Three days later I reported for my scheduled duty in the throne room but before I took my place, a young soldier, Chichte, with olive skin and tight-curled hair came with unseemly haste and relieved me with orders that I was to attend the Queen in her audience room. I made my way quickly to the tower, and approached the open doors with my blood singing and my throat tight. To my astonishment as I bowed in the ornate doorway, I saw that the King stood in the center of the well-lit room.
He looked regal, standing with perfect uprightness, his silver hair lying upon his shoulders, the whiteness of his beard cast into strong brilliance by the maroon of his cloak. I saw the bright sparking of color from the jewels of his crown, for he wore that too, this day, its thin beaten gold curving around his brow. He looked upon me and did not salute, his eyes pale and bright. The ancient carved furnishings around us danced with animal forms and sinuous curves. So elaborate a room, I thought for a Queen with such simple tastes. I recalled for a moment the old appearance of Heme when she had been a fellow soldier in training with her face blackened and her spare form clad in dark motley for battle.
“Yes,” said the King, “We needed you, Ti of the Wall, to complete this matter. To witness.”
I bent my head, but said nothing. What matter could he mean? All I desired of him was that he release me and my people to harry Saahr’s army slowly crawling towards us. Reasons of state, I reminded myself, were the source of our inaction. Could he possibly mean to let us act at last? Or had he discovered that I was the one who had come to the Hall of Audiences and taken Haemerick away? It was like him to take his time in such a matter and spin out my suspense. I felt the start of cold sweat between my shoulder blades.
I misliked being in the same room, though I tried to remind myself that I could be ignorant. If he decided he might reveal knowledge proving that he was just. But I felt the apprehension of a conspirator, that what I had covertly planned had been somehow betrayed, that he like a cat had only to make a small fatal gesture of his paw and I would descend to the same position as Haemerick.
“My Queen,” he said in command. She came from the room behind him, pale and thin. I did not remember her so bony as this, nor so strained. Behind her walked her weakling son, a slender staff in his hand that he used to straighten his pace. I wondered if he bled again into the tissues around his knee, as I had seen before, to cause so grievous a limp. Had I been summoned for his healing? He didn’t look directly at me, huge eyes focused on his father, his mouth set in a tight line.
“Not you,” the King said to him without courtesy. “Get you hence from me and do not return until I give you summons.”
The boy bowed and limped back through the beautifully polished doorway. The King waited in silence until the sound of the prince’s halting feet silenced before he turned to look at the Queen and then at me.
“A question for you, mother of Daniel,” he said. “Is it true that this son you bore suffers from a blood ill that cannot be cured, such an ill as one has heard tales about in the countries here over the years of the Reigns?”
The Queen assented, her voice steady but low.
“Yes, my King, he has such a sickness.”
“And you withheld this knowledge from me during the accidents and illnesses of his life? You used the gifts of Ti of the Wall without my knowledge or agreement in order to keep this secret?”
She did not speak, and he took her suddenly by the arm, his hand fisting white.
“These illnesses come in the blood,” he said. “They are not caught like the plague or pox. You cannot eat them in your food nor breathe them in the air.
“My Lady,” he said, “I know your bloodline has no such taint for it was fully checked by the physicians of the court before I sent my invitation to you to share my throne. So, Whore of my House, we must settle this.”
I could not move. Even with all the training that I had I was unmanned.
His right hand flashed through the air and took her by the soft part under the jaw and her mouth came open in a rattling gasp. She tried to lift her hands and beat him back but I saw a fine short chain running from one wrist to the other behind her back. She had no freedom to fight. Whether her son had seen that chain, looking as it did, nearly like an ornament, I didn’t know. Her body bucked, and for that instant I froze in disbelief, then I felt myself plunge forward. A sudden crack stopped me in whatever move I had begun — I know only that I was already in motion when it came, not what I meant to do.
King Matthew flung the body from him so that it skidded across the floor, her head hitting the foot of his great table with a sound that made me sick. He gasped for his own breath as if he deserved to have it, bent over, his body trembling, and I returned myself to some pose of attention before he straightened and looked at me.
“Take out this offal, and dispose of it,” he said, and departed, his step unsteady as he passed me. His soft footfalls in the hall outside faded.
I heard a whisper of movement near and looked up to see my silent Prince standing erect in the other doorway. I will never forget the metallic glitter of his eyes. He crossed the room this time without any sign of limp, cat-silent, and closed the great door to the hall. Still unspeaking, Prince Daniel knelt briefly by his mother’s body, then stood and gestured to me that I should take her up. My face must have shown my feelings for he smiled very faintly then and held up for my understanding the two pieces of his snapped staff. A convenient cane and a timely breaking of it.
I put my fingers on Queen Heme’s neck and saw that the translucent skin was mottling with bruises, but her pulse still beat. The blow against the table had knocked her out of her senses — a piece of luck, I thought as I lifted her warm body. The Prince led me into the next room, then checking behind us with a quiet glance, opened the door to the tower.
Oh, we had gone too far already. One step on the road to perdition is as good as a mad dash. And you have to remember that Queen Heme had been one of us soldiers, after all. We had shared her training years and we knew her better than any King or husband. I harbored wretched thoughts but I could not hesitate. Sometime in these past few weeks our small group, from Ratcatcher to Mell had turned our oaths into an oath to each other, and not the King. I believe that if King Saahr had not been already on the way, even now entering the far swampland section of the long road, we would have broken or burned our swords to keep our honor intact before the King’s Assembly the very next day. Make no mistake but that we would have died for it, but we would at least have died with honor.
I should have seen such a thing was possible from the moment Mell first spoke her predictions. More innocent or more hopeful than she, I had thought we could still walk this edge. But once we had begun to overbalance we could not stop, and in saving the Queen’s life, we tumbled.
I summoned help. Ratcatcher turned the Queen into a bundle of clothing, covering her with the frame of a folded tent, and she and Cascada took her out through the Gate in broad daylight, as if Ratcatcher traveled merely to take supplies to our watchers in the swamplands. I met her and we joined Mell. We diverted once under the forest cover to the overgrown woodland door which led down into the long passage and eventually to the hidden rooms under the Arena, carrying the Queen, just Mell and myself. I sent Ratcatcher and Cascada on with horse and tent and other supplies to meet with our patrol as cover for us all.
I bent waiting for her to waken in the room with the flickering doorway, wondering how long her waking would take. I guessed she had been kept without food for several days. Macc had sent a package of food stuffs by Mell’s hand for we did not dare to assemble all nine of us again in this place. It was going to seem bad enough that I had gone out again, but what I did not know then was that Cascada faked the duty roster so that later, when such things came into question, it seemed I had been on duty on the Wall. I had no idea at that moment, crouching by Heme’s sleeping side, how the roots of our conspiracy had spread so far or run so deep, but one way or another all my forty were on some level implicated already. I called myself their leader. I should have done better by them than that.
I stood up and stretched, pacing about the room over to where Mell stood considering something on the table. I had not recalled any object on those clean white surfaces, and I looked down upon this with unease. Only a box of black with little divisions cut into it and a glowing pale oblong jewel or glass recessed in one end. Many marks had been made on the surface, and some looked vaguely familiar. The room set me enough on edge, I thought, without new mysteries added to the flickering doorway so close to us.
“Is that fixed to the surface?” I asked Mell, “because I don’t remember it being here.”
“I do not recall it either,” she said. “Someone else comes here besides ourselves?”
I glanced around, remembering how I had noticed that first time we had stumbled in how dustless this place seemed. I reached down to pick up the box.
I did not make any noise, Mell tells me, yet my whole arm jerked spasmodically, and the reflex sent the black box spinning. It hit the shimmering surface of the wall or doorway of light and did not bounce, sinking and vanishing into that vibration without a sound. I stood staring, my arm tingling with numbing vibration.
“Are you all right?” Mell shouted at me.
“Yes,” I tried to hush her as the trembling in my muscles decreased. “Yes. What have I done?”
“Nothing important, I hope,” she said. “Nothing seems to have changed.”
We looked carefully about, then did a tour of the rooms. Indeed, nothing had changed that we could see, except that the little black box had gone. I kept seeing how it sank and vanished into the wall of light. So that was a doorway after all. It frightened me; I thought how easily one of us might have put a hand into it. What would have happened then? Amputation, or would the unfortunate have been sucked up as into a monster’s mouth? While I stood by the tables, sick with speculation, the Queen moved and sighed aloud, opening her eyes.
We fed her, gave her good water to drink, but we talked little except to explain to her where we had brought her and how the place would accommodate her needs. She had little to say. Her exhaustion could have explained that. I had made no essay to heal her since I thought her natural forces would serve her best. Her throat must have been terribly sore and not ready for long speech, but she would recover naturally.
“We hear from our parties that a sizable force bearing the arms of King Saahr already moves in the woodland. Please, my Lady, stay here until your strength and skills are enough to take you to safety. Water we have shown you, and we shall hope to bring more food. Haemerick will come to you.”
“Ti,” she said hoarsely, “to you and yours my blessing. I order you concern yourself no more; send Haemerick, since you have saved her, and Sylva. We are all exiles. I hope to be gone with her from your care when we are capable of travel.”
I looked at her and sensed no despair; rather a concentrated resolve. One does not question a Queen, even one that is supposed to be dead. I touched knee to floor and touched my forehead to her hand, Mell following. Heme raised her hand to her breast in salute as a soldier does. Dismissed, Mell and I left her. I did not tell Mell as we made our erratic way back to the Gate that Thane Gehir had told me once to obey my Queen’s order– I wondered if what had come was the event he had guessed.