Saturday, 16 February 2013

Traitor Blood (SPOILER for the Traitor Blade series)


Ronaldo filled a flask with his best wine and reached to gather two beakers. He fumbled and one beaker slipped from his grasp. It hit the tiled floor with a hollow clang. Ronaldo cursed softly and looked to the cause of his distraction, a table at the far end of the narrow tavern where his newest customer was waiting to be served.

The man held a dagger, twirling it between his fingers and stabbing the blade into the table. The thud of blade into wood was unnerving, perhaps raising a memory of the softer sound of blade into flesh, especially when the thrust was repeated over and over. It was not the damage to his property that upset Ronaldo, though at this rate the table would be holed through, but years spent in a small dark bar set on the edge of a minor seaport town in the tumultuous kingdom of Cyrenne had given Ronaldo an exceptional instinct for danger.

The trouble was that, in the end, such an instinct provided little protection. The men, and sometimes women, who scared him were the ones he was least likely to offend. There was no question of asking them to leave his establishment. This man, with a stubble of dark hair and an ugly scar running from his chin to disappear beneath his shirt, alerted all Ronaldo's natural caution. The glitter of the blade in the man's hand aroused more primal instincts.

The chatter in the bar had lessened considerably, and some customers, prone to the same instincts as Ronaldo, had already slipped away, leaving the room near deserted. The loss of trade was not the innkeep's greatest concern.

As he approached the table, Ronaldo found it hard to keep his eyes from the blade. He set down the wine and beakers carefully. Normally he would make some effort to wipe the table but he refrained, fearing it might seem a reproach for the splintered woodwork.

"Will there be anything else, my lord?" Here was another thing. Despite the man's dress and appearance, which marked him as the roughest mercenary, Ronaldo was sure that his unsettling customer was well bred, perhaps dangerously so. The nobility of Cyrenne often had need to leave the realm in secret and the minor port of Farock with its mix of trading and fishing vessels was a good place to slip away anonymously, or to enter Cyrenne unnoticed.

"Food when my friend arrives." It was a cultured voice but the accent defied Ronaldo's ear. Up close he saw the man was younger than he had thought.

"You are meeting a friend, my lord, how pleasant." Ronaldo took a breath and tried not to babble. He had no cook or serving girl at this time of day, and nothing suitable to serve. "What refreshment will you require?" He shuffled back half a step as the man turned a cold blue gaze upon him. A killer's eyes, Ronaldo thought.

"Bring us what you have, he's not fussy," said the man, smiling at some private joke.

The smile was nearly as disconcerting as the blade. Ronaldo was spared the need to answer as the door, swollen from the winter rain, opened reluctantly.

A golden haired man entered. He was dressed in leggings and a jacket of the softest grey leather. Ronaldo could not imagine what animal had given its hide to make such magnificent garments.

The newcomer did not look impressed by his surroundings. He had the pale coloring of Cyrenne or of the lands across the narrow sea, but his skin was darkened by a dessert sun. He wore rings and a long blade with an extravagantly worked hilt studded with jewels. In contrast to his appearance he scanned the room with a soldier's caution and moved with a warrior's grace. Despite the contrast between the two men, Ronaldo did not doubt that this was the expected friend.

The man rose to greet the newcomer who approached, silent, unsmiling. The men touched fists and embraced briefly. Watching, Ronaldo was moved by the intensity of this greeting; he could not decide if it made him more or less anxious about these unlikely customers.

The dark haired man turned back to him. "Bring us the best you have," he said softly.

Ronaldo bowed; embarrassed by this action he glanced towards his other remaining customers then hurried away to send out for food he might dare to serve.


Angelo de Loristen sprawled in a chair and took a moment to settle his sword more comfortably. "This is the best you can do?" he asked, looking around. He laid a scroll and a packet of papers on the table. "You look like shit."

Edouard ignored the comment and the scroll with the royal seal of Allesarion alongside the dark seal of the chief magister. "You have news from home?" he asked. The dagger was still in his hand.

With a glance to check they would not be overheard, Angelo spoke softly, "The army of Ettivar is gathering. By spring King William will have thirty thousand men or more ready to cross the border."

Edouard said nothing, but the blade flashed and stabbed deep into the wood. The table shuddered softly with the impact. "How many men can Ferdinand raise?"

Angelo shrugged. He indicated the packet of papers lying close to the sealed scroll, glancing around again before he spoke. "Shamet has sent you the latest reports, all the details."

"How many?" Edouard asked tersely.

"Perhaps ten thousand." Angelo plucked the dagger from the wood and laid it on the table. "Etrives is still weak and the plague ravaged the south last year." He gave helpless shrug.

Edouard eyed the packet of papers but left it where it lay. He had heard enough.

There had been no battles between the old enemies, Valderon and Ettivar, last year; the plague had cut deep through both realms. Of the two Valderon was more greatly weakened, her armies already depleted by losses in recent wars. It was a devastating reversal. A few years ago Valderon had threatened to overrun Ettivar, raiding into William's lands each summer, laying siege to important cities and ports. All that had changed after the defeat at Ralmadre.

Edouard knew this history too well.

He picked up the dagger and turned it idly between his hands. "You will go home and to join army," he said, more command than question.

Angelo nodded. He looked around the bar, near empty now. "Your father has been made Marechal, supreme commander alongside the Duke de Etrives. It is rumored that Ferdinand will join them in the field."

"Old men," said Edouard.

Angelo grinned without mirth. "And you would tell them that?"

"I should think they know it well enough."

Angelo started to speak, thought better of whatever he had been going to say, and eventually said mildly, "They have experience."

Edouard shrugged. "And my brothers will join them." Again it was not a question. Edouard knew that Charles, for all his distaste for martial matters, would join the army, no knight would stand aside at such a time, and Louis and Henri, his youngest brothers, were of an age now. The blade thudded into the wood.

After a few moments silence, Angelo said, "You cannot return while Ferdinand lives," He spoke harshly, hearing what had not been spoken. "And perhaps not openly when he is dead."

"I know. I'm not a fool."

Angelo's lips quirked in the slightest of smiles, but he made no jibe, and all trace of humor disappeared as he studied the other man. A tense silence fell between them. Angelo reached for the flask and poured wine.

"When will you leave for home?" Edouard asked.

"When this hunt is done." Angelo indicated the scroll with its royal seal.

"I have no need of you." Edouard paused in his stabbing and spoke more softly. "I hunt best alone."

Angelo's grin was sharp as broken glass. He raised his beaker. "To the hunt."

They each emptied a beaker. Angelo poured again, carelessly, until each beaker overflowed.

Edouard let the beaker stand. "You'll return to Valderon now." This was spoken with command, he continued with less certainty. "To whom will you go?"

After a moment's hesitation Angelo said, "I have written to your father."

Edouard nodded. It was the answer he had expected, however hard to hear. He lifted the beaker and drank. They sat in more companionable silence for a while. The innkeeper brought platters of cold meat and freshly baked bread. When they were alone, Angelo indicated the papers and scroll.

"When this is done you are to return to Allesarion," he said.

"No, it is too dangerous," Edouard snarled.

"It is the Queen's command."

"What is she thinking? I cannot return." Edouard shifted, holding the dagger as if it was hard to restrain some violent urge.

"Enough time has passed. You will not be recognized in Allesarion."

"I will not take that risk."

"It is a royal command, I do not think you can refuse," said Angelo. He grinned. "There is no chance you will be recognized. Your own father would not…" The grin faded. "You look like a destitute warrior monk." He hesitated. "Edouard de Chamfort is five years dead."

"Then why should I not return to Valderon and fight against Ettivar?"

"You know the answer as well as I," Angelo said softly.

"You set more value on my name than skill?" Edouard gave a growl of laughter. "There are many these past five years who would disagree."

"If discovered you risk the accord between your father and King Ferdinand. And you cannot kill the whole army of Ettivar," he took a breath, carefully calm. "Your value to Valderon is to be known and to lead men. That cannot happen." He fell silent watching Edouard, knowing he could not deny the truth of this, and all it meant.

After a moment's silence Edouard said, "I could kill William of Ettivar." The words fell softly between them. "He has no son of age."


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