City of Longhaven, Longhaven Barony, Duchy of Masov
Twenty-Ninth of Idran, Cycle 993 Post Sundering
The sun had just set when Hector dismounted from his horse and passed the reins to one of his men. He had made his preparations at East Reach and ridden the remainder of the afternoon and early evening to arrive at Longhaven in time. Hector glanced up at the well-lit manor house, then back at the dimly lit town. It was just like Estrel to display his wealth while the rest of his Barony didn’t have the money for lamp oil. “You have your orders,” he said. They stared at him for a long moment in silence. He saw Sergeant Steffan open his mouth to speak, and then close it again.
Hector gave them a stern glare. “I will not repeat myself. Go to your assigned posts and prevent anyone from leaving the grounds until I return.”
The fifteen men dispersed, all except Sergeants Grel and Steffan, the two men whose loyalty and competence had most impressed him so far. Hector turned back towards the door of the manor house and took a deep breath. He walked past the pair of guards outside unchallenged. Inside, out of the dark night, the house seemed warm and cheerful. He heard his cousin’s wife before he saw her. She swept into the foyer, a plump, cheerful woman who always seemed happy to see guests. “Hector, so good to see you,” she said. “What brings you here tonight? Hopefully not any more of that dreary business?”
“More work, I’m afraid, Lady Rinata” Hector said. He forced himself to smile, though he knew the expression would look wooden. “Lord Estrel and I will need to discuss it for a few hours, I think.”
She shook her head, “Always so serious. I can tell whatever news has you here so late worries you. Do not take the world’s burdens on your shoulders, Hector, or it will send you to your grave early, a bitter man.”
Hector stared at her for a long moment, “I am the master of the guard, and Baron Estrel’s military captain. It is my duty to worry, and to guard these lands for Lord Estrel, and his and your duties to defend the people of Longhaven as the Baron and Baroness.”
She rolled her eyes, “I agree, and you’ll not hear me say otherwise. If you’ll remember, I have backed every one of your arguments with my husband. But worry and fear will drag you down, weigh down your spirit, and will age you. Do not forget to find time for friendship, love and even a family,” Lady Rinata said.
“Thank you for your concern,” Hector said, and felt a surge of guilt as he forced himself to meet her eyes. She was one of the few that had treated him with respect rather than as the by-blow of the Duke’s younger brother. Not for the first time, Hector wondered what the strong, confident, and kind woman saw in self-absorbed Baron Estrel. Then again, she might just see it as her duty to stand by him, arranged marriage or no, he thought. “I must speak with your husband.” He glanced at Sergeant Steffan, “The Sergeant here is from the town of Western Reach. He’s just returned from visiting family there, I wonder if you’d care to discuss the latest from your home?”
“Why, certainly,” Lady Rinata said. She immediately turned to the Sergeant. Some part of Hector wished that he could trust her, that she might see reason, but he couldn’t risk that she would side with her husband. Hector gave a single nod to Sergeant Steffan as she turned her back. The sergeant nodded back, nervously.
Hector just hoped that Steffan wouldn’t give the whole thing away. Lady Rinata was well known for her perception, she might see through his nervousness and figure out Hector’s true purpose here tonight before he did the deed.
Hector brushed past her, followed by Sergeant Grel. They ascended the stairs, and then walked down the hall to the library. As expected, he saw Captain Grayson, Baron Estrel’s personal armsman outside. “Evening, Robert,” he said in greeting.
“Lord Hector,” the armsman nodded, “Good to see you back. The Baron had not expected your return so soon. I take it you have news about the Armen?”
“He won’t like it,” Hector said.
Grayson gave him a sad nod. Hector knew that of all the people privy to the entire picture, Baron Estrel’s personal armsman understood best the precarious state of their defenses. Under other circumstances, Hector knew he could count on the man to provide more weight to his own arguments.
“Well, there may be some shouting,” Hector said. “I’ll ask that you let him get over his anger without interruption.”
“More like you shout at him to get some sense in his head about this,” Grayson said with a smile. “But I’ll take your meaning. Sergeant Grel and I will wait out here and have a good chat while you talk with the Baron.”
Hector could not force himself to meet his friend’s eyes as he stepped past him into the library. He found his cousin seated at the table, back to the door. For a moment, a cowardly part of Hector wanted to do the deed then, but he had to at least try to get his cousin to see reason, first. That route would prove better in the long run.
“My lord,” Hector said. His cousin waved a hand for him to circle around the other side of the table. Baron Estrel did not look up from his book.
Hector glanced at the pile of books as he passed, and he grimaced. He did not know how such drivel had survived since the Starborn’s arrival. They included social programs for the poor, extensive taxation of the wealthy merchant class to fund programs that turned productive members of society into useless drones. Worst of the ideology, Hector thought of how he gelded the military and his policy of bribery and appeasement of enemies and barbarians.
Hector had no grasp over the history of those books, but he saw the effects on the Barony of Longhaven. He had no desire to see the end of this particular experiment. The Starborn had brought other books, books on agriculture, medicine, chemistry–at least those had some use. Not for the first time, Hector wished that his cousin’s fascination had lain with books of science or even magic, rather than social progress. “My lord, I’ve just returned from meeting with my spymaster. The Armen intend to invade this next summer. I have come to ask that our latest shipment of tribute be retained and used to bolster our forces.”
“What?” Estrel looked up from his books. “Hector, you can’t be serious. I just spoke with the emissary of one of the Semat clans, who assured me that they’ve no intention to resort to military violence as long as we pay them their rightful share of wealth. We have extorted their lands for too long, and their anger is just something that occurs naturally due to the difference in wealth between their lands and ours.”
Hector took a deep breath, “Whatever the cause, cousin, the effect will result in the destruction of the city of Longhaven and the enslavement of our people. Hold back the tribute, and send for troops from Duke Peter, else we will face raids which my men cannot hold back.”
“No, this is unacceptable,” Baron Estrel shook his head. “You always see so much of a threat from these people. I don’t understand your bigotry. You even took one of their women as a mistress!”
“I have seen what they will do, you idiot, and I am trying my best to prevent that,” Hector snapped.
“You can’t talk to me like that,” Baron Estrel angrily rose from his chair.
“Sit down, shut your mouth and listen!” Hector shouted. He saw his cousin’s jaw drop and he dropped back to his seat in shock. He doubted that any man had dared even raise his voice in his presence since his father’s death. “You have bankrupted our Barony and turned one of the most prosperous cities in the Duchy of Masov into paupers. The Duke has requested his taxes and I know that we’ll barely be able to pay our own debts, much less pay our dues to him. Your father’s military program has fallen into disarray, which is why Duke Peter sent me here in the first place: to prevent Armen raids.”
“Which I have prevented. Since we began the tribute program, no Armen have raided our lands!” Baron Estrel said. “And I–”
“Those tributes increase every cycle. And no matter what, we will be unable to pay them next cycle,” Hector said. “Which even the Armen realize, and so they intend to raid us and take what is left by force. They’ll carve your heart out in front of your wife and give your soul to one of their dark spirits. They’ll rape and torture your wife until she wishes they did the same to her.” Hector leaned over the table. “I refuse to allow that, cousin. I will do everything in my power to prevent it… even if it means removing you.”
“But…” His cousin paled, then he shook his head and sat up straight, “You don’t have that authority, only the Duke does and he would not listen to you.” Baron Estrel’s face took on a nasty smirk, “You’re just his dead little brother’s bastard, little more than an embarrassment, whatever your skills.”
Hector ignored the jibe, it wasn’t as if he hadn’t heard the like before, “No… he wouldn’t, not with how you’ve downplayed my reports. He doesn’t have the full picture. I don’t have that authority… but I have that power, as your military commander. While you have constantly belittled your guard, undercut their loyalty every time you cut their pay, and treated them as little more than servants, I have trained them, shaped them, and given them my respect and loyalty.”
Baron Estrel went ghostly white. He hunched forward in his chair, almost as if he expected a blow. “You would not dare…”
“I do not want to,” Hector said softly. “You are my cousin, and whatever your faults, I do not wish to see you dead, much less do the deed myself. But I will, if you force my hand.” He met his cousin’s gaze, and for a moment, he thought he saw the man realize Hector’s own seriousness.
Then Baron Estrel sat up straight, “No, I call your bluff. You won’t do it, not with how Duke Peter will react. You would face execution, or worse, the Traitor’s Death. No, I relieve you of command, Hector. You will place yourself under house arrest, and await my judgment. I understand the pressures you are under, and I will be lenient when I take that into consideration.”
Hector closed his eyes, “Very well, cousin.”
He drew his sword and swung it in one swift motion. The blade slashed across his cousin’s throat, and a spray of blood fanned out across his books. Baron Estrel fell back in his chair, and his hands grasped at his ripped throat.
“I am sorry,” Lord Hector said. “But you left me no choice.”
He walked past the table, and to the door. He took a deep breath, then opened it.
He saw Robert Grayson turn. The old armsman had a moment to see Hector in the doorway, bloodied sword drawn. Hector did not give him time to react. He stepped forward and drove his blade into the armsman’s chest, all the way to the hilt, then caught him as he slumped.
“Why…” Grayson whispered.
“Because there was no other way,” Hector said. He held his old friend as he died, and some part of Hector died when he felt the last quiver go through Grayson’s body.
He lowered his dead friend to the floor, and glanced at Sergeant Grel. “Secure the room. No one enters without my word.”
The sergeant gave him a solid nod. His calm under the circumstances gave Hector pause and made him note that the sergeant might prove useful for other circumstances.
Hector drew the armsman’s sword. He retraced his steps to the foyer, and found Sergeant Steffan and Lady Rinata had paused their conversation. Estrel’s wife looked up at him with a look of confusion. “Hector, I thought I heard something…” Her eyes dropped to the sword in his hand. Hector saw realization flash through her eyes.
She reacted without hesitation. Sergeant Steffan’s hand had dropped to his own blade, but Lady Rinata whipped a hidden knife from her sleeve and drove it into his throat before he could react.
Hector gave a curse and ran towards her. She ran for the door.
Hector leapt off the stairs and felt something pop in his ankle as he landed in a stumble, between her and the doors.
She tried to skid to a stop, but the smooth stone tiles made her slide towards him.
Hector brought the sword up in a lunge. She twisted to the side at the last instant, and his strike caught her through the side rather than cleanly through the heart. She let out a shrill scream of pain, even as she whipped her blade at his face.
Hector dropped the sword and stumbled back. He clutched at his face in pain. He heard the doors open behind him.
He turned to find the two armsmen from outside. They stared between him and the wounded Lady Rinata in shock for a second. Hector used their hesitation. He reached down and ripped the sword out of her and spun to attack the nearest. His sword caught the younger man before he could get his own blade out. The other leapt to attack with a shout of alarm.
Hector blocked the strike and then lunged to run the guard through.
He looked down and saw Rinata clutch at her side. “Why, we loved you like a brother, why would you–”
Hector thrust down with the sword. He left it planted in her heart.
He stumbled away from the bodies and took a seat on one of the chairs. A moment later, several of his own guards swept in, followed by servants and more armsmen. “Captain Grayson and the two guards on duty went mad,” Hector said. He clutched at the cut on his face. “They attacked Lady Rinata, and when I went upstairs, I found they’d killed Baron Estrel.”
His own men stood silent, while the remaining armsmen stood in shock. Several of the servants gave out wails, and Hector saw Lady Rinata’s maids rush to her side.
“There can be no doubt of Captain Grayson’s guilt,” Hector said. “He left his sword planted in her.”
Sergeant Tunel, Grayson’s second in command stared between the bodies and Hector. “My lord… this is impossible. Captain Grayson would never hurt them.”
“I came here to confront him,” Hector said. “I found paperwork that suggested he had debts to a criminal, and he had sold information to the Armen to pay off those debts. I never expected his betrayal ran so deep.”
“This…” Tunel looked between Hector and the bodies of his men. “Lord Hector, you are the senior ranking man on the scene. However, I must request that you send for one of Duke Peter’s officers to investigate and magistrates to take down sworn statements.”
“Of course,” Hector said. “I will dispatch a messenger at once.” He looked over at his guards, who stood unobtrusively at the doors. “Secure the area, and send a runner to Magistrate Helman. Tell him we need him here to take statements and collect evidence. Also, send for a courier and I’ll write up a message for him to deliver to Duke Peter, along with a request for his assistance in this matter.”
Sergeant Tunel nodded and Hector saw him relax slightly. Even so, the armsman continued to look suspicious. Hector made note of that. He would have to make sure that some evidence implicated the armsman… and that he suffered a fatal wound when he resisted arrest. It pained him to kill another good fighting man, but armsmen were loyal to their charges first and foremost.
He did not expect for the story to last or even for most to believe it. But it would serve as a polite fiction. Magistrate Helman would find the evidence which would uphold Hector’s story. Whatever officer arrived from Duke Peter, he would have only Hector’s men as witnesses and evidence collected by Helman would support their story.
In the meantime, Hector would take his cousin’s position, as both the senior military officer and the nearest blood relation. He knew that some others might have claims to the once-wealthy barony, but few would want to press those given the Armen threat and the state of disrepair.
Hector glanced around the room. “Let us hope that this is the end of any treasonous plot,” he said. He spoke the truth, for he wanted no more bloodshed. Let this be the end, he thought, let Duke Peter accept this, despite whatever suspicions arise.