The summons arrived while I sparred in a courtyard with my second-in-command. Consumed in our swordplay neither of us saw the royal page right away, for pages tend to be small creatures, easily overlooked.
"Keep your blade up, Kathedra," Valleri snapped, when his unerring sword arm almost severed mine at the elbow.
Valleri took his swordplay very seriously. But I was tired, giddy, and flushed in a fever that had little to do with the heat of battle. Blocking another of his powerful strokes, I staggered away to plead through my laughter, "Mercy, Val. Mercy, I beg you!"
"Mercy?" he growled, snatching away my blade and sheathing his own. "No mercy, Kathedra. You don't deserve it. Your swordplay is lax and your concentration is ... well, elsewhere." Though he tried to be stern, tried to be firm, he seemed just as distracted as I. His breath came in quick, shallow pants and his eyes glittered from behind a fall of dirty-gold hair.
Pulling me into the shelter of the castle wall, he pinned me against the stone and cupped my face in his hands. "Ahh, but then again it is so good to hear you laugh."
My arms went around him of their own volition and I stole a kiss; one of those deep, hungry kisses that inevitably leads to a dark, out-of-the way alcove.
"Let us find a place," Valleri whispered into my ear.
Starting at the intrusion, we shoved ourselves apart to see that a boy stood in the courtyard with us. Possessed of that same sense of self-preservation as the rest of his kind, the page feigned selective blindness.
I swiped at a lock of hair that had escaped its plait and smoothed my crushed tunic. Indignant at this interruption, I cast a scathing eye over the boy's rumpled livery and grubby face, still pudgy with baby fat. I raised a critical brow. "You're a new one, aren't you?"
His thatch of yellow hair bobbed up and down. "Aye, Highness." Then puffing himself up with pride, he announced, "The Regent sends me to fetch the Gryphon Highlord. His Excellency wishes your presence in his audience chamber immediately."
"Ahh, what is it now?" I sighed, rubbing my temple. "Does he wish me to scour the corners of his dais for spies? Or peek under his throne for hidden assassins? Why, I just did all that yesterday. And only last night didn't I sample his spiced pudding to prove it did not contain poison and not near enough, in my opinion, cinnamon?"
The Regent's paranoia knew no bounds. Every servant was an Umagi sympathizer ready to clang him over the head with a gilt serving platter, every Halberdier standing guard at the door was a traitor waiting to poke his posterior with a spear tip.
My sarcasm, however, sailed straight over the page's head. "I wouldn't know, Highness. Please, the Regent insists that you come at once."
Of course 'at once'. The Regent never issued an edict that ended with 'at your leisure', or 'when you have a minute'. As if I don't have enough to do.
A glance at Valleri earned me a shrug. In the pretence of returning my sword, he leaned forward and said below a murmur, "Go. See what the Regent wants. We'll meet later in your chamber, where I'll teach you the real meaning of mercy."
That last comment sent my other brow skyward.
Smiling, I watched him swagger off across the courtyard until the child's shrill voice yanked me out of my daydream. "Please, Highness. His Excellency said right away."
"Yes, yes, hold onto your--" I broke off at the sound of movement above us.
Craning my neck up at the wall, I discovered we had an audience. A pair of lesser officers watched from the boulevard. Serasteffan and Averi.
My gaze collided with the former's. A big blond giant, Serasteffan is fond of cruelties that defy comprehension. In private circles we call him the Butcher. His smarmy grin sent a rash of shivers down my spine. Averi stood beside him, his expression radiating malice, his icy stare locked on Valleri's retreating form.
Though each belongs to a separate Royal, they are more often than not found together. After all, their interests are similar--rape, plunder, torture. They share dark ambitions and even darker passions. Skilled in combat and uncommonly vicious, they are men best avoided.
How much had they seen? Nothing, I hoped. Valleri and I must learn to be more discreet, for some people frown on such things. Important, influential people.
As the officers resumed their stroll along the rampart, I exhaled the breath I held, thinking Beware, Valleri. There are men about who hate you.
I guess I turned too quickly, for the page danced aside and ducked an imaginary swat. "Easy there, boy. You're a skittish thing."
"They say you have a temper, Highness. Like a dragon's."
"Don't be silly. Unless you're an enemy spy or a horse beater you have nothing to fear from me." I can't abide horse beating. "In fact, I happen to have a high tolerance for ten-year old boys with dirt on their cheeks. What's your name?"
"Well, Mylo," I said cheerfully, throwing an arm across his shoulders. "Let's not keep the Regent waiting, shall we?"
I left the page in the kitchen with a sugar dainty and a pitying glance, for who knew how long he would last? Several of the little beggars had already been turfed out on their tender keesters for the offence of being 'too watchful, too eager,' according to the Regent. Poor things. No wonder Mylo was as jumpy as a coney in a nest of adders.
Pondering His Excellency's summons, I headed for the audience chamber. I could think of nothing that might be amiss. Our enemies are in rout, our allies in thrall, and I had committed no act of gross incompetence unlike some of my contemporaries. Perhaps I am to be congratulated.
Intent on my thoughts, I rounded a corner and bumped straight into a man apparently preoccupied with ruminations of his own. Though he looked no older than twenty, with his dark hair and beardless chin, he wore a lieutenant's badge. He seemed vaguely familiar.
"Beg pardon, Highness," he sputtered, extending a hand to me where I sprawled upon the marble floor. "How clumsy of me." His features contorted in a grimace of horror at what he'd just done. Understandably so. Not only am I the highest ranking officer around, I am also the heir to the throne.
As I dusted myself off I tried to place him, for I am ill-acquainted with those outside my own Royal since there are rare occasions nowadays for officers to congregate socially. His black and white surcoat placed him among the ranks of Roche, a mercenary who drinks and wenches far more than what the castle considers prudent.
"What's your name, soldier?"
His mouth worked but no words formed. No doubt he envisioned a hundred punishments for the offence of bruising the royal derriere. Finding his tongue at last, he blurted, "Saxton."
The name didn't register, but I had no time for a full interrogation. "Carry on, then. No harm done." I patted his shoulder and walked away, well aware of his gaping stare as it followed me down the corridor. I paid it no heed, for there were other, more weighty matters on my mind.
Once outside the audience chamber I stepped over a Shouda, one of the many enormous guard dogs trained to sniff out active magic-users, where it snored before the doors, then strode into the Regent's formidable presence.