Excerpt 2, A Seat for the Rabble
Posted on March 18, 2019
Disclaimer: Some of this content may be NSFW. The subject matter is intended for mature audiences, as it deals with the sometimes unpleasant realities of life in the medieval ages, which helped inspire this fictional fantasy novel.
The King’s Horn
Zuran, of the tribe called Nuur, struggled against sleep amid the clinking of coins.
Like every Casaanite at the Silver Walls, he was bound to serve the king, even on his fourteenth birthday. If I can keep my eyelids open, maybe I’ll continue to serve the steward instead of the cooks, he reproached himself.
He took more interest in the hundred grim-faced taxmen gathered about the throne room. Their eyes were fixed on the unsmiling chancellor of the exchequer. Hanor the Tessian, a stout man with plump rosy cheeks and a tidy beard, brooded over a checkered table stacked with coins. He probed sacks on stools in his orbit, retrieved golds and silvers, and added to the towers on their white and red checkers.
White checkers were reserved for the noble lords paid up on the king’s due, red for those that weren’t, Zur knew. Right now red checkers outnumbered white ones six to one.
“One-hundred thirty gold lorens from Castle Thessela,” Hanor continued drearily, with a glance at Zur.
That was his cue. Zur overrode his waning attention span. Too late, he realized he’d inked the wrong row. He blotted out the sum hastily, leaving an unsightly, illegible splotch.
“I think that’s in the wrong column, too,” rasped a voice close to his ear.
Startled, Zur half collapsed off his chair. Princess Lorana Eddenhold smiled down at him with a hint of mischief.
Zur clambered into his seat, stifling his embarrassment. “Apologies, highness,” he stammered.
Beside the princess stood her servant Tabecca, winsome in an emerald-green gown. With her soft russet skin and bushy black hair, his kinswoman looked as much a foreigner at court as Zur. Lingering on Tabecca’s cleavage, he caught the steward watching him, snickering.
Lorana crossed the chamber swiftly, her gold-and-black brocade gown whispering on the floor. Tabecca shadowed her quickly. Briefly, the princess paused before the Silver Throne, as if fancying herself worthy. She seated herself in her father’s gout chair, the highest she could ever dare to climb in Loran.
A herald close by the vast oak doors struck floor with his staff. “Here sits her highness the Princess Lorana Eddenhold,” he cried loudly, “daughter of King Hexar and the traitor Alyse, steward of these Walls, doing justice in the king’s absence.”
Zur joined the room in bowing his head.
He peeked at Tabecca but settled on Lorana, and stirred with pride. With her broad brow and long shoulders, Lorana Eddenhold resembled the king more than even her brothers. She was just as proud.
“I hesitate to even ask, my lord,” she said with a sigh. “Tell me, how beggarly are these men today? Same as last time?”
The sheriffs shifted uncomfortably. Most of the kingdom’s taxmen had a miserable relationship with the princess.
“I count exactly five-hundred twenty-nine sylvens and two-hundred eighty-one lorens,” Hanor aired drearily.
Lorana looked to Zur now. He stood, feeling as small as a flea in the vast, circular throne room. “Five-hundred twenty-nine sylvens and three-hundred eleventy-one lorens,” he said.
The Tessian frowned. He flitted from Zur to the city of coin towers on his table. “ That’s not correct, your highness. I know for a fact—“
“I’d trust Zuran with my life, Lord Hanor,” Lorana said. “And he’s had a habit of correcting your counts. Perhaps I’ll name him to the exchequer, and return you to Tesos, hmm?”
The Tessian weathered the room’s laughter. Yet taxmen and guards didn’t laugh entirely at him. In Ansara, Casaanites served. Not a day went by that Zur didn’t yearn to wear a knight’s armor, swear an oath, ride a horse. Elzura’s Children could not do such things. It was laughable to think they’d ever be more than servants.
Yet things felt different today. On his fourteenth birthday, Zur would leave the steward’s service for that of a chancellor. This mystery lord had lobbied Lorana hard for him. Zur wasn’t sure whether to feel flattered or wary.
None of the three choices available to him was preferable to the steward. The best by far had to be the king’s apothecary. Yes, he was half-blind and doddering, but he had an impressive library. If Hanor Graxhold wanted him, well, at least Zur knew the trade; he’d just need to watch how he corrected his counts.
The other two he’d rather not think on. Of those, Drexan Lorrain, chancellor of the king’s chancery, felt safer, but not by a lot. The man whom some called the King’s Crow was disliked by lords and priests, rumored to be a sorcerer, even. But let it not be the king’s torturer, he thought. I would take kitchen work over torture work . . .
He had no choice in whom he served, of course. Would that he could serve the king’s master-of-arms. Pick up a sword, don the armor.
It wasn’t far-fetched. The princess herself had teased the possibility of a squirehood all week, pointing out knights to him in the courtyard and making suggestive comments. Make my birthday gift a vellum scroll that allows me to equip a sword, he thought. I’ve served her well, and I have her favor.
“Another poor showing,” said the steward, disappointed. “What shall we do? Search their pockets? Call on Lord Charles, have him check them himself?”
The name of the king’s torturer sent the chamber into bedlam. Men muttered angrily, exchanging cross looks. One sheriff, Halford Silverspear, steamed toward the Silver Throne.
Halford, you proud fool, Zur thought. The sheriff stood feet from the princess—inches from an ancient bloodstain that only kings and stewards could approach. Sentry knights crossed the chamber to deal with him.
Halford shook off their hands. “We scrape up what we can for the king’s due, and we’re treated thus, with threats to gaol us in the Red Tower?” he blazed. “We collect what we can, but is it ever enough for you, highness? No. Not while lords like my liege pay theirs fairly and others withhold theirs.” He suffered a warning shove from one of the knights. “And not to pay for all the wars our king dreams up for us like curses.”
“That’s your king’s daughter, Halford,” Hanor snapped.
“No, Lord Hanor, I’m steward.” Many called Lorana the stone maiden because she could seem cold for a woman. Zur thought it dignified her. “My father—your king—is away for all our sakes, destroying the crown’s enemies and protecting our borders from barbarians.”
A slight wrinkle in her forehead caught Zur’s eye. How often had she complained bitterly to him and Tabecca about Hexar’s costly wars north and east, far from the kingdom?
And yet, appearances. “And so too all three of my brothers,” she added. “Insult the king again, Halford, and I’ll send you to Traitor’s Gate.”
Sentries forced the sheriff back behind the table. Lorana reclined in her hard chair. “Yet Sir Halford isn’t wrong, is he?” she asked the chamber. “Some lords think themselves above us all, and force what’s theirs to pay on those without means.”
Zur knew what she meant. The lords were calling peasant coin their own and faulting their Commoners for what didn’t show at court. It was a familiar problem in Loran.
“A drought plagues our Midlands,” Lorana went on, “our peasants starve and suffer famine, and yet we gaol them if they don’t pay, and separate families if the father hides his children for lack of money.” She clenched a fist. “And all because hateful lords refuse to pay their fair share.”
Another sheriff ventured out from the crowd, chin tilted deferentially, feathered cap in hand. He looked ridiculous in his stockings, a plump mummer on stilts.
“Willard Rittman, would you test the royal presence, too?” Lorana asked loftily.
The man curtsied thrice. “Forgive me, your highness, but I think I may have another explanation,” said Rittman. “If I may.”
Lorana nodded her acquiescence.
“Your highness, I’ve long enforced King Hexar’s will and collected taxes in Rosbury Village,” Rittman said. “In that time, I’ve seen only honesty from noble lords like my own. Truly, it’s the Commoners who thwart us.” Men agreed in murmurs.
“The Commoners,” the princess repeated skeptically.
“They’ve grown restless of late in Rosbury,” Rittman said. “Talk is on that the Loyal Company wants peasants seated once more in the Assembly. Roaming vagrants come as prophets to fill their heads with that treason.”
The herald clacked his staff next for Todd Redoak. “What Sir Will says is true,” Redoak said. “The lords got nothing to do with this shortfall—it’s their peasants.”
The chamber sounded with approval several times.
Lorana drummed her fingers on her armchairs. “I do not believe Commoners are to blame for these poor showings, but neither will I dismiss what you say, not without further proof. You lot—you, you, and you”—she made a sweeping gesture at the taxmen—“how much are a sheriff’s wages?”
Men shifted uncomfortably. “Not enough!” one shouted from the back.
“Most sheriffs who collect taxes receive wages twice above those of the same rank who don’t,” Hanor said drily.
“I imagine this must be so troubling for you. All of you. To collect the king’s due, think you’ve done right—only to be told it’s not enough after all.”
“Aye,” more shouted.
The steward shrugged. “Well, we can’t very well have our taxmen thinking themselves poor and unliked, can we? Sirs, all, rise, and approach the Silver Throne.”
What could you be doing, princess? Zur thought. Taxmen traded glances nervously. They shuffled around the counting table and congregated before the first stair.
Lorana stood with her back to the throne. “Kneel,” she instructed them, and they did, some slower than others. “Sirs, as steward of these Silver Walls, in the king’s absence, I name you justices of the peace in this kingdom. As sheriffs, you are bound to your lords, but as justices you shall be bound to me. I charge you with collection of the king’s due and enforcement of his will. You shall not serve two roles for the same wages, but for ten times what your lords pay you.”
Zur gasped with the taxmen. Hanor looked left and right, incredulous, as if he’d been threatened with a Tower cell. “Your highness, this is, um, most unexpected. The state of—I mean, what I mean is, perhaps we could speak—“
“No need,” the stone maiden said in a voice that brooked no dissent. “We’ll pay them from the king’s due they’ve brought us today.”
Serve as both sheriffs and justices? And receive wages from the Walls? Zur wondered. That was sure to anger lords jealous of their power . . . and could work, if the justices began to value the crown’s monies over what their lieges paid them.
It was clever, and none at all surprising to Zuran when it concerned Lorana Eddenhold.
At the steward’s command, sentries took turns laying their swords on the sheriffs’ shoulders. “Rise, justices of the peace,” she said after their oaths. “Do you swear to serve my father, King Hexar?”
They swore to serve the king, loudly, proudly, as one. “The Head speaks,” Lorana declared in the old tradition.
“The Hands serve,” answered the men with two masters.
All of them, even Free Believers who probably disdained Elvarenist rituals, signed the diamond, hand to hand, thumbs to forefingers. Zur made the sign clumsily; no one noticed.
Lorana ended court. The new justices bowed reverently, thanked the steward, and left one by one, holding their heads somewhat higher. Thick oaken doors groaned shut.
Hanor complained to Lorana about their coffers in low but rising tones. Pretending not to wait on her, on some word about his new assignment, Zur went to tidying up his business, scattering dust across his pipe roll and blowing to hasten the drying.
The chancellor looked his way and spoke up. “Surely we aren’t finished, your highness?” he asked. “I’ll need a proper accounting of what’s been brought—especially since they’ll be wages now.”
Lorana smiled. “I’m afraid you’ll need another servant, Hanor. Zuran of Tribe Nuur leaves us today.” She crossed the chamber and embraced Zur warmly.
“Forgive me, Ana,” Zur said. “I’ll be more careful with my marks.”
Lorana waved him off. “Nonsense! You lasted longer with the Tessian than I normally fare. Besides, my little brother”—she gripped his shoulders and circled him about—“today is your birthday, is it not?”
Tabecca appeared before them with a robe tucked under her arm. Leaning in, she planted a moist kiss on his cheek. His cheeks burned hot as torches. He’d never been kissed.
“That’s my gift,” Tabecca said with a honeyed smile, “and this is hers.”
Drawing the robe from under her arm, Tabecca helped Lorana and press out wrinkles. It was a fine robe, shaded with fur black, brown, and gray. Thread of silver crosshatched the front. He slipped his arms through the holes; the lining inside felt exquisitely soft.
“Do you like it?” Lorana asked as he modeled the robe. “I had it made from wolfpelt. You’ll have to thank Johanna for the embroidery, and—“
Zur threw his arms around her. “Thank you, Ana.”
Lorana backed away, grinning shyly. The stone maiden was cool to affection. “I’ve another gift for you. You’ll see more swordplay, little brother.”
He welled up with excitement he tried to downplay.
“Don’t torture him.” Tabecca smiled wickedly. “That’s for Lord Charles.”
Not the king’s torturer, Zur thought fearfully.
Lorana slapped at the girl’s shoulder playfully. “What, and quarter him at the Red Tower, far from us? To the South Tower he’ll go, and no farther.”
Zur suppressed his disappointment. For a second, he’d expected to squire. “Lord Drexan?” As if there were more than one King’s Crow.
“The very same.” The princess embraced him again. His nose tingled from the cloying rosemary in her bosom. “You’ll have a good view of the knights from Lord Drexan’s window. But I’ll miss you in my service, little brother.”
Silly fool, he chastised himself. Casaanites can’t be knights. No, it seemed he was fit only to serve rumored sorcerers with a penchant for turning boys into toads.
* * *
It was late afternoon by the time Zur left the throne room. He exited through the Great Hall, a roofed walkway that ran the perimeter of the upper bailey. The lance of the South Tower slid through the sky, glistening with pulsing pearl light.
The ring of steel quickened his feet. Turning a corner by the Great Hall, he came upon a handful of knights clashing in light mail and patchy breeches. Connor Tomas supervised the match between Andrew Windkin and a redheaded squire. The squire made an awkward lunge, and Andrew disarmed him in a sleight-of-hand maneuver.
Zur measured the distance between the men and the top South Tower window. Thank you, Ana, he thought with a little more thanks in his heart. Walking under the South Tower’s portcullis, he climbed a narrow stairway ringed with torches. He passed by a library on the second floor.
At the topmost stairs, Zur halted. Inside a cramped study, Lord Drexan Lorrain sat hunched over his table, scratching at a calfskin document with quill. His arm moved with his writing hand, quill feather bobbing diligently. Sunlight poured in from a window, gleaming in his helm.
Drexan ceased his writing. He looked up from his table. “Are Elzura’s Children deprived even of manners?” he said in his musical voice. He sheathed his quill in an inkpot. “Was I fool to risk the Grand Inquisitor’s wrath in a fight for you, Zuran of the Tribe Nuur?”
Finally turning, the chancellor rose from his stool. The King’s Crow looked the part, stooped over and shrouded in a cloak of black wool that hung about his ankles like tail feathers. Sunlight silvered his copper beard. He had intense green eyes that bespoke curiosity, humor, and a courtier’s shrewdness. To someone unfamiliar with him, the King’s Crow could pass for a kind-faced older man.
Yet what shook Zur and nearly everyone else at the Silver Walls was Drexan’s close-fitting helm. In the widow’s peak of his helm lay a single eye wreathed in crow-footed script. The Eye of Guldan, Zur knew. Only men who’d trained at the Order of Six Sights could display their insignia . . . but who in his right mind would study at a guild accused of witchcraft?
Drexan Lorrain would. And now I’m his servant.
Zur curtsied. “F-forgive me, my lord,” he stammered. “By the grace of King Hexar and the Princess Lorana, and the evil of my forebear, I am here to serve you.” He bowed again.
Drexan smiled thinly. “You’re wondering why I’ve asked for your assignment here,” he said.
“Yes, my lord.”
“Good,” the chancellor said resolutely. “I like honesty. It was one of the virtues the First King bade his thirteen knights follow at the Conferral, when his power flowed to them as bolts of lightning, transforming them into his champions.” There was a lull, and Drexan smiled. “You want to correct me.”
The hostage glanced sheepishly at his feet. “Yes, lord.”
“I said I like honesty, Zuran. If I am wrong, you should correct me. How did I lie just now?”
“King Anjan passed his power to twelve knights at the Conferral,” Zur said. “Not thirteen.”
“Indeed.” Drexan padded over to his crenelated window. He toyed with a copper-plated pipe raised on a three-legged stand. “And what was the Conferral?”
Is his question a test, or mockery? Casaanite hostages learned as well as anyone about the Conferral. “It was the day the gods blessed men with magic, if one believes. Cornered by the Nagarthessi on a mountaintop, Anjan Half-Elf and his priest prayed to the twelve gods for deliverance—”
“The god of twelve faces, if you’re a Free Believer.”
“Yes, my lord.” Zur watched Drexan as he twisted a knob. “The god Amath—or his godface, maybe—broke the mountain with lightning. Many stood with Anjan Half-Elf that day, but the lightning bolt passed through only the twelve worthiest men. They became Anjan’s Windriders, the worthy ones who rode winged griffons beside the First King as knights ride horses.”
“Worthy.” Drexan peered through the device’s lens. “Tell me, what makes you worthy, Zuran? What did Princess Lorana teach you that the King’s Crow could use? Apart from that you are exempt from sumptuary laws for your kin, apparently.”
“You chose me, my lord. Surely you know?”
The chancellor flickered with warning. “Insolence wasn’t one of the Windriders’ virtues, and it isn’t one here.”
Zur fiddled with the edge of his wolfskin. He could read, record sums, and dress himself well enough, little else. He still couldn’t say why Drexan wanted him in his service. “I kept her confidence and records, and delivered messages for her about the Walls,” he said.
“I also cleaned and refilled inkpots for Lord Hanor.”
Drexan harrumphed. “The Tessian is a pea-brained bean counter, but your limited skills will suffice in my service. I will need you to take dictation, relay my messages, and clean my inkpots. I will also need you learned, as the chancery deals in statecraft—the transmission of the king’s correspondence to other kings and highborn men. So you shall also need to read, and know the world.” Drexan waved him over. “Come, see the world.”
The Casaanite went to the window, studying the strange instrument. “What is this, lord?”
“A skyglass—something a king wouldn’t share with his Casaanites. Glassmasters made this in Gildebirg. Through it, you can get a closer look at the stars.”
Balancing the pipe with one hand, Drexan tilted it so that a still-smaller vessel shunted out with a tinny clink. He pressed one eye to the glass lens near the pipe’s butt.
“There it is,” Drexan said. “Breathtaking. Here, look.”
Zur bent low. Peering through the lens, he beheld a vague orangeness. The skyglass wobbled as Drexan twisted its knob, and the sky crystallized. Zur gasped. He beheld the sea-edge of night lapping against the shores of late day. Stars stared down like the white eyes of giants.
“The men of the Awakening discovered that we needed clever glass and the right amount of dark to view the heavens,” Drexan said. “Let it never be said that their time on earth was unhelpful. What is it that I show you?”
“Stars. A constellation.”
“The Merman’s Trident?”
Gently, Drexan pried him away from the skyglass. Closing an eye, he applied the other to the lens. “This is the Lame King. Do you know him?”
Zur knew their names easily enough, the heroes and devils and beasts chosen by the twelve gods—or One True God—to dwell in the skies forever. “The Lame King is King Eduard, last of the true line of Anjan Half-Elf,” he said.
The chancellor rotated the knob. “Why is he lame?”
So this is why he questions me—to remind me of my place. Every Casaanite hostage suffered the link between himself and Eduard, the last known heir of Anjan Half-Elf. “He was hobbled by an arrow to the ankle, by the Weeping River. Thousands of years ago.”
“Hobbled by whom?”
“By a huntsman loyal to the House of Anjan,” Zur said, as easily as he could in his sleep. “He sought to protect Eduard’s last heir, who fled after the king had his sister-wife and other children slain. Eduard was trying to kill his last child.”
“A vile act that broke one kingdom into many, unleashing chaos. Why, then, did the gods raise Eduard to the heavens?”
“To always remind the faithful of Eduard’s betrayal, and of my ancestor Elzura, who begot his treachery with a spell.”
Drexan reared up from the skyglass. “What else?”
Zur ran through his paces, fretting that he’d forgotten something “Nothing, lord. That’s what they teach hostages, lord.” He didn’t want to seem insolent.
The chancellor made a curious grunt that half-sounded like a scoff. “Of course they would. Why teach one of Elzura’s Children anything else?” He forced the skyglass to collapse on itself with a series of ringing clinks. “If you mean to serve me, I’ll need you to be curious. Knowledge I can teach you, Zuran. What I cannot teach you is the desire to learn, a thing priests and readers do not want in their legions of sheep.”
“What would you have me learn first?”
Drexan smiled approvingly. “Not to learn, but remember, to hold fixed in your mind on your fourteenth birthday.” He gazed up at the stars. “The Lame King is sacred to faiths and wise men all around the world . . . even in your native Casaan. Sacred, because one day another constellation will appear, and Anjan’s last heir will return.”
He believes in the prophecy? That at least was a good sign. Even the priests and readers of the two faiths, who agreed on little else, stubbornly believed that one day the First King’s last true heir would reemerge from the shadows, ascend his Silver Throne, and unite the thirteen realms and all the world under a banner of peace. In those days the Twelve Testaments held the Casaanites, his people, would be free of Elzura’s Curse.
The King’s Crow gestured at the sky. “The Lame King is a harbinger of change when it appears. Those stars invite change. Neither good nor ill, but change nonetheless. Just as this is a time of change for you, Zuran.” He watched him curiously. “I know what they say about me, here and around the Walls. You needn’t fear me.”
“You . . . you won’t turn me into a toad?”
Drexan smirked. “If only I knew the trick! I might’ve tried it on your predecessors. Sadly, the Order of Six Sights teaches its students the more tedious magic of letters and statecraft.”
Before he could reply, a shadow bolted through the open-air window. Flapping its wings, the brownish blur circled the chamber five times before alighting on the window ledge.
Drexan grinned. “What timing! Zuran, I want you to meet someone very important to me.”
Zur eyed the creature with a cat’s body and hawk’s head and wings, breathing unevenly. A griff, he knew beyond doubt. The smaller cousin to griffons looked no less fearsome. From his four paws protruded black talons that scraped the window ledge. White was his furry belly and legs, brownish-gold his feathered backside and wings and the wiry tail that flicked to and fro, almost sentiently. The griff warmed to the King’s Crow as the chancellor stroked his feathered head lovingly.
“Don’t be afraid. Griffs can sense fear.” Drexan lowered his arm. The king’s bird took the offer, ambling up with catlike grace. “I call him Furos.”
“You named him after King Anjan’s great battle griffon,” Zur said. “I thought these creatures liked to avoid the castle’s aura.”
“Griffons do.” Drexan beckoned Zur closer. “Not griffs.”
Zur reached for the griff’s feathery neck. One stroke of a feather and the griff recoiled with a soft hiss. The boy retracted his hand timidly.
“He senses your fear,” Drexan said with an admonishing look. “I can’t have fearful servants, Zuran.”
Zur opened his mouth to speak . . . and heard the blare of a horn. Swiveling, the griff stretched his wings and sprang into flight, leaving the way he came.
The chancellor flew to the window. “That is a horn I haven’t heard in two years,” he said breathlessly.
“That’s the king’s horn,” Zur said. Sounded only when the king has fallen.