Excerpt 9, A Seat for the Rabble
Posted on March 18, 2019
In this chapter, Lorana Eddenhold, the king’s daughter, prepares to address the powerful men of her father’s kingdom. 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.
Lorana winced from what felt like a claw raking her side. Lorna took notice and let the jewel-studded girdle slacken around the folds of her gown.
The girl appeared from behind her in the mirror. “Are you okay, my lady?”
It was the fifth time in five minutes her younger lady-in-waiting had chafed her skin with the girdle’s sharp jewel edges, and she was fast losing patience. Is the griff okay when the tree cat slowly rends it? she almost said.
Thankfully, Tabecca intervened before the princess permanently damaged the shy fourteen-year-old and her fragile self with a barbed remark.
“Why don’t you see to Princess Heather?” the Casaanite encouraged her sweetly. “I’ll see to the girdle.”
Lorna looked to the princess for solace, but she supplied none. Curtsying, the ginger-haired girl slipped nimbly through the crack in her chamber door. Tabecca went to the door and wrestled with its iron handle until it clamped shut.
“That girl is a twat if I ever knew one,” Lorana muttered. “Remind me to tell Lord Alan that he can take his daughter back to Southfar after the feast.”
The servant admonished her with that look she had. “You mustn’t be so harsh, Ana. Lorna worships you.”
“Then she must be a Slyvanian, and I a heathen god.” She snorted. “Worships the chance to meet a lordly husband while in my service, more like.”
Kneeling where Lorna had been, Tabecca unsnapped the girdle. Torchlight fractured in its emerald and sapphire shards as she pulled it through her hands. Lorana let her eyes stray to her reflected cleavage in the mirror.
“So you think me too harsh?” she asked.
“Only with tax collectors who miscount and ladies-in-waiting too young to understand when you’re troubled.”
“Troubled?” she scoffed. “By whom? My many adoring suitors, who want nothing more than children with my look?”
Tabecca ignored her. As she finished refitting the girdle, a jewel mangled her side, but she didn’t say anything. She stood, smoothing the folds in her gown.
“I think you look radiant,” the girl said, “and I’ve known you long enough to know when your father troubles you.”
She sighed. “Am I that transparent to you, or do you read minds like a Barefoot Knight?”
“I simply watch and listen. You haven’t smiled since Jason met with the king.”
She had been shorter with Lorna and some of her other ladies since her father had taken her half-brother to task. In his grief and anger, Hexar had made awful accusations. Jason had since gone hunting. Sarah’s only son was nothing if not a man of his word. Have you gone to find Garrett like you promised, my brother? Will you not show tonight? She shuddered to think on the consequences if he didn’t.
“I worry about him,” Lorana admitted. “Jason is more my father than even my father realizes, and too hard on himself by half. He faces his bluster like he would a steel sword when he should take it for the rain it is, quick to come and go.”
“Yet he did disobey the king when he left with Garrett.”
“He did. And I suppose my father is Sacreis, and honors his every relation and vow,” she said caustically.
Tabecca fell silent. Only Hexar’s favorite child could speak about the king that way . . . and only with her favorite servant.
“You look wonderful,” Tabecca told her.
Lorana took a breath and braced for her reflection. From her feet to her chin, she supposed she did look like a princess of Loran. The gilded girdle and its jewels nicely complemented her cobalt-blue gown.
Those were the only things about herself that she liked. Lorana glanced fleetingly at her face, the one Heather’s ladies mocked behind her back for its scatter of freckles, thick bushy eyebrows, and bulbous nose. Her overbite completed a picture of perfect repulsiveness. She had Alyse the Traitor to thank for her uneven shape, small breasts, and wide bony hips.
She had stared at herself in this mirror since she was old enough to remember. As a child, she would often run her hands over her face, as if it were pliable wet clay, and she could sculpt her awkward anvil brow and wide-set nostrils into something more pleasing. Sometimes she would make play with Edenia that Pathazar had returned from the underworld and turned her into a monster of the night, and that only a beautiful virgin could lift the spell with a kiss.
Lorna doesn’t worship me, any more than my ambitious suitors, she thought to herself. Would even you, Becca?
“Do you think me fat?” Lorana poked at the jelly in her sides. “Perhaps I should reconsider Lord Dumas’ marriage proposal. I can be the big whale in his sigil and he the small one.”
Tabecca snickered. “Do you mean . . . Lord Gut?”
The women exploded with laughter. “How could I have forgotten?” she said, wheezing from the tightness of her stay. “Lord Gut, who ripped his own tunic wolfing down boar? If I became Lady Gut, do you think he would try to eat me or fuck me?”
“You’d be Lady Thunderarse!”
The princess held a pillow to her stomach and swayed ponderously, grunting to imitate the heavyset lord’s gravelly baritone. Tabecca staggered into her bed, clutching her belly, tears streaming down her face. She abruptly dropped the pillow, stunned, as if she were Sunox and the pillow her gut, so heavy it fell to the earth. The servant broke wind and gasped with horror; Lorana fell to her knees, roaring with laughter.
“Now who’s Lady Thunderarse?” she teased.
It was only then that they heard the delicate rapping at her door. “My lady?” came the Tessian’s heavy accent. “I, uh, um, the king—he’s ready for you.”
Lorana swallowed her giggles and stood, transforming into the king’s daughter once more. “Coming, Lord Hanor.” She turned to Tabecca. “How do I look?”
“Beautiful,” Tabecca said with a smile too pleasant to be insincere.
“Then I’ll see you downstairs, along with Lord Gut.” And may he be the only spurned suitor I see again tonight.
* * *
Lorana was expected to escort the king from the Great Hall to the upper bailey, where the lords and clergy of the Worthy Assembly would be cavorting. She found her father leaning into Sirs Blake and Rogir by the East Tower’s stairs, cursing his gout and imparting sage advice to his knights.
“. . . and it’s why I never should’ve bedded that Common wench in the bathhouses,” she overheard him grumbling. “Let that be a lesson to you lads.”
“But is it a lesson about the Common wench, or filthy water?” she said from a high step.
The knights went white. Caught off guard, Hexar seemed to fight over whether to play angry or embarrassed. He settled on a headshake. “Come, daughter, I want to eat and drink, and not think too long on serious matters.”
She took his arm and helped the gouty old king down the stairs. Hexar listed heavily on his griffon’s-claw cane.
“So your brother is not coming?” he asked gruffly.
“I’m not sure, my king.”
“You blame me for what happened in the throne room?”
“I’m not sure the blame matters,” she replied. “Only who shows tonight, and who doesn’t.”
The pair descended in silence. The night air was cool and fragrant with the smell of incense. A crescent moon bathed the Walls in light that rippled, water-like, across scenes of battle and intrigue engraved in the mysterious stone.
Looking up, she saw the Lame King aglitter in the night sky. If you believed the ancients, a Huntsman would one day appear by Eduard, yank on an arrow made of stars, and heal his ankle. The Huntsman would herald the rise of Anjan’s last heir, who would fly astride Furos, the First King’s resurrected battle griffon, and rally the world against the Nagarthessi and their fire-breathing dead men.
And all the ugly girls will be beautiful, and the men themselves will bear and raise children, forever, she mused.
Had she ever believed in the Ascendant King, or any of it? Not truly, not if she listened to her heart. She had never paid much mind to religion. Lorana Eddenhold believed in only what she understood. For her, that was that you could always rely on a man to heed his belly, purse, and sex over just about anything else, including kings, priests, and his own reason.
“Do you trust yourself to say what I’ve bidden you?” Hexar asked as the pair descended haltingly.
“You may not think it, Father, but I was king when you were gone,” she replied. “I’m more comfortable holding court than I am stitching headdresses.”
“That’s not what I meant.” He stopped to hold her in his gaze. “I’m talking about the princes. I don’t wish to cause you any more grief than you already feel.”
She smiled sadly. Oh, Father, I only ever cared about one of my brothers, she considered replying, and you burned him as only you could. “I will do as you have bidden me,” she said.
Turning a corner on the stairs, they found hundreds of Worthy Assemblymen strutting about like peacocks. Multiple conversations carried on at a low pitch. At last, our Unworthy Assembly, come to smile through their teeth and suckle us like ticks. She scanned the crowded courtyard for familiar faces.
The most prominent was Gram Sothos, the pink-handed Lord of Saxhold, almost a foot taller than most other noblemen, resplendent in his crimson doublet and gray cape. Around the lion gathered his pride: big-chinned Petor Ellsby of Swanshire, stalwart Jon Redoak of Ironwood, and Lord Gut himself. Light-haired and long of limb, Sam Gramlore, Lord of Eddenwood, loitered nearby, an outcast by birth thanks to his grandfather, who tarnished their house with treason in the Siege of Sacry. The High Bishop Peshar Grathos hovered close by. A layer of vassals and zealots cushioned the space between this ring of powerful men and other Assemblymen: lesser lords, bishops, and the like, all seeking favors from Sothos or Grathos, or both.
On the outermost edges gathered the Free Believers, their rivals, a gray sea in their robes. Power here emanated from the dashing Tomas Rexley, Lord of Westerliche, and Jacob Manse, a striking contrast in drab gray raiment that made it clear that as master reader of the Free Beliefs in Loran he regarded himself as but a humble servant. About Westerliche milled his sworn vassals, the slender-built Orrenn Silverspear of Copper Grove, extravagant Venn Lamporean of Ethelwood, and beak-nosed Shannen Fowl of Wesswood.
Greg Klegmann was one of the few men who could travel freely between those rival worlds without drawing suspicion; he chose neither tonight, and sat hunched over a trestle table with his three identical sons. Like-minded men sought refuge with House Klegmann.
Lorana turned her attention to the men furthest from the intrigue. Evan Sinclair gathered close with his companions like a trio of crows. Jason’s maternal uncle dressed for the occasion of his pardon in padded doublet and leggings. His ward Rathos lifted his head from his cup, catching her eyes. Clever, thought the princess. Their choice or no, the three men’s seating off to the side precluded any guesses about who present sat in both the Worthy Assembly and Evan Sinclair’s Loyal Company. She let her gaze wander across the courtyard. Who else here is loyal to Sinclair? Only Lady Sarah’s brother knew the truth.
Hexar searched the crowd with her. He slouched against her with a sigh. “Trevor didn’t come,” he murmured.
Did you expect anything else, Father? The noble lord other men knew as the Bull hadn’t been seen at the Walls or in the Worthy Assembly for years. A warrior who boldly backed her father in his King Trials and fought for their house during the Long Summer, his affections for the king changed after Hexar had his younger brother beheaded over Shaddon’s plot to seize Erick. Sir Hanorr had confessed in the Red Tower, but the Bull hadn’t believed a word. He accused Charles Kerflue of securing a false confession, famously challenging Hexar himself to a trial by combat in his throne room. When her father refused out of love for his friend, Trevor Wexley swore never to set foot again in Loran proper. Not until Kerflue hanged by a gibbet.
The king lost more than a friend the day he took Hanorr’s head. The saying went that a Cloudlander’s word was stronger than swordwood. Trevor Wexley gave proof when he forbade his sworn nobles from even convening with Loran’s other lords in the Worthy Assembly. Hexar had neither the heart nor the coffers to force the issue, and spent the next decade pretending as if the schism didn’t exist. The Cloudlands became a kingdom within a kingdom in all but name, and their tribute trickled to nothing. Cloudlanders had a name for their strained relations with the rest of Loran: the Silent Friendship. Assemblymen like Gram Sothos preferred to call it Hexar’s Folly.
Yet no one, save maybe her father, had the love of both the Commons and many nobles like the Bull. And her father missed no one as greatly: not his own brother, not his dead wives, and maybe not even the sons who still drew breath.
She comforted her father with a light touch. Too late, she saw the herald off to their side, sucking in air for his trumpet. The ringing continued in her ears minutes after he finished braying the King’s Grace.
“All hail King Hexar the First, Lord of Loran, and his eldest daughter, Princess Lorana, by Lady Alyse,” he cried.
Her father didn’t seem to pay the loud applause any heed, merely waving as he hobbled along on his gout cane, free of her arm.
Just when she thought the herald was done, he sounded the instrument again, shouting an introduction for Heather and her escort. Flying merrily down the stairs came her half-sister, a flurry of pink velvet, white tippets, and gold hair. The Tessian clumsily tried to keep up behind her.
A tide of Assemblymen rushed up to meet the king and his daughters. Peshar Grathos got to Hexar first.
In his cream-colored cassock and flowing indigo cape, the priestking’s emissary looked like one of the rainbow carrion birds said to fly Nerimbaan skies. A fleshy wattle danced about his neck, and his rheumy eyes had an eagerness that made her stomach spin.
The high bishop bowed solemnly before Hexar. “Your majesty,” he said in that soft, oily voice. “Such a pleasure to see you, ahem, unharmed from the campaigns in Uzland. Every day you were gone I, um, ahem, prayed Amath would protect you, Justar smite your enemies, and Helsar guide you safely home. As did His Holiness.”
And prepared a feast in thanks to Felos in case none of those prayers worked, she thought. Watching her father receive the bishop, it seemed clearer than ever that the bitter rivalry between the Silver Walls and White Citadel had never abated. No amount of Remembrance Days could paper over the king’s history with the priestking.
Especially not tonight. For it was Parlisis who had offered the olive branch to Hexar so he would join his Holy Wars and return Edenia. The branch had thorns in hindsight: one prince had died, and the other went mad and vanished.
The king tightened his lips. For a moment, she thought he would bludgeon the old man with his cane and make another Willard Potter on the night they were supposed to honor the dead.
“I want wine,” the king declared abruptly. He found a lord he liked and headed for a long table lined with wooden caskets.
Everyone felt the slight. Trying to recover, the bishop turned his attention to the princesses. “Princess Heather, my, how you’ve grown! You look just like Lady Romara, ahem, the best parts of her, I mean.”
He bent low to kiss her hand. Heather shied away, toward her older sibling. “I’ve heard Father say her best parts were her tits, and I don’t have those.”
Lorana didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. A few lords nearby covered their grins.
The bishop smiled awkwardly. “And Princess Lorana, you are, uh, ahem, ravishing. A vision from Venas for noble young men to chase.”
As surely as you chase them, Peshar. She curtsied. “You do me honor, your grace.”
“As you honor Lady Alyse.” His papery skin brushed her wrist as he leaned in. “And yet,” he said, “I do worry about you, your highness. Matters of court and coin are, ahem, unworthy of your precious self. By our First Testament, the elves told man that silence is a virtue Divna expects in women.”
Knowing just how to respond, Lorana straightened her shoulders and looked directly into his eyes. “You are right, of course, your grace. We should all follow the exact letter of the Twelve Testaments—temples especially, no? Does the Eighth not recount how Sacreis told Anjan in a vision that the priests must serve the king in times of war, and give up their gold for his ships? Perhaps I’ll instruct my justices to follow the holy text and go to temple. Or maybe I’ll follow the Third and hang the men who lie with boys.”
Flush with triumph, she took her little sister’s hand and left the bishop stuttering his response. Heather wriggled like an eel in her grasp, demanding to know when she could eat cake. Spotting Lorna by her father and several noblemen, she padded through the grass in their direction.
Lorana almost didn’t recognize her little brother until she was upon the group. Zur looked positively regal in a fern-green doublet and silky pantaloons.
She embraced the boy warmly. “Oh! Well, don’t you look the lord tonight. Has Becca seen you like this?” she teased.
Zur blushed fiercely. “Lord Drexan allowed me to borrow from his wardrobe.”
She shook her head with mock dissatisfaction. “Dressing in a chancellor’s wares. I suppose you couldn’t have dressed in mine! Shall we give you the South Tower as well? What do you think, Lord Drexan?”
That drew chuckles from around the circle. Beside Zur, the King’s Crow grinned. “I’m coming to think it’s his anyway, your highness, given how often he stays each day to watch the knights cross swords beneath my window.”
“He can’t be a lord, he’s one of Elzura’s Children,” Heather blurted. She pinched her nose. “He smells of onion, anyway.”
Well, that’s enough of that. Lorana touched Lorna on her shoulder and asked her to help Heather find a slice of cake. The promise of sweets inspired obedience in the younger princess, and she gladly went hand-in-hand with the lady-in-waiting.
On closer look, she saw Zur’s circle had no shortage of powerful lords. Alan Durros and Uthron Morley presided over villages so close to Southpoint that her father wisely granted them special titles and privileges, not unlike the ones he gave David Renworth. Eric the Tall, of House Sundry, held Giant’s Pass, an old trade route that had served as a staging point for invasions of the Free Kingdoms. She wondered if Zur knew the caliber of his lord’s company.
Lorana half-expected the men to pile on queries about her womanhood, suitors, and the like. She was delighted when the lords commended her for naming justices of the peace.
“Willard Rittman has long been my sheriff and will make a fine justice,” Morley said. “Hopefully my peasants will respect their king enough to give him what is his.”
“Aye, but they grow restless,” Durros put in, pulling at his fiery-red beard. “I had to give the king’s peace to two men for beating and tarring their own justice. They’d accused the man of defiling one of their wives in her dwelling. Nonsense and beside the point. The husband had been hiding their three children in the other’s hovel when the justice came round, to keep from paying what he owed on their heads. Now the mother must remarry or lose the children.”
Eric the Tall harrumphed. “That’s not even the worst of it. Lord Uthron, didn’t you say you lost a band of your men to the Commons on an errand out west? Draywood, wasn’t it?”
“Aye, I lost them on Half Day to Summer Solstice.”
Durros shuddered. “An ill omen. That forest is cursed.”
A strong wind blew through the courtyard. She clutched at her arms, wishing she had brought a wool cloak. Alan Durros offered Lorana his cloak; she declined graciously.
“Why would it be cursed?” Zur broke in. He promptly added, “I—if I may, m-milords.”
The men exchanged glances. “It depends on whom you ask,” Drexan answered. “Sylvanians believe a metal elk god died in Draywood, turning the forest lifeless. The Elvarenists hold that it’s the very place Anjan slew the last Nagarthessi.”
Elk gods. Their superstition annoyed her. “Lord Uthron, was it the Commons who took your men?” Lorana inquired.
Morley had a dull look. “I’ve only my suspicions, your highness. They never returned.”
The conversation turned back to Common unrest. She stiffened when she saw one of her suitors materialize on the edge of the circle. Justen Sothos was everything in a suitor that Lorna, Heather, or any other maiden could desire. He was tall, handsome, and, as the son of Gram Sothos, heir to outlandish wealth that neither he nor any future progeny could hope to spend in a single lifetime.
Justen bent low and kissed her hand. “Your highness, a pleasure to look upon you once more,” he said. “May I guide you to the dais? I understand the king wishes you to speak.”
When he spoke, he watched her as if he had another pair of eyes behind his pretty blue ones. And those eyes, his actual ones, had silver irises.
She accepted the escort begrudgingly, and only then because she didn’t want gossip to spread about how she had rejected a suitor on Remembrance Day. Eyes followed her as he looped his arm around hers.
“How long has it been since we walked here? Half a year?”
Not long enough, she thought. The last time he was here, he’d proposed marriage by Marion’s Fountain.
“Uh, yes, I think so,” Lorana said distractedly.
“And have you rethought my proposal?”
She feigned a smile. “My lord, I think you deserve better than me. Venas overlooked me when I was made. I am homely and unattractive, where you are so dashing.”
“Any other woman would say yes,” Justen insisted. “Other kings have approached me with their daughters’ hands—”
“And any of them would be fortunate to have you as her husband.”
“Even the priestking wrote my father with the idea of marrying his daughter.”
No surprise there. Lorana paced through the grass slowly, careful not to betray her feelings. “The prieslenne would make you a worthy wife.”
He stopped suddenly, gripping her wrist tightly. “I don’t want the prieslenne. I want you, Lorana.”
She tried to pry herself free. “Show care, my lord,” she said through clenched teeth. “You aren’t mishandling some waif you can fuck and send home with a bastard. I don’t fear your father, and don’t need my father or half-brothers here to show you your error. Unhand me, or I’ll have you in the Red Tower. Tonight.”
Justen tightened his hold. “Then you’re a fool.” He was so close she could smell the wine. “Everyone fears my father.”
“I’d do as she asks,” came a voice, short and stern. Evan Sinclair stepped near, garbed in a handsome green doublet embroidered with his eight-pointed star in thread of gold.
Justen scowled. “This has nothing to do with you, traitor. Fuck off back to your company before my father—”
“’My father, my father, my father.’” Their circle widened as Sinclair’s cunning-eyed ward appeared by the nobleman’s side. “Only worms and men with the surname Sothos use their fathers as shields.”
Justen smirked. “Ah, is this your ward, Evan? The famous Sir Matthos’ son. And where’s your father?” He turned down the corners of his mouth for an exaggerated pout. “Oh. He’s ash.”
“I’d release the steward.“ Sinclair risked a step closer. “Take it from someone who has seen the Dread Chamber. Or don’t.”
As the men sized each other up like circling lions, Lorana resented them, all three, equally. She had run this kingdom like any king for two years, and to them she was nothing more than her honor. She jerked her hand free of Justen, slapped him, and waved over Connor.
Justen grinned from embarrassment. “You’re as stupid as you are hideous. You’ll regret this, cunt.” He pointed a finger in Sinclair’s face. “Watch yourself, old fellow. House Sinclair is not what it was, not without blackpowder, and neither are you.” He stormed off, bumping into Rathos as he shouldered past.
The Petitioner dusted off his shoulder. “Charming.”
“No less than the father is.” Sinclair went to examine her arm. “May I—?” he began.
She recoiled from him. “Do not think you can touch me so,” the stone maiden growled. “Perhaps you and your men could visit the Red Tower in Justen’s place?”
Unlike his frowning ward, Sinclair didn’t react with anger or displeasure. He inclined his chin regretfully. “Your highness, forgive me, our companion Karl saw what was happening. We thought we might lend our assistance.”
By then Connor was there, the king’s peace in his silvery armor, formidable and threatening. “Is this man troubling you, your highness?”
The traitor and his ward both straightened. I’m the most powerful woman in this kingdom, Lorana thought grimly, but I’m still only as worthy as the man beside me.
“Evan Sinclair was lending assistance I did not ask for, but I must forgive him, for now.” Lorana turned to leave. “He saved my brother’s life, after all. And It’s Remembrance Day besides.”
Catching a look from her father, she dispatched the knight and crossed the bailey to reach the dais. The king was oblivious to everything, inhaling what looked like a third cup of dark red wine. His hair clung to his cheeks in sweaty clumps, and dried wine speckled his lips and beard.
“What were you doing with Sinclair?” he groused.
“Nothing. Would you speak, Father, or would you rather me?”
He gazed down into his cup. “You tell them,” he said, half-belching. “I, I’m in my cups. I fuckin’ hate Remembrance Days.” He caught a young servant by his sleeve and waved his chalice in his face. “More wine!”
She sighed. As always, Father, I will do what needs be done.
At a signal, the heralds aired their trumpets. The roar of conversation dwindled to a few murmurs and the chatter of plates as Commoners and Casaanites hastened to set the tables.
With hundreds of nobles watching her, she quailed. But then she saw Tabecca emerge from the stairs. All felt right again, and she prepared to tell the kingdom’s rulers the king had no heir but the Warchild.
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