"That's too subtle, daughter," said the Fox. "And hard on Trunia. We don't want our man beaten."
"What are you thinking of, Queen?" said Bardia, teasing his moustache in the old way. "We can't ask him to fight a slave, if that's what you mean."
"No. A woman," said I.
The Fox stared in bewilderment. I had never told him of my exercises with the sword, partly because I had a tenderness about mentioning Bardia to him at all, for to hear Bardia called fool or barbarian angered me. (Bardia called the Fox Greekling and "word-weaver" in return, but that never fretted me in the same way.)
"A woman?" said the Fox. "Am I mad, or are you?"
And now a great smile that would do any heart good to see it broke over Bardia's face. But he shook his head.
"I've played chess too long to hazard my Queen," he said.
"What, Bardia?" said I, steadying my voice as best I could. "Were you only flattering when you said I was a better swordsman than Argan?"
"Not so. I'd lay my money on you if it came to a wager. But there's always luck as well as skill in these things."
"And courage too, you'd say."
"I've no fear of you for that, Queen."
"I have no idea what you are both talking about," said the Fox.
"The Queen wants to fight for Trunia herself, Fox," said Bardia. "And she could do it, too.
We've had scores of matches together. The gods never made anyone - man or woman - with a better natural gift for it. Oh, Lady, Lady, it's a thousand pities they didn't make you a man." (He spoke it as kindly and heartily as could be; as if a man dashed a gallon of cold water in your broth and never doubted you'd like it all the better.)
"Monstrous - against all custom - and nature - and modesty," said the Fox. On such matters he was a true Greek; he still thought it barbarous and scandalous that the women in our land go bareface. I had sometimes said to him when we were merry that I ought to call him not Grandfather but Grandam. That was another reason why I had never told him of the fencing.
"Nature's hand slipped when she made me anyway," said I. "If I'm to be hard-featured as a man, why shouldn't I fight like a man too?"
"Daughter, daughter," said the Fox. "In mercy to me, if for nothing else, put this horrible thought out of your head. The plan of a champion and a combat was good. How would this folly make it better?"
"It makes it far better," said I. "Do you think I'm so simple as to fancy I'm safe on my father's throne yet? Arnom is with me. Bardia is with me. But what of the nobles and the people? I know nothing of them nor they of me. If either of the King's wives had lived, I suppose I might have known the lords' wives and daughters. My father never let us see them, much less the lords themselves. I have no friends. Is this combat not the very thing to catch their fancy? Won't they like a woman for their ruler better if she has fought for Glome and killed her man?"
"Oh, for that," said Bardia, "it'd be incomparable. There'll be no one but you in their mouths and hearts for a twelvemonth."
"Child, child," said the Fox, his eyes full of tears, "it's your life. Your life. First my home and freedom gone; then Psyche; now you. Will you not leave one leaf on this old tree?"
I could see right into his heart, for I knew he now implored me with the same anguish I had felt when I implored Psyche. The tears that stood in my eyes behind my veil were tears of pity for myself more than for him. I did not let them fall.
"My mind's made up," I said. "And none of you can think of a better way out of our dangers.
Do we know where Argan lies, Bardia?"
"At the Red Ford, the post said."
"Then let our herald be sent at once. The fields between the City and the Shennit to be the place of the combat. The time, the third day from now. The terms, these: If I fall, we deliver Trunia to him and condone his unlawful entering into our land. If he falls, Trunia is a free man and has a safe conduct to go over the border to his own people in Phars or where he will. Either way, all the aliens to be out of the land of Glome in two days."
They both stared and said nothing.
"I'll go to bed now," said I. "See to the sending, Bardia, and then to bed yourself. A good night to you both."
I knew from Bardia's face that he would obey, though he could not bring himself to assent in words. I turned quickly away and went to my own room.
To be alone there and in the silence was like coming suddenly under the lee of a wall on a wild, windy day, so that one can breathe and collect oneself again. Ever since Arnom had said hours ago that the King was dying, there seemed to have been another woman acting and speaking in my place. Call her the Queen; but Orual was someone different and now I was Orual again. (I wondered if this was how all princes felt.) I looked back on the things the Queen had done and wondered at them. Did that Queen truly think she would kill Argan? I, Orual, as I now saw, did not believe it. I was not even sure that I could fight him. I had never used sharps before; nothing hung on my sham battles but the hope of pleasing my teacher (not that that was a small thing to me either).
How would it be if, when the day came, and the trumpets had blown, and the swords were out, my courage failed me? I'd be the mockery of the whole world; I could see the shamed look on the Fox's face, on Bardia's. I could hear them saying, "And yet how bravely her sister went to the offering! How strange that she, who was so meek and gentle, should have been the brave one after all!" And so she would be far above me in everything: in courage as well as in beauty and in those eyes which the gods favoured with sight of things invisible, and even in strength (I remembered her grip when we had wrestled). "She shall not," I said with my whole soul. "Psyche? She's never had a sword in her hand in her life, never done man's work in the Pillar Room, never understood (hardly heard of) affairs of state . . . a girl's life, a child's life. . . ."
I asked myself suddenly what I was thinking. "Can it be my sickness coming back?" I thought. For it began to be like those vile dreams I had had in my ravings when the cruel gods put into my mind the horrible, mad fancy that it was Psyche who was my enemy.
Psyche my enemy? She, my child, the very heart of my heart, whom I had wronged and ruined, for whose sake the gods were right to kill me? And now I saw my challenge to the Prince quite differently. Of course he would kill me. He was the gods' executioner. And this would be the best thing in the world; far better than some of the dooms I had looked for. All my life must now be a sandy waste; who could have dared to hope it would be so short? And this accorded so well with all my daily thoughts since the god's sentence, that I now wondered how I could have forgotten that sandy waste for the past few hours.
It was queenship that had done it - all those decisions to make, coming pell-mell upon me without a breathing space, and so much hanging on each; all the speed, skill, peril, and dash of the game. I resolved that for the two days left to me I'd queen it with the best of them; and if by any chance Argan didn't kill me, I'd queen it as long as the gods let me. It was not pride - the glitter of the name - that moved me; or not much. I was taking to queenship as a stricken man takes to the wine-pot or as a stricken woman, if she had beauty, might take to lovers. It was an art that left you no time to mope. If Orual could vanish altogether into
the Queen, the gods would almost be cheated.
But had Arnom said my father was dying? No; not quite that.
I rose up and went back to his Bedchamber, without a taper, feeling my way along the walls, for I would have been ashamed if anyone saw me. There were still lights in the Bedchamber.
They had left Batta to be with him. She sat in his own chair, close to the fire, sleeping the noisy sleep of a sodden old woman. I went over to the bedside. He was seemingly wide awake. Whether the noises he was making were an attempt at speech, who knows? But the look in his eyes, when he saw me, was not to be mistaken. It was terror. Did he know me and think I came to murder him? Did he think I was Psyche come back from the deadlands to bring him down there?
Some will say (perhaps the gods will say) that if I had murdered him indeed, I should have been no less impious than I was. For as he looked at me with fear, so I looked at him; but all my fear was lest he should live.
What do the gods expect of us? My deliverance was now so near. A prisoner may come to bear his dungeon with patience; but if he has almost escaped, tasted his first draught of the free air . . . to be retaken then, to go back to the clanking of that fetter, the smell of that straw?