An Atikan Interlude - Part IV

Released on July 21, 2019, this is the second installment of Robin of Erifracia, which began in Clovir: An Overture.

Welcome back to the world of Lord Charles Palfrey, the man who invented the Thrain Longbow!

Robin of Erifracia II

If I had known back then
What I’d be living with today
We might have stayed but
I can’t get far from it.
— Not Done Yet, SOJA

 “Still having the dreams, then, Charles?”

“You know I am, Physiker.”

“It is Raoul, please. There are no titles in this room.” The Psychoprobist paused. “And you were so sure that discovery of this weapon – this Longbow – it would mean the end of them, were you not?” Lordon turned from his patient to jot something onto a piece of parchment with a quill.

“You really think that taking notes is going to help you solve the riddle that is my ‘battle neurosis,’ Physiker?” Lord Palfrey sat up on the fauteuil the Psychoprobist reserved for his patients. It was a brand-new specialty, Psychoprobity, and one of the first men to declare it to be a new type of Physik was also the one who declared how it should be approached. Psychoprobist on the chair, patient on the fauteuil. But Raoul’s well-chewed pipe was not part of the standard issue. Most certainly not the leaf for which the Psychoprobist had developed an affinity.

“That is illegally imported from Erifracia, Physiker.” Lord Palfrey unconsciously balled his hands into a fist.

“I beg your pardon?”

“The pipe weed. I recognize the smell of it. We are at war and you are stuffing your fucking pipe and the pockets of some dirty camel-molesting-”

“The rage is still a reality you live with, I see.”

“That’s it, you cranium-measuring derelict. Deflect. Perhaps we would be better served you on this fauteuil. I am sure that Physiker Lusk, the quack God whom you Psychoprobists worship, would be delighted to see how his teachings have been put into practice.”

“It was you that decided to attend at my office, Charles,” said the Psychoprobist, unperturbed. “The door is always open. For both entrances and exits.”

“Ah Christ-man damn it all, Raoul,” said Lord Palfrey, his rage abating somewhat. “I am so fucking sick of it. We are to leave port in a month. I pray that an end to this war will mean that I might sleep a full night once more.”

“I hope for that as well, Charles,” said Psychoprobist Lordon warmly. “Now, if you will permit me, I would like to try you with a new sleeping draught. I attended a conference in Valtha two weeks ago and I met the most erudite Herbalist. She was a veritable font of wisdom and knowledge. With valerian root and some strange leaf imported from Kashya-”

“Whatever you say, Raoul,” said Lord Palfrey, pulling a heavy sack of coin from his belt. “Just tell me how much.”

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When Lord Palfrey returned home, he nodded to Ivan Kornfield, one of his Privates, who was applying mortar to a brick at the rear of his home. He had decided to make the man a Lieutenant in his squad, one of three who would oversee the other Privates when they landed back in Tunuska Harbour. Kornfield had demonstrated no small measure of Valour in slaying the Erifracian from whom they had liberated the test piece of cuir d’arbalest. It was only good leadership to promote him. In the meantime, Palfrey had pulled his own name from the muck after accidentally killing a man with the Longbow and needed a Mason to rebuild the parts of his family manor house that had fallen into disrepair.

How the King had lauded (and paid) him for his discovery. The parade that they had threw for him in Valtha – it was as if no one was even considering the fact that the Thrain Army could have as many bows as they wanted, but they still had to travel to Erifracia and use them. He would have preferred that: to be a celebrity-in-waiting, rather than some Hero with an asterisk. Better no celebrity at all, but he knew that he would not have been able to avoid the publicity.

The Thrain Longbow, crafted from foreign bear ash and hempen twine, had been on Lord Palfrey’s mind for so long. To finally have it here, mass-produced and distributed to the Coloured Orders and the militias that they had raised… it was better as a dream than the disappointing reality with which he was faced.

When Lord Palfrey entered his manor, he was fallen upon by his Servants. They took his overcoat, his perruque, and tried to take his boots. He shooed them away, pulled the muddy things off himself, and then ruffled the hair he kept short to make wearing the wig easier. Whoever had come up with that particular tradition was…

Enough, Lord Palfrey silently told himself. Enough of the Gods-damned ruminating. The aging man sat on the couch, picked up the Longbow he had been examining, and ensured once more that the carving was perfect. Perhaps, once it pierced the heart of an Erifracian, the incessant worry would come to an end. Maybe, but probably not.

To live in Hope, but without Faith: how fucking exhausting it had become.

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The black robe of the Mortiker was probably the worst part of the job, at least insofar as Philip Flensing was concerned. Everyone knew exactly who and what he was the moment he stepped foot into an unfamiliar part of the Kingdom, which he had been doing a lot of recently. Barely above a prostitute or beggar in terms of social standing, the Mortiker was derided as ‘cadaver-lover’ both behind his back and to his face. Except, perhaps, by the King, which was both strangely unexpected and of cold comfort. Neither of the two of them seemed to be interested in the intimate company of the same sex, so brotherly love was as far as it went. With women, unless paid, Philip was met with naught but scorn for his position. Couple that with the bad dreams and a deepening taste for drink as balm for the psychic wound he knew himself to be suffering, the Mortiker had little to be thankful for these days.

What made Mortiker Flensing even more depressed was the way that Mortikers related to the Physikers. Tasked with maintaining the health of the citizens of the realm, the white-robed Physikers drew knowledge from the Mortikers the way those quacks used leeches to draw off blood, before demanding a tin piece or two for their trouble. Except that, unlike the bloodletting practiced by those charlatans, the uncompensated leaps and bounds of learning about the human body achieved by Mortikers in their studies of the dead were actually useful. And still Mortikers were derided.

Flensing looked down at the body before him and rubbed his pendant. A little metallic triangle with an open eye set in to it, hanging from a great bronze chain. It was apt, that symbol, for Mortikers were the most intelligent of the-

“Flensing,” said the white-cloaked man at the door to the room, disdain evident in his voice. He was not wearing the standard-issue visor given to the White Guard, which Phillip knew meant that he had finished his duties for the day. The Bodyguard sniffed and made a face when the embalming brew stench hit his nose. “Yer wanted. By da King.”

“Very well,” said Flensing, breaking his gaze from the corpse. A little boy. Sawn into pieces, but not by him. What manner of fucking animals lived in Valtha, the capital of Thrairn? “Did he say when?”

“Now, ya fuckin’ nincompoop.”

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“Your presence has been requested,” said the King amiably, seated with his body spilling out over the armrests of the throne. He could not look more relaxed if he tried, thought Phillip.

“Requested, Sire?”

“Yes, Mortiker. Requested. By your commanding Knight. Lord Palfrey? The man who is to save us from the Erifracian scourge? Your friend?”

“Thank you, Your Grace. I know very well of whom you speak. It is just that…”

“Just what, Flensing? Out with it. It is not that I do not have all day to listen to your mealy-mouthed protestations, it is simply that I do not care to do so.”

Phillip smiled. King Alfric Aquester might be a cunt, but his cuntly ways were mirthful. He always seemed so unserious, though many a dead man swinging in the gibbet paid the price for thinking him soft as a result.

“It is just that, well,” Phillip ventured, “Lord Palfrey gave me his word that I would not be called into service.”

“I do not recall signing a document releasing you lot from service,” said the King, flipping around so his feet landed on the ground. “Neither you nor any of the rest of the Ishan slobs whom he pressed into my Army. Which means that you are not being called into service – you are being asked to do your duty as conscripted Soldiers of the Realm.”

“Really, is there any difference, Sire?”

“Quite the tongue you have developed, Flensing. If we were not in this little mutual admiration society together, I would have you flogged for it.”

Flensing smiled again. “Perhaps you could intercede on my behalf, then, Sire?”

“Your Master is a great Servant of the Kingdom. His Longbow will see the end to the war, perhaps to the Kingdom of Erifracia itself. I would sooner copulate with my own mother than disappoint him, and the Queen Mum is a hag of the highest order.” The King smiled again and spread his hands. “Look, Phillip, if you survive, you will still have your place at my Court. Ever since you have come to Valtha, riding on the glory of the great Lord Palfrey, it has been evident that a man obsessed with the dead was just the enlivening presence we needed at Castle Valtha.”

“Thank you, Your Grace,” said the Mortiker, inclining his head. “I am glad to know that you think so much of me. And of my welcome. I simply hope that I am not cut open like one of my own subjects by an Erifracian scimitar.”

“Ah, give it a rest, Phillip,” said the King, laughing. “The gloominess does not become you. You know that you will be at the back of the lines, away from danger, stitching the men up who need stitching. The Guild of the Physikers might think Mortikers are ignorant perverts with a taste for corpse flesh, but your King knows that you could teach them far more than the other way around.”

“Thank you for your Faith and Circumspection, my Liege.” Phillip smiled. “To be honest, I do miss my old friends. And Lord Palfrey, of course.”

“Excellent,” said the King, clapping his hands. “As it so happens, I have a few bottles of fine whiskey from up Rhymore way. I would be delighted to offer a pair of bottles to you and Lord Palfrey as thanks for your service. And, before you go… Imoen!”

A courtesan with olive skin, long black hair, rouge on her cheeks and lips, and clad in a frilly pink dress appeared from one of the doorways to the rear. She was a lovely woman, and Phillip had always admired her from afar, though it always appeared as though her affections were reserved for the nobles of the Court. Whatever she cost, Phillip knew that he could not afford her.

“Imoen, my dear,” said the King. “Please, take our good friend Phillip to the dining room for his supper. And make sure to entertain him all evening. He is a brave Hero to this country, and is to set off again for foreign shores in service to us. I am certain that you will give him an appropriately warm send-off?”

“Of course, Your Grace,” said the woman, curtsying. Then she turned again to Phillip and smiled. The Mortiker saw that she had one brown eye and one blue. He had never noticed that detail before, and it only added to her beauty.

“Thank you, Your Grace,” said Phillip, beaming at the King.

“It is most certainly my pleasure, Phillip. Be sure to have breakfast with me in the morning, before you go. Both of you.”

With a nod, the pair exited through the doorway from which Imoen had appeared.

Their evening together progressed in the way that you might imagine, though Phillip, unused to such attention from a as well-mannered a woman as this one, found himself at a loss for words from time to time. What is more, when he lay his head on his pillow that night, feeling the press of the woman’s soft body against his, he slept a dreamless sleep, without the disquieting nightmares that had been dogging him since his return from Erifracia those years before.

Imoen, for her part, was warm and kind and asked questions to help him in response to his inexperience. Though she could not understand half of the medical topics the nervous man spoke about, she helped him along and did not find herself turned off by it. Just the opposite. Phillip was simply not as assuming as the men she normally met with. His innocence was refreshing. There was something else there, as well, something in the way that their eyes met and bodies touched that neither of them would realize was blossoming until much later, when Phillip was abed alone on his ship to Erifracia and Imoen was lying next to a miserably vicious noble who had beaten her during the act.

Phillip had decided, before leaving Valtha, that it would be a one-way trip. He would make sure that something, whether a scimitar in the hands of a barbarian or the tail of a scorpion in the desert, would see the end of him. And Imoen, for all of her projected good manners and joie-de-vivre, was tiring of her hopeless lot as a piece of meat passed around for a few bits of silver by Lords cheating on their Ladies. She would grow older until her beauty faded and she was tossed out onto the street without so much as a farewell from any of the lecherous old bastards. The notion of suicide had invaded her mind often enough that, like Lord Palfrey in his darker days, she had even purchased a phial of something deadly from an Apothecary in the market.

But now, things were different. They both had a reason to survive. Phillip in the alien land and Imoen at home in the Castle. Dangerous, in their own ways. They each decided that they would be smart, take only calculated risks, and patiently await the day when Phillip returned to court once more.

Love, as it happened, was threatening to save both of their lives.

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(Continued in The Liserian Chronicle)