Lytton's cynical smile, his friends often said, could only have come as a result of ten years as aide to Prince Richard, subcommander of the Daxion Army and cousin to Queen Serva, who was Voice of the Spirit. Lytton himself was inclined to say that he had learned the smile from the soldiers who made mocking jokes whenever the Prince kissed his wife.
Those jokes – fortunately spoken in an undertone – were abundant now as the Prince carefully helped Eulalee onto her horse. Lytton boosted the Prince's nine-year-old daughter into her saddle, making absentminded replies at appropriate intervals while the girl prattled brightly about her visit to see her mother's kinfolk. Lytton's own thoughts were on Richard, and his ear was striving without success to hear the soft words that the subcommander spoke to his wife.
Whatever those words were, they met with success. Eulalee bestowed a farewell kiss upon her husband that left the surrounding soldiers, never modest in expressing their sentiments, cheering at the top of their lungs. Eulalee emerged from the kiss with her eyes cast down in shyness, while Richard accepted with a lift of the eyebrow both the applause and the soldiers' smiles – fortunately not cynical, not while Eulalee was watching. The Prince murmured something to Eulalee that caused her to dip her eyes still further. Then he shouted a cheerful farewell to his daughter as the girl and her slight-figured mother turned their horses' heads toward the palace gate.
Lytton waited until the Prince's family and its armed escort was beyond the palace grounds, and waited yet longer until the other soldiers had dispersed. Then he walked over to Richard, whose gaze was still on the gate. "What did you say to her?" Lytton asked.
"I told her that I loved her," said Richard in a matter-of-fact voice. "I told her that I would miss her every day until her return, and that, though I could not be with her in body, I would be with her in spirit."
"Sentiments straight from the bards," said Lytton. "Did you tell her that you would choose her over every other woman in the world?"
For a moment, Richard continued to gaze upon the woman standing by the gate, talking with a darkly dressed man whose face held an impenetrable expression. Then Richard turned his eyes to look at Lytton.
For the interval between one breath and the next, Lytton wondered whether he had gone too far. He resisted a temptation to turn and flee toward the border. Then Richard said, in the same matter-of-fact voice, "I'm thirsty. Let's go back to the hut."
They wound their way between the tents of the vanguard army that quartered itself beneath the high, wooden palace. Around them, the familiar and reassuring sound of metal, horse, shouts, and song disturbed the early evening stillness. Cicadas, droning nearby, added their note to the blend of work songs, battle songs, drinking songs, and – always among soldiers – love songs. Lytton found himself humming a ditty concerning a lovelorn prince before he noticed Richard's eye upon him and stopped abruptly.
They ducked their way under the low doorway of the Prince's hut. Richard, against usual custom, closed and barred the door, which increased Lytton's uneasiness. Nor was Lytton's mood lifted as they reached the inner room of the hut, and the Prince swung closed the window shutter there.
The rays of the setting sun made their way through the shutter's cracks onto the chairs, table, and small cot where the Prince slept when army business kept him awake until the late hours of night. At Richard's gesture, Lytton poured two cups of cider before joining Richard at the table.
The Prince had removed his boots and was resting his feet on a stool. He took the cup from Lytton's hand and drained its contents. Then Richard said, "My recollection is that, on the occasion when you and I first became friends – ten years ago, when you were a very young and very naive aide – you escaped death by quite a narrow margin when you said to me, 'You're in love with Serva, aren't you?'"
"Well," said Lytton, reaching for the cider bottle, "I was recovering from a head wound at the time."
"I took that into account when I made the decision not to plunge my dagger into you. What's your excuse this time?"
Pausing to wipe up the cider he had spilled, Lytton waited until his hands were steady again before saying, "The excuse of friendship, I suppose."
"You've remained my friend for this long by not making such jokes. The Spirit above knows that I encounter enough smirks from my other soldiers."
In the act of pushing the refilled cup within Richard's reach, Lytton lifted his eyes to look at the Prince. Richard's mouth was tight around the edges, and his hand grasped the cup with more than usual pressure. Abandoning all pretense of lightness, Lytton said, "It's not a matter I would joke about, Richard. I feel sick every time I hear you tell lies to that sweet wife of yours."
Richard let out a long sigh. A breeze, making its way through the cracks, roused the hot air momentarily and stirred the hair plastered against the Prince's forehead. "Lytton." He spoke in the gentle manner he adopted on occasion, which never ceased to surprise Lytton. "You share with the Queen a certain weakness I admire but nonetheless cannot adopt: the desire to take literally every word that is spoken."
"How else am I to take it?" Lytton said with a shrug. "What you say to Eulalee is either the truth or a lie, and if it's a lie—"
"There is lying, and there is lying. Lytton, if Eulalee asks me whether I like how she looks in her new gown, and I tell her that it makes her look like a death spirit that has lingered too long in the Land of the Living, you may consider that, in your literal-minded manner, to be the truth. I, in my more sophisticated manner, know that my literal truth is a lie in the Spirit." In response to Lytton's blank expression, he sighed once more. "Let me try again. I tell Eulalee that I think she looks beautiful in her new gown. You call this a lie. But what am I really saying to Eulalee, beyond the literal words that you hear?"
Lytton shook his head. Under the lengthening shadows, he turned and took hold of the flint-box from the chest where he had laid it last.
"I'll try again," said Richard, with the patience that had won him many a battle. "The day when you and I first became friends, I told you that your death, had it occurred, would have been a grave tragedy to the Daxion army. Did I lie?"
On the point of striking the flint for the dozenth time, Lytton stilled his hand. "No. Yes. I don't know— Richard, you didn't mean it exactly as you said it. It was your generous way of saying that you were sorry I was hurt—"
"Good. You grasp the principle." Richard took the flint from him, and with a single strike he lit the lamp ablaze. "Now, then, Lord Andrew meets me in the long gallery. He tells me, in that chillingly polite manner he has, that he is glad to see me. Is he lying?"
"No," said Lytton slowly as he rose from scooping a piece of straw off the ground. "What he's really saying is, 'I've decided not to kill you today.'"
His eyes dark with amusement, Richard said, "You grasp the essence. Now for your final test. I tell Eulalee that she looks beautiful in the gown that in actuality makes her look like a demon dying in the flames. What truth in the Spirit am I telling her?"
Lytton sighed as he lit the last of the lamps with the flame at the end of the straw. "That you love her. But Richard, you don't."
The lamplight, painting shadows on the hut walls, vibrated like the strings of a bard's harp. As though in reply, a soldier outside began to sing – in a wavering manner that told he'd been at his drink – the Tale of the Spy and the Princess. It was a ballad composed some years ago about a princess who had fled from the prince she hated with the help of the spy she loved. . . . The words of the ballad were accompanied by much laughter from the other soldiers and a successful attempt to shush the singer.
The blood-vessels in Richard's throat leapt clear, but he gave no other sign that he had heard the song. His eyes, now stripped of all amusement, were focussed on Lytton. Lytton felt his legs begin to tremble. He reseated himself in time to avoid falling to his knee.
When Richard finally spoke, his voice was soft. "Eulalee," he said, "is a sweet woman, as you and anyone not blind has noted. She is, moreover, a woman of generous heart, who stayed with me and comforted me during all the months when I was mad with love for Serva, despite the fact that she believed I would marry Serva. And so, when Serva gave her heart to another man, I asked Eulalee to marry me. I married her, and I bedded her; I gave her a child, and I have never slept with another woman since my wedding day, nor cast my eye on any other woman when there is the slightest chance that Eulalee might notice. I take care of Eulalee, and I give her reason to be glad she married me." He placed his emptied cup abruptly on the table. "That is love, Lytton, and if you don't recognize it as such, then that's a sign you're not ready to be married."
Lytton wetted his lips, dry in the moisture of a Daxion summer evening. He could not prevent himself from saying, though, "And what you feel for the woman you cast your eyes upon when Eulalee is not in your presence – what is that? Is it not love?"
Richard picked up his empty cup and stared at the bottom of it while sparks of fire played along the edges of the gold. "It is love of a different sort," he said finally. "It is no higher than the other love."
"Then why are you travelling to such lengths to avoid answering my question?"
Richard's gaze flicked up toward Lytton and then fell once more to the fiery cup.
"Why don't you tell Eulalee that you'd choose her over every other woman in the world?" Lytton said, his voice rough with anger as he slammed his cup onto the table, causing drops of golden cider to fly upwards like sparks. "It is because you cannot tell her that in truth – not even 'truth in the Spirit,' as you'd put it. You'd be lying if you told her that you'd choose her over every other woman. You'd choose Serva, wouldn't you? She's the one you truly love—"
He stopped abruptly; the figure at the other end of the table had risen. For an instant the Prince loomed, casting a shadow over Lytton. Then the Prince turned abruptly and flung open the window shutter.
Evening mist rolled in. The beads of water shone like stars in the hut. His forearm resting against the hut wall, his chin resting upon his fist, Richard stared out the window, heedless of the purling fog that journeyed over him like waves. After a moment, Lytton joined him at the window.
The mist was just arriving. In most parts of the camp, it was still only knee-deep, wreathing each tent as though all of the round tents were eggs in a grey nest. Beyond the tents, where the ground rose slightly, the mist was beginning to creep its way up toward the northern entrance to the palace – toward the doors leading to the long gallery, which in turn led to the Great Hall.
A man and a woman stood silhouetted against this doorway. They did not touch, and the man's body was stiff with formality, but even at this distance, Lytton could hear the rippling sound of the woman's delighted laughter.
Lytton turned his eyes to the Prince. Without shifting his gaze from the figures, Richard said in a voice dead and flat, "I don't know which woman I would have chosen, Lytton. That is the trouble. The choice was taken from me, stripped from me. I gave her my heart, and she chose another—"
"You lied to her."
Richard moved his eyes then, flicking a glance Lytton's way before settling his dark gaze once more upon the man and woman.
"That's what you told me," Lytton persisted. "You said she decided not to marry you after she realized that you were lying to her. And yet, after all that, you continue to lie—"
Richard sighed and stepped back from the window, pulling the shutter closed with such swiftness that Lytton jumped in his place. "That was a different sort of lie," Richard said in a tight voice. "The lies I tell to Eulalee are for her own sake, so that she will have no reason to doubt that I love her. I have never lied to her to protect myself. The lie I told Serva . . . I have paid dearly for that lie, and I came close to paying yet more dearly. Lytton, if you believe that I am still the man who lied to Serva, and who slept with scores of women, and who delivered the orders for your murder, you will need to be more direct in what you say than you are being. You know that I will heed your warning. My spirit's life depends upon it."
Lytton turned abruptly, poured another cup of golden cider, and thrust it into Richard's hands. The Prince's hands were shaking. Lytton waited until Richard's breath was steady once more before saying quietly, "Your uncle ordered my murder, not you, and you asked my forgiveness afterwards for the part you had played in the attempt. I forgave you, Serva forgave you, the Song Spirit forgave you . . . That is all in the past, Richard. You are not what you were then, and I never meant to suggest that you were."
"Not so far in the past as all that," Richard said softly. He was leaning against the wall, staring at the mist curling its way through the hut. "I modelled myself too well after my uncle. Ten years after his death, it is still a struggle to keep myself from becoming the sort of man the King was. Only the knowledge of Serva's friendship, and the knowledge of how quickly she would withdraw that friendship if I became once more like her father was— Lytton, you are right to catch me when I fall into self-pity. It was not Serva who stripped me of my choice; I did that myself by lying to her, by telling her that I was the heir to the throne, when in fact the throne was hers. Yet it gnaws at me, to know that I never had the choice whether to marry her. That the choice was left to her and to that demon-filled Consort of hers—" He stopped abruptly, biting off more poisonous words.
Lytton said mildly, "I've never understood why Lord Andrew is admired by so many people."
Letting out a long breath, Richard moved forward, saying, "He has a reputation for being generous to his enemies. I wouldn't know; he has never privileged me with a glimpse of that side of him."
"He hasn't killed you yet," Lytton pointed out as he held the door open for Richard. "You could consider that generous."
Richard gave one of his sardonic smiles of old. "Extremely generous – but not toward me. He and I have bound ourselves under a peace oath, for Serva's sake."
"Have you?" Lytton said with curiosity as they stepped into the moist coolness outside. Lulled to sleep by the evening, the songs had ceased now. With the sun set, most of the soldiers had taken to their beds. Only a few army officials strolled by, saluting Richard with their swords, and flashing smiles at their much-admired subcommander.
Richard waited until he and Lytton were beyond the tents before he said in a low voice, "Yes, he came to me the day after he and Serva married. When Lord Andrew isn't completely polite, he is completely frank. He told me exactly what he would like to do to me." A smile tugged at Richard's mouth. "He added that no doubt I felt the same way about him. I acknowledged that this was indeed the case. He then pointed out that even the slightest rivalry between us would place Serva in the impossible position of having to choose between the two men she loved. He was sure that I would not want her to be tormented in that manner."
Richard paused as they reached the top of the palace hill, close to the northern entrance. Two free-servants about to carry a bulky chair down the slippery slope. Without a pause – the action caused no surprise to Lytton – Richard took hold of one side of the chair and gestured to Lytton to take the other side. Only the combined protests of the free-servants finally persuaded the Prince to allow the servants to do their work.
"Army chairs," Richard said meditatively to Lytton, watching the free-servants make their way down to the camp. "Very light in weight. I wonder what need the palace had of them?" Then he shook his head and added, "'Not want her to be tormented in that manner.' Easy words for a man who would continue to keep Serva's heart unless I protested his claim. But of course Lord Andrew was right, so I sang my oath to him – he spoke his oath, in his usual perverse manner – and we pledged to remain at peace with each other and not attack each other." The smile tugged at Richard's mouth once more. "Mind you, the unspoken part of Lord Andrew's pledge was that, if he discovered I'd broken my oath, he would call upon his considerable skills at murder to carry out his original plans for me. —Oh, my."
Lytton followed Richard's gaze. The man and woman who had stood in the doorway before were no longer there, but through the windows of the western end of the long gallery, Lytton could see them standing by the Great Hall. The woman's silvery braids fell to her waist, and she was dressed in a white gown that shone like the sun. She was standing with her arms folded, listening to a free-servant, who looked as though he was about to plummet to his knee in submissive repentance. At his feet was an army chair. The man she had spoken to before was midway between the woman and the free-servant, his back to the window.
"The Spirit speaks through the Consort," Richard murmured.
"You think so?" said Lytton, trying to read the nobleman's pose.
Richard nodded. "That is the position the Consort takes when he is serving as ambassador between the people and the Queen – at the moment, a very angry Queen, if I judge her expression correctly. . . . Ah, the judgment has been made." The ironic smile that had touched Richard's mouth before returned with full vengeance. Richard's eyes glittered dark. "May the Spirit watch over him," he said with a lightness that made the phrase a curse rather than a prayer. "Who serves as ambassador for the Consort when he is the recipient of the Queen's anger?"
Lytton looked back at the scene. The servant had disappeared; the Queen's wrath was now turned full upon the Consort, who continued to stand where he had before, his posture immobile.
"The Queen's Bard?" suggested Lytton, answering Richard's rhetorical question.
"He is over the border at the moment, visiting friends. . . . Ah, it's finished." Lytton heard the disappointment in Richard's voice. He turned in time to see the Prince kill his sardonic smile, in the moment before the Consort slipped quietly through the palace entrance.
The Consort's eyes met Richard's without surprise, as though he had known all along that the Prince was there and had heard his commentary – which, Lytton thought with sinking heart, was all too likely. For a while, the two men faced each other, like dogs on the point of snarling. Then Richard said with artful concern, "Trouble, Lord Andrew?"
The Consort was silent for a bit. His years in the north had left his skin with the sort of paleness that Lytton associated with sick men. His blade-scarred hand was resting lightly upon his dagger hilt, and his face was as revealing as a moonless night. Then he said, in a voice so quiet that the Spirit alone heard the songs that lay in its spirit, "Nothing that you need concern yourself with, Prince." Stepping past the two men, he turned and began walking toward the palace gate without looking back.
Lytton waited until the Consort was beyond the gate before he whistled a few notes from one of the bloodier passages in the Tale of the Spy and the Princess. "Is it true," he asked reflectively, "that Lord Andrew wears a dagger hidden in his thigh-pocket?"
"Of course," replied Richard. "He needs a murderer's weapon to deal with enemies who venture into his territory. Shall we saunter over the border and see what has happened there?"
He gestured lightly toward the doorway. Lytton gave a final look at the gate before saying, "Richard, one of the reasons I accepted the offer to serve under you was that you're the bravest soldier I know."
Richard laughed as they entered the palace. The long gallery was dim with evening shadows. Heavy curtains fringed the window alcoves, darkening the gallery further. The Great Hall, though, was still bright with torchlight from the evening meal. Standing where the light poured into the gallery, with her gaze focussed on the hall, was Queen Serva, her gown so bright in the torchlight that she looked like a white-hot sun blazing at noon.
Lytton glanced Richard's way. The Prince's breath, he noticed, had quickened in a manner incommensurate to the leisurely pace they were travelling at.
They were halfway down the long gallery when the Queen turned and bestowed upon both of them a smile that made even Lytton's heart thump harder. "You're too late for supper," she said, a dimple appearing in her cheek.
"I had army business to deal with," replied Richard in a voice that would have done a bard credit in terms of control. "Speaking of army business, why are you stealing my chairs?"
A darkness passed over Serva's expression. "Oh, that," she said. "I had an idea about the royal children's balcony – you remember the balcony?"
"Remember it?" Richard ended his journey a body's length from Serva and took a dutiful look at the balcony that she was pointing at, above the high table's dais at the far end of the Great Hall. "How could I forget where we plotted our most glorious escapades? Do you remember the time I dropped a plum onto Uncle's head, and he didn't notice when it stuck to his diadem?"
Serva laughed, tossing her head back in a manner that made her many thin braids ripple under the torchlight. "And nobody dared tell Father through all of supper what you had done to him. Yes, I remember that."
"I got a beating for that episode, but it was well worth it." Richard was leaning now in a relaxed manner against the wall. Only Lytton, who had served at his side for ten years, could sense the tension in the Prince that occurred at special moments: when he was planning an important battle, when the army was at the point of attack, or when he was in his cousin's presence.
"Well," said Serva, "seeing that your daughter has abandoned the balcony in favor of the far greater pleasure of crawling under the tables and tying people's sandals together, I thought that I would give the balcony over to visiting bards. Then I realized that, while it is quite proper for children to sit on the bare floor, the bards should have a place to seat themselves between songs."
"So you borrowed the army chairs?" Richard nodded. "That's well thought. My recollection is that the balcony was shaky even in our day – probably the result of you and me jumping up and down on it as often as possible. Heavy chairs would probably set the balcony tumbling down. Army chairs will be safe enough."
"Yes, I thought so, but—" Serva bit her lip and turned to look back at the Great Hall. Lytton, peering past her, could see the balcony in question, located exactly halfway up the three-storey-tall hall. The balcony, unlike the walls of the stone-blocked hall, was made of wood that matched the walls in the remainder of the palace.
Richard said, in a voice as smooth as water, "Your husband does not agree?"
The Queen turned back, and Lytton thought he saw the spark of an expression enter Serva's eyes, but it was gone before he could identify it. She said carefully, "He's concerned for my safety. The balcony is directly over the high table, and he's worried that the additional weight of the chairs would bring the structure crashing down on our heads."
"Hmm." Richard's gaze turned to the balcony again. He had an assessing look in his eyes.
Lytton said quickly, before the Prince could speak, "I've always wondered about the Consort's role, my lady. Do you tell him when to speak for the Spirit, or does he decide on his own?"
"Both," Serva replied, bestowing upon Lytton a grateful smile that gave him a momentary desire to fall to his knee before her. "He is Voice of the Spirit, as I am. So he can intervene any time he believes that my judgment of a matter is sufficiently impaired that I or my spirit might be endangered if I made the wrong choice. Usually, that means when I lose my temper," she added, the dimple reappearing in her cheek. "Or when I'm making a judgment that would affect myself. At such moments, the Spirit speaks through Andrew rather than me."
Leaning against the doorway, Richard smiled down at Serva. "The Spirit always sings her songs through you."
It was unreasonable, Lytton thought angrily. It was utterly irrational that such an ordinary woman should be so charm-binding. She was past childbearing age, for love of the Spirit! It was not even as though she was especially beautiful. She was . . . she was . . .
Moving abruptly, Lytton grabbed Richard's arm. "You have a meeting with the captains," he said brusquely.
"I have a meeting with the captains," Richard said, still smiling at Serva.
"It's soon," Lytton said, beginning to tug at Richard's arm.
"It's soon," Richard explained to Serva, allowing himself to be pulled away as the Queen's laughter followed them down the long gallery.
During their conversation, free-servants had begun to light the wall-lamps. Lytton could now see the tapestries on the walls, as well as the finely carved furniture that lay under the tapestries. Richard waited until they were beyond the free-servants before he shook himself free. The Prince said in a tone filled with amusement, "Thank you for rescuing me from that dangerous pass, Lytton. But next time, could you be less obvious?"
"You smiled at her," Lytton said grimly, pushing Richard through the northern entrance of the palace. "You never smile at Eulalee."
"Don't be foolish. Of course I—"
"Not like that; not with joy in your eyes. May the Spirit preserve you, Richard! I realize that the Queen is a woman to die for, but can you keep in mind that you have a wife?"
"And I have a peace oath as well. Yes, I know." The amusement had drained from Richard's voice. For a moment he paused and looked back at the long gallery, where a servant was just closing the curtain between the Queen and the outside world.
"I wonder," said Richard reflectively, "how long I'll be able to keep that oath." Then he turned and allowed Lytton to push him back into the camp.