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Fair Beginning

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Under the dim light of blue Ilarion, two nights before Midsummer brought all of Quileia their newest Summer King, a pair of shadows slipped unseen into the grove at the secret heart of the Mother's temple. They were near invisible, slight and thin, painted grey like mourning dancers from the Palm, dust in their hair. Ilarion shrouded them, and none of the priestesses on guard within the grove saw more than a ripple in the tall grass, a wind in the pine branches. They were lucky, or clever, or blessed: the priestesses carried bows as sharply curved as a sickle.

The taller of the two unbent, standing in the clearing at the very center where even one moon's worth of light threw rock and tree into sharp shadows. He held himself very still, listening; then he lifted three fingers to his companion, and gestured silently, pointing out the position of each priestess. His companion nodded in the dark and crept forward until they were shoulder to shoulder in the ghostlight, two boys hardly old enough to be forbidden entrance to the priestesses' territory, disguised by all the arts available to the rituals and theater of Quileia in order to infiltrate its most secret place.

"Where?" mouthed Baerd.

Alessan pointed to a deep hollowing in the side of a rock, just at the edge of the clearing. In the dimness it looked like a splotch of ink. "Beneath the thirteen-tree," he whispered. "It's the closest from a southern approach."

Baerd unwound a short length of rope from around his waist and coiled it into that shadow where it would wait for Midsummer and the hands of the captain of the High Priestess' guard, and then fit neatly across the neck of the last Summer King.

It was a slim advantage. It would have to be enough.

Without Marius, neither Alessan nor Baerd stood a chance of surviving the year at the Quileian court, and Marius had grown powerful enough to be a threat to that court – the sort of threat who was given the unrefuseable honor of challenging the last Summer King for two years of bliss, and then dying in the night grove, crippled, replaced, all his protection gone.

"What if Marius was king," said Alessan, two weeks earlier. He said it out of nowhere, in the pitch-darkness after midnight, when he and Baerd were lying on their pallets, one on each side of the door leading into Marius' chamber. It woke Baerd out of a shallow sleep – in his dream he had been running after Dianora, running swift down the streets of Avalle, and where each of his steps fell behind him Stevanien rose up with blunted towers, ruined – and he grunted, turned toward where the other boy was a huddled shape in the shadows.

"He might win. He's strong enough," he said, and waited for Alessan to keep going.

"What if he won, and won again," said Alessan. "What if he never stopped being king."

Baerd rolled onto his side and propped himself up on an elbow. "No one has ever won more than twice," he said. "Not in four hundred years."

"Think about it," said Alessan. "Imagine it. What if the Summer King in Quileia wasn't a death-sentence. What if he was our friend instead."

Baerd could have asked a great number of questions: whether Alessan was sure that Marius was a friend, or would remain one under the pressure of two years worth of glory and power; what sort of mischief could two Tiganese boys alone without support or allies could accomplish in only two weeks; and whether Alessan thought that saving one man from being a little too brilliant, a little too bright, a little too visible was some sort of restitution from having been hidden away from their home which was none of those things any longer.

What he asked was, "Do you think he'd agree to it?"

"Bear?" Alessan said, half-laughing in the dark, brilliant, hysterical, "I think he's been waiting all his life for a chance."

"I know how we do it," said Baerd. "If he says yes." He did, suddenly: Quileian paint and dye for stealth, a weapon hidden where no weapon ought to be, waiting for Marius' hands.

"You would," Alessan said, which made Baerd glad of the darkness to cover his cheeks flushing. Even here, so far from Tigana that the stars fell in different patterns, he thought that his heart might dissolve in his chest for the sake of his prince and for the sake of being useful to him.

"What happens afterward," he said, when Alessan had been quiet for some time. "After Marius wins – after three wins. Or four."

"He's King in Quileia," said Alessan. "And – it might matter. I don't know. I'm not sure." He paused. Baerd watched the moonlight track across the floor and pool between them, sliding under Marius' door in increments. "It'd be a fair beginning."

"We tell him in the morning, then," Baerd said, as if everything was settled.

"Pigeon," Marius said, "for your sake I'll try to come back." He was a broad man, huge across the shoulders. For Midsummer night he was nude save for a dark sarong wrapped around his hips; weaponless to make up for his opponent's sliced tendons, the crippling due to each Summer King.

"The rock by the thirteen tree," Alessan said.

Baerd added, "If you start counting from the south." Alessan raised an eyebrow at him, as if to suggest that he wasn't about to forget that part.

"You've seen more of the grove than any other men alive," Marius said. Baerd thought he might be amused, somewhere underneath the focus he'd drawn around himself in preparation. "I should be glad you aren't Quileian, pigeons, I'd be in danger."

Alessan grinned; Baerd thought it made him look as young as they really were. "Never, Bear. Not from us."

"I should be so lucky as to have enemies as clever as you," said Marius.

"We aren't that clever," Baerd said.

"We're treacherous," said Alessan. "… when necessary."

Marius cuffed Alessan on the shoulder, roughly. "Only when necessary. The thirteen tree."

Alessan nodded. They embraced, sudden and harsh.

"Morian guide you, Marius," Baerd said, without expecting to. He hadn't spoken of any of the gods of the Palm since he'd left Avalle; he hadn't planned to. Yet it seemed the only thing he could say: if there ever was a portal for a Quileian to walk through, the night grove at midsummer was its opening.

Marius released Alessan and, to Baerd's surprise, wrapped him in his arms as well.

Sometime between midnight and dawn Alessan grew tired of waiting silently for news and climbed onto the windowsill, his bare feet dangling in the vines that grew up the sides of the temple of the priestesses of the Mother, and began to play a song on his pipes. The music was thin and whirling and fast. He played it with his eyes closed, as if it welled from some deep internal spring, and Baerd did not recognize the tune for a long time.

Only as the sun began to rise did he realize it was the melody the Tiganese soldiers sang, one to another, marching to the Deisa, knowing that if they fell they fell amongst brothers who knew their names.

Baerd thought it would carry all the way to the grove, for whoever's ears were still alive to hear it.