Young Ostrael of Runchester stood shivering on the curtain wall and reflected on what his

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A peasant girl in a homespun skirt—some ostler's daughter most likely, by the jug she balanced on her shoulder—hurried past up the street. A few soldiers whistled and called out to her, spilling great sloshes of beer into the dust below the tavern windowsills. The girl did not look up as she trotted by, chin on chest. Her haste, combined with the heavy jug, kept her steps short. Simon watched the fluid sway of her hips appreciatively, even turning completely around to keep her in view until she swooped abruptly into an alleyway and disappeared.
"Simon, come on!" Jeremias called. "There it is!"
In the middle of the block of buildings, standing up from Tavern Row like a rock in a rutted road, stood Saint Sutrin's cathedral. The stone of its great face dully reflected the patient sun. Its tall arches and vaulting buttresses cast thin shadows over the nests of gargoyles, whose lively, twisted faces peered down happily, cackling and joking over the shoulders of the humorless saints. Three limp pennants hung from the flagpole over the high double doors: Elias' green dragon, the Pillar and Tree of the church, and at the bottom the gold coronet of Erchester-town on a white field. A pair of constabulary guards leaned on the open doors, their pikes point down in the wide stone doorway.
"Well, here's for it," said Simon grimly, and with Jeremias trotting at his heels he made his way up the two dozen marble steps. At the top one of the guards lifted his pike lazily and barred their entrance. His chain mail hood was pulled back, hanging like a veil across his shoulders.
"What do you want, then?" he asked, narrowing his eyes.
"A message for Breyugar." Simon was embarrassed to hear his voice break. "For Count Breyugar, from Doctor Morgenes at the Hayholt." A little defiantly, he thrust out the rolled parchment. The guardsman who had spoken took it and gave the seal a cursory glance. The other was staring intently up at the carved door-lintel, as if hoping to see written there his dismissal from duty for the day.
The first guard handed the parchment back with a shrug. "Inside and to the left. Don't be scamping about."
Simon drew himself up to his full height, indignant. When he was a guardsman, he would carry himself with a great deal more style than these bored, unshaven idiots. Didn't they know what an honor it was to wear the king's green? He and Jeremias climbed past them into Saint Sutrin's cool interior.
Nothing moved in the antechamber, not even the air, but Simon could see the play of light on figures in motion beyond the far doorway. Instead of going directly to the door on the left, he looked back to see if the guards were watching—they weren't, of course—then strode forward to look into the cathedral's grand chapel.
"Simon!" Jeremias hissed, alarmed. "What are you doing?! They said over there!" He pointed to the leftmost doorway.
Ignoring his companion, Simon leaned his head through the doorway. Jeremias, muttering nervously, came up behind.
It's like one of those religious pictures, Simon thought. Where you see Usires and the Tree way in the back, and the faces of Nabbanai peasants and all very close up front,
Indeed, the chapel was so large and high-ceilinged that it seemed a whole world. Sunlight, softened by the colored windows as though by clouds, streamed down from the uppermost reaches. White-robed priests moved around the altar, cleaning and polishing like shaven-headed chambermaids. Simon supposed they were preparing for the Elysiamansa services only a week or two away.
Closer to the door, moving equally busily but with no other common reference, Breyugar's yellow-tunicked constables milled back and forth on various errands, dotted here and there with the green of one of the castle's Erkynguard, or the dun or black clothes of some Erchester notable. The two groups seemed completely separated; it took a moment for Simon to see the row of boards and stools that had been mounted between the front and back of the cathedral. In a flash of insight, Simon realized that it was not a fence to keep the scurrying priests in, as was the first impression—no, rather it was to keep the soldiers out. It seemed that Bishop Domitis and the priests had still not given up hope that the Lord Constable's occupation of their cathedral would be less than permanent.
As they climbed the stairs, they had to show their parchment to three more guards in turn, all of these more alert than those at the massive front door—either because they were inside out of the sun, or else due to their increased proximity to the object of protection. At last they stood in a crowded guardroom before a seam-faced, gap-toothed veteran whose belt full of keys and air of harried disinterest bespoke authority.
"Yes, the Lord Breyugar's here today. Give me the letter, and I'll be passing it on." The sergeant scratched his chin impassively.
"No, sir, we must give it to him. It's from Doctor Morgenes." Simon tried to sound firm. Jeremias was staring at the floor.
"Oh, is it then? Well, think of that." The man spat on the sawdust-covered floor. Here and there the gleam of marble tiles showed through. "Aedon bite me, what a day. Wait here, then."
"So, what have we here?" Count Breyugar, sitting at the table beside the bony remnants of a meal of small birds, raised an eyebrow. He had delicate features, nearly lost in jowly flesh, and the hands of a musician—fine, long-fingered hands.
"A letter, my Lord." Simon, on one knee, extended the tube of parchment.
"Well give it to me, then, boy. Can't you see I'm at dinner?" The count's voice was high-pitched and effeminate, but Simon had heard that Breyugar was a terrifying swordsman—those slender hands had killed many men.
As the count read the message, lips moving, shiny with grease, Simon tried to keep his shoulders straight and his back stiff as a pike handle. Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw the grizzled sergeant looking at him, so he tilted his chin back and stared straight ahead, thinking about what a favorable comparison he must make to the slouching dullards on watch at the cathedral doors.
"... Please consider the... bearers... for service under your Lordship's guidance..." Breyugar read aloud. His emphasis gave Simon a panicky moment—had he noticed the "s" Simon had added to "bearer"? He had made it a bit squeezy so it would fit.
Count Breyugar, his eyes on Simon, handed the letter to the staff sergeant. As the sergeant read, slower even than Breyugar, the nobleman looked the youth up and down, then flicked a brief glance to the still-kneeling Jeremias. When the sergeant handed the letter back, he wore a smile that showed two teeth missing, and a pink tongue probing in the dark gulf.
"So." Breyugar fluted the sound like a sorrowful breath. "Morgenes, the old apothecary, wants me to take on a couple of castle-mice and turn them into men." He picked up a tiny haunch from his plate and chewed on the bone. "Impossible."
Simon felt his knees buckle and his stomach push up toward his throat. "But... but why?" he stammered.
"Because I don't need you. I have fighting men enough. I can't afford you. No one can plant if it doesn't rain, and I have men lined up already looking for a job of work that will feed them. But most important, I don't want you—a couple of suet-soft castle boys who have felt nothing more painful in their lives than a smack on their pink arses for stealing cherries. Go on with you. If war comes, if those sneering heathen in Hernystir continue to resist the king's will, or treacherous Josua turns up, then you can carry a pitchfork or scythe with the rest of the peasants—maybe you can even follow the army and water the horses, if manpower gets short enough. But you'll never be soldiers. The king didn't make me Lord Constable to nursemaid groundlings. Sergeant, show these castle-mice a hole to scamper out."
Neither Simon or Jeremias said a word all the long journey back to the Hayholt. When Simon was alone in his curtained alcove he broke his barrel-stave sword over his knee. He did not cry. He would not cry.
There is something strange in the north wind today, thought Isgrimnur. Something that smells like an animal, or a storm about to happen, or both... some scratchy thing that puts the hair on my neck right up.
He rubbed his hands together as though the air were cold, which it was not, and pushed the sleeves of his light summer tunic—worn months early in this oddest of years—up over his corded old forearms. He went again to the doorway and looked out, feeling embarrassed that an old soldier like himself should be playing such stripling's games.
Where is that damned Hernystirman?
Turning to pace again he nearly tripped over a stack of writing boxes, instead catching a boot buckle in the bottommost of a small pyramid of parchment scrolls that hemmed in his confined walking space. Cursing roundly, he bent in time to keep the arrangement from toppling. Certainly the deserted room in the Hall of Records, emptied so that the writing-priests could make their Elysiamansa observances, was as good a place as could be found on short notice for a clandestine meeting—but why couldn't they leave enough room among their damned daubings for a grown man to move around?
The door latch rattled. Duke Isgrimnur, relieved of waiting at last, sprang forward Instead of peering out cautiously he flung the door open to find not two men, as expected, but one.
"Praise Aedon you're here, Eclair'" he barked. "Where's the escritor?"
"Sshh." The Count of Nad Mullach held two fingers to his lips as he entered, pulling the door closed behind him."More quiet. The archive-master is nattering about just up the hall."
"And why should I care?" the duke exclaimed, but not so loudly as the first time. "Are we children, to hide from that leathery old eunuch?"
"If you wanted a meeting that all know about," Eclair asked, settling himself on a stool, "then why are we hiding in a closet?"
"It's no closet," the Rimmerman grumbled, "and you know perfectly well why I told you to come here, and why no secret is safe in the Inner Keep. Where's Escritor Velhgis?"
"He felt that a closet was no place for the lector's right-hand man." Eolair laughed. Isgrimnur did not. He thought the Hernystirman drunk by his flushed face, or at least a little so. He wished he were the same.
"I thought it important that we meet somewhere we could talk freely," Isgrimnur said, a little defensively. "We have been much seen in deep conversation lately."
"No, Isgrimnur, it's you that's right." Eolair waved a hand reassuringly. He was dressed for the Lady Day celebrations, playing the part of respectful outsider—a part which the pagan Hernystin had learned well. His festival tunic of white was belted three times, each belt covered in gold or enameled metals, and his long mane of black hair was pulled back behind his head and tied with golden ribbon. "I was only making a joke, and a sad joke it is," he resumed, "when King John's loyal subjects must meet in secret to speak of things which are no treason."
Isgrimnur moved slowly to the door and juggled the latch, making sure it had closed. He turned, putting his wide back against the wood, and crossed his arms across his substantial chest. He, too, was dressed for the festivities in a fine, light-weight blue tunic and hose, but the braids of his beard had already been frayed loose by nervous tugging, and the hose bagged at the knee. Isgrimnur hated dressing up
"Well," he growled at last, tilting his head defiantly, "should I speak first, or will you?"
"There is no need to worry who will speak first," the count said.
For a moment the flush of Eolair's face, the color on his high, thin cheekbones, reminded the older man of something he had seen once, years ago, a haunting figure glimpsed across fifty yards of Rimmersgard snow.
One of the "white foxes," my father called that one.
Isgrimnur wondered if the old stones were true—was there really Sithi blood in the Hernystin noble houses?
Eolair ran a hand across his forehead as he continued speaking, blotting away the tiny droplets of sweat, and the momentary likeness was gone. "We have spoken enough to know that things have gone fiercely wrong. What we need to speak on—and what we need privacy to speak on," he waved his hand at the cluttered archive room, a dark nest of paper and parchment lit by a high triangular window, "—is what we can do about it. If anything. But that is it. What can be done?"
Isgrimnur was not yet willing to jump so boldly into talk that, whatever Eolair might say, had already the faint, sickening tang of treason.
"It's this way," he said, "I would be the last to hold Elias to blame for this bedamned weather I should know while it's hot as the Devil's breath and dry as a bone here, in my land in the north we're having a terrible winter snows and ice that beat anything remembered. So weather here is no fault of the king's, any more than the roofs collapsed and the cattle frozen in the bam halls in Rimmersgard are mine." He tugged fiercely, and another beard-braid raveled loose, the ribbon hanging limply down from the gray tangle. "Of course, Elias is to blame for keeping me here while my kinsfolk and people suffer, but that is another line and another hook."
"No, it's that the man doesn't seem to care! The wells drying up, the farms lying fallow, starving people sleeping in the fields and cities a-choke with the plague—and he seems not to notice. The taxes and levies go up, those bedamned arse-licking pups of the nobility he has befriended ring him 'round all day dunking and singing and fighting and… and…" The old duke grunted in disgust "And the tournaments' Udun's red spear, I was as much for the tourney as any man in my day, but Erkynland is crumbling to dust beneath his father's throne, the countries of the High Ward are restless as a spooked colt—and still the tournaments go on! And the barge parties on the Kynslagh! And the jugglers, and the tumblers, and the bearbaitings! It's as bad as what they say of the worst days of Crexis the Goat!" Red in the face himself now, Isgrimnur balled his fists and stared at the floor.
"In Hernystir,"—Eolair's voice was soft and musical after the Rimmerman's hoarse tirade—"we say: 'A shepherd, not a butcher,' meaning a king should preserve his land and people like a flock, taking from them only what he needs to get by—not use them up until there's nothing left to do but eat what remains." Eolair stared at the small window and the particles of parchment dust that eddied in its diffuse light. "That's what Ehas is doing: eating his land bite by bite, as surely as did the giant Croich-ma-Feareg once devoured the mountain at Crannhyr."
"He was a good man once, Elias was," Isgrimnur said wonderingly, "—far easier to deal with than his brother. Surely, not all men are meant for kingship, but it seems more is wrong than just a man made ill by power. Something is damnably wrong—and it is not only Fengbald and Breyugar and those that are leading him to the cliff." The duke had somewhat regained his breath. "You know it is that vicious bastard Pryrates who fills his head with strange notions, and keeps him up nights in that tower with lights and unholy noises, until sometimes it seems that the king does not know where he is when the sun is up. What could Elias want from such a creature as that whoreson priest? He is king of the known world—what could Pryrates possibly have to offer him?"
Eolair stood, still with eyes fixed to the light above, and dampened his sleeve against his forehead. "I wish I knew," he said at last. "So. What then is there to do?"
Isgrimnur narrowed his old, fierce eyes. "What said Escritor Velligis? It is, after all, Mother Church's cathedral that is confiscate at Saint Sutrin's. It is Duke Leobardis' Nabbanai ships, along with your King Lluth's, that Guthwulf has stolen under the lie of 'plague danger' at the sovereign harbor of Abaingeat. Leobardis and Lector Ranessin are close; they rule Nabban like one two-headed monarch. Surely Velligis must have had something to say on his master's behalf."
"He has much to say, but little of substance, my friend." Eolair slumped back on his stool. The bright shaft of sunlight was diminished now, its source partially blocked as the sun sank, the little room in even denser shadow. "Of what Duke Leobardis thinks of this act of piracy—three grain ships thieved outright in a Hernystir harbor—Velligis professes not to know. On his master's behalf he is, as ever, vague. His Sacredness Ranessin, I think, has designs to be a peacemaker between Elias and Duke Leobardis, and perhaps at the same time improve the position of your Aedonite Church here at court. My master King Lluth has directed me next to travel to Nabban, and perhaps I will find out the truth of that when I am there, I fear, however, that if such is the case, the lector has misjudged: if the snubbing that Elias and his sycophants have given Velligis is any indication, the King is more restless even than his father was under Mother Church's broad shadow."
"So many plots!" Isgrimnur groaned. "So many intrigues! It makes my head swim. I am not a man for such things. Give me a sword or an axe and let me deal blows!"
"Is that why you have taken to closets?" Eolair smiled, and produced from beneath his cloak a skin of sour-honey mead. "There does not seem anyone to swing at here. I think you are taking rather well to intrigue late in life, my good Duke."
Isgrimnur frowned, and took the offered skin. He's a born intriguer himself, our Eolair, he thought. / should be grateful, if nothing else, to have someone to talk to. For all that Hernystiri poetry-talk I've heard him trot out for the ladies, he's hard as shield-steel underneath—a good ally for treacherous times.
"There's something else." Isgrimnur handed the skin back to Eolair and wiped his mouth. The count took a long swallow and then nodded his head.
"Out with it. I'm all ears like a Circoille hare."
"That dead man old Morgenes found out in the Kynswood?" Isgrimnur said, "—the arrowshot one?" Eolair nodded again. "He was mine. Bindesekk by name, although by the time he was discovered I would never have known him but for a broken bone in his face that was got in an earlier service for me. Of course I said

"Yours?" Eolair cocked an eyebrow. "And doing what? Do you know?"
Isgrimnur laughed, a short, barking sound. "Certainly. That is why I kept quiet. I sent him out when Skali of Kaldskryke took his kinsmen and departed north. Sharp-nose has been making too many new friends among Elias* court for my liking, so I sent Bindesekk out with a message to my son Isorn. As long as Elias is keeping me here with these ridiculous errands, these shows of mock-diplomacy that he claims are so important—and if they were so important, why entrust them to a blunt old war-dog like me?—then I wanted Isorn to be on especial close watch. I don't trust Skali any more than I would a starving wolf, and my son has troubles enough at home already, from what I hear. All the reports that have trickled down across the Frostmarch are bad—raging storms in the north, the roads unsafe, villagers forced to huddle together in the main halls. It makes for troubled times, and Skali knows that."
"'Do you think, then, it was Skali killed your man?" Eolair leaned forward, passing the skin back.
"I don't know, to be sure." The duke tipped back his head for another long swallow, the muscles in his thick neck pulsing; a thin drizzle of mead spattered down his blue tunic. "What I mean is: it's the most obvious thing, but I have many doubts." He wiped at the stain absently for a moment. "First of all, even if he caught Bindesekk, it's an act of treason to kill him. For all his contempt, Skali is my liege-man and I am his liege-lord."
"But the body was hidden."
"Not well. And why so close to the castle? Why not wait until they had reached the Wealdhelm Hills—or the Frostmarch Road if it's even passable—and kill him there, where I'd never find out? Also, the arrow doesn't strike me as Skali's way. I could see him chopping Bindesekk up in a rage with that great axe of his, but shooting him and then dropping him in the Kynswood? It doesn't sit right, somehow."
"Then who?"
Isgrimnur shook his head, feeling the mead at last. "That's what worries me, Hernystinnan," he said at last. "I just don't know. There are strange things afoot. Travelers' tales, castle rumors..."
Eolair went to the door and unlatched it, pushing it open to allow fresh air into the small room.
"These are indeed strange times, my friend," he said, and took a deep breath. "And, perhaps the most important question of all—where in this strange world is Prince Josua?"
Simon picked up a small piece of flint and sent it spinning into space. After describing a graceful arc through the morning air the stone descended with a muffled snap into a leafless topiary animal in the garden below. Crawling to the edge of the chapel roof, Simon marked its impact point like a skilled catapult man, noting the quiver at the haunches of the hedge-squirrel. He rolled back from the roof gutter and into the shadow of a chimney, savoring the cool solidity of the stones beneath his spine. Overhead the fierce eye of the Marris sun glared down, nearing its noon apex.
It was a day to evade responsibility, to escape Rachel's chores and Morgenes' explanations. The doctor had not yet found out—or had not mentioned—Simon's thwarted foray into the military arts, and Simon was content to keep it that way.
Spread-eagled and squint-eyed in the morning brightness, he heard a faint ticking noise near his head. He opened one eye in time to see a tiny gray shadow whisk past. Rolling slowly over onto his stomach, he scanned the rooftop.
The great chapel roof spread before him, a field of humped and irregular slate tiles in whose cracks sprouted tight-coiled hanks of brown and pale green moss that had somehow miraculously survived the drought, clinging to life as grudgingly as they clung to the splintered tiles. The plain of slates marched uphill from the guttered edge to the chapel's dome, which pushed up through the roof like a sea turtle's shell breaching the shallow wavelets of a quiet cove. Seen from this angle the dome's colorful glass panels—which shone inside the chapel with magical pictures of the lives of saints—looked dark and flat, a parade of crude figures across a dun-colored world. At the dome's apex an iron knob held aloft a golden Tree, but from Simon's viewpoint it was merely gilded, the gold leaf peeling in slender, shimmering strips that revealed the corrosion beneath.
Beyond the castle chapel the sea of roofs spread out in all directions: the Great Hall, the throne room, the archives and servants' quarters, all pitched and uneven, repaired or replaced many times as the seasons in their passing licked at gray stone and lead shingle, then nibbled them away. To Simon's left loomed the slender white arrogance of Green Angel Tower; farther back, protruding above the arch of the chapel dome, the gray, squat bulk of Hjeldin's Tower sat up like a begging dog.

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