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.
Zuran, of the tribe called Nuur, struggled to stay awake amid the chatter of coins.
Like every Casaanite at the Silver Walls, he was bound to serve the king in some manner, even on his fourteenth naming-day. If I can keep my eyelids from closing, maybe I’ll continue to serve the steward instead of the cooks, he thought to himself reproachfully. Were that he was off watching the king’s master-of-arms spar with his knights, but here he was instead, at court, recording sums in a pipe roll.
He took more interest in the hundred grim-faced taxmen gathered in the throne room. Their eyes rarely strayed far from Hanor the Tessian, the unsmiling chancellor of the exchequer, who brooded over a red-and-white checkered table that ran the length of the throne room and bore hundreds of silver and gold coins stacked like tiny towers. The chancellor, a stout man with an arrow-shaped brown beard and the rosy cheeks typical of Ansarans, went about his business with the meticulousness of a farmer counting unhatched eggs. He reached into the sacks on stools in his orbit, retrieved golds and silvers, and stacked each coin on its rightful checker. White checkers were reserved for those villages paid up on the king’s due, red for those that weren’t, Zur knew.
Right now the red checkers outnumbered the white ones six to one, and that sad truth showed in the Tessian’s sagging expression.
“One-hundred thirty gold lorens from South Farcombe,” Hanor read aloud drearily, never looking up.
That was his cue. Zur overrode his waning attention span, summoning the will to record the sum on his vellum. Too late, he realized he’d inked the wrong row. He blotted out the sum hastily, leaving an ugly stain on an otherwise pristine pattern of marks.
“I think that’s in the wrong row, too,” rasped a voice close to his ear.
So surprised was Zur that he half collapsed off his chair. Princess Lorana Eddenhold smiled down at him with a hint of well-meaning mischief.
Zur clambered back onto his seat, trying to stifle a look of embarrassment. On my naming-day, no less, he thought. Is this what my new year promises me? “A-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. He lingered overlong on Tabecca’s cleavage and saw the steward verging on laughter.
Turning away from him, Lorana crossed the chamber in swift strides, seemingly unencumbered by the bell of her gold-and-black brocade gown. Tabecca shadowed her quickly. The princess paused before the Silver Throne, as if fancying herself worthy of the seat. Careful not to touch the dried bloodstain near the bottom stair, she seated herself in her father’s gout chair, the highest even she could dare to rise 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 by rights accorded her by the Worthy Assembly of Loran.”
Zur joined the chancellor and taxmen in bowing his head.
He peeked at Tabecca but settled on Lorana, and stirred with a familiar pride. With her manly brow and long shoulders, Lorana Eddenhold resembled her father more than even her half-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 taxmen shifted uncomfortably. They had a miserable relationship with the king’s daughter.
“I count exactly five hundred twenty-nine sylvens and two hundred eighty-one lorens,” Hanor said promptly.
Lorana seemed unconvinced. She looked to Zur now, and he knew she wanted him to confirm the information. He stood, feeling small and insignificant in the First King’s vast circular throne room. “Five-hundred twenty-nine sylvens and three-hundred eleventy-one lorens,” he said.
The Tessian frowned, first at Zur and then at the sprawl of coin towers he’d spent all afternoon assembling. “Ahem, I’m not sure that’s correct, your highness. I know without a doubt—“
“I would 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?”
Zur swelled with pride—until he heard taxmen chuckling. For his part, the Tessian didn’t grin; he was thankful for that. Casaanites in Ansara couldn’t climb much higher than servants; everyone knew that. Especially Zuran. Not a day went by that he didn’t yearn to wear the plate and mail of a knight, swear a knight’s oath, ride a knight’s horse.
All of that was forbidden to the Children of Elzura.
But today felt different. On his fourteenth-naming day, he would leave the steward’s service for the service of another at the Silver Walls. Some of the other chancellors had heard of his diligence at court and wanted his turn at their right hand, the princess had confided in him.
Who would it be? There were only four choices, and none of them preferable to the steward. The best choice by far had to be Jon Applewood, the king’s apothecary. Yes, he was rheumy-eyed and stank of the leaf he chewed, but he had a library filled with books from across the thirteen realms. If Hanor Graxhold wanted him, then so be it; the work was tedious, but at least he knew the trade.
The other two he would rather not think on. Of those, Drexan Lorrain, chancellor of the king’s chancery, felt safest, but not by much. The man whom some called the King’s Crow was disliked in the Assembly, even whispered to be a sorcerer on account of his affiliations in Anjoun. But let it not be the king’s torturer, he thought. I would take kitchen work.
None of those names included the master-of-arms’, whom he dreamed of serving. Connor Tomas, a knight and war hero, could teach him swordplay. Lorana had said she had a naming-day gift for him, and she’d been pointing out knights to him as they’d trained. Let it be a vellum scroll in the king’s name that lets me equip a proper sword. That would be the best gift of all.
“Another poor showing,” the steward said, disappointed. “What shall we do? Search their pockets? Call on Lord Charles, have him check them himself?”
The name of the king’s torturer was all it took to send the chamber into bedlam. Men muttered angrily; a few vied with each other to approach the Silver Throne. One sheriff, Halford Silverspear, steamed toward the Silver Throne. Sentry knights reached for their swords.
That was foolish, Zur knew. The sheriff stood mere feet from the steward . . . and the dark stain that no one but kings and stewards were allowed to approach.
Halford trembled with umbrage he barely restrained. “We scrape what we can for the king’s due, and we’re treated thus, with threats to gaol us in the Red Tower?” he blazed. Zur could not possibly doze off now, not even if he tried. “Aye, we collect what we can, but it’s never enough! Not when some lords like mine liege pay theirs fairly, and others—I shan’t name them here—withhold theirs.” He gazed at the princess defiantly. “And not to pay for all the wars our king dreams up for us like curses.”
“Watch your tongue, Silverspear,” Hanor snapped in a tone Zur rarely heard. “Lord Orren can’t protect you if you defame the royal presence.”
The steward didn’t seem to take as much offense. Zuran surmised that was because she knew he spoke the truth. How often had she complained to Zur and Tabecca about Hexar’s costly wars north and east, far from Loran?
And yet the woman some called the stone maiden had to keep up appearances. “My king father is off on campaign for all of our sakes, and so too all three of my brothers,” she said icily. “Insult the Lord of Loran again, Sir Halford, and I’ll escort you to the Dread Chamber myself.”
Sentry knights forcibly returned the sheriff to a position behind the table. Lorana reclined. “Yet Sir Halford isn’t wrong, is he?” she asked. “Some lords think themselves exempt, and leave the king’s due to the lot with less to offer.”
Graxhold nodded sagely but said nothing. Zur knew what the steward and her chancellor were thinking, for she herself had revealed it to him: the lords were calling peasant coin their own, and faulting their Commoners for what didn’t show.
“A draught plagues our Midlands,” Lorana went on, “our peasants starve and suffer famine, and yet we take their coin and gaol them if they won’t pay.” She made a fist wit her hands. “And all because your lords won’t pay their due.”
Another sheriff ventured out from the crowd, chin tilted deferentially, feathered cap in hand. His finery gave proof that this man had connections, yet his unattractiveness betrayed his appearance; with his bulging belly, he seemed to teeter on his scrawny legs like a mummer on stilts. Beady-eyed and long of nose, he sported greasy black hair and a forked beard slashed with silver.
“Sir Will, would you test the royal presence, too?” Lorana asked loftily.
The man curtsied thrice before bowing his head. “Forgive me, your highness, but I think I may have another explanation,” said Sir Willard Rittman of Rosbury. “If I may speak.”
Lorana acquiesced with a nod.
“Your highness, like many of my fellow sheriffs, I’ve long enforced the king’s will and collected taxes in Rosbury Village,” Rittman said. “In that time, I’ve seen only honesty from noble lords like my own, and Lord Alan of South Farcombe. 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, and 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 for it, it’s their Commons.”
The sheriff recounted stories about how peasants broke the law by concealing their children when he and his deputies made the rounds, denying them poll taxes based on household counts. 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.
Lorana stroked her cheek. “I imagine this must be so troubling for all of you. To collect the king’s due, think you’ve done right, and then”—she snapped her fingers—“to be told it’s not enough after all.”
“Aye,” more men shouted.
The steward shrugged. “Well, we can’t very well have our taxmen thinking themselves poor and unliked, can we? Sirs, all, rise. Please 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. The men took knees, some slower than others. “Sirs,” she began crisply, “by the power vested in me, as the steward of these Silver Walls in the king’s absence, I hereby name you justices of the peace. As sheriffs, you are bound to your lords, but as justices you shall be bound to me. I charge you with the collection of the king’s due and the enforcement of his will. You will not serve two roles for the same wages, but for ten times what your lords each pay you.”
Zur gasped with the taxmen. Hanor looked left and right, incredulous, as if he had been threatened with a cell in the Red Tower. “Your highness, this is, um, most unexpected. The state of our—I mean, what I mean is, perhaps we could speak—“
“No need,” the stone maiden said in a voice that brooked no more argument. “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, puzzled. That was sure to anger lords jealous of their power . . . and could work, if the justices began to value the crown’s wages over what their lieges paid them.
It was clever, and none at all surprising to Zur when it concerned Lorana Eddenhold.
The steward signaled the sentry guards, and three took turns laying their swords on each sheriff’s shoulders. “Rise, justices of the king’s peace,” she said after their oaths. “Do you swear to serve the king?”
They swore loudly, proudly, as one. “The Head speaks,” Lorana finished in the Old Faith 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, but no one seemed to notice.
Lorana ended court. The new justices bowed reverently, thanked the steward, and left one by one, each man curtsying. Thick oaken doors shut with a deafening groan.
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 we’ll need to send for another servant, Lord Hanor. I’ve business with Zuran of Tribe Nuur.”
She crossed the chamber and embraced him warmly.
“Forgive me, your highness, I should’ve been more careful with my marks,” Zur told her.
Lorana made an incredulous face. “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 naming-day, is it not?”
Tabecca appeared before them with a robe tucked under her arm. Leaning in, she planted a moist kiss on his cheek. Zur felt his cheeks burn hot as torches. He’d never been kissed.
“That’s my gift,” Tabecca said with a honeyed smile, “and this is hers.”
Plucking the robe from beneath her arm, Tabecca helped Lorana unfold the garment and press out wrinkles. The robe rippled with tufts of fur black and brown and gray. Down the front it was embroidered with thread of silver. At their urging, he slipped his arms through the holes and let them marvel at it; 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 the princess. “It’s perfect,” he said into her ear. “Thank you, Ana.”
She backed away, grinning shyly. The stone maiden was not always one for affection. “I have another gift for you. You’ll see more swordplay, little brother.”
He looked at them both.
“Don’t torture him.” Tabecca grinned wickedly. “That’s for Lord Charles.”
“The . . . the Grand Inquisitor?” Oh Maetha, help me.
Lorana slapped at the girl’s shoulder playfully. “What, and quarter him at the Red Tower, far from us? Come now! To the South Tower he’ll go, and no farther!”
Zur suppressed his disappointment. “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 thickest in her bosom. “You’ll have a good view of the knights from 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 like him 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. Over plush red carpet, down the marbled steps, and across the middle bailey he strode, passing by the hedge maze. The South Tower slid through the sky like a pearl-white lance, glistening in patterns of soft pinks and light blues like the Silver Walls themselves.
The ring of steel quickened his feet. Turning a corner by the Great Hall, he found 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; Windkin seized his chance to knock him off-balance.
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. He caught a look from the old knight Rogir Levan that seemed critical of his new wolfskin robe, and sped up the pathway.
Passing through the South Tower’s portcullis, Zur climbed a narrow stairway ringed with ensconced torches that spiraled up, up, up. He passed by the library on the second floor. Maybe Drexan will show me kindness and allow me to read, as Lorana has. He walked past a door on the third floor through which he could hear the king’s messenger ravens arguing incessantly.
Zur halted at the topmost stairs. Inside his cramped study, Drexan Lorrain sat hunched over a 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, catching the helm he wore.
Drexan ceased his writing and looked up from his table. “Are Elzura’s Children deprived even of manners?” The King’s Crow sheathed his quill in an inkpot. He didn’t turn to face him. “Was I fool to risk provoking the Grand Inquisitor’s wrath in a squabble for you, Zuran of Tribe Nuur?”
Finally turning, the chancellor some called sorcerer rose from his stool. The King’s Crow looked the part, stooped over and shrouded in a cloak of black wool that fell to hang about his ankles like tail feathers. He covered his gaunt cheeks with an auburn beard that silvered in the sunlight. He held captive the subjects of his attention with intense, brown-flecked green eyes that all at once bespoke curiosity, gentle humor, and a courtier’s shrewdness. To anyone who didn’t know him, the king’s advisor could pass for a kind-faced older man.
Yet what shook Zur and nearly everyone else at the Silver Walls was the close-fitting helm that Drexan wore, the only one of its kind in this kingdom, as far as he knew. The skullcap bore a single eye wreathed in the crow-footed script of the Kingdom of Anjoun. The Eye of Guldan, Zur thought, trying to ignore the sweat bullet racing down his neck. Only men who’d trained at the Order of Six Sights could wear their insignia . . . but who in his right mind would affiliate himself with 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, I am here to serve you.” He bowed again.
The hint of a smile pulled at Drexan’s lips. “And serve me you will, if you wish it,” he replied. “Tell me, Zuran: do you wish it?”
A trick question? Zur tried puzzling out an answer. Would Drexan punish him for telling the truth? It was rumored that the Order of Six Sights trained its acolytes in worse spellcraft than what one needed to turn boys into toads, after all.
Drexan smiled thinly. Zur struggled not to stare at his unblinking third eye. “You’re wondering why I’ve asked for your assignment here,” his lord said at last.
He surprised himself with his answer. “Yes, my lord.”
“Good,” the chancellor said resolutely. “I like honesty. It was one of the seven virtues Anjan First King handed down to his half-elven heirs.”
Zur pursed his lips but said nothing.
The chancellor smiled again. “You know there were only six virtues, of course.”
He felt his face turn hot. “Yes, my lord.”
“I said I like honesty, Zuran. If I am wrong, you should correct me.”
Not knowing what else to do, he nodded.
The wood floor squeaked as Drexan padded over to his crenelated window, which overlooked the hedge maze and luminescent Walls. The advisor began toying with a copper-plated pipe raised on a four-legged stand.
“Tell me,” he said as he twisted a knob, “what are your virtues, Zuran the Casaanite? What has her highness taught you that I could use in my South Tower? Apart from that you and Tabecca of Nuur are exempt from the sumptuary laws for your kin?”
Zur self-consciously fiddled with the edge of his wolfskin. The steward’s favor was a double-edged sword sometimes, a thing the other hostages rarely let him forget.
Yet what else? He could read, record sums and notes, 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.”
“Is that all?”
“No, my lord. I also cleaned and refilled inkpots. For her highness and Lord Hanor.”
Drexan harrumphed. “The Tessian is a pea-brained bean counter, but those skills will suffice in my service. I will need you to take dictation, relay messages, and clean my inkpots. I will also need you learned, as the chancery deals in statecraft, and the transmission of the king’s correspondence to other kings and highborn men. So you shall also need to read, and know the world.” Zur brightened at that. Drexan waved him near. “Come, let us teach you something new.”
The Casaanite went to the window, not knowing what to make of the queer copper pipe.
“This,” Drexan said, “is a skyglass. Glassmasters made this in Gildebirg. Through this, you can track the stars.”
Balancing the pipe with one hand, Drexan tilted it so that a still-smaller vessel shunted out with a clink. He closed one eye and pressed the other into a frail glass lens located on the butt of the bottom pipe.
“There it is,” he said admiringly. “Breathtaking. Here, my servant, look.”
Zur bent low. When he peered through the glass, all he saw was the vague orange sunset. The instrument wobbled as Drexan twisted another knob, and the orange sky crystallized. As never before, he saw clearly the sea-edge of night lapping against the shores of dying day. Stars stared down from heaven 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 raptly. “Let it never be said that their time on earth was not unhelpful. Do you know what it is that you’re seeing?”
“A constellation,” Zur answered, mesmerized.
“I would have to guess. The Merman’s Trident?”
With tender gentleness, Drexan pried him away from the skyglass. Closing one eye, he applied the other to the lens. “This is the Lame King. Do you know anything about it?”
Zur knew their names easily enough, the heroes and devils and beasts of yore chosen by the twelve gods—or twelve-as-one—to dwell in the skies for eternity.
“The Lame King is Old King Eduard, the last of the true line of Anjan Half-Elf,” Zur finally said.
The chancellor twisted the wheel. “And why is he lame?”
Was that mockery? Every Casaanite hostage understood the connection between his heritage and Eduard Linebreaker. “He was shot through the ankle with an arrow by the Weeping River. Thousands of years ago.”
“By a huntsman loyal to the House of Anjan,” Zur said, as easily as he probably could in his sleep. “He wanted to avenge Eduard’s sister-wife and children after the king had them slain in their beds.”
“And why did the gods raise Eduard to the heavens?”
Zur sighed inwardly. “To always remind the faithful of Eduard’s betrayal, and of the Casaanite Elzura, who begot it.”
Drexan reared up from the skyglass, watchful as an owl. “And what else?”
He gulped, fearful that he offended his lord on his first day of service. “Nothing, my lord. That’s what they teach the hostages at temple, my lord.”
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 in on itself with a series of ringing clinks. “If you mean to serve me, I’ll need you to be learned. Knowledge I can teach you, Zuran. What I cannot teach you is the desire to learn, a thing the holy men do not want for their followers.”
Zur hesitated to respond. “What would you have me learn first, my lord?”
Drexan smiled approvingly. “Not learn, but to remember, to hold fixed in your mind in your fourteenth naming-year.” He gazed up at the stars on the sky’s periphery. “The Lame King is sacred to faiths and wise men all around the world . . . even in your native Casaan. Sacred, because one day the Huntsman will return to his king to repent, and their union will signal the rise of the Ascendant King.”
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, universally believed that one day the last heir of the First King would reemerge from the shadows, ascend his Silver Throne, and unite the thirteen realms and all the world of men under a banner of peace. In those days the Twelve Testaments held the Casaanites, his people, would be free of Elzura’s Curse.
“Do you know why I trouble you with any of this?”
Zur shook his head.
The King’s Crow made a wave at the sky. “The Lame King is a harbinger of change when it appears in the sky. It invites change. Neither good nor ill, but change nonetheless.” Drexan watched him intently. “Just as this is a time of change for you, Zuran.” He glanced at his feet briefly. “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 cocked his head for a sharp laugh at the ceiling. “If only I knew the trick! I might’ve tried it on your predecessors.” He made a good-natured wink. “Sadly, the Order of Six Sights teaches its students only the magic of letters and statecraft.”
Before he could reply, a shadow bolted through the open-air window. Zur fell back, frightened. The winged thing flapped about the chamber five times and fluttered to perch on the window ledge.
Drexan grinned. “I couldn’t have asked for better timing. 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 flesh-rending black claws that scraped the ledge. White were his furry belly and legs, brownish-gold his feathered backside and wings and the wiry tail that flicked to and fro, as if with a mind of its own. He warmed to Drexan as the chancellor stroked his feathered head.
“Don’t be afraid. Griffs can sense fear.” Drexan lowered his arm. Zur watched, amazed, as the king’s bird took the offer, ambling up with catlike grace. “His name is Furos.”
Zur reached for the griff’s feathery neck. One stroke of a feather, and the griff recoiled with a menacing hiss. The boy retracted his hand.
“He senses your fear,” Drexan said admonishingly. “I can’t have fearful servants, Zuran.”
Zur opened his mouth to speak . . . and heard the blare of a deep-throated horn instead of his voice. Swiveling, the griff stretched his wings and sprang into flight, leaving the way he came.
The chancellor flew to the window, alarmed. “That is a horn I haven’t heard in more than a year,” he said breathlessly.
“That is the king’s horn,” Zur said, more to himself.
Sounded only when the king himself has fallen, he knew.