The rattle of horse hoof on cobblestone drew my attention away from the centuries-old vellum scroll stretched across my lap, and I watched as a small contingent of riders in vibrant golds and reds clattered down the only true path to the princess’s tower that wasn’t raked gravel or carefully trimmed grass. The lead rider carried a snapping pennant, a long triangle of gold borders with a red field, over which was superimposed a snarling gold lion- The sigil of the third prince, Franz Von Shelsburg.
Rising smoothly to my feet, scroll clutched protectively to my chest, I turned and strode towards the doors leading into the tower, leaving my shaded patch of grass behind. Passing the entrance of the barracks, I called out to the twin standing guard- Kresol, I think.
“Get one of the others out here to stand guard next to you- not your brother! Also, make sure the others stay quiet and out of sight, especially Jules.”
I received a sharp nod in return as I quickly hopped up the stairs to the tower and slipped through the doors before the guards on duty, (Vijt, the northerner, and Hervidor, the youngest of the Nails,) could open them more than a crack. My rapid movement came to an abrupt end as I nearly smacked into the polished-steel mountain that was Conrad the knight.
“Ah, my apologies Sir Conrad, no time to explain. Go tell Milady that her youngest elder brother has come to pay her a visit. And make sure she’s not wearing gold! That would be terribly embarrassing.”
I received a comically bemused expression as I danced around the knight and rushed through the door to my chamber, tossing the scroll onto an already-precarious stack of writings before rapidly undoing my sword belt and casting it aside. My leather greaves and worn-down boots went next, and were in turn followed by my chainmail shirt, leaving me standing in only my undergarments and a dark, sweat-stained tunic. Moving to my bed, I opened the small chest now set at the foot of it and began to dig through it, searching past jingling pouches, folded packets of water-resistant cloth, and innumerable sheathed blades until I reached the bottom of the trunks, and the three largest packets set there. Snagging the center one, I retreated and returned to the large table, still strewn with maps and game pieces. A quick tug here, and a little prodding there, and the twine holding the parcel together so sturdily came apart in my hands, leaving me with a flap of waxen cloth in one hand, and a set of immaculately folded robes in the other. Tossing the cloth aside for the moment, I quickly shook out the robes and inspected them for any sign of degradation or damage. To my not-insignificant relief, there were no such signs on the white cloth, and the golden threads appeared undamaged. The same was true for the pale blue designs that stretched across the voluminous sleeves and trailing hem.
Knowing my time was short, I quickly slipped into the robes- First the pure white under-tunic, then the gold-and-white embroidered robes over that, pausing to tighten the cuffs of the sleeves so that no sign of the daggers strapped to my forearms could be seen, and finally a cloak of snow gray embroidered with the aforementioned swirling blue designs- Supposedly reminiscent of a snow storm, but I begged to differ. Below the hem that oh-so-barely didn’t touch the ground, I slipped on my dress boots- Creations of supple brown leather that looked as soft as butter, and were actually extremely comfortable. They were the only part of the outfit that I didn’t mind luxuriating in, though they wouldn’t last two days march on the road. Finally, I fastened my robes with a sash of rich brown, to match my boots, and to attach the gaudiest knife I could find to- The sheath was coated in sapphires, for god’s sake!
Suitably attired, I fled the room in a flurry of flapping cloaks and rustling robes, pausing at the bottom of the stairway as I heard the sound of multiple footsteps descending. Glancing upwards, I found myself matching gazes with the princess as she slowly strode down the stairs in a dress of ruby red, bound around the waist with a large ribbon of pure black and with a gray fur throw wrapped around her neck to provide some modesty that the relatively low cut of the dress lacked.
“Milady. I’m so pleased to see you got my message.”
“Drakson. Has he been announced?”
As I was about to respond, a warbling, officious-sounding cry made its way into the tower.
“His Royal Highness, Prince Franz Von Shelsburg, Third prince of Bradenia and heir to the duchy of Callis, has come to visit upon Her Royal Highness, Princess Katarina Von Shelsburg, Third princess of Bradenia.”
I grinned as the princess joined me on the ground floor, accompanied by both her knight and her maid.
“Quite the lungs on this fellow, wouldn’t you say, Milady? Shall I attempt to employ him, so that he can serenade us as such all night long?”
She looked aside at me, snorting softly.
“One of my brother’s sycophants would never stoop to serving me. Besides, I already have one pretentious songbird, do I not? What need have I of another?”
I turned to the knight.
“Why, Sir Conrad! I had no idea you were a practitioner of the lyrical arts! You absolutely must demonstrate for me some night.”
As his eyebrows scrunched in bemusement, the princess snorted again and turned to face me directly.
“Your way of speaking has changed. Again. Is this going to become a habit?”
“If you prefer, Milady, I can limit my speaking structure to one variant while in private. However, the variation is needed for a number of my dealings. After all, coin and violence may be the universal languages, but speaking eloquently has rarely hurt anybody.”
The princess quirked an eyebrow, and the maid scoffed quietly behind her mistress’s back.
“Well, it rarely hurts the speaker at any rate. Now then, I feel that we have made His Royal Highness wait a suitable amount of time. Shall we?”
So saying, I gestured the princess’s group towards the doors. The maid approached first, knocking twice before stepping back. A few moments later, and my men pushed the doors open from the outside, both standing in statuesque poses that would no doubt lead to some back pain later that night. The maid stepped back and bowed, allowing the princess to stride forward with the knight marching confidently at her right, and myself trailing a few steps behind on her left.
As we moved into the light of the early day’s sun, I dropped my shoulders and slackened my jaw, allowing my gaze to fall to the flagstones beneath our feet. Behind me, I heard the doors thud shut- The maid had not joined us.
“Our Royal… brother. What brings you… to our humble abode?”
A voice as brash as the sound of blade on shield answered the princess’s query.
“Our Royal sister. Still as quiet as a dormouse, we see. We simply wished to express our relief at your safety, and our… condolences at the loss of your old teacher.”
I was impressed- I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a voice containing more dismissive scorn and self-aggrandizing bravado since listening to that puffed-up fool mock his sister’s loss. From my position behind her, I could see the normal, slight shifting of the princess’s feet cease, and felt the sudden, silent rage radiating off of her, like heat from a flame.
“I… assume, that you… did not come… before us simply… to mock the sacrifice… of our loyal… retainer?”
The prince responded easily, either ignoring or simply ignorant to the barely-contained hatred in the princess’s voice.
“Oh, but obviously, sister of ours. Pray tell, do you not wonder if this, tragedy, could not have been averted with aid? Say, perhaps, the protection of a close group of friends, whose only goal is to see the strengthening of Bradenia, and the true heir enthroned?”
Ahhhh. Now I could see it clearly, the few remaining obscurities made clear by the prince’s simpering offer. This was the man who had caused the attack on the princess- He was the only of her siblings to have actually visited her, now nearly a week after the attack, yet while all the others had simply sent letters of condolence and relief stamped with their seals, here stood the youngest prince holding out offers of protection to the least-significant figure in the entire struggle. That said, the princess was not without value- If he could coerce her into siding with him publicly, his faction would gain significant legitimacy in the eyes of the court at large.
The third prince’s faction was composed mostly of ambitious young ministers, low-nobles such as counts and barons, and a few second- or third-born high-nobles. While by no means an insignificant force, it paled in comparison to the first prince’s faction of high-nobles and dukes, or the second prince’s cabal of merchants and ministers. As such, it came as no surprise to me that the third prince was attempting to assimilate or remove as many smaller factions and independents as he could in a desperate bid to challenge his elder brothers’ power. And in comparison to the throne, what is the life of one young princess worth? Not much, and an elderly tutor is worth even less, especially to a man who viewed his blood as his greatest asset- The third prince was a noble-supremacist through and through.
For the first time since I had met her, the princess was at a loss for words. Her fury had made her so incoherent that I was actually quite worried for what might come out of her mouth next. With that fear in mind, I decided to intervene. Shuffling forward, I raised the pitch of my voice even as I kept my eyes cast to the ground.
“P-P-Pardon me, m’lord, but as it is coming close t-to the hour of the princess’s lessons, p-perhaps you mmmight g-g-grace us with your presence at- at a later date?”
Before the prince could respond to my query, a brash voice cried out.
“How presumptuous! How dare a mere servant address His Royal Highness!?”
A shadow moved into my sight, and a moment later I was knocked to the ground by a kick to the jaw. It was a poor kick, but I played along and sprawled to the ground, throwing my hands up in a feigned attempt to protect myself from any further attacks. In actuality, I threw my hands up to shield my eyes from the sun, so that I could safely look directly at the prince and his retinue.
Astride a grand charger, the prince certainly looked the part- Shoulder-length hair, a duller red than the princess’s own, beneath which sat a young, handsome face set with all the characteristics of youth and arrogance. Across his shoulders hung a sleeveless cloak of deep crimson, and the collar sported a significant amount of white fur. Beneath his cloak was a white-and-gold tunic, much like my own, and his legs were clad in red-and-gold breeches that disappeared into fur-lined riding boots of supple brown leather. In short, the perfect example of what wealth without responsibility looks like.
I knew the prince to be a number of years my junior, and so I put his age at no greater than twenty, an age I would ascribe to almost all of his followers, including the sneering sycophant who had kicked me, and who now stared down at me triumphantly from his own, significantly less impressive, horse. Little distinguished my attacker from the remainder of the prince’s herd, with one noticeable exception- One of his eyes happened to be a pale blue, while the other exhibited a muddy brown color. That feature noted, I lowered my arms and struggled to my feet in an exaggerated manner, hurrying to stand behind the princess.
The prince scoffed as he wheeled his horse around, fairly spitting his parting remarks over his shoulder.
“If you should ever tire of cowards and vagabonds, dear sister of ours, simply seek us out. The true sons and daughters of Brandenia shall soon have their day, and it would be wise of you to be among them when that time comes.”
The agreements of his sycophants echoed on the breeze as the crowd galloped away, leaving just myself, the princess, the knight, and the on-duty guards standing in the plaza.
I moved away from the princess and dusted myself off.
“Well, that was informative.”
Stepping to the side I took in the princess’s face, pinched in the closest approximation of feral rage that I think she could form with her delicate features. As my movement brought me into her view, her eyes snapped to mine in a burning facsimile of her normally blank expression.
“No need for words, milady. It’s quite clear what we need to do, who we need to target first. Before I can move to enthrone you, first I must remove the irritant that dares to impede our plans. And of course, your blood must boil for revenge in poor Clause’s name. Worry not, if there is one thing I can achieve without setback or fail, it is certainly bloody vengeance.”
Her eyes never wavered as I spoke, as though she were attempting to bore into my skull with two spears of emerald light.
“Drakson… Yes, yes. You are right, again. My elder brother, the third prince of the kingdom, must fall. He shall be the first stone in the crypt we build for this rotten, ruinous family that only knows destruction and greed.”
It took every ounce of self-control I possessed to not burst into laughter at her oh-so dramatic declaration. Destruction and greed, indeed. And the the kingdom would certainly need a crypt by the time I was through with the royal family.
But I had to wonder, even as the flames of my madness burned higher and higher within me, and my laughter grew ever harder to contain, whether the princess realized that by issuing such proclamations with intentions to act upon them she became no better than the nobles she sought to defeat.
Clueless as to my musings, the princess turned away and began her return to the tower, followed by her ever-present guard dog. I sketched a bow, than trailed behind until I reached the door where I paused to speak with Vijt.
“When you get a moment, tell Carilo to come see me.”
After receiving a silent nod in return, I entered the shade of the tower to find Consta standing rigidly beside the entrance to my quarters.
“Maid. What can I do for you?”
“Rat. I certainly hope you don’t expect your honorary title of Royal Tutor to protect you from the wrath of the Princely Factions. And don’t expect to use it as a symbol of the princess’s favor, either. It is simply a title to allow you to remain in the tower without suspicion. Though, I must admit, the attitude you adopted certainly suits a Ratof your caliber.”
“Worry not, I never assume. And the Factions don’t concern me currently, and I certainly don’t concern them at the moment. That will change, in time, but for the moment I have more pressing issues. Tell me, who was that sycophant with the mismatched eyes? Some Count’s son?”
“Hardly. That was the only son of Grand Baron Velste, Lord of Three Fortress Pass. Hardly an impressive man intellectually, but he stands to inherit a valuable and strategically important territory, making him a core member of the third prince’s cortorie, and a surprisingly loyal one at that.”
I couldn’t hold back the grin, but was able to smother the chuckle at least.
“I see. Thank you, Milady Norsson. It is always good to know of one’s… Enemies.”
I left her with that, sweeping into my chambers and shutting the door behind me. I needed to prepare for Carilo’s arrival- The blades had to be treated, and a few of the more volatile tinctures needed to be prepared well beforehand, to prevent on-the-spot accidents.
So much to do, so much to do…