King Constantine IX of Regia had been killed three times and was bored with it. He wanted a bath. He tossed aside his fencing mask and foil, dismissed his master-at-arms, and went striding from the exercise gallery to his apartments, peeling off his clothes along the way.
At eighteen, Constantine was a long-legged, well-knit young monarch with the ruddy complexion of his royal ancestors. The fine flaxen hairs on his upper lip had prospered; they could be recognized as a moustache. The bout had given his face an added flush; he felt pleasantly tired. Apart from being killed – his parry en tierce needed improvement – he was in the best of spirits.
His uncle was not. When Duke Conrad was vexed, he overate, and he had grown very corpulent these past months. He had some difficulty keeping up with his light-footed nephew. The duke sat uncomfortably on a stool in the alcove while valets poured water over the king’s head.
The royal tub, shaped like a large, ungainly shoe, was one of the king’s latest fancies. Conrad disapproved of it: another example of his nephew’s attraction to novelty in furniture as well as politics. The tub, new-fangled and therefore menacing, infuriated Conrad as much as its occupant, who had disappeared under the water. The duke’s heart leaped as he allowed himself the joyous fantasy of his nephew remaining submerged. Conrad’s dream shattered when the king resurfaced, spouting.
“Would you like a bath?” Constantine wiped the dripping hair out of his eyes. “It’s quite refreshing.”
“What I would like, Connie, is your attention.”
“You have it,” said Constantine. “In fact, you’ve had too much of it these days.”
Conrad clung to the shreds of his temper. “The Westmark business must be settled once and for all.”
“I thought it was.”
“You cannot, you dare not continue to recognize the present government of Westmark.”
“Why not? They recognize us.”
“Because the queen insists on keeping revolutionaries in the highest offices of state. Her consuls, as she calls them: Florian, Justin, and that other one, Theo. Brigands and cutthroats, all three of them. Those butchers are destroying the aristocracy. They’ve been rewriting most of the laws; they want to slice the noble estates into pieces and turn them over to the peasantry. And the queen agrees. Indeed, she encourages and approves. That fellow Theo even expects to marry her.”
Constantine beckoned for a towel. “That’s her business. What’s it to do with us?”
“Everything,” said Conrad. “It is a contagious disease. It infects, it spreads. We already have a rash of it. Your own subjects are making outrageous demands –.”
“Modest ones,” put in Constantine, frictioning his scalp. “I prefer giving them something willingly now to having them take everything later.”
“Give a vicious dog a scrap of meat,” said Conrad. “He will gobble it up, then tear off your arm.”
“Skin ailments, now dogs,” said Constantine. “What, exactly, do you expect of me?”
“As for Westmark, renounce the treaty you made with that royal guttersnipe. Close our borders, end all trade. Enforce the strictest embargo. Here at home, take firm action against malcontents. Hang a few. You will be astonished how quickly the others come to see reason.”
“Is that all?”
“It makes for an excellent beginning.”
“Good,” said Constantine. “You’ve told me clearly what you have in mind. I can tell you clearly what I have in mind. I don’t intend to do a single one of those things. You don’t have to think about history, but I do. I’d rather be written up as a generous, understanding monarch –.”
“Mend your ways,” Conrad broke in, “or you shall have a remarkably short history.”
“Would that displease you?”
“Now, really, Connie –”
“Now, really, uncle.” Constantine looked squarely at him. “I’m glad we’ve had this talk,” he went on, “because we won’t have to chew it over again. I don’t want to hear any more about putting an embargo on Westmark or hanging my own people. That’s a flat.” He grinned. “Are you sure you don’t want a bath?”
Conrad left his nephew soaking in the heel of the tub. Once out of the steamy alcove, the duke breathed easier. His mood brightened. He felt relieved, not only because of the fresh air. He had finally decided to take action.
He had given the king every chance. The young fool was set on a course of utter destruction. For a long while, the idea had floated in Conrad’s mind. Sometimes it whispered. Sometimes it shouted. Sometimes it sang sweetly. He had even lost sleep over it. Yet his decision had now come quite simply: not a decision so much as accepting an absolute necessity. Understanding that, Conrad wondered why he had ever hesitated.
One of the duke’s estates lay in the countryside a little distance from Breslin Palace. A few days after his talk with the king, having made certain arrangements, Conrad went there to tend his dogs and horses and confer with his bailiffs. He was also, secretly, entertaining a guest.
After visiting the kennels and stables, Conrad strolled to one of the cottages. The duke’s guest, lean and sallow, somberly garbed, was sitting by the fire. He did not rise. Supposedly, he was not there at all, or anywhere else in the kingdom. Already exiled from Westmark, he had been banished from Regia. However, with the knowledge of only his most trusted aides, and some others in Westmark, the duke had been housing, feeding, and catering to the demands of the former chief minister of Westmark: Cabbarus.
Now, at last, there was the prospect of Cabbarus shortly leaving. This cheered the duke personally and politically. Conrad always felt uneasy in the man’s presence. He had, at one time, judged Cabbarus a common, though diligent, schemer. Since the end of the war – its outcome had been a humiliation for Cabbarus most of all – Conrad had glimpsed a wild animal under the man’s waxy skin, gnawing at him from within, glaring out from behind the slate-colored eyes. The man’s body was simply a cage for the beast.
“You must prepare to return to Westmark,” said Conrad, after they exchanged the briefest civilities. He expected the news to raise at least a flicker of pleasure. Cabbarus merely gave him a long look.
“In what capacity?”
“As we have all agreed. Head of state.”
“I refer to my specific title,” said Cabbarus. “In time, of course, I shall be acclaimed as king. Until then, I prefer something to suggest guidance and service. Director would be suitable.”
Conrad was tempted to answer that he did not care a fig what Cabbarus called himself as long as he did his work. Instead, the duke nodded. “Most suitable.”
“There are prerequisites.”
Conrad waited. The future director of Westmark was going to talk about money. Statesmanship always turned on the penny.
Cabbarus beckoned. His confidential secretary, bearing papers, stepped from the shadows. Pankratz had chosen exile with his master. An admirably faithful act, Conrad thought, and wiser than staying in Westmark to be hanged. Short and stocky, bandy-legged, with huge muscular calves, Pankratz had been nicknamed The Minister’s Mastiff. Well chosen, Conrad thought: a dog to serve a wolf.
“You understand,” Conrad said, “no funds can come officially from Regia. Our finance minister will make certain they are untraceable; the king will remain unaware of them. But your associates in Westmark must carry their share of the expenses.”
“I need troops more than money,” said Cabbarus. “The Westmark officer corps will be loyal to me. But additional soldiers will be required. When the signal is given, I must be absolutely sure of military superiority.”
“You shall be,” said the duke. What Cabbarus meant was that he had no intention of setting foot in Westmark until it was quite safe for him to do so. “While there can be no Regian presence, I have spoken with Colonel Zouki from the Sultanate of Ankar. He will join us here momentarily. He and many of his brother officers command proprietary regiments. They will be at your disposal.”
“Mercenaries? I prefer soldiers with more patriotic fervor.”
“Money inspires fervor,” said Conrad. “You will be more than satisfied.”
“I will not be satisfied,” said Cabbarus, “until I am able once again to serve my country with the full measure of my strength and devotion. I will not be satisfied until Westmark is happy and free of these self-styled consuls. They are common criminals and will be dealt with accordingly. I will not be satisfied until they stand before the bar of justice and pay the extreme penalty.”
“And Queen Augusta?”
“Her conduct proves her unworthy of the throne. She will be removed, and the nation cleansed of corruption. This is my task; no, my solemn duty. The honor and virtue of a suffering people lie in my hands. It is an awesome responsibility.”
Expensive, too, thought Conrad as Cabbarus turned his attention to the tedious business of finance. The duke’s head ached. He was relieved when Pankratz interrupted to usher in Colonel Zouki.
The Ankari was a little peacock of a man in a gaudy uniform. He saluted stiffly, then bowed to his host and Cabbarus. Conrad eyed him with distaste. These Ankaris were all of a kind. The duke had reports of their conduct in the field, which he preferred not to think about. Colonel Zouki had reddish hair, curled and pomaded. He reeked of cologne and snuff. Beneath his tailoring and barbering, the fellow was a brute.
As Conrad expected and dreaded, the Ankari began an endless parade of polite formalities: the peacock circling the meat of the matter like a vulture. By the time the Ankari was ready to discuss business, Conrad felt exhausted. Then came the eternal question: money.
“Whatever Your Highness may have heard,” Colonel Zouki said, “we do not hold life cheaply.”
“Indeed not,” said Conrad. “At these prices, you sell it very dearly.”
Colonel Zouki spread his hands. “The choice is yours. We offer; you accept what you please. All is available: infantry, cavalry, light cannon, even some heavier fieldpieces. You will choose combinations suitable to your needs and to your advantage. If you agree, say, on a certain number of infantry, we shall include artillery batteries at a lower rate. Or, with each brigade of foot soldiers, a unit of horse. If you wish to transport in Ankari vessels, we shall provide it.”
Cabbarus began closely questioning Zouki and taking notes on a sheet of paper. Conrad paced back and forth. The two might as well be haggling over carpets in some Ankari bazaar. By the time the question had been settled and Zouki had taken his leave, Conrad was sweating. A good portion of the money would have to come out of his private fortune.
“Shall we walk a little?” Conrad had something else to take up with Cabbarus. Pankratz would have followed, but Cabbarus indicated that they wished to speak privately. The Minister’s Mastiff staying in the cottage to gnaw over his master’s papers.
Rooks were cawing. Conrad was sentimental in only one thing: He loved his estate, especially at this hour of the day, when the afternoon sun turned the fields into a golden lake. The view filled him with warmth and joy. The idea of rabble ever fouling his land made his stomach heave. The duke, nevertheless, was uncertain how to raise the question of his nephew. Cabbarus did it for him. The duke had only begun reporting his latest talk with Constantine when Cabbarus broke in.
“Constantine must not continue to occupy the throne. My government will be in every way favorable to you, but Regia must be, in turn, favorable to my directorate.”
“That goes without saying,” replied Conrad. “I had, at first, considered that Constantine might simply be deposed, but that leads to complications.”
“He must be eliminated,” said Cabbarus. “All complications will thereby be eliminated with him. Then, you yourself must ascend the throne.”
The duke nodded. “And the means of – elimination?”
“We require an absolutely trustworthy individual. Equally important, afterwards, we shall require silence. Complete and permanent.”
“Some junior officer of my staff?”
“No. It must be someone without a circle of acquaintances or relatives to ask questions, whose absence would not cause concern. Also, someone close to us and directly in our control.”
“Cabbarus glanced toward the cottage.
“Your secretary?” Conrad found it difficult to conceal his surprises. “Ideal, of course. But – would you be willing?”
“In these times,” Cabbarus said, “choices are often painful. We must make sacrifices. Even so, we are strengthened by making them.”
“No doubt.” Conrad felt unexpectedly sad. An uncle’s heart suffered its own special pangs. Having made up his mind, he could now afford the luxury of regret.