Rhutgard rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and let out a long breath. “Do we know where he was heading?”
“We think so, Sire. He won’t return to that same village we found them in –”
“Uh, yes, Your Majesty.” The lead scout seemed surprised.
“This is my country, after all,” Rhutgard tried not to sound sardonic but the attempt, he was afraid, turned out more patronizing then anything. “I fought near there when your parents were your age.” Then he closed his eyes. Not only did he sound old, but he was being an arse. This boy was a scout, and good at his job, or he wouldn’t be standing here. Rhutgard could just hear how Principea would scold him….
He turned around and faced his advisors. Staring at the lead scout, Rhutgard looked him in the eye. “Your name is Canton. Canton, I owe you an apology. You didn’t deserve that. I was being an arse.”
The boy – possibly nineteen at most – blinked at him, speechless.
Now Rhutgard really was annoyed. He kept a very close guard on his tongue and then between gritted teeth, said, “Bask in the moment, son, for I rarely apologize to anyone.” Then he smoothed his expression to a show a calm demeanor. “Carry on,” he gestured.
As Canton was still speechless, the second lead scout quickly spoke up and told Rhutgard, “We feel certain that he will instead run to Wintonville. He’s injured, and he will need to rest. He will also need to trade that horse for money so he can make it through the mountains.” The second lead scout coughed. “Or so he thinks.”
“I will miss that horse,” Rhutgard mused.
“How long would you like us to follow him?”
“Only to Wintonville. Recapture him there. I’ve other plans for him, plans that do not involve torture,” he added.
“The messages, Sire?”
“I’ve plans for those as well,” Rhutgard said, smiling faintly as he looked down at the unrolled messages on his desk. He was not entirely sure what,
“Bared the bear. Look for the cub in the cave beside the spring.”
meant, but they all felt certain that King Hewart in Ambsellon knew to look for his lost spy in the immediate future at a before-planned destination. The bear was, after all, the emblem of Ambsellon.
Rhutgard was not going to reveal all of his network to this group standing in his study. Over the years, he had built up an inner network of informants, something he knew many kings did. He wondered what his father’s had been like. He knew Father must have had one – it was a war, after all, and twenty years long. Maybe he had inherited it from Grandfather. But what had it been like…. Father had been canny, sly….
Rhutgard changed his network regularly – reassigning men suddenly for no reason, sending them to the other ends of the country or even other countries, to different cities, towns. And quite often he sent them places from where he needed no information at all, just to keep his informants guessing.
But oh, how it wore on him. He would rather be fighting a war on the battlefield than this silent war of spies. It was much like a game of Ice – the ultimate game of strategy, but he was tired of moving his living pieces about his live board, and occasionally, lords, noblemen, even royals died. As long, Rhutgard sighed, as none of the royals were any of his own, he thought as he rubbed his jaw absently.
He dismissed all of them, except for Stanyard. Stanyard he had recruited himself, his very first. Stanyard he had found during his first visit to the prison cells, nearly dead of neglect and starvation. Stanyard’s hair had hung in greasy long wisps over his sunken face, which had been little more than skin stretched tautly over a skull. And yet – and yet – Rhutgard still remembered those gray eyes followed his every move. Stanyard had pretended to be barely conscious but a sharp intelligence stared out of those sunken gray eyes.
Stanyard had been a spy from Ormon, a rare find. His mother was Ormon, his father Ambsellon. Apparently, the men who hired him disavowed all knowledge of him once he was caught, though Stanyard explained to Rhutgard that once he was in Rommish borders and half the contacts he was supposed to have met never showed, he believed that he was supposed to have been caught. Poor planning was not an Ormon trait. But he had spent three years down in the cells, with no more enlightenment on his mission than he did today.
Stanyard’s allegiance was wholeheartedly Rhutgard’s now, though. Rhutgard rescued him from the cells; such an action was unheard of in Ormon and Ambsellon, particularly for spies. Rhutgard had visited him regularly and learned as much as he could about both countries, for book learning and the battlefield were nothing compared to an actual native and son of both cultures. Eventually Stanyard began to trust Rhutgard, once he decided that Rhutgard wanted nothing from him other than the understanding of the worlds he had grown up in.
Soon, Rhutgard started asking Stanyard’s opinion on state matters involving Ambsellon and Ormon. After this proved fruitful, Rhutgard finally sat him in a Cabinet meeting. When the lords sitting at his table inquired of Rhutgard an introduction, he simply replied, “This is Lord Stanyard, one of my most trusted advisors.” The Cabinet members glanced at each other, some with curiosity, others with misgiving, for none of them had heard of Lord Stanyard, nor even known that Rhutgard had been speaking with such a man.
Stanyard’s abilities as a spy were an enormous advantage. Occasionally, when he knew what a man was saying was truth, he would cock his head to the right, as if interested. If Stanyard knew what the man was saying was deliberately an utter falsehood, he would cock his head to the left. Either way, Rhutgard knew to regard the individual’s commentary carefully, and follow it up further as necessary.
When Rhutgard asked if he wanted to return home, Stanyard replied, “Return… home? I come from no home. I live here now.” Rhutgard had nodded, pleased. But he made it very clear, that at any time, Stanyard was free to return to the Northern Countries.
Rhutgard also told Stanyard that he needn’t work in service to him, that he was free to leave the Palace at any time, live as he liked. Stanyard implied that, though he had never been contacted in any way by his former countrymen, nor felt any allegiance toward them, his life was likely to be a short one should he leave the Palace.
Rhutgard also, however, made it even more clear, that, while Stanyard was free to leave at any time, he was not free to take up his former occupation working against the Crown. Stanyard did not need this ultimatum to be further detailed for him to understand what would happen if he were to violate Rhutgard’s trust. But Rhutgard did not believe that would happen.
Now that the scouts had cleared the study, he looked at Lord Stanyard. Master of Spies, Lord of None. Stanyard had switched the Ambsellon birds out long ago, so that they would fly to Miller’s Tower. The man who kept pigeons there was a retired Crown Lieutenant and loyal to his last drop of blood. He sent birds to and from the Palace regularly.
“And what will you do with the messages?” inquired Rhutgard’s Master of Spies. “Or have you not decided?”
“I’ve decided,” Rhutgard said. “I’m going to send the Bear Cub’s message, just as it is, to Ormon, straight to the King. Let us see how Ormon appreciates being left out of Ambsellon’s plans. And then let us sit back and see who starts fighting first.”
Lord Stanyard smiled. “I, for one, will enjoy watching.”