“Living with him.” Ben’s voice was a hoarse mutter. “Gods and demons. Where?”
“The gods only know that. Or perhaps the demons know. Wherever he chose to live, I suppose.”
Long moments went by in which all three of them were silent. Ben was staring intently at the lady. Then at last he said in a choked voice: “You lie. Or he lied to you. I tell you I saw her die.”
Yambu appeared to think the accusation too ridiculous to deserve her anger; she only sniffed at him imperiously. “Why in the world should I lie to you? And as for the Emperor lying to me on such a matter-no, I think not. Not on that occasion anyway.”
Zoltan spoke up again, after a hesitation but firmly enough when the words came. “Lady, you have told us you did not believe him.”
“True, I did not believe him when he told me, or for years afterward. But recently I have been giving the matter much thought. And I know who I saw today.”
Ben was staring at her as if there were some truth that he too had to have and by staring he could force it somehow into visibility. He appeared to be unable to find anything to say.
At last Yambu repeated her earlier question to him: “Was Ariane still a virgin when you saw her die?”
Ben was slow to answer, and his voice was low. “We loved each other, she and I. She was very young and very beautiful, and the daughter of a queen, and when you look at me I know it sounds ridiculous to say she loved me. But so it was.”
Yambu measured him with her eyes. “I have not said it was ridiculous.”
Zoltan, meanwhile, was staring silently at the huge man, as if he had never seen him before. It was quite plain that Mark’s nephew had never heard this story before, or suspected anything like it.
Ben, gazing into the past now, went on. “We had only a few days to try to know each other. And not so much as a quarter of an hour, in any of those days, to be alone together. So if it is of any importance to you, yes, your daughter remained a virgin until she died. At the time, the point was of considerable magical importance to the wizards. And so I know that it is true, even though she had been in the Red Temple.” Ben jumped up from the rock he had been sitting on. “And if I thought-if I could believe for a moment-that Ariane was still alive,
I would leave all that I possess to go to her.”
Yambu asked him harshly: “Would you leave even your Prince?”
Ben’s enormous shoulders slumped. He said: “That decision does not have to be made. My Prince, alive or dead, is here, and here I stay until I have done all that I can do for him. And your daughter is dead. I tell you that I saw her die.”
Abruptly the three people fell silent; they were all aware that someone, a single person, was passing on one of the hillside paths not far away. From behind intervening evergreen shrubs they observed the passerby with great interest. But it was only some local peasant, bearing a small load of firewood, and they turned away.
The place where they had met and had been talking until now was relatively public, and by common consent they moved to continue their conference at a place farther from any trail. The new site, also on the hillside, had the advantage of better concealment, of allowing them to overlook much of the town, while being themselves screened from any likely observation by a growth of low evergreen bushes. Zoltan, looking down, thought that the bunched needles made the town beyond them look like a drawing half-obliterated by the mad scrawling lines of some determined vandal.
Their discussion was just getting under way again when it was once more interrupted. All three of the people on the hillside saw, at a distance of a hundred meters or so, a peculiar figure walking in the nearest street of the settlement below.
What drew their attention to the figure was first the darting, scrambling way it moved. Second was the fact that the other people in the street turned to gaze after it as it darted from between buildings on one side into an alley on the other. After it had passed, some of the townsfolk appeared to exchange looks, and perhaps words, with one another before going on about their business.
The three on the hillside studied the figure itself as well as they could at the distance; then they also exchanged glances among themselves. If they had marveled before, they were dumbfounded now.
Ben said: “It was your daughter, walking in the street. And I am going down to her.”
“It was she,” Yambu agreed in a stunned voice. “I will go with you.”
“Wait!” cried Zoltan. His voice was not very loud, but something in it stopped the other two.
The young man looked at them, one after the other. He said: “Lady, I have never seen your daughter Ariane. What does she look like?”
It was Ben who answered. “You could not have missed her just now, among those shabby commoners. Tall, and as strong as most men, but there’s no doubt from her shape that she’s a woman, and still young. And her red hair, like a long flame down her back. She moved across the street quite near the intersection, jumping over the worst of a puddle….” Ben stopped. Yambu was nodding her agreement.
But Zoltan’s face was contorted, his eyes squeezed shut as if he were in pain.
“I did not see her,” he announced.
“What do you mean?” Yambu demanded.
“I saw someone, a single person, cross the street near the intersection, just as you did, and jump the mud puddle while the townspeople moved away. But it was certainly not a young woman, with red hair or without. It was Prince Mark again, my uncle, whom I know well.”
There was a brief silence while the others digested this.
“That red hair!” Ben ripped the words out like an oath. “There can’t be any mistake!”
“What red hair? I tell you the one I saw just now was a man, brown-haired and bearded!”
They all three looked at one another, all of them trying to master their emotions, all trying to think. Yambu said: “Then what we have seen is magic-”
The three of them uttered the word almost in unison: “Sightblinder!”
“Or some spell equally powerful. Yes, that must be it.”
They were sitting down again, in the same place, and Ben said those words, and the other two heard them, without conviction. All three of the people on the hillside had handled some of the Twelve Swords at one time or another-it was hard for any of them to believe in the existence of any such equally powerful spell.
“We must investigate,” decreed the lady after a long silence, sighing as she spoke.
“Whoever is carrying Sightblinder came down the hillside alone a little while ago,” said Zolton. “And perhaps he or she will soon be going up again.”
“If not,” Ben decided in a heavy voice, “we must go down into the town and search for him, or her. Though for Zoltan and me it would be wise, as we all agreed earlier, to appear there as seldom as possible.”
The three decided to wait where they were for a while longer before trying to search the town.
Before an hour had passed they saw a lone figure ascending the path again. And for each, as each whispered to the others, it was someone they loved or feared. This time for Ben it was his wife, who was at home in Tasavalta and in logic could not be here at all.
Firmly disregarding the evidence of their senses, the three moved out of their ambush and closed in, as upon a dangerous armed enemy. Zoltan and Ben held weapons ready. Their quarry, whoever it really was, saw them coming and displayed alarm, and cried out warnings to them, words that reached the ears of each of them in the tone of some voice that had long been loved or feared. It cost each of the three an effort of will to ignore those pleading warnings and close in.
At last, in a brushy hillside ravine well off any of the regular footpaths, they managed to corner their quarry, who by now was moving slowly and erratically, as if nearly exhausted.
Ben saw Barbara, his own diminutive, dark-haired wife, looking at him piteously. Making a great effort, he called to her: “Throw down that damned magic blade, whoever you are-I know you have it there!”
Yambu, this time, saw the Emperor again, turning at bay to face her, and wondered if it was her love for him or fear of him that the Sword played on to cast his image. She too moved forward implacably, though she was unarmed.