In the spring of 877, while Lebasi is finding out about the Mercy in Xessus, the king's first counsellor has been summoned to see his master in Egator.

“Is it safe?” The king peered at the map spread over the table, stroking the names with his long, delicate fingers, as if the feel of the written words could tell him what he wanted to know.

The first counsellor studied the old man carefully. His mood was unpredictable these days. Too strong a statement could be taken as a promise, to be held against him later if there was trouble. He placed his palms together, his forefingers against his lips.

“My lord, in these times nowhere is completely safe.”

The king looked up sharply, his eyes narrowing, the fire that had once burned in them flickering again. “Damn you for a politician, Tharkon. I pay you to have an opinion. A wise and informed opinion. I would value hearing it.”

The counsellor breathed out slowly. Twenty times a day, these small insults. Still, he could wait a little longer. He took care to keep his expression neutral, humble. The king could not make out details at more than an arm’s length, but his private guards saw everything. Because they never spoke, it was easy to forget they were there. Tharkon’s predecessor had reason to regret their sharp eyes. He flicked a glance at them now, left, right, standing to attention in the shadows behind the great chair. He bowed his head for a moment, acknowledging the rebuke. “My lord, in my opinion it is the most secure part of the kingdom at present.” He rested his right hand on the pile of scrolls he had brought, waiting to see how much more information the king would require.

The old man turned to the window, gazing into the distance. He closed his eyes and rubbed them, then sat down with a sigh. The fire had gone out again. He placed a hand on the map once more, but this time he hardly seemed to be aware of it. “I don’t remember… I thought they were a rebellious bunch, the Xessans. It has been so long since I…” His voice trailed away with his thoughts.

The chancellor cleared his throat, not sure whether to fill the gap. The king nodded to him.

“My lord, it has been so long since you have had to consider the province precisely because it is so safe. The shelves of the library are filled with accounts of your troublesome domains. There is not so much about years of peace.”

“But there was a story… I recall…”

“I have it here, in Sulcor’s Tale of the Years.”

The king’s eyes flashed. He did not like to be interrupted. Tharkon’s difficulty was knowing when the mumbling had finished and when he was just drawing breath. The old man glared at his counsellor for a moment, then raised one finger, the rubies in his great ring catching a ray of the afternoon sun and sending red fire glinting across the walls. He pointed at the documents on the table.

The chancellor coughed again, trying to sound suitably nervous. He sorted through the scrolls, chose one, and rested it on the sloping lectern beside the reading lamp. He twisted the handles expertly to find the section he wanted, and began to read.

“In the twentieth year of Rednaxela third king of that name, there arose in the north-western province of Xessus a man named Dennara son of Adniram. He was a seeker after glory, a man who would stop at nothing to advance himself. He had some skill in public speaking and so persuaded the people of the province to elect him governor, even though they had no power to do so without the king’s authority. Dennara then stopped the payment of taxes from the province, which had only resumed some ten years before after decades of neglect.”

He paused. The king was sitting back, his eyes closed, his hands steepled in front of his chest. After a moment he raised one eyelid and flicked a finger. The counsellor continued.

“The King sent a small detachment of his army to investigate what had happened in Xessus. Dennara ambushed them and slaughtered many, sending back a defiant message with the survivors. In the spring of 741, Rednaxela sent a larger force to bring the rebels to heel, but they were defeated by a trick and slaughtered in their turn. This broke the limits of the King’s patience: he gave his son Riadsala orders that Xessus was to be retaken by any means in his power.”

The old man twitched at the sound of the prince’s name, then sat so still he could have been asleep.

“In the summer of 742, Riadsala and his troops entered Xessus and took control of the countryside. The rebels retreated into their walled cities, hoping that they could inflict heavy losses if attacked. Riadsala was a wise general, although only a young man of eighteen years at that time, and he did not make such a foolish mistake. He waited for the rebels to come out, as he knew they would eventually.”

Tharkon turned the handles to bring up the next section, glancing at the king over the top of the lectern. No expression.

“When they did so, he engaged the enemy in a series of brilliant tactical manoeuvres which broke their will and their strength. After a moon’s span of fighting Dennara and his remaining rabble were driven to the edge of the kingdom, on the hill that lies between the mountains and the sea with the Westwall at their back. There, showing great mercy which matched his wisdom and belied his youth, Riadsala accepted Dennara’s inevitable surrender. Rather than meting out the punishment that the king had ordered and the rebellious provincials richly deserved, he offered them terms: those who wished to stay would be permitted do so in accordance with laws that he would determine. Those who could not abide by those laws must go into exile in the wilderness beyond the Westwall. Dennara and a small number of misguided followers were driven out and were heard of no more.”

Tharkon rolled up the document. He knew the last sentence by heart: it could have been Sulcor’s writing or his own comment on the story. “Since that time, the province of Xessus has enjoyed peace and prosperity, and the Mercy of Riadsala is a byword for wisdom and justice throughout the Kingdom.”

He waited while the king considered. At length, the old man smiled sadly. “Yes, of course. The Mercy of Riadsala, against the wishes of his father Rednaxela. Appropriate, appropriate.” He stood up slowly and leaned over the table once more. His fingers traced the southern boundaries of his realm, where danger lay. He put a hand in each of the seas that gave the kingdom its name and leaned once again over the north-western corner. He seemed to be making a great effort to focus his wandering mind.

“Remind me, Tharkon. Who is the governor there? When did I last see him?”

“Bannerol of Awato, my lord. He came here three years ago, but his report was routine.”

“And there has been no trouble for all that time?”

Tharkon suppressed a contemptuous laugh. “My lord, the guts and backbone of the Xessans walked out through the Westgate with Dennara al-Adniram nearly a hundred and forty years ago. Those that remain fear the retribution that your namesake wanted to visit on them. There is a system in place which controls them very well. They are not brave, they have no initiative. They bring up their children to fear the king and the king’s soldiers.”

Rednaxela the fourth stroked his white beard, his eyes far away. Tharkon wondered if he might even be regretting that they should be afraid of him, these people whose existence he had forgotten until this afternoon. Suddenly the old man’s finger prodded a point on the map.

“Enola, is it not, the army camp? Semaja is the general?”

Tharkon was surprised at the sudden access of clear memory. “Yes, my lord. The Westwall Guard.”

“Hmmm. I recall they have another name.”

Tharkon nodded. The king straightened again, turned on his heel and walked to the broad western window. He pulled his robes around him, caught by a sudden chill. For an instant the counsellor felt a stab of pity for an old man whose bones were not warmed by the spring sunshine, who might not see another spring. It passed, though: Tharkon held his breath as he watched the king stare to the north-west, waiting for his instruction.

Without looking round, Rednaxela spoke. “Very well. Send the boy to Semaja.”

Tharkon clicked his heels and bowed deeply for the benefit of the king’s back and the guards’ eyes. “It shall be done, my lord.”

He waited until he had passed the two soldiers by the door before he permitted himself a thin-lipped smile.