In the end, it took another hour's walking before she came to the southern gate. The road she was following dipped before her then flattened out to the left, and its even paving became ornate and decorated. Walls began on either side of the road as it dipped towards the hollow in the ground, and by the time they reached the gatehouse, they were ten feet high. The gatehouse itself was an imposing structure despite its lavish ornamentation, looming over the entrance road looking watchful and dangerous, a guard for the lovely palace inside. Alyn walked Cloud towards it, feeling a bit dwarfed. The road was clearly wide enough for several carriages at once.
As she approached, a challenge rang out.
"Name and purpose!"
She reined Cloud in, and the tired mare let her head hang.
"I'm Alyn Vanyasdotter of Fourth - I mean, Third Star Court," she called back, mentally kicking herself for the stumble. "I've come to testify at Lord Miervaldis' trial."
There was a long pause, then the response, which was better than she'd hoped for.
A man came from the back of the gatehouse and hurried towards the palace. Alyn peered through, curious. The ornate road continued through the gatehouse and for some way beyond, before it crossed a small, pretty river. She couldn't see beyond that. There were white poles either side of the road beyond the gatehouse, which she guessed were flag poles. There weren't any more trees.
In time the man came back, and ran straight up to her. Cloud fussed, wearily.
"You're to come with me," he said, making a perfunctory bow. Alyn scrambled down from the mare's back, feeling that she shouldn't be riding while her guide walked. He had already started ahead, and she hurried to catch up, pulling the mare behind.
The guard led her through the gatehouse and over the river, and she saw that the poles were indeed flag poles, flying more flags than she'd known existed. She wondered what they all meant, although she did recognise the few individual Star Court flags she knew. After crossing the river the road ran up to an immense square yard; on the other side was a white building with low eaves and a wide doorway. Two guards stood by it.
"Give them your horse," the guard said as they crossed the bare expanse of the yard, and Alyn patted Cloud before handing her over. She was a courier horse; she'd be well looked after.
"Thank you," she whispered into the horse's mane. Her guard was already walking through the building and she hurried to catch up. She realised as they came out the other side that it was just a corridor, a way through to the heart of the palace. The guard stopped her as she came through the big doorway, out into the sun again but into a smaller courtyard this time. There was a fountain splashing in the middle and clever arrangements of rocks and small mountain flowers all around the edge.
"This way," he said, and led her to a small chamber to one side. "We have to make sure you're not armed."
Alyn submitted to the search, which was thorough but gentle. They wanted to take her bundle away, but she explained that it was fresh clothes, so they compromised and allowed her to get changed there, although they did insist she change her boots to a pair of soft white leather slippers they gave her. The guard exchanged his shoes for slippers too. She wanted to wash but there wasn't a chance; she came out of the little room and her guard hurried her along again. He led her through several buildings, connected by open corridors so that she walked on polished wooden floors under a roof, but saw flowers, trees and statues in the courtyards on either side. She remembered one of her teachers saying that although the Sun Court was situated in the middle of the Star Courts, the first Sun Emperor had been from one of the southern Courts and his palace was modelled on the style of his home, hence the wooden construction and the large, airy halls. It was an attractive style for the summer, she thought, but did wonder how bad the winters were.
Eventually the guard led her out into another big courtyard to face a big building with pillars all round it, one of the few buildings which had to be more than one storey and the only one she'd seen so far made of stone. It looked a bit out of place and somewhat ominous, although the stone was white and ornately carved. There were steps up to the enormous door, which was closed, but her guard took her up there, opened a little door in the big one and muttered something through it. Alyn waited, feeling like her fate had been taken entirely out of her hands. Then the guard beckoned her forward and she stepped through the little door.
Inside it was dim, the walls covered in rich dark wood panelling with ornate carving on the rafters. She stood in an antechamber which was the width of the building, but only a few feet deep; in front of her was a wooden dividing wall reaching from the floor to the ceiling, which looked like it was the same height as the building. A corridor led through it, lit by lamps which illuminated the single door at the end; a smaller door, but still a scary one, she thought. She could hear now the rumble of voices debating, arguing... this must be the courtroom at last, and through that door her lord would be on trial. She felt shaky all over.
There was a whispered discussion going on among the three attendants who had let her in; her guard had stayed outside. They eyed her up and down and the muttering went on for several minutes before one finally broke away and walked down the corridor to the small door. Alyn stared after but he didn't actually go through, only talked to someone on the other side. There was a pause, then he beckoned to her.
After a moment's hesitation she walked towards him, flanked by the attendants. He gestured her on impatiently and opened the door for her, almost pushing her through. The noise was much louder now and she wondered how anyone could debate anything in such a racket. The door closed behind her and she looked around.
The room was enormous, panelled in a rich red-hued wood and full of tiered seating. Tall windows punctuated the walls high up above the top tier of seats, letting in the midday light. The door actually came out halfway into the room - the corridor had been normal height and ran underneath some of the seating which was now directly behind and above her. There was also seating either side and forwards of the door and those lords noticed her arrival, though nobody else did. The noise was clearer now and she caught some of the words where before it had just been inaudible, angry rumbling. As far as she could tell, they were arguing whether it was possible to convict a lord without evidence. She could make out some of what was said, in snatches.
"... can't say anything without evidence!"
"Yes, but this is different...."
"... why not get the page, that's what I say!"
"You know he's been accused before..."
The last sentence made her heart sink. Maybe there was something that made a difference, something she hadn't known. Hesitantly she walked forwards. In front of her was a tall, carved stage, perhaps as tall as the door she'd just come through, with steps leading up to it from either side and railings all around. A small gong stood on a stand to one side. Behind it a thin curtain, embroidered with fantastic, delicate patterns in gold and silver, divided off the rear portion of the stage, although she didn't understand what it was there for. There were four people standing at the front of the stage; one was a lord she didn't recognise and two were guards. They flanked the fourth person, her lord, Miervaldis. Despite everything, her heart felt lighter when she saw him, even though she hadn't done anything yet. He looked tired, she thought, his face drawn. His expression and stance were hard to read, but she thought she saw a mix of irritation and worry. Then he looked down and saw her and it changed to pure horror.
It was at that point that the racket began to die down as more and more lords noticed her. When there was silence at last, a herald dressed in elaborate green and gold livery stepped forward from the front ranks of seats.
"My lords," he said in a nasal, carrying tone. "I present to you Alyn Vanyasdotter from Third Star Court, who until recently was serving as page to Lord Miervaldis of Fourth Star Court." Hastily, she made obeisance in the general direction of the stage, the form of one page to many lords, which was the closest to the situation she could think of. The herald stepped back and there was absolute silence.
The unknown lord on the stage came forward to the railing and stared down at her. He looked important, she thought, and like he knew he was important; he wore deep blue velvets cut in what she thought might be the latest fashion and held himself very gravely. His deep voice carried clearly when he spoke.
"Alyn Vanyasdotter, am I to understand that you have come here to testify against your lord?"
"No, my lord," Alyn said, shocked into boldness. "I have come to give evidence. Whether it will be for or against him isn't for me to say."
A muttering rang through the hall, growing steadily louder until the important lord raised a small hammer and beat the gong. The high, sweet ringing was surprisingly penetrating and the noise died down at once. Alyn realised that the important lord, whatever his actual name, was the current First Judge of the Sun Court. Judges were chosen by the Emperor on a case-by-case basis. She wondered why this one had been picked and if he would be fair.
"Well said," the First Judge declared. "You may rise." She did so, and he carried on. "I will put questions to you, and then those assembled may do so also, at my discretion. First, I must ask you your name and your family."
"Alyn Vanyasdotter of Third Star Court. My father is Richal Vanyasdotter, who holds a demesne in the Bathurin Hills to the north-west of Tevium."
"And do you, Alyn Vanyasdotter, pledge upon your honour, the honour of your family and the honour of your Court, to tell the truth before those assembled here?"
"I do." Alyn felt slightly weak at the knees. The oath was familiar in form, but having to swear it before so many lords, and in the Sun Court itself, felt far too significant. The First Judge coughed and shifted his feet.
"Then I shall begin. Where have you been for the past three weeks?"
"At the Fifth Star Court, serving Lord Miervaldis."
"Do you recognise your lord here?"
"Yes," Alyn said, a little confused. "He's standing to your left." Miervaldis was indeed, although he wasn't looking at her. His head was bowed and his shoulders slumped. She wondered why he looked so dispirited. Had she made a mistake to come here?
"Did he ensorcel you?"
"No, my lord!" Perhaps that was too vehement, she thought, but she faced forward defiantly. The First Judge nodded slightly, and continued.
"Did you see anything unusual in his behaviour while you were serving him?"
"That's hard to explain, my lord," Alyn said carefully. "I had not seen Lord Miervaldis before this period, so I wasn't accustomed to his habits."
"And that's not odd?" called a voice from the floor. She resisted the urge to look around. The First Judge struck the gong and scowled. When its echoes had died, he spoke again.
"Do you find that odd?"
"I did, my lord, but it was explained to me."
"I see. So what did you notice that was unusual in your lord's behaviour?"
"He never went to the evening meals," Alyn said, sticking to her words from before. The First Judge just nodded, so she continued. "He always wore the same old things. And once we ate in Ellmore as though we were just commoners." Another low muttering swept round the room, then a different voice was raised in protest.
"I told you she'd say that! It's clear she's ignoring the other -" he broke off as the gong sounded, but Alyn barely heard it this time. Had it been her fault all along? Because she had refused to name the books, the tunic, the other visits to Ellmore as strange? Was that their evidence for claiming she was ensorcelled? But what could she have said before?
"Alyn, can you describe your lord's over-tunic to me," the First Judge asked gravely. She swallowed.
"It's dark grey on one side, my lord, with red edging," she said steadily. "On the other side, it's plain blue and worn."
"What do you mean by ‘the other side'"?
"It's reversible, my lord."
"And that does not seem odd to you?"
That was the important question. Alyn looked up and met his gaze briefly.
"It did, my lord, but when I thought about it, it made sense." This provoked more muttering, but it stayed quiet. The First Judge gestured for her to go on. "Lord Miervaldis was called to Fifth Star Court to investigate the murder of a scribe. A common servant. Dressing as a commoner, to mingle with the crowds and talk freely, made sense to me."
"I see," said the First Judge. "And what of his books?"
"He has several treatises on various scholarly topics. You didn't see them?"
"I don't think so, my lord," Alyn said, skirting very close to lying. She hadn't seen the title of the book that had been in the carriage, after all.
"I see. And you still found it odd that you ate with your lord in Ellmore?"
"Yes, my lord. Because we didn't talk to anyone, we didn't do anything that might have given us information. We just ate. That's why I found that strange."
There was a pause. The First Judge looked down thoughtfully. Miervaldis was still standing with his head bowed. The guards simply stood there. Behind them all the gorgeous curtain billowed with an unfelt breeze; Alyn wondered how it could be so light with all the embroidery.
Eventually, the First Judge cleared his throat and threw open the questions to the rest of the lords. They shouted them incoherently, so that he had to keep ringing the gong and calling them to order, before passing the question on to Alyn. None of the questions were as hard as those she'd already had to answer, and some of them were downright inane.
"Did your lord cavort with common women?"
"Did he ever do a magic spell in front of you?"
"Did the accused speak of his home demesne?"
"Did he discuss his business in Ellmore?"
Eventually the questions died down, but Alyn could tell the lords weren't satisfied. There was an uneasy, edgy feeling in the air. Clearly the First Judge could feel it too; he took inordinately long to speak, which only heightened the tension.
"Lord Miervaldis," he said finally, and Miervaldis raised his head and returned the steady gaze. "From the testimony of your page, I would find you innocent." There was an immediate uproar and the First Judge had to beat the gong three times before the Court quietened.
"However," he went on, his voice sounding a little hoarse now, "given what has gone before and the opinion of your peers in this Court, I cannot follow through on that pronouncement." Miervaldis nodded slowly, his expression veiled again. Alyn thought, I was right. There was something before. The assembled lords murmured and shifted, waiting for the pronouncement. The First Judge hesitated, then turned to the railing to stare out at the crowd but said nothing. It was as though he didn't know what to do now, or as though, Alyn thought, he knew what he wanted to do but couldn't bring himself to say it. She took a deep breath.
"My lord," she said, and her voice echoed off the high ceiling, sounding very lightweight after the First Judge's deep bass tones. "I am willing to be examined."
She'd expected more noise, but there was none; the Court held its breath. The First Judge stared impassively down at her.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, my - ah, Lord Miervaldis has been accused of ensorcelling me, hasn't he? I'm willing to be examined - by a mage - to disprove that."
Now there was noise, but above it all was Miervaldis' shout:
She saw the guards step closer, and he subsided. The noise abated without the help of the gong this time.
"If you are willing, that would be the ideal solution," the First Judge said. "Are you familiar with this sort of magic, then?"
"No, my lord." A trick question? She wondered.
"Are you aware that the examination is said to be painful? And possibly dangerous?"
"I am, my lord." She swallowed. Would they find out about the letter her brother sent? Was she about to make things worse? But it was too late to stop now. The First Judge smiled and nodded.
"Then if you are still willing, we will proceed," he said, sounding satisfied. He turned and gestured, and Miervaldis lunged forward to the railing.
"Alyn, don't! I forbid you to do this!"
"My lord," Alyn said shakily, "I am no longer your page. I do not have a duty of obedience to you. I do have a duty of obedience to my conscience."
"Stop it!" Miervaldis shouted again, then turned to face the throng, his face pale. "I'll say what you want. I'll confess. Please, don't do this!"
There was once again uproar in the court, half of them clamouring for an end now he had shown willing to confess, the other half shouting for the examination to go ahead. Alyn felt drowned by all the noise and the First Judge beat the gong again and again, to no avail. Then the embroidered curtain twitched and the lords all fell silent at once. Alyn stared, mouth open. A dark figure was faintly visible behind the folds of thin fabric, but when he spoke, his voice reached the far corners of the room with quiet authority.
"Alyn Vanyasdotter, are you willing to submit yourself to this?"
Alyn almost sat down, so great was the shock of realisation. This was the Emperor. It had to be! The Sun Emperor, ruler of the Nine Star Courts and will of the gods on earth. Even looking at his face was a privilege rarely granted. She stared at the indistinct form, then realised an answer was required.
"Yes, your holiness," she stammered, then hastily bowed, clumsily making the unfamiliar courtesy of page to Sun Emperor.
"You truly believe Iarlaith Miervaldis is innocent?"
"I do, your holiness." Her voice sounded a lot firmer than she felt.
"Then rise, and proceed," said the Emperor. Miervaldis swung round to face the curtain.
"But - your holiness -"
"Be quiet, Iarlaith," said the Emperor evenly, but there was a touch of iron in his voice now. "Stand aside and respect what is given to you. You don't get to choose your gifts."
White-faced, Miervaldis turned back, and he did not speak again.
Two doors flanked the stage, one on either side, at ground level where the steps came to the floor. Now the door to Alyn's left opened and two men came out; the court mages. The first was an elderly man with a long grey beard neatly combed, and dark, grave eyes below bushy grey eyebrows. He wore flowing white robes edged in purple with a decorative mantle on top. Despite his age he still looked sharp and vigorous; Alyn guessed he was the First Mage. He came forwards and stopped below the curtain, bowing to one knee in deep obeisance, followed closely by the second man. He was much younger, with long pale hair tied back behind him and a subdued, watchful air. His clothes were comparatively simple; long cotton robes and an over-robe of dark brown with minimal embroidery. He also made obeisance, but unlike the First Mage he knelt down and placed his head and chest upon the floor. Alyn wondered at that, for it was the form of courtesy from one common-born to the Emperor. That was unusual, for such a one to become Acolyte to the First Mage.
The Emperor, a vague shape behind the curtains, said something quietly and both men rose. Then the younger one came forwards to where Alyn stood. The older man summoned guards and within moments a chair was brought over to her.
"I am Esarten," the First Acolyte said as he approached and bowed deeply to her. That felt wrong, but of course, the forms of common-born to noble could never change, not even when the commoner was First Acolyte of the Sun Court and the noble was merely a fourteen-year-old page. The whole Court was hushed but he spoke quietly, as though he wanted his words to be for her alone.
"I have been asked to examine you for evidence that you have been ensorcelled," he said. "Do you understand what that entails?"
"N... not really," she confessed. Her legs were shaking.
"Sit down," Esarten said gently and urged her to the chair. "I will enter your mind and examine it for traces of someone else's presence. That means I must sift through your memories and examine your intentions and attitudes. If there is something there that does not fit, I will look at it further. It may have been put there by someone else, and if it was, that is ensorcellment."
"I'm afraid it will hurt." He sounded genuinely sorry and when she looked up she saw little worry lines crinkling around his brows. "Your mind will try to resist," he went on. "There is also a danger of incapacitation, but it is slight. I will do my best to be quick, and to disturb as little as possible. Do you still consent to this?"
Alyn swallowed. She didn't want to think about what incapacitation might mean and she'd known it would hurt when she came here. Before she could change her mind she nodded firmly.
"I do," she said, and her voice sounded clear and confident, totally unlike how she felt. Esarten nodded solemnly.
"Then I will begin," he said, and moved to stand behind her. She felt suddenly vulnerable, sitting down with her back to him, but before she could do anything it had started.
At first, she just felt a light pressure in her mind. It was hard to explain, to put into words, but it felt like something was pressing gently just inside her skull. It was almost a slimy pressure and felt slightly dirty. She squirmed involuntarily. Then it started to hurt.
It hurt more than anything she had ever felt before. Esarten's touch was light and somewhere inside she recognised that, but he still had to filter through everything in her mind. All bodies have strong defences against invaders and the mind is no exception; even a non-mage's mind is hard to penetrate, hard to examine. Esarten's mind slid like a knife through hers and her defences rose against it, making it blunt where it had been sharp, forcing it to batter where it had tried to slice, resisting the invader and increasing the pain. It felt like he was cutting through her mind with an actual physical knife, and mincing what was left behind. She was dimly aware that she was biting her lip, hard, but didn't possess the resources to stop. The pain went on and on, increasing every time he sought further, until she couldn't bear it any more and still it went on.
She only knew he had finished because the pain had stopped increasing. It was still there, as though her mind had been flayed, and every thought hurt as though she was rubbing salt into the wound. Slowly she came back to physical awareness, although the mental pain didn't diminish. She realised she was crying; tears were sliding down her cheeks and her throat was raw. Her eyes were open but there was a white mist in front of them and she couldn't hear anything. Her hands, though, were hypersensitive; she could feel the individual fibres of the cloth where they rested on her knees. Her lip was bleeding where she had bitten it, but when she licked it she couldn't taste the salt.
Something bumped against her hand, then somebody gently opened her fingers and clamped them round a mug. The hand guided her mug to her mouth and she obediently took a clumsy drink. There was barely any taste, but it was warm and soothing and somehow restorative.
"That's right," said Esarten's voice, close to her ear. "Drink that. It will help."
She tried to speak, but her mouth felt clumsy and her throat hurt.
"Don't speak," he said. "It will be a little while before you can, anyway. Don't worry. You did well."
What was that supposed to mean? She drank a bit more of the warm drink, and this time she could taste the milky honey sweetness. She raised a hand to rub her eyes but it was caught and stopped.
"Don't rub your eyes," said the First Acolyte. "You'll recover your sight in time. Sensory disruption is normal in these situations, don't worry."
Don't worry? The instruction almost made her laugh, but she recognised concern in his awkward attempts at reassurance. Obediently she drank more, one small sip at a time, and by the time she had finished the white fog had cleared a bit and she could see his face, albeit fuzzily. She looked around, recognising the stage and the hall, and wondered why everyone was so quiet.
"I put a sound shield up," said Esarten, as though she'd spoken her thoughts aloud. "There's a complete furore out there and I didn't want your ears exposed to that so soon after the examination." He didn't say, but Alyn guessed, that it had also stopped her screaming from sounding in the Court, and she was grateful for that. There was a pause, then he took the empty mug from her hands.
"Are you ready for me to drop the shield?"
She nodded, although she wasn't really sure. He faced away from her and then sound surged back, the sound of hundreds of men all talking at once, and she flinched in the chair. The ring of the gong sounded and the hall fell blessedly silent.
"First Acolyte, what have you found?" The voice was not familiar. Alyn couldn't see well enough to work out who was speaking, but she thought it might be the First Mage.
"There is no trace of ensorcellment, my lord Mage," said Esarten clearly, confirming her guess. Then the rest of what he had said hit home and she breathed out sharply in relief. She'd almost forgotten what it had all been for. Dimly she was aware of the lords shouting and talking again, but it seemed a long way away, and not really anything to concern her any more. She felt herself slipping from the chair and thought that it was ridiculous, that she ought at least to be able to sit up straight, and then thought it was good that the mug had been taken from her, otherwise she might drop and break it. Then she wasn't thinking anything any more.
The next thing she was aware of was a large, soft, warm cushion. She was lying on it under a cover, wearing something that felt like silk. Her eyes were shut - it was proper darkness, not the weird, milky fog that had covered her sight before - and she felt like she had just woken from a long, satisfying sleep. Cautiously she opened her eyes and saw a white ceiling with beams of wood criss-crossing it, and a window directly above her bed on the left side and a tree outside. The branches bobbed close to the window, still covered in blossom despite the season. It looked beautiful and it made her smile. Her sight seemed quite normal, unaffected. Slowly she turned her head to the right and there was barely any pain, only the ache one might feel from a stiff, abused joint.
Miervaldis was seated to her right. His eyes were closed as though he had nodded off in the chair. The light glinted off the grey in his hair and she saw with some exasperation that he was still dressed shabbily, even in the Sun Court.
The Sun Court! She was in a bed in the Sun Court! She sat up abruptly, then wished she hadn't as her head protested the sudden movement. It also woke her lord; he blinked for an instant, then raised his head.
"Now, my lord, don't disturb the poor girl." That was an unfamiliar voice. Alyn looked over and saw a stout woman sitting in the opposite corner doing something with wool. She looked friendly; Alyn guessed she was there to keep an eye on her.
"Thank you," she said, and her voice was hoarse but working. "I woke up myself, actually."
The woman put down her wool and needles and got up carefully, then bustled about in the corner for a few minutes before bringing over a tray with a selection of edible things on it. She shooed Miervaldis away from the bedside and placed the tray before Alyn. There was dried meat, dried and fresh fruit, a sweetmeat and a bit of soft, still warm bread. Alyn realised she was hungry and fell to with a will, but she didn't manage the dried meat. It looked too much like it might hurt. There was also a mug of tea, which went down very well.
"Thank you," she remembered to say halfway through the bread. The woman just smiled.
When she had finished, the tray was removed and Miervaldis resumed his seat. He kept looking like he was about to say something, but stopped himself every time.
"What happened?" she asked eventually. He blinked at her.
"I'm sorry, I hadn't realised. Of course, you don't know. Well, first they carried you out, then the First Judge had to beat the gong multiple times to make them all shut up. Then he pronounced me innocent and that was it, really." His face was guarded. She wondered if that really was all that had happened. He looked away suddenly.
"Alyn, I - I am so sorry... I didn't, didn't want you to have to go through with that. And I am so very glad you are all right now..."
Alyn didn't know how to deal with his honesty or his pain, so she didn't say anything. Tongue-tied she waited, and after a moment he looked back at her, his face carefully masked of the expression that had been in his words.
"Is there anything you need?" he asked eventually, and she thought carefully.
"No," she said at last. "But I think I might go to sleep again."
"Do," he said, sounding relieved. "I'll be here, or nearby." And he sat back in the chair as though willing to wait there for her until the world ended. She was about to say she didn't think she could sleep with him there like that, but she fell asleep instead.
The second time she woke, it was early morning. The pink glow of sunrise glinted across the room, raising red hues in the wooden beams and throwing dappled tree shadows on the walls. Miervaldis wasn't there - that would have been inappropriate at night, after all - and neither was the older woman. The room was empty but her clothes, freshly washed and pressed, lay on the rack with her soft slippers underneath. There was a bowl of steaming water by the door and a towel. Someone was clearly expecting her to be awake.
She got out of bed and crept over to the bowl. It really was as warm as it looked and she stripped off the silky nightgown and washed as thoroughly as she could, then dried luxuriously in the thick towel before dressing. It felt really good to be clean all over and her head didn't even hurt this morning.
She pulled on the Court slippers and carefully poked her head out of the door. To her surprise, there was a small boy curled up on the floor outside, dressed in somewhat over-large Sun Court livery. He yelped as the door opened, then hastily bowed.
"My lady, there's breakfast in the Hall of Morning Lights and I'm to lead you there when you're ready," he said all in a rush.
"I'm ready," said Alyn. It felt odd to be addressed as ‘my lady'. The boy bobbed and grinned and set off down the corridor. She followed behind, looking around in renewed wonder.
The Hall of Morning Lights proved to be exactly that - a small, graceful hall set on a rise with long windows facing east. There were prisms in the top windows which refracted the morning sunlight into a dazzling display of colour across the top of the walls. The room also held a long table loaded with food of all sorts and two chairs, both empty, on opposite sides of the table facing each other. The boy showed her to one of the chairs so she sat down, and he dashed off to return with a full pot of hot water and a candle and mount to put it on, so it would stay warm. Bemused, Alyn poured herself a mug of hot water and added some of the fragrant flowers and leaves from the saucer of tea by her side. The sweet scent filled the air.
"That smells delicious," said Miervaldis, and she jumped. He was standing a few feet away from the other chair and the boy was standing beside him beaming. Alyn watched as her lord sat down. The boy brought him another pot and mounted it over another candle. Was the whole spread just for them? It seemed a bit extravagant to say the least.
"Do eat," Miervaldis urged her. "It's a long way home from here." He followed up his own advice by helping himself to some of the smoked salmon and she copied him.
After they had both eaten their fill - and that was a great deal for Alyn, who hadn't realised how hungry she was until she'd started - they sat for some time drinking their tea. Then the small boy appeared, and with him, a herald, also in Sun Court livery.
"My lord and lady," the herald said, ramrod-straight and staring fixedly in front of him. "The Sun Emperor desires to see your faces. I will lead you to him."
He didn't wait for an answer but turned and marched out. Alyn scrambled to follow, wondering if that meant what she thought it meant. Miervaldis walked behind her as they went down corridor after corridor, through courtyards and gardens, across little humpback bridges and through colonnades of wooden columns. Eventually they came to a small, graceful building that stood alone in the middle of a particularly well-tended garden. It was the only building Alyn had seen since she'd entered the Sun Court that had not been connected somehow to at least one other building. The herald led the way along a little winding path that meandered around the garden, giving them a good chance to appreciate the flowers and scents of the place. It was charming, appearing half-wild but clearly carefully looked after. Small waterfalls bubbled from overhanging rocks and merged into bigger streams. Trees arched over the path, making sunlight dapples on the stone. Flowers added splashes of colour, seemingly at random but always in harmony with each other. It was a masterpiece of gardening.
"He tends it himself," said Miervaldis quietly, and Alyn understood. This was the Sun Emperor's own garden. She felt overawed and humbled, and wondered how many people had seen this personal treasure.
The herald and his boy stopped by the door to the little dwelling. There were steps up to a walkway that ran around the building and the door was halfway along the side. The herald didn't say anything as they approached, but he rang a bell that was suspended from one of the slender columns that supported the overhanging roof. It made a sweet, light note. The door opened silently and the herald gestured them through.
Inside it was all one room but there were intricately painted screens here and there to block sections off. Presumably they could be moved at the master's whim. The walls were of a pale, thin wood and there were many windows, so that the whole room was light. Alyn only saw that later though; like her lord, as soon as she had entered the room, she knelt to make the full obeisance to the Sun Emperor.
"Rise," he said, and she recognised his voice from the trial. "I would be grateful if you would take tea with me this morning."
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