“We hold the heir to both the Steward and the Matriarch,” the leader of the group that’d kidnapped Darada off the street was gloating. “They’ll have to meet our demands now.”
“If you believe any of that, then you really don’t know my parents at all.” Darada’s expression had changed to one of resignation as soon as she’d heard their plans.
“Don’t I?” He leaned forward and leered so close to her face that she could smell what he’d last had to eat. “Their negotiators are already here. Look!” He bundled her over to the window so she could see and then pulled her back again out of sight. “What did I tell you?”
“Those people out there are the negotiators?” The look she gave him was incredulous as he tossed her back down into the chair.
“No. Those are their people. The negotiators are on their way in. My people will tell me when they are in position for us to begin our talk.” He smiled. “If your parents are reasonable, you may get to leave here alive and with all the body parts you arrived with.”
“You really aren’t from around here, are you?” Darada shook her head sadly. “Those are Morghuls. Haven’t you heard of them?”
“Should I have?” He was sneering now. “This place’s glory days are over. It exists merely to be stripped of its treasures, overrun and then overthrown. We’re just the vanguard, princess without a title.” His eastern accent thickened and Darada suspected that what he’d just called her was a translated insult from his own language.
“You really haven’t been paying attention have you? Not to the newspapers or anything else, except your plan?” She shook her head again. “Oh, and Morghuls don’t negotiate.”
The door shattered inwards and two black clad figures flowed into the room faster than the gang leader could believe of normal men. Before he knew it, he was bracketed and as he drew his handgun, the Morghul behind him shot him. The Morghul who’d remained by the door turned to Darada, most of his face hidden by its protective black flash mask and asked, “You are Darada, daughter of the Steward, Thorond?”
“I am.” Darada stood and walked to stand in front of him. “Let’s not pretend this is a rescue, shall we? We both know what you were sent here to do, so let’s just get it over with. I’m sure you have places to be and things to do.”
“As you say,” the man in front of her nodded in acknowledgement. “Close your eyes, please. There’s no reason you have to see this coming.”
Darada closed her eyes and the sharp pain in her back that didn’t stop took her completely by surprise. Her last thought as she slumped to the ground was that she hadn’t expected it to hurt so much…
Her back was still aching when she opened her eyes, which was only surprising because she hadn’t expected to be alive to open her eyes again. She was lying on a bed in a room which was definitely not a hospital. Hospitals didn’t have tapestries on the walls or mullioned windows and their floors tended to have more practical coverings than carpet and hand knotted silk rugs. They also tended not to have antique, carved oak chairs for visitors to sit in. For most patients the visitor sitting in that chair wouldn’t be…
“Your Majesty! I’m sorry, I-.”
Darada was trying to get out of the bed so she could bow but before she could throw the inexplicably heavy covers off, the man in the chair had stood, covered the distance between them and put a restraining hand on her nightgown-covered shoulder. “Stay still,” he ordered. “You were stabbed in the back two days ago so no-one expects you to be out of bed, let alone bowing or curtseying for a few days, particularly as the autopsy on the body identified as yours states that you died of the wound. In fact, I’m cancelling an appointment with your father tomorrow in order to attend your cremation. It should force your parents to attend, particularly as I’m sure someone had drawn their attention to the tasteful advice of the event I had placed in today’s funeral notices.”
Darada looked hard at the newly recognised and returned King for a moment. “Is Your Majesty using my death as a political tool to…bring my parents to heel?”
“Yes.” He nodded. “You’re as astute as I would expect your parents’ heir to be. Not that I wanted or asked for you to be dead, of course. Quite the opposite suits me much better.”
“Firstly, Sire, I am not my parents’ heir. It would help a lot if people would stop saying that. My father’s heir is my late brother’s son and my mother’s heir is my late sister’s eldest daughter.”
“Both of whom are children and likely to still be so when your parents pass on.” The King’s face was sober. “No-one wants either of their positions held by a minor and that leaves you as the best option.”
“But I haven’t had the education for either position,” protested Darada. “Besides, you’ve seen what my parents will do to protect the designated line of inheritance. Which raises the question, why aren’t I dead? The Morghuls don’t do sloppy work and they answer directly to the Steward…Oh!”
“You may be brighter than your father,” the King complimented her as he arranged some pillows behind her. “The Morghuls answered to the Steward in the absence of a King, but now there is a King again and they answer directly to me. Besides, I spent a decade here when I was younger and I was a Morghul myself back then. I believe I know better than your father how to talk to them.” The King returned to the oak chair with its crewel embroidered cushion and sat down again. “Your father is holding onto as many of the powers his office accumulated while the throne was empty as he can. I intend to put those powers back where they belong, including those that don’t rightfully belong to the throne. Deflecting his intent towards you is merely the opening shot of my campaign. Fortunately, although he insists on carrying out the duties of running my household, your father doesn’t deign to enter my quarters himself and his attempts at surveillance that don’t involve the Morghuls have been neutralized, so this was the safest place to bring you for treatment.”
“But didn’t you need to explain the doctors and equipment you must have needed for me somehow?” Darada leaned back against the pillows; she was beginning to feel tired.
“As to that,” the King cleared his throat in an embarrassed manner, “you might want to call me Geleb. Our cover story is that you are my new Circasian concubine who no sooner arrived here from Pholoes than she came down with unine fever. No-one will expect to see your cover identity in public for weeks.”
Darada frowned. She really was feeling tired and her mind was getting a bit fuzzy. “Does that mean we need to,” she made a vague but expressive hand gesture in the air.
“Not for the time being,” he told her firmly. “I’m not the sort of man who enjoys himself tupping a sick or injured woman, and I don’t want anyone to think I am. Furthermore,” he added sternly, “you’re not getting me in the same bed with you, young lady, without benefit of clergy.”
Darada just blinked and looked puzzled. What he’d said had to have been a joke but she had no idea of how to respond.
“Now you need to go back to sleep,” he told her. “Next time you wake up you’ll probably be ravenously hungry.” And back to sleep she went.