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Fiction, Fantasy, Serial Novel
by: J. Dennis McKay
Yllek examined himself in the gold framed standing mirrorthat had been brought in along with his new clothing that morning. The house tailor had created a knee length black coat with gold stitching that somehow managed to slim his waist and broaden his shoulders. There was a minimum of frill to the white silk shirt, showing at the throat and cuffs. Thigh high black soft leather boots concealed fine cotton leggings, the coat, when buttoned covered slate grey breeches and a wide black belt with an ornate gold buckle. Instead of from the belt, Yllek's sabre and sheath hung from a tooled red leather bandolier secured under his right epaulette and a strap at the left hand waistline. Yllek highly approved of the fine cavalry sabre, with a slight curve to its three foot blade and substantial, if ornate, silver plated basket weave hand guard. Supremely balanced, the blade was obviously the work of a master, and much more suited to his styleof fighting than the dainty epee that were currently the fashion among the young gentlemen of the city. Smoothing the jacket and turning side on to the mirror Yllek was suitably impressed at how well it concealed the dozen throwing knives sheathed in its lining. Letting his golden hair hang loose behind his shoulders, Yllek decided against the wide brimmed, plumed hat that had been sent up that morning along with the clothes.
Now all that was left was for him to wait for the reason that the clothes had been sent. Other than being told to prepare for an audience, Gianni had failed to tell him what event he was being prepared for. Yllek was unconcerned, was, in fact, glad for the break in the monotony of the past two weeks since his arrival. As pleasant as the room may be, the walls were beginning to close in on him, and both he and Gianni had begun recycling stories several nights past. And the drink. Two weeks of heavy drinking, drinking enough to keep from thinking about what was going on around him, things out of his control that affected him deeply. That much drinking, for too long, dulled the nerves. Yllek held a hand out flat in front of himself and sneered at the tremor he saw. Well, a little hair of the dog would settle that. Yllek poured himself his morning glass of wine. Whatever Papa Domi had planned for him today, he doubted that the shakes and a cold sweat would go over well.
It wasn't until his second glass that he felt his stomach settle and the sweat begin to ease. He checked his hand again. Steady as stone. Good. He went for a bottle of perfume on his nightstand and spritzed himself to mask the scent of sweat and wine. The perfume was a little flowery for his taste, but it was strong and would do the job. It took a moment for him to collect his thoughts when he heard the knock at the door. Knocking? Gianni didn't knock.
"It's open," he called to the door.
The door swung in to reveal a handsome young guard in the full dress black and tan livery of House Domi. "Papa Domi would like to see you in the garden, sir." It was obvious from the man's rigid posture and the quiver to his eyes that he wasn't used to escorting people to see the master of the house. This would be a tale to be told in the barracks for weeks to come. Suddenly, the young man's jaw dropped and his stiff posture evaporated. "By the gods, you're..." he managed to regain most of his composure. "Umm, this way sir," he held out a hand to indicate the way, still staring in open eyed wonder at what must seem a fairy tale gargoyle come to life.
Ahh, the joys of fame. Yllek smiled as he brushed past the young man. "I'm well aware of how to reach the gardens, lad." Whatever else Domi had planned, it appeared that he felt it was time to let the city know of his return. There would be no way to keep this youth from talking to his comrades, short of confining him, and a story this big would grow wings of its own. Suddenly, Yllek had an intense desire to return to his carafe of wine, but managed to maintain his composure as he strode purpose fully through winding hallways and down a pair of flights of stairs to the garden. His escort tagged along behind him, trying to appear the picture of confidence as they passed the occasional servant. Tales of this journey would keep the man drinking for free for weeks to come.
Inspiration stopped Yllek just short of the double doors that would lead out to the garden and he turned to face his escort. "You have me at a disadvantage, sir." It was hard for him not to smile at the obvious bewilderment in the youth's face. "You obviously know who I am..." Yllek turned a hand questioningly to finish the statement.
"Oh! Hudgeon, sir, Ahrich Hudgeon," Ahrich snapped to parade attention.
Yllek turned on his best winning smile, "It's been a pleasure, Ahrich. I was wondering if you could do me a small favor."
Ahrich began to shift nervously from foot to foot, "Well, that depends sir..."
"Not to worry, it's nothing Domi would disapprove of. Do you know if Brant the Bowyer is still in business?"
"Yes sir. He's who the house uses for our custom work."
Yllek produced a gold crown from beneath his jacket, knowing full well it was probably more than the man made in a month. "If you find some time today," Yllek handed Ahrich the coin, "let him know where I'm staying. I believe he may have a package for me."
Ahrich quickly pocketed the coin. "Yes sir. I'll see to it as soon as possible."
In truth, it was something that Gianni would willingly havetaken care of, but Yllek knew that the lad would derive an inordinate amount of pride from the small task. It was time that he started working on his own alliances if his presence here was to become common knowledge. Ahrich was young, but he appeared competent enough, and under the circumstances, Yllek knew he couldn't be too choosy. "Excellent. Now, let's not keep the master of the house waiting." Yllek swept his arm, indicating Ahrich to precede him through the doors, which he did with all the pride of youth.
The one thing that comforted Yllek as he passed through the doors and entered the gardens was that, other than Papa and Gianni, he didn't recognize any of the assembled people. All morning he'd had an unreasonable dread that Elanna herself would present herself.
Striding confidently into the garden, Ahrich stopped a good ten paces shy of the assembled men. "Master Yllek Navillus," he indicated with a sweep of his hand and a deep bow. Straightening, he quickly turned on his heel and marched from the garden, abandoning Yllek to the wolves.
Yllek stood, chin slightly raised, with his hands claspedbehind his back in a posture that appeared the picture of arrogance. In truth, he kept his hands clasped behind his back to keep from nervously fingering the sabre at his side.
"You requested my presence, Papa Domi?" he raised an eyebrow to emphasize the question in the tone of his voice.
Domi himself couldn't resist a sly smile. "I have some visitors who have expressed an interest in meeting you," a sweep of his hand encompassed the three visitors. "This is Master Vincenzi, of house Gandolfo," Domi indicated a tall, middle aged man, with dark hair and eyes. The set of the man's face was blank and stony as he gave a quick nod. By his bearing and broad shoulders, Yllek guessed him to be a military man. The cut of his clothes indicated him to be of a more refined upbringing than Gianni. There was a glint to the man's eye, and for some reason Yllek instinctively trusted this man more than the other two. This was a man of honor. He may, for all Yllek knew, earnestly desire the death of Yllek, but if his orders were to preserve him, then he was the type of man to set aside his personal desires to honor his word.
The other two men Yllek instantly despised. Brecht Antilly, of house Antilly, was every bit as handsome as his semi mythical namesake. Slightly taller than Vincenzi, the man was lithe and graceful, with a pleasant, welcoming expression on his face that completely failed to reach his amber eyes. This man would smile as he slit his mother's throat, something he would do in a second if he felt he could gain some advantage from the act.
The third man differed substantially from everyone else in the room. Of middling height, Arnault DiPietro was badly overweight, with the bulbous red nose and watery eyes of someone long lost to the bottle. Not that Yllek could blame him for the vice. Domi introduced him as the Mayor of Tovani. The poor bastard. Nearly half the man's predecessors had been assassinated in office, and for his pains he held no real power. Any of a half dozen of the largest Houses in the city could raise enough men to wipe out the city guard, who'd flee at the first sign of real trouble in any case. The Mayor's job was largely to beg what money he could from men much more powerful than himself in order to keep the basic infrastructure of the city intact.
"A pleasure to finally meet you, master Navillus," Brecht began the conversation. "I had hoped to meet you some time ago, before that unfortunate incident at the harbor. You had been earning quite a name for yourself for some time. Seldom does a young man without a house rise so rapidly through commerce."
"I must admit," Arnault interceded, slurring slightly, "that I had never heard of you, prior to the tragedy. Afterward, though, your previous exploits, both commercial and romantic, became the subject of much conversation. Are the stories true about you and Lady Dovrani?" He asked with a leer.
How did this oaf become Mayor? Expendability must be the answer. "I wouldn't know," Yllek answered. "I haven't heard the stories."
Vincenzi snorted in amusement. "While it may be fascinating to explore Master Navillus' indiscretions," he directed a pointed glare at Yllek, "it's hardly the reason we've assembled. I have other business to attend to today, so could we get to the matter at hand?"
"Yes, I'm sure Yllek would be interested to know what brings us together today," Domi finally entered the conversation.
"I'm almost sure I would like to know," Yllek said wryly. Why did he return to this city? A glance at Vincenzi reminded him. Although Gianni's face was stony, Yllek suspected he was enjoying this immeasurably.
Domi coughed, "Yes, well... I think we can all agree that the main question here surrounds the incident at the harbor five years past."
"I'm more interested in hearing about Lady Dovrani," Gianni mumbled under his breath.
"Gianni!" Domi scowled.
"She's a fine looking woman, Papa," Gianni defended himself.
"She's also been married for three years now," Papa reminded him.
"Really?" Yllek questioned. "Pity."
"Enough!" Vincenzi roared. "We all know all we need to about Master Navillus' philandering."
"Especially house Gandolfo," Brecht sneered.
Vincenzi spun to face him, his hand shooting to rest on the handle of the heavy bladed short sword at his side. "Watch yourself Brecht, lest I make this a matter of honor."
"The honor would be all mine, Vincenzi," Brecht replied, that oily smile returning.
"Gentlemen!" Domi roared, drawing everyone's attention. Arnault had backed away nearly ten feet, and appeared to be searching for the nearest exit. "You will mind the peace of my house!" A half dozen guards in Domi livery emerged from the foliage to reinforce the point, and a dozen crossbowmen suddenly became visible from the third story walkway.
"Another time, then," Brecht nodded across at Vincenzi.
"My patience is running thin," Vincenzi said while turning to Domi, so that it was unclear who the comment was directed to. It was clear to Yllek that this was an old feud.
"Then let's get to the point, shall we?" Arnault suggested.Yllek hadn't even noticed him step back toward the group. Perhaps he had underestimated the man. "Master Yllek, while I was not in office at the time the port was destroyed, the incident falls under my purview as unsettled city business. Rather than waste any more time, after all these years, I'll get straight to the point. We were all wondering whether you'd be willing to appear before myself and the Council of Families to answer a few questions about the incident."
Yllek was sure he'd have to roll his tongue up from the floor, but instead found himself responding. "You must be joking. When I left this town it was one step ahead of the hangman. Now that my return has become known, I'm amazed every day that a mob bearing torches doesn't show up at the door. Presenting myself before the council would be suicide."
"Not necessarily," Vincenzi spoke. "As we've noted, it's been five years. Tempers have had a chance to cool."
"And more reasonable heads have had a chance to prevail," Brecht added.
"Specifically," Arnault retook the floor, "ships, even ships loaded with fireworks, don't blow up of their own accord. Especially not in our fair city."
Yllek was given a few moments of silence to let this settle in. "You've found a better scapegoat."
Domi smiled broadly, "Straight to the point, as always. Nothing personal, dear friend, but you're a small catch. A disaster of that magnitude could net a much bigger fish."
"Anyone in particular in mind?" Yllek asked, warming to the idea.
Brecht took on a look of pure innocence, "We only wish to see justice done."
Yllek wasn't fooled for a moment, but knew when not to press the point. "Very well. What role am I to play in all of this?"
"Simply present yourself at the enquiry, and answer any questions truthfully," Arnault supplied.
Yllek glanced questioningly at Domi, who gave him a nod. "This may seem petty, but what assurances of safety can you offer me? I doubt very much if everyone will take as reasonable view of this."
Domi stepped forward, "You're safe as long as you remain in my house. Only a fool would come after you here. As for the hearing, the three houses represented here will pledge for your safe conduct. No one would risk the wrath of all three of our families." Brecht and Vincenzi both nodded in support.
Yllek considered all this for a moment. For all three families, normally bitter rivals at the best of times, to decide to work together, there must be something huge at stake. He assumed that Arnault's support was based largely on graft, and could only marginally be trusted, but that the other three would be committed, if only to save face, once their word was given. "Very well, but I have one condition."
"You have but to ask," Brecht offered graciously.
Yllek smiled. If it were only so simple. "Given what's at undoubtedly at stake, I don't think it would be out of line to ask for four ships, and the money to crew them for a year."
Only Domi smiled at this. He was always one to admire a big brass set. "That would be a burden even for our families, friend Yllek. But I think we can come to some sort of an agreement."
Yllek tried not to smile too broadly. Things might turn out for the best after all.
~End Chapter 3~