“So, you’ve finally come to visit, haven’t you, Brother.” This last was added in a nasty tone by his twin. Rilstrom marveled yet again at just who and what his brother had become, his twin, and right before him, when he hadn’t even noticed.
“We are hardly brothers,” Rilstrom responded, though he kept his voice calm. His twin was trying to bait him and he would not fall for it.
“Something I’ve been thinking for years,” yawned Rickstan as he sat against the back of the cell. “So different, except you have my face….”
“That much, I agree with you on,” remarked Rilstrom and turned around so he wouldn’t have to look at the bastard who was his twin brother, who had taken part in imprisoning him in the HarCourt Dungeon for six months and passing him off for dead. Indeed, if the girl in the tunnels had not set him free, he still would be in the dungeons, subject to Joshik’s every dim-witted whim. Hard to forgive a man for that.
“So what is the purpose of this visit? Have they missed me?”
Rilstrom scoffed. “No, Brother, actually, we are at war.”
His twin raised an eyebrow. “We who? Us, as in, you and I? Or the family? Or… oh, so many possibilities, do be specific.”
Rilstrom narrowed his eyes but refused to engage his brother. “You know of the war I speak. You had you hands filthy with the planning of it, did you not?” And he turned about to stare at the twin brother with whom he’d grown up, oblivious to such psychotic behavior.
Rickstan gave up. “At war at last, are we? I didn’t think it would happen. Too many gutless lords holding back on their promises.” He seemed pensive. “That doesn’t tell me why you’re here. You must need something from me. Ah. The keys to the Riverlands Stations.”
“Don’t kid yourself. I found those long ago,” Rilstrom responded with disgust.
“Did you? I’m impressed.”
Rilstrom turned and leaned against a wall. Just a tiny dark room, with a window outside the cell, and three deaf and mute guards, one who brought food and water daily, a guard for the nightshift, and a guard for the dayshift. Rickstan’s cries literally fell on deaf ears and he was unable to get information here. None of the three guards even knew who Rickstan was, for they’d been hired from the West, and Rilstrom kept this prison separate from the castle. He visited once each month, only to see that his brother was alive and well, no more. ’Twas regicide if he killed the man, and he would not kill the father of his niece and nephews, though they cared not if he lived. Furthermore, Shaw might yet have need of him, should something happen to the royal bloodline. And so he made this trip each month, only to ensure that the man he once cared for still survived and was healthy.
“And the other safe?”
Rilstrom turned. He did not know of another safe.
“Ah. I knew I’d placed it well. You’ll need the keys to the safe if you want the upper hand in this war.”
Rilstrom raised an eyebrow. This would not come cheap. “And in return?”
“Well, probably a conjugal visit is out of the question –”
Rilstrom scoffed. “Try again.”
“Early release perhaps –”
“You are getting everything I did whilst I was imprisoned, my dear brother, and frankly, you are being treated far better.”
“Better! You must be joking. Do you see the slop I’m fed?” Rickstan spat onto the floor of his cell.
Rilstrom, seething, kept his rage from overtaking his features. Instead he turned about and unlaced his surcoat. His brother remarked, “I’ve no idea, Rilstrom, why you’re stripping, but if it’s for a boxing match, you might recall that I always was the victor.”
Rilstrom said nothing but pulled his tunic off, revealing an entire back of scars from beatings.
For once, Rickstan remained silent.
“These scars are from the guard, who lashed me whenever he felt the need. Take a good long look, Brother, and tell me again that you are being treated unfairly in here. And now know that asking for anything such as I did not get is a pretty big ask.”
Finally, Rickstan told him that the keys to the safe were under the tile beneath the throne.
“Though I would change that hiding place now if I were you.” He paused. “How are my children?”
“Glad that I am you,” returned Rilstrom evenly as he dressed. “I cannot fathom how you could do such a thing. To Shaw, to the Eastern Alliance. To Father.”
“Father.” Rickstan scoffed and shook his head from within his cell.
“Why do you say it like that?”
“Oh, don’t worry, he died of natural causes. The last thing I wanted was the throne, though you may not believe it. That was it, you know. You, you paraded about doing anything you wished all the time, this social, that social. Whilst I, I was under Father’s strict thumb. I finally snapped, and no one ever knew it.
“Because I was shrewd enough, smart enough to see that no one saw through me. Father, he had no political sense. I have political cunning and he had none. Like you, you have no political cunning, although you have lasted longer out there than I gave you credit for. My guess is that you are merely a good actor with a strong sense of survival. Perhaps you have a new group of advisors. That’s what I would have done were I you, starting fresh in the same situation. But with my sense of political cunning, I brought Shaw to where she is now, and she will be safe in this war, or as safe as she can be. War was imminent, Brother, know that. I did not bring it upon us single-handedly. But I have set circumstances in motion that may save Shaw from being trampled upon in this war.”
His brother’s words chilled Rilstrom, and he looked pleased as a cat after a meal of fresh tuna.
“Your biggest fault, your whole life, Rickstan, has been that you are an ideal, greedy fool.”
“And yours is your naivety,” snapped Rickstan.
Rilstrom sighed and turned to leave.
Suddenly, Rickstan became placating. “I thought I would earn something for my cooperation.”
Rilstrom snorted. “What would you like? A few lashings?”
His twin ignored that and said, “I think you’ll find what I’ve given you to be of enormous value….”
“All right, I’m listening.”
“Careful, Brother, what you’re getting is beyond compare for a prisoner who has committed treason.”
“Could they be… a little better?”
His palate was exceptional, Rilstrom knew. He snorted his disgust.
“I’ll consider sending you some cheese if I like what I read.”
“You will, I know you will.”
Rilstrom turned to leave.
His brother scrambled to his feet in the cell behind him.
“Brother,” he called out.
“Not another ask?”
Misery was clear on his twin’s face as he gestured toward the tiny window across the room. “It’s just – might I see the sunshine? I’ve missed it all these months….”
Rilstrom’s lip curled with scorn. He recognized that yearning, but he hadn’t seen even a window, much less been treated so gently.
He looked down at the stone floor and saw a rock. He kicked it into his brother’s cell.
“Draw a picture of the sun on the wall. That way you’ll see the sun shine every day, you bloody bastard.”
And he let the door slam behind him.
So many lords – some who find themselves soon banished. He thought they were quiet in Council. He wondered if they knew he was not Rickstan. Probably not, if these papers were to judge. Rickstan had colluded with Lord Drury to see him dead and the paperwork was here before him on the desk, though a Lord Scollard had signed off on the matter. People were to be told that Rilstrom was dead in the bandit raid on the supposed state visit to Hardewold that never occurred. The fewer people who knew of the murder of a royal brother, the better, thought Rilstrom darkly. Though he would love to know who Lord Scollard was. Any man who helped plan his murder, and the death of his wife and unborn child, was a man he wanted to meet. And categorically execute.
But most importantly, of the oddest names he found in this cacophony of his brother’s was Almeric, King of Tortoreen. And what he read chilled him.
He would need to send a bird to Reaghann with all haste, in hopes that Reaghann had not yet left with his troops for the EverWinters. And then a bird to Fairview, for he was under the strictest of orders to share anything of the remotest importance with the Eastern Shield. Rhutgard was already at or on his way to the EverWinters, but a rider would need to send this message on. Rilstrom would not have it said that he had not performed his duty. And this could well change the outcome of the war….