A Chronicle of the King's Blades
At the Break of Day
"Enter!" Grand Master said.
Sir Tancred did so and closed the heavy door behind him, moving with the feline grace of an expert fencer. He had changed out of his mud-soaked traveling clothes into fresh, crisp livery, and no one could have known from the look of him that he had spent the better part of a day and night on horseback. His silver baldric marked him as Deputy Commander of the Royal Guard; his presence here at Ironhall, far away from Grandon where the King was, meant that something was seriously awry.
"All bedded down?" Grand Master inquired dryly.
"My charges are. Your two are falling all over themselves getting dressed."Tancred's thin smile was a formality, not denying the underlying worry. "Unless they decided I was just a nightmare and went back to sleep."
Grand Master grunted and turned back to stare out the window at the first glow of sunrise on the wild crags of Starkmoor. Early-morning chill dug into his bones, making him shiver and pull his cloak tight about him, yet in fact his study was still warm from the previous day's heat. Tancred was not even wearing a cloak over his jerkin, and that display of youthful vigor made Grand Master feel old. He was old, Lord Roland, although he rarely had to admit it, even to himself. He was too old to be dragged out of bed in the middle of the night, too old to deal with unexpected, unwelcome visitors, and too old to tackle a monstrous problem created by a fool of a king.
"I regret that I brought such trouble," Tancred said quietly. This was their first chance to talk privately.
"Not your fault." It was Grand Master's fault. Yes, the King was being totally unreasonable and Leader was a worrywart, but the responsibility was Grand Master's. If his duties required him to refuse direct orders from his sovereign, then he should be prepared to do so and take the consequences. It was guilt that gnawed at him this morning, not age. In a long life of service, he had rarely known such a sense of failure.
"Exactly how many warm bodies does His Majesty expect me to produce?"
"Beg pardon ... the warrant." Sir Tancred stepped closer to hand over the baleful paper, a single sheet that might dispose of many young lives. "He left the number blank. He said to tell you at least one, but he knows you don't like to assign less than three private Blades at a time. No more than three, he said."
"How considerate of him! As soon as possible, I assume? Ram the swords through the boys' hearts and throw the lot of them on the first ship out of country by this time tomorrow?"
"Even sooner!" Sir Tancred smiled, although he must be shocked to hear such sarcasm from a man renowned for his discretion.
Idiot king! Athelgar certainly knew that Ironhall had no boys ready to graduate as Blades, because it was only two weeks since he had made his semiannual pilgrimage to the school to harvest the latest crop of seniors, binding them to absolute loyalty with the ancient, arcane ritual. Grand Master had wanted to release six candidates and had reluctantly included another three to please Sir Florian, who was anxious to build up the Guard's numbers. The previous Commander, Sir Vicious, had preferred to keep it lean -- as Grand Master himself had, back in his own time as Leader, forty years ago. Florian saw safety in numbers, which was his privilege.
But then, just a week later, the King had decided on impulse to appoint a new ambassador to Baelmark. The hapless designate, Lord Baxterbridge, had arrived at Ironhall with a warrant for three Blades. Grand Master should have dug in his heels then, but how could he condemn a man to go off to that nest of bloodthirsty pirates without adequate protection? Diplomatic immunity carried no weight in Baelmark. Only steel and the skill to use it mattered there, and the season on ambassadors never closed. So Grand Master had released three more candidates, very much against his better judgment.
And today another warrant. It took five years to turn an outcast rebel boy into a Blade and even Prime Candidate Ranter had been in the school for less than four. Not since the worst days of the Monster War, forty years ago, had Ironhall suffered such a dearth of trained, competent seniors.
"Eagle did look somewhat sparse," Tancred remarked caustically.
Eagle was a dormitory with a dozen beds and only three occupants -- Ranter, Ringwood, and Goodwin. Two of them had not been billeted there a full week yet. A moment ago Grand Master had been feeling sorry for himself because he had lost half a night's sleep. How much worse this morning's awakening must have been for Ranter, being shaken awake by the Deputy Commander! He would have known instantly that his stay in Ironhall was at an end, his adolescence over. Ringwood could still hope that he would not be needed, but both of them had reasonably looked forward to another year of security and instruction, time to mature personally and physically, to perfect the deadly skills they would need as Blades. They were entitled to all that, and Grand Master had failed them.
He realized that Tancred's comment had really been a question about Candidate Bellman, who was none of his business. Bellman was another worry, but this mess had nothing to do with him.
"Goodwin didn't waken?" Grand Master asked.
"Still snoring when I left."
After a moment, Lord Roland's anger erupted again. "Tell me, Deputy, was Leader not consulted about this warrant? Did he not remind His Majesty that Ironhall presently has no candidates ready for binding?" Impossible Odds
A Chronicle of the King's Blades
. Copyright © by Dave Duncan. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.