Ventus – Day 64 of 135

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Suneil was waiting for them at the wagon. He looked upset. Tamsin ran up to him and embraced him.

“How did your meeting go?”

Suneil grimaced, and disengaged himself from her arms. “I had to make some… concessions,” he said. He wasn’t looking at her, but glanced at Jordan, then turned away. “In business and… power… you have to do what it takes to get what you want, sometimes.”

Tamsin cocked her head to one side. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing that’s going to matter in the long run,” he said. “When you get older, Tam, you’ll understand why I made this decision. It’s in our best interests.”

“Tell me,” she said. Jordan stood back, arms crossed, and watched. Something was very wrong here.

“You know I was an important minister in the queen’s cabinet before the war,” said Suneil. “That’s why I had to run. Why we had to run. You were all I could salvage of the life Galas had given us–my favorite niece. Parliament went on a witch hunt–hanging everyone who was involved in our work. I did what I had to do to make sure they didn’t come after us, but it was prudent to leave the country all the same. And certain men know what I did, and are willing to forget our life before–now that the queen is dead.”

“The queen is not dead,” said Jordan without thinking.

Suneil sat on the bottom step of the wagon’s hatch, and peered at him. “You know that for a fact, don’t you, young man?”

“Who cares?” said Tamsin. “What about your meeting?”

“Actually, it’s very important that Jordan Mason knows with absolute certainty that Galas is alive,” said Suneil. “Because my partners needed a guarantee of my loyalty to them, and if Jordan weren’t the man he’s pretending to be, the deal I made this afternoon wouldn’t go through.”

Jordan knew it in that instant. “You’ve sold me.”

Suneil looked him in the eye. “You are a wanted man, Jordan.”

“Wanted? Not by the law,” said Jordan. “Only by–”

Me.”

Jordan turned. Brendan Sheia’s sword hovered centimeters from his throat. The square-headed Boros heir smiled grimly as four men emerged from behind Suneil’s wagon, their own blades drawn.

“Uncle!”

Suneil grabbed Tamsin by the wrist as she tried to run to Jordan. “I don’t like this any more than you do,” he said. “This is what we have to do to prove our worth to the new powers in Iapysia. Don’t you see? We can go home now.”

“Bastards! Let him go!” Tamsin struggled against her uncle.

Brendan Sheia ignored them. He was pacing around Jordan, inspecting him as one might a prize horse. “I remember you now,” he said. “You were with those foreign spies at the banquet. You were sick, if I recall. Nearly spoiled dinner.”

Jordan glared at him. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Sheia’s sword flashed up. “You brought the Heaven hooks against our house! You destroyed our ancestral home, incited the Hooks to kill my ally Turcaret, and when you were done you ran into the night, and the Hooks followed! We have it from our witnesses.”

His confrontation with Turcaret in the Boros courtyard had been seen, Jordan realized. But had Axel and Calandria been arrested as well? “What about–” Sheia hit Jordan across the jaw. He staggered, and was grabbed roughly by two men and hauled to his tiptoes.

“Stop it!” screamed Tamsin.

“Silence,” hissed her uncle.

Sheia bowed to Suneil. “Lucky thing you chanced on Mason, old man. You’ll get your honor and your title back. I can’t guarantee the money and lands, of course… but in this new age, what guarantee have we of anything?” He flipped a hand negligently at Jordan. “Take the boy.”

The two soldiers holding his arms yanked Jordan into a quick-march; then they were out in the streets, and he was being thrown over the side of a horse, hands and feet bound.

The good citizens of Rhiene watched and commented, but did nothing to help as Jordan was carried away.

22

“You’ll have to pardon me if I seem a bit out of sorts,” said Armiger as he sat down opposite General Matthias. “I was chatting with one of your men on the battlements when a rock from one of Parliament’s steam cannon took his head off.”

Matthias grimaced. “I heard about that. Happened this morning. Lavin’s a devil, a positive devil. And the queen admires him! That’s the damndest part. Listen, I’ve got a little beer here from our emergency stock. Care for a cup?”

Armiger nodded. He had talked briefly with Matthias twice, but the man was understandably busy–and, it seemed, wary. It was that wariness that had made Armiger ask for this meeting; he needed Matthias on his side.

They sat in Matthias’ tiny office in one of the palace’s outbuildings. Outside the single small window a dismal drizzle fell on the tents of the refugees. It was oppressively quiet today.

Matthias poured two pints of pale beer and they both tasted it. Armiger noticed that his hands were shaking slightly; the incident on the wall had shocked him more than he would have believed possible. It was only a man who had been destroyed, after all. And while Armiger might have lost his own head had he been standing a meter closer, he could have grown another one, given enough time. He had no rational reason to be upset. But he was. He was.

“Lavin’s an upstart,” said Matthias. “Young, bright, ambitious. He’s had subtle help from the queen throughout his career. And now he’s turned on her. I’d take him to be an opportunist, but Galas disagrees. She says he’s an arch-traditionalist.”

“Have you tried to use that against him?” asked Armiger.

Matthias nodded. “Had some success too. He detests dealing with morale issues. You can trip him up if you can scare his men. He’s a quick learner though–I’m afraid I taught him to press the way he is with the cannon. Never lets us sleep. You saw the result yourself.”

Armiger nodded.

Matthias was watching him. “I have to say, Armiger, that you’ve got steady nerves. I got that impression when we were following reports of your war in the northeast. You were doing a magnificent job. Then we heard you were dead, and you turn up here. Sounded to me like you ran. Why?”

“Is that why you’ve been avoiding me?” asked Armiger with a smile. “Because you think I’m a deserter?”

“No, not a deserter. A mercenary.” Matthias grimaced. “You show up here, offering your services to the queen… for how much?”

Armiger sat up straight. “First of all, if I were a mercenary you’d think Ravenon would have paid me. They didn’t pay me–at least not in money.”

“What do you mean? What did they pay you in?”

“Information. It was their mail and spy networks I was interested in using. I showed up here with nothing but the clothes on my back, you know that. And how am I expected to get away with my payment if Galas is paying me now?”

“Simple,” said Matthias. “You’ve cut a deal with Lavin.”

Armiger laughed harshly. “Your suspicion is well-founded and sound. You think I’m a Trojan horse, is that it?”

“A what horse?”

Armiger took a deep drink of his beer. “Lavin doesn’t need my help to take this palace, you know that,” he said. “Besides, I haven’t exactly offered my services to the queen as a military commander.”

“Oh? Then as what?”

“Priest. Confessor.” Armiger saw the expression on Matthias’ face and laughed. “Look, that man who had his head knocked off today–I’ve had it with that kind of thing. Why do you think I left the war in Ravenon? The Winds wiped out two divisions of my men. I stood by helpless and watched it happen. At the time I thought I didn’t care; but I did. And I do. So I’m not here to fight, Matthias, you needn’t worry about that.”

The old general sat back in his chair, nodding slowly. “You’re an odd one. And if you’d said anything other than what you just did, I wouldn’t have taken you seriously. Priest? Confessor? I don’t know about that. But I understand a man who lays down his sword. Men who don’t have that urge now and then make bad commanders. Galas tells me Lavin has no stomach for war either–but see how good he is at it.”

An adjutant knocked politely on the door. Matthias nodded and stood up.

“Now that I know where your heart lies, Armiger, I may just call upon your talents. After all, there’s no better man to end a war quickly and cleanly than one who hates war.”

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