Chapter 10


Unfortunately for Alyn's sleep patterns, she was once again woken by a loud noise and an angry visitor. On this occasion, though, the noise came from within the main chamber, and both she and Miervaldis bolted from their rooms in shock. Horrified, she realised even as she stumbled through the door that she had forgotten to lock it behind Ythilda. The visitor was in the main chamber, and the noise had been an elegant vase, now lying in shards on the floor. Alyn cringed back against her door, wishing she'd stayed inside and watched through the keyhole again. Miervaldis stood quite still, surveying the damage and watching the intruder.

It wasn't someone she recognised, this man. He was tall and slender, quite young, with dark blond hair pulled back into a queue and an unfortunate attempt at a beard. His clothes were rich but not gaudy, well-chosen attire for his build and colouring. His brown eyes were ablaze with fury, and he was openly carrying a dagger, which he now thrust out towards Miervaldis.

"Lord Kadir, I presume?" said Miervaldis, voice quiet and unconcerned. Alyn gulped. This was Pyrrhus' older brother? How had he come here so fast?

"How dare you!" The dagger came closer, held in hands that remained steady despite the obvious emotion. Miervaldis stood quite still, his face guarded but apparently unconcerned. Kadir moved nearer, then his hand flicked and the dagger was reversed, so he grasped it by its blade. Alyn held her breath. For one lord to strike another with the butt of a weapon was considered a formal challenge in most courts. Kadir moved forwards quickly, like a hawk stooping, and Miervaldis turned to one side equally quickly, so that the hilt slipped past and made no contact. One hand came up to grasp it and the other closed over Kadir's outstretched wrist; a small movement, hard to see clearly, and suddenly Kadir was stumbling back, gripping his wrist with the other hand, and his dagger was in Miervaldis' possession.

"I will not accept a challenge," Miervaldis said. "I am here at the behest of the Emperor, and the course of my investigation will not be disrupted." He bent and carefully placed the dagger on the table beside him, out of Kadir's reach.

"You - you, how dare you arrest my brother! He hasn't done anything!"

"He has not been accused of murder. I believe he can provide more information than he has done thus far."

"He's just a boy. What can he know? He has no connection with Lord Cassian or his scribe!"

"That's not true, though, is it? He is friends with Lord Isidor, who was close to you. And he has ties to Cathecassa, Lord Cassian's estate. What is it he has done for them? Or - is it for you?"

Kadir's face went purple with anger, where Alyn had thought it impossible he could look more enraged. She held very still, one part of her brain surprised that even now, she found Miervaldis more scary than the angry young lord who was threatening him. Kadir reached behind his back and yanked out another dagger, this one long and elegant-looking with a wicked point. The first one had been a normal dirk, the kind openly carried by lords and commoners alike, a useful tool. The one he now held out was meant for only one purpose, and he clearly intended to use it. He crouched for a second, reminding Alyn absurdly of the cats around her family's home, then leapt towards her lord, dagger moving forwards to his throat. Despite herself, Alyn shrieked. Miervaldis stepped aside and spun round, one hand reaching out to the dagger. Kadir swung it up so that the blade met the outstretched hand, but Miervaldis continued the motion to grasp it firmly. Kadir froze. Alyn gaped. Blood started to trickle down the blade to the hilt from where her lord held the blade. For a moment, they stood in synchronised stillness, then there was a loud, insistent banging on the door and it burst open. Alyn turned towards the new intruders and gasped with relief when she recognised the uniforms of the Fifth Star Court guards. They came in swiftly, took Kadir by the arms and relieved him of the blade. Then it all started going wrong, because instead of calling for the physicker to treat her lord's hand, they took him by the arms too. All in silence, without speaking once to either lord. While she watched, frozen in shock, they came for her too, and one guard took her by the upper arm, not ungently.

"My lord Miervaldis," said one, at last. He faced her lord squarely, and recited his words carefully, as though they were a talisman. "My lord, you are accused of behaviour unfitting your station, and are requested to present yourself before the Sun Court and answer to your liege."

Alyn jerked in surprise and the guard tightened his grip on her arm. The formal phrasing of the accusation made it seem a small thing, a slight misdemeanour, but for a lord to be accused of unfitting behaviour was one of the most serious situations there was. Worse than murder. Almost as bad as treason, for it meant that the accused lord had been neglecting his duty before the gods and the Emperor. Her mind flicked back to the trip into Ellmore, the reversing coat, the scholar's book in the carriage. Was that what was meant? Was this what the dark man had meant by "untoward"?

Now the guard turned towards Kadir. He can't have expected the younger lord to be there, but his words were no less measured and careful.

"My lord, you have been witnessed threatening and wounding a fellow member of the Court of the Sun Emperor. You must come with us for further investigations." Kadir stood sullenly, head down, showing no sign of having heard the guard, but when they urged him towards the door he obeyed. Miervaldis also walked obediently in front of his captors, his face showing nothing. Alyn was pushed gently into line behind him, her head spinning. What had happened? Who could do this? Who would do this?

A little voice in her head wondered, was this Lord Cassian's doing? It would make sense if the murderer were worried about the investigation, and he had plenty of power in the Court, it would seem - enough that the Emperor himself had asked Miervaldis to investigate and exonerate him. Had Cassian been so worried? She remembered now that two days ago, when she had been tasked with gossipping with Bensen, Miervaldis had mentioned he was going to see Lord Cassian. He'd said no more about it, but had that worried the unpleasant lord?

It seemed a bit farfetched, but the arrest was at such a convenient time, and apparently unprovoked... she turned it over in her head as the guards hurried them onwards, and she only stopped thinking about it when her guard yanked her to a stop, and she realised they'd arrived.

They stood in a small group in the stableyard. It was mid-morning, but the sun was hidden behind grey clouds. It wasn't quite raining. There was a dark grey coach standing in the middle of the yard, with four horses already harnessed and a groom standing by, face grave. It looked ominous. There were no windows, but there were four seats for guards in front and behind, as well as for the driver. Eight guards stood about it, dressed in Sun Court livery.

Miervaldis was led forward and ushered into the grey coach. He went quietly, without looking behind. Four of the Sun Court guards got in the coach with him and the other four mounted the external seats of the coach. The driver flicked his whip, and the horses moved off in unison. Alyn watched as the coach rumbled smoothly away. It seemed too quick, too sudden. Too easy. Was he just gone, then? What was going to happen to him? To her?

The guards must have known, though, because they started off again, her guard tugging her arm to get her moving. She followed, dazed, only peripherally aware of Kadir walking in front of her. It started to rain as they entered the court again, in big fat drops splattering over the cobbles.

A few minutes later, she was pushed gently into a room, and the door shut behind her. She made a few paces in, then looked around. There were four blank walls, with one door which she heard them locking. There was a bench in one corner with a blanket. It had to be a cell, she thought, as she sat down on it. What would they do with her? She'd known, once, what happened to a page whose lord had been accused of a major crime, but she couldn't remember what her instructor had said. She puzzled over the matter for some time, trying to recall the words, the phrasing - even the instructor himself. She remembered sitting in the lesson, Miraina looking bored on her right, doodling little pencil sketches in the margin, but although all that was clear in her mind, nothing else came into focus. In time, she abandoned the attempt and lay down, falling into a kind of open-eyed doze, a numbness that wasn't sleep and wasn't waking.

She came to her senses when the guard came back into the room. She hadn't been paying attention, but she didn't think it had been long since she'd been left there. He wore a professional expression and carried a bag-like hood, which he placed carefully over her head before ushering her before him, guiding her with one hand on her shoulder and one on her arm. She stumbled along a corridor and up some steps, then his hands showed her into a room and pushed her down, gently, so that she sat on a chair she hadn't realised was there.

"Alyn," said a voice that sounded familiar. "Please don't be alarmed. We just want to ask you some questions." She frowned, trying to work out who was speaking. Where had she heard that voice before?

"First, can you tell me who you have been serving?"

"Lord Iarlaith Miervaldis of the Fourth Star Court," she said obediently.

"Good. And how long have you been serving him?"

"Since harvest last year."

"And you served him frequently?"

"No, I never saw him until two weeks ago."

"And what happened then?"

"He summoned me to attend him to Fifth Star Court." This all felt very rote, as though it was a lesson she had learned. The voice coughed slightly, then went on.

"Why was he visiting Fifth Star Court?"

"Because he had been asked to investigate a murder."

"Asked by whom?"

"By the Sun Emperor."

"And did you hear the holy Emperor say so?"

"No."

"So who told you?"

"My lord did." Alyn felt a twinge of unease. It had been only Miervaldis' word, after all. But there had been the coach...

"And when you got here, what did your lord do?"

"He asked people questions."

"And what did you do?"

"I accompanied him and went to lessons."

"I see. Now, did you see your lord do anything... strange?" And with that pause, Alyn knew the speaker. Although the words were different, the feeling was identical; she was almost certain that this had to be the dark man. That meant there was someone else in the room, because he already knew all this, she was sure. She tried listening harder, wondering if she could detect another person.

"Alyn?"

What should she answer? He had done plenty of strange things...

"Yes," she said, because she'd left it too long to say anything else.

"Can you tell me what he did?" Was there excitement in his voice? She thought quickly.

"He didn't go to the evening meals except once. He always ate in his room." That counted as strange, she hoped.

"Anything else?" the voice pressed.

"He never dressed up. He always wore the same old things." That made her sound like her sister, she thought, but maybe that was for the best.

"Anything more? Think very carefully, Alyn." She did so, turning Miervaldis' actions over and over in her mind, shying away from the obvious as though her interrogators might read her mind and learn about the scholarly book, the reversible tunic, the visit to the Proverb in the Hand.

"We went to Ellmore and ate lunch once." There was a muffled breath which she thought might be frustration. She hoped it was.

"Did you hear what your lord was accused of?"

"Yes."

"Did you understand what that means?"

"I think so." Would it work if she played stupid?

"Tell me."

"It means he's not behaved as a lord ought."

"Do you know what sort of things that might include?"

"No," said a second voice, and Alyn felt her heart leap. She was right; there was another person in the room.

"But -" said the first voice, the one she thought was the dark man.

"No, that's enough. I won't have you putting ideas into the girl's head. If she knows anything, she'll tell someone, won't you, Alyn?"

"Yes, sir," she said obediently.

"And you don't know anything else?" went on the second voice.

"No, sir," she lied, and hoped they wouldn't notice. There was a pause, and she felt her heart hammering a rhythm of fear and odd exhilaration.

"You will be taken back to Fourth Star Court," the second voice said eventually. "You can continue with your studies there."

"Yes sir," she said again. The guard's hand came down to her shoulder again, urging her up from the chair. She stood up, a little shaky, and bobbed her head to where she thought the speakers were, then obeyed the guard's hand and walked before him back to the cell where he removed the hood. She sat down on the bench again, but this time, her mind raced over what she had heard and surmised. That had to have been the dark man, and he still wanted her help to accuse Miervaldis. But why? And why arrest him now, what had he done that had provoked him? Could it really have been at Lord Cassian's behest? Was the dark man really from the Emperor? Who was playing the double game here, Miervaldis or the dark man? Or - the notion shocked her - the Emperor himself?

The thoughts were still tumbling over and over in her head when the guards came back, wearing more friendly expressions. They ushered her to the door rather than tugging her, and walked her back to the stableyard without talking, but with a more amiable silence than before. She trotted between them, glancing around, but none of the few members of the Fifth Star Court she saw would meet her eyes. They turned away from her and from the guards as though unwilling to acknowledge even their existence.

It was raining properly now, and standing in the downpour was a modest coach she recognised, with her small chest looking lonely on its luggage platform. Sure enough, when she climbed in, she spotted the Sun Court insignia on the sides. She sat down and the guard closed the door behind her but didn't get in. The coach started moving, and she realised she was going alone, unaccompanied. All the way to Fourth Star Court? She stuck her head out of the window as the coach rolled out of the yard, but there was no-one there. Not even the guards had stayed to see her off.

It was a very different journey to the one she had taken with her lord, but equally fast. After some time had passed the rain eased and the sun came out between the ragged clouds, so that she knew it was the afternoon. With that knowledge came hunger, but almost at the same time, the coach approached the way-station they had stopped at before, and while the horses were changed, the driver passed her some bread and cheese.

"Thank you," she said, but he just nodded and took up his station again, shaking the reins to encourage the new horses back onto the road.

She lost track of the time in the end, not even registering the crossing of the Voront that had intrigued her so during the outward journey. They had started out much later in the day, so it was well past moonrise when they reached Fourth Star Court, and she was nodding sleepily as the coach pulled up. She half-heard the voice of the driver saying something to the stablehands who had come out to meet them, then the door opened and one of them was talking to her.

"Come on, lass," he said. "We better get you back," and she stumbled out of the carriage and followed in his wake as he led her to the pages' dormitory. He pushed her gently into her own room, which she vaguely recognised, and put the chest down before closing the door behind him. Alyn sat on the bed and looked around dully. It felt like it was all a dream, but the bed was soft and she was tired, so falling asleep seemed like a perfectly logical thing to do.

She was woken by sunlight flooding her room and the birds singing brightly in the branches of the orchard trees. It was all sweetly familiar, and for a moment as she sat up, the events of the past two weeks seemed like some strange fiction, a daydream. Then she saw the chest still in the middle of the room, and realised she was still fully dressed, and it all came back to her with crushing reality. She scrambled from the bed and opened the chest; her things had been tossed in any which way, and her clothes were all crumpled, but that wasn't what concerned her now. She burrowed to the bottom, scrabbling desperately among the cloth until she felt the dry paper of her brother's letter, and breathed out in relief. Perhaps they had read it, but she didn't think so. It was safe. Not that that meant her lord was, of course. Or was he her lord any more?

She chewed that notion over in her head as she removed the letter and stowed it inside the unused fireplace, somewhere she'd long been using as a safe box. If Miervaldis was accused of such a serious crime - if he were actually found guilty, and she found that unpleasant to think about - presumably he wouldn't be her lord any more. Did that mean she wasn't supposed to be loyal to him? Had she really been loyal to him? He'd never known about her doubts, her worries, but those surely weren't appropriate for a loyal page to hold. She slumped back onto the bed, worried anew. What was she supposed to say now?

"Hey!" She looked up as the door opened and Miraina stuck her head in. Her eyes were glowing and her face alight.

"What?"

Miraina came in, closing the door behind her. "Go on then," she said eagerly. "Tell me all about it!"

An hour later, the two girls made their way to the little refectory that served the Fourth Star Court. Alyn found herself comparing it to Fifth Star Court and finding it more familiar and homely, but also slightly down-at-heel, like a pair of well-worn, comfortable shoes. Their path converged with several of the other pages, all making their way in for breakfast, and they called cheerful greetings to her. It had only been two weeks, but for her, it felt like much longer.

Inside the refectory, she helped herself to porridge, jam, bread and cheese, and went to sit at her accustomed table with the other pages, where the questions began all over again.

"Where did you go?"

"Why? What happened?"

"Is it true there was a murder?"

"Do you know who did it?"

"Why did your lord go?"

"Where is he now?"

"What's he like?"

Alyn found herself simultaneously trying to talk, eat, drink and laugh, and eventually had to choose which to do before she choked. Somehow, she managed to finish breakfast and satisfy everyone's curiosity before their first lesson was due. That was an odd feeling - back to normal lessons?

"Who's teaching now?" she asked Miraina as they walked back to their rooms to fetch their writing things.

"Lord Evernar. Tristin's lord." Alyn recognised the name of the page, if not the lord. She fetched her writing things from the room and followed Miraina to the East pavilion, to one of the top rooms. The morning light flooded through the big windows, picking out the faded detail in the old hanging tapestries, gleaming off the old but well-polished brass candlesticks, and temporarily blinding her as she stepped through the door. Miraina nudged her to a cushion.

Lord Evernar was a tall, slim, fashionably-dressed lord, who spent two hours talking vaguely about the duties of a lord to his people. Something seemed to be making him uncomfortable; he kept changing his examples halfway through giving them, which made the lesson confusing to follow. Miraina seemed as confused as Alyn did, and said at the end of the lesson that it had been a complete change of topic from last time.

"I mean, complete," she said, as they made their way back to the refectory, stopping to wash their hands at the pump in the yard. A spider scuttled over the stones as Alyn put her things down and stepped up to the stream of cold water. "Last time," Miraina went on, "he was talking about the fine manners of the eastern courts, and where they originated."

Alyn shrugged, shaking the water from her hands.

"Maybe he got bored with that," she offered. Miraina made a rude noise.

"Him, get bored of talking about manners and etiquette? I don't think so."

There were more people than usual in the refectory, but it only became clear that something odd was going on when the First Sage entered the refectory along with a finely-dressed noble she didn't recognise. Most of the others did, however - there was a near-immediate hush, and those standing made obeisance. Alyn copied Miraina, realising from the form of the courtesy that this had to be the First Lord of Fourth Star Court. The First Lords represented their Courts in the Sun Court itself; although any lord could attend the Sun Court if they desired, it was considered important that at least one lord from each Star Court attend, and the appointment was a prestigious one.

The First Lord of Fourth Star Court was an elderly man with a sharp face and neatly-arranged white hair. He cast a long look over the crowd, then nodded slightly.

"My lords and ladies, pages and servants," he said, and his voice carried well, "I have an important notice from the Sun Court. I would request your attendance, and that of every member of this Court, in the chapel one hour from now." Then he nodded to them all, turned and left. A low buzz of chatter sprang up as the door closed behind him and the Sage. Miraina turned to Alyn.

"Is this about your lord?"

"It might be," Alyn said, feeling uneasy. She hadn't told anyone what had happened, only that she'd been sent home - which had been met with good-natured derision and joking suggestions that she hadn't been serving properly. Was this about Miervaldis? What had happened?

An hour later, the entire population of Fourth Star Court squeezed itself into the chapel. It was a much smaller chapel than that belonging to Fifth Star Court, of course, but then there weren't so many people, and they did all manage to get in. The First Lord and First Sage stood at the front on the dais, and when the last page had managed to edge in, the doors were shut and the First Sage led them in a quick Paean, then a Supplication, not one of the standard ones. He asked for wisdom, insight and the justice of the gods in every heart and mind. The words left Alyn even more afraid of what was about to be said.

The First Lord stepped forwards after the Supplication and the whole chapel seemed to hold its breath.

"My lords, ladies, pages and servants," he said, just as he had done before, "thank you for attending me this afternoon. I'm sorry to have to say this, but my duty here is to inform you that Lord Iarlaith Miervaldis is standing trial at the Sun Court. He has been accused of behaviour unfitting his station, and the Emperor has decreed an investigation be undertaken to determine whether the accusation is true."

There was a long pause, then heads began to turn to Alyn, eyes wide in shock and disbelief. Alyn felt paralysed by the attention and the First Lord's words. She should have expected it, but somehow, hearing it here, in Fourth Star Court, made it so much more real. She realised she had been expecting Miervaldis to show up in a few days, having quickly sorted out the accusation at the Sun Court. Wasn't he supposed to be friends with the Emperor? If he was... if he was, then the accusation must have some grounds in reality, since surely the Emperor would not want to preside over the trial of a friend! She shivered. Would she have to go to the Sun Court herself?

"I would like to speak to Alyn Vanyasdotter in my chamber, please," the First Lord continued. Alyn jumped. "You may all go. Thank you for your attendance, and please, I would ask that you be discreet when speaking of this." He stepped back, and the First Sage came forward to speak the Dismissal. After he'd finished, there was an immediate flurry of talk as people whispered excitedly of what had been said, and what hadn't been. Alyn stood as though frozen, feeling eyes on her from all sides. Solicitously, Miraina took her arm.

"Come on," she hissed in Alyn's ear. "You have to go to his chambers now!" Alyn started, and led herself be herded away.

The chapel in Fourth Star Court was part of the Court itself, unlike the one in Fifth Star Court, which stood separately. The First Lord's chambers were conveniently close by, but Alyn wished they were on the other side of the Court. She felt totally unprepared for this. Miraina knocked on the door for her, and shoved her through when it opened.

"You'll be fine," she whispered after her. "Good luck!" The doors closed, and Alyn stood numbly before an elderly, very distinguished-looking servant, who was clearly waiting for her to say something.

"Uh, I'm Alyn Vanyasdotter," she managed. "The First Lord asked to see me." The servant gave her a very long look, then made the appropriate obeisance to her. It felt, somehow, like he was doing her a favour. Then he turned, urging her to walk behind him. He had more poise, more elegance to his carriage and his manner than Lord Miervaldis had ever shown, despite his status. Alyn followed him, cowed.

The inner chamber was richly decorated and surprisingly small. The First Lord was seated behind an enormous desk of dark wood, covered in various papers. He looked up as Alyn was shown in. The servant performed an elaborate obeisance with careful solemnity, then made his way out silently. Alyn made her own obeisance as carefully as she could, somewhat different from the servant's due to her own rank, but felt as she finished that she had not managed half the respect he had shown. The First Lord dd not seem offended, thankfully.

"Alyn. You were page to Lord Miervaldis and attended him in the Fifth Star Court." He paused, but it hadn't been a question, so she stayed silent. He looked down, then up again, eyeing her with an odd expression on his face. "I can't go into the details because very little has happened yet. However, I do want to tell you that Lord Miervaldis has specifically declined to have you come before the Sun Court to present evidence at this trial. In fact, he asked me to reassign you to another lord as soon as may be possible."

The words felt like a physical blow, and Alyn flinched. He didn't want her. He didn't need her. In the face of so important a trial, he didn't want her there. She felt cold and miserable, and wanted to curl up there and then, but the First Lord was watching her carefully, with that same funny expression, so she did her best to hold herself steady and her face still, and not let any of the shock and misery inside show. After a while - a long while, it felt like - he went on.

"I just wanted to tell you that now, before anything else happens," he said. "In fact, your evidence may be needed. Lord Miervaldis can't overrule the Sun Court, and if they call for you then you will have to go. I will also not reassign you until the trial is finished; to do so would not be appropriate. But I did want to warn you now. Do you understand?"

She didn't, not at all, but she made herself nod, and then say:

"Yes, my lord." Surprisingly, her voice was steady, if quiet.

"Good. Then you may go."

She made obeisance again, then walked backwards to the door, not turning her back to the eminent lord because that would be rude. The door opened as she approached, and the elderly servant showed her out, face impassive. Miraina was waiting outside the door.

"What happened? Alyn, are you all right? What did he say?"

"He just said I wasn't needed right now, but I might be later," Alyn said, trying to hold her voice steady. Miraina looked at her, concern written all over her face.

"Lessons are off this afternoon. Do you want to -"

"I'd like to rest, I think," Alyn interrupted. What she really wanted was to be alone, but to say that would hurt Miraina, and it was true that she was tired. Miraina nodded understandingly, and went with her to the pages' dormitory, not saying anything else. As they walked, though, Alyn felt people watching her and caught snatches of conversations, phrases here and there.

"That's his page, right?"

"He's never had a page before."

"He's never here, though, is he?"

"She can't care that much, she never saw him before two weeks ago!"

"... doesn't look well."

"You think it's true?"

The orchard provided a welcome screen from both the looks and the conversations. Miraina saw her to her room, and hesitated at the door.

"Do you want, I don't know, tea or something?"

"No thanks," Alyn said, sitting down on the bed. "I just want to sleep. I didn't get much last night."

"Of course," Miraina nodded understanding. "I'll be next door if you need anything, all right?"

Alyn managed a smile for her friend, then flopped down onto the bed as the door closed. The world seemed very strange right now, as though it had been turned on end. She wondered if she was going to wake up back in Fifth Star Court, and find that this was all a dream. It certainly had that sense of surreality.

She turned over and stared at the wall. Miervaldis had been arrested on what couldn't possibly be a serious charge. Yes, he did some weird things, but nothing concrete enough to stand under an accusation that serious. That meant... that meant either that he had done something she didn't know about, or that someone had accused him in order to get rid of him. Was that at Lord Cassian's urging? Perhaps, but whoever it was who had made the false accusation, they had to be pretty sure of themselves. They must have something else to bring before the Sun Court to make such an accusation stick.

Why had Miervaldis said he didn't want her? He'd never behaved as though he thought her service was worthless. Or had that all been an act? She didn't want to think that, but she had to admit she didn't know the enigmatic lord half as well as she thought she had. It could have all been a charade. Well, she thought, flinging herself over to stare at the ceiling again, if that was how he felt, then she didn't care and none of it mattered at all. But if it wasn't how he felt... had he refused to have her there because he was worried about her? Was that possible? Why would he be worried for her at the Sun Court? Or was it that he was worried her evidence would damn him further? That made more sense, although it didn't make her feel any better. Had she already made it worse? She remembered her brief interrogation at Fifth Star Court, her lies and half-lies. Should she have told the truth? Her conscience stabbed at her harder now. It had been all right to lie to protect him, she'd felt then, but had she just made it worse in some way she couldn't fathom? That would be unbearable, but would she ever find out? She turned over again, and buried her face in the pillow. She wasn't crying, but she felt shaky and tired and as though tears were only a few more thoughts away. Rather than that, she let herself drift into sleep, a refuge against guilt and worries she could do nothing about.

She slept all through the evening meal, but Miraina brought her bread and cheese and gossip.

"I saw the First Lord going," she said, as Alyn ate. "It was just after dinner, in a fast carriage."

"He must be going back for more of the trial," Alyn concluded.

"I suppose. I wonder when we'll find anything else out." Miraina cast Alyn a speculative glance. Alyn shrugged. She knew nothing more, and didn't want to think about it anyway.

Getting to sleep that night was not as hard as she'd feared, and in the morning, bar a few curious looks, everything seemed as close to normal as it was possible to be. Alyn got up, washed, went with Miraina to lessons, had lunch, and then went to her archery lesson. In the first year, the only weaponry the pages learned was archery, unless their lord chose to teach them something else. The use of swords was only taught to second year pages, a decision Alyn had never really understood. She was quite looking forward to learning to use a sword, although she didn't envisage a life as a Swordmaiden.

"Did I miss much?" she asked, as they entered the big practice hall.

"Not really. Olver almost hit a hound that got loose and was running around the hall last week. It wasn't near the targets, but that's probably more dangerous with Olver." Alyn laughed.

They donned their gloves and arm protectors, and chose their bows from the collection of practice weapons, all well-used but well cared for. Alyn struggled momentarily with stringing hers, then managed it with a muttered curse as it pinched her fingers.

"All right, everyone to the back wall!" Lord Indar came in, carrying his own bow. It was a beautiful weapon, rich ash wood decorated with inlaid patterns, but he rarely used it, preferring to demonstrate with the common bows. Still, it was always with him. The pages all made their courtesies, and he nodded at them to straighten.

"We'll start with a warm up," he said, as he always did. "Three arrows each, four targets. On my count."

The targets were already set up, four straw bales in a row at the far wall. Alyn followed Miraina to stand behind two other pages in line for the far left target. Each page stepped up to the line, took three arrows, and, at Lord Indar's command, loosed them one by one. The pace was measured, and most of the pages kept up, although one or two still fumbled a little. Lord Indar didn't say anything, but Alyn knew he noticed.

Her turn came, and she selected three arrows from the bucket and laid them across the bale in front of her, retaining one, which she nocked, and drew the bow, holding it steady, breathing calmly, waiting for the word.

"Loose," said Lord Indar, as he had nine times before, and on her breath out, she aimed and fired. The arrow went pleasingly straight, thunking into the straw bale, and she grinned as she bent to pick up the next one.

After the warm-up, the arrows were collected by the pages who'd been first to shoot. Lord Indar gathered them all up and told them today they would practice shooting in the wind, since there was a good strong breeze. There were collective mumbles and sighs as they all trooped out of the hall and followed the lord up to the big meadow, where four more targets had been set up. Worryingly, these were actually human-shaped, and a lot thinner than the warm-up bales. Lord Indar explained at length how to compensate for the wind, demonstrating the effect of the wind on his arrow's flight. Then he had them all line up as they had done before, and try to hit the target. This took longer than the warm-up because he spent time with each page, having them shoot one-by-one. In between, all bows were downed and the pages collected their arrows to leave a clear target for the next archer.

Finally, Alyn's turn came; she stepped up, and Lord Indar came to stand beside her as she aimed. The wind was blowing steadily across, so she pointed the arrow a bit to the side to compensate, as he had instructed them. He didn't say anything except, "Loose!"

She shot, and the arrow curved with the wind, whipping past the figure to hit the ground beyond. She hissed in exasperation.

"Don't worry," Lord Indar said. "You're not pulling as hard as I am, so you need to compensate more. Or pull harder."

"Yes, my lord," Alyn said obediently, and aimed the next arrow further over.

"Loose!"

This one hit, but only just. The last one made it to the chest, albeit at an angle.

"Well done," Lord Indar said, and went on to the next student. Miraina gave Alyn a cheerful thumbs-up.

After all four had finished, everyone laid their bows down and Alyn walked out with the other three to collect her arrows. She tugged the two successes from the target, then walked on and bent over to pick up the other, the one that had missed. As she bent over, she heard a shriek, and something hissed over her head. Almost simultaneously, she heard Lord Indar's angry shout.

"All bows down!"

She looked over. Another arrow lay on the grass, some few hundred feet distant. Had someone been shooting at her? But who?

She left that arrow, thinking it would be better not to mess with it, and hurried back to the relative safety of the group, wondering which idiot had been fool enough to mess with his bow. But nobody owned up, despite Lord Indar's long, angry rebuke which was directed at all of them because he didn't know who to blame, and as they all trudged back to the hall, chastened, Miraina whispered that she'd seen nobody holding a bow at the time.



toothycat.net is copyright Sergei and Morag Lewis