I look sternly at the mass of misery displayed in ragged lines across the archery field. They are bleary eyed and most likely have pounding heads and angry wives or mothers or both in the surrounding crowd waiting for my verdict. For I am giving the verdict, not Conners. They attacked royal troops—royal troops attending a Princess of the realm. And, the real reason, Conners will have to live with them after we leave. Legally, I could call their actions treason, but I am not about to destroy the good feeling in the city by ordering forty-three executions.
Instead, I try them en masse and very much in public. I pretended to ignore the sergeants of the battalion bullying them into as close as they are likely to get to orderly lines. Actually I memorize some of the more colorful descriptions the sergeants are applying for future sharing with Mynar.
I draw the Sword, and the whole city becomes silent. There is almost a collective sigh of relief when I rest its point on the wooden stage and fold my hands over its pommel. “You are stupid. Luckily you are also inept. If you had managed to injure, even slightly, one of my men, you would have paid in blood.” I have decided to ignore the one injury sustained, even the man himself admitted he had been laughing so hard he tripped over his own feet, breaking his arm when he tried to catch himself.
“But you are lucky; I am going to allow you to pay in sweat.” I motion to Marcs, and he starts reading, in his very loud voice, the list of civic improvements they are going to be working on. Starting with scrubbing the flagstones of the square in front of the gate.
When he gets to the final item on the list—they are to be allowed only one tankard of ale per day for the next six months—a loud, but high pitched, cheer goes up from the afore mentioned wives and mothers.
I spend a few minutes issuing dire threats about what will happen to them if they every transgress in the future. My Sword sends out a few sparks for emphasis. And the very feminine cheer sounds again. None of them protest my verdict, or offer a defense. I would be seriously surprised if any of them remembered why they decided to honor Conners by murdering prisoners, or why they thought my guards would let them. Mostly they were just a large mass of hungover misery. With yelling sergeants and public humiliation making it worse. Good.
I don’t wait for the battalion to turn them over to the city guards, I just turn and walk off. I’m afraid if I stay any longer I will laugh.
Gregor joins me. “I think about half of them would rather you order their immediate execution and put them out of their misery.”
“If I was going to execute any of them, I would set the date for after they had already suffered through their hangovers. Do you think you got all of them?”
“Two or three may have gotten away. Most of them couldn’t have run if their lives depended on it, at least not in a straight line.”
“Free labor,” he points out.
We walk in silence back to the Keep.
Taver is secluded in his small office, Alan is sorting spells, and Conners is having everything carted out of Orsin’s old rooms.
“Going to burn it?” I ask as he walks past carrying a box.
“No, donating it to a nursing order. They will probably sell it.”
Well, that did make sense, but I don’t think any nursing order would have accepted Destroyer’s things—and I would definitely want to keep an eye on anyone who bought them. Nope, don’t regret burning them at all.
For the first time since we arrived, I have nothing to do. Civil issues have been turned over to Conners, and Taver is close to turning over the military ones. I think about interrupting Taver or interrupting Alan, but decided not to. Instead, I go back to leaning my chair against the wall and staring at nothing, thinking.
I don’t notice Alan until he sits down beside me. “I want something from you Adava.”
“What?” I don’t give anyone unconditional promises.
“We, the priests and I, think it is best to burn Destroyer’s spells outside the city. I don’t want you to come.”
“You think it will be dangerous?”
“I think it will be foul. He used his victims blood to make ink.”
“You are taking guards?”
“Volunteers. And all four of the priests.”
“All right.” I give him what he wants. “But once you have burned the pages, mix the ashes with salt before you scatter them.”
“The books didn’t smell of sorcery,” my Sword consoles me as I watch Alan and the priests making preparations to leave.
“I think they are hunting the place where he did his rites, and that will probably stink. I can’t demand that people don’t be overprotective of me, and then turn around and start being overprotective of Alan.” Was I telling the Sword, or was I telling me. Maybe I should be a little more understanding of my guards.
Conners’ decision to move into the Keep has sparked another round of cleaning with the smell of herbs in every corner. Because our four priests have been busy helping Alan, the keep steward has brought in priests from around the city. I have noting better to do, so I take the Sword on a tour, to see if there are any pockets of ‘stink’ left.
We start with the cavern underneath the trap Taver and I fell into. It’s just a small limestone cave, now brightly lit with torches. I look at various round holes in the wall.
“Members of the miner’s guild have been driving rods into the walls searching for hidden chambers,” Bevin explains. “They are certain there is just this one small cave, with only two entrances, the one the trap opened into, and the one we came in.”
“It smells fresh in here.” Bevin thinks I am talking to him, but the Sword knows better and answers.
I feel better, I had been afraid the cavern, with it’s entrance to the side of the stairway leading to the dungeon, would be a convenient place for rites involving human sacrifice.
“We left an air passageway when we sealed up the trap entrance,” Bevin also explains. “There is a metal grill over it.”
Satisfied with the state of the cave, I move on to the dungeons, which are also sparkling clean (and empty, since we are holding our prisoners in the gate towers) and smell of herbs. My Sword remains silent throughout my inspection, even in Destroyer’s old room. I insist on going to the roof of the main tower, not because I really think Destroyer hid anything up there, but for the view. It is worth it. Bevin is relieved that I am content to just look at the roofs of the lower towers for my vantage point. He was expecting me to want to go to the tops of all of them.
I settle back in my favorite corner, trying to think of something else to do. No wandering around the city today; I don’t want to disturb the stern impression I left this morning. In a day or two I will go about the city again, reassuring, but let them worry for a day or so.
There are only two loose ends I can think of, pointing the mercenaries at the swamp-wizard, and the too-talkative prisoner. I’m pretty sure Taver is dealing with the first, so I decide to work on the latter. I send for Jeffrs, who has been doing a lot of the questioning.
“He says his name is Anaslov, and claims to be a trader in rare stones from Isal.” From his tone, I don’t think Jeffrs believes him. “I got information from one of the traders in the city who knows Isal. Anaslov’s answers are consistent with what he told me.”
“He claims Orsin put him in the dungeon in order to steal his trade-goods.” Again disbelief in his tone.
“We found no unset gems in Orsin’s belongings.”
“He talks all of the time, about his travel adventures, his family, his favorite candy. You can’t shut him up.”
“So you believe he was or maybe still is, up to something.”
“Oh yes.” Jeffrs is definite. “But I don’t think we will ever find out what it is by questioning him.”
Depressing. “Do you think if we let him go we could follow him?”
“Maybe a hunter could?” Jeffrs stares off in the distance for a moment, trying to decide if he likes the plan. “At the worst, it would get him out of Blythe. He could spread the news of Orsin’s death, but the whole city saw his body burn, so it’s no secret.”
“Recruit some hunters,” I order Jeffrs. “And I will get Taver’s opinion.”
It is dark before I have a chance to talk to Taver. I don’t consider my plan important enough to interrupt him and Gregor; I hope they are working how best to ensure the mercenaries fulfill any promised they make. We have no doubt they will make promises, any promise we ask, to gain their freedom. I try to stop looking at the door, knowing Alan’s group went fully provisioned for several days, but I’m not successful.
Taver listens to my suggestion, but doesn’t say anything for a long time. “It is not certain the hunters won’t lose him, but the only alternative is to take him with us in the hope he will tell us something useful.” I think he is talking more to himself than to me. Or maybe he’s trying to teach me. My mind goes off on a tangent considering the idea Taver could have decided to train me to be a general. “I think,” he finally decides, “The hunters have a better chance of following him than we have of getting sense out of him.”
“So you don’t believe he is just an honest trader?”
“No. He and the swamp-wizard’s courier were the only two prisoners who were not beaten. I suspect he’s a courier for the Outlands. If Jeffrs can find some hunters, we’ll try your plan and see if we learn anything from it.”
“Let’s give him a few pieces of gold—since his jewels were not found among Orsin’s possessions. It might make him believe we think he is just a trader.” Taver agrees with that suggestion too.
We don’t talk about the mercenaries, for we are in the great hall, not his wall chamber—I know Alan is unlikely to return before tomorrow, but I still want to be able to see the door. So far only Taver, Gregor and Alan know about my plans to send the mercenaries on a rescue mission. And, of course, father and whoever he told, but they aren’t here. I can’t decide if Bevin should be included, can’t decide if I want to exclude him just to punish his attitude about Alan—a not unreasonable attitude considering what Bevin knows, or rather doesn’t know. I’ll let Taver decide.
I sleep late the next morning, having slept little during the night, too busy listening for the noise of men returning. I decide I won’t go about the city today either. The mood I am in, I would not be reassuring.
At Taver’s request, I go through the city’s treasury looking for coins not minted in Abalem for use of the mercenaries. We debate seeking such coins from the city traders, but can’t decide.
“See how much you can find Princess. If it isn’t enough, then we can consider other options.”
I agree with him, and spend the morning sorting money. I spend the afternoon sitting in shadows and staring at the door. At dusk I am rewarded; Alan’s group returns.
I go to him and hug him in front of guards and staff and anyone else who happens to be looking. He hugs me back and whispers, “I won’t kiss you, I don’t want to be responsible for your guards dying of heart-attacks.”
I start to giggle, but it dies before I make a sound. This close I can see Alan is definitely singed around the edges, for all that he smells of herbs not smoke. My hand hovers over one particularly bad red mark on his neck, “You’ve been burned.”
He just shrugs at me. “The fire got away from us a little. We had to burn. He left remnants; without concern for plague. We had to burn the area. Maybe we got a little over enthused. I’m glad you weren’t there. Afterwards we washed in the river, and cleansed. And,” he continues, “then we huddled around new fires trying to get warm—the river is still close to ice.”
I step back and let Taver join the conversation, he needs to know what happened, and the priests are clearly too exhausted to do anything but eat hot soup and go to sleep. Possibly not in that order.
Alan doesn’t look much better. Taver and I get him seated next to the fire with a mug of hot ale after he waves away the soup, looking slightly green at the thought of eating.
“We found nine skulls,” he tells us. “Human skulls.”
“Probably some of the missing seventeen.”
Alan ignores Taver’s comment. “No way to identify them. Of course we had to burn then, and the other things.”
We wait, but he does not continue. Even Taver seems to accept that it is too soon to ask for details, maybe forever would be too soon. The families of the seventeen missing men on our list will likely never know what happened; and in the case of the nine Alan found, it is probably for the best. I don’t think it will be hard to keep this secret, no one is likely to want to talk about what they saw.