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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?"

"I—"

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.

o—o—o

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."

o—o—o

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.

o—o—o

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."

Chapter Text

The year 961 after the founding of Koretia: Valouse.


It was closing toward the middle portion of the night by the time the tale was finished. Sipping absentmindedly from the wine that he had brought out at the start of the conversation, Robin stared out the window toward the town square. There the weekly market had taken place that afternoon, for the sake of townsfolk too infirm or too lazy to make trips to the market at the capital, two hours away. A late afternoon breeze had finally brought relief to southern Koretia, cooling the tempers of two young men in Valouse who had earlier been making growling threats to carve each other in a duel. Sighing, Robin hoped the men could settle their differences in a manner less likely to cause a blood feud to arise within the town. At such times, he almost envied the Emorians and their cold-blooded system of court justice.

Now the young men were laughingly engaged in helping a young woman retrieve a hairnet. The hairnet had slipped off when the young woman leaned out a window; she was evidently unable to sleep because of the heat. The hairnet had flown away in the wind and was in danger of falling into one of the street torches. Robin let his gaze drift away from the young woman, who was pretty, but who was a lesser free-woman, and a poor one at that. In any case, the stray look at the square had only been an excuse to keep from looking again at his uncle.

As heir to the baron of an important town, Robin had been forced in his time to serve as judge over criminals when their priest was absent from town. Never, though, had Robin seen a man who looked as miserably trapped as Tristan. His uncle paced up and down against the empty hearth, like a prisoner in his cage, pausing only to look up at the doorway as the sitting-room door opened.

Tristan looked quickly away again. Throwing his gaze momentarily at Robin, he went to stand by the window as the servant, in a mechanical manner, lit additional candles to keep the room bright. Not until the slave was gone did Tristan turn and raise his eyebrows, saying, "Yours or mine?"

"Mine," Robin said quickly, from where he sat in his chair. "I paid for it and the others out of the money my father left me. I bought three of them," he added, anticipating his uncle's next question. "I'm sorry, Tristan. I know that you're opposed to owning slaves, but this war has drained away every able-bodied lesser free-man to the army's needs. I couldn't continue to run your mansion without additional service. I plan to free them in a few years, when this land is back to normal."

Tristan waved away the matter with his hand. "I trust you to make the right decisions in leading this household in my absence, just as I trust you to make the right decisions in leading this town. In any case, 'opposed to owning slaves' is putting the matter too boldly. I accept the priests' judgment of this matter. Or have," he added slowly.

Robin bit his lip hard and felt salty blood trickle into his mouth. Finally he said, "The fire you dreamt of – the Jackal's fire. What did it mean? That the god wishes you to die in his service?"

"Perhaps." Tristan paused at the windowseat, where a lone candle was struggling to keep alive under the heavy hand of the wind. "Or perhaps not. Do you remember what Simon taught us when we were learning our catechism as boys? 'The fire before, the fire during, the fire after.'"

"The fire after," Robin said in a choked voice, fastening on the most feared fire of all. "You mean . . . the Jackal was not speaking of the fire during death, the fire that burns corpses and releases their spirits to enter the Land Beyond. He was speaking of the fire after death: the fire of judgment. Is that right?"

Tristan nodded, his gaze fixed upon the flame. "The god-man and the priests are in this much agreement: they agree that, when men die, the men must enter into the god's fire in order to be purged of their evil. Our spirits' time in the fire will be brief if we have been good men, if we have striven to follow the gods' will, if we have offered our sacrifice to the gods—"

"If we have undergone pain on the gods' behalf in this life," said Robin, remembering his catechism.

"'The fire before,' yes," said Tristan. "But if we oppose the will of the gods, if we refuse to serve the gods . . ."

His fists were clenched, Robin saw, and he was beginning to shake. Robin knew that he should offer words of comfort, but his need for knowledge was greater. "So you think that the dream was a warning?" Robin said. "The god was telling you that your time in the fire after death would be long unless you changed your ways?"

"Unless I came to him," Tristan said softly, his gaze still upon the flame. "That is the only part of the dream I am sure of: that he called me, and I did not come."

"Tristan—" Robin stopped short as the candle, which had been shaking for some time in the wind, suddenly tipped over, falling to the floor. The candle-flame began eating away at the costly imported rug there.

With an exclamation of annoyance, Robin rang the handbell on the table beside him. The slave – one of the slaves; Robin could not tell the difference between the three – appeared at the door, and at Robin's order, came forward to put out the fire.

It did this in the most efficient manner possible, by batting the fire dead with one of its gloved hands. Feeling suddenly queasy, Robin turned his gaze away to Tristan, who had backed away when the fire began but had otherwise made no move. His gaze – momentarily, at least – was on the slave. His eyes quickly switched to Robin.

Being unsure as to the meaning of the look Tristan gave him, Robin said swiftly, "Simon says I can look at and talk to my slaves to give them orders, since I'm their master. He and I are the only ones in this town who can speak to the slaves."

"Yes, of course," said Tristan dryly as the slave departed, closing the door as he went. "So you'd best make sure that you stay well, else the slaves won't so much as eat a crumb of food, lacking your orders."

Puzzled by this sudden outburst of sardonic humor, Robin remained silent for a while, watching his uncle return to his pacing upon the remains of the hearthside rug. Outside, the young men had seemingly been joined by others in their hairnet-catching game; Robin could hear voices beginning to be raised in the town square.

Finally Robin said, "So you will become a thief."

"If I have the courage," Tristan murmured. Then he stopped in his tracks, took a long breath, and said, "Yes. My mind is decided."

Robin hesitated, watching the flickering light paint fire upon the King's heir. Shouts in the square hinted at the start of a duel, but Robin took no notice. "Do you think that I—?"

"Gods, no!" Tristan strode forward and placed his hands firmly upon the shoulders of Robin, who remained seated in his chair. "You have received no message from the god-man, have you?" he asked. Robin shook his head, and Tristan continued, "Then for the love you owe me, do nothing to entangle yourself in the rebellion. It's madness enough for me to do this without placing you in danger as well. I ought not even to have told you of my plans. Forget what I've told you, and keep your mind on important matters, such as finding a well-dowried wife."

Robin allowed his tension to leak out in the form of a prolonged laugh. Even Tristan's mouth twitched, and his muscles relaxed as he added, "Speaking of which, I saw Lord Kenneth yesterday—"

His sentence was lost as the door opened with a crash.

Startled, Robin leapt to his feet. He turned, to see Valouse's priest standing at the doorway, the hem of his robe tangled at his feet. The priest began to speak, and then caught sight of Tristan.

"Prince Tristan," he said formally, if hastily. "I had not realized that you were back. Your servant has arrived in town; he is causing some disturbance at the moment."

"Bayard?" Tristan frowned as he strode forward. "I did not expect him before tomorrow. Are you sure—?"

"Quite sure," the priest Simon said firmly. "Come quickly, please; you will want to stop him before a riot breaks out. Your young servant is telling tale that the Emorians have attacked the capital."

"Oh, gods," Robin groaned. "That's the last trouble we need: rumors to panic the weak-minded. Simon, start spreading the word that this tale is not to be heeded. The Emorian soldiers are well to the north of us; even if they'd broken through our army's defenses, we would have received word long before—" He stopped, having noticed that Tristan stood frozen in the doorway, his lips parted.

Simon had noticed as well. The annoyance in his expression drained away, replaced by something more fragile. "Prince Tristan?" he enquired softly.

"They attacked from the south." Tristan's voice was flat.

The priest's throat throbbed as he swallowed. "So your servant said. You knew this would happen?"

"The whole council knew." Tristan moved finally, pushing his hands across his face and through his hair before stepping into the corridor of his mansion. "We received warning of this several weeks ago, from a man who visited the council. He claimed that the Emorians had made an alliance with the Daxions. He said that the Chara's soldiers would reach us by way of the Kingdom of Daxis, breaching our southern border and attacking the capital." Tristan stopped in an automatic manner to allow the priest to step through the doorway first, and then followed Simon in hurrying down the steps. With a voice still flat, he added, "It seemed an improbable story; the Daxions have been staunchly neutral since this war began. The High Lord didn't believe the warning. He was sure that the tale was a trick and that the man was a thief of the Jackal."

Robin's breath stopped in his chest. As Simon turned at the landing and pushed his way through the door to the square, Robin caught hold of his uncle and said in a low voice, "The same man?"

"Yes, the thief who gave me the message from the Jackal." Tristan's voice was quietly bleak as he pushed open the door to the outer world. "It seems that I have failed to heed more than one of the Jackal's messages."

o—o—o

Bayard sat shivering on the steps to the great hall that had housed the barons of Valouse for centuries, before being turned into a meeting hall for the town council. Someone had flung a blanket over his shoulders, but this did not hide the burns upon his arms or the blade-cut on his dagger-hand. He sipped upon the wild-berry wine he was offered, having angrily refused an offer of Daxion cider.

Nearly all the townsfolk were now crammed into the square, but they had quieted at the presence of Valouse's three most important men: the baron, his heir, and the priest. The fourth most important man – Percy, the elderly head councilman of Valouse – was standing next to Bayard, glaring at anyone who spoke louder than a whisper. The loudest sound came from nearby, where the hairnet-catching young men were endeavoring, without success, to raise Bayard's foundered horse.

"No, how the Emorians breached the city walls is a mystery to me," Bayard said in response to Percy's question. "I was in the city market when it happened. By the time I reached the city gates, the bodies were piled up to the height of the gateposts. The Emorian soldiers had orders to kill any Koretian man who tried to leave the city. We had no choice to try to pass them, lest we be eaten by the fire—"

"Fire!" exclaimed Robin, his gaze travelling swiftly over to Tristan, who had spoken no word since ascertaining that his servant was not badly injured. "The Emorians don't know how to fight with fire."

"Some Koretian must have taught them." Bayard made an effort at a wry smile. Then he grimaced as Simon, kneeling beside him, began to clean his hand-wound. "They didn't learn well," he added through gritted teeth. "The idea they must have had was to force the royal council into submission by ringing Council Hill with fire. But the fire burned so quickly that there was no time for submission."

Robin looked again at the tight face of Tristan, who asked quietly, "Did anyone survive?"

Bayard shook his head. "A few slaves escaped the ring of fire, I heard. . . . One or two lesser free-men. . . . No nobles. The council lords died to a man – or so I heard an Emorian captain say."

Tristan turned suddenly away to face the door to the hall. Around the square, murmuring began, quelled quickly by Percy's glares. To cover Tristan's silence, Robin demanded in fury, "What was the city guard doing during this time? Playing Jackal and Prey like schoolboys?"

Tristan turned back then. His chin was quivering but his voice remained even as he said, "They would have been far outnumbered. The Chara's vanguard has ten times the number of men as the soldiers that our subcommander left to protect the city."

"It is as you say, Prince Tristan," Bayard acknowledged. "The fire was eating out the heart of the city, our men were dying by the moment, and the woman and children . . ." He choked on his words as Simon bound a bandage over one of the burns. His breath heavier than before, Bayard said, "The city guard surrendered in hopes that the Chara would show mercy to the survivors."

Another murmur ran through the crowd, angrier than before. Tristan flung up his hand, and the townsfolk fell silent again. "It may have been the only hope the men had of protecting the women and children," he pointed out, raising his voice so that he could be heard to the far edges of the square. Then, more quietly: "Did the Chara show mercy?"

Bayard nodded wearily as Simon finished caring for his injuries. "The killings and abuses came to an end after that. I heard the Emorian captain tell his men that the Chara had said that he came to rule the Koretians, not destroy them."

This time the crowd proved harder to quiet. Percy was forced to signal the other councilmen to travel amidst the people, urging them to listen further. As the shouts began to die down, Robin, with a face hot with anger, said, "Our army in the north . . ."

Tristan shook his head. His gaze had been scanning the people around him, but he had made no attempt yet to issue orders. "Our army is trapped now between the Chara's vanguard and the bulk of the Emorian army to the north. If our subcommander is wise, he will surrender upon hearing this news."

"He cannot surrender without orders to do so." Percy's dry voice cut through the remaining murmurs like a honed blade through soft cheese. All eyes, which had previously been directed upon Bayard, now turned to look at Tristan. The baron seemed not to notice. He was standing a few steps up from Bayard, his eyes on the city gates to the east of the square.

Bayard struggled to his feet, letting the wine flask drop in his eagerness to turn toward the baron. "Prince Tristan, that is why I hurried here. The Emorian vanguard was making ready when I left; the Chara was taking them from the city. To Valouse."

There was a scream in the crowd, quickly shushed. For a moment, it appeared that Tristan had not heard; then his gaze drifted down to land lightly upon his free-servant. Bayard swallowed audibly and said, "I apologize, Prince Tristan. I ought to have told you that before."

"No need," said Tristan quietly. "I ought to have guessed from the first. It was the obvious next step." Smoothly, unhurriedly, he turned to the head councilman and said, "Percy, see that the gates are closed and every fighting man armed and at his station. Have your wife see to the women and children and old people; there's room enough for them in our council hall, and that building is more easily defended than my mansion."

"We'll fight the Chara to our deaths!" declared Robin fiercely.

"Yes, of course," said Percy, somewhat less enthusiastically, his gaze travelling over the twelve dozen men in the square.

"We'll surrender," said Tristan firmly, silencing Robin's further words with a look. "We'll fight the Chara only if he refuses to accept our surrender. If that happens, we'll go to our deaths to protect our women and children and elders . . . but not otherwise." He turned suddenly toward the hall door, saying, "Call me when the Emorians are sighted. I'll be in the chapel until that time."

The chapel was a beehive-shaped room next to the main doorway of the mansion. Its only light came from the smoke-hole in the ceiling and from a sacred flame on the altar. Along one curve of the wall were the painted masks of the seven gods and goddesses of Koretia. The Raven, the Owl, the Cat, the Fish, and the three oldest: the Sun God, the Moon Goddess, and the Jackal God.

Having given the necessary orders and ascertained that all the townsfolk knew their proper place, Robin entered the chapel tentatively. There was little to note inside. His uncle was standing before the Jackal's mask, his fingers touching the mask near the dagger-shaped teeth of the Jackal's grin. As Robin's footsteps echoed in the chapel, Tristan's hand dropped from the mask. Without turning his head, the baron said, "Not the fire after, it seems. Instead, the fire during."

"Tristan, we'll fight for you!" Robin said, his throat tight.

"You'd die for me." Still his uncle did not turn. "The end would be the same."

"Then leave here! Take your horse . . . travel away from this place . . ."

"The Chara would sack this town. And then he'd sack every town and village in Koretia until he found me."

With the frustration of a caged prisoner, Robin hammered the chapel's stone altar with his fist. "Tristan, you can't surrender to the Chara – he'll kill you!"

"By the Jackal's claws, Robin, do you think I don't know that?" Tristan whirled round then; his face was lined with anger and despair. "Don't you realize that every part of me is screaming in terror at this moment, urging me to flee and keep fleeing until I am safe? Must you make this harder for me than it already is?"

The chapel was quiet but for the sound of Tristan's heavy breath and Robin's suppressed sobs. Outside the chapel door could be heard the voices of mothers urging their children into the council hall, the only building in town that had any pretense to fortifications. Further beyond, in the square, the young men who had caught the hairnet earlier were now making boastful remarks to each other about their performance in the coming battle. The sacred flame ate the air.

Passing a hand through his hair, Tristan said, "I apologize. I ought not to have said such words to you."

"No, it's my fault," said Robin, who was losing his battle to keep the sobs silent. "It's just—" He bit his lip shut, reopening a newly healed wound.

Tristan came forward and wrapped his arms about Robin, as he had done when Robin was a small child and required such comfort from his older kinsman. Then, holding Robin at arm's length, Tristan said softly, "I entrust you with Valouse. If the Chara accepts my surrender as sufficient payment, all will be well. If not . . . You, at least, will be here to give the orders for the battle. I pray to the gods that it won't come to that."

Robin wiped his face on the sleeve of his tunic and struggled to speak, but his words were lost under the shout of the trumpet outside, long and alert.

Startled, Robin turned toward the door. "They're here already!"

"The Chara's vanguard is swift," Tristan said in a matter-of-fact tone, though Robin could see, as his uncle reached for the door-latch, that the hand of the King's heir was shaking. Tristan added under his breath, "May the gods grant that what follows is as swift."

But they both knew that it would not be.

o—o—o

If Tristan had intended to fight the Chara, he would have placed an ambush on the southeast road by which the Emorians would come. And if he had done so, then Valouse would surely have fallen. For the Chara – showing the same military shrewdness that had allowed him to take Koretia's capital – had not led his vanguard down the straight path between the city and the town. Instead, he had followed the torturous forest path that led, after many windings through the mountain foothills, to Valouse's relatively unguarded western gate.

And there the Chara had waited, at the foot of the mountain, spreading out the might of Emor for all to see, but making no move to attack. Tristan hoped this was a good sign.

It was the only hope he retained as he walked slowly toward the Emorians, unarmed. Instead of a blade, he held an evergreen branch, in an effort to keep the Chara's spearmen from sending their missiles upon him. It took all of Tristan's strength not to look back to the walls of Valouse. The townsmen had taken their stations there. Robin, he knew, was watching Tristan's lone progress across the fallow field between the town and the mountain. All of them were watching him; he must not falter.

The winds that had fanned the Emorians' fire out of control in the capital snatched at the branch in his hand, scarring his hand with needle scratches. But the winds could not dry the constant sweat drenching his body. His skin was burning, but his body inside was cold, and was growing colder by the moment. He wondered whether he would disgrace himself by fainting before his executioners even began their work on him.

"The fire before, the fire during, the fire after – which will be the fiercest?" Simon's voice intoned in his ear from years past. "Pray, my children, that it will not be the fire after, for if you endure a greater fire before the fire of judgment, then you need not fear when you face the Jackal in the Land Beyond. Whatever you endure then will be less than you have endured before."

Wise words. Tristan and the other boys of his year had nodded eagerly, praying obediently that the worst fire would not be the last. Surely anything that came before the fire of judgment could be endured.

Or so Tristan had thought. Now he felt his hand shaking. In the moment before he would have dropped the branch, he snatched it with his other hand and grimly continued forward. His teeth were beginning to ache from their grinding.

The line of the army – massive, like a dark ocean – lay at the feet of no less than three mountains. He had aimed himself for the central mountain, the mountain that overlooked Valouse. Now he was close enough that he could see the Emorian royal banner, flickering in the wind. It stretched out like a death shadow, touched on its edges by the light of the full moon shining down upon the ground and lighting Tristan's way.

Tristan had no trouble identifying which of the leather-armored soldiers standing under the banner was the Chara. The Emorian ruler was a towering man; his gold cloak streamed backwards, snapping in the wind. The Chara's face was ice-white, as were the faces of the men around him. Tristan tried not to read too much into the skin color of these northerners, yet he could not help but wish that his fate was being decided by men whose skin was the warm brown of the south.

Nor were the Emorians' expressions – when he reached near enough to see them – of any greater comfort. The Chara's eyes were the color of a winter sky, his face as hard as the frozen ground. Feeling his legs begin to give way, Tristan sent out a silent prayer to his god for assistance in giving him enough strength to deliver his message and be taken out of sight of Robin, still watching from the distance. Once Tristan was taken away, it would not matter how much of his true self he showed.

He came within a spear's throw of the Chara. Soldiers had moved forward. They barred him with the shafts of their spears to prevent him from walking any closer. For one ludicrous moment, Tristan thought that his only contact with the Chara would be an exchange of shouts. But apparently the move was only cautionary. A lieutenant ran his gaze over Tristan; having ascertained that no obvious weapons were in sight, the lieutenant nodded to the other soldiers, and the spears rose.

Tristan's arm was aching. Having been accepted as an emissary, he let the hand holding the branch fall to his side and took the final steps forward, his gaze fixed on the Emorian ruler. This time he stopped himself before the soldiers did, pausing three bodies' length away from the line of army officials. In a voice that contained only the suggestion of a waver, he said in Emorian, "Chara, we have heard that you are now master of the Koretian capital. On behalf of the council of Valouse, I offer you our town's surrender."

The Chara was about ten years older than Tristan. There was not even the suggestion of a waver in his voice as he asked, "Under what conditions?"

"Under no condition, Chara, but only in hope that you will show mercy to our people." Tristan was wondering, belatedly, whether he should have made obeisance to the Chara – though the gods only knew what the Emorian form of obeisance was. From the Chara's expression, it looked as though Tristan's prostration in the dust would not be enough to satisfy him.

In a voice as cold as a slicing blade, the Chara said, "I have one condition for accepting that surrender. Valouse must give to me its baron."

Tristan's scything fear – which had mercifully taken the form of paralysis during the past moments – suddenly made a leap in his blood into a darker form. It took all of Tristan's self-discipline not to burst into laughter. He managed to subdue his hysteria into a wry smile as he said lightly, "Why, that is the reason I am here, Chara. I wished to save you the trouble of asking."

The Chara's gaze raked his body. Tristan could almost feel the incisions in his flesh. Then the Chara beckoned to one of the men standing beside him – a captain who seemed vaguely familiar to Tristan. The captain nodded and said, "Yes, Chara, this is the King's heir. We were introduced briefly by the Koretian High Lord three days ago."

The Chara's gaze travelled more slowly over Tristan this time, taking in the jewelled brooch and belt, the gold-hemmed tunic, and the evergreen branch, now shed of its needles by the wind. Then he said, in the same hard voice as before, "Under what conditions do you surrender yourself, Prince Tristan?"

"Under no condition, Chara, but only in hope that you will show mercy to my people." Tristan's voice was soft and quick. He could feel vomit entering his throat, and he was willing the Chara to finish these proceedings swiftly.

The Chara seemed in no hurry. After a leisurely moment of scrutiny, the ruler flicked his hand, and the guards standing nearby came forward. Sensing their mission, Tristan dropped the truce branch and raised his arms, so that the guards could search his body for weapons. He wondered whether he would be bound now; he had to close his eyes against the dizziness which accompanied that thought. Then he opened his eyes quickly. Robin was still watching. Tristan must maintain his stance for a while longer.

The soldiers finished their search and stepped back. There was a lengthy silence as the Chara whispered to the guard beside him. Tristan resisted the urge to look back at the walls of Valouse for a final time. Instead, he ran his gaze over the bottom-ranked soldiers beside him, wondering which ones were his executioners. Or perhaps they had been left at the capital, making their preparations? Tristan felt the vomit fill his mouth.

"Prince Tristan." Tristan jerked his head round, and saw that the Chara had apparently just finished a brief conversation with the captain who had served as his emissary to the Koretians. The ruler beckoned to him. "Will you come walk with me?" he asked.

After a moment of frozen bewilderment, Tristan swallowed, nodded, and joined the Chara at his side. Looking back, he saw that the Chara's personal guards were walking behind them, close enough to come forward swiftly if trouble arose, but far enough away to be beyond hearing range.

Tristan put his thoughts to the slope they were climbing. The Chara's path led them upward, beyond the line of the army, onto the moonlight-drenched grass of the mountainside Tristan had climbed every day as a boy. The grass crackled under their feet, dry from the midsummer heat; the wind whistled through the bushes they passed. On the slopes above, a jackal gave an eerie howl.

The Chara said quietly, "My spies tell me that when you were offered the throne last year, you refused to accept it."

It was a trap – a lure of escape. Tristan required a moment of respite before he could force himself to say, "Your spies were mistaken. I accepted the throne, on condition that the late King's blood vow to surrender to you be honored."

"You speak of honor concerning King Rawdon?" The Chara's voice was bitter. "He broke every other oath he made to me. Why should you be concerned that his last vow be kept?"

Another trap. Tristan wondered whether these were tests created by the Chara or the gods. He would like to know who to blame for the fire now searing his spirit.

His silence extended long enough for the Chara to say, "Well? Will you defend his conduct?"

Tristan took a deep breath. "Chara, you place me in a difficult position. The King was my kinsman, and he now dwells in the Land Beyond. Our priests teach us that we must leave it to the gods to judge the conduct of the dead."

He held his breath then, but after a moment the Chara nodded. The ruler paused in his path, and the two of them turned in the same moment to look out on the scenery before them.

They were standing above the tree line now. Tristan could see clearly the land he had been raised to rule: the sea of forest, parting only at occasional intervals for fields and villages, pastures and towns. The topmost leaves of the trees were white under the moonlight, like froth on the waves, tossing gently in the wind.

A sapling stood beside Tristan, its lowest branch the height of Tristan's shoulders. Tristan laid his right arm upon the branch, as though he were standing next to the high windowsill of an Emorian room, looking out upon the scenery. "Chara," he said, hearing his voice low under the whistle of the wind, "since we are speaking in this manner, may I ask . . . Is it necessary that I should receive a Slave's Death?"

The Chara was slow in replying, but his answer was firm. "Koretia has been mine since King Rawdon lost his duel against me last year. Since that time, I have been ruler of Koretia, and my son has been the heir to Koretia's rule. While you – by continuing to hold the title of heir confirmed to the Koretian throne – have been a pretender to the throne and a traitor thereby. Emorian law requires that men found guilty of treachery to our empire be sentenced to death by torture."

Tristan made no reply. He was moving his gaze to take in the quiet villages and towns, the smoking ruins of the Koretian capital, and most of all, the untouched walls of Valouse, where he could just glimpse a figure standing over the gate. That must be Robin. Near Robin, two men, overeager to fight, had begun to duel each other.

Next to him, the Chara said, "Do you still surrender yourself?"

A third trap. Tristan prayed that there would be no more; he had no strength left for further tests. "Yes, Chara."

"Why?" The Chara's voice was soft.

Tristan did not move his gaze from the still figure on the wall. "Because if I do not, then my people will be the ones who suffer."

The branch under his arm shifted in the wind. The wind must be turning northwest now, for he could smell the smoke from the city. The voice beside him said, "Prince Tristan, if I were to ask you to take an oath renouncing your claim to the Koretian throne, would you do so?"

This trap he had not readied himself for. He closed his eyes and felt his spirit groan, like a man on the rack.

With his eyes still closed, he lowered his chin and bit the back of his hand. After a while he said with a muffled voice, "Under what conditions?"

"You will retain no noble title from henceforth. I have already dissolved the council of Koretia, and you must give up the barony of Valouse."

Perhaps this would be easier to resolve than he had thought. "And my heir, Robin son of Gaal?"

The Chara would not allow him the easy way to refuse the offer. The ruler said slowly, "I have heard no ill reports against him. Provided that he does not actively oppose the imperial laws, he may inherit your title as baron."

Tristan tried again. "You will require me to take an oath of loyalty to you?"

Again the Chara's reply was slow. "I am told that many Koretian nobles consider such an oath to be a violation of their oath to the Koretian gods, so I have not required it of any Koretian. I will not require it of you. All I require of you is that you pledge yourself not to claim the throne that is now mine. I hope, though, that in time you will come to see the benefits of Emorian law."

Tristan swallowed the blood and sickness in his mouth then and turned his head to look at the ruler beside him. The face was less harsh than before; the lines molding the face had softened, and the eyes were watching him cautiously. "Chara," Tristan said, "I have heard many good words spoken about Emorian law, and about your deeds as a ruler. Nothing I say denies your ability to rule your own people. But we are a different people, with centuries of traditions you know nothing about. We worship gods you do not acknowledge; we live in ways you find strange. I pray that the gods will enlighten your path here, but I believe that it will not be long before it becomes clear – to the Koretians, if not necessarily to you – that you are no more capable of ruling Koretia than I am of ruling Emor."

The Chara's expression remained unchanged. "You have not answered my question."

Tristan felt the blood bruising his temples; he had to close his eyes once more against the dizziness. Sweat trickled down his back.

"I will take the oath you require." The words were a whisper.

He heard the flutter of the cloak as the Chara turned. The ruler's voice was brisk as it said, "You are commanded, then, to attend me at the Koretian capital in two days. At that time, you will offer me the formal surrender of the Koretian government and will publicly swear your oath renouncing all claims, at present and in future, to the throne of the Land of Koretia."

He had heard his cousin issue commands often enough that he knew what he must reply. "I will obey, on my honor," he said, feeling his throat choke on the final word.

For a moment, all was silence, but for the flapping of the Chara's cloak in the wind. Then the Chara said quietly, "Some men will say that you have done this out of fear."

Tristan felt the hysteria growing in him once more. He let it escape in the form of a small smile. "Some men will say that," he agreed.

He opened his eyes finally, to find that the Chara was standing before him, his cloak wrapped about him against the wind. The Chara's eyes were winter-cold once more, but when the ruler finally spoke, Tristan realized that the iciness in the Chara's expression was not aimed against him.

The Chara said, "Such men are fools."

Then the Emorian ruler turned away and started down the mountain, taking his guards with him, and leaving Tristan staring at a figure standing upon a town wall.

o—o—o

Once he had passed through the town gates, they escorted him to the steps of the baron's mansion, gently, as though he were a maiden who had just been violated. He declined to climb to the landing from which official news was announced. Instead, he stood at the foot of the steps, keeping his voice low. Even the men standing nearby had to lean forward to hear him, while the women and children in the windowseats of the council hall leaned further out. Robin kept as close to Tristan as he dared.

"The Chara has accepted our surrender," Tristan said. "We must open the gates of the town to his soldiers. If we do so, he has promised on his honor to show mercy to the dwellers of Valouse."

He stopped then. It was left for Robin to ask, "And you?"

Tristan turned his face toward Robin, as though Robin were the only man there who was listening, or the only man whose response was of importance. "The Chara has spared my life," Tristan said, very quietly. "I have promised to cede to him the throne of Koretia and to renounce all claims upon that throne."

A murmur carried over the crowd, as this news was passed to the far reaches of the square, and throughout the hall above. It took Robin a full minute to recover before he found presence of mind to say loudly, "You did right. Your death would be of no service to Koretia."

"No, of course not," said Percy with less enthusiasm.

Something travelled over Tristan's face then, like a wind over grass. Perhaps it was caused by the murmuring nearby, which had grown loud enough for even Robin to hear. Ignoring the words, Tristan said, "I am giving over the barony of Valouse to Robin son of Gaal, at the Chara's wish and at my own. . . . Sir, I can hear the Chara's vanguard approaching the gates, and I am weary. May I have permission to withdraw while you conduct your business with the Emorians?"

Robin stared at Tristan without comprehension until Percy's hand squeezed his arm sharply. Robin finally realized that Tristan was addressing him. "Yes, of course," he said hastily to his uncle.

Tristan bowed then, as a lesser free-man does to his baron, and started up the steps to the mansion entrance. He hesitated at the threshold, as though suddenly uncertain whether the mansion too was now denied him, and then passed inside as the voices behind him began to break into shouts.

The dawn light had begun to spill through the smoke-hole of the chapel when Robin was finally released from his duties and was able to seek out his uncle. He found Tristan standing before the Jackal's mask, staring at it. His hand was not touching the mask.

"Well?" said Tristan, without turning. "Have they made up their minds yet? Am I a coward, or a traitor, or both?"

The fury that entered Robin's throat so throttled him that he could not speak. After a moment, Tristan turned slowly round. The searching look he gave Robin's face made Robin's spirit ache.

"Neither!" Robin cried, seeing that the words needed to be said. "Those fools, those dolts with minds like sand-beetles'— It's so obvious that a babe should be able to understand. If you refused to take the oath, and the Chara killed you, then half the hot-heads in Koretia would take blood vows to avenge your murder. The war would continue on for months, until the Chara had laid this entire land to waste. The only way you can save us from that is by accepting the Chara's demands, in exchange for your life. If they don't see that—" He choked on the words, and then forced calm into himself.

His uncle was still looking at him silently. Robin walked over to where Tristan stood, next to the wall holding the god-masks, and placed his hand on Tristan's arm. Robin said, "You remember what Simon told us when we were young: 'What men think of you is of no importance compared to what the gods think of you.' Whatever those fools outside may think, the Jackal knows that you did this for Koretia's sake."

"I hope you are right," said Tristan in a low voice as he turned to face the mask of his god. He closed his eyes for a long moment, and then turned away from the mask as he said, "I very much fear, though, that I have just failed my coming-of-age rite for a second time."

Chapter Text

The year 962 after the founding of Koretia: Valouse.


"When the demons began their destruction of the world, they invented triplicate forms," said Tristan.

Blinking, Robin rose from his receiving-chamber chair to greet his uncle. "I beg your pardon?"

"Triplicate forms. Exact wordings of oaths. Rules on the placement of the blood-mark next to the signature. And most especially, rules requiring the use of Emorian in all documents of the law. Thank the gods that Percy required us as boys to learn the barbarian language of the north." Tristan tossed his travelling cloak onto the windowseat before resting upon it. The final days of summer had finally arrived, but the weather remained hot during the daytime; a fine sheen of sweat covered the hollow of his neck. He grinned at Robin, saying, "While I've been busy assisting the demons, how have you been spending your time?"

"More idly than you, it seems." Reseating himself, Robin accepted a cup of wine from his free-servant and signalled the servant to serve his uncle. "Do you recall Ulam and Shimi?"

"The young men whose families have been feuding for four generations? Why, has one of them killed the other?" Tristan's voice was casual.

"Surprisingly, no. I managed to convince them to accept the town court as the final judge of their dispute." Reseating himself, Robin laughed at his uncle's expression.

"May the gods bless you for that," said Tristan, taking the wine without looking in the direction of Robin's free-servant. "And may the gods bless the Emorian court system as well. The Chara was right when he said that the Koretians would soon feel the benefits of Emorian law."

Robin arrowed a look at the free-servant, but the servant's face remained impassive. Robin waited, though, until the servant was gone before saying in a low voice, "So you think the Emorian rule is beneficial to us."

Tristan sipped at the wine before answering. He had settled into the windowseat in a relaxed manner, but the lines at the edges of his eyes grew more furrowed as he said, "The answer to your question, Robin, is No. I did not use my visit to the city as an opportunity to offer my oath of loyalty to the Chara and his appointed governor. And there is no need for you to sneak up on the question like one of the Jackal's thieves intent on cutting an Emorian's throat. When my loyalties change, you'll be the first to know."

Robin felt his face burn. It was at times like this that he wondered what fate of the gods had decreed that someone as young as himself should hold the barony of a town. "I'm sorry," he murmured.

Tristan gave one of the wry smiles that had become his hallmark during the past year. "At least you ask," he said. "The rebuilding of the capital is going apace; I dutifully visited the new homes of my surviving friends and acquaintances while I was in the city. I was permitted to step over the thresholds of about half the homes. And even in those households, it was assumed that my loyalty is now given to the Chara. What else could my oath last year mean, after all?"

Robin uttered a dark curse under his breath, adding, "At this rate, they could easily drive you into the arms of the Emorians."

"Matters aren't quite that bad – though I did allow the Emorian clerk who was helping me with my document to take me out to a tavern one evening. He was a genial man, quite learned in the law . . . and quite enamored with it. He spent more time talking about the Chara's law than some men spend talking about the women they court." Tristan rose, stretching his arms and legs in an exaggerated manner, and walked over to place his empty cup on the table next to the wall.

"Those Emorians," Robin said with a smile. "They worship the law and place it in reverence before all else – they act as though it were a god."

"It is their god – which is why I will not be making my oath to the Chara, however beneficial his courts may be. My service is already pledged elsewhere." As he spoke, he glanced at the small, inconspicuous god-mask placed over the hearth, and then quickly away again from the Jackal's emblem.

Robin opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again as Tristan pulled up the hem of his tunic. He extracted from the pocket strapped about his thigh a folded piece of paper. Tristan tossed the paper onto the table next to Robin. "Here it is. I managed to pass my triplicate form rite."

Robin made no move to touch the document. "The city court permitted the transfer, then?"

Tristan nodded. "No doubt our beloved governor will be howling like a jackal when he receives notice of this, but the court clerk was more concerned about whether my request was lawful than in whether it would please the governor. The clerk said that my request is in conformance with no less than twenty-eight laws. He even gave me a list of sixty-three past court cases dealing with the topic, should the governor try to settle this matter in court. The first of the cases, you'll be interested to hear, dates back to the early centuries of Emor's existence, so it seems that the Emorians are used to men engaging in this trickery." He grinned, and then his smile slowly faded as he looked over at Robin, who was still looking at the folded piece of paper, not opening it.

More quietly, Tristan said, "The document is as we'd planned. All of my land and property now belong to the council of Valouse. With thirty councilmen here, the governor will be hard-pressed to steal riches from them. This mansion belongs to the council as well, but on provision that the mansion be the home of the head councilman; for the foreseeable future, that is you." Tristan came over to stand by Robin. He added, yet more softly, "I'm sorry that I couldn't give the mansion directly to you, as I would have liked, but that would only be transferring the danger from me to you."

Robin released a long breath and fumbled with his wine cup. "Tristan, are you sure that the danger exists? Perhaps if you simply – well, sold a few of your belongings . . ."

His hand reaching forward to lightly touch the law document, Tristan was silent a moment before speaking. Then he said, "When the Chara burned the capital last year, six council lords were left alive in Koretia: myself, Lord Kenneth, and four lords who had retired due to old age. Two months after the Chara's new governor arrived in this land, Lord Drugo – an equivocating, appeasing Koretian who wanted nothing better than to placate his new masters – was arrested by the governor's soldiers. He was taken to the dungeon of the governor's palace, was questioned – by means we can all imagine – and confessed to being allied with the Jackal for the overthrow of the Emorian government. Or so the governor claimed; only Emorians were present at the interview, and Lord Drugo conveniently died under questioning, thus avoiding the expense of a trial. Under conformity with Emorian law, the treasonous lord's belongings were seized by the Chara – or rather, by the governor, who promptly handed Lord Drugo's mansion over to a friend, thus winning applause from the Emorians for his generosity.

"A month later, Lord Kemp – an eighty-year-old man who had spent the past twenty years of his life denouncing the activities of the Jackal – was pronounced by the governor's officials to have been involved in a plot by the Jackal to assassinate the Chara. While being questioned, he died, reportedly after confessing his guilt. His land and property were seized. In short order, two more retired lords were arrested by the governor's soldiers, with the outcome in no doubt.

"Four months ago, I visited Lord Kenneth. I told him, 'We are the last lords left.' And I told him, 'Take care. The governor will be coming for us next.'"

Tristan shrugged and withdrew his hand from the document. Turning his gaze the window, he stared out at the square below, saying, "I have no doubt that Kenneth took care; he could see as well as I could what was occurring. Yet three months ago, Kenneth was arrested by the governor's soldiers. He died under torture, his wife killed herself, and his daughter – now orphaned, without dowry, and associated with a would-be assassin – is said to have been placed in the charitable care of the priests." Tristan locked his hands in a relaxed manner about his upraised knees and cocked his head at his nephew. "No, Robin, I do not think that selling a few of my belongings would be enough to save me from the governor."

Robin had been feeling his blood turn hot during this recital. Now he rose in a furious motion, knocking the chair back, and recited every curse he knew against the Emorians, their laws, and their demonic ruler. Tristan listened with a twist of a smile, but shook his head.

"Even here in Valouse, you should have some sense of how Emorian ceremoniousness makes such infamy possible," he said. "How many forms did Ulam and Shimi have to fill out before the town court would hear their case? If one of the men appeals the verdict to the city court, how long will it be before the judgment is handed down? The Emorians make their court systems deliberately slow, so as to counter the rush to judgment that we Koretians are all too accustomed to making – but in doing so, the Emorians prevent needed quick action." The knuckles on Tristan's hands began to turn white, though his expression could not be seen; he had turned his gaze once more toward the square below. "I sent a letter to the Chara after Lord Kemp was arrested. I received a courteous reply from the Chara's clerk, thanking me warmly for my communication and promising that the matter would be investigated." Slowly, deliberately, Tristan unlocked his hands and relaxed the growing rigidity of his body. "Based on my experience in the city with triplicate forms, I expect that such an investigation will conclude in a decade or so. Robin, do you think your free-servant could bring us more wine?"

Before Robin could respond, there was a tap at the door – a tentative tap. For a moment, Robin's heart rose to lodge itself in his throat; then he realized that the knock must come from his free-servant, burdened with some object that filled his arms. His free-servant had been doing the work of four men, for the past two days.

Robin cleared his throat. "Enter."

Bayard entered, but only briefly, his arms filled with a hen that struggled to be free. The mansion below no longer housed farm animals, as it had in Robin's great-grandfather's day. Occasionally, however an animal from the green space behind one of the nearby houses would wander in and make itself at home in the mansion – an amusing reminder that Valouse, for all its great size, remained a rural town, where most of the villagers grew their own food. Bayard, ever patient, always returned the animals to their owners.

"Sir, the priest wishes to see you." The free-servant kept his gaze firmly fastened upon Robin. Tristan, for his part, had stood up and was making a minute study of the hearth.

Robin felt awkward. He knew well enough that his free-servant – once Tristan's free-servant – had resigned his post the night that Tristan surrendered Koretia to the Emorians. Since that time, Tristan had continued to own the mansion and most of the property in Valouse; the Chara had not stripped the King's heir of his wealth. But Tristan had kept mainly to his own private room, permitting Robin to take his rightful place as baron of Valouse. Robin had usually gone to Tristan's room when they needed to talk.

But now the mansion and all its rooms no longer belonged to Tristan. Now Tristan must come to the baron's receiving chamber and be forced to confront the servant who had made it quite clear, through his actions, that he considered Tristan a traitor.

"Let him in," said Robin belatedly. "And no more callers today, please."

Bayard bowed, as best he could with a feathered prisoner within his arms. A moment later, he re-entered, made the totally unnecessary introduction, and bowed his way out, though with a lingering look. No doubt he was wishing he could witness the ensuing battle.

There was no outward battle; both Simon and Tristan were far too skilled in diplomacy for that. The priest said in an icy voice, "Ah, Tristan; you are back."

"Yes, sir," replied Tristan, equally icy. Turning to Robin, he added in his normal voice, "Sir, I am weary from my journey. I ask your leave to retire for the night."

"You have my leave." He had learned the proper speeches that a baron must give, but had never reconciled himself to using such language toward his beloved uncle. It was with a certain resentment toward the priest's presence that Robin watched his uncle depart the room.

Robin moved over to the window as the priest settled himself in the straight-backed chair that was kept in this chamber for his use. Tristan was just emerging from the front door of the mansion. He paused at the bottom step, and Robin held his breath, wondering whether Tristan would turn toward the chapel. Robin was well aware that Tristan had not visited there – had not so much as attended one of Simon's weekly services – since the day on which Simon pronounced Tristan a coward and a shame to his father's name.

Simon was no soldier, and he had not been present in the capital to witness what the Chara had done there. Robin had not witnessed the capital's crushing defeat either, but he had been trained in arms, as were all Koretian boys and men except priests. Robin knew well enough that Tristan had shown good judgment in surrendering to the Chara's overwhelming forces when their own army was trapped on two sides. Robin had never been able to figure out a way to explain this to Simon, though, and in the meantime, Tristan refused to make any attempt at reconciliation with the priest. Valouse's former baron had exiled himself from the chapel . . . and, quite possibly, the gods' presence.

Something caught Robin's eye, immediately below his window. Something grey. He looked down from his second-story perch, and then quickly away. His heart was beating hard, but for no reason. It was not his, he reminded himself. That corpse had been taken away yesterday, dead in every respect. The body of the grey figure below remained alive, for now. He could do nothing for it.

Simon was saying, "I wanted to discuss with you this autumn's schedule of catechism classes. As you know, Percy's grandsons are scheduled to attend the classes—"

The door burst open. Robin grabbed for his blade – the automatic reaction of any Koretian man who has been taken by surprise. Then he realized that the man standing at the doorway was no blood-feuder, intent on killing Robin.

"Baron," said Tristan, in as sharp a voice as Robin had ever heard him use toward his nephew, "there is a neglected corpse on your street."

For one terrible moment, Robin thought that Tristan was referring to the slave standing below the window. He looked quickly over at Simon.

Simon merely said in a heavy voice, "I passed it on the way here. Yours?"

"No," replied Robin, finally understanding. "It must be from a neighboring village; they've begun to wander, I heard. Mine died yesterday. Its body died," he amended as the priest raised an eyebrow.

Tristan's face had taken on a look of horror. "Are you saying that you have driven out one of your own slaves?"

Robin sighed, a sigh encompassing so much weight that he was not sure he could bear this burden any longer. If only he was still Tristan's heir . . . But then the weight would have been Tristan's.

"Sit down," said the priest in a more kindly manner than he had shown toward Tristan during the past year. "There is more to this than you know. Matters have been apace while you have been away."

"The Chara issued a proclamation," Robin explained as Tristan, implicitly refusing the offer of a chair, closed the door and began pacing up and down in front of it.

"An emancipation proclamation," said Tristan shortly. "Yes, I heard; it was proclaimed in the city as well. I'm sorry, Simon, but if you expect me to speak out against the emancipation of the Living Dead, you will be disappointed. I have never been comfortable with how our land's slaves were treated."

Robin cast a worried look at the priest, but Simon merely said, "The exact manner in which to accept the sacrifices of the Living Dead has been a matter of some debate among the priests for many years. All of us, though, have always agreed that, once that sacrifice has been made, the Living Dead must be cared for until such time as they are capable of caring for themselves."

Tristan stopped pacing. He drew in his breath sharply. Robin, who had sunk down onto the windowseat, leaned forward. "You heard that part of the proclamation, then?"

"I did," said Tristan slowly. "I thought . . . I assumed that the Chara would make provision for the released slaves."

"He made no provisions whatsoever," said Robin bitterly. "His soldiers simply arrived at this mansion three mornings ago, read out the proclamation, and took away my slaves. I didn't even have time to tell them to obey whatever orders they were given by the soldiers."

"The Chara did permit the priests to speak the Rite of Rebirth over all the slaves," Simon assured Tristan. "Most of the slaves from this part of Koretia were taken to the priests' house for a mass rite, but I convinced the soldiers to let me conduct the rite over Robin's slaves myself, in the chapel. Two of Robin's three slaves remained living in spirit; I was able to free them from their bondage."

Tristan let out his breath slowly. "Thank the gods for small mercies. But the third slave . . ."

Robin turned his head away, as though he had been slapped. He had watched the dead-spirited slave stand below his window, looking up toward him, for two days. Only two days, for it had never occurred to Robin that he should order his slaves to drink water whenever they were thirsty. The weather had been hot; by the end of the first day, the slave had fallen to its knees, still awaiting its next order. By the second day, its body was definitely dead.

"It did not suffer," the priest proclaimed in a voice filled with assurance. "It was incapable of doing so. Its spirit died four years ago, when it entered into its Living Death. I was there when it happened, during one of my visits to the priests' house."

Tristan's expression said, quite eloquently, that he disagreed with the priest's assessment. Afraid that Tristan would voice his thoughts, Robin said quickly, "It's no longer here to worry about; it's entirely in the Land Beyond. The other two concern me, though. I had planned to free them in a year or two for faithful service and then offer them what help I could in easing their transition back into the world of the living. They left Valouse in each other's company, but I don't know what happened to them after that. People respect the Reborn greatly, but few are willing to hire them. Do those reborn slaves have kin who will take them in?" He addressed the question to Simon.

Simon shrugged his hands. "Who knows? I was not in the priests' house at the time they were condemned. And who can say whether the kinsfolk's minds have changed? I've heard many a kinsman – even wives – say that they will take back the criminals if the slaves are ever reborn. And then, when the time comes . . ." He let the words linger.

"What can you expect of them, when you have made their husbands anathema to them?" Tristan's voice was harsh. "How can you expect any Koretian to have the courage to look at or touch the Reborn, when we Koretians have spent so much of our lives avoiding contact with the Living Dead?"

This was terrible. This was nothing short of Tristan openly proclaiming his blasphemy. Robin drew in his breath to say something, anything—

Whereupon, for the second time that afternoon, the door burst open.

o—o—o

This time Bayard was close behind the intruder. "Sir," the free-servant said breathlessly, "Captain Malise wishes to speak with you. I explained to him that you are not available—"

"Baron Robin, there is a corpse on a street of your town. Again." The Emorian captain folded his arms, ignoring the free-servant's efforts to pull him out of the chamber.

Robin passed a weary hand over his brow. Too much was happening at once – much too much for a baron who was still only nineteen years old.

"Thank you, Bayard; you need not stay." Robin waited till the free-servant was gone before adding, "We were just discussing the matter when you arrived. Captain, it is your own Chara's proclamation that forbids me and Simon from contact with any slave."

"You have hundreds of people living in this town. All of them are ignoring the dead body." The captain appeared unmollified; his arms were crossed. He was a big man, like most of the Emorian soldiers, but his brawn did not overwhelm his intelligence. Robin had heard that Malise had a much distinguished military career behind him, which explained why he had been placed in charge of keeping captive the town of the former heir to the Koretian throne.

Robin rather liked Malise. The captain was no blustering, blundering soldier; nor was he a sly fox like the governor. He had dealt as fairly with Valouse as his orders permitted; that much was clear. At any rate, all of the maidens in town remained maidens after a year's occupation by Emorian soldiers, which said something about Malise's discipline over his men. And according to Tristan, Malise had played a small but vital role in persuading the Chara to spare Tristan's life, based on Malise's assessment of Tristan's character after they met briefly in Koretia's Council Hall, on the day of the attack.

Robin dared not show his warm feelings toward the enemy captain. He said with formal distance, "Our customs do not permit us to touch the dead. Only our priests and any healing women they appoint may touch the dead." Not quite true in the villages, where death rites were more informally conducted, but certainly true here in Valouse. Simon had always reserved the rites of death for himself, not even bothering to bring healing women into the matter.

"And the living?" said Malise sharply. "The last one stood and knelt outside this hall for two days straight before he died. No Koretian approached him during that time. My men reported that the slave would not even take food and drink and rest when my men offered him that; they guessed that he was following orders from you that forbade him this mercy."

The Emorian captain was a patient man; Robin knew that from witnessing the day when one of the boys in town had decided that the best way to solve the Emorian occupation was to slit the captain's throat. The captain had wrestled the dagger out of the boy's hand and then sat the boy down for a long talk on why attacking a more experienced bladesman is not a good idea. By the end of that talk, the boy had been eager to join the Emorian army.

It was clear, though, that the captain was reaching the limits of his patience, even before Simon said, with ill timing, "That slave was dead already."

Robin was beginning to wonder whether this chamber would be witness to the first slaying of a priest by an Emorian soldier. Then Tristan spoke up. He had moved unobtrusively to the shadows of the room when the captain entered; now he said, "Sir, I fear you have not received the briefing you ought to have received on Koretian customs concerning slavery. Would you consider it an impertinence if I were to pass on certain information you may need in order to keep the peace in this town?"

Tristan, Robin had long ago observed, had himself learned a great deal about keeping the peace during his years in the King's cut-throat council. The captain immediately relaxed, saying with equal courtesy, "I did not realize you had returned to town, sir. Yes, I would welcome any light you can shed on this matter."

Tristan stepped out of the shadows. He wore a lesser free-man's tunic these days, which always looked odd to Robin. But Tristan still wore the jewelled sheath and dagger he had received from the late King during the time he had spent training to eventually replace the King as Commander of the Koretian army. Robin sometimes suspected that if the King had only loosened his hold on Tristan and permitted him to assist the subcommander, their army might have won against the Koretians, Instead, Koretia had simply accomplished the extraordinary feat of holding back the combined imperial armies of Emor for a dozen years.

If Tristan also regretted the lost opportunity to smash the Emorian soldiers to pieces, there was no hint of that in his voice as he said, "This is a mystery which is difficult to explain to outsiders. It delves deeply into our sacred beliefs, which I know you do not share. But our tales say that long ago a criminal, who was condemned to die, offered his own life up in such a manner that, while his body continued to remain useful for labor, the rest of him . . . Well, I suppose you would say that his mind died. He could obey orders, but no more than that. He had no more awareness of what happened to him than a dumb animal does."

Robin had often wondered, during the past year, what beliefs, if any, Tristan retained. Had his uncle travelled past heresy into the unbelief that afflicted the northern inhabitants of the Great Peninsula? It was a fear that had kept Robin awake on some nights, but he had not possessed the courage to put the question to his uncle.

Now, with a relief like a shower on a dry day, Robin saw that this much, at least, his uncle still believed and revered: The first man to enter into a Living Death had willingly sacrificed his spirit in order that his body might make payment for his crime. That sacrifice had been accepted by the gods.

"I have owned many a dumb animal," said Malise slowly, "and none of them have I treated as you Koretians treat your slaves. Are you saying that all slaves are mind-crippled in this fashion? That they have all had their minds gelded?"

Robin had heard enough about the lives of Emorian slaves to feel that Malise had no right to pass judgment over the Koretians. The very word "gelded" was an Emorian word; the Koretian language held no such concept.

Tristan remained tactful, though. "Not all, no. Some slaves have spirits that— Have minds that remain alive. All slaves, whether they are believed to have living minds or dead minds, are granted special rites when they are freed. Simon was saying just now that the Chara permitted such rites to be performed by the priests. In cases where the reborn slaves' minds remain alive, these rites restore them to normal life."

Normal life. Robin wondered how life could ever be normal for the Reborn, scarred by their masked period of living death. He thought again of the two reborn slaves who had left Valouse together, and whose names Robin would now never know.

Robin had to force himself not to look out the window again. The slave below was dead, he reminded himself. The Rite of Rebirth had been performed over it, and the rite had failed. It would be sheer folly for Robin to risk his own life for the sake of a dead man.

Malise was frowning now. "And the others? The ones whose minds are dead, as you put it?"

"Cannot be released from enslavement," said the priest tersely. "They are already dead. They retain only the will to obey their masters."

Robin leaned forward. "Captain, by our customs, slaves may only be spoken to by their priests and masters and overseers. I cannot even speak to any slave that is not my own. But if you would permit Simon to talk to any slaves who should happen to wander into this town, and let him give them new orders—"

"No!" Again, the captain's tone was sharp. "The directions I received from the Chara were clear. No priest or noble or representative of a noble is permitted to have contact with any former slave. You were the ones who misused the slaves; you cannot be trusted with their care again. You may not contact them or ask others to contact them, on penalty of death."

Robin bit off a stinging retort. The captain was merely conveying the order he had been given; it was the Chara, not Malise, who was responsible for this terrible situation.

Tristan said in a level voice, "It can hardly be termed misuse for us to save the bodies of slaves who are dying of hunger and thirst, unable to drink and feed themselves without orders. Surely there must be some way to resolve this problem in a manner that will satisfy your Chara, as well as the justice he is committed to defend."

The captain sighed, passing a gloved hand behind his neck, kneading the flesh there. "I will have to think further on this. I must deal with the matter of the corpse first, though. Will you join me for dinner this evening, so that we can discuss this? And you two gentlemen as well," he added belatedly to Robin and Simon.

Robin was not offended. If anything, the problem of Malise's friendliness was one that he was quite happy to throw into his uncle's arms.

His uncle responded exactly as Robin had known he would – exactly as he had every time Malise had made this offer. "My duties do not permit my attendance, I fear. I think I speak for our baron and priest as well."

A safe assertion to make; not a single resident of Valouse had entered the Emorian army barracks since the town was imprisoned by the Chara. If Malise or his soldiers wanted to talk to the Koretians, he must come to them. It was one of the few ways in which the Koretians could fight their captors.

Tristan added with a bow, "Baron, if you will excuse me . . ."

"I'll see you to the door," said Robin quickly. There was a question forming in his mind that he had wanted to ask before. Had wanted to ask for over a year now.

He waited until they were at the bottom of the stairwell that led to the door outside. Faintly, he could hear Malise and Simon exchanging pleasantries, both with a stiffness that suggested they disliked each other intensely but knew that too much lay at stake for them to express their hostilities openly.

"Tristan," said Robin in a voice too soft to carry, "I had been meaning to ask you . . . I wasn't sure whether you could tell me . . . Did he come for you? Did he ever come?"

Tristan's dark face was nearly black as night in the shadows of the stairwell. "No," he said in a voice that was beyond weariness. "The Jackal has never called for my service. I suppose he never will, again." He squeezed Robin briefly on the shoulder as though Robin, not he, required the comfort. "I'll visit you tomorrow," he said and slipped out of the hall, before it had begun to occur to Robin to ask Tristan where he planned to sleep.

Chapter Text

The corpse was gone, presumably taken away by Malise's men. The evening had turned cool with the coming autumn. Like late-summer fireflies, Emorian soldiers distantly passed by with torches, pausing occasionally to light street-lamps. Glancing their way as one of the lamps swayed on its chain, Tristan reflected to himself that one promise which the Chara had very much kept was to reduce crime in Koretia. In the daytime, the Chara's courts dispensed justice; at night-time, the lamps frightened away thieves and assailants and murderers.

But always, at whatever time of the day, there were soldiers: uniformed men looking with suspicion at any man or woman or child they met, and with the right to detain and imprison whomever they wanted. Tristan felt his fists tighten. This was not how matters were run in Emor itself, he had heard; there the soldiers had a lighter presence and were authorized only to arrest criminals in the act of conspiracy or crime-doing. Here in Emor's newest dominion, the definition of "crime" was expansive; anyone suspected of harboring ill feelings toward the Chara, or even toward the Chara's greedy governor, was subject to arrest.

If anyone might be suspected of ill feelings toward the new government, it was Tristan. For months now, he had awaited the inevitable moment when the Chara's soldiers would arrive at his door and take him away to that dark dungeon which would serve as his entryway to the Land Beyond.

And the fire after?

Having drunk his fill of the place where the slave had died, Tristan forced himself to move forward again. He had been standing there for a long time – long enough for the conversation in the baron's receiving chamber to have ended. Tristan passed Captain Malise, who was too deep in conversation with his young orderly to notice. The orderly paced beside the Emorian captain, his hands crossed respectfully behind his back. A Koretian boy, a native of Valouse, not even come of age yet, but the captain had managed to lure the boy into his service. How many more young men would turn their loyalties toward Emor in the coming years? In certain ways, Malise was more a danger to Valouse than the governor was. The governor could only be feared and hated, but Malise was a good enough man that young Koretians might seek to imitate him.

Tristan drew past the sight of the Chara's jail-keeper and the bobbing torches, reaching the darkness at the fringe of the town. Here, immediately next to the western gate that Tristan had walked through a year ago, stood a long building that, not long ago, had been entirely inhabited.

He glanced round to see whether anyone was watching – a foolish, prideful move, for everyone in town would soon learn to what depths their former baron had fallen. Nobody was in sight, though; the soldiers did not patrol this far, and none stood on the town's ramparts, for Koretia had remained in relative peace since the Chara claimed the Koretian throne. There was no one to watch as Tristan fumbled with his keys, locating the one he needed. He opened the door.

The smell of the former inhabitants lingered. If he closed his eyes, he might imagine them as he had known them all his life: stall upon stall of the most beautiful horses in the Kingdom of Koretia. The men of his family had owned a stableful of horses for generations, carefully breeding and buying to guarantee that the barony of Valouse possessed the finest, swiftest horses in the land. When Tristan turned six and received his first blade, his late father had permitted him to choose among the colts. Tristan had chosen the colt he named Hengroen. Hengroen had been his favorite horse from that time on, the one he rode daily.

He opened his eyes. In the dim twilight leaking through the shuttered windows, he could see the empty stalls, cleared of their horses and hay and all other reminders of Tristan's former wealth. Robin, fortunately, had never possessed the passion for horses that Tristan had held since boyhood; Tristan had not been forced to agonize over whether to retain the horses for Robin's sake. Tristan's feeling of emptiness was a private one, not to be spoken aloud.

The emptiness increased as he walked slowly down the long aisle of the stables, looking at each stall, remembering each lost inhabitant. Horses had been his quiet companions all his life. His father, catching him after he spent a night curled up beside Hengroen, had said with amusement that Tristan treated horses more like pets than like working tools. That had been soon before his mother had died of the summer sickness and his father died in Koretia's most vicious and widespread blood feud. After that time, Tristan had been Baron of Valouse, only lightly regented by his cousin the King, who lived in the capital. In those years before Tristan was assigned to the royal council and forced into the unpleasant politics of the capital, he had spent as much of his time as possible with the horses.

A private grief, he thought to himself as he paused to look at where Hengroen had once lived. The wooden stall was smooth to his touch after generations of use. The scent of Hengroen was still strong; he and the other horses had been sold to a trader shortly before Tristan left for the capital.

A grief he must now put aside. Yet it was hard to think of what he should put his grief aside for. Tomorrow, deprived of all other income, he would have to seek out work. Perhaps the town council, out of pity, would be willing to hire Tristan as a scribe. He would spend his days bent over the table, scribing copies of documents that, as Baron of Valouse, he would once have ordered to be scribed.

He reached the final stall. Inside it was a cot where the head groom had sometimes slept on nights when one of the horses was sick or expecting a foal. There was a chamber-pot beneath the bed and a pitcher of water upon a basin. The head groom, now hired by Robin to care for the new baron's single horse, had gone to the trouble of filling the pitcher in anticipation of Tristan's arrival back to Valouse. Someone – his wife, perhaps – had added the gift of a small basket of wild-berries, covered by a cloth against the late-summer flies.

It would be Tristan's only food until he earned himself a day's wages; the last of his pocket-money had been spent that afternoon to hire a farmer to carry him in a wagon to Valouse. He could have begged spending money from his nephew, of course. But pride prevented him from revealing to Robin, who still adored him, that the man formerly destined to rule Koretia was now a penniless commoner living in a stable stall.

He was not doing a very good job of staving off self-pity, he reflected. He opened the shutters to let in the last of the dusklight. As he did so, he caught a glimpse of something moving outside. Something clothed in grey, with a face made of metal.

He slammed the shutter shut and stood there trembling. Everything tonight seemed to serve as a temptation to break the law – even the poor slave he had earlier noticed beneath Robin's window, dying as it awaited orders.

The slave's spirit had died long ago, he reminded himself. It was dead, and Tristan remained alive; he must do everything he could to stay so.

But the sight of the dying slave left a sourness in his stomach. With his stomach still growling from hunger, Tristan lay down under the scratchy blanket left by the head groom, so different from the soft blankets he had left behind in his old home.

Sleep was what he needed. Life would look better in the morning.

Sleep came, and with it the nightmare.

o—o—o

Quiet, dark, its eyes gold and penetrating, like the animal for which it was named, the Jackal God stood waiting in the darkness. "You did not come when I called."

"Jackal." His voice was hoarse; it echoed in the darkness. "I would have entered willingly into the fire during, for the sake of my people. I would have died an agonizing death. Was it wrong for me to have rejected that choice? Is that why I remain separated from you?"

Fire began to rise, its flames higher than in the past. The Jackal looked upon him steadily. "You must cross through the fire. There is no other way."

The flames parted. He strained to see what lay within: a corpse, readied for death by bands of grey cloth and by a death mask. The corpse lifted its head . . .

The eyes of the dying corpse were filled with despair, and they were his own.

o—o—o

He awoke with a jerk and lay trembling for a while, the sweat cold upon his skin. His surroundings were black; if it had not been for the horse-smell, he might have thought he remained trapped in his dream.

Then a panic arose in him. Perhaps he was still in the nightmare. Perhaps he was now the corpse behind the flames, about to undergo eternal agony for his crimes against the god. He flung himself onto his feet.

He could feel that he was wearing a tunic, but that told him nothing; he had been so weary that he had gone to bed without stripping off his tunic. If he was still alive, somewhere in the darkness lay his belt with his sheathed dagger, but he was too frightened to take the time to search for it. He groped forward, found a wall, and used it to guide him to a door.

He located the door eventually and flung it open. All that he saw and felt was cold darkness.

He had a moment for his panic to reach its peak before he turned his head and saw something glowing like fire. Stumbling forward, he reached the rest of the town.

Valouse was wrapped in fog that was touched golden by the torches, sputtering and wavering in the moisture. The torches cast dancing light upon the houses, as though the houses were death spirits moving through the night.

Oddly enough, the imagery reassured Tristan. This was the town he knew, the town he had been born in and would someday die in. On many a night as a boy, he had slipped out of his bed and crept through the streets, imagining that he was not a nobleman's heir but instead was an ordinary boy, like any other.

Tristan felt a smile touch his lips – the smile of irony that had begun to feel more and more familiar during the past year. Well, he had received his boyhood wish; perhaps the gods' deeds were gentler than he had imagined.

Drawn forward by the silent mist, he made his way from street-lamp to street-lamp, following the sound of the lamps' clinking chains as much as the light. Further away, somewhere beyond him, was the steady step of a soldier patrolling; Tristan could see the man's lantern bobbing, but the man himself was hidden by the mist. Tristan ignored this reminder of the Emorian oppression, instead watching old, familiar landmarks loom out of the darkness: The house of Percy, who had retired as head councilman the previous year, handing over his title to his baron, in the older fashion of town government. The former council hall, now taken over by the Emorian soldiers as their barracks. The fountain and square where the people of Valouse gathered on important occasions. The baron's mansion and its chapel—

Something caught Tristan's eyes from the alley he was about to pass. Something grey, amidst the golden mist. Something looking toward him.

The eyes of the dying slave were filled with despair.

Tristan stood still a moment, unable to breathe, feeling the inevitability of this moment that had been building for over a year now.

He had no doubt what he must do. He merely doubted he possessed the courage. But the god had called him twice now as a slave died. He had allowed the other slave to die in agony – had allowed countless slaves to die, during his years as a young council lord. Little wonder that the Jackal's biting flames reached toward him in his dream. The only mercy was that the Jackal God, ever patient, had been willing to call him again.

His body now shivering from renewed sweat, he walked slowly toward the slave. As he reached within sight of it, he saw what he had failed to notice during his quick glances at it the evening before: the slave had once been a woman. Its gown covered its legs, its feet, its torso, its arms. Gloves covered its hands. Behind the mask, eyes watched him.

He was still trying to think what to do when the slave wobbled and fell.

He managed to catch hold of the slave in time, but the momentum of its fall pushed Tristan down onto the ground. He sat there for a moment, stunned by this turn of events, with the slave still lying within his arms. The slave felt fragile and small; if he had not known that only adults could be enslaved, he would have assumed this was a child.

It was beginning to moan now as it awoke. Automatically, Tristan looked around—

It was then that he heard the footsteps and saw the bobbing lantern.

o—o—o

He closed his eyes, bowing his head over the slave. "Give me courage, Jackal," he begged in a whisper. "Give me the courage I need." The fear cut into him like a blade.

The moans had stopped. Perhaps the slave was dead now. Perhaps he was risking his life for a corpse. The slave was already a corpse, whether or not its body remained alive. The Rite of Rebirth had failed upon it; it could not feel or think, only do. He was risking his life for a dead woman.

The slave was fragile and small. He held onto its body, his head bowed, as the steps slowed and stopped.

Finally he dared to look up. Captain Malise stood at the entrance to the alleyway, holding his lantern high so that it shone upon Tristan and the slave. The Captain had a reflective look in his eyes; his hand rested upon the hilt of his sword. Tristan waited, the fear too painful now to allow him to speak.

The Captain's gaze suddenly swung away. So did his lantern. He began to walk forward again, slowly and deliberately. As he did so, he whistled under his breath a tune that Tristan was unfamiliar with: a pattern of high-low-high that trilled into the golden mist and was lost in the night.

Tristan finally let out his breath. He looked down and saw that the slave was staring up at him.

He smiled at the slave. "Come with me," he whispered, as though the slave could understand. "I'll bring you to safety."

Chapter Text

It was nearing bedtime, and Robin was beginning to form excuses in his mind to ask Simon to leave, when his uncle unexpectedly burst into the room and upended Robin's world.

Tristan did not so much as glance in Simon's direction. His eyes were wide and wild, as though he had been fighting in battle, although he was unarmed. He said abruptly, "I need you, Robin."

Robin automatically put down the wine cup he was holding and reached for his sword. Tristan's very expression told him that, even if physical battle was not necessarily needed in this crisis, Robin's formal presence as a baron was.

Frowning, Simon continued to grasp his own wine cup, demanding, "What is the matter here?"

Tristan barely glanced his way. "A slave is in danger of dying."

Robin's hands froze in the middle of clipping his sword-sheath to his belt. The very room seemed to freeze, as though taken out of time.

Simon set down his cup on the table with a small, decisive click. "Tristan," he said, his voice as grave as it ever was, "are you confessing that you have in some way had communication with one of the Living Dead?"

"I'm sure that's not what he means," said Robin hastily, though he was not at all sure. Tristan's eyes remained wild.

His uncle's voice was calm, though, as he replied. "A slave is dying," he repeated. "A slave whose spirit is alive."

Glancing at Simon, Robin reached for his summer's-night cloak, with the gold hem designating his rank as a high nobleman. The cloak had been Tristan's, once.

Simon said, "That is impossible." But he too sounded uncertain now.

Tristan turned away from him, in what appeared to be a deliberate gesture of dismissal. "Robin, I can't stay here. Are you coming?"

"Yes, of course." But as he spoke, Robin looked over at Simon, worried.

Recovering from his momentary confusion, the priest said in a warning voice, "Whatever the state of the slave's spirit, that is no business of yours, Tristan. You are not its master, and if you attempt to communicate with the Living Dead—"

But Tristan was already gone, leaving the room with no further word. Robin hesitated again, looking at the priest.

Simon's lips had thinned. After a moment, the priest said, "I had best see what this is about. Come with me, baron. I may need your sword."

Robin felt his stomach twist as he followed in the priest's wake. He knew what Simon meant, of course. To contact or even look at a member of the Living Dead when you were not its master, or were not a rightfully appointed supervisor of slaves, was to violate one of the strongest tenets of the gods' law. And though trial by the gods' law had been abolished by the Chara, the Emorian ruler had replaced this particular law with one of his own.

What would Robin do if Simon ordered him to place Tristan under arrest for contact with a slave?

It was damp and foggy outside. Robin trailed behind Simon, increasingly miserable. Never before in his life had he hesitated to back his uncle in any enterprise. Just a few hours before, he had implicitly hinted that he supported Tristan's heretical belief that the Jackal was a god-man.

But to support Tristan when he was seeking to secretly work for a rebel heretic was one thing. To openly defy the priesthood of the seven gods and goddesses was quite another thing. What would happen if Robin refused Simon's wish to uphold the gods' law?

What would happen to Robin's spirit?

They had reached their destination. Robin recognized where they were, and in a moment of shock, he recognized the significance of why they were there.

But he had no time to contemplate Tristan's choice of new living accommodations, for Tristan had slipped inside, leaving the door ajar. Simon took advantage of this to follow him inside.

Robin drew in a deep, shaky breath. He still did not know what he would do. But perhaps the need to act would be taken from him; perhaps he would not be required to choose between his uncle and the priest who held the care of Valouse's spirits in the sight of the gods and goddesses. Wiping his damp palms on his tunic – he might still need to draw that sword – Robin opened the door.

After Robin closed the door behind him, it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. The only light in the stable came from the final stall. Both Tristan and Simon had paused just short of the stall. They were waiting for him. Robin hurried forward, placing his hand over his sheathed sword so that it would not rattle as he approached. Something about this situation seemed to call for silence.

So it was that, when the three of them entered the stall together, the slave was taken unawares.

It was much smaller than Robin had anticipated. Having barely glanced at it from the receiving-chamber window, Robin had somehow imagined that the slave was a big, hulking creature. But this slave had limbs that looked as fragile as any kitten's, and it was wearing the gown of a slave-woman's corpse. Its face was hidden by the mask, of course, but everything about its pose spoke of caution. It was sitting on the cot, and beside it was a closed flask of water and a basket of wild-berries, so close at hand that Robin knew Tristan must have placed them there. Both the water and the berries appeared untouched so far, but just at the moment they entered, the slave had tentatively begun to pick up one of the berries.

Then the slave saw them. With an inarticulate cry of horror, the slave dropped the berry, flung itself off the bed, fell to its knees, and bowed its head till its forehead nearly reached the dirty floor.

Robin felt even more sick than before. His own slaves had been in the habit of prostrating themselves before him, but he had never given the matter much thought – had never allowed himself to think much about what they were doing. Now he saw how painful a pose this must be for any slave, and how much it strained the fragile limbs of the slave before him.

Tristan was looking at the priest with his wild eyes, as though daring him to come forward to punish the slave. Robin envisioned what might happen next, and then, in three steps, he had unsheathed his sword. Three steps more, and he turned to bar the priest from coming near either his uncle or the slave.

There was a pause, broken only by the sound of the slave sobbing. Tristan had stepped forward to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Robin. "Well?" Tristan said in a harsh voice, folding his arms.

Simon licked his lips and peered down, apparently trying to look again at the slave. Robin did not move out of the way, though his heart was pounding. He had no idea what the penalties were for resisting the will of a priest, but he was sure they must be grave. Perhaps he had already condemned himself to an eternity of being eaten by the Jackal's fire.

But the alternative was to allow the priest to harm this poor, sobbing, dying creature. That was unthinkable.

At least Robin would have Tristan's companionship during their eternal torment in the fire.

Simon cleared his throat. He said, "Something has clearly gone wrong. A slave that has given up its spirit in repentance of its crimes cannot cry. You must allow me to question this slave. Perhaps it was overlooked when the rite was performed over the Living Dead at the priests' house."

Robin risked a glance at Tristan. His uncle's expression remained both wild and hard, but after a moment Tristan nodded and stepped back. Robin did the same, but he kept his sword unsheathed. There was no knowing what the priest intended.

If Simon felt intimidated by this show of force, he hid his fear very effectively. He said in a voice strong with authority, "Leave off that crying. I wish to question you. Kneel before me."

The slave scrambled to obey. It actually scrambled, like a frightened toddler, ending up at Simon's feet. The slave crouched there, as though expecting to be hit.

Now, for the first time, Robin could see clearly its mask. The mask looked identical to the iron death masks that were placed over the faces of corpses before they were burned. The only difference was that the heavy chains at the back of the head had been welded to keep the mask permanently in place. Robin wondered suddenly how the slave was able to sleep at night, with such hard chain-links digging into its skull.

Had any of his own slaves ever received a restful night of sleep?

The slave was whimpering now, clearly expecting to be punished for its terrible crime of trying to eat a berry that had been given to it by someone other than its master or overseer. Increasingly sure that he would vomit before this episode ended, Robin shifted so that he could place himself between the priest and the slave, should the priest seek to increase the slave's curse in some manner.

"Slave," said the priest, his voice still strong with the resonance of the gods' representative, "does your spirit remain alive?"

For a terrible moment, it appeared that the slave would not reply. Robin ought to have been relieved; if the slave's spirit was dead, perhaps this stand-off between himself and Simon could end. But somehow, it did not make a difference in Robin's mind whether the slave's spirit was still alive or just appeared to be. What crouched before the priest was a living, breathing body. Robin was suddenly quite sure that the slave's body was just as capable of experiencing pain as his own.

He thought then of the slaves that Tristan had told him about, the ones that died screaming in the priests' flames. Had they felt such torment as Robin himself might feel? Could the gods truly require such a death, even of the god-cursed?

The slave gave a little jerk of a nod. It had not looked up yet. Tristan had knelt down beside it and was looking at it, though he had not gone so far as to touch it. Robin felt sweat begin to trickle its way down his back.

The priest sighed, as though facing an exasperating regulation that had twisted his path from its goal. "I will need to perform the rite. You two should leave."

"No," said Tristan flatly, before Robin could speak. "The rite will work, regardless of whether there are witnesses. If the rite is even necessary."

These final words were mystifying, but the priest had apparently passed beyond the point of trying to make sense of Tristan. Instead, Simon reached down and placed his palm upon the forehead portion of the slave's mask. Robin's grip tightened on his hilt. But what followed was clearly the Rite of Rebirth, though Robin had never before heard the words which pardoned the criminal of its guilt and restored the Living Dead to the presence of the gods and goddesses.

After the rite was finished, there was a small pause. Robin heard in the direction of the Emorian barracks the trumpet-call that signified the midnight hour. The Emorians were obsessed with time-keeping. The priest, wiping sweat off his face with a face-cloth, stepped back from his strenuous work as he looked down at the figure which remained crouched in front of him.

Still kneeling beside the reborn slave, Tristan said gently, "You may speak now. The Rite of Rebirth has been performed."

The reborn slave looked toward him slowly, apparently still bound by caution. With the mask pointed away from Robin, the reborn slave said hesitantly, "Prince Tristan?"

Tristan's eyes seemed to turn glazed, all in a moment. He swayed in his kneeling position, as though he were about to pass out. Robin said sharply, "What is it? Do you know the slave?"

"I know her." Despite his apparent shock, Tristan kept his voice very even. "She is Lord Kenneth's daughter."

o—o—o

Alisande was befuddled with sleep when the soldiers came for her father. She remained befuddled for a long time afterwards.

All she remembered from the arrest was soldiers shouting, and her mother wailing, and her father saying in that calm voice for which he was renowned, "Let her alone. She has nothing to do with this."

It took her some time to grasp that she was the one her father had sought to protect.

She was not ill-treated – not at first. She was taken to the priests' house and placed in the custody of the healing women there, with Emorian guards watching her door, to be sure she remained imprisoned. The healing women knew no more than she did what had happened to her parents. After a while, even they were not permitted to visit her.

While she was within the priests' house, her time came to enter into womanhood. She was bewildered and frightened, with no woman to explain to her the significance of these mysteries. For a while, she thought the blood was a sign she was to die.

Then she learned the truth: she was to die.

It was one of the priests who came to her and told her. Her father, the priest said, had confessed to treacherous acts against the Chara and his governor and had been duly tried and executed. Alisande's mother, guilty of hiding her husband's crimes, had killed herself rather than undergo just punishment for what she had done.

It had taken time for Alisande to grasp her own guilt. At first, she was sure that some mistake had been made; her beloved father could not possibly be guilty of any crime.

But with the priest's patient guidance, she came to realize how all of those whispered conferences between her parents – all those heated references to the governor – were in fact plots against the Chara. She came to grasp how she herself was guilty for not having reported her parents' criminal acts to a priest or a soldier or any other lawful authority.

By the time that the priest revealed to her what her sentence would be, she was in tears, eager to show her repentance for her crime. Her only uncertainty was whether or not to offer up her spirit to the gods when she entered into her Living Death.

The priest left this matter to her own conscience. After thinking overnight upon it, she concluded that she should keep her spirit alive for a while, in case her goddess, the Owl, wished her to undertake any further deeds of repentance in this world. Her father had always told her she must remain courageous and fight battles to the end. Although she knew now that her father had been a wicked evil-doer, it seemed to her that her father's words remained true.

And so she was masked, and her name was stripped from her. In due time, she was sent to serve an Emorian lord who now lived in the same great mansion that had once belonged to her family. She was grateful for the familiarity of the surroundings and the servants.

Then, after a time, she recognized that this was part of her punishment. For none of the free-servants – not her father's manservant nor her mother's handmaiden nor even her own childhood nurse – would speak to her or even look her way. The day that she tripped on a loose cobblestone and dropped a basket of clean laundry and was beaten until she screamed . . . On that day, all of the household's Koretian free-servants and commoners walked past the door where she was being punished, not glancing her way. Even the Emorians, who had accepted this much of Koretian custom, acted as though she did not exist.

For of course she didn't. She was a corpse.

It took her time to grasp this, but once she did, she was ready to give up her spirit in despair. Only her father's words – "You must battle to the end, dear one" – kept her fighting each day, trying to carry out her duties, ignoring the fact that she was no longer alive to any free-man or free-woman.

Her fellow slaves frightened her. Most had spirits that were dead; she could tell that from their dull eyes. They acted as though they truly were corpses, in all respects: corpses dug out of a grave and forced to sluggishly obey orders. The remainder of the slaves had living eyes . . . for a while. As time went on, more and more of the slaves gave up their spirits to the gods, until Alisande was the only slave whose spirit remained alive.

She was trying to determine what to do – whether it was wrong for her to keep her spirit alive – on the day that the soldiers came to the mansion again.

This time, instinctively, she fled from the mansion, before anyone could notice her and capture her. She wasn't sure what they intended to do to her, but she was sure that it must be far more terrible than what they had already done. Perhaps torture? She knew, from listening to the Emorian lord speak with his men, that the Chara's governor had a dungeon, and that he put it to use.

From her hiding place in the woods near the mansion, she watched the soldiers gather up the slaves and take them away. She supposed they would be questioned by a priest to determine which of them was her, though the soldiers, foolish men, had taken the men-slaves as well as the women-slaves. She wondered whether her duty to the Owl required that she surrender herself to their custody.

Finally she decided that the best thing to do would be to seek the advice of Prince Tristan.

She knew he was still alive. Her father had often talked of the courage and sacrifice that the King's heir had demonstrated in surrendering his claim to the throne in order to save his people from the Chara's wrath. She herself had met Prince Tristan on several occasions when she was a child; he had always treated her kindly. Even though she knew that he could no longer speak to her, because she was a corpse, perhaps he would be able to find a priest for her who would tell her what to do. She had not seen any priest since she was enslaved.

She took care, during her arduous journey to Valouse, not to disobey any of the orders she had been given in her slavery. She had always been permitted by her master to drink water whenever she was thirsty, which undoubtedly saved her life during the next three days. She was not allowed to eat without permission from her master or his overseer of slaves, so she ignored the wild-berries and nuts that she passed in the woods, though her stomach gnawed at her.

Before long, she knew that something truly terrible must have happened, for she kept meeting other slaves along the way. All of them were dead-eyed, and most seemed to be wandering aimlessly. A few appeared to be trying to locate the right road to travel on, but their powers of judgment were not equal to the task.

She encountered one slave-man who was moaning in pain as he dragged his body with apparent purposefulness down the forest path to a nearby town. Free-men on the same path stepped over him without looking at him. She knelt down and saw that this slave had a dead spirit too. She guessed that, like the dead-eyed slaves she had worked with, he had been forcibly parted from his master. Now he was trying to return to the only home he knew.

His lips were parched, so she used a leaf to scoop up some water from the nearby creek. When she offered the water to him, though, he turned his head away, apparently unable to drink without his master's orders. She was forced to leave the dying slave, for she was growing faint herself.

By the time she reached Valouse, she was light-headed and swaying on her feet. It took great effort to keep herself from snatching one of the many vegetables and fruits growing in people's gardens. Instead, she went to the baron's mansion and stood below the window to the room where she remembered being received when she was young. She hoped Prince Tristan would see her there. Many people passed her, but all of them ignored her – even the Emorian soldiers, much to her relief.

Finally, as evening approached, she overheard a couple of Emorian soldiers talking, and she grasped that the King's heir was no longer baron of Valouse. The soldiers didn't say where he had gone. She was uncertain what to do then, but she caught a glimpse of a young man in the window above, richly dressed – presumably the new baron of the town. Perhaps, she thought, if she stood there long enough, he would send a priest down to tell her what to do.

o—o—o

"I know I shouldn't have tried to eat the berries." Alisande was in tears now, though she had told her entire story with heart-breaking simplicity. "It was very wrong of me. And oh, thank you so much for bringing the priest here, Prince Tristan. I am so very grateful. Sacred sir, will I need to be enslaved again for touching the berry? You told me I must follow my master's orders, and he didn't order me to eat." Her voice was trembling as she turned her masked face toward the priest.

Tristan had thought he could undergo no greater shock than he had already experienced. It was Robin, though, who stepped forward, his hand tight on the hilt of the sword he had sheathed during Alisande's recitals. He growled at Simon, "It was you! You condemned her to a Living Death!"

Simon had confronted many an angry young man in his life; it was one of the penalties of being a priest. Never had Tristan witnessed Simon waver in his priestly authority. Now, though, Simon took a step backwards. His voice broke as he said, "I was told by the governor's liaison that she was guilty—"

"Oh, Simon, you poor fool." Tristan was as angry as his nephew, yet he could not help but feel pity for the priest. A man who was unworldly and naive could fall into the trap of believing what he was told by evil men. Tristan had, during the many years of his youth when he had remained loyal to the King. "If you'd spent any time at all in the palace, you would know well enough that innocents become pawns in the games played by wicked nobles. And your own common sense should have told you why the governor might wish to see a rich lord's only daughter condemned to death. You can trust nothing that the governor or his representatives tell you."

Alisande had been following this conversation, her masked face turning to and fro. Tristan had guided her onto the bed at the beginning of her recital; she had crammed herself onto the far corner of the bed, still clearly terrified of the priest and all that he represented. Now she said hesitantly, "I don't understand."

Robin began to speak, but Tristan waved him silent. It was Simon's duty to reveal what had happened. Tristan was curious to see whether Simon possessed the courage to carry out his duty.

It seemed he did. The priest said, in a voice still broken, "I made a mistake. You committed no crime, daughter; nor did your mother and father. All of you are innocent in the eyes of the gods, and always have been."

"Your father was murdered by the governor so that the governor could seize his belongings," Tristan explained. "Your mother killed herself in despair, and you were enslaved to prevent you from receiving your inheritance and crying out against the governor's injustices."

"Oh!" Alisande placed her palm against the small hole in the mask that allowed her to place bits of food in her mouth. Her whole body shook, and though she made no sound, Tristan realized what was happening.

Without so much as a glance at Simon – the priest had thoroughly forfeited Tristan's respect – Tristan sat down and gathered the young woman into his arms, holding her as he had witnessed Kenneth hold his daughter on one occasion when she fell and scraped her knees. Alisande responded by turning her body and burying her face against Tristan's shoulder. The metal mask dug painfully into his shoulder. He would sooner have entered the Land Beyond than mention this to her.

It was a long while later – long enough for Tristan to consider how painful it must be to cry with a death mask over one's face – when Alisande finally pulled herself upright. Her voice choking, she cried, "Oh, my poor father! To have been killed by the Emorians, believed a criminal even by his own daughter. And my mother . . . And what of me?" She turned her head toward Tristan, her voice filled with pleading. "What will happen to me now? The Emorians will surely kill me if they learn I've been reborn!"

This time neither Tristan nor the priest had a chance to speak. Robin, whose eyes were now as fiery as the Jackal's were said to be, unsheathed his sword in one swift motion. Then he knelt before Alisande, laying his naked blade over his thigh: the position of a man pledging loyalty to his lord or lady.

"No one shall harm you." Robin's voice was as fierce as his eyes. "I swear that to you, by the Jackal and by my blood." As he spoke, he nicked his free palm in the usual manner of a blood vow of protection. "I will die before I allow you to be harmed again."

Alisande stared at Robin, wide-eyed. It occurred to Tristan that an introduction needed to be made. He said quietly, "Alisande, this is my nephew Robin, who is now baron of Valouse. He is the man you glimpsed through the window. You can trust him to keep his word: no one shall harm you."

"Robin son of Gaal," Alisande said, her voice filled with wonder. "My father spoke of you, a short time before he died. He said that he'd met with you, and that you were as fine a man as your uncle. He said that you had asked permission to—"

She stopped abruptly. Tristan did not need to feel her skin to know that she was burning with embarrassment.

To save Robin from having to make an embarrassing retreat from his request to court Alisande, Tristan rose to his feet. He said to Simon, "I think it would be best to keep Alisande hidden here until we have settled matters with the Emorians. Neither I nor Robin can stay alone with her without assault upon her reputation, since we are both unmarried laymen. Will you stay with her, Simon, and watch over her?"

He kept his voice matter-of-fact, though the words he spoke were a challenge. Robin slowly rose to his feet, his sword still naked, his eye on the priest.

The priest did not look in either of their directions. He had dropped to his knees – both his knees, in the stance of a supplicant.

"Daughter," he said. His voice was no longer broken, but his head was bowed and his tone was humble. "I have done you great harm, and I deserve great punishment from my god for my deed. But since you have no better man to protect you, will you allow me to stay here and watch over you until such time as men unstained with evil may take you into their care?"

"Oh, dear." Alisande seemed distressed by this speech. "Sacred sir, please do not blame yourself for what happened. I know that you were trying to follow the will of the gods. Of course you may stay. Perhaps you could tell me what happens to the Reborn? For I never met one in my life, so I'm not sure what to do now."

Robin cleared his throat. "I will arrange for food and clothing and other supplies to be sent to you shortly by a servant I can trust," he said. "And tomorrow, I will send the town's blacksmith to remove your mask."

"Thank you, baron." Alisande had ducked her head in a shy, nervous manner that reminded Tristan acutely of Hengroen, when he was a foal. "I appreciate your great generosity toward me. I am certain my father would be very grateful to you."

If he were alive. Those were the unspoken words. And because Lord Kenneth was no longer alive, Alisande's future remained a problem.

Chapter Text

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.