A Silent Game of Spies

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She was still angry. Angry with her father, angry with how the land ran in general. All Theldry amounted to in this land was a cog in a wheel, one which made her father’s land spin around.

Theldry’s mother recognized after a week or two the change in Theldry’s behavior. She visited Theldry and explained to her that this was just the sacrifice women were made to bear. And women had the privilege of bearing the bloodline truest, so to whomever Theldry was married, her children would be the sons and daughters of Tortoreen.

It had taken all of Theldry’s patience to smile at her mother and nod rather than shake her and tell her how ridiculous that sounded. Pleased that she had imparted to Theldry the true role of a woman’s life in the world, Theldry’s mother patted her hand, believing that Theldry now understood what her responsibility was. Theldry waited until her mother left to shake her head with amazement at the idea, the utter absurdity of it.

That had been weeks ago. While men of her station themselves were often confined to arranged marriages that brought advantage and benefit rather than personal preference, they were consulted, given a choice – this woman or that, this woman beastly to look at, that one too fat or too skinny…. Theldry would never be paid such a courtesy, and nor had any of her friends.

She was a living, breathing person, not a good at auction to be sold to the highest bidder. Not to be traded for gains and profits. And yet, her father was only waiting until the best man paid the highest bride price, gave him the best advantage over all the others.

And so Theldry seethed in silence.

Of course, the buyer would be a man in the Coastal Countries, for the North had nothing to offer that Tortoreen wanted, other than a partnership during wartime. Neither did they know of any marriageable men in the North, and the one courtesy they at least were offering her was that she would freeze in such a cold climate.

Wrinkling her brow, Theldry couldn’t understand her father’s logic there. Partnership in wartime… surely having a daughter up in the Northern Countries would only serve to cement an alliance there, rather than just join up again. If Theldry were her father – she’d pack his daughter straight off to some freezing cold lord in the North and to the hells with if his daughter froze or not. That’s what furs and fires were for.

Or perhaps Theldry’s mother had intervened. Possibly, even, Theldry thought, a proposal had been sent and they had brushed it off. She considered that from a Northern Country King’s point of view. If her father was a Northern Country King, what would he want with a Coastal daughter….

Hmmm. Not much. Theldry knew very little of the Northern Countries, other than that they only invaded Romeny and Clemongard regularly throughout history. Her tutors rarely expounded on history beyond the basics, from the Battle of the Banners forward. And there was no war now. The Twenty Years War was over before she was born.

Thinking as her father might, what could the North possibly offer other than a secure alliance during war? Not much. Ice? Rolling over on her bed, Theldry propped her feet upon her pillows, which caused her gown to slip down to her knees. Yes, Mother, sooo unladylike… Better be unladylike now before she was sold off to a husband somewhere, where propping her feet up would be sooo unwifelike….

At all times with her parents, mealtimes and otherwise, Theldry now was quiet and rarely spoke. She knew Father had seen this change, but he had not commented on it. Theldry endured meals in silence in the hopes that her father would choose a man based on her behavior more than her bride price, though she believed that prospects on bride price would ultimately rule over the new ladylike, Princess behavior she had recently adopted.

Ignoring her stupid brother at mealtimes had been a true test - for he really knew how to irritate her. Seated across from her, His Royal Bratliness was still able to catch her attention, even when Theldry turned a blind eye.

She finally considered him practice. If she could ignore Bronn the Brat, then she could ignore anyone. So she stared through his little freckled face with no expression whatever.

Upon employing this tactic, Theldry immediately discovered that this served only to incite further shitty behavior from Brat. He truly was a little shit. She could not imagine him upon the throne. King Bronn. King Brat, His Royal Shittiness.

Theldry hoped earnestly that when it came time to kiss her brother’s royal ring someday and commit to him her loyalty and fidelity, that she could kiss his stupid ring, pledge her allegiance, and then, where no one could witness, make a face and stick her tongue out at him, so she could watch his face before all those people.

Theldry did exact her revenge upon him, for she passed him in the corridors most days when he strode off to his horsemanship lessons. She smacked him in the back of the head as he passed if he was alone. Who was he to tell? And why? His big sister, picking on him? No one would believe him, and if they did, they’d say he was sugar. A sigh passed from her lips. Yes, more unladylike behavior, Mother, but Theldry could not resist a snicker.

Now, Theldry wanted to know she was most likely to be traded for. What would benefit her father the most worth trading a Princess for.

Just around the corner from her where her tutor would be most likely to find her, Theldry heard a number of men laughing and conversing.

She dared to sneak past the corridor, hoping her tutor wouldn’t catch sight of her. Perfect – she’d lost him again. Theldry knew that skipping her lessons was wrong and soon earn a scolding from her mother, but surely Extended Arithmetic was not going to be needed for a woman in her position in life… or anyone’s. Simple accounting ought to be all anyone should know, shouldn’t it, Theldry wondered?

What Theldry was more interested in… was these men…. They’re all Council Members, she thought as she peered about the stone corner. Undoubtedly, they knew more of any interest to Theldry than Extended Arithmetic would ever afford her.

Theldry ran forward on an impulse and slipped in to the Council Chamber just as the door was closing.

Many faces of the Lords she recognized, though some were unfamiliar. Theldry stood behind her father, who sat at the head of the sturdy oak table.

Choruses of “Your Majesties” sounded from all about the table as the Council Members bowed. Theldry’s father waved them down so that they might seat themselves.

Most of them remained standing, however, many of them amused or smiling, mainly due to respecting her.

“Your Highness,” several said.

Father immediately threw a look over his shoulder. He did not want to yell at Theldry before his Councilors, but his eyes narrowed and she heard a dangerous intake of breath that communicated a serious displeasure with her.

“How good to see you, Your Highness. Are you joining us today?” asked one.

“What a delight to have you join us. A fresh face, if just for a day,” said another.

With every ounce of grace, Theldry curtsied for the entire Council. She bestowed upon them the kindly and delicate smile she had seen her mother use before crowds and hoped it turned out the same on her own face.

“Splendid, splendid!” called the first. “Please, find Her Highness a chair.”

One of the Royal Guards immediately brought a chair from the side wall, placed it next to Father, bowed deeply, and retreated.

Theldry snuck a glance at Father. His jaw was clenched but he suddenly forced a smile upon his face and a cheerful voice roared out across the Chamber, “Daughter, welcome to our Council. Do, have a seat.” And he gestured at Theldry’s seat as lords always did, though his brown eyes met Theldry’s personally so that none could witness them. Hard and glittering, she knew even the sweetest of honey and sugar wouldn’t soften the blow that she could see was coming later.

At first, Theldry was fascinated by the diplomacy the Council Members employed as they promoted their causes. Everything they spoke of seemed to Theldry rehearsed speeches, for occasionally they paused, then started again.

Father contributed little to the meeting – in fact, Theldry mused, he seemed little more than a gargoyle watching over a garden on a tournament day. Had he no opinion at all, or was he just there to mind them in case they lost control of themselves and jumped across the table at each other?

At first, the Lords were quite polite, tactful even. After an hour or so, Theldry suppressed a yawn and she saw one aged Councilor near the end of the table twiddling his thumbs.

And why not, for the subjects they tossed back and forth – were these what Theldry was really up for on the bargaining block? Mutton tariffs? Equality of sale between lake fish over river fish? Wool? Cattle straying into local parishes? At least lumber imports had some value, but then three of them fought over whether lumber imported by sea should be charged the same as lumber imported by land.

After the second hour, Theldry found Councilor Twiddling Thumbs down the table with his head nodding, attempting to stay awake.

Into the third hour, Theldry found that tact the Councilors had dealt earlier so freely had now given way to subtly disguised barbs. But she also realized something else – most everything they discussed was a reworded proposal of an earlier proposition, and often by another Councilor. She found that interesting, for then this could only mean that certain Councilors supported others in their efforts to convince their fellow Councilors to vote in agreement for their proposals. As an onlooker with fresh eyes, Theldry was amazed at what she saw unfolding before her. Perhaps Father had the right idea after all….

Down at the end of the table, one Councilor proposed a tariff on all incoming vegetables from Corstarorden, given the blight they had recently suffered.

Theldry’s brow furrowed. That just made no sense at all to her. She’d seen the lessened amount of vegetables upon her plates of late. Why would they tax people who need the help with harvests, rather than assist them? Tortoreen certainly was able to extend the aid.

To speak up or no?

“Pardons, my lords,” Theldry called, realizing that her voice had hardly been loud enough to be heard. She would have to speak up.

The entire room stopped speaking and Theldry saw every face turn toward her, including Father’s. Well, she would take that beating when the time came for it.

Theldry cleared her throat and then, in a raised voice this time, called out, “Am I right to assume that you are asking to tax the import of a country who is selling us what is left of their crops after a blight killed off most of what they grew?

“Forgive me, if you please, but I don’t see the sense behind that. If anything, we should lower the import tax on Corstarorden vegetables and raise the price for them in our local Markets, as they will be scarce.

“In fact, due to their scarcity, and because Corstarorden is and has always been a Coastal Ally of Tortoreen, we ought to send them aid to replant, for we certainly have the coin to do so. And so, in another year’s growth season, we and they would have the regrown crops, and if necessary, we might even require them to pay us back by sending us a larger share of vegetables. That would, in fact, strengthen our ties to Corstarorden, would it not?

“And perhaps, in the future, should Tortoreen suffer similarly, one of its Allies might rise to its assistance.”

The Council Chamber was silent. Theldry could feel her father’s eyes upon her.

And that’s when she saw the Councilor who proposed the Corstarorden Vegetable Tax glance nervously at the Lord sitting before him across the Council Table.

He then drew in breath and responded, “That is, Your Highness, a, a, wonderful thought. We should definitely give it some… consideration.” The Councilor swallowed and, when he sat down again, he glanced across the table. The other Lord was resting his jaw in his palm, as if curious to see what happened next.

It occurred to Theldry just then that the Corstarorden Vegetable Tax was proposed merely as a money-making scam, not as a political device at all.

Several Councilors looked down at the table and others would not meet her eye.

Before her jaw fell open with disgust, Theldry immediately clenched her jaw shut.

All a scam. Look at them all. Dishonest. Corrupt. How many of them were liars? And her father? Theldry’s breath was gone and she was speechless. How much of Tortoreen was run this way, of government, of any country?

A blight. Those poor farmers, struggling to make a living, and these – immoral Councilman, not worth the dirt those farmers planted their crops with, wanted to charge them taxes just to sell what was left of their harvest.

Then Theldry had a terrible idea… what if….

What if….

If there had been no blight at all? If there was just some sort of… brief sickness, like a fever instead of a plague in people… just so that the Councilmen could tax the farmers in order to put gold in their pockets?

Theldry stared at them and knew it to be true….

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