Empire's Hostage Sample

by Marian L. Thorpe

Chapter One

THE RAIN SLASHED DOWN unceasingly, half ice, stinging exposed skin and making it nearly impossible to see anything in the grey light. When the sun, hidden now behind the thick layer of clouds, set—not long now, I estimated—the stones of the Wall and the native rock would lose what warmth they held, and begin to ice over. Night watch would be treacherous, tonight. I counted it a small blessing that my watch had begun after the midday meal.

I wiped a gloved hand over my eyes yet again and scanned north and eastward, not focusing on anything, but looking for motion, or for something that didn't belong, as Turlo had taught me; something that moved against the wind, or a shadow that hadn't been there yesterday. I listened, too, to the sounds beyond the noises of the fort and the babble of the stream behind me: the hoarse cry of a raven, the soft chatter of sparrows settling into their roost. No alarm calls. I walked the few steps across the watchtower to begin my scan again, to the northwest.

Footsteps sounded on the wooden stairs. I did not turn. Only when my relief stood beside me, looking out, could I look away.

"I think the minging gods have forgotten it's the first day of spring," Halle said. "Anything I should know?"

"There's a raven in the usual tree," I answered, still looking outward, "but it's just making conversational croaks occasionally. I saw a fox about an hour ago, when I could still see, and its mind was on finding mice in the rocks. No owls today, but maybe they're not hunting in this rain. There could be forty northmen out there, and as long as they moved with the wind and stayed low, I wouldn't know. But I don't think so. I'm guessing there is one, or maybe two, watching us, no more."

"Wrapped up in their cloaks, under some rocks or furze," Halle said. "I'd rather be here."

"So would they," I reminded her.

She laughed, but without mirth. "Go and get warm," she said. "The hunting party brought back a deer, so there's venison stew to be had." I glanced over at her. Her eyes were on the land beyond the Wall, watching.

"Good luck." I took the stairs down from the watchtower as quickly as I felt safe; the movement warmed me, slightly. At the bottom, I stepped over the gutter, running with rainwater, and onto the cobbled walkway that ran along the inner side of the Wall. The Wall itself broke the wind, and the rain fell with less force. Still, I pulled the hood of my cloak over my head as I walked to the camp.

All the discipline of the Empire could not build a finished fort in a time of war, and while the tents and a few stone and timber huts stood in orderly rows, most of the roads and pathways between were earthen—or mud, right now. Since the skirmishes had died down, some weeks earlier, work had begun on paving the main thoroughfares through the camp. A narrow, cobbled track ran from the Wall to the centre of the encampment, just wide enough for two people to pass. I noticed it extended a few feet further into the camp than it had when I had left for watch duty. I stepped off its comparatively clean cobbles onto the slick surface of the hard-packed earthen path. It had been built to drain, and two ditches ran on either side of it, but I could feel mud sticking to my boots.

At the kitchen tent, I scraped the mud off my boots on the iron blade mounted outside, and shook the worst of the rain off my cloak. Ducking inside, I met a blast of welcome heat. I stripped off my gloves and cloak, and the thick tunic I wore beneath the cloak, piling them on a bench. A gust of cold air told me someone else had come in. I turned to see Darel already loosening the clasps of his cloak. He'd been on watch duty at the tower east of the camp.

"Quiet?" I asked. He nodded, concentrating on pulling his tunic over his head.

"Very." His red hair, streaked with rain, stood up in clumps. He sniffed the air. "I hear rumours of venison stew," he said. Caro, on servery duty, spoke up.

"More like thick soup," she said, "but, yes, it's venison. With some root vegetables and barley in with it. Sit down, and I'll bring it over." We did as directed, and soon enough two bowls of food stood in front of us, with a loaf of dark, hard bread. Darel cut the loaf in half with his belt knife, passing one piece to me. I ripped off a chunk, and dipped it in the soup, eating hungrily.

Caro brought over two mugs of thin beer, and for a space of some minutes we did nothing but eat. Others had come in as we ate, and the smell of damp wool began to overpower the scent of venison stew in the tent. No-one said much; another day of rain and cold and mud dampened spirits as much as it did hide and stone. I’m sick of rain, I thought, listening to its ceaseless drum on the tent. If the sun would come out, I’d feel better.

Caro put more fuel in the brazier and then slipped onto the bench beside me. We had ridden north together, from Casilla, half a year earlier, when Dian had come south to requisition food and horses and other supplies for the army. I hadn't really known her. She had worked at one of the small food stalls near Casilla’s harbours, and sometimes on my way to or from my work on the boats I had bought something from her.

"How's the soup?" she asked.

"Fine," I said. It was; thick enough to be satisfying, and reasonably spiced.

"It was only a yearling," she said. "Not enough meat to go around, really, so we had to make soup."

Food, I knew, was becoming a problem. At the end of the winter, with almost all the army ranged along the length of the Wall, game within a day or two's hunting was scarce. Sending men—or more likely women—south to the villages for provisions meant fewer of us to defend the Wall if another raid occurred. The truce, called ten days ago, could end at any moment; the Emperor and his advisors spent their days at the White Fort, east of our camp, negotiating with the leaders of the northmen. Fifteen months of war: eight to drive the invaders back beyond the wall; another seven, now, keeping them there, until the ravages of winter, little food, and the deaths of so many, on both sides, had led to the request, and agreement, to parley.

"Who brought it in?" I asked idly.

"Dian," Caro replied. "They got two, both yearlings, but one went to the White Fort. Have you had enough to eat?"

I shrugged. "Enough," I said. Food was for energy, nothing more, and what I’d eaten would suffice. "Is there any tea?" Darel looked up.

"I could eat more," he said, "if there is any?" Darel was so young, and growing, and thin as a starveling cat. All the cadets looked the same.

"There's a bit," Caro said judiciously. "Give me your bowl, and I'll bring it back, and your tea, Lena." She slid off the bench to return to the servery. Darel stretched. "Dice?" he suggested. "After we're done eating?"

I shook my head. "Not tonight," I said. "My tunic needs repairing. One of the shoulder seams is splitting." Caro came back, and Darel fell on his bowl as if he hadn't eaten the first helping. I curved my hands around the mug of tea. It smelled of fruit: rosehip, I thought.

I sat, sipping the tea. It warmed me, as much as anything did, these days. Darel finished his soup, wiping every trace of liquid from the bowl with the last piece of bread, and pushed his bench back. He took his beer and joined a pair of cadets at another table, pulling out his dice. They would sit here, playing, all the rest of the evening, if Caro let them. The servery tent was warmer than the barracks, and there was always the chance of some scraps of food.

I finished the tea, idly watching the dice game. "Minging dice," one of the cadets growled.

"Language!" Caro warned. She allowed no obscenities in the kitchen tent: another slip and she’d make the cadets leave, and they knew it. I’d got used to the casual swearing among the troops; ‘minging’, a lewd term for urination, was one of the most frequently heard. I even said it myself, now. I stood to take the mug back to Caro, along with Darel's forgotten bowl. Suddenly, the clatter of hooves on the cobbles rang out in the night. "Who?" Caro breathed. The cadets dropped the dice, standing. The tent flap parted, and Turlo—General Turlo, now, and advisor to the Emperor—strode in. Darel straightened even more: the presence of his father always made him conscious of his decorum.

Turlo blinked briefly in the light of the tent. "General?" Caro said. "Would you like food, or drink?"

He smiled at her. "We ate well enough at the Fort," he said, "but thank you. No, I came in search of two soldiers, and I've found them. Guard Lena, Cadet Darel, please go to your barracks, pack your possessions and come back here as quickly as you can. You two—he nodded to the other dice players—go to the horse lines, please, and bring back two mounts. And then retire to your barracks," he added. "Go!" he said, not unkindly; the cadets scurried to do his bidding.

Darel had not moved, but looked over at me. "General?" I said. "What is happening?"

"I will tell you," he said, "when you return with your packs. Bring anything you cannot live without, and your warmest clothes and boots, if you are not already wearing them. Quickly, mind!" It was mildly said, but still an order. I glanced at Darel; he had already turned to put on his outdoor clothes.

We dressed hurriedly and went out into the night. The cadet barracks lay in the opposite direction to mine—the Guards being the women who had come to support the army of the Empire—but Darel hesitated. "Lena," he whispered, "what do you think is going on?"

"No idea," I said. "But we have orders to follow, and very little time to do it in. Be quick, Darel!"

I half-ran to the Guards' barracks, trying not to slip on the slick path. I was in luck; the three women I shared my room with were somewhere else. Halle, at least, was on duty; I wasn't sure about the other two. No questions to slow me down. I pulled my pack from under my cot, looking inside: spare underclothes and socks, another pair of breeches and a shirt lay folded. The pack doubled as storage in this small space. I picked up my indoor slippers, putting them in the pack. From the small wooden chest beside the cot I took a few other things: my comb, my sewing kit, the soft absorbent cloths I used every month during my bleeding, the small supply of anash from which I brewed a tea to lessen the cramps that came with the bleeding, my pen and ink. Then I picked up the last two items that lay inside: two books. One was the history of the Empire, given to me by Colm, the Emperor's advisor and castrate twin; one was my own journal. I stuffed them down inside the pack, buckling it closed.

Outside the servery tent two horses—my Clio, I noticed, was not one of them—stood saddled and bridled beside Turlo's horse. Inside the General sat alone, a mug of beer on the table. Caro had gone. Turlo looked up at me without smiling, nodding for me to sit. Darel came in a minute or two later.

"Now," Turlo said, "I will be brief. The talks have been fruitful: there is a truce that both the Emperor and the Northmen's leader, Donnalch, can agree to. Teannasach of the North, he styles himself; so be it. I remember when he was a stripling leading raiding parties for sheep, but no doubt he remembers when I was a stripling too, scouting up their glens. If you do this long enough, old adversaries are almost friends." He grinned. Nothing, ever, seemed to keep Turlo's spirits down. "But the treaty, my lad, and lassie," he added, "requires hostages. Donnalch's son, and another, to us, and two children of our leaders, to them."

Darel found his voice first. "We are to be hostages? Sir?" he remembered to add.

"But I am not a child of our leaders," I protested, not understanding.

"Aye," Turlo said. I wasn't sure which one of us he answered. He looked at Darel. "You are my son," he said, "and therefore must stand as hostage. And you, Lena," he said, switching his gaze to me, "Casyn asked for you to stand as his surrogate daughter. His own daughters are in Han, with their own children, and the Emperor has fathered no sons, or daughters, for that matter, in all his years."

Casyn had asked for me. The words echoed in my head. I had met my own father only once; he served at one of the easternmost postings on the Wall. In the almost two years I had known and worked with and served the General Casyn, I had come to regard him, and to love him, I had acknowledged, as I might have my own father, had I known him. I had had no conception that he might have thought of me in a similar light. Something pushed through the dullness of my spirit. This time, I thought, you will not fail him. This time, you will go.

"What does it mean, to be a hostage?" I asked. I saw something flicker in Turlo's eyes. He grinned again.

"Exchanging the children of high rank as hostages is an old and honoured tradition," he answered, "although not one we have respected, in some generations, and in truth needed to be reminded of. We'll treat Donnalch's son, and the other boy they are sending—his brother's son—with every courtesy. They will lodge in the White Fort for now, and then be sent south to the Eastern Fort when the weather improves, to learn with our senior cadets. Darel, you will basically live the life that Donnalch's son would have, whatever the education, in arms and tactics and books, they deem appropriate. That is the gist of it: we exchange our heirs, in surety for each side's good behaviour. You will not be mistreated, but, understand, neither will you be truly free."

"And me?" I asked. "I cannot see the northerners teaching me arms. And I am not a child."

"You are right, of course," he said, his voice graver. "I must be honest and say I do not really know. We have not concerned ourselves, over the years, in gathering much intelligence on how the women of the north folk live their lives, except to know they live with their men, and perhaps divide the responsibilities of daily life much as we did here once in the Empire, before Partition. But," he said, his voice brightening, "you will bring us back much valuable information, as a result."

"Am I to spy, then?" I tried to keep the exasperation out of my voice.

"Of course," he said simply. "Both of you. Do you not think that the northern boys will be doing the same?"

I realized the truth of what he said. "Why must we go so quickly?"

"I will tell you as we ride," he said, standing as he spoke. "Mount up, now."

Once we had ridden past the tents of the camp Turlo spoke again, his voice raised slightly against the wind and rain. "You asked about the need for haste," he said. "Donnalch would brook no delay. The exchange had to be done tonight, before he would sign the papers of truce. Callan had little choice but to agree, since Donnalch's son and nephew were already at their camp, close to the Fort on the northern side."

"I wonder," I said thoughtfully, "how long those two boys have known they would be part of the truce?"

"And what their instructions have been?" Turlo said. "As always, you are quick, Lena. If Colm had been here," he said, a trace of grief in his voice, "he would have seen the probability that an exchange of hostages would be part of any agreement, I believe, and we could have prepared the two of you too. But we did not see it, until earlier today, and there was no way to let you know."

"Is the truce fair?" Darel asked.

"It is," Turlo answered. "I cannot tell you much tonight; the proclamation will be tomorrow at mid-day, at the White Fort. You'll be there, front and centre, by the bye, as proof to all the good will between our two sides, so hold your heads up and be proud ambassadors for the Empire, when all the eyes are on you."

"I hope they let us have baths, then," I said.

Turlo laughed. "No doubt they will."

We rode through the gates of the White Fort, stopping outside a large stone building. Soldiers—cadets, really—stepped forward to take our horses. We dismounted, shouldering our packs. The horses were led away. I glanced at Darel: he looked as nervous as I felt.

"General," I said. "How long are we to be hostages?"

He looked from me to his son. "Half a year," he replied. That long? I thought. But Turlo still spoke. "Half a year, from now till harvest, to give the northerners a chance to plant and harvest: food runs short on both sides of the Wall. Time for us to hold Festival, and let the villages know our needs for food and supplies. And in that time Callan and Donnalch—and advisors on both sides—will hammer out the terms of a final peace, or not."

"But this is an order, and my duty," Darel said, his voice steady. "I understand, General."

"Good lad," he said. "And you, Guardswoman?"

A mix of emotions roiled through me: a thread of pride, fear, reluctance. When I had ridden north to the Wall the previous autumn, I had sworn fealty and service to Callan, the Emperor, for the duration of the conflict with the northmen. He had not released me from this, and therefore I too had an order and a duty to follow. I had thought I might die as a Guard, so why was I of two minds about this? But when was the last time you really wanted to do anything?

"General," I said, "will it be known, that I shall be a hostage to the northmen?"

Turlo's eyes softened. "You are thinking of your mother, and your sister?"

I nodded. "Yes," I said.

He understood. "My belief is you will be allowed letters," he said, "at least to your family and other women. I will find a way to send word, to Tirvan. Will my word suffice?"

"Of course," I said, grateful for his comprehension and compassion.

"Is there anything else?" I hesitated. "Tell me," he insisted.

"Well, if I could, if it's allowed—could I have my mare? Clio?" At least she would be something familiar. My stomach roiled. Why had Casyn asked this of me?

He laughed. "Is that all? Of course you can; you'll need a horse, no doubt. I'll have someone bring her over in the morning, and her tack. Darel, is there a particular horse you would like?"

Darel grinned, his teeth bright in the moonlight. I saw the resemblance to Turlo in that grin. "I rather like the skewbald with the white eye," he said, "but so does Rikter. Still, I don't suppose he'll have much chance of revenge, if I'm away with the northmen."

Turlo reached out to cuff his son lightly on the shoulder. If he had heard the fear behind the bravado, he didn't acknowledge it. "Good man," he said. "The skewbald it will be. Now, they are waiting for us, and we can delay no longer." He pulled open the great wooden door, beckoning us inside.

We walked into a hall. Torches in black iron sconces gusted high in the rush of air from the open door, and then subsided to flickers against the grey stone. Turlo led the way to another pair of doors, his boots loud to my ears on the stone flagged floor. Apprehension knotted my stomach. He knocked, but, not awaiting an answer, pulled the doors open and strode inside.

I stopped, Darel beside me, just inside the door. Like the hall, stone blocks formed the walls, but the ceiling curved above us, twice the height of the hall, huge beams supporting it. Fireplaces burned at both ends of the room, and torches, this time in gleaming bronze sconces, lined the walls. But the floor! It was flagged, around the periphery, but otherwise an intricate picture, in tiny fragments of stone and ceramic and glass, made up the rest of the surface. The colours gleamed in the firelight. Faces and sea creatures and designs—and under my booted feet I could feel warmth. Into my dazzled mind the words carved on the stone gates of Casilla came unbidden: ‘Casil e imitaran ne’. ‘There is only one Casilla’ was the common understanding of the words, which were in no language of the Empire, but a very old woman I had met in the marketplace had told me a different translation: ‘Casil this is not’. I had puzzled over those words, but something about this room resonated with them. It did not look as if it belonged to the Empire I knew, but to something older, perhaps greater.

I forced myself to look up at the men seated at a long table. I saw the familiar face of Casyn, and beside him his brother, the Emperor Callan. Beyond Casyn, the empty chair that should have been Colm's: it was Turlo's, now. On the other side of Callan sat a man, tall but slight, with greying dark hair and no beard, dressed in a woven, woollen tunic and breeches, a cloak, also of wool, over one shoulder. The cloak was pinned to his shoulder with an intricate, enamelled pin, and around his neck he wore a twisted gold ring. Like the floor, the brooch and the gold of the torc glittered in the firelight. Two more men sat beside him, one clearly a close relation; the other, younger and light-haired, and stockier. And beside them, two young men, bracketing, I thought, Darel in age. My heart beat hard against my chest. I willed my breathing to slow.

Callan stood. "Thank you for your speed, General," he said. "Guardswoman Lena, Cadet Darel of the third, welcome to the Council of the White Fort, where after long days we have agreed to a truce between the Empire and the Northmen. Has the General Turlo explained your roles?"

Callan had named me, the elder, first. "He has, Emperor," I replied, hoping my voice was steady. He nodded.

"Yes, Emperor," Darel answered. He had served at the Emperor's winter camp, in the time before the invasion, and was less in awe of his Emperor as a result than some of his fellow cadets might have been. Darel shared many traits with his father, I was beginning to realize, and Turlo rarely stood on ceremony.

The slight man spoke, his voice surprisingly musical, and conversational. "This is your son, Turlo, then? Not that I need to ask: I can see it in his face. Who is his mother?"

"Arey, her name is, from Berge," Turlo replied. "And before you ask, Donnalch, her hair is brown and Berge's records say her forbears, for as many generations as they have records, are from south of the Wall." Donnalch grinned.

"Aye, but who would tell of a child got by a northman who had slipped over the Wall?" he said. Then his voice became serious. "And the woman, Casyn? You ask for her to stand surrogate for your own daughters?" My breath caught in my throat. I swallowed.

"I do," Casyn said, in his grave voice. "If Lena will have it so. My daughters are both mothers with small children; even so one might have agreed, but they are several days’ ride away in Han village. And had I the right I would be proud to name Lena my daughter." He smiled at me, with those words.

"Hmm," Donnalch mused. "Lena," he said, in his lilting voice, "You are from Tirvan, am I right?" ‘Teeerrvaan’, he pronounced it, not our shorter, flatter 'Turvan'. I nodded. "How old are you?"

I cleared my throat. "Nineteen," I replied. I could not remember the title Turlo had mentioned. "Sir," I added, in case he thought me lacking in courtesy.

"And you have skill with weapons, I am told," he said.

"Some," I said. Hold your head up, Turlo had said. "I have learned the sword, and the use of a secca, in these past two years. The hunting bow I learned as a girl. I am reckoned a good shot with a deer bow," I added.

He studied me for some time, without speaking. I kept my eyes on him.

"But I cannot put you with the boys," he said, half to himself. He paused. "Will you read? And write?"

"Of course I can," I said, too startled to be more polite.

"No, lassie, that's not what I asked," he said, spreading his hands. "I asked if you will. Do you like to do such, I should perhaps have said."

"Yes," I said slowly, with a quick glance at Casyn. "I have learned to like both; I have been reading the stories of our Empire, and I keep a journal, a private record of the happenings of my life."

"Then," he said, with a quick confirming look to his advisors, "I know what to do with you. You were a bit of a puzzle, lassie, but now I have it: I will send you to a Ti’ach; a house of learning, as we do with one of our own sons or daughters who are drawn to the written word. Will that suit you?"

He was asking me where I would like to go? I glanced again at Casyn, and this time saw him make the briefest of nods. "Yes, sir," I said. "It would suit me."

"My title is Teannasach," he said easily. "But 'sir' will do fine, until your tongue is more comfortable with our language. Now, these two youngsters"—he indicated the two boys—"are my son, Ruar, and his cousin Kebhan. They go as hostage to your Empire, to be cadets. You two come as hostage to the North, to Linrathe. We of the North hold to more of the old ways, and not all the agreement between us can be of the Empire's shaping. So, this exchange of hostages is a symbol, but it is also a surety, for us both, that the agreement we have made here will hold from planting to harvest. If it does not, then the lives of our heirs—of Kebhan and Ruar, or of Darel and Lena—may be forfeit. Is this understood?"

I swallowed. I looked at Darel; he had paled, but his face was resolute. Then I glanced over at the two northern boys. They looked solemn, but not shocked. They had known in advance, I thought. "Yes, sir," I answered.

"It is growing late, Teannasach, and there is much to do if our truce is to be announced tomorrow." The Emperor spoke; his voice sounded weary, but not strained. I regarded him: even in the forgiving light of the torches, he looked tired. His face held more lines, and his hair more grey, than when I had first met him over a year earlier. Time had brought betrayal and loss, and the relentless battle to push the northmen back and reclaim the Wall for the Empire. But he had done it, against enormous odds.

"Aye," Donnalch agreed. "Shall we have a few minutes with our children, to say our farewells, and then we can commit this agreement to paper, and sign our names to give us a season of peace?" He pushed back his chair to stand. Immediately his two companions and the boys followed suit. "We will leave this room to you, Emperor," he said. "As it's your fort," he added. I watched the five of them leave the room by a door in the far wall. It closed with a click of its latch.

"Darel, Lena," Casyn said. "Please, come, and sit. Leave your packs." We did as we were told, taking the chairs just vacated by the northmen. My legs felt suddenly weak. Casyn poured two glasses of wine, passing them to us. "There is food, if you would like," he said. I shook my head, as did Darel, which surprised me. He must be as nervous as I am. Casyn poured more wine, for himself and Turlo and the Emperor. He glanced at Callan, who nodded.

"You will be wondering why we agreed to this, and with such haste," he said. "We have been talking, now, for nearly twenty days. At first, we were trying to create the terms for a lasting peace, but there is too much we do not agree on. What we could agree on was the need for a hiatus, for the reasons stated, so we began talking about the terms for a temporary truce. We had reached an agreement late this afternoon, and then Donnalch made the demand for hostages."

"I could not let the truce fail on such a request," the Emperor said. "The Teannasach, I think, needed to put his mark on this agreement, and as he proposed his own son and his brother's son as their hostages, saying that his people would see this as binding, in their tradition, I believe he offers this in good faith."

I had a dozen questions, but none could be asked, here and now. I wished I had some time with Casyn, alone; I needed advice. I gathered my thoughts.

"May I ask a question, sir?" I said.

"Of course," Callan said.

"What am I—we—to pay attention to, wherever we are sent?"

"Ah," Callan said. "I could answer that better for Darel than for you, Lena. For you, Cadet," he said, turning to Darel, "there are two things: the state of their supplies, whether it is food or weapons or men, and, perhaps more importantly, what the men are saying. They will forget, eventually, to hold their tongues in front of you, and the boys your age will repeat what they hear from their fathers and uncles. Commit it to memory: do not write it down in plain words, at your life's peril. Now, go with the General Turlo—your father," he amended, in a rare acknowledgement of the relationship, "who will tell you what you can write, if you are allowed letters."

Turlo beckoned Darel over to a corner of the room. The Emperor turned his eyes to me. I had seen those eyes gentle in compassion, pierced with anguish, cold in anger and judgment. Now I just saw fatigue, and perhaps a mastered regret.

"Donnalch said he would send you to a house of learning," he said. "What we know of these is limited. There is no code to brief you on, no knowledge to pass on, or even much advice I can give you. Listen to what is said, about Donnalch's leadership, about the war, about what they wish to change. Exchange views on Partition, on your life as a woman of the Empire, our histories. Colm would have known more," he added, "and I believe he would have envied you this opportunity."

"I will do my best, sir, to remember that." I felt the prick of tears behind my eyes. Colm, who had just begun to show me complexity of our own history, and the cost and consequences of our choices. I could not fail him, either.

The Emperor regarded me in silence for some moments. I waited. "Listen to your instincts, Guardswoman," he said finally. "You will do well, I believe."

"Yes, sir." I hoped he was right. I heard footsteps crossing the room: Turlo and Darel. They joined us. The two men stepped aside to confer in hushed voices. I looked at Darel. He tried a grin.

"Another adventure," he said, in a passable imitation of his father.

Fatigue and apprehension began to dull my mind again. The northmen joined us, and after some further conversation among the leaders, Birel—Casyn's soldier-servant—led us through a warren of dark lanes to our beds for the night. Darel's bed was in a shared room, but I had a small, dark chamber to myself. The room felt clammy, but when I pulled back the blankets to climb into the narrow cot, I realized someone—likely Birel—had put a heated stone wrapped in cloth in the bed.

I pulled the blankets over my shoulders and wrapped my feet around the stone, then doused the single candle standing on the small table beside the cot. The mattress below me rustled, a thin pallet of straw on a rope web, suspended from a wooden frame. If I were lucky there would be no vermin sharing the straw. Where would I sleep tomorrow night? I shivered, more with anxiety than cold, burrowing deeper into the blankets. I would not think about tomorrow. Instead, I began to count in my mind all the beds I had slept in, this past year, since I left the one I had shared with Maya, and then Garth, in Tirvan.

The first had been the bed at Keavy's inn, a day's ride from Tirvan, with Garth beside me in the night. Then more inns, and camps, for several weeks, and then? The shared room at the Four-Ways Inn, I remembered, and then the bed with old Ione at Karst. My camp bed at the Emperor's Winter Camp. Back to the Four-Ways Inn, riding as Emperor's Messenger now, a brief sleep in Freya's own bed. Then Karst again, and then Casilla: one night in a hostel near the gates, and then months in the Street of Weavers, sharing a house with Tevra and Ianthe, and Garth's son Valle, and Maya, after she joined us. The memories of these rooms and houses and beds blurred and shifted. Sleep claimed me.

I awoke to a knock on the door. The room held no light, and I had no sense of the time. "Yes?" I called.

"Time to get ready, Guardswoman," I heard Birel say. "I've brought wash water. Shall I leave it outside the door?"

"Wait," I said, pushing back the blankets to sit up. I fumbled on the table, and by feel lit the candle. Then I walked the three paces to the door, opening it. I stood aside, holding the candle high, to allow Birel to bring in the water.

He had also brought soap and a towel. "I'll return shortly," he said, "to guide you back to the great hall."

This part of the White Fort had only communal latrines for the men, and so I used the chamberpot before washing. I combed water through my hair and dressed in my clean clothes. Then I repacked my pack, and waited for Birel.

He returned promptly. I shouldered my pack, following him through the damp morning. Around one corner he stopped to knock on another door. Darel opened it, and stepped out. He too had dressed in clean clothes, and smoothed down his red hair.

"Good morning," I greeted him. "Sleep well?"

"Of course," he said. He had learned the soldier's knack of sleeping anywhere and anytime, whether in a shared barracks or curled up under the Wall during a brief halt. "And you?" he asked.

"Yes, fine." I had slept, solidly, fatigue trumping apprehension, and my sleep had been dreamless, as far as I remembered.

We followed Birel to the great hall. This morning the light came from the high windows, and the floor, while still magnificent, did not shimmer and glitter; the images lay still. Sleeping, I thought, and then dismissed the fancy. The men of the Empire and the North sat at the long table, but the focus at this moment was breakfast, not diplomacy.

Turlo greeted us by name. "Come and sit," he said, "and eat. There's fresh bread, and some dried fruit. Eggs and cold venison, too." Places were found for us, and food brought, and I made as good a breakfast as I had had for some months. Birel, unasked, brought me tea, smelling of mint.

I saw Birel take Casyn's plate and pour something steaming into his cup. Turlo nibbled dried fruit. The Emperor's place had been cleared; he studied papers before him, a pen in his hand. At the other end of the table the servers repeated the work, clearing plates, pouring drinks. The Emperor looked up.

"Now," he said, "we had better talk of today." I saw, from the corner of my eye, Birel gesture to the servers. They left the room, Birel alone staying, standing against the wall.

"Keep eating," Callan said, as Darel moved to push aside his plate, "but listen." The Emperor looked down the table at the northmen; they stopped their conversation to focus on Callan. Donnalch rose.

"I'll sit with you," he said easily, and walked along the table. Casyn, with a glance at his brother, shifted over. Birel brought another chair, and Donnalch took the place beside the Emperor. The gesture, with all its implications, made me uncomfortable. I could not think of this man as the Emperor's equal.

"We are lucky with the day," Donnalch remarked, as he sat. "The sun is shining, and by all the signs there will be no rain before the afternoon. It's best if we can do this outdoors, where as many men can see and hear as possible."

Callan acknowledged this statement with a nod of his head. "If we speak from the watchtower west of this fort," he said, "the land is nearly flat for a good space on both sides. Will that serve, do you think, Teannasach?"

"Aye," Donnalch said. "Your messengers are ready to ride?"

"They are," Callan said. "And yours?"

"Mine also," Donnalch agreed. "The copies of the treaty are ready too, the ones entrusted to my scribes, and yours also, I believe?"

"Done," Callan said, "and the exchange has been made: the copies are here." He indicated the papers in front of him. "I have read and signed them; there are no errors that affect the meaning of the truce; your scribes are to be commended." He spoke quietly and politely, but I thought his voice lacked spirit. He did not quite sound defeated; resigned might be a better word. I wondered what the treaty said.

"And yours," Donnalch said. "I read through the copies from your scribes earlier, and wrote my name on them all; I wake early. So now, Emperor," he challenged, "how will we determine the speaking order? Who has precedence?" He smiled as he said this, but something in his face told me this was a serious question. Donnalch's men, I noticed, had become very still.

"Teannasach," Callan said calmly, "as you yourself said last night, it is my fort. And my wall, and my watchtower. Your incursions into the Empire were repelled, and you and your men retreated to your historic lands. I think our positions are clear, and therefore the precedence. Would you not agree?" He kept his eyes on Donnalch as he spoke. The hall was very quiet. I had the sense that this conversation had happened before

Donnalch held Callan's eyes for several heartbeats. Then he inclined his head, a half-smile on his lips. "As you say," he said, his voice courteous. "I will give precedence to the long years of history, and the remnants of the greater Empire that this room reminds us of." I frowned. What did he mean? I glanced at Casyn. He looked grim. I repeated Donnalch's words in my mind, and heard this time the subtleties: precedence not to the Emperor, or even to his superior military position, but to history. I watched the men, holding my breath, feeling the precarious balance in the room.

Callan stood, his hand lightly resting on his sword, his eyes still on Donnalch. I heard chairs scrape as around both men their supporters stood too. Belatedly I realized I too had better stand, although I had only my secca on my waist. I could hear Darel's breathing beside me, not quite even, and the thumping of my heart. Very slowly, Donnalch came to his feet.

"The remnants of a greater Empire we may be," Callan said, "and myself a pale echo of those Emperors who came before, but the soldiers of the Empire do not forget. If it is that history you would acknowledge, then will you face east with me, and bow to that memory, and to what may still lie beyond the mountains and the seas?"

"I will," Donnalch said, "and my men with me. We do not forget either." The men moved out to the centre of the hall, facing the windows where the morning light was brightest. Callan and Donnalch stood beside each other, their swords in front of them. I followed Darel to stand behind the men. I had absolutely no idea of what they spoke, or what this meant.

Callan's voice rang out. "To the Empire unconquered," he proclaimed, bowing deeply. I followed suit, a memory surfacing of Colm's burial: Callan and the soldiers facing east and bowing. What did they bow to? What greater Empire? Where?

The brief ceremony seemed to be over, but the men remained standing. Donnalch turned to Callan. "Perhaps, Emperor," he said, "we should make this acknowledgement again, when we announce our truce. It would help, I think, to remind both sides that we come from a common history, although we have taken different paths. Perhaps, one day, we can find a road that we can all walk on, without enmity, and the truce we sign today may be the first step on that road." He spoke simply, with no trace of the challenge or posturing I had heard earlier.

Callan nodded. "Perhaps."

A line from Colm's history of the Empire came back to me: 'When there had been silence from the east for many years...'. I had thought, when I read it, that it had referred to a previous threat that had gone quiet, and had not asked Colm about it, although I had meant to. I wracked my brain. What did I know about the east? The mountains, the Durrains, which formed the eastern boundary of the Empire, and were said to be uncrossable. The Eastern Fort, where I had never been. Something more: the eastern fever. I heard the words in my mother's voice, but I couldn't place the context; something, perhaps, overheard as she instructed Kira. And what had the Emperor just said? What still may remain beyond the mountains and the seas? What was he talking about? I shook my head in frustration.

The movement caught Turlo's eye. He turned to look at me, frowning slightly. I coloured: did he think I disagreed with Callan, or Donnalch? I made a small gesture of placation; he nodded slightly, returning his attention to the leaders. Callan and Donnalch still faced each other, silent. Finally, Donnalch inclined his head slightly, a faint smile crossing his lips, and turned again to sit.

The men spoke quietly now, looking at papers. I watched for some minutes, but when I saw Kebhan and Ruar begin whispering to each other, I turned to Darel.

"Darel," I murmured, "this bowing to the east, what's it all about?"

"Don't you know?" he whispered back, surprise evident even in the hushed tone.

"No," I said. "Would I be asking, if I did?"

He remained quiet for a moment. "I suppose," he whispered finally, "it doesn't matter, to the women's villages. I can't tell you everything here, so this must do for now: once, many hundreds of years ago, maybe longer, we were part of a larger Empire, whose Supreme Emperor ruled from a city far to the east. What happened to that city, and those Emperors, we do not know. But what we know, the men, I mean, of command and strategy, and of fighting, we learned from them, and Callan and our Emperors before him take their titles in subservience to the Eastern Emperor, whether he lives or not, and remembers us if he does live."

I stared at him. "But what happened?"

He shrugged. "I told you, we don't know. Just that all messages, emissaries, trade, they all stopped. A very long time ago. We learn about it as cadets, and then we forget about it again, except in ceremonies, and at burials."

"But why does Donnalch know about it, and honour the memory? The north is not part of the Empire."

Darel shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe they have learned it from us in the long years there have been soldiers on the Wall?"

"Maybe," I murmured. My mind went back to a conversation I had had with Colm, months before. We had spoken of the building of the Wall, and how the northern armies had included men who had chosen to move north, rather than live under the rules of Partition. Perhaps, I thought, they brought the knowledge of the Eastern Empire, and the traditions around it, with them, and they have been maintained there to this day, as they have been here.

And what did it matter? This Eastern Empire had been gone for centuries. Rituals called upon many things: some invoked gods I did not believe in, and a long-disappeared Empire wasn't that different. I would take the knowledge north with me: perhaps it would help in finding common ground with those who would be charged with my keeping. It might be useful to know this, in a house of learning. I felt glad, suddenly, that I was not the village girl I had been before the day, nearly two years ago, when Casyn had ridden into Tirvan. I had known nothing then of our history, beyond a few bare facts, and nothing at all of the world beyond the borders of Tirvan. Since then I had learned to defend the Empire, ridden its length, lived in Casilla, served the Emperor. I had learned lessons of the heart, too, I thought, about love and loyalty, duty and obligation, and how difficult it was to separate them. I would take all that north, and learn what I could, for my Emperor, and for myself.