The royal family was enjoying one of the rare hours when they could feel like a family. They sat in the palace garden in a secluded and high-hedged corner of the courtyard, Queen Alisande and her husband the Lord Wizard watching their son and daughter at play in the golden light of late afternoon.
"It is so good for them to be out of doors," Alisande sighed, "and with us. I could wish I were not a queen, that I could spend hours and hours with my babes if I wished."
"If you weren't a queen, you wouldn't have any choice," Matt pointed out.
"You'd have to spend hours and hours with them, whether you wanted to or not."
"Oh ... not if I were a countess or some such ..."
"Well, that's true," Matt mused. "On the other hand, this country would be in real trouble if you weren't its queen."
"Oh, I am sure some other could rule it as well." But Alisande glowed at the compliment, then frowned. "Still, the poor babes must be quite sad now and again, with no company but one another."
"A pet," Matt said positively. "They need a pet."
"A pet?" Alisande stared, astounded. "A prince and princess, with an animal?"
"A family dog, to teach them responsibility and consideration."
"How could a dog teach consideration?"
"Because you have to be careful about its feelings," Matt explained. "If you pull its tail too hard, it lets you know about it in no uncertain terms--and if you do it too often, it won't come back to play. It doesn't care whether the child is a prince or a beggar, you see."
"Might it not bite?" Alisande said in apprehension.
"It has to be very well-trained," Matt explained, "and training it helps the children train themselves."
"A princess?" Alisande shuddered, and turned back to watch the children.
"Whoever heard of such a thing?"
"Oh, I've noticed you seem to have a certain fondness for horses," Matt pointed out, "and you get along quite well with hounds."
"Well ... yes, but that is in the hunt!" Alisande explained. "Assuredly, every prince and princess must learn to ride--but the grooms care for the horses and the houndsmen for the dogs. We do not make pets of our packs, and would scarcely keep a horse within doors!"
"Well, no," Matt admitted. "I had in mind something smaller--a nice, friendly, clumsy dog, maybe--a poodle or a retriever or something like that."
Alisande still looked scandalized, but she tried to be reasonable. "How would such a beast teach the children to be responsible?"
"By caring for it," Matt said. "Make it clear to them that nobody else is going to feed it or take it for a walk, because it's theirs. Simply having an animal that belongs to them will do wonders for their sense of self-worth, too--and it's great company if a child feels lonely."
"Royal children do feel alone quite often." Alisande lifted her head, gazing into her own past. "They have no playmates but their kin, and those seldom come ..." She shook herself. "But to feed and water an animal? That is scarcely becoming to their rank!"
"It is, if nobody else is allowed to touch the royal pup," Matt pointed out.
Alisande still looked thoughtful, but she said, "A dog is too dirty and awkward a beast to keep within doors. A cat, now, would be another matter."
"Cats are better than nothing," Matt allowed, "but they don't need to be walked, and you can't train them, so they won't make you any more responsible than you are already. They won't come keep you company whenever you want them, either--they have this nasty little habit of only stopping by when they want company."
"But they are smaller, and more graceful," Alisande pointed out, "far less likely to break a vase or a pitcher, and far better suited to life within doors."
"I had in mind a small dog," Matt said, "maybe a spaniel or a Scots terrier, something that can sit in your lap and be petted."
"Like a cat?" Alisande smiled. "Then why not have a cat?"
"Well, the dog can jump out of your lap and run to fetch a ball," Matt said.
"It can play games with you."
"And bring the ball back in its mouth, and slobber all over it as the child picks it up?" Alisande shuddered. "Cats play games, too, by chasing bits of string. They are far less disgusting."
"Well, I would prefer a dog," Matt said, "but I'll settle for a cat. When shall we go find one?"
"Now, hold!" Alisande cried. "I have not said we shall have a pet! Only that if we do, it should be a cat!"
"Okay, so think about it for a few days," Matt said. "It's really a good idea, though. Why, I've even heard of a king who kept a dog in his lap when he was on the throne!" He didn't mention that Louis XIV had reigned in a world three hundred years older than Alisande's.
"We might set a fashion," Alisande admitted, her gaze on the children. "I shall consider it."
Kaprin suddenly gave his little sister a shove. She rolled back, squalling, then bounced up with a block in her chubby hand. She threw it with all her three-year-old might and very precocious accuracy; it hit her brother on the nose. He recoiled, hand to the offended member, squalling protest, then started toward her with blood in his eye.
"Children!" Alisande started up.
The nursemaid was there before her, though, separating the two children and chiding them equally. "For shame, Alice! Scold sharply if you will, but do not throw things! And you, Kaprin--you know full well that no gentleman should ever strike a lady!"
"I'm not a gentleman yet," the six-year-old grumbled.
"That is no excuse."
"There might be some advantage to a pet, after all," Alisande allowed.
"Just don't think it over for too long," Matt said.
The question was about to be answered for them, but it was an answer that had been growing for sixteen years. It began far to the east, in a northern valley nestled among the hills on the edge of the Gobi Desert. It began in the midst of chaos, but the setting was quite peaceful--for a few minutes.
* * *
The Oriental garden seemed magical in the moonlight, air fragrant with the perfume of exotic blossoms and stirred by a breeze, which rustled the leaves of flowering trees grown into fanciful shapes by patient gardeners over dozens of years. Wind chimes filled the night with music. The turquoise lawn seemed deep green in the moonlight, bejeweled with dew. Topiary shrubs in sculpted forms framed an ivory gazebo of ornate screens.
So lovely a garden should have lain tranquil under the moon, its only sound the susurrus of leaves and the tinkling of the brook that ran through it, turning model mill wheels and tugging at miniature boats moored for the night at tiny, fanciful boathouses.
It would be tranquil and still for a few minutes more, granting an illusion of peace and safety. But then, behind the scented trees, flames would roar high into the sky from the burning barracks of the horse-soldiers, and the breeze would blow the screams of horses and people alike through the garden, together with the roar and clangor of battle.
A woman hurried across the lawn, the train of her silken robe trailing across the dew-laden grass, her long sleeves sweeping almost as low. She held a small chest in her arms, and when she reached the brook, knelt down and lowered it into the water.
Lifting the lid, she took one last look at the little face of a six-month-old baby wrapped in a cloth-of-gold blanket, asleep from the drop of opium mixed into her milk.
The woman's eyes filled with tears. "Lie there, my treasure," she whispered, "and do not wake until the waters have borne you to safety."
Steel clashed against steel, much closer than before. She looked up with a gasp, then closed the lid of the little chest and pushed it out into the stream. "O Spirits of Brook and River," she called, "I beg you, protect my child! Carry her to safety far from these monstrous barbarians! Grant her some guise that will shield her from the cruelty of men!"
The little chest went bobbing away on the current as the woman watched, tears spilling down her cheeks, to dampen her robe.
Then a burst of shouting made her turn, gasping in terror. Three of the barbarians came galloping toward her on their small, hardy ponies, shouting in their uncouth language, sabers flashing in the moonlight.
"No!" she cried, and ran toward the gazebo--but one of the horsemen veered away from the others to come between herself and the slight safety of the screens. She stopped, uncertain, then turned to run to her left, but a horseman galloped wide to catch her by the arm. She screamed, but another horseman caught her other arm. She turned to bite his fingers, but the first struck the back of her head with his sword hilt, and she went limp.
Hauling her over the pommel of his saddle, he grinned at his fellow warriors.
"One more for the sacrifice," he said. "Angra Mainyu will be pleased!"
"I know not why that foreign sorcerer must give such an outlandish name to the Lord of Demo...