Chapter 15


Organising a coach for eight turned out to be impossible, or so the grooms said. They told her they could only prepare a coach for four and the vehicle they wheeled out was shabby and unprepossessing. They also claimed they had no fast carriage horses left. Alyn was almost at the end of her tether when her lord arrived with two guards, Pyrrhus and Kadir walking between them.

"I'm sorry, my lord," she confessed. "They say they don't have any coaches for eight, only for four..."

Miervaldis raised an eyebrow, then shrugged and smiled ruefully.

"It won't be a problem," he said. "There won't be any guards after all."

"No guards?"

"No. Everyone is.. busy."

Alyn sighed. The two guards escorted Pyrrhus and Kadir to the coach and ushered them in. Then they came to Miervaldis, bowed perfunctorily and left, not even saying anything about the transfer of responsibility for the prisoners.

"Are we having a driver?"

"Probably not, my lord." She hadn't had the heart to ask, after the grumpy reception she'd received.

"Well, perhaps we can take turns." He still sounded relaxed and cheerful. Alyn had just started to wonder if the chamberlain would keep his word when he arrived, looking flustered but officious and giving a flood of instructions to a string of court servants clustering behind him.

"My lord, is everything ready?" He made obeisance to Miervaldis and Alyn marvelled at the man's ability to act like there was nothing wrong, like he really was just going along to escort Kadir and Pyrrhus. And why were they coming anyway? Surely it wasn't just as a sop to the chamberlain's saving face?

"The coach is over there, Chamberlain. Please take a seat. We will be leaving shortly." He bowed again and headed over to the coach. Miervaldis had just started to follow him when there was a kerfuffle by the archway from the court.

"Where are you taking my page?"

Alyn spun round to see a tall, blond lord in some disarray, looking furiously angry. He stormed up to Miervaldis and she was secretly pleased to see that her lord retained the height advantage, even if only by a few inches.

"Ah, Lord Lysandros? Pyrrhus is accompanying us to the Sun Court, where he can offer assistance in a small matter."

"Small matter? You're accusing my page of murder and kidnapping him without even telling me and you're calling it a small matter?"

Miervaldis coughed and looked aside, mouth twitching in what Alyn realised was amusement.

"I do apologise. I should have informed you. If you are concerned, you're welcome to accompany us."

That came as a surprise to Pyrrhus' angry patron but he assented, and boarded the coach with the chamberlain, Pyrrhus and Kadir. All four of them filled the interior, so Alyn, assuming she was going to drive, hopped up to the driver's seat, which spanned the width of the coach, and looked back wondering what her lord would do. The grooms watched Miervaldis sullenly, daring him to ask for a driver or a bigger coach but he jumped up to the driver's seat by Alyn and took the reins.

"Let them stew," he murmured in an undertone and urged the horses on. Alyn enjoyed the look on the grooms' faces as her lord drove the carriage out, even as she wondered whether he'd been referring to the grooms or the occupants of the little coach.

The horses the grooms had chosen were mismatched both in colour and appearance and, more importantly, in speed and strength, although both were well-trained and mostly obedient. The coach did not move fast for the first leg but at the junction of the radial and orbital roads, Miervaldis had them swapped for better matched animals and they moved faster after that. Before, when they had travelled from the Sun Court to Fifth Star Court after the trial, it had taken them four or five hours - a long journey, but not too bad. But that had been in the fast coach. In this one, even with well-matched horses, Alyn wondered if they'd make it in time. The sun climbed into the sky and had passed its zenith before they came to the southern Sun Court road, marked as the western one had been by a tall, dark obelisk. Miervaldis changed the horses over again and hurried them on, allowing only a short stop for the privies.

They drove along the river Voront once more while the sun descended. Alyn watched the river traffic and wondered what was going to happen when they got to the Sun Court. She also wondered what was happening inside the coach. She'd heard nothing from anyone, no talking, no arguing, nothing from Lord Lysandros, nothing from the chamberlain. Were they all sitting in frigid silence in there?

They arrived at the Sun Court in late afternoon. The light was that lovely luminous gold that comes as sunset approaches. It made everything look better than it was, even the shabby little coach. They approached the southern entrance, the same one Alyn had brought Cloud to, and Miervaldis relinquished the reins to her and went to speak quietly to the guardsmen at the formidable gatehouse. After a few moments they were waved through, and Miervaldis jumped back on the coach as she drove past.

She guided the team over the river and up the road to the big courtyard, where guards and grooms were waiting with polite smiles and bows. Their impersonal courtesy felt like warmth after the coldness of the grooms at Fifth Star Court. Alyn patted the horses in thanks before they were taken away.

Disembarked, the party stared at the big building before them and what little of the Sun Court was visible beyond. Alyn, who'd seen it only four days earlier, watched the party. Pyrrhus looked awed and afraid, while Kadir wore a scowl to disguise his own awe. The chamberlain's expression was hard to read but she thought it was a mix of pride, fear, guilt and anticipation. Lord Lysandros was watching the two guards walking towards them.

"If you'll come this way, my lords, honoured visitors," said the first to approach and he bowed. The party followed them both through the empty building and to the small courtyard where each was searched in turn, weapons taken away from Lord Lysandros, the only person to have any, and soft slippers handed out to each of them. Then they were led through the maze of corridors to a wide room with low couches. Teapots waited on small tables and the delicate scents mixed in the air.

"Please be seated and take tea," said the same guard who'd spoken before. "Arrangements will be made for you to see the Sun Emperor as soon as possible." Then he retired to stand next to the door they'd come in by, while the silent guard stood at the other door leading out of the chamber. It was clear they weren't to go anywhere but the room was comfortable, although nobody went to get tea. Alyn thought that was a terrible waste but didn't dare to go herself, not alone.

"Alyn, please serve the tea," said Miervaldis as though he'd read her mind, and she eagerly obeyed, offering each person a tea chosen at random from the five pots on the table. When everyone had been served, she helped herself, although that was not strictly correct.

It was some time after the second round of tea that they were finally sent for. The light outside had dimmed to nearly twilight and the atmosphere within the room had stayed chill, with six people all pointedly trying not to speak to each other. But eventually the guard by the far door stood aside to allow a herald, a different man from last time, to step through. He surveyed the assembled crowd with some disdain, then bowed slowly.

"If you will follow me, my lords, honoured visitors," he said, and turned without checking to see if anyone obeyed. Alyn scrambled from her position behind her lord, who followed the chamberlain who was dragging his feet. Lysandros, Pyrrhus and Kadir walked behind the herald and Alyn fancied she could see anger bubbling above Kadir's head.

The herald led them through more open corridors, so that as she walked, Alyn could look at the gardens and courtyards, now lit with small lanterns that shone bright against the coming evening. The sky, when she could see to the west, was glowing that silver-gold colour that sometimes comes at the end of a grey, cloudy day. The dull fire of the sunset was just visible on the horizon. She wondered where they were and if they'd be taken to the courtroom building. She'd completely lost track of their location in the maze of the Sun Court and had no idea if they were heading in the direction of the courtroom or not. She looked at Miervaldis' back but that gave her no clues.

It was very clear when they had arrived, even though it wasn't the courtroom. The herald led them along a corridor open to the south and stopped by a large door. Not having been properly outside for some time, Alyn couldn't get a feeling for the shape of the building but she thought it was big. The party stood silently by the door as the herald cleared his throat, then beat upon it with four measured knocks of his staff. A few moments passed, then the door was opened and another herald stood there.

"I bring the supplicants for his majesty the Sun Emperor," said their herald, and bowed formally.

"I receive from you the supplicants for the Sun Emperor," said the other herald, bowing in turn, then their herald stepped back out of the way. The new herald gestured them through the door. They stopped right inside, leaving Alyn, the shortest of the party and stuck at the back, almost no idea of what the room looked like. From her limited vantage point she could see rich dark wooden walls glowing with light from numerous lamps attached at about head height, and a wooden floor, well-worn but also well-polished. She squinted through the small gap between her lord's right side and Kadir's back and was rewarded by a view of the Emperor himself, seated on a raised dais at the far end of the room. He wore shimmering grey robes over a dark cool green garment and his face was veiled. To his right and to his left seating stretched out in a circle, occupied by lords she didn't recognise and most of whom she couldn't see.

"Come forward," intoned the herald and Lord Lysandros, at the front, took a couple of steps. The party followed, spreading out a bit and Alyn saw the circle more clearly. There was only one row of chairs and most of them were occupied by what looked like very important lords indeed. She recognised the lord who had been First Judge at Miervaldis' trial and the First Lord of Fourth Star Court. That meant this was to be a privy trial. She hadn't paid much attention during that lesson - well, she hadn't paid much attention to most of them - but she did remember the format of a privy court. Summoned to deal with private matters and small problems, the privy court consisted of the Sun Emperor, his chosen advisors and the First Lords of the Nine Star Courts. She didn't think murder counted as a small problem but perhaps it was because it was a private matter. Or because it was the murder of a commoner, although that made her feel uncomfortable. There would be a declaration of the situation by the person requesting the attention of the privy court, then the Emperor would hear everyone who wished to speak, decide a resolution and declare it formally.

"Who brings this matter before this court? Present yourself to his majesty the Sun Emperor."

"I do," said Miervaldis, and he stepped from behind Kadir to the circle in the middle of the chairs, and made obeisance to the Emperor. Lord Lysandros followed so everyone else shuffled uncertainly after him to the circle's centre.

"And who are these people you bring? Do they pertain to the matter?" It was the herald speaking still, uttering the formal phrases, but Miervaldis addressed his answer to the Emperor.

"They do, my lord. I present to you my page Alyn Vanyasdotter, Lord Berinhard of Eighth Star Court, Lord Lysandros of Fifth Star Court, his page Pyrrhus Berinhard and Emilio Otakar, chamberlain of Fifth Star Court." As each was named, they made obeisance and stayed kneeling on the floor. The herald turned to the circle.

"My lords of the privy court, the supplicants." He struck the wooden floor with his staff, making a sharp, cracking noise, then made his own courtesy and retired to stand by the door. Silence reigned in the chamber. Then the Emperor spoke.

"Rise, all of you." There was a shuffling and a rustling as they rose and fidgeted, not sure where to stand.

"Lord Miervaldis, present the matter." That was still the formal requirements, Alyn guessed. Miervaldis bowed briefly.

"My liege, you asked me to investigate the matter of the murder of a scribe in the Fifth Star Court. I have made enquiries and come to a conclusion. I would present my findings to you and I have these here with me to attest to my case."

"Then proceed."

"The scribe Jaquan was murdered while writing, hit on the head with a heavy blunt instrument. While I was at Fifth Star Court, several matters came to my attention that bore upon the murder. Most notably, Jaquan served Lord Cassian, who has several enemies. He was responsible for the death of Lord Idony Berinhard in a duel. Lord Kadir here is his son and was present in the area at the time of the murder."

There was the scrape of a chair as one of the encircling lords stood up, not one Alyn recognised. The Emperor looked in his direction, then inclined his head.

"I would ask what that has to do with the man's scribe," the lord said brusquely. There was hostility in his tone.

"It was suggested that if Lord Cassian could be framed for murder, that would be even better than actually murdering him," Miervaldis said smoothly. The lord frowned but sat down again. The Emperor gestured for Miervaldis to continue.

"I do not, at this time, wish to accuse Lord Berinhard or his brother Pyrrhus of murder. Other things have come to -" Miervaldis' speech was cut off by three chairs all scraping at once. The Emperor gestured to one of them, to a lord Alyn couldn't see.

"On what grounds do you consider them innocent?"

"My lord, if I might continue, all will become clear. I would be happy to discuss proof later, if that is necessary."

The lord sat down again and the Emperor nodded to Miervaldis, leaving the questions of the other two lords unasked.

"Firstly, there was the unlikely framing. It is true that Lord Cassian has no alibi for the time of the murder, having been in his room all that night. It is also true that he has the key and the door was locked. However, the keys to his room are available to almost any of the household servants and to all his personal servants, to his heir Lord Isidor and probably to anyone else who paid attention to where the servants go after their duties are done. And there was no reason I could find for Lord Cassian to kill his scribe.

"However, there were other people who might have wanted to do away with Jaquan. During my time at Fifth Star Court, I found several people who described him in unpleasant terms. I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, but from their testimonies Jaquan appears to have been a sneak and a blackmailer, a man who delighted in other people's secrets and used them for money. When I examined the body, it was surrounded by papers, the most crumpled of which was a notice describing a grant of leave to a certain maidservant. This was later stolen from the pile while it was left in a locked office, confirming to me that it was important."

A chair grated again and the First Lord of Fourth Star Court stood up, waited for the Emperor's permission, and said, "Please get on with it, my lord." A little ripple of laughter pattered round the circle, easing the tension slightly, although not in the chamberlain. Miervaldis bowed from the waist.

"I do apologise and I will try to be succinct. The maid in question is the daughter of a servant in the court and had served Lord Cassian for a short time. Her grant of illness was due to his abuse of her."

There was a hard silence. Nobody knew what to make of the statement but several of the lords looked uncomfortable. After a little while, Miervaldis continued. "I investigated and found that the girl was shortly to marry. It would seem that Jaquan found out what had happened and was in the process of trying to blackmail the girl for money. Her father is rich and could afford a good sum. Jaquan did not count upon the girl's father coming to him while he was making the copy of the grant of leave for his own use. The man understood what was going on and lashed out in anger. And so Jaquan died."

A general hush fell over the circle as everyone waited to see what the Emperor would do but he also simply waited. Eventually a lord stood up and was given permission.

"You spin a good tale," he said, and his tone was also unfriendly. "But is there any proof of this, this desperate father?"

"There is," said Miervaldis and nudged the chamberlain. The man stood frozen, staring numbly ahead, unable to speak. Lord Lysandros, Pyrrhus and Kadir were all gaping at him in shock and amazement. He made a tiny croaking noise, then dropped to both knees and abased himself again before the Emperor.

"It's the truth," he managed, his voice muffled by the floor but clear enough. With that confession chairs grated all around them as the lords stood up, but the Emperor gestured them all to silence.

"Emilio Otakar, do I understand that you are confessing to the murder of the scribe Jaquan?"

There was a long pause, then "I am," came from the floor.

"And is Lord Miervaldis' summary a good description of what happened?"

"Yes."

"Is there anything you wish to add to it?"

"No, my lord Emperor."

The Emperor stared at the huddled chamberlain, then raised his head to the circle. "Are there any questions for Emilio Otakar?"

There was a pause, then the First Lord of Fourth Star Court stood up again to receive permission to speak.

"Emilio Otakar, are you responsible for the accusation of sorcery against Lord Miervaldis?"

"Yes."

"You made a false accusation against a lord of another Star Court to prevent him finding out about your crime?" As though it made it worse that the chamberlain had accused a lord from a different court, Alyn thought, puzzled.

"Yes."

The First Lord of Fourth Star Court sat down again, but now the Emperor leaned forward to speak.

"Was that solely on your initiative?"

"No."

"Explain."

There was silence and Alyn wondered if monosyllables were all the chamberlain was capable of now. Then he spoke again. "I was approached by another man, who said he was concerned about Lord Miervaldis and, ah, his influence. He suggested to me that it would be better if the lord left and that perhaps I could help in that way, by filing an accusation."

"Did you know this man?"

"No, my lord Emperor."

"And did he know what you had done?"

"I don't think so."

"So why did he approach you?"

"I think because... because he knew I did not like having another lord investigating my court."

There was a general indrawn breath from the encircling lords. Alyn guessed they didn't like having a commoner refer to a Star Court as his, although she understood what the chamberlain meant. The Emperor carried on.

"So why did you accuse Lord Miervaldis of ensorcellment of his page?"

"That was his idea."

"And it didn't occur to you that it would be easy to falsify?"

"He said he would take care of it. That all I had to do was file the accusation."

The Emperor let the silence hang for a while, as the lords thought about what had nearly happened and the lie the chamberlain had propagated at another's suggestion. Another who was still unknown. Then he asked if there were any more questions, but this time there were none. He sat back.

"Then the matter is over. Is there anyone who wishes to question the resolution of this case?"

There was silence around. No-one wanted to argue with an actual confession, although Alyn thought cynically that with anything less concrete the collected lords would have argued with Miervaldis out of principle.

"Then I must declare that this resolves the matter and that Lord Berinhard and Pyrrhus Berinhard, page to Lord Lysandros, are innocent of involvement." There hadn't been any doubt of that from the moment the chamberlain had confessed, of course, but nonetheless the brothers looked elated at the announcement. They came forward and bowed in thanks. Alyn watched their faces and wondered if that was why Miervaldis had had them come, to witness the Emperor personally declaring their innocence. It would certainly have more impact.

"Do you have anything to say before I proclaim justice?" That was directed to the chamberlain. Alyn wondered if he felt it was an honour to be sentenced by the Sun Emperor himself. In the normal order of things the murder of one commoner by another would be dealt with in the town courts, or at worst by the First Lord of the appropriate Star Court.

"Mercy, my lord Emperor," the chamberlain said miserably from the floor. His voice sounded choked.

"Do you think you deserve mercy?"

There was silence. Clearly the chamberlain didn't and neither did anyone else. Then from beside Alyn, Miervaldis spoke up.

"My lord Emperor, if I may speak? If mercy is deserved, then it is not mercy, it is justice. By definition, mercy is given to the undeserving." His voice was mild, as though they were discussing philosophy and not the sentencing of a murderer. The assembled lords looked shocked and surprised and not a few of them angry. The Emperor leaned forwards and although she couldn't see his face, Alyn thought he was intrigued.

"You would argue for this man, even though he is responsible for the accusation of sorcery and the trial you endured?"

"Mercy isn't dependent on the crime," Miervaldis said, "it's dependent on the character of the person offering it." Which wasn't, Alyn thought, a direct answer. There was a dangerous pause, while all present tried to work out if that was a veiled insult. Then the Emperor laughed and the tension eased.

"What mercy would you ask, Emilio Otakar?"

The chamberlain eased himself up a little, remaining in obeisance but allowing himself to speak clearly.

"My daughter is getting married in two weeks, my lord Emperor. I.. I would ask that I be allowed to attend her wedding before... Before." There was a pause, then he went on in a rush. "And if it be permitted, to have a, a quiet... execution?"

Alyn found herself feeling sorry for him now. Even at the end, saving face mattered so much. His whole frame was quivering and she wondered dispassionately if he was sobbing.

"I will grant you leave to attend your daughter's wedding," the Emperor said. "But I have not, in fact, declared your sentence." The lords in the circle sat up suddenly, although they'd been paying attention all along. From the door, the herald stepped forwards and thumped his staff on the floor once more. Miervaldis bowed to one knee and the others in the centre of the circle copied him as the Emperor rose.

"I have heard the testimonies of Lord Iarlaith Miervaldis and the accused, Emilio Otakar. I have found the evidence satisfactory and declare that Emilio Otakar is guilty of the murder of Jaquan, scribe to Lord Cassian. All others suspected of this crime are found innocent.

"I now declare sentence upon Emilio Otakar, chamberlain to Fifth Star Court." He paused, as though for dramatic effect. The silence was absolute. "His service as chamberlain of the Fifth Star Court is ended, effective immediately. He is granted two weeks' grace to attend the wedding of his daughter. If his face is seen within the borders of the land controlled by the Nine Star Courts at any time after that date, his life shall be forfeit.

"In addition, I declare that blood debt has been claimed upon the life of Jaquan, scribe to Lord Cassian of the Fifth Star Court. This must be paid by Emilio Otakar before the date set.

"This I hereby declare and make known to all present."

The herald slammed his staff one more time, and the Emperor sat down. There was a gradual easing of tension around the room as the encircling lords started speaking to each other in low voices. Alyn glanced over to the ex-chamberlain, still huddled in obeisance. It could have been execution, she knew. Exile would be hard, but better than death. She wondered if Silvi would follow her 'husband' to whichever of the neighbouring countries he chose and how he would get on there, no longer a young man and, she thought, probably not speaking any other language.

"A shrewd businesswoman," Miervaldis murmured next to her. Alyn glanced up.

"My lord?"

He looked down with a crooked smile.

"It will be Jaquan's cousin who claimed blood debt, the one I spoke to at his funeral. He can afford it, of course." Alyn remembered the woman, her cold, correct manner and her comments on her cousin. It wasn't difficult to believe she'd made the claim, although going straight to the Sun Court showed a fair nerve.

The herald stepped forward into the murmuring crowd and held his staff up for silence, grudgingly granted.

"My lords, the privy court is over." He made a deep bow to the Emperor, and everyone else copied him except for Otakar, who had remained on the floor since the pronouncement of his sentence, head still bowed. The Emperor raised a hand to stay those within the circle even as the other lords rose and moved to leave. The herald came forward and urged Otakar to his feet, gently guiding him out. Alyn watched him go, wondered what would happen to him. Would he get his wish, to save face, to go out gracefully? The Emperor coughed and she hastily returned her attention to the front.

"My lords Berinhard," he said, looking to Kadir and Pyrrhus. "I must tender my apologies to you for the inconvenience you have suffered. I am grateful that you were here for the judgement and to you, Lord Lysandros, for your care for your page."

Pyrrhus looked totally awestruck and Kadir didn't manage to say anything. Lord Lysandros bowed again.

"You are very gracious, my lord Emperor," he said steadily.

"If you would care to be my guests tonight, you may return home tomorrow morning," said the Emperor. "It is late to travel now."

The herald came forwards again, perhaps responding to some signal Alyn didn't see, and ushered the three away leaving only Alyn and Miervaldis before the Emperor. This time, he shut the doors behind him so they were truly alone.

"I'm sorry I can't offer you tea this time," the Emperor said, and the formal tone was gone from his voice. He sounded tired but relieved. "I wanted to thank you again for a job well done. Of course you are welcome to spend the night here and go home in the morning, but is there anything else you would ask of me before you leave?"

Alyn drew in her breath. The Sun Emperor was offering them a favour? A thousand thoughts ran through her mind, 998 of which she dismissed as unworthy. The second to last she considered and reluctantly discarded, but the last...

To her side, Miervaldis bowed.

"It is my honour to serve you, my lord Emperor," he said, and Alyn heard only complete sincerity in his voice.

"There is nothing I can offer you?" The Emperor sounded sad, making Alyn wonder if he'd made a similar offer before and been similarly rejected. Miervaldis declined with a smile and a shake of his head. Pursued by her thousandth thought, Alyn stepped forward, level with her lord, and bowed.

"If I may, my lord Emperor?" Her voice was shaky, and she bit her lip.

"Please."

She swallowed. "My lord, I - I mean, what happened to Liliya, I don't want it ever to happen again." The Emperor cocked his head, looking puzzled as far as she could tell through the veil. "I mean," she went on, searching for the right phrase, "it's too easy for lords to abuse those who serve them. There should be, something should be done." She subsided, feeling like she hadn't done the issue justice at all.

"What would you suggest?"

"My lord?"

"What would you suggest should be done, Alyn? There are already laws, you should know that. I can ask for Lord Cassian's behaviour to be investigated but that is too late for Liliya. How would you suggest I stop this happening in other Star Courts?"

Alyn was mute, unable to think. Beside her, Miervaldis murmured something she couldn't make out. He sounded amused.

"Well," the Emperor said, after a little while, "I will make sure Lord Cassian is... dealt with, at any rate. But if you would have things change, Alyn, you must put in the effort. Write a report for me on how you would make the changes. I will read it, and consider it."

"Thank you, my lord Emperor," she managed, breathless. The idea of writing a report for the Emperor himself was hideous - more work to do - but at the same time, the chance to actually do something, to help shape the policy of the Nine Star Courts... already ideas were coming into her head.

"I would know something, Iarlaith."

"Yes, my liege?"

"When did you first suspect Otakar?"

"I thought something was up when I spoke to Ythilda, the maid who discovered the body. She said the chamberlain told her to get a messenger first, before he told her to get a physicker. But that was before he'd even seen the body. Wouldn't the natural response be to get the physicker first? Or even just to see the situation himself? He didn't, because he knew the outcome. So, well, that's when I thought he knew more than he claimed."

"I see. Well, I am in your debt once again, Iarlaith. This is a bad habit you are forming in me."

"You owe me no debt," Miervaldis returned and the Emperor laughed again quietly. Then he rose and turned; Miervaldis dropped to his knees again and Alyn copied him. There was a door in the wall behind the seat on the dais and the Emperor made for that, opening it to reveal a passage. Just before he left, he turned once more to face them.

"I am truly grateful for your help," he said, then closed the door behind him. Miervaldis let out a breath but before they could even rise, the main door opened and yet another herald stood there. He bowed, stiffly.

"My lord Miervaldis, I am here to guide you and your page to your rooms tonight."

"Please, lead on," said Miervaldis cheerfully and Alyn tailed after him, looking forward to the comfortable Sun Court bed.

In the morning breakfast was served in the same room as last time, the Hall of Morning Lights. A small boy, probably a different one from last time although Alyn wasn't quite sure, led her there. The long table was once again loaded with food of all kinds and this time five chairs were arranged around it. Kadir, Pyrrhus and Lysandros were already seated; the boy showed her to the fourth seat and brought her tea. As she poured, Miervaldis came in, nodded genially to those present and took the last seat.

It was an odd meal. No-one spoke. She got the distinct impression of embarrassment from Lord Lysandros, as though he wanted to apologise for his rudeness the day before but couldn't quite bring himself to say anything. Pyrrhus clearly wanted to speak but didn't dare; she caught him shooting meaningful glances in her direction, although she couldn't quite interpret them. The fifth time he stared at her and raised his eyebrows she smiled and nodded and that seemed to satisfy him. Kadir ate steadily, only looking up occasionally. She couldn't tell what he thought but his shoulders were stiff and tense even now.

At the end of the meal, the herald came back, and announced their coaches were ready. They followed him to the little courtyard where their shoes were returned and then passed through the corridor building to the big square where two coaches were indeed waiting. Lysandros stopped, but Miervaldis carried on to the smaller coach.

"Are you going to the Fourth Star Court?" he enquired.

"Yes, m'lord," said the driver, bowing. Miervaldis nodded and climbed in, and Alyn followed. She watched as the others went to the other coach, not without several looks in their direction. Pyrrhus even waved a bit. Then their driver seated himself and picked up the reins and the horses started moving and before long she couldn't see the others any more.

"Are we going straight to Fourth Star Court, my lord?"

"That's right," said Miervaldis. "I didn't really want to go back to Fifth Star Court, to be honest. My luggage can be sent on, I don't need it anyway. And you didn't have any this time, except that one change of clothes. Why, did you want to go back?"

"No, my lord," Alyn said, and put her face next to the window, to watch the scenery going by and feel the fresh wind on her face. Too much had changed for her to feel like she was going home exactly, but it was where she wanted to be.

Two months later, long after the furore had died down and Alyn had forgiven Miraina and the other pages, news came through from the Fifth Star Court. She would have missed it if it hadn't been for Miervaldis. He had stayed in Fourth Star Court since their return, although he kept an erratic schedule, out more often than not and rarely needing her service. For her part, she had found it easy enough to slip back into the regular schedule of lessons and work and her lord's occasional need for her service at meals was a change for the better from her first six months. She did find herself missing something from time to time, although she couldn't quite put her finger on what it was. That morning he called for her after the lesson and she went up to his rooms at lunchtime and knocked on the door. It swung open. He was sitting on the dusty couch facing the door, with a large, heavy book on his lap and papers scattered about the floor. He held a carbon stick and his fingers were already smudged with its use.

"Oh, Alyn, come in. I heard the news this morning - did you?"

"No, my lord."

"Oh, well. I thought you might like to know. Lord Cassian has stepped back from his duties, they say, and is taking a long rest due to, ah, nerves. He's to be staying with a Community of the Espiridon Brothers. Have you heard of them?"

"No, my lord."

"They're a very reclusive community, far to the west. They hold to strict vows of chastity, poverty and labour. Of course, there's no evidence, but I rather suspect the Sun Court is behind that."

Alyn drew in her breath. The idea was almost intoxicating, that this had happened because she had asked for it. She wondered briefly if the Emperor himself ever felt like that or if he was used to it, and that was a sad thought.

Miervaldis was looking at her, one eyebrow raised. "Have you finished that report yet?"

"No, my lord," she admitted, feeling guilty again. He was making her do it properly, reading up on all the laws involved and thinking through how to make it clearer both to the nobles and to those who served them what was permitted and what was not. And how to deal with it when it went wrong. It was hard work, but she was enjoying it on the whole. Recently, though, it had remained untouched for almost a week and she was conscious of the need to get on with it. Thankfully Miervaldis didn't pursue it any further.

"There's one more thing," he said, looking up at her with a smile. "News of an engagement. Lord Kadir Berinhard of the Eighth Star Court will marry Lady Aithne Cassian of the Fifth Star Court next spring."

"Oh, that's wonderful!"

"It is. I rather doubt we shall be invited, I'm afraid." Alyn hadn't really thought they would be, but now bristled on her lord's behalf. He held up his hand, laughing. "I haven't been not invited yet, don't worry. But I rather think they'd prefer to forget about that unpleasant little episode." He shrugged, setting it aside, his fingers still playing with the long carbon stick as though they wanted to get back to work.

"We can always send them flowers," he said, and smiled.

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