The Spymaster’s Secret
Antonia Aquilante © 2019
All Rights Reserved
“What do you have to tell us, Lord Marcus?”
Marcus sat in one of the chairs across from the pair of desks in the princes’ private office and contemplated Prince Philip. The crown prince had the look of his father and something of his manner, a commanding presence he had probably cultivated since birth. He had the dark hair and classically handsome features of the men in the royal family and the bred-in-the-bone care for this country. Which Marcus had a feeling he might have thrown over in a heartbeat for the man beside him. Prince Consort Amory was shorter and fair with large dark eyes and curling auburn hair. He hadn’t been born into royalty or even nobility, but he’d adapted to his role far better than most of Tournai’s nobility had anticipated. Marcus knew quite well what each noble family thought of the marriage, just past its third anniversary, although the princes had never asked him for the information.
“First, Your Highnesses, the prisoner taken into custody at the border hasn’t answered any questions posed to him. I was asked to try.”
The army had brought the man in from the border several days ago. Tournai was protected from magical attack by a barrier created by a web of spells. Almost no one knew of the spells in Tournai, but someone outside had apparently discovered their protection and was determined to find its weaknesses. The man had been testing the barrier, and somehow the spells had caught and held him until the army could get there. Marcus had to speak with Savarin about how he’d been caught and what weaknesses they should guard against.
Philip frowned. “We need answers from him. I can’t believe the threat has disappeared because we’ve apprehended one man at the border.”
“With all respect, Your Highness, we don’t know what the threat is yet.” Marcus glanced between the princes but returned his attention to Philip. “I’ll do everything I can to find out and quickly, but there is more than one possibility.”
“I think the possibility at the top of our minds is this man was sent by Ardunn,” Amory said in his quiet tone. “I doubt anyone will rest easy until we can rule that out. If we can.”
“It is a possibility, Your Highness, and a strong one.” The Ardunn empire was located far to their east, separated from Tournai by an impassable mountain range and the kingdom of Elleri, but Ardunn’s emperor was obsessed with conquest and seemingly interested in using Tournai as a foothold for gaining control of this half of the continent. The geographical barriers were too great to march an army in, and Ardunn had no naval power to speak of. But they routinely sent their agents into Tournai searching for weaknesses. “However, with the bandit attacks along the border over the last several months, it isn’t the only one. He might have been with the bandits. Or he could’ve been sent from Ardunn or hired by them to test the barriers. The attacks could’ve been orchestrated by Ardunn as well. Or they might be completely unrelated. For all we know, the prisoner was working on his own, unrelated to either the bandits or Ardunn.”
Marcus didn’t much care for that option, as it meant they probably had another enemy lurking, but he also didn’t think it was the most likely either.
Philip’s frown deepened, not even lightening when Amory laid a hand on his arm. “You’re not giving me much helpful information, Lord Marcus.”
“I apologize, Your Highness. All I can do at this point is present you with theories.” He spread his hands in a helpless gesture. He wished he had more for the princes—he took the lack as a personal failure despite the short time he’d had this problem on his desk. “I will do everything I can to get information from our prisoner, and I have people searching for the bandits he was likely traveling with as well.”
“The army has been chasing them for months.” Amory’s remark was said without judgment for either Marcus’s people or the army.
“I’m aware, Your Highness, but my people can go unnoticed in a way the army can’t.”
Amory nodded, thoughtful, but Philip spoke. “Coordinate with Captain Loriot if you need further information, though I can’t imagine you ever lacking information.”
Marcus smiled slightly at Philip’s dry statement. “Far be it from me to ever claim I know everything, Your Highness. That would be the heights of arrogance.”
“If you say so.”
Philip didn’t explain why Marcus should see Loriot if he needed information about a situation the army was overseeing. Loriot’s power ended at the city gates when he wasn’t traveling with the princes. But Marcus could surmise.
“Is there anything else we need to know? Not only about our prisoner, of course.” Philip always phrased the question that way when he asked. Marcus didn’t blame him—there were certain things the princes didn’t need to know, which was why they had Marcus.
“Not at this time, Your Highness.” There were a dozen things Marcus could have told them, but none needed their immediate attention. If any of the rumors his people were chasing down at the university became more substantial, then he’d bring them to the princes.
Philip sat back. “All right, Lord Marcus. Keep us informed about the questioning.”
“Of course, Your Highness.”
Dismissed from the royal presence, Marcus let himself into the corridor and turned his steps to the right, following the most direct route out of the wing holding the royal apartments. The princes had formal offices in the palace proper, but Marcus was more often summoned to their private study, the place they did their work, so by now, he knew the way back to the more public areas. He needed to return to the city and his work for the day, of which their prisoner was only one part. There was a meeting later with two of his agents about the whispers they’d picked up at the university, and it might be time for Marcus to find a few moments to return to work on a new truth potion.
If he could get the potion right, it might be useful with their prisoner.
In the middle of the day, these corridors were empty but for the royal guards stationed periodically along them. Marcus doubted they were ever crowded. This part of the palace saw no one except the resident members of the royal family, their guests, and those who served them. Marcus had only ever been allowed in to meet with the princes at their request. His family was lower-ranked nobility, but neither they nor he was in the princes’ inner circle.
He let part of his mind go over the changes he wanted to make to the potion, running through ingredients and proportions while the rest of his focus noted what there was to see in the hallway. The guards were alert and also unobtrusive, which was to be expected. Palace security was Loriot’s purview, and he took his job seriously. His guards were well trained, highly efficient, and well vetted before they even got that far, their trustworthiness in keeping royal matters private ensured further by magic.
Despite the palace being Loriot’s domain, Marcus had a couple of his people placed there to keep an eye on the royal family as well. Those family members who lived in the palace were closest to the princes. While Marcus didn’t expect them to pose a threat, there had been treachery of various kinds over the past few years, and he was wary of anyone trying to get too close. He’d had his people keeping their eyes on the twins—Philip’s cousins through the youngest of his father’s sisters—since they’d arrived unexpectedly back in the autumn with the intention of staying. Marcus had seen no indication they meant any harm, but knowledge was useful, and caution never misplaced.
A laugh shattered the quiet and brought Marcus’s attention fully back to his surroundings. As he approached an intersecting corridor, the two young men he’d been thinking of came around the corner. They were nearly identical in appearance with the same shade of dark hair that glowed red in the light, the same ivory skin and peridot eyes, the same delicate features, an intriguing mix of pretty and sensual. Their differences were slight, but perfectly apparent with a moment’s study. Alexander was slightly taller, and Faelen’s hair fell in loose curls while Alexander’s was a tumble of waves.
He’d made a point of finding out which of them was which. And not because of the way Alexander had looked at him the one previous time he’d been in their presence.
The way Alexander looked at him now. Curious with a spark of something more.
Alexander had been the one laughing, a joyful, delighted sound that made Marcus want to smile. He forced himself not to, forced his face to remain bland and pleasant and unremarkable. Forced himself to ignore the little lurch, the punch of attraction when he looked into Alexander’s eyes.
He had to.
Those eyes sparkled. “Good morning, Lord Marcus.”
Faelen noticed him then. A smile still flirted with his finely wrought lips, but his eyes held none of the same interest as his twin’s. Which Marcus wouldn’t have expected for many reasons—he couldn’t understand why Alexander regarded him the way he did—but mostly because Faelen had apparently taken a serious lover, which he’d subtly announced at court through his presence at Faelen’s side at the princes’ anniversary ball not long ago.
“Good morning, Lord Marcus,” Faelen echoed. “I hope you’re well today.”
Marcus bowed. “Good morning, my lords. I am, thank you, and you?”
“Very well. Thank you,” Faelen replied.
“What brings you to the palace today, Lord Marcus?” Alexander’s tone and words were as smooth as Faelen’s. The two might not have spent most of their lives at Tournai’s court, but perhaps they’d had to become even more skilled because of their years away. A foreign court wasn’t an easy place to live, even a nominally friendly one.
“A meeting with Their Highnesses.” He wouldn’t discuss the subject with anyone without the princes’ permission, and certainly not in a hallway where anyone might hear. He knew better than most the walls often had ears.
Alexander and Faelen didn’t ask, possibly because they knew the necessity of discretion too, as they should as members of Tournai’s ruling family however far removed from the throne. They did exchange a glance, so quick anyone not watching closely would’ve missed it. Some sort of information passed between them in the fleeting look, but what they shared was a mystery to Marcus.
“I’m sure you’re busy, Lord Marcus,” Faelen said. “We won’t impose upon any more of your time.”
“It’s hardly an imposition, but I’m sure you have engagements to attend.” Marcus bowed slightly again. “I’ll bid you good day.”
They returned his farewell as Faelen looped his arm through Alexander’s. Marcus refused to allow himself to turn and watch them walk away. To do so would reveal too much, to all of them. He did, however, catch a glimpse of their slender forms in a large, silver-framed mirror hanging on the wall. He didn’t allow himself more than the glimpse before continuing on his way at a brisk pace, not stopping again as he wound through the corridors and finally out into the winter chill. He had far too much to do to let himself be distracted, especially by a young royal cousin he had no business observing outside a professional capacity. And no reason to study him so closely in even that way any longer. It shouldn’t have disappointed him.
“Do you think Lord Marcus is here because of the man the army captured on the border?” Alexander asked as he shut the door, leaving him and Faelen alone in their sitting room.
Faelen shook his head, but there was an indulgent curve to his lips. “I’m sure Lord Marcus does more for Philip and Amory than we know. There’s more happening in this country than we’re aware of.”
“I know. I’m just curious.”
“You’re always curious.” Faelen said it as if it were a bad thing.
“You’re not curious about this?” Alexander flopped into a chair.
“More concerned.” Faelen perched on the edge of a couch cushion. “If this man, whoever he is, was testing the barriers as preparation for some sort of attack…”
Alexander had known nothing about the web of spells designed to create barriers protecting Tournai from magical attack until he and Faelen had returned home in the autumn after years away. Their father was ambassador to Teilo, a kingdom far to Tournai’s northeast, and he’d brought his family with him on the posting. Upon their return, they’d found out about the spells and Savarin’s efforts to strengthen and enhance them. Very few people outside their family—and not even everyone within it—knew of the spells, which was how it would stay. Knowledge of their existence and the connection of the royal family’s Talent to them was far too dangerous to be allowed to get out. But no one knew of their Talent at all. The unique magic had fallen into the realm of legend, and it was better that way for all of them.
“I’m concerned too. But the spells stopped him, so perhaps that’s the end of it. If not, we can only hope Lord Marcus is able to find out what he was planning. If Lord Marcus is the one doing the questioning.”
Faelen fixed him with a sharp stare. “Are you more curious about what the prisoner has to say or about Lord Marcus?”
Alexander shrugged. “Who wouldn’t be curious about him?”
Faelen’s stare didn’t lose one bit of its intensity. “Plenty of people.”
“I suppose, or he wouldn’t be able to do his work—whatever it consists of.” He frowned briefly. “What does he do exactly?”
The first he’d seen or heard of Marcus was when Bastien, Philip’s cousin, had been kidnapped. Philip had called in Marcus for help, as well as Loriot. Marcus had been so calm, so confident. He’d discovered who’d taken Bastien and where. While those answers had been shocking, Marcus had found them through what was apparently an impressive skill for investigation and a network of informants or spies or whatever he called the people working for him.
Alexander could only be glad Marcus had no reason to turn their attention toward him. Of course, it also meant Marcus was unlikely to notice Alexander at all. Which was a shame—not that he wanted to be investigated, obviously, but Marcus was very attractive.
“I don’t know exactly,” Faelen said. “But he seems to be the one who finds things out when Philip needs them. Etan mentioned Marcus was the person who discovered an Ardunnian spy ring operating in Jumelle. It sounded like something Marcus keeps an eye on.”
“Interesting.” He stretched the word out. “Philip said something about Marcus having someone in every noble household. I wonder if that’s true or exaggeration.”
Faelen shrugged, a graceful motion. “I don’t know. And you didn’t answer my original question.”
Alexander sighed. “It’s only some harmless curiosity. He’s handsome, isn’t he?”
Faelen’s brow wrinkled in a little frown. “I suppose.”
He laughed and moved to the couch to lean into his twin. “Well, you wouldn’t notice with Maxen all you see.”
True as far as it went, but Faelen hadn’t found anyone physically attractive before he’d fallen in love with Maxen. He’d been able to talk with Alexander about men he thought good-looking, even if he was sometimes oblivious and sometimes uncomfortable when they directed their attention toward him. Now Faelen could ignore them with the knowledge of Maxen at his side. And unless Alexander was very much mistaken about his twin and the man Faelen had fallen in love with, they’d be married sooner rather than later.
And better to talk about that than to go any further in a direction Alexander didn’t want to travel.
“So when are you going to ask Maxen to marry you?”
Faelen sat up straighter, dislodging Alexander from his shoulder. “Alexander!”
“What? We’ve already talked about this.” Or, Alexander had brought it up before. They hadn’t had much of a discussion. “Don’t tell me you’re going to wait on him. It could be ages.”
“Alexander.” Faelen’s quelling stare was familiar, as was the affection underlying it.
He acted as if Faelen hadn’t spoken. “I suppose it’s fine if you let him propose, but you might as well do it yourself if he’s who you want.”
“He is.” And there was the look Faelen got when he thought of Maxen, at least in private—his twin was far too careful in public. Alexander was beginning to recognize the look, a bit soft and quietly joyful, utterly distinct from any of Faelen’s other expressions.
“Then there you are. You love him and want to spend your life with him.” He shrugged and leaned into Faelen once more. “But it’s your choice. Either way, let’s make sure you get a pretty ring. Something sparkly.”
Faelen laughed. “You’re so sure of this, aren’t you?”
“The ring? Absolutely.”
Faelen rolled his eyes a bit, but he was still laughing. “Me and Maxen getting married.”
“That too.” Though he’d understood what Faelen referred to in the original question immediately. “You love him, and you’re the marrying kind.”
Faelen went quiet and contemplated Alexander until he wanted to squirm. “And you? Are you the marrying kind?”
“I suppose. If I meet the right person.” He shrugged again, deliberately making the gesture as casual as possible.
“Mhmm.” Faelen dropped his head to rest against Alexander’s. “I’m sure you will. If I managed it, then you will.”
“I’m in no rush.”
“Mhmm,” Faelen said again, but he dropped the subject. “Aside from the family meeting, what are your plans for the rest of the day? When does the university come back in session?”
The university had been on break for the Midwinter holiday. Alexander wasn’t officially a student there, but he’d begun attending some lectures that were of interest to him and meeting scholars in his field of study in the weeks before the holiday. “Next week officially. There’s a lecture I plan on attending about a comparison of architectural styles across Tournai, Amaranta, and Elleri. The scholar giving it has been in Elleri for several months, so I haven’t met him yet. You can come with me if you like.”
“Maybe. It sounds as if it might be interesting.” Faelen laughed when Alexander poked him. “Yes, I know. You think they all are, but my interests lie in other areas.”
“I know. I do appreciate when you come along.” He squeezed Faelen briefly. “I promised I’d go to the theater with Elodie tomorrow. Would you like to join us? You can bring Maxen.”
“How many others are joining you?”
“Who knows? It’s Elodie. It could be a small group.”
“Or it could be half the court’s younger set.”
“True.” Alexander had learned Elodie preferred to surround herself with an adoring group in social situations. She was the undisputed leader of her set, though Alexander had been pulled into the center of it. He enjoyed socializing, but there was a limit to how much he could manage and still pursue his studies, and he didn’t always care for the people in her group. He hadn’t mentioned that to Elodie though. “Even if the group is large, it’s not a bad idea for you and Maxen to attend. You’re going to marry him at some point, and he’ll have to spend more time at court. Showing Elodie’s acceptance of him can only help as he begins to do that.”
Faelen sighed. “You’re right, I know. Maxen and I pulled in and hid from the world with each other for a long time. Which was lovely. But it does us no good if the court turns against Maxen. Some of them have enough bias against commoners.”
Faelen had fallen in love with the second son of a prominent merchant family. Maxen’s wealth opened doors for him, but there was a hidebound portion of the nobility who hated that Philip had married a commoner, thereby introducing what they saw as inferior blood into the royal succession and Amory’s family and friends into the court eye. One of those friends was Tristan, Maxen’s older brother, who had married their cousin Etan. With Faelen involved with Maxen, their grumblings might grow louder. Drawing Maxen into activities at court might help alleviate some resentment before it became too much of an issue.
Alexander put an arm around Faelen. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out. We always do.”
Marcus didn’t show his frustration as the guards led the prisoner from the room, but once he was alone, he allowed himself to drop his impassive mask. He didn’t throw something, as much as he wanted to.
The knock on the door had him smoothing his expression as he called out for them to enter. Gauther, the person who was like his right hand, walked in and studied him. “Still not talking?”
“Not a word.” He leaned against the table. “Not even a name. It’s been a week.”
“And the truth potion is useless if he won’t answer questions.”
The truth potion couldn’t compel someone to speak. It could only force them to tell the truth once they did. Which, yes, made the potion useless in this circumstance.
“I have the guards listening at every moment, but he doesn’t even talk to himself.” Marcus hadn’t ever known anyone to be utterly silent. He’d wonder if the man could talk at all if he hadn’t been told he’d briefly yelled at the soldiers who’d taken him into custody.
“Any progress on the new potion?”
“Not as much as I’d like.” He was working on a new truth potion meant to compel the taker to speak, but he hadn’t gotten it right yet. “I need to put more work into it. Did you need me?”
“Only to give you these.” Gauther handed him a sheaf of sealed reports.
“Anything I need to know immediately?”
“We have confirmation of spies at the university, though not the extent of their operation.” Gauther’s expression said everything Marcus was thinking.
Jumelle’s university was the only one in Tournai and drew in students not only from their country but from neighboring kingdoms as well. Its scholars and sorcerers were well respected and often called on by governments, and its students included the children of nobility, wealthy merchants, and other highly ranked people. It was a treasure trove for enterprising foreign agents.
Marcus sighed and held up the papers. “I assume there are more details in here?”
“Everything we have so far.”
“Good. I’ll review them now, and then we’ll talk about strategy. At some point, I’ll have to bring this to Loriot and Their Highnesses.” Marcus frowned for another moment, thinking about all that needed to be done. “Any reports from our people hunting bandits?”
“Not yet.” Gauther shrugged. “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.”
“Is there ever any other kind in our work?”