CHAPTER 14 - MISTAKEN SPIES
Pacing up and down the guest hall of the villa, the look of contempt on the faces of the Senate members played over in Alkan’s mind and vowed to never forget this slight. The one sentence Gren kept racing through his mind. “We have urgent matters to discuss concerning our city.”
He knew it was deliberate. The message was clear: Sajanell Døørs was not his to decide on any political matters nor offer any opinions. While he was angrily pacing the hall, muttering to himself and making unpleasant gestures with his hands, Elarosh decided to take a walk in the gardens for a breath of fresh air and to put as much distance between him and Alkan as much as possible.
Since their argument below the stairs to the Senate Hall a few hours earlier, he’d had enough of Alkan and his aggressive mentality for too long. He wished Phereson were alive, as well as Shilandra. He often thought of her and what may have been if she hadn’t died giving birth. If his wife lived, then maybe Phereson would’ve brought his son up with the belt instead of an applause every time the child would do something, no matter how trivial the task.
What seemed innocent at the time, resulted in serious consequences later in life, for Phereson would every night have his son sit on his lap and tell him that if he put his mind to it, he could do anything and be anyone he wanted to be. He found it ironic in many ways since Elarosh and Phereson were brought up by strict fathers and disciplined regularly, only to be sent at a young age to join the army and become fierce, strong, fighting men.
It was the only life they had ever known. But then again, Phereson fell in love and married; something Elarosh never did. Phereson put all his love and attention into the one thing that brought him pure joy: his son.
But now the Supreme Commander was dead, and his son not only took and held that title for a short time, but he now held a far greater title, King. There was nothing that could stop him now. When Gren belittled him in front of the Senate, he knew with certainty that all the men present were doomed. The Grand Ambassador was famous for his wit and cunning, outsmarting all his opponents and knowing when to strike and expose all weaknesses. His demeanour was as renowned as Alkan’s use of human sacrifices before each battle.
“It is very foolish for the personal advisor of a king to walk alone at night without his bodyguards far out of reach,” Gren casually said while strolling across the footpath in his gardens. Elarosh whirled around and saw the Grand Ambassador walking towards him with a bodyguard. At first, he was too shocked to speak, but when he looked at Gren, the Grand Ambassador gave him a friendly smile and opened his arms.
“After all these years, it is good to see you again, cousin!” Elarosh felt all tension disappear and threw his arms around his cousin and the two stood embraced and remained quiet for a few moments.
Once they broke apart, still smiling, Gren looked back at his bodyguard and dismissed him.
“Why are you walking around with a bodyguard?” Elarosh asked, looking at the man over Gren’s shoulder. “This is your villa. We’re only guests?” But even when he asked the question, Elarosh knew the answer. Gren was an articulate man. He wasn’t a gambler, not with his life, his family, and not with his career.
“I have a very dangerous guest under my roof, Elarosh,” Gren gestured for them to walk on. “I don’t trust him any more than he trusts me, and that is the only good thing I can say about him. He at least has some common sense to not put any hopes in thinking of me as an ally.” Gren smiled to himself, remembering what transpired earlier in the Senate Hall.
“He’ll never forgive you for what happened today,” Elarosh whispered as if reading Gren’s thoughts. Gren gave him a curious look. “Of course he won’t, and he better not either, else I’ll have to give him more food for thought than he could ever consume!”
Elarosh stopped and grabbed his cousin by the arm, turning him to face him. Gren’s bodyguard rushed forward, his hand already on the hilt of his sword. Gren lifted his hand in silent command for his bodyguard to stand down, reluctantly he took a few steps back, never taking his eyes off Elarosh. Not once had Gren given his bodyguard eye contact, his focus was entirely on his cousin. Gren, who was taller than Elarosh, tilted his head and in an inquisitive tone, said, “You’re afraid of him!”
“I’m not afraid of him!” snapped Elarosh. “I’m afraid of what he will do. I know what he’s capable of and the scariest part? He doesn’t care! In fact, he relishes it!”
He had a flashback to when one of the Council of Seven at the Academy of Støne Fønt spoke openly and defiantly against Alkan. The look the member received from the king was a chilling one. Alkan personally let them fall to their deaths, the nooses pulling tightly and squeezing the life out of the six men. He must’ve had a pained expression on his face, as Gren reached out and gently touched his cousin on the forearm, causing Elarosh to flinch and almost shout out of instinct.
He anticipated his cousin might do this, and clamped Elarosh’s mouth with his other hand and kept his gaze on him; trying to reassure him that he was safe now and that he was amongst family. However, Gren didn’t tell Elarosh that he had sent his wife, Honoria, and their five children to the safety of another Senator. He wasn’t going to gamble with the life of his family or give Alkan the pleasure of using them as hostages after what transpired earlier.
Elarosh sighed deeply and began to weep, while Gren took his hand away from his cousin’s mouth and drew him into an embrace.
“You’re right cousin,” Elarosh sounded as if he were in agony. “I’m afraid of him and I can only imagine what he’ll do to this city, and you.” He looked into his cousin’s face, but still saw no fear in Gren, only concern.
“I know you. We all grew up together - you, me, and Phereson and both of you were still young when you were sent away to the army, while my father had other plans for me.”
They walked over to a bench and sat down. Elarosh didn’t know, but Gren had archers posted in every corner of the garden and never once gave away their position. The less his cousin knew Gren thought, the better it was for him. After all, it was his villa and his safety, as well as that of his household that was his priority. The archers knew not to do anything to Elarosh unless Gren gave the signal. But it wouldn’t come to that.
“I spent six years studying at the Academy,” Gren recounted with fondness. “I then began as an apprentice and when I wished to join the Senate, I lost the vote and decided to put my skills to use in the Senate in Fate Ørn, where I sat in the Senate Hall for over twenty years. I returned after my father died, but never went back. Do you know why? I saw potential in Sajanell Døørs. I took what I learned in Fate Ørn and used those foundations to better the constitution on this side of Barathorn. What works in the west doesn’t always work in the east. When you and Alkan took Lan Carvi and placed it under the banner of our home city of Caper Løck, I couldn’t have been more proud!” Gren’s smile faded.
“But that was short-lived. I heard unspeakable horrors of rituals conducted not just in private, but for all to see.” He looked at Elarosh as if he would interrupt, but he kept silent.
Gren continued, “At first I thought it couldn’t be true, so I had spies sent over and when they came back, they were sick to their core. For many weeks afterwards, the stench of human flesh was still fresh in their noses and their frame of mind became brittle from witnessing what Alkan would do to them before burning them alive. I had to have them replaced with new spies. I couldn’t depend on the states their minds were in. I had sent them and their families to live out the rest of their lives on the Quinthørr Islands; as far away from the east as possible. Everything was at my expense and their children will be well provided for, I assure you.”
He thought for a moment, then gave a loud sigh. “Curse you Elarosh! Those children! How could you let him do that?” Elarosh could not look his cousin in the eye. He too had sleepless nights and when he was able to close his eyes, the images would appear.
Elarosh said with bitterness, “All those years in the army, fighting and taking arrows and sword blows! Do you know what kept me going? Life! I thought I was fighting for the good of the city I was protecting. Not just for the east, but the rest of Barathorn. I thought that if I could just turn a blind eye to the sacrifices, things would get better over time. I had many concerns about how Phereson raised his son, but you and I both knew that Phereson was incapable of taking personal joy out of torturing and killing other human beings.”
Gren snorted. “We all have the ability to kill, cousin,” he said with a wry smile. “But at the end of the day, it depends on the choices we make.”
Elarosh stood abruptly. “You think me a coward? That I allow and condone the actions of Alkan? I have spoken incalculable times to Alkan, but my words are always ignored!” Gren looked up at his cousin, then slowly rose from his seat.
As he was about to walk towards the west entrance of his villa where his study and private chambers were, his bodyguard came forward to meet him. Gren turned to his cousin and firmly said, “That is why I think you are a coward, Elarosh. All you did was talk. You never took action. Did the army teach you anything?”
Elarosh was too angry to answer. He felt he didn’t need to explain himself to anyone, least of all a politician, even if he was his cousin. Wiping sweat from his brow, he saw his cousin turn around and came walking back to him. Elarosh stiffened, preparing himself for more condemnation from Gren, who then asked, “Before I retire to my chambers, what do you want me to do with your spies?”
Elarosh gave him a confused look. “My spies?”
Gren rolled his eyes. “Yes, Elarosh. I caught three of your spies lurking about. Do you really think I don’t know who comes in and out of Sajanell Døørs without me knowing about it? Even under torture, they stood their ground saying over and over again they were spies loyal only to the queen.” He was searching Elarosh’s eyes for any sign of betrayal but found none and panic began to rise in his stomach, but he didn’t show it.
“Loyal only to the queen?” Elarosh repeated. “Which queen?”
Gritting his teeth, Gren grabbed Elarosh by the arm and forced him to follow. The bodyguard was right behind them. After what felt like a never-ending hike, the bodyguard walked past them and unlocked a door, hidden by a grove within the garden. They went down so many flights of stairs that Elarosh stopped counting. Human excrement filled the air and he held his sleeves to cover his nose and mouth. There were many prison cells along each side of the dungeon. Gren forced him in front of the first prison cell and gestured to the bodyguard to bring the three spies forward.
When they did, Elarosh could see they were beaten, bruised and starved, but didn’t recognise them.
“They’re not mine!” Elarosh protested. Gren looked at his cousin, then back at the prisoners, lost in thought. Elarosh pressed his cousin.
“Again, I ask, which queen?” Gren now looked pale and shook. It was not every day he made a mistake, or one as colossal as this one.
“Queen Shafis!” he whispered, with his eyes shut.
* * * * *
“You know Shafis has the most impressive network of spies in all of Barathorn!” Elarosh hissed at his cousin. Gren had ordered the spies to be taken out, bathed, clothed, and fed, with a physician to tend to their wounds, while he was mentally preparing an apology for Queen Shafis.
He thought it would maybe be better if he went in person, to show his continued allegiance to Marpøøn Gantal and that he only reacted out of fear that the spies were those of Alkan’s. He resolved to leave within before midnight.
This was a task no messenger could deliver. It had to be someone who was a near equal to that of a monarch.
While the two stood alone in the dungeon, distracted, Gren murmured, “You better return to your king, in case he finds something is amiss. But in the name of all thirteen Evertheenians, never let him know we are related. It will not end well for you.”
Elarosh gave a harsh laugh. “You mean it won’t end well for you. Your seat of power, the idea that people will know you are a relative to the advisor of the most hated king will most certainly destroy your career! Maybe you should exile yourself and your family to the Quinthørr Islands, than face the shame that is sure to follow.”
His spirits rose at Gren’s discomfort since he was disgraced in his cousin’s gardens and was still hurt by the things he said. Gren gave him a sharp look.
“As I said, you only talk. I, however, take action. I don’t run away from my problems. I fix them.” The smile on Elarosh’s face turned into a scowl.
“Once the queen’s spies have been fed and treated, I’ll ride tonight with them, my bodyguards, and a militia to accompany us. I was invited to the wedding but had pressing matters to attend to that couldn’t be put on hold. But in this case, I have no choice. It must be done.”
Elarosh threw Gren’s words back in his face, “I thought you said we all have a choice?” He didn’t see it coming and had no time to react when Gren’s fist struck Elarosh square in the jaw, with a loud crack sound.
He fell hard onto the floor, staying there and holding his jaw, moaning in pain.
“Get up! Go to your king and get out of Sajanell Døørs before the day is out tomorrow!” Gren said coldly. Without another word, Gren swung on his heel and left the dungeon with his bodyguard following him.
Elarosh clumsily got up and said to himself, “you can be lucky you’re family. If you weren’t, I’d tell Alkan who hit me, and then no words would save you from his wrath.”
He spat out blood and began to ascend the stairs.
* * * * *
By the time Elarosh found his way back to where Gren allowed his guests to stay for the night, his lower jaw began to swell and turn blue. When he entered the private chambers, he was surprised to see Alkan was standing at the window with a cup of wine in his hand. He turned and saw Elarosh, but his smile immediately turned into a frown.
“What in the name of Innøcence Løst happened to your face?” He put the cup down and walked over to Elarosh, examining his jaw.
“It’s nothing, Your Majesty.” He lied.
“Nothing? You were attacked, weren’t you? And yet we’re here under Guest Rights!” Alkan burst with anger. Elarosh tried to ease his rage. He knew that if the king heard he had been struck - especially by the Grand Ambassador - it would give Alkan every reason to invade.
He never cared about social protocol, for Alkan himself killed people while under the pretence of Guest Rights. However, it would not stop him from using this assault as an excuse to attack the capital.
“Your Majesty, I went outside for some fresh air and walked a bit too far than I care to admit! Once I realised my error, I started back, trying to retrace my steps. Unfortunately, I fell over an unfinished statue that was left on the ground and fell face-first into the excavated ground for the statue.” He laughed to make light of the situation.
“I guess my age is creeping up on me faster than I thought. There was insufficient lighting in that specific area for me to see anything.” He took a deep breath, then slowly released it, hoping Alkan would believe this story. Alkan kept his gaze, then shrugged and took his cup of wine, walking back to the window. Elarosh uttered a silent prayer of thanks.
After a while, Alkan asked, “Isn’t the Grand Ambassador married?” Elarosh looked up at him but quickly masked his thoughts. “Not that I am aware of, Your Majesty. I don’t know much about anyone in the Senate, even the Grand Ambassador himself.”
There was a knock on the door and Elarosh was thankful for the distraction. He opened the door and a servant passed him a letter sealed with the Grand Ambassador’s personal seal on it. His anxiety returned. He thanked the servant and closed the door, walking over and handing the letter to the king.
Alkan broke the seal and read it, then crumpled the letter and threw it on the floor. He tossed his cup of wine across the chamber. “That man insults me in every possible way!” He shouted. Elarosh picked up the note and read,
’My good guest,
I’m called on urgent business and will not be able to personally wish you well on your journey to Marpøøn Gantal. I will have my servants help you pack and have supplies ready for your journey… tomorrow morning.
My sincere apologies
Elarosh sighed with relief. He looked at Alkan, who was red in the face.
“First, he doesn’t let me know he came back to the villa, or even dine with me, his guest. A KING! And now this!” He pointed at the letter in Elarosh’s hand. He knew why Gren had to leave, but he dare not tell Alkan.
“He clearly wishes me out of this city!” Elarosh was too tired and sore to remind his king (again) that they were going to a wedding and therefore leaving as soon as possible was necessary. Gren’s words echoed in his head, “All you did was talk. You never took action. Did the army teach you anything?”
“If it pleases Your Majesty, I will make sure everyone knows that we are to leave in the morning,” he bowed and proceeded towards the door. Alkan called him back.
“Since the Grand Ambassador wishes to not grace us with his presence, I think I need to appease higher powers!” Alkan said in a sly tone. Elarosh’s heart sank.
“Go to the cart and get one of the ’extra specials’ for a sacrifice tonight.”
Elarosh looked dumbfounded. “Your Majesty, you only keep them for war?”
Alkan turned his sea-green eyes on his advisor. “The Grand Ambassador wishes nothing more than for us to have a safe journey. Let us make a sacrifice to Færró and then we’ll leave in the morning.”
Elarosh was confused.
“I thought you only sacrifice the ’special ones’ to Verontó before a battle?”
“True! But Færró is the god of travellers. Have the sacrifice burn in Gren’s garden!” He looked out the window and Elarosh’s face burned from shame.
“May the stench linger in his garden until it sinks into that head of his that I’m not to be trifled with!”
He poured himself another cup of wine and laughed to himself.