Again she scanned her little map and then went to scrabble behind a large wall hanging. The hidden door swung easily so she held it as Prod toted the once again struggling Prince into the dark entry that led to an even darker stairway down.
They came out again into the courtyard and crept through the shadows towards the seaward bolt hole by which they'd entered earlier. Delphia was reaching through the greenery for the half-hidden opening when behind her came sounds of a scuffle. There was a brief, very muffled scream of complete terror and then an awful thudding sound from far below. Delphia froze, dreading what she might see behind her.
She looked back. Prod was empty handed. Delphia almost choked on the words. "What happened?" she gasped quietly.
"Slipped? What do you mean, he slipped?"
"He started wiggling again and he slipped. I judge he's been eating rather well lately."
She turned to the wall and peered over. "If you've damaged him, you clumsy oaf...oh, no."
She stared over the wall at the crumpled mess below. It wasn't really that long a fall, but poor Prince Fil must have hit head first.
Prod craned his neck a little from behind her. "I saw a melon that looked like that once."
Stifling a little scream of frustration, she slugged him in the upper arm as hard as she could and hissed at him, "That wasn't just my fortune you let slip out of your hands, idiot! It was the rest of your pay, too! Exactly how am I supposed to get an heir with him in that condition?"
Prod was rubbing his arm where she'd punched him. "Well, maybe if you went down there real fast, before he cools off...ouch!"
This time Delphia stomped on his foot. Although not usually given to hissy fits, she'd had enough of Prod's casual outlook on life. "Useless. Less than useless, you clod. Come on. You're thrice-blessed and damned lucky I have a backup plan. Get down there and get him before someone else sees that he's dead. By the Goddess, I despise men. You are an anathema!"
Prod followed her lazily, somewhat bewildered as he pondered the meaning of the word 'anathema.' He kept hoping someone had heard them so he could get in at least a little fighting, but, sadly for him, the Princess's guards were as sound sleepers as their lady. He wouldn't give two coppers for what she'd do to them come morning when she discovered Fil was missing.
Delphia decided on a predawn funeral, deep in the forests of Northern Jerzee. It was simple, tasteful, and unattended by any other than herself and Prod. It had the added attraction of being completely hidden from future discovery. Prod climbed a bank from a quick wash in a river, grave-digging being dirty work. He was finding being clean and sober gave him a different outlook on life. Delphia held out Prince Fil s clothing to him. "Put these on," she directed.
Prod took them, eying her suspiciously. "Why?"
"It's my backup plan."
The usually dull-witted Prod found his newly sober brain could make connections he'd never realized were within his grasp. "You can't possibly think you can pass me off for that over-dressed, foppish, soft, baby-faced lap dog, do you?"
"I do. I will.'
"I won't do it." Prod dropped the clothing.
Delphia snatched them up. "I just cleaned those, dolt. You dropped him, so you can just take his place. Besides, you look just like him."
"Maybe when I was a child. But not now. And my nose never did. No. I never bargained for this."
Delphia gave him a disgusted look, hands on hips, attempting to look more imposing than she really was. "If you don't, we don't get paid. I want Sylvania and I mean to have it. If you had done your job, we wouldn't be having this problem. But you dropped him and now we have to have a replacement. At least temporarily."
He gave her another withering look but she continued. "Hear me out. You and I go back to Sylvania. We'll bandage your face and say you were injured in the struggle to free you. At a suitable time, we'll remove the bandages, showing your scarred but recognizable face. In the meantime, we marry, produce an heir and then you can die of a mysterious illness. Or get lost on a hunting trip. Or be martyred in a war. Anyway you want. I'll arrange for funds to be made available to you when you get over the Sylvanian border. Half the treasury at the time you leave and your child will inherit a kingdom."
"My scars are too old."
"We can make them up to look newly inflicted."
"I don't act like that pompous ass," he persisted, sullenly.
"Your head injuries will have affected your brain," she argued, thinking silently that she wasn't half wrong.
He didn't answer immediately, shifting from foot to foot as he considered. She could sense he was being persuaded so she threw in her best card. "Prod, think about it. For the Goddess's sake, open your eyes! Did you think your resemblance to Fil was a coincidence? Your father must have been the king and you must have been born around the same time as Fil. That's why your mother left Sylvania--so there wouldn't be any contest about Fil being the rightful heir and that's why no man would claim you. If you'd grown up as his bastard brother, the troops would have supported you over that spoiled brat. You aren't really deceiving anyone. You'll only be taking what's rightfully yours in the first place."
"And if they catch on, we may be dead right."
Delphia grinned, "They can try. I think between you, me and my troop, we can make the border with a good portion of the treasury before they can make a decision about what to do. Besides, what makes you think Sylvania's troops care about Fil? He was so popular, they wouldn't even come along to bring him back. They'll welcome a Prince Fil with your skills to lead them."
"How do we explain those skills?"
"Obviously, your head injuries will have finally knocked some sense into you and you'll begin to work with the arms master. You'll learn quick; a natural warrior, just like your father. Prod, does a man who cares about his son give him away to the first woman who comes along and bests a teensy little dragon? The King will be too proud of you to question anything. And maybe we can start a little war against Jerzee for treating you so badly. Trust me, being rich and powerful is going to be fun."
It sounded good. Try as he might, Prod couldn't come up with a better reason not to attempt the switch. No matter how deep the trouble, he believed in his ability to fight his way out of anything. Besides, he wanted a chance to meet the man who wouldn't claim him. He grunted assent and took the proffered clothing. In the dawn's rosy light, Prince Fil rose from the dead and Prod the barbarian was never seen again bending his elbow at the Pig's Bladder Pub.
Queen Delphia stretched lazily in the warm sun at the edge of the castle's practice yard and shifted her daughter, Altoona, to her other breast. The child sucked as greedily as her older siblings had; each one strong and healthy with their mother's piercing blue eyes and their father's strapping build. King Fil came to sit next to her, shouting encouragement to his heir, Prince Penn, named for his grandfather, the late King Penn of Sylvania. Penn was battling the twins, Little Fil and Pitt, using a wooden practice sword against their wooden play pikes. "I'm glad you won the war in time to see your father before he passed on," Delphia remarked as Fil gently stroked his daughter's tiny head before dropping a casual kiss on his wife's cheek.
"As am I," he commented, "else I'd have never known just how cunning the old fox really was."
Delphia's eyes widened in alarm. "Did he...?"
"Yes, he knew all along. Didn't ask what had happened to the real Fil, but I explained it was an accident and he seemed satisfied. Apparently, my mother was one of the queen's handmaidens and he was very fond of her. The old biddy had her sent away when she found out mother was carrying the king's child. He tried to find us but was forced to be discreet and, well, we were long gone by that time. I was the elder, so the kingdom should have been mine by rights anyway. Told me he was confident the kingdom ended up in the right hands."
Delphia smiled her agreement. Just then, the boys ran up, each claiming victory and demanding their father proclaim them the king's champion. Delphia mused as she watched her husband settle the dispute and distract the princelings by beginning a discourse on proper warfare. She'd have never believed the drunken lack-wit she'd found in that rat's nest of a pub would ever have become the gentle father and judicious king who sat next to her.
"Can we have a story, father?" asked Penn.
"Oh, yes," the twins echoed, each clamoring for his favorite tale. "Let's have the story of how we took Jerzee."
"No, let's hear how father defeated the Yourkans!"
"I have a better tale for you, little ones. A new story. Let me tell you how your mother defeated a dragon to win me for her mate and then rescued me from the scurrilous, kidnapping Jerzees. I call it The Story of Delphia's Quest. Once upon a time..."