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Judgment at Verdant Court
World of Prime Book Three
By M. C. Planck
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2016 M. C. Planck
All rights reserved.
"Colonel." Corporal Kennet snapped off a crisp salute while his men stood at attention. In front of the grand ivy-cloaked building under the bright summer sun, they looked exceptionally bedraggled, having endured days of hard riding and worry. All because Christopher had behaved stupidly. Of course, the severe young corporal was too loyal and disciplined to complain.
"You should not have left us behind, sir."
"You're right, Corporal. I owe you an apology, but instead I will give you something better: a promise. I will not do it again. You have my word on that." The blonde troubadour Lalania had conned him into letting down his guard, and promptly delivered him into mortal danger. He should thank her. It was the best lesson he could have asked for. "Let's saddle up."
He realized he didn't know where the stables were. Luckily, Kennet was already walking off, so all he had to do was fall in behind him. He didn't get ten steps before another one of those accursed women accosted him, blocking his soldier's advance with a smile. It seemed likely that every one of them had some equally valuable instruction to offer, but after Lalania and the Skald he wasn't sure how much more education he could take right now.
"My Lord Vicar, I thought you wished to visit our library," the curly-haired Loremaster said. She stood in the shade of a tree, looking entirely innocuous now, though the last time he had seen her she had been pointing a steel crossbow at his face.
He'd been trying to escape since the moment he woke up here, and yet he never seemed to make any progress. He looked longingly toward the horizon, where he imagined refuge lay, or at least a temporary respite from the weight of Secrets Man Was Not Meant To Know. The Skald had told him the true history of the Kingdom, and its horrifying and inevitable future. That seemed enough burden for the moment. "I've got a long ride home. I'd like to start while it's still morning."
"All the better reason to visit now, rather than having to return. And your men and horses are exhausted. We are in your debt; allow us to at least offer you hospitality."
He looked over his troop again and had to admit she was right. If the men looked this bad the horses would be utterly spent. They needed a rest, and he would regret having walked away from a library without at least peeking at it. The Cathedral had a library: it had almost sixty books, half of which were useless treatises on archaic laws. Who knew what would be in a troubadour's library?
Although if it was nothing but sex manuals, he was going to crack a few heads.
"Corporal ... do you feel the situation is safe enough that we can stay here for the night?"
"Only if we can put a guard on your door, Colonel."
Christopher didn't see how that would help, but whatever made the man happy. He owed them that much. "Sure. Let's plan on riding out at dawn tomorrow. Until then, put your men at liberty."
"As you will, sir." Corporal Kennet turned to the Loremaster. "Lady, my men have not eaten this day. Where is your kitchen?"
Gracefully waving her hand, she directed them to a less noble-looking building off to the side. "Simply inform the staff of your needs, and they will meet them as best they can."
Kennet nodded in thanks, and trooped off with most of the men in tow. Two stayed behind, standing at attention.
"Aren't you guys hungry?" Christopher asked them.
"Sir! We're on duty. The corporal will replace us in an hour."
"All right, Lady ..." Christopher would never get used to the way people didn't use their names here. It was as if their rank was the only thing that mattered.
"Please, my Lord Vicar, call me Bricina."
"Only if you call me Christopher." He regretted it as soon as he said it. He wanted to keep some distance between himself and these all-too-clever women. The aged but razor-sharp head of this den of musically adept prostitute spies, Lady Friea the Skald, had just taught him that in a rather painful conversation, and apparently he had already forgotten.
"This way, if you will, Christopher." She held out her hand, and he had no choice but to offer her his arm. Together they walked down the cobblestone path to another building, one made of stone instead of timber. The door was bound in iron and as heavy as it looked, as Christopher found out when he wrestled it open.
Inside was a treasure-house. A single large, round room, with several small alcoves branching off of it, kept bright and cheery by a dozen light-stones. The main room was filled with shelves, and the shelves were filled with books, scrolls, and loose sheaves of paper.
"I must ask your guards to wait at the foyer. We have many old and delicate manuscripts, and a perpetual fear of fire."
The two young men peered around suspiciously, but from the entranceway they could see everywhere in the room. Christopher would not be out of their sight.
"It'll do," one of them said to Bricina. "Grab us a couple of chairs and we'll be fine."
"I trust you for that much, Ser," she said with a smile. "Help yourself."
"Not Ser," said the other one. "Just Goodman."
"Of course, Goodman."
Christopher opened his mouth to chide their churlishness, but Bricina tugged on his arm and led him into the room.
"You need not fear for my dignity, Christopher. They are not impolite, by our standards. Merely ... unusual."
"Unusual how?" he asked automatically, but he already knew the answer. Sheer confidence. They swaggered as broadly as a baronet, treating a ranked noblewoman no differently than they would treat a peasant girl.
No wonder the peasant girls went mad for them.
He moved on to a more interesting question. "Do you approve?"
Bricina stopped and glanced up at him. "I don't know. I have not considered the fact long enough to form an opinion."
Great. He'd finally found somebody who thought like a scholar, and she was a professional flirt in a too-tight bodice while wearing delicate green eye shadow. Then he got distracted by the books. One of them had a dragon on the cover.
"You won't like it," she warned. "It's merely fable. We do have some information on dragons, but not enough to fill a book."
"Ah." He saw another book with strange writing on the cover. It was the first foreign language he had encountered, other than the languages people used for casting spells. As he reached for it, she put her hand on his.
"I thought you would want to start with this one." She guided his hand to a book on a lower shelf.
"Why this one?" he said, moving his hand away.
"It deals with an explosive compound."
Damn it, he did want to start with that one. More disconcerting than the flirtation was the fact that she was right.
"But, Christopher, before you begin, I must explain the price to you."
He let the growl in his throat rumble loud enough for her to hear. Maybe a little intimidation was overdue.
She ignored him politely. "We are a cooperative library. To gain access to all of our knowledge, all of the learning you see in this room, we ask only a small price, well within the resources of a man of your wisdom."
"Stop flattering me and get to the point."
She briefly bowed her head. "The price is a contribution. Write us a tome, scroll, or paper containing knowledge we do not possess, and you are welcome to what we do."
"How am I supposed to know what you don't know?"
"Begging your pardon, but I do have a suggestion. Our knowledge of mundane explosives is limited. Thus we are quite interested in your sky-fire."
"What's wrong with this one?" He tapped his hand on the thin, leather-bound volume.
"The substance it yields is absurdly delicate. Merely dropping it on the ground induces it to explode."
"Hmm ... is it a liquid?" Did they have nitroglycerin?
"No, a crystal. It has another disadvantage: it requires quicksilver to manufacture, where your sky-fire appears to be made from manure. Yes," she said to his frown, "we have a basic idea of your process. But we would prefer that you share your knowledge with us voluntarily. Stolen recipes tend to miss important details."
Fair enough. But of course she knew he would think that.
"Fine. But I can't write out the whole process in an afternoon." He wasn't sure he could write it out at all; Fae, his tamed wizard, was doing the day-to-day work.
"We will take you at your word, Christopher. Agree to provide us with a manuscript within the year, and the library is yours. Should you want a copy of any volume, we will set one of our clerks to the task, and deliver it for only the price of labor and materials."
Materials would mean paper, which around here was worth its weight in gold.
"You know, I make paper. At a tenth of the cost. Maybe we could make a deal?"
Finally he had surprised her. "You would sell us goods at the same rate you sell to your Church?"
"Sure. Why not?" The more he made, the cheaper it was to make, thanks to economies of scale. Another secret for their library.
Maybe later, when he needed another favor. Right now the secret he was giving them wasn't costing him anything. He wanted the art of making gunpowder to be widespread — eventually.
"I will ask the Skald what we can offer you in exchange for the favored price on your paper. In the meantime, please make yourself at home. Should you require anything, send to the main building. We are at your disposal."
All he wanted was a comfortable chair and a chance to dig into something intellectual. The last twenty-four hours had been physically and emotionally draining; reading a boring technical paper sounded downright fun. He flopped into the leather-covered padded armchair and cracked open the book.
Bricina bowed and left, smiling graciously. Christopher, absorbed in his reading, barely noticed.
* * *
Three hours later, he put the book down and massaged his temples. It was only forty pages, but it was convoluted, tedious, and written in a cramped, tiny cursive. He had, however, put a name to the compound — mercury fulminate. He wasn't entirely sure why he knew that name, but it had to be for something commonplace. There weren't very many chemical substances he could remember at the best of times, and he'd spent the last year and a half in a world where salt was considered the height of chemistry.
What else could he remember? Sulfuric acid, because, like all boys, he had been fascinated with it. Other than dissolving things, it was used for ... batteries. Car batteries had acid in them. Then there was Drano, another dissolving compound. Except that was a brand name, not a chemical.
Primers. Now it came back to him: mercury fulminate was used in making bullets. The ignition system he had devised had a miserable failure rate. At least one out of every twenty rounds failed to fire when the hammer fell. Mercury fulminate would be a technological advance. It was difficult to make, but he was certain he could simplify the manufacturing process with a little trial and error. For example, he knew that "three drops of maiden's blood" was a completely unnecessary ingredient. In any case, it would be Fae doing the work.
He was hungry. There hadn't been any time for breakfast, with all the shenanigans going on. Walking to the foyer, he noticed his guards had been replaced.
"So you know where the kitchen is, right?"
"Yes, sir. And a right good kitchen it is."
"Lead on, then."
The dining room was rustic but clean and bright. He was given a plate by a young woman who might really be a shy maiden, or might be the deceptive, seductive, and slightly crazy Loremaster Uma, the Skald's second-in-command, in yet another disguise. At least she was properly clothed, and unlikely to poison him this time.
On the other hand, this would be the perfect opportunity to put certain precautions into practice.
"See that I'm not disturbed," he told his guards. Pulling his legs up into the lotus position, he went into the meditative trance that would renew the spells stored in his head. A strange place for meditation, perhaps, but he needed the practice. He would be on battlefields again, soon enough. If he couldn't ignore his cooling lunch and a few pretty girls, how could he hope to ignore cannon fire and the constant threat of invisible, rabid dog-men?
An hour later, he opened his eyes, strangely refreshed at the abstract experience. Dealing with his god's avatar, a suit of armor animated by an artificial-intelligence personality, had restored perspective to his emotional state.
Lalania was sitting on the other side of the table. She smiled weakly at him.
"I'm so sorry, Christopher."
"They tricked you, too, Lala." Or at least, the Skald had said they did. He decided to believe her. He really didn't want to be angry at the woman. On the other hand, the Skald was fair game.
"I'm still sorry. But I brought you presents to make up for it." She put a rolled-up parchment and a small purple stone on the table.
He reached for the stone first.
Lalania explained. "The tael from the Bloody Mummers. The Skald asserts I am entitled to a share, since I fought at your side, but I do not ask for it, since I tricked you into being there in the first place."
"I was hoping it was the tael from my assassin."
"No." She did something unusual with her face. It took him a moment to realize it was shame. "Your assassin eluded us, again. She locked the inn door with magic and fled out the back, stealing a horse and your soldier's life. Someone must be supplying her with spells. You must have a greater enemy than merely her spite."
That wasn't news. He had a lot of enemies.
"What's the scroll?"
She handed it to him, still blushing.
"My penitence, although I cannot complain of it. For the first time in sixty years, a member of the College will swear service to a lord. We jealously guarded our independence, perhaps too much so since we have gradually become irrelevant, but now we sell our services for paper. Or, more precisely, merely the right to buy paper at your ridiculous prices. For that privilege I am at your command, until you tire of me. And through me, the entire College will serve you in our common purpose."
Lalania was referring to the coming battle against the hidden monsters known as the hjerne-spica. Assuming, of course, that there really were hjerne-spica, and that entire story wasn't simply another web of half-truths and suggestions designed to lead him down the garden path. The Skald had admitted that no one else in the Kingdom believed in them. Here, aboveground in the bright sunlight, it all seemed a bit unreal.
"So you're mine, now? Without a salary and without a share of the tael?" Terms she would never have agreed to a day ago. He knew this, because back then he'd been trying to hire her. Now, just when he'd been ready to walk away, she was throwing herself at his feet.
And he would catch her. She knew, obviously had known, long before he did. In retrospect it was obvious. He desperately needed her help and expertise in precisely the areas she had just tripped him up.
On top of all that, despite everything, he still thought of her as a friend. Even now she acted the part, and he believed her.
She was watching his face, waiting for him to work through the logic. "Yes," she said, once his indrawn breath signaled his surrender. She might have gone on to make a salacious comment, to suggest that she was his in any way he wanted her, that her duties did not stop at sundown. But she didn't. She bit her lip, and said nothing. Something else she would not have done a day ago.
He didn't know if it was due to her promise to stop trying to seduce him, or if it wasn't funny anymore now that he had the power to command her. It didn't matter. She would leave his tangled emotions and aching desires alone, and he would breathe easier for it.
So would his soldiers. "You've reassured the men that I was chaste, I assume? You know how much that means to them." It came out bitterer than he had intended.
"That you dare to say it, with your affiliation binding you to honesty, is more compelling than any song I can sing. And more grist for your legend. You walked into a nest of vipers and emerged without a scratch. No merely mortal man could have exercised such self-restraint."
Already she was earning her diplomatic keep. Her language was too carefully chosen. Glancing around, he noticed his guards would not catch his eye.
"For crying out loud ... already?" It wasn't even noon yet.
"Allow my College a little pride, Christopher. Let us at least hold the interest of ordinary men."
She had revealed the information in a way that would make it easy for him not to punish the men. And he shouldn't. He hadn't explicitly told them to refrain from extracurricular activities — not that he had thought it necessary to specify such an order between the hours of breakfast and lunch — but the fact was he had set them at liberty. On the other hand, if he wanted to instill a little discipline, Lalania would not oppose him.
She had proven her worth, as if it had ever been in doubt. He opened the silver vial he wore around his neck and took out the purple rock inside. The stone she had given him had already merged with it, forming a single large lump, but it was a trivial matter to carve off a specific amount.
"Is that enough?"
Lalania was, for once, quiet. She nodded her agreement, without speaking.
"I assume you'll be even more useful to me as a minstrel? And that promoting you won't invalidate our contract?" He thought of something cruel to say, a way to pay her back for all the times she had tread on his moral uprightness, knowing he wouldn't be able to lie. "As my advisor, do you think this is an effective use of our resources? You'll tell me if it isn't, right?"
Excerpted from Judgment at Verdant Court by M. C. Planck. Copyright © 2016 M. C. Planck. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents1. Reunited, 9,
2. Home to Roost, 27,
3. A Dish Served Cold, 36,
4. Hunting Barbs, 51,
5. Return of the Baronet, 65,
6. Like a Bad Penny, 79,
7. The Keep at the End of the Lane, 92,
8. A Surprising Verdict, 105,
9. Appeal to Better Nature, 117,
10. Atonement, 129,
11. Just Like Old Times, 147,
12. A Social Call, 159,
13. Party Dress, 177,
14. Four Weddings, 198,
15. Campaign Season, 221,
16. Heart of Darkness, 238,
17. A Fortifying Melody, 254,
18. Young Men and Old Dogs, 270,
19. A Woman of Valor, 290,
20. Peace Conference, 307,
21. You Can't Go Home Again, 322,
About the Author, 343,