The wreckage still smoldered in the wan dawn light, sending a column of grayish-white smoke spiraling into the misty sky above Niejwein. Two mounted men surveyed it from a vantage point beside the palace gatehouse.
“What a mess.”
“Unavoidable, I think. The best laid plans . . . have they found his majesty yet, your grace?”
The first speaker shrugged. His horse shuffled, blowing out noisily: the smell of smoke, or possibly the bodies, was making it nervous. “If he was inside the great hall we might never find identifiable remains. That could be a problem: I believe the blast must have far exceeded the plotters’ intent. The soldiers found the Idiot, though—what was left of him. Near chopped in half by the rebels’ guns.”
It was not a cold morning, and the second speaker wore a heavy riding coat: nevertheless, he shivered. “If these are the spells the witch families play with, then I think we may conclude that his presumptive majesty struck not a moment too soon. The tinkers have become too accustomed to having the Crown at their convenience. This could well be our best opportunity to break their grip before they bring damnation to us all.”
The first speaker stroked his beard. “That is the direction of my thoughts.” He looked pensive. “I think it behooves us to offer our condolences and our support in his hour of need to his majesty; a little bird tells me that he is of like mind. Then we should look to our own security. His lordship of Greifhalt has a most efficient levy which I think will prove sufficient to our immediate needs, and for the honor of his grandfather he has to come to our aid. We can count on Lyssa, too, and Sudtmann. For your part . . . ?”
“Count me among your party, your grace. I think I can contribute—” He paused, thinking. “—two hundred? Yes, two hundred of horse certainly, and perhaps more once I’ve seen to the borders.”
“That will be helpful, Otto. The more you can send, the better—as long as you do not neglect the essentials. We cannot afford to feed the scavengers, of whichever kind.” The first speaker shook his head again, looking at the smoking rubble. Stooped figures picked their way through it, inspecting the battlefield for identifiable bodies, their movements as jerky as carrion birds. “But first, an appropriate demonstration of our loyalty is called for.”
The Duke of Innsford nudged his horse forward; his companion, Otto, Baron Neuhalle, followed, and behind him—at a discreet distance—the duke’s personal company followed suit. The scale of destruction only became apparent as Innsford rode down the slope towards what had been the Summer Palace of Niejwein. “It really does appear to have been visited by a dragon,” he commented, keeping Neuhalle in view. “I can see why that story is spreading . . .”
“Oh yes. And it came to dinner with his late majesty and half the witch families’ heads of household at his table for the feast,” Neuhalle agreed. “They’ll draw the right conclusion. But what a mess.” He gestured at the wreckage. “Rebuilding the palace will take years, once the immediate task of ensuring that his majesty’s reign is long and untroubled by tinkers and demon-traffickers is completed. And I do not believe that will be easy. The old fox will move fast—”
Neuhalle broke off, composing his face in an expression of attentive politeness as he reined in his horse. “Otto Neuhalle, to pay his respects to his majesty,” he called.
“Advance and be recognized.” Neuhalle nudged his horse forward towards the guards officer supervising the salvage attempt. “Ah, my lord. If you would care to dismount, I will escort you to the royal party at once.”
“Certainly.” Neuhalle bowed his head and climbed heavily down, handing the reins to his secretary. “I have the honor of accompanying his grace, the Duke of Innsford. By your leave . . . ?”
The guards officer—a hetman, from his livery—looked past him, his eyes widening. “Your grace! Please accept my most humble apologies for the poor state of our hospitality.” He bowed as elaborately as any courtier, his expression guarded as a merchant in the company of thieves: clearly he understood the political implications of a visit from the duke. “I shall request an audience at once.”
“That will be satisfactory,” Innsford agreed, condescending to grace the earth with his boot heels. “I trust the work proceeds apace?”
“Indeed.” A lance of royal life guards came to attention behind the hetman, at the barked order of their sergeant: “’Tis a grim business, though. If you would care to follow me?”
“Yes,” said Innsford.
Neuhalle followed his patron and the hetman, ignoring the soldiers who walked to either side of him as if they were ghosts. “His majesty—the former prince, I mean—I trust he is well?”
“Yes, indeed.” The hetman seemed disinclined to give much away.
“And is there any announcement of the blame for this outrage?” asked Innsford.
“Oh, yes.” The hetman glanced over his shoulder nervously, as if trying to judge how much he could disclose. “His majesty is most certain of their identity.”
Neuhalle’s pulse raced. “We came to assure his majesty of our complete loyalty to his cause.” Innsford cast him a fishy glance, but did not contradict him. “He can rely on our support in the face of this atrocious treason.” Although the question of whose treason had flattened the palace was an interesting one, it was nothing like as interesting to Neuhalle as the question of whom the former crown prince was going to blame for it—for the explosion that had killed his father. After all, he couldn’t admit to having done it himself, could he?
They rounded the walls of the west wing—still standing in the morning light, although the roof of the Queen’s Ballroom had fallen in behind it—and passed a small huddle of life guards bearing imported repeating pistols at their belts. A white campaign pavilion squatted like a puffball on the lawn next to the wreckage of the west wing kitchens, and more soldiers marched around it in small groups or worked feverishly on a timber frame that was going up beside it. “Please, I beg you, wait here a while.”
Innsford paused, leaning on his cane as if tired: Neuhalle moved closer to him, continuing the pretense that their escorts were as transparent as air while the hetman hurried towards the big tent, his progress punctuated interminably as he was passed from sentry to sentry. The guards were clearly taking no chances with their new monarch’s life. “A bad night for the kingdom,” he remarked quietly. “Long live the king.”
“Indeed.” Innsford looked almost amused. “And may his reign be long and peaceful.” It was the right thing to say under the circumstances, indeed the only thing to say—their escort looked remarkably twitchy, in the shadow of the ruined palace—but Neuhalle had to force himself not to wince. The chances that King Egon’s reign would be peaceful were slim, at best.
They didn’t have long to reflect on the new order in peace. The guards hetman came loping back across the turf: “His grace the duke of Niejwein awaits you and bids me say that his majesty is in conference right now, but will see you presently,” he managed, a long speech by his standards. “Come this way.”
The big pavilion was set up for the prince’s guests: royal companions and master of hounds at one side, and smaller rooms for the royal functions at the other. The middle was given over to an open space. The duke of Niejwein sat on a plain camp stool in the middle of the open area, surrounded by an ever-changing swarm of attendants: a thin-faced man of early middle years, he was, as Innsford might have remarked, one of us—a scion of the old nobility, the first fifty families whose longships had cleaved the Atlantic waves four centuries ago to stake their claims to the wild forested hills of the western lands. He was no friend of the merchant princes, the tinker nobles with their vast wealth and strange fashions, who over the past century had spread across the social map of the Gruinmarkt like a fungal blight across the bark of an ancient beech tree. Neuhalle felt a surge of optimism as he set eyes on the duke. “Your grace.” He bowed, while his patron nodded and clasped hands with his peer.
“Be welcome, your grace. I had hoped to see you here. Rise, Otto. You are both welcome in this time of sorrow. I trust you have been apprised of the situation?” Niejwein’s left eyebrow levered itself painfully upwards.
“In outline,” Innsford conceded. “Otto was entertaining me in Oestgate when the courier reached us. We came at once.” They had ridden since an hour before dawn from thirty miles down the coast, nearly killing half a dozen mounts with their urgency. “Gunpowder and treason.” His lips quirked. “I scarcely credited it until I saw the wreckage.”
“His majesty blames the tinkers for bringing this down upon our heads,” Niejwein said bluntly.
“A falling out among thieves, perhaps?” Otto offered hopefully.
“Something like that.” Niejwein nodded, a secretive expression on his face. “His Majesty is most keen to inquire of the surviving tinkers the reason why they slew his father using such vile tools. Indeed, he views it as a matter of overwhelming urgency to purge the body of the kingdom of their witchery.”
“How many of the tinkers survived?” asked Innsford.
“Oh, most of them. Details are still emerging. But beside the death of his majesty’s father and his majesty’s younger brother—” Otto started at that point “—it appears that his majesty is the only surviving heir for the time being.” Niejwein nodded to himself. “The queen mother is missing. Of the tinkers, the heads of three of their families were present, some eighteen nobles in total, including the bitch they planned to whelp by the Idiot—” Otto startled again, then contained himself “—and sixty sundry gentles of other houses. The tinkers not being without allies.”
“But the main company of those families are untouched,” Innsford stated.
“For the time being.” Niejwein’s cheek twitched. Has he the palsy? Otto wondered. “As I said, his majesty—” Niejwein stopped and rose to his feet, turning to face one of the side panels. A moment later he dropped to one knee: Otto scrambled to follow suit.
“Rise, gentlemen.” Otto allowed himself to look up at his new monarch. The Pervert—no, forget you ever heard that name, on pain of your neck, he told himself—was every inch a prince: tall, hale of limb, fair of face, with a regal bearing and a knowing gleam in his eye. Otto, Baron Neuhalle, had known Egon since he was barely crawling. And he was absolutely terrified of him.
“Sire.” Innsford looked suitably grave. “I came as soon as I heard the news, to pledge myself to you anew and offer whatever aid you desire in your time of need.” Not grief, Otto noted.
Prince Egon—no, King Egon—smiled. “We appreciate the thought, and we thank your grace for your thoughtfulness. Your inclination to avoid any little misunderstandings is most creditable.”
“Sire.” Innsford nodded, suppressing any sign of unease.
Egon turned to Niejwein. “Is there any word of that jumped-up horse thief Lofstrom?” he asked offhandedly. Neuhalle kept his face still: to talk of Angbard, Duke Lofstrom, so crudely meant that the wind was blowing in exactly the direction Innsford had predicted. But then, it wasn’t hard to guess that the new monarch—who had hated his grandmother and never seen eye-to-eye with his father—would react viciously towards the single biggest threat to his authority over the kingdom.
“No word as yet, sire.” Niejwein paused. “I have sent out couriers,” he added. “As soon as he is located he will be invited to present an explanation to you.”
“And of my somewhat-absent chief of intelligence?”
“Nor him, sire. He was leading the party of the tinkers at the past evening’s reception, though. I believe he may still be around here.”
“Find proof of his death.” Egon’s tone was uncompromising. “Bring it to me, or bring him. And the same for the rest of the upstarts. I want them all rounded up and brought to the capital.”
“Sire. If they resist . . . ?”
Egon glanced at Innsford. “Let us speak bluntly. The tinker vermin are as rich a target as they are a tough one, but they are not invulnerable and I will cut them down to size. Through magic and conspiracy, and by taking advantage of the good will of my forefathers, they’ve grown like a canker in my father’s kingdom. But I intend to put a stop to them. One tenth of theirs, your grace, will be yours if you serve me well. Another tenth for our good servant Niejwein here. The rest to be apportioned appropriately, between the Crown and its honest servants. Who will of course want to summon their families to attend the forthcoming coronation, and to take advantage of the security provided for them by the Royal Life Guards in this time of crisis.”
Neuhalle shrank inwardly, aghast. He wants hostages of us? He found himself nodding involuntarily. To do aught else would be to brand himself as a rebel, and it seemed that Egon had no intention of being the bluntest scythe in the royal barn: but to start a reign with such an unambiguous display of mistrust boded ill for the future.
“We are your obedient servants,” Innsford assured him.
“Good!” Egon smiled broadly. “I look forward to seeing your lady wife in the next week or two, before the campaign begins.”
“Campaign—” Neuhalle bit his tongue, but the prince’s eyes had already turned to him. And the prince was smiling prettily, as if all the fires of Hel didn’t burn in the imagination concealed by that golden boy’s face.
“Why, certainly there shall be a campaign,” Egon assured him, beaming widely. “There will be no room for sedition in our reign! We shall raise the nobility to its traditional status again, reasserting those values that have run thin in the blood of recent years.” He winked. “And to rid the kingdom of the proliferation of witches that have corrupted it is but one part of that program.” He gestured idly at the wooden framework taking place on the lawn outside the pavilion. “It’ll make for a good show at the coronation, eh?”
Neuhalle stared. What he had thought to be the framework of a temporary palace was, when seen from this angle, the platform and scaffold of a gallows scaled to hang at least a dozen at a time. “I’m sure your coronation will be a great day, sire,” he murmured. “Absolutely, a day to remember.” Copyright © 2007 by Charles Stross. All rights reserved.