The knock on his door was not so late that it would arouse suspicion but late enough that it conveyed a certain sense of privacy. Aedan opened the door to his quarters to reveal a Kargish man he had not yet seen within the castle walls. He had Kargish features but a build more like a human man than the Ambassador’s bodyguards.
“Good evening, Ser Aedan. I apologize for disturbing you so late. My name is Rogosh; Ambassador Yoreck has sent me to extend an invitation to his apartments.”
The Karg smiled, “Yes, my lord.”
“Give me a moment.”, Aedan closed his door, slid his mail shirt over his head, followed by his surcoat. He cinched the well-worn, wide leather sword belt into place and re-opened his door.
The Kargish man nodded and smiled, “This way, Ser Aedan.”
The keep was not large so with only a few turns, they arrived at doorway flanked by the Ambassador’s bodyguards. A long, curved sword hung from one’s hip and the other had a pair of sickles that swung from his belt. Rogosh stepped neatly between them, opening the door and gesturing Ser Aedan into the room.
Inside, the Ambassador sat in one of several chairs that faced a low table.
“Ah! Ser Aedan, I am so please that you accepted my invitation. Please, come in and sit.”
Ser Aedan moved a few paces inside the apartments and Rogosh followed him, closing the door behind them. As the knight moved to sit, the Ambassador did likewise and Rogosh opened the door which led to the bedroom. For a brief moment, Aedan glimpsed yet another Karg. This one sat motionless on a cot, his features and eyes both blank. Then the door closed.
“It is late and you are a serious man, Ser Aedan, so I will come to the point directly. As you can tell, we are very interested in securing a partnership with the Iron Bark family. We believe that both of our peoples could gain from such an arrangement. But I am afraid that the….discussion…at dinner tonight has introduced some doubts into Lord Humphrey’s mind.”
Aedan shifted in his seat.
“So now the matter will be decided by Lord Roderick, a man we barely know beyond his name. By contrast, you know him very well and your presence here indicates he not only trusts you but that it is well placed based on your skills. Lord Roderick likely takes your advice very seriously. In light of that, I would ask that when you bring this offer to Lord Roderick, you argue our case for this partnership. Such an alliance would bring the ore back into Iron’s Bay and provide my people with new industry.”
“Ambassador, you are asking me to argue your case to Lord Roderick after I clearly sided with Lord Humphrey’s concerns at dinner? I thought diplomats would be better judges of men then that.”
The Ambassador smiled and chuckled, “That is true, but I have been thinking about your question at dinner as well. I believe that if my people were allowed to work the mine, and thereby stay nearby, I would be able locate Ydrek directly for you. I would be able to leave out the Malagor ambassador from such a meeting.”
Aedan did his best to stifle his body but he knew that he had shifted again at the mention of the red-cloaked Karg’s name, “I appreciate your offer but my duty as both a knight and to Lord Roderick prevents me from accepting.”
“I understand, but perhaps I have another choice that would aid us both. As I have said, a group of my people are making their way here now, led by my Norn. With them is a man, a business partner, one of your people, named Soren. If you would take Soren with you when you go to see Lord Roderick, and allow him to argue our case, then I could take that time to locate Ydrek for you.”
“An interesting offer but before I can answer, Ambassador, you must know why I seek him. He –“
Yoreck held a hand up, “Your business is your business, Ser Aedan.”
“It is not business, he –“
“I do not care for what reasons you seek him. I care that my people are given work and that the Iron Bark family seeks our friendship. All I ask is that you escort my man to see Lord Roderick. Surely, that breaks none of your oaths?”
Ser Aedan nodded lightly, “I will consider it.”
The Ambassador stood, “I had hoped as much, but please decide quickly, I expect them tomorrow.”
Rogosh emerged from the side door, made his way past them, and opened the door to the hallway for Aedan.
The knight nodded at the Ambassador and returned to his rooms.
- * * * * * * * *
Rather than risk oversleeping, Alistair had drawn open his shades and avoided his bed. He had fallen asleep at his desk but it was uncomfortable and so it ensured he woke periodically. In the early morning, as the pinkish hues of dawn crept through his window, he made his way out of his room and down into the kitchens.
From his previous visit, he knew which portions were intended for each guest and so, with that knowledge, he tapped the poisonous powder into place. Unaccustomed to such sneaking, with each breath he waited for someone to discover him; to ask him what he was doing, or simply notice him hovering around the breakfast. No such things occurred. And when he was done, he returned to his room, wiped the venom from his knife’s edge, washed his tired, sweaty face and changed for breakfast.
- * * * * * * * *
The various guests of Lord Humphrey filtered into the room for breakfast; Father Mattias and a handful of the villagers, the Heir of Summerfield, no older then 16, a handful of travelers previously stuck at the keep by the beast, and the Kargs.
Alistair took a seat to the right of the Ambassador. He glanced over the man’s belt, no knife.
“Ambassador, I believe we got off on the wrong foot last night. I hope there are no hard feelings.”
Yoreck turned to face his new neighbor, “Many things were said last night, but I will give you the benefit of the doubt. However, if you are to do well in business, you must learn to control your passion and your tongue.”
Alistair half-smiled, shrugged, poured himself a full glass of wine and swallowed deeply from it. Breakfast was served, people bantered and laughed. The Ambassador, thinking Alistair’s apology genuine, forced him into small talk. Alistair drank, and tried to share as little as possible with the man he had called a liar the night before. Then it began.
It started with coughing, coughing that would not cease. Slowly but surely, conversations dwindled as everyone looked to the end of the table where Lord Humphrey could not seem to catch his breath. His outstretched hand knocked over his goblet, while the other pulled at the collar of his shirt. When he looked up, rivulets of blood ran from the corners of his eyes. The whites themselves were already deep maroon. Alistair looked to the traveler on his right. She stared back at him with blood speckled eyes of her own.
“Lord Humphrey! Kargish treachery! It’s the same thing as the men in the mines!”, Alistair screamed.
Less than a foot from the Ambassador, Alistair watched incomprehension take hold of the man. Yoreck sat frozen, unable to understand what was happening. Alistair’s left hand slammed down on Yoreck’s right; the hand with which he held his table knife. Then with his free hand, Alistair pulled the knife from his belt and buried it Yoreck’s ribs, the motion hidden below both the table and his left arm.
The Karg’s eyes went wide. His bodyguards launched into motion from their places by the door, sickles and sword in hand. Aedan launched from his seat across the table, first to the bloody-faced lord and then to interpose himself between the Ambassador and his bodyguards.
“Sorcery! Poison! Flee!”, Gyles stood, gesticulating to the doorways and trying to impede the Kargs’ progress with fleeing guests.
Alistair’s knife bit deeply a second time as he heard metal on metal collide behind his chair. Aedan traded sword blows with the first bodyguard to reach him. Metal rang on metal in hurried blows as the Karg desperately tried to maneuver around the knight. He stepped sideways, bringing his sword ever so slightly out of line and Aedan moved. His own sword flicked sideways, leaving the Karg defenseless for Aedan’s headbutt which followed. The Karg’s nose flattened and his eyes rolled back into his head; he flopped headlong onto the stone floor.
A third time with the knife and Alistair felt Yoreck’s arm go limp under his left hand. Gripping the Ambassador’s hand with his own, Alistair slashed the table knife across his own face as if grappling with the Karg. Gyles watched the “attack” and the aftermath; Alistair tumbled backwards from his chair, clutching a napkin to his face. The other Kargish fighter, gripping a sickle in each hand descended on Alistair but was intercepted by the ends of two halberds. Men from the keep’s garrison kept the Karg at bay, ordering him to drop his weapons.
All around the room, the guests of Lord Humphrey streamed pink tears, the whites of their eyes speckled with blood. Everyone save the Kargs.
“Everyone, stay calm. Whatever it is that the Kargs have done, it has been done to all of us. Do not panic, there are learned men among us who will see to it.”, Gyles motioned downwards with his hands.
Silence and labored breathing overtook the sounds of chaos.
“Take these two to the dungeons.”, Ser Aedan had sheathed his sword, “Alistair are you hurt? I saw you and the Ambassador struggling.”
Alistair’s voice was muffled beneath the napkin, “I am fine. What of Humphrey?”
The two men joined the circle of onlookers and Father Mattias who prayed for Lord Humphrey’s everlasting peace.
“That’s the best you can do?! That’s all you have for him?”, Alistair shouted, “Save him!”
Father Mattias shook his head, “He is passed, Master Alistair.”
“Everyone, please stay nearby so that Father Mattias may tend to you.”, Gyles said above the murmurs, “Father Mattias, can you help?”
While the priest wiped away tears and inspected eyes, Alistair said softly to Aedan, “We must go to their quarters; we do not know what other treachery they have planned.”
Aedan motioned to a handful of guards to come with them as they proceeded to the Kargish apartments. There, they took Rogosh and the slackjawed Karg into custody without issue.
“What…what has happened, Ser Aedan?”, Rogosh asked. He had been seated on a sofa next to the other Karg. The four guards kept their halberds pointed at them.
“What…who is this?”, Alistair hissed, pointing to the blank-faced Karg.
“That is…that is Ambassador Yoreck’s Moiray.”
“And what does that mean? What does he do?”, Alistair pulled the napkin from his face, revealing a long thin cut across his cheek.
Rogosh looked at the Moiray and then back to the men, without a word.
“Take them away.”, Aedan said, “While we are, let us see what clues we might find.”
The two men picked their way through the Kargish quarters, revealing nothing of interest beyond a small satchel of monies and a collection of letters. In a nearby trunk, Alistair found the makings of a broth including spices, and a handful of herbs. Aedan took the letters and coins from the trunk, “I am giving these to the Castellan for safekeeping. Meet me in the dining hall.”
Alistair nodded and when his friend had gone, he took the sprigs of rosemary from one of the small jars and poured the remainder of the poison into it. He stuffed the rosemary into another container, alongside of lavender. Then he replaced the jars where he had found them. He would have to “discover” them at a later date.
He hurried back to the dining hall in time to see some kind of commotion. Through the windows, he could see a caravan of four wagons arriving in the courtyard, flanked by men in the keep’s livery as well as Kargs. He had enough time to relay the information to Aedan before a man dressed in mail with a captain’s brooch burst into the room.
He scanned the room, his eyes settling on the two figures beneath sheets and then finally on Aedan.
“You. What are you doing here? Where is Lord Humphrey?”
Aedan recognized him in an instant despite the many years lost between them. His name was Dunsten Branmore, a childhood friend and fellow squire until he was caught with Aedan’s sister. His Father had exiled the young man and his family from their lands.
“Lord Humphrey has been murdered by Kargish treachery.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“He was poisoned; we were all poisoned.”
“It’s the same sorcery that was used to kill the men at the mines.”, Gyles added over the knight’s shoulder.
The young smuggler took a few steps to stand beside the Heir of Summerfield, Roger Winton. They were separated in age by only a few years and had spoken at length over breakfast. Winton was used to being courted by those around him and Gyles was happy to do the courting and call such a man his friend.
“Roger, you are the most blooded noble here. You must act now or these military men will seize control of your keep. They’ll run roughshod over you and undermine your authority.”
Roger nodded but said nothing.
Captain Branmore looked once more around the room, trying to absorb the scene and the accusations. Through the doorway behind him, came a pair of Kargs. Tall and lanky, dressed in green robes and strange, tall hats – all adorned with the swirling patterns associated with their people – with matching faces. Identical twins. In one man, the right eye was solid black, the left white with a blue iris while his twin had the same eyes but reversed. They too turned and surveyed the scene.
“The Ambassador poisoned no one.”, one of them said, his gaze settling on Aedan, “Why would he do such a thing when he had already bargained with you Ser Aedan?”
“Courtly intrigue runs in all peoples, I assume yours is no different. I cannot tell you how a man would think or make up his mind. We struck no bargain.”, the knight said.
“Even so, why would the Ambassador act now when he knew we would arrive shortly? With more men, more leverage if that is what he desired.”
“Oh, so you had a plan?”, Alistair grabbed a goblet that had been knocked over and filled it with wine.
“Are you threatening us?!”, Gyles took a half-step ahead of Roger, “Have you come here to threaten us with your…your sorcery and your sword arms? After your people have murdered Lord Humphrey and tried to kill the others?”
“Where is the Ambassador?”, said the other twin, staring at one of the sheeted figures.
“He was killed in combat by my companion, Master Alistair.”
Alistair took a long draw from his cup and looked up.
“But it was Ser Aedan who stopped any more blood from being shed; the rest of your people have been sent to the dungeon.”
“Enough, enough!”, Captain Branmore stepped forward, “Enough about secret bargains and sorcery. We must have order and I will have it. I will take charge until Lord Roderick can see to these affairs.”
“See”, Gyles whispered without looking at Roger, “…it is already happening. Speak now.”
“Ser Dunsten”, Roger’s hands trembled slightly as he hid them behind his back, “I am the most..uh.. blooded noble here and…and…as such, I believe I should shoulder Lord Humphrey’s mmm….mantle.”
“Oh, he’s not a Ser,” Alistair took another swig from his cup, “He’s just a Captain.”
Color rose in the Captain’s face as he attempted to keep his composure, “My lord, you are young and not ready for such a heavy burden; these affairs are dark and complicated, not something you would wish to be part of.”
“I should think that Lord Summerfield would be precisely the person suited for such things; he loves his foster family but he has also been tutored for rulership. This is, truthfully, what he has been born to do.”, Gyles gestured towards his new friend.
“Yes, forgive me Captain, but in our lands, military men see to military matters. We let men raised to lead, deal with such things.”
“Yes, I believe my foster-father would very much like to see me rise to the occasion, and see that he not only has peace but justice.”
“I…yes, of course my Lord. What are your orders?”
Roger exhaled, “The Kargs have travelled a long distance but it is not safe for them to reside in the keep. They will make a camp beyond our walls. Their men in our dungeon will remain there while we make sense of what has happened.”
“Perhaps we should assign a learned man to perform an investigation, my Lord? Someone like Master Alistair?”, Gyles said quietly.
“Agreed. Master Alistair will conduct an investigation into the events of this morning while we await Ser Roderick’s word.”
Alistair lifted the half full cup towards the young Lord.
One of the twins spoke, “We will abide by your words, Lord Summerfield. An agreement, temporary but binding, was reached last night at this very table. We should expect it to be honored but understand that both your people and ours need time to grieve for what has happened here this morning. We have a man with us, Soren, of whom the Ambassador spoke. Would you like him to stay within the keep’s walls or in our camp? He is one of your people.”
Roger looked to Gyles, who nodded, “He may stay within the keep as a show of good faith.”
The other twin stepped up besides Aedan and said ever so quietly, “You know the Ambassador did not poison anyone. Just think of who you know that uses poison….and know that Yoreck’s bargain still stands. Ensure that Soren can make his case to Lord Roderick, and we will find Ydreck.”
The twins nodded at the room and exited. Roger gave instructions to the Captain, and urged the remaining guests to rest. Slowly but surely, people drifted away and when they had gone the three companions retreated to Lord Humphrey’s library.
“Well, what are we supposed to do now?”, Alistair dropped into an armchair, wine spilling over the edge of the cup.
Aedan inhaled deeply and looked at his friend, “Alistair, one of those Karg twins said that you poisoned Lord Humphrey.”
Alistair took a drink, “And…..I am supposed to respond to that?”
“Only if you want to. We have been friends a long time.”
Alistair’s comfortable demeanor changed, he shifted in his seat, “It’s not… how do you deny such a charge and not sound guilty? I… there’s no…. I did not poison the entire breakfast table, Aedan.”
Gyles interjected, “What of this midnight bargain that they brought to you, Aedan?”
“The Ambassador wanted me to make his case to Lord Roderick in exchange for finding the man with the red cloak. Once I said no, he asked me to take his man to see Roderick, so that he could make the argument. I told him I would think on it.”
“See? So there you have it. We spoiled their plans at dinner, then you rebuked them again. Then they…then they murdered Lord Humphrey.”
“But the twins have told me that the bargain still stands. If I place Soren in front of Lord Roderick so he may plead their case, they will find Ydreck. The offer very much moves me.”
“Deliver their serpent to make his case in front of Lord Roderick? That seems very risky.”
“I can handle Soren. During the time on the road, I will sway his mind.”
“And if you can’t?”, Alistair cocked his head sideways, “If you can’t corrupt a mind that’s already corrupted?”
“Then I will understand his argument and have counterpoints ready at every turn.”, Gyles snapped his fingers.
“If we leave, however, they may take the keep by force.”, Aedan said thoughtfully.
“Why not bring Lord Roderick here?”, Alistair shrugged, “Soren gets his audience, and Roderick will bring a large force when he hears of the creature and murder, won’t he Aedan?”
“There seems to be some truth that the different Karg tribes do not like each other. We might be able to use that; get one to war against the other.”, Gyles sat down nearby.
Alistair’s features wrinkled incredulously, “Are you talking about wars on the world stage?”
“Let’s just focus on getting a few Kargs lynched in the back alleys of Irons Bay while they scramble for their ships. Let’s just start there. Besides, the only way you trick them into fighting each other is to be among them and be trusted.”
“Soren is trusted; perhaps I can learn something from him.”
Alistair rolled his eyes, “Let’s just send for Lord Roderick and get this over with. He’ll come, see the truth, deny them the mine and hopefully purge them from his lands. It won’t hurt to have an entire city on our side, looking for Ydreck.”
“That would be good. I will ride to him and ask him to come.”
“And I will stay with Gyles.”, Alistair smirked.
“You have an investigation to run.”, Gyles said, “…at the new Lord’s behest.”
- * * * * * * * *
In hours after mid-day meal and the evening memorial planned for Lord Humphrey, Gyles found himself alone in his chamber. He had already visited several times with Lord Summerfield, making sure things stayed firmly in the young man’s control and now he sat at his own desk.
The borrowed book of sonnets from Alistair sat on one edge, while the secret letters penned by Lord Humphrey occupied the space beneath his hands. He drummed his fingers on them, weighing first one argument and then it’s counter. Eventually, he took the knife from his belt and cut open the one addressed to Marius Bellson.
Gyles worked hard to put the basic message together; explanations of the creature and the delays in delivering the ore. Then a hastily added update about the arrival of Ser Aedan and the creature’s death. It had taken the young smuggler some time to get through the letter but he smiled with satisfaction at his own success.
The next letter, to Lord Humphrey, robbed him of his smile. Its language was flowery and indirect, filled with long words and inference. He sighed. He had been prepared for this, for the letters to be too complex but he had an answer to that.
A knock on Alistair’s door produced a shouted ‘Enter!’ and he found The Alchemist sketching at his desk. A bottle of wine with a dwindling cup stood near his off hand. As Gyles approached, he could see numbers and measurements, strange codes and mathematics sprawled across the page. Alistair drained the cup and looked up, “Yes….Gyles?”
“You can help me now. I have some letters that are beyond my skill. Can you read them?”
There was delay as Alstair’s drunken brain proceeded the request, then he waved his hand onward, “Yes, yes. Let’s have them.”
He took the letter to Roderick first, half-mumbling as he read along, his finger trailing on the page. Several times, Gyles saw him have to re-read sentences, “Uhh…this letter says…that… the creature is here and that… he bloody loves the Kargs. Next!”
Alistair went to fling the letter into his fire but Gyles moved so that his outstretched hand slapped into his belly, “Here.”
The young smuggler exchanged the new letter for the one in his hand.
“Ohhhh fan-shy.”, Alistair slurred as he drew the letter to the Exarch close, “This is to the Exarch? The Duke’s court.”
Again, he read the letter half aloud, half mumbled. When he finished he looked up, “Humphrey is trying to separate his title as Guardian of the Mines from Roderick’s lands; Roderick’s an absentee landlord!”
Alistair started laughing and once again went to fling the letter in the fire but was blocked by Gyles’ body. He took the letter from Alistair’s fingers, “We’ll not be delivering either of these. Seems like you have some wine left in the bottle, perhaps I should drink it for you.”
“Drink it for me? Why…why would you do that?”
“So that you don’t drink it; you might be drunk at Lord Humphrey’s rites tonight.”
“Oh, I’m fairly certain I’ll need to be drunk at his rites tonight.”
“Well, you’re only playing into their hands. If you’re drunk, the twins sorcery might work more easily on you.”
“Pfshah, magic doesn’t exist.”
“They know everything we talked about with the ambassador; they have something, they have magic.”
“They have birth defects, they don’t have magic.”
“Well, whatever it is. I don’t want them to be able to fool you, so consider some water.”
Gyles filled the wine goblet from a nearby pitcher and left the Alchemist to his scribbling.