Chapter 45: Trials – 160 AK, Late Spring to Late Summer
Amos 5:24 But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.
High Castle – The Queen’s Drawing Rooms
Melyssa indicated that the doors to her drawing room be closed. The guards outside were all hers. Not the king’s. Not Gregory’s. Hers. All of whom were mightily put out that they were going to miss the fun.
The king’s and Gregory’s people were guarding the outer perimeter. They knew something was going on but none were going to speculate about what. Nor would they permit anyone else to do so.
Within the drawing room there were only the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, a special guest who had been sworn to secrecy, the rest of her guards, Lady Ush-Wha, and the object of every one of her ladies’ lusts… Steven Blackhawk.
Tall. Dark haired. Massive shoulders. Rippling muscles. And that was before the king had gifted him properties whose total value kept rising.
Yes, every woman present was… appreciative.
Except Melyssa, of course. As a happily married woman, she was above the sort of distractions, infatuations, and fantasies about marrying and… uh, so on… such an eligible bachelor.
The floor had been specially covered in thick, tightly woven mats.
The two contestants, Steven and Ush-Wha, were both clad in layered protective clothing. It had been a gift from Clan Ush.
Blackhawk wore a bemused expression. It was clear from his body language that he had no doubts about the outcome of the contest. Ush-Wha was tall for a woman, yet he towered over her. He cleared his throat again. “Are you sure that you want to go ahead with this, your Majesty?”
“Yes, Master Blackhawk,” Melyssa confirmed. “The king really should have bestowed a title on you. Despite repeated protestations, he made Jonathan O’Toole a Baron. He—”
Her words were cut off by squeals of approval and several bosom-heaving sighs.
Ush-Wha took her place at the opposite end of the mats from Steven.
“When ready… begin,” the queen announced… then winced.
Without hesitation, Ush-Wha had dived forward, rolled one-and-a-half times and kicked Steven’s feet out from under him. As he fell forwards, she rolled sideways out of his path.
Steven tucked, rolling himself in the opposite direction. He came lightly to his feet, with a look of amazement on his face.
Ush-Wha had not risen, instead spinning, she lashed out with her other leg.
Blackhawk jumped over it, as a smile spread across his face. As she attempted to pivot again, he pushed her, increasing her spin, causing her to topple over. He then withdrew to the starting point. “I’ve not seen such a fighting style before,” he commented to the queen.
It was a mistake.
Ush-Wha recovered, lashed out with a high-kicking feint to his face, dropped low, swept his legs out from under him, and pinned him to the mat. “If I were not hunting other prey, beautiful boy, I would end this match properly and sample you this night.” Then she rolled off him and back to her starting position.
A blushing, shocked Blackhawk, looked over at the queen and the tittering ladies-in-waiting surrounding her. Then he flowed fluidly back to his feet. He held out a hand, palm outwards, commanding a pause before resuming the fight. “Your Majesty, I fear that to win—”
“Fear me, beautiful,” Ush-Wha purred. “I have brothers as large and strong as you.”
As the bout resumed, Melyssa gestured for her special guest to come close enough so they could whisper to each other. “What do you think of my protector? Is she a match for your ladies in Licht Gegen?”
Rebekah shook her head as Blackhawk managed to pin Ush-Wha, who bonelessly slipped from his grasp. “I must agree with Master Blackhawk, I’ve never seen… ouch!”
Blackhawk had evened the score, pinning Ush-Wha by using his full strength. The sound of them hitting the mats had made Melyssa scared for her lady-in-waiting’s welfare. She shouldn’t have worried.
Ush-Wha kissed Steven full on the mouth.
He pulled away.
“I…” Rebekah began but was shocked into silence by Steven scoring the third point. Neither fighter was now doing any less than their best.
“Let’s talk later,” Melyssa commanded, her eyes glued to the match as Ush-Wha evened the score again. This would get very expensive if Blackhawk lost.
Rebekah frowned. She stamped her foot and scowled. She’d been a baroness for more than two moons and still had not been able to go in search for Sarah.
Things kept coming up.
The first had been the invitation to the… private match… from the queen. How could she have said no to that? Not to mention that seeing Blackhawk lose three out of the five bouts had been cathartic. Yes, he’d saved David’s life but Cynthia… he’d.... Even if doing so had also saved her life, which seemed ever more likely.
The second had been that the clearly pregnant queen had taken a liking to Rebekah, and had drawn her into that royal’s inner circle.
The third delay was the preparations for the trials of Cailleagh Melazera, George Rosewood and Taryssa Caswell. Licht Gegen was gathering evidence for both their prosecution and defense. King Sagen demanded that when the trials were held all of the facts would come out… and all of the accomplices involved would be named.
Licht Gegen was also looking for Sarah and her adoptive mother, Kennah Beecher.
Rebekah had noted that there was a woman with that name here in High Castle. Yet, that was the midwife to the Lockes of Alexandria and to the queen, not someone Blackhawk could have bumped into while on the run in River Town.
And then there was the meeting that she had kept putting off with Dwain.
“Baroness,” the minstrel appeared out of a side corridor, “you aren’t going to avoid me again, surely? Have I done something to offend you?”
Rebekah detoured into an empty room then closed the door after he’d joined her. “What have you done? That ballad, that accursed blasted ballad. I’m known everywhere!”
“You aren’t suggesting that you intend to continue your pretense as Tomas Beck?”
She considered slapping him. “How do you…? We’ll come back to that. No, I’ve been Tomas less and less in recent years. I had to put in an appearance now and then to keep the illusion alive but I’ve had apprentices and other salesmen working for me for over a decade. Not to mention that simply sifting through all the information Licht Gegen was—”
“…yet another fulltime job. Yes, I know. I’m… his Majesty’s chief spy. And my organization has been watching yours – and you – for longer than you’d be comfortable knowing. That said, I greatly appreciate your networks… and don’t want to see them disbanded, go to waste, or assist someone else. Therefore—”
Rebekah narrowed her eyes. Yes, she should slap him. But she didn't. “I became a spy to protect myself, my family and my country.”
“Those are exactly the reasons you should remain a spy,” Dwain insisted.
“Melazera is gone, and like him most of his followers. Most. Some remain. If we are not vigilant—”
“What do you want of me?” Rebekah demanded.
“To continue doing what you’ve been doing. Have your people collect information and pass it along. I’d like this to be a one-way street but King Sagen has other ideas. I need to remain near him, invisible because I’m always there. I need someone who can go anywhere without causing the slightest interest.”
“So…” Rebekah shook her head, “that’s why the king gave us all those homes.”
“Only in part. So, what do you say?”
“I have a condition. Find my daughter, or her fate, before the year is out. I’ll work with you until then. If you’ve been successful, I’ll stay. If not, I’m done.”
Dwain stroked his chin. “I can work with that…”
High Castle – The Main Hall
Jonathan was uncomfortable.
The finery of his new clothes made him uncomfortable, even if they were far more understated than every other noble present.
The fact that he was a noble made him uncomfortable, despite it pleasing Rebekah greatly. And despite it creating opportunities for him to help others in ways that he never could have imagined.
The fact that he was – well, they were – rich made him extremely uncomfortable. Not that he could blame his wife for her successes and business prowess. He was more than impressed. He was amazed, astounded, and proud. He was still getting his head around the extraordinary range of enterprises she was involved in. All of which had helped, and were helping, members of Licht Gegen.
And, despite all of these things, the thing he was most uncomfortable about was that he was standing at King Sagen’s side as one of his advisors, while his friend made a few more announcements.
The Royal Herald had called the court to order.
Sagen did not rise from his throne. He sat regally. “Citizens of Freislicht, each week at this time, I have acknowledged the service, loyalty and sacrifice of those who helped save our nation. There are many more individuals that I will acknowledge. Yet, the seven that I wish to thank today are especially important to me, both as your king and personally.
“I command the following people to step forward and take their rightful place at the front of this assembly: Daikon James of the Wood, Daikon Sylvanus Baxter, Daikon Crispus, Daikon Sunak, Daikon Norin, and Sir David O’Toole.”
The six knights all moved forward.
Jon noted how tightly David’s hands were pressed to his sides, clearly feeling out of place to be standing amongst the others. He sympathized. It felt wrong for him to be standing beside the king. Then realized he was standing in the same manner and tried to relax his arms.
“Knights of Joshua,” Sagen rose from the throne and stepped forward to address them, your individual actions, and your sacrifices,” the king’s eyes focused on the missing fingertip on David’s left hand, “spurred this nation, and me, into action. I will not regale this court with your exploits. Others will tell those tales in the days, moons, and years to come. Yet, I will correct a most grievous mistake that I made early in my reign. I was guided to outlaw your Fellowship. When I retook control of Farr Castle and High Castle five years ago, I issued instructions that none of my officials in those locations was to enforce the prohibition of your Fellowship. However, I did not, and have not yet, reversed that ban.”
Jonathan felt a lump form in his throat.
“I do so now. The Fellowship of the Knights of Joshua is, from this moment forth, no longer an outlawed organization. Further, by my decree, I give the lower peaks of Shining Mountain – except for those who dwell there already – and the lands surrounding their original School, to the Fellowship in perpetuity. Further, funds will be provided from the Royal Treasury to rebuild the School to the knights’ specifications.
“In addition, the properties formerly associated with the Earldom of Caswell are hereby given to the Roving Knights chapter, so that they may form a permanent School in or around Caswell as they see fit.”
Jonathan was delighted and wanted to jump for joy but could not… only reminding him of how uncomfortable it was to be standing before everyone. At that moment, he was very proud of Daikon James and his boys.
“I also wish to make two more appointments,” the king continued. “Sir David O’Toole, due to the machinations of the Melazeras, you and your family suffered cruelly. You were used by them as scapegoats, falsely praised by them as one of the ‘heroes’ that had saved Freislicht from the Knights of Joshua and,” he chuckled, “your father’s so-called rebellion. The truth is far grislier. I understand that as a lad, you were trained to breed and break horses. I am in need of such skills. Will you consent to become the Royal Master of Horse?”
David blinked, bowed and nodded.
The watching crowd applauded, as did Jon.
“Master Steven Blackhawk,” the king commanded, “step forth.”
Blackhawk did so, a puzzled expression on his face.
“Master Blackhawk, on the day that I made Jonathan O’Toole one of my barons, I did not provide you with similar honors. An omission that has been brought to my attention by many, including my queen. However, you and I had discussed the matter and you, quite forcefully, informed me that you would refuse any title of nobility I might offer.”
Jonathan kept a straight face. This must have been what he looked like when he’d been set up to become a baron.
“It has come to my attention,” Sagen glanced at Melyssa, “via certain circuitous routes, that you have developed a… fascination… for all things related to Clan Ush, who dwell south of the Shining Mountains. Indeed, I am told that you’ve attempted to come to grips with aspects of their culture, with varying results, on several occasions.”
Jon wondered what was going on. Then recalled a not-too-informative comment by Rebekah. He’d have to ask her more about it later. In light of the king’s comments, he might be missing something.
“Accordingly,” the king’s smile, Jonathan noted, mirrored the one from just before announcing the knight would become the Baron of Myhufri, “as I cannot merely have you wondering around distracting every unmarried woman in High Castle and its surrounds, I appoint you as Our Royal Ambassador to Clan Ush. We’ll meet in a few days to go over the details.”
Jon bit the inside of his lip, wondering if his own expression had been as blank as Blackhawk’s was. However, before he could decide, the king had adjourned the Royal Court.
High Castle – Apartments of the Royal Master of Horse
Cynthia had not understood why David had been summoned to the Royal Court. She’d even less idea why her presence had also been required. Or, why they’d been given four days’ notice of the event.
She had spoken with her mother-in-law, Rebekah… no, Baroness Rebekah of Myhufri. That worthy, if somewhat daunting, woman had insisted on ensuring both David and Cynthia were appropriately attired.
For David, that meant an entire new set of knightly garb.
For Cynthia, it meant… she still could not take in the three dresses that had been made so that the two women could select the appropriate one for the day.
Then Rebekah had escorted Cynthia, as if she – Cynthia – was the one to be honored.
Yet, that was what had occurred. Cynthia was – she still had trouble grasping it – the wife of the Royal Master of Horse. She had a place in the Royal Court. She was… someone.
It was all quite overwhelming.
Especially after… after…
She saw him, Blackhawk, stride forward to stand beside her husband.
Blackhawk who had… had… He stood there, proud and strong.
Not frail, scared and timid, like she was.
The rest of the ceremony passed in a blur.
She quivered as Blackhawk strode toward her, reliving his brisk approach and the pain as he had pulled her to her feet. She held her breath, frozen in place…
…and then he had walked past.
She’d heard that some… no, almost all… of Melazera’s other victims had been killed in gruesome, diabolical ways. The rest, if they’d been lucky, had been sold to brothels. The things that had been done to them made her shudder but could not ease her memories.
She felt chilled and hugged herself feeling as if she was naked again, men watching. She had no control over her reactions. She’d hoped to never see him again. Except to…
…she pushed the violent images of his demise away.
She prayed in the spirit but the only meditation that helped was envisioning the burning strips of that emerald green dress and the colorful flames they had made.
Then David was standing in front of her, and they had been escorted… here. The apartments that came with his new role. They were as lavish, if smaller, than the house provided by Drake and Taryssa. They overlooked the horse yards, which meant she could be close to David at all times.
“Are you happy? He asked.
“I’m blissfully numb. Did you know about this? If so—”
“No, I didn’t. I think the king even caught my father by surprise. Although, in hindsight, I suspect my mother knew. I was also warned that the queen likes to ride most days… and is used to sheltering in this dwelling until her mounts are ready. So…”
“I’m going to have to entertain the queen?” Cynthia did not mean to squeal. It just came out that way. “What do I…? How…?”
“I’m told a steward of the chamberlain will be along to brief us later today,” David soothed. “However, I’ve already been told to just be polite and friendly. Apparently, Queen Melyssa likes to know what is happening amongst normal people, indeed is fascinated by gossip.”
Cynthia brightened, “I can do that. I can gossip.”
“I know you can, but… what if Blackhawk asks for a horse. Will you be well?”
“I think,” she gathered her courage, which as quickly dispersed, “I’ll just stay out of sight, if he appears. Someday… have you thanked him for saving your life? I should, but…”
“But…” David drew out the word “…I still want to punch him, repeatedly for what he… yet… I’m also grateful, which leaves me confused. Yes, I’ve thanked him. I’ve also punched him, although only once, and it felt… good. Perhaps we’ll both just stay out of his way. He’ll be leaving soon, anyway.”
Blackhawk had sworn that he would be gone before the trials commenced. It was late summer. Yet, Cailleagh’s – if it could be called that – had already occurred.
The former Duchess of Lorness had pleaded guilty to all the charges leveled against her. She had acknowledged that it would not be possible to undo even a fraction of the evils she had committed and, thus, was willing and ready to meet Lord Joshua.
She had not asked for clemency but nor would she name co-conspirators in open court. However, those watching were informed, she had provided an exhaustive list to Licht Gegen.
The mood within the Royal Court was clearly that she should be put to death. That was the penalty all of her accusers had demanded. All except one group who were referred to as the Scarred Women.
These twenty-or-so were from the far south. All were horribly burned and mutilated. Most had had their ears seared away, rendering them deaf. They had stated death was too quick and merciful. Instead, they asked for the former Lady Melazera to be placed in their custody so she could perform penitent deeds until they day she died. That while she could not atone for all the wrongs she had committed, she should for as many as possible.
The king’s sentence had found a balance between the two. “Cailleagh Melazera, We are thankful that you have found Joshua and renounced your former life. However, you have done great wrongs in this kingdom and must be punished for them. The penalty for those crimes is death.
“Yet, I have been moved by the pleas of the Scarred Women.
“Therefore, your sentence shall be as follows. You are sentenced to death, with a stay of no more than one moon, during which you will leave Freislicht, never to return. You are banished. Should you ever return, you are to be killed on sight, as the person doing so will be carrying out my lawful sentence.
“To ensure that you leave Freislicht within a moon, you will be given into the care of the Scarred Women, who will transport you out of this kingdom and into the lands controlled by our allies, Clan Ush. Once there, you are beyond my jurisdiction. However, I hope that you live a long and penitent life.”
Steven fretted. George Rosewood’s trial began in three days.
High Castle – The Grand Courtyard
George Rosewood had once again been led out into the castle’s main courtyard. As usual, he struggled when he saw the waiting pillory that would hold his arms and head immobile, and the accompanying stocks that would lock his feet in place.
Guards were stationed around him to ensure his survival.
There was already a long cue of people waiting.
King Sagen watched from above. The queen at his side. “I am not sure if this is justice, barbarity, or simply torture. Yet, this man took so many children and sold them into slavery. He knowingly, gleefully caused such harm and sorrow that…”
“It hurts to watch good people involved in this.” Melyssa rested a hand on his shoulder. “I cannot imagine the depths of their sorrow and despair. Yet seeing the glee with which they line up to make a single cut in his flesh…” she shivered.
“But…?” Sagen prompted.
“But I have spoken several times to Baroness Rebekah about how this… fiend… stole her daughter. The primal reactions I have when thinking about what I would do to anyone who threatened our daughters or,” she patted her swollen belly, “this one… and this becomes tame in comparison to what I’d do to such a person.”
Below them, Rosewood began thrashing. No one had yet approached him. He had just been led out and put in place. His face grew florid as he began vomiting.
By the time a physician had been called, he was dead.
High Castle – The Main Hall
Rebekah sat with Jonathan watching the trial of Taryssa Caswell, Drake’s widow.
It had been a grim day for both of them. Neither had realized until very recently that Taryssa, one of the queen’s cousins, had been one of Cailleagh’s proteges. Nor that she had conducted human sacrifices, traded in slaves, plus blackmailed, imprisoned and tortured those of Drake’s subjects who had not bent completely to her will.
Yet the most gruesome of the former Lady Caswell’s sins related to the marriages that she had arranged, creating harems of girls who served her handful of male enforcers. None of those men had been taken alive, having been dealt with by either the Roving Knights or Licht Gegen.
Taryssa remained arrogant and prideful to the very end. When asked to explain her actions, she boasted of them. When asked about accomplices, she gave them up willingly, while disparaging them as gullible fools and lackwits.
The sentence was death.
It was carried out three days later on the same spot where George Rosewood had died.
High Castle, the King’s Drawing Room
Gregory Locke poured yet more wine for King Sagen, as Jonathan O’Toole tried to distract him. The queen had gone into labor hours earlier and all there was to do was wait.
Various things had been tried to distract the fretting monarch.
Ambassador Blackhawk had been summoned to play chess against Jonathan. Their matches were taking on an infamy all their own as each tried to dominate the other. There was none of the former commander’s lazy opening gambits. It was on from the moment the first of them moved a piece.
Gregory had been fascinated by their rivalry. Both were excellent players but something came out in each when they played the other.
The king had noticed the same thing and been engrossed in their first match. But his interest had waned by their third, which looked like it was heading for another draw.
Dwain, the King’s Minstrel had then been urged to sing some of the bawdier songs he’d picked up recently. That too only distracted his Majesty for a while.
Food had been next, accompanied by wine.
Then more wine.
Then a lot more wine.
Jonathan and Sagen were currently, if very blurrily, reminiscing about childhood exploits.
Gregory had no interest in disturbing them. It was the most effective tactic so far. However, that left him alone with only Steven Blackhawk to talk to. “Have you been warned about Clan Ush?”
“What in particular, your Grace?”
“It’s Gregory in private, Ambassador. May I call you Steven?”
“The most important things you need to know before venturing south of the mountains is their mating rituals. They are more… direct… than anything north of the mountains.”
“What specifically are you referring to?”
“The Ush are a matriarchy. Their women rule but cannot own land. Only men can do that. So, for a woman to attain wealth, status and power, she must marry well.”
“I don’t see how that’s so different,” Blackhawk frowned.
There was a knock at the doors and a herald entered bearing a message. Seeing the alcoholically-challenged king’s state, he approached the Alexandrian duke. “You Grace?”
Gregory took the note, read it and smiled. “The king has a son… but the queen is not fit to receive him as yet and, for everyone’s sake, I think his Majesty needs some sleep before meeting his heir.”