Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Castles 131 (a day early, for Thanksgiving!)

131.  At Castle Inter Lucus

            So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.  For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature.

            Went Bycwine read slowly.  Quills scratched audibly as the other students copied the words.  Teothic and Eadmar and two sheriffs labored alongside the students, the great hall transformed into a scriptorium.  The priests rejoiced daily over the portions of the book of God being copied at Inter Lucus.  For his part, Marty was pleased that all his students except Besyrwen Fairfax had come back to Inter Lucus after helping with spring planting, and Aglefen Fairfax had promised that Besyrwen would return soon.
            “Lord Martin, my page is full.”  Ernulf Penrict’s expression was innocent, but his eyes danced.
            “Let me see.”  Marty glanced quickly at the sheet of paper Ernulf handed over.  “What is this?  The Reader’s Digest large print edition?”
            “My lord?”  The reference meant nothing to Ernulf.
            “Your letters are twice as big as Whitney’s or Caelin’s.  One would think you are trying to fill your page.”  Marty couldn’t help smiling at the youth.
            Eadmar came to Ernulf’s defense.  “His letters are no larger than mine.  I can hardly read Whitney’s; they’re so small.”
            “Aye,” said Ernulf.  “The most important thing is that our letters be well-formed, consistent, and readable.”  These last words quoted Marty’s frequent instruction.
            “Well, they are that.”  Marty put down the paper.  “Okay.  We’ll go.  Alf!”
            “My lord?”  Alf’s round blue eyes looked up from his paper, his quill suddenly still.  Months of healing and use had not restored full dexterity to the boy’s fingers.  When working as a copyist, Alf’s concentration on the task was total.
            “Put away your ink, Alf.  I’d like you to come with Ernulf and me.”
            “Aye, my lord.”
            To Went Bycwine, Marty said, “Nine or ten more verses, I think.  Then lunch.”   

            Ernulf had asked freedom from all copying so he could work the whole day with Isen, as he had during “spring break.”  Marty insisted that Ernulf continue lessons in arithmetic, reading, and writing, but they compromised when it came to copying.  When Ernulf had filled one page with good work, he could go to the glassworks.  After lunch, he worked all afternoon with Isen while the other children helped the sheriffs work on the estate.  With so many experienced hands laboring, the gardens and orchards of Inter Lucus promised a very productive year.
            “Do you want me to apprentice to Isen too, Lord Martin?”
            “I think you already know the answer to that, Alf.  Your hands will never let you be a glassblower.  No.  We need you to judge what Isen and Ernulf have made.”
            “But it was only a dream…”
            “And we have learned that we must pay attention to your dreams, Alf.”

            “Fair morning, Lord Martin.  Alf.  Ernulf.”  Isen was sweating inside the glassworks, not just from the heat of the furnace but also from his labor.  He had been hauling firewood from outside.
            “More wood, Master Isen?”  Ernulf laid aside his school tunic and slipped on a sleeveless leather garment.  The apprentice’s arms bore many nicks and scratches from carrying wood, and his biceps and forearms soon would be the envy of any high school boy, Marty thought.
            “We’ve enough.”  Isen nodded toward Alf.  “We want to show Sir Alf our latest.”
            The white-blond head jerked up, looking from Marty to Isen.  “What did you say?”
            “I mean no offense, Alf.”  Isen wiped his hands on a cloth, cleaning and drying them.  “I only say what everyone knows is true.  When Lord Martin takes a wife and has a child, that one will be heir to Inter Lucus.  Until then, you are as a son to Martin.  The sons of lords are called sir, even before they become knights.”
            “Please, I do not want to be called sir.”  The blue eyes watered, on the edge of tears.  “Lord Martin, please don’t let them…  It’s what Rothulf would have wanted.”
            Marty remembered schoolyard names, and pity for Alf welled up.  “What Rothulf wanted was wrong, because he wanted you to supplant me.  Isen is not suggesting that.  You must be ready to take my place if the need arises.”
            “I do not want to be called sir.”
            “Very well.  I will remind everyone that you are only a student at Collegium Inter Lucus, no more and no less.  Now, Isen, let’s see what you have.”
            Ernulf climbed a stool to open the annealing oven.  Marty expected a blast of heat, but Ernulf reached into the oven with bare hands.  He pulled out a ceramic tray and handed it down to Isen.
            “These have been cooling for three days,” Isen said, answering Marty’s unspoken question.  He held the tray for Alf’s inspection.  It held dozens of glass rods, four to six inches in length.  “You said the glass string was for the CPU.  I’ve seen the broken part, so I made ’em about that long.”
            Alf stared at the bits of glass.  “May I touch them?”
            “Over here.”  Isen carried the tray to a tall table near the western door of the glassworks.  Marty, Ernulf and Isen stood near the table while Alf cautiously poked at the glass rods.  Some resembled toothpicks or hairpins; these Alf quickly rejected and pushed to the side of the tray. 
“They must be very thin,” he whispered.  He touched one that reminded Marty of cotton candy; it broke.  “O God!  I’m sorry!”  Alf was stricken.
Isen laughed.  “These were trials only, Alf.  We intended from the beginning to melt them and try again.  Are they like what you dreamed?”
The boy’s face took on a distant look.  “Aye.  No.  The glass strings I saw were thin like hair, but straight.  And, and…”
“Smoked.  You said they were smoked.”  Ernulf finished for him.
“I did say that, but… I don’t know if it’s the right word.”
Marty prodded gently.  “Perhaps it isn’t the right word.  Try to say what you saw.”
“I saw glass strings with white smoke—or white steam, like from a kettle—rising around the glass.”
Isen nodded encouragingly.  “And the strings were thin, like hair?”
The glassmaker looked at Marty.  “With a bit o’ practice, Ernulf and I will make glass hair, as straight as you like.  But I don’t know ’bout smoke or steam.”
“I have some ideas about that,” Marty said.  “I used to be an electronics sales rep. We need to reinvent cladding.”
Isen, Ernulf and Alf were baffled. 
“My lord?” 
“Annie lectron icksails rip?” 
“Sounds mysterious and impressive, doesn’t it?”  Marty chuckled.  “It isn’t.  Five years ago I had a job in trade.  I didn’t make the things I sold; I only talked with tradesmen who bought the things and then sold them to other people.  One of the products my company made was called fiber optic cable.  I think that Alf’s dream describes something like fiber optics.  As a salesman, I often described our products, including our fiber optic cable, to the tradespeople who bought them.  That does not mean I actually know much about fiber optics.  I just learned to say things that other men and women told me about our products.  But the basic idea of fiber optics is a glass fiber surrounded by cladding.  Sometimes the cladding is also glass, with a slightly different chemical composition.”
Marty’s companions were speechless.  He waved off any attempt to explain.
“Make the glass strings.  Once we have many of them, we will suspend them in the air above a very hot crucible of new glass.  It probably won’t work, but maybe the vapor rising from new glass will coat the strings.  And it may work as cladding.”

After lunch Caelin Bycwine took his turn as recorder, standing at a new writing desk.  Caelin and Elfric Ash had used dark walnut in building the new desk, polishing it until the wood gleamed.  Paper and furniture, Marty thought.  With the forests north of Inter Lucus and alien technology in the west wing, we’ve got the wood products industry nailed.  We may never make steel or ceramics, but I’ve got something to trade for them.
“Who will you summon today, Lord Martin?”  Caelin had paper and ink ready on the writing desk. 
“Aylwin Mortane, as usual.  He wants to meet Ames Hewett.  And Lord Hewett has sent a messenger to Argentum Cadit, to Lord Con Baro.  The messenger started out five days ago, so he may have reached Argentum Cadit.”
“You have never spoken with Lord Baro?”
“No.  I’ve tried to summon him, but he hasn’t responded.  I’ve seen into the great hall of Argentum Cadit, and the castle doesn’t seem abandoned.  Lord Hewett thinks Lord Baro may be sick and unable to come to the lord’s knob.”
Marty laid his left hand on the lord’s knob and issued the mental summons: Con Baro of Argentum Cadit.  The interface wall quickly revealed the interior of some great hall, presumably Argentum Cadit’s, in the familiar black and white.  “Still no one home,” Marty said.  “Hewett’s messenger might not yet have arrived.”
“It will take equally long to return to Faenum Agri,” replied Caelin.  “If Lord Baro is sick, Lord Hewett’s messenger will have to return home before Hewett will know for sure.”
“You’re right, of course.  What’s this?”  Marty was considering whether to summon Mortane or Hewett when a woman entered the picture.  She looked to be about twenty-five, very short but broad shouldered, with small eyes set wide apart in a heavy face.  She hesitated and then clasped both hands on the lord’s knob.  Colors transformed the picture: a pale rose glow surrounded the woman’s hands, only an inch below the woman’s face.  She wore a turquoise kirtle with a bright gold necklace.  Her hair and brows were a mousy brown.  Altogether, she reminded Marty of a cartoon cat or even a bulldog.
 “Fair afternoon.  I am Martin Cedarborne, lord of Inter Lucus.  May I ask your name?”
“Isabel Baro.”  The woman shuddered.  “I am the lady of Argentum Cadit.  My father died yesterday.”
Behind the woman at the knob, another woman walked into the scene; gray haired and obviously the mother of the first, she too was short and broad with an extremely jowly face.
Marty bowed to the women.  “I am very sorry to hear of your loss, Lady Isabel.  Perhaps it would be best if I contacted you again some later time.”
The older woman stepped close to Isabel, who said, “No.  I should like to talk now.  This is my mother, Lady Avis.”
“Fair afternoon, Lady Avis.”
“Fair afternoon, Lord Martin.”  Avis Baro inclined her head.  The growly voice made Marty think of a female Winston Churchill.  “We are pleased to meet you.  The Herminian queen told Lord Con to expect a summons from the new lord of Inter Lucus.  But Con fell ill shortly after and was not able to answer you.”
“Your husband talked with Queen Mariel?”
“Aye.  Loves to show her strength, she does.  Much like you.”  The mother turned to examine the daughter for a moment, her jowls swaying.  “Isabel first laid hands on her knob this morning.  Perhaps you can see her color is a bit faint.  Still, a weak bond is better than none.  Argentum Cadit will survive.”
Faint colors signal weak bonds between rulers and castles?  Marty looked briefly at Caelin, who finished writing something.  Caelin nodded his readiness to go on.
“Survive it will, I’m sure.  Lady Isabel, I had hoped to talk with Lord Baro and two others.  With your permission, I will summon Lord Mortane and Lord Hewett.”
            Isabel Baro rotated her shoulders and wiggled her elbows, clearly fighting against tension.  “Please do, Lord Martin.  Newly bonded to my castle, I do not know how soon I might command Videns-Loquitur, and I welcome the opportunity to meet other lords and ladies.”
            Marty admired the woman’s pluck.  Father dead only a day and she’s thrown into the business of running a castle.  I wonder.  Has she already chosen what to make with materias transmutatio? 
With a change of thought, Marty summoned Mortane and Hewett.  Full color images appeared instantly; both men had been waiting for the interface signal.  Hewett’s knob shined violet; Aylwin’s was an orange-yellow.
Marty began: “Lord Aylwin, Lord Ames.  I believe you have never met before.  And I’m very sure you’ve not met Lady Isabel Baro, who has only today bonded with Argentum Cadit.
Marty listened as Hewett, Mortane and the Baro women proceeded to greet each other.  Hewett and Mortane congratulated Isabel on her succession to authority and offered consolation to Avis on the loss of her husband.  Then Aylwin Mortane quickly moved to what he considered the chief item for discussion.
“Lord Martin tells me you have two hundred men in arms, Lord Hewett.”
Ames Hewett was middle-aged, with a long face much scarred by acne in his youth.  With thick graying brows over slate colored eyes, it was a hard visage, not welcoming to nonsense.  “Has he also told you I have five sons, all knights?”
Aylwin hastened on.  “He did, which is why I have so much desired to talk with you, Lord Hewett.  Of all the lords of Tarquint, you I desire most as ally against the Herminian invaders.”
“I, most?  Because I have two hundred armsmen?”
“Your sons are more important than your armsmen.  The Herminian Queen has sent ten thousand against me.  So I am engaging the cities—Down’s End, Stonebridge—to raise an army of Tarquint to oppose her.  That army will need knights to lead it.”
Hewett smiled broadly.  “Confident young pup, aren’t you, Aylwin?  I’ve never been to Cippenham, much less Down’s End or Stonebridge.  So I don’t know the free cities well.  But tell me—why should the cities fight for the lord of Hyacintho Flumen?  Do they love the castle gods still?”
Aylwin disguised any resentment of “young pup.”  He said, “The gods have little to do with it.  Mariel won’t be satisfied to grind me down.  She chose Hyacintho Flumen for its harbor, and through our harbor she sends an army to conquer the whole of Tarquint.  The Herminians threaten the cities as much as they do castle lords.  We must, we will, all fight together because it is in all our interests.”
            “Well, it is certainly in your interest.”  Hewett made a sour face.  “But I don’t see that it serves me to send my sons eight hundred miles to war.  If Mariel subdues you, then Down’s End may raise a real army to fight, and if Cippenham allies with them, they could match her ten thousand.  My sons might lead that army, then.  Frankly, I don’t think the timing is right, now.”
            Aylwin’s self-control wavered.  “But Lord Hewett, how can you be so blind?  If I am beaten, the fools of Down’s End will capitulate.  All of Tarquint will fall, bit by bit.  The siege of Hyacintho Flumen is the key.  We must fight together or not at all.”
            “Lord Martin says it would be better not to fight at all.”
            Now Aylwin’s composure broke completely.  “The man has not a shred of dignity!  He values the mean lives of peasants over freedom and honor.  He makes paper, so naturally he is ready to bow to the Herminian bitch!”
            Marty promptly cut off the connection with Hyacintho Flumen.  Isabel Baro and her mother both looked at him with expressions of surprise.  Ames Hewett pressed his lips together.  “I’m sorry,” said Marty.  “I made it plain to Aylwin that I won’t tolerate some of his language.”
            Hewett lifted the corner of his mouth.  “Surely he knows that your magic supports Videns-Loquitur.
            Marty shrugged.  “Aye.  He’s under much duress.  He gets angry and forgets.  Tomorrow or the day after we will try again.”
            Isabel Baro coughed.  “Do you really make paper, Lord Martin?  Such a strong lord as yourself?”
            “I do.  Have you considered how you will use materias transmutatio?”
            “Not really.”  The bulldog face scowled in thought.  “Father made steel, but not very much.”
            “Consider well your decision.”  A new theory emerged even as Marty expressed it.  “It may be that each castle, or each noble family, is best suited to different materials.  Why should every castle make steel?  Who knows?  You might be able to make the best ceramics on the planet.”
            Isabel looked confused, and Marty remembered that “planet” was a foreign concept on Two Moons.  Avis Baro, the mother, ignored that point.  “Without steel, how can we arm our sheriffs?  We only have six armsmen as it is.”
            To Marty’s lasting astonishment, Ames Hewett solved Avis’s puzzle and advanced Marty’s own agenda in one stroke.  “Lady Avis, I will send you steel, enough to arm twenty sheriffs, along with my son, Edward, if you will permit Edward to pay court to Isabel.”
            Widowed only a day, Avis Baro did not miss her chance.  “He may certainly pay court, but Lady Isabel will choose her husband.”
            Hewett dipped his head.  “I quite understand.  The steel I send is my gift.  Edward is my third son and an able knight.  His older brothers already have wives.  If he and Isabel do not please one another, he can come home.  Neither family will take offense.”
            Mother and daughter looked at each other.  Isabel Baro said, “I look forward to Edward’s visit.”

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

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Castles 130

130. In Ambassador House, Stonebridge

            Merlin Averill had “arranged things” more quickly than Milo thought possible.  Four days after the unexpected meeting of Merlin and Tilde Gyricson in Milo’s Citadel office, Adelgar Gyricson paid three silvers in the city clerk’s office to register his divorce from Tilde. 
In the meantime, a courier from Saltas Semitas, Ro Norton, had come to Ambassador House.  After consulting with Milo, Amicia sent out urgent invitations for a dinner to be held in three days, before Ro Norton would depart.  The invitations noted that because of its limited size, Ambassador House could welcome only select guests for the evening.  The names of the guest list made the Lady Ambassador’s intentions clear.  She wanted her allies in Stonebridge to act.  It was time for the Stonebridge Guard to move against the Herminians.
            On the appointed day, Milo walked to Ambassador House with Felix Abrecan.  It had been a glorious spring day, the sort of day when sunlight seems to draw green things from the soil before the watcher’s eyes.  Still, as day gave way to evening, a chill wind whistled among the buildings and over the bridges that gave Stonebridge its name.  Milo and Felix pulled their coats close.
            Kenelm Ash and Raymond Travers stood guard on the Ambassador House porch.  Travers’s blind eye moved constantly, but Felix had seen it enough to ignore it.  Milo and Kenelm didn’t even notice.  After greetings, Milo said, “You need to sit at table tonight, Kenelm.  Aylwin appointed you as guard for Amicia, and she acts officially as ambassador.  Felix can stand guard out here with Raymond.”
            Kenelm Ash frowned playfully.  “Hard duty, Sir.  Eight courses of food, unlimited drink, hours of boredom—and I’m supposed to watch out for my Lord Aylwin’s interests?  As a soldier I’d prefer the porch.”
            Milo chuckled.  “You’re a knight, Sir, and you will do your duty.  You will politely taste every course yet not fill your belly.  You will sip wine but keep your wits.  You will attend to every joke, no matter how pathetic.  You will be ready to advise Amicia at any moment.”
            Kenelm laid his fist on his chest.  “Aye, Lord Commander.”  The four men all laughed.
            Milo leaned close to whisper.  “I trust your swords are sharp.  Stay alert.  None but the listed guests are to enter.  No one leaves apart from my word.”
            Raymond and Felix nodded obedience.  Kenelm raised his eyebrows and followed Milo into the house.

            Ten places at the dining table would not have crowded the room so badly, except for side furniture.  A warming tray stood just outside the kitchen door.  Opposite the kitchen, a dozen bottles of prize Stonebridge wines graced a sideboard.  A long side table on one side held forth cold meats.  On the other side a wide hearth and fireplace warmed the room.  The result underscored the intimacy of the proceedings.  Once seated, the diners could hardly move, and those by the fire had to ask their friends across the table to serve the cold meats.
Lady Ambassador Amicia Mortane sat at the head of the table, opposite the kitchen.  A table setting at the foot went unused.  When the serving girl, Anna Vinedaughter, brought in successive courses, she placed the tureen or platter near this setting.  Then she served the food into bowls or plates as the food warranted.  Thus she needn’t carry things around the table, which eliminated the danger of stumbling and spilling something on the guests.
Kenelm Ash, as Amicia’s official protector, sat on her left.  Of all the guests, he had easiest access to the wine board, so Ash spent much of the evening filling glasses.  On her right, the place of honor went to Ro Norton, the messenger from Saltas Semitas.  Next to Ro came Ody Dans and his nephew, Derian Chapman.  Across from them sat Lunden Ware and his wife Adela.  The fourth spot on the two sides were for Milo and Merlin Averill.  Without more places at the table, Amicia could not have invited a better group to support her policy.  Merlin, of course, said almost nothing, but his presence signaled the acquiescence of the Averill faction with the group’s intentions.
As typical with such dinners, conversation moved slowly, as if it were linked to the procession of courses.  With the soup, greetings and light-hearted jokes; with the pheasant, questions directed to Ro Norton about life on the western downs; with the fish, comments about Winter Camp and inquiries into the progress of the City Guard; with bread and cheese, requests for Amicia and Kenelm to describe castle life at Hyacintho Flumen; with the beef, similar questions for comparison’s sake directed to Ro Norton concerning Saltas Semitas; with the pork, a discussion of sieges in general and the siege of Hyacintho Flumen in particular; with fruit pies, speculation about whether and which lords might ally with Aylwin; and finally with the honey wafers, contented praise for the Lady Ambassador’s hospitality.  
Like the others, Milo attended closely to Ro Norton’s answers.  David Le Grant’s man rarely spoke except in response to questions.  Milo knew that Norton would report everything he learned in Stonebridge to the lord of Saltas Semitas.  Somehow, as he listened to the man’s cautious statements, Milo became convinced that what Norton reported to Saltas Semitas would be passed on to Hyacintho Flumen.  Milo thought: Aylwin must have mastered Videns-Loquitur.  Either he or Le Grant must have done it, probably Aylwin.  And if it’s Aylwin, he’ll take that as proof that he deserved the castle.  The thought curdled Milo’s enjoyment of the fruit pie.
When the guests began praising the food and thanking her for inviting them, Amicia pushed back her chair and stood.
“Gentlemen, and Madame Ware, I believe we agree on one crucial point.  Sir Milo Mortane should lead the Stonebridge Army—for beyond the bounds of the city the Guard is an army—toward Hyacintho Flumen.  This is possible only because the Assembly has allowed my brother to enlarge the Guard and train its men.  I thank you.
“What is our objective?  In particular, I direct my question to Master Dans and Master Ware.  My brother, Lord Aylwin, asks that your army break the siege of Hyacintho Flumen.  It is true that the Herminians outnumber you.  But Milo need not attack the main body of the enemy.”  Amicia held out her hands and motioned.  “A diversion here that permits food to reach the castle here would defeat the siege.  I am asking that the Assembly direct and empower Commander Mortane to break the siege of Hyacintho Flumen.”  Amicia nodded her respects to the guests and sat down.
Lunden Ware exchanged glances with Ody Dans before speaking.  “Lady Amicia, we understand your request, but we do not think a resolution to that end would be helpful or necessary.  The Stonebridge Army will demonstrate first that we will no longer tolerate highwaymen.  The road to Down’s End will be secured.  Second, we will not threaten Down’s End, but Commander Mortane will make clear that Stonebridge laws will rule all the southern downs.  Along with our forces, we will send emissaries to Down’s End, inviting them to join us in creating a Tarquintian army, led by a commander of our choosing.  For the present, of course, that will be Commander Mortane.  The key point is that Down’s End must acknowledge Stonebridge authority for the long term.  They may be slow to do so, and we will be patient if need be.
“Thirdly, the Herminians will undoubtedly send parley flags to Commander Mortane.  He will tell the Herminians, quite explicitly, that we have not ordered him to interfere with them.  They will not believe him, but that does not matter.  The crucial decision will come in the field.  If Sir Milo believes he can extend Stonebridge power and influence by smuggling food to the castle or by diverting the enemy in the way you suggest, then he will.  But if he decides that such actions are impractical—especially if they would put our army at extreme risk—he will not do so.
“This expedition is our first move into a greater future for Stonebridge, the first of many.  Commander Mortane’s mission is to extend Stonebridge influence, not to save Aylwin Mortane.  Of course, it is an irony not lost on any of us that Sir Milo is brother to Lord Aylwin.  But we are confident the Lord Commander will obey Assembly directives.”
At the foot of the table, Milo seemed lost contemplating his wine glass.
“S-s-sir Milo?” Merlin Averill spoke for the first time in an hour.
Milo looked at Amicia and deadpanned, “I told you before, Toadface.”  The day before, they had rehearsed this part of the dinner.  She wore a face of stone.  “Aylwin cheated me of my place.  He can go to hell for all I care.  I serve Stonebridge.  If I can serve Stonebridge by helping Aylwin, I will.  If I can serve Stonebridge by not helping Aylwin, that’s fine too.”
Ody Dans’s cherubic face crinkled in laughter at “Toadface.”  When the others saw that Amicia wasn’t insulted, they laughed too.
Amicia replied to Lunden Ware.  “We understand each other clearly then.  In the end, I suppose, I must trust my brother’s judgment.”  She dipped her head toward Milo.  “I will be satisfied if the army moves soon.”
“That it will,” said Milo.  “We will leave a Guard of seventy for the sake of order in the city, and march with six hundred.”
“When?”  Several asked at once.
“Four days, I think.  Do you agree, Derian?”
Derian Chapman had participated in the conversation much like Kenelm Ash, which is to say less than he ordinarily would.  But now he took his cue obediently.  “We will be ready, my Lord Commander.  There is only one more prerequisite, as far as I can see.”
Across the table from Derian, Lunden Ware asked: “And what is that?”
Derian nodded toward the foot of the table.  “Lady Amicia’s ninth guest never came.  I think his opinion should be sought.”
Adela Ware, the banker’s wife, said, “I’ve wondered about that place setting all through dinner.”  She turned to Amicia.  “Did you invite someone else?”
“She didn’t.  I did.”  Milo waved his hand toward the kitchen door.  It opened, revealing a dark-haired man dressed in hues of gray, clean-shaven with piercing eyes.  Thinner and more angular than the previous summer, Adelgar Gyricson advanced to the table like it was a lectern in a court.
“Fair evening, Lady Ambassador.  My business here does not concern you, but I thank you for bringing these witnesses together.”  He pointed at Ody Dans.
“That man destroyed my business when he could have granted me time to repay my loan.  He has prevented me from borrowing, thus locking me out of trade.”
Ody Dans slapped the table.  “Sir Milo, what is this foolishness?”
Gyricson continued.  “That man threatened to kill me, ordering his men to throw me into the Betlicéa because I could not pay.”
“Ridiculous!”  Dans stood up, pushing his chair against the wall.  “Lord Commander, I insist you silence this man.”
“I will not.  His charges are not ridiculous.  I was there.”  Milo spoke quietly, but everyone heard.  Dans was stuck.  In another situation he might shout down Adelgar Gyricson or even Milo, but not here.  In the crowded dining room, there was no way to squeeze around Derian on one side and Ro Norton on the other without stepping on the hearth. 
“That man,” the accusation continued, “forced my wife to prostitute herself to pay my debts.”
“These are bizarre and baseless charges!  Am I to be accused by a ne’er-do-well whose wife deserted him?  The man defames me and his wife, who cannot defend her reputation, since she is dead.”
Milo stood up, motioning at the same time that everyone else should remain seated.  “Once again, Master Dans, you are wrong.”  Milo extended a hand toward his chair.  Adelgar sat in it. 
“Derian, you are an under-sheriff of the Guard.”  Milo made his tone conversational.
“Aye, Lord Commander.”
“Very good.  Keep Master Dans here.”  Milo walked quickly from the room through a short hall to the entry.  When he opened the Ambassador House door, a woman came in.  Behind her, Felix Abrecan and Raymond Travers stood on the porch with Ingwald Freeman, Ody Dans’s bodyguard.  Milo addressed the woman.  “Follow me.”  Milo and the woman left Abrecan, Travers, and Freeman on the porch.  He hurried ahead so that he reached the dining hall a few seconds before her.  Ody Dans was still standing, his face pink as salmon.
Tilde entered, wearing a free-flowing cream-colored kirtle that effectively masked her pregnancy.  A cloth hat of a slightly darker hue and a necklace of blue stones proclaimed her a lady.  A heavy fur cloak lay on her shoulders.  Ebony hair framed the square face, matching the lashes around the eyes; the cheeks lived with color and the lips were red.  The Citadel washerwoman had been transformed, and she had no need to point.
“My former husband owed money to Ody Dans.  I stayed two weeks in The Spray to pay that debt.  Shall I tell, them, Master Dans, how you used me?  Would you like that?”
Ody Dans looked around the table and clenched his jaw.  “Enough!  Mortane has built an army for us, Lunden.  Now it’s time we found a commander we can trust.”
“Ody, why don’t you sit down?”  By his tone, Lunden Ware could have been inviting a friend to share a beer.  Dans’s pink face flushed to red, and his lips parted.
“What’s wrong with all of you?  We meet here to launch Stonebridge toward greatness.  Will you throw it away?  Without me, nothing goes forward.”
Ware said, “I don’t think so.  Verge Courney and I support the army.  Merlin Averill supports the army.  Kingsley Averill won’t oppose his son.  Commander Mortane obeys the Assembly.  We don’t need you.  Sit down, Ody.”
“I want Ingwald,” Dans said.  “I am going home.”  Dans pushed his chair further back, almost into the fire.  He pushed at Derian, trying to get around him, but Derian remained securely seated in place.  Dans’s eyes flashed around the table in desperation.
Kenelm Ash snorted.  “Ingwald Freeman looks like a fine swordsman, but if he tries to enter this house, Raymond will cut him in pieces.  Sit down, Master Dans.”
“Sit down, Uncle.”  Derian, closest to Dans, was his immediate captor.  Dans’s knees slowly gave way.  He panted, round body on the edge of his chair, his hands splayed on the table.
“You will come to the Citadel with me tonight,” Milo said.  “Derian will sort out your office in The Spray.  I suspect he will find evidence of further crimes.  Speaker Averill will be notified, and the Assembly will conduct your trial.  I will not take part in that trial unless the Assembly commands my presence.  I ought to be in the field with the Stonebridge Army.  Perhaps it will comfort you, when you are condemned, to know that Stonebridge strides forward without you.”

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

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Castles 129

129. In Stonebridge

            Merlin Averill and Adelgar Gyricson rode unhurriedly through the streets of Stonebridge.  “I promise you, it will be worth your while,” Merlin had said, inviting his old friend Adelgar to ride with him to an undisclosed location.
            “Old friend” overstated the case.  Merlin was the scion of one of Stonebridge’s most prominent families.  From birth he was destined for the Assembly or even the Speakership, but for his deformity and persistent stutter.  Adelgar’s father was a moderately successful vintner who bought grapes from the Averill estate, fruit the Averills judged not quite up to their own standards.  In lean years, Averill wine graced the tables of as few as twenty rich homes in Stonebridge; family tradition forbade using anything but perfect grapes for Averill wine.  In contrast, Gyricson’s winery filled many bottles for ordinary wine houses.  Merlin and Adelgar played together when they were very young, and as they grew up they renewed their acquaintance every harvest.
            Adelgar inherited modestly from his father and sold the winery to enter trade.  He prospered and married a stunningly beautiful woman.  Table talk on the Averill estate marked young Gyricson as one of the rising names in the city.  Merlin’s uncles said Gyricson might reach the Assembly.  Perhaps the childhood friendship between Merlin and Adelgar would prove politically useful.
            Gyricson’s precipitous downfall was something of a mystery.  Tilde suddenly disappeared last summer, and Adelgar simultaneously lost all his money.  Ody Dans and Lunden Ware refused to lend to him, and on their warning the minor lenders in Stonebridge quite naturally turned him a deaf ear.
            Adelgar’s absence during grape harvest spurred Merlin to look for him, and he found him working as a laborer in a cider press.  Without offering details, Adelgar said he had lost the winery, that Tilde had died, and that he had no backing to re-enter trade.  Merlin knew nothing more of the affair until he met Tilde alive in the Citadel.
            “Where are you taking me?”  Gyricson’s tone wavered between complaint and curiosity.  Merlin had brought the horses to Gyricson’s house in the southwest quadrant of the city—not the fine residence Adelgar bought for Tilde, but smaller and shabbier—and they had crossed rivers Blide and Broganéa.  Now they rode east, angling toward hills northeast of the city.  “I’m not interested in seeing the Guard’s Winter Camp, if that’s your intention.”
            “N-n-no.  We’ll n-n-not go over the high ridge.  The foothill road.”
            “Toward the Gunnara estate?”
            “Aye.  B-b-but I have questions for you.”
             “In a moment.”  Adelgar pointed to their left.  They were at a meeting of streets, and a man riding in the middle of the street was waving at them.  “What do you suppose he wants?”
            A shrug.  They reined their mounts to stop and wait.  The rider cantered close.  He had red hair that fell to his shoulders.
            “Fair afternoon, sirs.  Your livery marks you as men who should know the city.  I am looking for the home of a visiting lady, Amicia Mortane from Hyacintho Flumen.
            Dressed in blacks, browns, and grays and spattered with plenty of mud, the questioner had the marks of long riding.  Merlin and Adelgar shared a quick look; from established habit Merlin let his companion speak.
            “The Lady Ambassador has been in Stonebridge many weeks now.  She lives in what they call Ambassador House.”  Adelgar pointed west.  “That way.  My friend here could undoubtedly guide you, but we are going this way.”  He gestured east.
            “Ambassador House?”
            “On the west bank of River Blide, a little south.”
            “I am grateful.”  The rider inclined his head and lifted reins.  Merlin grunted an interruption.  The man looked at Merlin.
            The obvious question spurred Adelgar’s wits.  “I apologize, sir.  I forget my manners.  May we learn your name?  I am Adelgar Gyricson and my friend is Merlin Averill.”
            The rider looked with great surprise at Merlin, a glance of sudden intense interest.  Merlin thought:  He’s never seen an arm like mine before.  They kill deformed newborns in some places.
            “Ro Norton,” said the rider.  “A fit name for a man with hair like mine.  My mother also had hair of fire.”
            Adelgar chuckled.  “Aye.  A proper name, indeed: Ro the red.  You mentioned our livery.  Yours marks you as a man of standing, and I would guess you’ve come a long way—a stranger to Stonebridge who did not know the Lady Ambassador arrived weeks ago.  Where are you from?  Do you bring her messages from her brother in Hyacintho Flumen?”
            “No.”  Ro Norton answered Adelgar, but he looked steadily at Merlin.  “That would be impossible, since the Herminians besiege it.  I serve Lord David Le Grant of Saltas Semitas.
            Merlin read the stranger’s expression differently now.  It’s my name, not my claw, which interests him.  A question leapt to his mind.  Lords speak to lords by castle magic, so why would Le Grant send a messenger to Amicia?  If you can talk to Mortane, why contact Mortane’s ambassador?  Just as quickly, a possible answer suggested itself, accompanied by a worry.  Aylwin sends instructions to Amicia through Le Grant’s servant.  Amicia will undoubtedly want to respond, and she may ask Aylwin to bless our marriage.  Will he approve?  As he often did, Merlin kept his thoughts unspoken.
            Adelgar noted Norton’s focus on Merlin.  “Ah!  I guess the lord of Saltas Semitas remembers the name Averill with little fondness.  Would you agree?”
            “I cannot say.  My task is to find Lady Amicia Mortane.”  Norton tried to blank his face, but Merlin felt sure Adelgar’s guess was right: the Le Grants probably cursed ‘Averills’ frequently in their prayers.
            Again, a chuckle from Adelgar, and he pointed.  “That way.  Cross the River Blide, then go south.  It’s a handsome house in blue and white.”              
            Ro Norton rode away.  When the emissary was out of earshot Adelgar said, “I did not say anything about you and Lady Amicia.  Do you approve?”
            “Q-q-quite.  T-t-talk to Amicia later.”  Merlin pointed east with his claw, and they reined their mounts into motion.
            “You said you had questions for me, Merlin.  What’s this all about?”
            Merlin took a long time before responding.  “L-l-last summer…”
            “I don’t want to talk about last year, Merlin.  I lost my wife.  I lost everything I inherited from my father.  I lost my standing with lenders, so I am shut out from trade.  At harvest, I had to work as a common laborer making cider; no vintner in Stonebridge would employ me.  And winter was worse.  I chopped firewood for old women, who paid me with meager food.”
            “I’m not naked, as you can see.  I sold my house, bought smaller, and carefully conserved the difference.  I can still dress like a merchant, even if I can’t trade.  Perhaps I will sell the little house and quit Stonebridge altogether.  I could go to Down’s End, but Dans’s censure would follow me there.  Maybe I could manage lands for a castle lord—David Le Grant, for example.  I could go to Saltas Semitas with Ro Norton.”
            “C-c-could you make w-w-wine?”
            Adelgar bunched his eyebrows.  “You forget.  I sold my father’s winery to finance trade.  That too is gone.”
            “B-b-but you know the b-b-business.  Everything from planting vines to s-s-selling b-b-bottles and b-b-barrels.”
            “Aye.  I know the business.”  Conjecture broke over Adelgar’s face.  “Why are we riding to Gunnara’s estate?  Has the old witch fired another manager?  Are you thinking she might employ me?  And that I would consent?”
            They had emerged from the city onto a country road.  Adelgar looked east and north; the Gunnara hills were two miles away.  “Don’t misunderstand me, Merlin.  I would be eager to work for Gunnara; I’m that desperate.  But it couldn’t last.  She changes managers yearly; either that or they get tired of her shrewish tongue and leave.  It’s a bad show all around.  Half the land is poorly suited for vines, they have too few laborers, the winery is old, and old Gunnara herself is mostly blind.  And now, if she takes me on, she’ll get no credit in Stonebridge.  Dans and Ware and all that crowd are determined to break me.”  
            Inwardly, Merlin was pleased.  Adelgar’s analysis of the Gunnara vineyard and winery matched his own.  Far better that he take on the task knowing the challenge.  He said, “Z-z-zoe Gunnara will not employ you.  Of that I am sure.”
            Again Adelgar’s eyebrows bunched.  “Then why are we riding this way?”
            “… is nineteen and pretty.”
            Comprehension dawned.  “I grant you that.  She’s also not terribly bright.” On the hill, Gunnara’s house and outbuildings could be seen.  “There are worse things, I suppose.”
            “Ev-ev-evelina w-w-wants a husband.  Zoe fears a bad match, and she knows she will not live much longer.  If you p-p-persuade the g-g-grandmother, you can have the g-g-granddaughter.”
            “And the estate.”
            “Aye.  C-c-can you make it succeed?”
            Adelgar Gyricson had the good sense not to answer quickly.  “I would need to survey the whole.  Some of the land should be given over to goats or sheep.  There are some good slopes, some good vines.  It could be done.  But without credit, it will take years.  Evelina would have to live like a pauper.”
            “There are w-w-worse things.  D-d-don’t try to hide the t-t-truth from Zoe.  The old w-w-witch can s-s-smell a lie.”

            Zoe Gunnara’s eyesight wasn’t as bad as she pretended.  She couldn’t recognize the riders, but she saw them coming a hundred yards away.  The post boy had delivered Averill’s letter two days before and she was ready.  Zoe rose from her chair on the porch and limped into the receiving room.  The hip was worse than usual today.
            She liked the receiving room.  Evelina and the servant girl Bliss kept it tidy.  Too many rooms in the great old house looked like warehouses, with extra furniture, boxes stacked in corners, and misplaced family treasures lying under shawls and coats.  Of course, the “treasures” weren’t valuable to anybody but Zoe, but it pained her when she remembered one and couldn’t find it.
            Zoe eased herself into her favorite padded armchair, lessening hip pain for a while.  If she sat too long it would return redoubled, but that didn’t matter.  Today’s business did.
            “Lady Zoe, there are two men to see you.  One of them is that Merlin Averill, cursed of the gods.”  Bliss was far too free with her opinions.
            “Cursed, you say?  Don’t be foolish, girl.  Tell the men to come in, and go get Evelina.”
            “Aye, Ma’am.”
            Evelina might have been standing about in the hall; she came into the receiving room before the visitors.  Zoe silently blessed the girl’s appearance: white skin healthy enough to hide most veins, graceful brows above warm brown eyes, a slightly upturned nose, and fine hair.  A pretty face that would still be attractive in later years.  Her figure would please some men too, though Zoe predicted the prominent breasts would sag after the first baby.  No matter; if today’s business went well, Evelina could buy garments to support and conceal.
            “I’m too tired to stand, Evy.  Greet our visitors for me.”
            “Aye, Ma’am.”
            The men came in, first Merlin and then the other.
            “F-f-fair afternoon, Lady Zoe.  Lady Evelina.”  Merlin stammered less than Zoe expected.  “My friend, A-a-adelgar Gyricson.”
            “Fair afternoon, Master Averill.”  Evelina curtsied.  “Master Gyricson.”  Was the smile offered to Gyricson a bit brighter than to Averill?  Good.  Her natural instincts are on my side for once.  He’s a handsome man; it’s a shame Evy can’t see more than that.
            Evelina said, “Gentlemen, please sit.  Grandmother is much more comfortable in her chair.  And I think it’s easier for her to see you if your faces are on her level.”
            “Aye,” said Zoe.  “And scoot up closer, if you will.  Ah!  There you are, young Averill.  Can’t miss you, the crab-man of Stonebridge.”  She cackled.  Merlin’s letter had said she should maintain her reputation, the witch Gunnara.  “And you.  You must be Leland Gyricson’s boy.  A vintner.  He makes wine, Evelina, or at least his father did.”
            “You remember my father?”  Adelgar expressed surprise.
            “I would not.”  Zoe cackled again.  “Except your great beak of a nose reminded me of him.  By the gods, you might as well be a vulture.  A whole family of vultures.  Leland used to buy our surplus for his winery.  But he had a sharp eye, did that one.  He could tell a good bushel from a bad.”
            Evelina blanched.  “Grandmother, I think you should speak more accurately.  Master Gyricson looks nothing like a vulture.”  She smiled at Adelgar.  “I think you look quite fine, sir.  Do you make wine, like your father?”
            “Not at present.  I did learn winemaking from my father, but when he died I decided to enter trade.  Stonebridge’s forests produce excellent lumber, which is as much desired in Down’s End as good wine.  I had some success moving lumber to the downs.”
            “Some success?”  Zoe’s tone communicated skepticism.  Merlin vouched for the man, and the gods knew Zoe had need, but she would not tolerate deception.
            “Not enough success, I fear.”  The man looked Zoe in the eye, which didn’t mean anything.  The worst deceivers practiced looking sincere.  “I borrowed from Ody Dans, and I did not fully repay.  As a result, no lender in Stonebridge will do business with me.  I am shut out of trade.”
            “And shut of your wife, if what I hear is true.”  Zoe peered at him intently, hoping he would think her gaze beady.
            “You were married?” Evelina exclaimed innocently.
            Gyricson turned to Evelina.  “I was.  Tilde and I were very happy.  But when I lost my money, I think she became despondent.  She left me.  They found her body in River Broganéa.”
            “She left you just because you lost your money?”  Evelina’s indignation was as real as it was naïve.  Zoe prayed: Please, gods protect this girl from herself.
            “No.  Tilde loved me.  I believe she loved me very much.  But the shock of my failure overthrew her mind.  I think she threw herself in the river to escape humiliation.”
            Zoe tilted her head.  What are you leaving out, boy?  Don’t lie to me.  “Are you certain she is dead?”
            “Aye. Aye. Aye.”  But that was not what he meant.  Gyricson stammered, almost like Merlin.  “I-I-I…” He looked at the floor and then at Zoe.  “No, Ma’am.  I saw a body that had been in the river some days.  I think it was Tilde, but only the gods can be certain.  I looked widely in the city for her and did not find her.  I believe she is dead.”
            Evelina was solemn.  “How horrible!  I’m very sorry for you.”
            Zoe didn’t want to miss an opportunity.  “You see, Evy?  A wife needs more than a pretty face.  Bad times will come.  Always do.  That’s when you must be strong, strong in your heart.”  She fixed Adelgar Gyricson with her eye.  “And you must treat your partner honorably.”
            Gyricson looked stricken, as if Zoe knew his deepest secrets.  She didn’t.  Merlin’s letter said explicitly that he would not tell certain things, but asked that Zoe trust his judgment.  Zoe had burned the letter after reading it.
            “I’m not as simple as you think, Grandmother.”  Evelina folded her hands on her lap.  “I know our vineyards are poor.  We have but one housemaid, Bliss, and no cook.  Three servants for the vines.  One of them, the manager, is Paul Freeman.  Who knows what crimes he fled to come here?”
            Evelina looked whiter than usual, and she trembled, not looking at the visitors.  Zoe had never been prouder of her granddaughter.  There’s hope for you yet, girl.  Zoe rocked back and forth.  Her hip was crying out, but she made herself smile and cackle.  “You think you see?  Hm, Evy?  Good!  Very good!  But will you be strong in the hard times?  Tell me that.”
            Evelina did not answer.  She stared at the floor, until the silence distressed the visitors.
            Adelgar Gyricson said, “Sometimes, Lady Gunnara, when facing a trial, it is wisdom to hold one’s tongue.  Impetuous persons promise greatly, and when they fail the test, they are crushed.  I speak as one who has promised and failed.  Sometimes, I think, it would be best to promise only that one will try.  Lady Evelina, will you try your best when hard times come?”
            “Aye.”  Evelina looked at her grandmother first, then Gyricson.  “I will be strong in my heart.”
            Zoe pounded the arm of her chair.  “Gods, my hip hurts!  Help me up, girl.”  Merlin Averill jumped up, and with his left arm he helped.  With Evelina and Merlin on either side, Zoe rose.  Hunched over, she beckoned Gyricson with a finger.  The man came close so she could whisper.
            “I like you.  You may call on Evy if you like.  But first, if you cannot prove Tilde Gyricson is dead, you must divorce her.  My Evelina will be no man’s concubine.  And if you do call, make up your mind soon.  These bones will be in the ground by year’s end.”

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