Cage of Gold: Chapter 5
Chapter 5: Noble Betrayal
Hot Season, Second week, Fourth day of Zeno, 3104 A. F.
In the Thirteenth year of Maelgad the Tyrant’s Reign
Astral, Capitol City of Everand, the Palace…
King Maelgad, who hailed himself as ‘the Majestic’, sat in council with his favorite advisors. His personal Mage, Yark, sat to his left. Yark was an ambitious man in his mid forties with a very unfashionable goatee instead of a beard and he let his hair grow long enough to plait back in a short braid. He always dressed in the bright colors and fashions of a man twenty years his junior, but no one would have dared to say so to his face because everyone at court knew he had the King’s ear.
Yark’s dark blue eyes watched the others at the table carefully, noting a distinct lack of the Generals, save for General Tarth, Marquess of Dorwall. Even more notable was the absence of the Commander Prince-to-be, and Yark could not help but wonder to himself if it was an intentional lack of invitation from the King or the Prince’s own choice that led him to not be there.
“Report,” ordered the King, motioning to Councilor Jard.
Jard was an old man, who had been on the council for the previous two Kings as well. Yark still could not figure out why exactly the King kept him on. He was so old it was a wonder he didn’t keel over any time he went to stand up.
The old councilor stood and began reading off the current trade numbers in his low, raspy voice, including taxes, docking fees, import and export ratios, and comparisons on the type of products they were exporting now verses six months ago. Yark did his best to suppress a sigh and focused on the tapestry behind the old man, which depicted the founding of Everand by the first Children of Air. He pulled his gaze back to Jard to keep from laughing at the ridiculousness of the superstitions of the Ancients.
Long minutes crept by as the old man finally made it to the end of his report and Yark would have thanked the Creator if he had believed in any such being. The next councilor took Jard’s place standing and attention turned to him instead. Four councilors later and Yark finally perked up as Councilor Alla stood and cleared her throat. The Mage appreciated Alla for her ruthlessness and the King did as well. She was the Councilor in charge of protecting the Crown by early detection of traitors and she did so, by any means necessary.
Yark sat back, hiding a smile. He was the one usually sent to take care of such people once they were detected and he was looking forward to having something to do. It had been rather dull of late.
“Your Majesty,” Alla began, her voice on the high side. “The following is a list of the commoners who have been stirring up the rabble of their towns to incite trouble and riots. With your approval, I will dispatch the list to the units stationed outside of Everand so that they might be dealt with accordingly.
“Hos, shoemaker of Glassmill, gave a rallying speech against the King on the fourth week eighth day of Rasaba which incited a riot in the market. Though the riot was swiftly quelled, it is recommended that Hos be hanged as an example to the people of Glassmill and the surrounding villages as this is the first such instance in the area.
“The seamstresses of Clearmont and their apprentices staged a walk out from the Collaborative his Majesty has set up to make the uniforms for his Majesty’s army in the first week first day of Zeno. They proceeded to file into the town center and refused to let any of his Majesties officials proceed with the tax collections on the goods being offered there. All were arrested and await his Majesty’s judgment. It is recommended that the Head Seamstress be tied to a stake in the town center and put to the lash until dead while the rest of the seamstresses and their apprentices watch. Following her death, they should all given forty-eight lashings, one for every person who participated. As this is the third such defiance in Clearmont, let it be known that this is their last warning. Immediate execution shall be enforced henceforth for any who defy the King or his officials.”
Yark could not help the smile creeping onto his face as the list lengthened. Foolish peasants, to believe they could defy a King without punishment. Alla reached the end of her list and paused before sighing in what was clearly meant to be disappointment.
“Finally, your Majesty, I regret to inform you that yesterday evening in the second week third day of Zeno, that letters of a traitorous nature were discovered, written by Vicount Kift of Aldkeep. My informants are still attempting to discover whom the letters were meant for, as they were not addressed by name, but the Viscount must be dealt with immediately. His punishment I would not think to advise, my King. That is something that should be left in his Lord’s hands alone.”
Alla sat and there was silence around the table. Yark gave the King a sidelong glance and saw that he as shaking with rage. He could not have cared any less about the commoners, but for a noble to betray him was unthinkable in his mind, the Mage knew. The punishment would not be light.
The Mage forced himself not to shift in his seat or tense up, as he knew the order was coming, but instead, he glanced away, back to the ridiculous tapestry.
“Mage Yark,” Maelgad growled, his anger clear in every line of his body.
“Yes, your Majesty?” the Mage replied, nonplused by the rage. After all, it was not directed at him.
“See to it that the Viscount will not be writing any such letters again.”
The Mage stood and bowed, fist to heart, as he hid a gleeful smile. Finally, something interesting to do.
The town residence of Bellham’s Duke…
Herz hated having his conscious pricked, especially by a boy who had yet to see two decades in the world. It rankled more than he liked. The Prince may not have called him coward to his face, but his talk of Herz’s lack of action certainly made the idea plain.
The Duke scowled out at his office, with the gold-framed paintings and lush chairs. There were heavy curtains of deep blue framing the windows and thick carpets of gray covering the floor. There were antiques set up in corners, including a bust of a former King of Astral. Was it the current King’s great-great-great grandfather King Lern, or his great-great-great-great-great grandfather King Pern? Or was that the other way around?
He shook his head. It didn’t matter and he knew that he was subconsciously trying to distract himself. The Duke stood and paced to one of the windows that overlooked the city and scowled down at it. He could not see anything below the Third Ring from here. It truly did make it easy to forget what the majority of the city really looked like.
He sighed heavily.
“Is something wrong, my Lord?”
Herz turned, not having realized that his housekeeper had entered the room. Melin was a woman perhaps a decade younger than himself, who was far too efficient of a housekeeper to be wasted on a house with only one resident. Herz had offered to give her a glowing recommendation if she ever chose to put her talents to better use, but she had replied by putting her hands on her hips, scowling fiercely, and saying “then who would be left to look after you, sir?” and he had let the matter drop. She was wearing a simple blue dress with a pristine apron tied around her generous hips, and always kept her hair tied back in a bun.
Now, her round face held quizzical concern and Herz couldn’t help himself as he sighed again. He turned restlessly away from the window and back to his desk.
“I am pondering my cowardice,” he replied, pausing by his desk but not sitting down.
"Whatever could you mean, my Lord?” Melin asked, now confused.
The Duke frowned at the desk for a moment before looking up at his housekeeper with a serious frown.
“Tell me truly, Melin,” he said. “How is your family doing?”
The housekeeper blinked at her employer in surprise. Not in all the twelve years she had worked for the Duke had he ever inquired about her family after the initial interview.
“I beg your pardon, my Lord?” she said, unsure of how exactly to handle him in such a mood, as she had never seen him with such a look on his face.
“I mean, how have the King’s taxes effected them? Are they much worse off than they had been? Are your neighbors? Are the extra forces in the streets making them feel safer or more frightened?”
Melin stood a little straighter in surprise, concern once more showing on her face.
“My Lord, what…”
“Please, Melin,” he said, turning fully to face her, earnestness suffusing every feature. “Tell me truly. I need to know.”
The housekeeper worried her hands a bit as she frowned.
“My Lord, if you’re asking like this then surely you must already know.”
“Tell me anyway,” the Duke insisted.
She pressed her lips together for a moment and then sighed.
“My family’s not so bad off as some, my Lord, because of me working for you, you see? We still have my salary, but Jell, my eldest, lost his job at the baker’s and his wife is expecting their second child soon. They’ve had to come live with me. Cella’s husband still has his job in the royal stables, but she was let go from the seamstress’s. They’re still managing to make ends meet somehow. Last I heard from Mev, she and her husband were having problems with their farm. Things don’t seem to want to grow right between the horrible storms some towns are being hit with and the near-droughts of others.”
Melin paused and shrugged, a bit uncomfortable under the Duke’s direct gaze.
“We are all still managing to get by, but there’s many a family in the city who has lost their main source of income and moved down a few Rings. The lower you go in the city, the worse it is.”
Herz nodded thoughtfully and looked away, out the window.
“Thank you for telling me, Melin. Was there something you needed?”
“No, my Lord. I came to see if you were in need of any refreshments?”
The Duke shook his head.
“No, but thank you.”
Melin curtsied and left Herz in a ponderous silence.
The townhouse of the Viscount of Aldkeep…
Viscount Kift was a young man of two and twenty years who was broad shouldered and muscled. He kept his hair short, in the style of men-at-arms, and stayed clean-shaven. Today, he wore his hunting leathers and his wife, Viscountess Muna knew exactly what he was about to say as he stepped into the room. Kift opened his mouth to speak, but Muna beat him to it.
“’My lovely Muna, you outshine the sun today,’” she said, deepening her voice in a terrible imitation of her husband’s. “’Would that I could take you with me always, to light my paths! But I feel the mountains moving in my bones and I must away to them. I shall not be gone long, but wait for me, my love, and I shall return to your side!’”
Kift laughed loudly and Muna grinned at him cheekily as she set her sketch aside.
“I am not so poetical as that,” he said, moving further into the room
“Of course you are,” she shot back. “My imitation was perfection.”
The Viscount leaned down to kiss her soundly and when he pulled away, he was still grinning.
“Am I truly so boring and predictable, my darling?”
She sighed dramatically and shook her head in mock sorrow.
“I am afraid so, my love.”
Kift laughed again and replied with equal drama.
“Then I must strive to be rash and foolhardy, lest you begin to tire of my predictable ways!”
He struck a mock-noble pose and it was Muna’s turn to laugh.
“Must you away then?” she said, more seriously now as she stood and moved into his arms.
Kift held her close and kissed the top of her head as he enjoyed the smell of the lavender and sandalwood she used.
“I am afraid I must, dear heart, but I should return within a fortnight. It will not be a pleasure trip, however. I have been informed that there is some sort of land dispute between two of the shepherds and my stewards do not know what to make of it. They have requested I come in person to deal with the matter.”
Muna made a pouting, childish face and Kift laughed, as she had known he would. She grinned. Kift’s laugh always made her want to hear more of it.
“Very well, my love,” she said. “If you must.”
His smile gentled as he looked down at her. Kift kissed his bride again until she was completely breathless, then pulled away only slightly to kiss her forehead.
“I love you,” he whispered to her, making her smile widen again.
“I love you too,” she whispered back.
Then, with one more kiss, he turned and headed for the stables, leaving his wife to her sketching once more.
Outside, his man Roe waited with mounted horses. Kift wanted to be as swift as possible and so only he, Roe, and two of his men-at-arms would be going. Any more would slow him down and at least these three were already prepared to leave. The two men-at-arms, Wer and Brem, were mounted and waiting. Kift swung up into his saddle and they were off, heading out of the city and to the north and east where his Viscountship was located.
If he had time, Kift mused, he might stop in on his brother, Earl Daire of Snowhaven, as his lands were on the way, if he altered his course but a little. Though Daire never would have admitted it, he was jealous that Kift had inherited the Viscountship while he, the younger brother, had been given only the Earldom. Daire had known since birth that was how their father had planned to split his holdings, but Daire was the ambitious sort who was never content with what he had.
Kift’s holdings were a three-day ride north and east of Everand, through the mountains. Happily, he was headed for the closest of his villages, Solven, which boasted nearly one hundred families. Most of them were shepherds, though there was a small emerald mine worked by a third of the families which produced just enough to set the town up comfortably.
The people of Solven considered themselves blessed by the Creator to have been granted a Lord who cared so much for their well being, as his father had before him. They knew he had done his best to keep as many of the King’s soldiers out of his lands as possible. Solven had only been forced to take on five soliders, with the other half of the squad being made up of young men from the village.
Kift loved the mountains. They always felt like a home away from home. In the Hot Season, the snowcaps seemed as only a pretty thought gracing the mountains’ brow and the paths were clear and easy to tread, but come the Snow Season and the mountains became as white as new wool, their paths difficult and their winds the mighty howl of a wild beast. The Viscount loved his mountains in all their moods.
He led the way though the Hermit’s Pass, his men close behind. The stories claimed an immortal hermit, who was truly a fairy cast out by his own kind, lived above the pass. Some stories said he lived in the mountain or even that he was the mountain. Kift assumed there had been an actual hermit there at one time who perhaps lived far into the night of his years, which was where the stories of immortality had come from, but to Kift’s knowledge there had been no hermit on that mountain since the time of his great-great-great grandfather, Viscount Ter, was a young man.
The day was beautiful and the sun shone brightly, warming the four as they rode. Kift heard one of them reign in his horse and he did the same, turning to see Roe with a frown on his face as he looked up at the mountains.
“Roe,” Kift called. “What is it?”
Roe shook his head, his frown deepening.
“I thought I heard rock shifting, but we should not be in danger of a rockslide at this time of the year. Perhaps I imagined it.”
All four inspected the surrounding heights until the Viscount shook his head.
“Let us press on. It would be better not to tarry, regardless.”
He urged his horse forward, but they had not taken more than three steps when all of them heard the rumbling and felt the shaking begin.
“Fly!” hollered Brem, and all four took off at a desperate gallop.
Tense moments followed where there was nothing except the galloping horses slowly being drowned out by the rumbling of stone hurtling toward them. Then, not a hundred feet in front of the fleeing horses, the rock hit the path, spraying dust and debris everywhere. Kift’s horse reared, throwing him, and more rock fell, too close and too fast. The Viscount disappeared in the crush of falling stone. Wer and Roe were caught in the fall, but Brem, who had been bringing up the rear, saw his companions swallowed by the mountain and turned his horse just in time to avoid being crushed himself. He gritted his teeth and urged his horse on as fast as he dared until the rumbling and shaking stopped.
Brem slowly reigned his horse in and wheeled around, seeing the dust settling and the feeling the mountain steady once more. He rode back quickly, a stone as big as the sky settling in the pit of his stomach.
“My Lord! Wer! Roe!” he called as he leapt from his horse’s back and began digging through the rubble. “My Lord! Please, answer me! Oh, Creator. My Lord! Roe! Wer!”
The man-at-arms shoved rocks aside and yelled until he was hoarse and his limbs shook with fatigue. Finally, he sat down hard amid the stone that had taken the lives of his Lord and friends. Tears stung his eyes and his filthy hands covered his face as he wept.
From the mountaintop, Yark watched through a spyglass as the man searched and then wept and finally remounted his horse and headed back to Everand to inform his Lady of their Lord’s untimely demise. The Mage could not help the proud smile that lit his face. Everything had gone perfectly, with even a man spared to report he tragedy. His calculations and aim had been exact. Of course, as they say, to practice is to perfect.
Across the pass, however, another pair of eyes, with no need for a spyglass, had watched the entire scene unfold as well…
Hot Season, Second week, Fifth day of Zeno, 3104 A.F.
The townhouse of the Viscountess of Aldkeep…
Muna knew the moment Brem returned, alone and covered in filth and dust, that something was terribly wrong. She saw the tracks from tears that cut through the grime on his cheeks, but refused to even think the words until he brought himself to speak. To have made it back already, the man-at-arms must have ridden most of the night. The Viscountess had still been in her bed asleep when her maid had come to wake her. Now she stood in a night robe, afraid to speak lest he confirm her worst fears.
“My Lady,” Brem said finally, his voice hoarse and broken. “My Lady, there was a rockslide in Hermit’s Pass. My Lord, Wer, and Roe were all caught in it and buried. I could not even find their bodies in the rubble. They were…”
His voice broke and he closed his eyes as he tried to fight back the tears, but Muna was no longer listening. The Viscountess went cold as chills raced through her.
No, no, no, Kift could not be… no, he could not be dead. She had seen him only yesterday.
Her legs gave out and she sank to the floor, trembling from head to toe. Karm, her maid, wrapped her arms around her Lady as her own eyes stung.
“No,” Muna whispered. “No, he cannot be dead. He cannot be dead, Brem! Tell me you are lying! He cannot be dead!”
She looked at the man-at-arms with pleading, tear-filled eyes. Slowly, he shook his head, his own eyes full of unshed tears. A sob escaped the Viscountess and she clung to Karm and wailed.
A/N: I really wish I had more time to write. If I did these chapters might get done sooner. Ah well. I will do what I can! :)
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