"Ah, good Utanyeat!" Pryrates showed his teeth. "How long we have kept you waitingi The king is ready to see you now." The priest pulled the door farther in, revealing his scarlet robe and a glimpse of the high hall behind. "Please," he said. Guthwulf had to pass very close to Pryrates as he entered, sucking in his chest to minimize the contact. Why was the man standing so close? Was it to make Guthwulf uncomfortable—there was no love lost between King's Hand and the king's counselor—or was he trying to keep the door as nearly shut as he possibly could? The castle was cold this spring, and if anyone deserved to keep warm it was Elias. Perhaps Pryrates was only trying to conserve heat in the spacious throne room. Well, if that was what he was up to, he had failed utterly. The moment Guthwulf stepped over the threshold and past the door he felt the chill descend upon him, turning the skin on his strong arms into chicken-flesh. Looking past the throne, he saw that several of the upper windows were open, propped with sticks. The cold northern air that swirled down tugged at the torch flames, making them dance in their cressets. "Guthwulf!" Elias boomed, half-rising from his chair of yellowed bone. The massive dragon skull leered over his shoulder. "I am ashamed to have kept you waiting. Come here!" Guthwulf strode forward up the tiled walkway, trying not to shiver. "You have much on your mind. Majesty. I do not mind waiting." Elias sat back in his throne as the Earl of Utanyeat dropped to a knee before him. The king wore a black shirt trimmed with green and silver, and his boots and breeks were also black. The iron crown of Fingil sat high on his pale brow, and in a sheath at his side was the sword with the strange crossed hilt. He had not been without it in weeks, but Guthwulf had no idea whence it came. The king had never mentioned it, and there was something queer and unsettling about the blade that prevented Guthwulf from asking. " 'Do not mind waiting,' " Elias smirked. "Go on, sit down." The king indicated a bench a pace or two back of where the Earl kneeled. "Since when do you not mind waiting, Wolf? Just because I am king, do not think I have gone blind and stupid as well." "I am sure that when you have something for your King's Hand to do, you will inform me." Things had changed between Guthwulf and his old friend Elias, and the Earl of Utanyeat did not like that. Elias had never been secretive, but now Guthwulf felt vast, hidden currents moving beneath the surface of daily events, currents that the king pretended did not even exist. Things had changed, and Guthwulf felt sure he knew who was to blame. He looked past the king's shoulder at Pryrates, who was watching him fixedly. When their eyes met, the red-robed priest lifted a hairless eyebrow, as if in mocking question. Elias rubbed at his temples for a moment. "You will have work enough and more soon, I promise you. Ah, my head. A crown is indeed a heavy thing, friend. I sometimes wish I could lay it down and go on" somewhere, like we once did so often. Free companions of the road!" The king turned his grim smile from Guthwulf to his counselor. "Priest, my head aches again. Bring me some wine, will you?" "At once, my Lord." Pryrates moved off to the back of the throne room. "Where are your pages, Majesty?" Guthwulf asked. The king looked dreadfully tired, he thought. The whiskers on his unshaven cheeks stood out, black against his wan skin. "And why, with respect, are you shut up in this freezing cave of a hall? It is colder than the Devil's black arse in here, and smells of mildew beside. Let me light a fire in the grate." "No." Elias waved a broad hand dismissively. "I don't want it any warmer. I'm warm already. Pryrates says it is just an ague. Whatever it is, the cool air feels good to me. And there is plenty of breeze, so no need to fear stagnancy or bad humors." Pryrates had returned with the king's goblet; Elias drained it with a swallow and dried his lips with his sleeve. "Plenty of breeze indeed. Majesty," Guthwulf grinned sourly. "Well, my king, you... and Pryrates... know best, and doubtless have nothing to leam from a fighting man. Is there some other way I can serve you?" "I think perhaps you can, although the task may not be much to your liking. First, though, tell me: has Earl Fengbald returned?" Guthwulf nodded. "I spoke with him this morning, sire." "I have summoned him." Elias held out his cup for more wine, and Pryrates brought the ewer and poured. "But since you have seen him, tell me now: is his news good?" "I'm afraid not, sire. The spy you seek, Morgenes' henchman, is still at large." "God's curses!" Elias nibbed at a spot just beside his eyebrow. "Did he not have the hounds I gave him? And the master-huntsman?" "Yes, Majesty, and he left them still on the hunt, but in fairness to Fengbald I must say that you have set him a nearly impossible task." Elias narrowed his eyes, staring, and for a moment Guthwulf felt he faced a stranger. Then the bumping of ewer against goblet broke the tension, and Elias relaxed. "Welladay," he said, "you are most likely right. I shall have to be careful not to take my frustrations out on Fengbald. He and I... share a disappointment." Guthwulf nodded, watching the king. "Yes, sire, I was alarmed to hear of your daughter's illness. How is Miriamele?" The king looked briefly to Pryrates, who finished pouring and backed away. "It is kind of you to ask, Wolf. We do not think she is in any danger, but Pryrates feels sure that the sea air of Meremund will be the best remedy for her ailments. It is a pity to put off the marriage, though." The king stared into his wine cup as though it wee the mouth of a well down which he had just dropped something valuable. The wind whistled in the open windows. After some long moments had passed, the Earl of Utanyeat felt compelled to speak. "You said that there was some small task I could do for you, my king?" Elias looked up. "Ah. Of course. I wish you to go to Hernysadharc. Since I was forced to raise the taxes to make up for the cursed, miserable drought, that old hill-gopher Lluth has defied me. He sent that prancing Eolair to soothe me with honeyed words, but the time for words is over." "Over, my Lord?" Guthwulf raised an eyebrow. "Over," Elias growled. "I wish you to take a dozen knights—any more and Lluth would have no choice but resist—and hie you to the Taig to beard the old miser in his den. Tell him to refuse me my rightful due is to slap my face... to spit on the very Dragonbone Chair. But be subtle, say nothing in front of his knights that will shame him into resistance—nevertheless, make it clear that to deny me further will risk his walls falling in flames about his head. Make him fear, Guthwulf." "I can do that. Lord." Elias smiled tightly. "Good. And while you're there, keep an eye open for any sign of Josua's whereabouts. There is no news from Naglimund, though my spies have it ringed 'round. It is possible my treacherous brother might have gone to Lluth. It may even be he who is fueling Hernystir's obstinance!" "I will be your Eye as well as your Hand, my King." "If I may. King Elias?" At the king's elbow, Pryrates lifted a finger. "Speak, priest." "I would also like to suggest that our lord of Utanyeat keep an eye out for the boy, Morgenes' spy. It would help to supplement Fengbald's effort. We need that boy, Majesty—what good to slay the serpent if the hatchlings go free?" "If I find the young viper," Guthwulf grinned, "I will happily grind him beneath my heel." "No!" Elias shouted, startling Guthwulf with his vehemence. "No! The spy must live, and any of his companions, until we have them here in the Hayholt, safe. There are questions we must ask them." Elias, as if embarrassed by his outburst, turned strangely pleading eyes to his old friend, "You understand-that, surely?" "Of course. Majesty," Guthwulf answered quickly. "They need only be brought to us with the breath still quick in their bodies," said Pryrates, calm as a baker talking of flour. "Then we shall discover everything." "Enough." Elias slid farther back on his seat of bone. Guthwulf was surprised to see drops of sweat beading his forehead, even as the Earl of Utanyeat was shivering in the chill air. "Go, now, old friend. Bring me Lluth's full allegiance, or if not, I will send you back to bring me his head. Go." "God keep you. Majesty." Guthwulf dropped off the bench onto one knee, then rose to his feet and backed down the aisle. The banners above his head swung, wind-whipped; in the fluid shadows thrown by the nickering torches the clan-animals and heraldic beasts seemed engaged in an eerie, fitful dance. Guthwulf met Fengbald in the antechamber hall. The Earl of Falshire had bathed the grit of the road from his face and hair since their meeting that morning, and was dressed in a red velvet jerkin with the silver eagle of his family chased on the breast, its feathers twining in a fanciful pattern. "Ho, Guthwulf, have you seen him?" he asked. The Earl of Utanyeat nodded. "Yes, and you will, too. God curse it, he is the one who should be taking salt air at Meremund instead of Miriamele. He looks... I don't know, he looks damned ill. And the throne chamber is cold as frost." "So it's true?" Fengbald asked sullenly. "About the princess? I was hoping he'd changed his mind." "Gone west to the sea. Your great day will have to wait a bit, it looks." Guthwulf smirked. "I'm sure you'll find something to keep your interest up until the princess returns." "That's not the problem." The Earl ofFalshire's mouth twisted as though he tasted something sour. "I just fear he's trying to back out of his promise. I have heard that nobody knew she was ill until she was gone." "You worry too much," Guthwulf said. "It's womanish. Elias needs an heir. Be grateful that you fit his bill of particulars for a son-in-law better than 1 do." Guthwulf showed his teeth in a mocking smile. "I would go to Meremund and get her." He gave a mock salute and sauntered away, leaving Fengbald standing before the high oak doors of the throne room. ^ She could tell from far away up the corridor that it was Earl Pengbald, and that he was in a foul temper. His arm-swinging walk, like a young boy sent away from the supper table, and the loud, deliberate banging of his boot heels on the floor stones trumpeted his mood before him. She reached forward and tugged at Jael's elbow. When the cow-eyed girl looked up, already sure she'd done something else wrong, Rachel made a gesture toward the approaching Earl of Falshire. "Better move that bucket, girl." She took the scrubbing broom from Jael's hand. The pail of soapy water stood in the center of the hallway, directly in the path of the oncoming nobleman. "Hurry up, you stupid girl!" Rachel hissed, a touch of alarm tingeing her voice. The moment the words were out Rachel knew she should not have uttered them. Fengbald was cursing to himself, his face set in a petulant snarl. Jael, in a frenzy of ill-coordinated haste, let the bucket slide through her wet fingers. It struck the floor with a loud thump, and a gout of sudsy water slopped over the rim to splatter onto the hallway. Fengbald, upon them now, stepped squarely in the spreading puddle. He lost his balance for a moment, throwing his arms up as he slid, then clutched at a tapestry on the wall for support as Rachel watched in helpless, anticipatory horror. It was a stroke of luck that the hanging held Fengbald's weight long enough for him to regain his equilibrium; nonetheless, a moment later the tapestry itself pulled free at an upper corner and slid gently down the wall to sag into the soapy pool. Rachel looked at the Earl of Falshire's reddening face for only a moment before turning to Jael. "Go, you clumsy cow. Get on with you. Now!" Jael, with a hopeless glance at Fengbald, turned and ran, her fat rump wagging pitifully. "Come back here, you slut!" Fengbald screamed, jaw trembling with rage. His long black hair, disarranged, hung in his face. "I'll have my due, my due for... for this... this..." Rachel, keeping an eye cocked toward the Earl, bent and lifted the sodden corner of the tapestry out of the water. There was no way she could re-hang it; she stood holding it, watching it drip as Fengbald raged. "Look! Look at my boots! I'll have that filthy bitch's throat slit for this!" The Earl turned his eye onto Rachel. "How dare you send her away?" Rachel cast her eyes down, not hard to do since the young nobleman stood at least a foot taller than she. "I'm sorry, Lord," she said, and her honest fear put a convincing tone of respect into her voice. "She is a stupid girl. Master, and she will be beaten for it, but I am the Mistress of Chambermaids and I take the blame, you see. I'm very, very sorry." Fengbald stared down at her for a moment, and his eyes narrowed. Then, as swiftly as an arrow strikes, he reached out and slapped Rachel across the face. Her hand flew up to the red mark spreading across her cheek, spreading as the puddle had across the flagstones. "Then give that to the fat slut," Fengbald spat, "and if I run into her again, you tell her I'll break her neck." He stared at the Mistress of Chambermaids for a moment, then walked on down the hall, leaving a trail of heel-and-toe boot prints shimmering wetly on the flags. And he could do it, too. Rachel thought to herself later as she sat on her bed holding a wet washrag to her burning cheek. Across the hall, in the maid's dormitory, Jael was sobbing. Rachel had not had the heart even to shout at her, but the sight of Rachel's swelling face had been punishment enough to send the lumpy, soft-hearted girl into a paroxysm of tears. Sweet Rhiap and Pelippa. I'd rather be slapped twice than listen to her blubbering. Rachel rolled over onto the hard pallet—she kept it on a board because of her always-aching back—and pulled the blanket up over her head to dull the sound ofJael's weeping. Wrapped in the blanket she could feel her own warm breath wreathing her face. This must be what it's like to be laundry in the basket, she thought, and then chided herself for such simplemindedness. You 're getting old, old woman... old and useless. Suddenly she found tears coming, the first she had cried since the news about Simon. I'm just so tired. Sometimes I think I'm going to drop where I stand, fall over like a broken broom at the feet of these young monsters—stamping around my castle, treating us like we were dirt—and they'd probably just push me out with the dust. So tired... if only...if... The air beneath the blanket was thick and warm. She had finished crying—what good were tears, anyway? Leave them to her stupid, flighty girls—and now she felt herself falling into sleep, succumbing to its heaviness as though drowning in warm. sticky water. And in her dream Simon was not dead, had not died in the terrible fire that had also taken Morgenes, and several of the guardsmen who had rushed to put it out. Even Count Breyugar, they said, had perished in the catastrophe, crushed beneath the collapse of the flaming roof... No, Simon was alive, and healthy. Something about him was different, but Rachel could not say what—the look in his eye, the harder line of his jaw?—but that did not matter. It was Simon, alive, and as she dreamed Rachel's heart was full again. She saw him, the dead boy—her dead boy, really; hadn't she raised him like a mother until he was taken away?—and he was standing in a place of near-absolute whiteness, staring up at a great, white tree that stretched into the air like a ladder to the Throne of God. And though he stood resolutely, his head flung back and his eyes upon the tree, Rachel could not help noticing that his hair, that thick reddish tangle, was badly in need of cutting... well, she would see to that soon, right enough... the boy needed a firm hand... When she woke, pulling the smothering blanket aside in a panic to find more darkness around her—this time the darkness of evening—the weight of loss and grief came sliding back down like a wet tapestry. As she sat up on the bed and climbed slowly to her feet the washrag tumbled free, dry as an autumn leaf. There was no call for her to be laying about, pining like some fluttery girlchild. There was work that needed doing, Rachel reminded herself, and no rest this side of Heaven. ^ The tabor rattled, and the lute player plucked a gentle chord before beginning the last verse. "... And now dost thou come, my lady fair
In Khandery-cloth and silks withal?
Then if thou wouldst rule o'er my heart
Take foot now and follow to Emettin's Hallf" The musician finished with a flurry of delicate notes, then bowed as Duke Leobardis applauded. "Emettin's Hall!" the duke said to Eolair, Count of Nad Mullach, who followed Leobardis' example with his own dutiful applause. Secretly, the Hernystirman felt sure that he had heard better. He was not much taken by the love ballads that were so popular here in the Nabbanai court. "I am fond of that song," the duke smiled. His long white hair and pink cheeks gave him the look of a favorite old great-uncle, the sort who drank too much stout at the Aedontide feasts and then tried to teach the children how to whistle. Only the flowing white robe trimmed in lapis and gold, and the golden circlet on his head with its mother-of-pearl kingfisher, proclaimed him as different than ordinary men. "Come, Count Eolair, I thought that music was the tifeblood of the Taig. Does not Lluth count himself Osten Ard's greatest patron of harpers, and your Hernystir the natural home of musicians?" The duke leaned across the arm of his sky-blue chair to pat Eolair's hand. "King Lluth does indeed keep his harpers beside him at all times," Eolair agreed. "Please, Duke, if I seem preoccupied, it is in no way due to any stinting on your part. Your kindness has been indeed a thing to remember. No, I must admit I am still bothered about the matters we discussed earlier." A look of concern came to the duke's mild blue eyes. "I have told you, my Eolair, that there is a time for such things. It is very wearing to have to wait, but there you are." Leobardis motioned to the lute player, who had been waiting patiently on one knee. The musician rose, bowed, and moved off. His fantastically intricate garment flounced around him as he joined a group of courtiers similarly garbed in sumptuously embroidered robes and tunics. The ladies had supplemented their outfits with exotic hats winged like seabirds, or crested like the fins of bright fish. The colors in the throne room, like those of the courtiers' costumes, were muted; tasteful blues, yellow beiges, pinks, whites, and foam greens. The impression was that of a palace built from delicate sea-stones, everything smoothed and softened by the clutch of the ocean. Beyond the gentlemen and ladies of the court, taking up the whole southwest wall facing the duke's chair, were the high arched windows that looked out over the active, sun-tipped green sea. The ocean, which threw itself ceaselessly against the rocky headland on which the ducal palace perched, was a vibrant, living tapestry. Watching through the day as the moving light danced on its surface, or revealed patches of still sea as heavy and translucent as jade, Eolair frequently wished to sweep the courtiers from the way, send them tumbling and squeaking from the room so that nothing would obscure his view. "Perhaps you are right, Duke Leobardis," Eolair said at last. "One must stop talking sometime, even when the subject is a vital one. I suppose, sitting here, I should be taking a lesson from the ocean. It doesn't need to work hard to get what it wants; eventually it wears the rocks away, the beaches... even the mountains." Leobardis liked this sort of conversation better. "Ah, yes, the sea never changes, does it? And yet, it is always changing." "That's true, my lord. And it is not always quiet. Sometimes there are storms." As the duke cocked his head toward the Hernystirman, unsure whether this remark meant something more than was immediately obvious, his son Benigaris strode into the room, nodding briefly to some of the courtiers who greeted him as he moved toward the duke's chair. "The duke my father; Count Eolair," he said, bowing once to each. Eolair smiled, and put out a hand to clasp Benigaris'. "It's good to see you," the Hernystirman said. Benigaris was taller than when he had last seen him, but the duke's son had then been only seventeen or eighteen. Nearly two decades had passed, and Eolair was not displeased to see that despite his being a good eight years the elder, it was Benigaris who had thickened around the waist, not he. Nonetheless, the duke's son was tall and broad-shouldered, with intent dark eyes beneath thick black brows. He made quite an imposing figure in his belted tunic and quilted vest—an energetic contrast to his affable father. "Hea, it has been a long time," Benigaris agreed. "We shall talk at supper tonight." Eolair did not think he sounded very excited at the prospect. Benigaris turned to his father. "Sir Fluiren is here to see you. He is with the chamberlain at the moment." "Ah, good old Fluiren! There is irony for you, Eolair. One of the greatest knights Nabban has ever produced." "Only your brother Camaris was ever called greater," Eolair interrupted, not adverse to resurrecting the memories of a more martial Nabban. "Yes, my dear brother." Leobardis smiled a sad smile. "Well, to think that Fluiren should be coming to see me as an emissary of Elias!" "There is a certain irony," Eolair said lightly. Benigaris curled his lip with impatience. "He's waiting for you. I think you should see him quickly, as a gesture of respect to the High King." "My, my!" Leobardis turned an amused glance toward Eolair. "Do you hear my son order me?" When the duke turned back to Benigaris, Eolair thought there might be something in Leobardis' gaze beside amusement—anger? Worry? "Yes, then, tell my old friend Fluiren I will see him... let me think... yes, in the
Council Hall. Will you join us, Eolair?" Benigaris leaped in, "Father, I do not think you should invite even so trusted a friend as the count in to hear secret communications from the High King!" "And what need, may I ask, is there for secrets to be kept from Hernystir?" the duke asked. Anger had crept into his voice. "Please, Leobardis, I have things I must do anyway. I shall walk in later to say hello to Fluiren." Eolair rose and bowed. As he stopped on his way across the throne room to look one more time on the splendid view, he heard the voices of Leobardis and his son raised behind him in muffled argument. Waves make more waves as these Nabbanai say, thought Eolair. It looks as though Leobardis' balance is more delicate than I thought. Doubtless that is why he is so unwilling to talk frankly with me about his troubles with the king. A good thing it is that Leobardis is a tougher stalk than he appears to be. He heard the courtiers whispering behind him, and turned to see