Needle Ash – Chapter 4: Turns, part 1

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Chapter 4: Turns

 

Michael’s boots echoed in the gallery, washing his ears with sound as his eyes took in the familiar sights of the citadel, fresh and sharp amid the churning worry in his stomach. Great windows of colored glass stood high above, drowning the hallway in warm light. He passed by the portraits and statues of his ancestors, tributaries to the great river that was his family’s passage through time. The Third Dominion had grown its order and passed away, the Divine Empire had been shattered irreparably, and yet the house of Harthino and their great citadel, their great city, had endured and gone from governors to great kings.

And yet, Michael felt saddened by watching the immaculate faces pass by, for of those ancestors but a few had been second sons. His face might grace its own gallery, but it would be in a different fief, in a different gallery, for proud sons of a nobleman, not a king. At the same time, he felt an obligation to those faces, especially those second and third sons, for they had carried their lineage forward always to the next generation without fail. When Michael thought of the traitor in the midst of the Harthino house, and the probability of treason growing from a seed of mere possibility to a near certainty the more he thought about it, he desired most to see one more face added to the gallery of kings, whichever son should have it. He also knew he loved his brother, and that is a bracing thought.

At last Michael turned a corner and came to the cluster of offices he was seeking. Two servants were quietly talking, but shut their mouths when Michael turned the corner. He passed into the room of Lord Magutas, his father’s chief minister of domestic operation. The old man was writing in a ledger at a desk below one of the large windows that framed the immense library of Harthino. He looked up as Michael entered.

“Your highness,” he said coolly, standing and giving a slight bow as Michael stopped in front of the desk. “I was wondering when you were going to come see me.” He straightened his finely embroidered robes, which hung loose over him, tailored for when he was a larger man.

“I trust that our books are in order?”

“If you’d like to order an audit, all will be in its place.”

“Good. Any events whilst I was away?”

“Plenty, but none that concern you. Drama with employees ought to be beneath the concern of the monarchy – at least, I am to make it so.”

“Good. I am leaving for Ferralla post-haste. I wanted to inform you that I will be gone some time, and will likely return with my father and brother, after we have seen to the surrender of Ferralla.”

“Ferralla is surrendering? The pigeon was true, then,” Magatus said, walking over to a bookshelf and pulling from it a small slip of paper. “My message was rain-soaked and blurry, but when you did not formally announce victory upon your arrival… when you refused company I thought that…. no matter. You will be assisting in the negotiations, then?”

Michael stared at the slip in the old man’s hands, feeling his stomach churn slightly.

“What else did the message say?” Michael asked.

Magutus shook his head. “It said to wait for further instructions for a victory parade. Why?”

Michael chewed his cheek. Had the message been sent prior to him being stripped of his commission?

“Just curious if my father had any message for me.”

“Alas, no,” Magutus said, handing the slip over to Michael, who read the smeared single sentence declaring a victory over Ballaco and his army.

“I see. I must leave now. I must trust the operation of the city and kingdom to you for the next fortnight.”

Magatus nodded. As Michael turned to leave, the old man spoke again. “Why, then, did my lord return to the city? Just to check on me?”

“Yes,” Michael said. “My father and brother are indisposed to check on the care of the kingdom.”

“I see. May your find death only in victory, High captain.”

“That’s not necessary.”

“I understand,” Magutus said softly, bowing.

“Of course you do, or you would have saluted me properly when I entered. Farewell, Magutus, and remember that I can count.”

“Of course, your highness, of course.”

Michael stopped and turned back. He drew out the letter for Julia and rolled it in his hands. “I have one more thing for you. Please deliver this to Lady Julia. From the crown prince,”

Magutus held up his hands lightly. “She would be most distressed to have me deliver such a thing, to take on your obligation while you are still here. Please, allow me for my own sake to decline your request.”

“I suppose I shall,” Michael said with a sigh. “Be well, Lord. And count to your heart which relations are dearest, for we will likely be possessing new lands next month.”

“And you, my prince – Stay safe.” The minister bowed low and Michael swept out of the room.

 

Michael waited outside the door to Julia’s apartments, her attendants insisting that she needed a few minutes to be ready to receive a prince. He took from his pocket a gold coin and began flipping it absent-mindedly as leaned against the wall. The rhythm was somewhat soothing, ticking away the painful seconds in waiting to inevitably explain his shame to Julia.

Flick… and catch… and turn…. and flick…and catch… and turn.

Perhaps he could avoid telling her, since formal news had not been proclaimed. Just tell her he came to check on her and the city.

Flick… and catch… and turn… and flick… and catch

But then she was always good and knowing when he was lying and of course, being Butler’s daughter, she would find out eventually and scold him for his dishonesty.

Flick… and catch….

Maybe women didn’t find as much shame in these things. But had he actually done anything to be ashamed of?

Flick… and catch… and turn…

Of course, the traitor might have put his father up to it. Butler had stuck up for him…

Flick… and catch…. and turn… and flick…. and…

Michael stared around, bewildered. Where had the coin gone? He looked on the floor, mad that he had not heard the coin dropping. Then, he looked up again and saw it, hovering right in front of his fact, not turning, but bouncing slightly. He reached out to grab it, but it flew away from his hand, to his right. He tried again, and again the coin flew away. Michael flung his hands out to grasp it, but it kept moving away.

“What in the high hell?” he said aloud to himself. He heard a soft giggle and turned to see Sharona, wearing black trousers, boots, and a blouse, walking down the hallway without making a sound, holding a gold coin in front of her. She moved it around and the coin in front of Michael moved too. Then she closed her hand and Michael’s coin fell to the floor, tinkling loudly.

“Who let you in the citadel?”

“Oh I had the huntmaster vouch for me at the gate. Sotoro is an excellent judge of character, I find.”

“I’ll question him on that.”

“When are we leaving? I already packed and paid my bill at the inn, which was much more expensive than you let on.”

“I would have just paid your tab quietly, had you just gone home,” Michael said quietly.

“I can pay my own way. I mended a few pots and pans for the innkeeper, and he was most grateful. I also enchanted the boils off of his son’s back. Very nasty, but worth an Argent.” She flipped the coin in the air and snapped her fingers. It burst into flame for a moment before smoking and landing in her palm.

“Very nice,” Michael said flatly. “Go finish your preparations. I must make one more visit before we depart.

“Ah, the Lady Julia,” Sharona said. “I should like to meet her.”

“Well, this is a private meeting.”

“I can be your chaperone!”

“Not required. Now move along and tease somebody else.”

Michael never found out if that would banish Sharona, for at that moment the door opened and Julia appeared, dressed in a fine gold-colored cinched-waist gown that had lace trimmings at the neck and sleeves. Her brown hair was arranged in braids that covered her shoulders and she wore pale make-up.

Michael bowed quickly. “Julia, I-”

“My, that is quite a dress!” Sharona said.

“You may go, Sharona,” Michael said, in a polite tone that was obviously forced.

“Ladies like when you compliment their clothes, you know.”

Julia smiled at Sharona, then looked her up and down. “Yes, well I did not want to look threadbare to receive home a victorious warrior.”

“Please go,” Michael said softly.

Sharona raised one eyebrow and smirked. She eyed Julia up and down and said. “Michael’s a bit sensitive about it, and he shouldn’t be really, as he’s a war hero and all, but he’s been sacked. See you later, my prince.” She bowed low and held the bow as she backed down the hallway, letting her black hair hid her face for a few moments.

Michael was gritting his teeth.

“Go home!” he called after her.

She turned her back and put up a hand in response.

Michael turned back to Julia and forced a smile.

“I apologize, she’s a mage from my cadre who, well… it’s hard to explain.”

“Come in and tell me about it,” Julia said warmly. She gave a high pitch welp as the laces on the back of her dress suddenly snapped, and her breasts adjusted, threatening to spill out of the low neckline of the dress. She quickly covered herself up. “Margo! This dress! Uh… Just a moment, Michael, come in a sit down while we fix this.”

Michael tore his eyes away from Julia’s chest to catch a glimpse of Sharona walking  down the hall, flipping her hair over her shoulder. Could she have? No…

“Come in.” Michael turned back to see Margo, Julia’s attendant, ushering him into a sitting room. He found a comfortable chair and sat down, watching as Margo disappeared behind a privacy screen to help Julia.

“So who was that woman?”

“She’s a mage, and was very instrumental in our final battle against Ferralla. She’s been following me since. She seems to think I need some sort of protection.”

“You haven’t sent her away?”

“I’ve tried to.”

“In a gentle way, I assume.”

“Yes, but she’s rather stubborn.”

“And rude.”

“That’s the first I’ve seen her be out and rude, actually. Mostly she’s a nuisance, if not useful one in a pinch.”

“Is what she said true?”

“Yes. I…” Michael sighed. “I was avoiding coming and telling you. I was ashamed, I suppose, though I know you wouldn’t judge me so.”

“Ashamed of what? You’re a war hero, she said.”

“Yes, well… I broke ranks to enact a maneuver in the battle, which was instrumental in our victory, by my analysis, at least, and was stripped of rank for disobeying orders.”

“That’s horrible,” Julia said, appearing from behind the privacy screen looking prim again. She took a seat beside Michael and laid her hands on his arms. “I know how much your position meant to you. Nobody should expect you to risk it by disobeying orders unless it was absolutely necessary.”

“It was. At least…” Michael covered his face. “At least I thought so at the time.”

“You think differently now?”

“Johan explained some other possibilities that had not occurred to me. So I have – had – some doubts as to whether my actions were right.”

“If they were right given all the information you had at the time, shouldn’t that justify them? I thought that was how military decisions were judged.”

Michael nodded. “You’re right of course. I think, personally, that had I not acted the way I did General Butler’s – your father’s – battle plan might have failed.” Michael leaned close to her, smelling her perfumed soap. “Ballaco, your father’s nemesis, ordered a whole batallion of his troops down a ravine on our northern flank. It would have been terrible for a flanking operation, but it would have separated our reserves and our tired front lines. We would have lost. He only would have done this had he known our forces would push far enough afield that our reserves would be locked well back.” Michael looked away from Julia, thoughts racing. “He had to have planned it all, which means he had to know of our plans to begin with.”

“You suspect treachery?” Julia said, almost whispering.

Michael nodded. “It has to be.”

“Who?”

“Towler,” Michael said. “It has to be him. There were only five us who knew the battle plan ahead of time. Four of us are directly or indirectly tied to my household. Only Towler isn’t. He’s the only one, as a man ignoble, and a foreigner, who has any reason to betray us. He threw Sharona out of the army because she was part of the force that killed Ballaco.”

“Ballaco is dead.”

Michael smiled for a moment. “Yes, by my hand.”

Julia’s face creased in sadness. “Oh Michael, you deserve a medal. I will talk to Johan about it. Are you sure it is Towler?”

“No, but that is why I must attend these negotiations with the Queen. I must find out and nail him down before he squirms away.”

“I see. Well I will pray for your safety. Is there anything I can do to assist?”

“Keep your ears open,” Michael said. “I don’t know if this is a conspiracy or not.” He reached into his jacket and withdrew the letter. “I didn’t come to discuss conspiracies with you, though. I came to deliver this.”

Julia smiled and took the letter from him. She broke the seal and spread out the scroll as she walked over to her desk.

“What does it say?” Michael said.

“Just letting me know he was safe, and what happened at the battle. He’s concerned for you.”

“He has strange ways of showing it.”

“He is, you know,” Julia said looking up.

“I didn’t mean that sarcastically.”

Julia nodded. “Do you have time for me to write a return letter?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Good. Make sure you tell him about your concerns.”

“I don’t see how I could avoid telling him,” Michael said.

Michael waited as she wrote the letter, watching her hands working the pen and wondering… she looked up at him and smiled, and he returned it. When she had finished, she sealed it with wax. Michael stood up as she walked back to him.

“Here,” she said, and put a hand lightly on his arm. He took the letter and tucked it into his jacket pocket. She ran her fingers down to his hands and held them. “Please take care of yourself, Michael.” She ran her thumbs over his knuckles and gazed up at him.

“I will,” Michael said. “I can’t stay longer.”

He cleared his throat, released her hands and walked to the door.

“Take care,” she said again.

Michael nodded to her and walked out the door.

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.

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