|Image by Richard Schofield via Wikimedia Commons|
Lord Turlough twisted at a golden signet ring. Across from him, behind a heavy desk sat Adrian Sigmund, the Master of the Wardrobe, who smiled blandly as Lord Turlough stuttered on.
“I just cannot see His Majesty agreeing to such a move,” Turlough said. “He is, after all, Vorali on his maternal side, fostered in King Mathis’ court up until–“ he looked up at the Master of the Wardrobe, who indicated for the man to go on.
“Well, up until the unfortunate events,” Turlough said.
“Yes,” the Master of the Wardrobe said, brushing a piece of invisible lint from a diamond pin at his jacket collar, “I am familiar with that fact.”
Lord Turlough reddened. “Of course, of course. My point, Master Adrian, is that I have suffered for supporting you in the past with the railroad tax, conscript levy, and procuring repeating rifles from foreign interests. My position in parliament would be in utter ruin, not to mention my own personal investments should this gambit fail.”
Master Adrian let the silence stretch for uncomfortable moments before speaking.
“My Lord,” he said, “We are caught between two great powers and war is inevitable. Our kingdom will be swallowed up by one or the other if we keep to this so-called path of neutrality. Our only hope of survival is to ally ourselves with the winning side.”
“The Sandurians, you mean.”
Master Adrian brought his palms together. “It is within our power to tip the balance between the Sandurians and Vorali. We have secured certain concessions that will put your investments at ease should we throw our support behind the Sandurian Empire, my Lord.”
“And yet we are set to host both powers across the courtyard, in the motions of peace. Moreover, His Majesty seems quite serious in his pledge for a diplomatic solution. Forgive me if I find your ability to speak for His Majesty suspect.”
Master Adrian leaned forward, pinning Lord Turlough to the chair with his gaze.
“His Majesty and I have differing opinions on domestic issues of late, but when it comes to looking outside our borders, he and I are of one vision.”
“What color are your pupetmaster’s eyes, Rochester?” King Philip XI asked.
“Bloodshot,” the puppet replied.
“It occurs to us that we have never seen Puppetmaster Villas’ eyes.”
“That’s because he wears a veil.”
“So much is obvious.”
“It’s my job to point out the obvious, Aldrich,” the puppet said. A courtier across the room stiffened at the use of the king’s birth name. Rochester turned to the courtier and shook a wooden fist. “Back to work with you, cur, or to the scullery with ye!”
King Philip sighed and waved at the courtier. “Pay no attention to the puppet, Duke Cago. He’s been irritable of late.”
Rochester turned its wooden head and looked with wide painted eyes over a large hooked nose. “As would you, Aldrich, if you had a clammy hand stuck up your arse all day. This one,” it said, jerking its head towards Villas, “still has a lot to learn about puppetry.”
King Philip nodded. Villas was only a year into his tenure, having succeeded after Pupetmaster Flaubert succumbed to rotlung. Villas had the grace in his hands to allow Rochester full movement, though the endurance was still lacking. By late afternoon, the sprightly Rochester would move about like an old arthritic, complaining the whole while. Always the same, Rochester, no matter who the puppetmaster was. Chiding and sarcastic, quick to attack a weak argument, merciless in mocking the court – especially the king.
“Someday, you’ll be king, Aldrich,” Rochester said.
“Really?” Philip allowed himself a smile. “We sit on the throne, we wear the crown, and all but a worm-bored puppet acknowledge our Majesty.”
Rochester cocked its head and made a show of looking around the room. “Is that all it takes? Then I shall come early tomorrow with a crown on my head. I shall sit on the throne and be king.” It paused, and nodded. “I shall be a most terrible king.”
“Terrible?” Philip said. “Would you declare war on a cedar forest in a fit of anger?”
Rochester shook its head. “Feared not for my anger, but for sheer incompetence. Respected not at all because of the veiled puppetmaster all can see.” It jerked its head at Villas.
The doors at the end of the hall opened, and Master Adrian strode down the aisle with boot heels echoing from the walls, his arms filled with papers. He sketched a quick bow, then strode up the stairs.
“Your Majesty, I’ve brought the letters and tallies we talked about earlier. If this time is convenient to discuss them?” His eyes flicked to Rochester.
“Of course, Adrian. We were just conferring with Rochester on kingship.”
Master Adrian’s eyebrows arched. “Oh? How… charming. Making a play for the Privy Chamber, no doubt.”
“Oh aye, Master of Knickers,” Rochester said. “And my coterie of accomplices. Punch and Judy will become Masters of Coin and Sail, the old Queen’s doll will become Field Marshal, and you will be replaced with a coat hanger I’ve become rather fond of.”
Master Adrian stared past the puppet at Vilas.
“Don’t look at him! I’m his master! I take my leave of you; I must post notices for my secret meetings, skull some duggeries, and find a chicken.”
“A chicken,” Master Adrian repeated.
“To hatch my plots!” Rochester scurried away, with Villas chasing behind him.
“I don’t know why you put up with that thing,” Master Adrian said.
“We find it amusing. Rochester has served our family for generations. It is said that the spirit of the old fool, the original Rochester, inhabits the puppet and subtly directs its master on how to act. We’ve never had any reason to doubt the superstition.”
“Vilas mocks his betters and calls it fool’s wisdom.”
King Philip caught Master Adrian’s eye and smiled. “When we were small, still yet called by our birth name, Rochester arranged with our father to feign illness. This was when our royal father’s Puppetmaster– Ian, if we remember correctly– served Rochester. The puppet woke us and rushed us to the throne room, where a small chair and a paper crown were placed next to our father’s. Rochester ran down the aisle, clamoring ‘Behold! Behold, King for a Day! Here cometh the light that drives the darkness away!’ And for a day, we ruled. It was the happiest day of our life, and the only time Rochester ever addressed us as ‘your Majesty.’
“When was this, Majesty?”
“Before your time, Master Adrian, a year before the time of …”
Philip’s voice went hoarse and he found himself staring at Master Adrian’s diamond stickpin.
“I understand, your Majesty,” Master Adrian said.
Philip sat straighter as he regained his composure. “Though we should think your selfless rescue of our person from that – that place has since surpassed the fool’s day as our most treasured memory.”
“Thank you, your Majesty,” Master Adrian said. “Though rather than dwell on the past, I would like to speak with you about the future.”
In the cloaking chamber, Phillip put the crown aside. “You have no idea how uncomfortable that thing is,” Philip said. “One day, it will rust solid to my head.”
“You bear the burden well,” Adrian said. He set the letters aside on a table and poured wine into two goblets.
“Bad enough to bear for an hour or two each day, but this peace brokering shall require me to wear it almost constantly for a week.” Philip accepted a goblet and sat before the letters. Adrian, he noticed, had eschewed the traditional house jacket for one in a somber black cut in an older style. His usual soft slippers had been replaced with shining riding boots. The outfit always set Philip’s teeth on edge, though it would not be fitting of a king to mention it.
“Do I need to read these through?” Philip asked, fanning the letters across the table.
Adrian inclined his head. “Buried in the usual pleasantries and reaffirmations of kinship both real and imagined, the Vorali and the Sandurians press for a closer alliance. There are hints of loosened tariffs on our shipping, soldiers and arms to fortify our borders, and even a politically advantageous marriage.”
Adrian sipped at his wine and grinned. “On the balance, the Vorali offer more but I should think it because they are more desperate. Sandur is stronger, and show no signs of coveting our land.”
“Really? They covet everyone else’s. They have long wanted the northern mines and river passage to the sea from their capital. My grandfather’s war –“
“Was more to do with boredom and incompetence of Phineas II than any real national interest. Now that the Callestri family has taken the throne, they’ve set their eyes on Voral.”
“The land of my mother. Should blood mean so little to a king? Are our historical ties so stale that we throw over for an extra tenpenny on a bale of cotton?”
“Majesty, I loved your royal mother, but let us not fool ourselves with sentimentality for a waning power.”
Philip said nothing, and turned to gaze through a window.
“You Majesty,” Adrian said, rounding the table, “war is coming.”
Philip shook his head. “Both sides sit tomorrow to discuss peace. I will await the results before deciding.”
“We need to strike a decisive blow now, your Majesty. Everyone at the table knows this diplomacy is a farce. They merely go through the forms for appearance’s sake and watch the other for signs of weakness.”
“What action would you suggesting?” Philip asked.
“Better for you not to know, only that it will make our future Sandurian allies pleased, and the Voral court unable to accuse us directly.”
“Assassination, then? No. I will do no such thing.”
Adrian shook his head. He clenched a fist and held it near his heart. “We have to seize the opportunity now, and act.” Through a trick of the light, the diamond stickpin glinted. Philip’s stomach roiled and phantom memories of darkness and wet earth entered his mind. His ears rang, his chest ached…
“Your Majesty? Are you ill?” Adrian had somehow come to kneel at Philip’s side, a strong hand clasping his king’s forearm.
“It was nothing.”
“You’re short of breath and sweating. Rest, your Majesty. We will discuss this later.”
“You’re right, as usual, Adrian,” Philip said.
As Philip made his way to his chambers, he measured his options, liking none of them. When he came to power, the world had seemed his to command, but each decision he made seemed to push him further into a corner, always having the opposite effect of his intentions.
How did it ever come to this?
...to be continued