“I know you served my Mother for many years, m’ser Damien,” Gilliane said, watching him across the fire. “But how did that come to be?”

Damien turned the cup around and around in his hands, looking down at nothing, and took a long, quiet breath. “I was born on the Martagne side of the mountains. My mother was raped by a Brekken soldier during one of the final border skirmishes of the war, and I was the result. After that, they called her ‘whore,’ and used her so. Myself, I had no father, and no name. None, at least, until the young Queen rode through our village with her consort on her Progress through her kingdom after her coronation. I must have been about seven, then.

“I hid in the shadows where she would pass, just to see her. I thought myself well hidden, but she saw me anyway. She called me forward, and I came, even though I was afraid that the soldiers would beat me. I came, because I had never seen anyone like her, and I wanted to see—I wanted to see how anyone could be all made of gold and yet be so warm. Her hair a cloud of gold, like early sun through the mist on the mill-pond, all dressed in gold like an angel wrapped in sunlight…” His voice was soft with memory. “She asked my name, but I had none, so I said nothing. She leaned low from her horse, to see me better, and asked again. ‘What do they call you, boy?’ Well, they did call me something, so I told her. ‘Damn-ye,’ I said. For years, I thought she misunderstood, but then I knew she simply meant to be kind. ‘Damien,’ she said, and smiled. ‘A good, strong name for a sturdy lad.’ And then she took a ring from her finger, and handed it down to me.” He tilted his hand, and the firelight glinted on the fine gold ring he wore on the smallest joint of his little finger.

“I took my name from that,” he said. “Damien, from the name she spoke, and Ring for the gift she gave me.” He smiled briefly, but the smile faded, and he took a sip from the cup in his hands. When he spoke again, his voice was stronger and lighter, more matter-of-fact. “Of course, I followed her. How could I not? I followed after, running as hard and as long as I could. And on the third day, I was taken by one of the soldiers. Taken—and taken in. That was Bellarmée,” he said, and his eyes gleamed in the firelight as he looked up at them.

“Mother’s first spymaster,” Gilliane murmured, and he nodded.

“He took me in, and taught me, and trained me to be a spy for the Golden Queen.”

“And you’ve served her ever since.”

Again he nodded, but he turned his eyes downward again. “Her and only her,” he said, and sighed. “For seventeen years I served her faithfully and well, and never failed her once—until now.” There was a depth of bitter rage in those two words; rage, and a hatred turned in on himself.

“You could not have known!” Gilliane said, but he cut her off, and the firelight glittered against the ice in his pale blue eyes.

“I did know!” he said, the sound raw as a knife in the dark. “I knew, and was riding back with that news to warn her. I knew, but I stopped to rest. An hour only, I thought. To rest the horse, I thought. That hour could have given Martagne the time to prepare. That hour meant the difference between life and—” With a savage heave Damien flung the cup into the fire, the brandy flashing into flame in an instant. He surged to his feet, only to stand staring blindly into the fire. When he spoke again, his voice was hollow of hope. “Eadmond was right. My failure murdered my Queen.”

Gilliane shook her head sadly. “You loved her,” she murmured.

“I adored her,” he answered on a sigh. “But she is gone, and you are here, and now I will follow her last command I can never disobey. To find you, and serve you, and protect you. To my last breath and beyond.” He glanced at her once, at the firelight glowing in her golden hair, so like her Mother’s, and closed his eyes against the pain of memory. Then he turned and walked out into the waning light.