Thursday, March 19, 2015

Castles 147

147. In Castle Saltas Semitas

            David Le Grant leaned forward, his face in his hands.  Orde Penman sat to his left, prepared with ink and dingy gray paper.  The paper was a poor choice for important correspondence, but the best available in Saltas Semitas.  Orde suggested using calfskin (they had a well-cured skin that might serve), but Le Grant said no.  In an emergency it would be easier to destroy paper than calfskin.  The letter he would dictate must not fall into the wrong hands.
Le Grant had a fairly clear notion of what to say.  Oddly, he hadn’t decided to whom.  Ro Norton had returned from Stonebridge with letters from four individuals: Lunden Ware, Derian Chapman, Amicia Mortane, and Kingsley Averill.  What a choice!  Ware—Assemblyman and moneylender; Chapman—nephew to Ody Dans and sheriff of Stonebridge; Mortane—ambassador for Lord Aylwin and sister of Stonebridge’s general; Averill—Speaker of the Stonebridge Assembly.  All of them important voices in Stonebridge, but Le Grant doubted any of them would welcome his appeal.
Le Grant’s daughter Kendra came into the hall, accompanied by Ro Norton, he of the flaming hair and rugged countenance.  David knew that Kendra was in love with Ro, or at least she thought so.  At nineteen Kendra had little experience with men other than the unlettered herdsmen of the downs.  Ro Norton could read, and he had journeyed to Stonebridge and Down’s End, carrying messages for Le Grant.  Considering the few young men in Kendra’s life, it was natural that her affections should fall on Ro.  How could it be otherwise, in an isolated castle, with a father who can’t manage Videns-Loquitur?  I should ask Lord Martin’s aid.  Ames Hewett has two more sons.  Kendra ought to meet other options before she settles on Ro.  Le Grant gestured Ro and Kendra to chairs on his right.
“I have the letters you brought from Stonebridge, Ro.”  Le Grant spread four sheets of paper on the table.  “I need your advice.”
 “My lord!  I assure you, I carried the letters, but I didn’t read them.”
“Of course not.  I’m asking you about the persons, not what they wrote.  For instance, take this one, from the banker, Lunden Ware.  He is an Assemblyman.”
Ro pursed his lips.  “Aye.  Short man with brown hair.  He must be important, I think.  At the Lady Amicia’s dinner, when she asked the Stonebridge army to help Lord Aylwin, Ware was the one who said Stonebridge would not fight the Herminians.”
Le Grant’s wife, Catherine, joined the group at the table and overheard Ro.  “The banker opposed the Lady Ambassador?  I thought she invited her supporters to the dinner.”
Ro looked confused.  “Aye, my lady.  It was a strange affair.  The lady’s bodyguard was there, and Lunden Ware with his wife, Ody Dans and his nephew, Milo Mortane, and a crippled man that almost never spoke.  They put me in the place of honor.  Lunden Ware told Lady Amicia that Stonebridge would not fight for Aylwin, and Sir Milo said his brother could go to hell for all he cared.”
Le Grant had already interviewed Ro several times about his visit to Stonebridge and the dinner at Ambassador House.  He tried to steer his postman back to his question.  “So you think Assemblyman Ware is a man of influence?”
“Aye, my lord.  Commander Mortane seemed to accept his authority.  And I might say the Lady Ambassador wasn’t displeased with Ware’s words.  And then there was the business with Ody Dans.  The whole thing was confusing.”
Catherine reacted to the name.  “Ody Dans?  What business?”
“A man and a woman came into the room and accused Ody Dans of crimes: kidnapping and threatening murder and other things.  Commander Mortane arrested Dans on the spot.  Later they took Dans under guard to the Citadel.  That’s the fortress of the Guard.”
Kendra had been listening.  “Perhaps this dinner was arranged not so much to gain support for Aylwin but to capture Master Dans.”  Intelligent girl! Le Grant thought.  Good for you, Kendra! 
Ro shrugged.  “That’s possible.  Dans’s bodyguard wasn’t in the room.  When Mortane turned against him, not even his nephew helped him.”
Le Grant coughed politely.  “Ahem.  Stonebridge politics seems full of infighting and betrayals, which makes my decision harder.”
“What decision is that, Dear One?” Catherine asked.
“Lord Martin has asked me to write to a leader or leaders in Stonebridge, to explain the parliament plan.  I’ve been considering Lunden Ware.  Apparently, he has influence.”
“But you’re not sure.”  It wasn’t a question; Catherine could read his face. 
“No.”  Le Grant laid fingers on Ware’s letter.  “The Assemblyman is formally polite, but I read threats behind his words.  The Stonebridge army will venture toward Down’s End.  Ware doesn’t say it, but the army could just as easily come to Saltas Semitas.”
“You can defeat them, surely,” said Ro.
“Could I?  For how long?”  Le Grant pressed his palms together.  “King Rudolf and General Ridere have shown the world how to defeat castles.  Saltas Semitas is particularly vulnerable.  We have shields, but very few sheriffs, just a few unlettered herdsmen.  I am suspicious of Ware.”
“Who else, then?”  Catherine asked.  She looked at the other letters.
Le Grant touched one.  “This is from Kingsley Averill, Speaker of the Assembly.”
“A man of influence.  Surely,” said Kendra.
            “Aye.  But we know almost nothing about him.”  Le Grant pushed the letter toward her.  “He offers us polite greetings and invites me to attend the marriage of his son, or—since I am unlikely to leave Saltas Semitas—to send someone in my place.  Unfortunately, Ro never had the opportunity to meet him.”
            Le Grant picked up the third missive.  “This is from Derian Chapman.  He is nephew to Ody Dans, but apparently not implicated in his uncle’s crimes.”
            “Right,” said Ro.  “In fact, I got the impression that Sheriff Chapman was Commander Mortane’s quartermaster.  He was part of the conspiracy against Ody Dans.”
            Le Grant raised an eyebrow.  “You never mentioned that before, Ro.”
            The postman scratched his chin for a moment, and then shrugged.  “I’m sorry, my lord.  I didn’t think of it.” 
Le Grant tried not to show his frustration.  Ro Norton was the best man he had.
            “So Sheriff Chapman has influence too,” Le Grant said.  “But if he betrayed his uncle, how much trust can I give him?  Judging by his letter, Chapman is chiefly interested in buying castle steel, no doubt to turn it into swords for the Stonebridge army.”  He laid aside the Chapman letter and picked up the fourth.
            “This one is from Lady Amicia.  She says that since she has decided to stay in Stonebridge, she writes as a neighbor as well as Aylwin’s ambassador.  She urges me to join in a league of cities and castles to repel the Herminian invaders.  ‘Stonebridge and Saltas Semitas ought to work together,’ she says.”
            “Stay in Stonebridge?”  Catherine reached to receive Amicia’s letter from David.  “How long does she plan to live there?”
            “She doesn’t say.”  Le Grant surrendered the paper.
            Kendra laughed.  “She doesn’t have to.”  She held up the Averill letter and read from it.  “‘Kingsley Averill invites the lord of Saltas Semitas (or the lord’s representative) to the wedding of his son.’  The son is not named, nor the woman he will marry.  But look closely.”  Kendra handed Averill’s letter to her father.  “The sides of the paper have been cut, as with a knife.  But the bottom has been torn.  Someone tore a part of this letter away.”
            Ro Norton blanched.  “That’s the one, then.”  Le Grant, Catherine, Kendra and Orde all looked at him.  “At the dinner, after they hauled away Ody Dans, the claw-arm man gave me a letter.  Some wine spilled on it, so the Lady Amicia tore the bottom part off.  She showed it to the claw-arm man and they laughed about it.  She folded it for him and sealed it with wax from a table candle.  I put it in my sheath with the others.  I swear, my lord, that is how it happened.  I have never interfered with my lord’s letters.”
            A broad smile lit up Kendra’s face.  “The son of Kingsley Averill must be an important person, and he is marrying.  The Lady Amicia is staying in Stonebridge.  I think we can put the two together.”
            Again, Le Grant mentally congratulated his daughter.
            Catherine asked, “But who is the claw-arm man?”
            Now Ro was wide-eyed.  “By the gods, my lady.  I remember now.  He said not three words at the dinner, but earlier, on the street… The man’s name is Merlin Averill.”
            That was when Le Grant had his answer.

To Master Merlin Averill,
Gentleman of Stonebridge

            I congratulate you on the news conveyed to me by Ro Norton, my postman, that you are betrothed to the Lady Ambassador Amicia Mortane.  May the gods bless your union, granting you prosperity, healthy offspring, and great happiness.
            As lord of Saltas Semitas, I write on a matter of great importance to every city and castle in Tarquint, including Stonebridge and Saltas Semitas.
            Living in Stonebridge, you may not know much about Lord Martin Cedarborne of Inter Lucus, though you must have heard that he came to the ruined castle almost a year ago and since then has revived it.  I have conversed many times with Lord Martin via Videns-Loquitur.  These conversations have convinced me that Martin is a man of integrity and vision.  Lord Martin requested that I write this letter, since my postman can reach Stonebridge far more quickly than a rider from Inter Lucus.  You may regard it as coming from both of us.
            Lord Aylwin of Hyacintho Flumen has been actively seeking allies to save himself from the Herminian army that besieges his castle.  Obviously, you know all about this, since Lady Amicia has brought Aylwin’s appeal to Stonebridge.  Stonebridge, I am told, has already committed an army to the field.  Yet I am also told that General Mortane has NOT been commanded to attack the Herminians.  It seems that Stonebridge has not yet committed itself to open war.  I believe this shows wisdom on the part of the Stonebridge Assembly.
            The war between Queen Mariel of Herminia and Lord Aylwin threatens to pull us all into an inferno of destruction.  Together, Stonebridge and Down’s End could raise an army to rival Mariel’s.  General Mortane could then lead that army against Ridere.  Other than the death of thousands, can anyone predict the outcome of such a battle?  And when it was over, Grandmesnils would still rule Herminia, lords like Aylwin would still fear Grandmesnil power, the free cities would still distrust castle lords, and castle lords would still envy the cities.  Battle would follow battle until some future Rudolf or Mariel subdued all the lands.  And what then?  Subject lords and cities would rebel whenever they thought they suspected weakness in the king or queen.
            Lord Martin and I believe we can make a better future for Two Moons.  Lord Martin proposes that cities, lords, and sovereign all unite in one scheme of government.  The queen’s power would be limited by two “houses”: the House of Commons and the House of Lords.  Free cities would choose members of the House of Commons, and castle ladies and lords would comprise the House of Lords.  Together, the two houses would be called “Parliament.”  The essential idea is that laws must be ratified by both houses and the sovereign.  The freedom of the cities would be preserved through the power of the House of Commons.  The dignity of lords would be protected through the House of Lords.  Unity under the sovereign would benefit us all.
            Lord Martin’s parliament idea may strike you as bizarre and impossible.  I suggest that it is merely unfamiliar.  Lord Martin and I, by means of Videns-Loquitur, have been talking with lords and ladies of almost every castle in Tarquint and Herminia in an effort to acquaint them with the plan’s benefits.  We want to include the free cities in this discussion, and that is why I am writing to you.  Lord Martin will send similar letters to leaders in Down’s End and Cippenham, inviting them to consider the parliament plan.  Please give Martin’s idea careful consideration. 
After you have considered Lord Martin’s idea, you may still think it impractical.  Write to me (and I will share your letter with Lord Martin) and tell us how the idea could be improved.  Neither Lord Martin nor I believe the parliament plan is perfect, and we are eager to hear better ideas.  But we are absolutely sure that talking and corresponding is better than warring.
            Lady Ambassador Amicia will be interested to know that her brother General Mortane has visited Inter Lucus.  Lord Martin welcomed Sir Milo and explained his desire to end the war between Herminia and Hyacintho Flumen.  Naturally, he has had many conversations with Queen Mariel and Lord Aylwin already.  We are taking every step possible to include cities, lords, and sovereign in an open correspondence.  We are eager to receive ideas to improve the parliament plan.
            It may happen that we will fail in the short term.  The armies of General Ridere and General Mortane may clash, dealing death and misery to many.  Aylwin may win for a day, or Mariel may force him to submit.  None of that would change the fundamental situation.  In the long term we must find a better way, or we will repeatedly suffer wars between lords and cities.  You, Master Merlin, are an important voice in Stonebridge, and your influence will grow.  Whenever you have a chance, please use that influence to make peace.
            I have no request or advice about how you should act in the present crisis.  You may reveal the parliament plan to the Stonebridge Assembly or your father the Speaker, or you may judge that the time is not yet ripe.  I write simply to inform you of the parliament proposal and what Lord Martin and I are doing to promote it.  We ask that you consider it carefully.
            With Cordial Regard,
            David Le Grant

            Orde Penman read the letter aloud twice.  Finishing, he raised an eyebrow. 
            “That’s all, Orde.  Thank you.”  Le Grant nodded toward the document.  Orde began folding it, carefully keeping the words unsmudged.  Kendra noticed the exchange.
            “What do you mean, Father, ‘That’s all’?” she asked.  “Is there something the letter does not say?”
            Le Grant looked at Kendra and Catherine.  They had not witnessed his most recent conversation with Lord Martin.  “The letter says nothing about Mariel’s condition.” 
Their faces asked the obvious question.  David said, “Lord Martin’s magic is strong.  He introduced Lady Avice Montfort of Tutum Partum, one of Mariel’s councilors.  Mariel has given birth.  She almost died afterward, and she has yet to rise from her sickbed.  Orde and I learned this yesterday from Lady Avice. 
The news drew shocked expressions from Catherine, Kendra, and Ro.
Le Grant shifted his gaze to Ro Norton.  “The letter says nothing about Mariel’s sickness, Ro.  I expect similar silence from you, when you deliver it to Merlin Averill.”
            “Aye, my lord.”  Ro hesitated.  “My lord?”
            Le Grant explained: “If the lords of Herminia believe the Queen cannot bond with Pulchra Mane, they may rebel.  In that case, General Ridere would have to take his army back to Herminia.  But there is no way we can be sure.  It is possible that Mariel will die.  On the other hand, she might at this very moment be up and about and ready to assert her power.  Lord Martin and I agree that we should keep the Queen’s condition secret.  We certainly will not tell Hyacintho Flumen, and we should not tell Stonebridge.”
            “Darling,” Catherine said, “You are convinced we must have this parliament?”
            “Aye.”  Le Grant absentmindedly drew a design on the tabletop.  “Without it, Kendra will one day have to bow to some Stonebridge general.  With it, our descendants may hold Saltas Semitas with dignity.”

Copyright © 2015 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

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