Needle Ash – Chapter 14: The Conspiracy, part 1

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Chapter 14: The Conspiracy

The Dolanari Estate was a wide stretch of land at the base of the gold mountains, composed of rolling, grass-filled hills dotted with trees that gradually transitioned into a hardwood forest. Farms stood out among the sparse oaks and wild olives as either cleared patches, irrigated most often by channeling a stream from uphill, or neat orchards of fruit trees. The vast majority of these belonged to Freemen, former enlisted soldiers and other citizens, who owned their plot and payed a direct tax to the family Butler Dolanari.

Closer to the estate proper, the family vineyards rose in rows upon the hills. Serfs and free peasants were at work upon the vines, trimming and preparing the growing red grapes for the first harvest, when Michael and Sharona rode slowly up the path that ran through the yards. At the top of a hill, surrounded by cultivated olive trees, stood the fortified manor of house Dolanari. It was a stone keep with a courtyard gated by a small double portcullis in the gatehouse. The parapet on top was low and practical, useful for a defense against any roving enemy, but not made to withstand a serious attack. The inner building, whose face was highly decorated with statues and details carved in the stone edifice, was many turreted and roofed by blue tiles. May bared windows faced outward, letting in substantial light into what was primarily a living space.

Connected to the courtyard wall was a long, low stone structure with doors facing south, toward the fields, where the serfs and other workers resided. Michael and Sharona passed by these, watching woman at work with laundry and other household tasks, and approached the open front gate. Angelico was standing by, waving as they approached.

“Good to see you, sir,” Angelico said. “We espied you on your way up, and the cook is already cooking a ripe pheasant for us.”

“My favorite,” Michael said as he dismounted. Sharona followed suit and they walked their horses into the courtyard. A boy took the reigns from both of them, bowing slightly as he did so. “How is Julia?”

“She’s fairly well, now that she knows you live,” Angelico said. “But anxious.”

Michael walked with Angelico through the reinforced doors of the manor, Sharona following closely behind. The entrance hall was small, but had a high ceiling. Occupying the central wall was a tapestry that Michael always paused to look at, supposedly acquired from Alfheim in the far east, depicting with great detail the triumph of the sun goddess over hunger, an elven myth of antiquity. This day he merely glanced at it, feeling too excited to do more than consider his luck at merely seeing it again.

He paused at the door to the dining hall and noticed that Sharona was not with him. He looked around quickly, peeked around a corner and saw her looking at the tapestry, a strange and sad look on her face.

“Come on, Sharona,” he said. “I want to introduce you.”

“We met already,” Sharona said. “Remember?”

“I was hoping she would not.”

“Yes, well… first impressions are often the most lasting. I’m sure she quite dislikes me, or will, but don’t be troubled by it, since she’ll never tell you.”

“How do you know?”

“I’m a woman.”

“Don’t mention…” He cut off and glanced at Angelico. “Too much.”

“I understand,” Sharona said. “I am not oblivious to reputations, after all.”

Michael grumbled and pushed open the door. Julia was standing inside, directing two servants as to where to place a few food items. She turned when they entered, plastering a wide smile on her face, and rushed to the door, lifting the skirt on a voluminous dress of brown. She walked straight over to Michael and hugged him.

“Oh, Michael, it is good to see you again,” she said. “Luckily Angelico told me already, or you would have seen me in tears.” She stepped back and looked at him. “Your beard is gone.”

“It made it harder to recognize me. And it is good to see you too.” Michael took a breath. “I am so sorry for your father.”

“It’s hard to decide which wound is worse: my father, or Johan. My father always risks death a little, but Johan’s betrayal of me, and the memory of my father, is a wound that seems unwilling to heal.”

“I can imagine,” Michael said. “This is Sharona.”

“We met,” Julia said, with a closed mouth smile. She looked at Sharona.

“Hello,” Sharona said without inflection.

Julia raised her eyebrows and nodded, then held her chin up as if expecting something. After a few moments of silence, in which Sharona stared back at her, Julia said, “It is good to see you again. Let me seat you all. I have prepared a special meal.”

“You have?” Sharona said, smiling over-wide. “You look great! Wuite… well dressed… and clean-”

“Thank you,” Julia said quickly.

“Considering you have been in the kitchens.”

Julia paused and smiled again. “Yes. Well, I mean the cook has made a special meal. According to my directions.”

“Really?” Sharona said with false cheerfulness. “I would love to see your recipe. I like to collect such things in my travels.”

“I haven’t seen you cook,” Michael said.

“You haven’t asked me, nor provided me with any ingredients.”

“Well we haven’t exactly had time, you know,” Michael said. “With us traveling so hard to get here.”

“I do not hold it against you,” Sharona said sweetly. “The road has been a hard trek with just the two of us.” She glanced at Julia, a mere flick, as her eyes narrowed, before she returned to a bright smile.

“Yes,” Julia said, clearing her throat. “The pheasant will be out shortly. Perhaps you could cook for us tomorrow, Sharona?” Julia said. She looked like she was suppressing a slight laugh.

Sharona’s face went blank. “I would be delighted to. After all, nothing satisfies men like a well-cooked meal.”

“I agree,” Angelico said, nodding.

They walked over toward the head table, which was the only one set. Michael leaned over to Sharona and whispered, “Julia is nobility, you were supposed to curtsey to her.”

“I’m not going to curtsey to her,” Sharona said aloud. Julia looked back, and Michael rushed forward, smiling awkwardly. A servant sat them so that Michael was next to Julia and Sharona was on the other side.

Michael took a breath as they broke bread. “I have obviously missed much since I died,” Michael said. “What of Guissali and the other men of my party? Are they well, or did Johan do something to them?”

“Guissali is fit as ever, which is to say braver than his physique should command,” Angelico said. A servant poured him a cup of wine and he sipped it. “He got relieved of his old post, so I think he’s moved into early retirement as a vinter.”

Michael nodded. “Good. I feared he’d be punished more severely.”

“I don’t think Johan thinks much of Guissali or his influence.”

“Many are the men that underrate Gui,” Michael said.

“At least he got early retirement and not an early death,” Sharona said. “Johan should have killed me the first go around, too.”

“What an odd sentiment,” Julia said.

“I mean from Johan’s perspective. Of course I prefer not to die,” Sharona said.

“What is she talking about,” Julia said, turning to Michael.

“She saved me from Johan’s attempt on my life, and also led us to the assassins.”

“It was Michael that did justice upon them, though,” Julia said. “He quite a swordsman, when there is a lady to defend, anyway.”

“I have seen him practice,” Julia said. “Since we were children.”

“Well, seeing him in impassioned battle-fury is something else,” Sharona said.

“Ah, here is the pheasant,” Michael said.

Two cooked pheasants were placed on the table, and the cook (a portly older man, who hummed as he worked) carved them quickly at the table, portioning out the meat to each before leaving.

“Julia,” Michael said. “Thank you for  your charity. I have no way to repay you, now that I am disinherited. I should mention that before we eat.”

“You can pay me back by destroying the abomination that is occupying the citadel,” Julia said.

Michael nodded as he ate. “I wonder how.”

“We stop Alanrae,” Julia said. “She is controlling Johan with magic.”

“That seems to be the consensus,” Sharona said. “But how are you sure?”

Julia gave Sharona a hard look. “He dissolved our engagement in person.”

Sharona looked around the table, puzzled, as Michael looked at Julia, shocked. “You’re kidding,” he said. “That’s… horrible, I’m sorry. And that’s not like him at all. He’s always been extremely tactful with manners, especially when  your family is so powerful.”

“It’s not just that he did it, Michael,” Julia said. “It’s the way he did it. He wasn’t himself. He is not usually eloquent, but that day he was so good with words he just about had me convinced that breaking our engagement was a favor to me, and that I wanted it severed. It was… disturbing, after the fact, how strong his arguments seemed to me when he spoke.”

“I have experienced similar,” Michael said. “He nearly convinced me I was mad, that I was being controlled. He seemed able to say things that were so knowledgeable…”

“Interesting,” Julia said. “I’ve talked to Angelico. I’m sure I can count on your support, yes?”

“For what?” Michael said.

Angelico and Julia looked at each other. Angelico chewed his lip.

“We’re going to initiate a coup,” Angelico said. “There’s no practical way to act against Alanrae without removing power from Johan.”

Michael looked at each of them and then to Sharona, who looked back impassively, save her her eyes, which were wide open, searching Michael’s face.

“It has to be done in some way,” Michael said. “For Ferralla as well as Artalland. But what I have wondered, since long before I sat at this table, is how.”

“We’re working that out,” Angelico said. “I’m not much of a politician, but my father is, and he’s talking to the right people. We might get a few fiefs to sign on with us.”

“Lord Travisto thinks he can get fifty knights, and thrice that in militia,” Julia said.

“Two hundred men, and most of them militia?” Michael said. He shook his head. “The knights are a start, but what we need to do is raise a regular army if you are looking to find a military solution. There’s six strong legions made into two armies back near Calasora.”

“One legion was left in Ferralla.”

“So five. That’s ten twenty-thousand men, Angelico.”

“I said it was a start,” Angelico said.

Julia spoke up, “I also have retained a mercenary band, well traveled. They broke at least one siege last year up north in the Petty Kingdoms.”

“I expect we can get a good portion of the regular army back on our side,” Angelico said.

“How?”

“With prince Michael Harthino, of course.” Angelico pointed at Michael. “Your legion will join us without hesitation.”

“If it hasn’t been dismantled.”

“Even if it has, the men will come. They’d fight for you with any odds.”

“I’d never ask them to.”

“You must think like a king,” Julia said. “A rebellion is a process.”

“A rebellion is not a coup,” Michael said. “A coup implies you already control the military and the keys to power. A rebellion would cost thousands of lives. Lives of brothers and sons of each man who fights. And famine, if it takes to long to execute it.” He shook his head. “No. It is better to let evil reign for a time than to pay that price, I judge.”

“I believe you must stop Alanrae,” Sharona said. “If she is indeed controlling the prince, and you yourself Michael mentioned that she is a potential three quarters of all solutions.”

Michael nodded. He scratched his chin for a few moments. “I need to think like a king, not a general.”

“Yes,” Julia said. “And all plays have costs.”

“Yes, I agree. What if we assassinate the queen?”

“I thought of that,” Julia said. “She’s in the citadel, well-guarded, of course, and a powerful sorceress herself.”

“What will happen if we kill her?” Michael said, looking at Sharona.

“Her body will go cold, then begin to decompose over time,” Sharona said, lifting an eyebrow.

“I mean, with the spell controlling my brother.”

Sharona shrugged. “It’s outside of my knowledge. My guess would be that any such spell that causes compulsion would need to be renewed regularly, and the effects would evaporate. But that’s not a guarantee. If he is not acting under a magically induced compulsion…” She took a sip of her wine. “That is to say, she has legitimately changed his perception of past events, re-written his memories.”

“Is that possible?” Julia said.

“All things are possible,” Sharona said. “But if the king is convinced, not being compelled by some spell, then killing the queen will not cause him to change his mind, like walking out of a fog.”

“Still, it is a greater possibility of solving the problem than not,” Michael said.

“True,” Sharona said. “But there is, as already stated, the problem of how.”

“There are a few options,” Michael said, looking around at the table. “We can plant a spy in the house. We won’t be able to get close to Alanrae, but we could use the spy to alert us to when she leaves the citadel. Perhaps to see a drama performance, or to travel back to Ferralla, which would make her vulnerable. On the road, two hundred men could easily overwhelm a modest escort and kill the queen.”

“She won’t travel without Johan,” Alanrae said. “She arrived with him, and has not left his side.”

“Damn, but I wish I had known,” Michael said. “I could have shot her at the parade.”

“And been killed for the attempt,” Angelico said.

“I wouldn’t have allowed it,” Sharona said.

“Your idea relies on waiting for her to leave,” Julia said. “That’s a great uncertainty for any lords wanting to pitch into a rebellion.”

“The other option,” Michael said. “Is to take her down inside the citadel itself. I know more ways in and out than either of you do, or anyone else, I would wager, including Johan.”

“The citadel is unbreachable,” Angelico said. “It has never fallen. You would make it so?”

Michael nodded. “There are ways inside that would not do great benefit to an army, for it would be too difficult to get in enough fighting men, and in a battle it would be too easy to defend. The Citadel of Artifia is designed with defense in mind, and there are no places where many men can congregate to overwhelm a defense point. Everything is narrow, and can be held by just a few men if need be. If we brought in a few good men, men who are trained with infiltration in mind, we can get to the royal apartments. Not without difficulty, but we can certainly do it.”

“And what if it fails?” Julia said.

“The risk of failure is high,” Michael said. “But the risk of life in total is low. Just a few men, but it seems that is necessary as we have few men to spare. If we fail, you can still pursue military options.”

“I question your use of the word we, Michael,” Sharona said. “Surely you don’t intend to assassinate the queen yourself?”

Michael locked eyes with Sharona. “I believe it necessary. The paths I have in mind are not easily explainable to an outsider, nor is it easy or efficient for me to draw maps. After all, who better to penetrate the citadel than its owner?”

“That risks our military option, then,” Julia said.

“It sounded like you already had that under control,” Michael said. “And the legion will be loyal to you too, Angelico. And you, Julia.”

“I would not remain behind while my commander goes into battle alone,” Angelico said.

“I’m not your commander any more, Angelico, merely a friend. But if it falls to rebellion, battlefield command experience will be essential. If only we had Gadero here as well.”

“He’s too loyal to the crown,” Angelico said.

Michael shrugged. “Just as well. We need to think about who we can bring inside.”

“How many?” Angelico said.

“Twenty will be too many. Perhaps twelve, in two teams of six. The best duelists. Men who can fight man-to-man and win consistently. And they must be trustworthy.”

“What about mages?” Sharona said. “Do you know of any?”

“There are some with the mercenary band I have retained in the hills,” Julia said. “But of allies we have gathered so far… none.”

“They’d be of marginal use anyway,” Michael said.

“Against a powerful mage in Alanrae?” Sharona said. “I think not.”

Michael sipped his wine. “Let’s see who we can get to go along with this.”

“What about escape?” Julia said. “You kill the queen, then what?”

“I don’t think escape will be necessary, if we are successful. But I’ll think of something.”

This post is part of a project to write and publish a book in a month, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you enjoy this story, consider buying my other fantasy novel The Water of Awakening, of which this book is a sequel.

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