Chapter 26: 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 Ta’ler to compose a suitable answer to the question he’d just posed.
“Your Majesty. I’m not sure where to begin,” Ta’ler stalled.
“I am not doubting your loyalty, Commander. I’m enquiring about your connections. 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 you were formally introduced to Commander Pet’r Ta’ler.”
Ta’ler frowned as the musician approached. “Your Majesty. I’ve known your minstrel for many years.”
“And still you dismiss him as unimportant.” Sagen chuckled. “What higher praise could there be, Dwain?”
“None, Sire.” The troubadour set down his lute. When he straightened up, he was taller. He held out his hand to the Commander as an equal. “I provide King Sagen with information about… oh… everything.”
“He’s my Spy Master,” Sagen translated as Ta’ler’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 couldn’t possibly disclose Lady Ush-Wha’s words to someone who hasn’t yet acknowledged my worth, Sire.” Dwain’s smile imitated the lady’s leer, to Sagen’s immense amusement. It caused Ta’ler 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 their exchange play out.
Dwain had been with him since shortly after Jon’than had left for the Knights’ School. His loyalty and devotion were as unquestioned as the several princely fortunes the minstrel had amassed.
Commander Ta’ler was loyal and a devout follower of J’shua, 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 shouldn’t have.
The question was: where was that information coming from?
More important than discovering this was that Ta’ler passed on almost every significant finding he’d learned to the king.
That ‘almost’ was important because the things the military officer hadn’t passed on would have compromised his sources. That confirmed Ta’ler was loyal, but not blindly so. It also demonstrated the officer protected himself and his people.
All good things, but…
Ta’ler straightened, gave a nod, and held out his hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you. Forgive me, 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.”
Ta’ler nodded curtly.
“Gaelib Melazera has designs on the throne. He’s willing to do almost anything to obtain it,” the king continued. “If I’m to defeat him, I can be no less determined. You are a loyal officer, one I have great faith in. However, had you demonstrated disloyalty, or a lack of circumspection, I’d have acted against you.”
“A most rational decision, Your Majesty,” Ta’ler 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 passed on. What I need is as complete a picture as possible of what’s occurring. That means small details too, not just their big discoveries. Can they assist me in my war with Melazera, providing more than just information? And, what do they need to be successful?” He paused, hoping he hadn’t scared Ta’ler off. “I will never need to know who they are or how they come by whatever… assistance… they provide.”
Ta’ler continued to study the floor, his brow furrowed. Then he looked directly at the king. “I can do that, Your Majesty, without reservation.”
“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’re to win, we’ll 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 still the man I knew.
“…to unite around, but that’ s a discussion for another day. What can you tell me?”
As notes continued falling from Dwain’s lute, Ta’ler looked back and forth between the two men. He nodded. “I’ve received critical information from an individual who’s proven reliable for several years. It appears randomly. Yet, that person has missed very little… and has already broached passing on their findings to you.”
“Excellent news,” Sagen encouraged.
Ta’ler took a deep breath, “I may – I must stress may – have a way to contact the outlawed Knights of J’shua, who–”
The king clapped a hand over his mouth to silence his surprise. It was far beyond what he’d hoped for.
May J’shua guide us. Perhaps, just perhaps, almost all the pieces are in place. Perhaps the years bought by elevating Melazera to duke were worth it. Now, if only I could contact Jon.
High Castle – The Queen’s Drawing Room
Danyth waited to be announced. As usual, Lady Ush-Wha escorted him into the queen’s presence, fluttering her eyelashes. “Good evening, Your Majesty.” He bowed as the door closed behind them.
Melyssa’s smile dazzled, as always. “Brother dear, in private, use my given name.”
“Which 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 Rosewud. 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. With the growing number of Alexandrians in the capitol, I fear I’ll be exposed.”
“Never.” Danyth took her hands. “It won’t happen. First, because the Lockes have declared you’re one of us. Second, they’d have to produce the ‘real’ Melyssa, who’s happily married and living with the Ush, a most engaging 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’s face flushed. 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,” Ush-Wha purred.
“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 ‘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 couldn’t remain to tend them.”
Danyth chortled. “The third reason no Alexandrian will ever expose the switch, you for Melyssa, is that it would anger the family.”
“But…” the queen began only to be cut off by Danyth’s wickedest grin.
“You are a Locke. You may not have been born one, but we’ve claimed you. Even Ush-Wha has accepted that, haven’t you?”
“I am proud to serve Queen Melyssa and the Lockes,” the lady-in-waiting stated with hands on her hips, daring her charge to disagree.
“See, sis? The matter’s settled. Now, why’d you summon me?”
High Castle – Gardens
Caileagh sat quietly in the shade, chewing on a fingernail, trying to work out when things had gone wrong, defining her 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 Caileagh’s doom was the queen. None whatsoever. Yet, there was something about Melyssa that made it difficult to dislike her. No, that was inaccurate and…
It was impossible to dislike Melyssa.
Not even the ludicrous offer the queen had made to Caileagh four years earlier – an act that should have cemented Lady Melazera’s ire – made it possible to sustain hatred for the upstart monarch.
Caileagh wanted to scream out loud, to vent her angst, frustration, and conflicted torment upon the world so it drowned out everything else. Yet, she couldn’t. She had to remain outwardly calm, pleasant and in control. Only as a part of the queen’s extended circle did she retain any status.
She still performed the ceremonies that Gaelib, the Warrior, and her guiding spirits required, but… somewhere along the way, the fire 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’d dedicated their life to opposing the God of this Age. Despite repeated promises and protestations, neither Stev’n nor Gaelib nor any of the Order had delivered Jon’than Otual into her hands…
…leaving Caileagh 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 gave him too much time to think. Even the few exercises he silently performed in the cramped space didn’t help.
It had been five years since Dunis Glen and the lies spread about it. The knights were outlawed, and Jon’than had been declared Commandant Greysun’s murderer.
Most of those years he had spent in Esthlanis, Mestelina and Tarinland, 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 worried for Dav’d. The stories told about his son didn’t ring true.
I have to speak to him.
It had also been five years since that last fleeting glimpse of his son fighting gallantly to defend another knight at Dunis Glen. He didn’t even know where Dav’d was.
The still small voice whispered, Seek Drake.
High Castle – The King’s Drawing Room
King Sagen studied the chessboard and 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, the infinite variety that can arise from a finite number of moves. I cannot grasp your current gambit, it’s 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 that larger board. So, how can my moves be too audacious?”
“That is an… enlightened… way of framing things.”
“Hardly, Sire. It is merely pragmatic. A point will come when you must move openly against Gaelib Melazera and those who follow him. Sadly, his suffering an unfortunate ‘accident’ won’t resolve the situation. Otherwise, I’d 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. “No part? That’s untrue. I’d have enjoyed it immensely. But unlike Melazera and his witch of a wife, I don’t act based solely on the pleasure something will bring. I’m 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.
South Tower of Caswell Castle
Jon’than crossed the empty chamber to the tall windows that rose on either side of the north corner letting in a cool breeze. Bright tapestries depicting events during the height of the Caswell dynasty covered the walls, except where there were shelves holding rolls of dusty parchments and many books. All of which were in disarray.
Jon’than had last been here when Dav’d 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 Dav’d about married life while waiting for the ceremony to begin.
It was a happier place then.
The castle looked like it had fallen on hard times.
Jon sat on a windowsill, the light falling on him hazy with dust. He’d seen Drake lumbering toward his office, shoulders hunched staring at his feet.
The man didn’t notice anything while shuffling to the large oak desk. At one time, the Earl of Caswell had been a well-trained knight. He sat down and picked up a quill. 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 the bars of his cell.
“Hallo, Drake,” Jon’than intruded.
The Earl of Caswell lifted his head and stared blankly.
Jon 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?” Jon’than 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, with Melazera about , it’s too dangerous to be another peacock. Why are you here?”
“I am here to ask for you, Drake. God forgives. You need only repent, leave this place and come with me. I’m bringing the knights back.”
Drake’s stare was blank as if he’d not heard the words, or refused to hear them.
“I need to see Dav’d,” Jon’than continued. “It’s time to set things right, to–”
“Jon, Jon, still the dreamer.” There was no strength in the rebuke. It was lethargic, as if he was repeating a too-oft-told argument. “It’s too late, many years too late. Melazera rules. In fact, if not in name. No one is left to oppose him. I’m too ensnared in his stratagems. Look at me, I’m not fit to go anywhere… or with anyone.”
Jon’than rose, “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 at your withered soul? 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’d snuff us out.”
“I must try.”
“Remember Dunis Glen.” Drake’s eyes flashed momentarily, then dulled again.
“Thanks to you!”
“Yes, and Dav’d, thanks to your faithlessness,” Jon’than 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? Dav’d 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.
“Dav’d is the commandant at Mid Fort. If you’re captured, I’ll not intervene, and you will die,” Drake softly spoke, having fully returned to his trance. He faced Jon’than again, “Cynthia and your grandchildren are under my protection and well provided for. Melazera will leave them be, at my request. Dav’d 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,” Jon’than sighed, “and thank you for protecting our grandchildren
He is a man in chains.
“How do you propose to go to the frontier when it is only open to soldiers?” Drake returned to the desk.
“Leave that to the Lord and me.” Jon turned to leave.
“Wait.” Drake opened a drawer. “Dav’d asked me to give you this.” Wrapped in a velvet sack was the dagger and sheathe Jon had made for his son’s entering the Knights’ School.
Although it pained him to do so, Jon’than accepted it. “I will pray for you.” Then he departed.