The wind whistled through the bare trees in the courtyard of the army quarters, but compared with the grunts and shouts of the Colonels and Majors ordering the soldiers, the wind didn’t really make a sound.
It had been like this for the past few days—the soldiers getting up before the break of dawn and training with little break until sunset at five PM—ever since word had reached the Council that Branna Drummond was somewhere in the city. With that news had come reinforcement from the country borders, an increase in the guards that protected the King at all times, and guards posted at every entrance and exit.
The Silent Assassin would not be able to kill the King. She wouldn’t even be able to get anywhere close enough.
Aleksander Hale raised his chin slightly, blonde curls brushing into his eyes due to the wind, but despite his annoyance he couldn’t push them away because he was surveying, from the wooden platform to the side, the soldiers had formed lines that were not to move until told. It was another silly test of their endurance; find the weaker amongst the stronger.
The capital Eborakon praised itself on having an army built on two esteems: endurance and courage. As well as strength, loyalty, selflessness and other key qualities. Anyone who lacked even one of these elements was immediately deemed unfit and thrown out of the army—which was an embarrassment to not only the person turned away, but to that person’s family.
Failed men and women were usually cast out by their families and forced to find somewhere else to live, for they had shamed their families.
The army life and rules were hard, but they were the rules.
Aleksander surveyed the still forms of the training soldiers. He was higher than them, an established part of the army, but even though he wasn’t supposed to he still felt pity for them. Pity because he’d been in their position, struggling to keep still in winds blustering much harder than the one now, put through rigorous training that lasted ungodly hours. But, in a way, these trainees had it easier than him, because all of the ones in front of him were from modest backgrounds whilst he’d come from a low class background, from just outside the city slums.
And even though he’d quickly sailed through the ranks to be what he was now, a decorated Major, in the eyes of the older Generals and Marshalls he would always be a poor boy who’d just got lucky.
He was broken from his reverie by the sound of someone calling his name lowly and sharply. Aleksander looked his right to see that there was one of the King’s personal messengers stood just outside the doorway.
“Major Hale,” the messenger said, taking a step closer. “The King requests to see speak with you in the Privy Council Chamber.”
Aleksander nodded and, after giving a bow and salute to each of the others on the platform, followed the messenger through the narrow door and started to ascend the steps into the castle.
They walked in silence as they headed down corridor after corridor from the lower half of the castle to the Royal Apartments, their footfalls on the marble flooring resonating through the empty halls.
These corridors used to be bustling with any number of courtiers, back when the Queen held her daytime court and there were no threats in the city. But now . . . now the Queen had been dead for ten years and the Silent Assassin was spreading fear through Eborakon just by being there.
Aleksander had to hand it to the assassin, because there wasn’t even a handful of people who could make the castle quake in fear, and most of those were already dead. Strange as it was, and though he dare not ever admit it, he slightly admired Branna Drummond.
He and the messenger turned another corner and entered a long corridor with a marble checkerboard floor, beige stone walls with one side covered in great arched windows and the other lined with statues of passed Kings and Queens standing on marble plinths. Crystal chandeliers hung from the vaulted ceiling.
“Any idea why the King wishes to speak with me?” Aleksander asked to break the silence, fingertips drumming on the pommel of his sword. He had a feeling he knew why the King wanted to speak with him of all people.
“Sorry, I do not know,” came the reply. “I may be one of the King’s messengers, but all he told me was he wanted to speak with you. I’m not high enough on the staff list to earn specifics.”
The corners of Alek’s lips curled upwards by the slight. “Neither am I, usually.”
After a few minutes they stopped in front of a set of double doors, tall and made out of oak. The two knockers were shaped into Ouroboros’, the standard of the Royal House of Britannia. The young Major was surprised that there were no guards outside.
“This is where I leave you, Major Hale,” the messenger said. “I have other errands to run.” With that the messenger turned and walked back the way they had come, leaving Aleksander stood by himself.
After taking a breath he opened one of the doors and stepped into the room on the other side.
The room was of a modest size, rectangular and designed in complete baroque opulence panelling, ornate furniture and a ceiling covered in murals of cherubs and angels on clouds. Great crystal and diamond chandeliers hung at intervals.
In the centre of the room was a long, richly clothed table surrounded by many chairs, and at the head stood the King. He was dressed in a fine purple silk jacket and black trousers, a crown atop his greying hair.
“Good morning, Aleksander,” the King murmured, gesturing with his ring leaden hand for the Major to take a seat. He did so and the King followed suit, sitting in the highest chair at the head of the table.
“You wished to speak to me, Your Majesty,” Alek said.
“Yes, I did,” the King replied. “I have a favour to ask of you. As you know, Branna Drummond has been in the city for a few days and the army has yet to find her—”
“I . . . apologise, Your Majesty.”
The King made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “It is not fault, you’re not in charge of those bloody idiots that apparently run the Royal Army . . . anyway, I called for you to come here with the intention to ask you if you would search for Branna Drummond and bring her to me. Alive.”
Aleksander stared at the King for what could have been a few seconds or a good few minutes, completely stunned with eyes wide and mouth slightly slack. His heart was in his throat and his palms felt sweaty. Never in a million years did he think he would be asked this.
The King seemed to see Alek’s expression and continued with what he was saying. “I would trust no one else with the task that I ask. And I do not ask this as a King, but instead as—”
“With all due respect, Your Majesty,” Aleksander cut in, and the King did not seem to mind the interruption—nevertheless, Alek internally cursed himself before carrying on. “To attempt to find her would be a waste of time; if she does not want to be found then she will not be found.”
The King smiled shyly and tiredly. He looked tired, with dark shadows under his eyes and lines on his face. What stopped him from getting sleep? Was it fear of being killed in his sleep by the Silent Assassin? No. It couldn’t be. Not much scared the King, especially death.
“Maybe she wouldn’t be found by the army, but . . . by you, I think she would. I think, even if she doesn’t realise it, she will always want to be found by you.”
Aleksander glanced down at his hands as he wrung them; a nervous habit of his he had never been able to rid himself of. “I highly doubt it, Your Majesty,” he murmured, voice almost inaudible. “I have not seen her for—”
“Ten years,” the King said. “Yes, Aleksander, I know. You were friends once, I know you were.”
“Once. There’s a high chance she doesn’t remember me.”
The King leant back in his seat, idly twisting the signet ring on his little right ringer. “Then you underestimate the sheer power of friendship.”
At that Aleksander stopped wringing his hands and looked straight back up at the King, who was smiling. “Your Majesty?”
“You miss her, don’t you?”
Slowly and cautiously, the young Major nodded.
“Find Branna Drummond, for yourself if not for me.”