A Silent Game of Spies

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She had dismissed most of her War Council and stood looking now at its wary remainder. Who remained were more important – their lands were border lands, towns, parishes, rivers, and trade supply routes that stood to be encroached upon first. Coastal and mountainous lands mainly, though she retained the services of Lord Sandewyre, whose lands were meadowlands. Having an entire room of Council members talking all at once at such a late date only served to add to the fray.

Selby did not need an entire Council to vote. Her Councilors served as advisors only, steering the nature of Clemongardian politics by vote, though Selby knew they would not appreciate being described thus. As for war, some of them wanted to be heard more and others less, but ultimately, they were largely uninformed on war strategy.

Of course, this was why Selby had employed experts to advise her. Such as the Admiral and Colonel who were looking wary as she stood against the maps of Clemongard on the finely paneled wall.

She swallowed down her annoyance at what seemed sure to be a disruption, for they stood side by side together. Selby shouldered her hair back and leaned against the map on the wall. “Admiral Droyce. Colonel Berold. It seems you have a point to make. Have out with it so we may continue.”

Selby noted then that her manners had slipped away. Not three months ago, she might have asked these men to please do so and thank you. Now, she simply issued commands and expected them to be carried out. Hmm. Perhaps it was the stress of this war, or perhaps it was the weight of the Crown. Selby decided it was both.

Neither the Admiral nor the Colonel appreciated being addressed so, she decided, for they glanced at each other. Selby raised her eyebrows expectantly.

The Admiral gave a brief shake of his head and looked down, thereby assigning the responsibility to the Colonel, who took a deep breath.

“At risk to life and limb, Your Majesty,” said Colonel Berolt, eyeing Selby’s cleaver, which she wore at her side each day, “I would say to you that this is a war we are going to fight, and that people throughout Clemongard will be hurt regardless of how we fight it. You cannot romanticize war.”

Ah. They felt she was basing her war strategies based on the placement of her populations, so that people would not get hurt. Selby felt her anger rise.

“I would say the same to you, Colonel, Admiral. It is one thing to win a war. It is another to send enemy soldiers home and have so few remaining survivors in your own land that it wasn’t worth the victory. You will not center this war around highly populated areas unless absolutely necessary. Soldiers fight the war, but the people suffer for it. They endure poisoned wells, burned towns and cities, loss of lives. They starve for years afterward. Livestock and crops are ruined when soldiers march through, sickness and disease spreads. I realize that our men must feed themselves, and supplies must be amassed as you march through. I have studied war, these many weeks since I called our first War Council. But I will not have our own citizens suffer at the hands of Clemongard soldiers more than must be, with Stordish and Northern soldiers attacking as well.

“And, Admiral Droyce, Colonel Berolt, if either of you find this a principle you unable to strategize by, then you will take a demotion and retire from the military. I suggest that, if you choose that option, you then leave Clemongard, as she will be besieged in merely a matter of days. Do make your choice in a timely manner, so that I may appoint another in your place.

“And do understand – while you are each in charge of Clemongard’s Navy and Army…” Selby paused and stared at each man before she continued, “I am in charge of you and your decisions regarding Clemongard’s Navy and Army, just as I am in charge of Clemongard and her people, whether in peace time or in war. Strategize away from highly populated areas. Am I understood, Admiral, Colonel?”

They returned her query with stiff salutes. Neither of them was happy at all, Selby saw, but she did not think either of them would furnish her with their retirement papers. They were men of honor and had each fought in the Twenty Years War with distinguished service records, else neither would be before her now. Neither would leave a country they had fought for and spent their entire lives serving as officers in over a difference in principle.

Lord Wharfstead had, during this speech, stepped up to join her. He cleared his throat at her side as if to lend support. She marveled inwardly, not for the first time, how nearly chopping off the man’s fingers had earned her the man’s undying loyalty.

“Had you anything other points you wished to make?” Selby asked pointedly. Had she been a King, no one who had earned a seat in this room would question her directives.

Another glance between the two officers occurred before Colonel Berolt told Selby frankly, “Just this, Your Majesty. Within the week, we expect enemy troops to be within Clemongard’s naval borders and make landfall elsewhere. Your Majesty, it is time to mobilize our troops.”

Prickles chilled her flesh. His words hung in the air.

The time had finally come.

They had wanted to dress her in gold plated, highly ornamented armor, adorned with ridiculous accoutrements.

Her answer was to ask them if gold dented more easily than steel. Her armorers’ jaws dropped in horror, telling her a woman was in no way expected to be on the field of battle. Selby had then replied that she was not going to war to win a fashion show, but to kill her combatants, should they make it past her guards, and to start again. Then her armorers protested that she would not be fighting at all, for women did not fight.

But Selby had begun lessons in private, against strident objections of Durain, who insisted that Ericorian would protect her.

And so Selby now owned a steel suit of armor and a chain mail suit, both of which were quite heavy. She also owned a sword that was made to her measurements.

Selby found the idea of wearing the chain mail and armor unimaginable, for their sheer weight alone. But she insisted upon their making, for her only heirs were two cousins who were not trained in statescraft. Her survival was crucial to Clemongard, particularly so soon after the loss of her brothers and father.

Her master armorer was insistent upon her breastplate being quite ornate, however, if she would not garbed in gold. She must appear to be the Queen of Clemongard in some aspect, he insisted. She told him that was why she did not want ornate armor – she did not want to be taken as the Queen of Clemongard. Selby would stay back with her Generals and her Colonels and would be well protected by her Ericorian, but would not call attention to herself. The officers would fight this war, not she. All she would do was approve final movements.

Durain had indeed, voiced objections at the idea of Selby learning to fight. But, at her insistence, he found a discreet Armsmaster with whom she had trained several afternoons a week in a quiet, deserted alcove of the Palace, under Durain’s watchful eye.

And at the start of each session, Armsmaster Andeval told Selby directly that, Queen or no, he strongly disapproved of women fighting. And Selby shrugged it off, for war was approaching and she would not be defenseless if an enemy soldier broke through. The opinion of a single Armsmaster mattered not to her when it came to the lives of her people. Her people must have a ruler.

One of the first things Armsmaster Andeval taught her to do was use her cleaver. “Before you chop off some unsuspecting Councilman’s fingers,” he’d told her dryly. Selby narrowed her eyes at the salt-and-pepper haired Armsmaster, for she had purposely missed.

“Narrow your eyes all you will, missy, but the next time you go to use that knife, it may not obey you,” Andeval returned her glare with a disapproving look that made her feel the seventeen-year-old she was suddenly.

He’d brought her to the barn. No one knew they were there and he supplied her with a horrid leather apron, stiffened with what Selby suspected was dried blood. Once they were inside, Andeval walked her down to the end of the stable, and she’d wrinkled her nose at the smell of manure. He’d scoffed at a private joke.

Then she saw three suckling pigs, hanging from a hook, dead, their red eyes staring sightlessly. Andeval tied a leather apron around himself and told Selby, “Get your cleaver out, Your Majesty.”

Selby had been horrified, but she had wordlessly obeyed him.

“You want to know what it’s like to hit a man with a blade?” Andeval pointed at the first pig. “Go on, then.”

Blood had spilled on the hay and her first few hits had been clumsy, weak. Then he told her to hack at the pig. She felt her cleaver hit bone several times and was partially dismayed, but partially intrigued. When she drove her cleaver into the pig’s soft belly, its guts spilled out onto the ground and blood splashed up onto her apron. Selby looked up at Andeval, her breath whooshing out of her in disgust. She tossed down her cleaver.

“That, little missy, is what it is to kill a man. Pigs are very similar to men. Are you sure you want to carry on?”

Selby had swallowed down her disgust and taken a deep breath before she nodded.

Andeval shrugged and nodded. “Here.” He handed her a short sword and gestured her over to the second pig.

After stabbing the second pig several times with the short sword, she moved on to the third pig and slashed and hacked at it.

Armsmaster Andeval reached out slowly with a calloused thumb and wiped away a small bit of pig’s blood from Selby’s face.

“Still sure you want to learn to kill men, Your Majesty?” he asked.

Selby was staring down at all the carnage she’d wrought, seeping into the hay. If she just imagined it as Ambsellon and Ormon… then perhaps….

She had swallowed and nodded. Though she had waited until she had gotten back to her chambers to vomit, several times.

Andeval had taught her nearly every afternoon since, how to avoid incoming attacks, how to use her shield, how to use her cleaver, her sword.

Today, after leaving Admiral Droyce, Colonel Berolt, and the few others remaining on her War Council to hammer out a few more plans for the North, Andeval had told Selby that, starting tomorrow, she would practice in her ringmail, so that she might get accustomed to its weight. Until today, she had only been using leather armor and wooden weapons.

Selby whirled out of Andeval’s sword attack. She was getting better on her left defense but she hoped she would never have to test her abilities on the actual battlefield.

Durain suddenly cleared his throat and Andeval stopped his assault.

Seneschal Mandewel stepped into the stone alcove. “Your Majesty, I apologize for the interruption, but I’ve brought this.”

Selby drew a forearm across her temple and held out her hand. The Seneschal brought her a pigeon parchment, which she could see immediately came from the Eastern Alliance.

“I thought you would want to see it right away.” The Seneschal bowed.

To:Her Royal Majesty, Selby Cylysse Stevanrhut, First of Her Name,

Queen of Clemongard:

I write in hopes this find you in good health. I have sent you two representatives from the Eastern Alliance who should arrive within a day to two days of the reception of this communication. Prince Ronan Martel and Prince Keldrick Firthing travel to Clemongard to meet with you as War Time Ambassadors in my stead. They will share information such as the Eastern Alliance has for you as its Ally. Please confirm their arrival.

From: King Rhutgard Anghus Firthing, First of His Name

King of Romeny; Eastern Shield of the Eastern Shield Alliance

Visitors from Romeny. At last. She nodded slowly and looked up at Seneschal Mandewel. “We will be receiving two – high profile – lords visiting tomorrow. Have guest quarters according to their rank in the Lords Quarters freshened tonight.

“And send Jennelle to my chambers. I’m through for this afternoon.”

Selby drew her knees up to her chin and slid further into the steaming bath.

“I don’t understand why we would suddenly receive guests from the East,” Jennelle mused aloud as she pulled at Selby’s wet hair with a comb. “Even in the East, they must have heard we’re going to war.”

Selby smiled a little and said drowsily, “I expect they won’t stay long once they find out how soon we will be facing enemy soldiers.” Which was true. They would only be here to gather information too sensitive to send by carrier pigeon and find out where she wanted any troops they could supply sent.

Jennelle was her chief lady-in-waiting, and the only one Selby had time for. Selby no longer had time for an entire gaggle of ladies-in-waiting, and so it fell to Jennelle to entertain the whole flock, until Selby sent for her. And while she didn’t tell Jennelle everything, she did gloss over certain things, such as the details of the Eastern lords visiting tomorrow.

Jennelle interrupted Selby’s reverie by saying, “You know, Your Majesty, with all due respect… it’s been almost eight months.” She trailed off.

Selby sighed. She knew what Jennelle referred to. The deaths of Selby’s father and brothers in RainsCourt.

Selby cleared her throat. “And….”

“Well, Majesty, perhaps, while the people can still see you, perhaps it’s time for a bit of… something extra.”

“Jennelle, say what you would, please, it’s been a long day.”

“Only this, Majesty. You have five black velvet gowns –”

“For mourning.”

“Of course, for mourning, five black velvet gowns, but, what if, just one, had maybe a little bit of gold to it? Some cloth-of-gold embroidery trim, that the people might see you wear before you leave for the war?”

Selby was quiet. Thoughts of her brothers and father flashed before her.

“You’d still be in mourning, only a little trim after eight months,” commented Jennelle. “And you’ve company from the East visiting soon.”

Perhaps on special occasions…. “Very well, see to it. Nothing too ornate,” Selby rolled an eye over her shoulder toward Jennelle.

Jennelle started squeezing Selby’s hair dry with a thick towel. “Good. It’s been seen to already. You should wear it tonight, for we’ve entertainers guesting with us.” Jennelle was pleased.

“You’ve already done it?”

“You never noticed. What were four black gowns to five?” Jennelle began winding Selby’s hair carefully about. “And we’ll put your hair up as well. You’ve been wearing it down ever so long. Don’t fuss, nothing special, nothing ornate, just something that says ‘pretty,’ not ‘plain’”.

In the end, Jennelle had her way with a simple gold clip and two braids wound round Selby’s head. Selby admitted, she missed dressing up, but a mourning period was a mourning period.

But she didn’t realize just how her people had grown accustomed to her in mourning and ‘plain,’ as Jennelle called her, until she descended into the Great Hall with Jennelle for dinner. The entire Great Hall hushed when they saw her.

Perhaps it was time to leave her mourning behind.

The Seneschal leaned in briefly and whispered, “Your Majesty, your – high profile guests – arrived earlier this afternoon. Their rooms are being readied as we speak, but I made sure they had rooms to rest and refresh themselves in prior to dinner.”

Selby started. “They’re here? Now?” She was exhausted and hadn’t prepared for an Eastern Alliance accord.

Seneschal Mandewel nodded just slightly and answered behind his hand, “I believe they are here only to relax for the evening. The gentleman in blue and gold near the end of the table introduced himself to me as Lord Galland of Romeny.” The Seneschal flicked his brown eyes behind him briefly. “Perhaps a name he traveled by, then?”

“Understandable,” mused Selby. Who would want to go by the name of a Prince through the Free Lands when bandits, mercenaries, and military men from any side were traveling through?

“Shall I schedule him for tomorrow?” asked Seneschal Mandewel.

“Yes, first thing in the morning.” Selby nodded and the Seneschal retreated. Her mind ran over the entire evening’s entertainment. Had it been pleasant? Had the feast been worthy of Eastern Alliance guests? She had never had such high-profile guests before. A few Dukes, most of the several generations removed, two Duchesses. King Harvick had meant to attend her Coronation but sent his deepest regrets, for his wife gave birth to two twin babies that same weekend, and so he instead sent her enormous gifts in place of his absence.

So now, in her Great Hall, sat the son of the most powerful man in the Land, as well as the Crown Prince of Ghiverny. And what had been served… ugh. Nothing of note, spiced pheasant with oranges, cucumber soup, and roasted tomatoes stuffed with cream cheese and dressed with sage and bacon. Cherry and cheese tarts along with fresh melon had been served for sweets…. Selby sighed with annoyance. If she had only known.

At her side, Jennelle slid into her chair next to Selby, where she sat most often. Dancing had been going on all evening, and thanks to the gods for that, thought Selby. Jennelle had enjoyed herself thoroughly, given how breathless she was.

“I do wish you could dance out there as you used to, Majesty,” Jennelle said.

“As do I,” Selby replied absently. Then, on a whim, she told Jennelle, “Stay here.”

Selby could not have two members of the Eastern Alliance sitting in her Great Hall, under a clandestine identity or not, without introducing herself. She kept to the wall so that no one would bother her with deep bows and curtsies, nor she they with the stoppage of the music and entertainment.

Once she stood next to her recently arrived guests, Selby cleared her throat. They both turned around.

“My Lord Galland, I believe? Welcome to Clemongard,” she said.

Both of them bowed lowly. Selby only experienced a moment of curiosity in wondering which prince was which, for she recalled the old saying about Romeny blues always breed true, and the second prince looked back at her with quite startling blue eyes. Prince Keldrick, she recalled from King Rhutgard’s communication. She would need to send an immediate communication telling him that they had arrived safely.

“Your Royal Majesty,” both men intoned, and they kissed her ring when she held it out, though Prince Keldrick met her eyes as he did so. Was he told to do that? Her stomach fluttered.

“Let us speak elsewhere, Lord Galland,” Selby tore her eyes from Prince Keldrick’s blue gaze to Prince Ronan’s.

“As you wish, Your Majesty.”

She led them from the clamor of the Great Hall to a deserted dining hall.

“Durain, please see that no one disturbs us,” Selby directed Durain and her other Ericorian, then turned to her allies. “We may speak privately in here.”

Prince Ronan stood back then and nodded to Prince Keldrick. Interesting.

“Your Royal Majesty, we come from Romeny on behalf of the Eastern Alliance and King Rhutgard, the Eastern Shield. I am Prince Keldrick and this is Prince Ronan. We are sent to speak with you in his place, as War Time Ambassadors and your allies.”

The two of them bowed to her again.

“I am most grateful for your presence, as well as your affiliation,” Selby told them with as much dignity as she could muster. She had no idea this would be so hard, asking for the help of other countries….

Prince Ronan cleared his throat. “How bad is it?”

Just like that? Selby considered him. Shrewd green eyes contemplated her, and he had just sliced through all the diplomacy that all her advisors and Cabinet members usually took such delight dancing around.

She swallowed. What to say? She felt a child again, and any answer might be the wrong one.

“I’m not really sure where to begin.” Her voice was hoarse. “Ambsellon killed my father and brothers last year. That’s why I’m Queen.” She watched as they exchanged a glance. “So you see, I must win this war. I’ve no heirs. I can’t let them take my country.

“I won’t.”

She took in a deep breath and after she steadied her nerves, Selby continued. “They’ll be here in about a week, by land and by sea. I’ve had bridges built all along my rivers and put my Ericorian along them to keep back enemy soldiers –”

Prince Keldrick held up a hand. “Ericorian?”

Selby nearly smiled. Ericorian were the crown jewel of Clemongard. She turned and gestured at Durain and the other Ericorian standing at the door. “Ericorian are Clemongard’s personal, highly skilled, highly trained militia. Only those who survive the training become Ericorian.”

Both princes eyed the Ericorian with curiosity and then Prince Keldrick gestured for Selby to continue.

“Ericorian guard my bridges. I have four hundred galleons with fifty more being built yet. I have eighty-five thousand Crown Guard and a total of sixty thousand Ericorian.

“But whether King Harvick’s first son, Varley, disowned, wants to invade my country, I know not. I have information that he has upward of fifteen thousand men. I stationed ten thousand men all along my southern border. No one knows where Varley is just now, but I don’t want to continue holding ten thousand men along my southern border waiting for an enemy who may not show when I have much more disturbing problems to the northeast and northwest.”

Prince Ronan nodded and Prince Keldrick crossed his arms and leaned back against the table.

“As for the north –” And she sighed.

“Ormon and Ambsellon will sail into my harbors within the week. Whether they will put to there, or sail further south, I’ve no idea. My men have made plans, of course, but nevertheless, Ambsellon will show first, then Ormon will follow, and where any of those ships pull in, I’ve no idea.

“On the other side of the Mourning Mountains sits Ambsellon and his bastard army.”

Oh! Was this the way of it then? First her manners, and then her language? Would she be cursing like a common drunk next? And in front of allies, too!

But they hardly reacted at all. Only Prince Keldrick – a slight curve of his lips lifted, hardly noticeable, but she caught it. Selby! Take hold of yourself!

Primly, she continued as if she hadn’t cursed at all. “Rockdale Pass exists on both sides of the Mourning Mountains, and my men have blocked it up. But again,” and she paused deliberately, “King Hewett comes with his army through the Mourning Mountains, and then I’ve very good information that the Ice Queen will be following or joining his forces.

“Clemongard does not have the size Army she once did, before the Twenty Years War. She has finally recovered economically but does not have the two hundred thousand men that are bearing down on her by next week.

“My War Council has made plans, and it may be that we might sustain a war with the North, but with Varley, and Coastal Country military as well?”

Selby stopped. That was all of it. The stuff of her nightmares at night, what kept her awake at night, the source of the circles under her eyes….

And, Andeval said, the reason she kept hitting so hard when she was only supposed to be practicing. Selby had cracked three wooden swords in two weeks.

Prince Ronan looked down and shook his head in sympathy. Prince Keldrick stood up and said, “We have good news for you, Your Majesty. We will be sending you troops –”

“Please, any ally that can assist me in any way during this time period I insist call me Selby. I cannot imagine dancing upon formalities when I am accepting the aid of other countries who need troops themselves.”

Prince Keldrick cocked his head and then said, “Your Majesty, if you please –”

“Prince Ronan, Prince Keldrick, I beg of you one thing, do please, call me Selby. In informal settings, at least. We have been children together, after all, and we will rule this land together and all grow old with one another. As allies, shall we not be on social terms?”

Prince Ronan nodded and smiled, while Prince Keldrick gave a small bow. “As you will, my lady.” He smiled, then continued what he had been telling her before he’d interrupted. “The East will be sending you a total of forty thousand troops. At this time, it is unknown whether we can send any Naval assistance, so we will only be sending Army assistance. Some of that is made up of Stafford Shields, some cavalry, some archery, mostly infantry.

“I regret that it will not be here in the timeframe you hope for, within a week, that is. But it has already mobilized and is on its way from different countries. We have specific numbers and locations that we can share with you, though –” and he cleared his throat. “Not on our actual persons. We had planned to share those specific details with you in a War Council or such, if you will.”

Selby stood motionless, hardly hearing the last few remarks. Had he said forty thousand? Or four? No matter… any aid, any at all….

“Your Majesty?”

“My Lady? My Lady, are you well? I’m sorry forty thousand is all we could manage, we’ve a bit of a new crisis that’s developed ourselves, but the troops are on their way. Tomorrow, we’ll go about working out the finer details with you if that’s agreeable….”

“Forty thousand men…. I’ve no idea how to thank you…” said Selby faintly.

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