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.

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