Johanna, Roald, Nellie and Loesie have come to Florisheim finding many of their kinsmen there. The survivors from the burning of Saardam who have come here are the nobles who were never great supporters the old king, and it is likely that they won’t support his son either, even if he was normal. They support his marriage to Johanna even less and Johanna’s position as the new king’s wife would be improved immensely if she produced an heir, but so far that’s not happening.
Florisheim is alive with evil magic, and that magic is starting to affect the Saarlanders who are unused to it. They suffer apparitions of ghosts, people driven to injure themselves, or taken prisoner to work in a mysterious hole in the ground.
Johanna knows that they have to get out of that evil place, but where can they go when the violence covers the entire known world?
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THE LETTER was written in cramped, barely literate hand. The writer had used cheap paper which turned pen strokes into blobs and did not improve its legibility. Neither did the poor light that fell into the boat shed through the open front.
Fleuris LaFontaine had given the letter to Johanna only after she had specifically requested to see it, twice, when Master Deim had asked him to give it to her and Fleuris could no longer go on ignoring Johanna’s presence. He had pushed it across the rough wood of the simple table with his be-ringed, delicate hand, wrists barely protruding from the lace cuffs—dirty lace cuffs to be sure. Nothing in the refugee camps was still pristine.
Johanna had taken the letter, coolly, chin in the air, and said, “Thank you.” She’d unfolded the sheet, making sure that the men in the room wouldn’t notice that her hands trembled. Those men continued their discussion, as if she weren’t there, about the occupation of Saardam, and people who had or hadn’t made it out and assets that may or may not have been destroyed.
Most of it was pure speculation, but they spoke as if those statements were fact.
Johanna had just calmed down from being angry about being told that the Council of Nobles meeting was for men of import and not for wives or consorts, and now she got angry again. This was how stupid rumours started in the camp of refugee Saarlanders, because the nobles speculated idly, and then the other people took their words for fact, Because they were important men. Because people had been waiting for news for weeks and the waiting and endless days of no news were getting on everybody’s nerves.
“What does it say?” Roald, who sat next to her, leaned over her shoulder to read.
She smoothed out the letter.
In loopy writing, it said at the top,
To the Red Baron of Gelre and all he deems notifiable in matters of the city of Saardam.
The date at the top said 14th June, which was barely a week after the fateful day that Saardam had burned. Apparently this letter had been delivered to the castle in Florisheim over two months ago, so evidently the Baron didn’t consider the former citizens of Saardam immediately notifiable. And that in itself said something about what the Baron really thought of the survivors.
I hereby notify the barony that as of today, I have taken up the position of Governor of the city of Saardam on behalf of the Belaman Church and its rightful supporters. All heathens, disbelievers, disciples of treacherous beliefs and followers of dark witchcraft have been purged from the city. Most of the other citizens have been spared and have in fact welcomed our move. No commerce or ships were harmed. We will do our utmost best to resume the river trade as soon as possible.
“What does he mean—no commerce was harmed?” Roald asked, his too-loud voice cutting into the genteel talk of men that was going on around them.
They stopped talking, most of them looking annoyed.
Johan Delacoeur pursed his lips. He stroked his moustache. “He means that no shops or other businesses were harmed in Saardam, Your Highness.” He dipped his head, but his voice had a tone as if he were speaking to a small child.
“Everything he writes is a lie,” Roald said. “A lot of businesses were burned. All along the harbourfront. I saw it.”
Fleuris LaFontaine had been drumming his fingers on the table and now thudded his flat palm on the tabletop. “He means that no stock was harmed.”
“It’s still a lie. The whole city was on fire.”
“Shh, Roald.” Johanna put her hand on his arm. After weeks of begging, the Council of Nobles, who effectively ran the refugee camp, had finally run out of reasons not to allow Roald to attend. The begging had been Johanna’s, under the encouragement of Master Deim, who sat at the far end of the table and who smiled at her every now and then, but had been mostly silent during the meeting.
Roald, though, was unaware of the intricacies of the situation. “The whole city was on fire. I saw it. My parents are dead. Everyone is dead!” His voice rose to a squeal.
“Shhh, I know. Calm down.” She spoke softly, but was acutely aware of the penetrating gazes of the rich and influential men of the council, those who had been King Nicholaos’ advisers and those who, along with the rest of the kingdom, had been unaware of the condition that inflicted his son.
Roald jammed his hands between his knees and sat stiff as a board. The continual tensing and relaxing of his muscles told Johanna that he would probably start swaying soon, or that he’d bang his head into the wall if he got close enough to one.
Master Deim said, “Your Highness, we are sure that a lot of people in Saardam, most of them in fact, are still alive—”
“But I have never seen any proof,” Johanna said. In fact, the only proof she’d seen pointed in the opposite direction. Stories from people in the camp about raiding bandits killing everyone who got in their way or setting fire to houses with entire families inside.
“Everyone is dead! There was blood everywhere and fire everywhere.”
“Roald, please, calm down.” She put an arm over his shoulder, if only to stop him swaying.
His distress brought back memories of their flight, of the chaos in the palace where she had lost Father, of the buildings on fire in the harbour, of the munitions depot being blown sky-high. Of the dead king and queen, and she hadn’t even told Roald that she had seen their bodies. Maybe he had seen them, too. He had never spoken of what happened to him that night and how he came to be in the water in the harbour by himself.
Ignatius Hemeldinck rolled his eyes. He was easily the youngest of the nobles, with his pale hair tied back in a ponytail at the nape of his neck. “Seriously, do we need to hold these important meetings in the presence of an idiot? It’s hard enough taking difficult decisions on our own.”
“This idiot is your king,” Johanna said, primly.
Or Roald would be their king once the coronation ceremony had been held. But that had been put off until the time that the King’s sceptre and crown could be retrieved from the cleaning cupboard where Johanna had hidden them. If that cupboard, in fact, still existed.
And the council wasn’t making any decisions and hadn’t made any for about two months. All that happened in these meetings, according to Master Deim, was that they speculated and pontificated about what had happened and said little about how to go forward.
Ignatius said, “It’s not necessary for him to be here. King Nicholaos would allow us to deal with day to dayday-to-day issues.” He seemed to be making a point of not looking at Johanna.
If that’s the case, then it’s no wonder that King Nicholaos got into trouble. “The occupation of Saardam is not a day-to-day issue.”
“King Nicholaos would also never have allowed interfering women to our meetings.”
“I am your Queen according to the law. I accompany my husband.”
Ignatius’ mouth twitched.
Johan Delacoeur gave his colleague a wary look that seemed to say shut up while you’re still ahead. He was the oldest of the nobles, grey-haired, thin, wary and suspicious. An old army commander who Johanna didn’t particularly like, but had come to respect.
Ignatius took the unspoken advice, leaning back in his chair while heaving a sigh. He wasn’t going to repeat what, according to rumours, he’d said the other day about Johanna’s marriage to the prince. Not in the presence of the few powerful supporters Johanna had in the camp: Master Deim; the mayor of Saardam, Joris DeCamp; and Captain Arense of the Nielands’ ship Prosperity, which had brought most of the nobles to Florisheim. The Shepherd Carolus, a young man by the name of Dirk Goedthart, who had been training under Shepherd Romulus, was also meant to be there, but according to Fleuris LaFontaine, he was always late doing some bleeding-heart thing for the children or something.
The secretary was busily scribbling in the corner, noting down what people said. He sat against the wall of the boat shed, which was made from clay-daubed wood, with the big note book on his lap.
“Let’s keep talking about this letter,” Johanna said. “Like why the Baron has taken so long to show it to us, and what we should do now.”
“We have already drafted a response,” Johan said, and the secretary in the corner nodded. “Will you read it to the meeting?”
The man leafed through his papers, until he found what he was looking for with an “Ah, here it is. It says: Esteemed colleague—”
Johanna said, “He’s not esteemed. He’s head of an occupying army.”
The man eyed her sideways and continued reading, “Esteemed colleague, thank you for your correspondence—”
“—Thank you for invading our city and burning it to the ground.”
“Please, can you let the man read?” Fleuris sounded annoyed.
Johanna crossed her arms over her chest.
The secretary lifted the paper so that he couldn’t see Johanna. “Thank you for your correspondence. In light of the recent events, we would like to send a delegation to negotiate the return of authority of the city to us. We would be most delighted if you could meet with us—”
“I was thinking we should say something like: stop killing our families. You’re nothing more than a bandit. Get out of our city before we chase you out, and, if you resist, string up your heads over the city gates.”
Roald clapped his hands. “Yes, yes, yes. It’s our city.”
Fleuris rolled his eyes. “That is plain bluff and he will know it. We are too few to amount to much of an army.”
“We are, together, the richest people of Saardam and the entire low country. Surely we can hire an army?”
Johan Delacoeur scoffed. “Fight a battle for your homeland with a mercenary army? Who has ever heard of such folly!”
“King Ivan of Bresnia had no problem with it.”
He snorted. “What do you know about armies and fighting? A woman, young enough to be my daughter.” But his attempt at derision did not hide the impact made by her knowing of the Battle of Dravik, and of how a young king had bought his troops’ loyalty. Thank you, Father, for forcing me to read all those boring history books.
“Fighting is not how we like to do business,” Fleuris said. And doing business, of course, was all that mattered.
“Do you have any business with this man Alexandre?”
He scoffed. “Of course not.” In a what-do-you-think kind of way. “But he seems to have gotten the marauding savages under control.”
“I was under the impression that he brought the marauding savages. He invaded. He used fire magicians to burn down much of the city, and then he took possession of it. So, in the light of those things, the king is not going to sign a letter addressed to Alexandre Trebuchet that has the word esteemed in it.”
Fleuris went red in the face, but before he could say anything, there was the sound of running footsteps outside, and a moment later a man in a brown robe came into the shed: Shepherd Carolus. His cheeks were red, his blond hair stood in all directions, he had smudges on his cheeks and his habit was covered in straw. He sat down at the far end of the table next to Joris DeCamp, panting. “My excuses. I didn’t know you’d started already. We bought some straw. I wanted it inside before it started raining again.” He wiped his face. The golden chain with the symbol of the Triune dangled around his neck.
His sheer bulk dwarfed poor Joris DeCamp, who was a very slight man. The Shepherd’s hands were huge, with thick fingers covered in freckles and hair—very dusty hair to be sure. He was like a normal man, but one and a halfone-and-a-half times the size, andwho never shied away from helping people with his sheer strength.
Johanna smiled at him.
The interruption had leached the redness from Fleuris LaFontaine’s face. He continued in a milder tone, “Let the correspondence be handled by men who are well-versed in conversing with people of Alexandre Trebuchet’s standing. He is a direct cousin of the Burovian king.”
“Are you afraid of him?”
“Alexandre Trebuchet has many connections.”
In other words: yes. Andalso, the nobles probably had some business connections tied up with him.
“Whatever letter we write is not going to change our immediate situation here. We need to do something. People in the camp are suffering because they don’t know what has happened to their families. We have been here for months and we’ve heard nothing. Winter is coming and most of them are sleeping in tents. I’m sure most of us would like to return.”
“We don’t know that it’s safe to do so. The Red Baron has assured us that he’s in discussion with Alexandre, and he’s sent messengers to Saardam.”
“The Baron’s men? Why should they care about our city?” She gestured at the letter. “It’s really simple: I want this man, this Alexandre, this fire magician, gone. I want to rebuild. I want to know if the people who didn’t make it out of the city”—Father—“are safe. I want to go back before winter comes.”
Fleuris snorted in his Dumb woman tone. “You don’t understand anything about the situation.”
“All right, then. I’ve given you my thoughts. What do you think we should do?” Sit here and eat the Baron’s food while we wait until he tells us what he wants from us in return?
“Well . . .” Fleuris placed the fingertips of both hands together. His many gold rings glittered in the light that fell in through the open door of the boat shed. His fingers were pudgy and looked like sausages. He was in his middle years, with a face that had lost none of its pudgy roundness in the camp. His cheeks were full and made him look younger than he really was, and made his eyes look piggy. “We have been in contact with the Baron and have it from his authority, and that of the leaders of the Belaman Church, that they are restoring order in the city.”
“The Belaman Church does not rule Saardam,” Shepherd Carolus said, and he wiped his face again. His cheeks were still red.
“He’s right. What business does the Belaman Church have in Saardam? And if the Baron has sent people to Saardam, why haven’t we heard any news? Why haven’t we heard anything from any of our families and contacts?” Seriously, what was wrong with these men? Why were they happy with other people sorting out the trouble? “Are you happy with the Belaman Church taking charge of our city?”
“Of course not.”
“Then why aren’t you angry that we’ve been waiting here for months while the Baron has had this letter for all this time?”
“Young lady, you are presuming far too much. The Baron probably only received it recently. He is our friend—”
“I am your queen and you will address me as such.”
Fleuris gave her a hard stare. He didn’t say anything, but his expression held a We will see about thatWe-will-see-about-that warning. “The Baron has his reasons which he has already revealed to us, his trusted friends.” He breathed in through flaring nostrils. “Contrary to your assertions, the Baron is helping us a great deal.”
“The Baron has lent us tents and gavegiven us items of furniture. I’m grateful for that. But what other help is he giving us? He hasn’t visited the camp for weeks. I’ve seen him once aftersince we arrived, and he never even spoke to Roald. Has anyone spoken to him recently? Have there been any signs that he has even sent people to Saardam to talk to this Alexandre? And on the off-chance that I missed their departure, whichdeparture—which would be hard to do, since we’re camped right next to the river. But on the off-chance that I missed it,river—but on the off-chance, why hasn’t he come here to ask for our representatives? Why evenWhy, for that matter, should he negotiate on our behalf?”
“Because he knows Alexandre Trebuchet much better than any of us.”
“Isn’t that a reason to keep an eye on both of them?” She spread her hands, frustrated.
Fleuris said, “You can’t possibly understand. This is a thing between men of certain standing and influence.”
And so the bottom line was that, besides being female, Johanna didn’t meet the criteria for being “of standing”,of “standing”, and hadn’t earned the trust of the circle of nobles that stretched across borders and involved many royal families and their wide and entangled family trees. Alexandre Trebuchet, Roald had informed her, had been a fellow guest at the work farm for difficult royal sons where Roald had spent most of the past few years and which seemed to be the source of much of the trouble.
Johanna said, holding her back straight, “I think the time that we rely on others to do things for us has passed. Baron Uti may mean well, but his concern is his own land. We will make our own investigations. We will write back to this Alexandre.” Her eyes met those of the secretary. “We will let him know that his occupation of Saardam displeases us greatly and we will return to resume our rightful position. We will use stronger words that still carry your approval.”
She met hard stares around the table. “Or does anyone here actually like that a foreigner sits in our palace?”
“Of course not,” Fleuris LaFontaine scoffed, but he sounded less than genuine.
“Then I will see to it that it is done.” She rose. She would have the letter delivered by two volunteers who would go to Saardam and report on the situation there. Men from the camp, not the Baron’s men.
Roald was staring at the boat shed’s dark ceiling and appeared to have been counting ceiling beams, probably to stop himself sliding into a screaming fit. “Come.” Johanna pulled him up gently by his arm. Then she looked at the ceiling again. The undersides of the ceiling beams were exposed. If the singing in her blood was anything to go by, they were made of willow wood. She had an idea.
“Her Majesty the Queen declares the meeting finished,” Ignatius Hemeldinck said, his voice sarcastic.
“I’m glad that someone here recognises my status,” she said, equally sarcastic. She strode past him out of the shed.