The blast of trumpets blared out from the walls of Castle Tredel, echoing over the countryside. The carriage swept up the path to the castle while Lord Merek leaned out of the window, smiling. Finally, he was here.
As the castle’s gatehouse loomed up before him, the lord leaned farther out the window to get a better look at it. He’d seen the gatehouse often enough on his previous visits to the castle, but still the sight of the three story structure with its stately twin towers managed to impress him.
Maybe it was its sheer size that attracted his attention, or perhaps it was the fact that this visit was not like his other ones. In the past, he’d come here merely to pay his respects to the king and queen. But this time that was not the case.
No, this time was different.
They’d think that he was here to pay his usual yearly visit, but really he’d be looking over the castle, searching for weaknesses in it that he might exploit later. It did not matter what form they came in: structural defects, servants who’d perform favors for a little money, nobles willing to spread certain rumors in exchange for important positions…
He would take advantage of any opportunity that presented itself.
And using his own high status, he’d also take the chance to get better acquainted with the royal family and determine if any of them posed any significant obstacle to his plans. The king and queen he knew well enough, but he’d still never talked face to face with either the princess—a silly girl of no importance—or Prince Mark, the heir to the throne.
Considering the latter’s age and important position, it was rather odd that Merek had never met him. But whenever the lord had come to visit before, the prince had always been busy doing something else. Well, no matter, this time he should have his opportunity. The king and queen surely could not refuse his request to meet their heir.
The carriage rumbled up the castle’s main avenue under a line of gold and scarlet trees. It drew to a halt before Tredel’s imposing keep, and a servant leapt down to open the carriage door. As Merek stepped down from the carriage, he was met by a smaller, wiry man hastening down the keep’s sweeping stone steps.
“Ah, Merek, there you are! Whatever has kept you? I thought you’d never arrive.”
Merek fixed a frosty smile on his face, even as he inwardly scoffed at the other man’s outfit: a garish tangerine doublet paired with a mauve sash and a black velvet cloak trimmed with fur.
“Count Rein, I’m surprised that you’ve arrived before me,” he remarked. “Doesn’t your castle lie farther away from Tredel than mine?”
Rein laughed and waved his hand dismissively. “Yes, but what does distance matter? The hard part isn’t the distance, Merek; it’s breaking away from business. And since I have a smaller estate to manage than you, it only follows that I should be able to arrive at Tredel earlier than you.”
Merek merely nodded. Rein was just making excuses. The count had almost certainly planned to arrive at Castle Tredel before him, probably to take full advantage of the king’s generous hospitality.
“So, tell me your news, Merek,” Rein said as they walked up the keep steps. “Is the wine making season over? Or are you still filling more casks with the fruits of your harvest?”
“My steward and workers attend to that problem,” Merek rejoined coolly. “I am involved in other business.”
“Ah, then it must be very important to take you away from your wine making. Does it concern the king, perhaps?”
Merek abruptly swung on the other man, a fire blazing in his ebony eyes. He would have seized the count’s arm and given it a hard twist, but the presence of some guards standing near the keep door stopped him.
“Rein,” he whispered fiercely, “let me give you some advice. Keep that wagging tongue of yours in check, or else you may find yourself hanging by a noose.”
Rein and Merek locked eyes for a long moment. Then a grim smile touched Rein’s lips. “That’s kind advice,” the count replied. “Now, if you’ll pardon my impertinence, let me give you some in return.
“Don’t threaten me, Merek. Before I came here, I told some of my intimate friends about your little plan concerning Favian. I also made a few promises to them so that they’d support it.
“But suppose something were to happen to me and I was unable to keep those promises? And suppose they suspected the reason for my untimely death? Don’t you think that they’d seek to avenge this wrong by bringing a complaint to the king?”
Merek cursed under his breath. Blast this cunning fox. What a fool he’d been to trust this man.
Rein’s smile deepened, and he turned away, laughing softly. “Come, Merek, let’s not argue,” he said. “The king is waiting to receive you.”
Merek cursed again and followed Rein inside the keep’s double doors to the Great Hall, where King Favian and Queen Arianna typically received their guests.
As they entered the hall, a cavernous room of unequaled proportions, Merek paused to glance around. Though he’d seen the hall many times before during his visits to Castle Tredel, never before had its beauty struck him as it did now. Thick, towering columns, stained glass windows, a floor of gray marble with unusual streaks of blue… All were gorgeous beyond compare.
And yet it was not just the beauty that attracted his eye. It was the power it conveyed as well.
For Tredel was not just another castle. It was the seat of Gerdia’s ruler, and King Favian and his ancestors made sure the fact was known.
No expense had been spared when it came to adorning the castle, especially after Favian assumed the throne. Every time Merek visited Castle Tredel, he found that something had been changed: new statues had been added, the furniture was rearranged, the gardens had been expanded.
And this time was no different, for as his eyes wandered around the hall, he spotted a banner hanging over the high table. It was long, woven in the shape of a shield, and bore Favian’s crest of a crossed sword and rose.
As he looked at it, Merek’s lips twisted into a sneer of disgust. The sword was fine. It was an elegant weapon borne by a man of power.
But the rose…
Bah, it was a weak thing, a flower that bloomed one day and was crushed underfoot the next. Only a weak man would bear a crest with that symbol.
And Favian was a weak man. After his coronation fifteen years ago, he’d foolishly begun to undermine the political system of Gerdia. Castle Tredel’s court, once the center of Gerdia’s royalty, had been corrupted as the king threw open the doors of his Great Hall to commoners, exotic foreigners, and other unsuitable persons.
When he’d first beheld the strange mix of people mingling together at Castle Tredel, Merek had been overwhelmed with disgust. But after some time, he’d sensed what an opportunity it presented.
Slowly, patiently, he’d reached out to other nobles, men like himself who were not pleased with the king’s decisions. With great deftness, he’d painted them a portrait of the havoc Favian would bring upon Gerdia, seizing power from the nobles and giving it to the commoners in an effort to create a society where everyone was equal. Surely, he’d argued, they could not allow this treachery. For if they did, the whole of Gerdia would collapse.
And, bit by bit, the nobles had come to believe him. Now it would not be long. Soon they’d gather their army together and march on Castle Tredel. Favian would fall, the king’s allies would be destroyed, and this castle and all its riches would be his.
At this last thought, Merek unconsciously smiled and looked around the hall, thinking of all the changes he’d make. First, he’d burn that silly banner with the sword and rose crest. Then he’d change out some of the statues and tapestries and…
“Beautiful, isn’t it, Merek?” Rein’s quiet voice interrupted. “A man would risk many things to possess power such as this, don’t you think?”
Merek immediately turned on the other man and flushed with anger as he spotted the small, cunning smile on Rein’s lips. Scowling, he stepped closer to the other man, growling,
“Rein, you blazing oaf. If you don’t quiet that tongue, I’ll…”
“Look, Merek!” Rein cut in. “There are the king and queen! Come, hurry! I’m sure they’re most eager to see you.”
Merek glared at Rein, but bit his tongue as he saw the royal couple approaching. The lord drew himself up stiffly, while Rein stepped forward and delivered an elegant bow to King Favian and his wife.
“Your Majesties, what a pleasure to see you again!” he said. “Please pardon my forwardness, but I have just had a most wonderful surprise. I was heading outside, and who should I meet but my friend Merek on his way in? Truly, it caught me completely off guard. I had no idea that he would be visiting here at the same time.”
“I’m glad to hear that, Rein,” Favian replied with a warm smile. “It’s always a pleasure when one unexpectedly meets an old friend.”
“Especially one as kind as Merek,” Rein added with a pleasant laugh.
“Yes, of course. Welcome to Castle Tredel, my lord,” Favian added to Merek. “I hope your journey here was not too hard?”
“Not at all, Your Majesty,” Merek answered with a cold bow of his head. “Rein would have far more difficulty traveling here,” he added pointedly.
Rein ignored Merek’s remark and addressed himself to the queen. “Your Majesty, I beg you not to think me impertinent in saying this, but that is a beautiful gown. I’ve never seen such a pretty sea-green silk. And the silver embroidering! It’s so delicate. I cannot imagine how much it must have cost.”
Arianna’s brow wrinkled slightly at Rein’s bold compliment. “Thank you,” she said evenly, gazing with distaste at the garishly dressed count. “I am very fond of this dress, especially since it was a gift from my husband.”
“That’s why it’s so costly,” Favian added. “If you ever marry, Rein, you’ll find that it’s a bad idea to buy cheap presents for your wife. Women have a talent for calculating exactly how much a gift costs.”
Rein laughed a little and bowed his head, obediently backing off from his object of admiration. Glancing around, he sought for something else to talk about and saw a group of young people taking dance lessons on the opposite side of the hall.
“Excuse me, but isn’t one of those dancers your son?” he asked, gesturing to the young people.
The others glanced over at the dancers. “Yes,” Favian said. “Conrad’s the one dancing with the blond girl.”
“He’s an excellent dancer,” Rein observed as they watched the prince laughing and twirling his partner around. “He’s very light on his feet. And he moves so easily with his partner that I’m inclined to think him a natural.”
“Yes, he is,” Arianna immediately agreed. “I’ve never seen someone who dances so well as Conrad.”
Rein just smiled as her voice softened and her pale blue eyes lit with motherly pride. There was no question which of the royal children was the queen’s favorite.
The next instant, however, Arianna’s smile disappeared as a cry of laughter echoed through the hall. A slim girl with a mass of auburn hair and a dress stained with mud and grass flew in through the hall’s open doors. Catching sight of her parents, she stopped short. But after a moment’s thought, she shrugged and dashed away towards the opposite end of the hall, safely out of reach of her mother’s withering gaze.
“Your daughter?” Merek coolly inquired of the king and queen.
“Yes,” Arianna replied, a flush creeping into her cheeks. “That’s Arabella. Please excuse her appearance,” she added. “She’s a rather impulsive girl who does not always think before she acts.”
“I thought she looked most charming,” Rein answered smoothly. “If I had a daughter, I’d rather have a cheerful, pretty girl like that than an elegant, ill-bred peacock.”
“What about Prince Mark?” Merek asked, sweeping his hard gaze around the hall. “Do you know where he is? I’ve never talked with him before, so it would give me great pleasure if you introduced me to him.”
Favian and Arianna exchanged a quick, uneasy glance. “I’d be glad to introduce you to him, my lord,” Favian said hesitantly, “but I’m afraid it’s not possible right now. I believe Prince Mark is busy with his lessons.”
“Still?” Rein remarked, stroking his beaked nose thoughtfully. “It’s rather late in the afternoon for lessons.”
“Yes, but His Highness enjoys studying. He’s always been fond of books.”
Merek nodded, but a frown on his face betrayed his annoyance. Turning away, he departed without a word.
Rein also bowed his head and, excusing himself, drifted off to another part of the hall to talk with some other nobles. After he left, Arianna turned to Favian, her mouth set in a thin line of displeasure.
“That went over well,” she remarked. “So, you still have no idea where Mark is?”
Favian shook his head, running a hand through his blond hair in exasperation. “No, I last saw him this morning at breakfast. Since then, he’s disappeared. I asked the guards if they knew where he was, but none of them can remember seeing him recently.”
“Then he’s probably out riding and getting into trouble. And if he’s out riding, Tybalt’s with him,” Arianna added sourly.
“That’s not a bad thing,” Favian said. “Tybalt’s a good fighter, even with that wound in his leg. Mark’s perfectly safe if he’s with him.”
Arianna sniffed and turned away, irritated. “I hope so,” she said.
“Well,” Tybalt remarked dryly, “it looks like you’ve finally dried out. Shall we go home now?”
Mark shook his head and stretched his hands out to the crackling fire, shivering a little in the crisp fall air. “No, let’s stay here. I’m not ready to head back yet.”
Tybalt nodded and sat back down on a moss-covered log, stretching his long legs out in front of him. Opposite him, Mark pulled his mentor’s cloak closer about his body and grimaced.
“What is it?” Tybalt said, the lines on his craggy face deepening with concern. “Is your side injured?”
“No, I’m fine,” Mark lied. “It’s just a bruise.”
“And that’s why you don’t lean over in your saddle while we’re crossing a stream,” Tybalt replied. “You have to be careful when you’re riding Aquila, Mark. He’s a high-strung horse.”
Mark nodded glumly and rubbed his aching shoulder, trying to determine how badly it was injured. Immediately, he regretted the movement as pain flared up in his shoulder. Grimacing, he dropped his hand in his lap.
“Are you sure you’re fine?” Tybalt asked his student.
“Yes,” Mark muttered. “My shoulder just aches.”
Tybalt rose and walked over to the prince, limping a bit from an old wound in his leg. Drawing back Mark’s cloak, he pressed the prince’s shoulder gently. Mark immediately winced and pushed his mentor’s hand away.
“Careful!” the prince snapped. “That hurts.”
Tybalt frowned and stroked his long sandy mustache just like he always did when Mark annoyed him. “Of course it hurts,” he said. “You fell off a horse. Don’t lie to me,” he added. “If I ask you if something hurts, tell me the truth.”
Mark dropped his head, unable to meet Tybalt’s stern gaze. For a second the knight regarded him with thoughtful gray eyes. Then Tybalt’s frown disappeared and he touched Mark’s arm.
“Come,” he said. “Let’s go home.”
Mark rose and retrieved his own cloak from where it hung on a nearby tree, still drying. He started to unclasp Tybalt’s cloak, but a word from the knight stopped him.
“No, keep it on. You need it to stay warm.”
“Thank you,” Mark answered, mustering a weak smile. “Can I come to your quarters when we get home?” he added. “I don’t want Mother to find out about this accident.”
“Nor do I,” Tybalt agreed. “She’d blame me and say that I let you fall in the stream.”
Mark grinned. “Well, you did let Conrad fall in one once, though I think he deserved it.”
“Of course he deserved it. He should have known that he couldn’t make that leap across the brook.”
“I don’t think he regrets trying it, though. Conrad never lets the past bother him.”
“An unfortunate thing,” Tybalt said shortly.
“Why?” Mark asked as he untied his bay stallion from a tree. “People always say that you shouldn’t let your mind linger on the past.”
Tybalt remained silent and scooped up his shield, which bore his crest of a scarlet griffin surrounded a circle of ivy leaves. As he gazed at his mentor’s shield, Mark remembered Tybalt explaining the meaning of the crest to him. The scarlet griffin symbolized a brave and vigilant warrior. The circlet of ivy represented his lasting friendship with the king.
As he thought about this, Mark picked up his own shield and glanced at its crest of a crossed sword and rose. Several months ago, he’d received the shield as a gift from his father on his eighteenth birthday. It had been a great surprise as he hadn’t expected to bear the crest until he was twenty-one. But his father had had other ideas about the matter.
“It’s time you had this,” Favian had said. “I know that you normally wouldn’t receive it until you’re twenty-one, but age did not matter to me when I made this decision. What mattered to me was your character.
“You may be only eighteen, Mark, but you already possess the strength, courage, and willingness to sacrifice that this crest symbolizes. And since you have these qualities, it’s time you shared in your family’s honor and bore the Sword and Rose.”
Mark started to smile at the memory, only to stop as he remembered Tybalt’s reaction to his father’s gift.
“So your father gave you the crest,” Tybalt had said flatly.
“Yes,” Mark replied, surprised by Tybalt’s cold reaction. “I had no idea that he was going to give me this shield as a present.”
“I did,” Tybalt said. “Your father asked me beforehand whether I thought he should give you the crest. I told him no.”
Mark flushed and stared at his mentor, puzzled and hurt. “No?” he retorted. “Why not? Do you think I’m not ready to bear it?”
Tybalt placed a hand on his student’s shoulder and pressed it a little to soothe him. “No,” he said quietly, “it’s not that you’re not ready. It’s that I don’t want you to bear the crest.”
“Why not?” Mark demanded.
“Because it paints a target on your back.”
“A target? What do you mean?”
Tybalt, however, had turned away, refusing to explain any further. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
As he recalled this conversation with his mentor, Mark’s brow creased with a frown. What could Tybalt have meant by his cryptic replies? Was he worried about something? Was the knight trying to shield him from something?
“Mark,” Tybalt’s patient voice interrupted, “we need to head home. The sun’s almost set.”
Mark quickly slung his shield over his shoulder, wincing again as the bruised area throbbed with pain. Placing a foot in his stirrup, he swung up into the saddle, settling himself lightly on Aquila’s back.
As he flicked his reins and rode towards the border of the woods with Tybalt, his mentor suddenly spoke up. “Mark, you’re very fond of that shield, aren’t you?”
Mark glanced at the knight, startled by the question. “Yes. Why?”
“Do you understand what the symbolism means?” Tybalt asked.
“Of course. Why?”
“Repeat it to me,” Tybalt said.
Mark hesitated a moment, then shrugged. “The sword is from my father and symbolizes strength and courage. The rose is from my mother and symbolizes sacrifice. The two symbols are crossed to represent the union of my parents’ families.”
“What color is the rose?”
“Because it symbolizes the shedding of one’s blood. Why are you asking these questions?” Mark added impatiently. “Are you not telling me something?”
Tybalt edged his horse closer to the prince’s in response and lowered his voice to make sure that only his student could hear him. “Mark, do you remember how we were talking about Conrad and you said that he doesn’t let the past bother him?”
“Well, it’s not that you should let the past linger in your mind, but you shouldn’t forget it either. That’s your parents’ problem—they don’t remember the events of the past.”
“What kind of events?”
“The wars,” Tybalt said darkly, “and the suffering and bloodshed. Peace isn’t the normal state of things in the world, Mark. If you want it, you must work for it. Your ancestors knew that—much of their blood was spilled as they struggled to unite Gerdia together in one country.
“Your parents, however, have never had to face that trial. Theirs has been a peaceful reign, untouched by war. But knowing how the course of the world runs, it makes me fear that there will be much bloodshed when the time arrives for you to assume the throne.”
Mark bit his lip and played with his reins, unwilling to pursue this topic. After a short silence, he remembered a question that had entered his mind earlier but which he hadn’t raised yet.
“Why did you want to take me out riding today?” the prince asked. “You seemed very keen to get me away from my lessons.”
“I wanted to get you away from the castle.”
“Because Lord Merek arrived today to pay his yearly visit to your father.”
“Lord Merek? Who’s he?”
“The owner of Castle Dunkart in southern Gerdia. Stay away from him, Mark,” Tybalt warned. “Merek is not a man who can be trusted.”
Mark frowned. “Why not? Do you hold some grudge against him?”
“One might say that,” Tybalt growled. “You see this old wound in my thigh? I’ve told you before that I acquired it during a joust. But what I didn’t mention was that my competitor was Merek.”
“He cheated?” Mark asked, the corners of his mouth tightening with anger.
Tybalt shook his head. “No, Merek does not cheat. He simply possesses a great amount of strength and skill that he makes use of without scruples.
“It was close to a decade ago when we were competing together at a tournament. Merek decided to challenge your father, forgetting that I was there to fight in the king’s place, which I did.
“Merek was young at the time, so I was surprised by his skill. We ran three passes down the tilt barrier with neither of us knocking the other out of the saddle. Then, according to the rules, we switched to fighting on foot with blunted swords.
“It was during that contest that Merek managed to inflict this blow on my leg. Since the sword tips were blunted, we were only dressed in short hauberks, plus some light plate armor on our arms and lower legs. During the fight, the tip of Merek’s sword slipped under the lower edge of my hauberk and penetrated my thigh.”
Mark flinched at this and rubbed his own thigh, wondering what such a blow felt like. “How did the joust end?” he asked. “Did Merek lose?”
“Yes,” Tybalt said dryly, “and Merek took it quite badly. Up to that point, he had been undefeated, and since then I don’t think he’s lost a joust. I’m the only one who’s ever defeated him in a match.”
Mark started to nod, then stopped short as something else occurred to him. “Tybalt, have I ever met Merek?”
“No, I don’t believe so.”
“But…but then you’re the reason I’ve never met him.”
Tybalt raised an eyebrow. “What an astute observation,” he remarked. “How did you figure that out?”
“Because I’m always with you when Merek visits. If we’re not out riding, then I’m practicing with you or doing my lessons in your quarters. I can’t believe I never realized that before,” Mark added, scratching his head in bewilderment.
“People always miss the things right under their noses,” Tybalt answered with smile of amusement. “Besides, it’d be hard for you to notice. Merek only visits once a year, after all.”
“Or you’re just a crafty fox,” Mark rejoined. “At least that’s what Mother always calls you.”
“Your mother is a very bothersome woman,” Tybalt retorted. “She’s the reason your brother is able to skip sword practice.”
“Well, you can’t exactly blame her, considering how you’re the one who’s helped me escape all those dance lessons.”
“And it hasn’t caused you an ounce of harm. Conrad, on the other hand, very well might end up dead someday just because his mother let him miss sword practice.”
Mark grinned. “Wait till I repeat that one to her. I’m sure she’ll have some kind words for you.”
“Tell her,” Tybalt shot back. “Then I’ll tell her how her elder son, the crown prince of Gerdia, fell into a stream simply because he wanted to watch the fish circling about in the water.”
“She’d still blame you for not saving me.”
Tybalt shrugged. “Then I’ll tell your sister. She’ll laugh at your performance.”
Mark glared at his mentor. “Don’t you dare. Else I’ll let that madcap loose in your quarters and we’ll discover what sort of wonderful tricks she can play on you.”
Just then, the pair crested a hill and found the massive towers of Castle Tredel looming before them. Mark drew rein and sighed as he gazed upon the walls with their flickering lines of torches.
“I wish we didn’t have to head back,” he told his mentor. “It’s so much better when we’re here out in the world, away from the people and their talk.”
“It’s safer too,” Tybalt added.
“Safer?” Mark said with an uneasy glance at Tybalt’s hard, craggy face.
“Yes. Royal courts are hotbeds of politics and scheming. You don’t see all of it, Mark, because you’re the crown prince and the people restrain their talk around you. But I’m an old knight, and I hear what they discuss. Trust me, the court’s a dangerous place. You always need to be on your guard because you never know what dangers might be lurking around the next corner.”
Mark’s mouth went dry and his heart began to pound. He’d never considered his home to be a dangerous place with its thick walls, looming towers, and countless guards. But then there were so many people… Suppose an intruder slipped in to hunt down him or one of his family. It wouldn’t be too hard for the man to mingle with the court. Suppose the man had a knife and slipped close enough to one of them. Suppose that he…
Tybalt’s calm voice cut through the cloud of worries and startled Mark back to the present. He felt a firm hand on his arm, and turning, looked into his mentor’s steady eyes.
“Mark,” Tybalt repeated quietly.
“What?” the prince gulped.
“Listen to me. I’m not trying to scare you. I just want you to be on your guard. I don’t want you to be like your parents and not pay attention to your surroundings.”
Mark nodded, reassured.
Tybalt smiled and patted his student’s shoulder, only to make Mark wince.
“Your shoulder still hurts?” the knight asked with a frown.
“Only a bit,” Mark muttered.
“Let’s head back,” Tybalt said. “I’ll take a look at your shoulder in my quarters.”
Mark gathered up his reins and cantered after his mentor towards the path leading up to the castle. They were halfway up the dirt path when Tybalt suddenly stopped short and glanced at his student.
“Mark, one more thing. Do you know Count Rein?”
“Count Rein?” Mark scoffed. “Isn’t he the fool who dresses in the garish outfits?”
“He’s not a fool,” Tybalt rejoined sharply. “He only acts that way. Trust me, Mark, that count has more wits and cunning than any of the nobles at Castle Tredel. Never take a step near him. His craftiness very well might land you in the Wolf’s jaws.”
“The Wolf?” Mark repeated nervously.
“Merek. His crest is a wolf’s head.”
“But how do you know that Rein’s connected with him?”
“I don’t,” Tybalt muttered. “I don’t know anything. I only suspect. But that is enough…”
Supper was over and servants were replenishing the torches in the Great Hall as Rein and some other nobles sat at a table playing cards. Nearby, Merek leaned against a column, observing the game.
“Well, that was a delightful meal,” Rein remarked as he gathered up the pile of cards. “I’ve never seen such an interesting array of food in my life.”
“Interesting is one way to describe the cooking,” Baron Lombard answered dryly, “though I think repulsive or sickening might be better words.”
“Why? Did you not like the swan?”
“The swan was fine,” Lord Gerulf retorted. “I don’t care if he serves it with the feathers on. I do hate it, though, when they ruin perfectly good venison by cooking it in a mint and cheese sauce.”
“Don’t forget the cream tarts with ginger and basil,” Sir Erwin added. “The mere sight of the food is enough to make you sick.”
Rein shrugged. “Well, I won’t disagree with you. The chef does have his shortcomings. But I do wonder, if nobody likes his cooking, why does the king not replace him?”
“Favian’s too kind,” Gerulf sneered. “He thinks that since his father hired the chef, then he should keep the man as his cook.”
“He won’t even listen to his wife,” Lombard added. “The queen has harassed him for years to get rid of the chef, but he ignores her. Poor woman. She can’t get a decent meal in her own castle.”
While the men talked, Merek kept his gaze fixed on Rein. The lord’s eyes narrowed as he watched Rein shuffling the cards, swiftly moving them from one hand to another. Was he imagining it or had Rein’s hand strayed towards the sleeve of his tangerine doublet?
Rein began dealing out the cards, then paused and glanced at the lord sitting to his right. “Gerulf,” he said, “I hate to trouble you, but could you call a servant over here? My goblet is rather low on wine.”
Gerulf nodded and turned away, searching for a servant. Over by the column, Merek focused all his attention on Rein’s hands.
The next instant, his eyes lit up as he spotted Rein dealing out a card from the bottom of the deck to the lord. Ah, so it wasn’t his imagination! Rein was cheating.
At this, Merek’s lips twisted into a sneer of disgust. Coward. Rein was just like the fox on his crest, slinking about and surviving by his craftiness. And, like the fox, he’d never amount to anything.
Merek departed, leaving the card players to their game. For some time the men played in silence. Then the round ended and Baron Lombard spoke up.
“Well, it’s certainly your night for winning, Rein,” he remarked as he pushed a pile of silver coins towards the count. “We’ve had ten deals and you’ve only lost two.”
“You’re not cheating, are you?” Gerulf added with a frown.
Rein shook his head, smiling. “Cheating?” he purred. “No, it’s only luck tonight, my friends. Pure and simple luck.”
“Then be kind and share some of it with us. We need it.”
“Perhaps I shall,” Rein rejoined with a laugh. “But first satisfy my curiosity and answer a question. Do you know where Prince Mark is? I thought it strange that he didn’t come to supper.”
“He’s probably out riding with Sir Tybalt,” Sir Erwin said. “Prince Mark spends a lot of time with him.”
“Tybalt? Wasn’t he the king’s champion?”
“Yes. Until Merek wounded him,” came the sour reply.
“Yet King Favian decided to have him train his son, even though he can no longer fight?”
“Not fight?” Erwin scoffed. “No, you are mistaken. Tybalt can fight. Even with that wound in his leg, he’s still a more dangerous opponent than most of the knights here at Tredel.”
“Prince Mark isn’t bad with a sword either,” Baron Lombard added. “Tybalt has trained him very well.”
“You’re acquainted with the prince?” Rein asked.
Lombard shrugged and leaned back comfortably in his chair. “Only a little. Prince Mark likes to keep to himself. I’ve visited Tredel many times, but rarely I do speak with him during my visits. Mostly I see the king and queen and Prince Conrad.”
“That is strange,” Rein observed. “One would think that the heir to the throne would take a more active role in the court.”
“Yes, but Prince Mark is very reserved,” Erwin said. “He’d rather avoid the court if he can, especially since he has a brother to assume his role.”
“But how can he avoid the court? Doesn’t he have an obligation to be here?”
“Tybalt helps him escape it. He prefers that Prince Mark spend his time riding or practicing with his sword rather than talking and dancing.”
“But what about the king and queen?” Rein asked as he took a sip of wine. “Don’t they want their heir to assume a greater role in their court?”
“The king and queen are not close to Prince Mark,” Erwin said dryly. “Tybalt takes better care of him than they do.”
Rein raised an eyebrow in disbelief, so Erwin continued. “Prince Mark has always had a difficult relationship with his parents. You do not see it when they are in front of the court; they try to hide it. But everyone here at the court senses the tension between them.”
Erwin frowned. “The queen does not always speak well of Prince Mark when he is absent from the room. She does not outright criticize him, but her displeasure shows plainly enough in smaller remarks. For instance, she’ll say that she wished Prince Mark had more friends like Prince Conrad. Or she’ll remark that he’s not as fine a dancer as his brother.”
Rein nodded and stroked his beaked nose thoughtfully. “What about the king? You said that Prince Mark also had a difficult relationship with him.”
“Not as bad as with his mother,” Erwin replied. “Their difficulties lie in another direction.
“Favian’s problem is that he doesn’t understand politics. When he hears of an argument between two of his vassals, he’ll spend days worrying about it, struggling to resolve the issue in a fair manner.
“Prince Mark is the exact opposite. He’ll listen to the argument, think about it, and reach a solution. He doesn’t worry about whether one party feels that it’s being treated coldly or not. His focus is simply on reaching a just decision.”
“You seem to like Prince Mark a great deal,” Rein said.
Erwin nodded firmly. “I do. He’s a man in whom one can place trust and confidence. He’ll make a fine king when he’s crowned.”
Rein smiled as he scooped up the cards and began shuffling them again. “Yes, that will be a wonderful day indeed,” he answered pleasantly. “Though of course for our king’s sake we hope it doesn’t come too soon.”
“Of course,” Gerulf agreed with a thin smile.
The observer’s uneasiness increased as he shifted his gaze to directly below his position, where Merek was talking with the king and queen. Dropping to a prone position, the man crept forward and strained his ears to hear their conversation.
“My lord, I’m sorry,” Favian said nervously. “Like you, I’m surprised that he didn’t appear this evening.”
“Does he often do this?” came Merek’s cold reply.
“No, not that often. Usually he is very prompt in attending to his duties.”
“We will talk with him,” Arianna promised. “In the meantime, please forgive him. He’s only eighteen. You know how careless young people can be, my lord.”
“Even those who are crown princes,” Merek answered curtly.
With that, the lord bowed his head and departed, leaving the flustered couple behind him.
“Favian,” Arianna exclaimed angrily as soon as Merek was out of earshot, “this must stop. We cannot let Mark keep embarrassing us like this. It’s a disgrace to our family.”
“He doesn’t mean to embarrass us, Arianna. He didn’t know that Merek was coming to visit. He probably just wanted to enjoy a day to himself.”
“Enjoy a day to himself?” Arianna retorted. “Favian, he can’t do that. He’s our heir. He has a duty to be here whether he wants to or not.
“I wish he were more like Conrad,” she continued. “Conrad doesn’t go running off to unknown places every time the fancy enters his head. And he possesses far better manners than Mark.”
“And oddly enough, Conrad is just like you,” Favian replied with a frown. “Where’s Ara?” he added. “Did she go to bed?”
“I don’t know,” Arianna said irately. “She’s probably getting into trouble, though, just like Mark. Conrad’s the only one we can rely on to fulfill his duties.”
“Except for sword practice,” Favian answered dryly. “Tybalt told me yesterday that he’s skipped three lessons.”
“Of course he skips lessons. Look at how Tybalt treats him. Every time they finish sword practice, Conrad looks like he’s going to collapse.”
“That’s because he doesn’t practice enough. If he practiced more, he wouldn’t find it so exhausting.”
Arianna just sniffed and stalked off from her husband.
Up in the gallery, the observer shook his head at the scene. Drawing back into the shadows, he rose and searched the room for Merek. In a moment, he spotted the lord’s towering figure striding towards the hall’s main doors.
The man breathed a sigh of relief. Good. Lord Merek was retiring. Now it would be safe for Prince Mark to return.
The observer glanced at the darkened stained glass windows in the hall and wondered if Tybalt and the prince had finished their ride yet. Probably. If so, then they had surely locked themselves up in the refuge of Tybalt’s quarters. But perhaps he should visit the stables just to be sure.
First, though, he had a letter to write to his friend. His fears about Merek and Rein might be groundless, but he still ought to let his friend know of them. They could not afford for anything to happen at the Gerdian court. The consequences could be disastrous for Orrenda.
The man was ready to leave, then abruptly stopped as his quick eye caught a glimpse of movement near the high table. Turning back, he spotted a slender figure with auburn hair creeping out from under the table. At the sight of her, he frowned. What was the madcap up to now?
He ran his gaze along the table, but didn’t see anything unusual. He chewed his lip, thinking, then smiled as he recalled an incident from last week.
The chairs! Last week, she’d left a pine cone lying on each one, which unfortunately her mother had failed to notice before sitting down. Now she’d likely left another present for her family members.
“Mischievous madcap,” the man murmured. “You never learn your lesson, do you? Well, fortunately a kind friend is here to save you. He’ll right this trick before it lands you in trouble.”
With that, the observer slipped away.
Over in Tybalt’s quarters, a game of chess was ending. “Not again,” Mark groaned as Tybalt checkmated his king. “That’s the fifth time in a row you’ve beaten me.”
“It’s your own fault,” Tybalt dryly remarked. “You were so focused on keeping my queen cornered that you let this pawn slip in and checkmate your king. If only you’d paid more attention to him, you would have won.”
“I doubt it,” Mark muttered. “You’re always too hard on me. If I win, it’s only due to luck.”
Tybalt shook his head as he rearranged the pieces on the board. “That’s not true. Chess has no element of luck. It’s a game of strategy.
“Your problem, Mark, is that you don’t look enough moves ahead. Now imagine if this board were a battlefield and you were in command of an army. You couldn’t just watch the enemy’s movements and counter them. At best, that will earn you a stalemate. Instead you need to anticipate the enemy’s maneuvers and cut him off before he can even think about executing them.”
“You could still go easy on me,” Mark grumbled.
“No,” Tybalt shot back. “Do you think the enemy’s going to go easy on you during a battle?”
“This isn’t a battle.”
“But it’s preparation for one. Battles, like chess, require strategic thinking. That’s why we play this game.”
“Yes,” Mark retorted, “but if you just hammer away at me and never give me a chance to win, how am I supposed to improve?”
Tybalt frowned and stroked his sandy mustache. “You want me to let you win?”
“No…it’s just I…”
“Well, then why should I go easy on you?” Tybalt answered smoothly.
Mark sighed and slumped back in his chair. This was hopeless. When it came to arguing with Tybalt, he never stood a chance.
As he sat there, his shoulder ached with a dull pain. He rolled it a little to test the range of movement and grimaced as more pain throbbed inside it.
“Does it still hurt?” Tybalt asked.
“Yes,” Mark admitted, “though I think the balm is helping.”
“It should. But it still might take a while for your shoulder to heal. The bruising is bad.”
“Really? I didn’t realize that.”
Tybalt smiled at his student’s wry remark. “Why don’t you head to bed?” he said. “It’s been a long day.”
Mark nodded, recognizing the quiet order hidden under Tybalt’s suggestion. The prince picked up his sword and shield and headed towards the door, only to be stopped by Tybalt’s serious voice.
“Mark, remember to keep out of Merek’s way. And Rein’s too, for that matter.”
Mark tensed and glanced at his mentor. “Tybalt, what about Father and Mother? They’re going to be upset about today. What do I tell them?”
“The truth. You were taking a break from your lessons and spending a relaxing day riding.”
Mark bit his lip, shifting his weight uncertainly from one foot to another. “What about Merek, though? I’ve already met Rein, but my parents will want to introduce me to Merek as well. How can I avoid him?”
“Don’t go in the Great Hall,” Tybalt replied, “and no matter what they say, don’t go near Merek. They’ll be angry, but don’t pay attention to that. A little embarrassment won’t hurt them.”
“Is it really that serious?”
Tybalt came over to the prince and placed a firm hand on his uninjured shoulder. Gazing into Mark’s troubled eyes, he quietly said, “Yes, it is that serious. Stay away from Merek, Mark. The Wolf is too dangerous for you to play games with him.”
Mark’s heart pounded inside him as he stared at Tybalt’s craggy face. Gulping down a lump in his throat, he nodded. “Fine,” he murmured. “I’ll stay out of his way.”
The corners around Tybalt’s gray eyes softened, and he patted his student’s arm. “Don’t be afraid,” he said softly. “Merek’s power has its limits. Just listen to me and you’ll be safe.”
Mark nodded again, but couldn’t meet his mentor’s gaze. Turning, he departed, leaving Tybalt frowning behind him.
The courtyard was cloaked in darkness as Mark trudged back towards the main doors of the keep. Entering the keep’s dimly lit corridor, he glanced around nervously. He hastened towards the staircase, then abruptly froze as the sound of voices drifted out from the half-open doors of the Great Hall. Immediately, he ducked into an alcove, crouching low behind a statue.
As he watched, two men emerged from the hall and stopped a few yards from his hiding place. “Well, Merek, that was quite an evening,” Rein remarked. “A lot of business was accomplished.”
“Indeed,” Merek replied curtly. “But it would have been better if the prince had appeared. I would like to know if he poses any problem for me.”
“Yes, it was strange that he was not there. I’ve been here a few days and I can’t recall him missing a meal during that time. Perhaps he didn’t care for the roast swan that was served tonight,” Rein added with a laugh.
Mark’s mouth went dry as he shrank back farther into the alcove. Tybalt was right. These men were dangerous.
“When are you leaving?” Rein continued to Merek. “I assume you’ll stay here at least a few days.”
“No,” Merek said shortly, “I leave tomorrow. I must attend to other business.”
“Ah, very well, but you are depriving yourself of innumerable pleasures. I tell you, Merek, there is no castle that can compare to Tredel.”
“A pity,” Merek answered. “You will be quite disappointed with Dunkart. It has no massive hall with a marble floor and stained glass windows. The only thing it claims over Tredel is the wine produced in its region. Even Tredel can’t produce wine as fine as Dunkart’s.”
“Well, you need not fear for me, Merek. I do not need much. I am not a demanding sort of man.”
Merek just gave a short, harsh laugh and stalked off with his companion towards the keep’s main doors.
As the two departed outside, Mark released a pent-up breath and rose from behind his hiding place. Stepping out of the alcove, he hastened towards the staircase leading to the keep’s upper floors.
Inside his quarters on the sixth floor, Mark locked the door and released another sigh. Safe at last.
He lit a candle and picked up a book to read, but before he’d even finished the first page, there was a rap at the door. “Mark!” Arianna called sharply. “Mark!”
Mark remained silent, hoping his mother would leave, but she only rapped again. “Mark, stop ignoring me! Open this door. I know you’re in there.”
Mark muttered something under his breath and, laying aside his book, went to answer the knock. Opening the door, he found both his parents standing outside, frowning.
“Mark, where have you been?” Arianna demanded.
“We’ve been worried about you,” Favian added. “What have you been doing?”
“I was out riding with Tybalt, Father.”
“Tybalt?” Arianna retorted. “See, I told you, Favian. Those two are always getting into trouble together.”
“We weren’t getting into trouble, Mother,” Mark said coolly. “We were only riding.”
“Then how do you explain the state of your clothes? They’re all rumpled. And your hair. How did you make such a mess of it?”
“Why were you out so long?” Favian asked. “We haven’t seen you since breakfast. Surely you couldn’t have been riding that whole time.”
Mark flushed and tried to think of something to say, but nothing came to mind. His anger rose as Arianna swept past him into the room and pointed to a chair.
“Sit down,” she ordered. “We need to talk with you.”
Mark cast a pleading glance at his father, hoping that he might be spared this trial, but Favian shook his head. Heaving a sigh of frustration, he closed the door and reluctantly trailed his father over to where Arianna already sat.
“Mark,” Arianna said crisply as they assumed seats, “you’ve been quite a burden to us today. You may not know it, but Lord Merek, the ruler of Castle Dunkart, has arrived for his yearly visit. He expected to see you this evening and much to our embarrassment we were forced to excuse you by saying that you were busy with your lessons.”
“Why didn’t you tell us that you were heading out riding today?” Favian asked. “We wouldn’t have minded. We understand that you like escaping the castle now and again to enjoy some solitude.”
“Tybalt was impatient to leave. There was no time to tell you.”
“No time!” Arianna exclaimed indignantly. “We’re your parents. You should always have time to talk with us.”
“It wouldn’t have taken long,” Favian added. “Only a minute or two to tell us where you were heading and how long you’d be gone.”
Mark stayed silent and shrugged his aching shoulder, grimacing at the pain.
“Now what are you making that face for?” Arianna demanded. “You have no right to complain after being so spoiled today.”
“I wasn’t complaining,” Mark fired back. “I didn’t breathe a word.”
“There’s nothing bothering you, is there?” Favian asked anxiously.
“No, my shoulder is only bruised a bit.”
“Bruised?” Arianna replied. “How did you bruise it?”
“You don’t want to know,” Mark muttered.
Favian and Arianna frowned and exchanged a quick glance. “Mark,” Favian said hesitantly, “we don’t mean to annoy you, but your mother and I would appreciate it if you talked with us more. If you’d only tell us what’s on your mind, perhaps we could help you.”
“There’s nothing on my mind, Father. I’m just tired.”
“Are you sure?” Favian pressed.
Mark nodded, yawning and stretching a little to bolster his frail excuse. There was a long, tense silence, then Arianna rose and stalked away. As the door banged shut behind her, Favian and Mark both breathed sighs of relief.
“That wasn’t too bad,” Favian remarked wryly. “From the way she was talking earlier, I thought you might end up with a noose around your neck. Did something happen to you earlier?” he added. “Your clothes are quite a mess.”
Mark smiled faintly. “Are you sure you want to know?”
Favian raised an eyebrow. “What does that mean?”
“I fell in a stream.”
“A stream! How did that happen?”
“Tybalt and I were crossing one during our ride when I thought I saw something in the water. I leaned over in my saddle and Aquila took a misstep, dumping me in the stream. Tybalt was quite amused,” Mark finished ruefully.
Favian laughed. “I’m sure he was. But this explains the state of your clothes and hair. I assume that’s also how you bruised your shoulder?”
“Yes, but you don’t need to worry about it. Tybalt took care of it.”
“Good old Tybalt,” Favian murmured. “I’m glad he’s your sword master. I never have to worry about you when you’re in his company.”
The king smiled and rose to leave, only to pause as his eye fell on Mark’s sword and shield leaning against the wall in one corner. “Did you take your weapons with you when you went out riding today?” he asked curiously.
“Yes, of course. Tybalt always reminds me to bring them when I leave the castle.”
Favian nodded. “Good. It never hurts to have your sword with you, though I hope you never need it.”
Favian turned to leave, but a word from his son stopped him. “Father?”
“Do you remember how Tybalt didn’t want you to give me the crest?”
“He told me before that he didn’t want me to have it because it paints a target on my back. What do you think he meant by that?”
Favian glanced back at his son, hesitating. “I’m not sure. I think he thought it was too heavy for you to bear.”
“Tybalt told me that the symbolism on the crest is too demanding for you. He said that I was wrong to expect so much of you. That I should not lay such a burden on you while you were still so young.”
“But he admitted that I was ready to bear it. Is it only because of my age that he doesn’t want me having it?”
Favian shook his head. “No…no, it wasn’t that. I think he thought it marked you out too much. He said it made you vulnerable.”
“He said that if someone saw you with it they could challenge you,” Favian answered quietly. “It doesn’t matter that you’re eighteen. If you bear a crest, someone can challenge you in a tournament. And even though you’re the crown prince, Tybalt said you would have no good excuse to refuse. You’re young, but you have training and you are not my only heir. One can argue that if something happened to you, there would be no problem, as the crown would simply pass to Conrad.”
Mark’s chest constrained with fear. Suddenly he recalled Tybalt’s story of his joust with Merek. His mentor had said that Merek was a fierce fighter. What if Merek challenged him, the crown prince? It might seem strange, but as Tybalt had told him, the lord didn’t cheat. But what if he were competing against Merek? What chance would he stand of defeating the Wolf?
“Mark, are you all right?” Favian asked anxiously. “You look pale.”
Mark lifted his head and forced himself to smile at his father. “Yes, I’m fine.”
Favian hesitated, words of reassurance hovering on his lips, then silenced them. Hurrying over to Mark, he bent down and hugged his son. “Goodnight, Mark,” he whispered. “Get some sleep. Tomorrow’s another long day.”
Mark smiled, his heart lightening at the simple gesture of love. As Favian left, he leaned back in his chair, sighing.
It was good to be home.
A knock at the door startled him. The prince hesitated, not sure who it might be. The next moment, however, his anxiety was eased as Tybalt’s strong voice called to him.
“Mark? Are you awake?”
“Yes. One moment.”
Laying aside his shield, Mark hurried over to the door. As he opened it, he discovered Tybalt wearing a smile of satisfaction.
“Well, you look happy this morning,” Mark said as his mentor stepped inside. “Why are you so cheerful?”
“Lord Merek is leaving today.”
“Yes, I know.”
“They were talking about it last night. I was hiding in a nearby alcove and overheard their conversation.”
“Did you hear that Count Rein is leaving as well?”
Mark shook his head. “No. I thought from his talk that he was staying here for a few more days.”
Tybalt frowned. “Apparently he changed his mind. From what I heard, he is heading back to Castle Dunkart with Merek.”
“That doesn’t sound like good news.”
“It isn’t,” Tybalt said darkly. “It is never good when the Fox and the Wolf decide to keep each other company.”
The blast of trumpets caught the pair’s attention. Hastening over to the window, they spotted two carriages drawing up before the keep steps, where Merek and Rein were waiting with the king and queen. At the sight of Rein and the count’s usual garish outfit, Mark grimaced.
“What a peacock that count is,” he muttered to his mentor. “Who pairs a yellow doublet with a burgundy cloak and red gloves?”
“Don’t be fooled,” Tybalt muttered back. “It’s an act. Remember, foxes are sly. They survive by their wits, not strength.”
As the pair watched, Rein smiled and took the queen’s gloved hand to kiss it, only to have her jerk it away. Beside the count, Merek’s mouth twisted into a sneer of disgust.
The two nobles offered last bows to the royal couple before stepping into their carriages. Trumpets blared out again as the carriages swept down the stone avenue towards the gatehouse. Up above, Mark sighed and leaned against the side of the window.
“Finally. I’m glad they’re gone. Now we can stop worrying about them.”
Tybalt didn’t reply. Mark gazed at the hard lines on his mentor’s face and felt his anxiety returning.
“Tybalt? What is it? What are you thinking?”
“They aren’t gone, Mark,” Tybalt answered quietly. “They have only left for a little while. Soon they will return, and we don’t know what sort of storm they will bring with them.”
Mark bit his lip and, leaving his mentor’s side, resumed polishing his shield. As he buffed the metal to a shining gleam, Tybalt left his post at the window to check his student’s work.
“Very good,” the knight said briefly. “You’ve done a fine job.”
“It is a good shield,” Tybalt continued. “The sword also is a fine one. Your father picked an excellent smith to craft them.”
“I should hope so. I want weapons I can depend upon to protect me.”
“Yes. Keep these always at your side,” Tybalt added. “You will want them close if the Wolf returns.”
“What about Rein?” Mark asked nervously. “Isn’t he more dangerous?”
“No. He only possesses power when he’s with the Wolf. And if you had to, you could kill him. But the Wolf…”
Tybalt shook his head. “He’s strong. And his power’s growing. Be on your guard, Mark. Don’t fall prey to the Wolf.”
Mark nodded and stared at the polished surface of the shield. As he traced his finger over the Sword and Rose, a sweat broke out on his palms. A storm was brewing, its waves ruffling the peaceful waters of his life.
The shadow of the Wolf was falling over Castle Tredel.
If you enjoyed this story, be sure to check out Quest for Freedom, where the adventure really begins!