Excerpt 4, The King Trials
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 The King Trials 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.
You’ve been staring at that parchment all morning,” Evan Sinclair heard his son-by-law, Rathos Robswell, say between mouthfuls of roasted hare.
The traitor nobleman, lord speaker of the Loyal Company, waxed a thumb over the letter, as gingerly as if it were a relic. Light from the campfire illuminated every crease in the vellum, every stroke left by the author’s quill pen. The only thing the firelight didn’t touch was the opaque black seal that belonged to Drexan King’s Crow.
A wind exhaled through the limbs of the gray-brown sentry oaks around their camp, threatening to snatch up their invitation to the Silver Walls. Evan folded the letter and slipped it back inside a pocket in his cloak. Deciding he could do with more hare, he snapped off a haunch and blew on the steaming flesh until it was safe to taste.
Rathos watched him intently from where he sat cross-legged. “You still can’t believe it, can you?”
He nipped at the flesh, eyes low on the fire. “It’s been seventeen years,” he murmured. “The last time I visited the Walls, you were four, and I was still the Lord of Dunsbury. The last time I was there in the king’s good graces, my sister was alive. And this forest”—he pointed up and rotated his finger, indicating the wilderness around them—“had a different name.”
“Haymath,” Rathos said. “They’d named it Haymath, after the first king to win the King Trials.”
Evan nodded. He wiped the grease from his moustache and gazed around the forest renamed for his late sister.
Spring was come. The tall white-spotted oaks and pines in their vicinity stirred with the games of forest creatures. Fluffy-tailed squirrels chased after potential mates as thick furry bees tended to their flowers.
To Evan, all of this was familiar and not. A generation ago, he passed through this forest with his late sister and friend for the last time. They’d been on a mission before then: to court a married king and deliver on reforms that would unburden the Commons.
Here we are again, Celice, with nearly the same goals, Evan thought to himself as if he were speaking with his sister, as was his wont. Yet this time was different. Drexan Lorrain had set up an audience with King Hexar, to mend old wounds and hear the Loyal Company’s petitions. Let this not end in bloodshed, too.
“I should find Karl,” Rathos said abruptly. “The morning is late and the Remembrance Day banquet is on the morrow.”
Evan smiled. “Why, Ray, I believe you’ve miscounted how long we’ve been in the wilderness.”
The man of twenty-two frowned. “Are you sure? This is the eleventh, is it not?”
He didn’t need to do figures to know for sure. Today was the tenth of Venry, the fourth month in Ansara’s calendar year. He knew because he was counting the days until he set eyes on Southpoint and the Silver Walls for the first time in seventeen years . . . and maybe his nephew for the first time in eighteen, if the gods were good.
The nobleman tried not to think about 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 for fear of torture. The one he would see again by day’s end.
Evan pried off some of the hare’s tough flank with his incisor teeth. Swallowing, he added, “We left Dunsbury on the thirtieth of Justo, did we not? That would make two weeks for us between Westland and Southland.”
He flashed him a knowing look. “Or are you not the man I thought you were, counting the days since you parted from the firstborn daughter I gave you in marriage?”
His son-by-law grinned sheepishly. “You know that’s not true, Lord Evan. I miss Veira’s touch every day I’m away from Dunsbury.”
“I didn’t ask to know why you missed her,” he groused, pretending umbrage.
The two men laughed and went to finishing their meal. Evan lingered on his son-by-law, whom he truthfully saw as his own son, and not only because his father, Matthos, had been his best friend, or even because Matthos had sacrificed himself for his sister in the explosion that ultimately killed them both. He’d warded Rathos since he was four and his sister two, and he was his mentor as head of the Loyal Company.
He 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 possessed his father’s high angular cheekbones, hooked nose, and keen olive-green eyes. He had his mother’s dark, coarse hair. Slender and average in height, he had the look of a prowling wolf, hungry-eyed and curious.
Yet Evan also saw his daughter’s touch in her husband, a drab man utterly indifferent to the fashion of the times. But as Rathos was his father’s son, Veira was her mother’s daughter, and she insisted on seeing her husband dressed appropriately for his first visit to the Silver Walls. He watched, amused, as his son-by-law fussed with the slit sleeves of his emerald doublet.
Rathos noticed his affectionate gaze. “I can make do with the doublet and cape, just not this damn brooch,” he grumbled, fumbling with the star-shaped pendant that secured his cape.
“Just be glad I didn’t give you my other daughter.”
Rathos smiled lightly. He was about to respond when Karl Redmore, their third companion, rode into camp on horseback.
“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. Mounting, Evan and his son-by-law 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, smashed like flowers crushed 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.
Rathos dismounted with a flourish of his cape. He took a knee on the bank.
“Show care,” Evan warned them. “Lord Gram Reuben recorded in his letters that an animal’s corpse can still pass disease to the handler.”
Rathos acknowledged his caution with the flash of his dagger. He flipped the carcass with a flick of its tip.
“A baby griffon,” Karl announced.
“No,” the other said. “Its smaller cousin. A griff.”
Evan drew close. A griff it was, or had been. Kin to the rarer, far larger griffons of Loran’s Great Tree, the majestic creature was a ruin painful to behold. Its head was hacked away, its plumage plucked, its lion’s tail shorn to a whiskery stump. Its black claws were missing, its paws kneaded into pus-white and bloody-red abscesses. The king’s bird had to have been slain for sport, the undesirable parts left to rot.
“We’re not alone,” Karl said under his breath. “This is the work of outlaws. Maybe the Heretics. They even left the arrow that brought down the beast.”
Rathos cast his father-by-law a subtle sidelong glance. Evan knew what he would’ve said if they were alone. If this was the work of the Heretics, then it implicated the daughter he hadn’t seen since her mother’s death, the one as wild as her hair and twice as deadly as her father with a blade. The one they called the Mad Lady.
At least for now, no one seemed to know the outlaw leader was a Sinclair. Evan preferred to keep it that way.
“Doubtful,” his son-by-law responded. “The Heretics may be outlaws, but their Old Ways prohibit the killing of the First King’s bird under pain of death.”
“You know a Heretic, then, eh, Silvertongue?” Karl teased. He didn’t know how close he was to the mark.
Before Rathos could respond, Evan put in, “Outlaws or poachers, this is grotesque work.”
Not even his rival, Rezlan Ambroze, would disagree. Of all the king’s laws, those against poaching these birds made the most sense in their Loyal Company. Cheats and outlaws peddled their furs, feathers, beaks, and claws as indulgences they promised could cure the pox and ferry one’s soul safely to the Undying Lands. The Commons, whose lot in Loran was suffering, made easy prey.
So it was doubly jarring to think his youngest daughter had played some role in this crime against nature.
“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,” he said. “Thankfully”—he reassured his mentor with a hand on his shoulder—“we’re men true to the Awakening, 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 by his side in two swift strides.
“You watch those words, Karl,” he snarled, jabbing his chest. “You watch them closely. We are not in Wessex-by-the-Sea, where gentry read radical books, or contemplate rebellion safely belowground. This is Southland. We could be killed on the road for such treason. Take it from one who has been inside the Red Tower and lived.”
Karl wasn’t humbled. “Then why risk this journey,” he implored the noble. “You are the lord speaker of a group of traitors devoted to the king’s overthrow.”
“Speak for yourself and not Evan or me,” Rathos corrected him sternly. “The Petitioners value peace. Only you and the rest of Rezlan’s Reubenites agitate for that treason.”
“Until the next election,” Karl vowed ominously.
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 the Reubenites chose the one in their lot with the biggest mouth.
He shifted his jowls, weighing what to say next. “We cast our tokens, and the assembly agreed back in Justo,” the traitor nobleman said firmly. “We all agreed this was our best last chance to air our grievances with King Hexar.”
“If we’re allowed to air them.”
“If you mean to honor our assembly, stay and work with us,” Rathos interjected. “If not, turn your horse around and leave now, while you still can, and Lord Evan and I will represent the Loyal Company at Remembrance Day.”
Evan swelled with pride. What Rathos had done was clever. He wasn’t simply giving Karl a way out; he’d made a veiled threat.
They could very well leave the Reubenite behind if he broke faith. If the Pigeons, the Loyal Company’s spies and messengers, came upon him without them, they’d immediately summon the Company, and Kyle Tomas, the deputy Evan left in charge, would recall them all. Karl could face censure, even expulsion. And in their Company, expulsion could mean a dagger through the neck in some back alley.
After all, a ship full of traitors couldn’t suffer leaks.
Karl understood he’d led himself onto dangerous ground. “We will go together,” he said, face red, eyes down like a child shamed.
A half hour went by that Karl spent in total silence, a nice 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 glistened through the tree leaves like pale moonlight. The company splashed through another brook and rode up a large hill lanced with tall oaks.
Without speaking, Evan slid down from his saddle and walked out to the end of a long stone ledge. Rathos followed, and then Karl.
“Behold, Southpoint,” the nobleman said grimly.
The capital city of Loran sprawled before them like the twelfth circle of hell, belching smoke and reeking of shit. King Rex’s high Romarian walls stretched from the Shimmering Bay west to Celice Forest, north to the curved half-moat that lurked behind the Silver Walls and back east to the piers.
The ancient wine-colored outer walls hardly seemed able to contain anything that went on inside. The city’s main road, Silver Street, which some dubbed Shit Street, sliced through Southpoint proper like a jagged knife. Colonnaded temples and lordly manors towered over the western and northern wards, increasing in their elegance and height by degree of proximity to the Silver Walls. From here, Evan could make out the heads of prominent statues on the Street of Kings.
Southpoint’s southern ward looked entirely like another city. Silver Street forked into a warren of narrow streets and alleys between hundreds of hovels, inns, brothels, stalls, and poorhouses. Countless small fires fed a low-hanging gray haze that lurked above the poorer south and Shimmering Bay like a phantom.
Pride of Loran and envy of priestkings, the First King’s fabled Silver Walls loomed over paradise and hell like a vast glittery crown. Iconic the world over for its chameleon stone, which shimmered pink and blue, the ancient castle had only ever fallen twice to her enemies over the millennia, never to sieges. No foe had breached the spike-studded Great Gates, or succeeded in scaling the red stone of the twelve-sided curtain wall that rose hundreds of feet into the air.
His companions covered their noses with their hands. “Has it always smelled so awful?” Rathos asked, his voice muffled through his hand.
“Lord David, Southpoint’s mayer, came into his position almost solely because the Commons wanted to be rid of their waste,” he said. “He—“
The nobleman trailed off, pale as milk, feeling as if a hole had been punched through his chest. It was still there, after all of these years, waiting for his return. Why was he surprised?
“Lord Evan?” Rathos intoned.
He pointed to the hulk of garish red stone, the one that resembled a crooked pinky drenched in blood. “There, look: 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 without pause. The worst year of my life . . . 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 tall as a mountain, devouring the traitor nobleman and his Dunsbury Castle. Charles Kerflue always stood smiling by the portcullis, and Gram Sothos on the other side, holding Celice’s head by her stringy ashen hair.
Until recently, his sister’s disembodied head was just that in his Red Tower dreams. Then she began talking. He can’t have him, brother, she whispered, last night, the night before, the night before that. Nearly every night since winter had ended. Her mouth was always agape, bright with orange flame; her eyes white and flickering like stars. Staring into him. He can’t.
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 checkered white-and-crimson banners flapping by Southpoint’s entrance.
“The Lord Mayer,” Rathos said, grim-faced.
“Be on your guard, both of you,” Evan said sternly. “Lord David Renworth is a dangerous man, not to be trifled with.”
“Same as any king,” Karl said below his breath.
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 Mayer of Southpoint with a regiment of his city guard outside Elfgate.
At first glance, David Renworth looked more a stablehand than the most important city official in the kingdom. Stout and short of limb, he showed the passing of seventeen long years in a shiny bald head and chubby powdered cheeks. Thick bronzed arms paid tribute to a life spent toiling in the sun. His cloth was poor, unremarkable gray wool with rope for a girdle, proof that not even the most powerful Commoner in Loran could escape strict sumptuary laws. His one allowance was a livery collar with square chain links and an iron medallion worked into the shape of a portcullis.
Yet woe to the fool who mistook David Renworth for just a peasant. The man the Worthy Assembly still contemptuously referred to as the Little King had a reputation for ruthlessness and spycraft that rivaled even that of Charles Kerflue. His eyes and ears were everywhere. It was said that nothing entered or left the city without the mayer’s knowledge and tacit approval . . . or without him receiving a cut. Those who crossed him were soon discovered dead. Renworth had other remedies for lords and snooty highborn, as Stoddard Trambar and Willard Potter discovered when he shut their army out of the city, a thing the king never forgot and rewarded to this day. Irritatingly for men who would rather see a new mayer, Renworth had many spies who helped him stay one step ahead of any would-be assassins. More importantly, the Commons loved him—loved him despite the fact that he’d had peasants slain—loved him because David Renworth was one of theirs, because he was that rare thing in Loran: a respected peasant. Their adoration was what kept the Little King’s head off Traitor’s Gate.
Evan didn’t trust him. Rather, he blamed him as the king never would for his sister’s death. For David Renworth served only himself, then and now. Nothing, no one, not the Worthy Assembly, maybe not even King Hexar himself, could force his hand without first granting the Little King what he wanted.
The traitor nobleman dismounted first. The tall gate was shut. Even now, a generation after the Long Summer, the Little King toys with me.
Evan bowed deeply. “Lord David.”
Renworth faked a smile that revealed corn-yellow teeth. “Evan Sinclair, how long has it been?” he asked. “Seventeen years, isn’t it?”
Seventeen years, and still not long enough.
“Yes, a long time, and yet you look like you haven’t aged a day,” he returned with a practiced lilt. “Prospo favors you.”
The mayer pinched his face with a grin that told Evan, You’re shrewd to show me respect, even with our history, but you’re a fool if you think I’ve stopped seeing through it.
“Truthfully, I wasn’t sure whether to expect you from the west or at Traitor’s Gate,” Renworth quipped. Evan denied him a reaction, and the mayer turned his attention to Rathos. “Can it be? This can’t be Sir Matthos’ son.”
Rathos shifted uncomfortably.
Evan intended to introduce him, but his ward and son-by-law spoke up first. “Indeed I am, Lord David. It is a pleasure to meet someone who knew my father.”
The mayer made a thin line with his lips. “Yes, I knew him fondly. Before House Sinclair took him in, I mean. When he was an orphan in High Bishop Willard’s service. A good man with a strong heart, loyal to those he loved”—he glanced fleetingly at Evan with sly, smiling eyes—“and a brilliant swordsman. Such a shame that he died the way he did.”
My devoted friend. Not a day went by since his death that Evan didn’t think on the crook-nosed boy he once begged his father to take to Dunsbury. Would you approve of what I’ve done with the precious children you left me?
“Yes, a shame,” Rathos responded with a curt tone that Evan knew all too well. “If only he could’ve known that these gates would remain shut, maybe he and Celice Sinclair would still live.”
A thinly veiled insult, that was. Yes, the Little King had barred entry to the Army of the Gods, but no one in the king’s council had known for sure whether he would, not until Evan, Matthos, and Celice were well on their way to Wessex-by-the-Sea. He could still remember how galled he felt when Hexar turned his fury on him instead of the sly mayer who wavered until the last hour.
Evan watched nervously for a response. Finally, the Little King made a small tittering sound. “You are your father’s son, truly.” He gazed at Evan, even as he addressed Rathos. “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?”
Rathos creased his brow. The man some had nicknamed SIlvertongue replied, “With all due respect, Lord David, sons follow their fathers like branches from a tree.”
So clever was the response, Evan had to eat his grin. Rathos had blunted the Lord Mayer’s scathing words with nothing less than a verse from the Tenth Testament. David Renworth, an Elvarenist, seemed to appreciate the nod to his faith. He offered the slightest of nods, as if to show Rathos had passed some test.
“Forgive my rudeness,” the Little King said. “I bear you and your late father no ill will. The wounds from the Long Summer run deep for all of us, and Remembrance Day draws close.”
“I lost family in that war, as well,” Karl added, unbidden. “Truly, it runs deep for all of us, Lord Mayer.”
The mayer acknowledged the Reubenite with a forced grin. Karl lowered his head and said no more.
“Lord Drexan made me aware of your journey here well in advance, and you are welcome,” Renworth said. “Just to be sure: do you have the parchment he sent you?”
Evan reached into his cloak and produced Drexan’s letter. The mayer 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 was a second iron gate paneled with wood and plastered with nitre, and it rose with a dull ponderous clank as thick rusted chains collided against each other.
Renworth turned to enter the city. Evan gestured to his son-by-law for their purse. “Forgive me, milord—what do we pay for the gate tax? I’m not sure of the rate.”
The mayer circled with a sly smile. “Come now, Sinclair. You should know someone like the king’s brother-by-law—or, rather, his would-have-been”—another insult—“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, Lord Mayer? Half a golden 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 mayer cocked an eyebrow at the forbidden reference. They began walking into the city with the 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, Lord Mayer.”
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, and 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 King’s Way, the road that led directly to the Walls. Not far lay the Nub, where traitors had lost their heads for centuries. A terrible stench alerted him to Traitor’s Pit, a well King Tomas had fashioned from the skulls of his enemies. From what Evan could see, heads still tumbled into it from the chopping stone, and the Commons still used it for a garderobe.
“Are they here for an execution?” Evan asked warily.
“No, that took place earlier this morning,” the mayer said, laughing with his eyes, as if he took sick pleasure from Evan’s discomfort. “It’s Firemouth who speaks.”
Almost on cue, a voice rang out through the marketplace, briefly breaking his spell. A familiar parish reader thundered a sermon to the gathered Commoners. He had long uncut brown hair, a distinguishing wart on his left cheek, and a weasel’s long face. Every time he spoke, peasants sounded their approval.
Rathos snorted with contempt. “Jon Watley,” he muttered under his breath. “He knew we’d come this way. Did he come to undermine us before we even meet with the king?”
Karl frowned at the Petitioner. “Must you suspect the Reubenites of even coincidence?”
Evan wasn’t listening. On the edge of the crowd, he saw a face he didn’t want to see. He spotted his former gaoler’s lavish crimson robes, recognizable anywhere. With him marched men in polished plate armor, and with them . . .
Evan blinked with disbelief. Tall and grown, the prince’s resemblance to his sister was uncanny. His skin was bronze where hers was pale, but Jason shared his mother’s lean face, her arched cheekbones, her unruly raven-black hair and her widow’s peak. His eyes shone crystal-blue like hers, clear like shallow water rippling by the seashore.
He was undoubtedly Celice’s son. He was her.
Spellbound, he began moving in his nephew’s direction, maneuvering through the crowd with spread elbows. His son-by-law called after him, but he could no longer hear anything other than the familiar voice from his dreams.
He can’t have him, she whispered to him now.