"Do you think the prince will do as he says?"
Gloria did not get an immediate reply since Kayley was elbows deep in the gore of a human cadaver. After all the patients had been treated, she had gone out and returned to the clinic dragging a bag the size and shape of a man. The reason for this turned out to be that there was a man inside, though quite dead. The doctor had looked around the corridor and then locked the door and set to work.
When Gloria had asked where Kayley had gotten the body, the young doctor had retorted that she hadn't killed anyone, so it was none of Gloria's business.
Gloria had shrugged and continued mopping, or at least, made a half-hearted attempt at the chore. It was not that Gloria had been raised too high to clean, but the clinic seemed to require an inordinate amount of cleaning. Much to Gloria's despair, she felt as if she was making things worse instead of better.
"Well," said Kayley, squeezing something inside the corpse which gave a resounding squelch, "the prince is a lot of things I won't pollute your ears with, but he's not a liar."
"True," came the deep voice of Kayley's friend and colleague, Verdic Elmsleave, as he exited the stillroom with a vial of purple liquid. "I was his philosophy tutor, and he was always very honest about everything he thought. I wish he hadn't been. Knowing the truth of that man's mind can keep one awake at night."
Kayley nodded toward Verdic as she rooted around in the dead man's stomach. "Well, there you have it. Verdic's known the prince all his life."
"From the cradle," Verdic confirmed. "He was much more amiable as an infant."
Kayley had introduced Verdic as uncle to the late Doctor Shamas, and Gloria found herself wondering if the nephew had looked anything like his relation. It was hard to imagine Verdic as anything but unique. His tall, lean figure seemed to hold back restrained energy, like that of a spring. His hair had long since gone a mottled gray and white, but his eyes were still a bright blue that defied the crows feet at the edges. His face was sharp and angular, but it always softened with a smile. Right now he gave Gloria one of those cheerful expressions in encouragement, even though she was certain that the floor was grayer than before.
"The prince still favors Verdic," Kayley added, pulling out a bloody mess that Gloria suspected was the liver and dropping it into a glass jar.
Verdic looked up, shocked. "Whatever would make you think that?"
"Well, he wanted you to be the doctor—not me." Kayley pretended to concentrate on the cadaver's intestines, but Gloria could tell that her eyes weren't quite seeing them.
Verdic rested a hand on Kayley's shoulder and didn't seem to mind when some stray blood specked his suit. "That is because the prince and all the rest of the court are fools. They may have wanted me to be the doctor—Land knows why they thought I would ever take on the very profession they killed my nephew for holding—but they are very lucky to have you. I no longer have patience for most people, including the sick ones."
Kayley craned her neck to smile up at Verdic. "And I have no patience for the stillroom. Together we make the perfect team."
"Yes, well, if it weren't for you and my belief that a handful of people in this wretched place still deserve decent medicine, I wouldn't even be a stillroom maid."
A mischievous spark lit the doctor's eye. "But you are such a fair maid, Verdic."
Gloria dipped her mop into the bucket again as she questioned the utility of her chore. It seemed that she was simply spreading the dirty water around. She had not followed much of Kayley and Verdic's banter and spoke again as if she had never been interrupted. "I think there is something the prince is not telling me. He spoke in what I believe was Arlian, and there seems to have been no reason for him to switch languages other than to speak privately with Balin. Still, I do not know how he knew I would not understand the language. Densen thought I was Arlian."
"Everyone knows that many Arlians no longer know their own language," Kayley answered, looking sidelong at Gloria.
Gloria frowned, "Why?"
"It is illegal for Orillian citizens to speak Arlian or to teach it to their children, and a person is either a citizen or an insurgent these days. The average person does not have the strength or inclination to fight for their language."
"How come the prince can speak it?"
"The prince and his father are considered to be the last legal Arlian citizens. The king always wanted to re-establish the country, but because of Nemis's infamous raids, all attempts to create an independent Arlia are seen as hostile by Orillians. The insurgents are counterproductive to their own cause."
"The insurgents don't see it that way, of course," Verdic interjected as he ground a bitter scented herb under his pestle. "Nemis and his followers refuse to accept King Corson's annexation of Arlia to Orillia. More importantly, they cannot accept an 'Orillian witch' as their queen."
"Is the queen really a witch?" Gloria asked.
Verdic smirked. "Only you could make that sound like an innocent question, my dear. The official answer, of course, is no. I can also say that I have known Queen Lidia for more than two decades, and I suspect her life would have been far easier if she were a witch. A lot more inconvenient courtiers would probably have found themselves transformed into something more befitting their personalities. Unfortunately for us, this is not the case."
Gloria set the mop aside since Kayley was still dribbling blood and bits on the floor as she worked. "I think the prince must have been testing me."
Kayley inspected a clump of entrails. "How so?"
"Well, he does not seem like the type to trust to chance, even if it is a likely chance. I think he must have told Balin something that would have upset me if I had understood it. But if I did understand, at least he would know I spoke Arlian."
Verdic grinned. "I applaud your reasoning. It's obvious that you understand the prince better than you do that mop."
Gloria started to answer, but out of the corner of her eye, she saw a flicker of red-gold scales. She made a split-second decision and quickly handed a surprised Verdic the mop. "Sorry, there's something I need to do."
"Now?" Kayley asked, but Gloria was already out the door.
Voice was not too keen on her sudden project either. =What could possess you to leave the protection of your friends?=
"They have been very kind to me," Gloria acknowledged. At her brisk pace she was now far enough down the empty corridor to speak without being overheard. "But the first person to be kind to me was also sent to kill me."
=That only means I was right about him, and you should have listened to me, just as you should listen to me now.=
"No, I was right. Balin never had any intention to kill me, or he would have done so. I will be in danger whether I stay in the clinic with my hands over my ears or if I try to understand what is wrong. I prefer the latter."
=What is your plan?=
"I believe that I have seen one of those dragonwolves that was following us on the mountain."
=And? All the more reason to stay with the others.=
"No, I intend to stalk it."
=Gloria, the prey cannot stalk the predator!=
"Exactly," Gloria said as she pushed open the door at the end of the narrow servant's corridor. It opened into the garden, and she squinted in the bright sunshine. "If I act as the predator, then I am no longer the prey."
Gloria also did not want her friends to be hurt by the dragonwolf. Despite what she told Voice about Balin being sent to kill her, she believed Kayley and Verdic were innocent. If she was going to face the creature, she would be sure they were not involved.
A number of lords and ladies were already ambling leisurely around the gardens. Any other time, Gloria might have marveled at the sheer size and beauty of Whitestone's grounds, but at that moment, all Gloria wanted to see was the dragonwolf.
The creature must not have come through the gardens, or there would be pandemonium. She circled the castle wall in search of the clinic's window and found it partially obscured by a hedge. The monster must have crept behind the bushes and out of sight of the garden's visitors. Gloria followed the line of hedges to a forest that bordered the garden to the west where she was able to make out the creature's trail. Flora had taught her how to track, and although Gloria's guardian had never been free with her compliments, she had often said that Gloria did it well.
A great oak grew at the edge of the forest, and Gloria scaled it in only a few heartbeats. She did not doubt that this creature could climb a tree, but she could tell from its trail that it hadn't y et. Even if it had climbed a tree later and doubled back to her, she would be able to escape it onto the thinner branches where its shape and weight would limit its movement.
From her high vantage point Gloria observed that there were several well worn paths between the trees branching off into a myriad of different directions, not just thin deer trails.
=Hunting paths,= Voice explained. =These woods are probably for large pleasure parties of hunters.= He gave Gloria an image of men on horseback with dogs chasing down a fox. The idea was so different from how she and Flora hunted that she could not believe it was really the same thing.
She scanned the forest below her, but it was free of any hunting parties. The trees were close enough together that Gloria could walk from one to the other without climbing down. Farther along the path the open hunting trails narrowed into deer paths and most of the light was blotted out by the ancient trees.
=Gloria, please, turn back.=
She only shook her head in reply. Voice could not see such a response, but she knew he would interpret her answer from her silence.
Gloria frowned at another tread mark, outside the dragonwolf's trail. But that couldn't be a forest animal. It was too … A long, serpentine neck of smooth cloud blue jutted up through the leaves in front of her, almost dislodging Gloria, and bright, lightning white eyes glared at her. This was not the dragonwolf she was seeking. This was a dragon!
It reached for her with one clawed hand, and Gloria backed away suddenly, falling from the tree. She rolled as she landed, and just as she hit the ground, the dragonwolf lunged out of the trees in a glimmer of ruby and gold. Gloria anticipated a strike at her throat and tried to protect her neck, but the dragonwolf leapt over her and stood between her and the blue dragon. Its ruby-armored legs were spread in a low crouch, and it growled, hissed, and spat at the much larger beast.
As Gloria was busy processing the oddity of her unexpected protector, the dragon spoke in low tones, like the last rumbles of a distant thunder, "Peace, little friend. I see that she is your charge. Just be sure that she stays where she belongs."
Then the dragon reached out and gently caught a lock of Gloria's copper hair on the the very tip of his talon. "My friend in the castle must not have been very happy to see you." The giant beast chuckled. Gloria was too paralyzed by shock to move, but the dragonwolf seemed to have calmed, it raised its head and stooped growling.
The larger dragon turned and disappeared into the undergrowth with astoundingly little noise, even as its head brushed the canopy. His sinuous form, though forbidding to behold, had the flexibility of the little salamanders Gloria had watched playing in the streams at home.
The dragonwolf nudged Gloria with its muzzle, and she couldn't help jerking back, but then she scolded herself and looked into its ruby eyes. Its gaze was deep and quite pretty now that she took the time to look. The lids were transparent and rolled up from the bottom, so it could stare perpetually even as it blinked a few times and then licked her face with a forked tongue.
Gloria laughed and reached up to stroke it along the side of the face, no longer any more frightened of this beast than she would have been of a puppy. The creature was a strangely harmonious mix of red-gold scales and silver-white fur. Its head and face was that of a dragon, much like pictures she had seen of dragons from the Farlands, with thin, jaundiced rope-like whiskers that covered the front of its wrinkled snout like a mustache.
Its back paws of lupine claws and front raptor talons dug playfully into the dirt as it leaned into her petting. A low, contented sound between a purr and a growl rumbled from its throat. As Gloria ran her hand over the back of its neck she came upon a cloth harness. Attached to the harness was a padded cylindrical holder which she opened and inside found a roll of parchment. She pulled out the paper, and to her surprise, her name was written clearly on the outside. The letter was in Flora's handwriting:
Do not be afraid! Though, if you are reading this, that warning is probably too late. Still, you may be relieved to know that what you probably think is a monster is actually my brother, Alex. I have sent him to give you this message because I have been kidnapped. But do not be alarmed. It is a strange sort of kidnapping, and while very disagreeable, I would not have you worry about me. On no account are you to come searching for me. I have sent Alex to prevent this and to protect you. Stay where you are. Be patient. I will come home.
With all my love.
Land protect you,
=It is just as I said. Even Flora sees reason where you do not.=
"Well, I could not very well have stayed in a burned down cottage where my attackers were likely to return." Gloria placed the letter in her pocket and shook as much dirt off her apron as she could. "You agreed to that. Besides, I'm not looking for her now. The prince has taken care of the search. I shall just have to ask him to send a letter with his party informing Flora of my current whereabouts."
There was a dark muttering in the back of her head but nothing coherent. That was how Voice sulked sometimes, so Gloria left him to it, turning her attention to her unlikely messenger. She looked at the dragonwolf in a new light. Was he really just an unfortunate human transformed? To be Flora's brother, he had to be human.
"What happened to you?" Gloria asked him sympathetically, but the creature only pawed the ground and grunted a little.
"Do you understand me? Can you write?"
The dragonwolf nodded once and then shook its head once. It could understand her, but it could not write.
"You are Flora's brother?"
"So you were human once?"
A shake of the head.
Gloria wished that she could ask more about that perplexing answer, but she knew that Alex could not explain. Instead she cast about for a reason Alex would have been in these woods. If he was supposed to deliver the message to her, what led him here?
Then she saw it, half cave, half burrow with signs of recent habitation. Alex walked over to the temporary home and nudged a branch into place over the arch of the cave. It made sense now. Alex had tried to deliver the message before when Balin had taken her. Then the dragonwolf had just followed her until he could try again. But he must have hidden here, knowing that the castle's residents would be even less welcoming of him than Gloria had been.
When she had seen Alex by the clinic window, he was probably searching for a way inside Whitestone Castle without being seen. After he saw Kayley and Verdic, he probably decided that he would have to wait until he could find Gloria alone. Despite his lack of spoken word, Gloria imagined he was just as intelligent as any human.
She stood and patted him on the head. "I'm sorry I ran from you. Flora never said she had a—well, she never told me about you." She put her hands on her hips and looked into the middle distance as if Flora were there somewhere, just out of reach. "It seems like there were a lot of things she didn't tell me."
Alex lowered his neck which raised the blades of his shoulders in a motion that resembled a shrug. Then he slunk back to his hole, turned around, and lay down in the opening.
"I am very sorry that I cannot take you inside with me, but I think that would take a lot of explaining, and I worry someone might try to hurt you."
Flora's brother opened his mouth in a yawn and licked his chops. Then he settled contentedly in the cool mud as if to tell her how much happier he was outside in any event.
Gloria chuckled and gave his head one last rub before she left. "I'm glad to see you can take care of yourself. I'll come to visit you, though, whenever I get the chance."
Apparently happy with this promise, Alex lay his head on his paws. His eyelids rolled up and turned slightly more opaque. Gloria guessed that he was sleeping. It had certainly been a lot of trouble for him to get this message to her. Alex snorted in his sleep, perhaps dreaming of winning a triumphant battle against a giant blue dragon in protection of his adopted niece.
Gloria hesitated, looking in the direction that the dragon had gone. There was nothing but trees and darkness now. She would love to know what the dragon was doing in the forest, but even she knew better than to stalk a creature of that size. Discovering the dragon's secret would take a little more planning than she had done to find Alex. Besides, Kayley and Verdic had probably long been wondering what had become of her. With a sigh she turned around and headed back toward the castle.
Two figures approached the queen's cell wearing dark cloaks and carrying covered lanterns. The queen did not look up from her writing, but she spoke as they came near, "How many times must I tell you that a cloak makes you less an object of stealth than running naked?"
The taller, broad-shouldered figure threw off his hood. "And I am sure you would prefer I do the latter."
The queen could not hide her smile anymore. She rose from her chair and ran to plant a kiss on her husband's mouth through the bars. "Well," she said huskily when she reluctantly pulled away, "I have been a long time in this cell and not allowed visitors."
The shorter figure, though he would not have been shorter if he stood beside anyone but the king, threw back his own hood. "It has not been above a half moon!" Horatio declared. "And I did not bring you two together so you could copulate like rabbits and make more sons to throw you into the dungeons."
The duke could not know the darker side of his jest. The king and queen had told the court that they were not likely to have more children because of how difficult Cinos's birth had been. The court did not know that this decision was actually a question of life and death for Lidia. In truth, Doctor Shamas had told Lidia that another child would kill her. Cinos would be alone, no siblings to take care of and every assassin's blade trained on him. This was a thought the queen was often reminded of when she had taken the medicine to prevent children.
Corson knew that, if he remained with her, he would never have another child. It was so important to have as many heirs as possible in the unstable time right after the war, that Lidia would not have blamed him if he had cast her off for another. She even offered to stay and be second to any wife. But Corson would have no other.
It seemed Corson had been remembering as well because he sympathetically wiped a tear from Lidia's cheek. Horatio, in spite of his normal gift for reading people, misinterpreted the emotion. "Yes, it is very hard to have such a son, but you mustn't blame yourselves. They say friends have more of an influence than parents. I promise, once I've had my fun, I'll put him back to rights."
Lidia sniffled but then smiled at the duke. "I can only suppose I owe this visit to you, Your Grace. I thank you for risking my son's wrath."
Corson turned a frown on the duke even as he held his wife's face through the bars. "I think he risks too much. I would have visited you by myself. He need not have become involved."
"Oh, but I do not worry as you do. Cinos would not do the same to me."
Corson snorted. "You trust to your friendship, perhaps?"
"No," Horatio drawled with a growing smile. "I trust to my diplomatic immunity."
Lidia grinned with sudden understanding and amusement. The Isle of Malleden, technically part of the Orillian Kingdom, was also its own city-state with its own independent government. Horatio was a prince in his own right, and as a result, he was not held to the same laws as the rest of the Orillians. Even the king himself could not boast such freedom. If Cinos threw Horatio in the dungeon, he would cause an incident with the Malledonians that could very well go beyond even the prince's capacity to control.
"I would not trust any diplomatic treaty around that boy," Corson said darkly. "He holds nothing sacred."
"All the same," Horatio answered cheerfully, "I have told Cinos's spy that, if the prince means to turn the king in for visiting his own wife, then I shall turn myself in as an accomplice. I hope His Highness does not object to being involved in my diplomatic immunity."
The king's countenance was humbled and less severe upon realizing how much he really was indebted to Horatio's kindness. "Thank you, Horatio."
The duke inclined his head. "I consider acts of goodwill to be my duty since Cinos has taken the opposite upon himself."
Corson smiled. "As such, your company will always be appreciated. However, I would like a few moments of privacy with my wife."
"Certainly," Horatio bowed and turned down the opposite corridor out of earshot.
Corson watched Horatio's lantern light fade and then turned to his wife, holding her face in both hands through the bars.
"Lidia," he murmured, resting his forehead on the cool iron so that his brow might be close to hers. "I should just change the law," he muttered mutinously, though he knew what Lidia would say. She reached out to touch his cheek.
"You know that you must not protect me any more than the law already allows. People still have not forgotten the Siren Queen, and Cinos knew exactly how to play on the court's fears of women in power. That is why I am here. It was bad enough when you took my family name after our marriage. Even the Orillians questioned that, and they only benefited. Anyone should have understood it would have been ridiculous for you to call yourself king of a fallen land. You may try to avoid it all you like, but you know how the court thinks, Corson."
The truth of this did not change how much it rankled that it was beyond his power to be closer to his wife than on the other side of a barred wall. Cinos kept the only key to Lidia's cell, and not even Horatio could come up with a clever idea for obtaining that. At least, no idea the king had allowed him to execute. Corson did not want Horatio to tempt the prince's hand anymore than he already had. All the same, the king did not bear the separation from his wife well. "Blast that boy! Would that he had never been b—."
Lidia pulled away suddenly. "Don't say it! Don't even think it!" Corson realized his mistake immediately.
"Lidia, please forgive me," he said looking at her wearily through the bars, "You know I did not—" Well, he could not say he did not mean it. Not completely. Not with how Cinos had turned out. The king heaved a sigh. "You know that I never blamed you."
The queen hugged her arms around herself as she turned away in agitation. "I blame myself. Every day."
"But it is not your fault!" Corson cried, wishing she would walk back to the bars again so he could at least touch her.
The queen whirled. There were faint circles of darkness around her eyes, and the brazier's light cast them in startling relief to her otherwise pale face. She could not have been sleeping well. "Isn't it? Maybe I couldn't have anymore children so that he could have had siblings to love and trust, but I could have been there for him. I should have been."
"But the war …" Corson began.
Lidia shook her head. "It was no excuse for me. After Cinos was born, I was confined to the castle while you went off to clean up what was left. I told myself that the work I was doing was important, but I could have delegated. I certainly should have after the first nurse tried to kill him."
Corson spread his hands. "If we couldn't even trust one woman with our child, then we certainly couldn't have trusted a bunch of two-faced lords with the country."
"Even if that's true," Lidia countered, "is it any wonder that he turned out the way he did?"
"Yes!" Corson insisted vehemently, clenching his hands around the bars of the cell. "I grew up on the bloody battlefield, and I didn't turn out that badly!"
Lidia put her hand to her head to massage a sudden pain. "I do not wish to fight with you."
"I don't wish to fight with you either." The king reached his hand through the bars. "Peace?"
Lidia put her own hand in his. "Peace." She sighed and came back to lean her head against the bars.
The king chuckled softly to himself, thinking it deeply ironic that Lidia would defend Cinos so vehemently even while she was in the cell where he put her. However, considering the argument they had just had, Corson did not think it would be wise to share that thought. When Lidia looked at him expectantly after his laugh, he merely said, "My sister and yours send their regards."
The queen did laugh at that. The Grand Duchesses Massey and Della had been enjoying their rise in consequence due to Lidia's imprisonment. Massey would approach anyone who would listen and tell them what a monster Cinos was and that she feared for the lives of her and her dear sister-in-law. Massey had also pleaded that Corson allow her and her husband to retire to their manor house for a time because she feared to be at court. The king had said that she could go, but then Massey recalled that she would miss the annual Victory Gala and had decided against leaving. Corson still recalled her frantic words which so contradicted his sister's unwillingness to give up any pleasure. "What if the prince should target me next? I am sure I am important enough, but I am not strong like Lidia. You know me, brother."
Yes, Corson knew his sister. It had been too late to try to change anything about her once he did. Corson had left for the war when Massey had still been a very little girl and had the potential to become a very good girl under proper guidance. Unfortunately, their mother had died, and their father had been too busy with the war to pay attention to his daughter. Massey had been raised by the court. By the time Corson came back it was to find a grown sister who, though outwardly elegant, was a complete loss the moment she opened her mouth. Her mind was one that had fed only on the confections of fashion and gossip for all of its formative years. She had also already lost her heart, and several other maidenly virtues, to half the men at court. Massey could be bought with a song, as was proven by a rather scandalous incident with a troupe of troubadours … Corson was still surprised that a man as sensible as Lord Lyle had ever been convinced to take her, even with her rank and dowry.
Della, on the other hand, was the other extreme. That woman was a dusty volume of strait-laced propriety. She had lectured her sister and him endlessly on what they were doing wrong as far as the official book of royal protocol was concerned. Corson could never read Della's face, possibly because it never changed. It had long ago frozen into her perpetual expression of disapproval. He suspected that if he could peek into Della's mind, he would see nothing but a long list of regulations next to a glass of lemon water.
Somehow, despite these differences, the two grand duchesses had become companions and were almost never seen apart. Corson could almost understand Massey's easy friendship. His sister needed people to tell her what to do, and Della was a choice candidate. However, he could not imagine that the two ever agreed on anything.
Corson twined his fingers around those of his wife and sighed deeply. "You know I will support you in anything; but is it truly impossible for you to tell Cinos the identity of your spy? Surely you are not plotting against the boy."
"Not you, too," Lidia groaned, closing her eyes. "Cinos comes down here regularly with similar arguments, and I tell him the same thing every time."
Corson raised his eyebrows. "Which is?"
"That I do not want him involved in my spy's current assignment. Cinos may think that he can handle anything, but I am still his mother, and I wish to protect him. If he knew what my spy was doing, he would want a hand in it. That is what I want to prevent. He puts himself in enough danger already. I will not put more on his plate."
"You let him imprison you so that you may protect him?!" Lidia looked into Corson's eyes, and he took a deep breath. "I am sorry, but I could never be like you, Lidia." Then, after he internally counted to ten, "May Iask what your spy's assignment is?"
"It has to do with Cinos's former wife and the Arlians. When Cinos and I were on better speaking terms with me, he told me that Mirah spoke Arlian. I have looked into the Arlians and her to the best of my ability."
Corson shivered. Even he had felt bad for Cinos after what that woman had done. "But Mirah is dead."
"Yes," Lidia conceded. "But whatever she was part of could still be alive. For the past few years I have even been led to believe that Nemis was connected somehow. He has several informants that we know, but there is one person we have yet to find. There is a leak in information that I could not track for some time. My spy has a lead as to who this traitor might be, but it was found just before I was thrown in here. It has been difficult to get much news since then."
"Wouldn't it only help Cinos to know this information?" As much as he doesn't deserve help, Corson thought to himself, I want my wife back.
Lidia shook her head. "That woman nearly killed Cinos once before. I will not give her another chance at it. She was Cinos's match. Her hand may be fatal even from the grave. It is no longer in my power to take revenge on her, but I mean for anyone involved with her to rue the day they even thought about hurting my son."
Corson sighed. Lidia had never forgiven herself for being involved in arranging the marriage that nearly killed Cinos.
"Well, at least tell me the identity of this possible traitor. I can have my own spy look into them."
Lidia looked away. "At this stage, I do not think that would be wise …"
The king straightened indignantly. "Lidia, I am a grown man. I can handle—"
"Please," Lidia said raising her hand to stop his words. "I know. That is not the reason. Please trust me for now. It is better if I do not tell you until I have all the evidence."
"Is it because of how I feel about Cinos? Lidia you know that I will protect my family no matter—"
"I know," Lidia cut him off sharply, her eyes wet.
Corson took another deep breath. This was clearly something political she thought he wouldn't understand, and she was already distressed enough. "Fine." Then, after a moment's tense silence. "What about your spy? Tell me who it is."
Lidia laughed this time instead of being upset, and that had been Corson's design. He did not know the identity of the queen's spy any more than she knew the identity of his. It was their mutual game to try and guess the spy of the other. Neither had ever succeeded. Or at least, if they had, the other never admitted it. Corson had his own spy look into some of the more promising leads, and he had still never found his wife's extra eyes in the court. He trusted Lidia, so it was only an enjoyable pass-time for him to guess.
"What about that nice little doctor girl?"
Lidia smirked. "No."
The queen chuckled. "No."
Corson looked hopeful. "Please, Lidia. I promise I wouldn't tell."
Lidia kissed him. "You would tell Cinos the moment you were away because you just want me back in your bed."
The king gave a growling laugh. He did not bother to defend himself because his wife was right.
Horatio did not mind leaving the king and queen to themselves because he thought he should visit Balin while he was in the dungeons.
"Good day, Commander."
The insurgent looked up as Horatio approached. "Dasya, Yon Graci."
The duke took a step back putting a hand to his heart. "I did not know we were playing the language game. Please, allow me to start again." Horatio then raised his hand solemnly, palm forward. Jilini,Sur-Carda-Solini-Mon!"
Horatio shook his head. "No, that is Carsdian. They're a small tribe of Nemuvway. They do not have military rank, however, so I had to improvise. I believe what I said roughly translates as, "Goats Well, Big-Sir-With-Long-Pointy-Stick."
Balin grinned. "I do not suppose you have one of those pointy sticks for me."
The duke pulled a package wrapped in cloth out of his cloak and handed it through the bars. "No. I have something better."
Balin pulled the twine and stared down at the soft, moist wheel of white in his hands. "Cheese?"
"Aaaand …" Horatio pulled out another package of freshly baked bread and a bottle. Horatio squinted at the label on the bottle. "I've been told this is a rather popular vintage among insurgents. Must be the hints of raspberry. Very rebellious fruit, the raspberry."
Balin's hand suddenly shot out and grabbed the bottle. He goggled at the label himself. "Ulshnyse!" Then he cleared his throat. "I am sorry. I forgot my manners. Thank you, this is all very kind, Your Grace."
Horatio retrieved a goblet for Balin from his very deep cloak pockets as he raised an eyebrow. "I am honored by the title, but I did not think that insurgents were supposed to acknowledge our 'degenerate monarchy' as I believe it is called by your uncle."
Balin poured the wine into his goblet. "I have always had great respect for the Malledens and your good character only seals it."
Horatio leaned back against the stone wall of the corridor. "I am glad to hear it. But I hope this is not an attempt to enlist our military aid. If that is the case, you are flattering the wrong man. I have some influence, it is true, but decisions, such as completely changing sides in a war, go to the head of the army. You would need to speak with General Ives. He is quite fond of daffodils, if that helps."
The Arlian commander tore off a piece of bread. "That is, again, very kind, but we will not be needing help." Balin raised the goblet to his lips, then stopped. "You have not brought a goblet for yourself."
"I had a rather unfortunate experience with wine some years back. I assure you, though, if I have poisoned it, I have chosen nothing but the very best."
Balin raised the goblet in a one-sided toast. "I am honored." He drained half the goblet and continued. "I know the Malledens well enough to be certain that, if you wanted me dead, you could have done it a lot more artfully than poison. "
"How long do you suppose we could go on complimenting each other?"
Balin smiled. "Until you run out of kind words for me, Your Grace."
"I have that affect on people." Horatio admitted. "But as much as I enjoy the flattery, I fear I must soon bid you farewell. Is there anything else you would like for your present comfort? More blankets? A brazier?"
Balin raised his hand. "Thank you again, but no. There is, however, the comfort of another who concerns me."
Horatio raised his eyebrows. "You have a large acquaintance here? I dare not think that you mean me to speak with insurgents."
Balin gripped the bars and leaned forward. "You know that I would not tell you of any loyal Arlians in your midst. I refer to a girl named Gloria. She followed me here, and she is not involved with the Arlians or myself in any way. By some mischance, Nemis and your Advocate Prince have taken an interest in her. I know that you have influence with the prince."
"I do," Horatio acknowledged. "But I assure you, while Cinos may seem entirely black of heart, he can have no reason to hurt—"
"He has threatened to kill her."
Horatio seemed to absorb this information slowly. "That … does not seem like him at all. Can you recall the exact words he said? With Cinos, the words are often far more important than what you think they mean."
"Very well," Balin said. "But I feel the exact words will require some explanation. Otherwise, I may seem blacker of heart than your prince." Horatio nodded for him to continue, and Balin explained, "Gloria's friend has been kidnapped by Nemis. I knew of this, and I was personally sent to … take care of the girl."
"I take it that does not mean you were to help her with the farm chores while she was alone."
Balin nodded grimly. "But I could not hurt her. Instead I helped her reach town and hoped that would be the end of her troubles. I intended to report that she was dead. Nemis cannot be seen near Whitestone, so I had no fears he would search for her there. You know the rest of my problems and how I was found. What you cannot know is that Gloria figured out that I was not merely taking a pleasure ride in cursed mountains, and she suspected I knew something of Flora. She made a deal with the prince—"
"Yes," Balin said with irritation. "But it could be her death. She thought I had some material reason for saving her that she might bargain with. But when I told her that it was only her safety from Nemis that interested me, she threatened to find another Arlian to tell her where Nemis was hiding Flora. I was afraid she would be able to find someone more than happy to give her to Nemis, but I couldn't very well tell her Nemis's location. Fortunately, I did know Flora wasn't with him. Nemis told me Flora was being used to deal with the sirens. I fear he may be working on a plot with the sirens, and I did not want Gloria involved in it. I thought it was better if I could somehow get the prince interested in the case and have him send a search party."
"In other words," Horatio said coolly, "You thought you might send several innocent Orillian men into an unknown, potentially dangerous situation which could end up being very like an ambush with both Arlians and sirens."
Balin had enough shame to look away. "It was not the best decision. But can't you at least see that it is better that a team of trained soldiers go into that situation than one young girl?"
The duke inclined his head. "Very well. But what did Cinos say?"
"The threat was conditional. If this is a trap, he will kill Gloria."
Horatio did not receive this news with his normal levity, but he nodded to acknowledge that he understood. "He knows you to be an honorable man, not likely to wish the death of an innocent. However, you do not know everything about the situation. You fear the prince could believe you are to blame if things go wrong. You dare not warn him because you also fear he may hurt Gloria if he suspects you of lying to him. Is that the gist of it?"
"That is the whole of it." Balin said with some relief. "Will you help?"
The duke's mischievous spark returned. "Certainly. But only if you do not take offense when I double the guard on your cell. I imagine you will escape regardless, but it is the look of the thing. You understand."
Balin blinked. "I am afraid I do not. What would make you think I could escape?"
"I heard from the good doctor that you sacrificed yourself for this girl."
The Arlian commander smiled wryly. "And you do not think that I would do such a thing unless I could get out of it."
"Oh no. That was Doctor Crow's opinion. I think you are planning to escape because you did not eat your cheese. That is a fine Malledonian cheese, Commander. A good soldier knows that it also travels well. I can only conclude you mean to save it for your trip."
Balin opened his mouth, but the duke had already turned away and started down the corridor. "Farewell, Commander. Good journey."
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