“By the time the rider reached Bordil, it was too late.” Captain Smoll spoke with an expression of grim formality. For all his experience, the man was clearly uneasy. He did not wake up in the morning expecting to stand before the king. Though he was of higher rank than Andre, he was unaccustomed to anything other than his daily routine. He had been stationed in Bordil, a small village on the north end of The Lake, for thirty years. Andre, on the other hand, was a member of the Capitol Guard. Every week was full of new challenges. And he had been around the king before. Besides, he had more on his mind than the king.
“We never should have sent the navy away up there.” The Grand Financier, Lord Rotheford, looked annoyed, and frustrated.
“We needed to deal with the smugglers.” The king was calm and collected.
“Your majesty, with all due respect, I am certain that Captain Smoll and his men could have handled that situation themselves. The coastal villages deal with smugglers rings all the time.”
“Sir,” the captain chimed in, “I. We. They were.” He was clearly trying his hardest to speak with respect to a man he detested. And the stress did not help. The king stepped in to calm the man.
Captain Smoll turned to the king and spoke directly to him, ignoring Lord Rotheford.
“I only have a handful of recruits stationed with me. And some of the villagers were in on the scam. I needed help. I included everything in my report, I am sure you’ve read it and are aware of the situation, your majesty. Since you sent the help.”
“You were right to ask for help, and we were right to send it. But regardless of all that, the past does not matter. What matters is what we need to do right now. It is good that the admiral is in pursuit of the traitor’s vessel. But you say he will not be able to catch them?”
“Those are the admiral’s words, your majesty. He recommended sending a rider to the Midlands. It is possible that the local knights can overtake the ship on its’ way north. But..” He trailed off.
“Yes?” The king asked quietly. Andre was baffled by his patience. His chest was hot, his heart was still pounding, and his head was spinning. He felt as though a cloud was over his head. The image of Bart lying in a pool of blood on the street kept creeping into Andre’s mind. His head was full of questions. Why did Lord Devoue run? What had he done? Where was he going? Nobody deemed it necessary to inform a rank and file guardsman of all the details. But he wanted to know. He wanted to get to the bottom of this. He wanted to know exactly what it was that his friend gave his life for. The thought of that reminded him of the reasons he was where he was.. Aside from reporting to the king, he wanted to request a release from duty. Then he remembered that there was a conversation going on. The dim voices in the background faded back in. And Andre shook his head slightly to focus.
The king was speaking. “We need to try everything we can. If he reaches the wilds in the north, we are likely to never find him again.”
“I will send a man right away, your majesty” said Commander Reik. The Commander of the Capitol Guard.
“Why don’t you send Andre? Who better for the job than him?”
“Yes, you’re right-“
“I’m sorry,” Andre cut in. “Your Majesty, Commander, I wanted to request a release from duty for some time. I want to go after Lord Devoue. This is personal for me.” The King and the Commander both shared a look. They looked confused.
“I don’t see why you can’t do both in an official capacity” said the commander. Then Andre realized his mistake. ‘Oh. They were talking about sending a rider to the Midlands. To cut off Devoue’s escape.’
“I’m sorry, I..” He didn’t want to admit that he was not paying attention. “I must have confused myself a little. Yes sir, I will take the assignment. Please disregard my request.”
“Good man. I will issue an official pass for you. I know you and Bart were close. But if you, by some miracle do manage to capture that bastard, I want him alive. Is that clear?”
“Not a scratch. Understood?”
“Alright.” The Commander held his stern gaze for a moment, then turned to the king. “We will get to it right away, your majesty.”
“Good. In the meantime, Captain Smoll, you may return to your station. Thank you for your report. And guardsman,” he turned to Andre, and Andre straightened himself, standing at attention.
“Yes your majesty?”
“Don’t blame yourself for what happened. You did not know that Bartholomew hit his head, and you were in pursuit of a criminal. You both knew what you signed up for when you joined the Guard. He gave his life in service to the kingdom. A noble death for a man who lived a noble life.”
“Thank you, your majesty.” Andre spoke as sincerely as he could. But the truth was that he never blamed himself. When he came back to find Bart dead in the street and realized what had happened, all he could think was ‘you stupid idiot. Why did you grab that cape?’ Later, after all the commotion died down and he was on his way to the royal keep, he was filled with rage. Lord Devoue was one of his favorite people to work with. He had once been stationed in the Second Court, where criminals were put on trial, as a guard. He always thought that Lord Devoue conducted himself with more courtesy and grace than any other nobleman. They spoke a few times, and the man treated Andre as an equal, rather than a subservient underling. Andre respected Lord Devoue. He respected him, and then he went and killed his friend. Now all that Andre could feel was anger and a sour taste in the mouth.
When they left the king’s chancery, Commander Reik took Andre aside. He looked serious. More serious than his usual self. It was clear that he was not fully comfortable with what he was about to say. It was unusual for Andre to see the man in such a light. The Commander had always been an epitome of confidence and rigidness. But now, he spoke softly and carefully. At the edge of hearing.
“The Midland Knights cannot be trusted. Some of them would rather take the traitor north than south, if he is captured. And we don’t know if any of them might even be in on his treachery. Perhaps even Lord Casper is involved.”
‘Of course, he’s involved!’ Andre, thought. Everyone knew that the lord of South Ghrod was greedy and corrupt. There were suspicions amongst the king’s court that he was preparing a rebellion against King Eustace. Grain dues had been withheld by his lands, and he ignored the king’s requests to deal with a land dispute in the Midlands. Left unchecked, the dispute grew into a devastating conflict. The Midlands turned into a frenzied free-for-all between petty lords and free villages. Bandits were able to flourish, and now the Midlands were up in flames. Someone had to be stoking that fire.
“Don’t trust anyone you meet in the Midlands. Take Lord Devoue back here; and, at any cost, you must not allow him to be taken north.” The Commander tilted his head forward and raised his eyebrows. “You understand?”
“Yes sir. I will bring him back to the capitol.”
“Good man.” The Commander slapped his hand on Andre’s shoulder. “I will organize a party of three or four for you to lead. It would be more, but with refugees pouring in, we’re already stretched thin as it is. You know this yourself. But, if there is any man you believe would be useful on this journey, tell me.”
“No sir. The man I would pick is being buried this evening.”
The Commander nodded solemnly. “Be prepared after the burial. You leave tonight.”
With that, the Commander turned and walked away, his blue cape fluttering behind him.