Unnoticed, I slipped into the back of the room. My fellow guardsmen were ranged against the wall. They looked as alert as men do when they are stiflingly bored and ignored. In truth, there seemed little for them to guard against.
The large room was long and low ceilinged. The main part of it was taken up with benches, all of a height and all full of seated men. There was no throne or dais of any kind. Nor were the benches oriented to focus attention on one person. Rather, they ringed the room, leaving the center open. A bowed old kaempra, or war leader, of the Fox Clan was speaking. His short jacket was fringed with the tips of foxtails, white as his unruly hair. He was missing three fingers on his sword hand, but wore a necklace of his enemies' fingerbones to compensate. He tugged at them nervously as he spoke, glancing often at Bloodblade as if reluctant to give offense and yet too angry to keep silent. I only caught his closing words. “No one clan can speak for all of us! No one clan has the right to bring bad luck down on us all.”
As I watched, the Fox kaempra nodded gravely to each corner of the room and then retired to his bench. Another man stood and made his way to the center and began speaking. I saw the Prince and Lord Chade seated amongst the nobles who attended him in one section of the benches. His Wit coterie was ranged behind him. The Hetgurd, for so I recognized this assembly, the gathering of the war leaders of the clans, had accorded my prince no indication of his rank. Here, he was seated as a warrior leader among his warriors, just as the other clan war leaders were. This was a gathering of equals, come together to discuss the Narcheska's betrothal. Did they see him so? I tried not to scowl at the thought.
All this I grasped in the time it took my eyes to adjust to the dimness of the hall after the summer sunshine outside. I found a piece of wall to lean on next to Riddle in the back row of guardsmen. Riddle spoke out of the side of his mouth. “Not like us at all, my friend. No feast or gifts or songs to welcome our prince. Just a how-d'ye-do greeting on the docks and then they brought him straight here and began discussing the betrothal. Right to business for these people. Some don't like the idea of one of their women leaving her motherland to go live in the Six Duchies. They think it's unnatural and probably bad luck. But most don't care much about that, one way or another. They seem to think that would be Clan Narwhal's bad luck, not theirs. The real sticking point is the dragon-slaying bit.”
I nodded to his swift summary. Chade had a good man in Riddle. I wondered where he had recruited him and then focused my attention on the man who was speaking. I noticed now that he stood in the middle of a ring painted on the floor. It was intricate and stylized, and yet still recognizable as a serpent grasping its own tail. The man did not give his name before he began speaking. Perhaps he assumed that everyone knew it, or perhaps the only important part of his identity was the sea otter tattooed on his forehead. He spoke simply, without anger, as if explaining something obvious to rather stupid children.
“Icefyre is not a cow that belongs to any one of us. He is not cattle to be offered as part of a bride price. Even less does he belong to the foreigner Prince. How then can he offer the head of a creature that does not belong to him as payment to the Blackwater mothershouse of the Narwhal Clan? We can only see his promise in one of two ways. Either he has made his offer in ignorance, or it is an affront to us.”
He paused then and made a strange gesture with his hand. In a moment its meaning was made clear as Prince Dutiful slowly stood and then came to join him in the speaker's circle. “No, Kaempra Otter.” Dutiful addressed him as war leader for his clan. “It was not ignorance. It was not intended as affront. The Narcheska presented this deed to me as a challenge to prove myself worthy of her.” The Prince lifted his hands and let them fall helplessly. “What could I do but accept it? If a woman issued such a challenge to you, saying before your gathered warriors, ‘Accept it or admit cowardice,' what would you do? What would any of you do?”
Many heads in the assembly nodded to this. Dutiful nodded gravely back to them and then added, “So what am I to do now? My word has been given, before your warriors and mine, in the hall of my parents. I have said I will attempt to do this thing. I know of no honorable way to unsay such words. Is there a custom here, among the people of the Narcheska, that allows a man to call back the words that have issued from his mouth?”
The Prince moved his hands, imitating the same gesture that the Otter Kaempra had used to cede him the speaker's circle. He bowed to the four corners of the hall, and then retreated to his bench again. As he took his seat, Otter spoke again.