Chapter 24: Chaos in the City
Egan raced down the alleyways that ran parallel to the market district. As the chief warrant officer reached a high slope in the cobblestone street he paused to catch his breath. All around him he saw the people locking their shutters and barricading their doors. A lamplighter and his wife scurried past, Egan recognized the woman’s face from the castle’s court and motioned towards them.
“Lady, I beg you to pause, you’re the princess’s handmaiden, yes? Has the word of the invasion reached the castle?”
Both bowed quickly, and she replied, “Helen sir, yes I was once. The only invading force I’ve heard of is the rioting mob at castle court. Even the people here in the market now pillage their neighbors’ stalls for food. We’re done with this place, let Gilead destroy itself.”
Egan looked past the couple and saw she was right. Peasants ransacked the stalls as merchants struggled with them. Others were rushing past the bazaar up the northern road to the castle. Chanting of “Injustice! Down with the King!” echoed down the cobblestone streets. Torches were lit and thrown and to Egan it seemed as if a great pot was boiling over, scalding anyone who drew close.
“I understand, but there are greater threats than these,” Egan said as he surveyed the chaos. “As we speak, a legion of Amorites claw their way up the great western stair and I fear the eastern gate will soon be sieged as well. You’d be safer in our walls than outside them.”
“Then evil must come in threes, Lord,” the man spoke up, “for we ran into the princess Alexandra herself not long ago.”
Helen elbowed her husband, “Avery hush! Who knows his allegiance?”
Avery shook his head, biting his tongue.
Egan turned his gaze back to her, “I’m loyal always to the kingdom and Alexandra’s people, please speak.”
Avery sighed, then slowly continued, “Well sir, it’s just that the princess believes the king’s illness, and all this chaos is a conspiracy born of the queen. She was looking for safe passage to see her father alone. I fear there is truth in her words. The Queen has been a pox on our nation since her arrival.”
“To speak ill of the royal family could be seen as treason,” Egan said and frowned, “No matter how deserving that criticism may be.” The image of the vizier crept into his mind. The worm’s station had grown ever since the new Queen was crowned. Others far more deserving, like Salain, had been left to diminish. Occasional incompetence in the ruling class was one thing, but Egan couldn’t remember one policy in recent years that provided for anything more than Mariselle’s own gain. Perhaps some truth lay in the lamplighter’s words.
Avery bowed low. “Apologies, Lord. I misspoke.”
Egan saw a familiar look of defeat wash across Avery’s face. “I understand your concern,” Egan replied, more softly. “Gilead has been cast under a shadow for many years. Now is a time when we must draw together, no matter our differences. Your face is familiar. Weren’t you in the king’s army?”
“Aye, Lord, once, until the Queen said otherwise,” Avery said, his eyes downcast.
“I have need of you more than any lamp. As Chief Warrant Officer, I reinstate your commission.”
Avery looked up to him, smiled, then saluted.
“You have backbone to speak your mind to me. Go to the Ambassador’s Square. Call on others on your way. We must reinforce the western gate. The Amorites have no doubt secured the beachhead by now, and must be ready to march up the steps.”
Helen looked at her husband and clutched his hand. Egan turned to her, “Fear not lady, your husband was a great soldier once, and I believe him to be that still. Many will be wounded this night. Call upon those you know who can dress wounds and set up a tent near your husband’s station. All of Gilead must stand against the evil on our doorstep.”
Helen bowed. “Yes, my Lord.”
Avery took her by the hand and they headed westward down the alleyway.
As Egan moved on through the great bazaar, the rampaging crowds surrounded him. As he rode past an overhang, three rough men grabbed at his legs and pulled him from his horse.
“Get off me you fools! I have official business!” Egan cursed as two thugs held him to the ground while another tried to snatch his mare’s saddle.
“He’s a uniform!” a fat one yelled,
“All the better! He’ll have gold!” the other laughed.
Egan struggled against their weight and looked around frantically for help, but the guards were nowhere to be seen.
The third thug cut the saddle loose from his horse and kicked the mare off with his foot, “No more high and mighty for you, Governor!” He laughed at Egan as the mare ran off into the mob.
“I’ll have your heads!” Egan screamed as he struggled with the other two. Their hands reeked of sewage and kept his head to the pavement as they leered over him.
The saddle thief’s smile fell from his face as he dropped his prize and collapsed to the ground dead, a dagger protruding from his back.
“What in the nine hells?” The larger thug let go of Egan and spun around. Standing before him was the mouthy privateer from the docks, Absalom, holding a dagger in each hand.
“Drop your trifle, squirt. We have business.” Absalom sneered as he spoke.
The oaf ran at him, grasping for his throat. In the flash of an eye, Absalom ducked under his arm and slammed a dagger into his side. The oaf fell to his knees, screaming in pain. In one fluid movement, Absalom grabbed him by the back of his head and slit his throat. The oaf’s gaze went wide and he fell on his face, dead.
The third leaped clear of Egan and backed away.
“Run away, little mouse, before you get stepped on,” Absalom said, staring at him coldly.
The thief turned and ran down an alley. Egan steadied himself and stood.
“I owe you thanks. Absalom, yes?” Egan asked.
Absalom kneeled and searched the oaf’s pockets until he found his pouch, he peered inside, counting the coins. “They owed me money,” Absalom said, “I was collecting a debt, nothing more.”
“You’re handy with a blade. We could use your skill near the western gate. The Amorites have begun their siege of Gilead.”
“Gilead can fend for itself. I’ve no interest in dying for her,” Absalom said.
“Yet you say ‘her.’ She’s a mother to you as she is to all of us, and she needs your help this night.”
“My mother was a whore,” Absalom said and raised an eyebrow. “Of the finest stock, fit for a king. Nothing became her so well as the rags she was left to wear before she died here, in the gutters.”
Egan’s eyes lowered. “I see. Perhaps when this conflict is over the king will revisit some of his policies.”
“Oh, yes,” Absalom nodded sarcastically as he motioned towards the mob fighting in the streets, “He is ever so prudent when it comes to us all.”
Egan shook his head. He had no time to reason with the man. “Change comes from within, Absalom. I wish you well whatever path you choose.” He stepped over the body of the thief and moved back out into the crowd. Absalom watched him go.
Egan trudged his way up the King’s Road toward the castle. Dodging the protesters that swarmed around him, he called out the alarm, but his words were drowned out by the raging din of the mob.
* * * * * * * *
Alexandra sat next to her father; he moaned slightly as his withered frame curled into a fetal position. She pulled her cloak over his shivering body and gathered more hay under his head. The moonlight broke through the clouds and touched down through the gaping hole in the spire’s roof to illuminate the king’s face.
“It’s little comfort, I know. But Rustag will be back soon with Samuel,” she whispered.
“Where’s my wife?” Braeden struggled to sit, “she tends me.”
“No Father. She doesn’t.” Alexandra gently pushed him back down. “We’re not in the castle – look around. Mariselle has all but overthrown you and now she has the kingdom in an uproar.”
Braeden stilled as he listened to echo of the mob outside and Mariselle’s screeching voice above it. “You’re right.” He closed his eyes. “Of course, you’re right. Leave me. I’m not fit to rule if what you say about Mariselle is true.”
“You bore the weight of the kingdom alone for years. I can hardly blame you for wanting companionship,” she said and took his hand, letting her warmth soak into his chilled fingers.
“No, but I am to blame for not listening to the ones I love,” Braeden replied, his voice cracking.
Alexandra nodded, holding back tears. “I don’t know how you managed to rule so well for so long, the famine, this siege, Mariselle. I need you to be strong, Father, because I’m not. I can’t do what you do. I don’t have the answers the people need. I’m not equal to the task.”
A slight smile spread across the King’s face, “No one is. Not a day went by when I didn’t second guess a choice I’d made. But therein lies the weight of our station, Daughter. The choices we make in this life will impact others for years to come, we only fail if we make no choice at all.” Braeden hit a coughing fit for a few seconds before settling again. “Make no mistake, the choices are never easy, but they’ll always be yours.”
Outside the tower, Alexandra could hear the crowd suddenly cheering. Braeden turned his head towards the noise. “Has some fortune finally come our way?” he asked her.
Alexandra stood and opened the door slightly to peer out. Through the shadows and above the heads of the mob, she saw Mariselle standing atop the castle porch and dais, addressing the crowd, her retinue standing to the side. Guards approached from behind her and shoved two prisoners forward to face the jeering crowd. The wretched jailor Gunney cowered, and Colin stood next to him.
“No, Father,” Alexandra replied. “Things have just gotten much worse.”