Snow drifted lazily down from the darkening sky as Sir Morhault and his squire Oren rode beneath the raised portcullis of the gatehouse and into the inner courtyard of Tamur Mansion. The place reminded him of the mansion of the Governor of Meribia, half the world away; although the name suggested merely a palatial home it was really a fortified keep within the city walls.
Grooms scurried forward to take the horses' reins as the two riders dismounted. The winter air had a bite to it, and Morhault was already looking forward to getting inside the mansion and letting a warm fire drain the chill from his bones. He and Oren had pushed hard for several days to reach Tamur, and hoped that despite the urgency of their journey there would be time to relax before taking up the duty that had brought them.
An elderly man in neat doublet and hose greeted Morhault as the porter admitted the knight and squire to the building.
"Good evening, Sir Morhault. I welcome you and your squire to Tamur Mansion in the name of Mayor Barleth."
A servant came forward, and Morhault removed his hooded gray wool cloak and handed it over to be dried, giving the steward his first good look at the knight. Morhault was a young man, at twenty-six only six years a knight, and his broad-shouldered, muscular build suggested that he'd be dangerous in a fight. His wavy black hair brushed the nape of his neck and his handsome, aquiline features attracted many a second glance from the opposite sex. The white leather breeches and gloves he wore with the crimson tabard covering his mail shirt, and his squire's white shirt and breeches and red sleeveless overtunic suggested uniforms, which they were. The Lion Knights of Ilan mandated the costume to emphasize that they were one unified group rather than a collection of individuals. For the same reason the shield slung on Morhault's saddle bore no personal crest, only the golden lion's head on a red field that was the order's badge.
"His Honor the Mayor would like to welcome you personally before you speak with Sir Feldon, your colleague."
"I'm at his Honor's disposal. Oren--"
"I know. Unpack."
"You're learning. Here, take this with you." Morhault unhooked the heavy broadsword from his belt and handed it to the squire. In the present nervous situation, it didn't seem polite to barge in on his host carrying a blade.
The gray-haired steward led Morhault to a luxuriously outfitted study. The walls were hung with tapestries, the stone floor covered with an expensive carpet, and a fire blazed in a great hearth taller than the knight. A bearded man richly dressed in dark blue velvet, wearing several rings in addition to the golden chain bearing the seal of his office, sat at the head of an antique table.
"Sir Morhault, come in!" called Roland Barleth, Mayor of Tamur. "I've heard good things about you."
"Thank you. I'm surprised that you were expecting me."
"No mystery there. Your chapterhouse sent a message by carrier bird to Sir Feldon telling which knight they dispatched."
"Ah, I should have thought of that myself."
Morhault studied the man before him, not wanting to seem too obvious about it yet certain the Mayor's dark eyes perceived everything before him.
"Do you know why I asked to see you?" Mayor Barleth asked.
Morhault shook his head.
"It's because I wanted to see you up close, one-to-one. I've gotten to know Sir Feldon over these past few weeks and pretty well know how I stand with him. I don't know you, and I'll be entrusting my only child to your keeping."
The Lion Knight's eyes flicked to a shadowy corner of the long room near the hearth. The slender figure of a girl in a green gown was not precisely hidden, but she held herself quietly apart so that she became more like part of the furniture than an individual.
"That's right," Mayor Barleth verified. "Come, Marysann, and greet Sir Morhault."
The girl stepped forward, her honey-blond hair catching the firelight and shimmering warmly. Her face was neither friendly nor hostile, showing no emotion. It wasn't the effect of an ice maiden, though, but almost as if she wasn't really there--not cold, just so retiring that nothing could touch her. Small surprise, Morhault thought, that she had seemed to vanish in her corner.
The lady curtsied politely. "Well met, Sir Morhault, and welcome to Tamur," she said in a pleasant voice.
"Lady Marysann," he replied with a bow. He could feel the Mayor's eyes on him, and wondered what was being left unsaid. "A pleasure," he added. Some of his fellow knights would have had silver-tongued phrases fit to shame any minstrel, but Morhault wasn't particularly skilled at conversation for conversation's sake.
"Her safety is in your hands, Sir Morhault," the Mayor repeated. "Your duty is the most important thing in the world to me."
"I'm not a father, but I can appreciate your fears."
"A father...good, you understand, then." He smiled at Morhault.
"Father, may I be excused?" Marysann asked abruptly. A shadow seemed to darken Mayor Barleth's face, but he nodded curtly.
She walked smoothly towards the door, gliding over the brightly patterned carpet. The heavy portal opened before she got there, and Oren burst in.
"Sir Morhault, everything's in our chamber and--" He broke off as he came face-to-face with the girl and could only stare, tongue-tied. She swept past him without so much as a glance and was gone.
"Was there something?" Morhault asked, regarding his squire with one raised eyebrow. The sandy-haired boy looked from his knight's somewhat mocking expression to the Mayor's flat, hard gaze and paled.
"I'm interrupting something, aren't I?" he asked, shamefaced.
"Good guess. The damage has been done, though, so you might as well give me your message."
"Oh, er, yes. Sir Feldon said to tell you that he's ready to see you."
The Mayor sighed.
"I had hoped to speak with you at some length, Sir Morhault," he said regretfully, "but I suppose it's necessary for you to make your preparations, and Sir Feldon can best provide you with the precise details. Your squire, I gather, can show you to the room I've had prepared for you."
It was clearly a dismissal and Morhault took it that way. He still wasn't quite sure what to make of Mayor Barleth or his daughter, but part of that was probably due to the fact that he didn't know why he'd been sent to Tamur except in a very general way. Morhault hoped that Feldon could clear matters up for him.
-X X X-
"She's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen!" breathed Oren in the way of fifteen-year-old squires who have just laid eyes on an attractive lady. "Her hair was like spun gold in the firelight, her eyes like flawless black pearls, her skin like rose-tinted alabaster. She looked like a queen!"
"She should, Oren, since she's going to be one," Morhault noted dryly. It was, he felt, part of a knight's duty to keep his squire's bardic tendencies in line. Any adolescent prevented from spouting bad love poetry was a boon to all Lunar. "I must compliment you, though, on not comparing her eyes to sapphires. You only caught a glimpse of Marysann, but noticed that she was a dark-eyed blonde. It's always important to stay observant, both in combat and diplomacy." That, he felt, was enough pontificating for the moment.
A soft knock at the door interrupted the squire in his unpacking; Oren opened the inch-thick portal to reveal a man wearing the same red tunic over white shirt and breeches as he did.
"Ah, Feldon!" Morhault called, recognizing the elder knight by his bristling iron-gray moustache and short, square-cut hair. "Good to see you again." Noting how Sir Feldon was supporting himself on a pair of crutches and that his right leg was heavily splinted, Morhault added, "Diplomacy seems to be a bit more hazardous than I'd have expected."
Feldon laughed bitterly. "Fifteen years on the battlefield, another twenty at knight-errantry better suited to you pups, and the worst I ever got was this." He ran his thumb along the scar on his blunt chin, a souvenir of when a conscripted farmer wildly waving a sword had nearly split his head open. "So what do I do when I get a nice, cushy negotiating job? I go and fall off my Vile-spawned horse!"
"Well," Morhault said with a grin, "you do make for an odd sort of diplomat."
Morhault had joined the Lion Knights at thirteen, being accepted as a squire and serving like Oren was now before being tested and knighted at twenty. As Feldon had intimated, his knightly career had consisted of six years of knight-errantry: wandering Lunar in search of places where his services were needed. In other words, excepting the occasional mission for the order like this one, the kind of storybook-hero work that had led him as a boy to seek out the Lion Knights in the first place (although it was amazing how tales of heroes and Dragonmasters never mentioned the joys of sleeping outdoors, maintaining the health of horse and armor, travel rations, and weather that never saw Althena's smile.). It was the path to knighthood followed by most of the order.
Feldon, though, had begun as a mercenary soldier, first as a caravan guard and later a company lieutenant, until a campaign defending a village from Marius Zone bandits. The Lion Knights and Feldon's company had both fought with the defenders, and the lieutenant's cool head, personal skill, tactical competence, and sense of honor had caught the eye of several knights. Joining had been, as he put it, a good career move.
"Yeah, but that's what they needed here, someone who's been to war and knows what it's like--and who can see past all the baggage war brings with it." The injured knight dropped into a chair across the table from Morhault.
"Have a cup of mulled wine," Morhault offered. "You look as if you could use it."
"Thanks. I'm getting way too old for this; the cold knifes right through my joints."
Oren poured a flagon of the hot, spiced wine provided by the Mayor's servants and brought it to the ex-mercenary.
"I still don't see what we're doing here, Sir Feldon. I thought the Lion Knights didn't meddle in politics."
Feldon took a deep draft of his wine, then leaned back in his chair, allowing the warmth to seep into him. Despite the tapestries on the walls and the heavy brocade curtains covering the two small windows, the guest chamber had the persistent chill that came with stone construction.
"We were asked to help."
The squire gave the two knights a completely blank look. Shamelessly ducking responsibility, Morhault gestured for Feldon to continue.
"All right, I'll start at the beginning. As you know, Tamur acts as a crossroads for trade here in the Stadius Zone. Tamur Pass links Lyton and Meryod to the west, the Madoria Plains to the north, and the Prairie to the south. Most significantly, it's the only connection between the Prairie Tribe and the rest of Lunar."
Feldon took another gulp of wine.
"Two years ago, the Prairie suffered a nasty drought. Everything suffered. There were near-famine conditions, they needed help badly, and their lack of resources meant they couldn't prepare their usual trade good. There were plenty of people and groups willing to offer charitable help, but Tamur really took it on the chin. Trade is the lifeblood of this place, it's much bigger than its available resources can support. If you get right down to it, rather than fish or farmland or herding or mining, Tamur's resource is being a waypoint for trade. The lack of Prairie trade hit it hard, and the goods going into the relief effort rather than the markets hit it again."
"This is really confusing, Sir Feldon."
"We're just getting started. Human nature being what it is, a fair number of people started blaming the Prairie Tribe for it, a feeling aggravated by that tribe's general reclusiveness and the acts of banditry carried out by its more aggressive clans. Then Meribian and Notan merchants threw themselves into the mix, trying to manipulate the situation and claim they didn't have to pay this or that deal should be restructured and generally trying to extort every last silver from other people's troubles. Then on the Prairie Tribe's side, they were already coping with the drought and having to suffer the blow to their pride that comes with taking charity. Add to that the resentment and greed of the Tamurites--and the bigotry of their own hardliners who want to keep the Prairie isolated, since stupidity works on both sides, and you've got them in an uproar, too. Particularly since the Prairie Tribe sees trade contracts not as business deals but as honor-debts."
"I don't get it," said Oren.
"They execute thieves on the Prairie, boy."
"The Prairie Tribe is a small, isolated population with limited resources," Morhault explained. "On the Prairie, there are no beggars; each Clan takes care of its own, so there's no excuse that stealing is necessary the way it might be in Meribia, and conversely a thief steals from the entire Clan and their survival, so it's taken as a much more serious matter."
Oren thought that over.
"In any case," Feldon got back to the story, "they were at each other's throats. Hot words were shouted and skirmishes were breaking out in Tamur Pass and the Forest of Illusion. War seemed imminent. Cooler heads on both sides saw the direction things were going and wanted to head it off."
"I still don't see how the Lion Knights are involved."
"Well, someone had to mediate," Morhault said.
Oren glanced at the older knight, ignoring his master's interjection.
"He's flippant, but he's right. The Tamur-folk and the Prairie Tribe don't really trust each other on a gut level--the cultures are too different, for one thing, and there's a history of raiding and border clashes between them that goes back even before the time of the Magic Emporer. I've been half afraid the whole time that someone would sneeze at the wrong moment and it would all go up in flames."
He took another drink of wine.
"Like you said, the Lion Knights don't get involved in scheming and plotting. We're an independent order that serves no ruler--and we're based way over in the Marius Zone, away from any of the isolated parties. That makes us trustworthy. We have no reason to side with anybody, and we have a reputation for honor and fairness across Lunar."
"The Lion Knights," Morhault finished for him, "could hammer out a treaty that was fair to both sides and would be accepted by each." He chuckled, then added, "I keep telling you, Oren, that there's more to knighthood than slaying monsters and rescuing fair maidens."
Oren groaned loudly. He was a farmer's son and had no interest in courtly games of diplomacy. The only part of this job he'd liked so far was the beautiful Marysann.
"So why are we here, Feldon?" Morhault asked. "Carrier birds may be fast, but they can't carry a very long message, not to mention that whatever it was you sent to the Grand Master, all his message to the Lyton chapterhouse said was, 'Send a knight to Tamur.'"
Feldon's broken leg and Mayor Barleth's words had combined to give Morhault a fairly good idea of what was happening, but he was tired of guesswork.
"Carrier birds?" Now it was Feldon's turn to groan. "Typical, though I suppose it saved time over a messenger." He drained the last of the wine from his goblet. "You do know what we've been doing these past three months, don't you?"
"From the rumors that have been filtering back, arranging a marriage."
"Right. Since the girl your squire is swooning over and the son of the chief of the Prairie Tribe are near in age and both unwed, the obvious answer was to marry them off to seal the deal."
"Um..." Oren interjected hesitantly, "if it's such an obvious solution, then why did it take so long?"
The former mercenary stroked his chin while giving the squire a black look. Oren, Morhault knew all too well, was prone to miss the subtleties.
"Details, boy, details! The status of existing trade contracts and consideration to be given to future ones. Travel rights in the Forest of Illusion. Tariffs on goods passing through Tamur Pass. The rights of an outsider wife and how it affects Prairie Tribe succession. Reparations to be made for raids on both sides. Not to mention the fact that there were any number of hotheaded, bigoted, or just greedy people on both sides who want to see the whole alliance as anathema and who need to be appeased or quashed!"
"Oh," Oren said in a very small voice.
"Sorry, boy. None of it's your fault, after all. It's just that, after all this work, and finally getting a treaty settled that both sides will agree to..."
"You fell off your horse," Morhault finished for him, earning a glower.
"So now, someone else has to lead the lady's escort to the wedding."
"Escort?" Oren chirped on cue, then held up his hands to delay any remarks from the two knights. "Wait, I think I get this one. Those people you mentioned might try to head off the union by kidnapping or killing Marysann before she marries. If the escort is all from one side or another, their loyalties could lie anywhere, and a mixed group could start fighting each other because of a few loudmouths!"
Feldon slapped his hand against his thigh with a loud crack.
"Now you're getting it. The escort consists of fifteen soldiers from Tamur's cityguard, fifteen Prairie tribesmen, and ten from our forces, with a Lion Knight in overall command. That's you, Morhault, in case you haven't been taking notes."
The younger knight nodded, but he didn't smile. This escort was more than just an honor guard; the Mayor was expecting trouble. There was some reason why the old fox thought Marysann would be in danger--and he hadn't told Morhault what it was. For that matter, Feldon hadn't gone into specifics, either.
He might not have known. Sir Feldon was the quintessential old warhorse, tough, brave, and smart, but his cunning was the cunning of a soldier on the battlefield rather than an experienced court intriguer. That was probably half the reason he had led the Lion Knights' mediation: to bull through the evasions and fancy language so they could get down to the meat of the problem. The Prairie Tribe would probably respect him all the more as a serious-minded warrior.
Then again, he might be holding back. Feldon wasn't subtle, true, but he wasn't stupid, either. Not by a long shot.
"When are we supposed to leave--and where do we go?"
"The wedding is in Pao. You'll be leaving tomorrow morning; we were supposed to go four days ago, but my leg pretty well killed that plan."
Morhault rolled his eyes.
"To such duty we are called. I'm just glad that I hadn't planned on any sightseeing tours."
Oren, meanwhile, was smiling dreamily at the thought of spending several days on the road in Marysann's presence. Mayor Barleth's daughter made the perfect unattainable ideal for the squire's romantic dreams.
"Moon later, Oren; we have armor to polish. I have a feeling we're going to need it."