HIGH POLITIC

Although the day was bright outside, little light could seep through the
leaded panes and what little light there was had been cut off by heavily
looped curtains. There were candles down the long table and in brackets
on the walls. In the marble fireplace at the high end of the room a
small flame smouldered under the stone cupids; before it three men were
standing, with goes of brandy in their hands. Baron Brunivar was
recognizable by his description—tall, with a mane of white hair and a
firm-set mouth that made one think of the word “nobility” without
reference to civil condition. He was talking with a short, round man who
looked as jolly as he could possibly be and a dark, grave-faced lord who
held a kitten in his arm till the little thing struggled to be set down,
whereupon it played round his feet, catching for the shoe-laces. In
spite of his solemnity, this would be Florestan, the Laughing
Chancellor; he was known to favor cats.

In a moment he looked around and signed to Tuolén the head butler, who
rapped a little silver bell on the table. All the men from various
corners of the room gathered. Three of them were episcopals in their
violet robes with flowers of office. Florestan quietly waited till all
were at rest, his visage in calm lines (but Rodvard could see just
enough of his eyes to catch an intimation that this might be a grim
business). He tapped the bell once more.

“My lords, if you were ignorant of this convocation’s purpose, you had
not been summoned; therefore, let us leave all preliminaries and turn
straight to the matter of Her Majesty’s finance.”

Pause. The apple-faced man said; “What’s there to say of it?”

“That it is a very dangerous thing to have the court in poverty when we
are threatened with this question of the succession.”

The faces along the table watched him attentively, all set in varying
degrees of stubbornness, and as the kitten scratched at the leg of his
chair, he reached down to pet it. “My lords, this has now grown so grave
that we can dissolve our troubles only by measures never taken before;
all the old means eaten up. Yet we still want money to pay Her Majesty’s
army, which is not only a disgraceful thing but also a perilous. Those
who should protect us may become our persecutors.”

The little round man’s smile was jolly as before, his voice not; “Your
Grace, a bug close to the eye may look as big as a lion. Is there proof
of true disaffection?”

A man with silver-streaked hair and the breast-star of a general on his
silk nodded gloomily. “I bear such proof. This brawl among the Red
Archers of Veierelden has been given a light appearance; but my men have
looked into it, and it runs deeper than you think. Namely, they were
shouting for the restoration of Pavinius to the succession. We hanged
one of his emissaries, a Mayern man.”

“Pah,” said the round man. “Since he was exiled every ruction has been a
shout for his return. They do not mean it.”

“Dossola will never bear a king who is himself the leader of a sect
opposed to true religion,” observed one of the episcopals. “Even his
one-time followers of the Amorosian faith have rejected him.”

Florestan held up his hand. “My lords, you wander. I summoned you here
on this matter of finance to say that it is within the powers granted to
me as minister by the Queen’s Majesty to establish by decree the new
form of tax-payment proposed by our good friend, the Count Cleudi. Yet
as some of you have been good enough to let me know this plan will never
succeed, I now ask what other you propose.”

“It is a plan to steal from the nobles of the land, and it will surely
not be borne,” said a long-faced man with great force.

Said one of the episcopals; “The estates of the Church must of course be
exempt from this plan; for it would be an affront to the most high God
to make his spiritual ministers into tax-gatherers for the lesser, or
civil estate.”

Chancellor Florestan threw back his head with a burst of laughter so
heartily sustained that it was not hard to see how he had won his
calling-name. “The same spiritual ministers,” he said, “have little
trouble with their consciences when it is a question of collecting taxes
to their own benefit. No, I do not contemplate that the lords episcopal
shall be exempt, however ill that sits, and I tell you plainly that I
will enforce this plan with every strength there is. Come, my lords, you
waste my time, which belongs to the Queen; and so dissipate her
resources. I ask again; who has a sharper scheme than Cleudi’s?”

Now they burst in on him with a flood of words like so many dogs
barking, which he hardly seemed to hear as he leaned down to pet the
kitten. Rodvard, watching the calm indifferent face, could not catch a
clear vision of the eyes in the candlelight and flow of movement. He saw
Tuolén advance to pick up one of the glasses, with his eyes fixed on the
horsefaced lord who had been so vehement (and it came to him that
Florestan must know there was another Blue Star in the room, and be
concealing his thought from reading). The Chancellor reached over to tap
his bell once more.

“We will hear the Baron Brunivar,” he said.

The lord he mentioned turned a stately head, (but though he was squarely
in face, Rodvard could only make out a thought troubled and urgent;
nothing definite.) “Your Grace,” he said, “when I first learned of this
plan, I thought it was put forward merely to provoke a better. Now I see
that it is not, and though I have no plan for raising more money, only
for spending less, I ask you to think what will happen if you persist in
it. More taxes cannot be borne by the commonalty; they’ll rise, and
you’ll have Prince Pavinius over the border with a Mayern army at his
back.”

The Laughing Chancellor turned his head and said to his own writer at
the side table; “Be it noted that Baron Brunivar spoke of treason and
wars in the west, where his seignory lies.”

White eyebrows flashed up and down over Brunivar’s orbits. “You shall
not make me a traitor so, Your Grace. I have stood in the battlefield
against this Pavinius when he was Prophet of Mancherei, with all
Tritulacca to aid him; and there were some who fled.” He looked along
the table. “It is not exterior war I fear, but Dossolans at each others’
throats, and an unpaid army against us.”

Florestan’s voice tolled; “Write it down that the Baron Brunivar doubts
the army’s loyalty to Her Majesty.”

Brunivar’s face became a grimace, but he plunged on. “Let me beg Your
Grace: could not enough be saved on the household budget for the spring
festival to keep the army happy for long?”

“Write it down that the Baron Brunivar declares Her Majesty to be
extravagant.”

“I’ll say no more. You have my completest word.”

Said Cleudi lightly; “I thank you, my lord Brunivar, for having shown
that no plan but mine will do.”

Brunivar’s mouth flew open and shut again. Said one of the episcopals;
“Let us think if there be not another plan. I have heard that in some of
the estates of Kjermanash, when extraordinary measures are needed, they
have a tax on flour which is levied at the mill; most collectible, since
no one can avoid it if he wishes to eat bread. Could not a similar be
laid here?”

Florestan’s lips twitched. Brunivar struck the table. “I said I’d done,
but this outdoes all. My lord, in the west it is exactly that our people
have not coppers enough both to buy bread and pay their present taxes
that has roused our troubles. Will you starve them?”

The little fat man said; “Yet the present revenues are not enough.”

A general murmur. Brunivar stood up in his place at the table. “My
lords,” he said, “I am forced to this issue. The burden lies not on the
court alone, but on all of you. The popular can pay no more; whatever
comes, must come from our estates. It has been so since the Tritulaccan
war and the loss of the Mancherei revenues that kept us all in luxury.
We in the western seignories have made some sacrifice toward the
happiness of our people, out of free will and the love of humankind. We
have been without the troubles that vex such seignories as yours, Your
Grace of Aggermans—” he looked at the round man “—and without witchings.
And this, I think, is because we show some love for those we rule.”

Cleudi lifted his hand for speech and the Chancellor signed to him. He
said; “I speak here under permission, being a foreigner, and not
familiar with these new religions that have vexed and divided the
ancient realm of Dossola and its former dominion overseas. I would ask
whether the Baron Brunivar’s talk of love for humankind places him more
definitely with the Amorosians who follow the first doctrine of the
Prince-Prophet, or with those who now accept his word?”

Head bent to set down these words, Rodvard did not catch a glimpse of
Brunivar’s face at this accusation, but he heard the quick gasp of
breath that was covered by Florestan’s laughter. The Chancellor said;
“My lords, and fellow-scoundrels of Baron Brunivar’s accusation, I think
this most happily clears the air. You see where the true resistance to
Count Cleudi’s plan for taxes lies, and on what ground. Will you make
yourselves one with that purpose, which is clearly nothing but the
establishment over us of Pavinius and his form of witchcraft?”

His eyes swept the table, and the noble lords and episcopals stirred in
their seats, but nobody said a word. “Now I’ll add more. You are jealous
of your privilege, my lords, as to this new plan, and fear the
government will be the only gainer. By no means; it is only a device of
finance which will in the end work favorably for all. You are charged
with the taxes due from your seignories, yes. But when this happens
there is created a class of financial paper which, having value, can be
bought and sold; I mean the warrants drawn by the court on you for the
tax-monies. Good; Her Majesty’s government will sell these warrants at
discount to Zigraners and others who love to speculate. There’s a fine
speculation; for instance, will the tax on the province of Aggermans
yield twice what it did last year—or the half? Thus the paper will
change hands; but at every change of ownership in the paper, the
government takes a small tax on the transaction, small enough not to
discourage the purchase and sale. Thus we are provided instantly with
the full treasury we must have, obtaining it from the sale of the
warrants; and at the same time we have a steady source of income, while
you, my lords, lose nothing.”

The small fat man who had identified himself as the Duke of Aggermans
spoke up; “It all sounds very well, but why must the nobles of the realm
be converted into money-grubbing tax-gatherers as though we had Zigraner
blood? What! Can you not cheat the speculators as well by selling them
paper on taxes collected direct, in the name of the Queen?”

The Laughing Chancellor flung out a hand. “Why, touching your first
question, my lord, you’ll be no more a tax-gatherer than you are today;
only the agents who now speak in Her Majesty’s name will be by degrees
transferred to your service. From this you’ll benefit; for some of these
taxes will be paid in early and you will have the handling of the monies
until the government’s paper against you falls due. As to the second,
why if we are to enlist the speculators to our work, it must surely be
through having papers of different values, which go up and down from one
seignory to another, instead of all being equal, as the government’s own
obligation is.”

The general said; “The monies must come soon, if we’re to have peace
with the army.”

Florestan stood. “The session may be considered closed.”

II

Outside the hall it was a shock to come into bright flowers and green.
The sun was just plunging down behind the low green hills westward, the
birds singing sleep-songs and everything in perfect peace, not a leaf in
movement. Tuolén the butler tapped Rodvard on the shoulder and when they
were together in his cabinet, brought forth a bottle of Kjermanash
ceriso, held it up to contemplate the ruby glow against the falling
light and poured into goblets of crystal.

“You found it diverting, Ser Bergelin? His Grace is very astute.”

Rodvard, sipping, perceived that a reply was asked. “Did he convince
them, then?”

“Where were your eyes? Ah, over your papers. But surely you saw enough
to know that conviction was beyond His Grace’s purpose? The lords
episcopal will never be convinced; the lords militant are convinced
already. Did you watch Brunivar when Cleudi accused him of being a
follower of Pavinius, whether as Prince or Prophet?”

“No, I was writing.”

“It would have been worth your trouble. There was that something like a
golden flash which always comes when a man discovers that what he has
said in innocency may be taken as the product of a guilty mind.”

“Guilty?” Rodvard’s surprise broke through the guard he had set on his
thought. “I am new to this Blue Star, but saw no guilt, only an honest
man who would help others.”

The butler’s permanent smile came up out of his crystal. “Honest?
Honest? I imagine Brunivar may answer to that. A tradesman’s quality at
best; I look for it in dealers who furnish the court with pork. But in
high policy, that type will hardly gain one more than a length of cold
ground—which it will now do for Brunivar.”

Rodvard looked down. “Then—then His Grace was playing a game with
Brunivar, to—”

“To make this public confession that he is either an Amorosian or a
follower of the Prince. As you clearly discovered. The episcopals can
never let that fall. They can no more have a man of such opinions as
regent-apparent than they could have Pavinius for king. So now there
will be an accusation and a trial and Brunivar walking the walk to meet
the throat-cutter on the scaffold, for I doubt they can afford
banishment. Not while Her Majesty insists on carrying through the old
King’s will that makes Brunivar regent-apparent for his honesty if the
throne falls vacant. But mark the astuteness of His Grace, who at the
same time destroys the popular party by taking off its best leader. But
I do not think more will be until after the spring festival, since to
condemn Brunivar now would give him the cancellation of punishments
which the festival entails.”

He gave a grunting laugh, drained his ceriso, refilled his own goblet
and brought Rodvard’s up to the brim, while the latter’s thoughts
whirled wildly, to cover which he asked; “The short man, always smiling,
though he spoke so sourly, was the Duke of Aggermans?”

“Yes. One to watch. I have caught him thinking of schemes by which he
may one day reach the Chancellor’s seat. That is why he opposes
Cleudi. . . . Ser, why are you so deep in turmoil of mind?”

“I—I suppose it must have something to do with Baron Brunivar,” said
Rodvard (not daring to try to conceal). “I have always heard him well
spoke of as a man who thinks of the benefit of others than himself.”

The steady smile became a chuckle. “So he does. These are the most
dangerous kind in politic. The next step beyond thinking on the good of
others is deciding what that good will be. A privilege reserved to God.
But is not His Grace astute?”

“Yet it seems to me shocking that a man who has done no wrong—”

“Ah, I see where you lead. Ser Bergelin, wrong is not in acts alone, or
else every soldier would be a criminal, but in the thoughts with which
they are done.” He tapped the jacket just over his heart, where the Blue
Star would hang, and for the first time the smile left his face. “When
you have borne one of these baubles as long as I, you will learn
something—namely, that few of us are different from the rest. I saw a
man in a dungeon once, a murderer, whose thoughts were better than those
of the deacon who gave him consolation. To my mind, that is. You or
another might take those same thoughts for hideous. Take now your Baron
Brunivar, who seems so lofty to you because on one range of topic his
desires chime with your own. Yet you are not his identical; watch him, I
say, and you will find his gold more than half brass in another light.
Wrong? Right? I do not know what value they have to one who wears the
Blue Star.”

III

Let conscience die. The hours wheeled timeless past as they so often do
when there is a change in outer circumstance so sharp that landmarks
vanish. Let conscience die; was it true? Rodvard thought of the high
ideals of service with which he had joined the Sons of the New Day—was
any purpose as good as another? Lalette; his mind shot off on a sudden
tangent of tenderness toward her, who fairly desired to be a good
partner, it might be for her own interest, but still making two instead
of one against a world; and Mathurin came in.

When he was told that Baron Brunivar was likely to be condemned only for
being the best man in the state and its appointed future regent, his
eyes burned like coal-fires; he said; “It is the thing we need; the
people will not bear to hear it; they will rise. First gain for your
Blue Star, friend.” He ran out with his nose sharpened by excitement,
his eyes glowing like those of a rat.

“Now the mask, Mathurin,” said Count Cleudi. One corner of his lip
twitched (the black eyes glinting with malice). He seemed as light and
strong as one of those bronze statues of the winged man, knuckles
resting on the table. His own costume was a rich purple, as he glanced
from the mirror to Rodvard’s face, masked down to the lower cheeks, but
with the lips bare.

“The chin is much alike. Turn around, Bergelin, slowly, pivoting on the
ball of the right foot. So.” He lifted his own right arm, slightly bent,
dropped his left hand to dagger-hilt, and illustrated. Rodvard tried to
follow him.

“Not quite right with the dagger; you are jerky. But you will hardly be
dancing a corabando. Have the goodness to walk across the room. Stand.
Mathurin, where does he lack the resemblance?”

The servant’s fingers came up to his lip. “The voice is almost perfect,
my lord, but there is something in the movement of the hands not
quite . . .”

“It is only birth that does it,” said Cleudi. “The wrist laces; he is
not very used to handling them. But for the rest, Bergelin, you were
born a most accomplished mimic and swindler. Remind me to dismiss you
before your natural talent is turned in my direction. Now the
instruction; repeat.”

“I am to be at the ball when the opera is over, at least a glass before
midnight. The fourth box on the left-hand side is yours. I am to look at
the doorbase of the second box, where a handkerchief will be caught. If
it is white, edged with lace, perfumed with honeymusk, I am to go below
and make myself seen at the gaming tables. But if the handkerchief is
blue and rose-perfumed, I am to take it away and leave in its place
another; then without being seen on the dancing floor or at the games,
go at once to my lord’s box, but leave the panels up and the curtains
closed. Someone will presently tap twice, a lady. I am to greet her with
my lord’s sonnet, eat with her; declare my passion for her . . . My
lord?”

“Yes?”

“What if—that is—I would—”

Cleudi shot him a gleam (containing amusement mingled with a little dark
shade of cruelty and the thought of shaming him with the full statement
of his quaver). “You want money, apprentice swindler? You should—”

“No, my lord, it is not that, but—.” The Count’s toe tapped, his
expression became a rictus, and Rodvard rushed on with heat at the back
of his neck. “What if the intrigue does not succeed, that is if you do
not appear in time—”

The rictus became a bark. “Ha—why, then you must suffer the horrid fate
of being alone in a secluded apartment with the shapeliest and most
willing woman in Dossola. Are you impotent?”

Rodvard half opened his mouth to protest in stumbling words that he was
a promised man, who thought it less than honest to violate his given
word, but Mathurin tittered and (the stream of hate and fury that flowed
from those black eyes!) he only made a small sound. Cleudi barked again:

“Ha! Will you be a theologian, then? It is she who should make
confession, not you—by the wise decision of the Church, as I was
discussing but lately with the Episcopal of Zenss. The minor priests
will say otherwise; but it is a reflection from the old days, before the
present congress of episcopals. Listen, peasant; is it not manifestly to
the glory of God that men should seek women for their first and highest
pleasure, as it is that daughters should have all monetary inheritance?
Is it not also manifest that all would be under the rule of women, who
have the Art as well as their arts, unless some disability lay upon
them. . . . Ah, chutte! Why do I talk like a deacon to a be-damned
clerk? Enough that I have given you an order. Greater things than you
think hang on this intrigue, and you’ll execute it well, or by the
Service, I’ll reduce you to a state where no woman will tempt you again.
Now take off that finery; be prompt here at two glasses before midnight
for Mathurin to dress you.”

II

“But where does this intrigue lead?” asked Rodvard.

“Could not your Blue Star give you a clue?” said Mathurin. They sat on a
green bank behind the hall of conference, many-colored tulips waving in
the light breeze about them, and Rodvard carefully tore one of the long
leaves to ribbons as he answered:

“No. There may have been something about Aggermans in it, but he was not
thinking of his central purpose at all, only about how it would be a
nasty joke and a revenge. What—” (it was behind his lips to ask what he
should do lest he lose the power of the Blue Star, but in midflight he
changed) “—what have you done toward saving Baron Brunivar? Will there
be a rising?”

(There was a quick note of suspicion and surprise in the eyes that
lifted to meet his.) “Nothing for now, but to let Remigorius, and
through him the High Center, know what’s in prospect. There’s no
accusation as matters stand; it will gain us nothing merely to put out
the story that the court plots against him. . . . Yet I do not
understand why he has failed to fly when it’s as clear as summer light
that Florestan means the worse toward him.”

“What I do not understand,” said Rodvard, “is why the High Center has
failed to make more preparation. It will be too late when Brunivar’s
been placed in a dungeon, under guard and accusation with a shar of
soldiers around him.”

“It would never pass . . .” Mathurin’s voice trailed off; he
contemplated the lawns, brow deep, and Rodvard could not see his
thought. “I can understand the High Center.”

“What would never pass? You are more mysterious than the Count, friend
Mathurin, with your hints here and there.”

The servitor turned on him eyes of angry candor. “Rodvard Yes-and-No, my
friend, Cleudi is right in calling you more of a moralist than a
churchman is. By what right do you question me so? Do you think I am of
the High Center? Yet I will show you some of the considerations. It will
never pass that the Chancellor should execute Brunivar and then have it
proved that this fate came on him for some private reason. And now that
you whip me to it, I will say as well that it will never pass that
Brunivar should not be executed while we cry shame. We need a general
rising, not a rescue that will drive many of us abroad. People will not
leave their lives to fight until there is something in those lives that
may not be sustained.”

(Conscience again.) Rodvard set his mouth. “If you wish the reign of
justice for others, it seems to me that you must give it yourself,
Mathurin, and I see no justice in watching a good man condemned to death
when he might be saved. I heard the Baron speak out in conference, and
he may yet win something there. But even fled to Tritulacca, or to
Mayern and Prince Pavinius, he would still be worth more than with his
throat cut.”

The serving man stood up. “I’ll not chop logic against you; only say,
beware. For you are a member under orders; your own will or moral has
nothing to do with the acts of the High Center. Brunivar is nothing to
us; down with him, he is a part of the dead past which is all rotten at
the heart, and of which we must rid ourselves for the living future. I
will see you later, friend Bergelin.”

III

A tray had been left in his room as usual, but Rodvard hardly ate from
it before flinging himself down to lie supine, watching the pattern of
light through the shutters as it slowly ticked across the wall, trying
to resolve the problem that beset him. Brunivar with his noble aspect
and surely, his noble mind. “Free will and the love of humankind,” the
Baron had said, and they called it the doctrine of the apostate Prophet.
Yet for what else had he himself joined the Sons of the New Day? What
else had the Baron put into practice out there in his province of the
west?

Yet here is Mathurin saying that no happiness could be bought by love of
humankind, since certainly no love of humankind would let a high man go
to shameful death when it might be prevented. No, perhaps that was not
true, either; even barbarians had sacrifices by which one gave his life
that many might live, though their method in this was all superstition
and clearly wrong. . . . But only by the consent of the one, Rodvard
answered himself; only when there was no way but sacrifice.

Brunivar had made no consent; was being pushed to a sacrifice by
malignance on one side, with the other accepting the unwilling gift he
gave. Yet in that acceptance was there not something base and selfish?
He remembered the curious unformed thought of treachery he had surprised
in Remigorius’ mind, Mme. Kaja’s active betrayal, Mathurin’s violence,
and was glad they were joined with him, in one of the minor Centers of
the Sons of the New Day. When that Day rose—but then, too late for
Brunivar. Ah, if there were some deliverance, some warning one could
give that would be heeded.

A clock somewhere boomed four times. Rodvard twisted on the bed,
thinking bitterly how little he could do even to save himself, willing
in that moment to be the sacrificed one. With witchery one
might—Lalette . . . Little cold drops of perspiration gathered down his
front from neck to navel at the perilousness of the intrigue in which he
was now embarked for the night, perilous and yet sweet, delight and
danger, so that with half his mind he wished to rise and run from this
accursed place, come what might. With the other half it was to stay and
hope that Cleudi would not interrupt the rendezvous in the box, as he
had said, so that the heart-striking loveliness he had now and again
seen from far in the last seven days (for he did not doubt that the mask
to meet him in the box would cover the Countess Aiella) might lie in his
arms, come what might to the felon of Lalette’s witcheries. Was he
himself one of those whose purposes were hideous, as Tuolén the butler
had put it, with an inner desire toward treachery toward her who had
received his word of love? Wait—the word had been wrung from him, given
under a compulsion, was the product of a deed done under another
compulsion. This, too. Before a high court I will plead (thought
Rodvard) that I myself, the inner me who cherishes ideals still, in
spite of Mathurin or Tuolén, had no part in betrayals . . . and
recognized as he thought thus, that the union in the place of masks was
of that very inner me, given forever . . . or forever minus a day.

Flee, then. Where? A marked man and a penniless, trying to escape across
the seignories, with only a clerk’s skill, which demands fixities, to
gain bread. Brunivar might perhaps be held from flying to safety by
compulsions as tight as these—at which the wheel of thought had turned
full circle; and the realization of this shattering the continuance of
the motion, Rodvard drifted off into an uneasy doze, twitching in his
place.

He came fully awake with a final jerk, swinging feet to the floor in the
twilight; stood up, made a light, and not daring to go on with his
self-questionings, pecked a little at the gelid remains of his noon
viands, while speculating on Cleudi’s intrigue. But the Count had so
buried the line of his plan that nothing could be made of this, either;
Rodvard went to seek Tuolén, in the hope that he might have some light.
Vain hope; the butler’s cabinet was dark and everyone else encountered
in the corridors was hurrying, hurrying, with burdens here and there, in
preparation for the grand ball. There was an atmosphere of anticipatory
excitement that built up along Rodvard’s nerve-chains until he stepped
forth into the spring eve to escape it.

Out there, the evening had turned chill, with a damp breeze off the
Eastern Sea that spoke of rain before sun. All the flowers seemed to
have folded their wings around themselves to meet it, and Rodvard felt
as though nature had turned her back. He longed for a voice, and as a
girl’s form came shadowy around a turn of the path, he gave her
good-evening and asked if he might bear her burden.

“Ah, no, it is not needed,” said she, drawing back; but a shaft of light
from a window caught them both and there was mutual recognition, she
being the breakfast chambermaid, whose name was Damaris.

“Oh, your pardon, Ser,” she said. “It is most good of you,” and let him
take her package, which was, in truth, heavy.

“Why, this must be gold or lead or beef, not flowers as it should be on
festival eve,” he said, and she trilled a small laugh before answering
that festival it might be for those badged with coronets or quills, but
for her class it was a night of labor—“and it is not gold, or I would
run away with it, but one of those double bottles of Arjen fired-wine
for the box of the Count Cleudi, whom you serve.”

She turned her head, and in the light which threw across the path from
another window, he caught a glint of her eyes. (She was very friendly
after a week of bringing him breakfasts, in which he had treated her as
courteously as though she were high born.) “Will you have no festival at
all, then?” he asked.

“Oh, yes, tomorrow afternoon, when all the court’s asleep. In the
evening when they wake, it will be duty again.” They had reached the
door of the great hall; within workmen were attaching flowers to the
bowered dais where the musicians would play, there was a sound of
hammering from somewhere along the balcony behind the boxes, and Tuolén
the high butler was revolving in the midst of the dancing floor,
pointing where a flower-chain should be draped or a chair placed. His
movement was that almost-prance which Cleudi had demonstrated. The
girl’s face turned toward Rodvard (her eyes suddenly said she wished him
to ask her something, he could not quite make out what, they were so
quickly withdrawn, but it was connected with the festival).

“I’ll have no festival myself unless someone takes pity on me,” he said.

(That was it.) “Would you—come and dance with me? It is only a servants’
ball . . .” (She was a little frightened at her own boldness in asking
someone so far above her in station, yet trembling-hopeful he would
accept.)

“Why—have you no partner?”

“My friend has been called away to serve in the army. I have my ticket
already and it will only be three spadas for yourself.”

(Somehow he would get them; it would be an afternoon of real relaxation
from complexities.) “You honor me, Demoiselle Damaris. Where shall I
meet you?”

“Oh, I will wake you with breakfast as usual, and wait for you. Here is
the door.”

The box was larger than one might think from the outside, and already
heavy with the perfume of flowers.

Under the colored lanterns swinging from trees, there were already a
score or more carriages lining the side drives. Coachmasters talked in
groups. The doors of the hall stood open, a wide bar of light
silhouetting those who came on foot from the opera-hall, and turning to
a more vivid green the tender grass. Violins sounded piercingly; as
Rodvard joined the throng at the entrance, striving to walk with
Cleudi’s slight strut, he saw how all the floor beyond was covered with
jewels and flashing feet, while nearby the mingled voices were so high
that only the rhythm of the music was audible, with women’s laughter
riding on all like a foam. Right behind him a bearded Prophet of
Mancherei showed the slim legs of a girl through an artfully torn silken
robe, and tossed at him a rouge-ball which marked his white jacket; he
must weave his way to the foot of the stairs around a group gaily trying
with tinsel swords to attack an armored capellan, pausing to bow before
one of twenty queens.

Halfway up the stairs in the dim of the balustrade, an archer of the
guard, with his star-badge picked out in emeralds, was kissing a
sea-witch in flowing blue. They disembraced at his footfalls; the
sea-girl leaped up and threw her arms around Rodvard’s neck, crying;
“Snowlord from Kjermanash, I will melt you. Did I not tell you, ser
archer, that witches are all fickle?”

“But are tamed by those who battle for them,” said the archer, as
Rodvard gave her the kiss she sought. (Behind her eyes was nothing but
reckless pleasure.) “My lord of Kjermanash, I challenge you; will you
duel or die for her?”

“Oh, fie!” cried the sea-girl. “No one shall ever tame me,” and giving
them each a box on the ear in a single motion, ran lightfoot and
laughing down the steps to throw herself on the capellan, shouting that
he was her prisoner.

“Lost! Lost!” cried the archer in mock agony. “Come, my lord, let us
make an alliance for the conquest of witches less fickle than the
marine. I will provide the arm and you the purse, from that secret
gold-mine which all Kjermanash keep.”

“Ah, ser archer, it is magic gold, and at the touch of a witch, would
vanish.” Rodvard bowed and turned up the stairs.

For most, it was still too early to retire to the boxes, the corridor
behind them was empty of all but one small group of masks, laughing
together. Rodvard waited a moment with beating heart, turning to toss
one of his snowballs of perfumed fabric at random into the crowd below.
He thought someone down there in the group might have cried, “Cleudi!”
as the people at the end of the corridor entered their box and he was
alone. The handkerchief was in place; it was more than a little dim for
him to be sure of the color, but as he took it from its place with a
little tear, there could be no doubt that the perfume was rose.

Eight paces counted in automatic nervousness carried him to the door of
Cleudi’s box. Music and voices were muted from within, it was an island
of alone, the feeling deepened by everything in view. Other servants
than Damaris had been busy; the reek of flowers was heavier than ever,
even the chairs were garlanded and the odor enhanced by a tall candle
which stood on the sideboard, left of the entrance, sending a tiny curl
of perfumed smoke into the still air. Around the candle were viands;
beyond the sideboard against the wall, a divan with rolling edges; round
chairs facing the panels where the box would look out over the dancing
floor if the panels were let down and the curtains drawn back. There
were two chairs facing the table and it was laid, but in the center,
only the bottle of fired-wine, its cork already drawn. Rodvard poured
himself a dram and drank it rapidly, savoring the warm shock as it
coursed down his throat.

He wondered if he dared take a second draft and decided against, he
would need clear wits to play his part. A slice from the ham made him
realize hunger, but again he forebore to go further, it would be
ungentle to disarrange the meal before the arrival of his guest. He
walked slowly across and seated himself in one of the chairs, looking
outward toward the blank paneling, twisting his back into the comfort of
the seat, but without finding rest. From below the high note of a violin
in crescendo pierced the hangings; one might be one of those gods of
antique legend, who sit on the Shining Mountains, with heads above the
clouds, and control mortal destinies to whom all below would be what he
heard now, a babble with an occasional note of agony. Ah, but to be the
controller instead of the controlled—

The door was tapped.

So rapidly that the chair was overset, Rodvard leaped to his feet,
picked it up, cursing his clumsiness, strode swiftly to the door and
threw it open. On the threshold stood the Prophet of Mancherei, who had
teased him with the rouge-ball. He bowed over her hand, drawing her in,
and as the door closed, declaimed:

“Now that winter’s gone, the earth has lost
Her snow-white robes, and now no more the frost
Candies the grass or casts an icy cream
Upon the silver lake or crystal stream;
Now do the choir of chirping minstrels bring
In triumph to the world the youthful spring:
The valleys, woods and hills in rich array
Welcome the coming of the longed-for May.
Now all things smile, only my love doth lower
Nor hath the scalding noon-day sun the power
To melt that marble ice, which still doth hold
Her heart congealed and makes her pity cold.
How shall we call it spring when she doth carry
June in her eyes, in her heart January?”

—in a half-whisper, yet joyously, with laughing lips, as Cleudi might
have done it, passing one hand around her shoulders, with the other
holding tight to her hand.

“A northern lord to complain of the cold? And to instruct the Prophet of
Love in love?” she said, in Countess Aiella’s thrilling voice. (If it
were only this one.) “I will not grant your right to sue until you have
proved love your prophet.”

“Ah, that would be epicene,” said Rodvard (the fired-wine working in
him; but it was too dim to wring truth from her eyes). “You must convert
yourself to a woman before you can convert me to your sacred love.”

“Oh, love does not remain true love when its longings are satisfied;
therefore the sacred, which can never be satisfied, is above the
profane,” she said, stepping to one of the chairs at the table with a
graceful play of ankle. Her hands went up to slip off the head-mask, and
she sat back, hair falling round her shoulders. “I am a little weary, my
lord of Kjermanash; give me something to drink that will warm your
wintry wit.”

Her fingers toyed with a goblet, but he took one of the festival-cups
from his belt, poured it full, then as she drank, disengaged it from her
fingers and finished it himself, lips carefully at the place where hers
had touched the edge.

“Not worthy of you, my lord. Is this the promised originality? Go catch
servant-girls with such tricks.”

“Alas,” he said, using the same half-whisper (the voice was the
danger-point). “True love and longing has no tricks, only the expression
by every means of its desire. Let us contest your heresy that satisfied
longing is the end of love; for in love, the momentary assuagement only
leads to further longings.”

He poured her more from the bottle, and this time took the other cup
himself. (The glint of her eye, momentarily caught, held some slight
anticipation of pleasure, but there was more in it of weariness with the
world.)

“Ah, if it only would,” she said, and turned her lovely head aside. “I
am hungry, my lord.”

He leaped up at once and began to serve her from the sideboard, while
the joyous tumult from below and along the corridor became louder, and
someone in the next box was making high festival, with squeals of women
laughing and the rumble of men. They ate, talking a little more of the
nature of love and whether it lives by satisfaction or by the lack of
it. She drank more than he. There were springcakes; he set one before
her, but she only tasted it and pushed it away, whereupon he left his
own untouched and ran around the table to gather her in his arms. “You
are the only sweet I need,” he whispered, feeling at once strong and
weak, but she avoided her head from his kiss, and when he essayed to
hold her, shook herself free, with: “No. Ah, let us not spoil it.”

“Lovely Aiella, do not say that, I implore,” he cried, slipping down
with one arm around her waist, his face close to the sweet hair of her
turned head (and now with the fired-wine and nearness it was not of
Maritzl of Stojenrosek he thought of, Maritzl lost, or of Lalette, or of
the interruption that would come, but only of desire), and he slipped
farther to one knee, not saying anything any more, only drawing her
hands to him and kissing them again and again.

She took them from him and lifted his face gently to look him straight
in the eyes, for one long breath in which the sound of the twittering
recorders came from the floor beneath; then the Countess Aiella rose a
trifle unsteadily to her feet, and as Rodvard rose also, holding her in
the circle of his arms, said; “Shall we kiss?”

Her face was in shadow as the full lips met his, but as he swung her
from her feet toward the divan, her eyes came open (and he saw in those
deep pools that she would resist no longer, only hope that it would be
better than the others). He half fell across her, with fingers and lips
they devoured each other—

The creak of the opening door shivered through every muscle. “Be
careful, my lord,” said Cleudi’s voice, strongly. “By the Service!
What’s here?”

Rodvard rolled himself afoot (the thought of that other union
unconsummated in Mme. Kaja’s garret shouting a trumpet through his mind
and making him now glad, glad of this failure) and around to see Cleudi,
all in his purple costume, with the pudgy Duke of Aggermans, and between
the two a masque dressed as a bear. The man was very drunk; as the
lolling white head came upright in its swing, Rodvard found himself
looking into the eyes of the people’s friend, Baron Brunivar, and even
in the dim light, was appalled by what he saw there, for the man was not
only drunk, he had a witchery upon him.

The mouth opened. “Sh’ my always darling,” said Brunivar thickly, and
disengaging his arm from Cleudi’s, swung it in a round gesture. “Glad
you foun’ her for me.” Aggermans released the other arm; the Baron took
three stumbling steps toward Aiella, and as she slipped his clutch,
stumbled onto the divan, pushed himself around, focussed his eyes with
difficulty, and cried; “Now I foun’ her. Festival night. You go leave
us, and I do anything you want tomorrow, my lor’.”

Aggermans’ round face had gone cherry-red. “That I can credit, my lord,”
he said, looking steadily not at Brunivar but at the Countess Aiella.
“The more since I once would have done the same. But it is too high a
price for the temporary favors of a bona roba.”

The Countess laughed. “The pleasure of your Grace’s company has been so
small that you must not blame me if I seek elsewhere.” She turned to
Cleudi with a certain dignity. “As for you, my lord, I know whom I have
to thank for this shame, and believe me, I will not forget it.”

He bowed. “If the memory lasts until the next time when you laugh over
having given a rendezvous you never meant to keep, I shall feel myself
repaid for my troubles,” he said.

“Ah, she has been deceiving you, too?” said Aggermans, and turned toward
Rodvard as Brunivar made one more pawing effort to grasp the girl. “And
who is this? I think I should like to remember him.” (Concentrated venom
streamed from his eyes.)

“Why, since this is another costume of mine, I think this will be my
writer,” said Cleudi. “Take off your mask, Bergelin.”

Rodvard drew it off slowly, not knowing what to say, but the Countess
Aiella spared him the trouble. “I see,” she said. “It was all planned,
not a part only. At least he has a heart, and so the advantage over any
of you.” She stepped over to take the young man’s arm. “Ser, will you
escort me as far as my pavilion?”

Cleudi stepped aside to let them pass through the door and down the
stairs. “What, unmasked already, my lady?” cried someone in the gay
crowd round the door, but she did not turn her head until they were out
in the shadow, when she released his arm with; “Now, go.”

From within the hall came the moan of violins. Norfloxacin