The rules of the game were simple.
The goal was four shovels and a song. I fanned my hand of cards. Three boats and two birds. Blast. I inhaled and fought to keep my breathing shallow; hold my shoulders still, and keep my face free of the thousands of tells I’d learned to hide.
There would be no winning this round.
At least not if I played the cards.
I peered over my hand and studied my opponents around the table instead. A haze of smoke coming from Lady Maramour’s pipe blocked her expression, but the tapestries I’d crisscrossed over the arched windows of my rooms sent a sliver of sunlight that cut through the smoke and highlighted the creases at the edge of her eyes. She was sharp as the knife at her waist. She held her cards close to her chest, a hint of a smile hiding inside the folds in her cheek. Lady M had the mind of a general when it came to stealing my coins, and with that smile I’d best fold now, count my losses as education.
Unfortunately, a pretty girl was watching. The chair usually occupied by my best friend, Grigfen, had been filled by Lady M’s eldest granddaughter, here from the country. The girl seemed more interested in making eyes at me over the top of her cards than paying any semblance of attention to the game. No clue what her cards held, although what she wanted was clear, and it wasn’t a kiss—it was my crown.
I slid a pile of coins to the center of the table.
My guards, Davi and Fio, folded immediately, although Davi seemed reluctant to let go. I wished he would have stayed in—he could use the money; his girl was in the family way, and the married barracks were barely comfortable for two. But my guards always allowed me the win when we gambled real coin. Probably on my mother’s orders.
Where was Sir Grigfen? He should be here by now. I glanced about my chambers. Three tables full of players in pale silk dresses or sharp suits seemed content enough with their cards. When my gaze settled on Lady M’s granddaughter she flushed pink and then folded her hand, her smile a thrown game I didn’t have to do anything to win.
Lady M matched my pile of coins and picked up a card. I grinned at her, but inwardly I fought a panic. Last time we played she took my coat.
“Guess it’s just you and me now, my lady.”
Someone entered my rooms. I turned, hoping it was Grigfen. He’d been known to get caught in tables less savory than mine.
Close, but no dice. A boulder of a man blocked my doorway. Tall and thick, with corded arms and a bushy blond beard, Sir Tomlinson seemed completely devoid of his son Grigfen’s good humor. As the head of agriculture, the man was more farmer than noble, despite his fine coat, and from the dark angle of his eyebrows, he wasn’t pleased to find my rooms set up as a gambling den on a Thirdday afternoon.
I pulled at my vest. “Sir Tomlinson,” I said. The room’s chatter quieted at the presence of a member of my father’s council. “What brings you to my den of iniquity?”
Sir Tomlinson was not amused. “News. A Savak Wingship landed not twenty minutes ago.”
A chill ran up my neck. This was news for my parents, not idle gossip to throw at my friends. Every man in the room, except me, stood. Several people spoke at once, but I ignored them. If a member of my father’s council believed the news urgent enough to speak freely, then another game had started.
“Military?” I asked from my chair.
“Religious,” Sir Tomlinson answered.
Lady M twisted her fingers. “Not much better. How many?”
“One. A lone cleric in her red robes. She surrendered her wings without a fight.”
Fio lowered his voice and leaned near me. “I didn’t know they had female heathens.”
I hid a smile, but Sir Tomlinson caught it. “Watch your tone, sir. They may believe in a different god, but we don’t want to war with their bloodthirsty queen. It’s best we avoid the notice of the seers, and calling them such a word—”
“And why does this involve me?” I asked, leaning forward.
“She’s requested to meet with the council of six, and your father wishes you to observe.”
My cheeks flooded with warmth. “When?”
Tomlinson didn’t answer. He simply turned his heel and left my rooms.
Now, I gathered.
I followed him out with my guards at each flank.
My father wanted me to observe a council meeting.
Do not skip, Ryo. My father’s council was meeting with a Savak cleric. Now was not the time to skip.
A slight bounce to my step, however, was acceptable.
Tomlinson scowled when I caught up with him. “I do apologize for taking you away from such noble pursuits,” he said with a sneer.
I rolled my eyes. “I’ll have you know that card game was well within my mother’s code of conduct.”
He clearly had more opinions, but he ducked his head in a bow. “How Your Highness behaves is none of my concern.”
We turned a corner from my hallway. My collar felt hot all of a sudden. “It isn’t. Especially since Sir Grigfen didn’t show, and Lady Dagney wasn’t invited—”
“That is Lady Tomlinson to you. If you speak to my daughter at all. Which you should not, unless you are in a crowd of witnesses and I am observing with my grip on my sword.”
I chuckled. “Honestly, Sir Tomlinson, you have no reason to fear. It’s very unlikely that Lady Dagney would break my heart. Though I am touched for your concern for me.”
Davi broke in, “You see, Sir Tomlinson. Girls, for the prince, are like coins. Easy to win, easy to lose.”
“Better in piles,” Fio supplied.
I snorted. In truth the only similarity between girls and coins was that I had to make a full accounting of each to my mother. “Unless, of course, you weren’t worried for your own crown prince’s heart?”
Davi gave a false gasp. “The disloyalty to the Crown!”
I placed my hand on my heart and mock fainted.
Copyright © 2020 by Sheena Boekweg