107. In the Bread and Brew
Ody Dans and Lunden Ware stood to acknowledge Amicia, bowing formally. There followed some shuffling of chairs, ordering of drinks, and seating of the newcomers. Amicia and Derian took seats on either side of Milo in the booth, with the bankers facing them across teacups, mugs of hot cider, and glasses of beer. Amicia had honey wafers and tea. Felix Abrecan positioned himself on a chair several feet away to prevent strangers from wandering close to the conference.
Dans lifted a fresh cup of tea, but set it down without sipping. The watery blue eyes lingered on Amicia. Milo followed the gaze and realized how quickly Amicia was becoming a woman.
Don’t worry, little Toadface. You don’t know the danger of this man, but he will never touch you. Milo said, “Tea too hot, Master Dans?”
“Aye.” Dans looked at Milo. “As it cools, though, there will come a moment when it is perfect—aroma, flavor, and temperature all just as they should be. As I wait for that pleasure, I can fill my time with another: gazing on your sister’s beauty.”
Lunden Ware almost choked. “Hm! Beauty is a fine thing, but Commander Mortane introduced the lady as an ambassador for Hyacintho Flumen. Is that true, Lady Amicia?”
“It is.” Amicia met Ware’s scrutiny steadily. “I represent my brother, Lord Aylwin. You undoubtedly know that a Herminian army, ten thousand strong, besieges my brother’s castle. I visited Down’s End, and now I come to Stonebridge, to seek allies in our war against the invader.”
“Allies?” Skepticism tinged Ware’s voice. “Not vassals?”
Amicia had practiced her response to this issue. “We must speak realistically, Master Ware. Long ago, castle lords, including my distant ancestors, claimed sovereignty over wide areas of Tarquint. But for many generations Stonebridge, Cippenham, and Down’s End have been free cities in every sense of the word. My brother seeks friendship with the cities, not dominion.”
Amicia paused to nibble a honey wafer and sip tea. Milo admired her aplomb. Toadface has become a lady.
Amicia continued, “No one believes that Mariel will be content to conquer Hyacintho Flumen only. Quite likely, she started with us because of our convenient harbor, sheltered and free of ice all year. Even in winter Herminian ships arrive almost daily, bringing armsmen, weapons, and supplies. After Hyacintho Flumen, the invader will march north to Down’s End; after that, east to Cippenham or west to Stonebridge.”
“You seem to know much of what goes on in Mariel’s mind,” Ware objected.
“Do I?” Amicia picked up another honey wafer, but instead of eating she pointed it first at Ware and then at Dans. “You know better than I do how Mariel’s father subdued the lords of Herminia. Now her army is in Tarquint, besieging Hyacintho Flumen. That much is undeniable. Perhaps Mariel intends only to conquer Hyacintho Flumen. Possible—but do you really think so? As assemblymen of Stonebridge, dare you assume the enemy won’t come here? Prudence must direct you to prepare to fight the invader. You may, of course, wait to see if Aylwin can repel ten thousand men by himself. The Herminians won’t march on Stonebridge with Aylwin unconquered, and that may take a year or two. And it seems likely that Down’s End would be their next objective. Who knows? It may be years before they come to Stonebridge.” Amicia paused, set aside her wafer and sipped tea. “So—you might choose to wait and wait and wait. Will you?”
Ody Dans coughed politely. “Lady Amicia, you present the situation very clearly, at least as you see it. I understand that you have made similar appeals in Down’s End. May I ask how your entreaties were received?”
The banker’s bland face masked his intense attention to Amicia’s reaction. Milo wondered how much Dans had guessed about Amicia’s mission. He has ways of gathering information. He probably knows about Eulard Barnet.
Amicia surprised Dans. “Not well.” She tossed her hair impatiently. “One of the aldermen promised to propose raising an army—but only if I would marry him! What impudence! As if I didn’t know that a proposal to raise an army could be easily rejected by the Down’s End Council! It’s not my ambition to birth an heir to some moneylender or an ancient member of the weaver’s guild while Hyacintho Flumen is starved to submission.
“Down’s End will undoubtedly send scouts to reconnoiter the siege, and the scouts will undoubtedly report that the Herminian host is vast and strong. The Down’s End Council will then debate and dither. They will send emissaries to Eudes Ridere—he’s the Herminian general, and consort of Queen Mariel. Ridere will promise them lies, and they will debate and dither some more.”
Milo witnessed his sister’s performance with pride. He and she had rehearsed for the conference with Dans and Ware for three days, from the time she arrived in Stonebridge. Still, she was carrying it off better than he expected. Milo savored mouthfuls of cider while she continued.
Amicia had set aside the honey wafer. She leaned forward, her hands on her knees under the table. “In short, the aldermen of Down’s End are fools. They refuse to see the truth because it is painful. Eudes Ridere commands an army greater than any Tarquint has ever seen. One by one, he will subdue every castle in the land. Do not think the free cities will escape; one by one they too will fall. Only by joining forces can Tarquint stop the invaders.”
“How interesting.” Ody Dans drank tea and sighed. “Ah! Just right.” He replaced his cup and addressed Milo. “I had thought, Sir Milo, that you harbored some resentment against Lord Aylwin. Yet you bring Lady Amicia here to plead his case. It appears that your ambitious plans to build up the City Guard, to make it into a real army, are nothing more than an attempt by house Mortane to use Stonebridge to save Hyacintho Flumen.”
Milo saw no clue in Dans’ demeanor as to his real meaning. Is he only offering objections that others will make in the Assembly? Or does he really think I am in Aylwin’s pocket?
“My brother cheated me of my rightful place, Master Dans. My mother helped him, and my father approved. You might guess what I think of my family. I left Hyacintho Flumen early last summer with nothing but my armor, my horse, and my squire. I arrived in Stonebridge soon after. Months later, Mariel’s army invaded Tarquint. We Mortanes would have needed remarkable foresight to arrange the plot that you imagine. And what an intricate scheme! Exile one son months ahead of time so he can raise an army to rescue the usurping brother’s castle when a foreign army materializes over the sea!”
Milo put elbows on the table and lowered his voice. “Aylwin can go to hell for all I care. I love Amicia; it’s true. I would protect her from danger if I could. You see how it is, don’t you? He sent her to Down’s End as a bargaining chip, to marry her off to some alderman in exchange for alliance. He backstabbed me, and then he sold her.” Milo turned to Amicia. “Sorry, little sister. It’s the truth.”
Amicia dabbed at her eyes, very convincingly.
Milo addressed Ware as much as Dans. “The army that Derian and I are going to build will be Stonebridge’s army. We will use it to enhance the security, power, and wealth of this city. If that means rescuing Aylwin Mortane, then we rescue him. If it serves our purposes to let the Herminians take Hyacintho Flumen, so much the worse for him. However, I do agree with Lady Amicia on this point: the coming of the Herminians presents a point of decision for Stonebridge. Will we dither like the Council of Down’s End? I say no. We should prepare to meet the Herminians at the place and time of our choosing. For the present, they are locked into their siege of Hyacintho Flumen. We have the freedom to raise an army and reconnoiter their position. We need not commit ourselves to immediate war, but we must prepare—prepare now.”
Dans and Ware regarded Milo judiciously, Ware chewing his lip. Beside Milo, Derian, who had drained a glass of beer, cleared his throat. “A word, Commander? I notice you say, ‘the army that Derian and I will build.’ May I ask what you mean?”
Lunden Ware laughed aloud. “You don’t know what Sir Milo plans for you?”
“Well, I, ah…” Derian pursed his lips and thought for a moment. “Building an army means procuring supplies. Is that it?”
Derian expected the answer from Milo, but Ody Dans answered. “You’ll be living in the Citadel, nephew. Who would have guessed it? Derian Chapman, a genuine sheriff of the Stonebridge Guard! I do hope, though, that you will visit The Spray occasionally.” Dans made eye contact with Milo. “It would be useful for all concerned to have reports on the progress of the Guard.”
Milo nodded. “Of course. The Commander of the Guard makes monthly reports to the Assembly, but in addition, I think it would be wise to send you and Master Ware more frequent news. You may expect regular visits from Sheriff Abrecan.”
Following the tilt of Milo’s head, the bankers looked at Felix, regarding them silently from his watch. He lifted a cider mug to his mouth, but gave no other indication that he was listening.
“I think that will do,” said Dans, and Lunden Ware nodded agreement.
Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.