Thursday, September 4, 2014

Castles 119

119.  At Ody Dans’s Estate, The Spray

            Twenty-six people sat at an Olympian table in Ody Dans’s windowed dining room overlooking River Betlicéa.  Chicken, duck, goose, and turkey, each kind of bird rendered into at least two savory dishes; Dans’s kitchen staff had prepared an extravaganza of fowls.  The guests could choose also from four kinds of cheese, three varieties of fruit pie, white or brown loaves for sopping up grease, and several bottles of wine.
The table itself was longer than Milo remembered; twelve sat on each side comfortably, with Dans himself at one end and a handsome young man at the other.  With a start, Milo recognized the smartly dressed youth as Avery Doin, whom Derian Chapman had smuggled from Down’s End to Stonebridge last summer.  Milo hadn’t visited The Spray for months, and he had almost forgotten the fugitive whose escape had first brought Derian and Milo together. 
            Ostensibly, it was a congratulatory dinner, thrown by Master Dans to mark Kingsley Averill’s election as Speaker of the Assembly.  From the moment Milo read the guest list he knew better.  This was a political consultation of the first order.  Ody Dans and Kingsley Averill, long time rivals in Stonebridge politics, found themselves in an unprecedented situation: they had to cooperate, and they weren’t sure how to do it.  For the first hour, as the meal progressed through course after course, the conversation danced about the underlying questions without making them explicit.
            Milo had a fairly clear grasp of the obstacles between the two men, having read Osred Tondbert’s files.  On one side, Dans envisioned a magnificent, imperial Stonebridge.  The city was growing rapidly, and Dans believed it had the resources in wealth and population to field an army of thousands.  Given political will, Stonebridge could dominate Tarquint.  Castle lords, the weavers, leather workers and cloth merchants of Down’s End, even the wealthy burghers of Cippenham in the east—the whole continent could be unified under Stonebridge power.  In contrast, Averill believed Stonebridge should aim first to preserve her independence from the Le Grants of Saltas Semitas; beyond that the Assembly ought to focus on civic improvements such as bridges, sewers, better roads, removal (or at least reduction) of the Bene Quarter, and elimination of the hated criminal gangs, the Falcons and Hawks.  Averill thought Dans’s ambitions could easily lead the city to the tyranny of some powerful general or the poverty that follows military defeat.
            Milo also knew the animosity between Dans and Averill ran deeper than differing visions for Stonebridge, its root lying in a tragic past.  Thirty years before, the rising merchant Ody Dans had married Elise Averill, Kingsley Averill’s younger sister.  Averill opposed the match, mistrusting Dans’s greed and ruthlessness.  But Elise, twelve years younger than Averill, was smitten with Ody Dans, a jeweler’s son who was rapidly building a fortune by trade and money lending.  In the end Kingsley could not refuse permission to his beloved sibling.  For three months Elise was gloriously happy, according to a note in Tondbert’s handwriting.  Then abruptly, she deserted her husband and disappeared.  Averill found her working in a Bene Quarter brothel, but she would not say how she got there.  Kingsley took her home to the Averill estate, where she refused to eat and soon died.  Averill blamed Ody Dans for Elise’s fate, but Tondbert’s records indicated the young woman never said anything that might be used as evidence against Dans.  Afterward, Dans’s wealth and influence in Stonebridge continued to increase.  Averill had the prestige of an established name, but Dans was undoubtedly richer.  In three decades Averill never publicly expressed his suspicions about Elise’s marriage, but he icily opposed every attempt by Dans and his political allies to build up Tondbert’s City Guard or to assert Stonebridge power beyond the mountain ridges that ringed the city.  Outside of Assembly Hall, the two men persistently avoided each other.
            But now Kingsley Averill sat as guest in The Spray, half way down the table on Dans’s right.  Averill’s chief political partner, Assemblyman Verge Courney, and his son Merlin Averill sat on either side of Kingsley.  Milo thought of the three men as the “Averill party.”  Across the table from them were Ody Dans’s allies: the banker Lunden Ware, Euman Black, who owned an important silver mine, and Ham Roweson, whose mill sawed thousands of logs every year from the forests west of Stonebridge.  Conspicuously absent: Frideric Bardolf, Dans’s longtime friend and compatriot. 
            Milo’s report to the Assembly convinced everyone that Bardolf had bribed the city clerk and defrauded Stonebridge.  Placed under house arrest, Bardolf had been stripped of his office and was awaiting trial.  Now what?  When Milo Mortane first emerged as Commander of the Guard, some Assemblymen regarded him as Dans’s protégé.  But then Milo had accused and arrested Frideric Bardolf, which elevated Averill to the Speakership.  Some gossips in the city now said that Commander Mortane favored Averill’s faction. 
            Milo’s successes in Stonebridge were thus a factor that drove Dans and Averill to consult with each other.  Milo had broken the Hawks by killing their leaders, and he had apparently declawed the Falcons by absorbing Ifing Redhair and his lieutenants into the City Guard.  And by publishing Tondbert’s “secrets” he had greatly reduced the mutual fear and suspicion felt by Stonebridge’s leading families.  For the time being, at least, Milo enjoyed approval from both rich and poor in Stonebridge.  Dans and Averill each imagined himself controlling Commander Mortane, and both feared the other would.
            Another impetus for change was the news from Hyacintho Flumen.  For months rumors of the Herminian invasion had made their way to Stonebridge.  Now, Lady Amicia Mortane confirmed the reports.  She had been hosting leading citizens and their wives at her rented house, arguing that the Herminian army threatened not just her brother Aylwin, but all of Tarquint.  Few of her guests were persuaded that Stonebridge should fight a war, but many feared the invaders were a real danger.  All agreed that changes were coming.  No one missed the fact that the Lady Ambassador was sister to Commander Mortane.
            At the table, Dans’s servant girl seated Amicia and her escort, Kenelm Ash, at Ody Dans’s right.  A seat of honor for the Lady Ambassador, Milo thought, and it also conveniently seats her between Dans and the Averill party, where both sides can appraise every frown or smile.  Milo, accompanied by Felix Abrecan, had been seated on the left side, near the foot of the table, beyond Dan’s allies.  He puts a long space between Toadface and me.  Opposite Amicia, seated between Dans and Lunden Ware, the servants seated a rich old woman, Zoe Gunnara, and her granddaughter Evelina Gunnara.  Milo recognized the upturned nose and pale skin of the younger lady; by chance last summer she had witnessed Milo threatening Derian Chapman in the streets of Stonebridge, but the lady and he had never been introduced.  Lady Evelina was pretty, marriageable, the sole heir of her family, and (judging by Zoe Gunnara’s appearance) soon to inherit the Gunnara estate.  Milo remembered: The source of mediocre wine, according to Merlin Averill.  As the dinner progressed from fowl to fowl, Milo watched Lady Evelina try to play coquette for Merlin, who was apparently not interested in marrying into more vineyards.  Merlin was much more interested in Ambassador Lady Amicia.  Milo thought: Watch that; it might be useful.
            Milo knew that Assemblymen Courney, Ware, Black and Roweson were married, but only Courney brought his wife.  Maybe Ody Dans’s friends know better than bring wives to Master Dans’s house.  Of the remaining guests, Milo thought only Derian Chapman mattered much in the jockeying between Dans and Averill.  Averill has to assume Derian spies on me for his uncle, and Ody may still believe he does.  In the last month Milo had given Derian harmless bits of information to pass on to Uncle Ody.  Derian knows where his real interests lie, but it wouldn’t hurt to remind him.
            Seated near the foot of the table, Derian was sharing some private joke with Avery Doin and a young couple whose names Milo couldn’t recall.  Why is Avery still here?  Surely Dans has protected him long enough to repay whatever debt he owed to Avery’s father.  Maybe “Uncle Ody” has some further use for him?
            “That’s a question for the Commander of the Stonebridge Guard, not for me.”  Amicia raised her voice enough to interrupt Milo’s meditation.
            “I’m sorry, Lady Ambassador.”  Milo winked broadly at his sister, which drew smiles from both the Averill party and Dans’s political friends.  “What was the question?”
            Verge Courney leaned forward, his black hair glistening.  “When?  That is: When will the Stonebridge Guard march to lift the siege of Hyacintho Flumen, assuming, of course, that Assembly could meet all the Guard’s requests for money?”
            Milo didn’t hesitate.  “Never.”  He smiled quickly and shoved a spoonful of cobbler into his mouth.
            “What?  I don’t understand.  Why not?”  Several voices spoke at once.
            Milo held up his spoon to interrupt, swallowed the dessert, and answered, “The Guard will not march to Hyacintho Flumen, or anywhere else for that matter, unless so directed by the Assembly.  As far as I know—and I’m in a good position to know—the Assembly has not directed us to interfere at Hyacintho Flumen.  I am sorry, Lady Ambassador.”  Again he winked at Amicia, drawing chuckles from both sides of the table.
            Courney sat back in his chair, scowling.  Next to him Kingsley Averill cleared his throat.  “Ahem.  As the new Speaker, I note your obedience to Assembly authority, and I thoroughly approve.  But Master Roweson and I were talking just now with Master Courney and your sister about the possibility of the Stonebridge Guard aiding Lord Aylwin.  If the Assembly authorized action against the Herminians, and if we met all your requests for supplies and recruits—how soon might the Guard be prepared to break the siege of Hyacintho Flumen?”
            “Fourteen weeks, perhaps less.”
            “Impossible!  You jest!”  Voices on both sides of the table objected.  “Against ten thousand?”
            Milo made his face look contemplative.  “I should speak more carefully.  I should say the Stonebridge Guard would be ready to move against the Herminians in fourteen weeks or less.  General Ridere might not abandon the siege for some months after that, but that is only because he and Queen Mariel are stubborn.  Eventually they would have to give it up.”
            Euman Black, the mine owner, asked, “How can you be so confident, Commander Mortane?”
            Milo raised an eyebrow and glanced up and down the table.  “If Master Dans is ready to expel from the room his guests who are not Assemblymen, I will answer your question in detail.  Otherwise, duty requires that I speak only in generalities.”
            Black inclined his head.  “Generalities will suffice.  We don’t need details.”
            “All right.”  Milo made eye contact with Kingsley Averill.  “First, to break a siege, we need only to get food into Hyacintho Flumen.  We don’t need to defeat the Herminians in a pitched battle.  Second, the enemy needs ten thousand men because he has to block every possible route into the castle.  Those men must be spread out in a circle many miles around.”
            Milo emphasized each point by pressing the tabletop with his fingers, first one, then two, and now three: “Therefore, third, our force need only be big enough to create a hole in the siege ring long enough for supplies to get in.  Fourth, we get to choose which portion of the ring to attack and when to attack it.  The enemy must be vigilant at every point all the time.  And fifth…” Milo’s thumb joined his fingers. “I have already begun building the Guard.
            “Don’t feign surprise.  Word spreads in the city; surely you know what I’ve been doing.  Hawks and Falcons tormented Stonebridge too long; they had to be broken.  So I broke them—but not by slaughtering hundreds of men whose chief crime was to be born in hopelessness and poverty.  True enough, we killed the Hawk leaders and a few others.  But we have taken ninety men into the Guard as armsmen.  They are not sheriffs, and they no longer live in the city.  They have built and live in the ‘Winter Camp,’ two miles beyond Hill Corral—on the other side of the Stonebridge hills.  If the Assembly increases support for the Guard, we will expand Winter Camp, and most Guardsmen will live there.  In ten weeks, Stonebridge could have an army of six hundred or more.”
            “Well-trained?”  The Lady Ambassador, not any of the Stonebridge Assemblymen, asked an important question.  Amicia’s gaze challenged her brother.
            “Indeed.  If Stonebridge wanted a rabble, we could have thousands in the field by summer.”  Milo grinned.  “But I promised my men that we would be an army, not a rabble.”  He looked at Euman Black.  “You might be surprised.  Underfed poor boys from the Bene Quarter work very hard at becoming soldiers when we give them a dry bed, sufficient food, and five coppers a month.  Aiden Fleming and Bryce Dalston have been pleased with our recruits.”
            “W-w-what about Redhair?”  Merlin Averill punctuated his question with a wave of his claw hand.
            “Ah!”  Milo turned toward the foot of the table.  “Sheriff Chapman can answer that, I think.”
            Derian had edged his chair closer to the end of the table; the better to watch faces on both sides.  Now everyone looked at him.  “I’ve been tasked with supplying the Guard with food, clothing, iron, fuel, and so forth.  Sir Mortane thought I might be a good purchasing agent for the Guard since I’ve done business in Stonebridge for some time.  And I must say I’ve been terrifically successful. 
            “It works like this.  Under-sheriff Redhair and I work as a team.  We visit some merchant in Stonebridge, to buy hay or grain for our horses, just as an example.  We examine the grain and, based on my experience in business, I suggest a purchase price.  I always offer a reasonable price.  Ifing never says anything.  He just stands there with his hand on his knife handle.  It’s not a sword.  Ifing’s knife is almost as big as a standard Guard sword anyway.  He doesn’t pull the knife; he merely stands there.  And then, you see, almost always, our supplier says that the price I mentioned is just too high.  He suggests something lower.  And then, to avoid haggling, we agree to something in the middle.”
            At the other end of the table, Ody Dans began chuckling.  “To avoid haggling?  You, Derian?”
            Derian pretended innocence.  “I wouldn’t want to give offense.”
            Both sides of the table, the Averill party and Dans’s friends, joined in the laughter.  Derian deadpanned: “Commander Mortane said that by saving money we would be able to build more tent frames at Winter Camp.  I thought it was a good idea.”
            Milo said, “Redhair and Chapman, purchasing agents for the Stonebridge Guard.  It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”
            Ody Dans’s guests laughed heartily.

Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.


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