Tortoise crawled onto the beach. He pushed himself along the damp sand parallel to the sea, his head swiveling from side to side. He stopped, having found what he had been looking for: a large, unbroken shell shaped like a shallow bowl.
He lifted his head and hissed.
Unicorn peered down from the moor above. With a series of seemingly careless leaps, she descended the rocky cliffs and joined him.
From the south, Dragon flew across the water.
Phoenix arrived from nowhere in a burst of light.
When they were gathered, Tortoise lowered his head and shed a tear into the empty shell.
The others were unmoved by his apparent sorrow.
“Oh, my brother,” he said, in a voice so thick with grief no one could believe it sincere. “Oh, my sisters.”
Dragon breathed a clear flame. Tortoise’s false tear evaporated, leaving behind a slight residue of salt and hypocrisy.
Phoenix shook his head, yet it was he who said, “What are we to imagine you regret, my brother?”
“Why, the loss of His Grace’s lovely young bride,” said Tortoise. “Has she not disappeared? Is she not dead?” He cocked his head at Unicorn and, if he had had eyebrows, he would have cocked one. “She is dead, isn’t she?”
Unicorn met his impertinent red gaze. “What does it matter?”
“Does it not matter that His Grace ordered the deaths of a host of children, on the chance that one of them might claim the throne? Does it not matter that His Grace’s mother has ordered the capture and slaughter of you, my sister?”
Still, Unicorn met his gaze. “It’s all one.”
“To you, perhaps.” Tortoise scraped at the sand in irritation. “Perhaps other people don’t bear suffering so easily.”
“I never said it was easy.”
Tortoise turned to Dragon. “I know you agree with me, Sister.”
“If I did,” she said, “you would change your position.”
Phoenix laughed bitterly and fluttered his wings, fanning his own flames and stretching his head upward, as if he longed to fly somewhere he couldn’t reach.
Tortoise said, “Am I the only one who takes any interest in the lives of these poor mortals?”
Unicorn snorted and said, “Pity the poor mortal who interests you! Let them be!”
“Am I yours to command?”
“You are neither mine to command nor to fear. You are only to be endured. And, for a creature so slow, you seem to have reached the end of my patience with astounding swiftness.” She picked her way back up the slope and vanished.
Dragon and Phoenix rose into the sky and performed an arabesque in the air, Phoenix’s fire glittering off Dragon’s scales, then Dragon vanished into mist and Phoenix into haze.
Tortoise, left alone, stepped on the edge of the bowl-like shell, upending it. Grumbling all the way, he slipped back into the sea.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
CHAPTER 1 – A TRAP SET FOR VIRTUE
Rhu beren Robia lay in bed in the small hours after Elsie’s disappearance, unable to sleep. His mind and spirit roiled in a muddle of clarities like water at the foot of a cataract: turbulent, but full of light and air. Elsie was gone, perhaps out of his life forever – but she was free, her body no longer a hostage to Sarpa’s lineage.
Or was she free? Had she escaped, or had she been shunted into a captivity so close only the Kinninger knew of it? Or only the Kinninger’s mother? Or had she been snatched, like a chestnut, from the fire, only to be consumed by her liberator?
Yet Rhu’s qualms were only grains of sand, themselves glittering, in the roll and spray of his happiness. He felt – and knew that this was because he wanted to feel it, yet trusted the feeling as true – that Elsie was free.
If he, too, were free, he would find her. He would roam the world over and find her and take her or win her and have her for himself.
But he was not free. He was the Kinninger’s man, and Layounna’s man, and he could desert neither his lord nor his duty to search for his heart.
As day followed day, Rhu found confirmation of his hope. The conspiratorial amusement with which Landry spoke of the bridal fiction they maintained told Rhu that Landry, at least, had no deeper secret involving Elsie.
Those days also saw overtures of courtesy by Guthrie beren Melanell toward the Chamberlain. It pleased Rhu to think that Guthrie’s rise in influence had reached its natural level and was now beginning to require maintenance. He could tolerate the Chief Sword’s being made his social superior if it were plain, especially to Guthrie, that this position was artificial and insecure.
Oliva, too, seemed to court the Chamberlain’s good will. She suddenly embellished her orders with smiles and fragile gestures. She reminisced about events from Rhu’s boyhood (memorable to her when these were involved with episodes in her own past). She stood closer than had been her wont, and blinked her eyes as if they were growing weak, and fingered her silver hair.
Rhu would find himself responding with a strong retainer’s gallantry toward his old mistress’s failing powers. He would determine to meet the weakness of her decline with compassion, although she had met that of his youth with uncompromising coldness.
Then he would see that tuck at the corners of her mouth, that slight sluing of the eyes, that head-tilt that he knew from his earliest days. It meant she was working to control something or someone and was happy with her progress. Rhu didn’t know whether to be repelled or flattered to find himself the object of that look.
Perhaps, he told himself, Landry was planning to give his Chamberlain an even greater part in governance. Co-regent was too much to think of, but was Deputy Regent?
Rhu judged it best to show no sign of his expectation, lest he seem presumptuous, and so deflect Landry’s favor.
Then came the day when Oliva approached him with a quest.
“But how am I to make the capture?” Rhu was more bemused than anyone at his selection.
“The last reported sighting was in the Fiddlewood at its southern tip, on the border of the East and Central Districts. Don’t ride into the Fiddlewood like a conqueror or creep about like a hunter, or you’ll never glimpse your prey. If you go in on foot and walk without stealth, the unicorn won’t avoid you. It may even seek you out. You’ll be able to come close to it – close enough to touch it. Then you can put a halter on it and slip a steel bit into its mouth. It will be unable to free itself of the steel; the metal will scorch its mouth, and struggle will only increase the pain. Lead it out of the woods at dusk and bring it here as quickly as your horse will gallop. That will so weary it that we can bind it easily and carry it down into the temple.”
“My Lady…,” Rhu began, but ended by bowing.
“Tarkastrus tells me that the time will be most propitious at the new moon. Can you be ready by then?”
“I’m ready now. I’ll leave tomorrow and search through the most propitious time, until the moon is full. If I haven’t found any sign of the beast by then, there is no longer such a beast.”
Rhu’s horse, Ebenos, was black and looked less tall and muscular than he really was, under the body of his master. He was used to travel, but he was not used to his master’s being uncertain in the saddle.
The Chamberlain told himself he welcomed this quest. It was the chance he needed to prove himself to Landry as a man of action. Oliva had made it clear that bringing back a unicorn would render the greatest possible service to the crown.
It was a chance, too, to go afield on his own. Maybe he’d find some sign of Elsie. If he did find such a sign, he had given himself a little time to follow it.
Suppose he found her – what then? Would the Kinninger thank him if he brought her back? And what would happen to Elsie, once recaptured?
Rhu thought, then, of the unicorn, exhausting itself in flight, vainly attempting to lessen the pain of base metal in a mouth that had never known manufactured horror.
But the unicorn would win the Chamberlain his master’s grace. With the unicorn in hand, Rhu could ask for any boon and Landry would doubtless grant it – even immunity for Elsie, even the transfer of Elsie’s person to the Chamberlain’s keeping.
Rhu saw himself holding the woman he’d waited for so long, her amber hair rippling over his sleeve, her arms encircling his neck, her head resting in the hollow of his shoulder.
And what would buy this happiness? Only what he was giving, anyway. Only the life of a rare and mystic creature, betrayed to agony and death by the deceit of an apparent innocent.