Birnac Maelar had become a doctor, not because of false sentiments like an urge to help people or to alleviate their suffering, but because his father was also a physician. One with rich patients. That didn’t mean he didn’t take good care of the people who entrusted their health to him. On the contrary, as dead people tended not to pay, he tried to keep them alive and happy as long as possible. He was good at what he did because he had a genuine interest in the workings of the human body.
A few years ago a powerful organization had made him a very attractive offer. The money was nice, but he had inherited both his father’s fortune and his rich patients since, so he felt himself to be in a position to negotiate some extra benefits. Soon after they had come to a mutually satisfactory agreement, he began to see a dramatic increase in his noble patients. They all seemed to be urged on by their spouses to consult him. In fact, nowadays he had so many titled patients with who he was on familiar terms that he had begun to think of himself as a noble. He had the money, the upbringing, the culture, the lifestyle and even the lands. He just lacked the title itself.
He was in his late thirties and had always taken good care of himself, but was still unmarried. Of late it had become an obsession of his to acquire the lacking title by marrying a noble woman. He didn’t very much care how she would look. Essentially he wanted her for breeding purposes, to start his own noble house. He knew enough impoverished aristocrats with more female offspring than common sense. But even they would refuse him their daughters without those all-important letters patent that would ennoble him and give him a coat of arms.
Recently one of his noble patients, in whom he had confided, had agreed to help him in return for some much-needed financial assistance. No wonder it was with pleasant thoughts that this particular evening he stood upon the balcony of the master bedroom of his country estate. His mind was occupied with the pleasant task of designing his crest when a blow on the head knocked him out and a figure, completely clad in black, caught him in his arms.
His arms and legs were bound tightly, and then he was wrapped in a piece of dark cloth. The men lowered him on a rope over the balcony. Two other men, equally clad in black, seized the package and disappeared with it in the night. Except for the dull whack on the head, none of them had spoken a word. None of them had made a sound.
The moment Marak Theroghall had arrived at the family estate, some twenty miles from Dermolhea, he went to his private apartments. When he entered the hall he unclasped his mantle and let it fall. Before it reached the ground a servant had hastily scrambled by and intercepted it. Without looking at what happened behind him, he ordered the servant to call the barber. It was late in the afternoon, and although he had shaved that morning, already black stubbles had begun showing on his cheeks and chin. He hated it with a passion, just like he hated his dry, wiry, black hair. The girls didn’t seem to mind though, especially once they realized he was a Theroghall, an heir of one of the Forty.
Cleanly shaven, he felt refreshed when he went to the study of his father, Marak senior. While opening the door he absentmindedly knocked on it.
“The purpose of knocking is announcing yourself. It is quite useless when you are already entering,” Marak senior said matter-of-factly, without looking up from the parchment upon which he had been writing.
He sat at a vast wooden desk. Behind him hung an enormous painting that depicted the claim to fame of the Theroghalls. On the left the city of Dermolhea could be seen, with sturdy, high stone walls, surrounded by a moat. The center of the painting was dominated by a swarthy man, who stood on the bridge over the trench, sword drawn, calmly waiting for the army that could be seen on the right side. Legend had it that the first Marak Theroghall who came to fame had single-handedly defended the bridge against the army of a coalition of barons who wanted to erase Dermolhea from the face of the earth. Wounded in more than twenty-five places he had held on until reinforcements came.
“Except for the dark complexion of our forebear it is all fake,” Marak junior thought.
He hated the painting as much as his father seemed to love it. In the second century after the End of the Darkening, Dermolhea had been nothing more than a few villages, hamlets really, surrounded by an earthen wall. The stone bridge in the painting would in reality have amounted to a few planks thrown over a narrow rivulet. The mighty army nothing more than a band of thugs. The conflict could easily have been about a cattle raid. Certainly not the lofty cause of Dermolhea defending the free citizens against the oppressive nobility, as official lore had it.
Marak senior laid his quill down and smiled.
“So, you decided to take a few days off from the defense of the realm and visit your old father?”
“I doubt that my absence will make any difference to the realm, one way or the other, but, yes, I wanted to see you. And by the way, you’re hardly old at thirty-four.”
Marak senior grinned.
“Yes, you’re right, I suppose. You have a young father. Had your grandfather lived on he would be barely fifty, you know. Which reminds me. I was sixteen when you were born and you are eighteen, almost nineteen, and not even betrothed.”
“Yes, yes, my children will have an old dotard for a father. Time enough. Who knows, I might be infertile and that will be the end of the proud line of Theroghalls.”
He looked defiantly at his father.
“Eh… no. You’re not and it won’t.” Marak senior chuckled.
“What do you mean?” Marak junior asked, suddenly suspicious, even slightly alarmed.
“You remember that young maid, Tynia? The one with the white teeth, the big smile and the rosy cheeks?”
Marak junior blushed.
“You knew?” he asked, fazed.
“Knew? My dear boy, your mother and I chose her. I couldn’t very well take you to a whorehouse now, could I?”
“I was twelve.”
Marak senior shrugged.
“We had to know. After you were born, we only had your three sisters. All the more reason to make sure that—”
“—your only son and heir could continue the line?”
“Well, you didn’t seem to mind. She told us you were quite enthusiastic, once she had shown—”
“You asked her?” Marak junior shouted.
“Like I said, we had to make sure that your inclinations, eh, were conducive to the propagation of, eh—”
“Oh, shut up. And then you let her disappear?”
“You make it sound so sinister. It wouldn’t do to let you fall in love with her for real now, would it? Besides, you got her pregnant. So we shipped her back to her village. We take good care of her. She hasn’t a care in the world. And not to forget, a thriving six-year-old son with black, black hair. They’re very happy, or so I’m told.”
Marak junior had listened with growing astonishment and he thought back to all the nights he had agonized after Tynia had so mysteriously disappeared.
“So, you see, all our worries were laid to rest. Not to mention that, if the worst came to the worst, you could legitimize the little bastard. As a last resort, mind you. It has been done before, in the best Houses, to save the family name from extinction. No, we were quite satisfied with the result. Oh, and with you, of course.”
“I’m glad my… performance pleased you.”
“I’m going to pretend that I didn’t hear that sarcastic tone,” Marak senior smiled indulgently. “To be honest, we can’t afford to be sentimental or prudish in these questions. We have an obligation to our name and to history.”
“Setting aside my personal plight, don’t you see how hypocritical that makes us?”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh Father… We live in this pretend world of days long gone by, where we are the valiant fighters for the rights of the free citizens against the barbaric aristocrats who want to enslave us. But we surround ourselves with servants who we expect to anticipate our every whim. We make sure to respect the democratic forms, but our seats in the City Council are as good as hereditary and the so-called elections only a formality. In private meetings and the closed banquets of the Forty we call ourselves the Merchant-Princes of Dermolhea and the people the many, or worse, the breeders. Actually, we take more pride in our lineage than kings. Even Anaxantis has a more sober view on his fami—”
“Anaxantis? As in Prince Anaxantis? As in one of the lord governors? Since when are you on a first name basis with a noble?” Marak senior asked, suddenly far less indulgent sounding.
“Since he asked me to be his friend. Since I noticed that he cares more about the defense of Dermolhea than that bunch of drunkards we sent to Lorseth. Or, for that matter, than you and the rest of the council, that fat mayor Uppam Fraleck included. Since he asked me why the Forty, who used to be more than a match for any force sent against them, left the city to the Mukthars and fled with their tails between—”
“That’s quite enough of that,” Marak senior barked. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Then enlighten me. What happened? Anaxantis wants to know and what Anaxantis wants, Anaxantis usually gets. And he’ll tell me, but I’d rather hear it from you.”
Marak senior went over to a table and opened a flask from which he filled two dark green glasses with a thick, sweet wine. He pointed to two armchairs by the fireplace and gave one glass to his son.
“Very well, I’ll tell you all I know, though it is not very much,” he said when they were both seated. “Of course the Forty knew the Mukthars were coming. Our caravans use the Plains for their trade with Zyntrea, rather than having to pay the dues every city state levies for crossing their territory. As you know, the most important families have, let’s say, an understanding with a gang of robbers that operates on the Renuvian Plains. We don’t look too closely at their activities and they leave our caravans, our nevertheless heavily protected caravans, alone. It is a delicate balance. If we were to take action against them, we could make life very difficult for them. They know that. To sweeten the deal a bit more we pay them. Nominally, we pay them for information.”
“I know. It’s despicable. The Forty pay a gang of robbers to be left alone.”
“No, not the Forty, not all of them. Only the major Houses do. The others take their chances. And there is nothing despicable about it. It is just business, that’s all. Anyway, it’s why we knew the Mukthars were coming. We learned they were approaching on the first of the month. I personally sent word to the then lord governor, the count of Whingomar, of the imminent threat. Of course we had, then as now, our sources in Lorseth. So I know for a fact that my message was received the next day, and although it was by then late in the afternoon, Whingomar gave orders for the general mobilization of the army. He also ordered a fast cavalry unit to be formed to act as a vanguard. It was supposed to leave for Dermolhea that same evening. A few hours later the order was canceled. Whingomar retired to the tower of Lorseth Castle and didn’t emerge until late the following day. Preparations to march continued, but there was no sense of urgency anymore. On the fourth Uppam received a letter from Whingomar. He shared it with the council, which he had convened for an emergency meeting. It was a very strange letter. Formally the lord governor stated that everything was being done to assure that the army would be in full strength to intercept the advancing barbarians. But, and this is the strange part, he urged Uppam to take precautions in the event that all his efforts wouldn’t suffice and advised him to take himself and his family to safety on his estates, as they lay behind what the army looked upon as the second line of defense.”
“That amounts to saying, ‘Get out while the going is still good,’ doesn’t it?”
“Precisely. And that is exactly what happened. The meeting of the council ended in chaos. Everybody understood that the army wouldn’t arrive in time. To give the man his due, Uppam tried to rally them, to rouse them even, to start organizing the defense. While he still wasn’t done addressing them, already several council members were leaving, their minds made up that flight was the only option. By the sixth most of the Forty and several of the lesser merchant families had left the city.”
“And so, you simply gave up,” Marak junior spat.
“No. No, we didn’t,” his father protested. “Uppam, myself and a few others stayed and we tried to prepare the city for a siege. We reckoned that if we could hold out for a week, or even a few days, that would be enough for the army to come to our rescue. But it was no use. Everything around us broke down and crumbled. Messengers we sent to the city gates never returned. Appeals to the population to man the walls had no effect. We couldn’t even close the gates. Too many people wanted to get out and they threatened to kill the guards if they didn’t let them through. And still we didn’t give up. Uppam and myself didn’t sleep during the sixth nor the seventh. With the few men — and there were pitifully few of them left by then — who didn’t want to surrender the city to the enemy without a blow, we did what we could. Weapons were distributed. The walls were divided into sectors and captains were appointed to take command of each of them. Further appeals were made to those who stayed to report to the captains. It all amounted to so little…”
“So, in the end it all came to nothing?”
“In the early evening of the seventh Uppam received a visitor who showed him some parchments. Credentials, I suppose. They retired in the mayor’s private office. I could hear Uppam shouting from time to time, but I couldn’t make out what he was going on about. Half an hour later the visitor left. When I entered his office, Uppam sat behind his desk, a broken man. The army wasn’t coming. Not now. Not in a week. The army wasn’t coming at all. They were just going to prevent the Mukthars from penetrating further inland.”
“Who was that visitor? Who had sent him?”
“I don’t know. Uppam never told me. After a few cups of wine, he simply said that it was no use anymore. We could have hoped to hold out for a few days. A week at the most. Maybe. We certainly couldn’t stand a prolonged siege without help from outside. He said he was going home, and leaving the city himself the next day and urged me to do the same. It would be all right, he added. The city might burn, but the Forty wouldn’t lose one copper sarth in the process. He guaranteed it. What was I to do? I was twenty-two years old and I had a young family. You were six and your oldest sister was four. Was I to send you here, to our estate, to safety and stay behind myself? Why? To die a useless death when we were abandoned by those who should have protected us? When my peers had already fled?”
Marak junior looked at his father and suddenly realized that he still agonized over the decision he had eventually taken, all those years ago.
“No,” he said softly, “it seems you have done all you could possibly do. There is no shame in running when the situation is desperate and to hope to fight another day.”
“Still, it was not an easy decision to make. I waited until I was sure Uppam had passed the city gates, before we took the road to safety. I can truly say that I was the last of the Forty to leave. There should be some comfort in that, but, really, there isn’t. Not much, anyway.”
The first thing he noticed when he woke up was that he had a splitting headache. The second that his mouth was dry and that his tongue felt like old leather. Birnac Maelar had been a doctor long enough to guess that the first symptom was caused by a blow on the head and probably drugs, administered later. The second symptom was caused by severe dehydration. Then he noticed the distinct smell of manure.
He opened his eyes and startled in an upright position, or that was what he tried, because he bumped his head against a low ceiling of metal latticework. He looked around and found himself locked in a metal cage, completely naked, together with three pigs, slightly larger than himself. The height of the cage permitted him to move around, but only on hands and knees. Two troughs, one with water and one with leaves of some kind of vegetable. He crawled to the one with water and although it looked none too fresh he dipped his lips into it and drank from it. His thirst alleviated, he began to study his surroundings. The cage was fastened to the stone floor of some kind of barn. In what little light that came through a few small windows he could see that there was another cage with enormous black swine. Against a wall stood some typical farming instruments.
Once he had gotten used to his surroundings, panic struck. Where was he? Who had brought him here and why? And who dared to treat the great Doctor Maelar, practically a noble, like this? But the fact that he was locked up, naked, in a cage with swine meant that whoever was responsible was very likely not impressed with his social standing. He shouted to try to get the attention of someone, anyone. After several attempts, he gave up and decided to wait. Sooner or later someone had to come in to take care of the pigs. And him.
Suddenly he felt sharp pangs of hunger. He must have been out of it for days. The leaves in the second trough appeared to be cabbage. Birnac didn’t digest cabbage too well, even cooked. Still, since there was nothing else to be had, he selected a few leaves that seemed reasonably clean and gingerly began munching on one. It tasted bitter, but it was better than nothing at all, and as a doctor he knew he had to eat something. As he had expected the raw cabbage leaves gave him stomach cramps.
After an hour or so he noticed that his meal had another unfortunate effect. It made him uncontrollably flatulent. Every few minutes he had to release a thunderous, foul-smelling wind. The first times his cohabitants looked up, but they soon got used to the noise.
Looking through gaps in a wooden wall, Emelasuntha watched her prisoner with some fascination.
“It’s sobering really,” she thought, “how easy it is to reduce a human being to the state of an animal. You just take away some paraphernalia like clothing and put him in another environment. I bet that if I were to keep him there for a few months he would simply adapt to the swine lifestyle. A pity, but I haven’t got the time to experiment. But a few days, well, they are necessary to take his hope away and mollify his spirit.”
Once a day a man came into the barn and without speaking threw a few buckets of water over the cage. The floor was slightly tilted, which made the excrements, his and that of the swine, flow into a gutter at the front of the cage. Then the man replenished the water in one trough and the cabbage leaves in the other. Cabbage leaves, always cabbage leaves. Birnac tried to speak to the man. He shouted, he cried, he promised him anything, everything, just for telling him where he was, but the man could as well have been deaf for all the reaction he got.
All the while he had to compete with the swine for the cabbage.
Anaxantis had preferred to go himself to the offices of the clerks. The head had received him, astonished and a bit uneasy that one of the lord governors had deigned to come to their stuffy rooms. It was still called the offices of the clerks, but in fact all administration of the Northern Marches was to be found there. When Anaxantis asked for someone with a legal background, the head had hesitatingly advised him to speak with a young man, called Tomar Parmingh.
“Undisciplined and often defiant of authority, My Lord, but without a doubt a brilliant legal mind. In fact, that we were lucky enough to get him was because his unruly tongue has brought him in difficulties several times. Otherwise, who knows, he would probably be something higher up in the Royal Administration. He is an officially accredited notary, after all,” he explained while he led the way to Tomar’s office.
Once the head had introduced Tomar to Anaxantis he had left the office and discreetly closed the door behind him, after giving his underling a last stern look. The notary was a young man in his late twenties, with a sharp face and short blond hair. He seemed to wear a permanent expression of mild surprise, mingled with just a smidgen of disdain, on his face. His brown eyes looked curiously into a world they seemed to find a bit distasteful.
He bade the Lord Governor to sit down.
Since there was no way to broach the subject delicately, Anaxantis told him right out that he wanted documents drafted for an official renunciation of lineage under the laws promulgated by Portonas III. Tomar had looked blankly at him, but Anaxantis could almost see his mind working at top speed.
“And I want them by late afternoon. I want this done and over with quickly. The official renunciation is to take place this evening.”
“Before he has the chance to change his mind.”
“Very well, My Lord, that should be no problem, though it was a long, long time ago since the last renunciation of lineage took place.” He looked Anaxantis directly in the eyes. “However, the laws are still on the books. Who is renouncing his lineage?”
He took a quill and a scrap of parchment to take notes and sat down behind his desk.
Tomar startled and looked up in surprise, but a second later his expression was completely neutral and professional again.
“He gives himself into the hands of the king, I suppose?”
“No, in mine.”
Now, it was with downright, clearly visible admiration that Tomar looked up to the young lord governor. He permitted a thin, dry smile to flicker for an instant on his face, but that was all Anaxantis needed to notice it.
“There should at least be a minimal reason for the renunciation.”
“My brother feels he is not up to the responsibilities and the tasks his rank requires of him,” Anaxantis whispered, almost inaudible.
“Yes, I see. Have you given it any thought what is to become of the assets of, eh, your brother? You are aware that they revert to the crown, unless you have taken appropriate measures?”
“Damn. I forgot all about that. That his estates would be lost couldn’t be prevented, but his liquid assets. Damn. Damn. I should have thought about that. Too late. I cannot postpone the renunciation.”
As it seemed that Anaxantis was debating whether he would ask further questions, Tomar decided to volunteer some advice.
“If the person in question has easily movable assets… oh, well, money, we could still arrange something by being, eh, creative with the date. If certain transactions were agreed upon and concluded yesterday, that would be perfectly legal. Even if they reached the bank at Ormidon much later. Ormidon is far away, after all. It wouldn’t even require the express consent of the concerned party. His seal would be sufficient. I could draft such a document. But, of course, you are the only one of us to know the true intent of your brother.”
“I see. I’ll ask him. But to cover all eventualities it is probably sensible to prepare such a document.”
“Very good, the drafts will be ready by noon. You can look them over before the actual documents are written out.”
Anaxantis thought for a few moments.
“Bring the drafts to me at the training grounds in the woods. I will send one of my guards to come and get you.”
When Tomar, carrying a leather shoulder bag, arrived at the clearing in the woods he was immediately spotted by the lord governor, who motioned him to approach. He and some friends had clearly been exercising, judging by his flushed face.
“Everything is ready?” Anaxantis asked while he dipped his hands in a bucket of ice cold water and wiped his face.
“Yes, I have the drafts here, for your inspection.”
Tomar tapped his shoulder bag.
Anaxantis dried his face with a towel.
“Follow me,” he said.
They went to sit under a tree where they had an overview of the clearing, but could not be heard by the others. Tomar handed the lord governor the drafts. Anaxantis studied them carefully.
“That seems to be in order, Master Parmingh,” he said at last with some sadness creeping in his voice.
Tomar, who had noticed, looked up in surprise.
“Second thoughts, My Lord? Sorry… it is not my place—”
“No, it’s all right. And no, not exactly second thoughts, but it seems all so… so final.”
Tomar thought for a while.
“Every law that was ever made can be undone. The renunciation can be revoked, I suppose, but only by the high king himself.”
Anaxantis sighed. He handed the drafts back to Tomar.
“Take note, please. I want some people summoned for this evening at the great hall in the tower of Lorseth Castle.”
Tomar took a wax tablet and a bone stylus out of his leather bag. When he was ready, Anaxantis dictated a list of names to him.
“See to it that they all get this, eh, invitation.”
“That’s quite a lot of witnesses,” Tomar thought. “Yet it seems as if he is doing this against his better judgment. No, it is as if he wished he wouldn’t have to do this, yet somehow feels compelled to go through with it. No, that’s not it either. I can’t put my finger on it.”
“On a totally different subject, have you any experience or insight in the finances of the army and the tax revenues of the city of Dermolhea?” Anaxantis asked.
“There should be copies of reports of both in the archives, though neither fall under the direct jurisdiction of the lord governor.”
“Could you give me an estimate of what the army costs on a yearly basis?”
“Not to the last sarth, not even to a few thousand rioghals, but a rough estimate should be fairly easy to calculate.”
“And the yearly tax revenues of Dermolhea of, say, twelve years ago?”
“That should be even easier and a lot more accurate. If I remember correctly, we should have a copy of the report of the tax collectors to the Royal Treasury. There will be nothing to calculate. The totals should be right there.”
“Good. You will be officiating as the notary at the renunciation this evening. Come half an hour early and bring me those figures, please.”
The High King sank back into his easy chair by the fire. He had just finished reading the last report his friend Dem had sent him and mulled over its content.
“Whatever is happening at the northern border? First, as I expected, Ehandar takes over complete control, then he relinquishes it again, and now he seems to have let himself be demoted to a factotum for his little brother. If Dem is to be believed he does nothing more than occupy himself with the day-to-day drudgery of the Northern Marches. Meanwhile little Anaxantis is frantically building his own fighting unit. He keeps his own counsel and ignores Dem to the point of not even consulting him anymore.”
The High King rose and went over to a nearby table to pour himself a cup of spiced wine. Returning to the fireplace he smiled.
“Well, I suppose I should be proud of the little guy. Although it is a little worrying that I still haven’t got a man in place in his inner circle. I can only guess what his next move will be. It appears he will try to resist the Mukthars, but by now he must see that his forces are inadequate. The only resource he hasn’t tried yet is the duchy of Landemere. Ha, I’d like to see him try to wring something more than some alms out of old Athildis. He’ll be lucky if he gets a few copper sarths for his trouble. And then, my dear son, you have played your last card.”
He drank deep from his cup.
“Maybe I shouldn’t be so hasty. After all he is not only a Tanahkos. That vitriol that passes for blood that he got from his mother also runs through his veins. The Gods alone know what that infernal witch has passed on to her son. By Zardok, that woman can hate. With an all-devouring, unflinching passion. At least I’m rid of her. A pity she escaped, but on the other hand, she’s powerless in Soranza and even farther away from the center of government. Let her plot and rot, for all I care.
“So, Anaxantis seems to determine what’s happening in the North. What was that motto again he chose? Something wimpy… Ah, yes. Maktra Va Derimar. Loyalty Binds Me. Is that how you oblige people to yourself? A clever trick. It seems to have worked on his older brother at least. There is no doubt in my mind that there will come a time that Ehandar will rue the day he put his trust in Emelasuntha’s young.
“All in all it’s safe to say that Ehandar is no longer in the running for the Devil’s Crown. Anaxantis on the other hand has proven that he is good with people. For better and for worse. He may even prove to be a leader. But does he have what it takes to be a ruler? Is he a statesman? We’ll know soon enough. He must at least begin to suspect what is in the best interest of the realm by now.”
He stood up to refill his cup.
“And if not,” he thought, smiling to himself, “there is always Dem and the secret charter to prevent him from doing any damage. It takes just one order from me. In that case he will at least have learned that to rule is to foresee.”
“Is everything ready?” Anaxantis asked.
“They’re installing the anvil as we speak, and the notary has just arrived. You wanted to see him?”
“Yes, send him in, please.”
Hemarchidas left the war room and Tomar entered.
“The documents are prepared, My Lord, and I have the calculations you asked for. But something occurred to me. You do realize that your brother did most of the administrative tasks that go with the governorship?”
“I knew that, of course, I just hadn’t realized that I would have to do them. That’s what you mean, isn’t it?”
“Exactly. It is not my department, nor my responsibility, so I kept quiet, but the fact is that the clerks there are a lazy bunch and made your brother do the work they should have done.”
“They just gave him the parchments in the order they came in, without preparing them.”
“Yes, they should not only have opened them, but they should have ordered them according to subject and made a summary of each. That way your brother — you, from now on — would only have to read the summary and the most important pieces. What takes about three hours each day could be handled in about twenty, thirty minutes. If you wish…”
Anaxantis looked utterly astounded at Tomar. He suddenly realized how dependent a lord governor was on his administration. They could bury important stuff in mountains of trivial documents. A good and dependable administration, on the other hand, could make his work not only much lighter, but also more efficient and effective.
“I see,” he said pensively. “I think you and I ought to have a long talk. I would like to hear more about your ideas. I also want to know more about how you came to be stationed here, at the end of the world, instead of running your own department in the Royal Administration. Tomorrow around noon? You know the place by now.”
“Smart boy. He recognizes talent when he sees it,” Tomar thought. “That alone gives him an edge. This could be mutually beneficial. My floundering career could get a second breath, and I know so many ins and outs of the legal system and the administration that I can be invaluable to him. I’ll make sure he doesn’t regret it, and for the rest I can but hope that it isn’t true what they say about the gratitude of princes.”
“Of course, My Lord. I’ll be there.”
He laid a piece of parchment on the table.
“This is a comparison between the cost of keeping the army in the field for a year and what the revenues of the taxes would have been for seven years, beginning 1440. There is a third number. That is what the Royal Treasury has contributed to the reconstruction of the city after the sack.”
For the second time Anaxantis looked surprised at him.
“I didn’t ask for that last figure.”
“No, but it is what you wanted, isn’t it? I just took the liberty of, eh, completing your instructions.”
“By the Gods, I hope I have guessed right.”
“It is exactly what I need. But how did you know?”
“It is the duty of a good assistant to know such things. It wasn’t too difficult to guess that you wanted to compare costs in two scenarios.”
“Summarize your conclusions. I hope you don’t mind me throwing your own words back at you.” Anaxantis smiled. “Didn’t you say I should have my administration make summaries?”
Tomar grinned briefly.
“Indeed, I did. Roughly speaking, keeping the army in the field for a year costs about three times as much as the net revenues in taxes for seven years of Dermolhea, plus the total amount of the reconstruction aid.”
“Ha. The army was kept in the field for only eight months. And there are other factors—”
“Anaxantis, it is time,” Hemarchidas interrupted, entering the room.
“We’ll finish this tomorrow, master Parmingh. We have another task waiting for us.”
It was in deep thought that Anaxantis left the war room on his way to the great hall.
The moment he entered the great hall through a side door, Ehandar knew he was about to make what could very well be the biggest mistake of his whole life. He had expected Anaxantis, a notary and two witnesses. He had hoped to put his seal quickly on a few documents and be done with it in about five minutes. In the hall were at least thirty men. Anaxantis sat at the great table with Hemarchidas on his left side. The commander was there and all the generals. Farther down the hall, standing, were the members of their staff and some captains. At the main doors stood Anaxantis’s guards. His own were nowhere to be seen. There also wasn’t a chair left at the table for him to sit down, but by the right side of where his brother sat, a place was left open for him to stand. Before him on the table lay the documents.
Anaxantis looked at him as if to say ‘Are you ready?’ He nodded almost imperceptibly. He kept his face impassive as the notary began to read the document in which he declared renouncing his name, birth and lineage. He didn’t hear the individual words through the rustling noises in his head, except for some shards of sentences. “I understand that I am not worthy to carry the name of the royal House of Tanahkos” … “in the knowledge that I never will be able to fulfill the duties that my name and birth impose upon me” … “I therefore commend and entrust myself into the protection and care of his royal highness, Prince Anaxantis.”
“Was this really necessary, little brother?” he thought not without some bitterness. “Displaying me before all these men like this? The humiliating public reading of the Act of Renunciation?”
Finally the notary had finished reading the document, and invited him to put his seal onto them. He removed his seal ring from his finger and pressed it into the wax that the clerk dripped onto the parchments. There seemed to be several copies. In a haze he just did what was asked of him.
During all this he noticed that at the back of the hall, one of Anaxantis’s guards quietly left. Some of the captains were openly smirking at the scene they were witnessing. Others were more subdued, but it was clear they didn’t disagree with the proceedings. Only a few were surprised. One was even sorry, judging by his expression, and Ehandar felt grateful for that one friendly face in the crowd. It was almost the same with the higher officers who were seated at the table. A few seemed to despise him and let it show, something they wouldn’t have dared only minutes ago.
After he had pressed his seal into the last blob of wax, he started to put the ring back on his finger.
“Hey, you. Not so fast. Give me that ring,” a young man, a clansman of Anaxantis, said.
It was as if someone had slapped him in the face with a wet towel. Nobody had ever dared call him ‘Hey, you.’ He wanted to lash out at the impertinent man, but remembered in time, that he couldn’t. With a face as if made of stone he handed the ring over.
Lethoras took the ring and walked over to where the smith was waiting beside his anvil. He put the ring down on it and the smith let his sledgehammer descend on it several times. When Lethoras returned, he laid an unrecognizable, shapeless chunk of gold before Anaxantis.
The soldier who had left a moment before returned carrying some piece of cloth. On a sign from Lethoras he carried the eagle flag to the open hearth and threw it on the fire. The moist fabric hissed and produced dark clouds of smoke.
“Your sword,” Lethoras said, while he started ungirding it from Ehandar’s waist.
Held by the smith’s assistants at an angle on the anvil, it shattered into several pieces at the first blow.
“Remove that tunic,” Lethoras ordered.
Ehandar did as he was told, his face still impassive. The green tunic with the eagle crest followed the flag into the fire. The dagger Ehandar had carried under his tunic was now clearly visible.
“Hand over that dagger,” the curt order came.
“No,” Anaxantis intervened in a soft tone. “No, that was a gift from me. He can keep it.”
Lethoras looked for a moment at him.
“I said that he can keep it,” Anaxantis repeated, in a commanding voice this time.
Ehandar stood in his shirt, straight, impassively looking at the faces that stared back at him. Only a pitiful few seemed to feel sorry for him. Quite a lot of them, the majority, were visibly enthralled by the loss of his status and standing. They made not the slightest effort anymore to hide it. Only Demrac seemed more surprised than anything else. Ehandar wanted desperately for this painful ceremony to be over, but he daren’t move without having been given permission to do so. Finally the deliverance came.
“Go to my room and wait there for me,” Anaxantis said.
“He has never looked more like a prince than now,” he thought.
Another slap with the wet towel. What had always been ‘our room’ had suddenly become ‘my room.’ Without showing any emotion, he turned on his heels, and, feeling the stares burning in his neck, he left the great hall. Once on the staircase, out of sight, the first tears began to roll down his cheeks.
The notary thanked everyone for their attendance and the meeting began to break up noisily as people discussed the event they had just witnessed among themselves.
Nobody paid any attention when Lethoras handed over a small object to Anaxantis.
“I switched the ring with the one you gave me, like you told me. It was easy,” he whispered.
Anaxantis nodded his thanks.
When Anaxantis entered the room about half an hour later, he found Ehandar sitting, curled up, hugging his knees, in the very spot next to the fireplace, where he had spent most of the time while chained to the wall. He was sobbing softly. Anaxantis knelt beside him and started stroking his hair.
“Hey, what are you doing here?” he asked softly.
“Isn’t this where you want me?” the answer came in tears. “Isn’t this what you intended all along? You can take your revenge now. Look, the chains are still there.”
He held out his neck and his wrists.
“I don’t need those chains,” Anaxantis thought sadly.
“Look what you made me do,” Ehandar sobbed in utter agony.
“I warned you,” Anaxantis replied, all the while stroking his hair. “Several times. I told you not to do this. I told you I didn’t want the responsibility. I told you to think again. It was all you, Ehandar. All you.”
The answer was a new outburst of sobs and tears.
“Come, let’s go to bed,” Anaxantis said after a while, taking his hand.
Caressing his body against Ehandar’s, Anaxantis’s love-making was caring and tender, where the night before it had been greedy and demanding. It took a while before Anaxantis got his brother to respond, but finally his lips got a shy, timid answer. He kissed Ehandar’s tears away and put his arms protectively around him, as if silently promising him cover and warmth.
When later he looked at his sleeping lover, Ehandar felt as if it had been almost worth it.
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