Harrid and Yanna stood in front of Gerald in the study, hanging their heads. He had been yelling at them for a while now. The two hadn’t really argued with him. They had just stood there and took his reproach.
“Are you two mad?!” he shouted. “You could have become cold corpses by now.”
“We just wanted to know who your enemies were, my lord,” Harrid finally argued.
“My enemies?” Gerald said, glaring at the boy. “I never asked you to find my enemies for me. I asked you to tell me what you can hear on the streets, nothing more. Following Grina’s troop? Were you two kicked in the head?” Then he turned his glare to the girl beside Harrid. “And what did I tell you about the gold?”
Yanna was in cold sweat when he questioned her. It was the first time he saw her anxious. “I wasn’t supposed to show it on the streets,” she said.
“Then why did you?” Gerald growled. He’d told her to use the gold to rent as many inn beds as she could, so that she could later give them as compensation to the homeless who passed her what secrets they knew. “I thought that you weren’t a fool, Yanna. It appears that I was wrong. That man, old Neir was his name?”
“What could have prevented him from plotting with Grina’s recruit and killing you two for your gold,” Gerald continued. “Bribing one of Grina’s recruits and even following her men out of Ard? Do you wish to die?”
Harrid met Gerald’s eye for a moment before diverting his eyes away. “We thought that if—”
“You thought that it was worth the risk of death,” Gerald interrupted him. “Let me tell you this. Your death would do me no service. I don’t care what you can discover if it involves risking your lives.” Then he eyed Yanna. “Your small ventures out of the keep will be no more. You won’t collect news for me anymore, at least not without guards.” He let out a breath in frustration. It had been quite beneficial at first, having them bring him what he couldn’t hear where he was, but Gerald couldn’t let the two children die for him. It wasn’t why he’d brought them to the keep. He’d brought them so they could live, not perish without intact corpses.
“Milord,” Yanna muttered.
“What is it?”
“The man who met Madame Grina,” Yanna said. “It was your minister, milord. The short one. His name was Renard. Madame Grina wanted to be allies with him, and he accepted.”
Gerald grew silent. He couldn’t say that he was awfully shocked. It wasn’t a surprise that his enemies would conspire against him. Grina was no fool. She wouldn’t pass the opportunity of allying herself with the Duke. He understood now why Grina had recruited the 100 men. They were a show of force. She had to show Renard that she had at least some power in Ard. If only she had known how few Renard’s friends were, she wouldn’t have had to go through the trouble. He needed allies more than she did.
“Summon Robard and Arthur for me,” Gerald told Harrid.
“Yes, my lord,” Harrid said before leaving.
Yanna bowed and was about to leave.
“Wait,” Gerald sighed. “I didn’t reprove you with the intention of withholding your reward. You’ve accomplished what you set out for, and more. What do you want for a reward?”
Yanna scratched her arm and hesitated. “Can I learn to read, milord?”
“Yes, you can, and you could have if you had asked me before,” Gerald said. “This is no reward. What else do you want?”
“I want the head maid to teach me,” Yanna said.
Gerald almost chuckled. What was with this girl? “This is still not a reward,” Gerald said. “And why do you want her to teach you?”
“She said that I was illiterate filth,” Yanna answered, as straight forward as she had always been.
“Hmm?” Gerald raised a brow. Most of the keep’s maids had a rough understanding of the written word. They knew how to read simple words, but they didn’t know how to write. “She said that to your face?”
“I could discipline her for that,” Gerald said. “Do you want me to?”
The girl shook her head.
“Very well,” Gerald said. “She will have to teach you to read from now on. Also, you don’t have to persevere with insults in my keep. You can always come to me.”
“Yes, milord,” she nodded.
“Alright, you can go,” Gerald said. “I will think of a proper reward for you in due time.”
Yanna left and Gerald fell in thought. “Did they smirk?” he murmured to himself. When he’d told the two children that they were no longer allowed to venture outside of the keep, he’d seen a slight curl to their mouths. He’d felt as if it wasn’t because of escaping the danger of going to collect news for him. Their smirk had made him feel as if he’d said something that only they understood, as if they had heard something that he hadn’t. ‘What were they happy about?’ he wondered.
Soon, Harrid came back and announced Gerald’s two aides in.
“My lord,” the two said in unison.
“Arthur, Robard,” Gerald nodded. “As usual, we have some matters on our hands.”
“Is it about Madame Grina?” Arthur asked.
“Yes,” Gerald said, eying Arthur. “You knew something was happening?”
“I’ve heard about some movements from her recruits,” Arthur sighed. “I was going to inform you after finding out what exactly happened, my lord.”
“Well, you don’t need to search anymore,” Gerald said. “She took her men and left Ard’s eastern gate last night.”
“How did she leave?” Robard inquired. “Who let her out?”
“Our night’s watch at the gate let her out,” Gerald said in a sardonic tone. “They opened the gate for her when she left, and they opened it yet again when she returned. Apparently, I’m not the lord of this castle.”
Robard’s face paled. “How . . .” he uttered. Then his face turned grim. “I will execute them myself, my lord.”
“Why will you execute them?” Gerald said, his tone still the same.
“They have opened the gates when they shouldn’t have and without your command. There is no telling if they would open the gates for our enemies when they arrive,” the head knight said decisively.
Gerald shook his head. “That’s not true,” Gerald said. “It’s a major offense if they open the gates for a stranger. But it’s a different matter if the gates were opened for my relative. It’s enough of an excuse to give themselves. They were paid in gold for silence, and they didn’t have to worry, because what would the Viscount’s relative do that would harm the castle?”
“They are still traitors,” Robard insisted.
“Are they?” Gerald chuckled. “It’s difficult to decide if they would truly open the gates for my enemies. But that’s not the problem. Grina has people in my garrison who do her bidding. They are most likely relatives of mine as well. It would be hard to fish them out. Hanging the soldiers of the night’s watch would just make me look weak. Everyone would hear about the gates that opened while I slept in my keep.”
“I agree,” Arthur said faintly.
“Will we just let them be, my lord?” Robard asked, a vein protruding on his forehead.
“No,” Gerald shook his head. “You will first find the men who were on that watch last night. I will order a rearrangement of the castle’s guard soon. It should scatter Grina’s rats in different parts of the garrison.
“Yes, my lord,” Arthur nodded.
Robard gritted his teeth. “Yes,” he said.
“It’s not your fault, Robard,” Gerald said. “It’s not even Old Han’s fault. Nobody could prevent my relatives from taking positions in every important part of the castle, including the garrison. Nobody would stand against them unless there was a clear offense.”
Robard nodded silently.
Arthur on the knight’s side narrowed his eyes as if realizing something vital. “My lord,” he said. “Where did Madame Grina go when she left the castle?”
Gerald chuckled. “Now we come to the more serious matters,” he said. “Grina met Renard outside of Ard. She brought those men with her to show him her power.”
“What?!” Arthur jumped up. “What did they meet for?”
“Isn’t it obvious, Arthur?” Gerald said. “Or are you trying to hide it from yourself? It would have happened sooner or later. They’ve taken each other as allies already.”
“But,” Arthur stuttered. “The pressure of the Duke, and Madame Grina’s influence in Ard. The Viscounty isn’t even stable yet.”
“At least we know now,” Gerald continued. “We weren’t blind to their actions. And we will keep an eye on them.”
“Yes, my lord,” Arthur said, rubbing his temples.
“Robard will handle the matter of the garrison,” Gerald said, turning to Robard. “You should know many of the soldiers there. The army and the garrison have exchanged men many times before. I suppose it wouldn’t be hard for you to find the guards who were on that watch.”
“No, my lord,” Robard said. “It’s a simple matter.”
“Arthur, you will try to find out where Grina gets her gold,” Gerald continued. “She has recruited a hundred men, and she has even armed them. She even bribed the castle’s guards, which couldn’t have been cheap. All of this needs a considerable amount of gold.”
“Madame Grina has been trading in light goods for a long time, my lord,” Arthur said.
“Do you think her trade is enough to support all these expenses?” Gerald cocked his head. “She would have drained her coin dry by now if that was the case. I want to know where she gets her gold, and if someone is providing her with it.”
“Yes, my lord,” Arthur nodded.
“Do not alert her,” Gerald stressed his words. He looked at Robard. “Just find out who the guards were. Don’t act against them in any way. I don’t want her knowing that she is exposed.” Then he turned to Arthur. “Use your most subtle of methods, Arthur, but don’t let her know you’re looking for the source of her gold. Otherwise, she will hide it even deeper.”
“Yes, my lord,” they both nodded solemnly.
“Alright,” Gerald said. “You may go attend to whatever matters you have on hands now.”
His two aides stood up and bowed before leaving.
Gerald sighed after they left. “How deep will you drag yourself, Grina?” he murmured to himself.