Chapter 25: Meetings – 159 AK, Late Spring
Fifth Rune of the Alte Regieren: Do not become enamored with your tools. They should be easily discarded when an improvement is available.
The Road South
At King Sagen’s order, Commander Ta’ler and every other senior military officer was required to, at least twice a year, patrol one of Freislicht’s major roads. On this occasion, Ta’ler would be riding all the way to Alexandria and back via Fairness Crossing.
Meeting Duke 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 Ta’ler’s perspective as a follower of J’shua. Nor was the duke the fanatical atheist he was supposed to be.
As for his business dealings, Ta’ler 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 High Castle more than once or twice each year.
The meetings had been… eventful.
Ta’ler 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 J’shua.
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 happily put up the commander and his entire escort for several days.
A brightly dressed woman, whom Ta’ler 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. Ta’ler 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 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 Ta’ler, 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 many games 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’d soon arrive to take him home.
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’s satisfactory.”
“Yes, that would be very helpful,” the waggoneer responded, not looking up from the chessboard. “I’ve such trouble sleeping. Your tea helps.”
“Very good, sir.”
The waggoneer looked at his opponent. “Do you think we’ll finish this game by first watch, Commander?”
Ta’ler frowned as he looked over the board. “Perhaps. You’re giving me quite a challenge this time.”
“Such is life, young man, such is life. Infinite possibilities come from our limited choices.”
Lorness Castle – Gaelib’s Rooms
Caileagh watched from the bed as Gaelib 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.
It couldn’t be the note he’d so carelessly discarded about the redeployment of the Lightning Battalion. It wasn’t yet ready to serve as his personal guard. That would take many months more, at least.
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… or 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. “Otual, it’s Otual!”
Gaelib’s back tightened. His stance became more rigid.
She was on the right track.
Standing, she allowed the flimsy robe she wore to slip to the floor, advanced and wrapped her arms around him from behind.
“I…” He began, melting into her touch.
“Stev’n and Otual…” Caileagh whispered, floating the idea that’d come to mind. The contraction of Gaelib’s muscles confirmed her hunch. “You wouldn’t react this way if it wasn’t dire. The two have clashed. If Otual was a prisoner, you’d be elated… even if Stev’n was dead. You know how much that would please me. Otual’s capture, not your son’s demise.”
Not that I’d mourn that beautiful boy’s passing. Much. Still, he distracts you from more important things, like me.
Gaelib turned. “There are moments when I’m reminded you too have spirits guiding you… and thus value,” he ended coldly, broke free of her grasp, and began to stalk off.
“My love, as always, you’re correct. However…”
“However, to retain the Warrior’s full support, you must demonstrate your devotion. It’s been months since you sacrificed to him. You’ve missed three of his sacred days–”
“I have more important things to do. Many things require 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, Otual as a sacrifice.”
“I… perhaps, you’re right. It’d be foolish to break promises. Worse, it would set a bad precedent, undermining all I’ve built. Otual will be yours. Do with him as you wish, as long as you prepare him for final sacrifice to the Warrior.”
“Wounded… but alive. And still a valuable asset.”
“Of course, my love.”
Owakar continued scratching in his journal, as the Warrior approached.
“It is only a matter of time before I have Otual. More and more of Gaelib’s followers search for him. He will stumble into their path soon enough.”
“Perhaps. J’shua is not worried.”
The Warrior paraded a circle around the angel. “He should be. I'll destroy that knight, proving to J’shua and his Father that our power is supreme."
Owakar looked up. “I heard that Blackhawk cannot sit a horse, while Jon’than rode many miles to safety.”
“Lies! There’s no such intelligence.”
“Perhaps.” Owakar smiled.
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.
The old man opened the door. “Come in. Thank you so much for bringing this.” Once the innkeeper was inside, he shut it.
“Sir, why’ve you been here all week?” Daryl asked, setting down the tray.
“I’ve avoided you, for your protection… and your family’s. I don’t know how closely Commander Ta’ler is watching. I’ve come to examine him. The king’s ready to stand against Freislicht’s enemies. The Lord is moving, Miles. Oh, I mean, Daryl. Be ready to act. We’ll need everyone that can hold a sword.”
“Jon’than Otual’s here, recovering from a nasty wound, trapped in my upper room by the commander’s presence. Perhaps you could minister to him before leaving?.”
“I’ll do so, once the military have left.”
R’bekah-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…” R’bekah winked at the widow “…redirected. It’s been enough 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 this topic again.”
“Hmph! I still say, the Serpent’s Servant is up to something. I can’t tell what… yet.”
“But…?” R’bekah prompted.
“But there are 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 R’bekah!”
“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,” R’bekah 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.
About to speak, the widow paused with her mouth open, perhaps in reflection.
R’bekah smiled. “How can I help you get the information you’re missing?”
“I’ve had a thought…”
R’bekah tuned out, knowing it would take some minutes before the widow’s plan would be put forth.
However, the way the widow’s eyes glinted 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 R’bekah 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 Ta’ler 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 hadn’t shown up. Ta’ler was disappointed, but not overly surprised. Having lost again 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.
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…
Ta’ler put that thought aside, refocusing on the chess board in front of him. Annoyingly, the waggoneer’s family still hadn’t come for him. That chafed. It was inconsiderate. No, it was wrong.
The old waggoneer made another bold move on the chessboard, murmuring, “I think we can work together.”
The statement made no sense, so Ta’ler 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 introduce myself more formally, I’m Daikon Sylvanus Elfert Baxter of the Knights’ School.”