The next day was a busy one.
Sir Ralph and Duke Henry met with his newly appointed advisory council and discussed what was happening with the large force headed by the Warlord camped outside the gates, and plans for the future. Nick's vassals were relieved and pleased to hear that most of the army wouldn't be staying but there would now be a significant defense force permanently based in Sothalia. They also made suggestions for projects for Prince Arthur's workforce currently clearing and sorting the rubble around the castle and nearby streets.
Nick announced he would be using Duke Hubert's tax structure as a starting point, now that he actually had it laid out for him by the Commerce clerks, and got nods and relieved looks from the men gathered around the tables in the main hall. He also instructed them to hand over their prisoners to Arthur's work crews for ninety day details starting immediately, or as soon as the wounded were able to do manual labor.
Baronet Trimble asked impertinently, "Your Grace, will we be paid for our expenses associated with the prisoners?"
This time Nick was ready for the question. "No," he stated flatly. "However, if you have rebuild projects that are beyond the abilities of your own people, submit proposals to Sir Ralph, and after the bulk of the grunt work at my castle is completed he will set them to work on your needs." He was gratified to see both surprised and pleased looks around the table. The baronet just looked thoughtful.
"Your Highness, this council . . .," Sir Roderick said, gesturing with his one hand, "Is this just while you are gone? And how long will that be?"
"I'm planning four to six weeks right now, but it will depend on what I find," the duke replied. "But I think a permanent advisory council is a good idea. You all know a great deal more about Sothalia than I do, and I can use your input. But the final decision in all cases will be mine."
Lord Percy stated uneasily, "I see these signs all over advertising for magic users, Your Highness. All the witches in Anglia will be coming here? I don't feel like my family will be safe."
Nick could see the same concern reflected in a lot of the faces around the table. He thought for a moment and then said, "I understand how you feel. But keep in mind we have no idea how many witches will come forward. There may not be any, or very few, and I'm a pretty powerful witch myself. I'll be watching them and keeping them busy. And like me, they're just people with a special talent. None of you sitting right here in the same room with me look very scared."
That got a chuckle from a few people. Sir Ralph added, "And those who join the Royal Coven know that their lives depend on their good behavior; the witchcraft law is still in effect for criminal or disloyal sorcerers. Personally, I would be more afraid of those who don't identify themselves and continue to hide in the general population than those who come forward and are sent here. And consider what would happen to any army that attacks this city, with say, a dozen loyal witches in it."
That got more nods and thoughtful looks from around the table.
Lord Gerard had said nothing so far, but now commented, "There are men going about and asking about ownership of empty buildings and vacant lots. I told them what I own, but what if someone else tries to claim some of my property? Is the Warlord or Your Highness planning on confiscating properties?"
Nick shook his head and Sir Ralph asked Lord Gerard, "Your Lordship, do you have documentation to support your claims?"
"In some cases, in others it would be difficult to trace. There was a grant to my family generations ago and my family's copy of the original grant documentation was lost at some point. It wasn't a problem since Duke Hubert had copies as well, but now . . . Many of the original land grants go back generations, even centuries, and tracing ownership of land that has changed hands many times over the years might be impossible too."
"Prince Arthur has quartered some of his officers in my house on Market Street. When I sent a protest to him, I was basically told to prove my ownership. I'm looking for the documentation, Your Highness, but if I can't find it, does that mean my house will be taken from me?" asked Baronet Fordham.
"Not at all," responded Sir Ralph. "The Warlord and his officers will be gone in a week or two; there is no need for concern on that score. If you are the only one claiming that house, it is yours barring other evidence. If there are multiple claims, I will gather documentation and witness statements. I will rule on ownership for the common people wherever it is clear; complex cases or ownership disputes between members of the nobility will wait judgment from Prince Henry."
Nick just nodded his agreement. He was very glad Ralph was there to handle knotty questions and also grateful to whomever had knighted his previous valet. As a commoner, Ralph wouldn't even have been allowed to speak in the meeting. While he was outranked by everyone at the table, he was titled and a surrogate for a prince so the others would listen to him and hopefully obey him. General Smith and his four hundred and fifty soldiers would be reporting to Sir Ralph for now, so he had the muscle to enforce his decisions if he needed it.
The prince addressed the group. "Princess Elizabeth and I will be evaluating the conditions of the roads as we travel, and may need to assess labor for repairs from the nearest noble. I will depend on my vassals to report conditions at and around their estates and request assistance if needed; please pass that on. Also, if you have specific concerns about cities, towns or villages within my duchy, let me know before we leave and we will try to include those places on our route if we can. Is there anything else for now?"
No one had anything to add, so the council meeting broke up and everyone left. When they were alone, Ralph said, "Overall, I think it's a good group, Nick."
"Except Baronet Trimble; he seems determined to goad me."
"That may be a good thing. There will always be a little dissention, better to know about it rather than let it fester and Trimble isn't shy about voicing his concerns."
The prince shrugged. "Maybe you're right. Now show me where we are on creating the city map."
The two men went over which parcels had been definitely identified as belonging to the duchy and which were still in doubt as to ownership for the next hour. After that they parted and Nick went to check on how Elizabeth was doing with their food stores.
He heard the rumble of a wagon arriving in back, and went out through the kitchen in time to help her down from the seat next to the driver.
"Thank you," she said. "I'm always afraid I'll trip on these skirts whenever I'm climbing up or down from a wagon. Be grateful you're a man."
"I am, believe me. Where have you been?"
Elizabeth grinned at him. "I'll bet you can't guess what I did with all the smoked fish and last year's potatoes."
Nick held out his hands in surrender and she said, "I saw Arthur this morning and gave them to him for the prisoners. They'll be on fish and potatoes for the first week, but they'll get to smell the food he's feeding to his hired workmen, which is much better. Those that cooperate and make an effort will get the better food after that, while any who loaf or cause trouble will keep getting the fish and potatoes, at least until they run out."
As they went in and sat down in the main hall to wait for lunch Nick commented, "Well that's certainly an incentive. What about the poor people, are you going to keep feeding them?"
"Not so much. Anyone capable of working can get a job with Arthur's builders now, but the elderly, the infirm, and children will still be given free food."
"We have quite a few people coming in now. Are you getting a lot of newcomers in your charity line?"
"Actually, no, and I visited the market square and it is booming with some permanent stalls and more wagons. I've noticed quite a number of businesses opening too, although I have concerns about some of them."
Others came in for lunch and sat down at other tables, and Gwen started bringing in cold meats and fresh bread. Nick asked, "Like what?"
"Taverns, and houses of . . . um, women." Elizabeth kept her voice down, but Harry and Vernon were vigorously discussing their draft horses so no one was listening to their quiet conversation anyway.
"Both perfectly normal," Nick responded.
Elizabeth frowned. "I don't care much for drunkenness and debauchery, and I think we ought to close those sorts of businesses down and outlaw them in the city."
The prince shook his head. "I don't agree. As long as there isn't violence, or at least not anything more than the occasional fistfight, I think we have to tolerate those kinds of places. Soldiers and laborers need a place to relax and have fun, and not everyone is married. Let's just see how it goes. If there is trouble, we can step in and make some rules."
"I still don't like it, but I understand what you're saying. Well, I suppose we won't even be here, and Ralph will have to handle it for the next few weeks. But I want to revisit the topic when we get back. How was your meeting?"
"Good. The council idea is going to work well, I think, and no one put up any objections to Ralph running the place while we're gone. Most of their concerns about property ownership will just get worked out as we get the city map completed. I'm a little concerned about the Royal Coven though. If we get a lot of witches here, residents are going to be afraid, and maybe with good reason since we have no idea what sort of people we'll be getting."
Elizabeth nodded. "Yes, I think they will be, and frankly I'm a little worried too. I don't see how you could possibly control a large group of people who have magic."
"I don't know either. I'm not even sure how to go about training them yet." Nick looked a little depressed at the thought, so Elizabeth went on to something he wasn't personally responsible for.
"Arthur is going to put the housing for the witches just across the gardens from the castle so you'll be close at hand, and he's come up with the idea of digging a windowless foundation based on your cave for small magic practice. He's proposing to put a big arena outside the city walls for battle magic."
Nick perked up. "I like the underground area idea. I'll discuss materials with him; it has to be really solid, we don't want it collapsing if someone is stronger than they expect. I know I surprised myself a few times when I was just learning. By the way, I sent to Arthur to have his architects look at putting a door in the ground level of the tower."
Elizabeth smiled. "Good. With all the activity, I hadn't even thought about it, but the tower should be accessible without you having to help everyone in and out. Although no one should have to get in while we're gone since Sylvie and Parker will be with us. What about the crypt? Won't we be able to use the door there when the rubble is cleared?"
"I don't know if that underground area the crypt door leads to would be safe, and even if we have it cleaned out there's nothing there anyway except the old castle prison. I'm thinking of just leaving it blocked, moving Ozmond into a cemetery, and using that lowest level for my own practice area."
"Would it be safe to move him?" Elizabeth asked doubtfully. "And that area isn't very big; you wouldn't be able to use more than a very small portion of your magic there."
"He's just bones now, so yeah, he could go to a cemetery. I wasn't planning any big magic down there, but I want to experiment with the silver ring set in the floor. Silver and iron both interact with magic energy somehow and I want to explore that."
"Oh. Well please don't knock down our tower; I've gotten quite used to it."
"Okay, I won't knock it down just to make you happy. But really, don't worry, I'll only use it for delicate magic and the big arena for powerful spells once Arthur has it built."
As lunch finished and people began to leave the hall, there was a knock at the door. When Parker answered it, an unknown knight stood there and entered with two smaller figures following him. He went straight to the seated duke and duchess, bowed, and introduced himself.
"Your Highnesses, I am Sir Marion. These are my squires, Allan and Hal. I believe you know my junior squire."
Neither of them had recognized Hal at first dressed in leather armor with a green and yellow tabard over it and wearing his own little sword. He and the older squire bowed together.
Elizabeth went over to Hal and looked him over carefully. "Squire Hal, I didn't even recognize you at first in Sir Marion's colors, and you've grown!"
Hal smiled up at her. "Yes, Your Highness. I'm very glad to see you and His Highness again." He looked like he wanted to say more, but was restraining himself. Elizabeth smiled back at him; his behavior was very correct for his new station in life, he'd obviously been applying himself to his lessons.
Nick stood and asked, "Sir Marion, we're pleased you brought Squire Hal to visit, is there anything else you wanted?"
"Your Highness, I have come to beg your leave to accompany you on your tour of your duchy, if you are headed in the direction I wish to go. My sister lives not far from Seagate and I have not heard from her since the Franck invasion. And others have ridden here with Prince Arthur who have family or property in Sothalia and wish to travel with you as well."
Nick looked at Elizabeth who nodded. A larger group would be safer for everyone. He replied, "Of course we will be traveling to Seagate since it's our main port city, and we would be pleased to have your company on our journey as well as any others who wish to come."
Sir Marion bowed. "Thank you and I will let the others know, Your Highness." As he bowed again and turned to leave, Elizabeth said, "Sir Marion, if you don't mind, leave Hal for a bit, I'd like to talk to him."
"Of course, I'm sure he can find his own way back to camp," the knight replied, and he and his taller squire left.
Nick and Elizabeth both sat and she motioned the young squire over. "So, do you like your new job?" she asked.
"Oh, I suppose so, Your Highness," Hal replied in a small voice.
They both noticed his lack of enthusiasm. "What's the hardest part?" Nick inquired, trying to find out what the problem might be.
"Well, it's just I haven't been doing it very long, so I don't know much yet and all the other squires my size are better at everything that I am, Your Highness."
"What are you learning?" the duchess asked.
"Your Highness, first I had lot of lessons on horse riding; I never did it before. I'm much better at it now, but my seat still isn't as good as it should be. I've had a lot of instruction in weapons." Hal tapped his sword handle. "Many lessons with the sword, but even the littler squires can beat me and I get teased about that. But some of them have been training since they were five or six years old and I've only been doing it a few months. I . . . I'm sorry, I shouldn't make excuses for myself."
"That's right, you shouldn't," Nick said before Elizabeth could respond. "I'm sure Sir Marion understands your situation, and I bet all the squires get teased sometimes, don't they?"
Hal reluctantly nodded and Nick continued, "So what are you good at?"
Hal brightened. "I've learned how to take care of the horses' tack, how to clean and repair the leather, Your Highness. My knight says I do a good job and even Allan can't find much to make me do over or punish me for."
Alarmed, Elizabeth said, "The other squire is in charge of you and punishes you?"
The duke put his hand over hers. "That is quite normal, senior squires are often in charge of juniors," he said. "How does Allan punish you?"
"The usual things, Your Highnesses," Hal replied, looking mostly at the princess and trying reassure her. "He makes me clean and polish all the boots, do double exercises, or just slaps the back of my head when I do something dumb. Sometimes he's rougher in our wrestling and sword sessions. I get a few bruises, but have to become strong and toughen up, and everybody gets knocked around in training."
Nick smiled and nodded. "That's right; I got my share of knocks too, especially in sword practice. Are you happy with Sir Marion, Hal?"
The little squire met his eyes. "Yes, Your Highness, mostly. We take turns reading aloud after supper, so I'm much better at it now, and I'm learning so many new things and getting to go new places. It's like I'm in a different world. It's hard at first, but it's exciting too. And I get more money to send home to my mother, and she's really proud of me."
"We're proud of you too, Hal," Elizabeth said. "You're doing very well and I'm sure you'll be an excellent squire soon. Is there anything you would like to tell us?"
Hal shook his head. "No, Your Highnesses, just that I'm grateful you gave me the chance to be your page and trusted me to help Sylvie with the bad spider magic so I got to be a squire."
"You did well with that, you helped the entire royal family, you earned your chance," Nick said. "You'd better run along now and catch up with Sir Marion."
Hal bowed deeply and strode in a manly way to the door and left. Lunch was over and the hall had emptied during their conversation. The duke and duchess were left alone.
Elizabeth turned to Nick. "Do you think we should say something to Sir Marion about the punishments?"
"No, it won't help Hal and could make things harder for him. He has to find his own place among the squires. They'll be traveling with us so we can keep an eye out for anything serious, but it sounds like he's going a normal late apprenticeship."
"It may seem normal to you, but it sounds harsh to me."
"If he hadn't been sponsored directly by the king, he probably wouldn't have been taken on as a squire at all. He's not much of an asset at the moment, but he'll either learn and persevere or fail. I'm going to go and finish cleaning out wells."
"Can't the workmen do that?"
"It's just faster and easier for me to do, and safer if no one has to climb down into them. Some of them will need repairs, but I'm not an expert on wells so I'll just notify Arthur about those. I need to finish the monument to the Sothalian dead as well. My brother is going to loan me someone to carve some appropriate words in the top stone. I want to get as much done as I can before we leave."
"When are we leaving? I need to make sure Gwen and Laura understand the food distribution and Sylvie and I need to pack. I had two trunks of clothing delivered to me this morning that I'll bet Arthur didn't even know he had with him."
"Did I get anything?" Nick asked, not caring that much but curious.
"Yes, and so did Parker and Sylvie. We'll need tomorrow to sort, clean and press whatever needs it and repack. Will you be ready the day after?"
Nick paused and thought. "I guess. I know I can't do everything before we go, and I know Ralph is competent and he can handle whatever comes up, but it's hard to make myself leave. There's so much that needs doing. On the other hand, I really want to see the rest of the duchy, too."
"I know, I do too, but I don't like leaving everyone's care in other hands. But we have to learn to delegate more so I suppose it makes sense to start now."
Nick nodded. "Did I tell you Sir Geoffrey, Sir Oliver, and Sir Edgar are going with us? It will be nice having some of our Sothalian knights along, and we can get to know them better."
"No, you didn't. Are any of their ladies going?"
"I have no idea, I didn't think to ask. Why would they?"
"They might want to visit family or see the condition of their properties. I'll find out before we leave. Besides the knights, is Arthur giving us an escort?"
"General Smith is assigning thirty men from Sothalia plus their captain. I can't see us running into anything all that dangerous, but he insisted," Nick replied. "And we'll have mapmakers, clerks and messengers with us too."
"The mapmakers I understand since we don't have a current map of the duchy, but what are the clerks and messengers going to do?"
"Make notes on everything we find that needs doing. I'm sure a lot of the roads are in poor condition after being tromped over by armies and the local lords will need to be notified to make repairs. I can't levy taxes unless I know what condition everyone's properties are in, so I'll need that information when I get back. We're also going to find empty houses and the ownership will have to be traced, so we can send clerks out to question the locals as we pass through." Nick shrugged. "I'm going to delegate."
Elizabeth smiled and went over and slipped her arms around him. "Very good, Prince Henry, you are a fast learner. And I suppose we'll run into things we don't expect, so having some extra people along will help."
Nick smiled back and put his arms around her too. "I'm sorry we can't get up to see your family right away, but maybe when we get back, if things are running smoothly."
"That would be wonderful, Nick. But I won't count on it. There may be witches gathering here by then, and we'll have to stay so you can manage them somehow."
"Let's hope not. It would be so much easier if I'm the only witch in the Royal Coven."
"When is anything ever easy?"
Nick laughed. "You're right. And now we both need to get to work so we're ready to leave on time."
The next day was a frenzy of activity. Messengers ran back and forth between the castle and the Warlord's camp making arrangements and notifying Arthur of things Elizabeth and Nick thought of at the last minute that needed doing. Ralph assisted in coordinating everything so he would be aware of what he would be responsible for.
Nick finished his chore with the wells and approved the words for the top stone of the monument. Elizabeth checked provisions for the journey, made sure transportation was arranged and everyone who was going was notified when to be ready at the city gate.
At the end oft he day, Elizabeth went up to their bedroom and was alarmed to find Nick sitting on their bed clutching a large piece of black cloth and crying.
"Nick, what's wrong?"
In answer, he stood up and whirled part of the cloth around him and Elizabeth realized it was a hooded cloak. It was made of heavy, soft cloth and had a gold dragon with a flashing blue eye for a clasp.
"It's from Anne and Richard," Nick said. "And so is this." He held up the rest of the black material and she saw it was a flag, black with a gold dragon. The dragon was not the blocky stylized one Nick had adopted off of the Anglian flag. This one was sinuous, spiky and dangerous looking.
"She got me the cloak and Richard designed the flag. It just makes me realize how much I miss them and need them. And that it could be years before I see them again, if I ever do." He plopped back down on the bed.
Elizabeth joined him. "Oh, Nick. I feel the same way about Gramp, Jamie, and Charlie." They hugged each other and she added, "But we have each other. We'll always have each other."
"I know, I'm sorry. When I found these things in the trunk it just sort of hit me. I'm okay now." Nick wiped his face.
Elizabeth looked around the room. "Are you almost done packing?" Her trunks were ready, just one still open with her clothes for tomorrow on top. She silently thanked Sylvie for being so efficient.
"Yes, my clothes are packed; Parker said there was a package in the bottom of my new trunk that I should open. I haven't registered my device yet, I'm changing to this one."
"I don't blame you, it's wonderful. Now please get your flag off of the bed, I'm exhausted."
They both were tired, and gratefully climbed into bed. Nick murmured, "At least we don't need glitter and candy for this trip like we did on our Progress."
"Glitter, no" Elizabeth whispered back. "But I got some bags of hard candies from Sir Edgar's lady; they have a sweets business in Seagate. However, they are not for you, they're for children we meet along the way."
"I don't get any candy?" Nick asked in a disappointed voice.
"All right, just a little, but we save most of it for children."
"Agreed," the prince replied, and on that note they fell asleep.