I think Chuck Wendig has other things on his mind. He gave us just a title; since it was Valentine’s Day – Twisted Love. Nothing I find less interesting (except maybe American sports). 1300 words, any genre. For some reason this was the only thing that the title gave me. It’s firmly set in the future of the Princelings of the East stories, some years after even Victor’s story (coming in May). It probably belongs to the era of the How to Uncover a Vampire story and other pre-revolution tales!
The steward of Buckmore turned over in his sleep. He turned again, and opened his eyes. The three-quarter moon shone in through the window. Sleep had deserted him for another night. He sighed, and went over to the window. The quadrangles and courtyards of the castle and its community lay like a jungle beneath him. His mind was not in sleep mode. The glow from the plaza had the opposite effect, awakening his stomach and alerting him to breakfast.
In the plaza Europa was sweeping away the dirt that had crept into the bar overnight. She sometimes wondered whether the rest of the castle conspired to send all its detritus into this lowest area during the night. Buckmore had to present its best face to travellers arriving, dishevelled and in need of refreshment, after their overnight journey on the stagecoach.
“An espressimenta, if you please, Europa.”
“Good morning, Baden, you’re up early. The rolls aren’t ready yet,” the bar owner greeted the steward.
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“Sign of a guilty conscience, you know,” she smiled, but turned to make the popular thick steaming mint drink that her predecessor had invented almost ten years ago. Baden’s expression hinted at something on his mind. She was tempted to ask him what. Bar owners everywhere are used to extracting worries from people, hearing their minor concerns and giving them the luxury of a listener. Baden would hardly be likely to do that. Any worries he had were to do with the safety and security of Castle Buckmore and its king.
He sat at his usual winter table under the awning. The wind was light today but still wandered around the buildings, seeking out crannies and nooks, freezing anything left exposed. It must be lonely being a steward, she thought.
The baker hurried across with two warm breakfast rolls in a basket for him, and Europa set them before him with his drink. He murmured his thanks and she left him to his breakfast. The coach was due.
Baden had already run through the meetings, appointments and correspondence left from yesterday’s business. His mind was settling back on reports of unrest in the outlying communities. The king of Cabot had taken steps to round up what he had called ‘troublemakers’ – people who wanted more say in how Cabot was run, calling for an end to the ‘tyranny’ of the kings and lords. Cabot wasn’t the only place with difficulties. At the Kings’ Council four weeks ago, Albert of Dimerie had announced a new management system for their vineyards, involving more people in decisions affecting the running of their community. There were signs everywhere of ordinary people wanting to know why their lords took decisions, and wanting to argue about them. Only King Fred at Castle Marsh seemed unaffected by this unrest. Well, he thought, Marsh was so out of the way that news was old when it reached them. On second thoughts, maybe Marsh was ahead of the game. They were full of inventions and progress. Fred even had a council of advisers to help him run the castle. He couldn’t see King Lupin of Buckmore accepting that.
He watched the slow overnight bus roll to a halt in the plaza. Fifteen passengers emerged, from inside and the top. It couldn’t be a comfortable way to travel. Baden scanned the faces, recognising those with business at Buckmore; those who had come to visit relatives; a couple of chancers who would be hoping to be of use to the king, and those who had come in hope of a better life. His security chief moved in on the chancers, and his deputy wandered over less threateningly to the refugees. They sat in a huddle, two families by the look of it, a few bundles of rags containing their possessions stacked by their sides. Baden would receive a report later, but a furtive glance from one of the younger members of the party caught his eye. At least one of these travellers was not what he seemed, thought Baden.
Europa brought a newspaper over to his table, fresh off the presses at Castle Powell. He looked at the headlines, sniffed at the sensational tone, and turned to the crossword page. Time for a little relaxation before work began.
He’d barely read the Across clues before his brain went into overdrive. He turned back to the headlines, and read the story underneath them more carefully. He stood, casually folding his paper, then nodded at Europa and sauntered across to the stairs behind the fountain. He checked no one was watching him, and slipped through a doorway. That way no prying eyes could see as he entered the secret passage to the king’s apartments, where he ran like a scalded cat to get there before anyone else.
“What!!!” King Lupin exploded as he read the newspaper report.
“I know,” said Baden. “I have no idea. It’s impossible for anyone to have known.”
“Who did know? Who was there?”
“You, me, George, Nimrod, Frankie, Hunston and Willoughby.”
“You’re sure there was no one else. No servant or other attendant?”
“Prince Engineer George wouldn’t have told anyone except Fred, who would have told Kira, probably, but she’d not tell anyone else.”
Lupin gave Baden a scathing look, since Nerys was his queen, but continued. “Nimrod discussed it further with me that evening, but we agreed it was the best we could do, under the circumstances. Who’s Frankie again?”
“One of Fred’s advisory team. On his council thing. Part of his strategy in ‘empowering his people’, he calls it. Seems sound, although he is an ex-pirate.”
“The other pirates refuse to have anything to do with him.”
“Hmmph. Hunston’s sound. Good to have him in the loop now he’s king. I think he’s better than his father, and he was first class.”
“Yes, he’s shaping up well. He knew the need for silence. I think we can count him out.”
“Willoughby, then? Used to be a Narrator, didn’t he? Before Fred took him on as his steward?”
“Yes. Although there’s more to him than meets the eye, I think.” Baden nodded to himself, remembering the impression Willoughby had made on him.
“How do you mean?”
“Just something that caught my eye when he was with us as narrator in residence. He’s very fit, knows how to handle himself.”
“A spy, you mean? A narrator would make a great cover.” Lupin tapped his fingers on his desk in frustration. “So, Fred’s got two advisors that could have let things slip.”
“To the press? It’s unlikely. And if you were going to be a double-agent, why would you station yourself at Marsh?”
“Where does that leave us, then?”
“Is there any way the journalists at Powell or Lord Smallweed or Lord Colman could have discovered what you said to your security team?”
Lupin thought carefully. He didn’t like his conclusions, but guessed that Baden was already ahead of him.
“No,” he said. “We’ve got a traitor, haven’t we? How did you realise?”
“It was today’s crossword clue. ‘Twisted love – 995 under cover.’”
“I never understand those things.” Lupin narrowed his eyes at Baden. He didn’t understand his fascination for them, but it was the sign of a warped and therefore enquiring mind, he supposed. “What was the answer?”
“Twist love, i.e. make an anagram, like vole. Then 995 in those old numerals is M minus V. So take the v off vole, and replace it with m and you get mole – an undercover agent.”
Lupin sighed. It didn’t really matter. They just had to do some damage limitation before their careful plans were well and truly blocked by their enemies.
(c) J M Pett 2014