"Do you want the good news or the bad news first?"

The King, who had been discussing security measures with the captain of the guard after another circuit around the palace, turned to his advisor. "Will I really want either one?"

"The good news first, then. We're fairly certain we know how the masked men got into the palace," said Barrow.

"Oh yes? How?"

"It's probably better if I show you," said John with a rueful smile. "If you would follow me, my liege?"

Cyrus followed as John headed towards the back hallways and the kitchen. "This doesn't feel like good news somehow."

"In the sense that we were able to determine how masked fiends entered the palace, then discovering that fact is indeed good news," said Barrow, walking down the corridor that lead to the dungeons.

"But what you're about to show me is the bad news, which means the good news was actually bad," muttered Cyrus.

"I'm certainly glad your good humor has returned, sire," said Barrow, drily. At the end of an empty hallway, Barrow opened a creaky door. The advisor gallantly motioned for the King to go through.

Cyrus stepped through the door and into one of the many secret tunnels in the palace. He took a few steps and stopped. "What the -"

"Yes, that was my reaction as well," said Barrow, gesturing to the rubble at the floor of the low tunnel.

"But that was bricked up!" exclaimed Cyrus.

"Well spotted, sire."

Cyrus knelt at the pile of rubble and picked up a brick. "How long do you suppose it took them?"

"Oh, not long. Two strong men with a few pickaxes could take it down in a day or so, I suppose. And if they had helpers, it might have come down in an afternoon."

Cyrus looked up at John. "How many know about this tunnel?"

Barrow tched. "It's the most poorly kept secret in the kingdom by now, your Highness. Think of it: Everyone who's ever worked or lived in the palace knows about it. Crookshaft – that crafty bastard - is very familiar with all of the tunnels. There were certain members of your family who shuttled in women through these tunnels, and I'll wager that being smuggled into the palace via secret tunnel isn't something a young lady might ever forget."

"So, everyone knows, then."

"Probably not every single living soul, but it's a cinch that if you wanted to find a way into the palace and you asked around, someone somewhere would tell you about these tunnels."

Cyrus tossed the brick and stood. "This speaks to a level of engagement in the cause that I'm not comfortable with."

Barrow chuckled. "If you mean that we're dealing with zealots, then yes, I concur."

Cyrus grumbled. "Is it too much to ask that we not have any more armed zealots or madmen come and try to take over my house?"

"Yes, apparently."

Cyrus sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. "What will it take to end this? What security do we need that we don't already have? We increased the number of guards at all of the entrances, including the supply gate. We bricked up the tunnels. I've instructed the captain of the guard to go around and stick torches into the lawn all around the palace. What else should I do?"

Barrow looked skyward, pondering. "A really big dog?"

"Are you being serious?"

"Several really big dogs?"

Cyrus groaned and turned to leave. "I'll get a bloody big pack of dogs and set them on my advisor."

"A death threat!" yelled John at the King's retreating back. "How I've missed that!"

Cyrus paused outside the door to his wife's rooms. He stood there, fist at the ready to knock, for over a minute before he finally knocked.

"Come in," called Lily. Cyrus took a deep breath and walked in.

Lily sat on the sofa in her sitting room, the fire lit. She looked up from a book. "Oh! Hello," she said, sitting up and tucking her feet beneath her.

"I'm sorry to interrupt your reading," Cyrus said, addressing the floor. "I had a question for you, if you have a moment?"

"Of course. Come in and sit, won't you?"

Cyrus closed the door behind them, then walked to the sofa and sat down. He perched awkwardly at the edge of the sofa.

"How did it all go today?" asked Lily.

Cyrus puffed out a sigh. "It went as well as to be expected, I suppose. It's all rather frustrating, if I'm honest. Still, there are some new security measures in place, so I suppose that's something positive."

"Any word on the identity of the masked men?"

"Nothing. I've sent word to the military offices to see if they have any idea, but the dead man's description is utterly generic. I'm not sure they will tell us anything."

"Hmm," said Lily. "A long day."

"One in a very long string of long days," agreed Cyrus.

Lily put up one finger, a sign to wait. She reached down into the side table by the sofa and pulled open a drawer. She extracted a bottle of red wine, previously opened and corked. She pulled out the cork and took a drink straight from the bottle. She then held out the bottle to her husband.

Cyrus laughed and accepted the bottle. "Have you always kept wine in here?"

Lily leaned back and shrugged a shoulder. "It's a long walk down to the kitchens. Sometimes you need wine, and you need it right away."

Cyrus shook his head, looking surprised as he took a drink. He handed the bottle back to Lily. "Between the snake and the wine, this is suddenly the most interesting room in the palace."

Lily grinned slightly, then took another swig from the bottle. "You look positively scandalized. You've never drunk wine straight from the bottle with a woman before?"

Accepting the bottle back from Lily, Cyrus said, "I may have done. I take it that you've shared bottles of wine with other men?"

"Well, naturally," said Lily.

Cyrus eyed Lily over the bottle as he took another drink. "Now I have to ask. With whom?"

Lily smiled primly as she took the bottle. "There was a boy. I knew him because his parents owned another vineyard. He was older. He was quite handsome," said Lily wonderingly. She took a drink from the bottle.

"Hmm," said Cyrus.

"We weren't friends, but he liked to flirt. He was adept at it. I wasn't." She handed the bottle back to her husband.

"I'm finding that a little difficult to believe," said Cyrus, eyebrow raised.

"Well, this boy, he and I went out walking one night, and he brought along a bottle of wine. We strolled about for a bit, and we started talking about kissing."

Cyrus withheld comment, but took a large drink from the bottle before handing it back to Lily, raised eyebrow in place.

"He said that kissing was a lot of fun, but it was better after both participants had a drink of wine."

Cyrus sat back. "Of course he did. I would warn you against the motives of older boys, but I think that would be slightly hypocritical and ironic."

Lily sniggered behind the bottle of wine. "And late."

Cyrus laughed. "Did you allow him to demonstrate this theory of his?"

"I took it as a challenge, and I don't back down from challenges," said Lily, primly.

"I see," chuckled Cyrus. "And what were your findings? Is kissing better after wine?"

Lily took a sip of wine and held out the bottle. "Drink. I'll kiss you, then you can decide for yourself."

Cyrus obediently took a sip. Lily took the bottle from him and set it on the side table. Scooting close, she took his face in her hands and kissed him. The kiss evolved as she leaned into him and wrapped her arms around his neck. His arms went around her, pulling her tightly against him, and they remained locked like that, breathless, until a knock sounded at the door.

Lily pulled back and sighed. "Yes? What is it?"

"It's your mother, your Majesty," called a servant through the door. "She wishes to see you."

Lily looked at a dazed Cyrus. "Yes, um, tell her I'll be with her in a moment," she called. "My parents are feeling a bit under the weather, and more than a little paranoid. I was meant to check in on them right about now."

Cyrus took a breath, blinking. "Yes, of course."

Lily slowly extracted herself from the embrace. "So, what did you think? Is kissing better after wine?"

Cyrus cleared his throat. "It was... impressive. But I don't think it was the wine."

"Hmm. I might agree with you there. Perhaps we should try it again?" asked Lily as she rose from the sofa. "A scientific approach, yes? More data is needed."

"A noble experiment," said Cyrus as he stood. "I'm quite fond of science, as it happens."

Lily tilted her head and regarded her husband. "What did you want to ask me?"

Cyrus stared blankly for a moment. "Oh, right. I wondered if you might like to go out with me tomorrow to see the progress at the train depot? You have been cooped up in the palace for so long. I thought you might like the change of scenery, and I know there are many who would be glad to see you out and about."

Lily's answering smile was bright. "I would like that very much. Thank you, Cyrus. I'd best go check on my parents. Tomorrow, then?"

"Tomorrow," said Cyrus with an answering smile.