Grannish was studying his adversary hard.
He sat in one of the empty household chambers that looked over the fortress bailey. In the bailey were the usual comings and goings, but there was something very distinctly different today. There was a line of men leading away from two tables that had been set up. A very long line. Apparently this Dethan had posted notices and paid for criers to announce that Hexis was forming an army, that troops would have bread and a bed within the week. All they need do was volunteer.
Grannish had thought perhaps fifty men would respond to something like that. It was not glamorous, did not promise glory and personal fulfillment. Just a bed and bread and a little joining silver. And yet there it was, a long line of men leading out of the bailey, down into the streets, and as far as the old High Post. Perhaps beyond that. Where Grannish was he did not have the proper perspective to see. But there were well over two hundred men waiting and fifty others had already been given their joining silver and the papers they would need to gain a bed in the barracks, once the barracks were done being built.
Grannish smiled. He wondered just where and how these magical barracks would be built. Grannish had instructed the master of the king’s purse to be very stingy when it came to the army’s needs. He was going to make this as difficult to pull off as he possibly could. After all, it would not do if Dethan were somehow able to actually succeed at this attempt to free them from the Redoe’s siege.
No, it would not do at all. Grannish refused to be upstaged by some upstart peasant who was promising solutions to problems that had none. Grannish had tried raising an army himself before, and the results had been lackluster. He had been reduced to forcing men to become soldiers, forcing them to fight, the lazy bastards. But the army, such as it was, had fallen apart and their attempt to cure the Redoe plague had failed.
Well, it would fail again, Grannish thought. He would see to it. Volunteers or no volunteers, Dethan would be forced to call up a draft eventually. It was the only way to get the numbers that would be needed to set the Redoe down. Then they would see what a waste of time it was.
There were two clerks at the two tables taking down names and giving out papers. Behind the clerks stood Dethan, his arms folded over his chest, his calculating, dark eyes taking in the goings-on with an almost evil air. Often he would step forward and say something to the new soldier.
Soldiers were all well and good, but it took a chain of command to run an army, which meant lords of high houses. And Grannish would see to it that not one lord of any of the high houses stepped forward to offer command. If they did, they knew Grannish would make them pay for it. One way or another, they would pay. He would bide his time so it did not look so obvious, but eventually he would poison the grand against that particular lord until he was no longer a lord, his lands and titles stripped from him at the command of the grand. Grannish was a very, very patient man with an excellent record as far as these things were concerned. His reputation would ensure compliance. All the lords knew not to cross him.
He had already begun to make it clear to them that they were in no way to help Dethan’s cause. The trick was how to do it while seeming to be supportive of it when in front of the grand. He could puppet the grand only so far. The grand was still under the illusion that he was in control of his own city. There were times like this, like with Dethan, when the grand went completely off in his own direction without seeking any guidance from Grannish.
But that was okay, Grannish thought serenely. It had become a little boring of late, to be honest. Manipulating that regal idiot and his whiny little daughter was sometimes so easy he could cry with the boredom of it.
At that moment the little bitch herself walked out into the courtyard. Everything ground to an instant halt and everyone bowed to her respectfully.
Everyone save Dethan. Dethan merely watched her, those dark eyes looking at her with … with what? Grannish wasn’t certain. He needed to figure out how to get into the man’s head. Needed someone to pay very close attention to him.
“Your lordship, Page Tonkin,” his page announced, the disdain he felt at being forced to call Tonkin “page” all too clear.
Tonkin was as big and oafish as could possibly be imagined. He actually had to duck to keep from hitting his head on the top of the doorframe. Where in the hells had Dethan found this fellow? Grannish thought he was familiar somehow, but he could not place him.
“Ah, Page Tonkin. Good of you to join me,” Grannish said, turning his back on the window and his all-seeing view of the courtyard.
“As your lordship likes,” Tonkin said deferentially. The page’s cap was in his hands and he was mauling the fabric in great pawing twists. He was nervous. Good.
“Sit down, my good man,” Grannish invited, indicating a nearby chair.
“If it’s all the same, I’ll stand. My lord Dethan will be wanting after me soon.”
“Sor Dethan is no lord,” Grannish bit out.
“He is my lord, begging your pardon.”
Grannish frowned but decided he had better things to do with his time than teach the lumbering ass about etiquette. “Page Tonkin, I will get straight to the point. You know who I am, correct?”
“Yes, your lordship. Everyone knows who you are.”
“Very good. I am here to make you an offer. And before I make the offer, I want you to take into consideration what I might do if you choose to refuse the offer.” Grannish smiled when Tonkin went suddenly still, like a deer in the woods that had heard a sound and knew something dangerous was lurking about. “I know you are a farmer, with lands beyond the walls. I also know you have not cultivated your fields this year. That is a direct violation of your deed agreement with the grand. Technically I could default your lands right now and you’d never be able to set foot on them again.”
“B-but I … I didn’t have the money for seed this year ’cause the Redoe took all my crop last year. They took a lot of the crops last year. I’m not the only one—”
“I really do not care about any of that,” Grannish said, trying with difficulty not to yawn in the other man’s face. “The law says a farmer must farm his fields or he will be in default. You are in default.”
He let Tonkin stew on that a moment.
“What’s your offer?” Tonkin ground out. It was clear the man was trying to rein in his temper. There was anger in his eyes and tightness around his mouth.
“You are angry. Good. I want you to be angry. And I want you to remember that had your new master not singled you out and made you his page, I would never have known about your farm. Now, while you think on that … my offer is thus: You tell me anything and everything of significance your master does and I will not only overlook your breaking of the rules but I will give you enough money to buy seed for next year’s crops.”
Grannish truly wanted to laugh. It was all Tonkin could do to keep his jaw from dropping open. So easy. It was all so easy. All it took was knowing where they were most vulnerable and where they were most greedy.
“So? What is your answer?” Grannish asked needlessly.
Selinda was not an idle grandina, Dethan thought as he watched her from a distance. When he had left her this morning shortly after breaking their fast, she had been called aside to handle a domestic squabble of some kind. Then before noon meal he found her in the common room presiding over matters of law and arguments between the commoners or general grievances. She listened to every one very carefully and her quick mind always seemed to come up with the perfect solution. She was fair but stern when necessary. Kind and altruistic when it was called for. A ruler to her very core. This was a proceeding her father should be officiating over, in Dethan’s opinion, and a remark questioning that made Tonkin tell him that it was indeed supposed to be the grand’s duty, but he was dealing with other matters of state. It was often the case, it seemed, for the grandina was usually the one presiding on any given grievance day.
Later on, she came into the courtyard, and as Dethan stood behind the drafting tables, he watched her stop and have a conversation with nearly every commoner in the bailey. She had ordered kitchen wenches to bring water to the men standing in line in the sweltering sun, then she walked slowly down the line greeting them, many by name, and thanking them for their service to the crown. Telling them how vital they were and how appreciated they were. It was by far the best thing she could have done. There she is, the grandina, reaching out, touching, and feeling gratitude toward me … What man alive wouldn’t want to be touched by something so ethereal in both station and actual beauty. She believed they thought her ugly, and that may be, but it was just as clear they were readily willing to look past that fact and see the inner beauties she had to offer.
Yes, he thought, she would be a phenomenal ruler in his stead. Oh, he had his doubts that so kind a heart had the toughness needed to keep a city safe. He would have to leave a proven and trusted lieutenant behind to support her rule. But who? As it was, he was in need of captains to marshal all these men. The men needed to be organized into work details, put to the task of building their own barracks. They needed to know there was a watchful eye above them. Until they proved themselves together, there would be little cohesion. Right now all that drove them was the promise of a hot meal and a roof. Providing those things would take time, effort, and, more important, money.
And that was why he was standing in the office of the grand’s coin handler, fuming at being made to wait a full twenty minutes while the coin handler tallied a seemingly endless amount of numbers.
“Now, what is it you want?” he said at last, peering down his nose at Dethan from his raised dais. Behind him, behind a significant guard detail—one that Dethan hadn’t noticed the first time he had come here—was presumably the vault holding the grand’s coin. It was a massive metal door surrounded by thick stone. It was locked in no less than five different places. But the coin could be under a thousand locks and it wouldn’t be any safer from the potential invading force outside the gate. Once the castle was overrun, it would be nothing at all to get at a vault.
“I told you,” Dethan said, impatient from having stood under the hot sun all day. His burn scars, what few were left by then, had not liked the heat at all. “I will need significant coin in order to build the men’s barracks and pay them their first wages.”
“Pay wages? What for? They haven’t done anything yet!” the man scoffed. “We don’t have the money to cast at every lowborn piece of trash out there on the promise of what they might do.”
Dethan stepped forward, his expression dangerous. “You do your job your way and I will do mine my way. Let us agree on that.”
“I do agree. And my job is to hold the grand’s coin as tightly as possible! I will not allow it to be spent frivolously.”
“But the grand has charged me with this task and this task requires money,” Dethan said, his fist clenching as he resisted the urge to climb up the dais, grab the pinched-nose little fiend, and shake the wax out of his ears.
“That may be, but until Jenden Grannish tells me to release a specified amount of coin, I am not able to do so. As it stands, the jenden has allowed for …”—he peered at a piece of paper—“twenty gold sovereigns.”
“Twenty—! That won’t even pay for the building of the barracks!”
“That is the sum allotted. Do you wish it or not?”
Dethan ground his teeth. Grannish. He should have realized. The entire household, the entire granddom, was run by Grannish, held hard in his fist. He would have to tackle this another way.
“Very well. Twenty sovereigns. It is a beginning.”
He stood there waiting while the coin was doled out to him and then he turned to Tonkin. “I’m in need of many things and have no idea how to find them. I will need your help most of all in these matters.”
“You can count on me, my lord,” Tonkin said.
“First, I need a ledger. I wish to track this coin as closely as possible.”
“A wise idea,” the coin handler said, suddenly eagerly interested in Dethan. “I have an empty ledger for you.” Something resembling a smile touched his thin lips. “Perhaps if you show the use of your coin thoroughly the grand will issue you more.”
As Dethan accepted the ledger he could tell that the coin handler had acquired a sort of respect for the new general that had not been there moments ago. As though he was impressed that Dethan would be keeping books on his expenditures. But why wouldn’t he, Dethan thought in puzzlement. Any good army was run with good bookkeeping. Without well-managed coin a campaign could fall apart. It was one of the many underpinnings that held an army afloat. Food. Coin. Leadership. Strategy. These were key. And Grannish knew this as well, Dethan realized. Grannish was going to attack his efforts by attacking his underpinnings. So not only was he expected to battle the Redoe, he was expected to do it while Grannish kicked away as much of Dethan’s support as he could.
Dethan would have to figure a way around this, and the key to that would no doubt lie in completely winning over the grand.
But wait. If Selinda was acting in her father’s stead in matters of state, then clearly she had the ability to delegate coin. But should he use her in this way? It might draw unwelcome attention to her by Grannish.
No, he would need to do this another way. As he left the room, he drew Tonkin beside him.
“I need lieutenants. I can second some from the city guard, but I would much prefer an untapped resource.”
“Well, usually the nobles lead the forces of an army,” Tonkin provided.
“Why? Are they better skilled at it?” Dethan asked sharply. “Birthright does not make for the best generals. The man in charge of the forces at present is a fine example of that. No. I need strong leaders that the men will want to follow. Men with brains enough to handle strategy and direction, who are not slaves to impulsivity.”
“Then I know just where to find them,” Tonkin said with a toothy grin.
Selinda moved down the hallway, just a few rooms away from her own, to the nursery. She pushed into the room and found her young brother sitting on the floor in the sunshine playing with a rag doll.
“Linda!” he cried, reaching his arms up to her. He still couldn’t quite get her full name right. But that hardly mattered. It was one of the things that endeared him to her. She hastened to kneel beside him and gathered his frail little body into her arms, pressing him close to her heart.
“So, Drakin, how are you feeling today?”
“Oh, he’s having a good day, my lady,” the governess said fondly. She had been sitting in a rocking chair watching over the young boy.
Selinda didn’t quite know if the nanny could be trusted. Grannish had been the one to hire her, yet the nanny seemed entirely devoted to Drakin. She spoiled him, to be honest, and it was clear he was the apple of her eye. But Selinda couldn’t escape the feeling that the nanny might be a viper in disguise, poised to strike the innocent child down at Grannish’s command.
“Feel good!” Drakin confirmed. “Play wif me?” he asked, holding up the doll.
“Of course I will,” she said with a smile. She sat him back on the floor with no little reluctance. She always felt he was safer while in her arms. But she couldn’t watch over the child every single minute of the day. Had she been free of her duties as chatelaine she might have, but there was no one else and so many people depended on her.
She sometimes felt guilty for that. Even though she frequently snuck away to play with her brother, she still felt guilty that she could not keep better watch over him.
“Come, now. Let’s find me a dolly and we shall play together,” she said, scooting over to his toy chest.
She would play with him, and for a little while they would be safe and happy together.
“The grand sits up there in his pretty fortress eating his elegant food with his elegant daughter while we are down here starving! Our farms are overrun with the enemy. Every year the money we invest in seed is in danger of being thrown away should our fields be the ones the Redoe savage before they leave! And yet we are required to till and seed every year or we risk losing our farms entirely! Where is the fairness in that?” the lead speaker demanded, setting up a roar from the crowd stuffed into the large room.
Dethan stood in the back of the room with Tonkin, leaning against the wall with his arms folded over his chest as he listened to the speaker. There were six of them altogether, standing at the head of the room. They stood on top of a table. So that everyone could see them, Dethan thought. And so that they were perceived as being bigger than they were. Very clever. As they spoke, reeling off points of why their lives were unbearable and who was most to blame, the crowd became more and more riled up. Shouting and surging as one. It was a powder keg, Dethan thought. It was the way revolutions were born. Was that the goal here? Or was this just a way of venting frustrations? Dethan knew of a sure way to find out. He took a step forward, drawing in a breath, readying to speak up.
“And the grandina,” the man said suddenly.
Dethan stiffened, his words freezing on his lips. What of her? What did they think of Selinda?
“A good heart means nothing when trapped in a gilded cage,” the speaker said bitterly. “She tries and we can all see it, but as long as she is controlled by others, she has no true effectiveness. And others will control her for the rest of her days. Her engagement to Grannish has seen to that.”
Instead of roaring approval this time, the crowd fell deadly silent. A wave of discomfort rippled through the crowd and one of the other men stepped forward to say something with haste in the speaker’s ear.
“I don’t care,” he said, shrugging off the man who was clearly warning him, his voice swelling over the crowd like a wave. “You see? I am not afraid to speak his name! Grannish! We all know he is the poison that is killing this city! We are just too afraid to do anything about it!”
“Kyran, please,” the other man said, this time more loudly. “You know anyone who speaks against Grannish does so at risk of his life. We need you here, alive, not in Grannish’s dungeons or dead from a mysterious illness. Grannish has the power to see into even the most hidden corners. You must be careful!”
“Let him come for me. Let them all cart me away. At least I will know I spoke my true heart and wasn’t afraid to do so.”
The crowd went absolutely wild, cheering in support, gaining courage from the man’s blatant bravery.
“But can you temper that recklessness?” Dethan shouted above the ruckus.
The room turned as a single entity toward Dethan when he’d shot out the query.
“And who are you?” Kyran asked warily, eyeing the make of his clothes, which stood out in the crowd of mud farmers and commoners.
“A man looking for men who wish to make a difference,” Dethan said.
“You mean you’re a noble looking for peons to do your dirty work,” the leader scoffed.
“I’m no noble.”
Kyran narrowed his dark eyes on the man, seeing that his stance was strong and his lack of fear in the face of a rowdy crowd emanated off him in impressive waves. Kyran could believe the man was not a noble. Nobles were soft. Arrogant without cause.
“Then who are you?” Kyran asked when the man did not volunteer the information.
“I am Dethan, and I am to lead an army of men against the Redoe.”
Kyran laughed and the laughter was echoed throughout the room.
“I heard something about this. Another folly led by the nobles, done half well and as ineffectual as ever.”
“There will be no half measures this time,” Dethan said, stepping forward into the crowd. The mass of men tried to bully him with their size and their discontent, but he paid them no mind. “I do not lose when I fight a war.”
“Strong words. You think much of yourself.”
“I do. I am a proven general. I have conquered many cities. A pestilence like the Redoe will be an easy matter … provided I can find strong and trustworthy lieutenants. Do you say you are up to the task?”
Kyran was floored and looked around him, as if to discover which of his fellow revolutionaries had set him up for a joke.
“He speaks with truth,” Tonkin spoke up over the rising response from the crowd. “Are you all talk or will you put your words to action?”
The room fell silent, and they all looked up at Kyran. The leader swallowed as he tried to grasp how the use of the room had changed from being his sounding board to being a source of expectation to action. All with just a few words and the presence of a man.
“I’ll not fight to line the pockets of fat nobles,” Kyran scoffed.
“But will you fight to get your farms back? Will you fight to free the city of Grannish’s grasp? For if we succeed in this endeavor, we will have done both.” Dethan stepped up to the table Kyran was standing on. “You say you have no love of Grannish? Then help me to depose him. Every task I accomplish that he could not will elevate me above him in the grand’s eyes.”
“And why should I want you to be elevated? Why should I help you in your effort to gain power?”
“My power will be the people’s power. I will only ever have as much as they will want me to have. I will prove myself over time and will gladly work to earn their trust. I am asking for you to help toward that end. Let us make a start by giving the mud farmers back their lands and freeing this city from the siege that hurts its trade and starves its people. Show me you have the skill and bravery to lead men into battle, and I will make you my second in command.” Dethan gave the group an assessing glance. “Take with you those you trust most to do what you ask of them.
“You are standing here demanding power to change things and here I stand offering it to you. Will you accept it or are you just full of words?”
Kyran’s jaw clenched as he realized he was being baited and manipulated … and that it was working. “How do I know you have the power to do what you say?” he asked, honestly wanting to know. He had been watching so many of his people suffer under Grannish’s governance. He had longed for the opportunity to do something for them in the face of that known tyrant. But he had felt just as helpless as everyone else. They couldn’t even plot a proper revolution because the Redoe had all movement out of the city completely blocked off. There was no way to gain munitions except through the black market, and the blockade runners charged dearly for their services. And no wonder, for it was a deadly business. Anyone caught leaving the city met a bad fate at the hands of the Redoe. They would not be moved until they wished to be moved.
“I’m awaiting an answer. The offer will stand for only as long as I am in this building. I do not have time to waste on prevaricators.”
Dethan waited another few moments while the rebellious speaker struggled with what he should do next. Then he turned on his heel and began to walk toward the exit door. It wasn’t until his hand was on the handle of the door that the man blurted out. “All right!”
Kyran leapt off the table and pushed through the murmuring crowd as Dethan turned back toward him.
“Very well, you say you are a general. You say you can do these things. I will be with you and I will watch you closely. The minute I see you are in this solely for your own gain while walking on the backs of others, so help me I will run you through myself.”
“You can try. I am not that easy to run through,” Dethan said with some amusement.
“That’s good, because Grannish isn’t going to stand for you. He will not let you show him up and he will use any means necessary.”
“Including no doubt killing off my best lieutenants,” Dethan noted.
Kyran narrowed his eyes a moment, then he chuckled. “He can try,” he said. “I am not easy to run through either.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Now come with me. Tonkin says you can duel with a sword as well as you duel with your tongue. Come show me. And bring with you the men you feel can swing one as well.”
Kyran nodded and held out his hand. “Kyran,” he said.
Dethan pressed the back of his hand to Kyran’s.