Fire and Thorns 00.7: King's Guard

BOOK: Fire and Thorns 00.7: King's Guard
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Dedication

F
OR
S
ARAH AND
R
YAN,

WHO THOUGHT THEY WERE JOKING

WHEN THEY MADE ME PROMISE

MANY YEARS AGO

TO DEDICATE SOMETHING TO THEM

1

T
HE morning sun crawls over the palace wall when I enter the training yard for recruit selection. I’m the first one here, not because there is honor in being first, but because I have the shortest distance to come. I already live in the palace.

I carry three items; Royal Guard recruits are allowed exactly three possessions from their previous lives. We give up everything else—title, property, and loyalty to anyone other than our king—for the privilege of joining the most elite fighting force in all of Joya d’Arena. Or I guess I should say the
chance
of joining; being a recruit is no guarantee of making the cut.

I don’t wait long before the other recruits begin to arrive, their own three items in hand. They are all older than I am, taller, stronger. Most have served a year or two in countship guards, a few in the army. All of them keep their distance. They expect me to fail, partly because I’m only fifteen years old, but mostly because I didn’t make it to recruit training on my own merit. I’m here as a special favor to the king.

For two years I ran errands in the palace. I stood at King Nicolao’s side when he met with condes and ambassadors, dictated reports, and discussed strategy with his aides. When I wasn’t with the king, I served Prince Alejandro, and eventually I became his squire. Now Alejandro is king, and I have asked him for a boon.

“All I want,” I told him, “is the opportunity to prove myself.”

Even he believes that I am too young for the Guard, too inexperienced, and he suggested I wait a few years. But I’m tired of waiting.

The iron portcullis slams down, locking us in.

Lord-Commander Enrico strides toward us, dressed in shining armor, the red cloak that marks him as Royal Guard whipping at his heels. He is one of the tallest and most polished men I’ve ever known. His clothes are always impeccable, and the curls of his hair are oiled to shine. He’s a commoner by birth, though rumor throughout the palace is that he has aspirations of true nobility and fancies himself a player in the game of politics.

“Form a line!” yells Commander Enrico.

We run to comply. The training yard is a massive oval with dusty, hard-packed ground surrounded on all sides by a stone wall. At one end are straw practice dummies and archery targets. At the other, a dark archway leads to the barracks. Several Royal Guardsmen lean against the portcullis, arms crossed, faces amused. Sitting on the wall on either side is a gathering crowd: Royal Guard, palace guard, city watch, and even a handful of young noblewomen. Everyone has come to gawk at the new recruits.

Usually, the king comes to watch recruiting day too. I asked him not to, just this once. There’s no way I could stand here at attention being gawked at without catching Alejandro’s amused gaze. No way I could pretend he wasn’t sitting out in the open, dangerously exposed. And I really, really need to pretend he’s not a factor today. That he is not, in fact, my good friend.

Enrico walks the length of our line, arms behind his back, eyebrow raised in either contempt or challenge. The first recruits he addresses are Tomás and Marlo of the city watch, recommended by General Luz-Manuel himself. They are about twenty years old, with nice full mustaches and the ease of stance that comes with being the best at everything they’ve ever done. Enrico welcomes them warmly.

If they’re going to be the commander’s favorites, it would be smart for me to get to know them.

Enrico pauses next before a lean young man with dark skin and quick eyes. He wears ragged homespun, and his right shoe has a hole in the toe. He carries a bow, a quiver, and a bundle of arrows as his chosen items, not realizing that the Guard will give him better weapons.

“Fernando de Ismelda,” Enrico says. “You won the kingdom’s archery competition. I gather it was quite a surprise to everyone.”

“Not to me,” the boy says.

I decide that I like Fernando de Ismelda.

But Enrico frowns. He is silent a long time, trying to make Fernando uncomfortable. Finally, he says, “It’s true that the Royal Guard is a place where men of station as low as yours can rise to the highest ranks in the kingdom, based on their own merits. But you’ll find that much more is required than just being a good shot.”

Lord-Commander Enrico moves on to the young man standing beside me, a giant with hands like paddles. “And you are?” he says.

“Lucio, my lord,” the young man answers.

Enrico nods. “Ah, yes, former squire to Conde Treviño. I’ve heard good things about you, son.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

Either Enrico is getting bad information, or he’s being deliberately false to test the rest of us. We’ve all heard of Lucio of Basajuan, a notorious bully with a penchant for drunken watch shifts. One of his three items is an amphora of wine, which he slings one-handed the way most men would carry a jug. Surely, someone advised him against that. Just as surely, Lucio ignored them.

I’m not the only one who is here as a favor to a powerful man. Lucio is the youngest son of Conde Treviño’s wealthiest supporter, and the conde found it problematic to discipline him without offending the boy’s father. So Lucio was sent to the Royal Guard either as a last-ditch attempt at reform or as a way of washing him out of the conde’s service without blame.

Enrico sizes me up last. Sweat trickles down my temples, and my three possessions grow heavy in my arms. I’m not sure what he’s waiting for. Maybe he’s testing me under the burden of silence. I’ve seen how waiting, how not knowing, can break a man. But not me. Enrico can stare as much as he wants.

“You are Hector de Ventierra, yes?” Enrico says coldly. “Third son of Conde Ricardón de Ventierra?”

I stare straight ahead, focusing on the king’s crest, which flaps in the breeze above the portcullis. But the sun catches on the commander’s bronze epaulets, flashing fire in my eyes, and I can’t help but wince.

“Just Hector now, my lord,” I say.

He knows perfectly well who I am. He is Alejandro’s personal guard and I’m his squire. We’ve rubbed shoulders countless times.

“Just
recruit
now. The Guard is a place for
men
who work and get things done, not for lordlings eager to play at being soldier. What did you bring with you, boy?”

“A blanket, my lord.”

“Why did you bring a blanket?”

“The recruit quarters are said to be cold, my lord.”

“That thing looks more like a dress for a princess ball.”

Several of the recruits snicker. This is a trick. He didn’t ask a question, so I am not supposed to answer.

Alejandro warned me that the recruit barracks is really a dungeon that gets too chilly for our one-blanket allotment. So Queen Rosaura, who is bedridden with a difficult pregnancy, made me a quilt. It’s bright and shimmering, a patchwork of scraps from old gowns, and it would indeed look perfect on the bed of a princess. It’s guaranteed to earn me a thrashing or two, but Rosaura is one of the best people in the world, and bringing it seemed like the right thing to do.

“What’s that on top of your dress, princess?” Enrico says.

“A memento from my brother’s ship, my lord.”

My brother’s wife, Aracely, gave it to me. It’s a decorative plaque made of sea-smoothed ship planking. Burn-etched into the wood are the words, “Harsh winds, rough seas, still hearts.” Tiny pinkish shells are arranged into a border around the edges. Hidden within each shell is a jeweled bead. It’s a small fortune, a hedge against an uncertain future. “No man or woman should be wholly dependent on another,” she said. “If the Guard doesn’t work out, or if you ever decide you need to escape, this will give you something to start over with.”

“So,” Enrico says. “Our princess is homesick for his big brother.”

Again, a statement, not a question. I do not reply, though several retorts suggest themselves.
If the hardest thing I have to do is listen to you talk, then I can do that all day, my lord.

He points to the third item. “A book! You brought a book?”

“Yes, my lord.” It’s not a manuscript, but an actual bound book about the architectural history of Joya d’Arena. A gift from my mother. The last several pages are blank. I can write whatever I want in them.

“You expect to be so bored here, to have so much free time, that you will be able to read books at your leisure, like priests in a monastery. Do I look like I run a monastery?”

“Not last feast day, when you brought in a wagonload of harlots.”

In my defense, he did ask me a question.

I expect a blow. A scolding at least. The crowd is silent, expectant. Drying sweat itches on my cheek, but I refuse to scratch, reminding myself that I can handle it. I can handle anything.

“Make no mistake,” Enrico says finally. “I never would have accepted your application were it not for the king’s order. I expect you will be expelled within a month.”

His forthrightness makes me bold. “I expect you will be surprised, my lord.”

“It’ll happen within a day if you don’t learn to hold your tongue and know your place.” He turns and speaks loudly to the whole line. “The king always shows up to view the Guard recruits on the first day. But he didn’t today. And do you know why? It’s because he didn’t want to see his pretty little princess fail.”

My face burns. But in a way I feel relieved. Enrico has said the thing everyone is thinking, and it’s like a hot, tight blanket has been lifted from the training yard and everyone can breathe. Or maybe just me.

Lord-Commander Enrico steps back, draws his sword, and raises it to the sky. Loudly enough for the whole city to hear, he yells, “Do you have what it takes to be Royal Guard?”

“Yes, my lord!” we answer in unison.

The Guards lounging by the portcullis snigger to one another.

“Can you work harder than you’ve ever worked—through pain, through pride, through exhaustion—to become something more?”

“Yes, my lord!”

“Will you give up everything you own, everything you are, and swear to protect the king and his interests even unto death?”

“YES, MY LORD!”

His eyes narrow to slits, and he says in a normal voice, “We shall see.” He sheaths the sword, sending it home with a
swick!
of finality.

He indicates the portcullis with a lift of his chin, and one of the guards lounging there peels off and steps toward us. “This is Captain Mandrano, my second-in-command,” Enrico says of the approaching guard. “He’ll play nurse to you whelps for the rest of the day. You will follow his orders without question, as if they come from the king himself. Or”—he stares directly at me—“you will be sent home.”

The worst is over. Now I’ll be able to show them what I’m worth.

BOOK: Fire and Thorns 00.7: King's Guard
5.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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