“Are you sure this really is a good time?” worried Principea at his side.
She was everything a man could want in a wife, and everything he wanted in a Queen. Gracious, compassionate, elegant, diplomatic, and tactful.
Tact – a quality he had been losing over the years. Rhutgard found he wanted everything explained to him immediately, directly, and forget long, drawn-out details. Is the man dead or alive? Is there plague or no plague? Bandits or imposters? Because of this, he depended upon Stanyard for much of this now.
And now Rhutgard pushed down the irritation he felt at Principea’s question.
“Yes, my love, I am.” He kissed her on the forehead to assuage her.
“But Rhutgard, perhaps after the ball, rather than before it…? It will be such a terrible time for her to adjust….”
“I realize the stress she will be under, and if I could ease her discomfort, I would. But from a practical point of view, it is best. The more who see her and interact with her, the better. This is the biggest event of the season, after all. And I want her here now. If only you knew what I knew….”
Principea frowned. “Does Stanyard agree to this?”
Rhutgard frowned. “Whether he does or does not matters not. If it eases your mind, both of us had the same idea.”
Principea stood away from him, her lips drawn tight. She placed her hands behind her.
“Of course, Your Majesty. As it please you. I will remind you, however, that she is also my daughter.” Principea’s blue eyes narrowed as her chin lifted. “Do be sure to allow my daughter to retire early if she must. On that – I insist. Make note of it.”
Principea’s gown swished behind her as she stepped away from Rhutgard as if he were fresh street excrement and exited his solar promptly.
Bloody hell. There were few people in the Land that truly intimidated Rhutgard – the two at the top of his list were his mother, who was second, now passed on – and his wife, at the top of the list. He rolled his head back on his back and stared at the ceiling. How was he going to make up for this one?
Stanyard snickered, then outright laughed. “Well, Your Majesty, I’d say you could share my bed, but it’s a bit snug.”
“It’s not bloody funny, Stanyard! I need to make up for this somehow,” Rhutgard snapped.
Stanyard snorted. “When have I ever served as a Royal Marriage Ambassador? What makes you think such a quality is even an ability of mine?”
“Well, there was that one time –”
“That one time, Your Majesty, was when you forgot the day the two of you married. Anyone could have helped you out on that blunder, even a guard – a blunder, I might add, of idiotic proportions –”
“Stanyard. Did you just stand here and call your king an idiot?”
Stanyard snorted again and shook his head. “No, Sire, I called the blunder itself idiotic.”
Rhutgard glared at him.
“This one on the other hand, perhaps… apologize? I know not….” Stanyard trailed off.
“Yes, with flowers or some such. Women like flowers. Just….” Stanyard shrugged. “And she has a point – allow the girl to retire half-way through the evening if she prefers. This is, after all, her very first Court appearance, Sire. She’s not ever been around these people. Think of her not so much as if she were sixteen, but ten years of age. Would you not allow your ten-year-old daughter the chance to retire early?”
Rhutgard nodded slowly. He wanted to show off this new daughter of his, especially to the faces of the spies he knew would be among the Ball. But there would be several other events during the entire week that she would be seen.
Ah, but messages would be flying to and from that week, and his network would be watching every move. He knew he had a number of spies from other countries in his Palace. Only because Rhutgard allowed them – he made sure they were fed information that he wanted their countries to hear. Three Ormon spies at last count. That Queen of theirs really did think him brainless. To his knowledge, nothing had come of the bird he and Stanyard had sent to Ormon instead of Ambsellon, though they wondered often.
It was far harder to infiltrate Ormon. Especially now that she had changed up the guard as well as appointed new staff. All anyone knew now was that she was believed to have killed her husband and probably her son as well – for now she was Queen and no one doubted her Rule. She just went about here and there, taking over everything and all there seemed to live in fear.
Rhutgard held his hand up in annoyance. “Have we any recent news to report?”
Stanyard shrugged slowly. “Nothing of note. A ferryman gone missing.”
“Missing? Is this the extent of it?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Missing how? Did he fall overboard?”
“They investigated, found neither hide nor hair of him at his home. They thought it odd, for he’d reported for duty every night. Ran the Night Crawler. Former Naval man from Storden, I believe, retired here. Just up and left – odd, they thought. Not a word.”
Rhutgard frowned. “They should have asked him about all the bodies washing up.”
“They did, I believe, Sire. He thought an amateur was dumping them, but more he couldn’t say. Just that the Rosh River has been awash with bodies.”
“Awash with bodies….” Rhutgard repeated, rubbing slowly at his chin.
“Sire?” prompted Stanyard.
Rhutgard suddenly strode to the wall and pulled one of his swords free. He tucked it under his belt. “Sword?” he held another to Stanyard.
Stanyard, wide-eyed, shook his head. “I – no. I have a –” And he patted his surcoat, where a dirk was clearly outlined.
“Come, Stanyard, we are going to see sights,” Rhutgard strode to his study door, oblivious as to whether Stanyard followed him or not, for at least two Crown Guards would follow him regardless.
Stanyard hurried after him. “Would you like to tell me where –”
Rhutgard held a hand up to cut him off. Who knew how many ears and eyes the walls had. As always, two Crown Guards stepped into place behind him. He loved to walk at a fast pace, just to annoy them. It was terribly rude of him, Rhutgard knew, but it was for a few reasons. One – he didn’t know who he could trust, and if one fell behind, that might be an infiltrator.
Two – it was a small way of rebelling, however childish – he himself was once a member of the Guard and he would despise this post.
And three – just a small bit of exercise. Rhutgard so rarely got out anymore, the way his sons did, the way the nobles of the Court did. Utterly pathetic – walking fast just for exercise, and only to annoy the guards who would protect his ass should he need their assistance. His logic here was a bit faulty, Rhutgard had to admit….
Stanyard was accustomed to Rhutgard’s fast pace but as they headed downward, he suddenly whispered behind a hand, “Sire, where are we going?”
Rhutgard replied, “I told you back in my study, Stanyard.”
Still behind a hand, Stanyard whispered, “Yes, but if we’re going sight-seeing, the stables are that way,” and he nodded to the opposite side of the corridor that they had just passed.
“Oh, no, Stanyard, I told you something different. We are going to do something different – remember how I told you? Keep up.”
Soon, they arrived at the very bottom level of the castle. As they stood before the dungeon gates, the Crown Guards saluted. While one turned the key to the door, Stanyard muttered, “Not my first choice for either sort of sights, Your Majesty….”
The Guards saluted Rhutgard and he stepped inside. An earthy, underground smell accosted him immediately and he hid his nostrils under a hand. With the other hand, he picked up a lantern from the wall to light their way down the main corridor.
He glanced at Stanyard and saw that he had done the same.
“Do, please, tell me what we’re doing in a dungeon, Sire….” Stanyard’s voice sounded muffled behind his sleeve.
They came across a man in an ill-fitting Guard uniform.
Stanyard stepped forward with the lantern and said immediately, “His Majesty the King wishes to see the Warden.”
The Guard said, “Yah, and I’d like to blow my nose up His Majesty the King’s ass’ole, but that ain’t gonna happen, is it? Now git the fuck outta ’ere. Warden,” and the Guard snorted.
Stanyard coughed and stepped aside, holding his lantern high so that it illuminated Rhutgard’s face.
The Guard’s mouth dropped open. “O my gods. O my bloody gods.” Then he fell to his feet before Rhutgard. “Your Most Royal Majesty, sir, I didn’t mean that, sir, I, I, am so – so sorry, I –”
Rhutgard stepped backward before the man started licking his boots. In distaste, he rolled his eyes upward.
“The Warden, please?”
From his kneeling position, the Guard replied with a trembling lip, “The – the Warden. He – he takes time off. Now and again, Your Most Royal Majesty.”
“Stanyard, please?” Rhutgard stepped back and motioned for Stanyard to get information from the man.
Soon, they were walking down damp, dungeon corridors, along with the piggish Guard and a parchment that supposedly listed the names of each prisoner in each cell.
“Where is this prisoner?” Rhutgard gestured at the empty cell.
“He – he ain’t in there, Your Majesty, sir,” replied the guard.”
“So I see. What I want to know is – where is the man who is supposed to be in there? Is there no record of him leaving? Dying, requiring medical assistance perhaps? Why is this man not in his cell?
“Or…” and Rhutgard strode to three more cells. “This man? Are they dead? Did they die?”
He strode down the entire cell block and found five empty cells, though according to the roster, all had inhabitants.
“Where are the guards who guard this cell block?” asked Rhutgard, angry now.
“Your Majesty, I – I don’t know.” The dungeon guard was terrified.
“Give it your best guess. Where are they?”
“Your Majesty, I don’t know what they do in they’s off-time….”
Rhutgard frowned. Then he noticed a common mark next to each prisoner’s name. “What do these marks mean?”
“Oh, those. Those mean they had a visitor.” The guard was relieved to have been of use finally.
Rhutgard showed the roster to Stanyard. “See how recent the ink is compared to the others.”
Stanyard looked at Rhutgard and nodded. In a low voice, he said, “Inmates are being smuggled out.”
“While the guards are paid to look the other way.”
“And the inmates are killed once freed –”
“Because they know too much for someone’s comfort.”
“Yes, Your Majesty, but now we have another puzzle on our hands. What do they know and how many of them know it? And who is it endangering?”
Rhutgard sighed. How many people were in his dungeon? Fifty? Seventy-five? Who was running this operation right beneath his feet, and why? A network of counterspies. This was intolerable. He would clean this dungeon, and its counterspies out, starting today.