Victor was hiding a yawn behind his fist when Talmadge came into his office. His eyes were burning from lack of sleep.
She was a short girl with a neat gown and the sloppiest braid in Septa. She looked around the room, terror written on her face.
“Sorry,” Victor said as he stood to greet her. “I haven’t gotten an hour sleep at a time in a few days now. Our nurse tells me that’s common, with infants. Have a seat.”
She looked at the chair he’d indicated, a heavy wooden one with a cushioned seat, as though it must surely be a trick. Finally, though, she sat.
“Do you like the new office?” Victor asked as he took his seat behind the desk. It was a large desk, highly polished. The room had a set of double doors that led out to the garden. There was a thick blue rug on the floor. “I’ve been appointed the Queen’s Apprentice, learning how to keep a palace. Apparently that takes lots of time, work, far too much book keeping and a whole office.”
“I’m sorry, why am I here?” Talmadge asked.
Victor grinned at her. “Wait. We’re missing someone.”
There was a knock on the door. When he called a greeting, two guards escorted Thomas, the disgraced spymaster of Septa, into the room.
Prison obviously had not agreed with Tom. His fine clothes had been replaced by undyed, rough spun cloth. His usually well cared for hair looked greasy.
The guards dropped Tom in front of the desk. Talmadge shied away from her former employer, but Victor’s grin widened. “How’s prison?” he asked. “From what I remember, the food was a little uninspired.”
“Prince Victor,” Tom sputtered.
“Oh, I do love to hear you use my shiny new title,” Victor said, “Especially since the last time we spoke you were calling me a traitor and advising the king to execute me.”
“Sire, I was misled,” Tom said, “My informants-,”
“No, shut your damn mouth,” Victor said, his smile dropping away. “I was your informant, you sneaking coward. You think I’m stupid enough to fall for the same lie you tried to use against me?”
“Again, why am I here?” Talmadge asked.
“Because I want to offer you his old job, and I want him to know I’m offering it to you.”
“Are you kidding?” Tom cried, “She’s an untrained maid, for Creator’s sake!”
“No, she’s a maid who can read all of your codes, and has been feeding you information for years,” Victor said. He leaned across his desk, and glared down at Tom. “You’re a bad spy, but you’re really good at using talented people.”
“I think you’re vastly overstating my talents,” Talmadge said, wringing her fingers.
“This wasn’t my idea,” Victor said, “It was King Samuel’s. He’s just delegating it to me. Though I happen to think he’s right.”
“The king really has lost his mind,” Tom said.
Victor stood. In his fury, his hands glowed blue with magic. “You will watch how you speak of that man in front of me,” he growled. “I owe him my world. Talmadge will be our spymaster, and we’re going to toss you into the same dark hole we threw Marcus.”
“Wait,” Talmadge said, holding a hand up. “Don’t lock him up.”
“Why?” Victor asked, “He was a terrible master to you.”
“But we can use him,” she said, “You and the king think I’m a good spy, but I’m not. It’s just that, well, people are more willing to talk around you if they think you’re a nobody. So, if you tell everyone I’m the spymaster, I won’t learn anything new.”
“Ah, but if people still think this fool is in charge they won’t pay attention to you,” Victor said. “See, I knew you’d be good at this. You can keep him, if you want. You’ll have to watch him carefully, though.”
“Of course,” Talmadge said.
“What makes you think I’d agree to this insulting situation?” Tom spat.
She took a deep breath and stood, looking Tom full in the face for what Victor was sure was the first time. “Well, you can do this, or I’ll pick a pretty face off the street and the king can toss you back in a cell. I can work just as well with any warm body in that seat.”
Tom looked sober at that. Finally, he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “Fine. I am happy to serve the throne.”
“Thank you for your service,” Victor said. The guards escorted Tom from the room, and Victor turned his attention back to Talmadge.
“Are you really sure about this?” Talmadge asked, “If this is about me finding those letters, you don’t owe me anything. It didn’t even work. The king was still going to execute you.”
“Madge, if this was just about thanking you, I’d give you a title and some land,” Victor said. “But I cannot afford to have someone I don’t trust as spymaster. I need you to tell me what’s going on in the city.”
“Yes,” Talmadge said, giving him a nod. “You’re right about that. People are angry, and they’re whispering.”
“How many of them are whispering about my wife?” he asked.
“More than we should be comfortable with.”
Victor nodded. “I can’t imagine half of the noble families leaving the court in protest is helping.”
“You and Anthony must stay close to Lenore. She’s in more danger now than ever.”
“Yeah,” Victor said. He stood, and went to the doors to look out at the garden. Lenore was there, with Ramona and the babies. They were napping on a blanket in the sunlight. “You know, she saved this damn city from Marcus. You’d think people would be grateful.”
“And there are hundreds who are,” Talmadge said, “She spent her youth taking care of people behind the Elder Brother’s back. She spins light and darkness into thread. Lots of people are ready to fight for her. They even accept you because of her.”
“That’s the problem,” Victor said, “It’s not just that people are angry, it’s the division. The whole city’s ready to tear each other apart.”
Talmadge smiled, “She’ll win them over. She’s good like that.”
Victor smiled too. “Who knows better than me how easy Lenore is to love?