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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

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Chapter 3: Lord Protector

part 2

‘My Lord?’ The tone is deferential but a summons nonetheless. I plunge my head in the basin to clear my thoughts. There is, of course, no towel, and I’m left dripping.

The door opens; the towel goes over my head like a noose. I haven’t felt this helpless since the king dismissed my foster mother and I was consigned to Majvaz’s household and the tender mercies of his nurse. I push the towel away to find no less than four attendants waiting on my every move.

They greet me politely. There is a curious faceless look to them and an impersonal quality to the way they perform their tasks. I can’t fault their service but I feel uncomfortable in their presence and would much rather be alone.

When I dress in the robe appointed for me, I trip over hems and feel more than ever like a child wearing his parents’ clothes. The quartet works swiftly, smoothing fabric, setting pins, taking in fabric to fit my frame. Finally they let me go, taking the robe away ‘for alterations’. I feel more like myself without it. They ask leave to go and, as I grant it, the door opens. They bow and then the door closes, sealing me into the room.

I glance thoughtfully at the new painting over the hearth. I don’t like this one any better than the fat queen. It’s a hunting scene. The dead quarry looks curiously human while the hunters pose like stuffed trophies. The shutters to my room open on a balcony, and I take my bread and coffee outside. There is butter and honey from the royal bees. They honour me.

After rough fare at the temple and going hungry on the road, I note the king’s servants are better fed than the falcon priests who serve the Goddess. Then I remember the worse state of the villages we passed on our journey to court. Here the king’s bakers are taking the second batch of loaves from the ovens.

Far out on the plain I see the hunters returning, Majvaz leads, hair streaming in the wind. His gold circlet spits fire at the sun, marking him as chosen heir to the king. Bearers follow with his kill. The court will eat well tonight.

The gate rises and, with a clatter of hooves, Majvaz enters. Blood spots his clothes and his face. Grooms scurry to take the horses, and he and his hunters dismount. He glances up at my eyrie and I wave. He takes care not to see me, withdrawing into the shadow of the castle, but I know he was looking.

* * *

I stretch and pull myself to my feet. It is time for me to do more than think about my new duties. If my keepers are watching me through the screen, there is no need to call for service. Going back into my room, I see that I’m right. My escort is already waiting for me. I ask his name, which disconcerts him.

‘Michal, My Lord.’

He proffers the robe of office and I say no. Then he opens the door, which always makes me feel uncomfortable, a courtesy that exposes the back to a knife. I hear his footsteps behind me and the swish of rich material. He is carrying the robe with due ceremony. Where I go, the robe follows — whether I choose to wear it or not.

It is quite a walk down the spiral of the tower. This makes me wonder how my attendants reach me so quickly. I’m also pondering the problem of bolts that open from the outside and secure me in my chambers.

There are rumours of mechanical contrivances, hidden passages and lifts powered by the stream that surrounds the castle. Michal tells me one of my predecessors was hauled up in a basket to his room. I tell him I don’t want to grow fat and idle. I may not have Majvaz’ strength, but I need my wits about me.

I pass the doors to my old chamber and for a moment, I hesitate — should I call on Mireio? She has court duties, too, and I am unlikely to find her at this hour. Where to begin? So much of court life is ceremony. I decide to pay a visit on my brother and seek him out before he comes looking for me. I turn to Michal and ask him to show me the way.

He hesitates. ‘You will go alone, My Lord?’

I shrug at that. ‘I’m under the King’s protection.’

Michal is too well trained to question me further but looks uneasy, as well he might. Many have abused the sanctity of the King’s house. There are few floors in this castle that have not, at some time in its thousand-year history, had the blood cleansed from them. Many quarrels have been settled and many corpses taken out through the caves under the castle at night. Many faceless corpses weighted and dropped in the moat.

I’m thinking Majvaz will have retired to his rooms to bathe and change. Now is a good time to surprise him. I note that the servant, Michal, leads me to a suite of apartments in the heart of the castle, opulent as befits the king’s heir.

The door is closed, which indicates that the prince is not receiving visitors. Michal, with more assurance than I expected from him, knocks formally with his staff. Three times which means ‘Open in the King’s name’.

As Lord Protector I can command my brother, but I’m not sure I’d dare. The echo of the summons dies away into a tense silence. After a delay that is an insult, the door opens. I glance up at a glint of light in the ceiling and know myself under observation.

I give Michal credit; he is clearly ill at ease, but at the sight of the heir’s chamberlain, who drips a king’s ransom in jewels and is clothed head to toe in silk, he does not falter. He gives my name and title and requests that I be admitted to the prince’s presence.

I’m ushered into an antechamber, where they bring me fruit and wine. The room looks out onto a garden with a fountain. I expect Majvaz will keep me waiting and, after a while, I wander out and take a seat on the edge of the fountain.

The servants, who stand statue-like in the room, will not follow me. Not until Majvaz, dressed with scant ceremony, hair still wet from the bath, strolls out to join me. He gestures, heavy rings on his fingers catching the sunlight, and his attendants withdraw.

‘You do me much honour by this visit.’

From the pinched look about his mouth, I can tell that he is furious. Calling on him uninvited is a deliberate breach of etiquette, leaving him no choice but to receive me. Moreover, I know his habits. He has left his latest lover naked in his bed. He will not forgive me for disturbing him.

‘My Lord, I apologise for the intrusion. I have a commission from the King. Due to your greater duties defending the kingdom, His Majesty has asked me to relieve you of a lesser care by placing his sons under my protection.

‘I understand the boys are at their mother’s house. His Majesty commands their presence at court. He is concerned that the situation of the house — so close to the marshes in summer — is unhealthy, and unless they receive diversion, they will brood on the sad loss of their mother.’

I have stumbled on — not tripping over a ritual word — though it is difficult not to falter under Majvaz’ gaze.

Then I wait for him to reply. If I thought to gain an advantage, I am disappointed.

‘I appreciate His Majesty’s concern. The children are not as strong as they might be. I fear that life at court may prove too demanding for their health. I will, of course, obey His Majesty’s command.’

‘My Lord, should the princes return to court, you may rely on me to take very good care of their health.’ I glance up at that and smile. Then as he frowns, I kneel to present my commission.

‘I may rely on this?’ Majvaz asks.

‘My Lord, I am responsible to the King for the princes’ lives. I will in all respects serve my King.’

He places his ringed hand on my shoulder and then puts out a hand to help me rise. He removes the seal of the Lord Protector and places it in my palm. ‘Then I surrender my charge to you, brother, with a quiet conscience, and I will requite your loyalty.’

I slip the emerald onto my finger. ‘My Lord, I will require safe conduct and an escort to bring the princes home. The Princess Mireio will accompany me, as she will make all dispositions for the princes’ attendants. They should be separated from their mother’s servants — lest the memories make them grieve.’

He smiles at that. ‘Prince Kyran — you have a forethought I lack. I’m impressed by your care and devotion to duty. Of course the King will hold you accountable for the princes’ safety.’

‘I live only to serve his will.’

This is, he thinks, a winning solution. Should any harm come to the princes, it is I, not he, who will answer for it, and with my life.

He offers his hand and I take it.

I leave his chamber with a promise of five hundred men ‘to bring the princes home.’ I am sickened by this work. So he thinks I will betray our father and let two children die for his ambition — and then he will be ‘grateful’?

As I leave, the sun clouds over, and soon I think rain will fall. I have no idea if Mireio will help me. What can I offer her? The emerald glints on my hand.

I might be Lord Protector in name. It remains to be seen if I can protect myself.

Proceed to Chapter 4...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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