Four or five of Crown Prince Murat’s comrades in arms, all of those who had been riding near him, now stopped as well, glad of the chance of at least a brief rest for their mounts. Farther inland, the bulk of the small Culmian force had already vanished behind jagged hills. At the moment, somewhere in that direction, another trusted officer was carrying the Sword of Love steadily toward Culm.
Another Sword, Coinspinner, that Murat had secretly brought with him to Tasavalta rode openly now at his belt. And up to this point, in the adventure of Sword-stealing, the Sword of Chance had performed flawlessly for the man who wore it.
So far, all was going according to plan. It was necessary to assume that by now the theft from the White Temple had been discovered, and a determined pursuit launched. But until now none of Murat’s people had actually seen anyone coming after them.
An hour ago Murat had detailed one scout to ride far in the rear for just that purpose. And he was pausing now to let that scout, Lieutenant Kebbi, catch up to report.
His timing seemed excellent. For even as the Crown Prince and his companions watched, a single rider appeared at a bend in the rearward trail, a couple of hundred meters back. The small figure in its orange-and-blue uniform waved its arm in a prearranged signal meaning that there was news to tell. Then the distant scout urged his mount forward at a good pace.
Murat, followed by the handful of people with him, spurred his own riding-beast forward along the narrow trail, and in a few moments met the scout. The lieutenant, reining in as he drew near his compatriots, reported in a somewhat breathless voice that the expected enemy pursuit had only just now come into sight.
“How far back?” the Crown Prince demanded.
“We’ve half an hour on them yet,” said Kebbi. Then the lieutenant had a question: “Sir, what do you think will be done with the Sword of Mercy after the Royal Consort has been healed?”
Murat, mildly surprised, blinked at his relative. “I don’t know,” he said. “Not our problem.” Then he paused. “I was quite sincere, you understand, cousin, when I pledged that Woundhealer would promptly be returned to Tasavalta.” The more Murat thought about it now, the more he wondered if the lovely Princess Kristin had been right, and Woundhealer would never be returned, would never have been returned in any case.
Kebbi persisted. “I understand, sir. But I thought that your pledge was made on the condition that the Sword should be loaned to us willingly, which it most certainly was not.”
“Well, as I say, it won’t be our problem to worry about.” The Crown Prince looked at his men gathered about him. “Ready to move on? Someone else can take a turn tail-ending.”
But Kebbi spoke up quickly. “Sir, let me ride back once more-I’ll be better able to judge if they’re truly gaining on us or not.”
“Very well, that’s a good point. If your mount is tired, pick a spare.” And one of the small group of riders was already leading a spare mount forward.
With several men to help, changing the lieutenant’s saddle and the rest of his equipment from one animal to the other was the work of only a moment.
Meanwhile there was more information to be gained. “Can you estimate how many there are in the pursuing force?”
“Haven’t got that good a look at them yet, sir. But I can let them get a little closer this time. That way I should be able to form an estimate.” On a fresh steed now, Kebbi looked boldly ready to take risks.
“Wait,” said Murat suddenly, and drew Coinspinner from its sheath at his belt. “This should go with the man in the position of greatest danger and greatest need.”
The lieutenant stared at him wordlessly for a moment, then nodded. “Thank you, sir.” In another moment, handling both the sharp blades gingerly, he and Murat had exchanged Kebbi’s mundane though well-forged sword for Coinspinner.
Wasting no time, Kebbi saluted sharply with his new weapon, and turned his mount away. He appeared to be on his way to drop back again and check on the enemy’s progress.
But once he had ridden away a few meters with Coinspinner still unsheathed in his grip, and had looked it over, as if he were making absolutely sure of what he had, he stopped his mount and turned back again, showing a broad grin.
Something in the posing attitude of his cousin sent the beginning of a foreboding chill down Murat’s spine.
In a voice considerably louder than would have been necessary to make himself heard, the Crown Prince called out: “What are you doing, Kebbi?”
The Sword-wielder, his every movement showing confidence, edged his riding-beast back a little toward the others, as if to make sure that what he said was heard distinctly. What he said was: “I’m looking out for myself. For my own future.”
“What?” demanded Murat-though in his heart he knew already. Already he understood the horror of what was happening. Certain episodes of Kebbi’s childhood were replaying themselves relentlessly in Murat’s memory.
His cousin smiled at him, almost benignly. “I think you understood me the first time, sir. You who have the disposal of such matters at court have pretty well arranged it that I won’t have much of a future unless I do take matters into my own hands.”
The little group of Murat’s countrymen who sat their steeds around him were muttering now. He yelled: “What are you talking about? Have you gone mad?”
“Not in the least mad, sir.” Kebbi shook his head. He had a clean-cut face, and a habitual expression that somehow managed to suggest he was supremely trustworthy. “There’s just no prospect of advancement for me in the normal course of events, that’s what I’m talking about. Yes, now I see that you look thoughtful. Now, with a little effort, you can remember how the case for my promotion went, when you sat on the board of review. I’m sure it was a mere detail to you, the career of a very junior officer. Oh, an extremely reliable junior officer, one who could be chosen to participate in a mission like this, and even entrusted with a Sword. But also one who could be passed over with impunity when it came time for promotions.
“No, I’m not the least bit crazy, cousin. In fact, if you stop to think about it, you’ll see that my behavior makes a lot of sense. I now have a matchless treasure in my hands.” He paused to swing the Sword, taking a cut or two at the air to try the balance-which was of course superb.
When the lieutenant spoke again his voice was changed, lower and calmer. “It is the real thing. We proved that beyond any doubt in the White Temple. And now that I’ve got this Sword in my hands, I simply prefer to keep it for myself-the matter is as uncomplicated as that.”
A moment later Lieutenant Kebbi had inserted Coinspinner into the sheath at his belt. He kept his right hand comfortably on the black hilt afterward.
Murat, sitting his mount helplessly, had the feeling that his own life, his career, his sanity, were all draining out somehow from the toes of his boots, through his stirrups, to the ground. Knowing it was useless, he still had to shout again.
“Kebbi, I warn you! If this is some joke, some stupid attempt to force me to admit that you are valuable-”
The younger man was shaking his head. “That would indeed be stupid, and I’m not stupid. That’s something you, dear royal cousin, are finally going to have to realize. No, no joking, cousin. I am now going to turn my steed and ride away-it would be stupid on your part to try to stop me, as I am sure you realize. Instead I would suggest that you catch up with those loyal people who are carrying the other Blade for you, and hurry home as fast as you can with that one. You can still be at least half a hero there, in royal eyes, if you arrive with a useful Sword to replace the one you’ve lost.”
“If you are serious-then what are you attempting to do?”
“My dear Crown Prince, I am not attempting to do anything, as you will have to admit sooner or later. What I’m doing is an accomplished fact. I’m taking this Sword away from you, just as we took the other one from the Tasavaltans.”
As Kebbi spoke, he continued to sit his mount facing the others from a distance of thirty meters or so. Now one of the Culmian sergeants, outraged beyond measure by the treachery in progress, spurred his own riding-beast forward to pass Lieutenant Kebbi, moving to cut off the unspeakable traitor’s line of retreat.