“Master Guilbert is here, Your Majesty.”
The king nodded. “Show him in.”
Guilbert entered the king’s study and gave a flourishing bow. “Your Majesty.”
“What did Belvoir decide?”
“I am happy to inform Your Majesty that the duke has accepted your magnanimous offer,” Guilbert replied with a satisfied expression.
Rainier stroked the thin beard on his chin. “I did not think he would, given his excessive pride. I underestimated you, Master Guilbert.”
“His family, especially his son, is his weak point,” Guilbert explained with a sly expression. “Enough pressure applied, and I knew he would cave.”
“You have done well. The executioner will have work to do.”
“I live to serve.” Guilbert offered another bow.
“I will be pleased if this matter can be resolved swiftly. It gives me time to launch my campaign before summer begins. Will Alois of Belvoir be a problem?” the king asked.
“He can be pragmatic,” Guilbert considered. “I think he will consider himself fortunate if his father’s treason only costs him his father and not his title as well.”
“Can he be trusted not to betray me the moment my back is turned?”
“If he considers Your Majesty to be vulnerable, he may strike, seeking vengeance. The boy is quite attached to his father,” Guilbert revealed.
“He will have to be removed,” Rainier decided. “I cannot have Belvoir in hostile hands. One of my cousins may be suited to assume the title of duke. I will need those forces to take Herbergja.”
“Your Majesty knows best.” Guilbert gave another bow. “What of the sibyls?”
“How certain is their involvement?”
“It is beyond the shadow of doubt, Your Majesty. The sibyl in the town of Belvoir sent and received messages between the Raven Court and the duke. I doubt the duke would have dared this ill-conceived attempt of a coup without the Veiled standing ready to legitimise his rule and crown him king.”
Rainier was quiet for a moment, contemplating the situation. “Punishing the sibyl at Belvoir within or outside the limits of the law should not be difficult. Punishing the Veiled Sister, on the other hand, may not be in my power.”
“Unless damning evidence can be found, Your Majesty. If the sibyl at Belvoir confesses and implicates the Veiled, you have cause to arrest her,” Guilbert suggested.
“Evidence is not the issue,” Rainier lectured him. “The sibyls have a strong hold on Ealond. Moving against them is no easy matter. Perhaps that will be one of your tasks,” the king considered. “Find a way to force the Raven Court under my control.”
“I would be delighted, Your Majesty.” Guilbert bowed his head. “May I ask a question that may broaden my understanding of my master’s affairs?”
“You have earned that privilege,” Rainier granted graciously.
“Why the trouble of negotiating with Belvoir to make him confess his guilt? The treaty between him and Jarl Vale alone would turn the other nobles against him.”
The king smiled sardonically. “Negotiating that treaty was ingenious, Master Guilbert, and I foresee great use of your skills in the future. If I revealed it now, it would certainly be damaging to Belvoir’s reputation as well as Vale,” Rainier explained, “but I would gain nothing further from it. As long as only I know of this treaty, it can be used as a bargaining tool.”
Understanding illuminated Guilbert’s face. “When Your Majesty takes Herbergja, Jarl Vale will object and seek to undermine your conquest. Making the treaty public at the same time will tarnish his reputation.”
“Indeed,” Rainier smiled. “He will be revealed as a conspirator who sought to steal my throne and give it to another. Neither the Order nor the rulers and noblemen of the realms will heed his words.”
“Most impressive, Your Majesty.”
“Your skills as a negotiator will be needed when the time comes. Continue to serve me well, Master Guilbert, and I will remember your name when I need a new seneschal some day.”
Guilbert bowed deeply. “The honour alone of serving Your Majesty is a privilege without measure.”
“I am aware,” Rainier assented. “You are dismissed.” After more bowing and scraping, Guilbert left the king alone.
A few days after Armand’s demise, his betrothed entered the meeting hall for the guild of engineers. Having never been there before, she glanced around nervously until a man with a brusque demeanour appeared. “Are you Nicolette?” he asked.
“I am,” she replied cautiously. “I was told the guild wanted to meet me concerning my – about Armand.”
Nicolette did so while her eyes darted in every direction. On occasion, they passed a clerk in the employ of the guild or some of its members, engineers discussing their work; others were engrossed in arguing about the latest events, such as the execution of the duke of Belvoir.
Passing through the halls, Nicolette reached the same chamber where Armand had once sat. The table itself was empty, but the alderman sat next to it. Behind her, the door closed. “Mistress Nicolette,” Donatien greeted her.
“Master alderman,” she replied. “I did not expect –”
“When I heard of what happened to your husband-to-be, I decided to become involved myself,” Donatien explained.
“That is kind of you,” Nicolette spoke, though she sounded uncertain.
“Dreadful business,” the alderman added with sympathy in his voice. “I am told Armand – that was his name, was it not?”
“I am told he showed great promise,” Donatien continued, “and even invented his own siege machinery.”
“He did,” Nicolette nodded repeatedly. “He was smart.”
“His master told me that you aided him in this.”
“Oh, my contribution was small. I merely helped with some adjustments.”
“I only ask because I imagine your situation is now difficult.” The alderman’s voice and face both expressed his concern. “If you were able to recreate this weapon, the guild would no doubt pay you for it.”
“I’m not an engineer,” Nicolette replied. “I merely used the basic principles of counterweights to adjust Armand’s design. How it precisely worked, I don’t know.”
Donatien nodded to himself. “I see. My apologies, you must feel uneasy. May I offer you some wine?”
“That’s kind of you.”
The alderman got up and poured two cups of wine, placing one before her. “You may not be aware of this, but when a guild member dies, his seat in the guild is offered to his wife. Assuming she is skilled in the same trade, of course.”
Nicolette took a sip of her wine. “Thank you, master alderman, I feel better,” she told him, putting the wine down. “I was aware of that,” she continued, “but Armand and I weren’t married. Nor do I really know anything about engineering work.”
“But you have the mind for it,” Donatien pointed out. “Having lost Armand, the guild feels it would be a shame to lose you as well. I have spoken with Master Lambert, and he is willing to teach you as his new apprentice.”
“Me? But I can’t afford the fee,” Nicolette admitted.
Donatien made a dismissive gesture. “In light of what you have already lost, the fee will be waived. You may begin next Disday.”
“Really?” Tears begin to appear in her eyes.
“Of course, dear child. The guild needs people like you to prosper. You may not have been married to Armand yet, but given your betrothal, that seems a mere formality. We take care of our own,” Donatien told her, drinking from his own cup.
“Thank you,” Nicolette told him with a few hiccoughs.
“I am happy to help,” Donatien claimed. “The wine may help clear your throat,” he added with a smile.
Nicolette smiled through her tears, emptying her cup. “What should I do now?”
“Return the way you came and find the clerk in the records hall,” Donatien instructed her. “He will see that you are inscribed as an apprentice.” The alderman stood up and opened the door for her.
“Thank you,” Nicolette repeated before she walked out of the room.
Once she was gone, the alderman’s servant entered. “You sure I shouldn’t deal with her?”
Donatien shook his head. “There doesn’t seem to be any need. She will be observed. And Master Lambert has strict instructions never to teach her anything related to siege machinery,” he added with a dry voice.
“Very well, master.”
The alderman poured himself another cup of wine and drank heavily. “I’m glad this business is dealt with. Have the carriage made ready.”
For days, Michel had been incarcerated in the dungeons of the Raven Court. Despite this, his demeanour remained friendly and courteous; he greeted the guards as they entered his cell and unshackled him, leading him away. They walked for a long while with the prisoner between them, not speaking a single word as they went up countless flights of stairs to reach the chamber of the Veiled.
The curtain had been removed, and a small tribune had been raised instead with three seats. In the middle sat the Veiled Sister, her face covered as customary. She had Sister Jocelyne on one side and Sister Rosalie on the other, forming the tribunal of the Order of the Raven.
Besides the guards accompanying the prisoner, two other people were present. Ghislain, appearing as a witness, and Clarisse, related to the accused. The latter moved over to embrace her brother; one of the guards stepped in her path. “Let them have a moment,” Ghislain demanded, and the temple guards complied, stepping back.
Clarisse gave Michel a tight hug, and he patted her on the head. “It will all be well, Sister,” he told her.
“For once, you better be right,” she sniffed.
Michel smiled, pulling away. He looked towards Ghislain. “Master Justice,” he greeted him.
“Michel.” The justiciar nodded back.
“Take care of my sister,” Michel requested.
“Enough. Let this trial begin,” the Veiled commanded. Ghislain pulled Clarisse to the side, letting Michel stand alone in the middle of the room under the gaze of the three norns. “Michel from Jaler, you stand accused of heresy as a follower of Hraban the Mad. Do you deny this?”
“I do not.”
“Gods,” Clarisse exclaimed with a lump in her throat.
“Silence,” Jocelyne sneered. Anger was flushing her cheeks as red as the birthmark on her forehead.
“Your sentence will depend on the extent of your heretical beliefs and whether the Council of Three believes there is any hope of redemption for you,” the Veiled continued. “You will answer all our questions, after which Master Justice Ghislain will bear witness. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Michel replied.
“Tell the truth, Master Michel,” Rosalie encouraged him, clasping and unclasping her hands in constant motion. “It is your best friend.”
“I shall,” the defendant promised with a smile.
“Who instructed you in the heresies of Hraban?” enquired the Veiled.
“A whiterobe in my home village, whose temple acted as a lorehouse for the children of the town. He has been dead for many years.”
“The justiciars will investigate further, rest assured,” Jocelyne declared with a disdainful look.
“Explain the full extent of your knowledge concerning Hraban and his blasphemies,” the Veiled commanded.
“I imagine there’s one you’re particularly interested in hearing about,” Michel considered. “I believe that Hraban heard the voice of the goddess.”
The hall fell completely silent for a moment. “Blasphemy,” Jocelyne hissed with barred teeth.
“No man has ever heard the voice of Idisea,” the Veiled declared forcefully. “Only the sisters of Idisea’s order has this blessing.”
“That is what you believe,” Michel granted, bowing his head, “yet I disagree. I think your predecessors did as well. That is why they dared not kill Hraban, but locked him away, recording all he said.”
“Silence!” Jocelyne shrieked. “You are here to answer our questions, not spout your falsehoods!”
“Sister, please,” Rosalie implored her.
“Nor do I think he was the only man to ever hear the voice of the goddess.”
“More heresy!” Jocelyne was nearly frothing at the mouth. “They should have killed Hraban where he stood.”
“Revered sisters,” Ghislain spoke up. “The accused deserves a fair hearing.”
“Perhaps we should let him speak until he has finished his confessions,” Rosalie suggested.
“Order will be restored,” the Veiled demanded, and the commotion subsided. “As for you, heretic, you will not speak unless in direct answer to us.”
“I dream of ravens,” Michel proclaimed, raising his voice. He seemed to stare beyond the tribunal at something none others could see. “Ever since I was a child, and now, every night in my cell. A raven flies across the land, and its black feathers blot out the sun.”
“Quiet!” the Veiled demanded.
“The eagle has flown ahead in flight,” the prisoner continued, “and now the cry of the raven is heard. It shatters my ears.” An agonised expression was upon his face. “The rivers of Ealond turn to blood.” Everyone inside the chamber looked at him mesmerised, except for the Veiled and Jocelyne; the former seemed intimidated and the latter infuriated. “Dragon’s blood, dragon’s blood, death across the land!” The last words reverberated across the chamber. “A ship lost at sea, we’ve strayed from the course. The raven’s cry continues every night, but we do not heed its call,” Michel finished, gazing at the Veiled.
Jocelyne leapt to stand in front of the tribune. “Are we to simply sit and listen to this repulsive speech?” She sent her sisters a furious look. “Hraban was left to live, and centuries later, we are still dealing with his false teachings. Only the sisters of the Order of the Raven have the blessing of prophecy,” she stated loudly, turning to face Michel. She strode across the chamber, staring up at the accused.
“Sister Jocelyne, please,” Rosalie pleaded, wringing her hands.
“Return to your seat,” the Veiled told her, though her voice was weak.
“You would take our place?” Jocelyne sneered, looking straight into Michel’s face.
“I have no desire of that,” he informed her. “I simply told you what was necessary to say.”
Jocelyne stared at him. “You are beyond redemption,” she stated coldly. The next moment, she pulled her knife out of his stomach.
Due to the obstructed view, the others did not readily understand the reason why Michel sank to the floor. The truth only became apparent when the bloody dagger in Jocelyne’s hand reflected the sunlight shining through the window. “Michel!” Clarisse screamed, throwing herself at her brother’s body.
“Jocelyne, what did you do?” Rosalie exclaimed. She hurried forward to reach the dying man.
“I had to,” Jocelyne declared. The dagger fell to the ground, making a loud ringing sound. The guards stared in shock, unprepared for this turn of events.
On the floor, Michel gasped for breath, trying to speak; no words escaped his lips. “Help me!” Rosalie demanded, trying to stem the bleeding with her hands. As the only one to react, Ghislain moved to aid her. The Veiled simply sat in her seat, looking at the spectacle.
“I had to do it,” Jocelyne reiterated. “He would have been like Hraban. I had to protect our faith.” Behind her, Clarisse rose from the ground like an avenging spirit; in her hand was the knife. She renewed the stain on the blade by plunging it into Jocelyne’s back.
With a shriek, the norn fell to the ground. The guards finally woke from their stupor and they hurried forward to seize Clarisse, who simply dropped the knife and gave no resistance. Rosalie looked helplessly at her fallen sister; her hands were already soaked in Michel’s blood. Together, norn and heretic took their final breaths while the Veiled sat in her seat, paralysed.
Ghislain was the first to pull himself together. Standing up, he grabbed hold of Clarisse with his bloody hands. “Protect the Veiled,” he commanded the guards. “I’ll get her to a cell.” Neither guard protested, letting the justiciar take hold of the prisoner and lead her out of the chamber.
With speed, Ghislain moved through the Raven Court, pushing Clarisse ahead of him. “They’ll recover soon enough and wonder what happened to you,” the justiciar told her. “You don’t have much time if you want to escape.”
“You’re letting me go?”
“Tomorrow, I’ll be hunting you. Today, I’m giving you a chance for Michel’s sake.”
They turned a corner and practically ran down a flight of stairs. Neither spoke as they moved through the temple. They drew many stares, but none saw reason to question the actions of a justiciar. Eventually, they reached the courtyard that led into the city.
“She deserved it,” Clarisse stated spitefully. “She killed him because he was right.”
“It doesn’t matter now,” Ghislain declared. “Get going.” He nodded towards the entrance into the yard. “I take no responsibility for what happens next.” Clarisse sent him a final look, but she did not speak again; silently, she turned and hastened to cross the square, leaving the Raven Court.
It took her another hour to hurry through the city and reach the nearest gate. Without looking back, she left Fontaine. Had she cast a glance behind after leaving the gate, she would have seen the duke of Belvoir’s head on a spike, placed as a warning to all that would betray the king.
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Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; all tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.