Excerpt 5, A Seat for the Rabble
Posted on March 26, 2017
In this chapter, the infamous traitor nobleman Evan Sinclair reflects on his troubled history with the king as he and his companions travel to the Silver Walls, the First King’s fabled castle. Feel free to check out the synopsis for A Seat for the Rabble if you need more information.
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.
Light and Shadow
“You’ve been staring at that all morning,” Evan Sinclair heard his son-by-law tell him, referencing the letter he held.
The traitor nobleman waxed a thumb over the letter, as gingerly as if it were an heirloom of his ancestral house. As well as I should make it one, he thought, passing it down to Rathos and Mina, for their children and theirs. The letter from the man who saved my head . . . offering me the chance to see the king who wanted to strike it off.
He watched how the flourish of light from their campfire illuminated each crease in the vellum, every deliberate stroke left by the author’s quill pen. The only thing the firelight didn’t permeate was the letter’s wax seal stamped with the grasping raven’s claw sigil of the King’s Crow. But for what reason would they keep it? he wondered. For the peace I bought by persuading my fellow traitors to accept this invitation and send us east on their behalf . . . or the cause I killed—along with myself?
A wind sighed through the limbs of the sentry oaks around their camp. “You might put it away, lest the breeze snatch it up,” Rathos Robswell, husband to his Mina, added.
Evan smiled quickly, appreciatively. Of course, he thought, I’m a sentimental fool. There are always eyes in a forest. Folding the letter, he slipped it inside a cloak pocket. He snapped off a haunch from the spitted hare and blew on its steaming flesh until it was safe to taste.
Rathos sat cross-legged on the other side of the fire. He watched Evan intently. “You still can’t believe it, can you?”
Evan nipped at the flesh, eyes low on the fire. “It’s been seventeen years,” he said softly. “The last time I visited the Walls, you were four, and I still sat in the Wing of Lords. The last time I was there in the king’s good graces, my sister was alive. And this forest”—he pointed up and circled his finger—“had another name.”
“Haymath, named after the first victor of the Kingstrials.”
Evan nodded. He wiped the grease from his moustache and gazed around the forest renamed for his late sister.
Spring had come. The tall white-spotted oaks and pines stirred with the games of forest creatures. Striped squirrels chased mates up trees. A pair of huge carpenter bees hurtled past his ear. High above, sparrows chirped ceaselessly.
To Evan, all of this was familiar and not. A generation ago, he’d navigated these woods with his late sister and a friend for the last time. They’d been on a mission: to court a married king and deliver reforms to keep their kingdom a peaceful one.
Here we are again, Sarah, with nearly the same goals, Evan thought to himself as if he were speaking with his sister, as was his wont. It had been seventeen years since he set foot in the city of Southpoint, eighteen since he’d been inside the Silver Walls. He tried not to dwell on that other building he counted himself lucky to have not seen in all these years.
The one in which he’d nearly opened his own veins. The one he would undoubtedly see again by day’s end.
Yet the occasion for their travel this time was different. Drexan Lorrain had set up an audience with the king, to mend old wounds and hear the Loyal Company’s petitions. Let this not end in bloodshed, too, sister.
“I should find Karl,” Rathos said with a look around.
Evan savored the meat’s sticky grease. “You give him too much credit.”
“He gives himself too much credit. The fool’s got a mouth as big as a catfish’s.”
Evan let his mouth hang agape and closed it like a catfish. He broke into easy laughter that Rathos resisted at first.
“You’re less worried, then?” Rathos said with a nervous smile. “Should that make me more confident in this mission?”
Evan sampled the hare again, shrugging. “No,” he intoned more seriously, “but life is short enough without laughter.”
“Aye, and my days longer until I see her again.”
“I told her I’d bring you back safe and sound. I told both of them.” And not a word of it assuaged any of us, he thought.
Rathos cast a longing look westward—in the direction of Evan’s ancient castle, where they’d left family to worry about them. He lingered affectionately on the ward he loved as one of his own children, and not only because his father, Matthos, had been his best friend, or even because the knight had sacrificed his life for Sarah’s. Evan had warded Rathos and his sister since their father’s passing.
As head of the Loyal Company, Evan mentored Rathos. He was his father, truthfully, even though Rathos had never called him father, and he’d never called Rathos son.
Evan was proud of him, and took comfort in his presence.
Rathos looked so much like Matthos it was hard not to confuse their names. He had his father’s angular cheekbones, hooked nose, and keen olive-green eyes, his brittle dark hair. Slender and average in height, he looked like a wolf, hungry-eyed and curious.
Yet Evan also saw his daughter’s touch in him, a drab man hopelessly indifferent to fashion. As Rathos was his father’s son, Mina was her mother’s daughter; she insisted upon seeing her husband garbed handsomely for his visit east. He watched, amused, as Rathos fussed with the slit sleeves of his emerald doublet.
Rathos noticed his gaze. “I can make do with the doublet and cape, just not this shiny, attention-catching brooch.”
“Better that we’re unafraid to be seen this close. Burke’s spies watch us. Though perhaps you preferred to wed my other daughter, who shares your dislike of finery.”
Rathos smiled lightly. He started to say something when the sound of hooves caught their attention. Karl Redmore rode into camp astride his horse.
“Come at once,” the Reubenite said. “I found something you both need to see.”
Karl sped off without another word. Rathos doused the fire with a stream from his waterskin and untethered their garrons; Evan slung their bags over the horses. Mounting, the two men galloped downhill after Redmore and through a sunlit glen, toward the sound of trickling water.
Rounding a tree trunk, Evan discovered Karl kneeling by a brook. Their mounts snorted and stomped with displeasure.
“It’s death’s company that makes them nervous,” Karl told them. He pointed downstream. “Look.”
Evan focused on a shadow half submerged in the shallow water some yards off. Majestic in life, the creature had died in pain from the looks of its four pitifully shrunken legs, crushed like flowers trampled underfoot. The men who did this had to cripple the legs to avoid those grasping talons, he thought. No doubt someone had lost something important trying to subdue the king’s bird.
“An omen if I ever saw one,” Karl said softly.
Rathos dismounted with a flourish of his cape. He knelt on the bank.
“Show care,” Evan warned them. “Lord Reuben wrote that an animal’s corpse can still pass disease to the handler.”
Rathos acknowledged his caution with the flash of a dagger. He flipped the carcass with a flick of its tip.
“A baby griffon,” Karl announced.
“No,” Rathos said. “Its smaller cousin. A griff.”
Evan drew close. A griff it was, or had been, kin to the far larger griffons of Loran’s Great Tree. Its head was hacked away, its plumage plucked, its lion’s tail shorn to a whiskery stump. Its valuable claws were missing; its once-handsome paws were swollen bloody abscesses. The king’s bird had been slain for profit, the undesirable parts left to rot.
“We’re not alone,” Karl said under his breath. “This is the work of outlaws. Maybe the Heretics. We know how fond their Mad Lady is of griffon skulls.”
“Doubtful,” Rathos responded. “The Heretics follow the Old Ways. The rumors about griffon skulls are fishwife gossip.”
“You know a Heretic, then, eh, Silvertongue?” Karl teased.
He doesn’t know how close he is to the mark. “Outlaws or poachers, this is grotesque work,” Evan said.
Not even those who opposed him in the Loyal Company would disagree. Killing griffons was one thing; griffs, another. These were beautiful animals, harmless when left alone. Cheats and outlaws peddled a griff’s feathers, tails, and claws as indulgences they promised could cure the pox or ferry one’s soul safely to the Evergreen Isles. The Commons, whose lot in Loran was suffering, made easy prey.
“Best we be on our way,” Evan told them. “Lord Drexan promised us safe passage through Southpoint, but neither he nor the king have much authority with outlaws.”
Rathos cleaned his dagger in the brook. He hauled himself back into his saddle. “If I believed in omens, I’d say this was a bad one. Thankfully, we’re men true to the Awakening”—he paid the Reubenite a look—“and not superstitions.”
“I’d wager this is a good omen,” Karl ventured with a braggart’s daring. “The king’s bird is dead. Maybe his whole rotten court and the Unworthy Assembly will follow suit, too.”
Evan dismounted. He was in his face in two strides.
“You watch those words, Karl,” he snarled, jabbing his chest. “You watch them closely. This is Southland. One false word here, anything smacking of treason, and we’ll be killed. Take it from one who has been inside the Tower and lived.”
Karl wasn’t humbled. “Then why risk this journey,” he implored the noble. “You lead a company of traitors devoted to the king’s overthrow.”
“Speak for yourself and not Evan or me,” Rathos snapped. “Petitioners want peace. You and Rezlan’s Reubenites agitate for that treason.”
“Until the next election,” Karl muttered. “Until the Loyal Company of Loran speaks with one voice, for Loran.”
Evan grimaced. Rathos spat from his saddle. Karl seemed to shrink, fully aware of the valuable piece of information he’d let slip. So, this is why the Company sent him with us, he thought. To spy, if not to sabotage. Worse for them that they sent us the Reubenite with a mouth like a catfish’s.
He shifted his jowls, weighing what to say next. “We cast our tokens in Justo,” the traitor nobleman said firmly. “We all agreed this was our best last chance to air our grievances with the king and restore the Fourth Wing.”
“If we’re allowed to air them.”
“If you mean to honor our assembly, stay and work with us,” Rathos said. “If not, leave now, while you still can with your coward neck. Lord Evan and I will represent the Loyal Company at the Silver Walls on Remembrance Day.”
Inside, Evan grinned. Rathos had made a veiled threat.
They could very well leave the Reubenite behind if Karl broke faith. If the Pigeons, the spies and messengers loyal to their band of traitors, came upon him without them, they’d immediately summon the Loyal Company. Karl could face expulsion for defying orders, and expulsion could mean that someone would find him dead in an alley somewhere. A ship filled with traitors couldn’t suffer leaks, after all.
Karl seemed to understand that he’d led himself onto dangerous ground. “Well, come on then,” he said, eyes low.
A half hour went by that Karl spent in silence, a reprieve for the traitor nobleman. It was a few miles before they started to smell the city, and a few more before the luster of the Silver Walls began to catch the leaves like moonlight. The company splashed through another brook and rode up a large hill in the direction of an aura of pearl light that rippled across the sky.
Unspeaking, Evan slid down from his saddle. He donned his feathered flat cap and strode to the end of a stone ledge that jutted out. Rathos followed, and then Karl.
“Behold the city of light and shadow,” the nobleman said with a sweep of his hand.
Above a smoke-strewn city pulsed an aura of pearly light, gently, with the rhythm of a dying heartbeat. Daylight punched pockets in the luminescence, showing them patches of a vast, rust-red curtain wall rimmed with silvery battlements.
A wind cleared the smoke, and there it was suddenly, the Silver Walls, looming over the city like a mountain. Priests and readers taught that the First King had once ruled all the world from this castle, from behind its twelve steep, unscalable walls. Unearthly light fanned out from its battlements, last vestiges of a time when silverstone in the Silver Walls had been the rule, not the exception. No other stone cast light like silverstone, and it was found nowhere else on earth.
Which was why, Evan observed wryly, he saw even less silverstone in the battlements than he had years ago.
Yet he understood the awe his son-by-law expressed with his mouth slightly agape, lost in wonder. That awe had been his once, too. “You said there were no words, and you were right,” Rathos marveled.
Evan scanned the rest of the city. “No words.”
Below the divine castle sprawled Southpoint, a city that fought for space with everyone and everything, including the ancient, wine-colored walls that struggled to contain it. A main road, Silver Street, still known as Shit Street, sliced the city in two. West and north of that road loomed colonnaded temples and lordly manors. From here, Evan could discern curls in the heads of statues on the Street of Kings.
On the opposite side of Silver Street dwelt another city entirely. South and east, the main road decayed into a warren of narrow streets and alleys, segmenting hundreds of hovels, brothels, inns, marketplace stalls, and poorhouses. The ants of peasants and merchants crowded the streets, navigating carts and wagons trundling through. Fires fumed across the south, belching plumes of smoke that swirled through the silverstone aura.
Karl covered his nose. “Has it always smelled so awful?”
“The worst at noon,” Evan said. “Southpoint’s mayor came into his position almost solely because everyone wanted—“
The nobleman trailed off, feeling as if a hole had been punched through his chest. It was still there, after all of these years. Waiting for him. Why was he surprised?
“Lord Evan?” Rathos watched him, concerned.
He nodded at the hulk of garish stone that presided over the city’s eastern ward like a crimson sentry. “The Red Tower.”
Karl seemed unimpressed. “How long did the Grand Inquisitor keep you there?”
“One year, three months, nine days, and four hours,” Evan said, transfixed. The worst year of my life, he pondered, but not always because I was a prisoner.
Had he really languished there, resigned to his death? From here, he felt foolish; the Red Tower was tiny, almost an afterthought in the presence of the mighty Silver Walls. In his dreams, the prison would loom over him like a mountain. The Grand Inquisitor stood smiling by the portcullis, always, with Gram Sothos to his side, holding Sarah’s head by her hair.
Until recently, his sister’s disembodied head was just that in his Red Tower dreams. Then she began to speak to him. Her mouth was always agape, bright with orange flame, eyes white like stars.
He snapped to when Rathos touched his shoulder. I rolled the dice, he thought grimly. Now I must play the game, or look a fool for turning back.
“Come, the city awaits, and so does our welcoming party,” Evan said. He beckoned at the banners checkered orange and green flapping by Southpoint’s entrance.
“The Little Worm,” Rathos said under his breath.
“Be on your guard,” Evan reminded them. He lingered on Karl. “Lord David is a dangerous man, not to be trifled with.”
“Same as any king,” the Reubenite muttered.
The company descended from their perch and plodded through a runny mud path that sucked at the hooves of their mounts. Half a mile down, they found the mayor of Southpoint with twenty of his city guard outside Elfgate.
David Renworth had aged. Stout and short of limb, he showed the passing of seventeen long years in the silvers of a curling black beard and a belly that spilled over his decorated girdle. He wore a shabby tunic that reached his knees, breeches of roughspun and blue hose, and shoes of cloth felt, proof that not even the realm’s most powerful peasant could escape strict sumptuary laws. The mayor proudly wore his one allowance, a livery collar with an iron medallion shaped like a portcullis.
Will that portcullis open for us today? Evan wondered as he regarded the closed gate behind Renworth. He couldn’t say with certainty, even with a letter from the king’s chancellor of the chancery in his cloak pocket. And if this gate does open, and we enter, will we be allowed to leave?
For Evan, seventeen years could’ve been seventeen days; he could barely control his rage, even now. The man whom the Assemblymen contemptuously called the Little King—whom Evan called Little Worm—had a hand in Sarah and Matthos’s murders as much as Gram Sothos. The mayor had wavered up until the last hour, until the Army of the Gods had reached their doorstep, before finally permitting Evan, Sarah, and Matthos to flee for safety they never found. Hexar had sworn he’d mount the mayor’s head on Traitor’s Gate himself . . . until the Little King, never one to slither into a situation he couldn’t wriggle out of, thwarted a siege by closing the gates to the approaching army. Renworth had betrayed his faith and saved the king, and with him his own neck.
Evan would not forgive so easily . . . or forget. Renworth served only himself, then as now. Nothing—no one—not the Worthy Assembly, seemingly not even Hexar himself, could open the gates without first granting the Little King what he wanted. Renworth was that very rare thing in Loran, after all—a respected peasant—and who would risk angering the official whom Commoners revered as their only voice in the realm?
The traitor nobleman dismounted. Let the star of reason guide me, Sarah, he prayed, not revenge. We have too much at stake. He removed his flat cap, bowing. “Lord David.”
Renworth seemed to revel in his deference, smiling. “Evan Sinclair, how long has it been?” he asked. “Seventeen years?”
Many years, Little Worm, he thought, and not long enough.
“Yes, and yet you look like you haven’t aged a day,” Evan returned with a practiced lilt. “Prospo favors you.”
“Truthfully, I wasn’t sure whether to expect you from the west or at Traitor’s Gate,” Renworth remarked drily. Evan felt himself stir as the mayor regarded his best friend’s child. “And if it isn’t Sir Matthos Robswell’s son.”
Rathos shifted uncomfortably. Yes, what I told you is true, my ward, Evan thought. His son-by-law had scoffed at the idea that a peasant had spies, but someone like Renworth couldn’t long retain his office without them, and it was said his spycraft rivaled that of even Charles Burke.
He looked on proudly, bittersweetly, as Rathos, who knew what Renworth’s wavering had cost House Sinclair, maintained his composure. “Lord David.” His ward bowed solemnly.
“And Karl Redmore,” Renworth noted. He regarded the three of them. “Are you all so eager to die for treason?”
“We’ve come to petition the king,” Karl said defensively.
The mayor had a mocking smile. “Of course you have.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet someone who knew my father,” Rathos said coldly.
Renworth gave a hapless shrug. “’Knew’ is a strong word. I knew him as one of Southpoint’s many orphans, before House Sinclair took him in. He was a different man after his knighting, no longer a thief. A good man with a strong heart, loyal to those he loved”—he glanced fleetingly at Evan—“and a brilliant swordsman. Such a shame, how he died, mere days before the Long Summer Rebellion ended.”
“Yes, a shame,” Rathos responded curtly. “If only Matthos had known that these gates would remain shut to the enemy, and not fled, he and Sarah Sinclair might still live.”
Evan watched for Renworth’s response. The Little King tittered. “You are your father’s son, truly. But tell me, Rathos son of Matthos, why would you follow in Robswell’s footsteps by following Evan Sinclair? Do you also wish to die young?”
“Children are like water,” responded the man whom other Companymen called Silvertongue, “flowing where they may. He who says they follow their fathers does not know the twelve.”
The father-by-law smiled gently. Rathos had rebuked the Little King with verse from his own sacred text, under the gaze of his city guard, no less.
The mayor seemed to appreciate the riposte. He wagged a finger at Rathos, grinning. “I could never turn away a man who can quote from the Twelve Testaments,” he said. “But pardon me for my rough edges. I bear you and your late father no ill will. Wounds from the Long Summer run deep—deeper still as Remembrance Day draws close.”
“I lost family in that war, as well,” Karl added abruptly.
Renworth didn’t acknowledge Karl. “Lord Drexan made me aware of your journey here well in advance, and you are welcome.” He spoke gregariously, as if by allowing them in he gave them a gift. And I should receive it as one, Evan thought. “Just to be sure: do you have the parchment he sent you?”
Evan reached into his cloak and produced Drexan’s letter. The mayor studied the contents. Satisfied, and seemingly done with his insults, he lifted his gaze to a dark crenelated window above Elfgate and clapped thrice.
The spike-studded portcullis shuddered open. Behind it rose a second iron gate paneled with wood and plastered with nitre, thick rusted chains clacking against each other.
The mayor began to lead them forward. Evan gestured to his son-by-law for their purse. “Forgive me, my lord—what do we pay for the gate tax? I’m not sure of the rate.”
Renworth circled with a sly smile. “Come now, Sinclair. You should know someone like King Hexar’s brother-by-law—or rather, his former one—wouldn’t need to pay such a lowly Common tax.”
“I insist.” Evan loosened his purse strings for a good jingle of the contents. “What is it, my lord? Half a loren?” He reached inside and withdrew coins pinched between thumb and finger.
Evan slipped him just that, and no more. “To all a piece.”
The mayor smiled at the forbidden reference. They began walking into the city with the twenty-man guard on their heels. Rathos and Karl guided their horses behind the power brokers.
“Your relationship with King Hexar offers you privileges, Sinclair,” Renworth said as he walked in confident strides. “I shouldn’t need to stress that those privileges rest on the king’s . . . shall we say, present favor for you.”
Evan caught a glimpse of the Red Tower’s toothy crimson battlements above rooftops. “I need no reminder.”
Southpoint bombarded the senses. The city’s food market, Westcheap, roared low with a thousand muffled conversations. On nearby Sausage Street, Commoners elbowed each other for space at stalls festooned with meats and pelts. Across the way, a family of swine foraged for food in corners and alleys packed with refuse and entrails. The brothel windows of Whore Road drew lurid stares from passersby.
Renworth seemed to bask in the chaos. He proffered the gentlest of nods to mothers who stopped to curtsy; he shook the hands of merchants who milorded him. Toothy-mouthed beggars ceased their begging in his presence for hasty retreats into darker alleys. His city festers in its hunger and poverty like a stew, he thought, and he sips happily from the ladle.
Evan had spent his life working on behalf of the Commons and merchant classes, the sheep whom their lords and priests suckled like ticks. Men like David Renworth didn’t mind if the sheep fell ill; they just wanted to play shepherd.
A massive crowd blocked Kingsway, the road that led directly to the Walls. A horrid stench alerted him to Traitor’s Pit, the well King Tomas had fashioned with the mortar and brick of his enemies’ skulls. From what Evan could see, heads still tumbled into the well from the chopping stone, and the peasants still pissed into it.
“Are they here for an execution?” Evan probed warily.
“No, that took place earlier this morning,” the mayor said, laughing with his eyes, as if he took sick pleasure from Evan’s discomfort. “It could be they’re here to listen to a prophet . . . or it could be they gather to welcome back the bastard prince.”
“Prophet?” Evan heard Karl ask, but it didn’t register. A comet could’ve blazed through the sky just then, and Evan, a dedicated astronomer, wouldn’t have known.
Jason. He spun on Renworth. “Lord . . . Lord Jason is here?”
Evan didn’t realize he was clutching the mayor’s wrist until two city guards stirred uneasily. “Do you know another bastard prince?” Renworth pried his wrist free. “Docked one hour ago. He returns from the Holy Wars, unscathed. Or so I was told.”
No doubt Renworth had saved this news for just the right moment, to rankle Evan, to throw him off balance. Whatever his motives, he’d succeeded.
Evan began to search for his nephew, his sister’s son. Does he lie to roil me, Sarah, he asked his sister, or is Jason here?
A voice suddenly rang out through Westcheap, quelling the noise of the marketplace. The so-called prophet thundered a sermon to his enraptured audience. Unattractive and poor in raiment, the reader wasn’t easy to forget, with his long brown hair, weasel face, and the distinguishing wart on his left cheek. Every time he delivered a rousing line, peasants pumped the air with their fists.
Rathos looked at Evan knowingly; Karl saw their signaling and snorted with contempt. Alas, the firebrand was one of their own, a member of the Loyal Company, a Reubenite like Karl, only more woodenheaded and reckless with his provocations.
But it wasn’t the firebrand who drew his attention now.
A stripe of crimson garb slipped through the crowd. Evan stopped cold, unable to move. Scarcely breathing.
The years have aged us, Lord Charles, Evan thought, trying to suppress the panic in the pit of his stomach, but I have never forgotten your hospitality. With his onetime gaoler strode men in filigreed plate armor, and with them . . .
Renworth hadn’t lied, as it turned out.
Evan rubbed a tear from his cheek. The prince bore an uncanny resemblance to his mother. His skin was sun-kissed where hers had been pale, but he shared his mother’s lean face, her high cheekbones, her unruly raven-black hair, her famous widow’s peak. His eyes shone crystal-blue like hers, clear like water by the seashore.
He was undoubtedly Sarah Sinclair’s son. He was her.
Spellbound, Evan began moving in his nephew’s direction, maneuvering through the crowd with spread elbows. His son-by-law called after him, but he couldn’t hear anything other than the familiar voice from his dreams.