A Silent Game of Spies

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Prologue IV

PROLOGUE IV

Luvian

“Sergeant.” The Prince nudged him with a boot. “Time to be going.”

Luvian sat up. The crisp air of early morning assaulted his senses. Yawning, he stood and stretched. The damp fog that lingered in the trees would serve to mask their progress. So far, fortune had accompanied them on this journey. He prayed they wouldn’t lose it.

Luvian swigged some water from his waterskin. If they didn’t find some water – a stream, a brook, anything – soon, their water would fall below a critical level neither of them cared to confront each other over.

The Prince ran his hands through his golden locks and neatened his appearance as he waited for Luvian. Oy. Royals. Luvian brushed himself free of dirt and debris and stood, leaning heavily on the crutch Rhutgard had fashioned for him.

Glad of the extra rations he’d procured, he chewed on his breakfast as they set out. His leg was sore – the cool air had set into it and he continued his limp and lean routine. He mulled over whether they would reach Fairview by tonight or if they’d have to make camp again. This close to the city, Luvian knew how important it was that the Prince not be recognized.

They tramped along in silence until the sun finally peaked over the horizon, breaking through the mist.

Finally, Luvian asked, “Sir, what will you tell your father when we arrive?”

The Prince tramped a few more paces through the leaves and then said tiredly, “The truth. That there is betrayal in the ranks. And that we know not where.”

Or who, thought Luvian, thinking of Major Corlander’s eyes as he died. He would need to send word to the man’s family – but no. He would inform them himself. If not for Corlander, the whole of this war might have gone in a different direction altogether. In fact, the Prince might even be dead by now….

That! A noise – up ahead in the distance. Someone trying to be stealthy and not succeeding. “Captain!” he whispered, clutching at the Prince’s sleeve. The Prince had heard it as well. They immediately dropped to the hillside and froze.

Every nerve in Luvian’s body jangled. Laying in the leaves, Luvian stared at the Prince’s widened eyes and saw the Prince was just as alarmed.

He took in half breaths, smelling the earth and the dead leaves. “Soldiers?” whispered the Prince. Luvian shrugged. If soldiers were up ahead, then the two of them were just fucked, plain and simple. Obviously, enemy soldiers would execute them, or worse, keep them for questioning, which meant ultimately a very painful existence and then a grisly death. The Prince would be ransomed, of course, but his own fate in enemy hands would not be as secure, Luvian was sure. And Corlander’s documents would be lost.

And if Eastern Alliance soldiers awaited them, then at best, they would be court-martialed for deserting, but at worst, hung from the nearest tree. Deserters in time of war were severely frowned upon. No questions were asked until after the rope was cut from the tree. They certainly would never believe that the man in homespun clothing claiming to be His Royal Highness of Romeny was sane… they would hang him first, and then make apologies to the King later.

Again – there it was! Someone was stepping quietly through the leaves up ahead. Clearly, they knew Luvian and the Prince were there. The Prince loosened his sword in its scabbard.

“Who are ya? Show yerselves, I know yer out there!” came a woman’s voice. “I’ve got a knife!”

The Prince collapsed with relief upon the leaves. Luvian buried his head under his arms, letting out a long breath. Then they looked at each other and shook their heads with a shared release of anxiety.

Luvian stepped forward first. He held up a finger to remind the Prince. “Remember who we are!”

The Prince nodded and shooed him forward.

“Oy! Here! No harm intended,” Luvian called, waving his arms.

A woman in a gray homespun dress stepped out from a tree. And she did, indeed, have a knife, though it was her vegetable knife. She had a woven basket of vegetables on her arm and they had clearly disrupted her harvest.

Luvian immediately adopted a far more pronounced limp and then glanced at the Prince. The Prince then recalled that he, too, was to act much more injured than he was, so that a medical discharge would be more believable. He immediately bent over and assumed a sickly stance.

Luvian leaned on his walking stick and groaned as they approached. “Sorry for the fright, we mean no harm. Just on our way home from the battlefield. Discharged.”

Her face, creased and windworn, and shrewd gray eyes took in their bloody uniforms, though she kept her knife out. “I can certainly see why. Was it medical, then?”

“Aye. Bloody bastards. Everywhere we turned, they were on us. And more coming.”

“Well, boys, I’m sorry for that. They’re everywhere now. Never knew it so bad. Where ya headed?”

“Me ‘n’ my brother, we’re headed back home. Had enough of the wide world.”

The woman chortled. “Don’t they all want to leave and see the world and once they’re out there, they can’t figure out what to do with themselves. Well, you soldier boys, ya’ve sure earned a place at our table. I’ve got some stew ready. Come on in and rest yer bones a bit before ya move on.”

The Prince was silent throughout this exchange, thankfully, but Luvian saw an avid curiosity alight on his face.

“My name’s Ernestine,” called their host, “but I’m mostly called Ernie. My own boys run off and gave me grandchildren years ago. Don’t see them hardly enough at all,” she mused. Ernie led them to a worn log cabin sheltered under several fir trees.

As she led them to the door, she warned them, “Mind ya wipe yer feet. The husband don’t do it near enough. If he did the sweepin’ and changin’ out of the rushes, I’ll tell you what, he’d wipe his feet every ten seconds, he would,” Ernie clucked.

Luvian and the Prince both made a point of wiping their boots. Ah. Inside was a warm, cozy home such as he hadn’t been in for months, and with food ready over the fire…. Luvian wanted to collapse with exhaustion, feeling safe for the first time in months.

“Sit yerselves down, I’ll be about with some stew. It’s only rabbit, my husband hasn’t shot a deer in a month a more. It’s the war, ya know. Soldier men have found all the deer. Not,” Ernie turned and looked at them with an apologetic smile, “that I’m blamin’ you. Just they marched through and now deer is scarce.”

The Prince sat forward then. “What was that? Who? Who marched through?”

“Why, the soldier men. Ambsellon, I think it was. Right through the city, if you can believe it. I never knew that had happened before. But they wiped the deer fresh out of the forest, not a buck to be found for miles, says my husband.”

Luvian found himself staring and swallowed. A lump had formed in his stomach and he suddenly had no interest in food. Troops – marching through Fairview. That hadn’t happened for – well, at least a hundred years. He knew the Prince would know.

Luvian cleared his throat and dared a look at the Prince. His face had turned to stone and his mouth had dropped open. He couldn’t imagine what he was thinking, but right now, they still had to be medically discharged soldiers on their way home.

As soon as Ernie turned her back, Luvian delivered a sharp kick to the Prince’s ankle. The Prince turned his attention to Luvian with a thunderous expression, but Luvian stared him down. It would not do to lose their cover now when they needed information so desperately.

Ernie was scooping stew into bowls for them. As she set bowls down in front of Luvian and the Prince, the Prince said, “Ah, Madam –”

Luvian kicked him again in the ankle. Ernie laughed merrily. “Madam. Such pretty manners he has, your brother. Where’d he pick those up, aye?”

“Ah, well. He was always trying to impress the ladies back home. ’Course, Dad thinks he’s a pansy, but, me, I don’t think so. He’s just a show-off is all,” Luvian nodded at the Prince across the table as he shoved hot stew into his mouth. Knowing him as well as he had come to, Luvian could see that he was smoldering, but was also taking the reminder of his environment seriously. Later, however, Luvian feared for his life.

The door behind them opened and closed. Luvian and the Prince both froze and waited, every nerve on alarm to find out who had just entered the cabin.

“What’s this? A show-off? Surely not referring to me?” boomed a deep voice under a shadow that fell over the table.

“You wiped yer boots, did ya?” Ernie stood with a hand on one hip and an accusatory wooden spoon pointing at the door.

“Yes, Ernie, if I wiped ’em once, I wiped ‘em a thousand times, I keep tellin’ ya, woman. I’m gonna start wipin’ ‘em on your arse if ya don’t stop hecklin’ me. Now.”

The Prince and Luvian both relaxed in minute increments as they recognized that Ernie’s husband had joined them. Luvian hoped fervently that one day he would stop startling at the slightest noise and go back to living his life the way he used to.

A man of enormous stature approached the table and, as he shed his cloak, he stared down at them, demanding answers. Idly, Luvian was amazed that such a tiny woman as Ernie and such a huge man as her husband were a pair.

“Who’s this at my table? Soldiers, by the look of ya.”

“I was just tellin’ them, Petyr, about the soldier men who marched on the city.”

“Oh. Aye. Hasn’t happened in a hundred years, the way I heard it,” he frowned.

Luvian stared at the Prince, whose jaw had clenched, and said, “Bastards.”

“Aye. Took all the game outta the wood on the way through. But what’s this? Who are you two?” Petyr sat down at the table and Ernie served him a bowl of rabbit stew.

“Brothers, both medically discharged,” she told him.

Petyr’s skeptical brown eyes looked from Luvian to the Prince. “Both brothers, medically discharged at the same time?”

“Aye,” started Ernie, but Petyr interrupted her.

“Let them tell it, woman.” He looked at them and crossed his arms on his chest as he sat back in his chair. “Well?”

Luvian had felt less nervous his first day on the battlefield, and if truth be told, he’d damn near pissed his pants after he saw the bloody corpses out there.

“We was stationed in the same regiment, so we got moved about quite a bit.”

Petyr held up his hand and stopped Luvian. “What regiment was that?”

Luvian was beginning to get angry. He had not served and killed more men on the field than he could count in the name of his country and the Eastern Alliance just to get interrogated by a woodsman.

Evenly, he returned, “The Northern 20th. It don’t exist no more. It’s gone. Ormish wiped it out.”

Petyr’s brow furrowed and he looked down at the table. “I apologize, soldier. Our table is yours. We can’t be too careful these days. Deserters sneakin’ round in the woods. We have to protect our own.”

The Prince spoke up then. “That we do. That we do.”

“So yer brothers, then. If ya don’t mind my sayin’, you don’t look it much.” Petyr rolled an eye back and forth between the Prince and Luvian.

“Petyr, let them be. They’re guests, and medical discharges from our Army,” Ernie protested.

“That’s all right. Happens all the time. I takes after Mum. He takes after Dad, clear as day and no mistakin’ it.” The Prince met his eye over the table and shook his head ever so slightly at the personal jest. Then he filled his mouth with stew and nodded to confirm Luvian’s story.

“What about him? He’s a quiet one,” Petyr observed as he nodded at the Prince.

Luvian thought fast. “Ah, well. He took a hard knock to the head. There’s times he’s not quite right now. Home’s the best place for him, I think. I just leave him to his thoughts, ya know?”

“Right. Might be yer dad’ll have to support him the rest of his life. He looks like a strong enough fellow. He could get a job out in the fields,” supposed Petyr.

“Aye, that he could,” Luvian returned politely. Now that he’d like to see!

They needed to leave as soon as they could. Ambsellon soldiers in Fairview – and here they sat talking of the Prince of Romeny working as a farmhand. It was time to leave. If their mission wasn’t important previously, it was dire now.

“Well,” Luvian pushed his empty bowl forward, “we really must push on. We’ve got to get home to our folks in Fairview, especially if there’s still soldiers about, as you say. Don’t want to get caught out in the dark with any lurking deserters.” Luvian stood up.

The Prince followed his lead.

Petyr stood as well. “Son, if yer headed to Fairview, ya might want to consider that –

could be maybe yer folks met with, well….” And he looked at Ernie.

Ernie stepped forward and put her arm around Petyr, where he sheltered her. She reached out her other arm gently. “An untimely end…” she supplied kindly, concern on her face.

Luvian looked at the Prince and then back to Petyr and Ernie. “Yes, well. I – we – got us some cousins down in Ivy Town. We could always head there if we need to.”

Petyr raised an eyebrow. “Ivy Town. The village?”

Luvian recognized yet another test. “No, just a spit of folk livin’ on the water outside Ivy Gate. Right there on the Rosh. If we have to, we’ll just take the ferry on down and hope for the best.”

Satisfied, Petyr said, “Right then. Well, fill yer waterskins before ya leave, we’ve plenty in the water barrel to spare for our Army boys.”

Luvian and the Prince filled their waterskins gratefully and set out to leave.

As they were headed down the path, Ernie came running down. “Here’s a bit of bread for ya both,” and she handed them each a small chunk of bread. “I know it’s not much, but maybe it’ll help in the times ahead. Good will follow ya both.”

They thanked Ernie and slid the homemade bread into their rucksacks. And as she passed Luvian, she whispered loudly, “And I don’t believe for a second yer brother’s a pansy. Find ‘im a good wife an’ he’ll find his wits again.” She winked and turned back down the path.

As Luvian limped forward, he knew he was going to pay dearly for his remarks.

They kept up their exaggerated pain until they were sure that they had not been followed by Petyr. As they rounded a hill, Luvian glanced at the Prince. His face was a mixture of stone, fury, and concern, his jaw clenched. If soldiers had marched through the city, what of the Palace? The King?

Luvian drew in a breath, but the Prince stopped him with a raised hand. “Don’t. Say a word. I need to think.”

And so Luvian left the Prince to his thoughts, which surely were of more import than his ever would be.

An hour passed while he limped through the leaves. How had Ambsellons ever made it past our guard, he fumed. Fairview had been indelible through the years – all knew that invading the city was a fruitless endeavor. This sounded more like – a planned attack that insiders had planned… and planned well. Luvian dreaded actually seeing the city. If they had been attacked with little warning, and by Ambsellons, no less.

“Do you… smell that?” The Prince stopped and sniffed the air.

“Aye. Smoke. I’ve smelled it for at least a mile, Sir,” Luvian replied grimly. “Could be someone’s burning a camp fire,” he said hopefully.

“Perhaps,” the Prince replied shortly, unconvinced.

As they continued on, the smell of smoke permeated the air and what could be seen of the sky through the tree cover had turned grey. Finally, a flake of ash drifted past them.

“Sergeant, they have burnt my city.”

Chills tingled down Luvian’s spine. He would never forget the Prince saying that.

“Perhaps – perhaps not – Sir….” Luvian trailed off. He had never felt so useless.

The Prince turned to him, not having heard Luvian’s remark. “I must get into the city immediately. Do you understand?” His voice a dangerous, low tone, the Prince’s face was set in an expression Luvian had never witnessed before.

The Prince turned to him, not having heard Luvian’s remark. “I must get into the city immediately. Do you understand?” His voice a dangerous, low tone, the Prince’s face was set in an expression Luvian had never witnessed before.

“Yes, Sir.”

“Now, we must pick up our pace, as fast as your leg will allow.”

“Of course, Sir. But, if I may, Sir, will it not be dangerous for you to appear in the City? Will you not be recognized, Sir?”

“I must get into the Palace. I must see if my father is alive! Do you understand, Sergeant?”

“Aye, Sir, I do. And it with the utmost respect for your life that I ask again, will you not be recognized in the City? The Ambsellons will surely recognize you, Sir. How do you plan to get into the City, and into the Palace itself, if it is overrun with soldiers?”

“There is a back way into the Palace, tunnels, that we as children often snuck in and out of. I know not if it has been found, but I must try, do you understand? And as for appearing as a Prince.” He gestured down at himself. “Do I look a Prince to you? You’ve seen to that. I’m not wearing silks and satins, as you say, nor gold plated armor, am I? Perhaps they will look past the Prince and see the commoner, if fortune is with me.”

“Now that’s the first time I’ve ever heard that expression used that way,” replied Luvian dryly, as normally commoners wished to be seen as Princes. “Very well, then, Sir, after you. Let’s take back your City.”

Luvian was pushed past his endurance limping on his walking stick, for they ran as best Luvian was able. He knew the Prince was keeping him as protection, else he would have snuck into the Palace by now. Luvian didn’t mind. He had sworn to Major Corlander to keep this bloke safe, and so he would, at least until he was in his velvets and satins again with his maps in hand. Then he would consider his oath fulfilled.

More and more ash filled the air and finally they stood from the hillside looking down at the city of Fairview.

A burned and blackened shell met their view. Smoke still drifted up lazily from building still smoldering. Luvian felt all the air whoosh out of him. This was the capital city of Romeny, and it had been sacked. He realized his mouth was hanging open and he shut it.

Taking a deep breath, he looked up at the Prince. He stood, immutable, except for his eyes, which took in every sight he could see from their vantage point.

“Captain?” Luvian prompted.

The Prince remained silent. Of course he’s got nothing to say, Luvian thought. Just look at that. Bloody hell.

“Captain? We need to go, Sir. Now.”

“Sergeant. I ask of you one more thing.”

“Aye, Sir.”

“Kill any Ambsell bastard you see.”

“With pleasure, Sir!” Luvian set foot after the Prince’s sudden stride forward. Rarely did the Prince swear, but this occasion warranted it if any.

Their footing down the hill was unsure. The Prince took up a thick branch much like Luvian’s to steady himself until they arrived in the City proper. Luvian wondered where the Guard was. Normally, no one would be able to enter the City from any angle, not even from the woods. But as he strode further into the city, he thought he knew.

People stood staring wide-eyed at nothing in the street, wandering nowhere in particular, their clothes covered in soot. Children cried for their parents, tears trailing tracks through the dirt on their faces. One small child looked at Luvian with her thumb in her mouth, her other hand out, demanding food. Their eyes all looked soulless.

Most of the buildings had burned to the ground. Blackened shards of lumber shot upward as ghostly reminders of the buildings that had once stood. And everywhere, ashes swirled in the air.

Luvian bent to give the small girl one of his rations, but the Prince grabbed his arm and pulled him close immediately. “Don’t!” the Prince whispered fiercely.

“What? What the bloody hell is wrong with you? She’s hungry, can’t you see that?”

“Aye. They’re all hungry, Sergeant. They’re starving. But if you give one of them food, you’ll need to give all of them food!” the Prince whispered again.

Luvian struggled to loose his arm from the Prince’s tight hold. “Why, you bloody bastard –”

“Shut up and do as I tell you. Look straight forward. Don’t look at them. Hear me now? Don’t look at them. Do as they do. Act as if you’ve been through a battle. Act as if soldiers have run through your city and burnt it to the ground while you slept. Stare down at the ground, like they are. They’re in shock, soldier. Here,” the Prince pulled him down and glanced around quickly to see that no one had observed them. “Rub some of this soot on your face. Go on.” The Prince ran soot through his own hair and over his face.

Taken aback, Luvian rubbed dust and soot about his clothes and skin.

“I want to help them too, Sergeant, but if we do, then we’ll cause a scene, and if we cause a scene, then soldiers will notice and that cannot happen. Do you understand me?” The Prince demanded affirmation.

“Aye, Capt –”

“And no more rank. We are not Captain and Sergeant now.” The Prince glanced around for anyone who might be observing them, then whispered, “Take off your armor and your swordbelt and stuff it in your rucksack. Hurry up.” He was doing the same as he glanced around nervously.

“With all due respect –”

“Stop saying that. If someone overhears us, they’ll turn us in for money. Or food. We need to pass as commoners. Which means that you need to do the talking again. Understand me?” whispered the Prince fiercely.

Luvian nodded. “It’s just… well, what do I call you if I don’t use… rank?”

“…Mate will do,” the Prince shrugged with impatience. He pulled Luvian along again, staring at the ground. “Remember, don’t look at them.”

“Aye… mate.”

Some women crying in what had been a marketplace rankled Luvian, for he feared the Ambsell soldiers had claimed them as war trophies, but the Prince clutched at his elbow tightly. “Fuckin’ bastards,” muttered Luvian.

Soon, two Ambsell soldiers passed them, dressed in full regalia, laughing with each other. He felt the Prince draw in breath as if to confront them and saw his fist clench.

“No, no, onward we go, mate,” Luvian nearly hauled the Prince forward. The Prince threw a furious glare at Luvian but consented.

Finally, the packed mud and dirt street became cobblestone, though even the stone buildings in this well-to-do district showed damage from the fire, with scorch marks and soot traversing their structures.

A carter drove his wagon past them, dead bodies weighing it down. Luvian glanced at the Prince. His eyes were round at the sight, but the smell of the decay was even worse. Luvian himself nearly gagged. He wondered where in Fairview was there to bury such a mass amount of bodies. He knew of nowhere and hoped that they weren’t being dumped in the Rosh, their only source of clean drinking water….

“This way,” the Prince suddenly pushed Luvian to the left.

A look up at the Palace told him that it was well-guarded by Ambsell soldiers. He hoped this was not a fool’s errand. He knew the Prince had to get into the Palace, but Luvian did not want either of them to lose their lives trying. Morosely, he wondered if there was any point… that Palace looked well-fortified on the outside.

Looking about for anyone who might see them, the Prince yanked Luvian aside. “Right then. We’ll head to the back of the Palace and hope we don’t get shot down by archers on the towers.”

“Sorry?” Luvian stared at him.

“Did you think the Palace wouldn’t be armed? Just stay low and follow me,” whispered the Prince.

He’d said nothing of archers. Bloody hell. He was going to sneak along and not even know if a crossbolt was coming his way. At least on the battlefield, he knew it was coming, he could see them. All this bloody sneaking around had him on edge. If he was manning a tower, he’d shoot first and ask questions later, men sneaking around by the castle like they were.

Finally, the Prince waved him over to a clump of weeds. “This is it. I think, anyway.”

“You think?” Luvian rolled his eyes and shook his head.

“It’s been over ten years since I’ve last been here, so you just settle it down, mate,” snapped the Prince.

Luvian shrugged in response.

The Prince looked up at him. “Well, don’t just stand there, dig!”

“What?”

Together, they dug through the clump of weeds until they reached a stone door. In relief, the Prince sat back on the grass in the dirt and weeds they’d just dug up. “Thank the gods, it’s still there.”

“Mate, we’re only half there. We’ve still got to get in,” Luvian told him frankly.

The Prince’s blue eyes narrowed. “You’re a real pessimist, aren’t you? You couldn’t just be happy about it, could you? Has anyone ever told you that? That you’re a complete pessimist?”

Luvian glared at the Prince. Before he could check his tongue, he retorted, “And you’re a real pain in the arse, has anyone ever told you that? I’ll bet not.”

“Not nearly as much as you are,” crabbed the Prince as he brushed the stone door free of dirt and grass. “Don’t say this, act more like that….”

“Yes, but only one of us will live to regret it, and I won’t say who,” returned Luvian as he stood up to pull the door open.

“That –” the Prince stood up himself and they both took hold of the rusty door handle. At the same time, they both heaved.

“…Sounded suspiciously like treason to me,” finished the Prince, panting. He brushed his hands clean of rust and dirt.

Luvian scoffed. “Depends on who lives to regret it.” He brushed his own hands free of dirt, then handed the Prince flint for the tunnel.

The Prince struck a spark on a lantern hanging within the tunnel, then lit another lantern for Luvian. They closed the door behind them, and Luvian hoped fervently that no one would pass by on the outside and make note of the freshly unearthed grass and weeds, much less the tunnel door.

“Well, mate, you’re inside the Palace,” Luvian said. “What now?”

The Prince turned to him with a rueful expression. “I’ve got to get into the Throne Room. And I need to find my father.” He took a long breath and stared at Luvian. “Or,” he said quietly, “I may be the King of Romeny myself.”

Luvian started. The King of Romeny, standing here next to him, in an underground tunnel. Bloody hell. Gods be good, he hoped not.

“Well, then, mate,” he returned evenly, “we need to get you into the Throne Room.”

The Prince turned around and, his lantern held high, headed down the tunnel with a brisk pace. Luvian himself was still recovering from the idea that this – this – spoiled bloke that he’d been chiding, in all good fun… might right now be his King.

Finally, they reached the end of the tunnel, and a rusty ladder reached down to grant users access to the Palace above. Luvian couldn’t help but wonder if all of this would be for naught if they couldn’t get through up above.

The Prince set his lantern down on the stone floor. “Shh,” he told Luvian. Ha. As if Luvian needed to told to be quiet in a palace overrun by Ambsells. Nevertheless, he held up his own lantern so that the Prince could see his way up the ladder.

At the top of the ladder, the Prince stopped and listened. Heartbeats went by, and the suspense of not knowing what was happening gripped Luvian.

Finally, the Prince stepped down a rung and signaled for Luvian to follow him. Luvian wondered briefly if he was climbing up to his death.

The Prince placed his hand on the trap door above him and shoved it open just a bit, so he could stare out into the room around him. Luvian’s breath was sucked in – he found it impossible to breathe.

Then the Prince shoved the trap door open all the way and pulled himself up. He beckoned at Luvian to hurry and pulled him up out of the tunnel. Together, they closed the trap door so that it made no noise as it fell shut.

The Prince grabbed Luvian and pointed toward the wall. They stood with their backs flat against the wall, waiting to see how active the Palace was with Ambsell soldiers. Silently, Luvian pulled spiderwebs from the tunnel out of his hair and beard.

After a few minutes passed, the Prince seemed satisfied. He jerked his thumb in the direction of the next hallway over. With painstaking effort, they tiptoed to the next room over.

Luvian, for his part, was in awe of the palace. Never had he expected to be in the presence of the Prince, and certainly never in the palace. But it was just stone. He was quite disappointed. Though the floor was polished, all his childhood beliefs of palaces and knights were now dashed. The Prince, of course, was a knight, and he was a glorified asshole, and the palace was supposed to be golden and beautiful and here it was just a hunk of stone.

They snuck carefully into an enormous hall. Luvian then revised what he’d thought of the palace not being golden and beautiful. This room was gilded and bright, and painted art and tapestries of amazing feats of courage hung from the walls, while the floor itself was shining marble. Crystal chandeliers sparkled in the sun that streamed in from windows and balconies where fragrant flowers hung in decorative containers. It was more than Luvian could take in.

The Prince tugged on his sleeve and nodded toward the front of the hall.

This was the Throne Room, or else another enormous golden chair sat in some other hall on another dais, thought Luvian. All seemed well….

The Prince seemed satisfied and pulled him toward the back of the room. “So this is your home,” he whispered.

The Prince looked at Luvian for a moment and then shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not.” He pressed himself against the wall outside a door at the back of the Hall, listening.

“Ambsells?”

The Prince let out a long, pent up breath. “No.” He opened the door and beckoned Luvian to follow.

“Father!”

A richly dressed man with chestnut hair and a crown encircling his head stood leaning over a mahogany desk. Three men attended him, who all looked up in amazement.

This – this was the King of Romeny, thought Luvian faintly.

The King stood straight and stared at this person who had addressed him uninvited in his study. His eyes took in the sight of the Prince for several seconds.

Well, and why not, dressed in filthy commoner’s clothes as he was, smelling of smoke, unshaven…. He certainly looked nothing like a Prince. And, Luvian thought at that moment, he took pride in that.

“Rhutgard? Rhutgard, is that you?”

“Father, I’m home! I had to sneak into the City.”

“My son! Thank the gods! I had heard the worst!” King Galvin came forward and hugged his son. Then he stepped back, holding the Prince by the shoulders to inspect him. “But what is this you’re wearing?” He wrinkled his nose.

Luvian wanted to laugh but didn’t dare change his expression in the front of the King of Romeny. So like a royal.

“I – it’s a long story, Father, but I’m here now.” Prince Rhutgard accompanied King Galvin briskly to his desk.

“Yes, yes, and I need you at my side –”

“Your Majesty, if I may interrupt, who are these people? I do not know them.” Prince Rhutgard gestured around the room at the three people in front of King Galvin’s desk.

King Galvin’s face registered surprise at the interruption but complied with his son’s request. “That is my steward –”

“Your – steward?” Prince Rhutgard turned and waved a condescending hand to the steward. “Dismissed.”

“Rhutgard!”

Ignoring his father, the Prince walked over to the other two counselors. “I don’t know them either.”

“He is Angoth and he is Brestle. They have been my war advisors throughout these last months of war. As you can see, I’ve many documents we’ve been making more sense of. We have a number of supplies that need to be redirected –”

“Redirected? And where would they need to be sent?”

Immediately, Brestle answered, “To the Southern Regiments, Your Highness. They are in need of it most.”

Luvian looked down at his boots to conceal his disgust. Here was the betrayal. All the way at the top. Major Corlander was right. And they had the ear of the King.

But the Prince was not so easily deterred. “And what of our cavalry?”

Angoth and Brestle shared a look and then Angoth answered, “I think it best for them to continue in the Riverlands. It would take too much time to send them elsewhere at this point.” The older man was patronizing Prince Rhutgard, looking down his nose at him as one did a child whose knowledge of such information was helplessly miniscule.

Luvian stared at his boots, trying not to clench his fists. He glanced up to see the Prince’s face for just a fleeting moment. The Prince stood in front of both Brestle and Angoth.

“Wrong and wrong. Both wrong. Guard! Take these men to the dungeon and throw them in the traitor cells! See that they’re kept far away from each other and keep a watch on them. I’ll speak with them before end of day.”

Two guards stepped forward and immediately grabbed both Angoth and Brestle.

As if realizing how far he had overstepped his bounds, Prince Rhutgard then knelt in front of the desk and knelt. “Your Majesty, I most humbly beg your pardon. Those men I know to have committed treason.”

A stern look on King Galvin’s face, he stepped forward and placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Rise, Rhutgard. You are forgiven.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

“Well, and how do you know them to be false, may I ask?”

Prince Rhutgard looked at Luvian and then told King Galvin, “The biggest city in all of Romeny is starving, Father. My advice is to redirect half of our supplies here. And the rest of them to the Northeast, where the fighting is heaviest. As to cavalry. Your Majesty, we’ve had no cavalry for months. They were sent North from the Riverlands and then ambushed by the Ormish. They killed the men and took the horses. It was a complete loss to the man. Hardewold is sending in cavalry and men and possibly supplies to the Riverlands, but that will take two weeks yet in good weather. Shaw has its own fight and can’t help us. I’ve no idea what Delsynth is doing but if they’ve men to spare, we could certainly use their Spears.”

King Galvin was silent as he digested this news. He took a deep breath. “The Northeast, you say? The heaviest? And you know this how?”

Prince Rhutgard looked at Luvian and then at King Galvin. “Because I barely escaped with my life. I was fighting in the middle of it.”

“What!” King Galvin’s mouth dropped open in shock and anger, but Prince Rhutgard stepped forward and continued.

“Your Majesty, may I introduce to you –” Prince Rhutgard glanced quickly at Luvian and then back at King Galvin – “Lieutenant Luvian. Because of him, I am here today. He nearly lost his own life in order to save mine.”

Somewhere inside, Luvian marveled at the promotion. He had gone from Corporal to Sergeant to Lieutenant in less than a week, and now he’d been promoted by the Prince before the King of Romeny himself.

He stepped before the King and knelt awkwardly, for his injury would not allow him to kneel.

“My son, do not kneel before me, it is I who should kneel before you. You have saved my son’s life, and for that, I and my son will forever be in your debt. As a father, I shall always be grateful to you. As a King, your country will always be grateful to you, for you have secured its royal bloodline.” King Galvin walked up to Luvian and extended his arm. “Please,” and pulled Luvian up.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” replied Luvian in a hoarse voice.

“Captain, have you any other news I should be aware of?”

“As a matter of fact – if you recall Major Corlander, Your Majesty?”

“I do, of course.”

“First, you should be made aware of his passing. He was murdered by attackers who hoped to kill me, except I escaped. Major Corlander managed to steal several important documents for me but because he died before he reached me, he entrusted them to Lieutenant Luvian. Lieutenant?”

Luvian had almost forgotten about them, so accustomed to them being next to his skin was he now. He pulled them from beneath his tunic and handed them to the Prince, who handed them to King Galvin.

King Galvin accepted them, looking sadly at the dried blood that stained them.

“Be sure to send his family notice of his passing and, and –”

Before he could hold himself back, Luvian spoke up. “Your Majesty, Sir, permission to speak, Captain?”

“Of course, Lieutenant.”

“Sir, I was hoping to notify his family personally, if I might. Since I was there in his last few minutes, and – during his passing. His last thoughts were of them.”

The Prince and the King looked at each other and both nodded. “Of course, Lieutenant, that would be fine.”

The King set the maps down upon his desk. “And now, let me see what he had that was of such great import.”

“I was not able to determine the best plan of action based on these. I needed to see your information, Your Majesty.”

“Well, Captain, I can see why. I hold here entirely different maps. We will need to renegotiate areas of the most need and find where our men have resurfaced. But we can draw lines and boundaries later. Right now, I can see that the Lieutenant is badly in need of a Healer and the both of you need food and rest. I will send for you later this afternoon.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

Luvian recognized a dismissal when he heard it, even when it was delivered by a King to his own son. He turned to leave, leaning heavily on his walking stick.

“Rhutgard –”

The Prince looked over his shoulder. “Father?”

“It’s bloody good to have you back.”

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