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The Fire Before

Chapter Text

The year 961 after the founding of Koretia: The Capital City.

"I failed my coming-of-age rite."

Tristan stood by the window of his bedchamber in Council Hall as he spoke. His face was turned toward the courtyard outside, busy with lords and free-servants and the iron-masked Living Dead, carrying out their duties in their unremitting silence. Tristan's eyes, slowly taking in the scene, flicked away whenever they encountered one of the god-cursed slaves.

Robin was taking even greater care that he not acquire the curse of the gods by looking upon the Living Dead; his gaze was focussed on his uncle. Both men – one aged thirty and the other aged eighteen – were dressed in the gold-bordered tunics of high noblemen, although Tristan's gold was that of a council lord and town baron, while Robin's merely indicated that he was Tristan's heir for the barony.

Robin's spirit was filled with bewilderment as Tristan finally turned to face him. His uncle, who had never seemed to be much older than himself, had acquired lines in his face since the two of them had met the previous winter. Robin opened his mouth, closed it again, and swallowed, prompting Tristan to give an ironic smile. That too was new.

"Speak," said Tristan. "You may ask the question."

"Why did you—? I mean, why did our priest judge that you had failed your rite?"

"For the only reason that any boy ever fails the rite: because I refused to offer up my sacrifice to my god."

Robin stared at his toes for a minute, fingering the jewelled dagger by his side. Tristan was also armed, like all other laymen in the Land of Koretia – except for the slaves, of course. But then, slaves were not really men or women; they were simply corpses doing work for the living. Robin glanced out the window, then away again quickly as a slave entered the courtyard. It was dressed in the grey, floor-length gown of a female corpse.

Finally Robin said softly, so that no one beyond the room could hear him, "It's hard to offer up your sacrifice. I still have nightmares about it, though two years have passed since I underwent the rite. I remember our priest holding the dagger above me and asking me whether I would offer up my sacrifice to the god. And I realized that he really meant it, that he would really plunge down the blade if my god bid it—" Robin swallowed again, and added rapidly, "I can understand why you said no. Shouldn't Simon have offered you a second chance, though?"

"He did. I refused. I didn't have enough courage even for that." Tristan turned toward the window again. From the edge of the courtyard came the sound of hammering: the royal smith was working overtime to help the army smiths forge weapons for the battles that continued in the north. A light-skinned man, his lips tight, passed through the doorway leading from the Koretian High Lord's chambers. He was an Emorian captain, serving as a messenger for the Chara. Judging from the captain's expression, he did not carry a message that the ruler of Emor would enjoy hearing. Faintly, laughter emerged from the High Lord's chambers; the High Lord's friends were enjoying a joke he had just made.

"I've never had enough courage to do what I must," Tristan continued, his gaze continuing to follow the progress of the Emorian captain. "After I failed the rite, I thought that I could at least serve the gods by serving the King with unfailing loyalty. I was his heir, after all, and though our kinship was not close, I hoped that I could serve him as loyally as any son. Only toward the end did I realize—"

He stopped abruptly, his gaze flicking involuntarily away from the captain, and then back again. Even Robin, normally the more careful of the two, found himself staring at the scene. The Emorian captain, as though it were the most ordinary deed in the world, had stopped and laid his hand upon the arm of one of the Living Dead.

To do him credit, the slave was trying his best to escape the touch, but his flight was blocked by a wall against his back. Several of the other slaves had turned to watch, although the free-men around them continued to walk across the courtyard, seemingly without noticing the crisis taking place.

"May the Jackal eat his dead," Tristan said through gritted teeth. "There's nothing we can do to punish him, but doesn't he realize that he's placing the slave in danger?"

"Perhaps not," said Robin, who had finally managed to turn away from the scene. "He's the next thing to a barbarian; I don't think that the Emorians know a single stricture of the gods' law. He probably thinks it's just an ordinary encounter."

"To touch a man wearing a death mask? God of Mercy, Robin, even an Emorian should know— Oh, gods." Tristan's voice turned suddenly quiet.

The High Lord, with his usual, unerring instinct for scenting trouble, had entered the courtyard. He took one swift look at the scene and beckoned to a pair of passing guards. The guards required no more than a moment's instruction before they turned and began walking toward the slave, their swords unsheathed.

In the meantime, the captain had given up on his attempts to receive an answer to his question to the slave. He shrugged, released the slave, and walked out of the courtyard, oblivious to the scene behind him. Still pressed against the wall, the slave saw the approaching guards, looked beyond them to the High Lord, and fell to his knees in an unspoken plea to his master. The High Lord, however, had already turned away.

"Isn't there anything we can do?" Robin asked in a strained voice as he flicked glances at what was happening.

Tristan shook his head. Seemingly blind to the danger, he continued to watch the slave openly as the guards surrounded him, their eyes averted. The slave slowly rose to his feet, turning his head for one long moment toward the unguarded entrance of the courtyard. Then he bowed his head and allowed himself to be escorted away.

"I'm the last person to whom the High Lord would attend," said Tristan. "Besides, what could I say? The slave broke the gods' law; he allowed a free-man to touch him, so in three days he will be executed. I'm sure that the gods will be delighted at such vengeance on their behalf." His voice turned black like rotted fruit.

Robin's breath caught in his throat; his eyes widened. "Tristan . . ." he whispered.

Tristan turned away from the window finally, pressing the heels of his palms against his eyes. "I'm sorry; I don't know what I'm saying. It's when I see something like that— The gods alone know that the Living Dead are the least of my worries, but it's all part of what frightens me. Robin, have you ever wondered whether the Jackal is right when he says that men and women should not be enslaved? Or when he says that the priests have turned their faces from the gods? Or that the gods' law has been corrupted?"

"Of course not," said Robin promptly. "The man who calls himself the Jackal isn't really the human form of the god at all. He speaks blasphemy against the gods and has persuaded his thieves to rebel against the King and his council. He's nothing more than a common—"

"—a common lawbreaker, yes." Tristan gave another smile, this one soft and sad. "I taught you that well, just as the King taught me."

Robin sat down abruptly on a stool and stared at the god-mask of the Jackal hanging on Tristan's wall. "Don't you believe that any more?" he breathed.

"I don't know how not to believe it," said Tristan, pacing back and forth between the window and the corridor door. "It's the only hope that has kept me alive for the past fourteen years. I truly thought of taking my own life after I failed the rite. —No, I have never had the courage to do such a deed," he said, glancing over at Robin, who had drawn in his breath. "Yet my spirit would have died long ago – I would have been like the Living Dead – if I had not believed that I was serving the gods in some manner. I needed work in my life to make up for the fact that I had failed the Jackal God at the time of my coming of age. So I followed the King unswervingly, supported his High Lord, confirmed the King's interpretation of the gods' law, upheld his decision to pursue the war against the Emorians, fought hard against the Jackal-man and his rebels—"

"—and now you believe that we were wrong." Robin spoke quietly, only half aware of his change in pronoun. His felt the hands in his lap clench together. He forced himself not to flee from the room, though he knew that any god-abiding man should do that.

Tristan sighed, staring at the soldiers below. "If I am wrong," he said, "then I can change nothing now, for I have shown no courage for the past fourteen years. I never fought against the King when he was alive, and when he died and the High Lord denied me the throne, I took no steps to claim my rights. If I were to go to the soldiers now and ask for their support, they would laugh their way to the taverns. They know that I am a coward, unfit for the throne."

"Don't be a fool!' cried Robin, leaping up from his seat. "You were loyal to the King and the gods. That doesn't make you a coward."

"Was I loyal to the King?" Tristan did not turn from the window, but he laid his hand lightly upon Robin's arm as the younger man came to stand beside him. "I think rather that I was disloyal to him. I was too young to stop him when he created the laws condemning free-men to slavery if they spoke to or touched or even looked at a slave. But I was there when he passed many other laws of that sort. I never spoke against him; I often spoke for him. What sort of loyalty was that? A year has passed since the King died. If the Jackal's fire continues to burn Rawdon for the evil deeds that he did and that I allowed him to do, how much greater is my evil than his?"

Robin looked around the chamber, his eye fruitlessly seeking an answer. A slight breeze ruffled the tapestry against the wall. The harsh summer light fell hard against the stools and chairs in Tristan's sitting chamber, painting the wood gold. The chamber was bare of all other decoration.

"You haven't said what caused you to change your mind," Robin said finally.

Tristan continued to look out the window. His skin was shimmering with sun-drenched sweat, turning his dark face as gold as the sun-gilded wood. "I received a message from the Jackal," he said.

Robin's breath travelled swiftly in. "You saw the man himself? Was he masked?"

Tristan shook his head. "No, I didn't speak to the Jackal directly. He sent one of his thieves to me. —Don't ask," he added as Robin opened his mouth. "I shouldn't even be telling you this much. I won't endanger you further by saying who the messenger was."

"And the message? Will you tell me that?"

Tristan stared down at the courtyard for a while, his gaze continuing to flick away whenever he sighted a slave. He leaned the side of his head against his hand, which was resting against the window frame, and for a moment he closed his eyes. Then he opened them and said, "He asked me to be his thief."

This time Robin did not breathe quickly, for the simple reason that his breath had stopped altogether. The stillness in the room continued, but for the chatter of voices in the courtyard. Softly beneath them sung the birds in the trees on Council Hill. Softer still hummed the sound of the army camp at the foot of the hill and the buzz from the nearby city market.

"What did you say?" asked Robin.

"I asked him to give me time to think."

"Tristan—" Robin spent all of his remaining breath on that one word. He had to halt and start again. "Tristan, he must be a mere man. His knowledge is limited; if it wasn't, we would never have been able to capture some of his thieves over the years. If he had the powers of a god, all that he need do is show them to us, and we'd fall on our knees and worship him. He isn't a god—"

"He is a god-man," said Tristan. "At least, that is what he has always claimed. He has never denied that his knowledge is limited and that he cannot use all of his godly powers. The people who serve him, though . . . Robin, for over twenty years he has fought against the priests and the council and the King. He has great men among his thieves; we know that, from the ones we have uncovered and arrested. A mere charlatan could not have maintained a deception for this long. He must have some sort of powers."

"A demon's powers?" Robin suggested tentatively. "Perhaps he is god-cursed because a demon has taken over his body."

"No," Tristan said tersely.

"Why not? Tristan, he must be god-cursed. The priests say—"

"He knew about my coming-of-age rite."

Robin was staring at Tristan's hands, smooth nobleman's hands but for the type of blade-cuts that every male Koretian gains in dagger-play as a child. It was a moment before he said, "What?"

"He knew that I failed my coming-of-age rite." Tristan leaned back against the wall, facing Robin, but his gaze was directed toward the floor. "Simon would have told no one about that, yet the Jackal knew. The messenger said that the Jackal was giving me another chance."

Robin's lips had gone dry. He licked them and said, "He guessed. A few boys fail their coming of age each year; he guessed somehow that you had—"

"Perhaps." Still Tristan did not look up. He continued to stare at his shadow, tugged longer by the afternoon sun. Finally he added, "The messenger told me to return home if I wished to accept the Jackal's offer. He said that I would be contacted there."

Robin chewed on his lower lip. The breeze had flattened away, leaving a dead calm in the room and increasing the heat of the approaching midsummer. A wasp, who had entered the austere room and was searching in vain for fruit or sweets, remained leisurely in its pursuit, as though saving its energy for the evening cool. The sound of the market was dying down in the hush of the day. After a while, Robin asked, "What will you do?"


Tristan halted his sentence abruptly. His head jerked up. His eyes, now sharp like a soldier's, turned toward the door. For a moment more, the room held only silence; then a steady knock rattled the wooden door.

Robin overturned the stool in his hurry to reach the door. A moment later, the High Lord entered the room.

His face, as always, held nothing more than careful courtesy and sober judgment. He nodded his greeting to Robin before saying to Tristan, "We missed you at the council meeting this morning, Tristan."

"I am sorry, High Lord. I was not feeling well." Tristan's voice was quiet.

"No matter; the council meetings at this time of year are scarcely worth attending. In fact, I was thinking of following the path of several of the other lords and taking a break from the capital. That's certainly a course of action I would recommend for all my lords."

Robin betrayed himself by the swift intake of his breath. Tristan, who had known the High Lord for longer, simply stepped out of the way as the lord strode over to the window. The High Lord glanced down at the courtyard.

"A lovely view," he said. "I wish that mine were as fine. It was sad about that slave, was it not?"

"High Lord?" Tristan's voice was a mastery of detachment.

"Mm?" The High Lord acted as though he had not heard Tristan's reply. "Ah, I see that the captain of our city guard has arrived; I had best go meet with him. Would you like to come? After all, you are the heir confirmed." The High Lord gestured in a gracious manner.

"No, thank you, High Lord."

The High Lord had already turned away from the window. "I am sorry; I forgot that you were entertaining a guest. It is good to see you again, Robin. I trust that all is well in Valouse? It is a great burden to take on at your age, the barony of a town. But of course you are only holding the barony while your uncle is away. You should persuade him to take time off and return home – to help you with your work, that is."

Robin mumbled something intelligible only to the gods. He held the door wide open for the High Lord, who swept out of the door wearing what might have been the beginning of a smile, if it had not been well known that the High Lord did not engage in such frivolities.

Robin had no sooner closed the door than he opened his mouth, but Tristan was already holding the tips of his fingers against his mouth. He turned toward the window, and Robin joined him there. After a minute Robin saw the High Lord emerge from Council Hall and walk toward a soldier awaiting him.

"Do you think he knows?" Robin asked in a hushed voice.

"He knows." With the High Lord gone, Tristan no longer tried to hide the strain in his voice. "He knew that I watched the slave, and now – may the Jackal eat him – he knows about the Jackal's offer. If I go back to Valouse, he'll have two weapons with which to destroy me."

"Then you won't go?" The relief in Robin's voice was plain.

Tristan shook his head. "I wouldn't go unless I was sure, and I was hardly that, even before this happened. Now— The gods help me, Robin, I don't want to think that I'm holding back out of fear of the High Lord."

"You're not," Robin assured him. "Your better judgment is holding you back. You know that the message you received from the Jackal was trickery."

"Yes." Tristan stared blindly at the shabby slave quarters opposite Council Hall. "Yes, the Jackal is the trickster god. So if the god-man is tricking me, it could be proof that he is a mere man, or it could be proof that he is a god." Once again Tristan smiled his ironic smile as Robin felt himself grow chill in the summer heat.


Tristan shaded his eyes and stared at the evening sun. The priests, he knew, said that the fire in the sky was the symbol of the Sun God, the god of healing. But when the sun took on the red of earth-fire, Tristan thought of the Jackal's fire. Tonight, above all nights.

Incongruously, among his thoughts of death, came the sound of a laughing girl. Turning his head, he saw that a finely dressed young girl stood near one of the entranceways to the council courtyard. She noticed him and eagerly touched her heart and forehead. He did the same and forced himself to smile in return.

Noticing this exchange of greetings, the girl's father paused in his conversation with his wife. He said something briefly that caused both the girl and the handsome woman to smile. Then he walked forward to Tristan, leaving the girl and her mother to stand at the south entranceway, looking out at the sights beyond. Council Hall was built on the highest hill in the city, but little could be seen beyond the trees that covered most of the hill – jackalberry trees, chosen because their wood burned easily in the council's hearths.

"Are you seeking cool country air, Kenneth?" asked Tristan, noting the free-servant leading a line of slave-servants with bundles in their arms. "I'm surprised that all of the council lords haven't swarmed into the countryside like refugees fleeing from a sacked city."

Lord Kenneth emitted a snort of amusement. "I'm on my way from a sacked city to a sacked town, then," he replied. "Ellen, Alisande, and I are travelling to visit Lord Drugo in central Koretia, which is likely to be as hot as the capital. Nor are the dusty roads likely to be much better."

"Comforting Lord Drugo in his retirement, are you?" Tristan said, flicking his eye away from a group of slaves carrying wood through the north entranceway of the courtyard.

"You might say that," replied Kenneth, turning his body away as the slaves passed by his line of sight. "I hear that Lord Drugo is playing host to a noble relation who remains unmarried."

Tristan's eye went back to the girl, who was now singing a Daxion ballad, affording entertainment to the free-men standing nearby. The Living Dead, whether they were entertained or not, took no notice of the singing.

"Gods, Kenneth, you make me feel old," said Tristan. "I remember when Alisande was born. Robin asked me then – with the solemnity which only a five-year-old can summon – whether, as my heir, it would be proper for him to marry and have a child of his own within the next year or two." As Kenneth laughed, Tristan added, "I'd forgotten that Alisande is already thirteen. She's of courting age, then?"

"She has not yet come of age," Kenneth said, "but we thought it best to make plans before every dowry-hunting nobleman in the land descended upon her. Her inheritance is quite large, you know – but so is her heart, and I would not have it broken by a callous husband." He paused as a long trumpet note sounded from just beyond the southern entrance, where Tristan could already see a crowd gathering. The free-men in the courtyard reluctantly moved away from the singing girl, toward the southern entrance. They were followed, at a suitable interval, by the slaves, who seemed even more disinclined than the free-men were to attend the gathering. The High Lord's overseer of the Living Dead stood at the southern entranceway, carefully taking account of the arrival of each slave.

Tristan did not move to join the noblemen leaving the courtyard; nor did Kenneth as he said, "This is a presumptuous question for me to ask the heir confirmed, Tristan, but have you given thought to marriage yet?"

Despite the moment, Tristan felt his mouth twitch. "Many times. When I was younger, I used to make periodic pleas to the King, on behalf of one woman or another. Now that Rawdon is dead, I suppose I could arrange my own marriage, but . . ." He hesitated.

"Matters have been unsettled for you since King Rawdon's death." Kenneth's voice was quiet, though no one remained in the courtyard now but the woman and the girl and a handful of royal guards. Even the overseer, having satisfied himself that all of the slaves were present at the gathering, had slipped through a doorway nearby.

Still speaking in a low voice, Kenneth said, "I ought to have spoken to you before now, I suppose; it is hard to find a time for conversation when the High Lord is unlikely to notice. But I want you to know that, if you should ever need my assistance in any way, I would be glad to help you. Sire."

The final word was barely more than a breath in the wind. Even as Kenneth spoke, the scene before the men shifted, like ice suddenly cracking. A pair of council guards – guards who took their orders from the High Lord, as Tristan was unlikely to forget – noticed the two lords speaking privately together and moved to within hearing range. The woman and the girl, who had been watching the exodus from the courtyard with puzzlement, turned back to look through the southern entranceway. And a door banged open to reveal the overseer holding the body of one of the Living Dead.

It lay limp in his arms, as though it were the corpse it was meant to be. Only a single twitch as the overseer carelessly banged its head against a door revealed to watchers that the slave was not yet dead, but only drugged. Would that the drug were deeper than it was, Tristan thought as he watched the overseer carry through the northern entranceway the slave who had been touched three days before. But the drug was not deep enough; it would not save the slave from what came next.

With his thoughts on the guards nearby, Tristan said, "If you are seeking a good man for Alisande, may I recommend my heir to you? Perhaps I can persuade Robin to begin paying court before the other dowry hunters descend upon her."

Kenneth gave a short laugh, though he too was watching the overseer disappear through the northern entranceway. "I won't begrudge him the money if he is anywhere near the man that you are. Is he still here? I heard that he was visiting you."

"No, he left for Valouse two days ago." Tristan's mind was not on his words; he was watching light suddenly spring onto the northern entranceway arches, as a fire was sparked nearby.

Kenneth noticed the light as well. His gaze travelled back to his wife and daughter, with their backs to the blaze. "In any case, I ought to be leaving. You will not forget what I said?"

Tristan severed his gaze from the light and looked over at the older lord, who had paused as he turned away. Ignoring the guards nearby, Tristan said softly, "Most assuredly I will not forget what you said. Thank you."

Kenneth gave what might have been merely a slow nod, or what might have been a great deal more. Then he led his family away, leaving Tristan alone in the courtyard, but for the High Lord's guards.

They were watching him. He knew that his absence from the gathering would be reported, giving the High Lord yet another opportunity to deprecate his conduct and weaken his standing with the remainder of the royal council. Reluctantly he stirred, meaning to walk forward to the northern entranceway. Instead he found himself ducking through a doorway leading to a series of steps.

The steps were red under the setting midsummer sun, like a glowing coal-bed. Tristan ran up them lightly, barely aware of them in their familiarity. He reached the landing, turned the corner to reach his door, and swung it open, surprising his free-servant, who was beginning to nod off into a nap.

"Oh!" Bayard, whose face was normally filled with an expression of concentrated industry, had the guilty look of a watchman caught asleep at his post. He leapt to his feet. "I'm sorry, Prince Tristan. I thought— That is, I heard the trumpet sound—"

Amused, Tristan waved the free-servant back onto the windowseat where he had been snoozing. "And you thought you'd have a moment of sleep-eye before I returned. I don't blame you. This weather makes me as drowsy as a bee filled with honey."

Encouraged by this sign of good humor from his master, Bayard slipped from his resting spot and went over to assist Tristan, who was struggling to release the stiff catch on his brooch. "Will we be returning to Valouse for the summer, Prince Tristan?" he asked hopefully.

"Not this summer," Tristan said absentmindedly. His eye was on a growing flicker of light, and his ear was hearing the increased roar of a fire. "I have work that will keep me here until year's end." As he allowed Bayard to take his sweat-soaked tunic, he noticed Bayard's fallen face and added, "You deserve a break from the city's heat, though. When Lord Kenneth returns, I'll ask him whether he can spare me partial use of his free-servant so that you can travel back to Valouse for a time."

"You could borrow some council slave-servants right away, Prince Tristan," said Bayard, clearly seeing any delay as too long a delay. "They're well-trained; they'd care for you while I was gone."

Tristan opened his mouth to reply, and then shut it again. His words could not have been heard over the raw, wordless scream that travelled over the courtyard at that moment, bursting through all open windows. His lips tight, Tristan waited as Bayard hurried forward. His servant bolted the shutters, plunging the room into darkness, but for bits of red light from the evening sun and from the Jackal's fire. The fire continued to send the slave on its path to the Land Beyond. The shutters did not succeed in barring the sound of the slave's screams.

"No," Tristan said quietly as Bayard returned to prepare him for his bed. "I do not believe that I will borrow the slaves."


Tristan's dreams burned with fire.

He slept fitfully, his sleep disturbed by the heat – greater than any he had ever known on this eve of the midsummer. Once he dreamed of the slave, staring at the execution fire prepared for it. But mostly his dreams were filled with the malevolent High Lord, listening as Tristan and Kenneth spoke, and revising his plans accordingly. The High Lord lifted his fingers; the guards stepped forward, their swords drawn . . .

So absorbed was Tristan in his effort to escape from this danger that he did not recognize the true danger when it arrived. Yet it came as it had on a handful of occasions in his life: quiet, dark, its eyes gold and penetrating, like the animal for which it was named.

Facing the gaze of the Jackal God, Tristan felt the fear he had felt on every day since, as a self-confident youth, he had discovered that he did not possess the courage to offer his god the demanded sacrifice. His body felt like ice, which was almost a relief, considering the promise of what lay in the Jackal's eyes as it stared at him, its teeth sharp in its grin.

"You did not come when I called." The voice, soft like a whisper of death, travelled over the black space separating the god from Tristan. Despite the chill, Tristan felt himself begin to sweat. He took a step forward.

A moment later, he jerked back, flinging up an arm reflexively. A fire sprung up, deadly in its heat, devouring all that touched it. The Jackal, contemplating his fire, smiled again and looked pointedly at Tristan. "You must cross through the fire," he said softly. "There is no other way."

Tristan felt as though he would choke. He tried to blame the smoke, but he knew that his difficulty in breathing did not come from that. He tried to will himself forward and failed; having failed, he tried a soft prayer of assistance.

He did not know whether what came next was a response to the prayer or was a warning. The flames – man-high, leaping in arcs like a shower of biting arrows – parted momentarily. Tristan saw what lay within: a corpse, readied for death by bands of grey cloth and by a death mask. Yet the corpse was not yet dead. He could hear it sobbing in the fire, drawing him closer, until he stood at the fire's edge, his face now awash with sweat. The corpse lifted its head, and he saw its eyes.

The eyes were filled with despair, and they were his own.


Startled out of the midst of his sleep, Bayard was understandably befuddled as Tristan dragged him from his bed. "Valouse?" he said stupidly, groping with trained obedience for the travelling bag. "We're leaving for the town tomorrow?"

"I'm leaving for there now," said Tristan, pacing impatiently in the quiet darkness of the night as his free-servant filled the bag. "Ready me, and then return to sleep. You may follow me at leisure."

"Travel at night?" Bayard looked with consternation at the shuttered window, behind which lay the sleeping city. "Prince Tristan, it would take the power of the High Lord to allow a man through the city gates, once they've been closed for the night—"

"Then I had better start using my own power, hadn't I?" Tristan said grimly. "It has lain rusty and unused for long enough."

Bayard was quick-minded enough to take his meaning. He swallowed heavily. "As you say, Prince Tristan. But to raise the High Lord's anger over such a small matter . . . Surely it would be best to wait till the dawn."

"I have no time left to wait." Tristan pulled back the shutter and leaned forward, feeling the sweat trickle down his face as the midsummer heat met him. "Indeed," he added quietly, "I very much fear I have delayed too long."