Chapter 14: Long Live the King – 152 AK, Early Autumn to 153 AK, Summer
Ephesians 4:22 That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts;
Outskirts of Farr Castle
Like every other salesman, trader and merchant, Beck had come to Farr Castle to watch the Royal Annual Hunt and take advantage of the opportunities that arose when so many gathered together. However, in her case, she was not interested in sales – very few would want to buy a plow – but in gathering and disseminating information. It had become a part of her yearly plans.
Just as each year, she ‘accidently’ encountered either Commander Peter Taylor or Major Patrick Gunnels. Then, as the commander’s kinsman or the major’s friend, they would have dinner, get drunk, and exchange stories late into the night.
This year, Commander Taylor had duties that kept him at High Castle, so she was on the lookout for Patrick. However, it was too early in the day for him to put in an appearance, so she window shopped.
She kept an eye out for certain hard-to-find objects that Licht Gegen needed. The foremost of which was weapons. She could not purchase them in bulk, nor could she buy them everywhere she went, without drawing unwanted attention.
In the temporary marketplace established on the outskirts of Farr Castle, wares were on display that were not seen at any other time of year. Amongst them were Esthlani short swords. The foreign merchant was doing very little business.
Beck felt he looked rather dejected. “Why the long face?”
“I listened to my cousin. ‘Aodh,’ he says, ‘go to Farr Castle. Make a killing at their Annual Hunt Fair. You’ll sell more there in a week than anywhere else in Freislicht in a year.’ That last might be true. I’ve sold almost nothing and the others selling swords derided me for wasting my time trying to sell our weapons.”
“Well, every salesman wants to undermine the other’s confidence,” Tomas responded. “I sell plows. Some of the tricks my competitors have tried…” She chuckled.
“I suppose it’s the same everywhere,” Aodh grumbled.
“Mind you,” she picked up one of the blades and examined its craftsmanship, “I can think of several farmer’s wives who’d think these fine weapons. If you’re not too busy,” she grinned, “perhaps I could buy you a drink and we could chat about a possible mutually profitable arrangement?”
Aodh scratched his chin then nodded, “I—”
He was drowned out as a Herald shouted for silence, then proclaimed, “Be it known that King Edal is dead, gored by a rogue boar. Long live King Sagen!”
The listening crowd chanted the new king’s name but their fears, doubts, and worries colored their voices, rendering them weak and unenthusiastic. Shop keepers and merchants began closing down their stalls.
No one would be selling today. No one would insult King Edal’s memory by doing so. It'd anger potential customers. The only people to profit would be tavern keepers.
“That drink sounds like a great idea,” Aodh threw tarps over the wagon on which his weapons were displayed. Then he turned to a redhaired lad, “Aaron, look after things. I’ll be back later.”
The boy nodded.
“Bring one of your blades, so I can look it over as we drink,” Tomas suggested, while wondering what had really occurred. She’d bet half her fortune there’d been foul play. She’d bet the other half that she could predict the rumors that’d be flying around by nightfall, both positive and negative.
By the following morning, she’d won both bets, not that she could prove anything. She’d also spread a few rumors of her own. And she may have found the beginnings of a way to equip Licht Gegen with something more than third-hand weapons. Time would tell.
Farr Castle – Sagen’s Chambers
Sagen had not attended the hunt. There had been some pointless argument with the Lord of Lorness and, as Geleib was going, he’d decided not to.
Guilt consumed the prince. He stared out the window, unable to cry anymore. Through all the arrangements for the funeral and the coronation, he was mute. He only nodded or shook his head.
Sagen was afraid to assume the throne. He was not ready. His father should still be alive, and should have lived for many more years.
Everyone told him the feeling would pass, that the grief would become bearable, that it just required time. He sent them away.
He had not prayed for a long time but did now. “Father, forgive me. I have forsaken you. Help me, I am drowning in guilt. Sycophants surround me. Who can I trust? Show me, in Joshua’s name, I pray.”
He felt the pressure lift some, told the porter he did not want to be disturbed, and slept until the following day.
Six weeks later, Sagen was crowned king of Freislicht at High Castle. He was still numb but made a good show of it for the benefit of his people and the nobles.
He was glad Geleib was by his side.
King Sagen had thought he could just imitate his father but there was still so much to learn. As King Edal had, he retained Geleib as his Steward. He was Sagen’s closest advisor and spoke frankly to him. His other friends fawned over him.
I can’t bear it.
Over the following weeks, the new king reserved less and less time for those friends. Steward Melazera had him study every day, as well as practicing with sword and horse.
Sagen was so busy he almost forgot his grief. It always came back with the cold and dark of night, only for Geleib to rescue him each morning with another day’s rigorous schedule.
But as weeks passed, the new king began to disagree with Geleib more and more. Quietly, he contemplated the advice his steward had given. He reviewed the implications of decisions he’d made so far in his reign. He did not like the conclusions he reached. Laws had been subtly altered in ways that could have profound effects.
He re-engaged his old friends in casual surroundings, giving them opportunities to prove their integrity. He watched for examples of responsibility, perseverance, and wisdom. In public, he sought for kindness and grace. And he observed their interactions with Melazera. When alone with one, he knowingly said something unwise to see if they would correct him.
Slowly, he built a mental catalog of those he might be able to trust, those who had sold themselves to one master or another, and those in between.
The Royal Tour
King Sagen planned a tour of the kingdom, leaving his Steward behind to manage things, but without the authority to change laws or make edicts.
Despite these restrictions, Geleib was happy with the arrangement.
Commander Taylor had recommended Major Blackhawk be assigned as commander of the king’s military escort.
The tour would take several weeks, as the king would visit his highest nobles’ homes but stay only one night at each so as not to overburden them… or demonstrate favoritism. He would be accompanied by a small entourage of a dozen or so servants – his butler, cupbearer, page, personal cook, and coachmen, in addition to the cook’s kitchen hands, grooms to tend to the sixty horses, and the wagon drivers needed to haul supplies – plus thirty-six soldiers, most of whom he knew well.
When King Sagen arrived at the Earl of Sandria’s estate, he announced his intention to inspect the nobleman’s lands dressed as a commoner. He wanted to see the true state of his people. Were they happy? What issues concerned them? What changes would improve their lives?
The Earl was nervous about this. Perhaps he was concerned for the king’s safety, or perhaps that the king might learn too much.
Major Blackhawk was not comfortable either. But he dressed as the king did and stayed by His Majesty’s side, chatting amiably that Sagen not stand out too much. He had a third of his men, similarly dressed, form a loose cordon around them. The remainder were armed and ready for battle, waiting for Blackhawk’s signal that, thankfully, never came.
King Sagen was impressed by the major’s efforts to protect him. He had been watching Blackhawk for weeks, having requested every record available on his would-be-protector a moon before departing on the Royal Tour.
Sagen had thought Blackhawk young for his rank but was even more shocked to learn the officer was only twenty-five. He’d assumed he was at least thirty.
The major is remarkable and a potential ally. Clearly, my father saw valor in him.
King Edal had received many reports from the people of the good works done by Blackhawk on the High-Castle-to-Fairness Road.
From the files of Lieutenant, then Captain, then Major, Steven Blackhawk:
Winter 144 AK:
Storms brought down a dozen dead trees blocking off a section of the High-Castle-to-Fairness Road, trapping several wagons. Unwilling to abandon their trade goods, they were almost out of provisions when found by the lieutenant. Blackhawk had his men chop down other trees and use them as fulcrums. The resulting firewood was left on the side of the road for passersby.
Spring 145 AK:
Blackhawk came upon a robbery. Three riders had waylaid a wagon carrying two men headed to Fairness Crossing to trade. The lieutenant had his best bowmen injure one man, while he commanded the other two to surrender. Then he gave them a choice: all three could be taken to the dungeon at High Castle, or they could decide which of them would be flogged. They decided on the latter. The story spread, resulting in a notable reduction in robberies.
Autumn 148 AK:
Blackhawk’s patrol encountered a family with a fallen wheel. The mistress was in labor prematurely. The lieutenant had his men repair the wheel and escort the family to the nearest inn, while sending a rider to get a local midwife, who arrived before the babe. There was great rejoicing for a man-child was born.
Summer 149 AK:
Blackhawk was promoted to Captain for meritorious service and given command of a company of fifty soldiers.
Winter 150 AK:
About one hundred peasants had laid siege on their Lord’s estate. They were demanding redress for their grievances. They were starving.
The lord of the estate had sent a messenger to High Castle.
Blackhawk studied the terrain surrounding the estate, then arranged his archers so they could engage from every angle. No blood had flowed yet, only much yelling. He rode through the crowd into the courtyard and told them to disperse. He added that he’d see that their leader spoke with the lord, and they could appeal to the king if still unsatisfied.
They continued to yell.
He threw a red pennant into the air.
An archer pierced it, pinning it to the door.
Understanding the danger they were in, the peasants dispersed, thus ending the revolt.
Blackhawk was commended for its quick resolution.
While traveling from the Earl of Sandria’s home to the Duke of Wooster’s, Sagen watched Blackhawk, who was attentive to everyone under his charge. The major even helped a footman lift a heavy crate when the caravan stopped for lunch.
As they continued, the king’s curiosity won out. He sent for Blackhawk. “Major, join me in my carriage, I wish to talk with you.”
Blackhawk hesitated, surprised, “As you wish, Your Majesty.”
King Sagen rapped the coach’s roof and the carriage stopped.
After tying his horse to a fixture behind the coach, Blackhawk entered it on the far side.
“Continue,” the king instructed the driver, causing the coach to lurch forward again.
Sagen examined Blackhawk.
He has self-control, looking straight at me with a slight smile. His breathing is slow. He seems content.
“Tell me how you’re a major at twenty-five.”
“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” Blackhawk bowed as far as possible while seated, “I’m not prepared to answer well, but I’ll try.”
“I simply want to know who you are.”
Despite his protestations about being unready, Blackhawk spoke well, concisely, and conveyed his story in an amusing manner.
If this is how he speaks when caught off-guard, I want to see how well he does when he’s prepared. Let’s find out.
“I tire of hearing the same stories each evening. Major, prepare some amusing anecdotes to tell over and after supper. At dinner, ensure the stories are suitable for a lady’s ears. For later on, something a little spicier.”
Blackhawk had excelled that evening. He held the attention of everyone while they were seated at the banquet tables. Sagen even noted that a handful of eligible women, whose sole focus was blatantly to become the next queen, swooned at the major’s words. As for the stories told later… Sagen had blushed, roared with laughter, and been thoroughly entertained.
This man is indeed someone I want serving me, but I want to know more.
By the time the Royal Tour was half-complete, Sagen had made his decision, instructing the major, “I have another task for you. When we return to High Castle, you are to meet me once a week to discuss the state of the kingdom. I need to know the unfiltered truth. Given the breadth of your experience, I want to view Freislicht through your eyes.”
“Happily, your Majesty,” the major replied.
As the tour turned westward to Alexandria, King Sagen took stock of what he’d learned so far and the things he’d had time to ponder on in depth. He’d discovered several of his nobles remained true to his father’s ideals and could be relied upon for support. He’d identified more who were Melazera’s creatures… for clearly, the Lord of Lorness had their loyalty. Then there were those who would go with the wind, regardless of where it blew.
That just left those who followed Duke Gregory of Alexandria. Sagen had already learned that he’d badly underestimated their hatred of the Melazeras. They seemed loyal to the Crown, but their famed independence clouded matters. He’d learn more when he met Gregory.
The situation is both graver and better than I’d imagined.
I have enemies. Real enemies who want my throne, my country, and all my royal line has built. Enemies who… did they kill you, father? Or, did they just take advantage of the situation?
I have allies – or, would-be allies – but have no way to rally them, nor even meet with them regularly without drawing attention.
How do I begin?
Geleib strutted around the castle. He’d dismissed the guards he did not own, then proceeded to please himself by sitting on the throne and dreaming of the day it would be his.
I want to celebrate but Cailleagh didn’t come with me. I no longer have any orphans here as she takes them all for her Order, so something else will have to suffice.
“Bring Macom’s woman up from the dungeons. The one he so inconveniently returned while we were on the road to… here.”
She’ll have to do.
The maiden had been taken in a debt collection, then bought by Lord Macom, who’d demanded a refund when she refused to submit to him. None of her family had survived, leaving her despondent.
I doubt she has much fire or resistance left in her. She’ll be such poor sport.
Washed and draped in finery, the woman was delivered in due course. She was bound and terrified.
Quite a beauty. Perhaps… this might be entertaining after all.
Geleib walked to her with a cup. “You can earn your release from the dungeon today,” he crooned. “Would you like that?”
She nodded meekly, eyes looking to the floor.
“You must be thirsty.” He put a cup to her lips and, after she drank, removed her bonds.
He picked her up in his arms, then laid her on a table, pushing the parchments to the floor. He coached her to do what he liked. He enjoyed her, despite her inexperience.
Then he plied her with more drugged wine and sent her to the Red Madame, along with a note that read: “Train this one and keep her for me. I want to see what you can make of her. Do your best.”
The Road to Alexandria
Sagen was not prepared for the reception awaiting him on the road to Alexandria. In many cases, his entourage had surprised the lords they were visiting. Others had a scant few hours’ warning due to alert sentries. However, it was evident even before entering Gregory Locke’s domain, that preparations had been going on for days, possibly since the Royal Tour began.
Three dozen men sourced from every southern noble household had ridden out to provide an honor guard, intercepting the royal caravan a day from Fairness Crossing. Its leader was Gregory’s eldest son and heir, Danyth, a handsome lad half the age of the king. With long flaxen hair, a neatly trimmed beard, and a suntanned face, he was typical of his family.
Nor had the riders come alone. Cresting a hill before sunset that night, Sagen beheld a tent city waiting for them. The smells of food carrying on the soft evening breeze made his mouth water. Servants had laid out tables, covered in heavy brocade.
“I apologize for the paucity of this small reception, Sire—” Danyth began.
“Small?” Sagen interrupted.
“Yes, Sire. There was barely any time to set up this staging point. We have only tents for your comfort this night. The inn at your next waypoint has been expanded and refurbished so that it’s fit for your royal presence.”
“I see…” Sagen kept his face impassive. As a display of wealth, it was impressive. As an example of how well-informed the Lockes were, it was far more so. “And what can I expect upon reaching Alexandria?”
“The city has been bedecked with the banners of all your southern lords. The duke, his earls, viscounts and barons, plus their ladies, are already in attendance and awaiting your arrival. A royal ball is planned for your one night with us. I know the duke would have you stay longer. It’s so rare for the king to visit the south.”
Sagen smiled. “That sounds wonderful but I cannot believe all your preparations have gone to plan. I’m making this trip, in part, to learn of my people, their welfare, and how I can improve their lot. Not just that of my nobles. So, tell me one thing that is not ready as your father would wish.”
Danyth nodded. “If I must, Sire. There are any number of petty things I could bring to your attention. However, the most galling – from my parents’ perspective – is that my uncle Bradley’s wife, Aleyn, is heavy with child and unwell. The result being my unmarried sisters have gone to be with her. They expected to return in time for your visit but, it seems, aunt Aleyn has taken a turn for the worse. Thus, my sisters will not be there to greet you. My mother is furious.”
“A pity,” Sagen replied neutrally. In truth he was relieved. It would be one less set of nobles’ daughters paraded before him, their parents seeking a royal alliance by marriage.
A messenger strode up and handed a note to the Duke of Alexandria’s son, who acknowledged it, dismissed the servant, skimmed the missive then frowned. “I also regret to inform you, Sire, that we have no performers to entertain you tonight. The axel on their wagon broke. However, they will be added to tomorrow’s line-up. I wonder,” Danyth hesitated, “I know it’s a poor substitute but… do you play chess?”
Tomas Beck was dawdling on the outskirts of Alexandria.
The Royal Tour, which had been the talk of the kingdom for many weeks, would arrive in the next day or two.
In fact, had she not known better, she might have been fooled into believing that the Alexandrians were having a sudden bout of national pride. They weren’t. The Royal Tour was the best, biggest and boldest business opportunity that had struck the southern capital in decades.
The newly crowned king was coming. Anywhere and everywhere that hosted him for the slightest period – a night, an evening, or just an hour – would be boasting of it for the entirety of his reign, and probably his successor’s. The same was true for those who entertained him, fed him and so on. There were even betting pools on how long he would stay where, what he might be interested in, and which bordello – if any – would be the first to provide its services to him.
All of which was immensely amusing to Beck.
More importantly, the preponderance of businesses of every sort, shape, and size offered opportunities that she was not going to miss out on.
Her biggest – and ever-growing – problem was the success of her business. It was distracting her from gathering and dispersing information. She’d been able to ‘hire’ assistants from within Licht Gegen but she needed at least one properly trained manager. Preferably one in the north and another in the south.
However, she needed people who would be both diligent, and who also didn’t ask too many questions about the non-business side of her operation. Patrick Gunnels had given her the name of someone who might be suitable but they would not be available until after the king’s entourage headed north again.
And so, Beck dawdled.
The Earl of Landryn’s Domain
Blackhawk had been strategizing on how to meet with the king safely.
Geleib cannot find out that I’m working with the king or keeping information from him.
It would be relatively easy at High Castle. But at Farr, it would be nearly impossible to do it covertly. Something overt would need to occur. Then he had an idea.
As they were preparing to leave the Earl of Landryn’s domain, Blackhawk approached the king and knelt on one knee. “Your Majesty, may I have a private word?”
“Yes, ride with me again.”
In the coach, Blackhawk suggested, “You could meet me, or anyone that you wish to talk with privately, by holding regular chess matches. I can play, and I have seen you do so. What do you think?”
“An excellent idea. My nobles also play, so I could invite them regularly.”
“Sire, I am here to serve you,” Blackhawk responded, bowing his head. “But, I must return to my duty or people will talk. What shall I tell them you commanded?”
“Tell my entourage that I wish to have a great feast at our next stop in the public square.”
Farr Castle – The King’s Drawing Room
Blackhawk looked away from the chess board, distracted by how best to commence a delicate, perhaps even dangerous, conversation with the king. His hands were sweating and his stomach had contracted into a knot. Yet, he kept the expression on his face neutral and polite.
“Check,” Sagen scolded. “Pay attention. Is something on your mind?”
Steven smiled back. “Sire, you know I like to play lax throughout the first half of the game then try to recover.” He moved the knight to king’s-bishop-three with a wink.
“That’s more like it.” Sagen laughed.
Blackhawk didn’t care who won. He enjoyed the camaraderie. Learning to play chess well enough to defeat Geleib had been important to the Lord of Lorness. There had been consequences whenever Steven lost to him. So, everything Steven learned to do, he learned to do well. It was the only way to avoid painful repercussions. But, with the king, he felt free to lose. It was a powerful and intoxicating position to be in.
However, it had been twelve weeks since King Edal’s murder. Blackhawk and Commander Taylor had agreed that King Sagen must know the truth now or feel betrayed.
Sagen had shared his concerns about Geleib.
Blackhawk had shared the names of those he knew were not with Melazera.
There was a tentative trust between them.
“Sire,” Steven paused before continuing, “I have something to tell you that will upset you. I beg you to listen to the whole story before responding. The entire kingdom is counting on your wise response. Check.”
Sagen looked up from the board, nodded, then moved his rook to queen’s-knight-seven.
“Commander Taylor and I have evidence that your father was murdered. We suspect Melazera was behind it, but have no proof. Nor have we discovered the actual perpetrators. Searching for them might alert him to what we know.” Blackhawk went on to tell the whole story.
Sagen’s expression did not change, nor did he utter a word while Blackhawk spoke. Then he rose from his seat. “Let us have an intermission.” He walked to the buffet and picked up an apple.
Blackhawk watched the king’s expression change ever so slightly as minutes passed. He thought he witnessed shock, anger, analysis, understanding, and finally resolve. Yet Sagen was a difficult man to read. Steven needed some sign, some response to indicate what the king’s mind had perceived. “My king, we will beat him.”
“I know, Steven.” Sagen announced as he walked back to the chessboard, then moved his queen to king’s-rook-two. “Mate in three moves.”