I swear to you, most royal and excellent lady,” declared the handsome and distinguished visitor, “I solemnly pledge, most lovely and farseeing Princess, that if you can save the life of my Queen’s consort and end his suffering, her royal gratitude and his-not to mention my own-will know no bounds.”
Princess Kristin sighed. Over the course of the past two days, she had already heard the same statement a score of times from the same man, sometimes in very nearly the same words, sometimes in speech less flowery. Now once more she forced herself to attend with courtesy and patience to the representative of Culm.
As soon as the distinguished and handsome visitor had concluded his latest version of his plea, she turned half away from him, trying to frame her answer. Over the past two days she had endeavored to give the same reply in different ways. This time the Princess began her response in silence, with a gesture indicating the view beneath the balcony on which they stood.
Below the Palace, sloping away toward the sea, rank on rank of the neatly tiled, multicolored roofs of Sarykam gleamed in the bright sun of summer afternoon. Halfway between the Palace and the harbor, the mass of crowded buildings was interrupted by a tree-lined square of generous size, which held at its center the chief White Temple of the city. This structure, a pyramid of stark design and chalky whiteness, contained among other things two shrines, those of the gods Ardneh and Draffut.
Of greater practical importance to most people was the fact that the pyramid also contained, within a special coffer, the Sword called Woundhealer.
Today, as on almost every day, a line of people seeking the Sword’s help had begun to form before dawn in the Temple square. Now in the middle of the afternoon that line, easily visible from the Palace balcony, was still threading its way into the eastern entrance on the harbor side of the white pyramid. The line was still long, and new arrivals kept it at an almost constant length. The people who made up the line were suffering from disease or injury of one kind or another. They were the ill, the crippled, the blind or mad or wounded, many of them needing the help of nurses or close companions simply to be here and join the line. Some of the sufferers had come from a great distance to seek Woundhealer’s aid.
Even as the Princess gestured in the direction of the white pyramid, a pair of stretcher-bearers, lugging between them an ominously inert human form, were being ushered by white-robed priests toward the front of that distant queue. The priests of Ardneh who served this particular Temple were accustomed to making such decisions about priorities, thus assuming momentarily the role of gods. From the balcony there was no telling whether the body on the stretcher was that of a man, woman, or child. The Princess thought that no more than a minimum of protest would be heard from those whose turns were being thus preempted; she could see that today’s line was, as usual, moving briskly, and no one in it should have to wait for very long.
Meanwhile, the most recent beneficiaries of the power of the Sword of Healing, many of them accompanied by their relieved nurses and companions, were emerging in a steady trickle from the Temple’s western door. People who only moments ago had been severely injured or seriously ill, some even at the point of death, were walking out healthy and whole. From experience Kristin knew that their bandages and splints would have been left in the Temple, or were now being removed and thrown away. Stretchers and crutches, indispensable a few minutes earlier, were now being cast aside by vigorous hands. Only a few of those who had just been healed still needed help in walking, and to them strength would return in time.
For the Sword of Mercy to fail to heal was practically unheard of. As a rule every supplicant who limped or staggered or was carried into the eastern entrance of this White Temple soon came walking out, with a firm step, from the western exit. Today, as usual, some of the cured were waving their arms and shouting prayers of gratitude audible even to the two watchers on the distant balcony.
The Crown Prince Murat, tall emissary from the land of Culm, having gazed dutifully upon the distant scene as he was bidden, chose to ignore whatever inferences the Princess had meant him to draw from the sight. Instead he promptly resumed his arguments. “If, dear princess, it is a matter of some necessary payment-”
“It is not that,” said Princess Kristin quickly, turning back to face her visitor fully. Kristin was about the same age as the Crown Prince, in her early thirties and the mother of two half-grown sons. But she looked a few years younger, with her fair hair, blue-green eyes, and fine features.
She said to her eminent guest: “When you paid your own formal visit to the White Temple yesterday, Prince Murat, no doubt you noted that most of those who benefit from Woundhealer’s power do make some payment in the form of offerings. These funds are used to maintain the Temple and to pay its priests and guards. Others who benefit from the Sword are unable to pay; and a very few refuse to do so. But none are denied treatment on that account. If your
Queen’s unfortunate consort can travel here to Tasavalta, the powers of the Sword of Healing will be made available to him under the same conditions.”
“Regrettably that is not possible, Princess.” In the course of his brief visit Murat had already offered this explanation at least a hundred times, or so it seemed to both of them, and now it was his turn to repeat a statement slowly and patiently. “A condition of nearly total paralysis afflicts the royal consort, combined with the most fearful arthritic pain, so that even the movement required to go from one bed or one room to another is a severe ordeal for him. An overland journey of more than a thousand kilometers, only half of it on roads, is, as you can appreciate, quite out of the question. Ten kilometers would be impossible.”
“Then I am truly sorry for him. And sorry for your Queen, and for all her realm.” And it seemed that the Princess was speaking her true feelings. “But I am afraid that the Sword stays here, in Tasavalta. That is my final word.”
A silence fell, broken only by the occasional noise, a rumbling cart or a raised voice, rising from the thronged city below. Kristin half expected her visitor to raise yet again the point that sometimes the Sword was taken out of the city of Sarykam, and carried on tour in a heavily guarded caravan that visited the outlying portions of the realm, bringing healing to those unable to reach the capital. If he did choose to raise that point again, she had her previous answer ready: Woundhealer was never allowed to go outside the borders of the realm. Her patience held; she could sympathize with Murat, though she would not yield to him.
But the persistence of the Crown Prince, not yet exhausted, this time took a different tack. He said: “Still, the journey to Culm and back with the borrowed Sword could be quickly accomplished by my troop – accompanied, of course, by any number of representatives you might choose to send with us. Our mounts are very swift, and we are now familiar with the way. My master’s healing once accomplished, the Sword could be on its way back here the very same day. Within the hour. I would be willing to pledge my honor to you on that.”
The soft urgency of his voice was unexpectedly hard to resist. But Kristin still said what she had to say. “I understand your arguments, Prince. I am willing to believe that you mean your pledge, and I respect it. But once your realm found itself in possession of such a treasure as Woundhealer, convincing arguments would soon be found as to why the Sword should stay there, as a policy of national health insurance.”
“No, Princess, I must-”
“No, Crown Prince Murat, your request is quite impossible to meet. The Sword of Love stays here.”
Before the Crown Prince could devise yet another argument, the conversation was interrupted. The door leading to the balcony, which had been standing ajar, burst open violently, and a small form came running out.
Startled and angry, the Princess turned to find herself confronting the younger of her two sons, who at ten was certainly old enough to know better than to behave in such a way.
“Well, Stephen? I hope you have some just cause for this interruption?”
The boy, as sturdy as his father had been at the same age, though somewhat darker, was flushed and scowling, evidently even angrier than his mother. But now he drew himself up, making a great effort at self-control. “Mother, you once said that I should tell you at once if I knew of anyone practicing intrigue within the Palace.”