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The Poison Throne

Celine Kiernan

For Mam and Dad, I love you.

To Noel, Emmet and Grace, always and with all my heart.

And also my sincere thanks to Roddy Doyle and Catherine

Dunne, because, though most of us never get a chance to say

it, you made a huge difference to us.

A great teacher is never forgotten.

Contents

Praise for The Poison Throne

By Celine Kiernan

Copyright

The Voiceless Cat

Shearing's Ghost

Razi

A Blatant Tomcat

Under the King's Eye

The Eternal Engine Failing

The Danger of Subtlety

The Terrible Feast

Assassin

Torture

Fishing for Flies

Mortuus in Vita

Secrets

Thwarting the King

Carpenter and King

Leverage

What Price to Pay

Public Perception

Distance

A Game of Cards

Freedom to Leave

Hopeless Causes

Old Songs, Best Left Unsung

The Protector Lord's Men

New Quarters

Papers

The Tidy Plan

Step One

A Concerned Friend

Another Bloody Feast

The Defiant Spirit

First Goodbye

Escape

The Twisted Man

Make Merry, and Laugh While We May

No Way Back

Whispers in the Dark

Pretend

The Uncharted Path

Acknowledgments

Extras

Meet the Author

Interview

The Crowded Shadows

The Voiceless Cat

The sentry would not let them pass. Even when Wynter's father showed their papers, and explained that they were expected at court, the guards had remained sneering and unpleasant, and refused to open the gates. Eventually, the sentry door was shut and Wynter and her father were left outside while the watchman went off somewhere to "look see".

They had been waiting there, ignored and bewildered, for an entire quarter of the shadows - two hours on the northern clock - with that heavy sentry door shut in their faces, and Wynter could feel her blood beginning a slow rise to anger.

The men that Shirken had paid to accompany them from the North had gone long ago. She did not blame their guides for leaving. Their job had been to get herself and Lorcan safely from one kingship to another, to get them home, and that they had done. She had no quarrel with them. They had been polite and respectful all through the long journey south, and Wynter did not doubt that they were good and honest men. But they were not friends, they were not loyal, except to Shirken and the job he had paid them to complete.

No doubt Shirken's men had watched from the top of the rise as Wynter and her father had reached the foot of the hill and crossed the thick beams of the moat bridge. And no doubt they had waited until the two of them were safe within the protective shadow of the gate arch before turning back into the dark pines and heading home. Mission accomplished.

Wynter's horse, Ozkar, shifted impatiently beside her. He smelled the warm grass baking in the sun behind them, and the dark clear water of the moat. He was thirsty and hungry, and Wynter couldn't blame him for snorting and stamping his hoof. Still, she tugged his rein to get him to settle and shifted her weight discreetly from one foot to the other. Wynter, too, was tired, saddle-sore and generally weary to her bones of travelling. But, at fifteen years old, she was no stranger to courtly protocol and she remained outwardly stoic, as if undisturbed by this unending wait in the heat.

The well practised remoteness of her expression may have given nothing away, but she was, in truth, barely in command of her impatience. All she really wanted to do was throw off her boots and run up the meadows in her bare feet, fling herself down into the long grass and watch the sky.

They had been so long in the grey cold of the North that this singing heat and the clear sunlight of home were like white wine to her. She longed to revel in it. She longed to get her father out into the sun somewhere and let the summer heat bake some warmth back into his bones. He had wisely remained astride his horse, and now he sat there so quietly that Wynter glanced sideways to check that he was still awake. He was. She could see his eyes gleaming in the shadows beneath the brim of his hat. He looked neither left nor right, his gaze focusing inwards, just sitting, waiting for permission to come home.

His long body had a weary curl to it, though, and the palsy in his hands where they folded patiently against the pommel of his saddle was worse than usual.

Wynter eyed her father's trembling fingers with concern. Old men shook like that, not strong-shouldered craftsmen of thirty-three. Stop fretting, she told herself, looking forward again and straightening her back. A good night's rest is all he needs, a nice dinner and then he'll be right as summer rain.

She rubbed the tips of her fingers against each other, feeling the reassuring numbness of scar and callus. Worthy hands. That's what the two of them had. Worthy hands, capable of supporting them through anything. Out of habit, she glanced back at the roll of carpenter's tools on her horse's rump and then over at the similar roll on the back of her father's saddle. All present and accounted for.

Imperceptibly, Wynter shifted her aching feet again and, for once in her life, wished she was wearing her women's clothing and not her boys britches and short-coat. It was so much easier to move your feet and legs when they were hidden by a skirt. She sighed again at the misguided enthusiasm that had sent her leaping from her horse. She had flung herself from his back on their arrival, expecting the gates to be swept wide and a boisterous welcome to have been orchestrated. What childish conceit. And now, here she stood, pride and protocol not allowing her to remount, forced to stand here like a lowly pageboy until the sentry returned with their permission to pass.

An orange cat trotted delicately along the base of the wall, glowing like a sinuous ember as it passed out of the shadows. At the sight of it, Wynter forgot to be calm and courtly, and she allowed herself to smile and nod and follow the cat's progress with a turn of her head. The cat paused, one paw raised to its white chest, and regarded Wynter with affronted curiosity. Its very posture said, Can I believe my eyes? Have you dared to look at me?

Wynter's smile became a grin at the familiar weight of feline disdain, and she wondered how many generations of cat brothers and cat sisters had been born in the five years that she had been away. Before taking up her apprenticeship, Wynter had been the King's Cat-Keeper and she had known all her charges by name. Whose great-great-grand-kitten-grown-to-cat is this? she wondered.

She inclined her head and murmured, "All respects to you this fine day, mouse-bane," fully expecting the usual reply, All the finer for you, having seen me. But instead, the cat's green eyes opened in shock and confusion at her greeting, and it flickered suddenly away, a flame in sunlight, flowing across the moat bridge and disappearing down onto the loose gravel of the far bank.

Wynter watched it depart with a puzzled frown. Imagine a cat having such atrocious manners and such easily shattered composure! Something wasn't right.

The rattle of the sentry gate brought Wynter's eyes frontwards and the shadows under the portcullis were sliced by a sharp blade of sunlight as the gate opened a crack. The Sergeant of the Watch stuck his head out. He regarded the two of them without a trace of deference, as if surprised to find them still there. Wynter's court-face slipped smoothly into place.

Without another word to them, the Sergeant pulled his head back in and shut the sentry door with a snap of the lock. Wynter's heart dropped, but rose again instantly as the heavy door chains began to pull backwards with a grinding whine of metal on stone. Somewhere within the wall, the Master of the Entrance was turning the big wheel that wound the chains onto their spools.

Yes! thought Wynter, We have been granted access!

Slowly, slowly the shadows under the bridge were eaten up by sunlight as the heavy horse gate swung open to reveal the inner gardens and the King's domain.

Victuallor Heron was striding down the wide gravel path as they passed through the gate, his office robe flapping. He must have been at business to be dressed so formally and, indeed, Wynter saw that his fingers were stained with ink. His wrinkled old face was filled with joy and he was advancing on her father as if he would rise up from the ground, a great amiable bird, and descend upon him, horse and all, to wrap him in a hug that would hide both of them from view.

"Lorcan!" he cried as he swept along the gravel, "Lorcan!" and his immediate informality undid a thousand anxious knots in Wynter's mind. Some things, at least, were still all right.

Her father leaned forward from the height of his saddle and smiled tiredly down at his old friend. They clasped hands, her father's big splay-fingered shovel of a hand wrapped tightly in the long fingered agility of Heron's. Their smiling eye contact lingered and spoke volumes.

"Friend Heron," said Lorcan, his warm, rasping voice an embrace in itself, the feeling going far beyond the words.

Heron's eyes sharpened and he lowered his chin a little, his grip on Lorcan's hand tightening.

"I believe you were kept waiting," he said, his eyes flicking almost imperceptibly to the sentry. Something in the set of his face made Wynter glance at the attending guards and what she saw made her heart do a strange little pitter in her chest. The soldiers were openly staring at this exchange between Heron and her father. In fact, they were almost perceptibly lounging in the presence of the Victuallor. She swallowed down a lump of uncertainty and glanced back to where her father and Heron were exchanging a meaningful look.

Suddenly her father straightened in the saddle, drawing himself up so that his full height and the true width of his powerful shoulders became apparent. Wynter saw his face go very still. His eyelids dropped to hood the vibrant cat-green of his eyes, and his generous, curving mouth thinned and curled up on one side.

This was what Wynter thought of as The Mask or sometimes The Cloak. It pained her to see it here, despite its magnificence, and she though wearily, Oh Dad, even here? Even here must we play the terrible game? But she couldn't help the familiar surge of pride as she saw him transform, and there was a touch of cruel pleasure in her smile as she watched him turn in the saddle and put the weight of his suddenly imperious stare onto the lounging guards.

Lorcan said nothing for a moment, and for that little while the guards met his eyes as equals, not yet registering the transformation from mere craftsman to something more dangerous. He sat, regally immobile, in the saddle, and he swivelled his head to take in each man, deliberately examining their faces, one at a time, as if adding them to a list somewhere in a dark closet of his mind.

His long guildsman's plait swung in a heavy pendulum down his back, seventeen years' worth of growth, uncut since the day he'd been pronounced master of his trade. The deep red of it was only recently distinguished with swathes of grey, and it gave him the air of prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. Wynter saw doubt begin to grow in the soldiers' faces, saw iron begin to creep up their spines. Still Lorcan didn't speak, and as Wynter watched, the sentry crystallised into a military unit. Just like that. A gang of rabblerous louts one minute, a unit of soldiers at respectful attention the next.

"Bring me a mounting block," said her father, purposely addressing one man, leaving no doubt that this was an order. That one man, the Sergeant of the Watch himself, took off as sharp as you like and crossed the lawn, disappearing around the corner into the lesser stable block at a quick trot.

My God, thought Wynter, He doesn't even know yet who my father is, and there he goes. A carpenter - for all he knows a lowland shepherd's son, a fisherman's bastard, or any such variation on nothing at all - just told him to run fetch a mounting block, and look at him. He's off. She looked up at her father in absolute awe. And all with the weight of his stare, she thought.

The Sergeant returned at a fair clip, a mounting block held out before him like some precious baby. He placed it carefully beneath her father's horse and stepped back a respectful distance as Lorcan slipped from the stirrups and dismounted. If it caused him pain to step to the ground, he managed to hide it, even from Wynter who was fine-tuned to see it.

"Take our horses to the main stables; leave them in the care of the head boy. Tell him they are the property of Protector Lord Lorcan Moorehawke and his apprentice. Tell him I will be around to check on their comfort later today." If the softly rasped orders came as a blow to his pride, the Sergeant certainly didn't show it, and it was to his credit that he didn't bat an eyelid when this lowly carpenter's powerful title was revealed. Instead, he snapped off a crisp salute and gathered Wynter's father's reins from him without any further antipathy.

Wynter met her father's eyes. He would need to go with Heron now. Things were obviously afoot. "Go with them," he said, gently inclining his head to indicate the horses. "Make sure the tools are safe. Get some food and rest." He put his hand on her shoulder, briefly. She longed to tell him to lie down, to rest, to eat. But The Masks were on, for both of them now. And instead of daughterly concern, she dipped her head as an apprentice in deference to the master, and stood watching as Heron led him away up the broad sweep of gravel, to the King's quarters, no doubt, and the entanglements of state.

Shearing's Ghost

It was so quiet, midday in high summer and everyone was at rest, or cooling themselves by the river at the far end of the estate. Wynter knew that the gardens would not come to life again till late in the evening, when the temperature would return to bearable. For now she had the entire palace complex to herself, a rare blessing in this complicated world.

She left the horses, happy in their dim stalls, and quickly crossed the wavering heat of the redbrick stable yards. Her footsteps rang back at her from the stable buildings. Little swallows sliced the sunshine around her, darting moments of shadow in the shimmering air, and the sound of contented horses and the sweet and dreamy smell of dung soothed her.

Home, home, home. It all sang to her, You're home.

She swerved left, turned at the yellow dovecote and cut a path between the shady trees, angling through the yew walk, heading for the kitchen garden. The air was so much cooler here and thick with resinous scent. Wynter crossed the sleepy sun-hazed paths and colonnades with an undisguised smile on her face, drinking in all the old familiar turns and corners, taking her own sweet time.

All those years in the grey dampness of the North she had silently longed for home, and every night, in response to that unexpressed longing, her heart had conjured this walk for her. Night after night in honey-soaked dreams, she had taken this exact trip from stable to kitchen. And now here she was, real and certain, treading on older feet the happy path of her childhood. She would have liked Razi and Alberon to be here, or the cats maybe, flowing against her ankles as they used to, like warm smoke keeping her company.

Rounding a corner to the limestone courtyard, she was caught unawares by two girls at the well. Unfamiliar faces, or perhaps just grown beyond her recognition. The easy flow of their voices ceased as she came into sight and they turned to look at her. She hoisted the rolls of tools a little higher on her shoulder and continued her walk without any perceptible change of pace or expression.

The path would take her to within six or seven feet of them before it curved away again and they watched her as she approached. They were her age or perhaps a year or two younger, thirteen, maybe, plump-armed and rounded, their faces shaded under the brims of their wide straw hats. The taller girl was a Maid of the Bucket, out to get water. Her pails rested empty on the lip of the well, her yoke balanced on one shoulder. The other girl, younger than Wynter had first thought, maybe only ten, was a goose-herder and she idly batted her striped skirts with a switch as she looked Wynter up and down.

It wasn't the masculinity of Wynter's clothes that intrigued the girls. Women often travelled in britches and short-coats, and it was quite obvious that she'd been travelling - the strong smell of horse sweat and campfire off her was evidence of that. It wasn't even so much the fact that she was a stranger; palace life was always full of strangers. No, it was her apprentice garb that really grabbed their interest.

She could see their eyes travelling over the uniform, taking in the tightly bound club of hair at her neck and the red tunic embroidered with the carpenter's crest. Both these things told them that Wynter had been four years an authorised apprentice. They slipped a glance at her boots and their eyebrows shot up at the sight of green laces. Only the most talented of apprentices were granted permission for green. They checked for the guild approval pendant and saw it hanging around her neck. This told them that she had earned the right to wages, and not just the bed and board granted to all apprentices.

When they looked her in the eye again, she saw wariness and speculation. So here is something new, that look said, a woman doing well in a man's apprenticeship. She could sense the cogs turning in their minds as they decided how they felt about that.

Then the older girl smiled at her, a genuine smile that showed dimples, and nodded her head in respectful greeting. Wynter's heart soared like a bird released. Acceptance! She allowed her face to soften slightly and gave them a fleeting smile and a bob of her head as she passed them by.

As soon as her back was turned, Wynter made a triumphant little whooping sound under her breath. The girls' conversation had already bubbled up behind her as she left the yard and rounded a corner out of sight.

Into blessed shade again, the avenue of chestnut trees this time. She looked around in expectation and her grin deepened as she caught sight of what she'd hoped to see here: Shearing's ghost.

The lanky spirit glimmered in the dappled shadows ahead of her. If anything he was even more ragged than she recalled, his tattered cavalry uniform shredded at shoulder and knee, so worn as to be an affront to his magnificent military record. His head was down in thought as he prowled the trees, and Wynter quickened her pace to catch up to him. He was following the path as he always did, wending his endless journey down the avenue, flickering on and off as he traversed the patches of sunlight.

"Rory!" she called softly, as she trotted towards him, "Rory! It's me, I'm home!"

Shearing's ghost jumped and spun on his heels as she rapidly closed the distance between them. His pale, transparent figure shimmered like heat haze as he took her in, registered the changes, put the older face and body to the voice and realised it was his young pal and playmate. She saw a delighted smile begin on his pale lips and he half-raised a hand in greeting as she jogged down the leafy path. Then his face fell and his delight was replaced with concern. Wynter's grin began to fade as Shearing's ghost backed away, his hand up to stop her progress. He looked quickly around in obvious panic, checking that no one was watching.

Wynter ground to a halt, suddenly cold. Shearing was afraid. He was afraid to be seen with her! Wynter had never seen a ghost behave this way, ghosts didn't generally care what the living thought of them, and Shearing in particular had no truck with politicking: you were his friend or you were not, that was all there was to it. At least, that is how things had been, before she went away.

She stood, still as a statue, while Shearing made certain they were alone. Then he turned to her, his fine face a picture of regret, and held his finger to his lips. Shhhhhhhh, that gesture said, we are not safe. And then he faded away, his pitying look an echo in the hazy air.

She wasn't sure how long she stood there, her heart hammering in her chest, but it must have been quite a while, because the Maid of the Bucket caught up with her on her way back into the palace. The girl cleared her throat as she came up the path and it made Wynter startle and turn to look at her.

She stood aside to let the girl pass. As she came abreast of her, the swinging buckets spattering droplets on the toes of her dusty boots, the girl eyed Wynter, obviously puzzled by the sudden change in her demeanour. Where had the cool self-collection gone? And what was it that had so ruffled the stranger's calm? Wynter knew she'd be the subject of even more gossip in the maids' dormitory tonight.

Wynter purposely schooled her face and regulated her breathing. She nodded to the girl and waited until she was out of sight before allowing herself to relax once more into agitated thought.

Shearing's ghost had really thrown her. She felt as though the world had just slipped sideways and she was sliding towards the edge of it. What had happened here, that cats wouldn't reply to a civil greeting and ghosts were afraid to converse with a friend?

In the fifteen years of her life Wynter had come to understand and accept that most human beings were unpredictable and untrustworthy, faithful only for as long as the wind fared well. But ghosts? Ghosts and cats had always just gone their own way, and although you could never trust a cat to serve anyone's purpose but its own, you always knew where you stood with them. The orange cat on the bridge had been frightened and confused by Wynter's greeting, as disconcerted by her attention as Shearing's ghost had been. And this flung everything up into the air, all the foundations of Wynter's life undermined suddenly, leaving her shaky and confused.

She glanced around her, no one in sight, safe for the moment. She took a very deep breath and briefly closed her eyes. She let herself feel the reassuring weight of her father's roll of tools on her shoulder. The awls and adzes and planes and chisels, collected and cared for during his twenty-two years as apprentice and master, and her own roll of tools, not so substantial, only five years in the gathering so far. She settled her feet wider, balancing herself and feeling the solidity of the ground beneath her boots. Good boots, solid riding boots, made to last. She felt the stir of the sluggish air against her face. She listened to the sleepy chirp of sparrows waiting out the heat in the chestnut trees, the steady flutter of the leaves.

A slow trickle of sweat rolled down her shoulder blades, the sharp smell of travelling rose up from her clothes.

She used all these things to ground herself, as her father had taught her, to make herself solid and here. What her father called, in the moment. She grabbed her mind and corralled it. Stopped it flying off into all the possibilities of what might come to pass. She forbade herself any more speculation on what might have happened while she was away. All these things would be revealed in time, but only through careful and calm investigation. She centred her mind on just being there, breathing in, breathing out, feeling the ground beneath, the trees above, the weight of the tools on her shoulder.

She opened her eyes, and immediately there were three things Wynter knew for certain. First, she needed food. Second, she needed to find Razi and Alberon, and third, but not least, she needed a bath. Right, she thought, adjusting the tools and releasing her breath in a steady sigh, first things first and all other things would follow. She turned on her heel and calmly made her way to the kitchen.

Razi

At the rear of the palace, a door fronted by wide stone steps swept down to a gravel path. The path wound away from the castle, through an acre or so of tame woodland, and from there across a guarded moat bridge to the densely packed wild forest outside the bailey. The King used this route when he was in the mood for an informal day's hunting or fishing. He called it "the back door". He'd say, I'm sick of state, let's go out the back door, lads, and dally the day away like wild boys.

Wynter had often watched the King and her father head out that way together, their fishing poles or bows slung across their shoulders, a little knot of companions in tow. She stood now, looking up the path and recalled how Razi, Alberon and herself used to loll about on the steps watching the men leave, sulking that they couldn't go along. By the time The Great Changes had begun, Razi had already turned fourteen and she and Alberon were well accustomed to the sight of him disappearing up that path with the hunters. It was one of her most vivid memories: Razi, turning to look back at herself and Alberon, his affectionate smile meant to lift their spirits as he left them alone.

"I'll bring you back a rabbit!" he'd call, and he always did, or a pheasant or a clutch of quail eggs. Always some little thing to alleviate the fact that he had abandoned them. That he'd left Alberon, who haunted Razi like a shadow and felt his absence keenly.

When you're eleven, that's what they were told, when you're eleven you can join the hunt. But by the time they had turned eleven, everything had changed. Razi had been sent to the Moroccos with his mother; Alberon had been prisoner to the throne, a constant presence at the King's side; and Lorcan and Wynter had been dispatched North, to the cold and damp that had destroyed her father's health.

A high modulated wail broke into her thoughts, making Wynter jump and then laugh as she realised what it was. She hadn't heard that particular sound for years, and it had taken a moment for her to recognise it. The Musulman boys were kneeling in the shade of the trees, making undulating prayers to their God. Wynter rose onto her tiptoes and searched their bobbing ranks for Razi, but he wasn't there. Perhaps he hadn't been brought home at all? That thought sent such a sharp pang through her that she pushed it away. Razi had never been one for prayers, she reminded herself. He was here, just elsewhere in the complex.

The smell of roasting mutton intruded on her and her belly cramped in response. Good God, she was hungry. She dropped her recollections and turned away from them, her desire to be in the kitchen suddenly overwhelming.

At the head of the kitchen steps, the statue of the Cold Lady stood gazing wistfully up the woodland path. Despite the heat, her stone face was covered in frost and little icicles dripped from her delicately carved fingers. Wynter glanced up at her as she passed, marvelling, as always.

The maids and dairy-men had placed their pitchers of milk and cordial, pots of butter and bowls of cream all along the plinth at the hem of the Cold Lady's dress. It reminded Wynter of the offerings that the Midlanders left to their Virgin. She caught the sharp tang of cheddar as she passed by and she was so hungry that her mouth filled instantly with spit. She almost ran down the dark stairs into the fragrant gloom of the kitchen, the Musulmen's prayers rising musically into the sunlight behind her.

It took a moment for her eyes to adjust. A pot-boy pushed past her with a basket of onions, but no one paid her any attention and she was able to survey the organised chaos from her slightly elevated position at the foot of the stairs.

Oh yes. Here was what she had missed. Here was the true heart of home and the spirit of the kingdom she had longed for.

All the mixes of race and religion that summed up King Jonathon's realm seemed focused in the palace kitchen. All the brown and white and cream and yellow faces, sweating and shouting and running about. A high continuous cacophony of multilingual patois and pigeon-talk, gestures and pantomime, combining into an efficient, if disorderly, unit. And at its steaming hub, Marni, huge, bear-like, her meaty arms, her enormous red hands and absurd bulbous face towering over everyone. She was the centre of the cyclone, the perpetual-motion Goddess of the kitchen.

Wynter lifted her head to look over the produce-laden chopping table and sought out the poultry-spit-boy. When she saw him she smiled and some small thing settled in her chest, calming her.

The poultry-spit-boy was the lowest of the low in any palace kitchen. The little lad who would be employed to turn the lighter chicken and poultry spits, while the older men turned the heavy meat spits. She had seen spit-boys of six or seven, naked because of the heat, matted in grease and soot, being screamed at by the basters for flinching when the scalding fat of the meat had burnt their hands. She remembered watching in horror as a Midlands castle cook had beaten one tiny child with a wooden ladle. It made it all the worse that the little child still kept turning the spit. Even as his eyes swelled up into black puffs, he kept the handle going for fear the meat would burn and his punishment would worsen.

To Wynter, the spit-boy was the ultimate indication of the soul of a palace; most of them were blackened, hollow-eyed things, forgotten and abused.

The spit-boy who sat in Marni's kitchen was laughing while he turned the meat. His tiny hands were gloved and a big metal disc attached to the spit handle shielded him from the worst of the scalding splatter. He was sooty and shiny with grease and sweat, but he was clothed in a proper uniform and he was plump and jolly.

He was leaning forward, talking to someone who appeared to be crouched on the floor out of sight. As Wynter watched, the child took a piece of chalk from the unknown person and, still expertly turning the meat with one hand, he wrote something on the flagstones.

Wynter leant to the side to get a better view. A man was hunkered down beside the child, his dark head bent to look at the chalk marks on the floor. He was clad in the sky blue robes of a doctor, and, though his voice was too low for Wynter to hear the words, he said something to the child that brought a grin of pride to his greasy little face.

A pot-girl set a beaker of frothy milk down by the child and a plate of horse-bread and cheese. The little boy went to grab for it, but the doctor stayed him with one brown hand on his arm. Wynter saw his head tilt up to address the girl and her heart leapt as she recognised his profile. Razi.

"Did you boil the milk like I asked, Sarah?"

The girl nodded, her eyes wide.

"Boiled, not just warmed? Made to bubble, and then skimmed so that the evil humours dispersed?"

The girl nodded again and bobbed a curtsy as if that sealed the question. Razi, his back still turned to Wynter, released the child's hand and stayed crouched for a while, watching him cram food into himself. Even while eating, the little fellow continued to turn the meat at the exact speed necessary to let it cook without burning. It was as natural a movement to him as breathing.

As her friend rose from his crouch and turned, Wynter realised that she was not the only one to have grown. She had expected to come home - in her fifteen-year-old body, with her new length of leg and her new height - and find herself the equal of the fourteen-year-old boy she'd left behind, his counterpart in riding and swimming and climbing.

But Razi too had changed and it was a nineteen-year-old man who now stood before her, rubbing chalk dust from his brown hands. He was much taller. His face more defined somehow, all cheekbones and nose, his dark eyes just as large, but hooded. He was clean-shaven, but his glossy curls were in need of a trim and he kept pushing them back from his forehead with an impatient sigh. His blue doctor's robes suited him, and she felt an almost violent stab of pride in him, that he had finished his studies and graduated, despite the terrible times they'd just survived.

Alberon must be so proud of him, she thought.

Razi pushed his hand through his curls and looked around him absently as if trying to remember what came next. His eyes met Wynter's and she saw them pass her by, then snap back with sharp attention. She quirked an eyebrow at him, a challenging smile rising up in her face. I dare you not to know me, Razi Kingsson. I dare you not to recognise my face.

"WYNTER!" He bellowed it, his deep voice taking her by surprise and shocking the kitchen into stunned silence. The staff jerked and ducked as though a cannon had been fired. "WYNTER!" he shouted again, spreading his hands as if questioning her.

Wynter was so pleased to hear Razi say her name that she laughed out loud and tears sprang to her eyes.

She had sense enough to put the tools down before he waded through the crowd and snatched her from the bottom step. He swung her in a twirling arc that stole the breath from her and had the kitchen staff laughing and clutching for bits and pieces put in peril by his flying robes.

Good Lord, he's strong! she thought in surprise as he lifted her high. He was all deceptive grace, this new Razi, his powerful strength well hidden, his muscle so close to the bone as to make him look skinny. You've been working with horses, she thought, recognising the type of wiry power that the work gave to a body.

He flung her out and held her at arm's length. She hung like a cat in his hands, suspended under the armpits, her feet dangling above the ground, laughing. He looked her in the face and then up and down as if marvelling at her. This close up, she could see the gold flecks in his dark eyes. She noticed that there were fine lines around his eyes and mouth. The harsh African sun and five years of uncertainty must have added them to his young face, and she was suddenly fighting a lump in her throat. Razi. It really was him. Razi. Here and now. Alive.

"Hello, big brother," she said, her voice not quite steady, and he hugged her to him with a strangled laugh. He squeezed her so tightly that she had to knock him on the back to let him know she couldn't breathe.

They parted, breathless and laughing, their eyes shiny, and Razi kept his hand on her shoulder as if to stop her from flying away.

"You're in my way, you tinker's whelps." Marni's gravelly voice boomed behind them and they turned to grin at her, her preposterous face, her cloud of frizzy orange hair. She scowled at them, couldn't keep it up and beamed her gap-toothed smile on them instead, batting them with her huge hands so that they knocked into each other like nine-pins, giggling. "Your dad's still determined to turn you into a man, is he?" she growled, eyeing Wynter's uniform. "Ah well," she said, not quite able to hide her pride in Lorcan's unorthodox parenting. "'Tis a damn site better'n marryin' you off to some musty Lord."

Marni practically carried them, one under each arm, and deposited them in a corner out of the way. She laid the table with bread and cheese and cold chicken, a bowl of salt, a bowl of mustard paste, two knives and a fork. She met Razi's inquiring eye as she set down two beakers of cold milk and rolled her eyes to heaven.

"It's been boiled!" she exclaimed impatiently, "God forbid there should be humours in it," and she lumbered off, wiping her hands on her apron and scowling at some under-chef who was slicing something too thin. Razi smiled to himself and took a piece of chicken onto his plate while Wynter began to pile bread and chicken and cheese onto her own.

Razi played with his meat, shredding it into a pile of neat strips, then shoving it around with his finger. He eyed the amount of food Wynter was packing away and a slow grin began to creep up his face, making his big dark eyes dance with suppressed laughter. Wynter's mouth was too full to permit any kind of conversation, but their eyes kept meeting as she shovelled yet more food down her. It was just like the old days, when they could make each other dissolve into giggles simply by looking.

"Stop it!" she warned, spraying breadcrumbs from a too full mouth, "I'll choke!"

He grinned wider and contrived an innocent expression that only made her worse. Razi's grin, her full belly and all around them the kitchen doing its work - it was so wonderful, so right that Wynter thought she might start to cry if she wasn't careful.

She took a deep breath, saw some similar emotion in Razi's face and the two of them looked away from each other suddenly, taking great interest in the convoluted machinations of the kitchen. Marni glanced over at them, a moment of unguarded tenderness on her face, then she turned away, scolding some poor scuttling man who was in her way.

"Where is Alberon, Razi?" Wynter asked. She kept her voice low and only glanced sideways at him. They had had no contact for the last five years; had, until now, not even been sure if the other had survived. Now, questions, if asked at all, would have to be asked gently, obliquely, for fear of opening old wounds or uncovering secrets best left hidden.

Razi cleared his throat and shook his head. "I don't know where Albi is, little sister. He is not here. Father says... Father says that he has sent him to the coast, to inspect the fleet." Their eyes met briefly and Wynter looked away.

Razi's face told her that he doubted the King's story, and Wynter's mind filled with questions and her chest tightened with fear.

Why would Alberon, legitimate son and sole heir to the throne, be sent so far from home after such a long and dangerous period of unrest? On the other hand, why would the King lie to Razi - his eldest boy and bastard son, much loved and trusted by the throne? Wynter had no answers, only fear, sly fear, skittering about in her heart like a secret disease.

She glanced around the kitchen, at the sweating, toiling faces, the familiar domestic scene, and sensed the cold waters of politics running beneath it all. Vast and dark and rushing, ready to sweep any of them away. We must be careful, she thought, we must be careful.

So much that she wanted to ask, but in court life there are things you cannot ask, not aloud, not in a crowded kitchen, not even of your oldest friend.

Razi was tense as a horse at a starting gate, his dark eyes roaming the room, his agitation almost audible. He rubbed his fingers anxiously against his palms and Wynter longed to lay her hand on his, to stop him betraying himself so obviously.

Behind Razi there was a tray of jam tarts cooling on the rack near the high window and, as Wynter watched, the Hungry Ghost lifted two of them to its invisible mouth and they disappeared into mid-air, a bite at a time. Wynter nudged Razi with a smile and stole a glance at Marni, waiting for her usual stormy response to the pesky spirit. Things would be thrown! Curses would be bellowed! Marni's ongoing feud with the Hungry Ghost had always been good for a laugh.

Razi lifted his eyes to see what Wynter was nudging him for and his dark face lost some of its colour. Wynter just had time to register this, when she saw Marni notice another two tarts float up and disappear in a shower of crumbs. The cook's face clouded over with a moment of pure rage, and her expression stole Wynter's smile from her. This wasn't Marni's usual melodramatic overreaction, this was something deeper rising to the surface, some seething undercurrent, tapped and exposed as if Marni's head had been cut open for a moment and its contents revealed.

Wynter saw the cook's hand tighten around her ladle, her whole body shaking with the ferocity of her emotions. Then the giant woman turned her back, her face still wicked with feeling, and pretended not to see, as the invisible spirit demolished the tray of tarts.

Wynter turned to Razi, her eyes wide. He was sighing with huge relief, his eyes on Marni as she stalked away.

"I met Rory on my way here." Wynter said it quietly, her voice purposely inaudible to anyone but her friend. Still, Razi's reaction was shocking. He turned on her, spinning completely around in his seat to face her, his fists clenched, and she pulled away from him, momentarily frightened by the anger in his eyes.

"Did he speak to you?" he hissed, his voice a deadly whisper.

She shook her head. "No. He wouldn't. I..."

All the anger drained from Razi's face in an instant, to be replaced by the same shaky relief he'd shown when Marni had allowed the tarts to be eaten. He slumped against the table and put his hand to his forehead. The breath seemed to be knocked out of him and it was only when he murmured, "Good man, Rory. Decent fellow," that Wynter realised that his anger hadn't been directed at her, but at Rory Shearing and the thought that the spirit might have spoken to her.

"What's going on, Razi?"

He lifted his eyes and scanned the kitchen again, not answering.

"Razi?"

He tilted his head, resting his cheek on his hand, and Wynter realised that he was shielding his mouth from the view of the rest of the room.

"Wynter. There are no ghosts anymore." He locked eyes with her, he was telling her something very, very important here. Life or death important. "Father has decreed it. And so it must be."

Wynter laughed in disbelief, glanced furtively around the room and leaned in closer, searching his face. "What...?"

"Listen to me. Listen. There are no ghosts, Wyn. Understand? Anyone who says otherwise, anyone who communes...? They're gibbeted, Wynter."

That made her sit back, with a snort of disgust. "Razi, that's not funny, I can't believe you'd think that was funny--"

He grabbed her hand and pulled her in close. "I'm serious."

She snatched her hand away, rubbing the wrist. "It's rumours. That's all. Razi, have some sense! It's your father's enemies, spreading lies. The King would never--"

"What way did you come home? Over the mountains, yes? Through the forests? Nothing but hamlets and woodcutters and boar, am I right?"

She nodded dubiously, still rubbing her burning wrist.

"I came home via the port road, Wyn. I came up through all the main towns. There are gibbets at every crossroads. There are cages, Wynter. Father has re-introduced the cages, and people seem more than willing to use them."

Oh God. Gibbets? Gibbets and cages? Here, where they had been illegal since the very day Jonathon took the throne? No. No, no, no.

Since her journey north Wynter had become accustomed to the sudden scent of rotting flesh on the air, to turning a corner and being confronted with a ragged corpse, caged in iron, swinging in the breeze. But she never thought to find them here, never here.

Even at the beginning of the insurrections, when the Circle of Lords were pressuring the King into an inquisition, Jonathon had not succumbed to temptation.

The easiest way to make a people hate is to torture them into submission, he had said, Happy people are stable people. One will win more hearts and minds with justice than one will ever do with the whip.

"Oh Razi," she whispered. "What has happened here?" Something else occurred to her and she looked up at him sharply. He flinched, as if anticipating what she was thinking. She swallowed against a suddenly dry throat and said, "Where are my cats, Razi? I met a stranger kitten on the moat bridge and it didn't even reply to my greeting." Her heart dropped to the soles of her feet at the look in his eyes. Then he couldn't look at her anymore. He turned his head and gazed out into the kitchen for a moment as if trying to find a way to break terrible news.

"No one speaks to cats anymore, sis. Please, please, don't mention them to anyone." He looked her in the eye again. "Please."

"Why?" she whispered, but then almost immediately held her hand up to stop his answer. She didn't really want to know. Jonathon's kingdom was the last in all of the Europes where cats still spoke to humans. Everywhere else, fear and superstition had driven a wedge between the species that had ended all but the most basic of communication. Wynter had missed many, many things up North, not least among them her cats and their strange, inhuman conversations. She looked down at the table, her lips compressed, and Razi waited patiently until she said, "What happened?"

He took her hand, gently this time. "I don't know the full story, Wyn. I don't know much, if the truth be told. But Father got it into his head that the castle cats... well, that they knew secrets. That they knew something specific that he did not want known. I think he was afraid that they would talk, that they would tattle."

Wynter sniffed derisively at the thought of a cat tattling. But Razi's expression was terribly sad, and he squeezed her hand. Oh Razi, what? Just say it.

"He had them poisoned, Wyn. All of them."

She gasped, a high lamenting cry, and Marni turned her head sharply to look. Wynter tried to pull her hand from Razi's grip, but he held on and reached over and grabbed her other hand, pulling her arms towards him so that she had to face him.

"Shhh now," he said, very firmly and low. "Shhhh." His look said, Remember where you are. Remember who we are.

Overwhelmed with sorrow, she struggled against his strong grip, and turned her head up to the ceiling, tears flowing freely down her face. Oh no, she thought, oh no. Not that.

"I'm sorry."

"Even GreyMother?" He nodded. "Even ButterTongue? SimonSmoke? Coriolanus?" A nod for each beloved name, and then no more nods, just a tragic, sympathetic tilt of his head as the list went on, her wrists still trapped in his hands, held up before him as if she were his prisoner.

A Blatant Tomcat

"That is enough now, girl! And you! Boy! Let go her wrists; you look like you're trying to arrest her."

Marni's harsh voice was low and commanding as she loomed above them, blocking them from prying eyes. Razi and Wynter leapt to obey her. He released her wrists as if burned and she took a sobbing breath and scrubbed the tears from her eyes. Marni handed Wynter a wet cloth, her face hard, and at the same time she shifted to keep her hidden from view. Wynter was grateful for the privacy while she cooled her burning face with the cloth.

Marni looked from one to the other of them, her face a thundercloud. They had spent their childhood in her care, tottering around her feet like strays. Razi's mother had never been interested in her son, except that he brought her nearer to the throne, and Alberon and Wynter had lost their mothers at birth, their love never known to them at all. Marni had raised the three of them like some kind of maternal bear lumbering through their early years. She had been their comfort and their rock, but she wasn't soft or tender as some might expect a mother to be. She was loving in the hard, protective way that animals are loving. They were her cubs, and her cubs would survive, but to survive they'd have to be tough.

"Oh, Marni, my cats... the ghosts..."

"There's worse than dead cats and silenced ghosts afoot, child. Remember who you are. Get yourself under control."

The bustle of the kitchen continued unabated behind her broad back, but still Marni spoke so low as to be barely audible to them. She put two wooden beakers onto the table with a sharp smacking sound.

"Drink that," she whispered fiercely, "all of it. Even you, boy!" She jabbed a finger at Razi, "Your Musulman God won't strike you down for the sake of a little white wine cordial."

She glared at the two of them, the question in her eyes unmistakable. Are we all under control now? And they nodded their reply. Yes, Marni. She snorted like a bull and barged back into the fray.

Alcohol should be avoided when angry or depressed. This was what Wynter's father had taught her about drinking. Wine is for pleasure, not pain. Still, Wynter drained her cordial in a few swallows, because her throat was burning with tears and because the drink was cold and sweet and numbing. Razi sipped his obediently and then sat like a stone beside her. The kitchen pretended that nothing had happened.

In the long silence that followed, Wynter felt the drink go to work on her head, and immediately regretted that she'd gulped it down so fast. Thank God she'd just eaten, because she began to suspect that there was a little more wine than cordial mixed into the brew.

The drink, the heat of the kitchen, and Razi's steadfast presence all combined with her long journey and her shock, and she was suddenly drenched in an almost unmanageable tiredness. If she could have laid her head onto the crumby table and drifted off without shaming herself in front of the staff, she would have.

"Razi," she mumbled, dredging up the words with an effort, "Let's go outside. Let's walk down to the river. Razi, let's... let's go for a swim."

Yes, they could find a place in the shade, under the willows maybe, and they could kick off their boots. She could strip to her underthings and just sleep like the dead while Razi watched over her, as he had done so many times when they were children.

He shifted beside her, a shrug. There was genuine regret in his voice, but even so, his words gave her an unexpected and terrible pang of jealousy. "I can't, little sister. I'm waiting for someone."

"Who?" she demanded, but Marni's sudden bellow startled the two of them and distracted him so he didn't hear.

"Where the hell have you been?" The giant cook's ferocious voice silenced the room for a moment so that everyone turned to see the object of her fury.

A plump little maid was slinking up the basement stairs, cheeks all pink and heated-looking, a guilty expression on her face. She scurried towards the plate board and ducked past Marni, who lifted a meaty hand to her in mock threat. The blushing girl pushed her way in between the other maids and grabbed a cloth and a bottle of sweet oil and commenced to oiling the wooden platters for tonight's meal. There immediately rose up an urgent and giggling whispered conversation between herself and her companions.

Wynter was just turning to repeat her question to Razi when she noticed someone coming down the back stairs. Her immediate impression was that the King had hired a troupe of entertainers and that they'd sent a representative to negotiate with the kitchen for food.

She watched him glide down the stairs, as light as a cat in his soft leather boots. Acrobat's boots, she thought. He had that blatant confidence that comes from being part of a clan; the bold look that men only get when they have a gang of brothers backing them up. He'd either charm you or slit your throat, this one, and you'd never know the reason for either. Wynter suspected that you could search him for days and never find all the blades he had hidden behind his smile.

She imagined that this young man's people found him invaluable, but his skills wouldn't be needed here. Unlike most castle kitchens, this one freely supplied the transient trades with food and drink. Still, he wasn't to know that, and it would be interesting to see how he'd deal with the force of nature that was Marni.

Wynter propped her heavy head in her hand and yawned; she was so very tired. She watched the man through bleary eyes, waiting for him to approach the cook. He paused halfway down the stairs and tucked his long hair behind his ear, assessing the room from a position of advantage, and Wynter had a moment to take a better look at him.

He was young enough, eighteen, maybe even nineteen. Slight, with a cat's sly grace. Maybe a head shorter than Razi. He was pale as milk and his face was narrow, watchful, almost amused, framed by a long curtain of straight black hair. He looked brazenly around him with no pretence at deference.

Blatant, thought Wynter, and dangerous. Very dangerous, to himself and to others, because this one doesn't know his place.

She saw his eyes find Marni, who would make short shrift of him indeed if he kept that expression on his face. Wynter waited for the courtier's mask of obsequiousness to slide itself into place, but to her surprise, his eyes moved past the big woman and settled on the pink-cheeked maid who had come in before him.

A cold blade of comprehension slid up Wynter's spine as the maid's companions nudged each other. Wynter saw the girl shoot a quick glance over to where the young man now stood. He grinned at her, and she ducked her smiling head, her cheeks flaming, as the whole gaggle of maids dissolved into giggles. There was no doubt now where the young woman had been, and what had kept her late for work.

Wynter sat up slowly, her distaste sparking to hot anger as the young rake dropped the maids a knowing wink and bit the tip of his tongue between his teeth in a gesture both suggestive and crude.

Oh, you're in for a shock, she thought viciously, you may be used to different, but this is not a household that makes toys of its women.

Her hands bunched to fists and she went to say something to Razi, but stopped when the young man spotted them, raised his chin in greeting and began to come their way.

He's seen the doctor's robes, Wynter thought, and wants a consultation. Some ache or pain, or some fever in the troupe. Well, I'll give him something to need consulting about...

She bristled as the man crossed the room, ready to let rip at him. But, to her amazement, Razi, his face wry, lifted a finger in greeting and murmured to himself, "So that's where you've been, you bloody tomcat. You'll get yourself tarred if you're not careful."

Blissfully ignorant of Razi's comment, the young man slid and sidled his way through the kitchen turmoil, his mouth lifted in a crooked smile as he rapidly approached their table. My God! thought Wynter, her face incredulous, This? This is who Razi was waiting for? This rake? Has the world gone mad?

Her mouth was actually hanging open when the fellow finally got to them, and she had to make a conscious decision to snap it shut as he sauntered up and lounged against the wall by their table.

"Razi," he said by way of greeting, drawing the name out into something insinuating and sly. At the same time, he looked Wynter up and down with undisguised interest. She'd seen that look before, had become accustomed to it ever since her body had blossomed into all its various curves and roundnesses. She treated it to an even greater measure of shuttered disdain than usual.

"Christopher," murmured Razi, putting a similar sly emphasis on the name, and Wynter was astounded to see that he looked amused.

Christopher, eh? she thought. Well, I've met people like you before, Christopher. Wynter said the name in her head, drawing it out as Razi had done, but without the obvious affection that her friend had put into it. She found herself glaring up at this man, her rage such that she made no effort to hide it. I've met lots of people. Just. Like. You.

You saw them all the time in palace life, people who latched on. People who used. They would find someone close to the throne and befriend them, usually separating them from the people who cared about them, before bleeding them dry. Not that Razi was any type of idiot. But Wynter had seen fear, isolation and need make fools of the wisest men. I'm watching you, she thought as the young man curled his lip at her in a very speculative smile. I have your measure.

She opened her mouth to say something sharp about the maid, but Razi was already talking. He was smiling up at the young man, his slow, spreading, generous smile. The easy tone of his voice and the amused affection on his face filled Wynter with a sudden and childish jealousy and she had to bite down on her bottom lip to stop unreasonable tears from springing to her eyes. It dawned on her that she was really quite drunk.

Step back, step back, she thought urgently, sitting up straighter and breathing deep to clear her head, "speak not in your cups, lest ye regret when sober". What had she been thinking, slurping down that cordial when she was already so tired? She forced herself to focus on the conversation and tried to quell the urge to leap up and push this Christopher right over on his backside and kick him up the kitchen steps.

Stop looking at my friend like that! she thought, He's not yours.

Razi was murmuring low, his head tilted to look up into Christopher's face. The young man had slanting grey eyes, the eyelashes so thick and black as to seem kohled. He was leaning down, listening to Razi with an indulgent smirk, his hands tucked behind his back.

"If you get one of those girls with child, Marni will march you up the aisle herself and I'll help her tuck you into your marriage bed, you bloody rake."

Wynter expected the young man to affect innocence, to spread his hands, or to play the man of the world, but his face settled for a moment into genuinely hurt inquiry, "You don't think I'd ever ruin a lass, do you, Razi?"

Razi smiled and shook his head slightly and the young man straightened, his tomcat grin back in place. "Anyway," Christopher said, turning his eyes to the maids again, "I only give what's asked of me; never go where I'm not invited, so to speak. And you of all people should know there's ways and means of avoiding that kind of trouble, what with being a doctor and all... aye..." he murmured, his eyes drifting along the row of giggling maids at the plate board. "There's enough bastards in this world without adding to their poxy ranks."

Razi just smiled, but Wynter felt the sting of that remark on his behalf and bristled. "Many of those bastards are more worthy than you," she said sharply, and she was surprised that Christopher didn't just burst into flames at the heat of her glare.

Christopher levelled his grey eyes at her and half-smiled. "I meant no offence, little mankin. There are only bastards standing here." He bent his waist in a little bow.

Oh! He was assuming that she'd been offended on her own behalf, and was telling her that he, too, was the product of an unwed union. Blind indignation rose up in her and she almost said My parents were wed, thank you very much! The retort leapt to her lips but she realised, just in time, that the indignant pride in those words did nothing but insult Razi and expose a previously unsuspected prejudice in herself.

Careful, she thought, quickly gathering her wits, the wine has tied your head in knots.

"Your little friend looks tired, Razi." Christopher's lilting voice swam through the fog, "Would you not let him to bed?"

"Oh, for heaven's sake!" exclaimed Wynter, slapping the table with one hand, the other pressed to her pounding temple. "You know full well I'm not a boy! Stop acting the jester, you haven't the wit!"

She felt rather than saw the young man draw himself up, and thought, Ah, here we have it. You suffer from pride, don't you, you dangerous braggart. Pride controls you.

"I only meant not to insult your disguise, firebrand." His voice was cold. "But you might want to work on it a little harder. You'll never pass for a boy with all those bumps and curves."

She lifted her head and raised her lip in what she hoped was a disparaging sneer. "I'm not disguised as anything," she said, "I'm exactly what you see."

"A boy who butchers wood for a living?" sarcasm dripped from every word, and Wynter glared at him.

"A fourth-year apprentice, guild approved, chartered for the green." None of it meant a thing to him. She could see him trying to process the meaning behind the words and failing. Where are you from, she thought suddenly, that you don't know guild ranking in something so prevalent as carpentry?

Even the lowest dung-haulier, attached to the tiniest principality, would know their ranks and roles off by heart. For a courtier to be so utterly ignorant about the symbols of professional rank would be tantamount to being blind, deaf and dumb.

She straightened slowly and looked at him anew. A newcomer then, a stranger to court life. This made him the most dangerous of idiots, ambitious but ignorant. She had seen people like him cut bloody swathes through a royal household. Intentionally or otherwise, people like this could be a poison that would blacken the body of state, spreading death and corruption in their wake.

He saw the antipathy in her eyes and she saw a steel rise up in his.

Beside her, Razi shifted, but Wynter didn't look at him. She just kept her eyes locked on Christopher's. Then the young man suddenly tilted his head into an unexpected smile, dimples showing at the corners of his mouth. His eyes sparkled with wicked humour and, just like that, she found herself ensnared in a staring contest, unwilling to be the first to look away.

How did this happen? she thought desperately, feeling panic building at this ridiculous turn of events. How have I let this dolt corner me so badly?

He was, after all, just one of the many flies that buzzed around the dung heap of state. She should be able to brush him off Razi without breaking her stride. But here she was, stuck in a childish staring match, her dander up and too proud to break off.

Razi cleared his throat, "Children, children..." he admonished mockingly, but his warm voice sounded troubled.

"When does your troupe move on?" Wynter asked coldly, not breaking her stare.

She saw incomprehension in Christopher's face, and he shook his head and squinted at her, "What do you mean?"

She waved a hand up and down to indicate his clothing. Unconsciously, her eyes followed the gesture. Damn! But Christopher appeared not to notice. "You're an entertainer, aren't you? A tumbler of some ilk, or a musician?"

She heard Razi hiss in a breath beside her, and a strange, cold stillness came over Christopher.

"Christopher Garron is my horse-doctor." Razi's voice was hard and had an odd quality to it. "In the three years and a half that I've known him, he's taught me more than I'd ever hoped to learn about horses and their care."

Three and a half years? They'd known each other that long? And, judging by Razi's body, horses had become his passion, so he and Christopher must spend a great deal of each day together. Over three years of being in each other's company, working together at something they loved. While I rotted alone in the dank North. She squashed this thought as viciously as she could, it being unfair to both herself and to Razi. Would she truly have denied him a friend in all those years? Hadn't she longed for a friend herself? No, she thought, I longed for home. For home and for Razi and for Alberon - no other. And anyway, I would have made a better choice than this... this dangerous sybarite.

Even as she thought those harsh things about him, it was already becoming painfully clear to her that the main reason she distrusted this Christopher Garron was the very fact of his friendship with Razi. She was so jealous of him that she could happily have stabbed him in the heart.

Christopher was speaking again, that lilting Northland accent. His eyes were cold, his expression flat as iron. The dimples had disappeared from the corners of his mouth. "You're right. Very observant. I am a musician. I tend to Razi's horses because of my skill and love of them, not because it's my heart's passion. I'm the best musician in all the North Countries. Famed in Hadra, where I'm from, for my skill on the guitar and fiddle."

Later, when she was lying in bed, trying to sleep, she would remember the way he said that, the look in his eyes still eating at her. I am a musician. Not I was, or I used to be, but I am. As though the music still burned inside him as a living thing, trapped and scrabbling to get out, but never capable of escaping.

"I'm not in disguise, despite your implications. I don't need to dress myself up as something I'm not in order to win some attention." His tone was acidic and he sneered down at her carpenter's outfit. "And though I know there are some men who like those kind of games, I don't believe our friend here is one of them."

Razi scraped out another little hiss. "Christopher..." he warned softly.

Wynter held her hands out, with all their lumps and scars and calluses.

"It's not my clothes that make me what I am. Nor my proximity to the throne that earns me my bread. I make my own way. These are workman's hands, they speak for themselves." She lifted them up to him, palms out, and that gesture, too, would haunt her in the night. Why that? Why had she chosen that particular gesture with which to prove her worth?

Christopher just stood looking at her, his grey eyes opaque, his face unreadable.

"I see that you think I make use of our mutual friend," he said coldly. "I assure you I do not. Perhaps this prettied up little farce of a life suits you, but I no more want to be in it than a cat wants to dance, I--"

"Oh God, that's enough!" Razi kept his voice low and he slapped the table only lightly, but the two of them leapt, startled by his sudden sharpness. "Why don't I just stand up, here and now, and let the two of you mark your territory out on me like dogs! Wynter, you can have my left leg, Christopher, you have my right! Then we'll all know where we stand and this bloody... this bloody prowling can stop!"

He glared up at them in exasperation. His words cut right to the bone of the matter, shaming them both, and they deflated like pig-bladders after a stick and ball match.

"I just... I wanted you to be friends!" he said gently, "I want you to like each other. Can we at least give it a try?"

Wynter looked at Christopher. There was uncertainty in his grey eyes and hurt, and she still felt a bitter gall of jealousy in her heart and the not unreasonable fear that he was a destructive influence. He was a destructive influence, goddamn him. But for Razi's sake she half-stood and held her hand out to shake Christopher's.

She felt an immediate flash of anger when he hesitated, and she withdrew her hand and glared. Christopher released a grunt of frustration, looked about him in distress and then submitted with a sigh. Reluctantly, without looking at her, he held out his hands, not for her to shake, but for her to see, and Wynter gasped and pulled away slightly.

Even with all her experience of wounds and scars and the terrible disfigurements that war and hard labour brought to men's bodies, she found his hands shocking. They were so out of keeping with his easy, self-confident grace. It was with a sudden pang of admiration for his skill that she realised he'd managed to keep them hidden from view the whole time since his arrival.

He's a thief, she thought with a shock.

"I'm not a criminal," he muttered, as if reading her thoughts, and she could tell that he was used to people jumping to that conclusion. A natural enough one, this being the punishment for theft in the North. But she'd never seen it done so viciously, with such awful scarring, and never to both hands. She gazed at the terrible wounds as if expecting them to speak, or transfigure.

He had fine, strong, white hands, the fingers slim and nimble looking. Yes, she thought, without satisfaction, a musician, God help him, and it's obvious. But the middle finger of each hand was missing. The one on his right was a relatively clean amputation, the finger chopped from its socket, although the mess of shallow scars and runnels up the back of his hand told her that he must have fought madly. The knife had skipped and slid about, mutilating the surrounding flesh and the other fingers around it as the blade dug out his finger. The wound on his left was truly awful, because it spoke of such tremendous brutality. Only a small, gnarled stump of the finger remained, and that was badly crooked, as though the perpetrator had attempted literally to twist the finger from its socket. A long, pale ribbon of scar ran down the back of his hand and disappeared into his cuff, clean and surgical, as if someone had drawn an infection, releasing the pressure on an abscess.

Wynter couldn't help it - her first thoughts were, he has the advantage on me now, anything I say will make me look an ignorant brute. And then, no more to her credit than the first thought, you seem to have a talent for annoying folk, Christopher Garron. Whoever did this really wanted to hurt you.

She looked up into his face, expecting triumph, and waited for him to press home his advantage. He had all the weaponry he needed now to make her look small in front of Razi. But there was only a shy kind of apology in his smile, and her heart jolted in her chest like an abrupt bang on a drum: My God, you really have no idea how to play the game, do you?

He remained standing there, this slim, pale young man with fine black hair and slanting grey eyes, shyly holding out his mutilated hand, unaware of her ungracious thoughts. She must have stared at him for a long moment because eventually he said, "Do you still want to shake my hand?"

Oh Christopher, she thought, with a sudden surge of sympathy, this life will eat you up. It may well choke on you in the process, but you won't survive it. And then, with much colder intent, she thought, I'm not letting you take Razi down when you go.

She stood smoothly and smiled and took his hand. He accepted her handshake with no further self-consciousness, looking her in the eye and nodding a smile at her, the dimples back in force. "I'm Wynter," she said, "Well met, Christopher Garron. God bless you and your path."

And Razi grinned with delight.

Under the King's Eye

"How is Lorcan? Does he fare well?" Razi slid his eyes sideways to her, judging her reaction. Here was one of those oblique questions that meant everything or nothing, depending on how you responded to them. The course the conversation took after such an inquiry was up to the one giving the answer. Does he fare well? Could be inferred as, is he alive? Has he maintained his pride? His sanity? His health? She could deflect all those subtexts with a simple he's fine, and with anyone but Razi a simple he's fine would be what she'd give.

But this was Razi and she said, "My father is unwell, brother. I fear for his life."

Razi turned to her, concern written in broad strokes across his handsome face. The three of them were making their way up the back stairs, Christopher and Razi having decided that they needed to show Wynter their beloved horses. She had indicated her consent with a tired shrug; maybe they would become absorbed and she could lie down on a haystack and close her eyes for a while. Christopher had walked on ahead of them, giving them space. Not so dense then, she thought, as he had casually let the distance between them grow.

"Would your father allow me to examine him? Or would it be imprudent to bring it up?"

"Oh God," she groaned, "don't bring it up, Razi, please. He's mortal afraid of seeming vulnerable."

"I don't blame him in the least," muttered her friend, his brown eyes darkening. "Where is he now? Maybe I can sneak a look at him, judge his humours from afar."

Wynter sighed and ran her hand over her burning eyes. Razi took her by the elbow and leaned in as they continued up the steps. "Wyn? You need to lie down, you're all worn thin. Why don't we accompany you to your chambers, and let you bathe and rest? I'm being selfish..."

She laughed and shook her head and held a hand up to silence him.

"Razi, even had I a chamber to retire to, I couldn't bear the thought of being apart from you so soon. I'll lay my head on a bag of hay and let yourself and that fellow play with the horses, all right?"

He smiled and nodded.

"My father is with Heron," she continued, "I assume they went to the King."

Razi gave a bitter little laugh. "So, the wily old bird got to him first, eh? There's no surprise."

Wynter paused, the bitterness in Razi's voice chilling her, and she put out her hand to stay her friend. On the steps above them, Christopher stopped immediately and turned to wait for them, slouching patiently against the wall.

"Razi, is Her--" Wynter glanced up at Christopher who was listening without even pretending not to. She dropped her voice to a whisper. "Is Heron no longer our friend?"

Razi bit his lip, whether in impatience or uncertainty, Wynter couldn't tell. Then he gave her a very pointed look, and when he spoke, his low voice carried, clear and sure, and intentionally up the stone steps to the pale young man above them. "Little sister, I am only certain of having two friends in this castle, and both of them are standing on these stairs with me now. Do you understand?"

Christopher turned and quietly mounted the steps. Wynter watched him until he rounded the corner out of sight. His expression hadn't changed in the slightest at Razi's words, and she had no idea if he even understood the responsibility that Razi had just lain at his feet. Lain at our feet, she reminded herself.

"Court life will kill that fellow," she said, then looked Razi straight in the eye and knew at once that he already understood this. "He's not suited for it, Razi. He's too direct. It will destroy him."

Razi shifted uncomfortably and dropped his gaze. "I don't intend to be here long enough for that to happen, sis. I'm moving on."

She almost buckled when he said that. She had to physically restrain herself from grabbing onto him and screaming his name. She swallowed her heart back down into her chest, where it lay like a brick of lead, leaching poison into her system. She shook her head in denial.

"I intend to leave as soon as I can," he said, looking earnestly down at her. "I'm going to Padua, to teach at the university. They have granted me a fellowship. I will be able to continue my research, is that not wonderful? And, Wyn, I would very much like to set up a household there. I want Christopher to breed my horses for me and I will be needing to build a house... I was going to ask--"

"Razi!" Christopher came running back around the corner, hissing as he raced down the stairs towards them. He jerked to a halt when they turned to him, Razi growling in frustration, Wynter dashing tears from her eyes and gritting her teeth. He held his hand up and retreated a step or two, his face apologetic, but urgent. "The Victuallor is coming, and there's a man with him, a big, red-haired fellow."

"Dad!" Wynter pushed her way past Christopher, and ran up the stairs to her father. Moving fast, making distance, just for something to do with all the violent energy she suddenly had bottled up inside her.

Heron and her father came around the bend at a pace, and drew up short at the sight of the youths scattered on the steps below them. Their three faces must have screamed tension because the two older men paused in identical poses of uncertainty, and both said "umm" simultaneously in embarrassed surprise.

Wynter wanted to fling herself into her father's arms. She wanted to scream, Razi is leaving! He's leaving already! Instead she came to a decorous halt a few steps below him and bowed stiffly, her tears dry on her face.

"Well met, good Father, Victuallor Heron. How fares the King, good sirs?"

Heron looked past her and jerked his chin at Razi. "His Majesty wishes your presence now, my Lord. He would consult with yourself and the Protector Lord Moorehawke in his chambers."

Razi stalked obediently up the steps, but Wynter made a small sound of protest and exclaimed, "Father! Are you not to eat? Have you not rested at all?"

Lorcan made an impatient shushing gesture at her, but Razi paused, took a good long look at her father's face and then turned to Heron, his expression hard. "You have not been able to find me yet, Victuallor. While you are searching, the Protector Lord shall go to the kitchen and have himself a meal."

Heron stared at Razi for a moment and Wynter saw something dawning in the old man's face. He turned slowly and looked at her father, really scrutinising him, really inspecting him. Wynter swallowed.

Lorcan narrowed his eyes at his old friend, his face cold, then he turned imperiously away and addressed Razi, "I am most grateful for my Lord's benevolence, but I do not yet need to pause. Please, if you are ready, let us continue to our Majesty's presence." He gave Wynter a fleeting glance and spoke to her even as he was turning to leave. "I shall return when I am released by the King, child. Go bathe and change and rest; there is to be a banquet tonight at sundown."

Then he was off up the steps without another word, his riding boots clattering on the stone, his plait swinging heavily behind him. The smell of horse and campfire and hard travel lingered long after he'd turned the corner and gone from sight.

Heron raised his eyebrow impatiently at Razi who gave Wynter a helpless look. As he turned to go, Razi glanced at Christopher and tilted his head meaningfully as he did, look after her. Christopher nodded, and Wynter fought the urge to push him down the steps. Look after her, indeed! Look after Christopher more like. He was the one most likely to get his throat slit on his way to the privy.

Heron lingered a moment, already half-turned to go. "Garron," he said, "the Protector Lady Wynter and Protector Lord Moorehawke are quartered next to your master's rooms. Ensure the Protector Lady is settled comfortably."

Christopher lifted his chin in response and Heron's eyes flashed at him. You're meant to bow, you imbecile, thought Wynter. But the Victuallor didn't bother to comment, he just sneered and padded up the steps after Razi and her father, disappearing quickly from view and leaving the two of them alone.

Wynter retrieved her tools from Marni's care and stalked to the stables without a word. Christopher strode along beside her, surprisingly quiet. She had expected irritating chatter, attempts to draw her out, flirting. But he just kept pace, his grey eyes thoughtful.

When they got to the stables, he disappeared for a moment and returned with two page boys, organising them with admirable efficiency and good humour so that, fairly soon, Wynter's and her father's things were gathered up and transported to their new chambers and she once again had somewhere permanent to lay her head. As permanent as court life could allow, at any rate.

She stood in the middle of their receiving room and looked around her with a heavy heart. It was an excellent suite, a large receiving room with two big shuttered windows looking down onto the orange trees, brightly painted and with cheery tapestries on loan from the King's collection. Off this was a small retiring room and, off that, two spacious and airy bedrooms, both filled with the glorious light of what was now evening. Wynter was pleased to see that the King had furnished the rooms with all the old furniture of their previous accommodation: her pine bed, with its pretty insect-netting and curtains. The wash stand, her blanket box that her father had carved. All of Lorcan's bedroom furniture was here, and in the receiving room, the four rounded armchairs, filled with the cushions that Wynter's mother had embroidered whilst in her confinement. All so familiar and lovely.

But why here? she thought. Why not in their beloved old cottage in the grounds, under the shade of the walnut trees, down by the trout brook at the foot of the meadow? Where they had been blissfully far away from the intricacy of court, and out from under the eye of the King. Where Wynter had been able to get out of bed in the morning and fish for breakfast in the river, still barefoot and wearing her long johns. Where the smell of her father's workshop had kept the air spicy with wood shavings and resin all day long. Now everything would be protocol, politics and etiquette every minute of every hour of every day. Obviously the King wanted them near, he wanted them observed. He didn't trust them.

"Do you not like your rooms?"

She was startled out of her reverie by Christopher's quiet voice, and turned quicker than she should have, staggering a little as her head swam. He was leaning by the hall door, and had the sense to ignore her loss of balance.

"They're beautiful," she said as she found her footing, hoping that she sounded sincere. "Very fine."

He didn't seem that impressed. "Huh," he said, and then, looking very directly at her, "Razi said you would hate them. He said you wouldn't like being confined. He tried very hard to get your cottage back for you, you know. The pretty one? By the stream?"

That was too much - Razi's attempted gesture of love and understanding. Suddenly her eyes were filled with tears that she couldn't contain, and she put her hands to her face with a high breathy sob and began weeping.

Thankfully, Christopher didn't come to her, and she stood and emptied herself of grief until there was nothing but weariness remaining, and a high green pain in her forehead from the tears. Finally she straightened and pushed the wet from her face with an efficient movement, sniffing deeply to clear her nose. The doorway was empty, but there were voices in the hall, a smoothly polished court voice and Christopher's Northland accent, arguing.

"... it is my job," insisted the courtier, "I'm supposed to bring them!"

"Give them to me, you God-cursed flunky, or so help me, I'll skin you alive." Christopher's voice was a low hiss of anger.

"It's my job--"

A loud slap and a yelp, followed by a shocked silence. Then Christopher's voice, very calm now, "Are you ready to hand them over, or shall I ensure that you spill them and need go back for more?"

Metal things clattered together to the sound of discontented grumbling, and light footsteps retreated. Then Christopher came in, carefully carrying three large pitchers of steaming water and avoiding Wynter's eyes.

"Now..." he said, as he skirted round her, then sloshed his way into her bedroom. He set two of the pitchers down by her washstand and poured most of the contents of the last into the metal basin. He took a bar of soap from his pocket and left it on the soap-dish. Then he retreated out the door, returning seconds later with armfuls of big cotton sheets for Wynter to dry herself with.

"Right..." he said, still not looking at her. "I'll call you in time to dress for the banquet, unless your father is back by then." And he went out, closing the door quietly behind him.

She was so tired now, her body singing like crickets on a hot day. The evening sunlight streaming through the window was heavy with the scent of oranges and orange blossom, and she closed her eyes for a moment and revelled in the heat and the solitude.

She shuffled into her bedroom, drew the bolt and stripped naked, leaving her stinking clothes in a heap on the floor. There was a sea-sponge on top of the pile of towels, along with a nailbrush, clippers and a comb, all engraved with Razi's seal. Thank God she wouldn't have to root for her own.

Slowly, her arms heavy and numb with fatigue, she unwound the leather straps binding her hair and let it fall to her shoulder blades in thick auburn waves. It was stiff and greasy with dirt, though, thankfully, she'd avoided the lice, and she used almost the entire first pitcher scrubbing it and rinsing it until it squeaked. When she was satisfied, she stuck her head back into the basin and combed her hair out under the clean water. It was always easier to unknot the tangles that way. Then she bent at the waist and let the whole heavy curtain of it hang straight and dripping so that she could wrap the length of it in a towel. Finally she straightened up, and with a flick of her hands flung her wrapped hair behind her, leaving it to hang like a long fat sausage down her back.

She threw the used water out of the window and replenished it from the second pitcher. The smell of roses and oranges and the lemon smell of the soap lulled her senses and the room took on a dreamy air as she methodically scrubbed three month's worth of grime from her body.

She had one clean shift, unused since their departure from Shirken's palace. It was musty and smelled of damp, like everything up North eventually did. But it couldn't overpower the smell of lemons from her still damp hair, which she unwrapped and wove into a long braid to tuck under her night cap.

I'll just lie down for a minute, she thought as she crawled under the insect netting and lay on the cool, lavender scented sheets. I won't sleep till Dad gets here safe... but she was unconscious before the thought had even registered in her brain.

She was standing in a wide field that stretched all the way to the bright blue horizon. It was filled with red poppies and, as she walked, they stained her feet red, and the hem of her shift. She could hear a high whining cry, as if a sea bird were caught in a net, and she looked around for the source of the noise, because it hurt her heart to hear it. The dye from the poppies began to burn her feet and when she looked down she realised that the flowers weren't red at all, but white, white poppies stained with blood.

The crying was close at hand now, and she ran to the crest of a hill and looked down into a small valley. Wolves were gathered around some poor dead animal, gnawing and snarling and worrying its carcass. There were so many wolves that she couldn't see their prey, but she began to understand that the high wailing was coming from it. Oh. The poor creature, it was still alive.

She picked up a longbow that was at her feet and took aim, hoping to put the animal out of its misery. I'll never be able to draw this bow. It's too big for me. But she did draw the bow, pulling back smoothly until the fletch brushed her cheek.

She waited patiently for a glimpse of the poor creature, which still screamed in that horrible, high pitched way as its blood sprayed up and coloured the poppies all around it. The wolves began to fight over some small morsel of the creature's flesh and their ranks parted for a moment. She caught a glimpse of sky blue robes and an arm as it flung upwards, in an attempt to escape, or as a reaction to the movement of the ravaging wolves, she couldn't tell.

Oh, she thought, with an interested detachment, it's Razi.

She notched the bow a little tighter, released her breath and let the arrow fly with a high singing whine. It seemed to have a long way to go, this arrow, and she was able to trace its flight every inch of the way, admiring how it twisted and swung gently from side to side as it cut its way through the air.

By the time it reached its target all the wolves had gone and it was only Razi, alone and bloody, lying among the dripping poppies. The arrow found its mark with a loud knock as if Razi's heart was made of wood, and his body leapt at the impact.

The sound reverberated around the little valley, repeated and repeated in a quick rapping succession. Razi's eyes opened and they were grey and slanting and it wasn't Razi at all, but Christopher Garron. He lifted his head, his hair all bloody, and looked at her in terrible hurt and confusion.

"Wynter," he said, and the knocking continued to echo around the valley as she dropped the bow in horror at his bloody mouth, his accusing eyes.

"Wynter," he said again and his voice was fading, getting farther away as all his blood poured out onto the flowers.

"Wynter."

"Wynter!"

She woke with a startled gasp.

The shadows had grown but it was still light outside, she couldn't have been asleep more than two hours. Christopher was calling her name and knocking softly but urgently on her bedroom door. "Wynter, Razi and your father are coming. I don't think your father is well."

The Eternal Engine Failing

Wynter scrambled from beneath the netting and rushed to unbolt the door, pushing Christopher back as she flew past him.

"Where are they?" she demanded, looking about her wildly. "What's wrong with my father?"

Christopher put his finger to his lips and gestured to the receiving room. Wynter followed him unthinkingly across the room, until she realised that the hall door was ajar and their rooms open to the scrutiny of anyone who might pass by. She was immediately aware of her thin shift and her night cap, and she hesitated in the receiving room as Christopher continued out into the hall. He didn't notice her lagging behind, and he went out and stood, openly staring down the corridor, his face grave.

Oh, for goodness sake, had he no sense?

"Christopher," she crossed the receiving room and hissed from behind the door, keeping herself hidden from the corridor. "You can't just stand there looking!"

He flicked a glance at her and went back to his blatant staring. "Why not?" he whispered. "No one is paying any heed."

"People here are always paying heed," she said, flinging her hands out in exasperation. But he just kept on looking, a small frown creasing his eyebrows. "What is it?" she asked, longing to see. "Can you see my father?"

Christopher glanced at her again, and then back up the corridor. His eyes were troubled, his face uncertain, as if he was unsure how to explain the situation. Finally, he grunted impatiently, grabbed her shoulder and pulled her through the door.

"Look," he murmured.

Lorcan and Razi were standing at the junction of the two corridors, about fifty or sixty feet from Christopher and Wynter. They were deep in heated discussion with Heron and three other black-robed councilmen, and for a moment Wynter wondered what on earth Christopher was talking about. Her father looked fine. He was listening intently while Razi gestured and grunted out some low, angry diatribe to the exasperated men in front of them.

Then Wynter noticed how straight her father's back was, how rigid, how his arms were stiff at his sides, his big hands balled into fists. She saw that he wasn't listening at all, not really, he was just standing there with an expression of grim determination on his face. As she watched, Razi discreetly placed his hand on her father's back, right between his shoulder blades, and she saw the muscles tense along Razi's arm, his shoulder jumping into taut relief as he took her father's weight without the other men realising it.

Wynter made a tiny noise of fear and went to leap forward, but Christopher pinched her shoulder, and she put her hand to her mouth and shut herself up.

Suddenly Razi was imperiously waving his hand at the four men, turning them away. She saw sharp anger harden their faces and Heron's mouth twist up into a bitter sneer. But if Razi ordered it, they had to obey, and so they took their leave with frowns and grudging bows.

Razi and Lorcan stood and watched until the four men were out of sight. Then Razi turned to her father, speaking rapidly and with a concerned tilt of his head. Lorcan brushed him off, breaking away from his supporting arm. He took two or three stiff-legged steps towards Wynter and Christopher, his face grim, but his knees buckled almost immediately and Razi had to catch him. He staggered under Lorcan's weighty frame and called for Christopher, who was already halfway down the hall.

Wynter watched, frozen in mute horror as the two men propped Lorcan up and helped him down the corridor and into his rooms. When they had passed her by, she checked the corridor once more and closed and bolted the door, shutting out any possibility of prying eyes.

Once in their room, Lorcan gave up any pretence at strength and let his legs go from under him, so that the two smaller men had difficulty dragging him across the floor. They heaved him into one of the round chairs, and Razi leant him back, putting a cushion between Lorcan's head and the wall.

"Let in more light," he instructed. "Get some water. Christopher, go get my bag. Wynter, get a stool to prop up his feet, take off his boots. Christopher, my bag."

Lorcan was so limp and helpless that Wynter thought her father had passed out, but when she looked up from where she knelt at his feet, his eyes were open and staring glassily about. His mouth was wide, his chest heaving; he seemed to be fighting for air. She took all this in as she undid the lacing on his heavy riding boots and dragged them from his feet, which were freezing cold. She put a cushion on the fire-stool and propped Lorcan's feet on it, then began to chafe them to try to get them warm.

"He's so cold, Razi," she said.

"Mmm," Razi murmured. He had undone her father's shirt to the navel and loosened the stays of his trousers. The big man's face was beaded with huge droplets of sweat, the bright mat of orange hair on his powerful chest and belly drenched and slicked down. Razi pressed his ear to Lorcan's breast and was listening intently. When Wynter tried to speak again, Razi lifted his hand and shushed her, reaching over to stroke her cheek without looking at her, before placing his hand on Lorcan's belly and pressing down hard. Lorcan groaned and tried to pull away.

"All right, good friend. All right," Razi said softly, his ear still to Lorcan's chest. He pressed down again, on a different part of Lorcan's belly, to the same response. "That's all right, Lorcan. That's all right." Razi sat back slowly and ran his hands over his face, looking at Wynter's father over the tops of his fingers for a moment. His big brown eyes were cool and considering. Wynter could see him working things out in his head.

Christopher returned and quickly bolted the door behind him. He put Razi's bag down beside the chair. "I've sent for water," he said quietly.

Razi leant forward over Lorcan and murmured something in the man's ear. Lorcan's eyes rolled in shock, but Razi levelled a look at him and Lorcan nodded uncertainly. Razi patted his shoulder and then, to Wynter's horror, he thrust his hand down the front of her father's trousers and seemed to press his fingers hard into the other man's groin. Lorcan squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head, whether from pain or mortification Wynter couldn't tell, and she looked away, her cheeks burning.

When she dared to glance back, Razi was feeling along both sides of her father's jaw, his face drawn in concentration. Lorcan was beginning to come to himself a bit more and was attempting to lift his head and shoulders from the cushion. He looked over at Christopher with a kind of bleary resentment and tried to pull his shirt closed. Razi stayed him with a hand on his wrist. "Just a little longer, Lorcan. This will all be over soon." He rummaged in his bag and pulled out a short, polished wooden trumpet. He warmed the mouth of it on his stomach and placed it on Lorcan's chest, listening through the other end, his face intense. "Breathe as deep as you can, good friend. And try to hold the air in your lungs." Lorcan struggled to do as Razi asked, but he seemed incapable of holding his breath and ended up gasping, his head dropping back, his skin breaking out once more into an oily sweat.

Finally Razi sat back on his heels, wiped his hands on a lemon-scented cloth that Christopher handed him and looked very seriously at the big man. "Lorcan," he said, "I would like to consult with you now, if you are willing to talk honestly with me."

Lorcan's eyes flickered between Wynter and Christopher, a hunted look on his face. Razi nodded. "Your daughter and Christopher Garron can wait outside if you wish, Lorcan. This concerns no one but you."

It was obvious that Lorcan gave the matter serious consideration, then he dismissed the idea with a wordless shake of his head. Breathing heavily, his teeth bared, he took his feet from the stool and struggled to sit up straighter in his chair. Razi leapt to help, shifting cushions about until Lorcan pushed his hands away and hunched himself into a reasonably upright position. He grabbed the arms of his chair tightly, a trick he had developed to stop his hands from shaking, and looked at Razi from under his eyebrows.

"Speak," he demanded.

Razi remained sitting on his heels and he gestured Wynter and Christopher away with a tilt of his head. They went and sat, one on either side of the fireplace, doing their best to blend into the tapestries.

"In your years abroad, Lorcan, you perhaps had some fever or a long illness?" Razi's voice was quiet and gentle, yet at the same time he had a command about him, a sense of honest confidence that seemed to relax Lorcan.

The big man nodded. "Over two years ago. A fever, it knocked the feathers from me."

Razi smiled and raised a questioning eyebrow. "Took you a while to recover?"

Lorcan nodded again. Then he looked up, his face creased with concern. "My Lord," he said, "there are more important things we should be discussing."

Razi silenced him with a raised hand. "No, good friend. No. We will not discuss anything but your health. That is my wish."

Lorcan clamped his jaw tight and looked away. Razi tapped his knee to regain his attention. "This fever," he continued, "it left you weak? You tired easily? There was perhaps a loss of balance? You have much pain in your hips? Your shoulders?"

Again Lorcan agreed, and Razi pressed his lips together and put his hand on his friend's knee. "You see, Lorcan, I think that the fever has left its humours in your body's waters. This is what I can feel gathered here," he indicated Lorcan's groin, "and here, and here." He gestured to Lorcan's armpit and jaw.

Lorcan shrugged. "Yes. The doctors in the North told me similar. But they bled me and said it should clear..."

Razi gritted his teeth and Wynter saw his hands clench. "And you've been bled regularly since, haven't you?" Lorcan nodded. "I thought so, and purged?" Lorcan's eyes found Wynter, and he blushed red and dipped his head. Razi seemed to take a moment to gather himself. Wynter saw him force his hands to relax. "All right, Lorcan. I want you to promise me that you will not allow any doctor to leech you or purge you again. I really must insist."

Lorcan seemed thoroughly confused. He frowned, his eyes questioning, and licked his lips, which were terribly dry.

Don't offer him any water, thought Wynter, knowing that her father would never betray his shaking hands by trying to bring a beaker to his lips.

"Drink this," Razi ordered, and Wynter winced. To her amazement, Lorcan allowed Razi to hold the beaker for him as he sipped from it.

"The other doctors..." Lorcan cleared his throat, "the other doctors said it was beneficial to my system... to release the poisons from my blood."

Razi seemed to consider something, what words to use, perhaps, and in the end he just said, "I think they've drained enough poisons. If that kind of treatment is continued, you... it is my opinion that your body will begin to leak its own beneficial humours, to your detriment. So, no more bleeding, no more purges. Are we agreed?"

Lorcan raised his bright green eyes to Razi, and Wynter thought she had never seen him look so open and vulnerable. "Agreed. But, my Lord? What is there to be done?"

"You need to rest."

Her father rolled his eyes to heaven at that, and began to pull away. Razi tugged his sleeve, his voice firm as he said, "Lorcan, I do not say this lightly. You need to rest. You need to rest frequently and well. You need to eat well. Lorcan, you need to avoid vexation."

Wynter's father actually laughed at this, a proper, hearty laugh that quickly ran out of breath and left him bent at the waist, but still grinning. His mirth was infectious and Razi and Christopher had to chuckle along with him, the joke not lost on any of them. Even Wynter smiled. Avoid vexation. Hah, some chance.

"Ahhh," wheezed her father, straightening carefully and gripping his chair again. "A laugh is as good as a tonic!"

Razi took a deep breath and looked pointedly into Lorcan's eyes. His next words stole Lorcan's grin from him and blew a whistling hole through Wynter's chest. "The humours have gathered in your heart, good friend. I can hear them in there, interrupting the ebb and flow of your body's tides. Such impediments are not to be trifled with. You must pay heed to my instructions, Lorcan. Your life depends on it."

Her father's heart. His heart. Wynter remembered lying on his chest as a small child, listening to the swish and flow of that engine, working steady and eternal beneath her infant ear. Lulling her to sleep, telling her all is well, all is well, all is well.

Lorcan gazed at Razi, then over at Wynter, his green eyes bright. He smiled and shrugged as if to say, we knew this already, didn't we, darling? He winked at Wynter and she tried to smile back at him. Ever since she could remember, her father had worked hard to make sure Wynter would be able to take care of herself if he wasn't around. He had done a good job of it, and now at last they were home, and he had finally returned her to the safest place on earth, a place where neither her sex nor commoner birth would stand against her. He wasn't afraid to die. But despite it all, despite the talking, the planning, all the preparation for a life alone, Wynter did not want him to leave. She could not imagine going on without his huge smiling affection in her life.

Razi got to his feet. "Now," he said, "I want you to let Christopher and me help you bathe and get you to bed for a few hours before the banquet." Lorcan opened his mouth to protest, his eyes wide with indignation. "Lorcan!" Razi interrupted before the other man could speak. "You cannot do this alone, not at the moment. Just bite back your pride, man, and let us aid you this once. I'm going to give you a draught and it will help you sleep deeply for a short time. You'll wake much refreshed, and I think, if you take it slow and remain calm, you'll get through this bloody festivity without too much strain."

What could he do? With a last, rueful look at Wynter, Lorcan allowed the two men to lead him into his chamber, and, when the water came, they helped him to scrub himself clean of the filth of his long journey, and climb at last into bed.

Wynter sat alone in the round chair for the longest time, listening to the low rumble of the men's voices and watching the light move around the walls as the evening drew down. When her father had fallen asleep, Christopher and Razi took their leave of her. Razi kissed her and promised to return before the banquet.

The scent of oranges gave way to the evening fragrance of woodbine and lilies as the shadows grew in the gardens below. The corridor outside began to fill with sound as the air cooled and people began to rouse themselves, or come in from the river to dress for the big event.

Wynter thought of nothing at all. There was nothing that could be of any use. So she let the time flow through her and it was as though she slept for a while, though she knew she did not.

Razi had promised to call her in time to dress, but she got herself up and out of the chair long before he returned, and wandered into her room to try to find something to wear. She had one light coat, one heavy. Two dress uniforms, one of which still lay in a pestilent heap on the floor. One heavy work uniform, three pair of long johns, three shifts, two night caps, four pair of wool stockings, one pair of cotton stockings, two long knickers and a soft fine-wool dress suitable for informal dining in company. She had no formal clothes whatsoever, nothing suitable to wear in the presence of a king.

Razi had put her mother's camphor chest into Wynter's room, and now she understood the reason why.

One at a time, she took her mother's dresses from their layers of lavender paper and nets of dried roses, gilly-flowers and orange pomanders. She noticed with surprise that they had been aired. Over the years, someone had taken care to regularly shake and hang them. Marni, perhaps? Or some maid who had been terribly fond of her mother?

Comprehension dawned, and Wynter mentally slapped herself for her romantic notions. No one had taken care of these dresses through devotion to her mother! Most likely these had, until recently, been the property of some Lady's maid-in-waiting. Poor girl, made to give up her wardrobe all of a sudden to its previous owner. I'd better watch for scissors in the dark and pins in my soup, she thought as she laid each lovely creation on the bed.

She hoped their last owner hadn't altered them too much, as her father had told her she was very like her mother in size and shape, and the dresses should fit her pretty well had they not been fiddled with.

Mamma had good taste, she thought as she ran her hand down the rich fabric of one of the dresses. They were cut to the old style, bold clean lines and simple skirts that hung straight down from just below the bosom. Long wide sleeves with contrasting linings and trim. Each had a tight-fitting, long-sleeved silk shift to wear beneath. She decided that she liked them very much; their beautiful colours and elegant simplicity appealed to her. The new style amongst the courtiers up North was all ribbons and swags and little capes and round hats that perched on the back of the head. She would be considered hopelessly old-fashioned and plain in these. Not to mention freakishly short, she thought. She was generally considered to be a small person, but the new fashion for high cork heels and built up soles in both men's and women's shoes would really emphasise her lack of stature.

Wynter giggled at the thought of Razi adding those extra inches to his already ridiculous height, and Christopher, with all his slippery grace, tottering along on heels. She doubted they would be indulging in the fad. And what about Albi, he... Wynter cut short her thoughts of Albi, hilarious as he would be in heels, broad, bullish and bounding as he was, or had been. She swallowed and turned her attention back to the dresses.

It didn't take her long to choose, and she slipped into sage green satin, embroidered with sprigs of pale roses, with pale rose lining to the sleeves. The matching shift covered her arms to the wrist and puckered at her bosom above the neckline of the bodice. It was surprisingly easy to move in this outfit and she was comfortably cool in the evening air.

She considered trying to do something with her hair, tucking it into one of her mother's pearl studded nets or coiling it or pinning it somehow, but she was a lost cause when it came to hair and she just brushed it out of its long plait and let it fall around her shoulders and down to her shoulder blades in glossy, cracking waves.

What are you? she thought as she examined herself in the mirror. She looked like a doll; her pale face with its constellations of freckles floating in a wavy sea of hair; her usually busy hands resting against the green of her dress, her arms encased in rose coloured silk. She ran her hands across the fabric of her skirt, feeling the calluses on her palms snag and catch. The familiar weight of the dagger she always carried was missing, but there was no place for a weapon in this formal attire. She lifted the skirts, revealing her scuffed felt indoor-boots and grinned. That's what you are, she told herself, you are work-hardened hands, you are scuffed boots under a satin skirt. She looked herself in the eyes. Don't forget it, she told herself.

Razi and Christopher came knocking just as she was considering rousing her father. She drew the bolt and stood back to let them in. Razi was standing in the door, his hand poised to knock again, and Christopher was lounging against the wall across from them, as if he intended to wait outside. At the sight of her, Razi's mouth dropped open and Christopher pushed himself off the wall and stood looking at her with a puzzled little tilt of his head.

Wynter put her hand up and nervously touched her hair. "Is it not all right?"

Razi shook his head, then nodded, blinked and muttered something. Christopher ran his eyes down to her toes and back again and said, "You'll do."

As the two men came into the room, Lorcan's door opened and he surprised them all by stepping out fully dressed and ready to go. Razi made a move to approach him, his face questioning, but Lorcan stopped him with a hooded glare. Razi spread his hands in defeat and turned away.

Lorcan started back at the sight of his daughter. Pausing in the middle of pulling on a suede glove, he took in her face, her hair, the dress.

"Izzy...?" he whispered. Then his confusion cleared, and he smiled sadly. "Wynter," he said.

His lips are so pale, she thought, frightened.

Then he smiled at her, his full, broad sunshine smile and she felt herself relax. It would be fine. Yes it would. Everything would be fine.

The Danger of Subtlety

"Christopher seems to think he's coming to the banquet." Wynter kept her voice low and her head turned towards Razi as they followed the crowd through the long corridors to the dining hall. Christopher was padding along behind them, discussing music with her father, who was a keen but atrocious flautist. Wynter didn't want to cause him any offence and risk another prickly exchange. If he was of the belief that all and sundry could attend these things, it would be up to Razi diplomatically to set him straight.

Razi bent his curly head to hers and, with an amused grin, whispered confidentially, "That's because he is coming to the banquet." He drew back to see her reaction, his eyes dancing. She tried not to show her amazement but couldn't quite carry it off, and he chuckled in glee. "It really vexes the lords."

Wynter gasped. "Oh, Razi no! Please don't tell me he's seated at the lords' table! They'll have him poisoned!"

Razi made a little sign at his throat. "Don't even joke, little sister. No, the last four nights he's been seated at the commoners' board. A great honour."

"A great honour," she murmured, glancing back at the man in question. He was describing something to her father, waving his hands about without a trace of self-consciousness. Her father laughed at something the young man said. Christopher raised his eyebrows, pausing in mock offence and then continued whatever outlandish rubbish he was weaving. Wynter grimaced. "A great honour, indeed."

"He says it's a royal pain in the arse," said Razi with a sigh. "God, Wyn, I can't help but agree. I hate all this, after so long free of it. Father..." he paused to nod at a passing courtier, bowed at a loitering knot of ladies and thought better of saying any more about the King.

"You didn't keep a court in the Moroccos, Razi?"

Again, the generous smile, the rueful quirk of his mouth. "Much to mother's distress, no, I did not." He drifted away for a moment, to somewhere warm, somewhere scented with spices. His smile grew a little sad and he looked down at her. "I kept a home there, Wyn. It was lovely. That's what I want in Padua. A proper home, with proper family and real friend... I want--"

"We're here, my Lord," Lorcan broke in, coming up behind them and taking them both by surprise.

"Ah." Razi looked at the door that would lead them to the royal quarters, where only the royal family and its highest honoured companions would gather before a feast. Razi and Wynter's father would have to break off from them here, so as to make their entrance with the royal party.

Lorcan bent and kissed Wynter quickly on her cheek, squeezing her shoulder before ushering Razi through the door and then letting it swing shut behind them.

Wynter looked at the closed door for a moment, then turned and looked about quite aimlessly, only to find Christopher watching her. The dimples showed on either side of his mouth in the briefest of smiles. "I'm going this way," he said, indicating the long corridor that led to the common door. His expression said, are you all right? Do you need me to stay?

She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. "Enjoy your meal, Christopher, and may the morning find you well."

Those damn dimples again, but he had the good grace to bow properly, and headed off down the hall without a further word. Even his retreating back looked amused.

The hall was already quite crowded. The lords' tables in particular, one on either side of the great hall, already filling rapidly. At the end of the hall furthest from the royal platform was the commoners' board; it would be filled with those servants and lesser courtiers specially favoured by the King. At the top, draped in white and scarlet, was the two-tiered royal platform. The higher tier would be reserved for the King, his queen and his heir; the lower tier comprised a long table for the councilmen, favoured lords and any spare royal children that might be around. It would be a lonely meal for the King, thought Wynter, with his queen dead, his heir missing and Razi relegated by protocol to the lower tier.

A page came over to her and asked if she wished to be shown a seat. It was always put that way, "Do you wish to be shown a seat?" to which you had to answer, "Yes" because otherwise you would not know where the King had decided to put you.

She was placed close to the head of the lords' table on the left - a very good position. While the bottom halves of the lords' tables on both sides filled rapidly, seating at the top filled more slowly, as those places were reserved for the particularly favoured.

The commoners began to stream in and take their places: no pages or protocol there, just a merry jostling and shuffling around for seats. Everyone must be in and seated before the royal entrance, so that they could all rise in unison and salute the King. If you weren't there before the King, you weren't allowed in at all.

Wynter watched Christopher stroll through the crowded commoners' entrance, nodding and smiling at those few who seemed to know him. He made a beeline for a very pretty, dark-haired woman with snapping eyes and a red mouth. Wynter snorted as he bent and murmured into the woman's ear, flashing his dimples. She shuffled up to make room for him. The man on the other side of Christopher said something, laughing, and Christopher gave him that tomcat grin and adjusted his tunic as he sat down.

The room was almost filled now and getting warm. The fanners began to pull their heavy ropes, and the big fans on the ceiling started their gentle swooshing, instantly cooling the air. Buttle-boys served beakers of iced strawberry cordial. There was still no sign of a grand entrance from the royal rooms.

As Wynter took her first sip of cordial, the musicians in the lesser gallery began to play a soft minnelieder, and she automatically glanced at Christopher. Sure enough, he had turned to look up at them, his face hidden from her sight. Wynter saw the woman beside him notice his hands as though for the first time. The woman started and drew back a little. If she had been seated at the lords' table nothing would have been said, but she would have made it her business very quickly to remove herself from his presence. This was a commoner, though, and Wynter saw her puck Christopher on the arm and gesture to his missing fingers.

Christopher held up his hands as if to say, What, this? He gave the woman an easy grin, and launched into something animated and complex that ended with a quirked eyebrow and an expressive pause. The woman beside him looked shocked for a moment and then the two of them burst into simultaneous hilarity. The woman dashed tears from her eyes and commented laughingly to him, taking up her beaker to sip her drink. Christopher leaned in to whisper in her ear and she blushed pink. Wynter saw her grin around the rim of her cup.

Rolling her eyes at their behaviour, Wynter turned her attention to another familiar face, Andrew Pritchard, who was taking a seat one place setting up from her on the right. They nodded politely to each other, before he turned to begin a conversation with the man beside him.

A page exited the royal door to their left, and there was a ripple of tension all down the hall. Was the royal party coming? But the boy closed the door gently behind him and the crowd relaxed and conversations rose up again as he began to make his way down between the tables.

On an errand for some councilman, no doubt, thought Wynter, following his weaving progress down the hall. Her relief didn't last long, though, and a knot formed in the pit of her stomach as it became obvious that the page was heading for the commoners' table.

Oh God.

She wasn't the only person surreptitiously tracking the small figure through the crowd. No one entered or left the royal door without being taken note of, and more than a score of the assembly reacted with varying degrees of interest as the page approached the commoners and touched Christopher Garron on the arm.

Wynter couldn't hear what was being said, but she saw Christopher's patent shock and confusion as the page spoke to him. She swallowed and leaned forward in nervous tension as the page gestured impatiently and ushered the baffled young man to his feet. Obeying the page's gestures, Christopher began to make his way to the lords' table.

No! Oh God, was the King mad? Could he possibly be so crazed as to have ordered Christopher to sit amongst the lords? Did he hate him so much? Did he want him torn apart by wolves?

Wynter watched in horror as the page led the mortified man through the wide space of no man's land that lay between the commoner's territory and that of the lords.

Don't abandon him! she thought, don't just leave him here to find his own seat.

But she knew, she just knew, that this was exactly what the page was going to do. More than anyone else, the servants would detest this outrageous breaking of rank, this terrible, terrible, insult to protocol.

As she suspected, the page accompanied Christopher to the end of the table, gestured vaguely to the bench and walked off, his heels clicking in the now almost totally silent room. Christopher was left standing uncertainly at the end of a very long row of pointedly turned backs, all his brash certainty fled.

There was an empty space, about ten persons up from where he stood, and Christopher gratefully made his way towards it. But as he walked up the narrow corridor between the bench and the wall, the lords and ladies shuffled and rearranged themselves so that, by the time he got to it, the space had vanished like a magic trick. Christopher paused for a moment, looking down at the rigidly turned back where his seat had been. Then he slowly began walking towards the next available space, the knowledge of what was going to happen burning in his cheeks. Sure enough, the space was gone by the time he actually got there.

Once, twice, three more times Christopher tried to find a place, as the lords and ladies played their childish, shuffling game. Then he just stood there, rigid with anger, his flaming cheeks the only colour in his face.

He's going to leave, Wynter thought, he'll turn on his heel and leave, and that will be the end of his life here. There will be no way to survive that kind of insult to the King. Of course, that was what the lords wanted. If Christopher left now, it would be seen as throwing the King's generosity in his face, and he would have no hope of remaining at court. It would be the best thing for all of us if that happened, Wynter thought, watching the young man fume at the other end of the hall. Best for Razi, best for Christopher, best for me.

She closed her eyes and begged herself to just let him go. But in the end that would have taken the kind of cruelty that Wynter just didn't have in her. Sighing, she opened her eyes and took the sharp knife from the wooden platter in front of her. Casually she put her hand in the empty space on the bench between herself and Andrew Pritchard and leaned back so that Christopher could see her down the length of ramrod straight backs. She raised her chin to him in invitation.

He saw her immediately, how could he not? Her shock of loose red hair suddenly popping into view like that. And she saw him hesitate, uncertainty in his eyes. He thinks I'm going to trick him, she realised with a jolt, that I'll bring him all the way up here and then close the space on him like all the others. She let the hurt of that show in her face and saw him make up his mind.

He made his slow way down the bench, his arms stiff at his sides, his face still creased up in furious embarrassment, and as he passed them by, the lords and ladies nudged and wriggled and shuffled to make certain that no space became available for him.

When the time came for Andrew Pritchard to shift into the vacant place, he found his hip on very intimate terms with Wynter's sharp meat knife. A shocked glance in her direction met with Wynter's sparking green eyes. He jerked back in time to allow Christopher to vault over the bench and settle himself into one of the best seats in the hall.

The minnelieder continued to play and it filled up the silences until the conversation began to swell and grow again. Eventually, the room returned to a semblance of its former volume, but there was a dark, shifting undercurrent to it now. People whispered, people were nudging each other, people were staring. Christopher and Wynter were as exposed and on show as insects pinned to a board.

Christopher cleared his throat and gestured for cordial. None of the buttle-boys managed to see him. He sighed. "The air is fierce thin up here," he muttered, "I feel the chill."

"You should have come prepared," answered Wynter coldly, "it doesn't do to swim in strange rivers." She pushed her cordial towards him without looking at him and he took a sip without thanks.

"A friend encouraged me. It would appear he lied when he told me to 'come on in! The water's fine'." He shoved her beaker back with a jab of his finger and cast a longing look at the dark-haired woman with the red mouth. She was pointedly avoiding his gaze, her head turned so far in the other direction as to be ridiculous. Christopher sighed again. "What a shame," he murmured.

Wynter glanced at the woman. "You were doing rather well there, weren't you? What exactly did you say to make her laugh like that?"

Christopher looked at her for a moment, seeming to consider his reply, then he shrugged and looked away. "Nothing you would find amusing."

"You seem fond of amusing women."

The dimples showed, very briefly, as he scanned the room. People made a point of not meeting his eye. "Well, the women here seem a touch starved of affection."

Wynter snorted, and without meaning to, she muttered, "What are you doing here, Christopher?" She meant what is it you want? What do you hope to gain?

"God, I wish I knew..."

She turned to look him, thrown by his reply. The unexpected sadness in his voice made her stare into his face.

"This is hell; I don't understand why Razi would put himself through it." He continued in a low, confidential tone, "I'm glad I came with him, though, and I'm glad you finally showed up." He scanned the room. "Is there even a single person here who doesn't want something from him? It's like living in a vulture's nest."

Wynter had no idea how to answer that because it was so far from what she had expected to hear, but Christopher was already distracted by some activity on the far side of the room.

"I know I'm not very used to these things," he said, gesturing with his chin, "but isn't it unusual to serve the food before the royal party are seated?"

The double doors were open and some very disconcerted servers were carrying out huge trays. They held the small fowl that were the traditional start to any banquet. A low hum of concern spread its way through the crowd and people began casting worried glances around them. Someone from the commoners' board said, "Shame! For shame!" loud enough for it to be replied to with "Aye!" by some members of the lords' table.

Wynter stared anxiously at the royal door. What could be keeping the royal party? She tried to conceal the panic that had started to roil in the pit of her stomach. What was everyone to do? Should one accept the food? Or would that insult the King, who had not yet sat down or been saluted? Who was going to be foolish enough to take first choice of the meat, traditionally the sole privilege of the royal table? But then, if the tray was offered and one didn't accept the food, would that be considered an insult to the King's generosity? Would it be worse than accepting? What if one took a small piece of meat onto one's plate, but didn't eat it? Would that be acceptable?

She could see the same struggle going on in the faces all around her. Except for Christopher, who was looking under his platter and up and down his section of the table, a puzzled expression on his face.

"Where is my knife?" he wondered.

Wynter frowned; there had been a knife there when she sat down. She glanced across at Andrew Pritchard and saw him give his neighbour a satisfied smile. She leaned further back and saw a discreet flurry of movement ripple its way down the lords' table. Something was passing from person to person until, right at the very end of the table, Simon Pursuant called a buttle-boy to him and handed over a "spare" knife. The boy frowned at it and asked a polite question, to which Pursuant shrugged and gestured negligently, I must have been given two by mistake. Wynter gritted her teeth in frustration. Childish, petty, stupid...

The royal door opened and everyone's attention turned immediately to the very young page who mounted the second tier of the King's table and announced in a high nervous voice, "His Majesty, the Good King Jonathon, bids you eat, having been delayed momentarily in matters... um..." The child looked nervously over his shoulder and someone hissed at him from the partially opened royal door, "... in matters of state. Not wishing his beloved people to hunger in his absence, he bids you to commence the fowl in... in the... in the assurance he will join you soon." The child fled the stage and the staff commenced to pass around the room with the enormous trays of steaming fowl.

The matter of who would take the first choice of meat thankfully fell on the shoulders of those at the very head of the lords' tables, Francis Coltumer and Laurence Theobald. As they were sitting right next to the royal platform, the servants felt safest approaching them first. They stood, one pair in front of each old man, and unshouldere'd the huge trays, holding them down at table level for the gentlemen to take their pick. Old hands at this game, Francis and Laurence glanced at each other across the hall, nodded, and simultaneously speared the smallest fowl that either of them could find on the tray in front of them. A sigh of relief rippled through the crowd as the two old fellows dropped the birds onto their plates and began delicately picking at the meat.

Low, uncertain conversation began once more to underscore the music from the minstrel's gallery and the trays were carried from guest to guest. Christopher was still searching for his missing knife, his head beneath the table now, looking under the bench.

"Christopher..." murmured Wynter, eyeing the tray that was heading their way. "Christopher!" She kicked him and he jerked upward, banging his head on the table and cursing in Hadrish.

He sat up, rubbing his head, and smiled appreciatively as the fragrant heap of roast fowl was brought on level with his nose. "Oh my," he breathed, licking his lips.

"Tell me which one you want," whispered Wynter, "and I'll..."

But before she could finish her sentence, Christopher had reached down to his calf and come up with the longest, wickedest dagger that Wynter had ever seen produced from a boot. He speared a nice fat chicken for himself and then glanced at her. "Can I get you one?" he asked, genuinely oblivious to the mixture of fear and outrage being directed his way from the whole length of the table behind him.

Wynter tore her eyes from the long line of sour faces visible over his shoulder, and managed to keep a straight face when she said, "I'll have that partridge please, Christopher."

Despite his injuries, he seemed to have no difficulty dismembering his chicken, and Wynter watched, fascinated, as he neatly separated the meat from the bones. It was only when he spoke to her again that Wynter realised she'd been staring. "It's a very effective revenge, isn't it?" he said evenly, dipping his fingers in the finger bowl and wiping his mutilated hands on his napkin, "designed to rob me of everything I am, but still leave me capable enough to work." He ate without looking at her, his eyes scanning the room.

This isn't the amusing story he told the other woman, Wynter thought. He's telling me something here that not everyone knows. Why? She mulled over his words. Revenge, he had said. Not punishment. Revenge. Who did you offend that they would hurt you so? Some brother? Some husband, perhaps? But then she remembered Razi's laughing reference to Christopher getting himself tarred, and thought it unlikely that he would have made such a joke had Christopher already suffered so horribly because of his licentiousness.

The royal door opened again, and both she and Christopher turned to see the small pageboy slipping down between their table and the wall, obviously on his way to the other end of the hall.

Christopher snapped out a hand and grabbed the child by his tunic, jerking him to a halt. Wynter gasped and looked about her in mortification. "Oh, Christopher," she whispered, "that's not done!"

Christopher pulled the child to him and hissed in his startled ear, "What's going on in there, mouse?" His Hadrish accent was suddenly very thick.

The child looked around it in panic and struggled. "I can't tell you, my Lord. You know that.

"I ain't your Lord, mouse. I'm just sitting here. How is my Lord Razi? Does he fare well?"

"Christopher!" Wynter put her hand on his arm, but he ignored her and pulled the struggling child closer. People were staring, straining to hear. The big guards on either side of the hall were beginning to take note. "Christopher! You'll end up in the keep!"

"I can't sir!" the child's voice had reached bat-like pitch in his panic. "I must take a message, sir! Let me go!"

"Who's the message for?"

The child looked around him in fear, the guards were starting to advance but they must have seemed to be moving very slowly to his panic-stricken eyes. "Freeman Garron, sir. At the commoners' board. It's very important, sir. Please let me go."

Christopher relaxed his grip, his eyes wide, and the child tried to bolt, but Wynter snatched the back of his tunic, "This is Christopher Garron, child. Tell him your message."

The child moaned in frustration and terror. "No, Lady! Freeman Garron, from the commoners' table. Oh please, Lady, please, it's so important. My Lord Razi said all speed."

Christopher half-stood, his voice rising, and Wynter saw an awful anger, a real, fierce, terrible rage rising in his face. It frightened her, and the child cowered before this new, dark threat.

"I am Freeman Garron, mouse. Now give me your God-cursed message."

The guards had almost reached them, but before they could react, the little page took a good long look at Christopher. The hair, the slanting grey eyes and finally, the hands. The hands, of course, sealed it, and the child gasped and fell to his knees. my Lord! Forgive me! I am too late!"

The guards looked confused, and then backed off as it became obvious that the little page had found who he was seeking. Christopher snatched him up from his knees and shook him by the shoulder. "I'm not your Lord, child! What's the message? Is my Lord Razi well?"

"Lord Ga... Freeman Garron, sir. My Lord Razi sends me... tuh... sends me to..." the child had tears in his eyes and Wynter marvelled at how unmoved Christopher remained. He was glaring at the poor mite, his only focus on getting the message. "To tell you... do not... oh my Lord! He says do not accept any invitations to the lords' table! He needs your eyes on both sides of the hall!"

Christopher flung the child away from him with a curse and glared up the aisle. Wynter thought for one awful moment that he was going to try and rush his way into the royal rooms. But then he spun back to the boy and grabbed him again and snarled in his ear. "Tell Lord Razi that it's too late! Tell him he's lost his eyes. Ask him what I am to do. Do you heed me, child? Ask him what he will have me do!" With that, he hurled the page up the corridor so that he skidded the first few feet and scampered the rest.

Wynter sat, half-turned out of her seat, looking up at Christopher as he stood watching the pageboy gain access to the royal room. His face was hard; Wynter would even call it brutal. He was utterly concentrated on seeing the child through that door. There was nothing else in the room for him and Wynter realised something very suddenly. It was as though a beam of light abruptly focused on this young man and it changed him utterly in her eyes.

Christopher Garron was not here for what he could get. Christopher was not here for the luxury, for the food, or even for the women. And Wynter knew now why Razi had persuaded him to come. Christopher was Razi's friend. He loved him, and Razi trusted him. Trusted him to watch his back. Trusted him to keep him safe. Trusted him to keep him alive.

Looking at Christopher's face, Wynter recognised herself in his expression. It frightened her and comforted her in equal measure to realise that they would both willingly lay down their lives for Razi.

The Terrible Feast

The page never got a chance to give Lord Razi his message. Immediately after his frightened little figure disappeared into the royal rooms, the door swung open again and the first of the councilmen made their entrance from the royal rooms and into the hall. Wynter could see the page, his little face distraught at not being able to finish his task, forced back against the wall as the black-clad councilmen stalked past him.

Something was terribly wrong, any fool could see that. The six councilmen who came through the door were almost cowering, their faces an odd mixture of fear and rage. The guards behind them weren't so much protecting them as herding them out into the banquet hall. Wynter noticed, with a sudden dryness of mouth, that the soldiers' leather spear-covers were off, the metal speartips exposed.

Slowly, and without looking, she reached for Christopher's arm and pulled steadily downwards. "Sit, Christopher," she said very quietly, "sit down and do not make any sudden moves."

He met her eyes for a moment, his fury colliding with her well-practised composure. She lifted her chin and held his gaze. Trust me, Christopher, this is not the time for action. Slowly, he sat and the two of them turned, powerless to do anything but watch as the events unfolded.

Next out the door was Wynter's father, and now it was Christopher's turn to lay a steadying hand on her arm. The young man said nothing and didn't look at her, but he squeezed down so hard that Wynter winced. He held on until she subsided into watchfulness again, not quite able to hide the distress in her face.

Lorcan was literally pushed out of the royal rooms, the huge guard behind him shoving him between the shoulder blades with the handle of his spear and then crowding him through the door with his formidable weight. As soon as Lorcan was across the threshold, though, he tried to turn back, pushing resolutely against the advancing guard. As the silent struggle between the two men continued, all around the hall Wynter felt and saw people begin to rise to their feet.

The guards around the walls cast sideways glances at each other. The air was suddenly sparking with tension. Wynter could feel it running along her shoulders and up the back of her neck. It crackled off Christopher like summer lightning - hot and dangerous, just over the horizon.

The furious grappling between Lorcan and his opponent stilled abruptly when someone within the royal room spoke. Lorcan strained to see over the guard's massive shoulder, and it was obvious he was listening. His whole posture screamed tell me what to do! The banquet hall seemed to hold its breath.

Suddenly Lorcan's shoulders sagged. He made one more frustrated shove at the huge guard, snarling up into his impassive face, but it was just anger, a release of impotent anger, and Lorcan turned immediately and stalked to his seat on the bottom tier.

There was a long moment of inactivity, during which Wynter saw Christopher surreptitiously clean his dagger and slip it back into his boot. Her father sat, staring rigidly at his clenched fists; he didn't lift his eyes to find his daughter.

A flurry of motion brought everyone's attention snapping back to the royal door. The remaining councilmen were entering the hall. Unlike the first six men, these eight were certainly not cowed. They came out as a group, their faces determined and, instead of taking their seats, they gathered in a knot at the lower steps, effectively closing off access to the bottom tier of the royal platform. All eight councilmen kept their eyes on the royal door as they stood shoulder to shoulder, a seamless blackrobed barricade. With their gaunt pale faces and their tight black caps, Wynter thought that they exactly resembled the vultures that Christopher considered them to be.

Razi came through the door. He had taken off his doctor's robes and wore the scarlet long-coat and black britches required of him for formal dining. The two guards behind him were much too close for comfort. They were crowding him forward, forcing him to take one stiff legged-step after another. His eyes roamed about without landing on anything in particular, refusing to look anyone in the eye, refusing to lift his gaze and take in the hall. He was in every sense trying just not to be there. Wynter had seen that expression on men before, usually as they approached the scaffold. She felt Christopher tense beside her.

"What's going on?" he murmured. "He looks like a cornered animal."

Yes. That too. That skittering movement of his eyes, the terrified blankness of expression. As though he were waiting for a chance to break cover and flee. She swallowed hard and kept her face and hands still.

Razi approached the immoveable barricade of councilmen. He pressed against them with his shoulder, not looking into their faces, trying desperately to make his way past and take his seat beside Lorcan, but the soldiers behind him continued their relentless forward pressure and the councilmen did not break ranks. Razi was pushed slowly up the line to the stairs that led to the top tier. He stumbled as his foot hit the first step and Wynter saw his eyes lift and meet those of the last councilman. Victuallor Heron.

The fear, the pain, the fury in Razi's eyes had Wynter rising from her seat in rage, and she felt Christopher surge upwards at the same moment. But their impetuosity was masked by the simultaneous appearance of the King, and at once the crowd leapt to its feet in the traditional salute. King Jonathon, magnificent as ever, swept his way past soldiers, councilmen and bastard son and took the steps to the top tier, two at a time. The relief was palpable around the hall as the people raised their drinks and shouted "HO!"

The King strode to the big throne that dominated the top tier and raised his hand in recognition of his people's love. Sit, sit, he gestured and so the crowd did. But they were obviously confused as to why he still stood, and why half his councilmen blocked access to the lower tier, while the other half-sat, still as stone in their appointed places. And why was the Lord Razi loitering about at the foot of the steps when he should have been seated and saluting the King like the rest of them?

Jonathon gestured to the soldiers behind Razi and they pushed forward resolutely. Wynter saw Razi lean back into them, his face a stony mask of resistance, but short of falling to the floor and allowing them to drag him, he had no choice but to yield to the pressure. Gradually he was forced up the steps and onto the royal tier.

Everyone, including Wynter and Christopher, had retaken their seats, and all eyes were now widening in horror at the sight of the King's bastard being herded towards the throne. Even the minstrels had ceased to play, and in the deathly quiet Wynter could hear Razi breathing raggedly through his nose. She heard the scuff of his boots on the platform as he dug his heels in. The guards continued to push, sliding him a little distance until he took another step.

They forced him over to the third throne. Alberon's seat. The seat of the rightful heir to Jonathon's kingdom. Wynter heard Razi release a choking sob as the soldiers put their hands on his shoulders. It was very loud and clear in the stillness, and Jonathon made an abrupt gesture to the minstrel's gallery. They cranked out some terrible off-key discordance, their fingers numbed with shock, no doubt, and Jonathon glared at them and yelled out something angry and inarticulate. A light, bouncing little round started up and Jonathon turned his glower at his son.

Razi was looking at him with such pleading, such hurt, such terrified desperation, that Wynter thought her heart might actually break for him. But Jonathon was merciless, and when he gestured down with his hand, the soldiers pressed, two big hands on each of Razi's shoulders. And there he was, Razi the Bastard, sitting in Alberon's place, the sudden and irrevocable pretender to the throne.

The servers came out with the second remove, huge platters of salmon, baked with garlic and dill and pickled mustard seeds. The smell was wonderful, but there were no murmurs of appreciation from the crowd. They sat, tense and round-eyed as lemurs, as the King took his first choice of the proffered food.

The servers stood on the bottom tier, just behind Wynter's father, the platter held high as Jonathon leaned forward and took the pink flesh onto his plate. When the King had filled his plate, tradition dictated that the servers should move on to the next highest in rank. Since Alberon wasn't here and the Queen was dead, that meant they should move down to the bottom tier and offer Lorcan and Razi their choice. The councilmen should come next, then on down the lords' tables, with the commoners' table coming last. For Razi to be offered his food while sitting in Alberon's chair had a terrible significance that no one wished to acknowledge or compound.

The King gestured them to move on, but the two men stood there uncertainly as Razi's hands tightened into knots on the table in front of him. The King glared and gestured for them to serve Razi next. The two men just blinked, completely overwhelmed by this appalling gesture of disloyalty to the real heir to the throne. Abruptly Jonathon roared at them, half-rising from his seat and lifting his knife hand in a genuine threat of violence. The two men staggered back, almost lost their balance when they bumped into Lorcan, and shuffled sideways until the platter was held up before the miserable Razi. He closed his eyes and turned his head away.

The King muttered something to Razi, not looking at him, already beginning to eat his meal. Whatever Razi murmured back darkened the King's glowering face even more, and he leaned across the space between them and growled something into his son's ear. Razi whipped his head around, his expression a murderous equal to that of his father's, and bared his teeth in a short reply.

Father and son glared at each other for a moment, and then the King reached across and took a dripping handful of fish from the serving platter. He dropped it onto his son's plate and turned away, as if that ended the matter. With a sour jerk of his head to send the servers on their way, Jonathon rinsed his hands in the finger bowl and began once again to devour his food.

And that is how it went on, that terrible feast. At each remove, Jonathon would reach out a hand and slop more food down onto his son's overflowing plate, until the table in front of Razi was stained and splattered with numerous sauces and creams and oils. Razi ended up pressed back into his chair, his head averted in disgust. The King ate all put before him, sourly scanning the anxious crowd. If his eye fell on any person not eating or who appeared in any way miserable, he would call out to them to explain their ill humour. Soon everyone was chewing and swallowing and smiling with grim determination.

Only Lorcan, Wynter, Christopher and three of the councilmen joined Razi in his refusal to eat, and somehow the King contrived not to notice them.

Finally, the fruit and cheese came out and Razi's noxious plate was taken away, the board in front of him wiped clean and a tall beaker of dessert wine set before both himself and the King. Wynter thought that maybe Razi had fallen into some kind of trance, as he seemed to notice nothing of the changes. He sat as still as a statue, his hands resting on the arms of Alberon's throne, his eyes focused on the newly cleaned table, his face blank.

Christopher and Wynter hadn't exchanged a single word since the second remove. Both of them had waved away any further offers of food, but had drained several beakers of strawberry cordial. Wynter had kept her focus on the royal platform, her eyes jumping anxiously between Razi and her father who had not moved since sitting down. Christopher had spent the whole feast scanning the crowd, judging reactions, noting movements, taking in as much conversation as he could hear.

It's almost over now, Wynter thought, surely after all this Jonathon would never be so cruel as to inflict dancing on the assembly.

But her heart fell when the King stood and clapped his hands for the tables to be pushed back and the musicians to strike up a Gar-a-ronde. There was a ripple of thoroughly falsified applause and the assembly took their places for the dance.

Christopher and Wynter got up from their seats and drifted towards the throne as the long tables were pushed back against the wall. They stayed together, hoping that at least one of them might slip through the less than subtle barricade of guards and councilmen surrounding their friend. Razi and the King had remained seated, the King lounging in his throne, drinking and scanning the crowd. Razi kept pretty much the same position he'd maintained all evening.

As Wynter and Christopher wandered about in front of the cordon of guards, Razi lifted his eyes for the briefest of moments and found them. Wynter's heart leapt as she realised that he'd just been biding his time, waiting for them to come into his range. She felt Christopher come to attention beside her as Razi's eyes jumped to him. Razi nodded and mouthed, "Stay." Christopher turned without a change of expression and kept drifting, as if casually observing the crowd. But Wynter knew he would not leave their friend alone.

Then Razi turned his attention to her. They hadn't much time, but he allowed himself one small moment of emotion, nothing more than a softening of his eyes, a sorrowful drawing together of his brow. Then she saw him swallow hard and blink, his expression hardening. "Lorcan..." he mouthed and flicked his eyes towards the royal room. The door stood open and unguarded. Wynter glanced at it and back at Razi, but his eyes were down again, and the King was staring at her. She turned smoothly and wandered away through the crowd, taking a circuitous route to the royal rooms.

Lorcan was alone. He must have taken advantage of the shifting crowds at the end of the meal and used the chaos to slip away. Wynter found him, wedged into a corner out of sight, his back to the wall, slumped and hidden like an animal at bay. He lifted his eyes to her as she came into his field of vision and grimaced ruefully. He was desperately heaving for breath, his hand to his chest.

"Darling," he rasped, "I'm... in trouble."

She didn't exclaim or create any kind of fuss. She just went to him, put her hands on his shoulders and pushed him up until he was standing to his full height against the wall. "Can you make it to our rooms?" she asked, looking up into his sweating face.

"Lord Razi...?"

"Christopher is looking after Razi."

Even through his distress, Lorcan managed to raise a doubtful eyebrow at the idea. Wynter put her hand on his breast and felt his heart racing and skipping beneath the fabric of his longcoat. "Dad," she said, "Razi trusts him. And I trust Razi to know what's best. Now please, Dad, please let's get back to our rooms."

The music from the banquet hall had gained momentum, a reel now, spinning its way into a country jig. The dancers would be twirling about like tops. The heat would be unbearable, the tension deafening. Lorcan laid his arm across her shoulder and her knees buckled for a moment. Together they slipped out into the cool gloom of the back corridor and began slowly to make their way down the hall. The noise of the dance grew dim behind them.

"Darling... d-darling..." Lorcan suddenly squeezed her shoulder and bent at the waist. "I need to stop. Just for a moment."

Wynter pushed him back into an open doorway and propped him against a wall. They were in the antechamber of a small room, their only source of light the dim torchlight of the corridor outside.

"Are you all right, Dad?" His eyes were glittering in the gloom, his breath a laboured wheeze. He laid his head back against the wall and patted her arm, nodding.

All right then, just a moment to catch his breath and then they'd move on. She glanced around her warily. God, how vulnerable they were. She could still hear, faintly, the music of the dance; they'd hardly made any progress at all.

That's when the shouting started. Wynter turned her head to listen, and Lorcan grew tense and wary as the music stopped. The shouting was followed by screaming, like a brawl in a pot-house. There was the noise of footsteps running. And then, that most chilling of sounds, the "Gathering of The Guard" being played on the royal trumpets - the alarm that signalled an attack on the life of the King!

Assassin

Wynter and her father stood frozen in the dark as quiet footsteps sped up the corridor towards them. A young man raced past the door, just a blur of coat and pumping arms and legs, and then he was gone. Wynter started immediately for the hall, her intention to call for the guards, but she drew back as yet more footsteps approached.

Christopher Garron shot past, his long hair flying out behind him. He was there, then gone in an instant. Wynter leapt forward and out the door, not quite sure she'd actually seen him.

The fleeing man was almost at the end of the hall by the time Wynter skidded into the corridor. She saw him glance desperately over his shoulder, saw his panicked expression as Christopher gained on him. Saw Christopher take a sudden leaping bound into the air and kick his two feet forward to hit the man square between his shoulder blades, bringing the two of them down in a tangled, sliding heap.

Someone else ran past her, brushing her shoulder, but Wynter barely registered them as she took in the cold-blooded fury that was Christopher Garron.

He had got his feet under him even as he was sliding and, before the young man had registered the fact that they'd hit the floor, Christopher was on top of him.

It was his silence that most disconcerted her, that and the absolute precision with which he landed each blow. He hit the young man straight between the eyes with his first punch, knocking his head back into the floor, disabling him with that blow alone. But he didn't stop there. Christopher cocked his arm back, way back, and that was what Wynter would recall later: that pose and then the contact. Each separate punch divided into the moment when Christopher's arm was pulled back, his fist ready and then the instant when the punch landed on the young man's face. Blood sprayed out from the fellow's lips, his nose, his eye. Just blood, Christopher's fist and more blood. And Christopher completely silent, his face composed to hatred. His intention to beat every inch of life from this person who lay under him, limp and immobile since strike one, perhaps already dead.

The person who had rushed past her slid to a halt beside Christopher, and Wynter realised with a shock that it was Razi. She let out a little cry as she noticed his right sleeve, black and glistening with fresh blood, his hand red with it. As he fell to his knees beside the pumping fury of his friend, Razi's blood spattered onto the flagstones. One-armed, he grabbed Christopher around the chest and heaved backwards, pulling him off the target of his wrath.

"Enough! Enough! Christopher!" Razi shouted. "We need him alive! We need him alive, Chris! Stop!" He heaved back so violently that the two of them tumbled over, Christopher still as silent as the grave.

Then there were guards in the hall, pulling Razi and Christopher to their feet and snatching the beaten man up from the flags and snapping shackles on him. Razi growled at them and rebuffed their attempts to separate himself and Christopher, who stood looking at him with a dazed kind of confusion. And then, oh God! Christopher launched himself at the guards.

Screaming in Hadrish, his face contorted in red anger, he leapt into the air and loafed one of them right between his eyes, felling him like a pole-axed bull. "Where were you?" he screamed. "Where were you, you poxy whoreson cur!" And then, even as the first guard was hitting the floor, Christopher spun on his heel and with another brittle scream of rage, brought his knee slamming up into the groin of the big fellow next to him.

More guards closed in with a roar and Razi swept his arm up, yelling at them, "LEAVE! Leave, goddamn you all! Take your trash and leave!" And, amazingly, they did. Christopher and Wynter and Razi were left standing in the hall, panting and looking around them wonderingly, as if it had all been an illusion.

"Razi," said Wynter, reaching for her friend's arm, "you're bleeding."

But Razi wasn't listening. He was looking at Christopher, who was, in turn, gazing at the bright splashes and curlicues of blood that decorated the floor where he had beaten the young man.

"Christopher," Razi gently put his hand on the smaller man's shoulder.

Christopher turned to him immediately. He looked at Razi's arm, hanging limp by his side now, blood still dripping from his cuff. He scanned Razi's chest, his other arm. Finally he looked up into his friend's face, blinked, and took a deep breath as if surfacing from cold water.

"I'm all right, Christopher," said Razi, very softly.

"I saw you go down. That whoreson threw his knife... I saw you hit the floor. Good Frith, Razi! The spray of blood!"

Razi showed all his teeth in a wide grin. "You imagined that, friend. There was no spray of blood."

Christopher reached up suddenly and grabbed Razi by the back of the neck. He pulled the taller man's head down until Razi's forehead rested on his shoulder, then he wrapped his arm around Razi's back in a brief, fierce hug.

"Don't do that again, you fool." He banged Razi twice on the back. Wynter suspected it was intended as a gentle pat but fear and the aftershock of violence made into a solid thump. And then the two men parted.

"You'll need stitches," Wynter said. Razi nodded. Wynter put her arm around his waist and he leaned into her for a moment. "Let's get you and my father back to our rooms, Razi."

But there were more guards now, advancing down the corridor, and with them the King, his face a black mixture of anger and concern. Razi shot his two friends a look and began backing away from them, moving to intercept the King before he got a chance to sink his teeth into the ones who had refused to eat at his feast.

"Get Lorcan to your rooms, little sis," Razi whispered before limping away. "I'll see you when I can." And then he was gone, the guards, the councilmen and his father closing around him like a shroud and whisking him off up the corridor.

Lorcan was sitting in a chair in a dark corner of the anteroom when they went to fetch him. Wynter could see the knuckles on his hands gleaming white in the reflected light. She thought, with a flash of pride, he's arranged himself to look stronger, in case they discovered him.

He'd done a good job. Sitting straight, with his hands clutching the arms of his chair, his long red hair fell loose around his shoulders and his green eyes blazed from the gloom. He looked like a tiger in its lair or a dragon smouldering in its cave. Unassailable. Wynter came in with one hand up. Keeping her voice low, she used the affectionate tone that they reserved for when they were alone.

"It's all right, Dad. Christopher took the assailant down. The guards have dragged him to the keep."

"Alive?" Lorcan's voice was a hoarse gravel in the base of his throat. Wynter knelt by his chair and laid her hand on his, startled by how cold his flesh was.

"Alive," answered Christopher from the shadows. Lorcan's eyes leapt to him and Wynter felt the big man's body jerk in shock.

"Was it the King or the boy he was after?" Lorcan directed this question to Wynter, and she smiled knowingly at him. It would take much more than Razi's faith in Christopher to get Lorcan to trust a Hadrish stranger! She looked back at the young man hovering behind them and transferred the question to him with a raised eyebrow.

"He was aiming for Razi," Christopher replied. "He threw a knife across the room, nearly took Razi's arm off."

Now that the fight was over, Wynter could hear the aftershock trembling through Christopher's voice. In the gloom, she could just make out that he was cradling his mangled hands to his chest as though they hurt. Small wonder they hurt, she thought, you beat that man to a pulp.

"Christopher," she asked, "will you help me get my father to our room?"

Lorcan growled, but he was no fool either. He allowed the young man to come forward and, between the two of them, Wynter and Christopher got Lorcan back to his suite.

They helped him to his bedroom door, fully intending to put him to bed, but he shrugged free of them at the threshold and staggered inside, shutting the door behind him.

"Can I do anything more for you? Get water? Some food, maybe? Call a guard for your door?" Christopher asked, with one foot already out the door, his concern for Razi willing him away. Wynter shook her head, wanting him to go and protect her friend, wishing she could accompany him, but knowing she couldn't.

"Listen to me," she said, putting a hand on his arm. He went to draw away. "Listen!" He stilled, impatience humming off him like the resonance of a bell. "Do not sneak about. The lords will kill you if you're caught. And, Christopher, they want to kill you. You are Razi's ally, you don't fit in, you're... you're a danger. If you go sneaking about on your own they'll murder you under the pretence of thinking you an assassin, and that will be the end of you. Stay public, go about in the light... be blatant, Christopher. Do you understand?"

He maintained that hooded gaze for a moment, and then he said, "Will they let me see him?"

She shrugged. "You might as well try; it all depends on how strong Razi feels. If he's able to hold his ground against them, then yes, I think even the King would allow you in, if Razi demanded it. But be loud, Christopher, be obvious, make sure he knows you're there."

He nodded, turned to go, and Wynter caught his arm once more.

"Christopher."

He paused, patient now, waiting for more instructions.

"Thank you," she said, "I'm glad you're here."

She felt the muscles in his forearm jump and then he was gone, padding away from her with no noise at all.

He returned at the flux of the shadows, midnight by the northern clock. Wynter had been sitting in a chair by the window for hours, the scent from the orange garden balmy on her face, cool in her shift and her mother's dressing-robe. Her father had fallen into a sleep so sound that she'd been frightened by it. She checked on him regularly, laying her hand on his chest as he slept, feeling the rise and fall of each laboured breath, feeling the unnatural rhythm of his heart.

When Christopher returned, she was out of her chair and sliding the bolt open before she'd fully registered the sound of his knock. He was standing in the hall, a tray in his hand, no expression on his face. Wynter smelled toasted bread and butter, hot milk and cinnamon.

"My Lord Razi sends you his love and a tray of supper, my Lady." Wynter glanced past him and noted with shock that the corridor was now lined with guards, ten or twelve in all, positioned at attention from one end of the hall to the next. Dear God. There would be no privacy at all now.

"Come in, Freeman Garron, and lay the tray over there, please."

She went to shut the door, but Christopher shook his head slightly and made a show of crossing to the table and laying out the supper in full view of the nearest guard. Wynter drifted over to supervise. Christopher spoke without looking at her, his voice a whisper.

"There is a large, dark panel of wood in the far wall of the retiring room. If you turn the cherub sconce on its head, it will unlock a hidden door and Razi and I can access your room through a small corridor that leads from ours. Would this be all right?"

She nodded. He glanced up quickly as he organised pots of honey and butter and jam. "Razi has very little time and he wants to spend it with you... but we have to undo the work that that bloody quacksalver has done on his arm. He hopes you won't find it distressing if we do it here?"

She glared at him impatiently and Christopher's dimples flashed in amusement, his eyes sparkling. "Razi seems to think you a delicate wee flower. I shall detail your scorn for him."

Then he stepped back, bowed and left without another word. She shut the door and drew the bolt loudly, the guard across the hall staring all the while.

She hurried across to unlock the hidden panel. Moments later there was a knock, and the panel was pushed open. Razi came through first, stooped slightly and grey, his soft white shirt hanging loose at the right arm, a heavy wool cloak over his shoulders. He pulled her to him in a tight hug and she thought, as ever, how clean he smelt, how unlike most other people he was. "Sis," he murmured, "I'm sorry."

Christopher followed, a copper bowl of steaming water held out carefully ahead of him, his hands protected by thick wads of cloth. "Out of my way, out of my way! 'Tis hot!"

Razi broke away from her and limped over to put a rush mat on the table by the supper things. Christopher laid the bowl on top of it and disappeared back down the dark passageway. Wynter leaned in at the secret door and saw him turn right a few paces up, where light spilled out in a dim rectangle from Razi's rooms. From what she could tell in the gloom, the passage continued on past that patch of light, winding away in dark mystery behind the walls to God knows where.

"I can't believe the King doesn't know about this!" she marvelled.

"He does know," said Razi from behind her. He had dragged the armchair closer to the table and as she turned, he sat down gingerly and began to pull his uninjured arm from his shirt sleeve. "He just doesn't think anyone else does. Aaah!"

Wynter went to help him and together they got the shirt over his head. He was left in just his britches, the bandaging across his shoulder and chest vivid against his dark skin.

Wynter blushed to see the curling hair on his chest and stomach, and the dark circles of his nipples. They had swum naked together all their lives, and until Razi was eleven, had often slept in the same bed - Wynter and Albi against the wall, Razi curled around them like a guard dog. But they weren't children anymore and it felt strange suddenly to be in his presence like this. Razi seemed perfectly at ease, though, and she bit down on her embarrassment. It fled of its own accord anyway when he began to unwind the bindings, and the horrible mouth of his wound was revealed, its row of stitches like a collection of ragged insect legs poking up from the clotted gore.

"Oh Razi," she gasped, helping him with the last of the bandages. "Why? Why did the King do it? Could he not tell that this would happen...?"

Razi looked at her, bitterness etched in every line of his face. "He waited, Wyn, strung me along with this damned lie about Albi being on the coast... waited until Lorcan and I were in the reception rooms, ready to step out the damned door. Then he told us what... what he wanted me to do. Poor Lorcan, his face... But what could we do? We were surrounded by guards. Half the councilmen sided with the King, the others cowed into submission. If only... God, if only we had had time to think, to prepare, but the wily bastard sprung his trap and there we were... caught."

Christopher was beside them then, in that sudden way of his, putting a bottle of something down beside the copper bowl, laying cloths on the floor and across Razi's lap and over the chair. He looked patiently up at Wynter, and she realised he wanted her to move. She shuffled over to Razi's left arm and Christopher knelt on the floor in front of him, examining the long crescent of the wound that curved like a bloody moon between Razi's right breast and the square definition of his shoulder.

"Good job you're lefthanded, Raz. This is bloody deep."

Razi was sweating now, in anticipation of what was to come. He growled at Christopher, dread roughening his voice. "Just get that old fool's filthy stitching out of me, before it poisons my blood."

Christopher rubbed his hands with liquid from the bottle and the smell of alcohol and lemons filled the room. He lifted a little pair of copper scissors from the boiling water and snipped all along the row of stitches, cutting the threads just at the knot. His hands looked awkward, but moved deftly, sure in their work. He paid no heed to Razi's quickened breath or his high yelp of pain as he set a tweezers to the first ragged stitch and tugged it sharply from the flesh.

"Sit down, Wynter," hissed Razi, glaring up at her from under his curls. He had a death grip on the edge of the table, and his face had gone from grey to scarlet in the flaring candlelight.

Wynter sank onto the fire-stool. "Who was he?" she asked.

"No one knows." Razi grimaced and then leapt as Christopher removed the second stitch. "Damn it!" And again as Christopher rapidly tugged the third stitch and then the fourth in quick succession. "Shit! Christopher! Shit!"

Christopher sat back on his heels and looked up at his friend without a trace of emotion. "There are four more to go," he said, "Do you want a moment?"

Razi locked his lips together and panted in and out through his nose. He looked menacingly at Christopher. "Just. Bloody. Do it!"

"You need to shut up," said his friend, raising the tweezers again and focusing on the remaining stitches. "The guards will hear you."

Wynter tried to divert him. "But how did the attacker get in? You can't just waltz into one of those feasts!"

Razi shook his head and then inhaled another high squeal of pain as Christopher quickly tugged the remaining four stitches from his shoulder. Wynter reached forward and gripped Razi's corded forearm, her other hand rubbing his neck and shoulder with round soothing motions. "It's finished now. He's done," she said, and Razi laughed through the tears that were suddenly pouring down his face.

Christopher dropped the tweezers and the scissors onto the cloth by the copper bowl. Razi's blood spread out in delicately veined blossoms on the soft weave cotton. "I still have to stitch him back up," he said dryly and Wynter's stomach clenched at the thought of it.

"Let it bleed a while..." muttered Razi, his eyes shut.

Christopher nodded and pushed gently until Razi was leaning back in his chair. "Hold this," he said to Wynter, and she put her hand against the thick wad of cotton that he had placed under the wound. It caught the fresh blood before it trickled down Razi's belly and stained his britches. "Don't block the wound," Christopher instructed as he set about cleaning up. "Let it clean itself out."

"All right." She couldn't take her eyes from Razi's face, newly drained of colour and textured like dough. He had begun to shiver, but before Wynter could comment on it, Christopher pulled the cloak up from the back of the chair and draped it around his friend's shoulders.

Razi took a moment to gather himself, grunting inadvertently with each exhale, his mouth turned down, and his face old with pain. Then he opened his eyes to Wynter again.

"So," she said, her voice as steady as possible, her free hand still rubbing circles in the knotted wood of his shoulder and neck. "A stranger magically appears in the sanctity of the King's banquet hall without anyone noticing him, and manages to take a shot at the newly announced pretender to the throne?"

Razi winced at the title, but nodded.

"That's impossible, brother."

Razi nodded again.

"I smell conspiracy," said Christopher, shuffling things about on the table. "And the sooner we get that fellow up on his feet and singing a story, the sooner we'll get some answers."

Razi's eyes actually crinkled up into a smile at that, and he slid a mocking look at Christopher. "If someone hadn't beaten him out of all his senses, we might already have those answers."

Christopher replied by pulling a wickedly curved needle from the bowl of water, and threading it with boiled silk.

Razi looked away and moaned.

Wynter tapped his arm. "Where is Alberon, Razi? Is he dead?" There. She'd said it, and in saying it her heart overflowed with dread and grief. "He must be dead, Razi. Why else would Jonathon do this? And why won't he say what's happened him? Jonathon adores Albi, he adores him."

Razi looked at her, his face tilted so as not to see the needle, and took her hand in his. His eyes were black in this light, pits of liquid darkness. "Father is talking about mortuus in vita. He's already put things into motion."

Wynter's eyes widened in shock. Could this not end? Right now, could this not just end, with her waking up to a warm summer's day, down by the trout-brook, a basket full of fish, her line in the stream and Razi and Albi strolling towards her down the meadow? Could that not just happen?

She repeated the terrible phrase, her voice cracking. "mortuus in vita" - the King was declaring Alberon "dead in life"? It would be as though he had never existed. Even if her dear friend was alive, he may as well have been a ghost, because, once mortuus had been declared, Alberon was no longer a prince; he was no longer even a person. He simply was no longer there.

"Razi. He can't... what reason could...? He can't!"

"He can, and he intends to," said Christopher abruptly, holding up the needle. "And Razi intends to stop him. Now, let go of her hand, Razi, or you'll break it when I start to sew."

By the time Christopher was finished, Razi was trembling and sweating, and Wynter was crying silently as she held his shoulders down from behind. "He's just done now. He's just finished..." She kept whispering that in his ear, his damp curls brushing her cheek as she leant in.

Christopher looked into his friend's eyes, the bottle poised over the horribly aggravated wound. He was waiting for Razi to compose himself. Finally Razi glanced at him, gripped the arm of the chair even tighter, braced his legs and nodded curtly. Wynter pressed down hard on Razi's shoulders and Christopher poured the remaining liquid over the wound, disinfecting it and sluicing the clots away in an fragrant, hissing wash.

Razi muffled his scream in Wynter's arm, drumming his heels on the floor and grinding his fingernails into the wood. Christopher calmly pressed a fresh wad of gauze onto the wound and began to wrap his friend's shoulder in fresh bandages.

Once everything was done, Wynter wrapped the cloak around Razi and knelt behind his chair, hugging him, her head buried in his neck, his chin on her arm. He was drenched in sweat and shaking. Neither of them spoke.

Christopher got to his feet, all his tools and the numerous bloody cloths piled neatly in his arms. "I'll be back in a moment," he said softly and padded back through the secret door.

After a while Razi stirred, pushed back a little and patted Wynter on her shoulder. "I must go, Wyn. We have so much to do..."

"Where must you go? Razi...?"

But he was rising to his feet, pushing himself up with shaking arms. "I need to interrogate that fellow, the one who stabbed me... need to hear for myself what he has to say."

Wynter understood this. Understood the power that firsthand knowledge gave, and applauded Razi for his wisdom. But, dear God, he was swaying on his legs, blinking at her from swollen, bloodshot eyes, his naked torso slick with cold sweat. She put her hand on his chest and appealed to the physician in him.

"Listen, Razi, you need to dry off, let your body calm itself, put some warm clothes on. If you go down to the keep in that state you'll have pneumonia by dawn. And then where will Alberon be?"

He dithered for a moment and then sat back down, nodding. She shoved a beaker of still warm milk at him, and the pile of toasted bread. "I'll go get Christopher to bring you some dry clothes," she said and slipped through to the dusty blackness of the hidden passage.

"Christopher?" She crept cautiously into the dim interior of their suite of rooms. It had that scent of male about it, a scruffy, piled-up kind of feeling. Books and heaps of things were scattered about. She smiled, this was Razi. This was how she remembered his rooms all those years ago. She passed his door, it could only be his door, the room within was so cluttered.

"Christopher?" she whispered again, afraid to call too loudly in case the guards in the hall heard her. She moved on to the next door, this must be Christopher's room, silent and, except for a dressing trunk, bare of possessions, nothing out of place.

She heard a quiet scrape in the receiving room and went to the door, pausing to squint about in the gloom. Despite the heat, there was a fire in the grate. They had obviously lit it to boil the equipment and, in fact, there was a small cauldron suspended over it at that moment, the bowls, scissors, and other implements of Razi's trade bubbling away in its depths. The pile of bloody cloths was set neatly to one side and Razi's shirt lay crumpled on the floor beside them.

Christopher was standing by the window, blue lit by the moon, his back to her. He didn't turn around, and when he answered her, his voice was thick. He had to clear his throat to get any words out. "Does he need me?"

"No. I've persuaded him to rest a while. Told him I would get him some fresh clothes; his own are soaked through."

He nodded. "I'll bring them in a moment."

She turned to go, and then stopped. He seemed so lonely there. "Christopher..." she began, but couldn't think of anything else to say. He didn't turn, just kept standing, looking out the window and she didn't know how to comfort him so she left, returning to Razi whom she found asleep at the table, an uneaten slice of toast in his hand.

Torture

Wynter was standing in the kitchen of her old cottage. The sun slanted through the partially closed shutters and illuminated a vase of white poppies on the scrubbed table. She was so afraid. Her heart was hammering in her chest and there were black edges to her vision.

Outside they were murdering her cats. She could hear them yowling and calling out to each other in their pain and fear. She didn't want to see, but she couldn't help herself and she flung out a hand and knocked the shutter back.

They had slung washing lines across the yard, passing from the gables of the workshop across to the roof of the stable. The cats hung by their necks, silhouetted black against the white hot sky, the washing lines bobbing and swaying under their weight. There were dozens of them, dying slowly, their legs and tails thrashing and scrabbling at the air, their mouths open, pink tongues and needle teeth flashing in their swollen faces.

Their awful cat-wails, their high, baby-strangled yowls, filled the sun-laden air, and Wynter felt she was going to be sick. But she was too frightened to run outside to help them. She knew that all she had to do was cut the lines and they might survive, but she was too frightened, and she just stood there as the terrible, unearthly noise clawed at her stomach and her heart.

"You can never be friend to a king, sis."

She leapt at the voice and turned to find Alberon sitting at the table, his crossed arms resting on the wood.

He had grown into a beautiful young man, the very image of his father, as like the King as Razi was different. The sun made fire of his red-blond curls and copper wires of his eyelashes. His big-featured face, his broad mouth, his sleepy blue eyes were all as she recalled them. He was looking at her with a sad kind of affection, and for some reason the sight of him made her want to weep; there was no joy in it at all, just a bitter, bitter sorrow.

He turned away from her and looked out the window, his face creasing in distaste at the sight of the cats. He got to his feet, stooping slightly to keep sight of the yard. He already had Razi's height, but there was a broad-shouldered, bullish physicality to him that was all Jonathon, more power than grace.

"The things we do," he said in sad wonder. "The things we find we must do." He gestured to the yard, and looked at Wynter with his vivid eyes. "Here comes the last of them now."

The horrible screeching started up again. They were bringing more cats down from the castle, great wicker baskets full of them, all tumbled together, clawing and screaming and terrified.

Wynter ran to the corner, her hand over her mouth, because she knew she was going to be sick.

She woke in the chair, alone. But the screaming continued. Razi and Christopher had left as soon as Razi was dressed, and she had sat herself down, vowing to listen for their return. She must have dozed off - the candles were burnt out. Two hours maybe? And now the air was full of screaming. Hollow and thready, but real nonetheless. She leapt to the window, and even before she looked down into the orange garden she knew what she would see.

Heather Quinn was racing through the trees, her mouth wide, her loose hair flying. The moonlight shone through her and almost made her solid as she flitted through the tree trunks and passed through the stone benches. She ran on transparent feet, her hands raised to the windows that overlooked the courtyard, begging for someone to listen.

Wynter had never seen Heather Quinn, but everyone knew what to listen for in the night, should Heather come calling. She had been a King's Mistress, Jonathon's grandfather's mistress to be exact, and had flung herself to her death from the Sandhurst tower. She was the castle harbinger, a foreteller of death, and people took it very seriously when she made her crazy, screaming circuit of the complex in the dead of night.

Down by the stables the hunting dogs began to howl in their kennels, their rising, ethereal wail a musical overtone to Heather's screams.

Wynter leant far out of her window, expecting shutters to open and lights to blaze, expecting people to begin shouting and calling and checking each others' rooms. But nothing happened around the courtyard except some discreet movements at windows, and some quietly closed shutters.

Heather's desperation grew as no one paid her any heed, and she ran a frenzied circle around the garden, her face turned up to the blank windows, pleading for attention. She spotted Wynter and her mouth stretched wider, a horrible gaping chasm in her distorted face. She turned at an unnaturally sharp angle and raced through four orange trees in her desperation to get to Wynter. Her eyes widened to saucer-sized voids and her hands seemed to stretch up, the fingers growing as she sped like lightning across the grass.

"Don't let her talk to you, child! They'll hang you from a tree."

Wynter leapt back from the window, partly from fear of Heather Quinn, but mostly at the shock of a cat-voice so close to her ear. Heather Quinn broke away as soon as Wynter was out of sight, cutting sharply left and flying past under the window. She shot out of the garden and passed under the fountain arch, her screams fading into the distance, headed for the river.

A small, marmalade cat nestled on the windowsill, hidden in the shadows behind the shutter. It regarded Wynter with phosphorescent eyes and she backed away from it, unsure of its intent. It blinked at her. It seemed to be waiting. Wynter looked about her, took a breath and curtsied as in the old days.

"All respects to you, mouse-bane," she said very softly, "well met, this night."

The cat sighed, uncrossed its paws and rose to its feet. It dropped from the windowsill like an unfurling silk scarf, and landed with a barely audible patta-pat on the wooden table beneath. "Close the shutters, fool. You will be watched."

It had been so long since Wynter had heard cat-voice. That curious, whining growl, all long drawn-out and with too many rrrrrrs. Wynter couldn't help but smile at its familiar, impatient tone.

The cat watched her with all the inherent scorn of its species, and switched the tip of its tail, pit-pat, pit-pat, as Wynter quietly snapped the shutters closed.

As Wynter found and lit another candle the cat tutted, sighed and tapped its claws on the table, impatient to be given her full attention.

"So you're ready then, are you?" it said. "Quite sure, miss? Want to go bathe perhaps? Or take a stroll?"

"I'm sorry, good-hunter. I cannot see so well in the dark as you."

The cat pffted and turned its head as if to say, oh please, don't bother. Flattery will get you nowhere with me.

Wynter spread another curtsey and, knowing every cat's love for titles, introduced herself formally, "Protector Lady Wynter Moorehawke at your service, good-hunter."

The cat rose to its feet, suddenly furious, and Wynter was taken aback at its hissing anger.

"I know who you are, girl-once-cat-servant, why else would I be here? Do you think, after all that's befallen, we'd deign to speak with any but you?" It flowed around itself in a prowling figure of eight, grizzling under its breath until it managed to regain some self-control. Then it sat back down and directed its green-eyed glare at Wynter once more.

"GreyMother sent me to warn you."

"GreyMother? GreyMother lives?" Wynter laughed out loud in joy, but the cat just stared at her disdainfully until Wynter took her seat and composed herself.

"GreyMother lives, though old, very old now. And Coriolanus too, though much weakened and always poorly from the poison."

"I'm so sorry," whispered Wynter, tears once again springing to her eyes at the thought of her precious friends.

The cat looked at her as if she'd let loose a fart, its nose wrinkling in disgust. "What care I for your sorrow, human? I am here for revenge on he-who-betrayed-our-trust. That is all, and to use you as an instrument of his downfall. Don't speak to me of your sorrows. I despise them. We all despise them, as the nothings they are."

Wynter felt the tears roll down her face at the cat's awful hatred. "But I did nothing..." she whispered.

The cat stood up and prowled again, releasing a low irritated yowl. "Arrwwww. Hush up, hush up, creature. I do not care. Listen to my message and act upon it! That is all you need to do."

"I will not bring about the downfall of the King!" Wynter said, her voice suddenly steely, "I will not aid you in your destruction of the crown."

The cat turned sly eyes to her and smiled its needle-toothed smile. "The ghosts are surging," it said. "They are this very minute about to rise." It slunk across the table and brought its smiling face up close to Wynter's, "They will thwart your friend, he who is son-but-not-heir to the King."

"Razi?" exclaimed Wynter, half-rising from her chair.

"Yes, Razi."

"Bring me to him!" said Wynter and the cat's smile widened.

At the cat's direction Wynter slipped through the hidden panel in the retiring room. They passed the door to Razi's room and made their way into the pitch-black labyrinth beyond. The passages behind the wall were dusty and very dark. The cat had not allowed her to bring a candle, saying that the light might give her away, so Wynter had to depend on its voice to guide her through the impenetrable blackness. It perched on her shoulder, breathing instructions into her ear, its breath meaty and hot on her cheek.

She ran her hand along the wall for assurance, but sometimes the wall would just disappear and she would be assailed by a blast of icy air as she crossed the junction of a passageway. At those moments she would be gripped by the terrible fear that she was teetering on the edge of a precipice. She imagined a void yawning beside her, her feet a toe's breadth from its maw, and she was convinced that she would simply topple over sideways and drop forever into the eternal black. At these times, she would be gnawed with doubt as to how far she could trust this cat, who was obviously filled with hatred and had not even offered her its name, but within a few steps the wall would be there again, running along beneath her fingertips, a tangible surface to anchor her in the dark.

They seemed to go on forever, past endless corridors of cobwebbed wood panelling. Occasionally they would hear voices, usually muffled, sometimes loud, sometimes there would be music. Now and again a thin line of light would show through a crack in the wood, and Wynter was glad that the cat had forbidden her a candle.

They went down steps. They took numerous turns. The air grew colder and colder and Wynter knew they must be in the cellars. Or in the dungeons underneath the keep.

"Here," hissed the cat, "turn left."

Wynter found herself in a very short, corbel-roofed passageway. There was dim torchlight coming through from the main corridor, which was only nine or ten paces ahead.

They were deep, deep underground, in the most secret of the palace dungeons. Wynter hesitated, terrified, her breath coming in misty puffs in the frigid air.

"Turn right at the top there, and go down the steps," ordered the cat. "Tell he-who-is-son-but-not-heir that the ghosts will thwart him. Tell him to hurry in his inquisition."

There were distant screams echoing from somewhere up ahead. Terrible screams, nothing like Heather Quinn's, nothing like the nightmare cats'. Screams of unendurable agony.

Wynter panicked suddenly. What was she was doing here? What might she have to witness? She tried to retreat into the secret passage, meaning to rush back to her rooms and forget all about this fool's errand. But the weight of the cat slipped suddenly from her shoulders and before she could turn, it had gone, flickering back into the dark like a snuffed candle. She was left with no way back, no guide through the pitch-black maze of passages. Her only choice now was to go forward and face what lay ahead.

The screams grew as she slowly moved along the corridor. High, bubbling, unending, they made her feel sick; they made her legs turn to water. She was suddenly filled with an urgent need for the privy.

She rounded the corner and found herself at the top of a short flight of stairs. She pressed against the wall, hugging the stone. The screams were so clear here, so full of human suffering. She was panting in fear and horror. She knew she was whimpering, but couldn't seem to stop.

The stairs led down into a room. The bottom steps were flooded with sulphurous light, shadows moved about, flickering up the walls of the stairwell, making nauseating patterns on the stone. The prisoner, the poor, screaming, tortured victim that was the source of the sounds, was very close to the foot of those steps.

If she descended three, maybe five steps, she would see him. She would see what was being done to him, and who was doing it.

There was a smell of fire, of smoke, of burning flesh and hair.

She could make out the scattered, burbling words that punctuated the inarticulate shrieking. The pleading, the promises, the prayers.

How could anyone listen to that and still continue to inflict such pain? How could anyone, for any reason...?

"What in God's name are you doing here?"

A cracked, appalled whisper from across the corridor. She turned her head to meet Christopher's wide, haunted eyes. He leant in the shadows of the wall opposite her, looking as though he could barely stand. His face was drawn and horrified and he smelled of vomit. "You shouldn't be here!" he exclaimed, his voice high with anguish. "My God! You shouldn't be here!"

The screams fell away to moans and sobs for a moment, and the two of them turned towards the light. There was a short murmured conversation. A thin ribbon of garbled pleading. Sharp, impatient words. Then the pleading again, rising to begging shrieks, mercy, mercy, oh God, mercy. And then that great agonised howling again, those clogged, bubbling screams that stole the power from Wynter's legs and brought her to her knees.

A shadow cut the light suddenly, soft edged and swirling as if walking through smoke, and then a tall silhouette came rapidly up the steps towards them. It was Razi. Wynter barely recognised him. The corners of his mouth were pulled down so far as to be hideous. His eyes were like live coals at the bottoms of tar-pits. He was smudged all over in soot and blood, and was shining with sweat. He looked like a monster cast in bronze, a horrific, horrified gargoyle forced to look on hell.

The screams continued to rise behind him as he topped the stairs. He flung himself on Christopher, who sobbed as Razi grabbed him and dragged him away from the wall. "All right," Razi said, hoarsely, "All right, you win! Give it to me. Give it to me."

Christopher was snarling through his tears, and Wynter didn't think he heard what Razi was saying. He kept looking back down the steps. The victim was in a frenzy of pain, a series of high rhythmic shrieks tearing the air. "I should have killed him!" Christopher moaned, "I should have killed him! He'll never talk! You should have let me..."

Razi shook Christopher hard. There was a patch of blood on his shoulder where it had soaked through the bandages and his shirt. "I'm SORRY!" he screamed, pulling Christopher up close to yell in his face, "I'm SORRY! You were RIGHT! Give me the bloody KNIFE!"

Christopher registered Razi's words suddenly and started to scrabble at his boot to get his dagger.

Wynter was kneeling on the floor at the feet of the two men, completely disregarded. As she peered down into the sulphurous light she noticed a change in the air, a drawing out of the light, a low mutinous buzz that was rising up behind the sounds of torture.

"Razi..." she said, leaning forward over the top steps, staring into the light. It was drawing her like a whirlpool, it was sucking her down. "Razi... the ghosts..." she put her hand on the step below her, as though she intended to crawl down the stairs.

Razi turned beside her, Christopher's dagger in his hand. He stuttered forward a few steps and then stopped. Christopher sank to his knees on the floor across from her. He fell forward onto his hands, his face tilted to the light, his eyes blank.

The screaming had ceased. The light had turned from orange to white. The air was humming all around them, like bees in a hive.

"The ghosts, Razi..." she said, "the ghosts are surging."

The light seemed to burst.

Wynter felt her hands slide along the stone floor as she was pushed back up the corridor. She came to a stop against the stone arch with a gentle bump, rolling over, limp as a rag doll but still awake.

Light washed over her like watered milk.

Something big slid past her on the flagstones, brushing her legs. Later she would realise it had been Razi, toppled onto his back and shoved up the corridor like a sack of grain.

Great blossoms of white light flared and scattered on the ceiling and walls. All the sound had been crowded from the air, pushed aside, no room left for sound at all. Wynter knew that if she opened her mouth to scream, there would be nothing to hear.

The light went on and on, like a comet passing overhead, moving, flowing and blossoming. Wynter stared up at it, unable to lift a hand or her head, dumb and motionless as a stone.

And then it was over. Stone was stone, flesh was flesh, and she was seeing and hearing and breathing again as if nothing had happened.

She rolled slowly onto her side, her body tingling. Her hair was crackling like summer fire. Her clothes were sparking, sending out little fireflies of light at every crease and fold. Her teeth hurt. Her lips were buzzing.

Razi lay in the middle of the corridor, staring at the ceiling. As she watched, he slowly bent his right leg. Raised his left hand and dropped it again. Blinked.

Across the hall she heard Christopher release a shaky breath.

They got slowly to their feet, and went to look down the stairs. For a moment the three of them stood in a row, silent. Then Razi led the way down into the chamber.

The fires were out, their coals and soot scattered about the floor in a thick gritty carpet. Ash scraped beneath their feet as they walked, stone cold where only moments before it had been searing hot.

The prisoner and the inquisitors were indistinguishable, apart from their clothes and their positions in the room. Bloody, pulpy messes, barely recognisable as human; they looked as though they had been skinned and then carefully dressed again.

Wynter could look only very briefly at what was left of the prisoner before she had to turn away. The horrible chair, the straps, the twisted legs and broken arms, all these things she saw only fleetingly, but they never left her. The chair was ringed about with tables that were laden with terrible instruments, coated now with grit and ash. Great angry iron spikes, hammers, clamps, brands, screws, pliers, and some whose purpose she didn't dare guess at.

Christopher would not come into the room. He followed them down the steps and she heard him pick up his knife from the floor, where it had fallen from Razi's hand, but he loitered at the entrance and came no further. He stood staring at the bloody remains of an inquisitor. His corpse had been shoved up against the wall by the door, a scarlet trail leading from it to the torture chair. Christopher's face was unreadable, but Wynter didn't think he cared too much about this man's fate.

Razi prowled the room, his footsteps scraping and echoing. The torch that he'd brought from the hall flared as he held it high and moved from body to body. He was checking for signs of life in the three inquisitors and the prisoner. When he had pressed his sooty fingers to the last bloody neck and found no pulse, he straightened and stalked back up the stairs.

Christopher and Wynter found themselves in utter darkness. Rousing themselves, they sealed the room, locking the door on the awful blackness within, and, without discussion, followed Razi's footsteps, which led them along another hidden passage to the kitchen.

Fishing for Flies

False dawn was glimmering over the trees when the three of them came into the kitchen. They still had at least another quarter of the shadows before anyone but the fire-keeper would be wandering about. The old woman was actually just banking up the grate when they came slowly down the back stairs, and Razi snapped at her to leave them, his voice uncharacteristically harsh. She startled, bowed and scuttled off, shutting the door behind her.

Except for the little spit-boy, asleep in his crate of straw by the hearth, they were alone in the dancing light of the newly-stoked fire.

Razi got them beakers of water, horse-bread and butter, smoked fish, and they sat at the small table, not touching their food. Christopher was staring at Razi, his face hard, and Razi was pretending not to notice. Wynter was trying to keep her mind from dwelling on that chair, those instruments, and the memory of Razi stalking out of the smoke and firelight, bubbling screams rising up behind him.

"I'm SORRY!" shrieked Razi suddenly, rounding on Christopher and making Wynter jump. But he didn't sound sorry. He sounded angry, he sounded furious, and his face was scarlet with rage. Christopher just looked at him, a stone wall, and Razi pounded the table with his fist. "I'm SORRY, Christopher! I'm SORRY, goddamn you, I'm bloody sorry!" And he was sorry then, his anger melting like ice on a skillet, leaving only regret. He put his face in his hands, and his voice was cracking when he said, "I can't believe I let it go on so long."

Christopher's face softened for a moment and he moved his hand as though to reach out to his friend.

"Did you get anything from him?" Wynter asked. Christopher grunted in disgust and pushed back from the table with a screech of wood on stone. He went over to the fireplace and sat on the nook-bench beside the sleeping child. He turned his back on Razi and Wynter, his elbows on his knees, the fire outlining his taut profile in flickering light.

"Did you, Razi?" she asked again, her voice hard, purposely disregarding Christopher's obvious abhorrence.

"Not much," said Razi, tearing his eyes from the fireplace. "Just that Oliver sent him and..." he faltered, not looking her in the face.

"And? What?"

He looked at her then, the fire burning in his eyes, and she knew he was going to lie even before he wet his lips and opened his mouth. "That's all," he said, "Oliver sent him. That's all we got."

Wynter gazed at him. Oliver, her father's old friend, the King's beloved cousin. The man who had fought valiantly by the King's side all through the insurrection, disgraced now, and fled the palace for reasons known only to the King. He had sent this man? But why? Why would he want Razi dead? It made no sense.

Razi slid a sideways look at her and she knew he was not telling her everything. Chuffing impatiently and pushing back from the table, Wynter glared at her friend. "What are you hiding, Razi Kingsson?" she said, "I'm not ten years old and in need of protecting now. Tell me!"

Christopher snorted in admiration and Razi ran his fingers through his hair, cornered. "There's... he kept babbling about some kind of machine... what he called, 'The Bloody Machine'. That, and Oliver... that's all..."

There was more. She could tell. Something Razi couldn't bring himself to say, and her intuition made her ask, "Did he mention Alberon?"

Razi glanced at Christopher, who turned to look briefly at them before facing back to the fire. Razi slid a glance at Wynter and shook his head, his gaze dropping to the table. She didn't believe him. He might as well have had LIAR written in burning letters on his forehead. But that was all right, she'd get it out of him later. Perhaps it was something he didn't want to say in front of Christopher.

"Why did the ghosts interfere, Razi?" Christopher said, speaking quietly. "What difference does any of this make to ghosts? They don't care about anything. And why should the cats get involved?"

Wynter answered thoughtfully, working it out as she spoke. "I think the cats thought that the prisoner knew something... that he had information that would harm the King. And they wanted him to survive long enough to give you that information. Jonathon betrayed them, Razi, he poisoned them. They want their revenge. The ghosts must want to protect the King. They must..." Wynter hesitated, confused at the very thought of it. "The ghosts must have taken sides!"

Razi gave her a doubt-filled look. Even Christopher glanced at her sceptically. "Ghosts don't take sides," he said.

"A machine," Razi mused, "The Bloody Machine... that's what he called it. The Bloody Machine."

"For Godssake!" growled Christopher suddenly. "He was talking about the chair! That's all! That damned... contraption you had him in! That's all!"

Razi flung his hand up and twisted his head away. "All right! all right!" he cried. "Just stop talking about it!"

They subsided into a bruised silence, over which the fire roared and crackled, the smell of smoke reminding them of the smoke-filled room with its odour of burning flesh and hair. Razi's hands tightened to knots on the table, his eyes tormented.

Christopher suddenly gasped in surprise, and Wynter and Razi turned to see the cause. The spit-boy had lifted his hand and was sleepily running his fingers over Christopher's loosely hanging fist. They watched as the little fellow, still comfortably curled in his sleep-shape, ran his fingers along Christopher's mangled knuckles.

"How do, mouse," whispered Christopher. "Thought you were asleep?"

"My Lord Razi woke me," murmured the child, his cheek resting on his fist, his eyes silver slits under his eyelashes. He was barely awake. "What befell your fingers, mister?"

Christopher put the child's exploring hand back under the blanket and pushed the greasy hair back off his little face. He ran his thumb across the sooty forehead. "Go to sleep," he said quietly, "your day will start soon enough."

The child's eyes began to drift shut as Christopher continued to run his thumb across his brow.

"Tell me," the boy insisted sleepily, his eyes still closed. Christopher chuffed a little laugh. Wynter was glad to see that even Razi, so downcast moments before, brightened noticeably, amusement gradually replacing the horror in his eyes.

"Tell me," implored the child, with all the drowsy persistence of the very young.

"They were eaten by a bear," whispered Christopher, with such easy conviction that for a moment Wynter believed him, though the story was patently ridiculous.

The child's eyes showed silver under his lashes again and he peered at Christopher across a huge chasm of sleep, not sure if he believed him. Christopher breathed another soft laugh. "I was fishing for flies..." he said confidentially.

"For flies?"

"Aye." Christopher's thumb kept up its easy stroking of the little forehead. "Ain't you never fished for flies?" The child shook his head, his eyes closing despite his best efforts. "Huh," said Christopher, "how do you feed your frogs then?"

The child's eyes stayed shut and Christopher slowly took his hand away, listening to the gentle rise and fall of the boy's breath. Wynter found herself yearning for the rest of the story. After all that had happened tonight, she wanted to hear more about frogs, and fishing for flies.

Christopher straightened and then chuckled as the sleepy little voice said, "Don't got me no frogs."

Christopher bent forward again, murmuring low so that Razi and Wynter had to strain to hear. The fire shot blue and lilac highlights through his curtain of black hair and outlined his chin in gold as he said, "Oh, you must get some frogs, lad. They are excellent good companions."

Razi stretched his hand across the table, palm up, and Wynter took it lightly in hers, as if they were children again, listening to Salvador Minare spinning his tales at the fire in Jonathon's chambers.

"How you fish for flies?" the boy mumbled.

"Well..." Christopher's scarred hand lay on the side of the small head. "You just dip your fingers in honey and wait. "'Course, I fell asleep, didn't I? And when I woke up, that bloody bear was making off with my fingers. I chased him, of course, and he dropped all but the two that are missing. And your good Lord Razi, he sewed the others back on for me, because he is a great doctor, and a most excellent man."

Razi put his hand over his eyes at that.

"You know what the worst part was, mouse?"

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