Chapter 15: The Gambit
Michael found Sharona sitting on a low hanging branch of an oak tree, seemingly staring at her feet. The light of the day was almost gone, but beside Sharona something glowed very faintly, like fire.
“Sharona?” Michael said.
“Hello Michael,” she replied, without inflection.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m whole and uninjured.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know.” She looked up at him, and despite the low light he could tell she had been crying.
“You were eavesdropping on me,” Michael said. “Weren’t you?” He stepped closer and saw next to her a plain mirror. It was reflecting a fire in a decorated stone hearth, which Michael recognized from his room in the manor.
“What did you hear?”
“If you were interested in telling me the truth, you wouldn’t have to ask that question.”
Michael leaned against the tree. “I was trying to save time.”
“Do you love Julia?”
“I care for her,” Michael said. “She’s like family.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Sharona said.
“Yes, I know. I did desire her, for a long time. As for now, I’ve scarcely had time to consider it. My thoughts have been elsewhere.”
“On the assassination.”
“On you, actually.” Michael stepped in front of her and laid his hands lightly on her arms. “Julia voice something that has been on my mind, a real concern, which is what it is possible for us to be. You and I.”
“Just a week ago you were wondering where we could go together and build a life.”
“That was before I was engaging in a rebellion. Before I was a prince of Artallan again, rather than just a man with a woman I love. I am in a role, by the way, that you pushed me to take up.”
“I know. But why must those two be so disparate?”
“As a noble, marriage is not for love, nor is it even for a healthy family. It is to secure power and peace in the realm and between realms. We marry to gain allies, not to gain happiness.”
“So when Julia said that I could be no more than a mistress to you?”
“She was right. In many ways. You’re a foreigner and a commoner. The high court would reject the marriage as unsound. And I might need to wed a woman later to secure an alliance, to gain peace and power.”
“A woman like Julia?”
Michael nodded. “She is wealthy, influential, wise, and holds already many alliances. My father was wise to pick her as Johan’s bride.”
“But what about your bride?”
“I think it would be wise, but who can say what will happen? It may be that my brother will reconcile with her; in fact I think that more likely than anything. Which is why I may seem dispassionate. I love you Julia, but we enter now a world of great limitations. I would have you with me in it, but I understand if you will not have me. I do love you.”
“I will not be held second, or in secret. Even now you do not reveal our relationship.”
“For the same reasons.”
“Yet Julia knows, and she doesn’t care.”
“The world of nobility is not one where absolutes are pursued. Everything has trade-offs.”
“That is not the man I love speaking,” Sharon said.
“Yet it is the man I must be, if I am to accomplish what we seek.”
“I don’t believe that. If you do…” New tears sprang on her face, lit by a waxing moon shining through a gap in the trees. “If you believe that, then… perhaps it is best…” She began to shudder. “Just go, Michael.”
Michael nodded silently. “You know where to find me.” He turned and walked from the shade of the tree, back toward the mercenary camp.
Michael stood in front of the assembled team in the little grove by the camp. The sun was shining, and it was a pleasant day, but all the men (and orcs) wore faces of serious determination. His mind was on Sharona, whom he had not seen since the previous night. She was a distraction and he wish she wasn’t, but he could not seem to summon the discipline to focus his thoughts on the mission, as perilous and important as it was.
“Where is Thokar?” Michael said.
“Trying to talk the new recruit.” Baradict was sitting on a rock he had dragged into the clearing, refusing to be at the same level as his subordinates during a briefing. “It seems he wants desperately to come. Says he has some personal stake, but as to how the nature of our job became public knowledge,” he cast an angry eye around him, “I cannot say. He also apparently doesn’t want to come here and be told how we’re going to pull this bit thing off.”
“Maybe he just doesn’t like you, eh?” It was Nit, a large and imposing orc with a smashed nose.
“I can make you not like me, Nit, if you run your insubordinate mouth. I’ll take an inch off the top of you, if you think your so big.”
The assembly laughed.
At that time Thokar walked into the clearing with whom Michael presumed to be his wife, an orcish woman who wore a strange dress of many cloths. Next to them walked a tall figure, the top part of his face obscured by a wide-brimmed hat. Michael recognized, however, the two swords that hung at the man’s belt.
“Mondal,” Michael said.
The elf looked up and met his eyes, his face blank and impassive.
“You know him?” Thokar said.
“Yes,” Michael said. He felt calm looking into the angular face of the dark elf; he had expected to feel anger and rage, but the silence in the grove was still palpable. “He killed my father. I killed his brother.”
Baradict laughed aloud. Several of the men looked at him in surprise. “Trust to fate, me boys!”
“You are not my enemy, Michael,” Mondal said in is clear, slow voice. “You said that there were no debts between us.”
“And I mean it.”
“But there is a debt owed to me. That debt belongs to Alanrae, whose deception has led us all hither. I place three deaths on her head.”
“You wish to collect this debt?”
“Yes. I will go with you and provide you my skills, as they are, to assassinate Alanrae. I will not accept payment for this, since it is in my heart to accomplish it.”
Michael looked to Baradict. “How would an orc act?”
“We’re not all the same, you know,” Baradict said. “But I wouldn’t trust nobody who’d done in my family.”
“I would,” Nit said. “And I have. People kill for different reasons. If it’s for money, the best thing to trust is that they’ll kill for money, eh?”
“Occasionally you’re right,” Baradict said. “I’ll leave it to you, Michael.”
Michael nodded. “What can you do to aid us.”
Mondal said, “I have some magic at my disposal, which is useful for not being noticed. I can cast a spell of disinterest on us.”
“Is that like invisibility?”
“I can actually mask sight,” Thokar said. “In a given place.”
“It’s not invisibility,” Mondal said. “It’s disinterest. It’s how I stood and walked freely among your finest warriors. It makes an object, or a person, seem very mundane. Forgettable. It was an easy concept for myself and Parthil to find in the eternal dream and bring into reality. If you aim to surprise your enemy, I can aid you.”
Michael was silent for a moment. “Very well. I choose to trust your revenge. Now listen up, everyone, and be mindful. We’ll all be richer at the end of the day if we do this well.”
“You didn’t invite me to your meeting,” Sharona said, bursting in through the door.
Michael, sitting in a chair by the cold hearth, closed the book he was reading. “That’s because I don’t intend for you to go.”
“What?” Sharona said. “Michael, I’ve earned the right by now-”
“You have,” Michael interrupted, standing. “You have, and I’m sorry, but…” Michael clenched a fist and looked away.
“But what? I can’t protect you if I’m sitting around here.”
“You have protected me, and I am grateful, but I can’t let you put yourself at risk again. Not when, you may be…” He swallowed and shook his hands, having trouble getting the words out.
“Pregnant?” Sharona said, then added flatly. “I’m not pregnant.”
“Do you know that yet?”
“Then you could be putting another life in danger. One that did not volunteer to lose its life following me.”
“Volunteer?” Sharona said. “You think I volunteered? I was all but forced to find you, and follow you, and-”
“And love me?” Michael said.
“I sure as hell didn’t choose to fall in love with you!” Sharona said. Tears were starting to well up in her eyes as she stomped toward Michael. “If I could choose, why would I choose to love to man who will never wed me, or even acknowledge me. A man who says he loves me, but refuses to lose face for that love?”
Michael stepped closer. “I do love you, Sharona, which is why I don’t want to take you with me. I would stay as well, but I know of nobody else who can lead this mission.”
“Give me the real reason.”
Michael took a breath. “You’d be an impediment to this mission.”
“How? I’ve got you out of every mess so far.”
“Alanrae is very powerful.”
“You’ve seen what I can do.”
“I know you can do incredible things, but Alanrae is clearly on a different level. Thokar said that he can barely sense magic within you.”
“I told you, I don’t do things the normal way. I can’t manifest much in the way of magic from the prim. You know that. But I do other things.”
“And you will be a distraction. To me.”
“The way I’m a distraction now?”
“Worse,” Michael said, who furrowed his brow in confusion as Sharona huffed at him. “How can I focus on my strike, on my goal, when I worry about protecting you?”
“You’ll have twelve other men with you. You aren’t worried about them?”
“It’s not the same and you know it. I want you to wait here, Sharona, please.”
Sharona took a breath and walked to the wall. She leaned her herself against it and wiped tears out of her eyes. “What if I told you I had a dream that you would tomorrow night?”
“That’s not what I asked.”
Michael paused and thought. “I would do it anyway.”
“Then you still don’t trust me. I won’t get you out of this if it turns on you.”
“It’s time I learn to do things on my own anyway.”
Sharona nodded and headed to the door.
“You’re leaving?” Michael said.
“I have my own room,” Sharona said, pausing at the door.
“You don’t have to stay in it. I…” Michael took a breath. “I don’t want you to stay in it.”
“You want to bed me? After that?”
Michael cracked an awkward smile. “You said once it’s bad form to go marching off to possible death while hungry.”
“Yes, it is, so you’d better not die,” Sharona said. She slammed the door behind her as she left.
Michael checked his sword edge one last time before sliding it back into its scabbard. He did not have on his chauses, nor did he wear his mail shirt beneath it. Likewise he did not wear his sabatons or his greaves, or any part of the shining plate armor he wore into battle. Instead he wore a simple gambeson and quilted trousers, along with leather shoes. The mission would require stealth, and would also require a casual appearance. Michael thought of how revealed he would feel, and remembered also the duel he had with Porthil, which compared to his normal battle attire was fought practically nude.
The door open and Michael turned, hoping it was Sharona. He flinched slightly as he saw Julia come in, bearing a small box.
“Are you and your men ready?”
“As ready as we can be. Are you sure that Alanrae will remain the royal quarters?”
“Positive. I still have many contacts within the Citadel and they will ensure nothing draws her out.”
“Good. Are you sure Johan will answer the summons?”
“For the high court? Of course he will. Don’t worry, my mother will ensure his attendance. What is troubling you?”
“About the mage?”
“About the mission.”
“Good. She left some time in the night,” Julia said. “Which you’ll agree was probably correct.”
“Am I doing the right thing?”
Julia smiled at him. “You are doing the best thing out of available choices. Remember that.”
“I’ll try. What is in the box?”
“A gift,” Julia said. She set down the box and withdrew from it a pendant. It was a blue gem, completely rounded like a robin’s egg, that seemed to reflect a star rather than sparkle with facets. Surrounding it was a hand, made of rough, reddish gold. The chain that held it was unadorned silver that was very tarnished. Julia fastened it around his neck.
“It’s very unique,” Michael said, holding it up. “Beautiful.”
“It was my father’s good luck charm. It was supposed to be an old magical talisman or mechanism, designed to suck in and hold one spell, then break.”
“And it remains intact.”
“Hence why my father considered it a good luck charm. He left it here on his last campaign, saying he did not need it. ”
“Thank you,” Michael said. “I should not take it, though, as it is an heirloom-”
“I want you to have it. You need the luck,” Julia said.
Michael nodded silently. “I will endeavor to return it to you.”
“See that you do.” Julia moved closer and put her arms on his shoulders. “You are a braver man than your brother.”
Michael smiled. “I won’t deny that. He always complained I was too easy with my own life.”
“Don’t be easy with it,” Julia said. “I want my husband alive.”
Michael chuckled nervously. “Alright then.”
Julia stood on her toes, aiming to kiss him, but Michael pulled away. “I mustn’t.”
“Your honor always guides you, doesn’t it?”
“Maybe not with this mission,” Michael said. “But with you it does.”
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.