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It began with a murder. Stalwart saw it happen. He was watching a formal court reception, a grand state function held only three or four times a year. That was the last place anyone would expect to see such a gruesome crime.
The day's pomp had been staged in honor of the new ambassador from Isilond. King Ambrose had set out to impress him with spectacle and splendor, sparing no expense--drum rolls and trumpeters and heralds wearing gaudy tabards. Every ambassador in the diplomatic corps was there, as were scores of great lords and ladies, bejeweled and decked out in finery. They had all been escorted in from the gates of Nocare Palace by glittering honor guards of the Household Yeomen in silver-bright breastplates and plumed helmets. At the doors of the reception hall they had observed White Sisters in their snowy robes and high pointed hats--no one would sneak any evil magic into the King's presence while the Sisters were on duty. The inside of the hall was patrolled by Blades of the Royal Guard, the world's finest swordsmen.
And yet a murder!
After welcoming the new ambassador, the King began handing out honors and appointments. The first min the heralds called forward was Sir Snake. In recognition of his triumph over the traitors at Quagmarsh, he was being promoted from member to officer in the Order of the 'White Star, the greatest order of chivalry in the realm. It was an honor very few Blades had ever achieved. As he knelt to receive the diamond-studded brooch from the King, the assembled courtiers clapped and cheered.
Hidden away by himself on a screened balcony, Stalwart kept his hands in his armpits.He should have been down there as well, and he had let Snake talk him out of it. It was he who had made Snake's triumph at Quagmarsh possible! The King had been so impressed by that exploit that he had appointed Stalwart to the White Star, although he was at least ten years younger than anyone else who had ever been so honored. And stupid Stalwart had let Snake talk him out of public recognition for the time being. His undercover work for the Old Bladeswas too important to give up so soon, Snake had insisted, so why not just accept the star this evening during a private supper with the King? He could watch from this private box, seeing without being seen, hidden away like a shameful secret.
He had seen the King often enough at Ironhall, although never wearing his crown and swathed in a robe so massive that it needed four pages to carry its train. Ambrose was a huge man, towering over everyone else as he stood in front of his throne. At his back, with swords drawn, stood the newest Blades, who only two weeks ago had been Stalwart's classmates at Ironhall: Sir Rufus, Sir Orvil, Sir Panther, and Sir Dragon. They looked very smart in their blue and silver livery. He kept imagining the expressions on their faces if they heard his name proclaimed and saw him strutting forward before the entire court, honored as no man of his age had ever been honored.
And tomorrow he would ride off to a paltry little town called Horselea to investigate rumors of black magic there. In spite of all Snake's efforts to make it seem dangerous and exciting, this sounded like a very dull mission, not the sort of thing to challenge an eager young swordsman. He could not help wondering if Snake just did not know what to do with his young helper now and was sending him off to horrible Horselea to age a few years.
The reception that should have been the greatest moment of his life proceeded without him, dribbling down in boredom through awards, tides, and appointments to mere acknowledgments. Peers presented stripling sons and new wives to the King. Very subtly, people were fidgeting. Even Ambrose seemed to be hurrying things along, as if hungry for the mast boar, stuffed peacock, and other delights of the state banquet that was to follow.
The herald was dose to the end of the list now. In a voice like a trumpet he proclaimed, "Lord Digby of Chase, Warden of the King's Forests, knight in the Loyal and Ancient Order of the King's Blades, most humbly craves Your Majesty's gracious leave to return to court."
Digby had visited Ironhall a year or two back, and thus was one of the very few people in the hall, other than Blades, whom Stalwart recognized. He began his advance to the steps of the throne. His petition was a mere formality, because he was one of the Kings personal friends. Having just returned from a brief
absence, he was required by protocol to pay his respects to His Majesty at a public function. In fact he had supped with the King the previous evening and reported on his travels at that time. So it should have all been over in a few seconds. He made the first of the three low bows required. He took two more steps.
He dropped dead.
AR the White Sisters standing around the hall screamed in unison. Heralds rushed forward to help the stricken man. One of them leaped up in horror with blood on his hands. Lord Digby had been stabbed through the heart. There had been no one near him; there was no weapon in sight.
It was only a wild guess, but Stalwart was instantly certain that he would not be riding to Horselea after all. He was going to be needed.