The Kingdom of Woodlands is at the end of a 10-year war, which resulted in the formation of a new social class called the heroes. People are vying for power in the new regime.
In this chapter, Gerhard, the advisor of a hero company, trades information with a fellow Guild member Ariga. Gerhard intends to uncover information about the noble families, especially the Skyroots, to prepare for a political dinner event, while Ariga is in the midst of investigating another hero leader, Thornston, for raiding a village. The discussion leaves Gerhard pondering the significance of Thornston's acts, especially after one of his own company members is caught thieving.
At the same time, Gerhard’s commander, Golzar, is meeting the Queen to discuss an offer of a position as palace bodyguard, which Golzar prefers to decline. The Queen’s attendant, Myra, guards them from far away and prevents another person of influence, the Lord Steward Raymond, from interfering in their conversation.
It was midday when David arrived, having finished the task Gerhard had set him a few weeks before. His grey-green eyes scanned the training grounds. When they landed on Gerhard, he came bounding down the corridor, a stack of papers clutched tightly in his hands.
David was naturally pudgy, he remembered, so it was a good sign to see the young man filling out again. He even had a pink flush to his cheeks.
Gerhard waved him over with a weak smile.
He had been sitting on the step that bordered the training grounds for quite sometime. The stone was beginning to warm underneath him. Silently, Gerhard cursed his knee injury. And then, he cursed himself for attempting to talk - however telepathically - to a body part of his that could not talk back. The most he could do was consult a Witch about it.
Witches from the Witches’ Guild tended to come to Lucrece in one month of each season. They would gather in the wing of the High Tower that accommodated them, and debate with Old Wizards, or sell their cures and advice throughout the city. This trade of theirs made them disdained by the Old Wizards, as well as some of the priests, but Gerhard's village had always trusted their methods. In any case, that would all have to wait. It wasn't the right month for them yet.
"You doing alright, sir?"
Gerhard gave him a hard nod. With one hand he accepted the sheave of papers and quickly began to leaf through them.
The observations on Thornston and his gang were concise, yet filled with telling details. He had been spotted selling a couple of farming tools at the market recently. He had been spotted sending couriers to the Guild's warehouses. He had been spotting the folds of several rumours travelling from the villages that were raided recently. Overall, he was just everywhere to do with this mess.
"Thank you, David," Gerhard said. If he didn’t know any better, Gerhard would have thought this would be enough to dismantle the Lions. Unfortunately, Gerhard thought to himself, knowing better was sort of his specialty. Except, of course, during the moments when people went wrong. He shook his head, clearing the memory of Thornston’s youth from his mind.
David frowned suddenly. “Sir, do you think we’ll fight him?”
Gerhard’s gaze flickered upwards to meet David’s. He seemed to be speaking in earnest, his tone suddenly sharp. A pang pulled at Gerhard’s heart, and a sense of cold dread began to pool in his stomach. Yes, the battlefield could never leave a person once they had been infused with it. But it was always so sad, and so cruel to see his men – boys, really – turn to the sword, to thievery, to hoarding coin at a moment’s sign of danger.
“I don’t know,” Gerhard said, because he had learnt not to make promises.
David sat with him after that, not saying anything, until the others finished preparing the wagon to go to the city. Before he left, Gerhard put a hand on David’s shoulder and squeezed slightly. It was going to be a long day.
At Neverheim’s Lover, there was a backroom that Gerhard was always careful to use. It was small, hidden behind a decorative bronze shield. The wall where the shield was attached could actually be pushed back – essentially it was a door – but the shield and its intricate carvings gave of an air that said ‘do not touch’, and so most people left it alone. The barkeep nodded at him, and allowed him to sneak in. No one saw, because it was mid-afternoon and most people would have been done with lunch by then.
Outside, a gale blew so ferociously, that the sound of howling seeped in through the walls. Hopefully, it would cover up whatever they were discussing from any curious ears outside. Gerhard was familiar with trading information like this. Ariga had asked for a spy to track Thornston’s movements, in return for whatever knowledge she had of the noble guests Golzar would have to navigate in planning and hosting her inauguration dinner.
Gerhard sat in that room waiting for Ariga. As he did, he thought about the past. He remembered many an afternoon like this one, which they spent out on the grassy hills, surrounding a small table or mat, answering letters and missives. The orange light on their backs.
When Ariga arrived, she found Gerhard sitting with his chin in his hands, staring at a spot on the table. She slid into her seat.
“So,” she said. “What is it you want to know?”
Gerhard swallowed. He regarded Ariga as coolly as he could. “Things were a lot different during my inauguration. My understanding is that the ceremonies now are bit more advanced.”
“Oh yes,” Ariga laughed. “They are.”
The last ceremonies he’d been to all were inaugurating new commanders, but not a new member of the Guild Council. The latter sort demanded a more rigorous eye.
“I’ve invited Lord and Lady Skyroot . . . and the daughter.” Gerhard shuddered internally remembering the meeting with Dene Skyroot at the palace.
A grin spread over Ariga’s face. She nodded in mock sympathy. “Tough luck. She’ll probably try to marry somebody.”
Gerhard shot her a look that had ‘not funny’ burnt into it in fire-writing and underlined five or six times. He couldn’t imagine one of the Miscreants marrying into nobility and then having all the class purists out for their skin for ‘contaminating’ their ranks. He couldn’t bear it.
Ariga went on. “The Skyroots, yes . . . they do not enjoy mock-ups made of their silver oak tree and the blue-grey coat-of-arms, they consider it plagiarism.”
Gerhard narrowed his eyes. This was basic information. Only heroes accepted mock-ups made of their symbols, which were used to welcome them into a reclaimed village during the war. If a noble family did the same, well, it would be like lowering themselves to the level of chevalier. He thought again about Dene Skyroot and Ariga’s joke about a marriage offer. An unpleasant vice gripped at his chest. He knew this feeling. That familiar hatred, that familiar contempt he had whenever he saw those blue suits striding past, as though the entire world belonged to them.
“Lord Skyroot is also very particular about his daughter. That, or he’s careless.” Ariga shrugged and smiled. “Depends on your perspective.”
“That’s very vague.”
“Truth is, the Skyroots are good at keeping their secrets, Gerhard. If you want to know, you can’t ask anyone directly. Anyone but . . .”
She slid over a sheet of parchment with a list of names. “These are important members of the palace staff. The Skyroots’ retainers are unlikely to give anything away about their masters, but those in the palace have no such obligation.”
She pointed to the first name on the list, ‘Reiner’. “This guy’s the head of kitchen staff. I would say it’ll be hard to get an audience with him, but . . . “
“Bribery.” Gerhard nodded. “Thank you.”
Ariga gave an amused huff.
They sat quietly for a while. Ariga was a bit taller than Gerhard, and she had been hunching down slightly to make eye contact with him. Now, she stretched and rubbed the back of her neck, her eyes drifting to one corner of the ceiling. “Say, Gerhard . . . You seem awfully good at all this, for how much you loathe it.”
Gerhard looked at her. “Forgive me, what?”
A laugh. “Nothing. I’m just thinking about irony.”
When a tavern girl appeared in the room, tray in her hands, Ariga accepted a glass of spiced wine from her. As she sipped, Gerhard watched her sharply. He still remembered what William said.
Ariga and William rarely argued. It often seemed to Gerhard that Ariga cared little as to what William decided for the Guild.
“How about your side of the bargain?” Ariga said, quirking a brow.
“Here.” Gerhard slid the stack of papers containing David’s observations over to her.
“Hmm.” Ariga accepted the papers and flipped through them. “We’re still investigating the raids. This will come in handy.”
Ariga sighed. “Do you ever remember Thornston? When he first came here?”
“I do,” Gerhard said. Ariga grinned back.
“Good kid he was, huh? Didn’t expect him to make this sort of trouble. Especially not to people he owes his life to.”
Gerhard realised she was not talking about the farmers they’d stolen from, but the Guild itself.
“Ungrateful,” Ariga scowled. “Hope you’ll excuse me. I’ll have to go and mend ties with that village now. Clean up the brat’s mess.” A casual wave of the hand, and Ariga was draining her glass of wine. She stood up and turned away.
Ariga slipped out through the door, not looking back.
The walk to the palace was quiet. It was late afternoon, and the light had turned a burnished orange. A crisp hue, like something caramelised. Golzar kept a thumb on her glass charm, absently playing with it where it rested in her pouch.
She had eaten in at Neverheim’s Lover, which was nearly empty at that hour. The wooden mask was heavy, but bringing it kept her from missing her pre-mealtime prayer. This, along with her charm and some copper coins, were some of the many things she had stuffed into her purse, which she hid from prying eyes and hands with the breadth of her ochre cloak.
She walked past the stables. The old man who watched the horses was shovelling dung. He raised a hand at her in greeting. She waved back.
When she arrived at the foot of the hill, the sun was low in the sky. A cool spring breeze blew past, carrying with it some dandelion fluff.
Golzar climbed the hill and entered the palace compound.
The gardens stretched nearly all of the way around the courtyard and the House of Periwinkles. She took a small side path, one laid out in unassuming grey tiles, and ducked under top-heavy plants to reach the place Lucretia had told her about.
Lucretia was waiting in a small section of the garden. Here, the canopy of creepers had not been damaged at all, and it grew lush and green, shielding them on all sides. Only spots of sunlight made it through.
The Queen was wrapped in a dark-coloured evening cloak, much more appropriate for the time of day than Golzar’s ochre one, she realised. But it was too late for her to take her own cloak off and hide it, she realised, even if she was willing to brave the cold. Instead, she approached, with a slow, even step, and bowed politely.
Lucretia had told her to leave her with Golzar, but Myra was still lingering at the edge of the garden. She could see the silhouette of the commander enter the labyrinth – one very short silhouette, just a bit shorter than her Grace. Truth be told, Myra was not there to reckon with Golzar. Her doubts about the woman lingered, even as she had uncompromising faith in her Grace. She told herself it was only inevitable that she be concerned for Lucretia. After all, they had known each other since childhood.
Myra stood, watching the sky change its colour from the orange of sunset to the deepening purple of dusk. The sound of footsteps alerted her.
She spun around to see the tall figure of Lord Steward Raymond emerging from the direction of the courtyard. His face was red.
“Good evening, Myra.” He narrowed his eyes.
“My lord,” Myra smiled. She folded her hands at her waist and bowed.
Raymond’s posture was coiled up and tense. “Where is her Grace? I wish to apologise for my unseemly demeanour at the meeting earlier.”
“Her Grace is in the midst of a walk, my lord. She wishes not to be disturbed.”
“Very well.” Raymond coughed lightly. The heat seemed to fade from his cheeks.
“Myra,” he said, his tone having lost its anger. The timbre of his voice was positively silky, even. “What do you know of Dame Golzar?”
“Her Grace is meeting with her now. She is the hero of the Battle of Lucrece. An important person.”
Myra knew Raymond had switched around the Queen’s schedule to ensure Golzar to get that first meeting with Lucretia. And if her hunch was correct, Golzar had asked him to do it. Why he acquiesced was a mystery, however. Still, Myra got the sense, looking at his hard eyes now, that he had gotten the short end of the stick in that bargain with the renowned hero.
When Raymond became quiet, Myra took a deep breath and continued. “I am unsure what you expected to hear from someone of my standing, my lord.”
Skeptical brown eyes turned down to look at her. Raymond put his hands in the folds of his robe, on either side of his body. He looked briefly at the labyrinth. “I suppose I will speak to her Grace tomorrow.”
Finally, Raymond left, squaring his shoulders. He did well making a sleek exit from a loss, Myra thought. It was better than some she had seen over the years, managing her Grace’s schedule. With a smile, she turned back to the gardens, the dark coil of the labyrinth, and began to hum a tune while she waited.
The long winding corridors of the courtyard drove Gerhard mad. Whenever he closed his eyes, all he could see were blue-grey squares and empty plant pots.
Finally, he arrived at a small door that led to the quarters of the head of the kitchen staff. He knocked on the door.
Inside, a balding man, part of his head gleaming ochre in the light, was waiting. The room was a light blue. A round window let in the sun.
Gerhard pushed the packet of spices over to him. He had gotten them at a lower price than usual at the city’s marina, owed to his status as a hero. Reiner accepted the spices and appraised them with a whiff and a look at their colour, a bright red. Satisfied, he nodded, and began to talk.
Bribes and favours were the language of court, here, especially since the war. So many things were in short supply. There was enough to appease heroes and serfs, but the freepersons and nobility who were used to having things far better than easy were not easily convinced that the state of the new Queen’s reign was necessarily the best one for them. Even those who had fought against King Korvus would grumble – mainly, Gerhard suspected, because they thought they could do a better job in the Queen’s stead.
“Pay attention,” Reiner said. “I shan’t assume any knowledge on your part, but I’ve been working here since the previous king’s reign, so you must forgive me if I gloss over a few things too quickly for a beginner.”
“I’m all ears.”
“The Skyroots have a penchant for all things fine and furry. That means elk meat. Preferably washed down with spiced wine, before and after the dish is served, as is done among the manors of the Tapestry.”
Gerhard scribbled things down on the back of an old parchment he had used to record a supplies list once, at a battle some years ago. He’d kept the piece of parchment, as he’d only filled in one of its sides and it seemed a shame to just throw it away. He wrote in small, close lettering. Not a calligraphic masterpiece, but it was economical.
“The Brookwoods enjoy fresh fruit, especially foreign fruit,” Reiner said.
Gerhard wrote that down with a frown. It was nigh impossible for someone of his standing to procure foreign fruit fresh. That would take either a visit to the palace gardener, who would be hard pressed to part with any lemons, given that only a small fraction of the lemon trees remained after the destruction from the war. Gerhard had seen them while on a trip here earlier on to procure information about the nobles.
“As for the wine?”
Reiner concealed a laugh. “They would be content with whatever you serve the Skyroots.”
The frown on Gerhard’s face was deepening, but he rapidly schooled his face into a mask of neutrality.
There was a knock on the door, which caught Reiner’s attention. “It’s not locked!”
A young girl, with a cloth covering her auburn hair, rushed in with a tray of tea. She set it down on the table between Gerhard and Reiner, bowing slightly to Reiner as she backed away. She stopped when she saw Gerhard. Wide brown eyes regarded him. “Sir! I didn’t realise . . . “
She didn’t get to finish her sentence, because Reiner was already waving his hand, sending her out.
Gerhard figured she recognised him as being from a hero company. He had worn the Miscreants’ colours, which were typical for those of the hero class.
“Right, where were we . . . “
Reiner paused, almost pensive. Then, a scowl crossed his face. “This is for some arcane Heroes’ Guild ritual, is it not?
Just as suddenly, Reiner laughed. “I don’t suppose you have a cook amongst yourselves?”
Gerhard shook his head.
“Then I don’t suppose you’ll carry this out very easily.”
The Miscreants had received a large stipend from the war, but a lot of it was needed for medical costs. Gerhard also hoped to send Tanya and some of the other younger ones for apprenticeships with freepersons in the capital, so that they would have a backup plan in case being the Queen’s loyal dogs didn’t quite pan out as they wanted.
So no, they did not have a designated cook, nor did they have the money to hire a very good one.
“Thank you for your time.”
Reiner huffed, and turned around. He called out to the young girl who worked for him and told her to carry a message to the kitchen hands.
Gerhard exhaled. The pit of his stomach flared with an acidic tang. His next stop was to visit some nobles in the gardens near the House of Red Roses, and the thought filled him with nervous energy. The evening was dragging on, waves of sunset falling upon the grass and cobblestone. A cool breeze made his cloak flutter.
It would have been better, he realised, if he had brought someone with him. Maybe Bryn or David. Robert would have been good company. He shook his head, chuckling. He knew very well why he had come alone, and that was because he was afraid of something being messed up, being disturbed. Too many cooks spoil the broth. But even if there was one cook, spoiling the broth would be all too easy in this case.
As he walked on, he saw the three nobles there where his information said they would be. He couldn’t arrange an appointment for his purposes, but he could listen in inconspicuously on their conversation. The short plump man with the scar on his left cheek was waiting for him, garden rake in hand. Together with him Gerhard could feign minding his own business while eavesdropping on the nobles. The gardening assistant handed him packets of seeds he could pretend to be inspecting.
He hid behind a rose bush, cringing a little at the sight of those sharp thorns. There was a myth around these parts that roses that grew in the palace had sharper thorns than they did at the other noble gardens throughout Lucrece. Gerhard didn’t consider himself a botanist by any means, however, so he could only trust popular opinion.
The nobles appeared, walking along the garden path. Lady Branchlee was wearing an afternoon cloak, pale yellow, over the blue of her dress. She spoke with the lords in an even, cultivated tone.
“Miriam’s company seems poised to have another ‘Sailor of Zenith’ staged by the end of the spring.”
Lord Thornlee, who had traded his usual blue uniform for a more celebratory dark lilac robe, nodded, his beard bobbing. “Yes, they performed that one excellently last autumn. Despite the shortages.”
“I predict this one will draw in a larger crowd,” Lord Brookwood said. He was the only one who had yet to change out of his official garbs for the day, the pressed blue robe and silver cloak giving him a stately appearance. His black hair was neatly combed and his sideburns came to a point. He looked at Lord Thornlee, whose lips were pursed thoughtfully.
“Did you see the performance of ‘Battle of Lucrece’?”
“No, but I’ve heard very good things,” Lady Branchlee said. A smile crossed her face. “Lady Redvine wrote to me about it from Rosaheim.”
“Lady Redvine? Well, then it must be good.”
“The Rosaheim companies are using this script as well, hmm? Miriam must be ecstatic.”
Gerhard frowned. He ran his finger over a sunflower seed. It wasn’t too soon for plays to come out about their final battle, not at all. Still, hearing about it felt strange, to say the least. The memory of those weeks played at the corner of his mind, and he shook his head, as if that could chase the old patterns away.
He would have to see if he could arrange ‘Sailor of Zenith’ to be performed at the dinner, if maybe, not by the largest theatre company this side of Woodlands.
The cage of leaves made it difficult to see outside or inside of this section of the garden. It must have once been a labyrinth, the kind that Golzar remembered seeing in the Tapestry. She could see how the slightly charred frame would lead walkers round and round, until they reached the centre, and then lead them out again. It was unnerving, like being caught in a tunnel, even though she knew she could find the exit.
Through the patterns, Golzar could see that the sky had turned a startling dark. Lucretia was biding her time, trying to press an answer out of her. The glass charm in her purse had gone ice cold, and she was still fiddling with it, grasping it within a clenched fist. She forced herself to let go and remove her hand from the purse.
“Your Grace, I wonder if sandpipers work best apart.”
Lucretia looked at her through the corners of her eyes. The black cloak swished slightly as she continued to walk. “Hmm?”
“If the male and the female stay too closely together, is that not a waste of the female’s talents?” Golzar said, clasping her hands behind her back. Above, a loud drum resounded, as a storm began to brew. “After all, she can hunt for more food further away.”
“I wonder which manner of sandpiper you refer to, Commander,” Lucretia’s polished voice cut through the noise. “Some of them take turns to remain at the nest and for others only the female cares for the young.”
Golzar’s brow furrowed. She knew royalty must have had a lot of time to sit back and study, but Lucretia’s knowledge was truly vast. Not only was she adept with the books of statescraft, she had knowledge of plants and animals surpassing anyone Golzar had met so far – save for actual botanists.
“Ah, it seems you exceed me in natural metaphor, your Grace.”
“It’s no surprise. You deal in swords and pretty words, not birds.” Now Lucretia looked Golzar in the eye. Golzar saw the purple flash of her dress underneath the cloak as the Queen turned slightly towards her. “If you wish to reject my offer, then say so.”
“Your Grace, a rejection is not what I have in mind, I am merely asking you to reconsider – “
“The consideration is yours.” Fine eyebrows arched upwards on that small forehead, and Golzar’s gaze fell slightly. “Either a yes or no.”
Golzar felt her mouth go dry, even as she smiled indulgently. “Yes.”
Lucretia chuckled, a low noise for someone as delicate-looking as she was. Lightning flashed in the sky, illuminating her face in white. “You don’t suppose you’ll be able to do much with William around, do you? I thought you were smarter than that.”
Although Lucretia was right, Golzar could feel the sharp prick of fear and doubt in her chest. The Lucretia of today seemed different than the Lucretia of the last meeting. This Lucretia had stopped with the nostalgia, the reminiscing and moved straight for what she wanted. It wasn’t that Golzar hadn’t sensed that aura about her before, but it was like the light had shone on the other side of a pearl and given it a different bluish tint.
It aggravated her, yet it spurred her forward. Golzar turned her gaze to the front, watching the shadows of the leaves dance across the cobbles. She nodded slowly. “One cannot disobey one’s superior.”
Of course, she had disobeyed William in the past, often without him knowing, but it would do her good to let Lucretia think she would be an easy pawn. Although, Golzar thought to herself. If Lucretia could see through it, the whole disguise would be pointless.
She glanced at Lucretia’s expression, which remained stone cold, unchanging. It was different from how she appeared before her public, or when Golzar saw her walking with an entourage.
Golzar would have to step carefully. But to her, it was better than staying still. It had to be. The rain began to pour.
Gerhard was thinking about what Ariga said about Thornston, as he trudged his way through the corridor, heading towards the common room.
Was it his fault? He wondered such things sometimes. The curved, craggy shape of Woodlands in his memory moved past him, the headlands towards the sea, the blue cracks they called rivers, the arm extending out into the northwest and into Tome. All this while, he’d assumed the heroes would stick together. Had to stick together.
When they’d met Thornston, Gerhard had caught him the first night trying to steal a small sack of wheat from the supplies. The young man had been small, skinny, they way they’d all been under Korvus. And Gerhard had taken one look at him, and gestured for him to leave. He’d let him go.
Now Gerhard looked at the small contraption Alexis had found under Robert’s sleeping furs. He sighed, looking up at the ceiling. Old habits really were hard to break.
Robert stood beside him, red in the face and eyes downcast. “I thought no one would notice. They had tens of these, I-I swear, I just didn’t think they would miss it.”
Gerhard watched him impassively. “I will return this to the merchants tomorrow, and you will come with me, understood? To apologise.”
The pepper grinder was heavy in his hand. Honestly, if he thought about it, it didn’t make sense for Robert to even want such a thing. All the pepper they used came ready-made. Freshly-ground pepper was something no hero would ever think about. But Gerhard knew all too well the effects of hunger. One took anything one could, whenever one could. Regardless of its value.
He looked up at the Grey Hound Company’s sigil, on the black flag hanging on the wall. He knew they couldn’t afford to be the same threadbare fighters running all across the country anymore. This city wouldn’t allow it. And in no matter what circumstance, Gerhard needed to make sure his own were protected.