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Part One: Chapter 7

Before exiting court, Baeldrin was given one of his father’s more obsequious servants as his escort and general attendant during his stay in Rardonydd. This was a normal courtesy afforded to the members of the ruling house, aristocracy, and esteemed guests, but the prince had first refused the need for a chaperone in a city he’d known his entire life. His father had insisted, however, stating that no son of his would be seen about the city without proper accommodations, and went on to state that Martassin (the servant) would handle any administrative duties associated with the arms transfer. To Baeldrin it was all an act: the lanky attendant would spy his every move—and annoy him with incessant courtesies drawled out of his undersized mouth. But the prince had nevertheless relented with no further argument, not wishing to have his gift retracted on the account of such an inconvenience.

As the two men left the courtyard for the twilight without, Baeldrin halted in the portico beneath the Sun of Domal.

“Martassin,” he said with all the pleasantness he could muster, “…who dines with my father tonight?”

“Lord, tonight his majesty will be accompanied by his council. It’s the new moon.”

“As I remember. I’ll be attending, of course.”

The servant faltered. Baeldrin, clearly agitated, continued:

“Forbid it that my father should perish—but if so, who then shall be king? Me, fool! Should I not tend to the kingdom’s business?”

“Foolery. Yes, foolery it was, for me not to have realized this. I’ll send word of your attendance.”

“Good. My ride from the north was long and hard, and I’m spent. I must rest for an hour or two. Ensure that I’m roused in time for dinner. Farewell!”

The prince took a few quick, deliberate steps away from Martassin…but the servant immediately followed. They stopped again.

“What are you doing?” asked Baeldrin, though he knew the answer.

“Most gracious prince, it’s my pleasure to escort you to your quarters in the keep.”

“And what if I’m not going there?”

“I understood the young lord was in need of rest…” responded Martassin, a feigned smile growing beneath his straight but large nose.

Baeldrin reciprocated with his own sarcastic grin then looked back over his shoulder. The tower was no more than two hundred yards across the plaza, yet this insect would cling to him every inch of the way. Will he also sleep with me, like some dog at my feet? he thought as he turned and started toward the massive keep. Its black walls rose into the skyline. Smoke and steam billowed up from the top floor windows where cooks were no doubt preparing the night’s dinner. The prince noted this and turned to his escort:

“Martassin,” he said casually.

“Yes, lord?”

“Do you know why the engineers of old put the kitchens on the upper floors of the keep?”

“No, lord. But I’ve wondered. It seems very pointless to me. The hall is on the ground floor. All provisions must go up only to come back down. Very inefficient.” The servant paused briefly before continuing. “It’s funny you said this. No more than a week ago, the cooks put a complaint of this very nature on the king’s lists. They requested to be moved to the first floor. ”

“What did my father say?”

“He granted them their wish. They’ll be relocated after the new year.”

Acomalath’s son snorted contemptuously, shaking his head slowly from side to side. Fools…all fools, he mused.

Martassin gazed perplexingly at the tower then back at the prince: “My lord? I don’t understand.”

Baeldrin made no reply, for his thoughts had turned inward. Seeing this, the servant didn’t persist but kept at his master’s heels, gazing up at the tower, the wheels of thought turning in his mind. Then…ugh!…he exhaled violently as he collided with his prince (who’d stopped abruptly two thirds of the way across the courtyard). The weakling felt like he’d hit a wall. He bent down, holding his stomach, trying to catch his breath: the breath he desperately needed to begin profusely apologizing for his incompetence.

“Lord...I’m...terribly sorry,” he managed to get out—and, to his amazement, Baeldrin didn’t thrash him nor even scold him. In fact, the prince seemed not to have noticed. Baeldrin stood still with his head turned to the side, his eyes fixed on something in the distance. The servant followed his master’s gaze into an alley where, just paces within, stood an imposing dark silhouette. Martassin squinted at the blackness, attempting to identify the stranger—and thus failed to notice the subtle hand sign tossed that way by the prince.

The man promptly turned and vanished. Baeldrin looked at his escort, who opened his mouth to question but was cut off. “Watch yourself,” said the prince, his tone full of insinuation. Martassin, not a complete idiot, perceived the double entendre and said nothing. The two resumed their walk.

The pair of soldiers manning the oversized doors to the keep belonged to the City Guard, an estranged division of the army assigned to civil duties and police work within the city. In times of crisis they acted as bodyguards for the ruling family and aristocracy; and, consequently, their loyalty had to be unwavering—which meant they were highly overpaid. This of course didn’t sit well with the general infantry, most of whom were dispersed along Domal’s borders in small forts or villages where amenities of city life were non-existent. The adage ’first to get killed, last to get paid’ could be heard at any outpost from Gorm Nadur to the Great Ocean.

The soldiers’ garb was moderately decorative: a crimson tunic underneath a leather breastplate underneath a vest of black iron chain. A sun-shaped clasp on each shoulder held a black velvet mantle that fell down past the knees, and plain black leather gloves and boots protected hands and feet. A solitary chevron on their sleeves indicated both men were of low rank. They held their steel crimson helmets at their left side: upright between forearm and hip. When Martassin and Baeldrin came between them, Baeldrin stopped and waited. Nothing happened. The prince looked at the leftmost guard.

“Last I checked, I was the king’s son,” he proclaimed.

The guard’s gaze shifted to his comrade. The face remained expressionless—but those eyes revealed to Baeldrin that he no longer commanded respect or fear: at least not in Rardonydd. This fact distressed him greatly, but unlike the guard he didn’t betray himself. The offenders turned in unison towards their prince, each threw up a rigid arm, palms outward, and let out a booming HUMPH! The newcomers continued through the doors into the keep. The first two to dispose of, thought Baeldrin. The impudent eyes of the guard vexed him such that he could think of nothing else. The servants, the guards, my kin…don’t they know my wrath will find them swiftly once I’m king? Then a terrible thought entered his mind. His gut clinched. Unless the old man intends to leave Domal to… The thought was so repulsive that he couldn’t finish the words, yet he knew they’d surface later to plague him. Thoughts of his half-brother always did.

In contrast to the lavishness of the palace, the lower level of the keep was all bare stone walls, smoky air, and dim light. In place of servants running up with heaping trays of food and brimming cups of wine there was but a washbasin and a pitcher of potable water at the entrance, and the only callers here were a filthy peddler and two girls of seemingly ill-repute. Have they forgotten whose chambers lie above? Have I been gone so long? Baeldrin’s heated gaze swept the room. Where is the steward? His head shall be next to roll!

With her rear plopped in a fat guard’s lap, one of the whores was first to see the prince. “Lord!” Squirming free of the hog, she nearly fell. The other guards and servants followed, rising to their feet swiftly with their eyes—and some jaws as well—open wide in surprise. Martassin’s face betrayed his amusement at the spectacle, yet he valued his life too much to make a jest.

“Fetch Koras! Now!” Baeldrin stormed, sending a terrified lad flying up the spiral staircase. “The rest of you…out!”

At that, bodies scrambled from the hall by every conceivable exit, leaving the prince and his shadow alone once more. “Perhaps you’d like me to deal with the steward, my prince?” spoke Martassin presently. “If you still plan on joining the council this evening, you’ve not long to rest…”

“That won’t be necessary,” Baeldrin replied, calmer now. “You may go.”

The spindly man frowned: “But…”

“You said you’d send word of my intention. Do you wish my presence there to be a surprise?” The prince smiled on the inside, knowing this put Martassin in a predicament: the servant must either take word himself, leaving Baeldrin alone, or risk blame for the upset caused by an unexpected guest. Either way Martassin would surely rouse the king’s wrath.

Yet it seemed Baeldrin alone would be surprised, for Martassin had a way out: “Then I’ll ask Koras for a runner. That boy who went to fetch him seemed quick enough.”

It made no matter, however, for the delay here had been sufficient. By now the prince’s personal servants—those who kept his secrets on pain of death—would’ve admitted his guest through one of the side doors, so he didn’t care how long Martassin lingered outside his chambers. Just don’t let the worm eavesdrop at my door.

Now that the fool had secured a stay, Baeldrin returned to the man’s offer of dealing with Koras, accepted it, then headed off for the keep’s third level. It was true that he had little time before he must reemerge—yet it wasn’t sweet sleep he’d find in the interim. It was an informer and would-be accomplice awaiting him within: a man whom he’d known but a short while but whose ambitions supported his own.

Not only had Nephos Zera been admitted—the prince saw as he stepped into the room and bolted the door behind him—but the Mardothan had made himself quite at home. Reclined on the finest of Baeldrin’s lush couches, the ambassador from Mardotha had already produced his etched bone pipe and was in the midst of a deep toke of herb. His newly shaven head glistened in the lamplight, yet his eyes were obscured both by the shade falling down from his jutting forehead and the jet black cosmetic applied liberally on their lids and at their corners. At least he hasn’t presumed to don one of my robes, noted Baeldrin, finishing his appraisal with a glance at Zera’s customary clothing.

Exhaling a plume of dark smoke, Nephos held the pipe out to his host and grinned. “Fair night, Prince Baeldrin. What’s become of the dog I saw sniffing your tail?”

“Martassin?” replied Baeldrin, waving the pipe away. He needed his wits about him tonight, especially at dinner. “A dog indeed…but not one we need trouble ourselves about. For the moment he’s chained to Koras, and the maids shall keep an eye on him.”

“Just so,” said Zera. He set his pipe aside with a bejeweled hand. “And yet our walk has been delayed once more.”

“I couldn’t have gone with you anyway,” said the prince, pouring himself a cup of wine. “I’ve invited myself to dine with the king’s council.” He took a sip before dropping wearily into the nearest chair.

“As much as your brazenness amuses me, Baeldrin, I must warn you: if you don’t show your face to our coconspirators soon, it’ll be more than my neck at stake. Ferried words mean nothing alone. You should be dining with them, my friend, to ease each one’s fears with a smile and a firm slap on the back.” The ambassador turned his head around to ensure the prince was listening. “From what little our comrades have heard from you recently, the whole scheme’s starting to look like my own deluded invention.”

Baeldrin began to raise his voice but then checked himself, fearing Martassin might be snooping about nearby. Yet his anger was apparent all the same: “You tell the old half-wits to sit tight! They can’t threaten you nor me nor anyone…for if we’re exposed, it shall be all our heads tarred and skewered atop the city walls! Today I secured the arms that Saedus requires…you look surprised!…so my stay here is a day or two at best. I must know you can handle these curs without me. Can you or not?”

“You make it hard for me, prince,” the Mardothan sighed. He reached for the pipe again, lit it, and inhaled. “To save my land from the Sinian rodents,” he exhaled, “…not only must I pretend to adore every word that spews from your father’s lips, but now I must suffer his son’s arrogance also. And as neither one of you are listening to me, maybe I should return home and take up a spear with my brothers. I had three of them when I left.”

How much do I trust this man? Baeldrin thought. Enough to tell him everything? The answer to that was obvious. Surely he can be told more, though. Enough to keep him here.

And so he did.

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