“It is not your place to lesson my squires in courtesy!” Sir Ongis roared, “forgetting” the honorific that courtesy, custom, and his superior’s rank and title demanded.
Sir Luthias, Count of Connall, Knight Captain of the Northern Marche, glared at his officer coldly. “You are wrong, sir.” The younger Knight’s jaw was as tight as his clenched fists, but he managed to quote his wife’s father, Sir Lucan Shipbrook, who had taught Luthias himself the ways of chivalry. “‘It is the duty of a Knight to correct the behavior of all those who aspire to the chain.’”
Sir Ongis’ eyes narrowed. “My squires behave as I teach them.”
That much was obvious. “As does my squire,” Luthias replied, keeping his voice even with great effort. “I taught him to give a curt reply to anyone churlish enough to taunt him.”
The other Knight snorted, his contempt for Luthias obvious. “So your idea of a ‘curt reply’ is a blow to the mouth?”
Luthias’ fists relaxed as he thought of what Marcellon might say to this buffoon, and the young Knight had to conceal a smile as he said it. “My squire is mute, sir. He can only speak with his hands.”
“You–!” Ongis growled, taking a step closer to Sir Luthias and putting a hand on his sword’s hilt. Behind the Knight, Luthias’ chief aide, Captain Ittosai Michiya, silently grasped his katana’s handle. “I should teach you a lesson in how to respect your betters!”
“At your leisure, sir,” Luthias invited coolly, keeping his temper in check. He had had more infuriating foes than this. “I look forward to thrashing you as thoroughly as my squire thrashes yours.” When Ongis took another step toward him, Luthias looked over the idiot’s shoulder at his Castellan. “Shall I have you escorted to your pavilion?”
The Bichanese offered a smile and a bow, as if he would enjoy such a piece of work.
When the older Knight didn’t move, the young Knight Captain walked to the fireside and contemplated the battle plans he had drawn in the dirt. Sir Ongis seethed. After a moment, Luthias added, “Dismissed.”
Out of the corner of his eye, the Count saw Ongis stalk toward his bright pavilion. Michiya smiled, and Luthias returned it.
The Bichanese released his katana and approached. “A year ago, you would not have had such an easy time keeping your temper.”
Sir Luthias chuckled and clapped his aide’s shoulder. “A Bichanese friend of mine has shown me the advantage of control.” As a pleasant flush covered Michiya’s round face, a dark shadow, angry and painful, floated through Luthias’ eyes. “The training I got in Beinison helped greatly also.”
The castellan set his mouth. “A harsh lesson, that.” Then Ittosai Michiya smiled again. “It is good to see that the fool does not anger you much.”
Luthias flashed a smile, bright as the fire and quite as dangerous. “Oh, I am angry, Michiya, and I’d love to drive that craven, pompous son of a whore into the ground, but I haven’t got the time to worry about him.” The Knight Captain waved his hand over his crude sketches. “I have more important matters to deal with.”
Michiya nodded and squatted over the pictures. “You are still certain that the Beinison army goes to Magnus, Luthias-sama?”
Luthias’ certainty knotted his heart. The Beinisons flowed toward Magnus as steadily as the Laraka river flowed from it. “They won’t get there,” Luthias vowed, his eyes hard. “If I have to die for it, Michiya, they won’t get there.”
The Bichanese looked at his leige-lord seriously and said, “You may have to.”
Luthias gaze was serious and sincere. “If that’s what it takes, I’m willing.”
Michiya smiled like a sunrise. “I hope it will not come to that. I promised Myrande that I would bring you home safely.”
Luthias actually laughed. “I wonder how many people promised her that.” The King and Sir Edward knew they could hardly make such promises, but everyone else seemed to think themselves qualified to reassure Myrande that her husband would return from war alive and safe. Marcellon’s promise rested in the sword on Luthias’ hip. Michiya’s promise danced in his merry eyes. Luthias’ vow burned in his heart: *Sable, I’ll come home to you.* Their last night before he left raced into his mind, recalling the Count’s most urgent reason for halting Beinison’s progress–his beautiful wife. “We have to protect Magnus, down to the last man.”
“Yes,” Michiya agreed with a nod. “There is much at stake there, but do not worry about Myrande and the children. Marcellon put protections on his house, he said.”
Luthias laughed shortly. “If she consents to stay in it.”
“Still, she has protection,” Michiya reminded him. “But Fionna…”
“Fionna,” Michiya repeated.
To Luthias’ surprise, his castellan looked away. “A…woman of Magnus. She is a scribe.”
A scribe? “Friend of yours?” Luthias wondered, scribbling in the dirt.
“Yes. I–I think I love her.” When Luthias’ jaw dropped, Ittosai grinned up at his lord, and his openness disarmed any teasing words Luthias might have been preparing. “That is something that I learned from you: how to love a woman.”
The young Knight couldn’t decide whether to be repulsed or amused. “You’d better find another teacher. I think I’ve pretty well botched it.”
His friend shook his head. “No, Luthias-sama, you always loved Myrande well, even when you did not know you loved her.”
Luthias saw about as much sense in that statement as in Ongis’ behavior. Luthias needed to return to concepts that he better understood. “What do you think?” the Knight Captain asked, indicating his diagram with the stick he had used to draw it.
Ittosai Michiya again surveyed the plan. “Well done.”
“If it rains tonight, we might have a little trouble. Mud could–” Sir Luthias looked at the figure entering the glow of the campfire as noiselessly as a ghost. For that–and his mute tongue–the other squires had named him the Silent. “Come here, Derrio.”
The Knight inspected his squire sternly, noting the blood, the dirt, and the bruises. “Brawling with Ongis’ squires again?” Derrio hung his head, but managed to nod. Luthias waited a moment before asking, “Did you win?” The boy grinned. “Good. Now come over here and look at the plan for tomorrow.”
As the boy settled near the sketch, Luthias used his stick as a pointer and explained, “We’ll meet Beinison here, and after a while, we’ll retreat into this meadow. The archers will be hidden in the trees around the field. The troops will split into four parts–one to protect the archers on each side, and the last to seal off the meadow–and the archers will open fire.”
Derrio studied the plan intensely, then looked, astonished, at his Knight. The squire cupped his hands, then sprang them together.
“Yes, of course, it’s a trap,” Luthias agreed. The Knight laughed at Derrio’s appalled expression. “What’s wrong? Don’t you think it will work?”
Derrio shook his head. He pointed an accusing finger at the Knight Captain, another at the battle plans, then shook his head.
“Unlike me?” Luthias didn’t understand his squire at all. The young Count had been trained in strategy for most of his life. “What do you mean?”
Disgusted and stern, Derrio motioned reproachfully at the trap, then made a fist, with the protruding thumb pointing toward the ground.
Luthias stared. The down-pointing thumb was Derrio’s signal for “bad” or “evil.” “It’s not evil,” Luthias argued. “This is war, Derrio. I’m trying to save lives.”
Derrio jabbed a furious digit toward the plan and drew the same finger across his neck.
Luthias had to admit it. “Yes, it will kill many, too, but that’s the purpose.”
The squire actually snarled. Again, he signaled that Luthias’ plan was unworthy and evil.
Luthias seized his patience desperately. Roisart, Luthias’ year-dead brother, had never quite grasped the concept, either. Now, the Knight Captain found himself once again in the frustrating position of trying to explain war to an idealist. “This isn’t a matter of good and evil, Derrio,” the Count of Connall attempted. “This is war.”
Derrio shook his head angrily, and Luthias rolled his eyes. This was all he needed, Roisart’s idealism combined with Sable’s obstinancy. Again, the squire pointed at the sketches, then his Knight, then disapproved once more.
Luthias hurled his drawing stick into the fire in frustration. “You can’t judge me by my battle plans!” Luthias cried. “A man’s conduct in *peace* makes him good or evil, Derrio, not his conduct in war. The only moral decision in war is whether or not to start one. After that, it’s survival–kill or be killed, and end as quickly as you can.”
Derrio blinked, astonished once more. Slowly, the squire indicated the sketch and held out his hands, palms up, as if he were weighing something.
Luthias smiled. “Of course, it’s fair. There are no rules in war.”
Confusion suddenly rushed onto silent Derrio’s face. Slowly, he pointed at his Knight, drew his hand across his chest where a Knight’s chain might fall, then made an odd gesture near his waist. When Luthias shook his head–he had yet to understand all of Derrio’s signs–, the squire tipped his head back as if drinking from his curled hand. When Luthias shook his head once more, Derrio grabbed a small stick and wrote in uncertain letters, “Lawrence.”
“Oh.” Luthias recalled the battle against that noble Knight of the Star, who had gifted Luthias with the sword he now wore at his side. “That wasn’t the same.” Derrio shook his head in utter bewilderment. “Single combat does have rules. It’s not the same as war.”
Derrio again shook his head, and Luthias tried to think of a way to make him understand. “You used to wrestle Sir Edward’s squires, didn’t you?” Derrio nodded, uncertain. “You were…playing a game of sorts, and there were rules. With Ongis’ squires, though, you’re just trying to beat them into the ground.” Derrio nodded again, still not understanding. “When you wrestle Sir Edward’s squires, it’s like a Knight’s single combat. You fight by rules. Thrashing Ongis’ boys is like a war–the object is to win, and win fast.”
Derrio considered this. After a moment, he pointed to Luthias, to the name “Lawrence” scrawled in the dust, then made a gesture of killing. He looked at Luthias questioningly, and the Knight nodded. “Yes. I would have killed Sir Lawrence if I had to, Derrio, but I would have done it under the rules of chivalry.”
Derrio pointed to the name, then at the battle plans, and again his look questioned Luthias. “If he’s there tomorrow, he’ll die by the bow, the same as the rest, if all goes well.”
Derrio opened his mouth, pointed at Sir Lawrence’s name, then made a gesture, same as the sign for evil, except that the thumb pointed toward the sky. “He is a good man,” Luthias agreed, “but if I were in his trap, he would let me die, too. This is war, Derrio, and we all do what we must.”
Derrio tapped his chest with both hands and shook his head.
Luthias smiled sadly. “You’ll learn.” Luthias gazed down at his hands; once feeble and trembling, they had murdered; strong and steady, they had killed. “Believe me, Derrio; you’ll learn. We all do.”