Nor was any sign of him to be found when his nephew and his old friend, stirred into activity again, reached the place where they had seen him last. Except that Zoltan found a small mark, badly blurred but very fresh, in a patch of wet earth exposed on the slope. The footprint, if it really was such, was too vague and incomplete to offer any hope of identification.
Time ticked away. Now Zoltan and Ben began to gaze at each other in fresh bewilderment. Zoltan once stood up and drew in breath as if to shout Mark’s name, but Ben, suddenly scowling in suspicion, jabbed at him with a hand, almost knocking him off his feet, to keep him silent.
Zoltan was now trying to recall the exact words Prince Mark had shouted to them. What he could remember was not at all encouraging. Mark’s declarations had been vaguely reassuring, but not at all informative.
An effort to find more fresh tracks along the course the Prince had been following downhill soon came to nothing. There were a few old footprints blurred by rain, and the marks of little animals, but nothing useful.
Ben was scowling fiercely. “Had he Shieldbreaker still with him just now? It seems to me I saw a sword hilt at his waist.”
“No. No, I am sure that he did not.”
Each held to his opinion on that point; though otherwise, they agreed, the Prince had been dressed just as they had seen him last.
“And he told us to wait here. Didn’t he? Isn’t that what he called to us twice?”
“All right. Yes, he did tell us that. Where did he go, though? Just to run off like that again without a word… this is madness.”
“He might have got past us and be heading down to the settlement.”
“That’s just what he did. But why should he do that? Without stopping to give us a word of explanation?”
The two men repeated to each other the exact words they remembered the Prince uttering just a few minutes ago. The differences in their two versions were insignificant. He had really assured them that they did not have to worry about him. And he had ordered them to stay where they were.
Therefore they settled in, howbeit grimly and impatiently, to wait.
Shortly after her two visitors departed, Lady Yambu had gone out of her room, down the upstairs hall, and out onto the upper veranda. She had no particular goal in mind; such little walks had become her habit during the dreary days of her stay at the inn.
Standing on the narrow rustic veranda, looking up toward the hills in the direction that she supposed her new allies must have taken when they departed, she observed a single figure moving, angling down along the partially wooded slope. Somehow, even at the distance, it did not appear to be one of the local people. It was certainly not the bulky form of Ben of Purkinje, and what she could make out of the clothing indicated that it wasn’t young Zoltan either. Unless for some reason the youth had changed his garments in the few minutes since she’d seen him last…. The distance, a couple of hundred meters, was too great for her to see much more of the figure than the movements of its arms and legs, but there was something about it, some tinge of familiarity, that tugged at her memory. Vaguely uneasy, she remained on the veranda, watching.
Less than a minute later the same figure came into her view again, much closer now. With movements that impressed her as furtive, it emerged from behind some trees and entered the highest street of the town proper. It was a man, she was sure of that now, and he was near enough for some details of his appearance to be observable. Yambu was able to focus on the figure for only a moment before it vanished again, this time behind a building.
That moment had been quite long enough. A wave of faintness came over the lady watching. She, who had once been a queen, was not accustomed to such a reaction in herself, or minded to tolerate it, and she fought against the weakness fiercely.
That she should have a strong reaction was understandable. She had just seen the Emperor, the father of her only child. He had been cloaked in gray and masked in a black domino, as she had so often seen him in the past.
Yambu hurried back to her room. Her hands were shaking as she put on her pilgrim’s rugged footgear and her traveling outfit of trousers and cloak. Leaving her room again, she hastened back to the upper veranda, where she set out the prearranged signal, a simple bright-colored rag snagged on a rugged railing, which would indicate to her new allies that she wanted to meet with them at once.
Having done that, Yambu left the building and went out into the muddy street. She climbed through the town to the place where she had seen the gray-cloaked figure pass, on the highest of the town’s three streets that ran parallel to the waterfront.
So, the Emperor was here. But what did his presence signify? Years had passed since she had seen him last, and that had been on the night before a battle.
Peering up and down each street as she came to it, she saw only a few of the townsfolk going about their business, and a few of the new garrison of soldiers in gray and red. There was no sign of the Emperor, or any other person or thing of interest. After hesitating briefly at the edge of town, Yambu continued on the path that went uphill, to the appointed place of meeting with Zoltan and Ben. This was well away from the settlement, beside a small stream on the rocky hillside.
Only a few minutes after she arrived there the two men joined her. When they did, they found her pale but composed.
“We saw your signal-” Ben of Purkinje began.
The lady cut him off with an imperious hand. “Ben.”
“You told me that after the stone struck Ariane in the head-down there in the treasure vaults of the Blue Temple-she was still able to move about. For some time.”
This was obviously not what Ben had been expecting as an opening to this hastily summoned meeting, and he frowned. But after looking closely at the former queen, he did not protest the apparent wild irrelevance. “That’s right,” he said.
“And then, some minutes or an hour after being hit, she suddenly collapsed.”
“But are you quite certain that she was dead?”
He looked around at the wet woods and back at her. No, he hadn’t been expecting this at all. “Of course I am. She died within a minute or two of losing consciousness -but why do you ask about that now?”
“Because,” said the former queen, “I have just seen my daughter.” She ignored their brief clamor of questions and pressed on. “On the hillside not far below us here. As if she were just coming up out of the town. I would have gone to her, but she waved me away. And she was smiling. As soon as I recovered from my shock I went to the place where I had seen her, but she was gone.”
Zoltan muttered words of astonishment. But Ben had been hit too hard even for that. The color had faded suddenly under the weathered surface of his skin.
Lady Yambu went on. “I should tell you that despite the depth of my surprise her appearance was not totally unexpected to me. Because I met her father once, years after she was supposed to have died. And on that occasion he assured me solemnly that Ariane was still alive.”
Using both arms, the lady made a gesture expressive of both frustration and determination. She went on: “He has, as everyone knows, a reputation for insane jokes; I, who have borne one of his children, can tell you that the reputation is well deserved. But I can tell you also that he was not joking when he told me Ariane was living. To have told me such a thing at such a time could not have been a joke, not even an insane one. No, he was very sober and convincing.” She paused. “Still, at the time I did not believe him.”
“Why not?” asked Zoltan.
The lady, as he had more than half expected, ignored his question totally. She said: “Also, I thought that I saw him, my daughter’s father, walking here upon this hillside only a few minutes before I saw her.”
Ben said hoarsely: “Her father was-is-the Emperor.”
“So you know that. And presumably you also know something about him-? Good. I shall not have to try to explain that he is not the figure of simpleminded fun that common folktales paint him.” Yambu heaved a sigh. “Not that I really could explain that man. Yes, her father assured me that she was still alive, despite what had happened to her down in the treasure vaults. He told me that she had been living with him for several years.”