Queenmaker 3

1 Aug


Chapter Three

It was a source of some relief to me, and more so to Helen, that the old councillors had blotted their copybooks so thoroughly during the coup.  If her father had died naturally, she would have been obliged to keep them on as her advisors even though she knew their advice was almost always worse than useless.  Instead, they’d either taken part in the plot or done nothing to oppose it when the plotters seized the city, earning themselves an instant death sentence for being on the losing side.  Helen had taken advantage of the sudden vacancies – and the aristocracy’s general loss of influence – to nominate people she could trust, at least partly because they owed everything to her, to the council.  I’d done my best to convince her to listen to them, even if they disagreed with her.  The leaders who didn’t listen to their subordinates were the ones who led their countries to ruin.

I took my seat – Helen had simplified the old protocol, which served to do nothing more than waste time – and looked around the table.  Fallon – now Councillor of Magic – sat facing me;  Lord Harris, an accountant who had been raised to the nobility as Councillor of the Exchequer; Sir Horace, Lord Mayor of Roxanna and Councillor of City; Lord Smith, a merchant prince who’d become Councillor of Merchants and, somewhat to my concern, Lord Jacob, Councillor of State.  He was, according to a magical test, Helen’s illegitimate half-brother.  I hoped he wouldn’t cause problems down the line, even though bastards were technically barred from the throne.  I’d be astonished if he didn’t resent his position.

And she put him in charge of her secret service, I reflected.  Lord Jacob ruled the Black Roses.  That’s either a stroke of genius or a lethal mistake.

I studied Lord Jacob thoughtfully as we waited for Helen.  He was a tall dark-skinned man, his hair cropped close to his skull.  He reminded me a little of myself as a younger man, although I’d never been that good at keeping my emotions under tight control.  His face was a blank mask, completely unreadable.  It bothered me on a primal level that I couldn’t get a good read on him.  His father hadn’t exactly disowned him, or kept him under house arrest, but … he hadn’t been a good father either.  And what sort of relationship did he have with his older half-sister?  I wasn’t even sure the warlords knew he’d existed before he’d been appointed to the council.

Helen entered.  We stood.

“Please, sit,” Helen said. Servants flitted around, bringing food and drink.  I eyed the goblet of mead in front of me wearily, then signalled for water.  The mead had a strong kick and the last thing I needed was to get drunk in front of the council.  “There is much to discuss.”

I nodded as the servants retreated, leaving us alone.  The old council would have thrown a fit if their servants had been banished, as if they couldn’t pour wine without aid.  The newer councillors were a little more self-reliant.  I wondered, not for the first time, how many of the servants had actually been spies, so lowly they were beneath suspicion and yet in perfect places to gather intelligence and forward it to their real masters.  There’d been a purge, after the plotters had been defeated, but I feared we hadn’t eliminated all the spies.  The remainder would still be dangerous, if we hadn’t scared them into keeping their heads down. 

“Warlord Cuthbert has effectively declared war,” Helen said, opening the meeting.  “His verbal message was effectively a demand for our complete submission, his written message was a little more detailed – and contained a handful of suggestions it might be in our interests to cooperate with him against the other warlords – but it effectively boiled down to the same thing.  We have a choice between fighting or bending the knee.  I choose to fight.”

There was no disagreement, open or covert.  I allowed myself another moment of relief.  The old council would have talked and talked and talked, debating meaningless issues as they sought to run out the clock so they didn’t have to make a real decision, but the newer councillors were definitely more practical.  None of us, save for Helen herself, would be allowed to live if we lost the war and Helen would suffer a face worse than death.  The prospect of hanging concentrated the mind wonderfully, as the saying went, particularly when there were still moves one could make to escape the gallows.

“We have been preparing for this moment since we first heard about Aldred’s defeat,” Helen continued.  “Yes, we could have done with a few more months to train more soldiers and produce more muskets, cannon and gunpowder, but we are ready.  We can win.  We will win.”

She looked at me.  “Lord Elliot, you may begin.”

I nodded, unfurling the map I’d brought with me.  It was about as accurate as a child’s sketch of his neighbourhood – if I relied on it completely, I would get very badly lost – but it showed everything in roughly the right position.  Roughly.  The warlord’s lands looked pitifully small and a handful of cities look large enough to be countries in their own right, but it would suffice.  It would have to.  I’d had surveyors drawing up more accurate maps of the country ever since I’d entered Helen’s service, but their work wasn’t even half done. 

“Warlord Cuthbert is a powerful man,” I said, as if everyone around the table didn’t already know that and more besides.  “Prior to the Aldred War, he deployed a force of roughly five thousand men, mainly cavalry with a hard core of heavy infantry.  Since then, we know he has been bulking up his infantry and arming them with gunpowder weapons, although we suspect he’s been reluctant to trust his vassals and serfs with firearms.  We don’t have a solid estimate for how many men he currently has under arms, but I believe fifteen thousand is the upper limit.  This time, the vast majority will be infantry.”

Lord Smith leaned forward.  “Will they fight for him?”

I said nothing for a long moment.  The warlords had, in theory, the lands and populations they needed to raise really large armies.  In practice, given how unpopular they were with the smallholders, serfs and outright slaves that made up the majority of their subjects, they were reluctant to risk mobilising their manpower in large numbers.  Their subjects, armed with weapons that could slay mounted knights and tear down castle walls, could easily decide to turn on their former masters instead.  I’d been sending agents north to encourage underground resistance, even open revolt, for months.  But, in truth, I had no idea if it would have any effect.  I wouldn’t know until the shooting started.

It isn’t easy to break out of a slave mindset, I thought, bitterly.  My ancestors had certainly had trouble standing up for themselves, let alone getting away from the plantations and making their way north to freedom.  The door might be open, beckoning them to a better life, but as long as they can’t muster up the courage to step through …

“We have to assume they’ll fight,” I said, curtly.  I wanted to believe they’d turn on their master, or simply turn and run, but I dared not assume they’d do as I wished.  It would end badly if I relied on something outside my control.  “If if that happens, we’ll have to beat them in the field.”

I drew a line on the map, leading from Cuthbert’s lands to Damansara.  “We know Cuthbert has been backing raiders and mercenaries in Aldred’s lands.  He’s also been sheltering a handful of survivors from the previous war, promising to assist them in regaining their lands and powers in exchange for their fealty.  I suspect Cuthbert will have to advance south fairly quickly, both to isolate Damansara and to keep us from sending aid.  If he isn’t on the march now, he’ll be on his way shortly.”

“If he gets caught up in a lone siege, his army will be pinned down,” Sir Horace said.  “Right?”

“No.”  I shook my head.  A year ago, that had been common sense.  Now, it was outdated and actively dangerous.  “He has gunpowder weapons now.  He can surround the city, bring the walls down with his cannon and then storm the streets beyond.”

I shuddered.  I’d seen horrors in my military service, horrors that haunted my nightmares, but none of them came close to the sheer savage barbarity of a medieval sack.  If Damansara fell, the warlord’s troops would sweep into the city and unleash hell.  They’d loot everything that wasn’t nailed down, rape every woman unlucky enough to fall into their clutches, kill every man of military age … I felt sick, remembering the good people I’d met when I’d lived in the city.  Their council might have been composed of assholes who couldn’t look beyond their own wealth and power, but the common folk didn’t deserve to be thrown straight into hell.

“There is another danger,” I added, reluctantly.  “The city may choose to submit rather than risk a sack.  If that happens, the craftsmen and gunsmiths in the city will be forced to serve Cuthbert.  That’ll give him a chance to even the odds against us.”

Lord Smith made a choking noise.  “They wouldn’t betray their own people!”

“It’s easy to be brave when you’re sitting in an armchair, hundreds of miles from the battle, and talking with the advantage of hindsight,” I said.  God knew I’d met more than a few chickenhawks in my time.  “It’s harder to hold the line when an enemy army is at the gates, armed with weapons that can tear the gates down and deliver the city into their hands.  If the city councillors feel the situation is hopeless, they’ll sell out for the best terms they can get.”

“Which will be harsh,” Lord Jacob said, coldly.

“Yes,” I agreed.  “Damansara’s independence will come to an end.  At the very least.”

I took a breath.  “It will take several days for the warlord’s envoy to return home.  We have a window of opportunity to act, to get the drop on him, if we act now.  If we can protect Damansara, and best Cuthbert’s army in the field, we can intimidate the other warlords into submission and win the war.  But we can only do that if we win.”

“A gamble,” Lord Smith said.

“Life is a gamble,” Helen said, curtly.  “We cannot afford to lose.”

I nodded.  “The warlord’s army is cumbersome,” I said.  “Ours is not.  We have an edge.”

My lips twisted.  I hadn’t understood some of Aldred’s moves during the war until I’d realised his army wasn’t an integrated force, but – in a manner of speaking – a multinational coalition.  It seemed absurd, yet it was true.  The warlord had his personal levies, but much of the rest of his men came from lesser noblemen – all of whom had to be treated with kid gloves – or mercenaries, who refused to throw their lives away for a losing cause.  Getting anything larger than a regiment or two moving in the same direction required tact, diplomacy and a certain willingness to put birth ahead of merit.  Their chain of command had to look more like a spider’s web.  That, at least, wasn’t a problem for me.  My chain of command was so simple even a child could work out who was in command at any given point.

And my men can march for hours without grumbling, which is more than can be said for any of theirs, I thought.  The warlords could set off with a mighty army and discover, when they reached their destination, that half their men had deserted.  Their cavalry spent half their time patrolling the edges of their formations, like the NKVD standing at the rear of Soviet formations during the Great Patriotic War, ready to shoot anyone in the back if they didn’t advance on command. Very few of their infantry actually want to be there.

I smiled.  A year ago, soldiers had been regarded as parasites and mercenaries as something akin to child molesters.  Mercenaries were still hated and loathed – I’d had to promise a reward for anyone who captured a mercenary, just to keep my men from murdering the bastards on the spot if they tried to surrender – but soldiering was starting to look like an attractive career.  My army, the one I’d taken apart and put back together again, had plenty of manpower, without emptying the jails and press-ganging unwary drunkards.  Really, I had more manpower than I needed.  If I’d had a couple of years to build up my forces, it would have been a rout.  The warlords wouldn’t have stood a chance.

“The army will leave in two days,” I said.  It would be a rush, and it wouldn’t look very professional, but it could be done.  “I’ll lead the advance force personally on a force-march to Damansara, using the railway to supplement our troops and resupply our forces.  We should get the regiments in position well before the warlord can get his own troops underway and prepare ourselves to take the offensive.  Either he comes out to fight, in which case we’ll best him in the field, or we’ll strike deep into his lands and take his coalition apart from the inside.”

Lord Jacob shot me a challenging look.  “Can you really convince his vassals to switch sides, when they’ll lose their ancient rights?”

I hid my irritation.  It was a valid point.  Normally, vassals – lesser aristocracy, wealthy freemen – would switch sides the moment they thought their old master could no longer either protect them from their enemies or punish them for desertion.  The monarchy had lost most of its power, in the reign of Helen’s grandfather, because it hadn’t been able to do either any longer.  On paper, an advancing army was just the sort of thing that would have aristocrats frantically re-evaluating their loyalties.  But in practice …

“We will be freeing the slaves, ending serfdom and handing out land rights to the people who actually work the lands,” I said, calmly.  “But if they submit, they’ll be able to keep at least some of their property.  If they refuse, they’ll lose it completely.”

Lord Jacob didn’t look convinced.  Or, perhaps, he’d noted the sting in the tail.  The aristos might want to continue the fight, even though it was suicidal, but the commoners would have other ideas.  Why would they fight for their tormentors?  One might as well expect plantation slaves to don Confederate Grey!  The moment our army approached, the commoners would switch sides fast enough to leave their former masters in the lurch.  It had happened before and it would happen again.

If they surrender, they’ll salvage something, I told myself.  And if they don’t it simply won’t matter.

Sir Horace cleared his throat.  “Are you sure you can beat Cuthbert before the other warlords intervene?”

“Yes,” I said, with a great deal more confidence than I felt.  Nothing was ever certain in war.  “If our reports are accurate, they have yet to mobilise their troops and prepare for the offensive.  We can, and we will, deploy our own forces to hold them back if they do take the offensive before we’re ready for them.  We also have the city’s new defences and the militia to back them up.”

And agents sent into their territory to get them fighting each other, I added, silently.  The warlords were in an odd position.  They had to crush us before we built up the forces to do it to them, but if they won they’d have to figure out how to share the kingdom between them.  Who would be the anointed king?  It seemed absurd, to a man raised in a democratic state, yet they took it very seriously.  The moment one of the warlords becomes king, the rest will start plotting to clip his wings.

I kept that thought to myself.  Instead, I ran through a brief outline of my plans and preparations for war.  They didn’t need to know the precise details – I didn’t think they’d betray us willingly, but what they didn’t know they couldn’t tell – yet it was important they sensed my confidence.  They didn’t need to know all my contingency plans either.  A handful of the wilder plans would only upset them.

“We stand to risk everything, if you offensive fails,” Lord Jacob commented, when I’d finished.  “What happens if we lose?”

“We cannot afford to stand on the defensive,” I told him.  “They could, and they would, pin us down and then crush us.  We have to take the offensive as quickly as possible or we’d be effectively conceding eventual defeat.”

I scowled.  Warlord Aldred’s men hadn’t known about muskets.  They’d charged straight into the teeth of our fire and very few, if any, had lived long enough to understand what had happened to them.  Warlord Cuthbert wouldn’t make the same mistakes.  Given time, he’d dance around us while using his cavalry to harass our farmers and burn down our fields, along with all the improvements I’d made over the last few months.  And then we’d starve …

Helen tapped the table.  “The plan is sound,” she said, as if it had been the first time she’d heard it.  We’d actually discussed a dozen variants over the last few weeks.  “If any of you feel otherwise, say so now.”

No one spoke.  I hoped that was a good sign.  Helen wasn’t one of the idiots who regarded dissent as treason, and blamed the messenger for the message, but everyone at the table – except me – had grown up in a society where saying what one really thought could lead straight to their execution.  Helen didn’t have a reputation for lashing out at the bearer of bad news, but still …

“Good.  We will proceed.”  Helen stood.  “Lord Jacob, attend upon me.”

On that note, the meeting ended.

7 Responses to “Queenmaker 3”

  1. Matthew W Quinn August 2, 2022 at 1:45 am #

    Lord Jacob as the queen’s illegitimate half-brother? And he seems to be aware of that? That could be a real problem…even if he doesn’t want to usurp his sister, others might try to push him into it, or make Queen Helen and Elliot THINK he was up to no good.

    The plot is thickening. Keep up the good work!

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard August 2, 2022 at 2:08 am #

      It was mentioned that because he’s illegitimate Lord Jacob can’t inherit the Throne.

      But yes, he could still cause problems for his half-sister.

      • George Phillies August 2, 2022 at 2:15 pm #

        They declared that the Queen is a man. They can declare that Lord Jacob is legitimate.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard August 2, 2022 at 3:12 pm #

        How many of the Lords have acknowledged illegitimate sons and/or brothers who would just love the idea that they could be declared legitimate? 😈

    • AC Young August 2, 2022 at 10:11 am #

      Yes. Handing the kingdom’s intelligence gathering operation to someone who might have a reason to be disloyal… It’s somewhere between a stroke of genius – ensuring that he is sufficiently securely tied to his half-sister and her rule – and the new queen’s worst ever mistake – giving someone who has good reason to want to stab her in the back the means of doing so.

      On the other hand, who else does she hand her intelligence service to? If she can’t run it herself (and she may not have the time to make a good job of it), Elliot can’t do it (he’s too busy with the army, and would probably refuse anyway), and there aren’t that many people of sufficiently high rank she can trust. She almost has to trust that blood is thicker than water, and hope that it doesn’t bite her in return.

      Perhaps it’s a paper title – Lord Jacob thinks that he’s in charge, but the next rank down are loyal to the Queen alone, and will follow her orders over his? Though that might be dangerous if Lord Jacob realises it.

  2. George Phillies August 2, 2022 at 2:17 pm #

    It would be nice if the author did not follow the trope and had mounted a supersoaker over the mantlepiece to distract all and sundry. Queen and Jacob taking the needed advice that the black roses with best of intentions were creating difficulties might be good.

  3. George Phillies August 8, 2022 at 5:29 am #

    “blotted their copybooks” That is a British idiom, not in use on this side of the Atlantic.Actually, other than by inference, I have no idea what it means or where the phrase originated.

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