by Shikkoku no Suzu (漆黒のスズ)
King Tarik of Bayan is seated when Ruari is brought before him with the other slaves. He is dwarfed by the long red canopy over his throne.
Ruari straightens his shoulders. He is wearing nothing but a loincloth, but he refuses to feel ashamed. He is young and strong, with broad shoulders and muscles from hours of outdoor training.
Tarik’s eyes drift over the group. “Yes, fine,” he says to the slavemaster, “use them as you see fit.” His gaze sharpens and he sits up. “Is that one woodkin?” He beckons, and Ruari is shoved forward.
“Halfbreed,” says the slavemaster.
Ruari’s heart begins to pound. Lady Moire’s voice echoes in his mind. Foolish, arrogant boy. Never put yourself in a situation where only your knack can save you. He is half-naked, bound and surrounded by enemy soldiers. This surely qualifies.
He bites his lip and gathers up his thoughts like water in an over-full pitcher. Slowly, the minds of those in the room wink into light in his consciousness . He reaches out and gathers up their minds, holding them away from his own. A slave brand, he thinks, gently, gently. He imagines what it might look like on his inner arm, and coaxes that thought out to the slavemaster and the king.
The slavemaster twists Ruari’s arm in its bonds, sending a bolt of pain through his elbow. He is pulled forward, and King Tarik leans forward in his throne to look at Ruari’s wrist. The scent of heavy southern incense and spice drifts from the folds of Tarik’s robe. Over his shoulder, Ruari can see the king’s personal emblem, a snake coiled around his family shield, head resting on its tail.
From his leaning position, King Tarik tilts his head up and examines Ruari. The king’s eyes are a startling hazel-green against dark lashes and amber skin. Tarik nods and the slavemaster releases his arm. “Sold into slavery by your Bayani mother, I assume,” he says, but not as if he expects an answer.
Tucking his arm back against his side, Ruari seeks out King Tarik’s mind among those he holds. You want me. You need a personal slave.
Sitting up, Tarik says, “Send this one to my household.”
“I am fascinated by the woodkin,” says Tarik, leaning his chin on his hand and tilting his head, “and since you do not bring me a fullblood, I must study this halfbreed instead.”
Look elsewhere, Ruari tells the minds in the room, before he allows himself a little smirk.
* * *
In the slave quarters, Ruari is bathed, oiled, and dressed in a soft white loincloth. He is given a meal of coarse bread and escorted into the presence of the steward of King Tarik’s household. He looks Ruari up and down and shakes his head as if Ruari is a mystery he hasn’t time to fathom.
What are you called?” he asks.
“R…ian,” he says.
“Barbaric name. Hold out your arm.”
“Why?” Ruari says without thinking. The guard cuffs him on the ear and he feels his arm being pulled out in front of him and laid on the table. The guard holds him at the wrist and elbow. He barely remembers in time to push out the illusion of the slave brand.
When his vision clears, he sees the steward lifting a branding iron out of the fire. “No,” he says.
“Hold him,” says the steward. The guard increases the pressure of his hold until Ruari goes still for fear of the guard breaking his wrist. He closes his eyes just before he feels the searing pain of the brand. When he is released, he cradles one arm in the other, sucking each breath through his teeth.
Stupid, foolish boy not to realise that the king would have his own brand. Well, he will no longer have to hold the illusion of the old brand; for the next few days the flesh will be bandaged and red and there will be no sign of what might be written underneath the new wound. But he will be marked with the king’s brand forever. Killing Ruari would be very much beneath Lady Moire’s dignity, but she is going to be furious when she finds him.
“When alone with the king, you will be bound and shackled with these,” the steward gestures to gold cuffs that Ruari has no doubt are unforgiving iron under their gilding. He nods to the guard. “Lock him in a cell until the king calls for him. No food or drink.”
“Yes sir,” says the guard.
* * *
The cell door does not open until the following evening. For the past few hours, Ruari has been unable to think of anything except the gnawing, twisting hollowness in his stomach. Even the pain of his branded arm has become secondary.
A guard is silhouetted in the hallway light, and Ruari hears the steward say, “Take him to the baths to be prepared, then make sure he eats something.”
Once bathed in hot and then cold, scented water, he is covered all over with perfumed oil and laid on his stomach on a bench. The guard stands nearby in case he should resist as the bath attendants’ hands move towards his buttocks, and then between them. He sucks his lips between his teeth and grimaces. At this point, he’s willing to put up with anything if there is dinner to follow it.
They dress him in a loincloth that hangs down at the front and finishes in gold embroidery in a snake design, matching Tarik’s emblem. He follows the guard to the dining room and is given a plate with small portions of meat, vegetables, and bread. It is hardly what he would consider substantial, and he doesn’t like the spices in the meat (a very southern flavour with a hint of bitterness), but he eats all he is given and even forces out a “thank you” to the guard.
Still hungry, but not ravenous, a lassitude takes him, and he leans back and smiles. The guard looks at him contemptuously and says, “Come on, I am to take you to the king.”
Ruari follows the guard through the slave quarters. They stop at the heavy double doors that lead from the slave quarters to the king’s household, and he is shackled hand and foot. This he does not find unduly concerning; he tugs at his arm shackles to see what happens.
The floors, walls and ceilings are all covered in swirling glass-tile mosaics. As they walk, Ruari tries to follow a shimming red pattern to its finish, but navigating through the weaving pattern makes him dizzy, and he almost stumbles. They reach gilded double doors painted with a mural of lions and snakes, which must be two storeys high. Ruari looks up at the top of the door, vanishing into the darkness of the vaulted ceiling, while his guard talks to the men guarding the king’s chamber. It takes two men to push the doors open. On the other side is an anteroom, and another pair of doors which must be pushed open.
One of them steps through and says, “Your magnificence, the halfbreed slave,” and then Ruari is pushed into the room. The floors shimmer with more mosaics: a geometric pattern this time. The ceiling is a high dome supported by a semi-circle of marble pillars around the room. Between the pillars, curtains blow gently in the breeze; through them, Ruari can see that there is a balcony. The room is furnished with a low, draped bed half-hidden by a canopy hanging from the centre of the ceiling. Towards one side is a cluster of chairs, and to the other is a writing desk.
If I were king of Bayan, all this would be for me, thinks Ruari.
“You are impressed?” says King Tarik, standing up from the desk. “I am told your name is Rian.”
“Yes, your magnificence,” says Ruari, dropping to his knees and pressing his forehead to the floor.
There is a long silence. Ruari thinks he hears the whisper of Tarik’s soft slippers on the floor. Tarik says, “You may stand.” The king sits, gesturing Ruari forward. “How long have you been a slave?”
Ruari tries to remember what he had made his brand say. The thought is slippery. “Fourteen years, your magnificence.”
“And what is your age now?”
“I am twenty-two, your magnificence.” Ruari sees no reason to lie.
Tarik appears to store this information somewhere in his memory. “Where are you from?”
“I was raised in the north, near Alles Lynn.” Again, this is the truth. He wonders if he should have lied, but Nikelle has always taught him that small lies must be hidden between big truths.
“Raised by your Bayani mother,” says Tarik.
“Yes, your magnificence.”
“Pity.” He turns back to his papers.
Ruari remembers what Tarik said in the hall. “I know a little of the woodkin,” he says, then adds, “your magnificence.”
Tarik looks up. His eyebrows have risen and Ruari bites his lip. He is not to speak unless asked a question.
“There was a woodkin woman, your magnificence. She…” Damn, how to explain away Nikelle? “She was a guard for the slavers my mother sold me to. She had been banished from the Ashwood. She took a liking to me.”
“I see.” There is a crease between Tarik’s brows. It strikes Ruari that the king is a very handsome young man. He has sharp cheekbones and heavy black lashes, a chin showing childish plumpness that will disappear with age. He is three years younger than Ruari, and has been king since he was thirteen. “It is the Ashwood clan I am interested in.”
“Of course,” says Ruari.
Tarik’s frown deepens. “Why of course?”
Ruari doesn’t know why that slipped out. Prostrating himself on the ground, he says, “Your magnificence.”
“You may answer.”
To the glass tiles pressed against his nose, Ruari says, “The high king of the woodkin is from the Ashwood.”
“There is no high king of the woodkin,” Tarik shouts, the change in volume so sudden that Ruari starts. He hears two deep breaths, then Tarik says in a lower but equally furious tone, “The woodkin are subjects of Bayan, and I am king of Bayan.”
“Yes, your magnificence.”
“To speak otherwise is treason.”
Ruari doesn’t reply. Shame burns in his stomach; Tarik will have him arrested and Ruari will have to abandon his mission and use his knack to escape the palace.
He closes his eyes and begins to gather his thoughts, seeking out the minds he will need to control. But his thoughts slither out of his grasp. The core of stillness he needs is elusive. He thinks of Nikelle and Lady Moire, of Lady Moire’s lover Kealan, of the sunlight through the trees in the garden at Alles Lynn, of the way the candlelight picks out the hollow beneath King Tarik’s cheekbone. His thoughts scatter like autumn leaves. He cannot find his knack. He stifles the urge to laugh.
He has been drugged; it must have been in the food.
Never put yourself in a situation where only your knack can save you. Lady Moire was, as always, correct.
Well, if it is drugged food, he will fast until he sobers up, and then escape. He tries to tune his dulled senses to discover where King Tarik is.
“This slave needs to be taught how to give due respect to his king,” Tarik is saying to the guard. “Take him away, and when he has learned, bring him back to me.” There is the whispering of fabric on glass tiles, then Tarik’s voice, directly in front of him. “Stand now, Rian. You are dismissed. There must be no more talk like that which has passed between us tonight.”
Ruari stands, but keeps his head bowed. “Yes, your magnificence. Thank you, your magnificence.”
* * *
Bring him back to me, King Tarik said, so Ruari is not for the block. He is left in a cell for a day and a night, and feels with relief his thoughts returning to him like cattle scattered by a storm returning to the byre. He thinks he has command of his knack for now, and he could escape, but King Tarik said, bring him back to me, and Ruari wants to see what lies further down that path.
When they come for him, it is to drag him into a yard and tie him to a triangle. When he realises what is to come, Ruari tries to find the guard’s mind and coax him to soften his punishment, but the lashes fall too soon, and it is impossible to concentrate his attention when there are stripes of searing pain across his shoulders, back, and thighs. When it is over, they bind him face-down on a bench, press salted rags to the worst of the welts, and leave him in the darkness.
As his back throbs with pain, he reflects that that bastard guard probably had extra savour mutilating him because he is a half-woodkin. Bayanis detest the woodkin, the first inhabitants of the land, pushed into the northern forests by Bayani conquest.
He had grown up in the northwest of Bayan, chasing dogs, climbing trees, and persecuting his guardians, who were genteel Bayanis. Occasionally Lady Moire, Countess of the Lakes, would visit him. After a few days’ stay, she would vanish again. He remembers when he was very young being cleaned up and paraded in the hall of his guardians’ house for her inspection. When he got older, she would sit with him and he would tell her about his favourite hounds, good hiding places, and the kitchen maids who liked to feed him sweets.
Eventually, he came to understand that his guardians, and everyone who lived as far as he could imagine in all directions, were her tenants. Then he came to understand other things. He wasn’t like the other boys: they all had hair of a nondescript brown. His was black, a dull grey-blue-black, as if someone had rubbed river mud through it. It was the same as that of Lady Moire and the man who went everywhere with her, Kealan.
People said of her that she was part-woodkin, the product of a union between Lord Zanner, Count of the Rocks, and a half-woodkin common woman. They said she had been King Sinan’s mistress, and he had given her the lakes county as a gift for her services. They told Ruari he was her no-name son from a dalliance with a mud-man, and the king couldn’t bear to lie with her after that and sent her away to her county. They said she had never returned to the capital at Sennet, even after the old king was dead and his nephew ruled. They called Ruari “mud-man”, and jeered at his mud-man name, and told him to go back to the forest.
That was how he learned what he was, and what it meant to the people around him.
When he is offered meat and bread the next morning, he eats it, uncaring whether it is dosed or not. Then his training begins. When he is defiant, he is beaten. When he refuses to eat, soup is poured into his mouth until his choice is to swallow or drown. He retreats into the still place, beyond the anger, fear and pain that they use as tools to shape him.
At some point, Ruari realises that he is being trained as a body slave: how to prepare the king’s rooms and serve his breakfast, the correct obeisance and the correct way to help the king into each layer of clothing without sullying the royal flesh with a lowly slave’s touch. He must focus his gaze on King Tarik’s shoes and always stay at least two steps from him unless bidden closer. He will serve shackled until King Tarik bids it otherwise.
There are now two Ruaris within him. One is the fighter who came to the palace to know his adversary face-to-face, who is the ward of Lady Moire of the Lakes and learned the hidden arts from Nikelle of the Ashwood clan, the Ruari who has a great destiny if only he can grasp it. The other is the branded slave, wits dulled by intoxicants, whose comfort, happiness, and very life depend on pleasing King Tarik.
He is finally ushered into Tarik’s presence again almost a month after he was banished from it. The door shuts behind him with its heavy thud. Tarik is standing near one of the pillars. “Rian,” he says, “come here.”
Ruari looks at Tarik’s feet and complies, stopping two paces from the king. He thinks about the lion and the snake in the mural on the outside of Tarik’s door. In the first panel, the snake’s tail is twisted around the lion’s neck and the lion raises a paw to strike the snake’s head from its body. In the second, lion and snake are turned to face another, unseen enemy. The lion’s hackles are raised, and the snake’s fangs drip with venom. He does not need to fight against the slavemaster’s training. He can play the slave to learn more about Tarik and ultimately serve his own ends.
“You may step closer,” says Tarik.
When Ruari does so, the king reaches out and lifts his head. Ruari focuses on a point over Tarik’s left shoulder as Tarik makes a detailed study of his face.
Tarik steps away without saying anything and Ruari shuffles back to the prescribed distance, ankle shackles jangling against the glass floor.
“I know they have told you never to raise your gaze above my feet, Rian, but I detest having my shoes stared at.”
“Yes, your magnificence,” says Ruari, shifting his gaze to Tarik’s knees. Tarik huffs out a breath and turns towards the bed. Ruari feels his heart begin to pound.
He still doesn’t know what he will do if Tarik commands that intimate service from him. The slavemaster was not instructed to teach him about this, except that he must obey the king and that it would be a very great honour. Ruari has bedded girls, as is proper for a young man, and understands the purpose of the bath attendants’ ministrations on his anus. But it is a distance of more than two paces from that to bending over for Tarik, even for the sake of maintaining his cover as a slave.
Ruari concentrates on watching the hitch in Tarik’s step. His left leg is weaker than his right—a childhood illness caused a paralysis that they thought would be permanent. It has receded, but not entirely. Tarik prefers to ride when he goes out to greet his people. He rarely walks in public, he does not take part in tournaments, and he is an indifferent swordsman. What a disappointing king. Ruari flexes his bicep muscles.
He realises Tarik has walked past the bed and sat down at his desk. The pulse of adrenaline recedes, leaving Ruari feeling hollowed out. Without looking up, Tarik says, “I will call you when I am ready to disrobe for bed.” Like that, Ruari is banished to the anteroom.
There is a pallet made up against one wall that will be for his use, and he sits on it, under the baleful look of the guards, one of whom mutters, “Cursed mud-man.” Ruari closes his eyes to await Tarik’s summons. He thinks of Lady Moire and wonders whether she has figured out where he is, and whether it will be enough to draw her back to Sennet after all these years.
When he was twelve, he sat with Lady Moire in the garden of the little house in Alles Lynn, looked up through the trees at the sky, and asked her, “Am I your son?”
“Whatever makes you think that?”
“We’re both mud-folk,” said Ruari. “Nobody else around here is. And the boys in the village say you’re my mother.”
“It isn’t polite to call the woodkin mud-men, Ruari,” said Lady Moire. “You should call them the woodkin, and the proper name for the colour of your hair is woodkin woad.”
“All right,” said Ruari, yawning.
“Should you like to be my son?”
“I wouldn’t mind,” said Ruari, “although if I am, I think you should take me to live at Lakecastle with you.”
“It isn’t that simple.” Lady Moire had thin, elegant wrists weighed down with bracelets that clinked together when she put her hand up to brush his cheek.
“When you are old enough to figure that out for yourself, then you will be old enough to know.”
The answer to that riddle is what has brought Ruari to this anteroom, deep in the palace, to learn about his adversary.
* * *
“You may step close,” says Tarik, his hands loose at his side. His costume comprises a long, brocaded silk outer robe that falls to the floor and splits at hip and elbow to reveal a second, dyed silk robe underneath. Beneath that is a long linen shirt, the embroidered hem visible at his feet, and drawers. The outer robe is fastened with a row of small buttons that go from his neck to his hips.
Tarik stands, looking to the side, as Ruari inhales and pushes the breath out slowly, and steps forward. He puts his hands to Tarik’s neck, careful not to brush the underside of his chin. The smell of sandalwood teases his nostrils. He begins to release each button, crouching when it becomes necessary. It takes him some time to reach the last, then he stands and puts his hands between outer robe and inner to push the outer from Tarik’s shoulders. He turns to take it to the chest, and is stopped by a hand on his back, tracing the line of a healing welt across his shoulder.
“My physician tells me these will heal, leaving no mark,” says Tarik.
Ruari bows his head and presses his branded arm to his side. His wits are too scattered to produce the illusion of the underlying slave mark. “I thank you, your magnificence, for your physician’s attention.” Ruari sets down the outer robe and returns to unlace the inner.
Tarik is silent, breathing steadily. As Ruari helps him out of the inner robe, the king says, “There is unrest in the northwoods. Why is that?”
Putting away the inner robe, Ruari says, “When the Queen of Bayan was from the Ashwood, they felt some loyalty to the throne. When she died, they did not.”
“By the terms of my uncle the king’s marriage settlement, there was never to be an heir from his marriage to Queen Iseal,” said Tarik. “I and my father before me were always to be heirs to the throne. Why are the woodkin unhappy with this now?”
Ruari hesitates, thinking of Tarik’s outburst when he mentioned the high king of the woodkin. “Your magnificence, with your permission,” he waits for Tarik’s nod, “that was a Bayani condition, not a woodkin one.”
“Then my uncle’s sacrifice was for nothing.”
“His sacrifice, your magnificence?” says Ruari.
Tarik doesn’t notice that Ruari has replied to a statement. He is looking across the room, frowning. “A loveless marriage, a cold marriage bed, the end of his royal line.”
Ruari stiffens and forces himself to inhale and exhale slowly.
“All to secure a lasting peace with the woodkin, and we will be at war again within a decade of his death. How strong are their forces?” Tarik bows his shoulders so Ruari can pull the shirt over his head.
“I could not say, your magnificence.” He fetches the night shirt and bunches it up so it can be dropped over Tarik’s head, registering a brief glimpse of smooth amber skin and the hollow between collarbone and shoulder.
“Thank you, Rian,” says Tarik. “You may go.”
* * *
Ruari is walking between the king’s chamber and the slave quarters when someone pulls him into an empty room. “What…” he begins, then smiles. “Nikelle. I wondered when you would come to find me.”
A shadow resolves itself into a tall woman with her woad hair bound into a braid and a clan tattoo climbing up one bare arm. “I could ask you the same thing, boy.”
Ruari winces. “They dose all their slaves with something—poppy milk, I think. I haven’t been able to use my knack.”
“Damn,” says Nikelle. “Well, if it’s poppy milk, you should build up a tolerance. Lady Moire would like to see you.”
“Is she furious?”
Nikelle shrugs one shoulder. “It is always difficult to read the mood of that one, but I would suggest that you not delay. May I take her back a message?”
Ruari bites his lower lip. “I can’t think of anything to say that she won’t already have figured out.”
Giving him a sympathetic smile, Nikelle says, “Sometimes it is good to say it anyway, boy.”
“Then tell her I am sorry.”
“I will come back in three days and find you. Between the two of us we should be able to sneak you out,” she holds up a hand, “and back in if necessary.”
“Thank you,” says Ruari, with feeling. “It is good to see you.”
“And you.” With that, Nikelle is gone. Ruari rubs his temples.
Just after his eleventh name-day, he had climbed a tree and fallen out of it. He lay with a broken leg in the damp leaf litter while the clouds rolled in and the rain poured down. He began to shiver. Where were his guardians? Why hadn’t they come for him? Tears of mingled fury and terror made hot tracks down his cheeks. He was someone important. He didn’t know quite who, but he knew Lady Moire of the Lakes had taken a personal interest in him. She might even be his mother.
But she wasn’t here. Nobody was here but him, and he was deep in the undergrowth in some forgotten corner of the forest. It was raining, and below the pain in his leg was a terrifying numbness.
Eventually he let go and stopped fighting. There was peace in hopelessness. There was stillness. He retreated into his mind, past pain, fear and anger, and found that in there was a light, shining as if through a hole pressed into a black sheet. Help me, he thought at the light. Come and find me.
Eventually, out of the haze, someone came for him. Long mud-black hair was queued at the nape of his neck, and his light-grey eyes were also like Ruari’s. He said, “There you are, boy,” and lifted him into his arms.
The next thing he remembered was lying in a sweat-soaked bed, shivers racking his rigid frame. A maid sat by his bed patting his forehead and cooing unhappily. He screamed with the pain from his broken leg, and when he was able to move he thrashed, trying to climb out of his clammy, traitorous body.
Then Lady Moire took the damp towel. She sat beside him all night, watching him with her dark blue eyes. She said, “Shh,” and “Ruari, you must live.”
He had to live. He put his shattered will to the task and somehow found the energy in his small frame to fight the fever and the pain. When the fever broke, she put her hand on his forehead, then leaned over and kissed the cool place where her palm had been.
A year later, he met Nikelle in the market. “You are looking better than last time I saw you, boy,” she said.
“Who are you?” replied Ruari.
“Nikelle of the Ashwood,” she said. “I was a friend of your mother’s.”
Ruari widened his eyes. “My mother?” he said.
There was a secretive amusement in her eyes as Nikelle said, “Why, Lady Moire, of course. Best not to tell her I’m here, though. She doesn’t approve of muddy, fun things. How old are you?”
Agog, Ruari told her. “What muddy, fun things?”
“Sword fighting, and exploring. Tree climbing too, although perhaps you don’t like that so much?”
“Why do you say so?”
Again, the glimmer of amusement. “Because I found you at the bottom of one, drenched and shivering, with a broken leg.”
“I thought you were a man,” said Ruari, awestruck.
Nikelle laughed. Sword fighting, exploring and tree climbing were the hooks she used to draw Ruari into learning the lore and skills of the woodkin. By the time he was fifteen, he could hunt and track, ride and fight, and walk lightly and silently through the forest.
Eventually, he asked Nikelle what she had been doing in the woods that day when he fell from the tree. She had told him that although he had never seen her, she had often been there. He asked why he had never seen her, and she told him about the knack, that he had called her that day and she had found him. That she could teach him to find the still place so that he could bend others’ minds to his will.
This knack, she said, was almost entirely a gift possessed by halfbreeds, although the occasional fullblood might possess some echo of it.
“Why do only halfbreeds possess it?” Ruari asked.
“I don’t know.” Nikelle shrugged. “Maybe Those Above gave it to us because of all the things we suffer.”
He didn’t understand then, but over the years since he had heard stories from her and from Kealan, and from the occasional halfbreed from Lakecastle who wandered through Alles Lynn. Halfbreeds in Bayan were almost always the unwanted consequence of an ill-considered dalliance. They were obvious targets for slavers, usually for hard labour or sexual slavery in brothels specialising in the “exotic”. Many ran wild on the streets until they died or were killed, while others were beaten, starved and neglected. The woodkin clans would accept halfbreeds who could prove their worth as soldiers or servants, but took little interest in the rest.
With his privileged, comfortable upbringing, Ruari could barely imagine such suffering. The knack seemed like a paltry compensation.
* * *
As Ruari is fastening the buttons on Tarik’s robe, Tarik says, “You will attend me in the hall this afternoon.”
“Yes, your magnificence,” says Ruari.
“You will need to see to my needs—food, drink and the like—while I hear petitions and presentations.”
“Yes, your magnificence.”
Tarik sits on a high stool. Ruari goes behind him and takes up a flat brush from the dressing table. The king wears his sleek black hair just below shoulder-length; taking a handful, Ruari holds it near the root and draws the brush through the lengths. He has become practiced at not making contact, but he can feel the heat rising from Tarik’s nape. When the hair is brushed and smooth, he fastens it back with a black ribbon.
The feeling of Tarik’s hair sliding over his fingers lingers with him. His own hair is cut at ear-length in the way of the northerners.
“Thank you, Rian,” says Tarik. His voice is even and musical when he is not shouting.
Ruari clasps his hands together and bows. The gilded wrist shackles clink together, reminding him who he is.
He spends the morning tidying Tarik’s chambers, then takes his lunch in the anteroom. Nikelle is coming for him that night, so more of the food ends up tucked in the palm of his hands to be thrown away than in his belly. His stomach is still rumbling when Tarik returns and Ruari trails him through the household and out into the palace proper.
In the throne room, he is given a cushion to the left of Tarik’s throne on which he may kneel. When King Tarik is seated, the doors open and the courtiers and supplicants are shown in.
He clenches his teeth. It is one thing to parade around the king’s chambers in a loincloth saying, yes your magnificence and staring at the floor; it is another to do it in the public throne room where he might be stared at by anyone who wanders past. He doesn’t need to hear the murmurs to know what they must be saying about the king’s pet mud-man, tame and shackled.
He withdraws into himself and finds he is almost steady enough to carry his mind gently. Don’t look at me, he tells the room at large. Tucking his chin into his chest, he closes his eyes and concentrates. He sees their minds, faint and flickering. Don’t look at me.
There is a mind he recognises. He looks up sharply and straight into the gaze of Lady Moire, sitting in the front row of pews, hands folded in her lap. She raises her eyebrows and tilts her head to him, and he quickly returns his gaze to the floor.
“Rian,” comes Tarik’s voice, “fetch me some wine.”
“Yes, your magnificence.”
* * *
As he is being undressed that evening, the king says, “I wonder why Lady Moire of the Lakes is in Sennet.”
Ruari helps him out of his outer robe and doesn’t respond.
“You were raised in the lakes county, weren’t you?”
“Yes, your magnificence.”
“What do you think of the countess?”
“I know very little of her, your magnificence. She rarely came to Alles Lynn.”
Clad in his nightshirt, Tarik walks over to the couch and sits down. Ruari has noticed that if the king walks slowly, he is more able to disguise his limp. “She was my uncle’s mistress, but I never met her. By the time I was born, she had been given the lakes county and left the capital. She never came back until now, and she says it is to oversee the selling of her wool in the marketplace. As if her wool has not sold itself for the last twenty-two years. What do you think?”
Ruari busies himself folding Tarik’s robes. “I do not, your magnificence.”
“That is a lie, Rian.” There is a dangerous silence, then Tarik waves his hand and it is gone. “My informants tell me Lady Moire is hand-in-glove with the Ashwood clan, and her household is riddled with fighting halfbreeds that have woodkin cunning and Bayani strength.”
When Ruari turns around, he sees something particularly still in Tarik’s posture, as if Tarik is finely tuned to Ruari’s response. He gives himself some time by checking the Tarik’s jewellery case. “Your magnificence, it is true that the lakes county is known as a refuge for halfbreeds, but I am from there and my mother sold me into slavery without any interference from the countess.” He risks looking up, and their gazes lock for a moment before Ruari breaks his away. “I deeply regret I am not able to help you further, your magnificence.”
There is a long silence, then Tarik says, “It is cold tonight. I will have my slippers, and then you are dismissed.”
Ruari takes the soft slippers, which are silk with sheepskin lining, and kneels. He places the slippers in front of the king and holds the toes while Tarik slips one foot then the other in. This close, Ruari sees that the left foot turns in slightly. He brushes his thumb along the edge of the slipper, feeling the contrast between silk and the soft skin of Tarik’s foot.
The king inhales sharply and Ruari drops his head to the ground and shuffles backwards. “Forgive my clumsiness, your magnificence.”
“You are dismissed,” says Tarik, a catch in his voice.
Ruari scrambles to his feet, fixes his gaze on the floor, and escapes.
“I’m going to the slave quarters for the evening,” he tells the guard, who curls his lip and says, “Whatever you say, mud-man.”
His head is clearer than it has been for weeks. He goes into the high-walled garden to one side of the king’s household and presses his back against a stone wall, inhaling and exhaling deeply. He thinks of Tarik’s smooth skin, permeated with the scent of bath-house oil. His handsome face and his sleek hair. He thinks of the turn of his left ankle and opens his hands wide before clenching them into fists. What is wrong with him?
Ruari gathers up his thoughts and takes them to the still place. He follows the path that he had first taken that afternoon lying at the bottom of that tree with a broken leg. There are five guards in the garden and the hallway beyond. Nikelle is coming: over the outer wall, in an open window, through the cloisters.
“Good evening,” he says when she finds him.
She crinkles up her eyes and pulls a loose, homespun robe from where it was rolled up around her belt. “Shall we go?”
They clasp hands, and Ruari is not alone in the still place. Nikelle is there; she takes some of the heavy burden of his wandering thoughts from him. They slip out the same way she came in.
When they are safe, Nikelle takes a skeleton key out of her jerkin and opens his shackles. Ruari rubs his wrists and thanks her.
Lady Moire has taken a house on the outskirts of the nobles’ district, some distance from the palace. They find her in the parlour, wearing a wrapper over her nightdress. “I was reading,” she says. “Good evening, Ruari.”
Nikelle breaks into a broad smile. “You’re a piece of work.”
Inclining her head, Moire says, “Forgive my state of dress. Those court robes are dreadfully uncomfortable. Have you eaten?”
“No, and I’m ravenous,” says Ruari.
“Nikelle, be a dear and ask the cook to put together a plate for the boy. Ruari and I have some catching up to do.”
Ruari ducks his head and shuffles his feet.
“I am glad at least that you have shed those vulgar shackles.”
Making an affirmative noise, Ruari sits down opposite.
“Show me your arm.” He holds out the unbranded one. Lady Moire raises her eyebrows and holds out her hand until he drops that one and lifts the other. Her hand around his wrist is cool and dry as she uses the other to pull up his sleeve. She studies the branding mark. “You are using no knack?”
“Unfortunately, no. Well,” Ruari tilts his head, “fortunately, actually, since they dosed me with something that made my wits so scattered I couldn’t summon any kind of knack at all.”
Lady Moire releases his hand. “They call it bittersweet,” she says. “It’s mostly poppy milk with valerian and a few other herbs mixed in. It’s given to all the slaves, which I could have told you if you had seen fit to share this plan with me.” Her tone is that of the mildest criticism.
Ruari winces. “I am sorry.”
“Yes, Nikelle passed on your message. Well, what have you learned?”
How to button court robes, how to brush hair until it shines, how to properly serve a king’s dinner, how to hold my tongue. Lady Moire might consider that last one to be worth the effort.
“I have been made the king’s body slave. I am learning about him.”
Lady Moire leaned back against the cushions. “When you disappeared, I assumed you had gone to kill him.”
“I thought I might,” says Ruari.
“What has prevented you?”
“If he dies, the other uncle becomes king. He is older, more experienced—a campaigner. I fight a more difficult enemy. I will defeat Tarik on the field if I decide to fight, not with a knife in his belly.”
“Prince Osman is also fat, ugly, and dissolute. Don’t overestimate his popularity or his skill.”
“And Tarik is a cripple,” says Ruari, more loudly than he intended.
“Ah.” There is something similar about the way that Lady Moire and King Tarik look at him sometimes, as if he has revealed more than he has said. “Then you have made up your mind?”
“No.” Ruari tucks his chin into his chest. “Is the end worth the suffering to bring it about? If my parents wanted that, they wouldn’t have given me to you.”
“They wanted peace, Ruari,” says Lady Moire quietly, “but they knew the choice I would offer you, and they hoped you would make the right decision.”
“And what is that?”
Lady Moire stands. “You must decide for yourself. But if you do not plan to raise the woodkin to your banner, you should tell Nikelle soon. There is a rebellion brewing in the north.”
Looking at his hands, Ruari says, “King Tarik said the old king submitted to a loveless marriage, a cold marriage bed, and the end of his royal line, all to secure peace with the woodkin, and we would be at war again within a decade of his death.”
“King Sinan made a gamble. We have yet to see whether it paid off. But…” Lady Moire sits down next to Ruari, “his marriage to Queen Iseal was not loveless, and it was not unhappy. Trust one who knew them both well.”
“Was it difficult to give up the court?”
Smiling, Lady Moire says, “No. Beastly place.”
* * *
Nikelle sneaks him back into the palace, puts him in shackles, and takes away the homespun shirt. “There,” she says, “the latest palace slave fashion.”
Ruari nods, thinking of what Lady Moire told him about the woodkin army in the north.
“I will come and check on you in a few days. In the meantime, don’t starve yourself to death avoiding the palace food.”
“Thank you,” says Ruari, and Nikelle leaves him to his little pallet in the slave quarters, which is even less comfortable than the one in Tarik’s anteroom. He lies awake and thinks longingly of the abundance of goose-down pillows all over Tarik’s bed.
* * *
“What else did the woodkin woman teach you?” says Tarik.
Ruari sets the breakfast tray on a low table and turns. “Your magnificence?” The mention of Nikelle reminds him that he has had no contact from her for a fortnight.
“It seems she told you a little of the politics of the woodkin. What else?” He swings his legs off the side of the bed and stands up.
“I…. She taught me some woodsense.”
“Woodsense: hunting, tracking, stealth, that sort of thing?” Tarik makes his careful way across the room and sits down at the table.
“Yes, your magnificence.”
“Very good. We will go to the Kingswood, and you will demonstrate it to me.”
Having not worn any sort of trousers for two months, Ruari is relieved to be provided with tunic, breeches, and boots. Tarik is already in the yard, mounted on a fine bay gelding, when Ruari is brought out. “Your magnificence,” he says, bowing.
A slave comes forward and fixes a long chain to the links in Ruari’s shackles, then takes the other end and, bowing, hands it to King Tarik. Tarik wraps the end around his hand, and gestures that they might be on their way.
Wonderful thinks Ruari. At least if he is to be paraded through town on the end of a leash, he is fully clothed.
Guards run ahead of them, clearing the streets and warning the citizens of Sennet that their king is about to pass by. Although this enables them to proceed with minimal obstruction, the party travels at a slow walking pace so that Tarik can acknowledge his subjects, who clap and cheer from the side of the street and the upper windows of their houses.
Tarik accepts this as his due; Ruari frowns and thinks that the king is evidently more popular in the south than he is in the north. He wonders whether Nikelle is nearby and why he hasn’t heard from her.
The Kingswood is a large preserve that begins about half a league outside the city walls. When they get there, Ruari discovers that they have been preceded by an assortment of slaves and attendants. They have set up a pavilion, and appear to be preparing to serve the king lunch.
Dismounting, Tarik accepts a goblet of wine. “Another for Rian,” he says.
The slave hesitates for a moment before turning back to the table.
“Thank you, your magnificence,” says Ruari. He accepts the drink.
“Unshackle him,” Tarik commands.
“Your magnificence,” says a guard.
“Yes?” Tarik says, a thread of anger through his tone.
“At once, your magnificence.”
As the king turns and raises his hand, the twenty-or-so people gathered give him their attention. “For today, I give permission for the slave Rian to address me informally.” He turns to Ruari. “This means that you may correct me, and speak unprompted. I suggest, however, that you remain respectful.”
“Yes, thank you, your magnificence,” says Ruari, downing his wine and handing back the goblet. It feels wrong to be teaching King Tarik the ways of the woodkin when that knowledge will be used against them.
They walk towards the forest. “No,” says Tarik, and Ruari looks around. Tarik is holding up a hand to prevent a gaggle of guards and attendants from following them.
“You two,” he gestures to two guards, “may come with us. The rest are to stay here.”
The guards walk a few paces behind them. Soon enough, the bright canopy of the pavilion is lost beyond the thick brush of the forest floor. Ruari looks around. Above them tower thin-trunked, grey-barked trees. They are walking along a forest trail that is hemmed on either side by undergrowth grown thick from light through the thin canopy. “I must warn you that this forest is not like those in the north,” he says.
“How so?” Tarik tilts his head.
How can you claim to be king of the woodkin when you never seen their forests? thinks Ruari. He gestures to the undergrowth. “In the northwoods, the sun does not burn away the moisture,” he says, “and the weather is milder. The trees grow strong and dark and drown out light to the forest floor. As a result, there is good cover in the branches, and easy movement along the ground.” He points up at the thin branches of the acacia above them. “Here, as you see, the case is reversed.”
The king nods, but doesn’t reply. They move further into the forest and Ruari crouches by some animal droppings.
“What are you doing?”
“I was going to show you how to track this animal, your magnificence,” says Ruari.
Tarik waves his hand irritably. “I have huntsmen to track animals for me.”
“The woodkin say that you must learn to track animals before you track people.”
“Yes, well I’m not going to find the woodkin encampments by investigating the contents of their latrine trenches,” Tarik snaps. “Let us move on.”
He stomps ahead and Ruari notices he’s favouring his right leg. He thinks about all the things Nikelle taught him and looks around the forest. The trees are wrong for climbing, but he could perhaps show Tarik the tells for some of the traps the woodkin use.
Tarik’s scowl fades away as he sits on a log and Ruari demonstrates a several rope-and-pit traps. “Yes, this is useful,” the king says, massaging his knee. Ruari’s chest feels heavy as he reflects that has kept his lesson to the types of traps a child might use to trap a raccoon. “Now, I would like you to show me how the woodkin would track a human.”
Ruari nods. The woodkin have some gifts, but their reputation for eerie omniscience is mostly due to their unparalleled ability to read the paths of those who have entered their forests. “Might I suggest, your magnificence, that one of your guards hide from us and I will attempt to track him?”
Tilting his head, Tarik considers. He nods, and a smile breaks across his face. “Would either of you like to volunteer?” he says to the guards, who look at each other, then one shrugs and agrees.
Ruari finds the stillness and studies the guard’s mind. There is no sense leaving the game up to chance, after all. While they wait in the clearing, Ruari gets up and goes to stand in front of a bush. He flicks his tunic to the side and unlaces his breeches, taking the warm weight of his cock in one hand and tilting his hips.
“The king hasn’t given you permission to relieve yourself in his presence, mud-man,” says the guard.
Ruari frowns, drops his cock and turns around. “Your magnificence?”
Tarik had been sitting on the log looking absently into the wood; he turns and his gaze drops to Ruari’s crotch. Although the tunic covers most of his cock, Ruari is sure the head is visible. He feels a blush climbing up his chest and neck and forces himself to stay still. Eventually, Tarik says, “Permission granted.”
Hurriedly, Ruari turns around, but his pounding heart and the tension lower down make urinating difficult. He sighs with relief when his bladder finally releases.
When he has tucked himself in, he turns around and says, “We could start to follow the guard now, your magnificence.”
Tarik still looks distracted. He stands and rolls his left ankle around the socket. “Yes, let’s get on with it,” he says.
The guard is easy to track. Even if his mind weren’t lit up in Ruari’s consciousness like a lighthouse beacon, he has left a path through the thick undergrowth that a five-year-old could follow. Ruari gets caught up in the chase; the king’s guards have been bastards to him since he arrived, and he is looking forward to besting this one.
Periodically, he stops to show Tarik an impression in the grass, or some damaged leaves. He is briefly stymied by a creek bed but picks up the guard’s trail on the other side. Tarik struggles across the creek and leans against a tree, thumb pressed into the meat of his left knee. Ruari opens his mouth to suggest they rest, but the king gives him such a dangerous look that he swallows the words. They continue at a slower pace, Ruari now painfully aware of the king’s faltering steps behind him. He can hear each breath hissing in through Tarik’s teeth. He ignores it for a while, certain Tarik would not want his weakness pointed out to him.
Then he hears Tarik make a small noise of pain. In the next clearing, he stops near the trunk of a fallen tree.
“What is it?” says Tarik.
“I’ve lost the trail,” says Ruari, looking around. “Please allow me a moment.” He gestures to the tree trunk. “Perhaps you might like to sit down.”
“The trail is over there,” Tarik snaps, gesturing, “even I can see that.”
Ruari bites his lip. “So it is,” he says. “You have sharp eyes, your magnificence.”
“Sharp eyes and a damned useless leg. Can’t fight, can’t run, can’t even walk down the street without embarrassing myself. What kind of—” Tarik bites off the rest of the rest of the sentence, eyebrows drawn low and lips pressed together. He limps over to the log and sits down.
“Do you want to continue?” says Ruari.
“Yes.” After a moment, Tarik stands. He takes a step and winces. “Damn, damn it all. Thrice damn it.”
“Sire, can I assist you?” says the guard.
“Send for my horse,” Tarik mumbles, then shouts, “send for my horse, damn you!” He sits down too heavily for one so young. “And find Arnik. The hunt is over.”
“Shouldn’t the slave go for your horse? Who will defend you?”
Tarik has his elbows on his knees, his face covered by one hand. “Look at him. He could probably defeat you and Arnik if he had a mind to.”
“Yes, sire,” says the guard, standing up straight, all affronted pride. “I will go at once, sire.”
When the guard is gone, the forest is quiet. Ruari stands a few paces away from Tarik, who still has one hand over his face. At length, he says, “Have you ever been sick a day in your life?”
“Yes,” Ruari answers carefully, “before I was sold for a slave.”
Tarik tilts his head up so he’s looking at Ruari through his fingers. “It is easy to forget you’re a slave, Rian. Especially when you’re not parading around in that loincloth with my brand on your arm for all to see.”
“I fell from a tree and broke my leg,” Ruari says, trying to distract from the fact that his hand had instinctively gone up to touch the brand when Tarik mentioned it. “I caught a fever and nearly died.”
“The leg healed, though.”
“Mine didn’t, you see. I have some movement, but the muscles are so damned weak, and the joints don’t work as they should. Bayanis want a king who fights and hunts, and wins tournaments, and goes in to battle at the head of the army.” He pauses. “I couldn’t do that. The moment I was unhorsed, I’d be dead.”
Ruari doesn’t reply. He crosses the gap between them, pausing two paces away from the king. “Permission to step close, your magnificence?”
Frowning, Tarik says, “Granted. Why?”
“The woodkin use a technique of applying pressure to points of the body to bring about relief of pain. Ni…my teacher was not an expert medic, but she taught me a little.”
Tarik is sitting up straight, his head tilted. “All right,” he says.
Crouching in front of the king, Ruari removes his left boot and straightens the leg. He cradles Tarik’s ankle in his hand and then begins to work his way up the leg, applying pressure as he goes. Tarik twists and winces when Ruari touches a thumb to the flesh underneath his kneecap, so Ruari circles around that spot, kneading the back of Tarik’s knee and the soft flesh above that. He barely notices himself becoming aroused, until the moment when he looks up from his ministrations and realises he is less than two handspans from Tarik’s cock, which is tenting the fabric of his loose breeches.
Ruari looks up at Tarik, the man—boy, really—who commands the entire realm of Bayan, from the mountains in the north to Sedmood in the south, and the conquered islands in the strait. Everything seems to still. His hands move almost of their own accord up Tarik’s thigh until Ruari is crouching between Tarik’s legs, his face at chest height. Tarik bows his shoulders and their foreheads touch. If Ruari just lifted his chin a little higher, they would be kissing.
He feels Tarik’s breath against his lips and tilts his head. Tarik’s hand is resting against his cheek, fingers curling in the hair behind his ear.
“This is not a good idea,” says Tarik, and leans away. “Resume your distance.” The words are hoarse and forced.
Ruari stands and steps back. “Why?” he says.
Rubbing his hand across his eyes, Tarik inhales and releases a long breath. He gives Ruari a deeply ironic look and doesn’t reply.
“Because I’m a slave?” Ruari crosses his arms. “It can’t be so wrong. They have had me on a bench preparing me for you every day since I arrived.”
Tarik looks down and to the left, more like a tired child than a king. “I will tell the steward that is unnecessary.”
“My thanks, your magnificence,” says Ruari, because sarcasm seems safer than honesty.
The guards bring Tarik’s horse, and they begin the journey back to the palace. They don’t pause at the pavilion, and the attendants must pack up all the food they painstakingly brought and prepared. Ruari assumes it will be given to the servants now, or perhaps the dogs.
Tarik does not indicate that Ruari should be shackled and leashed. As they walk through the sloping streets of Sennet, Ruari thinks he should just run, and vanish into the crowds. He knows everything he needs to about King Tarik, doesn’t he?
In the slave quarters they take away his tunic, breeches, and boots, and put the shackles around his wrists and ankles once again.
* * *
Ruari has been expecting Nikelle for a week, but she hasn’t come to see him. Then, a few days after the visit to the forest, he realises there is a man walking beside him down the corridor.
“Kealan,” he says, and stops. There is nobody nearby. “Where is Nikelle?”
“Are you looked for?” says Kealan. “Moire needs to speak with you.”
“I can come with you now; the king is abed.” He pauses. “No shirt?”
“No.” There is an echo of amusement on Kealan’s schooled features. “My apologies.”
The bittersweet still fogs Ruari’s mind, but with Kealan’s help he manages to reach the still place through it, and other than the fact that they must instruct every mind they meets that there is nothing remarkable about a loinclothed, shackled man walking through the streets of Sennet holding hands with a dangerous-looking woodkin, he reaches Lady Moire’s house without incident.
She is sitting in the parlour when they arrive. “Thank you for coming to see me,” is all she says, gesturing him to sit.
“Could I trouble you for a blanket?” says Ruari.
“Of course.” Moire steps out of the room and returns presently. “Unfortunately, neither Kealan nor I are as handy with a skeleton key as Nikelle.”
Ruari drapes the blanket over his shoulders and sits down. “Has something happened?”
Lady Moire frowns. “Yes,” she says. “I would have sent Kealan to you sooner, but he shadowed Nikelle far enough to establish what she was doing.”
Raising her eyebrows, Lady Moire says, “Well, I did warn you, Ruari. The Ashwood clan and their allies are mustering at the southern margin of the Ashwood.”
Ruari leans back. “Damn it.”
Lady Moire lets the silence settle. “What would you like to do, my king?” she says eventually.
Ruari was sixteen when he finally unravelled the secret of his birth. He had always preferred action to thought. He was good with a sword and good with the forest tracks. His knack made getting pastries or escaping from lessons simple. His world was bounded and comfortable, and rarely did anything vex him.
For a few years after Lady Moire posed the riddle of his birth he had barely thought of it. But as he grew up he became aware of the world beyond Alles Lynn: the world of the king, of counts and countesses, the woodkin and halfbreeds, and all the unkind names and insinuations heaped on him as long as he could remember. He somehow understood that the secret of his birth was tied in to these greater things and that his comfortable existence was an illusion with a great big question at its core.
He thought of what Lady Moire had said: when he was old enough to figure out who he was, he would be old enough to know. Reluctantly, he fixed his mind to the problem, approaching it the same way he would track a deer through the forest.
He began to follow the threads of his life backwards. His woad hair and pale blue eyes; his nondescript guardians; Lady Moire, who had been King Sinan’s mistress. The boys in the village said that he must be her bastard son. He thought the forest blood ran too strong in him for him to be her son with a Bayani. So he wasn’t the king’s bastard from Lady Moire. Then why had he grown up hidden and secret? Why could he not live with at Lakecastle?
He must be of some value. The woodkin were interested in him. Not just the woodkin, but the Ashwood clan. Nikelle had travelled all the way to Alles Lynn to teach him. Nikelle, who had said she was a friend of his mother’s.
Lady Moire had been the king’s mistress, and his trusted friend. But Ruari was not the king’s bastard. He was not the king’s bastard….
Some weeks later, as he was drifting off to sleep, he figured it out. He sat up, wide open eyes searching the darkness. He was…. His mind shied away from the enormity of the thought. He followed the track again. Had he turned wrong somewhere?
Lady Moire visited a few weeks later and Ruari could barely wait until they were alone before he burst out with, “I know who I am.”
“I see,” said Lady Moire politely. “And who are you?”
“I’m the king’s son. King Sinan, I mean.” He sucked his bottom lip between his teeth. He had thought it so many times, tested the words in his mind. It sounded absurd to say it.
“His bastard? Don’t be silly.”
Ruari straightened his shoulders. “No, not his bastard. His legitimate son and heir. Queen Iseal was my mother. I am the rightful king of Bayan.”
“Did Nikelle tell you this?” said Lady Moire.
“No, I figured it out,” tucking his chin into his chest, Ruari added, “from things you and Nikelle said.”
“You have to understand that legally I am your mother, and Kealan is your father. That is what was entered into the register.” Lady Moire smoothed an edge of the coverlet. “A lie, within a lie, within a lie, in the hope the curious would reach the second lie and be satisfied.”
Ruari frowned. Following this conversation was like tracking a woodkin through their own forest. “You expected people to realise that I was connected to you, despite my being fostered away from Lake Castle.”
Lady Moire inclined her head. “Of course.”
“Then, the obvious solution is that I am your bastard, and you don’t want the shame of having me nearby.”
“Yes, the foolish and prurient have always been satisfied by that rumour.”
“But why would King Sinan give you a county if you had borne another man’s child while his mistress?”
“And so we reach the third lie.”
“That I am a bastard of royal blood, and you were sent away to….” He hesitated.
“To spare Queen Iseal the pain, of course.”
Ruari nodded. “Because by the terms of their marriage settlement and the promise made by King Sinan to the Bayani people, there would be no halfbreed child to sully the line of kings.” He felt the bitter twist to his mouth.
“But there was.” Lady Moire leaned across and put her hand under Ruari’s chin. “The Queen and I went into hiding for half a year, putting it about that her brother was terribly ill. When you were born, Kealan and I took you to be registered as our child, and Queen Iseal returned to the palace.”
“So I am the rightful king of Bayan.”
“The legality is complicated. You certainly have a claim to the throne. Some people may choose to acknowledge it. But you would have to win the crown by blood and war, Ruari. The woodkin would likely rise to your banner, and thousands of them would be slaughtered. The new King Tarik is your cousin—you would have to kill him, and your uncle Osman. Many you care about would die.” Lady Moire sighed. “Your parents hid you to save you, and Bayan, from a bloody war of succession and constant civil unrest. I believe you must be given the choice what your destiny will be, but that does not mean I do not think your parents were incorrect in their decision. Nobody but you can decide whether your birthright is worth the blood you will spend to buy it.”
“So what should I do?”
“Rest,” said Lady Moire, “there is no need to do anything now.”
Looking around the parlour in Lady Moire’s house in Sennet, Ruari thinks that that was always her advice: You will only have one chance, Ruari. You must be patient and careful.
But there is a niggle in his chest that taunts him with What if and If I were. If he delays so long that he never reaches for the crown, will he regret it? He left the lakes and insinuated himself into the king’s slave pens because of the belief that any decision would be better than whimpering, fading inaction that would make the choice for him.
And now, another thought. Would he be a good king? Is this a decision he should make on behalf of the realm of Bayan? He thinks of Tarik sitting on the throne for hours listening to petitions, the late nights he spends poring over plans for this bridge or that market square, or increasing the size of the city watch. Tarik has been trained to that; Ruari has been trained to breed hounds and hide in trees.
Nikelle, who was his mother’s friend, believes he should take the crown. She waits with her woodkin army for him to ride out of the forest and declare himself the trueborn heir of King Sinan of Bayan and Queen Iseal of the Ashwood. He would be able to make things better for the woodkin and halfbreeds. End the restrictions on woodkin trading in the market squares and stand against the racism and prejudice of the Bayanis. Give the woodkin a place in the court of Bayan, and status, and power.
Lady Moire sits opposite, her hands folded in her lap, neat as a doll.
Ruari looks up at the panelled ceiling and says, “How long until King Tarik knows about the woodkin army?”
“He will know within the day,” says Kealan. “I raced the royal messenger back here.”
Standing, Ruari says, “I have to get back to the palace.”
* * *
There are people milling around in the corridor outside Tarik’s chamber. They are dressed in brocade robes and carry scrolls, and they are talking urgently to each other. When Ruari walks into the anteroom, the guards both stand. “Where’ve you been? His magnificence has been looking for you.”
“In the slave quarters,” says Ruari. “Is the king not asleep?”
“Nowhere anyone could find you,” says a guard, “and no, he was woken by some news. He refuses to see his councillors until he is dressed. You’d best get in there, mud-man. Seems as if it’s going to be a long night.” He puts his shoulder to the door, and Ruari slips through.
Tarik is sitting at his desk, in his nightshirt. He looks up when Ruari enters. “Where have you damn well been?” he demands.
“In the slave quarters. I did not realise you were looking for me.”
Standing, Tarik holds out his arms. “I need to dress. Now.”
“As you wish, your magnificence.” Ruari hesitates. “The guard said you had had news.”
“Yes.” There is something sharp and brittle about Tarik tonight. “There is a woodkin army marching south. My men reported there was unrest, but nothing that would indicate they would raise their banners so soon.” Ruari keeps his gaze around Tarik’s knees and helps him out of his night shirt. He cannot see Tarik’s expression as the king says, “My advisors are waiting outside to tell me I must call an army and put down the rebellion once and for all.”
Ruari kneels to begin buttoning up the outer robe. Tarik shifts from foot to foot, making Ruari’s task difficult.
“What would you do, Rian?”
Startled, Ruari looks up. “I beg your pardon, your magnificence?”
Tarik’s eyes glitter as he looks down at Ruari. “My advisors will say that I should kill as many as I can on the battlefield, and give no quarter to the rest.” He holds eye contact with Ruari, whose hands have stilled on the buttons. “But they are all Bayani, at least to me. I do not want to slaughter my own subjects. Stand up.” He gestures and Ruari stands up and steps back. Tarik begins to button his own robe. “So what would you do? Imagine you are King of Bayan.”
Ruari hides a wry smile.
“You may look at me.” Ruari finds Tarik’s gaze intently focused on him. “You are king, faced with an army of your own people that does not acknowledge your kingship and a figurehead who wishes to snatch your crown.”
The words tumble out. “Your magnificence, the woodkin can be brought to peace. They are oppressed and powerless. You say they are your subjects, but they cannot fight for Bayan, or sell goods in Bayani cities.”
“Is that what you promised them, cousin?”
The world seems to still, and all air is sucked out of the room. “What did you call me?” says Ruari slowly. Then, “How long have you known?”
“About you?” Tarik crosses his arms. “My uncle the king told me a few weeks before he died. Only that he had a son, a legitimate heir, and that Lady Moire was your guardian. He made me promise to leave you in peace and not to harm you, unless your actions made it necessary.” Tarik uncrosses one arm to wave his hand. “Then a woodkin slave came to me: a slave who had none of the manner or training I would expect from one who spent half his life in servitude. From the lakes county no less. Of course I made enquiries, and learned about the halfbreed boy everyone thought was Lady Moire’s bastard.”
He beckons Ruari over to a long mirror hidden by a curtain and pulls the curtain back. “And then, of course, there is a certain family resemblance between us.”
He steps beside Ruari and looks into the mirror. Ruari studies them both; their colouring is different, a legacy of Ruari’s woodkin mother, and he is a little taller and broader than King Tarik, but he sees the resemblance, in the line of nose and jaw, and something around the mouth.
Tarik nods and steps away, pulling the drape down over the mirror again. “Ruari, is that your name?”
Ruari bows his head. “I came to explain.”
“About your army?” Tarik’s voice rises, and he controls it with visible effort.
“I didn’t raise the woodkin army.”
“But they have mustered on your behalf.”
Ruari nods. “I fear so. Take me north with you, your magnificence. I will convince them to disband. No blood need be shed.”
The king laughs bitterly. “And ride one of my horses, and stay in the houses of my counts along the way? No, I think not. If you wish to join your army, you will have to take a rougher path. And,” he rubs his hand across his forehead, “of course, you will have to break out of my dungeon.”
“No,” says Ruari. He steps close, too quickly for Tarik to react, and puts his thumb and fingers on either side of Tarik’s jaw, wrapping his other arm around the king’s shoulders. They are pressed hip-to-hip, Tarik’s arms trapped between them. Tarik scowls up at him. “If you knew who I was, why have you allowed yourself to be alone with me?”
They are so close that Ruari could as easily turn Tarik’s head up and kiss him as he could break his neck. He feels Tarik struggling like the tremors of a bird trapped in the cage of his hands.
“Ruari,” said Tarik, the name thrumming through Ruari’s hand against his voicebox, “do you think I’m a fool? We have never been alone together.”
At some signal Ruari doesn’t see, two guards burst in from the balcony, and another out of what Ruari had always assumed was a storage closet at the far end of the room.
He feels rather than hears Tarik’s laughter. “So are you finally going to do what you came here for, Ruari?”
Ruari releases the king and steps back. Within a moment, the guards have him: he is forced to his knees, arms twisted sharply behind his back. He looks for the still place but cannot find it—a combination of the bittersweet and his thoughts running too fast to catch.
Tarik paces the floor, his limp overtaken by the fury of his movements. “Take him to the dungeon and put him in one of the standing cells.” He turns. “Send someone to Lady Moire’s house and arrest her as well. I will deal with them both when I return.” A dismissive double wave, and Tarik turns towards his desk.
“Tarik,” says Ruari. A guard cuffs his ear and sets it ringing. “In the forest, were we alone then?”
Looking at him sideways, almost in silhouette in the light thrown from the lamp on his desk, Tarik lets out a long breath and says, “Yes, we were alone then.”
* * *
After a night and day of alternately standing and hanging from his bruised and bleeding wrists, clamped into wall manacles, Ruari’s mind is clear enough to entice the guard to unlock the irons and give him some clothes.
As he jogs along the corridor, light slants through the narrow, east-facing windows. Did Tarik leave last night? Or is he mustering in the bailey now and preparing to ride out? The Count of the Plains has most of his liegemen in a town about five leagues north of Sennet; if Ruari were in Tarik’s position—an ironic smile tilts his lip—he would ride and collect those men, then wait for the Counts of the Rocks and the North Watch to muster their men further north.
He finds Lady Moire in altogether nicer accommodation up one floor, with a bed, sofa, and writing desk. She is seated on the sofa with a book, and looks up when the cell door is unlocked. “Oh, good morning, Ruari,” she says. “I thought I might see you.”
“You are unharmed?” says Ruari.
Lady Moire smiles. “Who would harm me?” she replies.
“Good, then we should go.”
“Oh no.” She leans back against the sofa and shakes her head. “You need to leave immediately to ride north. I do not like hard riding, and so will follow at a more dignified pace.” She tilts her head. “I suppose I will come north, although I do not like the Ashwood at this time of year.”
“I’m not leaving without you,” says Ruari.
“Don’t be absurd, of course you are. But do be a dear: go by the house and tell Kealan to come and get me. If necessary, Lakecastle can bring a thousand men to your service within about a week, so if you must flee Tarik’s forces before I arrive, flee west.”
Ruari hesitates for a moment then throws up his hands. “Yes, Lady Moire,” he says.
“Run along.” She shoos him out of the room and returns to her reading.
Riding one of Lady Moire’s horses, Ruari catches and overtakes Tarik’s army within a day. It is a week’s ride, or more like ten days’ march, to the bottom of the northwoods, of which the Ashwood is the southernmost. He rides alongside the high road, and sleeps wrapped in a cloak wherever he can find cover. He thinks about Tarik and the soft way he had said, We were alone then, as though he knew why Ruari had stayed in Sennet so long.
As he rides, he starts to notice families with carts of goods travelling south. When he reaches the last Bayani town, about four leagues south of the forest, he understands why. The main street is quiet; the market is boarded up. Those who have remained are shut up inside their houses.
Alternately cantering and walking the horse to conserve her strength enables them both to reach the Ashwood exhausted and dirty, but little the worse for wear. The forest rises from grassland punctuated by copses of trees. Some of the locals would usually graze cattle up here, but Ruari suspects most of the cattle have been moved south of the village.
He hears the woodkin encampment before he sees it. That in itself is unusual, but the woodkin evidently want their presence to be known this time. He dismounts and is stopped by a sentry who demands he identify himself. After a brief interrogation about his past and what clan allegiance he might claim, he is escorted into the encampment. The rows of tents branching out from a central command area are more Bayani than woodkin; Tarik is going to learn nothing of his adversaries from seeing their camp.
Nikelle comes to meet him. They exchange pleasantries; she asks after Lady Moire’s health. Ruari dryly replies she is imprisoned but appears in good spirits. Nikelle looks more amused than repentant. Talk moves to Tarik’s army marching north. Ruari, who has taken a seat on a log outside the command tent, leans forward. “Nikelle, I am not fighting with you.”
Raising her eyebrows, Nikelle says, “That is your choice.” She stands. “Come with me.” They circle around to a nondescript tent and Nikelle crouches down. “Your highness,” she says, “Ruari is here.”
There is a rustling, then an elderly woodkin pushes out of the tent and stands up. “Well,” he says, “Ruari, it is good to meet you. I am your grandfather.”
Shaking, Ruari takes his outstretched hand. “It is an honour to meet you, your highness.”
“Don’t call me that,” says the high king of the woodkin. “It makes the southerner very cross.”
“Your…” Ruari stops. “Sir, why have you brought an army out of the forest?”
“Crown Prince Gearalt, the son of my eldest son, is dead,” says the high king. “He was killed by men owing allegiance to the Count of the North Watch about three weeks ago.”
“Oh, I am sorry. Who is heir to the woodkin now?”
The high king tilts his head. “By the lore, you are.”
“Me? Oh damn,” says Ruari, then winces.
“Indeed.” Nikelle shifts her weight.
Ruari looks at the high king and discovers the old man is studying him closely. “So the clans have mustered to seek revenge for Prince Gearalt’s death?”
The high king nods. “We cannot tolerate Bayani patrols in the northwoods, or Bayani interference in our affairs. They are a bloody people, and they will make us bleed, again and again. The woodkin will never be safe until we are free. For all King Sinan’s promises and treaties, Gearalt’s death proves that again.”
“I see.” Ruari ducks his head. “I—King Tarik thinks you mean to march south and depose him for me.”
Nikelle leans forward, frowning. “The king knows who you are?”
“He has known for some time,” says Ruari, grimacing. “Almost since the beginning.” Nikelle looks at the high king, who looks at Ruari. The silence stretches, and Ruari’s gorge rises as he realises the truth.
“That would explain the increased presence of North Watch men in the Ashwood,” says Nikelle quietly.
“Damn,” says Ruari. All words are inadequate.
The high king says nothing. Into the silence, Nikelle says, “Well, since you’re here, Ruari, do you wish to summon the clans to your banner? Do you actually want the throne of Bayan? If so, I must point out that you have done the cause a disservice by not disposing of King Tarik while you were busy shining his shoes and brushing his hair.”
“I know. I couldn’t do it. Tarik is a good man trying to do the right thing.”
“Is it the right thing to let his counts kill woodkin indiscriminately without consequence?” says the high king, clasping his hands tight together as if he imagines Tarik’s neck between them. “We demand reparation and will take it by force if we must.”
“Sometimes… King Tarik does not know what the right thing to do is. But he will not want to fight, not when I explain to him what has happened. He will treat with you fairly.”
“He will let the woodkin take the whole northwoods and secede?” says the high king, a twist to his mouth.
“No, not that, but…”
The high king waves his hand and dismisses them both until the morning.
Nikelle takes Ruari’s arm and tugs him aside. “You could make the king agree to the secession of the northwoods,” she pauses, then adds, “or I could.”
Instinctively, Ruari puts his hands up, denying. “No, that won’t be necessary.”
* * *
King Tarik arrives two days later, at the head of an army comprised of all the counties between the capital and the northwoods. It is perhaps four times the size of the woodkin force. The army stops less than a league from the woodkin and scouts report that they are putting up banners and making camp.
Ruari has spent the intervening days among the woodkin army. He knows the lot of halfbreeds raised in Bayan. Now he learns of the purges of the forests during Tarik’s grandfather’s reign: the burning of the Oakwood and the Cypress Groves, the murder and forced deportation of whole clans.
The woodkin are weak compared to their conquerors. They have suffered centuries of abuse because they had not the capacity to fight the counts. Even King Sinan’s promise of peace, safety, and equality still couldn’t countenance the idea of woodkin blood in the royal line of Bayan.
Ruari has made his decision. It is time that the pieces were moved to force a fair game, so he is going to give the woodkin the weapon they need: himself.
The high king is alone when Ruari is ushered into his presence.
“Ruari was the name your mother chose for you, you know,” he says. “A good old name. There have been four high kings named Ruari.”
Ruari puts his hands out on the table. On one is the king’s brand; on the other, the first designs, drawn with ink and brush, of a clan tattoo.”Your highness,” says Ruari, “I wish to seek your recognition of my claim by right of blood to be Crown Prince of the woodkin.”
The high king reaches across the table and clasps Ruari’s hands. “It is a joy to welcome home the only child of my beautiful Iseal,” he says.
* * *
Tarik’s tent is the size of his chamber at Sennet, but mostly given over to a long table covered with maps and notes about troops and supplies. Ruari recognises the table, rugs, hangings and sideboard as having been carted here from the palace. At the head of the long table is Tarik’s throne, and behind it a heavy red curtain shields Tarik’s private quarters.
Tarik sleeps on his back, propped up, one hand thrown above his head. The room is dark save for the guttering light from a banked fire in an iron stove, which puffs its smoke up a pipe and out of the roof of the tent.
Slipping over to Tarik’s bedside, Ruari crouches beside the boy king. “Your magnificence,” he whispers, “wake up.”
Tarik doesn’t rouse immediately. Ruari puts his hand on Tarik’s shoulder and shakes him, snatching his hand away when he sees Tarik’s brow crinkle. “Wake up,” he says again. “We need to talk.”
“What…” Tarik says, eyes still closed. “How dare you?” His lashes drift up and he seeks through the darkness for the intruder.
“It’s Ruari. Don’t summon the guard. We need to talk.”
“Ruari.” Tarik is awake and sitting up. “Have you come to kill me at last? When I heard you had escaped I knew I would be seeing you.”
“I don’t want to kill you,” says Ruari. “I don’t want anybody to die. I’m trying to prevent a war.”
Tarik frowns and looks around for his robe, which Ruari hands to him. Putting it on, Tarik says, “I do feel rather naked next to you in your leathers and guards.” He climbs out of bed and goes across to a little table set with three chairs on the other side of the stove.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” says Ruari, sitting down opposite Tarik. Tarik fidgets with the toggles on his robe, and Ruari has to clasp his hands together to stop himself reaching over and fastening them for him.
“Yes, and what is that? The woodkin have acknowledged you as King of Bayan at last?”
“No,” says Ruari with a wry smile. “They have acknowledged me as crown prince of the woodkin. Crown Prince Gearalt was killed by North Watch men just under a month ago. That is why the woodkin have armed. They want justice.”
Tarik frowns like there are several things in this speech he wants to respond to. “Lord Evhad’s men killed the woodkin heir?” he says.
“Yes. And the woodkin do not trust you to punish him.”
“And now you are the woodkin heir, by virtue of your mother’s blood.”
“Queen Iseal’s blood, yes.”
“Which means that it will shortly be known throughout the kingdom that you are the heir to both people.”
“The woodkin have acknowledged my claim,” says Ruari. “It is up to the Bayanis whether they do likewise.”
Tarik narrows his eyes. “And if I do not make terms with the woodkin and punish Evhad for the death of the heir, then you will test my people’s allegiance to me, is that correct?”
“I—that is about the shape of it, your magnificence,” says Ruari, startled by Tarik’s quickness.
“Oh, stop putting on the airs of the slave,” says Tarik irritably. “We both know you never were one.”
“I have a mark that says otherwise.” Ruari follows Tarik’s gaze down to his inner arm, then across to his left shoulder, where the woodkin tattooists have begun inking his clan tattoo.
“That is not the only mark you bear. What are your demands?”
“That is for the high king to negotiate with you,” says Ruari. “I could advise you, if you were willing to hear me.”
“But you will sit on his side of the table tomorrow.”
“All right,” says Tarik, “advise me on the woodkin. That is, after all, why I brought you into my service.”
“The woodkin wish to secede from Bayan entirely. You must recognise that they are as much a people of Bayan as the Lakes or the Rocks or the North Watch.”
“Make the northwoods a county, you mean?” says Tarik.
“Give the woodkin something else to call the high king. Make him Count of the Northwoods. End the tithes and the ban on woodkin trading and let woodkin warriors fight alongside men from the other counties. You will give him a voice to speak on behalf of his people, and know that it is being heard.”
“Count of the Northwoods,” says Tarik. “And this title would flow to you in time.”
Ruari makes a denying gesture. “This isn’t about me.”
A queer smile twists Tarik’s lips. “And do I have your undertaking that you will not press your claim on my throne?”
“I want a bloody civil war as little as you do,” says Ruari. It feels like making a decision, and he breathes deeply. “I am trying to find a path through this mess to peace for all Bayanis. How could I claim they were my people if I had climbed over their slaughtered bodies to take the throne?”
Tarik nods. “That is enough for now. I will send a runner out tomorrow morning to open negotiations. Do not think you will get everything you want.”
“No,” says Ruari, “I know that is impossible.” There is a lump in his throat and a shuddering feeling in his stomach.
The silence hangs between them. Tarik is still, his gaze turned to the grain of the table between them, his hands resting mere inches from Ruari’s. “How in the world did you escape my dungeons?” says Tarik. “And Lady Moire, who I understand walked out herself several hours after you.”
“I will tell you one day,” says Ruari. Forcing air into constricted lungs, he says, “You keep asking me why I haven’t killed you. I could ask you the same. I was in your power—more defenceless than you know. You had a thousand opportunities to rid yourself of me.”
Tarik looks up with a lopsided smile that fades to something else before it reaches his eyes. “That is the question, isn’t it?” He stands up. “Thank you, Ruari. I will see you tomorrow.”
Dismissed as effectively as if he had still been a slave, Ruari watches Tarik’s limping progress across the room, then he slips through the curtain and makes his way back to the woodkin encampment.
* * *
The next morning brings the runner as Tarik promised, a tent set up in a field between the two armies, and Lady Moire riding serenely into the woodkin encampment. She greets the high king with a tilted head and the acknowledgement, “It is a pleasure to finally meet you, your highness.”
“And you, Lady Moire of the Lakes. I have heard a great deal about you. ”
Lady Moire looks amused. “My man is riding to Lakecastle now to prepare my household forces in case they should be needed. Mostly halfbreeds, of course, but there is something to be said for hybrid vigour.”
She greets the news of Ruari’s elevation to crown prince of the woodkin placidly, and with a hint of deepening amusement, and immediately talks her way into the tent for negotiations with the Bayanis, which are to be over lunch.
Ruari says, “I am glad you’re going to be there.”
Lady Moire puts her knuckle under his chin and replies, “I wasn’t going to miss the final move of a game I have been playing for nigh twenty-three years, Ruari.” She tilts her head. Ruari is about to excuse himself when Lady Moire puts out her hand and says, “Everyone at that table will have an agenda. Don’t make the mistake of thinking they wear it on their sleeve like you do yours.”
The pavilion is open-sided. The table from Tarik’s tent has been brought out, with eight chairs around it. When all are seated, a servant pours wine and leaves the decanter on the table before he and the guards all step the required twenty paces from the table. Tarik sits at the head, with the high king at the other end, Ruari on his right and Nikelle on his left. Lady Moire is beside Ruari. Opposite her is Lord Yunus of the Plains. The remaining three places are filled by Tarik’s advisors. The sun is high in the sky and there is a light breeze blowing.
Tarik looks quickly at Ruari as he sits down. He begins by saying, “I have recently heard of the death of your grandson. Please allow me to give you my condolences.”
The high king inclines his head and doesn’t reply.
* * *
They all rise from the table when the light fades and the evening turns cold. The day has not gone well. All Ruari’s optimism from the morning is gone. Tarik has barely spoken, and his advisors were bullish and unyielding. Lord Evhad has told them that Gearalt strayed beyond the northwoods; accordingly, there will be no retribution. The woodkin will disband and pay compensation to the king and his counts for costs incurred in mobilising their liegemen.
Ruari says, “King Tarik, do you agree with this?”
“I trust the judgement of my advisors,” Tarik replies neutrally.
The high king is white with fury as he stalks back to the encampment. He shouts to Nikelle, “Prepare our men. We fight at dawn.”
Nikelle had looked bored most of the day, gazing across the fields. She says, “Better to delay, your highness. In a week, Lady Moire’s men will join us.”
“I cannot abide another day of such insults,” says the high king.
Lady Moire tugs Ruari away from the others. “You got into the Bayani camp last night, didn’t you?”
“Nikelle has tampered with King Tarik’s mind. You need to get in and undo it.”
“What? No, she wouldn’t have. I told her not to,” says Ruari.
“Boy, when you have lived as long as I have with knacky halfbreeds, you will learn the signs. Did King Tarik’s behaviour seem odd to you?”
Ruari frowns. “Yes. I assumed his advisors had changed his mind.”
“All he would ever say was, I trust the judgement of my advisors. Whenever he was asked for his opinion. Did he strike you as a trusting person?”
Ruari bites his lip. “No, quite the reverse. But I only knew him for two months. Nikelle I have known almost my entire life. She would never lie to me. Besides, why would she influence Tarik to let his advisors walk all over us?”
“Think about it, Ruari.”
Frowning, Ruari closes his eyes and works his way through the patterns. “She wants a war?” Lady Moire doesn’t reply, so Ruari works his way along that thought. “She wants a delay until your men arrive. But we will still be outnumbered.”
“My men are a unique force,” says Lady Moire.
“Many of them.”
“So you think Nikelle is engineering a war where the halfbreed knacks will neutralise the Bayanis’ advantage of numbers.” Ruari opens his eyes and looks at her incredulously. “I think you spent too much time intriguing when you were young.” He stops and calls, “Nikelle!”
She stands a little way away, taking off her leathers. “Yes, boy?”
Ruari beckons. When Nikelle has joined them, he says, “Did you use your knack on King Tarik today?”
“No, of course not. You asked me not to, otherwise I would have.” She curls up her lip. “The woodkin pay compensation for the privilege of having Bayani swords waved at us?”
“See?” Ruari turns to Lady Moire and raises his eyebrows.
Lady Moire is looking at Nikelle, her chin tucked in and her arms crossed. “I am not having my men used for your vendetta,” she says. “If Ruari has no need for them, I will take them all back to Lakecastle and leave the woodkin to die on Bayani blades.”
“You wouldn’t.” Nikelle pushes out her chin.
“Why should halfbreeds die for the high king and his ilk? You have managed to … talk your way into the high king’s good graces, but how many has he rescued from alleys, brothels and mines? Because none of my men and women even know his name.”
Ruari rubs his forehead with one hand. “So you did lie to me,” he says to Nikelle, “and you tampered with the king’s mind against my instruction.”
“We will prove our value if we fight,” says Nikelle. “Besides, Moire is hardly innocent. She knew you had gone to Sennet and she waited a month to follow. She wanted you to stay there and go soft on Tarik so you would give up on claiming your birthright.”
Lady Moire throws up her hands in disgust.
“I will go now and undo your work on King Tarik,” says Ruari to Nikelle. He looks at Lady Moire. “And you—I know I cannot follow the twists and turns of your mind, but you need to stop leading me around by the nose. I am tired of walking into scenes you have orchestrated for me.” He frowns. “You are both banned from coming within one hundred paces of the discussions tomorrow.”
“Ruari,” says Lady Moire.
“You can’t do that,” says Nikelle.
“I am crown prince of the woodkin,” Ruari says. The words feel right. “And you will keep your distance.”
It takes him some time to calm down enough to find the still place so that he can walk through the Bayani camp unmolested. He reaches Tarik’s tent just as Tarik is finishing dinner, and mentally dismisses the servants. Tarik looks up as they leave and frowns. Then he sees Ruari.
“Good evening,” he says. “Have you come to have dinner with me, cousin?”
“No,” says Ruari. “Please, trust me for a moment. There is something I need to do.”
Tarik hesitates, then nods. Ruari gestures him to a chair and crouches in front of him, placing his hands on Tarik’s temples as Nikelle used to do when she was teaching him the knack. He closes his eyes and breaths in and out, then finds Tarik’s mind with his own. It isn’t so simple as overlaying Nikelle’s suggestion with another. He goes deep into Tarik’s mind, which looks like the pages of a book written in an unknown language, and finds the line that doesn’t fit. When it is gone, he opens his eyes.
“What did you do?” says Tarik.
“I will explain it to you one day,” Ruari replies. “But now isn’t the time. How do you feel?”
“Like today went very badly.” Tarik rubs his hands across his face. “I don’t know why I let those idiots say the things they did.”
“Don’t worry about it,” says Ruari. “Tomorrow is another day.” His hands have drifted down to rest against Tarik’s jaw. His work is done. Tarik is free of Nikelle’s influence, and Ruari is cast adrift. He is like a sailor on a ship who has woken to find himself far out at sea and tossed by storms. Lady Moire and Nikelle. Bayani and woodkin. His mother and father. The high king. Tarik.
Tomorrow, he will have to face these things again. Tonight, he has reached the end of his self-control. He has been near Tarik for months, has felt the heat of Tarik’s skin and smelled the scent of his hair and clothes. He wants his lips against Tarik’s; he wants Tarik’s hands on his body.
Tarik’s shallow breathing is in tune with Ruari’s. “What are you doing now?” says Tarik, his voice low and soft.
“May I?” says Ruari, his gaze dropping to focus on Tarik’s mouth. He seems already to be leaning forward.
“Don’t ask my permission.” Tarik presses his lips together, then adds, “Not for this.”
Ruari leans up from between Tarik’s legs like he did in the forest, but this time Tarik doesn’t turn away when their mouths are so close as to mingle their breaths. He tilts his head, his eyes slide closed, and Ruari presses their lips together. The first kiss is light and short. Ruari pulls away to suck in a shallow breath and feel Tarik’s nearness, the warmth of his skin, the rustle of brocade, his silky hair against Ruari’s fingertips. He curves his hand around Tarik’s nape and presses their mouths together again.
This time, Tarik breaks away. “Ruari, this is such a bad idea.”
“I don’t care,” says Ruari. There is a warm, heavy feeling in his bones.
Tarik makes a small sound of acquiescence high in his throat. He stands, pulling Ruari with him, and their bodies come into instant contact, thigh to thigh, hip to hip. Ruari feels Tarik’s heat alongside his own. Tarik wraps his arms around Ruari’s waist as if they are still not pressed close enough together then steps back, keeping hold of Ruari’s hand, to tug him behind the curtain.
Ruari marshals his scattered senses and gives a strong mental suggestion to the guards outside that they should not disturb the king for the next few hours, and turn a deaf ear to anything they might hear in the meantime. Tarik is fumbling with his buttons, and Ruari steps forward to take Tarik’s hands. “Let me,” he says. “You have no idea how much I’ve wanted to do this.”
Tarik’s hands drop to his side. Ruari starts at Tarik’s neck, brushing his knuckle against the underside of his chin. The outer robe is quickly removed, then Ruari starts on the second. Each button opens to reveal skin, and Ruari takes pleasure in stroking his thumb across the ridge of Tarik’s collarbone, dipping his hand between the robe and the flat plane of Tarik’s chest. He kneels to release the last button. Tarik shrugs and the robe slides down his body to pool at his feet. Ruari puts his hands up to Tarik’s hips, feeling a stutter of nervousness. Thin drawers are all that separate him from Tarik’s nakedness. He slides his hands around to pull out the laces, and then the drawers fall away as well.
There is a rushing sound in Ruari’s ears as he studies the evidence of Tarik’s arousal. Tarik’s cock is like the rest of him: long and narrow, arching up from the dark hair that begins on his abdomen. Ruari sucks his bottom lip between his teeth. His hands rest on Tarik’s hips. Eventually, he leans in and presses his mouth to the concave flesh beside Tarik’s hipbone. He feels Tarik’s sharp inhalation and turns his head to press his cheek to Tarik’s cock. It seems burning hot.
“I don’t really know what to do,” Ruari admits, hoarsely. “I’ve… I mean, with women…”
Tarik’s hands are ruffling Ruari’s hair. He ducks down and pulls Ruari up to standing, takes Ruari’s hand and puts it on his cock. Ruari looks down between them at Tarik’s hand around his, sliding up and down the length of Tarik’s cock. He feels his abdominal muscles contract. His breeches are becoming uncomfortably tight.
“Don’t worry,” says Tarik. “Take your clothes off.”
Every nerve is sensitive; by the time Ruari has removed his tunic, jerkin, and breeches, he is panting with arousal. Tarik motions him down onto the bed, his eyes half-lidded and glittering. Tarik’s weight on top of him is surprisingly heavy. Ruari bends one leg and tilts his hips as Tarik slides down his body to curl at the foot of the bed.
Tarik wraps his hand around the base of Ruari’s cock and runs it up and down the length a few times. Ruari arches off the bed, grabbing behind him for anything to hold on to.
“Ruari,” says Tarik. “Ruari. I’m going to do something that… well, I’ve never done it before. A king shouldn’t. He… it’s beneath my dignity. But I have wanted to do this for some time. Ever since the woods. You turned around and I saw… I had this vivid image of myself on my knees before you, sucking your cock into my mouth.”
Struggling for lucidity, Ruari looks down the bed. Tarik’s mouth is inches from the swollen head of his cock, and Tarik’s expression is a mix of lust and fear. “Yes… oh damn,” says Ruari, “please.”
“But if anyone ever heard…” There’s a sardonic tilt to Tarik’s smile. “I’d be known thoughout history as King Tarik the Cocksucker. Do you understand?”
Ruari reaches down and takes Tarik’s hand, drawing him up until they are lying side-by-side, Tarik’s head resting on his shoulder. “I understand,” he says, pressing a kiss to the corner of Tarik’s beautiful, bowed upper lip. “You can trust me. Always.” Tarik puts his hand on Ruari’s cheek and kisses him, pressing his tongue between Ruari’s lips. Time freezes and they explore each other’s mouths. Ruari is half-conscious of Tarik rutting against him, and his own hips rising to meet each thrust.
Then Tarik breaks away, wipes his hand across his mouth and gives Ruari a smile full of lust and lazy anticipation. He slides back down to the foot of the bed. Ruari watches, fascinated, as Tarik presses a kiss to the head of his cock. Tarik’s mouth opens and Ruari is encased by hot, wet warmth, the pressure of Tarik’s tongue against the underside, the gentle scrape of teeth as Tarik sinks his mouth down to meet his fist. Ruari throws his head back, scrunching his eyes shut, his entire world focusing on the waves of sensation that seem to be drawing all his blood into a whirlpool deep in his gut.
He grinds out Tarik’s name. He can see stars in the darkness of his scrunched-shut eyes. Then the coiling tension reverses, and it is as if his blood is catapulted back through his heart and into his extremities. He regains some kind of consciousness and realises that he is arched off the bed, hands clawed into the pillows, legs wrapped around Tarik’s shoulders.
When Ruari manages to unhook his legs, Tarik sits up and says, “Thank you.”
On shaking arms, Ruari pushes himself upright. “That can be our secret,” he says with a wobbly smile.
Tarik reaches out and pulls Ruari’s right arm out, pressing his lips to the inner arm. “You have no idea what seeing you with this brand did to me,” he says roughly. “I thought I was going mad. I knew who you were, and yet all I could think about was that you had my mark on your arm, and I could do anything to you. I could have bedded you the first night you came.” Ruari feels the flick of Tarik’s tongue against the sensitive skin around the brand. “Would you have let me?”
“Not the first night,” says Ruari. Tarik tilts his head so he can look up at Ruari through his lashes.
“We’re both mad, aren’t we, cousin?”
Ruari looks down at Tarik’s still-hard cock, resting against his thigh. “It’s a pleasant kind of madness,” he says, drawing Tarik close and sliding his hand between their bodies to wrap around Tarik’s cock.
It doesn’t take long. Tarik’s face presses into what is almost an expression of pain, and he buries his face against Ruari’s neck as Ruari brings him to completion.
They lie, almost buried in pillows, sweaty, slick and sated. Tarik’s head still rests against Ruari’s shoulder. He says, “What happens tomorrow?”
Ruari winds his fingers in Tarik’s hair, creating tangles, then carding them out. “We make peace.”
“By trusting each other.”
Tarik turns his face in to Ruari’s neck. “I am not very good at trusting.”
Ruari thinks of Nikelle and Lady Moire. “I recently learned that I am too trusting,” he replies. Tarik is silent in a way that lets Ruari know he agrees with this assessment. “But if I ever forget, or time changes me, I have this brand to remind me that I am yours.”
“I wish I had such a tangible thing,” says Tarik to Ruari’s throat. “I am afraid that when I go back to Sennet, this night will just slip away and I will fail at the first test.”
Ruari rises up onto his elbows, dislodging Tarik. The king sits up and tilts his head questioningly.
“I have an idea,” says Ruari.
* * *
There are four empty seats at the table the next morning. The high king and Ruari sit at one end, with Tarik and a scribe at the other. “Let us talk like sensible adults, your highness,” says Tarik, and smiles at Ruari.
This time, when the sun sinks beyond the horizon, they rise with smiles from the table. Tarik has driven a hard bargain, but the deal is made, and the next few days will be devoted to the details. Tarik has relented on the things that will really make a difference to the woodkin: the restrictions on trade and the tithes. The high king will be styled Count of the Northwoods, will sit in the king’s council. The northwoods will be a sovereign region, but will be subject to all the laws and regulations of Bayan. The high king has agreed to establish a permanent settlement in the Ashwood lands from where the king’s officials and tax collectors can do their work.
Tarik will require Lord Evhad to pay a blood price to the northwoods for the death of the heir, but there will be no retribution. The high king and Ruari will swear allegiance to Tarik and his heirs. He thought it might sting, but on agreeing to the last condition, Ruari feels nothing but relief.
The high king clasps Tarik’s hand and says, “Thank you, sire.”
“You are welcome, Lord Alasdair.”
Tarik looks at Ruari, who says, “Grandfather, we have another request.”
* * *
They sit opposite each other in the low canvas tent, arms out on the table. Ruari holds Tarik’s gaze as the tattooist cleans the hollow bone-needle she uses to apply the ink. She steps around the table and sits beside Tarik, pulling the skin of his inner arm taut then releasing it. She looks at Ruari, who nods, and then she begins to mark in a simplified sigil from the Ashwood clan tattoo now covering Ruari’s shoulder and upper arm.
Tarik’s lips compress into a thin line, and tension vibrates through his shoulders as the tattooist places the needle and taps the end with a mallet to puncture the skin. It takes just over an hour, then she wraps his arm in a bandage and gives him instructions to care for the mark while it heals.
Out in the dark of early evening, the camp bustles around them. Lady Moire comes up to them and smiles. “Sire,” she says, “it is a pleasure to meet you again.”
“Lady Moire,” says Tarik wryly. “How did you find my dungeons?”
She shrugs elegantly. “Pleasant enough, but I do hate Sennet. Ruari, I’ve come to take my leave of you. I have had a discussion with Lord Alasdair about establishing orphanages where unwanted children, including halfbreeds, might be left and I am keen to be home and working on it.”
Ruari and Tarik both straighten their shoulders and lean forward. Tarik says, “I would be interested in hearing more of this plan. I hope I can tempt you back to Sennet to discuss it with me.”
“I expect you probably can, sire,” says Lady Moire. “But now I had better ride west and find Kealan.”
“Yes, thank you for everything.” Ruari steps forward and kisses her on the cheek.
“No need for farewells like that, Ruari,” she says with a twinkling smile. “You will see me again.”
They walk on. “She seems very pleased with herself,” says Tarik.
“I think,” Ruari frowns, “that she got exactly what she wanted in the end. A place for me, friendship between us, and peace for Bayan.” He shakes his head. “She’s always been your uncle’s woman, through and through.” He sees Nikelle sitting by a cook fire. “Excuse me a moment.”
Nikelle looks up as he approaches. “Why did you want a war so badly?” he asks.
She looks into the fire. “Do you really think this peace will last?”
“I hope so.”
“It won’t. It will be broken, just like all peaces before it have been broken. The Bayanis can’t help it. Ever since they landed on this shore and pushed the woodkin into the forests, they have been trying to finish the job. It’s in their race memory.” She plays with the pommel of her sword; the firelight flickers up the blade.
“We will prove our value to the world through courage and generosity, not through violence and bloodshed.”
“And I truly hope you are right, Ruari, but if you ever need me, I’ll be here.” They clasp arms, then Nikelle return to cleaning her sword.
He finds Tarik deep in conversation with a woodkin who is sharpening a pair of fighting sticks. Tarik looks up and Ruari says, “Come on, I think it is time you saw the woods.”
“It’s pitch dark,” says Tarik.
“Don’t you trust me?” says Ruari. Wordlessly, Tarik puts his hand on his bandaged arm, over the tattoo. They take two torches and walk into the forest. Ruari instinctively matches his stride to Tarik’s hesitating gait. The shadows of the old, strong trees flicker in the firelight.
“I see what you mean,” says Tarik. “This is not like the Kingswood at all.”
“No,” says Ruari. He gestures with his torch towards one of the few trees with branches low enough to climb. “That’s one of the entries to the tree road,” he says. “I hope one day I will be able to show you what the world looks like from up there.”
“You chance may come sooner than you think—I am considering sending the counts home and staying here for a few weeks,” says Tarik, “if Lord Alasdair will have me. ”
The sounds of the encampment have long-since faded away, and they are enveloped in a silence which is broken only by the occasional chirrup of crickets and the crackle of the torches. Tarik tugs on Ruari’s elbow and turns him around. Ruari takes both the torches and plants them upright in the soft earth, kicking away any leaf litter on which a spark could take light. They sink to the ground, kissing and shedding clothes, and lie down on Tarik’s robes. Tarik produces a phial of oil that makes Ruari widen his eyes and laugh.
There is a momentary hesitation, then Tarik says, “I might take the lead this time?”
Ruari nods gratefully. He lies on his back and tilts his hips up. Tarik guides Ruari’s legs up and apart. Tarik leans forward, bracing one arm beside Ruari’s head, and presses his oiled fingers against Ruari’s anus. Ruari feels his muscles clench and lies back as Tarik circles the hole and then pushes a finger inside. The finger is replaced by the head of Tarik’s cock, and Ruari closes his eyes and tries to even out his breathing. The head pushes in, and brief pain is replaced by an extraordinary feeling of fullness, of connection, of all the hollow places in his body being filled. Tarik has both hands braced now, and his head hangs between his shoulders as he sinks deeper into Ruari’s body.
His hips meet Ruari’s and he opens his eyes. In the semi-dark, Ruari can see the whites, shielded by Tarik’s thick lashes. “Oh Those Above,” mumbles Tarik. “Ruari, I can’t…”
The feeling of fullness grows, pressing against Ruari until he thinks he might burst. Tarik withdraws slightly, and they both gasp. Tarik sets up a rhythm, in and out. For a while it’s like a heartbeat, then it’s fast and frantic. Tarik’s thrusts seem to have a direct line to Ruari’s cock, aching and hard, pressed up against his stomach. He scrabbles against the robe and tries to press his hips back to meet each thrust.
Tarik presses in and shudders, then drops to his elbows. He doesn’t move for a moment and the feeling of Tarik’s climax pushes Ruari over the edge as well. He lets out a hoarse shout and spills his seed into the hot, wet place between their bodies.
Sighing, Tarik pulls out, the feeling both a relief and a deprivation. He uses a corner of his robe to clean up Ruari’s stomach. Ruari sits up as well, aware of the sore, stretched feeling inside him. He puts his chin on Tarik’s shoulder and they both look across at the flickering light of the torches. Tarik holds out his arm and unwraps the bandage, revealing the swollen red scabbing that will fall away to become a clan tattoo. Ruari turns his body so he can hold up his branded arm between them, and Tarik covers it, rubbing his thumb across the ridges of scarring.
“We can never forget, cousin,” says Tarik, and there is an ancient, tired note in his voice. “If we do, we will tear this kingdom apart.”
Ruari tries to envisage it, that one day he might face this man across a battlefield. Once, he had taken that for granted; now, it is impossible to imagine. “We won’t forget,” he says.
He thinks of the mural on Tarik’s chamber door, or the lion and the snake, locked in mortal battle in the first panel, and in the second united against a common enemy. Tarik’s personal emblem is the snake; Ruari thinks he might take the lion as his.
They clean themselves up and don their rumpled clothes, and walk back to the encampment.
* * *
A/N: Heartfelt thanks to indigohymn for her awesome, insightful and speedy beta work on this. All remaining mistakes are my own!