They heard the rattle of keys against lock, and then the door swung open and a wide-eyed guard in Mullrose livery thrust a torch out into the gloom.
"Good evening," said Rainhart. He leaned forward and scrutinised the guard. "Tarl, is it?"
The guard started upright. "Y-your highness! I, ah, one moment. Sir, sir, come here!"
The captain arrived and stared at Rainhart as if he were a ghost. "Your highness, we thought you in Jovan."
"Indeed, and I was. Can we come in?"
"The baron will wish to see you immediately. Is that--" The captain looked, wide-eyed, over Rainhart's shoulder. Tancred had stepped into the light thrown by the torches inside the bailey.
"Crown Prince Tancred Ansgar," Rainhart confirmed. "And Princess Holle Anheldis, and Lady Philomena Sylvanus of Jovan."
"Great gods, lesser gods, and those who dwell above and below," the captain breathed. "Please, come in and be welcome to Mullrose Castle. I will take you to the baron."
They were shown into the great hall, which was draped in the war banners of House Mullrose and its vassals, and white and black mourning ribbons hung from the banners and tapestries.
Baron Konrad Arndt was standing flanked by his parents, and surrounded by a collection of dangerous-looking warriors. The baron was in his late twenties, and was the son of Milos' elder sister. He looked as if he had just put off his chain mail: his simple wool garments were stained with rust. This was a house preparing for war.
"Your majesty, we are honoured to welcome you to Mullrose," said Konrad, recovering from his shock. "I apologise for my attire."
"Nonsense," said Tancred. "It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Baron Konrad. I am sorry it is in such dark times."
"And Rainhart," Konrad said, coming around the table. "Never in a god's lifetime did I expect you to turn up here. I see your childhood of sneaking in and out of the castle has served you well, although I cannot fathom how the four of you made it past the war band camped outside our walls."
"We've picked up a few tricks," said Rainhart.
"Evidently. First you are spirited out of Breg as if the wind took you, and now you appear in my hall like the Great Gods planted you here. Please, come and join our council. Tell us, where have you been? There were rumours, of course, spread by the usurper king. He does not seem to know whether he'd rather you were dead or fled like a coward to Skya."
"We were in Monsilys," said Tancred. "Calling on the alliance with Jovan."
"Ah, we heard that rumour too," said Konrad. "A canny trick, your majesty."
"Please don't call me that," said Tancred. "I am not crowned king and have no right to that form of address."
"My apologies," said Konrad, inclining his head.
Tancred rubbed his nape ruefully, then gave a precis of his movements since he disappeared from Breg, and the drawn out negotiations with the Empress—omitting, Rainhart noticed, his turn on the dance floor at the Peace Day feast.
Konrad shook his head. "I cannot believe you induced the Empress of Jovan to lend you troops so quickly," he said.
Tancred grimaced. "She got her price in flesh," he said, "and cost me a few nights' sleep. But there are three hundred men hidden in the forest four hours' ride from here, and the rest of a legion preparing to march on Breg."
YOU ARE READING
Philomena is a child of the empire, traded to faraway Deusetats to seal an alliance and marry a prince: the handsome but arrogant Prince Rainhart. However, politics is never simple. On the eve of Philomena's wedding, the king is brutally assassinat...