Assassin in Waiting

Another one from the Bound Lands — set in Ermetia this time.

Prince Dalvos was late – or at any rate, he had not come. Since there had been no specific appointment he was not exactly late, but Burren had expected him to appear at more or less the usual time and place, and was slightly puzzled that he had not.

He had nothing better to do with himself, so Burren strolled down from the terrace outside his apartments, into the gardens, along the back route that Dalvos would most likely have taken from the royal compound at Heathertop if he had indeed come. Burren half-expected any minute to see the prince trotting along the path, calling out a greeting and apologizing for his late arrival.

He ambled down past the tea garden and through the trellis gate, then turned onto the hedge-rose path. At the arcade he paused, considered for a moment settling on one of the stone benches – but he had not brought a book, and simply sitting did not suit his present mood. Instead he strolled down the steps to the herb garden and steered himself toward the willow grove beside the duck pond.

Around him the bees bumbled and beetles clicked and buzzed; leaves rustled in the warm and gentle breeze, and every so often a snippet of birdsong trailed by. The day was far from silent. The realization that a human voice was mixed in the springtime hum was slow and gradual, but at last unmistakable – someone was in the willows, talking quietly.

Burren had no desire to intrude on anyone’s privacy, and called out, “Ho, there!”

Willow branches whickered, and shadows moved amid the greenery, but no one replied. Burren frowned slightly. There were a thousand innocent explanations possible, but the chance that this reticence was an indication of guilt could not be denied. Thieves and poachers were not unheard of here, though his father’s estates were less troubled than most.

Burren considered calling out again, but shrugged and began whistling instead. If the voice was that of a trespasser, Burren would give him a chance to flee – but would not let him be.

The willow rustled again, but no one fled.

Burren strolled nonchalantly forward, around the drooping branches, and found his prey – Prince Dalvos was there, leaning one outstretched arm against a willow tree, his back to Burren, his attention firmly fixed on Tira, the chamberlain’s daughter. Tira stood with her back against the trunk of the tree, Dalvos’ arm blocking her escape on one side. Her skirt was twisted somewhat awry, and one hand was clutching it, trying to straighten it, while the other was on Dalvos’ chest.

She did not look as if she were enjoying the prince’s attention.

“Prince Dalvos!” Burren called out, “What a pleasant surprise!”

Reluctantly, Dalvos turned his head.

“Hello, Burren,” he said. “What brings you down this way?”

Burren saw the expression on Tira’s face, and quickly concocted a lie.

“I was looking for your companion, I’m afraid,” he said.

Tira blinked at him in surprise. “Me?” she squeaked.

“What do you want with her?” Dalvos asked, startled.

I don’t want anything with her,” Burren said hastily. “It’s Megrin the witchwoman who wants her.”

Dalvos straightened up and dropped his hand. “The witchwoman?”

“Apparently young Tira has been assisting her in her witchery,” Burren said.

“Really?” Dalvos turned back to Tira.

“That’s right, your Highness,” Tira said quickly. Her performance didn’t strike Burren as entirely convincing, but Dalvos didn’t seem to notice anything wrong. “I fetch her the powders and herbs, and stir the kettle.”

“And Megrin wants her to come help with the stirring right this moment, I believe.”

“Then of course she must go,” Dalvos said, stepping away from the tree.

“Thank you, your Highness,” Tira said. She tugged her skirt back where it belonged, then gathered it up above her ankles and hastened away, running up the path toward the palace. She glanced back over her shoulder as she left the grove and threw Burren a quick smile.

“A pretty little thing, isn’t she?” Dalvos asked as he watched her flee. “I must say, Megrin’s timing might have been better.”

“Witchwomen are notorious for their inconvenience,” Burren replied, stepping up to the prince’s side.

“True enough,” Dalvos agreed. He turned and slapped Burren on the shoulder. “Well, at least this means I see more of you today than I had expected, so it’s not all bad. How goes it with you today?”

“Oh, quietly, my prince, quietly,” Burren said. “I was glad of an errand to run.”

“Were you, indeed? Then perhaps I can assign you another. That wench has my blood running hot – do you think you might find some other who could cool it? This is your town, not my own, and I know little of its hidden ways.”

Burren hid his distaste at this bald request; he was a duke’s son, not a pimp or procurer. “Not at this hour, Highness,” he said. “It’s yet morning, and the nightbirds fast asleep.”

“Ah, then I must suffer a few hours more, I suppose.”

“Or find another means to cool your ardor, perhaps.”

“Perhaps.” Dalvos turned away. “Come, let’s go up to your father’s palace, and see what amusements await us there.”

“As you will, my prince.” Burren followed as Dalvos headed up out of the willows.

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