The Amber Crown
CHAPTER ONE - Valdas
THE DIDELIS BELL tolled the death knell of a king. It sounded from high on the Gura and echoed across the famed white city. Valdas Zalecki felt the sound in his skull. Its meaning clutched at his guts. He leaped to his feet, heart racing, dumping the whore on his knee onto the stone floor along with a flagon of the Winged Hussar’s best Rhenish. Once on his feet he swayed and flattened his large, square hands on the wet wooden tabletop, trying to sober up between one breath and the next, and failing miserably.
He curled up his nose at the splashes of good wine down the front of his gathered pantalones. It looked as though he’d pissed himself.
“Valdas? Lover? What’s the ma—” Aniela’s voice at his feet drew his attention. She wiped a drip of Rhenish from the side of her face, licked her fingers, and froze, hand to mouth. “The bell . . .”
He reached down, pulled her upright, and dusted her skirts down.
“Grrnch.” His wine- at tongue would hardly obey him. He forced it to form words. “Get back . . . palace.”
“Not in that condition.”`
“Oh, sweet Christ! Coffee.” Valdas’s voice slurred. “An’ a bucket o’ water.”
He eyed the other customers: artisans, merchants’ clerks, young bucks, and city rakes, plus a few tarts touting for business. A ripple of speculation led to a general exodus in search of news, shoving and jostling. They had no interest in Valdas, which was just as well. Out of uniform he was merely another big lug pissing away his wages with the best of them.
Aniela was well paid for her discretion.
The bell continued its funereal tolling.
“Come with me. Now!” Aniela grabbed Valdas’s hand and pulled him across the room.
Numb, he followed her, scuffing up the sand on the floor as if his feet belonged to someone else. She dragged him through the narrow doorway under the stairs that led to her own room, the one where she didn’t entertain customers, and yanked on his arm to remind him to duck beneath the low lintel.
“Sit down.” She pushed him toward a chair and lit the stub of a candle from the embers in the small fireplace. He tried to focus on the battered fiddle hanging from a peg on the wall. Concentrate on one thing at a time. He swallowed hard and took a deep breath. His mind spun. The king is dead. King is dead. King is dead. He knew the words, felt their rhythm in his chest, but they didn’t make sense.
“Sit,” Aniela said again.
He let his knees buckle, and felt the chair catch him by the buttocks. The sinking feeling in his gut didn’t let up.
“I’ve got to go.” He grasped the chair arms and tried to lever himself out of it.
“Not in that state.” Aniela pushed him down.
“My responsibility . . . The king’s person . . . My men . . .” He put both hands to his face to scrub away the whirling sensation behind his eyes.
“Sober up first, lover. You don’t make good decisions when you’re drunk.”
“See what I mean? Wait here.”
What decision was there to make? He had a duty, even if it killed him. Valdas had always done his duty.
Aniela slipped out of the door, her sudden departure disquieting.
Valdas needed to move, but the alcohol inside him still struggled for mastery over his knees. One night off! One gods-poxed night, in— how many months? He fought down a wave of resentment.
How had the king died? That was the big question. All may not be lost. Konstantyn himself had pardoned the High Guard when his own father had broken his neck falling from a horse while out hunting. Maybe Konstantyn had had an accident, or died of an apoplexy, or choked on a fish bone.
The king is dead. Long live the king!
The thought tasted as sour as old Rhenish. The next King of Zavonia to wear the Amber Crown would be Konstantyn’s fussy, middle- aged cousin Gerhard, a dithering ninny; a smoky lamp-glass to Konstantyn’s shining light.
Konstantyn was a soldier, a scholar, a man of ideas, a man of the people.
Was. Had been.
Could the Didelis Bell be wrong?
No, the bell had never lied in two hundred years
Gerhard on the throne would be worse than if Konstantyn had given his new queen a child and left a baby to rule.
Oh, if only...
Chancellor Skorny, a political survivor if ever there was one, could have held the regency for Kristina and a child. Wishful thinking. Valdas spared a little leftover pity—t he scrap that he wasn’t reserving for himself—for the young queen, wedded and bedded only last wintertide and secluded in the Queen’s Court ever since, a leaf blown by the wind of politics.
The wind of politics was howling up Valdas’s backside right now.
The door opened, pushed by Aniela’s round arse. He focused on it. It was a spectacular arse. He loved women’s arses, and their breasts; their hair, their hands, their slippered feet, the way they walked, the way they laughed, and even the way they talked. Some men liked their women silent and biddable. Valdas liked them to show a spark of something between their ears as well as the delights of what was between their legs.
Aniela checked over her shoulder and slid backward into the room carrying two glasses of pungent black coffee on a little tray.
She deposited a coffee on the small table by his elbow and poured a thimbleful of something clear into it. “Drink.”
“From the dame in Rivergate Yard. It’s supposed to be magic, but I suspect it’s just herbs. We keep some behind the bar for emergencies.”
“You know I don’t believe in all that old rubbish.”
“Magic? Me neither, but I believe in herbs. Drink up.”
He grasped the glass and gulped it down, shuddering at the bitterness. He could have sworn it was hot, but it felt like icy meltwater on his tongue. His fingers and toes began to tingle, but that was probably just his imagination playing tricks.
“Whatever it is, I feel better.”
He tried to stand up, but Aniela pushed him down. “Give it time to work.”
“What’s the word on the street?”
“Poison! They say the king was poisoned.”
But she didn’t need to say it twice.
Valdas dreaded poison. There were too many types of poison and too many ways to deliver it, even with the cook tasting each dish set before the king.
Valdas swallowed the rising lump in his throat. He had a duty, even if that meant dying, but he might be able to plead for his men—at least for the ones who hadn’t been on duty. It was barely a shred of hope, but he clung to it.
“I have to get to the palace,” he said.
“And then what?”
“Do my duty to my king—do one thing right, at least. Three days. They have to give me three days—until the funeral—to find the assassin.”
She hesitated. “They’re saying you are the assassin.”
“Wha . . . ?”
“There’s a hue and cry out for you.”
“That’s gods-poxed stupid. How could—”
“Only saying what’s on the streets.”
Valdas felt a snake roiling in his guts. His ballocks tried to climb up into his shivering belly. “I’ve got to go. My honor—”
“Honor be damned. They’ll upend you and saw you in half on the gibbet. Where will your honor be then?”
He groaned. “I have to prove I didn’t do it and find out who did.”
“Will they give you the chance?”
He shrugged. “Probably . . . Possibly . . .”
Valdas pulled a gold ring from his finger, the wide band inset with three rubies, a gift from Konstantyn. “Take this. There’s no point in letting . . . You deserve it. I know it’s business between us, but you never make me feel that I’m paying by the hour.”
Aniela stared at the ring but didn’t reach out for it.
“Go on, take it.” Valdas jerked his hand in her direction. Aniela was warmth and light. Where he was going was only darkness and death. He wanted her to take the ring. In years to come she might be the only one who remembered his name. They said a person didn’t truly die until there was no one left to remember. Who would remember Valdas? Certainly not his family.
“Please, Aniela. I want you to have it.”
She hesitated. He reached out and took her hand, sliding the ring on to her middle finger, which he guessed would be the best fit. He wrapped both hands around hers. “There. That’s not so bad, is it?”
“Ah, Valdas.” She swiped her free hand across her wet cheeks. “You know you’ve always been my favorite, don’t you?”
“You say that to everyone, Aniela, but you say it very prettily.”
Bugger the coffee. He felt his prick begin to stir at the sight of her low-cut gown. Two dusky half- moons peeked over the neckline. All he could think about was burying his face in her breasts and forgetting reality for a moment. Please let all this be a bad, alcohol-fueled dream. He knew it wasn’t the time for sex, but the wine still had him by the throat.
Besides, it might be the last time.
“Aniela, come give me what I’ve paid for. Your potion worked. My ballocks are bursting. I can’t walk through the streets with a broomstick poking through my pantalones.” He sat back and sighed, his prick now fully at attention. “You said the potion was magic.”
“I’m surprised you can get it up with all that Rhenish inside you.” Aniela knelt before him and pulled the drawstring of his pantalones undone.
“I’ve never been let down by my prick yet. He knows his duty. Gahhh!” The latter sound was all he could manage as Aniela, all business, grasped him in firm hands, bent her head and began to work him with mouth and tongue until he shuddered. It was over in less than a minute and she spat into a kerchief as she raised her head.
“It’ll do.” He huffed out a shuddering breath. “Not what I’d planned for tonight.”
“Another time, lover.”
“I hope so. By any god you care to name, I surely hope so.” His head was almost clear. “Give me that other coffee, darling girl.”
Aniela patted his flaccid prick and tied his drawstring. Sighing, she rose to her feet and handed him the second coffee. It tasted vile, but either the magic or the coffee was doing the trick. He grimaced and swallowed it all down.
“Thank you—I think.”
“Sober now?” she asked.
“Closer. Much closer.”
“Good.” She pressed her lips into a tight line and hugged her arms around herself.
“And I do appreciate your skill. You can do me one favor . . .”
“What, again?” She began to lift the hem of her full skirt.
“No, not that. Not now. Walk with me up to the Gura. I don’t want to be taken in the street and marched back like a criminal. I’d rather deliver myself than have the High Guard come and find me. They’re less likely to stop a couple out for a stroll.”
“You’re a noble soul, Valdas. I’d be halfway to the coast on a fast horse by now.”
For the briefest moment he considered it, saw what might come next—a change of name, a sword for hire, moving on and on again until he reached somewhere he might not be recognized, maybe even where he didn’t speak the language. Far from his men, his brothers in arms. Gah, no.
He’d faced death in action many times before being promoted to the palace, but the thought of being tied upside down by his ankles to a stout wooden frame while the executioner placed a ripsaw between his legs to cleave him in two, live and screaming, turned his bowels to acid. It was a rare punishment, reserved for traitors and king-killers.
“What are you thinking, lover?”
“How much I hate carpentry!”
“Oh, for God’s sake, run. I can’t bear to think—”
He hugged her to him. “Sweet Aniela, let’s go now, while I still have the courage for it. I didn’t kill the king. Surely the truth’s still good currency in Zavonia. If I return of my own accord it’s a damn good point in my favor.”
It wouldn’t make any difference to his ultimate fate, but it might make a difference to the manner of his death, and to the fate of his men.Perkunas, god of warriors, please let it be quick and dignified, not upside down on a frame with my ballocks under a saw blade.