Session One Hundred Thirty-Nine - June 10, 2017

Wherein the ongoing story of the FtF campaign may be found ...

Session One Hundred Thirty-Nine - June 10, 2017

Postby Matt » Wed Jul 19, 2017 6:12 pm

Halane 22, 732

A new banner flew over the battlements of Caer Qualdris the morning of Halane 22nd; the standard of Meleken greeted the dawn. The townsfolk awake at that hour duly noted they presumably had a new lord, as they went about tasks preparing for winter. The young were sent to collect reeds, and the older folk went about collecting deadwood by hook or by crook to burn in the long, chill months ahead.

As the sun crept through the windows of the castle, servants were hard at work mopping up the blood shed to raise the Meleken banner once again. In addition to those bodies left by Sir Ewen and company, the loyal men of Osel had slain those Harabors who had lacked the good sense to flee: few halls were unadorned with at least one body.

In the comital chambers, Lord Ewen stirred. As he went about his ablutions, he dimly noted that the chamber could almost have been mistaken for that of a lowly knight. Though furnishings remained, anything else of value had apparently been carted off by the fleeing Dowager Countess of Osel and her presumed paramor. Ewen had a vision of them laden down with booty as they unceremoniously slipped over the wall.

Later that morning the Baron broke his fast with his companions in the great hall of Caer Qualdris. Servants scurried about cleaning debris from the battle or attending to the lord. Conversation was confined to what politeness required; all were weary from the work the night before, and they were ravenous. Ewen began planning ahead, and imagined how he would present his victory to the council. No doubt Sir Baris would have tossed the head of Mirild Harabor onto the table as if he were bowling. For that matter, Ewen had not inspected the head since he had used his Power to slay the peer the night before; it would not do if the wound appeared uncanny.

“Bring me the head of Mirild Harabor,” the Baron instructed.

Young Squire Goreg coughed and choked on a bit of pork sausage. Sir Aeomund barked a laugh and slapped the lad on the back to dislodge the morsel.

A short time later a nauseous tawny haired servant brought in the head.

“No, don’t put it on the table, have you no sense?” Ewen commanded. “Just hold it there.” Ewen took a bite of poached egg and examined the head while the servant who held it out looked away. The neck looked ragged, as if the head had been ripped off. No, he could not present it like that – it would raise too many questions. “Bring this ... thing to the chaplain to be embalmed.”

After the servant scurried off, Ewen turned to the latest addition to his retinue. “Arva, pen me a missive.” When the young woman had gathered quill and parchment, Ewen began. “By the power vested in me as Deputy Marshal, etc. etc., I hereby leave Qualdris in the care and keeping of Baran Meleken, etc., etc.”

The rest of the morning was consumed with small details. One of Ewen’s soldiers found the seal of the Earldom of Osel and passed it up the chain of command to his lord. Ewen pocketed the seal for the moment. The Baron rewarded Finbar with a gold ring as a token of his esteem and, and congratulated his courage and knowledge. Ewen was notified that Goreg’s captive had died.

At one point the squires Goreg and Petros strode through the hall. It was so quiet Ewen could hear their sometimes excited conversation. They were reliving every moment of the battle the night before, but were noting what they would do differently when given the chance. Apparently Aeomund had taken them aside to let them know that they had fought well, but next time they should stick by their lords. The two had gotten mixed up in the battle.

Late in the morning a servant walked through the hall carrying a small box that looked quite familiar to Lord Ewen. Cekiya caught his eye and pointed, giggling like a child. The Baron nodded sagely recalling it had once before held a head.

Around noon the party departed the castle at the head of a column of Ewen’s soldiers. As they marched out of town they noticed the townsfolk kept stealing glances at the castle, and the new standard fluttering above the ramparts.

***

The next few days passed uneventfully. On the march north, the small force passed through Claydon manor, and Ewen had a brief word with his vassal Catham, Bailiff of Claydon.

They arrived at Ternua after dark. Goreg had been sent ahead to prepare for the Baron’s arrival, and they had a lovely meal consisting mainly of capon and rabbits.

On the morning of the twenty-third Ewen inspected the crypt stash in Ternua. There were £30 in silver, and £10 in gold. There were some dwarven coins, and eight Khuzan crowns ended up in Ewen’s purse. The rest of the monies were left secure in Ternua.

Before departing Ewen attempted to gaze upon Sir Kornuska using his arcane powers, but he was too tired from his recent exertions.

On Halane twenty-four the party returned to Tashal.

Halane 25, 732

“Are they back yet?” Baris stood before the door to Raven Hall, as he had the past several mornings, hoping to find Ewen. Or at least some pork sausage. Each morning he was disappointed; Walin said something about breakfast only being served when the lord was in residence. Baris was afraid he would meet the same fate this cold, misty morning.

Walin opened the door, frowned when he saw Baris, but stepped aside. “Yes, you may enter.”

The knight pushed past the majordomo and took his customary seat at Ewen’s table. Before long he was digging into the pork sausage. Ewen sat at the head of the table, and Goreg sat across from him. A box sat on the table next to the squire.

“You missed a hell of a battle, Sir Baris,” Arva said as she came down the stairs.

“Why didn’t you wait for me, I was just out of the city,” Baris complained around a mouthful of egg.

“Sir Baris, I believe a summons was dispatched to your place of residence, but time was of the essence,” Ewen explained. “I’m afraid we had to storm Qualdris castle without you.”

Baris’s eyes went wide, and he choked on a sausage he swallowed too quickly. Some ale washed it down. After a moment he said, “I ah, I think that letter is under some, ah, laundry, somewhere. There was this peasant girl …”

“That’s quite enough, thank you, Sir Baris,” Ewen interrupted.

At that moment the door opened and Sir Ritzar strode into the hall. He clapped Baris on the shoulder. “Baris, we missed you at Qualdris!”

Baris glared at his nemesis. “Where is Aeomund?” he wondered.

“He requested leave to visit his parents, and I granted it,” Ewen said.

Later that morning Sir Ewen departed to inform the council of his victory. He was accompanied by Sir Ritzar as that knight could given an eyewitness account of the battle.

Baris was left to eat his pork sausage alone. If he appeared misty eyed, it was certainly – probably – from the spiciness of the meat. The knight glanced at Walin, afraid he would be summarily shown the door now that Ewen was gone, but the majordomo apparently took pity upon the tormented knight.

***

“Do I really need to attend all of these?” Astaroc was complaining as Ewen entered the council chambers. The rest of the council was already present.

“Lord Ternua, we hadn’t expected to see you so soon,” Troda Dariune, the Earl of Balim said. “Welcome back.”

Ewen took his seat. “Thank you, my Lord Balim.”

“Would you like to be the first order of business?” Troda asked.

Ewen nodded. “I would be pleased to present a brief report to the council, if it pleases your noble lordships.” With that, Ewen described the events of the past few days, pausing here and there to allow Ritzar to fill in events the Baron had not personally witnessed. Lord Ewen carefully omitted a few details, such as the arcane nature of Mirild Harabor’s death.

“It is a pity that Sir Kornuska escaped, but the big fish was caught,” Balim said.

Meden Curo spoke up. “I don’t see any fish here.”

“A sound point, Lord Meden,” Ewen said. “I took the liberty of bringing the remains of the Earl, should the council wish to inspect his uppermost part.”

“By all means!” Lord Firith exclaimed.

Ewen stood and opened the door. Goreg strode through, all eyes upon him. Or, more specifically, all eyes were upon the box the squire held before him. There was a moment when the nervous young man seemed to slip and his charge almost went flying, but he quickly righted himself and placed the box upon the table. “Milord,” Goreg said opening the box.

Inside was the head of Mirild Harabor.

“Now that’s a fish,” Meden said.

The Rekela wrinkled his nose in distaste, but did not look away.

“Put that thing away,” Astaroc demanded.

His point made, Ewen closed the box.

Firith stared at the box for a long moment. “You know, I’m trying to figure it out. The father was beheaded, now the son is beheaded. It seems there is some sort of poetic justice in this! Damned if I can see it, though.” The Marshal rubbed his one good eye.

Ewen cleared his throat, and continued his report. “Having taken possession of the caer, and in my capacity as Deputy Marshal pro tem, I took the opportunity to appoint a constable to responsibly hold Caer Qualdris, at the council’s pleasure, until the situation can be resolved by a king.”

Firith nodded. “That’s thinking ahead!”

Ewen bowed his head in thanks for the compliment. “I have placed Sir Baran Meleken in that role.”

Meden, whose reaction Ewen had looking for, pursed his lips. “Did you say Baran Meleken?”

“Yes my lord,” Ewen replied.

“Is that the same Baran who presented himself a few months ago, asking for this very earldom?”

Ewen nodded.

“Now that, my lords, is poetic justice!” the Lord Marshal concluded.

“You will see that it is clear in the language of the writ that Sir Baran serves only at the pleasure of this council,” Ewen clarified.

Troda spoke up. “Has Kornuska gone into hiding with the intent of more mischief?”

Ewen turned to Troda. “My understanding of the situation is Kornuska fled with his sister-in-law the Countess of Osel.”

“Dowager Countess,” Meden corrected.

“Dowager Countess,” Ewen agreed. “While he may have it in his mind to stir up trouble, my assessment of the situation is that the Harabors were not very popular there. He would be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to risk their life and limb on his behalf. I suspect he will flee the kingdom.”

“I propose we declare the earldom of Osel in abeyance,” Balim suggested. “Strip Kornuska of any title, and leave it vacant.”

Meden nodded. “I agree.” That was two earls, Ewen noted.

“Shall we have a vote?” Troda asked.

The vote was unanimous.

Troda continued. “Further, I propose that we as a council vote to confirm Lord Ternua’s decision to place Baran Meleken, a worthy choice, as Constable of Qualdris, which in the meantime shall be considered a royal castle.”

The vote was again unanimous.

“That order of business being concluded, Lord Astaroc, Sir Meden, and Sir Arlbis, I believe you have a report on candidates for succession?” the Earl of Balim said.

The wizened Astaroc waggled a bony finger at Meden. “You speak young man.”

Meden Curo stood and unrolled a scroll. “The way we went about this was to list all of the possible claimants from the Elendsa line, and then we started eliminating people.”

“The first person we eliminated was me!” Astaroc rasped.

Meden nodded. “Yes. We are left with a handful of claimants. I will read those out, rather than those we have struck, but if anyone thinks that someone is not on the list who should be, please speak up. The people we have left on the list are my Lord of Kobe, Orsin Firith and his sister, the Baroness of Uldien. We have not included Prince Korwyn, here present, but we have included the Earl of Balim, here present. We have also decided to place Lady Cheselyne Hosath the Elder on the list, though last, as we think her an unlikely candidate, but her nearness in blood means she should be considered. We have also chosen to open the door to a non-Elendsa candidate, but at this time we have not put any such person on the list.”

“Is that your understanding of it, Lord Astaroc?” Balim inquired.

Astaroc shrugged. “I only sat down with him for about an hour, but that is what we discussed.”

Balim asked Arlbis the same question. “Sir Meden showed me a list,” Arlbis mumbled.

“Have the women been notified that they are on the list of potential monarchs?” Ewen wondered.

“Letters have been dispatched,” Sir Harapa answered.

“You can take one more name off the list, and that is mine,” the Earl of Balim said. “Is there anyone else who should be on the list?”

Prince Korwyn spoke up. “Yes, no one has mentioned my nephew Brandis, who is nearest in blood.” Silence greeted this notion. “We should at least discuss it.”

The Earl of Balim spoke carefully. “Prince, with all due respect, you are not a member of this council.”

Prince Korwyn looked around the table for support, but none spoke up for him.

Finally, Orsin broke the silence. “I feel sorry for the boy, but he is a fratricide.”

“He wouldn’t be the first king to have killed his brother,” Meden said. What game was he playing at, Ewen wondered. He knew very well Meden had no intention of putting Brandis on the throne.

“Perhaps, but he would be here in Kaldor,” Firith said. “It would set a bad precedent.”

“Let us table the discussion of Brandis,” Balim said. “We do not even know where he is.”

Soon thereafter the council meeting broke up. It was not long before the head of Mirild Harabor appeared on the battlements next to his father’s. It was snowing, and soon the flakes obscured the visages of the once great men.

***

With a crash the door to Raven Hall burst open, which could mean one of two things: an attack, or Sir Prehil had arrived. Fortunately, it was the latter. The alderman strode in, a firkin of brandy under one arm. “Ewen, I thought we might need something a little stronger tonight!”

Ewen chuckled.

Baris laughed, pleased with the suggestion. It was Soratir and he had not joined Ewen, Aeomund, and Goreg at the temple to celebrate the Laranian holiday. According to the gossip he had not missed much other than an interminable sermon. It was for the best. Sometimes he still woke up in the middle of the night, convinced he was back on the rack. Thus, he agreed with the suggestion of stronger alcohol. At least Ritzar was gone, Baris mused, hanging out with the girl next door no doubt.

Prehil looked at Baris. “What are you doing here!?”

Baris blinked back at Prehil, and turned his head to look at Ewen. “Did you send a message and I didn’t read it again?”

Prehil laughed. “I don’t send messages, I speak plain!”

At that moment Prehil’s father Orsin Firith strode in, followed by two men at arms sporting the badge of the Oselmarch. “Is it alright if my men mess in your kitchen?”

“They are welcome,” Ewen said. “Come join us, let us get Prehil’s brandy served up.”

“Let’s tap this fucker!” Prehil agreed.

The Oselmarch men-at-arms went off to the kitchen. Lord Ewen and his retinue, along with Orsin and Prehil Firith sat at the table in Ewen’s hall.

Walin took the firkin from Prehil, staggering a bit under its weight, and shortly returned with a tray of goblets full of brandy for the men. He left a decanter on the table.

“This was Astaroc’s place, wasn’t it?” Prehil asked after they had all sampled the potable.

Ewen smacked his lips. “It was.”

“And he was dead? But he seems to be animated.”

Ewen nodded. “He is.”

“Did he ever get paid?” Prehil wondered. “What happened to the money you paid for this place?”

Ewen shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“I was wondering what had happened to it, but I suppose he doesn’t have it,” Prehil concluded.

“Do you wish to fake your own death, Sir Prehil?” Arva interjected.

Prehil looked at the woman as if noticing her for the first time. “I never thought of that.”

Orsin looked up from his brandy. “What are you talking about?”

“Nothing father, nothing.”

Ewen pointed to the tapestry on the wall and changed the subject. “Astaroc made a fuss about that tapestry,” the Baron said. “He seemed to consider it a family heirloom.”

Prehil glanced at the tapestry. “Man, woman, seems to be a love scene. Who is it supposed to be?”

“The lady is Princess Kaisirin, Haldan I’s daughter,” Ewen answered.

Orsin spoke up. “You’re saying that is Astaroc’s aunt, which means that he is the child of the sister ...” his voice trailed off. “Prehil, what is that girl’s name?”

“Mesela,” Prehil said.

“Wasn’t that around 150 years ago?” Firith asked.

“110, father.”

“I knew he was old.” Orsin paused. “So that’s his aunt, is it? I guess she’s my aunt in a way, too, isn’t she?” He looked at Ewen. “And Astaroc left it here with you?”

Ewen nodded. “Yes, but he did say I should not get rid of it, and it should be returned to the castle at some point.”

Orsin looked at the tapestry in wonder. “It’s probably hung here for decades. I was told once that King Torastra lived here when he was letting his mother be regent. King Torastra, my grandfather, inherited the throne, but wasn’t ready to inherit. You can’t argue, he became a great king. But he was sixteen. A bit like Prehil here! He decided that – no- he must’ve been renting it. How vulgar, like Baris’s inn. He must’ve been renting from Astaroc – he added the fourth floor because he needed room for guards! The castle, at the time, was not big enough for him and his mother! So his mother ruled, and he ... fathered the kingdom, as it were. I had forgotten that this was that house. That’s an Elendsa tapestry sitting there. No offense, but you have no right to it!” The brandy may have been affecting the martial Baron.

“It came with the house when I bought it,” Ewen parried.

“If Astaroc told you not to move it, don’t move it,” Orsin said.

Ewen smiled. “If you want it, what do you want for it?”

Orsin laughed. “A brass farthing!”

Ewen chuckled and refilled Orsin’s goblet.

Shortly thereafter the servants brought in an array of puddings, cheeses, white manchet bread, fish, and much else. “We told Walin that the Baron of Kobe was coming over, and he insisted on a small feast,” Ewen explained.

Once the food was on the table Walin asked, “My lord, do you wish to keep imbibing the brandy, or should we serve the wine?”

“Serve the wine,” Ewen said.

“Very good, my lord” Walin said with approval.

“That was a rather short list from our friend Meden Curo today,” Ewen said a short time later as he sipped his wine.

Orsin Firith’s one good eye darted about the room, noting those present. “Yes, very short. Too short. Ridiculous even. And everyone knew it, except for maybe Astaroc.”

“And yet nobody objected,” Ewen said.

“What would have been the point?” Firith asked rhetorically. “There was nobody on the list. We could have added back all of the Elendsas and it wouldn’t matter. Nobody is going to vote on that list, we’re going to vote on the end-candidate.”

Ewen set down his wine. “And you, Orsin, will continue to find yourself first on the list.”

“They tell me it is an honor just to be nominated.” Orsin smiled.

“No doubt it is,” Ewen agreed. “But we need more than a nominated king in this kingdom.”

“True words. I wish Balim could see his way clear.”

“He’s quite adamant, it seems,” Ewen said.

“He doesn’t want to be assassinated,” Firith mused. “I can’t say that I blame him. Balim is probably the most able politician in this realm, and that is his downfall, too. I’d support him. I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I would. But like I said, he doesn’t want to be assassinated.” Firith picked up his glass. “I don’t think that I would have that problem. Who would want to make Prehil king?”

Prehil laughed along with his father. “Not I.”

When the laughter died down Ewen said, “I think you are seeing it in an entirely different way.”

“You are a lion, not a spider,” Goreg blurted out.

There was an awkward moment after the squire’s interruption. Ewen broke the silence saying, “You are correct that Balim is seen as an able politician in both the positive and negative senses of the word.”

“Although next year, if the vikings come back, we aren’t going to worry so much about the politicians.” Firith raised his glass. “We will need a general. But you don’t need to be king to be that general.”

“But you need a strong king behind the kingdom.”

“That goes without saying.”

“I believe the kingdom needs unity, it needs a king who can rally the peers behind a single cause for Kaldor,” Ewen said.

Firith nodded. “That’s why Meden’s list was a farce. Cheselyne Hosath, what a joke. Let her throw her parties. My sister? Her inclusion was odd, that isn’t going anywhere. She doesn’t want the crown.”

“One could see the list as funneling towards you and Balim.”

“Yes, and Balim took himself out of the running publicly, leaving me.”

“Or the non-Elendsa candidate.”

“Yes, and we know who that is,” Orsin said. “Who would you propose, if not me and not Meden?”

“Orsin, I didn’t bring you over here to flatter you,” Ewen began. “You know I would support you in a second. I also know you have turned down the honor. It’s up to you to tell me if your mind has changed or not.”

“I appreciate your words, Ewen, and I understand where they come from. I don’t want to be king any more than Troda does. It just seems a lot of headache. But I will tell you this: between, you, me, and all these people listening here, who I assume, not one of them, will repeat my words. Because if you do, your best outcome is I only cut your tongue out.”

Baris spoke up. “You have our word, of course.”

Firith took a deep breath. “I have decided that I cannot allow Meden to become king. If it comes to that, him or me, I will take the throne, and I will win the throne. But I would still prefer somebody else drink that bitter cup.”

Ewen slapped his hand on the table and nodded. “At this point, Orsin, the crown is no prize; it is a burden, and a responsibility, and somebody’s going to need to take it up.”

Orsin sighed. “It is a burden. When Uncle Miginath was king, it seemed kind of a lark. We did our tournaments, oh, yes, there was the Salt War, but that was a generation before. We kept the Pagaelin at bay, and we made sure the dwarves had their grain. I miss that Kaldor. But that Kaldor is gone. So we must live in the Kaldor that is, and it is a lot harder. If you can come up with a better candidate than me, I will serve him to the hilt! As long as it is not Meden. I cannot get behind that any longer. I was beguiled for awhile, but I do not believe that he would be a good king. I believe he would only be a good king for himself.”

“If I know Meden Curo, he has something else up his sleeve.”

“Yes, yes Ewen, and I think it has something to do with his sister!” Prehil exclaimed.

Baris perked up at the mention of that beauty.

“Meleine?” Ewen asked.

Prehil nodded. “I ran into her!”

Baris’s attention was rapt on Prehil. He had no idea his eyes had gone small and beady.

“Did you know Ewen, she is fetching as all get-out. Freckles alas, but they work on her!”

“It works on Baris, as well.” Ewen smiled lopsidedly.

Baris opened his mouth, but for once thought better of it and shut it just as quickly.

“I think he’s using that girl as a femme fatale,” Prehil continued.

“With who?” Ewen asked.

“That I don’t know. But he parades her around when he needs to. I think he did so at your tournament, but I have no proof of that! Did you know he was at the House of Courtesans with her just a couple of days ago, and there was Sir Arlbis, Sir Gorbar, and Meleine Curo, and there were all as chummy as you can imagine!”

Baris choked on his ale, immediately regretting his brief dalliance with the peasant girl whose name was already escaping him. Daisy? Or was it Pansy? It occurred to him that Arlbis and Gorbar were married. They had no business seeing Meleine!

“I think Prehil has a point,” Ewen was saying. “That is just the sort of thing he would do.”

The Firith’s nodded in agreement.

At least I know she is still in the city, Baris pined.

Halane 26, 731

The next day, Baris arranged to meet Sirs Prehil, Arlbis, and Gorbar at the House of Courtesans in the evening following dinner with Prehil and his father. The three were already seated when he arrived. “Good evening gentlemen.”

“BARIS!” Prehil exclaimed, as if they had not seen each other in weeks.

Gorbar put a hand to his ear. “Must you do that, Prehil?”

“DO WHAT?”

“That,” Arlbis said.

Baris sat down and Prehil handed him an ale he already had waiting.

“Where’s Maryna! Ah, there you are my girl.” She came and sat on Prehil’s lap. Behind a mess of hair, Prehil asked, “So, Baris, how’s it managing!” He kissed Maryna on the cheek. “Wait a minute, look at me Baris. Oh.” He turned to the other men. “Gentlemen. This man is in love.”

“What, what?” Baris sputtered, and almost spit out some ale. The statement completely drove out his thought that Maryna and Tora couldn’t possibly be cousins.

Prehil laughed. “You can see it, look at him! His face is in love.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about! There was this peasant girl, but it’s over. Her husband came back.”

Prehil grinned. “Gentlemen, listen to this mealy mouth.”

Baris sipped his drink. “Maybe you’re right, Sir Prehil, but I don’t want to say anything until I know if she returns my affections. I’m still flushing the quarry, as it were.”

“Never say die, Baris, never say die! But, Baris, don’t take this the wrong way, we’re talking about an earl’s daughter here.”

Baris could feel the blood draining from his face.

“If we’re not mistaken,” Prehil continued, “you’re holding 900 acres?”

Baris tried to speak up, but Prehil held up a hand.

“You’re Ewen’s right hand man, aren’t you?” Prehil asked.

Baris nodded slowly. “I am, I hope, I like to think so.” He wasn’t so sure anymore, with Sir Ritzar in the picture.

“Well, but, if you were valued according to your contributions, then maybe you might be worthy of an earl’s daughter.” Prehil took two handfuls of Maryna’s hair. “But Baris, you need to take the bull by the horns!” He planted a kiss on her lips. “Nothing is given to the timid.”

“What did you have in mind, Sir Prehil?”

Prehil cocked his head. “I thought I made it clear. Stand for your own.”

Baris cocked his head, confused. “I always stand by Ewen.”

“Baris, your lord has picked up a barony. You’re still sitting on 900 acres. How much more of a picture do I need to paint for you?”

Arlbis and Gorbar were giving each other quizzical looks.

“There’s no king to do missions this second for …” Baris began.

Prehil shook his head. “You’re missing the point. Your lord is not the king, your lord is the baron.”

Gorbar spoke up. “I thought we were here for the women?”

“Are you saying that Ewen isn’t rewarding me properly?” Baris asked.

“I wouldn’t say that. A gentleman doesn’t say that about another gentleman. But I will say this. Stand for your own, Baris, stand for your own.”

Baris sipped his ale and thought for a moment. Maybe Prehil was right. Ewen still had not spoken to him about his note, and he was always spending time with Ritzar, and had even taken that knight off to battle without Baris. He gulped down some more ale and nodded to himself. “You’ve given me much to think about, Prehil, but as Gorbar said, at the moment we’re here for the ladies!”

***

“You were the dinner companion of Sir Fago, were you not?” Cheselyne said.

“Yes milady,” Arva said. That evening she had gone to the Iron Bell hoping to meet Sir Fago, but found Lady Cheselyne Hosath dining alone instead.

Cheselyne sipped her wine. “But you have seen the error of your ways?”

“We have had no interaction after that night, and so I did not have a chance to see the error of my ways.”

“Yes, my dear.” Cheselyne pursed her lips. “But who are you?”

“Arva of Kerryn.”

“Your name means nothing to me.”

Arva sat up straighter. “I am a lutist and playwright, and currently I am in the retinue of the Baron of Ternua.”

“Ah, a person who puts on garments to fool others,” Cheselyne chided.

“Yes, and with our words we tell lives, for entertainment,” Arva said.

“Yes, and you also said you are in the retinue of the Baron of Ternua.”

“Yes, he traveled with my twin brother before he came to the kingdom of Kaldor.”

“Do you mean Tarmas Verdreth, or Ewen Ravinargh?”

“Ravinargh,” Arva clarified, “as I have heard Verdreth is no longer among the living.”

“Yes, of course, but I wanted to know which among the two you are associated with. What is your impression of Ewen Ravinargh?” Cheselyne mused.

Arva paused for a moment. “He is a driven man milady.”

“I see you are well in deep. Good for you.” Cheselyne took a sip of wine. “What is your name child?”

The younger woman suppressed a sigh. “Arva of Kerryn.”

“I am the Lady Cheselyne Hosath.”

“Oh,” Arva said, and her tone made the syllable pregnant with meaning. “It is an honor to meet you, milady.”

Cheselyne waved her hand. “I’m sure it is a greatest honor of your life.”

Arva smiled. “I recently met your daughter, in Qualdris.” She hadn’t, of course, but this was too good to pass up.

Cheselyne blinked, and Arva suddenly had her full attention. “My daughter, the Countess of Osel?”

Arva shaked her head. “I’m afraid she is the Dowager Countess of Osel. I didn’t have a chance to talk to her, as she left with her brother-in-law ...”

Cheselyne set down her glass. “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Did you say that you were associated with the Baron of Ternua?”

“Yes.”

“Ewen Ravinargh?”

Arva nodded. “Yes, he was tasked by the Lord Marshal to …”

“Yes, of course he was. He’s killed another of her husbands!” Cheselyne took a sip that turned into a gulp of wine.

“He died in battle; I don’t know who struck the killing blow,” Arva said, as if to lessen the shock.

“You’re telling me that Lord Ternua did not kill my daughter’s husband?!”

“I can’t say for certain milady. If you are worried for your daughter, she had departed with her brother-in-law earlier that evening, so she was nowhere near the battle.”

“What, what, what, what?” Cheselyne’s eyes went wide, and it was a good thing she had set her glass down.

“They left Caer Qualdris before the battle began, so she was in no danger,” Arva continued.

“What?!”

“She left with Kornuska Harabor.” Arva pursed her lips. “Well, I won’t repeat servants gossip to you, milady.”

Lady Cheselyne nearly choked. “Are you suggesting my daughter is committing adultery?”

“Well, she can’t, since her husband is dead.” It took all of Arva’s will and skill to keep a straight face.

Cheselyne took a large sip of wine, probably to steady her nerves. “I’m not entirely sure if that is sophistry, but it might be. So, my daughter has run off with her brother in law. Where?”

Arva shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“Oh, to parts unknown!” Cheselyne despaired.

“I don’t think they are still in Kaldor. There is still a warrant out for his arrest.”

“She ... she was a countess! And now a fugitive!” She waved Arva away and put her face in her hands. “Go. Go. Go.”

***

“My lord, I have failed to take advantage of this establishment,” Sir Ritzar told Ewen.

Ewen smiled. “It is quite singular.” Ewen, Ritzar, and Goreg had come to Galopea’s Feast. The squire stayed below, while the Baron and knight went upstairs.

Ritzar’s gaze drifted to a serving woman as she walked away, and nodded enthusiastically. “And it’s just across the way. What a remarkable place!”

“Yes, I should introduce you to the proprietor, so he knows who you are.” Ewen looked around for the owner, and instead noticed Meden Curo sitting at a table across the room sitting with a man the Baron recognized. “Come, Sir Ritzar, sit.”

Ewen found at a nearby empty table and told the knight about the amenities of Galopea’s Feast. The games, the women, the private rooms.

After a few minutes, a flaxen-haired servant came up to the table. “My lord, Sir Meden Curo has asked if you would join him.”

Ewen nodded. “Thank you.”

“Milord,” the servant said and withdrew.

“Sir Ritzar, I will introduce you to Lord Meden Curo,” Ewen said and Ritzar nodded. The two went over to Meden’s table. As he got closer, Ewen nodded to Meden’s companion Sir Sterba Yardartha.

Sterba looked at Ewen. “Milord.”

“Sir Sterba, how nice to see you here,” Ewen said.

Meden seemed to pick up on something going on beneath the surface between the two men. “My lord, please join us.”

Ewen sat. “Thank you my lord earl.” He turned to Sterba. “Always a good man to have in a tournament, Sir Sterba. Allow me to introduce Sir Ritzar Martaryne, one of my vassals of Ternua.”

“How is it going!” Ritzar exclaimed.

A look of distaste flashed across Meden’s face. He turned to Sterba. “Sir Sterba, I was certain you said that you had an appointment.”

Sterba blinked. “Oh, yes, you will forgive me, my lord.” He rose, and turned to Ewen. “So good to see you again, my lord.”

“Yes indeed, I hope we have the pleasure again sometime soon. I enjoyed our last conversation.” Ewen turned to Ritzar, but was half speaking to Meden. “Sir Ritzar has just shared with me that he has never been here before. I wonder if he would be interested in sampling the entertainments?”

Meden looked at the knight. “Oh yes, there are cockfights in the basement, and other kinds of fights in the attic.”

“Sir Ritzar, when I invited you here I did not realize that this would be your first time,” Ewen said. “You should by all means explore the establishment to your heart’s content.”

Sir Ritzar sat up, then seemed to recall his duty. “Milord? Call me if you need me.”

Ewen nodded. “Enjoy your evening on me, Sir Ritzar.”

“I think, my lord, that I will avail myself of the upstairs battle.”

With a smile on his face, Meden looked down, and then up. After Ritzar had departed he looked at Ewen. “And good evening my Lord of Ternua.”

“Good evening to you, my Lord of Neph. It has been some time since we had a tete a tete.”

Meden briefly raised his glass. “Too long.”

“You’ve been doing the work of the council,” Ewen said.

Meden shook his head. “The council is irrelevant, it only matters who will be king in twenty days.”

“It was quite a short list we had to consider.”

“A waste of time.”

“Perhaps,” Ewen said. How do you envision a meeting of the council playing out twenty days hence? Is it supposed to be a unanimous vote, or a slight majority?”

Meden sipped his wine. “Unanimous would be a wonderful thing, wouldn’t it. I don’t see anyone getting a unanimous vote. But no, you’re right, I’ll take a majority. It is what crowns are made of. I hope, my lord, that I can still count upon your support.”

Ewen steepled his hands and gazed at the earl. “I still think we need a strong king.”

“I will be a strong king. None stronger.”

“Then I suspect you need only convince enough people of that fact.”

Meden stood and walked around the table. He did not touch Ewen, but stood very near to him looking in the other direction. “I have taken those into my bosom, they will support me as king. I will be king, and the kingdom will flourish.”

“Does Orsin Firith still support you?”

The earl hesitated a moment before saying, “I believe he does.”

Ewen nodded. “That is good. He is the only strong horse on the list that was presented.”

“That is so, but he is not the strongest horse, that is me. I am the strongest horse.”

Ewen thought Meden’s ego might be getting the better of him. “I believe you are correct about Orsin Firith.” The Baron took a sip of wine. “But I don’t think you have the support of Balim. What will you do with Balim, my lord?”

“As little as possible. But it may be.”

“You mean he will keep his post,” Ewen reasoned.

“If possible,” Meden said, still standing behind Ewen. “But it may be that young Scina will know his father’s place.”

“That may be so. I do not know Scina Dariune well.” That was Aeomund’s department.

“He is competent. But he is not his father.” Ewen heard Curo sipping his own wine. “You have not told me, Ewen, why you are here tonight.”

“If you are asking me if I came here in hopes of having this very conversation, the answer rightfully is no. But there is much going on.”

“There is.”

“What are your thoughts about the decision I made to place Baran Meleken in Qualdris castle?” Ewen asked.

Meden chuckled. “An excellent diversion. A non-entity who inherits his own due. No, he was the right call, and very effectively took the entire earldom of Osel out of the equation. For Sir Baran, as constable, or earl, or whatever, will be more than a year at the least in solidifying his role. Everything will be decided by then. I would’ve expected you to be looking for the earldom of Osel for yourself, though.”

“Do you suspect I need that in order to secure my loyalty, my lord?”

“No, but you are an ambitious man, my lord, are you not?” Curo said.

“There are few more ambitious than I.”

“Yes. So I was surprised when you gave away the earldom of Osel when it was within your grasp.”

Ewen shrugged. “Perhaps, as you say, a miscalculation on my part, but I am not yet convinced of it.”

“In nine days we will be talking again about the next monarch.”

“If any non-Elendsa candidate is to be introduced, it will have to be then,” Ewen said.

“Perhaps. Did you have anyone in mind?”

“Come now,” Ewen said. “There is only one feasible option. As you pointed out, none of the other earldoms are significant, and Lord Balim has taken himself out of the running.”

Meden took a breath. “So, my lord, it is time.”

“I will support you being on the shortlist of two candidates, my lord. What you do with that, we shall see.”

Meden’s voice was suddenly right in Ewen’s ear. “I want more than that. I have cultivated you my lord, protected you, supported you, helped you where I could.”

Meden’s breath nearly sent a chill down Ewen’s spine, but he suppressed it. He did not care for the physical proximity – he could almost feel the warbling dancing on his skin. “I am not sure I am a field to be cultivated.”

“I believe you are a field to be plowed,” Meden said nastily. “And so we shall find out your price, my lord, for the sword, the Sword of Calsten. I know you have it. You will deliver it to me, and you will name your price. And, saving the crown, I shall pay it.” Meden paused, and slowly stood up straight. “You need not answer now.”

“I wasn’t intending to,” Ewen said very quietly, but his voice was hard.

“But soon. Very soon.”

Ewen stood, and looked Meden in the eye. “My lord.”

The Earl of Neph held Ewen’s gaze a moment, and then nodded. “My lord.”

“A most edifying conversation.”

“Out in the open at last,” Meden said.

Ewen smiled. “We both play a long game, my lord.”

***

Shortly thereafter, Lord Ewen made the arduous journey back to Raven Hall. As his repast had been interrupted, he found Bernethe in the kitchens and ordered her to bring a plate to his study.

Midnight found Ewen asleep at his desk, a cold half eaten plate beside his resting head, a burned out candle before him. An especially perceptive observer would have barely noticed Cekiya lurking behind the curtains, ever watchful and mindful of her duty.

With a crash, Baris burst into Ewen’s study. Ewen awoke with a start.

The knight wasn’t drunk, but he was almost drunk. He had certainly consumed enough to make most men unconscious, but it had only made Baris bold. “Prehil said she won’t love me until I stand on my own!” Baris exclaimed. “So I’m standing! Why are you ignoring my note? And you left without me, denying me glory, giving it all to Ritzar! And there was something about land, and me paying twice, that’s what my note said, and you keep ignoring it! What did I do?”

Ewen had had quite enough for one day. Staring at Baris for a long moment, he frowned. “Sir Baris, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I’m supposed to be your vassal – what have I done to earn this treatment?”

“Treatment?” Ewen remarked evenly. “You are my vassal – pledged by your oath and on the fief I granted you. And on the terms I granted it. You were not at my side at Qualdris, but you have eaten enough pork sausage at my table to make every pig in the land incontinent with fear at the sound of your name. I think you should retire before more is said.”

Baris took a step forward, but then noticing Cekiya was balancing a very sharp-looking blade of some sort on the tip of her forefinger, bowed instead and left with a bang.

The Deryni Baron regarded the door.

“Follow him,” he ordered, and Cekiya grinned as only she can.
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Matt
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