Chapter 17: Long Live the King
Third Quarter Moon, Late Summer
Like every other peddler, trader, and merchant, Rebekah had come to Farr Castle to watch the festivities of the Royal Annual Hunt and take advantage of the opportunities that arose when so many gathered together. However, she wasn’t interested in sales, but in gathering and disseminating information.
Each year she ‘accidentally’ encountered either Commander Peter Taelor or Colonel Patrik Gonnels. Then, as the commander’s kinsman or the colonel’s friend, they’d have dinner, appear to get drunk, and exchange stories interspersed with intelligence reports late into the night.
The most recent special order from Peter Taelor stated he had duties that kept him at High Castle, so she was on the lookout for Patrik near the fire performers. However, it was early in the evening, so she ambled through a nearby market.
She kept an eye out for certain hard-to-find objects that Licht Gegen needed, the foremost of which was weapons. She couldn’t purchase them in bulk, nor could she buy them everywhere she went, without drawing attention.
In the temporary marketplace established on the outskirts of Farr Castle, wares were on display that were not seen at any other time of year. Amongst them were Esthlani short swords. The foreign merchant looked rather dejected.
“Why the long face?” Rebekah asked.
“I listened to my cousin. ‘Aodh,’ he says, ‘go to Farr Castle. Make a killing at their Annual Hunt Fair. You’ll sell more there in a week than anywhere else in Freislicht in a year.’ Sheesh! That last might be true. I’ve made a few sales, but the others selling swords derided me for wasting my time. No one wants our humble weapons here.”
“Well, every merchant wants to undermine the other’s confidence.” Rebekah chuckled. “I sell plows. Some of the tricks my competitors have tried…” She shook her head.
“I suppose it’s the same everywhere,” Aodh grumbled.
“Mind you,” she picked up one of the blades and examined its workmanship, “I can think of several farmers and their wives who’d think these fine weapons.” She grinned. “Perhaps I could buy you a drink and we could chat about a profitable arrangement?”
Aodh scratched his chin, then nodded. “I–”
He was drowned out as a herald shouted, “Hear ye, Hear ye. Be it known that King Edal is dead, gored by a rogue boar. Long live King Sagen!”
Rebekah gasped. This was an awful tiding. Would the new king protect the people?
He was Jon’s good friend. Would he support Licht Gegen?
The listening crowd chanted the new king’s name, but their cheers were weak and unenthusiastic. Shopkeepers and merchants began covering their stalls. No one would be selling today. No one would insult King Edal’s memory by doing so. The only people to profit would be tavern keepers.
“That drink sounds like a good idea.” Aodh threw tarps over the wagon on which his weapons were displayed. Then he turned to a redhaired lad. “Aaren, look after things. I’ll be back later.”
The boy nodded and went back to whittling.
“Bring one of your blades, so I can examine it,” Tomas suggested, wondering if the king had really died by a boar. She’d bet half her fortune there’d been foul play. She’d bet the other half she could predict the gossip that’d be flying around by nightfall.
Sagen’s eyes followed a hawk as he sat on the window seat, a spot that he hadn’t moved from for hours. He hadn’t attended the hunt. There’d been some pointless argument with the Lord of Lorness and, as Gaelib was going, he’d decided not to.
Guilt consumed the prince. He stared out the window, unable to cry. Through all the arrangements for the funeral and the coronation, he was mute, numbly following Gaelib from one meeting to the next. He only nodded or shook his head.
Sagen was afraid to assume the throne. He wasn’t ready.
Father should still be alive, should have lived many more years.
Everyone told him the feeling would pass, that the grief would become bearable, that it just required time. He sent them away.
He’d not prayed for years. “Lord, forgive me. I’ve forsaken you. Help me, I drown in guilt. Sycophants surround me. Who can I trust? Show me, in J’shua’s name, I beseech you.”
Full Moon, Early Autumn
The castle halls channeled a cool breeze as Blackhawk watched quietly, completing his duties. All the usual suspects strutted and performed their roles as expected. The household and administrative staff of Farr Castle hummed along as if nothing had happened, except for an abundance of quiet voices and furtive glances.
That Gaelib was behind King Edal’s assassination was ever clearer to Steven. A realization backed by the not-so-subtle moves made by Melazera’s pawns.
Several of the king-to-be’s closest friends were sidelined, required to, suddenly, leave Farr Castle to attend to family matters. This further isolated Sagen, while increasing his dependence on Gaelib.
Blackhawk couldn’t stop what had happened, nor could he act openly. Instead, he undermined several of the pawns Gaelib used for such tasks, using similar tactics. Tactics he’d learned watching the Lord of Lorness, while his squire.
For example, a moneylender on Gaelib’s payroll found himself inundated by people demanding repayment of their investments after they learned the fellow was heavily skimming their profits. And a prominent courtier found himself without funds or political backing after his wife, and her wealthy family, learned of his repeated infidelities.
Most dangerously of all, Blackhawk set himself up to be falsely accused of being one of Gaelib’s agents. His aim was simple, to control the stories circling him so that, if any of his actions were traced back to him, they’d be dismissed as falsehoods.
Only days later, he was summoned to his commanding officer’s rooms late at night. Entering, he stood at attention.
“Major Blackhawk,” Commander Taelor began with a disappointed expression on his face, “I have been hearing some disquieting rumors. Things that I find especially troubling given what you brought to my attention about the late king’s death.”
Blackhawk frowned. “I’m aware that there’s been some gossip about me lately. I usually ignore such things. Is this about Fortuch blaming me for his demotion to lieutenant? Or perhaps about my excessive gambling winnings? Maybe it’s someone who’s taken offence at my being a major so young? Of course,” he mused, “it could be one of the more insane rumors.”
“Such as…?” Taelor’s tone was still neutral, but his face had become inquisitive.
“Let’s see… how extreme do you want?”
“Get carried away, Major.”
“As you command, sir. The more common of those rumors suggest I’m secretly spying for Gaelib Melazera. Others suggest that I was, and perhaps still am, King Edal’s agent. There are tales that I’ve acted as an assassin… for one or both of them.” Blackhawk snorted out a laugh. “As if the late king used hired killers. He was a good man.”
“That he was. Is there more?”
“Oh, yes. I seem to attract all sorts of unlikely speculation. Such as I’ve bribed and blackmailed people, ignoring the fact that I have neither the funds nor access to anything more than gossip. There was once even a suggestion that I am Gaelib Melazera’s bastard son, despite there being no physical resemblance between us. What else? Oh yes, that I’m Cailleagh Melazera’s lover. That I seduced her, at the age of four mind you, and have had her wrapped around my fingers ever since. Should I continue?”
“Is there more?” Taelor chuckled.
“It gets ever more ridiculous. For instance, that I’m Gaelib’s adopted son. Yet if that were true, his patronage would have opened doors for me that have remained shut in my face. Not to mention that, as he has no heir, my status would be common knowledge. It would free him from what must be endless harassment from relatives to produce an heir or nominate one of their sons… if he can’t or won’t.”
Taelor shook his head as a smile spread across his face. “This talk did not go as I expected or feared. If you’d given me the slightest reason to link you to Melazera, my only option would have been permanently assigning you to the remotest outpost. As it is,” he gestured to a seat, “will you have a drink? Are there yet more?”
“That depends entirely on how debauched your perspective. Things have been said about me that… let’s get drunk first, shall we? I don’t like to discuss them sober.”
Taelor rose and fetched a bottle and two glasses. “Now you really have me intrigued…”
Six weeks later, Sagen was crowned King of Freislicht at the capitol. He was still numb, but performed every ceremony, met with nobles, and waved in every parade for the benefit of his people.
He was glad Gaelib was by his side.
King Sagen had thought he could just imitate his father, but there was still so much to learn. As King Edal had, he retained Gaelib as his Steward. He was Sagen’s closest advisor and spoke frankly to him. His other friends fawned over him, or had been dragged away by this matter or that.
Over the following weeks, the new king reserved less and less time for those so-called friends. In addition to his royal duties, Gaelib had him study every day, as well as practicing with sword and horse.
Sagen was so busy he almost forgot his grief. It always came back with the cold and dark of night, only for Gaelib to rescue him each morning with another day’s rigorous schedule.
But as weeks passed, the new king contemplated the advice his steward had given. For example, there had been subtle alterations to contract law that would benefit his lords. Simple things designed to reduce duplication. Yet, the more he examined them, the more he realized that they also reduced his subjects’ ability to appeal rulings and query fines. And every change was to his subjects’ detriment.
He re-engaged his old friends in casual surroundings, giving them opportunities to prove their integrity. He watched for examples of responsibility, perseverance, and wisdom. In public, he sought for kindness and grace. And he observed their interactions with Melazera. When alone with one, he knowingly stated something unwise to see if they’d correct him.
Slowly, he built a mental inventory of those he might be able to trust, those who had sold themselves to one master or another, and those in between.
Third Quarter Moon Moon, Autumn
During the preparations for his coronation, King Sagen had planned to tour his kingdom. He needed to see things for himself, without Gaelib’s perspective clouding matters. Thus, he left his Steward behind without the authority to change laws or make edicts.
Despite those restrictions, Melazera was overly happy with the arrangement.
Commander Taelor had recommended Major Blackhawk be assigned as leader of the king’s escort.
The tour would take several weeks, as the king intended to visit his highest nobles’ homes. He’d stay only one night at each, so as not to overburden them or demonstrate favoritism. He’d be accompanied by a minimal entourage of servants – his butler, cupbearer, page, personal cook, and coachmen, in addition to the cook’s kitchen hands, grooms to tend the sixty horses, and the wagon drivers needed to haul supplies – plus thirty-six soldiers, most of whom he knew well.
When King Sagen arrived at the Earl of Sandria’s estate, he announced his intention to inspect the nobleman’s township dressed as a commoner. He wanted to see the true state of his people.
Are they happy? What concerns them? What changes would improve their lives?
He watched the earl’s reaction with amusement: a wringing of hands and furtive glances. Yet the question persisted. Why did the nobleman react so? Was he concerned for the king’s safety? Or, did he worry the king might learn too much?
Major Blackhawk wasn’t comfortable either. But he also dressed as the king did and stayed by His Majesty’s side, chatting amiably so Sagen did not stand out too much. A third of his men, similarly dressed, formed a loose cordon around them. The remainder were armed and ready for battle, waiting for Blackhawk’s signal that, thankfully, never came.
Sagen was impressed by the major’s efforts. He’d watched Blackhawk for weeks, having requested every record available on his would-be-protector a moon before departing on the Royal Tour. He’d thought Blackhawk young for his rank but was even more shocked to learn the officer was only twenty-five. He’d assumed at least thirty.
The major is remarkable and a potential ally. Clearly, my father saw valor in him.
Sagen watched Blackhawk closely as he performed his duties as leader of the caravan. While traveling to the Duke of Wooster’s home, he sent for him. “Major, join me in my carriage, I wish to talk with you.”
Blackhawk hesitated, surprised, “As you wish, Your Majesty.”
The king rapped the coach’s roof and the carriage stopped.
After tying his horse to the coach, Blackhawk entered and sat.
“Continue,” Sagen instructed the driver, causing the coach to lurch forward. He examined Blackhawk.
He has self-control, looking straight at me with a slight smile. His breathing is slow. He seems content.
“Tell me how you’re a major at twenty-five.”
“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” Blackhawk tilted his head, “I’m not prepared to answer well, but I’ll try.”
“I simply want to know who you are.”
Despite his protestations about being unready, Blackhawk spoke well, concisely, and conveyed his story in an amusing manner.
If this is how he speaks when caught off-guard, I want to see how well he does when he’s prepared.
“I tire of hearing the same stories each evening. Major, prepare some amusing anecdotes. At dinner, ensure the stories are suitable for a lady’s ears. For later, something spicier.”
Blackhawk excelled that evening. He held the attention of everyone while they were seated at the banquet tables. Sagen even noted that a handful of eligible women, whose sole focus was blatantly to become the next queen, swooned at the major’s words.
This man is indeed someone I want serving me, but I need to know more.
By the time the Royal Tour was half-complete, Sagen had made his decision, instructing the major, “I have another task for you. When we return to High Castle, you are to meet me once a week to discuss the state of the kingdom. I need to know the unfiltered truth. Given the breadth of your experience, I want to view Freislicht through your eyes.”
“Happily, Your Majesty,” Blackhawk replied.
As the tour turned toward Lexandria, King Sagen took stock of what he’d learned so far and the things he’d had time to ponder. He’d discovered several of his noblemen remained true to his father’s ideals and could be relied upon for support. He’d identified more who were Melazera’s creatures. Then there were those who would go with the wind, regardless of where it blew.
That just left those who followed Duke Gregory of Lexandria. Sagen had already learned that he’d badly underestimated their hatred of the Melazeras. They seemed loyal to the Crown, but their famed independence clouded matters.
The situation is both graver and better than I’d imagined.
I have enemies. Real enemies who want my throne and all my royal line has built. Enemies who… did they kill you, Father? Or, did they just take advantage of the situation?
I have allies – or, would-be allies – but have no way to rally them, nor even meet with them regularly without drawing attention.
How do I begin?
Full Moon, Early Winter
The Royal Tour
Blackhawk had been strategizing on how to meet with the king safely.
Gaelib can’t find out I’m working with the king.
It would be relatively easy at High Castle. But at Farr, it would be nearly impossible to do covertly. Something overt would need to occur. Then he had an idea.
Blackhawk approached the king and knelt on one knee. “Your Majesty, may I have a private word?”
“Yes, ride with me again.”
In the coach, Blackhawk suggested, “You could meet me, or anyone that you wish to talk with privately, by holding regular chess matches. I can play, and I have seen you do so. What do you think?”
“An excellent idea. My nobles also play. I could invite them regularly.”
“Sire, I am here to serve you,” Blackhawk responded, bowing his head, “but must return to my duties, otherwise people will talk. What shall I tell them you commanded?”
“That I wish to have a great feast at our next stop in the public square. All should attend, noble and commoner alike.”
Sagen wasn’t prepared for the reception awaiting him as they neared Lexandria. In many cases, his entourage had surprised the lords they were visiting. Others had a scant few hours’ warning due to alert sentries. However, it was evident even before entering Gregory Locke’s domain that preparations had been going on for days, possibly since the Royal Tour began.
Three dozen men sourced from every southern noble household had ridden out to provide an honor guard, intercepting the royal caravan a day from Fairness Crossing. Its leader was Gregory’s eldest son and heir, Danyth, a handsome lad half the king’s age. With long flaxen hair, a neatly trimmed beard, and a suntanned face, he was typical of that family.
Nor had the riders come alone. Cresting a hill before sunset that night, Sagen beheld a tent city waiting for them. The smells of food carrying on the soft evening breeze made his mouth water. Servants had laid out tables, covered in heavy brocade.
“I apologize for the paucity of this small reception, Your Majesty–”
“Small?” Sagen interrupted.
“Yes, Sire,” Danyth affirmed. “There was barely any time to set up this staging point. We have only tents for your comfort this night. The inn at your next waypoint has been expanded and refurbished so it’s fit for your royal presence.”
“I see…” Sagen kept his face impassive. As a display of wealth, it was impressive. As an example of how well-informed the Lockes were, it was far more so. “And what can I expect upon reaching Lexandria?”
“The city has been bedecked with the banners of all your southern lords. The duke, his earls, viscounts, and barons, plus their ladies, are already in attendance and awaiting your arrival. A royal ball is planned for your one night with us. I know the duke would have you stay longer. It’s so rare for the king to visit the South.”
Sagen smiled. “That sounds wonderful, but I can’t believe all your preparations have gone to plan. Tell me one thing that isn’t ready as your father would wish.”
Danyth nodded. “If I must, Sire. There are any number of petty things I could bring to your attention. However, the most galling – from my parents’ perspective – is that Uncle Bradley’s wife, Aleyn, is unwell. The result being my unmarried sisters have gone to be with her. They expected to return in time for your visit but, it seems, Aunt Aleyn has taken a turn for the worse. Thus, my sisters won’t be there to greet you. Mother is furious.”
“A pity,” Sagen replied neutrally. In truth, he was relieved. It would be one less set of daughters paraded before him, their parents seeking a royal alliance.
A messenger strode up and handed a note to the Duke of Lexandria’s son, who skimmed the missive, then frowned. “I also regret to inform you, Sire, that we have no performers to entertain you tonight. The axle on their wagon broke. However, they will be added to tomorrow’s line-up. I wonder,” Danyth hesitated, “I know it’s a poor substitute, but… do you play chess?”
Sagen smiled and shot a knowing glance to Blackhawk. “I would enjoy a game. Perhaps a tournament?”
Intent on completing the last circuit for the year, Rebekah had tried to avoid the excesses arising from the Royal Tour. It might be all well and good for the new king to travel throughout the land and learn about his people, but it was inconveniencing her and a lot of other traveling salesmen. All of whom had to find alternate accommodation because the Tour was in town, was about to be in town, or had just been in town.
Worse, it was affecting sales and…
When did I get so caught up playing Tomas Bekh? My old life has utterly disappeared, stolen away by sorcery or an evil mastermind.
If I met my younger self, would she be able to see through my disguise? Or would she see just another – ok, a relatively successful – seller of plows and other merchandise? Could she guess that I am a spy? That I know of finances? That I own businesses?
Do I even recognize myself?
What has become of Rebekah, the wife and mother?
Where are you, Sarah? Are you safe?
I will never stop searching while there is breath in my body, no matter where it leads.
Gaelib strutted around the castle. He’d dismissed the guards he didn’t own. Then he proceeded to please himself by sitting on the bright blue velvet cushions of the great stone throne, running his hands over the carvings and embedded jewels, dreaming of the day it would be his. He dared those who witnessed it to underestimate him, to think him just another with ambitions that exceeded his abilities. As for those who knew the truth, for them his playacting spoke of such confidence that he didn’t need to be subtle.
I want to celebrate, but Caileagh didn’t come with me. I no longer have any orphans here as she takes them all for her Order. Something else will have to suffice.
“Bring Macom’s woman up from the dungeon. The one he so inconveniently returned while we were on the road here.”
She’ll have to do.
The maiden had been taken in a debt collection, then bought by Lord Macom, who’d demanded a refund when she refused to submit to him. None of her family had survived, leaving her despondent.
I doubt she’s much fire or resistance left in her. She’ll be poor sport.
Washed and draped in finery, the woman was delivered in due course. She was bound and terrified. Her blonde hair was very long, still damp, but combed and scented with roses.
Oh, she has the look of a Locke. Quite a beauty. This might be entertaining after all.
Gaelib motioned for the guards to leave. Then he added a potion to a cup and approached her. “You can earn your release from the dungeon today,” he crooned. “Would you like that?”
She nodded meekly, eyes on the floor.
“You must be thirsty.” He put the cup to her lips and after she drank, removed her loose gown. It fell to the floor. She stiffened at his touch, but he continued to explore. He lifted her chin, cradling her in his arms. Then laid her on a table, pushing parchments to the floor. He removed her bonds and coached her to do what he liked.
He enjoyed her, despite her inexperience.
Then he plied her with more drugged wine and sent her to the Red Madame, along with a note that read: “Train this one. Keep her for me. I want to see what you can make of her.”
Elated and pleasantly exhausted, he sank back onto the throne and let his eyes trail over the banners of the dukes, earls and lesser nobles that had pledged their fealty to Freislicht. Soon, very soon, all of them would bow to him.
Yet, when his eyes rested on Caswell’s colors, he recalled Drake’s perfidy. That account had not been settled. Although, the matter had been the source of a delightful idea: capturing Jonathan’s son’s wife.
Yes… I shall forego any overt action against Drake for the time being. I can always deal with him at my leisure. Even if the girl is dull, it will spur the younger Otual into action… into some ill-considered… oh, yes! I can turn a single kidnapping into the end of ‘my old friend’, his only son, and his entire line. I may even be able to besmirch the Knights of J’shua by ruining their reputation. When I’m done…
He stretched. The exquisite joy he felt was even more invigorating than the woman he’d just had.
Soon everything shall be mine!
Waning Crescent Moon, Winter
Blackhawk looked away from the chessboard. Having recently returned from the Royal Tour, he was distracted, pondering how best to commence a delicate, perhaps even dangerous, conversation with the king. His hands were sweating and his gut had contracted into a knot. Yet, he kept the expression on his face neutral and polite.
“Check,” Sagen scolded. “Pay attention. Is something on your mind?”
Steven smiled back. “Sire, you know I like to play lax throughout the first half of the game, then try to recover.” He moved the knight to king’s-bishop-three with a wink.
“That’s more like it.” Sagen laughed.
Blackhawk didn’t care who won. He enjoyed the camaraderie. Learning to play chess well enough to defeat Gaelib had been important to the Lord of Lorness. There’d been consequences whenever Steven lost. So, everything Steven learned to do, he’d learned to excel at. It was the only way to avoid painful repercussions. But, with the king, he felt free to lose. It was a powerful and intoxicating pleasure.
However, it’d been six moons since King Edal’s murder. Everything that could be investigated, without raising suspicions, had been. Witnesses had been found, questioned and, where necessary, put into hiding. Accounts had been crosschecked. And the size of the conspiracy to murder the former king had only grown larger. Thus, Blackhawk and Commander Taelor had agreed Sagen must know the truth soon, or else feel betrayed.
The king had shared his concerns about Gaelib.
Blackhawk had shared the names of those he’d ascertained were not with Melazera.
“Sire,” Steven paused, “I have something to tell you that will be upsetting. I beg you, listen to the whole story before responding. The entire kingdom is counting on your wise response. Check.”
Sagen looked up from the board, then moved his knight to block the attack, pinning his knight before his king.
“Commander Taelor and I have evidence your father was murdered.”
Sagen stiffened. His face grew red. “What?”
“We suspect Melazera was behind it, but have insufficient proof to accuse him openly. Nor have we discovered the perpetrator. Although, we have identified several all-too-prominent people, both officers and nobles, who were involved. Given their power and influence, we have had to search without alerting them to what we know.” Blackhawk went on to tell the whole story.
Sagen’s expression did not change, nor did he utter a word while Blackhawk spoke. Then he rose from his seat. “Let’s have an intermission.” He walked to the buffet and picked up an apple.
Blackhawk watched the king’s expression change ever so slightly as moments passed. His eyes, first wide with shock, narrowed in anger. His fingers drummed on the table. His brows slowly came together as his jaw set. Yet Steven needed some sign, some response to indicate what the king had perceived. “Your Majesty, we’ll beat them.”
“I know, Steven.” Sagen replied as he walked back to the chessboard, then moved his queen to king’s-rook-two. “Mate in three moves.”