Rare Things for a Rare Life

The Knights of Joshua

by Tiana Dokerty © 1984-2021

Home | Chapter 23 | Chapter 25

Chapter 24: Changes of Fortune 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.

 

High Castle – The King’s Drawing Room

Sagen waited for Commander Taylor to compose a suitable answer to the question he’d just posed.

“Your Majesty. I’m not sure I know where to begin,” Taylor stalled.

“I am not doubting your loyalty, Commander. I am enquiring as to the informal connections you have been developing. Please don’t deny the fact. It would underestimate both of us.” The king beckoned to his minstrel, who had been strumming gently in a distant corner. “Dwain, I think it’s well beyond time that you were formally introduced to Commander Peter Taylor.”

The officer standing with the king frowned as the musician approached. “I don’t understand, Your Majesty. I’ve known your minstrel for many years.”

“And you still underestimate and dismiss him as unimportant.” Sagen chuckled. “What higher recommendation could there be, Dwain?”

“None, Sire.” The troubadour set down his lute. When he straightened up, he was taller and projected a quiet confidence. He held out his hand to the Commander as if he was an equal. “I, and a few other fellows, provide King Sagen with information about… oh… everything.”

“He’s my Spy Master,” Sagen translated as Taylor’s eyes grew wide. “You are now one of a tiny group who know his true value to me. Not that he doesn’t have a fine voice and… how did the lady-in-waiting describe your hands?”

“I could not possibly disclose Lady Ush-Wha’s words to someone who has not yet acknowledged my worth, Sire.” Dwain’s smile imitated the lady’s, to Sagen’s immense amusement. It caused Taylor to blush.

“I…” the Commander began, “That is, it had never occurred to me tha—”

“It wasn’t supposed to,” Dwain bragged.

King Sagen stepped back to watch the exchange play out.

Dwain had been with him since shortly after Jonathan had left for the Knights’ School. His loyalty and devotion were as unquestioned as the several princely fortunes the minstrel had amassed.

Commander Taylor was loyal and a devout follower of Joshua, the country and the king… in that order. He would no more support a corrupt monarch than turn his back on a fellow believer in need. However, Sagen and Dwain had independently become aware that the officer had knowledge he should not have.

The question was: where was that information coming from?

The answer was some of Joshua’s faithful had developed their own intelligence operation. A development so unlikely it beggared belief. Sagen knew Melazera had an extensive spy network, as did Locke. A handful of nobles had less capable organizations. And he had people that kept him informed. Although, who they were was something he left to Dwain.

More important than discovering this was that Taylor passed on almost every significant finding he’d learned to the king.

That ‘almost’ was important because the things the military officer had not passed on would have compromised his sources. That confirmed Taylor was loyal, but not blindly so. It also demonstrated the officer protected himself and his people.

All good things, but…

Taylor straightened and held out his hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I apologize but I don’t know how to address you.”

“Minstrel, Dwain, I don’t care… but never by some title. It would be dangerous for all of us. In regard to the king’s question, what’s your answer?”

The Commander took a step backward and focused on the king. “I think it safer for all concerned, if I retain my habits of discussing such matters only with his Majesty.”

“An excellent decision,” Sagen acknowledged, “although not the only one that would have let you leave this room alive.”

Taylor nodded curtly.

“Geleib Melazera has designs on the throne. He is willing to do almost anything to obtain it,” the king continued. “If I am to defeat him, I can be no less determined. You are a loyal officer, one that I have great faith in. However, had you demonstrated disloyalty or unnecessary squeamishness, or a lack of circumspection, I’d have acted against you.”

“A most rational decision, your Majesty,” Taylor confirmed.

“I am glad you agree. Moving on to the question I asked.”

The commander looked at the floor for a few moments, then up into the king’s eyes. “Yes, I do have… sources.”

Sagen held up his hand. “Thank you. I greatly appreciate the insights they’ve uncovered and passed on. What I need is to know more of what they see, detect, perceive, and witness. I must have as complete a picture as possible of what is occurring. That means small details too, not just their discoveries. Plus, I want to learn how can they assist me in my war with Melazera. Can they provide more than just information? And, finally, please tell me what they need from me to be successful.” He paused, hoping he had not asked too much or scared Taylor off. “What I will never need to know is who they are, where they are, or how they come by whatever… assistance… they provide.”

Taylor continued to study the floor; his brow furrowed. Then he looked directly at the king. “I can do that, your Majesty, without any reservation or qualm of conscience.”

“Then, while my minstrel plays something suitable,” Sagen prompted, “why don’t you and I discuss details. There are several factions alive within Freislicht that I perceive can, and are willing to, come to our aid. If we are to win, we need all of them. Perhaps more importantly, we need someone to act as their public leader…”

Jon, I pray you’re still out there and are the man I knew.

“…to unite around. Although, that is a discussion for another day. What can you tell me?”

As notes began falling from Dwain’s lute, Taylor looked back and forth between the two men, his brow still furrowed. Then he nodded, as if to himself. “I have received critical information for several years from an individual who has proven reliable. It does not arrive according to any schedule. It appears when it appears. Yet, that man and those whom, I assume, he associates with have missed very little. They have already broached passing on their findings to you.”

“That’s excellent news,” Sagen encouraged.

“However,” Taylor took a deep breath, “I may – I must stress may – have a way to contact the outlawed Knights of Joshua, who—”

The king clapped a hand over his own mouth to silence his surprise. It was far beyond what he’d hoped for.

May Joshua guide us. Perhaps, just perhaps, almost all of the pieces are in place. Perhaps the years I bought by elevating Melazera to duke have been worth it. Now, if only I could contact Jon.

 

High Castle The Queen’s Drawing Room

Danyth waited to be announced. As usual, it was Lady Ush-Wha who escorted him into the queen’s presence. “Good evening, your Majesty.” He bowed as the door closed behind them.

Melyssa’s smile was dazzling, as always. “Brother dearest, do you realize that, at least in private, you may address me by my given name?”

“And which given name would you prefer?” He forced himself not to grin.

“You’re in a bold mood,” she teased. “What’s got you so?”

“We’re closing on Rosewood. Or, more accurately, on one of his lieutenants. But you didn’t answer my question, sister dearest.”

Melyssa poked her tongue out at him. “Even in private, that’s too dangerous a question to be asking, let alone answering. With the growing number of Alexandrians here in the capital, there are days when I’m sure I’ll be discovered.”

“Never,” Danyth contradicted her. “It will not happen. Do you know why? First, because the Lockes have declared that you are one of us. Second, because they would have to produce the ‘real’ Melyssa, who is happily married and living south of the Shining Mountains amongst the most delightful and predatory group of barbarians… no offence, Lady Ush-Wha.”

“None taken, Lord Danyth,” the lady-in-waiting replied, while looking him up and down hungrily. “My offer is still open. I’ll happily, lustfully, take you as husband.”

Danyth felt his face warm. She’d always had that effect on him. “If only the choice were mine, I’d accept in a heartbeat but, as heir to the Duchy of Alexandria, it is not.”

“You mean your mother still thinks she can find a better match than me,” Ush-Wha purred provocatively.

“Now, now, you two,” Melyssa interceded. “If you keep staring at each other like that, you’ll make me blush.”

“You did plenty of that as a girl,” Ush-Wha recalled, “when staring dreamily at the delicious young man you now refer to as your brother. Then again, so did all the young maids, me included.”

“It seems, ‘sis’,” Danyth goaded, “that I’ve missed out on a few things in our shared childhood. You may not be a blood member of the family but you were by almost every other criterion. There were days I thought you spent more time in our houses than I did.”

Melyssa’s face reddened. “That was only because you have so many sisters and cousins that at least one was always pregnant and my mother could not remain to tend them.”

Danyth chortled. “The third reason no Alexandrian will ever expose the little switch, you for Melyssa, is that it would anger the family of which, for now and all time to come, you are a part.”

“But…” the queen began only to be cut off by Danyth’s wickedest grin.

“You are a Locke,” he corrected. “You may not have been born one but we’ve claimed you as our own. Even Ush-Wha has accepted that, haven’t you?”

“I am proud to serve Queen Melyssa and the Lockes,” the lady-in-waiting stated as if daring her charge to disagree, “of whom, she is and always will be one.”

“See, sis? The matter’s settled. Now, why’d you summon me?”

 

High Castle Gardens

Cailleagh sat quietly in the shade, trying to work out when things had gone wrong, when she had made mistakes, and how to rectify them.

She watched as Queen Melyssa played with her eldest daughter, Eliorah, now four years old. Envy, resentment and – blast it – admiration warred within her.

There was no doubt that the golden woman who spelled Cailleagh’s doom was the queen. None whatsoever. Yet, there was something about Melyssa that made it difficult to dislike her. No, that was unfair, inaccurate and…

Aaarrrggghhhh!

It was impossible to dislike Melyssa.

Not even the ludicrous, so-called lifeline that the queen had held out to Cailleagh four years earlier – an act that should have cemented Lady Melazera’s ire permanently – made it possible to sustain hatred for the upstart monarch.

Cailleagh wanted to scream out loud, to vent her angst, frustration and conflicted torment upon the world so it drowned out everything else. Yet, she could not. She had to remain outwardly calm, pleasant and in control. Only as a part of the queen’s extended circle did she retain any real power.

She still performed the ceremonies that Geleib, the Warrior and her guiding spirits required, but… but somewhere along the way, the fiery belief that had been instilled in her had dwindled.

There was a way, a ritual, that might reverse things, but…

Always, always, there was a ‘but’…

In this case, it required the blood and soul of an enemy. Not just any enemy, someone who had dedicated their life to opposing the God of this Age. And, despite repeated promises and protestations, neither Steven nor Geleib nor any of the now-hidden Black Robes had delivered Jonathan O’Toole into her hands…

…leaving Cailleagh impotently watching Melyssa play with her daughters.

 

The Lion & Tiger Inn

Jon had spent weeks at the Lion & Tiger Inn, mostly in hiding from soldiers and others with loose tongues, preventing him from seeing anything other than four walls. It had given him too much time to think. Even the few exercises he could silently perform in the cramped spaces did not help.

It had been five years since Dunis Glen and the lies perpetually told about it. The knights had been outlawed, and Jonathan had been declared Commandant Greyson’s murderer.

Most of those years he had spent in Esthlanis, where the Lord’s still small voice had guided him. He’d taught the Writings, honed his fighting skills, and learned new ones.

Yet the lies spoken about Dunis Glen plagued him. They disturbed his sleep, troubled his waking hours, and would not let him be. Not that he was worried for his own sake. He was not. He was worried for David. The stories told about his son did not ring true.

I have to speak with him.

It had also been five years since he’d spoken to David. Five years since he’d a fleeting glimpse of his son fighting gallantly to defend another knight at Dunis Glen. Since then, there’d been no contact. He did not even know where David might be.

The still small voice whispered, Seek Drake.

 

High Castle – The King’s Drawing Room

King Sagen studied the chessboard, then the man seated opposite, Gregory Locke of Alexandria, while considering the alternative wager that had just been proposed.

“Which perplexes you, my king? The board or the gamble I offered?”

Sagen leaned back. “I understand the board, it’s clarity and the infinite variety that can arise from a finite number of moves. I’ll not say that I understand your current gambit, which is out of character. It’s too bold. Potentially too expensive for what you’d attain.”

“That might be true, Sire, if the board, my offered bet and a certain larger situation were not all intertwined. My daughter is your wife. My heir is your steward. Your daughters are my grandchildren. I already have pieces beyond price on the larger board that is our kingdom. So, how can my moves be too blatant, too audacious?”

“That is a… unique… way of framing things.”

“Hardly, Sire. It is merely pragmatic. A point will come when you must move openly against Geleib Melazera and those who follow him. Sadly, his suffering an unfortunate ‘accident’ will not resolve the situation. Otherwise, I would have arranged it – on your behalf, of course – long since.”

“Of course? The fact that there are long-standing rivalries between the Lockes and Melazeras would have played no part in your actions?”

Gregory leaned back, mirroring the king’s body language. “No part? That would be untrue. I’d have enjoyed it immensely. But unlike Melazera and his witch of a wife, I do not act based solely on the pleasure something will bring. I am not a hedonist. I am a realist. I deal in money, numbers and their brutal, inevitable interactions. So, will you accept my wager?”

“It seems backward to me.”

“Why? Instead of playing for a bejeweled trinket, we play for the safety of those I love. If I win, you agree to add six of my Alexandrians to protect you and the queen. Three to protect each. If you win, you take only four. And, of course, you get final approval of those helping to defend your lives.”

“As I said, Duke Gregory,” Sagen responded, “it seems backward. If I win, I get less.”

“Would you prefer more?”

The king wondered, again, what the southern lord was planning, and why was he approaching it this way? Then again, Gregory was one of the finest players in the kingdom and rarely did anything without reason… no, reasons. Like Sagen, he thought multiple moves ahead. “I would.”

“Then, if you win, I shall supply you – at my expense – with a dozen well-trained specialists to aid in your and the queen’s protection.”

“Much better. My father, King Edal, would have said, ‘excellent!’ So be it.”

If I’m right, I’m about to see Gregory Locke deliberately throw the match. He’s also teaching me that to win, sometimes you need to appear to lose.

 

West of Caswell

Jonathan left his horse in the woods. Turning his cloak brown-side out to match the terrain, he walked the half-mile to Caswell Castle slowly, deliberately, praying to remain unnoticed as he waded through the tall grass.

He crouched and surveilled for any signs of Melazera’s troops.

This small, lonely castle stands in the middle of the kingdom, forgotten.

“Hallo, Drake,” Jonathan said flatly, seated on a windowsill, the light falling on him hazy with dust.

The man he addressed lifted his head and stared, dispassionate. Though the same age as Jon, he wore his years like a ball and chain. Above his excessive weight, his face hung like a death sentence. He was despair personified. The books and papers amassed about him were like the bars of his cell.

Jonathan was surprised Drake Caswell had not noticed him when entering, then shuffling across the chamber to his desk, sitting down, and picking up a quill. At one time, the Earl of Caswell had been a well-trained knight.

The chamber had many tall, narrow windows. The walls were covered in tapestries depicting events during the height of the Caswell dynasty, except where there were shelves holding rolls of dusty parchments and many books. All of which were in disarray.

Jonathan had been here once, when David and Cynthia were married. It had been a grand celebration. Drake’s father had been very generous and spent quite a sum on it, since an itinerant knight could not afford much. He and Drake had sat in this very room teasing David about married life while waiting for the ceremony to begin. The castle looked like it had fallen on hard times. Otherwise, the structures were the same as he remembered.

It was a happier place then.

Finally, after a long pause, Drake spoke as if in a dream. “I never thought I would see you again. But I did wish to, many times, many times,” he paused. A faint smile passed across his face. “To run with you, and Sagen, and Geleib through fields, unaware of all of this….” His voice trailed off. He sank back in his chair, tossing his quill onto the desk.

“If you mean Geleib,” Jonathan stated, “he changed after his mother died. Maybe it was riches or power or something else, but there is no resemblance to the boy we ran with. He is twisted, and has been for a very long time.”

“Jonathan, I am sorry.” Drake fell silent, shrouded in gloom, his eyes pleading. “I don’t know what else to say.”

“You did much. It is far too late to undo any of it. Yet, I forgive you.”

“Thank you.” A slight, perhaps tender, smile crossed the Earl of Caswell’s face. Then, as if he had just awoken. “How in the serpent’s tail did you get in here? And what do you hope to gain, here of all places? There’s a price on your head! Not even the king could save you, Jon. Not even if he wanted to.”

Jonathan laughed, then slipped down from the windowsill to sit in the chair in front of Drake’s desk. He contemplated the state of his old friend.

How does one descend to this? He has had the marrow sucked from his bones.

The still small voice within chastised, But for the grace of God, you might be as he.

“Pretty austere for an Earl, Drake. No money for decorating?” Jonathan looked about the plain chamber, seeking any sign of the man he used to know.

“You know me, Jon, no need for pomp and circumstance. Besides, between the king and Melazera, there’s not much room left for a third peacock. Why are you here?”

“I am here to ask for your heart again, Drake. God will forgive. You need only repent, leave this place and come with me. I’m bringing the knights back. And I need to see David. Where is he? It’s time to set things right, to set the—”

“Jon, Jon, still the dreamer. It’s too late, many years too late. Melazera rules. In fact, if not in name. No one is left to oppose him. I am too ensnared in his stratagems. Look at me, I’m not fit to go anywhere with anyone.”

Jonathan rose up, “Drake, is slavery so good you would finish your days as a bureaucrat, helping Melazera put the last leg iron on our people? How many times can you look in the mirror, ashamed? I forgive all, but have you forgiven yourself? Have you stopped doing that which is wrong? Wake up. If you stand beside me, many will join us. Perhaps even the king can be brought to see.”

Drake looked up at the knight. “Jon, it is hopeless. Melazera is too strong, too cunning, too murderous.” He looked down at his desk. “He would snuff us out.”

“I must try.”

“Ha, remember Dunis Glen.” Drake’s eyes flashed as he leaned into the words.

“Thanks to you!

“And David.”

“Yes, and David, thanks to your faithlessness,” Jonathan chastened as he looked the other man hard in the eyes. After a long pause, the knight’s gaze softened. “Drake, I will see my son. Where is he? David can make up his own mind.”

Drake stood up slowly and lumbered to a tall window. He stared out at the meadow where rowdy boys were running toward a small stream, a large brown dog bounding beside them. Sunlight shone upon his face. The hardness melted from his countenance.

“David is the commandant at Mid Fort. If you’re captured, I’ll not intervene, and you will die,” Drake softly spoke, having returned to his trance. He faced Jonathan again, “Cynthia and your grandchildren are under my care. They are well provided for. Melazera has agreed to leave them be, at my request. David has distinguished himself on the frontier. Without him, the Mestels might have broken through many times. You can be proud of him,” he ended, looking down.

“I am,” Jonathan sighed, “and thank you for protecting our grandchildren

He is a man in chains.

“You are either too kind or addled, Jon. How do you propose to go to the frontier when it is only open to soldiers?” He returned to the desk.

“Leave that to the Lord and me.”

Jon turned to leave.

“Wait,” Drake wagged a finger, opening a drawer. “David asked me to give this to you.” Wrapped in a velvet sack was the dagger and sheathe Jon had made for his son’s entering the Knights’ School.

Jonathan accepted it with a pained look, then grasped the other’s hand. “Drake, I will pray for you.” Then he walked out.

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