LYING ON HIS BACK in the darkness of his bedchamber, King Allister of the Pledge listened to his wife’s soft breathing.
Pearl was pretending to be asleep, even as he was. Twenty-two years of marriage made fairly certain that neither was fooled. Those same twenty-two years made certain that each would maintain the farce.
He wondered if the same things kept her awake. There had been so much. The war—King Allister’s War, they were calling it now, as if he had started it. And maybe he had. He had certainly done his part to end it.
The coronation earlier that day—all those people kneeling before him, swearing oaths. Some had been truly happy, he thought, but others…He thought he’d seen all the faces that men turn on each other, but he had seen a new one now…the eyes had been flat, holding no expression at all, while lips smiled or frowned; you could almost taste the calculation going on behind them. He’d never had power before, so he’d never seen this bland face that ambitious men turn to power.
But why should he fool himself? Ignoring the true reason for his sleeplessness was as ridiculous as this game of pretending to Pearl that he was asleep. At least that game served some purpose; at least each could believe the other might be resting.
Valora’s letter. Whether his eyes were opened or closed Allister could summon the text of it before him, seeing it as glowing silver words against velvet black, though the real letter had been neatly written in prosaic black ink upon fine vellum. He’d first discovered the letter—and the queen’s treachery—soon after their arrival.
Allister Seagleam, king in all but crown, had arrived with his family and retainers at Silver Whale Cove mid-afternoon the previous day. The castle itself—a massive stone structure along whose walls both rounded and square-built towers alternated—had been built close to the water, on a high point jutting into the cove. Named Revelation Point Castle for some event in Bright Bay’s colonial past, it was the traditional seat for rulers of the area.
They were hardly through the arched stone gateway before they learned that Queen Valora, the former Queen Gustin IV, had departed on schedule as promised, taking with her rather more of the castle staff than was polite, and leaving those who remained in an uproar as they prepared for the formal coronation that was to be held the next afternoon.
The Keeper of the Keys, an elderly Pelican whose family had held the post since the days of Gustin I, had been the first to hint that all might not be right. He’d knelt in front of Allister, offering his homage as was his due and duty.
“I’m Ivory Pelican, Your Majesty,” he’d said, extending in front of him a square, flat cushion of dark purple New Kelvinese silk upon which rested a highly polished bunch of keys. “My title is the Keeper of the Keys.”
“I recognize you,” Allister had said, “and confirm you in that title and its tasks and honors, unless you have reason to wish to be relieved of them.”
He’d recited that formula many times in just the few hours since his arrival at the castle. The entire thing would need to be redone subsequent to the formal coronation, but these interim oaths were necessary, confirming that he wasn’t out to strip everyone of their rank and privilege just because he’d managed to strip the queen of her throne.
All the other times the person so reassured had made some small speech of thanks and had then hurried off to do whatever needed to be done—maybe pausing along the way to reassure kith and kin that their particular royal stipend wasn’t about to be stopped.
This time, though, Lord Ivory had rocked back on his heels and given his king—for although not yet formally crowned, Allister Seagleam effectively had been king for these twenty-odd days—a look that might have been sly, but that just might have been a bit sad.
“Well, Your Majesty,” Lord Ivory had said, keeping his voice low, “if you can spare an old man a few minutes, I believe there is something you should see.”
Allister had found those minutes. Accompanied by Shad, his eldest son and heir, and a brace of trusted guards, he had followed where the old Pelican led.
Any onlooker would have immediately seen the likeness between father and son. Shad was as fair of skin and hair as his father, but where Allister was lean and with a vaguely scholarly untidiness to his bearing, Shad had inherited House Oyster’s rounded lines from his mother. When he’d been a boy, the uninformed had often mistaken this apparent plumpness for softness, but now that several years at sea had put muscle on him, Shad showed promise of a whale-like solidity that did not preclude grace.
But where they were most alike was in a frank curiosity regarding the world around them, a curiosity that Shad did not bother to conceal as Lord Ivory Pelican led them into reaches of the castle that before this day had been the private quarters of the now-deposed Queen Gustin IV.
Allister was less a stranger to the castle. His father had been Prince Tavis, brother to Gustin III, third in line to the throne after his elder sister, Princess Seastar—that is before Gustin III had finally fathered his little Valora, a child born fairly late in his life, after others had become ambitious for the throne.
Prince Tavis had never held much hope that he or his son would be king. Indeed his own mother, Queen Gustin II, had entered into a pact with King Chalmer of Hawk Haven to wed Tavis to Chalmer’s daughter Caryl in a pledge for peace between the kingdoms. The pact did not include the power to enforce those ideals. Perhaps that was why it had failed.
But Tavis’s son by that marriage had frequented the royal castle as a child, escorted by his father, who—much though he resented being a playing piece in kingdom politics—would not let his son be dismissed as an inconvenient nonentity.
Prince Tavis had made certain that his son would bear a title—that of duke—and hold lands he could pass on to his own children. More than that, he could not do; and when he died at sea, a comparatively young man of fifty-six, it was whispered that he had welcomed death.
By then, however, Allister had made peace with his odd place outside of the usual order. His was no Great House, yet he was first cousin to the queen. He attended sessions of court, held office, sailed for a term in the navy. Each of these roles gave him access to different parts of the labyrinthine castle, yet he could swear that he had never before even seen the door to which Lord Ivory led him that day.
“This, Your Majesty,” said the Keeper of the Keys, “is the door to the Royal Treasury.”
Allister frowned. He knew perfectly well where the treasury was. He’d been in and out of it many times in his early twenties, when he did a stint as an auditor. Lord Ivory saw the frown, and thinned his lips over old teeth in what a shark might call a smile.
“The Royal Treasury, Your Majesty,” he repeated. “The one that only the monarch goes into. The crown jewels are kept there…and other things. She who is now Queen Valora made a visit here before she left. She said she had to leave the crown for you.”
“And you keep the keys for this treasury?” Allister asked.
“I do.” Lord Ivory shook out a fat silver key from the bunch on his ring. “Shall I open the door for you?”
Allister knew Ivory Pelican was toying with him and disliked the game, but he couldn’t see any reason not to play along. The crown that had fit Valora’s dainty head would look ridiculous on him, but two of the former Gustins had been male, and one of their crowns should do. He had no wish to add having a new crown crafted to the reasons for delaying his coronation.
Besides, there were things other than crowns among the crown jewels of Bright Bay, and Allister felt ice in his gut at the thought of finally seeing them.
“Open the door,” he said, hiding his sudden fear with brusqueness.
“One moment, Your Majesty.” Lord Ivory selected a smaller, rather utilitarian key from his bunch and used it to open a wooden cabinet tucked in an alcove along the hallway. “You will need light.”
He drew out several triple-wicked candles set ready in a silver-gilt candelabrum. Lighting them from one of the wall sconces, he extended the candelabrum to the king.
“Give it to Shad,” Allister said. “I’d like him to come with me.”
“Only the monarch goes into the treasury.” Lord Ivory protested.
“Someday Shad will be king,” Allister said firmly. “I think I’ll start a new tradition.”
He glanced at the guards, longtime retainers from his own estate. As of yet, he didn’t know who he could or could not trust from the castle guard. He didn’t quite trust Valora not to leave behind some faithful retainer with orders to slip a knife between his ribs.
The caption of the guard, Whyte Steel gave Allister an almost imperceptible nod. He, too, was seeing assassins in every shadow.
Muttering protests, Lord Ivory unlocked the door. Thanking him, Allister stepped over the threshold. He could hear Shad behind him. The young man’s breathing came quick and excited, but to any less proximate to him than his father, Shad probably seemed quite calm.
Lord Ivory shut the door behind them, but Allister was certain that with Whyte Steel on the other side it would open again. Then he turned his attention to the chamber.
It wasn’t large, maybe five feet to a side, but there were six sides, each of equal length. As if to make up for its comparative smallness, the room was very high. The windows at the top of each wall were narrow slits. Set halfway up each wall was a pale block of stone carved with intricate patterns.
Allister had seen their like before, elsewhere in the castle. They were remnants of Old Country magic, enchantments that—if tales more than a hundred years old were to be believed—had once shed a soft, clean light all through the building. It was said that such routine magics had continued to function for years after the Plague, but had gradually failed because no one remained who knew how to renew their power.
Ever quiescent, the carved blocks inspired awe, but they could not hold Allister’s attention long, not with the huge treasure cabinet that was built into half the room demanding his attention.
The cabinet was crafted from polished maple the reddish-gold of honey, and fit neatly into three angles of wall. Its doors were closed, but a silk ribbon braided in the sea green and gold of the royal house hung from the faceted crystal door pulls. Two keys depended from the ribbon: a silver one, twin to that which Lord Ivory had used to open the door to the treasure room, and a smaller, golden one set with emeralds.
“Well, I see that the king need not always bring the Keeper of the Keys whenever he wishes to change his hat,” Allister said, trying to lighten his own mood. “How kind of Valora to leave these behind. Shall we see what is in the cabinet?”
As expected, the golden key opened the cabinet, revealing that the doors had been cleverly hinged so that they folded back into a neat packet that did not impede access to the interior, even in this small space. Good workmanship, perhaps from the days when the Old Country still ruled, but nothing that a competent carpenter could not do today.
Within, three sets of shelves were revealed. To the left, on the highest shelves, were the crowns worn by the previous Gustins. Allister recognized several as those worn by Valora’s father. He guessed that the other set of masculine-styled crowns had belonged to Gustin I, also called Gustin Sailor. There were many of these, as if Gustin Sailor had enjoyed showing off his newly won privilege. That fit what Allister had heard of the man—his own great-grandfather.
Below the crowns there were a few scepters, but these had never been much used in Bright Bay. Allister recalled Prince Tavis saying that his own mother had said they were damned heavy to hold for long periods of time. She had preferred a gavel of solid oak with which to hammer for silence. The lower shelves on this side were empty, waiting for future monarchs to fill them. Allister felt a momentary surge of awe when he realized that he and Shad would be among those to hold that honor.
The right-side set of shelves held much more prosaic treasures: ornate boxes containing rings and bracelets, jeweled weapons, pendants, and other such pretties. These were personal property of the kings and queens of Bright Bay. Seeing slight scuffing on one empty section of shelf, Allister guessed that Valora had taken away her own boxes. He wondered if she had made free with anything belonging to, say, her father or grandmother.
Allister barely glanced at the jewelry, his attention claimed by a set of closed doors in the center of the central unit of shelves. Here again a key waited for him on a braided ribbon. It was also gold, its ring shaped like the fat body of a whale, the teeth worked cleverly into the whale’s spout.
Allister doubted that a twin of this key rested on Lord Ivory’s ring. Indeed, he had seen it before, dangling on a chain worn at the throat of his grandmother, Queen Gustin. She had never been without it.
Twisting the key in the lock, Allister opened the cabinet. Beside him, Shad turned from peeking into the various jeweled boxes, waiting to see what must be kept trebly locked away. Both of them suspected they already knew.
The center door creaked slightly when Allister opened it. Inside there was nothing but a roll of pale vellum tied with a bright blue ribbon. Impressions in the plush velvet showed that once there had been something else kept here, something that had left an indelible mark on the fabric.
Even before he unrolled the scroll, Allister knew that he had been betrayed. All that waited was to learn how severely.
“My Royal Cousin,” began the missive in what he recognized as Valora’s own hand. It continued:
* * *
Yes. This is where they were kept.
I wonder—how long after your arrival did you wait to seek the Royal Treasures? Did you run immediately to gloat over what you had won? Somehow, knowing you, even in my darkest moments I cannot believe that this was the case. Even if the treasures were on your mind, you would be too courteous, too polite to the claims of those who had awaited your arrival to simply order them away.
Knowing you, I suspect that you had to be reminded that there were treasures for you to claim. Did Pearl say that she needed a crown for her pretty head? Did some flunky hint gently that you were overlooking something important? Or did it take the Keeper of the Keys offering his fealty to suggest that you seek out this room?
I told old Ivory to remind you, you know. That much I’ve done for you. Actually, I’ve done a great deal more. My last gift to the people I was born to rule is taking from them the shadow of Old Country magic. Those three trinkets have been the excuse for war, not just recently, but from the days of our great-grandfather Gustin Sailor.
So I’ve taken them with me. Now, no one will have reason to fear Bright Bay. If they choose to fear me, isolated on my isolated on my well, the ocean is my moat.
How will anyone know what I have done? I shall tell them. On the day of your coronation, letters will be delivered by hand to the rulers of Stonehold, Waterland, New Kelvin, and Hawk Haven.
Enjoy your reign, Cousin, long as it may last.
* * *
The letter was signed, “Valora, Queen of the Isles.”
Allister had made no effort to hide the scroll and so Shad finished reading moments after he did.
“She’s angry, isn’t she, Father?” The young man tried to smile, but the expression failed to reach his eyes.
“She is,” Allister agreed. He let the scroll roll shut. “Fortunately, for us, enough of the nobles of Bright Bay have remained loyal that she is unlikely to try to retake her throne by force. Even if she makes an alliance…”
He rubbed his free hand over his eyes, feeling a headache coming on. There were so many possibilities. Valora could ally herself with one of Bright Bay’s rivals—Waterland came immediately to mind. Of course, she put herself at risk, then, unless she could keep them from taking over in the guise of giving aid. The threat of Old Country magic might be enough. Then again…
Once more Allister rubbed his eyes.
“Bring the candles closer, Shad. I want to see if we can guess what was here.”
Shad obeyed and the warm yellow glow illuminated three distinct depressions in the velvet. The first was roughly rectangular, about as long as Allister’s hand from the heel of his palm to his longest fingertip, but only as wide as three fingers. The second depression was the largest: a face-sized oval set upon a long handle. The third was quite small: a perfect circle blurred at one edge, as if whatever had been there was irregular in shape.
Father and son studied these ghost images for a long moment; then Shad ventured:
“I’d say the smallest impression is of a ring. I’ve seen the like in Mother’s jewel box.”
“A ring,” Allister agreed, “with some sort of setting. Yes, that seems likely. What do you think of the other two?”
Shad shook his head. “I’m less certain, but the large one could be several things: a fixed fan, a hand mirror, even a mask on a stick.”
“Good guesses,” Allister said. “You have a sharp eye. The last one could be too many things—even a small box holding something else entirely. We must ask, especially among the older countries, and see if anyone has ever seen these treasures. Unhappily, Gustin Sailor kept them a secret, so it is possible that no one currently alive but Valora herself may have seen them.”
“That seems likely,” Shad agreed with a sudden grin. “You saw the expression of horror on Lord Ivory’s face when you said you were bringing me in here with you. Clearly, you violated some antique precedent.”
Allister stared at the rows of crowns, giving in for a moment to the very human impulse not to think about something too horrible to contemplate. Then he turned to his son.
“Let us continue violating precedent, then.” He handed Shad the key to the Royal Treasury door. “Bring your mother here when she has time and ask her to select crowns for both of us. She has a good eye. Tell her to feel free to choose jewels to wear as well, but to remember that we do not wish to appear like gaudy conquerors, only to express proper respect for the dignity of the occasion.”
Shad nodded. “I can do that.” He paused, toying with the key. “But, Father, what are we going to do about that?”
A toss of his head indicated the empty cabinet where three ensorcelled items should have rested.
Allister took the whale key and relocked the cabinet.
“We certainly cannot send a fleet to chase Valora down and reclaim them. We don’t even know for certain what we seek, and she is right: The ocean is now her moat.”
The king considered further as he helped his son shut and relock the polished maple doors, then handed him the gold and emerald key.
“I will write King Tedric of Hawk Haven. As he is our ally, he deserves to know of this development from us, even if our letter cannot reach him before Valora’s does. Doubtless hers is already in Eagle’s Nest, awaiting the appropriate date for delivery. Then, we shall go ahead with the coronation and then begin plans for your wedding to Crown Princess Sapphire.”
“Shall I tell her,” Shad asked hesitantly, “what has happened?”
“Do,” Allister replied decisively. “Sapphire is present as her kingdom’s representative to our coronation. Make certain that she knows that you are informing her officially, at my request. Sapphire is a proud girl, quick to feel a slight.”
“Proud, yes, but brave, too,” Shad said, “to come here in advance of her people with just a small honor guard.”
“I’m glad you appreciate her courage,” Allister said, “since you will marry her before the moon turns full again.”
Shad nodded. “I do. I only wish things were simpler.”
King Allister squeezed his son’s shoulder. “We’ve accepted—some would say usurped—a throne and a kingdom. Nothing will ever be simple for us again.”
* * *
IN THE DARKNESS OF HIS BEDCHAMBER, King Allister tossed, unable to keep up the pretense of sleep any longer. Beside him, Pearl sighed and moved close to him.
“It will be all right, Allister,” she said, with the same soft certainty that she had once used to banish their children’s night fears.
“Will it?” he asked, and was surprised by the harshness in his own voice.
“It must be,” she said. “We must make it so, whatever it takes.”
“I feel a fool, trusting Valora.” It wasn’t the first time he’d said this, not even to her.
“We had no choice,” Pearl said, accepting some of the guilt as her own, “as we saw it then. Maybe even Valora herself didn’t know what she intended to do. Maybe the impulse to claim the treasures came to her only when the time came to relinquish her kingdom and her power.”
But King Allister of the Pledge, remembering the angry fire in Valora’s oceanblue eyes when she finally agreed to surrender Bright Bay’s throne and accept a lesser kingdom in its place, thought that Valora had known even then what she would do, and cursed himself once more for not anticipating her treachery.
Copyright © 2002 by Jane Lindskold