A silent man dressed in a Palace Guards' uniform escorted me to a light, large room where Jared and Rodan were already sitting at the table, having a late breakfast. I looked around, taking in the light, airy room, the treetops I could see through the open windows, the sound of running water and rustling leaves.
Life seems so normal here, I thought, as I greeted my companions and sat down. I wondered what I had expected - a court in turmoil with its leader gone, or at least incapacitated?
I unfolded my napkin and spread it on my lap, holding out my teacup to accept the tea that Rodan was offering me. Breakfast was quiet, with the two other men only breaking the silence to ask for the salt or to offer more tea while quiet guards, standing at every exit, looked straight ahead and appeared to pay us no attention.
While we were eating, I took the occasional glance at my companions. Both men looked rested, their Army uniforms freshly laundered, as was my own black law-men's uniform.
Jared caught my look, and held out the bread basket that he had in his hand. "You want some?"
By then I had eaten my fill, but I took a loaf of coarse, brown bread anyway. "Thanks." The expression on his scarred, distorted face was unreadable, as it always was. I can't trust these men, I told myself. They had both seemed quite willing to deliver me into the King's hands. I should never allow myself to forget that.
While I was chewing I glanced around the room again. Different uniforms, I mused, different allegiances? Rodan and Jared were in Army uniforms, but somehow I didn't believe they were part of the regular Army. I thought about what Jadri had told me, in those light-less days after I had nearly succeeded at taking my own life. Soldiers fighting soldiers. A group within the Army, traditional men, powerful men, who had decided to take matters into their own hands. My thoughts went to the conversation with the elder man who I thought to be their leader, who had shown no hesitation about handing me over to the King even if it meant my death warrant, but who had also helped me to gain some understanding of the nature of the red gem that I was still carrying in my pocket. Rodan had seemed to be in his faction, but I had no idea where Jared and the four soldiers who had accompanied us fitted in, and there had seemed to be a bond between them.
I rubbed my face and shook my head. Politics. There was so much that I didn't know.
"What's wrong?" Jared's voice was loud and hoarse in my head, and I started.
The sound of breaking earthenware was in my ears, as tepid moisture was dripping from the tablecloth onto my lap. There was also something else - an echo of the sound of steel against steel.
"It's alright, gentlemen, just an accident."
As I looked up I saw the two other men rising from their seats, their hands raised as to demonstrate that they meant to do no harm. All four guards had stepped forward from their positions by the doors, their swords half pulled from their scabbards and their bodies sprung for action. For a moment, none of us moved.
"I'm sorry," I said, my voice sounding as if it was coming from somewhere far away. "I was just being careless." I watched blood dripping from my hand, mixing with the pools of tea that had gathered in the folds of the tablecloth. "I'm sorry," I repeated.
"You've hurt yourself." Rodan took my hand and began to inspect the cuts, and around us the guards relaxed and put away their swords.
"Please, don't do that again," Jared told me. "I'd really like to live just a little bit longer." He sounded like his old self, now, and I wondered what had got into him earlier.
The guards don't trust them, I realised with surprise as I breathed deeply to calm my racing heart. They don't trust either of them any more than they trust me.
On this page Transitional HTML 4.01 and CSS 1 are used. If you're seeing this text you either have CSS switched off in your browser, or you're using a browser that can't handle CSS. If you're using an older browser version, you might want to consider upgrading.