In his study, Gerald was standing behind his seat, looking out of the window. There was no wind, only heat so far. The hot summer wasn’t pleasant, but it was nearing its end, and that meant a nearing summer harvest which would bring some gold to the house. The south was safe now, and merchants would soon appear in Ard. That meant that he would find people to buy any excess of his grain.
However, he doubted that the excess would last for long. The refugees were too many. And even though he would be liberating almost eight thousand farmers from the rest of the bandits soon, he wasn’t certain that the grain would be enough to both feed the hungry and enrich his treasury.
It had been almost four months since he’d returned to the Viscounty. And the granaries were no longer full. They weren’t near emptiness, but they no longer gave him that initial feeling of reassurance. The feeble summer harvest would serve to put some vitality in his granaries again. But it would all depend on how things go after eliminating the bandits.
Through the window, he could see three streets. Their previous muddy black was no longer there. It was replaced by an orderly gray. Arthur had finally finished building the gravel streets in Ard. He could still see the shapes of people moving along those streets, unclear but alive. Perhaps they had high hopes now. There was change, after all. The greatest bandit in the basin had been defeated. No one had not heard the news.
The Viscounty would soon come to life again. “All in due time,” Gerald murmured, a smile creeping onto his face.
He was just about to return to his seat when he heard hasty knocking on the study’s door. “Come in.”
The door was opened and Harrid came in with an uncertain face. He scratched his cheek. “Master Rudolf is without, my lord,” he said, glancing through the door. “He says that there is a pressing matter. Should I let him in?”
Gerald lost his smile. They were supposed to exchange letters whenever they wanted to inform each other of any news. Uncle Rudolf’s visit meant that the matter wasn’t something that could be discussed through letters. “Always let Uncle Rudolf in,” Gerald said. “You don’t have to ask.” He lowered his forehead with his eyes still fixed on Harrid, as if awaiting for an affirmation from the boy.
Harrid straightened up and said, “yes, my lord!” Then he paced outside.
A moment later, Uncle Rudolf came in carrying a linen sack that was stuffed with what seemed to be soft materials. Gerald glanced over it then his eyes rested on the old steward’s face. The latter had a solemn expression, but he still exuded a doting pleasantness when he met Gerald’s gaze.
Gerald was still on his feet. He went around the table and hugged the old man who dropped the sack and patted Gerald’s back. Since Gerald’s return, Uncle Rudolf had mostly been away from him, instead of being by his side. He had been used to having his old steward nearby at all times since he was six. But he didn’t have much of a choice lately. He had to put every bit of power he commanded to good use.
He stepped back and looked at his old steward intently. “Harrid said it was something important.”
“Indeed,” Uncle Rudolf nodded. “Gasper was almost killed last night.”
Gerald’s brows jumped. “How?” was the first thing that leapt out of his mouth.
Gerald’s face darkened. He found himself clueless. He’d never expected something like this to happen. He only had one question in mind. “Who was it?”
“We couldn’t recognize him,” Uncle Rudolf said helplessly. “And he wasn’t just a random nobody. He was a Sky Warrior. Gasper had to surround his cabin with six guards after the incident.”
Gerald breathed in then sighed in frustration. “If you two don’t know who the assassin is, then I doubt I do.” Then he suddenly remembered something and his eyes fell on the sack beside Uncle Rufold’s feet. He shot the old steward a questioning glance, and the latter nodded. “Show me,” Gerald said. Even though he doubted that he would recognize the assassin, he wanted to sate his curiosity.
Uncle Rudolf nodded and bent down, uncovering the contents of the sack, which were mostly pieces of leather and ragged cloths. Amidst them, there was something larger that attracted Gerald’s attention. He fixed his eyes on what he expected to be the assassin’s head.
Uncle Rudolf soon removed the cloths covering the assassin’s face and Gerald knelt down to observe him carefully. But as soon as he caught sight of that face’s features, his eyes widened in disbelief.
“You know him?” the old steward asked.
Gerald’s breaths became irregular and his eyes were still wide. He was not as shocked as he was disbelieving. He calmed himself, as much as he could. “I might,” he answered, persuading himself that he may be imagining things. Then he sprung to his feet and yelled, “Harrid.”
The door was quickly opened and the boy came in. “My lord?”
“Summon Robard and Yanna here,” Gerald commanded. Robard was likely training the new recruits, while Yanna would be at the house, receiving her news from the homeless. “Tell them to abandon whatever they’re doing and come here right away.” He paused. “And summon Arthur too.”
“Yes, my lord,” Harrid said, noticing the urgency in Gerald’s voice and seemingly forcing himself to wear a solemn expression. Then he darted out of the study, shutting the door behind him.
It took a while for the three he’d summoned to arrive at his study. Robard and Arthur were soon standing in front of him, while Yanna stood slightly behind them with her much smaller stature.
Arthur and Robard exchanged greetings with Uncle Rudolf then gazed at Gerald patiently.
Gerald glanced at the wrapped up sack beside the old steward’s feet and nodded to him. “Show them.”
Everyone’s gazes fell on the sack, and some uncertainty finally appeared on the face of Gerald’s two aides.
Uncle Rudolf unwrapped the sack slowly then uncovered the severed head that was inside it.
The first to react was Robard. He took an involuntary step towards the sack, his eyes widening and almost bulging in recognition.
Arthur seemed surprised but he kept his composure. Unlike the head knight, he didn’t seem to have recognized the face of the assassin.
Yanna, on the other hand, had a hand on her mouth, apparently trying to prevent her breakfast from pouring onto the floor. Gerald only now realized that he should have had her wait outside for this part. The girl had likely not seen something like this before. Perhaps she’d seen a dead homeless lying in a street before, but she was unlikely to have ever seen a severed head until this moment. Even the heads spiked outside of Ard’s walls would only be seen by few people who would spread the word among the common folk. The girl eventually managed to avert her eyes, slowly calming her breath.
Robard stepped closer to the sack and knelt near it, observing the head solemnly. Then he stood up and stared at Gerald. “My lord?” he said, his tone questioning and almost demanding.
“So I’m right,” Gerald stepped towards the sack. “It’s him; Isaac, Edgar’s lieutenant, right?”
“It is,” Robard nodded, still dubious. “Who killed him, my lord? And why?”
“He got himself killed,” Gerald said.
Then Uncle Rudolf spoke. “He tried to kill Gasper in his sleep.”
While Arthur frowned at the two sudden revelations, Gerald’s head knight showed an even more bewildered expression. “Why? Why would he try to kill him? This . . . ”
Gerald walked to the table and slightly leaned on it, clenching its edge with a tense grip. He was furious. “What a fool I was,” he said with a suppressed voice, shocking Robard whose face was still filled with confusion. “What a fool!” Gerald said again, then he shook his head with a wry chuckle. “I’ve underestimated her yet again, and I almost paid for it.”
“My lord,” Robard said, his face draining of all color. “You don’t mean . . . ”
“Who has Gasper hurt the most lately?” Gerald stared at his head knight. “It’s Canary, or rather Grina. Gasper has given the reins of the trade with the bandits to another ‘merchant’, while Grina no longer has any influence over the surrounding crews. It’s no wonder that she would want him dead, but what I didn’t expect was the Red Rain band to be allies with her.”
“My lord,” Arthur said, his voice a little dry. “Are you certain of this?”
“I suppose we all will be in a moment,” Gerald said, his eyes falling on the little girl in the study. “Yanna.”
The girl’s eyes were still looking as far away from the sack as they could. He doubted that she’d given much attention to what they had said so far. But as she heard her name, her turned face returned to its natural place and she looked at Gerald.
“You told me that Grina has been sending out letters every day lately,” Gerald said. Then his eyes sharpened as he stared at the girl. “Now tell me, has this continued or stopped after the battle in the south?”
Yanna gulped slowly then said, “it has stopped since the battle happened, my lord.”
“Yes,” Gerald nodded, glancing at his aides who were looking at Yanna with puzzled expressions. Even Uncle Rudolf was moving his eyes between the girl and Gerald, as if waiting for an explanation. Gerald hadn’t told them much about Yanna. Arthur had noticed something in the recent weeks, but Gerald had never explained. On the other hand, Robard and Uncle Rudolf were clueless about Yanna’s endeavours. He chose not to explain now but to continue with the more pressing matter. “The letters stopped because Grina wouldn’t risk sending a letter all the way to the fortress south of Ard. She had been sending those letters to Edgar when he was still in Ard. I assume that now she sends him word through his men who visit Ard from time to time. I doubt that spoken messages can be too elaborate, but sending Edgar word about the little annoyance in the east, which is Gasper, wouldn’t be a problem, would it?”