Chapter 23b: Meetings – 159 AK, Early Summer
I Corinthians 9:25-27 And every man that strives for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beats the air.
The Road South
At King Sagen’s order, Commander Taylor and every other senior military officer was required to, at least twice a year, patrol one of Freislicht’s major roads. On this occasion, Taylor would be riding all the way to Alexandria and back via Fairness Crossing.
Meeting Gregory Locke had been a surprising pleasure, given the man’s reputation as a ruthless banker, an anti-religious bigot, and an inveterate producer of daughters. The last of those three accusations being the only one to have proven true.
Locke neither cared for nor opposed religion, an odd position from Taylor’s perspective as a follower of Joshua. Yet Locke wasn’t the fanatical atheist he was reputed to be.
As for his business dealings, Peter Taylor wouldn’t like to sit at a negotiating table opposite the Duke of Alexandria. Unfortunately, that was exactly what King Sagen had sent him to do. A time was fast approaching, a scant few years hence, when things would have to be resolved once and for all. It wasn’t possible for the king to visit Alexandria, and Gregory Locke’s duties prevented him from attending the king in High Castle more than once or twice each year.
The meetings had been… eventful.
Taylor forced himself back to the present and the chess board in front of him. After years of tentative negotiations, he was finally going to meet with a member of the Knights of Joshua.
Daryl Andrews, the proprietor of the Lion & Tiger Inn, had been very accommodating. Travelers usually only remained for a single night, two at most. Yet, he’d willingly put up the commander and his entire escort.
A brightly dressed woman, whom Taylor had noticed yesterday, came down the stairs, pushing a wild lock of hair back under her colorful scarf. She then went to the front desk, accepted a receipt from Daryl, blew him a kiss, and departed her curly brown hair bouncing.
“See you next time, Helen!” Daryl called.
Such a delightful lady. Taylor smiled.
He planned to remain for a full week as, in addition to the other ‘side tasks’ added by the king, these trips were intended to see whether the roads were being adequately patrolled, what was happening to the locals, and what problems the people faced.
The Inn also provided a location where his private efforts to contact the outlawed knights might occur. His contact with them wasn’t supposed to arrive until the final day. In the meantime, his escort were carrying out their duties, training, and flirting with the proprietor’s oldest daughter, Charmaine.
Commander Taylor, however, had nothing to do but wait. He exercised with the men, enjoyed the inn’s food, was surprised by its range of wines, and played a lot of chess with an elderly merchant who’d been stranded by a thieving partner.
The old man was a friendly sort, if perhaps too trusting. He’d sent a letter to relatives in Alexandria and was confident they would soon arrive to help him get back home. It had already been two weeks.
The Lion & Tiger Inn
Miles approached and bowed. “Sorry to interrupt, sir. The tea you requested will be brought to your room at first-watch, if that is satisfactory.”
“Yes, that would be very helpful,” the waggoneer responded, not looking up from the chessboard. “I have had such trouble sleeping lately. Your tea helps me.”
“Very good, sir.”
The waggoneer looked at his opponent. “Do you think we’ll finish this game by first watch, Commander?”
Taylor frowned as he looked over the board. “Perhaps. You are giving me quite a challenge this time.”
“This is life, young man, this is life. Infinite possibilities come from our limited choices.”
Lorness Castle – Geleib’s Rooms
Cailleagh watched from the bed as Geleib paced back and forth clutching the note that had just been delivered. His expression was one she knew all too well. He was trying to conceal something from her.
No, he was trying to conceal something important from her.
Could it be…?
"My love, what irks you so? Has your favorite plaything been injured? Perhaps, killed?”
He whirled, glared at her, then strode to the window and looked out.
Ooh, this is going to be fun.
“It’s even worse, isn’t it?” She purred. “Let’s see if my spirit guides can inform me…” She broke off, consciously displaying a shocked expression. “O’Toole, it’s O’Toole!”
Geleib’s back tightened. His stance became more rigid.
She was on the right track.
Standing, she allowed the flimsy robe she was wearing to fall to the floor, advanced and wrapped her arms around him from behind.
“I…” He began, melting into her touch.
“Steven and O’Toole…” Cailleagh whispered, floating the idea that had come into her mind. The contraction of Geleib’s muscles confirmed the hunch. “You wouldn’t react this way if it wasn’t dire. The two have clashed. If O’Toole was a prisoner, you’d be elated… even if Steven was dead. You know how much that would please me. O’Toole’s capture, not your son’s demise.”
Not that I’d mourn his passing. He distracts you from more important things, like me.
Geleib turned. “There are moments when I’m reminded you too have spirits guiding you… and thus have value,” he ended coldly, broke free of her grasp and began to stalk off.
“My love, as always, you are correct. However…”
“To retain the full support of your guiding spirit, the Warrior, you must demonstrate your devotion. It is months since you have sacrificed to him. You have missed three of his sacred days. You—”
“I have more important things to do. Things that require my immediate attention.”
“That, again, is true.” She lowered her head and looked at him through half-closed eyelashes. “But your success began with the Warrior. You promised him, and me, O’Toole as a sacrifice.”
“I… perhaps, you are right. It would be foolish of me to break promises. Worse, it would set a bad precedent that could undermine all I have built. O’Toole will be yours. Do with him as you wish, as long as you prepare him for final sacrifice to the Warrior.”
“Wounded… but he’ll live. And he remains a valuable asset.”
“Of course, my love.”
The Lion & Tiger Inn
Daryl Andrews watched the candle burn. It was lit at sunset and took three hours to burn down to the line scratched into the tallow. He prepared the tea and took it upstairs to the waggoneer’s room. He knocked lightly three times.
The old man opened the door. “Come in. Thank you so much for bringing this.” Once the innkeeper was inside, he shut it behind the man.
“Sir, why have you been here all week? How can I help?” Daryl asked as he set down the tray.
“I’ve avoided you for your protection… and that of your family. I don’t know how closely Commander Taylor is watching. It’s him I’ve come to examine… and, perhaps, negotiate with. The king is ready to stand against the enemies of Freislicht. Be ready to act. The Lord is moving, Miles. Oh, I mean, Daryl. We’ll need everyone that can hold a sword.”
“Sir, Jonathan O’Toole is here, recovering from a nasty wound. He’s been trapped in my upper room by the commander’s presence for the last week. Perhaps you could minister to him before you leave.”
“I’ll do so, once the military have left.”
Rebekah-as-not-quite-herself strode back and forth, almost wearing a path in the carpet of the little farmhouse located two miles beyond Fairness Crossing. It had been set up to house and hide one of Licht Gegen’s analysts in plain sight.
Semagine Ecks - the gossipy widow with a nose for nastiness they’d found when looking for another Bywold Parsons – was relating her latest findings in regard to the Melazeras, “…and that must mean the Duke of Lorness’ people are preparing for something big. The baden shipments we’ve intercepted in recent moons have all been substantially larger than in previous years.”
“It could just be to offset those that we’ve…” Rebekah winked at the widow “…redirected. It has been enough shipments for him to have to compensate.”
“While that would be a lovely, if self-serving, conclusion,” Semagine disapproved, “it doesn’t match the facts. The security around the shipments continues to get better. Except the poor dears driving and arranging them are too loose-lipped when enjoying the services of… whores. We of Licht Gegen…” the pride in her voice was unmissable, as was her distaste for having to associate – even indirectly – with women who lacked morals. “…aren’t tempted by the lures of the flesh. We are above such things.”
“I’m well aware of your opinions. Just… I know we need information, no matter where it comes from. So, I won’t debate you on this topic again.”
“Hmph! I still say, the Serpent’s Servant is up to something. I can’t tell what… yet.”
“But…?” Rebekah prompted.
“But there are some rumors that need to be investigated further…”
“Coming from those women you’d prefer not to deal with… even indirectly.”
“I’d prefer not to deal with them at all, Lady Rebekah!”
“I’ve told you before not to address me so.”
“How can I not when… you know my circumstances when you found me. I shall always be in your debt. Another moon, another week, perhaps another day and I’d have had to… taint… myself by…”
“It didn’t come to that. Thank the Lord. Nor will it,” Rebekah soothed.
“Still, the thought of what I might have had to do…” Semagine shuddered.
“Perhaps you might consider this when you pray for those who have been brought low,” the lady chided.
The widow about to speak, paused with her mouth open, perhaps in reflection.
Rebekah smiled. “How can I help you get the information that you’re missing?”
“I’ve had a thought…”
Rebekah tuned out, knowing it would take some minutes before the widow’s plan would be put forth.
However, the way the widow’s eyes twinkled meant someone was about to have a very, very unpleasant comeuppance. That was typical of the vindictive woman’s schemes. It would also probably work. Semagine wasn’t merely an excellent analyst. She had a flair for dirty tricks, the dirtier the better.
That was one of the main reasons Rebekah managed her personally. The thought of one of her people getting on Semagine’s bad side was one she didn’t want to contemplate.
The Lion & Tiger Inn
Days had passed since Taylor had arrived at the Lion & Tiger. He’d enjoyed the rest. Just as he’d been fascinated to see how the settlement around the Inn had changed.
The knight had not shown up. Taylor was disappointed, but not overly surprised. Having lost another game to his chess partner, he reset the board for a final game.
In the last year, several more families had begun farming nearby, a blacksmith had set up shop, and a saddler had opened a store. There was even a grain and feed merchant, who also sold the occasional horse, although it was only open every other week as there wasn’t enough business to operate fulltime. Not yet.
Then there were the travelers. Most were happy to meet one of the king’s officers. They talked of their lives and, sometimes, their troubles. Sadly, those dwelling under Melazera’s rule were easy to spot. They were more guarded, more nervous. Although, when he could get them talking, some of the stories he heard were…
Taylor put that thought aside, refocusing on the chess board in front of him. Annoyingly, the waggoneer’s family still hadn’tcome for him. That chafed. It was inconsiderate. No, it was wrong. The old man was good company and deserved better.
Yet, no matter how much he’d learned, he needed to get back to his duties at High Castle.
The old waggoneer made another bold move on the chessboard, murmuring, “I think we can work together.”
The statement made no sense, so Taylor said nothing. He didn’t know how to reply. He wasn’t interested wagons and transport. He was career military. “Perhaps you could expand upon that?”
“Perhaps,” the elderly merchant grinned, “I should have introduced myself more formally. But, I wanted to know who I’d be dealing with. I’m Daikon Sylvanus Elfert Baxter of the Knights’ School.”