APPROXIMATELY TWO YEARS LATER
Luvian heard his name called but he was too busy. He couldn’t hope to keep up with the demands of the customers if he was running his mouth. “Mags? The stew?”
“Already started,” she called back.
It was Tank. Surely Tank could deal with unruly customers himself, that why he worked there. Army man with no family left, big as an ox, tougher than –
“Take care of it yourself, Tank, I’m too busy.”
“I think you need to see him.” Tank was serious.
Luvian sighed and crisped his hands free of flour. “Donvan, keep kneading the bread.”
“Yes, you! You’ve seen me do it a hundred times. There’s nothing to it. It’s just for a few minutes. I’ll be right back!” Some days, Luvian missed the Army.
He stepped out of the kitchen and the customers of the brewery, talking, laughing, filling the air, was a welcome sound to his ears. He’d grown up with it.
Tank was suddenly very covert, taking steps toward the door. “He asked for you, Luvian.”
“Did he, now. Maybe he’s got a tab to pay.”
A hooded stranger stood by the door. As Luvian approached him, he turned.
Luvian glanced upward into the cowl of the man’s cloak.
The blue eyes of the Crown Prince of Romeny stared back at him, along with a mild smile.
“Don’t say anything. Just step outside with me.”
Bloody hell, thought Luvian. “Tank…?” Surprise had rendered Luvian speechless and so he gestured about the brewery in a show to indicate that Tank was now in charge.
Out in the stable, Luvian finally was able to collect his senses. “What the bloody hell –”
The Prince held up a hand. “Hush. Keep it quiet.” Then he smiled. “How are you, Luvian?”
“I’m well enough. But I think you’ve clear lost your mind. This is not the area you should be in. If someone knew you were here…. I mean this is South Fairview. Bad folks on the street after dark, depending on the side of the street.”
“Well, a friend once told me I need to keep abreast of all of my subjects, not just those in my social circle,” the Prince said dryly.
Luvian scoffed. “A friend like that must have known South Fairview back in the day.” Luvian craned his neck around the Prince and sized up his bodyguard. “I hope he’s as good with a blade as you need him to be.”
“As do I. Although I’m not half-bad myself, rumor has it,” he chided.
Luvian conceded to that.
“I merely asked where the best brewery in the area was, and without fail, I was directed to The Brew House. Be proud, my friend, be proud. You have a wonderful establishment here,” said the Prince.
“Aye, thank you,” Luvian answered. He sensed something more.
“You should build up.”
“No, I’ve got too many customers as it is, and not enough employees –”
“No, Luvian. Not out. Up. An upstairs.” The Prince pointed upward with a finger.
Luvian stopped and stared at the Prince in his cowl. An upstairs? But then that would make The Brew House….
“Make it a tavern,” said the Prince. “Just a suggestion. It would bring you more business.”
Bloody hell. He hated when the Prince was right. It made a lot of sense. But he certainly didn’t have the time, much less the man-power or the wages to build anything beyond what he already had, so it was just a pipe-dream.
“And your own business? How goes that?” Luvian inquired.
“As well as can be expected,” the Prince replied, shrugging.
“Congratulations on your new bride,” Luvian said, offering his hand.
“Ah, thank you. Marriage of state, but all the same, she’s lovely.”
Luvian was glad then that he was free of the bonds of such societal impositions. He was free to marry who he pleased, have children when he wanted, live where he wanted….
“I’ve been looking for names, actually,” mused the Prince.
“Yes, for horses.”
“Horses. What makes you think I know anything about horses, other than riding one?”
“Well, I always thought I might name a son after a friend of mine who saved my life once, but that wouldn’t be appropriate, I’m told, so I’m looking for the names of horse’s asses. Know any?”
Luvian took this in and then realized what the Prince was actually conveying. “No!” he whispered. “She’s with child!”
The Prince’s blue eyes sparkled with joy and he nodded. “Yes. No one knows yet, just her, and me. And now you, of course. So don’t tell anyone!”
Luvian dropped all pretense and hugged the Prince. “Congratulations! That’s wonderful!”
Then he laughed and held up a finger. “Just don’t name him after me. I think you’ll agree, one horse’s arse in your life is more than enough.”
They laughed quietly together.
“Now, let me tell you a better way out of here –” and he whispered more covert instructions back to the Palace for the Prince.
He brushed flour onto his hands from his apron as he entered his Brewery. Build up. Luvian glanced up thoughtfully at the ceiling. The Brew House and Tavern… it had a nice ring to it….
APPROXIMATELY 6 YEARS LATER
Tank leaned over the bar. “Luvian!”
“Not now!” Luvian was shoving another loaf of bread into a hot oven. Fortunately, it was quiet and he would be able to take a break in a bit, but he’d see that loaf rise first. That baker. What did he know. Luvian’s bread was better and everyone knew it.
“Luvian!” Tank leaned over the bar again, this time with more insistence.
Luvian brushed his hands free of flour on his apron. “What! What’s wrong?” He checked the level in the stew pot as he passed by. “Mags!” he called. He looked at Tank. “We need more stew.”
“Mags went to the Market for vegetables. She’ll make another kettle when she gets back. Luvian!” Tank insisted on Luvian’s attention by standing in his way.
“Oy! What, man?”
Tank glanced around surreptitiously and whispered behind his hand, “Do you recall that bloke who came to visit back before we built up?”
Luvian’s eyes snapped to Tank’s. “What of him?”
Tank pointed with a barely discernable finger in the direction of the stable. “He’s here. In the stable, askin’ for you.”
Bloody hell. This couldn’t be good. Luvian stripped off his apron and slipped out the back of the kitchen, calling, “Donvan, watch the bread in the oven!”
Luvian stepped into the stable, where the smell of hay, horse manure, and horses assailed him. He heard a fly buzz past as he looked about.
In the corner, a shrouded figure stood, cloaked and unremarkable.
Luvian shook his head and passed by the horse stalls. He glanced around for anyone else, but the two of them were alone. He cleared his throat.
Rhutgard Firthing, King of Romeny, threw back his cowl and smiled at him.
“Your Majesty,” Luvian knelt before him.
“Luvian.” The King offered his hand and Luvian kissed his ring to swear his allegiance.
“Rise, Luvian. Of all people, I can’t stand to see you kneeling before me.”
“Of course, Your Maj –”
“And do not Majesty me.”
Luvian nodded and swallowed. “Well, then, ah. Sire?” He felt the need to lighten the mood. “Welcome to my stable. Again. May I ask what brings you to South Fairview? Surely not the scenery.”
The King smiled at Luvian’s jest, though something about his demeanor was serious. Perhaps it was the weight of the Crown, mused Luvian.
King Rhutgard changed the subject. “You built up, I see. The Brew House and Tavern. Entrepreneurship suits you,” he smiled.
“Well, owing to your idea, of course.”
“It looks good. You’ve done very well for yourself, Luvian.”
“Thank you – er –” Luvian was at a loss as to how to address the King. The King of Romeny, standing here, in his stable, with muck and hay and flies….
The King held up his hand. “Just a thank you.”
Then he drew in a breath and let it out. “My old friend, I hate to come here today. You have done so well for yourself, you are so content in your life, in your world, and as it should be.” The King stared off suddenly.
Luvian’s eyes narrowed with concern. “What’s wrong? Is there trouble?” He crossed his arms on his chest and waited.
King Rhutgard frowned. “You are one of the few who would ask that and truly mean it with concern, rather than social platitude.”
Luvian read the King’s face and saw how he was struggling with what he needed to say. “Out with it, man.”
“Luvian, I need to call in that boon you asked of me those years ago.”
Luvian let those words wash over him. Somehow, they didn’t sink in. He thought his mouth was open.
Finally, he said, “I – I don’t understand.”
The pain on King Rhutgard’s face was evident as he looked at Luvian. “My friend, all those years ago, you came to me, asking a boon of me, because your family needed you.
“And now, Luvian, I am coming to you, because these many years later, my family needs me, more than I can ever say. Because of that…” and Rhutgard’s face drew up in pain here, for the pride of a man, a husband, a father, and a King warred across his face, “I have come to you. In possibly my most desperate circumstance to date.”
Luvian heard these words, but still could not yet bring himself to comprehend them. Finally, he said, “Maj –”
Immediately, Rhutgard covered his mouth with a hand. “Shh! Not here. Nor at all! And do not use my name. As you say, this is South Fairview.”
Taken aback, Luvian held up his hands, and Rhutgard released him slowly.
“Mate! You want to tell me what this –” and Luvian swooped about the stable with his arm, “craziness is about? Are you well? Because you seem quite mad to me.”
“I’m not, though it feels it. I assure you, I would not bring this to you unless I had no choice. You are the only person I can trust.”
Luvian looked into the King’s eyes and saw sanity there, but he knew that whatever the King had to say, he did not want to hear.
“Go on, then.”
King Rhutgard drew in a deep breath, shaking his head. Luvian decided the King looked like many soldiers just home from battle: wide-eyed, nervous, staring about him, and startling at every noise. It had taken Luvian himself at least two years to get past that feeling of always being watched by the enemy, and still he woke from nightmares.
“Do you remember when last I came to visit you?”
“Aye, I do. You stood not far from this spot, as I recall,” said Luvian.
The King nodded wryly. “Hennolynn had just conceived.” He drew in a great breath and let it out slowly, staring down at the hay, though Luvian knew it was not hay that his mate was envisioning.
“I was so sorry to hear, my friend.” He laid a hand on Rhutgard’s shoulder in sympathy.
“Yes, well.” Rhutgard recovered and put on what Luvian had deemed years ago as the “royal” face. “She took a fever while she was with child and died. As did my unborn son.”
Luvian was at a loss for what to say. Surely Rhutgard had been given so many condolences since then, he was tired of them. Luvian didn’t want to add to a bad memory by stumbling his way through another apology.
Then Rhutgard cocked his head a bit. “At the time, I thought nothing of it. For of course, it seemed a plausible explanation. She had taken fever over the last two days. But now, I wonder. For she was nearly to term….”
Luvian raised an eyebrow. That was quite a suspicion to entertain. But he held his tongue. Women took fever all the time.
“Then there was my father, not a year later,” Rhutgard continued. He sighed and glanced upward. “How I do miss him.”
“I am sorry for your loss, mate. I liked him.” Luvian was surprised to hear of King Galvin’s death, for he seemed a robust and hearty man.
“Thank you, my friend. He like you as well.” Rhutgard’s face took on a thoughtful look. “They, the Royal Healers, I mean, claimed he died of choking on a fishbone. Imagine that. A fishbone.” His blue eyes refocused and he stared sternly at Luvian. “If I am said to have died in some trivial, inconsequential manner, Luvian, I want you to circulate rumors all throughout Romeny that I died in a swordfight, or spearing a bull, or even fucking my wife if you must, but nothing like choking on a fishbone.” He rolled his eyes. Then he sighed. “The thing, Luvian, that I found odd at the time, was that my father never ate fish. Didn’t care for it. He was found of ocean fish, but not river water fish, and so he generally only ate it if compelled to, such as at feasts with guests.” He shook he head. “And we were not feasting.”
Luvian raised his eyebrows. That was odd indeed, given the state of affairs he’d left the Palace in. He wished he’d known of that; he would have insisted that Rhutgard launch an investigation – fire all the cooks, sniff out any possible traitors, as before. A woman dying of fever while with child, that might be overlooked. But a healthy king not a year later, in such a sloppy manner? Obviously, whoever committed the regicide did not take the time to find out what the king’s eating habits were.
“You see why I was quick to take a wife. I was chastised by many, but I had no immediate offspring, with only my brother as my successor, and he is but eight.”
Luvian nodded. He had thought Rhutgard had married rather quickly after assuming the Throne, but he was too busy here at the time, for the tavern was being built and he was still running the brewery as well. He’d had no time for speculating upon the doings of the Royals.
“My next wife, I hardly knew. Aolynn, out of Ghiverny. She was with child within just six months, for my advisors are relentless when it comes to rulers with no children. Once she conceived, all seemed well.” Here, Rhutgard’s eyes narrowed.
Luvian shook his head and frowned. He did not want to hear the rest. “All seemed well… until…?”
“Obviously, I had no evidence that my father had died of anything but… well, choking on a fishbone. Nor did a woman dying of fever while with child seem out of the ordinary.” Rhutgard’s brow was furrowed and his blue eyes were glittering.
Luvian crossed his arms. “Mate. What happened!”
“Aolynn was sick for her first two months. Aren’t they all, though, aye?” Rhutgard shrugged. “She wanted such things – odd fruits and, and – turnips, of all things. I hate turnips.” He shook his head.
Luvian glared at him. “Is there an end to this commentary soon?”
Rhutgard sighed and looked back at Luvian. “All seemed well, a normal – well, pregnancy. Then she suddenly took ill. Her Healer couldn’t explain it, the midwives couldn’t explain it. She remained bedridden for all the rest of the pregnancy. Aolynn died in childbirth. The oldest of my sons has always been sickly due to her pregnancy – I, in fact, do not expect him to live long enough to assume a Kingship, though it pains me greatly to admit this. He is well in all ways, just a very sickly boy, pale and frightens easily. He stays locked up in his library with his tutors and his books.” The King drew in a long breath, his face gloomy.
Luvian knew how much it pained Rhutgard to admit this. Rhutgard had been a father’s ideal son – Rhutgard had been a strong child who had excelled at statescraft, horsemanship, swordplay, and no doubt attained the rank of Captain as much through his own military ability as through his father’s influence.
Prince Merridon, however, Rhutgard’s son, was nothing like his father, if what Rhutgard had just disclosed was true.
Luvian was unsure of what to say, for nothing he could say would change the sad course of Rhutgard’s story.
King Rhutgard looked down and kicked at some of the hay with his boot. “Do you believe in coincidence, Luvian?”
“’Course I don’t. You know that. And nor do you.”
“I don’t. But I’m not the only Royal whose country this is happening in.” King Rhutgard fixed Luvian with an even blue stare. “I thought that might help convince you, before I go on. Shaw’s wife, the Queen, that is, died in a hunting accident. She was an excellent horsewoman, but the leather on her stirrup to one side was sawed through partially, as by a knife. One of my men told me that. Shaw didn’t believe it until he had a look himself.
“Ghiverny’s brother, second in the ascension, to whom he is closest, died by drowning, out ice-fishing. Fell under the ice and couldn’t get back up in time before the ice closed over him. No one could reach him in time to save him.
“Ghiverny is heart-stricken, and it turns out that he did not need much convincing by me, for a few of his immediate advisors have recently retired or found their deaths.”
Luvian stared, spellbound by this tale.
“Now what, you may ask, do any of these other – unfortunate – incidents have to do with me?
“Simple. I was present at each of them.”
“I stopped believing in coincidence the day I stepped on the battlefield.”
“As did I. Perhaps sooner.”
“So what are you suggesting? That someone, or a group of someones, are targeting you? Or Royals? Or is the Eastern Shield being threatened again?” asked Luvian.
“Luvian, I’ve no way of knowing. But I am the Eastern Shield, the leader of the Eastern Alliance. Romeny is the Shield itself, and I am its King. I have played every scenario through in my mind. Perhaps they think me young and so easily overthrown. The Twenty Years War may be over, but Ambsellon and Ormon to the North can strike again through the Mantle Mountains. Romeny has not yet recovered to her full fighting strength yet, and Fairview still remembers the soldiers who marched through. I know I will never forget them.
“Shaw is young and small yet. Ghiverny is such a part of Romeny’s bloodline, we are near to one country – they are our oldest ally. But they are far enough to the North that a sudden direct hit on Fairview, as before, or even Romeny itself, will still require them at least two weeks to regroup and arrive with troops and aid. Ormon and Ambsellon each have twice Romeny’s numbers.
“Something is not sitting well with me. I know not what, but I trust my gut, as a soldier. I know something is afoot.”
Luvian knew Rhutgard was right. But the King was not done.
“Which brings me to this: I’m sure you know of my latest marriage.” Rhutgard shook his head. “It was near everything I could do to secure her hand, for, say my advisors, I am considered by some to be ‘haunted’ now – girls beg their fathers, ‘no, Father, please,’ for apparently, should they wed me, they are like to die here.” Rhutgard snorted. “Would you believe? There was a time when betrothal proposals and ladies-in-waiting poured into the Palace.”
Luvian scoffed. “Tripe. What tripe – don’t believe such shit.”
“Ah, but such is the world of politics, my friend,” smiled the King sadly. “But nevertheless, I married a wonderful woman –”
“So I heard. Congratulations… I hope…?” Luvian trailed off, unsettled.
Rhutgard nodded, a smile on his face finally as he pictured his wife. “Principea, out of Ghiverny. And I have kept her by my side, watched her every bite, and overseen her every move since the moment she arrived. Truly, she thinks me mad, I’m sure.”
“Well, then, she’s got good instinct. I like her already,” Luvian quipped.
The King snorted, but the smile did not leave his face. Luvian decided Rhutgard truly loved this Queen of his. And that was just as well.
“But this brings me to the issue that brought me here. Finally,” Rhutgard conceded.
“Forgive me, mate,” Luvian held up a placating hand to interrupt him, “but you said something a bit ago that I have a question about.”
The King gestured. “Go ahead.”
“Perhaps I heard wrong, but did you not say, the oldest of my sons? I admit I am a busy man in my small world,” and he gestured toward the brewery, “but I’m sure I would have heard if more Royals had been added to the King’s family.”
A slow smile spread across the King’s face. “You never miss anything, do you? And what a fool was I, to have missed that. I’ll need to be more careful,” he thought aloud.
“Sorry? Mate? The issue of children?” Luvian prompted the King. Royals. Always drifting off in daydreams this way and that. Though, to be fair, Luvian conceded, Rhutgard certainly had more that most to think about. Nightmares more than daydreams….
The King shook himself. Taking in a deep breath, he was finally silent.
Luvian felt like shaking him. What the bloody hell. To come all this way and tell him this whole gallish story and then just dry up like an old prune. He felt like kicking him in his royal arse.
Rhutgard turned about and stared at one of the beams. “Do you remember our trip, Luvian? When we were practically strangers still, and couldn’t think of anything to talk about?”
Luvian’s mouth fell open. Bloody fucking royal. Standing here talking about shit and not getting to the point. Oy.
“I remember,” he said.
“We talked mostly of Army things, military, because we really had no common ground. But you did tell me about that month you’d spent stationed in Dinsmore. Do you recall that?”
Luvian did not recall any such thing but had no chance to respond, for the King then said, “You told me about the woman you fell in love with there. Remember her? Ruth?”
Luvian’s eyes rounded and for once he was taken entirely by surprise.
“I? Told you that?”
King Rhutgard turned and regarded him with something like amusement.
“Aye, my friend. Don’t worry, I shan’t repeat it to anyone,” he said with a tired smile.
“Huh.” Luvian, still amazed, said, “Well, to be honest, I was in quite a bit of pain.”
“True, that you were. I never heard a man curse so much.”
Luvian started to get annoyed and then realized the King was only teasing him.
He hadn’t thought of Ruth in years. They had spent one entire month together, while he had been stationed in the Dinsmore Valley, and he still a Private. He had snuck out every night past curfew and stayed with her, sleeping under the stars beneath an Army-issue blanket in the patch of wildflowers outside of camp. He had risked everything for her green, green eyes…. Being AWOL as a soldier during wartime was severely frowned upon, even if it was just for a woman….
The King cleared his throat, bringing Luvian out of his reverie.
“If I may?”
“Aye, uhm – right, then.” Luvian found himself stumbling over what to say. He hadn’t thought of Ruth in years, but now all he could see was her smile. Damn Rhutgard.
“This brings me to why I’ve come.”
Luvian’s eyes narrowed and he crossed his arms. “What has Ruth to do with any of this?”
“Ruth is widowed now, this last year.”
Luvian smelled a plot and raised an eyebrow. He didn’t like it, didn’t like it at all.
“And what has that to do with me?”
“She has two little girls, ages one and two, by a soldier who just passed.”
“Again, mate, what does this have to do with me? Obviously, I’m sorry for her loss, but as you can see, I’ve a business to run.” He brightened. “If she needs a place for her family, she can stay here in one of the rooms,” he suggested.
The King nodded, a small smile playing on his face. “That’s good of you. But do you recall that I mentioned ‘of all of my sons’?”
Luvian’s mind jumped quickly. “Surely you don’t want your sons and her daughters….”
“Oh no – no. But what you don’t know yet is… that my wife just gave birth.”
Luvian’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s fantastic, man!”
Rhutgard hissed at him, “Shush, shush, keep it down!”
Luvian glanced around. “Well, truly, that’s wonderful! Now you’ve two sons, aye? Congratulations, mate!” he whispered, truly elated for his friend.
The King was grinning. He lifted his eyebrows conspiratorially. “Actually… I have three now.”
Luvian looked at the happiness in the King’s blue eyes. “Twins!”
Rhutgard nodded. “Twin boys. Just last week.”
Luvian grinned. “Even better! How can I sneak some of that fine Palace whiskey out here for us to toast to?”
Rhutgard shook his head and his smile faded.
Luvian stared at him. “Bloody hell, man, what’s happened? Is it the Queen, did she take ill?”
“No, no, nothing like that. She’s fine, and so are the boys. I had them under my own guard every single day, I watched everything she ate and drank, and almost no one knew she was with child. We’ll announce in a few days. She has just stayed sequestered, claiming to have felt ill all this time. Which,” he rolled his eyes, “only served to feed the rumors swirling about my haunted wives,” he chuckled.
“But all healthy. Thank the gods, mate, thank the gods,” Luvian said.
“Yes, and they will stay so, by my every breath,” Rhutgard’s tone was serious. “For they are the line of succession to my Throne, and my blood. If some easily explained, plausible death or illness should befall them, may the gods forbid it, then I will have proof, undeniable proof, that my river has been poisoned. Do you believe me?”
“I understand, mate.”
“But do you understand why I am taking all precautions? For just last spring, the King of Shaw’s youngest sister recovered from an illness that only her childhood Healer was able to heal. He was called to her bedside as a last resort by the King, acting on a thought that he was considering since his wife died. Unbeknownst to her current healers, Shaw sent a private bird to his sister’s old Healer and had the old man, half-blind now, brought to her bedside. Within two days, she was up and walking around again, whereas before, she had been coughing and near to death. Shaw’s sister is twice down in his line of succession,” said the King quietly.
“What do Shaw and Ghiverny have directly in common with me, besides my having been present at their loved ones’ demises?”
Luvian knew at this point that it was better to say nothing and wait for the King to continue.
“They are smaller countries who both border Romeny. Everyone knows how much the Ormons have craved Ghiverny for their own – but no one has ever penetrated the Wolf Wall. Perhaps, if they cannot take the Wolves from the outside, whoever this unknown enemy is will take them from the inside.
“As with Shaw. Shaw is such a small kingdom, but it runs the lower River Lands. It is protected by all of the Eastern Shield on every front, and so might be more easily dismantled from the inside rather than invading.
“We’ve just seen how expensive wars are. The Twenty Years War – the only countries who weren’t ultimately depleted were, of course, Ambsellon and Ormon. Delsynth has its Spears. The Coastal Alliance –” Rhutgard scoffed. “A few lousy ships and some regiments. They will need years yet to recover.
“Hardewold, I think he is glossing over his losses. That old Hound.” Rhutgard snorted, then a thoughtful look crossed his face. “He needs to look to his own House. The changing of the guard isn’t far along from now. I don’t think anyone would dare to attack the Hound, but if they put some well-grounded people inside, come the changing of the guard over there, the new King could well be led astray….”
Luvian saw suddenly how fragile these rulers really were. If the commonfolk only knew…. “And Delsynth?”
“Psshhaw. There he sits in that iron castle of his. I think he sleeps in a cod piece. I can’t imagine anyone dismantling that castle, or his bloodline. He’s a crafty old bastard. You should have seen me arranging my marriage. I near had to kneel at his feet.”
“Right then. So… mate. I think you and your peers are right to watch out for yourselves. No such thing as coincidence. You being the Eastern Shield, as you say, you need to step up and make sure each of those other Thrones aren’t being watched by the wrong eyes. You’re the Eastern Shield. It falls to you to take on that responsibility. If you know you’re a target, then you should assume all your other soldiers, your Captains, are too, so see that they get their Houses in order. And sooner than later. And if they don’t like it, or it puts them in an awkward situation with some advisor or that lordling, then they don’t need that advisor or lordling. Clean out their Houses, from tower to scullery. What’s more, call them in for a meeting, as your father did before you. Remember as he said, if they didn’t like it, he would consider it an act against the Alliance. You may not be in the Twenty Years’ War anymore, but mark my words, there is a war going on. It’s a silent one, and you don’t know where it’s being fought, nor by who. Mate, you are right back where you started when I brought your arse back here to Fairview. Just now, your house is a whole lot bigger, spans a lot more land than it did. Find the traitors, mate. You know how I’d do it.
The King was nodding slowly. “You always know exactly what to do. I wish I could put you on my staff of advisors.”
Luvian scoffed. “Even if that were a possibility, that would last a day or less. Picture it: me trying to listen to some spoiled lordling’s idea of how to run a country. Nah. I’m exactly where I need to be, mate.”
That’s when the King nodded sadly.
“Bloody hell. Here it comes. I knew something was coming. Knew it.”
The King looked away for a moment, as if debating how to start.
Luvian’s temper snapped. “Well, shit – just get on with it, will ya – ya’ve told me this much! Or maybe ya could’ve led into it with whatever it is. ‘Oy, Luvian, I have somethin’ for ya – instead of running me around – spit it out, aye?”
“You have kin. In the Dinsmore Valley.”
“Yes. You have kin up in Dinsmore.”
“Oh, have I now. Funny how I don’t recall them.”
“They’re near to death, and all of your family on that side will be attending her until she passes,” the King told Luvian.
Luvian said nothing for a moment. But the King was serious.
He stuck a finger in the King’s face. “You’re mad. Mad.”
Luvian continued. “In case ya haven’t noticed, I’m not leavin’ to go anywhere to see anyone’s fake dyin’ kin. I’m runnin’ an establishment here and I’m workin’ my arse off to do it! What the hell. What do they feed you fools up there?”
“Are you done?”
“Not nearly. What the fuck would I go to Dinsmore for?”
“So you could marry your wife,” the King said.
“My wife. Did you not hear me say, that I’m too busy to do such a thing, I’m runnin’ an establishment here. An’ if it’s Ruth you’re talkin’ about, she’s welcome to stay here with her family. I don’t need no wife and certainly don’t need no family. Bloody hell. You really are an idiot. Mad. Absolutely fucking mad.”
“Luvian, keep your voice down.” The voice of the King of Romeny suddenly issued a royal command proper.
So Luvian stood there instead, glaring with fury at Rhutgard.
“A wife, Luvian. Besides, when do you ever find time to get laid?” said the King of Romeny.
Luvian punched him square in the jaw, utterly infuriated. Panting, Luvian suddenly realized that he had struck, aye, punched, Rhutgard Firthing, First of His Name, King of Romeny and Holder of the Eastern Shield. Men had been hung just for running in a king’s path before.
Rhutgard, his blue eyes wide, stood up, holding his jaw. He spat blood out in his mouth. He stared at Luvian with all the authority of a king and Luvian realized that it was only their friendship that kept him from being arrested.
Rhutgard rubbed his jaw. “Perhaps I deserved that. I apologize, my friend.”
Luvian massaged his fist. “Bet that’s never happened before.”
“What? Getting struck?”
“And apologizing,” Luvian shook his head and then smiled a bit. He was still disgusted, but Rhutgard had apologized.
“Now explain why it is you’re wantin’ to marry me off and make me a father near overnight. Am I cut out of husband, father cloth to you, mate, do you think? Am I? I run a brewery.” He gestured in the direction of the kitchen and bar.
Still rubbing his jaw, the King replied, “Just the fact that you’ve questioned it tells me that you are. Damn. I think you loosened a tooth.”
“Did I? You know there’s a perfect cure for it. Works every time,” commented Luvian.
The King, sensing his friend’s sarcasm, narrowed his eyes. “What’s that?
“Pulling the fucker out.”
Rhutgard glared at Luvian.
“Right then. Get on with this bloody fuckery you’d have me doing. Marryin’.” Luvian scoffed.
“It’s Ruth, Luvian, and she has two small girls.”
Luvian remained unconvinced. “Funny, I got that part already. What aren’t you tellin’ me? Why would you,” and he pressed on Rhutgard’s chest,” give a shit about a common woman in Dinsmore that I told you about near ten years ago? And not because I loved her back in the day, and I know you’re no match-maker. You need something.”
“Luvian, you are the one person I trust in this world, other than my wife. You have saved my life on more than one occasion, and I will never be able to repay that debt. Nor will the Crown. Nor… will my children.”
Luvian’s face changed. “Sorry? Your boys –”
Rhutgard nodded and said, “Will be, gods be good, happy and healthy, at the Palace, with my wife and I.”
Luvian relaxed but was still confused.
“But my daughter….” Rhutgard trailed off and stared at Luvian directly.
What? “Daughter? When did you have a daughter, mate?”
“My wife… she had two boys… and a girl.”
A number of thoughts clashed in Luvian’s mind at that moment, for the end of the plot he’d sensed suddenly started pulling together around him, and he felt prisoner, for he now knew he had been deftly pursued and trapped. He also realized that Rhutgard was shrewder than Luvian gave him credit for… a well-executed maneuver. Damn the man.
“Your daughter.” Luvian swallowed quietly.
“Yes.” Rhutgard watched him warily.
“Yes, with her brothers, last week. In the best of health.”
“And why am I going to Dinsmore?”
“Luvian,” Rhutgard sighed. “I have three sons, one not like to live past twenty. Two are hail and hearty for all their six days of life in this world. But my brother died last spring, leaving just two cousins closest in the line of succession.
“Someone has their thumb in the pot, as you said, and I cannot help but wonder if they may well be trying to dismantle my country. I have to protect my children, and my bloodline. Daughters carry on the bloodline more so than sons, as all know. It’s been decades since people have had to do such a thing, but I – we – the Queen and I – have decided to hide her away until she comes of age, so that no harm comes to her.” Here he paused.
Luvian knew this happened all the time. Daughters carried the bloodline truer. He wondered what cousin, what duke, duchess, earl, whatever royal would be raising the little girl. Perhaps that was to be his errand. Deliver the babe to whoever she was to stay with. Again, he sighed. Could the King not have led with that, and maybe have saved Luvian a sore fist?
“Her identity is never to be known, until she comes of age.”
“I understand, mate. But, I have to tell you – I’m no good with babes. Where is the girl now? That’s what you want me to do, isn’t it? Take her to – wherever she’ll stay?”
The King looked at him with a mixture of expressions. “You could say that, yes.”
“Then – where is she?”
“She’s with Ruth. And no one knows who she is, except Ruth.”
Luvian’s eyes suddenly narrowed. “You told me I was to marry Ruth. Was that a joke, then? Why has she got your baby daughter?”
“She is well protected, I assure you. You will attend the bedside of a dying family member for near a month there in Dinsmore. While there, you will rekindle your affection for Ruth and – marry. She will immediately take with child – my daughter, though no one will know that. By the time your kinswoman “passes,” you will return here. Take your time returning, so that Ruth will have time to grow with child. When you return here, she will remain sequestered until such a time as she will have delivered. And so my daughter will be here, where I would trust her nowhere more.”
Luvian listened to this, unsure of what most was objectionable. He stood in shock.
“Aside from the fact that – that – you’ve given me a kinswoman who doesn’t exist –”
“Who will pretend to be ill and who we will sneak out of the village shortly before you leave – Happens all the time.”
Luvian was still spluttering. “Aside from that, then, mate, you’re marrying me off to a woman who already has your daughter, but is going to pretend that she is ours when we get married –”
“That’s a rather simplified way of describing it –”
“Is it? Which is the most simple part of it? I’d say none of it if you were to have asked me, but you didn’t ask me, at all, for none of it. And while I’m most happy to have Ruth, her children, your child – I don’t think you thought this through completely. Does your wife know who I am?”
“Yes,” Rhutgard replied with dignity.
“You’re insane. You’re mad! Both of ya, then, fuckin’ mad.” He managed to lower his voice at the very last moment and hissed. “Are you tryin’ to tell me you want me, to raise your daughter, here? Do you see where you’re standin’? Mate, this is a bloody brewery. A tavern! Your daughter is a princess! What were you thinking when you thought of lettin’ your only daughter grow up –”
“With the biggest asshole I know, in a brewery, a tavern, the best in all of South Fairview? With a war hero, a strong military man, a fighter who’s loyal first to his family and second to me, the Crown, whose ass he has saved at least twice? Yes, it took quite a lot of thought to convince my Queen to allow my daughter to grow up amongst not just ordinary folk but pickpockets, thieves, and criminals. Exactly… where no one… would ever think to look for her….”
Luvian was speechless. He could only shake his head at the notion of a royal child in his home. His home, his brewery – loud, bawdy, fights, beer, clanging, laughing, music late into the night…. A royal child in the midst of all that….
“You. You’re just flat out.”
“Excuse me?” asked Rhutgard.
Luvian sighed and shook his head. “It’s a South Fairview term. When there’s no other word for it, that’s what we say. It’s just flat out.”
“Well, then.” Rhutgard gestured uselessly.
“She’ll not be getting that fancy royal education here, mate. Are you so sure now?”
“We know that. Just as long as she can read and write and – her numbers,” Rhutgard stumbled over the unfamiliar common term for arithmetic. “She can be tutored once she comes of age.”
“Rhutgard. Please. Man. Think this through. She’s going to grow up in a brew house, a tavern. The people will not look kindly on that when she comes of age – you know best how society and perception work. Trust me. You don’t want her to grow up here,” Luvian pleaded.
“Yes, Luvian, I do. Or she may not grow up at all.” Rhutgard said frankly.
Luvian finally sighed. He saw that the King was immutable. “I see I can’t change your mind then.”
The King shook his head some. “No.” Then he said, “Luvian, I am trusting you with my family, my child, my only daughter. Do you understand what I’m doing? I am trusting you with not just my life but hers as well.” The King’s face was serious.
“I do. But – mate.”
“You can’t come back here again. Ever. Her life is in your hands as well.”
The King’s jaw was clenched. “I know that. I do.” He reached in his mouth and felt about. Then, with a sudden cringe, he yanked out his tooth. “But a part of me will always be here with her.” He gave it to Luvian. Luvian clutched the bloody tooth in his hand and nodded.
“I’ll see that your business is taken care of by the very best while you’re gone. After all, my daughter will be living here,” the King managed to smile just a bit as he rubbed his jaw.
“Might want to get this replaced, mate,” Luvian said as he held up the King’s tooth.
“No, I don’t think so. Every time I feel that empty spot in my mouth, I want to think of her and why she’s not with me. And every time, it will renew my incentive to root out these bastards who are behind this treason.
“As you will, then, mate.”
“See that you leave immediately, please,” the King told Luvian.
“I will, at top moon.”
“Bring her back safely, Luvian, please.” The King was trying to keep up a show of bravado.
“Mate, relax. Congratulations are in order. We’re both fathers now. Of course, I think my youngest takes after me, but what can I tell you. I’m usually right about these things.”
The King swallowed and smiled at Luvian’s jest, appreciating the levity.
As he turned to leave the stable, Luvian called quietly, “Good will follow you, mate. I’ll take the best care of her.”
What a grace she had. Some days, Luvian swore he saw her father staring out at him from between those golden ringlets. And where, folks always asked did she get those eyes? Romeny blue, he wanted to say, from her father, of course. Sometimes she even laughed like him.
He shook his head as he watched her clear the tables clean of tankards. Luvian never let her out on the floor when customers were out and about. She objected to this, and his older girls teased him for favoring her. Ah, what children didn’t know about the world. Or at least his.
On her tenth birthday, a parade was thrown uptown in the Palace District, for the War Heroes of the Twenty Years War. A Corporal from the Palace visited The Brew House with a special medal for a war hero of the highest degree. The girls hadn’t known he’d been a distinguished soldier until then, but Ruthie stared at it and glanced at him. Tank’s eyes grew round at the distinguishment. As a veteran from the war, Tank recognized what the medal stood for.
Idiot, thought Luvian, what was that crowned idiot thinking….
Luvian had thrown the medal in the wooden box that Rhutgard had sent him when he’d resigned his commission. Inside the box held one other item – a tooth.
Right now, Luvian knew as he watched his youngest daughter, that when they finally came for her, he was going to get some of that specially fine Palace whiskey that he kept hidden away down in the cellar, and he was going to go out in the stable, and get good and drunk.
But for now, Luvian looked down and swiped a damp rag across the counter top of his bar.
END OF PROLOGUE