Chapter 47: 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 neither they nor anyone else would be permitted to speculate what.
Within the drawing room were only the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, a special guest who’d been sworn to secrecy, the rest of her guards, Lady Ush-Wha, and the object of every one of her ladies’ lusts: Stev’n Blackhawk.
Tall. Dark haired. Massive shoulders. Rippling muscles. And that was before the king had gifted him properties whose total value kept rising.
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, Stev’n and Ush-Wha, were both clad in layered protective clothing that had been a gift from Clan Ush.
Blackhawk wore a bemused expression. It was clear he had no doubts about the outcome of the contest. While Ush-Wha was tall for a woman, he towered over her. He cleared his throat again. “Are you sure you want to proceed with this, Your Majesty?”
“Yes, Master Blackhawk,” Melyssa confirmed. “The king really should have bestowed a title on you. He made Jon’than Otual 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 Stev’n.
“When ready… begin,” the queen announced, then winced.
Ush-Wha had dived forward, rolled one-and-a-half times and kicked Stev’n’s feet out from under him. As he fell forward, she rolled sideways out of his path.
Stev’n tucked, rolled in the opposite direction, and came lightly to his feet. An amazed look on his face.
Ush-Wha hadn’t risen. Spinning, she lashed out with her other leg.
Blackhawk jumped over it, a smile spreading 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 went back to her starting position.
A blushing, shocked Blackhawk, looked at the queen and tittering ladies-in-waiting. Then he flowed back to his feet. He held out a hand, palm outward, 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?”
R’bekah 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 made Melyssa scared for her lady-in-waiting’s welfare. She shouldn’t have worried.
Ush-Wha kissed Stev’n full on the mouth.
He pulled away.
“I…” R’bekah began, but was shocked into silence by Stev’n scoring the third point. Neither fighter was holding back.
“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.
R’bekah frowned. She stamped her foot and scowled. She’d been a baroness for more than two moons and still hadn’t been able to go in search of Sar’h.
Things kept coming up.
The first had been the invitation to the… uh… private match. How could she have said no? Not to mention seeing Blackhawk lose three out of five bouts had been cathartic. Yes, he’d saved Dav’d’s life, but Cynthia… he’d.... even if doing so had saved her life, which seemed ever more likely.
The second had been that the clearly pregnant queen had taken a liking to R’bekah, and drawn her into that royal’s inner circle.
The third delay was the preparations for the trials of Caileagh Melazera, Ge’rge Rosewud, 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 the accomplices involved would be named.
Licht Gegen was also looking for Sar’h and her adoptive mother, Kennah Beecher.
R’bekah had noted there was a woman with that name in High Castle. Yet, that was the midwife to the Lockes of Alexandria and the queen, not someone Blackhawk could have encountered in River Town.
Then, there was the meeting she’d kept putting off with Dwain.
“Baroness,” the minstrel appeared out of a side corridor, “you aren’t trying to avoid me again, surely? Have I done something to offend you?”
R’bekah detoured into an empty room then closed the door after he’d joined her. “What’ve you done? That ballad, that accursed blasted ballad. I’m known everywhere!”
“You aren’t suggesting you’ll continue your pretense as T’mas Bekh?”
She considered slapping him. “How do you…? We’ll come back to that. No, I’ve been T’mas 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 salesmen working for me for over a decade. Not to mention that simply sifting through the information Licht Gegen gathered was–”
“…yet another consuming occupation? Yes, I know. I’m… His Majesty’s chief spy. 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 go to waste, or assist someone else. Therefore–”
R’bekah narrowed her eyes. Yes, she should slap him, but didn’t. “I became a spy to protect myself, my family, and my country.”
“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 aren’t vigilant–”
“What do you want of me?” R’bekah 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 comment.”
“So,” R’bekah 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’s 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
Jon’than 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 he was a noble made him uncomfortable, despite it pleasing R’bekah greatly… and creating opportunities for him to help others in ways he’d never 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 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.
Despite all these things, he was most uncomfortable about standing at King Sagen’s side as one of his advisors.
The Royal Herald had called the court to order.
Sagen sat on his throne, an ermine robe adorning his shoulders, his crown upon his head. “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 I’ll acknowledge. Yet, the six 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 Dav’d Otual.”
The six knights moved forward.
Jon noted how tightly Dav’d’s hands were pressed to his sides, clearly feeling out of place to be standing with the others. He sympathized. It felt wrong to be standing beside the king. Then he realized his stance was the same as his son’s, and tried to relax.
“Knights of J’shua,” Sagen rose from the throne and stepped forward to address them, “your individual actions, your hardships, and your sacrifices,” the king’s eyes rested on Dav’d, “spurred this nation, and me, into action. I won’t regale this court with your exploits. Others will tell those tales in the days, moons, and years to come. Yet, I will correct a grievous mistake 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 that prohibition. However, I didn’t, and have not yet, reversed that ban.”
Jon’than felt a lump form in his throat.
“I do so now. The Fellowship of the Knights of J’shua 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’ satisfaction.
“In addition, the properties formerly associated with the Earldom of Caswell are hereby given to the Roving Knights chapter, so they may form a permanent School in or around Caswell, as they see fit.”
Jon’than was delighted and wanted to jump for joy, but couldn’t. It only reminded him how uncomfortable it was to be standing before everyone. He was very proud of Daikon James and his boys.
“I also wish to make two more appointments,” the king continued. “Sir Dav’d Otual, 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 saved Freislicht from the Knights of J’shua 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?”
Dav’d blinked. He bowed slowly and nodded.
The watching crowd applauded, as did Jon.
“Master Stev’n Blackhawk,” the king commanded, “step forth.”
Blackhawk did so, a puzzled expression on his face, his jaw clenched.
“Master Blackhawk, on the day that I made Jon’than Otual one of my barons, I didn’t 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 you’d refuse any title of nobility I offered.”
Jon’than kept a straight face. This must be how he’d appeared when 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.”
The queen glared back at her royal husband, a cryptic expression on her face.
Jon wondered what was going on. Then recalled a not-too-informative comment by R’bekah. He’d have to ask her more about it later. He might have missed something.
“Accordingly,” the king’s smile, Jon’than noted, mirrored the one from just before announcing the knight would become the Baron of Myhufri, “as I can’t 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. Before he could decide, the king adjourned the Royal Court.
High Castle – Apartments of the Royal Master of Horse
Cynthia hadn’t understood why Dav’d 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, R’bekah… no, Baroness R’bekah of Myhufri. That worthy, if somewhat daunting, woman had insisted on ensuring both Dav’d and Cynthia were appropriately attired.
For Dav’d, 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 the two women could select the appropriate one on the day.
Then R’bekah 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 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 anguish when he’d pulled her to her feet. She held her breath, frozen in place…
…and he passed by.
She’d heard that some… no, almost all… of Melazera’s other victims had been killed in gruesome, diabolical ways. The rest, if lucky, had been sold to brothels. None of which eased her memories.
She felt chilled and hugged herself, feeling naked again. She had no control over her reactions. She’d hoped to never see him again. Except to…
…she pushed the all-too-familiar violent fantasies of his demise away.
She prayed in the spirit, but the only meditation that helped was envisioning the burning strips from the emerald green dress and the colorful flames they’d made.
Then Dav’d was standing before her, and they’d been escorted… here. The apartments that came with his new station. 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 Dav’d at all times.
“Are you happy?” He asked.
“I’m blissfully numb. Did you know about this?”
“No, I didn’t. I think the king even caught my father by surprise. Although, in hindsight, I suspect 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 didn’t 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,” Dav’d soothed. “However, I’ve also been told just be polite and friendly. Apparently, Queen Melyssa likes to know what’s 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 stay out of sight if he appears. Someday… have you thanked him for saving your life? I should, but…”
“But…” Dav’d drew out the word, “I still want to punch him, repeatedly, for what he did. Yet, I’m also grateful, which leaves me confused. Yes, I’ve thanked him. I’ve also punched him, but only once. It felt… good. Perhaps we’ll both just stay out of his way. He’ll be leaving soon.”
It was late summer. Blackhawk had sworn he’d be gone before the trials commenced. Yet, Caileagh’s – if it could be called that – had already occurred.
The former Duchess of Lorness had pleaded guilty to all charges leveled against her. She’d acknowledged it would be impossible to undo the smallest fraction of the evils she’d committed. Thus, she was willing and ready to meet Lord J’shua.
She hadn’t asked for clemency, 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 that she be put to death.
A fate required by all, except a group referred to as the Scarred Women. These twenty-or-so were from the far south. All were horribly burned, mutilated, and had been rendered deaf. They’d proclaimed death was too quick, too merciful. Instead, they asked that Lady Melazera be placed in their custody to perform penitent deeds until she died. That while she couldn’t atone for all the wrongs she had committed, she should for as many as possible.
The king’s sentence found a balance between the two. “Caileagh Melazera, We are thankful that you have found J’shua 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, We have been moved by the pleas of the Scarred Women.
“Therefore, your fate 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. Returning will lead to you being killed on sight, as the person doing so will be carrying out Our will.
“To ensure you leave Freislicht within a moon, you’ll be given into the care of the Scarred Women, who will transport you into the lands controlled by our allies, the Ush. Once there, you are beyond Our jurisdiction. However, We hope you live a long, penitent life.”
Stev’n fretted. Rosewud’s trial began in three days. The man was a threat to him, as he knew far too much. He’d even seen Stev’n and Gaelib together.
High Castle – The Grand Courtyard
While awaiting trial, Ge’rge Rosewud was once again 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.
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’m not sure if this is justice, barbarity, or 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 be involved in this.” Melyssa rested a hand on his shoulder. “I can’t imagine the depths of their sorrow and despair. Yet seeing the excitement with which they line up to make a single cut in his flesh…” She shivered.
“But…?” Sagen prompted.
“But… I’ve spoken several times to Baroness R’bekah about how this… fiend… stole her daughter. The primal reactions I have when thinking about what I’d do to anyone who threatened our children,” she patted her swollen belly, “and this is tame by comparison.”
Below them, Rosewud began thrashing. No one had approached him. He’d just been led out and put in place. His face grew florid as he began vomiting.
By the time a physician arrived, he was dead.
High Castle – The Main Hall
R’bekah sat with Jon’than 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 Caileagh’s protege. Nor that she’d conducted human sacrifices and traded in slaves. She’d also blackmailed, imprisoned, and tortured those of Drake’s subjects who’d not bent completely to her will.
Yet the most gruesome of the former Lady Caswell’s sins related to the marriages she’d 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 end. When asked to explain her actions, she boasted of them. When asked about accomplices, she gave them up willingly, disparaging them as gullible fools and lackwits.
The sentence was death.
It was carried out three days later on the same spot where Ge’rge Rosewud had died.
High Castle – The King’s Drawing Room
Gregory Locke poured yet more wine for King Sagen, while Jon’than Otual tried to distract his friend. The queen had gone into labor hours earlier. All they could do was wait.
Various things had been tried to distract the fretting monarch.
Ambassador Blackhawk had been summoned to play chess against Jon’than. Their matches were taking on an infamy all their own as each tried to dominate the other. There was none of the former colonel’s lazy opening gambits. The battle was on from the moment the first piece moved.
Gregory had been fascinated by their rivalry. Both were excellent players, but something came out in each when they played together.
The king had noticed the same thing and been engrossed in their first match. But his interest had waned by their third, which 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.
Jon’than and Sagen were, 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 Stev’n Blackhawk. “Have you been warned about Clan Ush?”
“What in particular, your Grace?”
“It’s Gregory in private, Ambassador. May I call you Stev’n?”
“The most important things you need to know before venturing south of the mountains are 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 can’t 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. A herald entered bearing a message. Seeing the king passed out, he approached the Alexandrian duke. “Your Grace?”
Gregory took the note, read it, and smiled. “The king has a son. But the queen isn’t fit to receive him as yet and, for everyone’s sake, I think His Majesty needs some sleep before meeting his heir.”