For Gil, Jane, George, and Leo

After the Wedding Party

The wreckage still smoldered in the wan dawn light, sending a column of grayish-white smoke spiraling into the misty sky above Niejwein. Two mounted men surveyed it from a vantage point beside the palace gatehouse.

“What a mess.”

“Unavoidable, I think. The best laid plans…have they found his majesty yet, your grace?”

The first speaker shrugged. His horse shuffled, blowing out noisily: the smell of smoke, or possibly the bodies, was making it nervous. “If he was inside the great hall we might never find identifiable remains. That could be a problem: I believe the blast must have far exceeded the plotters’ intent. The soldiers found the Idiot, though—what was left of him. Near chopped in half by the rebels’ guns.”

It was not a cold morning, and the second speaker wore a heavy riding coat: nevertheless, he shivered. “If these are the spells the witch families play with, then I think we may conclude that his presumptive majesty struck not a moment too soon. The tinkers have become too accustomed to having the Crown at their convenience. This could well be our best opportunity to break their grip before they bring damnation to us all.”

The first speaker stroked his beard. “That is the direction of my thoughts.” He looked pensive. “I think it behooves us to offer our condolences and our support in his hour of need to his majesty; a little bird tells me that he is of like mind. Then we should look to our own security. His lordship of Greifhalt has a most efficient levy which I think will prove sufficient to our immediate needs, and for the honor of his grandfather he has to come to our aid. We can count on Lyssa, too, and Sudtmann. For your part…?”

“Count me among your party, your grace. I think I can contribute—” He paused, thinking. “—two hundred? Yes, two hundred of horse certainly, and perhaps more once I’ve seen to the borders.”

“That will be helpful, Otto. The more you can send, the better—as long as you do not neglect the essentials. We cannot afford to feed the scavengers, of whichever kind.” The first speaker shook his head again, looking at the smoking rubble. Stooped figures picked their way through it, inspecting the battlefield for identifiable bodies, their movements as jerky as carrion birds. “But first, an appropriate demonstration of our loyalty is called for.”

The Duke of Innsford nudged his horse forward; his companion, Otto, Baron Neuhalle, followed, and behind him—at a discreet distance—the duke’s personal company followed suit. The scale of destruction only became apparent as Innsford rode down the slope towards what had been the Summer Palace of Niejwein. “It really does appear to have been visited by a dragon,” he commented, keeping Neuhalle in view. “I can see why that story is spreading…”

“Oh yes. And it came to dinner with his late majesty and half the witch families’ heads of house hold at his table for the feast,” Neuhalle agreed. “They’ll draw the right conclusion. But what a mess.” He gestured at the wreckage. “Rebuilding the palace will take years, once the immediate task of ensuring that his majesty’s reign is long and untroubled by tinkers and demon-traffickers is completed. And I do not believe that will be easy. The old fox will move fast—”

Neuhalle broke off, composing his face in an expression of attentive politeness as he reined in his horse. “Otto Neuhalle, to pay his respects to his majesty,” he called.

“Advance and be recognized.” Neuhalle nudged his horse forward towards the guards officer supervising the salvage attempt. “Ah, my lord. If you would care to dismount, I will escort you to the royal party at once.”

“Certainly.” Neuhalle bowed his head and climbed heavily down, handing the reins to his secretary. “I have the honor of accompanying his grace, the Duke of Innsford. By your leave…?”

The guards officer—a hetman, from his livery—looked past him, his eyes widening. “Your grace! Please accept my most humble apologies for the poor state of our hospitality.” He bowed as elaborately as any courtier, his expression guarded as a merchant in the company of thieves: clearly he understood the political implications of a visit from the duke. “I shall request an audience at once.”

“That will be satisfactory,” Innsford agreed, condescending to grace the earth with his boot heels. “I trust the work proceeds apace?”

“Indeed.” A lance of royal life guards came to attention behind the hetman, at the barked order of their sergeant: “’Tis a grim business, though. If you would care to follow me?”

“Yes,” said Innsford.

Neuhalle followed his patron and the hetman, ignoring the soldiers who walked to either side of him as if they were ghosts. “His majesty—the former prince, I mean—I trust he is well?”

“Yes, indeed.” The hetman seemed disinclined to give much away.

“And is there any announcement of the blame for this outrage?” asked Innsford.

“Oh, yes.” The hetman glanced over his shoulder nervously, as if trying to judge how much he could disclose. “His majesty is most certain of their identity.”

Neuhalle’s pulse raced. “We came to assure his majesty of our complete loyalty to his cause.” Innsford cast him a fishy glance, but did not contradict him. “He can rely on our support in the face of this atrocious treason.” Although the question of whose treason had flattened the palace was an interesting one, it was nothing like as interesting to Neuhalle as the question of whom the former crown prince was going to blame for it—for the explosion that had killed his father. After all, he couldn’t admit to having done it himself, could he?

They rounded the walls of the west wing—still standing in the morning light, although the roof of the Queen’s Ballroom had fallen in behind it—and passed a small huddle of Life Guards bearing imported repeating pistols at their belts. A white campaign pavilion squatted like a puffball on the lawn next to the wreckage of the west wing kitchens, and more soldiers marched around it in small groups or worked feverishly on a timber frame that was going up beside it. “Please, I beg you, wait here a while.”

Innsford paused, leaning on his cane as if tired: Neuhalle moved closer to him, continuing the pretense that their escorts were as transparent as air while the hetman hurried towards the big tent, his progress punctuated interminably as he was passed from sentry to sentry. The guards were clearly taking no chances with their new monarch’s life. “A bad night for the kingdom,” he remarked quietly. “Long live the king.”

“Indeed.” Innsford looked almost amused. “And may his reign be long and peaceful.” It was the right thing to say under the circumstances, indeed the only thing to say—their escort looked remarkably twitchy, in the shadow of the ruined palace—but Neuhalle had to force himself not to wince. The chances that King Egon’s reign would be peaceful were slim, at best.

They didn’t have long to reflect on the new order in peace. The guards hetman came loping back across the turf: “His grace the duke of Niejwein awaits you and bids me say that his majesty is in conference right now, but will see you presently,” he managed, a long speech by his standards. “Come this way.”

The big pavilion was set up for the prince’s guests: royal companions and master of hounds at one side, and smaller rooms for the royal functions at the other. The middle was given over to an open space. The duke of Niejwein sat on a plain camp stool in the middle of the open area, surrounded by an ever-changing swarm of attendants: a thin-faced man of early middle years, he was, as Innsford might have remarked, one of us—a scion of the old nobility, the first fifty families whose longships had cleaved the Atlantic waves four centuries ago to stake their claims to the wild forested hills of the western lands. He was no friend of the merchant princes, the tinker nobles with their vast wealth and strange fashions, who over the past century had spread across the social map of the Gruinmarkt like a fungal blight across the bark of an ancient beech tree. Neuhalle felt a surge of optimism as he set eyes on the duke. “Your grace.” He bowed, while his patron nodded and clasped hands with his peer.

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