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Stories from the Verse
For Better or Verse
Chapter 89: Slade 78
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Slade had taken the time after dinner to polish his leathers, and so he and Shella were looking if not their best at least considerably better than they had for some time when they arrived in the courtroom. Although it took longer to locate this than they'd anticipated, they were there before the King arrived, and found seats near the rear so they could observe.
Not surprisingly, everyone stood when King Morgan entered; he was announced by a herald. Once he was seated, everyone else sat.
"Sir Robert Elvis Slade," he said, "please come forward."
Slade moved to the front; Shella came with him.
"Sir Rapheus, will you please introduce the matter at hand."
The knight was clearly accustomed to his role in this court, and presented what he knew briefly. "Your majesty: at your direction, I had taken a contingent of soldiers into the pass between our lands and the Princedom of Acquivar. Not far from the border I encountered a group of men fighting. Most wore the colors of the Prince Acquivar; they were in battle against three persons, two of whom, a knight and a lady, were clearly nobility, and the third in the dress of a holy man. Intervening in this melee, I determined that the cleric was a man known as Phasius, a man of some fame throughout these parts, whom Prince Acquivar was said to have detained as a threat to the peace in his domain. The other two, who identified themselves as Lord Robert Elvis Slade and his Lady Shella, were accused of having assisted his escape from that detention. Sir Robert appealed to your Majesty's judgment, so I brought him here and instructed that the commander of Acquivar's guard, a Lieutenant Simms, should bring his complaint to you."
"Thank you, Sir Rapheus. Lieutenant Simms, we will hear your claim."
The soldier rose and stepped forward. He was clearly nervous, but maintained a professionalism as he prepared to speak.
"Your majesty," he began. "Not many days ago, a man named Phasius, a rabble rouser who was endangering the peace of our princedom, escaped from the dungeon in Acquivar's castle. I was leading one of many groups of soldiers sent to find him. It was clear from the beginning that the man had had help in his escape. I and my company found the escapee along with his confederates hiding in a barn, and attempted to capture them there. They escaped and fled up the mountain, and broke through our efforts to contain them at the top of the pass. Not wishing your majesty to be disturbed by criminals fleeing from our lands, we pursued them; but your soldiers interrupted us, and on being informed of our claims on this man and his companions brought us here for your judgment. We respectfully request that these men be turned over to us for justice in Prince Acquivar's courts, where the matter rightly belongs. Thank you."
It appeared that Simms was going to return to his seat; the King interrupted him.
"One moment, Lieutenant," the King said. "I have a few questions."
"First, so I have this clear, your charge against Sir Robert is that he assisted an escaping prisoner. You have no other charges against him?"
"Your majesty, Sir Robert killed a number of the Prince's soldiers in his effort to escape justice. I am certain these claims will be made in the Prince's court. My orders were to find and capture those involved in the escape of Phasius the rabble-rouser, and those are the charges on which I am acting."
"Thank you. Sir Robert, have you any questions of your accuser."
"Yes, your Majesty, I think I have several. May I?" The King nodded, and Slade turned to Simms.
"You said that you found us in a barn. My recollection of that day is a bit fuzzy, but I recall that one of my companions awoke me from a dead sleep and informed me that armed men had set fire to the barn and were waiting outside the door to attack us if we emerged. Neither you nor any of your men seem to have entered the barn. I can't imagine that your orders were to run around the countryside burning down buildings to see whether any dangerous criminals came running out of them. Why did you think there was anyone at all in that barn, and why did you think we were criminals?"
"Majesty," Simms said, addressing the King, "a few hours before we had seen a peasant leading four rather fine horses on the main road. Thinking this irregular, we detained him and questioned him. He told us that the men we sought were in that barn, and that they had given him the horses to return to their rightful owner."
The King spoke. "That sounds reasonable. Sir Robert?"
"It doesn't sound terribly reasonable to me, your Majesty. Lieutenant, you claim you encountered a peasant leading four horses, horses of a quality which made you think they were not his. You of course thought he must be a horse thief, trying to get the horses away from the place where he stole them so he could sell them somewhere else before he was caught with them. You found him, and he panics. But he realizes that you're not looking for him; you're looking for some unknown number of people involved in some crime back in the capital. So he spins this tale, claiming that the people from whom he stole the horses are the ones you're seeking. If he's lucky, you'll take the horses, let him go, and follow this wild goose chase. If he's not so lucky, you'll take it upon yourself to kill the victims of his crime, so there's no one to say that his story isn't true. But you're so intent on finding someone to blame for this crime, you rush out and have the barn burned and the occupants attacked, one of them killed, on the word of a man who by your own assessment looks like a horse thief. Did you have any reason to believe this man, apart from your eagerness to get the credit for killing someone you could claim was involved in this crime?"
Lieutenant Simms had been looking rather concerned during Slade's discourse, but as Slade asked if there was anything else, he brightened up.
"Your majesty," he said, "the peasant also had a book, which appeared to be property of Prince Acquivar. He claimed this had also been given to him by the people in the barn. It seemed most likely that when they had engineered the escape of this criminal they also stole the book. Thus we concluded that the man's story was true."
"A book." Slade tried to make it sound incredible. "Where is this book now? Why didn't you mention it before? Majesty, I'm inclined to think that he created this idea of finding a book because he needed a way to justify attacking travelers. He had no way of knowing whether Phasius was with us; even if he did know that, he didn't know whether we had anything to do with his escape or merely met him on the road--"
Simms interrupted. "I have the book. It is in my quarters."
"Could we see it?" Slade asked.
"Yes," the King said, "I'd like to see this book."
Simms spoke quietly to one of his soldiers. Then he again addressed the court. "It will take me a moment to retrieve it, Majesty."
"We'll wait," the King said.
Simms left the room. The King spoke. "You've got me curious regarding this book, Sir Robert. Why is it so important to you?"
"Your Majesty, it would be inappropriate, I think, for me to speak of the case while the Lieutenant is not present. Suffice it for the moment that I want to know whether he indeed has such a book."
"Very well. You are an interesting man, Sir Robert, with many unusual talents."
"I would offer to serve your Majesty in any way I can," he said, "but at the moment that might seem like an effort to influence your decision, and I don't wish there to be any question about the fairness of the outcome."
The King smiled. Slade realized that he had indeed influenced the outcome by appealing to the one thing the judge most valued: impartiality.
In a moment, Simms returned, brandishing the familiar diary. "Your Majesty," he said as he approached. "Here is the book."
Slade spoke. "Would you please give that to his Majesty? I'd like him to see whether it's really something that could only have been taken from Acquivar's castle, instead of just some book you dug up to make your story credible."
"No, it is clearly Acquivar's book," Simms said as he handed it to the King. "I have seen his hand before, and that is the way he writes his name."
"It does look like it is Acquivar's," the King said. "I'm afraid the man's story appears true."
"I expected that it would, Majesty. But I would like you to take a closer look at that book. Please remember that this case is not about me, but about a man named Phasius who was arrested because he insisted that Prince Acquivar explain why he married Princess Odette so soon after the death of your daughter, Princess Taneia. I believe that you now hold Prince Acquivar's confession, in his own hand, of how he poisoned your daughter, and so murdered her, in order that he could have her friend."
The court burst into distress. The king's voice rose above the noise. "Guards!" he called. "Detain the soldiers of Acquivar and confine them to quarters. Sir Robert, Lady Shella, I will have to ask you to return to your rooms and remain there until I have had the opportunity to examine this. If what you say is correct, it will have serious ramifications in regard to Acquivar's petition to have you returned to him."
"I understand, Majesty. Anyway, once I knew that Taneia was your daughter, I thought you should know about that book, and this seemed the only way to prove it existed."
"You, sir, are a remarkable man. I may just take you up on your offer to lend me your assistance."
"And here I was thinking that things were going to get dull around here."
"Bob," Shella said, "I have a feeling that things are never dull wherever you are."
"Oh, I don't know," he replied with a smile. "I was lord of a castle for a rather quiet couple of decades once."
The King rose and walked quickly out of the room, carrying the journal with him. "And," Slade added. "We've had a quiet couple of days here lately." He headed for the other door, Shella joining him. "Of course, I've found them anything but dull, but they probably wouldn't make a great book."
Phasius caught up with them. Apparently in the rush to collect all of Acquivar's men, the guards had overlooked him.
"That was very impressive, Sir Robert," he said. "I knew that somehow giving it to that peasant would be the right thing."
"I don't understand," Shella said. "Why couldn't we just have told King Morgan that we had seen the book?"
"That's easy. It would have seemed like we invented it. We didn't have the book, and we couldn't be completely certain where it was. But if we let on to Simms that the book was important, he might figure out what he had and destroy it, and then we would never get it."
"Then, why wouldn't it have been better to keep the book with us, and give it to King Morgan when we arrived? Phasius, you certainly knew that Morgan was connected to Taneia."
"Yes, indeed," Phasius said. "But the book was stolen. You could not have given the King the book without explaining how you got it. As it was, Lieutenant Simms explained that he took it from a peasant; and he also testified that he had no doubt that it was indeed the Prince's book. Had you presented it, he might have contended that it appeared to be a forgery to him. Having attempted to use it to prove his claim that you had been in the castle, he inadvertently certified that Acquivar had written those words."
They walked together in silence for a moment.
"So, what happens now?" Shella asked.
"Well," Slade said, "we go back to our rooms--I trust they've been treating you well, Phasius."
"Oh, yes, quite satisfactorily."
"And presumably tonight or tomorrow the King will have satisfied himself that indeed Prince Acquivar betrayed him and murdered his daughter. That will almost certainly mean war. In any event, Morgan is not going to be in any mood to treat Acquiver's petitions favorably, not this year, anyway."
"That's why you were talking about loyalty and family and all last night at dinner."
"Well, honestly, I sort of fell into that, because I wanted to change the subject away from any interest in what I wanted to ask Simms. But once I saw where it had taken me, I made a point of bringing the issue up, since I knew Simms had the book."
Again they walked a few steps.
"How did you know he had the book?" Shella asked.
"That was a bit of a gamble; in fact, it's why I played it that way. If Simms didn't have the book, I could make him look pretty foolish and high-handed, attacking strangers on the road without cause. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that he must have caught our peasant with the horses. Once he thought he had something, he'd have searched the man. I didn't think the book would have been terribly well hidden, so Simms would have found it. Then, it was too good a prize to send back with his men. He was in charge of this group, and he wanted to be able to give the book to Acquivar himself, so that he would get the credit for it--these career military people are always concerned about such things. So he must have found the book, and he must have kept it with him. It really was mostly a matter of getting him to think of it as part of his story, so we could get him to give it to us."
They came to a halt. Apparently Phasius was going to turn a different direction to reach his quarters, but he spoke before he did so. "So, what will you do now?" he said.
"You're kidding, right?" Slade said, but apparently Phasius was not kidding, so he answered. "There's about to be a war, and the side that is clearly right is going to ask me to fight for them. I'm a warrior of Odin. This is what I live for. This is what I die for. What else would I do?"
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with ten other sequential chapters of this novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #198: Verser Trials. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter. It may contain spoilers of upcoming chapters.
As to the old stories that have long been here: