By Patrick Samphire and Stephanie Burgis
“Personally,” said Marko, “I prefer the chaperone.”
Damijan looked up from where he was leaning on the stone balustrade overlooking the hall. “That’s disgusting. She’s old.”
“Forty, I would guess,” Marko replied. “And a widow, from what I’ve heard. You can keep your virgin princess, Dami. I’ll take a widow every time.”
“She’s not my princess,” Damijan muttered, turning away.
“No,” Marko said, serious now. “She isn’t. She’s Prince Drago’s intended, and don’t you forget that.” He stretched, feeling his spine pop. The chaperone might be old, but he wasn’t anyone’s idea of a green youth either. Standing guard duty wasn’t as easy as it used to be. Marko settled back against the pillar and looked out over the courtiers and visiting nobility. “The bears’ heads add a certain touch of class to the ballroom, don’t you think?”
The banquet hall had been converted to a ballroom for the presentation of Princess Heléne to the Padonian court. But the conversion was at best cursory. The banquet hall was five hundred years old, and the dark-gray stone and soot-blackened beams brooded like ancient, bad-tempered giants, overwhelming and engulfing the light from the imported chandeliers. Or like King Bogdan slouched there on his oak throne, glowering at the spectacle before him. The orchestra and most of the courtiers were lowlanders. King Bogdan had never liked lowlanders.
“They’re disgusting,” Damijan said. “Did you see the way the poor princess looked up at them when she came in? I thought she might faint.”
King Bogdan had hunted each of those bears himself, and had refused to have them removed for the ball.
“Everything’s disgusting at your age,” Marko said cheerfully.
The chaperone stood at the edge of the wall, watching her charge dance. Her eyes never left the young princess, but beneath her long dress, her foot was tapping in time with the music. Widows! Marko would pass by a hundred princesses for any one of them.
Damijan scowled out across the hall, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. “How could the Queen of Lourne ever let her daughter marry a monster like Prince Drago? She must know what he’s like.”
Marko glanced around, making sure no one could overhear them. “Careful what you say about the prince, Dami. Even your father couldn’t save you if Drago decided you had insulted him.”
Damijan turned to face Marko. There was too much confidence in the boy’s expression, Marko thought. Damijan might be good with his sword, but he wasn’t that good, and a sword couldn’t protect him from everything.
“You’re not afraid of Prince Drago, are you Marko?”
Marko shrugged. Drago had hated Marko for a decade, ever since Marko had been made captain of the king’s guards, but Marko didn’t fear him.
He was cautious, though. That was just sensible with a man like Drago.
“Of course not,” he said. “But Queen Catherine is afraid of Padonia. She hopes to get us on her side by marrying her daughter to the prince, and no doubt she hopes to discover the secret of Padonia’s magic.”
“I am not afraid of any magic,” Damijan said, thrusting his chin forward.
Marko gave the younger man a tight smile. “You were not there when Enskk’s soldiers marched on Padonia last year.”
But Marko had been. And he remembered the man with fire burning out of his eyes, twin jets of liquid flame. Sometimes Marko woke at night with the man’s screams in his ears and that smell in his nose. One moment, the man had been an Enskk soldier. Then, at a word from deep in the shadows on the highest tower of the castle, the man had become a candle. There had been ten thousand candles that night. Marko would never forget them.
Marko shuddered, then forced his smile back. “Enskk thought there was nothing to fear from our new magic, but they were wrong, and all their own magic and swords were swept aside.”
“But the magic’s on our side,” Damijan said. “That’s a good thing, isn’t it?”
Marko shrugged. “Of course. But I’d be happier if I knew what this new source of magic is.” He straightened and ran a finger over his thin moustache. “Now,” he said, “there’s a lonely widow out there, tired, no doubt, of chaperoning a spoilt princess, and I am going to introduce myself to her.”
Justine closed the bedroom door behind Princess Heléne with a sigh of relief. “Thank heavens,” she said. “I thought your hosts would never let us retire. At least you can be sure that you’re welcome in this court, Heléne.” She kicked off her shoes and flexed her feet, wincing.
“My fiancé didn’t seem very interested.” Heléne dropped onto her enormous bed, her lips curling into the sullen pout Justine had learned to dread. “Prince Drago spent the entire evening practicing sword tricks with his men.”
“He was showing off for you.”
Justine reached up to unfasten her heavy headdress. The muscles in her neck twinged. Only two more pins to remove…. Yes. She shook out her long hair and felt her shoulders relax for the first time since she’d stepped into the princess’s carriage, four days ago. It felt so good that she even managed a smile for her charge. Heléne was only sixteen, after all. She couldn’t help the fact that her mother had spoiled her for years.
“I saw him watching you, love. He wanted you to be impressed.”
“How would you know?” Heléne said, spitefully. “You spent the whole evening showing off your bosom to that decrepit captain of the guards.”
Justine gritted her teeth. She forced herself to stay silent while she set her headdress down with more care than was really necessary. Breathe. Heléne was only sixteen….
And Heléne could never bear for anyone else to be the center of attention. Ever.
“Don’t pretend you weren’t flirting with him,” Heléne said, her blue eyes narrowed. “God knows why, but he spent the whole evening within six inches of you.”
Oh yes, he had. For a moment, Justine flashed back to the delicate, spicy scent the captain had worn, and remembered the light in his very dark eyes. Her lips curved. Lord, he flirted well. He must have seduced half the aristocratic ladies of the Padonian court. Perhaps, if she’d never been outside of Padonia herself, or if she’d been naïve and under forty, she might have been taken in as well.
The look on his face, when he’d finally realized that she was not, after all, going to fall into his arms, had been priceless.
Justine laughed and felt her good humor return. She sat down on the bed behind Heléne and began to pull the pins out of the princess’s hair. “Come now, love. We’re both tired. Don’t worry about this evening. Think about which dress you want to wear tomorrow morning, for your first breakfast with the king and the prince.”
A loud knock sounded, cutting off the princess. Justine froze, staring at the heavy wooden door. Who would dare knock on the princess’s bedroom door at this hour? She’d already dismissed the Padonian servants.
The knock sounded again.
“Answer it, Justine.” Heléne’s eyes looked very wide.
Justine put a hand to her unbound hair and sighed. It must be the housekeeper with a forgotten message. She’d just have to greet her in scandalous disarray and hope that the servants wouldn’t gossip too much. She stood up, smoothing down her skirts, and walked towards the door.
Which burst open before her. Prince Drago stood in the doorway, still wearing his ceremonial crown. He made an elaborate bow.
“Your highness!” Justine stared at him. Was it her imagination, or was his broad face even more flushed than it had been earlier? How much had he drunk since then?
She jerked the bed curtain closed, shielding Heléne. “We’ve retired for the evening, Prince Drago.”
“I know. It’s the perfect time for a visit, don’t you think?”
He closed the door behind him and sauntered into the room. His gaze swept up and down Justine and his grin deepened.
He hadn’t seemed quite so tall in the ballroom. But then, she’d been wearing her heeled shoes at the time.
Justine stiffened and forced herself not to retreat. She straightened to her full height and met his gaze. “I’m afraid it’s not a good time at all, Your Highness. We are preparing for bed.”
“If you wish to go to sleep, Madame, you are quite free to retire to your own bedroom. I’d happy to help my fiancée with her night-time preparations.”
“In six days, you may do so. Sir.”
His brows furrowed. “Are you trying to tell me that I am not allowed to see my own fiancée, Madame–Madame–”
“Madame de Cherbignon.”
“Do you really think, Madame de Cherbignon, that you can stop me doing whatever I choose?”
Justine’s stomach tightened. He wouldn’t dare force his way past her. He couldn’t. The scandal would rock both their kingdoms. Queen Catherine would be furious.
But could the queen do anything? Everyone knew what had happened to the soldiers from Enskk who had marched against Padonia last year.
She glared at Drago over her nose, investing the glare with every ounce of offended dignity she possessed. “I am certain that you would not embarrass your fiancée and yourself in such a fashion.”
For a moment, she was certain that she’d lost. His face turned bright red. She watched the vein in his forehead pulsate, mentally calculating the distance from the princess’s bedroom to the other rooms along the long, draughty hallway. Would anyone hear her if she screamed? The prince’s hand fell to the hilt of his ceremonial sword. Justine swallowed. Even if anyone heard her, how long would it take for rescue to arrive?
Then Drago let out his breath in a rush, exhaling fumes of alcohol into her face. His hand fell from his sword-hilt. “As you wish, Madame.” He spun around and tugged the door open. It crashed against the wall. He shot her a last, poison-filled look before he stalked out through the outer chambers.
Justine waited until she heard the outer door close before she dared to move. Her hands trembled as she pushed the inner door shut, as gently as possible.
“Justine?” Heléne whispered.
Justine turned back to the bed. The princess had pushed the bed curtains open. Her lovely face was pale. Tears glimmered in her eyes.
“Oh, Heléne.” Justine hurried to the bed and swept the girl into her arms. Heléne’s slim body shivered in her embrace.
“I was watching, Justine. I saw him through a crack in the curtains. I saw everything.”
“Oh, love….” Justine hugged Heléne tightly to her chest, rocking her back and forth. “It will be all right. Somehow. I promise.”
The door slammed open.
Marko pushed himself upright, rubbing at his eyes, which refused to focus. He’d been dreaming of a certain enticing, frustrating widow with brown eyes and a full bosom, who kept slipping away every time he reached for her.
“What are you doing in my bedchamber, Dami?” he asked through a sticky mouth. His voice sounded slurred. God, he’d drunk too much last night. Ten years ago it wouldn’t have affected him at all. Today, his brain was coated with tar and his thoughts struggled to surface.
“He was in her chambers, Marko. I saw him.”
Damijan’s young face was red and his hair was disarrayed.
“Calm down,” Marko said. “Who was? Whose bedroom?”
“Prince Drago. In Princess Heléne’s bedroom. Last night. I was patrolling past the end of the corridor and I saw him leave.”
Marko sighed and wished he could pull the covers over his head again. But Damijan’s father, Count Andreas, was an old friend from Marko’s first days in the guards, and the count had supported Marko throughout his career. The least Marko could do was to keep Damijan out of trouble with the prince. Particularly as Count Andreas was one of King Bogdan’s few close friends.
“She’ll be his wife in a few days. Who cares if there’s a few fumblings under the bed sheets beforehand? What does it matter to you?”
Damijan looked down at his boots. “It just isn’t right. She’s young and innocent. She doesn’t deserve a monster like Drago.”
“I’m sure she’ll cope. Women usually do. It’s what she’s been bred for.” He sat up and pushed the covers aside. “That’s the way it is with royalty.”
“We’ll see about that,” Damijan muttered, and Marko wanted to slap him.
“Don’t do anything stupid, Dami. Now open the shutters, will you? I can see daylight out there.”
Half way through getting dressed, Marko heard someone rapping on his door. He sighed and finished buttoning his shirt. Being captain of the king’s guard had its advantages, but being allowed to sleep in wasn’t one of them.
Marko didn’t recognize the nervous looking page who stopped just inside the door. “The king requires your presence,” the boy said.
“Where is he?”
“The banquet…ah…the ballroom, sir.”
If the king was in the banquet hall, that meant he’d been there all night, no doubt brooding and drinking. Marko straightened his shoulders, grimacing. This would be difficult.
“Then let’s go,” he said.
The chandeliers had been quenched, so only the morning light trickling from the high windows lit the hall. It was a place of long, deep shadows and echoes. Guards stood wearily at attention around the hall. They would have been there all night. Marko waved them to the back of the hall and approached the ancient throne.
The king slumped deep in the throne, almost hidden by the shadows and the dark cloak he had drawn around him. Marko knelt at the foot of the dais and bowed his head.
Several minutes passed before the king hauled himself up in his seat and propped his head on his hands, elbows on knees, to stare down at Marko.
“You may rise, Captain Jovanovic.”
Marko did so.
The king beckoned Marko with a slow, tired wave of his hand. When Marko approached, the king leaned forward, his bloodshot eyes fierce.
“You have not always approved of what I have done. I have seen it in your eyes, even if you tried to hide it.”
Marko straightened. “I am loyal, Sire.”
“I know you are, Marko. You’re not one of those dewy-eyed young idealists. You may not have approved, but you accepted the need.”
Marko bowed his head. He had done so. It was not his place as a guard captain to question his orders. All he had to do was obey and protect the king. The king had to protect the entire country.
“We have embarked on a course of action that will make Padonia great,” the king said. “But my son is impetuous. He lacks patience and self-control. Watch him for me.” King Bogdan slumped back. “I am putting a great deal of trust in you, Marko. I always have.”
“Thank you, your Majesty.”
“My son has no love for you, Captain, you know that. He has demanded your removal several times, but I have overruled him. Doing this for me will not make him love you more, and one day he will be king.”
“I will do my duty for as long as I am required to, your Majesty.”
“Good. Then watch him. Do not let him do anything that will endanger my country at this delicate time. You are dismissed.”
Marko turned smartly, despite the throbbing ache in his head, and marched from the room. The flowers by the doors were still fresh. Marko scooped up a bunch as he passed. He could think of a very good use for these.
“Really, Justine, can’t you do anything right?” Heléne pulled away from Justine’s hands. “My head-dress is completely crooked. Are you blind as well as common?”
Justine gritted her teeth and forced down her temper.
“I’m sorry, Heléne. I’ll try again.”
“You know, you completely mishandled that situation last night.” Heléne’s eyes narrowed as she gazed at herself in the mirror. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve deeply offended my fiancé.”
“Pardon me?” Justine stared at Heléne’s reflection. “But–“
“Oh, I know you were frightened. But the more I think about it, the more obvious it becomes that you misjudged the prince. All he wanted was to greet me properly.”
“At that hour?” Justine sighed, and picked up the hairbrush. “As you wish, Heléne.” If the princess wanted to rewrite history, Justine couldn’t argue. After all, Heléne would have to live with Drago. It was probably best for her not to acknowledge her fiancé’s faults.
“I knew better than to be frightened,” Heléne said calmly. “But then, you’re really quite dim-witted at times, aren’t you?”
A loud knock sounded on the door, saving Justine from having to make a response. Heléne leaped up out of her seat by the mirror and rearranged herself on the bed, folding her hands gracefully.
“Open the door, Justine,” she snapped. “Quickly.”
Justine walked to the door, holding her head high and counting. Five more days… Five more days and this would all be over. A grinning young guard handed her a colorful bunch of flowers with a card in it.
“Flowers!” Heléne bounced off the bed. “You see, my prince does know how to show his respects, even after you treated him so rudely last night. I doubt that anyone’s ever sent you flowers.”
The guard cleared his throat. “Er–“
“Give those to me!” Heléne snatched them and buried her nose in the blooms. “Mm….”
The flowers looked familiar. Justine’s eyes narrowed. Perhaps the prince was less of a spendthrift than she would have assumed. She would have expected him to show off to his fiancée by buying her new flowers, rather than reusing the ones displayed at his father’s ball.
Heléne pulled out the card. “To the enchanting…oh!” She crumpled the card and threw it to the ground. “It’s for you!”
Justine snatched the flowers before they could follow the card. “Thank you,” she said to the guard, and closed the door.
Heléne’s face turned bright red. “I should have known not to trust you! You’re rude to my future husband, you have no sense of shame, you fling yourself at soldiers when you’re supposed to be taking care of me–!”
“Your Highness!” Justine stepped up to Heléne and met her eyes. She was shaking with anger, but she kept her fingers loose on the flowers. They had come from that damned captain of the guards, of course–had he no common sense? “I think I should leave you alone for a time, to recover yourself.”
Heléne blinked, caught off guard. “You can’t leave! You have to wait on me and–and–”
“Your highness,” Justine said, turning to the door.
“Fine,” Heléne’s voice followed her. “Leave. I don’t care. But don’t come back until you’ve found me fresh strawberries to soothe my nerves.”
The ridiculousness of the request was enough to stop Justine in her tracks for just a moment. Did they even grow strawberries in Padonia?
In that moment, Heléne stepped up behind Justine and spoke softly. “Don’t ever forget, Justine. I’m going to be a queen, as soon as that decrepit old king finally dies, and all that you’ll be then is a stupid, annoying, powerless old nobody, just like you are right now!”
Justine walked out of the room shaking with anger. It wasn’t until she was three steps down the hall that she realized she was still carrying the bouquet. Two steps later, her vision cleared and she recognized the man lounging against the wall.
She sighed as she watched his face light up. He had such a likeable smile. She ought to be angry at him for causing that scene with Heléne. Instead, she felt a telltale warmth run down her spine. She met his smile with a blank frostiness. What was it about the man? She’d met enough accomplished flirts in the court back at Lourne. She was too old to be taken in by flattery or overwhelmed by good looks. Maybe it was the glint of humor in his face that made her want to smile back at him.
Or maybe she just needed to spend time with another adult.
“Have you spent the entire morning outside my chambers, Captain?”
He bowed over her hand. “I’m afraid my duties prevented that, as charming as it would have been.”
“But they don’t prevent you from being here now?” She forced a snap like ice on a winter river into her voice. Would he take the hint, and retire? Did she really want him to?
“As captain of the guard, Madame, I watch over the entire castle. That includes, of course, this hallway.”
“Which I am leaving.”
“Then I’ll be pleased to escort you on your way and guard the rest of the castle.” He offered her his arm. “I see you received my flowers.”
“I certainly did.” She took his arm, reluctantly enjoying the warmth. He had long, wide fingers, and he held her arm at a respectful distance. I will not be seduced. “Thank you, Captain. They are beautiful.”
“I’m pleased you think so.”
“They’re also oddly…familiar.”
His eyes slid guiltily away. “Familiar, Madame de Cherbignon?”
“They remind me of blooms I’ve seen before, somehow.” Justine shot a sideways glance at him, biting back a grin. He had a very expressive face.
He took a breath. “I–“
She took pity on him. “I’m glad to have the use of them now, and glad they didn’t create too great a dent in your salary, Captain Jovanovic.”
“You are a very perceptive woman. What on earth are you doing catering to spoiled royalty all day?”
“My work,” she said dryly. “I have the need of a salary too, you know. And how would you describe your own relationship to the prince?”
He laughed. “Touché. But I work for the sake of the king, not to honor our fine prince.”
“And I was hired by my queen. But now my princess has sent me on an errand.”
“A royal errand? Let me guess–dragon’s tooth stew, freshly prepared, or a dress made out of gold.”
“She already has one of those.” Justine stopped walking, and looked up warily into his dark eyes. “Is it possible–do you think you might be able to find me fresh strawberries? The princess was quite insistent.”
“Of course.” He raised her hand to his lips. His lips were warm as they brushed lightly across her skin. “For your charge, we’ll find the sweetest strawberries in all Padonia.”
Justine pulled back, letting her smile fade. It was too dangerous to let herself flirt back. She couldn’t start to take him seriously.
“You’re very kind,” she said. “But I’m sure you have pressing duties. Elsewhere.”
“I’m at your service, Madame.” He tucked her hand back into his arm. “For as long as you want me.”
The woman was like a damned wall of ice. Marko couldn’t get a handgrip on her. As soon as he thought she was warming to him, she would reply to one of his overtures with such overwhelming indifference that he slipped and slid to the bottom of the wall again. It was driving him mad. Four days! It had never taken him four days to seduce a woman before. He couldn’t get her out of his mind, even as day after day passed without success. And now here he was again, hanging around outside her rooms, hoping she might come out. Surely she must know he was here. So why had he been out here an hour without seeing her? The uncertainty was infuriating. He’d never met a woman like her before, not since he was a teenager and prone to senseless infatuations.
Marko blinked and glanced down the corridor. Damijan stopped, panting, beside him.
“He’s finally emerged.”
Marko had set Damijan to watching Prince Drago’s room at first light that morning.
“That was one hell of a hangover. It’s past one o’clock. Where did he go?”
“I followed him to the North Tower.”
“Good. That’s where I thought he would go. Let’s go and take a look.”
The North Tower was often called the Prince’s Tower. The prince spent most of his days holed up inside. No one entered or left except the prince, not even a maid or servant.
Marko was always careful to assign the best, most reliable guards to the Prince’s Tower when setting the rota. The prince disliked the king’s guards, and Marko had had to intercede several times with the king to prevent Drago having them flogged.
“Is the prince still in there?” Marko asked.
The senior of the two nodded. “We don’t expect to see him back out for an hour or two.”
“Good. Damijan and I are going in.”
“Sir.” The guard looked uneasy. “Standing orders say no one goes in….”
“And who gave you those orders, Andrej?”
“You did, sir.”
Marko smiled. “Good. Now I’m changing them. Wait for us here.”
The damp stone staircase wound upwards, lit only by the light from the arrow slits in the walls. Marko led Damijan silently upwards. He fought the urge to draw his sword. That would hardly improve their reception from the prince.
On the first dark landing, a low oak door stood shut in one wall. Beyond the landing, the stairs continued upwards. Marko held his finger to his lips and then reached for the door.
It was bolted on the outside. That meant the prince could not be within. Marko was grateful. He was stretching the king’s orders by coming here at all, but if he was to keep a proper eye on Drago he couldn’t leave him unobserved in the tower.
The bolt slid easily; it was obviously often used. He pulled open the door.
The light was even worse inside, and the smell was atrocious. Marko heard Damijan gag behind him.
“Who’s there?” A croak sounded from within the shadows.
Marko’s eyes slowly adjusted. A man lay slumped against the far wall, his hands bound by manacles and chains to the stonework above him. His clothes were rags. Straggly hair and a beard reached to his chest.
“Captain Jovanovic and Corporal Hrovak, King’s Guards. Who are you?”
The man coughed, a weak, raspy sound. “Don’t you know, guard?” The cough ended in a choking sob that shook the man’s thin body. “Help me.”
“Why are you here?” Marko had to force himself to keep the anger out of his voice. The man was obviously a prisoner, and it irritated him to discover that there was a prisoner in the castle he didn’t know about. He should know. That was his job.
“If I tell you, will you help me?”
“Tell me, and I’ll decide.”
The man’s face turned upwards, and weak, watery eyes stared up at Marko. “All right. My name is Sigard. Prince Sigard, of Enskk.”
“Enskk doesn’t have any princes,” Damijan interrupted. “Everyone knows that the People’s Council rules there.”
The man spat onto the filthy cobblestones. “The People’s Council. Traitors. My father ruled there until six years ago, until that damned revolution. When we were betrayed I managed to escape to Padonia. Your country promised to help me, to restore my country to me, but instead they took me in the night, brought me here, and chained me to this wall.”
Marko shrugged. “Politics. Why should I help you?”
“Because of what they have done to me since then.” The man’s drawn face lifted. Pale eyes stared from sunken caverns at Marko. “They have placed a flame in my heart and it is burning there still. Here,” he nodded towards his breast, “feel it. Do it.”
Reluctantly, Marko knelt by the man and touched his fingers to the skin where the man had indicated. It radiated heat, as though a wild fever raged just beneath the skin.
“Have you ever burnt your hand, Captain?” Prince Sigard asked.
“Then imagine that burn. Imagine that same pain inside your chest. Imagine it there every day for nearly six years. That is what they have done to me.”
Despite himself, Marko flinched. He pulled his hand away and stood. “Who? Who are they?”
“Prince Drago.” Sigard spat again. The phlegm tangled in his beard. “And his man.”
“I don’t know his name. He comes down from the tower.”
Down? Marko remembered the man who had appeared at the top of the tower on the night of the battle against Enskk. Was it the same man?
“Why would they do that to you? What does it serve? Even Prince Drago isn’t that cruel.”
“How little you know your own prince. He revels in it. He taunts me with it. But you are right, there is a reason. It is this new magic your little kingdom is so proud of. They’ve told me about it many times, when they wanted me to suffer more. This man of your prince’s, he has learned how to place a flame in a person’s heart. Place a flame in the heart of an ordinary man, and it can destroy that person’s family. He can send fire tearing through their bodies. But that’s not the worst. If he places his flame in the heart of a person of true royal blood, then he can burn any man, woman, or child of that country.”
Marko remembered the burning Enskk soldier he had faced, and the thousands of others who had burned that night, and he shuddered.
“He has placed it in me,” Sigard said. “That is how your pathetic kingdom defeated Enskk. And I burn for it every day.”
“My God,” Damijan whispered in the dark.
Carefully, Marko said, “Then it is only Enskk we have power over?” That was a dangerous policy for King Bogdan to follow, to make the other kingdoms think that Padonia could do the same to them as it had to Enskk. If they discovered the truth…. But did King Bogdan even truly know the source of the magic? Or was this Prince Drago’s plan alone?
“For now,” Sigard said. “But Drago boasted to me that he has lured a princess of Lourne here. They plan to place a flame in her heart. She will burn like I do, and all her mother’s army with her.” He laughed, and the laugh broke into another cough. “Ah, God, help me. Free me or kill me, soldier. I can’t stand any more.”
Damijan grabbed Marko’s arm. “Marko, we have to….”
Marko’s lips had turned dry. He ran his tongue over them. It didn’t help.
Something scraped the stone behind them. Marko turned. A figure stepped into the open doorway. Prince Drago.
“What the Hell are you doing here, Captain?” The word ‘captain’ sounded a solid blow of contempt.
“My duty, your highness. I am the captain of the king’s guard. It is my duty to know what is happening. In all the castle.”
“Then do your duty elsewhere in the castle. Now.” The prince was standing very close now. His hand dropped to his sword hilt. Marko kept his arms folded across his chest and met the prince’s angry eyes.
“Does the king know of this?”
Drago sneered. “It has been his plan from the start, you fool.”
Yes. That was the truth. Marko had always known when Prince Drago was lying.
“Come, Damijan. We’re leaving.”
“Wait,” Sigard called. “You promised.”
“I promised nothing,” Marko said. He couldn’t keep the anger from his voice. But it was anger at himself.
He led Damijan down the stairs and out the tower, scarcely nodding to the waiting guards.
“You heard what they’re going to do to the princess,” Damijan objected from behind. “We can’t let it happen.”
“Yes, we can,” Marko said. “It’s none of our business. It’s politics. Do you think your pretty princess and her mother would hesitate if the situation was reversed? It’s the game they all play. You and I have no say in it.”
“And are you happy with that?”
Marko whirled so fast that Damijan almost collided with him. “No, Dami, I am not happy with it. But I will not turn traitor to my country and my king, not for some spoilt foreign princess. I’ll not be hung for that. Will you?”
Damijan glared back at him. His neck had reddened. “Damn you, Marko. Damn you!”
Damijan turned and ran down the corridor.
Marko stamped off towards his own rooms. Damn him? Damn all these kings and queens and princes and princesses! He couldn’t interfere with their games. He wouldn’t. But he could not get the chaperone out of his mind, nor the disappointment he imagined on her face.
“So you see, you have to escape! And I’ll help you!”
Justine stared at the young guard’s face, bewildered. How could he look so pleased, after telling them about such horrors?
Oh. Corporal Hrovak’s eyes were focused on Heléne’s face, waiting for her reaction. He was practically bouncing in his seat with excitement. The poor boy saw himself as the princess’s savior. Justine opened her mouth, trying to think of a gentle way to let him down.
Heléne forestalled her. “You must be mad.” She stood up, shaking out her skirts, and glared at him. “When I tell my fiancé the nonsense you’ve been spouting at us he will have you whipped.”
His face fell. “But Princess, don’t you understand? Drago’s going to torture you, just like he’s tortured Prince Sigard.”
“Prince Sigard died years ago, as everyone knows, and I doubt very much that Prince Drago of Padonia would torture a princess of Lourne. It’s not in his nature. He is royal.”
Justine put out her hand to cut him off. “Corporal, does anyone but you know about this plan? Anyone we can trust?”
His eyes fell. “Ah…no. No. It’s only me.” He looked back up, lighting up again. “But I’m enough! Believe me, I could beat Drago in a swordfight any day. Without even trying!”
“Ah.” Justine sighed. So much for asking Captain Jovanovic for assistance or advice. Perhaps it was just as well. He served the prince, after all. But it would have been a relief to have a real soldier on their side.
She stood up, and walked across the room, hoping to clear her head. If only she could send Queen Catherine word in time to receive her orders. But it would take days for a message to reach Lourne, days they didn’t have. And if the corporal was right, more than Heléne’s life was at stake.
“Thank you, Corporal,” she said, summoning up a smile. “You were very helpful to us. You may leave now.”
“Leave?” He stood up, banging his chair against the wall. “But I’m ready–I’m happy to help you! I’m at the princess’s service completely. And–“
Heléne snorted. Justine glared at her.
“That’s very kind,” Justine said, “but we don’t require your assistance quite yet.”
The corporal finally backed out of the room, still offering help and advice until the door closed behind him. Heléne rolled her eyes.
“Could you believe the nerve of that man? A mere corporal–not even a lieutenant, and certainly not royal–and yet he came bursting in on us, as if we’d be pleased to listen to his ravings!”
“Ravings?” Justine frowned. “I’ll admit that the corporal was a bit over-excited, but–“
“A ‘bit’?” Heléne laughed. “I can’t believe you’d be taken in by such a fantasy. He’s a boy trying to make himself seem important.”
“He’s older than you, Heléne.”
“Please don’t compare us.” Heléne crossed to the inner door that led to the bathroom. “I’m going to take my bath and try to forget all about this.”
The door closed behind her. Justine sat down on the bed heavily, weighing her options.
The queen’s orders had been explicit. The marriage would go through, Heléne would be a healthy and virginal bride, and then she would send back post-nuptial greetings through Justine. Greetings, Justine suspected, that would include any hint she’d received of the source of Padonia’s power, power that Queen Catherine would very much like for Lourne. If Justine broke off the wedding for insufficient reason, the queen would be enraged. It wasn’t only that Justine would lose her position. Her house, her freedom, and her very life would be in danger. Queen Catherine’s temper was legendary.
But if the corporal’s story was true, then the queen would be only too eager to rescue her daughter from Padonia’s grasp. If Queen Catherine believed Justine’s recounting. If Justine herself were truly convinced that the corporal was telling the truth.
If, if, if….
Justine massaged her forehead, breathing deeply. Corporal Hrovak was indubitably naïve, excitable, and imaginative. He nearly bled with the desire to be a hero. And he almost certainly fancied himself in love with Heléne. But all the same….
She wished that she didn’t believe Corporal Hrovak’s mad story. But the horrors of the Enskk defeat had frightened all the kingdoms, and the details of that defeat matched the corporal’s story too closely for comfort. Justine believed that he was willing to exaggerate, to impress the princess. But she didn’t think he could have invented such an explanation.
If Justine took Heléne away now, without proof, the queen would be deeply suspicious and possibly outraged. If she didn’t, she might be signing the death warrant for her entire kingdom, as well as for her charge.
Queen Catherine might never forgive her for this.
Justine opened the tall closet in the wall and began to search through it for traveling clothes.
When Heléne emerged from the bath, she looked between Justine and the clothes laid out on the bed. “I can’t wear those at dinner!”
“You won’t.” Justine took a breath and set her hands on the princess’s damp shoulders. “Heléne, listen to me. Your mother gave me the responsibility to protect you. If you are in danger, and the entire kingdom in danger through you, then we must leave, as quickly and as quietly as possible.”
“What?” The princess looked caught between outrage, astonishment, and shocked laughter.
“No one knew how Padonia defeated Enskk,” Justine said. “Until now. Do you want people whispering next about the burning soldiers and nobles of Lourne?”
“I–” Heléne took a deep breath. “He wouldn’t do that.”
“Wouldn’t he?” Justine narrowed her eyes. “Princess, you were in this room three nights ago. I know you’ve tried to forget it, to pretend that it didn’t happen or that he didn’t frighten you, but we both know the truth.”
Heléne shuddered, and her eyes closed. Then, slowly, she nodded. She looked down at her clenched fists. “Why did Maman engage me to such a man?”
Justine sighed. “Royal weddings are always political. You know that. But you deserve to marry a prince who will value you and your kingdom the way they deserve, and I am certain that your mother will agree with me on that.” Justine was certain of no such thing. But she couldn’t tell Heléne that, not now. She stroked her hand down the girl’s fair hair. “Get dressed, love. We can’t pack our cases, it would only rouse suspicion. I’m going to summon your carriage and say that you’ve taken a whim to ride through the countryside this afternoon. As soon as we’re out of the city, we’ll tell the coachman our real destination.”
“Very well.” Heléne lifted her chin, and stepped into her petticoats. “I’ll be ready as soon as you return, Justine.”
“Wonderful.” Justine laced up the back of Heléne’s dress and stepped back to look at her. Pride rose in her as she watched Heléne fasten the clasps of her cloak. The princess had been spoiled for the past sixteen years, but perhaps there was hope for her after all. “I promise you, within four days we’ll be back in Lourne, and you’ll be safe.” She put her hand on the doorknob.
Before she could twist it, someone pushed it open from the other side. Justine fell back, stumbling. Heléne gasped. Prince Drago glanced around the room with narrowed eyes. Two guards followed him inside. He stalked across to Heléne and jerked open the clasp of her cloak.
“As I expected,” he said. “I knew that idiot guard was up to no good.”
Justine swallowed. “Your Highness, the princess and I were just about to go out on a ride through the countryside.”
“A ride, eh?” Drago laughed and grabbed Heléne’s arm. He gestured to the two guards. They stepped forward to restrain Justine. “You won’t be leaving this castle again, either of you. You’re coming with me to the North Tower.”
“His Highness has left the tower, sir.”
Marko looked up from the guard rota he had been brooding over for the last hour.
“Where’s the prince gone?” he asked.
“He was heading to the East Wing,” the guard said. “I left Goran following him. He’ll meet us outside the banquet hall when he finds out where Prince Drago is going.”
Marko stood, stretching. “Good. I’m fed up with rotas.”
The second guard, Goran, was waiting outside the banquet hall when Marko arrived.
“Drago is meeting with Mihael and Iztok in the solarium,” Goran said. “They went in no more than a minute or two ago.”
Marko had long suspected that the guards Mihael and Iztok gave their loyalty to Prince Drago rather than to the king.
“I’ll go and see what they’re up to. You two get back to your duties.”
Marko heard Iztok’s voice a dozen yards from the solarium door. “…like you asked,” Iztok was saying. “He came off duty about fifty minutes ago and went straight to Princess Heléne’s room. He came out again about twenty minutes later looking like his mama had slapped him.” Iztok laughed.
Drago swore. “The little dog. He’s learning his tricks from that damned traitor captain of his. I will wait no longer, whatever my father may say. Come.”
Marko ducked back around the corner. Damijan! He should have kept an eye on the boy. Now Drago was going to do something stupid. It was exactly as King Bogdan had feared. He hurried up the nearest stairs. This wasn’t the most direct way to the princess’s rooms; Drago and his men would be taking that. But this detour would only delay Marko a couple of minutes. And it would take him past Damijan’s room.
Damijan was pacing his small room, his face sweaty and red with agitation. He started guiltily when Marko through open the door.
“Get out here, Dami.”
The boy followed him.
“Prince Drago has discovered that you went to the princess,” Marko said, striding down the corridor. “What in hell were you thinking? If he moves against the princess, it could mean war with Lourne.” And tens of thousands of burning soldiers, he thought.
“What difference does it make?” Damijan said, bitterly. “He’ll torture her after the wedding anyway. You don’t care about that. At least this way she has a chance to get away.”
Marko stopped. “Dami. If you tell me one more time what I care or don’t care about, then I will bang your head against that wall, our friendship notwithstanding.”
Damijan looked down, flushing again. “Sorry,” he muttered. Then he looked back up, his eyes wild. “But what difference does it make? Lourne won’t like it any more in two days than they will now.”
Marko sighed, and pushed his hair back. “After the wedding she’ll be a princess of Padonia, and Lourne will have no say. She’ll belong to Drago. But now you’ve risked war. Do you understand?”
He started down the corridor again, and heard Damijan hurrying to catch up.
They entered the hallway that passed the princess’s rooms just in time to see Drago leading his two guards in the opposite direction. Iztok dragged Princess Heléne by the arm, ignoring her furious complaints. And Mihael was pushing Justine de Cherbignon before him.
Marko’s heart lodged in his throat. Damn Drago. Why did he have to take the chaperone as well? What did she have to do with it? He realized he had half-drawn his sword. He forced himself to relax.
“Prince Drago,” he called.
The prince missed his step and stumbled. He turned, then spat on the floor when he saw them. “Captain Jovanovic and his little puppy. Go away, Captain. Your presence is not required.”
The guards holding the princess and her chaperone had moved past Drago and stopped.
“Your father would be angry if he knew what you were doing, your Highness. The princess is not yours until you are married. Set her free.”
Drago laughed. “I will do what I please. Return to your duties. That is an order.”
Marko scratched at the stubble he had not had time to shave this morning. The king had ordered him to stop Drago doing anything stupid, but he could not disobey a direct order from the prince. He wondered if he had time to reach the king and explain what was happening before it was too late.
There was movement behind the prince. The chaperone had managed to get an arm free from Mihael, her guard. Marko watched her slam her elbow into the guard’s stomach. She managed two running steps towards the prince before Mihael caught her again.
“The Lourne ambassador will hear about this!” she said.
Marko winced. She was brave, but threatening Drago was not a good move. The prince turned towards her, so that their eyes met, not a foot apart.
“When we have placed a flame in the princess’s heart,” he said, “this woman will be the first one to burn.” He gestured to the guards. “Now, no more delays. Take them to the North Tower. And you, Captain Jovanovic,” the prince said, turning back to Marko, “are on punishment duty for the next month. Count yourself lucky.”
And with that, the prince followed his men away down the passageway.
Marko took a deep breath. Damijan was white-faced beside him, although whether it was from anger or fear, Marko could not tell. Maybe both.
“Marko, what will we do?”
It was a good question. They had to follow orders. But Marko could not forget the Enskk soldier with the burning eyes. And he could not clear from his mind the image that had now entered it, of Justine with flames bursting from her mouth, her nose, her eyes, and her ears, dancing like a string puppet. The prince had no reason to hurt her. Padonia might need the princess, yes, no matter how horrible that was. But that was politics. The chaperone, well, that was cruelty. He remembered the way she had held his arm, the way she had looked at him over the flowers…. And he saw the flames again, and felt sick.
He could not let her burn, not to satisfy Drago’s whim. Not even if that meant treason.
“Follow me,” Marko said.
“Marko, we can’t. They’ll hang us.”
Marko grabbed Damijan’s shirt. “You were the one who wanted me to help. Now I’m going to. Are you going to run away?”
He saw a spark in Damijan’s eyes.
They ran down the passageway.
Drago and his prisoners had almost reached the entrance to the North Tower when Marko and Damijan caught up.
The prince turned again, his face red with fury.
“Captain. You are stripped of your rank and under arrest. Go to the cells.”
Marko shook his head. “Let the prisoners go. You have no right under law to take them. The princess is not yours until you are wed.”
“If I want this pathetic Lourne strumpet now, then I will take her now and you will not stop me.”
“How dare you?” Princess Heléne’s outraged voice shrieked through the air. “My mother will crush your kingdom if you touch me.”
Casually, Prince Drago turned and whipped his open hand across the princess’s face. The crack echoed down the corridor.
With a strangled cry, Damijan leapt past Marko, sword in hand. The prince took a step back and drew his own sword.
“Because your father and mine are friends, I will forget this,” Drago said to Damijan, “if you put your sword away and leave now.”
“Dami…,” Marko began.
Damijan launched himself forward, thrusting at Drago’s chest. The prince slipped past the thrust and thumped the hilt of his sword into Damijan’s forehead. Damijan stumbled, then forced himself to one knee in time to block a swing from the prince. He pushed himself to his feet and raised his sword. Marko realized he had drawn his own sword. Too late to back away now.
Damijan swung wildly. The prince parried, then thrust faster than a blink. Marko saw the sword enter Damijan’s shoulder and the tip emerge. Then Damijan crumpled. The princess screamed again.
Drago dragged his sword free and lifted it. Then he swung for Damijan’s neck.
Marko took two quick steps forward and blocked the prince’s blow.
The prince staggered back, then threw himself forward, bringing his sword flailing down at Marko’s head. Their blades met in a spray of sparks and a crash that shook Marko’s bones. He pushed himself forward, twisting his sword and hammering his shoulder into Drago’s chest. The prince’s sword clattered to the stones, and the prince tumbled to the floor.
Marko stepped back and crouched over Damijan’s body. The boy was still breathing, but blood was seeping too fast from his shoulder. The sword had entered above the collar bone and cut down though the muscle of the shoulder. At least, the thrust appeared to have missed the arteries. Marko pressed his palm against the wound to slow the flow of blood.
Prince Drago retrieved his own sword. “You damned traitor!” he screamed. “I told my father again and again that he should never let a commoner be captain of the guards. I told him you couldn’t be trusted, that you would betray us, and I was right. You’ll burn, Jovanovic. I’ll see that you do. You’ll burn.”
The prince gestured his men into the tower, dragging their prisoners, then followed them, and the door slammed shut behind them. Marko heard bolts thrown into place.
Running footsteps approached. Two guards came dashing around the corner and slid to a stop.
“Captain, what happened?”
Marko looked up grimly. The guards had their swords drawn. “One of you look after Damijan. Get him to a doctor. The other, help me get this door open.”
It took them ten minutes to break through the door, even with the help of the other guards who arrived shortly afterwards.
“Stay here,” Marko told them. “Arrest anyone who comes out. Anyone.”
He started up the darkened staircase alone. He was outnumbered, but it would have been wrong to take any of the other guards with him. They would be loyal to him, he was sure, but he did not want them to be accused of treason along with him.
Iztok and Mihael were waiting for him on the first landing, swords drawn. Marko lifted his own blade. In a low voice, he said, “If you attack me, I will kill you. You know I can. And there are twenty king’s guards at the foot of the stairs. If you value your loyalty to the prince more than your lives, attack. If not, put down your swords.”
The men exchanged uneasy glances. Then their swords clattered to the ground.
Marko continued up.
The stairs grew better lit as he climbed. There was no noise from above, but Marko was sure he was nearing the top of the tower. The North Tower was the highest in the castle, but he had already passed three floors of empty rooms. Surely there could be only one more floor. Cautiously, he rounded the last turn.
The stairs ended at an open doorway. Marko saw a room set out as an office, with a writing desk, two cabinets, a sideboard with wines and fruit, and several chairs. At the far end, a red curtain was drawn across a doorway. Marko heard faint sounds from beyond it, then a voice.
“He is here.” Marko did not recognize the voice.
“Then come in, Captain,” a second voice called. That was Prince Drago.
Marko pushed the curtain aside with the tip of his sword and stepped through. The room was appallingly hot. Four braziers blazed at the corners of a square. In the center of it stood a man in heavy black robes. Drago’s magician, Marko supposed, the man behind Padonia’s newfound power. To one side stood Prince Drago, and at the back of the room Justine and Princess Heléne lay unconscious on the floor. Spaced around the room, at intervals of no more than a couple of feet, were small stone statues of writhing, burning figures.
Drago’s face was running sweat and lined with pain. Had he hurt himself in the fight, Marko wondered? But despite the pain, Drago was smiling.
“Have you harmed the princess or her chaperone?” Marko asked.
Drago’s smile twitched, and his hands shook. Marko thought he could reach Drago before the man could draw his sword. But could he also reach the magician before the magician could hurt Justine or the princess? He wasn’t sure.
“No, Captain, you will be pleased to know that we have not yet had time. Do you want to know why?”
Cautiously, Marko said, “Why?”
“Because I asked my friend to do another thing for me first.” Again the twitch of pain from the prince. “I asked him to put a flame in my heart, Captain. I am a true prince of Padonia. With the flame in my heart, I hold the power to destroy any or all of those of Padonian blood who oppose me.”
Had Justine moved? Marko wasn’t sure.
“Do you trust your magician so much, Drago? He holds the power, not you.”
Drago smiled. “And I hold his family. He will obey me. I will rule Padonia, and you, Captain Jovanovich, you will die.” He turned. “Burn him!”
Marko leapt forward, but too late. The magician raised his hand and spoke a single word. Heat rushed through Marko as though molten iron was being flushed through his veins. His body convulsed. His sword fell from his hand. He could hardly see.
As he fell to the floor, Marko stared up through weeping eyes at the black-robed figure.
The magician’s hand began to close.
An inferno raged out of Marko’s heart.
Then the magician folded and crumpled to the floor.
Justine lowered the stone statue, breathing hard. “Captain Jovanovic?”
Her voice came out as a croak. She cleared her throat and knelt down by him. Was she too late? He lay so still….
He blinked and raised his head. “Madame de Cherbignon.” He smiled faintly, but his face was still twisted with pain. “You grow more impressive every day. Is the magician dead?”
Justine glanced back, and swallowed. “I think so.”
“Good.” He took a deep breath and pulled himself up, supporting himself on his elbows. “And Drago?”
“Still alive, but not a danger at the moment.” She could hear the prince sobbing quietly in the corner. He had collapsed at the same instant that the magician fell. “Are you really all right, Captain?”
He gazed up at her, serious and unsmiling. “I am now,” he said. His voice felt like a caress against her skin.
Justine swallowed. She had told herself so many times over the past few days not to take his admiration seriously. He was flirt and a seducer. He wanted one thing and one thing only. But he had risked everything for her.
Heléne’s voice squeaked out from the corner behind them. Justine hurried over to Heléne. How could she have forgotten her? She helped the princess stand up.
“Don’t worry, love, it’s all over now. The magician is dead.”
“What? You killed the magician?” Heléne’s voice was incredulous. “How could you? How could you be such a fool?”
“What are you talking about?” Justine stared at her. “Killing him saved both our lives! Now that he’s dead, there will be no more burning, no more–“
“Mother sent us here, arranged this entire marriage scheme, just so we could find out the source of Padonia’s magic. Now you’ve destroyed it, and Lourne will never have that power! You’re a traitor to our country.”
“When I tell Mother what you’ve done, she’ll never ever forgive you.” Heléne wrapped her arms around her body and glared at Justine. “I’ll never forgive you. Lourne could have been the most powerful country in the world, if it weren’t for your stupidity.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Justine stepped back, swallowing down nausea. Queen Catherine, in charge of such magic…. “In that case, I’m even more glad that he’s dead.”
“There have been enough burning bodies,” Captain Jovanovic said heavily.
“More than enough.” Justine turned to him, ignoring Heléne. “Do you think the king will be very angry at you?”
“Are you joking?” Captain Jovanovic stood up, wincing. “We’ve destroyed his pet magician. Padonia’s power is over. He’ll have my head.”
“Then we’re in the same situation.” She smiled tentatively at him. One life abandoned, a new one ahead…. “I can’t return to Lourne, and you can’t stay here.”
The warmth in his eyes dazzled her.
“Shall we put the princess in one carriage and leave in another?” he said. “I can trust my men to create a distraction long enough for our escape.”
“You don’t think we’re too old for adventure?”
He held out his arm. “Would you like to find out?”