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"She wanted you."

Richard glanced over at Lytton, put out his hand, and waited until Lytton had passed the requested object before saying, "She wanted both of us; that was the trouble. To be more precise, she wanted not to hurt either of us. She knew what it would do to me to be joined with her like that and then have to relinquish my claim. She knew also what it would do to Lord Andrew if I didn't relinquish my claim. She couldn't decide what action to take that would hurt us the least. That's why Lord Andrew withdrew from her the right of judgment."

"And he gave the judgment over to you," concluded Lytton, watching as Richard carefully chopped the green stems. The Prince, he thought to himself, was as skilled at cutting plants as he was at ordering battle maneuvers. "I always knew the man was mad; he must have gone completely unbalanced over the night. What did you say in reply?"

Richard paused in his delicate task; his gaze drifted toward the window, where the Great Hall stood upright amid the ruins. Abandoning the table, he walked over to the window and leaned his forearm against the wall next to it, tapping his cheek with the flat of the stem-smeared dagger.

"Before you became my aide, Lytton, I spoke my thoughts to another soldier, a subcaptain," he said without turning to look as Lytton stepped up beside him. "You may recall him, as he is the reason you bear a jagged scar on your head. He was the most skilled murderer I ever knew, and his surprising failure to bash in your head sufficiently can only be attributed to the fact that his mind, on that particular night, was focussed on killing Lord Andrew – a fatal error. Fortunately, he was acting against my orders in the latter affair, or I would not be here speaking with you." He smiled at Lytton.

"Richard, I asked you—"

"The common folk are a superstitious lot," Richard said, turning away from the window. "Their tales say that the subcaptain did not even die from Lord Andrew's blade. According to the improbable song that is sung in the taverns between bards' ballads, the subcaptain had Lord Andrew bound, blindfolded, and half broken when the Spirit herself sent down her vengeance upon the subcaptain." Richard wiped the stains off his dagger with a cloth, saying, "I helped to locate the far-flung remains of the subcaptain's body; I've never doubted the song. Lytton, will you hand me that ribbon?"

Lytton passed him the brightly woven ribbon, saying, "I don't understand what any of this has to do with—"

"It can't be said that I didn't give the subcaptain fair warning," said Richard, tying the ribbon around the stems. "I remember distinctly a conversation we had held several years before, in which I warned him of how dangerous a man Lord Andrew was. Many people, I told the subcaptain, have attempted to kill Lord Andrew, and all who did so are now either his allies or they are dead.  He is not a man, I said, who tolerates anything in between." He held the gathered objects up to the light. "How does this look?"

"Beautiful," replied Lytton in a distracted manner. "Richard, really, what relevance does this have—"

"Mad," said Richard reflectively. "Yes, I suppose Lord Andrew is mad, from the point of view of us ordinary inhabitants of the Land of the Living. I think . . ." Richard gave another assessing look to what he held in his hand. "I think that Lord Andrew has a higher view than I do of how to keep a peace oath. And I think that's why Serva married him rather than me."

"Richard, for love of the Spirit, what did you say in the Great Hall this morning?"

"I kissed Serva." His lips smiled at the memory momentarily. Then he glanced over at Lytton, who was staring at him with mouth agape. Richard added, "On the forehead. Then I led her over to Lord Andrew and placed her hand in his. I told Lord Andrew that what had happened was the result of fire and death, and it could never have happened under any other circumstance." Laying his dagger aside, he ushered Lytton out into the evening air.

As they walked through the mist, Lytton tried to read the expression of his subcommander and failed. Finally he said, "Do you think he believed you?"

Richard gave a sharp laugh before saying, "Oh, he believed what I was telling him in the Spirit: that I would sing all the songs of the world in order to be Serva's chosen love . . . but if I took her away from him, I would hurt a great many people who don't deserve to be hurt, not the least of which are my wife and daughter."

Richard spoke softly; they had left the army tents and were passing over the open ground toward the palace gate. Lytton felt an emptiness in him like that of a man who has expected to witness a mighty bard's song and has instead heard only silence. He said, "Then you're back to where you were this time yesterday. Nothing has changed."

Richard stopped, looked over at Lytton quizzically, and laughed. "Lytton my friend," he said, "I suggest that we continue this conversation in a few years' time."

"What in the goddess's name do you mean?"

"I mean that what I am saying now will sing clearly to you when you have chosen the woman with whom you wish to spend the rest of your life." He turned his head abruptly.

The soft tap of hooves along the cobblestone road was the only sound that disturbed the stillness. All of the palace residents and soldiers had gone to their beds early, modelling themselves after the Queen and her Consort, who were now sleeping in the Great Hall. Only two yawning guards took note as the horses appeared like death spirits out of the mist.

"What will you say to her, to start with?" Lytton asked, watching the horses and their riders materialize.

"I will tell her that I love her," Richard said quietly, his gaze on the rider of the lead horse. "I will tell her that I missed her every day that she was gone, and that, though I could not be with her in body, I was with her in spirit. And I will tell her," he added as the slight figure dismounted from the horse, "that I have chosen her over every other woman in the world."

He stepped forward with flowers in hand, and with a smile of joy in his eyes.