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Fiction, Fantasy, Serial Novel
by: J. Dennis McKay
The next day passed with an agonizing lack of speed. By noon, the gaunt little man Domi had sent to continue Yllek's instruction had given up on the hung over, distracted gentleman who hadn't even bothered to change out of his sleeping gown. As Yllek picked unenthusiastically at his lunch, he quickly regretted even this small distraction. His mind kept wandering from Lady Dovrani, 'Not done with him yet,' and the impending Council of Families that was to start tomorrow after lunch. Mostly, he thought of the Lady, as he had at least some hope of surviving the Council.
Images floated through his head of a younger, care free man, riding into the country for a summer picnic with a Lady who's beauty made him the envy of half the men in the city. Lying on a blanket, watching the birds and clouds and flowers, and above all, Lady Dovrani. Composing the worst sort of mushy poetry that none but the hopelessly romantic would find even remotely interesting. Walking down the Grand Boulevard with her and reveling in the envious eyes upon him, afterward returning to the market to purchase whatever little thing had caught her eye that day. And at night, risking death and dishonor by scaling her house walls and sneaking into her chamber to present her with such gifts as he could easily carry concealed, and just to spend a few more minutes listening to her soft voice, her gentle laugh, and trying to understand that ever so intelligent mind behind those devastating honey brown eyes. He never made advance on those occasions, or any other, though he suspected there would be little rebuff. And not because her father had threatened his head should he despoil his daughter. Lady Dovrani held a higher place for him than the chamber maids and tavern girls he was renowned and reviled for the ease with which he conquered.
All lost in a single, blinding flash. The confusion that followed the explosion had saved his life, and Yllek knew it. The whole city had shook from the concussion of two loud explosions in rapid succession, then a third, even louder one a few moments later. That third had been the warehouse, and by the time he heard it, Yllek knew he had been ruined. That everything had been ruined...
Yllek realized that he had been just sitting there, thinking of nothing for the gods knew how long when he heard the door open, and he turned to see Papa enter and close the door behind him. "And how is my favorite guest this day?"
"Humph," was all Yllek could answer.
"Obsessing on love lost, no doubt," Papa poured himself a glass and sat opposite Yllek. "Pining like a lovelorn teen, no doubt," Papa chuckled slightly.
"I'm glad you find this so amusing," Yllek responded with more severity than he was used to using with the old man.
Papa raised a hand as if to ward a blow, "Easy lad. I only laugh because I know the pain you suffer."
"Do you?" Yllek sneered.
Papa's eyes narrowed, there was only so much lip he would take even from this man. "I wasn't always an old widower, young man. I, too, have loved and lost, and at least your love still lives."
Yllek relented. He had been but a toddler when Lady Domi had passed, and he never knew her, but in his dimmest memories he remembered his father speaking sadly of the tragedy that had been Lady Domi's death in a fire of mysterious origin. "My apologies, Papa. Sometimes a man forgets that he's not the only one to have ever lost."
Papa smiled again across the table. "You're still young, man. You still have your looks, and your wits. There will be others, and if not, there's always the chance that Lady Dovrani is not as lost to you as she seems."
"Don't patronize me, Papa, the Lady is married and that may as well be the end of it."
"Maybe. Then again, it may be that Guillermo isn't very popular in the Dovrani household, in spite of the wealth he brought with him. It may be, if one can believe the rumors, that Guillermo shirks his marital duties in favor of spending time with the young men of House Dovrani. And as I said before, there have always been those who doubted you held much guilt in that incident of five years past, and it just may be that you could find yourself with allies in the strangest of places, even in House Dovrani."
Yllek let this all sink in for a minute. For a moment, hope had blossomed in his heart. Then he remembered what city he was in, a city that seethed with rumor. And he remembered the man who sat across from him. No doubt, Domi was a better ally than any could ask for, but he never failed to protect his own interests. "Why are you telling me this, Papa?"
"Why, to lift your spirits, good friend," Papa smiled even when Yllek let a rude noise escape his lips. "We can't have you moping about like a scalded puppy tomorrow at the council."
"Ahh, now it becomes clear," Yllek raised his eyes and his tone was half mocking.
Again Papa's eye's narrowed. "Don't mock me, boy, and do not take this lightly. There's far more at stake than you realize."
"Then enlighten me, Papa. Enlighten me with your wisdom, that I grow not as a mushroom, in the dark, sustained by manure."
For a moment, Papa nearly lost his temper. Then he realized that what Yllek had said was completely fair, and it would be perhaps be for the best if he knew some of what lay ahead. Some. "You are old enough to realize that there is no tragedy so great or so small, that someone doesn't see the benefit of it?" he waited for Yllek to nod before proceeding. "When a man dies, someone stands to inherit. When a ship sinks, another will take up it's trade..."
You didn't have to beat Yllek over the head for him to get a point. Well, usually you didn't anyway. "And when a fleet of ships sink, the benefit to those who have ships left could be..."
"Enormous," Papa finished the statement with uncharacteristic bluntness. "You left before you could know, but in this entire city, with all it's families of merchants, only two houses had not a single ship in port that day."
"By the gods," Yllek whispered. "But who would risk it? If anyone found out, the entire city would turn against them."
"You should mind your readings more carefully Yllek," Papa nodded toward the book that lay open on the table. "Great reward oft only comes through great risk. The people that did this were also smart enough to realize that it would be easy enough to shift the blame to the man who's ships carried the lethal cargo. Especially when that man was a lone rogue merchant, without a house of his own."
"And when I fled..."
"It was as much an admission of guilt as most needed," Papa shrugged. "But you did something no one suspected. You survived. And the longer you survived, the more people wondered. Traders, gamblers, and seaman are among the most superstitious people that walk this earth. When the gods failed to wreak their vengeance upon you," again Papa shrugged.
"But Lady Dovrani, and how many others, they believed I was dead."
"A hundred rumors in a city of thousands. With no head to mount on the city gates, with no bounty collected, there were always those willing to believe you lived. And while anyone believed this, other rumors began to spread. Everyone knew which families had escaped unscathed. At first, people marveled at their good luck. Then envy began to take hold as people realized the benefits that accrued from this good fortune, and envy bred suspicion."
"And then I returned," Yllek pondered.
"And that, my friend, no one expected. Not even I. It was probably the single most intelligent act of your young life, whether or not it was intentional," at this Papa gave a wry smile. "Rumor of your return has spread like wildfire. Rarely has the attention of this city been so wrapped up in one man. Before you left, you were a curiosity at best. You return a living legend, a hero to many of the smaller traders who've felt the weight of the larger houses press upon them."
"Pish," Yllek responded to this last. "Some hero, fleeing in disgrace and returning to intrigue."
Papa maintained his serious tone, "Don't discount your own legend, man, it may be the difference in your favor when it comes down to it. And that is why you must walk into that council with your shoulders set, and head high. People will not accept a sulking hero."
Yllek sat and pondered on this for a moment. "You put a lot of faith in me, Papa. But still you avoid telling me who will face the wrath of the city."
Papa kept a level gaze across the table. "It's best for all if you don't know. Yes, I put a lot of faith in you, but not too much. I believe you capable of fulfilling the role that has been set out for you. However, I also firmly believe that for this drama to unfold the way it's been scripted, it's best you be kept ignorant of the villains in our little tragedy."
"Less risk of me slipping up under questioning? Is that it?"
"That is exactly it. Tomorrow will likely be a long day for you, at the end of which it will likely be all to clear who we plan on bringing down. Remember, these are two families that have prospered greatly in your absence, and any hint that you conspire openly against them might be all they need to save themselves. Wealth and power may breed contempt, but it also garners allies."
"Very well then. I will do my best."
"That's all any of us can ask of you. I won't coach you, there will be too many people asking too many questions for me to properly prepare you for all eventualities. Just answer honestly. I suspect you have little to hide. There will be those, not just the families at risk, who will be looking to bring you low, if for no other reason than to see a legend brought to it's knees. Just keep a cool head and don't lose your patience or your temper." With this last, Papa finished his glass and stood to leave.
"Thank you, Papa, for giving me this opportunity," Yllek spoke with true gratitude.
Papa laughed a short laugh. "Don't thank me yet. Thank me when this is all done and you've been restored to business." Again Papa began for the door. Opening it, he stopped one last time. "I here Brant is coming by for dinner. Relax, and enjoy yourself this evening, but don't overdo it. Oh, and the tailor will be by in the mourning with some new togs," he glanced at the plain saber that hung from a peg on the wall, "and a weapon more suited to a conquering hero." Papa smiled at this and left, closing the door behind him.
Yllek glanced at his weapon. "What's wrong with my sword?" he wondered aloud. "It's a fine and sturdy weapon." Then he shrugged. Never refuse a gift, he decided. Perhaps Papa did know best.
By the time Brant arrived, Yllek had dressed in the traveling clothes in which he had arrived a little more than a week before. He greeted that massive man at the door to his apartment and quickly handed him a glass of wine. "Good to see you, again, still whole and healthy."
"This city has a ways to go before it gets the best of me yet," Yllek replied with a smile. "Have a seat, and I'll have Ahrich sent for. And Gianni, if you don't mind a full table?"
"The more the merrier, so long as the kitchen sends enough for us all." It required a substantial amount of fuel to maintain the man, and Brant took great delight in his meals.
Yllek rang for a page and had Gianni and Ahrich sent for, and the two men arrived just prior to a servant bringing a tray of wines and goblets and an arm full of dishes, and another with two trays, one with a selection of cheeses and fruits, the other with some pastries and a slab of butter. "Just to whet the appetite, sir," the young serving girl curtsied at Brant's disappointed examination of the proffered goods. Then she smiled slyly, "The house is well aware of your appetites," and gave him a wink, at which Brant turned red, then she bustled from the room as the three other men burst into fits of laughter.
"All hail the conquering hero!" Yllek raised his glass.
"Damn the man," Ahrich mocked. "I've made one fruitless assault after another at that one, and all he has to do is walk in and complain of the food."
Gianni smiled, "You know what they say. Size has it's advantages." Brant was practically the only one left standing after this last.
"I have half a mind to keep these trinkets to myself," Brant mumbled, thoroughly red, as he set down a bundle of the asked for small bolts and handed Ahrich his large, 'ornamental sealing stamp.' Gianni raised an eyebrow at the exchange, but when no explanation was given, he didn't ask for one. "And as for the other thing, um," he glanced at Gianni.
Yllek was only a little frustrated, but Gianni may as well know, "It's all right, we're among friends."
Brant blushed a little once again. "Well, it doesn't really matter anyway. I couldn't find anyone."
Yllek furrowed his brow, "No one? I have a hard time believing no one was available."
Brant suddenly took an intense interest in the carpeting. "Well, you see, it's not exactly that no one was available. It's just that... well... When mentioned who they would be working for..."
Yllek understood. "It's alright, Brant. I should have expected as much."
Brant was silent for a moment. Then, realizing there were three sets of eyes on him. "Well, I shouldn't say I couldn't find anyone, exactly, just..."
"Just no one you could trust?" Yllek prodded.
"Well, it's not exactly that I wouldn't trust them, it's just, well, they were a little, oh how can I say it? They were a little green, if you catch my meaning."
Yllek thought about this for a moment. "Just exactly how green?"
"Well, there was a group of them, you understand. Not bad kids, really, just without position, if you understand me."
Young street toughs, Yllek realized. "How green?" His tone implied he wanted a definite answer.
"Well, the oldest, calls himself 'Pockets,' which doesn't sound real promising, really, he'd be around sixteen."
That wasn't too bad, Yllek thought. He looked across at Gianni, who seemed to be getting the drift of the conversation. "I was already in the House Guard when I was fifteen," he offered.
"And the rest? How many of these street urchins are there?"
"Ten, near as I could figure. Most of them around fourteen or fifteen, though a pair of them I'd swear couldn't be older than about twelve."
"Twelve? Gods man! Some guard that would be. More like a nursery." Yllek didn't know what else to say.
Gianni coughed to draw attention. "Twelve is not a bad age to start training, Yllek. And I seem to remember you could hold your own pretty well at that age."
"Against other youngsters, certainly, but I would never have gone up against a House Guardsman until I was fifteen, at least."
For a while there was silence, then Gianni again offered his opinion, "I'd take them," he said simply. Then, seeing the look on the other three's faces, decided to explain. "Are at least half more than fourteen?" he asked of Brant.
Brant shrugged, "It's hard to tell, and I doubt if they all know their own ages, but, I'd say six of them were at least that old, at a guess."
Gianni nodded, "I can probably convince Domi to let me spare a few men, on top of Ahrich here, say, another two. I'll make sure they're good men, sergeants with a bit of experience and a few scars. There are lots of young guardsmen who lie about their age to get in at fourteen or fifteen, so that really is not an issue, you know," he waited to see the resigned expression dawn on Yllek's face. "They come as a group, which is good because I'd be willing to bet they already know how to work as a team, which is a damned hard thing to train. Like you said, they're a bunch of street toughs, and I'd also be willing to bet they know a few tricks they could teach us. This is hardly an easy city on orphans, you know. Yllek, you had the benefit of Domi looking after you. I'll bet these kids have no one but each other. They probably know the ins and outs of the city better than any of us, as well. Every alley, even the sewers. No one would let them hang about in any one spot for too long. And then there's the question of loyalty."
"Loyal to their own stomachs, I'll bet," Ahrich scoffed.
"Exactly," Gianni agreed, to everyone's surprise. "I'll bet, if you take them on, it'll be the first chance any of them will ever have had at regular meals in their entire lives. That," Gianni thumped a finger on the table, "can make for some very loyal men."
Yllek thought on it for a moment. When he himself, not that long ago, had been on the brink of starvation, there had been some days where he would have risked everything for a nice hot meal and a comfortable bed. "Alright, but what about the younger ones?"
Gianni shrugged, "Use them as pages, scouts, whatever. But train them. Do it right and you might find yourself with quite a hearty little band in a few years."
"Alright," Yllek relented, then turned to Brant. "But don't send them around until the day after tomorrow. It won't do me any good to have them as an honor guard at the hearing."
Brant was gnawing on the last piece of cheese, they'd all been snacking in between talking and had cleaned off the two platters. "It's your neck, I suppose. And I guess it's not like they could be any worse off." Just then two maids brought in another pair of platters each. This time heaping with meats, little sauce dishes, and heavy chunks of bread. "Now that's more like it!" Brant exalted.
"I'm so glad it's to your pleasing, sir," the same cute young maid winked at Brant again. Again, Brant turned red.
They all dug into the meal, paying little attention to the niceties of the table. After some coaxing, Brant began to dig stories of far off places and exotic women from Yllek. By the time a few hours had passed, they had drunk enough wine and been regaled by such stories that Brant hardly even noticed when the young maid, Neesa, took up residence on his lap. No one commented on that particularly, and for her part, she kept relatively quiet, except for the odd word whispered into Brant's ear. These words, which no one else could hear, never failed to bring color to his cheeks.
In all they passed a fine night, and though it was late when they retired, Yllek kept his word to Domi and went light on the drinking, watering down his wine near the end to the point where it barely had any flavor left. When finally left alone, Yllek found himself quite tired, and to his surprise, completely able to gain a restful night's sleep.
~End Chapter 8~