Cage of Gold: Chapter 4
Chapter 4: All Battles Have Sides
Astral, Capitol City of Everand, The Royal Palace…
Derfel walked the Palace halls between training sessions. Outside, the weather had grown as hot as it ever did, even in the height of the summer heat, which meant it was warm, but not unbearable. Astral was too far north and mostly mountainous, which made the summers pleasantly warm and the winters bitingly cold with plentiful snowfall.
The landed courtiers scattered to their holdings at the beginning of the Hot Season to oversee everything through the Hot and Cooling Seasons. It would be the second or third week of the Cooling Season before they began returning. The courtiers with more mountainous holdings either mined or raised mountain goats and sheep. There were holdings that encompassed valleys and a few plains, which grew the crops for Astral, but they were not as numerous. Lords with those holdings were always the first to leave court and the last to return, as everyone knew how much depended on what they could grow. For the most part, Astral traded what was mined for food and other essentials that they could not produce enough of themselves.
For now, he would begin with the few courtiers who remained in the city during the Hot Season. Most everything else would have to wait until the bulk of the courtiers began returning. Fortunately, patience was one of his virtues, and he had cultivated it over most of the years in his young life. It would serve him well in the coming seasons.
The first two courtiers he would have to get to would be his cousins, Duke Tarik and Duchess Zafrira. They had already left for their separate holdings and as a consequence he would have to wait until they returned to talk to them. Derfel knew he could convince them to help. He had done a good amount of digging to find out what exactly had happened to his uncle, their father, King Hathar, and his queen in the alleged accident.
As soon as he had found out the truth and begun watching his cousins, he had noticed the brief looks of hatred thrown the King’s way and the tiny slights they gave their uncle when they could get away with it. Once he started seeing those, he knew he would have those two as allies.
Derfel paused at one of the windows that looked down on the city, running his eyes over the mansions that were visible. Some of the courtiers, of course, were not landed or stayed in the capitol all year round. One such man was Lord Herz, Duke of Bellham. The Duke was getting on in years and rather than traveling back and forth between Bellham and Everand, he chose to stay in the capitol. He had no family to return to and fair retainers on staff to manage the day-to-day activities of his Dukedom. Every few years he would take a month or so to visit Bellham and make sure things were still in satisfactory order, but this year was not one of those.
Perhaps the new Commander Prince should call upon the faithful old man-at-arms. With a small nod to himself, Derfel moved on.
Herz, Duke of Bellham, had been utterly baffled by the summons. What the fourteen-year old prince could possibly want with an old Duke, Herz had no notion. Then again, he mused to himself, it was impossible to know what was going on in Prince Derfel’s mind. He had never met a child who made him so uneasy as the Prince, with his emotionless face, did. It was not right, the Duke concluded to himself as he made his way up another flight of steps with no small effort. It was simply wrong that a child, barely even a teenager and not yet a man, should never smile or laugh.
The Duke paused at the top of the landing, puffing hard, and tried to catch his breath. He was no longer a young man, or even a man in his late prime. Herz had seen over five decades in the world and his cropped salt-and-pepper hair never let him forget it. As a younger man, he had been fond of the dressing as dandily as he could, but somewhere early in his fourth decade it had simply become too much hassle. These days, unless it was a formal occasion, he wore simple tunics and britches in neutral tones. Today he wore all browns; brown boots, brown britches, brown tunic.
Once he was breathing normally again, the Duke continued on. Age had brought weight as well and his rotund belly did not need to be draped in bright colors that would make it stand out even more. Thank the Creator that had been the last flight of stairs he would need to climb. His girth had brought on a dislike of stairs and that, among other reasons, had led to only the lower floor of his mansion actually being used these days.
The guards outside Prince Derfel’s doors were obviously expecting him. One held up a hand to pause him as the other let himself into the Prince’s rooms to announce him. A moment later, Derfel’s Steward, Mamun, exited with the first guard in his wake.
Mamun was a reedy man, who was all angles and bones. He stood a head taller than Herz, who was no short man, but only had a quarter of his width. He wore the white uniform of the house staff with a gold band around his upper left arm to denote his position. His blonde hair was tied back off his face and he had a light, well-trimmed beard lining his jaw.
The Steward bowed to the Duke.
“Duke Herz, if you would follow me.”
The two guards opened the doors and Herz followed Mamun into a sitting room decorated in shades of blue and beige. That surprised Herz, as he realized that he had expected the Prince’s rooms to be decorated in the colors of the Royal Family. Herz decided he liked this much better. There was a dark wood table with matching chairs, as well as a brown couch and two plush chairs of the same color with blue cushions. Beige carpets were strewn everywhere, hiding most of the cold gray stone beneath. Blue curtains were drawn back from the windows, showing a sweeping view of the city below them.
A door on the other side of the room opened to admit the solemn-faced young prince. He was wearing a leather tunic and gray woolen britches, similar to what the guards wore, but of finer make, with supple leather boots.
Herz bowed and Derfel acknowledged him with a nod.
“Duke Herz,” the young man intoned. “Thank you for making time for me.”
“Of course, your highness,” the elder replied, righting himself. “Though I will admit, it was quite a surprise to receive your summons.”
Derfel motioned to the table.
“Please, be seated.”
Herz gratefully complied and the Prince settled himself on the opposite side as a pretty serving girl came in bearing a tray with coffee, cream, ice, and cups.
“Do you prefer your coffee iced or not?” asked the Prince as the girl set the tray down.
“In this weather, always iced,” Herz said with a small smile at the girl, who nodded and began mixing.
“Do you take cream, my lord?” the girl asked softly.
“Black as night, child.”
The girl’s movements were efficient, and she had no need to ask how the Prince wanted his coffee, which was iced and black as well. She gave them their drinks, but as she went to pick up the tray, the Prince stopped her.
“Leave the tray, Eseld.”
“Of course, my Prince,” she replied with a graceful curtsy.
She turned and disappeared as the Duke picked up his cup and sipped, settling back into his chair while Prince Derfel did the same.
“Now then, your highness,” Herz began. “If I may be so bold, what is it that you wished to see me about?”
“Direct and to the point,” Derfel said, almost to himself.
“Or very curious.”
Derfel gave a nod to concede the point and then watched him for a long moment as he took another sip of his coffee.
“I am curious as well, Duke Herz,” he said finally. “You were one of King Hathar’s closest advisors and friends. In fact, you are the only one left alive, as I understand it.”
The Duke blinked twice at the young man before him.
“Yes,” he said in a slow, neutral tone.
“Several of those who died first were rather vocal about either their dislike of my father or their suspicions about Hathar’s death,” the Prince continued, voice ever even. “They all, in one way or another, have died. Except for you. You have kept your head down and out of sight since the change of rule. Why?”
“I am a loyal servant to my country,” the Duke said, evading the question as he took another sip.
Derfel’s eyes bored into him.
“That is not an answer to my question, Duke Herz,” he said after a moment. “But, it is an answer.”
Herz’s brow furrowed.
“Tell me, Herz,” the Prince said, leaning back from the table. “You say you are a loyal servant to your country, rather than to the Crown or the Royal Family. Does that mean your personal loyalties are currently unclaimed?”
The Duke’s eyes narrowed, wary.
“I am curious, your highness, why you desire to know.”
“Because, I would claim them.”
Herz blinked at the young Prince before him, surprised. This child wanted his loyalty? Why? What was the purpose of bringing up King Hathar? Herz was not a stupid man. He knew as soon as Maelgad had taken the throne that protesters would be silenced. He knew far more about Maelgad than Hathar had ever been willing to believe and Herz had seen no reason to get himself murdered as well for no reason. What was this prince getting at?
“To what end, your highness?” the Duke asked finally. “I am an old man, of little use to anyone now.”
“I would have your experience, intelligence, and influence behind me as I seek my end goals,” the Prince replied, more plainly than Herz had expected.
“What are your goals, your highness?”
Derfel watched him for a long moment until the Duke began to get uncomfortable. Then, the young man spoke, in a very low voice, and Herz almost could not believe his ears.
“I plan to dethrone the King.”
Herz choked and tired his best not to spray coffee across the table and Prince. Instead, he swallowed and coughed and pounded his chest with a fist as Derfel picked up a napkin from the tray and handed it to him, as calmly as ever. Once the Duke had cleared his lungs of the coffee, he took a deep breath and released it slowly, looking up at the Prince once more.
“I am sorry, your highness, I do not believe I heard you correctly.”
“Yes you did,” Derfel said blandly, voice still low. “I plan to dethrone the King.”
“You would rise against your own father?” hissed Herz, eyes wide as he leaned forward.
The Prince was unfazed.
“It was he who betrayed the trust of family first, Duke Herz,” he replied. “By banishing my brother and disowning him for something he did not do, he betrayed not only his son, but the rightful, God-Chosen King. That cannot be stood for. My father never should have been given the throne, but I had hope for when Fidelis would ascend. Now that my brother is gone, the only hope we have left is secrecy and surprise force.”
The Duke’s eyes were as big as saucers now.
“Your highness,” he whispered. “Surely you cannot mean to-“
“Yes, I do,” was the simple reply. “I mean to start a revolution.”
“You mean to take the crown for yourself then?” the Duke asked, astonished.
He had never considered that the Prince might be so ambitious, but before his mind could fly any further, Derfel was waving a dismissive hand.
“Hardly. I have no wish to rule. I plan to put the rightful King on the throne.”
Herz shook his head.
“Fidelis is gone to no one knows where.”
“I know where.”
The Duke sat back, his disbelief evident.
“Yes and when we are ready, I have someone to bring him back. He will be the spearhead of this revolution. The people have always loved him and he is God-Chosen. I will see him on the throne if it is the last thing I do.”
Herz’s eyebrows shot up. He believed, without a doubt, that Prince Derfel would do just that.
“What will you do if I go to the King with this?” he asked.
“Claim that I was attempting to root out a traitor in my father’s court,” Derfel said, nonplused. “The fact that you are turning me in proves how loyal you really are to the King.”
“Will the King not suspect you?”
“He suspects nothing as of yet,” the prince said. “He believes me to be a loyal child who would never dream of betraying him.”
“How little he knows,” Herz said softly with a shake of his head. Then he sighed. “Your highness, I have kept my life by not getting involved in such matters as this. What makes you believe that I will help you now, after all these years when I could have spoke up but have not?”
“Because this is the first time that a rebellion will be organized. You do not like what is going on any more than myself or the people do. Those who spoke up before were not united and were easily cut down. We will not be so.”
Herz shook his head.
“I do not think I can join you, your highness. It is too great a risk.”
“There is no great reward without great risk,” the Prince countered.
The Duke shook his head again.
“Your highness, I am an old man now. I do not desire fighting and revolution. I desire peace and comfort.”
Prince Derfel’s emotionless gaze bored into him for several long moments as the silence mounted. Herz shifted uncomfortably.
“Very well, Duke Herz,” the Prince said finally. “Think on this, though; the comfort you so desire is this very moment being achieved through the gross mistreatment and taxation of the other classes. Can you truly live with yourself, knowing that every sip of coffee you take means another poor child in the lower Ring will not be eating tonight? Can you stand knowing that every time you leave the table overfull and well satisfied, half the souls in this city go to sleep hungry and unsure if they will eat tomorrow? Can you enjoy the luxuries of your life knowing that every citizen below the Third Ring is lucky if they simply have a roof over their heads when the snows come?”
Derfel’s gaze did not waver as the Duke scowled at him, his discomfort worse than ever. Smoothly, the Prince stood, and Herz hastily scrambled to do the same, feeling the younger man’s ever steady eyes on him.
“I would ask that you do not speak of this meeting to anyone, Duke Herz. You may see yourself out.”
With that, the young prince turned on his heel and disappeared further into his rooms, the door closing behind him with finality. Herz turned and left by the door he had come through, their cold coffee sitting abandoned, and he felt it taunting him as the Prince’s questions rang again and again in his mind.
Crown Prince Cynfael stood on his balcony overlooking the city, a cold glass of creamed coffee in his hand. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining and not yet so warm as to be uncomfortable combined with the light breeze that swept over Everand.
He wore a light tunic of green today, trimmed in gold to match the circlet on his brow. The soft leather boots on his feet made no noise as he walked leisurely from the balcony to his sitting room, where a middle-aged man waited.
The man was Mage Uthon, Prince Derfel’s personal Mage. He was on the pudgy side, as though he always ate one too many desserts at evening meal and had a full beard and hair he kept braided, which Cynfael had always secretly believed marked a vain man. He wore a simple tunic and britches, as all those in the Royal Family’s personal Guard did, but Uthon had added a belt of braided gold and leather as well as a gold chain around his neck. Yes, Cynfael decided, this Mage was most certainly a vain man. His slightly too-close together eyes watched the Crown Prince with a hunger Cynfael knew well. This man expected a reward from him and that meant he must have something very interesting indeed to tell his Prince.
Cynfael sat in an overstuffed purple chair, lounging languidly as he watched the Mage over the rim of his glass. He waited several long minutes until the man began shifting nervously before he spoke.
“What is it then?” he asked, sounding bored.
“My Prince,” Uthon said with a bow. “I wish to report a strange meeting.”
Cynfael raised an eyebrow at the use of ‘my prince’. Usually the term was reserved for the Prince to whom they were sworn.
“A meeting between who?” the Crown Prince asked, still affecting boredom.
“Between your brother, Prince Derfel, and Duke Herz of Bellham.”
Though he took a casual sip of his coffee, his mind was racing. Why bring him news of this? Yes, Derfel meeting with the old Duke was indeed odd, but not so odd that a Mage should feel the need to report anything to anyone, much less the Crown Prince.
“Why bring this to me?” Cynfael asked, watching Uthon closely.
“My Prince, I believe your brother has desires against the Crown.”
The Prince looked sharply at the Mage.
“What proof do you have of this?” he demanded, sitting up and sliding to the edge of the chair.
Uthon cringed slightly, rubbing his hands together nervously.
“I… I have no proof, only my suspicions. I believe he has been plotting against yourself and the King for some time now.”
“Everyone in Court is plotting one thing or another,” Cynfael snapped, coming to his feet. “What makes you thing my loyal little brother would plan to take my crown? He has never shown the slightest ambition.”
Mage Uthon fell to his knees, fearful of the sudden wrath in the Crown Prince’s eyes, and raised his hands in supplication.
“My Prince, please!” he begged, keeping his eyes downcast. “I know it was dangerous to come to you with no proof, but I felt it was my duty to warn you of the danger you may be in. I am one of Prince Derfel’s Guard. We are with him all the time and he has been acting strangely for many months now. Give me time and I will bring you proof. I swear it!”
Cynfael stared down at the Mage, glaring. Then he reached forward and dragged the man up by his collar.
“Bring me proof or do not come to me again,” he hissed.
Releasing the man abruptly, the Mage stumbled back and lost his footing.
“Get out of my sight.”
The Mage scrambled ungracefully to his feet and backed out of the room, bowing. Cynfael stared after him, no longer seeing him. Derfel, traitorous? He would not have suspected it, but, despite what he may tell an underling, Cynfael would not put it past his devious little brother to try to take his crown.
Perhaps it was time that he look to eliminating his competition after all.
A/N: I've been going back and reworking a lot of this story and I can't decide how I feel about this chapter exactly. Does it intrigue? Does it help build the story? Or am I just boring everyone? Please let me know. I always appreciate constructive criticism. :)