Dear readers, tonight we print an overheard conversation between a a hapless royal records keeper and a newly elevated lord, about the latter’s clandestine service to the royal family.
‘Just a few questions, milord, so that the nobility might get to know you. Help to grease the wheels of public occasions. And, of course, His Majesty King Rastoth is curious about the prince Rivil’s new companion.’
Edric somebody or other, the royal record keeper, sat opposite the new Lord Galtas Morellis with an ingratiating smile. Galtas should have refused the interview, but he bored easily, and so far being a nobleman had been less than exciting.
‘You have recently been elevated by Prince Rivil in reward for your … efforts on his behalf, I understand. Of course, all nobles were once not … er, noble. Everyone started from humble beginnings. I’d like to know yours.’
Galtas licked his teeth and put his head on one side. Edric looked up, down at his paper and the ink dribbling across it from his quill, and back up. Expectant. Terrified. So at least some of Galtas’s reputation preceded him, then.
‘For example, before you took the name Morellis, you were Galtas Potterson, were you not? From Sh-Shingle on the River Gil. Isn’t that … right?’ Edric persisted. He was sweating at Galtas’s silence.
‘It appears you already know all this,’ Galtas said in a friendly tone completely at odds with the frozen fury in his gut. His background was nobody’s business. He was a lord now, a noble with land and title taken from Rivil’s own holdings and he’d be damned if he discussed the pathetic little hovel he’d come from.
‘Just trying to get a sense of the man, milord,’ Edric said desperately, scratching something on the parchment. ‘What about your boyhood, then? Shingle’s one of Rilpor’s smaller towns, but the clay deposits are second to none. Small wonder your family trade was in pottery. What was it like growing up there?’
The ale arrived and Galtas poured a cupful and then, his eyes never leaving Edric’s, he drained it in four long swallows. Then he refilled his cup. ‘It was normal,’ he said eventually, to their mutual surprise. ‘My family had a trade. Times weren’t especially hard. My little sister died.’
‘Oh!’ Edric said. ‘I’m so sorry.’
He seemed to be, as well, but now he’d mentioned her, Galtas could see nothing but that little shadow and hear only the whiny voice that trailed him everywhere, never stopping, never a moment’s peace. Not even when he dug clay or fashioned the pots. “What’re you doing, Galtas? What’s that? What’re you doing now? Can I help? What’s that?” On and on until he might scream or lash out. Endless, grating interference. Until he had lashed out, hadn’t he, but it hadn’t been his fault. It was her own fault. She’d brought it on herself. And in the end, it had just become the tragedy it seemed to be. No one had ever accused him. An accident. Just an accident.
But one that had taught him many lessons, which in turn had brought him to the notice of Prince Rivil in the first place. Galtas was a handy person to have around when it came to creative accidents and plausible deniability.
‘Indeed,’ Galtas murmured, shaking his head. ‘It was a tragedy that affected us all.’
‘Was that when you lost your eye?’ Edric asked with a distinct lack of tact.
Galtas’s hand came up to stroke the black silk eyepatch, a habit that soothed and annoyed in equal measure. ‘No. I lost my eye in service of Rilpor.’
Edric frowned and shuffled through some papers. ‘Really? I didn’t know you had spent time as a soldier.’
Galtas managed a smile and a self-deprecating shrug. ‘I’m a private man, but in my case I was stationed … abroad. I’m afraid you’d need clearance from the royal family for that particular tale, and I doubt they’ll give it.’ He spread his hands. ‘We all live to serve, do we not? Even when there is no glory in it.’
Edric’s face was shining with curiosity and the man looked like he was about to burst, he had so many questions, but he nodded. ‘Of course, milord. Well then, may I ask how you have adjusted to your new life as a nobleman? Prince Rivil gifted you -’
‘I earnt it,’ Galtas broke in, soft and deadly. ‘I haven’t been gifted anything.’
Edric looked as if he’d swallowed his tongue but he made another note. ‘You are now in possession of the estate of Silent Water in Deep Forest. How are you adjusting to the life of a landowner with such extensive holdings?’
Galtas had the urge to lean over the table and ram the quill into the man’s eye until it popped. Was his every question to be a not-so-veiled insult? ‘I ran a successful business in Shingle, one I inherited upon the deaths of my parents before I began my other work. I understand profit and loss.’ He waited to see if Edric caught the implication. It appeared he didn’t. ‘And, of course,’ he added, ‘my duties are to Prince Rivil and the royal family. They are my priority. His Highness honours me with his company and that is far more important than any physical or monetary rewards.’
‘Ah yes, Prince Rivil. Tell me, milord, in what capacity do you serve the prince?’
Galtas sipped and then thumped his cup back onto the table. Edric jumped, and then leant back in his chair as Galtas pulled out a dagger and used it to clean his nails. ‘You remember the part earlier where I said my previous work was confidential?’ Edric nodded dumbly. ‘Well, this isn’t.’
He grinned and Edric grinned back, relieved to have asked a question that Galtas was willing to answer. ‘The prince is a man with many demands on his time. I manage the lesser ones so that he may assist the heir and the king in matters of state. So I adjudicate petty disputes in the lower courts and oversee the stocking of the palace larders, the rotation of the soldiers stationed with the capital, and so on. It is humble but rewarding work.’
‘And what did you think when you first met Prince Rivil?’
‘I thought here’s a man who should be king,’ Galtas said casually, and Edric froze. They stared at one another across the table and then, very deliberately, Galtas pushed a second cup across the sticky surface. ‘This is thirsty work, record keeper. Please, join me in a drink.’
Edric blanched, but it was impolite to refuse. He took a tiny sip. ‘And, and, and is there anything you didn’t expect about your new situation? Something you hadn’t considered before your elevation?’
Galtas looked down at the knife in his hand. ‘I don’t get to do what I want anymore.’ He looked back up. ‘A lord has many more duties than I’d expected. I did not think I would wait on the king so much, for instance. Though the honour is great.’
Edric licked his lips and made a strangled sound of agreement. Galtas drank a little more, gesturing with his cup until the other man did likewise. This time he gulped, sweat shining at his hairline. Galtas swallowed his smile with the ale.
‘And is there a lady in your life, milord?’ Edric asked.
Galtas had to admire his dogged determination – or maybe he really was oblivious to the tension building around their table. ‘There is not. There was one, once, but she was beloved of another. It ended messily.’ Again, Edric met his eye, looking for the truth behind the ambivalence. Galtas let his teeth show in something that definitely wasn’t a smile.
‘How unfortunate,’ the record keeper squeaked, ‘though I’m sure now that you’re a lord a suitable match can be arranged. Though such marriages can be troublesome, can’t they? Poor Lord Lorca has fought three duels to first blood just this spring over the rumours of his wife’s infidelity.’ He tittered nervously; Galtas didn’t even smile.
Instead he leant forward. ‘Think how angry he’d be if he knew they were true,’ he whispered. ‘If he knew what the luscious Lady Lorca liked to do between the sheets. And in the gardens. And in cheap taverns on the docks. And out in the fields once, even.’
The record keeper’s face got redder with each pronouncement and this time he drained his cup, his hand shaking so much some of it dribbled down his chin.
Galtas pushed away from the table and Edric yelped. ‘I think that’s enough, don’t you?’ He helped the man out of his chair and steered him outside, his arm around his shoulders. They exited the tavern and wandered down the docks to the riverfront, Galtas keeping a firm grip on him all the way. Edric began to blubber.
‘You know what I really hate, more than anything?’ Galtas asked. ‘Curiosity. Insult. The gathering of information to be used against me.’
‘I’m not,’ Edric tried, but Galtas cut him off.
‘But more than all that put together,’ he breathed, ‘I just hate. Being. Bored.’
And because he was bored, and because this section of the docks was deserted, Galtas took his time and made a mess. When it was done, he read the man’s notes. “Clearly troubled” was underlined, and “Assassin” was circled three times.
‘Clever boy, Edric,’ Galtas whispered as he shoved the corpse into the water. ‘And yet, not quite clever enough.’
Anna Stephens is the UK-based author of gritty epic fantasy. Anna has a BA (Hons) in Literature from the Open University and has wanted to be a writer for as long as she can remember. She much prefers the worlds she makes up to the real thing, even if most of her characters meet sticky ends. Anna lives with her husband, a huge book, music and movie collection, and no pets. She intends to remedy this lack of furry friends as soon as fame and fortune strike.
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