Laughter erupted all over the courtyard. Mulford’s “Three Wise Wives” now had a new take on it, for one of them was costumed to resemble the Queen of Ormon. Rhutgard had always enjoyed the Spring Seasonal, but the plays were the best of all the entertainment. Since he had taken the throne, he had added two more plays, for his father had always enjoyed the circus acts instead. One could only watch so many acrobat troupes perform without getting bored, Rhutgard believed.
“Your Majesty,” came one of his servants behind him.
Automatically, Rhutgard handed up his goblet.
A voice cleared and his goblet was not refreshed nor taken.
Rhutgard turned his head over his shoulder. The servant had a dusty letter on a silver tray.
Annoyed, Rhutgard looked up at the servant. “Man, put that in my study at once.” He brushed the servant away and turned back toward the play. This was the Seasonal. Rhutgard would not be attending to business during the Seasonal, particularly not during theater.
The servant coughed and whispered, “Lord Stanyard bade me give it to you at once, Your Majesty.”
Stanyard had passed it along to him. Hm. “Now?” Rhutgard swiped the letter off the tray. “Very well.” The servant bowed and hurried off.
He watched the play for a minute longer, then down at the letter. Clemongard. Rhutgard never received correspondence from Clemongard. Perhaps someone had passed on. For that country’s sake, he hoped not, they’d lost their entire Royal Family in what, two months? Now their sister sat the throne, poor girl….
Inside the letter, he found another letter, this stamped with the Queen of Clemongard’s Royal Seal. Rhutgard rose an eyebrow. Now he really was intrigued. He ignored the laughter about him and popped open the wax seal.
What he read made him sit up straight. Rhutgard no longer saw the courtyard before him, nor the theater, nor anything of the Seasonal.
He heard Gerard at his side burst out with laughter. Rhutgard laid a tight hand on his arm. “Come with me.”
Gerard looked over at him with surprise.
“Don’t say a word. Just come with me,” Rhutgard insisted. He rose from his chair with an enormous smile and a wave, indicating that the play should, by all means, carry on.
Principea tugged at his sleeve, whispering, “Surely this can wait.” She rose an eyebrow at the letter, though her lovely smile belied what he knew was surely annoyance.
“No, it actually cannot. Just tell them, that – that I – was ill or some such thing. I will be back as soon as I can, that I promise,” and Rhutgard kissed the inside of her hand.
Principea relented and watched them leave.
Once they were alone in the corridor, Gerard turned a wide-eyed look at him. “Rhudy, what the –”
“Come. Walk with me.”
Gerard snorted, trying to match Rhutgard’s pace. “I would walk with you, if you were walking, but you’re running….”
Finally, they arrived at his Study. Rhutgard closed the polished wooden doors and turned to look at Gerard.
Gerard, for his part, was strolling about the room with his hands behind his back. “I remember this room well. Though the last time I was in it, ’twas your Father’s room, may peace be with him.” He turned to Rhutgard. “Like what you’ve done with it. But I suspect showing off your Study isn’t why you’ve run me up here.” He looked down his nose at Rhutgard expectantly.
“Here. Read that and tell me what you make of it.” Rhutgard shoved the letter at Gerard and then sat down behind his desk.
He watched Gerard’s eyebrows shot up. Gerard turned his green eyes up to Rhutgard. “What the bloody hell!” He stared for a moment, then said, “Are we sure this is real?”
“I broke the seal myself. And that’s her stamp.”
“Why, I –” Rhutgard watched as all the energy seemed to drain from Gerard. He collapsed down in one of the chairs across from Rhutgard and flung the letter across the desk.
“That. That cannot be right.”
“Well, if it wasn’t Gerard, why would she write?”
And he read it aloud:
Dear King Rhutgard,
First, let me express my heartfelt congratulations you on your daughter Mirelle. Undoubtedly, blah-blah-blah,
I apologize for writing during your Spring Seasonal, which I have myself attended before, blah-blah-blah but I am afraid that my need is most urgent.
I am asking for the assistance of Romeny as an Ally. It has been many years ago since our countries last allied with each other, but we as countries together found it a most beneficial mutual Alliance and I am hoping to renew that symbiotic relationship.
Today, I write for your assistance, for I find my country besieged on two, if not three sides, and by two, if not three nations.
As Romeny may itself have suffered, after the Twenty Years War, all of my troops, both Army and Naval, were decreased in numbers. Clemongard’s Army is only now to the capacity it once was prior to the Twenty Years War.
I have received reliable intelligence that Ormon is launching its Navy of 400 warships within just months. Ambsellon, should they accompany Ormon, will increase that number to 700 warships. Clemongard has no such Naval ability to withstand such an attack.
Furthermore, Ormon’s new 100 warships will be completed six months hence from the date of this letter, and my intelligence informs me that yet another 100 will begin construction after that.
Ormon’s troops, I am told, are amassing for release soon as well, and they are three to Clemongard’s one at best, as are Ambsellon’s, who will also attack.
As for being attacked by a third possible nation, I add Storden to this list. While I find this as incomprehensible as I am sure you do as well, given its many centuries of neutrality, I have excellent information that its Naval presence is three to one over mine and twice what it once was itself – new warships.
Storden also has a new Army, two to one of my own.
Obviously, Your Majesty, you see that Clemongard’s need is most dire, and that if not so, I would not write asking for your assistance. I amhappy to share all information, as the release of Ormish and Ambsell troops affects the Kingdom of Romeny. It is also quite possible that Stordish troops may affect the Kingdom of Romeny, or perhaps another Eastern Shield country.
I hope that you will seriously consider my Alliance Request, Your Majesty, as Clemongard will soon need all soldiers available to protect her.
With Greatest Mutual Respect,
Her Royal Majesty of Clemongard
Selby Cylysse Stevanrhut, First of Her Name
Rhutgard looked up from the letter at Gerard. “That can’t be more specific.”
“Four hundred warships? That crazy bitch. Have you heard any such thing?”
“Not as such, no. That they are planning something, yes. What, I’ve not found out yet. Ormish intelligence is damnably difficult to ferret out,” Rhutgard muttered.
“Well, that I’ll agree with you on.” Gerard rubbed at his beard absently. Then he said, “Well, Rhudy, what are you going to do?”
Rhutgard tossed the papers across the desk. “What do you mean, what am I going to do! Gerard! Bloody hell!”
He had hoped his reign would never see such a thing, never. He’d already fought once, and survived, thank every god, and Luvian, mainly, for that matter. Bloody fucking hell.
“You’re going to help her,” said Gerard quietly.
“What the fuck, Gerard. Of course I’m going to! Wouldn’t you? What if you needed help and wrote Clemongard? Wouldn’t you want them to help? Besides –” and Rhutgard pointed at Gerard across the desk – “those Green Fucking Gates are going to open, according to her, and who knows which way those soldiers are going to turn. They just might turn your way.
“So you’d be wise to jump in as well.”
“What!” Gerard roared. “Ha! Fuck that, my friend. I’ve got problems of my own to worry about.”
“Really? Such as?” Rhutgard demanded.
Gerard’s expression became belligerent, but he knew not to push Rhutgard. He just shook his head.
“Gerard, I’m telling you, you should jump in on this. That Ice Queen may be sending her people your way and it’d be good to get intelligence from across the Land. It could help you.”
Gerard’s belligerent expression did not fade. Between clenched teeth, he demanded, “Is this Rhudy or King Rhutgard talking?”
Rhutgard raised his chin a bit. “Both,” he said evenly.
“Then let me ask you this. We are all recovering from the Twenty Years War – I’ve recruited widely, but if those bastards come in my direction, and yours, what makes you think I should send help halfway across the bloody Land? Sending her help while she’s outnumbered by the troops of their Navies will leave us outnumbered while we send troops to help – and that lets Ambsellon and Ormon take us by Army, just like the Twenty Years War. And I don’t know about you, my friend, but I don’t know half of what my father, or yours, did about fighting a war. While we send help there, they’ll attack us here. That’s the truth of it.” And he pointed a finger at Rhutgard for emphasis.
“But Gerard, we have all the rest of the Shield to back us up. And she has no one,” Rhutgard told him. Then he said, “And just what are these troubles of your own that you’re referring to?”
Gerard looked away with a sulky expression. “She might be right about the Stordish,” he finally commented.
Rhutgard sat forward. “What? And how would you know that?”
“My men – underground men, spies, that is – have been seeing a lot of movement. Stordish men, soldier types, complected the same, headed across the Coastals and the Free Lands through Delsynth, best as we can tell.”
Rhutgard’s signet ring clanged as his arm fell against his desk in amazement. “And you didn’t think to share this information with me?”
Again, Gerard grew belligerent. “Who’s asking this time, King Rhutgard, or the Eastern Shield?” he demanded with downdrawn brows.
“Both!” Rhutgard roared, standing up. “Stordish troops? Storden soldiers, in Delsynth, and you never thought that once of relevance? My friend, that is why we have an Eastern Shield! If nothing else, Delsynth should like to know of their presence, don’t you think? Or have you told him already?”
Gerard looked a bit cowed. “No. I have not told him yet. I wanted to be sure, and I had not yet verified the information. Think of it, after all, Stordish troops, wouldn’t you want to verify it?”
“I would tell the Eastern Shield that possibly Stordish troops have mobilized and are moving through its countries unknown and to an unknown destination!”
“What! Tell all of them? And if I was wrong?” Gerard spluttered.
“I am the Eastern Shield, Gerard! Never lose sight of that! It is for me to decide how to tell them, and whom, if necessary.”
Romeny was the center of the Eastern Shield, and the King, or the Queen as may be, inherited the seat of the Eastern Shield. Romeny made all of the decisions for the entire Eastern Shield, as a ruler might. It was odd that the country of Romeny was shaped as a shield, but it shielded the other Eastern countries on almost every front from their enemies, and so whoever was King or Queen of Romeny was also known as the Eastern Shield. The first Romeny King called the capital of Romeny Fairview City “Fairview” because the city was situated so that he had a “fair view” of all of his enemies, and so it did, being bordered by the Mantle Mountains to the west, and Ormon and Ambsellon to the North. Over the years, the other Eastern countries had formed and in return for a mutual respect and arrangement, the Eastern Alliance had formed between the countries against the North. But Romeny was its first line of defense and the office of Eastern Shield had formed, to oversee the Alliance.
It was an enormous amount of strain, some days, Rhutgard’s father had told him, but such it was. On days as today, Rhutgard felt that strain.
Rhutgard glared at Gerard. “Better to have been wrong than taken unawares.”
He stood and paced. “I will be sending my reply forthwith. I immediately accept her Request for Alliance and will provide her with troops.”
Rhutgard half-glanced at Gerard over his shoulder, then continued. “You, of course, may or may not send the Queen assistance, however you see fit.”
Gerard took that in for a moment, then said. “Mm-hm. That’s a pit-trap. That’s a do-whatever-you-want-and-keep-your-troops-Gerard when actually you mean if-you-don’t-send-troops-as-part-of-the-Eastern-Shield-Alliance-you-will-regret-it-for-years-to-come. Fine. Fine, Rhudy. But if Genwith City or Martmain falls, on your head be it.”
“That’s why we have an Eastern Shield Alliance, Gerard,” Rhutgard told him as he studied the maps on his wall. He would have to send a bird to Reaghann. That would not be a fun letter to write. Need troops – but possibly troops are moving through your land. Hmmm. No. This required Reaghann’s presence. And Rickstan, and Driscoll. Bloody hell. A fucking War Council. Why? Why his reign? Why could he not just pass this off to some other King, a hundred years from now?
And that meant – his sons. Kendrick and Keldrick would be involved, and Ronan, for that matter, just as he had been once. Those fool boys – how would he keep them from running off and doing something ridiculously foolhardy?
“You know what this means.” Gerard’s voice was tired.
Rhutgard turned around and eyed his old friend.
“A War Council. You have to invite them all.”
Gerard always could read his mind. Rhutgard nodded. “I was just thinking the same.”
“I remember our first one.” Gerard looked pained.
Rhutgard remembered as well, for they had finally been allowed to attend, considered old enough, mature enough to attend. He nodded slowly.
“Now we’ll be the old folks.” Gerard cleared his throat then. “Rhudy, if you haven’t already, you need to change your line of succession, stamp it, finalize it.”
Rhutgard sighed. “You’re right. I will. But before we act on anything of note,” and he turned his head back to the maps, “let us talk to our mutual men of the Shield, and pool all of our information… and I’d like to hear yours as well.”
Gerard nodded. “You’ll have to call in Ronan.”