/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy

A Song for Arbonne

Guy Kay

Arbonne is a lush, fertile land near the sea, and its people revere music and the Goddess Rian. In Gorhaut, the God Corannos and war are the only considerations. These two countries are on a collision course, which ends in a war where brother fight father — and a life-long friendship ends in death.

A SONG FOR ARBONNE

Guy Gavriel Kay

From the vidan of the troubadour, Anselme of Cauvas…

Anselme, who has ever been acknowledged as the first and perhaps the greatest of all the troubadours of Arbonne, was of modest birth, the youngest son of a clerk in the castle of a baron near Cauvas. He was of middling height, dark haired, with a quiet manner in speech that was nonetheless wondrously pleasing to all who heard him. While yet tender in years, he showed great skill and interest in music and was invited to join the celebrated choir of the Cauvas sanctuary of the god. It was not long, however, before he felt the beginnings of a desire to make music very different from that acceptable in the service of the god, or indeed of the goddess Rian in her temples. And so Anselme left the comforts of the chapel and choir to make his way alone among the villages and castles of Arbonne, offering his new songs shaped of tunes and words such as he had heard sung by the common folk in their own speech…

He was later brought into the household of Duke Raimbaut de Vaux and honoured there, and in time his prowess came to the attention of Count Folquet himself, and Anselme was invited to pass a winter in Barbentain. From that time was Anselme's fortune assured, and the fate of the troubadours of Arbonne likewise made sure, for Anselme swiftly rose high in the friendship and trust of Count Folquet and in the esteem and very great affection of the noble Countess Dia. They honoured him for his music and his wit, and also for his discretion and cleverness, which led the count to employ him in many hazardous tasks of diplomacy beyond the borders of Arbonne…

In time, Count Folquet himself, under the tutelage of Anselme of Cauvas, began to make his own songs, and from that day it may be said that the art and reputation of the troubadours has never been diminished or endangered in Arbonne, and has indeed grown and flourished in all the known countries of the world…

PROLOGUE

On a morning in the springtime of the year, when the snows of the mountains were melting and the rivers swift in their running, Aelis de Miraval watched her husband ride out at dawn to hunt in the forest west of their castle, and shortly after that she took horse herself, travelling north and east along the shores of the lake towards the begetting of her son.

She did not ride alone or secretly; that would have been folly beyond words. Though she was young and had always been headstrong, Aelis had never been a fool and would not be one now, even in love.

She had her young cousin with her, and an escort of six armed corans, the trained and anointed warriors of the household, and she was riding by pre-arrangement—as she had told her husband several days before—to spend a day and a night with the duchess of Talair in her moated castle on the northern shore of Lake Dierne. All was in order, carefully so.

The fact that there were other people in Castle Talair besides the duchess and her ladies was an obvious truth, not worthy of comment or observation. A great many people made up the household of a powerful duke such as Bernart de Talair, and if one of them might be the younger son and a poet, what of that? Women in a castle, even here in Arbonne, were guarded like spices or gold, locked up at night against whoever might be wandering in the silence of the dark hours.

But night, and its wanderers, was a long way off. It was a beautiful morning through which they now rode, the first delicate note of the song that would be springtime in Arbonne. To their left, the terraced vineyards stretched into the distance of the Miraval lands, pale green now, but with the promise of the dark, ripe summer grapes to come. East of the curving path, the waters of Lake Dierne were a dazzle of blue in the light of the early sun. Aelis could see the isle clearly, and the smoke rising from the three sacred fires in Rian's temple there. Despite her two years on the other, larger island of the goddess far to the south in the sea, Aelis had lived her life too near to the gather and play of earthly power to be truly devout, but that morning she offered an inward prayer to Rian, and then another—amused at herself—to Corannos, that the god of the Ancients, too, might look down with favour upon her from his throne behind the sun.

The air was so clear, swept by the freshness of the breeze, that she could already see Talair itself on the far shore of the lake. The castle ramparts rose up, formidable and stern, as befitted the home of a family so proud. She glanced back behind her then and saw, across the vineyards that lay between, the equally arrogant walls of Miraval, a little higher even, seat of a lineage as august as any in Arbonne. But when Aelis looked across the water to Talair she smiled, and when she looked back at the castle where she dwelled with her husband she could not suppress a shiver and a fleeting chill.

"I thought you might be cold. I brought your cloak, Aelis. It is early yet in the day, and early in the year."

Her cousin Ariane, Aelis thought, was far too quick and observant for a thirteen-year-old. It was almost time for her to wed. Let some other girl of their family discover the dubious joys of politically guided marriages. Aelis thought spitefully. But then she was quick to withdraw that wish: she would not have another lord such as Urté de Miraval visited upon any of her kin, least of all a child as glad-hearted as Ariane.

She had been much the same herself, Aelis reflected, not so long ago.

She glanced over at her cousin, at the quick, expressive, dark eyes and the long black hair tumbling free. Her own hair was carefully pinned and covered now, of course; she was a married woman, not a maiden, and unloosed hair, as everyone knew, as all the troubadours wrote and the joglars sang, was sheerest incitement to desire. Married women of rank were not to incite such desire, Aelis thought drily. She smiled at Ariane though; it was hard not to smile at Ariane.

"No cloak this morning, bright heart, it would feel like a denial of the spring."

Ariane laughed. "When even the birds above the lake are singing of my love," she quoted. "Though none can hear them but the waves."

Aelis couldn't help smiling again. Ariane had the lyric wrong, but it wouldn't do to correct her, it might give too much away. All of her ladies-in-waiting were singing that song. The lines were recent and anonymous. They had heard a joglar sing the tune in the hall at Miraval only a few months before during the winter rains, and there had been at least a fortnight's worth of avid conjecture among the women afterwards as to which of the better-known troubadours had shaped this newest, impassioned invocation of the spring and his desire.

Aelis knew. She knew exactly who had written that song, and she also knew rather more than that—that it had been composed for her, and not for any of the other high-born ladies whose names were being bandied about in febrile speculation. It was hers, that song. A response to a promise she had chosen to make during the midwinter feasting at Barbentain.

A rash promise? A deserved one? Aelis thought she knew what her father would have said, but she wondered about her mother. Signe, countess of Arbonne, had, after all, founded the Courts of Love here in the south, and Aelis had grown into womanhood hearing her mother's clear voice lifted in wit or mockery in the great hall at Barbentain, and the responding, deep-throated laughter of a circle of besotted men.

It was still happening now, today, probably this very morning amid the splendours of Barbentain on its own island in the river near the mountain passes. The young lords of Arbonne and even the older ones and the troubadours and the joglars with their lutes and harps and the emissaries from over all the mountains and across the seas would be dancing attendance upon the dazzling countess of Arbonne, her mother.

With Guibor, the count, watching it all, smiling to himself in the way he had, and then assessing and deciding affairs of state afterwards, at night, with the glittering wife he loved and who loved him, and whom he trusted with his life, his honour, his realm, with all his hope of happiness on this side of death.

"Your mother's laughter," he'd said to Aelis once, "is the strongest army I will ever have in Arbonne."

He'd said that to his daughter. She'd been sixteen then, newly returned home from two years on Rian's Island in the sea, newly discovering, almost day by day, that there seemed to be avenues to beauty and grace for herself, after an awkward childhood.

Less than a year after that conversation her father had married her to Urté de Miraval, perhaps the strongest of the lords of Arbonne, and so exiled her from all the newly charming, flattering courtiers and poets, from the wit and music and laughter of Barbentain to the hunting dogs and the sweaty night thrustings of the duke he'd decided needed to be bound more closely to his allegiance to the ruling counts of Arbonne.

A fate no different from that of any daughter of any noble house. It had been her mother's fate, her aunt's in Malmont to the east across the river; it would be black-haired Ariane's too, one day—and night—not far off.

Some women were lucky in their men, and some found an early widowhood—which might actually mean power here in Arbonne, though not, by any means, everywhere in the world. There were other paths as well: those of the goddess or the god. Her sister Beatritz, the eldest child, had been given to Rian; she was a priestess in a sanctuary in the eastern mountains near Gfitzland. She would be High Priestess there one day—her parentage assured at least so much—and wield her own measure of power in the intricate councils of Rian's clergy. In many ways, Aelis thought, it was an enviable future, however remote it might be from the laughter and the music of the courts.

On the other hand, how close was she herself to such music and such laughter in Miraval, with the candles and torches doused just after dusk and Duke Urté coming to her in the night through the unlatched door that linked their rooms—smelling of dogs and moulting falcons and sour wine, in search of temporary release and an heir, nothing more?

Different women dealt with their destinies in very different ways, thought dark-haired, dark-eyed Aelis, the lady of Miraval, as she rode under green-gold leaves beside the rippling waters of Lake Dierne with vineyards on her left and forests beyond.

She knew exactly who and what she was, what her lineage meant to the ferociously ambitious man she'd been given to like a prize in the tournament at the Lussan Fair: Urté, who seemed so much more a lord of Gorhaut in the cold, grim north than of sun-blessed Arbonne, however full and ripe the grapes and olives might grow on his rich lands. Aelis knew precisely what she was for him; it didn't need a scholar from the university in Tavernel to do that sum.

There was a sudden sound, an involuntary gasp of wonder beside her. Aelis stirred from reverie and glanced quickly over and then beyond Ariane to see what had startled the girl. What she saw stirred her own pulse. Just ahead of them, off the road beside the lake, the Arch of the Ancients stood at the end of a double row of elm trees, its stones honey-coloured in the morning sunlight. Ariane hadn't taken this ride before, Aelis realized; she would never have seen the arch.

There were ruins of the Ancients all over the fertile land named for the Arbonne River that watered it: columns by the roadside, temples on cliffs by the sea or in the mountain passes, foundations of houses in the cities, bridge stones tumbled into the mountain streams and some still standing, some still in use. Many of the roads they rode or walked today had been built by the Ancients long ago. The great high road beside the Arbonne itself, from the sea at Tavernel north to Barbentain and Lussan and beyond them into and through the mountains to Gorhaut, was one of the old straight roads. All along its length were marker stones, some standing, many toppled into the roadside grass, with words upon them in a language no one living knew, not even the scholars of the university.

The Ancients were everywhere in Arbonne, the simple sight of one of their ruins or artifacts, however unexpected, would not have drawn a cry from Ariane.

But the arch by Lake Dierne was something else again.

Rising ten times the height of a man, and almost as broad, it stood alone in the countryside at the end of its avenue of elms, seeming to master and subdue the gentle, vine-clad landscape between the forests and the lake, Which, Aelis had long suspected, was precisely the purpose for which it had been raised. The friezes sculpted on both the near face and the far were of war and conquest: armoured men in chariots carrying round shields and heavy swords, battling others armed with only clubs and spears. And the warriors with the clubs were dying on the friezes, their pain made vivid in the sculptor's art. On the sides of the arch were images of men and women clad in animal skins, manacled, their heads bowed and averted in defeat, slaves. Whoever they were, wherever they now had gone, the Ancients who had set their marks upon this land had not come in peace.

"Would you like to see it more nearly?" she asked Ariane mildly. The girl nodded, never taking her eyes from the arch. Aelis lifted her voice, calling ahead to Riquier, the leader of the corans detailed to ride with her. He dropped hastily back to her side.

"My lady?"

She smiled up at him. Balding and humourless, Riquier was much the best of the household corans, and she was, in any case, prepared to smile at almost anyone this morning. There was a song winding through her heart, a song written this winter, after the festive season, in response to a promise a lady had made. Every joglar in Arbonne had been singing that song. No one knew the troubadour who had written it, no one knew the lady.

"If you think it safe," she said, "I should like to stop for a few moments that my cousin might see the arch more closely. Do you think we could do that?"

Riquier looked cautiously around at the serene, sunlit countryside. His expression was earnest; it was always earnest when he spoke with her. She had never once been able to make him laugh. Not any of them, actually; the corans of Miraval were men cut from her husband's cloth, not surprisingly.

"I think that would be all right," he said.

"Thank you," Aelis murmured. "I am happy to be in your hands, En Riquier, in this as in all things." A younger, better-educated man would have returned her smile, and a witty one would have known how to reply to the shameless flattery of the honorific she had granted him. Riquier merely flushed, nodded once and dropped back to give his orders to the rear guard. Aelis often wondered what he thought of her; at other times she wasn't really sure she wanted to know.

"The only things that belong in that one's hand are a sword or a flask of unmixed wine," Ariane said tartly and not quite softly enough at Aelis's side. "And if he deserves a lord's title, so does the man who saddled my horse." Her expression was scornful.

Aelis had to suppress a smile. For the second time that morning she had cause to wonder about her young cousin. The girl was disconcertingly quick. Despite the fact that Ariane's words reflected her own thoughts exactly, Aelis tendered her a reproving glance. She had duties here—the duties of a duchess towards the girl-woman who had been sent to her as a lady-in-waiting for fostering and to learn the manners proper to a court. Which was not, Aelis thought, going to happen in Miraval. She had considered writing her aunt at Malmont and saying as much, but had so far refrained, for selfish reasons as much as any others: Ariane's brightness, since she had arrived last fall, had been a source of genuine pleasure, one of the very few Aelis had. Not counting certain songs. Even the birds above the lake are singing of my love…

"Not all men are made for gallantry or the forms of courtliness," she said to her cousin, keeping her voice low. "Riquier is loyal and competent, and the remark about the wine is uncalled for—you've seen him in the hall yourself."

"Indeed I have," Ariane said ambiguously. Aelis raised her eyebrows, but had neither time or inclination to pursue the matter.

Riquier cantered his horse past them again and swung off the path, angling through the roadside grass and then between the flanking trees towards the arch. The two woman followed, with corans on either side and behind.

They never reached it.

There was a crackling sound, a surge and rustle of leaves. Six men plummeted from branches overhead and all six of Urté's corans were pulled from their horses to tumble on the ground. Other men sprang instantly from hiding in the tall grass and raced over to help in the attack. Ariane screamed. Aelis reared her horse and a masked assailant rushing towards her scrambled hastily back. She saw two other men emerge from the trees to stand in front of them all, not joining in the fight. They too were masked; they were all masked. Riquier was down, she saw, two men standing over him. She wheeled her horse, creating room for herself, and grappled at her saddle for the small crossbow she always carried.

She was her father's daughter, and had been taught by him, and in his prime Guibor de Barbentain was said to have been the best archer in his own country. Aelis steadied her horse with her knees, aimed quickly but with care and fired. One of the two men in the road before her cried out and staggered back, clutching at the arrow in his shoulder.

Aelis wheeled swiftly. There were four men around her now trying to seize the horse's reins. She reared her stallion again and it kicked out, scattering them. She fumbled in the quiver for a second arrow.

"Hold!" the other man between the trees cried then. "Hold, Lady Aelis. If you harm another of my men we will begin killing your corans. Besides, there is the girl. Put down your bow."

Her mouth dry and her heart pounding, Aelis looked over and saw that Ariane's frightened, snorting horse was firmly in the grasp of two of their attackers. All six of Urté's corans were down and disarmed, but none seemed to have been critically injured yet.

"It is you we want," the leader in front of them said, as if answering her thought. "If you come gently the others will not be further hurt. You have my word."

"Gently?" Aelis snapped, with all the hauteur she could manage. "Is this a setting for gentleness? And how highly should I value the word of a man who has done this?"

They were halfway to the arch, among the elms. To her right, across the lake, Talair was clearly visible. Behind her, if she turned, she could probably still see Miraval. They had been attacked within sight of both castles.

"You don't really have a great deal of choice, do you?" the man before her said, taking a few steps forward. He was of middling height, clad in brown, with a midwinter carnival mask, unsettlingly incongruous in such a place as this, covering most of his face.

"Do you know what my husband will do to you?" Aelis said grimly. "And my father in Barbentain? Have you any idea?"

"I do, actually," the masked man said. Besides him, the one she had wounded was still clutching his shoulder; there was blood on his hand. "And it has rather a lot to do with money, my lady. Rather a lot of money, actually."

"You are a very great fool!" Aelis snapped. They had surrounded her horse now, but no one, as yet, had reached for the reins. There seemed to be about fifteen of them—an extraordinary number for an outlaw band, so near the two castles. "Do you expect to live to spend anything they give you? Don't you know how you will be pursued?"

"These are indeed worrisome matters," the man in front of her said, not sounding greatly worried. "I don't expect you to have given them much thought. I have." His voice sharpened. "I do expect you to co-operate, though, or people will start being hurt, and I'm afraid that might include the girl. I don't have unlimited time, Lady Aelis, or patience. Drop the bow!"

There was a crack of command in the last sentence that actually made Aelis jump. She looked over at Ariane; the girl was big-eyed, trembling with fear. Riquier lay face down on the grass. He seemed to be unconscious, but there was no blade wound she could see.

"The others will not be hurt?" she said.

"I said that. I don't like repeating myself." The voice was muffled by the festive mask, but the arrogance came through clearly.

Aelis dropped her bow. Without another word the leader turned and nodded his head. From behind the arch, having been hidden by its massive shape, another man stepped out leading two horses. The leader swung himself up on a big grey, and beside him the wounded man awkwardly mounted a black mare. No one else moved. The others were clearly going to stay and deal with the corans.

"What will you do with the girl?" Aelis called out.

The outlaw turned back. "I am done with questions," he said bluntly. "Will you come, or will you need to be trussed and carried like an heifer?"

With deliberate slowness, Aelis moved her horse forward. When she was beside Ariane she stopped and said, very clearly, "Be gallant, bright one, they will not, they dare not do you any harm. With Rian's grace I shall see you very soon."

She moved on, still slowly, sitting her horse with head high and shoulders straight as befitted her father's daughter. The leader paid her no attention, he had already wheeled his mount and had begun to ride, not even glancing back. The wounded man fell in behind Aelis. The three of them went forward in a soft jingling of harness, passing under the Arch of the Ancients, through the cold shadow of it, and then out into sunlight again on the other side.

They rode through the young grasses, travelling almost due north. Behind them the shoreline of Lake Dierne fell away, curving to the east. On their left Urté's vineyards stretched into the distance. Ahead of them was the forest. Aelis kept her silence and neither of the masked men spoke. As they approached the outlying pines and balsams of the wood Aelis saw a charcoal-burner's cottage lying just off the lightly worn path. The door was open. There was no one in sight, nor were there any sounds in the morning light save their horses and the calling of birds.

The leader stopped. He had not even looked at her since they had begun to ride, nor did he now. "Valery," he said, scanning the edges of the forest to either side, "keep watch for the next while, but find Garnoth first—he won't be far away—and have him clean and bind your shoulder. There's water in the stream."

"There is usually water in a stream," the wounded man said in a deep voice, his tone unexpectedly tart. The leader laughed; the sound carried in the stillness.

"You have no one to blame for that wound but yourself," he said, "don't take your grievances out on me." He swung down from his horse, and then he looked at Aelis for the first time. He motioned for her to dismount. Slowly she did. With an elaborately graceful gesture—almost a parody given where they were—he indicated the entrance to the cottage.

Aelis looked around. They were quite alone, a long way from where anyone might chance to pass. The man Valery, masked in fur like a grey wolf, was already turning away to find Garnoth, whoever that was—probably the charcoal-burner. Her arrow was still in his shoulder.

She walked forward and entered the hut. The outlaw leader followed and closed the door behind him. It shut with a loud click of the latch. There were windows on either side, open so that the breeze could enter. Aelis walked to the centre of the small, sparsely furnished room, noting that it had been recently swept clean. She turned around.

Bertran de Talair, the younger son, the troubadour, removed the falcon mask he wore.

"By all the holy names of Rian," he said, "I have never known a woman like you in my life. Aelis, you were magnificent."

With some difficulty she kept her expression stern, despite what seeing his face again, the flash of his quick, remembered smile, was suddenly doing to her. She forced herself to gaze coolly into the unnerving clarity of his blue eyes. She was not a kitchen girl, not a tavern wench in Tavernel, to swoon into his arms.

"Your man is badly wounded," she said sharply. "I might have killed him. I sent specific word with Brette that I was going to shoot an arrow when you stopped us. That you should tell your men to wear chain mail under their clothing."

"And I told them," said Bertran de Talair with an easy shrug. He moved towards the table, discarding his mask, and Aelis saw belatedly that there was wine waiting for them. It was becoming more difficult by the moment, but she continued to fight the impulse to smile back at him, or even to laugh aloud.

"I did tell them, truly," Bertran repeated, attending to the wine bottle. "Valery chose not to. He doesn't like armour. Says it impedes his movement. He'll never make a proper coran, my cousin Valery." He shook his head in mock sorrow and then glanced over his shoulder at her again. "Green becomes you, as the leaves the trees. I cannot believe you are here with me."

She seemed to be smiling, after all. She struggled to keep control of the subject though; there was a real issue here. She could easily have killed the man, Valery. "But you chose not to tell him why he ought to protect himself, correct? You didn't tell him I planned to shoot. Even though you knew he would be the one standing beside you."

Smoothly he opened the bottle. He grinned at her. "Correct and correct. Why are all the de Barbentain so unfairly clever? It makes it terribly difficult for the rest of us, you know. I thought it might be a lesson for him—Valery should know by now that he ought to listen when I make a suggestion, and not ask for reasons."

"I might have killed him," Aelis said again.

Bertran was pouring the wine into two goblets. Silver and machial, she saw, not remotely belonging in a cabin such as this. She wondered what the charcoal-burner was being paid. The goblets were each worth more than the man would earn in his whole life.

Bertran came towards her, offering wine. "I trusted your aim," he said simply. The simple brown jacket and leggings became him, accenting his burnished outdoor colour and the bronze of his hair. The eyes were genuinely extraordinary; most of the lineage of Talair had those eyes. In the women, that shade of blue had broken hearts in Arbonne and beyond for generations. In the men too, Aelis supposed.

She made no motion towards the extended goblet. Not yet. She was the daughter of Guibor de Barbentain, count of Arbonne, ruler of this land.

"You trusted your cousin's life to my aim?" she asked. "Your own? An irrational trust, surely? I might have wounded you as easily as he."

His expression changed. "You did wound me, Aelis. At the midwinter feast. I fear it is a wound that will be with me all my life." There was a gravity to his tone, sharply at odds with what had gone before. "Are you truly displeased with me? Do you not know the power you have in this room?" The blue eyes were guileless, clear as a child's, resting on her own. The words and the voice were balm and music to her parched soul.

She took the wine. Their fingers touched as she did. He made no other movement towards her though. She sipped and he did the same, not speaking. It was Talair wine, of course, from his family's vineyards on the eastern shores of the lake.

She smiled finally, releasing him from interrogation for the moment. She sank down onto the one bench the cottage offered. He took a small wooden stool, leaning forward towards her, his long, musician's fingers holding the goblet in two hands. There was a bed by the far wall; she had been acutely aware of that from the moment she'd walked in, and equally aware that the charcoal-burner was unlikely to have had a proper bed for himself in this cottage.

Urté de Miraval would be a long way west by now in his favourite woods, lathering his horses and dogs in pursuit of a boar or a stag. The sunlight fell slantwise through the eastern window, laying a benison of light across the bed. She saw Bertran's glance follow hers in that direction. She saw him look away.

And realized in that instant, with a surge of unexpected discovery, that he was not nearly so assured as he seemed. That it might actually be true what he'd just said, what was so often spun in the troubadours' songs: that hers, as the highborn woman, the long-desired, was the true mastery in this room. Even the birds above the lake…

"What will they do with Ariane and the corans?" she asked, aware that unmixed wine and excitement were doing dangerous things to her. His hair was tousled from the confining mask and his smooth-shaven face looked clever and young and a little bit reckless. Whatever the rules of the courtly game, this would not be a man easily or always controlled. She had known that from the first.

As if to bear witness to that, he arched his brows, composed and poised again. "They will be continuing on their way to Talair soon enough. My men will have removed their masks by now and declared themselves. We brought wine and food for a meal on the grass. Ramir was there, did you recognize him? He has his harp, and I wrote a ballad last week about a play-acting escapade by the arch. My parents will disapprove, and your husband I rather imagine, but no one has been hurt, except Valery by you, and no one will really be able to imagine or suggest I would do you any harm or dishonour. We will give Arbonne a story to be shocked about for a month or so, no more than that. This was fairly carefully thought out," he said. She could hear the note of pride.

"Evidently," she murmured. A month or so, no more than that? Not so swiftly, my lord. She was trying to guess how her mother would have handled this. "How did you arrange for Brette in Miraval to help you?" she temporized.

He smiled. "Brette de Vaux and I were fostered together. We have had various… adventures with each other. I thought he could be trusted to help me with…»

"With another adventure, my lord?" She had her opening now. She stood. It seemed she didn't need to think of her mother after all. She knew exactly what to do. What she had dreamt of doing through the long nights of the winter just past. "With the easy matter of another tavern song?"

He rose as well, awkwardly, spilling some of his wine. He laid the goblet down on the table, and she could see that his hand was trembling.

"Aelis," he said, his voice low and fierce, "what I wrote last winter was true. You need never undervalue yourself. Not with me, not with anyone alive. This is no adventure. I am afraid… " He hesitated and then went on, "I am greatly afraid that this is the consummation of my heart's desire."

"What is?" she said then, forcing herself to remain calm despite what his words were doing to her. "Having a cup of wine with me? How delicate. How modest a desire for your heart."

He blinked in astonishment, but then the quality of his gaze changed, kindled, and his expression made her knees suddenly weak. She tried not to let that show either. He had been quick to follow her meaning though, too quick. She suddenly felt less sure of herself. She wished she had somewhere to set down her own wine. Instead, she drained it and let the empty goblet drop among the strewn rushes on the floor. She was unused to unmixed wine, to standing in a place so entirely alone with a man such as this.

Drawing a breath against the racing of her heart, Aelis said, "We are not children, nor lesser people of this land, and I can drink a cup of wine with a great many different men." She forced herself to hold his eyes with her own dark gaze. She swallowed, and said clearly, "We are going to make a child today, you and I."

And watched Bertran de Talair as all colour fled from his face. He is afraid now, she thought. Of her, of what she was, of the swiftness and the unknown depths of this.

"Aelis," he began, visibly struggling for self-possession, "any child you bear, as duchess of Miraval, and as your father's daughter—"

He stopped there. He stopped because she had reached up even as he began to speak and was now, with careful, deliberate motions, unbinding her hair.

Bertran fell silent, desire and wonder and the sharp awareness of implications all written in his face. It was that last she had to smooth away. He was too clever a man, for all his youth; he might hold back even now, weighing consequences. She pulled the last long ivory pin free and shook her head to let the cascade of her hair tumble down her back. The sheerest encitement to desire. So all the poets sang.

The poet before her, of a lineage nearly as proud as her own, said, with a certain desperation now, "A child. Are you certain? How do you know that today, now, that we…"

Aelis de Miraval, daughter of the count of Arbonne, smiled then, the ancient smile of the goddess, of women centred in their own mysteries. She said, "En Bertran, I spent two years on Rian's Island in the sea. We may have only a little magic there, but if it lies not in such matters as this, where should it possibly lie?"

And then knowing—without even having to think of what her mother would have done—knowing as surely as she knew the many-faceted shape of her own need, that it was time for words to cease, Aelis brought her fingers up to the silken ties at the throat of her green gown and tugged at them so that the silk fell away to her hips. She lowered her arms and stood before him, waiting, trying to control her breathing, though that was suddenly difficult.

There was hunger, a kind of awe and a fully kindled desire in his eyes. They devoured what she offered to his sight. He still did not move, though. Even now, with wine and desire racing through her blood, she understood: just as she was no tavern girl, he in turn was no drunken coran in a furtive corner of some baron's midnight hall. He too was proud, and intimately versed in power, and it seemed he still had too keen a sense of how far the reverberations of this moment might go.

"Why do you hate him so much?" Bertran de Talair asked softly, his eyes never leaving her pale, smooth skin, the curve of her breasts. "Why do you hate your husband so?"

She knew the answer to that. Knew it like a charm or spell of Rian's priestesses chanted over and over in the starry, sea-swept darkness of the island nights.

"Because he doesn't love me," Aelis said.

And held her hands out then, a curiously fragile gesture, as she stood, half-naked before him, her father's daughter, her husband's avenue to power, heiress to Arbonne, but trying to shape her own response today, now, in this room, to the coldness of destiny.

He took a step, the one step necessary, and gathered her in his arms, and lifted her, and then he carried her to the bed that was not the charcoal-burner's, and laid her down where the slanting beam of sunlight fell, warm and bright and transitory.

PART I—Spring

CHAPTER 1

There was very little wind, which was a blessing. Pale moonlight fell upon the gently swelling sea around the skiff. They had chosen a moonlit night. Despite the risks, they would need to see where they were going when they came to land. Eight oars, rising and falling in as much silence as the rowers could command, propelled them out across the line of the advancing waves towards the faint lights of the island, which was nearer now and so more dangerous.

Blaise had wanted six men only, knowing from experience that missions such as this were best done relying on stealth and speed rather than numbers. But the superstitious Arbonnais who were Mallin de Baude's household corans had insisted on eight going out so that there would be, if all went well, nine coming back when they were done. Nine, it appeared, was sacred to Rian here in Arbonne, and it was to Rian's Island they were rowing now. They'd even had a lapsed priest of the goddess go through a ritual of consecration for them. Blaise, his men watching closely, had reluctantly knelt and permitted the drunken old man to lay gnarled hands on his head, muttering unintelligible words that were somehow supposed to favour their voyage.

It was ridiculous, Blaise thought, pulling hard at his oar, remembering how he'd been forced to give in on those issues. In fact this whole night journey smacked of the absurd. The problem was, it was as easy to be killed on a foolish quest in the company of fools as on an adventure of merit beside men one respected and trusted.

Still, he had been hired by En Mallin de Baude to train the man's household corans, and it had suited his own purposes for his first months in Arbonne to serve a lesser baron while he quietly sized up the shape of things here in this goddess-worshipping land and perfected his grasp of the language. Nor could it be denied—as Mallin had been quick to point out—that tonight's endeavour would help to hone the corans of Baude into a better fighting force. If they survived.

Mallin was not without ambition, nor was he entirely without merits. It was his wife, Blaise thought, who had turned out to be the problem. Soresina, and the utterly irrational customs of courtly love here in Arbonne. Blaise had no particular affection, for good and sufficient reasons, for the current way of things in his own home of Gorhaut, but nothing in the north struck him as quite so impractical as the woman-driven culture here of the troubadours and their joglars, wailing songs of love for one lord's wife or another. It wasn't even the maidens they sang of, in Corannos's name. It seemed a woman had to be wed to become the proper object of a poet's passion in Arbonne. Maffour, the most talkative of the household corans, had started to explain it once; Blaise hadn't cared enough to listen. The world was full of things one needed to know to survive; he didn't have the time to fill his brain with the useless chaff of a patently silly culture.

The island lights were nearer now across the water. From the front of the skiff Blaise heard one of the corans—Luth, of course—offer a fervent, nervous prayer under his breath. Behind his beard Blaise scowled in contempt. He would have gladly left Luth back on the mainland. The man would be next to useless here, good for nothing but guarding the skiff when they brought it ashore, if he could manage to do even that much without wetting himself in fear at owl noises or a falling star or a sudden wind in the leaves at night. It had been Luth who had begun the talk earlier, back on shore, about sea monsters guarding the approaches to Rian's Island—great, hump-backed, scaly creatures with teeth the size of a man.

The real dangers, as Blaise saw it, were rather more prosaic, though none the less acute for that: arrows and blades, wielded by the watchful priests and priestesses of Rian against falsely consecrated men come in secret in the night to the goddess's holy island with a purpose of their own.

Said purpose being in fact extremely specific: to persuade one Evrard, a troubadour, to return to Castle Baude from his self-imposed exile on Rian's Island in the depths of righteous indignation.

It was all genuinely ridiculous, Blaise thought again, pulling at the oar, feeling the salt spray in his hair and beard. He was glad that Rudel wasn't here. He could guess what his Portezzan friend would have had to say about this whole escapade. In his mind he could almost hear Rudel's laughter and his acerbic, devastating assessment of the current circumstances.

The story itself was straightforward enough—an entirely natural consequence, Blaise had been quick to declare in the hall at Baude, of the stupidity of the courtly rituals here in the south. He was already not much liked for saying such things, he knew. That didn't bother him; he hadn't been much liked in Gorhaut, either, the last while before he'd left home.

Still, what was an honest man to make of what had happened in Castle Baude last month? Evrard of Lussan, who was said to be a modestly competent troubadour—Blaise was certainly not in a position to judge one man's scribblings against another's—had elected to take up residence at Baude in the high country of the south-western hills for a season. This had rebounded, in the way of things down here, to the greater renown of En Mallin de Baude: lesser barons in remote castles seldom had troubadours, modestly competent or otherwise; living with them for any length of time. That much, at least, made sense to Blaise.

But, of course, once settled in the castle, Evrard naturally had to fall in love with Soresina and begin writing his dawn-songs and liensennes, and his cryptic trobars for her. That, also in the way of such things here, was precisely why he had come, with the less romantic incentive, Blaise had caustically observed, of a handsome monthly payment out of Mallin's wool revenues from last autumn's fair in Lussan. The troubadour used a made-up name for his Lady—another rule of the tradition—but everyone in the vicinity of the castle, and surprisingly soon everyone in Arbonne who mattered at all, seemed to know that Evrard of Lussan, the troubadour, was heart-smitten by the beauty and grace of young Soresina de Baude in her castle tucked in a fold of the high country leading to the mountain passes and Arimonda.

Mallin was enormously pleased; that too was part of the game. A lovestruck troubadour exalting the baron's wife enhanced Mallin's own ardently pursued images of power and largess.

Soresina, of course, was thrilled beyond words. She was vain, pretty and easily silly enough, in Blaise's jaundiced opinion, to have precipitated exactly the sort of crisis with which they now found themselves dealing. If it hadn't been the one incident, it would have been another, he was sure of it. There were women like Soresina at home, too, but they were rather better kept in hand in Gorhaut. For one thing, their husbands didn't invite strangers into their castles for the express purpose of wooing them. However Maffour might try to explain the strict rules of this courtly game of love, Blaise knew an attempt at seduction when he saw one.

Soresina, manifestly uninterested in the newly resident poet in any genuinely romantic way—which no doubt reassured her husband more than somewhat—nonetheless contrived to lead Evrard on in every manner possible, given the constraints imposed by the extremely crowded spaces of a small baronial castle.

Mallin's yellow-haired wife had a ripe body, an infectious laugh and a lineage substantially more distinguished than her husband's: something that always added fuel to the fires of troubadour passion Blaise had been told by the discursive Maffour. He'd had to laugh; it was all so artificial, the whole process. He could guess, too easily, what acid-tongued Rudel would have said about this.

In the meantime, the celebrated southern spring came to Arbonne, with many-coloured wildflowers appearing almost overnight in the meadows and the high slopes about Castle Baude. The snows were reported to be receding from the mountain pass to Arimonda. As the poet's verses grew in heat and passion with the quickening season, so did the throbbing voices of the joglars who had begun arriving in Baude as well, knowing a good thing when they saw one. More than one of the corans and castle servants had private cause to thank the troubadour and the singers and the erotic atmosphere they'd induced for amorous interludes in kitchen and meadow and hall.

Unfortunately for him, Evrard's own cause was not aided by the all-too-evident reality that he was short, yellow-toothed and prematurely losing what thin hair he'd once had. Still, according to the great tradition, troubadours were supposed to be loved by the high ladies of culture and grace for their art and their fierce dedication, not for their height or hair.

Trouble was, Soresina de Baude didn't seem to care much for the great tradition, or that part of it, at any rate. She liked her men to look like the warlike corans of the great days past. Indeed, she'd made a point of telling Blaise as much shortly after he'd arrived, looking artlessly up at his tall, muscled form and then glancing down and away in transparently feigned shyness. Blaise, somewhat used to this sort of thing, had been neither surprised nor tempted. He was being paid by Mallin and had shaped his own code in such matters.

What Evrard of Lussan shaped, later that spring, was something else. In brief, the little troubadour, having downed a considerable quantity of unmixed Miraval red wine with the corans one night, finally elected to translate his fiercely impassioned verses into modestly passionate action.

Inflamed by a joglar's fervid rendition of one of his own ballads earlier that evening, the troubadour had left his sleeping place late at night and stumbled along dark and silent corridors and stairways to Soresina's door, which happened, unfortunately for all concerned, to be unlocked: Mallin, young, healthy, tall enough, and rather urgently seeking heirs, had but lately left his wife for his own chamber nearby.

The intoxicated, verse-enraptured poet had entered the pitch-black chamber, felt his way over to the canopied bed and planted a lover's kiss upon the lips of the satiated, sleeping woman he was busily making famous throughout Arbonne that spring.

There were a good many schools of thought evolving, in the aftermath of the event, as to what Soresina should have done. Ariane de Carenzu, queen of the Court of Love since the countess, her aunt, had passed the title to her, had proclaimed a session to rule on the matter later in the year. In the meantime, every man and woman Blaise encountered in the castle or outside it seemed to have an opinion on what he himself regarded as an entirely predictable, utterly trivial event.

What Soresina had done—quite naturally, or very unfortunately, depending on one's perspective—was scream. Roused from post-coital dreaming, then realizing who was in her chamber, she cursed her stunned, besotted admirer, in a voice heard by half the castle, as a rude, ill-bred peasant who deserved a public whipping.

What Evrard of Lussan, wounded to the core of his all-too-sensitive soul, had done in turn was leave Baude Castle before sunrise, proceed directly to the nearest sanctuary of the goddess, receive benediction and consecration and, making his way to the coast, cross by boat to Rian's Island in a retreat from the harsh, ungrateful society of women and castles that could so abuse the unstinting generosity of his art.

Safely on the island, away from the terrible storm and strife of the world beyond, he had begun soothing and diverting himself by composing hymns to the goddess, along with some undeniably witty satires on Soresina de Baude. Not by name, of course—rules were rules—but since the name he used now was the same one he'd coined to exalt the long-limbed elegance of her form and the dark fire of her eyes, no one in Arbonne was left even slightly in ignorance of this particular point. The students in Tavernel, Blaise had been given to understand by a seriously distressed Mallin, had taken up the songs and were amplifying them, adding verses of their own.

After a number of weeks of this, En Mallin de Baude—his wife an increasing object of amusement, his castle on the verge of becoming a byword for rustic bad manners, his conciliatory letters to Evrard on the island pointedly unanswered—elected to do something drastic.

For his own part, Blaise would probably have arranged to kill the poet. Mallin de Baude was a lord, if a minor one; Evrard of Lussan was no more than a travelling parasite in Blaise's view. A feud, even a dispute between two such men, would have been unthinkable in Gorhaut. But this, of course, was woman-ruled Arbonne, where the troubadours had a power in society they could never have dreamt of anywhere else.

In the event, what Mallin did was order Blaise and his corans to cross to the goddess's Island secretly by night and bring Evrard back. The baron, of course, couldn't lead the expedition himself, though Blaise had enough respect for the man to believe he would have preferred to. Mallin would need some distance from the escapade, though, in the event that they failed. He had to be able to say his corans had conceived the scheme without his knowledge or consent, and then hasten to a temple of Rian and make appropriate gestures of contrition. It was all made particularly neat, Blaise had thought, by the fact that the leader of the corans of Baude that season just happened to be a hired mercenary from Gorhaut who didn't, of course, worship Rian at all and might be expected to perpetrate such a sacrilege. Blaise didn't mention this thought to anyone. It didn't even really bother him; this was simply the way of things at a certain level of the world's affairs, and he had more than a little familiarity with it.

Soresina, languishing and aghast at what an instinctive scream and outburst had wrought, had been energetically primed by a succession of visiting neighbouring ladies, rather more experienced in the ways of poets, as to how to deal with Evrard on his return.

If Blaise and the corans got to the island. If they found him. If he chose to return. If the sea monsters of Luth's dark dreams chose not to rise up above their skiff, towering and dreadful in the pale moonlight, and drag them all down to death in the watery blackness.

"Towards those pines," Hirnan, who was navigating, muttered from the front of the skiff. He glanced back over his broad shoulder at the looming shadow of the island. "And for the love of Corannos, keep silent now!"

"Luth," Blaise added softly, "if I hear a sound from you, any kind of sound from now until we're back on the mainland, I will slit your throat and slide you overboard."

Luth gulped, quite noisily. Blaise elected not to kill him for that. How such a man had ever been consecrated a warrior in the Order of Corannos he could not understand. The man could handle a bow well enough, and a sword and a horse, but surely, even here in Arbonne, they had to know that there was more to being a coran of the god than those skills. Were there no standards any more? No pride left in a corrupt and degenerate world?

He looked back over his shoulder again. They had rowed very close now. The pines were around towards the western side of the island, away from the sandy northern beaches and the glowing lights beyond that marked the three temples and the residences. Hirnan, who had been here before—he hadn't said why and Blaise hadn't pushed him—had said there was no chance of landing undetected on any of those northern beaches. The servants of Rian guarded their island; in the past they had had cause to fear more than a single skiff of corans searching for a poet.

They were going to have to try to get ashore in a harder place, where the forest pines gave way, not to sand, but to rocky cliffs and boulders in the sea. They had rope with them, and each of the corans, even Luth, knew how to handle himself on a rock face. Castle Baude was perched high in the wild country of the south-west. Men who served there would not be unfamiliar with cliffs or crags.

The sea was another matter. Hirnan and Blaise himself were the only ones entirely at ease on the water, and on Hirnan's shoulders now rested the burden of getting them close enough, amid sharp and shadowed rocks, to make it possible to come ashore. Privately, Blaise had told him that if the best they could find was a sheer cliff face, they didn't really have a chance. Not at night and with the need for absolute silence and with a poet to bring back down. In addition to which—

"Couch oars!" he hissed. In the same instant Maffour, beside him, snarled the same words. Eight rowers swiftly lifted their oars from the water and sat rigidly still, the skiff gliding silently towards the island. The sound came again, nearer now. Motionless, bent low for concealment, Blaise strained his eyes into the night, searching by moonlight for the boat he'd heard.

Then it was there, a single dark sail against the starry sky, skimming through the waves around the island. In the skiff eight men held their breath. They were inside the circling path of the sailboat, though, very near—dangerously near, in fact—to the rocky coast. Someone looking towards them in this faint light would almost certainly see nothing against the dark bulk of the island; and the guards, Blaise knew, would probably be looking outward in any case. He relaxed his fingers on his oar as the small boat continued past them, cutting across the wind, a beautiful thing in the moonlight.

"The goddess be praised!" Luth murmured with reflexive piety from up front beside Hirnan.

Cursing himself for not having sat the man next to him, Blaise flung a furious look over his shoulder in time to see Hirnan's hand shoot out and grip his benchmate fiercely on the arm in a belated effort to silence him.

"Ouch!" Luth said. Not quietly. At sea. In a very calm night.

Blaise closed his eyes. There was a moment of straining silence, then:

"Who is there! In Rian's name, declare yourselves!" A grim male voice rang out from the sailboat.

His brain racing furiously, Blaise looked over and saw the other boat already beginning to swing about. They had two choices now. They could retreat, rowing frantically, and hope to lose the guards in the darkness of the sea. No one knew who they were; they might not be seen or identified. But the mainland was a long way off, and eight men rowing had little chance of outracing sails if they were pursued. And this one sailboat could have others with it very soon, Blaise knew.

He hated retreating anyhow.

"Only fisherfolk, your grace," he called out in a wavering, high-pitched voice. "Only my brothers and myself trawling for lampfish. We're terrible sorry to have wandered out so far."

He lowered his voice to a snarled whisper. "Get three of the ropes over the side, quickly! Hold them as if you were fishing. Hirnan, you and I are going into the water." Even as he spoke he was removing his boots and sword. Hirnan, without a question asked, began doing the same.

"It is interdicted to come so near the goddess's Island without leave. You are subject to Rian's curse for what you have done." The deep voice across the water was hostile and assured. The boat was still turning; it would begin bearing down upon them in a moment.

"We are not to kill," Maffour whispered anxiously from beside Blaise.

"I know that," Blaise hissed back. "Do what I told you. Offer them a tithe. Hirnan, let's go."

With the last words he swung his feet across the low railing and slipped silently over the side of the skiff. On the other side, balancing his motion exactly, Hirnan did the same. The water was shockingly cold. It was night, and early yet in the spring.

"Truly, your graces, as my brother says, we had no intention to transgress." Maffour's apologetic voice carried across the darkness. "We will gladly offer a tithe of our catch for the holy servants of blessed Rian."

There was a silence from the other boat, very much as if someone were weighing a sudden temptation. That, Blaise had not expected. To his right he spotted Hirnan's dark head bobbing towards him. He motioned, and the two of them began swimming quietly towards the other boat.

"Are you fools?" The second voice from the sailboat was a woman's, and cold as the ocean waters. "Do you think you can make redress for trespass in the waters of the goddess by offering a load of fish?"

Blaise grimaced. The priestesses of the goddess were always harsher than the priests; even a short time in Arbonne had taught him that much. He heard the sound of flint being struck, and a moment later, cursing silently, saw a lamp lit in the sailboat. A glow of orange light fell upon the water but offered only slight illumination. Praying that the six corans in the skiff would have the sense to keep their heads down and faces hidden, he gestured for Hirnan to move closer. Then, treading silently in the sea, he put his mouth to the other man's ear and told him what they had to try to do.

Holding the lamp high while Maritte guided their craft, Roche the priest peered ahead into the night. Even with the flame, even by the light of the waxing pale moon, it was difficult to see clearly. Certainly the skiff they were approaching was one such as the fisherfolk of the shore used, and he could make out the lines of the trawling nets over the side, but there was still something odd about this encounter. For one thing, there seemed to be too many men in the skiff. He counted at least five. Where were they going to put their catch with so many men on board? Roche had grown up by the sea; he knew more than a little about trawling for lampfish. He also loved—more than a little—the taste of the succulent, hard-to-find delicacy, which is why he'd been shamefully tempted by the offered tithe. Maritte, mountain-born, had no such weaknesses to tempt her. Sometimes he wondered if Maritte had any weaknesses at all. He would not be particularly unhappy when their shared tour of duties ended next week, though he couldn't claim to regret the three obligatory nights in bed together. He wondered if she had conceived by him, what a child born of the two of them would be like. It really did seem to be a fishing boat. Manned by too many men, most likely because they were afraid, venturing so near the island. It happened more often than it should, Roche knew. The deep waters around Rian's Island were a known ground for lampfish. A pity, he sometimes thought-aware that this was perilously near to heresy—that all fish and fauna on or about the island were sacred to the goddess in her incarnation as Huntress, and so not to be pursued in any way by mortal man or woman.

One really couldn't entirely blame the fisherfolk of Arbonne for occasionally yielding to the lure of that rare and delicate taste and once in a while venturing perhaps a little nearer the island than they ought. He wondered if he dared turn to Maritte and offer that thought, in the spirit of compassionate Rian. He forebore to do so. He could guess what she would say, mountain-born, hard as mountain rock. Though not so much so in the dark, mind you, surprisingly softened by passion and its aftermath. The three nights had been worth it, he decided, whatever she'd have said now to his suggestion.

What Maritte did in fact say in that moment, her voice suddenly harsh, was: "Roche, these are not fisherfolk. Those are only ropes, not nets! We must—"

That was all, lamentably, that Roche heard. Even as he leaned quickly forward to peer more closely at the skiff, Roche of the Island felt himself pulled bodily out of their small boat, the lantern flying from his hand to douse itself hissing in the sea.

He tried to cry out, but he hit the water with a smack that knocked the wind from his lungs. Then, as he desperately sucked for air, he went under an advancing wave, swallowed a mouthful of salt sea water and began retching and coughing. There was a hand holding him from behind in a grip like a blacksmith's. Roche coughed and gasped and coughed, and finally cleared his lungs of water.

He drew one normal breath and then, as if that had been a patiently awaited signal, received a blow from the haft of a knife on the side of his head that rendered him oblivious to the icy chill of the water or the beauty of moonlight on the sea. He did have an instant to realize, just before all went black, that he hadn't heard a sound from Maritte.

Blaise was briefly afraid, as he manoeuvred the unconscious priest back into the sailboat with Hirnan's help, that the other man, anxious not to err, might have killed the woman with his blow. After he had clambered with some difficulty into the boat he reassured himself. She would have a lump like a corfe egg on her temple for a few days, but Hirnan had done well. He spared a moment to grip the other man briefly on the shoulder in approbation; such things mattered to the men one led. He had some experience of that, too—on both sides of the equation.

The sailboat was neat and trim and well equipped, which meant plenty of rope. There were also blankets against the night chill and an amount of food that might have been surprising had the priest not been so plump. He stripped the unconscious man of his sodden shirt, then swaddled him in one of the blankets. They bound and gagged both the man and the woman, though not so tightly as to cripple them, and then steered the boat towards their own skiff.

"Maffour," he said, keeping his voice low, "take charge there. Follow us in. We're going up to find a landing place. Luth, if you prefer, you can kill yourself now before I get to you. It might be more pleasant." With some satisfaction he heard Luth moan in distress. The man believed him. Beside Blaise in the sailboat Hirnan grunted with a sour, chilled amusement. With a degree of surprise Blaise recognized within himself the once-familiar sensation of sharing competence and respect with another man on a task of some danger.

Danger, yes, rather more evidently now, given what they had just done to two of Rian's anointed. But tonight's was still a quest of sheerest stupidity—as to that Blaise's opinion was not about to change simply because they had dealt neatly with their first obstacle. Shivering and wet, rubbing his arms in an effort to generate necessary warmth, he realized, though, almost against his will, that he had enjoyed the moments just past.

And, as so often seemed to happen, the surmounting of a crisis seemed to incline chance or fate or Corannos the god—one or all of them—to show favour in the next stage of a difficult enterprise. Hirnan grunted again a few minutes later, this time with a note of satisfaction, and a second afterwards Blaise saw why. Gliding westward, as close to shore as he dared, Hirnan had brought them abreast of a small inlet among the rocks. Blaise saw trees above, their tops silvered by the high moon, and a gently sloping plateau beneath them giving way to a short cliff down to the sea. An almost perfect place for a landing, given that the beaches were barred to them. The inlet would offer shelter and concealment for the two boats and the climb to the plateau was unlikely to be difficult for men used to the steepness of the goat runs above the olive trees near Baude.

Hirnan guided the two craft carefully into the cove. In the boat he quickly lowered sail and set about dropping anchor. In the skiff, Maffour, without a word spoken, looped one of the ropes about his shoulders and, leaping to the nearest of the rocks, adroitly scrambled up the short face of the cliff to the plateau. He tied the rope to one of the pines above and dropped it over for the rest of them. Two good men here, Blaise thought, realizing that he really hadn't given much thought at all, in the time he'd been here, to taking the measure of the corans of Mallin de Baude. He acknowledged inwardly that Mallin had been right in at least one thing: the truest test of a man's mettle was a task where the danger was real.

Hirnan finished with the anchor and turned to Blaise with an arched eyebrow of inquiry. Blaise glanced down at the two tied-up clerics in the boat. Both were unconscious and would likely be so for awhile. "We'll leave them here," he said. "They'll be all right."

The men in the skiff were already proceeding up Maffour's rope towards the plateau. They watched the last one climb, then Hirnan stepped carefully from the boat to one slippery boulder and then another before reaching the rope and smoothly pulling himself up the rock face. Behind him, Blaise did the same. The salt of the wet rope stung his palms.

On the plateau he set his feet squarely on solid ground for the first time since leaving the mainland. The sensation was odd, as if there were a tremor in the earth beneath him. They were standing on Rian's Island, and illicitly consecrated, Blaise thought unexpectedly. None of the others seemed to have reacted, though, and a moment later he grinned with wry amusement at himself: he was from Gorhaut, in the god's name—they didn't even worship Rian in the north. This was hardly a useful time to be yielding to the superstitions that had afflicted Luth all night.

Young Giresse, without a word, handed him his boots and sword, and Thiers did the same for Hirnan. Blaise leaned against a tree to pull on the boots and buckled his sword belt again, thinking quickly. When he looked up he saw seven tense men looking at him, waiting for orders. Deliberately he smiled.

"Luth, I have decided to let you live to trouble the world a little longer yet," he said softly. "You'll guard the two boats here with Vanne. If those two down below show signs of rousing I want them rendered unconscious again. But conceal your faces if you have to go down to do it. If we are very lucky none of us will have been recognized when this is over. Do you understand?"

They seemed to. Luth looked almost comically relieved at the assignment. Vanne's expression by moonlight showed a struggle to conceal disappointment—a good sign actually, if he was sorry to be missing the next stage of their journey. But Blaise was not about to leave Luth alone now with any task, however simple. He turned away from them.

"Hirnan, I take it you can find the guest quarters once we reach the temple complex?" The red-headed coran nodded briefly. "You lead then," Blaise said. "I'm behind you, Maffour's rear guard. We go in single file. No words unless vital. Touch each other for warnings rather than speak. Understood?»

"One question: how do we find Evrard when we get there?" Maffour asked quietly. "There must be a great many dwellings in the complex."

"There are," Hirnan murmured.

Blaise had been privately worrying about the same thing. He shrugged though; his men weren't to know what was concerning him. "I'm assuming he'll have one of the larger ones. We'll head for those." He grinned suddenly. "Then Maffour can walk in and wake him with a kiss." There was a ripple of laughter. Behind him, Luth giggled loudly but controlled himself before Blaise could turn.

Blaise let the tension-easing amusement subside. He looked at Hirnan. Without another word spoken the coran turned and stepped into the forest of the holy Island of the goddess. Blaise followed and heard the others fall into line behind. He didn't look back.

It was very dark in the woods. There were sounds all around them: wind in the leaves, the chitter of small animals, the quick, unsettling flap of wings alighting from a branch above. The pines and the oak trees blocked the moon except in the occasional place where a slant of pale silver fell across their path, strangely beautiful, intensifying the blackness as soon as they had moved on. Blaise checked his blade in its scabbard. It would be close and awkward ground here if anything large chose to attack. He wondered if any of the big hunting cats made their home on Rian's Island; he had a feeling they did, which was not reassuring.

Hirnan, threading his way around roots and under branches, finally struck a rough east-west track in the wood and Blaise drew a calmer breath again. He was surprisingly conscious of where they were. Not that he had any real superstition in him, but there was something about this forest that, even more than the thought of tawncat or boar, would make him very happy when they left. In fact, that same truth applied to all of this island, he realized: the sooner they left the more pleased he would be. Just then a bird of some sort—owl or corfe almost certainly—landed with a slight, rushing sound of wings in air in the tree directly above him. Luth, Blaise thought, would have soiled his clothing. Refusing to look up, he moved on, following Hirnan's shadowy form eastward towards the temples of the goddess worshipped here in the south as a huntress and a mother, as a lover and a bride, and as a dark and final gatherer and layer-out, by moonlight, of the dead. If we're luckier than we deserve, Blaise of Gorhaut thought grimly, more unsettled than he really wanted to acknowledge, even to himself, maybe he'll be outside singing at the moon.

Which, as it happened, was exactly what Evrard of Lussan was doing. Troubadours seldom in fact sang their own songs; musical performance was seen as a lesser art than composing. It was the joglars who did the actual singing, to the music of varied instruments. But here on Rian's Island there were no joglars now, and Evrard had always found it a help when writing to hear his own words and evolving tune, even in his own thin voice. And he liked to compose at night.

They heard him as they approached the sanctuary grounds, emerging from the blackness of the forest into moonlight and a sight of distant lanterns. Drawing a breath, Blaise registered the fact that there were no walls around the guest quarters south of the temple complex, though a high wooden palisade surrounded the inner buildings where the priests and priestesses would be sleeping. There didn't appear to be any guards manning the ramparts behind those walls, or none that could be seen. Silver light fell on the temples, lending a soft white shimmer to the three domes. They didn't have to go that way. On the extreme southern edge of the goddess's compound, not far from where they stood, there was a garden. Palm trees swayed in the gentle breeze, and the scent of roses and anemones and early lavender drifted towards them. So did a voice.

Grant, bright goddess, that the words of my heart

Find favour and haven in the shrine of your love.

Yours are the seafoam and the groves in the wood

And yours ever the moonlight in the skies above…

There was a brief, meditative pause. Then:

And yours the moonlight that falls from above…

Another ruminating silence, then again Evrard's voice:

Yours is the moonlight and the stars overhead

And the moonlit seafoam and each forest grove.

Blaise saw Hirnan glancing at him, an ironic look on his expressive face. Blaise shrugged. "Mallin wants him back," he murmured. "Don't look at me." Hirnan grinned.

Blaise stepped past the other man and, keeping to the shadowy cover at the edge of the wood, began working his way around towards the garden, where the thin voice was still essaying variants of the same sentiment. Blaise wondered if the clergy and the other guests of Rian minded having their sleep disturbed by this late-night warbling. He wondered if it happened every night. He had a suspicion, knowing Evrard of Lussan, that it might.

They reached the southern end of the wood. Only grass, silvered by moonlight, open to view from the walls, lay between them and the hedges and palms of the garden now. Blaise dropped down, remembering with an eerie, unexpected vividness as he did the last time he'd performed this kind of manoeuvre, in Portezza with Rudel, when they had killed Engarro di Faenna.

And now here he was, fetching a sulky, petulant poet for a minor baron of Arbonne so the baron's wife could kiss the man on his balding brow—and the god knew where else—and say how extremely sorry she was for chancing to scream when he assaulted her in bed.

A long way from Portezza, From Gorhaut. From the sort of doings in which a man should properly find himself engaged. The fact that Blaise loathed almost everything about Gorhaut, which was his home, and trusted at most half a dozen of the Portezzan nobility he'd met was, frankly, not relevant to this particular truth.

"Thiers and Giresse—wait here," he whispered over his shoulder to the youngest two. "We won't need six men for this. Whistle like a corfe if there's trouble coming. We'll hear you. Maffour, you've been told what speech to give. Better you than me, frankly. When we get to the garden and I give you the sign go in and try, for what it's worth. We won't be far."

He didn't wait for acknowledgements. At this point, any halfway decent men would know as well as he did what had to be done, and if there were any legitimate point to this mission in Blaise's eyes, it was that he might begin to get a sense of what these seven Arbonnais corans he was training were like.

Without looking back he began moving on elbows and knees across the damp cool grass towards the hedgebreak that marked the entrance to the garden. Evrard was still carrying on inside; something about stars now, and white-capped waves.

In his irritation with the man, with himself, with the very nature of this errand, he almost crawled, quite unprofessionally, squarely into the backside of the priestess who was standing, half-hidden, beside the closest palm to the entranceway. Blaise didn't know if she was there as a guard for the poet or as a devotee of his art. There really wasn't time to explore such nuances. A sound from the woman could kill them all.

Fortunately, she was raptly intent on the figure of the chanting poet not far away. Blaise could see Evrard sitting on a stone bench at the near end of a pool in the garden, facing away from them, communing with himself, or the still waters, or whatever poets did their communing with.

Disdaining finesse, Blaise surged to his feet, grabbed the woman from behind and covered her mouth with one hand. She sucked air to scream and he tightened his grip about her mouth and throat. They were not to kill. He disliked unnecessary death in any event. In the silence he had been trained to by the assassins of Portezza, Blaise held the struggling woman, depriving her of air until he felt her slump heavily back against him. Carefully—for this was an old trick—he relaxed his grip. There was no deception here though; the priestess lay slack in his arms. She was a large woman with an unexpectedly young face. Looking at her, Blaise doubted this one would have been a guard. He wondered how she'd got out from the compound; it was the sort of thing that might someday be useful to know. Not that he planned on coming back here in a hurry, if ever.

Laying the priestess carefully down beneath the palm tree, he motioned Maffour with a jerk of his head to go into the garden. Hirnan and Thulier came silently up and began binding the woman in the shadows.

Yours the glory, bright Rian, while we mortal men

Walk humbly in the umbra of your great light,

Seeking sweet solace in the

"Who is there?" Evrard of Lussan called without turning, more peeved than alarmed. "You all know I must not be disturbed when I work."

"We do know that, your grace," Maffour said smoothly, coming up beside the man.

Edging closer, hidden by the bushes, Blaise winced at the unctuous flattery of the title. Evrard had no more claim to it than Maffour did, but Mallin had been explicit in his instructions to the most articulate of his corans.

"Who are you?" Evrard asked sharply, turning quickly to look at Maffour in the moonlight. Blaise moved nearer, low to the ground, trying to slip around to the other side of the bench. He had his own views on what was about to happen.

"Maffour of Baude, your grace, with a message from En Mallin himself."

"I thought I recognized you," Evrard said haughtily. "How dare you come in this fashion, disturbing my thoughts and my art?" Nothing about impiety or trespass or the affront to the goddess he was currently lauding, Blaise thought sardonically, pausing next to a small statue.

"I have nothing to say to your baron or his ill-mannered wife, and am in no mood to listen to whatever tritely phrased message they have cobbled together for me." Evrard's tone was lordly.

"I have come a long way in some peril," Maffour said placatingly, "and Mallin de Baude's message is deeply sincere and not long. Will you not honour me by hearing it, your grace?"

"Honour?" Evrard of Lussan said, his voice rising querulously. "What claim has anyone in that castle to honour of any kind? I bestowed upon them a grace they never deserved. I gave to Mallin whatever dignity he claimed—through my presence there, through my art." His words grew dangerously loud. "Whatever he was becoming in the gaze of Arbonne, of the world, he owed to me. And in return, in return for that—"

"In return for that, for no reason I can understand, he seeks your company again," Blaise said, stepping quickly forward, having heard quite a bit more than enough.

As Evrard glanced back at him wide-eyed, attempting to rise, Blaise used the haft of his dagger for the second time that night, bringing it down with carefully judged force on the balding pate of the troubadour. Maffour moved quickly to catch the man as he fell.

"I cannot begin to tell you," Blaise said fervently as Hirnan and Thulier joined them, "how much I enjoyed doing that."

Hirnan grunted. "We can guess. What took you so long?"

Blaise grinned at the three of them. "What? And interfere with Maffour's great moment? I really wanted to hear that speech."

"I'lll recite it for you on the way back then," Maffour said sourly. "With all the 'your grace's' too."

"Spare us," said Hirnan briefly. He bent and effortlessly shouldered the body of the small troubadour.

Still grinning, Blaise led the way this time, without a word, down towards the south end of the garden, away from the sanctuary lights and the walls and the temple domes, and then, circling carefully, back towards the shelter of the wood. If these were the corans of a lesser baron, he was thinking to himself, and they turned out to be this coolly competent—with one vivid exception—he was going to have to do some serious reassessing, when they got back to land, of the men of this country of Arbonne, even with its troubadours and joglars and a woman ruling them.

The one vivid exception was having, without the least shadow of any possible doubt, the worst night of his life.

In the first place, there were the noises. Even at the edge of the woods, the sounds of the night forest kept making their way to Luth's pricked ears, triggering waves of panic that succeeded each other in a seemingly endless progression.

Secondly there was Vanne. Or, not exactly Vanne, but his absence, for the other coran assigned to guard duty kept wilfully abandoning Luth, his designated partner, and making his own way down the rope to check on the two clerics in the sailboat, then going off into the forest itself to listen for the return of their fellows, or for other less happy possibilities. Either of these forays would leave Luth alone for long moments at a time to cope with sounds and ambiguous shiftings in the shadows of the plateau or at the edges of the trees, with no one to turn to for reassurance.

The truth was, Luth said to himself—and he would have sworn to it as an oath in any temple of the goddess—that he really wasn't a coward, though he knew every man here would think him one from tonight onward. He wasn't though: put him on a crag above Castle Baude in a thunderstorm, with thieves on the slopes making off with the baron's sheep, and Luth would be fierce in pursuit of them, sure-footed and deft among the rocks, and not at all bad with his bow or blade when he caught up with the bandits. He'd done that, he'd done it last summer, with Giresse and Hirnan. He'd killed a man that night with a bowshot in darkness, and it was he who had led the other two back down the treacherous slopes to safety with the flock.

Not that they were likely to remember that, or bother to remind the others of it, after tonight. If any of them lived through tonight. If they ever left this island. If they—

What was that?

Luth wheeled, his heart lurching like a small boat hit by a crossing wave, in time to see Vanne making his way back onto the plateau from yet another survey of the woods. The other coran gave him a curious glance in the shadows but said nothing. They were not to speak, Luth knew. He found their own enforced silence almost as stressful as the noises of the night forest.

Because they weren't just noises, and this wasn't just night-time. These were the sounds of Rian's Island, which was holy, and the eight of them were here without proper consecration, without any claim of right—only a drunken ex-priest's mangling of the words of ritual—and they had laid violent hands on two of the goddess's truly anointed before they'd even landed.

Luth's problem, very simply, was that he was a believer in the powers of the goddess, profoundly so. If that could really be called a problem. He'd had a religious, superstitious grandmother who'd worshipped both Rian and Corannos along with a variety of hearth spirits and seasonal ones, and who'd known just enough about magic and folk spells to leave the grandson she'd reared helplessly prey to the terrors of precisely the sort of place where they were now. Had he not been so anxious not to lose face among the other corans and his baron and the big, capable, grimly sardonic northern mercenary Mallin had brought to lead and train them, Luth would certainly have found a way to back out of the mission when he was named for it.

He should have, he thought dismally. Whatever status that withdrawal would have cost him was as nothing compared to how he'd be diminished and mocked because of what had happened tonight. Who would ever have thought that simple piety, a prayer of thanks to holy Rian herself, could get a person into so much trouble? How should a high country man know how bizarrely far sound—a murmured prayer! — could carry at sea? And Hirnan had hurt him with that pincer-like grip of his. The oldest coran was a big man, almost as big as the bearded northerner, and his fingers had been like claws of iron. Hirnan should have known better, Luth thought, trying to summon some sense of outrage at how unfair all of this was turning out to be.

He jumped sideways again, stumbled, and almost fell. He was grappling for his sword when he realized that it was Vanne who had come up to him. He tried, with minimal success, to turn the motion into one of alertly prudent caution. Vanne, his face blandly expressionless, gestured and Luth bent his head towards him.

"I'm going down to check on them again," the other coran said, as Luth had despairingly known he would. "Remember, a corfe whistle if you need me. I'll do the same." Mutely, trying to keep his own expression from shaping a forelorn plea, Luth nodded.

Moving easily, Vanne negotiated the plateau, grasped the rope and slipped over the side. Luth watched the line jerk for a few moments and then go slack as Vanne reached the rocks at the bottom. He walked over to the tree that Maffour had tied the rope to and knelt to run a practised eye over the knot. It was fine, Luth judged, it would continue to hold.

He straightened and stepped back. And bumped into something.

His heart lurching, he spun around. As he did, as he saw what had come, all the flowing blood in his veins seemed to dry up and change to arid powder. He pursed his lips and tried to whistle. Like a corfe.

No sound came out. His lips were dry, as bone, as dust, as death. He opened his mouth to scream but closed it silently and quite suddenly as a curved, jewelled, inordinately long dagger was lifted and held to his throat.

The figures on the plateau were robed in silk and satin, dyed crimson and silver, as for a ceremony. They were mostly women, at least eight of them, but there were two men besides. It was a woman, though, who held the crescent-shaped blade to his throat. He could tell from the swell of her body beneath her robe, even though she was masked. They were all masked. And the masks, every one of them, were of predatory animals and birds. Wolf and hunting cat, owl and hawk, and a silver-feathered corfe with golden eyes that glittered in the moonlight.

"Come," said the priestess with the blade to Luth of Castle Baude, her voice cold and remote, the voice of a goddess at night. A goddess of the Hunt, in her violated sanctuary. She wore a wolf mask, Luth saw, and then he also realized that the ends of the gloves on her hands were shaped like the claws of a wolf. "Did you truly think you would not be found and known?" she said.

No, Luth wanted frantically to say. No, I never thought we could do this. I was sure we would be caught.

He said nothing. The capacity for speech seemed to have left him, silence lying like a weight of stones on his chest. In terror, his brain going numb, Luth felt the blade caress his throat almost lovingly. The priestess gestured with a clawed hand; in response, Luth's feet, as if of their own will, led him stumbling into the night forest of Rian. There were scented priestesses of the goddess all about him as he went, women masked like so many creatures of prey, clad in soft robes of silver and red amid the darkness of the trees, with the pale moon lost to sight, like hope.

Coming back through the forest, Blaise felt the same rippling sensation as before through the soles of his boots, as if the earth here on the island had an actual pulse, a beating heart. They went faster now, having done what they had come to do, aware that the priestess by the garden might be missed and found at any time. Blaise had dropped back to let Hirnan, carrying the unconscious poet, guide them once more, with a sense of direction seemingly unerring in the darkness of the woods.

They left the forest path and began to twist their way north again through the densely surrounding trees, small branches and leaves crackling underfoot as they went. No moonlight fell here, but they had their night vision now, and they had been this way before. Blaise recognized an ancient, contorted oak, an anomalous sight in a strand of pine and cedar.

Shortly afterwards they came out of the woods onto the plateau. The moon was high overhead, and Maffour's rope was still tied around the tree, their pathway down to the sea and escape.

But neither Vanne nor Luth was anywhere to be seen.

His pulse prickling with a first premonitory sense of disaster, Blaise strode quickly to the edge of the plateau and looked down.

The sailboat was gone, and the two bound clerics with it. Their own skiff was still there, and Vanne's body was lying in it.

Beside Blaise, Maffour swore violently and made his way swiftly down the rope. He sprang over the boulders and into the skiff, bending quickly over the man lying there.

He looked up. "He's all right. Breathing. Unconscious. I can't see any sign of a blow." There was wonder and the first edge of real apprehension in his voice.

Blaise straightened, looking around the plateau for a sign of Luth. The other corans stood in a tight cluster together, facing outwards. They had drawn their swords. There was no sound to be heard; even the forest seemed to have gone silent, Blaise realized, with a tingling sensation along his skin.

He made his decision.

"Hirnan, get him into the skiff. All of you go down there. I don't know what's happened but this is no place to linger. I'm going to take a fast look around, but if I can't see anything we'll have to go." He glanced quickly up at the moon, trying to judge the hour of night. "Get the skiff free and give me a few moments to look. If you hear me do a corfe cry start rowing hard and don't wait. Otherwise, use your judgment."

Hirnan looked briefly as if he would protest but said nothing. With Evrard of Lussan slung over his shoulder like a sack of grain, he made his way to the rope and down. The other corans began following. Blaise didn't wait to see them all descend. With the awareness of danger like a tangible presence within him, he drew his sword and stepped alone into the woods on the opposite side of the plateau from where they'd entered and returned.

Almost immediately he picked up a scent. Not of hunting cat or bear, nor of fox or badger or boar. What he smelled was the drifting fragrance of perfume. It was strongest to the west, away from where they had gone.

Blaise knelt to study the forest floor in the near-blackness. He wished Rudel were with him now, for a great many reasons, but in part because his friend was the best night tracker Blaise had ever known.

One didn't have to be expert, though, to realize that a company of people had passed here only a short time before, and that most if not all of them had been women. Blaise swore under his breath and stood up, peering into the darkness, uncertain of what to do. He hated like death to leave a man behind, but it was clear that a large number of priests and priestesses were somewhere ahead of him in the woods. A few moments, he had told Hirnan. Could he jeopardize the others in an attempt to find Luth?

Blaise drew a deep breath, aware once again now of that pulsing in the forest floor. He knew he was afraid; only a complete fool would not be afraid now. Even so, there was a core truth at the root of all of this for Blaise of Gorhaut, a very simple one: one did not leave a companion behind without an attempt at finding him. Blaise stepped forward into the darkness, following the elusive scent of perfume in the night.

"Commendable," a voice said, immediately in front of him. Blaise gasped and levelled his blade, peering into blackness. "Commendable, but extremely unwise," the voice went on with calm authority. "Go back. You will not find your fellow. Only death awaits you past this point tonight."

There was a rustling of leaves and Blaise made out the tall, shadowy form of a woman in the space in front of him. There were trees on either side of her, as if framing a place to stand. It was very dark, much too black for him to see her face, but the note of assured command in her voice told its own grim story about what had happened to Luth. She hadn't touched Blaise, though; no others had leaped forth to attack. And Vanne had been unharmed in the skiff.

"I would be shamed in my own eyes if I left and did not try to bring him out," Blaise said, still trying to make out the features of the woman in front of him.

He heard her laughter. "Shamed," she echoed, mockingly. "Do not be too much the fool, Northerner. Do you truly think you could have done any of this had we not permitted it? Will you deny feeling the awareness of this wood? Do you actually believe you moved unknown, unseen?"

Blaise swallowed with difficulty. His levelled sword suddenly seemed a hapless, even a ridiculous thing. Slowly he lowered it.

"Why?" he asked. "Why, then?"

Her laughter came again, deep and low. "Would you know my reasons, Northerner? You would understand the goddess on her own Island?"

My reasons.

"You are the High Priestess, then," he said, shifting his feet, feeling the earth's deep pulsing still. She said nothing. He swallowed again. "I would only know where my man has gone. Why you have taken him."

"One for one," she said quietly. "You were not consecrated to this place, any of you. You came here to take a man who was. We have allowed this for reasons of our own, but Rian exacts a price. Always. Learn that, Northerner. Know it as truth for so long as you are in Arbonne."

Rian exacts a price. Luth. Poor, frightened, bumbling Luth. Blaise stared into the darkness, wishing he could see this woman, struggling to find words of some kind that might save the man they'd lost.

And then, as if his very thoughts were open to her, as if she and the forest knew them intimately, the woman lifted one hand, and an instant later a torch blazed in her grasp, illuminating their small space within the woods. He had not seen or heard her striking flint.

He did hear her laugh again, and then, looking at the tall, proud form, at the fine-boned, aristocratic features before him, Blaise realized, with a shiver he could not control, that her eyes were gone. She was blind. There was a white owl, a freak of nature, resting on her shoulder, gazing at Blaise with unblinking eyes.

Not really certain why he was doing so, but suddenly aware that he had now entered a realm for which he was terribly ill equipped, Blaise sheathed his sword. Her laughter subsided; she smiled.

"Well done," Rian's High Priestess said softly. "I am pleased to see you are not a fool."

"To see?" Blaise said, and instantly regretted it.

She was undisturbed. The huge white owl did not move. "My eyes were a price for access to a great deal more. I can see you very well without them, Blaise of Gorhaut. It was you who needed light, not I. I know the scar that curves along your ribs and the colour of your hair, both now and on the winter night you were born and your mother died. I know how your heart is beating, and why you came to Arbonne, and where you were before. I know your lineage and your history, much of your pain, all your wars, your loves, the last time you made love."

It was a bluff, Blaise thought fiercely. All the clergy did this sort of thing, even Corannos's priests at home. All of them sought control with such arcane incantations.

"That last, then," he dared say, even here, his voice rough. "Tell me that last."

She did not hesitate. "Three months ago. Your brother's wife, in the ancient home of your family. Late at night, your own bed. You left before dawn on the journey that has brought you to Rian."

Blaise heard himself make a queer grunting sound as if he'd been punched. He could not help himself. He felt suddenly dizzy, blood rushing from his head as if in flight from the inexorable precision of what he had just heard.

"Shall I go on?" she asked, smiling thinly, the illuminating torch held up for him to see her. There was a new note in her voice, a kind of pitiless pleasure in her power. "You do not love her. You only hate your brother and your father. Your mother for dying. Yourself a little, perhaps. Would you hear more? Shall I tell your future for you now, like an old crone at the Autumn Fair?"

She was not old. She was tall and handsome, if no longer young, with grey in her dark hair. She knew things no one on earth should ever have known.

"No!" Blaise managed to say, forcing the word out. "Do not!"

He feared her laughter, her mocking voice, but she was silent and so was the forest around them. Even the torch was burning without sound, Blaise realized belatedly. The owl lifted its wings suddenly as if to fly, but only settled itself again on her shoulder.

"Go then," Rian's High Priestess said, not without gentleness. "We have allowed you the man for whom you came. Take him and go."

He should turn now, Blaise knew. He should do exactly as she said. There were things at work here far beyond his understanding. But he had led seven men to this place.

"Luth," he said sturdily. "What will be done to him?"

There was a strange, whistling sound; he realized it had come from the bird. The priestess said, "His heart will be cut out while he lives. It will be eaten." Her voice was flat, without intonation. "His body will be boiled in a vat of very great age and his skin peeled from his bones. His flesh will be cut into pieces and used for divination."

Blaise felt his gorge rising, his skin crawled with horror and loathing. He took an involuntary step backwards. And heard her laughter. There was genuine amusement, something young, almost girlish in the sound.

"Really," the priestess said, "I hadn't thought I was so convincing as all that." She shook her head. "How savage do you think we are? You have taken a living man, we take a living man from you. He will be consecrated as a servant of Rian and set to serve the goddess on her Island in redress for his transgression and yours. This one is more a cleric than a coran in any case, I think you know as much. It is as I told you, Northerner: you have been permitted to do this. It would have been different, I assure you, had we chosen to make it so."

Relief washing over him like a stream of water, Blaise fought a sudden, uncharacteristic impulse to kneel before this woman, this incarnated voice of a goddess his countrymen did not worship.

"Thank you," he said, his voice rough and awkward in his own ears.

"You are welcome," she said, almost casually. There was a pause, as if she were weighing something. The owl was motionless on her shoulder, unblinking, gazing at him. "Blaise, do not overvalue this power of ours. What has happened tonight."

He blinked in astonishment. "What do you mean?"

"You are standing at the very heart of our strength here on this island. We grow weaker and weaker the further we are from here, or from the other isle in the lake inland. Rian has no limits, but her mortal servants do. I do. And the goddess cannot be compelled, ever."

She had built up a veil of power and magic and mystery, and now she was lifting it for him to see behind. And she had called him by his name.

"Why?" he asked, wonderingly. "Why do you tell me this?"

She smiled, almost ruefully. "Something in my own family, I suspect. My father was a man prone to take chances with trust. I seem to have inherited that from him. We might need each other, in a time not far from tonight."

Struggling to absorb all of this, Blaise asked the only question he could think to ask. "Who was he? Your father?"

She shook her head, amused again. "Northerner, you seek to lead men in Arbonne. You will have to grow less bitter and more curious. I think, though it might be a long road for you. You should have known who was High Priestess on Rian's Island before you came. I am Beatritz de Barbentain, my father was Guibor, count of Arbonne, my mother is Signe, who rules us now. I am the last of their children yet alive."

Blaise was actually beginning to feel as if he might fall down, so buffeted did he feel by all of this. The skiff, he thought. The mainland. He urgently needed to be away from here.

"Go," she said, as if reading his thoughts again. She raised her hand very slightly and the torch instantly went out. In the suddenly enveloping darkness, Blaise heard her say in her earlier voice—the sound of a priestess, speaking with power: "One last thing, Blaise of Gorhaut. A lesson for you to learn if you can: anger and hatred have limits that are reached too soon. Rian exacts a price for everything, but love is hers as well, in one of her oldest incarnations."

Blaise turned then, stumbling over a root in the close night shadows. He left the wood, feeling moonlight as a blessing. He crossed the plateau and remembered, somehow, to untie Maffour's rope and loop it about himself. Finding handholds in the rock face, he descended the cliff to the sea. The skiff was still there, waiting some distance away from shore. They saw him by the light of the high, pale moon. He was going to swim out, almost prepared to welcome the cold shock of the water again, but then he saw them rowing back for him and he waited. They came in to the edge of the rocks and Blaise stepped into the boat helped by Maffour and Giresse. He saw that Evrard of Lussan was still unconscious, slumped at the back of the skirl. Vanne was sitting up, though, at the front. He looked a little dazed. Blaise was not surprised.

"They have kept Luth," he said briefly as they looked at him. "One man for one man. But they will do him no harm. I will tell you more on land, but in Corannos's name, let's go. I need a drink very badly, and we've a long way to row."

He stepped over to his own bench and unwrapped the rope from his body. Maffour came and sat beside him again. They took their oars, and with no other words spoken, backed quietly out of the inlet Hirnan had found and turned the skiff towards land, towards Arbonne, rowing steadily in the calm, still night.

To the east, not long afterwards, well before they reached the shore, the waning crescent of the blue moon rose out of the sea to balance the silver one setting westward now, changing the light in the sky and on the water and on the rocks and trees of the island they were leaving behind.

CHAPTER 2

Some mornings, as today, she woke feeling amazingly young, happy to be alive to see the spring return. It wasn't altogether a good thing, this brief illusion of youth and vitality, for its passage—and it always passed—made her too achingly aware that she was lying alone in the wide bed. She and Guibor had shared a room and a bed after the older fashion until the very end, a little over a year ago. Arbonne had observed the yearfast for its count and the ceremonies of remembrance scarcely a month past.

A year wasn't very long at all, really. Not nearly enough time to remember without pain private laughter or public grace, the sound of a voice, resonance of a tread, the keen engagement of a questioning mind or the well-known signs of kindled passion that could spark and court her own.

A passion that had lasted to the end, she thought, lying in bed alone, letting the morning come to her slowly. Even with all their children long since grown or dead, with an entirely new generation of courtiers arising in Barbentain, and younger dukes and barons taking power in strongholds once ruled by the friends—and enemies—of their own youth and prime. With new leaders of the city-states of Portezza, a young, reckless-sounding king in Gorhaut, and an unpredictable one as well, though not young, in Valensa far in the north. All was changing in the world, she thought: the players on the board, the shape of the board itself. Even the rules of the game she and Guibor had played together against them all for so long.

There had been mornings in the year gone by when she had awakened feeling ancient and bone cold, wondering if she had not outlived her time, if she should have died with the husband she'd loved, before the world began to change around her.

Which was weak and unworthy. She knew that, even on the mornings when those chill thoughts came, and she knew it more clearly now, with the birds outside her window singing to welcome the spring back to Arbonne. Change and transience were built into the way Corannos and Rian had made the world. She had accepted and gloried in that truth all her life; it would be shallow and demeaning to lament it now.

She rose from her bed and stood on the golden carpet. Immediately one of the two girls who slept by the door of her chamber sprang forward—they had been waiting for her—carrying her morning robe. She smiled at the young one, slipped into the robe and walked to the window, drawing back the curtains herself on the view to the east and the rising sun.

Barbentain Castle lay on an island in the river and so below her, down past the tumbling rocks and forbidding cliffs that guarded the castle, she could see the flash and sparkle of the river rushing away south in its high spring torrent, through vineyard and forest and grainland, by town and hamlet and lonely shepherd's hut, past castle and temple and tributary stream to Tavernel and the sea.

The Arbonne River in the land named for it—the warm, beloved, always coveted south, sung by its troubadours and joglars, celebrated through the known world for its fruitfulness and its culture, and for the beauty and grace of its women.

Not the least of which women, not by any means the least, had been she herself in the lost days of youth and fire. The nights of music, with a many-faceted power in her every glance and lifted eyebrow, when candlelight cast a warming glow on silver and gold and a glittering company, when the songs were always of love, and almost always about love of her.

Signe de Barbentain, countess of Arbonne, stood at her bedchamber window on a morning in spring, looking out over the sunlit river of the land she ruled, and the two other women in the room with her, preparing to attend to her needs, were far too young, both of them, to have even a hope of understanding the smile that crossed her face.

In fact, for no reason she really knew herself, Signe was thinking of her daughter. Not of Beatritz, wielding power within her own domain on Rian's Island in the sea; not of Beatritz, her last child living, but of Aelis, her young one, so long dead.

Even the birds above the lake

Are singing of my love,

And even the flowers along the shore

Are growing for her sake.

Twenty-two, no, twenty-three years now since young Bertran de Talair—and he had been very young then—had written those lines for Aelis. They were still being sung, remarkably, in spite of all the verses the troubadours had spun since those days, all the new rhyme schemes and metres and the increasingly complex harmonies and fashions of today. More than two decades after, Bertran's song for long-dead Aelis was still heard in Arbonne. Usually in springtime, Signe thought, and wondered if that had been the early-morning half-awake chain of associations that had led her to remember. The mind did strange things sometimes, and memory wounded at least as often as it healed or assuaged.

Which led her, predictably, to thoughts of Bertran himself, and what memory and loss and the unexpected shapes they had taken had done to him in twenty-odd years. What sort of man, she wondered, would he have become had the events of that long-ago year fallen out differently? Though it was hard, almost impossible really, to imagine how they could have turned out well. Guibor had said once, apropos of nothing at all, that the worst tragedy for Arbonne, if not for the people actually involved, had been the death of Girart de Talair: had Bertran's brother lived to hold the dukedom and father heirs, the younger son, the troubadour, would never have come to power in Talair, and the enmity of two proud castles by the lake might never have become the huge reality it was in Arbonne.

Might-have-beens, Signe thought. It was seductively easy to wonder—of a winter's night before a fire, or amid the drone of bees and the scent of summer herbs in the castle garden—about the dead, imagining them still living, the differences they might have made. She did it all the time: with her lost sons, with Aelis, with Guibor himself since his passing. Not a good channel of the mind, that one, though inevitable, she supposed. Memory, Anselme of Cauvas had written once, the harvest and the torment of my days.

It had been some time since she'd seen Bertran, she thought, pulling her reflections forward to the present, and rather longer since Urté de Miraval had come to Barbentain. Both of them had sent messages and surrogates—Urté his seneschal, Bertran his cousin Valery—to the yearfast of Guibor's passing. There had been a killing among their corans, it seemed—not an unusual event between Miraval and Talair—and both dukes had felt unable or unwilling to leave their castles then, even to mourn their dead count.

Signe wondered, not for the first time in the month gone by, if she should have commanded them to be present. They would have come, she knew; Bertran laughing and ironic, Urté grimly obedient, standing as far apart from each other in all the ceremonies as dignity and shared high rank allowed.

She hadn't felt, somehow, like issuing that order, though Roban had urged her to. The chancellor had seen it as an opportunity to publicly assert her control over the fractious dukes and barons of Arbonne, bringing to heel the two most prominent of all. An important thing to do, Roban had said, this early in her own reign, and especially with what was happening in the north, with the peace treaty signed between Gorhaut and Valensa.

He was almost certainly right; Signe had known he was, particularly about the need to send a clear signal north to the king of Gorhaut and his counsellors. But somehow she had hated the thought of using Guibor's yearfast—not the first one, surely—in such a bluntly political way. Could she not be allowed, for the one time, to remember her husband in the company only of those who had freely come to Barbentain and Lussan to do the same? Ariane and Thierry de Carenzu; Gaufroy de Ravenc and his young bride; Arnaut and Richilde de Malmont, her sister and brother-in-law, almost the last, with Urté, of their own generation still ruling in the great castles. These had all come, and so, too, had virtually every one of the lesser dukes and barons and a deeply affecting number of the other folk of Arbonne: landless corans, artisans of the towns, brethren of the god and priests and priestesses of Rian, farmers from the grainlands, fisherfolk from the sea, shepherds from the hills by Gotzland or Arimonda, or from the slopes of the northern mountains that blocked the winds from Gorhaut, carters and smiths and wheelwrights, millers and merchants from a dozen different towns, even a number of young men from the university—though Taverael's unruly students were legendary for their aversion to authority of any kind.

And all of the troubadours had come to Barbentain.

That had been the thing that moved her most of all. If one excepted Bertran de Talair himself, every one of the troubadours of Arbonne and all the joglars had come to share in the remembering of their lord, to offer their new laments and make sweet, sad music to mark the yearfast of his dying. There had been poetry and music for three days, and much of it had been rarely crafted and from the heart.

In such a mood, with so many come willingly in a spirit of shared sorrow and memory, Signe had felt profoundly unwilling to compel the presence of anyone, even two of the most powerful—and therefore most dangerous—men in her land. How could she be blamed for wanting the spirit of the yearfast and its rituals to be unmarred by the long wrangle between Miraval and Talair?

The problem, and the reason she was still dwelling upon this, was that she knew what Guibor IV, count of Arbonne, would have done in her place. In terms admitting of no possible ambiguity her husband would have demanded their presence before him during any remotely similar event, whether of mourning or celebration, in Barbentain itself or in the temples of god or goddess in Lussan town beside the river.

On the other hand, she thought, and the smile on her still-lovely face deepened almost imperceptibly, had she herself been the one being mourned instead of Guibor, Bertran de Talair would have been with the others in Barbentain for her yearfast, come feud or river flood or fire or blight to the grapes. He would have been there. She knew. He was a troubadour as much as he was anything else, and it had been Signe de Barbentain who had begun the Court of Love and shaped with her own personality the graceful, elegant world that had let the poets and the singers flourish.

Aelis her daughter might have inspired Bertran's passion and his youthful springtime song, still sung after more than twenty years; Ariane her niece might be queen of the Court of Love now; but Signe had had a hundred verses and more written for her in fire and exaltation by a score of troubadours who mattered and at least twice as many who didn't, and every song written for every noblewoman in Arbonne was, at least in part, a song for her.

But this was unworthy, she thought wryly, shaking her head. A sign of old age, of pettiness, competing in this way—even in her own mind—with Ariane and the other ladies of Arbonne, even with her poor, long-dead daughter. Was she feeling unloved, she wondered, and knew there was truth in that. Guibor was dead. She ruled a court of the world now, not a simulated, stylized court named for love and devoted to its nuances. There were differences, great differences that had altered, and not subtly, the way the world dealt with her and she with it.

She should have ordered the two dukes to come last month; Roban, as usual, had been right. And it might even have been good for her, in the usual, strange, slightly hurtful way, to see Bertran again. It was never a wise idea in any case to let him go too long without a reminder that she was watching him and expecting things of him. No one alive could truthfully claim to have a large influence on the duke of Talair and what he chose to do, but Signe thought she had some. Not a great deal, but some, for many reasons. Most of which led back those twenty-three years or so.

He was said to be in Baude Castle now, of all places, high in the south-western hills. The situation had stabilized—for the moment—between Talair and Miraval, and Signe could guess how the story of Evrard of Lussan and Soresina de Baude would have been irresistible for Bertran in his endless, disruptive careen.

It was a delicious piece of gossip. Beatritz had already sent private word of what Mallin de Baude had done, abducting the aggrieved poet from Rian's Island. She should have been outraged at the tidings, Signe knew—and Beatritz should certainly have been—but there was something so amusing in the sequence of events, and the poet had clearly been wearing out his welcome on the island by the time the corans had come and taken him away.

Not that any of that tale would reach the ears of most of the people in Arbonne. Mallin would hardly want word of his impiety to spread—which is undoubtedly why he'd not led the mission himself—and Evrard of Lussan would scarcely be thrilled with a public image of himself knocked unconscious and carried back like so much milled grain in a sack to the castle from which he'd fled in such high dudgeon.

On the other hand, the story of Soresina's very public contrition and her open-armed, kneeling welcome of the poet was certainly going the rounds of the castles and towns. That part of the tale Evrard would encourage for all he was worth. Signe wondered if he'd bedded the woman after all. It was possible, but it didn't much matter. On the whole, and however improbably, it looked as if everyone might end up happy in this affair.

Although that optimistic thought certainly didn't factor in the moods and caprices of En Bertran de Talair, who was, for reasons of his own, currently bestowing the honour of his presence on the doubtlessly overwhelmed young couple in Castle Baude. Mallin de Baude was reported to be a man of some ambition; he wanted to rise in the world, to move among the circles and the councils of the great, not remain mewed up in his eyrie among the sheep and goats and terraced olive trees of his family estates. Well, the great of the world, or one of them at any rate, had come to him now. Mallin was probably about to discover some of the implications of his dreaming.

Signe shook her head. There was folly at work here, she had no doubt. Bertran often essayed his wilder escapades in the spring; she had come to that realization long ago. On the other hand, she supposed it was better that he pursue whatever it was that had drawn him to those high pastures near the Arimondan passes than the killing matters of earlier in the year.

In any case, she had no real leisure to spend dwelling on such affairs. Ariane ruled the Court of Love now. Signe had Gorhaut to deal with, a dangerous peace signed in the north and rather a great deal more. And she had to do it alone now, with only the memory—the harvest and the torment of my days—of Guibor's voice to guide her along the increasingly narrow paths of statesmanship.

There was a new fashion among the younger troubadours and nobles—she even thought Ariane might approve of it: they were writing and saying now that it was ill-bred, in bad taste if not actually impossible, for a wife to love her husband. That true love had to flow freely from choices made willingly, and marriage could never be a matter of such free choice for men or women in the society they knew.

The world was changing. Guibor would have laughed at that new conceit with her, and said exactly what he thought of it, and then he might have taken her in his arms and she could have laced her hands in his hair and they would have proven the young ones wrong in this, as in so many other things, within the private, enchanted, now-broken circle of their love.

She turned from the window, from the view of the river below, from memories of the past, and nodded to the two young girls. It was time to dress and go down. Roban would be waiting, with all the needs of the present, imperious in their clamour to be addressed, drowning—as in a flooding of the river—the lost, murmuring voices of yesterday.

There was, of course, no light where he had chosen to keep watch, though there were brackets for torches on the walls of the stairwell. It would have been a waste of illumination; no one had any business coming up these stairs after nightfall.

Blaise settled himself on one of the benches in the window recess nearest the second-floor landing. He could see the stairs and hear any movement on them but would be hidden from anyone coming up. Some men would have preferred to be visible, even torchlit, here on guard, to have their presence known and so function as a deterrent to anyone even contemplating an ascent. Blaise didn't think that way: it was better, to his mind, to have such designs exposed. If anyone was planning to make their way towards Soresina de Baude's chambers he wanted them to try, so he could see them and know who they were.

Though, in fact, he knew exactly who such a person would be tonight if there was to be an attempt, and so did Mallin de Baude—which is why Blaise was on guard here, and Hirnan, equally trusted, equally discreet, was outside the walls beneath the baroness's window.

Bertran de Talair had a twenty-year reputation for being exceptionally determined and resourceful in pursuit of his seductions. Also successful. Blaise had no real doubt that if the troubadour duke of Talair did manage to make his way to Soresina's bed his reception would be considerably different from what Evrard of Lussan's had been earlier in the year.

He made a sour face, thinking about that, and leaned back, putting his booted feet up on the opposite bench. He knew it was unwise on guard duty at night to make himself too comfortable, but he was used to this and didn't think he would fall asleep. He had kept night watch over a number of different things in his time, including, as it happened, the women's quarters in more than one castle. Guarding the womenfolk, virtually imprisoning them at night, was a part of the ordinary round of life in Gorhaut. No hint there, not even a trace, of this subversive Arbonnais custom of encouraging poets to woo and exalt the women of the land. The lords of Gorhaut knew how to protect what was theirs.

Blaise had even felt a carefully concealed satisfaction when Mallin de Baude, after a week of watching their very distinguished and equally notorious guest charm his wife, had asked his hired northern mercenary to quietly arrange protection for Soresina's rooms during En Bertran's last night in Castle Baude. A balding, rumpled poet like Evrard was one thing, evidently, but the most celebrated nobleman in Arbonne was another. Soresina's manner the past few days had offered proof enough of that.

Blaise had accepted the assignment and arranged to post Hirnan outside without so much as a word of comment or a flicker of expression on his face. The truth was, he liked Mallin de Baude and would have thought less of him had the baron been oblivious or indifferent to the nuances that had been shaped since de Talair's arrival in their midst, not long after Evrard had departed again.

Remarkably enough, amusingly even, everyone in Castle Baude seemed to have been happy in the aftermath of the raid on Rian's Island. In part because virtually no one knew there had been a raid. As far as the folk of the castle and the countryside around were concerned, all they knew—all they needed to know, Mallin had stressed repeatedly to Blaise and the corans—was that Evrard of Lussan had reconsidered his position and had returned to the castle, escorted, by pre-arrangement, by a group of Mallin's best men and the northern mercenary who was leading and training them that season.

Hirnan and Maffour, who apparently knew Luth's grandmother, had been given the task of conveying to her what had happened to the hapless coran. They returned with Maffour grinning wryly and Hirnan shaking his big head in bemusement: far from being distressed at her loss, the woman had been thrilled by their tidings. Her grandson serving the goddess on Rian's Island had been a prophetic dream of hers years ago, the two corans reported. Blaise had lifted his eyebrows in disbelief; he was clearly not going to be able to understand the Arbonnais for a long time yet, if ever. Still, the woman's attitude was useful; an outcry of loss from her would have proven embarrassing.

In the meantime, Soresina's public reception of the prodigal poet had been almost touching in its emotion. "There's an actress in that one," Maffour had whispered drily to Blaise as they stood to one side of the castle forecourt and watched the young baroness kneel and then rise to salute the troubadour with a kiss on each cheek and a third one on the lips.

"There is in all of them," Blaise had replied out of the side of his mouth. Nonetheless, he too had been feeling rather pleased that morning, a sensation that continued when it became clear that although Evrard was not going to linger in Baude Castle—no one really wanted him to—he seemed to have accepted his abduction with a good humour that matched Mallin's own.

The poet offered one quickly-fashioned verse with an elaborately strung-together set of images about emerging from a dark cave, drawn upwards by a glow of light that turned out to be the radiance of Soresina de Baude. He used another name for her, of course, but the same one as it had been all along. Everyone knew who the woman was. Everyone was happy.

The troubadour left Baude at the end of a week with a jingling purse, an assuaged self-esteem and a more than slightly enhanced reputation. No one in Arbonne would know exactly what had transpired in this remote castle in the highlands, but it was evident that Evrard of Lussan had somehow been wooed back by the baron and his wife, and had been handsomely rewarded for his indulgence of their earlier errors. Among other things, the power of the troubadours, both in their person and through their satires and encomiums, had been subtly augmented by the enigmatic sequence of events. That part Blaise didn't much like, but there wasn't anything he could do about it, and this wasn't his home in any case. It shouldn't matter, he told himself, what follies Arbonne strayed into, or continued with.

The corans of Baude had been making wagers amongst each other all week—wagers never likely to be settled one way or another—as to just how far Soresina's contrition had gone, or rather, how far it had allowed the poet to go. Blaise, scrutinizing the woman and the man narrowly on the morning of Evrard's departure, had been quite certain that nothing untoward had happened, but this was not the sort of thing he wagered upon or talked about, and he kept his peace. He did accept an additional purse from Mallin over and above his wages that month; the baron was so caught up in his new style of noble largess that Blaise actually spent part of a morning doing calculations and then musing on how long Mallin was going to be able to sustain this sort of thing. Rank and position in the hierarchy of nobility didn't come cheaply, in Arbonne or anywhere else. Blaise had wondered if the baron really understood all the implications that were likely to arise from his pursuit of status in the world.

And then, about ten days after Evrard's departure, one of the more immediate implications had arrived, preceded by an envoy with a message that had thrown Baude Castle into a chaos of preparation.

At the top of the dark stairway Blaise shifted his seat on the stone bench. It would be nice, he thought briefly, to have a beaker of wine up here; not that he'd ever really have allowed himself such an indulgence. He knew at least two men who had died, drunken and asleep, when they should have been on watch. He had, as it happened, killed one of the two himself.

It was silent in the castle; he felt very much alone, and a long way from home. An unusual feeling, that one: home hadn't meant much to him for a long time. People still did, though, sometimes, and there was no one here who was really a friend yet, or likely to become one in the time he was allowing himself at Castle Baude. He wondered where Rudel was tonight, what country, what part of the world. Thinking of his friend led him back to the cities of Portezza, and so, inevitably perhaps in the silence of night outside a woman's rooms, to memories of Lucianna. Blaise shook his head. Women, he thought. Was there ever one born to be trusted since the world was made?

And that thought, not a new one for him this year, would take his memories straight home if he let them, to his brother and his brother's wife, and the last time—as the High Priestess of Rian had somehow known—he had lain with a woman in love. Or, not love. The priestess had known that too, uncannily. He had felt shockingly open and exposed before her blindness in the forest that night, and not overly proud, after, of what she had seen in him. He wondered if her vision was deep enough, in whatever way she saw such things, to reach back to roots and sources and an understanding of why men—and women—did the things they did.

Blaise wondered if he himself really understood the events of that short, hopeless attempt to return home four months ago. It had been pure impulse that had led him back, or so he'd thought at the time, bidding farewell to Rudel at the Gotzland Pass to go back to Gorhaut and his family home for the first time in almost a year. What was a country, what was a home? He looked out through the narrow archer's window. The blue moon was high, almost full. Escoran they named it in Gorhaut—"daughter of the god" — but they called the blue moon Riannon here, for their goddess. There was a power to naming so, a choosing of alignments. But the moon was the same, wasn't it, whatever mortal man chose to call it, lending her strange, elusive light to the landscape east of the castle?

Pale Vidonne—which bore the same name everywhere—wouldn't rise for some time yet. If someone were actually making a foray from outside, climbing up to the window, it would be fairly soon, in the denser shadows while the blue moon rode alone. It was a mild night, which pleased Blaise for Hirnan's sake outside. It was unlikely in the extreme that any sane man would actually attempt to scale the outer wall of the castle in pursuit of a seduction, but as long as they were assigned to guard duty they might as well do it properly. Blaise had had that attitude to things as a boy, and nothing in his adult years had made him find cause to change.

He couldn't see Hirnan down below, of course, but the moonlight showed the hills in the distance, and the fields where the lavender would soon flower, and the winding road that climbed from them up to the castle. Lavender would make him think of Lucianna again if he wasn't careful. Resolutely, Blaise turned his mind to the task at hand, to where he now was, to this matter of Bertran de Talair, with all its implications.

On a bright, windy morning seven days ago, with spring fully arrived and the first wildflowers gleaming in the sun like a many-coloured carpet laid down for royalty, three horses had been seen making their way up the slow, circuitous path to the castle gates. A trumpet blew erratically from the ramparts, the portcullis was raised with a dangerous celerity, almost maiming one of the men handling the winches, and Blaise had assembled with the corans and most of the household in the forecourt. Mallin and Soresina, splendidly jewelled and attired (a great deal more expense there; Blaise happened to know exactly what fur-trimmed Portezzan samite with gold thread in the weft would have cost), rode out to honour the arriving trio.

Blaise saw a brown horse, a grey, a rather magnificent black. An elderly joglar with the by now familiar harp and lute was riding the brown; a broad-shouldered coran of middle years sat the grey with the ease of many seasons in the saddle. Between the two of them, bareheaded in the sunshine and the wind, clad in nondescript brown fustian without adornment of any kind, rode Duke Bertran de Talair, come to pay—inexplicably—a visit to the appropriately overwhelmed young baron and baroness of Castle Baude.

As the small party rode into the castle forecourt, Blaise, staring with frank curiosity, saw that de Talair was a man of slightly more than middle height with a lean, ironical face, clean-shaven in the Arbonnais fashion. He was almost forty-five years old, Blaise knew from the corans' reports, but he didn't look it. His eyes were indeed as blue as the gossip had them; even at a distance the colour was disconcerting. There was a scar on his right cheek, and he wore his hair cropped unfashionably short, revealing that the top part of his right ear was missing.

Most of the world, it seemed, knew the story of how he had come by those injuries, and what he had done in turn to the hired assassin from Portezza who had inflicted them. As it happened, Blaise knew the son of that man. They had served a season in Gotzland together two years back.

As events unfolded over the next hours and days, it swiftly became apparent to Blaise that the duke's reasons for being there were at least threefold. One, obviously, was Mallin, and a wide-ranging, many-faceted attempt to enlist the emerging, ambitious young baron to Bertran's allegiance in the long power straggle with Urté de Miraval for preeminence in the western part of Arbonne, if not the country as a whole. That much, in fact, Hirnan and Maffour had guessed well before the duke had arrived.

The second lure for Bertran, almost as evidently, had been Soresina. En Bertran de Talair, never wed, though linked to an extraordinary number of women in several countries over the years, seemed to have an almost compulsive need to personally acquaint himself with the charms of any celebrated beauty. Evrard of Lussan's verses, if they had done nothing else, had clearly piqued the curiosity of the duke.

Even Blaise, who didn't like her, had to admit that Soresina had been looking quite magnificent of late, as if Evrard's proclamation of her charms had somehow caused her fair-haired beauty to ripen, her dark, flashing eyes to become even more alluring, that she might come to equal in reality the elaborate fancies of his verse. Whatever the cause, there was something almost breathtaking about the young baroness of Castle Baude that week, and even men who had lived in her presence for some time would find themselves turning distractedly towards the sound of her lifted voice and laughter in a distant room, forgetting the path of their own thoughts.

Blaise would have spent more time wondering how Bertran de Talair sought to reconcile an attempt to cultivate the friendship of Mallin de Baude with an equally fervent if slightly more discreet pursuit of the baron's enticing young wife had it not emerged very quickly that the third reason for the duke's presence among them was Blaise himself.

On the very first evening, after the most elaborate and expensive repast Baude Castle had ever seen—there were even spoons for the soup, instead of the usual chunks of bread—Bertran de Talair lounged at his ease beside his hostess and host and listened as Ramir, his joglar for more than two decades, sang the duke's own compositions for the best part of an hour, Even Blaise, jaundiced as ever on this subject, was forced to concede privately that—whether it was the elderly joglar's art or Bertran's—what they were listening to that night was of an entirely different order from the music of Evrard of Lussan that had been his own first introduction to the troubadours of Arbonne.

Even so, he found this writing of verses a silly, almost a ludicrous pastime for a nobleman. For Evrard and those like him, perhaps it could be understood if one were in a tolerant mood: poetry and music seemed to offer a unique channel here in Arbonne for men, or even women, who might never otherwise have any avenue to fame or modest wealth or the society of the great. But Bertran de Talair was something else entirely: what possible use were these verses and the time wasted in shaping them for a lord known to be one of the foremost fighting men in six countries?

The question was still vexing Blaise, despite the fact that he'd allowed himself an extra cup of wine, when he saw de Talair lean across, setting down his own wine goblet, and whisper something in Soresina's ear that made her flush to the cleavage of her pale green gown. Bertran rose then, and Ramir the joglar, who had evidently been waiting for such a movement, stood up neatly from the stool he'd been sitting upon while he played and held forth his harp as de Talair stepped down from the dais. The duke had been drinking steadily all night; it didn't seem to show in any way.

"He's going to play for us himself," Maffour whispered excitedly in Blaise's ear. "This is rare! A very high honour!" There was a buzz of anticipation in the hall as others evidently came to the same awareness. Blaise grimaced and glanced over at Maffour disdainfully: what business had a fighting coran to be growing so agitated over something this trivial? But he noted, glancing at Hirnan on Maffour's far side, that even the older coran, normally so stolid and phlegmatic, was watching the duke with undeniable anticipation. With a sigh, and a renewed sense of how hopelessly strange this country was, Blaise turned back to the high table. Bertran de Talair had settled himself on the low stool before it. Another love lyric, Blaise thought, having had a season of Evrard, and having noted the glances that had already begun to pass between hostess and noble guest during the meal. As it happened, he was wrong.

What Bertran de Talair gave them instead, in a highland hall at the very beginning of that summer, amid candles and jewels and silk and gold, with early lavender for fragrance in bowls along the tables, was war.

War and death in the ice of winter, axes and swords and maces clanging on iron, horses screaming, and the cries of men, eddies of snow beginning to fall, breath-smoke in the bitterly cold northern air, a wan red sun setting and the chill pale light of Vidonne rising in the east over a field of death.

And Blaise knew that field.

He had fought there, and very nearly died. Far to the south, here in woman-ruled, woman-shaped Arbonne, Bertran de Talair was singing to them of the Battle of Iersen Bridge, when the army of King Duergar of Gorhaut had beaten back the invaders from Valensa in the last battle of that year's fighting.

The last battle of a long war, actually, for Duergar's son, Ademar, and King Daufridi of Valensa had signed their treaty of peace at the end of the winter that followed, and so ended a war that had lasted as long as Blaise had lived. Leaning forward now, his hand tightening around his goblet, Blaise of Gorhaut listened to the resonant chords Bertran drew from his harp in waves like the waves of battle, and to the clear, deep, chanting voice as it came, inexorably indicting, to the end of the song:

Shame then in springtime for proud Gorhaut,

Betrayed by a young king and his counsellor.

Sorrow for those whose sons were dead,

Bitter the warriors who had battled and won—

Only to see spoils claimed by their courage

Disposed and discarded like so much watered wine.

Shame in the treaty and no pride in the peace

Ademar allowed to vanquished Valensa.

Where were the true heirs of those who had died

For the glory of Gorhaut on that frozen field?

How could they sheathe their shining blades

With triumph gained and then given away?

What manner of man, with his father new-fallen,

Would destroy with a pen-stroke a long dream of glory?

And what king lost to honour like craven Daufridi

Would retreat from that ice-field not to return?

Where went the manhood of Gorhaut and Valensa

When war was abandoned and pale peace bought

By weak kings and sons long lost to their lineage?

A last chord, stern and echoing, and Bertran de Talair was done. There was absolute silence in the hall, an entirely different order of response from the grateful laughter and applause that had greeted the joglar's earlier offerings of love and springtime.

In that stillness Blaise of Gorhaut grew painfully aware of the pounding of his heart, still beating to the rhythm of the duke's harsh chords. Men he had known all his life had died on that field by Iersen Bridge. Blaise had been not twenty helpless strides away, with frozen bodies piled between, when Duergar his king had pitched from his horse, an arrow in his eye, crying the god's name in agony, his voice towering over the battlefield like the giant he had been.

Five months later Duergar's son, Ademar, now king in Gorhaut, and Galbert, his Chief Counsellor, High Elder of Corannos, had negotiated the treaty that, in exchange for hostages and gold and King Daufridi's daughter to wed when she came of age, gave Valensa all of the northlands of Gorhaut down to the line of the Iersen River. The very fields and villages Daufridi and his warriors had been unable to take with their swords in three decades of war they had won a season later with the smooth words and sly diplomacy of their hired Arimondan negotiators.

Not long after that, Blaise of Gorhaut had left home on the circuitous journey through several countries that had brought him to this hall in Arbonne, a year from the season of that treaty.

His reverie ended with the abrupt, unsettling realization that Bertran de Talair, who had done no more than nod when Blaise was first presented to him in the morning, was staring across the room at him now from the low stool where he sat, one leg gracefully extended. Blaise straightened his shoulders and returned the gaze steadily, grateful for whatever masking his beard afforded. He wouldn't have wanted his thoughts read just then.

En Bertran drew his fingers quietly across the harp. The notes hung, delicate as glass, as the table flowers, in the stillness of the hall. As quietly, though very clearly, the duke of Talair said, "What do you think, Northerner? How long will it hold, this peace of yours?"

Some things grew clear to Blaise with those words, but even as they did, other mysteries took shape. He drew a careful breath, aware that everyone in the great hall was looking at him. Bertran's gaze in the torchlight was uncannily blue; his wide mouth was quirked in an ironic smile.

"It is no peace of mine," Blaise said, keeping his tone as casual as he could.

"I thought not," said Bertran quickly, a note of satisfaction in the light voice, as if he'd heard more than Blaise had meant to say. "I didn't think you were down here for love of our music, or even our ladies, fair as they are."

As he spoke, the blue eyes and the smile—not ironic at all suddenly—had been briefly redirected towards the high table and the lone woman sitting there. His long fingers were moving once more across the strings of the harp. A moment later, the duke of Talair lifted his voice again, this time in exactly the kind of song Blaise had expected before. But something—and not merely the mood of a night—had been changed for Blaise by then, and he didn't know how to respond this time to an Arbonnais lord singing words of his own devising about the glory to be searched for in a woman's dark eyes.

The next day the corans of Baude put on a display in the fields below the castle village, charging with lances against a bobbing wooden contraption got up—as it was everywhere—to look like a racoux from the ghost tales of childhood, complete with whitened face and jet-black hair. Mallin had declared a holiday so the villagers and workers in the fields could join the castle household in cheering on the warriors. Blaise, cautiously pleased with the men he'd been training, was careful to seem competent himself but not flamboyantly so. In three of the four runs he made, he sent the racoux rocking properly backwards on its stand with a spear thrust dead on the target of its small shield. The fourth time he contrived to miss, but only by a little, so the cleverly constructed adversary didn't spin round—as it was balanced to do—and fetch him a blow with its wooden sword on the back of the head as he thundered past. It was one thing not to look ostentatious in a setting such as this, it was another to be knocked from one's horse onto the dusty ground. In Gorhaut, Blaise remembered, some of the racoux wielded actual swords, of iron not wood. Some of Blaise's fellow trainees in those days had been badly cut, which of course increased the concentration young men placed on their mastering of the skills of war. There were simply too many distractions here in Arbonne, too many other, softer things a man was expected to think about or know.

When it came time for the archery tests, though, and Bertran's cousin Valery joined them at the butts, Blaise was grimly forced to concede that he hadn't met an archer in the north, or even his friend Rudel in Portezza, who could shoot with this man, whatever distractions to training and the arts of war Arbonne might offer. Blaise was able to vie with Valery of Talair at forty paces, and Hirnan was equal with both of them. The two of them were level with their guest at sixty paces as well, to Mallin's evident pleasure, but when the marks were moved back—amid the loud shouts of the festive crowd—to eighty paces, Valery, not a young man by any means, seemed unaffected by the new distance, still finding the crimson with each soberly judged and smoothly loosed arrow. Blaise felt pleased to keep all his own flights anywhere on the distant targets, and Hirnan, scowling ferociously, couldn't even manage that. Blaise had a suspicion that Bertran's cousin would have fared as well at a hundred paces if he had chosen to, but Valery was too polite to suggest such a distance and the exhibition ended there, with applause for all three of them.

They hunted the next day. Soresina, clad in green and brown like a forest creature of legend, flew a new falcon for the first time and, to her prettily expressed delight, the bird brought down a plump hare in the high fields north of the castle. Later, beaters in the fields stirred up a loud-winged plenitude of corfe and quail for their party. Blaise, familiar with the unwritten rules of hunting in this sort of company, was careful not to shoot at anything until he was certain neither Mallin nor the duke had a line on the same prey. He waited until the two nobles had each killed several birds and then allowed himself two at the very end with a pair of swift arrows fired into the line of the sun.

On the third night there was a storm. The sort of cataclysm the mountain highlands often knew in summer. Lightning streaked the sky like the white spears of Corannos, and after the spears came the god's thunder voice and the driving rain. The wind was wild, howling like a haunted spirit about the stone walls of the castle, lashing the panes of the windows as if to force its way in. They had firelight and torches, though, in the great hall of Baude, and the walls and windows were stronger than wind or rain. Ramir the joglar sang for them again, pitching his voice over the noises outside, shaping a mood of warmth and close-gathered intimacy. Even Blaise had to concede that there were occasional times, such as this, when music and the attention to physical comforts here in the south were indeed of value. He thought about the people in the hamlets around the castle though, in their small, ramshackle wooden homes, and then about the shepherds up on the mountains with their flocks, lashed by the driving rain. Early to bed in the wild night he pulled the quilted coverlet up to his chin and gave thanks to Corannos for the small blessings of life.

The morning after the storm dawned cool and still windy, as if the onset of summer had been driven back by the violence of the night. Bertran and Valery insisted on joining with the men of Castle Baude in riding up into the hills in the thankless, wet, necessary task of helping the shepherds locate and retrieve any of the baron's sheep scattered by the storm. The sheep and their wool were the economic foundation of whatever aspirations Mallin de Baude had, and his corans were never allowed to nurture the illusion that they were above performing any labours associated with that.

It was two hours' steep ride up to the high pastures, and the better part of a day's hard, sometimes dangerous work at the task. Late in the afternoon, Blaise, swearing for what seemed to him entirely sufficient reasons, clambered awkwardly up out of a slippery defile with a wet, shivering lamb in his arms to see Bertran de Talair lounging on the grass in front of him, leaning comfortably back against the trunk of an olive tree. There was no one else in sight.

"You'd best put that little one down before she pisses all over you," the duke said cheerfully. "I've a flask of Arimondan brandy if it suits you."

"She already has," Blaise said sourly, setting the bleating lamb free on the level ground. "And thank you, but no, I work better with a clear head."

"Work's done. According to your red-headed coran—Hirnan, is it? — there's three or four sheep who somehow got up to the top of this range and then down towards the valley south of us, but the shepherds can manage them alone." He held out the flask.

With a sigh, Blaise sank down on his haunches beside the tree and accepted the drink. It was more than merely Arimondan brandy, one sip was enough to tell him as much. He licked his lips and then arched his eyebrows questioningly. "You carry seguignac in a flask to chase sheep on a hill?"

Bertran de Talair's clever, oddly youthful face relaxed in a smile. "I see that you know good brandy," he murmured with deceptive tranquillity. "The next questions are how, and why? You are trying extremely hard to seem like just another young mercenary, a competent sword and bow for hire like half the men of Gotzland. I watched you during the hunt, though. You didn't bring down anything till the very end, despite half a dozen clear opportunities for a man who can hit a target every time at eighty paces. You were too conscious of not showing up either Mallin de Baude or myself. Do you know what that says to me, Northerner?"

"I can't imagine," Blaise said.

"Yes, you can. It says that you've experience of a court. Are you going to tell me who you are, Northerner?"

Schooling his face carefully, Blaise handed back the handsome flask and settled himself more comfortably on the grass, stalling for time. Beside them the lamb was cropping contentedly, seeming to have forgotten its bleating terror of moments before. Despite insistent alarm bells of caution in his head, Blaise was intrigued and even a little amused by the directness of the duke's approach.

"I don't think so," he said frankly, "but I've been to more than one court in the past, in Gotzland and Portezza both. I am curious as to why it matters to you who I am."

"Easy enough," said de Talair. "I want to hire you, and I prefer to know the backgrounds of the men who work for me."

This was too fast in too many ways for Blaise to run with. "I've been hired already," he said. "Remember? Mallin de Baude, youngish fellow, a baron in Arbonne. Pretty wife."

Bertran laughed aloud. The lamb lilted its head and looked at them a moment, then resumed his own affairs. "Really," said the duke, "you belie your country's reputation with jests like that: everyone knows the Gorhautians have no sense of humour."

Blaise allowed himself a thin smile. "We say the same thing back home about the Gotzlanders. And Valensans smell of fish and beer, Portezzans always lie, and the men of Arimonda mostly sleep with each other."

"And what do you say back home," Bertran de Talair asked quietly, "about Arbonne?"

Blaise shook his head. "I haven't spent much time back home in a long while," he said, dodging the question.

"About four months," de Talair said. "That much I checked. Not so long. What do they say?" His hands were loosely clasped about the flask. Late-afternoon sunlight glinted in his short brown hair. He wasn't smiling any longer.

Neither was Blaise. He met the clear blue gaze as directly as he could. After a long moment he said, in the silence of that high meadow, "They say that a woman rules you. That women have always ruled you. And that Tavernel at the mouth of the Arbonne River has the finest natural harbour for shipping and trade in the world."

"And Ademar of Gorhaut, alas, has no sheltered harbour on the sea at all, hemmed in by Valensa on the north and womanish Arbonne to the south. What a sad king. Why are you here, Blaise of Gorhaut?"

"Seeking my fortune. There's less of a mystery than you might want to make out."

"Not much of a fortune to be found chasing sheep for a minor baron in these hills."

Blaise smiled. "It was a start," he said. "The first contract I was offered. A chance to learn your language better, to see what else might emerge. There are reasons why it was a good idea for me to leave the Portezzan cities for a time."

"Your own reasons? Or those of Ademar of Gorhaut? Would there by any chance be a spy behind that beard, my green-eyed young man from the north?"

It had always been possible that this might be said. Blaise was surprised at how calm he felt, now that the accusation was out in the open. He gestured, and de Talair handed him the brandy flask again. Blaise took another short pull and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand; the seguignac was really extraordinarily good.

"Indeed. Very important information to be gathered up here," he said, finding himself for some inexplicable reason in a good humour. "I'm sure Ademar will pay handsomely for a precise numbering of the sheep in these hills."

Bertran de Talair smiled again and shifted position, resting on one elbow now, his booted feet stretched out in front of him. "This could be just a start, as you say. An entry to our councils."

"And so I cleverly lured you into offering me a position by failing to shoot well on a hunt? You do me too much credit, my lord."

"Perhaps," said de Talair. "What does Mallin pay you?" Blaise named the figure. The duke shrugged indifferently. "I'll double that. When can you start?"

"I'm paid through to a fortnight from now."

"Good. I'll expect you at Talair three days after that."

Blaise held up a hand. "One thing clear from the start. The same thing I told En Mallin de Baude. I'm a mercenary, not a liegeman. No oaths."

Bertran's lazy, mocking smiled returned. "But of course. I wouldn't dream of asking you to swear to anything. I wonder, though, what will you do if Ademar comes south? Kill me in my sleep? Could you be an assassin as well as a spy?"

Which, as it happened, was nearer to the bone than was at all comfortable. Blaise thought suddenly of the High Priestess of Rian on her island in the sea. He looked down at his hands, remembering Rudel, a moonless night in Portezzan Faenna, the garden of a palace in that dangerous city, fireflies, the scent of oranges, a dagger in his hand.

He shook his head slowly, bringing his mind back to Arbonne, to this high plateau and the disturbingly perceptive man looking steadily at him now with those vivid blue eyes. "I'm no more a sworn man of Ademar's than I will be of yours," Blaise said carefully to Bertran de Talair. He hesitated. "Do you really think he might come south?"

"Might?" In Rian's holy name, why else did he make that peace with Valensa I'm trying so hard to undermine with my songs? You said it yourself: woman-ruled Arbonne. Our count dead, an ageing woman in Barbentain, no obvious heir in sight, wine fields and grainlands and a glorious port. Men who do nothing but write songs all day and yearn like callow boys for a woman's cool hand on their brow at night… of course Ademar's going to come down on us."

Blaise felt his mood changing, the pleasant fatigue of a day's hard labour chased away by the words as clouds were blown by the mountain winds. "Why are you hiring me, then?" he asked. "Why take that chance?"

"I like taking chances," Bertran de Talair said, almost regretfully. "It is a vice, I'm afraid." The High Priestess, Blaise remembered, had said something much the same.

Bertran shifted position again, sitting up now, and took a last pull of the seguignac before capping the flask. "Maybe you'll end up liking us more than you think. Maybe we'll find you a wife down here. Maybe we'll even teach you to sing. Truth is, I had a man killed this spring, and good men are hard to come by, as I suspect you know. Leading a successful raid on Rian's Island so soon after you got here was no mean achievement."

"How do you know about that?"

Bertran grinned again, but without mockery this time; Blaise had the odd sensation of being able to guess what that smile might do to a woman the duke wanted to charm. "Anyone can kill a corfe on a hunt," de Talair went on, as if Blaise hadn't spoken at all. "I need someone who knows when not to kill one. Even if he won't tell me how he learned that or who he is." He hesitated for the first time, looking away from Blaise, west towards the mountains and Arimonda beyond. "Besides which, for some reason you've made me think of my son the last few days. Don't ask me why. He died as an infant."

Abruptly he stood. Blaise did the same, seriously confused now. "I didn't think you had ever married," he said.

"I didn't," Bertran said carelessly. "Why, do you think it is time?" The sardonic, distancing smile was back. "A wife to warm my old bones at night, children to gladden the heart in my declining years? What an intriguing thought. Shall we discuss it on the way down?"

He had begun walking towards his horse as he spoke, and so Blaise, perforce, did the same. It had grown colder now on this windy height, the sun hidden behind a grey mass of swiftly driven clouds. As an afterthought Blaise looked back and saw that the lamb was following. They mounted up and began to ride. From the crest of the ridge they could see Mallin and the rest of their party gathered east of them and below. Bertran waved briefly and they started down. Far in the distance, beyond meadow and wood and the other men, the castle could be seen, with the lavender fields in shadow beyond.

On the way down, in the interval before they reached the others, the matter Bertran de Talair chose to raise had nothing at all to do with marital bliss, belated or otherwise, or with the soothing accoutrements of a quiescent old age.

And now, remarkably or predictably, depending on how one chose to consider things, there came the unabashed glow of a candle from the curve of the stairway below the window niche where Blaise was keeping watch. Not even an attempt at stealth, he thought grimly. He heard the quiet sound of footsteps steadily ascending. As promised, though Blaise hadn't really believed it on the hillside.

"I imagine you'll be posted on watch outside the baroness's rooms on my last night. I wouldn't go up until then in any case… too many complications otherwise, and it isn't really decent. No," Bertran de Talair had said on that ride down the chilly slope, "I'll wait till the end, which is always best. I can count on your discretion, I take it?"

For a long moment Blaise had had to struggle to control his anger. When he'd replied, it was in the best equivalent he could manage to the duke's casual tones. "I would suggest you not rely on any such thing. I have accepted an offer of service from you, but that begins a fortnight from now. For the moment Mallin de Baude pays me and you would be advised to remember that."

"Such loyalty!" de Talair had murmured, gazing straight ahead.

Blaise shook his head. "Professionalism," he'd replied, keeping his temper. "I am worth nothing in the market for fighting men if I have a reputation for duplicity."

"That is an irrelevance. Nothing that affects a reputation will emerge from a dark stairway with only the two of us to know." De Talair's tone was quietly serious. "Tell me, Northerner, would you impose your own values in matters of love and night on all the men and women that you meet?"

"Hardly. But I'm afraid I will impose them on myself."

The duke had glanced across at him then and smiled. "Then we shall probably have an interesting encounter a few nights from now." He'd waved again at Mallin de Baude down below and spurred his horse forward to join the baron and his men for the rest of the ride back down to the castle.

And now here he was, without even a token attempt at deception or concealment. Blaise stood up and stepped from the window nook onto the stairway. He checked the hang of his sword and dagger both and then waited, his feet balanced and spread wide. From around the curve of the stairs the glow of flame gradually became brighter and then Blaise saw the candle. Following it, as if into the ambit of light, came Bertran de Talair, in burgundy and black with a white shirt open at the throat.

"I have come," said the duke softly, smiling behind the flame, "for that interesting encounter."

"Not with me," said Blaise grimly.

"Well, no, not really with you. I don't think either of us suffers unduly from the Arimondan vice. I thought it might be diverting to see if I could fare better in the room at the top of these stairs than poor Evrard did some while ago."

Blaise shook his head. "I meant what I told you on the hills. I will not judge you, or the baroness either. I am a sword for hire, here or elsewhere in the world. At the moment En Mallin de Baude is paying me to guard this stairway. Will it please you to turn and go down, my lord, before matters become unpleasant here?"

"Go down?" Bertran said, gesturing with the candle, "and waste an hour's fussing with my appearance and several days of anticipating what might happen tonight? I'm too old to be excited by temptation and then meekly turn away. You're too young to understand that, I suppose. But I daresay you do have your own lessons to learn, or perhaps to remember. Hear me, Northerner: a man can be forestalled in matters such as this, even I can be, whatever you might have heard to the contrary, but a woman of spirit will do what she wants to do, even in Gorhaut, and most especially in Arbonne." He lifted the candle higher as he spoke, sending an orange glow spinning out to illuminate both of them.

Blaise registered the fact of that quite effective light an instant before he heard a rustle of clothing close behind him. He was turning belatedly, and opening his mouth to cry out, when the blow cracked him on the side of the temple, hard enough to make him stagger back against the window seat, momentarily dazed. And a moment, of course, was more than enough for Bertran de Talair to spring up the three steps between them, a dagger reversed in one hand, the candle uplifted in the other.

"It is difficult," said the duke close to Blaise's ear, "extremely difficult, to protect those who prefer not to be protected. A lesson, Northerner." He was wearing a perfume of some kind, and his breath was scented with mint. Through unfocused eyes and a wave of dizziness, Blaise caught a glimpse beyond him of a woman on the stairs. Her long yellow hair was unbound, tumbling down her back. Her night robe was of silk, and by the light of the candle and of the moon in the archers' window Blaise saw that it was white as a bride's, an icon of innocence. That was all he managed to register; he had no chance for more, to move or cry out again, before Bertran de Talair's dagger haft rapped, in a neat, hard, precisely judged blow, against the back of his skull and Blaise lost all consciousness of moonlight or icons or pain.

When he awoke, he was lying on the stone floor of the window niche, slumped back against one of the benches. With a groan he turned to look out. Pale Vidonne, waning from full, was high in the window now, lending her silver light to the night sky. The clouds had passed, he could see faint stars around the moon.

He brought up a hand and gingerly touched his head. He would have a corfe egg of his own on the back of his skull for some days to come, and a nasty bruise above the hairline over his right ear as well. He moaned again, and in the same instant realized that he was not alone.

"The seguignac is on the seat just above you," said Bertran de Talair quietly. "Be careful, I've left the flask open."

The duke was sitting on the other side of the stairwell, leaning back against the inner wall at the same level as Blaise. The moonlight pouring in through the window fell upon his disheveled garments and the tousled disarray of his hair. The blue eyes were as clear as ever, but Bertran looked older now. There were lines Blaise couldn't remember seeing before at the corners of his eyes, and dark circles beneath them.

He couldn't think of anything to say or do so he reached upwards—carefully, as advised—and found the flask. The seguignac slipped down his throat like distilled, reviving fire; Blaise imagined he could feel it reaching out to his extremities, restoring life to arms and legs, fingers and toes. His head ached ferociously, though. Stretching cautiously—it hurt to move—he reached across the stairway and handed the flask to the duke. Bertran took it without speaking and drank.

It was silent then on the stairs. Blaise, fighting off the miasma of two blows to the head, tried to make himself think clearly. He could, of course, shout now and raise an alarm. Mallin himself, from his own room down the hall from Soresina's, would likely be the first man to reach them here.

With what consequences?

Blaise sighed and accepted the return passing of the seguignac from the duke. The flask gleamed palely in the moonlight; there were intricate designs upon it, most likely the work of Gotzland master smiths. It had probably cost more than Blaise's monthly wages here in Baude.

There really was no point in crying out now, and he knew it. Soresina de Baude had chosen to do—as Bertran had said—exactly as she wished. It was over now, and unless he, Blaise, stirred up an alarm and roused the castle it would probably be over with little consequence for anyone.

It was just the dishonesty of it all that bothered him, the image—yet another—of a woman's duplicity and a man's idle, avid pursuit of pleasure at another's expense. He had somehow hoped for more of Duke Bertran de Talair than this picture of a jaded seducer putting all his energy into achieving a single night with a yellow-haired woman married to someone else.

But he wouldn't raise the alarm. Bertran and Soresina had counted on that, he knew. It angered him, the easy assumption that his behaviour could be anticipated, but he wasn't enough provoked to change his mind simply to spite them. People died when spite like that was indulged.

His head was hurting at back and side both, two sets of hammers vying with each other to see which could cause him more distress. The seguignac helped though; seguignac, he decided sagely, wiping at his mouth, might actually help with a great many matters of grief or loss.

He turned to the duke to say as much, but stopped, wordless, at what he saw in the other's unguarded face. The scarred, ironic, worldly face of the troubadour lord of Talair.

"Twenty-three years," Bertran de Talair said a moment later, half to himself, his eyes on the moon in the window. "So much longer than I thought I would live, actually. And the god knows, and sweet Rian knows I've tried, but in twenty-three years I've never yet found a woman to equal her, or take away the memory, even for a night."

Feeling hopelessly out of his element in the face of this, Blaise felt an unexpected moment of pity for Soresina de Baude, with her unbound hair and her white silk night robe in the room above them. Unable to summon any words at all, suspecting that none that he could ever think of would be remotely adequate to what he had just heard, he simply reached back across the stairway and offered the seguignac.

After a moment En Bertran's ringed hand reached out for it in the moonlight. De Talair drank deeply, then he drew the stopper from some recess of his clothing and capped the flask. He rose slowly, almost steady on his feet and, not bothering with another candle, started down the winding stairway without another word or a glance back. He was already lost to sight in the darkness before the first curve took him away. Blaise heard his quiet footsteps going down, and then those, too, were gone and there was only silence and the moon slowly passing from the narrow window, leaving behind the stars.

CHAPTER 3

Ademar, king of Gorhaut, slowly turns away from the diverting if extremely messy struggle taking place in front of the throne between the carefully maimed hound and the three cats that have been set upon it. Not even acknowledging the half-clothed woman kneeling on the stone floor in front of him with his sex in her mouth, he looks narrowly over at the man who has just spoken, interrupting this double amusement.

"We are not certain we heard you correctly," the king says in his unexpectedly high voice. The tone however is one his court has come to know well in little over a year. Not a few of the fifty or so men assembled in the audience chamber in the king's palace at Cortil offer silent thanks to Corannos that they are not the recipients of that gaze or that tone. The handful of women present might have different thoughts, but the women do not matter in Gorhaut.

With an elaborate casualness that fools no one, Duke Ranald de Garsenc reaches for his ale and drinks deeply before answering. To his credit, the more attentive eyes among the court note, de Garsenc's hand is steady as he sets the heavy flagon down again. Looking across the wooden trestle table at the king, he lifts his voice. "I understand you were talking about Arbonne this morning. I simply said, why don't you marry the bitch? She's a widow, she's heirless, what could be simpler?"

The king's extremely large, ringless hands descend absently to first loop themselves in the long black hair and then to briefly encircle the ceaselessly working throat of the girl on her knees in front of him. He never actually looks down at her though. Beyond her, the old hound has now fallen; it is lying on one side panting raggedly, blood streaming from a great many wounds. The cats, starved for five days, are avidly beginning to feed. Ademar smiles thinly for a moment, watching, and then makes a sudden moue of distaste as the dog's entrails begin to spill onto the floor. He gestures, and the handlers spring forward to seize the four animals and bear them from the room. The cats, ravenous and deranged, make high-pitched shrieking sounds that can be heard even after the doors at the far end have closed behind them. The smell of blood and wet fur lingers, mixed with stinging smoke from the fires and spilled beer on the tables where the high lords of Gorhaut are permitted by ancient custom to sit and drink in the presence of their liege.

Their liege closes his eyes at just that moment. His large, well-knit body stiffens and an expression of pleased surprise crosses his fair-skinned, full-bearded features. There is an awkward silence in the room as courtiers see reason to scrutinize their fingernails or the dark beams of the ceiling. With a sigh, Ademar slumps back on the throne. When he opens his eyes again it is to look, as he always does when this particular amusement reaches its climax, at the women of his court, gathered near the windows to the left of the throne. The more discreet among them are looking assiduously down and away. One or two are visibly discomfited. One or two others are equally flushed, but for what seem to be different reasons, and these are the ones whose eyes gaze boldly back at Ademar's. Screening the king's lower body with her own, the kneeling woman attends to the points and drawstrings of his garments and carefully smoothes his breeches and hose before tilting her head up for permission to withdraw.

Slouching back in his throne, Ademar of Gorhaut looks down at her for the first time. With an indolent finger he traces the contours of her lips. He smiles, the same thin smile as before. "Attend to the duke of Garsenc," he says. "My father's former champion seems a man sorely in need of the ministrations of a proper woman." The girl, expressionless, rises and paces gracefully across the floor towards the man who had interrupted the king's pleasure for a moment before. There is a ripple of coarse laughter in the room; Ademar grins, acknowledging it. Beside the window one woman turns away suddenly to look out over the misty grey of the landscape. Ademar of Gorhaut notices that. He notices a great deal, his court has come to realize in the short period of his reign.

"My lady Rosala," the king says, "turn not away from us. We covet the sunshine of your countenance on a day so dreary as this. And it may be your husband will be well pleased to have you learn a new skill as you watch."

The woman called Rosala, tall, yellow-haired and visibly with child, delays a long moment before obeying the command and turning back to the room. She nods her head formally in response to the king's words but does not speak. The other girl has by now slipped under the long table and can be seen settling herself in front of Duke Ranald de Garsenc. The duke's colour is suddenly high. He avoids looking towards the side of the room where his wife stands among the women. A few of the lesser courtiers, bright-eyed with amusement and malice, have strolled over to stand by his shoulder, glancing downwards with an intense simulation of interest at what is now taking place beneath the table. Ranald stares straight ahead, looking at no one. This amusement of the king's has taken place before, but never with a lord of so high a rank. It is a measure of Ademar's power, or the fear he elicits, that he can do this to a man who was once King's Champion in Gorhaut, however many years ago that was.

"Marry the bitch," the king repeats slowly, as if tasting the syllables on his tongue. "Marry the countess of Arbonne. How old is Signe de Barbentain now, sixty-five, seventy? An astonishing suggestion… how is she with her mouth, does anyone know?"

Several of the men and one of the women by the window titter with laughter again. None of the foreign envoys is in the room at the moment; given the current subject matter, an extremely good thing. Rosala de Garsenc is pale, but her square, handsome features betray no expression at all.

On the other side of the room her husband abruptly reaches for his flagon again. This time he spills some ale as he brings it to his lips. He wipes his moustache with a sleeve and says, "Does it matter? Would anyone imagine I speak of more than a marriage of acquisition?" He pauses and glances, almost involuntarily, downward for an instant, and then resumes. "You marry the crone, pack her off to a castle in the north and inherit Arbonne when she dies of fever or ague or whatever else the god sees fit to send her. Then you follow through with your marriage to Daufridi of Valensa's daughter. She may even be old enough to bed by then."

Ademar has turned in his seat to look fully at him, his pale eyes unreadable above the yellow beard. He says nothing, chewing meditatively on one end of his long moustache. There is a stir at the far end of the room, made louder by the silence around the throne. The great doors swing open and the guards let someone through. A very large man in a dark blue robe enters, striding purposefully forward. Seeing him, Ademar's face lights up. He grins like a mischievous child and glances quickly back at Ranald de Garsenc, who has also taken note of the man entering, though with a very different expression on his face.

"My dear High Elder," the king says, his tone brightly malicious now, "you are narrowly in time to observe how we value our cousin, your son, and his wise counsels. Our well-beloved Mistress Belote is even now assuaging him with his lady wife's full approval. Will you come make this a family affair?"

Galbert de Garsenc, High Elder of Corannos in Gorhaut, Chief Counsellor to the King, disdains to even glance at his son, nor does he appear to acknowledge the amusement in the room that takes its cue from the king's brittle tone. He stops not far from the throne, a bulky, formidable presence, and inclines his large, smooth face towards Ademar. saying merely, "What counsels, my liege?" His voice is deep and resonant; though he speaks quietly it fills the large chamber. "What counsels, indeed! Duke Ranald has just advised us to marry the countess of Arbonne, send her off north and inherit her sun-drenched country when she succumbs in her decrepitude to some lamentable pestilence. Would this be a thought you and your son have devised together?"

Galbert, the only clean-shaven man in the room, turns to look at his son for the first time as the king finishes speaking. Ranald de Garsenc, though very pale, meets his father's gaze without flinching. With a contemptuous twist of his mouth, Galbert turns back to the king.

"It would not," he says heavily. "Of course it is not, my liege. I do not devise with such as he. My son is fit for nothing but spilling ale on himself and occupying tavern sluts."

The king of Gorhaut laughs, a curiously joyous, high-pitched sound in the dark-beamed, shadowed room. "Tavern sluts? In the name of our blessed god! What a way to speak of the noble lady his wife, my lord Galbert! The woman bearing your grandchild! Surely you do not think—"

The king stops, hilarity vivid in his face, as a flagon of ale hurtles across the room to strike the High Elder of Corannos full on his broad chest. Galbert stumbles heavily backwards and almost falls. At the long table Ranald rises, hastily pushing his semi-erect member back into his clothing. Two guards step belatedly forward but pause at a gesture from the king. Breathing heavily, Ranald de Garsenc points a shaking finger at his father.

"Next time I might kill you," he says. His voice trembles. "Next time it may be a knife. Take note for your life. If you speak so of me again, anywhere where I might hear of it, it may mean your death and I will submit myself to whatever judgment of that deed Corannos makes when I leave the world."

There is a shocked silence. Even in a court not unused to this sort of thing, especially from the de Garsenc clan, the words are sobering. Galbert's rich blue robe is stained with dark ale. He fixes his son with a glance of icy contempt, easily a match for Ranald's impassioned rage, before turning back to the king. "Will you allow such an assault upon your High Elder, my liege? An attack upon my person is an insult to the god above us all. Will you sit by and let this impiety go unpunished?" The deep voice is still controlled, resonantly pitched, soberly aggrieved.

Ademar does not immediately reply. He leans back once more against the heavy wooden seat-back of the throne, stroking his beard with one hand. Father and son remain on their feet, rigid and intense. The hatred between them lies heavy and palpable in the room, seeming denser than the smoke of the fires.

"Why," says King Ademar of Gorhaut, at length, his voice sounding even higher and more querulous after the High Elder's deep tones, "is it such a foolish idea for me to wed Signe de Barbentain?"

Abruptly Duke Ranald sits again, a tiny smile of vindication playing about his lips. Impatiently he moves a knee to forestall an obedient attempt by the woman beneath the table to resume her intentions. On the far side of the room he notices that his wife has turned away again and is staring out the windows with her back to the king and the court. It has begun to rain. He looks at Rosala's profile for a moment, and a curious expression crosses his own features. After a moment he lifts his flask and drinks again.

The only thing I really don't know, Rosala de Garsenc is thinking just then, looking out at the cold, steady, slating rain and the mist-wrapped eastern moors, is which of them I despise most.

It is not a new thought. She has spent a remarkable amount of time trying to decide whether she more hates the erratic, usually inebriated man she'd been forced to wed by the late King Duergar, or the dangerously cunning, Corannos-obsessed High Elder of the god, her husband's father. If she chooses, as today, to take the thoughts one small, very natural step further, it is easy to include Duergar's son, now King Ademar of Gorhaut, in that blighted company. In part because she is uneasily, constantly aware that when the child she now carries is born she is going to have to contend with the king in a very particular way. She doesn't know why he has singled her out, why her manner seems to have captivated him—goaded him, more likely, she sometimes thinks—but there is no denying the import of Ademar's flat, pale gaze and the way it lingers on her, especially in that dangerous time of night here in Cortil after too much ale has been drunk around the banquet tables but before the women are permitted to leave.

One of the reasons, perhaps unfairly, that she despises her husband is for the way in which he will notice the king staring at her and indifferently turn away to his dice cup or his flagon. The duke of Garsenc ought surely, Rosala had thought, in the early months of her marriage, to have more pride in him than that. It appeared, though, that the only people who could arouse Ranald to anything resembling passion or spirit were his father and brother, and that, of course, was its own old, bleak story. It sometimes seems to Rosala that she has been part of their tale forever; it is hard to remember clearly back to a time when the lords of Garsenc have not trammelled her tightly about with their festering family griefs. It had been different at home in Savaric, but Savaric was a long time ago.

The wind is rising now, coming about to the east, sending droplets and then a gusty sheet of rain through the window to strike her face and the bodice of her gown. She doesn't mind the cold, she even welcomes it, but there is a child to think of now. Reluctantly she turns away, back to the smoky, stale, crowded room, to hear her husband's father begin to speak to the issue of forced marriages and conquest in the warm bright south.

"My liege, you know the reasons as well as I, so, indeed does every man in this room, save one perhaps." The glance flicked sideways at Ranald is so brief as to carry its own measure of bone-deep contempt. "Even the women know my son's folly when they hear it. Even the women." Beside Rosala, Adelh de Sauvan, who is venal and corrupt and newly widowed, smiles. Rosala sees that and looks away.

"To wed the countess of Arbonne," Galbert goes on, his rich voice filling the room, "we would need her consent. This, she will not give. Ever. If she did, for whatever reason, maddened by woman's desire perhaps, she would be deposed and slain by the assembled dukes of Arbonne before any wedding could take place. Think you that the lords of Carenzu or Malmount or Miraval would sit by and watch us so easily stake a claim to their land? Even a woman should be able to see the folly in such a fatuous thought. What, my liege, do you think the troubadour lord of Arbonne would do at such a time… think you that Bertran de Talair would stand by and let such a marriage take place?"

"That name is forbidden here!" Ademar of Gorhaut says quickly, leaning abruptly forward. Two spots of unnatural colour show in his cheeks above the beard.

"And so it should be," Galbert says smoothly, as if he'd expected exactly that response. "I have as much reason as you my liege to hate that schemer and his godless, discordant ways."

Rosala smiles inwardly at that, keeping her features carefully schooled. It was little over a month ago that de Talair's latest song had reached the court of Gorhaut. She remembers the night; wind and rain then, too, a trembling, whey-faced bard obeying Ademar's command, singing the duke of Talair's verses in a voice like rasping iron:

Shame then in springtime for proud Gorhaut,

Betrayed by a young king and his counsellor.

And more, much more, and worse, in the creaking, barely audible mumblings of the terrified singer while a wind blew on the moors outside:

Where went the manhood of Gorhaut and Valensa

When war was abandoned and pale peace bought

By weak kings and sons long lost to their lineage?

Rosala can almost find a kind of warmth in her heart at the memory of the torchlit faces around her that night. The expressions of the king, of Galbert, the furtive glances that flitted about the hall from one newly landless lord or coran to another as the driving music brought the force of the words home, even in the timid voice of the singer. The bard, a young trovaritz from Gotzland, had almost certainly owed his continued life to the presence in the great hall of Cortil that evening of the envoy from his own country and the undeniable importance of keeping peace with King Jorg of Gotzland at this juncture of the world's affairs. Rosala had no doubt what Ademar would have liked to do when the music ended.

Now he leans urgently forward again, almost rising from the throne, the two bright spots vivid in his cheeks and says, "No man has as much reason as we do, Galbert. Do not exalt yourself."

The High Elder gently shakes his head. Again the rich voice encompasses the room, so warm, so caring, it can so easily deceive one into thinking the man is profoundly other than he is. Rosala knows about that; she knows almost everything about that by now.

"It is not in my own name that I take umbrage, my liege," says Galbert. "I am as nothing, nothing at all in myself. But I stand before you and before the eyes of all those in the six countries as the voice of the god in Gorhaut. And Gorhaut is the Heartland, the place where Corannos of the Ancients was born in the days before man walked and woman fell into her ruin. An insult to me is a blow delivered to the most high god and must not be tolerated. Nor will it be, for all the world knows your mettle and your mind in this, my liege."

It is fascinating, Rosala thinks, how smoothly, how effortlessly, Galbert has shifted the matter at hand. Ademar is nodding his head slowly; so are a number of the men in the hall. Her husband is drinking, but that is to be expected. Briefly, Rosala feels sorry for him.

"We would have thought," the king says slowly, "that Daufridi of Valensa would share our attitude to this provocation. Perhaps when we next receive his envoy we ought to discuss the matter of Bertran de Talair."

Daufridi has all our land north of Iersen now, Rosala finds herself thinking bitterly, and knows that others will be framing the same thought. He can afford to tolerate insults from Arbonne. Her family's ancient estates along the Iersen River are right on the newly defined northern border of Gorhaut now; Savaric had not been so exposed ever before. And there are men in this room whose lands and castles have been given away; they are part of Valensa now, ceded by treaty, surrendered in the peace after being saved in the war. King Ademar is surrounded by hungry, ambitious, angry men, who will need to be assuaged, and soon, however much they might fear him for the moment.

It is all so terribly clear, Rosala thinks, her face a mask, blank and unrevealing.

"By all means," Galbert the High Elder is saying, "raise the matter with the Valensan envoy. I think we can deal with a shabby rhymester by ourselves, but it would indeed be well to have certain other matters understood and arranged before another year has come and gone."

Rosala sees her husband lift his head at that, looking not at his father but at the king.

"What matters?" Duke Ranald says, loudly, in the silence. "What needs to be understood?" It is only with an effort sometimes that Rosala is able to remember that her husband was once the most celebrated fighting man in Gorhaut, champion to Ademar's father. A long time ago, that was, and the years have not sat kindly on the shoulders of Ranald de Garsenc.

Ademar says nothing, chewing on his moustache. It is Ranald's father who replies, the faintest hint of triumph in the magnificent voice. "Do you now know?" he asks, eyebrows elaborately arched. "Surely one so free with idle counsels can riddle this puzzle through."

Ranald scowls blackly but refuses to put the question again. Rosala knows he doesn't understand; again she feels an unexpected impulse of sympathy for him during this latest skirmish in his lifelong battle with what his father is. She doubts Ranald is the only man here bemused by the cryptic byplay between the High Elder and the king. It happens, though, that her own father, in his day, had been a master of diplomacy, high in the counsels of King Duergar, and Rosala and one brother were the only two of his children to survive into adulthood. She had learned a great deal, more than women tended to in Gorhaut. Which, she knows, is a large part of her own private grief right now, trapped among the de Garsenc and their hates.

But she does understand things, she can see them, almost too clearly. If he is sober enough, Ranald will probably want her thoughts tonight when they are alone. She knows the heavy, hectoring tone he will use, the scorn with which he will quickly dismiss her replies if she chooses to offer any, and she also knows how he will go away from her after and muse upon what she tells him. It is a power of sorts, she is aware of that; one that many women have used to put their own stamp, as a seal upon a letter, upon the events of their day.

But such women have two things Rosala lacks. A desire, a passion even, to move and manipulate amid the fever and flare of court events, and a stronger, worthier vessel in which to pour their wisdom and in their spirit than Ranald de Garsenc is ever going to be.

She doesn't know what she will tell her husband if he asks for her thoughts that evening. She suspects he will. And she is almost certain she does know what his father's designs are and, even more, that the king is going to move with them. Ademar is being guided, as a capricious stallion by a master horsebreaker, towards a destination Galbert has likely wanted to reach for more years than anyone knows. King Duergar of Gorhaut had not been a man susceptible to the persuasion of anyone in his court, including his clergy—perhaps especially his clergy—and so the High Elder's access to real power dates back only to the precise moment when a Valensan arrow, arching through a wintry twilight, found Duergar's eye in that grim, cold battle by Iersen Bridge a year and a half ago.

And now Duergar is dead and burned on his pyre, and his handsome son rules in Cortil, and there is a peace signed in the north disinheriting a quarter of the people of Gorhaut, whether of high estate or low. Which means—surely anyone could see it if they only stopped to look—one thing that will have to follow. Instinctively, a motion of withdrawal as much a reflex as a forest creature's retreat from a tongue of flame, Rosala turns back to the window. It is springtime in Gorhaut, but the grey rains show no signs of ending and the damp chill can ache in one's very bones.

It will be warmer, she knows, warmer and softer and with a far more benevolent light in the sky, in Arbonne. In woman-ruled Arbonne, with its Court of Love, its wide, rich, sun-blessed lands, its sheltered, welcoming harbours on the southern sea and its heresy of Rian the goddess ruling alongside the god, not crouched in maidenly subservience beneath his iron hand.

"We will have much to speak of yet," Galbert de Garsenc is saying, "before summer draws fully upon us, and to you my liege will rightly fall all decisions that must be made and the great burden of them." He raises his voice; Rosala does not turn back from the window. She knows what he is about to say, where he is taking the king, taking all of them. "But as High Elder of Corannos in this most ancient, holy land where the god was born, I will say this to you, my liege, and to all those gathered here. Thanks to your great wisdom, Gorhaut is at peace in the north for the first time in the lifetime of most of those here. We need not draw axe and sword to guard our borders and our fields from Valensa. The pride and the might of this country under King Ademar is as great as it has ever been in our long history, and ours is still and ever the holy stewardship through the six countries of the power of the god. In these halls walk the descendants of the first corans—the earliest brothers of the god—who ever bestrode the hills and valleys of the known world. And it may be—if you, my liege, should decide to make it so—that to us will fall a scourging task worthy of our great fathers. Worthy of the greatest bards ever to lift voice in celebration of the mighty of their day."

Oh, clever, Rosala thinks. Oh, very neatly done, my lord. Her eyes are fixed on what lies beyond the window, on the mist rolling in over the moors. She wants to be out there alone on a horse, even in rain, even with the child quickening in her womb, far from this smoky hall, these voices and rancours and sour desires, far from the honey-smooth manipulations of the High Elder behind her.

"Beyond the mountains south of us they mock Corannos," Galbert says, passion now infusing his voice. "They live under the god's own bright sun, which is his most gracious gift to man, and they mock his sovereignty. They demean him with temples to a woman, a foul goddess of midnight and magics and the blood-stained rites of women. They cripple and wound our beloved Corannos with this heresy. They unman him, or they think they do." His voice sinks again, towards intimacy, the nuanced notes of a different kind of power. The whole room is with him now as in the foils of a spell, Rosala can sense it; even the women beside her are leaning forward slightly, lips parted, waiting.

"They think they do," Galbert de Garsenc repeats softly. "In time, in our time if we are worthy, they shall learn their folly, their endless, eternal folly, and holy Corannos shall not be mocked in the lanes of the Arbonne River ever again."

He does not end on a rousing note; it is not yet time. This is a first proclamation only, a beginning, a muted instrument sounded amid smoking fires and a late, cold spring, with slanting rains outside and mist on the moors.

"We will withdraw," the king of Gorhaut says at length in his high voice, breaking the stillness. "We will take private counsel with our Elder of the god." He rises from the throne, a tall, handsome, physically commanding man, and his court sinks low in genuflection like stalks of corn before the wind.

It is so clear, Rosala is thinking as she rises to her feet again, so clear what is to come.

"Do tell me, my dear," Adelh de Sauvan murmurs, materializing at her elbow, "have you any late tidings of your much-travelled brother-in-law?"

Rosala stiffens. A mistake, and she knows it immediately. She forces herself to smile blandly, but Adelh is a master at catching one unawares.

"Nothing recent, I fear," she answers calmly. "He was still in Portezza, the last we heard, but that was some months ago. He doesn't communicate very much. If he does, I shall be most certain to convey your anxious interest."

A weak shaft, that one, and Adelh only smiles, her dark eyes lustrous. "Please do," she replies. "I would think any woman would be interested in that one. Such an accomplished man, Blaise, an equal, a rival even to his great father I sometimes think." She pauses, precisely long enough. "Though hardly to your dear husband, of course." She says it with the sweetest expression imaginable on her face.

Two other women come up just then, blessedly freeing Rosala from the need to frame a reply. She waits long enough for courtesy to be served and then moves away from the window. She is cold suddenly, and wants very much to leave. She cannot do so without Ranald, though, and she sees, with a brief inward yielding to despair, that he has refilled his flagon, and his dice and purse are on the table in front of him now.

She moves towards the nearest of the fires and stands with her back to the blaze. In her mind she goes back over that short, unsettling exchange with Adelh. She cannot stop herself from wondering what, if anything, the woman could possibly know. It is only malice, she finally decides, only the unthinking, effortless malice that defined Adelh de Sauvan even before her husband died with King Duergar by Iersen Bridge. An instinct for blood, something predatory.

Rosala has a sudden recollection, involuntary and frightening, of the starving cats and the torn, dying hound. She shivers. Unconsciously her hands come up to rest upon her belly, as if to cradle and shelter from the waiting world the life taking shape within her.

The light was the extraordinary thing, the way in which the sun in a deep blue sky seemed to particularize everything, to render each tree, bird on the wing, darting fox, blade of grass, something vividly bright and immediate. Everything seemed to somehow be more of whatever it was here, sharper, more brilliantly defined. The late-afternoon breeze from the west took the edge off the heat of the day; even the sound of it in the leaves was refreshing. Though that, on reflection, was ridiculous: the sound of the wind in the trees was exactly the same in Gorhaut or Gotzland as it was here in Arbonne; there just seemed to be something about this country that steered the mind towards such imaginings.

A troubadour, Blaise thought, riding through afternoon sunshine, would probably be singing by now, or composing, or shaping some quite unintelligible thought based on the symbolic language of flowers. There were certainly enough flowers. A troubadour would know the names of all of them, of course. Blaise didn't, partly because there were varieties of extravagantly coloured wildflowers here in Arbonne that he'd never seen before, even among the celebrated, rolling countryside between the cities of Portezza.

The land here was beautiful, he conceded, without grudging the thought this time. He wasn't in a grudging mood this afternoon; the light was too benevolent, the country through which he rode too genuinely resplendent at the beginning of summer. There were vineyards to the west and the dense trees of a forest beyond them. The only sounds were the wind and the chatter of birds and the steady jingle of harness on his horse and the pack pony behind. In the distance ahead Blaise could see at intervals the blue sparkle of water on a lake. If the directions he'd been given at last night's inn were correct, the lake would be Dierne and Castle Talair would be visible soon, nestled against the northern shore. He should be able to make it by day's end at a comfortable pace.

It was hard not to be in a good humour today, whatever one's thoughts might be about country and family and the slowly darkening tenor of events in the world. For one thing, Blaise's leave-taking at Baude four days ago had been a genuinely cordial parting. He'd worried for a time about how Mallin would receive his defection to the ranks of the corans of Bertran de Talair, but the young lord of Castle Baude seemed to have almost expected Blaise's announcement when it came, two days after En Bertran rode off, and even—or so it seemed to Blaise—to almost welcome it.

There might, in fact, have been pragmatic reasons for that. Mallin was a comfortable but not a wealthy man, and the expenses of aspiring towards a place of honour on the higher ramparts of the world might have begun to give him pause. After a fortnight's extravagant entertainment of the troubadour lord of Talair, it was possible that Mallin de Baude was not averse to some measures of economizing, and seasoned mercenary captains such as Blaise of Gorhaut were not inexpensive.

On the morning of Blaise's departure, Mallin had wished him the blessing of the god and of Rian the goddess as well; this was Arbonne, after all. Blaise accepted the one with gratitude and the other with good grace. He'd surprised himself with the degree of regret he felt bidding farewell to the baron and to the corans he'd trained: Hirnan, Maffour and the others. He hadn't expected to miss these men; it seemed as if he was going to, for a little while at least.

Soresina, in the last days before he went, was a different, more unsettling sort of surprise. The simple truth was, however much Blaise might want to deny it, that the lady of Castle Baude, always an attractive woman and aware of it, seemed to have grown in both dignity and grace in a very short period. Specifically, the short period since Bertran de Talair's visit to the highlands. Was it possible that a single furtive night with the duke could have effected such a change? Blaise hated the very notion, but could not deny the poised courtesy of Soresina's subsequent treatment of him, or the elegance of her appearance at her husband's side in the days that passed between Bertran's departure and Blaise's own. There was not even the shadow of a hint in her expression or manner of what had taken place on the stairway below her chambers so little time ago. She did seem pensive at times, almost grave, as if inwardly coming to terms with some shift in her relations with the world.

Soresina was with Mallin when the baron and his corans rode part of the way with Blaise on the morning he took leave of the western highlands. She'd offered him her cheek to kiss, not merely her hand. After the briefest hesitation Blaise had leaned sideways in his saddle and complied.

Soresina had glanced up at him as he straightened. He remembered a glance she'd offered him shortly after he'd arrived, when she'd told him how she liked men after the older fashion, warlike and hard. There was an echo of that now, she was still the same woman after all, but there was also something else that was new.

"I hope some woman elsewhere in your travels through Arbonne persuades you to remove that beard," she said. "It scratches, Blaise. Grow it back, if you must, when you return to Gorhaut."

She was smiling at him as she spoke, entirely at ease, and Mallin de Baude, visibly proud of her, laughed and gripped Blaise's arm a last time in farewell.

There had been a number of farewells in his life during the past few years, Blaise thought now, three days after that morning departure, riding amid the scent and colours of wildflowers, past the green and purple beginnings of grapes on the vines, with blue water in the distance beckoning him with flashes of mirrored sunlight. Too many goodbyes, perhaps, but they were a part of the life he'd chosen for himself, or had had chosen for him by his birth and his family's rank, and the laws, written or unwritten, that guided the country of Gorhaut through the shoals of a rocky world.

There had been regret, anger at twists of fate, real pain in Portezza the last time he was there, but it seemed that in the end he truly was most content as he was now, on his own, answerable to no man—and certainly no woman—save for service honourably owed by contract freely entered into. There was little that was greatly unusual about any of the patterns of his life. It was a well-enough trodden path in the lives of younger sons of noble families in the world as they knew it. The eldest son married, fathered other children, inherited all: the lands—fiercely guarded, scrupulously undivided—the family goods, and whatever titles had been earned and not lost as one monarch succeeded another in Gorhaut. The daughters of such houses were expensively dowried pawns, though often vital ones, married off to consolidate alliances, expand holdings, lay claim or siege to even higher rank for the family.

Which left little enough for the other sons. Younger sons were a problem, and had been so for a long time, ever since the dwindling sizes of partitioned estates had changed the system of inheritance. All but barred from a useful marriage by virtue of their lack of land or chattels, forced to leave the family dwellings by friction or pride or sheerest self-protection, many entered the clergy of Corannos or attached themselves to the household corans of another high lord. Some followed a third, less predictable course, going out into the world beyond the country of their birth, alone on the always dangerous roads or more often in smaller or larger groupings to seek their fortune. In a season of war they would be found at the battlefields; in the rarer times of tranquility they would be stirring up strife themselves with a restless champing at the bit of peace, or maiming and hammering each other in the tournament melees that moved with the trade fairs from town to town through the known lands of the world.

Nor was this pattern only true in Gorhaut. Bertran de Talair, until his older brother died childless and he became the duke, had been among this roving number in his own day, one of the most celebrated, bringing a sword and a harp, both, and later a joglar expensively outfitted in his livery, to battlefield and tournament in Gotzland and Portezza and watery Valensa in the north.

Blaise of Gorhaut, years later, and for a variety of reasons, had become another such man, ever since he'd been anointed as a coran by King Duergar himself.

He'd left home with his horse and armour and weapons and his skills with them, skills that had travelled well and not without profit—most of it banked in Portezza now with Rudel's family. It was a life that had left him, riding alone under the sun of summer in Arbonne, untied and untrammelled by the bonds that seemed to ensnare so many of the men he knew.

He would have scorned the question and the questioner both, but if asked that day, Blaise would have said that he was not an unhappy man, for all the bitterness that lay behind him at home and among the dangerous cities of Portezza. He would have said he knew the future he wanted for himself, and that for the foreseeable future it was not unlike the present through which he rode, in whatever country it might chance to fall. He wasn't particular about that, he would have said. If you kept moving there was less chance of putting down roots, forming bonds, caring for people… learning what happened when those men or women you cared for proved other than you had thought them. Though he would never have said that last aloud, however assiduously a questioner pursued.

Cresting the last of a series of ridges, Blaise saw the blue waters of Lake Dierne clearly for the first time. He could make out a small island in the lake with three plumes of white smoke rising from fires burning there. He paused a moment, taking in the vista that spread before him, and then rode on.

No one had cautioned him otherwise, or offered any warning at all, nor had he asked any questions, and so when he went forward from that ridge Blaise took what was clearly the more direct, less hilly road, riding straight north towards the lake and the beginnings of what was to be his destiny.

The well-worn path went along the western shore of Lake Dierne, with faded milestones of the Ancients along the way, some standing, some toppled into the grass, all testifying mutely to how long ago this road had been laid down. The island wasn't very far away—a good swimmer could cover the distance—and from the path Blaise could now see that the three white plumes of smoke were carefully spaced along the midline of the isle. Even he was sufficiently aware after a season in Arbonne to realize that these would be holy fires of Rian. Who else but the clergy of the goddess would burn midday fires in the heat of early summer?

He narrowed his gaze across the dazzling blue water. He could make out a handful of small boats at anchor or pulled up on the sands of the island's nearer shore. One boat with a single white sail was tacking back and forth across the lake into the breeze. Watching, Blaise's thoughts went back to the High Priestess with her owl in the blackness of night on Rian's other island, in the sea. After a moment he looked away in the bright sunshine and rode on.

He passed the small hut that held and kept dry wood and kindling for the signal fires that would summon the priestesses when those on the shore had need, whether for childbirth or healing or surrendering the dead. He resisted the impulse to make a warding sign.

A little further along the path he saw the arch. He stopped his horse again. The pack pony trudging behind with his goods and his armour bumped up against them and then placidly lowered its head to crop at the grass by the road. Blaise was staring at that arrogant, monumental assertion of stone. The soldier in him understood it at once, and admiration vied with an inward disquiet.

There were figures carved along the top of the arch, and there would be friezes along the sides as well. He didn't need to go nearer to study them; he knew what the sculptor's art had rendered there. He had seen such arches before, in northern Portezza, in Gotzland, two in Gorhaut itself near the mountain passes, which seemed to be as far north as the Ancients had established themselves.

The massive arch offered its own clear testimony as to what those who built it had been. Where the milestones by the long, straight roads told of continuity and the orderly, regulated flow of society in a world now lost, the triumphal arches such as this one spoke to nothing but domination, the brutal grinding down of whoever had been here when the Ancients came to conquer.

Blaise had been to war many times, both for his country and for his own purse as a mercenary, and had known both triumph and defeat on widely scattered battlefields. Once, by the frost-rimed Iersen Bridge, he had fought among ice and blowing snow past the bitter death of his king through to a twilit winter victory that had then been alchemized into defeat in the elegantly phrased courtiers' treaty of the spring that followed. That one had changed him, he thought. That one had changed his life forever.

The arch standing here at the end of a procession of planted trees told a hard truth that Blaise knew in his soldier's bones to be as valid now as it had been centuries ago: when you have beaten someone, when you have conquered and occupied them, you must never let them forget the power that you have and the consequences of resistance.

What happened when the arches remained but those who had so arrogantly raised them were dust and long departed was a question for milk-fed philosophers and troubadours, Blaise thought, not for a fighting man.

He turned his head away, unsettled and unexpectedly angered. And it was only when he did so, wresting his attention from the massive arch, that he became aware, belatedly, that he was no longer alone on this shore of Lake Dierne under a westering sun.

There were six of them, in dark green hose and tunics. The livery meant they were unlikely to be outlaws, which was good. Rather less encouraging was the fact that three of them had bows out and arrows to string already, levelled at him before any words of greeting or challenge had been spoken. What was even more ominous was that the obvious leader, sitting his horse a few feet ahead and to one side of the others, was rangy, dark-skinned, moustachioed Arimondan. Experience in several countries, and one sword fight he preferred not to remember except for the lesson it had taught him, had led Blaise to be exceptionally wary of the swarthy warriors of that hot, dry land beyond the western mountains. Especially when they appeared at the head of men who were aiming arrows at his chest.

Blaise held out his empty hands and lifted his voice into the wind. "I give you greetings, corans. I am a traveller on a high road of Arbonne. I mean no offence to anyone and trust I have given none." He was silent, watching, and left his hands out to be seen. He had defeated four men once at a tourney in Aulensburg, but there were six here, with arrows.

The Arimondan twitched his reins and his horse, a genuinely magnificent black, moved forward a few restive paces. "Fighting corans carrying armour sometimes give offense merely by their existence," the man said. "Who is it that you serve?" He spoke Arbonnais flawlessly, with scarcely a trace of an accent. He was clearly no stranger to this land. He was also observant. Blaise's armour was well wrapped under cloth on the pack pony; the Arimondan would have deduced what it was by shape.

But Blaise, too, was used to watching men closely, especially in a situation such as this, and out of the corner of his eye he saw one of the archers lean forward with the question, as if hanging upon the answer.

Blaise temporized. He had no real idea what was happening here. Outlaws on the roads were one thing, but these men were clearly trained and just as clearly asserting control over this part of the road. He wished he'd studied a map more closely before leaving Baude. It would have helped to know whose lands these were. He ought to have asked more questions at last night's inn.

He said, "I am traveling in peace on an open road. I mean no trespass. If such is your complaint, I will gladly pay a fair toll."

"I asked a question," the Arimondan said flatly. "Answer it."

Hearing that tone, Blaise felt his mouth go dry, even as a familiar anger began rising in him. He had his sword, and his bow was ready to hand in the saddle quiver, but if the three men behind the Arimondan knew how to shoot there was little hope in trying to fight. He considered cutting the rope that tied the pony to his grey and making a run for it, but he hated leaving his armour behind almost as much as he hated fleeing from an Arimondan.

"I am not in the custom of detailing my affairs to strangers with bows drawn," he said.

The Arimondan smiled slowly, as if the words were an unexpected gift. He gestured with his left hand, a negligent, graceful movement. All three archers loosed arrows. An instant later, with a queer, grunting sound, Blaise's pack pony collapsed behind him. Two arrows were in its neck and one was just below, near the heart. The pony was dead. The archers had already notched three more arrows.

Feeling the colour leave his face, Blaise heard the Arimondan laugh. "Tell me," the man said lazily, "Will you preserve what you call your customs when you are naked and bound face down in the dust to serve my pleasure like a boy bought for an hour?" The two other men, the ones without bows, had moved without visible instruction in opposite directions, cutting off both paths of flight for Blaise. One of them, Blaise saw, was smiling broadly.

"I asked a question," the Arimondan went on softly. The wind had dropped; his voice carried in the stillness. "The horse dies next if I am not answered. In whose service do you ride, Northerner?"

It was his beard, of course; it labelled him like a brand marked a thief or blue robes a priest of Corannos. Blaise drew a slow breath and, fighting hard to hold down his anger, sought shelter in the shade of the great—as Rudel had more than once put it.

"En Bertran de Talair has hired me for a season," he said.

They shot the horse.

But Blaise had had his clue from the one archer's straining manner the first time the question had been asked, and he had kicked his legs free of the stirrups even as he spoke. He landed on the far side of the screaming stallion and pulled his bow free and the dying horse downwards towards him in the same motion so that it offered protection when he dropped behind it. Firing from an almost prone position he killed the northernmost coran and, turning, shot the one guarding the southern path in the neck before the three archers could loose another volley. Then he dropped flat.

Two arrows hit his horse again and the third whizzed above his head. Blaise rose to one knee and fired twice, at speed. One archer died, screaming like the horse, and the second dropped in silence with an arrow in his throat. The third man hesitated, his mouth falling open with dismay. Blaise notched his fifth arrow and shot him calmly in the chest. He saw bright blood stain the dark green tunic before the man fell.

It was suddenly extremely quiet.

The Arimondan had not moved. His magnificent black thoroughbred was still as a statue, though with nostrils flared wide.

"Now you have given offense," the dark-skinned man said, his voice still silky and soft. "I see that you can shoot from hiding. Come now and we will see if you are a man among men with a sword as well. I will dismount."

Blaise stood up. "If I thought you a man I would do so," he said. His voice sounded oddly hollow to his own ears. The too-familiar pounding was in his head and his rage was still with him. "I want your horse. I will think of you with pleasure when I ride it." And with the words he loosed his sixth arrow and took the Arimondan through the heart.

The man rocked violently backwards with the impact, clinging to his last seconds of life under the brilliant sun. Blaise saw him draw a dagger then, one of the wickedly curved, bejewelled blades of his own country, and plunge it, even as he began to topple from his saddle, deep into the throat of his black stallion.

The man hit the ground as his horse surged high into the air on its hind legs, screaming in rage and fear. It came down and rose again immediately, trumpeting, lashing out with its hooves. Blaise notched a last arrow and let it fly, with passionate regret, to put the glorious creature out of pain. The stallion dropped and then rolled on one side. Its legs kicked out one more time and then were motionless.

Blaise stepped forward, moving around his own dead horse. The stillness in the clearing was eerie, broken only by the nervous whickering of the archers' mounts and the sound of the breeze picking up again. He realized that no birds were singing now.

A short while ago he had imagined that the wind of Arbonne in the leaves and vines whispered of refreshment and ease, of easy grace here in the warm south. Now there were six dead men in the grass by the side of the road. Not far away, looming in silence at the end of its avenue of elms, the massive arch looked down upon them all, keeping its secrets, bearing its own grim friezes of battle and death carved long ago.

Blaise's anger began to drain away, leaving behind the disorientation and nausea that seemed always to follow combat. Battle seldom fazed him now after so many years of it, but the aftermath left him vulnerable for a long time, trying to come to terms with what he was capable of doing when the fury of war swept over him. He looked across the grass at the Arimondan and shook his head. He had wanted, for a moment, to walk over and cut the dead man into pieces, to make things easier for the carrion dogs when they came. He swallowed and turned away.

As he did he saw a small boat with a white sail pulling up to the stony shore of the lake on the far side of the road. There was a grating sound as the craft grounded itself, and Blaise saw two men help a woman to alight. His heart thumped once, hard. The woman was tall, robed in crimson fringed with silver, and she had an owl on her shoulder.

Then he looked more closely, and with a second glance, undistorted by memory or fear, he saw that this was not the High Priestess from Rian's Island in the sea. This one was much younger and brown-haired and, manifestly, she had eyes with which to see. Nor was her bird white, as the one on the other island had been. She was a priestess, though, and the two men with her and the one other woman were also clergy of Rian. The boat was the one he'd seen tacking into the wind before. Beyond them, on the isle, the three plumes of smoke still rose into the summer sky.

"You are fortunate," the woman said, walking steadily across sand and gravel to stand before him on the grass beside the road. Her voice was mild but her eyes, appraising him, were steady and unreadable. Her hair was heavy and hung down her back, not covered or pinned. Blaise endured her scrutiny impassively, remembering the blindness of the High Priestess who had seen right through him nonetheless. He looked at the bird this one carried on her shoulder and felt an echo of the anxiety he'd felt in the forest on the island. It was almost unfair; the aftermath of combat left him susceptible to this.

"I daresay I am," he said, as calmly as he could. "I could not have expected to prevail against six. It seems the god has favoured me." That last was a challenge of sorts.

She didn't rise to the bait. "And Rian as well. We can bear witness for you that they attacked first."

"Bear witness?"

She smiled then, and that smile, too, took him back to the High Priestess in her night forest. "It would have served you better, Blaise of Gorhaut, to have been more curious about affairs in this part of the world."

He didn't like her tone, and he didn't know what she was talking about. His uneasiness increased; the women in this country were unimaginably difficult to deal with.

"How do you know my name?"

Again the secretive, superior smile, but this time he had expected it. "Did you imagine that once having been allowed to leave Rian's Island alive you were free of the goddess? We have marked you, Northerner. Thank us for it."

"Why? For following me?"

"Not following. We have been waiting for you. We knew you were coming. And as to the why… hear now what you should have learned already for yourself. A fortnight past, the countess in Barbentain had an edict proclaimed that any further killings among the corans of Talair or Miraval would result in property of the offending party being ceded to the crown. The troubadours and the clergy are carrying the tidings, and all the lords of Arbonne have been cited by name and formally bound to impose the edict by force if need be. You might have cost En Bertran a part of his land today had we not been here to give a report in your defence."

Blaise scowled, in part with relief, in part because this was indeed something he should have made a point of knowing before. "You will forgive me if I do not express dismay," he said. "I must admit I would not have valued his vineyards over my life, however much he proposes to pay me in wages."

The priestess laughed aloud. She was younger than a first impression had suggested. "Our forgiveness hardly need concern you… in this, at least. But Bertran de Talair is another matter. He might have fairly expected an experienced coran to avoid giving provocation before even arriving at his castle. There is an eastern way around the lake if you hadn't noticed, one that does not pass by the vineyards of Miraval."

The situation was, Blaise had to admit, becoming belatedly clear. And indeed, had he known these lands belonged to Urté de Miraval—or taken some pains to know—he would certainly have gone the other way. It was no secret, even to Blaise after a short time in Arbonne, that for reasons that apparently went years back into the past, the present lords of Miraval and Talair had no love for one another.

Blaise shrugged, to cover his discomfiture. "I have been riding all day, this path seemed easier. And I thought the countess of Arbonne stood surety for the safety of the roads in her land."

"Barbentain is a long way off, and local hatred will usually overmaster larger laws. A wise traveller will know where he is, particularly if he rides alone."

Which also was true, if arrogantly spoken by someone so young. He tried not to dwell on the arrogance. Clergy of all kinds seemed to have it as a collective quality. One of these days, though, he was going to have to try to sort out why he was so reluctant to pay more attention to the gossip, or even the geography and divisions of land here in Arbonne.

Behind the priestess he saw three other small boats being drawn up on the shore. Men and women in the robes of Rian disembarked and made their away over the grass to where the dead were lying. They began lifting the bodies and carrying them back to the boats.

Blaise glanced over his shoulder to where the Arimondan lay beside his slain horse. He turned back to the priestess. "Tell me, will Rian welcome such as he?"

She did not smile. "She waits for him," the priestess said calmly, "as she waits for all of us. Welcome and grace are other matters entirely." Her dark eyes held his own until Blaise looked away, beyond her, past the isle in the lake, to where a castle could be seen on the northern shore.

She turned and followed his gaze. "We will take you if you like," she said, surprising him. "Unless you want one of their horses for yourself?"

Blaise shook his head. "The only one worth having was killed by its rider." He felt a sour amusement suddenly. "I will be grateful for passage. Doesn't it seem apt… that I should arrive at Talair Castle in a craft of the goddess?"

"More apt than you know," she said, not responding to his tone all.

She gestured, and two of the priests moved to collect Blaise's armour and goods from the dead pony. Blaise himself took his saddle from his mount and, following the tall, slender form of the priestess, walked over grass and stone to her boat.

They put his gear on board as well, and then the craft was pushed free of the shore and with the west wind in the one sail and the sun low now behind them it went skimming across the waters of Lake Dierne.

As they approached the castle, Blaise registered with a practised, approving eye how well defended it was, poised on a crag above the lake with the water coming around on three sides and a deep moat carved to the north. A cluster of men had come down to the pier to wait for them. There was another boat already there, with two priests and a priestess in it; tidings would have preceded them then. As they drew near Blaise recognized Valery, Bertran's cousin, and then, surprisingly, Bertran himself stepped forward to neatly catch the rope thrown by the priest at the prow.

The duke of Talair crouched to tie their craft to an iron ring set in the wooden dock, then he straightened, looking expressionlessly at Blaise. There was no hint in his gaze of the eerie, late-night intimacy of their last conversation. Twenty-three years, Blaise remembered, suddenly. The last thing he'd heard this man say, in the dark of a stairway, speaking of a woman long ago: So much longer than I thought I would live.

"Welcome to Talair," Bertran said. The scar on his cheek was prominent in the clear light. He was dressed much as he had been when he came to Baude, in a coran's clothing made for the outdoors. His hair was uncovered, disordered by the wind. He smiled thinly, a crook of his mouth. "How does it feel to have made an enemy before you even report?"

"I have my share of enemies," Blaise said mildly. He felt calmer now; the ride across the lake and the memory of that dark stairwell in Baude had taken away the last of his battle mood. "One more or one less should not matter greatly. The god will take me when he is ready." He raised his voice slightly on that last, for someone else's benefit. "Do you really think the duke of Miraval will bother hating me for guarding my life when attacked?"

"Urté? He could," Bertran said judiciously. "Though it wasn't him I was thinking of, actually." He looked for a moment as if he would explain, but then he turned instead and began walking towards the castle. "Come," he said over his shoulder, "there is meat and drink inside and after we will help you choose a horse from the stable."

Broad-shouldered, greying Valery stepped forward and extended an arm. Blaise hesitated a moment, then grasped it, pulling himself forward onto the dock. His gear had already been lifted up by three other men. Blaise turned back to the boat. Already the line had been untied and the small craft was beginning to glide back out over the water. The young priestess had her back to him, but then, as if aware that he was looking, she turned.

She said nothing, nor did Blaise as the distance between boat and shore slowly increased. Her hair gleamed in the still warm light of the setting sun. The owl on her shoulder gazed away to the west. More apt than you know, she had said on that western shore, responding with weighty sobriety to an attempted irony. He didn't understand what she'd meant, he didn't understand it at all, and within him a spark of rekindled anger blazed. He'd meant to say goodbye and to thank her, but instead he watched for another moment and then turned away impassively.

Valery was waiting for him. Bertran's cousin had a wry expression on his face.

"Six men?" he said. "Fair to say you aren't arriving quietly."

"Five, and a catamite from Arimonda," Blaise said tersely. His anger was mostly gone though; he felt tired more than anything else. "I was riding quietly enough, and on the road. They shot my horse."

"The Arimondan," Valery murmured, looking out to sea after the withdrawing boat. "Remind me to tell you about him later."

"Why bother?" Blaise said. "He's dead."

Valery glanced curiously at him a moment, then shrugged. He turned and began walking. Blaise fell into step beside him. The two men went along the length of the pier and then up the narrow, increasingly steep path towards the castle of Talair. They came to the heavy doors, which were open, and they passed within to the sound of music playing.

PART II—Midsummer

CHAPTER 4

Walking briskly through the crowded streets, calling cheerful replies to people she knew and to some she didn't, Lisseut was reminded over and again why the Midsummer Carnival in Tavernel was her favourite time of the year. Colours and crowds and light, the knowledge of a season's touring ended with time before another began, the hinge and axis of the year. Midsummer was a time between times, a space in the round of the year where all seemed in suspension, when anything might happen or be allowed. After nightfall, she thought, that would certainly be true in a variety of ways.

A masked figure clad in green and bright yellow sprang in front of her, arms outspread; in a mock growl that clashed with his birdlike costume he demanded an embrace as passersby laughed. Sidestepping neatly, Lisseut pirouetted out of his grasp. "Bad luck to kiss a singer before sundown!" she called over her shoulder. She'd made that one up two years back; it seemed to work. And by sundown she was usually with friends and so shielded from anyone coming to assert a deferred claim.

Not that the claims would ever be a serious problem. Not here, and not for her—too many people knew who she was by now, and even among the wildest of the students, the joglars and troubadours had an exalted status in Tavernel, even more so during Carnival. It was a debauched season, but one with its hierarchies and rules nonetheless.

As she crossed Temple Square, where the silver domes of Rian's principal shrine faced the square, golden towers of Corannos's, the south breeze brought her an almost forgotten tang of salt from the port. Lisseut smiled, glad to be back by the sea after a long winter and spring touring inland and in the mountains. Reaching the far side of the square, she was suddenly overwhelmed by the smells of cooking food and remembered that she hadn't eaten since midday on the road. Easy enough to forget to eat in haste to be in town, knowing how many friends she'd not seen for a year would be arriving that day and the next. But the smells reminded her that she was ravenous. She nipped into a cookshop and emerged a moment later chewing on a leg of fried chicken, careful to keep the dripping grease from staining her new tunic.

The tunic was a present to herself after a very successful spring in the eastern hills, her best tour yet by far. First at the goddess's own temple for a fortnight, and then at lofty Ravenc Castle, where Gaufroy de Ravenc had been more than generous to her and to Alain of Rousset, the troubadour with whom she'd teamed up that season. She'd even had untroubled nights there in a room all to herself with a wonderfully soft bed, since En Gaufroy evidently preferred Alain's charms to her own. Which was fine with Lisseut; Alain's clever verses, her own singing and whatever took place in the lord's chambers at night had led Gaufroy into a humour of exceptional largess when it came time for the two of them to leave.

When she'd briefly parted with Alain at Rousset town a few days after—he was planning to spend some time with his family before coming down to Tavernel, and she was committed to a performance at Corannos's shrine near Gavela—he was highly complimentary about her work and invited her to join him on the same circuit in a year's time. He was an easy man to work for and Lisseut found his songs well-crafted if less than inspired; she had had no hesitation about agreeing. A few of the other troubadours might offer richer, more challenging material for a joglar—Jourdain, Aurelian, certainly Remy of Orreze—but there was much to be said for Alain's relaxed congeniality, and something also to be said for the bonus his night-time skills offered with the priests and lords at certain temples and castles. Lisseut considered herself honoured to have been asked; it was her first repeat contract after three years on the roads, and the joglars of Arbonne fought and schemed for such offers from the better-known troubadours. She and Alain were to seal the agreement at the Guildhall before Carnival ended. A great many contracts would be negotiated and sealed this week; it was one of the reasons virtually all the musicians made a point of being there.

There were other reasons, of course; Carnival was sacred to Rian, as all Midsummer's rites were, and the goddess was patroness and guardian of all music in Arbonne, and so of all the itinerant performers who crossed back and forth along the dusty roads singing songs and shaping them in the name of love. One came to Tavernel at Midsummer at least as much in homage to Rian as for anything else.

That said, it had to be conceded that Carnival was also the wildest, least inhibited, most enjoyable time of the year for anyone not in mourning, or incapacitated, or dead.

Lisseut finished her chicken leg, paused to wipe her hands with elaborate fastidiousness on the apron of a portly, grinning fruit seller, and bought an orange from him. She rubbed it quickly on his crotch for luck, drawing ribald laughter from the crowd and a groan of mock desire from the man. Laughing herself, feeling glad to be alive and young and a singer in Arbonne in summer-time, Lisseut continued down towards the harbour and then right at the first crossing lane and saw the familiar, much-loved sign of The Liensenne swinging above the street.

As always, it felt like coming home. Home was really Vezét, of course, on the coast further east with the famous olive groves climbing up behind it, but this, the original "Tavern in Tavernel" for which Anselme of Cauvas had written his song years and years ago, was a kind of second home for all the musicians of Arbonne. Marotte, the proprietor, had served as a surrogate father and confidant for half the younger joglars and poets in his day, including Lisseut herself when she had first said goodbye to her parents and her home and followed her troubadour uncle onto the road, trusting in her voice and music to feed her and her mother-wits to keep her alive. Less than four years ago, that was. It seemed a much longer time. Grinning, she jauntily tipped her feathered hat to the lute-playing figure on the signboard—it was said to be a rendition of Folquet de Barbentain, the original troubadour-count himself—nodded back at a broad wink from one man amongst a crowd of half a dozen playing pitch-coin outside the door and stepped inside. She knew her mistake the instant she did so. Knew it even before Remy's exultant, skirling howl of triumph assaulted her ears over the din, even before Aurelian, standing next to Remy, intoned "Nine!" in a voice deep as doom, even before she saw the flushed hilarious crowd of musicians holding a dripping, moustachioed, furiously expostulating Arimondan upside-down over the accursed basin of water, preparing to dunk him again. Even before the covey of coin-pitchers outside pushed quickly in right behind her, cackling in glee.

She knew this tradition, in Rian's holy name! What had she been thinking of? She'd even nodded like a fatuous bumpkin at the people gathered outside waiting for the ritual ninth to enter, thus making it safe for them to follow. Friendly, simple-minded Lisseut, nodding happily on her way to a ducking only the ignorant were supposed to receive.

And now Remy, looking quite unfairly magnificent, bright hair in ringlets on his forehead, damp with perspiration, blue eyes positively glittering with hilarity, was swiftly approaching, followed by Aurelian and Jourdain and Dumars and even—oh the perfidy of it all! — the laughing figure of Alain, her erstwhile partner, along with fully half a dozen others, including Elisse of Cauvas, who was enjoying this unexpected development quite as much as she might be expected to. Lisseut registered Elisse's mocking smile and furiously cursed her own stupidity again. She looked around frantically for an ally, spotted Marotte behind the bar and pitched a plea for help at the top of her highly regarded voice.

Grinning from ear to ear, her surrogate father shook his head. No help there. Not at Midsummer in Tavernel. Quickly, Lisseut turned back to Remy, smiling in her most endearingly winsome fashion.

"Hello, my dear," she began sweetly. "And how have you been this—"

She got no further than that. Moving as gracefully as ever, Remy of Orreze, her former lover—every woman's former lover, someone had once said, though not bitterly—slipped neatly under her instinctive, warding gesture, put a shoulder to her midriff and had her hoisted in the air before Lisseut could even try to phrase some remotely plausible reason why she should be exonerated from the water-ducking. A dozen pairs of hands, both before and behind, hastened to assist him in bearing her aloft like some sacrifice of the Ancients towards the ducking basin by the bar. Every year! Lisseut was thinking, grasped too tightly to even struggle. We do this every cursed year! Where was my brain just now?

In the chaos around her she noticed that Aurelian had already turned back to the door to resume his counting. Remy had her around the waist from below and was tickling now, which was inexcusable, given what he ought to have remembered about her. Cursing, giggling helplessly, Lisseut felt her flailing elbow crack into something and was unconscionably pleased a second later to note that it was Elisse who staggered back, swearing like a soldier herself and holding a hand to the side of her head. Holy Rian must have guided her elbow; there was no one else in the room she would actually have wanted to hit! Well, with the exception of Remy, perhaps. She frequently wanted to hit Remy of Orreze. Many of them did, when they weren't listening intently to some favoured joglar singing his newest song.

Lisseut saw the basin loom beneath her. She felt herself being swung completely upside-down. Her feathered hat, which was also new, and expensive, flew from her head undoubtedly to be crushed underfoot amid the densely packed, raucously shouting crowd. Through the arc of a swiftly inverting world she glimpsed her dripping-wet Arimondan predecessor being unceremoniously bundled aside. Dragging a quick breath of tavern air into her lungs, still cursing herself for a dewy-eyed fool, Lisseut closed her eyes tightly as they swung her down into the water.

It wasn't water.

"Marotte!" she cried, spluttering and gasping when they finally lifted her out. "Marotte, do you know what he's done! This isn't—"

"Down!" Remy commanded, cackling uproariously. Lisseut frantically sucked air again just before she was once more submerged.

They held her under for a long time. When she finally surfaced, it took all her strength to twist her neck towards the bar and croak, "It's wine, Marotte! Cauvas sparkling! He's using—"

"Down!" Remy shrieked again, but not before Lisseut heard a howl of outrage from Marotte.

"What? Cauvas? Remy, I'll flay you alive! Are you dunking people in my best—?"

Pushed back under, her ears stopped, Lisseut heard no more, but a small, inner glint of satisfaction made the last ducking easier to endure. She even took a quick swig of the wine before they pulled her out for the third and final time. Cauvas sparkling gold was not something young joglars tasted very often, even conceding that being dunked head first into a basin of it after an oiled and perfumed Arimondan was not the connoisseur's preferred mode of consumption.

They swung her out and righted her in time for Lisseut to see a red-faced Marotte confronting Remy across the bar top.

"Carnival tithe, Marotte!" the fair-haired darling of the troubadours was saying, eyes alight with mischief. "You'll make more than enough off all of us this week to cover the cost."

"You madman, this is a sacrilege!" Marotte expostulated, looking as truly outraged as only a lover of fine wines could. "Do you know what Cauvas wine costs? And how many bottles you've wasted in there? How in the name of Rian did you get into my cellars?"

"Really, Marotte," Remy retorted with lofty, exaggerated disdain, "did you really expect a padlock to keep me out?" A number of people laughed.

"Seven!" Aurelian said crisply, his low voice cutting through the hilarity in the room. Everyone—including Lisseut, vigorously drying her face and hair with the towel one of the servers had kindly offered—turned expectantly towards the door. A young, red-headed student came in, blinked a little at the scrutiny he was subjected to and made his way uncertainly towards the bar. He ordered a flagon of ale. No one paid him any attention. They were watching the entrance.

They didn't have long to wait. The eighth person in was a broad-shouldered, competent-looking coran of middle years. As it happened, a number of those in the tavern knew him very well, including Lisseut. But before she had a chance to properly register and react to the enormity of what was about to happen the next man, the ninth, had already passed through the door.

"Oh, dearest god!" Marotte the innkeeper murmured, in an entirely uncharacteristic appeal to Corannos. In the abrupt silence his voice sounded very loud. The ninth was Duke Bertran de Talair.

"Nine," said Aurelian, an unnecessary confirmation. His voice was hushed, almost reverential. He turned to Remy. "But I really don't think… " he began.

Remy of Orreze was already moving forward, his handsome face shining, a wild, hilarious look in the blue eyes beneath the damp ringlets of his hair.

"Hoist him!" he cried. "We all know the rules—the ninth is ducked in Rian's name! Seize the duke of Talair!"

Valery, the coran, Bertran's cousin and old friend, actually stepped aside, grinning broadly as he sized up the situation. The duke himself, beginning to laugh, held up both hands to forestall the swiftly approaching Remy. Jourdain, very drunk already, was right behind Remy, with Alain and Elisse and a handful of others following a little more cautiously. Lisseut, mouth open in disbelief, realized in that moment that Remy was actually going to do it: he was about to lay hands on one of the most powerful men in Arbonne in order to dunk him in a tub of water. Correction, she thought, a tub of vintage, insanely expensive sparkling Cauvas wine. Remy—mad, cursed, blessed, impossible Remy—was going to do it.

He would have, if another man, clad in the blue-on-blue colours of Talair but with a full, reddish-brown beard and features that stamped him unmistakably as from Gorhaut, had not stepped forward from the doorway behind Bertran just then and levelled a drawn blade at Remy's breast.

Remy's reckless, giddy motion was carrying him forward over the slippery floor too swiftly to stop. From her place by the basin, Lisseut, hands flying to her mouth, saw the whole thing clearly. Bertran quickly spoke a name, but even before he did the man with the sword had shifted it aside. Not all the way, though, just enough for the tip to glance off Remy's left arm and away.

It drew blood. The man had meant to draw blood, Lisseut was almost certain of it. She saw her former lover come to an awkward, stumbling halt and clutch at his arm below the shoulder. His hand came away streaked with crimson. She couldn't see his expression, but it was easy enough to guess. There was a collective growl of anger from the musicians and students gathered in The Liensenne. The rule against drawn blades in taverns was as old as the university; indeed, it was one of the things that had permitted the university to survive. And Remy of Orreze, for all his impossible ways, was one of them. One of their leaders, in fact, and the big man who had just bloodied him with a blade was from Gorhaut.

In that tense moment, with the scene in the tavern on the brink of turning ugly, Bertran de Talair laughed aloud.

"Really, Remy," he said, "I don't think that would have been a good idea, much as Valery might have enjoyed suspending his own good judgment long enough to see me ducked." He flicked a sidelong glance at his cousin who, surprisingly, flushed. The bearded man with the drawn sword had not yet sheathed it. Now he did, at a nod from de Talair.

"I think Aurelian might have been trying to tell you as much," En Bertran went on. Lanky, dark-haired Aurelian had indeed remained by the bar, not far from Lisseut. He said nothing, watching the scene with sober, careful attention.

"You know the rules of Carnival," Remy said stoutly, his head high. "And your hired northern lout has just broken the city laws of Tavernel. Shall I report him to the seneschal?"

"Probably," Bertran said carelessly. "Report me as well. I should have told Blaise about the sword laws before we came. Report us both, Remy."

Remy gave a hollow laugh. "Much good that would do, me sending the duke of Talair to justice." He paused, breathing hard. "Bertran, you're going to have to decide one day: are you one of us, or are you a duke of Arbonne. By all rights you should be upside-down now over that basin, and you know it."

Genuinely amused, ignoring the presumption of Remy's using his name without a title, de Talair laughed again. "You should never have left your studies, my dear. A little more Rhetoric would have done you a world of good. That is as false a dichotomy as ever I've heard."

Remy shook his head. "This is the real world, no scholar's cloudland of dreams. In the real world choices have to be made."

Lisseut saw the duke's amused expression change then, and even at a distance she was chilled by what succeeded it. It was as if de Talair's tolerance had just been taken past some breaking point.

"And are you now going to tell me," he said coldly to Remy of Orreze, "how things operate in the real world? Are you, Remy? With two Arimondans here that I can see and a table from Portezza, none of whom I know, and a Gotzlander at the bar, and the goddess knows how many others upstairs in Marotte's bedrooms… you are going to tell me that in the real world, as you choose to conceive of it, a duke of Arbonne should have let himself be dunked in a barrel of water just now? I can tolerate insolence sometimes, but I'm afraid I can't indulge it. Think, lad. Sober up a little and use your brain."

"It isn't water," someone said. Uneasy laughter slid through the grim stillness that had followed the duke's words. Lisseut could see a crimson flush on the back of Remy's neck. She looked over at Aurelian; he was gazing back at her. They exchanged a glance of shared apprehension and concern.

"He filled the basin with Cauvas gold, my lord," Marotte added, bustling busily out from behind the bar now, striving to lighten the mood. "If you want him bloodied again I'll be pleased to volunteer."

"A whole basin of Cauvas?" En Bertran was smiling again, helping the innkeeper. "If that is true I may have been too hasty. Perhaps I should let myself be ducked!" There was a gust of relieved laughter; Lisseut found herself breathing more easily. "Come on, Remy," the Duke added, "let me buy us a bottle while Blaise takes care of that arm he cut."

"Thank you, no," said Remy with stiff pride. Lisseut knew all about that pride; she shook her head in exasperation. "I'll look after it myself." He paused. "And as it happens, I prefer drinking with other musicians during Carnival, not dukes of Arbonne."

His head high, he turned his back on Bertran and walked across the room and through the door beside the bar towards the chambers at the rear of the inn. He went past Lisseut without even acknowledging her presence. A moment later, Aurelian offered Bertran an apologetic grimace, shrugged at Lisseut and followed Remy out, pausing to collect a pitcher of water and clean towels from Marotte.

It was all very interesting, Lisseut thought. Ten minutes before, Remy of Orreze had been utterly in command of this room, a man in his element, shaping the mood of a late afternoon at Carnival. Now he suddenly seemed to be no more than a young inebriate, his last words sounding childish more than anything else, for all the proud dignity of his exit. He would know it, too, she realized, which probably accounted for the aggrieved tone she'd heard creeping into his voice at the end.

She actually felt sorry for him, and not because of the wound, which didn't appear to be serious. She was fully aware of how much Remy would hate knowing she felt that way. Smiling inwardly, Lisseut happily resolved to make a point of telling him later—a first measure of retaliation for her ruined tunic and trampled hat. Remy's art might demand respect and admiration, and his manic humour and inventiveness had shaped memorable nights for all of them, but that didn't mean there was no room for the taking of small revenges.

Looking over towards the duke, Lisseut saw the bearded Gorhaut coran glancing about the crowded room of musicians with an undisguised look of disdain on his face. She was suddenly sorry he'd been the one to wound Remy. No one should be allowed to draw a blade against a troubadour in this tavern and then wear an expression like that afterwards; particularly not a stranger, and most particularly not one from Gorhaut. Until the sun dies and the moons fall, Gorhaut and Arbonne shall not lie easily beside each other. Her grandfather used to say that, and her father had continued to use the phrase, often after returning from the Autumn Fair in Lussan with whatever profit he'd made from his olives and olive oil, trading with the northerners.

Lisseut, her anger rising, stared at the big coran from the north, wishing someone in the room would say something to him. He looked insufferably smug, gazing down on them all from his great height. Only Aurelian was as tall a man, but Aurelian had gone with Remy, and the lean musician, for all his unassuming brilliance, would not have been the man to face down this one. With a quick shrug that was more characteristic than she knew, Lisseut stepped forward herself.

"You are arrogant," she said to the northerner, "and have no business looking so pleased with yourself. If your liege lord will not tell you as much, one of us will have to: the man you injured may have been frivolous just now in a Carnival mood, but he is twice the man you are, with or without an illegal blade, and he will be remembered in this world long after you are dust and forgotten."

The mercenary—Blaise, the duke had called him—blinked in surprise. Up close he seemed younger than she'd first guessed, and there was actually a slightly different look in his eyes than Lisseut had thought she'd seen from by the bar. She wasn't certain what name to put to it, but it wasn't precisely haughtiness. Bertran de Talair was grinning, and so, unexpectedly, was Valery. Lisseut, registering their glances, was abruptly reminded that she was dripping wet from tangled hair to waist, and her new blouse was probably a dreadful sight and clinging to her much more closely than it should, in all decency. She felt herself flushing, and hoped it would be seen as anger.

"And there you have it, Blaise," the duke was saying. "Dust and forgotten. And more proof for you—if ever you needed it—of how terrible our women are, especially after they've been held upside-down. What would happen to this one back in Gorhaut? Do tell us."

For a long time the bearded coran was silent, looking down at Lisseut. His eyes were a curious hazel colour, nearly green in the lamplight. Almost reluctantly, but quite clearly, he said, "For speaking so to an anointed coran of the god in a public place she would be stripped to the waist and whipped on her belly and back by officers of the king. After, if she survived, the man so insulted would be entitled to do whatever he wanted with her. Her husband, if she had one, would be free to divorce her with no consequences at law or in the eyes of the clergy of Corannos."

The silence that followed was frigid. There was something deathly in it, like ice in the far north, infinitely removed from the mood of Carnival. Until the sun dies and the moons fall…

Lisseut suddenly felt faint, her knees trembled, but she forced her eyes to hold those of the northerner. "What, then, are you doing here?" she said hardily, using the voice control she'd so arduously mastered in her apprenticeship with her uncle. "Why don't you go back where you can do that sort of thing to women who speak their mind or defend their friends? Where you could do whatever you wanted with me and no one would gainsay you?"

"Yes, Blaise," Bertran de Talair added, still inexplicably cheerful. "Why don't you go back?"

A moment later, the big man surprised Lisseut. His mouth quirked sideways in a wry smile. He shook his head. "I was asked by the man who pays my wages what would be done to you in Gorhaut," he answered mildly enough, looking straight at Lisseut, not at the duke. "I think En Bertran was amusing himself: he has travelled enough to know exactly what the laws on such matters are in Gorhaut, and in Valensa and Gotzland, for that matter—for they are much the same. Did I say, incidentally, that I agreed with those laws?"

"Do you agree with them?" Lisseut pursued, aware that this room, among all her friends, was probably the only place on earth where she would have been quite so aggressive.

The man called Blaise pursed his lips reflectively before answering; Lisseut was belatedly realizing that this was no thick-witted northern lout.

"The duke of Talair just now humiliated a troubadour you say will be famous long after I am forgotten. He as much as called him an uneducated, drunken schoolboy. At a guess, that will have hurt rather more than the scratch from my blade. Will you agree that there are times when authority must be asserted? Or, if not, are you brave enough to turn that fire of yours against the duke right now? I'm the easy target, an outsider in a room full of people you know. Would that be a part of why you are pushing me like this? Would it be a fair thing to be doing?"

He was unexpectedly clever, but he hadn't answered her question.

"You haven't answered her question," said Bertran de Talair.

Blaise of Gorhaut smiled again, the same wry, sideways expression as before; Lisseut had a sense that he'd almost been expecting that from the duke. She wondered how long they'd known each other. "I'm here, aren't I?" he said quietly. "If I agreed with those laws I'd be home right now, wouldn't I, very likely wed to a properly disciplined woman, and very likely plotting an invasion of Arbonne with the king and all the corans of Gorhaut." He raised his voice at the end, quite deliberately. Lisseut, out of the corner of her eye, saw the Portezzans at their booth by the near wall exchange quick glances with each other.

"All right, Blaise," Bertran said sharply, "you have made your point. That is rather enough, I think."

Blaise turned to him. Lisseut realized that his eyes had not left hers from the time she'd approached, though his last point, whatever it actually was, had clearly been meant for the duke. "I think so too," the big coran said softly. "I think it is more than enough."

"Enough of what?" came an assured voice from the doorway. "Is something over too soon? Have I missed an entertainment?»

When Bertran de Talair grew pale, Blaise knew, the scar on his cheek became extremely prominent. He had seen it happen before, but not like this. The duke had gone rigid with anger or shock but he did not turn around. Valery did, very swiftly, moving so that his body was between Bertran's and the door.

"What are you doing here?" said de Talair, his back to the person addressed. His voice was cold as winter moonlight. Blaise registered that fact and moved, belatedly, to stand beside Valery. Even as he did, the crowd of men and women between them and the door was shifting awkwardly out of the way to reveal, as a parting curtain before a stage, the man standing in the entrance to the tavern.

He was huge, Blaise saw, robed in extravagantly expensive dark green satin trimmed with white fur, even in summer. Easily sixty years old, his grey hair cropped close like a soldier's, he stood lightly balanced, for all his size, and his posture was straight-backed and arrogant.

"What am I doing here?" he echoed mockingly. The voice was memorable, deep and resonant. "Isn't this where the singers are? Is this not Carnival? Cannot a man seek the solace and pleasure of music at such a time?"

"You hate musicians," Bertran de Talair said harshly, biting off his words. He still had not turned. "You kill singers, remember?"

"Only the impertinent ones," the other man said indifferently. "Only those who forget where they are and sing what they should not. And that was a long time ago, after all. Men can change, surely, as we move towards our waiting graves. Age can mellow us." There was nothing mellow about that tone, though. What Blaise heard was mockery, savage, acid-dipped.

And suddenly he knew who this had to be.

His eyes flicked to either side of the speaker, taking the measure of the three green-garbed corans flanking him. All wore swords, regardless of whatever laws Tavernel might have, and all three looked as if they knew how to use them.

He had a flashing memory of a path by Lake Dierne, six dead men in the spring grass. The crowd had fallen well back, leaving a cleared space around the two parties by the door. Blaise was aware that the slim, brown-haired woman, the one who had accosted him, was still standing just behind him.

"I will not banter with you," Bertran said quietly. His back was still to the door, to the huge man standing there with malice in his flint-grey eyes. "One more time, why are you here, my lord of Miraval?"

Urté de Miraval, framed massively in the doorway of The Liensenne, did not reply. Instead his heavy gaze, eyes deep-hooded in his face, swung over to look at Blaise. Ignoring Bertran's question as if it had been asked by an importuning farm labourer, he fixed Blaise with an appraising scrutiny. He smiled then, but there was no lessening of the malice in his expression.

"Unless I am greatly wrong," he said, "and I do not think I am, this will be the northerner who is so free with his bow to shed the blood of other men." The corans beside him shifted slightly. The motion, Blaise noted, freed space for their swords to be drawn.

"Your corans shot my pony and my horse," Blaise said quietly. "I had reason to believe they were minded to kill me."

"They would have been," Urté de Miraval agreed, almost pleasantly. "Should I forgive you six deaths for that reason? I don't think I shall, and even if I were minded to, there is another aggrieved party in the case. A man who will be exceedingly happy to learn that you are here tonight. He might even join us later, which will be interesting. So many accidents happen amid the crowds of Carnival; it is one of the regrettable aspects of the celebration, wouldn't you agree?"

Blaise read the transparent threat; what he didn't know was its origin. From Valery's stiffened posture he sensed that the other man did.

"There is a law passed regarding killings between Miraval and Talair," Bertran's cousin said sharply from Blaise's side. "You know it well, my lord duke."

"Indeed, I do. So, if it comes to that, did my six slain men. If only our beloved countess in Barbentain could pass laws that guarded against the mishaps of a riotous night in the city. Would that not be a pleasant thing, a reassuring thing?" His eyes swung back from Valery to Blaise and settled there, with the predatory quality of a hunting cat.

And with that, Bertran de Talair finally turned to confront the man in the doorway.

"You frighten no one," he said flatly. "There is nothing but sour rancour in you. Even the grapes on your land taste of it. A last time, my lord of Miraval, for I will not permit this exchange to continue: why are you here?"

Again there was to be no reply, or not from the man addressed. Instead, a woman, hooded and cloaked, stepped around him and into the room from where she'd been hidden behind his bulk.

"Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!" she said. "This isn't at all what I wanted to happen." The words were contrite and distressed; the tone was as far from such feelings as it could possibly be. In that lazy drawl Blaise heard boredom and vexation, and more than a hint of power. Not another one, he thought. Not another of these women.

Astonishment and a different kind of anger flashed in the eyes of Bertran de Talair.

"Ariane, what, precisely, do you think you are doing? Is this a game? If so you have overreached yourself."

Ariane. Ariane de Carenzu, who was queen of the Court of Love. The woman so sharply addressed brought up one elaborately ringed hand and cast back her hood, shaking free her hair with an unconcerned motion.

She's married, though, Blaise thought stupidly. Her hair is supposed to be bound up, even in Arbonne. It wasn't. Her hair was thick and raven dark, and as he watched it fell in waves down her back, liberated from the transitory confines of the hood. There was a confused, excited murmur in the room. Looking at the woman standing beside Urté de Miraval, momentarily unable, in fact, to look away from her, Blaise thought he understood why.

"Overreach?" she said now, very quietly. "I don't think I allow language like that even from a friend, Bertran. I wasn't aware that I needed permission from you to visit The Liensenne.»

"You need no such thing. But you also know that—"

"I know only that the duke of Miraval was kind enough to invite me to join his company this evening to observe the delights of Carnival, and I was happy to accept. I would also have thought, evidently wrongly, that two high lords of Arbonne might, for tonight at least, lay down a petty feud they carry, at least enough to be civil in the company of women and on the night dedicated to the goddess."

"A petty feud?" Bertran echoed, incredulity in his voice.

Urté de Miraval laughed. "This is becoming tedious in the extreme," he said. "I came to hear what passes for music this season in Tavernel, not to bandy words in a doorway with a choleric degenerate. Whose songs are we hearing tonight?"

There was a stiff, short silence, then:

"Mine," said Alain of Rousset clearly. "We will hear my songs, if you like. Lisseut, will you be good enough to sing for us?"

It was, she thought much later, when she had space for calmer reflection on the turbulent events of that night, not so greatly surprising when looked at in a certain light. Remy and Aurelian were both out of the room, and Bertran was certainly not going to have his own verses sung at Urté de Miraval's request; of the troubadours who remained, Alain had more ambition than most and as much right to step forward as any, and since she'd just finished a season of touring with him it was perfectly logical that he ask her to perform.

All such clear thinking came afterwards, though. At the moment, Lisseut was aware only that she had just been humiliatingly inverted in a tub of Cauvas gold wine, that there was a spreading puddle beneath her feet, that her clothing was ruined, her hair soaked, and in such a resplendent condition she was now being asked to sing—for the first time-in the presence of three of the most powerful personages in Arbonne, one of whom also happened to be the most celebrated troubadour of their day.

She made a small, gulping sound in her throat, hoping immediately after that no one had heard. The big coran from Gorhaut turned, though, and favoured her with an ironic scrutiny from behind his thick, reddish beard. She glared fiercely up at him, and that brief surge of anger, as much as anything else, calmed her momentary attack of fright. With what she hoped was a casual gesture she tossed the towel she was still holding to the bearded man and turned to Alain.

"I would be honoured," she said, as calmly as she could.

Alain's face, visibly contending with anxieties of his own, didn't much help her to relax. She understood, of course: the troubadour was boldly seizing an unexpected chance to make a bid for wider renown—and was handing her the opportunity to do the same. A moment such as this, singing in The Liensenne at Midsummer Carnival before the dukes of Talair and Miraval and the reigning queen of the Court of Love… Lisseut blinked and swallowed. If she thought too much about the potential implications of what seemed about to happen she would probably make herself sick.

Fortunately, the next face she focused on was Marotte's, and the delighted encouragement she read in the innkeeper's visage was exactly what she needed. Someone brought her a harp, someone else placed a low stool and a floor cushion in the usual place near the booths on the left-hand wall, and somehow Lisseut found herself sitting there, holding and tuning the harp, even as she adjusted the cushion for comfort.

She was still wet, if not actually dripping any more, and she'd had no time at all to prepare. Glancing up, she saw Duke Bertran walking over, a thin smile playing about his lips. It didn't reach his eyes, though. With Urté de Miraval in the room, Lisseut doubted if En Bertran could actually be amused by anything. The duke removed his lightweight summer cloak and draped it loosely over her shoulders.

"You'll catch a chill otherwise," he said mildly. "If you leave it draped so, it won't get in the way of your hands." The first words he'd ever spoken to her. He turned and walked away, to sink gracefully into one of the three cushioned chairs Marotte had hastily provided near the performing area. Lisseut had a moment to absorb the fact that she was now wearing the midnight-blue cloak of the duke of Talair before Alain of Rousset, two spots of excitement showing on his cheeks, came over and said, softly, for her ears alone, "The 'Garden Song, I think. Sing it, don't shout it, Lisseut."

The troubadours' ancient, standard injunction to their joglars rang almost unheard in Lisseut's ears. What registered was that in his choice of song Alain was offering her another gift. She smiled up at him, confidently she hoped. He hesitated a moment, as if about to say more, but then he too withdrew, leaving her alone in the space where music was made.

Lisseut thought of her father, as she always did when she needed to find serenity and sureness, then she looked out over the slowly quieting crowd and said, pitching her voice carefully, "Here is a liensenne of the troubadour Alain of Rousset. I sing it tonight in honour of the goddess and of the Lady Ariane de Carenzu, who has graced us with her presence here." Better that, she thought, than trying to sort out some kind of precedence. She was conscious though, very conscious, that she was wearing En Bertran's cloak. It was scented with an elusive fragrance. She didn't have time to decipher what it was. What she did realize, as she always did before she sang—a fleeting awareness but real as the stones of a wall—was that moments like this, with music about to follow, were why she lived, what made her feel most truly alive.

She began with the harp alone, as Gaetan, her father's brother, had taught her years ago, letting the audience settle, and then, when the stillness was deep enough, she sang.

When you came into my garden,

When you came to tell me of your love,

The one moon in the sky

Seemed brighter than the sun

And a white light was shining in my heart.

When you took me in your arms,

To whisper words of a long desire,

The scents of the garden

Were my garments in the dark

And day a distant rumour of despair

It was a well-made song, if not a brilliant one. Alain knew his craft and he was young enough to be maturing still. The special thing though—the gift this song offered Lisseut—was that it was written for a woman's voice. There weren't many, which was why the female joglars of Arbonne spent much of their time transposing tunes written for male voices and ignoring as best they could the obvious inappropriateness of most of the themes.

In this piece Alain had changed a great many elements of the traditional liensenne, shifting the narrative to the woman's point of view, while keeping enough of the familiar motifs to leave the audience in no doubt as to what they were hearing and appraising. Lisseut, keeping her instrumental ornamentation to a minimum, took them through it, serving the song as best she could, in simplicity. It was a long tune—most of the formal liensennes were, for audiences would balk and complain at the absence of elements they were expecting. The troubadour's challenge in this kind of song lay in using all of a the familiar motifs while making them vivid and new, in whatever ways his art allowed. Lisseut sang the rising of the second moon, the customary menace of jealous, prying eyes, a formulaic, if rather clever stanza on the three flowers that traditionally sheltered lovers, another on the trusted friend watching out from beyond the wall with his mood-shattering warning of sunrise, and the lovers' parting words.

It was honest, professional work, and she knew she had the listeners with her. Even here, with an audience as profoundly versed as this one was, Lisseut knew, the way she sometimes did in the midst of performing, that she was doing justice to Alain's words and music. She was holding something in reserve, though, for the ending, for the place where Alain of Rousset had surprised even himself by reaching for something more than the usual closing platitudes of love triumphant and enduring and had found instead the rather more painful integrity of art.

Lisseut allowed herself the briefest pause, no more, for more would be to point the change, the new thing, too greatly and mar the effect; then she pitched her voice upwards towards sorrow and sang the last verse of the song.

When you come to say goodbye,

When you come to say that you will wed,

Do one thing for me

In memory of love,

Bring balm for the breaking of my heart.

She looked at Bertran de Talair for a moment as she began, then at the bearded coran behind him, but she ended gazing out over the heads of her listeners at the doorway beside the bar through which Remy and Aurelian had gone. A reprise of the opening notes, as an echo of what had passed, a chord for the watchman, a chord for the garden nights that were gone, and she was done.

In Bertran's blue cloak the brown-haired girl looked delicate and fragile, not exalted, Blaise thought. She was more clever-looking than formally beautiful, but there was no missing—even for him—the purity of her voice, and the unexpected sadness at the very end of the song caught him for a moment. He didn't know the new thing that note of sorrow represented, but he could hear the sound of it, and the meaning of the words took his mind down unusual channels. Not for long of course: he wasn't inclined to that sort of thing, by background or experience—but for just a moment Blaise of Gorhaut, looking at the slender woman sitting on the low stool with Bertran de Talair's cloak around her, held, in his mind's eye, a clear image of a woman in a garden, weeping for the loss of love.

"Oh, wonderful," Ariane de Carenzu said in an oddly wistful voice, far removed from her imperious tones of before. The words carried clearly in the stillness that followed the last notes of the harp, and with them came the release of a tautness like the tension of a drawn bow in the room. Blaise drew a long breath and noted, with some surprise, that most of the people around him were doing the same.

There would have been other cries of approval doubtless, a swelling of applause to honour the singer and the troubadour who'd written the song, but just then the door to The Liensenne banged loudly open, letting in raucous noises from the darkening street outside. Blaise turned quickly to look and saw who was standing there, and the shape and nature of the evening changed entirely in that moment.

He was looking at the man he had killed on the black horse by Lake Dierne.

CHAPTER 5

It wasn't, of course. It wasn't the same man; the dead remained dead, even here in Arbonne, even on Midsummer Eve. But the dark-skinned, arrogant look was the same, the heft and build, the muscled, dangerous quality of the Arimondan was exactly as Blaise remembered it from that afternoon by the lake with the Arch of the Ancients just beyond.

And the man was gazing at him with a look compounded equally of hatred and fierce joy.

Beside Blaise, Valery said quickly out of the side of his mouth, "I did mean to tell you before. I should have. His brother, same birth. Be very careful."

Blaise registered this without taking his eyes off the Arimondan by the door. The man was clad in the green livery of Miraval and he, too, wore a sword, the curved blade of his own country.

Urté de Miraval rose, without haste; so too, on the other side of Ariane de Carenzu, did Bertran. The lady remained sitting, though she had turned in her chair to glance over her shoulder at the door.

"Quzman," said the duke of Miraval, "I wondered where you were, and so long. See, as I promised you, there is a Gorhautian coran here you have expressed a desire to meet."

"I do see that," said the Arimondan. His voice was deep, almost musical. He smiled. "I am most pleased. In my country we have a saying: murderers must be dealt with swiftly lest the green grass wither beneath their tread. Will you come outside with me, or do you only fight from a distance?"

"It was not murder," said Valery sharply before Blaise could reply. "The priests and priestesses of Rian's Isle were witnesses and have told their tale."

The man called Quzman seemed not to have heard. There was something uncanny about his smile, the way his entire being seemed focused upon Blaise. Once, in a Gotzland castle, Blaise had seen a man look at another in that way, and death had followed before the night was done. Now, in response to the nakedness of this challenge, Blaise felt his own anger rekindling, a memory of the encounter by the lake, the luxuriously articulated, ugly words of the Arimondan on the black horse.

"You do seem distressed," he said to the man by the door, keeping his own voice relaxed, almost lazy, in the way his friend Rudel or even Bertran de Talair would say this thing. "Tell me, did I kill your brother or your lover there? Or were they one and the same?"

"Careful!" Valery whispered urgently again. But Blaise had the pleasure of seeing the Arimondan's smile stiffen into something harsh and artificial, a rictus, as of death.

"You have a foul murderer's tongue, Northerner." It was Urté de Miraval. "I do not see why we should suffer it to wag freely among us, and then carry back a spy's tale to Ademar of Gorhaut."

So that was brought into it too, now. Predictably.

"That last is the thought of a fool," said Bertran calmly. "And as for murder: this man was set upon by while riding in peace on the countess's high road. His pony was slain and his horse, and six cowards in your service sought to kill him. I would not speak so glibly of murder, my lord of Miraval. I might, instead, give a passing thought to the competence of my corans were it my own six killers who were slain by one man alone."

"These are words," said Quzman of Arimonda contemptuously. "Words and posturings, the sad vices of Arbonne. This man and I can end this alone outside, no one else need be part of it. Unless he is truly afraid. As for the new law you mention…»

He took two strides into the room, graceful as a hunting cat, and knelt before Urté. "My lord, matters touching upon the honour of my family compel me to ask leave to withdraw from your service for a time, that my actions need have no bearing on your own affairs. Will you grant me leave?"

"He will not," said a clear, cold voice. The only voice in the room that could have tried to wield authority in that moment.

They all turned to her. Ariane de Carenzu had not troubled to rise or even fully turn to face the men. She was still looking over her shoulder, casually, her black hair tumbling down the back of her chair. There was nothing casual about her words though. "In the name of the countess of Arbonne I forbid this duel. There is a land price placed on deaths between Talair and Miraval. It has been proclaimed and posted and cannot be evaded—understand me, my lords—by sham devices of this sort. I will not let the countess be mocked. Nor will I allow this night of the goddess to be marred in such a way. I hold you both strictly accountable, my lords, for the conduct of your men."

"Surely so, but if he leaves my service—" Urté de Miraval began.

"He requires your consent and you will not give it."

The woman's voice was precise and authoritative, the flat tone of someone absolutely versed in command. Even after months in Arbonne, Blaise found it disconcerting to see the two dukes so accepting of a woman's unveiled note of power.

He opened his mouth to speak, his own anger strong within him, and received a hard elbow in the ribs. "Don't do it!" Valery muttered, as if reading his mind.

He probably had, Blaise thought—the path of his thinking would have been clear enough. Blaise was, by his own insistence, not bound to Bertran de Talair by any oaths of fealty. He was a hired mercenary and could end his contract at any time, forfeiting only whatever pay was due to him and as yet untendered and freeing himself to fight the Arimondan, without seeking a by-your-leave from anyone, including this black-haired woman who styled herself a queen, if only of the troubadours' Court of Love.

He drew a slow breath, met Valery's gaze for a moment and held his peace. He looked around the room. No one else seemed to have dared to move. With mild surprise he saw that the girl with the harp, still wearing Bertran's blue cloak, was staring at him from across the room. He couldn't read her gaze from a distance, but he could guess. She had thrust herself forward to defend the honour of the troubadour he'd wounded. She would probably be quite content if he died by a curved, bejewelled Arimondan sword.

His gaze swept past her and upwards. On the upper storey of the inn, men and women had crowded to the railings, first for the music and now for what had followed. Most of their faces were hidden by the cross-beams; a procession of legs lined the hallway above his head, cut off at the trunk. It was odd, in a way, an audience of feet and calves and thighs in variously coloured hose.

"You came here bearing a message, I think," Ariane de Carenzu continued, in the silence that had followed her last speech. She was looking at the Arimondan, Quzman. "Is it about the boats on the river?"

The man glanced over at her. He had remained kneeling before Urté de Miraval. They were both large, exceptionally handsome men; it was a pose that might have been carved in relief on the stone wall of a chapel of Corannos in Gorhaut.

"Yes," the dark-skinned man said finally. "It was about the boats."

"They are beginning now?"

"They are." He offered no title or any courtesy at all to the woman.

"Then you will duel each other so for our amusement at Carnival," said the lady of Carenzu with a swift, flashing smile that was radiant and yet infused with capricious malice.

"A game?" the Arimondan said, with derision. A ripple of anticipation and relief was sweeping across the room. Blaise saw Bertran turn quickly away to hide a smile.

"It is almost all a game," Ariane said softly, in a rather different voice. "We play it, all of us, through our nights and days, until the goddess takes us home. But hear me again," she added calmly, "if any man of either of your parties dies tonight I will hold it as murder and tell the countess as much."

"I haven't been on the river in years," said Bertran, an apparently inconsequential remark. He seemed to be struggling, with only partial success, to keep a thread of laughter out of his voice.

Urté de Miraval heard it. "And I in decades," he said, rising to the bait. "But I will give you that, and twenty years' advantage of age and still best you, my lord of Talair, in any action that a man may honourably do among men."

At that, Bertran did laugh aloud. With a whiplike malice of his own that Blaise did not fully understand, he said, "Only among men? A prudent concession my lord, under the circumstances."

Urté de Miraval's head snapped back, as if from an actual lashing. It was the first time he'd lost his composure, Blaise realized, and wondered why. Something he'd overheard weeks ago tugged vaguely at his memory: there was a woman somewhere at the root of what lay between these two.

"Bertran," began Ariane de Carenzu sharply, "I do not think that—"

"Ariane, have done! You have imposed your will here, and we are mindful of you. Do not overreach; it is a failing. I told you when you walked in and I have told you as much before." Bertran's blue eyes as he wheeled to face her were hard and carried their own measure of authority now. "We will play games tonight on the river for your amusement. No one will be killed, by your command. Be content with what you may control. The past is not in your province."

"Indeed it is not," said Urté de Miraval very softly, his self-control regained. Blaise had to lean forward to hear him. "None of the dead are. Men or women. Even children. Even children, if it comes to that."

Which, for some reason, drew a response from Bertran de Talair. He turned from the dark-haired woman to look full into the face of the other duke standing not far away. There was a suddenly dangerous stillness in the room again, a sense of genuine menace radiating outward from where the two men stood.

"It comes to that," said Bertran finally, his own voice little more than a whisper now. "Oh, believe me, my lord, it does." As the two of them locked gazes to the manifest exclusion of everyone else in the tavern, in the world, Blaise of Gorhaut realized, rather late, that the hatred here, the palpable weight of whatever lay in the past between them, was of a depth and texture infinitely greater than he had understood.

Beside him Valery muttered something under his breath that Blaise could not quite hear.

"Come," Bertran added, breaking free of the frozen stare, his tone a sudden, exaggerated parody of ritual, "let us go. Let us all go forth by the light of the mingled summer moons to make sport on the river for the queen of the Court of Love."

He moved towards the door without looking back. Valery followed quickly. Blaise glanced around the tavern one more time. Ariane de Carenzu's expression was odd now, vulnerable for the first time. People were beginning to stir, shaking their heads, blinking vaguely, as if freed of an enchanter's cast spell. On the upper landing the legs were moving, black and white hose, white and blue, wheat-coloured and russet, crimson and gold, pale and forest green—the brilliant colours of festival time.

He watched for another moment, thinking about the words just spoken, nagged by the thread of a thought, and then moved with the crowd out the doorway and into the noisy street. On the way he passed very close to Quzman the Arimondan, closer than he needed to, in fact. He made a point of smiling as he did.

Valery was waiting just outside the door. A man and a woman masked as a crow and a fox bumped into Blaise as they stumbled past, laughing uproariously. The man carried an open flask of wine, the woman's tunic was mostly unbuttoned. In the light of the lanterns above the doorway of The Liensenne, her breasts showed clearly for a moment. There was laughter ahead of them and behind and a constant, cacophonous sound of noisemakers being whirled and banged and thumped.

"You don't have any of this in Gorhaut, I suppose," said Valery companionably, as if nothing of note had happened in the tavern. Blaise realized that he liked Bertran's cousin for this relaxed, unruffled quality, as much as for anything else. Just ahead of them the duke was walking amid a cluster of musicians, including the woman who had sung for them; she was still wearing Bertran's blue cloak.

"Hardly," he said shortly, by way of reply, but he tried to keep the criticism out of his voice. What should he say to Valery: that he found this whole night's goddess-inspired exercise in lechery demeaning and vulgar, unworthy of any man who aspired to serve his country and his god?

"I meant to tell you that there were two Arimondans," Valery said after a pause. There was riotous sound all around them; a young boy raced past, violently whirling a noise-maker shaped like the head of a bull. Two laughing women leaned precariously far out of a window overhead, trading ribald jests with those passing in the crowded street.

"I'm sure," Blaise said drily. "Why didn't you?"

Valery glanced briefly at him. "You didn't seem interested." He said it mildly, but Blaise heard the nuance in the words. "You haven't seemed much interested in anything. I wonder why you travel, sometimes. Most men leave home to learn about the wider world. You don't seem to want to know."

A different sort of elbow in the ribs. Blaise thought of stating as much, but after a moment said only, "Some men leave home to leave home."

After a moment Valery nodded. He didn't pursue the matter. Turning right, he followed Bertran and the troubadours up a darker laneway leading away from the sea.

"How good are you with small boats on water?" he asked after a moment.

"Passable," said Blaise cautiously. "What, exactly, are we about to do?"

"A question!" said Valery of Talair, grinning suddenly. He looked younger, and very like his cousin when he smiled. "You actually asked a question!"

Almost against his will Blaise laughed. He sobered quickly, concentrating, as Valery of Talair began to explain. Then, when Valery was finished and they had come to the river and Blaise saw what was there—the people, and the strung lights like glittering stars come down, the lanterns and faces in the windows of the merchant houses along the river, the ropes across the water mooring the rafts, the small boats waiting and others drifting downstream towards the invisible sea, some already capsized with men swimming beside them—he laughed aloud again, helplessly, at the childlike frivolity of it all.

"Oh, Corannos," he said, to no one in particular, "what a country this is."

But they had caught up with the others by then, the troubadours and joglars amid the crowd on the riverbank, and Bertran de Talair turned back to look at him.

"We know that," he said levelly over the noise. "Do you?"

The river and the sea and the night were sacred to Rian, and Midsummer was holy to her, but Carnival was also a time when the order of the world was turned upside-down—sometimes literally, as in a vat of water, or Cauvas gold, Lisseut thought ruefully. The goddess was celebrated that night through Arbonne in laughter and amid noise and flowing wine and otherwise forbidden linkings in the darkness of cobbled laneways or grassy mews, or beds in houses where doors were left unlocked this one night of the year.

It was also celebrated in the city of Tavernel, and had been for years beyond number, with the challenge of the Boats and Rings on the river, here where the Arbonne came home to the sea after its long journey south from the mountains of Gorhaut.

Grateful for the hooded cloak Duke Bertran had forgotten or neglected to reclaim, Lisseut tried with only marginal success to pick up the thread of excitement and anticipation that had carried her into The Liensenne earlier in the day. It was still Carnival, she was still among friends and had even had—though there had been no time to properly absorb this—what appeared to be a spectacular success. But the presence of hatred, both ancient and new, was too strong now for her to regain the blithe mood of before. She looked over at the grim figure of Urté de Miraval and at the sleek Arimondan beside him, and she could not suppress a shiver, even within the cloak.

You kill singers, remember? So En Bertran had said to the duke of Miraval. Lisseut didn't know if that was true; if it was, then it had happened before her time and was not something anyone talked about. But Urté" had not denied it. Only those who sing what they should not, he had replied, unperturbed.

Laughter, jarring incongruously with her thoughts, drew her attention to the river and, in spite of herself, she was forced to smile. Jourdam, who prided himself on his athleticism even more than Remy did, had pushed his way through the crowd to the water's edge and, prudently removing his expensive boots, was evidently about to be the first of their group to try the boats.

Lisseut cast a quick glance up at the sky, just as Jourdain did, and saw that the moons were both clear of clouds and would be for a few moments. That mattered, she knew. It was hard enough to grasp the rings in a whirling, bouncing toy of a boat without contending with the added problem of not being able to see them.

"Are you sure you wouldn't prefer to be ducked in the basin?" Alain of Rousset called out from the safety of the bank. "It's an easier way to soak yourself!"

There was laughter. Jourdain said something impolite, but he was concentrating on stepping down and then settling himself in the tiny, bobbing craft that two men held close to the dock. He took the short, flat-bladed oar one of them offered him, glanced once more at the two moons—one waxing, one just past full—and nodded tersely.

They let the boat go. To screams of encouragement, Jourdain shot like a cork from a bottle out into the swiftly racing river.

"Ten copper pieces he doesn't make three rings," Alain cried loudly.

"Done!" said Elisse, who was sleeping with Jourdain that season.

"And ten more from me," Lisseut added quickly, more to wager against Elisse than for any other reason. "Are you good for it?"

"More than good," Elisse replied with a toss of her golden hair. "I've been touring with real troubadours this spring."

It was such a patently envious, silly gibe that Lisseut burst into laughter. Alain's aggrieved expression showed that he couldn't quite see it that way. Lisseut squeezed his arm and then continued to hold it as they watched Jourdain do battle with the river.

Sober or not, he steered smoothly enough across the current to the first raft and, without apparent effort, reached up and across to gracefully pluck the garland of olive leaves that had been looped on a pole hanging out over the water. The priestess on the first raft quickly raised her torch to signal success. A shout of approval went up along both sides of the river. People were massed all the way down the banks to the final strand of rope running across the stream, and there were almost as many leaning out of windows in the high houses.

Paddling vigorously, leaning his body far over to one side, Jourdain angled his boat back the other way, trying to move across the river before the current took him sweeping past the second raft. He made it, barely, had an instant to steady himself and then reached upwards—the second ring was higher of course—and plucked the garland. He almost slipped, toppling back into his boat and very nearly falling out. But another torch was lifted and another shout went up.

Jourdain's near-fall cost him precious time, though, and when he righted himself properly and seized the oar again Lisseut, even at a distance, saw him make a swift decision to eschew the third raft near the far bank and head straight downriver towards the fourth. It was the number of garlands that counted, not the sequence.

It was also a wrong decision. Running straight downstream, Jourdain's tiny boat, seeming little more than a chip of bark in the racing Arbonne, accelerated dramatically as he approached the fourth moored raft.

"Do you want to pay us now?" Alain said to Elisse.

Despite the wager, Lisseut winced in anticipation as Jourdain, flying down the river, bravely rose to his feet as the moored raft hurtled towards him. He reached upwards and over for the elusive garland.

He didn't even come close. With a whoop they could hear all the way upstream at the starting pier his feet went flying from under him, the boat shot out into the stream and Jourdain, seeming to defy the pull of earth, hung horizontally above the river, bathed in moonlight for a suspended moment, before plunging into the Arbonne with a splash that sent a fountain of water upwards to soak the priest on the raft and those who had gathered there to see the contest.

He almost doused the torch, but he was nowhere near the garland. Two men leaped quickly off the raft to assist him in the water—people had been known to drown in this game—and Lisseut breathed more easily when she saw them pulling Jourdain towards one of the anchored boats near shore. From a distance they saw him raise an almost jaunty hand to show that he was all right.

"What is the best so far," Bertran de Talair asked in a quiet tone that brought Lisseut swiftly back to the reality of why they were here.

"One man has all four, my lord," said the nearest of the boatmen crouched at the end of the pier. "But he fell at the very beginning of the rope crossing, so no one has finished the course so far."

"Good," said the duke of Talair, stepping towards the end of the dock. "With your agreement, my lord," he said, turning towards Urté, "I will give you a target to shoot for."

Urté de Miraval made a negligent gesture that signalled assent. Not bothering to remove his boots, Bertran stood quietly as the boatmen manoeuvred the next small craft into position. Valery and the bearded coran from Gorhaut had moved down beside him, Lisseut saw. A murmur of sound, gathering and swelling as it went, began to race along the banks of the river carrying the news of what was about to happen.

Lisseut looked upwards, and in that same moment most of the others on the pier did the same. A bank of clouds, moving swiftly eastward with the breeze, had cut across the face of white Vidonne and would soon obscure the blue light of Riannon as well.

"Let me go first," said Valery of Talair, stepping past the duke in the shadows. "Wait for the moons. No one has challenged me so it doesn't matter if I miss." He quickly unbuckled his sword and handed it to one of the boatmen. He looked over his shoulder and Lisseut was close enough to hear him say, "Follow my line, Blaise. If you overshoot the third raft do everything you can to slow down before you reach the fourth—unless you're partial to the taste of river water."

The Arimondan beside Urté laughed at that. It was not a pleasant sound, Lisseut thought, looking over quickly. The man frightened her. She turned away, back to the river, hoping the Arimondan hadn't noticed her staring at him.

Valery was in the boat with the flat paddle to hand. He grinned up at Bertran. "If I get wet it's your fault."

"Of course," his cousin said. "It always is."

Then the boat was gone, out into the high, swift current of the river. A moment later, straining to see amid the shadows, Lisseut was made to understand something about the skills of men: Jourdain the troubadour was an athlete, and gifted, in the prime of his youth, but Valery of Talair was a professional coran, trained and hardened, and very experienced.

He snapped up the first wreath effortlessly, the boat turning back the other way almost before the priestess's torch had been raised and the responding shout had gone up along the bank. The second ring, which had initiated Jourdain's precipitate descent towards a watery immersion, was negotiated almost as easily and Valery, unlike the troubadour, kept both his balance and his control of the boat, paddling strenuously back across the river with a second triumphant torch lofted behind him and screams of wild approval on each bank.

"They think he's the duke," little Alain said suddenly, and Lisseut realized that it was true. The word that En Bertran was to run the river had gone racing down the banks before the clouds had come and Valery had taken his place. These screams and cries were those the people of Tavernel reserved for their favourites—and the troubadour duke of Talair had been one of those for most of his life.

Meanwhile, Valery, approaching the third of the moored rafts, stood up smoothly in his bobbing craft—making a perilous feat seem easy—and stretched up and over to snatch the third of the olive laurels from its pole. He dropped back down into the boat and began paddling furiously across the water, leaning into the task as the people watching from riverbank and overhanging window and the crowded boats moored against the shore stamped and roared their most extreme approval.

The angle back to the fourth and final raft was the most acute by far and Valery was working for all he was worth to avoid being carried downstream past the ring; Jourdain had jumped for the laurel here and smacked into the water. Valery of Talair pulled hard to the upstream edge of the raft, let his small craft turn with the current and then stood, smoothly again, and without evident haste or urgency lifted his paddle upward and swept it along the pole suspended high above the raft and out over the river—and he caught the olive ring thereby dislodged as his craft went hurtling beneath.

That is what it looked like to Lisseut, a long way upstream with swift clouds obscuring the moons and men and women jostling and shouting around her as the priest of Rian's signifying torch was thrust triumphantly skywards far down along the Arbonne. For some reason she glanced over at the coran from Gorhaut: an unconscious grin, an almost boyish expression of pleasure, showed in his face, making him look different suddenly, less austere and formidable.

"My cousin, too, is worth six men—no, a dozen!" Bertran de Talair said happily, looking at no one in particular. There was a stirring among the green-garbed corans of Miraval. Lisseut, feeling particularly sharp just then, doubted that En Bertran had spoken carelessly—there were verbal daggers in almost everything he and the duke of Miraval said in each other's presence. Ariane, her hair swept up again and hidden beneath her hood, said something to Urté that Lisseut could not hear. Ariane stepped forward beside Bertran, the better to see Valery approach the end of the course.

The rope across the river was the last obstacle. An enormous round shield with a hole drilled in its centre hung exactly halfway across with the rope passing through it. Whichever side of the shield his boat passed under, the competitor's task was to leap up, seize the rope and then pull his way hand over hand under or over or around the shield—an exceptional achievement in itself—and then all the way to the opposite bank.

Every one of the men who had made it this far would be formidably agile and strong. Ropes across water would not customarily faze them. This one was different. This one was virtually impossible. It had, for a start, been coated with attentive, careful malice in layers of beeswax. Just before being strung across the water it had also been oiled extravagantly with the purest olive oil from the celebrated groves and presses in the hills above Vezét. Then it was strung across the Arbonne in such a fashion that it sagged just low enough in the middle to force the hapless adventurer who had adroitly made it this far to pull his way hand over slippery hand along a cruelly upward inclination towards the dismally remote platform on the bank where triumph and glory awaited.

Lisseut, in three years of watching this contest on the river at Midsummer Carnival, had never seen anyone come close; she'd never even seen anyone cross the shield. She had seen quite a few undeniably graceful men made to look comically helpless as they struggled to find a way across the shield in the middle, or found themselves hanging on grimly, as if pinned down by the bright watching moons, unable to move at all while their legs kicked helplessly above the racing river.

There was a point to all this, she knew; during Carnival there was a point to everything, even the most apparently trivial or licentious activities. All the inversions and reversals of this night of the goddess, suspended outside the rhythms and the round of the year, found their purest emblem in these torchlit and moonlit images of gifted men rendered helpless and inept, forced either to laugh at their own predicament while themselves suspended on a slick rope or, if too grimly serious to share the hilarity, bear the mockery of a shrieking crowd.

No one, though, was mocking Valery of Talair that night, and there was nothing even faintly hilarious about him as he guided his tiny boat straight towards the shield. Approaching the rope, he stood up again and, without hesitation, with a neat, precise, economic movement, hurled himself up towards it just to the left of the shield. Tucking his knees in tight to his chest like a tumbler performing at a banquet he let his momentum swing him around in an arc at the top of which he released his precarious grip on the slippery rope and rose gracefully into the air—to come angling back down, as if it were the easiest, most natural thing in the world on this night or any other night, on the other side of the shield barrier.

For all the relished anticipation of comic failure, the people of Tavernel and those assembled in the city for its Carnival knew excellence when they saw it. They exploded with exultant approval of such stylish mastery. The shouts and applause assaulted the ears. Lisseut, back on the launching pier, heard a bark of delighted, surprised laughter beside her and turned in time to see the Gorhautian coran's bearded face completely unguarded now with pleasure. He caught her quick glance this time though; their eyes met for an instant and then his flicked away, as if he were embarrassed to have been so observed. Lisseut thought of saying something but changed her mind. She turned back to watch Valery deal with the rope.

And so saw, by a trick, an angle, a flaring of torchlight far down the dark river, how the arrow—white-feathered, she would remember, white as innocence, as winter in midsummer, as death—fell from the summit of its long, high arc to take the coran in the shoulder, driving him, slack and helpless, from the rope into the river and laughter turned to screaming in the night.

Blaise saw it too, out of the corner of his eye. He even marked, purely by reflex, with a professional's instinct, the two tall, dark-timbered merchant houses along the bank whence an arrow descending at that angle could have been let fly. And he, too, saw, by torchlight and the elusive gleam of the blue moon now riding free of the clouds, the white feathers Lisseut had seen. There was a difference, though. The difference was that he knew what those feathers meant, and the nagging thought from the tavern earlier in the evening grew fully formed and terrifying in his mind. By then he was running. A mistake, because the Carnival crowd was densely packed along the water's edge, and the rope from which Valery had fallen was a long way down the river. Pushing and swearing, using elbows and fists, Blaise forced his way through the shouting, roiling mass of people. Halfway down he glanced over at the river and saw Bertran de Talair paddling furiously in one of the small boats—which, of course, is what he ought to have done himself. Blaise's curses turned inward and he redoubled his efforts. One man, drunken, masked, snarled an oath and pushed back hard as Blaise elbowed his way past. Without even looking, unbalanced by fear, Blaise sent the man reeling with a forearm to the side of his head. He couldn't even be sorry, though he did wonder—a reflex again—about the possibility of a knife in the back. Such things happened in frightened crowds.

By the time he reached the pier by the rope the boatmen had taken Valery of Talair from the river. He was lying on the dock. Bertran was there already, kneeling beside his cousin with a priestess and a man who looked to be a physician. The arrow was embedded in Valery's shoulder; not, in fact, a killing wound.

Except that the feathers and the upper shaft of the arrow were white and the lower shaft, Blaise now saw, coming up to the pier, was of night-black ash, and he had seen black-and-white leggings above him on the second-floor landing of The Liensenne when the singer had finished her music and they were all preparing to leave. A sickness passed through him like a churning wave.

Valery's eyes were open. Bertran had his cousin's head cradled in his lap now; he was murmuring steady, reassuring words. The physician, a thin, beak-nosed man with greying hair tied back with a ribbon, was conferring tersely with the priestess, eyeing the black-and-white shaft with resolution. He was flexing his fingers.

"Don't pull it," Blaise said quietly, coming to stand above the four of them.

The doctor looked up quickly, anger in his eyes. "I know what I'm doing," he snapped. "This is a flesh wound. The sooner we have the arrow out the sooner we can treat and bind it."

Blaise felt tired suddenly. Valery had turned his head slightly and was looking up at him. His expression was calm, a little quizzical. Forcing himself to meet the coran's level gaze, Blaise said, still softly, "If you pull the shaft you'll tear more flesh and the poison will spread the faster. You may also kill yourself. Smell the arrow if you like. There will be syvaren on the head, and very likely on the lower shaft." He looked at the physician.

An animal-like fear showed in the man's face. He recoiled involuntarily. In the same moment, with a small, fierce sound of denial, Bertran glanced up at Blaise. His face had gone white and there was horror in his eyes. With sorrow and a slow, hard rage gathering together within him like clouds around the heart Blaise turned back to Valery. The wounded coran's expression had not changed at all; he had probably had an intuition, Blaise thought. Syvaren acted quickly.

"That was meant for me," Bertran said. His voice was like a scrape in the throat.

"Of course it was," Blaise said. Knowledge was in him, a cold certainty, the taste of it like ashes on his tongue.

"It was none of our doing, I will swear it by the goddess in her temple." Urté de Miraval's deep voice rang out. Blaise hadn't heard him approaching.

Bertran did not even look up. "Leave us," he said. "You will be dealt with later. You are a desecration wherever you walk."

"I do not use poison," de Miraval said.

"Arimondans do," said Bertran.

"He was on the launching pier with us the whole time."

Blaise, sick with knowing, opened his mouth to speak, but the priestess was before him.

"Leave off wrangling now," she said. "We must take him to a temple. Will someone find a way to carry him?"

Of course, Blaise thought. This was Arbonne. Valery of Talair, even though he was a coran, would not find his end in the sanctity of the god's house. He would pass to Corannos amid the dark rites of Rian. With a distaste that was akin to a fresh grief, Blaise turned away from the priestess; she had covered her head with a wide hood now. He saw that Valery's eyes were upon him again, and Blaise thought he understood the expression this time.

Ignoring the others, even Bertran, he knelt on the wet dock beside the dying man. "Be sheltered ever in the god," he said huskily, surprised by the difficulty he had in speaking. "I think I know who did this. I will deal with him for you."

Valery of Talair was pale as parchment beneath the moons and the torches. He nodded his head once, and then he closed his eyes.

Blaise rose. Without looking at anyone or staying for further words he strode from the dock. Someone made way for him; he realized only later that it had been Quzman, the Arimondan. Others also fell back before him but he was scarcely aware of any of them. There were those ashes in his throat and a queer blurring to his sight. Syvaren on the arrow. White feathers, white-and-black shaft. Blaise reached inward for the rage he needed, and it was there, but he could not ride it. There was too much grief, cold and clammy, coiled in tendrils as a mist in winter: half for Valery behind him and half for what he walked towards now, tall and grim as an image of the Ancients on a frieze, amid the flurrying torches and the smoke and noise and masks and, yes, in the distance, still the laughter of Carnival.

I will deal with him for you. Last words to a dying man, fellow coran of the god's long, hallowed brotherhood, a friend very nearly, here amid the goddess-shaped strangeness of Arbonne. And they were likely to have been a lie, those last words, the worst sort of lie.

CHAPTER 6

Lisseut, if asked in the midst of that swirling, suddenly horrific night, or even after, with time and a quiet place to think things through, would not have been able to say why she slipped free of Bertran de Talair's telltale blue cloak, ignored Alain's urgent cry behind her and followed the man named Blaise away from the torchlit pier and into the warren of dark, twisting lanes that led away from the river.

It might have been something about the way he had left the dock, the headlong ferocity, brushing past the Arimondan as if the man did not exist. Or something perhaps in the stricken expression she saw in his face as he went blindly past them all and plunged into the crowd. She had heard the word poison ripple back like a snake from where Valery lay. They were taking him to the largest temple of Rian. Men were hastily readying a sail canvas, slinging it between poles. They would move him on that. The crowd would make way in silence until they passed, bearing death, then it would be loud again, wilder than before, with flamboyant murder suddenly added to the intoxicating mixture of Carnival—something else by which to remember the night.

The troubadours and joglars would go to the temple, she knew, to wait and watch in a vigil outside the walls, many for Bertran's sake and some for Valery's. Lisseut had been part of death-watches before. She didn't want to join one tonight.

She followed the coran from Gorhaut.

She had to force her way against the press of the crowd. People were hurrying towards the river, drawn by rumours of some excitement or disaster, the coinage of festival time. Twisting past bodies, Lisseut smelled wine and cooked meats, roasted nuts, sweet perfumes, human sweat. She knew a brief, flurrying panic when she was trapped for a moment in a cluster of drunken merchant seamen from Gotzland, but she twisted free of the nearest of them and hurried on, looking for the man she was following.

His height made it easier. Even in the thronged laneways she could make him out ahead of her, moving against the crowd, his hair a bright red when he passed under the torches set in the walls of the dilapidated old warehouses. This was not the choicest part of Tavernel. Blaise of Gorhaut plunged onwards, taking turnings seemingly at random, moving more quickly as the crowds thinned out away from the water. Lisseut found she was almost running in order to keep him in sight.

Incongruous in one dim, crooked laneway, she saw a woman, gowned magnificently in green silk, furred and bejewelled, with an elaborate fox mask, reach out for Blaise; he didn't even break stride to acknowledge her presence. Lisseut, hurrying along behind him, was made suddenly aware of her own damp, straggling hair and ruined shirt. Trivialities, she told herself sternly; a white-feathered arrow had been launched tonight with poison on its head, and it had been meant—it took no brilliance of insight to know—for the duke of Talair and not the cousin who had quietly taken his place in that small boat on the river.

Blaise of Gorhaut stopped abruptly at a crossing of lanes and looked around him for the first time. Lisseut quickly ducked into a recessed doorway. She almost fell over a man and a woman leaning back against the wall in the darkness beside the door, locked in an embrace. The lower part of the woman's gown was pushed up about her waist.

"Oh, good," the woman drawled sensuously, glancing languorously at Lisseut, a ripple of amusement in her voice. Her mask had slipped back from her eyes and hair, dangling loosely down her back. The man laughed softly, mouth at her throat. Both of them reached out in the same instant, slender fingers and strong ones, to draw Lisseut into their embrace. "Good," the woman said again, a whisper, half-closing her eyes. There was a scent of wildflowers about her.

"Um, not really," Lisseut said awkwardly, stirred against her will. She spun free of both of them.

"Then farewell love, ah, farewell ever, love." The woman sang the old refrain with an unexpected plaintiveness marred by a giggle at the end as the man whispered something in her ear.

Back in the street, in the wavering, uneasy shadows between wall torches, Lisseut quickly donned the woman's mask. It was a cat, most of the women chose cat masks tonight. Ahead, she saw Blaise throw out a hand to stop a trio of apprentices. He asked a question. Laughing, they answered and pointed; one of them offered a flask. Lisseut saw Blaise hesitate and then accept. He squeezed a jet of dark wine down his throat. For some reason, watching, that made her uneasy.

He took the lane forking right, where they had pointed. She followed, passing the apprentices with quick sidelong steps, prepared to run; it was too dark here, not enough people. She reached the fork and looked along the lane to the right. It was even quieter there, running up and away from the river and the market square. The houses became steadily more impressive, more evidently prosperous, the roadway better lit than before with lanterns burning in ornate sconces on outside walls—one of the surest signs of wealth. Two girls, evidently servants, called cheerfully down to her from where they leaned out over a carved stone balustrade. Lisseut kept moving. Blaise, walking swiftly with his long strides, had already turned a corner up ahead. She began to run.

By the time she reached that next crossing of streets and turned right again as he had done, Lisseut realized where they were, even before she saw, in the square at the top of the street, the off-centred tower loom grimly above the largest red-stoned building.

This was the merchants' quarter, where the banking houses and mercantile operations of several countries had their headquarters in Tavernel, Arbonne's deep-harboured gateway to the world. That tower at the top of the road was a deliberate, intimidating echo of the great tower of Mignano, largest of the Portezzan city-states, and the massively formidable palaces on either side of the street leading to the square sheltered the Arbonne contingents of the lucid, careful merchants of those wealthy cities.

The noises of Carnival were distant now. Lisseut slipped into an archway, peering out carefully as Blaise of Gorhaut went past one massive doorway and then another. She saw him stop finally, gazing up at the coat of arms above a pair of iron doors. There were lights on in that house, on the upper levels where the sleeping quarters would be. There was no one else in the street.

Blaise stood motionless for what seemed to her a long time, as if deliberating something difficult, then he looked carefully around him and slipped down a narrow alley that ran between that house and the one north of it. Lisseut gave him a moment, then stepped out from her archway and followed. At the entrance to the alley she had to hold her breath for a moment, almost choking in the midden smell that came from it. Kneeling for concealment, her eyes keen in the darkness, she saw the coran from Gorhaut hoist himself smoothly to scale the rough stone wall running behind the house where he had stopped. There were more lights glowing softly from beyond that wall. She saw him silhouetted for a second against them before he let himself down on the other side.

It was time to go back to the river. She now knew where he had gone. She could find out who owned this house in the morning, report the incident to whoever seemed appropriate. Duke Bertran was the obvious person, or perhaps the countess's seneschal in Tavernel. Perhaps even Ariane de Carenzu, who had bound the men of Talair and Miraval to keep the peace this night. Morning would tell her what to do; she could consult with friends, with Remy, Aurelian. It was time to go back.

Discarding her mask, gritting her teeth, Lisseut went down the fetid alley, past the point where the Gorhautian had scaled the wall and, further along, she found an overturned wooden crate. There were always crates in alleyways. Rats scattered in several directions as she stepped carefully up onto it. From there it was just possible to lift herself to the top of the wide wall. She lay flat on the stone, motionless for a long time. Then, when she was sure she'd not been seen or heard, she cautiously lifted her head and looked down.

It was an intricate, formal garden, carefully tended. A plane tree grew just inside the wall and its branches offered some concealment for her, which mattered, for Riannon, the blue moon of the goddess, rode free just then of what seemed the last of the cloud cover for a time. Above, through the screen of leaves, Lisseut could see the stars, brilliant in the summer sky. A bird was singing in the branches of the tree.

Below her, on a close-cropped grassy expanse, Blaise of Gorhaut stood quietly beside a small, round pool into which a sculpted fountain was splashing water. There were flowers planted around the border of the fountain and more of them laid out in patterns through the ordered space of the garden. Lisseut smelled oranges and lemons, and there was lavender near the southern wall. Behind her rats scrambled in the dank alley.

On a small patio near the house a stone table had been laid with meats and cheeses and wine. There were tall white candles burning.

A man slouched in a chair by that table, hands laced behind his head, long legs extended, his features obscured by shadow. Blaise was looking at him. He had not spoken or moved since she'd arrived at her place of concealment on the wall. His back was to her. He seemed carved of stone himself. Lisseut's heart was beating rapidly.

"I will confess that I wondered," said the man by the table lazily, speaking Portezzan with elegant, aristocratic precision. "I wondered if you were in a clever vein tonight and would come. But see, I did give you the benefit of the doubt—there is food and wine for two, Blaise. I'm glad you're here. It has been a long time. Do come and dine with me. It is a Carnival night in Arbonne, after all."

He stood then, leaning across the table into the light as he reached for the wine. By the shining of the two moons and the candles and the glowing, graceful lanterns swinging from tripods among the trees, Lisseut saw that he was slender and bright-haired and young and smiling, that his loose silk tunic was night-black with wide, full sleeves, and his leggings were black and white, like Arsenault the Swordsman in the puppet shows she remembered from childhood—and like the arrows she saw lying in plain sight in their quiver by the table.

"You still use syvaren, I see," said Blaise of Gorhaut calmly. He didn't move any nearer to the table. He spoke Portezzan as well.

The fair-haired man made a face as he poured from a long-necked decanter. "An ugly thing, isn't it?" he said with distaste. "And amazingly expensive these days, you have no idea. But useful, useful at times. Be fair, Blaise, it was a very long shot in a breeze and uncertain light. I didn't plan anything in advance, obviously, it was sheerest good fortune I happened to be in the tavern when that river challenge was made. And then I had to count on Duke Bertran being skillful enough to make it as far as the rope. Which I did, and which he was, Corannos shelter his soul. Come now, you might have congratulated me by now on hitting him from so far. The right shoulder, I take it?" He turned, smiling, a glass of wine in each hand, one extended towards the other man.

Blaise hesitated, and Lisseut, all her senses alert, knew with certainty that he was wrestling with whether to tell the assassin of his error.

"It was a long shot," was all he said. "I don't like poison though, you know that. They don't use it in Arbonne. Had you not done so they might have thought the killing was by one of Urté de Miraval's men. It wasn't, I take it?"

The question was ignored. "Had I not done so there wouldn't have been a killing. Only a duke with a wounded shoulder and a quadrupled guard, and I'd be out a rather spectacular fee."

"How spectacular?"

"You don't want to know. You'll be jealous. Come, Blaise, take your wine, I feel silly standing with my hand out like an almsman. Are you angry with me?"

Slowly, Blaise of Gorhaut walked forward over the grass and took the offered goblet. The Portezzan laughed and returned to his seat. Blaise remained standing beside the table.

"In the tavern," he said slowly, "you would have seen that I was with the duke, one of his men."

"Of course I did, and I must say it surprised me. I'd heard a rumour at the Aulensburg tourney—you were missed in Gotzland, by the way, you were talked about—that you were in Arbonne this spring, but I doubted it, I really didn't know you liked singing so much."

"I don't, believe me. But it isn't important. I'm employed by the duke of Talair, and you saw as much in the tavern. Didn't that mean anything to you?"

"A few things, yes, but you won't like them and you won't want to hear them from me. You are angry with me, obviously. Really, Blaise, what was I supposed to do, abandon a contract and payment because you happened to be on the scene trading insults with an Arimondan catamite? I gather you killed his brother."

"How much money were you paid?" Blaise asked again, ignoring that last. "Tell me."

The fair, handsome head was in shadow again. There was a silence. "Two hundred and fifty thousand," the Portezzan said quietly.

Lisseut suppressed a gasp. She saw Blaise stiffen in disbelief.

"No one has that much money for an assassination," he said harshly.

The other man laughed, cheerfully. "Someone does, someone did. Deposited in advance with our Gotzland branch, in trust for me on conditions. When word comes of the musical duke of Talair's so sad demise the conditions are removed. Gotzland," he said musingly, "is a usefully discreet place sometimes, though I suppose it does help to have a family bank."

The man still seemed amused, eerily so, as if there was some private jest he was savouring at Blaise's expense. Lisseut was still reeling inwardly, unable to even comprehend the size of the sum he had named.

"Payment in Portezzan coinage?"

Laughter again, on the edge of hilarity now, the sound startling in the quiet formality of the garden. A slow sip of wine. "Ah, well now, you are fishing for information, my dear. You were never good at that, were you Blaise? You don't like poison, you don't like deceptions. You aren't at all happy with me. I've clearly gone to the bad since we parted. You haven't even asked for news of Lucianna."

"Who paid you, Rudel?"

The question was blunt, hard as a hammer. Blaise's wine glass was set down on the table, untouched; Lisseut saw that it shook a little. The other man—who had a name now—would have seen that too.

"Don't be stupid and tiresome," the Portezzan said. "When have you ever revealed who hired you? When has anyone you respected done so? You of all men know I've never done this for the money in any case." A sudden, sweeping gesture encompassed the house and the garden. "I was born to this and all it represents in the six countries, and I'll die with it unless I'm more stupid than I plan to be, because my father happens to like me." He paused. "Drink your wine, Blaise, and sit down like a civilized person so we can talk about where we're going next."

"We aren't very civilized in Gorhaut," said Blaise. "Remember?" There was a new note in his voice.

The man in the chair cleared his throat but did not speak. Blaise did not move from where he stood.

"I see it now, though," he said softly. Lisseut could barely hear him. "You've had too much wine too quickly, haven't you? You didn't mean to say all of that did you, Rudel?" He spoke Portezzan extremely well, much better than Lisseut did herself.

"How do you know? Perhaps I did," the other man replied, an edge to his tone now. "Lucianna always said that good wine at night made her—"

Blaise shook his head. "No. No, we aren't talking about Lucianna, Rudel." He drew a breath and, surprisingly, reclaimed his own goblet and drank. He set it down again, carefully. "You told me too much. I understand now why you find all of this so diverting. You were paid in Gorhaut coinage. You were hired for that insane amount of money to assassinate the duke of Talair in the name of Ademar, king of Gorhaut. But on the orders and doubtless the instigation of Galbert, High Elder of Corannos in Gorhaut."

In shadow the other man slowly nodded his head. "Your father," he said.

"My father."

Lisseut watched as Blaise turned away from the table and the lights on the patio and walked back towards the fountain. He stood gazing down at the rippling waters of the artificial pool. It was difficult to see his face.

"I didn't know you were with Talair when I accepted the contract, Blaise. Obviously." The Portezzan's voice was more urgent now, the amusement gone. "They wanted him killed for some songs he wrote."

"I know. I heard one of them." Blaise didn't look up from the pool. "There's a message in this. My father likes sending messages. No one is safe, he's saying. No one should think about crossing him." He turned with a harsh gesture. "You're meant to tell the fee, you know. If you don't, believe me they will. It'll get out. That's a message in itself. How far he'll go if he has to. The resources they can command. You've been used, Rudel."

The other man shrugged, unruffled. "We are always used. It is my profession, it's yours. People hire us to serve their needs. But if you're right, if they really intend to make sure everyone knows who paid for this and how much, then you had better think seriously about coming away with me."

"Why?"

"Think about it. In your clever vein, Blaise. What happens to you here when your own secret's broached? When people learn who you are—and that your father killed the duke of Talair while you were supposed to be guarding him. I have some idea why you came away to Arbonne in the first place—and now, we don't have to talk about it—but you can't stay here now."

Blaise crossed his arms over his chest. "I could deal with that problem. I could turn you in. Tonight. I am employed by the duke of Talair, I'd be doing my duty."

Lisseut couldn't see his face clearly, but from the voice that emerged from shadow she knew the man named Rudel was amused again.

"The late, lamented, poetical duke of Talair. He wrote one song too many, alas. Really, Blaise. Your father ordered the killing, your old comrade-in-arms performed it? Stop being stupid. You are going to be blamed for this. I'm sorry if what I've done makes things briefly awkward for you, but the only thing to do now is figure out where we'd like to go and leave. Have you heard, by the way? Lucianna is married again. Shall we visit the newly weds?"

There was another silence. "Where?" Blaise asked quietly. Lisseut had a sense that the question came against his will.

"Andoria. To Borsiard, the count, a fortnight ago. My father was there. I wasn't invited, I'm afraid. Neither, evidently, were you, though I would have thought you'd have heard."

"I hadn't."

"Then we must visit them and complain. If he hasn't been cuckolded yet you can take care of that. I'll create a distraction of some kind."

"How? By poisoning someone?"

The man named Rudel stood up slowly. In the light now, his features could be seen to have gone still; no trace of amusement remained. He set down his cup of wine. "Blaise, when we parted a year since I was under the impression we were friends. I am not certain what has happened, but I don't have the same impression at the moment. If you are only angry for tonight, tell me, and explain why. If you are more than that, I would appreciate knowing as much, so I can act accordingly."

Both men were breathing harder now. Blaise uncrossed his arms. "You took a contract from my father," he said. "Knowing what you knew, you took a contract from him."

"For two hundred and fifty thousand Gorhaut gold coins. Really, Blaise, I—"

"You have always said you don't do this for the money. You just said it again here. Your father likes you, remember? You're going to inherit, remember?"

"And are you jealous of that? As jealous as you are of any other man who is close to Lucianna?"

"Careful, Rudel. Oh, please be careful."

"What will you do? Fight me? To see which one of us can kill the other? How stupid are you going to be about this, Blaise? I had no idea you were with the duke of Talair. By the time I knew I could not withdraw from a job I'd accepted. You are as much a professional as I am. You know this is true. I took your father's contract because it was by far the largest sum of money ever offered in our time for a killing. I admit it, I was flattered. I liked the challenge. I liked the idea of being known as the man who was worth that much as an assassin. Are you going to try to kill me for that? Or are you really wanting to kill me for introducing you to my cousin, who decided not to change her nature just because you appeared on the scene and wanted her to? I told you exactly what Lucianna and her family were before you ever saw her. Remember? Or do you prefer to just hide within your anger, hide away from everyone you know, down here in Arbonne, and forget such painful things? Be honest with yourself, what is my sin, Blaise?"

Lisseut, flat on the wall, screened by the leaves of the plane tree with a bird now silent in the branches above, heard what she should not have heard and felt her hands beginning to tremble. This was too raw, too profoundly private, and she was sorry now that she had come. She was spying on this garden exactly like one of the evil, envious audrades who spied on the lovers in all the dawnsongs, bent on ruin and malice. The steady, quiet splashing of the fountain was the only sound for a long time. There were usually fountains in the songs, too.

When Blaise next spoke it was, surprisingly, in Arbonnais. "If I am honest with myself and with you, I will say that there are only two people on earth, one man and one woman, it seems I cannot deal with, and you are linked with both of them now, not just the one. It makes things… difficult." He took a deep breath. "I'm not going to leave Arbonne. Among other things, it would seem an admission of a guilt I do not bear. I will wait until morning before I report to the appropriate people who it was who shot that arrow. You should have no trouble being out to sea on one of your father's ships before that. I'll take my chances here."

The other man took a step forward into the full light of the candles on the table and the torches. There was no levity or guile in his face now. "We have been friends a long time and have been through a great deal together. If we are enemies now I will be sorry for it. You might even make me regret taking this contract."

Blaise shrugged. "It was a great deal of money. My father tends to get what he wants. Did you ever ask yourself why, of all possible assassins in the six countries, he hired the one who had been my closest friend?

Rudel's face slowly changed as he thought about this. Lisseut saw it happen in the glow of the light. He shook his head. "Truly? Would that have been it? I never even thought of that." He laughed softly again, but without any amusement now. "With my pride, I simply assumed he'd judged me the best of all of us."

"He was buying a friend I had made for myself in the world away from home, away from him. Be flattered—he decided your price would be very high."

"High enough, though I confess I'm less happy now than I was a moment ago. Tell me one thing, though. I think I do know why you left us all and came away by yourself, but why stay now? What has Arbonne done to buy you and hold you? What was Bertran de Talair that you will cast your lot in this way?"

Blaise shrugged again. "It has done nothing, really. Certainly not to buy me. I don't even like it here, truthfully. Too much goddess for me, as you might have guessed." He shifted a little, from one foot to the other. "But I have a contract of my own, just as you did. I'll wrap that up as honestly as I can, and then see where I end up. I don't think I'm casting any lots, really."

"Then think again, Blaise. Think harder. If your father was sending a message to the world by killing the duke of Talair what shall we take that message to be? What is Gorhaut telling us all? My father says there is a war coming, Blaise. If it comes, I think Arbonne is doomed."

"It is possible," said Blaise of Gorhaut, as Lisseut felt the colour leaving her face. "As I say, I will see where I am in a little while."

"There is nothing I can do for you?"

Lisseut heard a tired amusement in Blaise's voice. "Don't let the wine make you sentimental, Rudel. I am going to report you as an assassin at sunrise. You had best begin making your own plans."

The other did not move. "There is one thing," he said slowly, as if to himself. He hesitated. "The factors in all of the Correze branch houses will be sent a letter from me ordering them to receive and conceal you should the need ever arise."

"I will not go to them."

It was Rudel's turn to sound amused. "That much is out of my control. I can take no responsibility for your pride. But the letter will be written. I take it you are leaving your money with us?"

"But of course," said Blaise. "With whom else should I trust it?"

"Good," said Rudel Correze. "The one thing my father most hates is investors withdrawing their accounts. He would have been deeply unhappy with me."

"I would regret being the cause of such unhappiness."

Rudel smiled. "If I had not seen you, Blaise, I should be an extravagantly pleased man tonight, flushed with my great success. I might even go out and join the Carnival. Instead I am rendered curiously sad and forced to take a night voyage, which never agrees with my digestion. What sort of a friend are you?"

"One who is not an enemy, at any rate. Be careful, Rudel."

"And you. That Arimondan will kill you if he can."

"I know. If he can."

There was a silence. "A message for Lucianna?"

"None at all. The god guard you, Rudel."

Blaise took a step forward and the two men clasped hands. For a moment Lisseut thought they would embrace but they did not. She moved silently back along the wall, felt below in darkness with her feet for the wooden crate and slipped down into the odours of the alleyway. She heard the rats again as she moved quickly back towards the street. As she left the alley, she picked up her mask, discarded on the street, and put it on. She wanted some sort of barrier between herself and the world just then, and what she still wanted, even more than before, was a quiet time and a clear head that would let her think.

She didn't think she was going to get either tonight. She went back down the empty street away from the square at the top, past the massive iron doors that were the entrance to what she now knew was the Arbonnais palace of the House of Correze. She knew the name, of course. Everyone knew the name. She had stumbled into something very large and she didn't know what to do.

A little further down she came to the arched doorway she'd watched from before, when Blaise went down the alley. She slipped back into it, looking out from behind the elongated eye-slits of her mask.

She didn't have long to wait. Blaise of Gorhaut came striding out of the alleyway a few moments later. He stopped in the street and looked up at the stern, square tower of Mignano. She knew why now, she knew more than she should, or even wanted to know: Mignano was controlled by the Delonghi family, it had been for a great many years, and the only daughter of Massena Delonghi was a woman named Lucianna, twice married, twice widowed prematurely.

Three times married, she corrected herself. To Count Borsiard d'Andoria now. She wondered, briefly, why a man of power and means would marry her, knowing her family's ambition, knowing her own reputation. She was said to be very beautiful. How much could beauty excuse or compel? Blaise had turned away from the tower and was coming back down the street, walking quickly. The lantern light burnished his hair again, and the full beard.

She didn't know, until the moment she actually called his name, that she was going to do so. He stopped, a hand moving swiftly to his sword, then wavering before it dropped to his side. A woman's voice; he wouldn't fear a woman.

Lisseut came out from her archway into the light. Her mask was on. She reached up and removed it; the makeshift coiling she'd done with her hair came undone as she did, and she felt the tangled tendrils coming down about her face. She could imagine what she looked like.

"Ah," he said. "The singer." Some surprise in his voice, not a great deal. Not a great deal of interest, either. At least he recognized her. "You are a long way from the Carnival here. Do you want an escort back to where there will be people?"

His tone was courteous and detached, a coran of the god doing his sworn duty by someone in need. It hadn't even occurred to him why she was here, she realized. She was merely an Arbonnais female, presumably in need of assistance.

Her mother had always said she did too many things on impulse and that it would cost her one day. It already had, more than once. It was probably about to do so again, she thought, even as she opened her mouth.

"I followed you," she said. "I was on the garden wall under the plane tree. I heard what you both said, you and Rudel Correze. I'm trying to decide what to do about it."

She was briefly gratified at the level of astonishment that showed in his face, even behind the beard—as much a screen in its own way as all the masks were tonight. The feeling didn't last long. It was entirely possible, she realized, that he might kill her now. She didn't think so, but it was possible.

She braced herself for his fury. She thought, in the uncertain light, that she saw it come, a lifted head, a narrowed gaze upon her. He had stabbed Remy, she remembered. He had killed six men by Lake Dierne. His hands remained still, though. She saw him working out implications, surprise and anger giving way to a flatly professional appraisal. He was quick to control himself; had she not watched him earlier in the garden spilling wine in response to a woman's name spoken she would have thought him a cold, grim man.

"Why?" was all he said finally.

She'd been afraid of that question. She still didn't have an answer. She wished her hair was pinned properly, that her clothing was clean and dry. She felt like a street urchin. Her mother would be so ashamed.

"You seemed to be hurrying somewhere," she said hesitantly. "The way you left the pier. I think I was very… irritated with you in the tavern, I wanted to… know more."

"And now you do." He sounded more tired than angry, actually. "So, what will you do?" he asked.

"I was hoping you would tell me," Lisseut said, looking down at the cat mask in her hands. "I heard you say that you were going to stay instead of leaving with him. I heard him say there might be a war, and I… I heard who paid for the killing." She forced her head up to meet his gaze.

"My father," he said bluntly. "Yes, go on."

She felt her brow knit with concentration. "I'm not famous for my self-discipline, but I don't want to go charging into something that is out of my depth."

"Oh, really," he said with mild sarcasm. "How restrained of you. More people should think that way. But the obvious question is: why trust me? Why are you telling me this on a dark street when no one in the world knows we're here together or knows what you just heard? Why are you asking Galbert de Garsenc's son what to do? You know who he is, you know who I am now. You know that Rudel Correze, my friend, is the man who killed Valery. You spied, you learned things that are important. Why are you standing with me now? Do you care so little for your life, or are you simply ignorant about what happens in the real world to people who do things like this?"

She swallowed. He was not an easy man, not at all. She pushed her hair back from her eyes again; it was snarled, miserably.

"Because I believe what you said to him. You didn't know I was there, you had no reason to lie. You had nothing to do with this killing. And you said you would not leave Arbonne and… and then you didn't tell him he killed the wrong man." She felt her forehead smooth as she realized the truth of what she was saying. These were her reasons; she was discovering them as she spoke. She even smiled. "I think you are an uncivilized northerner upon whom the better things in life are wasted, but I don't think you're evil and I do think you meant what you said."

"Why," said Blaise of Gorhaut in an odd, musing voice, "am I so completely surrounded by sentimental people tonight?"

She laughed aloud. A moment later, as if surprised by himself, Blaise grinned crookedly. "Come on," he said. "We shouldn't be seen in the neighbourhood. Connections will be made." He began walking back down the wide street. His long strides made no concession to her size and she had to take quick, skipping steps to keep up. It was, in fact, irritating again, and after a short while she grabbed his sleeve and with a vigorous tug forced him to slow his pace.

"The god wouldn't want you to make me run," she murmured. He opened his mouth and then closed it. She thought he had nearly laughed but wasn't sure, glancing up in the uncertain light and shadow.

It was then though, unfortunately, hand holding his sleeve, that she remembered that it was Carnival night, Midsummer Eve. It was said in Tavernel to be bad luck to lie alone tonight. She felt her mouth go dry. She swallowed and let go of his sleeve. He didn't even notice, striding along beside her at a more decent pace, broad-shouldered and competent, with the celebrated, notorious Lucianna Delonghi somewhere in his past. Unbidden, the image of the entwined couple in the dark laneway came vividly back to her. Oh, good, the woman had said, in a voice made husky by desire, and their hands had reached out to draw her into a shadowed sanctity.

Lisseut shook her head and swore to herself, breathing deeply of the night air. This was, of course, all Remy's fault. Before him such thoughts, such images, would have been alien to her. Well, mostly alien.

"Why are you letting him leave?" she asked, to change the pattern of her thoughts, to break the silence. There were more people around them now; mostly couples at this point in the evening she noted, and quickly suppressed that thought. "Because he's your friend?"

Blaise glanced down at her. She wondered if her voice sounded strained. He hesitated. Lisseut had a quick, flaring sense that if she had been a man he wouldn't have. He did answer, thought. "Partly that, obviously. We have been through… a great many things together. But there's more to it. Rudel Correze is an important man. He's his father's son, and his father is a very important man. If he's captured here we would have to decide what to do with him, and that could prove awkward. If a war comes, the cities of Portezza will be important, for money, and possibly more than that."

She took another chance. A large chance. "We?" she asked.

He was silent for a few strides. "You are," he said finally, "a clever woman, and obviously a brave one." She thought of sketching a mock bow in the roadway but refrained. "I suggest you try hard not to become too sentimental about this. I'm a professional coran, at the moment under contract to Duke Bertran, who is not dead though a man I had come to like is. In my profession one gets used to the deaths of people one likes, or one finds another profession. I could as easily be in Aulensburg serving Jorg of Gotzland by this autumn, and if he decides to join Gorhaut and if there is a war… I'll be back here and fighting for him against you. You must understand that. For now, I try to serve, as best I can, the needs of the man who pays me."

"Payment is all? Wouldn't you fight for Gorhaut because it is your country? Only for that reason, money aside?" She found that she was breathing hard again.

He fell silent as they walked, looking over and down at her. Their eyes met for a moment, then he glanced away. "No," he said finally. "Once I would have. Once I did. Not any more." He drew a slow breath. "Not since Iersen Bridge. I am a professional coran. Payment is all."

"And you can change sides that easily? There are no attachments that matter? No people, no principles?"

"You started the evening attacking me," he murmured. "Is it becoming a habit?"

Lisseut felt herself blushing.

"If you are fair," he went on, "you will acknowledge that there are principles behind what I do. Attachments are dangerous in my profession. So is sentiment."

"You've used that word at least four times tonight," she said, more tartly than she'd intended. "Is that your only word for human affection?"

He laughed again, surprising her. "If I concede you the point will you leave it?" he asked.

He stopped in the street. They were back among the crowds now. Someone jostled her going past. Blaise laid a hand on her shoulder as she turned to look at him. "I don't think I'm up to debating with you in the street tonight. I think I'd lose." He gazed down at her soberly, a professional again, assessing a situation. "You asked me earlier what you should do. I intend to speak to En Bertran in the morning. He should not be taxed with this tonight, I think that is obvious, quite aside from what I promised Rudel Correze. I will tell him everything that happened, including my decision to let Rudel have a chance to leave. I expect he'll agree with that, eventually, if not immediately. I'll also tell him who paid for that arrow. I promise you these things. If you don't trust me to do this, you can be there when we meet in the morning."

It was more than she could have expected, rather a great deal more. She said, however, being what her mother had always said she was, "You'll tell him everything? Including who you are?"

His expression did not change; he'd been expecting the question, she realized. He had already begun taking her measure; it was a curious thing to realize.

"If you insist that I do so, I will. I cannot stop you from telling, in any event. I don't go about killing women who learn too much. I can only ask you to let me be the judge as to when and whether to reveal that, as events unfold." He hesitated again. "I mean no harm to anyone you care about."

She thought of Remy, with a sword wound in his shoulder. She said, hardily, trying to sound cool and experienced. "Fine. I can give you that. But then I had better not be there when you speak to Bertran or he'll summon me after, alone, and ask me what else I heard—and I'm not very good at lying." She was conscious of his hand still on her shoulder.

He smiled. "Thank you. You are generous."

Lisseut shrugged. "Don't be sentimental," she said.

He laughed aloud, throwing his head back. An artisan with a noisemaker ran past them just then, producing a terrifying blast of sound. Blaise winced.

"Where shall I leave you?" he asked. "At the tavern?"

He had taken his hand from her shoulder. It was Midsummer Eve, in Tavernel. She said, "You don't have to leave me… actually. It is Carnival and the night has some time yet to run. We could share a bottle of wine, if you like, and… and, well if you are staying in Arbonne for a while longer you should know some of our customs." She looked away, despite herself, along the crowded street. "It is said to be… unlucky to spend tonight alone in this city."

Her mother had always said she would end up disgracing the family. She could blame her uncle for taking her out into the wide world as a singer. She could blame Remy of Orreze. She could blame the holy rites of Rian in Tavernel on Midsummer Eve.

She could wait, biting her lip, for the man with her to say, with devastating politeness, "Thank you. To both things. But I am not of Arbonne, truly, and if it brings me ill luck or no, a coran I admired has died tonight and my own customs require that I keep vigil for him in a house of the god."

"All night?" She looked back up at him. It took some courage.

He hesitated, reaching for words. Lisseut said then, knowing it was ill advised, "I don't know what happened in Portezza, obviously, but I am not like that. I mean, I don't normally—"

He put a hand over her mouth. She felt his fingers against her lips. "Don't say it," he murmured. "Leave me that much as my own."

He was an uncivilized northerner, she thought. He had stabbed Remy in the arm. Until the sun falls and the moons die, her grandfather and her father used to say, Gorhaut and Arbonne shall not lie easily beside each other. His fingers withdrew, he withdrew back into himself, behind his own mask. It was only the dangerous associations of Midsummer Eve, she told herself, and the disturbing intimacy of what she'd heard in that garden. There were other men to be with, men she knew and trusted, men of talent and wit and courtesy. They would be back at The Liensenne, in the downstairs room or upstairs with Marotte's wine and cheeses and their own harps and lutes and songs, celebrating Rian through the remaining hours of the goddess's most holy night. It was not likely she would have to lie alone.

Unless, in the end, she wanted to. With an unexpected sadness within her, Lisseut looked away beyond the man she was standing with, struggling to regain the diamond-bright mood of exhilaration that seemed to have slipped away from her somewhere in this strange night among the crowds and the music and the noisemakers and the one arching arrow and the words she'd heard spoken beside the plashing of a fountain.

And so it was, looking away along the crowded street, that she saw before he did the six men in crimson livery who now came up and surrounded them carrying torches, bearing swords.

MIDSUMMER

177

Their leader bowed gracefully to Blaise of Gorhaut. "It would be a great courtesy," he said, with perfect, grave formality, "if you would come with us."

Blaise looked quickly around; she could see him trying to take the measure of this new situation. He looked back at Lisseut, seeking a clue or explanation in her eyes; she had known he was going to do that. He didn't know the livery, of course. She did. She knew it well. And didn't much feel, just then, like helping him. How, she thought, surprised by her own swift anger, was a bedraggled joglar from Vezét's olive groves to compete with this sort of thing on a night of Rian?

"I don't think," she said, "that you are going to have your vigil with the god after all. I wish you joy of the night and the year." And took a shallow, fleeting satisfaction in the incomprehension that showed in his eyes before they took him away.

One of the men in crimson escorted her back to The Liensenne. Of course. They were flawlessly versed in such niceties. They had to be, she thought sourly, they were meant to be an example to all the world.

CHAPTER 7

Even when he saw the peacocks in the extravagantly lit inner courtyard of the house where they brought him, Blaise wasn't sure where he had come. He had no sense of immediate danger from the five men escorting him, but, equally, he was under no illusion that he could have refused their courteously phrased request.

He was surprisingly weary. He'd been more honest with the singer, the straggle-haired girl named Lisseut, than he would have expected to be, especially after what she'd done. But if he'd been entirely truthful he would have added, at the end, that his desire for a vigil in a house of the god was at least as much for the cool silence such a solitude would afford as it was to mourn and honour Valery of Talair's passing to Corannos that night.

He had rather a great deal to think about and try to deal with just now, and wine and whatever might follow on a decadent night in Tavernel with a singer—however spirited and clever she might be—was not going to ease his heart or his mind tonight. Things seemed to have suddenly become difficult again.

His father had paid a quarter of a million in gold to Rudel Correze to kill the duke of Talair.

A clear message meant for all the world, and another, hidden, for his younger son alone: See what I have to work with, my errant child. See what I deny you for refusing me. How I strip away even your friendship. Learn the cost of your folly. How could you ever have dreamt of gainsaying me?

Was there any place on the surface of the earth where he might go and not be brought back, face to face as before the polished, merciless, self-revealing surface of a mirror, with Galbert, the High Elder of Corannos in Gorhaut?

And there was more, even more than that tonight. Lucianna was married again. Another sort of mirror that, distorting and dark: guttering candles beside a ravaged bed, the god's moon passing from a window, an eastern songbird in an ornate cage singing to break the heart—images so raw the eyes of memory flinched away.

He had come in the stillness of winter through the passes to Arbonne as to a place of haven or refuge, where he had never been before, would probably not be known, might serve in quiet anonymity whatever petty lord in whatever remote mountain fastness might offer him an adequate recompense. Where he might not ever hear her name spoken, whether in admiration or desire or contempt, or be forced to deal with all the hurting, hoarded memories from Portezza: images framed in the intricate textures of carpeting and tapestries, cushions of woven silk, vases and drinking cups of marble and alabaster, and weaving through them all, like a drifting veil of smoke, the sensuous, elusive scents he had come to know perilously well in the women's wing of the Delonghi palace in many-towered Mignano a year ago.

What is my sin, Blaise? Rudel was like that. A knife in the voice and in the thought behind. Quicksilver bright, insubstantial as a moon on water sometimes, then sharp and merciless and deadly as… as an arrow dipped in syvaren. And the sharpness in his perceptions, as much as in anything else. A man from whom it was difficult to hide.

For the sin, the transgression, lay—and Rudel knew it, they both knew it—in his having given Blaise exactly what he wanted. In taking a Gorhaut coran still numb with shock and anger in the aftermath of the Treaty of Iersen Bridge and drawing him away, first to Aulensburg and the ale-sodden, hunt-obsessed court of Jorg of Gotzland, and then down south by stages in fair, flowering springtime to something else, something entirely otherwise.

To the cities of Portezza and their intrigues, the delicate pleasures of subtle, wealthy men with sidelong smiles, and the infinitely versed women of those warring, brilliant city-states. And one windswept night, with distant thunder sounding on the hills north of Mignano, there had been Lucianna Delonghi's night-black hair at the head of a banquet table, the flash of her jewellery, the equally flashing wit with unsettling traps and double meanings everywhere, the mocking laugh, and then, astonishingly, what she was afterwards, elsewhere, under the painted canopy of a bed, clad only in the dazzle of that jewellery… what happened when mockery left the laughter but the laughter remained. That was Rudel's sin. And so, being honest, Blaise was forced to say there was really no sin at all, only a doorway offered—and with a warning, as well—through which he himself had walked, scarred by wounds from a winter battle when his king had died, into the seeming warmth of a firelit, candlelit, scented sequence of rooms, from which he'd emerged a season later with wounds that went deeper by far.

The peacocks were arrogantly unafraid. One of them seemed inclined to challenge their right to cross the courtyard before it turned and strutted away, opening the glorious panoply of its tail. Under the moons and in the blaze of torches there was something extravagant and profligate about the fan of colours on display. In his memories of Lucianna, too, there was little daylight; it all seemed to have happened in darkness or by candlelight, extravagant, profligate, in one palace or another, and once, on a steaming, airless summer's night not to be forgotten, with Rudel in Faenna when they had killed her husband on a contract for her father.

As they approached the end of the courtyard a pair of doors were opened by a footman in the dark red livery. Behind him, in a wide hallway, bearing flame in a slender candlestick, a lady-in-waiting stood, in the same colours, with white at wrist and throat and binding her dark hair. The footman bowed, the woman sank low in a curtsey. The candle in her hand did not even waver. "Will you honour me by following?" she asked.

Blaise was still under no illusions. Two of the guards had remained, he noted, waiting just inside the doorway. He was almost inclined to berate them all, to demand an end to this protracted charade of courtesy, but something in the perfection, the gravity of it, made him hold his peace. Whoever it was who had sent for him very clearly placed an exaggerated value on such things; it might be a useful piece of information.

And it was with that thought, following the woman's neat-footed progress down a corridor and up a wide, curving flight of stairs, with two guards in careful step behind him, that Blaise understood where he had to be, and something the singer had said, at the end, became belatedly clear to him.

They stopped before a closed door. The woman knocked twice and opened it; she stepped aside, gesturing with easy grace for Blaise to pass within. He did. They closed the door behind him, leaving him in that room without attendant or guard.

There was a fireplace, not lit. Candles in sconces on the walls and on tables placed around a richly furnished and carpeted room done in shades of dark blue and gold. Wine on one table, he saw, goblets beside a flask. Two, no, three doorways opening to inner rooms, a pair of very deep, high-backed chairs facing the fire. The windows on the outer wall were open to the breeze; Blaise could hear noises of revelry from below. There was a familiar, hard bitterness in him now, and a curiosity he could not deny, and a third thing, like the quickening hammer of a pulse, beneath both of these.

"Thank you for coming," said Ariane de Carenzu, rising from a divan on the far side of the room. Her black hair was still down about her shoulders, as it should not have been. She was dressed as before, jewellery upon her like fire and ice.

"I would accept the thanks if I had had a choice in the matter," Blaise said grimly. He remained just inside the doorway, assessing the room, trying not to stare too intently at the woman.

She laughed aloud. "Had I been certain you would elect to come I would have been happy to grant you that choice." Her smile made it clear she knew exactly what she was saying. She was very beautiful, the dark hair framing and setting off flawless white skin. Her dark eyes were wide-set and serene, the mouth was firm, and in her voice Blaise heard the note of control he had registered in the tavern when she had issued a command to the dukes of Talair and Miraval, and both had accepted without demur.

The women of Arbonne, he thought, trying to summon anger like a shield. He folded his arms across his chest. A little more than a year ago, on a spring night with the god's thunder outside on the northern hills, he had answered a different kind of summons to another black-haired woman's chambers. His life had been changed that night, and not, in the end, for the better.

There is wine by the fire, Lucianna Delonghi had said then, lying across her bed beneath the canopy of coupling figures. Shall we begin with that thirst?

There was no bed here, no lit fire, and the woman with him now poured the wine for both of them herself, and then neatly, without artifice, walked over to offer him a goblet. He took it without speaking. She did not linger beside him but turned and walked back to the divan. Almost without knowing he was doing so, Blaise followed. She sat and gestured with one hand and he took the chair she indicated. She was wearing perfume, a subtle scent, and not a great deal of it. There was a lute on a table at one end of the divan.

She said, without preamble, the dark brown eyes steady on his, "There are a number of matters we might wish to consider, you and I, before this night is over, but do you want to begin by telling me what happened after you left the river?"

He was tired, and his mind and heart had been dealt double blows tonight, but he was not so far unmanned as that.

He even found himself smiling, though he could not have said why. Perhaps the pure challenge of it, the directness of what she seemed to be trying to do. "I might," he murmured. "I might possibly want to tell you, but until I know who else is listening at the door behind you I would prefer to keep my own counsel, my lady. You will forgive me."

He had expected many things, but not delight. Her laughter chimed with her two hands clapping happily together, the long fingers momentarily obscuring the rubies about her throat.

"Of course I will forgive you!" Ariane de Carenzu cried, "You have just won me a wager of twenty-five silver barbens. You really shouldn't work in the service of men who undervalue you so much."

"I object to that," said Bertran de Talair, entering the room from the door behind her. "I did not underestimate Blaise. I might possibly have judged your charms to be rather more distracting then they seem to be of late."

"I know your lute," Blaise said briefly. "I may not think much of your music, but I know the instrument." He was making an effort to keep his composure. He wasn't really looking at Bertran, either, because another woman, very tall, had walked in behind the duke. This one had grey in her dark hair and she was blind and there was a white owl on her shoulder. The last time he'd seen her was on an island in the sea when she'd told him the secrets of his own heart in the night dark of a forest.

"You might at least have tried," Bertran went on plaintively, addressing Ariane. "I'm minded to renege on our wager. You were about as seductive as a wet goat in a cave."

"Spare us a recitation of your preferences," Ariane replied sweetly.

It was the High Priestess of Rian, her blank eye sockets turned unerringly to where Blaise had risen from his chair, who told him the thing he most needed to know, as de Talair threw back his head in laughter.

"The wounded coran will live. He should be completely recovered after the shoulder injury heals."

"That cannot be," Blaise said, his mind clamping shut in denial. "There was syvaren on that arrow."

"And he owes you his life for telling them as much by the river," the priestess went on gravely. She was robed in a gown grey as the streaks in her hair. Her skin was darkened and roughened by sun and wind and the salt of the sea, a complete contrast to Ariane's alabaster smoothness. "They brought him to me in the temple here, and because I knew what this was and because it happened tonight, I was able to deal with it."

"You can't, though. You can't cure a man poisoned by syvaren. No surgeon in the world can do that."

She permitted herself the small, superior smile he remembered. "That last is true, at any rate. Nor could I have done so if too much time has passed and if I had not been in a consecrated place. It is also Midsummer Eve. You should have cause to remember, Northerner, that the goddess's servants can do things you might not expect when we are centred in her mysteries."

"We burn women in Gorhaut when they traffic in the magic of darkness." He wasn't sure why he'd said that, but he did indeed recall the apprehension he'd felt on the island, the pulsing of the forest floor beneath his feet, and something of that was coming back now. He was also remembering, as through a tunnel of smoke and years, the first witch-burning he'd ever seen. His father had pronounced the excoriation and had had both his young sons stand by him and watch.

The High Priestess of Rian was no longer smiling. "Fear makes men label women's power an act of darkness. Only fear. Consider the price of that: no woman would have dared try to save Valery of Talair if that arrow had been loosed in Gorhaut." She paused, as if waiting for a response, as a tutor with her charge. Blaise said nothing, keeping his face as impassive as he could. The owl flapped its wings suddenly but settled again on the priestess's shoulder. In a different tone she said, "I bring greetings for you from Luth of Baude, who now serves Rian with dignity on her Island."

Blaise grimaced at the recollection. "Luth couldn't serve a flask of ale with dignity," he said, anger and confusion overcoming him.

"You do not mean that, you are only unsettled. You might also be surprised at what any man may do when he, too, feels centred in his own being." The reproach was mild enough, but Blaise felt, as he had before with this woman, that there were meanings beneath the surface of her words, that she was speaking to a part of him that no one should have been able to address.

The very old woman who had burned on the Garsenc lands all those years ago had been pitiful more than anything else. A village neighbour had accused her at the year end godmoot of witching a cow so its milk would dry. Galbert had decided to make an example of the case. Every year, sometimes more often, such a course was needful, he had said to his sons.

The cow's milk had been unchanged even after the witch had died with her white hair blazing. Blaise had made a point of going back to the village, after, and asking about that. Something had sickened in him then, and did so again whenever the memory came back. He recalled, a memory thick and oppressive, his father's heavy hand on his shoulder at the burning, as Galbert made sure his recalcitrant younger child would not shame him by turning away. There had been no darkness, no secret, dangerous power in the terrified woman screaming until she choked among black smoke and the tongues of flame and the smell of burning flesh. Somehow Blaise had known it even then.

But there was magic in the High Priestess of Rian. He had felt it on that island. She had known about Rosala. That, in itself, was an almost impossible thing to deal with, or forget. And as for the poison tonight: Bertran was here laughing, had been gleefully wagering with Ariane de Car-enzu. Valery could not be dead. Even with syvaren on the arrow.

Something clenched and hurtful in Blaise, that had been present since he'd seen the white-and-black shaft fly, began to loosen its grip inside him. Rudel Correze, he thought abruptly, was going to be a profoundly disconcerted man one day not far from now. A part of him wanted to smile at that, but instead Blaise found himself sinking back down into his chair and reaching for his wine. He cradled the silver goblet in both hands without drinking. He was going to have to be careful now, he thought, looking at the two women and the man. Extremely careful.

"How much power do you have?" he asked, keeping his voice even, looking at the blind woman. She was still standing behind the divan.

And unexpectedly—she was always unsettling him, it seemed—the priestess laughed. "What? Would you have a dissertation now on the Natural, Celestial and Ceremonial powers, with a subsidiary digression on the three Principal Harmonies? You think I am a lecturer at the university, perhaps? You haven't even offered me a fee, Northerner!"

Blaise flushed at the mockery. But even as the High Priestess ended, laughing still, Ariane de Carenzu's cool voice interceded, precise and sharp as a stiletto between the ribs. "However captivating the issue raised might be, I am afraid the furthering of your education will have to be delayed a short while. You might recall that I have a question proposed first. You declined to answer until you knew who was behind the door. That was fair enough. Now you know. I would be grateful for a reply."

What happened after you left the river? she had asked. The offered question and the heart of danger in this room tonight. Bertran de Talair stopped his restless pacing. He had picked up a crystal from one of the tables and held it now in one hand, turning it this way and that, accepting and diffusing candlelight, but his blue eyes were steady on Blaise's as he waited.

Blaise turned—as he seemed always to be turning—back to the High Priestess in her rough grey robe. Quietly, he said, "If you know my mind, as you seemed to when last we met, you can answer all such questions for them, can't you." He said it flatly; it was not a question.

Her expression, oddly, grew gentler, as if he'd sounded an unexpected chord. She shook her head. "I also told you that night that our powers are less than our desires would have them be, and they grow weaker when we are farther from the hearthstones of Rian. On the goddess's Island I could read some things in your heart and in your history, largely to do with love and hate, you will remember. I said I could tell your future. That was a lie. Nor can I read your mind right now. If you have things to tell us you will have to tell them yourself."

"Not all things," Blaise said calmly. "You could tell them who I am, for example."

There was a short silence, then:

"We all know who you are, Blaise de Garsenc." Bertran laid down the crystal as he spoke. His voice actually held a faint irritation. "Did you honestly think you were travelling in such secrecy? That you entered my service without my knowing whom it was I was hiring?" The candlelight on the clever, cynical face exposed his old white scar.

Blaise swallowed. Events were moving very fast. Abruptly, he recalled something. "But you asked me. You wanted to know who I was when first we met. If you knew, why ask?"

Bertran shrugged. "I learn more sometimes from questions I know the answers to. Really, Blaise, whatever you—or I, for that matter—may think of your father, he is one of the powers of our world today, and his younger son has been, for a number of years, a coran of some reputation of his own. It was no secret—among certain circles, at any rate—that Galbert de Garsenc's son left Gorhaut immediately after the Treaty of Iersen Bridge was signed. And when a distinctively tall, reddish-bearded Gorhaut coran of considerable skills was reported to be in Castle Baude some time after… it wasn't difficult to make an obvious guess. At which point I went to investigate matters for myself. Incidentally, I've never seen another man match arrows with my cousin at that distance before."

Feeling bludgeoned by the increasing pace of revelations, Blaise shook his head. "I didn't match him. And as it happens, the man who shot Valery tonight may well be better than either of us." He wasn't sure he'd actually meant to say that.

"Ah, well now," murmured Ariane de Carenzu, the words like a slow caress in the stillness of the room. "This brings us somewhere, finally." Blaise looked at her. Her lips were parted slightly, her eyes bright with anticipation.

"I had intended to tell the duke in the morning," he said carefully. "I undertook to wait until then."

"Was such an undertaking yours to give?" The caressing note was gone as swiftly as it had come. She had spoken this way in the tavern, to Talair and Miraval. Blaise hadn't liked it then, and he didn't now. He let his eyes grow wide, holding and challenging her. It was curious, and something he would have to think about afterwards, but with his identity out in the open he felt rather more equal to these people now. He had a suspicion that when he considered the matter he wouldn't be happy about it, since any feeling would be derived, ultimately, from being his father's son, but it was there, it was undeniably there.

"You will remember," he said quietly to the duchess of Carenzu, "that I was under the impression that En Bertran would be mourning the death of his cousin this evening."

"How solicitous of you." It was Bertran. "And was that the reason for your undertaking?"

"In part," Blaise said, turning back to him. "There were others."

"Which were?"

Blaise hesitated. There was danger here. "The desire to avoid an extremely delicate political problem for us all, and another reason which is private to me."

"I am not certain we can value that privacy, tonight, and I rather think the people in this room can shape their own judgments and responses to any political problems, however delicate, that might emerge from what you say. I think you had best tell me who this person is." The duke's posture and voice were as lazy as ever, but Blaise had been with him long enough now not to be fooled by that.

"Don't be obtuse, Bertran. We know exactly who this person is." A fifth voice in the room, from one of the two chairs before the fire, assured, quite uncompromising. Blaise wheeled swiftly around but saw no one at all, until the speaker rose, with caution, and he finally understood. The others, he noted grimly, had not been surprised.

He had looked over at those chairs when he first entered the room, of course; they were wide, richly upholstered and straight-backed, facing the fireplace, but not so large as to conceal a man.

But this was Arbonne, and a woman was another matter. Particularly a small, fine-boned, white-haired woman whom he knew to be—for he had seen her before, bestowing honours at tournaments—Signe be Barbentain, countess of Arbonne.

She was looking at the duke. "If you have been listening at all carefully, Bertran, then this should be one of those questions you already know the answer to. If so, you should not shame a coran who tells you he has given an undertaking not to speak. We do not behave that way here, whatever may happen elsewhere in this decaying world."

She was clad in blue and a pale cream colour with pearl buttons, close set, running up the front of her gown. Her hair was held back with a golden diadem. She wore no other ornaments save for two rings on her fingers. She had been celebrated, Blaise knew, as the most beautiful woman in the world in her time. He could see it, even now. Her eyes were astonishing, so dark they were almost black.

He bowed, a straight leg forward, one hand brushing the carpet. His coran's training would have had him do so, even if his instincts had not.

She said, "Mine cannot be the only source of information that reported last year that the younger son of Galbert de Garsenc spent a season in Mignano and Faenna at the palaces of the Delonghi. Nor can I be the only one to have heard certain rumours—which we need not now pursue—concerning the unfortunate death of Engarro di Faenna. But the name to be linked with all of this—a name that indeed would give rise to complexities in affairs of state, as well as eliciting a personal response from our friend here—is surely that of Rudel Correze. Who is, I am reliably informed, much sought-out as an assassin, in good part for his skill with a bow. You need not," she added calmly, looking directly at Blaise for the first time, "reproach yourself for an undertaking breached. You did not tell me this."

Blaise cleared his throat. It sounded harsh in the silence. "Evidently I did," he said.

She smiled. "You didn't even know I was here."

Blaise found himself, unexpectedly, smiling back. "Then I should reproach myself for that. It was unprofessional, and careless." He drew a breath. "My lady, I advised Rudel Correze to take ship tonight because I was going to inform the city authorities of his identity in the morning."

"City authorities? You meant me, I dare assume." Bertran had walked around the divan now to stand by Ariane. Beatritz, the High Priestess, had not moved or spoken for some time.

Blaise shook his head. "He thinks he killed you. I did not disabuse him of the notion."

After a moment Bertran threw back his head and laughed aloud. "So he will sail away to claim whatever fee it was, from whoever paid him. Oh, splendid, Blaise! The embarrassment will be with him a long time."

"I thought so too. And for using syvaren it is the least he should suffer. But I think you will agree it would have been impolitic to seize the favoured son of the Correze family. At this juncture of affairs."

Ariane de Carenzu was nodding. "Extremely impolitic. It could have been very awkward to have him in custody here."

"I concluded as much," Blaise said mildly. But he was delaying now, evading; there was an issue still buried here, waiting like a trap.

And so, naturally, it was the High Priestess who finally spoke, almost on cue with his own thought, "Is there more we should know?" As she spoke, the white owl lifted suddenly, wings briefly spread, and alighted gently on the shoulder of the countess. Who was Beatritz's mother, Blaise suddenly remembered. Signe de Barbentain reached up and gently stroked the bird.

They would learn, he knew. They were going to find out soon enough, when the whole world did. He didn't want it to happen that way. He turned from the countess back to Bertran de Talair, who was, after all, the man who was to have been killed, and the man he was working for.

"There are two more things that matter. One is the fee." He drew a breath. "Rudel Correze was to be paid two hundred and fifty thousand in gold for killing you."

It was a matter of some real satisfaction to see that En Bertran, the worldly, infinitely sophisticated duke of Talair, was no more able to conceal his shock at the size of the figure than Blaise had been in the Correze garden earlier that night. Ariane de Carenzu put a hand to her mouth. The countess was behind Blaise. The High Priestess did not move, nor did her face show any expression at all. He hadn't expected it to.

"Who, then?" Bertran asked finally, his voice showing strain for the first time. "That is the second thing?"

Blaise nodded. The old anger was in him again, the difficult, continuous pain that seemed to be endlessly rising from this source as if from an underground spring that never dried. He was blunt, because he could not be anything else.

"My father," he said. "In the name of the king of Gorhaut."

And was undone, he later realized, looking back, by the next words spoken in the room.

"But that must be terrible for you," said the countess of Arbonne with passion.

They all turned to her. She was looking at Blaise, the magnificent dark eyes wide. "He used your own friend for this? Amongst all the possible assassins? How he must hate you! What could you ever have done to make your father hate you so?"

There was, it seemed to Blaise, a lifetime's worth of compassion in those eyes. And some of it now was for him, remarkably. It was less than two years, he thought suddenly, as a stray piece of the story came back, since her husband had died. And theirs was said to have been that rarest thing, a true love match. He turned, on impulse, to look at the niece, Ariane, with her own dark eyes and a suddenly wistful expression, and then at the daughter, the priestess, whose eyes were gone and whose face showed only an intense concentration. There had been another daughter, he vaguely remembered. She was dead. There was a bitter tale there, too, one he probably should know but did not. Affairs in Arbonne had not occupied him greatly in his growing years or his time among the armies and the tournaments.

He turned back to the old woman whose beauty had been the talk of the world in her bright day, and he saw that now, at the late twilight of her time, she had another kind of splendour to her, shaped of sorrows and hard-learned things. For all the staggering import of what he had just told them, it was of his own most private pain that she had first spoken. Not even Rudel, who knew him so well, and who had subtlety and cleverness to spare, had thought through to what Signe de Barbentain had immediately understood. It was quiet in the room; distantly they could hear the late, lingering noises of Carnival. Blaise wondered if she really wanted an answer to the question. He said, roughly, "Some men do not like being denied. In anything. I suppose a son's denial will cut deeper than most. I was to enter the clergy of the god, follow my father among the Elders of Corannos. It began with that. There have been other things. I am not blameless."

"Are you excusing him?" She asked it gravely.

Blaise shook his head. "Not that." He hesitated. "We are a hard family with each other. My mother should not have died."

"At your birth?"

It was strange, to be talking to the countess of Arbonne about these things, and yet, in another way, it seemed unexpectedly apt. He nodded.

She tilted her head slightly to one side, a distinctive gesture. "Would she have made a difference, do you really think? In Gorhaut?"

"I like to believe so," Blaise said. "It isn't the kind of thing we can know."

"The dead," said Bertran de Talair quietly, "can drive you hard."

Blaise and the women turned to him. The duke looked oddly unfocused, inward, as if he'd not really meant to say that, as if it opened him more than he wanted. Blaise had another memory in this night of inexorable, unbidden remembrance—that dark stairway in Castle Baude very late at night, a flask of seguignac passing back and forth, the weary sadness in the face of the man who'd just seduced a woman he hadn't even known a fortnight before.

"They can drive you away from the living, as well," said Beatritz the priestess, and in her voice Blaise heard an asperity that told him this was not a new matter between her and the duke. These people had all known each other a long time, he reminded himself. Bertran's mouth narrowed.

"A loving, sisterly thought," he said coldly. "Shall we discuss families again?"

"Twenty years and more down the road, I would name it an adult thought," the High Priestess replied, unperturbed. "Tell me, my lord, what heir would be governing your lands tonight if that arrow had killed you? And if Ademar of Gorhaut chooses to bring an army south, would you say we are stronger or weaker for the hatred between Miraval and Talair? Pray share your thoughts. You will forgive me," she added with sharp sarcasm, "for asking questions about today's world, not requesting sweet verses from two decades ago."

"Enough," said Signe de Barbentain sharply. "Please. Or you will both make me feel that I have lived too long."

It was Ariane who took them past the moment. "More than enough," she murmured, reaching for her wine. She took a sip and set the goblet down, not hurrying. "This is a tiresome, ancient wrangle, and there seem to be new matters that require our consideration. First of all, our bearded friend." The dark eyes turned to Blaise, appraisingly. "Are you?" she asked bluntly. "Are you a friend?"

He had actually been ready for this. "I am a hired coran in the service of the duke of Talair," he replied. The correct answer, the professional one.

"Not good enough," said Ariane calmly. "Not any more. Your father paid a quarter of a million in gold to kill your employer. You will, I am afraid, have to elect to be more than you say, or less. Just as Rudel Correze is not merely another assassin among many, just as his name and lineage create dilemmas out of the ordinary, so, too, do yours. Under the circumstances, rather more so. There may be a war. You know the implications of Gorhaut having ceded lands in the Treaty of Iersen Bridge at least as well as we do. The son of Galbert de Garsenc cannot remain in Arbonne as an ordinary coran any more than Bertran can pretend to be just another troubadour drinking and dicing in The Liensenne." Her voice was even and precise, carrying the tones, in fact, of a commander of men on a battlefield.

And what she said was true. He knew it, even as the old, sour anger came back. It was happening again: wherever he went in the world, alone or in company, in secret or carrying the bright flourish of his reputation into battle or tournament, it seemed that his father was there, with him or before him, barring and bolting doorways, a shadow across the light.

Blaise became aware that his hands were clenched at his sides. Deliberately he forced them to relax. He took a deep breath and turned to the duke.

"I honour my contracts," he said. "I believe you know that."

Bertran gave his small shrug. "Of course I do, but that hardly matters any more. Men, even kings and clerics of the god, do not spend two hundred and fifty thousand to dispose of a singer whose song they feel has embarrassed them. The game had changed, Blaise, it is larger than you and I and our private dealings. You are a player of significance now, whether you want to be or not."

Stubbornly, Blaise shook his head. "I am a coran for hire. Pay me enough and I will serve you in war or peace. Turn me off and I'll seek other employment."

"Stop mouthing rote words, Blaise de Garsenc. It ill becomes you to pretend you do not understand what is being said." Beatritz, tall and implacable, spoke in a voice of grim adjudication. "You are the son of the most important man in Gorhaut. The king is a tool in Galbert's hands, and we all know it. Your family, whatever their inner turmoil, have holdings more powerful than any other in that country, the more so since all the northern lords have been dispossessed by the Treaty. Will you stand before us, before the countess of Arbonne, and claim that the only difference between you and Luth of Baude is that you are better with a sword? Have you been running from your father all these years because you will not oppose him?"

"Not oppose him?" Blaise echoed, shocked into genuine fury. "I have spent my life opposing him, at home and then beyond our walls. I hate everything the Treaty represents. I left Gorhaut so as not to live in a country so stripped of its pride. Everyone there knows it. I have made my statement. What else would you have me do? Ride home in fell wrath and declare myself the true king of Gorhaut?

And stopped, abashed and appalled by the quality of the silence that followed. By the intent, focused, deeply revealing expressions of the two women and the man by the divan. Blaise swallowed with difficulty; his mouth was dry. He closed his eyes for a moment, hearing his own last words as a weirdly distorted echo in the chamber of his skull. Opening his eyes again he turned, slowly, his heart pounding now as if he'd been running a long distance, and looked towards the fire, to where the countess of Arbonne was standing, small and delicate, white-haired, still beautiful, one hand on the back of a chair for support, her astonishing eyes gazing into his, and smiling, smiling now, he saw, with the radiant, indulgent approval of a mother for a child who has passed, all unexpectedly, a test thought to be beyond him.

No one spoke. In the rigid stillness of that room in Tavernel on Midsummer Night, at the hinge, the axis, the heart of the year, the white owl suddenly lifted itself, gliding silently on wide wings to settle on Blaise's shoulder like a benediction or a burden beyond all common measure.

CHAPTER 8

The crimson-clad guard of Carenzu took Lisseut through the late night streets and left her, with another flawless bow, at the doorway of The Liensenne. She stood there for a moment, undecided, listening to the uproar inside, a confused flurry of emotions working within her. As she hesitated, debating whether she wanted the conviviality of the tavern itself or the relative intimacy of a chamber upstairs, the noise subsided and a thin, reedy voice came drifting through the window, singing a plangent hymn to Rian.

Lisseut walked quickly around the corner, went down the laneway in back of the tavern, opened the rear door and started up the stairs. She was truly not of a mind just then to listen to Evrard of Lussan in his pious mode. On the stairway and then in the corridor she passed couples in ardent clinches—most of the chambers had been booked and overbooked long ago—before coming to the doorway of a room that was always reserved for this week and had been for years.

She knocked. It wouldn't be locked, she knew, but she had caused some embarrassment two years ago by walking in on three men and a woman, at what turned out to be an extremely inopportune time. Her difficult relations with Elisse dated from that moment.

By way of reply to her knocking, a reflective, mellifluous voice could be heard singing:

Alone am I and sorrowful for love has gone away,

Gone away on a white horse and left me here to mourn…

She smiled and opened the door. Aurelian, indeed alone, was sitting on one of the two beds, leaning back against the wall as he fingered his lute. His shirt was open at the throat and he had taken off his boots. His long legs extended well out over the side of the bed. He gave her a grave smile of welcome and, still singing, indicated with a motion of his head the table where an open bottle of wine stood, a number of glasses beside it. There was a rumpled scattering of clothes on the other bed and Lisseut saw blood on a shirt. She poured herself some wine, took a quick, much-needed drink, and carried the bottle over to refill Aurelian's goblet as well. There was one small window in the room. She walked to it and looked down. It overlooked the alley; there was no one below, but she could hear sounds from the street and Evrard's music drifting up from the downstairs room. Aurelian continued his own quiet singing, another son, the same theme:

My heart is lonely and brim-full of grief

When I remember the nights that are past,

When my sweet love would offer me

Delights beyond all earthly measure…

"I've never liked that verse," he said, breaking off abruptly, "but it isn't much good trying to talk to Jourdain about anything he's written, is it? I don't even know why I keep singing it."

"The tune," said Lisseut absently, still gazing out the window. "I've told you that before. Jourdain's always better at the music than the words."

Aurelian chuckled. "Fine. You be the one to tell him that." He paused; behind her she could almost feel his scrutiny. "You're too pensive for a Carnival night, my dear. You do know that Valery is recovering?"

"What?" She spun around. "I didn't… he's all right. How?"

"The High Priestess was in Tavernel tonight, don't ask this ignorant troubadour why. Affairs among the great. Valery should probably tithe the goddess from what he earns of Bertran for the rest of his life. She was able to deal with the poison, and the wound itself was minor. He'll be fine, they told us at the temple. So most of us came back here in a wonderful mood. Can't you hear? There are a great many people you know celebrating downstairs, why don't you go down?"

"Why don't you?" She and Aurelian knew each other very well.

He reached for his goblet. "There's only so much carousing I can take these days, even at Midsummer. Am I getting old, Lisseut?"

Lisseut made a face at him. "I don't know, most venerable sage. Are you?" Aurelian was, in fact, only two or three years older than she was, but he'd always been the quietest of them all, slightly removed from the wilder elements of the troubadour life.

"Where is Remy?" she asked, a natural extension of that last thought. She looked at the second, disordered bed, and back to Aurelian.

He arched one eyebrow elaborately. "Silly question. Rather depends on the hour, I'd imagine. He had a few assignations arranged."

"How is he?"

"Wounded pride. Nothing more, but a good deal of that. He'll probably drink himself into a fury tonight. We'd all best tread warily for a few days."

Lisseut shook her head. "Not I. He owes me for a hat and a shirt. Not to mention my own pride. I've no intention whatever of being nice to him. I plan to tell him that he looked like a sulky little boy when En Bertran was chastising him."

Aurelian winced. "The women of Vezét… what is it, do you think? The olive oil? Something about its sweetness that makes you all so fierce, to compensate?"

From the room below, the insistent voice of Evrard penetrated, still invoking Rian in the same tired ways. Feeling suddenly tired herself, Lisseut smiled wanly, laid her glass aside and sat beside Aurelian on the bed, leaning against his shoulder. Obligingly, he shifted a little and put a long arm around her.

"I don't feel very fierce," she said. "It's been a difficult night." He squeezed her arm. "I didn't like that Arimondan," she said after a moment.

"Or the northerner, I saw. But don't think about them. It has nothing to do with us. Think about your song. Alain's downstairs, by the way, happy as a crow in a grainfield. They're all talking about it, you know, even with everything else that happened."

"Are they? Oh, good, I'm so happy for Alain."

"Be happy for his joglar, Lisseut. And don't sign any contracts tomorrow without talking to me first—you're worth a great deal more now than you were this afternoon. Believe it."

"Then why don't you offer me a job?" An old tease, though his news was genuinely exciting. Too much had happened though, she couldn't reach through to any clear emotion, even for something like this.

Characteristically, he chose to take her seriously. "If I write a woman's song like Alain did, trust me, it will be yours. But for the rest, I'm not proud, my dear… I sing my own work still. I started on the roads as a joglar, and I'll end as one, I expect."

She squeezed his knee. "I wasn't being serious, Aurelian." One of the first rank of the troubadours, Aurelian was probably the very best of the joglars, with the possible exception of Bertran's own Ramir, who was getting old now and on the roads far less than he used to be.

Polite applause floated up from below. A new performer began tuning his instrument. Aurelian and Lisseut exchanged wry glances of relief, and then laughed quietly together. She lifted her head and kissed him on the cheek. "How many years in a row now?" she asked, knowing the answer very well.

"Together at Carnival? I am aggrieved and affronted that the nights are etched on my heart while you can't even remember. Four, now, my dear. Does that make us a tradition?"

"Would you like to be one?" she asked. His hand had moved upwards, stroking the nape of her neck. He had a gentle touch; he was a gentle man.

"I would like to know you and be your friend for the rest of my life," said Aurelian quietly. His dark head came down and they kissed.

Feeling a physical sense of release, and a genuine comfort on a night when she needed exactly that, Lisseut slid slowly back down on the bed and laced her fingers through his black, thick hair, pulling him down to her. They made love as they had before, three years running on this night… with tenderness and some laughter, and an awareness of shaping a still place together amid the wildness outside and the music below and the wheeling of the summer stars about the axis of the year.

Some time later, her head on his chest, his arm around her again, the two of them listened to a voice singing one of the oldest tunes, Anselme of Cauvas's most tender song. In The Liensenne someone always came back to it on Midsummer Eve:

When all the world is dark as night

There is, where she dwells, a shining light…

Softly, not entirely certain why she was asking, Lisseut said, "Aurelian, what do you know about Lucianna Delonghi?"

"Enough to avoid her. It's Lucianna d'Andoria now, actually, since she's remarried, but no one but her husband's family will ever call her that. I would not place any sizable wager on Borsiard d'Andoria's long life or domestic happiness."

"Then why did he marry her? He's a powerful man, isn't he? Why would he invite the Delonghi into Andoria?"

Aurelian laughed quietly. "Why do men and women ever do anything less than rational? Why do the teachings of the metaphysicians of the university not guide us all in our actions? Shall we call it the influence of Rian on hearts and souls? The reason we love music more than rhetoric?"

This wasn't what she wanted to know.

"Is she beautiful, Aurelian?"

"I only saw her once, at a distance."

"And?"

"Remy could describe her better."

"Remy is out bedding someone or getting drunk. You tell me."

There was a short pause. The music of Anselme's sweet song drifted up to them.

"She is as beautiful as obsidian in new snow," said Aurelian slowly. "She glitters like a diamond by candlelight. There is fire in her like a ruby or an emerald. What other jewellery shall I give her? She offers the promise of danger and dark oblivion, the same challenge that war or mountains do, and she is as cruel, I think, as all of these things."

Lisseut swallowed with some difficulty. "You sound like Remy when he's had too much wine," she said finally, trying to manage a tone of irony. She had never heard Aurelian speak like that before. "And all this from a distance?"

"From the far end of a table in Faenna," he agreed calmly. "I would never have dared go nearer, but that was near enough. She is not for having, that one. Were it not an impiety I would say that the dark side of the goddess is in her. She destroys what she is claimed by."

"But still she is claimed."

"There is darkness in all of us, and desires we might prefer to deny by day." He hesitated. "I dream of her sometimes."

Lisseut was silent, unsettled again, sorry now that she had asked. Her confusion of before seemed to have come back in all its jangling discord. They lay together, listening to the music from below, and eventually it was the music that calmed her, as it almost always did. Before it ended they were both asleep. She dreamt, lying in Aurelian's arms, of arrows, though, and heard, in her dream, Rudel Correze's laughter in a garden.

In the morning she would waken with sunlight in the window to find Aurelian gone. Sprawled across the other bed, snoring and sodden, still in his boots and clothes, would be Remy of Orreze. Lisseut would hesitate only a moment, then, offering devout and genuinely grateful thanks to Rian and Corannos both, she would take the basin of water Aurelian had thoughtfully filled for her before he left, and empty it over the sleeping, fair-haired troubadour who'd been her first lover. Then she would flee through the door and down the stairs, leaving his shrieks of outrage behind to awaken all those who yet slumbered in The Liensenne on a bright Midsummer's Day. She would feel much, much better after that.

Every second or third year, in the absence of war or plague, it had been the custom of Guibor IV, count of Arbonne, to spend Midsummer Night in Tavernel at the Carnival, in homage to the goddess and to affirm for his people in the south that he was ever mindful of his duties to them and of the importance of the sea to Arbonne. Once, when young, he had even essayed the Boats and Rings on the river, plucking three garlands before missing the fourth and dousing himself in the river, to emerge with the booming good-natured laughter that was a part of why his country loved him.

On those nights, Signe de Barbentain reflected, lying in a room in the temple of Rian with a small fire to take away the chill that afflicted her now, even in summer, she'd had no concerns about the ancient saying in Tavernel that it was unlucky to lie alone on Midsummer Eve. She had lain with her husband, and the wild sounds outside had seemed part of a fabric of enchantment in the dark.

Tonight, though, she was alone and feeling afraid. Not for herself; her own summons to Rian would come when it came, and was unlikely to lie far off. She had long since come to terms with that. Her fear was for the land, for the dangerous rush of events that seemed to be gathering speed all around them.

New parts to the pattern had been discovered tonight and, starkly awake, looking at the flickering shapes that fire and guttering candle cast on the walls of her room, the countess of Arbonne tried again to deal with these new things. Gorhaut was coming south. There could be no honest denial of that truth any longer. Roban, the chancellor, had flatly predicted it the very same day word of the Treaty of Iersen Bridge had come to Barbentain. And now there was this purposeful, extravagant payment made for the death of Bertran de Talair. He might indeed have died tonight, Signe thought, suppressing a shiver. Had the clouds not come when they did, or had Beatritz not been in Tavernel and the bearded coran, Blaise, not known the arrow and the assassin, and so guessed the presence of syvaren on the head, Bertran could so easily have died, leaving Talair without a proper heir and Arbonne without a man it needed desperately.

And that same Gorhaut coran, Blaise, was a matter unto himself. For the fiftieth time, or the hundredth, Signe tried to weigh risks and gains in this gamble that Beatritz and Bertran had jointly undertaken in trying to bind Galbert de Garsenc's younger son to their cause. Roban had wanted nothing to do with it, had stalked grimly about the perimeter of the council room when the matter was first raised. She couldn't really blame him; Beatritz and Bertran, so unlike each other in most ways, yet shared a confidence in their own judgment and a penchant for taking risks that could be quite unnerving at times.

Blaise de Garsenc wasn't the kind of man she'd been led to expect, either. Rumour had told of a hardened mercenary, with a reputation won in the tournaments and the wars of the six countries over many years. According to Roban, she herself had presented the man with a laurel at the Autumn Fair in Lussan six years past; she didn't remember. It was hard to remember all the young men now. They seemed to remain as young as ever while she grew older all the time.

This man wasn't the grim northern warrior she'd anticipated. He had anger in him, yes, and easy enough to see, but he was clever, and more bitter than anything else, she judged. He had clearly been hurt in Portezza before he came here; there were rumours about that as well. They were probably true. Well, he would not be the first young man whose heart had been left lying on the carpet outside Lucianna Delonghi's bedchamber door, and he was not going to be the last.

In the darkness, Signe rubbed her aching fingers together under the bedcovers; she always seemed to be cold these days. In her time, all the young men had fallen in love with her in that same way. She had known how to deal with it, though. How to deny them the grace they had to be denied while leaving them their pride and even binding them more closely to her—and so, more importantly, to Guibor and the causes of Arbonne in the world. There was an art to the rituals of courtly love, and a purpose. She knew: she was the one who had defined and shaped both the purpose and the art.

Thirty years ago there might have been arts she would have practised to bind this Gorhaut coran to her. Not now, though; those were the tools and contrivances of younger women and, she judged—and her judgment was extremely good in these matters—with a different man. Not so soon after Lucianna Delonghi was done with him would Blaise of Gorhaut tread the path a woman's allure offered or besought.

Which left anger and hatred as the emotions they could most easily invoke, neither of which came readily to her hand, either long ago in her youth or now, with Guibor gone and the world a sad and empty place. It fell not neatly to her to invoke a son's hatred of his father to achieve her own ends, however desperately needful those ends might be.

And yet. And yet the man had spoken the words himself, with none of them to goad or induce them: What else would you have me do? Ride home in fell wrath and declare myself the true king of Gorhaut?

He hadn't meant it, hadn't known he might even possibly mean it, but the pain of Iersen Bridge was so raw in him, and so was his knowledge of his father's designs. Most of the world that mattered knew that Galbert de Garsenc's younger son had left Gorhaut denouncing the treaty his father had devised.

It might be possible. It might indeed be barely possible to find a rift here to widen north of the mountains in Gorhaut. She felt old though, and tired. She wished she could sleep. She didn't want to deal with matters of war. She wanted music and what warmth the sun could offer as summer ripened the vines. She wanted the gentler warmth of memories.

There came a very quiet tapping at her door. Only one person she could think of would be knocking here this late at night.

"Come in," she said. The fire and the single taper were still burning. By the flickering of their light she saw her last living child open and then close the door behind her, entering the room in a pale night-robe, with a sure tread that belied her blindness. The white owl lifted and flew to one of the bedposts.

Signe remembered the first time she'd seen Beatritz after her daughter's eyes had been sacrificed. It was not a memory she cared to relive. Even knowing the ancient, most holy reasons and the power gained, it was hard for a mother to see her child marred.

Beatritz came to stand beside the bed. "Did I wake you?"

"No. I'm thinking too much to be able to sleep."

"And I. Chasing too many thoughts on Rian's night." Her daughter hesitated. "Is there room for me, or will I disturb you? I'm troubled and fearful."

Signe smiled. "Child, there is always room for you beside me." She pulled the coverings back and her daughter lay down with her. Signe lifted one arm to enfold her and began to stroke the greying hair, remembering how soft it had been, how dark and shining and soft when Beatritz was a child. There had been two brothers and a sister and a father then. There are only the two of us left, Signe thought, humming a tune she'd almost forgotten. Only the two.

Walking back from the chapel of the god to Bertran's city palace, Blaise made a determined effort to empty his mind. There would be time in the morning and the days to come to think, to try to deal with the revelations of this night and the improbably, treacherous pathways that seemed to have been opened up before him. It was very late now, and he was bone-weary.

The streets were quiet; only occasional couples or small groups of apprentices went by, carrying wine and crumpled masks. Both moons were over west and the clouds were gone, chased by the breeze. It was still some time before dawn though, even on this shortest night of the year; overhead the stars were bright. They were said to be the god's lights in Gorhaut, Rian's here; Blaise wondered, for the first time, how much that difference mattered in the end. They would still be there, still as remote and coldly bright, whichever power mortal man linked them with. There were said to be lands—fabled and mysterious—far to the south beyond deserts and seas where different gods and goddesses were worshipped. Did the same stars shine there, and as brightly?

Blaise shook his head. These were late-night thoughts and useless ones. He was ready to fall into his bed and sleep for hours. In fact, he could probably drop off here in the street like the figures he could see sprawled in doorways. Most of those figures were not alone, and he could guess what had preceded their slumbers.

He had gone earlier to the largest of the domed temples of Rian, his first time ever inside such a place. He'd wanted to see Valery before the night was done. They'd let him in without demur; he'd expected to have to offer blood or some such ritual, but nothing of the sort took place. Valery had been sleeping. They'd let him stand in the doorway of the coran's room and look in by candlelight. Blaise could see that the shoulder had been carefully bandaged; as for the other healing thing that had happened here, that he had no way of judging, or even comprehending. In his experience syvaren had always killed.

On his way out he had seen an assembled company of people, both men and women, gathered in the largest part of the temple under the high dome. A priestess in a white robe was leading them through a service. Blaise hadn't lingered. He'd gone from there to the nearest house of Corannos, washing his hands ritually at the entrance, with both the supplication and the invocation spoken, and had knelt on the floor in the small, bare, stone-walled coran's chapel in front of the frieze. He'd been alone there, for the first time in a long time, and he'd tried to let the deep, enveloping silence lead him back into the presence and serenity of the god.

It hadn't happened though, not this night. Even in the chapel his mind had kept on circling back, like a hunting bird above a field where a hare has been seen, to that room in the Carenzu palace when he had said what he had said. He hadn't been serious, not even remotely so; the words had been meant to make clear to them all how helpless he truly was, whatever he might feel about what his father and King Ademar had done in Gorhaut. But they hadn't heard it that way, and in the silence that followed his outburst, when the white bird had lifted itself and settled on his shoulder, Blaise had felt the knock of his heart like a fist on the door of destiny.

He felt it again now, walking home through the quiet disarray of the streets, and he tried to force his mind away from such thoughts. He was too tired, this was too large.

Young Serlo was on guard under the lamps burning at the entrance to the duke's city palace. He nodded at Blaise from inside the iron gates, looked to left and right up the street and moved to open the gates. They hadn't been locked—one of the traditions of Midsummer here—but after an assassination attempt, a guard at the main entrance had seemed appropriate. Bertran's corans, led by Valery of Talair, were very good; there had been no training needed here, and even some things for Blaise to learn. The ongoing skirmishes with the corans of Miraval had had more than a little to do with that. A long-simmering feud among neighbouring castles shaped its own rules of conflict, very different from the clashes of armies.

"I looked in on Valery," Blaise said as he entered. "He's sleeping easily."

Serlo nodded. "I'll sleep more easily myself when we've found out who shot that arrow," he said. "I only hope the goddess and the god have decreed an eternal place of pain for men who use syvaren."

"I've seen worse things in war," Blaise said quietly. He had another thought, but he was too tired to shape it properly. "Good night," he said.

"Good night."

He heard the gate swing shut behind him. He would have felt better himself if a key had turned in the lock; he had his own views about the traditions of Arbonne. On the other hand, knowing what he knew about Bertran de Talair, it was unlikely in the extreme that the duke was in the palace tonight. Blaise shook his head. He went across the courtyard, through the inner doors, up the stairs and then down the corridor to the small room his status as a mercenary captain had earned him. Not a minor benefit; most of the corans slept together in dormitories or the great hall of Talair, with seniority merely placing one nearer the fire in winter or the windows in the summer heat.

He opened his door, almost stumbling with fatigue. He was aware of the scent of perfume an instant before he saw the woman sitting on his bed.

"You may remember," said Ariane de Carenzu, "that we had a number of matters to consider, you and I. We seem to have only dealt with the most public ones."

"How did you get past the guard?" Blaise said. His pulse had quickened again. He didn't feel tired any more. It was odd how swiftly that could happen.

"I didn't. There are other ways into this palace. And into mine, if it comes to that."

"Does Bertran know you are here?"

"I rather hope not. I doubt it. He was going out himself, I think. It is Midsummer, Blaise, and we are in Tavernel." He knew what that meant; the singer had told him just before this woman's soldiers had come to lead him away.

Her hair was down, of course, it always was, and her delicate scent imbued the small chamber with subtle, unsettling nuances. But Blaise de Garsenc had his own rules and his own code, and he had broken those rules and that code last summer in Portezza, enmeshed in a world of woman's perfume. He said, "I know where we are, actually. Where is the duke of Carenzu?" He meant it to be wounding; he wasn't sure why.

She was unruffled, at least to his eye, by candlelight. "My husband? In Ravenc Castle with En Gaufroy, I suspect. They have their own particular traditions at Midsummer and I'm afraid women aren't a part of them."

Blaise had heard about Gaufroy de Ravenc. His young bride was said to be still a virgin after almost three years of marriage. He hadn't heard the same sort of stories about Thierry de Carenzu, but then he hadn't asked, or been much interested.

"I see," he said heavily.

"No you don't," said Ariane de Carenzu sharply, irony and amusement gone from her voice. "I don't think you see at all. You will have just now concluded that I am wandering in the night because my husband's preference in bed partners is for boys. You will be deciding that I am to be understood in the light of that fact. Hear me then: I am here of my own choice, and no taste or orientation of the man my father married me to would affect that decision, short of physical restraint."

"So pleasure is all? What of loyalty?"

She shook her head impatiently. "When the day comes that a man and woman of our society may wed because they choose each other freely, then talk to me of loyalty. But so long as women are coinage in a game of castles and nations, even in Arbonne, then I will admit no such duty and will dedicate my life to changing the way of things. And this has nothing, nothing at all to do with Thierry's habits or preferences." She stood up, moving between him and the candle, her vivid face suddenly in shadow. "On the other hand, I know nothing of your own habits or tastes. Would you prefer me to leave? I can be gone quietly the same way I came in."

"Why should it matter if you are quiet or not?" he said, stubbornly holding to his anger. "We're in Arbonne aren't we? In Tavernel at Midsummer."

He couldn't read her eyes, with the one flickering candle behind her, but he saw again the impatient motions of her head. "Come, Blaise, you are cleverer than that. Discretion is at the heart of all of this. I am not here to bring shame to anyone, least of all myself. There is no public duty I owe my lord or my people in which I have been found wanting. I dare say that, and I know it to be true. Thierry has my respect and I am quite certain I have his. The duties I owe myself are different. What happens alone at night between two people who are adults about it need not impact upon the world in any way that matters."

"Then why bother? Why bother to be together? Has your Court of Love ruled on that?" He meant to sound sardonic, but it didn't come out that way.

"Of course it has," she said. "We come together to glory in the gift of life the goddess gave us… or the god, if you prefer. Sometimes the best things in our lives come to us of a night and are gone in the morning. Have you never found that?"

He had found something very near to that, but the morning's ultimate legacy had been lasting pain. He almost said as much. There was a silence. In the shadows, her silhouetted form might almost have been Lucianna's. He could imagine the same feel to her black hair and remember the light touch that traced a path along…

But no. Remembering the past was where his anger lay. This woman had done him no wrong that he knew of, and was, by her own lights, honouring him with her presence here. He swallowed.

She said, "It is all right. You are tired. I did not mean to offend you. I will leave."

Blaise could not afterwards have said what sequence of movements brought them together. As he gathered her in his arms he was aware that he was trembling; he had not touched a woman since Rosala, and that night, too, carried its heavy burden of anger and self-reproach, both during and afterwards. Even as he lowered his mouth to Ariane's, breathing deeply of the scent that clung to her, Blaise was bracing himself to resist the alluring ways of yet another sophisticated woman of the south. Lucianna had surely taught him that much; if he had learned nothing from a spring and summer in Portezza he would be a man living an utterly wasted life. Blaise was prepared, defended.

He was not. For where Lucianna Delonghi had used love and lovemaking as instruments, weapons in subtle, intricately devised campaigns, a pursuit of pleasure and power through binding men's spirits helplessly to her, Blaise was given a gift that night in Tavernel of a strong soul's love-making, without eluding, fierce as wind, with grace yet at the heart of it and needs of her own, offered honestly and without holding back.

And in the turning, interwoven movements of that night upon his bed in the city palace of Bertran de Talair, Blaise found, for a short while in the darkness after the one candle burned out, an easing of his own twin pains, the old one and the new, and an access to sharing hitherto denied him. He offered her what he had to give, and even, towards the end, with irony pushed back far away, some of the things he'd learned in Portezza, the skills and patterns of what men and women could do lying with each other when trust and desire came together. Accepting what he offered, laughing once, breathlessly as if in genuine surprise, Ariane de Carenzu bestowed upon him in turn something rich and rare, as a tree that flowers at night without a leaf, and Blaise was, for all the bitterness that lay within him, yet wise enough and deep enough to accept it as such and let her sense his gratitude.

In the end he slept, holding her in his arms, breathing the scent of her, slaked of hunger and need, returned to his weariness as to a garden, through the thickets and brambles of his history.

He woke some time later, disturbed by a sound outside in the street. She was still with him, head on his chest, her dark hair spread like a curtain to cover them both. He moved one hand and stroked it, marvelling.

"Well," said Ariane. "Well, well, well…»

He laughed quietly. She had meant him to laugh. He shook his head. "This has been the longest night I can remember." It was hard to believe how much had happened, in so many different ways, since they had arrived in Tavernel in the afternoon and walked through the thronged streets to The Liensenne.

"Is it over?" Ariane de Carenzu asked in a whisper. Her hand began moving slowly, fingernails barely brushing his skin. "If the songs tell true we have until the lark sings at dawn."

He felt desire returning, inexorable as the first beginning of a wave far out at sea. "Wait," he said awkwardly. "I have a question."

"Oh dear."

"No, nothing terrible or very difficult. Just something about Arbonne, about people we know Something I should have asked about a long time ago."

Her hand was still, resting on his thigh. "Yes?"

"What is it between Talair and Miraval? The hatred there?"

It was true, what he'd said, what he'd come to realize earlier tonight: there was something unnatural about the refusal to learn that had carried him through his months here in Arbonne.

Ariane was silent for a moment, then she sighed. "That is a terrible question, actually, and a difficult one. You'll have me chasing my own memories."

"Forgive me, I—"

"No, it is all right. I have been thinking about them all in any case. The memories are never far away. They have shaped so much of what we are." She hesitated. "Have you at least heard of Aelis de Barbentain, who became Aelis de Miraval?"

He shook his head. "I'm sorry. No."

"The youngest child of Signe and Guibor. Heir to Arbonne because her sister Beatritz went to the goddess and the two brothers died of plague quite young. Wedded to En Urté de Miraval when she was seventeen years old. My cousin." She hesitated, but only briefly. "Bertran's lover, and I think the only real love of his life."

There was a silence again. In it, Blaise heard once more, as if the speaker was actually in the room with them, Bertran's words on a dark stairway in the depths of another night: The god knows, and sweet Rian knows I've tried, but in twenty-three years I've never yet found a woman to equal her.

Blaise cleared his throat. "I think, actually, that last will be true. He said something to me in Baude Castle that would fit… what you just said."

Ariane lifted her head to look at him. "He must have been in a strange mood to say anything about it at all."

Blaise nodded his head. "He was."

"He must have trusted you, too, oddly enough."

"Or known the words would mean nothing to me."

"Perhaps."

"Will you tell me the story? It's time I began to learn."

Ariane sighed again, feeling ambushed almost by this entirely unexpected question. She had been thirteen that year, a bright, quick, laughing spirit, still a child. It had taken her a long time to recapture laughter afterwards, and the child in her had been lost forever the night Aelis died.

She was a grown woman now, with complex roles on the world stage and the burdens that came with those: queen of the Court of Love, daughter of one noble house, wedded into another. She was not a risk-taker by nature, not like Beatritz or Bertran; she thought things through more slowly before she moved. She would not have devised the scheme they had for this son of Galbert de Garsenc, nor had she approved when she was told of it. But by now she had made her own decisions about this man whose hard shell of bitterness so clearly served, like armour on a battlefield, to defend something wounded underneath.

So she told him the story, lying beside him after love on a bed in Bertran's palace, travelling back to the rhythm and cadence of her own words into the past as darkness outside slowly gave way to grey dawn. She told him all of it—quietly spinning the tale of sorrow from that long-ago year—save for one strand of the old weaving, the one thing she never told. It was not truly hers, that last secret, not hers to offer anyone, even in trust or by way of binding or in great need.

In the end, when she was done and fell silent, they did not make love again. It was difficult, Ariane had always found, to sustain any desires of her own in the present day when Aelis was remembered.

Elisse of Cauvas was vain, with, perhaps, some reason to be. She'd a ripe figure and a pleasing voice to go with the long-lashed, laughing eyes that made men feel wittier and more clever in her company than they normally did. Coming from the town that prided itself on being the birthplace of the first of the troubadours, Anselme himself, she often felt that she'd been destined to be a joglar and follow the life of the road, castle to castle, town to town. She considered herself miraculously released—and counted her blessings almost every morning when she awoke—from the tedium and premature ageing she associated with the life she might have expected as an artisan's daughter. Marry the apprentice, survive—if you were fortunate—too many childbirths in too few years, struggle to feed a family and keep a leaking roof intact and the cold lash of the winter wind from coming in through chinks in the walls.

Not for her, that life. Not now. With perhaps a single irritating exception she was almost certainly the best-known of the women joglars following the musicians' circuit about Arbonne. As for that single exception, until very recently the only recognition Lisseut of Vezét ever received seemed to occur because her name was similar to Elisse's! Jourdain had told an amusing story about that a year ago, and they'd laughed together over it.

The latest touring season had changed things, though, or started to change them. In two or three towns and a highland castle in the hills near Gotzland she and Jourdain had been asked their opinion of the wonderful music being made by Alain of Rousset and the girl who was his new joglar. And then, outrageously, Elisse had been asked by a fatuous village reeve, after a performance in a wealthy merchant's home in Seiranne, how the olive trees were faring back home in Vezét. When she realized what the man's mistake was, who he took her for, she'd been so furious she'd had to abandon the merchant's hall for a time, leaving Jourdain to amuse the guests alone while she regained her composure.

It wouldn't do, she thought, lying in an extremely comfortable bed on Midsummer Night, to dwell upon such things, or the unsettling success Lisseut had had with Alain's song earlier that evening—a frankly mediocre piece, Elisse had decided. Where had Jourdain's wits been, she thought, fighting a returning fury, when that glorious opportunity had arisen? Why hadn't he been quick enough to propose his own music for Ariane and the dukes, with Elisse to sing it? Only later, on the river, in the silly games men insisted upon playing, had her own troubadour, her current lover, pushed himself forward—to become an object of general amusement shortly afterwards, as he splashed into the water downstream.

Though 'current lover' might—it just possibly might—be an inappropriate phrase after tonight. Elisse stretched herself, cat-like, and let the bedsheet fall away, leaving her mostly uncovered in her nakedness. She turned her head towards the window, where the man she'd been lying with in the aftermath of love was now sitting on the ledge, picking at her lute. She didn't really like her lovers leaving her side without a word, as this one had, and she certainly didn't like other people handling the lute… but for this man she was prepared to make exceptions, as many exceptions and in whatever dimensions as proved necessary.

She'd brought the lute because she hadn't been entirely sure what was wanted from her. When Marotte, the owner of The Liensenne, had approached her with a whispered confidence earlier in the evening, telling her she'd be anxiously expected—those were his exact words—in the largest of the upstairs rooms after the third of the temple night chimes had sounded, Elisse had wondered if her singing days with Jourdain might possibly be winding to their close.

When she tapped at the room door though, wearing her best tunic, with a flower in her hair for Midsummer, the man who opened it gave her a slow, appraising smile that made her knees feel weak. It was Midsummer, and very late at night. She ought to have known it was not an audition she was being invited to. And, being honest, she didn't at all mind; there were many avenues to success in Arbonne for a woman of passion and spirit and some confidence in herself, and one of them was in this room.

One of them, in fact, was sitting on the window ledge, watching the eastern sky, his back to her, idly making music on her lute. He played very well, and when he lifted his voice—so softly she had to strain to hear, as if the words weren't meant for her at all—it was oddly sorrowful, though the song was not.

The song was his own, a very old one. A charming enough tune, Jourdain had dismissively called it once, tired of the endless springtime requests for it, even after all these years, and in preference to his own, far more musically intricate shapings.

Elisse, listening now to the quiet music and words, was prepared to disagree completely, if required—to regard this as the quintessence of all troubadour love songs. Lying in the wide bed alone, though with no complaint to offer about the hour just past, she had a feeling that her opinion would not be solicited, that it was, in fact, irrelevant. The man on the window ledge, she realized, had probably forgotten she was here.

That bothered her, but not unduly. In another man it might have been infuriating, cause enough to send her storming from the room, but this one was a different proposition from any other in her world, and Elisse of Cauvas was perfectly willing to take her cues from him, and only hope she was quick enough and, well, enjoyable enough, to make an impact of her own. She had never failed to do so before.

So she lay quietly and listened to Bertran de Talair play her lute and offer his own song to the coming of dawn above the empty street. She knew the words; everyone knew the words.

Even the birds above the lake

Are singing of my love,

And even the flowers along the shore

Are growing for her sake.

All the vines are ripening

And the trees come into bud,

For my love's footsteps passing by

Are summoning the spring.

Rian's stars in the night

Shine more brightly over her.

The god's moon and the goddess's

Guard her with their light.

It was really an almost childishly simple tune, with words to match, Elisse thought. Jourdain was right, of course; compared to the interwoven melodies he made her practise endlessly this was something a completely untrained person could sing, hardly worthy of the long apprenticeship demanded of the joglars of Arbonne.

Which made it even odder how near to tears she suddenly seemed to be, listening. Elisse couldn't remember the last time she'd cried, except in anger or frustration. It was because of Midsummer, she decided, and the extraordinary events of tonight, not least of which had been the long-imagined, though never really hoped for invitation to this room.

She reached for the pillow he had lain upon beside her in the dark and held it to herself for comfort, as the sweet refrain returned and brought the song to an end. The woman it celebrated was dead, she reminded herself, dead more than twenty years ago, before Elisse had even been born. She was dead, and would have been over forty years old by now had she lived, Elisse calculated. This wasn't real competition, she decided, she could allow these dawnsong memories without troubling herself. The dead were gone; she was the woman with him now, the one lying in his bed as Midsummer Night came to its end. The advantages, surely, were all hers. Elisse smiled, waiting for the moment when he would turn to see her waiting, her body offered to his sight, and for whatever else he wanted of her.

At the window, Bertran de Talair watched darkness surrender to grey in the streets below and then saw the first pale hues of morning streak the sky in the east. He wondered, idly, hopelessly, just how many dawns he had seen in this way, with the wrong woman waiting for him to come back to her in a bed he had abandoned. He wasn't going back to the bed. He pushed the very thought away, closing his eyes, letting his mind circle back, faithfully, to the ending of his song.

Even the birds above the lake

Are singing of my love,

And even the flowers along the shore

Are growing for her sake.

Dawn was breaking, the day was coming. There would be much to do, a world of complex things that demanded to be done. He opened his eyes, feeling her slipping away again as he did, slipping away in mist, in memory, with the child in her arms.

PART III—Autumn

CHAPTER 9

On the bright, mild morning in autumn when her life changes forever, Rosala de Garsenc is returning carefully from her favourite walk along the sloping, tree-lined path from the water mill back to the castle when she sees her father-in-law waiting for her astride his horse in the open space in front of the drawbridge.

Her breath quickening with the first stirrings of apprehension, she places her hands protectively in front of her rounded belly but resolutely does not alter her pace. Her husband is away at the court, and Galbert will know that.

"Good morrow, my lord," she says as she comes slowly up to the courtyard. The drawbridge of the castle is down; inside the forecourt a handful of corans are noisily practising with quarterstaves, beyond them serfs are unloading sacks of harvested grain watched carefully by the reeve. It is a bustling tithe day at Garsenc Castle. No one is close enough though to overhear anything the two of them might say to each other.

Galbert de Garsenc, massive and imposing in his riding clothes, makes no immediate reply to her greeting, looking stonily down upon her from his horse. He ought to have dismounted, of course, simple courtesy to his son's wife demands that; his failure to do so is a first signal, an attempt to intimidate. Rosala knows by now that almost everything this man does is meant as a means of control.

"Will you come in?" she says, as if there is nothing untoward in his manner at all. "You must know that Ranald is away, but I will gladly do what I may to make you comfortable." She smiles, but only briefly; she will not abase herself before this man, she has sworn it to herself.

He jerks his reins to make the horse dance a little, quite close to her. She stands motionless; she certainly isn't afraid of horses, and she is quite sure, for the obvious reason, that her father-in-law will not risk doing her any physical harm just now.

Galbert clears his throat. "Get in," he says, the celebrated voice icy cold. "Get into the castle immediately before you shame us further. I heard tell that you were walking abroad but refused to credit it. I came to see for myself, certain that the rumours must be idle and false. Instead I find you brazening about obscenely, parading in your condition before the serfs, exactly as I was told. Are you utterly corrupt that you do such things?"

She had actually thought it might be this. It is almost a relief to have been right, to know from what direction the latest attack is coming.

"You wrong me and cheapen yourself," she says as calmly as she can manage. "I am doing what the Savaric women have done for generations. You know it, my lord, do not feign otherwise. The women of my family have never kept to their rooms while carrying, they have always taken daily walks on the family estates."

He jerks the reins again; the horse dances uneasily. "You are a Garsenc now, not a Savaric."

"False. I will always be a Savaric. my lord. Do not deceive yourself. What I was born to may not be taken from me." She hesitates. "It may only be added to." That last is meant as conciliation; with Ranald away she really does not want a confrontation with his father. "My husband and lord knows I am not lingering abed; I told him of my family tradition when we first learned I was carrying. He raised no objection."

"Of course he didn't. Ranald is beneath contempt. A fool beyond words. He shames our ancestors."

Rosala smiles sweetly. "He did ask me to tell him if ever you spoke disparagingly of him to me. Would these words fit such a description?"

Be careful, she tells herself then. This is a man who will not be crossed. But it is hard to yield spinelessly to him; so very hard, remembering her own father and her home, to cringe before the High Elder, flush with his new ascendancy.

She sees Galbert check a too-swift reply. Ranald has a temper, and Blaise too, to a lesser degree. The father is as ice compared to both of them—his anger and his hate kept channelled, ruthlessly controlled.

"You are deliberately insolent," he says. "Shall I whip you for it?" His voice is incongruously mild speaking the words, as if he were merely offering to walk her about the grounds or summon a servant to her aid.

"Indeed," Rosala says hardily. "A worthy thought. You come here out of alleged concern for the child I carry, and then offer me a beating. A prudent course, my lord."

His turn to smile. His smile frightens her more than anything else. She tries not to let that show.

"I can wait," says Galbert de Garsenc softly. "You are not a child. Discipline can be delayed and you will still know the cause. I am a patient man. Get into the castle now, though, or I will be forced to handle you in front of the corans and the servants. You carry the first of the new generation of the Garsenc line and you will not be permitted to jeopardize that with this folly."

Rosala does not move. He is not going to hurt her. She knows that. A kind of reckless giddiness rises in her, a surge of hatred she cannot quite master. "Forgive me my ignorance, and that of my family," she says. "You are clearly to be deferred to in these matters, my lord. You know so much about helping women survive childbirth." A dangerous cut, one she might truly be made to pay for later. Galbert's first wife died, hours after giving birth to Blaise, and two subsequent wives did not survive their first confinements in this castle, with the children stillborn.

She has meant to wound, wisely or no, but nothing in his face shows that she has done so. "As I said," he murmurs, still smiling, "a whipping may be given at any time."

"Of course," she replies. "I live entirely at the mercy of your kindness, my lord. Though indeed, if you wound and scar me too greatly it might spoil the king's pleasure when he chooses to send for me, might it not?"

She hadn't planned to say anything like that; it has slipped out. She isn't sorry though, now that the words are spoken. The thought, and the fear behind it, are never far from her.

She sees the High Elder react for the first time. She wasn't even thought to have been aware of this aspect of things, she realizes. It is almost amusing: women are imagined to troop like so many sheep through the court, eyes down, dull minds shuttered, oblivious to whatever nuances might be passing about them. She could laugh, were her fears not so tangible.

Galbert de Garsenc's smile deepens now, the smooth-shaven, fleshy face creasing into something truly unpleasant. "You are hungry for that moment, I see. You are already in lust. You would prefer to kill the child that you might come panting and hot to Ademar's bed the sooner, would you not? You have all the vile corruption of women in you, especially those of your lineage. I knew it when first I ever saw you."

Rosala stiffens. She feels dizzy suddenly. The walk uphill, the bright sunlight overhead, and now this foul, streaming torrent of abuse. She actually wishes Ranald were home; his presence might have served to temper or at least deflect onto himself some of Galbert's viciousness. She has brought this upon herself, she thinks shakily. Better to have swallowed pride, to have meekly gone within. How can she, alone and at his mercy, possibly fight this man?

She looks up at him, a sickness within her. Her family is as good as this one, she tells herself fiercely, or so very nearly as to make no difference. She knows what has to be said now. Fighting for self-control, she speaks.

"Hear me. I will kill myself before I let him touch me. Do not ever doubt that this is so. And do not try to deny that you have encouraged the king's shameful thoughts, contemptuous of your son or any true sense of family honour, seeking only to bind a weak man more tightly to your use with whatever tools you may find. My lord, I am not a tool that will ever fit your hand. I will die before Ademar ever lies with me."

She watches his face narrowly, and adds, "Or you, my lord High Elder of Corannos. I will end my life before I suffer you to lay a hand or a lash upon this white flesh you dream about in the dark of the god's house at night." A shaft loosed wildly that one, but she sees it hit, squarely. Galbert's ruddy face goes suddenly white, his eyes creasing to slits and flicking away from hers for the first time. Rosala feels no triumph, only a renewed wave of nausea.

She turns abruptly away and begins to walk across the drawbridge into the forecourt. The corans have stopped their duelling, their attention caught by something in the manner of the two of them here outside the walls. She holds her head high and walks with what composure she can achieve.

"My lady Rosala." Galbert says from behind her, his voice raised slightly. She had known he would call her. He would need to have the final word. His nature will not permit otherwise. She thinks of not turning, of continuing on, but the corans have heard him call her. What she might do at some risk privately she dares not do in public: she might defy him to a certain point, but open shame he will not allow. A woman can be killed for that in Gorhaut.

She stops on the drawbridge and turns slowly back to look at him. After, she will remember that moment, the sun high, a breeze stirring the red and golden leaves of the chestnut trees along the avenue, birdsong in the branches, the stream beyond, glinting blue. A glorious autumn day.

"I wonder," says Galbert de Garsenc, lowering his voice, moving the horse nearer, "has your dear husband told you of our latest agreement? He has probably neglected to, in that forgetful way of his. We have decided that if you should bear a son it is mine. Ah! You seem surprised, Lady Rosala! It is just as I thought, the careless lad has not informed you. A boy is promised to Corannos, a daughter you may keep; a daughter is no use to me immediately, though I am sure I will devise a purpose for her later."

Rosala is actually afraid she is going to faint. The sun swings in an erratic arc in the blue sky. She takes a stumbling, sidelong step to keep her balance. Her heart is a thudding hammer in her breast. She tastes blood; she has bitten through her lip.

"You… you would deprive your family of an heir?" she stammers, her brain stunned, refusing to believe what she has just heard.

"No, no, no, not necessarily." He chuckles now, all benign good humour for the watching eyes of those inside the forecourt. "Though we need another Elder in our family at least as much as we need an heir in this castle. Ranald's brother" — he never speaks Blaise's name—"was to have followed me to the god. A great deal of our future depended upon that. His refusal has marred my planning, put me in a difficult position, but if you present me with a boy matters may yet be remedied. I will, of course, delay final consecration for a time, to judge how best to make use of the child—here at Garsenc or in the god's house. There will be many matters to be considered, but I daresay you will help me by having other children, dear daughter-in-law. And if you do not—seeing as it did take some time to conceive this one—why then I imagine Ranald could find a second wife who will. I am not greatly concerned on that score. And I must confess, I am looking forward to attending to a grandson's education and upbringing personally. I pray you, do not disappoint me, lady Rosala. Bear a strong boy child for me to take back to Corannos."

She can say nothing at all. She seems to have lost the power of speech. She can scarcely stand. She feels suddenly exposed, naked in this place to the indifferent or mildly curious scrutiny of her household corans and the serfs of the estate.

"You really ought to go in now," says Galbert kindly. "You do not look well at all. You ought to be in your bed, my child. I would escort you there myself but I am afraid I have no time to linger for such domestic intimacies. The press of affairs demands my attention back at court. I do trust you have taken my meaning, though, and I will not have to come again?"

He turns, not waiting for any reply, lifting one hand to her that the corans might note his salute; it is the hand that holds his whip, though. That will not be an accident; nothing with this man is an accident. She sees that he is smiling as he rides away.

Inside the castle a short time later, alone in her suite of rooms, white-knuckled hands gripping each other, Rosala de Garsenc realizes, without knowing the actual moment of making her decision, that she is going to leave.

Galbert made a mistake, she thinks. He never meant to tell her about these plans, he must have known how she would feel about them; she had angered him though, revealed an awareness of his thoughts, and he replied rashly, to frighten and wound her, to have the final word.

She doesn't know how she is going to do it, she only knows she will not stay and surrender her child to that man. I am at war now, she thinks, realizing that her only possible advantage is that she knows it and Galbert might not. Inside her, as if in response, the baby kicks hard against her ribs for the first time that morning.

"Hush," she whispers. "Hush, my love. It will not happen. Fear no harm, for none shall find you. Wherever in the world your father is, whether he ever comes to shelter you or no, I will guard you, little one. I swear it upon my life, and yours."

Blaise was thinking of the child as the men of Talair rode north through the cool breezes of autumn in Arbonne: of Aelis de Miraval's son, and Bertran's. Since Ariane had told him the tale that Midsummer night three months ago, he had thought about it more often than he would have expected to, unable not to gaze curiously at such times at the man his own father had paid a quarter of a million in gold to have killed.

A tragedy had unfolded here some twenty-three years ago, and the effects of it were still rippling through Arbonne today. He remembered Ariane's quiet, measured voice telling him the tale as dawn broke over the littered streets and alleys of Tavernel.

"As I told you just now," she had said, "discretion is everything in love. My cousin Aelis had none, though she was very young, and that might be considered an excuse. There was something uncontrolled in her, something too fierce. Hatred and love drove her hard, and she was not a woman to accept her fate, or work within walls built to house her."

"Neither are you," Blaise remembered saying. "What was the difference?"

She had smiled at that, a little sadly, and had not answered for a time.

"The difference, I suppose, is that I saw what she did, and what followed upon it. Aelis is the difference in my own life. She told her husband, you see. She hoarded the truth for a last, bitter swordstroke—with its own slow, killing poison, if you will. When the priestess who had come to her said she was not going to live they brought Urté to her confinement bed. He was sorrowful, I think. I have always thought he was genuinely in sorrow, though perhaps more for the loss of the power she offered him than anything else. Aelis had no softness in her though, she was all pride and recklessness, even on her deathbed. She pushed herself up in the bed and she told Urté the child was Bertran de Talair's."

"How do you know this?"

"I was there," Ariane had said. "As I say, that moment altered my own life, shaped what I think I have become. Those words she spoke to Urté changed our world, you know. We would live in a differently ordered country had Aelis not taken her vengeance."

"Vengeance for what?" Blaise had asked, though he was beginning, slowly, to understand.

"For not being loved," Ariane had said simply. "For being valued at too much less than she was. For being exiled to the dank, grim fastness of Miraval from the lights and laughter of her father's court."

He had thought it might be that. Once he would have scorned such a thing as beneath contempt, another woman's vanity marring the unfolding of the world. It had surprised him a little that he didn't still see it that way; at least that night in Tavernel, with Ariane de Carenzu in his arms he didn't. It had occurred to him then, with a shock he had tried to mask, that this new pattern of thought might be his own deepest rebellion against his father.

"I can guess what you are thinking," Ariane had said.

"No, I don't think you can," he had replied without elaborating. "What did Urté do?" he'd asked, pushing his own family affairs towards the back of his mind. There had been a sadness in Blaise that night, hearing the old tale. The question was a formality. He was sure he knew what En Urté de Miraval had done.

Ariane's answer had surprised him, though. "No one knows for certain. And that is the heart of Bertran's tragedy, Blaise. There was a son born before Aelis died. I watched the priestess bring him into the world. I heard him cry. Then Urté, who had been waiting, took him away, and not Aelis nor the priestess, and certainly not I at thirteen years of age, had the power to stop him within his own walls. I remember how his face changed when she told him who the father was; that I will never forget. And I remember him bending down over her, as she lay there, torn and dying, and whispering something into her ear that I could not hear. Then he left the room with Bertran's child crying in his arms."

"And killed it."

She shook her head. "As I say, no one knows. It is likely, probable, knowing Urté, knowing how such a child would have been heir to so much… to Barbentain, and so to Arbonne itself, as Aelis's child. It is likely, but we do not know. Bertran doesn't know. Not with certainty. If the child lived, if it lives now, only Urté de Miraval knows where it is."

Blaise had seen it clearly then, the harsh, ugly shape of Bertran's pain. "And so Urté could not be killed all these years—cannot be killed now—because any possibility of finding the truth or the child will die with him."

Ariane had looked up at him in the muted grey light of the room and nodded her head in silence. Blaise had tried to imagine what it would have been like to be thirteen years old and to have lived through such a night, to have it lying, like a weight of stones, in your own past.

"I would have killed him regardless," he had said after a long time. And she had answered only, "You and Bertran de Talair are very different men."

Riding north beside the river with Duke Bertran and the corans of Talair to the Autumn Fair in Lussan, Blaise thought again about that remark. It was very nearly the last thing she'd said to him that night before they'd dressed and she'd gone from his room alone, cloaked and hooded, with only a mild, chaste kiss of farewell in first grey light of day.

What made men so different from each other? Accidents of birth, of upbringing, of good fortune or tragedy? What sort of man would Blaise himself have become had he been the older son, the heir to Garsenc, and not the younger one for whom an unwanted destiny among the clergy of the god had been ordained by his father? What if his mother had lived, the question Signe de Barbentain had asked? Would she have made any difference? What if Galbert de Garsenc had somehow been a different, gentler, less power-obsessed man?

Though that last speculation was impossible, really; it was simply not possible to imagine his father as anything other than what he was. Galbert seemed absolute to Blaise, like a force of nature or some gigantic monument of the Ancients, one that spoke to nothing but power and had been in the world almost forever.

Bertran de Talair, too, was a younger son. Only the early death of his brother had brought him to the dukedom and set two great houses so harshly against each other. Before that he had followed the usual course: a sword for hire in battle and tournament, seeking fortune and a place in the world. The same path Blaise de Garsenc was to take, starting from Gorhaut, years after. The same path, that is, if one left out the music.

But the music could not be left out. It defined Bertran, just as it defined Arbonne, Blaise found himself thinking. He shook his head, almost amused at himself. Half a year now he had been here, and already his mind seemed to have this tendency to slide down channels it had never known before. Resolutely he pulled his wandering thoughts back to the present, to the high road of Arbonne built by the Ancients between the river and the grainfields to the east.

Looking ahead, squinting through the dust, Blaise was drawn from reverie. He was riding near the rear of the column, behind the long baggage-train of goods they were escorting to the fair—mostly barrels of Talair wine. He saw Bertran and Valery riding back towards him. Their pace was measured, but just quick enough to make him aware that something was happening at the front of the long column. Beyond the two of them he could make out banners in the distance. They seemed to be about to overtake someone. There was nothing in that, all the roads were crowded on the way to a fair, and the high road most of all. He raised his eyebrows as the two men came up and neatly turned their horses to fall into stride on either side of Blaise.

"Diversions, diversions," said Bertran airily. He had a smile on his face that Blaise recognized by now; it made him uneasy. "Unexpected pleasures of so many kinds await us. What," the duke went on, "can you tell me about someone named Rudel Correze?"

After a number of months with Bertran, Blaise was getting used to this sort of thing. It sometimes seemed to him that the Arbonnais preferred to be known as clever and witty more than anything else.

"He shoots fairly well," he said drily, trying to match Bertran's tone. "Ask Valery."

The big coran, now fully recovered, grunted wryly.

"We have been," said Bertran crisply, his tone changing without warning, "collectively avoiding a decision all summer. I think it is time to make it."

"Correze banners up ahead?" Blaise asked.

"Indeed there are. Among others. I think I recognized Andoria and Delonghi as well."

It was odd how the ambushes of life came upon one so utterly unawares. Or perhaps it wasn't all that odd, Blaise corrected himself: they wouldn't be ambushes otherwise, would they? It stood to reason, didn't it? He felt suddenly cold, though. He wondered if the other two men could read a response in him, and then he wondered why it had never even occurred to him that Lucianna might be coming to the Lussan Fair.

There was more than enough of importance happening in the world, as autumn came, to make an appearance by the Delonghi an obvious thing to have expected at this annual gathering. They would come to trade, to watch and wager or fight in the tournament, to celebrate the harvests and share news of the six countries before winter's snow and rain made the roads impassable. And where the men of the Delonghi were likely to be present, the celebrated, notorious jewel of the family would almost certainly be found. Lucianna was not prone to be left behind, anywhere.

The immediate question had been about Rudel, though, and Bertran had raised another issue as well.

Blaise addressed the question, making his tone as precise as he could. "You'll have to make a point of acknowledging Rudel himself, and his father if he's here. He might be. Once acknowledged, and under the truce of the fair Rudel will do nothing at all. In fact, it will probably amuse him to be seen in your company."

"It will amuse me as well," Bertran murmured, "to no end. I think I will enjoy meeting this man."

Most of the world knew now about the failed assassination and the money spent. A few people were aware of who it was who had fired that poisoned arrow and hit the wrong man. Rudel, so far as Blaise could judge, would have been seriously embarrassed—especially after heading straight to Gotzland to claim the promised fee. Bertran's sources at the court of King Jorg—who were remarkably well informed—had sent word later about how Rudel had been forced to repay the sum. He had already spent part of it, it was reported, and so his father had been compelled to intervene and square the account. Blaise could quite easily imagine how his old friend had felt about that.

In his own way, he was looking forward to seeing Rudel again. In the complex sparring match of their relationship he had won a victory in that garden in Tavernel, and both of them would know it. He didn't win so cleanly very often; it would be something to savour.

Or it might have been, except that Lucianna was here, and Blaise knew from experience that Rudel would use whatever weapons he needed to to even a score if he felt himself on the losing side of the slate. Blaise shook his head. He would have to try to deal with that if and when it happened. There was something else still to be addressed here, and Bertran and Valery were both watching him in silence as they rode. There was a growing commotion up at the front of their column and they seemed to be slowing down. He could see the overtaken banners clearly now: Correze, Delonghi, Andoria, one or two others he didn't recognize.

He turned to Bertran. The duke was bareheaded as usual, in the nondescript riding clothes he favoured on the road. It had saved his life once, Valery had told Blaise, when another would-be assassin had been unable to tell which man in their party was de Talair himself.

"There's no decision to make, really. Not now." Blaise kept his voice calm. Three men could now be seen riding back towards them, dust rising about their horses' hooves. "If we're to ride with the Portezzans there are a number of them who know me. There's no point in my trying to remain unrecognized."

"I thought as much," Bertran said. "Very well. From this time on may I assume it is Blaise de Garsenc who honours me by joining my corans for a time, despite his father's evident desire to have me killed?"

It was a watershed of sorts, a moment when many things could change. "As you like," said Blaise quietly.

The three riders had come nearer. He didn't recognize them. They were extravagantly garbed, even on the dusty road. Portezzans were like that.

"And on the other matter?" Bertran asked, the faintest hint of tension in his voice now. "The one we have been delaying upon?"

Blaise knew what the duke meant, of course he knew: What would you have me do, declare myself the true king of Gorhaut? His own words.

He shook his head. Something in his chest grew tight and heavy whenever he thought about that. It was a step across a chasm so wide he had never thought to see such a thing, even in his mind's eye. "No," he said. "Leave that. It is autumn now, and the truce of the fair. Gorhaut will do nothing here, if any of them even come, and then Ademar will have to wait until spring opens the mountains again. Let us wait and see what happens."

Valery said in his measured voice, "We might be doing things ourselves in winter, instead of waiting to see what others do."

Blaise turned to him. "I'm sorry," he said sharply, "if my reluctance to be used as a figurehead will spoil your winter."

Bertran, on his other side, laughed aloud. "Fair enough," he said, "though you are hardly a figurehead, if you are honest with yourself. If Ademar is seen as having betrayed his country with the Treaty of Iersen Bridge, is there a man in Gorhaut with a better claim to succeed him than you? Your brother, perhaps?"

"Perhaps," Blaise said. "He won't do anything, though. My father rules him." He hesitated. "Leave it, Bertran. Leave it for now."

There was a silence. In it, the three riders came up, trailed by young Serlo. They were clad in a magnificent black and crimson livery Blaise knew. He realized abruptly whose these men must be. His heart began beating quickly again. It seemed that whatever he did, wherever he went, events drew him back into his past. The first of the riders pulled up his horse and bowed unctuously low in his saddle.

"Very well, we will leave it for now," Bertran said quietly to Blaise. And then launched himself, almost before he'd finished speaking, in a hard, fluid, uncoiled movement from his horse.

He slammed into Blaise with his shoulder, knocking the wind from him, driving him from his own mount. The two of them landed hard in the dust of the road as the knife thrown by the second man in black and red whipped over the bowed head of the first and through the empty space where Blaise had been a moment before. Portezzans were legendary for their skill with knives.

But the corans of Bertran de Talair were the best trained in Arbonne. Valery killed the knife-thrower with a short, precise sword thrust, and Serlo, with an oath, dispatched the third man from behind without ceremony. Only the leader was left then, as Bertran and Blaise disentangled themselves and stood up. Bertran winced and flexed a knee.

Serlo and Valery had their blades levelled at the Portezzan from before and behind. It had all happened so quickly, so silently, that no one up ahead had even realized anything had taken place. There were two dead men on the ground, though. The Portezzan looked down at them and then at Bertran. He had a lean, tanned face and a carefully curled moustache. There were several rings on his fingers, over his riding gloves.

"I am perfectly content to surrender myself to your mercy," he said calmly, in flawless, aristocratic Arbonnais. "I will be ransomed by my cousin at a fair price, I can assure you of that."

"Your cousin has just violated a truce formally guaranteed by the countess of Arbonne," Bertran said icily. "He will answer to her for that even more than you."

"I am certain he will answer adequately," the man said blandly.

Bertran's face grew pale; Blaise recognized the signs of real rage building. He was still too much in shock to frame his own response.

"I am rather less certain than you," the duke said softly to the Portezzan. "But in the interim, you will now make reply to me: why would you seek to kill one of my companions?»

For the first time the man's expression grew hesitant. He looked sidelong at Blaise as if to verify something. His face cleared, and as it did, even before he spoke, Blaise understood what had just happened. Something in him, in his heart actually, seemed to make a sound like a bowstring plucked or the string of a lute.

"My lord and cousin Borsiard d'Andoria has a mortal grievance against this man," the Portezzan said. "It has nothing to do with you, En Bertran. He has nothing but respect and affection for you, my lord, and for the countess of Arbonne." The words were honeyed, mellifluous.

"An assault against a man in my company has a great deal to do with me, I'm afraid. And words of respect are meaningless when an assault takes place during the truce of a fair. Your lord and cousin has made a mistake."

"And I have never met Borsiard d'Andoria in my life," Blaise added. "I would be interested to know what his mortal grievance is." He knew, though, or thought he could guess.

"It is not a matter for proclaiming in public," the Portezzan said haughtily. "Nor do the Andoria explain themselves."

"Another mistake," said Bertran, in a blunt tone of finality. "I see no reason to delay this. As a duke of Arbonne sworn to uphold the countess's peace, I have an obvious duty here." He turned to Serlo. "Take three corans and string this man from a tree. You will strip and brand him first. The whole world knows the punishment decreed for those who violate a truce."

The Portezzan was a brave man, for all his posturing. "I am a man of rank and cousin to Borsiard d'Andoria," he said. "I am entitled to the treatment appropriate to my status."

Bertran de Talair shook his head. Blaise registered Valery's look of growing concern. He felt the same anxiety himself. The duke ignored them. He said, "Your status is that of an attempted murderer, violator of a truce all six countries have sworn to keep. No one will speak for you today." He turned back to Serlo. "Hang him."

Serlo had already summoned three other men. They pulled the Portezzan roughly from his horse. One man had a rope looped through his saddle. There was an oak tree at the edge of a field east of the road; they took him there.

"You cannot do this!" the Portezzan shouted, craning his neck to look back at Bertran, the first edge of fear entering his voice. He had truly never thought he might be in danger, Blaise realized. The immunity of his rank and kinship had led him to believe he could kill freely and be ransomed, that money and status could be an answer to anything.

"Are you sure of this?" Valery said quietly to his cousin. "We may need the Andoria later."

There was something nearly cruel in the blue eyes as Bertran de Talair watched his corans over by the tree. They were stripping the Portezzan; the man had begun to shout now. Bertran's voice was bleak as he answered Valery without turning, "We need no one so much that we lose our honour in pursuing them. Wherever the fairs are, the ruler of that country is bound to uphold the truce that allows us all to trade. You know it. Everyone knows it. What just happened was an insult to the countess and to Arbonne so arrogant I will not countenance it. Let Borsiard d'Andoria do what he will, those three men have to die. When we reach Lussan and Barbentain, my advice to the countess will be to ban the Andoria from entry to the fair. I expect she will do so."

He walked over and remounted his horse; Blaise, after a moment, did the same.

From up ahead, beyond the front of their column, a new commotion could now be heard. Beside the road, Bertran's corans had rigged a hanging rope around a branch of the tree. The condemned man had been stripped to his undergarments. Now Serlo resolutely pulled a knife from his belt, and while the others held the thrashing Portezzan, he set about carving into his forehead the brand of an oathbreaker. Blaise had seen this before. He resisted an impulse to turn away. They heard the man scream suddenly, high and desperate. Five riders had now peeled away from the party in front of them and were galloping furiously back through the grass at the side of the road.

"Take as many men as you need," said Bertran calmly to Valery. "Surround the tree. If those people attempt to stop the hanging you are to kill them. Blaise, wait here with me."

Without a word Valery moved to obey. The remaining corans of Talair had already begun moving swiftly into position, anticipating this. Swords out, arrows to bows, they formed a wide ring around the hanging tree. At the rear of the column beside Bertran, with two dead men on the ground beside them, Blaise watched the third Portezzan bundled onto the back of a horse, his hands tied before him, the knotted rope around his neck. There was blood dripping down his face from Serlo's branding. The five men racing back were shouting now, gesticulating wildly. Serlo looked back to Bertran, for the confirmation. The duke nodded once. Serlo stabbed the horse in the haunch with his blade. The animal bolted forward. The Portezzan seemed to actually spring backwards off the horse into the air. Then he dangled, swinging, an oddly disconnected figure. They had heard the cracking sound. He was already dead.

The five shouting Portezzans reined up hard at the very edge of Valery's ring of men. They were hopelessly outnumbered, of course. The leader screamed something at Valery, lashing his handsome horse in impotent rage. Bertran turned to Blaise, as if bored by what was now happening.

"We have another small thing to sort out between us," he said, for all the world as if they were alone in the pleasant autumn countryside. "I have only just realized it myself. You may not be ready to assert any sort of claim in Gorhaut, but if we are riding to Lussan now with you clearly acknowledged as who you are—and with what has just now happened that decision has been made for us—then I cannot treat you as simply another of my corans. You may not like this—for reasons I can appreciate—but it would ill behoove us both for me to be seen giving you commands now. Will you accept a discharge from my service? Will you accept the hospitality and companionship of Talair as my friend and guest?"

It was, of course, the only action proper under the circumstances. And yes, Blaise was bothered by the change; it marked a transition, yet another, in a year when his life seemed to be careening with unsettling speed towards some destination as yet hidden in the distance.

He managed a smile, "I was wondering when my wages would begin to grate upon you. I confess I had not thought you were so careful with your money, my lord, it does go against the image all the world has of you."

Bertran, genuinely startled, laughed aloud. There was, just then, a silence in the gesticulating knot of men by the tree. Then sudden laughter carried. The five Portezzans turned to look at them. Their leader, a short, dark man on that splendid horse, stared across the distance for a long moment, ignoring the corans around him. Then he turned his horse without another word and rode back north. The other Portezzans followed.

"That," said Bertran, "was slightly unfortunate."

"Who was that man?"

The duke turned to him with surprise. "You were telling the truth, weren't you? You have really never met him. That was Borsiard d'Andoria, Blaise. You must at least have heard the name. He was recently married, in fact, to—"

"To Lucianna Delonghi. I know," Blaise interrupted. And then added, "That's why he wants to kill me."

Even amid the churning of all the emotions of this morning there was, deep within Blaise, a curious flicker of pride. Even now, after everything, Lucianna would have been speaking of him; that had to be it, of course. Borsiard d'Andoria was seeking to kill his new wife's former lover from Gorhaut.

Bertran de Talair was very quick. "Ah," he said softly. "Engarro di Faenna? It was true then, the rumour?"

"That I killed him for the Delonghi? Yes." Blaise surprised himself with how easy it was to say this now to the duke. He hesitated over the next thing, but then went on: "With Rudel Correze."

He saw Bertran absorbing this. "And so she wants you dead now?" He looked dubious.

Blaise shook his head. "I doubt it. She wouldn't care enough to bother covering that trail. Borsiard does, though. He probably had a part in the assassination of Engarro, though I didn't know it then. He's uneasy about me. Afraid of what I might say or do. Rudel they'll trust; he's a Delonghi cousin. I'm an unknown quantity." He stopped.

"And that would be his "mortal grievance" against you?"

Blaise looked at the duke. Bertran's blue eyes were searching, skeptical, and there was a glint in them now of something else.

"That would be a part of it," Blaise said carefully.

Bertran nodded his head slowly. "I thought so," he said after a moment. "The jewel of the Delonghi, the exquisite Lucianna. He's a jealous man then, our friend Borsiard. That is worth knowing." He nodded again. "It begins to make sense. One day you must tell me more about her. Are all the stories true? I've spoken to her of course, but in a crowded room, nothing more, and that was years ago when she was very young. Should I be grateful for that limited exposure? Is she as deadly as word has it?"

Blaise shrugged. "I have survived. So far."

"Damaged?"

"Scars. I'm dealing with them."

Bertran's mouth crooked. "That is the most that can be said of any of us in such affairs."

"You were in love," said Blaise, surprising himself again. "That goes deeper."

"So does death." After a moment Bertran shrugged, and then shook his head as if to break free of such thoughts. "Are we friends? Are you visiting Talair and sparing me the cost of a trained coran?"

Blaise nodded. "I suppose I am. This has become a strange path, though. Where do you think it will bring us out?"

Bertran looked amused. "That, at least, is easy enough: Barbentain Castle and Lussan town below it. Hadn't you heard? There's a fair about to start." He turned his horse and they began to ride.

Endlessly witty, Blaise thought, and at the price of almost everything else it sometimes seemed. He realized that he hadn't said anything to Bertran about saving his life.

On impulse he wheeled his horse and rode back a short way. Dismounting again, he found the dagger. The hilt was richly studded with gems in typically Portezzan fashion. He swung up into his saddle again and cantered to catch up with Bertran. The duke looked over, eyebrows raised, as he came up.

Blaise extended the blade, hilt foremost. "A shame to leave it," he said. "Thank you. That was quick moving, for a man past his best."

Bertran grinned. "My knee certainly is, at any rate." He took the dagger, examined it. "Pretty work," he said, "if a trifle gaudy." He put it in his belt.

Nothing more was said; nothing more would be said, Blaise knew. Men familiar with war had their codes in matters such as this. He had once thought that the Arbonnais corans would fall short in this, that they would be prone to commissioning rapturous troubadour verses to celebrate each minor deed of theirs in battle or tournament. It didn't happen that way, he had discovered. He seemed to have discovered a number of things in half a year, without really trying to do so.

The Portezzans ahead of them had begun to move, more quickly now. Borsiard d'Andoria would want to reach Barbentain ahead of Bertran. First complaint sometimes mattered in affairs such as this. They were two days' ride from the fair, though.

Valery, as if reading Blaise's mind, cantered up to them. Bertran looked at his cousin. "I'm not going to try to pass them myself. We'll take our time. Pick five men and go ahead," the duke said. "Find the countess or Roban the chancellor, either one, both together if you can. It is my counsel that all the Portezzans may freely be allowed to enter Lussan or the castle save the Andoria. Tell them why." The big, greying coran turned to go. "Valery," said Bertran. His cousin reined his horse and looked back over his shoulder. "Blaise de Garsenc is no longer in my service. He honours us at Talair with his company and his friendship. Perhaps he will even fight with our men in the tournament melee. Tell the countess."

Valery nodded, looked briefly at Blaise and galloped away in a swirl of dust up the line of their column.

And so the decision was made. Given what had happened, it might have even seemed forced, obvious. With the speed of recent events, they had forgotten something though, all three of them. Under the circumstances that was, perhaps, not altogether surprising. Which did not make it less of an oversight.

On their right, as Bertran and Blaise went by, the dead man, almost naked, swayed from the oak tree, blood still dripping from his forehead where the oathbreaker's brand had been carved.

CHAPTER 10

Roban, the chancellor of Arbonne, had had an intensely trying few days, for all the usual reasons associated with the Autumn Fair. For more years than he could remember, his had been the responsibility of supervising the many-faceted preparations for the annual arrival of what sometimes seemed to be half the known world. In the early days of the Lussan Fair, the burghers of the town had proudly taken charge of preparations themselves, but as the fair grew in importance and the tournament associated with it began to attract more and more of the celebrated figures of the six countries, including kings and queens on more than one occasion, the townsfolk were ultimately happy to swallow their pride and ask for help from the count in Barbentain. Faced with a matter as important, detail-oriented and essentially tedious as the logistics of preparing a month-long fair, the count had assigned the task to Roban. Naturally. As if he didn't have enough to do.

Of course the townsmen helped—as well they should, given how much wealth the Autumn Fair generated for Lussan—and the count had allocated monies adequate to let Roban appoint two Keepers of the Fair and two Keepers of the Seals to assist them. Having control of appointments was always vital, Roban had found; it let one choose men of competence instead of having to work with those who simply had favours owed to them. He was familiar with both scenarios after almost forty years in Barbentain.

In his first year of organizing the fair he had also picked a captain from among the Barbentain corans and empowered him to select and oversee one hundred serjans to police the fairgrounds from sunrise to sunset. At night there was little point in policing anything. The count's guarantee—now the countess's—of safety in Lussan and on the roads approaching the fair was only good until sundown. No ruler in any of the six countries was really able to enforce security after dark, though Roban had had the idea years ago of spending the money to light the three main streets of Lussan for the duration of the fair.

Small touches like that were what had made Lussan's fair by far the most celebrated and best attended in the six countries. For all his frustrations and his chronic sense of being overburdened, Roban was proud of that; he'd always felt that it was worth doing a task properly if it was worth doing at all. That was part of his problem, of course; that was why he ended up with so much to do. It was also the source of his own particular pride: he knew—and he was certain the count, and more recently, the countess, knew—that there was simply no one else in Barbentain, in all of Arbonne, who could handle details such as these as well as he.

The tax officers of the fair were under his direct authority—the tariffs levied on all goods leaving Lussan went straight to the countess's coffers—but the burghers of the town were responsible for appointing and paying the inspectors, notaries, scribes, clerks and couriers. They sent out their own heralds, too, into hamlets throughout the countryside in the harvest season, to remind the farmers and villagers of Arbonne—as if anyone was likely to need reminding—that the Autumn Fair was coming, with its puppet shows and performing animals, its dancers and singers, men who swallowed burning coals and others who made pigeons disappear, and pedlars who sold trinkets and toys and pottery and cures for everything from infertility to indigestion. And there were also, of course, the women who gathered in Lussan for that month from all parts of the known world, and who could be bought in a tavern room for an hour or a night.

Roban was happy to leave the supervision of such things to the burghers; his own concern was for those coming with more tangible goods to trade, over the mountains or by water to Tavernel and then up the high road along the river. The merchants came from everywhere, in fact, travelling with silk and wool and wood, with medicines and perfumes and staggeringly costly spices from the east, with daggers from Arimonda, swords and armour from the forges of Aulensburg, longbows from Valensa, carved icons of Corannos from Gorhaut, gold and silver jewellery from Portezza, Valensan cloth and cheese, wine and olives and olive oil from the south of Arbonne itself. You could buy virtually anything at the Lussan Fair, see people from almost anywhere in the known world and, for the price of a beaker of ale bought in a tavern, hear tales told by sea captains of the fabled countries to the south, far beyond the boundaries of the known.

You could also find, in private houses that sheltered the princes and great merchants from too-close scrutiny, discussions going forward, in rooms shuttered against the sun or candlelit at night, that would shape the flow of events in the six countries for the year to come.

The Lussan Fair was always the last of each year before winter closed the roads and passes. It was the final opportunity for face-to-face discussions for months. Roban knew from long experience that it was what happened behind those forbidding, ornate doors that became the most important legacy of any fair.

That was especially true this year, perhaps more than any other in memory, for the Treaty of Iersen Bridge between Gorhaut and Valensa had completely altered the long balance of power among the six countries, and Arbonne in particular had reason to weigh and fear the consequences of that.

It was therefore not surprising that when the hard-pressed and chronically anxious chancellor of Arbonne learned that Duke Bertran's cousin Valery sought urgent audience with the countess and himself, he concluded, with the glum certainty of the innately pessimistic, that he was not about to receive tidings apt to soothe his jangling nerves.

This, of course, turned out to be the case. Aghast, Roban stood beside the countess's chair in her small private room behind the audience chamber and heard Valery of Talair calmly recount a murder attempt on the problematic Gorhaut coran, the killing of two Portezzans from Andoria in response and then the summary execution of the third—a cousin to Borsiard himself, and, it appeared, very possibly a favourite. Valery was careful to spare them no details. The tensions that would ensue in the wake of all this, Roban calculated swiftly, were likely to ruin the fair before it began. They would also probably drive him to his bed for a day and a night with one of his blinding headaches.

It sometimes seemed to him that he'd spent his entire adult life here at Barbentain, with the count and now the countess, attempting to smooth over crises caused by the actions of the fractious, capricious noblemen of Arbonne. Roban was Arbonnais himself, of course, born to minor rank in Vaux Castle, but he'd been consecrated to Corannos early, in the way of younger sons of younger sons, then plucked from a chapel of the god by Guibor IV while still beardless, though with his abilities in numbers and letters already manifest.

He'd come to Barbentain and risen swiftly through the ranks of Guibor's court to the chancellorship. At the time of his appointment there had been much made of his youthful links with the clergy of the god—an act of careful political balancing by the count. That had been so long ago Roban doubted anyone even remembered any more. Few had objected to his precipitate ascent, even in an ambitious court. Even when he was young there had been something reassuringly earnest about Roban's manner. He was trusted. He deserved to be trusted, he often thought; if only he were listened to more often in this country of hot-blooded men and women with more passion for music than for orderly government.

Music was fine, Roban thought. He enjoyed the troubadours and joglars when he had the chance to hear them. He'd even written some verses himself long ago when formally courting the woman the count had suggested he marry. He couldn't remember the tunes or the lyrics very well—probably a good thing. There were limits to where music could take you, Roban had always thought, or, more properly, there were dimensions in affairs of state where it was necessary to leave aside the romantic troubadour strains and be ruthlessly practical. Roban was a pragmatic man, by his own estimation. He knew what implications flowed from what actions. He was aware that Bertran de Talair would know these things too, perhaps even better than he, but that much of the time the duke would simply not care. That was the way of things here in Arbonne, the chancellor thought gloomily. Witness what had happened two days ago on the high road beside the river.

There was no question that punishment had been called for, that something would have had to be done. What would have put the Andorians in a fury—and a contingent of them were reported to have also arrived today, coated in dust, horses lathered—was the summary action of the duke of Talair by the roadside. Noblemen were simply not executed in the manner of common thieves. Bertran had even had the man branded; Roban winced when Valery mentioned that, and turned away in a vain attempt to conceal his reaction. He tried to turn the motion into a coughing spasm, but suspected that the countess knew this was a subterfuge.

He was seldom able to conceal much from the countess. He had fallen in love the first time he'd ever seen her, forty years ago. He loved her yet, more than his life. He was almost certain that this, at least, she did not know—but it was one of the things that defined Roban of Vaux in his own eyes. He was a man who had loved one woman only and had done so for virtually all his days, notwithstanding his own marriage and children, notwithstanding their enormous difference in rank. He would die having loved the countess of Arbonne with the sustained, lifelong passion of his soul. He didn't even think about it any more, though there had been sleepless, sighing nights in a narrow bed long ago. By now, four decades later, it was simply a given, a fact upon which all else in his life had been founded.

In the room behind the audience chamber he smoothed his face, ran a hand down the front of his doublet in an habitual gesture and turned back to Bertran's cousin. Valery was pointing out, in a tone of calmly reasonable argument, that noblemen could not be allowed to violate a truce by attempting murder on the roads in the blithe expectation that a ransom of some sort would smooth things over for them. Bertran's extremely competent cousin—a man Roban approved of, actually—also noted that by acting summarily Bertran had decisively protected the countess's authority, while leaving her the option of chastising him and appeasing the Andoria, if she wished.

Roban, seeing a faint flicker of hope here, his mind quickly running through possibilities, tried to intercede at this point. He did not succeed. Bertran's own recommendation, Valery added smoothly without pausing for breath, was that no such appeasement should be contemplated. Roban closed his eyes. He was aware, just about then, that one of his headaches was indeed beginning to come on.

The countess's credibility as a woman ruling Arbonne, Valery of Talair said gravely, virtually demanded that she be seen to be as decisive as, say, Jorg of Gotzland would have been in the same situation. Borsiard d'Andoria should be barred from the fair, that was Bertran's suggestion. Naturally it was, Roban thought bitterly: it was amazing to the chancellor that such things could be thought and said, could be casually proposed, by otherwise intelligent men.

"Gotzland is not facing the real possibility of invasion next year," he said bluntly to Valery, finally seizing the chance to speak. "The countess has matters to consider that go beyond the protocols of trade fairs. It is a bad time—a very bad time—to be offending men as important as Borsiard d'Andoria."

"You would have let him buy his man's life? Let him swan about with a new bride in Lussan at the fair and in this castle having attempted murder on our roads? What if the Gorhaut coran had died? What then?"

"His death might have simplified things," Roban answered, too quickly. This was a sore spot for him. "You know what I think of this insanity En Bertran has proposed.»

"It was my daughter who proposed it," the countess said, speaking for the first time. It was a bad sign that her first words were to correct him. "Bertran agreed with Beatritz's suggestion. I also agreed. You objected, made your arguments, and were presented with my decision. Do not be tiresome, Roban. I know your concerns here, but I do not see how we can do other than back what Bertran has already done. I am going to ban Borsiard d'Andoria from the fair." The count, her husband, had been like that too, amazingly like that: hugely important decisions were made with a speed that stunned Roban.

"We will pay for it," he said, feeling his face attaining the unfortunate pink hue that came with agitation. "D'Andoria will be funding Gorhaut next year, I'll wager on it."

Valery of Talair shrugged indifferently. "They don't need funding, my lord chancellor. With the money they received from Valensa by the terms of Iersen Bridge they have more than enough. Look what they paid to assassinate Bertran. Did that appear to be the action of someone short of gold?"

"There is always a shortage of gold in wartime," Roban said darkly. He'd actually had some privy information about the exact sums paid and still owing from Valensa to Gorhaut by the terms of the treaty. The numbers terrified him.

"That reminds me," the countess said in a different tone, one Roban recognized apprehensively. "Daufridi of Valensa must be desperately short of money these days if he paid so much to Gorhaut for the lands they ceded him."

"I daresay he may have some problems," Roban said cautiously. He had learned it was always wise to be cautious when he heard that tone—it usually meant some plan or other was about to be proposed. Usually those plans made him extremely nervous. His headache was growing worse. He saw Valery grin just before the man brought a hand up quickly to cover his mouth. The men of Talair were so clever, it was almost unfair.

"We'll have to talk about that then," the countess murmured. "I do have an idea."

Roban had no notion what she was referring to; it rankled him that Valery appeared to know. His was the endlessly vexing position of being the man left behind to attend to details and minutiae; he was surrounded by quicksilver people whose minds leapt effortlessly down channels he found perilously dark.

The countess was gazing pointedly at Valery; she had seen his smile as well. "That is, if Bertran hasn't already had the same thought long before me." Her tone was not nearly as stern as Roban felt it ought to have been. It was her weakness, he thought, not for the first time: she loved her gallant, irresponsible noblemen far too much to rein them in properly. And Bertran de Talair, among all of them, was a special case.

"I am sure," Valery said gracefully, "that any thoughts En Bertran might have on the subject of Valensa will be conveyed to you as soon as he arrives. I believe we can expect him by the end of the day."

"I rather think," Signe de Barbentain said drily, "he will instead consent to inform me of measures he has already set in motion. Exactly as he did with those verses that nearly had him killed this summer. By the way," she turned to Roban, "this is important: I want Barbentain guards visible wherever the duke of Talair goes during the fair this month. No slight to Bertran's own corans, but anyone with designs upon him must be made aware that we are watching for them."

Roban nodded. This made sense; he liked it when she gave him commands that made sense.

"Rudel Correze is travelling with the Delonghi," Valery said casually, almost as an afterthought. "They were all in a party with the Andoria."

"Wonderful," the countess said tartly. It pleased Roban to see her angry with someone else, even though Bertran's cousin was hardly the appropriate target. "Do I ban him, too? Do we spend this week antagonizing every important family in Portezza?" Signe de Barbentain seldom lost her temper, but Roban sensed it might be happening now. It gratified him that she understood and shared his concerns. He smoothed his doublet again.

Valery was shaking his head. "Blaise de Garsenc says that the man will do nothing here. That the Correze are too prudent to risk the economic hazards of violating a truce. He thinks Rudel has probably withdrawn from his contract in any case."

"Why would he think that?" Roban asked testily. "No one in that family turns their back on two hundred and fifty thousand in gold."

Valery looked apologetic. "I thought the same thing, my lord chancellor. Blaise tells me he knows Rudel Correze extremely well, though. He sees no danger from him now."

"We are relying on that coran from Gorhaut rather a great deal, aren't we?"

"Enough, Roban!" He realized his mistake the moment she spoke—the anger building in her had abruptly turned on him. It always seemed to happen that way, as if he was the safe target, the one she knew she could snap at without risk. Which was true, he thought ruefully. It had been true for decades. Once, he'd wondered if his wife knew how he felt about the countess, and if she cared. He hadn't thought about such things for a long time.

"We will not go down that road again," Signe was saying sternly. "The man is not simply a coran from Gorhaut. He is the son of Galbert de Garsenc, and if we have any hope of dividing Gorhaut on this issue he is that hope. It he betrays us, I will admit you were right before we all die. Is that enough, Roban? Will that content you?"

The chancellor swallowed hard, feeling the way he always felt when she lashed out at him. When he was younger he had actually wept sometimes behind the closed doors of his own quarters after she'd spoken to him in this way. He didn't do that anymore, but he sometimes felt like it. A terrible admission, the chancellor thought, for a man of his age and position. He wondered if she ever knew when his headaches were coming on, if she would have been more sympathetic, a little gentler perhaps, had he informed her.

Signe really didn't remember Roban ever being this obstinately tiresome when Guibor was alive. But then she hadn't had as much to do with him then; he was simply the efficient administrator in the background, and Guibor was not a man with whom advisers pushed their disagreements too hard. It looked as if she wasn't like that herself. Perhaps she depended on Roban too much, perhaps he felt she was weak and needed him to be stronger now. She didn't really know; it wasn't something she'd thought about very much. He was there, he had always been there, and she knew he could be trusted, that something assigned to him would be competently done if it was at all possible. He looked a little flushed today and there were circles under his eyes. It crossed her mind to wonder, as she watched him make his habitual little smoothing gesture down the front of his immaculate doublet, if Roban was overburdened—the usual fate of competent men.

She didn't, in fact, feel especially strong herself at the moment, but that wasn't for anyone to see or guess, even Roban, even Valery. "Send for Borsiard d'Andoria in Lussan," she told the chancellor. "I will give him an audience here. I will not ban him by fiat or decree. He will hear it from me in this castle."

Which is what had happened later that same afternoon. Borsiard had stormed into her audience chamber, raging in the most unpleasant manner, demanding Bertran de Talair's censure and death in redress for the slaughter of three noblemen of Andoria. He had actually had a belief that she might agree, Signe saw. He was seeing her as a woman, a woman who could be frightened by his rage, moved to do what he wanted her to do.

That realization was what had given her access to the cold anger she needed to quell the Portezzan. And he had been quelled. She had dealt with better men than he in the past. As soon as she'd begun to speak, slowly, letting her measured words fall like stones into the stillness of the room, Borsiard's bravado had seemed to leech away from him.

"Take your people and your goods and go," she had said, speaking from the ancient throne of the counts of Arbonne. "You will not be allowed trade or profit at a fair whose laws you have so vilely broken. The men who were killed were properly executed by the duke of Talair, who is our agent in this, as are all the nobility of Arbonne. Whatever your quarrel with Blaise de Garsenc of Gorhaut—a quarrel in which we have no interest whatever—the roads leading to the Lussan Fair were not the place to pursue it. In that, we have a great interest indeed. You will not be troubled as you leave Arbonne. Indeed, we will assign a company of our men to escort you safely to the Portezzan border… unless there is somewhere else you might wish to go?"

Guibor had taught her that; raise the issue yourself, take the initiative from the other person. And as if on cue, Borsiard d'Andoria's dark, handsome face had twisted with a spasm of malice. "Indeed there is," he had said. "There are matters I should like to pursue in Gorhaut. I will travel north from here."

"We have no doubt you will be welcome at the court of King Ademar," Signe had said calmly. This was not a man to unsettle her, however much he might be worth, whatever Roban might fear. He was far too predictable. She wondered how long his marriage would last. She allowed herself to smile; she knew how to make her smile a weapon if need be. "We only hope your lady wife does not find it cold in Cortil and dull there as winter comes to the north," she murmured. "If she prefers to go home we will be happy to offer her an escort. Indeed—" a thought born of the moment " — we will be most pleased to have her stay on at our court should you wish to go north without her. We imagine we could find ways to keep her amused. It would be unjust to deny a lady the pleasures of a fair because of her husband's transgressions. We do not behave that way in Arbonne."

She wondered, lying in bed that same night, if she might have cause to regret the loss of temper that had led to that last invitation. It could prove awkward in many ways to have Lucianna Delonghi—it was almost impossible to think of her by any other name, despite her marriages—in Barbentain and Lussan this month. On the other hand, had the woman wanted to stay for the fair, she could simply have joined her father's contingent in any case. The invitation lent a sanction of control to what could hardly have been prevented. Signe hoped it might be seen that way, at any rate. She was also, privately, somewhat curious to meet the woman again. The last time Lucianna Delonghi had been in Barbentain was six or seven years ago, before the first of her marriages. Her father had presented her to the count and countess. She'd been clever, as all her family were, beautiful already, watchful, very young. A great deal had evidently happened to her in the intervening years.

It might be interesting to see exactly what. Later, though, Signe thought. She didn't want to see anyone at the moment. She had retired early, leaving to Roban and the Keepers of the Fair the task of carrying out her orders regarding the Andoria. She doubted there would be difficulties; Borsiard had few corans with him this far from home, and was unlikely to embarrass himself by forcing a public removal from Lussan. He was, however, quite likely to go north to Gorhaut—as Roban had gloomily predicted. The chancellor was usually right about such things. What Borsiard would do there was harder to guess. But the implications could not be lost on anyone: Andoria was one less source of funding for Arbonne, one less ally if war did come, and possibly one more contingent of arms in the field if Gorhaut asked for them.

Signe sighed in the darkness of her room. She knew Bertran had acted properly in what he'd done, that he'd made it easier for her by taking the burden upon himself. She only wished… she only wished he didn't seem to always find himself in situations where doing the proper thing meant so much trouble for all of them.

At the moment all she wanted to do was rest. There was sometimes a curious easing of care for her in the nighttime, in the embrace of sleep. It didn't always come to her easily, but when it did her dreams were almost always benign, comforting. She would be walking in the castle gardens, or with Guibor, young again, in that meadow she had loved beneath the Ancients' aqueduct near Carenzu, and sometimes the four children would be with them: clever Beatritz with her shining hair, the boys—Guibor eager and adventuresome, Piers watchful, a little apart—and then Aelis trailing behind them through the green, green grass. Aelis, in her mother's dreams, always seemed older than the others, though she was the youngest child. She would appear in the dreams as she had looked, coming into the flourish of her own late, fierce beauty, in the year before she died.

Signe reached towards sleep that night as a woman reaching for the last gentle lover of her days. The anxieties of day would still be waiting in the morning, with newer concerns appearing to join them, new dangers from the north… tonight she sought her dreams. She was not allowed to have them. The knocking at the outer door of her suite of rooms was so soft she would not have even heard it had she actually been asleep. One of the girls in the antechamber would have, though. Already Brisseau, the older of the two, hovered, anxious and wraithlike in her white night-robe, at the entrance to Signe's chamber.

"See who it is," the countess said, though there was only one person it could be at this hour.

Roban waited in the outer room while she donned her own robe. She went out to him; she disliked receiving men or conducting affairs of state in her bedchamber. He was still in the doublet he'd worn earlier in the day. Signe understood, with something of a shock, that he had not yet even gone to bed. It was very late, and the chancellor did not look well. His face was haggard and in the light of the candles the girls were hastily lighting his eyes were deep-sunken. He looked older than his years, she thought suddenly: they had worn him down in their service, she and Guibor. She wondered if he felt the labours had been worth the price. She wondered, for the first time, what he actually thought of the two of them. Or of her, more properly. Guibor was dead; one thought nothing but good of the dead. She realized she didn't really know what her chancellor's opinion of her might be. Frivolous, she decided; he'd probably concluded she was frivolous and impetuous and needed a steady, guiding hand. That might answer her question of earlier in the day about why he had pushed his views so urgently of late.

He really didn't look well, though.

"Sit," she said. "Before you begin, sit down. Brisseau, a flask of cider for the chancellor."

She thought Roban would refuse the chair but he did not; that only served to increase her own disquiet. Forcing herself to be patient she waited, sitting opposite him, until the cider had been brought and placed on the table. She waited again until he drank.

"Tell me," she said, finally.

"My lady, a message came to me from Rian's temple in the town earlier tonight," he said, his voice curiously faint. "It purported to be from someone who could not possibly have been in Lussan, requesting audience and… and sanctuary with you."

"Yes?"

"Yes, so I went down into town myself to see if it might possibly be a true message. I am afraid it is, my lady. I fear that we have the gravest crisis upon us now, one that makes the Andoria matter seem as nothing."

"Who is it? Who is in the town?"

"Not in town any longer. I had no choice, my lady, I had to bring her up to the castle before anyone else knew she was here or what was happening." The chancellor drew an unsteady breath. "Countess, it seems that the Lady Rosala de Garsenc of Gorhaut has left the duke her husband without his knowledge. She seeks refuge with us. She is in Barbentain now, and, my lady… though I am far from expert in these matters, I believe that she may be about to give birth, even as we speak."

Cadar de Savaric, defiantly named and surnamed for his mother's father and family, entered the world in Barbentain Castle shortly before dawn that night.

Brought early to his time by the rigours of his mother's journey through the mountains to Arbonne, he was nonetheless sturdy and pink when he emerged, letting out a loud cry his exhausted mother heard as triumphant when the priestess of Rian, summoned hastily to the castle, drew him from her womb and clipped the birthing cord.

They washed him ceremoniously in milk warmed by the fire, as befitted a child of rank, and the older of the two priestesses swaddled him expertly in blue samite before handing him to the countess of Arbonne, who had remained in the room for the last long hours of Rosala's travail. Signe de Barbentain, white-haired, with the delicate blue veins showing in her pale, flawless skin, cradled the child and looked down upon it with an expression Rosala could not entirely comprehend but which she found deeply reassuring nonetheless. After a moment Signe walked over to the bed and laid the infant gently in his mother's arms.

Rosala had not expected the gentleness. She had not known what to expect. She had only realized, when Galbert de Garsenc had ridden away from her a week ago, that she was going to go south, however she possibly could. Beyond that she had not clearly thought.

The coming of the Lussan Fair had given her the chance. Garsenc lay near to the principal road that ran up into the mountain pass, and each day Rosala had seen small troupes of corans and tradesmen passing by their lands, often stopping to worship at the chapel, or do a bit of business in the castle or the village below.

Two days after her father-in-law's visit, Rosala wrote a note to her husband, saying that she was journeying north to her own family estate to await the birth of the child. She'd had a dream, she lied, a terrible nightmare of premonition. Too many infants and women had died in labour at Garsenc Castle, she wrote Ranald. It had frightened her for their child. She felt safer going home to Savaric. She hoped he would understand. She hoped he would come to her there when affairs at court allowed. She signed it with her name. She left the castle, unseen, by the postern gate that same night. Her favourite horse was kept in the coran's stables outside the walls so it could be readily exercised while she was unable to ride. There was no guard at the stables—no one would be rash enough to tempt the wrath of the Garsenc by approaching their horses. She had mounted awkwardly and ridden away, side-saddle, by the twin lights of the moons, the landscape both beautiful and frightening at night, the child large and heavy in her belly. She had only the faintest hope, dim as the stars beside bright Vidonne, of reaching her destination.

That one night was all she was capable of riding. Reluctantly, in real distress, she left the horse near a small hamlet before dawn and made her way on foot back to the road. At sunrise, walking slowly, hungry and extremely tired, she came upon the encampment of some travelling entertainers. Two women were bathing in a stream when she came up to them. They exclaimed at her condition. She used the first name that came into her head and told them she was travelling to Arbonne in search of aid in childbirth. Two infants had already died at birth, she lied, making the warding sign behind her hip. She was willing to do anything to save this one, she said. That last was true. It was entirely true.

The women made their own warding signs at the hint that she was seeking magic but generously welcomed her into their company for the journey south. Rosala rode through the mountains in a jouncing, lurching wagon with two thievish grey monkeys, a talking bird from the northern swamplands, an adder in a basket and a garrulous animal-trainer, whose teeth were bizarrely blue. Poison, he explained, from the snake before it was defanged. He fed it mice and small lizards that he caught. Every time the wagon hit a rut in the road, and there were a great many as they went through the pass, Rosala looked anxiously to the basket, to make sure the clasp still held. The bear and the mountain cat, thankfully, rode in their own wagon just behind them. She talked as little as she could, to avoid having to sustain an accent that would not give her away. It was relatively easy with Othon in the wagon: he was one of those men who would have pined away had he lost the use of his voice. He was kind to her, though, bringing soups and bread back from the communal fire at the dinner hour. She grew accustomed to the drone of his voice and the endlessly reiterated stories of past travels during the three slow days it took them to cross from Gorhaut over the summit of the pass and come down into Arbonne. It began to seem to her that she had always been with these people, riding in this wagon, that Garsenc Castle was the dream, something from another woman's life.

On the fourth morning, Rosala lifted the flap of the wagon and stepped outside just as the sun was rising over the hills east of them. She looked south over a landscape entirely strange to her and saw the river, bright blue in the morning light, flowing swiftly beside the road. In the distance, glittering, scarcely visible save for that shimmer in the sun, she saw towers.

"That'll be Barbentain," said Othon sagely from behind her. She looked over her shoulder and managed a weak smile. He scratched himself in several indelicate places, stretched and grunted. "Yon's the finest castle I've ever been to in all my days. We'll be there tonight, I reckon. There was a count there, not long ago—mayhap you heard of him—Guibor Third, or Fourth he may have been. Huge man, tall as a tree, fierce in war… and in love, as they all are down here." He chuckled lewdly, showing the blue teeth. "Any-hap, he was the finest figure of a man I ever saw in my days. His widow rules now. Don't know much about her. They say she used to be pretty but now she's old." Othon yawned and then spat into the grass. "We all get old," he pronounced and strolled away, scratching, to attend to his morning functions in the bush. One of the monkeys followed him.

Rosala placed a hand over her belly and looked along the bright, sinuous line of the river away to the south. There were cypresses on the ridges above them, and a species of pine she'd not encountered before. On the terraced slopes west of the road were the fabled olive trees of Arbonne.

She gazed at them for a moment, then turned back to look again at the far, shimmering turrets of the castle, where Guibor TV's widow ruled now. Marry the bitch, her husband had advised Ademar of Gorhaut not so long ago. Rosala's father had said once that the countess of Arbonne was the fairest woman in the world in her day. One thing, at least, in which he appeared to agree with Othon the animal-trainer.

Rosala didn't need her to be beautiful. Only kind, and with a certain kind of courage that she knew her presence would put greatly to the test. She was too versed in the nature of things not to know what her arrival in Barbentain would mean, carrying a possible heir to Garsenc—or a successor to the High Elder of the god in Gorhaut. She honestly didn't see what choice she'd had, though, unless it was to surrender the child, and that was no choice at all.

Later in the day, with the sun high in a bright, clear autumn sky, she began feeling the first pains. She hid them as best she could, but eventually even Othon noticed and his endless flow of words slowly dried up. He sent for the women and they comforted her as best they could, but they had a long way to go yet to Lussan. It was, in fact, well past nightfall by the time they set her down at the temple of Rian.

It was a healthy, well-made baby boy, Signe thought, surprised at the pleasure she felt holding him. Under all the circumstances, she should have been feeling nothing but the deepest concern for her own people. This child and his mother represented danger in its purest form, they could easily be Gorhaut's excuse for war. In the room outside, Roban was pacing like a father desperate for an heir, but Signe knew the source of his disquiet was entirely otherwise. He was almost certainly hoping Rosala de Garsenc's child would be a girl. For a girl, the corans of Gorhaut were far less likely to be unleashed upon them.

No such luck, it seemed. Rian and Corannos both appeared to have a hand in the events unfolding here, and when the god and the goddess worked together, the old saying went, men and women could only kneel and bow their heads. Signe, bowing her head, smiled down upon the child, swaddled in aristocratic blue, and carried him to his mother. Rosala de Garsenc was almost bone-white in the candlelight, and her blue eyes were enormous in her drawn face, but the expression in those eyes was as resolute and unafraid now as it had been all night. Signe admired her greatly. She had heard the story in the dark of night, told in bursts through the birthing pains: the reason for this flight, the plea for sanctuary.

It was not a request she was capable of refusing; even Roban, to his credit, had brought the woman across to Barbentain. He would probably deny it in the morning, but Signe was almost certain her chancellor, too, had been moved by Rosala's story. It was more than pragmatism that had caused him to bring the woman to the castle. She was, she realized, proud of him.

She was also aware that this sympathy, this yielding to the human impulse, might well destroy them all. Rosala, quite evidently, knew this too. Through the long night of labour, talking almost incoherently through her pain, the woman had nonetheless revealed a formidable intelligence. Her courage, too, was obvious. One would need courage and something more to stand up to Galbert de Garsenc in the way this woman had.

"Your child is here, my lady," Signe said softly by the bed, the formal words. "Will it please his mother to give him his name?"

"Cadar," said Rosala, lifting her voice to let the first speaking ring clearly in the world he had entered. "His name is Cadar de Savaric." She lifted her arms and Signe gave her the child.

There was more defiance here, the countess knew, to the point of provocation. She was glad Roban had not heard this; the chancellor had had enough stress for one day. She felt old and tired herself, weighted with the night and the years of her living. The time of music and laughter here in Barbentain seemed infinitely long ago, a dream, a troubadour's fantasy, not really part of her own history.

"He has a father," she felt obliged to say. "You are choosing to cut him off from that? What if his father wants to accept him, despite everything, to offer his protection? Will this name not be a bar to that?"

The woman was very tired, it was unfair to be taxing her in this way, but it was necessary, before the name went forth from this room. Rosala looked up with those clear blue northern eyes and said, "If his father chooses to come for him and shelter him I will think on this again." There was an intonation there, a stress on one word that stirred within Signe a new disquiet, like a note of music almost but not quite audible, sensed if not really heard.

Rosala said, "He will need a man and a woman to stand for him before the god—and the goddess, too, if you have such a ritual in Arbonne."

"We do. The Guardians of Rian and Corannos. We honour both here, I think you know that."

"I do know that. Will you honour my child and myself by standing up for Cadar? Is this too much to ask?"

It was, in many ways. It redoubled all the dangers this child represented for Arbonne to have the countess herself so identified with him. Roban would have turned pink with the vigour of his reaction.

"I will," said Signe de Barbentain, genuinely moved, looking down at the child. She had never seen her own grandson, born and lost on a winter's night so many years ago. Lost or dead, no one alive knew but Urté dc Miraval, and he was not going to tell. He was not ever going to tell. Time and memory and loss seemed tangled and twisted tonight, with avenues to sorrow everywhere. She was looking down on this fair-haired woman and thinking of Aelis. "The honour will be mine," she said. Rosala shifted the coverlet away and placed the infant against her breast. Blindly, with the most primal response of all, he began to suck. Signe was aware that she was dangerously close to tears. It was the sleepless night, she told herself sternly, but knew this was not so.

"And for the second Guardian?" she said. "Is there anyone you know here you would want to ask?"

There is a next stage to the story of every man, every woman, every child, a point at which the new thing that happens shapes what follows irrevocably. Such a moment it was when Rosala looked up from her pillow, her pale hair matted and damp about her head, her son at the breast, and said to the countess of Arbonne: "There is one, though it may be another presumption. My father said that whatever else was true of him, he was a brave and an honest man and, forgive me, I know he is an enemy of Galbert de Garsenc. That may not be the purest reason for naming a Guardian in the eyes of Corannos and Rian, but that is why my child needs guarding now. Is the duke of Talair in Lussan? Will he do this for us, do you think?"

Signe did weep then, and, moments later, frightening herself a little, she began to laugh, helplessly, through her tears. "He is here. And if I ask him I think he will," she said. There were already so many layers of interwoven memory here, so many echoes, and now one more, as Bertran, too, came into it.

She looked out the window; the first hint of gray was in the eastern sky. Something occurred to her then, far too late, one more thread in this dark, time-spun weaving: "You do know that your husband's brother is with the duke of Talair?"

And saw then, having been carefully observant all her life, two things. First that the woman had not in fact known this; and secondly, that it mattered to her, very much. Signe's earlier disquiet, like a dissonance of almost-heard music, came back to her. She had a question suddenly, she had several questions, but it was not time for them, and it might never be time. She suddenly missed Beatritz very much, wished her daughter had elected to come north for the fair this year instead of remaining on Rian's Island.

Rosala de Garsenc said, speaking carefully, "I would not want to see him yet. I would not want him to know I am here. Is this possible?"

"I do not think he would betray you, or try to send you back. We know a little of Blaise here now."

Rosala shook her head. "It isn't that. I am… too much entangled in that family. Would the duke tell him I was here?"

Signe shook her head, masking a growing unease. "Bertran deals with women in his own ways, and he cannot be said to be the most predictable of men, but he will not betray a confidence."

Rosala looked down at the child on her breast, trying to deal with what she had just learned. Cadar had an unexpectedly full head of hair, lying in whorls and ringlets upon his forehead. In the candlelight it was a distinctive shade of brown, nearly red. Very like his father's, she thought. This latest information should really not have surprised her so much; they had heard over the summer that Blaise had left Portezza again. She closed her eyes for a moment. It was difficult to have so many things to deal with just now. She was extremely tired.

She looked up at the countess. "I am a very great burden for you. I know this is true. I could see no other choices, though, for the child. Thank you for allowing me here. Thank you for accepting Guardianship. Will you do one more thing? Will you ask the duke of Talair to stand up with you for my son this morning before Corannos and Rian and against all those who would do him harm in the world?"

In the end, Roban the chancellor went himself with two of the corans of his own household to find En Bertran de Talair. The duke was not in his own bed. but the chancellor persevered and found him soon enough, though not, unfortunately, alone. A mildly embarrassing incident ensued, but not one of sufficient importance to affect Roban's mission.

They rode back across the lowered bridge to the castle on its island just as the sun was rising beyond the river, sending light, finally, like a blessing into the room where Rosala lay. Bertran de Talair entered that room with the morning brightness, wearing his habitual amusement like a cloak, sardonic laughter barely hidden in his eyes. He looked at the countess first, and then to where the woman lay, and lastly he looked down, without speaking upon the cradle at the foot of the bed and saw the sleeping child.

After a long time during which his expression could slowly be seen to change, he looked back at the mother lying in the bed. The priestess of Rian had washed her and dressed her in a blue silk robe, and had helped her with her hair. It lay, long and golden in the mild sunlight, combed out upon the pillow and over the coverlet. Her eyes were as blue as his own.

"My congratulations," he said formally. "You have a handsome son. I wish him good fortune all his life."

She was registering everything she could: the light, clear voice, the scar, the mutilated ear, the way his expressive face had altered when he allowed the irony to recede.

"Galbert de Garsenc, High Elder of Corannos in Gorhaut, would take this child from me," she said, without preamble or pleasantry. Her voice was carefully measured; she had prepared these words while they waited for him to come. It was bald, graceless, but she was too weary to do this eloquently, she could barely manage to say what needed to be said.

"So I have been informed," he replied gravely. "I am afraid, under those circumstances, that accepting Guardianship for my child will be more than ceremonial."

"Under the circumstances, I believe that to be so."

"Will you take this upon yourself?" she asked.

"Yes," he replied calmly. And then, after a pause, "I will die myself before you lose this child to him."

Her colour rose sharply, he saw, and her breathing quickened, as if released from a rigid effort of control. "Thank you," she whispered. There were tears now—for the first time all night, though he could not know that. She turned her head and looked at the countess. "Thank you both. This makes him as safe as the world will let him be. I think I can rest now."

They saw her close her eyes. She was asleep almost as soon as she finished speaking. Standing on either side of the bed Bertran and the countess exchanged a long glance. Neither spoke for several moments.

Finally the duke grinned; Signe had been more or less expecting that, it was almost a relief when it came, a breaking of the heavy spell of this night.

"You did this," he said, "not I. Never reproach me."

"I did not think you would refuse a child," she said quietly. "There will be no reproach. We must be what we are, or we become our enemies." It was morning, she hadn't slept all night. She didn't feel tired though, not any more. She walked to the eastern window and looked out over the island and the river and the red and golden autumn colours of her land.

In the doorway, Roban the chancellor heard those words exchanged and watched his countess move to stand at the window. She looked terribly small and fragile there, beautiful as ivory. He remained silent, smoothing down the front of his shirt again, unnecessarily. He was contemplating not only the nobility of the sentiments just expressed but the rapidly growing likelihood that they would all be conquered and dead by the summer of the year to come.

The taverns of Lussan were thronged at the time of the fair, and there were a great many of them. It was, therefore, only sheerest bad luck that led Othon the animal-trainer into The Arch late that night after he'd already visited three other inns and had commenced his enjoyment of the Lussan Fair in typically liquid fashion. Rendered even more garrulous than usual, Othon was holding forth at a table of sundry reunited performers, describing the unusual travelling companion he'd had in his wagon. For a man known to travel with a snake and monkeys to characterize any companion as unusual was sufficiently droll to earn him more attention than customary.

"Yellow-haired and blue-eyed, she was," Othon declared, "and very likely a beauty, though it was hard to see given her… condition, if you take my meaning." He paused. Someone obligingly refilled his glass. "Not many women look their best when about to drop a babe, in my experience.»

Someone made a lewd remark linking Othon's experience to his monkeys. Amid the laughter the animal-trainer drank again and then went on, with the placid tenacity of a storyteller used to holding the floor against difficult odds. He did not notice the three men at the next table who had stopped their own conversation to listen to what he was saying.

"She tried to pretend she was a farmer's wife or some such, a smith, a carter, but it was easy enough to see she was no such thing at all. I've been in enough castles in my time to recognize nobility, if you know what I mean." The wit at his table attempted another jest, but Othon's voice rode over him this time. "We left her at the goddess's temple here, and it is my personal wager that some lord of Gorhaut'll have a babe by now through the aid of the priestesses of Rian—and isn't that a jest?"

It might have been, but it was also somewhat near to the bone that autumn season. Everyone knew how tense affairs had become between Gorhaut and Arbonne, and no one wanted to be the first or the most obvious to laugh in a tavern filled with unfamiliar men from many countries. Disappointed, Othon subsided into silence for a few moments, before beginning, with impressive optimism, a new, discursive account of his last visit to Barbentain. He had lost his audience by then, though, and was largely talking to himself.

The three men at the next table had not only stopped listening, they had settled their account and left The Arch. In the street outside, expensively lit by lanterns during the fair season, the three corans, who happened to be from Gorhaut, and more particularly from Garsenc Castle, had a hurried, highly agitated consultation among each other.

At first they considered drawing straws to see which of them would ride back to Garsenc with what they thought they'd learned. It could be done in two days if a man killed horses under him. A moment's further deliberation induced them to alter this plan. There might be some real risk in bearing these tidings, or there might be profit to be found—it was hard to tell with the lords of Gorhaut, and especially so with the de Garsenc.

In the end, they each elected to forego the ransoms they might earn in the tournament melee—the reason they'd come to Lussan in the first place—in favour of collectively riding north with the almost certain news that the missing wife of Duke Ranald was in Lussan at the moment. Carefully they avoided comment, even among themselves, on the possible implications of this. They returned to their own inn, paid their accounts, saddled horses and rode.

Part of the bad luck—all of it, in fact, from Othon the animal-trainer's point of view—was that one of the three pulled up suddenly just before the wide-open northern gates of walled Lussan and grimly pointed something out to the other two. Silent, visibly shaken by what he said, they exchanged frightened glances, each nodding agreement with this new conclusion.

They did draw straws then after all. The one who'd had the disturbing thought drew the short straw, perhaps appropriately. He bade farewell to the other two and watched them start off on the hard ride back through the mountain pass. He returned to their inn alone. Later that night he killed the animal-trainer with a knife between the ribs when the latter stumbled alone into an alley to relieve himself. It was an easy killing, in fact, though it brought him no particular satisfaction. No ruler could guarantee safety after sunset, even during a fair. He was breaching a truce by doing this, though, and, as it happened, he didn't much like doing that, but his own likes or dislikes weren't greatly important in a situation such as this one had become. He cleaned his blade at a splashing fountain and went back into The Arch for another flask of ale. Killing, he'd always found, gave him a thirst.

It would not do, he had said to the other two corans at the city gates, to have Ranald de Garsenc, or worse, the High Elder himself, asking why the loose-tongued old man had been permitted to continue prattling idly, spreading a vicious story that could only do harm to the family the three corans had sworn oaths to serve.

A crowded table had heard Othon tell his story, though, and rumour and gossip were the most vigorously traded items of any fair. It was all over Lussan by the end of the next day that a noblewoman from Gorhaut had come south to bear a child. A few people had even heard a second tale, that the countess herself, and the duke of Talair, had been seen together, first in Rian's temple and then the god's stone chapel in Barbentain just after dawn that morning. Some clever person mentioned the birth rites of Guardianship to someone else. That, too, was all over the fair by nightfall.

Othon's death passed virtually without comment. Knifings after dark among the travelling folk were too ordinary to be worth much discussion. The animals were sold to another trainer before the fair was over. One of the monkeys, surprisingly, refused to eat, and died.

CHAPTER 11

"A challenge!" shouted the trovaritz from Aulensburg. The tavern was thronged, he wasn't loud enough, only those near him heard, and most of them laughed. The man, Lisseut saw from the next table over, was going to be persistent though. He climbed unsteadily onto his chair seat and then up on the table around which he and half a dozen other Gotzland musicians were sitting. He was roaring drunk, she saw. Most of the people in The Senhal were by then. She'd had two or three glasses of wine herself, to celebrate the beginning of the fair. Jourdain and Remy, after successful summer tours, one in Arimonda, the other among the cities of Portezza, were taking turns buying for the table while trading competitive tales of increasingly improbable triumphs.

The Gotzlanders began rhythmically banging their heavy flagons on the wooden table. The noise was so insistent it shaped a lull in the din of sound. Into that space in the noise the trovaritz on the table shouted again: "A challenge!"

"Damn that man," said Remy, in the middle of a story about a night in Portezzan Vialla when his music had been sung at the commune's summer feast while he had sat at the high table with the most powerful men of the city. Aurelian had been doing the singing, of course; Lisseut was still vexed at times that her lanky, dark-haired friend would continue to suspend his own steady rise among the ranks of the poets to revert to a joglar's role and spend a season lending the lustre of his voice to enhance Remy's name. Friendship, Aurelian had said mildly when she'd challenged him, and: I like to sing. I like singing Remy's songs. Why should I deny myself those pleasures? It was extremely hard to pick a fight with Aurelian.

"A challenge to the troubadours of Arbonne!" the Gotzlander roared. With the ebb in the tavern noise he was clearly heard this time. Even Remy turned around, his expressive face going still, to stare at the man balanced precariously on the next table top.

"Speak your challenge," said Alain of Rousset from their own table. "Before you fall and break your neck." He was much more assertive these days, Lisseut noted, with some pleasure. She'd had something to do with that: the success of their partnership, the recognition now beginning to come for both of them.

"Won't fall," said the trovaritz, very nearly doing exactly that. Two of his fellows had hands up, steadying him. A very crowded room had become remarkably quiet. The man reached downward urgently. Another of the Gotzland musicians obligingly handed him up a flagon. The trovaritz took a long pull, wiped his moustache with the back of his hand and declaimed, "Want you to show why we should keep following Arbonne. In our music. We do all your things in Aulensburg, there're singers in Arimonda 'n Portezza. Do everything you do now. Do it as well! S'time to come out from your shadow." He drank again, swayed, added in the stillness, "Specially 'cause you may not be here a year from now!"

Two of the others at his table had the grace to wince at that and haul the trovaritz down, but the thing had been said. Lisseut reached for anger but found only the sadness and the fear that seemed to have been with her since Midsummer. It didn't take brilliance to see enough of the future to be afraid.

There were four troubadours at their table, though she knew Aurelian would not volunteer his own music. He could sing for them, though. Remy and Jourdain exchanged a glance, and Alain cleared his throat nervously. Lisseut was about to speak her suggestion when someone took the matter away from all of them.

"I will make answer to that challenge, if I may." She knew the voice, they all knew the voice, but they hadn't seen the man come in. No one had even reported that he was in Lussan. Looking quickly around, Lisseut saw Ramir of Talair, carrying his lute, coming slowly forward from a corner at the very back of the tavern, picking his way carefully between tables of people to the center of the room.

Bertran's joglar had to be sixty years old now at least. He seldom toured for the duke any longer. Long past were the days when Ramir carried his lute and harp and Bertran de Talair's music to every castle and town of Arbonne, and into most of the major cities and fastnesses of the other five countries. He lingered in Talair mostly now, with a suite of rooms of his own and an honoured place by the fire in the hall. He hadn't even come to Tavernel for Midsummer the past two years. There had been some overly febrile speculation among the younger performers both seasons that it might soon be time for En Bertran to select a new joglar. There was no higher status imaginable for a singer; dreams or night-long sleeplessness could be shaped of such a fantasy.

Lisseut looked at the old performer with a mingling of affection and sadness. She had not seem him for a long time. He did look older now, frail. His round, kind face, scarred by a childhood pox, seemed to have been part of her world forever. A great deal would change when Ramir was gone, she realized, watching as he came shuffling forward. He didn't walk very well, she saw.

"Well, really—" Remy began, under his breath. "Shut up." Aurelian spoke with uncharacteristic sharpness. The lanky troubadour's face had an odd expression as he looked at Ramir.

Alain rose from his seat and hurried to bring Ramir the performer's stool and footrest. With a gentle smile the old joglar thanked him. Troubadours didn't tend to assist joglars, but Ramir was different. Declining Alain's offered hand, the old man cautiously lowered himself onto the low stool. He stretched out his left leg with an audible sigh of relief. One of the Gotzlanders laughed. Ramir had some trouble with the thong on his lute case and Lisseut saw an Arimondan at the table on the other side of them cover his mouth to politely hide a smile.

Ramir finally slipped his instrument out of the case and began tuning it. The lute looked to be as old as he was, but the sound, even in the tuning, was achingly pure. Lisseut would have given almost anything for such an instrument. She looked around The Senhal. The silence was a nervous one now, broken by whispers and murmuring. It was so crowded in the tavern it was hard to move. On the upper levels people had pushed to the railings to look down. Over on the eastern wall, on that higher level, Lisseut saw a gleam of long, dark hair by candlelight. She was a little surprised, but not greatly so. Ariane de Carenzu, her hair down, as ever, in defiance of tradition, sat beside a slender, handsome man, her husband. Lisseut knew Duke Thierry now. Before coming to Lussan she and Alain had spent a fortnight in Carenzu, at the particular request of the queen of the Court of Love. They each had a purse full of silver to show for it, and Lisseut had been given a crimson vest of fine wool trimmed with expensive squirrel fur against the coming cold. She had told Remy earlier in the evening that if he damaged her new vest in any way he would replace it or die. He had ordered a bottle of Cauvas gold wine by way of reply. They had been joking then, laughing about Midsummer, celebrating.

She looked back at Ramir. He was still tuning the lute, loosening his fingers as he did. Lisseut's uncle had taught her about that, one of the first lessons he had given her: whatever else you do, never rush the beginning. Start when you are ready to start, they will not leave as long as they see you preparing.

"We have a challenge here," Ramir said, almost conversationally, one ear tilted down towards the lute, fingers busy on the strings. His voice was pitched so they all had to lean forward to hear. The silence abruptly became complete. Another old joglar's trick, Lisseut knew. She saw, out of the corner of her eye, that Remy was now smiling as well.

"A curious challenge, really." For the first time Ramir looked briefly at the table of Gotzlanders. "How is one to fairly choose among the music of different countries, different heritages? Surely there is fine music made in Aulensburg and in Arimonda at the court of King Vericenna, as has just been urged upon us so… soberly… by our friend over there." There was a titter of amusement. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, Ramir's voice had begun to chime and weave with the apparently random chords he was playing upon the lute. Aurelian's face as he listened, Lisseut saw, was entranced, rigorously attentive.

"We are asked, in the light of this truth, why Arbonne should be pre-eminent." Ramir paused, looked around the room, not hurrying. "We are also asked, in nearly as many words, what there will be to mourn if Arbonne is lost."

He left a silence after that, save for the gentle, almost casual notes drawn from the instrument as if unconsciously.

Lisseut swallowed abruptly, with difficulty. Ramir said, "I am only a singer, and such questions are difficult to answer. Let me offer a song instead, with apologies if it should be found inadequate and fail to please." The ancient phrasing, that, no one used it any more. "I will sing a song of the first of the troubadours."

"Ah," said Remy under his breath. "Ah, well." Ramir's fingers were busier now, the music beginning to take shape, the notes gathering as if from scattered places in the world at the joglar's bidding. "Anselme of Cauvas was of modest birth," Ramir said, and this too was of the old fashion, the vidan, the tale of the composer. No one in the newer generation did this any longer when beginning a song. "Anselme was clever and gifted, though, and was brought into the chapel of the god at Cauvas, and then Duke Raimbaut de Vaux took him into his household, and finally he came to the attention of the count himself, Folquet, and the count honoured Anselme for his wisdom and discretion and employed him in many affairs of state in all of the six countries for many years. And Anselme had several great loves among the noble ladies of his day, but always he was chaste and honourable, and never did he speak the name of any of these women, but in his passion and desire he began composing songs for them, and this was the beginning of the troubadours of Arbonne."

The music beneath the spoken words was beautiful, delicate as lace or the gems of a master jeweller, precise, many-faceted. Ramir said, "I could sing a song of love of Anselme of Cauvas tonight, I could sing his love songs all night long until the dawn came to draw us out the doors, but we have been given a different kind of challenge here, and so I will sing a different kind of song. With the permission and by the grace of all those gathered here, I will sing a song Anselme wrote once when he was far from home."

The music changed and was alone then, creating room for beauty by candle and lantern light in a thronged tavern, with the first cold breezes of autumn beginning to blow outside. Lisseut knew the tune immediately. Everyone at their table knew this tune. She waited, feeling close to tears, wanting to close her eyes but wanting also to watch Ramir, every movement he made, and a moment later she heard the jongleur sing:

When the wind that comes from Arbonne

Sweeps north across the mountains,

Then my heart is full again, even in far Gorhaut,

Because I know that spring has come to Tavernel and Lussan,

To the olive groves above Vezét

And the vineyards of Miraval,

And nightingales are singing in the south.

Ramir's rich voice paused again, as he let the simple, sweet notes of the music take them away with it. There was an old, plain roughness to the song, words and music both. It was worlds removed from Jourdain's intricate melodies or the subtle interplay of thought and image and changing form in Remy's best work or Alain's new songs. This, though, was the authentic voice of something at its very beginning. Lisseut knew her own origins were here, those of all the joglars and troubadours, and, yes, of that table of Gotzland trovaritz, and all the Arimondan singers and Portezzan, and of those men in Gorhaut and Valensa who might actually venture to shape music of a different sort from the interminably thunderous battle hymns of those northern lands.

As if in answer to the flow of her thoughts, Ramir's voice was lifted again, not so vibrant perhaps as it once had been, but purified by years and the wisdom of those years into an instrument rare and fine as his lute:

Here in Gorhaut, so distant from my home,

Among men who care nothing for music,

And ladies who utter little of courtesy to poets

And even less of love, the memory of songbirds

In the branches of trees, of gardens watered

By the sweetness of the Arbonne itself,

Flowing from the mountains to the sea

Such a vision—a blessing of Rian! — guides

Me to my rest at night with the promise of return.

The singing ended. Ramir continued the music for only a little longer, after the old fashion again, and then his fingers on the lute, too, were still. It was silent in the tavern. Lisseut looked slowly around at her friends. They had all heard this song before, they had all sung it themselves, but not like this. Not ever like this. She saw that of all those sitting there it was Remy who had tears in his eyes. Her own heart was full, there was an ache in it.

His head lowered, Ramir was carefully slipping his lute back into its case. It took him a long moment to deal with the thong again. No one yet had made a sound. He finished putting away his instrument. With a grimace, he awkwardly shifted his bad leg and rose from the low stool. He bowed gravely towards the table of Gotzlanders. Of course, Lisseut realized: they were the ones who had, after a fashion, called for his song. He turned to leave, but then, as if a new thought had just come to him, he looked back at the Gotzlanders.

"I am sorry," he said. "Will you permit me to correct something I said before?" His voice was soft again, they had to lean forward to hear. And Lisseut heard him say then, would ever after remember hearing Ramir of Talair say, with his gentle, muted sadness, "I told you I would not sing one of Anselme's songs of love. That is not true, on reflection. I did sing a love song after all."

It was Ariane de Carenzu, a moment later, from her place on the upper level of the inn, who was first on her feet to begin the applause. Everyone at the troubadours' table stood as the noise in The Senhal began to grow and grow. And then Lisseut saw the Gotzlanders rise, as one man, and begin pounding their fists and pewter mugs upon the dark oak wood of their table, shouting a fierce approval. She began to cry. Through the blurring rainfall of her sorrow and her pride she saw Ramir, clutching his lute in its case with both hands to his chest, walk slowly away. He didn't go back to his corner after all. He left the lights and the thunderous noise of the tavern and walked out into the autumn night under the stars.

There were some among the taverns and inns within and around Lussan that did their own highly successful business in the month of the fair by not remaining open during this lucrative season. The proprietor of The Silver Tree, a well-regarded country inn among fig and olive groves about three miles outside the city walls, had been surprised and more than pleased to join this small but select group. He accepted a considerable sum from Duke Bertran de Talair to house a number of the duke's corans and household during the fair. En Bertran himself would obviously spend most of his time in Lussan in his city palace there, or, indeed, in Barbentain itself with the countess, but he clearly found it useful to have a less conspicuous residence at his disposal, perhaps one where approaches to and from could be more closely monitored. The innkeeper speculated, but kept his thoughts to himself.

Sitting in the smaller, more comfortably furnished of the two ground-level rooms of that inn, with a fire blazing and the night wind blowing outside, Blaise fingered his wine glass and looked over again at Valery. He raised his eyebrows pointedly. Bertran's cousin merely shrugged. The duke himself was sitting at a table scribbling on a parchment, at times consulting other crumpled documents at hand. If Blaise hadn't known better he would have assumed that Bertran was dealing with affairs of importance. In fact, the duke was writing a song and had told them as much when he'd asked for silence some time ago.

They were waiting for someone. Corans were posted outside to warn them of an impending arrival. Bertran, needless to say, hadn't bothered to tell them who it was he was expecting. A surprise, he'd said blandly. Blaise didn't like surprises. He didn't like waiting. There were times when he wasn't sure if he liked Bertran de Talair.

The Talair wine, at least, was superb, and Blaise was comfortably warm in a deep-cushioned chair by the fire. There was food on a second, long table, and tapestries offered warmth and colour on the stone walls. He should, he told himself, be grateful for these blessings of continued life and give thanks to Corannos. He might so easily have died on the road four days ago. The talk since their arrival in Lussan was all about the banning of the Andoria from the fair. Blaise didn't normally spend much time listening to gossip and he didn't linger in places where he might hear it, but this was rather close to his own interests, and they had been given the details by Valery as soon as they'd entered the city.

They'd spent the first night in the Talair palace in town. Or rather, Blaise and Valery had. Bertran had had a nocturnal tryst he was characteristically unwilling to forego or postpone. There had been a curious incident when Roban, the chancellor of Arbonne—a hollow-cheeked, peremptory man Blaise had not met before—came looking for the duke in the hour before dawn. Valery, roused from sleep, had reluctantly named a house where Bertran might be found. The chancellor had grimaced in dismay. Valery had offered to go with the small party, but Roban, wrapped in fur against the cold, had declined. He'd looked over at Blaise with an expression of poorly concealed misgiving before riding off. Valery, seeing that look and catching Blaise's eye, had shrugged then, too. They'd yawned together and had gone back to their beds for what little remained of the night.

When they descended the stairs again Bertran had not yet returned. He came back later in the morning in a silent mood and had remained that way all day, venturing out alone twice for brief periods. He didn't enlighten them as to why. He went out again that night, smiling and scented, to a different house in the city. Blaise didn't bother asking Valery who lived there; he didn't want to know.

Towards the end of the next afternoon, the three of them had taken their horses and ridden out of Lussan and then along a winding country lane to The Silver Tree, where the larger part of the duke's men were staying. Bertran had again been silent during that ride. "We're meeting someone," was all he'd said when they set out. "After dark." Valery had only shrugged when Blaise looked at him. Blaise had decided that he was growing tired of Valery's shrugs, too.

He was gazing into the fire, trying with only marginal success to do some reflecting upon the larger, grimmer issues that awaited them, when Serlo appeared suddenly in the doorway leading to the larger room, making him start. "Someone has come, my lord. He is alone, cloaked and hooded, with his face concealed. He will not reveal himself."

Bertran shuffled his papers together before standing up. "That's all right. Show him in as he is and then guard the door for us. We should not be disturbed, Serlo, unless I call for you."

The young coran nodded and went out. Valery rose to his feet and Blaise did the same. There was a look of anticipation and of something else now—a kind of youthful, infectious delight—in the blue eyes of the duke. Blaise, against his will, began to feel a quickening excitement.

Serlo returned moments later escorting a man who was indeed wrapped in a long black mantle with a cloth wrapped about his face, concealing all but his eyes. The man wore a sword, but had, as Serlo noted, come alone. He waited until the young coran had withdrawn and closed the door behind himself. Then, with a neat sequence of movements, he let fall his cloak and hood and removed the scarf.

Blaise looked sharply over at Bertran, saw the genuine astonishment in the duke's expression and the swift beginning of anger, and then he began, helplessly, to laugh.

"Well, good evening to you all, at any rate," said Rudel Correze brightly as no one spoke. "I hope I'm not late, or early, or anything."

Bertran's colour had risen; the scar showed white on his face. "You had best tell me, very quickly, who you are and what you think you are doing," he said icily. Valery had now moved forward, a hand to his sword hilt, his glance moving uncertainly towards Blaise and then to the man in the doorway again.

Still laughing at the sheer audacity of it all, Blaise said, "Actually, you did say on the road to Lussan that you wanted to meet this man. Shall I perform the introductions?"

Bertran looked from Blaise back to the new arrival. "Ah," he said, his tone changing. He lifted one eyebrow. "The Correze son? With the poisoned arrows?"

Rudel bowed deeply. His hair was bright in the blazing light of the fire and the candles. He grimaced wryly when he straightened. "I do apologize for that. It was a long shot at night. I am glad to see you well, my lord." He turned to Valery. "And you. I trust you are recovered?"

"Entirely recovered, thank you," said Valery politely, letting go of his sword. "I am a walking tribute to the arts of the priestesses of Rian." There was a flicker of amusement in his eyes, Blaise saw.

His old friend turned to him last of all. "You must have greatly enjoyed that last conversation of ours," Rudel Correze said quietly. "Knowing what you knew, and chose to keep from me."

"Not really," Blaise said. "Not at the time, at any rate. I thought Valery was dead, and you caught me unawares with almost everything you told me. I had a difficult time, actually. I wouldn't have told you about your mistake, though, even if I had been inclined to. If you had learned the duke was alive you might have felt obliged to try again, and I would have had to have you taken then, with problems for everyone in Arbonne."

"Not to mention for myself," Rudel said lightly. He was listening carefully though.

"You would have deserved it," Blaise said. "I'll concede that afterwards I did enjoy the thought of you showing up in Gotzland to claim the money."

Rudel made a sour face. "I'm sure you did. You ensured I would arrive triumphantly in Aulensburg, report a successful mission, confirm the deposit of my ridiculous fee—and then deal with the discovery, a fortnight later, that the esteemed duke of Talair—" he smiled briefly at Bertran " — was engaged in ongoing diplomatic exchanges with King Jorg at Aulensburg and not, evidently, from beyond the grave."

"So you gave the money back?" Blaise feigned ignorance. He was now enjoying this.

"I gave back what was left of it, under some impolite pressure from Gorhaut's ambassador to the court in Aulensburg. Not a pleasant man, I can tell you. I had to approach my father's branch bank for certain sums that were not… readily available to me privately."

"After only a fortnight?" Blaise raised his eyebrows in feigned surprise. "What did you buy? All the gems of the east? How much could you have spent in two weeks?"

"Enough," said Rudel tersely, his handsome face colouring. "Enough that you may consider our personal slate from that night in Tavernel to be balanced, at the very least. My father currently has a view of me that may well match the one yours has of you. Paying out money does that to him, I'm afraid."

"Sad tidings," said Bertran de Talair, his equanimity regained. Blaise recognized the tone and the glint in his eyes. "But leaving, as I suppose we must, past trials for present affairs, I do think it reasonable to ask what you are doing here."

"It is entirely reasonable." Rudel paused, looked over at the long table by the far wall. "I did hear you were known for serving a good wine," he said politely.

Shaking his head, Valery walked over to the table and poured him a glass. He came back, handed it to the Portezzan, then stood near him, waiting. Bertran did not speak again, and neither, now, did Blaise. Rudel sipped, smiled his approval, and went on.

"I am sadly between contracts at the moment," he said calmly, and Blaise saw Bertran and Valery both take the point. "Given last summer's events, and the unexpected involvement of my old friend Blaise, I still had something of an interest in you, En Bertran. With nothing better to do before the tournament, I made a point of tracking your movements the past two days since we all arrived in Lussan and settled in for the fair—lamentably lacking the company of the choleric lord of Andoria." He drank again, with obvious pleasure. "When you took these quarters outside the walls in addition to your usual town residence, and then rode out here at day's end with only our cousin and my friend Blaise, it seemed appropriate to conclude that some meeting of a private nature was about to take place."

However composed Rudel might be, the duke of Talair was a match for him. Coolly, not smiling now, Bertran said, "Such a conclusion might indeed seem appropriate. The question is, why, having made that deduction, would you take it upon yourself to intrude upon that meeting?" There was something unreal, an almost hallucinatory quality to the dialogue taking place, Blaise thought. One of the men talking so pleasantly here had attempted to kill the other just three months ago for a quarter of a million in gold. He couldn't think of any other men he knew who could have had this conversation.

Rudel sipped his wine again. He favoured them all with his most brilliant smile. "To be honest," he murmured, "I thought it might be amusing."

Looking at his friend, at the clever, handsome face, Blaise knew with certainty that this was at least part of the truth, possibly even the largest part. He saw that Bertran realized it, too. The duke's own amusement was obvious. He shook his head and looked over at Valery. His cousin's expression was wry.

"Does this fellow remind you of anyone?" Bertran asked.

"Someone I grew up with, yes," Valery said. "A cousin I never expected to see reach the age you seem to have attained." Blaise turned his head towards the door; he had heard voices, and now there were footsteps outside. "What," Valery went on calmly, "do you want us to do with him?"

"I should mention," Rudel said quickly, before Bertran could reply, "that I had one more piece of information in solving this riddle. While I was watching by the walls this evening, at the gate from which you left, I did see a small party of men, one of them masked, the others hooded, ride out at darkfall. They were not in a hurry. It gave me the opportunity to have this most enjoyable encounter in private with you."

There came a diffident knocking at the door. "Yes, Serlo, what is it?"

The young coran's voice on the other side was angry and confused. "I am sorry, my lord, but another party is here. A man in a mask who says he has a meeting with you here tonight. He has an escort with him."

"Four men," Rudel said helpfully.

"Four corans with weapons," Serlo went on. "I don't recognize the livery."

"I don't think you are meant to," Bertran said, opening the door. "I think that is our proper guest. Escort him here, Serlo, and then entertain his escort. These may not, in the end, turn out to be friends, but they are guests tonight. Treat them accordingly."

Serlo, looking unhappy, went away.

"I grow more and more curious," said Rudel Correze cheerfully. "I'm so glad you invited me in."

Bertran swung the heavy door closed. His expression was quite sober. "We have only a moment," he said. "I can have my corans render you unconscious, or bind and gag you in a back room somewhere. I may have to. One last time: is it only idle mischief that brings you here?"

Rudel's expression, not surprisingly, had also changed, but less than one might have expected—unless one knew the man. Eyes bright in the firelight, he said, "I am not accustomed at this point in my career to having to solicit commissions, but I did tell you I was between engagements. You might spare my pride and regard that as a hint."

There was another brief silence, and then Bertran de Talair began, helplessly, to laugh. Blaise, staring at his friend, followed suit a moment later. Rudel grinned back at them both, pleased. Whatever one might ever say about Rudel Correze, Blaise thought ruefully, things were seldom dull when he was around.

The same, for that matter, might be said of En Bertran de Talair. The duke said, "You are seeking employment with me, is that correct?"

"I am."

"Might I ask why?"

And now Rudel's expression finally became serious, and one was inescapably reminded that this was the scion of one of the wealthiest, most aristocratic banking houses in Portezza, with family connections to most of the nobility in that country. He laid down his glass on the small table beside him.

"Shall we say that I do not mind if my skills are bought? Indeed, my profession demands that this be the case. I do mind, however, rather a great deal, when my relationships are similarly exploited without my knowing it. I was not aware that Blaise was with you when I accepted his father's contract. I would not have done so had I known. I have reason to believe that Galbert de Garsenc chose me only because of my friendship with his son, and not for any flattering appraisal of my talents. This thought does not please me. I have formally relinquished his contract. It will satisfy my own sense of honour to work to ensure that no one else successfully fulfils it, if the sum is offered again."

"I doubt it will be. They have made their point, and have a larger game to play now."

"I think you are correct in that, my lord, but even so, I would be pleased and proud to enter your employment, En Bertran."

Valery coughed. "I rather doubt," he said, "that we could afford your current rates."

Blaise grinned. Rudel did not. "I will be happy to forget that. It was an unnatural offer in a number of ways. I will be honoured to accept whatever you are paying my friend Blaise at this moment, though I cannot, as I'm sure you'll appreciate, work for less."

Blaise and Bertran exchanged a glance, looked over at Valery, and then all three of them began to laugh. Rudel attempted to look dignified which, Blaise reflected, is a difficult thing to do when three men are laughing at you.

This was, however, a friend, and one who had clearly been disturbed by the dangerous events of last summer. He was also proposing to join them—though Blaise still felt an inward disquiet when he tried to weigh his own complex allegiances here.

He let Rudel in on the jest. "You have undervalued yourself, I fear. I am not now being paid anything at all. I've left the duke's employ. I'm with him as a friend and a companion in the tournament two days from now. I'm afraid you won't want to work for my current wages."

Rudel reddened again. "I see. I seem to be bound by what I just proposed, however. I can understand your amusement."

Bertran shook his head, as another knock came at the door. "Not so. I will be pleased to have you with me." He grinned. "And diverted as well, I rather suspect. I'll pay you what I was paying Blaise before he changed his status with us. We can discuss this further at our leisure—indeed, we will have to. For now, I'll greatly value discretion from all of you." He turned to the door and opened it himself.

Serlo was there, standing a little behind an extremely tall, dark-bearded man with a lean, fighter's build. The man was indeed masked and hooded, clad in unrevealing black for the night ride. On the threshold he carefully took in the four of them, smiled thinly and removed his mask, revealing thick eyebrows and deep-set grey eyes.

"You have unexpected companions, de Talair," he said in accented Arbonnais. "In fact, if we count myself you seem to have assembled a room full of your enemies." Notwithstanding this remark, he stepped across the threshold with easy confidence. Bertran closed the door behind him.

"My cousin Valery," said the duke quietly. "One friend at least. It appears you know both Blaise de Garsenc and Rudel Correze. And I am certain they both know you."

Of course they did. If Rudel's appearance had been a shock to Blaise, this man's arrival was something stupefying. He had last seen those heavy-browed, calculating grey eyes almost two years ago on a frozen battlefield in the north. A wan sun had been setting, dead men piled in the crimson snow and three generations of war lying like a curse behind the savagely contested battle being waged.

Blaise bowed with briefest formality, masking his thoughts. Rudel and Valery bowed. And then Duke Bertran, turning back from making the introductions, did the same. One bowed to the monarchs of this world. "The younger Garsenc has prowess I have learned to fear," said King Daufridi of Valensa, glancing at Blaise. "As for the Correze scion, I would rather have thought his prowess was cause for your own fears, or were last summer's tales idle?"

"They were not, your highness," Bertran said, straightening. "But it seems, happily for my fragile peace of mind, that Rudel Correze now regrets accepting a contract to end the life of a man so inoffensive as myself and has joined my corans by way of redress. Is this not so?"

"It is," said Rudel. "I have seen the folly of my summer's ways, your highness. En Bertran has been good enough to allow me to display the truth of that in his employ." His tone was neutral and composed, but Blaise knew that Rudel, too, would be struggling to absorb the shock of this encounter. It occurred to him, unexpectedly, to wonder if the countess of Arbonne knew anything about this meeting.

"I begin to fear," said King Daufridi of Valensa, "that your celebrated charms, de Talair, will prove too much for me as well. I shall have to firm my resolution by remembering your own, ah… inoffensive words about me, from last spring." He crossed the room in three long strides, his boots resonating on the floorboards, and picked up Bertran's lute from the table. Striking three chords quite competently, he turned back to the four of them and chanted:

And what king lost to honour like craven Daufridi

Would retreat from that ice-field not to return?

Where went the manhood of Gorhaut and Valensa

When war was abandoned and pale peace brought

By weak kings and sons long lost to their lineage?

Bertran, at the side table pouring wine, paused in his movements, the decanter in one hand, a bemused expression on his face as he listened. Daufridi finished, struck a last chord and gently laid down the lute.

"Craven Daufridi," he repeated musingly. "I must admit, I was intrigued by what you thought you could achieve by inviting me here. I hadn't even planned on coming south to the fair this year. I'm getting too old for tournaments."

Bertran lifted a glass and walked over with it to the king. "I am pleased that I intrigued you sufficiently to have you join us. At the very least," he murmured, "I have now learned that your highness performs my music with skill. I have also been reminded that in my pursuit of balanced and well-shaped songs I ought to pay greater attention to possibilities the future might hold."

Daufridi, with a chuckle, took the glass and sank down into a deep chair. He stretched out his long legs towards the fire and motioned graciously for the rest of them to sit. They did. The king looked at Bertran, irony manifest in his clever, bearded features. He was of an age with the duke, Blaise knew, but looked older. He too was scarred—the red weal of a sword wound ran down the left side of his throat to disappear beneath his clothing. Blaise happened to know how far that sword stroke ran. He had seen the blow. It had ended a battle, though the man who dealt it had died in the doing by Iersen Bridge.

"You will now proceed to tell me," said Daufridi of Valensa, holding his wine up to admire its ruby colour in the firelight, "that your lines about my shameful cowardice were simply inserted for poetic symmetry. That your real targets were King Ademar of Gorhaut and this man's father—" he gestured with the glass towards Blaise " — and any insult to me was deeply regrettable and most unfortunate and you sincerely apologize for it. Galbert de Garsenc, incidentally, invited me to contribute to last summer's assassination fee. I thought it greatly excessive and declined. Just so you know." He drank from his glass. "The wine," he pronounced, "is excellent."

"Thank you. And so, I must say, is your reasoning and anticipation, your highness. You have completely preempted my own first words." Bertran's expression and tone were grave.

Daufridi remained amused. "I am disappointed now. Will political expediency cause a poet to so renounce his own creation?"

Blaise had heard tales about this king, about the keen-edged, fierce intelligence, a hitherto absent quality among the ale-sodden, brawling kings of watery Valensa. The very terms of the Treaty of Iersen Bridge, if nothing else, would speak to Daufridi's competence. Money given, if a great deal of it, in exchange for land sought and not won in fifty years of war. It didn't take a brilliant mind to judge who had gained the better of that treaty—if one left out what Gorhaut could now do with peace assured on its northern borders. Blaise wondered, for the first time, if those Portezzan negotiators Valensa had employed had really shaped the exchanges of letters and emissaries leading up to the treaty, or had merely acted as trained mouthpieces for the will of this shrewd, hard king.

He had wanted so much to kill this man two years ago.

He remembered hammering his way in grief-stricken rage towards Daufridi in the agonizing moments after his own King Duergar had toppled like a great tree from his saddle with that arrow in his eye, his death cry towering like a raven of the god in the frigid northern air. Blaise could hear it now, if he but closed his eyes. It had been Cadar de Savaric, Rosala's father, who had battled through to Daufridi first and inflicted that savage red wound, before dying under the maces and axes of the king's guard. Two giants of Gorhaut slain within moments of each other.

Two men who would have disembowelled themselves, Blaise thought bitterly, before signing the treaty of Iersen Bridge. The treaty his own father had so slyly devised, surrendering the ancient northlands of Gorhaut for Valensan gold, with his own designs dark-hidden in the shadows.

"I had always thought," Daufridi was saying, smiling that thin, cool smile of his beneath the full, greying beard, "that the troubadours valued nothing in this transitory world of ours so much as the sanctity of their art. Will you tell me now I was wrong all this time?"

Bertran, in the chair opposite the king, refused to be baited. Blaise sensed that the duke had prepared himself beforehand for something of this sort.

"All other things being equal," Bertran said quietly, "we value our work so highly because it might be the only thing we leave behind us for later generations, the only thing that will preserve our name after we die. One poet I know has gone so far as to say that everything men do today, everything that happens, whether of glory or beauty or pain, is merely to provide the matter of songs for those who come after us. Our lives are lived to become their music."

Daufridi steepled his long fingers before his face. "And you, de Talair? Do you believe this to be true?"

Slowly Bertran shook his head. "It is too rare a thought for me, too pure. I am, somewhat to my own surprise, more caught in the toils of this world than that. I would not have thought it once. I lived when I was younger in an almost open courtship of death. You may, perhaps, remember a little of that time. I am older now. I did not expect to live this long, to be honest." He smiled briefly. "Rudel Correze is far from the first to seek to aid me in my passage to Rian. But I find myself still among the living, and I have discovered that I value this world for itself, not merely as matter for someone's song. I love it for its heady wines and its battles, for the beauty of its women and their generosity and pride, for the companionship of brave men and clever ones, the promise of spring in the depths of winter and the even surer promise that Rian and Corannos are waiting for us, whatever we may do. And I find now, your highness, long past the fires of my heart's youth and yours, that there is one thing I love more even more than the music that remains my release from pain."

"Love, de Talair? This is a word I did not expect to hear from you. I was told you foreswore it more than twenty years ago. The whole world was speaking of that. This much I am certain I remember. My information, so far distant in our cold north, seems to have been wrong in yet another matter. What is the one thing, then, my lord duke? What is it you still love?"

"Arbonne," said Bertran de Talair. And with that, Blaise finally began to understand why they were here. He looked from Bertran, slight, controlled, but coiled, as always, like a Gotzland crossbow, to the tall, hard figure of the king of Valensa, and he wondered, wrestling with difficult emotions of his own.

He didn't have long to wait. Daufridi of Valensa was not a sentimental man; Blaise could have told Bertran as much. Unlacing his fingers, the king of Valensa reached for his glass and took another sip of wine before saying, prosaically, "We all love our countries, I daresay. It is not a novel emotion, de Talair."

"I did not mean to suggest it was," Bertran said quietly.

"I will confess to a similar passion for Valensa, and I doubt I would be wrong in attributing the same feeling for Gorhaut to young Garsenc here—whatever he might feel about certain… political decisions that have recently been implemented." He smiled thinly at Blaise, the same cool look as before, and turned to Rudel. "As for the Portezzans, they don't really have a country, do they? I imagine they offer the same love to their cities, or perhaps their families. Would that be fair, Correze?" He was being deliberately dry, almost pedantic, Blaise realized, smoothly resisting the emotional pull of Bertran's words.

"It would, your highness," Rudel said. He coughed. "I do hope my dear father becomes mindful again of that last."

The king showed a flash of teeth. "Ah. He is unhappy with you? You spent some of the money before you had to return it, didn't you? What a shame. But I'm certain your father will forgive you in time." He turned back to Bertran, who had remained motionless through all of this, waiting. The two men exchanged a long glance. Blaise had an eerie sense that he and Rudel, and Valery over by the fire, had been forgotten. It was as if they were not there.

Daufridi said, very softly, "It is unwise to love anyone or anything too greatly, de Talair. People die, things are taken from us. It is the way of our lives in this world."

"I have reason to know this. I have lived twenty-three years with that truth."

"And have therefore moderated your passions?"

"And am therefore resolved that I will not live through the death of my country as I endured the death of the woman I loved."

There was a silence then. Not daring to move, Blaise looked out of the corner of his eye at Rudel, and saw the rigid, focused expression on his friend's face.

"And so you asked me here," Daufridi of Valensa said at length, "to seek what aid I could give."

"I did. Is this a surprise?"

"Hardly. Will it be a surprise in turn if I say I can give you nothing?"

"I should be grateful to know why." Bertran was pale but quite composed.

Daufridi shrugged. "I have a treaty signed, and I need five years, at least, to consolidate my hold on the lands they have ceded us. We need our own farmers there, we need to fill the villages with Valensans and give my own barons time to put down their roots in the castles that now are ours. Those men of Gorhaut who elect to stay—and some of them will—must be given time to feel that there are worse things than being subjects of the king of Valensa. In time, the treaty will offer us all the riches of that farmland north of the Iersen and more than recoup the money we have already paid and will pay out over the next three years. But I need peace to make all that happen." He sipped from his wine again. "It isn't very complex, de Talair. I would have expected you to know all this."

"So you are happy Gorhaut is looking now to the south."

Carefully Daufridi said, "I am not entirely unhappy."

Silence again. But into it there came now a light, cool voice.

"Forgive me," said Rudel Correze, "forgive my presumption, but I do have a question." Daufridi and Bertran both turned to him. "What do you imagine will happen to Valensa, your highness, if Gorhaut indeed comes south with fire and sword and conquers here?"

Blaise's own thought, his own question. Rudel had always been quicker to speak his mind. Portezzans tended to be. For the first time, he saw Daufridi shift in his seat a little uncomfortably.

"I have thought on that question," he admitted.

"And what have you concluded after such thinking?" It was Valery this time, from by the fire, his broad arms folded across his chest.

Bertran leaned forward a little in his chair and echoed his cousin softly. "What can you possibly have concluded, your highness, should Gorhaut destroy Arbonne and have all the wealth of this land and its ports on the sea to draw upon? If there are five countries, not six, a year from now? Do you really think you would have your five years of peace then, to… as you say, solidify your hold on that farmland north of Iersen? How long do you think it would be before Ademar turned north again?"

Something curious began to happen to Blaise just about then. It seemed to him as though the words each man was speaking had become like preordained speeches in some temple ritual of the god, or the well-known opening moves of a tavern game, each following the other, each compelling the move that followed.

Daufridi said, a slight edge to his voice, "As I say, I have considered this. I do not have any immediate conclusions."

And so Blaise, seeing the next moves now as clearly as if they had already happened, said, "Of course you do not. That is why you are here, isn't it, your highness? To see if the duke of Talair has a conclusion for you. And you find, to your disappointment, that what he wants is your help, which frightens you. You know—you know it is not in the interests of Valensa for Gorhaut to rule in Arbonne. Why will you then deny that aid, when asked for it?"

Daufridi of Valensa turned in his seat to look appraisingly at Blaise, his hard grey eyes almost lost beneath the heavy, drawn-together brows. "I have a question of my own, first," he said coolly. "One I should have asked at the outset perhaps, before being as frank as I have been. Why are you here, Garsenc? Why are you not at Ademar's court in Cortil anticipating the glory of this conquest your father and king have set in motion? There might even be land for you. Younger sons always want land, don't they? We have spoken of love of country—where then is yours, de Garsenc?"

Blaise had been waiting for that: it was the next foreknown speech, the next move in the game being played. He wondered if Bertran had prepared this, if he had seen it coming or even steered them towards this moment. It didn't really matter. The moment was upon them. He said, "Because I have set myself squarely against Ademar of Gorhaut. Because I think he is weak and unworthy of allegiance. Because it is my belief that he dispossessed and betrayed the people of my country with the Treaty of Iersen Bridge. Because the Gorhaut I love is the holy land where Corannos the god of the Ancients first came among the six countries we know, and the earliest corans swore their oaths to serve the god and their fellow men and walk a path of righteousness. Because the invasion of Arbonne would be a final straying from that path in pursuit of a dominion that could never, in the end, be preserved. Because my father knows that. He does not want to rule in Arbonne, he wants to put it to the fire. Because he has long ago lost whatever true communion with the god he ever had."

He drew a needful breath to check this rush of words spilling out of him like a river in flood over a dam that has been breached. And he said the last thing then, made the next move in the game, chose:

"And because before the Lussan Fair is ended I will have named myself claimant to the crown of Gorhaut, to see if there are men of honour in my country—and elsewhere—who will rally to my name and this cause."

He heard Rudel suck in his breath sharply. At least he'd surprised his friend, Blaise thought. If he did nothing else at all, he seemed to have succeeded in astonishing the unflappable scion of the House of Correze.

And the king of Valensa, too, he now saw. Daufridi's hands went to the arms of his chair and gripped there. He pushed for a moment, as if to lever himself to his feet, but then, with a visible effort, remained where he was.

It was silent in the room then. The only sound was the crackle of the fire and the strained breathing of four men. From outside, where the corans of the king were being entertained by Bertran's men, they heard a sudden loud burst of laughter.

"Ah, well," said Daufridi of Valensa at length, very softly. "Ah, well now. It seems we do have some things to talk about after all."

Blaise felt light-headed, almost numb. He reached for his wine and drank. The motion itself seemed odd, unnaturally slow. He felt as if the owl should be in the room with them, Beatritz de Barbentain's white owl, settling on his shoulder again to mark him as a fool, or whatever else he was.

CHAPTER 12

"I hope you realize I do not want her back," Ranald de Garsenc says, glaring at the man on the far side of the room. He has expected this encounter, and has prepared himself, as much as he ever can be prepared for dealing with his father. The news of Rosala's flight to Arbonne, brought by two stammering, exhausted corans, was a shock but not, Ranald has come to realize during the course of the day, as much of one as might perhaps have been expected.

When he had learned—during this morning's earlier, furious discussion—about Galbert's visit to Garsenc and his claiming of the child, Ranald had laughed bitterly in his father's face.

"You did this, then," he'd said. "Not I, not anyone else. Your own folly, father. She angered you, didn't she? You had to say something, to put her in her place." Galbert had scowled furiously, clenching and unclenching his big hands.

"That is exactly what happened, isn't it?" Ranald had gone on. "You are the fool and the weakling, father. You lashed out in the heat of the moment. You had to tell her, didn't you, to see if you could get a reaction. You should have known better than to threaten to take her child."

"Threaten? Her child?" Galbert had made sure the instrument of his deep voice carried all possible nuances of contempt. "Is that how you see it? Not your own child? Not ours? Are you truly so feeble? I am shamed by you in the eyes of the god and all men."

There had been a servant in the room, and almost certainly men listening on the outside of each of the three doors to the chamber where they'd been. King Ademar's palace in Cortil was not the place for private discussions. Flushing, feeling suddenly defensive, Ranald had said, "We will talk later, when you have calmed your choler. It is clear you are in no condition to be spoken with now. I will await you here at midday, father. Until then."

He'd stalked quickly out of the room before Galbert could reply. A coran in the antechamber barely had time to be busy at the window. Ranald had ignored him. In fact he had been guardedly pleased with himself for that exit until, alone in his own rooms in the palace, he'd begun thinking more carefully through the implications of what his wife had done.

He'd sent a servant for ale and sat in a chair by the window looking out over a landscape where the sun was trying to break free of windblown autumn clouds. The king was hunting that morning. Someone had probably ridden out already to tell him the news; at Ademar's court ambitious men fell over each other to be the first to bring him tidings, particularly tidings damaging to the de Garsenc family. Galbert was seen as too powerful, Ranald knew. He probably was too powerful. Their family had blood as royal as Ademar's if one went back only two generations, and the High Elder was now first of all the king's advisers. Not much need to wonder why they were feared. There were those at court—and not a few of them—who would exult in Rosala's flight and their own discomfiture.

The servant had come back with a pitcher of beer and Ranald had gratefully drained his first flagon of the day. He'd stretched out his legs and closed his eyes. There was no comfort waiting for him though. His wife had lied to him in her last letter, had fled, carrying her child. His child. Had already given birth, it now appeared, in Arbonne. The corans who'd brought the tidings, riding north through the pass at horse-killing speed for two nights and a day, hadn't known if it was a boy or a girl. That mattered, of course, quite a lot. Ranald had found it hard to weigh political implications that morning though. He wasn't very good at it, for one thing. He would have preferred to be hunting with the king just then. In fact, what he really would have preferred was to be back at Garsenc, riding with his own men in his own forest. Slumped back, eyes closed, in that chair, he'd tried to picture Rosala with a babe. He had even tried, briefly, to imagine himself with one. He'd opened his eyes and filled his flagon from the pitcher on the table by his elbow.

He'd allowed himself no more. He would be meeting his father again at midday. It was necessary to be sober for such meetings, as he had learned, at a cost, over the years.

"I do not want her back," he repeats. It is noon; the clouds are gone and the sun is high in a pale sky, shining through the western windows. Ranald tries to keep his voice calm. He even moves nearer to his father so they can speak more softly. The servants have been dismissed this time. Ranald doesn't want this discussion to be common knowledge through the palace—or all of Gorhaut, for that matter.

Galbert is quieter as well now, Ranald sees. In fact the High Elder appears to be dangerously composed. Before answering, he deliberately selects a chair and settles his bulk in it. He has changed his clothing: he is in the blue robes of Corannos now. Blaise, before he left, used to refuse to talk to their father when he wore the robes of the god. He'd called them a desecration once. That had been the last time they'd seen Blaise, actually, at the peak of yet another raging argument about the Treaty of Iersen Bridge. That one had ended with Ranald's younger brother storming out of the room and the castle swearing never to return to Gorhaut while that treaty stood. Thinking back to that night, Ranald suddenly had an image of his wife crying silently in her seat by the fire while the three of them screamed at each other.

"You are rejecting her. A most natural reaction," his father says now, hands comfortably across his ample belly. He has gained weight, Ranald decides sourly. It goes with the increased power. "Indeed, a better man would already have made arrangements to have her killed. Shall I do that for you?"

"The way you arranged for the duke of Talair? Thank you, but no. You aren't very efficient, father." He can still trade barbs, to a point, but this subject makes Ranald uneasy. Truth is, he doesn't like the idea of Rosala dead. He doesn't want her back—that much is clear in his own mind—but that doesn't mean she has to be executed for reacting urgently to some threat by his father. He adds, "We trivialize ourselves if we pursue her in that way."

Galbert blinks, as if surprised. He probably is, his older son thinks. It isn't often that Ranald shows up for encounters in a state of such lucidity. He feels a tired self-contempt rising again. His father says, "You would let her go, then? And have the world laugh at you." Galbert uses the dismissive, flicking gesture Ranald has always hated. "Well, so much is your own affair. I cannot play the man for you forever. You will concede," he continues, in a tone of exaggerated civility, "that there is an issue regarding the child?"

There is, of course. Though, in fact, Ranald has come to realize during the course of the morning that he is ambivalent about that, too. He is, he has long ago decided, an ambivalent man. Life was so much simpler in the days when, as King Duergar's appointed champion, all he had to do was unhorse and defeat whomever they sent against him. He'd been good at that ten years ago; he'd been extremely good. He is less good at thinking through something like this. But if Rosala cares so much that she would risk death and accept exile to keep a child from Galbert's hands, well, Ranald, to be absolutely truthful, can understand such a feeling. The problem is, he can't give way to it. He is the duke of Garsenc, first among the nobility of Gorhaut; his father, who ought to have become duke himself when Ereibert his brother died childless, is High Elder of Corannos instead, with even more power accruing from that. Rosala's child—Ranald's child—is a pawn in an enormous game of power.

"If it is a boy," Ranald says quietly, "we take him back. I will offer her her life and her freedom to go where she will, but she gives back the babe—if it is a boy. If it is a girl child I truly do not care. Let them go. The king will free me to remarry. As soon as tomorrow, if I ask him. I'll beget other children. If only to make you happy, father." He smiles bitterly again. "Will you want all of them for your designs, or just a few?"

Galbert ignores that. "You say we should take a boy child back. Why should you imagine that Rosala would consent to such a thing, if that is why she fled in the first instance?" His voice, too, is low. He won't want this conversation bruited about either.

Ranald shrugs. "She too can have other children. For a life of freedom from us she might be willing to do this."

"And if not?" his father pursues, dangerously calm. "If she is not willing?"

Belatedly Ranald sees where this is going. It is going where almost everything Galbert de Garsenc has touched of late seems to go. He rises from his chair, suddenly agitated.

"Did you do this deliberately?" he snaps. "Did you goad her into flight purposely? To create this situation?"

Galbert smiles complacently, his eyes crinkling, almost disappearing into the folds of his skin. "What do you think? Of course I did," he murmurs.

"You are lying, aren't you." Ranald feels his hands forming into fists at his sides—his father's own gestures; he has tried and failed to break himself of it. "The truth is she goaded you and you spat out something you didn't mean to say."

His father shakes his head slowly back and forth, his jowls waggling with the motion. "Don't be completely the fool, Ranald. Why do you think I went to see her at Garsenc in the first place? Why would I want a baby? What would I do with an infant? You seem sober this morning. Seize the opportunity: think. It will be in your own interests, incidentally—whatever you might privately imagine—to confirm my version of the story. I cannot conceive of events falling out better for our purposes."

"Our purposes? Your own, you mean. You will now make war on Arbonne to bring back the child." It is just barely possible that his father is telling the truth; that this entire escapade of Rosala's flight was cunningly engineered. It is the way he deals with people, the way he has proceeded all his life.

With a crash that shatters the stillness the largest door to the room bangs open and thuds against the stone wall. Father and son wheel swiftly. Massive in the doorway, beard and hair dripping with perspiration, blood and grass stains on his broad shoulders and chest, mud spattering breeches and boots, King Ademar of Gorhaut throws his riding whip down on the stone floor and snarls, "I want her back! You hear me, Galbert? I want her back here immediately!" His face is a vivid red, his pale eyes are glassy with rage.

"Of course, my liege," says the High Elder soothingly, recovering his poise with speed. "Of course you do. You are conscious of the insult to our family and seek to help us respond. We are profoundly grateful. Indeed, my son and I were just discussing how next to proceed."

"Proceed however you must! I want her back!" Ademar says again, running a gloved hand through his hair.

"And the child, too, of course." Galbert murmurs. "The child is so very important."

His deep, calming tones seem finally to take effect. The king of Gorhaut takes a breath and shakes his head as if to clear it. He says, a little more lucidly, "Of course. The child too. Very important. Heir to Garsenc, if it's a boy. Of course." He looks at Ranald for the first time and his eyes flick away.

"If they keep a boy child from us," Galbert de Garsenc says then, still in the quiet, assuaging voice, "the world can scarcely dispute our right to go after him."

Ademar bends suddenly and picks up his whip. He strikes it sharply against his own leg. "Right. You do it. Gotzland, Arimonda, the Portezzans… explain it, make it all sound right, whatever you need to do. But I want her back."

He spins on his heel, not even looking at Ranald a second time, and strides heavily from the room. Behind him, expressionlessly, a servant reaches in and swings the heavy door closed, leaving the two Garsenc men alone again.

Registering his elder son's expression, Galbert begins, quietly, to laugh. "Ah, well," he says, not bothering to hide his amusement, his jowls shaking, "you have just made a discovery. It seems that someone here at least desires the return of your lady wife. I do wonder why."

Ranald turns away. He feels sick to his stomach and he needs a drink. The memory of the king, huge and wrathful in the doorway, seems imprinted on his brain. He can't shake free of the image. He wonders where his own rage is, where his capacity for such feelings seems to have gone over the years.

"It all works out so neatly for you, doesn't it?" he says quietly, looking out the window now on the inner courtyard of the palace. Ademar's corans are dismounting there in the bright sunlight, displaying the bloody trophies of their hunt.

"If they shelter the wife and heir of Garsenc," his father says peacefully, in the deep, sonorous voice, "they must not imagine they can do so with impunity. In the eyes of the world we will have the cause we need."

"And if they do surrender them?" Ranald turns back from the window. He is wondering how long King Ademar has been coveting his wife. He wonders how he has never noticed it before. He wonders, finally, if his father has been quietly guiding that desire. Another tool, another instrument of policy. He ought to be challenging the king, he thinks. He almost has to. He knows he will do no such thing. Loathing himself, Ranald realizes that he is not going be able to continue this much longer without a drink.

His father is shaking his head. He asked Galbert a question, Ranald remembers. It has become difficult to concentrate. "Surrender them? Arbonne? Woman-ruled Arbonne?" The High Elder is laughing. "It will not happen. They will destroy themselves before they yield a woman and a newborn babe to us."

Ranald feels a taste, as of bile, in his mouth. "Or you will do the destroying for them."

"I will indeed do so," says Galbert de Garsenc, the glorious voice swelling now for the first time. "In the name of Corannos and for his eternal glory I will indeed destroy that place of festering, blood-smeared, womanish corruption. It is the quest of my days, the reason for all I do."

"And you are so close now, aren't you?" Ranald says, his own voice harsh. He is going to have to leave very soon, he knows. He is afraid he is about to be ill. He cannot get that image of the king out of his mind. "Everything has come together for you. Duergar's death, the treaty, Rosala's flight now, Ademar in the palm of your hand." He says that last too loudly, but he doesn't care any more. "All you need now, to deal with the other countries, to make it all acceptable to them, is for the child to have been a boy."

"You are correct," his father agrees, smiling benignly. "You astonish me, my son. I have prayed upon my knees to the god. I can only hope Corannos has heard my words and found me worthy to be answered, that I may strike soon with fire and sword in his most holy name. All I need, truly, as you say, is for the child to be a boy."

Rosala came back down the corridor from the room where her son lay sleeping. The wet-nurse they had found was with him, and the younger of the two priestesses who had been present at Cadar's birth was staying in Barbentain Castle for this first week. They were careful in Arbonne with babies, she was discovering, or, at least, careful with the babies of nobility. Some things were constant wherever in the world one went. Rosala doubted the same attention had been paid to the child of the wet-nurse in its village. She knew it had died; she didn't want to know how, or why. Children died in so many ways. The usual advice was not to grow too attached to them in the first year, lest the heart break if they were taken away. Rosala remembered hearing that years ago, and thinking it made sense; she didn't think that any more.

She had no idea how women held back from loving the small, desperately needy infants in their arms. She was grateful beyond words for the care they were offering Cadar. Crossing the mountains south in that jostling wagon she seemed to have passed from an endless nightmare to a sheltering haven.

An illusory thought, she knew. She was too versed in the ways of the world to imagine that she would simply be allowed to live here peacefully with her child and the old countess receiving troubadours and their joglars, listening to music and riding in the fields beside the river as the seasons followed each other and Cadar grew into a child and then a man. They had been known to kill women in Gorhaut for merely speaking impertinently to their husbands in a public place. What would they do to a woman who fled with a child? And not just any woman, or any child. The heir to the dukes of Garsenc was sleeping in the room she had just left, and Cadar was perilously near in succession to the throne itself while Ademar remained unwed. Third or fourth in line, actually, by one path of reckoning, depending on whether one counted the disinherited Blaise or not.

It didn't much matter. They would be coming for Cadar, and probably for her. It would begin with the formalities of statecraft, the richly clothed emissaries with their learned speeches and their gifts to the countess and the mellifluously written letters they would carry. The gifts would be elaborate; that was the way of things. The speeches would be eloquent and courteous. The demands in the letters would be unveiled and coldly precise, and backed by ultimatums that left nothing to the imagination.

Rosala wondered whether she should take ship for the east to release Arbonne from the burden of her presence. If somewhere in one of the fabled courts of magic in those far lands she might find a home for herself and Cadar. Another illusion, that. She knew the tales of what happened to fair-skinned women in the courts and bazaars of those lands of spice and silk. She knew what happened to their male children.

She could hear music, a murmur of voices and laughter spiralling up the stairwell from the great hall below. She couldn't remember the last time she'd heard laughter that didn't carry an edge of malice. They had told her that the music tonight, by a young man from Orreze, would be of a very high order. She knew she would be welcome if she went downstairs. She still felt tired, though, and extremely tender, not ready for the demands of public spaces. Privacy was a rare thing in her world, something to be valued as much as any other gift they had offered her here in Barbentain.

She sat down carefully in a recessed window seat to listen. The stone bench was cushioned, for which she was grateful. She reached over and unlatched the window. It was of stained glass, etched wonderfully with the image of a green island in the sea. The breeze came in, and through the window she could see the unfiltered light of the blue moon. They called it Riannon here for the goddess, not Escoran for the god. Because of that difference, she reflected, Arbonne was to be destroyed.

After a moment she rejected the thought: too simple an argument and conclusion. Nothing was that simple in the world.

She could hear the river running below in the darkness, making a soft, continuous murmur beneath the singing of the joglar. It was cool tonight on the isle of Barbentain; Rosala wrapped the woolen robe they had given her more closely about herself. The fresh air revived her, though, and brought back with its clarity the reassuring awareness that she had, by coming here, done all she could do for Cadar. The next moves, in the larger game, were not hers to make. The scale of her own life had suddenly become much smaller, focused on a heartbeat. She felt an urge—and almost laughed at herself—to go back up the corridor to look in upon his sleep again. It was strange how swiftly, how completely, love could re-enter one's world.

The last person she had loved was her father, and he had died by Iersen Bridge almost two years ago. Her mother had gone before him, in the last plague year. Her brother Fulk elicited no real intensities of emotion, nor did she in him, Rosala knew. He would not lead the pursuit to bring her back, but neither would he speak up to stay it. He was a good steward of Savaric, though, and she respected him for that. The Savaric lands were terribly exposed now, wide open to raids from Valensa across the newly drawn border of the Iersen River. If the treaty ever ceased to hold they would be vulnerable to even more than that.

It wouldn't hold, Fulk had told her last year during one of the rare times when they were both at Cortil. Truces like this one never did, but lands lost for long enough were likely to be lost forever. He had said it quietly, for her ears alone. Not for cautious Fulk de Savaric the openly critical talk of a powerful lord, with a new king on the throne. Their father would have been loud in his denunciations, Rosala knew, whatever the consequences.

As Blaise de Garsenc had been before he left, both the first time and then again a year later, after his abortive return home.

Thoughts of Blaise were difficult. He was here in Lussan she now knew, with the duke of Talair. It would be easy to see him, to send a message as clear or cryptic as she wanted it to be. She wondered if he'd yet learned she was in the castle. The priestesses had told her the whole fair was gossiping about the high-born lady from Gorhaut who'd been brought to the temple so near to giving birth. Othon, she had thought ruefully: he would have been constitutionally incapable of not telling the tale, nor had she really any right to have expected him to withhold it.

Blaise had never been the sort to listen to gossip, though, and En Bertran de Talair had sworn an oath not to tell him until she was ready. It was even probable—a sharp, new thought—that Blaise hadn't even known she was with child. There had been no communication at all since the night he'd gone away for the second time.

Rosala remembered that night. Sitting beside an open window in Arbonne with the murmuring river below and music wafting up the stairwell, she went back in her mind's eye to that wintry darkness, the stars lost and a storm wind howling, lashing snow and ice in rattling sheets against the windows of Garsenc Castle. She had listened to the father and the sons curse each other, heard the unforgivable names spoken, the vile things said, savagely wounding, more bitter than the night. She had wept silently, utterly ignored in her seat by the fire, ashamed of her own weakness, wanting so much to be gone from the room, from the tangled, savaged hatreds of the Garsenc men, but unable to leave without Ranald's permission and unwilling to draw attention to herself by speaking. The father would turn on her she knew, viciously, the moment he remembered she was there.

Numb with cold beside the guttering fire none of them had bothered to tend, the servants having prudently absented themselves, Rosala had felt the cold tears on her cheeks and heard her brother-in-law, reaching some final apex of his fury, denounce his father and brother in a voice raw with anguish before he stormed from the room and the castle into the wild night: naming the one man as a traitor to Gorhaut, obscenely unworthy of the god, and the other as a drunkard and a coward. She had agreed with both assessments, even as she wept. He was a cold, hard, bitter man, Blaise de Garsenc, with no grace or kindness ever shown to her at all, but he was right, he was so right about the other two.

She remembered lying awake in her bed that night when they finally retired. Ranald in the connecting room had dropped into a snoring slumber she could hear through the closed door. He spoke to himself in the night sometimes, crying out in grief like a child in the darkness of his dreams. In the first months of their marriage she had tried to comfort him at such times; she didn't do that any more. Chilled and afraid, listening to the mad keening of the wind, she had waited, listening for the sound of Blaise coming back for his gear before leaving. When he did, when she heard his booted tread in the hallway, she had risen from her bed and gone to his room, her own feet bare on the bitter stones.

He had been packing a saddle-bag by candlelight when she walked in. She did not knock on the door. There was snow on his clothing, ice clumped in the tawny hair and beard. She had been clad in nothing but her sleeping-gown, her fair hair let down about her shoulders for the night. He would never have seen her hair down before. They had looked at each other for a frozen moment, silent within the midnight silence of the castle, then Rosala had said, softly, not to be heard at all outside this room, outside the small space of this single candle's glow, "Will you not love me once? Only once before you go?"

And Blaise had crossed the room and lifted her in his arms and laid her down upon his bed, with her bright yellow hair spread out upon his pillow and her gown slipping with a rustle of sound above her waist as she raised her hips to let him move it so, and he had blown out the one candle and removed his wet clothing and taken her in darkness before he left his home again; taken her in silence, in rage and bitterness, and in the endless bone-deep anguish she knew he lived with because of his own lack of power. There had been no love that she could name in the room with the two of them, none at all.

And it had not mattered.

She had known what would be the things that might bring him to touch her that night, what would drive him, and she had not cared. Whatever it takes, she had thought in her own cold bed, summoning courage to her as from a far-off place while she waited for him to return. Whatever would bring him to take her for at least the one time.

And in his room later, in that darkness, with the unholy wind raging beyond the walls, the same thought again: she would accept and welcome—her hands grappling him hard to her, feeling him beginning to thrust with urgency, hearing the quickening pace of his breathing—whatever might bring him to give her the child Ranald could not.

He spoke her name once, after. She would remember that.

She did remember it, sitting in the window seat in Barbentain. Curiously, it had come to matter. Not so much for herself—she was not a woman who nurtured such illusions—but for Cadar. Rational or not, it somehow seemed important to her now that at her child's conception that one spoken link between the two of them had been made manifest. It was an irony of sorts that it was the man who had done so; her own single-minded need had precluded such a reaching out. She wondered what the priestesses of the goddess would say about that, what their teaching would be. What happened, in their doctrine, when Corannos and Rian came together in love—if they did? She knew almost nothing about the rituals of worship here in Arbonne, only the twisted versions of them uttered with loathing in Gorhaut by the brethren of the god. She wondered if she would be here long enough to learn the truth.

There were footsteps in the corridor behind her. The wet-nurse, she thought, quickly concerned. She was about to lean out from the window seat but the steps halted just before where she sat, and Rosala heard a woman's voice she did not know, and then a man's. She remained motionless in the shadows of the alcove and realized, after a moment, that the voices were speaking of murder.

"It is to be done neatly and in silence," the woman said nervously in accented Arbonnais. "She told me to say as much."

"I tend not to make a great deal of noise with a blade," the man answered, amused. His voice was deep and assured.

"You do not understand. This must not be traced to her. The body will have to be disposed of, and no one the wiser. She said it would be best if he didn't even see you, lest he cry out."

"Ah. She will be keeping him occupied? Oblivious to all else in the world? Does this sort of thing excite her? Will I have other duties, after?"

"You need not be vulgar," the woman said primly.

The man laughed softly. "Fear not. I will only follow your mistress's lead. If she wants to taste blood she will have to ask. He must see me, though, or there is no point in this. He must know who is killing him."

"He might call for help. We cannot allow—"

"He will not. This is not a man inclined to call for help. And there will not be very much time, I promise you. Come, which door? There is a ghost to be assuaged, and I have tarried."

They went by her then, shadows behind them and then before as they passed under the wall torch in the empty corridor. Rosala shrank back against the window. The joglar in the great hall below was singing of endless love and unrequited desire. Neither the man nor the woman turned as they went by. She knew neither of them. At a doorway a little distance down their footsteps stopped. Holding her breath, Rosala leaned out slightly. She saw the man smile then and draw a knife from his belt. He opened the door and slipped inside, moving with silent, feline grace. The door closed behind him. There came no sound at all from within the room. The woman hesitated for a moment and Rosala saw her make a quick, warding sign before hurrying along the corridor and down another flight of stairs at the far end.

It was silent in the hallway, save for the distant voice of the singer drifting up from below, mournful and melodious. Rosala brought her hands up to her face. There was a horror about to happen. She could scream, she knew, to summon aid, and perhaps it would be in time, more likely not. She was not a woman inclined to scream. She took a steadying breath, struggling to decide what to do. Her first, her only duty, was to Cadar, to guard her own safety as his sole shelter in the world. There was no disputing that, or what choice it compelled.

Rosala de Savaric stood up, looked back along the corridor to where her new-born son was sleeping and resolutely began walking the other way. She was her father's daughter, and would not sit silent in a window seat or turn her back and let a man be murdered in a castle that had given her haven.

As it happened, she knew whose suite of rooms the man with the blade had just entered. The mingled scents of spices and perfume had been redolent in the corridor since that guest had arrived. The priestesses and the wet-nurse had been talking about her obsessively for two days. Rosala paused outside that doorway only long enough to look back one last time towards Cadar's room, then she squared her shoulders in a gesture that had also been her mother's, and she opened Lucianna Delonghi's door and stepped inside.

Daufridi and his escort left the inn first. Bertran gave them some time and then they rode back to Lussan themselves, passing under the trees and then along the west bank of the river beneath the blue moon. Just inside the gates of the city the duke insisted on parting from the three of them.

He looked at Blaise, hesitated, and then smiled wolfishly in the moonlight. "I neglected to mention it to you—the baron of Castle Baude arrived this morning. I thought I would say hello to Mallin before retiring for the night. Shall I convey your good wishes?"

Even with what he had learned from Ariane de Carenzu last summer, there was still something disconcerting to Blaise about Bertran's indefatigable energy in this regard. With all that had just happened, with grim, huge discussions of his country's fate scarcely behind him, the duke of Talair was of a mind to go wandering in the night.

Blaise shrugged. "Please do," he murmured. "And to Soresina, if you should happen to see her."

Bertran's smile flashed briefly again. "Don't wait up. Sunrise will see me homeward, when the morning breaks." He always said that: the refrain of one of his own songs from years ago. He turned his horse and was gone into the shadows.

"Should he be alone?" Rudel asked. "Under the circumstances?" There was something extraordinary about that, too, Blaise thought: the man raising the question had tried to kill Bertran three months ago.

"He won't be," Valery replied quietly, looking down the lane where his cousin had ridden. "Watch." A moment later they saw three horsemen canter out from the darkness and set off after the duke. In their brief transit through the torchlight by the city walls, one of them waved briefly; Valery lifted a hand in return. Blaise recognized the livery and relaxed a little: the countess of Arbonne was evidently taking pains to guard her wayward duke.

"Do they ride into the bedrooms, too?" he asked.

Valery chuckled and twitched his horse's reins. "In the bedrooms," he said, "we must assume he can take care of himself."

Rudel laughed. "Does he know he's being watched?"

"Probably," said Valery. "I think it amuses him."

"Most things seem to," Rudel assented.

Valery turned in the saddle to look at him. "Most things, but not all. Don't be misled, not if you're joining us. What you heard him say to Daufridi this evening, how he dealt with him, was the real thing. Much of the rest, what he's doing now, is part of a long escape."

There was a short silence. "A successful one?" Rudel Coreze was an extremely clever man. His tone was thoughtful.

Blaise was remembering that stairwell in Castle Baude again, a flask of seguignac passing back and forth. "I don't think so," he said quietly. Thai's why he works so hard. I think," he said to Valery, "that he should have killed Urté de Miraval a long time ago."

Valery's face was hidden in the darkness as they rode under a covered archway spanning the street. "So do I," said Bertran's cousin finally. They came out into blue moonlight again, slanting down past the steep roofs of houses. "But we aren't poets, are we, and there was a child." An old, tired anger was in his voice; embers raked over but not dead.

"This," said Rudel, "is going to have to be explained to me."

"Later," said Blaise. "Too tangled for tonight."

They rode on. Some of the streets by the market were lit, but there were no great crowds. The Lussan Fair, as all the other fairs, was not like a carnival. For one thing, it lasted for a month, and not even Bertran de Talair, Blaise thought, would survive that much revelry. The fairs were for doing business, with some nocturnal activities for spice.

Rudel, perhaps predictably, seemed to be thinking about just that, as they came up to the two lanterns burning outside the honey-coloured walls of the Talair palace and walked their horses to the stables at the back. The ostler came sleepily forward from the shadows and took their mounts. The three of them went back around to the front doors. Under the lanterns again, Rudel had an expression on his face that Blaise knew well.

"There is an amusing tavern I know," he said, "just beyond the Portezzan quarter of the market. Are we really going to put the night to bed, or is there some life left in us? I would enjoy buying a drink for the pretender to the crown of Gorhaut."

Valery looked around quickly, but Rudel's voice had been carefully low and the square before the house was empty. Even so, Blaise felt his pulse jump at the mention of what he'd said tonight. It had certainly had results.

It seems we do have some things to talk about after all, Daufridi of Valensa had said, looking with hard appraisal at Blaise, and then had listened intently, heavy brows drawn together, as Bertran de Talair outlined a number of propositions, some of them startling, one, at least, quite terrifying.

In the street outside the house Valery was shaking his head. "I'm an old man tonight. Too many twists in the road for my poor head. I want a pillow more than I can say. You two go on. Be young a little longer yet."

Blaise was torn, in fact, between equally strong desires: one for the quiet of his room, and another for some adequate external response to the excitement within himself. In the past when Rudel had suggested a night abroad, he had seldom demurred.

In those first months in Gotzland and then Portezza, after he'd left Gorhaut the first time—the thought came suddenly, new-minted, to him—he himself seemed to have been performing his own driven search for an avenue of escape. It seemed, after all, that the winding route through so many taverns and towns, all the tournaments and courts and castles, the night and morning roads, dawn mist above battlefields and a murder in Faenna, had brought him back, on this cool autumn evening in Arbonne, to Gorhaut, to the country that was his home, and to the Treaty of Iersen Bridge, which he had twice sworn—the second time on his mother's blood on a night of storm at Garsenc—that he would never accept.

Oaths by younger sons, even those of the most powerful families, rarely meant a great deal in the world. It seemed, tonight, as if his own vow might just possibly be different. Either that, or the paths of folly were even wider and smoother and more welcoming than they were said to be, and he was squarely set upon one of them now.

He was not going to fall asleep, he realized. Valery, with a crooked smile at the two of them, walked up to the palace door and knocked softly. The viewing grille slid back, and then the door was opened by the coran on watch. "Good night," Bertran's cousin called, over his shoulder. "Try to be quiet when you do come back. I promise you I'll be sleeping."

Blaise watched him go in, then turned to Rudel. By the lamplight he saw his friend's head tilted to one side, eyebrows arched expectantly in that expression he well remembered. Valery had said earlier that the young Bertran had been much like this; it wasn't hard to see the similarity.

"Lead on," he said. "If events continue as they seem to have begun, and you do intend to stay the course with me, this may be the last chance we'll have to enter a tavern as corans for hire and nothing more."

"Stay the course?" Rudel said, his voice swirling upwards as they began to walk. "Do you think you could possibly get rid of me now?" He turned a corner, heading towards the distant glow of lights by the market. It was a lovely night, clear as a shepherd's dream. "All the riches of my father wouldn't make me leave a game as diverting as this one has become."

"Oh good," said Blaise dourly. "I'm pleased to be amusing you again. What happens when I send you to your father to ask for all his riches to support us?"

Rudel Correze laughed. He was still laughing when six men ran out from the alley and blocked their path, before and behind, bows levelled at the two of them.

It was quiet in the dark street then, with the only lights a long way ahead or behind. Blaise, looking at the deadly purposeful shapes in front of them, had a brief image of Bertran somewhere in the city with Soresina de Baude, then another of Valery slowly climbing the winding stairs in the Talair city palace, heading peacefully to his rest.

"I find this," he heard Rudel say, "deeply offensive, I must say. I was greatly looking forward to that drink in The Senhal. You do know," he said, raising his voice for the benefit of the silent men surrounding them, "that I am the son of Vitalle Correze, and you are certainly dead men—dead in a most unpleasant fashion—if you molest us further."

One thing about Rudel, Blaise thought, using the time his friend was buying them to scan the shadowy street and alleys for possibilities of escape—he was never shy about invoking his father's name. Came with a good relationship, perhaps. Blaise would prefer to die before calling upon Galbert de Garsenc's even more prominent name as a means of succor.

A preference that might well be about to find its own grim realization. These weren't outlaws or renegades. With a sinking feeling, Blaise thought he recognized one of the bowmen. They wore no identifiable livery—naturally—but he was almost certain he'd seen the nearest man before: last summer, in Tavernel, standing with En Urté de Miraval in the entrance to The Liensenne on Midsummer Eve.

"I think I know them," he murmured to Rudel. I'm afraid this is bad."

"I didn't think it was particularly good," Rudel replied tartly. "You cut left, I go right?" They had swords, useless against archers. Blaise could think of no better plan. The streets were empty here. They were a long way from the market. They would have to hope uncertain light might make the bowmen miss.

"I'm sorry," he said. "You were better off being angry with me."

"Not really. Bad for the heart and liver, anger. That's what my father's doctor says. Live a placid life, he advises. I think I might try that next."

Poised, preparing to spring as soon as Rudel moved, Blaise briefly wondered why none of the archers had spoken a word or even made a gesture of command.

Then, when four more men strode quickly out from the alley and came up behind them, he understood. Why give commands when all you want to do is freeze your victims long enough for their executioners to slaughter them? He recognized one of these men, too. It was his last clear thought.

"A placid life, that's the thing," he heard Rudel repeat dreamily. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his slender, aristocratic friend crumple to his knees, just before the swinging blow from a wooden staff knocked him senseless too.

When he came to, it was with a headache so brutal the room lurched sickeningly as soon as he opened his eyes. He closed them quickly. What remained, as consciousness lingered tenuously, was an awareness that he was lying on something unexpectedly soft and there was a scent surrounding him. He knew that scent, it had associations for him, a great many. And an instant later, as full awareness returned, Blaise realized where he must be. His eyes snapped open with the shock and he twisted his head around to see. The movement made him immediately nauseated and he gasped with pain.

"I do regret that," a woman's voice said, "but I had to advise them you might not come willingly."

"Why bother?" Blaise gasped. He couldn't see her. She was behind him. It was only when he tried, with another painful effort, to turn his body that he realized that his limbs were bound. He was on her bed, which explained the softness, and his hands and feet were tied to the four bedposts. The never-forgotten scent of her perfume was all around him. "Why didn't you just have me killed in the street?"

"What?" said Lucianna Delonghi, moving at last into his field of vision. "And deprive myself of this pleasure?"

He had not seen her for more than a year. She was clad in silk so diaphanous she might as well have been naked to his sight. The glitter of jewellery was all about her: a diadem in her hair, sapphires at each ear, diamonds and sea pearls around her throat. There were rings on her long fingers, gold and silver or ivory at each wrist and one spectacular, memorable pendant suspended between her breasts, red like the fire crackling on the hearth. She liked jewellery, he remembered, she liked fires in her rooms even when it wasn't cold, she liked cords and knots and toys in her bed.

His clothing and boots had been taken away; he was clad only in an undergarment that shielded his sex. He tried again, without success, to move his hands and realized, with a kind of despair, that what he was feeling, as much as fury and the several layers of pain, was the returning of desire, inexorable as the tides of the sea.

She was so beautiful it caused a kind of constriction around his heart. She was an incarnated vision from the legend of the paradise that waited for corans who died in battle. His mouth was dry. He looked at her, in her shining, long-limbed near-nakedness, and the memory of their love-making two summers ago, her body intertwined with his, legs wrapped high around him or straddling his waist as she rode above, her fingernails scoring his shoulders and arms, the eloquent, striving, backwards arch of her throat when she came to her culmination—it was with him again as if happening now, enveloping as the scent in the room. He became aware, helplessly, that his excitement would be visible. Lucianna, glancing downward, noted that. She had never been slow to observe such things. She looked away briefly, a small, satisfied smile curling about her lips.

"How sweet," she murmured, in the nuanced, husky voice. She moved out of his sight for a moment and then came back. "And all along I thought you left because you were angry, because you had lost your desire for me." She looked down upon him from the side of the bed. "I don't like it when men leave me, Blaise. Did I never tell you that?" There was a knife in her fingers now, taken from the bedside table. It too had gems in the hilt, rubies the colour of blood. She began to play with it, moving towards the foot of the bed, biting her lower lip as if thinking of something, chasing a memory, and then idly stroking the blade, as if unaware that she was doing so, along the sole of his foot. She twisted it suddenly and Blaise felt the point break the skin, drawing blood. He had been waiting for that.

"I left because you wanted me to, Lucianna. Do not pretend anything else." It was difficult to be coherent amid both the aftermath of the blow and the increasingly intense reality of desire. Her scent was all around him, pushing clear thought even further away. She continued to move about the bed, the curves and planes of her body lit by the fire's glow. He said, "Had you wanted to hold me you know you could have done so. I would not have been able to refuse, even after Engarro."

"Ah," she said, stopping now to look directly at him. Her skin was pale, flawless; it was still a shock sometimes to realize how young she was. "But you would have wanted to refuse, wouldn't you, my dear? You would have stayed only against your better judgment, tangled in my dark toils… is that not how it would have been, Blaise?"

He swallowed with difficulty. She was her father's daughter; the subtlest woman he had ever known. She was also dancing the knife upwards now, along the inside of his thigh. "I need a drink, Lucianna," he said.

"I know what you need. Answer my question."

Blaise turned his head away, and then back, to look her full in the eyes. "As it happens, you are wrong. I was even more innocent than you knew. Rudel tried to warn me—I didn't want to listen. I thought, if you can believe it, that you were only the way you were because your father had forced you to be his tool, an instrument of policy. I thought you could still love truly if you made a free choice, and I thought you might actually give that love to me." He felt the bitterness beginning to come back, step by step, mingled, as ever, with desire. "I was even more a fool than I might have appeared."

It occurred to him, incongruously, even as he was speaking, that Ariane de Carenzu had said something very like this to him in a different bed in summer, about choices and the paths of love. It also occurred to him, belatedly, that there was something more than a little absurd about this exchange; he had been brought here to die. He wondered where her husband was. Borsiard d'Andoria was probably waiting for her outside the city walls. It had been the corans of Miraval who had brought him here, though; a strange union this one had turned out to be. When one's enemies take counsel together, the proverb ran in Gorhaut, one wants the wings of a bird to fly, or the strength of lions to fight. He had neither at the moment. He was bound and helpless, head ringing like a temple bell, on Lucianna's bed.

"Do what you want," he said tiredly as she remained motionless, saying nothing. Her dark eyes, shadings carefully applied above and below, were wide but unreadable. The pupils were larger than they should have been. She had taken her drugs, he realized. They heightened her pleasures. He wondered if she used them all the time now. He wondered how any mortal woman could possibly be so beautiful.

He tried once more to swallow. "I would have thought the honour of your family, if nothing else, would preclude torturing a man who never did or meant you harm." I sound like a lawyer making a plea, he thought sourly. "If you must kill me, for your own reasons or your husband's, then have done with it, Lucianna." He closed his eyes again.

"You really aren't in a position to make requests, are you, Blaise?" Her tone had sharpened. "Or to comment unpleasantly on either my father's or my husband's courses of action." He felt the knife point in his thigh. He refused to react. He kept his eyes closed; it seemed to be his only option of denial. That, and silence. Once, in Mignano, she had known he was displeased about something she had said at a banquet. Her woman had come to lead him to her chambers much later than usual that night. When they arrived, he had seen why. There had been easily a hundred candles of different shapes and sizes burning around the bed where Lucianna had lain, naked in the flicker and dance of all that light like an offering in some temple of dead and forgotten gods. She had been bound, wrist and ankle, as he was now. She had waited for the woman to leave that night and had said, "You are unhappy. You have no cause to be. Do with me as you will." It had not been, he remembered noting even at the time, an apology. She was not a woman who apologized. Her body had glistened and shimmered with oil as she twisted slowly to left and right in the blaze of the candles, not smiling, her eyes enormous. Blaise had stood above the bed, looking down upon her for a long time. Slowly he had removed his own clothing as she lay bound beneath him in a dazzle of light, watching… and then he had untied all the knots that bound her before lowering himself to the bed.

Lucianna had laughed, he remembered. He had thought then it might be from a certain kind of relief. Now, living the moment again, he heard that laughter differently, as genuine amusement at his innocence: a war-trained Gorhaut coran in decadent Portezza, coupling with the least innocent woman in the world. Young as she was, Lucianna seemed never to have been young. The bitterness was in him again; there might always be that bitterness. Bertran de Talair, he thought suddenly, had never managed to move past what had happened to him in love when he was young.

She was silent still. Blaise kept his head averted, his eyes closed. He felt the knife blade withdraw and a moment later heard Lucianna say, "I thought, back then… I remember thinking towards the end of that summer, before Engarro was killed… that I had met you too late." An odd note in her voice. But that was not what finally caused Blaise to open his eyes. He had heard another sound, from the far end of the room, and felt the faintest thread of a draft across his skin.

When he looked up, Lucianna was turned away from him towards the door, and following her glance Blaise saw Quzman of Arimonda standing there, white teeth bared in a luxurious smile, a blade in his hand, long as a small sword.

Lucianna glanced over and down at Blaise for an instant, her eyes wide and black with the drug; then she turned her back on him entirely and moved towards the fire, leaving only empty space between Blaise and the Arimondan who had come to end his life. It had indeed been corans of Miraval who had brought him here; the last piece of the puzzle fell into place.

"Staked out like a horse thief," said Quzman with relish. "Were this Arimonda I would have him in the desert beside a hive of blood ants, and I would pour honey myself over his private parts and eyes and leave him there." Lucianna said nothing. She was gazing into the depths of the fire.

"How fortunate for me that this is not Arimonda," said Blaise stonily. He was not going to give this man any more satisfaction than the fact of his death would offer. "Land of cowards and incestuous catamites."

The Arimondan's smile never altered. "You are foolish," he said. "You should not be goading me. Not with your sex easy to my blade. Your life ends here. My brother's ghost is hungry for your shade in the afterworld and it is in my hands whether your passage to the god is easy or very hard."

"No it isn't," said Lucianna quietly, her back to both of them. "Do what you came to do, but quickly."

"What I came to do? I came for an execution," said the Arimondan, the smile deepening. "And perhaps for some pleasure upon his body when he is dead."

"You presume too greatly," said Lucianna, still not turning from the fire. Her voice was toneless, very low. The Arimondan laughed and moved towards the bed.

"A severe penalty it does seem," said Blaise to Lucianna, dragging his eyes away from the man with the blade towards the woman who had taught him all he knew about certain dimensions of joy and pain, "for having met you too late. I do hope this pleases your new husband, and perhaps even the next one."

She made a small sound; he thought it might be a kind of laugh. He didn't have time to decide, though, because just then, as he turned back to face his death the way a man does, with dignity and an acceptance of the infinite, eternal power of the god, the door opened again and, with utter stupefaction, Blaise saw his brother's wife step into the room behind the Arimondan.

"If you use that blade," he heard Rosala announce in her crispest voice, "I swear by holy Corannos I will have you brought into the presence of the countess of Arbonne before this night is over, and I will not rest until you are both dealt with for breaching a truce with murder."

And then, with that spoken, as her own fierce inner momentum seemed to slow, all three of them staring at her, she registered for the first time—he actually saw it happen—who was lying on the bed, and she said, in a voice so completely different it could almost have made one laugh:

"Blaise?"

It was Lucianna who laughed. "How touching. A reunion," she murmured, turning from the fire. She was still holding her own jewelled blade. "The wandering children of Garsenc in the den of the dark lady. Someone will surely make a ballad of this."

"I think not," said Quzman of Arimonda. "Since both of them must now be slain."

His smile had gone. He took another step towards Blaise. "Now," said Lucianna Delonghi loudly, very clearly. The inner doors on either side of the bed burst open. Through them, swords drawn, rushed half a dozen corans in the countess's colours, followed quickly by Roban, the chancellor or Arbonne, and then more slowly by a black-haired, sumptuously dressed, darkly handsome man. Last of all, moving with extreme caution, a compress held to one side of his head, came Rudel Correze.

The corans surrounded the Arimondan. One of them seized the dagger from him. Quzman's gaze, bleak and malevolent, did not move from Lucianna's face now. Returning a brief, glacially patrician glance, she said, "You made an error and you are a crude, unpleasant man. The one might have been forgivable were the other not also the case. And both things, I might add, are equally true of the duke of Miraval, whom you serve in this matter."

She said that last very clearly as well. Blaise saw the handsome man who was her father smile thinly as Roban the chancellor winced. It was becoming slowly clear to Blaise that he was not, for the moment at least, about to die. That Lucianna had set this whole thing up as a trap for… whom? Quzman? Urté? Both? He looked to his left and saw Rudel leaning against a bedpost for support, gazing down on him with an expression that might have managed to be amused if his face had not been quite so green.

"If you do not stop standing there uselessly and cut these cords," Blaise snarled through clenched teeth, "I will not be responsible for what I do to you later."

"To me?" his friend replied with feeling. "What can you possibly do beyond what has been done already? I have just been half killed by corans of Miraval in the interests of a ploy by my cursed cousin Lucianna that had nothing at all to do with me." But he did begin, moving gingerly, to cut Blaise's bonds.

"You are, you understand, now taken into the custody of the countess of Arbonne," the chancellor was saying to Quzman. He did not look happy. Blaise, finally able to sit up, slowly chafing his wrists, had some idea why. "In the morning she will decide your fate," Roban finished coldly.

The Arimondan was a brave man. "My fate alone?" he said. "You see how the woman had the northerner trussed up for me like a hog for slaughter? You know her husband tried to kill him on the road. Will you let her play this double game and laugh at all of us?" Blaise glanced over at Lucianna; she had moved towards the windows, and had put on a heavier robe. She didn't bother looking back at Quzman, or at any of them.

"I do not see anyone laughing," said the chancellor. "And if her game was doubled, it was only against yourself. She informed me of your proposal last night, immediately after it was first made."

A good attempt at deflecting and controlling the damage, Blaise thought, but it was unlikely to succeed. Not with the other man who had entered the room standing there, listening attentively. He knew a fair bit about Massena Delonghi, actually. He had lived in his palaces two summers ago, sleeping with his daughter. He and Rudel Correze had killed a prince for him.

But it seemed, the way events were unfolding, that Lucianna had not intended to have Blaise murdered tonight after all, though the manner in which she had had him bound and what she had done and said still needed an answer. Or, he reflected, perhaps they did not. I don't like it when men leave me, Blaise. Did I never tell you that? Perhaps he had his answer. Perhaps she had said nothing more or less than truth. How novel that would be, he thought wryly.

As he had expected, the chancellor's effort at diversion did not succeed. "There is another person involved in this, though," said Massena Delonghi, the sleek, suave man who was said to be seeking to dominate Portezza, and to be using his daughter's marriages in steady pursuit of that goal. "This Arimondan, I am informed, is employed by the duke of Miraval. I understand from my dear daughter that it was the corans of Duke Urté who assaulted this young friend of ours, and our well-beloved cousin as well."

"Thank you," Rudel said brightly. "I am so pleased someone remembered that."

Roban did not look pleased at all. "We will, of course, seek to hear what En Urté has to say about all of this in the morning. For the moment, there is only this man, caught by your daughter's… devices… in the act of attempting murder."

"For which he will be branded and hanged, I trust?" Lucianna's brows were arched as she finally turned to look at them. Her voice and manner were a cool, glittering mirror of her father's. Blaise remembered this side of her too. She gazed at the chancellor: "Precisely as that poor cousin of my dear husband was branded and hanged by the duke of Talair. Precisely in the same way, I dare suggest. Or indeed we will have sad cause to question the impartiality of the countess of Arbonne in her justice towards strangers and towards those who serve her own high lords." The celebrated eyebrows remained pointedly high.

"And," Massena Delonghi now added, in a tone more of sorrow than reproach, "there must indeed be the morning's determination of Duke Urté's own responsibility for this most flagrant breach of the truce of the fair. A lamentable duty for the countess, I am sure, but if Portezzan nobleman are to be executed like common thieves, she surely cannot turn a blind eye to the transgressions of her own people, however lofty their rank."

Lucianna's father was enjoying every moment of this, Blaise realized. It was exactly the sort of multi-faceted intrigue the Delonghi most loved. Massena would have little or nothing actually vested in Urté's downfall or the countess's embarrassment, but would take pleasure and—Blaise had no doubt—in the end find some gain in being the figure at the heart of both eventualities. If Arbonne had hoped to keep her internal feuds close to her breast, that hope was almost certainly ended now. Blaise wondered, cynically, if Massena Delonghi would be writing to Galbert de Garsenc soon in Gorhaut, or sending his factor in Cortil on an informal visit to King Ademar's court, to suggest some quiet transaction by way of compensation to the Delonghi for the discomfiture of Arbonne.

Rudel, proving belatedly useful, if not efficiently so, had finally finished with Blaise's ankle bonds. He'd also found, discarded in a corner of the room, the removed clothing and boots. Moving as well as his pounding head would allow, Blaise dressed himself. He saw that Rosala had taken a seat on a low bench by the door, sitting alone at some distance from everyone else. She was watching his every movement, though, with a curiously strained expression. It occurred to him, with something of a jolt, that he had also been unclothed the last time they'd seen each other. So, for that matter, had she.

The door to the room was still open beside her. Through it now, arresting that particular line of thought, came Lucianna's servant. Blaise remembered Imera well. Her knowing features had accompanied him on a great many silent night walks through one palace or another to her mistress's rooms. Imera stopped in the doorway, took in the scene and allowed herself the briefest smile imaginable as she observed the Arimondan ringed with swords.

It seemed to Blaise, looking at her, as if he were actually being made to journey backwards through the course of this night—first in that inn outside the walls with Rudel and King Daufridi, now here in Lucianna's room—through the layers of his own past. All that was needed now—

"The countess of Arbonne has come," said Imera. Of course, thought Blaise, tenderly probing the blood-encrusted lump on the back of his skull, preparing to kneel.

He was not really surprised; he was even beginning to find the oddest element of humour in all of this. The small, elegant figure of Signe de Barbentain came briskly into the room, dressed in pale blue trimmed with pearls. She was followed—and this was a shock—by the bulky, grim-faced figure of Duke Urté de Miraval.

"My lady!" exclaimed Roban as they all sank down and then rose from their obeisances. "I thought you to be asleep. I did not want to—"

"Asleep?" said the countess of Arbonne. "With such beautiful music below and treachery above stairs in our palace? I have only the duke of Miraval to thank for bringing me here in time to deal with this. You and I, Roban, will have to have a talk in the morning."

"But countess," began the chancellor, a little too earnestly, "it is the duke of Miraval himself who—"

"Who was informed by an Arimondan in his employ of a plot by the wife of the banned Borsiard d'Andoria, a second attempt against the life of our dear friend from Gorhaut." Signe's voice and manner were chillingly austere.

"Quzman, I am sorry to say, has his own grievance against the northerner," Urté added smoothly. "So deep a hatred that he was willing to breach the truce of the fair to aid the lady of Andoria in her corrupt designs. I chose to allow the affair to proceed a certain distance, trusting it could be halted—and thereby exposing the Portezzan evil at its source. I am pleased to see that this has happened." He was staring coldly at Lucianna.

Blaise looked over at Rudel and saw his friend smiling crookedly back at him, still holding a cloth to the side of his head. They turned, simultaneously, to the chancellor of Arbonne. Roban's surprise was just a little too extreme again. This is a clever man, thought Blaise. He may get away with it, after all. Massena Delonghi, he noted, had paled a little beneath the dark tan, but he too was smiling slightly, showing a master's appreciation for the neatness of what was happening.

As if on cue to Blaise's thought, Roban said, "But countess, there was no Portezzan plot. The gracious lady Lucianna Delonghi d'Andoria was acting only to expose this selfsame Arimondan. She personally informed me of his designs last night. She only pretended to accede to his scheme to prevent a more summary murder of the Gorhaut coran. It seems to be her understanding that, ah… the duke of Miraval was actively involved in his underling's designs."

"Evidently a faulty understanding on my part," Lucianna murmured silkily into the silence that followed this. "One for which I must surely make amends to the duke when more private opportunity allows." She smiled at Urté, her most dazzling smile.

"My dear daughter has such an impulsive nature," Massena Delonghi added, playing out the game, "and she was naturally so anxious to make redress for her… equally impulsive husband's earlier transgression." He shrugged, and spread his hands. "It seems we have all been acting in good faith here."

"Except for one man," said Signe de Barbentain icily. She was looking at the Arimondan.

Blaise had seen it before, and now he registered it again: Quzman of Arimonda was neither a coward nor a fool. The man was smiling, ringed about with steel and hostile glances.

"Ever the way of things, is it not?" he asked quietly, looking directly at his employer. Duke Urté, stone-faced, made no reply. "I am the sacrifice after all, not the man who murdered my brother. I do wonder, though," he said, turning with bold eyes and no deference at all to the countess of Arbonne, "how I am presumed to have used ten of my lord of Miraval's corans tonight without his knowledge."

The weak link, Blaise thought, racing through possibilities. He's going to take Urté down with him. But he'd underestimated the Arbonnais again.

"That is a matter of some grief to me," En Urté de Miraval said, his deep voice conveying dimensions of regret. "I chose to test the loyalty and prudence of my corans, electing not to caution them about Quzman's designs or undermine his plot. I am sorry to say that ten of them did, indeed, succumb to his undeniable persuasiveness. They have their own hatred of this Gorhautian coran, arising from the deaths of five of their fellows half a year ago in a most unfortunate incident. They agreed to assist in this terrible deed."

"Then these men too must surely be punished," said Massena Delonghi to the countess, shaking his head at this latest revelation of the world's depredations, the evils that seemed to flourish so brazenly in the midst of good and honest men.

Quzman of Arimonda was still smiling, Blaise saw—a terrible expression now, of complete understanding.

"They have been punished," said Urté briefly. "They are dead."

And so the chancellor had indeed won, after all, Blaise realized. Given that his sole purpose here would have been to control the reverberations of this, to keep the countess from having to deal with the bitter feud between Miraval and Talair at this most sensitive juncture in Arbonne's affairs, he had almost certainly managed to do so. He turned to Rudel again and saw wry admiration in his friend's eyes as he looked towards the unassuming chancellor of Arbonne.

Impulsively, Blaise turned back towards the door, to the bench were Rosala was sitting, and read, without real surprise, an identically cynical understanding in her expression. She had always been that quick. It had been too easy to see her only as a woman at the beginning, the selected wife of his older brother—to fail to realize how clever she really was. But there had been moments, even in the few, brief intervals when he had been home, when Blaise had been forced to remind himself whose daughter Rosala was, and to remember that any child of Cadar de Savaric would know more than a thing or two about the world's affairs. Thinking so, he took a few steps towards her. Rosala was the last, in a real sense the largest, mystery of this night.

It was with a renewed surprise that he saw Signe de Barbentain turn as well, to smile at Rosala and then take a seat beside her on the bench. The countess of Arbonne took his sister-in-law's hands between her own. "You thought you were saving a life, didn't you?" she asked. Her voice was low, but Blaise, moving nearer, was concentrating now on the two of them and he heard. Behind him the chancellor was ordering the binding of the Arimondan.

"I did think that," he heard Rosala say. "I didn't know who it was."

"Which makes it a braver act, my dear. How is Cadar?"

Blaise blinked, and suddenly stopped where he was.

Rosala said, "Sleeping down the hall, with his nurse." She looked up at Blaise as she spoke those words, her clear blue eyes on his from across the room.

"Then why don't we leave these untidy affairs and go look in on your baby?" Blaise heard the countess say.

"I would like that," his brother's wife murmured, rising. Blaise realized that his heart was pounding. "You haven't seen him since the morning, have you?"

Signe stood up as well, smiling. "But I have been thinking of him all day. Shall we go?"

Blaise wasn't quite certain how, but he seemed to have crossed the room towards the two of them. The countess looked at him, her elegant features composed. He was staring at Rosala though. He bent, carefully, and saluted her on both cheeks.

"My lady, this is a great surprise," he said awkwardly, feeling himself flush. He had never been easy with her. "Am I understanding correctly? Have you had a child? Have you had a child here!?"

Her head was high, her handsome, intelligent features betrayed no distress at all, but up close now he could see marks of weariness and strain. She had burst into this room, even so, at the very real risk of her own life, following a man with a blade to save whoever it might have been who was in danger here.

She said gravely, "I am sorry you are discovering it in this fashion. I was told you were here, but there seemed to be no easy way to inform you, given that I have left Garsenc without Ranald's knowledge and am not going back." She paused for a moment, to let him begin dealing with that. "I did give birth two days ago, by grace of Corannos, and Rian. My son is asleep down the hall. His name is Cadar. Cadar de Savaric." She stopped a second time. Blaise was feeling as if he had been struck again, a second blow to the head, in the same place the staff had hit before. "You may see him if you like," his sister-in-law concluded.

"How sweet this is, how truly touching," came an amused voice just behind him. "The lost children of Gorhaut. Surely I was right, there will have to be a ballad about this. Why don't we all go dote upon the child?" He hadn't heard Lucianna coming up; once, his whole being would have been focused on knowing exactly where she was in any room. In the strangest way, Blaise felt an obscure sadness in this change.

"I don't recall inviting you," Rosala said calmly. "You might still feel like using the blade I saw."

So she had seen that knife, and probably the blood on him where the dancing blade had pricked. Blaise wondered what she had thought. He wondered what there was to think. Lucianna Delonghi, however, was not accustomed to being discomfited by other women. "I only stab babies when they wake me at night," she murmured in her laziest drawl. "Grown men tend to give greater cause, and different pleasures. Since I am awake, your child is safe for the moment. From me, at any rate. Are you not afraid, though, that dear, impetuous Blaise will seize and spirit him home to his brother and father?"

"Not really," said Rosala. She looked at Blaise. "Should I be?"

Lucianna laughed. The countess of Arbonne stood quietly, looking at Massena Delonghi's daughter, her expression thoughtful now, and under that level, appraising scrutiny Lucianna grew still. Blaise's mind was racing, despite the pulses of pain, struggling to sort through the toweri