An Atikan Interlude - Part I

Welcome back to Clovir! This is the first story from An Atikan Interlude, the second part of Tales of Sight! Released on the eve of Canada Day 2019, I hope that you enjoy!

The Lady Petunia

My father taught me
That I’m a speck of dust
And this world was made for me
So let’s go and try our luck.
— Resilient, Rising Applachia

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

“I should have liked to have been a black one.”

“Pardon me, My Lady?”

“A petunia, of course,” said the woman, glancing up from the flower box at her Servant, a wizened old creature that had been with her family since before she was born. “If I had to choose which one that I was named after, it would be a black one.” With that, a white-gloved hand reached out to caress the dark flower that seemed to stare up at her. It looked like a small trumpet, though the yellow pistil poking through the middle of the purple-black ‘horn’ added a degree of strangeness to the comparison.

The Lady Petunia looked up at the garden. Great bursts of colourful flowers were the first to grab the eye – yellows, reds, blues, oranges, and violets exploded from all of the cleverly placed garden beds and pots. Then there was the green: ivy clung to wooden trellises and a number of shrubberies were carved into the shape of all manner of beast. One could barely see the red of the soil beneath all of the life, an artifact of the Manor’s proximity to the mountain range.

Many of the flowers were imports from Kashya. A pair of the stranger looking ones (orchids, they were called), came from Atika, that far-southern wild land covered in jungles and discussed only in the way that one might speak about Unicorns or Faeries. These plants, a strange mixture of red and purple, even grew strangely – up in the branches of the trees, rather than on the ground like a sensible Thrain iris or lily.

It was truly amazing, what her father had done for her. One of the King’s most trusted nobles, Lord Thule, did not want for gold and silver. He was the man in charge of the Black Pits, after all, with all the seemingly unending wealth that the Serfs and condemned men brought out of the holes dug underneath the Crooked Spears.

Too bad that the whole thing was a consolation gift for being forced to marry a disgusting old creature in the winter of his years, by all (in confidence) accounts a lout of a man who was unworthy to wear the Crown. The thought of the King, sour-breathed and heaving into her on the night of their wedding, poked into the young woman’s consciousness and all pleasant enjoyment of the garden fled.

Turning to face Orpheus, the aged Servant, the Lady Petunia placed both gloved hands on the front of her azure dress and spoke.

“You shall fetch me young master John from the stables. And you shall bring him here, along with afternoon tea.”

Orpheus blanched. “Erm, my Lady, do you think that is wise? You are betrothed to the King. There are many eyes and ears–”

“I am giving up my life to our good Regent,” replied the young woman, brushing a lock of black hair that had fallen into her face back over here ear. “I shall not be giving up my friends as well.”

The servant inclined his head, turned, and left his mistress staring off beyond the top of the garden trellis, into the not-so-distant heart of the red mountains known as the Crooked Spears.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

“How many dead this time?”

“Well, sir, they’re still carrying the bodies out of the mine-“

“That is not what I asked, Martin,” Lord Phinneas Thule turned from his position at the window to his study above the garden, where he had been watching his daughter titter at a joke made by the unkempt Stable-boy. The boy had been seated across from her at the wrought-iron table placed near the centre of the grounds, and spoke with a devilish grin. Some bawdy filth, no doubt. “We cannot afford another cave-in.”

“Tell that to old Emperor Traximus,” said the mining captain, his arms folded across his leather smock. It was stained red with mountain dust. He glared at his patron, trying to forget about the screams and horrors that he had just come from witnessing. “It’s his fuckin’- well, it’s whatever the Hell he did down there. At least, that is what the men think.”

“Magic is not real, you superstitious dog! This is a geological disturbance, nothing more. Do not repeat that rot around here anymore!” Lord Thule noticed that his hands had tightened into fists, and he consciously decided to open his hands again. “I will forgive your impertinence, Martin, because you are useful to me. You remain the most effective Foreman that I have ever had the pleasure of hosting at the mines. See that that does not change.” Lord Thule returned to watch his daughter again, as she snorted and laughed and placed one hand on the forearm of the low-born creature sitting with her. His hands became fists once more.

“As soon as the bodies are out – and not a second longer, mind you – a prisoner complement will be sent down to clear the rubble. Make sure it is the prisoners that go – I do not want any of my Serfs down there yet.”

“With respect, milord, won’t you want to have the Engineers go first to set the braces up again? Before we send in the Miners, prisoners or no?”

Lord Thule did not turn to face the Foreman as he shook his head. “You shall do as you are bid. The Engineers will accompany the prisoners and do their work as the convicts do theirs. The ore must flow.”

“Without braces, there’ll be an… enhanced risk of another cave-in, milord. People may die.” Martin watched as his master did not react to his words. “Those are hands that’ll have to be replaced, at a cost to you, milord,” he added, privately saddened that he had to put an economic argument into the mix.

“Prisoners die every day in camp, Martin,” Lord Thule said, opening his hands and placing the palms on the window frame to stare with contempt at the scene that was taking place in the garden. “And besides – they are no cost to me – our good King sends them to us, gratis. All he needs is a conviction… and to be in a commutation kind of mood, the kind that sees a condemned man’s gallows trip replaced by a mining pick.” Turning quickly, the nobleman was smiling a viper’s grin.

“Martin, ask Bertie to send for my lawyer on your way out. I need to look into Royal offences. I feel like I have heard tell of one that sounds like, ‘Contributing to the decline of a maiden’s virtue.’”

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

“John Tisdale, you stand accused of…” The Judge glanced up from the scroll to peer down from his perch at the man standing at the table beside the manacled Stable-boy. Both the Judge and this man were wearing powdered perruques, though the one worn by the judge was filigreed with silver and rubies. “Barrister Greene, shall I read the charges or may I dispense with that?”

“Erm, well, Your Venerable Justice, perhaps you might read them, so that Mr. Tisdale might know the case against him? In your words? I must admit, one of the charges…”

“Your reticence is noted Mr. Greene,” said the Judge, his words dripping with contempt. “But the accused is certainly entitled to a reading.” The Judge adjusted his little round spectacles and held the scroll up in the tradition of countless orators down through the ages.

“You stand accused of three charges, Mr. Tisdale: contributing to the decline of a maiden’s virtue, breaching the sanctity of a noble house, and… ahem, sexual interference with a beast. Each of the charges is an indictable offence, and each carries a maximum punishment of death by hanging.”

“What?” John Tisdale, who had been slouching quietly through the proceedings up until this point, sat up erect and glanced to his lawyer. “What’s ‘e talkin’ about? Sexual interference? Wit’ a beast?”

“Your Venerable Justice, might we have a short recess so that I might speak with my client?”

“You had the chance to do that before these proceedings commenced, Mr. Greene. Your cowardice in telling your own client of the details of the Crown’s case is no reason to delay things any longer. Mr. Tisdale, the Crown has evidence that you molested a goat, and will lead that evidence at trial.”

“What da bleedin’ Hell? Was it Clarence what said it? ‘e was da one dat was fuckin’ da goat, Yer Honour, not me! I caught ‘im out. Good guy dat I am, I told ‘im I wouldn’t say nothin’ after Farmer Josiah found da goat walkin’ funny. Christ-man, I knew dat ‘e ‘ad it out fer me, but pinnin’ da blame fer wreckin’ Hobbes’ arsehole on me is-”

“Mr. Greene,” shouted the Judge, smashing his gavel on the wooden oval attached to his bench, “get control of your client! Immediately!” With that, John sat down and his red-faced lawyer sputtered but could not find his words. “Your failure to do your job is noted, Mr. Greene,” the Judge continued. “Now sit down – the Crown is permitted its opening statement, prior to your own. Had you even the slightest inkling of what a Barrister’s job consists of, you would already be seated.”

The Lawyer complied with the Judge’s directive, his chair squeaking on the hardwood as he did so. His face remained flush as he cast his eyes down. His client looked over at him. John Tisdale’s heart sunk as he realized that he had hired the worst Lawyer in Kalingshire to represent his interests, one that was evidently despised by the Judge seated before him.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

“Breakfast is served between 6:00 and 6:15 AM. If you do not eat during that period of time, you will not get another chance until after work is done for the evening, between 9:00 and 9:15 PM. See that you do eat. Degenerate fucking shite-pieces that you are, it will not do that the King commuted your sentences just so that you might starve to death before you redeem yourselves.”

Overseer Holt, a man with an ale-belly the size of a prize pumpkin, had his hands clasped behind his back, the black of his tunic taut against his bulk. He hated doing this: the big show he was expected to put on for the new prisoners. It was wholly unnecessary – they all fell into line eventually, even the legitimately hard-nosed murderous types. After the cat-o-nine brandished by one of Holt’s men lovingly caressed the malcontent’s back enough times, of course. But Lord Thule had written the script and expected it delivered, just the way Overseer Holt had been doing lo these nine years.

“You have been assigned a partner,” Holt exclaimed, holding up a matching pairs of dyed ribbon bracelets. They were a smattering of different colours, and there was some repetition in shade. On each pair, identical configurations of runes had been painted in black ink. “The person that bears the same bracelet as you shares your fate. Unless it is evident that the other died of natural causes – very unlikely in these parts – you pay for your partner’s transgressions. If a cave in kills one of you, the other will be hanged. If you murder your partner, you will be hanged. If your partner escapes, you will be hanged. If a pair escapes, every one that shares that colour ribbon will be hanged. If you kill another attempting to escape, you will be rewarded with hot food and a warm bed. Do your best to keep your partner safe and not test us: we have slain more cunts like you than you can add up with those dullard fucking brains of yours.”

“One thousand, three hundred, and ninety-two,” said one of the grinning men standing next to the Overseer, patting his mace-hilt for effect. He was wearing a black tunic with a wide-open eye embroidered on the chest in silver thread. It was the uniform of the Spearsguard, the men that kept Order in the Black Pits. “Perhaps I’m just better equipped than these ‘dullards,’ eh boss?”

Holt allowed a shadow of a smile to creep onto his face before he resumed his gesticulations.

“Eat, do your work, and sleep. That is the best life for which you can hope. Still, it is better than the alternative – the one that our gracious King allowed you to escape in his Mercy. Do not give him reason to regret his decision.”

With that, he dismissed the two-dozen or so large crowd and walked back to his tent. Behind him, he knew that his Spearsguard would be ushering the new recruits down the field towards the side of the Crooked Spears, where scores of cells had been hewn into the red wall of the mountain. Each cell was equipped with bars made from the same iron that these unfortunates would be expected to force the mountain to expectorate on a daily basis, all so that the Kingdom of Thrairn could keep funneling weapons, armour, and horses into the never-ending war of attrition with Liseria.

Sighing at the futility of his life’s purpose, Overseer Holt closed the door of his tent, sat on his cot, and fetched out the foot-long pipe carved from bone that he had stashed in a bundle under his bed. Consumption of poppy smoke by a man in his position was not just frowned upon – it was punishable by defrockment and criminal charges. Drawing the connection between his vocational ennui and the fact that he had long ago stopped giving a fuck about the rules, Holt shrugged at himself. Then he jammed a tacky piece of tar into the bowl of the pipe and aimed the works over the flame of the lamp that his Aide had placed on his desk earlier that evening.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

Like the rest of the prisoners, John was brutalized by the work. They were given pickaxes, gloves being too luxurious an item to form part of the standard issue. If a prisoner survived the first thirty days, they would find a pair of badly-stitched leather things on their cot some night, placed there by one of the Aides while the men and women were toiling in the caverns. By this time, though, callouses would have started to form over the raw and bloody sores and blisters that were torn from the flesh of the prisoners’ palms, a testament to the unrelenting nature of the labour. The gloves were thus less a necessity and more an ironic status symbol among the Spearsguard and prisoners, one that indicated proven endurance. That endurance had its limits, given the other conditions.

The food was horrendous, for one. Potatoes and some disgusting spoiled meat that somehow miraculously managed to stay down in the prisoners’ bellies was the only fare on offer. The black-clad women who served it to them gave them a contemptuous helping of vitriol along with the plateful, calling them all manner of depravity and openly spitting into the meals before shoving the plate into the ravaged hands of the next in line.

In spite of all of this, the food tasted heavenly to the starving people, and there was never enough, given how much the prisoners exerted themselves throughout their monotonous days. Regardless of the bastard Holt’s speech at the beginning about the importance of eating, every single man and woman who were pressed into service at the Pits soon lost all of whatever fat stores they might have held on their bodies. Most of the condemned being commoners, it was not much. Soon these overworked criminals became spectres of their former selves, gaunt from the insufficiency of the food and as pale as the moon from the lack of exposure to sunlight.

After a fortnight of this torture, John decided to speak to his partner and bunkmate, a weaselly man named Hawkins who had an uncanny ability to keep his own spirits high despite the oppression. The two men were lying in their cots after supper, their only light source the stars in the heavens that winked at them through the bars.

“Ain’t no way outta dis, Johnny boy,” said Hawkins after John inquired about the potential for escape. “Well, dere is, just one – in a box. And da fuckin’ Spearsguard makes sure we ain’t got nowt around ta off ourselves wit’. Why ya tinks dey gives us spoons ta eat da ‘roast’ wit’?”

“Dere musta been someone what escaped before? Got over to Liseria maybe? I mean, I ain’t even did nothin’. Christ-man, da Lady Petunia just chatted wit’ me, is all.”

“And ya buggered a goat.”

“I ain’t buggered no fuckin’ goat, Hawkins,” fumed John. “It were dat fuckin’ pervert Clarence. I told ya dat.”

“More innocent men ‘ere’n guilty ones, Johnny boy,” replied Hawkins, laughing. “And I mean dat – da King’s Justice is worth less’n a syphilitic cunny. I’m sure ‘alf da b’ys in ‘ere ain’t committed no crimes. But da Kingdom of T’rairn needs it’s iron, and dere’s only so many Serfs around.” Hawkins became uncharacteristically grave for a moment. “Look John, yer only a young feller, so I’ll be ‘onest wit’ ya. Like da rest of us, ye was born inta da wrong place at da wrong time.” The older man paused before continuing. “Dis place is sick. Can’t ya feel it? I feels it, deep in me bones. Like dere’s somethin’… off, about da Kingdom. And da closer we are to dese mountains, da more off it seems. Da mines is da worst place in da world fer feelin’ strange. Ya know what I mean?”

John did not know what he meant, but told Hawkins that he did anyway.

“Ah, ye lies worse dan ya swings a pick, Johnny boy. Life ain’t fair, is what I’m tryin’ ta tell ya. But yer alive. If ye ‘ad da chance, would ya do it? Kill yerself, I means.”

John took a moment to consider the man’s words. “I suppose dat I wouldn’t… not yet, anyway. But maybe it just ain’t gotten bad enough yet.”

“It can always get worse, Johnny boy. Dat’s why we’ve got ta be grateful fer what we ‘ave. Life can get better if ya looks on da bright side of it.”

“What’s so bright about it? We are in da arsehole of da Kingdom. Ain’t nothin’ but starvation and death dat awaits us.”

“Christ-man, lad, yer already all fucked up,” said Hawkins. “Look, yer new, so I ‘aven’t told ya anyt’ing yet. If ye survives yer first t’irty, ye’ll get yer gloves. And I’ll let ya know how ye goes about gettin’ stuff like dis.”

John heard a crinkling from Hawkins’ cot, then felt a thump as something struck him directly on the testicles.

“Cuntin’ cunnies in da fuckin’ cock forge,” bellowed John, feeling the familiar nauseating sensations that coursed through him when he was struck in the balls. “What da fuck was dat?”

Hawkins laughed, trying to stifle it to keep his voice down and the Spearsguard away. “Dat’s a good ‘un Johnny boy, I’ll ‘ave ta use dat sometime.” He paused to finish chortling. “Open it, sure.”

John grasped at the bundle. Wrapped in wax paper, John brought the contents up to his nose and smelled, grinned, then took a bite.

“It’s bread! And cheese!”

“Keep yer fuckin’ voice down ya Gods-damned eejit,” hissed Hawkins “We’ll be flogged if we gets caught wit’ dat. Quiet now.” Hawkins waited a spell, straining his ears to hear if John’s exclamation had alerted one of their jailors. Satisfied, he spoke again. “Dere’s more to life in ‘ere den what dey tells us, Johnny boy. Just keep yer nose clean till ye gets yer gloves and I’ll show ya. Make sure ye gives me back dat paper after yer done wit it, and brush da crumbs off yer blanket. Can’t ‘ave no evidence, now can we?”

No, John decided. No, they could not.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

The sound and vibrations of the pottery crashing on his desk pulled Lord Thule’s attention from the parchment he was holding with a start. It was followed by the sensation of something dusty cascading over his lap.

“You think you can buy me off and hurt my friends, but I will never marry him. Never!”

Lord Thule looked up from the broken flower pot and mess of flowers and roots that was spread around the desk to see his daughter Petunia heaving rage, her face as red as the petals that littered the space in front of him.

“My dear,” said Lord Thule, placing the parchment down on one side of the mess. “Is this any way to treat your father? Shall I have Orpheus fetch his cousin to teach you manners again?”

With that, the girl blanched. Her memories of her time with her Servant’s cousin, Hedley, a despicable blackguard commoner who somehow had gotten himself into the business of beating his way through the young nobility. A base knavery under the guise of ‘tutelage in the courtly arts’ was all too fresh in her mind. Lord Thule kept the switch Hedley used to smash her with whenever she failed whatever secret tests he used to bring her to heel as a subservient ‘Lady’ on the wall behind his desk. She glanced up at it and Lord Thule smiled.

“If you ever do anything like this again, Petunia, Hedley will return and you will still marry the King. The boy-”

“John! His name was John! And I was not shagging him you miserable old bastard! But still you had him sentenced to your precious Pits!”

“I did not do anything, Petunia,” replied Lord Thule, calmly placing his joined hands down on the table in front of him. “Justice Ignatius found him guilty and sentenced him for his crimes. And with good reason – your Virtue is very much in decline, given this latest especially. Not to mention his dalliance with the beast.”

“John is no goat fucker, Father,” said Petunia icily. “You know it, I know it, everyone in that bleeding courtroom knew it. But still you had to humiliate him.”

“And why not?” shouted Lord Thule, smashing his fist on the desk and standing. “He threatened my alliance with the King in Isha. Ever since the Capital moved from Valtha to that frozen northern shitehole, I have been fighting to regain our family’s status. It is to be my legacy, to cement our relations with the power in this country. My darling daughter was preparing to jeopardize all of that by lifting her skirts for a dirty Stable-boy and I had to intervene.” Lord Thule’s tone softened as anger fled his features. “Did you expect that I simply would sit idly by as you made a mockery out of my wishes?”

“I expected that you would not act the dishonourable prat, Father. We were – are – friends, nothing more. You want to talk about legacy? Cruelty, greed, deception, lust for power – that is to be your legacy.” Petunia glanced down at the desk. “I shall get Orpheus in here to clean that up.”

“No,” said Lord Thule, collecting the parchment from the desk and walking around towards the door to his study, blocking her exit. “You shall fix this mess yourself.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

“Do not lick your knife, Lucian. Do I really have to tell you what a vile habit that is?”

“My apologies, my Lord,” replied Overseer Holt. He was sitting on the opposite end of the long rectangular table in the dining room of Thule Manor. There were still a few drops of gravy on the opposite side of the blade when he replaced his knife into the depleted mounds of root vegetable mash that remained on his plate. Overpowering an urge to lick every last bit of the delicious meal from the bone china, the Overseer wiped his face with his napkin before throwing it before him and pushing his bulk away from the table.

“I suppose I cannot fault you, given that you keep company with dirty animals all day.”

“The Spearsguard are not so bad- oh, you meant the prisoners. Yes, of course, my Lord. Horrific wretches, the lot of them.”

“You must learn to feign conviction better, Lucian. Do you not think that these men deserve their fates?” Lord Thule paused before adding. “Please, Lucian, we have known each other for a long while. Well before I was a Lord and before you became my subordinate. Speak to me freely, as you did when we were young.

Overseer Holt smiled at Lord Thule before speaking. “Of course, of course they do, sire. These men are thieves and murderers. I am simply tired – not of the company, I should say. But I have been living most of my life underground for so long that a weariness has come upon me.”

“Well, if that is the case, Lucian, perhaps a holiday would be in order. No, no, do not protest, old friend. I want to do this for you. In fact, I have an ulterior motive. King Chester-”

With that, Overseer Holt began to laugh uncontrollably. He made several attempts to stifle his laughs, and broke his gaze from Lord Thule to stare at the crumpled napkin before him as he shuddered his mirth. When he finally managed to regain his composure and look up, he was terrified that his master would be angry with him for laughing at mention of their regent. Instead, Lord Thule was smiling broadly and chuckling himself.

“Chester Aquester – you really think that the Queen Mum hated the fact of his birth, eh, Lucian?”

“His name is the like of something from the Penny Parchments, that rot that I sometimes find smuggled into the prisoners’ bunks.” Holt began smiling again. “You know that he slew his first Fool for making fun of his name? Would not even wait for the gibbet – he had one of the White Guard cut his fucking head off in front of the whole court! The way I heard it told, after she saw the display of ‘King’s Justice,’ our old barren Queen had to keep a candle burning in her bedchambers for a fortnight. How could a creature with that moniker have even the slightest helping of pride?”

With that, Lord Thule was the one to cock his head back and let loose an uproarious chuckle. It went on for so long that the massive door to the dining room was suddenly thrown open by a Servant and the Lady Petunia stormed in.

“Would you keep it down? Some of us are trying to sleep!”

Lord Thule continued for a few more seconds before, turning, wiping a tear from his cheek, and smiling at his daughter. His eyes red-rimmed and slitted, all the evidence Lady Petunia needed to make her conclusions about how much of the giant brass decanter on the table had been drained by the men.

“Drunk again, father? With your Gods-damned up-jumped Jailor and Slavemaster?”

“I did not know that you had such a low opinion of your Uncle Lucian, dear daughter,” said Lord Thule, laughing again. “I especially think it sad, since it is Lucian who will be escorting you to Isha to meet the King.”

“What? Him? What of your precious Pits?”

“There are a number of Lieutenants in the Spearsguard who are more than well-qualified enough to fill his role during his absence.”

“I am honoured that you thought of me for the role, sire,” interjected Overseer Holt, “but perhaps the Lady is correct in questioning-”

“Nonsense, Lucian, you will be a splendid chaperone. Old Chester-” Lord Thule caught his daughter’s eye and remembered himself. “Our King is worthy of all of our Faith, and I do not expect him to try to dishonour Petunia before the vows are sealed, but I will need someone to go as her protector. To keep the other rogues at bay. And besides, you said that you wanted a break from the mines.”

“I was thinking of a little sleepy town on the southern coast, or perhaps even somewhere closer, like Bloomsdale. Isha is the Capital. I spend too much time with people as it is!” Looking at the stormy countenance that had enveloped his master’s face, Holt added, “I mean, if that is your command, my Lord, I am more than happy to escort your daughter to Castle Isha.”

“Excellent,” said Lord Thule, the sot’s grin returning. He grabbed the handle of the decanter and splashed some more violet liquid into his glass. “We shall drink on it, Petunia. Come, fetch yourself a glass.”

Lady Petunia looked at her father with unmasked hatred. “I will fetch nothing. I am to bed. And please, for the love of the Christ-man, keep your voices down.”

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

The night that John found his own pair of gloves on his bed, Hawkins had been awaiting his arrival ahead of him. Hidden underneath the elder prisoner’s bedsheets was a small flask made of burnished brass, an egg-shaped thing with a dirty brown cork poking out of the top. John did not realize it was there until Hawkins pulled it out, removed the stopper with teeth as brown as the cork itself, and offered John a swallow.

“Go on den, brudder, ya earned it.”

John took the flask in his throbbing hands and downed a swallow. Willing himself not to sputter or grimace, he urged the burning fluid down his throat and returned the flask to a grinning Hawkins, who glugged a few himself, his stubble-laden Adam’s apple bouncing in the fading daylight flooding the cell from outside.

“Worse’n horse piss, but she’s strong enough ta get ya fucked t’ree ways from Sun’s Day.”

John was not listening to Hawkins. He had put the gloves on and was admiring them in the dimness. “Da stitchin’ on dese- it’s like dey ‘ad a mentally deficient make ‘em. All raw edges and nary a finish seam in sight.”

“I didn’t know ye were a Tailor as well as a Stable-boy, Johnny, me son,” laughed Hawkins.

“Mudder knew her way around a sewin’ needle. She showed me a t’ing or two in ‘er time.”

“Listen, Johnny, somet’ing I wanted to talk to ya about.” Hawkins stood from his cot, walked over to the door, jammed his face between the bars and craned to look to both sides. Satisfied that there were no Spearsguard in earshot, he walked back to his cot and motioned for John to sit with him. John pulled off the gloves and threw them on his pillow as he complied.

“There’s been talk,” began Hawkins, his face becoming grave. “Between me ‘n some o’ da lads, about da notion of gettin’ out of ‘ere.”

Now it was John’s turn to laugh.

“I’m serious, Johnny-boy. We ‘as a plan ‘n everyt’ing.”

“One dat doesn’t involve gettin’ skinned by da Spearsguard on our way out? I t’ought you was gonna tell me where ya gets yer goods tonight, bread an’ cheese an’ dat, not propose a fuckin’ prison break.” John paused. “You ‘ave seen what dey does to escapes, ain’tcha? ‘ell, we all ‘as. Dose animals in da Spearsguard’ll flay us before we ‘angs.”

“Better’n stayin’ in ‘ere forever.”

“Christ-man, ‘awkins, what da fuck ‘appened to ya? Wasn’t a fortnight ago ya telt me, ‘ah, it’s not dat bad, Johnny-boy, not dat bad.’ Why da change o’ ‘eart?”

“Look, John,” said Hawkins, his serious tone deepening. “I am a man dat makes da best of a bad situation, but ye were right in sayin’ dat it don’t get much worse’n dis. I was just tryin’ ta make ye feel better, is all. But dis plan, wit’ Maurice-”

“Maurice? Dat greasy ol’ bastard from da Purple Run? ‘e’s more weasel’n man. Ya t’inks ye can trust ‘im?”

“I ain’t got much choice, lad. It’s try dis plan or die ‘ere, rottin’ wit da like o’ ye. Besides, da way ‘e tells it, Maurice was a member of da T’ieves Guild. ‘e knows a t’ing or two about locks ‘n creepin’ around ‘n dat. Plus, ‘e ‘as a secret weapon. But I ain’t tellin’ ya nowt until ya agrees ta ‘elp.”

“Christ-man,” sighed John. He stared down at his hands. He could see in the last snatch of sunlight that three blisters the size of his thumbs had popped up deep under the skin of his latest callous. The fluid inside was the colour of wine. When he touched one, a searing pain was accompanied by an involuntary sharp intake of air.

“Alright, Hawkins, ye’ve convinced me. I’m in. What’s da plan?”

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

“Are you certain you can travel today, Uncle Lucius? You look as though you have been through a war. More of Father’s Erifracian wine?”

“Erm, yes, that is it, my Lady. For certain. It is terribly potent, and I do not have a head for it, though it is indeed a delight.” Surreptitiously, Overseer Holt pushed the long bundle containing his poppy pipe under his cot with his foot, speaking all the while to keep the Lady Petunia from noticing.

“Why have you come to my tent, my Lady?” Holt continued. “You know that I was to fetch you in a few hours time, not the other way around.” He paused and observed the woman before him. Dressed in one of her favoured blue frilly dresses, she certainly appeared to be put together enough for public consumption. But distraught did not begin to cover the look on her face.

“You know you have my ear whenever you seek counsel,” said Holt softly, “and I will never betray your confidence. You might not have sought me out for years, but the terms of our old agreement still hold.”

“I am so sorry for how I spoke to you the other night, Uncle Lucius. It was wrong of me and you deserve much better. You are a good man and I was a misery.” Pausing for Holt to thank her for her graciousness, which he did, Lady Petunia then said, “It is this trip, Uncle Lucius. I do not want to go to Isha, I do not want to marry the King.”

Overseer Holt blinked. “Erm, my Lady, there is a great deal that goes on in this world that people do not want. I deal on a daily basis with men and women who certainly would rather not see me or my Spearsguard,” he added with a chuckle. “But, come now, certainly there is more to it than that? You have been betrothed for more than a year. You must have expected that you would actually have to marry the King at some point.”

“He is old, Uncle Lucius.”

“That might be a Blessing,” Holt said with a grin. “Old men are sometimes… unable to act in a way that befits a marriage. Not that I am speaking from experience.” This time Holt winked. Satisfied that the pipe was finally hidden, he relaxed.

“I am certain that if our good King had an issue in that department, one of his Physikers would have a poultice or a remedy at his disposal, but quick. I doubt that I will have the luck to get out of consummating this terrible union.”

“You know, my Lady, luck is certainly one thing that you do have,” said Overseer Holt, crossing the room and grasping the back of his chair as a wave of nausea washed over him. Luckily, he did not retch, though he felt comfort in the notion that if he had, Lady Petunia had already swallowed the lie about his over-consumption of Erifracian wine.

“Any one of the women who carry ore out of that mountain for your father on a daily basis would jump at the chance to be in your shoes,” Holt continued. “Aside from an unpleasant rut or two from time to time, you will be free to do as you wish. You are to become Queen, after all.” Conspiratorially, Holt added, “Those Physikers you fear might have a poultice for the King’s… inabilities… they might also have something for you. To make things easier on you, when it does happen. Blessing of Morpheus, or something of the like.” The poppy certainly makes me feel better for living a despicable life, Holt mused to himself.

“Yes, you have solved my quandary, Uncle,” said Lady Petunia, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “No need to worry about touching the old cretin, I can always drug myself.”

“All I mean to say is that you have options,” came Holt’s gentle retort. “You know that we all love you and we are grateful for the Sacrifice that you make.”

“Perhaps you are grateful, Uncle, but Father will never be. He is too craven and his heart is as black as this dress.”

“Another perk: when you are Queen, you can have him executed, if that is your fancy,” whispered Holt with a fox’s grin.

Lady Petunia threw her head back and laughed. “You are too much, Uncle. I do not know why I ever stopped coming to see you.”

“Young ladies always need time to discover their own hearts, and they fain push away their loved ones when they do. Same with young men, I suppose, though we all, men and women, end up back at home in the end.”

“But I am leaving my home, Uncle,” said Lady Petunia. “There is to be nothing of the Estate, of Kalingshire, even of these blasted Black Pits, at Court. I will be all alone with strangers.”

Overseer Holt looked over at the uniform that hung from a dowel near the flap of his tent. Black as it was, it was dusted with red clay, like almost everything else at camp. Sighing, an idea fluttered into his mind and he decided to share it with Petunia.

“Make me your Servant, my Lady. After you are Queen. I will come and live with you in Isha. Orpheus is kind and gentle and well-suited to the task, but he is so old. I fear a stiff breeze would end his days. I shall mind your schedule and keep the rogues at bay – on a permanent basis.”

“You would abandon your position here? You have power and respect as Overseer. As a Servant, you would be barely above dirt for many of the nobles in the City.” A look of worry blossomed on Lady Petunia’s face. “Father would have you slain for even suggesting that you might leave his service.”

“That is why you must become Queen first.” Holt paused. “You do realize that when you are Queen your father will have to obey your commands, do you not, Dear One?”

“I seem to forget, and keep forgetting,” said Lady Petunia, a smile returning to her countenance. “That is why I am in dire need of a Servant to remind me.”

“First things first, my Lady,” said Overseer Holt, taking Lady Petunia by the arm and leading her to the doorflap.

“I must pack. And you must say goodbye to your father.”

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

(To be continued in The Royal Ballet, the final story of An Atikan Interlude)