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Nothing a King did was quite as dull as checking the post, but it had to be done, and birds brought letters to the palace hourly. Ulric had half a mind to ignore the lot of it, to let Edwin read them all and relay what little importance there was to him after. But Ulric knew better—he was taught better. ‘A King who reads no letters knows no Kingdom,’ his father had told him. Ulric never knew the man to be wrong.
Every letter was the same as the last. Empty threats from arrogant Lords, warning they’d pull their men from this or that fort along the coast—all bluster. Empty well-wishes for some cousin or other of Ulric’s who had just wed or had just fallen ill—both tragedies. It was empty, all of it. Words upon words, printed in the finest writing, all with no meaning behind them. In a way, Ulric thought it astounding. Unbearable, but astounding. When his father passed and left him the Crown, this wasn’t quite the King’s life Ulric had expected. Not as glamorous, and—the war aside—not as exciting. But the drink would see him through it.
Ulric gulped the last of his wine and clanked the thick glass down on his desk. He slumped back in his chair and sighed a long breath, giving his eyes just a short moment’s rest. The tall window at his back basked him in the heat of the rising sun, warm and soothing, tempting him into a deep slumber. Ulric had only woken a few hours ago, but already he wanted nothing more than to return to bed.
His eyes snapped open when he heard Edwin drop another letter before him. “This ought to be an interesting one, Your Grace,” He said to Ulric, and Ulric knew the letter’s seal. It was blood-red, of a thorny rose coiled around a mackerel fish, strangling it. The seal of Lord Rosewall, Elise’s father.
Ulric grunted as he took a small knife to the letter. “And here I thought marrying his daughter would keep him quiet.”
Edwin gave a little chuckle of approval. “Out of sight can’t always be out of mind.”
Ulric pored over the letter, and Edwin took to filling his glass for him as he read. The writing was of Lord Rosewall’s own hand, a rare occurrence, though Ulric wasn’t sure the topic merited it. “The good Lord Rosewall requests my presence,” He said with a bit of a mocking edge. “He asks I join him for the first hunt of the spring.”
Edwin scrunched his brow. “Now?”
Ulric had a hard time believing it himself. Lord Rosewall knew damn well the Syderan emissary would be here in the capitol within the month, and Ulric would be a fool not to be here to greet him. The letter was nothing more than some ruse or trick, but to what end Ulric couldn’t be sure. Lord Rosewall was a schemer, always plotting, always looking for another card to add to his hand. His daughter was no different.
Ulric tossed down the letter and took to his drink again. “I’m sure Lord Rosewall was gutted to hear I’d survived the war,” He mused. “A hunting accident would be a perfect way to correct that, don’t you think?”
Edwin gave him a wide-eyed look. “You don’t really think? …”
“No, dear Edwin,” Ulric shook his head and took a swig of his wine. “Just thinking aloud, is all. And I’m not going.”
“You’ll reject him?”
“Aye. He should know better than to ask. The Syderan will be here before long, and I intend to be here when he arrives.”
Edwin nodded. He had known Lord Rosewall a long time, far longer than Ulric. Edwin knew the man, and he knew his arrogant ways. “Lord Rosewall never thought the Syderans a threat,” Edwin said. “He still doesn’t.”
Ulric chuckled into his glass. “Easy for him to think that. He was never on the field. He never saw the war as I did.”
“Elise won’t be happy to hear this, you know,” Edwin said, his lips curling into a frown. “She’d want you to jump at the first chance for her to return home.”
Ulric looked to his steward wearily. “Elise can’t always get what she wants.” At his words, an angry fist rapped the knocker against the study’s door, as loud as could be managed.
It was eerie how quick Elise would come at the uttering of her name. It often had Ulric wondering if his worst fears were true, and the woman was in fact some well-veiled demon cast down on him as punishment for his sins. If that were true, then the wrath of God was indeed terrible.
Ulric finished the last of his glass as the door swung wide. True enough, Elise stood there in the doorway, standing tall on long, sculpted legs. Smooth, well-brushed hair, black as midnight, fell down her shoulders. The gold lace of her tight-fitting dress shone bright in the sunlight. Much as Ulric wished he could deny it, Elise was stunningly beautiful, as gorgeous as any Queen could ever be. Were he a younger, less worldly man, he’d wonder how he could ever be unhappy with her as his wife. But Ulric wasn’t that man. He knew better now. He could see it in her eyes, emerald-green, hard and piercing, watching him like a predator would its prey.
Elise looked to Edwin and made a sharp gesture towards the door. “Leave us,” She said curtly to the steward, though Ulric very much wished he would stay.
“Of pendik escort course, My Lady,” Edwin bowed low and scurried for the exit. He gave Ulric a final nod before heading through the door and gently closing it shut behind him.
Ulric eyed the tight, low cut of Elise’s bodice. “Must you insist on dressing yourself so?” He asked her dully. “You look more suited for a whorehouse than a palace.”
Elise cocked her head. “Does my pride in my body trouble you?” She taunted.
Ulric almost wished it did. “No,” He said.
She scoffed. “Pity.”
With a gait like a spider Elise came to Ulric, quick and silent, with long, graceful steps. A cold breeze followed her, prickling the hairs of Ulric’s neck. It was an air that seemed to follow her always, wherever she went. Behind her back, the servants had come to call her ‘the Ice Queen’—a name she more than lived up to.
Only a short moment passed before Elise’s eyes came to rest on the envelope with the broken Rosewall seal, and the unfolded letter below it. “From my father?” She asked, snatching the letter up off the desk.
Knowing too well the argument to come, Ulric reached for the pitcher of wine. He tipped it over his glass, and a good few seconds passed before he noticed something was very wrong: the pitcher was empty. Of course the wine would be gone, now of all times.
“When are we leaving?” Elise asked, already grinning.
Ulric looked up at her, meeting her eyes. “We’re not,” He said.
Her face twisted into a scowl. “Like hell,” She cursed.
Ulric took the letter back from her. “The Syderan will arrive soon, and I want us here when he does.”
“He can wait a few weeks,” Elise spat. “The savages wallow in dirt and muck, I imagine this one can survive waiting in a palace for a month or two.”
“And when he tires of waiting?” Ulric barked back. “He’ll call off the talks. He’ll head back to Sydera, and the war will be back on by the year’s end. Will you be fighting on the front when that happens?” Elise’s mouth twitched, but Ulric didn’t give her a chance to answer him. “No,” He growled. “You won’t.”
God above, Ulric wanted a drink.
Elise’s scowl hardened. “My father—”
Ulric shot up onto his feet, his temper flaring. He grabbed hold of Elise’s arm and clutched it tight. “Your father isn’t Lord here, love,” He snarled, glaring into her eyes. “He isn’t King. This is my city, my land.”
Elise yanked at her arm, but Ulric wouldn’t release her. “Let go,” She growled.
Ulric shook his head slowly. “Not until you learn.”
Elise looked down to Ulric’s grasping hand, and the scowl vanished from her face, chased away by a wicked grin. She raised Ulric’s arm before his eyes, until he too came to look at his wrist. The white cotton of his tunic’s cuff was splotched dark red. A wine stain. As Ulric looked at it then, only one thought came to him: Vivian.
The memory was rushing back to him now. The girl’s golden hair, her kiss, the warmth of her touch. It almost seemed like a dream now. But it wasn’t a dream, no, it was far from it. Vivian’s love was real, realer than anything in this god-forsaken palace.
Elise let out a short, cruel laugh, pulling Ulric from his thoughts. “Is this what a King is to you?” She mocked. “A drunk?” Her grin grew wider. “I suppose you learned from the best.”
No one ever spoke of Ulric’s father that way. Not to Ulric’s face.
He wanted to hit Elise then. He wanted to beat her, to strike her upside the face ’till her cheeks burned red. But… Elise would want that. She’d feed off of it. She’d wear that bruise like the finest brooch. God, Elise knew just where to stick the knife. She knew well Ulric’s idolization of his late father, and she knew the two shared a need for the drink. Elise knew where the stick the knife, and she knew how to twist it.
A revelation hit Ulric then, dawned on him as bright and blinding as any sun. The wine stain on his shirt, it was nothing to be troubled by, no, it was just the opposite—a gift from God, even. Ulric knew what he needed then, and it wasn’t a drink. He threw down Elise’s arm and stormed off, towards the door.
Elise smiled as he darted off, no doubt flush with a sense of victory. “Where are you off to?” She called after him.
Ulric didn’t turn back. “Getting a new shirt,” He hollered.
It was fate. A wine stain, a stain Elise herself had discovered, no less. It made for the perfect alibi. No one would question Ulric for visiting a tailor now. Not now and not later, either. “I’ve taken a liking to her seams,” Ulric could say. “Her sewing is immaculate. There’s no one else like her.” The justifications were endless. He could see her whenever he liked now, any day of the week. Most Kings who had ever lived were obsessed with their wardrobes, and Ulric could claim to be no different. Fate had given him this chance, and he wouldn’t wait to use it.
Ulric moved quickly. In minutes he had changed tunics, gathered four of his Kingsguard, and set out with them down into the city proper, stained shirt in hand. Ulric’s face was a maltepe escort familiar one on the streets of Weswyn, and he had no fear of traversing his city. The sword at his hip was more a formality than anything, and the presence of his Kingsguard had less to do with some fear of death and far more to do with his desire to move swift and unimpeded. He hailed a dozen or so commoners and nobles, and even shook a few hands, but he kept a brisk pace all the way.
There were nine tailors and seamstresses in the Diamond Quarter, and Ulric didn’t know where to start. There was only one tailor he had in mind, but he could waste the better part of the day trying to find her. He wouldn’t have that. He needed to see her now.
“Sir Murdoch?” Ulric said as he turned to face his knight.
Sir Murdoch was the most senior of the Kingsguard, the resident patriarch of the brotherhood of knights. He sported a long, hooked nose, and a bald head that shone as bright as his steel-plated armor. The knight had served Ulric’s family for thirty-five years, and Ulric trusted him with more than just his life. “Your Grace?” Sir Murdoch put himself before Ulric, standing tall and proper, awaiting his order.
“I have a tailor in mind I’d like to see,” Ulric said to him. “But I need to find her.”
Sir Murdoch had lived in the city all sixty years of his life, and he knew it better than any other. “D’you know the name?”
Ulric shook his head. “Only the surname. Caldwell.”
Sir Murdoch turned on his heel and pointed at a building at the far end of the street, one of the smaller shops in the Diamond Quarter. “That’s the one,” He said.
Ulric took his Kingsguard and made his way quick down the road, cutting through the crowd. Ulric hailed no one now, and he shook no hands. He had his destination.
Ulric looked to Sir Murdoch as they walked. “What do you know of the owner?” He asked.
“Not much, Your Grace,” Sir Murdoch kept his eyes up and moving, watching the crowd around them. “Name of Joan Caldwell. Husband died years ago, mining accident. Has a son and a daughter, both adults if I’m not mistaken. Quiet family. I’m afraid there’s not much else to tell.”
Ulric nodded, hanging on the word ‘daughter.’ “That’s enough, thank you.”
At the door to the shop now, Ulric spun to face his guard. “Keep everyone out,” He ordered them, speaking with a tone of command. “No exceptions. I’d like some peace and quiet.” In truth, Ulric cared little for the quiet—it was privacy that he desired.
Sir Murdoch shot Ulric a concerned look. “Shall I join you?” He asked with a single step forward.
“No,” Ulric stopped him with an outstretched hand. “I’ll be fine, thank you.”
Sir Murdoch nodded and bowed away, turning to face the crowded street.
Ulric took one deep, calming breath. He was not a nervy sort, but still he found his heart skipping a fair few beats. He was about to see her again. If nothing else, he could at least lay his eyes on her, he could hear her voice. That might be enough.
A little bell chimed above his head as he came through the door. Well-cut fabrics hung from carved wooden poles across the walls, wool, linen, hemp, and even a fair bit of silk, all smelling of fresh lavender and soap. A few headless mannequins stood by the east wall, sporting luxurious dresses, robes, and tunics, all adorned with lavish embroidery, sewn by a masterful hand.
A flurry of footsteps against the hardwood floor was Ulric’s only warning as a woman darted into the room. The woman—Joan, Ulric figured—stood a bit short in stature, and was no older than forty. She had a head of wiry blonde hair, done up hastily in a long-hanging ponytail. The long hours of her work showed in her face, as little wrinkles sat around her blue eyes. Ulric smiled. He could see Vivian in her.
The woman took a sharp gasp when she saw him, and she hurriedly lowered herself into a curtsey. “Y-Your Grace,” She stammered, not finding the breath for her words. “Joan Caldwell, yours to command. It’s—it’s an honor.”
Ulric took her hand and kissed it graciously, “The honor’s mine,” He said softly, still smiling.
Joan’s hand quivered a bit as Ulric released her. “What all can I do for you, Your Grace?” She asked him as she patted her dress free of its wrinkles.
Ulric turned and looked to the hanging fabrics, feigning as though he were admiring them. Much as he wished he could see Vivian now, he knew it best to take his time. He had a plan, and subtlety was key. “I’m in need of a seamstress,” He mused. “And a little bird told me you’re the best there is.”
Joan glowed a bit at that. “I’m not sure I’m worthy of such praise.” She said, shaking her head.
Ulric waved off her humility. “Nonsense. You wouldn’t be in the Diamond Quarter if you weren’t skilled,” He said. He turned to face her then. “And I’ve been meaning to meet the mother of Damian Caldwell.”
Joan’s eyes bulged a bit. “You remember Damian?”
“Of course. I’ll always remember that head of hair,” Ulric laughed. “Is the young man here now?”
“No, Your kartal escort Grace. He’s traveling now, guarding a caravan,” Joan fell quiet for a moment, looking somber. “Good with a sword, that boy.”
“I know,” Ulric said. Though he didn’t come for Damian, Ulric still wished he could see that young man again.
“But I shouldn’t waste your time, Your Grace,” Joan said, breaking the quiet. “What is it you needed from me?”
Ulric held out the shirt in his hand, pushing out its darkly stained cuff. “Had a bit of an accident, as you can see.”
Joan took the shirt from him and looked closer at the cuff. “Oh, no,” She said, sounding truly sorry for him. “That won’t do.”
“Think you can get the stain out?”
Joan thought it over for a moment. “I’m not sure. Better to just replace the cuff.”
Ulric nodded. “How much will I owe you?”
Joan froze fearfully at those words, looking terrified of upsetting Ulric with some exorbitant price. “Twenty silvers?” She said, though it sounded more of a question than an answer.
Ulric shook his head furiously. “Far too little. Five crowns sounds better.” He took the gold coins from his purse and stuck them swift into Joan’s empty hand, giving her no chance to object. “Can you fix the cuff now?”
Joan took a moment to clear her throat, stunned by Ulric’s generosity. “I can have it done in twenty minutes. Shall you wait here, Your Grace?” She turned to leave him, but Ulric gently took her arm and stopped her.
“Actually,” He began, drawing her eyes back to him. “I’ve been wanting a new nightrobe. Think you’ve got something I’d like?”
“Of course,” Joan put her hand to a smooth, off-white fabric hanging beside her. “I just sowed a robe from this the other week. Corovan cotton. It’ll put you to sleep right quick, better than any lover’s touch.”
Better than Elise’s touch, at the least.
“The robe’s in the cellar,” She said, gesturing towards a stairway in the far corner of the room. “My daughter will show it to you, and I’ll get to work on this shirt.”
“‘Daughter?'” Ulric parroted her, faking shock as best he could.
Joan gave him an idle nod. “Vivi, dear?” She called out. “Could you come in here?”
A long moment passed. Too long for Ulric. His heart fluttered, and his stomach twisted into a painful knot.
Another set of footsteps rapped against the wooden floor, and then, finally, Ulric saw her. She was garbed in a worn commoner’s dress, with her golden hair done up in a tail just as her mother’s. As she stood, she was a far cry from that groomed, perfumed girl he’d met on that fateful evening. But she was a natural beauty, no less stunning now than she was then, no less appealing to Ulric’s eyes. He wanted to grab Vivian then and there, to pull her into an embrace and feel her love and her warmth. But he couldn’t, not yet. He just needed a few more moments of patience.
Vivian looked from her mother to Ulric, and she fell slack-jawed when she saw him. “Ulric?” She uttered with wide eyes, beaming him a bright, glowing smile.
“Vivian!” Joan hissed between gritted teeth. “This is your King!” She cried out in horror. “You will address him properly!”
“No, no,” Ulric cut in, saving Vivian from her mother. “It’s quite alright. No need to flay the girl.”
Joan put two of her fingers to the bridge of her nose and took a long, calming breath, exasperated. “Thank you, Your Grace,” She said to him gratefully, and turned to her daughter. “Vivian, dear, take the King and show him the nightrobe I sowed last week—the Corovan cotton.”
“I know the one,” Vivian answered obediently.
“Good,” Joan took a lit lantern from the countertop and handed it to her daughter. “Take this, and don’t drop it on the stairs. Light the candles in the cellar and blow them out when you come up.” She put a hand to Vivian’s chin. “D’you hear me, girl?”
“Yes, mother,” Vivian groaned.
“See to it, then.” With that, Joan shooed her daughter with a firm pat and darted off into the back room, quicker than Ulric ever thought he’d see her move. Joan was looking to impress him, and she’d work fast. Ulric would have to work faster.
Vivian walked Ulric down the stairs and into the blackened cellar. There was no scent of dust or musk, but only a strong scent of soap and washed linens. Vivian circled through the room, lighting a half-dozen candles across a series of shelves and desks. With every new burst of light came ten more gowns, dresses, tunics, and belts, some folded and stacked neatly, others hung over wooden props. Leaving Vivian to her task, Ulric quietly shut the cellar door behind them and pulled down its iron lock.
With the final candle lit, Vivian set her lantern down carefully on a near shelf, minding to keep the heat of its flame far from the nearest fabric. Ulric was on her the moment she turned, putting his arms around her, holding her tight as he put his lips to hers in a deep kiss. Vivian jolted at first, taken by surprise, but she soon slackened in his arms. She returned his kiss with passion, pushing her hot tongue into his mouth. She put her hands to his shoulders and sunk into his chest, entwining their bodies in a loving embrace. Ulric reached up her back and took the little leather band from her hair, freeing her long, blonde locks to fall down her back.
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