Ragnarson dismounted, dropped his reins over a low branch. "Why don't you guys join me?" he asked as he seated himself against an oak. A cool breeze whispered through the Gudbrandsdal Forest, a Royal Preserve just over the western boundary of the Siege of Vorgreberg. "It's restful here."
He narrowed his eyes to slits, peered at the sun, which broke through momentary gaps in the foliage.
Turran, Valther, Blackfang, Kildragon, and Ragnarson's secretary, a scholar from Hellin Daimiel named Derel Prataxis, dismounted. Valther lay down on his belly in new grass, a strand of green trailing from between his teeth. Ragnarson's foster brother, Blackfang, began snoring in seconds.
This had begun as a boar hunt. Beaters were out trying to kick up game. Other parties were on either flank, several hundred yards away. But Bragi had left the capital only to escape its pressures. The others understood.
"Sometimes," Ragnarson mused, minutes later, "I think we were better off back when our only problem was our next meal."
Kildragon, a lean, hard brunet, nodded. "It had its good points. We didn't have to worry about anybody else."
Ragnarson waved a hand in an uncertain gesture, reflecting his inner turmoil. "It's peaceful out here. No distractions."
Kildragon stretched a leg, prodded Blackfang.
"Uhn? What's happening?"
"That's it," said Bragi. "Something." Peace had reigned so long that the first ripples, subtle though they were, had brought him worriedly alert. His companions, too, sensed it.
Valther grumbled, "I can't put my finger on it."
Everyday life in Vorgreberg had begun showing littlestutters, little stumbles. A general uneasiness haunted everyone, from the Palace to the slums.
There was just one identifiable cause. The Queen's indisposition. But Bragi wasn't telling anyone anything about that. Not even his brother.
"Something's happening," Ragnarson insisted. Prataxis glanced his way, shook his head gently, resumed scribbling.
The scholars of Hellin Daimiel took subservient posts as a means of obtaining primary source material for their great theses. Prataxis was a historian of the Lesser Kingdoms. He kept intimate accounts of the events surrounding the man he served. Someday, when he returned to the Rebsamen, he would write the definitive history of Kavelin during Ragnarson's tenure.
"Something is piling up," Bragi continued. "Quietly, out of sight. Wait!"
He gestured for silence. One by one, the others saw why. A bold chipmunk had come to look them over. As time passed and the little rascal saw no threat, he sneaked closer. Then closer still.
Those five hard men, those battered swords, veterans of some of the grimmest bloodlettings that world had ever seen, watched the animal bemusedly. And Prataxis watched them. His pen moved quietly as he noted that they could take pleasure in simple things, in the natural beauties of creation. It wasn't a facet of their characters they displayed in the theater of the Palace. The Palace was a cruel stage, never allowing its actors to shed their roles.
The chipmunk finally grew bored, scampered away.
"If there was anything to reincarnation, I wouldn't mind being a chipmunk next time around," Turran observed. "Except for owls, foxes, hawks, and like that."
"There's always predators," Blackfang replied. "Me, I'm satisfied here on top of the pile. Us two-leggers, we're Number One. Don't nothing chomp on us. Except us."
"Haaken, when did you take up philosophizing?" Bragi asked. His foster brother was a taciturn, stolid man whose outstanding characteristic was his absolute dependability.
"Philosophizing? Don't take no genius to tell that you're in the top spot being people. You can always yell and get a bunch of guys to gang up on any critter that's giving you trouble. How come there's no wolves or lions in these parts anymore? They all went to Ipopotam for the season?"
"My friend," said Prataxis, "you strip it to its bones, but it remains a philosophical point."
Blackfang regarded the scholar narrowly, not sure he hadn't been mocked. His old soldier's anti-intellectual stance was a point of pride.
"We can't get away from it," said Ragnarson. "But the quiet may help us think. The subject at hand, my friends. What's happening?"
Valther spat his blade of grass. While searching for another, he replied, "People are getting nervous. The only thing I know, that's concrete, is that they're worried because Fiana has locked herself up at Karak Strabger. If she dies..."
"I know. Another civil war."
"Can't you get her to come back?"
"Not till she's recovered." Bragi examined each face. Did they suspect?
He wished the damned baby would hurry up and the whole damned mess would get done with.
His thoughts slipped away to the night she had told him.
They had been lying on the couch in his office, on one of those rare occasions when they had the chance to be together. As he had let his hand drift lightly down her sleek stomach, he had asked, "You been eating too much of that baclava? You're putting on a little...."
He had never been a smooth talker, so he wasn't surprised by her tears. Then she whispered, "It's not fat. Darling.... I'm pregnant."
"Oh, shit." A swarm of panic-mice raged round inside him. What the hell would he do? What would Elana say? She was suspicious enough already....
"I thought.... Doctor Wachtel said you couldn't have any more. After Carolan you were supposed to be sterile."
"Wachtel was wrong. I'm sorry." She'd pulled herself against him as if trying to crawl inside.
"But.... Well.... Why didn't you tell me?" She had been well along. Only skilled dress had concealed it.
"At first, I didn't believe it. I thought it was something else. Then I didn't want you to worry."
Well, yes, she had saved him that, till then. Since, he'd done nothing but worry.
Too many people could get hurt: Elana, himself, his children, Fiana, and Ravelin-if the scandal became a cause celebre. Hespent a lot of time cursing himself for his own stupidity. And a little admitting that his major objection was having gotten caught. He'd probably go right on bedding her if he got through this on the cheap.
Before it showed enough to cause talk, Fiana had taken trusted servants and Gjerdrum and had moved to Karak Strabger, at Baxendala, where Ragnarson had won the battle Kavelin celebrated on Victory Day. Her plea of mental exhaustion wasn't that difficult to believe. Her reign had been hard, with seldom a moment's relief.
Horns alerted him to the present.
"Game's afoot," Kildragon observed, rising.
"Go ahead," Bragi said. "Think I'll just lay around here and loaf."
Haaken, Reskird, Turran, and Valther were habituated to action. They went. They would get more relaxation from the hunt.
"And you, Derel?"
"Are you joking? Fat, old, and lazy as I am? Besides, I never did see any point to hounding some animal through the woods, and maybe breaking my neck."
"Gives you a feeling of omnipotence. You're a god for a minute. 'Course, sometimes you get taken down a peg if the game gives you the slip or runs you up a tree." He chuckled. "Damned hard to be dignified when you're hanging on a branch with a mad boar trying to grab a bite of your ass. Makes you reflect. And you figure out that what Haaken said about us being top critter isn't always right."
"Can you manage this charade another two months?"
"My calculations say the child will arrive next month. She'll need another month to make herself presentable...."
Ragnarson's eyes became hard and cold.
"Too," said Prataxis, who hadn't the sense to be intimidated, because in Hellin Daimie scholars could make outrageous, libelous remarks without suffering reprisals, "there's the chance, however remote, that she'll die in childbirth. Have you considered possible political ramifications? Have you taken steps? Kavelin could lose everything you two have built."
"Derel, you walk a thin line. Take care."
"I know. But I know you, too. And I'm speaking now only because the matter needs to be addressed and every eventualityconsidered. The Lesser Kingdoms have been stricken by deaths lately. Prince Raithel last year. He was old. Everybody expected it. But King Shanight, in Anstokin, went during the winter, in circumstances still questionable. And now King Jostrand of Volstokin has gone, leaving no one but a doddering Queen Mother to pick up the reins."
"You saying there's something behind their deaths? That Fiana might be next? My God! Jostrand was dead drunk when he fell off his horse."
"Just trying to make a point. The Dark Lady stalks amongst the ruling houses of the Lesser Kingdoms. And Fiana will be vulnerable. This pregnancy shouldn't have happened. Bearing the Shinsan child ruined her insides. She's having trouble, isn't she?"
It took a special breed not to be offended by the forthrightness of the scholars of Hellin Daimiel. Ragnarson prided himself on his tolerance, his resilience. Yet he had trouble dealing with Prataxis now. The man was speaking of things never discussed openly.
"Yes. She is. We're worried." We meant himself, Gjerdrum, and Dr. Wachtel, the Royal Physician. Fiana was scared half out of her mind. She was convinced she was going to die.
But Bragi ignored that. Elana had had nine children now, two of whom hadn't lived, and she had gone through identical histrionics every time.
"To change the subject, have you thought about Colonel Oryon?"
"That arrogant little reptile? I'm half tempted to whip him. To send him home with his head under his arm."
He found Balfour's replacement insufferably abrasive. High Crag's recent threat to call in Kavelin's war debts had done nothing to make the man more palatable. And Bragi thought he was kicking up too much dust about Balfour's disappearance.
Ragnarson wondered if that were related to High Crag's threats. Though ranked General on its rosters, he had had little to do with the Mercenaries' Guild the past two decades. High Crag kept promoting him, he suspected, so a tenuous link would exist should the Citadel want to exploit it. He wasn't privy to the thinking there.
"Actually," he said, "you've conjured enough into the Treasury to pay them off. They don't know yet. My notion is, they want to do to us what they've done to some of the littlestates on the coast. To nail us for some property. Maybe a few titles with livings for their old men. That's their pattern."
"Possibly. They've been developing an economic base for a century."
"A friend of mine did a study of Guild policies and practices. Very interesting when you trace their monies and patterns of commission acceptance. Trouble is, the pattern isn't complete enough to show their goals."
"What do you think? Would it be better to give them a barony or two? One of the nonhereditary titles we created after the war?"
"You could always nationalize later-when you think you can whip them heads up."
"If we pay there won't be much left for emergencies."
"Commission renewal is almost here. There won't be much favorable sentiment in the Thing."
"Ain't much in my heart, either." Ragnarson watched the sun play peekaboo through the leaves. "Hard to convince myself we need them when we haven't had any trouble for seven years. But the army isn't up to anything rough yet."
The real cost of the war had been the near-obliteration of Kavelin's traditional military leadership, the Nordmen nobility. Hundreds had fallen in the rebellion against Fiana. Hundreds had been exiled. Hundreds more had fled the kingdom. There was no lack of will in the men Bragi had recruited since, simply an absence of command tradition. He had made up somewhat by using veterans he had brought to Kavelin back then, forming several sound infantry regiments, but the diplomatically viable military strength of the state still hinged on the Guild presence. Their one regiment commanded more respect than his native seven.
Kavelin had greedy neighbors, and their intentions, what with three national leaderships having changed within the year, remained uncertain.
"If I could just get the Armaments Act through...."
Soon after war's end Fiana had decreed that every free man should provide himself with a sword. Ragnarson's idea. But he had overlooked the cost. Even simple weapons were expensive. Few peasants had the money. Distributing captured arms had helped only a little.
So, for years, he had been pushing legislation which wouldenable his War Ministry to provide weapons.
He wanted the act so he could dispense with the Mercenaries. The Thing wanted rid of the Mercenaries first. An impasse.
Bragi was finding politics a pain in the behind.
Reskird and Haaken returned, then Turran and Valther. Empty-handed. "That kid Trebilcock, and Rolf, got there first," Reskird explained. "Tough old sow anyway."
"Sour grapes?" Bragi chuckled. "Valther, you heard anything from Mocker yet? Or about him?"
Most of a year had passed since he had sent the fat man south. He hadn't heard a word since.
"It's got me worried," Valther admitted. "I made it top priority two months ago, when I heard that Haroun had left his camps. He's gone north. Nobody knows where or why."
"Practically nothing. I've scoured the country clear to Sedlmayr. He never made it there. But one of my men picked up a rumor that he was seen in Uhlmansiek."
"That's a long way from Sedlmayr...."
"I know. And he wasn't alone."
"Who was he with?"
"We don't know. Nearest thing to a description I have is that one of them was a one-eyed man."
"That bothers you?"
"There's a one-eyed man named Wilis Northen, alias Rico, who's been on my list for years. We think he works for El Murid."
"Northen disappeared about the right time."
"Oh-oh. You think El Murid's got him? What're the chances?"
"I don't know. It's more hunch than anything."
"So. Let's see. Mocker goes to see Haroun. El Murid's agents intercept him. Question. How did they know?"
"You've got me. That bothers me more than where Mocker is. It could cost us all. I've tried every angle I can think of. I can't find a leak. I put tagged information through everybody who was there when we conned Mocker into going. Result? Nothing."
Ragnarson shook his head. He knew those men. He had bet his life on their loyalties before.
But the word had leaked somehow.
Had Mocker told anybody?
Thus the spy mind works. There had to be a plot, a connection. Coincidence couldn't be accepted.
Habibullah hadn't had the slightest idea of Mocker's mission. He had simply set his agents to kidnap a man, acting on news, which was common talk in the Siluro quarter, that he was traveling to Sedlmayr. Mocker had spread that story himself. The man in black had other resources.
"Keep after it. In fact, get in touch with Haroun's people."
"Haroun has people here. I know a little about your work. I've done some in my time. Admit it. You know them and they know you. Ask them to find out. Or you could go through our friends from Altea. They're in direct contact. Even if you find out they don't know anything, we're ahead. We'd know Mocker didn't reach the camps. Oh. Ask the Marena Dimura. They know what's happening in the hills."
"That's where I got my Uhlmansiek rumor."
The Marena Dimura were the original inhabitants of Ravelin, dwelling there before Ilkazar initiated the wave of migrations which had brought in the other three ethnic groups: the Siluro, Wessons, and Nordmen. The semi-nomadic Marena Dimura tribes kept to the forests and mountains. A fiercely independent people-though they had supported her during the civil war-they refused to recognize Fiana as legitimate monarch of Kavelin. Centuries after the Conquest they still viewed the others as occupying peoples.... They put little effort into altering the situation, though. They took their revenge by stealing chickens and sheep.
It was early spring. The sun rolled west. The afternoon breeze rose. The air grew cooler. Shivering, Bragi announced, "I'm heading back to town. Be damned cold by dark." It would take that long to get home.
Prataxis and Valther joined him. They had work to do.
"You ought to go see your wife sometime," Ragnarson told Valther. "I had a wife who looked like that, I wouldn't go out for groceries."
Valther gave him an odd look. "Elana isn't bad. And you leave her alone all the time."
Guilt ragged Ragnarson's conscience. It was true. His position was opening a gulf between him and Elana. And he hadn't only neglected her. The children, too, were growing up asstrangers. He stopped chiding Valther. The man's marriage was even more successful than Mocker's.
"Yeah. Yeah. You're right. I'll take a couple days off soon as I get the new armaments thing lined up. Maybe dump the kids on Nepanthe and take Elana somewhere. There's some pretty country around Lake Turntine."
"Sounds perfect. And Nepanthe would love having them. She's going crazy, bottled up with Ethrian."
Nepanthe was staying at the Palace. There were no children her son's age at Castle Krief.
"Maybe she should move out to my place?" Ragnarson's family occupied the home of a former rebel, Lord Lindwedel, who had been beheaded during the war. It was so huge that his mob of kids, and servants, and Haaken when he stayed over, couldn't fill it.
"Maybe," Valther murmured. "My place would be better." His wasn't far from Ragnarson's.
The head of an intelligence service doesn't always tell his employer all he knows.