Excerpt 6, A Seat for the Rabble
Posted on March 26, 2017
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.
Jason shouldered past the crowds outside a fishmonger’s stall on the edge of Wool Street, watching and listening to the life of a city he hadn’t known for two years. Soot-faced peasant men and women clogged the cobblestone streets, seeming to burst forth from narrow alleyways and tilting houses in every direction. A vendor bellowed prices for onions and leeks, fresh onions and leeks at less than half the price, as a greasy-haired mother haggled an apple seller, women dumped jets of slop from high windows, and an apron-clad man chased after boys naked as their birthdays. Wagons rattled up and down Iron Street, splattering the unlucky with refuse.
Even in old age, the Grand Inquisitor inspired enough terror to clear a path for them that moved with their feet; their armed guard followed on all sides, hands on their sword hilts.
Jason regretted his choice of wares for the return journey. His bright-colored silks drew curious and envious eyes. Always have I felt a stranger in this kingdom, the bastard thought as he felt their stares, and nothing changes today.
Kerflue half-turned his head. “Does Southpoint seem the same as you remembered her, my lord?”
Slop gushed down in front of him like a waterfall. Jason sidestepped the mess. No more than I’m the same as when I left.
If it were possible, the city seemed worse. Passing Wax Street, he saw a toothless man with a begging bowl sparse with coins. Down an alleyway, a bearded man shamelessly plowed a shirtless whore with raggedy skirts hiked up to her waist. On Coal Street, a haze of flies loitered hungrily above a corpse left to rot in the sun. Fires burned everywhere, filling the air with smoke that made it hard to breathe without coughing.
Jason covered his nose with a sleeve. “It’s . . . different,” he said, loud enough for Kerflue to hear.
The Red Tower lord had a knowing look. “Yes, it seems to grow worse every day. The First King built for us Silver Walls that illuminate the night, as no stone can, and the Secondborn showed their gratitude by building around it a city of killers, whores, and thieves.”
Jason grimaced. “If only we showed more concern for the Common plight,” he said suggestively. Kerflue didn’t respond.
They’re as responsible for their misery as their lords and priests . . . and kings, he pondered. It wasn’t surprising to him that Southpoint had declined. No one cared for the Commons. To many in Loran, peasants were below even the Casaanites, there to work their lands, pay taxes, and die—hopefully out of sight. When they weren’t wearing down their hands and feet, Commoners were paying their lords to marry, give birth, name their children, and bury their dead. A Common saying went that the twelve gods had fashioned Secondborn man with two hands—one for him to lower himself into the ground, and the other to pay his last taxes while in the act.
Jason spotted open latrines overflowing with murk that he could smell from a distance. “Has my father at least tried to clear any of the refuse?” he said through his sleeve.
Upon seeing the king’s red-robed torturer, a mother gave up on her negotiations with a vendor and shooed her children off their path. “His majesty delegated obstructions to the mayor when he left to secure our northern borders in Uzland,” he said drily. “It seems Lord David has delegated that to someone else.”
“Then maybe Southpoint needs a new mayor,” Jason said, but he knew that would do little, if anything. The king and his Worthy Assembly had all the power in the world to change the Common plight, but what was a peasant’s life worth? Nearly as little as a bastard’s life, he thought.
Kerflue seemed to relish the jab at his rival official. “Much as I concur with you, my lord, it should be said that a drought enflames the Midlands. Bread is costly even for lords.”
“Remembrance Day is this week, is it not? Maybe I’ll take the issue to my father’s noble lords.” Not that his Assemblymen would turn an ear to the bastard prince. To those who marched once with Stoddard Trambar and his Army of the Gods, Jason Warchild was on equal footing with the Commoners.
Halfway up the road to King’s Way, the party encountered a bustling crowd of vendors, seamstresses hanging wool shirts on wooden beams, fortune tellers tempting the unwary, wine sellers hefting caskets. Everyone knew the Grand Inquisitor and gave him wide berth. Only two men recognized Jason in his foreign silks.
Wine sellers both, their eyes grew large when he passed by their stall. The men hastened to catch a closer look at him, brushing up against their armored knights. One was a heavier man with a mustachio, the other a baldheaded youth, likely the former’s apprentice.
“Lord Jason!” the heavy man cried through cupped hands. “Jason, son of Hexar and Sarah!”
“Welcome home Lord Jason!” said the youth, smiling.
No doubt the vendors saw a wealthy patron in the king’s son, but he appreciated the gesture. He acknowledged the wine vendors with a short, respectful nod. This only emboldened the heavy man, who urged his apprentice to find a wine casket. The scene drew the attention of other Common peasants, who turn by turn knelt, or shouted blessings. Let it not be said that Jason Warchild is without friends, he thought, grateful.
Kerflue seemed much less taken with the display. “It was my intention to escort you on this road to avoid this attention, my lord, I apologize. It’s especially congested today.”
Jason shrugged off the apology. It was nice to feel like an actual prince in the royal succession. His last night with Garrett on the galley made his popularity with peasants a sweet salve for wounds that didn’t show.
The ranks of the admiring wine sellers soon swelled to fifty or more, slowing their speed to a crawl. Kerflue agitatedly told the guards to keep the peasants away, even as the bastard prince himself extended his hands, letting his fingers brush the soot-nailed fingers of Common men. This is home.
Turning onto Silver Street, the party encountered a crowded marketplace that all but brought them to a halt. A stern-looking man addressed the gathered peasants from the perch of a statue’s plinth. His drab gray wool and hempen rope girdle identified him as a reader of the Free Beliefs, no one important. Yet when he opened his lips, the man came alive with a fire that radiated through his face. He spoke with his hands as he exhorted his listeners to retake what was theirs by the grace of the twelve gods who were one.
Kerflue sneered. “It’s Watley,” he muttered to his leftmost guard with contempt. “Summon the Lord Mayor. Tell him that Firemouth snuck into his little kingdom. We need armed men with dogs. I won’t lose him again, do you understand?”
Jason flickered from the threadbare reader to Kerflue. “I don’t understand, who is this?” The speaker must’ve delivered a particularly rousing line, because the sea of gray wool roared with approval, drowning his voice.
The Red Tower lord scowled at the reader. “Forgive me, Lord Jason. He’s a treasonous vagrant. Jon Watley’s his name.”
“What’s his crime?”
“Crimes, more like. He travels across the kingdom looking to incite unrest. The rat eludes every trap we set, and scampers off to hide with his conspirators in Eastland when we loose the hounds. Not this time.”
Jason strained to hear Watley over the crowd. An infant squealed hysterically somewhere. “The Eighth Testament tells us that Secondborn man knew no shame when Firstborn elves first saw their nakedness. The elves, our teachers, were sent by the gods themselves, and upheld the law we maintain secretly in our hearts: No thing living is above another.”
Some men hooted rowdily; another cried, “Point us true, Firemouth!” Watley waited for complete silence to continue. “If no living thing was above another at man’s birth, can any man be within his gods-given rights to claim mastery over another?” The crowd’s response was swift and jarring: ”NO!”
I can see why Kerflue would want this man in irons, Jason thought. For the rulers of Loran, the order of things was set in stone. There was a king, and below him his Worthy Assembly of sworn lords, priests, and merchants, in that order; Common peasants and their parish readers came last, if at all. Treason it was for the poor soul who challenged that hierarchy.
Watley’s voice rang out through the marketplace. “No, of course not,” he assured the crowd. “The elves were as teachers to men, not their rulers. Yet what are the Commons to the lords and priests of this kingdom? No higher than the flea. Priestking Parlisis dispatches more priests to our shores every day just to remind us. Are they wiser than the elves?”
“Then what of the First King’s Great Covenant?” Jason was surprised to see the challenge came from Kerflue himself. Men hadn’t taken notice of them on Silver Street; they shied away from the Grand Inquisitor almost instantly. “Did we not give up our ancient freedoms for the crown’s protection?”
“We.” The reader shielded his eyes from the sun with a hand, squinting as he searched the crowd. He whitened visibly when he recognized the challenger. “That we did, Lord Charles, that we did.”
“Then why do you preach this treason?” Kerflue rejoined. On the crowd’s fringes, Jason spotted a familiar face in the man some called the Little King. He had with him a handful of men, plus his poor-of-cloth city guard, no hounds. “Is King Hexar not your better? Is not Gram Sothos?”
Watley stiffened indignantly. “Forgive me, Lord Charles, but only the One True King may assert that mastery. Elzura the Witch broke that line, and broken it remains.”
Torturer and reader stared each other down like tomcats on disputed ground. Jason turned to the insistent tug on his left sleeve and discovered the mustachioed wine seller, a barrel in his arms.
“Milord, wine milord?” he asked eagerly. He was opening the spigot single-handedly when one of the guards shoved him off, spilling rich purple wine on the man’s breeches. Off in the distance somewhere, an admirer shouted Jason’s name.
“What do you mean to imply, reader?” Kerflue retorted. “Care you to repeat it in my Dread Chamber?”
Watley looked like a hunted animal on the edge of flight. “Turel e’sartha, turan e’sparta,” the reader said defiantly.
Jason knew the forbidden saying well. It was the motto the Worthy Assembly had sewn in its sigils when the body still housed the Wing of the Commons, which sat peasants beside their lords for the making of laws. To each a chair, he recalled the Romarian motto, to all a piece. A daring statement.
“JASON, BEHIND YOU!”
Sunlight flashed on steel. A sword sliced the air by his ear, slashing his silken sleeve. Jason ripped his sword free from his scabbard. He deflected the next thrust from the heavyset wine seller, shorn his casket, now armed with a falchion. His strokes fell too clumsily for the tested warrior. Jason urged the man to desist, but still he came, and he was forced to shove his blade through the man’s neck. A fount of crimson erupted from the wound, and down the seller went, dying as peasants dispersed like rats from a burning house.
Jason was still turning when the other assassin leapt up from behind. The wine seller’s apprentice lifted a sword above his smooth hairless head. “For Lady Alyse, you bastard,” he said in a thick accent. Jason raised his blade much too slowly . . .
. . . and flinched as the blur of a dagger whirled into the man’s thigh. The assassin slumped to a knee with a pathetic, half-gurgled scream. Kerflue, still reeling, barked orders to his men-at-arms, who promptly surrounded the king’s bastard, swords drawn. Four guards encircled his assailant, inflicting abuse.
Jason spun on the dagger thrower. He was an older man with blond hair that dripped to gray around his ears and about his beard. He had on a lord’s finery beneath his travel-stained cape. He doffed his feathered cap, spread his arms in welcome, and bowed as he would for a king.
“Nephew,” the man said loudly. “I am pleased to see you at long last, and find you unharmed.”
Nephew? Only two men could call him that, and one was in the east, far from these shores.
The Grand Inquisitor narrowed his eyes, grimacing. “Evan Sinclair,” he said through his teeth.