Saber was ten years old now, a tallish, slender boy with a serious demeanor and observing ways. He'd had few dealings with other children since the Eagles' visit, and aside from his letters to April, only contact with adults. Again the childish jokes and the carefree grin disappeared – gradually now, instead of trauma-sudden, but nonetheless thoroughly. His early maturity was further augmented by the way he spent his days; as ducal heir and aspirant blademaster, he had less free time than most children, less free time than he used to have. Gone were the days of wandering the moors - all his time was dedicated to education, if not education in the conventional sense.
There was his increasingly grueling training with Adian. Not only in bladefighting, now, but other forms of combat as well – stealth, empty-handed fighting, marksmanship, and the lessons he hated worst of all, the ways of detecting assassination.
His lessons with Gil had become harder as well, with more focus now on galaxy civics and applied mathematics. It had never been so firmly impressed onto Saber what responsibilities his birth had laid on him. There was a seriousness in his training that hadn't been evident when he was younger – his teachers now increasingly intent on making sure he learned as much as he could, as fast as he could.
Aside from his formal lessons, his father had taken to bringing Saber along with him to oversee the state of Rheidyr. Stephen did this as much to remind his people who their next duke was to be as to accustom Saber to the duties of ruling. Soon, the sight of the fair-haired lad beside his father, watching with quiet eyes all that occurred around him, was as familiar to Rheidyr folk as was his father the Duke himself.
So Saber came along to inspect farmlands and ranches, and learnt the beginnings of economics. He went to preserves and hunting grounds and learnt how to balance environmental concerns with the needs of his people. He went with Adian and Stephen to oversee the castle and learnt how to arrange for security. He sat beside his father at meetings with his advisors and lieutenants, and learnt how to recognize good men and good advice. And most importantly, he watched his father, and learnt how to command so that men would obey.
Saber was an apt student of all he was taught, but even the best students make mistakes. These were dealt with sternly, more sternly than Saber expected. The first times he was reprimanded, he came away resentful and a little surprised. He realized soon enough, however, the reason for the increasing stringency. When he was grown, any mistakes he made would affect the life of not only himself, but the lives of all his people.
This realization did nothing to help a young boy act young at all.
The adults in his life - his parents and his uncle and even Gilbert Keyes, who was no relation but found himself increasingly fond of his young charge – regretted the boy's forced maturity, but would not ease up on their demands on him. The Kingdom was in an increasing state of turmoil, with factioning in the government – both planetary and system – and civil wars burgeoning in nearly every sector. The Lion Throne stood still, but on foundations that weakened daily. And though they did not speak of it aloud, nor even really admitted it to themselves, they were preparing Saber should the worst happen.
"Are you ready, Saber?"
"Almost!" Saber called back, pulling his black boots onto his feet. He and his father were in a mansion on the southern borderlands of Rheidyr, owned by one of his father's vassals. They had slept over the night before, so that they could leave in the morning for a conference with Baron Macduff, who held the lands to Rheidyr's south. The current Baron was only newly instated – he was the youngest of the previous Baron's three sons, and the only one left living. Stephen – and most of Antir, for that matter – had doubts concerning the way the other two Macduffs had died, but there was nothing concrete to link Ronald Macduff to the immeasurably convenient death of his brothers.
Saber ran down to the mansion's foyer, where his father waited for him. Stephen Rider was in the full regalia of a Lord of the Kingdom, as was required of one about to visit another for diplomatic negotiations. His son was in a smaller version of the same, identical down to the ceremonial ivory-hilted sword at his side. What few people knew, of course, was that the ivory hilt could be removed to show a more functional leather-bound wire hilt, as was the case with his father's sword. Even fewer knew that the small boy could use the sword with skill much unexpected in someone of his age.
Stephen looked at his son, noting the crisp precision of his outfit. Finally Saber seemed to be learning the importance of appearance as well as actual substance, especially in dealing with their fellow nobles. It was a slightly distasteful lesson, but one he needed to learn. Thus, the uncomfortable clothes and the decorative hilts – but ever the real blade beneath the ivory trimmings.
"Saber, fix your cravat."
Saber flushed and pulled at the white cloth at his throat, succeeding in nothing but further disarray. Stephen made a sound that was half-sigh and half-snort and stepped closer to his son to fix it, idly remembering the times his own father had had to do this for him. Perhaps a dislike for cravats was genetically transmitted through the Rider bloodline.
"There, all done," he said in satisfaction, stepping away to survey his handiwork. Saber made a face, probably at the tightness of his new-adjusted cravat, and reached up to loosen the cloth before catching sight of his father's warning expression.
"Let's go, son."
They would be traveling to the Macduff castle, Glasnair, on horseback. Stephen felt glad for the extra money he had paid for Aderyn, as he noticed that the specially-bred pony was keeping up with his longer-limbed mount. They trotted grandly out of the mansion's foreyard, an honor-guard of twelve men-at-arms falling into place behind the two Riders. A young standard-bearer, puffed up with the distinction, rode just behind Saber, a banner with the Rider coat-of-arms emblazoned on the white cloth. As they left, the lord of the manor – Stephen's loyal vassal, and a friend of his as well – had his men unsheathe their swords in salute.
They arrived in Glasnair in an hour, it being close to their borders. As Stephen dismounted, he noticed the large number of soldiers in the Macduff colors of red and black waiting for them in the courtyard. He frowned, and his hand moved in the Rider battle-signs, signaling his honor-guard to form in close around himself and his son. They did so, their hands on their weapons, eyes wary.
They dismounted, handing the reins of their fifteen horses to hostlers who led them to the stables. Stephen walked up the steps to Glasnair's doorway, hearing his lieutenant behind him issue orders to two men to watch the horses. Then he and the remaining nine formed up again around their lord.
A man waited for them inside Glasnair, a dark-haired man with cold dark eyes and a hooked nose. Stephen looked down at the much-shorter man with carefully hidden contempt. He recognized the man, from descriptions, as Harold Smithson, Macduff's seneschal and – if rumor be true – the actual mastermind behind his gaining the barony.
"Ah, Duke Rider," he said, smiling. Though his pronunciation was perfect, somehow Stephen was reminded of the hiss of a snake when he heard the man speak. Perhaps it was his accent, different from the Highlander norm – Smithson was an outlander. Smithson's eyes flickered to Saber, and his smile widened. "And this must be the young Saber."
Solemnly, Saber inclined his head in acknowledgment. His blue eyes fixed on the man's face with an intensity that was just short of staring, and Stephen knew instinctively that Saber was beginning to dislike the man just as much as he did.
"The Baron Macduff is very pleased to have you here at Glasnair," Harold continued, when it became obvious that neither Rider was going to respond verbally to his initial greeting. "Please follow me. I shall take you to him."
Pleased – hmph. If he were so pleased, Saber thought sourly, why isn't he down himself to greet us, instead of having his flunky lead us to him as if we were supplicants and he the king?
He had no idea that his emotions were showing on his face until he felt his father's hand tap his. He glanced down, watching Stephen's fingers flicker in the private sign-language of the Riders, warning him to keep his feelings to himself. Obediently, Saber schooled his face into a semblance of composure. The semblance flickered, however, when Smithson suddenly demanded that the men-at-arms remain behind, and that Stephen and Saber surrender any weapons on their persons.
This was a terrible insult to House Rider – first, by implying that they would be so ignoble as to use either their weapons or their soldiers to harm their host – and secondly, by implying that House Rider was so low in rank as to accept the commands of someone who, at best, would be called their peer.
The soldiers themselves grew agitated, and angry muttering filled the air. Stephen narrowed his eyes before asking, in a voice that caused all his men to immediately fall silent, "Would you be so good as to tell me why?"
Beside him, Saber fought off a sudden urge to grin. By forcing Smithson to offer an explanation, Stephen had brought about a turning of the tables. Justification of actions was what a subordinate was required to offer his superior.
Smithson was caught so off-guard that he almost stammered. "Ah, the Baron has thought it…"
"I see," Stephen said regally, interrupting the other man. "Young Macduff is concerned about the welfare of my soldiers, seeing as we've been riding for nearly an hour now. It is very good of him," he continued, in a tone like a teacher praising his kindergarten student's attempts at art. He turned to his soldiers, and in a single sweeping wave of his hand that looked very dramatic and was something he'd normally never do, dismissed them.
The soldiers, very attentive to their Duke's frame of mind, immediately grasped his intent. As one, they offered a sharp salute, then about-faced and marched away. As they left, Saber could swear he heard some snickering drifting back to them.
Smithson, not quite succeeding in hiding his glower, showed them into the room where the Baron would officially meet them. Saber walked a pace behind his father, blue eyes darting around the room and taking account of every detail. Adian's training made it automatic for him to immediately plot several exits out of the room, should they be needed, as well as spotting places where hidden guards – or worse – could be hiding. He could detect only two, and wondered if the Baron was really good enough to hide his other guards – or if he had only the pair in hiding.
The Baron himself was seated at the head of a long dining-table, a goblet of what Saber suspected to be highly alcoholic wine clenched in his hand. The thick-set Baron had startlingly red hair and pale skin, with close-set eyes that watched the two Riders intently. He did not rise to greet them, and in return Stephen did little more than nod his head coolly as he pulled himself a chair. Saber did not sit, but stood behind his father's chair, in posture and demeanor like a page awaiting his lord's command.
"Hello, Rider," the man said, raising his cup in what might have been a toast. Saber wasn't sure.
"Macduff," said Stephen, in a tone as cold as his nod earlier.
That was all the small-talk that they would be exchanging that day. They immediately set to business, arguing out the borders and treaties between Rheidyr and Macduff's estate, Malvon. Stephen had not brought Adian along because Macduff had indicated this was to be a private talk; and protocol dictated that in such a meeting, only members of the families involved ought to be present. But Smithson was there, standing behind his master's chair in an almost-mirror of Saber's position. Saber found himself often glancing around the room in order to avoid having to look at Smithson.
A futile hour later, both nobles arose for a mutually-agreed-upon break – which was about the only thing they had agreed on so far. Stephen walked outside, to where his soldiers waited for him – he did not trust Macduff to not have rigged his castle with hidden listening devices. He was fairly sure that Macduff could not have rigged devices to listen to people in the middle of the big stone-flagged courtyard, however, and so talked to Saber there.
"What do you think, Saber?"
Although his outings with his father took much-needed time away from his studies, Saber thought the price small to pay for being in his father's company – and to be talked to like this, like he was full-grown and his opinions mattered, and that his father depended on what he said and thought and did.
"Well…" Saber was silent for a moment, his mind humming away on the brutal lines of logic that he had discovered he had a talent for. "The castle seems run-down…" he said finally. "Signs of upkeep are sporadic. Look at the soldiers!" he said, though quietly. The men in Macduff black-and-red did look somewhat scruffy compared to the immaculate state of Rheidyr's soldiers. "It was his fights with his brothers, right? They each squandered Malvon's resources in order to try and win…" he continued, looking at his father for confirmation. When Stephen gave a single nod, Saber continued, more confident. "So he's desperate for money."
"That's correct," Stephen said, nodding again. "So what do we do with that information?"
"Er…" Saber fell silent again as he thought.
With subtle prompting, Stephen guided Saber to the plan of battle – for that was what the negotiations were, even if no physical violence was involved – they were to adopt for the meeting. Rheidyr would offer Malvon several concessions to ease Malvon's financial straits, in return for the concessions Stephen really wanted – the ones to ensure Rheidyr's security and inviolability. Stephen was one of the richest men in the kingdom, a fact he kept well-hidden by his relatively low-key style of living, and Rheidyr would easily absorb the losses. Not that he meant for Malvon to keep those concessions…
"Why, father?" Saber asked, fascinated. Trained from early on for rule, he found these games of power incredibly engaging, interested in them in a way most children would not be.
"We're buying time with this, Saber, and that's all we're doing. But in a few years, if I read him right, Malvon's increased resources will make Macduff ambitious again. And that's when we'll make our move."
"War?" Saber said, eyes shining with a young boy's dreams of glory and honor on the battlefield. Stephen, who knew better, shook his head with a sigh. He'd avoid it if he could, but the meeting had done nothing but strengthen his conviction. Macduff had a nearly insatiable lust for power, and an advisor – that damned Smithson! – who would egg him on. War was, to say the least, inevitable. At least this way he would have the time to refine his forces and prepare them.
"You will not say a word of this to anyone," he warned Saber, who did nothing but shoot him an annoyed glance for assuming he would be so incredibly careless as to break silence. "Come, Saber. I believe our break is over."
And they went back into Glasnair.