The second book in a new epic fantasy trilogy from Glenda Larke, author of the Stormlord series – full of scheming, spying, action and adventure
Twenty-three years before
The sorcerer stood in the doorway of the nursery, unobserved, savouring the moment. Emelia, the nurse and the baby: a scene of domestic tranquillity, lit only by the glow of candlelight, for it was already two hours past sunset. The nurse, her back to him, busied herself folding the child’s clean linen with her chapped red hands. Emelia was holding the baby, a besotted expression on her exquisite face, singing to the child she held in her arms.
Did she really think such a thin and reedy sound would lull anyone to sleep? Her voice always had been her most unattractive feature. Still, it did seem the babe slept, for he was silent and still, his plump face barely visible within the wrappings of a crocheted shawl.
Little do they know, any of them.
“A scene of such domestic bliss,” he said pleasantly and stepped into the room.
Emelia gave a squeal of delight. “My lord! Is it really you?”
Typical. As if I could be someone else.
He held up his hand to halt her headlong rush at him. “Contain yourself, my dear. You’ll wake the boy.”
She stopped then, obedient, and sank into a curtsy, wobbling awkwardly because her burden unbalanced her.
She has the right blood lines, remember that.
He waved a dismissive hand at the nurse, who bobbed and waddled from the room in almost indecent haste. He enjoyed seeing how the respect of servants and lackeys was always tinged with something more disquieting. Not quite fear; after all, he paid them well, never raised a hand to them and rarely dismissed anyone, but they sensed his power nonetheless. He suppressed the glimmer of an amused smile.
“Well, my dear, let me see my son.” He held out his arms.
Carefully, she handed over the sleeping boy, her joy dampened. He saw and recognised it in the slight tremor of her fingers, the tense muscles along her jawline. Good.
“I expected you long since,” she said.
“I don’t know why. I told you I’d be gone a year, and it is almost a year to the day. Do not chide me.” Do not dare.
A flicker of uncertainty in her eyes. “Of course not, my lord.”
“I had no qualms about your ability to deliver our son into the world with a minimum of fuss, and then to care for him well.” He glanced down at the child still sleeping wrapped in his blankets. “He seems healthy.”
“Indeed he is.” She was relaxing, and there it was: the faint note of accusation at his long absence that he’d expected to hear. “Five months old and thriving.”
She couldn’t resist it, could she?
Cradling the baby carefully in the crook of his arm, he began to unwrap the shawl until he’d exposed one plump little hand. Gently, he uncurled the tiny fingers. His smile widened as he gazed down on the palm so exposed.
Perfect. Oh, so perfect.
He could scarcely believe it; after so many attempts, he had the first of the sons he needed. “You have done well, Emelia.”
“Thank you, my lord.” She hesitated, her gaze doleful, the flush tingeing her cheeks betraying her.
He smiled encouragement. “You have something you wish to ask me?”
“You said – you said, if it was a son and healthy—”
“Why so hesitant, my dear? There are no secrets between us now.”
Her lips parted with delight; her eyes shone. “We can wed soon, then?”
“Indeed. I promised, didn’t I? You’ve proven yourself. I regret I ever had to demand such proof from you in the first place. It was . . . ungallant.”
“Oh, never so! I understand the necessity of a man such as you to have an heir, my lord.”
“So true. Put the child down in his cot and come with me. I have a gift for you, down in the courtyard.”
“Oh!” She scurried to the cradle and tucked the child into the bedding, discarding the shawl.
“Bring that,” he said. “It’s cold outside.”
Obediently she snatched it up from where she’d dropped it.
“It’s a chill night. Maybe this is not a good time . . .” he began.
“Oh, how can you tease me so! Is it a new carriage? You can show me from the parapet walk!”
“So I can.” He held out his hand and she took it shyly, ducking her head like a child. He curbed his exasperation and led her out of the room, picking up a candelabrum from a side table as he went. There was no one about in the passage or on the spiral staircase; he’d already ensured that would be the case.
When he opened the door to the battlements, a blast of salt-laden air raked his face and threatened to tear his coat from his shoulders. The candles blew out. Emelia squealed. Of course.
Plunged into the darkness of a cloud-ridden night, he halted briefly to give his eyes time to adjust. The parapet walkway dated back to the days when this had been a remote castle guarding the whimsically named Yarrow Narrows against coastal marauders. On one side, the crenulations of the parapet overlooked the sea; on the other, below – a long way below – was the inner bailey, nowadays simply called “the courtyard”, as if renaming it could make a defensive keep in this wild location seem more homely.
“Pickle it,” he said and tossed the useless candlestick over the railing. The moan of the wind and the roar of a turbulent ocean was enough to smother any sound of the brass hitting the stone paving. “Someone has already doused the torches in the courtyard. I don’t think you will see much.”
She groped for the railing. “Let me look! Where is it?”
“Right below us.”
Bending over, she peered into the darkness.
“Ah, Emelia, you know what I have always loved about you?” he asked, whispering into her ear. “You are always so delightfully gullible.”
She turned her face towards him, but the dark hid her expression.
Puzzled, probably. She always was so unaware. He gave a low laugh, and bent to grab her legs. In a single, fluid action, he lifted her off her feet and thrust her body forward, propelling her across the balustrade.
She didn’t fight him. There was no struggle. In her shock, she didn’t even scream on the way down, or at least if she did, he didn’t hear it.
Leaning against the handrail, he studied the darkness below. He could just see the white patch of the shawl, still clutched in her hand. A nice touch, that. The devastated mother, betrayed because he’d decided not to wed her.
There’d be whispers. There always were. He didn’t mind those; they added to his mystery. Those who worked for him, though, ultimately they kept their silence. They knew who paid for the ale in their goblets or the linen of their coats. He looked after his retainers, and they knew it.
He returned to the nursery where his son still slept. He halted for a moment, gazing down on the boy, but didn’t touch him. “Sorry, lad,” he murmured, “you may be my firstborn son, but you’re not ever going to be my heir.”
He moved on to knock at the adjoining door. “Nurse!” he called.
She was there immediately. “My lord?”
“Look after your charge. I fear I have upset the Lady Emelia. I informed her I was leaving again in the morning and will not soon be returning. She has retired for the night to her room and asks not to be disturbed.”
The nurse blinked uneasily before bobbing another curtsy. “Of course, my lord. The wee lad will be in my good hands for the night.”
He smiled his thanks and left.
On the morrow, after the body was discovered, he would double her annual stipend.