It was the final stretch of time before dawn. Robin could tell that from the patrol patterns of the Emorian soldiers, which had become as familiar to him as the Moon's travels through the sky as she decided which of her children she would embrace with death.
The Moon was hidden tonight by the fog and by the light of the street-lamps, which sputtered in the moist air, sending off the scent of oil. Instinctively, Robin kept to the shadows, hiding the path they had taken from the stables.
It was Tristan who finally broke the silence as they approached the town square. "I shall talk to Percy this morning. He was a great admirer of Kenneth; amongst all the children and grandchildren Percy has managed to cram into his house, surely he can find room for Kenneth's daughter. Though I fear we can do little more for Alisande than provide her with housing and clothing and food. Even if Percy's family should accept her as one of them, she is bound to remain a spinster. She has no money now—"
"I will marry her."
He had not meant to be so abrupt. It had all overwhelmed him: the knowledge of the suffering of an innocent young woman, the knowledge of how complicit he was in her suffering. This was as much a nightmare as the ones his uncle had recounted to him.
But this nightmare, at least, had a potential to be broken.
"Robin, she has no dowry," said Tristan, as though Robin might not have understood. "And her face is certain to be scarred by the mask; it is always that way with the Reborn—"
"Do you think me so shallow that this would matter?" Anger at himself caused Robin to spin on his heel to face Tristan. "Alisande has more courage than any woman or man I have ever known, save you. She willingly suffered a Living Death and sought, in every way she could, to obey the gods. And then, when danger rose so high that she needed help, she had the wit and the endurance to come here. She sought your help . . . She sought mine . . . And I would have let her die, like a dog on the street . . ."
He was not aware he was weeping till he felt Tristan's arm across his shoulders, strong and warm. His uncle said quietly as he steered their path toward the square, "All three of us have much reparation to give before the gods, but we have made a start tonight. You cannot allow your anger at the injustice we have committed to cloud your judgment, though."
"No." Robin used the edge of his cloak to wipe his face free of moisture. They had reached the square now, where his own slave had suffered and died while Robin did nothing to help. "No, I realize that. But what I said before is true: she is the most courageous woman I have ever known, and of greatest compassion. I would be proud if she gave me permission to court her." He said nothing of Percy. Percy might end up being head of Alisande's household, in charge of determining who was given her hand in marriage, but any woman who had done what Alisande had done was a full-grown woman, not to be handed over to a suitor against her own will.
"I would suggest you give her time to heal before you approach her with your suit," Tristan said quietly. "If you press yourself upon her now, there is danger she would accept you out of mere gratitude. Percy's grandchildren are your distant cousins; treat Alisande in a familiar manner as kin, and in time she may come to look upon you as a friend, not merely as her rescuer and protector."
"It was you who rescued her." Calmed by Tristan's advice, which was as sensible as always, Robin looked over at his uncle. They were nearly across the square now, quiet during the final stretch of night. At the far edge of the square, an Emorian soldier inspected the gap between two houses, evidently seeking to assure himself that no law-breakers lurked there. Impulsively, Robin added, "Is there anything else we can do for her?"
"For her and for the others." Tristan's voice was very quiet now as he followed the soldier's progress with his gaze. "But that is my reparation to make, not yours."
Puzzled now, Robin paused and looked harder at the cloaked soldier. He caught a glimpse of a red stripe: the captain's stripe. The soldier was Malise. "You'll approach the captain about Alisande?" he suggested.
Tristan nodded without removing his gaze from Malise. "I have reason to believe he would be willing to intervene on our behalf concerning the fate of a reborn slave. But that does not take the matter far enough. Robin, there may yet be dozens of slaves in this land who are dying at this moment. Some may have spirits who remain alive; others have given up their spirits to the gods, trusting their masters and their ruler to care for their living bodies after their spirits died. I cannot fail them."
The conjunction of the two words "ruler" and "I" closed Robin's throat for a full minute. Finally he whispered, "You will claim the throne?"
Tristan shook his head, his eye centered on the Emorian captain's progress. "Not unless the Chara should release me from my vow. I cannot believe that the gods would wish me to break a blood vow of that sort. But while I am not the King of Koretia, I was once the heir confirmed of the King of Koretia. I refused to wield that power in the past; I will not make that mistake again. This morning, after I have arranged matters with Percy and Malise, I will go to the governor and demand that he permit me to help those of my people who are needlessly dying."
Robin's throat was aching now. He said, "But if you draw attention to yourself, the governor may decide to kill you after all. And if you enter the governor's palace and request audience of him . . . There are Koretians who will never forgive you for that. They will say you have turned traitor." And if Tristan was known to keep company with slaves who could not be reborn, many Koretians would believe him god-cursed. But Tristan did not need to be told that.
"Do you think me so shallow that this would matter?" Tristan's voice was lightly mocking as he started forward again, toward the mansion that had once been his. "Robin, do you not see that this is a night of great rejoicing for me?"
Robin stared at his uncle as though Tristan's wits had fled to the Land Beyond. "Rejoicing?"
Tristan gave a low chuckle as he raised his hand to give the free-man's greeting to Captain Malise, who had noticed them and was watching them from the other side of the square. "You took catechism lessons from Simon; you know. 'The fire before, the fire during, the fire after – which will be the fiercest?'"
"'Pray, my children, that it will not be the fire after,'" Robin recited; then a jolt that rang through his body as he understood. "The fire during?" he asked in a low voice.
Tristan shook his head. "Not even that, if Malise is willing to intervene on my behalf with the governor. No, Robin, the worst I have to fear – the best I have to welcome – is the fire before: the loss of the remaining tatters of my reputation. Truly, the Jackal has blessed me, to allow me to undertake my reparation in this life."
They had reached the steps leading into the mansion. Faintly from the east came a glow that was not the lamps. Around them arose the sound of households beginning to rise for a new day. Malise's orderly, red-eyed with sleepiness, came forward to greet his captain as other soldiers arrived to douse the flames that had maintained the Chara's law throughout the night.
Tristan was standing at the bottom of the steps, but he was not facing toward the main entrance. With his own joy growing in his heart, Robin understood. "You will visit the chapel?" he said.
Tristan nodded. "I have a long overdue prayer of thanksgiving to make. Then I will join you to break our fast before I go to see the captain."
"Before we go to see the captain," Robin corrected. He had duties of his own which he had sorely neglected, he now recognized – duties that would take him beyond the narrow bounds of simply following the path of his uncle. To what degree he himself would enter into the fire during, he could not be sure. But Robin knew one thing as he watched his uncle duck his head to enter the chapel.
Like his uncle, Robin had finally passed his coming-of-age rite.