“Proof even a fool can do something right,” King Edward said as they trotted back to camp. “Your outburst might have put a seal on this ceding of territory.”
“What?” Michael said. “You’re not seriously considering having Johan marry that woman, are you?”
The king chuckled. “He would, if I said so, for I am his king, and we would still gain a kingdom. As consort he would have the real power anyway, being a man and a military leader.” He looked to Johan. “Sounds interesting, eh?”
“What about Julia?” Michael said.
“Michael,” Johan said merrily. “Julia and her father would understand. There would still be one prince to marry her to anyway!”
“What?” Michael said again he felt his face prickle with sweat at the thought of Julia.
“I think he’s gone deaf, father,” Johan said with a chuckle.
“Good. Maybe he’ll go mute as well,” the king said. “I’m kidding, my boy. This is a good lesson in negotiation, which you must learn, if you can keep yourself under control enough to learn it. By letting the queen know, accidently, I might add, that Johan was engaged, we enhanced his value. We can make a show of letting him go, demand some more territory or gold, and we either get more than we originally thought possible, or we persuade her to marry you instead, since you’re cheaper.”
“I think it would be great for you, actually,” Johan said. “She would lay that temper of yours low.”
“Oh, I do look forward to tomorrow,” the king said. “Shall I arrange a meeting with the queen, just for you, Johan?”
“Not a bad idea,” Johan said. “Yes, let’s do it. We can have Michael unexpectedly drop in.”
“I won’t do it,” Michael said.
“I am your king and you will obey me,” the king said. The turned as they got closer to the camp, toward where the king’s tent stood. “Where is that layabout Towler? We were lucky that we didn’t need him.”
“You were lucky he wasn’t there,” Michael said. “I have reason to believe he is a traitor, and betrayed us at the last battle.”
“Not this foolishness,” Johan said. “First I hear it from your officers after you left – I had to discharge fully half of those in command – and now you’re repeating it. There is no traitor in our house.”
“Did you have something to do with Towler not showing up?” the king said. “Did you?”
“No,” Michael said. “I came to… to deal with him if he did show up.”
“I say again we were lucky,” Johan said. “Alanrae dealt in real faith.”
“I don’t understand,” Michael said.
“Of course not,” said the king. “Alanrae is a mage, or have you not heard? We needed Towler there in case she tried to burn us to bits. He would have countered it and protected us. And he’s no traitor. I trust him with my life. In fact, I have have.”
“It is good that you do not have to,” Michael said.
“Enough,” Edward said. “Now head back to your own station. You’re a civilian and I don’t want you fraternizing with my army.”
“I’d say towler was positively jinxed, if we hadn’t been the ones jinxing him,” Guissali said, stirring the pot of stew over the magical blue fire. “He must have burned down half the camp in a fit of rage.”
Michael blew out a smoke ring as he reclined against his saddle. “Well, the negotiations went well enough, but of course with the traitor absent, and no opportunity to expose the treason, my father is as confident as ever in the stalwart loyalty of his mage-general.”
“Well, that’s to be expected,” Angelico said. He was sitting on a rock near the fire, running a whetstone along his spear blade, trying to catch it in the firelight. “At least until we can actually present evidence.”
“The battle ought to have been evidence enough,” Michael said.
“Your father likely wants something more concrete than circumstantial evidence, sire,” Angelico said. “If we could find a letter, or at least a legitimate witness to his treachery, we could make a case.”
“Logically, Angelico, it has to be him.”
“Not everyone acts logically, my lord,” Guissali said. “Or have you never seen a man in love?”
“Not you too, Gui,” Michael said.
“Just trying to provide adequate counsel in addition to a hot meal, my lord,” Guissali said.
“What think you, Sharona?” Michael said. “You’ve been quiet over there.”
Sharona’s back was to the fire, her eyes on the city. She smoked slowly the pipe Michael had given her. “I don’t think outloud, unlike some people.”
“Come on,” Michael said.
“I shouldn’t have left your side,” she said, standing up and brushing herself off. She came and plopped down by the fire. “I should have thought about Alanrae being a mage. Had a been with you, I could have disrupted her magic.”
“She didn’t use any magic,” Michael said.
“Are you sure? There are many kinds of magic, Michael, and not all of them are visible and apparent to an untrained observer. She could have turned your water to poison, or…”
“But she didn’t do that,” Michael said.
“Or caused you to go mad, or see things that weren’t there. I almost failed my purpose with my…”
“By doing what you wanted me to do, rather than what you needed me to do,” Sharona said with a sigh.
“That’s a woman speaking if I’ve ever heard one,” Guissali said with a chuckle. “And sire, don’t you go thinking that’s always a bad thing. If my wife had baked me pies and cakes, like I’d wanted, why, I’d be too fat to breathe now.”
“Instead of merely too fat to fight?” Angelico said, winking at Guissali.
“You want a go, pretty boy?” Guissali said. “Yours wouldn’t be the first face I’ve rearranged.”
“Easy,” Angelico said. “I was just teasing you.”
“I know. Otherwise I’d have already stomped you into the ground,” Guissali said, dishing out some of the stew into a bowl and handing it to Sharona.
“You serving her instead of the prince first? No wonder you’re still stuck on guard duty.”
“Ladies always get served first, you cur,” Guissali said. He dished out another bowl and handed it to Michael.
“Finally, someone with a sense of manners,” Sharona said.
“Manners?” Angelico said, sitting up. “He called me a cur and threatened to stomp my face in.”
“Well, he didn’t stomp your face in, did he? And you deserved it, calling him fat.”
Angelico waved his hand in front of his face. “So sir, what were the results of the negotiations so far?”
“They proceeded extremely quickly,” Michael said. “Almost as if the the deal was already worked out ahead of time. In fact, the queen wrote the details down of where we arrived while my father was still making his first set of demands.”
“And you doubt magic was at play?” Sharona said.
“I’m sure it was just experienced political playing,” Michael said. “We demanded loads of gold. They didn’t have loads of gold, hence why their debt to us hasn’t been serviced, so Artalland gets some territory instead. The odd thing, though…” Michael took a puff of his pipe and shook his head. “Probably nothing.”
“What?” Angelico said.
Michael cocked his head. “She demanded as a peace assurance a spouse from our household for her and for one of her cousins.”
“Really?” Angelico said. “Odd.”
“That’s not odd. Been done loads of times,” Guissali said. “King wins a war and gets the princess for his wife or his son’s wife. That way you conquer the kingdom, in a way, through blood. Most of the royal families of the Divine strand are quite related at this point.”
“Yes, but have you heard of the losing side getting a man as a spouse?”
Guissali chuckled. “Well they have got a queen. Natural to reverse the roles, I suppose.”
Angelico snapped his fingers. “Wait, did they mean the royal household proper, not just an extended relation? They gonna marry you off, sir?”
“Possibly,” Michael said. “The queen seemed much more interested in Johan, to be honest. But he’s already engaged to Lady Julia.”
“Engagements aren’t marriage, sir,” Angelico said.
“She said the same thing,” Michael said. “I think they’ll have a chaperoned meeting, just the two of them, tomorrow.”
“That’ll be two things to keep Towler away from,” Angelico said. He laughed. “Ah, but we might be celebrating a marriage of my esteemed commander to no less than a queen.”
“Was she pretty?” Guissali said.
Michael smiled. “She was gorgeous, Gui. Everything a young queen ought to be, and more.”
Angelico laughed. “What happens if your brother marries her? How will that work?”
“I’ll become king,” Michael said.
“So all and all, the day worked out quite well, eh?”
“Yes, but tomorrow will reveal the finality of that,” Michael said. He looked around. “Where did Sharona go?”
“Must have gone off to relieve young Langelo,” Guissali said. “Funny after that talk about not leaving you be.”
“Let’s enjoy it,” Angelico said. “I appreciate her skills, but… ah, you understand, don’t you sire.”
Michael frowned for a moment, thinking of what the mage had said. “I do.”
“Women be fickle, sire,” Guissali said.
“Where did you find this woman?” Michael whispered. He was kneeling in the mub behind a pile of straw, with two mares casually chewing bits of it, obscuring the view of the mess as they walked back and forth. Between the legs of the wandering equines he caught solid views of a beautiful young woman with bright blonde hair and the pale skin of the Petty Kingdoms as she sat at a table, working with apparent frustration at a puzzlebox. Her dress was perfectly tailored to her slim frame, and had frills of lace and embroidery that spoke to at least a daughter of the bourgoise.
“Among the camp followers,” Angelico said. “Apparently a favorite of a few officers, though of course none of them seemed to know she was… involved with the others.”
“Interesting. She doesn’t look much like a prostitute. Far too well-dressed. Far too pretty, and mannered. Innocent, even.”
“That’s the poison there, sir.”
“She’s not really selling herself,” Sharona said.
“The men seem to think she isn’t, but their empty purses disagree,” Angelico said.
“Oh she’ll take their money, but she’s not selling her body, really,” Sharona said flatly. “She sells a man the idea that she finds him interesting and attractive.”
They watched as Towler, looking grumpier than the previous day (if that was possible), walked past the young woman and toward the cook. After being delivered a bowl, he turned around and began walking, blowing the steam off of his meal.
They all watched as a stick appeared from under a table and tripped Towler, sending his meal flying into the air and creating a shower of broth and meat – much of which landed on the young woman. Cursing, Towler rolled over, clearly ready to smite whomever had tripped him, but paused as the blonde woman bent over him, rubbing his head and trying to help him up. Within moments the woman had sat him down on a nearby bench and worked with a towel at drying him off.
“Oy, he’s even smiling,” Angelico whispered.
“What did I tell you?” Sharona said.
“Let’s see if we can sneak off to his tent,” Michael said.
Sharona nodded and followed him down the dusty lane.
Sharona lit the interior of Towler’s tent with a magic fire of blue inside the mage’s lamp. Hurriedly, they went through the mage’s effects. Letters were scattered all over a portable secretaire, but quick scans indicated nothing odd at play. His inkwell was dry, and he had apparently written nothing in some time.
“Over here, a chest,” Michael said, pushing some papers off to get a closer look. Sharona followed him over and quickly looked it over.
“I didn’t figure he’d have something this mundane,” she said. She ran her hands over the top of it, then stood up. “Stand back.”
Michael nodded and stood up. With a flick of her hand, the top of the chest burst apart. Flaming bits of wood flew everywhere. Little flames hopped up here and there on letters and carpets. Michael hurriedly tried to stamp these out, while Sharona threw open the chest to examine the contents.
“Dreamer!” She said, coughing. “He’s planted a skunk smell in here, or something. There’s nothing inside but dead beatles.”
“Rats,” Michael said.
“No, beatles!” Sharona said. “Filthy little crawlies. Luckily, it looks like I killed them all.”
“Nevermind. Wait! What is that?”
Sharona froze for a moment and listened. She heard the voice of Towler, laughing along with a female voice, getting louder and nearer.
“What do we do?” Michael said.
“Stand still. Right there,” Sharona said. She held her hands forward, her fingers pointing at the ceiling. She closed her eyes and began mumbling something. She turned in a circle. With a rush of air, the bits of battered chest and the letters on top of it flew back into the position they were just in.
Wide-eyed, Michael pointed to the bed. Sharona nodded and dove under, followed by Michael, who had to squeeze close against her to fit under the bed and keep his boots from sticking out. Just then, the tent flap rose and Towler entered, followed by a woman with a shapely pair of ankles and simple shoes.
“What a whore,” Sharona whispered.
“I’ll say,” Michael whispered back, just as the mattress began to sag.
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.