Selby gripped the balcony rail and leaned out, enjoying the fresh air. And the privacy. Stars were nagging at the twilight to disappear. Soon, she could retire to her chambers for the evening, slip out of this wretched, itchy black gown and into a silky robe, then enjoy some cider before her fire. And if she dozed off, then all the better….
A male throat cleared behind her. Selby ignored it and sighed. How long until she could retire for the night… perhaps she would have some cheese and bread sent to her rooms before she arrived….
Again, the same throat cleared itself. Her brow furrowed. This had best be good – it was far too late in the day for any sort of conversation, frivolous or otherwise.
Durain stood a few paces behind her. A respectful distance, of course, Ericorian would never broach her personal space unless necessary.
He glanced once at her and then coughed. A fake cough. Ah. The information she had asked for. She beckoned him closer. “Approach.”
Selby nodded to acknowledge him.
He advanced again but stayed away from her on the balcony. “About what you asked.” Durain stood straight and did not look at her, as was required of his station.
Selby nodded and leaned on the guardrail.
“My – source. Followed the man you asked about. That man spoke to another person, who paid him several silvers. The conversation was similar to –
“'Bridges? That cannot be done. Our people can’t get through if there are bridges along the rivers.’”
“‘I realize that. But she is insisting. What would you have me do?’”
“‘Put her off, of course.’”
“’I cannot, she wants an in-depth report, the land, the people, the locations, by next week’s meeting. She wants it to start no later than three months from today, she said.
“‘Shit. That’s a queen for you. How long does it take to build a bridge?’”
“‘Three months at most.’”
“’Then misinform her – tell her the project has begun, but delay it. Do what you must. She cannot know. Our men have to get through.’”
“‘I am aware.’”
“’I want regular updates. If you must, build bridges that fall apart in places that can’t hold them. If enough goes wrong, perhaps she’ll give up. Women are flighty like that, they never stick to an idea long enough to finish it through.’”
“‘If this falls through, it’ll be your ass.’”
Durain paused. “The source was unable to determine the other man’s identity, but is sure that he is Ormish.”
Selby was staring into the night. Her mouth was open, she realized, but she didn’t care. Was this happening? Ormish? The Ormons? She couldn’t breathe.
That little bloody bastard, sitting at her Council Table. A traitor.
No. No. No. There was some other explanation. Yes. This was just being interpreted as –
Durain cleared his throat again. “Your Majesty.”
But she found herself saying, “Go on.” Her voice sounded so distant.
“My source knows an architect – a loyal man, loyal to the Crown, who will build your bridges easily, while these men misle you. He only needs your –” Durain coughed. “He requires the finances and protection, since these men may assail him or harass his efforts.”
Selby blinked. “Is this man trustworthy?”
“To the utmost. He is from a long generation of Crown Guards, and he fought ten years in the Twenty Years War, constructing siege weapons. He has been an architect ever since.”
“Hire him immediately,” she told Durain. “Have a list made of materials required and I will send coin that it may be purchased. As well as Ericorian so that he may have protection from any who might harass him as he builds. Is he familiar with bridges? Rivers?”
“He has lived his entire life on the Rournebourke, Your Majesty.”
Selby sighed. “Excellent.”
“There is more.”
Selby nearly laughed. More? Surely there couldn’t be more. How might there be any more horrendous news than that which she had just been informed of? Ormons – or someone at least – wanting access up her rivers?
She closed her eyes and waved her hand about for Durain to continue. Selby took in a deep breath.
“As you asked, Your Majesty, my source – reached out to more people that he trusts. He found out that Storden has built a number of new ships, Your Majesty. Galleons. They are building them in a number of shipyards, at least two he knows of and one other he suspects.”
Storden? Building galleons? Whatever for? Storden kept its own Navy, to be sure, and in so doing, protected itself during wartime as necessary, but Storden had for hundreds of years been neutral. It neither assisted nor protected others in wartime. Building galleons? The idea shocked her, almost as much as the news just prior.
Storden aiding a country by building galleons…. The idea was preposterous. As much disband the Eastern Shield. The one country Clemongard had never had to worry about was its neutral neighbor to its south, Storden. The country supplied nearly all its own needs, traded little. They were Clemongard’s immediate ally, of sorts, though the King never signed treaties with anyone.
And now, galleons….
Why, her Navy couldn’t handle a war – not with numerous galleons….
Durain cleared his throat.
“Please – tell me more, by all means….” Selby stared up at the night sky above her. A nightmare? Yes?
“My source suggests you rebuild your Navy, quietly.”
Selby glanced to the side, up at Durain. “Quietly? How might I do that? Every shipyard I own is in a quite populated town.”
Durain nodded. “He thought that your Royal shipwrights had not been building ships for some time….”
Selby’s head snapped around at this. “And yet I have been paying them?”
Durain stared straight into the night, silent.
Furious, she fumed. Drumming her fingers on the guard rail of the balcony, Selby waited until she could speak calmly again. Thin-lipped, she asked, “Perchance, has your source an idea that I might build my ships – galleons, in fact, quietly?”
Selby’s eyes suddenly narrowed. “Durain, I must ask. You trust these sources?”
“I do, Your Majesty.”
“Very well, then. I’ll hear this idea. For I must admit, I am curious to know where I can build ships quietly, for it seems my shipyards are no longer my own, my shipwrights are no longer my own, for all they take my bloody coin….”
And then Selby stopped abruptly.
She could suddenly hear her father.… “Selby, Selby, stop, wait, take a breath. Now, calm down and stop over-reacting. You’re being dramatic.”
And her mother…. “Selby, darling, relax. A Princess must be collected and composed at all times, my love.”
Selby drew in a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly. Both so true. And yet neither of them were ruling a country at the age of sixteen.
That, of course, was why this was happening. Why the North would be attacking her. Even Storden awaking from it sleepy, neutral slumber. Because she was such a very young Queen. And these people – these vile, insufferable, beastly people who were contaminating her life and trying to obstruct her reign…. They didn’t know her very well. What they deserved would come to them in the end.
She cleared her throat and brushed her dress.
“Durain, what was this idea?”
“His idea was to send lumber along the Storden-Clemongard border to Ainsley-by-the-Sea and build a shipyard there, hire a number of trustworthy shipwrights, and keep the ships you build on the North side of the channel, where the Storden patrols won’t see them. And since Ainsley-by-the-Sea has been deserted for so long, no one would look there anyway, for ships or a shipyard….”
Selby’s eyebrows rose. The more she thought of it, the more she liked it. Ainsley-by-the-Sea was an old family estate that hadn’t been used since probably her great-great grandmother’s day. No staff had been kept there to run it in at least twenty or thirty years.
“He thought to turn the estate into a shipyard then? Both sides of the estate?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Selby liked the idea more and more. “Tell them to use the entire island. Turn the entire estate into whatever they need, barracks, anything at all. They have my full support.” She paused. “To be clear, Durain, these new ships – they will be – galleons? For I’ll not pay for anything less.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Durain’s voice was quiet.
“That will require an awful lot of lumber, which will need to be transported across country….”
“He wondered if you might not let the idea slip that you were thinking of rebuilding the estate for a summer home, so that if anyone saw the movement of lumber, wagon drivers might simply describe it for the rebuilding of the Queen’s old estate.”
Selby nodded. “They think me just a flighty young girl, why would they investigate further. Excellent.
“However.” And she rolled her eyes up to Durain. “This will not be cheap. Wars are cheap. Simply running Clemongard itself is not cheap. I will need to divert coin – a great deal of coin – into a fund for this – new summer home of mine. And my Council will not approve, I can guarantee you that.”
Selby wondered from where the coin for this new Navy of hers – her Galleons would possibly come. Her Councilors were cunning and just now, before her Coronation, anything could happen…. She tapped thoughtfully at her lips.
Durain cleared his throat.
No, please, no, not more. Selby couldn’t take anything more.
“Go ahead. Your source….”
He paused, then shook his head and glance at her quickly.
“I – have a possible idea. It’s not my place, Your Majesty, I know.”
“Durain. I need your ideas, and it is now, without doubt, your place to disclose them to me,” Selby told him calmly.
Durain nodded slowly. “As with your shipwrights, it may be that your treasury may not be – all it seems. Your Majesty.”
Selby’s eyes widened at the thought. Well, that would mean –
“Your Majesty, I know of a man whose brilliance with accounting skills are unsurpassed. Ericorian, you might say, but with arithmetic. I trust him completely. If you like, I could ask him to look at the Royal Treasury, the books, and see if all is correctly reported. If not, I – I am only Ericorian, Your Majesty, but I would divert what you have that is not reported to you to another fund as soon as possible, one which only you can access.” Here, Durain looked at her steadily for a moment, then looked away.
Selby was open-mouthed. Would this list of horrors never end? Silently, she nodded her assent. Then, she told Durain, “I don’t seem to be able to trust anyone right now. Except you, Durain.”
She let out a deep breath, then said, “Tell this arithmetic-minded gentleman of yours that when he approaches me, so that I will know it is him, he must use the word “march” in just one sentence, but also “soldier” before the Treasury Door, to prevent a coincidence from occurring.
“If he does not use that code, strictly, he shall be executed.”
Selby watched Durain for a sign of emotion, but none showed. Ericorian had always impressed her, just as Durain did now.
“I cannot thank you enough Durain, for this invaluable assistance, for your involvement. Without this information – Clemongard would be blind to what might well be an attack from her enemies, completely unprepared.”
Durain said only, “It is a part of the oath we take as Ericorian, Your Majesty.”
“Then, Durain, I am so fortunate that it is your dedication and allegiance serving me and not another Ericorian’s. Most fortunate. Clemongard’s thanks will never be enough.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Ah. He was back to being an Ericorian again. One man a part of many, dedicated to a single purpose, to a single country. But Selby, now standing in the darkness, thought she had seen his chin raise slightly with pride.