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Fiction, Fantasy, Serial Novel
by: J. Dennis McKay
Brecht contemplated in silence as his carriage and escort wound it's way through the streets of Tovani. There had been relative peace in the city for nearly two years, so Brecht decided to enjoy the peace and security the small convoy enjoyed on it's way home. That peace, Brecht knew, was about to be shattered. Fitting, he thought, that Yllek should be at the center of it. The man always had been somewhat of a lightning rod.
Brecht felt a shadow pass over the curtained carriage, and knew that it was pulling through the arched entry to the court yard of House Antilly. No fancy, cultured garden filled the courtyard here. Instead, aside from being dominated by the central tower, as most of the major Houses were, the courtyard contained stables, wooden barracks, and several practice quads for the soldiers of the house. House Antilly had always believed in strength through force of arms. It may not be as wealthy as the other major houses, but it relied far less on mercenaries in times of crisis. The worth of this policy would undoubtedly prove itself in the weeks to come.
As he dismounted the carriage, Brecht surveyed the grounds. One of the quads was earthen, and currently in use by mounted troops. Three were devoted to foot, two pike and one sword. The final practice area was not properly a quad, but an elongated strip devoted to archers and crossbow, an element of crossbow currently holding the field. Brecht smiled. The ordered clamor of the practice sessions rang in his ears like music.
A liveried page quickly made his way to Brecht, cutting dangerously through the nearest quad, in which two units of sword went at each other furiously with rattan weapons. "Master Brecht", the officious little paper pusher announced, "Papa Antilly expressed a desire to see you immediately upon your return."
Diplomacy evaporated from Brecht's face as he glared down at the shorter man. "Tell Papa," he sneered, "that I'll see him in my quarters." The page winced at this obvious insubordination. "And on your way to see him, stop by the kitchens and have them send up some fruits and wine. It'll be your head if the snack doesn't beat me to my chambers."
The little man's eyes widened in fear as he quickly turned on his heel and raced off toward the kitchens. Brecht wasn't known for making idle threats. Once again Brecht's eyes surveyed the grounds before they settled on a broad shouldered brute of a man who was already striding confidently toward him. Brecht didn't bother calling out to him. Angmar Vergouen was the kind of man Brecht respected. As the man approached, he once again looked in wonder upon a man whose face was little more than a mass of scar tissue. Brecht had sought him out and recruited him personally from the northern clans of distant Valasia. Angmar, beaten, stabbed, slashed, burned and trampled, but never defeated. He was a legend among his own people, nearly a hundred of whose best warriors had followed him here three years ago to join House Antilly's standing army to form one of the core elite units.
"Master Brecht," Angmar growled, delivering a curt nod of his head as he neared.
"Angmar, walk with me good man," Brecht leisurely turned and started toward the edge of the courtyard. "Let's share wine and talk while we wait for the old cripple to report."
Angmar smiled, or contorted his ravaged face into something that he thought of as a smile. Unlike many of the clerks of the house, he was under no illusion as to where the real power of House Antilly lay.
Vincenzi bade one of the servants bring him a glass of buttermilk, for his stomach, as he worked his way through the house to the inner courtyard. Papa himself may have chosen Elanna, but the woman would be the death of him yet. Dealing with House Antilly and House Domi, not to mention that no account scoundrel Navillus. And the Mayor. That drunkard's head was far to precariously attached to his neck to be trusted. Only Domi had any honor among them, but if the Lady thought she was his match, she was gravely mistaken. By the gods, next she would have him courting alliance with that tramp, Lady Dovrani. He was a good man and loyal, and he would serve his Lady to the death, if need be, but some days he wished for that death, to relieve him of his troubles.
Lounging comfortably in the sitting room of his chambers, Brecht enjoyed a glass of wine and some strawberries as he waited for the 'Master' of the house to present himself. "How many men could we put in the streets, today, if need be?"
Angmar quickly consulted his memory. "We have but a hundred competent horse, fifty more in training we could use as shock troops at need. It is better among the foot. As near a thousand Pikemen as doesn't matter the difference, and seven hundred sword. All of these well trained and trusty men, with some units of exceptional quality, say, three hundred elite. We can also count on seventy bowmen, and three hundred and fifty crossbow. The crossbow can be reinforced by an equal number of foot, who've received the proper training, but we'll need to acquire several hundred extra crossbows to accomplish this. There are also slightly more than two hundred marines currently in port, but they are ill equipped or trained for street fighting. It would be best if they remained with their ships."
Brecht thought on this for a moment. He was well enough aware of the numbers, but it was reassuring to hear them from Angmar. The greatest weakness was with the horse units. Brecht knew, for example, that House Domi could field at best eight hundred of it's own men, but that virtually every man among them was good with both horse and bow. "Our main liability, then, is in maneuverability. We must concentrate on our horse units, and have them all up to speed within a week if possible. We must also work on ways of rapidly redeploying the foot." He was interrupted as the outer door swung in to reveal an obviously ancient man hunched over a pair of canes.
"I take it, by the sour look on your face, that all went well this morning?"
Lady Elanna Gandolfo was, as was usual whenever weather permitted, strolling the gardens, dictating business to following clerks and servants at need.
"As well as could be expected, m'Lady," Vincenzi replied between sips from a large mug of buttermilk.
"And what price did he ask, for his services?"
Vincenzi relayed the details of the deal that had been struck in the end.
"You allowed Domi to get off easy," she smiled at the confused expression on Vincenzi's face. "But no matter. We can absorb the loss of one ship without difficulty. You realize of course, that we have remade House Navillus in a morning, after twenty years of oblivion?"
"Two ships hardly make a house," Vincenzi scoffed. "Besides, Yllek's had ships before."
"I'm afraid you're mistaken on both counts." Elanna loved her cousin dearly, but sometimes he was insufferably daft. Frustrated, she decided to explain. "He only contracted ships before, never owned them. And three of the smaller Navilus houses currently lie in Domi territory."
Comprehension crept across Vincenzi's face. "Papa Domi dotes on the man, for unknown reasons. He'll doubtless return them to Yllek, once he's appeared before the council."
"Doubtless," Elanna agreed.
"And with Estate and ships..."
"Yllek will be entitled to a seat on the council," she finished the thought for him.
Vincenzi's face once again grew stern, "You play dangerously, m'Lady."
"Perhaps," she agreed. "But life itself is a risk. As well, you don't know the whole of the plan. You must trust that I have the best interests of this house at heart, my cousin."
"I never doubted it," Vincenzi demurred. "But how will he fill even three small houses? At present, he has no retainers, and lacks the resources to acquire them."
Elanna laughed into a kerchief, "Oh, he has resources. He may be a cad and a gambler, but he's always been a man who others follow. With ships and estate, he'll have little difficulty acquiring men."
"Well," the old man croaked as he hobbled into the room, "what ruin have you concocted for us today?"
Brecht sneered at the appearance of the titular head of the House. "Nothing of which you aren't already well aware, old fool."
Papa Antilly had worked his way to a chair, and seated himself to the sound of creaking and cracking joints. "I may be old and decrepit, but you'd do well, Brecht, to remember that my mind has yet to rot." He stared at the pitcher of wine pointedly for a moment, then glanced at Angmar, "Would you mind doing an old man a small courtesy?"
"Certainly," Angmar responded with a respectful nod.
After refreshing himself with a drink, the old man continued. "So everything went according to plan then? The young Navillus agreed to appear before the council?"
"Of course he did," Brecht answered. "What option did he have."
"Little," the elder replied, "save a return to flight. Still, I doubt he came without a price."
Brecht's eyes narrowed a moment. The old man had been right. He would do well to remember that his elder's mind had not suffered from the ravages of age. "He wheedled a barquentine out of us, and House Gandolfo as well. Domi is into him for a thousand crowns, easily the value of one of the vessels."
The elder dismissed the cost with a flick of his wrist. "Worth the cost twice over. See to it we appear generous, give him the best barquentine we have in port at the moment. It would be well to deliver it complete with it's cannon, as well."
Brecht raised an eyebrow at this. "Is that wise? I see no problem in giving the man a good ship, but cannon are hard to come by."
"Perhaps. But it would be seen as a grand gesture, and we can better afford to spare them than can the Gandolfo."
Brecht smiled, "Who will be forced to match us or appear ungrateful. Very well then."
"And you're wrong about Domi. He got off easy. Certainly, we can build and equip a barquentine for much less than a thousand crowns, but it will be well into the summer by the time we've accomplished the task. And by then, it will be too late to send it on one of the longer, and more profitable, voyages."
Brecht grimaced. He hated it when the old man tried to make him look a fool, and longed for the day he no longer had to be endured. "Will that be all, then?"
A smile creased the elder's face, though a glint of anger flashed in his eye. "Yes, I believe it will be." Relying heavily on his canes, he stood and began to make his way for the door. Stopping short, he made one last comment before leaving. "Though you've barely mentioned him, I fear you underestimate young Navillus. Long ago, they say, his family was the strongest of the strong. Do not cross him, for his blood will not die easily."
Mayor DiPietro shuffled his way toward his chambers, housed in the same building as the Council Chambers. Passing guardsmen didn't even bother to salute as he made his way. As a young man he'd had more respect as a clerk for the Guard's payroll. How he had ever allowed himself to be maneuvered into becoming Mayor he would never fully understand, and he now regretted the day he'd applied for an apprenticeship as a way off the streets of this cursed city. If he'd remained on the streets, he would probably be dead by now, and that would be an improvement over the position he now held.
Curse Yllek. Curse Domi, Brecht, Elanna and the lot of them. He didn't have the slightest idea where their plans were going, but he doubted it would turn to his favor in the long run. All he cared for anymore was time alone with his drink, and the sweet oblivion it brought him. Perhaps, if he was lucky, this current plot would cause such an uproar that his term would end in the same way that it had for so many of his predecessors, then he would no longer have to resort to drink to find oblivion.
Entering his chambers, he immediately sensed he was not alone. It took only a moment to realize who occupied the room ahead of him, and a chill sobriety descended on him. "What do you want now," he asked, a tremor in his voice.
"Where have you been?"
Quickly, Arnault related the events of the morning. "The city profited from my presence quite well."
"No doubt your own coffers profited as well," the voice dripped with contempt. "I'd heard that Yllek had returned. It appears he's no less a magnet for plots than ever." There was a moment's silence that Arnault felt no need to fill. "But where does this plot lead, I wonder? Don't answer. I know you're merely a pawn in this."
Arnault despised the way this man could so quickly see to the heart of his weakness in any given situation. But he feared him far more than he despised him. "How do you wish me to play this?" he hated the way he automatically deferred to the man. He hated that he had so little choice in the matter.
"Play the fool, as you are so capable of doing." The figure brushed past him on the way to the door. "Let the families play their little games. Who knows? It may, in some small way, work to my favor."
As the door closed behind him, Arnault shuddered with relief. Heading toward his liquor cabinet, he filled a mug with the stiffest brandy in his considerable collection and considered his meager options. Over the past three years, he'd managed to skim a little over eight thousand crowns worth of currency. With luck, and a head start, it would be enough to keep him drunk until the day he died from the drink. A better end than he could hope for if he stayed on here. He should be able to skim an extra few hundred crowns from today's dealings as well, perhaps enough to bribe a skipper to get him far enough from here that he would have a chance to enjoy the rest of his money.
Halfway to the bottom of his mug, Arnault reached a decision. He would wait for the inquiry to get underway and get a sense of the direction it was going to take. An inquiry was prime breeding ground for bribes, and he'd risk the opening rounds to pad his purse a little. But no matter what direction it took, and however it appeared it would affect him personally, Arnault knew his time in office was drawing to an end. He would have to be careful, though, as careful as ever he'd been. If anyone sensed his intentions, then surely he was a doomed man.
~End Chapter 5~