The closet was dark, dusty, stifling, and the pound of her heart, ragged thunder in her ears. Her breaths went and came in strangling gasps. If death took her now, it would come filled with horrors, and strike without sound from behind...
In the long shadow of the mountain spring twilight, under the glow of a thousand lanterns, Anja, Crown Princess of Sessalie, failed to appear at the banquet to celebrate her official betrothal. The upset and shock caused by her disappearance had not yet shaken the lower citadel, though more than an hour had passed since the midnight change in the watch.
The public festivities continued, oblivious. Farmwives and tradesmen still danced in the streets, while the unruly crowds spilling out of the wine shops teemed and shouted, a hotbed for fist fights and arguments. Mykkael, Captain of the Garrison, kept a trained ear on the tone of the roistering outside. He listened, intent, to the off-key singers who staggered arm in arm past the keep. The noise ebbed and flooded to the tidal surge of bodies, jamming the bye lanes and thoroughfares.
The racket funnelled into the cramped stone cell requisitioned as his private quarters. Captain Mykkael sighed, rasped his bracer across the itch of two day's stubble, then propped a weary hip against the trestle where his sword lay, unsheathed. The hard-used steel cried out for a whetstone and rag to scour a light etching of rust. Mykkael cursed the neglect, but knew better than to hope for the time to care for his weapon.
The taps in the taverns would scarcely run dry on this night. Landlords had stocked their cellars for weeks, while the folk from Sessalie's farthest-flung valleys crammed into the citadel to honour Princess Anja's brilliant match. Their exuberance was justified. A marriage alliance with the Kingdom of Devall promised them access to the coveted wealth of the sea trade. Yet if craft shops and merchants had cause to rejoice, no soldier who bore the crown's falcon blazon was likely to rest before cock's crow.
Twenty hours on duty, with no respite in sight, Mykkael grumbled, 'At least on a battlefield, a man got the chance to lay down his shield after sundown.'
He stretched his knotted back, steeled himself for discomfort, then clamped iron hands around his thigh above the knee. A grunt ripped through his teeth as he raised the game limb on to the plank trestle that served him as weapon rack and desk. There, forced to pause, he blinked through running sweat, while the twinge of pinched nerves rocked him dizzy.
Mother of all thundering storms, how he ached! Far more than a man should, who had no trace of grey. Still young, still vigorous, Mykkael kept his sable hair cropped from blind habit, as he had through his years as a mercenary.
Nonetheless, his career as a hired sword was finished. Cut short, with the spoils and pay shares laid aside not enough to sustain him in retirement. His fiercely kept dream, of an apple-bearing orchard and a pasture to breed horses, lay as far beyond grasp as the moon.
'Damn lady fortune for a cross-grained crone.' Mykkael glowered at his leg, stretched across the tabletop like so much worthless carrion. His infirmity disgusted him. Three tavern brawls nipped in the bud, two street riots quelled, and a knife fight in the market started by a Highgate lording who was fool enough to try to nab a cutpurse; scarcely enough exertion to wind him, yet the pain clamped down with debilitating force the longer he stayed on his feet.
'Borri'vach!' he swore under his breath. The uncouth, rolling gutturals of the southern desert dialect matched his savage mood as he unhooked the looped studs at his calf. No help for the embarrassment, that canvas breeches looked ridiculous under his blazoned captain's surcoat. Yet the more genteel appointments of trunk hose and hightop boots had proved to be too binding. Mykkael jerked up the cuff, laying bare his crippled knee with its snarl of livid scars.
Even in hindsight, he took little comfort from the troop surgeon's final prognosis. 'Powers be thanked, young man, you're still hale and breathing. With a joint break like yours, and a septic laceration, I'd have dosed you senseless, and roped you out straight and taken that leg with a bone saw.
Mykkael endured the lasting bitterness. Not to walk was to die. Even strapped in the mud of a drawing poultice, screaming half senseless with fever, he had kept that core of self-awareness. Others might cling to life, hobbling on crutches or a peg leg. For Mykkael, any handicap that rendered him defenceless would have wounded pride enough to kill him
Alive enough to wrestle with his poisonous regrets, he groped through the clutter of bottles and remedy tins, while the cramps throbbed relentlessly through muscle and nerve, and the shattered bone that fastened damaged ligaments. Already the discomfort played the length of his leg. By experience he knew: the spasms would soon lock his hip and seize his back, unless the liniment just acquired from the nomad in the market could deliver him the gift of a miracle
Hooves clattered in the outer bailey. Someone shouted. A burst of agitated voices erupted in the lower guardroom, fast followed by the rushed pound of feet up the stairwell
Mykkael found the dingy tin and flipped off the cap, overwhelmed by the smell of crude turpentine. 'Powers of deliverance,' he gasped. Eyes streaming, he scooped up a sticky dollop. The unnatural stuff blistered, even through his layers of callus
Regardless, he slathered the paste over his knee. Its raw fire scoured, searing through entrenched pain. Mykkael kneaded in the residue, his breath jerked through his half-closed throat. He had no peace to lose. The fresh bout of trouble bearing down on his doorway was unlikely to grant him blessed ease in a chair, replete with grain whisky and hot compresses
A staccato knock, cut off as the latch tripped. Vensic poked his snub nose inside, and grimaced in startled distaste. 'Captain, for the love of crown and country! This place reeks like a tannery.'
Mykkael pointedly hooked the tin closer. 'Should I give a damn who in the reaper's many hells finds my off-duty habits offensive?' He slopped another gob of liniment across his spasmed calf, and this time suppressed his urge to wince. 'Whatever complaint's come roosting this time, I'll remind you, Sergeant Jedrey has the watch.'
Apologetic, Vensic stepped inside. He shut the door, his easy-natured, upland features braced to withstand his captain's dicey temper. 'Jedrey's through the Middlegate, routing vandals from the merchants' quarter. You notice anything irregular on patrol?'
Mykkael shrugged, still massaging his wracked limb. 'The usual few brawlers and a bravo who got himself stabbed. A drunk was struck by a carriage. Dead on impact. The rest was all rumour, thankfully unfounded. Have you heard the crazy story that the princess ran away? Left her royal suitor abandoned at the feast, weeping on the skinny shoulder of the seneschal.'
Silence, of a depth to make the ears ring. Mykkael glanced up, astonished. The absurd notion of court curmudgeon and jilted foreign prince should have raised a howling snort of laughter. 'Better say what's happened, soldier!'
'You have a formal summons. Brought in by a royal herald in state livery, though he's masked his gold thread under a plain cloak.' Unwontedly deadpan, Vensic added, thoughtful, 'Shut-mouthed as a clam concerning the king's word, though we warned him you'd be sharp if we had to fetch you down to the wardroom.'
Mykkael's busy fingers stopped working in the liniment. 'A crown herald! Below the Highgate? Has the moat watch gone bashed on cloud wine?'
But the stunned rabbit shine to Vensic's blue eyes arrested his captain's disbelief.
'Of all the blinding powers of daylight!' Touched by an odd chill, Mykkael slapped down his turned cuff. He snatched up the rag meant for oiling his sword, wiped his smeared fingers, then hauled his lame leg from the trestle. A useless point, to argue that Princess Anja never acted the tart, or lowered herself to go slumming. Unlike her rakehell older brother, she visited the lower citadel only for processionals, surrounded by the gleam of her palace guard retinue, sweeping through to join the hunt, or to settle the petty grievances in the outlying hamlets that had languished as the king's health faltered.
'No one's mentioned an armed party of abductors in the wine shops,' Mykkael said with biting sarcasm. Tiny Sessalie was too hidebound to harbour a conspiracy without the busybody matrons making talk. So hidebound and small that every shopkeeper and servant knew his neighbour's close affairs, with half the blood in the kingdom related to itself by kin ties that confounded memory. 'Hard pressed, I'd be, to arrest a single miscreant who's sober enough to raise a weapon.'
Mykkael snatched up his naked blade, still loath to credit rumour. Princess Anja was beloved for her light-hearted spirit. Already, her compassion had earned the same reverence the queen had known before her tragic death. To Mykkael, she was an icon who demanded sharp respect. He had needed his crack division, and fully half of his reserves to restrain the cheering commons when the handsome Prince of Devall had arrived with his train to formalize his suit for her marriage. Everyone had noted the princess's flushed face. The trill of silver harness bells had shimmered on the air, as, radiant with joy, she had spurred her mount to welcome the match that young love and state auspices had favoured. The branding memory lingered, of the kiss exchanged upon the public thoroughfare. Her Grace's greeting had burst all restraint – an explosive storm of passion more likely to invite a lusty midnight foray to her bedchamber.
'Pretty foolish, if her Grace has stirred up the palace because she slipped off to the garden for a tryst.' Mykkael's amused chuckle masked the chilly ring of steel as he rammed his battered longsword into the sheath at his shoulder. 'Jedrey's better born, has the manners and diplomacy for that sort of social embarrassment.'
'Well, nicety doesn't man the walls, below the Highgate. If there's been foul play, the merchants are likely to work themselves into a lather, bemoaning the loss of Devall's ships. Suppose we faced a war?' Flippant though he was, to broach that jibing comment, Vensic jumped to clear the doorway. 'If the old king fancies he sees armies at the gates, he'll want your field experience ahead of any uptown bravo's breeding.'
Mykkael scotched the ribbing with his usual spiked glance, and prowled in hitched strides towards the stairwell.
'You won't have to go afoot,' Vensic added, dismayed as he noted the exhaustion betrayed by his captain's dragging limp. 'The herald's overbearing and snide with impatience, but his escort has a saddled mount waiting.'
'Well, the walk's the lesser evil,' Mykkael admitted, bald-faced. 'Bloody war's my proper venue. Crown orders aside, the drunks won't stay their knives. How in the reaper's hells can I keep the peace among the riff-raff if I'm called on to the proverbial royal carpet to act as a frisky maiden's chaperone?'
The wry conclusion stayed unvoiced. Taskin, Commander of the Palace Guard, was no more likely to appreciate a garrison man with desert-bred colouring treading on his turf above the Highgate.
Commander Taskin, at that moment, bent his ice-pale gaze upon the tearful maid who had last seen Princess Anja in her chambers.
'What more is left to say, my lord,' she despaired, her pink hands clasped and shaking. 'I've told you all I know.'
Tall, gaunt, erect as tempered steel, with a distinguished face and frosty hair, Taskin radiated competence. His silences could probe with unsubtle, scorching force. While the distraught maid stammered and wept, he stepped across the carpet and bent his dissecting regard over the clutter on Anja's dressing table.
The gold-rimmed hand mirror, the brushes and combs and tinted bottles of scent glinted under the flutter of the candles. No rice powder had been spilled. The waxed parquet floor showed no scuffs or other evidence of struggle.
In a cultured, velvet baritone that inspired chills of dread, Commander Taskin prompted, 'The princess was wearing bracelets adorned with golden bells. Her slippers, you say, had silver heels and toe caps. No rare jewels, none of the crown heirlooms, but she would have made noise at every movement. What else? Could she have masked a change of clothing under her court dress?'
The nervous maid curtseyed, though the commander's back was turned. 'Her Grace's gown had bare shoulders and laces down the front. Nothing underneath, but her thinnest silk camisole. Canna brought her smallclothes from the cedar closet. She stayed to empty the bath and gather towels while I helped her Grace with her wardrobe.'
Taskin added nothing, hands clasped behind his waist.
The maid swallowed and dabbed at streaming eyes. 'Her Grace sent me out to fetch the turquoise ribbons and a pin she said had been her lady mother's. By the time I came back, she had already left. Gone to the banquet, so it seemed, since nobody heard even a whisper of disturbance. If she's never been so thoughtless, well, new love would make her giddy. Her intended has the looks to scatter reason.'
The maid's distress was genuine. Anja loved a joke, but her style would not stoop to indiscretions that embarrassed her blameless servants.
Taskin prowled the chamber, his booted step silent as a wraith's. An uneasy pall of silence gripped the cream and copper opulence of the princess's private apartment. Such stillness by itself framed a stark contradiction to her tireless spirit and exuberance.
Anja's zest for life met the eye at every turn. The plush, tasselled chairs were left in compulsive disarray by her penchant for casual company. Gilt and marble tabletops held a riot of spring flowers, with long-stemmed hothouse lilies forced to share their porcelain vases with the weeds and wild brambles plucked from the alpine meadows. On the divan, a book of poetry had a torn string riding glove marking its vellum pages. Abandoned in the window nook, a seashell scavenged from the beaches of Devall overflowed with a jumble of pearl earrings and bangle bracelets. The playful force of Anja's generosity clashed with the constraints of royal station: the seneschal's latest scolding had been blatantly ignored. The massive chased tea service kept to honour state ambassadors had been shanghaied again, to cache the salvaged buttons for the ragman.
Even Taskin's impassive manner showed concern as he subjected the princess's intimate belongings to a second, devouring scrutiny.
'My Lord Commander,' the maid appealed, 'if Princess Anja planned an escapade, I never heard a whisper. Her maid of honour, Shai, was the one who shared her confidence the few times she chose to flaunt propriety.'
'But the Lady Shai knows nothing. I've already asked,' a voice interjected from the hallway.
Taskin spun. His glance flicked past the startled maid, while the elite pair of guards flanking the entry bowed to acknowledge Crown Prince Kailen.
His Highness lounged in stylish elegance against the door jamb, still clad in satin sleeves and the glitter of his ruby velvet doublet. Fair as his sister, but with his sire's blue eyes, he regarded the ruffled icon of palace security with consternation. 'Don't dare say I didn't warn you, come the morning. Anja's surely playing pranks. She's probably laughing herself silly, this minute, enjoying all the fuss. Ignore her. Go to bed. She'll show up that much sooner, apology in hand. Did you really think she'd wed even Devall's heir apparent without any test of his affection?'
'That would be her Grace's touch, sure enough,' a guardsman ventured. 'Subtlety's not her measure.'
And the smiles came and went, for the uproar that had followed when her Grace had exposed the pompous delegate from Gance as a hypocrite. On the night he fled the realm, flushed and fuming in disgrace, she had asked the pastry cook to serve up a live crow inside the traditional loaf of amity.
'Furies, I remember!' But Taskin did not relax, or share his guardsmen's chuckles of appreciation. Instead, his tiger's stalk took him back to the window, where he tracked the distanced voices of the searchers beating the hedges in the garden. They met with no success, to judge by the curses arisen over snagging thorns and holly. 'No harm, if you're right, Highness. We'd survive being played for fools.' The commander inclined his head, meeting the crown prince's insouciance with deliberation. 'But if you're wrong? Anja taken as a hostage could bring us to our knees, drain the treasury at best. At worst, we could find ourselves used as the bolt hole for some warring sorcerer's minion.'
An uncomfortable truth, routinely obscured by Sessalie's bucolic peace: the icy girdle of the mountains was the only barrier that kept the evil creatures from invading the far north.
'May heaven's fire defend us!' the maid whispered, while the nearer guardsman made a sign to ward off evil.
If not for the peaks, with their ramparts of vertical rock, and the natural defences of killing storms and glaciers, tiny Sessalie would not have kept its stubborn independence. The hardy breed of crofters who upheld the royal treasury would never have enjoyed the lush alpine meadows, which fattened their tawny cattle every summer, or the neatly terraced fields, with their grape crops and barley brought to harvest through the toil of generations.
'Show me the sorcerer who could march his army across the Great Divide.' The crown prince dismissed their fears with his affable shrug. A drunk hazed on cloud wine might dream of such a prodigy; not a sober man standing on his intellect.
Even to Taskin's exacting mind, the worry was farfetched. The flume that threaded that dreadful terrain was nothing if not a deathtrap. Foolish prospectors sometimes came, pursuing gold and minerals. They died to a man, slaughtered by hungry kerries, or else drowned in the rapids, their smashed bones spewed out amid the boil of dirty froth that thundered down the mouth of Hell's Chasm. Skilled alpinists occasionally traversed the high rim. Survivors of that route had been favoured by freakish luck and mild weather, since the arduous climb over Scatton's Pass required altitude conditioning for a crossing that took many weeks. Yet where storms and exposure sometimes spared the hardy few, the ravine killed without discrimination. The relentless toll of casualties had extended for time beyond memory.
'I thought you'd want to know,' Prince Kailen said at length. 'My father stayed lucid long enough to oppose the seneschal's complacency. His sealed order sent for the Captain of the Garrison.'
Commander Taskin left the window, his brows raised in speculation. 'Were you concerned I'd been pre-empted? Not the case. 'If youre wrong, and your sister's disappearance isn't an innocent joke, then we could have unknown enemies lurking in the lower citadel. Had his Majesty not dispatched the summons, I would have done the same. Has the garrison man arrived yet?'
'He should reach the palace at any moment.' Prince Kailen straightened up and jumped to clear the doorway for Taskin's abrupt departure. 'I expected you'd wish to attend the royal audience.'
The commander hastened towards the stair, in unspoken accord that the seneschal ought not to be left in sole charge. All too often, of late, the aged King of Sessalie lapsed into witless reverie. 'While I'm gone, Highness, have the grace to show my guardsmen every likely nook your royal sister could have used for a hideaway.'
The gate guard who emerged to meet the herald's band of outriders was the son of a noble, marked by his strapping build and northern fairness. His smart scarlet surcoat fell to his polished boots, which flashed with the gleam of gilt spurs.
'Captain Myshkael?' His aristocratic lisp softened the name's uncivil consonants. Cool, cerulean eyes surveyed the laggard still astride. 'The king's summons said, "at once.?'
'Never seen a man limp?' Mykkael barked back, refusing to be hustled like a lackey. Bedamned if he would jump for any lordling's petty pleasure, aware as he was that his dark skin raised contempt far beyond the small delay for the care he took to spare his aching knee.
The guardsman disdained to answer. Once the captain had dismounted, he extended a gloved hand and brusquely offered a bundled-up cloak with no device.
Mykkael passed his winded horse to the hovering groom and received the hooded garment, his smile all brazen teeth. No one had to like his breeding. Last summer's tourney had proved his deadly prowess. Crippled or not, the challenge match that won his claim to rank had been decisive. If the upper-crust gossip still dismissed the upset as fickle, he could afford to laugh. His strong hand on the garrison manned the Lowergate defences. That irony alone sheltered Sessalie's wealthy bigots, and granted them their pampered grace to flourish.
Mykkael flipped the plain cloak across his muscled shoulders. The hem trailed on the ground. As though his slighter frame and desert colouring made no mockery of pretence, or the gimp of his knee could be masked, he gestured towards the lamplight avenue, its refined marble pavement gleaming past the shadow of the Highgate. 'After you, my lord herald.'
No streetwise eye was going to miss the precedent, that the Captain of the Garrison came on urgent, covert business to the palace.
'By every bright power of daylight, Captain! Try not to draw undue attention to yourself.' Through a tight, embarrassed pause, the herald gamely finished. 'The royal household doesn't need a sensation with Devall's heir apparent here to contract for his bride.'
'His Majesty commands my oath-bound duty to the crown,' Mykkael acknowledged. 'But isn't that golden egg already broken? To my understanding, we're one piece short for promising the man a royal wedding.'
Served a censuring glance from the ranking guardsman, the herald gasped, appalled. 'On my honour, I didn't breathe a word!' To Mykkael, he added, urgent, 'You'd better save what you know for the ears of the king and his seneschal.' He waved his charge along, taken aback a second time as he had to push his stride to stay abreast.
For Mykkael, the discomfort wore a different guise: beyond Highgate's granite arch, with its massive, grilled gates, he shouldered no citizen's rights, and no authority. Above the jurisdiction of the Lowergate garrison, he became a king's officer, pledged to bear arms in crown service. His claim to autonomy fell under the iron hand of Commander Taskin of the Royal Guard. That paragon was the son of an elite uplands family, handpicked to claim his title at his predecessor's death. His prowess with the sword was a barracks legend, and his temperament suffered no fool gladly.
A man groomed to stand at the king's right hand, on equal footing with the realm's seneschal, would have small cause to welcome an outsider and ex-mercenary, obliged to prove his fitness in a yearly public tourney until he scrounged the means to fund retirement.
'I hope your sword's kept campaign-sharp, and without a speck of rust,' the palace guardsman ventured in snide warning. 'If not, the commander will tear you to ribbons, in the royal presence, or out of it.'
Captain Mykkael raised his eyebrows, his sudden laughter ringing off the fluted columns that fronted the thoroughfare. 'Well, thank the world's bright powers, I'm a garrison soldier. If I wore a blade in his Majesty's presence, rust or not, I'd be tried and hung for treason.'
Stars wheeled above the snow-capped rims of the ranges, their shining undimmed as the face of disaster shrouded the palace in quiet. On the wide, flagstone terrace, still laid for the princess's feast, a chill breeze riffled the tablecloths. It whispered through the urns of potted flowers, persistent as the stifled conversations of the guests who, even now, refused to retire. Of the thousand gay lanterns, half had gone out, with no servants at hand to trim wicks. Silver cutlery and fine porcelain lay in forlorn disarray, where distraught lady courtiers had purloined linen napkins to stem their silenced onslaught of tears.
The staunch among them gathered to comfort Lady Shai, whose diamond hair combs and strings of pearls shimmered to her trembling. No one's calm assurance would assuage her distress, no matter how kindly presented.
Prince Kailen's suggestion of practical jokes had roused her gentle nature to fiercely outspoken contradiction. 'Not Anja. Not this time! Since the very first hour the Prince of Devall started courting her, she has spoken of nothing else! Merciful powers protect her, I know! Never mind her heart, the kingdom's weal is her lifeblood. She once told me she would have married a monster to acquire seaport access for the tradesmen. She said – oh, bright powers! How fortune had blessed her beyond measure, that the prince was so comely and considerate.'
A wrenching pause, while Shai sipped the glass of wine thrust upon her by the elderly Duchess of Phail. The ladies surrounding her collapse glanced up, hopeful, as Commander Taskin ghosted past on his purposeful course for the audience hall.
'Any news?' asked Lady Phail, her refined cheeks too pale, and her grip on her cane frail with worry.
Taskin shook his head. 'Not yet.'
Lady Shai tipped up her face, her violet eyes inflamed and swollen. 'Commander! I beg you, don't listen to the crown prince and dismiss my cousin's absence as a folly. Upon my heart and soul, something awful has befallen. Her Grace would have to be dead to have dealt the man she loves such an insult.'
The commander paused, his own handkerchief offered to replace the sodden table linen wrung between Shai's damp fingers. 'Rest assured, the matter has my undivided attention.'
He nodded to the others, found a chair for Lady Phail, then proceeded on his way. Ahead, a determined crowd of men accosted the arched entry that led to the grand hall of state. The stout chamberlain sighted the commander's brisk approach and raised his gold baton. 'Make way!' His hoarse shout scarcely carried through the turmoil.
Commander Taskin lost patience. 'Stand down!'
The knot cleared for that voice, fast as any green batch of recruits. The chamberlain pawed at his waist for his keying. 'You've come at last. Thank blazes. The king is with the seneschal.' Still too rattled to turn the lock quickly, the fat official gabbled to forestall the commander's impatience. 'His Majesty sent a herald to the lower keep and summoned that sand-whelped upstart –'
Taskin interrupted, sharp. 'The Captain of the Garrison? I already know. He's a fighter, no matter what she-creature bore him. His record of field warfare deserves your respect.'
As the double doors parted, Taskin did not immediately walk through. He pivoted instead, catching the petitioners short of their eager surge forward. 'Go home! All of you. My guardsmen are capable. If your services are needed, I'd have you respond to the crown's better interests well rested.'
Through a stirring of brocades, past the craning of necks in pleated collars, a persistent voice arose. 'Is there crisis?'
Another chimed in, 'Have you news?'
'No news!' Taskin's bark cut off the rising hysteria. 'Once the princess is found, the palace guard will send criers. Until then, collect your wives and retire!'
'But Commander, you don't understand,' ventured the fox-haired merchant whose dissenting word rose the loudest. 'Some of us wish to offer our house guards, even lend coin from our personal coffers to further the search for her Grace.'
Taskin raised his eyebrows. His drilling survey swept the gathering, no man dismissed, even the foreign ambassador from the east, with his bullion brocade and his pleated silk hat, hung with a star sapphire and tassel. 'Very well. I'll send out the seneschal. He'll take down the list of names and offered services.'
Prepared for the ripple of dismayed consternation, Taskin's lean mouth turned, perhaps in amusement. The rest of his bearing stayed glass-hard with irony. Now, no man dared to leave, lest he be the first to expose his underlying insincerity. Once each pledge of interest was committed to ink, the commander could winnow the truly loyal from the hypocrites at leisure.
Beyond the broad doors, the throne and gallery loomed empty. The bronze chandeliers hung dark on their chains, the only light burning in the small sconce by the privy chamber. Outside its thin radiance, the room's rich appointments sank into gloom, the lion-foot chairs reduced to a whispered gleam of gold leaf, and the crystalline flares off the glass-beaded tassels a glimmer of ice on the curtain pulls.
Taskin's brisk footsteps raised scarcely a sound as he passed, a fast-moving shadow against lead-paned windows, faintly burnished by starlight. By contrast, the clash of voices beyond the closed door raised echoes like muffled thunder.
Taskin acknowledged the six guardsmen, standing motionless duty, then wrenched the panel open without knocking. He sized up the tableau of three men beyond as he would have viewed the pieces on a chessboard.
In the company of the King of Sessalie and the seneschal, the High Prince of Devall claimed the eye first. He was a young man of striking good looks. The hair firmly tied at his nape with silk ribbon hung dishevelled now, honey strands tugged loose at the temples. Though he sat with his chin propped on laced hands, his presence yet reflected the lively intelligence that exhaustion had thrown into eclipse. He still wore banquet finery: a doublet of azure velvet edged in bronze, and studded with diamonds at the collar. His white shirt with its pearl-buttoned cuffs set off his shapely hands. The signet of Devall, worn by the heir apparent, flashed ruby fire as he straightened to the movement at the doorway.
Taskin bowed, but as usual, never lowered his head. While the seneschal's ranting trailed into stiff silence, and the king's prating quaver sawed on, Devall's prince appraised the commander's rapid entry with amber eyes, dark-printed with strain. 'Lord Taskin, I trust you bring news?'
'None, Highness. Every man I have in the guard is assigned. They are diligent.'
The seneschal shot the commander a scathing glance for such bluntness. 'If you've heard about the herald dispatched to the lower keep, can I rely on your better sense to restore the realm's decorum? We scarcely need to raise the garrison to track down an errant girl!'
Taskin disregarded both the glare and the sarcasm. He would have honesty above empty words and false assurances. Nor would he speak out of turn before his king, whose maundering trailed off in confusion.
'Your Majesty,' Taskin cracked, striking just the right tone. 'I have no word as yet on your daughter.'
A blink from the King of Sessalie, whose gnarled hands tightened on his chair. His gaunt frame sagged beneath the massive state mantle with its marten fur edging, and the circlet of his rank that seemed too weighty for his eggshell head. Nonetheless, the trace of magnificence remained in the craggy architecture of his face; a reduced shadow of the vigorous man who had begotten two bright and comely children, and raised them to perpetuate a dynasty that had lasted for three thousand years.
An authoritative spark rekindled his glazed eyes. 'Taskin. I've sent for Captain Myshkael.' Brief words, short sentences; the king's speech of late had become wrenchingly laboured, a sorrow to those whose love was constant. 'You'll see soon enough. My seneschal objects.'
'I find the choice commendable, your Majesty.' Taskin kept tight watch on the foreign prince from Devall, and recorded the masked start of surprise. 'Until we know what's happened, we are well advised to call out every resource we can muster.'
The High Prince slapped his flattened hands upon the tabletop, but snatched short of shoving to his feet. 'Then you don't feel her Grace has played a prank for my embarrassment?'
'I don't know, Highness. Her women don't think so.' Taskin's shoulders lifted in the barest, sketched shrug. 'But Princess Anja being something of a law unto herself, her ladies have been wrong as much as right when the girl played truant as a child.'
The seneschal thrust out his bony, hawk nose, his stick frame bristling with outrage. 'Well, we don't need a scandal buzzing through the lower citadel! Find the herald, do. Pull rank at the Highgate, and turn the captain back to mind his garrison.'
'Too late.' Already alerted by the sound of inbound footsteps, Taskin's icy gaze fixed on the seneschal as he let fly his own sly dart. 'In fact, your service is the one that's needed elsewhere.' Two crisp sentences explained the gist behind the courtiers held under the chamberlain's watchful eye.
'Your Majesty, have I leave?' The seneschal bowed, shrewd enough to forgo his sour rivalry for opportunity. He thrust to his feet, his supple, scribe's hands all but twitching for the chance to wring advantage from the merchants' pledge of loyalty.
A short delay ensued, while King Isendon of Sessalie raised a palsied forearm and excused the gaunt official from his presence. As the seneschal stalked away, he peered in vague distress at the straight, stilled figure of his ranking guardsman, who now claimed the place left vacant at his right hand. 'Commander. Do you honestly think we might be facing war?'
'Your Majesty, that's unlikely.' Taskin's candour was forthright. What did Sessalie possess, that could be worth a vicious siege, a campaign supplier's nightmare, destined to be broken by the early winter storms that howled, unforgiving, through the ranges? Only Anja posed the key to disarm such defences. Threat to her could unlock all three of the citadel's moated gates without a fight.
Within the royal palace, her loss might break King Isendon's fragile wits within a week, or a day, or an hour. Prince Kailen lacked the hardened maturity to rein in the fractious council nobles. The seneschal was clever with accounting, but too set in his ways to keep the young blood factions close at heel.
Sessalie needed the sea trade to sweeten the merchants and bolster a cash-poor council through the uncertainty of the coming succession.
Yet the petty slights and tangles spun by court dissension were not for Devall's ears. Anja's offered hand must not imply a bleeding weakness, or invite the licence to be annexed as a province.
Lest the pause give the opening to tread dangerous ground, the Commander of the Guard tossed a bone to divert the High 's agile perception. 'The crown needs its eyes and ears in the sewers under Highgate. Captain Myshkael may be a misbegotten southern mongrel, but he keeps the city garrison trimmed into fighting shape. Knows his job; I checked his background. We want him keen and watchful, and not hackled like a man who's been insulted.'
The High Prince of Devall drummed irritable fingers, his ruby seal glaring like spilled blood. 'I don't give a rice grain if the man's low born, or the get of a pox-ridden harlot! Let him find the Princess Anja, I'll give him a villa on the river, a lord's parcel of mature vineyards, and a tax-free stamp to run a winery.'
Commander Taskin had no words. His arid glance pricked to a wicked spark of irony, he had eyes only for the man in the plain cloak just ushered through the privy chamber door. The hood he tossed back unmasked his dark skin, the honesty a tactical embarrassment. Yet his brazen pride was not invulnerable. The soft, limping step – worse than Taskin remembered – was strategically eclipsed behind the taller bulk of Collain Herald.
That court worthy trundled to an awkward stop. Scarlet-faced, he delivered the requisite bows to honour vested sovereign and heir apparent. Blindingly resplendent in his formal tabard with its border of gold ribbons, and Sessalie's falcon blazon stitched in jewelled wire, Collain announced the person the king's word had summoned.
'Attend! In his Majesty's name, I present Myshkael, Captain of the Garrison.'
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