Prelude to Disaster

One week before:

“Brekke is a powder keg, Gloriane, and the fuse is set. Who knows what will spark the flame?” Damien shook his head, frowning down at his hands clasped on the table. “A revolution is brewing. The people are primed and ready, and I doubt it will be long before their rage erupts. We know that the military will be ordered to act against the citizens, and that will be bloody.” He tapped the table with his clasped hands, and looked up at his Queen, his pale blue eyes shadowed with concern. “The Directors care not a whit for any but themselves. They are planning something, but we have no hint of what it is. Whatever, we think it will be soon.” He spread his hands in a gesture of uncertainty. “My man should have something for me by now.”

“Then go,” Gloriane said quietly. “Learn what you can.” She shook her head as he rose, then looked up. “And Damien—”

He had already bowed and turned to go, but now turned back, hearing an odd note in Gloriane’s voice.

“Be careful, Damien,” she said, meeting his eyes intently, “Be careful. I am… uneasy. Something is very far wrong.”

“I will take care, Your Majesty.” His voice was sober, taking her warning seriously. He laid his hand on his heart and bowed again, then turned and left.

* * *

Damien took the handful of papers from his contact and scanned through them. His hands froze on one, and he read it again, his breath caught in his throat. “You’re sure this is genuine, Marczyn?” he asked hoarsely.

The other man nodded. “I copied it myself. Is it important?”

“Desperately…” Damien said in a fading whisper, then took a sharp breath. “I need a horse.”

“Take mine,” the man said, and gestured across the way to where a horse was tethered.

Damien was already crossing the allée, shoving the papers into his scrip. He mounted up and turned the horse, then tossed a purse to his friend. “They are going to start a war, Marczyn! Take your family, go somewhere safe. Don’t go back there.”


Damien put heels to the horse, and it leaped away. “Don’t go back!

* * *

He drove the horse hard, all that day and through the night, his fears riding him just as brutally. He tried to be moderate, tried to keep a sane pace to spare the horse, but the date on that paper pounded in his heart and brain as the horse’s hooves pounded the road. Too late, too late, too late…

It was a gallant beast, and gave all he had and more at Damien’s asking, but nothing could survive the brutal pace he demanded. Damien screamed out his anguish and rage as he felt the horse falter and sink beneath him; he kicked his feet out of the stirrups and jumped free as the horse fell.

He sprawled in the dirt for a moment, stunned, then crawled to the horse that lay dying in the road. “Rest, great heart,” he said, and stroked the horse’s cheek. He took out his knife and severed the great blood vessel in its neck, soothing it and waiting until the harsh breaths stilled and the blood ceased to flow. “I am sorry…”

Then he settled his scrip securely over his shoulder and began to run.

* * *

Within the hour he saw a man riding toward him. When they were close enough, Damien sprang in front of the horse, making it rear. He caught the reins and hauled the man off the horse and down into the dirt. He vaulted up into the saddle, and with two slashes of his knife cut the man’s belongings from behind it, then booted the horse into a dead run.

* * *

The Spymaster

Damien turned the cup around and around in his hands, looking down at nothing, and took a long, quiet breath. “I was born on the Martagne side of the mountains. My mother was raped by a Brekken soldier during one of the final border skirmishes of the war, and I was the result. After that, they called her ‘whore,’ and used her so. Myself, I had no father, and no name. None, at least, until the young Queen rode through our village with her consort on her Progress through the kingdom after her coronation. I must have been about seven, then.

“I hid in the shadows where she would pass, just to see her. I thought myself well hidden, but she saw me anyway. She called me forward, and I came, even though I was afraid that the soldiers would beat me. I came, because I had never seen anyone like her, and I wanted to see—I wanted to see how anyone could be all made of gold and yet be so warm. Her hair a cloud of gold, like early sun through the mist on the mill-pond, all dressed in gold like an angel wrapped in sunlight…” His voice was soft with memory. “She asked my name, but I had none, so I said nothing, She leaned low from her horse, to see me better, and asked again. ‘What do they call you, boy?’ Well, they did call me something, so I told her. ‘Damn-ye,’ I said. For years, I thought she misunderstood, but then I knew she simply meant to be kind. ‘Damien,’ she said, and smiled. ‘A good, strong name for a sturdy lad.’ And then she took a ring from her finger, and handed it down to me.” He tilted his hand, and the firelight glinted on the fine gold ring on the smallest joint of his little finger.

“I took my name from that,” he said. “Damien, from the name she spoke, and Ring for the gift she gave me.” He smiled briefly, but the smile faded, and he took a sip from the cup in his hands. When he spoke again, his voice was stronger and lighter, more matter-of-fact. “Of course, I followed her. How could I not? I followed after, running as hard and as long as I could. And on the third day, I was taken by one of the soldiers. Taken—and taken in. That was Bellarmée,” he said, and his eyes gleamed in the firelight as he looked up at them.

“Mother’s first Spymaster,” Gilliane murmured, and he nodded.

“He took me in, and taught me, and trained me to be a spy for the Golden Queen.”

“And you’ve served her ever since.”

Again he nodded, but he turned his eyes downward again. “Her and only her,” he said, and sighed. “For seventeen years I served her faithfully and well, and never failed her once—until now.” There was a depth of bitter rage in those two words; rage, and a hatred turned in on himself.

“You could not have known!” Gilliane said, but he cut her off, and the firelight glittered against the ice in his pale blue eyes.

“I did know!” he said, the sound raw as a knife in the dark. “I knew, and was riding back with that news to warn her. I knew, but I stopped to rest. An hour only, I thought. To rest the horse, I thought. That hour could have given Martagne the time to prepare. That hour meant the difference between life and—” With a savage heave Damien flung the cup into the fire, the brandy flashing into flame in an instant. He surged to his feet, only to stand staring blindly into the fire. When he spoke again, his voice was hollow of hope. “My fault. My failure murdered my Queen.”

Gilliane shook her head sadly. “You loved her,” she murmured.

“I adored her,” he answered on a sigh. “But she is gone, and you are here, and now I will follow her last command I can never disobey. To find you, and serve you, and protect you. To my last breath and beyond. My oath, I will not fail her again.” He glanced at her once, at the firelight glowing in her golden hair, so like her Mother’s, and closed his eyes against the pain of memory. Then he turned and walked out into the waning light.