Who are you?" said I, wrenching my hand free and leaping back as if I had touched a snake.
"Come out and show yourself." My thought was that it must be a lover of Redival's, and that Batta was playing bawd as well as jailer.
A slender, tall man stepped out. "A suppliant," he said, but with a merriment in his voice that did not sound like supplication. "And one who never let a pretty girl go without a kiss."
He'd have had an arm around my neck in a moment if I hadn't avoided him. Then he saw my dagger point twinkle in the moonlight, and laughed.
"You've good eyes if you can see beauty in this face," said I, turning it on him to make sure he saw the blank wall of the veil.
"Only good ears, sister," said he. "I'll bet a girl with a voice like yours is beautiful."
The whole adventure was, for such a woman as I, so unusual that I almost had a fool's wish to lengthen it. The very world was strange that night. But I came to my senses.
"Who are you?" I said. "Tell me quick, or I'll call the guards."
"I'm no thief, pretty one," said he, "though I confess you caught me slinking in a thief's fashion. I thought there might already be some kindred of my own in your garden whom I had no mind to meet. I am a suppliant to the King. Can you bring me to him?" He let me hear a couple of coins jingle in his hand.
"Unless the King's health mends suddenly, I am the Queen," said I.
He gave a low whistle and laughed. "If that's so, Queen," he said, "I've played the fool to admiration. Then it's your suppliant I am, suppliant for a few nights' - it might be only one - lodging and protection. I am Trunia of Phars."
The news struck me almost stupid. I have written before how this prince was at war with his brother Argan and the old king their father.
"Defeated, then?" I said.
"Beaten in a cavalry skirmish," he said, "and had to ride for it, which would be little odds but that I missed my way and blundered into Glome. And then my horse went lame not three miles back. The worst of it is, my brother's strength lies all along the border. If you can hide me for a day or so - his messengers will be at your door by daybreak, no doubt - so that I can get into Essur and so round to my main army in Phars, I'll soon show him and all the world whether I'm defeated."
"This is all very well, Prince," said I. "But if we receive you as a suppliant we must, by all law, defend you. I'm not so young a queen as to think I can go to war with Phars at this time."
"It's a cold night to lie out," he said.
"You'd be very welcome if you were not a suppliant, Prince. But in that character you're too
dangerous. I can give you lodging only as a prisoner."
"Prisoner?" said he. "Then, Queen, good night."
He darted away as if he were not weary at all (though I had heard weariness in his voice) and ran as one who is used to it. But that flight was his undoing. I could have told him where the old millstone lay. He fell sprawling, made to leap up again with wonderful quickness, then gave a sharp hiss of pain, struggled, cursed, and was still.
"Sprained, if not broken," he said. "Plague on the god that invented man's ankle. Well, you may call your spears, Queen. Prisoner it is. And that prison leads to my brother's hangman?"
"We'll save you if we can," said I. "If we can do it any way without full war against Phars, we'll do it."
The guards' quarters were on that side of the house, as I have said, and it was easy enough to go within calling distance of the men and yet keep my eye on the Prince. As soon as I heard them turning out I said, "Pull your hood over your face. The fewer who know my prisoner's name, the freer my hands will be."
They got him up and brought him hobbling into the hall and put him on the settle by the hearth, and I called for wine and victuals to be brought him, and for the barber to bind up his ankle. Then I went into the Bedchamber. Arnom had gone. The King was worse, his face a darker red, his breathing hoarse. It seemed he could not speak; but I wondered, as his eyes wandered from one to another of us three, what he thought and felt.
"Where have you been, daughter?" said the Fox. "Here's terribly weighty news. A post has just ridden in to tell us that Argan of Phars with three - or maybe four - score of horse has crossed the border and now lies but ten miles away. He gives out that he is seeking his brother Trunia."
How quickly we learn to queen or king it! Yesterday I should have cared little how many aliens in arms crossed our borders; tonight, it was as if someone had struck me in the face.
"And," said Bardia, "whether he really believes that we have Trunia here - or whether he's crossed the border of a crippled land only to make a cheap show of valour and mend his mouldy reputation - either way - "
"Trunia is here," said I. Before their surprise let them speak, I made them come into the Pillar Room, for I found I could not bear my father's eyes on us. The others seemed to make no more account of him than of a dead man. I ordered lights and fire in the tower room, Psyche's old prison, and that the Prince should be taken there when he had eaten. Then we three went busily to our talking.
On three things we were all of one mind. First, that if Trunia weathered his present misfortune, he was likely enough to beat Argan in the end and rule Phars. The old king was in his dotage and counted for nothing. The longer the broils lasted, the more Trunia's party would probably increase, for Argan was false, cruel, and hated by many, and had, moreover, from his first battle (long before these troubles) an old slur of cowardice upon him which made him contemptible. Second, that Trunia as king of Phars would be a far better neighbour to us than Argan, especially if we had befriended him when he was lowest. But thirdly, that we were in no plight to take on a war with Phars, nor even with Argan's party in
Phars; the pestilence had killed too many of our young men and we still had almost no corn.
Then a new thought, as if from nowhere, came scalding hot into my head.
"Bardia," said I, "what is Prince Argan worth as a swordsman?"
"There are two better at this table, Queen."
"And he'd be very chary of doing anything that would revive the old story against his courage?"
"It's to be supposed so."
"Then if we offered him a champion to fight against him for Trunia - pawned Trunia's head on the single combat - he'd be in a manner bound to take it up."
Bardia thought for a time. "Why," he said, "it sounds like something out of an old song. Yet, by the gods, the longer I look at it the better I like it. Weak though we are, he'll not want war with us while he has war at home. Not if we leave him any other choice. And his hope hangs on keeping or getting his people's favour. He has none of it to spare even now. And it's an odious thing to be pursuing his brother at our gates as if he were digging out a fox. That won't have made him more loved. If on top of it all he refuses the combat, his name will stink worse still. I think your plan has life in it, Queen."
"This is very wise," said the Fox. "Even if our man's killed and we have to hand Trunia over, no man can say we've treated him ill. We save our good name and yet have no war with Phars."
"And if our champion kills Argan," said Bardia, "then we've done the next thing to setting Trunia on the throne and earned a good friend; for all say Trunia's a right-minded man."
"To make it surer still, friends," said I, "let our champion be one so contemptible that it would be shame beneath all shame for Argan to draw back."
"That's too subtle, daughter," said the Fox. "And hard on Trunia. We don't want our man beaten."
"What are you thinking of, Queen?" said Bardia, teasing his moustache in the old way. "We can't ask him to fight a slave, if that's what you mean."
"No. A woman," said I.
The Fox stared in bewilderment. I had never told him of my exercises with the sword, partly because I had a tenderness about mentioning Bardia to him at all, for to hear Bardia called fool or barbarian angered me. (Bardia called the Fox Greekling and "word-weaver" in return, but that never fretted me in the same way.)
"A woman?" said the Fox. "Am I mad, or are you?"
And now a great smile that would do any heart good to see it broke over Bardia's face. But he shook his head.
"I've played chess too long to hazard my Queen," he said.
"What, Bardia?" said I, steadying my voice as best I could. "Were you only flattering when you said I was a better swordsman than Argan?"
"Not so. I'd lay my money on you if it came to a wager. But there's always luck as well as skill in these things."
"And courage too, you'd say."
"I've no fear of you for that, Queen."
"I have no idea what you are both talking about," said the Fox.
"The Queen wants to fight for Trunia herself, Fox," said Bardia. "And she could do it, too.
We've had scores of matches together. The gods never made anyone - man or woman - with a better natural gift for it. Oh, Lady, Lady, it's a thousand pities they didn't make you a man." (He spoke it as kindly and heartily as could be; as if a man dashed a gallon of cold water in your broth and never doubted you'd like it all the better.)
"Monstrous - against all custom - and nature - and modesty," said the Fox. On such matters he was a true Greek; he still thought it barbarous and scandalous that the women in our land go bareface. I had sometimes said to him when we were merry that I ought to call him not Grandfather but Grandam. That was another reason why I had never told him of the fencing.
"Nature's hand slipped when she made me anyway," said I. "If I'm to be hard-featured as a man, why shouldn't I fight like a man too?"
"Daughter, daughter," said the Fox. "In mercy to me, if for nothing else, put this horrible thought out of your head. The plan of a champion and a combat was good. How would this folly make it better?"
"It makes it far better," said I. "Do you think I'm so simple as to fancy I'm safe on my father's throne yet? Arnom is with me. Bardia is with me. But what of the nobles and the people? I know nothing of them nor they of me. If either of the King's wives had lived, I suppose I might have known the lords' wives and daughters. My father never let us see them, much less the lords themselves. I have no friends. Is this combat not the very thing to catch their fancy? Won't they like a woman for their ruler better if she has fought for Glome and killed her man?"
"Oh, for that," said Bardia, "it'd be incomparable. There'll be no one but you in their mouths and hearts for a twelvemonth."
"Child, child," said the Fox, his eyes full of tears, "it's your life. Your life. First my home and freedom gone; then Psyche; now you. Will you not leave one leaf on this old tree?"
I could see right into his heart, for I knew he now implored me with the same anguish I had felt when I implored Psyche. The tears that stood in my eyes behind my veil were tears of pity for myself more than for him. I did not let them fall.
"My mind's made up," I said. "And none of you can think of a better way out of our dangers.
Do we know where Argan lies, Bardia?"
"At the Red Ford, the post said."
"Then let our herald be sent at once. The fields between the City and the Shennit to be the place of the combat. The time, the third day from now. The terms, these: If I fall, we deliver Trunia to him and condone his unlawful entering into our land. If he falls, Trunia is a free man and has a safe conduct to go over the border to his own people in Phars or where he will. Either way, all the aliens to be out of the land of Glome in two days."
They both stared and said nothing.
"I'll go to bed now," said I. "See to the sending, Bardia, and then to bed yourself. A good night to you both."
I knew from Bardia's face that he would obey, though he could not bring himself to assent in words. I turned quickly away and went to my own room.
To be alone there and in the silence was like coming suddenly under the lee of a wall on a wild, windy day, so that one can breathe and collect oneself again. Ever since Arnom had said hours ago that the King was dying, there seemed to have been another woman acting and speaking in my place. Call her the Queen; but Orual was someone different and now I was Orual again. (I wondered if this was how all princes felt.) I looked back on the things the Queen had done and wondered at them. Did that Queen truly think she would kill Argan? I, Orual, as I now saw, did not believe it. I was not even sure that I could fight him. I had never used sharps before; nothing hung on my sham battles but the hope of pleasing my teacher (not that that was a small thing to me either).
How would it be if, when the day came, and the trumpets had blown, and the swords were out, my courage failed me? I'd be the mockery of the whole world; I could see the shamed look on the Fox's face, on Bardia's. I could hear them saying, "And yet how bravely her sister went to the offering! How strange that she, who was so meek and gentle, should have been the brave one after all!" And so she would be far above me in everything: in courage as well as in beauty and in those eyes which the gods favoured with sight of things invisible, and even in strength (I remembered her grip when we had wrestled). "She shall not," I said with my whole soul. "Psyche? She's never had a sword in her hand in her life, never done man's work in the Pillar Room, never understood (hardly heard of) affairs of state . . . a girl's life, a child's life. . . ."
I asked myself suddenly what I was thinking. "Can it be my sickness coming back?" I thought. For it began to be like those vile dreams I had had in my ravings when the cruel gods put into my mind the horrible, mad fancy that it was Psyche who was my enemy.
Psyche my enemy? She, my child, the very heart of my heart, whom I had wronged and ruined, for whose sake the gods were right to kill me? And now I saw my challenge to the Prince quite differently. Of course he would kill me. He was the gods' executioner. And this would be the best thing in the world; far better than some of the dooms I had looked for. All my life must now be a sandy waste; who could have dared to hope it would be so short? And this accorded so well with all my daily thoughts since the god's sentence, that I now wondered how I could have forgotten that sandy waste for the past few hours.
It was queenship that had done it - all those decisions to make, coming pell-mell upon me without a breathing space, and so much hanging on each; all the speed, skill, peril, and dash of the game. I resolved that for the two days left to me I'd queen it with the best of them; and if by any chance Argan didn't kill me, I'd queen it as long as the gods let me. It was not pride - the glitter of the name - that moved me; or not much. I was taking to queenship as a stricken man takes to the wine-pot or as a stricken woman, if she had beauty, might take to lovers. It was an art that left you no time to mope. If Orual could vanish altogether into
the Queen, the gods would almost be cheated.
But had Arnom said my father was dying? No; not quite that.
I rose up and went back to his Bedchamber, without a taper, feeling my way along the walls, for I would have been ashamed if anyone saw me. There were still lights in the Bedchamber.
They had left Batta to be with him. She sat in his own chair, close to the fire, sleeping the noisy sleep of a sodden old woman. I went over to the bedside. He was seemingly wide awake. Whether the noises he was making were an attempt at speech, who knows? But the look in his eyes, when he saw me, was not to be mistaken. It was terror. Did he know me and think I came to murder him? Did he think I was Psyche come back from the deadlands to bring him down there?
Some will say (perhaps the gods will say) that if I had murdered him indeed, I should have been no less impious than I was. For as he looked at me with fear, so I looked at him; but all my fear was lest he should live.
What do the gods expect of us? My deliverance was now so near. A prisoner may come to bear his dungeon with patience; but if he has almost escaped, tasted his first draught of the free air . . . to be retaken then, to go back to the clanking of that fetter, the smell of that straw?
I looked again at his face - terrified, idiotic, almost an animal's face. A thought of comfort came to me: "Even if he lives, he will never have his mind again."
I went back and slept soundly.