The Lady's Handbook of Intrigue and Murder (High Fantasy Politics) - 07: Except Death... (Part 3)
- The Lady's Handbook of Intrigue and Murder (High Fantasy Politics)
- 07: Except Death... (Part 3)
At every village they stopped at, Mydea spent the night speaking with the easily impressed headsmen, while her father threw himself into his work, scribbling furiously in his leather-bound journal. What exactly he’d spent years of his life working on he still refused to say even now, and every torn page he turned to ash so that not a hint of it remained.
They had travelled far enough north and east, Mydea knew, when the farms began to display a heraldic shield featuring a dire otter with crossed whalebones. She knew of no noble house with such a standard, but she did know of a town that traded on whalebone from the Sunless Sea.
“The impertinence! Do they think themselves a city already?” Perdiccas said.
“Save your anger for the city, sir,” Mydea said. They would be witness to worse transgressions if the rumors were right.
Sheepdogs and border collies barked at their approach. Birds flew overhead. To her surprise, not only had the local hystor and the village headsman already assembled, but they had with them men and women from all the surrounding villages too. They were all fair-skinned Monsi, and the tallest of them were still a head shorter than her.
Were they forewarned somehow? Mydea thought. Wholly mounted parties like theirs moved fast, but could be outpaced by a chain of swift stallions carrying a single messenger. Such systems could be found in the other great regions to the south, but not in the Deeplands. A winged rider would’ve been easily spotted, even ignoring that the finest pegasi could not fly for hours on end. With magic, there were a dozen ways to speak over long distances, but none so common that even villagers this far north had access to them.
“Welcome, Lady Mydea,” the hystor said in the guttural Monsi the soilborn favored. As if for dramatic effect, a crane dropped besides him with a squawk. “Excuse my feathered friend here. She is not used to guests of such esteem.”
She held the bird’s stare for a moment, then the man’s yellow-tinged eyes. “This is your familiar?”
“You know of this magic?” the hystor asked.
“Only of its dangers,” Mydea said. Those who could see the world through the eyes of an animal were much sought after, but no lord or lady would risk their own lives for that power. “You’ve done me a favor by gathering all the headsmen. Might I know your name?”
“It is only polite to greet a lady when she wanders into your home. I am called Hystor Adryan,” he said, showing her his free palm and the twin black hexagrams branded on skin and soul.
A lady, Mydea noted, not his lady. The implications were unfortunate, but it was best not to jump ahead of herself. Dialogue was a dance where one listened to the beat. “I am Lady Mydea of the House of Kolchis, sister and Lady Advocate to the Lord External of these lands, Aspyrtus. I greet you and yours.”
“Kolchis?” Adryan’s leathery forehead burst out into many lines as his lips twisted into a smile. “I have not seen your banners fly into our little stretch of land since Lady Kassandra’s time.”
“Our mother,” Mydea said.
“Be welcome then, Mydea, daughter of Kassandra, granddaughter of Metheus.” Adryan turned to his side in a practiced stumbling motion as he hobbled with a cane. One of his legs was lame, yet he walked with bare feet. “It’s good to feel the soil beneath your feet, don’t you agree?”
Did he mean the words plainly, or was it a test of some sort? Mydea could not tell. “I cannot say,” she said as they walked towards the largest timber-framed home. No doubt it belonged to the local headsman. A gaggle of headsmen, and even a pair of headswomen, followed after them though they seemed content to whisper among themselves. Of her retinue, only Marshal Perdiccas and her father came along.
“I cannot say I recognize the sigil your village now flies,” Mydea said. “Has my brother raised a new lord to govern this area?”
“I do not believe so, Lady Advocate,” Perdiccas answered, aware of her game.
“The coat of arms marks these people a friend to the City of Phaleinas,” Adryan said.
“A city?” Mydea asked. “You mean the town. A city requires a charter.”
Adryan tilted his head, and stooped to stroke the feathers of his crane with some difficulty. “As you say, my lady. I am a simple man who speaks to the gods on behalf of men and animals alike. I know little of the laws which govern these things, and repeat only what I’m told.”
Yet you are smart enough to shift blame onto the town, Mydea thought. That he yielded so easily on what to call Phaleinas indicated he was not an ardent partisan of theirs. “Are all these men and women also friends of that town?”
Adryan nodded. “We do each other small favors,” he said.
“What sort of favors?”
“We sell what we grow to them, and in exchange, they protect us from predation,” Adryan said. “After your mother’s death—may the Pantheon protect her—Lord Pyli and Dame Rothston have sought to redirect the taxes we pay.”
It was not surprising Phaleinas had managed to fend off encroachments from both a lord and a knight. A town as large as theirs could muster a small army, so long as they did not march it too far.
“Instead, you pay taxes to the town,” Mydea said. “My brother has certainly seen nothing from here as of late.”
“Fees, not taxes, the townsmen call them,” Adryan said with a snort. “Townsfolk are so fond of their word games. We had no means of ensuring Lord Aspyrtus would receive his due, so the townsfolk offered to escort our payments with theirs.”
“I promise you, there won’t be a need for such fees in the future,” Mydea said. “My brother is of age now, and these lands fall under his writ.”
“Do they now?” Adryan murmured. “The townsfolk will not be happy to hear this.”
Mydea offered him a smile. “My heart breaks for them, but I’m certain they’ll cope.”
“What of the Tuskar though?” asked a headsman in their throaty dialect.
“They shall be seen to,” Mydea said.
“Will they?” Adryan said, louder now. “I have no love for the townsfolk, but they deal with us fairer than some lords would. Can we be sure of Lord Aspyrtus’ protection if the townsfolk withdraw theirs?”
“How often do you find yourselves alone when the tribes come over the mountains?” she asked.
The hystor’s shoulders slumped, as if a burden born for many years had finally sapped his strength. “Too often,” he said softly.
“The townsfolk will swear mutual friendship with you, and may even fight to keep you from the clutches of lords and knights, but what are those words worth during winter?” Mydea asked, eyes pausing at each man and woman in the room.
“After all these years, what are yours?” Adryan asked.
Mydea held a hand up when she heard her father’s armor rustling. “Perhaps a demonstration outside?” She stood, and they followed her. When they were clear of any buildings, she turned to her father. “Would you care to do the honors? Without damage, please.” She might do it herself, but her magic was still fainter from the sacrifice.
Father rolled his eyes and uncrossed his arms. With a stomp of his foot, a spike of hardened dirt reached for the skies.
The villagers gasped and made noises of appreciation.
“Now imagine what he could do with a sword,” Mydea said. In truth, little better. Her father had never finished his studies at the athenaeum, not when his raw magic was more potent than a knight with runesteel. Still, these people didn’t know that. “Some of you remember my Grandfather Metheus and his ride beyond the mountains. He gave his life to try and stop the raids. More of you know my mother Kassandra. Did she ever let you stand alone? Were you never avenged?”
Adryan nodded. “We were. Those were better days.”
“Kolchis has many rights as a house external that even other lords would covet,” Mydea said, “but there is a blood price for such things. If we cannot raise taxes, how can we raise armies to defend you?”
“What would you have us do, Lady Advocate?” Adryan asked.
Mydea smiled. “You were not to know the townsfolk had kept your taxes for themselves all these years. We shall collect from them if you provide us witnesses and testimony. In the future, we would ask you to remember who your true master is.”
While the villagers discussed who to send as witnesses, Mydea returned to Snowscorn. From the corner of her eye, she spotted Tomas speaking with some villagers. Side by side, she could not help but notice his skin a shade darker than theirs. Perhaps he wasn’t Monsi, but some southern Syngian ethnicity? She finally did understand why he was called the Tall, however. Compared to the villagers, there was no comparison.