Excerpt 7, A Seat for the Rabble
Posted on May 26, 2017
In this chapter, Sara, her mother, and a friendly neighbor travel to the First King’s castle to help with preparations for a great feast. 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.
Sara’s mother shook her awake to catch the first rays of pearl light glimmering through leaves and limbs.
“There,” Rose said, pointing. “Look, Sara! The Walls!”
Sara rubbed sleep out of her eyes. They’d been traveling from Rosbury to Southpoint in a wagon reeking of onion since that morning. Still groggy, she fought for purchase with her feet in an unsteady wagonbed. Far above, King Anjan’s castle filled the sky like a shining mountain. Tall and wide loomed the long curtain wall, shimmering like a moonlit river. Six corner towers segmented the battlements. A jolt to Caleb Bard’s wagon, and the luminous Silver Walls dipped once more behind the garish red walls that encircled the city of Southpoint.
“It’s Traitor’s Gate,” Caleb told her mother discreetly.
“Oh gods, gods, they’re terrible, Caleb,” Rose croaked. “We should’ve taken East Gate.” She twisted around for a grave look at Sara. “Hide your eyes. Don’t look up—whatever you do. Do you understand, Sara?”
Sara nodded. She covered her face with her hands. When she caught her mother looking elsewhere, she ventured a peek through her fingers—and soon wished she hadn’t. Grisly black melon shapes decorated a row of spikes on Traitor’s Gate. The tarred heads had frightening expressions she saw again when she shut her eyes: vacant eye sockets, furrowed brows, lips twisted into snarls. Flies buzzed in dense clouds above their tousled hair. The dead men’s faces made her think of Hexaar, and that led her to dwell on her father. No, you’re alive, you’re alive, I know it, she thought. Caleb made the Gift of a hare.
Two city guards waved them to a stop outside the gate. They questioned the farmer about where they’d come from and what they were doing in Southpoint. To their mild unease, the guards flipped the wool over to check their cargo. After all that, they said he had to pay to enter the city.
“Two lorens?” Caleb balked. “Wasn’t it half a loren last time, sirs?”
The jowly guard looked like a frog as he scowled. “Gate tax. You don’t pay? You don’t go in.”
“And you try to get past us—“ The skinnier guard jabbed his thumb up at Traitor’s Gate.
“Course, we’re open to . . . other ways of paying.” The frog-faced guard ogled her mother with hungry eyes.
“She’s married,” Sara blurted. She drew the guard’s scowl. “To a knight of House Morley.” She was dismayed when Rose warned her with a stern look.
Caleb broke the tension with an awkward laugh. “Well! What’s a few sylvens, anyway, Rose?” He deposited the coins into the skinnier one’s grimy palm.
Snapping the reins, Caleb guided them through Traitor’s Gate. Sara glared at the frog man as the wagon rattled past. She breathed easier when the guards and heads slipped behind the roofs of houses.
Rose was beside herself over the tax. “The king must truly have need of coin for his wars if he’s raising even a gate tax like that,” she said when they were out of the guards’ earshot.
Caleb smirked. “The king has need of our coin, but I doubt even half of that will reach his coffers. Those guards will have a taste, and then the Little King will have his.”
Their conversation drifted out of Sara’s hearing as she took in Southpoint. The sights and sounds of Eastcheap swirled around them like a raging river. She had never seen so many faces! Rosbury had always seemed so vast and important with its seventy or so villagers; Southpoint had to have thousands, maybe more. Everyone seemed to be about some business or another. Guards in nasal helms and boiled leather patrolled the streets, checking faces and asking questions.
“The mayor’s men are out in force today,” Caleb noted as he tugged the reins. “Must be the Worthy Assembly’s already here.”
Their wagon slowed to a snail’s pace in the thick of busy Southpointers. Most gave way; some shouted insults at Caleb for sloshing mud, and Sara made faces at those people. Iron Street with all its billowing smoke forked into Silver Street, which fed into the congested cobblestone sprawl of King’s Way.
That was where Sara realized that the Silver Walls were actually hideous. Up close, the twelve-sided curtain wall looked like a frosted cake, with a topmost layer alight with the pretty pearl colors and a bottom half freckled with rust-orange brick. Long fingers of brown crept up the Walls, as if with a desire to steal the battlements’ luster and drag it down into the murk of the gray-green moat that gestated far below.
“It’s ugly,” Sara said decisively.
Her mother chided her with that look she had. “Mind your tongue! This is Anjan First King’s great castle. Every one of our Lords of Loran has dwelt here. I won’t have mine own daughter saying a wrong thing about it.”
“Aye, but Sara isn’t the only one to say it,” Caleb said. “The Walls were once silver all over. It was said the light from their stone was like another moon above Southpoint for years. Now they’re more like the Red Walls, at least on the outside.”
Sara swelled with gratitude. She loved that about Caleb: how he would sometimes agree with her against her mother.
“What happened to them?” the girl asked.
“Selfishness. Greedy kings and Common thieves. Lords of Loran have always wanted Anjan’s mysterious stone for their statues in the Hall of Memory. Peasants have always peddled it for meat and wine.”
The day wore on in Southpoint, unbearably hot, humid, and pungent from the reek of fish and refuse. Sara passed the time counting the many peasants. When Rose wasn’t watching, she snuck a hand beneath her sweat-sodden wimple to relieve an annoying itch.
Caleb noticed. “Hot, isn’t it, sweet one?”
Leaning down, he retrieved a waterskin from under their seat. He uncorked it, splashed water in his mouth, and handed it to her. She tilted her head back and squeezed the leather.
“Oh, look!” Caleb said. “They’re here.” He shifted to make room for her upfront. “A lady of your illustrious line shouldn’t miss this, Sara Sothron.”
She plopped between her mother and their neighbor, and gasped. Past carts stuffed with caskets and wheat bundles, past other Commoners and their beasts of burden, she saw a parade unlike anything she had ever seen. Beautiful stallions pulled a hundred gilded carriages from either side of the Walls, coming to a halt around the lowered drawbridge. Every horse was as elegant as her Little Lady, with lustrous manes and tails alight in the pearl shine spilling down from the Walls.
“Are they the king’s princes and princesses?” she asked.
“Well, if they were, you’d be up there with them, wouldn’t you?” Caleb said. She smiled. “Though the king is said to have as many princes and princesses,” he added with a wink for her mother. “No, no, this is the Worthy Assembly.”
Sara knew the Assembly by name but understood little and less about it, save for the fact that Free Believers and the Common folk despised it. Anytime the lords and clergy of the Assembly met, men like her father and Connor Bagman would gather in Rosbury’s Golden Dragon as if the inn were a parish. Sometimes they’d actually listen to readers over cups of mead; the roamer Firemouth had paid visits until their Lord Warden threatened to hang him.
“How many Assemblymen will we see?” she asked.
Caleb wiped his brow with a greasy forearm. “Not sure, my lovely. Maybe a hundred. But not every Assemblyman is eager to remember the Long Summer, and no one ever invites merchants, so maybe fewer.”
Sara knew enough to know the king and his Assemblymen got along as well as cats and dogs. Peasants still spoke of wars that lasted for the longest summers, of smoking fields and dead men on trees. Her father had lost his father and two brothers in the rebellion, her mother a brother and five cousins.
Few could agree on why a Long Summer came in the first place. Brother Elfred told his congregants that Hexar started it when he wanted a third wife; Reader Gary and Firemouth and nearly everyone else blamed Stod, Willard, and especially Priestking Parlisis. Her father, who had named her after Sarah Sinclair, said the priestking was to blame the most because he wanted their souls. That was enough for Sara Sothron.
To pass the time, Caleb started a guessing game about which noblemen were present. She had to stand and try for a close look at their rippling banners. The thrice-crowned blue hart on white belonged to the Old Oak, Greg Thorngale, Lord of Redforge, who hobbled out of his carriage on the arms of his three identical sons, Darren, Gavin, and Luc. Portly Lord Dumas she knew from his duo of whales on blue, gold, and white. Her mother leaned forward to catch a glimpse of the dashing Lord Tomas Rexley, known for his love of the Free Beliefs; a banner displayed his griffon over triangles of orange and black.
They spotted some of the kingdom’s most important men of cloth. Exiting a gilded carriage, High Bishop Peshar Grathos walked beside a number of plump-faced boys, acolytes all. His rival, Jacob Manse, master reader for the Free Beliefs, trudged ahead of a retinue of boys with funny bowl haircuts.
“Will we see the king arrive, too?” Sara asked.
The farmer snickered. “No, my lovely, the king sits the Silver Walls. He’s separate from the Assembly, and we’re all the better for it, trust me on that.”
“Why did Hexar ever spare the Assembly?” Sara caught her mother’s look and swiftly added, “King Hexar, I mean. His majesty. After the Long Summer, I mean.” She felt stupid.
Caleb rubbed his chin. “It’s a good question, princess.” She smiled. “Hexar needs the Assembly because he needs coin.”
“But why does the Assembly need the king?”
The farmer and her mother seemed apprehensive. Rose circled about. “Come now, you should know better than that.”
Her mother didn’t need to remind her. Kings had ruled in Arna ever since the elves had sailed west on their ships long, long ago. Once, Anjan First King had reigned over all of Arna. Reader Gary liked to remind her and the other children that they’d still have one kingdom under one king had it not been for Casaanite witchcraft.
Caleb explained that the Worthy Assembly wasn’t one but three assemblies. The noble lords had their Wing of Lords, and priests and readers their Wing of Clergy. Beneath them was the Wing of Knights.
Sara stood on her tiptoes. “Where are all the knights?”
He giggled. “Well, the Wing of Knights doesn’t really sit knights, just fur traders, spice peddlers, and their like. Really, they ought to call themselves the Wing of Merchants.”
She puzzled her expression. “What about the Commons? Don’t they get a wing, too?”
Caleb smiled ruefully. “They—we—had one, once. Two hundred years ago. But then Commoners helped bring about the Interregnum. The lords and clergy never forgave them for helping kill King Lathros. Lord David is supposed to be a voice, but he cares about the Commons like he would fleas.”
“That’ll be enough about Fourth Wings and dead kings,” Rose broke in curtly. “We’ve come to make coin, not trouble.”
Sara would have rather liked to learn more. She could sit and listen to Caleb talk for hours. He knew a lot for a Common peasant, but that was because he hadn’t been born one. Mother once told her that Caleb had belonged to a highborn house in Westland, and that his lord father had stripped him of his title and inheritance when he refused a plain-looking wife. Father had said he was someone best left alone, but the farmer was all they’d had for help at market since his disappearance. Without Caleb’s stinky onions, they wouldn’t have been able to pay their taxes, and her mother would have had to remarry or give her up.
She watched as Caleb angled his head back for another drag. He handed her the waterskin. “Left a little more for you, Princess.”
She slaked her thirst as Sacreis rode his blazing sun chariot to the sky stables high above, and thought on how hideous the Walls looked.
* * *
By the time their turn came to pass through the Great Gates, Sara needed to make water urgently.
Her mother looked deeply annoyed when she whispered it to her. “You gave her too much, Caleb,” she complained.
“Just lift your gown and bend the knees, princess,” he told her. “It’ll pass right through the wood planks.”
For some reason, Caleb calling her by that name, here, in the Silver Walls, made anything like that horrifying. Her thighs cramped from all the pressure in her stomach.
A handful of knights greeted them at the first gate. One of them had deep blue eyes that reminded her of her father’s. She sank into the back of the cart, unsure if she was weeping from onion or her own mortification.
Sara lay on her side by the onions and curled her knees into her stomach. She tossed to and fro; she ground her teeth; she counted the spikes in the portcullis overhead.
She finally heard the knight instruct Caleb to board his cart and horses in the stables nearest the South Tower. The farmer snapped the reins, and the cart rumbled over the drawbridge and into a vast courtyard. Every bump brought her to the edge of pissing, and by the mercy of the godface Maetha she somehow restrained herself.
She would need to make this fast.
When she heard fewer voices, she stood abruptly and said, “I’m sorry Mother, I’m so sorry,” and leapt off the cart. She heard Caleb calming her mother.
The castle towered above her like canyon walls, alight in the waning sunlight. Servants were everywhere, and nowhere seemed safe for her to lift her gown. A man nearly spilled the logs in his arms as she rushed by. Near the stables, the horses whinnied, and a gruff-looking bearded man appeared. On the other side of a huge tower, she encountered a scowling lord.
A hedge maze seemed the most promising. Sara didn’t enter through a proper entrance but through the first space in the leafy wall that seemed roughly her size. She squeezed her small body between briars, realizing only seconds later that she’d lost her wimple in the prickly shrub.
In a shady space between the hedges, with no one around, she finally bent low. She barely had time to slide her wool hem over her knees before the golden stream surged into the grass. She exhaled and almost lost her balance. By Felos, the godface of celebration, she thought nothing had ever felt so good.
The ecstasy didn’t last. She soon heard feet crushing grass. Voices followed. Fearing it was the king himself, she pushed her hemlines down and crouched inside the nearest hedge. Unlike the hard clay of Rosbury, the soil here shifted like sand, and she snaked her hands and feet inside it, seeking invisibility.
She glimpsed two men through a hedge opposite hers. One wore a black cloak, and she couldn’t see much more than its folds and his sandaled feet. The other she saw more clearly. Frail and very old, he shuffled about in a gray robe that snaked after his feet.
“. . . perfect opportunity, one your men fumbled,” said the first man. “I thought your order was known for these things?”
“The traitor intervened,” said the one in the robe. “The Little King knew they would cross paths and deliberately misled me about Sinclair.”
The black cloak barked with laughter. “Misled you? You must be getting old.”
The gray robe glared. “That craven is a thorn in my side. Yours, too. Were that you had made good on your end of this and had the king send him to the Tower years ago.”
The other man drifted out of her vision. “Hexar likes him. He prefers two spymasters these days, one for the lords and one for their Commons. And let’s not forget the peasants’ love for him.”
“Even though he butchers them.”
“Do I detect some jealousy, old friend?”
The gray robe gazed after his companion. “Have you made arrangements?” he asked so softly she strained to hear.
The other one must have done or said something, because the one in gray added, “We did right in persuading the king to name her steward. The blood of Eduard flows strong in those veins. A shame her brother died in the Brace.”
“Yes, a shame. How are they taking the loss of Alyse’s only male child?”
The gray robe stroked his papery hands. “They knew the risks. The Lame King is a harbinger for change, and he had his father’s ill temperament, anyway.”
The black cloak treaded back into her vision. “A funny thing, that. Lord Shaddon suffered exile for his betrayal, and Sir Hanorr gave up his head. And the priestking risked that game piece against Vhizadyn?”
Turning, the other man strolled through the grass, hands behind his back. “I’ve heard funnier things.” He tilted his head for a coy look over his shoulder. “What do you know about the crown prince?”
“Only that the Southern Vine had nothing to do with it.”
“Nor did mine. I thought maybe he went mad from war. Do you believe the bastard prince?”
“I believe in prophecy. In the Kingsright that connects us all to Anjan’s heirs. The Northern Vine may not, but—“
The gray robe spun on his heels. “Who said that?”
“—but others still do. Things are in motion well beyond your touch or mine. The crown’s enemies are everywhere. Kar Kravack reaves the north. Vhizadyn Skulltowers is conquering the Brace. Parlisis still hungers for these Walls. And Uthron Morley recently lost a company he sent west to appease wroth Sylvanian peasants. They vanished on Half Day. In Draywood.”
Lord Uthron? She inched closer. Sharp twigs grazed her hair, loosing golden bangs.
“And the Ascendant King will come when the Huntsman returns to repent and heal,” the black cloak replied steadfastly. “Where will you be when the Nagarthessi summon Those Who Eat the Children?”
She almost made water again. She knew from parish that name was another one for the Shadowkings, deadly servants of the Nagarthessi, the bastard sons of Dracar vanquished by King Anjan in the First Days. A spotty brown spider descended on a silk thread to dangle by her cheek, yet she didn’t move.
“Oh, you needn’t convince me, my lord,” the robe said in mock. “I know you’re a believer. Speaking of which”—Sara saw him circle his companion, and the black cloak put his back to her—“I hear you’ve recently taken on a new servant. What are your intentions with him?”
“He warms my bed. Something you used to do.”
The gray robe took the other’s hand, a gentle touch. “You know I won’t pry. That is part of the arrangement we have . . . an arrangement you know I must now end. So consider this my parting gift. You talk of Uzmen, Muhregites, and Shadowkings, but you should be aware that my colleagues are watching you. And their intentions are not benign.”
The black cloak retracted his hand as if from fear of pox. “Thank you for your gift,” he said coldly.
“You should take it more kindly,” the other warned. “You and I are the last of our kind. Unlike me, the Northern Vine has little love for you. I’ve kept them at bay but there are some who watch the stars—and want to act. And they will not abide—“
A songbird trilled three times. The men stirred uneasily.
“We are not alone,” the gray robe said above a whisper.
Sara seized with terror. The man in gray sent his eyes here and there . . . and settled on where she huddled beneath the hedge.
The heads on Traitor’s Gate flashed through her mind as she picked herself up and stumbled out of the hedge, branches creaking and scraping her arms as she fled. Her stomach rolled with disgust as she stepped through grass damp with her own water. She wheeled around a hedge bush and plunged through three leafy spaces, thorny branches pulling insistently at her hair and wool gown. Her feet carried her so fast that her eyes missed the marbled fountain, and she tumbled headfirst into the pool below the seated statue.
She was wet now, dripping everywhere, her hair a soggy mop that clung slickly to her cheeks and neck. She heard feet just beyond the hedge. Her face crumpled at once and her tears mingled with those from the sad-faced statue.
She blamed herself for this. She never should’ve drank so much water, never should’ve left the cart or thought the Walls so ugly. It was her fault, and the king would take her head for sure, and Dracar would take her soul for eternity. She wept.
That was when she saw her father’s deep blue eyes blink at her from the hedge bush. She couldn’t see his face, but knew the eyes watching from their hollows. He faded into the leaves.
She was in a dream. It was her father; he was here, here to save her from the robe and cloak. Wading through the pool, she crawled out of the fountain. She followed his fast-moving feet.
“Father,” she kept trying to say, but he was always a few yards ahead, and she couldn’t run and talk.
Through the hedges and around the tower, she slammed into Rose Sothron.
Her mother stared at her with horror. “By the twelve-who-are-one, where—how—why are you wet?” She shook her by her arms. “Your hair is showing. Where is your wimple, Sara?”
“I saw Father,” she stammered. “I saw him, Mother! I—“
She boxed her ear. “Fool girl! I should’ve told Sir Willard you were too young to leave Rosbury. Come with me at once!”
Her mother yanked her by the hand. Glancing back, she couldn’t find any sign of her father or the gray robe and black cloak. She lingered on the rust-red brick in the Silver Walls.