“And I suppose you have just now discovered something of the kind?” It was easy to see that the Princess was not inclined to accept the alarming implication at face value.
Stephen drew a deep breath. His anger was cooling, and now he seemed reluctant to go on.
Another deep breath. “It’s my tutor, Mother. I believe he is about to come to you with false stories concerning my behavior.”
And indeed the Princess, raising her gaze slightly, discovered that very gentleman now hovering inside the balcony door, irresolute as to whether he should match his pupil’s daring and interrupt what looked like a state conference, simply to defend himself.
Sternly Kristin ordered her younger son to go to his room and wait there for her. The command was delivered in an incisive tone that allowed no immediate argument; it was obeyed reluctantly, in gloomy silence.
Then the Princess silently waved the tutor away, and turned to apologize to the ambassador for the interruption.
The tall man smiled faintly. “I have two children of my own at home. Youth needs no apology. And a fiery spirit may be an advantage to one who is born to rule. Indeed I suppose it must be considered a necessity.”
“As are self-control, and courtesy; and those virtues my son has yet to learn.”
“I’m sure he will acquire them.”
“You are kind and diplomatic, Murat.” The Princess sighed again, quite openly this time, and spoke for once unguardedly. “I wish his father were here.”
There was a pause. It was common knowledge that Prince Mark had spent no more than ten days at home during the last half year, and that the timing and duration of his next visit home were problematical.
Murat bowed slightly. “I too wish that. I had looked forward to meeting Prince Mark. His name is known and respected even in our far corner of the world.”
“Not that my husband would give you any different answer than I have given, on the subject of loaning out the Sword of Healing.”
The visitor bowed again. “I must still be allowed to hope that the answer will change.”
“It will not change.” After a pause, the Princess added: “If you are wondering about my husband’s absence, know that he is in the service of the Emperor; he is the Emperor’s son, you know.” In the minds of many, the Emperor was a half-mythological figure; and that a prince should believe he owed this legend service was an idea sometimes hard for outsiders to grasp.
And sometimes even the Princess, who had never seen her mysterious father-in-law, found the situation hard to understand as well.
The Crown Prince said: “I was aware of Prince Mark’s parentage.”
Suddenly Kristin heard herself blurting out a question. “You don’t-I don’t suppose that any news has come to you recently regarding his whereabouts?” A month had now gone by in which no winged messenger had brought her news of her husband. Unhappily, this was not the first time such a period had elapsed, but repetition made the stress no easier to bear.
“I regret, Princess, that I have heard nothing.” Murat paused, then made an evident effort to turn the conversation to some less difficult subject. “Young Prince Stephen has an older brother, I understand.”
“Yes. Prince Adrian is twelve. He’s currently away from home, attending school.”
Again there came interruption, this time more sedately, and welcome to both parties. It took the form of a servant, announcing the arrival of the other members of the Culm delegation. These folk had been sight-seeing in the streets of Sarykam this afternoon, and some of them had visited the White Temple down the hill.
And now good manners required that the Princess and her companion come in from the balcony, to join the Culmian visitors and other folk inside the Palace.
One of the junior members of the Culmian delegation was Lieutenant Kebbi. This was Murat’s cousin, a redheaded, bold-looking, and yet unfailingly courteous youth, who now showed his disappointment openly, when he heard that the Princess was standing fast in her refusal to loan out the Sword.
Lieutenant Kebbi looked as if he might want to raise an argument of his own on behalf of the Culmian cause. But Kristin turned away, not wanting to give the impetuous youth a chance. None of the arguments that she had heard so far, and none that she could imagine, were going to sway her, sympathetic as she was.
Others still importuned her. At last, beginning to show her impatience with her guests’ pleading, Kristin demanded of them: “How many of my own people would die, while the Sword was absent from us?”
For that there was no answer. Even the eyes of the bold young lieutenant fell in confusion before the Princess’s gaze when she turned back to him.
Once more she faced the delegation’s leader. “Come, good Murat, can you number them, or tell me their names?”
The tall man only bowed in silence.
One of the several diplomats on hand quickly managed to change the subject, and talk went on until eventually the delegation from Culm withdrew to their assigned quarters. In there, servants reported, they were conversing seriously and guardedly among themselves.
In the evening, when the sun had set behind the inland mountains, the visitors from afar were once more entertained with Tasavaltan hospitality. There was music, acrobats, and dancers. To Kristin’s relief the subject of the Sword had been laid to rest. This was now the third day of the Culmians’ stay, and they expressed a unanimous desire to depart early in the morning.
During the evening, more than one Tasavaltan remarked to the Princess that the guests from Culm seemed to be taking their refusal as well as could be expected. Certainly they had now said and done everything they honorably could to persuade Princess Kristin to change her mind.
With some of the guests pleading weariness, and with the necessity for an early start hanging over them all, the party broke up relatively early. Before midnight the silence of the night had claimed the entire Palace, as well as most of the surrounding city.
At about dawn on the following morning-and, through a strange combination of unlucky chances, not before then-Kristin was awakened, to be informed by an ashen-faced aide that the Sword of Healing had been stolen from its place in the White Temple at some time during the night.
The Princess sat up swiftly, pulling a robe around her shoulders. “Stolen! By whom?” Though it seemed to her that the answer was already plain in her mind.
Awkwardly the messenger framed her own version of an answer. “No thief has been arrested, ma’am. The delegation from Culm reportedly departed about two hours ago. And there are witnesses who accuse them of the theft.”
By this time Kristin was out of bed, fastening her robe, her arms in its sleeves. “Has Rostov been aroused? Have any steps been taken to organize a pursuit?”
“The General is being notified now, my lady, and I am sure we may rely on him to waste no time.”
“Let us hope that very little time has been wasted already. If Rostov or one of his officers comes looking for me, tell them I have gone to the White Temple to see for myself whatever there may be to see.”
Only a very few minutes later she was striding into the Temple, entering a scene swarming with soldiers and priests, and aglow with torches. With slight relief she saw that her chief wizard, Karel, who was also her mother’s brother, was already on hand and had taken charge for the moment.
Karel was very old-exactly how old was difficult to determine, as was often the case with wizards of great power, though in this case the figure could hardly run into centuries. He was also fat, spoke in a rich, soft voice, and puffed whenever he had to move more than a few steps consecutively. This last characteristic, thought Kristin, had to be more the result of habit-or of sheer laziness, perhaps-than of disease. For Karel, like the more mundane citizens of the realm, had had the benefits of Woundhealer available to him for the past several years.
Karel reported succinctly and with deference. After a few words the Princess was in possession of the basic, frightening facts. Last night, as usual, the Temple had been closed for a few hours, beginning at about midnight. Ordinarily a priest or two remained in the building while it was closed, ready to produce the Sword should some emergency require its healing powers; but last night, through a series of misunderstandings, none of the white-robes had been on duty.
An hour or so past midnight, the chance passage of a brief summer rainstorm had kept off the streets most of the relatively few citizens who might normally have been abroad at such a time. And so, incredible as it seemed to Kristin, apparently no one outside the Temple had witnessed the assault, or raid.