Written in Ink
With his fellow Hawks, Jorund passed through the gate to the Citadel, soon reaching their quarters. The mood was subdued; even if no battle had been lost against Isarn, this was a clear retreat. None of Vale’s forces remained north of Middanhal, and their ally, Theodstan, had been abandoned. With low spirits, the Hawks simply tended to their wounds and washed the dust of the road from their bodies, seeking food and rest.
Jorund likewise cleaned and dressed himself in new clothes, seeking food. Yet once he had satisfied his immediate needs, he did not seek a cot like the others. Instead, he walked the long path up the tower to reach the royal library. Outside, a pair of kingthanes stood watch. Seeing the Dwarf, one of them sighed and walked inside, exchanging brief words while the other guard glared at Jorund.
Moments later, the kingthane returned. “You may enter,” he said with a sour expression.
“Much obliged,” Jorund replied, grinning as he walked past them; once inside the library, he made a show of closing the door.
“Jorund!” Kate dropped the quill in her hand, disturbing the letters she had been practising while Inghard looked up from his book. The kitchen maid got up and hurried over to hug the Dwarf. “You’re back! And in one piece!”
Jorund laughed, returning the embrace. “Except for the piece already missing,” he said, rubbing his head where an ear was meant to be. “My prince,” he continued, bowing his head to Inghard. “Where’s the little scribbler? And the big one, for that matter.”
“Egil is with the lord protector,” Inghard explained. “As for Master Quill, he is in his chamber.” He cleared his throat. “The winter has not been good to him. He has a persistent cough. We try to keep him warm and comfortable.”
“I am sure he couldn’t be in better hands,” the Dwarf declared. “I’ll catch Egil later, I suppose. I doubt they’ll be sending us back out there.”
“How was it? Was it very dangerous?” asked Kate.
“Battling the wolves of Isarn at every turn?” Jorund said, giving his own question as reply. “I’m lucky their fangs didn’t take my last ear!”
“Or your tongue,” Kate suggested with a teasing laughter. “I think you would miss that more than eyes or ears!”
“The young lass is sharp with her own tongue!” the Dwarf shot back. “I suppose you aren’t interested in hearing about the night where I saw Athelstan of Isarn himself, or when a forester’s arrow nearly gave me a new nostril!”
“You can be quite calm, Master Jorund,” Inghard declared. “You may act as if we have vexed you, but we are wise to your tricks. We all know you are dying to tell us.”
Jorund scowled for a moment before bursting with laughter. “If my prince wasn’t a prince, I’d call him a rascal, but a clever one at that! And the worst part about that night is, I never realised it was Athelstan until long after the fighting was over. You see…” As he settled into his tale, his audience settled into seats in front of him, forgetting about books and letters.
Two people sat in the lord protector’s office, though neither could see the other. Seated by his desk, the jarl of vale was concealed by tall stacks of ledgers covering the last many years. In a chair opposite sat the Quill’s apprentice, holding a book a quarter his size. “With all crimes forgiven, the duke returned to Belvoir, disbanding his armies, and peace returned to Ealond. From the annals of Adal, written in the year one thousand and ninety-nine,” Egil read aloud. He waited a while in silence. “Milord, is it to your liking?”
“What? Yes, yes,” Valerian said dismissively. “Boy, come here. Do you know your arithmetic?”
The youth stood up, carefully closed the book before placing it on his seat, and manoeuvred around the piles of ledgers to stand next to the jarl. “Yes, milord, I do.”
“Look at these numbers. What do they tell you?”
Egil stared at the parchments with countless calculations scribbled across them. “I couldn’t say, milord,” he replied hesitantly. “I don’t know what they refer to.”
“Well, take this one. This column is taxes paid in the last decade by the weavers’ guild,” Valerian pointed out. “This column describes payments received by their members.”
“Both seem stable over the years,” Egil remarked.
“Yes, but this assumes the guild has been honest with their earnings. I have collected records from the wool merchants,” he continued, grabbing other parchments. “This is the amount of wool sold in Middanhal in a given year. If we adjust for the increase in price when made into cloth, the weavers should have earned this much, at the very least.” He tapped his finger on a number written at the bottom. “Do you see, boy?”
“Yes, milord,” Egil claimed, though his voice lacked confidence. “That is a high number.”
“Too high! Or rather, their paid taxes are too low. At least a hundred crowns over the last decade, I would wager,” Valerian declared triumphantly.
“That sounds serious,” the young scribe said.
“And this is but one guild! Who knows what I may uncover as I delve deeper into the books.” The jarl licked his lips.
“Yes, my lord jarl. Do you – do you require anything else from me?”
“What? No, no, be off with you.”
Egil collected his book from his seat and left Valerian to comb through the ledgers once more.
As the Quill’s apprentice departed from the lord protector’s study, he passed through halls and rooms full of Red Hawks, thanes, and the jarl’s various servants. A strict watch was kept, and few could enter the wing. The alderman of the guilds was one of those; he had often been summoned by Valerian, and the guards let him pass without objection.
Yet Edwin did not steer towards the study. Instead, the portly alderman walked through the hallways with a smile as awkward as his gait each time he encountered one of the stern guards, until at last he reached a small room. Nothing about the door set it apart from the other chambers in the hallway, but Edwin opened the door swiftly and slipped inside.
A window high on the wall allowed faint light to illuminate a middle-aged man dressed in a clerk’s robes. He sat by a small writing desk, making careful little pen strokes into ledgers.
A start went through the jarl’s chamberlain, and he turned around. “Master alderman! I did not hear you.”
“Because I am quiet, as should you be. Best none learn of our conversation.”
Arion swallowed. “Of course.”
“You didn’t tell me of your return from Valcaster.”
“I only arrived today!” he spoke with an anxious voice before lowering it. “There was no time. I was ordered to Middanhal with all the jarl’s ledgers. How – how did you know of my return already?”
“I have my eyes and ears,” the alderman spoke coolly. “I presume those are the ledgers?” He nodded at the books stacked on the small desk. “Concealing your efforts?”
“Just laying false trails. The jarl is a hound when it comes to numbers.”
“You are not tempted to confess, are you, dear Arion?” The alderman’s voice took a caressing tone. “Given all you have done, you must know how that will end for you. One way or another.”
“Is that why you came? You don’t need to threaten me.” The chamberlain’s voice sounded defiant briefly before becoming anxious again. “I would never reveal anything! And I’ll keep the jarl in the dark.” He gestured with the quill in his hand.
“I am sure.” Edwin’s voice turned cold, just like his eyes. “But I came for another reason besides reminding you of your loyalties. I came to offer you help, in fact. My trusted clerk is crafting documents to direct suspicion away from you and onto more – suitable targets.”
“A guild master that has become troublesome. But you must find a way for the jarl to find these documents, perhaps hidden away in his books. Make him think he made the discovery.” The alderman glanced at the open book where the chamberlain had been making changes to the numbers. “I dare say my clerk’s work will be more elegant than yours.”
“An excellent plan, master alderman,” Arion declared. “When will the documents be ready?”
“Tomorrow, but I cannot return here to bring them to you. If I visit twice in two days without having business with the lord protector…” Edwin smiled. “Someone may wonder what my actual business is.”
“Our old meeting spot by the north-eastern tower. Tomorrow night. The sooner the jarl stumbles upon our documents, the better. That will also give you a day to learn of his investigations and report back to me. I will not suffer further surprises, Arion.”
The familiar expression of anxiety returned to the chamberlain. “This wing is crawling with soldiers. Someone will notice if I leave. I might draw suspicion onto myself.”
“Then it is fortunate that my clerk’s work will allay those suspicions.” Edwin gave a callous smile. “Are we understood?”
Hesitantly, Arion bowed his head. “We are.”
“Now I best make haste myself. I have been here too long.”
“Very well, master alderman.”
Edwin gave a curt nod and turned around. After checking that the hallway was empty, he disappeared from the room with barely a sound.
Every day, and often into the night, the dragonlord’s antechambers were full of supplicants seeking private audience. Many had to wait days or longer, depending on their rank or the urgency of the matter they sought to discuss. Only two people could stride through those rooms without delay. One was his brother, the lord protector; the other was the dragonlord’s wife. The latter made use of her privilege to push her way through the crowd and enter the study directly.
Hearing the door open, Konstans looked up. “Dearest wife,” he greeted her.
“Dearest husband,” Matilde replied.
“You have made good speed on the roads to arrive today.”
“No thanks to Arion,” she grumbled. “He dithered for ages preparing your brother’s books. I almost had to throw him into the carriage myself.”
“What a sight that would be,” Konstans remarked with a smile.
“Why has Valerian summoned him? Arion gave only a poor explanation.”
“My brother is chasing some miscalculation. It seems irrelevant, but it keeps him busy.”
She moved around to sit on the desk, caressing her husband’s hair. “Your colour is dull. You have been locked away in here for too long.”
“As opposed to being outside in the abundance of sunlight we receive during winter,” he said with a sarcastic smile. “I presume lecturing me that is not the only reason you came to Middanhal. Your letter provided poor explanation as well for why you saw the need.”
Matilde smiled. “Does a wife need a reason to look after her husband? My place is by your side, after all.” Konstans gave her a look. “Fine. Believe it or not, I have in fact come to take you away. Not only from this room, but from Middanhal.”
He frowned. “What possible reason could there be for that?”
Now it was her turn to give him a look. “The wedding of your son, obviously.”
“Seeing as it is my son and not me being wed, my presence is not required.”
“Perception matters,” Matilde retorted. “You decided the wedding should take place in Valcaster rather than Middanhal –”
“Because it is our ancestral home, and Middanhal may soon find itself under siege,” Konstans interjected.
“But our son cannot get married unless either his father or the head of our house is present. If you are both absent, it casts aspersions upon Konstantine and suggests this wedding is done without your blessing. Not an auspicious beginning to something of vital important to our future,” Matilde stressed. “Either they must be wed here, or you must come to them.”
The dragonlord sat silently for a moment. “Fine. I suppose a wedding on the steps of the Temple is suitable for the lord protector’s nephew and the prince’s sister. It will be a fitting spectacle for the people. But as soon as the matter is over, I want them back in Valcaster. Too many spies and other unsavoury characters in this city.”
“I shall make the arrangements,” Matilde declared with a satisfied smile. “You will be pleased to know I have secured the same remedy we used to conceive Konstantine. Our first grandchild will be a boy,” she promised.
“And he will be dragonborn.” Konstans’ smile mirrored his wife’s. Her reply was to bend down and kiss him.
As the alderman left the wings reserved for the House of Vale, he encountered a limping figure in the hallways. “Captain,” Edwin greeted him with an inelegant bow.
“Master alderman,” Theobald replied with a gruff voice. “Yet another meeting with the lord protector?”
“Something like that,” Edwin claimed, fiddling with the golden chain across his bulging stomach. “What brings the valiant captain of the city guard to this wing?” he quickly asked.
“I have my own meeting.” With a nod as curt as his response, Theobald walked onwards.
Edwin stood aside, pressing his back against the wall with a servile expression. Once the captain had limped past him, the alderman’s face twisted into disdain for a brief moment before he continued as well.
He moved to the general quarters shared by the courtiers until he knocked at a certain door. A handmaiden opened and inclined her head in greeting. “It is the alderman, milady,” she said, turning her head back into the room.
“In that case, do not keep the good master waiting on our doorstep,” Arndis replied from within. The handmaiden stood aside, letting Edwin enter.
“Milady,” he replied with a bow and a smile. “Always a pleasure.”
“Likewise,” she said, standing up to greet him. Next to her, Eleanor did the same.
“Matters may proceed on the new shipment of tin,” the alderman explained. “If her ladyship has a few moments to spare?”
Arndis looked at Eleanor. “I will take a walk in the gardens,” the latter said. “Join me, Jenny,” she added, leaving with the handmaiden.
“Please, continue,” Arndis bid the alderman.
Stepping forward, Edwin took out a piece of parchment. “As agreed, your coin will pay for one fourth of the shipment. With your permission, the gold will be withdrawn from your books at the merchant’s guild.”
The noblewoman read through the document in silence. “Just one moment,” she requested, placing it on a table. She disappeared into her room briefly, returning with a quill and inkwell. She signed her name and handed the feather pen to the alderman, who did the same, acting as witness.
“Excellent,” Edwin declared, gently blowing on the ink. “Profits should be handsome. Which does raise the question how to best spend said profit.”
Arndis gave a knowing smile. “I did wonder why the good alderman came to me in person rather than send a messenger.”
“Her ladyship knows me too well,” he replied with a sly smile that fit poorly on his round face. “Given this tin is destined for Vidrevi, it would be a simple matter to buy quantities of cheap iron in Isarn. A metal that, while this war continues, has reached high prices in Middanhal.”
“I assume the return route would be the same as the outward journey,” Arndis said.
“Alas, the war means we have no choice but to transport it through Trehaf and Herbergja. And changing hands so many times, documents may become misplaced or copied in error.”
“Making it impossible to determine the origin of the metal.”
“Not to mention, driving up the price further once it finally arrives here,” the alderman added with regret.
“Of course.” Arndis frowned in thought. “You will spend your profits in this manner?”
Edwin nodded. “As will the other merchants in the venture.”
“Did you prepare a document?”
The alderman smiled and pulled out another piece of parchment. “Of course.”
Arndis received it, giving it a quick look. “No mention where the iron will be bought.”
“No need to specify, I thought. After all, once the iron arrives, our traders will bring the appropriate documents proving its origin.” Edwin’s smile could not have been bigger.
Arndis picked up the quill from the table and signed the parchment; Edwin did as well. “A pleasure to do business, as always.”
The alderman bowed his head. “The pleasure is all mine, milady.”
In the evening, an unassuming shape slipped into the library; even the great door did not croak as it opened and closed. Busy at work writing in the annals, Egil did not notice his guest. The newcomer waited until the scribe lifted the quill from a page to give it more ink before he cleared his throat.
With a start, Egil dropped the feather pen, turning his head. “Godfrey,” he exclaimed, gasping for breath. “You could have knocked.”
“Just keeping you on your toes.” The wanderer smiled.
“Where have you been? I haven’t seen you for so long.”
Godfrey shrugged. “Here and there.”
“Have you come to see Master Quill? He is asleep, I think.”
“I thought as much. How is his condition?”
Egil bit his lower lip. “Getting a little bit worse every day, I think.”
“In that case, you will have to assist me.”
Godfrey adopted a sly expression. “We must delve into the laws of Adalrik.”
Egil groaned. The door did as well, opening to reveal Inghard. As the prince entered, he cast a curious look at Godfrey.
“Who might you be?”
Hearing the prince’s question, two kingthanes burst into the room.
“He’s a friend of Master Quill,” Egil hurried to say. “He is no danger.”
Godfrey extended his empty hands. The thanes looked at Inghard, who nodded, and they resumed their post outside.
“By your age and livery, I must be in the presence of the prince,” the wanderer concluded.
“I am.” Inghard’s expression grew only more curious. “You do not act like other people when they meet me.”
“I am far different, my lord prince,” Godfrey revealed. He turned his piercing eyes on Inghard.
The young man held his gaze for several moments before looking away. “There is something strange about you.”
“Most assuredly, but you are a good soul.” The wanderer smiled, dispelling the stern expression in his eyes. “Those are rare.”
“Thank you. I think.” The prince looked around briefly. “I forgot my book.” Locating it, he grabbed the item in question and made a quick departure.
“I think you scared him.”
Godfrey did not reply immediately. His eyes remained on the open door as he finally spoke. “Tell me what you know of this prince.”
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