Till We Have Faces Page 9

Our real enemy was not a mortal. The room was full of spirits, and the horror of holiness.

With a beastly noise, all groan and snarl, my father turned away from the Priest and flung himself into his own chair and leaned back and passed his hands over his face and ruffled his hair like a man who is tired.

"Go on. Finish it," he said.

"And then," said the Priest, "we asked whether it was the King who was the Accursed, and the lots said 'no.'"

"What?" said the King. (And this is the greatest shame I have to tell of in my whole life.) His face cleared. He was only a hair's breadth from smiling. I had thought that he had seen the arrow pointed at Psyche all along, had been afraid for her, fighting for her.

He had not thought of her at all, nor of any of us. Yet I am credibly told that he was a brave enough man in a fight.

"Go on," he said. But his voice was changed, freshened, as if ten years of his age had slipped off him.

"The lot fell on your youngest daughter, King. She is the Accursed. The Princess Istra must be the Great Offering."

"It's very hard," said the King, gravely and glum enough, but I saw he was acting. He was hiding the greatness of his own relief. I went mad. In a moment I was at his feet, clinging to his knees as suppliants cling, babbling out I didn't know what, weeping, begging, calling him Father - a name I never used before. I believe he was glad of the diversion. He tried to kick me away, and when I still clung to his feet, rolling over and over, bruised in face and breast, he rose, gathered me up by my shoulders, and flung me from him with all his power.

"You!" he shouted. "You! You to raise your voice among the counsels of men? You trull, you quean, you mandrake root! Have I not woes and miseries and horrors enough heaped upon me by the gods but you also must come scrabbling and clawing me? And it would have come to biting in a trice if I'd let you. There's vixen in your face this minute. For two straws I'd have you to the guardhouse to be flogged. Name of Ungit! Are gods and priests and lions and shadowbrutes and traitors and cowards not enough unless I'm plagued with girls as well?"

I think he felt better the longer he railed. The breath had been knocked out of me so that I could neither sob nor rise nor speak. Somewhere above my head I heard them talking on, making all the plans for Psyche's death. She was to be kept prisoner in her chamber - or no, better in the room with five sides, which was more secure. The temple guards would reinforce our own; the whole house must be guarded, for the people were weathercocks  - there might be a change of mood, even a rescue. They were talking soberly and prudently like men providing for a journey or a feast. Then I lost myself in darkness and a roaring noise.

Chapter Six

She's coming to her mind again," said my father's voice. "Take that side of her, Fox, and we'll get her to the chair." The two of them were lifting me; my father's hands were gentler than I expected. I have found since that a soldier's hands often are. The three of us were alone.

"Here, lass, this'll do you good," he said when they had put me in the chair, holding a cup of wine to my lips. "Faugh, you're spilling it like a baby. Take it easy. So, that's better. If there's a bit of raw meat still to be had in this dog-hole of a palace, you must lay it on your bruises.

And look, daughter, you shouldn't have crossed me like that. A man can't have women (and his own daughters, what's worse) meddling in business."

There was a sort of shame about him; whether for beating me or for giving up Psyche without a struggle, who knows? He seemed to me now a very vile, pitiable king.

He set down the cup. "The thing has to be done," he said. "Screaming and scrabbling won't help. Why, the Fox here was just telling me it's done even in your darling Greeklands  - which I begin to think I was a fool ever to let you hear of."

"Master," said the Fox, "I had not finished telling you. It is very true that a Greek king sacrificed his own daughter. But afterwards his wife murdered him, and his son murdered the wife, and Those Below drove the son mad."

At this the King scratched his head and looked very blank. "That's just like the gods," he muttered. "Drive you to do a thing and then punish you for doing it. The comfort is I've no wife or son, Fox."

I had got my voice again now. "King," I said, "you can't mean to do it. Istra is your daughter.

You can't do it. You have not even tried to save her. There must be some way. Surely between now and the day - "

"Listen to her!" says the King. "You fool, it's tomorrow they offer her."

I was within an inch of fainting again. To hear this was as bad as to hear that she must be offered at all. As bad? It was worse. I felt that I had had no sorrow till now. I felt that if she could be spared only for a month - a month, why, a month was like eternity - we should all be happy.

"It's better so, dear," whispered the Fox to me in Greek. "Better for her and for us."

"What are you mumbling about, Fox?" said the King. "You both look at me as if I were some sort of two-headed giant they frighten children with, but what'd you have me do? What would you do yourself, Fox, with all your cleverness, if you were in my place?"

"I'd fight about the day first. I'd get a little time somehow. I'd say the Princess was at the wrong time of the month to be a bride. I'd say I'd been warned in a dream not to make the Great Offering till the new moon. I'd bribe men to swear that the Priest had cheated over the lots. There's half a dozen men across the river who hold land from him and don't love their landlord. I'd make a party. Anything to gain time. Give me ten days and I'd have a secret messenger to the King of Phars. I'd offer him all he wants without war - offer him anything if he'd come in and save the Princess - offer him Glome itself and my own crown."

"What?" snarled the King. "Be a little less free with other men's wealth, you'd best."

"But, Master, I'd lose not only my throne but my life to save the Princess, if I were a king and a father. Let us fight. Arm the slaves and promise them their freedom if they play the man. We can make a stand, we of your household, even now. At the worst, we should all die innocent. Better than going Down Yonder with a daughter's blood on your hands."

The King flung himself once more into his chair and began speaking with a desperate patience, like a teacher to a very stupid child (I had seen the Fox do it with Redival).

"I am a King. I have asked you for counsel. Those who counsel kings commonly tell them how to strengthen or save their kingship and their land. That is what counselling a king means. And your counsel is that I should throw my crown over the roof, sell my country to Phars, and get my throat cut. You'll tell me next that the best way to cure a man's headache is to cut off his head."

"I see, Master," said the Fox. "I ask your pardon. I had forgotten that your own safety was the thing we must work for at all costs." I, who knew the Fox so well, could see such a look in his face that he could not have done the King much more dishonour if he had spat on him. Indeed I had often seen him look at the King like that, and the King never knew. I was determined he should know something now.

"King," said I, "the blood of the gods is in us. Can such a house as ours bear the shame?

How will it sound if men say when you are dead that you took shelter behind a girl to save your own life?"

"You hear her, Fox, you hear her," said the King. "And then she wonders that I black her eyes! I'll not say mar her face, for that's impossible. Look, mistress, I'd be sorry to beat you twice in a day, but don't try me too far." He leaped up and began pacing the floor again.

"Death and scabs!" he said. "You'd make a man mad. Anyone'd think it was your daughter they were giving to the Brute. Sheltering behind a girl, you say. No one seems to remember whose girl she is. She's mine; fruit of my own body. My loss. It's I who have a right to rage and blubber if anyone has. What did I beget her for if I can't do what I think best with my own? What is it to you? There's some cursed cunning that I haven't yet smelled out behind all your sobbing and scolding. You're not asking me to believe that any woman, let alone such a fright as you, has much love for a pretty half-sister? It's not in nature. But I'll sift you yet."

I don't know whether he really believed this or not, but it is possible he did. He could believe anything in his moods, and everyone in the palace knew more than he about the life of us girls.

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