Needle Ash – Chapter 14 “The Conspiracy” part 2

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Michael stood on the balcony, watching the vineyards and fields in the valley below. He rested his sword on a wooden rail, richly oiled, and worked the edge carefully in the bright sunlight. It was an old ritual of his, one that most officers and knights foisted onto their squires or other subordinates, happy to give up the tedium of maintaining equipment. Michael, however, knew that his equipment was his last and best defense. A dull sword could mean an opponent living long enough to kill you. Poorly oiled armor could limit your range when you needed a critical lunge. Worn straps could mean a dropped shield, and death.

Knowing this, Michael preferred to keep all his own equipment to his own standards. He never allowed himself to go into battle worrying whether his gear would fail him. He frowned as he worked his sword, trying to work out a notch in the center of percussion, where he had shattered the assassin’s bone through his mail. It was a deep enough notch that he knew he would have to settle for an edge around it, for it would take too much work to rework the edge in total. He would need a wheel for that. He looked down the edge. Satisfied, he put his stone back in his leather kit and withdrew some polishing stones for the face of the blade.

His mind wandered as he worked a fine mirror finish to the longsword, working in the lustre an inch at a time. He felt at peace, for the first time since waking in the house of Shadathal, and he smiled. He thought of Sharona, who had accompanied Angelico on an errand to the mercenaries he had yet to meet, and he realized, though he was peaceful, he actually missed her. She had refused to stay in the room set apart for her the previous night, and he had not refused her. As he sat and did his meticulous work, he understood why, and it was for a reason he had not expected.

“I thought I would find you with your sword.”

Michael turned to see Julia walk onto the balcony. She was wearing a simple dress, not as bustled or as busy as usual.

“Time spent tuning an edge is not time wasted,” Michael said.

Julia stepped up next to him. “Angelico has picked some recruits from the mercenary band.”

“Can they be trusted?”

“More so than a man from Artalland, whose allegiance may fall in many directions. A mercenary has allegiance to money.”

“And we have money?”

“I have plenty to pay for their retention,” Julia said. “This band, it seems, is accustomed to working for looting rights.”

“Confident in themselves, eh?” Michael said.

“They appear successful. One of them has a van full of very rare books.”

“Well, at the least it will be difficult for them to abandon the mission midway through,” Michael said. “Is there any other news?”

Julia leaned over the rail to catch his eyes. He stopped working his sword and gazed at her. She smiled warmly.

“I just wanted to see my friend again,” she said.

Michael smiled and looked down. “I wish it were in better circumstances.”

“As do I, but luck turns things in many unexpected directions, some beneficial.”

“What do you mean?” Michael carefully placed his sword on a nearby chair. He wiped his hands with a dirty cloth.

“Why did you come to Calasora? Surely you understood that would be risky.”

“Only a few men knew at that time I was not dead. My brother and his elites.”

“Yet you pushed to see your brother in his wedding recession.”

Michael sighed. “I had hoped to catch him before. Catch you before, and to warn you.”

“Against marrying a king?”

“Against marrying a murderer,” Michael said. “I could not let you join a man with your eyes closed to his true nature.”

“Are you sure that was the reason? To warn me, or just to stop me?”

“One and the same.”

“Not necessarily,” Julia said. She took one of Michael’s hands in both of hers. “What I meant by a turn of luck…” She took a deep breath. “The betrothal my father worked so hard to procure for me has been dissolved. I am no longer bound to marry Johan, nor is he bound to marry me. It falls to me to make my own marriage arrangements now.”

“Are you saying that when when we bring Johan back to his senses, you do not intend to marry him?” Michael said.

“I’m saying that I am free now to marry the prince I know best.” She stepped closer to him and placed both her arms on his chest, so that he was looking down into her open, brown eyes.

“Me?” Michael said. He felt blood rush to his beardless face, which tingled suddenly.

“I know you’ve always wanted me,” she said.

“I would never dare to-”

“Cut the false virtues with me. You told me you loved me, once.”

Michael took a breath. “We were but children, then.” He turned away and leaned on the reail looked out upon the vineyards. “The realities of adult life had not yet become as omnipresent.”

“The realities of life allow it, now,” Julia said, placing her hand on his shoulder. “Not just allow it, but demand it. It would be the best political alliance for both of us.”

“How so?”

“I was betrothed to the crown prince to ensure my father’s continued loyalty as general of the armies. He does not need my father’s loyalties; that is why I thought initially the engagement was broken. It is better to marry one who holds the most keys of power, and without a strong patriarch, we have only money at our disposal. You, however, as prince, are lacking the resources of the throne, but have the command of the army and are second in line.”

“Not anymore.”

“Not true. The armies are more loyal to  you than to Johan. You know it.”

Michael nodded and turned back to Julia, holding her hands in his. “That has yet to be tested.”

“Together we would be a rival to Johan, who will be weakened severely, both in real terms and in reputation.”

“I do not wish to rival my brother.”

“And yet you must, for the good of Artalland. The throne will need a proper ruler, one who is not swayed by foreign powers. The high court, with our combined influence, will see the wisdom in handing the throne to the you as regent.”

“Me, regent?” Michael said. “I wouldn’t know-”

“Of course you would, you are a prince and a general. You’d be as feared as your father. Likely you would keep the throne formally, as it becomes clear Johan cannot maintain the keys of royal power.”

Michael released her hands and held shook his head. “That’s too much. I want to save Artalland, and my brother, not rule over either.”

“You may need to rule it to save it,” Julia said. “Structania was not labeled as the source of the assassination without reason.” She stood in silence for a moment. “But political considerations never mattered to you before. You loved me. Have those feelings faded?”

“They were never proper to begin with,” Michael said.

“I loved you,” Julia said. “I still do. I had… entertained many possibilities of how I might have what I wanted.”

“I did not do the same.”

“You lie,” Julia said softly. “I have always read it in your eyes, and your breath, and your endless melancholy whenever you are with me.”

Michael glanced at her, then returned his gaze to the west, where the sun was beginning to redden.

“Does this have anything to do with that Sharona woman?” Julia asked.

“No. Of course not.”

“I know men have their appetites, Michael,” Julia said. “I would not hold it against you.”

“She’s…” Michael bit his lip as he turned back to Julia, his brow stitched in sadness. “She means a great deal to me. I never counted on what you have offered me.”

“You could do worse for a mistress,” Julia said. “But you know that she can never be more than that, don’t you?”

“Mistress?” Michael said, curling his lip as if disgusted. He shook his head.

“I am not naive beyond all reason,” Julia said. She remained silent for a few seconds, staring at Michael who refused to look back at her. Then she turned to leave. “I must go attend to other things. I am right, though.”

“I know.”

“Find Angelico if you wish to know more about what men are available to you.”

“I will.” Michael shielded his eyes as he noticed someone riding up the hill, two extra horses and a squire in tow. “Who is that?”

Julia turned back. “I was not expecting anyone.”

Michael smiled. “It’s Guissali. I’d recognize that painted horse anywhere.” He waved, but the rider didn’t seem to notice him.

“You have my support, Michael,” Julia said, then left.

 

Guissali pulled Michael into a rough hug, which was slightly painful due to Guissali wearing his full armor. The sun was now red dimming as it fled into the west. A swift breeze had picked up and blew the olive trees in the courtyard heartily, filling the air with a constant loud rustling.

“Grim take me and Artifia bless me,” he said, looking Michael up and down. “I never really thought you were dead you know. You’re far too clever.”

“I owe it to Sharona.”

“Glad that we have her,” Guissali said, smiling. “You remember Langelo, the lad from the stable?”

“Yes, is he well?”

“I’d say so. I made him my squire!”

Michael laughed. “Is it that hard to find a lad from a good family?”

Guissali’s face flattened. “It is, actually, sir. But Langelo is a good lad, strong and a good fighter. I’m sure I can get him knighted, or at least in the cavalry.”

“The cavalry first,” Michael said. “He’d need to earn a parcel to join the peerage, even as a knight.”

“Right, then. Here he comes.”

Langelo returned from the stables. He wore a coat of plates over mail and some greaves that were slightly too large for him. He wore a coif for a helm, but had it pulled down and had stuck the padded jack-hat into his belt because of the heat.

“Good to see you, your highness,” he said, bowing to Michael.

“Look! He even fits perfect into my old gear from when I was a lad,” Guissali said.

“I can use two men I can trust,” Michael said.

“Of course you can, sir,” Guissali said. “I wasn’t going to laze about while my prince, and my friend if I dare say it, sir, is exiled and needing me. What are you planning, sir? Angelico sent no word of it. He only dropped me a message that said I’d see my old friend here. Are we friends, sir?”

“I certainly hope so, for both of you. I’m planning to assassinate Queen Alanrae, who is controlling the king. It will be a tough mission.”

“And we are tough, aren’t we Langelo?”

“Aye sir. Tough as nails and twice as sharp.”

Michael chuckled. “I think Angelico has found some men to help us. Care to inspect them with me?”

“Sire, I would be honored.”

 

Michael rode with Guissali and Langelo out from the manor and up a path, into a wood of wild nut trees and scrubby oaks. Over a hill and down the path opened a sparse and dry field, now full of tents and the sounds of men (and to Michael’s great surprise, women). Michael spotted Angelico right away, standing by a cookfire with what was unmistakably a pair of full-blooded orcs.

“Orcs, sire?” Guissali said quietly.

“Good sell-swords,” Michael said.

“Savages, you mean.”

“Not as much as you might think. Besides, is war not savage?”

“Good point, sire.”

They reigned in and Angelico turned to wave at them. As they dismounted, Angelico took their reigns and talked quietly.

“I’ve already done a bit of negotiation, but these boys are pricey. I think they’re good, though, and they’ve done this sort of thing before.” Angelico lead them over to the fire.

The two orcs, talking quietly in their own, choppy language stopped as he approached. They were both taller than him. One of them, he saw was full blood, or as full blood as orcs were still likely to be after centuries of mingling with other races. His skin was a dark, dusky grey and his eyes were bright yellow, gathering the firelight. His nose, large and turned up, twitched as he watched them approach, and his sardonic smile revealed long, yellowed teeth in a large mouth.

“This is Thokar and Baradict,” Angelico said, gesturing to them as he approached. Michael saw that the second orc was far different from the one he locked eyes with before. This one was larger and broader, muscled almost like a caricature of a man, but his face was fair and even, his eyes a pale, almost colorless brown even in the low light, and his nose was noble. His ears, too, were odd, long and slightly drooping like a dark elf.

The fairer one extended a tattooed hand as Michael approached, and they shook, the orc’s hand almost enveloping Michael’s.

“Well met, Prince Michael Harthino,” he said in a smooth, deep voice. “I am Thokar, leader of the Band of the Badger. This is my second-in-command, Baradict.”

“Met,” said Baradict in a harsh, gravelly voice. His smile widened.

“I am Michael, a dead man by most accounts, so no need for the title.”

“I hear you got something for us to do, finally,” Baradict said. “But I can’t get nothing from this pretty fellow but questions about my men.”

“The operation is delicate and requires secrecy,” Michael said.

“I will need to know the details before I can commit,” Thokar said. “The woman in the keep is happy to pay our retainer-”

“And we are happy to drink wine and relax for awhile,” Baradict cut in.

“But for an actual military operation I will need full details so I may weigh the risks,” Thokar finished.

“I understand,” Michael said. “I would do the same for my own men.” He stepped closer and lowered his voice. “We’re going break into the Citadel of Artifia and assassinate Alanrae, queen of Ferralla.”

Thokar raised a single eyebrow.

“As long as we don’t have to climb up a toilet,” Baradict said.

“Many are the fortresses that have been breached via toilette,” Michael said. “But not this one. How do you feel about mausoleums?”

“They matter not to me,” Thokar said. “The body is an empty vessel. The houses of the dead are empty of spirit.”

“So is it true that Orcs eat their dead?” Guissali said.

Thokar gave him a dark look, but Baradict laughed. “Do we look stupid? You eat a man you eat his disease.”

“Sorry,” Guissali said quickly.

“And how shall we escape?” Thokar said.

“We’ll drop down into the river.”

“Out of what?” Baradict said.

“A drain, of sorts.”

“So a toilette.” The orc shrugged.

Michael chuckled. “I need three teams of men. Two for the job and one for the extraction by boat. The infiltration team will need men who are adept at fighting one-on-one, in a tight space. I hear also you have mages.”

“Our number is somewhat diminished. We have myself, my wife, and a new recruit. Once we had more, but no man is bound to go beyond any given job, and they went their own way.”

“Well, Alanrae is a powerful mage, and though I expect to succeed through stealth and sudden strikes, it is good to have a defense. She wields the power to control minds.”

“You mean to inflict feelings,” Thokar said. “That is a difficult thing to do, as feelings are complex and hard to encapsulate in one’s mind, but it’s a threat easily dealt with, even without magic. A disciplined mind does not break its purpose when inflicted by fear, or wonder, or heartbreak.”

“Not just feelings,” Michael said. “She has full control over the king’s mind.”

“With manipulation, or magic?”

“Magic.”

Thokar shook his head. “That is not possible. That is beyond the realm of what magic can do. If you understand the nature of a spell, you can bring forth the concept from the dream, but a man’s mind cannot be worked like a machine, because it is the dream living. The most you can do is make a man feel a temporary emotion.”

Michael frowned at this. “My brother is not himself.”

“Women be strong at controlling men,” Baradict said. “Don’t underestimate that fact alone.”

“Could you make someone feel love?” Michael said.

Thokar shook his head. “Love is intangible. It is not an emotion, but a spiritual state. You can make a man feel joy, but not love.”

“Well my brother is under her control, somehow,” Michael said. “It’s the only explanation. How good are your mages?”

“We are battle-hardened, my wife and I. The recruit.”

Michael turned to Angelico. “Perhaps we could have Sharona evaluate him. Did she come with you? I haven’t seen her all day.”

“She did,” Angelico said. “But I don’t know where she is now.”

“Was she that curly-haired lass?” Baradict said. “She ran off into the brush crying an hour ago. Odd little thing.”

“What?” Michael said.

“Yar, she was holding something to her ear, like she was listening to a rock.”

“It was a mirror,” Thokar said. “But that woman was not a mage. I did not sense the spark in her, and I am very experienced at it. Or if she was a mage, she is very weak. A novice, I would say.”

“Must be thinking of someone else,” Guissali said. “Sharona is very powerful.”

“I know my own band,” Baradict said. “She was nobody’s wife.”

“Where did she go?” Michael said.

Baradict pointed off in the bushes.

“Thank you. I will give you greater details on the morrow, Thokar.” Michael nodded to the orcs and went jogging off into the dry brush and trees.

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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