Chapter 11

Apart from the incident with the arrow, the next days were entirely normal - so normal, in fact, that Alyn almost felt as though the previous two weeks hadn't happened. She went to lessons, gossipped and laughed with Miraina and the other pages, played games, and once or twice helped out at the stables. Two hours of mucking out meant she got half an hour with the riding horses. Half an hour wasn't very long, but it was good enough, and she enjoyed riding the tall horses, feeling their spirit and responsiveness even just cantering around the big meadow.

Three days after the arrow had nearly hit her, the messengers brought news. Every day except Holy days, they rode between the Sun Court and the various Star Courts, fetching and carrying messages and letters. Any letters or news from the Sun Court arrived the same day they were sent, and letters from one Star Court to another took only one more day to arrive. It was a fast, efficient system, but it was mainly valued as a source of unofficial news and gossip. The men and women who rode the fast courier horses were invariably inveterate rumour-mongers, and the same system which meant letters got to their destination so promptly meant gossip spread just as quickly.

Alyn didn't actually know when the messengers arrived that morning; most of the time, the pages only got to hear courier gossip first-hand if they were in the right place at the right time. Alyn, Miraina, and several of the other first year pages were in the kitchen that morning, scrubbing the floor and cleaning the walls of one of the smaller pantries as a punishment for trying to steal a bit of pie the night before. The gossip spread round the kitchen fast enough, but it took a while to filter back to where they were. Even a small Court had big kitchens, and even a small pantry took some scrubbing.

"I'll get more water," Alyn offered, standing back from the wall. A great deal of grime had come off with the pages' work. Miraina, on her knees attacking the floor, grunted in acknowledgement. Alyn picked up both pails and staggered out the back door to the little kitchen garden where she pitched the dirty water over the cabbages. The pails were filled one by one from the water pump; she dragged the handle up and down, and the spout gushed water wheezily into the buckets. Despite the early start and hard work, she felt cheerful; it was a lovely day, and the pie had been worth it.

She walked carefully on the way back, taking the steps one at a time, and easing sideways into the pantry, then carefully placing the buckets on the floor. Then she stopped. All three of her friends were standing watching her very carefully.

"What is it?"

There was no answer for too long. Then Miraina smiled, but it wasn't a real smile.

"Nothing," she said airily. "Thanks for getting the water," and she stepped around Alyn to grab a bucket and continue. The others followed her example, saying nothing. Perplexed, Alyn bent to get her own cloth, but it was gone. She looked around, frowning.

"Have you seen my cloth?"

"No, sorry." Miraina carried on scrubbing. Alyn looked harder, on the empty shelves and in the corners, but the pantry was bare and there was nowhere for a somewhat grubby cleaning rag to hide.

"If it's not here, why don't you finish now?" Miraina said eventually. "We're almost done, and it won't take long." It felt deliberate, but Alyn could hardly argue with the logic. She stood still for a few moments longer.

"All right," she said eventually. "Thanks. See you at the lesson?"

Miraina made a vague noise, and the others were silent. Confused and upset, Alyn left. She walked through the main kitchen, where preparations for breakfast were well under way. The head cook saw her go, but didn't acknowledge her; didn't even ask if she'd finished or why the others weren't with her, didn't tell her that she should have learned her lesson. Feeling it far more than if she had had a stinging rebuke, she went back to the dormitory to get clean.

Breakfast was equally strange. She was earlier than the others so she sat down where the first year pages normally sat, but although most of her year saw her as they filtered in, none of them sat near her. She didn't see Miraina at all. After a lonely breakfast, the lesson was worse; Miraina was still absent and when she asked after her friend, she either got a brief ‘don't know,' or no answer at all, just a blank stare. She gave up after a few tries and sat staring into space, hardly even noticing when Lord Evernar appeared. The pages all made obeisance, and she copied them, not thinking about it.

"Be seated," Evernar said, and coughed. She looked up at him; he was dressed in fashionable green silks ruched around his waist. It looked oddly effeminate. He glanced down and met her eyes, then blanched and looked away. She frowned. What's wrong with him?

The lesson was supposed to be about the development of manners and the fine points of etiquette, but Lord Evernar appeared very distracted. He kept starting sentences and then trailing off without finishing, and there were several long silences where he just stared into space. After he had rambled for an hour and a half, he stopped himself suddenly in the middle of the topic, announced that the lesson was over, and hurried from the room before half the pages had managed to bow.

Needless to say, Alyn couldn't get any of them to talk to her. It was both very upsetting and really irritating, and so were the funny looks she got at the refectory at lunchtime. Again, no-one sat near her - and it wasn't just the pages who were avoiding her now, it was everyone. Feeling like she had some hideous disease, she went back to her room after lunch, taking a long route by the back stairs to avoid people as much as possible. Was this how lepers felt? It wasn't nice at all.

In her room, she flopped down on the bed and thought. She knew what had to be wrong; one of the couriers had brought news of the trial, and something had happened to Miervaldis. She had hoped there'd be news sooner or later, and the fact that no-one would talk to her meant it had to be bad. Acknowledging it like that, even to herself, felt horrible; a heavy weight in her stomach, a foreboding pounding in her head. But not knowing was worse. Had he been stripped of his status? Exiled? Even - executed? That was a possibility, although she couldn't bring herself to believe that would happen. Even, even if he had been sentenced, surely he wasn't dead yet?

But it had been five days since he had been arrested. That might be enough time.

There was only one thing to do, and that was to catch the evening couriers. They weren't as anticipated as the morning ones, so were usually easier for lowly pages to catch and gossip with when they arrived. They normally came several hours before sundown at this time of year, but that was a long time from now. Alyn scowled to herself, thinking. She didn't want to go to the lesson and have everyone stare - or pointedly not stare - at her. She didn't want to go anywhere with other people right now. In the end, she stayed in her room, not wanting to do anything and desperate for the day to pass. It was a very long, miserable time until the shadows lengthened, and she made her way down from the little dormitory, through the orchard and round the back of the Court to the stables and the coach yard. The couriers would come there for remounts, and the Court servants would wait with outgoing messages to exchange for any incoming. She tucked herself into a convenient corner in the yard, and waited.

It didn't take long; she'd judged the timing well, although she'd been early, unable to wait any longer. Less than half an hour after her arrival, she heard the clatter of hooves and two lathered horses cantered into the yard and pulled up short. The couriers both jumped down as the Court servant came forward with a small bag.

"Just these," he said, and accepted the two bags the couriers brought. "Will you stay for food?"

"If there's any ready," said the senior courier, which was a courtesy; there was always food ready for the couriers. The servant nodded and hurried away with the bags. Two grooms had already come out to take charge of the weary horses, and one more man led two fresh mounts out. The couriers shook their arms and stretched. The older one said something to the younger and went off in the direction of the yard privy. The younger headed for the fountain, where he sat down and stripped off his coat, splashing his face with the water and yawning as he did so. Alyn judged it was the right time, and slipped out of her corner.

"Oh, hello," he said cheerfully as she approached. "Are you waiting for a letter? Only the bags have already gone..."

"No, actually, I was wondering what news there was." She tried for a light tone, as though it meant nothing to her.

"Nothing since the morning, sorry." He made a face. "Everyone's asking that..."

"Oh, but I haven't heard the news this morning," she said, then hurried on when he looked confused. "I was busy cleaning in the kitchen, and no-one will tell me what was said. I've been busy..."

"Oh well," he said, ignoring the obvious flaws in her excuse in favour of a chance to show off. A very junior courier running the evening routes probably didn't get to do that very often. Alyn sat down next to him and tried her best to look attentive rather than desperately worried. He leaned forward, with the grin of one who loves being in the know.

"It's news from the Sun Court, of course," he began importantly. "I mean, you know, right? Because it's your lord who's on trial?" Alyn started, horrified, then realised that by "your lord" he meant "a lord from your court", not "the lord you serve". Hastily she nodded, trying to cover her reaction, but he hadn't noticed. "Well, they've been in session for days now and not a word from them, but yesterday we all found out what he's been accused of."

"I thought it was behaviour unfitting his station?"

"Yes, yes, but there has to actually be an unfitting behaviour, you know? Like, I don't know, selling something or whatever. Well, this is amazing. You'd never think it!"

Alyn thought, get on with it, and tried harder to look intrigued.

"He's been accused of sorcery!"

For a second, the words didn't sink in. Then at first, she felt a flood of relief that the trial wasn't over yet, he hadn't been convicted. Then -

"Sorcery? What kind of sorcery?" Her voice was indignant despite her efforts. The courier grinned at her, eyes alight.

"Not just any old magery," he said grandly, "but ensorcellment!"

Alyn sucked in a breath. It was bad enough to be accused of practising magic, something no lord should touch. It was worse to be accused of ensorcelling another person, something forbidden even to legitimate mages.

"Who - who has he ensorcelled?" she managed, pushing the words out.

"His page!"

At that point the other courier came back and the boy jumped to his feet.

"I better go," he said, brushing himself down. "It's quite something, right?" He grinned conspiratorially and hurried off to look official by his new mount. Alyn stayed seated on the stone wall staring straight ahead, her head spinning and a heavy feeling in her stomach that was to her previous dread like a rock to a pebble.

Miervaldis was accused of ensorcelling her. That was a crime punishable by the most extreme sentences. Miervaldis didn't want her at the trial. The only way to disprove a charge like that was for a skilled mage to examine the ensorcelled person. If her lord didn't want her there... then it had to be true. He had ensorcelled her? He had infiltrated her mind, her defences? She knew very little about magic, but that practiced upon another person without their consent, that was dirty. That was offensive to the very core of propriety. To think that he had done that..

She shook her head violently. It couldn't be true. How could it? When could he have done it? Ensorcellment was supposed to take a long time, because to penetrate the natural defences of the mind and coerce another person's will couldn't be done quickly or forcefully. He'd had two weeks in Fifth Star Court; they'd been together most of the time. Had he done it then? No, no, how could he have? She'd doubted him when she received Byran's letter, she remembered; a properly ensorcelled person would never stray from absolute faithfulness. But maybe it hadn't been complete then? She didn't know, because she'd never thought she needed to know, and now she did need to know, she didn't want to even think about it. Did that mean it was true?

"Argh!" She bit back any more, jumped up from the fountain and ran through the back archway and out towards the orchard, paying very little attention to her surroundings. No wonder everyone was being so careful around her! What did you say to someone who had been ensorcelled? What did it mean for Miervaldis? An accusation like that meant death, if proved; there was no other guaranteed way to break the hold on the victim's mind. Did that mean he was going to die, if he couldn't prove himself innocent? If that was true, why not ask her to come to the Sun Court? Or was he hoping to get off lightly if nothing could be proved either way? Did the person on trial have the right to deny the Court evidence, if that evidence was in the form of his page?

She reached the big meadow and continued running, the evening sunlight casting a long, slanting shadow behind her. She barrelled through the long grass at the end and reached the ridge, stopping when she got to the top, bending over and breathing heavily. She wiped her nose and realised she was crying. The tears glazed her vision and broke the golden-red sunlight into refracted sparkles.

Suddenly tired, she sat down by the big tree that topped the ridge and made a distinctive silhouette that was visible from her room by the orchard. She leaned back against it and stared at the glowing sky. The questions kept coming. Had the First Lord known about the accusation when he'd spoken to her? She remembered him looking at her so oddly - was that why? Would the Emperor really let his friend be punished without pulling her in as evidence? Or was Miervaldis really friends with the Emperor? She only had his word - and the evidence of the little coach with the Sun Court insignia - to say otherwise. And to her now - quieter, more tired, and thinking more clearly, if also more slowly - that charge seemed all too believable. Lords weren't supposed to do magic for the same reason they shouldn't be practising a trade or craft; they were supposed to be working for their people, bringing their needs to the attention of the higher lords, or the Emperor himself. In smaller demesnes like her father's, it was common for the lord to also work his own lands, but even then, that meant giving orders to the people who actually did the work. Lords mustn't work; that was enshrined in the highest laws of the lands, both legal and moral. To work would be a betrayal of their people, their station and their Emperor, and thus a defiance of the gods. For a lord to do magic, well, that was even worse. That spoke of years of study, years of defying the law, years of ill intent. It would be like a lord practicing medicine, except where a physicker lord would presumably work to heal others, a mage lord would work solely for his own ends. That was what the law stated; magic led its practitioners astray and nourished selfishness and whimsy. Mages were tolerated because magic was necessary, but they were never trusted, and rarely liked. Magic-using lords - that was bad enough. But one who ensorcelled his page... that was an abomination.

But Miervaldis was given to whimsy, given to curiosity. She remembered his book in the coach, his questions to the physicker and the stablemaster. His cleverness and control in Ellmore with Neirin and in the Court at the end, facing the crowds when Pyrrhus was taken away. If ever a lord looked like he might be a secret scholar, a secret mage, Miervaldis did.

Thinking about him that way, though, reminded her of the morning when they'd eaten breakfast in silence, after Lord Isidor's tirade at Pyrrhus' arrest. She'd thought then that she had barely known him, wondered then which of his many guises was the real lord. And she'd doubted him - doubted his motives, his desires, his intentions. And doubted his loyalty. That had been the last day she had seen him, and she had doubted him.

Nobody who had been ensorcelled would have done that.

Suddenly relieved, she slumped back against the tree, tilting her head back to rest against the rough bark. It was getting cooler as the sun sank, and the light deepened and spread even as the sky darkened, but the weight of dread had gone from her stomach. She couldn't have been ensorcelled, not unless he had botched it somehow, but that didn't seem a plausible alternative. She didn't know much about magic, but everyone knew ensorcellment practically enslaved one person to another, so much so that no criticism of the mage to the victim was possible, and there was absolutely no likelihood of the victim actually doing the criticism. A little doubt needled at her then - everyone knew, but was that really the case? After all, it was just what They said, the They who always said and always seemed to know. She didn't actually know for sure if her conclusions were correct, but although the niggle remained, it wasn't enough to weigh her down. Her mind still whirled with questions, but none that were so important any more, and she became aware how tired she was. It had been an exhausting day, both physically and mentally. She stared out at the setting sun, then closed her eyes. Just for a moment. The tree was oddly comfortable even with its heavy, knurled bark, and the grass was soft, and she was so tired.

When she woke, of course, it was dark, and the moon had risen, a pale crescent giving very little light amid banks of cloud. The knurled bark wasn't comfortable any more, and her behind was numb. It was also cold; she shivered as she stood up stiffly and stretched. One leg had gone to sleep, and she hopped around the tree shaking it and biting back rude words as it tingled agonisingly back to life.

She started back down the hill, stepping carefully in the wan moonlight. It wasn't far to the orchard, but among the trees, now thick with leaves, she walked even more slowly, feeling in front of her for branches. They were visible, but only just, and only close up. She was concentrating so hard on not walking into any of them that she didn't realise she'd turned away from the dormitory cottages and was walking towards the main Court itself until she emerged from the orchards to be greeted by an ornate window. She stopped, confused, and turned back - and froze.

Over by the dormitory, there was someone sneaking through the door. A slender, dark figure, moving with assurance. Somehow, though, she knew it wasn't a page, someone who had a right to be there. It looked furtive, sinister. She tried to tell herself that she was being stupid, but instinct and fear fixed her to the spot. The dark figure slipped through the door and closed it behind itself. Alyn breathed out quietly, and only then realised she was standing against the pale stone of the Court wall and was probably quite visible. Hastily, she scurried back to the orchard and hunched behind one of the larger trees, hoping she blended in. She looked at the dormitory, but it was all dark.

After about ten minutes, the door opened again. Alyn's stomach lurched, and she felt cold all over, but the figure that emerged just glanced around and moved off in a casual fashion. It was the same figure, though, that she was sure of. She waited until the moon had begun to sink towards the paling horizon before going back in, but during all that shivery, tired time, there was no movement and no threat from the dormitory, and the mysterious figure did not reappear.

Eventually, she braved the open ground between orchard and building, slipped through the door and hurried up the stairs to her room, her spine tingling. Inside, she bolted the door, then lit the lamp, her fingers fumbling. The light it cast over her little room was reassuring, but only for a moment. Then she caught her breath as she realised - the room had been searched. It had been done carefully, but there were things that had been changed, things that weren't where she had left them. The bedclothes, which she had tucked in neatly, were pushed aside, and the pillow had been shoved into the corner. The rug was rucked askew, and the window was ajar where she had left it locked shut against the birds that sneaked in to steal food and shiny things. All of a sudden, the room seemed horribly unsafe, no longer a refuge. She hastily locked the window again and checked the door was bolted, then sat down to try and gather her thoughts.

Her lord was accused of ensorcelling her, which had to be a lie (she resolutely ignored the little voice that said maybe it's true). He didn't want her to come to the Sun Court - but that didn't matter, so she put that thought aside too. If she were to come to the Sun Court for examination, it would be shown that the accusation was false. So whoever had made the accusation - and she thought Lord Cassian a likely candidate - would want her kept away from the Sun Court. In fact, whatever Miervaldis insisted on, she thought the accuser would have expected her to be called before the Court, and so must have expected the accusation to be rejected. In which case... she caught her breath. In which case, either it was enough simply to delay her lord and tarnish his reputation with this trial, or they had some way to deal with her evidence.

Given the events of that night, and what had happened a few days before, she could guess which option was more likely. Perhaps it was paranoia, but she didn't really want to wait around and find out. And with that conclusion, her resolve came quickly and clearly. She had to go to the Sun Court. Whether or not Miervaldis wanted her there, her evidence was the only way the accusation could be properly dealt with. If her guess was wrong, then her evidence would still be useful, but if it was right, it would be safer to go than to stay. And if... and if the accusation was true, then going to the Sun Court was the only way she would be freed.

She stood up, looking around. She wasn't going to need much, but she made herself think clearly. She packed a change of clothes, thinking it might be wise to have clean clothes to appear before the Sun Court. She didn't have any food, but she did have a small flask, which she could fill from the stable well. She had no weapons at all, and no way to get one easily; the Fourth Star Court weapons were kept securely in a small room inside the training hall, and it would be locked, she knew. Shrugging, she put her small bundle inside a cloak, wrapped it round and tied it up in the traveller's fashion, so as to leave loops to put her arms through. The flask she hooked to her belt.

Then, trying hard to breathe easily, she unlocked her door, doused the lamp and sneaked down the stairs and back into the orchard.

Although she kept looking around all the way, Alyn didn't see anybody else on the walk to the stables. Certainly, there was no sign of a stealthy, black-clad assassin. Putting it that way, even in her mind, made her wonder again if she was being paranoid, but then, it still made sense for her to go to the Sun Court.

The coach yard was also deserted, and she filled her flask from a bucket left by the well before sneaking into the main block itself. She had wondered if one of the grooms would be awake and on guard, but there would be no reason for him to be, and she knew they slept above the stables anyway. They'd notice a major disruption. She just had to move as quietly as possible.

She stood for a moment inside the stable to let her eyes adjust to the dimness, then moved towards the stalls. The first horse was too tall, a leggy dark bay with a rolling eye, but the horse beyond looked more reasonable. She recognised both as the courier horses the evening messengers had ridden in on. Good; that meant they were fast. She tiptoed past the shifty bay to the grey mare in the next stall, who put her head out to be stroked. Alyn made friends with her quietly, then noted the stall number and went to the tack room that served that stable block. The mare's saddle and bridle, thankfully cleaned and ready, hung on the appropriate rack. She put the bridle over her shoulder, careful to loop the reins out of the way, lugged the saddle from the rack and staggered back to the stall, where she managed to haul the saddle onto the low dividing wall without making much noise. The mare pricked her ears forward with interest as she opened the stall door, and made no fuss about being bridled. Alyn saw her name had been embroidered onto the headband, the letters woven into the decorations. She squinted to read it: Cloud.

"Cloud, hmmm?" she murmured to the mare, and rubbed the soft nose again, wishing she had apples or carrots. Then she ducked under the horse's neck to pull the saddle from the wall and ease it onto her back, smoothing it down and checking the girth to make sure it hadn't snagged her skin. Cloud stepped sideways and tossed her head.

"Easy," Alyn muttered, hoping the horse wasn't going to start playing up now. She picked up her bundle and put her arms through the loops again, then turned to lead the mare from the stable and stopped. There was someone standing in the main door to the yard.

"Where are you going?" Miraina's voice asked, and Alyn felt her stomach lurch in relief.

"I'm going to the Sun Court," she said quietly. "I want to give evidence."

Miraina cocked her head and frowned, although Alyn could only dimly make out the expression.

"Why?" she asked. "Surely that will mean Miervaldis is convicted?"

"Not if he's innocent," Alyn said firmly, although the thought made her heart sink. Cloud, impatient, shoved her nose into her back, and she jumped forwards. Miraina didn't budge.

"You think he is because you're ensorcelled," she said, although there was doubt in her voice now.

"I might be," Alyn said. "But surely it's better if I go? Whether he is innocent or guilty, he will be proved to be so."

"He doesn't want you there."

"I don't care." Briefly, Alyn thought she saw Miraina's expression change again. Presumably going against a direct order was also not what an ensorcelled person was supposed to do. "Please let me go. I just want this all to be over." She wondered about voicing her suspicions, and then thought that would just make her sound even more unbalanced.

"You're not supposed to go to the Sun Court just like that," Miraina argued, but Alyn knew she'd won. Every time her friend felt like she was losing an argument, she'd pick some silly rule to try and bolster her case.

"This is special," Alyn said, taking a risk and walking forwards. Cloud came willingly, almost dancing. The mare's hooves made muted thuds against the straw-covered floor, but they would be louder on the stable cobbles, she realised. As she had hoped, Miraina moved aside for her to pass. Alyn looked at her, and saw the worry in her face, the indecision. She hesitated, but couldn't think of what to say. There wasn't really anything to say that could make it better, so in the end she said only, "thank you."

Cloud's hooves did clatter in the yard, and Alyn tightened the girth and mounted as quickly as she could. Luck was with her, and none of the grooms poked their heads out of the loft to check what was making the noise. She urged the eager horse towards the gate, looking back only once. Miraina was standing by the arch at the other end, ready to return to the dormitory, she hoped. She negotiated the gate, which was only bolted, then raised a hand in farewell, but by then her friend's figure was no longer visible.

The sun would rise in an hour or two, and Cloud would be missed even if she wasn't. She walked the mare from the yard lane to the road, the same road that she and Miervaldis had driven along almost three weeks ago on their way to Fifth Star Court, and finally gave the mare her head.

Cloud had a lovely smooth pace, and covered the ground fast. She clearly knew the road, and Alyn hardly had to do anything except stay on, which wasn't difficult. The dawn chorus erupted around them as the sky gradually lightened, the cloud cover becoming dove grey then shading to pale, pale pink in the east. Cloud's hooves beat a staccato accompaniment, and here and there a startled bird flurried off the road with a scolding cry as the horse passed by. Alyn had plenty of time to think, and her thoughts wandered down paths that turned beneath her, until she was sure of nothing except that her being at the Sun Court would be a good thing. The whole trial made no sense. If the murderer wanted her lord out of the way, this was a stupid way to do it. Why make such a wild accusation? What on earth could it be based on? What had she done that could be suggestive of being ensorcelled? Even if she was prevented from testifying, without her evidence Miervaldis stood a good chance of evading the charge - didn't he? Why not make a less crazy, more solid accusation, one that could be believed and not disproved so easily?

She couldn't make sense of it, and wondered if she was missing something - something she didn't know that would swing opinion against Miervaldis, or some motive or reason for doing this that would make such a desperate accusation more plausible. And the nagging question kept returning; why did he not want her there?

The sky ahead blazed pink and gold as the sun rose, and she pulled Cloud to a walk for a little, to let the mare rest. She took a drink from her flask, and wondered how much further it would be. The road stretched straight and clear behind and before, running between the tall trees she remembered from the last journey. They were thinning now, no longer a wall between the road and the fields either side, so hopefully it wouldn't be long until they reached the junction, but she didn't remember clearly. At least it was still the right road.

The moon, a pale crescent in the morning sky and only briefly visible between clouds, had set before they reached the junction. The road was still clear of pursuit and any other traffic, and Alyn urged the mare past the changing station which she obviously recognised. Thankfully, she seemed willing to carry on, and nobody came out of the station to ask her business. Alyn chose to go north up the orbital road, remembering that the Sun Court was accessed by four roads, heading out directly north, east, south and west. The road from Fourth Star Court went mainly east but slightly to the north, because Fourth Star Court was to the south west of the land, although more west than anything else. She hoped she was right. She hadn't noticed the road they should have passed on the way to Fifth Star Court, but she hadn't really been looking for it. Now she alternately trotted and walked the mare to rest her, and watched carefully for any sign of the western Sun Court road.

It was pretty obvious, in fact. There was a broadening of the orbital road, and a road just as wide and even better kept led off directly east; it had been visible from some distance away as a line of trees, although she hadn't realise the trees stood on either side of the road until she got there. More than that, though, in the centre of the orbital road, directly opposite the turning, was a tall obelisk of polished black stone. On its top it bore a carved sun emblem, just to make it absolutely clear. Just beyond it, she recognised the sign for and entrance to a way station, which was thankfully not visible from where she rode.

By this time it was early morning, but not so early that people weren't about. She passed a wagon with a sleepy driver who barely noticed she was there, and several people stumping cheerfully along with large packs on their backs. They seemed to think she was a courier, which she supposed was understandable, but it made her feel guilty even as she returned their wave of greeting.

Cloud ran readily on the Sun Court road, but she was clearly getting tired, and Alyn, not wanting to exhaust the mare when she didn't know how far they had to go, kept walking her regularly, although the slow pace made her worried, and she kept looking behind nervously. The road went straight on between its guarding trees, and the sun climbed higher in the sky, and Alyn kept looking behind her, and then, suddenly, the trees stopped and Cloud walked out onto a broad grassy sward, and Alyn reined her in, staring up at the Sun Court in amazement.

Where the Star Courts she knew were large clusters of buildings, both homes and places of work, the Sun Court looked for all the world like a gigantic ornamental garden. For all that she knew it was the administrative centre of the kingdom, she couldn't conceive of any work being done in there. From where she had halted the mare, the outer Court walls were about half a mile away, comparatively low and surrounded by trees. Above them, the Court stood on higher ground, and consisted of an array of low buildings set well apart from each other, each one different but equally gracious. It extended for miles in all directions, with here and there a tall tower or elegant spire protruding above the roof tops and trees. From what she could see, the intervening spaces were gardens and courtyards, tended for hundreds of years, no doubt, and brilliant with colour now in the early summer. It looked like a beautiful palace, a place for the highest royalty to relax and spend a pleasant summer, not a place where life and death decisions were made. Not a place where the Emperor, the will of the gods on earth, resided and spoke.

She urged Cloud forwards at a walk, still following the western road. Shortly, she came to a crossroads with a road that presumably ran around the Sun Court. Ahead of her, the western gate had come into view, tall and forbidding between two turrets, with closed doors. Of course, she couldn't go in there. The western gate was for the army, not that there was one in the Sun Court at the present time. She could remember being told about the Sun Court gates by Byran when they had been much younger. From old, the western gate was the military gate, and kept solely for the use of the military, much as the eastern gate was kept for the Emperor himself and his family, and the northern gates for visiting foreign dignitaries. The southern gate was the general gate, open every day and used by everyone, commoners and nobles alike. She sighed, and turned Cloud to the right, watching the wall through the trees as the mare plodded south. is copyright Sergei and Morag Lewis