calling me, he must be more concerned than he had wanted to suggest. I wondered if there was something specific he hoped I would do, and then began thinking that, regardless of the school’s plans, I should initiate my own search. Neither Evrard nor I had ever had much respect for each other’s magic, but I was still better friends with him than with any other wizard of my generation.

I could see him before me in my mind’s eye. He had fox-colored hair, belied by guileless blue eyes and a large number of freckles, an excellent sense of humor, and a truly charming smile, especially when he had just gotten a spell wrong. I had the impression that the queen’s uncle was very pleased to have him. I did hope he wasn’t dead.

The phone abruptly rang, and I jumped. The constable put his head around the corner, but I had already snatched up the receiver.

But it was not Zahlfast again. Instead it was a servant in a livery I did not recognize, asking for the queen.

I found her in the great hall with the king, told her she had a call, and sat down to wonder what could have happened to Evrard and his employer. They could have been knifed for their purses, or been left alive but had everything stolen so that they had no way to pay for their passage home. They could have been overtaken by an avalanche while crossing the high mountain passes, or slipped from an icy track into a cleft hundreds of feet below. They could have been shipwrecked and drowned. They could have been killed by a lion in the desert. They could have died of thirst and heat while wandering lost. Or they could have been captured by anyone ranging from a bandit, greedy for ransom, to a bizarre magical creature.

By the time one reached the Holy Land, one was far beyond the western kingdoms, where generations of wizards had channeled magic into reasonably orderly and predictable pathways. Since magic is a natural force, part of the same forces that had shaped the earth, it should work wherever one was, but away from the western kingdoms it might be hard to control or might be channeled in unexpected ways. Pilgrims at the holy sites should probably be safe from dragons and nixies, but those sites were surrounded by cities, deserts, and seas unlike anything in the west. I wasn’t sure I trusted Evrard to react well to unexpected new spells or magical creatures.

The queen came back into the hall. The smile that normally hovered on the edge of her lips was, surprisingly, not there.

She was still worth looking at. With the emerald eyes she had passed on to Prince Paul and her midnight hair, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever met. Even though she was only half the age of King Haimeric, she was so obviously in love with her husband that my intermittent dreams, that she would decide to love me too, had never progressed beyond dreams.

She sat down by the king. “That was my aunt in the City,” she said. “She’s worried about my uncle.”

I sat up straighter, abruptly paying attention.

“It’s been nearly a year since he left on pilgrimage, and months since she’s heard anything from him. She’s frightened, and she wanted someone to reassure her that he must really be all right. She even said that their wizard told her before they left to get in contact with us if she hadn’t heard anything for a while. I’m afraid I couldn’t give her much reassurance. She said she’d already talked to the wizards at the school about searching for her husband, but they said they couldn’t help.”

I was watching the queen, not the king. Therefore I was startled when, after a brief pause, he suddenly spoke with decision.

“If he’s disappeared, and no one has heard from him, then the only solution is for someone to go after him. I myself shall go.”

The queen took a short, sharp breath, but she did not raise the objections which I myself had to bite back.

“I told you earlier this winter about the blue rose,” the king continued. “According to the rumors-and it was even mentioned in one of my rose catalogs-the rose has been successfully grown by an emir south of the Holy Land. I can try to find your uncle, try to find the rose, and make a pilgrimage myself. I’ve always wanted to go on a quest.”

They had forgotten all about me. The shadows of a winter afternoon darkened the great hall, but they did not bother to turn on the lights. The fire on the great hearth flickered yellow, but its light reached only a short way into the room. I sat in semi-darkness, feeling I should not listen to their conversation but shy to remind them of my presence by standing up and leaving.

“I’m afraid it’s no use trying to talk you into letting me come with you,” said the queen. It was not quite a question.

“No use at all, my dear. If I don’t come back, you’ll need to be here to act as regent, to make sure Paul grows up to be the excellent king we know he will be.”

“I’ll miss you. I don’t like to hear you talk about not coming back.”

“And I shall miss you.” He chuckled quietly. “You visit your parents every summer, so I know what it’s like to be left behind. But unless I’m dead, you know I’ll be back.”

“I know, but …”

“And I wouldn’t go if it were only a quest for the blue rose. If your uncle is captured or lost, I may be the only one who can save him. Who else, after all, is there for your aunt to ask?”

The queen caught her breath in what just escaped being a sob. But her voice was steady. “You’re right, as always. If even the wizards can’t help her, we’re her best chance to find him.”

“Good,” said the king. “I wouldn’t have gone if you could not have borne it. But I shall tell the court this evening that I’m going.”

“I shall miss you, Haimeric,” the queen said again. She slipped out of her own chair and slid in next to the king on the throne. “I know, I really know, that you’ll be safe and will come back. But people are changed by travel- they gain new perspectives, new ideas. I don’t want to be left behind when you think new thoughts. I love you just as you are.”

There was no chance now that either one would notice me. I rose and tiptoed quietly away.


Before the king could tell the court that evening that he was going on a quest, we heard a loud clatter of horses’ hooves in the courtyard. The constable jumped up from the supper table and hurried out to see who could be arriving at this hour. When he returned a few minutes later, it was with the duchess and her tall husband.

I should have known. Duchess Diana had a way of turning up unexpectedly. We hadn’t seen her in months; she had in fact not even been in the kingdom over Christmas, being instead with her husband in his principality two hundred miles away. I had the odd feeling that she had somehow known the king was about to announce his quest.

The duchess and Prince Ascelin pulled off their travel cloaks by the fire and stamped the snow from their boots. After they had bowed formally to the king and queen, the constable seated them at the main table; the rest of us moved our chairs to make them room, and the cook hurried in with extra plates.

King Haimeric seemed to have reached the same conclusion that I had, that their arrival was connected with his quest, but to him it seemed perfectly natural. “I’m glad you two are here,” he said. “After you’ve had your supper, I’m going to make an announcement.”

But Duchess Diana and Prince Ascelin did not seem immediately interested in the king’s announcement. They ate heartily, asked what had happened recently in the kingdom of Yurt, and told us stories of their stay in Ascelin’s principality.

It was impossible not to like the duchess. She was some ten years older than her cousin the queen, which made her five years older than me. She had probably the quickest mind in the kingdom, and she enjoyed a good laugh at pretension and folly even better than I did.

“The twins are fine,” she said in response to a question. “The weather was so bad today we left them in my castle when we decided to ride up to see you. They’re growing so fast they may even catch up with you, Paul!” to

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