As Jaysh watched the light of the amulet washing out of existence, he didn’t think it would ever come back. There had been something so depressingly permanent about the process that he’d have sooner expected dead embers to catch flame than for this black rock to emit light.
     For that matter, had it always been so darkly hued? He’d never noticed before, on those few occasions he’d been in the presence of the old king, but the stone itself was a desolate black. And accepting for the moment that a heavily polished stone could radiate light—which he was almost certain it could not—why in the world did the stone in question have the look of polished onyx? If it were spitting forth violet-colored light, shouldn’t it have the look of polished amethyst?
     Jaysh thought the answer to that question was a resounding yes, and for that reason he believed it more likely that old king would sit up from his death bed and take the thing off, than for the sickly black stone to reignite with splendor.
     But instead of sticking around the old king’s chamber and watching his pessimistic theory come to fruition, Jaysh turned his back on the ugly little rock and moved with all due haste into the adjacent anteroom…where he was promptly comforted and consoled and thoroughly hugged. He abhorred every moment of it.
     Eventually, though, the condolences came to an end, the back-patting ground to a halt, and Jaysh was mercifully led away to his quarters. Not that he wished to spend one more nerve-wracking moment in this suffocating castle, but in light of all the physical contact occurring in the anteroom, he thought a bedroom all to himself sounded like his idea of Glory.
     He watched Mums and Godfry escort Brine from the room first, glaring after little brother with more than a little envy. Jaysh had to stand around for what felt like forever and listen to Serit’s rehearsed speech, followed by Gariel’s dissonant blubbering (as Reets put it). It was only after these two had made their contribution that he was led into the hall by the halfling.
     As they exited, Reets explained that the woodsman would be able to sleep in the old king’s chamber just as soon as the handmaids had it cleaned and restored; Cleaned and restored being the delicate way of explaining that the king’s body needed to be removed and prepared. But on a positive note, Reets explained that the process shouldn’t take a day and that the woodsman would only need to tolerate the visitors’ quarters for one night.
     Jaysh, who was already eyeing the windows in the corridor and trying to decide which one to escape through, told Reets that the handmaids could take their time. And Reets, who had never been one for subtext and reading between the lines, said that the extra time wouldn’t be necessary and that Jaysh should plan to sleep in the royal bedchamber on the following night.
     After that, Reets said little else as he led the woodsman through the halls. He only stared at the floor and muttered the occasional grunt as they turned one way or the other. Jaysh interpreted these grunts as directions, but as far as meaning was concerned, they could have been gas from the evening meal.
     Behind him, though, the butcher’s daughter more than made up for the halfling’s reticence. Maybe it was because this was the time of day that she normally came alive, or maybe it was because her special gentleman-friend had just become king, but for whatever reason she seemed quite energetic all of a sudden, chattering away about how hard this must be for Jaysh and how horrible it must have been in the king’s chamber and how she didn’t have to go out tonight if he needed her to stay.  
     After awhile, Jaysh tuned her out and began listening to a sound from further back in the corridor, a sound close enough to be heard but far enough away not to draw attention. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought it sounded like the creaking of hardwood floors beneath a pair of heavy crystal feet.
     Once at the guest room, the halfling hurried inside, lit the candles on the nightstand, and then hurried off as quickly as he could, slapping Jaysh as far up the arm as he could reach and then mumbling something low and sad that the woodsman couldn’t quite hear.
     His woman-friend, on the other hand, stayed a little longer, but not by much. She passed the brief stint by repeatedly asking if Jaysh needed anything and then quickly suggesting, in the same sweet breath, that what he probably needed was to catch up on his sleep. And then quickly reiterating—in case he’d missed it the first twenty times it had exited her mouth—that she really didn’t have to go out tonight if he needed her.
     When Jaysh could finally get a word in edgewise, he told her to go. There was only one thing the two of them ever did together and, surprisingly enough, he didn’t much feel like doing that. So she hugged him tight, kissed him hard, and then bolted down the hall, the whole while looking over her shoulder and telling him that everything was going to be all right and that he needed his sleep for what was coming on the morrow.
     Nah, Jaysh thought, watching his woman-friend disappearing down the stairs. What I need is to get out of this place and sneak on back to the Hill. That’s what I need, babe.
     But that wouldn’t work either, he knew. The Hill was the place where tomorrow’s events were going to be held, the events that he vaguely recalled Serit Branmore pulling him aside and telling him about after he exited the king’s chamber. Jaysh was still on edge from his meeting with the old king—still trying to forget the way those foggy eyes had stared a hole through his face—but he had retained some of Serit’s conversation.
     The general had begun by telling Jaysh how truly sorry he was about the old king’s passing and how very proud he was of the way Jaysh had conducted himself. And right away, Jaysh could smell a rat, because the woodsman knew how he had conducted himself and it hadn’t been admirable. Right on cue, the rat exposed itself as Serit went on to wish Jaysh a peaceful nights slumber, adding that the woodsman would need his rest for the interment and coronation slated for tomorrow.
     The general hadn’t elaborated on the words interment and coronation, but Jaysh thought he knew what happened to kings once they’d passed, and to the sons of kings when the kingdom needed a new ruler.
     The general had also failed to explain where these events would transpire, but the woodsman, of all people, knew where the kings of Jashandar were buried. He knew that kings like granddad and Galimose and a man named Benedict—whose name had always tickled Iman—were sleeping the long-sleep a few rows down from the place where Jaysh spent his night beneath the stone angel.
     So no, sneaking off to the Hill would have been no better than sneaking back inside the old king’s chamber, at least not until the preparations were over. Jaysh imagined that, right now, there was probably a team of laborers digging the grave and preparing the site, and even though the old king probably wasn’t there yet—they’d be pulling out his wet-works and filling him full of salt right now—his cadaver would be there before end of the night.
     And do I really wanna see him again? Jaysh wondered, thinking that this inner-mint thingy and this core-uh-nation do-hickey sounded a lot like activities he wanted to avoid. And sure, Serit hadn’t sounded as though the woodsman had much choice in the matter—something about playing an intricate role in both time-honored traditions—but since when had that stopped the woodsman?
     He’d always been adept at fading into the background and dropping out of sight. For that matter, had the crew of liars not used Iman to trick him out of the Shun—which, it seemed, they’d been doing with these investigations all along—they’d have never coaxed him back to the castle in the first place.
     Bunch’a sneaks, Jaysh thought, still staring at the empty doorway leading to the staircase. Bunch’a dirty sneaks, he repeated, noting the dark and looming shape standing in the shadows of the hall.
     He felt positive the kryst-thing wouldn’t stop him—it hadn’t so far—so that meant there was absolutely nothing standing in his way. He could slip out of this place any time he wanted and no one would know the better. Except that, as he stood there in the hall outside his room and the thought of sneaking out flitted and teased across the dance floor of his mind, he found he didn’t want to.
     It was the oddest thing, really, but the idea of venturing to the Hill bore down on him like a weight. And it wasn’t merely the prospect of visiting the Hill that made him feel this way. It was, in all actuality, the prospect of doing anything. He was simply too tired.
     He couldn’t put his finger on the cause, but he could say that his body felt like it was full of those fluffy white seeds that went wafting hither and yon through the open prairie skies, the ones he saw in the fall when Mother Nature was loosing itself on the land in preparation of the coming spring. Needless to say, as tranquil as this setting might be in real life, Jaysh found that it played havoc on the insides of a living person. It distracted him…made him feel empty, detached.
     In his mind, he knew the little cherub was awaiting him on the Hill, just as he knew if he went to her tonight, he would sleep infinitely better than if he stayed here. At the same time, though, the sensation of a good night’s sleep eluded him. It was like remembering Iman telling the funny stories about the halfling and the outhouse—remembering that he had laughed hard as the punch line was delivered—but failing to remember what it felt like to laugh.
     Jaysh turned to face the guest room.
     Serit had hinted strongly that Jaysh was expected to stay within the castle. And Reets had gone to the trouble to walk him up here. And when it came right down to it, Jaysh was having a bit of trouble finding any motivation to do otherwise. So why not just go in for a little while? He could recover from all the hugging and talking and the old king’s grisly stare, and once his energy had returned he could slip out the back.
     An’ I reckon I could use with a rest, he thought, trudging in and kicked shut the door. I reckon I wou’nt get far without it, he added, dropping his gear on the floor and bypassing the pillows and covers of the bed for the hard security of the floor.
     He plopped himself into a corner and nestled in against the gritty plaster-coated walls, fully intent on gaining half-a-night’s rest—just enough to fortify his wits and rejuvenate his muscles—and then escaping this prison of stone. He would cut through the royal gardens to the stables, and from the stables he would slip to the Harvest Road, keeping to the alleys and backstreets until he reached Lake Road, which would take him to a little path in the Sway that led to the northern rim of the Hill.
     Once there, he’d give a hello to his little stone angel, he’d find a place behind one of the larger stone structures where the laborers couldn’t see him, and then he’d sleep until the rustling crowds awoke him from his slumber.