Chapter 4: Lightning

Arc 1: Coming Storm

Chapter 4: Lightning

“This is unexpected.”

A dim part of her mind recognizes the irony in her habit of thinking aloud, recognizes that it is the quintessential Achilles heel for someone of her profession. Still, she starts her thoughts off best with an audible bookend, and as she returns to cleaning, her mind works.

Her orders: ingratiate and observe. It was easy enough to establish herself here, unnoticed and unquestioned. It was a simple matter, hanging around the archaic vents of the castle.

Her orders: do not engage. It’s no trouble to keep mute with the royal family and their nobles. They are kind, which complicates things, but she had expected as much, and in any case theirs is a distant kindness.

Her orders: report. Any who ask why she writes so much mail are told she has a lover, and indeed her correspondences do seem like love letters. One such missive sits folded in the pocket of her apron.

Darling,

Thank you for your sweet words. The other girls can’t compare to you. I am very pleased to know that Paul is feeling well; I do so worry about his ill-tempered health. His body seems to act with a mind of its own. Keep an eye on him for me.

I recently had to spank Felix quite ferociously for hitting another boy outside of boxing club. He is getting quite rowdy and over-eager. Do let me know if Finley says anything about it; I don’t suspect he’ll hear the news, but you know how I value his opinion. As always, if you think he’s caught onto the boxing tournament we’re planning for him, send word so we may make adjustments. It’s very important that we surprise him with it.

A nice gesture of our appreciation for him, don’t you think?

I have been thinking longingly of you and the curls in your hair. I should like to sing a song for you when next I see you.

All the best,
Randall

She does not like being so soppy, but it is an effective cover. Where others see idle chatter she sees business. The praise is good; it means she is invaluable to her motherland and exceeding the usefulness of others in similar positions. This pleases her. It should not please her. She knows she is as strong as her weakest comrade, but some allowance must be made in the chain for human emotion in the end.

Indeed, all is going well, and it is of little consequence, but… The King’s bastard son is not as she imagined him. She saw a cold instinct in his face, and though it was quickly drained and replaced by shock and guilt, the imprint remains. She likes killers, likes the way they see the world as a battle. She did not expect to like the King’s son.

She must remind herself that if the love letters say to fix knife upon throat, that is what she must do. It is best not to get attached. So inspired, she has made plans to take care of an errand tonight which she has delayed too long.

The time becomes the right time. She uncurls herself from her crouch on the floor, dusts her dress off with her hands and places the cleaning supplies in her bucket. After putting the pail in its place, she leaves the castle, head down. She does not tell anyone she is going, though she is supposed to. Nobody will ask after her, and if they do broach the matter she will apologize profusely, tug at her dark hair, stammer, and explain that she is just so brainless that she forgot.

She likes to watch them judge her.

When she steps into her destination, slipping the key back into her pocket, she’s greeted by warmth. The room is cast over with the orange glow of the fireplace as it battles off the settling nip of autumn, and someone is baking bread if her nose is anything to go by, and it is. The strains of a guitar plink to a stop as someone hears the door open. She peers through an ajar door to see the family gathered around in the picture of comfort, guitar in the father’s hand. As she pushes the door open slowly, the woman seated nearby sets aside her sewing, rises, and turns. Her puzzled expression turns to happiness shortly.

“Agnes!” she cries with a cheerful clap. “You came to visit!”

In a rush, the roomful of people rises to greet Agnes, and before long she is sat down with a slice of cake on a plate in her lap, the children gathered around her feet, the woman who has so gladly greeted her at her side. Only the man remains where he is, his solid arms cradling his instrument as he smiles lightly. He’s only a pretty face, but that’s what will be on her conscience at the end of the night. She is out of practice in this.

“I-I’m sorry I took so long to come back…” Agnes offers, putting on the shy girl like a suit. “The job at the palace has kept me so busy! You’d think, an expensive place like that, it would almost clean itself… But it’s such an old, big building… Thank you, though, for getting me the position. I-I don’t mean to sound ungrateful…”

The woman laughs. “Don’t be silly, we know it’s thankless. But we’re glad to help a fellow fugitive.”

Agnes straightens, smiling a little more sharply. “The homeland does not allow unauthorized travel.”

“Believe me, we know. It was such a trial to get out!”

“In particular the homeland does not allow unauthorized travelers to make deals with a certain Lord Pachis.”

It goes as silent as stagnant water. The adults stiffen their backs and tighten their fists; a string on the man’s guitar breaks and the woman recoils from the body contact she has hereto been maintaining. The children look around curiously.

“Girls,” comes the mother’s tight voice, “go upstairs. Do not come down no matter what you hear. Do not make a single peep.”

The youngsters scurry up the steps. Agnes waits until their footsteps stop tapping overhead, then continues, “The penalty for such an action is death.”

“Agnes,” says the man, the first word he has said this whole conversation. He is crying. “How long? Since the start? Even when…?”

Agnes stares at him for a moment. He has served her well.

“From beginning to finish I complete the Chain,” she confirms.

His guitar clatters to the floor as he buries his face in his hands, sobbing. Two men step into the drawing room; Agnes does not turn their way, only waves them to stand behind her guests. Setting her plate aside and rising, she turns to address both of them. Slowly, she reads them their execution sentences. They do not have the decency to face death bravely, she notes with disgust, and it is with gladness and a wonder at why she took so long that she lets her hand fall and the men drag their knives.

“The children?” asks one after the bodies have gone still. Agnes shakes her head.

“Leave the children. You have done well; I will inform the Coupler of your efficiency and restraint.”

As the men bow and slip away, Agnes retrieves the plate she had been given mere moments ago and takes a bite from the cake upon it. “Impressive,” she says, thinking aloud once again.

Chapter 3: Thunder

Arc 1: Coming Storm

Chapter 3: Thunder

At age twenty, Prince Mikhail is ripe for marriage, and Lilah Tiller knows it. He watches her with expertly concealed disgust, smiling lightly as she bats her eyelashes at him. “Won’t you spend some time with me?” she is cooing.

He bows – a shallow thing, but then so is she. “My dear Miss Tiller, had I not the duties of a Prince I may while away some hours by your side, but I’m afraid I have tarried long enough. The Inner calls me.” He is playing the game, making eyes at every side, but it’s always more difficult with Lilah, who is vapid, who he hates, who he will likely be wed to in the end.

She giggles, fanning herself at the mention of his influence. “Why, my Prince! I am shocked you have let me delay you this long, if that is the case.”

Yes, he thinks, so am I. He takes her hand, presses his lips against it mechanically. “One cannot help himself, in good company. Good day, Miss Tiller.” With that, he sweeps from the parlour as quickly as he can.

“Good day, Mikhail!” the girl calls after him impertinently.

He suppresses an eyeroll, even now, not because he worries about being seen but because he must clear his mind. Seek positives. In some ways, it is an enjoyable pastime to put these masks on, to arrange situations to suit him and corall dull minds like Lilah Tiller’s. House Tiller is not known for its brains, but it is the most powerful – second only to the royal House of Montbat. Mikhail’s own House.

Kinder positives. If all goes well, things in this kingdom will be changing for the better. Decades of oppression will be cast off, the chains of traditionalism tossed aside in favor of progress, the people coming into an age of such profound joy that Mikhail quivers to think of it – if the war is waged. If the war is won.

Surer positives. The weather, at least, is refreshing and brisk. His cloak shields him from any bite the cold might have, and the air keeps him cool in his many layers. Autumn is quickly changing colors.

Good enough.

He throws open the doors to the council room as he reaches it, entering without breaking stride, and he flashes his brightest smile at those present. He spoke of being late before, but it was a white lie; there are very few yet gathered here. His father is at the head of the table, and Mikhail is quick to take the seat by his right. Further down the line sit Lord Pachis and Lady Glenn.

Mikhail’s attention is drawn to the door as it opens. In walks Knox. Mikhail had hoped the man would change into something more appropriate, but he’s in the same plain clothes that graced his back this morning. At least they’re clean now. As Knox seats himself, seemingly as far as possible from King Gareth, Mikhail thinks back to their conversation in his room.

“What? What’re you thinkin’?”

“All in good time, my brother.”

“I’m not your brother, and stop bein’ so damn hedgey!”

“You’re still rejecting us?”

“…Quit trying to change the subject.”

The vehement denial had hurt Mikhail, and he can only imagine what Knox’s stubbornness is causing in his father’s heart. But for now, there’s little to be done. Sometimes, he muses, you have to let go of the things you love.

Other lords, from the select oldest or most powerful Houses, file in. A small messenger boy drafts in behind the last, making a beeline to Knox. Murmured words are exchanged and Mikhail catches a few of them: “from Aedra,” “wife,” “thank you.” A folded piece of paper changes hands, and then the boy hurries out, head lowered. Knox looks down to read whatever it is he’s just received, and chokes out a surprised ha! of laughter just as the King stands to begin the meeting. Anything that can make a man like Knox laugh in sour times is worth investigating for no other reason than Mikhail’s personal interest. Mikhail almost doesn’t rise in time with all the other lords to show his father respect, such is his curiosity towards the note.

Knox almost fails entirely to rise, looking around at the standing nobles with a bemused expression before pushing his chair out and straightening with an air of reluctance.

There’s a solemn pause before the King begins to speak. “Are there any not in attendance?”

The scribe sitting at a small table nearby bites his lip, then sighs in relief as Lord Tiller pipes up with, “All are in attendance, Your Majesty. You issued an absolute summons.”

“Ah, yes, so I did.”

Mikhail feels a hint of annoyance at his father, regent or not. The man tries so hard, but he is not much for protocol… Or, Mikhail privately thinks, for leadership.

It’s the sort of sentiment that would merit punishment even for a Prince if said aloud.

Lord Godoy leans over to whisper something in Lord Orbeli’s ear; Orbeli laughs. Their gazes travel over to Knox, who meets them with his own challenging stare, the bloody fool.

“Yes, so I did,” the King repeats. “Well, I wrote in my letter about the current situation. What happened on our soil. Prince Knox is in attendance to give a first-hand account. If you would, Knox…?”

“Father,” Mikhail murmurs gently, tilting his head at the men (and solitary woman) standing about.

“Oh, yes!” exclaims King Gareth. “All may be seated,” he says, lowering his heavy body into his own chair.

There is a bustling and scrape of feet and furniture. When the room settles into stillness once more, Gareth gestures to Knox and says, “Son?”

Mikhail watches Knox carefully. Anger, grief, and perhaps a hint of nerves flit across it, for reasons Mikhail can only guess. The farmer-prince-whichever clears his throat. “Right. Well. It… It started when I was ‘sleep. Asleep. It started when I was asleep.” He shakes his head as if to knock his informal speech out of it.

“I woke up because I heard knocking on my door. No, it was more like pounding. It was so loud.” Knox swallows, face pale. “I was slow to get to the door. The noise woke the baby up, Charity went over to soothe it and me?” He laughs bitterly. “Me, I started to put clothes on. Called out that I’d be there in a mo’, but she said it had to be now. Etta, I mean. She was the one at the door.”

Knox pauses a beat longer than appropriate, then continues. “She was crying. I’d never seen her crying before, she’s soft as a sword so I knew it wasn’t good. She told me that… Annie was gone, and about the soldiers, that they were coming this way, and then Charity was crying too, and the baby, and everyone was crying, so I just… couldn’t. And I told Charity to take Junior to the beach house and tell Ida, and hide, and stay there. And I told Etta to help me get everyone else there too. She’d take one side of the town, I’d take the other…

“We didn’t have anythin’ in the way of weapons, but we went to the smith first anyway, to check. He got a gleam in his eyes I’ve sometimes seen. Wasn’t happy, but it wasn’t disagreeable either. He had a stash like you never saw before. There were guns. Well, Etta took half and I took half and we split up, tryin’ t’ arm folks and get them to the beach house too. We’d figured the soldiers wouldn’t go there real quick.

“Problem was, they weren’t taking their time, so… They came stormin’ through my half, an’ I fought them but I couldn’t save everyone, I couldn’t do enough and-”

Knox’s voice breaks. He falls silent for a moment, tilting his head back and blinking several times, then recovers and continues. “A handful of us made it to the beach to meet up with Etta’s group, and then they came that way. Shot through walls, tried to throw flaming torches into the house but our people put those fires out right quick and once we took a bunch of ‘em down they… gave up, I s’pose. They left.”

It’s quiet for what feels like eons. Mikhail feels tense; he knows this is when foolish men will pick apart an honest man’s account and invent reasons for it to not mean what it means. He knows he hasn’t prepared Knox for it, not enough. He prays for a miracle.

A miracle is not to be had.

Lord Godoy speaks first, addressing Knox. “What suggested to you that these men were Rendelese soldiers?”

Knox bristles. “They came from the south and attacked us. Who else would they be?”

Godoy holds up a hand as if to calm Knox down. “It is certainly possible they were soldiers from Rendel, but it is just as possible that they were bandits, or-”

“They wore the uniform. With the symbol, the… the chain link. Right on their hearts,” Knox says bitterly.

It’s silent for a beat, and then Godoy counters with, “How do we know those soldiers were not acting on their own accor-”

“Oh for the Highest Kings’ sakes, Godoy, are you really going to debate something like that?” Mikhail bursts out, exasperated.

The smirk Mikhail receives in response heralds a dull headache. Lord Godoy leans forward, thin fingers clasping together as his long, dark hair sweeps in front of his face. “I would hate to wage war on a country with no malintent, my Prince.”

“Down, Vasco,” says Lord Pachis. Vasco Godoy’s face sours, and he leans back in his chair. Mikhail takes some satisfaction in seeing the man bite his tongue, but he’s wary of Pachis, who is always too quiet to not be planning something.

Franklin Tiller, who at the very least is smarter than his daughter, clears his throat. Mikhail and the Lords surrounding him turn their gazes on the man, who smiles and rests his hand on his large belly. “All this talk of whether it was Rendel… What I’m not seeing is a why. Rendel has no issue with us; they could not possibly have attacked.”

Knox stands and stares at Lord Tiller, shaking with anger before seeming to remember where he is and sitting down. Mikhail lets out the breath he was holding as Knox says in a voice that is careful but straining, “You think I’m lyin’?”

Tiller fixes a sympathetic stare on the man. “With all you went through, I’m sure it is hard to keep details straight-”

“I know what I saw!”

Hastily, Mikhail jumps in, hoping to defuse the situation and still move the conversation forward. “Aedra is not the first instance of violence on the border we share with Rendel.” He sees Knox whip his gaze around to pierce him, but presses on. “Knife Riverton, Mudwater, Daxville, Renaria, Langa. Three of those were burned to the ground, no survivors.”

“So there are some bandits raiding border towns,” Tiller fires back, but Mikhail will have none of it.

“In soldiers’ uniforms?”

“They can wear whatever they bloody well want, but there’s still no motive-”

Pachis’ quiet voice intercedes with a smug tone. “Rendel is slowly approaching famine. Surely you, Lord Tiller, with your farming empire, would understand why a rationing country might wish to conquer a fertile land such as Findal.”

Tiller frowns, confused. “We have a trade agreement with Rendel… We send them food regularly.”

Pachis smiles. “Do we?”

Mikhail casts a glance at his father, who looks uncomfortable, mouth open as if he would speak but is unsure of what to say. In his place, the Prince redirects. “The point is, Rendel has been spilling our people’s blood all year. They have a history founded on spilling our blood. Rendel has never been our friend and the tenuous peace we had with them is coming to an end. If we do nothing, they will grind us into dust.”

“Even if we don’t do nothing, they will grind us into dust,” mutters Lord Godoy.

“Don’t say that. You don’t know that,” Mikhail counters.

Godoy snorts. “They’re the single largest military force in the world! Are you mad?”

Mikhail sighs, rubbing his face. “I’m not mad, Lord Godoy, and I’m not blind either. Rendel is coming with their military whether we rise to face them or not. I’d rather rise.” Peering through his fingers, Mikhail surveys the room.

Neither Lord Orbeli nor Lady Glenn have spoken. Mikhail expected it of Orbeli, but military and seafaring have long been the purview of House Glenn, and he assumed the Lady would have more to say. But then, Findal hasn’t maintained a standing army in centuries, and the girl is young, having taken on the mantle after her mother’s premature death. She looks tired and terrified.

Godoy and Pachis are whispering to each other. Godoy’s an arse, but he’s an honest arse. Pachis on the other hand looks far too pleased with himself. He’d brushed a line, Mikhail knows – had touched on a secret he shouldn’t have even known – and the Prince isn’t sure what retribution should be brought down on his head but he hopes to have no part in it.

Tiller looks thoughtful for a change, but then that might not be a good thing.

Knox is slowly clenching and unclenching his fists, which Mikhail knows to be a bad sign. The man fidgets in his seat, tongue working in his mouth, until finally he speaks. “I’m a simple man. I’m a farmer. And I don’t know about your politickin’. But I do know that when something attacks you, you fight back or you run or you die. And when something attacks you that’s bigger’n you, you fight smart or you run or you die. But y’ can’t really run from a war.” His hands continue to squeeze in on themselves as he speaks, which means there’s something else weighing on him. At least, that’s what Mikhail thinks it means. He hopes he’s soon to find out.

After a silence, Lord Pachis leans forward and traces his finger around the border of Rendel on the embroidered map set on the table under a layer of glass. “Rendel maintains the largest military, but they are not the largest land.” His fingers travel to Findal. “We are the largest land. We have more men; it is only a matter of putting weapons in their hands.”

“And training them,” says Lady Glenn. She too is studying the map, though her small figure is quivering. Pachis nods.

“But who would work the land, then?” asks Tiller. “Pachis, you should understand. It wouldn’t be good for you, either; who would work the people? Who would be left to craft or trade?”

“The young and the old. The women,” says Pachis. He glances at Glenn. “The ones who don’t work already, that is. If we work closely with the Silver Tongues-”

Godoy snorts, Orbeli pales, and Mikhail himself frowns, feeling uneasy. Pachis continues undeterred.

“If we work closely with the Silver Tongues, we may be able to minimize the amount of work needed.”

Mikhail looks down at his clasped hands, thin brows drawn together as he considers. “The Tongues are… difficult to read. One can never be sure just what they are capable of, and I prefer our direct work with them be limited. However…” He sighs and nods. “It is necessary.”

There are several reluctant nods mirroring his own. King Gareth clears his throat. “Gentlemen, I have heard your concerns on all sides. We cannot ignore the threat from the South, but we cannot act hastily, either. I am, therefore, enacting a vote to mobilize for, but not declare or instigate, war. House Montbat says aye.”

Mikhail nods appreciatively. He and his father had discussed it beforehand. They had gone over the nobles and their likely objections a dozen times and rehearsed this compromise. The meeting, really, was more a formality than anything.

One by one the Lords cast their votes.

“Hang you all! Oh, alright. House Tiller votes aye.”

“House Pachis votes aye.”

Lord Godoy frowns and does not speak immediately, sighing as Pachis fixes him with an expectant stare. “House Godoy votes aye.”

“House Orbeli votes nay!”

Mikhail quirks a brow. It is quiet for a moment, and the King helpfully prompts the room. “And House Glenn?”

The girl is staring down into her lap, fingers twisted into the fabric of her dress. “House Glenn…” she begins, but then trails off.

“Yes?”

“…House Glenn abstains.”

There is a collective shrug among the room’s inhabitants. Gareth stands. “There it is, Lords. Lady Alana. We will prepare. Shall we convene to discuss details over dinner?”

There are nods and murmurs of assent, Orbeli sourfaced and Pachis sanguine, Glenn frightened and Tiller resolute. Godoy scoffs. “I agreed to it happening, but I want no part in it,” he says. “I’ll be heading home, myself.”

Gareth looks alarmed. “What? No – Lord Godoy, if we are to prepare for war-times than your knowledge in medicine will be most invaluable. I entreat you to join us.”

Godoy’s unpleasant face looks slightly less unpleasant than usual; Mikhail suspects he enjoys the stroking of his ego. “If you insist, Your Highness.”

The King beams. “Yes, well, until tonight then, my friends. The castle halls and grounds are yours, as is all the hospitality House Montbat is known for. Please, make yourself at home or attend to any business you have within the Capital.”

“Father,” Mikhail murmurs, prompting.

“Oh, yes! All may rise. You are dismissed.”

Mikhail, for his part, sighs.

The Lords and Lady don’t immediately file out; many gather together, speaking amongst themselves. Mikhail steps closer to his father. “Walk with me?”

Gareth peers down at his son curiously and nods, beginning to stride toward the large glass door opening into the royal gardens. “Something you want to talk to me about, son?”

Mikhail just smiles until they are safely among the flora, then speaks. “It’s Knox. He… Have you noticed he isn’t in his element?”

Gareth sighs heavily. “Who hasn’t? I had hoped he would take to this life, but he seems unhappy. Has he spoken to you about our offer?”

“He intends to reject it.”

“I cannot say I am surprised. In confidence, my son, I must admit to you… I am scared. If he returns home, what is to stop him from severing all ties with us? How can I earn his love if he simply… disappears into the foothills?”

Mikhail shares the sentiment, but his father’s vulnerability makes him want to frown, or laugh, or rage. He isn’t quite sure which. Keeping his features neutral, he responds, “You are the King. You may command those around you to enact your will.”

Said king looks uncomfortable. “I am aware, son. But… that is no way to reach a man like Knox.”

Mikhail knows that. He wishes the man before him had a firmer grasp of his power, though. “I have an alternative.”

Gareth peers down and waits patiently.

“It isn’t foolproof,” Mikhail continues. “But it’s something. We compromise, the same as we do in the Inner Council. We accept that we will not be able to keep him here in City High with us, and we instead offer him a position more in line with his skill set… something that will at least keep him linked to us by service.”

“You’re speaking of a military position.”

“Indeed. Nothing flashy – a lieutenant, perhaps, or even a captain. He has the mind for it, Father, you heard it for yourself.”

“It is an enticing proposal… Our army is organized by location.”

“It is.”

“He is respected in his area.”

“He is.”

“I should have thought of it myself. Thank you, Mikhail,” says Gareth with a smile, patting the young man’s shoulder. “We’ll speak with him tonight.”