Disciple of War Disciple of War by Michael G. Manning

Chapter 1

Breakfast was disappointing. Will had woken up late and when he finished dressing and came down, he discovered Selene waiting for him at the dining table. She pointed at his plate, which sat opposite hers at the table. He grimaced as he saw the contents—poached eggs, toasted bread, and a sausage that someone had sliced in half with the obvious intent to sear one side.

The sausage and toast had both been burned, and the eggs were a disaster. Properly done, a poached egg was a neat, tidy little package, but these were a messy horror of diaphanous whites that made them look like mutilated jellyfish. Will sighed deeply.

“Sit down,” said Selene with a smile. “Today—”

Will shook his head. “One second. I have to straighten something out.” He headed for the kitchen, looking for Blake Word.

Blake was their only servant, since Will had been too stubborn to hire a proper staff as most noble families did. The older man was a veteran and had previously served the king as an assassin and a special operative. After Blake had gotten older the king had reassigned him to serve as Selene’s chief servant and bodyguard. When Will had married her, Blake had come along as their butler of sorts.

Will had fought with him previously over food. Blake had no natural talent for cooking, but he tried. Will had discouraged him strenuously in the beginning and finally had relented to teaching him instead. Blake had improved a good deal, though it was unlikely he would ever meet the standards that Arrogan had instilled in Will.

But today, it was as if the manservant had regressed to his former incompetence.

He found Blake standing in the kitchen, looking nervous. “Good morning, sir.”

Will’s eyes said it all, but his mouth had lots of footnotes to add. “What possessed you this morning? Did you forget how to cook a sausage? Were you distracted? Maybe senile dementia has already set in?”

“Actually, sir, about that—”

Will held up one finger. “Don’t start making excuses. We’ve been over this. If you’re too busy to cook, then don’t. It isn’t fair to the food, and it isn’t fair to the people who have to eat what you’ve ruined.” He took a deep breath, then the image of the eggs came to mind. “And what the hell did you do with the eggs? You haven’t screwed up a poached egg that badly in months!”

Blake’s face went white and he held up one hand, pointing in Will’s direction.

“What? You’re blaming me? Spit out what you want to say.”

“Good morning, Your Highness!” said Blake loudly. “William and I were just discussing the shopping I plan to do later.”

Will turned and saw that Selene had entered the kitchen behind him. She bore an odd expression on her face, as though she’d been hurt by something but was doing her best to contain it. It was a stark contrast to the cheerful smile she’d had only a moment ago. He looked back at Blake, then at Selene once more. Gradually, his brain caught up with the situation and he realized his error.

Selene was wearing an apron, and Blake was not. Oh, Holy Mother! Will felt the blood drain from his face. She cooked for me.

Given her expression, it was all too clear that she had heard what he had said. She turned away and went back to the dining room. Will gave Blake a spiteful look, then hissed, “Next time warn me!”

The manservant shrugged helplessly, then mouthed the words, ‘Sorry, I couldn’t stop her.’

Selene returned and walked past them quietly, two plates in her hands. She went to the kitchen door.

It was obvious what she meant to do. “Wait!” called Will. “I haven’t eaten mine yet.”

She opened the door and dumped the contents into the scrap bin, then returned put the plates down. Without looking at Will, she told Blake, “I have a meeting at noon. I’ll be heading into the city early. Get the carriage ready for me.”

“Selene, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize—”

She interrupted him, “William, we can talk later. My stomach isn’t feeling well right now. I’ll be upstairs changing. I’ll see you this evening.” With that, she left the room.

Will knew she was angry. Selene only called him ‘William’ on formal occasions, or when she was mad. As a result of her royal upbringing, she was excellent at hiding her emotions, but that was always a giveaway. And I certainly deserved it, he thought.

Thinking back to the optimistic expression she’d had on her face just a few minutes ago only made him feel worse. Selene had returned several months ago, and now that summer had arrived, Will looked forward to spending more time with her without classes getting in the way, but lately it seemed he kept putting the wrong foot forward.

The biggest issue between them lately had been her training. She’d insisted they should move to the next stage, but Will kept delaying. While Aislinn had claimed that Selene was ready, he didn’t believe it. She’d brought Selene back almost the moment the heart-stone enchantment was removed. It was all too convenient. And if I get it wrong, she could die.

He couldn’t imagine what that would be like. He didn’t think he could live with himself if she died because of a mistake on his part. Actually, he wasn’t sure he could survive even if it was someone else’s fault. She was everything to him.

Rather than sulk, he went to the Alchemy building to check on his latest batch of potions. Ever since the near-disaster when Tiny and Janice had almost died, he had resolved to never be caught unprepared again. He had long since converted all the troll urine he’d obtained into regeneration potions, and he now had thirty-four of the precious vials stored in the limnthal. He’d also been disciplined in his manufacture of other potions. The phosphorous he had liberated had been turned into more than two hundred vials of alchemist’s fire, and he had produced nearly fifty vials of Dragon’s Heart potions after several rounds of what he called ‘vampire milking.’