Victor looked down at his breakfast plate. There sat three soft-boiled eggs, sausage, toast with honey and butter. There was a hot cup of rich tea steaming next to his plate. There had been a time, when he was a poor boy growing up in Montelair, that a meal like this would have seemed an incredible feast.
He dug into his food with relish, ignoring the tutting sounds from his mother-in-law.
“I’m surprised that Stella isn’t with you, Sultiana,” Lenore said.
“She’s gone back to Coveline to visit her family,” Sultiana said, glancing up from her plate. “It was long overdue, I think.”
“Lenore,” Devon said, leaning across the table. “Can I ask you something strange?”
“What kind of strange?” Lenore asked, scratching something out on her date book vindictively.
“Well, Sultiana and I have been feeling something since we arrived,” Devon said, “something familiar.”
“You remember that we had a strange black substance attacking our border with Kussier,” Sultiana said.
“Hard thing to forget,” Lenore said.
“Well, whenever we would stand near that Black, we’d feel something,”
“It made me feel, cold. It reminded me of the feeling you get when you wake up from a nightmare that you don’t remember,” Devon said.
Victor sat his fork down. “Almost like you’ve lost someone, but you’re not sure who, and you can’t find them?” he asked.
“Like that, yes,” Devon said.
“I’ve had that feeling,” Victor said. “Usually at night, when I’m preparing for bed, or waking in the morning.”
“I’ve felt that way, too,” Lenore said. “But it’s always gone by the time I dress. I thought it was just the stress of everything going on.”
“It is probably just this whole mess,” Victor said, taking another bite of his eggs. “It’s hard to feel right about anything.”
But Sultiana shook her head. “It’s not that. This is too familiar to discount. I think we should all keep track of when we’re feeling this darkness. Look for patterns.”
“We can do that,” Lenore said.
The dining room door opened and a palace runner slipped in. “Prince Victor,” he said, setting a tightly rolled scroll next to his plate.
“Thank you, Lad,” Victor said, opening it.
Come to my office, soon as you can, it read.
Victor crumpled the paper, shoving it into his pocket.
“Is something wrong?” Lenore asked.
“Nothing,” Victor said, getting to his feet. “Just a note from the gardener. Slugs are getting into the olive trees in the garden, and he needs me to approve something or other to kill them.”
“And you’ve got to run off from breakfast to deal with slugs?” Lorna asked.
“Well, the head gardener is out sick, it’s just his assistant right now,” Victor said. “Anyway, killing slugs sounds like a fun game this morning.”
Lenore arched her eyebrow. The code word game was often used between the two of them. He hoped that it implied that he’d tell her what was going on in truth later. “Oh, go on, Love. The last thing we need is slugs getting into the orchard.”
Victor plucked her hand from the table to kiss her knuckles before leaving.
He made his way to the lower levels of the palace. He hadn’t gone far, though, when he heard raised voices down a hallway that led to servant dormitories. Hoping that whatever the spymaster had for him could wait, he turned to head in the direction of the disturbance.
Much to his surprise, he found Butrus face-to-face with a palace servant, shouting at each other.
“Hey!” Victor bellowed, hoping just to be heard over the men. “What in the view of the Sky do you think you’re doing?”
“Prince, this man just started shoving me!” the guard said. “He’s gabbling away in that foreign language, and I can’t understand a word of it!”
“Prince Victor, this man was screaming at his wife,” Butrus said in Calistarian. “Am I permitted to discipline him, or do you wish to handle it yourself?”
“Do you speak Septan, Butrus?” Victor asked, also speaking in Calistarian.
“A little,” Butrus said.
“And what led you to believe that he was yelling at his wife?” Victor asked.
“I, well I heard shouting, and he was with––”
“So you just barged in on who knows what? Where is this woman, anyway?” he looked past the men, into the room. There was a woman sitting on the bed, someone he recognized.
“Daisy,” Victor said.
The woman was pulling a cotton dress over her petticoats. Once she was dressed, she smiled at him. “How are you? You haven’t come to see me in a long while, Victor.”
“Well, my lady might frown on it,” Victor replied. “Everything all right? My friend seems to think you were in some trouble.”
“No,” Daisy said, “I had a nice time. All that happened was that Jimmy couldn’t find his boots, and he was scared of being late. We stayed up a little late last night. He was being loud, but not at me.”
She came to the doorway and fluttered her eyelashes. “You know none of Lulu’s girls let ourselves get treated wrong,” she said.
“Good girl,” he said, “Sorry your morning was disturbed. Give Lulu and her old man my best, will you?”
“If she won’t spit it back at me,” Daisy replied.
“James, find your damned boots. And let’s have no more scenes on work mornings, all right?”
“Yes, Prince,” James replied before hurrying back into his room, presumably to continue the search for his boots.
“Butrus, come with me,” Victor said. “Right now.”
Butrus followed after Victor as they headed toward the noble visitor’s wing. “You don’t speak Septan, and you thought it all right to barge into a man’s room and start making a fuss,” Victor said.
“The woman seems to be a friend of yours, did you want her ill-treated?” Butrus asked.
“You did not hear her explain that he was not even yelling at her, because you don’t speak Septan!” Victor said. “Butrus, I cannot imagine that Sultiana needed extra muscle, so why did she bring you along?”
“I am to be the new ambassador,” Butrus said, looking defiant.
“Because you are so levelheaded and diplomatic,” Victor snapped. “I will not tell Sultiana and Devon about this, and you will never let it happen again. If you think that a man in my palace is mistreating a girl, get a guard.”
Without another word, he walked away.
* * * *
Talmadge Grace was sitting at her desk, sipping tea while she read over a stack of parchment. The office was barely recognizable since she’d taken it over. The desk was smaller than the old one, painted over with lacquer that made it glow red. The seats were plain but comfortable. The floor was swept clean around a blue rug that lay underfoot. A good lamp lit the room as there were no windows.
Talmadge herself was different. Her hair, which had been held back before in a messy braid had been cut. It was held away from her face with a steel clip in the shape of a bird. She wore breeches and a tunic with a cream vest, and good boots.
The most surprising change, Victor only saw when she looked up from her papers and stood to curtsy to him. After her bow, she stood straight and looked him in the eye.
“I am sorry to have kept you waiting,” Victor said.
“No need to apologize, Prince,” Talmadge said, “This is nothing crucial. I just haven’t had a chance to sit down and talk to you since you’ve returned.”
“My fault as much as anybody’s,” Victor said.
“Well, it’s good that you’re back,” Talmadge said. “Both you and the princess.”
“I have gotten some idea of that, yes,” Victor said. He took a seat at the desk. “What is going on with this noble uprising?”
“Since King Lyonal’s days, from what I understand,” Victor said, naming his grandfather-in-law.
“Yes,” Talmadge said. “Lord Constantine siding with the prince is easier to understand. He’s always been one too fond of power, and if his daughter is married to Hank, he’ll have power aplenty. But still, it seems strange that so many of the common people have sided with them.”
“When I hear that someone has gained influence so quickly, I hear the sound of gold clicking,” Victor said.
“Generally I agree,” Talmadge said, “and it’s a possibility. I know that the head of the merchant’s guild is unhappy about the changes Princess Lenore’s been pushing for. The last thing he wants is foreign merchants flooding his markets. He’s not too happy about the women inheriting businesses either. I wouldn’t put it past him to throw some gold at the problem.”
Just then, what had appeared to be a solid wall behind Talmadge opened in the center, revealing a small door. A young boy, a chimney sweep judging by the soot in his hair, popped into the room. He froze when he saw Victor.
“It’s all right, Lad,” Victor said.
The boy hesitated for only another second before saying, “Miss, Prince Joseph’s at the front steps of the palace. He’s wanting an audience with Princess Lenore.”
“Lenore?” Talmadge asked, getting to her feet, “What does he want with her?”
“Perhaps he is going to apologize and swear his fealty,” Victor said, causing Talmadge to release a mirthless laugh.
“You’d better get up there and keep an eye on the princess. She’s bound to be too trusting of her uncle,” she said.
“But, Miss, that’s the other thing,” the boy said, “Princess Lenore and Queen Sultiana left. They went into the city.”
“They did what?” Talmadge cried. “Bobby, why didn’t you tell me?”
“That’s what I’m doing now, Miss,” the boy said, giving her an incredulous look. “I only heard that the other prince was here when I was already on my way.”
“Send someone to tail her,” Talmadge muttered. She was reaching for her cloak.
“I will go meet with Joseph,” Victor said. “I grow tired of this family squabbling.”
He hurried to find the king.
Samuel and Devon were in the family sitting room. “Does anyone know where those girls ran off to?” he asked.
“Lenore got an urgent message from the temple just after you left,” Devon said. “Sultiana went with her.”
“I find myself missing Anthony, just now,” Victor said.
“What do we think Uncle Joe’s here for?” Devon asked.
Samuel laughed. “You know your uncle. He’s probably going to come right in as though nothing was ever wrong.”
A guard came to the door. “Prince Joseph Mestonie,” he said, holding the door open for Victor’s uncle-in-law.
Like his older brothers, Joseph was a big man, with a small goatee and mustache, well-trimmed. He wore his dark hair to his shoulders and was dressed entirely in Mestonie blue, save his boots.
He also wore a sword on his belt. Victor wore no weapons, neither did Samuel. The only blade in the room, aside from Joseph’s, was on Devon’s belt.
“Joe,” Samuel said. “Get in here next to the fire, Man.”
Joseph stayed by the door, with two of his own guards flanking him. They both wore the same red owl on their breasts that Victor had noticed through the city. “Samuel,” Joseph said. “I came to see Lenore, not you.”
“Lenore’s indisposed,” Samuel said.
“You mean you’ve hidden her away,” Joseph replied. “What have you done to that girl, Sam?”
“What in The Creator’s name are you talking about?” Samuel asked. “Come in and say hello to your nephews. Lenore will be here when she can.”
Joseph cast a dark look at Victor and Devon. “These men are not my nephews. If you don’t release her, I’ll turn this palace upside down.”
Victor took a step toward him. “I do not think we have met. I am Victor Mestonie, Lenore is my wife.”
“My niece is not your wife, Peasant,” Joseph spat. “Samuel, I am at the end of my patience. You stand there, with your wife’s bastard son as though he’s yours. You allow this Montelarian commoner to hurt our Lenore. You allowed your true son to die, and for what? Did Octavian find out something you didn’t want him to know? Samuel, what are you hiding?”
Devon was on his feet. “What did you just say about me?” he growled. Victor was surprised. He wasn’t accustomed to seeing Devon stirred to anger.
“I said that you are a bastard, the son of some commoner your whore mother entertained,” Joseph said, “Now you’re sitting on the Calistar throne. You’re nothing but a farce. And you,” he turned to Victor. “You animal. I’ll see you gutted for what you’ve done to my niece.”
“You should be glad Lenore is not here,” Victor said. “The things you are saying about her brother may make her forget that she is a noblewoman. Let alone your insinuations about me.”
“You are speaking like a madman,” Samuel said. “Joe, have you been drinking?”
Joseph smirked. Victor felt cold. There was something wrong about Joseph, even more than his actions suggested. There seemed to be a coldness coming from him. Korhzik must have felt it as well, because he clung to Victor’s shoulder, crouched down with his ears laid back.
“If you’ve nothing to hide, let me speak to Lenore. Alone, so that she may speak freely to me.”
“I’m sure Lenore will be happy to speak with you when she is available,” Samuel said.
“No,” Joseph said. He turned from them, his guards hurrying to open the door. “Search the palace,” he said to them, “Everything from the tower to the cellars. I will find her, Samuel. And if you’ve hurt her, I’ll kill you where you stand!”
Victor stormed after them, praying that Lenore was safe at the temple.