The Lady's Handbook of Intrigue and Murder (High Fantasy Politics) - 10: And Taxes (Part 3)
Over the next few days, the landscape shifted from the flat plains and farmlands near Phaleinas to dense forests of pine and rolling hills closer to the Aigean Range. The side of the mountains had been flattened into a series of rectangular plots, like a staircase for giants, where farmers could grow their crops.
So it jarred Mydea when the terraces disappeared suddenly and the jagged edges of the mountain returned to the fore. There was no surer sign that they neared Perasma than that, for no sane person would exhaust their might and magic taming the mountains only to see their crops stolen by a passing band of thieves.
Northgate Keep did not block off the entirety of the Great Gap of Perasma. Such a structure would’ve been a monumental undertaking and difficult to man and maintain. Instead, it’s very existence ensured no Tuskar army could ever invade from the north. To take and hold land, instead of merely raiding it, required lines of supply and reinforcement. Left untaken, Northgate would be the birth of a thousand cuts, bleeding the tribes dry if they ever unified again under one of the mythuselah.
Which wasn’t to say it was useless against the raids, for Lord Pyli and his retinue could still catch any Tuskar—drunk on success and weighed down by their acquisitions—from passing north.
House Pyli’s keep was a small one, barely half the size of Aigis and was mostly empty land enclosed by the outer walls. The wards on those were well looked after at least and likely where most of their gold went towards. In truth, the only reason they were a house nominal rather than a family of landed knights was that one of Mydea’s ancestors had found it too much trouble riding so far away just to enforce low judgment on the soilborn here. The keep did offer a fantastic view of the elks moving south for winter though, and seemed like a fine place to base hunts from.
Lord Pyli came to greet them, extending his hand towards Mydea. “I offer hospitality by the Great Gods,” he said.
It was a gesture any graduate of any athenaeum knew. The mutual oaths of guest and host were older than the Divine Syngian himself, and its rules so commonly understood by both people and the Pantheon that it could be sworn with the shake of a hand instead of formal ceremony and be no less binding for it.
“I offer my guesthood by the Great Gods,” Mydea said, grasping his strong, calloused hand.
“Let it be so,” said all those with them, and with that, the gods were invoked.
Lord Andras Pyli was tall even for an Ilyosi, with blue eyes, brown skin, and a thick, black mane framing his face. The grey gate on green of his house was stitched into his surcoat. “You will have to excuse the absence of my sons. They left for a hunt yesterday and have yet to return. Apparently, they’re bored of elk.”
“There is nothing to excuse.”
“I do not see your brother present,” Andras said as they entered the keep proper.
“He is delayed by circumstance in the Imperial City,” Mydea said. “I come in his stead as lady advocate. With me is my father, my brother’s marshal, and a student of the Thalassian Athenaeum.” She gestured with her head to each man in turn.
As the title suggested, a lord nominal was still a lord, if only nominally. It wouldn’t be proper to treat Lord Andras like she had the lord mayor, for they were both nobility. What they did was called diplomacy, not haggling. It involved a lot more waiting and ceremony before they began to speak plainly.
One of those ceremonies was called dinner, and to her delight, Lord Andras’ cook had prepared a dish of steamed dough shaped into clouds or half moons and filled with broth and stuffing. They weren’t as good as the ones Geiras made back home, but khinkali were always delicious.
Perhaps there was some wisdom to the ceremony, Mydea concluded as she chewed on the light and fluffy dumplings. After all, when merchants disagreed, only contracts were sundered. When nobility disagreed, the world was.
“Lord Andras, I’ve heard the most fascinating tales about you,” Mydea said. “They say you’ve slain a mythuselah in single combat?”
“I have, though not in single combat,” Andras said, rubbing a spot on his chest reflexively. “They are far too dangerous to be hunted that way.”
“Still, that is quite the feat. Might I see the weapon you slew it with?” Mydea asked.
He shook his head slowly. “The spear shattered in the fight. I did take something from the battle though.” Andras nodded to his chamberlain, who returned a moment later with a cedar box that smelled of wild roses. He approached Mydea’s side of the table, and undid the lock, revealing a long, sharp tooth curved like a saber.
She studied it for a moment, before meeting her father’s eye.
“It looks like a sabertooth’s to me!” Father said.
Lord Andras bristled. “You doubt my honor, Aetos?”
“My lords, there is no need for unpleasantness among friends,” Mydea interjected. “I would not have either of you break your oaths so soon after swearing them. We have means of resolving this without resorting to violence, if you’re willing to listen?”
“To anger the gods is to court death,” Father said. Andras nodded.
“It just so happens we have a diviner with us,” Mydea said.
“A diviner? Here?” Andras asked.
“Only for secrets of the past, I’m afraid,” Tomas said.
“A skill no less useful, my good mage,” Andras said. “I find people worry so much about the future that they forget to learn the lessons of the past. Let him discern the truth of things then!”
The chamberlain left Mydea’s side to bring the box before Tomas. “This may take a while,” Tomas said.
“Take as much time as you need, but be thorough,” Andras said.
“While we’re waiting, might I ask if you intend to ride with my brother this winter?” Mydea asked. “He is anxious to hear word from you.”
Andras snorted. “So anxious he did not even come to speak with me himself. What is one to make of that, I wonder?”
“It could not be helped,” Mydea said, unhooking her sheath and handing it to Marshal Perdiccas. He stood and held it out for Lord Andras to see. “Please, inspect my sword. Do you recognize it?”
The tall lord stared at the runesteel and its distinctive pommel in the shape of a horse’s head, and the curved crossguard like wings. “…Yes. Your mother’s sword, and her father’s before her.”
“Then that should tell you all you need to know about how seriously my brother takes this,” Mydea said. “Rest assured, when Lord Aspyr marches north at the head of an army, you will have plenty of time to share words with him then.”
Andras’ thick bush of a brow rose. “Is he committed already?”
“He has just completed his twelve years, and is now a man grown,” Mydea said. Four years fostered with their grandmother’s brother—the neighboring Lord External of Yberia, six spent on classical tutelage at the Thalassian Athenaeum, and two years being honed by their father in the family’s secrets. “It is time to remind the Tuskars why they fled rather than fought my grandfather.”
“My younger son, Alkaios, was a year below you and your brother at the athenaeum. He always spoke highly of your brother’s skill at sword and sorcery.”
“I remember him well,” Mydea said. Alkaois Pyli was very much his father’s son in appearance, though the beard had yet to set in.
“He also spoke highly of your wit, my lady,” Andras said, a sudden gleam in his eye she was all too familiar with. Marriage was always on a parent’s mind when children reached a certain age. “Will you be riding with your brother this winter?”
She offered him a wisp of a smile. “Anything’s possible, my lord. We shall have to see.”
“Perhaps I might introduce you to him then, if the gods are good and your fates align,” Andras said. “He is an accomplished sorcerer, you know, and has been taking to learning the family spell well since he returned home last year.”
“It pleases me to hear your succession looks to be in order then,” Mydea said. The murmurs about his eldest son were hard to escape once upon a time. It had been her third year at the Thalassian Athenaeum when Sisyph Pyli had failed the trials after three tries, and he slinked back into the shadows of his father’s keep as a black mark against their blood forevermore.
A dark omen, Mydea remembered Vivyan Black liked to say. Only a sorcerer could succeed, for to what higher ends were the steelborn born to if not that? Still, though Sispyh Pyli had no hope of inheriting now, his hand would still fetch a fine price from a wealthy merchant looking to advance his family’s station. Far from disdaining a failure of the athenaeum, the strawborn would be impressed he had attended at all!
“Yes,” Andras said, then sighed. “It is a relief that my keep shall pass on to a son of mine at least. My next of kin is a cousin, and though I love him, I would not trust him with a horse.”
Tomas cleared his throat. “My lords and ladies, I believe I have arrived at an answer. Might I present my findings?”
She did not reply all at once, but studied Andras’ face like one would observe chiseled stone. There is not a trace of doubt in him, Mydea thought, though that did not mean his tales were true. Divination was not a perfected art, and any findings Tomas found might be contested if one was determined.
She’d thought to threaten him if he had lied, and use praise if he hadn’t. Either might have compelled him to act as she wanted, but there was an easier way she had overlooked. Would praise not bear more meaning if it came with the appearance of trust?
“I thank you for your service, and commend you for your skill, Tomas,” Mydea said. “But I would ask you to hold your words for a while longer. I do not need to hear them to know Lord Andras speaks truly.”
The looks of surprise did not surprise her. If Tomas found in his favor now, he would think even better of her, and if against him, would feel indebted for the face she had saved him. The only means the Lord of Pyli had to escape her trap was if he were the cold sort, but she did not think he was. In either case, she was better off not knowing instead of knowing. Even if she looked a fool later on, it would harm her reputation little, and the standing of her house even less.
“You shall not have to trust my words alone,” Andras said. “Come winter, we might come across another mythuselah. I shall show you then, if you come north.”
“Might I take this to mean you shall render service instead of silver this year?” Mydea asked. That, of course, would be the preferred outcome. His lands were poor enough as it were, and at the moment, her brother needed more swords and steeds than silver, no matter how bright.
“You may,” Andras said with a firm nod. “Will you stay a few more days? My sons should arrive soon and it would be a shame for Alkaios to miss your presence.”
I am of that age where I must consider marriage, Mydea supposed. A marriage would certainly solidify the bonds of homage and fealty between Pyli and Kolchis, though she’d have to take on their name, abandoning any claim to her family’s keep. By ancient practice and imperial edict, lordly lines of descent could not merge their inheritances.
“Then he may call on me when he is of age,” Mydea said politely, “but I’m afraid my duties as Lady Advocate call me back south. The Night of Nomos nears, and preparations must be made.”