The moon was shining, but the air was not so still as I thought. And where now was the weeping? Then I thought I heard it again. "Psyche," I called. "Istra! Psyche!" I went to the sound. Now I was less sure what it was. I remembered that when the chains of the well swung a little (and there had been breeze enough to sway them just now) they could make a noise something like that. Oh, the cheat of it, the bitterness!
I stood and listened. There was no more weeping. But something was moving somewhere.
Then I saw a cloaked form dart across a patch of moonlight and bury itself in some bushes. I was after it, quick as I could. Next moment I plunged my hand in among the branches.
Another hand met it.
"Softly, sweetheart," said a voice. "Take me to the King's threshold."
It was a wholly strange voice, and a man's.
Who are you?" said I, wrenching my hand free and leaping back as if I had touched a snake.
"Come out and show yourself." My thought was that it must be a lover of Redival's, and that Batta was playing bawd as well as jailer.
A slender, tall man stepped out. "A suppliant," he said, but with a merriment in his voice that did not sound like supplication. "And one who never let a pretty girl go without a kiss."
He'd have had an arm around my neck in a moment if I hadn't avoided him. Then he saw my dagger point twinkle in the moonlight, and laughed.
"You've good eyes if you can see beauty in this face," said I, turning it on him to make sure he saw the blank wall of the veil.
"Only good ears, sister," said he. "I'll bet a girl with a voice like yours is beautiful."
The whole adventure was, for such a woman as I, so unusual that I almost had a fool's wish to lengthen it. The very world was strange that night. But I came to my senses.
"Who are you?" I said. "Tell me quick, or I'll call the guards."
"I'm no thief, pretty one," said he, "though I confess you caught me slinking in a thief's fashion. I thought there might already be some kindred of my own in your garden whom I had no mind to meet. I am a suppliant to the King. Can you bring me to him?" He let me hear a couple of coins jingle in his hand.
"Unless the King's health mends suddenly, I am the Queen," said I.
He gave a low whistle and laughed. "If that's so, Queen," he said, "I've played the fool to admiration. Then it's your suppliant I am, suppliant for a few nights' - it might be only one - lodging and protection. I am Trunia of Phars."
The news struck me almost stupid. I have written before how this prince was at war with his brother Argan and the old king their father.
"Defeated, then?" I said.
"Beaten in a cavalry skirmish," he said, "and had to ride for it, which would be little odds but that I missed my way and blundered into Glome. And then my horse went lame not three miles back. The worst of it is, my brother's strength lies all along the border. If you can hide me for a day or so - his messengers will be at your door by daybreak, no doubt - so that I can get into Essur and so round to my main army in Phars, I'll soon show him and all the world whether I'm defeated."
"This is all very well, Prince," said I. "But if we receive you as a suppliant we must, by all law, defend you. I'm not so young a queen as to think I can go to war with Phars at this time."
"It's a cold night to lie out," he said.
"You'd be very welcome if you were not a suppliant, Prince. But in that character you're too
dangerous. I can give you lodging only as a prisoner."
"Prisoner?" said he. "Then, Queen, good night."
He darted away as if he were not weary at all (though I had heard weariness in his voice) and ran as one who is used to it. But that flight was his undoing. I could have told him where the old millstone lay. He fell sprawling, made to leap up again with wonderful quickness, then gave a sharp hiss of pain, struggled, cursed, and was still.
"Sprained, if not broken," he said. "Plague on the god that invented man's ankle. Well, you may call your spears, Queen. Prisoner it is. And that prison leads to my brother's hangman?"
"We'll save you if we can," said I. "If we can do it any way without full war against Phars, we'll do it."
The guards' quarters were on that side of the house, as I have said, and it was easy enough to go within calling distance of the men and yet keep my eye on the Prince. As soon as I heard them turning out I said, "Pull your hood over your face. The fewer who know my prisoner's name, the freer my hands will be."
They got him up and brought him hobbling into the hall and put him on the settle by the hearth, and I called for wine and victuals to be brought him, and for the barber to bind up his ankle. Then I went into the Bedchamber. Arnom had gone. The King was worse, his face a darker red, his breathing hoarse. It seemed he could not speak; but I wondered, as his eyes wandered from one to another of us three, what he thought and felt.
"Where have you been, daughter?" said the Fox. "Here's terribly weighty news. A post has just ridden in to tell us that Argan of Phars with three - or maybe four - score of horse has crossed the border and now lies but ten miles away. He gives out that he is seeking his brother Trunia."
How quickly we learn to queen or king it! Yesterday I should have cared little how many aliens in arms crossed our borders; tonight, it was as if someone had struck me in the face.
"And," said Bardia, "whether he really believes that we have Trunia here - or whether he's crossed the border of a crippled land only to make a cheap show of valour and mend his mouldy reputation - either way - "
"Trunia is here," said I. Before their surprise let them speak, I made them come into the Pillar Room, for I found I could not bear my father's eyes on us. The others seemed to make no more account of him than of a dead man. I ordered lights and fire in the tower room, Psyche's old prison, and that the Prince should be taken there when he had eaten. Then we three went busily to our talking.
On three things we were all of one mind. First, that if Trunia weathered his present misfortune, he was likely enough to beat Argan in the end and rule Phars. The old king was in his dotage and counted for nothing. The longer the broils lasted, the more Trunia's party would probably increase, for Argan was false, cruel, and hated by many, and had, moreover, from his first battle (long before these troubles) an old slur of cowardice upon him which made him contemptible. Second, that Trunia as king of Phars would be a far better neighbour to us than Argan, especially if we had befriended him when he was lowest. But thirdly, that we were in no plight to take on a war with Phars, nor even with Argan's party in
Phars; the pestilence had killed too many of our young men and we still had almost no corn.
Then a new thought, as if from nowhere, came scalding hot into my head.
"Bardia," said I, "what is Prince Argan worth as a swordsman?"
"There are two better at this table, Queen."
"And he'd be very chary of doing anything that would revive the old story against his courage?"
"It's to be supposed so."
"Then if we offered him a champion to fight against him for Trunia - pawned Trunia's head on the single combat - he'd be in a manner bound to take it up."
Bardia thought for a time. "Why," he said, "it sounds like something out of an old song. Yet, by the gods, the longer I look at it the better I like it. Weak though we are, he'll not want war with us while he has war at home. Not if we leave him any other choice. And his hope hangs on keeping or getting his people's favour. He has none of it to spare even now. And it's an odious thing to be pursuing his brother at our gates as if he were digging out a fox. That won't have made him more loved. If on top of it all he refuses the combat, his name will stink worse still. I think your plan has life in it, Queen."
"This is very wise," said the Fox. "Even if our man's killed and we have to hand Trunia over, no man can say we've treated him ill. We save our good name and yet have no war with Phars."
"And if our champion kills Argan," said Bardia, "then we've done the next thing to setting Trunia on the throne and earned a good friend; for all say Trunia's a right-minded man."
"To make it surer still, friends," said I, "let our champion be one so contemptible that it would be shame beneath all shame for Argan to draw back."