“No, absolutely not!”
“Kat, you can’t be serious!”
I grinned in silent delight as the outraged voices of the maid and the knight filled the garden courtyard, both gesticulating wildly at the still-giggling princess, who seemed to be delighting in their dismay. It occurred to me, as I watched the trio, that this was the first time I had seen the princess make a truly pleased expression. The effect it had on her was… startling, to say the least. For now, at least, I could still only view her as a child acting as an adult, but it was clear to see that she would one day become the sort of beauty that men would fight to possess- Petite, lovely, with fair skin and eyes that could stop a man dead. Though, I doubt she would take much pleasure in being such a beauty if she lost this succession war. Then she would surely be bartered off to some lascivious prince in a bid to secure an alliance.
That thought brought me back from the haze of my thoughts to the noisy courtyard, where the princess was now trying, (Totally unsuccessfully, might I add,) to make herself heard over her still-shouting retainers.
Sighing in consternation, I knelt and swiftly drew my knife, then flicked my wrist forward and sent the knife spinning forward to stab into the ground between the knight and the maid, directly in front of the princess’s feet. The entire clearing went silent as the trio simultaneously looked down at the still-quivering knife, then up at myself.
Smiling condescendingly, I clapped as I strode forward.
“Congratulations, milady. You managed to so magnificently startle your retainers that I’m sure even his Majesty upon his throne overheard your plans.”
Slipping between the knight and the maid, I knelt and plucked the dagger from the earth and examined it for any signs of damage. Finding none, I smiled, then turned slightly and tapped the tip of the blade against the knight’s breastplate.
“Tell me, sir Conrad. Do you possess some set of super-human capabilities? Some knowledge of the future? Obviously not, because as I just demonstrated, if someone were to attack the princess from behind your back while you were berating her for not considering her safety, well…”
I looked from the dagger to the princess’s unarmored form, then back to the dagger.
The giant opened his mouth, but before he could speak I spun to face the maid.
“As for you, milady Consta, do you really think that this is the proper place to have such an exchange with milady? There could be others within these gardens, and there are almost certainly watchers sent by the princes to monitor milady nearby as well.”
The maid frowned furiously at me, but made no response. Nodding, I turned to the princess.
“As for you, milady, there are a multitude of things I wish to address about both your intent and your choice in locale for saying such things, but for now I will be content with addressing the most pressing of matters. What did you mean when you said you would accompany me into the city?”
She tilted her head slightly, a polite look of confusion masking her true thoughts.
“What do you mean, Drakson? My words were rather clear, were they not? I shall accompany you into the town. It’s not as though there are any matters here that require my attention, and I am eager to begin my lessons with you. I’m sure a first-hand experience of how the common folk live will be… informative.”
I sighed and rubbed my face with my hands, worn by both the earlier spar and my princess’s unexpectedly severe lack of common sense.
“Milady, putting aside the simple fact that any location in a town is not suited for a princess on foot, there is another issue with your plan. I will not be spending long in the city proper, seeing as where I intend to begin building your power base is the slums.”
Slums may not be entirely correct as a description for the section of the low city I intended to visit. While it was certainly poorer than the noble quarters, the streets were clean and the homes didn’t reek of rot and filth. However, there was one noticeable difference between the slums and the rest of the city- The total lack of guards. This could be due to a variety of reasons. For example, it may have been due to the lack of any nearby noble quarters or armories. Or perhaps it was due to the slums distance from any location of strategic or political importance. But if you were to ask me, the answer would be blindingly obvious. You see, the slums could be considered a small city into themselves, policed and run by their own local rulers, the Slum Lords. A total of three Slum Lords controlled the slums, each ruling roughly a third of the quarter, and each held mostly in check by the other two through a complex series of alliances, threats, connections, and profits. With the recent rebellion, the Slum Lords had pulled their presences back for the moment, but I was sure they would soon emerge to reclaim total control. Before that happened, I had to upset the balance of power and secure the services of one of the Lords. Then I could begin using them as a focus point from which to rally the princess’s supporters.
The princess frowned at my words.
“What possible value could be found in the slums, Drakson? I certainly hope you don’t intend to seat me upon a throne using the unwashed hordes as support.”
“Hardly. However, you shouldn’t mock the strength of the slums, milady. If we can bind the Slum Lords to our will, we will know every whisper the prostitutes hear, every scream the butcher’s elicit, every secret the thieves come across. In essence, we will have our hand wrapped around the arteries of this city. And once the slums and their secrets are ours, then we can look to the merchants and their wealth, and their private armies…”
The princess’s eyes narrowed in concentration, but before she could speak the maid raised her voice.
“You cannot possibly be thinking of taking milady anywhere near those disgusting hovels! I will not allow anything of the sort, and if you dare suggest such a thing again-”
I whirled and fixed the maid with my most withering gaze.
“You are the one who cannot possibly be serious. In case you have failed to notice exactly what I have been saying over the last few minutes, which, considering your capabilities, would not surprise me in the least, let me just point out that I have been trying to dissuade milady from this course of action.”
The maid’s face went through an almost comical number of expressions before it settled on outrage, but before she could speak the princess interjected.
“Enough. Consta, Conrad, I know you wish to protect me, but we have long since left behind the time for cautious actions. As for you Drakson, let me state that for the record, you have no right to refuse my wishes. But since I can’t simply force you to do anything, and because I believe trust is imperative to our… joint venture, let me ask you this. How will you convince your contacts to side with us? Whatever gold reserves you may have won’t last you long, I know that much from what economics I have studied, and I can hardly just give you my seal to use as proof of backing. There must be no physical evidence against use should my family investigate, which means if you wish to use the royal name I must be there in person to prove the worth of your words.”
The princess smiled triumphantly, and I bit back a sigh of annoyance. The problem was, she was correct to a degree. Having proof of royal backing would make my task easier, even if I didn’t actually consider it necessary. But while it would speed the process up significantly, I would have to ensure the princess’s safety while in hostile territory, as well as ensuring that no one learned of her absence. And with that in consideration, I didn’t really wish to take such a risk. I may take large gambles now and again, but only if there exists a significantly larger pay-out, and the only thing I stood to gain from this was saving a few months.
Decided, I began to mentally prepare my argument when the princess spoke again.
“Drakson, I’m sure you think me foolish or childish for this request, but know this. I will not complain if you leave me here, nor will I attempt to order you. I will simply wait for you to leave, and then I will make my own way to these… slums. And, since I’m sure you will ask, I will tell you the reason for my determination. I overheard two of your men discussing the assassination attempt on my life the night you arrived. More specifically, I heard one of them mention that those who came for my life originated from one of the gangs within the low city. If possible, I would very much like to… meet… the masters of those men.”
It took every ounce of my remaining self-control to prevent myself from bursting out in an acid-tongued fit of rage. Revenge. The child wanted revenge, not only on the brother that ordered the attack, but also on those who had executed the contract. On one hand, I could both sympathize and agree with her desire- Pluck a poisonous weed out by its roots, and send a strong message at the same time. On the other hand, missions of revenge rarely went smoothly, and they often ended in far more death than one might have considered possible.
I knew that from experience.
As I stood silently staring down into the princess’s gaze, the hard edge hidden within her eyes told me she was serious, and that impressed me more than I cared to admit. It also infuriated me no small amount, but I knew vocalizing either of these things would simply bring me more grief, and so I simply sighed and shook my head in defeat.
“…As you wish, milady. Please prepare yourself, we leave at nightfall.”
The princess smiled again, both triumphantly and with a hint of nervousness this time, while behind me both the knight and the maid squawked with outrage. Ignoring them, I turned and began making my way towards the tower. I had more preparations to make, and more concerns on my shoulders.
I couldn’t help but grin ruefully as raised voices echoed behind me again, filling the air with energy.
“Never a dull moment, huh?”
Humming quietly, I carefully scraped a few slivers of silver-wood bark into the small pot set before me, avoiding the small buds of yet-to-bloom flowers and their potently poisonous pollen. It would hardly make for a pleasant drink if I couldn’t even breath in its essence without swelling up like a toad, and I fully intended to enjoy this drink. Shaving complete, I placed the small blade back in its sheath and the sprig into its own little leather pouch, aiming to prevent any chance of that pesky pollen escaping. Both blade and pouch went back in my little sack of poisons, and I reached for a poison of a different variety. The red wine splashed cheerfully as it submerged the shaving and the pinches of spice and herb I had tossed in earlier, followed quickly by the honeyed mead and a large chunk of honeycomb to complete the medley. Smiling, I hefted the pot off of its resting spot on the table and carefully hung it over the cheerfully-crackling fire I had set beforehand in the fireplace, then settled myself into one of the chairs and began studying a set of reports my informants had compiled on the subject of the myriad power-struggles occurring in the slums.
I managed roughly five minutes of contemplation and reading before the door to my quarters slammed open.
Sighing, I set the documents aside for a moment and turned slightly to glance over the shoulder of the chair.
“Sir Conrad, as much as I appreciate your directness, I worry that the door won’t survive too many more of these dramatic entrances.”
The knight glared silently at me for a moment, then stepped aside as the princess swept by. Well, perhaps not swept, more like bobbed forward with her eyes already locked on my fireplace.
“Drakson, what is that smell?”
“Just a batch of my homebrew, milady. Might I assume you will want a sample once it is complete?”
She paused to collect herself, then turned to focus on me.
“Well, I certainly wouldn’t decline if you happened to have some remnants to share.”
So, in other words, yes.
“But of course, milady. Now, what can I do for you? Our time of departure isn’t for a few hours yet.”
She moved past me and settled into the other tall-backed chair facing the fire, glancing around the room that I had slowly been reforming into my own image.
“Putting that aside for a moment, I see you have made some changes. I don’t recall Clause owning some of these works. Or a sword.”
Indeed, I had seen fit to add my own, small collection of writings and notes to the already-extensive array of books, scrolls, and tablets that the late Clause had accrued.
“That’s an impressive memory you have, milady. Yes, I have a habit of collecting interesting writings and the like when I travel, and I’ve seen fit to record some of my own thoughts and observations now and again. But it seems I can hardly hold a candle to your previous tutor- Having read some of his notes, he seems to have been a peerless intellect.”
The specter of sadness peered through her eyes for a heartbeat, then it was hidden again.
“Yes, he was. He was also a peerless friend and mentor, though never much of a fighter.”
As I kept my thoughts silent, my eyes drifted over to rest upon the previously-mentioned sword hanging in its sheath beside the fireplace. A handle wrapped with black leather, silver worked through the pommel, and a wolf-head motif serving as the guard, with two blue gems for eyes. One of six blades, all of similar make and all of great value, and utterly unimportant at the moment.
Refocusing on the princess, I quirked an eyebrow in regards to my as-yet-unanswered question.
“I am here to talk, Drakson. Not about plots or plans, or about my family, nor even about our upcoming excursion. I simply wish to speak with you, seeing as we have yet to truly have an unfettered conversation. Besides, what student doesn’t wish to gain a measure of their teacher before lessons begin?”
I chuckled, then glanced at the knight, who was now lurking near my table.
“There are many reluctant students who invest more of their efforts into avoiding their teacher than into completing their studies. And milady, it would hardly be an unfettered conversation if we were to be observed.”
She watched me for a moment, then nodded once and turned towards the knight.
“Conrad, leave us. You need to prepare for our departure anyway, and if Drakson wanted to hurt me he would have long ago.”
The knight did nothing for a long moment, then nodded stiffly and marched out of the room, slamming the door shut behind him.
I winced at the crash, then sighed and settled back into my seat.
“I really am concerned about that door. By the by, I am well aware you will share whatever you feel like with your maid and knight, and I honestly doubt that they present any actual threat.”
It was the princess’s turn to raise an eyebrow.
“Then why do you insist on speaking alone? And you really are quite insolent without an audience.”
“Insolent? Perhaps. As for why I send them away, that much is simple. I enjoy aggravating them, and so long as they focus on my interactions with you, they won’t dig too deeply into my other plans and cause another stir like this morning.”
Her eyes narrowed, then she shook her head.
“I said I would leave the plotting for another time, and so I shall. But I must ask, how common will that become? How many young lives, meant to be the foundation of this land’s future, will disappear into the night screaming?”
“How very poetic. And the answer is many, princess. More than you might believe possible. But know this- Everything I do has a purpose, no matter how obscure or insignificant it might seem.”
I grinned slyly.
“Besides, I thought you only truly cared for those who reside in this tower?”
The briefest of hesitations gave the lie to her words, then she shook her head firmly.
“You are correct, but I would like to have a kingdom left to rule when this war is over.”
“And you will. But now onto other matters. If not plots and plans, what would you like to discuss?”
As I spoke I stood and moved over to the pot, where my concoction had begun to bubble merrily. Reaching into a pouch I had hung on the mantle earlier I withdrew a pinch of white powder, produced from the crushed seeds of a southern flower, and tossed it into the pot to a cacophony of pops and sizzles.
“Tell me about yourself, Drakson. About your past, your triumphs, your hopes. And since it is only fair, I will do the same. Or, better yet, let us play a game. Tit for Tat, as they say.”
I was slightly taken aback by her use of commoner terminology, but I assumed that one of her retainers (living or dead,) must have taught her the meaning at some point.
“Very well. Though I must warn you, my story is not so much made of hopes and triumphs as it is death and trickery. Who shall start?”
“It is customary for the challenger to ask the first question, so as to set the tone for the game. Though, if you wish to lead?…”
I shook my head no.
“Very well, then. For my first question, I shall keep it simple. What is your age?”
I smiled wryly.
“Greater than I wish it to be. Come this winter, I will have seen the passing of my twenty-third year. Now then, let me return the question to you. How long have you walked this land?”
She turned a glare on me, though it lacked any actual annoyance.
“What a rude question to ask a lady. If you must know, I shall be celebrating my fifteenth year come the end of fall. You said you came from the north, did you not? How long have you been on the continent proper?”
I ignored the fact that she had technically asked two questions for a moment as I stood to remove the pot from the fire, carefully setting it on an old stump I had brought in for this exact purpose.
“I have been on this continent for close to sixteen years now, though I have been back to the north twice. Tell me, have you ever left the confines of this castle before?”
“But of course. Whenever there happens to be a parade, or whenever father decides to retreat to his summer palace, I am brought along.”
‘Brought along.’ In other words, not by choice, and not with any freedom. Perhaps another reason to explain why she so desperately wanted to accompany myself and my men.
“Why did you choose to come to the continent?”
A series of images and sounds flashed through my head. Blood-stained snow, axes rising and falling, the screams of the defeated, the crack of a whip, the thud of fists…
“I didn’t. I was captured by slavers and sold. Why did you join this succession war?”
She stared at me silently for a moment, then seemed to accept my brief answer. For the moment, at least.
“I didn’t. At least, not willingly. At first it was just between my brothers, and my eldest brother seemed to have the advantage. But then my elder sisters both declared their support for the second prince, leveling the playing field somewhat, and leaving my third brother desperate to catch up. How did you become a mercenary?”
My gaze drifted back to the sheathed sword for a heartbeat.
“Well, after I escaped my bonds one way or another, I happened to fall in with The Dragon’s Tail as a camp follower, where I happened to discover that I had something of a talent for the blade. From there, I worked my way first into the ranks of footmen, then spent two years working my way up to company treasurer, company diplomat, and leader of the men I brought with me. I spent the next five years helping to build the company up, both in wealth and reputation. Tell me, how did the maid and the knight become such close friends of yours?”
She shook her head slightly.
“It was hardly through chance. Conrad has been raised since birth to be a royal knight, and when I was born he was designated to be my champion and guardian until death. His natural loyalty, and the fact that I played with him as a child, have mixed together in his mind to portray me as something like the younger sister he never had. As for Consta, she was also designated to serve me, however ours is a friendship born of mutual respect and love. She is more sister to me than any woman I share blood with, and without her I would be blind to the goings-on in court. Why do you keep looking at that sword?”
I mentally kicked myself for being so obvious, but made sure my mask remained in place as I spoke.
“Because speaking of the past reminded me. Reminded me that there are still a few matters for me to clear up in the north, though they aren’t pressing at the moment. The sword, or rather the ownership of the sword, is one such matter. How many of the books in this room have you read?”
She seemed taken aback by the question, though that was fair considering it hardly matched the tone of our previous exchanges.
“If I recall correctly, Clause owned a little over a thousand tomes, not counting the scrolls and inscribed tablets, and I believe I have read about three-fifths of that. So roughly six hundred, allowing for some error. How many books have you read?”
I laughed at the vagueness of the question.
“In my whole life? More than I can recall. In the past two years however, I recall reading a little over thirteen hundred individual volumes, though some of those were connected, and others were extremely similar. How long have you occupied this tower?”
Her gaze darkened.
“Far too long, Drakson. Nearly a decade. Nearly a decade of imprisonment, and I am ready to be free. How did you become free from your bonds?”
A knock at the door punctuated the princess’s question. I stood and began to move around the room, collecting the various pieces of my equipment scattered about.
“The wait is nearly over, that I can promise you. You should go see to your packing, we leave in an hour.”
I nearly jerked in surprise- The princess had managed to approach me silently again. Her gaze was steely, and I was annoyed at the weight I felt from it. I bit back a snarl as the memories her question had stirred began to writhe deep within my mind. I wonder if she could see the monster she had awoken, peering hungrily from behind my eyes as I stepped in close and lowered my face down to hers.
“I killed them, princess. I killed my captors, their servants, their friends and their families. Everyone I could reach, I slaughtered. And when I was done, when my chains were broken by the sheer weight of the bodies piled atop them, when the halls they had once called home were awash with their blood, I walked out of my prison like a king. Though, one did escape my rage. The worst among them all, the one I hated the most. The one I hate the most. But I’ll find him eventually. I am a Wolf of the North for a reason, after all. Are we done with this game, milady?”
Her face had paled slightly at my outburst, but she hadn’t stepped back or wavered. In that moment, my respect for the princess grew a little bit more, though I was still irked by her questioning.
“Yes, we are done for now, Drakson. But we will play again. After all, I still owe you an answer. Besides, it’s not as though I need a tutor for maths or reading. I will go make sure my party is ready to depart on time, but I expect you to speak to me again soon.”
I sketched a bow, then turned and snatched up a handful of empty wineskins to fill with my homebrew.
“Oh, and Drakson?”
I bit back a sigh and turned to face the princess, who now stood with one hand on the door handle.
“Isn’t building trust fun?”
She swept out of my room with a quick smirk and a soft laugh, leaving me standing alone to grapple with the warring emotions of admiration and annoyance raging through my mind. On the one hand she had gotten lucky with her line of questioning, but on the other, she had managed to shatter my mask and made me lose my cool spectacularly, even if only for a moment.
As I worked to settle my emotions, I wondered for the first time if just maybe, I had met someone with the potential to become a worthy challenge in the future. The thought left me giddy with hope, and banished the last of my irritation as I dressed quickly and packed the last of my gear into my rucksack. I turned to head out the door, but I paused just long enough to snag the sword from its place beside the mantel.
“If I use the title, I might as well bear the symbol.”
Muttering to myself, I swept out the door, leaving only the dying embers of the fire to bathe the room in flickering shadows. It was time for the Lords of the Slums to meet the princess’s new pet wolf.
Somewhere far away, hidden in the dark, bells tolled the witching hour’s arrival.