Needle Ash – Chapter 7, “Knives of Darkness” part 1

Chapter 7: Knives of Darkness

 

Sharona pushed herself closer to Michael as the center of the mattress sagged on its tired ropes, threatening to smother her. Their faces were so close that they could no longer see each other as more than a blur. The muffled sounds of passions pressed just as hard as the mattress, and Michael had to give out a whispered groan.

Sharona breathed in Michael’s ear, “This is what you intended, was it not?”

“I didn’t expect it to go so quickly.”

“She’s apparently very good at her work.”

“That remains to be seen… or heard.”

Sharona pulled one of her hands forward of her face, pointing underneath the secretaire. Secreted under the folding chair was a small, featureless box, made of a substance that looked like paper.

“A wizard’s box,” Sharona said.

“Can we reach it?” Michael said.

“If we wait till these two leave.”

“That won’t happen any time soon.”

Sharona scowled. “Should have looked for something like this earlier. Maybe I can reach-” She scooted herself forward, trying to inch toward the underside of the secretaire.

A dress fell on Sharona, covering her arm and face. Carefully, she slipped back under the bed, leaving the dress where it was. More clothes fell down into the pile. A minute or so later, the sounds above shifted to a more heated rhythm. Two pale, hairy legs dropped in front of Michael’s face.

Sharona reached and touched Michael’s face, and back toward their feet. Michael nodded and they pushed themselves backward, out of the bed. When their heads exited the dank underside of the mage’s bed, the sounds of passion, both sincere and false, became uncomfortably clear. Not daring to sit up, Michael and Sharona crawled to the edge of the tent and felt for a loose place. Michael glanced back and saw the woman’s blonde hair shaking as he moaned and shouted.

Towler’s face was concealed, and he gave no indication he detected them. Sharona gestured to Michael, and he wriggled over the dirt and edge of the carpet, under the flap, and into the midday sun. Sharona soon appeared beside him, dusting off her dress.

“That was close,” Michael said softly. “Let’s get out of here.” He grabbed her hand and led her away, down a row of tents and away from the hill that housed most of the high commanders.

“Certainly closer than I prefer to be to… that.”

“What was that little paper box?” Michael said.

“A wizard’s box,” Sharona said breathlessly. “It’s an elvish device, used to house secrets. It’s easily destroyed, and when it breaks, everything inside breaks as well. It’s a tricky thing, but I’ve seen it before.”

“You think we would find evidence inside?”

“You assume there is any to find,” Sharona said. “It could be full of old love letters. But it also might prove very difficult to break into the box.”

“Why? It’s made of paper.”

“Please listen, Michael. If the box destroyed, so will its contents be. The box is made of paper that Towler has linked to paper within. Just like me breaking a bone. Maybe if we retrieved it, I could break the links within… but maybe not. And if he notices it gone, he may decide it should burst into flame.”

“I’ll be damned if it doesn’t pique my curiosity,” Michael said. “Almost to the point where I’d let Towler follow Johan around, just to get in there and have a peek.”

“Is that what he was supposed to be doing?”

“He was supposed to be watching over Johan during his meeting with Queen Alanrae. A bit of a chaperone, I suppose, but more likely what my father said, to counter her magic.”

“Who is protecting him now?”

Micheal scratched at his beard. “Not sure. Probably another mage. But she didn’t use any magic last night-”

“You don’t know that. We should find them and make sure.”

“I’m more concerned with keeping Towler occupied.”

Sharona groaned. “He’s occupied. The woman will keep him occupied as long as she feels she wants to, I’m sure.”

“Well, we threw plenty of money at her. Maybe you’re right. I think Johan and Alanrae were meeting at a grove up by the river, if Angelico heard correctly. We’ll need our horses.”

 

Sharona pulled up on Rabble-Rouser’s reigns, stopping him well before Michael allowed his own destrier to slow. Two knights stood a few spans away from each other on the plain. The grove of Willows, a sacred site to the people of Ferralla, stood some fifty yards beyond. The knights, bearing the purple tabard of Johan’s legion, each held a crossbow, with a tall lance fitted upright in the saddle.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Michael said, pulling up short.

“Nobody is admitted to yonder meeting,” said one of the knights, a middle-aged man Michael did not recognize.

“I am a prince of Artalland!” Michael said.

“I am sorry, your highness,” said the knight. “But my orders are what they are, and you no longer have command over us.”

“It’s important.”

“Then you can fetch the king, your highness. Until then, we stand for the crown prince.”

Michael growled and pulled Calot around, back to where Sharona still sat, patting the neck of her nervous horse.

“Do you really think they’d shoot you?” Sharona said. “You are the prince, after all.”

“I don’t know what to think. Something’s afoot.”

“I can do something about those men, if you feel it necessary,” Sharona said. “Nothing too permanent.” She shook a bag hanging at her hip.

Michael took a breath. “No. I’m not going to harm good soldiers simply because they are in my way at the moment. We’ll – I’ll – go find my father. It’s best he not see you. Sorry.”

Sharona gave him a half smile. “I understand.”

*

The king looked at himself in the mirror, cracked somewhere along the long and bloody road from the Citadel of Artifia. He checked his beard and ran a hand through his hair, then checked the fit of jacket.

“This is all part of the game and the plan, Michael,” he said as a servant polished his boots below him. “You need to pay attention, and stop second-guessing me. You will soon be consort of a queen.”

“Then why are you allowing Alanrae to meet with Johan?” Michael said, checking his own boots, which were scuffed and muddy, along with his leggins.

“To make you seem like a compromise, of course.”

Michael cracked his knuckles. “You intend to get rid of me. First, my command, now my place as a prince in Artalland.”

Edward looked over at him, his eyes open wide. He looked back at himself in the mirror. “Yes, that is what I intend.”

“Why, father?” Michael said, his voice impassive.

“You leave much to be desired in a king’s son.”

It was an odd feeling to hear his father speak plainly, a kind of sick relief, for Michael had always felt his father had been disappointed in him and favored Johan.

“What have I done to fail you?”

“Many things,” the king said. “You are impatient and ambitious. You’re an excellent battlefield commander, your men love you, but these things do not make for a ruler. You have never been willing to be patient or to make the trades necessary to allow a fief or kingdom to endure. Frankly, you are a liability at court. You think not at all of your words or what they might mean. Many times I have had to play politics to protect you and our house. I imagine you have no idea how many men have wanted to duel you.”

“I have always done what is right, and spoken the truth as I see it,” Michael said calmly.

“Right is relative, my son. The dictates of the gods are for peasants and their need to be controlled, not for a ruler. The truth… you avoid the truth just as much as the rest of us, but you choose to believe the lie – that is the differences between you and Johan.”

The king turned to him, his face calm. “I bring these imperfections to your attention often, perhaps too gently because of my love for you. I bring them now for the same reason, that you may improve them, but I know now, and this is the truth, that some things are part of the nature of a man, and cannot be changed. Forever he will be pretending, if he acts other than his nature. For this reason I choose to remove you, to protect our family, but know that I love you, Michael. You will never be king, but I do love you.”

The king sighed and put his arms on Michael’s shoulders. “That is why I will send you not into exile, but into comfort and power, with a beautiful woman. What man could say I do not love my son, given what awaits him?”

“I could,” Michael said.

“And there the truth fails you yet again, my son. Now, it is time. Let us create the finality of this war, and celebrate it.”

 

Michael walked to the left of his father between the assembled and armed ranks of the army, determined to match the old man’s impassive forward-facing stare. Things were at least laid bare, and whether his subterfuge against Towler had prevented anything or not, there was a truth looming that soon it would no longer be an obligation on his honor. He would depart the House of Harthino, if things went according to his father’s plan, and he could not see now how they would not, unless they were thwarted at the last by Towler.

Perhaps I should trust my father more. He has probably considered all of this, he thought to himself, as they walked through the rows of men standing at attention, their armor burnished and shining orange in the fiery sunset. Their faces were clean and hard, their eyes the only thing that moved, watching him and his father and brother walk as kings and princes, arrayed in gold and blue silk.

The meeting place waited beyond the legions, a wide stretch of grass, now missing its tall tent and holding at its center a single wooden table flanked by priests – two from the cult of Artifia, dressed in clean linen, two from the cult of Ferral, wearing black leather. Far on the other side stood the iron gates and the wall of Forgoroto. Before it was arrayed two legions of Ferrallese warriors of various function, with the archer corps lining the parapets of the walls in full armor.

“I should say something more to each of you,” King Edward said, as they passed through the last ranks of soldiers: knights and cavalry officers with their lances raised and meeting high above, forming a tunnel of waving flags and painted oak.

“Yes father?” Johan said, from the King’s right-hand side.

“I owe thanks to each of you for this victory. Your command of your soldiers in battle has grown in the campaign, and here we reap what was sown in blood. You too, Michael,” the king said, turning to look at his younger son. “This victory is as much yours as anyone’s, though I was forced to bring judgment upon you. I regret that I will be giving the best cavalry officer in a generation to my enemies. May you turn your tact to other borders.”

“I am still of the House of Harthino,” Michael said. “Wherever you send me, you cannot take away my true name. That should be enough to satisfy you, father.”

Edward nodded. They walked on in silence for a few minutes, the yards from their lines growing until the men looked like an indistinct mass of spears and shields. They approached the table, which was simple and rugged, at the same time as Alanrae and her cousins from the other side. All of them paused, and the king and queen approached the table alone.

Edward held forth a scroll and Alanrae took it. She read it over.

“Which one shall be consort?” she asked.

“Michael, the younger,” Edward replied.

“He was well spoken of by the crown prince. A man of courage and loyalty. He will make a noble consort and father. And we shall keep the east end of Pious’s Fall.”

“So let it be written.”

Alanrae took a pen from one of the clerics in black leather, wrote upon the scroll, and signed her name. She handed the pen to Edward, who signed as well.

“Peace now lays between us,” Alanrae said. She looked to Michael and smiled, and Michael saw that she was indeed beautiful.

Slowly, they all turned to leave the table, and a great roar went up from both encampments.

Michael took a deep, cleansing breath. The war was at last over.

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