"WANTED: The diamond-tipped staff of a gyershling. Steal it or slay them, just fetch one. Only the diamond is necessary. Approach gyershlings with caution, as they are formidable foes. Please contact the palace for more information. Thou shalt be rewarded 200 silver coins."
-- A recent posting from
The Tavern of Swords
Wavy locks of black dangled upon a young forehead. Below, a brow was creased in concentration. Above, a golden circlet inlaid with diamonds was threatening to fall to one side. The boy bite his lower lip and stared down at the gaming board that lay between him and his opponent.
The expression on his opponent's face was hidden behind a clay mask. I tire of this idle play.
"Is one loss not enough for you, my Prince?" asked the masked man from beneath the hood of his dark gray cloak. His voice was deep, smooth and playful. "I am at least twice your age."
"My intent is not always to win, Vagrant Archer. Do you know why I make a habit of playing this frivolous game of pegs and holes with almost every man or woman of stature with whom I am to do business?"
"I know not, my Prince. To me, it seems a trifle of youth, a pleasurable dalliance."
"It is more than a trifle of youth," said the Prince as he moved two coloured pegs across the elevated terrain of the board. "And I beg your forgiveness, but I am not old enough for pleasurable dalliances."
A derisive laugh came from behind the red clay mask, "Why, then, do you play this game before every dealing?"
"It tells me many things about the mind of my opponent. For example, you find comfort in deception and sacrifice. Your value of life is limited to that which is powerful and useful to you. And rather than obliquely assassinate my general, you wage war against all my troops."
"Life?" he scoffed, moved two and removed one from the richly painted board. "These are but wooden pegs."
"Within the context of the game, they are your comrades. And you spare as much mercy upon them as you do upon me. And to obliquely assassinate my general's peg, as you could, would better demonstrate the ability to accomplish my task, which thus far you have failed."
"How I fight with gaming pegs and how I fight with the arrows of my quiver are two very different things. I assure you, your mother's death is well within my capabilities."
From the corner of the Crown Prince's chambers, a Guardmaiden shifted uneasily.
The Vagrant Archer turned quickly from his chair, crouching, and reached for a knife strapped to his calf.
The Guardmaiden raised her shield, and lowered her spear to charge. The other, in the corner of the room, did nothing.
"Rosulte, halt!" cried the Prince. "She has been added to my guard. Note there are four Guardmaidens in my room. This one is simply not familiar with my allegiances. Not that she can speak of them."
The Vagrant Archer stood still as he watched the Guardmaiden assume her regular stoic stance in the corner of the entranceway. Then he looked around, and spotted the other two at the sides of the window. I thought those two were only suits of armour on display. If Prislene had raised his guard as well as her own, perhaps she hopes to observe any oath-breakers she can generate. She must suspect the Prince's hand in my work.
The Crown Prince took his turn at the game as his opponent sat back down. Then the Prince spoke, in an irritated tone, "You are a fool if you expect me to pay you for today's incident."
"Of course, of course. I expect nothing but patience, My Prince."
"Did either of those knights spot you?" the boy asked. "The black-haired veteran or the curly locked one? Or for that matter, his blond squire?"
"Nobody got a chance to see my face," the masked-man said in a playful voice. One peg moved forward, and another retreated.
"Good. Nolfavrael's report verifies that. He merely chased you out the window, with his squire close enough to throw darts into your back."
"When do you want me to make my next attempt?"
"Surprise me," he requested, his young voice full of command as if by nature. "Just don't wait for another Greening of Hyii. And do not worry about me. I won't be her puppet much longer."
"Unfortunately, I have nothing to report to you or to Baron Bannoth of the King's assassin. Her whereabouts are unknown to me as of yet. But I assure you, I will be able to... locate her soon."
"As a lodestone points north, so too shall ancient magic point me to her."
"I am intrigued. Please ask Baron Bannoth to keep me informed. And be prepared to continue your business with me if he is... compromised."
I will catch my sister soon enough. "Your mother is a foul witch, my Prince. You deserve him as your regent." Prislene frames her brother just as my sister would frame me.
"I concur. However, he is the logical one to suspect for today's events. And yet, she probes her pawn with potential oath-breakers," the Crown Prince said with a quick glance at his guards on either side of the room. "She suspects the truth, as unlikely as it is."
"These Guardmaidens of yours have no reason to give their lives for Her Majesticality's sake by breaking the oath. She'd rather give you a short shrift than let the truth out and have herself forced into a state of exile," the masked marksman said as they both took turns moving pegs across the board. "And your death, my Prince, would send New Gyersheld into a political upheaval. Mistress Oprythe would decline, however her siblings would divide the Noble Houses in a feud that could rend the kingdom with futile warfare. And no Guardmaiden wants the fate of all New Gyersheld on her shoulders."
"Were you born of higher blood, you'd make a great aristocrat, Rosulte."
"You know nothing of my blood, dear Prince. And were I any great nobleman, who would you pay to shoot one? Dei be blessed that I am what I am."
The Prince glared, offended by the unholy reference. Then he looked down at the board and picked up a peg and moved it forward.
"You cannot make that move, my Prince."
"While you were staring into my eyes, I moved a second archer into position and took out your general."
The Prince looked down at the gaming board, his small crown somehow perfectly balanced. "Oh."
"Are we through here, your Highness?"
"Yes, Vagrant Archer. You may go."
"Fair thee well," Rosulte said as he strung his bow that had been laid to rest upon the floor, and then ran to the window's ledge. He tilted the glass so that he could slide out. "This vine is a Leignmark import." And grows only in iron-rich soil.
"Just climb it. Gently," said the Crown Prince as he wondered how the man was so familiar with foreign plants.
No need to make a second arrow-grappling get-away today. That would only attract unwanted attention. Those guardmaidens on the roof aren't friendly.
As the archer began his descent down the palace wall, by the light of the afternoon, the Crown Prince turned toward the Guardmaiden that had flinched earlier. "My apologies, Mordeina Richten. I hope for both our sakes that you are not fond of the Queen."
From within Mordeina's armour, Fen Leignmark remained silent as he nodded in acknowledgement.
"Mordeina, do you think that man missed on purpose?"
"Yes," came the reply in effeminate falsetto. "If he were capable of missing at that distance, he would not have fired at her when you were so close, my Prince."
"Unless he places as much value on me as he does on his pegs," the Prince said as his eyes narrowed. And then his golden crown slid to one side of his skull. "How many diamonds are on my head?"
"How many diamonds are there in the makings of my crown, Mordeina?"
"Umm... eight? One for each of the founding houses. The large one is for Gyera... I think."
"Very good," he said and turned to the adjacent guard on the other side of the door. "Leena Newmane, how many do I have in my pocket?"
"Six," said the Guardmaiden.
"Where is the seventh?" he demanded.
Leena giggled, and dug a leather-gloved hand beneath the tight edge of the arm bindings of her shield's interior. After a moment, a single diamond fell to the ground.
"Give the smugglers my thanks," said the Prince as he picked it up with one hand and placed it in the glittering palm of his other hand, where lay six other identical diamonds. Then, with his free hand, he tapped his crown. "I think Mother deserves a new hair accessory." And he smiled ruefully.