The palace wasn’t exactly what he thought of as a palace. It was large enough, dominating the sky, but there was no grace to it and no pride: it was a stone lump of a building, grim and square, perched anyhow at the top of a steep and dirty street. Ice hung in the grey air. There was a smell of cold and snow, of a smoking ill-tended fire somewhere. Smallholdings huddled together around the hulking mass of the palace, like starved wolf cubs clinging to their rangy, dangerous mother. There was a vegetable garden a few feet away, laid out in small, precarious rows: potatoes, it looked like, and a few dispirited-looking cabbages. This city, fortified and hedged about with walls like the jewel of the world, turned out to be little more than a village. Alario thought of all the blood that had been spilt to get him here, the still throbbing wound in his own arm, caught Rufus’s eye, and wanted to laugh. There was a glint of laughter in reply but Rufus shook his head faintly and Alario agreed. It would, on the whole, be bad form to laugh. The king was, after all, waiting to make terms of surrender and the man had fought a truly remarkable campaign. He was owed, at least, the courtesy of solemnity.
The black doors swung open, and they entered a cold hall. The envoys led them through narrow dark corridors, up a long rocky flight of stairs, and into a narrow chamber. Granite floors and a stone table, a small fire choking quietly in the grate. The king was, presumably, the old man sitting at the table, in the black tunic; there was some sort of silver affair about his throat and a cape on his shoulders and he wore a great signet ring that seemed almost too heavy for his frail papery fingers. The only others in the room were a rabble of women, a number of old men, a couple of boys. All were standing, clustered loosely behind their king.
‘Lord King,’ Alario said to the old man, making a deep, all-purpose bow from the waist. No use stinting the courtesy, now. ‘Thank you for your agreement to meet with us.’
The old man looked at him blankly. There was an odd, weighted silence. Alario kept himself from lifting an eyebrow at Rufus, with some effort, and instead kept his eyes politely on the king’s thin face. The man was older than expected, terribly old, his eyes milky with age. How on earth had he done it? What sort of iron will could have driven those old bones out onto the merciless hills? And yet there had been a commander out there in the field – Alario had felt a single mind out there, matching his, at every turn of the battle. It couldn’t have been done from a room in this castle, far from the action. And yet –
‘Yes,’ the king said, finally, in a thin creak of a voice. ‘You are. Welcome. Sit.’
They sat. One of the other old men cleared his throat.
‘The king has authorised me to speak for Saria,’ he said.
After that, it became normal. The city promised grain and tribute and men, Alario mentioned a few percentages, and the man spoke eloquently of the uneven harvests and the storms that came sometimes from the sea and ate up the crop. Progress was slow and hard-fought but predictable enough. The king said nothing. The other old men spoke from time to time, one of the boys said something foolish about a guarantee of current borders, and the women stood around and listened, but he could not find a trace of the commander. Had it being a single man, or could it have been this ponderous group of old farmers agreeing every gambit all along? No. That unexpected shocking turn at the bridge – the carefully timed raids on the camp – that moment when he had decided to move through the gorge and it had rained arrows – all of it was distinctive as a fingerprint. Someone had been there, acting, responding, choosing at every moment. He glanced over the boys – fifteen, seventeen, twenty at most. Could it be one of these? The youngest lad was clearly the prince, his face a crisp and vivid sketch of what his father’s must have been once before his flesh had softened and his colour faded. The boy looked clever enough, but terribly young and soft. Surely no child could have deliberately chosen to make that brutal sacrifice of men at the mouth of the east valley, which had cost Alario his entire strategy at the start of the war. Could he? Well. There was a way to flush him out.
‘We have, as I said, no desire to touch your borders,’ he said to the old man, drawing the map to him. ‘But I must take a small province as a personal holding – a symbol, you understand, of the new bond between our peoples. My curia demands it.’
He brought his thumb down, carelessly, over the little, strategic triangle of land where the two rivers intersected, the only place a defensive line could hold the valley for more than a few hours.
‘Here, for instance.’
‘No,’ said the voice he’d been waiting for, sharp and husky and – a child’s. He looked up, quickly, and felt his breath catch in his throat. Not a child. A woman. She had gone a little white, as he looked at her, and the sudden shock of recognition came like an ice bath and a mouthful of wine all at once. A woman? A woman. A thin slender reed of thing, all bundled up in that black get-up the women wore, with a rich sweet-looking mouth and eyes like a steel trap. Green.
‘Father would not wish it,’ the woman said, swiftly, her gaze evading his again, turning to the old man. ‘My mother –’
She stopped. Rufus, very quietly, put his hand on Alario’s arm and that was how he realised that he was grinning. It hadn’t been the king. It had been a girl, this girl, leading him that deadly, elegant tease of a dance, and she was the damned princess of the town. Sometimes his own luck amazed him.
‘I would not wish to offend,’ he said, when he could trust himself to speak. ‘But there must be some bond made between our peoples, after this long war.’ He paused, savouring the moment. They were all watching him warily, except for the girl. It wasn’t doubt in her eyes – it was rage. She knew what he meant to do. He grinned again, unable to help himself. To think it was this mud and stone village on the edge of the empire that would yield him, at last, a suitable bride.