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In the Spirit

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

He slept naked, always.

It was a legacy of his years as a lover, trying desperately – though without success – to match the reputation for royal bed-warming that had been established by his uncle the King. He continued his custom of sleeping naked in order to amuse Eulalee. Secure as she was in the knowledge of his love, such small reminders of his evil past were a source of laughter for her.

"At least you never loved more than one woman at a time," she would say, and he would kiss her before she could see his expression.

The open window beside his palace bed was a legacy of his army heritage. He had joined the army at age sixteen, stubbornly insisting on starting as a bottom-ranked soldier and learning the hardships of army life through experience, rather than through the tales of other men. He had napped fitfully during brief breaks between sentry duty and had slept uneasily on the icy ground of battlefields. After thirty-two years of army life, although he would admit this to no one but Lytton, he felt more comfortable sleeping in his hard army cot than in the soft feather bed he shared with Eulalee. The open window that let in cold air to his palace bedchamber was a compromise, a way of reminding himself that he was more than the spoiled royal noble that his uncle had tried to mold him into.

The open window was what saved his life.

By the time that the crackle of the flames woke him that night, his bedchamber was already filled with smoke; most of it, though, was escaping out the window. Wheezing on the remainder of the smoke, Richard had a moment in which to locate the sound of the flames. Then he flung himself out of his bed.

He had gone three steps before he stopped and looked at the floor. With a curse, he returned to the bed and dragged on the boots that were standing nearby. Then he ran to the corridor door and flung it open.

The flames had not yet reached his part of the corridor. The mosaic floor, which had been installed throughout the royal residence during his brief term as usurper of the throne, was impeding the progress of the fire; the flames were still confined largely to the east wing of the royal residence, though the smoke had spread further. Choking on the black smoke that poured into his lungs, Richard tensed his muscles in preparation to leap forward into the fire.

At that moment, the smoke parted briefly, and he glimpsed two dark figures hurrying down the corridor toward the eastern stairwell. One was taller than the other and had his arm wrapped protectively around the shorter figure.

Of course, thought Richard bitterly as he turned away; of course. His services would not be needed by the Queen tonight, any more than they had been needed for the past ten years.

Then he set aside such thoughts and began running toward the western stairwell.

He was met on the way by half a dozen palace guards. Two of them took hold of him, while the other four, evidently intent on fighting the fire, continued on past. Richard shook himself free of the guards as soon as they had made their way far enough down the stairs that the smoke had dissipated. Over the faint roar of the flames, he said, "The royal residence guards?" His wife and daughter were safely away, as was the Queen's Bard. And there were no guests staying at the royal residence on this night, thank the Spirit. But a plentiful number of guards always watched over whatever royal family members remained in residence.

"All safely out, my lord Prince," came the reassuring reply from one of the guards. "We're removing the rest of the palace residents as quickly as may be."

Richard received signs as they reached the ground floor that this was indeed the case. The stairwell ended at a corridor that ran along the west side of the Great Hall; this was crammed with palace free-servants, officials, lords, ladies, and their children, all making their way toward the long gallery under the shouted orders of the palace guards.

Several servant-girls squealed as the Prince, naked but for his boots, made his through the crowd, aided by the guards, who were creating a path for him through the packed assembly. Richard paid no attention to the girls. With agonizing slowness, he worked his way down to the end of the corridor; then he turned right into the long gallery. As he passed the doorway to the Great Hall, he glanced into the stone-walled hall. Under the moonlight streaming through the windows, it looked the same as it had when he had seen it earlier that evening: the bracken-covered floor; the separate sections of the trestle tables leaning against the walls; the pennants streaming from the wooden rafters toward the floor three storeys below; and the dais where the high table stood at mealtimes, shadowed by the royal children's balcony above.   

The long gallery, which was broader than the western corridor, was thereby less crowded. The lamps had been extinguished, but someone had thrown back the curtains, so that moonlight streamed into the gallery through the bay windows. Running now, Richard burst into the cool air of the outdoors, skidded his way down the short hill to the camp, and turned to look back.

There was little to see. The palace rose six storeys high, an ancient engineering feat that had never been duplicated in any structure built during the ten centuries since Daxis's founding. The bottom three storeys of the palace, occupied primarily by the Great Hall, were dark. Small lights – lamps and torches – appeared through the windows of most of the storeys. Only the fourth storey – the royal residence – was ablaze with light, and the fire remained mainly on the eastern side of the palace.

To Richard's surprise and irritation, he found that his legs were trembling. He was grateful when someone thrust a flask of cider into his hand. Army officials were surrounding him now, while palace officials, acknowledging the army's prior claim on the subcommander, hovered on the edges of the crowd, awaiting instructions.

Washing the soot from his throat, Richard realized that a captain was speaking nearby: ". . . no chance that we'll be able to extinguish it now; the fire has proceeded too far. It's moving slowly, though – thank the Spirit for your foresight in covering the old wooden floor with those mosaics! That will give us time to remove the royal documents and get everyone out safely."

Richard twisted his head around, took a quick glance at the crowd of palace residents staring up at the fire, and said sharply, "Move all of the residents back to the camp; timbers are likely to start falling from the upper storeys. Keep people back as far as the height of the palace. I don't want anyone other than guards and soldiers within that boundary line."

The captain darted off, accompanied by several soldiers. The flask was taken from Richard's hand, and someone began to tug the rough cloth of an army tunic over his head. Once the tunic was on, he saw that the man helping him was Lytton.

"Thank the Song Spirit you're alive," Lytton said without preliminary. "When I heard that the fire had started within the royal residence, I feared the worst."

Richard brushed Lytton's hand aside before his aide had a chance to pin the tunic-flap shut. "How did it start?" he asked.

"A coal rolling out of a fireplace . . . A lamp dripping oil . . . The Spirit above knows. The royal residence guards let no one through this evening, so it doesn't appear that the fire was deliberately set."

"My lord Prince, we've—"

Richard put up his hand, stilling the clamor of voices around him. Faintly, in the direction of the army camp, came a song. It arose from several voices, hoarse, tremulous. The words were bright, but a dark edge bordered them, like smoke around a flame. Several of the soldiers looked at each other, then looked away.

Richard raised his eyebrow at Lytton, who said, "The palace guards whom we sent to get you and the Queen out. Several of them were badly burned. The doctors don't think that any of them will die, but of course we don't want to stop any man who believes it's time to sing his Death Song."

Richard nodded and turned his attention to the young orderly who had been speaking before. "My lord, we've sent word to the Queen's Bard, so that he'll know what has happened," said the orderly in an earnest voice. "We've also sent word just now to your lady wife, so that she will know you're safe and won't worry when the news of the fire reaches her town tomorrow."

"Thank you," said Richard solemnly. "Lytton, will you find the Queen and make sure that she—"

"The trouble is," said the earnest orderly, "there's no one to give orders to the palace officials. The royal clerk inhaled too much smoke, and the doctors are seeing to him now—"

"If the Queen is unable to give orders, have Lord Andrew see to it," Richard said crisply. "He's quite capable of ordering other people's lives. Lytton, have you seen the Queen, and is she—?"

"Oh, but the Consort isn't here, my lord," explained the orderly patiently. He peered up at Richard with diligent, unblinking eyes. "He came back to the palace briefly this evening, but he left again before the fire started."

"We've sent men out to find him," added one of the captains, "but you know what they say: hunting Lord Andrew is like hunting the Spirit's shadow."

"Then he's not— Lytton, the Queen— Where is the Queen?" He turned with frantic haste toward Lytton, who stood silent and solemn-faced.

It was the orderly who said, "Oh, don't worry, my lord! The Captain of the Palace Guard has sent more men in. We'll have her safe soon—"

"She's still in there?"

For a second, the scene stood frozen in Richard's spirit: the soldiers looking at each other uneasily, the orderly gaping from the hard grip of Richard's hands upon his shoulders, Lytton starting to put a hand forward. Then Richard turned and started running toward the palace.

He had travelled no further than beyond the officials who had crowded around him when a hand gripped his arm and held him fast. "Richard, two dozen guards have been burned to the bone trying to reach her," Lytton's voice said in his ear. "What can you do that they haven't done?"

"I know another path to her." He pulled himself free of his aide's grip and started up the hill, still slick with moisture from the evening's mist.

He veered away from the entrance to the long gallery, instead heading with furious haste toward a series of steps leading underground. The startled guards at the entrance let him through without challenge. He found himself in a dank, dark corridor, lit only by an occasional torch. The doors here were iron; he could hear the pounding on them, and the shouts behind them.

Reaching the bottom of the steps leading upward to the palace, he passed the dungeon-master, who was in worried conversation with the Captain of the Palace Guard, trying to determine what to do about the prisoners. Richard settled the argument with a succinct order – "Free them" – and then leaped the steps, two at a time, until he reached the ground floor of the palace once more.

Here he paused, orienting himself. The single-storey long gallery ran the length of the northern side of the palace, while the Great Hall, and the corridor to the west of it, filled the bottom three storeys of the palace's western half. The bottom three storeys of the eastern half, below where the fire had started, were clogged with officials' chambers, but Richard would not go that way. Serva's bedchamber, like his, was in the western portion of the royal residence, directly above the Great Hall.

He realized that he was in the corridor he had travelled before, the one to the west of the Great Hall, which led to the stairwell he had escaped through. The corridor was now empty.

He walked steadily, tracing a memory. He could smell the smoke now, and dimly he could hear the gnawing flames three storeys higher. He ignored the stairwell when he reached it. Instead, he made his way around to a crevice between the stairwell and the stones of the Great Hall. Here he found a tiny passage that led nowhere and held no light.

The iron grate was where he remembered it, at the end of the passage. With a grim smile, he stooped and removed it, took a long breath, and crawled through the hole he had made.

The first thing he saw, when he stood again and peered upward, was moonlight. He was startled a moment before remembering that the narrow shaft he was standing in reached straight up beyond the palace roof to the sky. That would account for the mud he was standing in, he thought ruefully. He began to grope with his hand along the lichened wall to the left of him. Behind it, he knew, lay the Great Hall.

He had come this way only once before in his life. It took him a while to find the iron rungs of the ladder against the stone wall; it took him even longer to assure himself that the ladder was not so weather-worn that the rungs had rusted through. Then he began climbing his way up the shaft between the western wall of the palace and the Great Hall.

He was not trained for the border mountain patrol; he felt himself grow breathless before he had gone far. He kept his mind on the rungs he was holding, which he could not see in the dim moonlight. A wind, blowing down the shaft, sounded a note lower than that of any harp-string. He felt a chill on his back that was more than the wind.

"The Spirit's womb," he remembered his uncle telling him when he had revealed to Richard the secret of the passage. "The Spirit's presence is heavy there." The King had said no more than that, and Richard had laughed the matter away. He had not laughed once he entered the passage.

He had reached the section of the passage he wanted now: a gap between the ceiling of the Great Hall and the floor of the royal residence. Pausing to pull himself into the gap, he did not allow himself to think of the three-storey height he was at until he was safely within the gap. Then he let his breath out with a shudder and wiped the sweat from his face.

He was on his hands and knees; the passage allowed him to rise no higher. It was almost as narrow in width as it was in height, but it ran the length of the royal residence like a mole-tunnel. The passage was filled with dust and cobwebs and other, less pleasant objects. It was as black as death. Only the wind, moaning endlessly, made it feel alive. Richard would have preferred to have envisioned the passage as completely lifeless. He did not much care for the thought of the Song Spirit touching him here. He had felt her close grip once already in his life, on the day when she turned her curse upon him.

He found he was sweating once more in the chill darkness. He forced himself to remember why he was here. He crawled forward steadily, his boot-toes scraping the wood, his bare knees protesting the pain of his progress. He had to pause once to wipe slime off his palm onto his tunic, and paused again when his head hit a barrier. Putting forth his hand, he felt a beam. This, he realized, must be a support beam holding up a chamber wall. Encouraged, he dug in his boot-toes in preparation to crawl under the beam.

The floor broke through.

Only his hand on the beam saved him – that, and an exercise his lieutenant had taught him when he was still a bottom-ranked soldier, on how to pull oneself up with a single-handed grip when one is dangling over a precipice. He pushed his thoughts away from how far the precipice fell. Instead, he concentrated on grabbing hold of the support beam with his other hand, pulling his body up, and dragging himself into the portion of the passage under the next chamber.

Much to Richard's relief, the wood there was not rotted through. Wriggling himself around in the cramped space, he placed his hand upon the support beam from the opposite side that he had touched before and cautiously looked through the broken floor at the Great Hall below.

The dais was too far away for his liking. The passage, as he had guessed, ran alongside the southern end of the palace, and so his fall would have occurred next to the southern wall of the Great Hall. This would have been of no use to him; the stones that made up the hall were too flat to allow someone to climb down them, much less to allow a falling person to grab hold of them. He leaned forward further, and at that moment he felt the support beam shift under his hand.

With his heart now firmly lodged in his throat, he carefully eased himself back and held his breath. The beam held. After a moment's more consideration, Richard reached forward and pulled up one of the planks that had broken during his fall but was still marginally attached to the flooring.

It was of a good enough length to prop under the support beam, though Richard could not help but wonder how much support rotting wood could provide. He secured it in place with his troublesome boots – which he pulled from his feet – and then, after another moment's consideration, with the army tunic Lytton had given him. This left him naked and vulnerable amidst the cobwebs and the slime, but not quite defenseless. Before he wedged his boots next to the beam, he took the time to slide his hand into the inner pocket of his right boot and remove the dagger there.

He crawled more carefully after that, testing the wood before putting his full weight upon it. He must be under his own bedchamber now, he knew. He noted that the passage was growing warmer. Then, unexpectedly, the passage ended.

It ended at the place he had been striving to reach: the wall between his chamber and the next one, which was the Queen's. As his mouth grew dry from dust and apprehension, he reached forward with his hand to confirm what he had already sensed: a pile of wood and stone, blocking the area immediately beyond the support beam.

He had travelled this passage only once, on the night that Serva had fled the palace, escaping her brutal father, the King – escaping also the cousin who wanted to marry her. He remembered that night like the ache of an old wound. It was the night when he had realized how much Serva feared him – how her revulsion for what he had become had driven away even the deep love he had sensed she felt for him. The love had returned; he knew he must never lose sight of that fact, must never forget that the rich friendship she bestowed upon him was an undeserved gift. Yet on that night, when he had searched the passage for her until his army duty forced him to return to his men, he had known the desperation of losing the person he loved most.

Now, feeling dark desperation claim him once more, he tried to remember that long night ten years before. At that time, the chamber ahead of him had belonged to the King. Had he even travelled this far in the passage? For all he knew, the passage under the chamber ahead might have been filled with rubble for centuries.

In the darkness, he closed his eyes. Oh, Spirit, he sang inwardly, guide Lord Andrew home. Show him the way to rescue her.

It was at that moment that he heard the scraping.

It came faintly, under the bleak song of the wind. He thought at first that it arose from the fire, roaring somewhere above him. Then his hand moved, and he touched the pile of rubble. It was vibrating.

"Serva!"

The scraping stopped as he shouted. There was a pause, and then, close by, far closer than he could have hoped, he heard a voice say, "Richard?"

He let out his breath and buried his dust-covered face in his grime-covered hands. Then he said, in the level voice he used when he did not want his men to know how much he feared the coming battle, "So, my lady Queen, you are determined as usual to confound the search parties sent by the Captain of the Palace Watch. You always did enjoy playing Hunter and Hunted."

"The passage wasn't my first choice," came the reply. "But the door was too hot to touch, and— Richard, are you the one who decided to install an iron door to the royal chamber?"

"It was supposed to keep out assassins," Richard said defensively, raising his voice as he began removing the rubble in front of him.

"Well, it's a wonderful defense against fire. I should have burned to death half of an hour ago." The scraping had resumed on Serva's side. "After the door, I thought of the window, but it has iron bars across it—"

"Those were supposed to defend against assassins as well."

"Yes, they're very effective in keeping assassins out and palace dwellers in." The scraping was louder now. Richard raised his hand and touched the support beam above him, but it remained undisturbed by the movement of the rubble.

"So then you thought of the passage," he said as he pushed another handful of stones aside.

"No, then the floor caved in."

Richard paused in the midst of struggling to pull out a concrete slab. He realized suddenly that it had mosaic tesserae upon it. "The entire floor?" he enquired in a carefully casual manner.

"Just the part over the passage. The collapse started from the east wall; I suppose the fire in the chamber east of me disturbed the passage. Fortunately, I wasn't standing over the passage at the time."

"Going east is out of the question, then," Richard said, his mind on the gaping hole he had left in the passage behind him.

"Oh, I should think so." Serva's voice was matter-of-fact, if breathless. "Everything up to my chamber must be awash with flames by now."

Richard's hand stilled involuntarily before he resumed tugging at a beam. "Any smoke?"

"Not very much, and I'm shielded from it – literally." Serva laughed suddenly. "Do you remember that massive shield you gave Andrew as a wedding gift?"

"Quite well," said Richard through clenched teeth. "He had been professing to admire it when he saw it in my hut the week before. When I presented it to him, he acted as though I'd given him a handful of droppings."

"Poor Richard," Serva said, her voice filled with nothing but amusement. "Actually, Andrew feared that it was your way of saying he would need a shield against you. You do have a dark sense of humor, you know."

"No darker than the circumstances require," he replied. "What have you done with the shield? . . . Serva?"

"I'm sorry." Serva sounded more breathless than before. "Richard, do you think we have far to dig? I started digging as close as I could to my chamber's west wall."

"Then we shouldn't have far to go," Richard said, twisting in an effort to make room for the rubble he had removed. "You were saying about the shield . . ."

"Oh, I dug out enough rubble so that I could get down into the passage, and then I put the shield on top to keep the smoke out. Do you think we could hurry, Richard?"

Her voice was beginning to rise. Richard reflected that, despite her official title as Commander of the Daxion Army, Serva was after all a civilian, unused to keeping calm in crises. "It won't take long," he said in a soothing voice.

There was a silence, and then Serva said in an unrevealing tone, "Yes, of course. . . . You know, it's odd to meet you here. I always thought of this passage as my own private place to escape from trouble."

"A good enough place for a child to play in," he said, raising his voice. He could hear now the faint storm of flames. "You should really get rid of this passage, though. The floor is rotting away."

"Yes, I'm sure you're right," Serva replied. "I suppose I've kept it for sentimental reasons. I was begotten here, you know."

"I always said that Uncle had peculiar bedding customs," Richard replied and was rewarded with Serva's laugh. It ended in a cough.

"Are you all right?" he asked absentmindedly. His thoughts were on the cloth that he was feeling. He had pulled back enough of the rubble to identify it as a tapestry of some sort; it gave way under his hand.

"I'm fine," said Serva. "Richard, I've reached some sort of cloth."

He felt triumph run through his veins, as though he had heard the victory harp sound. "I'm behind it," he said. "Stay back; I'm going to cut through the tapestry. . . . Why are you laughing?"

"Richard, only you would crawl through a flame-filled palace with dagger in hand."

"I suspect that your husband would too," he muttered, but his thoughts were on cutting through the tough weave.

The tapestry tore open. Heat and smoke poured through the hole.

In an instant, Richard was reaching into the hole, pulling Serva through. Under the light from the tongues of fire leaping through the gap between shield and mosaic floor, he glimpsed the cramped refuge Serva had made for herself. Then Serva was on his side of the support beam, and all his concentration was on rebuilding the rubble barrier he had just torn down.

He succeeded, after a fashion. Behind him, Serva coughed out the last of the smoke she had inhaled while teasing him about his dagger. He waited until she had finished before saying, with a rage born of fear, "Spirit preserve us, Serva, why were you such a dim-witted fool as not to tell me that the fire had reached your chamber?"

He felt Serva's hand on his arm. It held him steady and sure as the Queen said in a soothing voice, "I didn't want to worry you."

He was silent a moment, then mumbled, "Commander of the Army."

"What did you say?"

"Nothing. I always underestimate you, cousin." Picking up the dagger, he achieved again the difficult feat of turning his body within the cramped passage, brushing against Serva as he did so. "Let's go."

"Richard, why aren't you wearing any clothes?"

"I'll answer vitally important questions like that once we reach safety. Here, let me through—"

"No, I'll go first," said Serva. "I know the passage better."

He bit off a reply, remembering who outranked him, and followed the sound of her shuffle as she crawled across the floor. His mind was still so much on the fire behind them that it was some time before he thought to cry, "Serva, wait! There's a gap in the floor ahead!"

"Yes, I can see it." Serva had stopped; her voice was calm. "We'll have to use a plank to get over it, won't we? Can you see—? Oh, it's all right, here's one."

"No!" He had just enough time to grab her ankles and pull her back; then the ceiling fell.

Iron bars, great wooden beams, stone, chunks of concrete with tesserae dotting them – all this thundered to the floor of the passage. The beams alone were enough to crush a man; they were thick as a torso and travelled down with the swiftness of a ship mast snapping in an autumn gale.

Fortunately, the killing rubble did not land on Richard and Serva. Richard, shielding Serva's body with his own, waited until the dust had subsided. Then he propped himself up on one arm, reaching out toward the gap. He did not have to reach far. The rubble pile ended a hand's span away from Serva's head.

"Well," said Serva in a small voice, "that was not the most intelligent thing I've done in my life."

Richard looked down, as though he might see her face in the darkness. "Are you harmed?" he asked.

"Bruised and battered – what else do you expect from your women?" She wriggled beneath him, and he pulled himself off her, allowing his hand to pass over her body. She was wearing a thigh-length shift, torn now in several places, and sticky with moisture that he suspected was blood. Serva was already rising to her hands and knees, though, to inspect the rubble.

"Just another pile for us to dig through," she said cheerfully. "Did I tell you that my secret ambition was to be a miner?"

"I'm afraid it's not that simple." Richard's hand, travelling up to the ceiling of the passage, confirmed what he had feared. "That plank you pulled out was holding up the support beam to my chamber wall. I suspect that the only thing preventing that wall from toppling down now is the rubble beneath it."

Serva was silent a moment. Her bare thigh brushed Richard's arm, which he edged away. The air was growing warmer and more stifling; the roar of the fire in the storey above was louder. Richard felt sweat begin to run down his face.

"We could try to break through the floor here," Serva suggested.

"So we could. Do you recall what lies beneath us?"

A pause, then a flat-voiced reply: "The Great Hall."

"Indeed. Your husband may be able to survive a fall of three storeys, Serva, but such a feat is beyond the skills of us ordinary inhabitants of the Land of the Living."

"If we were to break through the passage ceiling into your chamber—"

"The window in my chamber is barred, and the door is undoubtedly blocked by flames now. Besides, I fear that the effect would be the same as if we dug through the rubble: any disturbance of the ceiling above us might cause the rubble to shift." He paused, listening to the breath beside him and feeling the leg brush him. Then he said, in a solemnly formal manner, "My lady, it seems that is our only choice. I am willing to try it if you—"

"No." Serva's voice was curt with decisiveness. "I understand what you're telling me: if the wall topples, the entire palace is likely to collapse. Richard, we don't know how many guards have been sent to search for us. We don't even know whether the other palace residents have reached safety. We can't risk their lives in order to save ours."

Richard found that his heart was pounding. Perhaps it was from the oppressive heat; perhaps it was from the scrapes on his legs and arms. He suspected not. "Spoken like a true soldier, my lady," he said lightly.

He felt a touch on his arm, and he edged over to allow Serva to slide next to him. "Richard," she said quietly, "did you tell anyone where you were going?"

He smiled his sardonic smile in the dark. "I wasn't intelligent enough to do that."

"Do you think it's likely that anyone will guess where we are and rescue us?"

He hesitated, formulating comforting words in his mind. Then he recalled that he was not lying beside Eulalee, and he discarded all of his lies. "My lady," he said gently, "do you think it's likely that your husband will ever sing in public?"

He heard nothing after that. His spirit yearned to see her face. He was on the point of touching her lightly with his hand when suddenly he flung his body upon hers.

Cobwebs, dust, specks of wood drove down on them as the ceiling above them moaned. The wooden beam above them creaked as another beam cracked at the end of the passage from which they had fled. The crash of rubble followed. There was a pause, with no sound but the muffled roar of fire.

"The song has stopped," said Serva.

"What?" Richard had not moved from his position of shielding her. He groped with his hand to feel whether her head had been wounded.

"The Spirit's song – the winds along the passage. They've stopped."

"Yes, of course," said Richard, marvelling anew at the ability of women to fasten upon irrelevancies. "Both sides of the passage are blocked." He refrained from stating the fact obvious to them both, that the portion of the passage they were in was on the point of being filled with rubble.

"I was just thinking . . . I suppose that it's time to sing our Death Songs."

Her voice was trembling; so was her body. Richard did not think he had ever felt her tremble before, save when one kiss from him had caused her to flee the palace. With a passion mixed of fear and despair and anger at the Spirit's workings, he kissed her forehead; it was bitter with dust and briny sweat. He kissed it a second time, and a third time; once started, he could not seem to stop. His lips travelled from her forehead to her eyelids to her cheeks to her lips.

Her arms were pulling him closer. After a moment, he realized that she was tugging at the thin cloth that separated them. She was naked underneath.

"No!" His voice emerged as a moan, and he clutched at her, as though he might thereby escape her. "We mustn't . . . We're married to others . . ."

"I'm sure the Spirit will forgive us." Serva's voice was breathless between her kisses. "Oh, Richard, we have so little time left—"

With the groan of a subcommander surrendering his field to the enemy, Richard drew her closer.

They sang their Death Song together, without words.

Chapter Text

Serva, Richard had decided, smelled like a death spirit that has lingered too long in the Land of the Living. Her body was rank with sweat and grease and the juice of bugs that she had rolled upon. She stank worse than any soldier who has marched for three nights and a day.

Richard had never smelled a more intoxicating perfume. With a hand still lethargic from recent exertions, he wrapped a braid of grimy hair around his finger and kissed it. Serva's body stirred under him.

"It's hot," she said in his ear.

"Yes." He had not failed to note the increase in temperature; his back felt as though it had lain under a year's worth of midsummer suns. The fire roared directly above them now. Smoke was beginning to drift down the passage from the latest rubble pile, which had no doubt opened a hole between the passage and his chamber. Grimly smiling, Richard wondered whether they would die first from the smoke, the fire, or the collapsing ceiling.

He propped himself up by an elbow. His free hand brushed the remains of Serva's much-abused shift, which was resting atop his abandoned dagger. "Am I crushing you?"

"I hadn't noticed." Serva's voice was calm now. Her hand brushed his hair.

"Let's roll over this way," Richard suggested, pulling her as he spoke. "You can lie on my stomach—"

The floor broke through.

No time to think; no time to do anything but cling to Serva and pray to the Spirit that when his bones shattered into a thousand pieces, his corpse would cushion her fall. The air sang in his ears.

Then they landed, and pain as exquisitely cutting as Lord Andrew's thigh-dagger raked through Richard's back.

"Richard." A voice little more than a whisper tickled his ear. "Richard, are you all right?"

Richard's mind registered the fact that he had not felt this much pain since the day he had foolishly stepped into the path of his lieutenant's horse, and the lieutenant had decided to teach him a lesson. He also noted the fact that, if he felt pain, he could not be a corpse. "Yes," he said tentatively, and tried wriggling his fingers and toes. "Yes," he said more confidently. He dared not open his eyes for fear that this would turn out to be an illusion, and the voice he had heard would be the Song Spirit welcoming him into her realm. "Where are we?" he asked experimentally.

"On the children's balcony." The voice spoke between rapid breaths. "The balcony broke our fall. And— Oh, Richard, we're on cushions."

"Cushions?" said Richard, trying to recall whether the eschatology of his childhood had included cushions.

"Yes, seat cushions – they're all over the balcony. Andrew must have put them here this evening in place of the chairs he took away." Serva gave a laugh that sounded close to a sob.

Richard decided that it would be safe to open his eyes. He did so in time to see Serva, shining under the moonlight, leap to her feet and take hold of the balcony door.

"It's locked," she reported, rattling the latch. "Andrew must have locked it to keep the servants from putting more chairs here."

He felt his body jolt as his heart pumped blood to the extremities. He had not seen Serva naked since they were both young children in the royal nursery. Never had in his manhood had he seen what lay beneath the curves of her adult gowns; never in his manhood had he seen what was now fringed by her mist-colored hair. He felt his lungs struggle to take in air and decided that he would require more time to recover from his fall.

Then his body jolted again, and he realized that his heart was not to blame.

"Serva," he said in a careful voice, "stay where you are."

Serva turned her head toward him. Moonlight travelled over the hollow of her throat and onto the hilltops of her breasts. The sight drove him speechless. Then he added, more rapidly, "Take hold of the latch. Is there a ledge where you can place your feet?"

"Yes, but— Richard!"

The final jolt came, and the balcony plummeted like a spear that has reached the apex of its flight.

In the silence that followed the shattering on the ground, only Serva's hoarse breath could be heard. Then a voice, dreamlike, drifted up from the floor: "I'm going to buy cushions for the army."

"Richard?" Serva's voice held considerably more concern than it had when the flames entered her bedchamber.

"Lots and lots of cushions," Richard said serenely. "They're a wonderful protection against bodily injury." Against all the best instincts of his body, he managed to struggle to his feet. He held up his arms to the woman clinging to the ledge above. "Jump, my love!" he said. "If I don't catch you, the cushions will."

With a laugh half hysterical, Serva leapt off the ledge. Her braids streamed behind her like the Spirit's mist as she fell three men's height into Richard's waiting arms. Her weight toppled them both into the cushions, which gave Richard the excuse he needed to kiss her again.

Then, with an instinct now honed by experience, he rolled on top of her and heard the sky crack open.

It was a sound louder than a lash of lightning whipping next to his body, louder than the roar of the waterfall at the edge of the world. And it was followed by a rainfall of fire: beams of burning wood, thicker and longer than battering rams, thundered down onto the floor of the Great Hall, sizzling death as they came. With his arms wrapped around Serva and his face buried in her hair, Richard felt the timber pound the floor over and over like a smithy's hammer.

Finally there was stillness, but for the steady sound of fire and the insistent tickle of smoke.

Serva said in a muffled voice, "You're crushing me again."

"It's my new custom," he replied. "I plan to leap atop you at least three times a night from now on." He rolled onto his back, and his breath caught in his throat.

"Spirit of Merciful Peace," whispered Serva, staring upwards.

Richard said nothing. The stony walls of the Great Hall – ancient, immovable – remained just as they had been. Bits of bright banners floated through the air, curling as fire ate them. The beams of the wooden ceiling were gone. Beyond this was neither dark passage nor royal residence nor the topmost two storeys of the palace. All that Richard could see were the moon and the stars, sending down their unending light.

A crackle of flame caused Richard to turn his head and then snatch Serva up, moments before the fire, now eating at the remains of the balcony, reached her hair. Tacking their way through the sea of fiery bracken, the Queen and her Prince ran to the doors of the Great Hall and flung them open.

Fire greeted them.

The long gallery had not been immune to the storm of flames. A beam, crashing through the ceiling, had lit both sides of the gallery. On one side, the curtains whipped with frantic fear as the fire ate its way through them; on the other side, fire cut its way through the intricate patterns of the tapestries. Even the furniture was alight now.

With a curse, Richard scooped Serva off her feet and into his arms. "Hold your breath," he said. Following his own advice, he drew in his breath and began to run through the flames.

His bare feet pierced agony with every step he took; his back, not yet recovered from the fall, urged him to drop his burden. His lungs felt as though they would burst. Flames reached toward him like mist closing upon him, and soot rushed into his eyes, causing his vision to blur. His dimming vision was centered on the doors ahead. He could see already that they were closed. Closed, and alight with fire.

He reached the doors and paused with fatal indecision. Serva was coughing into his shoulder. The flames began to close in; he felt their bite against his skin.

The doors burst open, and a dozen soldiers ran in.

They stopped short at the doorway, staring at Richard and Serva as though they were death spirits. Then one of them, with the uniform of a lieutenant, recovered his thoughts and barked orders.

Sensing the end of his journey, Richard closed his eyes against the smoke and allowed himself to be pulled through the doorway onto the cool, moist grass.

His back still felt the heat of the flames as the voices started to gather around him. He could not understand what they were saying. Someone lifted an object from his arms, and he emitted an instinctive sound of protest. Someone else threw a blanket across his shoulders. Not understanding its purpose, and knowing only that it hurt his scorched back, he shrugged it off.

He felt moistness on his face: a wet cloth, cleaning the grime from him. Someone placed a flask in his hand, and he let it drop to the ground. A familiar voice said in his ear, "Richard, are you harmed?"

He opened his eyes. Below him lay the tents of the army camp, white in the bone-colored moonlight. The grey-tunicked figures of soldiers ran amidst the tents, busy with duties. Further to the west, near the palace gate, the palace residents huddled together with curious city dwellers, staring upwards open-mouthed.

Richard did not turn around to see what they were looking at. His eyes were frantically searching the throng in front of him. The crowd was made up mainly of army doctors, most of whom were clustered in a circle nearby. Richard took a step forward, ignoring the voices chattering to him, and glimpsed sight of the Queen. Someone had thrown a blanket over her as well; only one bare shoulder still showed. Her face was hidden, buried against the shoulder of the man who stood beside her, his arm curled around her.

The man, though, was not looking at Serva. With a gaze cold and dark and deadly, Lord Andrew, Consort to the Queen, looked at the Prince of Daxis, standing naked at the palace entrance.

Richard heard himself say to Lytton, "Not yet."

Chapter Text

Under the ghostly light cast by the dawn sun, still hidden beneath the edge of the world, the palace looked like a victim of war. Only the Great Hall, standing tall and dignified, had survived intact; all the wooden parts of the palace were battered and bruised. The remains of the top three storeys lay shattered on the ground to the east of the palace, where they had fallen many hours before.

No deaths had occurred when the storeys toppled. The Consort, arriving minutes before the palace underwent its death throes, had taken one look at the building shivering from fire and had tersely commanded the withdrawal of the guards who were searching the palace for Prince and Queen. Then, defying all predictions that he would plunge into the flames himself, the Consort had climbed the low hill to the entrance of the palace. He had looked out upon the vast crowd that was silent with anticipation, and he had begun to sing.

It was said that the Consort, ashamed of his high singing voice, had never before sung in the presence of anyone but the Queen and the Song Spirit. If so, the Spirit accepted his sacrifice of song that night; the Consort's singing of the lengthy traditional prayer for the Queen's safety, which did not waver even when the palace collapsed, ended as the long gallery sprung ablaze with flames. For a breath's space, the Consort remained motionless while the fire crackled behind him. His eyes were on a different world. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, he whirled around and ordered that the doors to the northern entrance be opened. Eager to rescue the Great Hall, the soldiers obeyed – and found themselves facing the Prince and the Queen, alive and naked.

Alive and naked. . . . Already rumors were whispering themselves through the palace grounds and the surrounding city about what had happened inside the dying palace while the Consort sang his song. Richard had overheard some of those whispers as he made his painful way back to his hut.

Now, lying stomach-down on his cot as Lytton rubbed salve onto his back, he propped himself up onto one elbow, contemplated the ruin of the palace that he could see through his window. He said in reply to a question, "I'll tell her the truth. I told you before: I don't lie to Eulalee in order to protect myself." Wincing as Lytton reached one of the burns, Richard let his head sink back down onto the cot. "It's something she'll be able to understand and forgive, I believe. Serva and I, trapped alone, surrounded by fire and death . . ."

"Oh, there's no doubt that your generous wife will forgive you," said Lytton, pausing to scoop more salve out of the jar. "But what of Lord Andrew? Will he understand and forgive?"

Richard cast another look at the bleak, fire-blackened structure. "Lord Andrew," he said carefully, "will understand that I've broken my peace oath, and he will therefore inflict his promised vengeance upon me." He closed his eyes, feeling the burn of the salve ease the harsher burn of the fire. "No doubt he will arrange my death in a subtle manner that hides from Serva the fact that he is the murderer."

"Richard—"

Lytton's words were cut off. Richard's eyes flew open. Forestalling Lytton with a gesture, he eased himself from the bed with his teeth gritted, walked into the adjoining chamber, and confronted the barred door from which the knock had come. "Who goes?" he asked.

"It is I." The reply slid through the cracks of the door like slivers of ice.

"Hold." Richard turned and walked back into the previous chamber, closing the door between the chambers as he did so. Lytton was in the process of closing and latching the window shutter. Richard waited until this was done before saying, "I was wrong. He's not going to be subtle."

"Richard, don't open that door!" Lytton urged in a frantic whisper.

"And do what instead?" Richard finished tying on his breech-cloth and pulled a tunic over his head, pausing to give Lytton a dark smile. "Stay awake every night until the evening when I lower my eyelids briefly and feel Lord Andrew's blade slice open my throat? At least this way I have a chance to inflict upon him a few wounds before my life's blood seeps out." He winced as he shoved his tender feet into his spare boots.

"Maybe you'll be able to kill him," Lytton said in a doubtful voice as he held out Richard's sheathed sword.

Richard replied with a sharp laugh and waved away the sword.

Lytton silently watched him tie his belt and pin his tunic-flap shut with a brooch. Then he said abruptly, "You want to die."

Richard's hand finished checking the pocket of his boot. He stood and stared at the window shutter, tracing a memory in his mind. After a moment, the pain grew so great that he closed his eyes.

"My dear Lytton," he responded softly, "I have had the most joyous night of my life, and now I have no choice but to watch while Lord Andrew reclaims Serva and takes her back as his love. I had what I had tonight, and now I have no choice until the end of my days but to watch them love each other and share their marriage bed together. I have no choice." He opened his eyes, saw Lytton watching him with a face sharp with concern, and said gently, "Of course I want to die. I won't plunge a dagger into myself, though. Lord Andrew has reserved that privilege."

Leaving Lytton still groping for words of comfort, Richard turned and passed through the middle doorway. Pulling back the bar of the exterior door, he lifted the latch and flung the door wide open.

The most skillful bladesman in Daxis stood at his threshold, fingering the boney hilt of his dagger.

Lord Andrew's hand slid off the dagger as the door opened. His gaze, dark and impenetrable, flicked past Richard to Lytton, hovering behind the Prince. The Consort said in a voice as soft as the chill wind of night, "The Queen wishes to see you."

"The Queen wishes to see me." Richard accepted the lie with a smile. "Lytton, I am going to see the Queen. Don't stay awake for me."

He stepped forward swiftly before Lytton could make more than a choke of protest, but Lord Andrew had moved swifter still. He turned his back – only a man of his skills would turn his back on an enemy – and began leading the way through the silent army tents.

The soldiers were still in the city, helping the palace residents to locate homes and inns that would house them until the palace was rebuilt. Just a handful of guards remained within the palace walls, aiding the palace officials as they removed surviving valuables before the remainder of the palace was torn down in preparation for the rebuilding.

All of the guards and officials were in the eastern portion of the palace, beyond hearing. The blackened shell of what had once been the long gallery was silent but for Richard's bootsteps. The Consort himself had a trick of moving without sound.

Richard's dark smile increased as he watched the Consort turn and enter the Great Hall. Lord Andrew had always shown delicate taste in his killings. They never occurred as murders – not in the eyes of the world, not once Lord Andrew had finished explaining his version of the ballad. The corpses never had the opportunity to contradict Lord Andrew's words. Richard could envision the new ballad as Lord Andrew would sing it to the world: the weary Consort, having saved his Queen's life with his song, being attacked unexpectedly by the fire-maddened Prince; a royal duel in the Great Hall, in which the Prince tried by every dishonorable trick he knew to kill the Queen's true love and usurp the Consort's title; Lord Andrew's desperate and successful attempt to defend his honor . . . Pausing to ease his spare boot-dagger into his hand, Richard thought to himself that the world would never know how much care he had taken to ensure that this final duel was fought with honor. He had discarded the sword with which he fought with greatest ease, in favor of the dagger that Lord Andrew preferred as a weapon – a handicap Richard most assuredly did not need on this night.

With his heart beating fire throughout his body, Richard raised his dagger and turned the corner into the Great Hall.

He was greeted by song.

It was a song that caused his bones to ache, a song so sweet that it made him want to sink to his knee and listen forever. Richard could not tell whether the song came from harp-string or flute or the unearthly voice of the Song Spirit herself. All that he knew was that it came from the direction of the dais, where the Queen stood, the royal diadem upon her head, and her face revealing nothing.

It was then that Richard realized that his concern had been directed toward the wrong person.

He stooped and sheathed the blade in his boot – it had grown as hot in his hand as a white-flamed iron – and walked steadily down to the end of the Great Hall, where the Queen and the Consort waited silently. The guards had been busy in this portion of the palace; already the ground was cleared of the fallen timbers, and only the ashes rising under his feet offered a reminder of what had taken place in the hall a few hours earlier. The Queen was as fresh now as a dew-laden bud.

He approached as near to the dais as he dared – to the place where the Queen's Bard sang his songs each evening to the palace residents – and then sank onto one knee. Bowing his head, he said, "My lady Queen, I implore your forgiveness and the Song Spirit's forgiveness."

"Prince Richard." Always before, even on the day when he had returned to her the usurped throne, Serva had come forward to raise him to his feet, but he heard no footsteps. After a moment, he lifted his head and discovered that Serva was looking, not at him, but at the Consort.

"I have told Lord Andrew what happened between us in the passage," she said in a colorless voice that was different from any he had heard her use before. Her gaze remained focussed on her husband. Richard rose slowly to his feet, feeling Lord Andrew's gaze cover his skin like hoarfrost.

"Then I must ask your forgiveness as well, Lord Andrew," Richard said stiffly. "I have taken from you what is yours by right."

Lord Andrew's voice, rigid and cool, said, "I have told the Queen that I believe this is a matter I must judge in the Spirit."

Serva remained silent. Her eyes were still on the Consort, standing midway between the Queen and the Prince. The music, Richard realized in that moment, was not coming from the Queen after all.

He felt his hands forming into fists and forced himself to relax. "In the Spirit," Lord Andrew had said. The song which Richard heard – which by his royal blood he was privileged to hear – gave the needed proof that the Consort was indeed placing the Prince under the Song Spirit's judgment, not his own. Richard let out his breath slowly and said, with careful wording, "And what is your judgment in the Spirit, Consort?"

Richard felt coldness bite into his legs. He became aware that mist was drifting into the room, drawn from the earth by the approaching dawn, and allowed entrance into the palace through the broken bay windows of the ravaged long gallery. The milky mist moved slowly across the floor, passed the waiting Prince, curled around the motionless Consort, and crawled its way up the dais to touch the Queen, whose voice was silent but whose eyes sang her concern.

The Consort, in his voice that never trembled, never revealed any pain or vulnerability, said with frozen words, "Ten years ago, when I helped Serva to escape from this palace, there came a moment when the danger was so great that we both believed that we would die. I remember the kiss she gave me then, and I remember how I responded to that kiss. My judgment in the Spirit is that what took place between you and her was the result of fire and death, and that neither you nor Serva is to blame for what happened."

Feeling the mist bite at his wounds, Richard reflected to himself that the Consort did not even need to unsheathe his blade in order to kill men's spirits. It was not enough that Lord Andrew had taken the words he had overheard Richard speak to Lytton, and had twisted them to make Richard and Serva's lovemaking a trivial matter. No, that was not harsh enough a wound to satisfy the Consort. Lord Andrew had gone further and made the love that had taken place that night into nothing more than a faint shadow of the love between the Consort and the Queen. The lovemaking tonight – the kisses, the touches, the linking of bodies – was nothing more than a pallid copy of the single kiss that had joined the hearts of Lord Andrew and Serva.

Richard heard a faint sound and moved his gaze to Serva. For the first time, her eyes met his. And Richard knew then that Lord Andrew was lying. Oh, he doubtless spoke the literal truth – the Consort dared not do otherwise with the music of the Song Spirit only now just fading. But the truth in the Spirit lay far deeper than the words Lord Andrew had spoken. What had happened this night was not trifling, nor was it a shadow of the love that Serva felt for Andrew. Far from it.

With reborn strength singing through the veins of his body, Richard turned back to Andrew and said, with blade-edged formality, "I thank the Song Spirit for her mercy upon myself and the Queen; I know that her judgments are always true. Now that I have received her judgment" – he took a step forward – "I wish to hear yours, Lord Andrew."

Serva stared at Prince and Consort with lips parted. Lord Andrew gave no sign that he was surprised by the request. Richard took another step toward Lord Andrew – and toward the dais – saying, "You always word yourself carefully, Lord Andrew. Some men, no longer dwelling in the Land of the Living, have failed to note this of you. A less cautious man might think from your words that you have forgiven me for what I did. But that is not the case, is it? You gave me your judgment in the Spirit – in the Spirit. I took from you what was yours, and as Consort, the Voice of the Spirit, you granted me mercy. Am I correct in believing that Lord Andrew, the chosen love of Serva, has another judgment to give?"

The dawn light, beginning to creep through the high windows of the hall, touched Lord Andrew's eyes, causing them to glitter. "You are correct," he said softly.

Richard let a smile of irony touch his lips, and then, as though Lord Andrew had disappeared in the mist, he walked past the Consort. He tried not to pay mind to the fear screaming through his unguarded back as he climbed the steps to the dais, took Serva's hand, and knelt in front of her.

"My lady, I once more beg your forgiveness," he said gently. "Believe me when I say that I never meant for this to happen, and I never would have chosen to harm him whom you love. I know your strength," he added as she pulled him to his feet, "and I know that you have the ability to watch without flinching what will happen, but for my sake, I would ask that you not witness what follows."

Something broke through Serva's expression, like the light touching the mist at their feet. Richard, assessing her face as he had assessed men entering into battle, thought to himself that Lord Andrew had been right in one respect. On this night, alone of all the days and nights when the Queen had given calm and balanced judgment of her subjects, Serva had reached her limit. Her eyes were filled with uncertainty, and her gaze passed between Richard and the man standing behind him, with no answers appearing in her face. Still holding her hand, Richard willed her with his eyes. His mind was already racing ahead to what lay next. He was thinking that, if he were Lord Andrew, he would make his attack in the brief moment before Richard unsheathed his blade.

Slipping her hand out from Richard's, Serva took a step toward the dais edge. Richard closed his eyes in brief thanks to the Spirit. Then a cool voice behind him said, "There is no need for you to leave."

He whirled then, managing, with an artistry that surprised himself, to unsheathe his blade before he had completed the turn. "You demon-filled, ice-hearted hypocrite," he said, his throat aching with the effort to keep his voice low. "All that high talk of yours about not wanting to torment Serva, and you allow matters to come to this. The least you can do is spare her the sight of my blood."

He could have bitten his lip in the next moment for having revealed his expectations. Upon second reflection, though, he doubted that he had told Lord Andrew anything he had not already known. Lord Andrew could not be under any illusions about his own skill with a blade – not with the mark of that blade on enough corpses to impress even the second most skilled murderer Richard had ever known.

The man with the highest skills in these matters did not so much as blink under Richard's invective. In a tone detached and measured, Lord Andrew said, "I believe that Serva should hear my judgment."

Richard felt a bite in his hand as his fingers curled too tightly around his dagger hilt. "Deliver it, then," he said brusquely.

In a soft voice that echoed to the ends of the Great Hall, where the mist was beginning to vanish under the heat of the day, Richard's enemy said, "Serva is free to love whomever she wishes. This has always been the case. As for myself . . . You saved Serva's life last night. I will give you any reward you wish for that."

Richard turned slowly away from the Consort, who continued to look with steady eyes upon his Queen and her Prince. Serva, her hand clasped against her mouth, turned her eyes toward Richard. The dawn light pouring through the roofless hall had transformed her white gown to the color of rich honey. Richard discovered that he was smiling. He dropped the dagger, took one step forward, and drew Serva into his arms.

The kiss was sweeter than any he had ever known.

Chapter Text

"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.