide us," said Obert, always determined to get the facts right. "Which is just as well; that means the Fossenvites can't attack either. How much longer do you think they'll keep us waiting?"

"Until their King has amused himself by seeing us turn blue," said Marlin grimly. "He's watching us, you can count on that – and probably listening as well, so be careful of what you say."

"This cursed darkness," complained Obert. "If only we could see them!"

I felt the darkness pressing all around me like cold earth flung into a grave. Almost, I could imagine I was atop Wolf Hill, standing in the night-black stillness, hearing the growls around me. . . . I shivered.

In the next moment, Selig reached over and pulled my cloak tighter closed. I restrained myself from pulling away; instead, I concentrated my thoughts on the sable valley around us. Faintly came the sound of rhythmic pounding. I felt my stomach draw inwards before I realized that the noise was arriving from the wrong direction.

"Our King's here," I said, cutting short an argument between Janarius and Selig as to how many petty villages we Tascanians had to raid before we could claim the coming year's victory.

Cloaks rustled against each other as everyone turned to face the horses galloping toward us. Marlin called out a greeting, and then the horsemen were upon us, their mounts snorting in protest as they were pulled up abruptly. Smoke filled the air from the torches that had lit our King's way. The King gave a laugh as he thudded to the ground beside his horse, making some small jest about it being too warm near the fire. Then he fell silent as, one by one, the princes came forward to give their homage.

I waited until the others were finished; then, ignoring Selig's hand against my back, I came forward and knelt in front of the King, taking up his hand to kiss his ring. By now, I had this performance so well practiced that I could do it in one smooth move.

"Corbin." We had last seen each other only that afternoon, but Varick's voice, as usual, was a mixture of affection and anxiety as he spoke to me. He lifted me to my feet, saying, "Gentlemen, give us leave, if you will."

There was a murmur like the rattle of wind-touched leaves as the others vacated the coveted spot next to the fire. Varick drew me toward the flames. I quickly pulled my cloak against my body, lest the cloth catch on fire.

"Corbin, you can still change your mind," he said in an undertone as he leaned close to me. His voice rasped slightly in the unique manner that marked him off from other men. "You and Selig may go back to the camp if you wish."

Faintly, I heard the mutter of the nobles. The midwinter wind blew to my ears a word or two of what they were saying. Deliberately raising my voice so that the nearby men could hear me, I said, "Sire, I would appreciate it if you would allow me to stay. There remains a small chance that I might have information which would be of service to you at this meeting."

Varick was slow in replying. When he finally spoke, it was in a voice as loud as my own had been and in words carefully chosen. "I have no doubt you will be able to contribute much to this meeting, Corbin. I am grateful you are willing to take part in this talk."

I nodded but said nothing, for my stomach was beginning to churn again. A moment later I heard the sound I had been anticipating: hooves pounding against the hard winter ground as horses raced round the side of Wolf Hill to reach us.

"Torchlight, sire!" called Obert, having sighted them before hearing them. "It's York and his men."

The frost on the ground crackled once more as the nobles around me hastened to reach their positions of appointed honor. Though I had not moved, Varick said to me in a low voice, "Stay where you are." Then he stepped a bare half-pace forward, leaving me close to his side, like a shadow that mirrors its original.

Selig, panting from haste and excitement, appeared at my left side, a mere alderman promoted to a position of higher honor purely for my sake. He reached over to my cloak again, but I had already remembered to sweep it back across my shoulders to show that I was unarmed but for the dagger no fighting man would ever strip himself of.

The horses arrived at the fireside at a war-gallop. A horse emitted one great squeal of protest; then its forefeet fell to the ground with a thump. York's great, bellowing laugh, like the rumble of dangerous thunder, filled the still night. Without thinking, I let my hand creep onto my dagger hilt; then I remembered where I was and quickly let go of the dagger, though I could be sure no one cared whether I was touching a weapon or not. Least of all York.

"You chose a cold night for this meeting, Varick," shouted York across the fire. He was still on his horse; his voice travelled above our heads like a dark cloud. "I can't say that I think much of your men's fire-making skills. Shall we see whether we can combine our efforts to make a better fire by throwing our torches into the flames?"

Below the renewed murmur of our nobles, Varick said, "A trick?"

I opened my mouth to reply, but realized in the next moment that he was not turning to me for advice.

"You may be sure of it." I could just hear Marlin's low voice on the right side of Varick. "But what the trick is, I don't know."

"There's only one way to find out." Varick raised his voice as he said, "If you find this soldiers' fire too tame for your comfort, York, we would certainly not want you and your men to suffer. Locke, Davin – add the torches to the fire."

There was a moment's pause as the torchbearers, who had been standing several paces back from Varick, made their way to the fire, trailing warmth and smoke as they went. York's sharp orders to his own torchbearers were followed by the thud of boots as the Fossenvite soldiers dismounted. Twenty men, York had been told to bring to this truce meeting; I heard Selig count in a whisper, then stop short of twenty, satisfied.

"King and Commander of Tascania," York said with firm formality as he came toward the fire, "I greet you in the name of my people, noble and petty alike, and I swear to you that, as long as we stand within the light of this truce fire, neither I nor my men shall touch our blades. I present unto you, as witnesses to my oath, Granville, Prince and Duke of the Long Fields; Ridley, Prince and Duke of the Grey Mountains; and Houghton, Prince and Duke of the Black Forest—"

"You were told to bring your sons." Varick's voice had just the right edge of coolness to it. He had learned since becoming King that York was only amused if his enemies stormed against his conniving.

"—and my younger son, Firmin, Prince and heir to my heir," York finished smoothly. "Lenwood is unfortunately unable to come tonight, as he is still recovering from an unexpected arm wound he received in last month's battle."

York did not even bother to emphasize the word "unexpected"; the implication was clear. The silence that followed was so deep that I could hear Marlin's quick, heavy breathing.

"As I informed you last month, York, Prince Marlin inflicted that wound by accident." Varick's voice was slow and deliberate. "But even if he had not, your son – either of your sons – deserves far worse than that. A debt remains to be paid."

"Certainly," York replied cheerfully. "We owe a member of the Tascanian royal family one arm wound – I think you will find that we have not inflicted such a wound on you or your brother this year – and you owe me or my sons . . . Well, let us just say that a large debt remains to be paid. That is, if you ever get near enough us to repay it. But you have not yet given me your oath, Varick, and this makes me exceedingly nervous."

He sounded anything but nervous. The wind was blowing from the north again, sending billowing clouds of smoke into my face and running icy fingers down my bare chest. I tried to pretend this was the only reason I was shivering, but I pulled my hands back to where York could not see that they were closed in fists. In the quiet voice he used when he was close to losing his temper, Varick repeated the time-honored words of the truce oath before adding, "I present unto you, as witnesses to my oath, Marlin, Prince and Duke of the Narrow Pass; Obert, Prince and Duke of the Lakelands; and Meaghar, Prince and Duke of the High Reaches. You already know my brother, Prince Corbin."

At his final words, Varick's voice turned colder than the wind. As for York, there was no mistaking the smile in his voice as he said, "Indeed, yes, we are well acquainted. And may I tell the Prince how good it is to see him looking so well these days."

"You may not," Varick said as sharply as a blade. "Kindly refrain from addressing my brother, York. You have said enough to him in the past."

"Certainly, Varick," replied York mildly. "You are the King and Commander of Tascania. I ought not to have addressed one of your subjects at such a meeting."

Beside me, Varick began to shake with anger. Though by this time I was feeling so ill that I was sure I must be green in the face, I quickly and unobtrusively reached out to touch Varick's back. I felt him tense himself into control once more.

He said flatly, "Corbin is not my subject, as you well know, York. That is a topic we will discuss at another time. For now, I wish to learn why you have recently kidnapped men from the Petty Partition. This is one of the first times in eighty years that either Fossenvite soldiers or Tascanian soldiers have abducted petties from that place, and so I desire to know whether you are unilaterally rewriting the Rules of War."

"Discard the Rules my own grandfather wrote?" York's voice remained light. "Those Rules will always be followed while I'm alive. I merely sent a few men in to bring home certain criminals who had fled to the Partition."

"That is the whole point of the Partition." Varick's voice remained neutral, without any of the sarcasm that would have accompanied this statement if it had been spoken by York. "It allows the petty people a place of refuge. No noble may enter the Partition—"

"The men I sent were not nobles."

"—nor may anyone drag a petty out of the Partition in order to hand him over to a noble," Varick concluded steadily. "You know the Rules as well as I do, York, since, as you say, your grandfather composed the Rules my great-grandfather agreed to. I repeat, why have you broken the Nineteenth Rule of War?"

York gave a chuckle, a deep chuckle that was louder than the sound of the flames crackling between the Fossenvites and the Tascanians. I felt the sickness force itself up my throat. To distract myself from thoughts of York, I concentrated my attention on the men around him. Underneath the fire's roar came the crackle of frost as the Fossenvites shifted slowly in their places. They were edging themselves closer to the border line that the truce fire marked; they were now within a few steps of our land.

I did not move my head, which had been turned in York's direction all this time, but my hand moved quickly out. Varick's hands, as I had expected, were crossed behind his back, in the stance that the King adopts when talking formally to other men. I tapped his wrist once, hard, in the signal that Janarius had taught both of us many years before.

Varick caught my hand as it began to slide away; he squeezed it once to show me he had understood my warning. York was saying, in a gentle voice which alone would have alerted me to the danger, "Perhaps I just wanted an excuse for us to get together and chat. It has been three years now since we last talked, has it not? And then, of course, you were not King, and so we were limited in what we could say to each other. Are you enjoying your reign, Varick? I confess that I don't see the same fire in you that existed in the previous King – but of course it is always hard to outperform the dead. I remember your predecessor telling me that his father had foretold he would be the one to end the war by leading the final victory charge—"

"York." Varick's voice could barely be heard above the snapping and popping of burning wood. I knew that he had only delayed this long in interrupting because he had been trying to determine the source of the danger. "Your men are coming too close to the border; I would appreciate it if you would halt their advance. Moreover, I see that you have not pulled back your cloak. Would you kindly do this so that we may be sure you are not sword-armed?"

"Certainly, Varick." York's light reply held so much amusement in it that I felt myself grow stiff with fear. Recalling my wits, I reached out to tap Varick's hand again . . . but in the same moment, Varick stepped forward. My hand met nothing but empty air.

Across the fire, York was saying in the delicate tone he used when making a rehearsed and deadly speech, "I promise you, Varick, I am concealing no forbidden weapons. See, I will take off my cloak altogether to assure you—"

I drew breath to speak, sensing there was little time left in which to attract Varick's attention, but at that moment my cheek was stung by the edge of York's cloak catching my skin. The cloak whooshed through the air as it passed me, and then there was silence, undisturbed even by the crackling of the fire.

Of all the unexpected things which happened that night, the most unexpected was this: I was the first man to guess what was about to happen. Perhaps this was because the others were recovering from the shock of being suddenly plunged into darkness. I, on the other hand, was still concentrating on the sounds around me, and in the next moment I heard the sound that all of us had feared would come: the hiss of metal.

"Be at guard!" My voice flung itself upward from the truce ground and began to bounce off the sides of the surrounding hills; the truce ground had this trick of magnifying words spoken in its midst. I had shouted as loud as I could. Then, having conveniently revealed my location in the dark to all the Fossenvites, I did the only thing I could under the circumstances: I dropped flat on the ground.

As I fell, my cheek was grazed once more, this time by a blade – not aimed at me, I guessed from its angle, but at Selig, who was still standing protectively next to me, and who would have caught hold of me and placed me in greater danger if the blade had not met its target. Selig's wail mingled with the cries of the other Tascanians who had not been able to dodge the assault in time. I heard Varick's voice rise above the confusion in one desperate shout: "Corbin, run!"

It was desperation, yet it was a command as well. For a moment, I lay where I was, uncertain of how I could escape alive from the murderous melee that was now taking place. Then I felt nausea push at me like a storm wind. I could smell him; he was close to me, and he was seeking me. With no further thought than panic, I rose to my hands and knees and scrambled under the flying blades until I had reached where I could stand up and run.

I was just in time. Behind me, York shouted an order; fire crackled as it was kindled. Having done as much as they could in the dark, the Fossenvites were as eager for light now as the Tascanians. By this time, though, I was beyond reach of the light. My face turned toward the starless dark of the hillside as I raced blindly away from the truce ground.

o—o—o

Though I could not see where I was going, old instincts kept me headed in the right direction: south, toward the hillside forest that lay between Truce Valley and the Tascanian Army's winter camp. I stumbled only twice. I had run this route many times as a young boy, on nights as dark as this, for Varick and I had received the hardest training any Tascanian soldier receives. The only sound in my flight was the crackling of frost under my feet and the harsh sobbing in my throat. Behind me, the shouting and the clash of blades continued.

I was clambering uphill by now, my feet sliding backwards on the wet surface; yet even so, I nearly crashed into the first tree. I held onto the trunk for a moment, the moss fuzzy against my face as I struggled to regain my breath. Then I began to grope my way through the trees, praying that I had not somehow blundered onto Wolf Hill and was even now wandering over the border. I did not have long for such worries, though. Before I had gone far, two pairs of hands grabbed me and held me captive.

One hand travelled swiftly up to cover my face and smother the scream that had begun to escape my lips. A voice hissed in my ear, "It's Eimund." The hands released me, but for one which gripped my arm tightly, as though in fear that I would run away. Behind me, I could no longer hear metal meeting metal, though the shouts continued.

"What's happening, my liege?" Eimund was always the coolest of aldermen; even now, he remembered to use the title that Varick had invented for me. "We heard your shout, and Gib and I came ahead to investigate. The others are waiting further back."

"It's trickery, just as we expected." As I spoke, I wiped away the sweat from my face with one frustrated jerk, as though I could also wipe away the bitterness of my report. "The Fossenvites drew their blades."

"They broke the truce?" I recognized the voice as belonging to Gib, one of Eimund's petty soldiers. He sounded eager, and with good reason: the penalties for a broken truce were so severe that we might be able to win this year's victory on that basis alone.

Eimund said more calmly, "That doesn't sound like York."

"It's not. I said it was trickery. He gave the usual vow about not drawing his blade within the light of the truce fire – and then he smothered the fire with his cloak. He's not forsworn, and the Fossenvites were able to attack their chosen targets in the dark."

Eimund gave a melancholy whistle. Gib said in a high, excited voice, "What are we waiting for? The King knew this would happen; that's why we're here. Let's get the others and attack."

Eimund did not move from his place. His hand continued to grip me as though I were his battle-prisoner. "My liege, we're under orders to stay here until commanded otherwise. I don't have the authority to move my men."

I cursed inwardly; it was just like Varick to make plans for rescue that depended on his not being among those who must be rescued. It was not that my brother was too arrogant to believe that he might enter into danger; rather, his thoughts were fully absorbed in caring for others. It was the sort of honorable shortcoming that York would always be ready to exploit.

I told Eimund, "You'll have to be commanded by me. I'm the only one who escaped."

There ensued a pause so slight that it probably only consisted of the time it took Eimund to draw in his next breath, but it was long enough for me to wonder what I would do if he refused to accept me as his temporary liege lord. Then Eimund was saying in a matter-of-fact manner, "Yes, my liege. What are your orders?"

I let out a long breath that shuddered too much for my liking before saying crisply, "Gib, get back to the others and bring them up to the edge of the forest. Have them await Eimund's return here."

Gib said hesitantly, "I'm not sure I can find my way back in the dark."

"King's balls, man, you heard the Prince!" For the first time, Eimund lost his temper. "Just go straight round the hill. An apprentice in diapers couldn't miss our post."

Gib mumbled something properly abject and slunk off into the heart of the forest. I turned and began groping my way back toward the edge of the woods, while Eimund continued to clutch my arm as though he were the one in the lead. As we hurried forward, he said in a low voice, "We may be too late. York will have had time to take his hostage over the border."

"No. I'm not there."

In the pause that followed, I was able to ascertain that the shouting was continuing down in the valley. Silent raids were never York's strength. Then Eimund said quietly, "He wants you?"

"I doubt that he'd receive the same enjoyment from Varick as he would from me. Watch out; the slope becomes slippery after this."

"My liege . . ." I heard Eimund swallow, uncertain how to phrase his question. "Are you sure that you wouldn't rather wait here for the others and—?"

I cut him off. "Can you make it down to the valley in the dark? Do you know a place to hide that's close enough to see what's happening?"

"No, my liege." Eimund's voice was subdued.

"I was posted in Marlin's princedom for six years; I could walk through this valley in my sleep. Keep to whispers after this. We're within earshot of the truce ground."

We made our way down the slope more slowly than I had arrived. I was trying to locate, through feel of my feet, the dip in the ground that led to the stream. I found it finally, and discovered, to my relief, that the stream was so solidly iced over that it did not crack when we stood upon it. I slid along, towing Eimund in my wake. Then he pulled hard at my arm, nearly unbalancing me. He hissed in my ear, "We're within sight now – they'll see us."

"Can you see us?" I whispered back.

A pause, then: "No. It's too dark."

"Then they can't see us. There's an outgrowth of rock directly between us and the truce ground – that's where we're headed."

"All right—" Eimund began to pull me forward, but I jerked him back.

"Alderman," I said sternly, "if we cut over the ground like that, York will hear our footsteps on the frost. We stay on the ice – and keep behind me."

"My liege lord, I follow you." Eimund's apology was neither abject nor defensive, and I felt myself warm even more toward the man. Probably, I reflected, he was the only alderman in the kingdom who would have allowed me to take command over him. Yet one alderman was enough: Eimund's whisper made me feel as though the past three years had been stripped away from me, and I was for a brief while what I had once been. I was almost grateful, at that moment, that York had given me this opportunity to renew my honor.

Then all my thoughts were on reaching the rock before York should hear us. I need not have worried on that score, though; a great deal of shouting was still taking place, mainly from Varick. Knowing that this was not Varick's usual style, I could guess he was attempting to cover any sounds I was making if I was still trying to escape from the valley. It would not have occurred to him that I would be so foolhardy as to return.

York was shouting too, taunting Varick. He liked his victories to be loud, and he did not need to worry that he would be heard in our camp, over three miles away. As Eimund and I reached the rock and flattened ourselves against the side of it that faced away from the truce ground, York's taunts turned to orders. I heard the sound of horses being mounted and torches being lit.

Eimund was beside me, his body straining as he peered round the edge of the rock. He said, quite unnecessarily, "He's sending out a hunting party for you."

"Be careful they don't see you, then. What's happening at the truce ground?"

Varick said something sharp to York that I didn't catch. This was followed by a cry that withered into a moan, then trailed off into nothing, like raid-smoke dissipating in the air. Eimund said, "He's killing the wounded— No, just our wounded. Somebody is bandaging up the wounded Fossenvites."

"Good; that means they can't leave here quickly. How many of our nobles are dead?"

"About ten, I think. Janarius is alive, and Idwell—" He named a few more aldermen; Selig was not on the list. I was sitting on the cold ground, trying to ignore the icy moisture creeping through my cloak from the grass, when I felt hooves pounding closer. I grabbed Eimund's arm, and he fell silent. His sword whispered as he pulled it from its sheath. For a moment, we both were still as the horses thundered past us; then Eimund sheathed his sword as he gave a drawn-out sigh and whispered, "That was too close for comfort. Their light nearly reached us."

"Well, they won't be back this way again. What about our princes? Are they all safe?"

"Yes, they're all captured. Did you think they wouldn't be?"

"I was worried for Marlin. York could have had him killed in the dark and claimed it as an accident."

"Oh, yes." Eimund said no more. He knew as well as anyone else the long dispute that had taken place between us and the Fossenvites before York had accepted Varick's compensation for Marlin's wounding of Lenwood. York had made it clear that he considered the money a poor compensation, and that he would have preferred receiving Marlin's head.

"And Varick?"

"Trussed like a petty to a tree – I suppose that's York's idea of a joke? He need hardly worry about our King escaping under the circumstances."

"Which tree?"

"What?"

"Which tree? Is it the oak tree to the west, at the foot of Wolf Hill, or the maple tree to the northwest?"

"Swords and daggers, my liege, you do know this valley well." Eimund's voice was filled with quiet admiration as he twisted away to look around the edge of the rock. "He's in the shadows; I can barely see him. . . . It's the oak tree, but it's across the border."

"I know." I fell silent a minute, listening to the wind whistle over the border from Fossenvita. It covered the small sounds of a winter night, such as the hoot of a snow owl, though above the sigh of the murmuring trees I could hear a wolf howl faintly. As though in imitation, York laughed at that moment before directing another barbed comment toward Varick. Varick had stopped shouting; presumably he assumed that I had reached safety by now. The horsemen continued to circle the valley, but their pace had lessened. Soon they would be returning, and soon after that, I knew, York would begin to contemplate moving his hostage.

I pulled my dagger from its sheath and tested its edge. As I might have expected, Selig had given me what must have been the dullest blade in the entire Tascanian Army; it would not cut my skin even when I pressed my finger against it. I tossed it aside and said, "Give me your dagger, Eimund."

"My liege—" Eimund's whisper turned high with apprehension. Then he remembered his place and quickly handed me his extra blade.

I sheathed it without checking its edge. I could guess how well honed Eimund would keep his blades. "Don't worry," I said calmly. "I'm not going to fight them; I know better than that. I'm going to try to release the King – as long as he remains captive, we're placing him in danger if we attack. York owes an arm wound. Now listen: Go back to the woods and bring your men down to this point, as quietly as you can. Wait for me here. If something goes wrong – if I'm captured, or if York begins to move his hostage before I can release Varick – I give you the authority to act as you think best. Understand?"

"Yes, my liege. But about the attack . . . The King told us he would have us attack from the west if it became necessary. He said that the trees there are closer to the truce ground than this ridge."

"The King doesn't remember what Wolf Hill is like; if you bring men into the woods at this time of night, you'll attract the wolves. You attack from here."

I held my breath in the moments after I spoke. A prince had the right to overrule the King's previous orders if the King were taken hostage. Eimund could not fail to know this, considering the events of three years before. Yet we both knew that, if the attack failed, Eimund rather than I would bear the punishment for changing the attack plan. I was asking a great deal from this young, competent alderman.

The pause this time was understandably longer; then Eimund said submissively, "I follow you, my liege. But are you sure that you want to be the one to take this risk? I could try to release the King."

"And be killed if York caught you. I'm not in danger that way, and I know this valley better. Fetch your petties." And with this final order – the last I expected ever to give, even if I were not captured – I stood up and began walking steadily around the curve of the ridge that would bring me to the place which remained vivid in my nightmares: Wolf Hill.

o—o—o

There was nothing in outward appearance to distinguish Wolf Hill from any of the other hills that formed the border between Fossenvite and Tascania. It was covered in hemlock needles even in the winter, and the hemlock trees were so tightly packed that a person could hardly move more than a few yards without being scratched from leg to face by the branches. I remembered one visit I had paid to the valley, over four years before: it had been a spring morning, when the light lay golden upon the hillside, and the mournful call of the wolves had seemed no more unpleasant than the gurgle of the stream that curled around the perimeter of the truce ground.

That, of course, had been a sunny morning when I was seventeen; this night was a lifetime later. I was making my way through the trees by touch, my only guide being the icy stream I could feel under my feet. My nape prickled as I heard the hunting howl of the wolves who claimed this hill as their home. They were high up on the slope, but anything – the smell of blood rising from the truce ground, perhaps – could lure them further down to where I groped my way through the darkness. And if that happened, I might end up fulfilling York's original wishes concerning my destiny.

I found that I was listening with intense concentration to all the sounds around me: the shuffle of my feet along the ice, the rattle of the branches as I brushed past them, the slowing beat of hooves as the horsemen finished their search, the murmuring of York's aldermen as they cleared corpses out of their King's way, York's pleasant recital of what wounds he owed the Tascanian princes and how he planned to pay all of his debt with Marlin's assistance, and the continued cry of the wolves. They were closer now.

My thoughts were so much on the wolves that I nearly stumbled over the border. It consisted of a log, one of a series of logs I had dragged into position one backbreaking morning when I was eleven, so that Varick and I would not chance crossing the border during our routine nighttime patrols. Janarius, whom Marlin had placed in charge of us, had cursed me for not asking his permission beforehand, then had praised me to my father for my initiative. The logs trailed down the hillside like the hump of a long mole-tunnel, following the weeded-over track of Refuge Road and finally ending close to the truce ground. A few yards northeast of the final log was the tree that now held Varick captive.

The most dangerous part of my journey lay ahead: not only did I chance being seen in the dusky light at the edge of the truce ground, but I might also be heard as I crossed the frost. Sinking to my hands and knees, I began to wriggle forward, following the border-logs. I was now to the north of them, in Fossenvite land. After a few feet of this, I stopped, cursed silently, and discarded the cloak that was hampering my crawl.

As I started forward again, the horsemen halted back at the truce ground. Their leader had no need to make a report. York said, "You checked the valley entrance as well?"

"Yes, sire." The leader was Granville, York's right-hand prince; he had a breathless way of talking that made him sound as though he were always in a hurry. "But he could be anywhere in these hills. It's too dark to see."

"Well, he can't be headed back to the winter camp; that's too far. He must be hiding somewhere." York's voice was quiet with reflection. In the stillness that followed, I could hear plainly the crackle of my progress over the ice-covered needles, as well as the thud of my heart. I had ceased to worry about the howling danger behind me; I was aware now only of the peril to which I was compliantly returning. My head hung low as I crawled, and I could hear my noble-chain tinkle as it swung to and fro from my neck. My thoughts were filled with curses once more, but I dared not stop to take the chain off. Any change in the sounds I was making might catch the attention of York or his soldiers.

"You know where he is, don't you, Varick?" York said affably as I reached the end of the logs and began changing my path accordingly to head toward the tree. "I can see it in your face. You told your brother where to flee if something went wrong tonight. You know where he's hiding."

"He's no place where you can reach him, York," my brother said evenly. "You have your hostage; you needn't waste your energy trying to obtain another one."

York gave off one of his loud guffaws that sounded like a beast's roar; I used this cover to shuffle forward as quickly as possible. I was nearly at the tree, and I might be seen at any moment. My hand, now as numb as a dead man's limb, touched something I was barely able to identify as a root: a long root, curving like a snake. I knew where I was now, and I hastily scrambled over to the side of the broad trunk, pressing myself against the dark back of the tree to which Varick was tied.

"Oh, I think I'll be the judge of whether Corbin's beyond my reach," said York, still in a pleasant voice. "Tell me where he is, Varick."

In the silence that ensued, I paused in the midst of unsheathing Eimund's blade. The one noise any soldier can recognize in his sleep is that of whispering metal, and York stood on the other side of the tree to which I now clung like moss. It seemed a miracle to me that he had not sighted me already. The tree was no larger than a man's body, and some part of me, I knew, must be sticking out into dim view. But York was always single-minded in his torments, unable to pay attention to anything besides his pleasure. I had counted on this in deciding upon my reckless plan.

Now came the sound I had been expecting: that of flesh meeting flesh in a clap like thunder. Varick was silent for a moment – I well knew how long it took to recover from one of York's slaps – and then he began steadily and quietly reciting for York a description of the petty Rule-breaker who must have been York's true father.

His recital was cut short by something between a grunt and a gasp; I could guess that York had used his knee this time. Taking advantage of the moment when Varick would be most stunned and would therefore be unable to show surprise at my sudden touch, I slid my hand up the trunk until I found Varick's hands, attached to each other by a line of rope. His hands were clenched in fists.

After a minute in which there was no sound but for Varick's heavy breathing, his left hand opened to my touch, like a flower blooming. In the meantime, I had been using my blade-hand to search the trunk below and above his hands; I found to my relief that York had not bothered to tie Varick's arms and legs. Bringing my dagger down to where my left hand still touched my brother, I slid the blade between the rope and the trunk and began sawing.

York was saying softly, "If your brother were here, Varick, he would explain to you that I have a wide variety of methods for causing pain without causing severe internal injury. I do not have the time to show you my full repertoire tonight, but I would be glad to give you a small sampling if you persist in being obstinate."

Varick made a gurgling sound that was meant to imply he was still recovering from York's latest gift, but as the rope gave way, I felt his hands begin to slide away with swiftness and assurance. Quickly I grabbed his wrists and placed the dagger hilt in his right hand; then I tapped his right wrist twice, the signal for him to wait.

His left hand squeezed mine briefly. Then he began saying something in a slow, loud voice. I paid no attention to his words; I knew that they were simply meant to cover the sound of my retreat. Having delivered Varick from his greatest danger, my thoughts had returned to myself, and I was suddenly aware that I was cloakless on the coldest night of the year. I was shuddering like a mare in labor, and my bare arms and chest felt as though they were being pricked by a dozen tiny dagger-points. I might as well have been wearing no breeches, for my legs were soaked with frost from my long crawl. Turning, I resolutely put my bare hands to the ground. They blazed as though they were touching cold fire. I began to scramble forward.

At that moment, I heard a voice which until now had remained silent, but which I sometimes heard in my dreams, along with York's. It was raised high in excitement and triumph as it said, "Sire! I see something moving behind the tree!"

A rapid sequence of noises took place: York shouting orders to his princes. York quickly revising those orders as Varick swung free of the trunk and blocked the princes' progress with Eimund's dagger. And then the sound that ran warm through my blood like mulled wine: cries rising from the south as Eimund's petties made their attack.

I heard no more than this; I had sprung to my feet and was charging blindly through the trees in front of me, feeling the hemlock needles sting my cheeks like sleet. My sole duty now was to get as far as possible from the scene of the battle so that I would not be in anyone's way. The battle, I knew, was being fought as much for my sake as for Varick's.

I was not so blind as to run up Wolf Hill. I turned south and began running around the curve of the hill, toward the narrow southwestern pass that led out of the valley and to our winter camp. I chose this direction simply because it would take me away from the border: I did not want to chance ending up on Fossenvite land and becoming easy prey for any Fossenvite soldier who wished to take me hostage. Here in Tascania, it was unlikely any Fossenvite would have the temerity to capture the King's brother.

Except for one man, of course.

The foot of Wolf Hill, like the rest of Truce Valley, had been cleared of trees generations ago, in order to allow the easy passage of armies. The pass itself had been so long trampled by the feet of soldiers travelling in or out of Tascania that its green-life had been worn down to nothing more than a few bits of scrubby grass that pressed themselves against the edge of the pass, like petty villagers seeking hopelessly to escape the punishment of raiders. On this night, the dirt path was as hard as stone, and my boots beat the road like hammers on a drum, showing clearly to anyone following where I was headed. I stopped, considered the dilemma, and with yet another inward curse stooped and pulled off my boots. Inside the boots, for double warmth on this cold night, I was wearing soft leather shoes such as petty villagers wear. The shoes had been a present from Selig, who, in his usual, well-meaning manner, had been trying to adjust me to my new role in life. Well, now they would serve me as such shoes had no doubt served many petties: to allow me to flee from soldiers from whom I could not defend myself.

It took a minute for me to tug off the boots, and in that minute I had a chance to adjust my breathing and take in the sounds in the darkness around me: the clash and shouts of the renewed fight at the truce ground – muffled, for I had journeyed around to the southern side of Wolf Hill, beyond view of the valley – the moan of the wind travelling over the crown of the hill, the wail of wolves on a lower slope, and, softly but distinctly, the sound of boots tapping the ground as their owner made his way steadily toward me.

I placed my own boots aside and took two steps to the side of the pass. The pass was barely large enough to accommodate a fourfold column of soldiers: a man spreading his arms wide might almost be able to touch the steep slopes of the pass on either side. Pressing myself against the sheer cliff where I found myself standing, I waited, feeling my noble-chain hang cold and heavy against my chest.

The steps were closer now. It was a weighty man who approached: the footsteps told me that much. A weighty man who walked with a soldier's steadiness, and who did not pause to see whether someone higher in honor was following him. Not a petty, then; probably not an alderman either. I clung to the hope that it was a prince.

The footsteps slowed, and a blade hissed as it was unsheathed. I dared not press myself any flatter against the rock, lest the rattle of some small pebble betray my presence. I willed my heart to soften its thumping. The footsteps continued their way: they were about to pass me, and there was no sign that they would halt.

Then I smelled him.

My brother and I, to pass the time on patrol when we were boys, had taken to hunting down small animals such as hares and stoats whenever we thought that we could do so without Janarius noticing. One useful fact we had learned was that if you come close to an animal, no matter how well hidden it may be, it will bolt. There seems to be some instinct in creatures that will not allow them to come within an arm's length of any human, even if their flight will reveal their location and lead to their death.

So it was with me when I smelled my hunter. I knew, even as I turned to run, that I was taking the worst possible action. By staying still, I had some hope of evading capture; by running, I had none, even though the dark blinded us both. He was too quick and too strong for me to be able to escape him.

And so it was that I experienced no surprise, but simply a feeling of sickening doom, when, but three paces into my flight, my arm was grabbed and I was thrust back against the cliff with a jar that sent bolts of white lightning through my head. As my inner vision cleared and my breath returned, I discovered a body pressed against mine and a dagger stroking my throat in a light but meticulous manner. A hand went up to my face to confirm who I was, and then a low chuckle rumbled through the air.

"Come, Princeling," said York, "you wouldn't want to run from me when I've taken such pains to arrange our reunion."

Chapter Text

Sometimes, in my dreams, it had taken no more than York's smell to make me cry out in fear. It was not an unpleasant smell. It was like the pungent odor of a dog which has been drenched in a pool, or that of a horse which has been in battle too long and is covered with foam. Now, as York's smell drove away the crisp, clear scent of winter, I felt myself begin to sweat in the death-cold wind.

His dagger tip continued to tickle my throat. I told myself that he would not dare kill me with it, but my mouth was dry and my head light with dizziness. I told myself that I was – or once was – a soldier, and I tried to remember the times I had crossed swords with York in battle, matching his roars with my own gay laughter. But that laughter seemed to belong to another Corbin, one who no longer existed.

Speaking softly above the muffled shouts of the battle behind us, York said, "You'll admit that I arranged our duel in a fair manner, Princeling. On a night like this, you and I are evenly matched; I have no advantage over you. Yet even tonight you could not escape me. And you must have known how this night would end – I gave you your warning three years ago."

The battle sounds were beginning to dim now. I realized, amidst the terror I was feeling, that I must not allow York to notice this. It would remind him that he ought to be back at the truce ground protecting his men, not dallying over me in his pleasure. The only weapon I now possessed to help Varick was my silence, for if I showed any sign of fear or pain, York's pleasure would be complete, and he would return to the fight, bringing with him his privilege of being able to attack Varick.

His chest was solid against mine; his heartbeat was even and quiet. My hands were loose at my sides, but I made no attempt to free myself. I knew the futility of that. York was a big man, with a torso as large as a barrel and as hard as a shield. His hands could crack bones, and his feet could stun like a horse's kick. Any small movement from me would be a shouted invitation to him to begin punishing me.

The tip of his dagger trailed down over my chest, scratching the skin but not breaking it. Even in the dark, York remained skilled at his favorite calling. The dagger touched the links of my noble-chain with a clink, and York laughed again.

"So you still wear your chain," he said, tracing the outline of the links with his dagger. "I have certainly been touched by the manner in which Varick has tried so valiantly to pretend you are still a noble. Granting you a title, allowing you to take part in his council – he is a model of brotherly love. Your actions, on the other hand, puzzle me. From your past selflessness toward your people, I'd have thought you would have realized that the kindest thing you could do for your brother would be to head straight for the nearest petty village, where you could be among your own kind. Instead, here you are, standing alongside the princes, presenting a pathetic reminder to the world of what you once were, like a corpse that insists on dragging itself out of the grave and communing with living men. I don't think I have ever seen a more disgusting sight than you wearing the trappings of a prince when you are nothing more than a blind princeling who was once a King."

The battle sounds had died out altogether. I stood motionless, trying not to betray myself through my breathing, trying to swallow the sobs growing in my throat. York's hand shifted on the dagger, pulling the blade back, and then his hand reached up again to gently touch the hollows where my eyes had once been.

"Three years . . ." he said reflectively. "I've had much time during these three years to think about what I would do to you next. Mind, your brother has complicated matters by insisting you be treated as though you are a noble. If he had admitted that you're a petty, I would obviously have more freedom to treat you as you deserve. But perhaps it will be more enjoyable to see what I can do within the limitations of the First Rule. There is, for example, the matter of a recent debt."

His hand moved again. I bit my lip, knowing what would follow, and concentrated all my thoughts on my surroundings: the faraway echo of commands being shouted, a slight shuffle along the pass like the padding of a wolf's paws, the numbing stroke of the wind against the sides of my body, the smell of York . . . His dagger bit into my arm.

My back arched and my head tilted toward the sky, but somehow I managed to restrain the sound that was attempting to fly out of my throat. York's breathing had grown heavier, and his heart was now beating as hard as mine. He dragged his dagger tip down, tearing open my skin as though he were slicing a bit of paper. Then he pulled out the dagger briefly and began his operation again, close to the first cut. He pierced my body no deeper than the First Rule allowed him; even in his pleasure, he would not forget the Rules of War.

As he slowly carved lines and curves into my bare arm, he said breathlessly, "It's so good of you to make my work easier by dressing yourself in noble clothes, Princeling. I suppose Varick insisted that you continue wearing these? And it never occurred to you to refuse him. It never occurred to you that he might have been telling you something when he conducted your rite of death three years ago. Poor, blind princeling, you didn't recognize his polite plea that you allow him to assume his title in the proper manner. Instead, you selfishly forced him to pretend that he is merely your regent, acting in your name, as though any day now you might grow your eyes again and demand back the royal ring. Well, if you insist on being alive, Princeling, and if you're determined to pretend that you're still a leader of men, why don't you go rule a petty village? That's all the power you have left, Princeling: the power to be a petty prince. And Varick wouldn't have to keep pretending that you remain of value to his kingdom."

A cold voice said, "You'll see how much I value my brother, York, if you do not release him now."

The footsteps I had heard before had stopped close by. I estimated Varick had brought only a few men with him – our princes, at a safe bet. There was as yet no sound of torch-fire; light would of course have alerted York to Varick's approach.

York was motionless for a moment. I surmised from this that Varick had placed his blade against York's back. Then York carefully pulled his dagger out of my arm and allowed it to drift back to my throat again. He said quietly, "Corbin is my hostage, Varick. Do not endanger him by threatening me."

More footsteps were coming rapidly forward; a gust of wind blew torch-smoke my way. Varick said calmly, "You are the one who is in danger of becoming a hostage, York. Your men are dead or fled over the border; you cannot escape from here except by my order. I will allow you to leave this kingdom if you release Corbin. Otherwise, you may recall that I have a large debt to pay."

York's chest vibrated against mine as he laughed softly. "And what if I were to increase that debt right now? I will certainly do so if you do not allow me and my hostage safe passage to the border."

"So that you may freely add to my debt once you are in your own kingdom? I am not a fool, York. Let Corbin go, or I swear by my ring that I will use this torch-fire to begin paying my debt now."

It was not merely the pain of holding the sound within that caused me to release one of my suppressed sobs at that moment. Some satisfaction, I knew, York must have on this night, or he would brave even Varick's oath to get what he had come for. As my moan filled the still air, York gave a purr like a satisfied cat, then said in a matter-of-fact manner, "My princes?"

"Your dukes are over the border; now get you after them, or consider yourself a hostage."

The torch-flames gulped the air with their rumble. Feet shuffled as the princes moved to both sides of us, preparing to try to place themselves between York and me if it should become necessary. Then I felt the dagger leave my throat as York said lightly, "Corbin, I regret that I must cut this reunion short. No doubt we will have opportunities to talk again in the future. Varick, I cannot leave until you remove your blade."

After a moment, York pulled his body back from mine; after a moment more, I could no longer smell him. I stayed where I was, faint and numb, feeling the sweat and blood begin to turn to ice on my body. Nearby, Varick said in a low voice, "Catch up with him and escort him to the border. Make sure he doesn't sight our hostage. Then move everyone out quickly – I want to get back to the camp before he talks to his men and discovers what has happened."

"Sire." It was Meaghar's voice, low and quick, like that of an obedient petty. Beside me, boots sounded upon the hard ground, and the warmth of the fire began to withdraw; I realized Varick was signalling the others to stay out of earshot. Then I felt his arms around me as he slid his cloak onto my shoulders.

"Blades of wood, Corbin, I'm sorry." Varick's voice was as quiet as it had been when he spoke with York, but now it was strained like a petty being racked. "We got here as quickly as we could – we weren't even sure which direction you'd gone in, and it was just luck that took us this way first. Of course, the moment that we entered the pass, we heard York's foul voice and knew what he was doing. Did he hurt you badly?"

"It's just my arm; I was expecting that. Is everyone safe?"

"A few petties killed – nothing more than that. But Corbin, I heard what York was saying. You mustn't believe—"

"Varick." My voice sounded dull, like the blade Selig had given me. "I'm tired right now. Could we talk later? We need to get back to camp anyway."

The King was silent for a long minute. I could hear now the steady tapping of hooves as the princes' horses were brought forward. The wolves I had heard earlier had retreated, no doubt frightened away by the light. I smelled more smoke; additional torches had been lit to assist our progress on this dark night. I stood where I was, surrounded by torchlight, feeling the darkness press upon me.

Varick said quietly, "Marlin, will you be so kind as to escort Prince Corbin back to the camp?"

"Certainly, sire." I could hear from the angle of Marlin's voice that he was already on his mount. I took a step in the direction of his voice, then allowed Varick to guide me over to and onto the horse. Placing my arms around Marlin, I rested my head against the back of his shoulder, as I had done in the days when I was his journeyman soldier. Marlin's hand went up to squeeze mine. A moment later, his horse jolted forward and we began our gallop back to the camp. The last thing I heard before we left the pass was the sound of my younger brother's voice, raised to give orders to his men.

o—o—o

Soldiers' footsteps skipped by. They belonged to journeymen: I heard their high, unbroken voices raised in a popular soldiers' song about York and me until the boys realized where they were and hastily fell silent. Another soldier passed by, talking sweetly to his leman and making her giggle. Otherwise the camp was silent. It was long after midnight; the news of the truce-ground battle had been rapidly spread, discussed with interest and sympathy, and finally laid aside until the morning.

I lay on my cot, with my hand dangling down to touch the floor, warm with heat from the hypocaust. The hypocaust was the one luxury in our camp; my great-grandfather had possessed the wisdom to move his winter lodgings to the remains of the old capital. The crumbling ruins of the royal palace had been made into a residence for the King and his heirs; Varick and I had lived in this building every winter since we became journeymen. I had once lived in the heir's room, then had moved to the King's room, and then had moved back to the heir's room for one scant month before I had been moved to the room of the heir's heir. The last move had had nothing to do with any change in my honor; it was due to the fact that this room was the only one that was without windows and that could be easily locked from the outside.

The room, like all those in the camp, was supplied with the luxuries of winter life: cots for me and Selig; a few stools and chests; paper and pen for the rare occasions on which my duties required me to scribble short, illegible notes; dice to toss and coins to twist during long evenings; ancient books that Selig was more than happy to read to me since, as an alderman, he had never seen a book before entering my service; a rude petty recorder I had learned to play during the past year as compensation for the pastimes I could no longer take part in; and a shield. This last item I had received as a present from my brother at my enthronement, and so I was loathe to part with it, but it served as a dismal reminder that my room had been stripped of every other item of warfare.

All of the royal rooms opened onto a central courtyard that was thronged in the daytime with nobles and the occasional privileged petty. Now the only sound I could hear was Marlin's humming as he paced restlessly across the pavement. His humming stopped abruptly as the royal residence guard shouted a challenge in a perfunctory manner that suggested he was simply demonstrating he was not asleep on the job. Footsteps entered the courtyard.

My door was shut, but I had no trouble hearing Varick as he asked, "How is he?"

"Sleeping. I gave him some poppy earlier."

"Did you watch him drink it?"

There was a pause, and I slowly shifted into a position where I could hear better. Then Marlin said, "No. Should I have?"

"I don't know. He might have poured it down a knothole – he learned tricks like that when he was with York."

Marlin's sigh seeped through the crack under the door. He was close to sixty, of the same generation as my father, and in many ways Varick and I knew him better than we had known our father, since we had served for so many years under Marlin. He was a prince who insisted on knowing even his petty villagers well, and I had learned a great deal from him about what it means to protect one's people.

Now he said, "Aside from his arm, his body will heal quickly. He has only bruises and scratches and a light cut across the cheek."

"And how is he otherwise?"

This time the pause was longer. I curled my legs up toward my body and pulled my blankets closer against the wind that was sneaking its way through the cracks in the ceiling. Then Marlin said quietly, "About the same as when you found him on Wolf Hill, I'd say."

A pounding sound followed; Varick had evidently thumped his fist against one of the wooden struts that kept part of a wall from collapsing. "A quarter of an hour," he said tightly. "I swear that's all the time York had. And in that amount of time, he destroyed the three years of work we've done in trying to bring Corbin back to what he was."

"We'll never be able to do that."

"He can at least be a prince. I won't let York take that from him. I'll be regent to the day I die if that's what it takes. The most foolish thing I ever did was let you and the rest of the council persuade me to perform Corbin's death rite."

"It was Corbin's suggestion, as I recall. It seemed at the time a sensible way to deal with the complicated matter of your succession. It was supposed to be nothing more than a symbol."

"Well, Corbin didn't regard it as such – we know that. By the way, did you search his room?"

"I did. Be at ease – he won't have the opportunity for that again."

Footsteps sounded once more; Varick was pacing rapidly back and forth in front of my door like a defense soldier guarding the border. "The trouble is, York is so skilled in giving half-truths. Some of what he said was true. Corbin is not the man he was three years ago – even Corbin knows that. I can't believe sometimes how much he has changed. You remember how he used to be, from the time he was a boy: eager to duel, aflame with a desire to care for his people, ready with his blade to protect the lowliest petty."

"I know. You were both like that as boys."

"I was scarcely half of what Corbin was. I never regretted being the heir's heir – it was so obvious that Corbin was the one who should be King. He became a great King, the one who could have brought us the final victory. And now . . . Have you listened to him in the council, Marlin? All he talks about is peace, peace at any price. We should just lay down our arms and surrender to the Fossenvites. And this, despite what York did to him. Sometimes I feel—"

He stopped abruptly, both in voice and in stride. Marlin said, "Yes?"

In a very low voice, Varick said, "Sometimes I feel as though my brother really did die three years ago. I just don't recognize the man in there as Corbin."

With his tone grown hard in the manner he adopted when giving important battle orders, Marlin said, "Varick, don't ever say that again. I mean it. Someone might report your words to Corbin, and then none of us would be able to stop him this time."

"I'm sorry. I know I'm being foolish. I wouldn't have said this to anyone but you – but you do know what I mean, don't you? Don't you think that he has changed?"

Marlin said carefully, deliberately, "I think that Corbin was York's hostage for three months. I think that he has lost his eyes and his title and would have lost his honor but for your kindness to him. I think that he is lucky to have kept his sanity. And I think, as you think, that he can be a valuable member of the princes' council and help us to win future victories. Perhaps he will even help to bring the final victory in a different manner than we anticipated. All that he needs is time, time to heal. He needs our patience."

My arm was beginning to ache. I reached under my cot, pulled out the cup that held the poppy, and slowly sipped from it as Varick said in a subdued voice, "Marlin, you shame me. Yes, of course – I forget sometimes how great a loss he has undergone. He can't so much as ride his own horse, and yet he risked capture by York tonight in order to free me. I ought to be grateful that he has given me his loyal service rather than resent me as any other man in his position might have done."

"He is your brother. You two boys were as protective of each other as any two journeymen who ever entered my service; you need not worry that Corbin will ever waver in his loyalty to you or this land, any more than you wavered in yours when you were his heir. Give him time, and Corbin will be suggesting ingenious ways in which to punish the Fossenvites, just as he did in the past. You'll see."

"In the meantime, I can make a start to that work." Varick's voice turned suddenly cold. "We can do that thanks to York's uncharacteristic slowness in discovering what his enemy had done – though he fired off a prompt protest to me that nearly singed the messenger who carried it."

"I was surprised you were able to get away with that trickery."

"So was I, but I suppose one automatically thinks of princes and dukes as being the same thing. The only reason the idea occurred to me was because I had had trouble earlier in the evening phrasing Corbin's introduction in such a manner as to keep from emphasizing that he isn't a duke."

"Why do you suppose York has delayed making his heir's heir a duke? The boy came of age— How long ago? Last year?"

"Two years ago; he's eighteen now. Just the same age as Corbin was when York took him hostage."

A long silence ensued before Marlin said, "Ah. Will you discuss this at the council?"

"You may be sure of it; I wouldn't proceed without your advice. I warn you, though: you'll have a hard time dissuading me from this."

"I doubt that you'll find much opposition in this matter."

"Except from Corbin."

"Except from Corbin. But that's natural, even if you leave aside the change in him. . . . You ought to turn to sleep, Varick. Dawn is close at hand."

"This makes me feel as though I'm on one of your all-night patrols, that's all. I'll just check on Corbin first."

Hastily, I pushed the cup back under the cot. I was already beginning to feel woozy from the poppy; it took no effort for me to appear limp and immobile as the door creaked open. I did not close my eyelids, though. I had no eyelids to close.

Varick stepped softly toward me. For a moment, he stood by the bed; then he reached down and gently turned my hands over so that the palms were up. He touched my wrists lightly in the dark before he stooped over and kissed my forehead. He left the room as quietly as he had come.

I fell asleep then, but not before I had heard the sound of the bar being drawn outside my door.

o—o—o

I stood in a small room, staring up at the blinding glare from the thin window slits high above. Afternoon sunlight poured through the windows like water from a fall and splashed in golden puddles on the rush-strewn floor of the cell. Dust motes floated on a warm autumn breeze that sighed its way through the windows, bringing with it the comfortable and familiar smell of horses. The wall-stones of the room around me were crumbling, and high above me, beyond my reach, there was a slight gap in the ceiling that brought the dark blue sky to my sight. A cloud, touched golden-red from the light of the setting sun, hovered beyond the gap.

I heard footsteps outside, and voices. With no hurry and no forethought, I turned toward the door and stood with my feet apart, my hands crossed behind my back. A bar rasped as it was drawn back, and then York entered the cell, followed by his princes.

He was a big man, towering over the other men in the room as well as myself. At fifty years of age, he was still a formidable fighting man; the bulges in his arms and chest were the result of muscle rather than softness of flesh. His hair was red-gold like the cloud that hung over us, and he wore his beard long, despite the disadvantage this gave him in battle. He was dressed now in the sleeveless shirt of a noble, with its low neckline that exposed half the chest and provided a bare background for the noble-chain. I, on the other hand, had been forced to change into unfamiliar sleeved garments, though my noble-chain still hung from my neck, and my left hand bore the royal ring of Tascania.

The five dukes of Fossenvita's princedoms crowded into the room, watching me with silence and, it appeared, pity. The sixth prince and duke, York's heir Lenwood, gave me a tight and satisfied smile before he came over to stand at my right side. His expression was a pale version of York's smile as the Fossenvite King stopped a body's length from me.

I smiled back. I was eighteen, I was the King and Commander of Tascania, and I feared no man, least of all York. It was not merely the privilege of my honor that gave me this strength and serenity. I was galloping unchallenged through barriers that had defeated earlier Tascanian Kings. For four years I had ruled; for four years my land had won victory, and there was no sign that this would change in the future. In six years, the final victory would be ours, and York and all his men would be my subjects. Desperation was what had caused York to take me hostage.

I tilted my head up to look York evenly in the eyes as I said calmly, "You can't kill me, York."

York's smile deepened as he reached out and lifted my noble-chain slightly before allowing it to fall back against the rough cloth of my shirt. "Strange as it may seem, Corbin, I am in fact acquainted with the First Rule."

"I thought I should remind you, since you seem to have lost sight of who I am," I said, ignoring his touch as I might ignore the pleas of a raided Fossenvite petty. "Dressing me in these clothes, placing me in these rough accommodations – these are laughable punishments, York, and unwise as well. Imprison me in a manner befitting my honor, or face the consequences of what you have done."

York said lightly, "Believe me, Corbin, I have given you accommodations befitting your rank in life. I have simply anticipated what that rank will soon be."

There was silence, and then I burst into laughter. Tears of amusement leaked out of the corners of my eyes. "So what will you do, York? Win the final victory between now and sundown? You won't rid me of my honor that easily."

"I will simply reveal to the world what you already made clear last winter: that you are a man without honor, one who would break the First Rule of War."

I matched York's light tone with my own. "Strange as it may seem, York, I am in fact acquainted with the First Rule. I did not murder Guilford; it is not my fault that he suddenly wheeled his horse in the midst of my thrust and drove himself straight onto my sword. You accepted my compensation for your son's death – and a very generous compensation it was too, taking into account that he was your heir. You needn't try to pretend you have brought me here to punish me for Guilford's death. You have captured me out of fear, fear of what I will do in the future. You know that I will win the final victory; you know that my father, before his untimely death, predicted I would be the victor."

"I had nothing to do with Reynard's death, Corbin." York seemed strangely uninterested in what I was saying. His voice was soft behind the sudden sound outside of clanging metal and fire. I tried to remember whether I had seen a forge nearby when I was brought to this cell; then I dismissed the matter as unimportant.

"I know that you weren't involved in that, York," I replied. "You would hardly kill the King who conceded victory to you seven years out of ten. My father's murderer is fled to the Petty Partition – and he had best stay there if he doesn't want to receive a very painful death. Now I am King, a King you hoped never to face. You will not win your final victory today or any day while I remain alive."

"No, it may take a few years more," York conceded pleasantly as he turned back from murmuring something into Prince Granville's ear. Granville departed from the room without a word, leaving the door ajar. "Your brother is demonstrating your family trait for stubbornness at the wrong moment. I sent word to him that, unless he conceded to me the final victory, I swore that I would injure you in such a way that you would never be King again. I told him no more than that, as I would like to keep the exact nature of your wounding as a surprise gift to him. When we met at the truce ground a short while ago, he told me that your council would concede me this year's victory if I released you unharmed, but not the final victory. This compensation I am not prepared to accept."

"You are a fool, York," I said, still calmly because I could not believe there was any truth to his words. "In offering you that much, Varick is overruling my orders on hostage-taking. You are lucky his affection for me has defeated his common sense. I know, and Varick would know if he were thinking clearly, that you cannot injure me in any such way; the Rules forbid it. You had best take the compensation before he changes his mind. Neither he nor I are the sort of men to be scared by silly bluffs."

The cell door creaked wider open as Granville peered into the room. He caught York's eye and nodded; York said, "Send them in." The Fossenvite King turned back to me, and for a moment he was silent, smiling at me again. Outside, footsteps shuffled, and the smell of smoke began to waft in; but before I could surmise what this betokened, York said softly, "Then let us see how you react to the truth behind the bluffs."

Granville entered the room, swinging the door wide open to show the small courtyard outside my cell. Only two men stood in the yard, both of them petties. Their faces were red as they struggled into the room, holding a heavy brass brazier with handles on both sides. A soft wind blowing through the door threatened to extinguish the brazier's fire as the soldiers placed their burden on the floor. One of the petties quickly reached forward and revived the fire with the poker that was in his other hand. As he did so, I caught sight of the double-pronged rod.

For the first time, a chill entered my body; then I told myself that this was because the cell was beginning to grow cool as the evening shadows lengthened. I said firmly, "Only petties are blinded."

"Yes, I thought it an appropriate punishment, considering what you will be in a short time."

I looked over at York. He had placed his left index finger reflectively against his lips; the royal ring on his fourth finger glinted from the firelight nearby. It was a reminder to me of what I was, and I felt all of my growing uneasiness disappear abruptly, as though the sun had risen above the horizon again. I said in a contented voice, "York, if you break the First Rule, I have won the final victory over you just as surely as if you lost the war for the next six years. Go scare your heir's heir with such threats. I have heard he is weakling enough to serve as a petty's lackey, so he might be credulous enough to believe you."

York did not move his gaze from me, nor did his smile disappear. In his usual cool, courteous manner, he said, "Lenwood, be so kind as to give King Corbin a copy of the Rules of War. He requires to consult the First Rule."

There was a rustle, and I turned to see that York's eldest son was removing a scroll from inside his shirt. He handed it to me silently, and I noticed that for some unaccountable reason he had pulled on his leather battle-gloves. I rolled open the scroll, glanced down at the words I had memorized during my first years as an apprentice, and felt my heart grow black and heavy within my chest.

Above me, York said quietly, "'Death, crippling of limbs, or severe internal injury' – those are the actions which the First Rule forbids be taken against Kings and princes. Your eyes, you may have noticed, are on the outside of your body. It is true that it has never occurred to anyone before to take advantage of this loophole, but that is because it is difficult to blind a man in battle without killing him as well. And no Kings, Tascanian or Fossenvite, have ever before been foolish enough to allow themselves to be taken hostage. It was unwise of you, Corbin, to lead a raid on my kingdom when you were so ill-protected."

I lifted my eyes from the scroll. My eyelids felt heavy in my face, as though they were trying to squeeze shut like gates of defense. Beyond York I could see the silent princes of Fossenvita, the cell door that was shut once more, the carefully tended fire, and the double-pronged poker, now turning red-hot.

I said, in as even a voice as I could manage, "Like for like, York. Are you prepared to pay back that large a debt?"

"If it should ever reach the point where your brother is able to demand payment, then yes, I will abide by the Rules of War. But I am hoping you will save me the trouble of worrying about such matters and instead show some of your much-lauded wisdom. I will release you now, I will even release you unharmed, if you swear an oath to cede to me your ring."

The golden pools of light on the ground had turned reddish like York's hair. A bee lazily droned its way down from a window to the fire, circled the flames for a moment, and flew up again, its soft body the color of a King's coin. York's princes, who never interfered with their King's pleasures, shifted slowly in their places like horses grazing over new ground. I saw now that one of them, Ridley, was holding a cup in his hands; the jewels in it sparkled colors upon the flaking stone walls of my cell.

Calling upon my last reserves of strength, I returned my gaze to York's smiling face and said steadily, "I have another oath to fulfill, York, one I took at my enthronement. I swore to protect my people, and especially to protect them against raiders such as you. You have shown now, if further proof were needed, why the Fossenvite Kings are unfit to rule even their own people. I will not descend to your depths of dishonor. If this is the sacrifice I must make to protect my subjects, then I am prepared to make it."

"Sweetly spoken, King, but your words are somewhat short-sighted," York said, beckoning forward Ridley. "Your people will not enjoy your protection any further after this day. Still, I suppose it is fitting that your final words as a noble should be short-sighted. Drink this." He took the cup from Ridley and placed it in my hands. "We don't want you to die from the shock, though I could certainly prove that your death was an accident. Be assured you will still be conscious when I do this. I know that you're too brave a man to want to have it done to you when you're asleep."

I contemplated throwing the cup to the ground so that he would be forced to explain my death to Varick. But it was true enough that an injury such as this did not count as death by the Rules of War, even if death occurred. My death would provide no service to Tascania, and life was still sweet to me.

So I tossed back my head and drained the liquid in the cup, then threw the cup to the ground and smiled steadfastly at York. Just so had I seen a bold petty behave when I handed him a cup in prison. The petty had been so much seized by battle madness that he had actually attacked York and succeeded in wounding him. York had demanded death by exposure for the man, and while it was clear that this compensation was justified, I had felt pity for the petty and had given him poison before his body was pierced. I had later been overcome with guilt for being so soft.

Now I stood for the last time in the stance of a King, feeling the poppy numb my body – all but my heart, which was pounding like the hoofbeats of a charging horse. The bright colors of my cell – the golden rushes, the scarlet fire, the bold blues and greens of the noble clothes – all began to grow fuzzy and indistinct. York reached forward and jerked up one of my eyelids to look more closely at my eye; then he nodded, and the princes came forward.

Two held me at my sides, one held my head immobile, and Lenwood, still wearing gloves to protect himself from the heat of the poker, cradled his hands around the sides of my face and forced my eyelids open. York himself, as I might have expected, took the white-hot poker from the hand of the petty and stepped forward to stand in front of me.

It was the closest we had ever been. Before this, I had met him only in battle, or, on three occasions, across the truce fire. I noticed for the first time that his body emitted a strange, musky smell, as distinctive in its way as Varick's voice, or my own. It mingled with the choking scent of the fire and the sweet scent of horses.

York raised the poker. I had never blinded a petty with my own hands, but I had seen it done, and so I knew better than to try to jerk my head back as I caught sight of the delicate tips of the brand, just large enough to melt a man's eyes from his face. I bit my lower lip shut to suppress the sound inside me, then regretted it as York noticed and paused to smile. Clearly, he planned to do this as slowly as possible.

The outlines of the figures around me continued to blur like the edges of evening shadows. I realized suddenly that I was looking at York and that he was the last object I would see. Quickly I swung my eyes away and was rewarded by York's laugh; he thought I was afraid to look at the poker creeping slowly toward me. I would not allow myself to be goaded into proving the courage I knew I possessed. I let my gaze drift vaguely past the two princes standing behind York, past the petties tending the fire with their eyes averted, and, finally, to the door that had just opened a crack. Peering around the gap was a boy in noble clothes, his limbs very thin and his hair golden-red.

I had no time to read his expression, for at that moment I felt the heat, then I saw the white pricks, and then my world exploded into darkness as my screams began.

Chapter Text

The smell of roast pigs filled the air of the Tascanian winter camp: a foraging party had returned from over the border and brought with it fresh food for the soldiers. Bowls clattered as the petties and aldermen took their supper, and I tried to ignore the growl of my empty stomach as I passed the meal hall. This was easy enough to do; I felt light-headed and free for the first time in three years.

That much time had passed since I had last walked across this camp on my own. To my surprise, I found that there was no hesitation in my step as I passed between the ruined buildings used as lodging, stables, and training grounds during the winter months. I had lived in this camp for fifteen years, and I travelled to my destination with certainty and with the buoyancy of a hostage who has been liberated from prison.

My liberation had begun at the moment I awoke and discovered I was alone in the royal residence, with my room unlocked. Evidently a decision had been made during the morning to grant me that much freedom. It was noontime when I awoke; I knew this from the sun beating down on my upturned face, just as I knew that it was now evening from the gathering cold and the slowing sounds of the camp as the soldiers began to take their rest after a day of training.

I was passing the apprentice barracks now, and I could hear that some of the apprentices had delayed taking their meals in order to make use of the last moments of daylight for bladeplay. My thoughts were so much on the high spirits of youth that I strayed off course. The next thing I knew I was automatically dodging to avoid the swish of a blade I heard coming toward me.

A high voice, faintly arrogant in its authority, said, "Watch out, petty! You should know better than to walk between two duellers."

I recognized the voice; it belonged to Brand, Obert's heir, who at six years old could already disarm boys twice his age. I knelt down on the ground beside him, facing in the direction where I thought he was, saying, "My apologies, Brand. I hope I didn't break into a good duel."

"Oh!" Brand sounded disconcerted. I had misjudged his direction, but he came over to stand next to me and helpfully put his free hand out to touch my arm. "I didn't realize it was you, my liege. I didn't recognize you in those clothes."

"Who are you duelling?" I asked, reaching out to touch Brand's sword. It was wooden; Paxton, the alderman in charge of the apprentices, would not allow even the best apprentices to use real blades until they were eight.

"Garrick, my liege. Selig's son." Then, mistaking my silence, he added hastily: "It's all right; I asked Paxton's permission. We're pretending Garrick is a prince's son tonight."

"Garrick?" I held out my hand, and after a moment of hesitation, Garrick came slowly over to stand by me. He was taller than Brand; I remembered that Selig had acknowledged the boy shortly before he entered into my service, so most likely Garrick was nine years old now, on the eve of becoming a journeyman.

He was tense under my hand. I said, in as gentle a voice as I could manage, "Your father died bravely, Garrick. He protected me well last night."

"Yes, my liege. He wanted to sacrifice himself in your service. I'm glad he was able to do so." Garrick sounded as though he were offering formal praise to a stranger, and I realized that this was undoubtedly the case. Selig had attended me day and night, so he must have spent little time with his boy. Yet still there was the tenseness of muscles under my hand.

"Is something else the matter, Garrick?" I asked.

There was a pause; then, with an explosion like a gush of water breaking out of an ancient pipe, Garrick cried, "I don't want to be a petty!"

So that was it. Selig, I remembered, had a younger brother. In just a few months, Garrick would have become a journeyman, and his father's title would have passed to him; Selig's brother would simply have held the title in trust until Garrick came of age. This was what had happened to me and my father's brother when my father had died seven years before. But because Garrick was still an apprentice, Selig's brother would inherit the title instead, and Garrick would be deprived of the noble-chain that could have been his.

I said, "Perhaps your uncle will take you on as his boy."

"No." Garrick's voice was muffled. "I thought he might, because he hasn't acknowledged anyone yet. But he says that he's taking me back to my village. I suppose he wants one of his own sons to be his heir. He says I should be with my family. My family!" The voice turned angry. "I don't remember my mother very well, and I hate the man she's married to. I want to stay here and learn to be a soldier."

"You can return here when you come of age," I said, conceding to him what small hope was left in his life. "I'm sure your uncle would receive you into his unit."

"I don't want to follow my uncle; I want to lead a unit myself. That's what I've been training to do for three years, and now all that training is wasted. I'm just a petty."

I felt Brand stir beside me. He had no doubt overheard his father and the other princes discuss the question of my rank, and he might be able to guess how these words were cutting into me. I schooled my voice as I said firmly, "I'll speak to the King about your case. There are aldermen besides your uncle who are seeking heirs, and perhaps one of them would be willing to take you as his boy. After all, you've already shown yourself worthy of the honor."

The muscles under my hand tensed yet more. Garrick said in a breathless voice, "Do you think so?"

"I'll see what I can do." But I was thinking to myself, as I rose to my feet and offered my farewell to the boys, that I ought not to have raised Garrick's hope in such a manner. It was unlikely that any alderman would make another man's son his heir, especially if Garrick's uncle had refused to do so. Garrick, I guessed, was destined to return to his village and live the small and painful life of a petty.

"Good evening, Corbin."

It was Eimund's voice; because we had grown up together, he addressed me informally whenever he was off duty. I had taken several steps away from the apprentices' courtyard, and so a moment passed before I could locate Eimund's direction and turn toward him. He was standing against one of the half-fallen columns which had once held up the roof of the market hall opposite to the apprentice barracks, but which now guarded only the rubbled remains of the hall. As I came over to stand by him, he said, "Are you going to the council of princes now?"

I wondered, with irritation, whether Eimund thought I was incapable of making my way from one end of the camp to the other. "Yes," I replied curtly. "Why do you ask?"

"Only because I'm going there myself. I was wondering whether I might walk with you."

Instantly regretting my sharpness, I said, "So you've been invited to take part in the council henceforth? Congratulations – it's an honor well deserved. I'd be glad of your company." I reached over and placed my hand around his arm. Freedom I certainly wanted, but there was no point in rejecting the services of a guide who was already available.

We walked slowly forward, winding our way past the smithy and the exposure platform and the rubble-strewn path that had once been the main road through the capital city, back before the war. As the sound of young boys shouting and fighting faded behind us, Eimund said quietly, "I overheard your conversation with Garrick back there. It's a sad business."

"Yes, very sad. I don't suppose you're in need of a boy, are you?"

"I'm afraid not, Corbin. I already have a five-year-old; it wouldn't be fair for me to take on an older boy."

"No, of course not. You wouldn't want to deprive your boy of his inheritance. I can't remember whether I've met your son – has he been here long?"

"He doesn't live in the barracks. I train him at home and bring him to camp for the occasional visit."

"At home? Oh, yes, I'm sorry – I'd forgotten that you're married. How is your wife?"

"She's kept quite busy; we have two daughters as well."

"Really?" I said vaguely, unsure whether this was a matter for congratulations or sympathy. We were passing over the stream now, carefully edging our way across the hole-punctured stone bridge that every year threatened to collapse, and every year miraculously stayed alive. I remembered that my father had once threatened to pull the bridge down and build a new one, but of course it was an idle threat. Generations had gone by since anyone in the world had built anything other than simple timber structures that could be hastily erected and destroyed. Even if the time could be found for constructing a bridge from stone, no knowledgeable builder could have been found.

Down below us, soldiers hammered at the ice in order to keep open a watering hole. Raising his voice to be heard above the mallets, Eimund said, "You must visit us some time. Our winter home isn't far from here. My wife would be greatly honored if you visited, and my children would live on the excitement for months."

"I would like that. It's been . . . Well, it's been three years since I visited a petty village. Have you lived there long?"

"Ever since my wedding. I'm lucky to be assigned defense duties; I doubt that your father would have given me permission to marry otherwise. Here we are."

I had already noticed the change underfoot from the broken cobblestone of the ancient road to the cracked pavement surrounding the building which, for want of a better one, served as our council hall. The building had originally been a library; this was clear from the dozens of scroll-niches inside. The niches lay empty, for books were now too valuable to be left in public spaces. In any case, the volumes that were owned by the princes and the royal family would have filled only a small portion of the dusty, disused library. The council met in the small vestibule of the library, since the other rooms had plaster ceilings that flaked in a continuous flurry like snow. An ancient table and oddly-matched chairs had been scavenged from other parts of the city.

The council was chatting and laughing as Eimund opened the door wide for me, but as I ducked my way under the low lintel, silence descended abruptly. It did not take much intelligence for me to realize that this was due to my change in clothing, so I ignored the silence and made my way steadily over to the chair that was at the King's left hand – or in the position of lowest honor, if you looked at it another way. As I scraped back the chair over the bumpy remains of the floor mosaic, the other men recovered their senses and began hastily talking amongst themselves. Gradually, I was able to sort out who was present.

Directly across from me at the rectangular table, at the King's right hand, was Marlin, who had arrived at the council only minutes before, after spending the day in one of his petty villages; the winter camp was located in his princedom. He was enduring good-humored jibes from the other princes about how he spent more time with his petties than he did with his aldermen. Beside him was Obert, who quickly called Eimund over to the table, and next to him was Meaghar, unusually silent on this night because most of the recently slain aldermen had been his own. Hilliard, who had stayed behind in the winter camp to protect it should York break the truce, was conversing with Ingram, whose princedom lay so far west that he and his men had only just arrived at the winter camp that afternoon.

So much for the princes. On the other side of the table, where I sat, were the aldermen who were allowed the honor of taking part in the princes' council. My uncle Ordway came first: as my father's original heir, he had been a prince until I became a journeyman and thus was able to inherit my father's title. After that, my father had quickly found an alderman's title for Ordway, and my uncle had continued to sit with the council. He had been my regent for the first two years of my reign but had made no secret of the fact that he left all decisions to me, confining his role during that time to duelling York and his heirs – a role he fulfilled reasonably well.

Janarius, who had trained not only Varick and me but also my father and uncle, had been a member of the council since my grandfather Cameron's day. Now he was busy talking with Eimund, who had been seated next to me. I surmised from the conversations that a fourth alderman was present in the room, but I could not catch his name.

The King arrived several minutes later, pouring out apologies for being late. The rest of us greeted him from where we sat. Councils were generally conducted in an informal manner; what little formality took place this evening would be for the sake of Eimund, who was new to the council, and the fourth alderman, who was here as a temporary guest. Indeed, Varick had no sooner sat down and called to one of the serving petties to bring out refreshments, than he said, "Gentlemen, I commend to your notice tonight my liege alderman Eimund, who so bravely led our rescue last night – and so wisely changed my orders regarding the method by which to do so. Eimund, I believe the fact that you came from the south, rather than the west where the Fossenvites would have expected such an attack, is what helped to turn our defeat into victory. I thank you and your men for your sacrifice."

"It was an honor, sire," Eimund murmured. "I ought to say, though, that we were only following Prince Corbin's orders. It was he who planned everything."

There was a pause, unexpected and strange, during which I kept my head bowed and fingered a knothole in the table.

"Yes, of course." Varick, who normally reacted to praise of me with effusive agreement, seemed oddly colorless in his response to Eimund. "The council knows that we owe Prince Corbin a great debt. We are also indebted to Prince Meaghar, who suffered the greatest losses last night. Meaghar, I believe that you have a new alderman to present."

"I do, sire." Meaghar raised his voice to be heard above some whispering that was now taking place amongst the princes on the other side of the table. I could not catch what they were saying, but I heard my name being spoken. Behind me, a petty reached over to fill my cup. Before I could lean back to whisper that I would like some food as well, he was gone. Selig had arranged such matters for me during the past three years; no doubt the petty was unaware that I was capable of asking for food on my own.

Around me, bowls clinked as the other council members were given the light refreshments that were served at such gatherings. Meaghar paused to allow a petty to serve him before continuing, "Sire, seven of my aldermen were killed last night. Six of them had heirs, and I will be presenting most of those men to you in private during the following days. The seventh title you will of course assign as you please to whichever of my petties you believe worthy of the honor; if you wish, I would be glad to offer you suggestions. I bring one of my new aldermen to you tonight because he is Rasmus, brother and heir to Selig, who served Prince Corbin so well for several years. Rasmus has expressed a desire that, like his brother, he be allowed to swear his allegiance directly to the King."

I reached forward and, with too much groping for my liking, managed to locate my cup. The cup was shaped in fine, simple curves by one of the Partitioners; the Petty Partition of course guarded the only craftsmen left in the world. As I sipped the water, Varick said, "Well, what is your opinion, gentlemen? Marlin?"

"Sire, I think that Rasmus deserves such an honor not only because his brother sacrificed his life for Prince Corbin, but also because, as Meaghar says, Selig served Corbin with such dedication during the past three years. I believe that you should accept his pledge."

"Thank you, Marlin. Obert?"

The council members were concise in their replies: they all thought Varick should offer Rasmus his special protection, not for the sake of any worthiness that Rasmus himself might possess, but in order to honor the dead alderman who had served me so well. I was thinking, as I slowly sipped the water to make it last through the whole meeting, that Selig's fine service to me had consisted of making me feel for three years as though I were of less use to this land than the meanest petty, and that his final act, had he not died first, would have been to catch hold of me in the darkness at the truce ground and prevent me from escaping. Then I remembered Garrick's words about his father, and I thrust such thoughts away.

"Corbin?" By the time Varick turned to me for advice, he had usually made his decision, but he sounded unusually eager as he spoke now. I considered momentarily whether to tell the truth, then reluctantly set that possibility aside. For three years, Varick had failed to listen to what I had to say about Selig. Because of that, I knew it would do no good for me to say that there existed an apprentice who was more worthy of this honor than the man who had allowed his dead brother's son to return to the life of a petty.

Besides, I had more important matters to discuss with Varick tonight. It would not do for me to turn aside his good will toward me before our vital battles had even begun.

So I simply said, "I'm not acquainted with Rasmus, but Selig spoke well of him."

"Good!" replied Varick with curious enthusiasm. "Rasmus, I will be glad to give you my protection in the future, and I thank you for your willingness to offer this sacrifice." His chair-legs scraped as he stood up, and the council members, who had been exchanging whispers amongst each other, fell silent as Rasmus walked forward from where he had been standing near the door. There was a pause during which I surmised that Rasmus had knelt down to take the King's hand. Then, in a voice that was subdued and husky, Rasmus said, "My liege lord, I follow you. From this day forth, my body and life are yours, and so I pledge you my willingness to place myself between you and your enemies. Command me as you wish, and I will obey."

Varick quietly replied, "Rasmus, I accept your allegiance and service, and pledge you my protection in both war and peace. I swear by my ring that my blade will always be raised to defend you in your need."

I had heard this short, simple exchange of pledges made on many occasions: between petties and their aldermen, between aldermen and their princes, between princes and their King, and, on a few rare occasions such as this, between aldermen and their King. But on this occasion, as Rasmus pledged himself to become the King's liege alderman, I saw in my mind a series of images that were the reality behind what Rasmus and Varick were promising: Eimund and his men risking their lives to rescue the captured nobles, Selig dying willingly for me, Varick's princes preparing to place their bodies between York's dagger and me, and, most vividly of all, Varick preparing to fight any man who tried to pursue me.

Nearby, Rasmus was murmuring his thanks to the King. There was a collective sigh from the council members as they began breathing again. A King's oath always catches at the heart, and the binding of a King to his liege alderman is a heartfelt moment at all times. I reached over to pick up my cup, for my mouth had gone dry.

"Please stay and join the council for the rest of the evening, Rasmus," Varick said as he sat down once more. "I commend to your special notice my brother, Prince Corbin Reynard Cameron Manoc, whom your brother served. Why don't you sit next to Prince Corbin so that you two can become better acquainted?"

I managed to put the cup down again without spilling too much water. Varick's words, in themselves, meant nothing. Naturally, Varick would honor Rasmus on this night by asking him to remain here as a guest; naturally, Rasmus would sit to the right of Eimund, the newest alderman on the council; naturally, Varick would want Rasmus to become better acquainted with me, since a liege alderman's pledge of sacrifice extended to all members of the royal family. But I had suddenly remembered Varick's concern that I approve of Rasmus.

Now I realized why Rasmus was here. Selig's successor had been found, in more senses than one.

I greeted Rasmus in what I hoped was a civil manner. A pause followed in the proceedings as Rasmus accepted the welcome of the other members of the council, and I caught a whiff of sweet fruit as Varick shoved a bowl over in Rasmus's direction. I put my hand out toward the bowl – both to help pass it and also in hope of snatching a bit of food for myself – but Rasmus had already reached beyond me for the bowl, and my hand met empty air. Quickly, I pulled my hand back, hoping no one had seen.

Varick was saying, "Now to our business. First of all, the messenger we sent yesterday to call York to the truce ground brought back with him York's claim of victory for this past year – a claim that I fear we must accept, considering the outcome of last winter's battles and the Fossenvites' success during the summer raids. The previous year, we were victorious; the year before, when we were still recovering from the aftermath of York's hostage-taking, we were defeated. During the four years before that, we were of course victorious. It looks as though we're returning to our old pattern of swinging from year to year between victory and defeat; I apologize to those present for whatever part I have played in our recent defeats. I would like your suggestions on how we can return to our successes of the past."

Ingram, who had been busy instructing a petty on the proper manner in which to serve a prince, paused to say, "Perhaps we ought to propose to York a revision in the Rules of War so that we could achieve the final victory more quickly."

"How?" asked Meaghar sharply. "By suggesting that five successive years of victory bring an end to the war, rather than ten? York could easily win for five years in a row – in fact, during the dreadful years of his early reign, he won for eight years running. We had nearly resigned ourselves to living under Fossenvite rule."

"Yes, and do you remember how we were able to save ourselves from that?" replied Ingram. "King Reynard's sword-tip slipped while he was duelling York, and he was able to wound York severely. We had to pay a large compensation to York for that wound, of course, but he wasn't able to take part in battles for the rest of the winter, and that gave us the victory that year. If we agreed with the Fossenvites to change the Rules so that members of the royal family could be badly wounded—"

There was a hasty fit of coughing from Obert. As Ingram fell silent, suddenly realizing what he had suggested, Varick said coldly, "York has already twisted the Rules of War to allow for that in the past, and you'll recall the consequences for Tascania. I am prepared to sacrifice myself in any way necessary for this land, just as my brother was, but if we discard the First Rule, soon no one will be left to rule either land."

"That is the whole point of the Rules of War, Ingram," Marlin contributed. "Remember how matters stood before the Rules were agreed to: the nobles had virtually wiped each other out, and the petties were in revolt against the nobles. If we discard the First Rule and allow the princes and the Kings to be severely wounded and killed, then the petties will take advantage of our weakness again and strip the nobles of our power to care for the two lands. And then who knows what would happen, with the governments in the hands of men who have never been trained to protect those who are under their care. Tascania and Fossenvita could be utterly destroyed under such lawless rule."

Behind me, soft leather shoes padded on the floor as the serving petties made their way around the table. They were refilling the water cups; miraculously, a petty refilled mine without my having to guess where he was and decide whether it was worth trying to beckon him over.

I said, "Perhaps we should discuss what we are fighting for."

One of the princes sighed heavily; several other nobles shifted restlessly in their chairs. For a moment, it was not clear whether anyone would bother to answer me. Then Varick said patiently, "In order to achieve the final victory against the Fossenvites. To end the war that has lasted for generations. Eighty years ago, it looked as though the war would never end – that the Fossenvites and the Tascanians would forever be trying to destroy each other. So our great-grandfather, Manoc, and York's grandfather, Delbert, agreed to the Rules that defined what constitutes a victory in any given year, and also agreed that whichever King wins the war for ten years running will become King of both lands. If we fail to fight the Fossenvites, they will be the victors, and York will be our King. Do you really want that?" His voice had turned sharp.

"I thought we were fighting for the petties," I said softly. "That's what the Rules state."

Pottery chinked around the table as the petties began to collect the empty bowls. Ingram, who could not anticipate my arguments and who therefore usually gave me the lead I required, said, "Yes, of course we're fighting for the petties. That's how the war began – because those Fossenvite wolves started raiding our petty villages, stealing our women there and killing our men. We attacked the Fossenvites to protect our petties, as we are all sworn to do, and we've been defending the petties ever since then. We want to bring the world back to the way it was before the Fossenvites destroyed our land."

Varick drummed his fingers once against the table before he caught himself; he knew where my argument was leading. Nevertheless, I persisted, saying, "How many of you remember what the world was like back then?"

Meaghar responded impatiently, "Corbin, don't be pedantic. Of course nobody remembers that world; it was generations ago. All our knowledge of it comes from the books and from the ruins of the cities that once stood."

"Then recall what the books say. The war started because the Fossenvites raided one village. During the first year of the war, no more than a dozen villages were raided on both sides of the border. How many villages are raided each year now? How many petties are raped or wounded or killed while we nobles pursue this war that is supposed to be protecting the petties? One fact alone should tell us what the old world was like: there was no need then for a Petty Partition."

A long silence followed. Not being able to see the faces around me, I had no way to tell whether the other nobles were shamed by my words or indifferent to them. Finally Marlin said, "Corbin, we all want peace; we all want a world where the petties do not have to flee for refuge to a loathsome place like the Partition. The question is how best to achieve that world. If York were our King, the petties would be no better off in peacetime than they are in wartime; York is the sort of man who would destroy his own people if he did not have an enemy to torment. If we were to stop fighting, we would all become his hostages, noble and petty alike. I know that you do not want that."

Marlin's quiet reproofs remained as effective as they had been when I was a boy. My face grew warm and I bowed my head, trying to formulate the words that would express the warning I was trying to give. But Varick offered me no opportunity to speak further; he said, "This issue has been discussed by the council before, Corbin. I see no reason to debate it further tonight, since we have other important matters to discuss. In fact, I don't think we'll have enough time now to plan this coming year's battles and raids; we'll have to save that for another council meeting. It's time to discuss payment of the debt we owe Fossenvita for your blinding. You may leave during this discussion if you wish."

I raised my head and turned my face toward him. I had taught myself to do this three years before, in my earliest attempt to act as though the empty hollows of my face were still filled. "I would prefer to stay, sire," I said tersely.

"Very well." Varick's voice was crisp, but a slight wavering in its tone betrayed him. "Gentlemen, you know the debt we owe; you know also that we have taken a hostage. I propose to pay our debt through Prince Firmin. Marlin?"

"I support the payment, sire."

"Obert?"

"I have no objections."

"Meaghar?"

"Naturally, I have no objections to the debt being paid, but I do have misgivings as to whether this is the right person through which to pay it. As far as I can tell, Prince Firmin has played almost no part in the war. He has commanded only a handful of raids, has never taken part in a battle, and has not been made a duke. He has done our land little harm, and I would far rather see the debt paid through York or his heir."

"I would certainly prefer that as well," said Varick, "but I think we must face the fact that this is likely to be our only chance for payment. York has taken pains to ensure that Lenwood never crosses the border or even enters Truce Valley except during battles. We cannot hope to take him hostage. As for York . . . Well, if anyone here knows how to trap the Wolf of Fossenvita, I'll willingly cede my ring to him. If we cannot take York or Lenwood hostage, then we must pay our debt the only other way we can. That means through Firmin – who, as you may recall, was present during my brother's captivity and therefore is not so innocent of destruction as Meaghar would have us believe. Hilliard?"

"Yes," said Hilliard, a laconic man.

Ingram, Ordway, and Janarius all supported the payment; Janarius was in fact fervent in his expressed wish that it occur. Eimund quietly ceded to his betters' judgment in such matters. I waited tensely, but Eimund's reply was followed by Varick saying, "Then we are agreed. For form's sake, we must offer York the same opportunity he offered Corbin, to surrender his ring, so I will send a messenger to him this evening. We may expect his reply by tomorrow evening, and we all know what that reply will be. Therefore I wish the dukes to assemble at the royal residence at sundown so that we may—"

"Varick." I kept my voice soft, but Varick halted with as much suddenness as though I had shoved him to the ground. I added, "You did not ask my opinion on the matter."

Varick's voice was gentle as he said, "Corbin, I already know your opinion on the matter. I know that you do not want any other noble to suffer what you have suffered, but you must see that the rest of us have the duty to pay York back for such an attack."

"That is what I wanted to say. I don't think you'll be paying York back if you blind Firmin. I doubt that York cares about the prince."

Ordway replied, "Firmin is York's acknowledged son, his heir's heir. Of course York cares about the young man."

"You haven't seen York and Firmin together; I'm the only one here who has. I tell you, York will feel nothing but relief if you choose to pay the debt this way. Meaghar pointed out that York has not made Firmin a duke – well, that should tell you something. York considers Firmin expendable. If he did not, he would not have brought him to the truce last night, and he most certainly would not have departed our land without enquiring after Firmin by name. If you blind Firmin, you are playing into York's hands."

"If we do not, the Fossenvites will consider us weaklings," Varick responded with raised voice. "We have our honor to consider – and how our honor is regarded by the enemy can make a difference in battle. We must pay this debt, or we will forfeit our reputation."

I made no reply in words, but reached out quickly under the table, located Varick's left hand – which was wrapped tightly in a fist – and tapped his wrist three times. It was a signal that meant, "I cannot talk now." In the army, the signal was usually used by patrol soldiers to indicate the need for silence. It was a flexible signal, however; Varick and I had even seen it used by a petty who had just been praised by his prince and was indicating to a fellow soldier that he was too overcome by emotion to be able to talk. Since Varick had taken the royal ring, I had used it to indicate secretly in meetings that I had additional information which I wished to give to Varick, but which I could not present publicly.

During the three years in which I had used this signal, Varick had always heeded it. Now, though, he said slowly, "I'm sorry, Corbin, but nothing that you say to me, now or later, can change my mind in this matter. York stole your eyes from you, as well as your ring, and the Fossenvites must pay for that. I swear that, unless York cedes me his ring, I will blind Firmin."

I let my hand drop from his. I could do nothing now; a King's oath cannot be broken. Further down the table, Eimund began to say something, then stopped suddenly, no doubt remembering he was new to the council and ought not to speak without an invitation from the King. It was Varick who spoke finally, calmly ending the meeting and making arrangements for the next day. He was saying something about Firmin being well hidden in the camp so that York's scouts could not locate him, but I scarcely attended. I was listening to the sound of the petties hurrying out of the way of the nobles as the princes and aldermen rose from their places, and I was feeling the strangeness of the cloth that now covered my arms.

As though in response to my thoughts, I felt a hand on my arm, and then Varick knelt down next to my chair and said in a low voice, "Corbin, what are you doing in those dreadful clothes?"

"The royal residence guard lent them to me."

"But why wear them?" Varick continued to keep his voice soft. Behind us, the nobles were chatting as they made their slow way to the door.

"Guess."

Varick was silent a moment before he said, "Your bandage covers it."

"Marlin says it will leave a scar. I decided I might as well get used to the clothes now."

"Corbin, don't be ridiculous. You don't need to wear petty clothes just because York carved his name onto you. We'll find something new for you to wear, something that is low-necked like a noble's shirt but has sleeves—"

"Varick." I was keenly aware of the men talking behind us, no doubt straining to overhear our conversation. "Were there figs in that bowl you passed to Rasmus?"

"Yes, that's right. Didn't you have any? I'm sorry – I ought to have told Rasmus beforehand to make sure that you got some food." The fig bowl scraped against the table as Varick pulled it toward me.

This time I did not bother to signal Varick, but simply allowed my silence to be my reply. As I dipped my hand into the bowl, Varick brushed against me as he stood up. He walked toward the door and murmured something to the men there. After a moment, the voices began to fade away; then they disappeared as the door closed.

Beside me, wood moaned against the mosaic pieces on the floor as Varick dragged his chair over to my side of the table. "All right, they're gone," he said. "Is it Rasmus you object to? I could assign Eimund as your guide if you prefer."

I thought of Eimund attending me day and night for the rest of my life while his family stayed alone at home. "Rasmus is fine," I replied. "It's just that I'd rather you wait a bit before you assign him any duties. I can survive a few days without a guide."

Varick laid one hand against my arm as the other hand brushed against mine, pulling a dried fig from the bowl. "I'm sorry; I didn't think. Of course you wouldn't want another man to take Selig's place so soon."

"It's not only that. Rasmus promised to take Selig's son back to his village."

Varick reached over to push into my hands the cup I was searching for. "Blades of wood. I'd forgotten that Selig had a son – he's nearly journeyman age, isn't he? And Rasmus won't take him as his boy?"

"Apparently not. Do you know of any alderman who might be willing to take him?"

"I'll check with the princes, but I don't think the chances are very good." Varick was silent for a spell as I leaned back in my chair, wiping the sweat from the back of my neck. I was wearing the double-thick shirt and breeches that petties wore in the winter, since only nobles wore cloaks. Even outside, I was warmer in these clothes than I had ever been in my bare-chested noble's shirt and cloak. Only the noble-chain hanging from my neck reminded me of my old honor.

"I tell you what I'll do," said Varick. "I'll let Selig's son train as a journeyman for a year – perhaps he'll catch the notice of some alderman that way. That's the best I can do for him, I'm afraid. Now that Rasmus has given his oath, the question of the title is settled."

"I realize that. I'm glad you're willing to help Garrick – and I'm also glad you invited Eimund to join the council."

"Yes, he's a gifted alderman, isn't he? And very loyal, especially to you."

I began to agree; then I halted abruptly, caught in mid-word by Varick's colorless voice. It was the same voice he had used when Eimund praised my work as his temporary liege lord. I remembered the whispers that had been exchanged between the princes after Eimund spoke.

A chill went through me as though a blade-edge were being dragged down my spine.

Varick and all the others thought Eimund was lying. They thought Eimund had attributed the command-work to me in order to hide the fact that he had disobeyed orders, and also, more generously, to hide the fact that I was unable to command soldiers any longer. They did not believe I was capable of planning the previous night's attack and the rescue of the King.

This too explained Varick's unusual coldness toward me throughout the meeting, and his final loss of temper over the matter of Firmin. Varick and the others were disappointed that I had allowed Eimund to give me the credit for what had happened. They thought my need for honor was now so great that I was willing to steal another man's honor from him rather than reveal to the world that I was no more capable of doing a noble's work than a petty was.

My silence had lingered for so long that Varick had evidently despaired that I would confess to my misdeed. He said, in a voice sharper than I had ever heard him use toward me, "Shall we leave now? I sent Rasmus away with the others, but we can walk back to your room together. I have to check on the foraging party's tally after that."

"You go ahead without me. I want to finish these figs."

"Take them with you."

"I said, Go ahead without me."

From the far end of the room came the faint sound of the petties chatting as they waited for the King to finish his private conversation. Someone made a joke, and the others laughed; then one of the petties quickly shushed the others, lest their laughter disturb the King. Varick had not yet spoken.

"Swords and daggers, Varick, stop worrying about me," I said in a bitter rush of anger. "I'm not carrying a blade – you made sure of that."

Varick drew in his breath sharply, then checked the word at his mouth. He rose swiftly, sending his chair crashing back against the table and causing the fig bowl to hum from the vibration. For a minute he said nothing as I turned my face away from his, already regretting my outburst. Then he replied tersely, "Fine. Come back when you wish."

He slammed the door closed on his way out. For a while, I sat where I was, feeling as numb as though I were out in the icy wind. Then I heard a nervous cough come from the other side of the room, where the petties continued to stand, uncertain whether to clear the table and blow out the lights.

I stood up and pulled from the money pouch at my belt a handkerchief I had placed there to keep the coins inside from jingling in an obvious manner. Spreading the handkerchief onto the table, I placed the remaining figs on top of it before folding the handkerchief and tying it to my belt. Then, as the petties stepped forward, I left the room.

As the council hall door closed behind me, I stood for a moment on the porch of the hall. Behind me was the building that had once held the accumulated knowledge of Tascania. I imagined the library as it had once been: filled with scrolls and noble scholars and even ordinary petties, back in the days when petties could read. As I envisioned this, I felt as though all the books I had ever known were spilling their contents into the world around me, so that the past was made manifest before my ears.

I heard the sound of shopkeepers and traders and craftsmen, all finishing their work as the day reached its end. I heard women and children laughing without fear as they walked through the city that belonged as much to them as to the men. I heard Tascanians speaking in a friendly manner to visiting Fossenvites, since our lands were at peace with each other. And quite faintly, since their presence was small and subdued, I heard the tramp of soldiers passing through the streets, keeping the peace against any criminals who might break it.

The tramp of soldiers' boots grew louder, overwhelming the other sounds I had heard. Gradually, I realized that the sound of soldiers was no memory, but the reality of what Tascania's capital had become. All the other sounds I had heard were gone – they no longer existed in the world, save in one place.

Cloth rustled close to me. With my instincts still heightened by my experiences on the previous night, my hand moved automatically to my side before I remembered that I bore no weapon. A voice said, "It's Eimund."

I managed a smile. "I didn't realize you were waiting for me. Did you want to walk back together?"

"No, I'm on my way home now; my family's expecting me. I just wanted to say . . ." He hesitated. Through the evening stillness resounded the voice of an alderman, urging his men to finish their work before their prince arrived to inspect the unit. Eimund took a step closer to me and said in a low voice, "I ought to have said this earlier, when we were in the council. I just wasn't sure how to— I meant to tell you how grateful I am that you took command last night. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't been there."

So Eimund had heard the whispers on the other side of the table. I remained still, trying to ascertain whether anyone else was standing nearby. After a moment I said, "Thank you. I enjoyed working with you again. . . . Eimund."

"Yes, my liege—" Eimund stopped abruptly, as though he would have said more. There followed an awkward silence.

I finally asked in a low voice, "Where is Firmin being kept?"

The pause that followed was long, but it was no more than I had expected. Eimund was too intelligent a man not to understand why I was seeking this information from him rather than from my brother. I waited tensely, wondering whether the tie which had once bound us, and which had just bound us again for a short time, would be enough to cause Eimund to ignore his present allegiance.

Finally he said, "Next to the furnace, in the first supply room." He stopped, began to say something more, and then halted abruptly. Once again, an awkward silence sprawled between us.

I broke the silence by saying, "I'll bid you good night, then. Give my greetings to your wife."

Eimund said nothing, and so I started forward, stumbling slightly as I reached the rubble-strewn road. Nearby, the alderman's voice had died down; evidently, the prince had arrived to make his inspection. I moved as quickly as I could, hoping that whichever prince was there would not notice me and come over to learn why I was alone.

I was nearly at the bridge when I heard Eimund's voice again. It came faintly on the edge of the wind, and it was so quiet that I could not tell whether it spoke the words I thought I heard, or whether, like my earlier dreams of the past, the sound only manifested that which I wanted so much to hear.

The voice said, "Good night, my liege lord."

Chapter Text

The furnace that heated the hypocaust for the royal residence was the only one still in use. It stood open to the air except where it was covered by a large tank that had once heated the residence's water. Decades had passed since the tank had been used for that purpose, for the water pipes leading away from it had rusted into scraps long since. My great-grandfather Manoc, though, had found the time to send petties to clear out the hypocaust itself, and now the furnace blazed daily throughout the winter. It was usually surrounded in the evening by idle soldiers who did not want to take the trouble to gather wood for their own small fires.

The furnace stood in a roofless chamber that dwelt partly underground; the chamber was connected to a network of underground rooms where fuel and supplies were kept. Varick and I had enjoyed exploring the rooms when we were young, secure in the knowledge that no other apprentices could visit here, since the rooms lay beneath the hypocaust itself, under the royal residence.

It was the perfect place to hide a hostage. The warmth emanating from the hypocaust would keep the prisoner in relative comfort; Varick would not want his prisoner to grow sick from the cold before payment had been made. And none of York's scouts would dare to come near the royal residence. No one would know that the hostage was there, for the only men who regularly entered the underground rooms were the petties who tended the furnace fire. They, no doubt, had been given some story to explain why the furnace-side entrance had been temporarily locked.

Another entrance existed to the rooms, located just behind the royal residence. A short flight of stairs led down to a long, unlit corridor, which was barred halfway by a locked door. I did not have the key to that door any more, but tonight, I could guess, I would not need it.

My guess was right. I smelled the smoke even before I had reached the foot of the stairs; by the time I had taken a few paces forward I could hear the crackle of a torch, and with it the whisper of a blade being unsheathed. I stopped where I was, not wishing to test the guard's skill, and waited for the man to come close enough that he could ascertain he was not about to kill a noble.

I heard him sigh and say, "It's you, my liege. When I saw those petty clothes, I feared that it was one of York's scouts."

It was Gib's voice I heard. Thankful that I knew the guard, I walked forward. "No trouble here tonight?"

"None, my liege. I doubt that York could guess where we're holding his son, any more than the King was able to guess where York held you. And you needn't worry that the young prince will be able to escape on his own. We're keeping him secure."

The air was pungent with the smell of old wall-tiles, algae, and the earth that squeezed through the tile cracks. I had stopped near the crackling torch that was hanging from the wall, guessing that Gib's post was somewhere nearby; his voice sounded close to mine. I said, "I'm sure that you're right. I'd like to talk to the hostage now."

Gib said hesitantly, "Talk to him?"

"Yes. Let me into his cell, please."

There was a pause while Gib considered why I would want to visit the hostage, and then he uneasily cleared his throat as he reached his conclusion. "Yes, my liege. Do you want me to stay with you and – and hold him, or whatever you need done?"

"That won't be necessary. He has been tied, hasn't he?"

"Yes, my liege. The King said that Prince Firmin should be imprisoned under the same conditions that you were."

I had guessed as much, and I had also guessed that Varick would not wait for the blinding to begin his payment. I wondered what punishments Varick had arranged by this point; I knew that he would not go so far as to adopt York's methods. I said, "Then I'll be in no danger. You may wait here."

"The cell door is locked, my liege. I'll have to open it for you." Gib was already struggling with the lock to the main door leading to the corridor. As the door squeaked open on its ancient hinges, Gib cleared his throat again. "Do you wish to take my arm, my liege?"

"No, thank you." I swept past him through the doorway.

I walked only a few paces forward before stopping. Beside me, Gib was opening the cell door with such quietness that it was clear he had been given special instructions about this. I knew then what one of the punishments was, even before the door opened and I stepped into the cell that had no sound of fire in it. Firmin had been placed in darkness, and his previous visitors, whoever they had been, had entered the room in silence, leaving him to guess who they were by their touch. In this respect, at least, Varick had copied York's methods.

The door closed behind me with a whisper. The cell had doubtless been cleared of its supplies, but there lingered in it the smell of meat, probably the salted meat taken on the recent raid. It blended with the stench of rotting wood from whatever old barrels had been used to store the meat. The smell of dank stones permeated all else.

The cell's inhabitant had not yet heard my entrance. He was in the far right corner, the coldest corner, but also the one that was furthest from the door. Drifting toward me came a series of soft, shuddering gasps. It was the sound of a man who is trying not to cry.

Time turned back.

o—o—o

I heard the slight rasp I had been waiting for – a bar being slid back in a door – and my body stiffened in anticipation. After that, I could hear nothing, but I knew that the visitor was there. I was sitting in the corner of the cell furthest from the door; slowly, I drew my knees up so that my legs were protecting my chest and loins. My hands were behind my back, roped together. There was no need for my hands to be bound, any more than there was a need to keep my feet bound. Both gifts were York's way of emphasizing what I had become.

Though I could hear nothing, the particular sense I had developed while on night patrols told me that someone was standing close to me. Deliberately, I tilted my head back, as though I were looking up at the visitor.

The slap came like the previous ones: a stab in the dark, unheralded, with no time to allow me to brace myself. It was swiftly followed by a kick in the thigh. Anticipating the next move, I pulled my legs yet closer to my body. Yet my heartbeat had already begun to ease: the touches had told me who my tormenter was.

This realization must have been chalked across my face, for York gave a roar of laughter. "Firmin, you're never going to be mistaken for me if you're that gentle with your petty prisoners. Do it like this—" And at the moment when I was most relaxed, he brought his foot forward, penetrated through the guard of my legs, and reached the spot he had been aiming for.

I toppled to one side, gasping for breath, surrounded by a cloud of pain which matched the deathly darkness that had become my home. Dimly, I was aware that York had moved to the other side of the cell and was giving instructions to someone standing in the courtyard. I heard the scraping of wood, the clink of pottery being placed on a surface, and the sound of liquid being poured. The door closed again. York and his son were chatting cheerfully on the other side of the room.

"You must try these buns, Firmin," said York. "I believe they're the best I've ever tasted. They're a present from my leman."

"Alice?"

"No, no, I haven't seen Alice since last summer. I'm seeing Glydia again. She's a better cook – and besides, I thought that she ought to be suitably rewarded for services rendered to her King. Try the chicken too. It's quite tender."

"I'd rather have the pork; it smells delicious."

I could smell the meat from where I lay. Aware now that the nature of my torment had changed and that no more kicks would be forthcoming, I managed with effort to push myself up and back into the corner where had I sat previously. The scent of the food danced over and tickled me, causing my stomach to moan once more. I tilted my head back so that my face was pointed toward the ceiling. I did not want York to see my expression.

York was chewing and slurping as loudly as possible, in between describing with relish what he and Firmin were eating. Firmin said, "I tell you what I like best – it's these figs. They're so sweet and juicy; I could eat dozens of them."

"Do have some more," York urged.

"No, I'm full now. I'll give the rest to the dogs."

"Perhaps Corbin would care for some. Corbin, would you like . . . ? Oh, I forgot. You're not eating, are you? How long has it been, Corbin? Three days?"

I stayed silent. My neck was beginning to ache, but I kept my face tilted upwards.

"Four," replied Firmin.

"Four days without food. Perhaps we'll feed him tomorrow. Not breakfast, not dinner, but perhaps supper. After all, we don't want him to die. That would be against the First Rule."

"But he's not a King any longer, sire," said Firmin with well-rehearsed precision. "He's only a petty."

"Swords and daggers, I'd forgotten. Are you sure, though? He's wearing petty clothes, but perhaps that's only a disguise."

"He's not wearing a noble-chain or a royal ring."

"No, that's right." York mused on this for a minute in order to allow me to savor what had been said. His timing was always perfect. He had waited a week after my blinding before he took my chain and ring from me; he had wanted me to be fully conscious of what he was doing.

"Perhaps someone stole them from him," Firmin suggested.

"That could be true. Well, then, does he have any other marks that would tell us whether he is a noble? What is a noble, anyway?"

"A noble is someone who leads. A petty is someone who can only follow, never lead."

"That's right," said York slowly, as though he were being instructed by his son. "A noble has to be able to lead his men in war. Well, this man could lead men in war, couldn't he? He looks strong and clever and decisive."

"He's blind, sire."

"Really?" York replied in a disbelieving voice. Hearing him step forward, I looked down in the moment before he grabbed me by the hair. His other hand went out to touch the hollows in my face that were no longer bandaged but were still tender to the touch. A small sound escaped me as his fingers roughly touched me.

"Why, you're right, Firmin; he is blind," said York. "How astonishing. Well, then, he can't possibly lead anyone in a raid or battle, so he can't be a— But wait. Don't nobles also do something else? Perhaps he can take on this other duty."

"Nobles protect their liege men. They raise their blades in defense of the petties and of any man, petty or noble, who is under their special protection. —If you're not going to eat that last bun, could I have it?"

"Please do. I wouldn't want it to be wasted." York took several steps backwards and was silent a moment. Through the cracks in my prison wall I could hear the soft snorting of the horses that York and Firmin had brought, as well as the quiet conversation of the petty soldiers who guarded this countryside building at all times. I had come to know the soldiers well. York had given them his permission to torment me whenever they liked; being eager to please their Commander, they had followed his lead.

"It's hard for me to see how a blind man could fight," York said reflectively, "but perhaps I'm being too narrow in my view. I've heard stories that this man is one of the best bladesmen in Tascania. Surely a small handicap like blindness won't impede him from fulfilling his noble duties. Let's put this question to the test."

As he spoke, he moved forward and knelt beside me, sliding his dagger between my legs. He severed the ropes that bound me with one thrust of his dagger; this was as much a tribute to the power of his hands as it was to the keenness of his blade. He had taken care to place himself beyond reach of where I might kick him with my legs, but I made no attempt to move in any case. I remained limp and passive as the dagger freed my hands. Then I flung myself on him, my hands aiming for his throat.

He did not even bother to form his hand into a fist before he struck me. The force of his back-handed slap sent me sprawling. My cheek stung where York's ring had caught the skin. "Dear me, I've drawn blood," York said mildly. "Firmin, remind me to make a note later that the Tascanians owe us a cut across the face. We don't want to give too many gifts at once to the royal family and be forced to pay a penalty."

"But he's only a petty, sire."

"So he is; I keep forgetting. Still, we haven't yet proved this supposition. Let's see whether this man in petty clothes has any honor left. Give your dagger to the guard, Firmin – that's a good boy."

In the pause that followed, the door opened and Firmin murmured something to the guard in the courtyard. I pulled myself carefully to my feet. York was between me and the door, but in any case, flight was not in my mind. What I was wondering was how I could overpower York without breaking the First Rule.

The door closed again. Something about my stance made Firmin snicker from the other side of the room. York said, "Behave yourself, Firmin; a duel is a serious matter. Now then, gentleman or pettyman, as may be: this is my only weapon." There was a soft thud on the floor, close to my feet. "I swear by my ring that Firmin and I are unarmed, and I further swear that if you succeed in wounding either of us by so much as a scratch, I'll release you over the border without further harm. You can even kill us if you like – I think you could successfully argue that your death blows were an accident. Challenge."

York's quiet invitation was unnecessary. I was already stooping to pick up the blade, my back prickling from the danger that this might be York's way of catching me off guard. But the Fossenvite King made no attempt to stop me as I groped the floor for the dagger, cradled the hilt in my hand, and slowly stood up.

I felt light as a leaf; for a moment, I feared that I would lose my balance. I was a soldier and had fasted in the past, during winters when the foraging parties came home empty-handed and I had felt obliged to let my men eat what food was left. But never before had I been forced to duel in the midst of my fasting. I could only hope that York's gluttonous feasting would slow him down.

I stood a moment, trying to orient myself. As a journeyman, I had received the standard training on how to locate objects in the dark – how to make use of that special sense which alerts a night-blind person when something or someone is close by. But I could not tell, either from my extra sense or from sound, where York was in the room.

"I'm over here," York said softly from the corner of the room opposite me, near the door.

"And I'm here." Firmin's voice came from the other corner near the door.

I ignored the latter; the heir's heir was of no interest to me. Holding my dagger with its flat aimed toward my opponent, in the defense position I had learned long ago, I made my charge. It was tempting to walk forward slowly in order to keep from rushing in the wrong direction and making a fool of myself, but I knew York's quickness on his battle-horse, and I had learned that he was just as quick on his feet. I did not want to give him time to dart out of my way.

I was halfway to the corner when something hard and pointed jabbed into my belly. For a moment, I thought that York was forsworn; then I heard the sound of pottery falling and of York laughing in the corner.

"Oh, dear, I ought to have made sure that our battlefield was free of obstacles before we began," he said. "Firmin, tell the guard to move the table and chairs out of our opponent's way so that he will not chance colliding with them again."

Trying to ignore the pain in my belly, I stepped back, lowering my blade as I would in battle if my opponent indicated he wished to pause in the duel. As the guard dragged the furniture into the courtyard and kicked the broken pottery out of the way, I was thinking to myself that I ought to have known that the King of Fossenvita would not eat on the ground like a petty. I deserved York's scorn for my error.

The door closed again. York's voice was light as he said, "Second attack. Let's see whether you manage to slice some skin off of me this time."

Even as he spoke, I was raising my blade and turning it edge-on toward York, the signal that I was prepared to wound this time. York was still in the corner. Firmin had moved back to his own corner and was shouting, "I'm over here, petty! Come get me!" I took one step forward and another, until I caught the faint scent I was searching for and could be sure of where York was. Then I charged.

I caught myself in time to keep from slamming chest-first into the corner. Only my shoulder was bruised as I hit the wall while twisting away toward the sound of York's laughter. He had moved a few scant feet down the wall.

"Consider yourself lucky that you're pretending to be a King rather than an alderman," he told me. "An alderman who fought like that would be dead by now. However, let us assume that you continue to possess the royal privilege and that Firmin and I are your only opponents. We are disarmed; our liege aldermen are dead; nobody else seems inclined to come to our aid. We are at your mercy and are waiting for you to follow up on your advantage. Third attack."

I moved out of the corner, trying to circle around where I thought York was located. If I attacked him from the corner, he would simply move into the center of the room; if I attacked him straight on toward the wall, he could move in either direction along the wall. If, however, I attacked him at an angle, he would probably do what he had done before: move to my right. Naturally, I could take this into account and change the direction of my attack at the last minute, but I had a better idea. The one remaining corner of the room, the corner toward which York had moved, contained an inconspicuous hole that served as my privy. If I drove York into that corner, he might be so preoccupied with my attack that he would take a misstep and would be momentarily trapped in the corner.

I made my third attack, blade on edge, this time deliberately colliding with the wall so as to keep York from getting bored with the proceedings. As I had hoped, York emitted that faint vibration of the throat which served as his purr when his torments were going well. From the other side of the room, Firmin said sharply, "Sire—!"

"Firmin, I'm busy duelling at the moment," York said serenely. "You keep to your business, and I'll keep to mine."

A pause followed, and then Firmin gave a shout of laughter. His voice was still in the midst of changing to a man's, but his laugh was already that of his father's: the roar of a carnivorous beast. He said cheerfully, "Over here, petty! Come kill me!"

I paid him no attention; I was busy ascertaining York's position as he said, "You've used up all your attacks, and it's my turn to offer you a gift, but I'll be kind and allow you one more try. After all, every noble is a bit shaky during the first battle of the season, and you've been under certain stresses recently. Here, I'll make your job easier . . ." His voice shifted in direction. "I'm nearly in the corner now; you nearly have me trapped. Let's see that blade-point."

I obliged him by turning the dagger point-forward. I rarely placed my blade in this position during duels, for a stabbing attack was most difficult to control and therefore most likely to cause the severe injuries that were forbidden by the First Rule. Firmin, who had moved to York's original corner, was trying to catch my attention with his shouts, but I concentrated my thoughts on York. Just one scraping of the skin . . . Even if I could not kill him as I wished, York was sworn to release me if I gave him the type of injury he would receive on the battlefield. I tightened my grip on my dagger.

Firmin had gone silent; perhaps something in my face showed my determination this time. York had begun to purr again, helping me to pinpoint his location. He was just where he had said that he was, within a few steps of the hole. I adjusted my angle in order to drive him the remaining distance into the corner, and then I charged, holding my dagger well forward so that York's hands could not impede my progress.

York's voice suddenly rose, saying, "Swords and daggers! What—?" With my blood rushing through me, and a smile drifting onto my face, I ran three paces forward—

And white lightning exploded in my head.

It was the first light I had seen for two months, and for a moment I was aware of nothing but surprise. Pain quickly followed, though, like thunder crashing after lightning has struck. I realized that I had fallen to my knees and that my head felt as though it had been cracked open like a nut.

I heard York's laughter directly in front of me, nowhere near the hole. To the left side of me, the side where the pain was the greatest, Firmin jeered, "I was right next to you, petty! I was waiting for you, and you didn't even see me!"

My head was bowed; the pain was washing over me in wave after wave. York reached down and took the dagger from my unresisting hand. "Dear me, Firmin," he said. "Here I thought that I was duelling the King of Tascania, and instead I've simply been playing Blind Man's Catch with a petty. I fear that this man is an imposter. He's no King, he's no prince or alderman – the best he can ever be is a petty ruler, a princeling."

"A blind princeling," Firmin contributed.

"That's right, a blind princeling. Though that appears to be an oxymoron – based on our test today, I don't see how a blind man could protect anyone, even his fellow petties. Remind me to make a note, Firmin: if we ever attack this man's village, we must be sure to place him with the other children. We wouldn't want to be accused of violating the Fourteenth Rule."

I continued to kneel where I was. York's sharp smell blended with the pain I was feeling, as though the scent were simply an extension of York's torment. The smell dissipated as York stepped past me, shouting an order to the guard outside. The door opened, and I heard the sound of pottery being removed.

"Be sure to get all this spilled food cleaned off of the floor," said York. "We want this cell to be in a condition befitting the honor of our hostage. By my ring, Firmin, did you ever see such a mess? I really don't think that our prisoner should be allowed to create such work for our petties. I may reconsider feeding him tomorrow after all. Are those the remaining figs? Give them to me; I'm famished after playing this boys' game."

"I'd like to keep them if I may," replied Firmin as he stepped into the courtyard. "I thought they'd make a good love-gift."

"Really? Tell the tale, heir's heir." York's voice was suddenly warm.

"Oh, there's no tale yet, but do you remember that woman we passed on the road on our way here? The one whose husband glared at me? Well, I thought it would be amusing if I were to take her as my—"

The door shut, and the voices faded into the distance. In the courtyard, the petties were continuing to move the furniture and rubbish and were making remarks, meant to be overheard, about how they would pay me back later for the extra work. Outside the building, the horses whinnied as they were mounted, and then I heard the beat of receding hooves on the earthen track.

York had not rebound me. I crawled forward the remaining distance to the privy and crouched there, my body shuddering as I tried to throw forth the contents of a stomach that was long empty. A few vile juices coated my mouth with bitterness, and I swallowed them back. Tomorrow morning, I knew, I would be given a small amount of water, enough to keep me alive. York could not kill me – I clung to that thought as though it were my only remaining weapon.

I was too dizzy to stand up again. I crawled back to my corner and laid the side of my head that ached worst against the cold wall. It was late autumn now, but York had not yet shown any inclination to place me in a heated room, and I was unwilling to endure his caustic remarks by asking for that privilege. I wondered with detachment at what point I would lose the remainder of my shredded honor and begin to beg York for mercy in the manner of any lowly petty. Then I wondered whether there was any point in someone like me worrying about honor.

Sobs rose in my throat like bubbles to the water's surface. I fiercely commanded myself not to cry. In a sense, of course, I had no choice whether to cry, for all my tears had been burned away. But if I made the sound of weeping, the guards might hear me and report this to York. I would not give York the satisfaction. He received enough pleasure from me as it was.

A sound escaped me, and I tried to catch it, reeling it back into my mouth with my breath as Varick and I had once pulled fish from Stripping Stream. The gasp I made was as loud as any sob would have been, and as revealing. I pressed my mouth against my upright knees to smother the whimpers that began to shudder forth; my body was now aching as much from the effort not to cry as my head was from Firmin's blow.

So concentrated was I on my task that I did not hear him enter. I remained unaware that he was there until the shadow of his presence touched me, causing me to jerk my head up and catch my breath into sudden silence. My shuddering continued, though, as I waited to see what would come next.

My right hand, which was clenched in a fist against my heart, was wrenched away from my body and slammed onto the floor. I made no movement to resist as my visitor pried open the hand to expose the tender flesh inside. Then I felt something touch my palm.

A half-broken voice, soft and vicious, said in my ear, "If you tell York I've done this, I'll kill you." Then he was gone, and I was left holding the warm, sweet figs.

o—o—o

The gasping had cut off abruptly in the cell. Some sound I had made had told Firmin I was there. I would have spoken, but I was aware that Gib might still be outside the cell door, trying to eavesdrop on the proceedings. So I walked forward slowly, locating where Firmin was from the sound of his breathing.

He was huddled in the corner, with the left side of his body pressed against the wall. As I knelt down next to him, I put out my left hand to touch him. He tried to jerk away from me, then grew still. My hand was resting on the sleeve of a petty shirt. Underneath it, Firmin was shivering.

"It's me," I said softly.

"Corbin!" Firmin's gasped word revealed that he had feared worse. There was a moment of silence as I untied the handkerchief at my belt with my right hand. Then Firmin said, with suspicion thick in his voice, "What are you doing here?"

My left hand had trailed down his arm far enough for me to know that Firmin's hands were bound behind his back, so I held the open handkerchief high enough that Firmin could smell the contents. After a moment, Firmin said in a tight voice, "I've been fed."

"I know."

There was another pause, and I began to lower the handkerchief in anticipation of untying Firmin. Then my hand was jarred as Firmin suddenly knocked his shoulder against it. The figs fell onto the ground between us.

Firmin said in a hard voice, "Keep your gifts for your fellow petties, Princeling. Fossenvites always pay their debts, and if they can't pay them, then they don't become indebted."

I brushed the figs away from the space between us, coating my hand with dirt as I did so, and then I sat down next to Firmin, my injured arm brushing his. It would do no good, I knew, to say that I was simply paying my own debt; by the Rules of War, Firmin was right. Like for like demanded like conditions. Since Varick was not the type of man to starve his hostages, any food I gave Firmin would be a gift above equal payment.

The room was absolutely still; I could not even hear Gib at his guard. The air near the floor lay damp and cool, though heat drifted down from the hypocaust above. The tiles pressed hard against my body.

Finally Firmin said, in a voice that sounded forced, "If you really want to help me, you can tell me what they've done with York."

I turned my face toward him – an automatic action by now, though I knew that he was no more capable of seeing me now than I was of seeing him. "Didn't they tell you?"

"No one has told me anything." The frustration in Firmin's voice was carefully contained. Apparently he was no longer the impetuous boy I had previously known.

"York escaped. He tried to take me hostage; Varick had to promise him safe escort to the border so that he would let me go."

"Did he promise or swear?"

"Promise."

Firmin gave a sharp laugh. "And once York had released you, Varick kept his promise. You Tascanians are so soft – no wonder you keep losing the war. I suppose that Varick's next action will be to release me unharmed."

I rubbed my hands against my breeches, trying to remove some of the dirt from my palms. This caused my left arm to flame into pain once more, and I stilled myself.

Firmin said in a muffled voice, "I suppose that was too much to hope for. Like for like?"

"Yes."

A moment later, fire seared through my arm as Firmin thrust his shoulder against mine, almost knocking us both over. "Get out!" he shouted. "What did you come here for, to watch me cry? Well, I won't give you the satisfaction. Get out, I tell you!"

For a moment, I could only grit my teeth against the pain. My hand went up to the wound, as though I could fetter the fire that way. Then I said in a low voice, "I came to help you escape."

My heart beat once, twice, and then Firmin gave a harsh and bitter laugh. "Tell me a story I can believe, Princeling. That's a debt you know I'd never pay."

I let go of my arm and traced my way down Firmin's leg until I reached the rope. The feet were skillfully bound; if this was Eimund's work, I would expect nothing less. I had trouble jamming my fingers between the rope and the ankles in order to reach the knots.

I had rope-burned most of my fingers by the time Firmin said gruffly, "Use your dagger."

"I don't have one." I finally managed to reach a knot and drag it to a position where I could undo it. With difficulty, I pulled the rope out of the first knot and began on the second.

"Oh, I forgot." Firmin gave a soft laugh; he was keeping his voice as low as mine now. "Blind men can't be allowed to carry blades, can they? They might cut themselves."

The last knot gave way. The flesh under the ropes was indented by the pressure; Firmin was no longer wearing his boots but villagers' shoes, and his ankles were covered only by the gathered-in breeches. With as much curtness as though he were addressing a petty soldier, Firmin said, "Now my hands."

"Not yet." I laid the rope aside. "I need to get you past the guard."

Firmin laughed again as I helped him rise to his feet. "And how are you going to do that? Attack the guard?"

"I don't need to," I replied. "You forget who I am."

"Who you were, Princeling," said Firmin. "Now you're just an unarmed petty."

"I have one weapon, courtesy of your father. Come."

I made this last remark because Firmin was resisting my tug. For a moment more, Firmin remained stubbornly immobile. Then, in an angry rush that implied I ought to have known this without his telling me, he said, "I'm blindfolded."

"All the better." I took firm hold of his arm as I pulled him to the door.

The door was still unlocked. As I opened it, I was touched by the shadow-sense of Gib standing nearby. With one violent thrust, I pushed Firmin against the opposite wall and heard him cry out. The cry, I guessed, was for the benefit of the guard. Firmin had enough experience with his father's trickery to catch on immediately to what I was doing.

I followed swiftly after him, reaching him before Gib did, and placed my hand hard against his back. Behind me, Gib said in an anxious voice, "What are you doing, my liege?"

"Taking the hostage with me," I replied calmly. "I don't have the proper equipment with which to punish him here." I pulled Firmin back, and then thrust him against the wall a second time. This time he made a choking sound that I guessed was a suppressed laugh. He well knew that the Rules of War forbade what I was implying.

Petties, though, were not usually well versed in the Rules of War as they applied to nobles. Gib cleared his throat and said, "Yes, I see. But my orders are to keep him here, my liege. I'm not sure I can let you . . ."

His voice trailed off. I had learned something from York about the value of timing; I waited the appropriate number of seconds before unsheathing my secret weapon. Then I said, in a voice filled with just the right note of dejection, "I could go ask Eimund's permission if you wish."

"Oh, no!" Gib's horror-stricken voice made clear that my weapon had reached its target. "No, I didn't mean anything like that, my liege. Your word is as good as the King's – everyone knows that."

"Fine. When my brother comes, tell him I've taken the hostage. He'll know where I am." I pulled Firmin back from the wall and propelled him through the open corridor door and down the passage. We had nearly reached the stairs before Gib recovered his senses and cried out, "My liege!"

"Yes?" I turned my body only halfway and spoke this time in the brusque voice of a noble who has reached the limits of his patience with an ill-trained petty.

Gib said uncertainly, "Don't you want me to come with you and guard the prisoner?"

"There's no need," I responded, shoving Firmin forward to the stairs. "He can't see – he won't escape me."

Firmin obligingly tripped on the first step, though his stumble might have been genuine enough. I was pushing him forward with haste, before it would occur to Gib that I too couldn't see, and therefore could not chase my captive if he escaped.

o—o—o

Firmin managed to suppress his laughter till we reached the top of the stairs. Then he chuckled and said softly, "I must remember that. I never realized that pity was such a great weapon."

"Quiet." I had paused in our flight only long enough to reach over to Firmin's chest. As I had guessed, his noble-chain was still hanging from his neck. He released a note of protest as I touched it, but said nothing more as I pushed the chain under his high-collared shirt. Pulling the young prince in the direction of the council hall, I began weaving our way through the portion of the ruined city that was no longer used by anyone. Firmin said nothing at first – mainly, I think, because we were both kept busy trying not to fall over the masonry that had toppled into the road.

"Let me go now," Firmin said with irritation finally, but I ignored him. I could hear boys' laughter ahead of us – probably from journeymen, since the apprentices would be in bed by this time. We were too close now to turn away. Settling my expression into what I hoped were grim and confident lines, I walked steadily forward with my hand gripping Firmin's arm.

The boys fell silent; I heard them move to one side to let us pass. One of them, more bold than the others, said, "Good evening, my liege."

"Good evening," I replied pleasantly, and at the same moment – he had indeed been well trained by York – Firmin emitted the sort of whimper that could only have come from a petty who was being taken to his doom. The journeymen were unlikely to know who my captive was; they would assume from Firmin's shoes that I was escorting a petty villager to his punishment.

A few of their whispers caught my ears as I passed, confirming that our ruse had been successful, but already my mind was on the next stage of the journey. For now I could hear the sound of the stream.

Stripping Stream, the longest river in Tascania, had its origins in one of the lakes in Obert's princedom. The river eventually made its way into the eastern mountains, where its waters grew bitter and poisonous. Shortly before that, though, it travelled through the Tascanian winter camp and ran parallel to the road to Truce Valley before curling east around the southern foot of the hill where Eimund had hidden his unit on the previous night.

It was a safer way out of the camp than the road to Truce Valley, and it was also an easier way for me, for I could follow the sound of singing water. Though the stream moved slowly through the camp and was iced over at this time of year, its water jumped eagerly forward once beyond the limits of the camp. Tumbling over the sharp rocks of the stream-bed, the water was clogged with the stripping fish from which the stream took its name – nasty beasts that tore the flesh off any living creature they encountered. If my father's murderer had ever been captured, he would have met his end at that stream. His hands would have been tied to one bank and his feet to the other; with his body just skimming the water, it would have taken him several hours to die. I had devised the method of execution myself, in consultation with the council.

A man who slipped into the stream would die much sooner, and his body would be cleaned quickly of all its flesh. More than one drunk or careless soldier had discovered this, and as a result, even the patrols who searched for Fossenvite scouts tended to avoid the stream banks after dark. Now, as I reached the western bank of the stream and stopped short of its icy waters, I wondered whether the stripping fish would have another victim before the night was over.

I had placed Firmin to the left of me, and I was holding him only lightly now, so that I would not pull him in along with me if I began to slip. Firmin, though, hearing the roar of the water where it broke free further ahead, hissed, "Take my blindfold off at least."

"Not yet," I whispered back. "Not till we're out of the camp."

Firmin discharged a curse under his breath and then fell silent; we were approaching the watering hole. It lay near the opposite bank, but I could hear the chatter of soldiers as they drew water from the stream. I waited tensely for them to notice us and wonder what I was doing; then the sound of our footsteps against the hard ground began to reverberate, and I realized that we were passing under the bridge, out of the soldiers' view. We were also approaching the edge of the camp, the point at which the stream ice broke and the rapids began.

The grassy bank was slick underfoot; the air had warmed during the day, melting the frost, and the evening had not yet grown cold enough to freeze the moist ground again. At one point, I felt myself begin to slide to the right, and I quickly let go of Firmin, but a bush saved me from sliding further. I disentangled myself and scrambled back up to where Firmin was waiting. He whispered, "Listen, Princeling, if you're determined to get yourself killed this way, all the better for Fossenvita. But release me before you do – we're beyond the camp now."

"Wait." We were indeed beyond the camp. I could hear to my left the sigh of the trees that grew up to the edge of the bank, and I was beginning to stumble over tree roots. The forest was in its winter slumber; I could hear almost nothing besides the sound of Firmin and me scrambling over the ground. Almost nothing.

"I've had enough of this." Firmin's voice rose. "You've had your fun; you've proved that you can navigate without eyes. Now let me go—"

My finger met his wrist once, hard. With no more of a pause than it would take to blink an eye, Firmin concluded, "—or do whatever you plan to do to me. But don't think that you can get away with killing me – the First Rule forbids it. What is it?"

The last was a whisper. I replied loudly, "Why should I care about your Rules of War? You've told me often enough that I'm just a petty, and every petty knows that the Rules of War were devised by the nobles to protect themselves. You deserve more than just blinding for what you did to me. We're being followed. Two— No, one man."

"If you kill me as a petty, then you'll die as a petty. Let me go!"

I moved behind him – we were walking in a narrow area between the trees and the stream, so it seemed a natural enough shift – and began fumbling with his ropes as we continued our way downstream. "Well, that's what you and York wanted, isn't it?" I said. "Don't think that this is the impulse of a moment. I've been thinking about this for a long time – about what it means to live as a petty. If you'd been at my brother's council of princes tonight, you would have heard me give a nice little speech about how this war is destroying the petties it's meant to protect. I was ignored, of course. Petties are always ignored when they presume to tell the nobles how they'd prefer to be protected. So I've abandoned the idea of being able to help the petties by living as a noble and abiding by their rules. From now on, I'll live as a petty and find a way to help the other petties in whatever fashion I can. That includes killing you."

As I spoke the last words, the rope came undone. Firmin's left hand stayed where it was, gripping mine as we travelled along the treacherous bank. His right hand slipped away, and cloth rustled as he removed his blindfold.

"Sweet words, Princeling," said Firmin. "But just because a petty got away with murdering your father, don't think that you can get away with murdering me. They'll catch you before you reach the Partition. When I let go, stand still, but keep talking as though I'm with you."

"Why should I flee to the Partition?" I asked scornfully. "No one will know that I've killed you. I'll throw your corpse in the stream, and within a few hours there will be nothing left of you but bones – your corpse could be that of any petty villager. No one will believe that a blind man committed murder." Firmin's hand slid out from mine, and I halted where I was, adding, "Believe me, I've thought this through for a long time; your capture simply gave me the excuse I needed to carry out my plans. No, I'm not going to hide in that disease-ridden city. I'll be inconspicuous in any petty village, considering how many petties you nobles blind each year."

I paused for breath. The footsteps I had heard had stopped, but eventually, I was sure, the soldier would start forward again, if only to keep me from committing the crime I was implying. The fact that I had not yet been approached suggested that we were being followed by a diffident petty who was not sure how to interfere with the malicious actions of the King's brother. Gib, perhaps?

I could hear no sound from Firmin. Maybe he had doubled back to see who our tracker was. Or maybe he had simply continued on his way to the border, leaving me to deal with the soldier in whatever fashion I liked. After all, Firmin had no more need of me.

I raised my voice to cover any sound Firmin might be making. "But don't worry, you won't die yet. Not quite yet. I have a few things to say to you, things I've wanted to say for a long time. It's about you and your father—"

I stopped. Behind me, further back up the bank, I heard the sound of a man talking softly and rapidly and, it appeared, with great anxiety. He did not speak for long. Above the swash of the rushing water, Firmin said in a clear and cold voice, "Give me your dagger."

Silence followed, and then some sort of human sound I could not identify, and then more silence. Turning myself carefully so as not to lose the sound of the stream, I stepped forward and began making my way back along the slick bank.

I had nearly reached the site of the conversation when I heard a loud splash. A few specks of frigid water bit at my hands and face. Firmin said in a flat voice close by me, "It was a petty. I took care of him."

I did not reply. I was feeling the chill of the winter darkness upon me and was thinking about the petty who had been loyal enough to follow me out of the camp to see what trouble I was in. My feelings must have made their way to my face, for Firmin gave a short, humorless laugh. "Don't worry – it wasn't one of yours. It was a Fossenvite scout. York must have sent him to try to locate me. He recognized me eventually."

"Then why did you kill him?"

Firmin stepped closer. I could smell blood now, as well as the fishy scent of water. He said in a cool voice, "He drew his blade."

He did not have to say more. It was not the First Rule, but it was a Rule enforced just as vigorously: a petty must not attack or even threaten a noble. It made no difference that the soldier had failed to recognize Firmin at first in his petty clothes; it made no difference that the soldier had been there to help Firmin. A petty who drew his blade against a King's acknowledged son would consider himself lucky to receive a quick death.

"What was the splash I heard?" I asked.

"I threw him in the stream. The fish will take care of him, just as you said. I took his boots first, though; I wasn't going to walk back to Fossenvita in those thin shoes. So he was of some use to me after all."

As he spoke, metal whispered against metal as he sheathed a blade. It appeared that he had kept the soldier's dagger as well – the execution weapon that the soldier himself had handed Firmin. Soft footsteps brushed the ground, and then something grazed my arm, and then I realized what was happening. I turned and grabbed wildly, just chancing to catch hold of Firmin's arm as he started downstream once more. "Wait," I said.

"Wait for what? You've helped me escape; now I'm going. What were you expecting, Princeling? My thanks?"

"I want to talk with you."

"Well, I don't want to talk to you. I want to get back to Fossenvita before that dull-witted guard of yours figures out that I'm not coming back."

"I'll walk with you to the border, then."

"And slow my progress? No, thank you. You may not have noticed this, blind Princeling, but there are no clouds tonight. Now that you've finally been so gracious as to allow me to take off my blindfold, I can see where I'm going by moonlight and can move twice as fast as you. I suppose you had the idea of acting as my savior for several hours more? I know that you need to make yourself feel useful in some way, but you'll have to go find some blind petty to help now."

"If we meet Tascanian soldiers, I can talk us past them."

"If we meet Tascanian soldiers, I'll deal with them as I dealt with the Fossenvite soldier. I'm wearing a noble-chain, Princeling, one I'm actually entitled to. You might as well make your slow way back to the camp and figure out what story you'll offer your brother for what you've done."

The cold noble-chain bit against the back of my neck, where it was hidden by my petty collar. I pulled it off my neck and felt its weight in my hand: it was double-linked in the Tascanian style and made of gold to signify that I was royal. I stood still a moment to ascertain how far I was from the stream, and then I tossed the chain from my hand. Its splash could barely be heard above the tumble of the water.

"Why did you do that?" Firmin asked with the first note of curiosity I had heard in his voice.

"I won't need it where I'm going."

After a pause, Firmin broke the countryside stillness with his father's roar of laughter. "So you meant what you said before? You're running away to join your own kind?"

"Yes."

Firmin gave a mock sigh. "Oh, dear, the impetuosity of petties. And I suppose you are naive enough to think that I'll help you with this?"

I said nothing. The northern wind was beginning to buffet my back, testing the thickness of my petty clothes. A flicker of spray from the stream touched my hand. Faintly to the south, I could hear the sounds of the camp: shouts and laughter and sword clashes. No sounds out of the ordinary – not yet.

Firmin's voice remained light when he spoke next. "All right, Princeling – like for like. You helped me escape your brother, so I'll help you do the same. I'll take you as far as Truce Valley, since I'm going there anyway. After that, you're on your lone path, understand?"

"Yes. Thank you."

Firmin's only reply was a laugh as he pulled my hand over to his arm and turned me round to face north. As I came into contact with his side, I said, "You're wet."

"Kicking a heavy body into water will do that. It washed away most of the blood anyway, and I am now properly disguised as a bedraggled, pathetic petty. You, on the other hand— Well, I must say that you look better without your chain. You made a very unconvincing prince – you might make a decent petty."

I waited with stomach gnarled for his climactic insult to arrive, but it did not come. So dumbfounded was I by Firmin's remark that I spent a long while after that trying to rehearse in my mind the words I needed to speak next. Because of this, we were halfway to the border hills before I realized two things. One was that Firmin was shivering like a dying dog. The other was that the horns had sounded in the camp behind us.

The hunt was on.

Chapter Text

Firmin had swung round to the south at the first sound of the horns. For a moment I feared that he would abandon me and flee. But he simply asked in a cool voice, "Where will they search?"

"The stream, assuredly. That's where the hunting will be greatest, aside from the road—" I stopped, not because of Firmin's hand suddenly clamping down on my arm, but because I too had heard the hoofbeats. I tried to slow my nervous heart, telling myself that it was just an illusion that the horses were charging toward us. They were actually following the Valley Road, which was not many yards from us but which was screened by the trees.

The horses raced past us with the quickness of an execution dagger plunging down. Under their receding pounding, I said, "They're heading for the northern end of the road. Half the soldiers will block the entrance into Truce Valley; the other half will begin walking upstream, so as to keep us from escaping that way from the solders searching at the other end of the stream."

"Splendid," said Firmin with acidity. "I don't suppose that you know a safe way for us to get to Truce Valley from here."

"None that the hunters don't know. I trained them myself."

I was silent a minute, listening to the continued thunder of hooves as another storm of horsemen passed us on the road. Faintly to the southeast I could hear horsemen setting out on a little-used track that eventually wound its way around the southern feet of the hills bordering Truce Valley. There was no way now for us to reach Truce Valley before the hunters did, and I knew that hunters were being sent to the east and west as well, to prevent the fugitives from fleeing in those directions.

Firmin was very still beside me, except that he was continuing to shiver under the frigid breath of the northern wind; his wet clothes were starting to grow stiff with ice. Then he began to curse in an oddly detached manner, as though carrying out some duty that was alien to his nature.

"What is it?" I asked. "Are they headed this way?"

"Oh, yes. I can see their torches now – they're coming on foot, swiftly. And I don't like the thought of trying to make our way through this dark forest."

"We can't escape them that way. They'll hear our progress." I was finding it hard to concentrate on the danger from the hunting party. My thoughts kept drifting away to consider Firmin's shivering. I brushed my hand briefly against his and discovered that his skin, rather than being night-cold like mine, was as hot as a rock on a summer's day. I said slowly, "I know one place we can go. It's the last place that the hunters will search, and perhaps Varick will call them back before then. Have we passed a white log stretched across the stream?"

"It's just a few minutes back. Where does it lead to?"

"The King's leman's cottage."

Firmin gave a soft laugh. The nearer that the sound of the hunting party came, the lower his voice fell. "How will she feel about hiding us?"

"I don't think Varick has a leman at the moment, and if he did, he would bring her to the royal residence. He told me that he had learned a double lesson from our father and me about the importance of being well guarded when one is with a woman."

Firmin laughed again. I had expected that he would, and had braced myself for his derision beforehand. Then he said, "You didn't train your soldiers very well if you told them to check the cottage last. It sounds like a perfect hiding place."

"It is; the trouble is that it's also the perfect place to interrupt the King when he's enjoying himself with his leman. That happened during my father's reign, and my father nearly executed the entire hunting party, alderman and all. No hunting party has been eager to visit the cottage since then, even upon the King's own command."

"To the leman's cottage for us, then," said Firmin. "But I hope that it is well out of the way of the hunters, for I don't think—"

He stopped, and at the same moment, rising suddenly through the quiet like a fish breaking to the surface of a dark pool, came shouts and the sound of a horn – the hunters' horn, used to summon liege lords when the hunted is found. Firmin's grip on my arm increased.

"Are we seen?" I asked, barely daring to breathe the question.

"They're not near enough." Firmin's voice remained light. "No, at a guess, I would say that they have found the scout – a clear trail-marker as to where we have been."

"They may not attribute the death to us," I said, listening with half an ear to the low rumble of horses coming from the south. "After all, why would you kill a Fossenvite scout?"

"'Why indeed?' I ask myself now. The scout might have been of more use to me alive. As it is, the search party won't know that he's a Fossenvite. We left him— How long ago? One hour? Two?"

"His face will be gone," I said, understanding.

"His face and most of his skin. If I'd left him his boots, that might have identified him as a soldier, but by now he'll appear as nothing more than a petty villager. And of course these wretched petty clothes all look alike. No, the soldiers will assume that I met a villager, silenced him in the most effective manner, and then continued on my way – kidnapping you while I was about my business. You are becoming an exceedingly inconvenient travelling companion, Princeling."

He was continuing to shake like rock-tumbled waters. The thundering hooves were coming nearer. I said, in as even a voice as I could manage, "You go ahead to the leman's cottage. I'll meet the soldiers and lead them astray. I'll tell them that you're already beyond—"

Firmin's hand clamped down on my arm again as the beat of hooves began to slow. His fingers pressed against my bone. "Mounted torchbearers," he said softly. "The King himself has come to inspect the body."

"The cottage—"

"Not yet. You can't trick an enemy until you know how his thoughts travel – York taught me that. I'm interested in seeing how your brother commands his hunters."

The shouting had subsided now, like the diminishing calls of the dying on a battlefield. Standing still as we were, I became conscious of the winter air touching us like a cold blade. I raised my hands to my mouth and blew on them, feeling them ache as though I had been duelling for too many hours. My feet were numb, though I had retained my soldierly boots when I changed into petty clothes; the ground below my feet was beginning to grow hard with ice. I heard the whisper of the wind and felt Firmin standing shoulder to shoulder with me, shaking like a storm-troubled tree.

Breaking through the silence came a series of notes like rapid goose-cries. Firmin gave a quiet chuckle. "Did I say that you Tascanians were soft? I revise my judgment: you are spineless."

Through the dullness of my cold skin, I felt my fingernails bite into my palms, but I contented myself with saying, "The stripping fish must have done their job well. Varick must think that the petty is so long dead that we're beyond his reach now."

"And so we will be, in a short—" Firmin broke off into a fit of coughing, then smothered the sound as we heard the hoofbeat of horses returning along the road to the camp, their riders called back from the search by the horns.

I waited till they were past before saying, "Even so, it would be wise to wait in that cottage until we can be sure we're safe. An overenthusiastic soldier might decide to do some searching on his own."

"I told you, I can deal with any soldier—" Firmin's words were shattered again as he began coughing. I made no comment on this, and after a moment, Firmin said with irritation, "Well, let's get out of the wind before we hold a lengthy conversation on our escape plans. How far is this cottage?"

It was not far, in fact. We made our way back over the tangle of tree roots that hid our footprints but threatened to trip us into the stream, stepped across the fallen trunk whose top was worn level by the passage of many travellers, and then wove our way between branches and bushes until we reached a cottage whose rough wooden walls seemed a natural feature of the forest.

It was built village-style – hastily, with no attempt to fashion beauty for a structure that might be burned in the next raid – but like most village houses, it was well sealed against the winds; when Firmin opened the door, a small puff of warmth met us. I stood in the doorway, my nose tingling from the familiar smell of pinewood walls and earthen floor and dust. Firmin impatiently pushed me inside and slammed the door shut against the cutting wind.

"Your father must have had a greater capacity for bed-warming than his reputation suggested," Firmin said in an irritable voice. "He chose the coldest house in Tascania for his leman."

I took several steps forward and deliberately bumped into him. His clothes were as cold as snow. "We could start a fire."

"A smoke signal to tell your brother where we are? No, thank you."

I took several more steps forward and stubbed my toe against the bed. It was a good bed, probably the best in the kingdom: neither an army cot nor a villager's pallet for the floor, but a mattress on an actual bedframe, like the ones that used to be made in the old days. The bed must have been specially commissioned from a Partition craftsman by my great-grandfather, who first claimed this cottage, for the wood was only now beginning to grow smooth with age. Atop the feather mattress were the blankets that had been there when I last visited.

"Look," I said, "I'm not sure whether I can go any further without some rest and warmth. I didn't get any sleep last night, and I'm chilled to the bone. Surely it won't matter if we leave for the valley a few hours from now. That way, we can be sure that no hunters are lingering at the pass entrance, and I can try to stave off this cold I'm developing."

"All petties are weaklings," said Firmin, but underneath his contempt I could read the relief in his voice. "Very well, I'll coddle you for a short while. Come to think of it, I didn't get any sleep last night either, and if I know the Wolf, his manner of welcoming me home will be to make me stand on my feet for three hours, giving him my report. I don't suppose you'd be willing to assist me by telling me the timing of your army's patrols and other such matters he'll expect me to have noticed."

I made no reply. I was on my knees next to the cedarwood chest by the bed, pulling open its lid to bring out the extra blankets inside. Behind me, a rustle of cloth told me that Firmin was stripping himself of his clothes. A bit of ice from them showered onto me. This was followed by a sneeze and a prolonged series of hoarse coughs. The last cough was punctuated by a curse; then the mattress next to me shifted as Firmin slid under the blankets.

I pulled the extra blankets on top of him. His noble-chain was cold against his bare chest; above it, something tickled my hand.

"You've grown a beard," I commented.

Firmin gave a snort as he pulled the tasselled edge of the blanket away from my hand. "How can you be sure that I wasn't wearing one when we last met, Princeling? You never saw me."

"I saw you." I sank down onto the dirt ground beside the bed, suddenly weary from the killing and the chase and the continued fighting. I laid my cheek down upon the scratchy wool blanket and said softly, "You're the last thing I saw."

There was no response. Firmin's breathing was low and even, though somewhat clogged and accompanied by a whistle from his nose. I hesitantly raised my hand up, groped my way over the linen-wrapped pillow, and located his forehead. It was as hot as a forge-iron. Carefully, I pulled my hand away and went over to the chest.

One piece of cloth remained in the chest: a thin coverlet, little more than a sheet. I folded this double and curled up on the ground beside the bed, pulling the coverlet over me. There was room in the bed for two, but I could imagine what Firmin would say – and do – if he awoke to find himself sharing his sleeping space with a petty. The floor was cold and hard. For a long time I lay listening to Firmin's whistle sigh through the air like the rhythmic splash of stream-waves. Finally, the darkness of my waking was replaced by the darkness of sleep.

o—o—o

I awoke to the sound of wind howling, and birds singing, and someone vomiting.

I pulled myself from the floor with effort. I felt as though I had bruises on every inch of my skin, and my left arm was flaming anew. Nearby, the vomiting had stopped. I walked over to the side of the bed and nearly slipped on the newly thrown liquid soaking into the cottage floor.

"I think your brother poisoned me," Firmin said faintly.

"How are you feeling?" I asked, trying to place my hand on his forehead. He jerked away under my touch.

"I'm a soldier; I've felt worse," replied Firmin in a voice that belied his words. "I don't suppose this primitive hut has anything so sophisticated as a bucket."

I turned, took two steps away from the bed, and felt myself grabbed. As his fingers pinned my wrist as though they were pincers, Firmin said, "Where are you going?"

"Outside. I think there's a bucket there."

Firmin laughed softly as he released my wrist. "Have you forgotten who you are, Princeling? Petties ask permission before they leave the presence of their betters."

The blood throbbed through my wrist as though Firmin's fingers were still clamped there. I turned stiffly to face Firmin. The cottage seemed to have grown warm suddenly, and I could feel the tips of my ears burning.

Firmin gave a sharp laugh. "I suppose that you were overcome by eagerness to serve me quickly. I'll forgive you this once, if you find the bucket."

Still I stood where I was, my feet planted apart in the position I had never been able to train myself out of, since I had imitated my father in that manner since the day we first met. I tilted my head so that it was pointed down toward Firmin. The blankets rustled as Firmin shifted in position.

"Don't be so stubborn, Princeling," Firmin said lightly. "If you don't fetch the bucket, then I'll have to, and I'll probably die of pneumonia from the wind, and you'll have no one to guide you to Truce Valley. Is that reason enough for you to go?"

The wind was indeed howling like a hungry wolf; the air in the cottage stirred from the gusts creeping through the wall cracks. I said quietly, "Yes," and then turned and walked to the door, uncertain whether the horn that had just sounded the retreat had been Firmin's or mine.

As I lifted the latch of the cottage door and pressed the door back against the insistent wind, a chorus of birds thundered down upon my ears. I had heard them already from inside the cottage, but there the sound had been muffled by the window shutters holding back the cold. Here on the outside they cried out with as much vigor as men challenging each other in battle. Their sound was checked only by the howl of the wind and the hiss of the swift-rushing stream.

I found the bucket in its usual spot, next to the alder tree, and inside it the long dipper. After that, I made my way carefully through the woods until the shadow of the trees' presence ceased to brush me, and I was standing beside the water.

I stood a while with my face upturned. The air smelled crisp and cold. The shadow of clouds ran swiftly over me, turning my face colder when they passed between me and the sun. The wind was coming from the north. Faintly from the south – very faintly, for the wind was pushing the sound back – came the noise of whinnying horses and shouting men. I turned quickly and made my way back to the cottage.

I nearly missed it – the wind pushed me off course – and so I had a moment when something hard as a forge-stone weighed down my chest as I wondered whether I would be able to find the cottage again. But I made my way back inside with most of the water still quivering inside the dipper.

Firmin's comment as he took the dipper from my hands was, "You shouldn't have gone as far as the stream. You might have been seen."

"No one ever comes this way," I replied. I had placed the bucket beside the bed and was now on my hands and knees, using my handkerchief to try to clean up the worst of the earlier mess. "Varick and I used to come here to fish when we were journeymen. It's a good place to talk—"

I stopped, and Firmin gripped my shoulder in the same moment. The thud of hooves came so softly from the south that the sound might have been nothing more than a brushing of snowflakes against the snow, but both Firmin and I had been trained for defense work, and defense soldiers live for the beat of hooves: that slight tapping on the ground that says an enemy alderman and his petties are crossing the border to make a raid.

After a moment, Firmin's hand slipped from my shoulder, and I heard the hiss of a blade being unsheathed. Rumor had it that York, not trusting to his royal privilege, slept with a dagger under his pillow. It appeared that Firmin was of the same mind.

I said, "He's coming too fast. He'll pass us."

We could hear the hoofbeats clearly enough now to know that the horse was galloping over cobblestone; the paved road between the Tascanian camp and Truce Valley was one of the few in the world that was kept in good repair. Firmin waited until the horseman had passed us before sheathing his blade and saying, "A messenger, I suppose. I heard another go by earlier, coming from the north."

"York heard about your escape, I suppose?"

"We do have more than one scout in this area, Princeling." The edge of Firmin's mocking was blunted as he stopped to cough. A minute passed before he was able to say, "York was probably demanding an immediate report about me from Varick – a good way to keep Varick occupied while the hunt was on. Except, of course, that your indolent brother had given up the hunt already. I suppose that York will be wondering by now where I am. Hand me my clothes."

I remained where I was, still kneeling on the floor beside the bucket with the filthy rag in my hand. "The birds are singing. It's daylight now."

"Do tell. I figured that out by opening my eyes."

"Also, there's snow on the way. I could smell it in the air."

"All the more reason to leave now. Hand me my clothes, Princeling, before I teach you—"

His arm brushed past me, but I had already moved, snatching his clothes off of the bed. They were still cold with ice.

Firmin's virulent curses stopped abruptly. I silently handed him the bucket, then explored the air until I found his shoulder. He slapped my hand away, continued his retching, and then let the bucket fall to the floor, splattering its contents upon me. I ignored the mess and reached toward Firmin again. This time I was able to touch his burning hand briefly before he pushed me away.

"It's two miles to the border and nearly ten miles to your camp," I said. "Don't you think that it would be better to wait till nightfall before we leave?"

"Don't defy me, Princeling," Firmin replied in a dark voice.

"I'm not defying you."

"You're defying me now, and you defied me earlier. What do I have to do, carve you with my blade to show you what happens to defiant petties?"

My hand fell from the bed to the sodden mess on my breeches, which had already soaked through to my skin and was beginning to chill. Despite my best efforts, my fingers curled inward toward my palm, and my breath rasped heavy and hard under the trill of the birds.

Firmin rolled forward on the mattress and said in a low voice, "Look, Princeling, I'm just trying to help you. The first time you act that way around a noble who doesn't recognize you, you'll be killed. I'm teaching you what it's like to be a petty."

I uncurled my fingers and groped around the floor until I found my handkerchief, then began wiping the worst of the mess off of me. "Yes, I see. Thank you."

Firmin gave a sharp, high laugh like that of a crow as he flung himself back against the mattress. "Really, Princeling, you Tascanians are so gullible. Do you believe everything that you're told?"

"No," I said. "But sometimes a man may speak the truth without meaning to."

Firmin drew in his breath, then held it. My head swivelled toward the south automatically, and my hand tightened on the handkerchief.

"Horses," Firmin breathed. "Many of them. They're headed this way."

"They're on the road. Don't worry; nobody ever comes here except—"

"Except you and Varick – I remember. What kind of trap have you set for me, Princeling?" His hand closed around my collar, jerking me toward him. My belly hit the hard frame of the bed.

His other hand, I realized, must be close to his dagger. I said rapidly, "Don't be a fool. Think about it: a messenger from the north, then a messenger from the south, then horses headed toward Truce Valley. What does that tell you?"

I waited breathlessly – the collar was tight around my throat now, half-choking me – as the soldiers approached. We could hear the jingle of the horses' unmuffled bits, the steady rhythm of hooves, the growing tramp of men's feet, the murmur of voices. It wasn't the sound of a quick-moving hunting party, nor that of a silent and secretive foraging party.

"Ah," said Firmin, with relief shining clear in his voice. He released me and pushed me carelessly away from the bed. "York's work. He's keeping your army occupied in order to give me the opportunity to reach the border. What's the nearest way to the border that won't take us through the valley?"

"Around the west side of Wolf Hill – there's a track that leads to Refuge Road. But, Firmin—"

"Address me by my title, Princeling; I'm not your fellow petty. I sense a defiance coming."

"No, a statement of fact. We can't reach the track without crossing the road to the valley, and we can't cross the road till the army is past. That will take an hour or more. Why don't we rest in the meantime?"

"Do you think I'm an apprentice who needs mid-morning naps?" But Firmin's voice was languid as he spoke, and the blankets shifted next to me as he drew them higher.

I did not speak. The army had come abreast of us, and through the cracks in the shutters, through the shield of the trees, came the cry of the horns, warning some villager to clear the road quickly lest he be trampled into the mud. The King was riding just behind the heralds, and he was leading his soldiers into battle.

I listened until I could hear the horns no more, and then I turned back to Firmin, but by that point he had fallen asleep.

o—o—o

At my back was crackling flames and warmth and the biting smell of smoke; in front of me was cold wind and battle sounds and the faint bite of snowflakes on bare skin; and all through my naked body ran fear and pain and exhilaration. I was free. I still did not know what I would do with my freedom.

I leaned my head against the doorpost, feeling the wet snow flutter against the blanket wrapped over my shoulders, and listening to the cries and clashes arising faintly from the valley to the north of me. Every so often, horns would call out: the deep, arrogant bellow of the Fossenvite horns or the thin, bell-like song of the Tascanian horns. Each time, the pattern of notes would be different, and sometimes the horn call would be answered by another call, but more often it would not.

The door was pulling at my hand now, trying to escape my grasp under the pressure of the wind. I stepped further back into the cottage and used a rock to hold the door open a crack, thus allowing in news from the battlefield and allowing out smoke from the open hearth at the center of the cottage.

I found my way back to the hearth by listening to the flutter of the flames struggling against the chill breeze that was slipping into the cottage. When I had come close enough, I reached out cautiously with my cloth-wrapped right hand and located the blazing hot cauldron sitting on the iron cradle over the peat-fed fire. Sliding my hand around the lip till I reached the handle of the dipper, I cautiously pulled up a dipperful of liquid and blew on it for several seconds before sampling my cooking. The broth burned its way down my throat, but it was edible, and it gave some satisfaction to my growling stomach.

The blanket slipped from my shoulders as I leaned forward, leaving my front warm with fire-heat and my back cold with snow-wind. Hastily, I reached up and groped the air until I located the clothes I had hung on the rafter above the fire. Mine were nearly dry, and so I pulled on my rough breeches.

"Are you mad? They'll see the smoke and come looking for us!"

I was reaching forward to pull my shirt from the rafter and nearly fell into the fire as Firmin's voice unexpectedly rang out, ragged but imperious. It took me a moment to orient myself toward the sound; then I went over to the bed, trying to walk steadily and purposefully. As a result, I brought my shin hard up against the bedframe. Abandoning all pretense of honor, I knelt by the bed and said, "Everyone's in the valley. How do you feel?"

A pause ensued before Firmin said in a dragging voice, "As though you should have murdered me last night after all. Did you spread Mountain Poison over me during the night?"

"If I did, you won't die for another year or two." I put my hand up, and this time Firmin did not move as I felt his moist, baking forehead. "How is your stomach feeling? Do you want something to eat?"

"Yes," Firmin said with stoic shortness. He was struggling to raise himself to a sitting position in bed when I returned from the hearth. He made no comment as I sat down beside him on the bed, but simply took the dipper from my hand.

I leaned my naked back against the smooth, carved wood, listening with half an ear to the sounds drifting into the cottage like mist. A horn called out – several high notes – and I tensed; then I heard an answering call come from the Fossenvite horns. I waited, barely breathing, as Firmin unconcernedly sipped from the dipper.

He gave a shuddering sigh as he finally handed the dipper back to me. "Well, that probably won't stay inside me for long, the way I feel. Where did you get it from?"

"It's fish broth," I replied.

"Yes, Princeling, I do know what fish broth tastes like. What I meant was, how did you get the fish?"

I reached over and took up from the floor the cup of water I had placed by the bed several hours before. Sipping from it, I said, "I found an old fishing net Varick and I used to use."

"Ah," said Firmin, his voice suddenly dry with malicious satisfaction. "I wondered about the bandage on your hand. So it's not quite as easy to catch stripping fish as it was in the old days?"

"I got that while cleaning our clothes in the stream. Do you want to put yours on now?"

"There's no point. It's clear I'm not going to be going anywhere for a while yet. It's just as well I brought you along, Princeling; you appear to be of some use to me after all. Bring me some water."

I walked over and poured him a cupful from the pitcher I had filled earlier, taking the opportunity, while I was up, to retrieve my shirt from the rafter. As I pulled it on, Firmin asked, "What's that other bandage for?"

"Arm wound," I said briefly.

"Oh, yes." The bright maliciousness returned. "York wrote his name in your flesh, didn't he? He told me he was going to do that. Is that why you're wearing petty clothes? I thought it was because you had decided to run away."

"No, I made my decision to leave after last night's council meeting, and I went straight from that to you." I barely attended to what I was saying as I tied the knots in my shirt. I was trying to calculate in my mind how long the battlefield duel had been going on, and whose turn it was to attack.

As though reading my thoughts, Firmin said, "It's quiet in the valley right now."

"Granville challenged Marlin." I sat down beside Firmin again as I handed him his water. His arm brushed against mine as he took the cup; I could feel that his muscles were relaxed.

His voice was also at ease as he said, "Well, just as long as Marlin doesn't attack York again—"

Water spilled on my newly dried breeches. It came from Firmin's cup, which he had jerked suddenly as a deep, single note rang from the Fossenvite horns: it was the royal herald. For several strained moments, I held my breath. Then an answering challenge came from the Tascanian horns.

Slowly, deliberately, Firmin raised the cup to his lips. I could feel the shifting of his arm, and I could also feel that his muscles were now hard with tension. We both sat without speaking, listening to the silence belling out of Truce Valley as the two armies of the world stopped fighting in order to watch Firmin's father duel my brother.

For several lifetimes, it seemed, we both sat as motionless as two corpses on the field, while the bitter smoke choked the air, and the wind screamed through the doorway, and the fire slowly gave up its struggle to stay alive. Then came a single note, repeated over and over and over. And with it came the renewed sound of shouting, this time in the form of orders given by princes and aldermen.

Firmin had relaxed from the moment that the first note blew; it was the Tascanian horns that had called the retreat. He said with mild curiosity, "I wonder whether it was a wounding or a disarming."

"It hardly matters," I said as I collected the cup from his hand. I tried to match the lightness of his tone with my own. "It's your victory in any case."

"Not necessarily," Firmin replied. "We had to pay a heavy compensation during this battle because we killed too many of your aldermen in the last battle. If York only disarmed Varick, you still may have won."

"It hardly matters," I repeated as I knelt by the fire and began to fling ground-dirt on the last toiling flames.

"You're not interested in who won the battle?"

"Not really."

The bucket screeched on the floor as Firmin dragged it closer to him. In a voice that sounded as though he were struggling to retain his normal tone, he said, "Dear me, Princeling, you're beginning to talk more and more like a petty, and not even like a petty soldier. It's just as well that our paths will part at the border. You'll undoubtedly make a boring travelling companion from this point on."

I opened my mouth, then carefully closed it again. Behind me, the sound of retching had begun once more. I went over to the door, closed it against the knife edge of the wind, and went over to hold Firmin's head as the royal noble choked out the last of his fish broth.

o—o—o

Five days later, I sat on the ground next to the cold hearthstone, playing King or Commander with the gold from my belt-purse.

Spread on the ground next to me were the ashes of the last fire I had lit, two days before, when Firmin's fever had been at its worst and he had been too ill to argue with me. Since then his fever had broken and the weather had turned warm. The cottage floor was wet with mud from the melting snow that had dripped under the door. I was sitting cross-legged, with my mud-caked boots standing like sentinels beside me, as I twisted the coin in my hand.

It spun away from me, chiming as it hit the rough cracks in the stones that composed the hearth, finally finishing its dance with a rapid peal. I felt my way past the neat stack of gold coins in front of me and found the coin I had twisted, at the far end of the upraised hearth, hanging perilously over the edge like the head of a condemned petty who had been granted the mercy of the chopping block. I felt the top of the ridges on the upturned face of the coin. Under my exploring fingers was the figure of a blade, representing the Commander's sword or dagger.

Not liking the answer I had received, I picked up the gold and gave it a second twist. This time the coin landed with a sighing thud on the floor, and I had to grope amidst the flaky ashes till I found it again. On its face was a circle representing the ring or noble-chain of the King.

I struggled with myself for a moment, then gave in to my conscience, and spun the coin a third time to decide the matter. The coin twisted away from me eagerly, as though longing to free itself from my hands, and I heard it land again on the hearth. I had no opportunity, though, to discover whether it had landed King or Commander. At the moment that its chiming stopped, the cold edge of a blade touched my throat, and a voice said lightly, "Thank for your gentle care of me during the past few days, Princeling. Now will you kindly explain why you're carrying enough gold to buy supplies from the Partition for three years?"

My hand was still outstretched. I set it slowly and carefully on the hearth before saying, "It's my own money."

"I know it's your money; only a royal noble would possess that much gold. I also know that this isn't the sort of money you would carry around with you routinely. You told me that you went immediately to my cell after you decided to run away – and like a fool I believed you. Is this part of a plot you and Varick planned together, or are you acting on your own initiative?"

His blade pressed closer against my windpipe as he calmly reached the end of his recital. I resisted the impulse to swallow – it didn't seem wise to make any strong movements in my throat – and instead said, "You try to be like York, don't you?"

After a moment, the blade withdrew, but I could still feel Firmin's body pressed against my back as he knelt behind me and pinned me to his chest with his free arm. "I am like York, Princeling – I would have thought you'd have realized that by now. What brings this unoriginal observation to your mind?"

"Because I've never known York to trust anyone, not even his kin. I suppose that if you spend your life tricking people, you reach the point where you're sure that everyone is devoting their lives to tricking you. It's the only thing that has ever made me feel sorry for York."

I waited, feeling the sweat trickle down my face in the chill room. The blade touched my throat again. "When I'm in a philosophical mood, I'll consider what you said," Firmin said coolly. "Right now, I wish you to answer my question."

"I'll tell you if you take that dagger away. You're making me nervous."

I tried to speak in a composed manner, but my voice must have betrayed me, for Firmin gave a low chuckle. After a moment, he withdrew the blade, and this time he released me. His body whispered along the ground as he pulled himself over to the side of the hearth.

"It's not as though you can escape, I suppose," he said. "What's the gold for?"

I raised my hand slowly and deliberately – I still didn't wish to make any quick movements – in order to wipe the moisture from my forehead before Firmin noticed it. "I was going to offer it to Varick as compensation."

After a moment's pause, Firmin hooted with laughter. "For your own blinding?"

"It might have worked. I knew that one of the reasons Varick wanted to blind you was to retain our honor in the sight of the Fossenvites. I thought that if I gave him the money in secret, he could swear in public that he had received compensation from a noble. Everyone would assume that he meant a Fossenvite noble, of course. You wouldn't be blinded, our honor would be saved, and Varick would have the added pleasure of watching York go mad trying to figure out which of his nobles had paid the compensation."

"But it didn't work."

"I didn't have the chance to offer the money. Varick got angry at the meeting and swore that he'd blind you."

"Kings' oaths are troublesome that way." Firmin's voice was just as light as before, but I heard the hiss of metal as he sheathed his dagger. The coins clinked as he reached over to finger them. "What were you doing – figuring out how many years you could survive on this without working?"

"I was playing King or Commander to figure out which route we should take to the Partition."

This time Firmin's silence was longer. Through the half-opened door I could hear clearly the softening call of evening birds and the weary sigh of the wind; the camp to the south of us had been abnormally quiet for several days. Then Firmin said in a voice so bright and unsurprised that I knew it had been deliberately forced, "So you've decided to become a refuge-walker after all? Well, I suppose it's the one place where your brother won't be able to find you. But what is this nonsense about 'we'? Why should I want to visit the Petty Partition?"

"I thought you might want some time away from the Wolf of Fossenvita."

I held my breath in the moment after I spoke, then felt my breath knocked out of me as my head hit the floor. Ashes floated onto my face, Firmin's hand and knees pressed me against the floor, and his blade touched my heart as he said with quiet hardness, "I can call York anything I want, Princeling – that's my privilege. But if you insult York again, you'll taste blood in your mouth. Understand?"

"Yes," I said breathlessly. "I'm sorry."

Firmin's hand and knees and dagger slowly drew away. After another minute, I picked myself up and brushed the ashes off of my cheeks and nose and mouth and out of the hollows below my forehead. Firmin was silent all the while; he was scraping his blade against the hearthstone as though whetting it. Finally he said, "You know, York wanted to send me to the Partition once as a scout."

I paused from wiping my hair clean. "His heir's heir? A scout?"

"His heir's heir's heir – this was several years back. Almost no one had seen me at that point; York always kept me hidden away. I don't know why I speak in the past tense. He still does. York trained me in private, so I didn't do proper journeyman work. I've only ever spoken to the princes and to my raiding party, and my face isn't memorable. York thought I'd be the perfect scout – nobody would recognize me as a noble, and I could bring back information about the Partition."

"But he didn't send you."

"No, this was when you were King, and York became more worried about losing the final victory to Tascania than about what the Partitioners were doing. But now . . . It might be amusing, you know, to go missing for a few months and have everyone wonder where I am. Then I could turn up suddenly with the information York wanted. And you would be my way into the Partition. The Partitioners might not believe I'm a petty, but they'd know that you are, and you could vouch for me. Yes, I like your idea, Princeling. What's the best route to the Partition?"

"I thought of taking the Refuge Road," I said. I nearly stammered my reply, so stunned was I by the ease of the victory I had won in a battle I had been planning all week. "Even if Varick thought to search for me there, he would expect me to be further ahead on my journey than I am. It's the straightest route to the Partition, and the safest."

"Safest for you, perhaps. I don't have any need to take the neutral border route, though – I'd rather go by the Fossenvite roads."

"I'm not crossing the border."

Firmin gave a short laugh. He had stopped playing with his dagger and was now idly spinning the coins. The gold sang across the hearthstone like a sword ringing in battle. "What's the matter, Princeling? Don't you trust me?"

"I trust you. I don't trust York. He wants me as his hostage too badly."

"That's your problem, Princeling. We go by way of Fossenvita."

"No."

My voice was quiet and flat. The last of the singing coins came to rest, and no more travelled forward. I wondered whether Firmin was reaching again for his blade. Then he said, "King or Commander?"

I released my breath slowly. "King."

The coin sang out from his twist. I followed its progress with my ear and had my hand ready when at last it sank to its death. I touched the face: under my fingers was the circle.

"King it is," said Firmin. "Well, it's of no great importance, but I hope this conversation isn't a shadow of our upcoming journey. I warn you, Princeling: If you keep making yourself difficult, I'll simply shove you off the side of the road and leave you to make the rest of the journey on your own. And I won't care which side of the border you find yourself on."

I reached forward and began gathering the coins into the purse I had laid aside. As I scraped the cold metal along the colder hearthstone, Firmin asked, "Aren't you worried by what I just said, Princeling?"

"Not particularly," I said, willing my heartbeat not to reveal the falsehood of my words. "If you wanted to betray me to York, you could have done so long before this."

"Oh, yes," said Firmin with a smile in his voice. "But then it wouldn't have been amusing, you see – it would have been too simple a betrayal. That was the first lesson York taught me: betrayals must be amusing. I'll have to think of a good one for you."

And his laughter rang in the air like the singing of the King's coins.

Chapter Text

Refuge Road was the oldest high way in the world, marking as it did the boundary between the ancient kingdoms of Tascania and Fossenvita. Like Truce Valley, it was neutral territory, and by custom it was treated as an extension of the Petty Partition: any petty walking on the road was supposed to be free from interference by nobles. In reality, of course, hunting parties always searched the road when a petty committed a grave crime against nobles, but during the rest of the year the road served as the quickest route to the Partition. On it could be found traders, rule-breaking petties, or petties who were simply weary of the war and desperate enough to seek refuge in the death-laden Partition.

The track that Firmin and I followed the next day would eventually end at Refuge Road. First, though, the track wound its way aimlessly through forests and meadows and past a single village clung to by petties too foolish to move from homes located in ideal raiding territory. It took considerable amounts of discussion, and another twist of a coin, before I was able to persuade Firmin that we should stop at this village for the supplies we would need for our journey.

"You're not likely to be recognized there," I said as we trudged our way up the narrow track in the early dawn.

"No, but you are," said Firmin, brushing aside branches, then allowing them to fling back against me. "You haven't been hidden from public view the way I have."

"I've never been to this village – I only know about it because I had to memorize the geography of Marlin's princedom when I was a journeyman. I doubt that the descriptions of me which circulate amongst villagers are accurate enough to identify me."

"Your voice will reveal you. Blades of wood, Princeling, even ignorant petties know what you and Varick sound like. I've heard my own petties do imitations of you."

"So I'll let you do all the talking." I ducked my head automatically to avoid a thick branch I was about to walk into. I felt Firmin shift beside me as I did so, but he asked no questions. He had received night patrol training, and no doubt he knew as well as I did what a blind man could sense.

"That would be revealing in itself."

"Firmin, the villagers are going to know—"

"Call me 'prince.' Or 'my lord prince,' since you're following me these days."

I ignored his caustic interruption. "It's going to be obvious to the villagers that we're refuge-walkers. It doesn't matter – it's unlikely they'll break the petty code. Petties who aren't soldiers rarely do."

"Petty code? What is that?"

It took me a moment to reply. I was trying to still the feeling of growing panic in me as we left the boundaries of my old patrolling area and entered into territory in which I had not the least idea where I was going. My unease was increased by the fact that Firmin pulled me impatiently along the path at his own rapid pace, leaving me to stumble over roots and embedded rock and fallen branches. Even Selig's guidance had never plummeted me this deep into miserable helplessness.

"You really don't know what the petty code is?" I said. Firmin's muscles grew hard under my hand, and I quickly added, "It's the custom that has developed among petties of never revealing facts to nobles which would put another petty in danger."

"Oh, yes, of course – you mean the petties' stubbornness when they're being tormented for information. I didn't know that they ennobled their famed obstinacy with a name; I thought they just liked to prevent nobles from finding murderers and other such rule-breakers. But, of course, you no longer care whether a certain murderer is found, do you, Princeling? You'd probably consider such a man your loving companion in refuge if you ever met him."

"No," I said with such brevity that Firmin cut his laughter short. We proceeded the rest of the way in silence.

We encountered no other travellers on the way – nor the hunting parties we feared – and so we reached the village at late morning. It was located in a clearing filled with saplings that nobody had bothered to cut down. At one point, I stumbled over the out-flung walls of a house which had been destroyed in a previous raid and which no one had rebuilt or even cleared away. No doubt a village in this location often found itself short of able-bodied men, and indeed the women and children far outnumbered the men. Weariness hung in the voices of the villagers we spoke with.

The villagers greeted us courteously, though there was a sudden questioning stillness when Firmin brought out the King's coins that were generally used only by nobles, Partitioners, or the petties in the western princedoms who harvested crops for the rest of the world. Firmin had taken charge of the purse from the start of the trip, pointing out reasonably that he had the dagger with which to protect our money. Once in the village, he proceeded into such a fiery and protracted negotiation for supplies that it was evening before we had settled the deal. We were therefore forced to accept the villagers' hospitality for the night. It did not take much intelligence for me to realize that Firmin had prolonged his negotiations for precisely that reason.

Mealtime in the village turned out to be a communal affair, held in the largest house of the village, the only dwelling that smelled fresh and well-kept. The owner of the house was a middle-aged woman by the name of Dorcas, who served us our meals herself. I could not discern the reason for her relative wealth until, as she was taking back my empty gruel bowl, I felt my hand touch something cold at her wrist.

I leaned over and murmured into Firmin's ear. He laughed in response and explained to Dorcas, "My companion noticed your wrist-chain and is wondering who the owner of your property is."

Dorcas, who had turned aside to instruct the children scampering around the house to play outside, gave an embarrassed laugh before saying, "I must admit that Prince Marlin is kind enough to care for me and our children. We have been together now for thirty years."

She ended on a note of quiet pride, as well she might. Firmin was suddenly choking on his water. I pounded his back, and after a moment he got his breath back enough to say, "Swords and daggers, that is certainly an accomplishment. And you say that you have children together – any sons?"

"Three sons, two of them acknowledged. My lord prince asked King Reynard whether he could make our youngest son his heir's heir's heir, but Reynard wouldn't allow it. In fact . . ." Dorcas hesitated, as though unsure whether she should reveal more of her tale to strangers, then was apparently reassured enough by our watchful silence to say, "In fact, he even asked Reynard whether he could marry me. The King said no, of course, but Marlin said that it didn't matter in any case. He tells me that I'm the wife of his heart."

For the first time since I had met him, Firmin was rendered speechless. I took the cup and bowl from his hands and handed them with a smile to Dorcas, who laughed in understanding before leaving with our dishes in hand.

Firmin was already tugging at my sleeve. I got up, and we pushed our way past the close-jammed bodies of the villagers who had completed their meals and were now debating, with a remarkable lack of interest, whether life for them would be better or worse if York were their King. Then we were outside in the evening coolness, surrounded by the silence of the deserted village streets.

"Did you know about this before we arrived here?" Firmin demanded in a low voice as he pulled me along. "Is that why you chose this village?"

"Why would I pick a village where a prince's leman lived? I didn't even know that Marlin had a leman."

"He has kept her for thirty years, and you didn't know that your right-hand prince had a leman? Tell me a more believable tale."

"Well, we never talked about each other's love lives," I said, trying to ease my elbow out of Firmin's bone-binding grasp. "Marlin does have a reputation for spending a lot of time in his villages, but he doesn't neglect his duties. I've met his heirs, of course, and they never so much as hinted that they were full brothers."

"Well, they wouldn't, would they?" said Firmin, finally allowing me to slip free as we reached the edge of the forest. "That their father would keep a leman for so long is shocking enough. I wonder whether Marlin told Reynard the full story."

"I doubt it – I'm sure my father would have forbidden Marlin from keeping her any longer if he'd known. Marlin is essentially breaking the rule against noble marriages."

"Oh, yes – 'the wife of my heart.'" Firmin's voice, as he spoke Marlin's words, was mocking. "I'll have to remember to use that line on my next leman."

We had entered the forest by now. I could feel the shadows of the trees as we passed them, rigid like upright tent-stakes in a summer camp. I waited until my hand was brushing the broad trunk of a tree beside me; then I grabbed Firmin by his shirt and thrust him against the tree.

He made no attempt to resist me; the only movement came from his hand, which rose to his belt. It was this as much as his silence that alerted me to what I had done. I released him immediately and stood where I was, feeling my rank bind me as though I were Firmin's prisoner.

After a moment, he said softly, "I hate to kill too many petties in one week, Princeling, so I'll treat that as a momentary lapse in memory. Just be sure to remember in the future which of us wears the noble-chain."

"I'll remember."

My reply, hollow and precise, was followed by a silence broken only by the muffled sound of children shouting at each other nearby. I could feel Firmin's body close to mine, and I wondered whether his hand was still on his dagger hilt. Finally he replied, "You say that as though, the next time I insult a friend of yours, you'll slip a blade through my heart rather than give me the opportunity to invoke the Second Rule. Well, I'll remember that too." He brushed past me, and I heard the sound of his rapid retreat toward the village. I remained where I was, surrounded by darkness and silence.

An evening breeze touched my face like a raid-woman's hand, bringing me back into awareness of my surroundings some time later. I was somewhere in the forest surrounding the village, but I did not know which way to turn. I strained to hear voices from the house we had just left, but the villagers had been speaking in soft, exhausted voices that did not carry this far. At last, I turned and began making my way toward the children's voices I had heard.

There were two of them, a boy and a girl. The boy sounded as though he was about Garrick's age; I had a harder time judging the age of the girl, for I had not heard any girls' voices since I was a child, except when they were upraised in screams. This girl's voice was raised, not in fear but in anger, and as I came near to where the children were quarrelling, she cut sharply into the boy's words, like a blade entering into bone.

"He's never going to come for you," she said flatly. "You ought to know that by now. You're too old, and besides, he already has two heirs."

"Princes can take three heirs if the King gives them permission." The boy sounded close to tears. "And I'm not too old – Prince Firmin was the same age as me when he was acknowledged."

"But you're just a raid-child – he wouldn't be interested in a raid-child."

"He'll be interested in me if he remembers my mother, and I know he must remember her. She was the most beautiful woman in the world. He has just been too busy to cross the border – otherwise he would have come for me before this. You'll see."

He ended on a defiant, wavering note. The girl was silent a moment; then she shouted in words that awoke the rooks in the trees above and sent them scattering, "He's not going to come! You should accept it, like I've accepted it!"

There was another pause before the boy said awkwardly, "That's different."

"No, it isn't." The girl's voice was muffled now. "My father's never going to come for me, and I know it. You should stop making up these stories and accept what your life is really like. You'll always be a petty."

The boy said something under his breath, and a crack sliced through the air as he hit something with a branch. A second crack came, and a third, and presently I realized that the girl had left the boy alone with his misery.

I took a step forward and was brought up short by a bush. The boy's breath travelled swiftly inward at the noise of rustling. Then he apparently sighted me, for he said, "Oh! Good evening, pettyman."

"Good evening," I replied, disentangling myself from the bush. "I seem to have gone astray and have been wandering in endless circles trying to find my way back to the village. I don't suppose that there's a log near you where I could rest for a moment."

"Yes, of course. There's one right here." The boy's polite voice had turned solicitous. His hand slipped into mine, and he guided me across a clearing to where a lichen-covered tree trunk lay. The wood crumbled beneath my hands as I eased myself down, leaving damp wood-dust on my fingers. The ground beneath my boots was soft with melted snow.

The boy sat down beside me, and we remained in companionable silence for a while before I asked, "What's your name?"

"Petty," he replied. Then, swiftly: "I won't ask your name. We're not supposed to ask refuge-walkers their names. In fact, Dorcas told us . . ."

He hesitated, and I said, "Is Dorcas your mother?"

"No, my mother's dead. Dorcas takes care of me – she takes in children who need homes. She told us that we shouldn't speak to you because you were keeping your voice hooded."

"Indeed I am," I said. "It's a voice that's easy to remember, as you can tell. But you won't give away my secret, will you?"

"Of course not," replied Petty with a touch of pride. "Everyone in the village keeps the petty code, even Dorcas. Anyway, Prince Marlin never asks her to break it."

"Have you ever had a chance to speak with Prince Marlin?"

"Oh, yes; he visits here a lot. He gave me a sword for my birthday last spring – a real blade – and he takes me with him sometimes when he goes to visit the other villages. He taught me how to ride a horse, just in case—"

He stopped abruptly, and I heard him swallow. He had been swishing the stick in the air, his arm brushing against mine, but now he lowered the stick, and I felt the jarring along his arm as he began to poke the end of the stick against the mud underneath us. I said, "Dorcas told me that Prince Marlin had acknowledged two of their sons. I hadn't realized that he could do that. But, then, I suppose I'm not very clear on how nobles acknowledge their sons."

Petty's arm grew still. "But I would have thought you'd know. I mean, you were a soldier—"

I filled his sudden silence by saying easily, "My boots give that away, I suppose. But you see, petty soldiers don't receive any formal training in the Rules of War. They just gradually learn the parts that apply to them."

"Oh, I see." Petty began to cut through the air again. Now he was moving the stick forward as well as back and forth, thrusting and guarding against an invisible opponent. "Well, it's rather complicated, actually. You see, a noble isn't allowed to marry except with special permission from the King, because he needs to devote all his time to protecting the petties. If he was married, he might make war decisions based on what would benefit his family rather than on what would be best for all the petties of his princedom. But of course a noble needs a boy to inherit his title."

"I see." I linked my hands around one knee and drew my leg up toward me, resting my mud-soaked boot against the curve of the log. With the boot came the smell of damp earth and leaves, which mingled with the scent of smoke drifting into the forest from the village. "But if a noble never marries, how does he find a boy to take his title?"

Petty began to speak, stopped himself, and then said carefully, "Usually he goes to one of his lemans. A noble is allowed to take a leman when he isn't busy raiding, you see, and so he goes to a leman who has had a son by him, and he decides whether the boy would make a good noble. Or if the noble doesn't have a son, he might take a boy who is another noble's son. And sometimes . . ." Petty struggled with himself once more, then allowed truth to be the victor as he said, "On very rare occasions, if a noble really enjoyed a woman he took in a raid, he might go back to her village and see whether she'd given birth to his son."

"Ah." The dampness of the log was beginning to seep through my clothing, and the wind had turned as cold as a corpse, but I remained where I was, saying, "So that's how he acknowledges his son?"

"Yes, but first he takes the boy to his liege lord, and he says, 'Sire—' That is, if the noble is a prince, he takes his son to the King and says, 'Sire, I acknowledge this boy as the son of my flesh, and I ask that he be made heir to my title.' Or if the boy is someone else's son, the noble will call him 'the son of my spirit.' And if the noble has already taken a boy before this time, he'll ask that his younger son be made heir to his heir until the older son has chosen his own heir. And sometimes . . ." Petty struggled with his conscience once more before saying, "On very rare occasions, if he's a King or a prince, a noble might take an heir to his heir to his heir, just in case one of his heirs dies by accident."

"Yes, I see." I pulled my other leg up toward my body, trying to shield myself against the wind's cold, stinging palm. Above us, the day birds had fallen asleep; only one lone snow owl called out his mournful presence. "That helps me to understand. So I suppose that all of the boys who live in the camp barracks are the acknowledged sons of nobles."

"But they don't live there all the time," Petty said eagerly. "Only while they're apprentices. Usually, a noble acknowledges a boy when he's five or six – though he could be older – and then the boy goes and lives in the apprentice barracks year-round until he's ten. And then he becomes a journeyman and learns during the summers how to raid or how to defend against raiders. If he's the son of a prince or a King, he learns defense work. He patrols the border and tries to detect raiding parties crossing the border, and he helps capture or kill the raiders so that they don't harm the petty villagers. That's what being a noble means: you protect the petties."

I drew in my breath, but Petty had reached the climax of his dream, and I could no more stop him now than a liege alderman could stop a King intent on blood.

"And when he reaches journeyman age, he's old enough to inherit a title," Petty said. "So then he wears a noble-chain – if he's a prince's son he wears a silver and gold chain, silver because that's the metal that princes wear and gold to show that he's under the special protection of the King. So no one can attack you after that except a King or a prince or one of their heirs, and if anyone attacks you, your King will defend you. And even if you're not the prince's first heir, you'll be a noble all your life, because if your older brother takes a boy as his heir, the King will give you the title of any alderman who dies without naming an heir. So you'll be safe for the rest of your life, and you can spend your entire life helping the petties who are under your protection."

Petty had finished his speech with such rapidity that for the minute following he could do nothing except pant. I remained as I was, with my legs tight against my chest and my head bowed over them, teetering precariously on the round surface of the log. Nearby, a fluttering sound was followed by a scream from some small animal as the owl made its kill.

I deliberately loosened my hands, stretched out my cramped legs, and said, "Let me see if I understand. If you're a prince's son, your liege lord is your father's King – I suppose that means that, if you're a Tascanian raid-child, your liege lord becomes King York, and you fight against the Tascanian soldiers."

"Well, yes." Petty's voice was barely raised above the murmur of the wind. "But you still protect petties. You protect the Fossenvite petties against raiders."

"That's what I don't understand. You said that a prince's son does defense work. But surely even Kings and princes and their heirs do raids on occasion – isn't that how Prince Corbin was taken hostage? And if that's the case, then a prince's son who was a raid-child would have to attack the petties of his own birth-kingdom. He might even end up punishing the petties in his own birth-village."

A dead leaf shaken loose by the wind brushed past my cheek. I caught it with one hand, and it crumbled at my touch, turning to dust and scattering in the wind. Petty was still now, his hand no longer swinging the stick back and forth.

"But—" He stopped, suddenly thrust the stick away from him, and said in a wavering voice, "Prince Ridley is my father, and I thought that if I became a noble like him, I could defend the pettywomen under my protection so that none of them would be hurt by raiders like my mother was hurt."

I was silent, not only because I had no reply for him, but also because I was meditating for the first time on the irony of a world where a boy's greatest hope lay in being acknowledged by the man who had raped his mother. Beside me, Petty gave a small sigh and then was silent and motionless again.

"There's another way you could protect them."

Petty and I jerked round in unison as the voice spoke. From behind us, the eavesdropper said, "You could become a petty soldier and request defense duties. More soldiers want to be raiders than want defense work, so you'd probably be granted your request. Then you could defend the petties in this princedom."

"Do you think so?" Petty was cautious in response to Firmin's suggestion. No doubt he had encountered many lost hopes in his life already.

"It would depend on your bladesmanship," Firmin replied in a cool voice as he came over to stand by us. "You say that Prince Marlin taught you to ride – did he also teach you how to duel?"

"Only petty-style."

"That's good enough for a petty soldier. Show me what you can do."

The log rocked as Petty stood up. "I don't have my sword here."

"Neither do I. Show me with your stick."

Petty's shoes squished through the mud, and for a moment more I heard nothing except the wind weaving its way through the dead winter branches and voices coming from the direction of the village. Then a stick cracked against another as the duel began.

I stayed where I was, off the battlefield, trying futilely to tell from the sound of the sticks how the duel was progressing. The only sound I could interpret was the quickness of the stick-clashes – these came far more rapidly than I had ever been taught to fight. Mud splattered onto me as the duellers came near me, and I drew my feet back onto the log. Then there was a sudden silence.

In a carefully neutral voice, Firmin said, "Well, you're good enough to disarm me, anyway. I imagine that you'd have a fair chance of being accepted into one of Marlin's units."

Petty said, "It wasn't a fair fight, really – you kept holding back from attacking me."

"Did I? Well, don't imitate me if you want to live long as a petty soldier." As Firmin finished speaking, he took hold of my elbow and pulled me peremptorily to my feet. I began to slip in the mud, but Petty was at my other side, and he grabbed hold of me.

The boy said, "That last move you did, the slow curve inwards . . ."

Firmin's fingers tightened on my arm, but he replied calmly, "The royal thrust. That's a King's move – I only added that to show you the difference between royal-style duelling and petty-style."

"Could you show me that again?"

"Perhaps, if you'll do one thing for me."

"What?" said Petty, again cautious.

"Don't tell anyone what my companion's voice sounds like."

Petty's hand had remained on my other arm, holding me steady. Now it slipped away as he said quietly, "I already told your friend that I wouldn't."

"I heard you, but I thought that you ought to have a reward for your silence – otherwise, you might forget your promise. Do I have your word?"

Petty did not reply immediately. The voices in the village were growing louder, breaking through the winter stillness like sunlight breaking through dark clouds. Petty's voice, though, was as stiff and lifeless as the log we had been sitting on as he said, "I don't think I want you to show me that move after all, pettyman."

Firmin's breath drew swiftly in, and he let go of my arm. Grabbing Firmin's hand before it could reach his dagger, I said to the boy, "I apologize for my friend's behavior. He has been around nobles for so long that he has come to believe that petties have no honor."

"I don't need a bribe to keep silent."

"I know that. Now my friend knows that as well, don't you?"

My question was purely for form's sake; I had already felt Firmin's hand relax under mine as Petty spoke. He said, with a certain dark courtesy that pulled me into the chill of memory, "Yes, indeed. I imagine that being a prince's son has brought some honor into your blood. I think that it would be appropriate if I taught you the royal thrust after all."

"No, thank you," Petty replied with cool politeness. He was already beginning to step away. As he did so, a voice rang out from nearby.

"Petty, come quick! Nial is back!" The words came from the girl who had argued with Petty before. So dramatic was this announcement that Petty took barely enough time out to mumble a short farewell to us before he began flying toward the village, his feet thudding softly on the ground as though he were a charging colt.

I waited until Petty's footsteps had faded into the distance, and then, to save myself from a more dangerous discussion of my behavior, I asked, "Where did you learn how to fight like a petty?"

"Guard your mouth, Princeling." Firmin shoved my hand onto his arm and began pulling me forward at his usual rapid pace.

"Like an alderman, then."

"I was the heir's heir's heir when I became a soldier. It seemed unlikely that I would inherit the royal ring, so I was trained as an alderman until Guilford died."

This was the most civil response I had ever received from Firmin, and it caused me to wonder what was on his mind. We were weaving our pathless way through the trees, scraping against underbrush and moss-covered trunks as we travelled over the cold, sludgy ground of the forest. I could hear more clearly now the voices: they sounded excited, enlivened, like a hearth-fire that has been newly stirred.

Firmin said, "Well, I nearly caused trouble back there, didn't I? Who would have thought that a petty boy would be so concerned with his honor?"

"He won't tell," I said. "Anybody could have seen that, even—"

I stopped abruptly as we passed out of the shadow of the trees. Firmin said with dangerous lightness, "'Even a blind man' – that's how the phrase finishes. What are you trying to say about me, Princeling?"

It was not a question I wanted to answer, at least not yet. Fortunately, I was saved from a reply as Firmin tensed beneath my hand. "Here comes our visitor," he said. "He must be the local hero – everyone appears eager to greet him."

"It isn't Marlin, is it?" I murmured.

"No, it's a petty. I can't quite see— Blades of wood."

Firmin cursed softly under his breath for a moment as my chest tightened. He cut off his curses to say, "It's no good – he's seen us. We'll have to brazen this out."

"Who is it?" I asked.

"One of your soldiers."

o—o—o

Petty clothes and a week-old beard are an effective disguise for a former King – or so I concluded that evening after being introduced to the petty soldier. Nial was about my age, and though I did not recognize his name or voice, our paths had undoubtedly crossed on many occasions since I took the royal ring. Yet he greeted Firmin and me with civil indifference, being more interested, it seemed, in Petty's latest addition to his knowledge of blade moves. Petty was careful not to mention where he had learned the royal thrust.

It was taken for granted by the villagers that we would be eager to hear Nial's account of why he had arrived home with his blade-arm in bandages. We were accordingly placed at the front of the group that gathered next to the hearth-fire in Dorcas's home to listen to the tale. Near us were the village children, though only three were bold enough to sit in the front row beside us: Petty, the girl he had been speaking with earlier, and a soft-spoken older girl who was apparently sister to the younger girl.

Nial, ignoring the adults who were seated on benches around the edge of the room, appeared more anxious to explain the Rules of War to his youngest audience than to give an account of his own battle-bravery.

"You can only duel one man at a time, you see," he told the children. "Your alderman gives you the orders beforehand of which unit you're to attack, and after that it's up to you to kill as many enemy petties as you can before you're wounded out of the battle. But at this battle, I was nearly wounded out of life altogether."

He stopped to allow time for the sympathetic groans from the surrounding audience. I had my head bowed as though I was staring at the floor. Beside me, I could feel that Firmin was sitting pole-straight, intent on all the details.

"It wasn't a bad cut, but it was on my blade-arm," said Nial. "Ordinarily, if I'm wounded, I retreat off the battlefield. It's better to retreat when you're wounded than risk being killed and added as a payment to our King's debt. I'd lost my sword, though, when the Fossenvite petty wounded me, and I had no room behind me to retreat. The Fossenvite petty was raising his sword again, and I was just thinking, 'Well, here's where I fulfill my oath of allegiance,' when suddenly I hear a shout, and up rides Hazen, charging to my rescue."

"How does an alderman decide which of his petties to defend?" Petty asked. "There are dozens of you duelling – it must be hard for him to choose between all of you."

"It's partly due to the battle plan our prince gives him, and partly due to how valuable the alderman thinks you are, and mainly due to luck. If you get in trouble while your alderman's looking the other way, you could be the most valuable petty on the field and it wouldn't make any difference. You'd still be fodder for the rooks. Well, the Fossenvite petty turns a nice shade of grey – can't blame him for that – and starts looking back to see if he has room to retreat, but he's trapped like I was. So I think, 'At least I'm not going to be the one to die today.'"

"I don't understand," said the younger girl. "If the Fossenvite petty wasn't wounded, why couldn't he just fight the alderman?"

There was a collective groan from all the children present, and the adults clucked their tongues. Nial said patiently, "You can't fight someone above your rank, sweetheart."

"I know that. What I mean is, Why aren't you allowed to?"

"It's just not allowed – the Second Rule forbids it. Kings can fight Kings and princes and aldermen and petties, princes can fight princes and aldermen and petties, and so on, down the line. Petties can only fight petties. The most you can do if someone higher in honor attacks you is try to guard yourself against his thrusts, but even that is risky. Look what happened when our lord prince tried to defend himself against King York last month."

For a moment, I felt Firmin's body vibrating in what might have been silent laughter. He sobered himself, though, and said briskly, "So your alderman killed the Fossenvite petty and escorted you off the battlefield?"

"Oh, no – I wish it had been that easy. My lord Hazen had only just reined to a halt and was raising his sword over the Fossenvite petty's head when his alderman came galloping up, shouting a challenge."

Once more, he had to pause, this time to accommodate the admiring groans that arose from his audience. Petty, apparently anxious that the less knowledgeable children should understand, said, "So then the aldermen duelled each other to decide whether you would be killed."

"That's right – and it's exciting to watch nobles duel, because they usually do it on horseback. I think that alderman-style fighting must be twice as hard to learn as petty-style because it's so quick."

"What's alderman-style fighting?" asked the older girl. She was sitting beside me, and I could feel the rigidity of her stance whenever I accidentally brushed against her. She had reacted to Firmin's caustic greeting by mumbling something unintelligible; apparently she was not fond of speaking with strangers.

"Each rank has its own way of fighting," Nial explained. "If you're a petty, you just want to kill your opponent – it's as simple as that. Aldermen are allowed to kill each other, but they try not to do so, because the Rules of War don't encourage it. In fact, if our side kills too many Fossenvite aldermen, our King has to pay a penalty. So aldermen try only to wound each other, but they can wound each other severely, so their fighting is fierce, believe me."

The children behind me were exchanging whispers. One of them leaned over my shoulder to whisper something in the older girl's ear. She promptly asked, "What about princes and Kings?"

"They fight in what's called royal-style – but I'll explain about that in a minute. Or would you rather not hear who won the aldermen's duel?"

There was a grin in Nial's voice as he spoke. His question was greeted by an immediate chorus of denials. Several of the mothers could be heard chiding their children for asking too many questions, though only Petty and the two girls had spoken so far. Firmin shifted beside me; I could sense that he was impatiently waiting for Nial to finish explaining elementary facts about warfare.

"It was a close duel," said Nial. "I could see that. Me and the Fossenvite petty were standing next to each other, and the Fossenvite had his hand on my arm, and his sword held high to show that I was his prisoner. You see, I was the petty who was originally in danger, so it was my fate that was being decided. I was watching the duel with my breath at a standstill, especially as Hazen was beginning to get the worst of the duel. And then, all of the sudden, a horn sounded across the battlefield."

"Marlin!" Petty cried with triumph. "Prince Marlin came to your rescue!"

"Ah," said Firmin softly, and I knew that he, like I, now recognized which story this was, and that he too remembered the end of the story. He leaned forward and said dryly, "How privileged you must have felt."

"Yes, indeed." Nial fortunately ignored Firmin's tone and accepted the words as spoken. "It's an honor that had never come my way before – to have my lord prince fighting on my behalf."

"But wasn't he entering the fight in order to protect his alderman?" the younger girl asked.

"In a direct way, yes, because Hazen is his liege man, just as I'm Hazen's liege man. The noble you swear your oath of loyalty to becomes your liege lord – petties swear their loyalty to their aldermen, and aldermen swear it to their princes, and princes swear it to their King. But, you see, by defending Hazen, our lord prince was also defending me, since my fate was being decided. Think of what that's like: having a prince charge forward to defend you."

There was an appreciative silence, and for a moment all that could be heard was the whistle of wind outside and the crackle of hearth-fire. Then Petty said tentatively, "But why wouldn't he want to defend you? You're his son."

"Yes, but I'm not his acknowledged son. Prince Marlin has to treat me the way he treats any of his other petty soldiers. Otherwise, he'll be marked for punishment by the King."

"But you were going to die!"

I could read behind Petty's wail more than concern for one prince's unacknowledged son. Apparently, Nial could interpret Petty's protest as well, for his voice grew gentle as he said, "Well, Prince Marlin did come to my rescue, and at risk to himself, for he had no sooner rode forward than Prince Granville had his horn sounded, and he rode forward to challenge Prince Marlin."

"Prince Granville didn't have to do that, did he?" asked the younger girl.

"No, princes don't challenge each other very often in battle; usually they stay at the edge of the battlefield, giving orders to their aldermen. Princes are governed by the First Rule, you see, which states that princes and Kings can't be seriously wounded or killed. That makes their fighting very difficult – they train all their lives to fight royal-style. I don't see how they can manage to fight with blades as keen as my own, and yet never do more than scrape each other's skin."

"They fight slowly," said Petty. "Prince Marlin showed me. They can move their horses quickly, but they're not allowed to move their blades quickly, whether they're attacking or defending. Even so, Prince Marlin says it's painful when you get wounded. You're in less danger of losing your life, but it still hurts."

"Oh, I can believe that. I've seen Prince Marlin after he has been wounded in battle, and it's not a pretty sight, all that blood. That's why I was puzzled. It wasn't strange that Marlin would have charged out to fight for Hazen and me – he's always quick to defend his men – but why would Granville challenge him? Of course, you never know what overall battle plan the King and his princes have decided on, but usually princes won't challenge each other unless someone important is at risk. Granville's alderman wasn't at risk, and why should he care what happened to his petty?"

"Why, indeed?" said Firmin in a cool voice. "But, then, it wasn't just any prince he was challenging, was it?"

"You're spoiling my story by anticipating me, pettyman," Nial protested mildly. "I hadn't reached that point in the story yet."

"What point?" asked Petty, his voice rising high in eagerness.

"The point at which—" Nial waited for all the whispering to die down before he finished slowly and dramatically, "The point at which King York's horn sounded."

There was a black pause; then the younger girl said in disbelief, "Because of you? King York wanted you dead?"

Laughter broke the tension of the moment – a roar of laughter coming from the adults. Nial, though, restrained himself and replied seriously, "Not because of me, no. As our visiting pettyman just guessed, it was because of Prince Marlin. York sent his prince in to fight Marlin, and then entered the battle himself when Granville wasn't able to win the duel, because York was eager to punish Marlin."

"But why?" the younger girl asked in a defensive voice; the laughter around us was just dying down.

"Because Prince Marlin wounded York's heir in last month's battle," Petty explained. "York wanted him killed as compensation for that."

"That was the thought that was on my mind as York charged forward, of course," said Nial quietly. "I'd forgotten all about my own approaching death – I was simply dreading what would happen if York reached Marlin in time. I reckoned that Prince Marlin wouldn't try to defend himself this time and risk wounding York again. All that he could do was retreat, and I was praying that he would do so. It would mean my death if my lord prince retreated, of course, but there was nothing he could do for me now, and he would at least save himself a wounding. It was even possible that York would kill him and claim he had done so accidentally; princes have died that way before. And yet – this is what confirms to me that we have the best prince in the entire world – Marlin didn't retreat. I suppose he was hoping that he could hold York off until the end of the battle, and save me from death that way."

All around me, the villagers were murmuring their surprise and praise. Firmin leaned back, as though deliberately refusing to approve Marlin's actions, and said, "I take it that the best prince in the world is still alive? York didn't kill him?"

"He didn't have the chance to." The smile was back in Nial's voice. "King Varick challenged him."

This time there was no whispering, no murmuring, simply a silence that embraced the furthest corners of the room. Though I was sitting close to the fire, I felt a chill fall upon me, and I deliberately placed my hands flat on the hard-packed earthen floor to keep myself from balling the hands into revealing fists. Then the significance of my gesture reached me, and I snatched my hands away from the ground, as though I had placed them on the burning hearth-stone.

The room was still silent. Finally, Petty asked in a hushed voice, "Had you ever seen the Kings duel each other before?"

"Oh, yes – it's not as rare as all that. The Kings usually duel each other on three or four occasions every winter. It used to be even more than that back when Corbin was King; he and York were always eager to fight each other. Varick's a more cautious King than Corbin, but he came flying forward this time with fire fairly sparking from his eyes – I was close enough to see this. He was cursing York, too. I didn't need to be close to hear him, because of course the entire battle had stopped the moment Varick sounded his challenge. The whole battle would now be decided by the Kings' duel."

"And he won, didn't he?" the older girl said, her voice suddenly rising out of softness. "Prince Marlin's life was in danger, and yours, so King Varick must have won."

"Oh, Marlin's life wouldn't have been in danger if Varick lost. The way the Rules of War work, it's always the lowest man in rank who receives the wounding or killing when a chain of duels is over. No, I was the only Tascanian whose life was being fought for— Swords and daggers! To think that the King was actually fighting for me! I'm not ashamed to admit I was trembling all over. It's a magnificent thing to watch, two Kings duelling each other. The slow sweep of the arms, the wheeling horses, the flash of the swords under the evening sun—"

"But who won?" the older girl persisted.

"York did," Nial said flatly. "He disarmed Varick and won the battle."

I waited for the groans to follow, but none came. I felt Firmin stiffen beside me, also noticing the odd silence. I puzzled it out in my mind: the petties here offered sympathy for the petty soldier – who was their fellow villager – and sympathy for their prince – who was also their fellow villager – but it appeared that the petties had no sympathy for their King, nor any strong interest in the outcome of the battle. Understanding was slowly awakening in me.

It was the younger girl who voiced the unspoken thoughts of the villagers by saying, "I don't understand. If the whole battle could be decided by the Kings' duel, why didn't they just fight each other at the start? Then all those petty soldiers wouldn't have had to die."

There was laughter again from the adults, but this time I thought it had an edge of bitterness to it. Beside me, Firmin still sat rigid. He said in a cool voice, "It's not that simple, is it, pettyman? York couldn't have won the battle simply by disarming Varick. Either he had to wound Varick, or the battle was decided by some other factor, such as how many petties died."

There was a pause, and I could envision Nial eyeing Firmin's boots, but he only said, "It was determined by the manner of King Varick's retreat, actually. Varick was in danger of being wounded in the moments after he was disarmed, so he had to leave the battlefield rapidly. One of his liege aldermen interposed himself between the two Kings to protect Varick, and he was run through by York."

My breath rushed sharp as an arrow into my body. Fortunately, its sound was covered by the younger girl asking, "What's a liege alderman?"

"He's a special kind of alderman, one who takes the King rather than his prince as his liege lord," Nial replied. "His job is to protect the King if he's in danger. Of course, that's the job of every liege man, if you think about it. We all swear to sacrifice our bodies and lives for our liege lords, just as our liege lords swear to protect us. But most soldiers would be fools if they interfered in a duel that their liege lord was taking part in. Not a liege alderman, though. He receives special training in how to disarm a prince or a King without wounding him, and so a King never goes into battle or on a raid without a liege alderman beside him, in case at any point the King is in danger of being wounded or captured."

"It sounds like a dangerous job," said the younger girl. "Why would anyone want to do it?"

"Oh, but liege aldermen are under the special protection of the King – that means that the King is sworn to defend them against any enemy, even a prince. Besides, it's a great honor to be chosen as a liege alderman, and you're trained to be as skilled at fighting as the Kings themselves. I've actually seen a liege alderman disarm York, which is quite an accomplishment. This alderman – a man by the name of Eimund – didn't manage to protect himself against the Wolf, but he delayed York long enough that Varick was able to leave the battlefield unscathed."

I leaned over, located Firmin's head with the touch of my hand, and whispered in his ear. He jerked away from me, and for a moment I feared that he would say nothing. Then he asked in an indifferent voice, "What happened to the liege alderman?"

"York put his sword straight through him; I suppose he died. I didn't wait to see. I was too busy following the order to retreat."

"But shouldn't you be dead?" the younger girl asked with puzzlement. Then, reacting with anger to the renewed laughter, she said, "But you should. You said that if King Varick lost the duel, you'd die."

"You're quite right," said Nial in a mollifying tone. "The Fossenvite petty could have killed me – but when the Tascanian horns sounded the retreat, he just grinned and let me go. It didn't make any difference whether he killed me, as far as the battle was concerned, and I suppose that we petties have to look out for each other whenever we can. The nobles didn't care whether I lived or died."

"Prince Marlin cared." From the adults' benches, Dorcas spoke for the first time.

"I know that, Mother. The first thing he did after the battle was visit my unit – purportedly to check Hazen's wounds, but actually, I think, to discover whether I was still alive. Arkwright and Orson came by to see me as well, and that's not something they do very often."

"No, I don't suppose they do." Dorcas's voice was flat, colorless, but in it I could read the judgment on her two noble sons. As she spoke, I was transported suddenly back to the apprentice barracks, and the days when petty boys were transformed into nobles. There had been a boy two years younger than myself, who cried at night for the loss of his mother and his petty brothers and sisters. I remembered the teasing he had endured; I remembered also which boy had led the teasing, fearing that the younger boy's pain would infect us all, like poison blackening the happiness of our new lives.

The house had grown colder with the night. Someone threw a log onto the fire, causing it to send out puffs of smoke that mingled with the smell of the herbs and meat drying above us. My head had been bowed for several minutes, this time not to hide my identity but to hide the expression I knew my face must be holding. I felt numb throughout my body, as though I were plunged into winter-cold water. I began to move my hand toward Firmin in order to signal him my wish to depart.

At that moment, though, the younger girl asked, "But why did King Varick enter into battle? Was it to save Prince Marlin?"

"That was part of it, I'm sure," said Nial halfway through a yawn. "But people were saying afterwards that the real reason was that the King wanted to punish York for the death of his brother."

My hand, halfway to Firmin, halted in mid-air, and my head jerked up for a moment before I quickly lowered it again.

Firmin had recovered faster than I had. He remarked in an idle voice, "Prince Corbin is dead? How did this happen?"

"You hadn't heard?" Nial said with puzzlement. No murmurs arose behind us; seemingly this was old news to the village.

"We've been refuge-walking," Firmin replied laconically.

"Ah." Nial paused a moment as the mothers came forward to lead their children to bed now that the entertainment was over. The older girl remained beside me, though, and I could hear the younger girl and Petty exchanging whispers on her other side. Firmin began to drum his fingers, but stopped as Nial said, "You won't have heard, then, that Prince Firmin was taken hostage after York tried one of his tricks at the truce ground. King Varick was all set to blind Firmin in payment for what York did to his brother, but it seems that Corbin had a soft heart about the matter – you know what a gentle ruler he was back in the old days. He helped Prince Firmin to escape, and then Firmin, being his father's son, proceeded to murder Corbin."

"Dear me." Firmin's voice was dead level, but I could read the strain in it, and his muscles were tight. "That seems a risky thing for him to have done. I mean, on account of the First Rule."

"No doubt he thought he could get away with the murder," said Nial in an easy voice. Corbin's death, it appeared, was a matter of no great sorrow to him. "The heir's heir is a shadow of his father in every way, and everyone knows what York tried to do to Corbin three years ago. This time, Firmin tried to hide the evidence by dumping Corbin's body into the Stripping Stream. Fortunately, the body was found before the fish had completely stripped the flesh."

"And they're sure the body belonged to Corbin?" said Firmin. I heard an ominous whisper of metal as he took out his dagger, then a scratching on the hard earth as he began to draw lines in the floor, as though playing idly with his blade.

"As sure as they could be with most of the skin gone and Prince Corbin dressed in petty clothes at the time for some reason. Oh, Firmin had tried to hide the fact that the body was that of a soldier by stealing the boots, but a hunting party found Corbin's noble-chain nestled into the stream-bed nearby. Yes, poor Prince Corbin is dead."

"I'm glad he's dead!" said the younger girl suddenly. "Prince Corbin killed petties. He killed—"

Her words were cut off by a sudden shushing that the older girl emitted as rapidly as though she were a defense soldier who had just sighted a raiding party. She whispered, so softly that I could barely hear her, "We're not supposed to talk about that."

An awkward silence followed, eventually filled by Petty saying eagerly, "But that means we've won the final victory, doesn't it? If a Fossenvite breaks the First Rule, York has to surrender the rule-breaker's corpse upon demand or else cede his royal ring. York won't kill his own son, so we've won the war!"

"York won't give up his ring." Firmin's words were dry and exact, like that of a King giving orders for the beginning of an execution by exposure. His voice was quiet, but I heard the thud as he drove his dagger into the ground.

Nial cleared his throat over the sound of the villagers departing from Dorcas's house. "Well, there's a complication, actually. You see, York had a couple of scouts working together in the area at the time. One of them hasn't returned – presumably he's on the track of the murderer – but the other one is supposed to have followed Corbin and Firmin out of our camp. York claims— Not that you can believe anything the Wolf of Fossenvita says, but he claims that this scout overheard Corbin threaten Firmin. York says that Corbin threw his own noble-chain into the stream as a trick, and that Corbin murdered Firmin."

After an instant of silence, a roar of laughter rose to the rafters. Firmin's arm jerked as he snatched his blade out of the ground; the rest of his body was quivering with mirth like a horse shaken by battle-fatigue. The villagers chatting by the doorway fell silent in the face of this wolf's howl. Nial said in a puzzled voice, "Well, yes, it's amusing to think of poor, blind Prince Corbin being able to kill a man, but still . . ." His sentence drifted to a halt.

Firmin was tugging at my sleeve now, drawing me up to my feet. I let him pull me to the door; the villagers parted to allow through the strange, hysterical petty and his companion. Once through the door, Firmin loosed me, but it was easy enough to follow the trail of his laughter through the forest, as I had once followed the trail of hoofprints to locate raiding parties.

By the time I reached Firmin, his laughter was beginning to subside into something close to a sob. He had his arm crooked against a tree trunk, and he was hiding his face in his arm. I learned all this by touch; then I let my hand drop as he turned to face me, saying in a light, half-frenzied voice, "Well, now we know why your brother let me go, don't we? He knew that it would make no difference if I reached the border – he knew that York would hand over my corpse."

"Except that York is demanding my corpse instead."

"Yes, it's amusing, isn't it?" There was a bright, hard edge to Firmin's words which did not sound as though it belonged to a man who was amused. "I'm really stuck with you now, Princeling. If I'm found without you before we reach the Partition, York will be counting out four daggers for me before I have a chance to draw breath. You're my proof of innocence."

"And you're mine."

"Yes, I am, aren't I?" And now there entered into Firmin's voice a sound I knew well: a dark, dangerous lightness that echoed in my memories and haunted my nightmares.

"I wonder," he said reflectively, "what your brother would do if you were found without me? Isn't that an amusing thought?"

Chapter Text

The villagers lodged us that night in an empty bachelor's cottage. Even Firmin had enough tact not to ask what had happened to the previous occupant.

With Firmin as my lodge-mate, I was not able to muster enough nerve to stumble my way round the cottage, getting to know my surroundings by touch, so my impression of the small house was confined to what I encountered on my way in: the flaking daub wall, the weather-splintered door-frame, the central hearth-fire built generously high, and the blanket-covered reed pallet against the wall opposite the door, an improvement over my previous sleeping accommodations.

I could hear Firmin sitting on his own floor-pallet nearby, coughing away the last of his illness while softly cursing the quality of the razor he was using. I had not grown a beard for the purpose of disguise – I had simply been unwilling to attempt the face-shaving that Selig had undertaken for me during the past three years – but Firmin had treated my action as a valuable hint. He had bought from the villagers a hat that covered his telltale hair and was now in the process of shaving off the beard in which he had made most of his public appearances.

I was hunched over my boots, trying to rub them clean of mud – soldiers' habits die hard – when Firmin suddenly said, "You're as quiet as a thieving petty, Princeling. What are you thinking?"

What I was actually thinking about was Eimund, and I was feeling grief and guilt flay me open like a royal thrust as I thought of what I ought to have said to him at our last meeting. But this was not a matter of which I could speak to my mocking companion, so I returned to an earlier thought. "I was thinking about that boy, Petty. I was wondering whether I have any sons out there who have been waiting for me to acknowledge them."

Pottery chinked as Firmin reached forward to draw more grease out of a bowl. "Did you spend your childhood waiting for your father to come?" he asked.

"No." I laid my boots to one side and began untying the knots in my shirt. After a while, feeling the silence stretch, I said, "I never expected to meet him. I was born in the Partition."

"Ah." Firmin paused in the soft scraping of his grease-laden face. "So you're returning to your birth-kingdom – that's amusing. How did your mother end up there? Is that where Reynard sent his lemans after he grew bored with them?"

I shook my head as I reached inside my shirt to ascertain that my arm bandage was still in place before I removed my clothes. The wound had scabbed over a few days before, but I continued to wear the bandage for occasions such as this. "My mother wasn't the King's leman," I said. "She was a raid-woman."

The bowl clinked again, this time as Firmin tossed the razor into it, and then water chimed in another bowl as Firmin began to wash his face free of the grease and cut hair. "So your mother was Fossenvite – this grows more and more interesting. What made her move to the Partition, raid-child?"

I pulled the shirt back from my shoulders and down my arms. Some of the skin on my left forearm was smooth and free of hair – a gift from York during our first battle together. It was the worst flaying I had ever received in my life, and one that taught me a serviceable lesson. The other battle-scars on my body were much smaller, and I had never again been forced to retreat in battle because of a wounding.

I said, "My mother wasn't yet married when my father took her, and she thought that it would be difficult for her to find a husband in a Fossenvite village where everyone knew that she was carrying the child of the King of Tascania. So she moved to the Partition to start a new life. She didn't find a husband there, for she was shy and never got to know her neighbors well, but she found work and kept the two of us alive that way."

"So how did you meet your father?" Firmin asked, reaching over and tossing me the wet rag I was groping for. "Did Reynard make secret visits to the Partition?"

"My mother died from the poison when I was six," I said, wiping my back clean of sweat. "She didn't know anyone well enough to ask them to take me in, so she gave a trader the last of her money so that he would take me to my father."

"That was bold of her. Did she really expect the King of Tascania to acknowledge a raid-child?"

"No, I think the most she hoped for was that he would give me over to one of his lemans. It was an act of desperation, really – I would have starved to death otherwise. But as it chanced, the King was seeking an heir at that time. He had just about decided to take Varick, whose mother was his favorite leman, but he liked the look of me, so he acknowledged both of us. I was the elder boy by a year, so I became the heir."

I laid the rag to one side and pulled off my breeches. There, on the inside of my right thigh, was the scar from the deepest wound I had ever received, one which had nearly taken my life. It had come from a married Fossenvite alderman who was so excited to be at home to defend his village when it was raided that he had attacked me before he had time to notice that the leader of the raiding party was not a fellow alderman but the King of Tascania. He had wisely taken his own life after he discovered his mistake, and though York had offered his entire village to me – the Fossenvite King was always generous in his compensations when one of his subjects broke the Rules of War – I had contented myself with having the alderman's petty son blinded. My mercy had surprised my fellow nobles.

"A touching story, Princeling," said Firmin, moving over toward the fire. "Raid-child Partitioner becomes the King and Commander of Tascania – and then becomes a Partitioner again. Tell me, do you remember much about the Petty Partition? I freely confess that I was not schooled in knowledge of the hooded petties' customs."

I stretched out my legs, feeling the fire-warmth burn against my skin as the flames roared like a northern wind. "I only remember a little, mainly from what surprised me about the outer world when I left the Partition. I remember how odd it was to meet people who would tell me their real names, and how long it took me to get used to looking at the naked faces of adults. The only adults I'd ever seen unhooded before then were my mother and the traders."

"Children aren't hooded?"

"Not till they're apprentice-age. My mother had planned to hood me on my seventh birthday, and I was looking forward to learning what my hood-name would be – but then she sickened, so I never learned what it was going to be."

My back, facing the wattle-and-daub wall, was beginning to grow cold. I pulled a blanket out from under me and threw it over my shoulders, saying, "I remember how frightened I was when I met the King. Partition-born as I was, I'd heard stories all my life about how evil and cruel the nobles were. It was a relief when I met my father and discovered that he was really a kind and gentle man."

Firmin said nothing. He had stopped poking the fire, and I could not hear where he was over the sound of the air-gulping flames. I pulled the blanket closer to shield the front of my body and said, "Firmin. . . . Did York order that petty to kill my father?"

"If he had, do you think I'd tell you?" Firmin's reply was as quick and cutting as a whip. He had returned to his pallet, and I heard him unsheathe his dagger as though in response to a danger signal. I pulled my legs up against my chest and draped the blanket over my knees, resting my chin upon them. After a while, Firmin asked abruptly, "Do you remember your mother?"

"Not very well. I don't know how it is in Fossenvita, but the first thing they tell you when you become an apprentice in Tascania is to forget your petty kin. I wanted to forget her anyway, since she was dead. . . . You were nine when you were acknowledged – I suppose you remember your mother?"

"Oh, yes." Firmin's voice was light, twisted with irony. "I remember both my parents."

I raised my head and turned it in his direction, trying to read his expression from his voice. "You mean that you remember your mother's husband?"

"I meant what I said, Princeling." The air shivered with the sound of bright metal as Firmin began to sharpen his dagger with a whetstone. The cottage air was beginning to thicken with smoke; the smoke-hole above was unable to cope with the broad fire that had been lit. Sweat started to trickle down my back again, so I pulled the blanket open to the cool air.

"I was a proper leman's child," Firmin said in a detached voice as he ran the stone along his blade. "York took my mother one summer when he was bored with his raiding successes against your father. He kept her for about a month. She was already married, but she didn't dare refuse York – York told me this himself. He likes to boast about it. My parents never told me that I was York's son. The entire village must have known, what with my coloring, but they all pretended that I was my parents' child.

"Then one day York passed through our village. My mother tried to hide me in our house, but I sneaked out. I was always a troublemaker. Of course, she was being overprotective; York already had two heirs. At any rate, when York saw me, he guessed that I was his, and he made a trifling joke about naming me his heir's heir's heir.

"It took me a while to understand what he was talking about, and even then I wouldn't have believed him if I hadn't seen the look on my parents' faces. I was so horrified that I yelled at York that I'd never be his son, whether or not he acknowledged me. Even then, the joke might have ended there, but my mother was fool enough to burst into tears, and my father began pleading with York.

"Well, it was too much for York to resist. The next thing I knew, he'd swept me up onto his horse and was riding away with me. He took me to his residence, and I ran away the first chance I got. It was a long journey home. When I finally arrived home, my parents told me to go back to York."

He paused. The fire was dwindling, and cold air began to stroke me like a newly-whetted blade, but I remained motionless. "York had already compensated them?"

"Oh, it wasn't that. They'd have rather had me than the money. It was just that they knew what York would do to them if they tried to keep me. They explained it all to me, and so I returned to the royal residence. York hadn't even bothered to send out a hunting party for me. He knew I'd come back."

Up to this point, Firmin's voice had been dry and unrevealing; now it burst open into bitterness like an over-ripe fruit being discarded by a foraging party. After a while, I said, "I wondered why you never call York your father."

"Now you know."

From the other side of the room came the whisper of a blade being sheathed. The fire blazed up once more as Firmin stepped forward and poked it. I felt its warmth fall upon me like a protective cloak as I said, "I knew a journeyman who planned to go see his petty family when he came of age. Did you ever do that?"

Firmin replied with a dark laugh, and thrust his iron so vigorously into the fire that a spark fell on the front of my hand. As I quickly covered the fire eating at my palm, I remembered Eimund's return from the trip, and the young woman he had brought back from his home village. That had been my only meeting with Eimund's wife. Soon afterwards, my father had died, and I had had no time left in which to concern myself with trivial love matters. I wondered suddenly whether anyone in the army would bother to inform Eimund's family of what had happened at the battle.

Beside me, Firmin said, "I decided on the journey back that if I was going to be the King's son, then I'd become the best soldier in Fossenvita. And I am." A log crumbled as Firmin pounded it. He added, "Now you're supposed to say, 'Really?' in a disbelieving voice."

"How can I? I've never seen you fight before today—"

"Seen?"

"Heard, then. For all I know, you might be right."

Firmin let the iron drop to the ground with a thud and stepped back toward his pallet. "Oh, I'm a poor dueller. Everyone knows that. I've been taught to fight in three different ways – petty-style, alderman-style, and royal-style – and so I get confused over which moves to make, and that keeps me from fighting well. But there's more to being a good soldier than winning duels, Princeling."

I folded my arms on my knees and rested my head on it, turning it in Firmin's direction. "Such as?"

"Such as raiding. Do you remember York's raids last summer?"

"They're hard to forget. Tascania lost last year's victory because of them alone."

"I planned them."

I raised my head, feeling the blood thrum through my body suddenly. I had to remind myself forcefully that I no longer cared about raiding victories. "I'm surprised. I thought they had York's mark on them."

"Of course they did. York trained me. I plan about half of Fossenvita's raids these days, and I'm as good at them as York is. Better, in certain ways – York's sense of humor interferes with his war skills sometimes. Of course, he can't acknowledge my work publicly since I'm not a duke."

The fire was beginning to die down again. Rather than wait for the cold to arrive, I began slipping down under the pallet blankets, propping myself up on one elbow so that I would still be facing Firmin.

Firmin said in a hard voice, "You don't believe me, do you?"

"Actually, I do."

"But I've no proof for what I say."

"That doesn't matter. I trust you."

Firmin gave a sharp laugh like a wild dog's bark. "Fool that you are. You'd trust the Wolf's son?"

"I thought that you didn't regard yourself as his son."

"Well, I lied. You can't be trained by York for nine years without becoming like him. I hate him, and he despises me, but we're still useful to each other. I give him good raiding plans, and he gives me . . ."

"Gives you what?" I asked when the silence had extended long enough.

"Power," Firmin replied in a whisper. "Power of a sort you'll never understand, Princeling. You wouldn't even have understood when you were King and Commander. Power consists of making men fear you. York is the most feared man in the world – my brother Lenwood can't even come close to what York's like. But I can. Some day, whether or not I'm King, people will fear me like they fear York, and then I'll have more power than anyone else in world. Oh, I'm my father's son, all right. You'd best not forget that, Princeling."

I trailed my finger in the dirt beside the pallet, scraping the earth up under one nail. "And what will you do with this power?"

"Keep myself safe," Firmin said in a matter-of-fact tone. "What else is power good for? You should know that, former royal noble. I can't be killed, I can't be severely wounded, but that's not enough. Nobody can hurt York, not only because of his royal privilege, not only because he's too strong for anyone to fight, but also because everyone's afraid of him. He can do anything he wants, and no one dares to touch him. He's the most powerful man in the world and he's the safest man in the world. He has everything – everything. I want that, Princeling. I don't care whether I inherit York's title, but I want to see the world the way the most powerful man does."

His voice was as eager as young Petty's had been when the boy spoke of his noble ambitions. I tilted my head so that it was bowed toward the earth. "It's too dark."

"What?"

"It's too dark in York's world. He appears to like it – I suppose he has been that way all his life – but you'd know the difference. You wouldn't like it once you'd trapped yourself in his darkness."

For a moment, the only sound was wood crumbling in the fire; then Firmin hooted with laughter. Blankets rustled as he drew himself into his bed. "A blind man lectures me on what it's like to be in the dark," he said when he had collected his breath again. "Dear me, you know all about what it's like to go from light to darkness, don't you? I suppose it gives you satisfaction to think that York and I lead darker lives than your own. You could even offer me your services as a guide, couldn't you? A blind guide – that's a desperate attempt at ambition by a man who has lost his title, thrown away his honor, and will die young even if he reaches the Partition. By the way, Princeling, how long does it take to die of the mountain poison? You have six years' head start over any other refuge-walker arriving at the Partition gates."

I tried to re-gather my words to throw them back into battle, but I could hear the horn of retreat sounding in my head, and I knew that, like Varick, I would face too great a punishment if I tried to fight without a blade in hand. Besides, what Firmin had said was true. I was a blind man, blind not only in the flesh but in the spirit, and I had spent my life lost in darkness. How could I offer myself as a guide to Firmin? The least petty knew more than I did about the light.

With that thought in mind, I curled myself into a ball and waited for the darkness of sleep to come.

o—o—o

The fire had died down by the time I came to myself again, lying on a petty sleeping pallet with sweat running down my back. The fire had been a pathetic pyre to begin with, since my skills did not run to fire-making. I was used to having petties do that for me. But I had not needed the flames in any case: I was hot enough as it was, from the blankets and my blazing blood and the woman underneath me, warm and eager.

I had barely regained my breath and was still moaning lightly into the hollow of her shoulder when she said, "Again."

I raised my head, laughing, and looked down at her. She had been golden when I first saw her under the torches, golden like the autumn leaves at her feet, but now in the moonlight her hair looked bone-white. She was twice my age, but her skin was as smooth as the flat of a blade. She smiled up at me with that entrancing curl of the lip which had caught me from the moment I had seen her and had broken my two-year resolve against taking such women.

"Who do you think I am, the Wolf?" I said. "My potency isn't so great that I can begin again when I've barely finished."

"I think you're the King of Tascania," she said, curling her arms around my back as though holding me prisoner, "and I think that Kings are not like ordinary men."

"Too true," I said, suddenly sobered. "Kings have duties, and my first duty tonight is to get my men safely home before your King's defense soldiers detect our presence. It was foolish of me to let you lure me here again."

"But you're not here again," she replied, trailing her finger down my earlobe. "You're not in my village tonight; you're in a country house."

"It's close enough to your village," I replied, trying gently to break her grasp on me so that I could reach for my clothes. "Defense-trained though I am, even I know how mad it is to raid the same area two nights in a row. My men were not at all happy about stopping here on the way back from tonight's raid. The least I can do for them is make our stay short."

She wrapped her legs around my back once more and held me in her double binding. "Ah, King, would you break my heart? You've already broken my greatest desire, that you should take me back over the border with you."

"Glydia, I can't!" I momentarily stopped my struggle to release myself in order to place my hand on her cheek and smile at her. "You know I'd take you with me in an instant if I could, but it's against the Rules of War for me to steal a raid-woman. Wait two months – no, three; then the summer raiding will be over. Come see me at my winter camp, and I promise, I'll make you my leman. It's not a long journey, and I'll leave you travel money."

"To be the King's leman!" Glydia sighed and looked beyond me to the door, as though eager to leave at this moment. "It's hard to believe."

"Trust me, my love; I'm telling the truth." I kissed the hollow in her neck and began to raise myself. "Now I must go. I'll be thinking of you until then."

She halted me with her hands, drawing me back down to her. "Will you not give me a farewell kiss so that I can remember you till then?"

Her hands were exploring my body again, tracing their way up the curve of an old wound. Despite myself, I felt my blood throb and my desire quicken. Drawing a long breath, as though I were about to dive into deep water, I lowered myself onto her mouth and pressed my body against hers.

Because of this, I am not sure how long the noise had been occurring before I noticed. My head jerked back from hers, and without need for thought I rolled myself to one side, only to find myself still trapped in her arms.

The sword clashes were close, the shouting more so. "I must go," I said curtly, trying to reach toward where I had abandoned my clothes and weapons.

Glydia smiled at me, her eyes fastened on my face, and drew her arms tighter around me. "Don't be silly. We have all night to enjoy each other."

"Blades of wood, Glydia—" I tried to push her arms gently apart once more, but she had a grip on me as tight as a liege alderman capturing a noble. Her smile was fixed on her lips, and her skeleton-white hair was tangled in my swinging noble-chain.

There was a sudden hammering on the door, which Glydia had bolted when we first arrived. "Quickly, sire!" said a voice. "You must come! It's—" He stopped suddenly, and there was a pregnant silence.

I heard another voice, low and courteous, make a dark request. The new voice was too quiet for me to identify it immediately, but a shadow of knowledge fell upon me, and my back puckered cold. I heard the answer from the first voice: a firm "No." Then there was a series of clashes – it took no more than three – and then silence once more.

I whispered to Glydia, "Hide in the corner. He probably won't see you, and if he does, I'll tell him I forced you—"

But Glydia had already slipped from my arms, risen to her feet, and scooped up my sword and dagger with as much ease as though she were a journeyman. Holding the hilts of both blades in one hand, she ran lightly across the room, threw back the door-bolt, and opened the door wide.

The Wolf of Fossenvita stood at the threshold, with a smile on his face, blood on his sword, and my liege alderman dead at his feet.

The smile, in its initial moments, was not directed at me, but at the naked woman holding my weapons up for his inspection. He murmured, "Thank you, my dear," pushed her outside with casual intimacy to where a petty soldier stood with a cloak already open for her, and then looked over at me. His smile deepened.

I was still lying where Glydia had left me, naked of clothes and arms, listening to the cries as the last of my petty soldiers were killed by York's men. I willed myself to move into a position more worthy of the King and Commander of Tascania, but my honor felt shredded by those cries. Perhaps York guessed this; at any rate, he chose that moment to turn to another of his petty soldiers and take from him the bundle in his arms. "Get up," he said to me, as abruptly as a noble giving orders to a petty. "Put these on." He flung the bundle into my face.

I had just enough time to identify the brown bundle before my vision drowned in blackness, and my breath was stifled by the cloth. Gasping as I freed myself, I clawed my way out of the cloth but still could see nothing. York had shut the door, the moon had gone under a cloud, and the clashes and cries of battle continued outside the cottage.

"What?" I said, trying to break out of the paralysis that held me in place.

A voice, unlike York's yet reminding me of it somehow, said, "Get up. Put your clothes on. We're leaving."

The cloth was rough under my hands; the blade clashes were diminishing in force; from elsewhere in the room came the sound of flickering flames and rustling cloth. Gradually, I realized that I had woken from my dream of the past.

"What is it?" I asked, fumbling with my clothes as I drew myself out of bed. "Is it a foraging party gone astray?"

"No, a raid," Firmin replied, his noble-chain making muffled clinks under his shirt as he hurried around the room, gathering together the supplies we had bought during the previous day. "Trust you to pick a village that's about to be raided."

"Well, they're your soldiers," I said, tying my breeches hastily closed with one hand as I reached for my boots with another. "What are they doing, raiding at this time of year?"

"What are your soldiers doing?" Firmin countered, pulling me to my feet while my shirt and boots were still in hand. "We're only five miles from your winter camp. They ought to be here by now, defending us."

I had no time to appreciate the irony of this statement, for as Firmin pulled me stumbling across the cottage floor toward the supply bags, the door flew open with a bang. A man said, "All right, petties – you can stop skulking inside here. Line up with the others."

It was the voice of a noble, accustomed to being obeyed. Firmin had been pulling me along with his right hand; now his hand dropped, and for a moment it hovered next to his dagger hilt. Then it moved quickly back to me. Dressed as he was in petty clothes, if Firmin drew his blade now, he would be cut down in an instant.

His breath was rapid. I wondered for a moment whether he would pull out his noble-chain and declare our identities. If he did, I would be in Tascanian territory and therefore immune from being taken hostage – or would I? I no longer wore my noble-chain, and petties had no place of refuge outside the Partition.

All that happened, though, was that Firmin's grip tightened on my arm, and he began to draw me forward once more, this time toward where the captured village men were lined up, awaiting their punishment.

The blade clashes had ended, but I could hear the wailing of women and children as the Fossenvite soldiers escorted them past us. All around me were familiar sounds: easy-going shouts from the soldiers exchanging information with each other, the clang of metal as the pack-horse was unloaded, the soft whinny elsewhere of a noble's horse. Only the village men were utterly silent as the noble shoved us onto the end of their line – but that too was familiar. The only unfamiliarity for me was being amidst the brown-clothed petties rather than being the noble who was standing nearby, taking reports.

"No sign of the Tascanians, my lord alderman," a soldier was saying to the noble. "It looks as though this is a clean raid."

"It's too soon to decide that," said the alderman. "Keep lookouts posted on all sides of the village. Tavis! How are matters at your end?"

"We've got all the women, my lord," said another soldier, somewhat breathlessly; subduing women was as energetic an activity as subduing the men, since the women could not be wounded. "I don't think any escaped us. One woman is wearing a noble's wrist-chain – we've separated her from the rest."

"An alderman's leman?" the alderman said hopefully.

"No, a prince's. The chain is silver."

"Ah," said the alderman. "I'll leave her for the next prince who raids this village, then. I suppose that we ought to find out which house is hers so that we don't torch it by mistake."

"I've already checked, my lord. It's the large house; we've put her in there with the children."

"Good petty. Any problems with the children?"

"None, my lord. They all came quietly except the children who were too young to know better. Will you be taking a woman tonight?"

"I don't think so, Tavis. We're too close to the Tascanian camp; I want to keep on the alert. You can go ahead and draw the lots."

"How many women are we taking on this raid, my lord?"

"Hold a minute and I'll be able to tell you. Zeeman! Do you have that equipment unloaded yet?"

"Nearly, my lord!" shouted a soldier from the direction of the clanging metal. "Shall we start the fire?"

"Check the houses; someone's sure to have a hearth-fire going on a night like this. —Swords and daggers, but it's cold! Now I know why we usually stop raiding during the winter." The alderman made these last remarks in an undertone, apparently to Tavis, for the bootfalls and chattering suggested that all the other soldiers were darting to and fro, going about their business in an efficient manner. I was standing stiffly with Firmin on one side of me and a sapling on the other; I could not tell which of the village men were present, because they were all as silent as corpses. I strained my ears, but could hear no sign that a Tascanian defense unit was on its way to rescue us. The loudest sound was of the women weeping at the other end of the village.

"Weston! Where are you, boy?" called out the alderman suddenly.

"Here, my lord!" The half-broken voice of a journeyman vibrated as he ran forward to join the alderman. "I was just checking to see which houses we might want to burn. There's one over there that has supplies and a whole purse of gold in it we could take."

Firmin had until this time been relaxed next to me – secure, no doubt, in the knowledge that he could reveal our identities at any time. Now he grew as stiff as the sapling at my other side.

"More likely you were checking out the women," said Tavis, and the nearby soldiers laughed somewhat uneasily, evidently uncertain whether the alderman would think well of such a joke.

The alderman said impatiently, "Don't undertake duties I haven't assigned you, Weston. Do you have the tablets?"

"Yes, my lord. Which one do you want?"

During the pause that followed, I distracted myself from the knowledge of what was to come by wondering how long Tavis was likely to live. A petty soldier who cannot resist teasing a half-trained noble is likely to find his tongue slipping toward his liege lord one day. And what followed could be easily imagined.

The journeyman's bag rustled as he drew the wax tablets out. Beside me, the line of men remained silent. Not far behind me, a soldier loosened his sword in its sheath in case we offered any last-minute resistance.

The alderman said, "Lytle. How much trouble did we have with the capture?"

"Hardly any, my lord," said the soldier behind me. "Most of the men surrendered quickly."

"That was wise. Very well, we'll reward them by making their punishment small. We'll use the short list, Weston."

"We used that during last night's raid, my lord."

"The next shortest list, then. What does it say?"

The wood-edged tablets scraped against each other as the journeyman shuffled through them. Then he said, "Two houses burned; one well demolished . . ."

"We'll leave the property for later. How many killings?"

For the first time, I thought I heard the edge of a sound from the village men; a collective intake of breath. Then all was still again.

"Only three killings," the journeyman replied.

"We already killed four during the capture, my lord," contributed Lytle.

"Good, good; then we won't have to kill anyone else. Make a note, Weston. The Tascanians owe us one killing. Now for the payment of punishments— No, hold; Tavis has been waiting quite patiently here. How many women?"

"Five," the journeyman replied with a promptness which suggested that this was the first piece of information he had sought.

"Only five?" the alderman said.

"That's what it says. Shall I use one of the longer lists, my lord?"

Amidst the alderman's pondering silence, I could hear the sound of flames as a fire was started nearby. The clang of metal had finished; no doubt the equipment was ready now. Still no sound of rescue came from the surrounding countryside.

"No, we'll stay with this list," the alderman said finally. "Five women, Tavis – and make sure that the lucky men keep on the alert. If a defense unit arrives here, I don't want them to be captured with their breeches off, Corbin-wise."

Again the soldiers around us laughed, this time heartily, and I heard something suggestive of a snicker from Firmin. Then he quickly rejoined the terrible silence of the village men.

"Punishments," said the alderman briefly.

"One blinding," said the journeyman. "One hamstringing. One removal of the— I can't read the handwriting. It could be hands or it could be forearms."

"Let me see." The alderman perused the tablet for a moment, then said, "Our lord prince's writing gets worse every year. Well, since I'm not sure either, let's say that it's hands. Did you hear that, Zeeman?" He raised his voice to be heard over the renewed sound of metal clanging.

"Yes, my lord!" the tormenter shouted back. "We'll have all the equipment ready in two flicks of your horse's tail."

"Now I make my usual useless speech," said the alderman in so low a tone that it must have been directed purely at the journeyman standing next to him. He took several steps forward and said, "Tascanian petties! We are here to exact payment for a raid that was undertaken on a village in the Princedom of the Black Forest last autumn, and also to renew our debt to your King – but since you have been submissive to us, we will make that debt small. We begin with the payment first. You have heard what the punishments will be. Does any man here wish to volunteer his body in order that one of his fellow petties may be saved from punishment?"

The silence this time was tangible, like a cloak thrown over a fire to smother it. Firmin brushed against me, sighing restlessly, and I noticed that the alderman had not taken his blade from him. This was an old trick, to leave the village men armed and see which ones lost control of themselves at this point. Then the punishment could be administered to such deserving petties.

None of the villagers here were such fools. After a moment, the alderman added with irritation creeping into his throat, "Come, petties. Does none of you wish to sacrifice yourself for the others? Is it indeed true that there is no honor in petties?"

Silence again. The alderman stepped back to the journeyman's side and said, in a voice he did not bother to lower this time, "I don't know why I even bother to ask. All right, Lytle – are there any men here who are deserving of punishment?"

"That one over there gave us considerable trouble, my lord," Lytle replied promptly. "He nearly killed Tavis; I'd be happy to see his hands cut off so he won't attack the next raiders."

"Let's do this in order," the alderman said stolidly. "Blinding first – he still won't be able to use a blade after this. Bring him out."

I heard then a very small sound, one which was not quite a protest, not quite a whimper, but simply a human sound breaking past the binding of silence in which the villagers had placed themselves. I did not know who the sound came from, nor even whether it came from the condemned man or from one of his kin, but that single, small sound served to pull me out of the paralysis I had been fighting for several minutes. With the stiffness of a soldier striding forth into battle, I stepped forward.

"Ah, Tavis, you're back," the alderman was saying. "You're just in time to help me. Did any of the women give you trouble when you were subduing them? If they did, we'll find out who their husbands are and— What is it, boy? Oh, a volunteer." The alderman's voice grew bright, like the flash from a newly polished blade. "Well, this is something new. Hold a minute, Zeeman! We have a volunteer! You are volunteering in place of the other petty, I take it?"

The last remark was addressed in my direction. I opened my mouth to reply and found myself bound once more by the silence and stillness that had been holding me before. And then, for the first time, I understood from whence that silence arose. It was not from fear, though fear was running frantically through my body like the pain from a deep wound. It was from an unwillingness to help the noble in any way with his sickening task.

The journeyman, distressed that his liege lord should be so unobservant, forgot his formality and whispered loudly, "Father, he's already blind."

"Oh! So he is. Which would you prefer, then, the hand removal or the hamstringing? Volunteers get their choice. . . . Speak up, petty! You're lucky to have any choice at all."

"Noble alderman!"

The voice belonged to Firmin, but for a moment I did not recognize it, so successful was he in duplicating the obsequious, pleading voice of a helpless petty. His arm brushed mine as he stepped forward and said, "Alderman, I have a question. May I ask it?"

I felt my wrists drip blood and my leg muscles snap apart in the moment that it took the alderman to reply curtly, "Ask."

"When my cousin here was blinded last spring, the raiders who did it told us that our village wouldn't be raided again for at least two years. Did we misunderstand them? Is this something we should ask our prince about?"

There was another silence. The wailing of the women had ended now that the raid-women had been chosen. Nearby, several children were still crying. No sound came from the village men, nor from the area of the tormenting where the condemned petty stood, awaiting his blinding.

"Weston, check our raiding list again," said the alderman. "What directions were we following tonight?"

The journeyman shuffled through the tablets and said, "'Southwest of Wolf Hill, the first village past the border.' Do you suppose that we could have missed another village on our way in?"

"It's a trick," Lytle said confidently. "This man is trying to fool us. He'd be a good candidate for the hamstringing."

"But it's true, Alderman!" This time it was Nial who spoke; he too had adopted an obsequious tone. "And I remember that when we told our lord prince about the raid on his next visit, he told us to be sure to inform him if we were raided before the end of our two years of grace, so that King Varick could demand compensation for us."

This statement had a ring of truth to it; I knew that Marlin kept his petties well informed of their rights under the Rules of War. Tavis said rapidly, "My lord, if King York has to pay compensation for a twice-raided village, it will be a high one, and he won't be at all pleased with us."

I heard metal slide against metal, and for a moment I feared that the alderman would deal with the matter in the simplest manner possible, by killing Nial, Firmin, and me. That, of course, would not solve the problem, but angry nobles could not always be counted on to act in a rational manner.

It appeared, though, that the alderman was simply using his unsheathing as a convenient way to assert his authority and warn his men to remain silent, for after a minute's reflection, he sheathed his sword and said, "Well, it's not worth taking the chance. We have time enough to raid the next village on our list before dawn. Tavis, go back and extract tonight's lovers from their beds. Zeeman, you can let that petty go and pack up your equipment. Weston, hand me my purse."

Metal clinked as the alderman said, "Four men dead and— How many women taken?"

"Five," said the journeyman.

"Four men and five women. . . . That comes to— Well, near enough to one gold coin as makes no difference. Who's the head petty here?"

It was a question no villager would have been mad enough to answer. The nobles had long since made it clear that they would not tolerate any leaders arising in the petty community, since the last leaders had led a rebellion. The alderman sighed and said, "You take charge of the money, then. This is our compensation for the damage done, and you may offer your prince our apologies for our mistake the next time you see him. If he has any questions, I am Alderman Maitland, serving under Prince Houghton."

He took my hand and peeled the fingers open to reveal my palm, which was bleeding from where my fingernails had driven through. He closed my hand over the coin, shouted orders to half a dozen soldiers, and turned away, leaving me sweat-wet and shaking, like an ice-laden leaf being plucked free from its branch by a winter wind.

o—o—o

"Brilliant!" said Firmin a while later, as we made our hasty way to the border by a lesser-used track. "I don't mind saying that, Princeling – I always admired your war skills when you were King. It's nice to see them put to use one last time, though you were certainly placing unwonted trust in me that I would follow up on your hint."

"I need to sit down," I said.

"Wait till we reach the road. Leaving aside the danger of our encountering those soldiers, I can just envision those villagers rushing down this track to thank us again. That was a disgusting display of gratitude they gave us just now, but I suppose they had to hide from themselves the knowledge of their own cowardice. Well, you saved our money and supplies, and that's all that matters—"

"I need to sit down right now," I said, and managed to catch hold of a tree trunk to keep myself from pitching forward onto my face.

I dropped my bag and slid down into the mud as the ground rolled under my feet. Hanging my head between my knees , I swallowed back the sickness in my mouth.

Above me, Firmin crowed with laughter.

"I can't believe it," he said. "You were really going to do it, weren't you? You were going to let those soldiers punish you. I should have known that you weren't being brilliant, but quite the opposite. What made you do such an idiotic thing?"

Between gulps of air, I said, "It was the only thing I could do for the villagers. I'm sworn to defend them."

"You're taking your royal oath awfully seriously, aren't you?" Firmin said, pulling me roughly to my feet and shoving my bag into my hand. "Have you forgotten that you're a petty now? Petties have no honor – we saw that tonight."

"Don't they?" I said, feeling the cold mud cling against me as I stumbled down the track behind Firmin.

"Of course they don't. Which villager tried to help us? One of your soldiers, who has been around nobles long enough to have some idea of what honor is. Everyone else there was going to let you, a refuge-walking blind man, be punished in their place. You should have seen their faces when you stepped forward – they thought you were mad. Petties will never know what it means to be protectors. You may as well become used to living amongst men with no honor."

My head was beginning to clear. The cold stillness of the winter night ran through me like new wine. "Wearing a noble-chain is no guarantee of honor."

Firmin grabbed my arm and held me tight, as though I were a condemned man on the point of being tormented. In a low voice like the growl of a wolf, he said, "Are you referring to me, Princeling? Are you seriously suggesting that I should have raised my blade in defense of a group of enemy petties?"

"I don't know. I hadn't thought about it. I was referring to York, actually."

I had gone too far, I knew, and I expected in the next moment to feel Firmin's dagger against my heart. I had forgotten, though, that the young prince's most dangerous weapon was not his blade. He released me, and in a voice so sweet and courteous that it might have come from the Wolf himself, he said, "York has battle scars all over his body. He has defended his subjects all his life, and will do so until the day he dies. You, on the other hand, have chosen to run away from your army, to deprive your brother of what small help you might have given him, and to go hide in the Partition, all because you feel sorry for yourself and don't want anyone to know that you were once the King and Commander of Tascania. Whatever you might have been trying to prove to yourself tonight, Princeling, you were an honorless petty long before you threw your chain in the stream."

The silence which followed was so familiar that I realized that its origins lay further back than I had thought. The stillness of the village men when faced with their punishments . . . that was not where I had first learned this silence. I had learned it while bound in an isolated cell, where my only weapon of defense had been my refusal to speak.

Firmin was right: I already knew more about being a petty than I had thought, and though he could not have understood this, I felt joy go through me at the realization. Already I had taken one step back on my journey to my childhood home.

I let Firmin push me forward again, and the noble and the petty walked in silence until we reached the dusty track of Refuge Road, where we turned our faces west toward the Partition of death.