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Breached Boundaries (The Three Lands): Chronicles of the Great Peninsula, #5

Breached Boundaries (The Three Lands): Chronicles of the Great Peninsula, #5

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Breached Boundaries (The Three Lands): Chronicles of the Great Peninsula, #5

Length:
856 pages
14 hours
Released:
Aug 17, 2019
ISBN:
9781393294443
Format:
Book

Description

"'I am placed under the care of the Unknowable God; I obey his commands, wherever they take me. But you may have need of the amulet to protect you against the Prince.'"

The boundaries of rank declare that Serva can be a princess or she can be a slave. But for the bastard daughter of the King of Daxis, life is not that simple.

Forced to be a tool in a battle waged by her land's unstable King and his dangerously devious heir, Serva cannot even find refuge among her fellow slaves. Instead, she secretly explores the hidden portions of the palace. In this way, she meets an imprisoned spy who is scheduled for execution.

But when a simmering war bubbles to the surface, Serva must choose where her loyalties lie. She must also solve the mystery of the spy's past, and of her own future.

This novel can be read on its own or as part of The Three Lands, a fantasy series on friendship, romantic friendship, romance, and betrayal in times of war and peace. The series is inspired by conflicts between nations during the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages.

The Three Lands is part of Chronicles of the Great Peninsula, a cycle of fantasy series about an epic battle between cultures, set at a time when a centuries-old civilization is in danger of being destroyed.

Released:
Aug 17, 2019
ISBN:
9781393294443
Format:
Book

About the author

Honored in the Rainbow Awards, Dusk Peterson writes historical speculative fiction: history-inspired mythic fantasy, alternate history, and retrofuture science fiction. Family affection, friendship, romantic friendship, and romance often occur in the stories. A resident of Maryland, Mx. Peterson lives with an apprentice and several thousand books. Visit duskpeterson.com for e-books and free fiction.


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Breached Boundaries (The Three Lands) - Dusk Peterson

The Three Lands

BREACHED BOUNDARIES

Dusk Peterson

Love in Dark Settings Press

Havre de Grace, Maryland

Published in the United States of America. August 2019 edition. Publication history.

Copyright (c) 2017, 2018, 2019 Dusk Peterson (duskpeterson.com). The author’s copyright policies are available at the author’s website. Permission is granted for fan works inspired by this story. Please credit Dusk Peterson and duskpeterson.com for the original story. This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

CONTENTS

=== Front matter ===

Map.

=== Breached Boundaries ===

‘I am placed under the care of the Unknowable God; I obey his commands, wherever they take me. But you may have need of the amulet to protect you against the Prince.’

The boundaries of rank declare that Serva can be a princess or she can be a slave. But for the bastard daughter of the King of Daxis, life is not that simple.

Forced to be a tool in a battle waged by her land’s unstable King and his dangerously devious heir, Serva cannot even find refuge among her fellow slaves. Instead, she secretly explores the hidden portions of the palace. In this way, she meets an imprisoned spy who is scheduled for execution.

But when a simmering war bubbles to the surface, Serva must choose where her loyalties lie. She must also solve the mystery of the spy’s past, and of her own future.

1 | Adversaries. When Serva visits an imprisoned spy, she discovers that she has more options in life than she had thought.

2 | Challenge. With danger arising, Serva must reconsider her decision to remain loyal.

3 | Stakes. As war thunders forth, Serva discovers that all is not as she thought.

4 | Battle. The best way to hide may be in plain sight. Or perhaps not.

5 | Settlement. In the north lies separation and snow and far too many revelations.

6 | Surrender. The song has ended . . . except for one important part.

=== More fiction by Dusk Peterson ===

Blood Vow (excerpt). A preview of another Three Lands volume.

Law of Vengeance (excerpt). A preview of another Three Lands volume.

=== Back matter ===

Website and e-books by Dusk Peterson.

MAP

A larger version of this map is available at:

duskpeterson.com/threelands

Map of the Three Lands

o—o—o

o—o—o

o—o—o

=== Breached Boundaries ===

But when one who is fresh from the mystery, and saw much of the vision, beholds a godlike face or bodily form that truly expresses beauty, first there comes upon him a shuddering and a measure of that awe which the vision inspired, and then reverence as at the sight of a god: and but for fear of being deemed a very madman he would offer sacrifice to his beloved, as to a holy image of deity. Next, with the passing of the shudder, a strange sweating and fever seizes him: for by reason of the stream of beauty entering in through his eyes there comes a warmth, whereby his soul’s plumage is fostered; and with that warmth the roots of the wings are melted, which for long had been so hardened and closed up that nothing could grow; then as the nourishment is poured in the stump of the wing swells and hastens to grow from the root over the whole substance of the body: for aforetime the whole soul was furnished with wings.

—Plato: Phaedrus (translated by R. Hackforth).

Breached Boundaries #1

ADVERSARIES

(Melody: Introduces musical theme. Lyrics: Describe protagonist in relation to other characters.)

CHAPTER ONE

The Daxion palace slaves like to sing the tale that on the night on which I was begotten, my father took my mother to a dark, hidden passage where no man or woman could find them. There, before he lay with her, the Song Spirit bid him sing to my mother his marriage vow, which he did, as no one could hear them in that place. The song echoed down the empty passage, and none but my mother and the Song Spirit heard him, and so my father was married to my mother in the eyes of the Spirit but not in the eyes of the law.

This is the sort of tale that nurses tell bastard children in order to comfort their pain, and indeed, I first heard the story from my dry-nurse. From an early age, though, I wondered whether there was any truth to what was said. For my father might indeed have taken my mother to some hidden place, since he was the King and she a mere slave-woman. And I thought I knew where that place must be: a place where no man or woman could hear the song echoing down the passage. This being the case, I was sure that the Song Spirit had been with my father that night, for it sometimes seemed to me, lying in the same passage, that I could hear the echoes of that song.

It was not until the time of which I write that I began to realize what song had been initiated that night of my begetting, and that the same song would lead me to the man who was at once my enemy and my deliverer. Not long ago I stood in a similar passage and sang in this man’s presence a song that tied me in bonds of marriage – not a marriage to him, but a marriage to Daxis, the land which the Song Spirit has guided since its beginnings.

o—o—o

Songs echo backward as well as forward, as the King’s Bard once told me. I can find the beginning echo of this later song in the night seven years ago that I visited the Bard in her quarters.

You may be sure that I did not go up and knock on her door. Though my position as the King’s bastard daughter brought me privileges, these did not extend to making visits to the King’s Bard. In the ordinary way of things, I would not have been allowed to speak to the Bard, but I had been careless once as a child. Rosetta the Bard had caught me climbing into her sitting chamber from the palace’s hidden passage.

I still do not know why the passage was originally made. Perhaps it was built to permit the slave-servants a way to travel from one area of the palace to another, albeit on their hands and knees. Some King or Queen must have sealed it up after realizing that the passage also gave the slaves an opportunity to eavesdrop. At any rate, by my father’s time it was forgotten in the memory of all but himself and his Bard. After I stumbled across its existence, I learned, through patient exploration, that it was still open in half a dozen places, one of these being the Bard’s quarters. Boldly I had crawled into the sitting chamber one day when I was nine and found myself facing the great Rosetta herself.

She kept my secret, and even encouraged me to visit her. This I did, even after I grew to an age to realize I must be more of an annoyance to her than a pleasure.

I only visited her on nights when she was up late, singing songs to the Spirit alone. On this night, I crawled through the hidden hole to her quarters and found her practicing a song I had never heard. I waited until she was finished, moving far enough forward so that she would know I was there, but not so far forward that I would distract her. For a minute after she completed her tale, she continued to sit motionless, bending over the harp in such a way that her silver hair trailed down beside the gut-strings. Then she turned her head and smiled at me, motioning me to come sit next to her.

I took my place beside her on the cushions. What was that? The melody is beautiful.

A song I learned recently from a bard who lives near the Border Port. I remembered it tonight for some reason, perhaps because of the news I’ve heard.

News has arrived? I leaned forward eagerly. Besides songs and much else, news was what drew me to Rosetta, since she heard stories around the palace that did not reach even the slaves.

She laid the harp carefully to one side and then leaned back against the cushions, stretching out of the rigid pose of a singer. Two pieces of news have arrived. One is that your father has been delayed on his return from Koretia. Rumors are flying that Koretia and Emor are beginning to quarrel about a court case that took place recently. Your father wishes to discover whether this is true.

I could well imagine that he did. Our land had been Koretia’s hated enemy since the day when Daxis gave passage to the vanguard of the Emorian army and allowed it to attack the Koretian capital through our neighbor’s back door. This had been during the summer that I was eight, twenty-four years before. As a result, the Koretian capital was burned to the ground, and Koretia had surrendered to Emor. For fifteen years after that, Emor had controlled Koretia as one of its dominions, but then Koretia had regained its independence through a rebellion. Ever since then Daxis, feared that Koretia would take its revenge. If Emor and Koretia were quarrelling once more, there was hope that Koretia would go to war and lose its independence to Emor again.

Do you think that Emor and Koretia really will go to war? I asked Rosetta.

It’s hard to say. The Chara of Emor is great friends with the Jackal of Koretia, but the two rulers have not always seen eye to eye on matters, and this may be a case where they will fall to quarrelling.

If I had been a palace official, Rosetta would not have had to say any of this to me, but I was as ignorant of high matters as slaves usually are. Slave-servants are less interested in who is going to war with whom than they are in finding out which slave-boy has been beaten and which slave-girl has been forced into bed with a freeman. What little I knew of the outside world came from Rosetta and the conversations I heard in the passage. That knowledge was slight indeed. So I asked, in my ignorance, But why is the Chara friends with the Jackal? Didn’t the Jackal lead Koretia’s rebellion against Emor?

That is a song in itself, replied Rosetta, which was her way of saying that it was not a matter that concerned her. In any case, you may be more interested in my second piece of news, which is that a Koretian spy has been arrested.

I smiled. Rosetta, I have never asked you: How did you find out that I visit the prisoners in the dungeon? Only Sandy knows, and he wouldn’t tell anyone.

Perhaps the Spirit whispered it to me through this song I was just singing. It tells of a princess who happened upon a wounded man who was her father’s mortal enemy. She took pity on the man and nursed him, and then for the rest of her life she feared that her father would meet his death at this man’s hand.

Did he?

The song is only a fragment. I never learned the ending.

I was silent a while before saying, The song doesn’t apply to me in any case. Sandy calls me Princess out of affection, and the Prince calls me that in mockery, but you and I both know that I’m a princess only in name.

Names can be powerful . . . but I doubt that the Spirit sent me this song as a way to warn you against going to the dungeon. I suppose that you must find some reward in doing so.

It was a question. Rosetta was too polite to ever ask me directly about what I did when I wasn’t with her. I leaned forward to touch the tassel on the cushion I was seated on. Perhaps sensing that I needed to be alone with my thoughts, Rosetta rose and extinguished all but one of the candles that lit the room. I watched her as she did so: her skin was stretched across her high cheekbones with a smoothness that belied her real age, but creases next to her eyes told the true tale: this was a bard who had served two kings. Not since my great-grandmother’s day had there been a need for a Queen’s Bard.

I said, I suppose that I do like the idea of being a princess for at least a short period. When I was little, my father treated me with such kindness that I always thought of myself that way. It was a shock when I left my dry-nurse and came to work among the other slaves, and found I was no better than them. I would have been happy to be just another slave, but they wouldn’t allow me even that, since the King had shown me his favor.

So you feel like a princess in the dungeon? Rosetta sat down once more, easing herself slowly into her position.

Sometimes I do. I don’t lie to the prisoners about who I am; they wouldn’t talk to me if they thought I was a real princess. But I suppose that you can go no lower than being what they are, and even a slave is above a prisoner. At least, they seem to see it that way.

Prison is a place of great lies; you bring them truth. So you are a princess, since it is the role of Daxion’s ruler to bring truth to the people through song.

I never sing to the prisoners.

Nor does your father sing to his subjects; that is my role. But it is he who chooses the songs I sing, and it is you who choose what the prisoners should know about the world outside the dungeon. So keep your eye out for that wounded man of the song I sang tonight. He may visit at any time.

I thought about this a while. Besides Rosetta breathing softly beside me, I could hear nothing. The quarters of the King’s Bard was located far from other chambers, so that nobody would overhear Rosetta practicing one of the forbidden songs. As far as I knew, nobody ever had, except me.

What about this Koretian? I asked. What is he like?

Well, now, my information on him comes from Lady Felicia, who, as you know likes to embellish her song with fancy. She says that the man is as handsome as a prince, and acts like one as well, for when Prince Richard came to visit him, the Koretian gave him the free-man’s greeting as though he were the Prince’s equal. As a result, the Koretian nearly had his head knocked off by Prince Richard’s guard. But Richard stayed the guard’s hand, saying that he found the man’s behavior amusing. In any case, Felicia adds that the Koretian is certainly not of royal blood, just weak in the mind, for he spoke to a slave with the same courtesy that he used toward the Prince.

What an odd man. Has he been here long?

Only since this morning. Apparently, the King’s Torturer was so thunderstruck by the man’s appearance that he refused to lay a hand against him. That is the way that Felicia tells the tale. What is certain is that the Koretian has not been tortured.

He can’t be my wounded man, then.

Perhaps he is your Song Twin.

A Koretian? I laughed, but my eye drifted over toward Rosetta’s harp.

She noticed and said, No, no, you have heard my singing for the night. I would rather hear you sing the tale and see whether you still remember the words. Every time I have you sing for me, you seem to have forgotten more.

My memory is poor, and I’ll never be a bard in any case.

You certainly are not a bard, but it is good to have these songs stored in your heart. I will not be here to sing them to you forever.

She had touched on my worst fear: of the day when she would die, and I would no longer have either her songs or her friendship. I reached over quickly and picked up her harp. It was a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, holly wood inlaid with blackroot wood. Even in the years before I realized its sacredness, I had always gazed upon it with awe. I touched the notes one by one, though I knew that Rosetta kept the strings in tune, and then I began to sing the tale of the woman who finds her Song Twin.

I did not have the voice of a bard, but I finished the song creditably, without forgetting too much of it. Rosetta had taught me the tricks bards use to remember these long tales: the key words, the phrases that are repeated over and over, and the passages that bards may vary to add what they like. If anything, I found the inventions as hard as the memorizations, and if I had ever had any illusions as a child that I would grow up to be a bard, they had long since been dispelled.

After I was through, Rosetta showed me how to position my hands better on the strings, and then asked abruptly, Will you go to visit the Koretian tonight?

I shook my head. I ought not even to have come to see you. The Prince works the slaves extra hard when the King is gone, so I must be up before dawn. I’ll try to visit the Koretian in a few days, but it is in the Spirit’s hands whether I do so. I need all of the sleep I can get.

Well, you can depend on the Spirit to send you the song you need to decide the matter. Don’t bother to visit me till your father returns. The Prince has me busy composing a bawdy tale as a present for the King; you know how your father likes that sort of thing. I have begun to reach the limits of my imagination to figure out what to have the characters in my song do; I’ve been composing such tales for the King for the past thirty years. But I doubt that he’ll notice if I repeat myself. After all, he has been repeating himself for the past forty years.

I laughed at this reference to my father’s sleeping-chamber habits. I was far from the only bastard to the King in the palace, though I was the only one in whom he had shown any interest, which had led me to wonder whether he had indeed secretly married my mother. But the answer to that tale was known only to the passage I now re-entered, leaving Rosetta plucking the strings of her harp in apparently aimless fashion.

o—o—o

The passage I called it, but really it was a labyrinth of passages that were located between the floors and ceilings of each palace storey, or against the outer walls. Sandy had gone as an honor guard once to the Jackal’s palace, which was built during the time of Emorian rule. He said that it was a long, broad building, with only a main floor and a cellar. The Daxion palace was the opposite: tall and narrow like the mountain that loomed behind it. The passages never went far before they reached one of the outer walls, which was fortunate, because while the vertical passages were easy enough to climb down through iron ladders attached to the walls, the horizontal passages were filled with fallen wood beams and were treacherous to crawl through. I usually took the long way back to the slave-quarters from Rosetta’s room to avoid one of these beams, but tonight, by some fancy, I took the short way and so passed under the Prince’s chamber in time to hear him speak my name.

I could overhear discussions in a few of the chambers above the passage, but early on I had decided that it was best not to eavesdrop, lest I unwittingly say something later that revealed my spying. To be able to wander the passage at will during the night was a freedom more precious to me than the news I might have gleaned from listening. I usually took special care not to listen at the Prince’s room, both because I could understand little of the high matters that he spoke about and also because his very voice was hateful to me.

But when you are a slave, you do not pass up the chance to learn what plans your masters have for you. I paused to listen.

. . . nothing to worry about there, the Prince was saying. I told you, she has pleaded with her father to be able to keep her maidenhood. She is over thirty years old now, so I doubt that she will be struck suddenly lovesick, as though she were a young girl.

She could still be used, insisted his companion. I recognized the voice: it belonged to a subcaptain whom the Prince invited to his quarters frequently, despite the gap between their ranks. The man had a moon brand across the side of his cheek, the sign of a murderer who has been let off easy. I suspected that his viciousness had not been burned off during the branding.

By whom? The Jackal? He guards his virginity as well as she does. The Prince added a coarse joke, and then said, We’re as likely to see him marry her as we are to see his blood brother marry.

The subcaptain laughed. I will take your word on it. But the King could ease matters much if he named you his heir. A legitimate nephew has clearer rights to the crown than the husband of a bastard daughter.

By custom, yes. But I can’t take the throne without a confirmation from the council, and my uncle knows his council well enough not to present me while there’s any chance that they will refuse again to confirm me. Still, I have no doubt that Leofwin’s death will leave my rights unchallenged.

You could arrange that those rights went unchallenged now.

Lying on my stomach in the passage – much of the passage was only a few feet high, too low to sit up in – I held my breath. Knowing the man who spoke, I had no doubts as to what he was suggesting.

The Prince replied smoothly, with a trace of amusement in his voice, Derek, you are always overeager. The King serves me better with his life than with his death; he cares little about the people, and treats them harshly. When he dies, the people will be so weary of his tyranny that they’ll turn to me as their savior. You notice that I take great care always to side with the oppressed when we are in public. It makes the King seem all the more villainous.

If they are his proclamations, they are his villainies.

Oh, yes, I haven’t forgotten the law. He is answerable to the Spirit for the way in which he has manipulated her Songs. So much the better for me. The Spirit will have plenteous grievances with me once I take the throne, but for now, the King is responsible for misruling, not I.

Are you serious? Do you really believe there is such a Spirit? The subcaptain’s voice was thick with blasphemous scorn.

I am sure of it. And I take care to serve the Spirit, in my own way; it is not a good idea to stir up unduly the anger of the bards’ goddess. Some day, the Spirit may be willing to help me with my kingdom. That is why I never tell the King what to do. He has enough corruption in him to think of these matters himself, without help from me.

Is that also why you refused to accept the royal seal when he offered it to you before he left for Koretia?

That is why. The board above me creaked as the Prince walked from one end of the chamber to the other. Have another drink, Derek. Yes, it’s inconvenient not having the power to issue commands in his absence. There is this matter of the Koretian spy, for example.

You can have him tortured in the King’s absence.

Warton advised against it. He said that ninety-nine out of a hundred men he can force to betray their own mothers. This, he said, is the hundredth man.

Do you think he was being soft? asked the subcaptain.

Warton? You must be joking. The board creaked again as the Prince paced back to where he had stood before. He has enough to do without wasting his time on an inconsequential spy who could probably tell us no more than the previous spies we’ve captured. The Jackal is too clever to entrust his thieves with much information. No, all that we can do is hang the man, and that will have to await the King’s return.

I doubt that the Jackal will be troubling Daxis in any case, if these rumors are true. Emor is likely to keep him busy for a while.

If the Chara goes to war against the Jackal, then Daxis will certainly be secure; our greatest ally will be warring with our greatest enemy. The best we can do is hope for war.

And hope that the Jackal doesn’t sneak over the border to snatch the slave-girl for his marriage bed.

No danger of that, I told you. Come, I’ll see you to the gate. The Prince walked toward the door, and I could not catch the fading question of the subcaptain. But the Prince’s voice came clear in reply. No, the Princess serves me with her life as well. Besides, she is an attractive woman, and you know how much I hate to waste attractive women.

I heard the subcaptain’s throaty laugh. The door shut. I stayed where I was for several minutes, and then began crawling back the way I had come, toward the dungeon.

CHAPTER TWO

The dungeon was filled with the smell of death.

I had been visiting there since I was a child, but I had never ceased to be sickened by the smell of human waste, sweat, blood, and rotting flesh. All of these odors welled out of the darkness as though the dungeon were one giant tomb, trapping live men in its pit.

In stark contrast to this was Sandy, the dungeon-keeper, who was cheerfully prosaic about his work and forever eager to hear about the actions of the living, while he himself worked among the near-dead. He had a solid base of pragmatism that had enabled him to stay balanced through years of witnessing horrors, and also prevented him from ever asking how I entered the forbidden confines of the dungeon. The other guards, who rarely visited the palace above, assumed that I was his niece, and he certainly treated me with an affection normally reserved for kin. I returned the love. I think that either of us would have died for the other.

On this night, I passed unchallenged by the many patrols that circled the dungeon in an ever-changing routine known only to Sandy. I found him finally at his usual central post, supervising the distribution of bread and water.

I waited until the other guards had stepped away before walking over to him. He identified my step before seeing me, and when he raised his head, he was already smiling.

Hello, Princess, he said. How is life in the world above?

I leaned against one of the stone walls, which was bone cold with winter. Ella has had her baby. Lord Rupert actually came to see it, and now Ella is claiming that he will make the boy his heir.

Stranger things have happened. Well, what else? Did they catch that runaway slave?

They brought back his body. There was no hesitation in my response. I had witnessed too many escape attempts over the years to have expected any result besides capture or death.

He must have offended the Fates. Sandy fingered one of the many charms at his neck. Sandy was taking no chances of encountering supernatural wrath. He worshipped the gods of every land that he had ever heard of, and took care not to offend any of them. I supposed he knew from his work how much of men’s lives lay in the hands of the gods. He asked me, What Fate has brought you my way tonight?

I heard that you have a Koretian spy now.

Sandy raised his eyebrows. You must keep your ear permanently attached to the floor to hear the footsteps of news so quickly.

May I visit him? Or is he dangerous?

You may certainly visit him. Would you like to do so now?

Please. Is one of these for him? I waved my hand at the remaining hunks of bread and mugs of water.

No, he has had his already. Help me with these, and I’ll take you to his cell.

I bundled the bread into my arms and trotted obediently alongside Sandy as he stooped to slide the food through the slat at the bottom of the iron doors. Is this all the dinner that the prisoners are given?

This is all that they receive for the entire day. Now, don’t be tender-hearted, Princess. This as Sandy straightened and saw my expression. Many of these men are vicious; some are murderers. We don’t want them in a condition where they can break out and slit our throats. We give them enough to keep them alive, no more, and some of them don’t deserve even that. —Here’s where the Koretian spy is. He stopped before a door like all of the others along the damp, chilly passage. Give me a shout when you’re finished in here, Princess.

He unlocked the door, drawing his sword first, lest the prisoner be crouched in waiting. After a swift look into the cell, he waved me inside and closed the door behind me. I heard his footsteps fade away.

Much of the cell was bathed in moonlight from the barred windows near the ceiling, but it took me a moment to locate the Koretian, for he was sitting cross-legged on the floor, his right hand stretched out, palm-up. He did not look my way; his concentration was on something at the edge of the cell. As I watched, a large, rough-haired rat darted out – dungeon vermin have little fear – and snatched something from the man’s hand before darting back to its home under a crumbling wall-stone.

He looked up then, staring at me expressionlessly as though I were another rat who had come to feed. I said, You gave part of your meal to a rat?

I had a sudden wave of sympathy for my fellow prisoner. He rose to his feet, and as he did so, he touched his heart and then his forehead with his fingers.

It was the free-man’s greeting, exchanged only among equals, and, as its name suggested, only among free-men. I felt my face grow hot with embarrassment. Sir, I’m a slave, I said stiffly, recovering, in that moment, my memory of what type of speech was proper between a slave and a free-man.

I greet everyone that way, he replied.

Even noblemen, sir?

Even them. For a moment I almost thought I saw amusement enter his eyes, but if it appeared, it was gone again immediately, like a death shadow barely noted. And lay aside the honorific, please. It does not seem appropriate for this setting.

He stood easily, his eyes shifting up and down as he took in my appearance. His own appearance was interesting, though Lady Felicia had clearly exaggerated his beauty. In fact, his expression had a certain repulsive coldness to it that made it seem unlikely any bard would ever choose him as the model for a love-stalked hero in a song.

He was tall, and he had the dark hair and skin that Koretians share with Daxions; it makes it easy for us to spy on each other. He was dressed in a dusky tunic, which must also have been handy for spying. He was only a youth – or so I thought at first, but as I looked again at his steady eyes, I revised my estimate of his age. He might have been as old as me, though it was hard to tell, as his face was shaved in Emorian fashion. Along his bare cheek was the thin red gash of a blade, and he had a second fresh cut along his dagger arm. He spoke good Daxion, using formal, uncontracted speech. His tenor voice possessed an oddly clipped that suggested he kept himself in continual control against something hidden.

What is your name? I asked, dropping the sir, as he had requested.

He considered this question for a while before saying, Do you wish the truth?

I don’t want a lie.

Then you had better call me what you like. Spies do not give their true names.

I had visited a few imprisoned spies over the years. All of them had told me fabricated stories, though a few had recited these tales with a merry look in their eyes that suggested they did not really expect me to believe them. I had never before met a spy who actually admitted to his calling. This one asked, May I know your name?

Serva.

Meaning ‘slave.’ Did your mother give you that name?

My mother died of childbed-fever. The wet-nurse gave me my name.

So you prefer the name of Princess?

He must have heard Sandy talking at the door. I said stiffly, It’s not a real name. Some people call me that because I’m the King’s bastard daughter.

Give your father my compliments when you meet him next. I prefer his accommodations to those of the Chara’s palace dungeon.

There was not a trace of irony in his voice. He waved his hand toward the floor, as though offering me a fine chair. Once I was sitting on the filthy straw, he reseated himself. He was still at the opposite end of the room from me; he was taking care not to frighten me by coming too close.

What brings you to visit, Princess? he asked.

I thought you might want someone to talk to.

He had one knee raised, with his arm slung over it. He looked at me steadily before replying, That depends on the conversation.

It sounds as though you’re bargaining with me.

That is appropriate, since I came to this land in the guise of a trader. But the goods I have to offer you are not of fine quality. You can offer me truth; I can only offer you half-truths. And you do not strike me as the sort of person to be satisfied with anything less than the full truth.

When you’re a slave, truth is the only belonging you can possess. But give me whatever damaged goods you like. I’ll give you the truth back in any case.

Will you then tell me how it is that a palace slave comes to visit my cell?

The guard let me in.

I heard him. I also heard him say that you had asked for me. How did you know that I was here before you came to the dungeon?

I felt my heart thumping. I had made careless promises before in my life, and had later felt myself obliged to keep my word. Perhaps it was because of the lectures I had received from my father about the importance of honor. Honor is a difficult lover to accommodate, especially when you are a slave and your very existence may depend on your willingness to discard honor. But I, who had once seen myself as a princess, had always preferred honor over safety.

So I told him the full truth rather than the half-truth that I could have given him. Somebody told me that you had been arrested. And later I overheard the Prince talking about you.

Do you normally spend your days among royalty, or did you slip into his chamber as you slipped into mine?

Again his question came direct. I supposed that he did not expect me to reply truthfully, which made me all the more eager to do so. I have a place where I can eavesdrop on him. I don’t do so very often.

Princess, you are generous with your secrets, considering that I am a stranger.

His voice was quiet, his face still revealing nothing. I said, Some of the slaves I know never trust anyone. I’d feel like a corpse if I were to live that kind of life. There have to be some people you are willing to trust.

I agree with you there, though my beliefs on that subject are precisely what brought me here, since I trusted the wrong person. I must say that I am impressed by the efficiency of you Daxions. I had thought that the Emorians were swift in their justice, but events move even quicker in this land. It took me two minutes to introduce myself to the wrong person, five minutes for her to summon the soldiers, and fifteen minutes for the King’s Torturer to wash his hands of me. I hate to think of how long it would take your people to destroy Koretia.

The Prince said that Warton believed you wouldn’t give out any secrets under torture.

It is hard for me to judge the matter myself, but I am relieved that Warton reached such a conclusion. We settled that issue during the first five minutes of conversation, and then spent the remaining ten minutes having a pleasant debate about whether suffering brings good to men’s lives. We were agreed that the gods can use suffering to their own ends, but we disagreed about how eagerly men should offer their services to promote such suffering.

I could not help it; I burst into laughter. The Koretian did not smile, but there was a slight crease around his eyes suggesting amusement. It was his only movement; since we had seated ourselves, he had not stirred. Because slaves do not often speak freely to one another, I had grown used to reading people’s thoughts from their expressions and poses, but the Koretian’s stillness revealed nothing to me except that he had tremendous control. Warton had probably judged him well.

I said, You remind me of a song that Sandy taught me; he’s the dungeon-keeper, the one who let me in here. It’s a dark song, but very funny, about a man who is being tortured to death, and about all the witty things he says as each part of his body is being cut up. I’ve heard the guards singing it to each other, but I’ve never learned the ending, because they always dissolve into laughter before they reach that point.

This was a gruesome anecdote to tell a prisoner, and I said it chiefly to see what his reaction would be. Still he did not move, and still his face did not change. All that he said was, I have yet to meet a Daxion who was unable to make a song out of tragedy. This seems to be a land filled with songs.

The Song Spirit created it that way. If she took away our songs, she would take away everything that keeps us alive. We are begotten in song, and live in it, and die in it. The Spirit is always there to give us the songs and to tell us when to sing.

Does the Spirit speak to everyone, or just to the bards? he asked.

She speaks to everyone, but the bards know best how to voice the feelings and thoughts she bids them to express.

Then of what use is the King?

His question came from nowhere. I cocked my head to one side. You must know the answer if you know the question. Why are you asking me this?

Because the man who first told me about the Song Spirit is a Koretian, and you may be able to tell me things he did not know. How does the King serve the Song Spirit?

By using the Spirit’s guidance to determine his judgment of the people. Here, I’ll show you. I rose and walked over to stand beside him. He raised his gaze toward me, but he did not move, and I saw that his eyes had suddenly become guarded. It made me wonder whether he had stayed far from me less to keep from frightening me than because I frightened him. But I could see no reason why a man who had discussed philosophy with his torturer should be scared of me, so I placed my right hand lightly on his shoulder. He did not stir.

If someone brought a matter to the King to judge, this is what he would do, I said. His Bard would kneel before him, and he would touch the Bard so that the two of them were one. All of the other bards of the land choose what they will sing to the people, or rather, the Spirit tells them what to sing. But in the case of the King’s Bard, she awaits the King’s bidding. The King in turn awaits the Spirit’s bidding, to tell him which song he should command the Bard to sing. Then, once he has given his command, he steps back. I did so, and continued to walk backwards until I was standing at the other end of the cell. The Koretian’s gaze followed my progress.

The Bard stands and sings the song, and in that song is the answer to the King’s question of how he should judge the matter, I said. After she has finished, he gives his judgment, but the law is to be found in the song, not in law books, such as Emor uses. Daxis has no other law than its songs. I sat down and added, My father told me that he never knows why he has chosen the songs until after the Bard sings them. So the King and his Bard are both needed to hand down the judgment.

I paused, and as I did so, the Koretian made his first movement, reaching forward to touch a piece of straw on the floor. This triumph of my story-telling – I could see it in no other way – emboldened me to ask, Who was it that told you about the Song Spirit?

The Koretian continued to play with the piece of straw, as though my spoken song had freed him from the prison of his control. He said, The Jackal told me when he sent me on my mission. The Jackal knows much about the religions of other lands.

I longed to ask him more, since he was now being so candid, but I knew little about the Jackal, other than his name. I said finally, Is it true that he’s a virgin?

The Koretian had been staring at the straw. Now his gazed shifted up, and I could guess that he was assessing me to discover my motives for the question. I supposed that many people, like the Prince, looked upon the Jackal’s chastity with contempt.

The Koretian finally replied, As far as anyone knows. He was dedicated to the Unknowable God when he was a baby, and he has said that he wishes his dedication to be entire.

That’s a hard promise to make. I know of few men who are chaste.

Few women either, after a certain age. Are you married?

I shook my head. I suppose you could say that I dedicated myself to chastity, too, though for a different reason. My father has always shown special favor toward me, and because of that, the other slaves despise me. If I were to marry, I would always be something above the man that I married, which might sour his feelings toward me. Even if my father freed me, I doubt that I could find a free-man who had respect for a former slave. I seem doomed to be half princess, half slave. I would rather suffer through that on my own than try to pretend that half of me doesn’t exist.

The Koretian had a new and peculiar look on his face. I identified it, with some difficulty, as a faint smile. It is hard having loyalties to more than one world, he said. Do you want to be free?

It was a strange question to ask a slave. I’m not sure, I replied. If the King freed me, I might want to explore beyond the confines of this palace, where I’ve lived all of my life, but I feel as though it would be disloyal to abandon my father, when he has done so much for me. He has allowed me to visit him from time to time since I was a child. It was he who taught me my first songs.

Which songs did he teach you?

I searched in my mind for a moment, seeking a trifling ditty, but I felt myself being pulled another way. I knew better than to defy the bidding of the Spirit, so I let the matter rest with her. I began singing The Song of the Lost Boy.

It was a long tale, quite unsuitable to sing to a nursery child, but if my father had cared about suitability, I suppose that he would not have been entertaining his bastard. As I sang it, I remembered his voice, husky and uneven like my own, not a bard’s voice, but filled with the passion that seems to overcome every Daxion when he or she is filled with the Spirit.

It tells the story of a boy who wandered from home one day and found that he could not trace his way back. After many dangerous adventures in foreign lands, he succeeded in returning to his home. But he had been away for so long that his parents thought him dead and would not believe that he was who he said he was. The song tells of the many painful trials he endured to show his parents that he was their true and loyal son, but none of his sufferings convinced his mother and father to take him back. And so, racked with grief, he left his home once more, and for the rest of his life wandered the world because he had lost the right to call any place home.

I had not proceeded far in my singing before the Koretian rose, walked over to within a body’s length of me, and seated himself once more. I had seen this sort of thing happen on the few occasions I had witnessed Rosetta sing; she drew the people to her like a mother draws her children. It was pleasing to learn that I shared that much of the Bard’s power, but I was absorbed in my singing and did not realize until I was done that the Koretian had once more slung his arm over his upright knee. His head was buried in that arm.

I sat there in awe, wondering what power the Spirit was showing this night, so as to cause the man who could not be tortured in body to be humbled by a song. After a while he looked up, and his face was just as it had been before, dispassionate and revealing nothing. He said quietly, You Daxions are fortunate, to be able to hear songs like that. We have no tradition of such singing in Koretia.

Anyone can sing, if the Spirit calls to him, I said. I could teach you some songs to sing.

He was sitting without moving, so I suppose that his eyes must have been what told me that he had suddenly gone rigid. He said, his voice clipped shorter than before, Thank you, but no. I never sing.

Not even when you’re alone?

Not even then.

Being Daxion, this was a great puzzlement to me, that anyone should be afraid of songs. I said, I would wither away and die if I couldn’t sing. I’m surrounded by so many lies and secrets in the palace; almost the only place I can find truth is in songs. Here in Daxis, if the King wishes a bard to make sworn testimony, he requires the bard to sing. It is said that the Spirit will not allow anyone to lie through his singing.

Finally an expression came to his face. I looked at it, and looked at it twice and thrice, but there was no denying what it was: it was anger.

The Koretian said, I suppose this was the same Spirit who composed the song about the man being cut, the song that made the guards laugh. Some truths are better left unvoiced. He rose then, and moved back to where he had been before.

I stood up uncertainly, gazing at his angry face. I must go. Would you like me to come again?

For a moment more the anger lingered, and then it disappeared into his passionless face, like water into the cold earth. He said calmly, I would appreciate it if you did.

I called to Sandy, and he came to let me out. As I turned to go, I stopped to look back at the Koretian. His face was as it had been when I first entered the cell, but now I wondered what dark emotions it hid.

CHAPTER THREE

I arrived back at the slave-quarters well after midnight; The Song of the Lost Boy takes a long time to tell. I sneaked over to my bed, closing my eyes gratefully the moment my head touched the pallet on the floor. Only minutes later I felt something touch my arm. I looked up to find Grace crouching over me.

It’s the funeral, she whispered.

I felt the urge to close my eyes and ignore her. By the time the funeral was through, it would be time for me to undertake my duties for the day. But it had been kindness on Grace’s part to wake me, for most of the slaves would not have bothered. I pulled myself up and joined the small group of women who were being allowed out of the slave-women’s quarters by the palace slave-keeper.

He took careful note of which of us were leaving, and then led us up to the locked door of the slave-quarters, which he knocked at. The door opened. Beyond it were a couple of palace guards, who gave us a stern look of warning before leading us forward. We went silently, in single file, as we wound our way up the turret staircase toward the top floor of the palace.

In the old days, when a slave died after an escape, the soldiers would simply discard the body in the countryside, to be consumed by jackals and ravens. But during the reign of Queen Saba, my great-grandmother, the palace officials had decided that it would strike more fear into the palace slaves if they were to see the results of disobedience. This policy was undertaken in the guise of compassion, since a funeral allowed friends and relatives to give the slave’s body over to the Spirit. Now a half dozen of us women were brought into the room where the runaway slave-boy lay on the floor, captured in his last moments only by death.

Two living men stood there. The washing of the body was usually undertaken by women, but a couple of slave-men proved to have the gift for this rite and were allowed to attend as well. Without speaking to anyone – there was no one in the room who would have been interested in speaking to me – I took up a basin and sponge and went over to kneel beside the corpse.

It was covered with wounds from the face to the torso. This was not the normal way of things, for punishment was usually reserved for the slave’s return, but Timothy had resisted capture like a wild animal that had found its freedom. I began to wash his face but was stopped by a look from Grace. She gestured with her head, and I saw, kneeling opposite to me, Timothy’s sister, sitting in mute agony, unable even to touch her brother. I bowed my head so that I would not have to see her expression, and then began washing the boy’s left arm.

All around me was the sound of humming, each washer droning a different song as bidden by the Spirit. Only Timothy’s sister was silent, though she had finally found the strength to reach forward and clean her brother’s face. As she finished, the door behind us opened again and the other men came in.

They were joined by one of the women who had stood apart during the washing. Together they walked forward and raised Timothy from the floor, each singing quietly his own song. They placed the boy on the funeral pyre, covered him with a white sheet, and poured oil upon him. A guard handed one of the men a torch he had carried as he led us up the staircase. The slave rested the flame on the oil-smothered wood around the corpse, and then stepped back.

I watched from the edge of the room. My arms clutching my chest as I sought to cloak myself from the chill of winter. The ceiling above held a hole, allowing the night air in and the funeral smoke out. Sandy had once told me that some of the city slaves would watch the palace rooftop for smoke on the nights after a palace slave had been captured, in order to discover whether the slave had been allowed to live.

Timothy’s sister stepped forward now, her eyes red and her face pale. She began to sing in a tremulous voice the Funeral Song. This is the tale of a man who abandoned his beloved in order to seek adventure in the world. Each year he thought of going home, and each year he continued to stay away. Finally he returned to find that his lover had died of grief. At her funeral, he decided to fling himself upon the flames, but was prevented from doing so by the Spirit, who told him that he must endure the greater punishment of being parted from his love.

I was thinking of little besides how chilly it was and how hard it must be for Timothy’s sister to sing such a song, when suddenly I felt something touch my spine that was as hard and sharp and cold as an icicle. I looked around, but nothing stood behind me. Then I began to shiver, not from the cold, but from the knowledge that I had been sent a sign by the Spirit. What it meant I did not know, but standing here, witnessing the fate of the runaway slave, I felt my chest grow tight.

o—o—o

For the next four days I received little rest, though I failed to visit the Koretian during that time. I was busy enough running from chamber to chamber in the palace, carrying out my duties or else trying to hide the fact that I had been running.

Slave-servants must not run; that was the first lesson I had been taught after I left the freedom of my nursery and was taken to live in the slave-quarters. Slaves must walk swiftly but steadily, they must remain silent unless spoken to, and they must not look into the eyes of a free-man. All of these rules I had broken many times, but the one about running I broke the most, for I simply had no time in which to finish all of my chores unless I raced between the different parts of the palace.

I was one of the King’s slave-servants, assigned to clean his chambers, which would have been an easy enough task if his chambers had not been scattered like sown seeds throughout the palace. I spent most of the afternoon of the fourth day cleaning the King’s sleeping chamber. I was the only slave entrusted with this task, and so I allowed myself to linger there, touching the gilded mirror frame, the emerald-decked cup, and, most precious of all to me, the tiny iron amulet which my mother had given him and which he still kept in a box, along with the gifts given to him by his other favorite lovers. Another box contained items left by his late wife, who had striven without success to give him an heir, but this box I did not touch.

Not until I had left the windowless sleeping chamber and saw the sun through the window in the corridor did I realize how little time I had left to finish the other chambers. I waited until I was beyond the sight of the King’s guards, and then raced like a mad dog down the empty corridor. Only the King and the Prince lived in this part of the palace; I was in no fear of running into a palace official or some lord or lady.

Instead, I ran into the Prince.

I crashed into him as I was rounding a corner. He held me off from his body with his hands and said, Steady, Princess. You’ll kill somebody one of these days, running like that.

I stared up at him. We had known each other so long that I had always felt that it would be mere pretense to avoid looking into his eyes. To his credit, he had never commanded me to do so. He had thin eyebrows that slanted over narrow eyes, and his lips were always twisted in mockery when he addressed me. I would have stepped back, but he held my arms tight. You’re just the woman I need right now. Come with me.

He pointed the way to his sleeping chamber. For a moment I resisted his touch. Like my father, the Prince rarely kept an empty bed, and I had no interest in becoming his latest conquest. But remembering that I had no choice in such matters, I reluctantly allowed him to guide me into the room.

He must have known why I had resisted, for I could see his eyes dancing with amusement as he offered me a seat on his bed. Looming over me, he looked down at me for a moment as I perched myself on the very edge of the mattress. Then he walked forward, and for one frantic moment I thought he would touch me. Instead he turned to one side, took hold of a chair, and pulled it back next to a writing table that stood at the side of the room. He seated himself there and said, I have received a letter from the King, saying that he has decided to spend a few days in the countryside in order to pursue some hunting before his return to the palace. He has asked me to continue to deal with matters here until then.

I felt myself beginning to slide off the edge of the bed and hastily pulled myself up further. The Prince’s look grew more taunting,

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