Excerpt from “The Warlord’s Heart” (WIP)

Edward looked around the room. His expression smoothed into blankness as he looked back at all the suddenly silent young men present. “Did I interrupt your discussion of me?”

“We weren’t talking about you. We were talking about your lady.” The confession was, of course, blurted out by the compulsive talker of the group.

Richard sighed and rubbed his head. “Would somebody PLEASE put their hand over Franklin’s mouth before Edward kills us all?”

Franklin’s protest was silenced by Darwood’s fist in front of his face.

Richard held up a hand in a placating gesture. “Don’t be angry, Edward. We weren’t gossiping about Betsy. We were discussing who she really is and why the Warlord, well, indulges her. You have to admit it, Edward. Nobody else gets away with what she does.”

“He does indulge her, yes. But it still sounds like you’re gossiping about the woman I love.”

“No, listen. We’re not being malicious. We’ve been trying to piece together what we’ve observed. You know, like you have said we will have to from reading battle reports.”

Edward leaned against the wall and crossed his arms and legs, clearly reluctant. “Very well. Tell me of your conclusions.”

Richard looked around the room. All the others looked more than ready for him to offer himself as sacrificial speaker. He looked back at Edward’s stony face and swallowed. “See, first, we know somebody is constantly trying to kill the princess, correct? So she has to be guarded all the time. Even in her bedroom and in the wardrobe, so the guard needs to be a female. Do you agree?”

Edward nodded slowly, his hard expression easing. “So you think that will be Betsy’s future?”

“We think that perhaps she already IS, and has been for quite a while, actually.”

“Why do you think that?”

Richard held up a single finger. “She’s the same age as the princess. She’s obviously already been trained in battle art far more than any of us. The Royal Guardsmen and palace staff show her an amazing amount of respect, far more than a simple maid should receive. Correct? She respects and obeys the Warlord, but she certainly doesn’t treat him the way anybody else does. We’ve all seen it. She treats him more like, like, well,” he took a deep breath and blurted, “Like her father.”

Edward slowly uncoiled. “Are you suggesting…”

Richard cringed. “We don’t mean anything ill! We know the Warlord is unmarried and childless. But if she is his illegitimate daughter, it answers everything!”

“You just called the woman I love a bastard. I have every reason to challenge you to a duel right now, not only you but every man in this room. Nobody is allowed to blacken her honor in that manner.”

“We’re not! Just listen! Please! She would have grown up with the princess as her cousin! They would be bound by blood! Who better to protect her wherever she went? Who could be more loyal?”

One of the others snorted. “Idealistic, there!”

Richard threw his hands up. “Whatever! But if she was raised as companion to the princess, it is more likely for her to be bound by love as well as blood!”

Edward lowered himself into a chair. “I can understand that, barely. But why would she work in the palace as a maid, scrubbing and doing all the servants’ jobs? I’ve seen her at work. Why would the Warlord allow a child of his to do that?”

A grin flashed across Richard’s face. “You might not realize it, but we of the nobility have long understood one fact. The servants know everything that goes on. Everything. They talk about what they know, too. If Betsy worked among them, she would know every secret in the palace. She would also have personal knowledge of every room in the palace, servants’ hallways, and probably every hiding place there might be.”

“Necessary information for a personal bodyguard, indeed. To always know what was going on, who was in the palace, what the schedules are, and where the princess might hide in case of danger.” Edward rubbed his chin. “But why put her through officer’s schooling?”

Richard leaned forward, his eyes gleaming. “To receive the authority to command the guardsmen in moments of danger. Otherwise, some might question her orders at a vital moment.”

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