“I don’t know why he lets her in there.”
“Nor do I. A woman, after all –”
“Not even, still a girl.”
“What is he thinking, letting her in like that –”
“They think her cute, you know.”
“Harrumph. Just wait until she counters them at the table. How does she know – she just always seems to know….”
“Like the iron shipments. Who have you told about that, I’d like to know?”
“Me? I was going to ask you the same – I’ve told no one at all but you, fool. So why would she propose raising customs duties on incoming iron and steel?”
“Did you see the look on Lord Darnish’s face when she proposed creating a new Bill of Entry register, one that would catalogue each and every item aboard the ships specifically, so that nothing might get left out, ‘for the good of our Tortoreen’?
“How much has he been skimming all these years? I thought he’d be sick on the floor right there.” Rolling laughter.
“I don’t know, but his wife and daughters might – the very best of fashions – quite a lot of silk finds its way off those boats.” Sniggering.
“She needs to removed. She shouldn’t be in there –-” came the last remark as boots disappeared down the corridor.
Theldry, who had been flattened against the wall, suppressed a triumphant grin as she glanced around the corner.
Theldry had become quite the sleuth. She had learned the art of invisibility. Following others about and listening to their conversations as she just had was more difficult that she imagined it was for other people, for she was a Princess, and dressed as one. Servants would stop to bow or curtsy and “Your Highness” her in the corridor, which, of course, ruined whatever she was listening to, for then they would run off. And the servants were beginning to think her a bit odd, for she was always standing up against walls.
Which was how she found out about the new daughter who’d been hidden away all these years in Romeny. What Theldry wouldn’t give for a new sister suddenly….
But Theldry found out information on these horrible Council Members one way or another. When she could not follow them about in the Palace, she started throwing small garden parties, and invited their wives. Whom, of course, Theldry spent a good deal of time speaking with, drawing information from in all innocence.
And of course, Lord Darnish was sneaking a good deal of extra materials in off his ships in the harbor, including silk dresses, Lady Darnish confided after just a bit of wine as a secret between “us ladies.”
Theldry’s mother was thrilled at her daughter’s lovely behavior, but, Theldry knew, if only she were aware of Theldry’s true intentions. Theldry’s actual motives were as impure as the men whom she sought to bring down. And she smiled just a little again.
Her new lady friends would invite her to their homes in response, and so Theldry had the chance to remark on all that she saw in the Councilors’ personal estates, remarking on how much they had on a Councilor’s income, which on two occasions left the wives curious. The third brushed it off airily, for they both came from money and her husband serving as a Council Member was merely a favor to the King, and a bit of a social hike.
Theldry had rolled her eyes privately, for this was the exact type of woman she hoped never to become. She really hadn’t thought of herself as a girl anymore. She was attending Council Meetings regularly and even if not considered a complete equal, she was given the floor whenever she wanted to speak. And they never liked what she had to say, for Theldry always worked ahead of time to find out their secrets, then prepared full counteractions for Council.
Holding garden parties wasn’t a favorite activity of hers, but if it gleaned the information she could use in Council, then it was a necessary sufferance. And men never actually recognized that their wives had attended parties with Theldry – for if they had, they would know the culprit, the actual root of their downfall. But men never thought of women beyond their little parties and their embroidery and their paper fans.
How Theldry would enjoy the next Council Meeting….
“Mother? Father? You wished to see me?”
Theldry stood before them in their favorite balcony. They took most of their private meals here. Breakfast they insisted on eating with her and Bronn.
Theldry could no longer stand to look at any of them. Bronn, for obvious reasons. But her father – he knew all of what was occurring, here in Tortoreen, his kingdom, and he, as King Almeric, did nothing at all. Nothing. That just horrified her. Disgusted her, in fact, Theldry thought, and now she could no longer bear to look at him, for she had no respect for him.
And her mother, who meant so very well as a gracious lady, and performed so very well at it…. Theldry thought of her mother as a… a mouse. A mouse – perhaps she had a brain, but she had never used it, for she had been told all her life that, because she was a woman, she was not supposed to use it, at least not for anything other than setting up invitations, choosing gowns, and noting which of the Court were seemly and unseemly company. Theldry loved her mother, of course, but never wanted to be like her.
“Theldry, we have wonderful news for you!” Her mother’s green eyes sparkled and her hands were clasped together.
Then her father, reclined back in his chair, told her, “Yes, my dear, you have finally gotten what you have always dreamed of….”
Theldry experienced a second of confusion – she couldn’t think of anything she had always dreamed of….
“…you are to be married. And soon, I might add,” her father finished.
None of it registered. Theldry heard his words, but they didn’t sink in.
Married? Was that what he had said?
“Oh, Theldry, isn’t it marvelous?” Her mother clapped her hands with excitement.
Theldry’s mouth was open. No! No! Not… not now!
Her father harrumphed. “Look at the girl. You’d think she’d be happier.”
“Oh, she’s just in shock,” her mother patted her father’s arm.
But things – were just falling into – place! She couldn’t marry – now!
“Who – who is it?” Theldry finally asked. It was so surreal. She licked her lips.
“He’s a Duke, over in Corstarordan.”
“Yes,” rolled her father’s voice.
Did he sound smug, Theldry suddenly wondered….
“He’s a fine man, a Duke. Older man, but he’s a good man. He’s just lost his wife, but he’ll treat you kindly. He’s over on the sea there, so you’ll still have a breath of ocean air.” Then he cocked his head at Theldry. “You know Corstarordan. You’ve been fighting for them in Council. Now will be your chance to really make a difference, Theldry.”
Again, she detected a note of smugness in his voice. She had been sold – merely because of political pressure. She blinked. Swallowing, Theldry asked,
“And – when is the wedding?”
“Two months. You’re to be married in two months,” her father told her. His face was stone.
Theldry’s breath was taken away. Months? Two? Months? It was always a year, at least.
“You’ve been waiting so long, dear, aren’t you happy?” Her mother got up and embraced her.
“Oh. Ever so….”
Back in her chambers – for Mother could not resist accompanying her back to her chambers – Mother told her more of what the next two months would entail. Theldry believed wholeheartedly that Mother was more excited about this betrothal than she ever would be.
“But – Mother…. An older man – in Corstarordan? Could it not be someone more local? Someone in Tortoreen, perhaps, or even S’hendalow? We have a relationship with S’hendalow. And they have a new King, he’s unmarried. Why would Father not send me to S’hendalow, where his Princess could be a Queen, rather than to some old Duke, where I’ll be some out-of-the-way Duchess….”
Which was, of course, why he was sending her to Corstarordan… to be as far out of the way as he could get her. Theldry would shrivel up and grow old out there, with some pruned-up old man who’d lost his old, pruned-up wife…. Surely, Father knew how terrible he was being. Someone, someone on the Council had forced him to do this…. Her eyes narrowed.
“No, my dear,” Mother patted her cheek. “We already have a relationship with S’hendalow. Undoubtedly, that is why he did not send a betrothal inquiry.”
Well that, that – that just made no sense at all, Theldry fumed. A king who doesn’t want his own daughter to be Queen of a neighboring country?
Ha. That was exactly it. Father knew that Theldry knew everything about Tortoreen and would level his Council once she was given the first spit of power as a Queen, even if in name only.
No wonder Father was sending her to the other side of the Coastals, she fumed. Well, once she got her legs under her over there, she would see that he and Tortoreen got exactly what he had coming to it.
She could have been Queen. What a perfect arrangement that would have been…. Maybe she’d work her way into the Court of Corstarorden…. And even make friends with the new S’hendalow king. Oh, Father, what a mistake you’ve just made….
Mother had declared that Theldry as no longer a Princess, but a woman betrothed, and so all her garden parties and other social engagements were, as of now, canceled. And certainly, all of her guests would understand and rejoice for Theldry, as this occasion only came along once in a young woman’s life. Theldry had rolled her eyes behind her mother’s back.
“And that includes those dreadful Council Meetings, too, my dear. They’re not fitting for a woman,” she held Theldry’s hand and looked at her sternly. “We have much to plan now, and you’ll have no time for such unseemly pursuits. You don’t want your husband-to-be to hear of such activities so soon before your wedding, now, do you?”
Theldry put on a pleasing smile. “No, Mother.”
Her mother hugged her. “That’s my darling girl. Now, we have so many details to work out – of course, your gown….”
She nodded and shook her head, smiled and laughed when required as if in a daze.
Then her mother said something that broke through. “And, of course,” and cleared her throat delicately, “we’ll have those ladies stay with you so you can,” Mother coughed, “practice, of course.”
Theldry stared at Mother. “Ladies? What practice?”
Mother had turned a delicate shade of pink and her hands fluttered at her throat. “Well, you see, those ladies.” She drew in a breath. “Theldry, dear,” and Mother covered her mouth with a hand.
“These ladies will teach you – about – well, pleasing a man. Because, of course, you need to know that, before the actual wedding night, don’t you dear. Oh my, it’s hot in here, isn’t it?” And Mother shook her fan out and fanned herself, looking across the room from Theldry.
Theldry suddenly realized what her mother was referring to and reddened herself. “No, Mother – I don’t want any such – ladies – staying here with me. Gods! Ugh! Mother!”
“I’m sorry, dear, it’s tradition.”
“Tradition? Who turned that into a bloody tradition? A man, I’m sure! And no! Don’t send anyone to my chambers!”
“Theldry, how dare you curse! Never, ever curse!” Mother was horrified.
“Mother, can we just continue with the wedding details, please!” Theldry begged.
“Yes, dear, of course.”
Theldry had received permission to walk through the Market Place, to enjoy the flowers and the breezes and the salt of the ocean on the cliffs before she had to leave, as long as she went with Palace Guards.
The salty air blew her hair from her face as she turned her face to the sun. She took in long breaths of fresh air. Would it smell the same in Corstarorden?
In just three weeks, she would be a married woman. Married to some dried-up old prune. She didn’t even know how old the Duke was, nor was she being told, she suspected, on purpose.
In fact, Theldry suspected a lot of this entire betrothal on purpose. Just a two-month betrothal before the wedding? That was unseemly if anything. That only happened when people thought you were with child. If it wasn’t for the fact that Theldry and the Duke had never met, and that the Duke was on the other side of the Coastals, and, of course, that he was some blind, deaf, wretched old man, Theldry sulked, then people would, of course, think her with child.
Well, they would be disappointed to find out that she wasn’t at all with child, nor would she lose her figure. In fact, she doubted her marriage would even be consummated.
She and her ladies-in-waiting had all whispered of tales of using chicken’s blood upon the wedding sheets, to make it seem as if the groom really had – well – taken the bride’s virginity. They did that if the woman wasn’t a virgin, and of course, if the man never fulfilled the evening’s requirements.
Spinning the handle of her parasol idly, Theldry wondered whether she would need to hide some chicken’s blood away to do the same, for if drunken Lords came to in to stand outside the door, they might be bored, for her groom might pass out atop her. If she could only find out which bed would be the wedding bed, she could hide the sack of chicken blood there….
Such an awful outlook for the start of her marriage….
And then she was shoved aside – a man flung himself in front of her, and Theldry saw the silver of a blade slash down, once, twice. She nearly fell over into the cart behind her, breathless. Blood flew into the air.
Theldry stumbled on the hem of her gown, trying to stand straight. Her basket fell to the white-washed cobbles and fruit rolled everywhere.
A man in a neutral colored tunic and a black vest turned around. “Were you hurt?”
“No, I, no –” Theldry’s breath was coming in short gasps. Those men had – tried to kill her? But why?
But the man before her – blood spread across his arm quickly. He’d saved her, stepped before her while two men had tried to kill her. He bent down and picked up one of the knives. As he stood up, she saw another slash across his chest growing red from the blood flowing freely beneath it.
“You’re hurt – you’re terribly hurt!” she told him, appalled.
“Come –” and the man grasped her arm. He pulled her behind the vendor’s cart.
“Hold that up,” he said, gesturing to Theldry’s parasol.
“But – you’re wounded –”
“I’ve had worse,” he said dryly as he pulled out some strips of cloth from his rucksack. As he tied the wound on his arm, he glanced up at her. “What are you doing, walking around the Market Place without any protection?”
He yanked the strip of cloth off and then pulled his tunic up.
All Theldry saw was blood running down from an open wound, running into his trousers. He immediately began dabbing at it.
Then he looked straight at Theldry in the eyes. Theldry saw he had what was left of a black eye. “You’re not afraid of blood, are you? Not going to pass out?”
Theldry took in a deep breath then, more out of defiance than anything. She’d just never been so close to a man before. An idle part of her thought – oh, if Mother saw her now….
“No, I’ve just never – seen it before. What can I do to help?” She reached out a hand, but he slapped it back.
“Just what you need – to go back up there –” and he jerked her head in the direction of the Palace “with blood on your hands. No, you just keep that parasol up.” He found a long wrap of cloth and wrapped it around himself. “That’ll have to do for now.
“So – these Palace Guards of yours. Did you, by chance, dismiss them? Because there wasn’t a single Guard to be seen in the square. Not one.” The man’s gray eyes stared steadily at Theldry.
Her mouth dropped open. “What? But there were four! Where did they go?”
“Well, I suggest, Your Highness, that the first thing you do, is get back to that Palace. Immediately. And don’t leave it.” He stood and held his arm out to pull her up.
“You knew? Who I was? How did you know?”
He looked up to the sky, then back to her. “Let’s just say I have a knack for these things and leave it at that.
“I’ll follow you back to the Palace and make sure you arrive safe, but after that, I’m gone.”
“But, but you’re terribly hurt,” Theldry protested. “We have Healers, and you’ve just saved my life, my parents will want to meet you –”
“No, no thank you, though the invitation is appreciated. The farther from a castle I am, the better I feel. Obviously, someone wants you out of the castle. Why would that be, as you are just a Princess?”
Theldry flared, “I am not ‘just a Princess’. I’ve made a lot of people very uncomfortable of late – oh….”
The man snorted. “You don’t say.”
“Well, I’ve been attending Council Meetings lately, and –”
“Really? Your father, allowing you, a Princess, to attend Council Meetings? That’s a first, I’d have to say.”
“Well, he never really got a say in it. They liked me being there at first. Then I found out everything they were actually involved in, and I moved to stop it all. And so, my father has me betrothed to some ancient old lord across the Coastals, just to get rid of me and make them happy.” She sighed.
He sounded interested behind her. “What sorts of things do you find out?”
“Well, for instance, that the white fish in Emerald Lake and the ocean fish off the docks cost exactly the same, pound for pound, but I discovered that for myself - certain Council Members are vying for a higher market price on lake fish when there’s no difference at all actually. I countered them in Council when I found out. I also found out there was no blight on the Corstarordan vegetables, even though they wanted to impose a higher tax on incoming vegetables. Three ships owned by a Council Member don’t report all of what’s actually brought in, so I proposed a new Bill of Entry register. Incoming iron is supposed to line their pockets as well. A few other things from their wives.”
“Really….” Her new protector sounded fascinated. “And who has your father betrothed you to?”
“A sudden two-month betrothal to some old lord who lost his wife, on the Corstarordan Coast.” Theldry gestured helplessly. “I’m fifteen. Who knows how old he is?”
“Really,” said her protector. “I mistook you for fourteen. A brave fourteen, at that, but all the same. And extremely gifted. I’m sorry to hear of your upcoming nuptials. Hmm.”
“Curious, rather. A young, attractive, unmarried King in S’hendalow? Did that not work out? Perfect arrangement, I should think.”
“Father didn’t want me going there. He said that we already have arrangements with S’hendalow.”
“Hmm. Well, it seems you have angered someone enough to take attempt on your life, Your Highness. Stay in your rooms. And watch the Guards.”
“What about all the people coming for the wedding? How will I know who to trust?” Theldry worried.
The man chuckled. “Want to put a knife in their back? Have the wedding at the Duke’s estate. Leave right away. A princess killed on her way to her wedding? All too odd – no one would believe it. The people who attempted your life today – they know everything about this place. Its people, the Market Place, you, the Guards…. If I were you, I’d change your plans immediately. It just might save your life.
“And you are nearly at your Palace as we speak.”
“What is your name? You’ve saved my life, and I don’t even know your name.” Theldry turned and looked at the man with the fading black eye. She wondered if she had seen him in the Market Place before, for he seemed familiar. He reminded her of someone she knew, somehow, but whom?
“Well, I’ve had a number of names.” He snorted a bit. “The most recent one, probably the most appropriate one, is Rogue.”
“Rogue! That’s awful! You’ve just saved my life! Are you sure you won’t come in then? You are wounded, and from saving my life….” Theldry implored over her shoulder.
“Oh, quite. Quite sure.”
“Whom should I tell about this? What if I tell no one?”
“Well, if you suddenly turn your wedding plans upside down, you should have a reason, shouldn’t you? You should go immediately to your father. And, I’m sure, your mother. Any idea who might have ordered this attempt on your life, Your Highness?”
A terrible thought crossed Theldry’s mind and she looked high up at the top of the Palace.
“What if it was my father?”