His Majesty’s Warlord (2-3)

9 Sep

Chapter Two

It was surprisingly easy to leave Damansara

I’d expected it to be difficult.  The City Fathers had planned to kill me.  They’d feared me, they’d thought I was a bad influence, they’d thought I was popular enough to lead the people in a revolt against them.  And yet … perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me.  I was popular.  Sure, I’d gone to some trouble to ensure Rupert – and Harbin, now he was safely dead – had gotten most of the public credit for our victory, but everyone who mattered knew the truth.  I understood their reasoning.  Better to let me enter Princess Helen’s service and leave the city, taking many of my loyalists with me, rather than risk triggering a coup or civil war.

I sat in the carriage, facing Fallon and Princess Helen, and watched as the city fell away behind us.  My feelings were decidedly mixed.  I’d never really bonded with the city – it had never felt like home – and yet, I couldn’t help feeling a little wistful.  I’d worked so hard to build a place for myself, to start a series of projects intended to make the city better, that leaving felt almost like admitting defeat.  But I couldn’t stay.  Rupert was on my side, I thought, but he was alone.  The City Fathers knew I had his ear.  They whispered I had another part of his anatomy too.

Princess Helen had been surprisingly confident about making it back to the capital – and relative safety – before Warlord Cuthbert could do something stupid, much to my surprise.  I’d drawn fifty men from the army as my personal retinue – the City Fathers had been glad to rid themselves of my loyalists – yet I feared they wouldn’t be enough to protect us against a real attack.  The warlord had gambled everything on snatching the princess and forcing her into marriage before it was too late and now … I scowled, all too aware he was probably going to get away with it.  The king wasn’t powerful enough to bring him to heel like the dog he was.  It was why Princess Helen had recruited me in the first place.

I studied her, doing my best not to make it obvious.  She was in her early thirties, with brown skin, dark hair, and a face that was striking rather than beautiful.  The dress she wore had been carefully designed to allow her to move freely, even to run without picking up her skirts; I suspected, from the way she wore her left sleeve, that there was a virgin blade concealed within her dress.  Perhaps more than one.  The princess was her father’s sole heir.  Her husband, whoever he turned out to be, would have an excellent claim to the throne.  I feared she might never be able to marry, let alone have children.  Even if her husband was content to let her rule, something rare in a very male-dominated world, everyone would assume he was the power behind the throne.

And having a child out of wedlock would damn her in her people’s eyes, I thought.  How the hell is she meant to square the circle?

The princess’s eyes seemed to rest on me.  It was a coolly assessing gaze, betraying none of her innermost feelings.  I wondered, idly, what she saw.  A big black man, scarred by war and life itself … she carried none of the racial hang-ups from home, but she had hang-ups of her own.  I was a mercenary, as far as most people knew, and that was damning.  The princess knew the truth, she knew I’d come from another world, but she’d still find it hard to treat me as anything other than a hired gun.  She couldn’t afford to be seen as anything other than my mistress.  Mercenaries were about as popular as child molesters in this strange new world.

If Fallon was aware of our silent gaze, she gave no sign of it.  Her skin was slightly lighter than the princess, her hair an ashy blonde that looked somewhat out of place to my eyes.  Her parents had been serfs who’d fled the plantations when she’d been a child and, for reasons I didn’t understand, had to remain out of sight even after they’d spent a year and a day in the city.  Fallon was smart, but … she’d never had the schooling in magic she needed to really make something of herself.  I intended to do something about that as quickly as possible.  I didn’t have magic myself, a dangerous weakness in a world where most of the powerful had at least a touch of magic.  I was going to need someone to protect me if I couldn’t protect myself.

We drove past a burnt-out village, the princess’s eyes narrowing as she saw the ruins.  I thought I knew what she was thinking.  The kingdom had been devastated by endless wars as the warlords – and their clients – struggled for supremacy, while everyone else was caught in the middle.  There was no way to know who’d destroyed the town or why.  The remnants of Warlord Aldred’s forces, enjoying the war because they knew the peace would be terrible?  Or rebels, destroying their own town before taking to the uncultivated lands and trying to hide?  Or mercenaries on their way to seek employment somewhere else?  I studied the ruins, hoping they’d tell me something, but there was nothing.  There weren’t even any dead bodies.  I couldn’t help thinking that was a bad sign.

Perhaps not, I told myself.  You were telling them to bury the dead as quickly as possible, weren’t you?

I grimaced.  It hadn’t been easy, despite my mystery predecessor, to convince the locals to deal with all the dead.  They might bury or cremate their own people, but not enemy dead.  They didn’t even care about dead bodies on the streets, if they were poor or homeless or simply … unknown.  I’d done what I could, when I’d started work, but I knew it hadn’t been good enough.  I just hadn’t the power to convince the locals to prevent epidemics by burying the dead as soon as possible.  Sooner or later, something really nasty was going to burn through the population like fire through dry wood.

The carriage rattled.  Princess Helen seemed unconcerned.  I admired her poise.  The carriage was fit for a queen – and spells had been worked into the wood to smooth the ride – but it was still uncomfortable.  I was going to be tired and sore when we reached the first waypoint, even though I wasn’t walking or riding.  I felt a twinge of envy for the men outside.  They were doing something to keep their minds from wandering, even if it was marching from place to place.  I was trapped with the princess and my client.

And there was a time, my thoughts mocked me, when you would have been delighted to be with two girls in relative privacy.

The thought hurt.  I’d done my best to forget my wife and kids, after discovering there was no way home, but it hadn’t worked.  Cleo and I had had our ups and downs – being an army wife was never easy, even when one’s friends didn’t think they shared their husband’s rank – and yet, I’d thought we had something.  My kids were going to think I was just another husband who’d abandoned his family, they were going to think I’d driven to Vegas or slipped into the underground or something – anything – other than the truth.  My disappearance was going to be just another unsolved mystery, even when the army got involved.  I’d be listed as AWOL, presumed deserted, and that would be that.  Somehow, I doubted they’d spend as long looking for me as they had for DB Cooper.

Princess Helen leaned forward.  “Tell me about your world,” she said.  “How does it work?”

She would have made a good office, I noted absently.  Her voice had just the right combination of respect and firmness.  She might never have had any real military training – reading between the lines, I was sure her father had been trying desperately for a boy – but she knew a great deal about manipulating people, about pushing them in the right direction without driving them to resist.  I’d met a great many officers who hadn’t been anything like as good at it.  But then, they’d never been at serious risk of being killed by their own men.  The princess was riding a tiger.  One slip and she’d fall.

I considered my answer carefully.  The question was well chosen.  She’d listen to what I didn’t say as well as what I did.  What aspect of my world I talked about would tell her a great deal about me and my thinking.  And yet … what could I tell her?  She wouldn’t understand Earth.  She wouldn’t understand that the poorest person in America was richer beyond the dreams of Rupert or Harbin or her.  She certainly wouldn’t understand democracy, or the impact of modern technology.  It might as well be magic to her.

“It’s complex,” I said, finally.  “Things are a great deal simpler here.”

We chatted back and forth, Fallon listening silently, as the small convoy continued its journey to the capital.  I was used to long trips – the army practically ran on the hurry up and wait principle – but it was still a relief when we finally stopped at a manor for the night.  Our host, a genial nobleman who could afford to be friendly – reading between the lines, I figured he had very little power of his own – organised bedrooms, served a fine meal and then spent the night chatting about his issues.  Princess Helen seemed completely unconcerned and, although I was sure she was bored, she hid it well.

“The warlord is dead,” the nobleman said.  “What does that mean for us?”

I shrugged inwardly as the princess bombarded him with platitudes.  Warlord Aldred had been a tyrant to anyone unlucky enough to live within his sphere, as well as a parasite sucking the lifeblood out of the country, but his death meant a power vacuum.  Damansara would try to fill it, as would rebel villagers and former serfs, yet it might not be enough to keep the other warlords out.  We hadn’t killed all of the warlord’s former clients.  A handful had been smart enough to delay their march to his aid, then fallen back when they realised the battle was over and their patron had lost.  They had to be building up their own forces as quickly as possible, embracing gunpowder weapons and everything else they’d tried to pretend didn’t exist.  They’d be stupid not to.

The thought bothered me as we resumed our journey, the following morning.  The landscape was changing, slowly becoming greener; the locals, from what little I could see from the carriage, didn’t look any better treated.  They kept their heads down, but I’d seen enough poor people in the wars to tell they were bitter and resentful.  By now, they would have heard about the rebellions that had unseated the warlord; I wondered, grimly, how many of them were thinking along the same lines.  I made a mental note to try to work with the rebels as quickly as possible.  They’d make strong allies, if they could be convinced to work with the crown.  But that wouldn’t be easy.  As far as they were concerned, the crown was either their enemy or too weak to be useful.  The princess would have an uphill fight to convince them otherwise.

And there’s more insurgent-friendly terrain here, I noted, coldly.  A rebellion would be impossible to squash quickly, if it took root.

“My father will be pleased to see you,” Princess Helen assured me.  She sounded untroubled by two days in the carriage, even though she had to be as sore as myself.  “But you have to remember the protocol when you meet him in public.”

I listened, rather tiredly, as she talked me through the courtly ceremonials.  The whole affair struck me as faintly ridiculous.  The President got a great deal of ceremony, for better or worse, but no one had ever suggested kneeling at his feet.  And when the king barely had any real power … I shook my head inwardly, dismissing any thought of being stubborn.  I didn’t have the power, not yet, to demand equal treatment.  The warlords were the only people who were allowed to overshadow the king.

It’s a display of weakness, not strength, I reminded myself.  The king wouldn’t need to insist everyone bent the knee if he was strong enough to make them.

I kept that thought to myself as the princess went on and on, listening the major figures at court … a list that sounded like someone had taken the characters from Game of Thrones and mixed them with characters from a dozen bad regency novels.  There were hundreds of courtiers; some with real power, some so powerless that all they could do was sit in court and plead with the king for a pension.  I thought I understood, now, why the monarchy was terminally short of cash.  Keeping aristocrats in the manner to which they were accustomed was expensive.  And the king couldn’t afford to simply cut them loose because they’d turn on him in a heartbeat.

There needs to be a cull, I thought.  My head started to ache as I tried to keep all the names straight.  If I got home, I promised myself, I’d never make fun of REMFs ever again.  Maybe we can convince them to serve in the army, then send them to the front lines …

The carriage slowed to a halt.  “You might want to see this,” Princess Helen said.  “Your new home.”

I peered out the window.  We were on a slope, heading down to the city.  A mighty river glowed in the bright sunlight, boats clearly visible making their way across the waters; it passed into the city and split in two.  The city itself was built around the split, as if someone had constructed the bridges first and the city had come later.  A large building – it looked like a cross between a mansion and a castle – sat on an island, just short of the fork in the river.  I guessed it was the king’s home.  My eyes wandered over the rest of the city, narrowing as I realised what was missing.  Roxanna looked spectacular, a great deal more so than Damansara, but the city had no visible defences.  There were no walls.  The urban sprawl just … petered out.

“Your Highness,” I said.  “What happened to the defences?”

The princess’s lips thinned as she rapped the wood, signalling the driver to resume our journey.  “The warlords made us tear them down,” she said, tartly.  “I’m hoping you can do something about it.”

I winced.  Fixed defences had their weaknesses, but they conferred the great advantage of making life difficult for anyone who wanted to get into the city.  I wouldn’t have cared to try to force my way into Damansara, certainly not without modern weapons.  The walls had been carefully designed to force the enemy to leave themselves exposed, if they dared storm the walls.  Here … we’d have to build a mobile army as quickly as possible.  Even if we started building walls at once, the enemy would have plenty of time to attack before it was too late. 

The carriage rattled back into life.  I watched from the window as we headed down to the city.  The wind shifted, blowing the stench into my face.  I was used to it by now, but … this time, the stench was somehow worse.  The river was huge, easily as big as the Mississippi.  I guessed the locals had a great deal of fish in their diet, as well as everything else.  It would explain the stench.  Up close, the city reminded me of New York.  The skyline looked spectacular, from a distance, but the city itself was dark, grimly and claustrophobic.   I hadn’t felt very comfortable there.

I kept my mouth shut as the princess pointed out a handful of landmarks and places of interest, making a mental note to slip my escorts and explore the city myself as soon as possible.  I didn’t have any feel for how the city worked, or how the population felt about the king and his government; I knew too little to get anything done.  Who would support the king and princess if they tried to reform the city?  Who would oppose him?  And who would sit on the fence until they were forced to choose a side?

We crossed a stone bridge that looked disturbingly unsafe, then drove past a string of walled mansions, mid-sized houses and apartment blocks.  The former apparently belonged to the nobility, the latter built on the site of mansions that had been torn down and converted into apartments to allow wealthy – but common-born – merchants to live close to the king.  I snorted at the thought, although I understood.  It wasn’t enough to be rich and powerful in a status-driven society.  One must be acknowledged to be both if one wanted to be considered important.

“Welcome to Roxanna Palace,” Princess Helen said.  “My father is looking forward to meeting you.”

I nodded as the palace came into view.  It was impressive – it made Buckingham Palace or the White House look small – and yet, it was almost defenceless.  I wasn’t impressed.  The wall around the palace was tiny, little more than a formality.  There were probably spells woven into the stone – I couldn’t sense them – but the building still looked easy to storm.  My troops could have done it with ease.

“My staff will take care of you,” Princess Helen said, as we passed through the gatehouse and stopped by one of the entrances.  “Be ready when I call.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” I said.

Chapter Three

It was an odd custom, I’d been told, that a visitor had to be formally presented to the monarch as soon as he arrived in the castle.  This had the obvious downside that the visitor would be dirty and smelly and wearing unsuitable clothes when he faced the monarch and, hopefully, his future patron.  The aristocracy had circumvented the requirement by insisting the washroom reserved for guests from distant places was not, actually, part of the palace, a legal fiction that made me roll my eyes.  What was the downside of letting guests go to the rooms and wash – and everything else they needed to do – before they met the king?

Nothing, apart from the fact they would have put their physical needs ahead of their monarch, I thought.  It was hard to wrap my head around that kind of thinking, but it was part and parcel of my new world.  And that would make the king look weak in front of his subjects.

I felt uncomfortable as maids, young enough to be my daughters, tried to help me undress and wash.  They looked as if I’d slapped them, when I waved them off so I could do it myself.  It wasn’t as if I was crippled … I understood, suddenly, why so many young aristocrats turned into entitled brats.  They had servants to do everything for them, up to and including wiping themselves after they went to the toilet.  The wonder, I supposed, was that Rupert hadn’t turned into the same kind of nightmare as Harbin.

The maids kept their distance as I changed into my new outfit and studied myself in the mirror.  Princess Helen had given me a white tunic with a purple belt that showcased my status as one of her clients, along with a handful of campaign medals that had been hastily struck after the warlord’s sudden defeat.  I turned them over and over in my hand, wondering if they’d mean anything to the aristocracy.  Damansara wasn’t that far away – it had only taken two days to travel to the capital – but, as far as they were concerned, the city might as well be on the other side of the moon.  Perhaps they thought the stories of our great victory were exaggerated.  It wouldn’t really surprise me.

“You look good,” Fallon said.

I turned.  Fallon had changed into a simple green dress that contrasted with her hair, revealing the shape of her body without showing anything below the neckline.  A handful of golden necklaces hung around her neck, a single glowing pendent resting between her breasts.  Clear warning, for those with eyes to see, that she was a magician.  I felt a twinge of discomfort as she looked me up and down, reminding myself – sharply – that she was young enough to be my daughter.  She wasn’t sure of her exact age, from what she’d said, but certainly couldn’t be that much older than my son.  He’d been eighteen …

My heart twisted.  My oldest son would be forever eighteen, in my memories.  He’d never go join the army or go to university, he’d never get married or have children or grandchildren or … I’d never meet his wife, or dangle my grandchildren on my knee, or anything I might have expected to do.  My sons were alive – it wasn’t as if they’d been taken from me – but I would never see them again.  And what could I do about it?  Nothing.

“Thanks,” I managed.  “You look good too.”

Fallon looked down at herself.  “They work wonders,” she said, indicating the maids.  “You should get them to work on you.”

I snorted, unsure if I was being teased or if she was hinting the maids would be held accountable for not helping me.  It wasn’t as if they could do much for my looks.  I’d kept my hair short and my face was … well, a year in an alien world hadn’t improved it.  I shook my head as I brushed down my tunic, feeling uncomfortably overdressed.  The whole affair struck me as absurd.  It was like being on the Truman Show, except I was the only one who knew it was staged.  Everyone else took it deadly seriously.

And they have nothing else, I reminded myself.  They pretend because not pretending would force them to face up to the truth.

A man wearing a gilt uniform that wouldn’t have been out of place on a third world dictator stepped into the washroom.  “Mr Elliot,” he said.  “The king will see you now.”

I tried to hide my amusement as he spun around and walked away, as if he had a rod stuck up his backside.  He didn’t turn to check if we were following him.   I was tempted to stay where I was, but … I shook my head and forced myself into high gear.  The court was a battleground, where the weapons were sweet words and barbed insults rather than guns and swords; I couldn’t afford to take it lightly.  We passed a pair of guards who looked us up and down, then stepped to one side.  The tunic was tight enough to display my lack of weapons without actually forcing them to search me.  I had to admire whoever had come up with the concept.  Searching an aristocrat would be offensive, naturally, but letting someone carry a weapon into the king’s presence would be worse.  A single strike could plunge the kingdom into chaos.

We stepped through a pair of doors, then another and another.  The antechambers started out fancy and, somehow, got fancier and fancier.  Stewards stood everywhere, carrying trays of glasses and bottles; they wore striking outfits, wigs and powdered makeup that concealed their features surprisingly well, to the point they all looked identical.  I noted that, despite their outfits, their eyes were hard and cold.   They moved like men who were ready for violence.   I suspected the king, or his daughter, intended to make sure anyone the stewards had to throw out wouldn’t be able to take revenge later.  Good thinking, if that were true.

Our escort stopped in front of a final set of doors, then made a show of checking his pocket watch before throwing them open.  I took Fallon’s arm as we stepped into the throne room.  It was massive, easily larger than a football field, yet somehow full to bursting.  I could feel hundreds of eyes on me as we walked down the carpet leading to the throne.  I hadn’t felt so naked in public since the day I’d graduated from Boot Camp.  And then I’d been a face in the crowd.  Here … it was hard to shake the urge to look down to check I wasn’t actually naked.

The court was quiet, yet not silent.  I could hear people talking, their voices so low I couldn’t make out the words.  I tried to look around, gauging the crowd without moving my head.  The men wore flamboyant outfits that showed off their muscles or paunches – I spotted a couple of men who seemed to be showing off their weight, rather than trying to minimise it – while the women wore dresses that cost more than I made in a year.  There was an astonishing amount of flesh on display.  The nasty part of my mind pointed out the last time I’d seen so much bare flesh had been when Horst and Fallows had taken me to a brothel.

I kept my eyes lowered as we approached the throne.  King Jacob sat on a raised stand, wearing a simple white and purple outfit.  It was hard to believe he and Helen were actually father and daughter.  He was shorter than her, with a flabby face that bore no resemblance to the paintings I’d seen.  I had the feeling he was older than everyone said, although it was hard to be sure.  His daughter, standing behind him with her eyes demurely lowered, was only ten years or so younger than me.  The king had to be in his fifties, if not sixties. 

It felt wrong to kneel, to show respect.  I didn’t feel it.  The king might have many fine qualities – his daughter was hardly a spoilt brat – but he wasn’t up to the task of keeping his nobles under control.  The warlords defied his will, while the lesser aristocracy mocked his commands while demanding he kept them fed and clothed.  And yet, the world had changed, ever since my predecessor had introduced guns and the printing press.  The king could have built a modern army well before I’d fallen through a crack in the fabric of the universe and wound up in his kingdom.

The king seemed to study me for a long moment.  “You are welcome here,” he said.  His voice was calm and friendly, but there was something to it I didn’t like.  I couldn’t put my finger on it, although I was sure I’d heard it before.  “I name you Royal Warlord and Keeper of the Keys.”

A rustle ran around the chamber.  I kept my eyes down as the king stood and drew his sword.  I remembered it now … the king sounded like Cleo’s father, when she’d brought me home for the first time.  My father-in-law hadn’t been very happy at the thought of me marrying his little girl … not, from what I heard later, that he was particularly discriminating.  He’d hated each and every one of his daughter’s boyfriends, without exception.  I wondered, suddenly, just how much Helen had said to her father, before she’d taken me into her service and escorted me to the capital.  Chat parchments weren’t any better than online chat programs.  It was possible she hadn’t said that much to her father until it was too late for him to object.

At least she didn’t surprise him with an unexpected husband, I thought.  From what I’d heard, marrying into royalty without the monarch’s permission was treason.  That would have been going a little too far.

The king rested his sword on my shoulder.  I tensed.  I had bad memories of bladed weapons being held so close to my neck and the king’s blade was very sharp indeed.  He didn’t look that strong, not compared to me, but the blade was probably charmed to cut through flesh like a knife through butter.  If he’d wanted to behead me, he could have done it in an instant and there’d be no hope of escape.  I held myself still by sheer force of will.  There was nothing else I could do.

“Rise, Sir Elliot,” the king said.  “Rise, and join your kin.”

He stepped back.  I stood, Fallon standing beside me.  The king’s eyes flickered over her without ever quite seeing her.  I wasn’t sure if he was deliberately ignoring her or … or what?  I didn’t know.  Helen had landed me in the crapper, if only by not telling me what she’d agreed with her father.  Had she created a situation in which he’d be forced to go along with her?  Or a situation she could be blamed for, if it went south?  Legally, thanks to the wonders of absurd legal fictions, Helen was still a minor child.  She might be scolded and sent to her room, if things went badly, but she wouldn’t get her head lopped off.  It was quite possible Helen and her father had planned the whole affair from the start.

“We welcome you to our court,” the king said.  “And we look forward to seeing much more of you.”

He motioned us back.  I bowed – beside me, Fallon dropped a perfect curtsy – and stepped back, careful not to turn my back on the king until I reached the crowd.  The king seemed oddly tired by the whole affair, stepping back himself and sitting on his throne.  The herald stepped forward and announced someone else, as if we were no longer important.  I was uncomfortably aware we were alone in a crowd.  The assembled nobility didn’t seem to know what to make of us.

I wished for something alcoholic, as the stewards carried drinks from group to group, but I didn’t dare drink anything more than water.  The military had taught me the value of the two-pint rule, but I had no idea how much alcohol was in the unmarked bottles.  It was too dangerous to get drunk in unfriendly territory.  I moved around the room, speaking briefly to a handful of people and silently putting names to faces.  They really didn’t seem to know what to make of me.  I had the impression they were waiting to see if I lasted long enough to be worth knowing.

Fallon nudged me.  “What do we do now?”

I shrugged.  The king was passing judgement on a handful of cases, brought before him by commoners, but no one was paying particular attention.  I suspected the commoners were going to be disappointed.  The king might have sworn an oath to uphold justice – and so on, and so on – but if justice conflicted with an aristocrat’s interests justice was going to be tossed out a window.  I’d seen it before, on Earth.  A powerful man, sitting at the top of a network of clients designed to support his primacy, would be dangerously unwise to undermine his own power by ruling against one of his clients.  It would gain him nothing, beyond praise from the powerless, while putting his own interests at risk.  He would, at best, say a few comforting words and dismiss the case.

The afternoon slowly wore on.  I did my best not to look bored as I made a few acquaintances and stared down a man who looked more interested in Fallon than me.  Helen, standing next to her father, seemed unworried by the slow day.  I was honestly starting to wonder if someone had cast a spell to slow time, if – when we finally left the palace – we’d discover a hundred years had passed on the outside.  I didn’t know if it was possible.  The books I’d read, most of which had been largely incomprehensible, had suggested there were no upper limits to what magic could do.  I hoped that wasn’t true.  If magicians were minor gods, it boded ill for the future.

A steward caught my eye as the king called the next set of petitioners.  “Sir Elliot, Lady Fallon, please come with me.”

I resisted the urge to rub my eyes as we followed him through a small door and into a smaller chamber.  Helen was sitting at the table, waiting for us … I blinked.  Hadn’t she been beside her father?  I was sure I’d seen her … magic, of course.  A wizard – a sorceress – had done it.  She wasn’t expected to do anything more than stand with her father and look pretty, something that could be easily handled by an illusion.  No one would risk trying to touch her in front of the entire court.  Or speak to her, for that matter.  She occupied an odd place in the hierarchy, slightly below her father and yet above everyone else.  I felt a twinge of sympathy as it dawned on me she must be very lonely.

And yet, it was all I could do not to snap at her.  “How much did you tell your father about me?”

Helen showed no pretence of surprise at the question.  “We discussed it,” she said, curtly.  If she took offense at my tone, she didn’t show it.  “It was important he appear … reluctant.”

I nodded, remembering my earlier thoughts.  Helen really did occupy an odd position.   She was her father’s hostess, seeing the king had evidently never married again, and yet she was also the heir.  He couldn’t rebuke her in public without weakening her position when she took the throne … a position that would be dangerously weak, as long as she lived.  She needed a husband, yet accepting one would make things worse as well as better … I shook my head silently.  It spoke well of them, I supposed, that they’d planned together.  At least the king wasn’t really mad at her.

“The Royal Warlord position will give you command of the Royal Armies,” Helen said, before I had a chance to reply.  “The position of Keeper of the Keys is a little more ceremonial, I’m afraid, and you may find yourself contesting with the Lord Mayor, but you’ll have a considerable amount of leeway to raise troops and various other things.  And, as Royal Warlord, you have control of a considerable estate.  They’ll be hereditary if you survive long enough to have children.”

My eyes narrowed.  “What happened to the last person to take the post?”

“Dead.”  Helen’s face was artfully blank, but her eyes were grim.  “He was shot with an arrow on a hunting trip.  The official report stated it was an accident.  You can believe as much or little of that as you like.”

I scowled.  The warlords would want the Royal Warlord dead, before he could build an effective army.  I’d heard stories of hunting trips.  Wild boar were dangerous.  They could be lethal to a trained man.  “At least he didn’t accidentally brutally cut off his own head while shaving.”

Helen didn’t smile at the weak jest.  “The mansion that goes with the title, along with the staff, is yours as long as you remain in your post,” she said.  “I suggest you spend the next day or so exploring your property, then you can join the council meeting.  We’ll meet before and after the meeting itself, to compare notes.  I trust that will be suitable?”

“It will, Your Highness,” I said.  A thought struck me.  “Tell me something.  How many of the men out there” – I waved a hand at the walls – “are actually any use?”

“None of them.”  Helen’s lips twitched.  “And that is being generous.”

6 Responses to “His Majesty’s Warlord (2-3)”

  1. George Phillies September 9, 2021 at 3:45 pm #

    A fine start. Names on some of the courtiers, including some of the ones who need to be back populated would be good.

  2. Mike Thomas September 9, 2021 at 4:30 pm #

    Really liking the second book. It is good to see that the hero is a “Black Adder” fan. Excellent preparatory studies for a life in a back stabbing royal court.

  3. Jack Hudler September 9, 2021 at 5:54 pm #

    Good start.
    Chapter 1 and 2 are reversed.

    • M. Hutson September 9, 2021 at 6:02 pm #

      Minor typo – not going to be caught by spellcheck. After Helen asks lead character about his world, you have a sentence: “She would have made a good office, I noted absently.” should be “officer”, not “office”. I tend to stumble over things like this. Enjoyed the first book.

    • Jack Hudler September 9, 2021 at 7:37 pm #

      Chapter 3 not 2

  4. Steven House September 9, 2021 at 8:37 pm #

    “So Sir knight, I noticed that you gave each of your men in line a number?” “you have a question my lady?” “yes why did you number the fourth man in line 50?” “Oh his name is Cal!” “Oh no realy 50 cal that’s a realy bad joke that only some one from back home would get.” “Yes but the look on your face was worth it, Lady Emily.”

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