A packet ship came in from Alcinia, bearing trade goods and mail to Karlisfyrrd. Though not a scow, it was not a Royal ship, either. It merely put up where gulls and terns cruised the waters, looking for anything thrown overboard, paying no attention to the obscure-looking seaman who disembarked. Sauntering along the dock and up the winding streets, he stopped first at a tavern, curing his thirst. Anticipating a windfall, he paid for a better meal than he ordinarily would have purchased, but nothing that would linger in anyone’s memory. One might have wondered why he was not unloading cargo, but that was not his job.
The sentry at the barracks stopped him.
“Goin’ to the Keep, are ye?”
“Aye. Got letters from home to the Alcinic girls workin’ the kitchens.” He winked at the sentry. “They’re thankful, by and large.”
The sentry could read, but didn’t bother. It would have done him no good, since the letter at the bottom was written in a language used by the Holy Sisters of Alcinia and known to very few others. The King was one of those few. He had learned it from his mother.
“They’re clean, for the most part,” the sentry confided. “Ask for Bridie. She might show ye a good time and, then again, she might not. Can’t say. Depends how busy she is.”
“Worth a try,” the seaman said, grinning. “Thank ye, mate.”
He trudged on up the long road to the Keep, going around to the back entrance as befitted his station. A gardener tending roses saw him pass and waved in an off-handedly friendly manner, which the seaman returned. It was nothing unusual to see a man earning a few coppers delivering mail to the common folk. Anything important came by Royal courier.
Inside, the buxom nursemaid who was the lady’s maid’s cousin greeted him casually, with the King’s son in her arms. That guaranteed her passage to King Vanus, who was at that moment alone in his library, from which he had a clear view of anyone coming or going.
“How is my little man?” Vanus greeted the nurse. “You can bring him in.”
He never touched the baby. Instead, he held out a small silk packet, which he exchanged with her, taking a vellum envelope that she had stuffed in the pocket of her gown, unseen.
“Thank you,” he said, omitting her name because he couldn’t remember it. All he could recall was that he had given her cousin Merged her job and more than a few silk packets over the years.
“Yes, Sir.” She bobbed respectfully and carried the baby back out again, his little legs pressed against her ample belly. Outside the door, she quickly pocketed her fee, kissing Yuri affectionately.
“Little money maker you are, my lad,” she said. “Best one I ever ‘ad.”
In his library, King Vanus slit the seal on his letter, withdrawing a square, folded piece of vellum, flattening it out carefully on his desk. Penned in his sister’s meticulous hand, in language the two of them understood, it told him everything.
It was only what he had expected, yet he sat back with an empty feeling of regret, almost desolation. Knowing what he had to do did not make it easier. There was only one person to blame for this, yet it was the one person against whom he could not bring himself to act directly. What he would do might be even worse.
There was no fire in his library, so he shredded the note carefully into pieces too fine to ever be mended. He knew he could never be mended, either—not from this.