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    lomax61
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

Although the genre of fantasy, and this sub-genre of political fantasy, is a new one for me here on GA, I have been developing the world of Mulia in which this story takes place (and other stories in this world) for the best part of 20 years, so we are like old friends.

A link to the world map is included here, although I provide many descriptions in the story.

https://www.brianlancasterauthor.com/general-8

Stranded: Heart of Black Ice Bay - 2. Duchess

Brathay finds out why Counsellor Brokerman has asked to speak to him.

Brathay climbed the steps of the circular stone staircase up the spine of Interconnection to Brokerman's third-floor topside lodgings. As always, his old tutor had left the door open. His semicircular quarters did not have the same authentication as counsellors of other disciplines. No bookcases crammed with any manner and size of leather-bound books, no paintings of long-dead deans or persons of historical note on the walls, no messy writing desk overflowing with scrolls and quills, parchment and candle stubs. Apart from the worn but comfortable leather furniture and low table arranged around the fireplace, the only unusual addition in the otherwise austere room was the tall stool, floor-standing lectern, and long bronze telescope set up at the north window, the contraption pointed down into the grounds.

To announce his presence, Brathay used a knuckle to tap out his signature quintuple beat on the doorframe before stepping into the room.

"Ah, here he is," came Brokerman's warm voice. "Shut the door and come sit."

As soon as Brathay closed the door and turned around, he noticed the regal woman from earlier, who had now discarded her cloak and wore a simple yet elegant lilac gown with pearl beading around the neck and breast. Perched on the edge of one of Brokerman's leather chairs, her back remained rigid and upright. With her legs pressed together to one side and feet tucked beneath the chair, she cupped her lilac gloved hands in her lap. Everything about her spoke of disciplined nobility. Apart from the grey of her hair—worked artfully into a neat pile on her head—Brathay had few clues to her age. Although not conventionally pretty, she bore a classical attractiveness with her startling features of sharp nose, chiselled chin, full lips, piercing blue eyes and the smooth, pale skin of the southeastern kingdoms.

"This is the talented apprentice, Brathay Stonearm, I mentioned to you." Brokerman sat opposite her with his back to Brathay but had twisted around to acknowledge him. "He is one of few who has attained all four halls. Sadly for us, his time at Aulderly culminates at the end of this term when he takes up a new post in Thiradonia. Brathay, this is Lady Valisqua, the Duchess of Khloradich.”

Everything fell into place. A former student, this woman's tale was retold regularly in contemporary hall studies and in Brathay's home town back in Thiradon. Many years ago, during her final year in Aulderly, the head counsellor of Interconnection at the time had sent Lady Valisqua, the daughter of a minor Thiradonian noble, to the DuMankin palace in Braggadach. Charged with assisting in the funeral arrangements for the late duke, she succeeded in catching the eye of a certain thirty-something-year-old heir. Her successful appointment validated everything Interconnection and, in particular, hall training represented.

"Duchess," said Brathay moving over to her, taking her proffered right hand and bowing his head. When he straightened up and clasped his hands behind his back, he could see by her appraisal that she approved.

"Thiradonia? How marvellous. I still have fond memories of my childhood in Floris Prima. What kind of post have you been assigned? Will you be joining one of the royal households? You must tell."

Brathay hesitated. If the duchess had excelled as well as folklore suggested, then she would know Brathay could not divulge anything about his assignment. Nevertheless, he enjoyed being tested.

"My apologies, your grace. At the request of the sponsor, I am not at liberty to disclose any information."

"Of course you are not, young man," she said, smiling back. "And do not let a single person, no matter how lofty their position, pressure you into doing so. Discretion is the single most important of life's virtues, my old counsellor used to drum into me."

"Please take a seat, Brathay," said Brokerman, smiling at the interaction. For Brathay's sake, he pointed to the single empty armchair before addressing the duchess. "I hope you don't mind if he acts as my assistant in this matter, your grace."

"Not in the least. Do you have knowledge of my family, young man?"

Although Brathay knew the prominent royal households, he knew little about the countless dukedoms and earldoms scattered around the empire. But one thing he had learned was that minor royalty enjoyed talking about themselves.

"Only the scant scraps I have been thrown. But I am always keen to learn more, especially from one of those who have helped to shape that history, as I am sure you have, your grace."

Brathay enjoyed hearing the duchess' soft laughter and appreciative gaze.

"Oh, yes, he is indeed a charmer. So forgive me if I indulge myself, counsellor. Young man, I am the mother of three fine boys and a girl, all grown into adulthood now. Most of my children work hard to follow the example set by my late husband, their father. I say most because Lord Leonmarkh, the youngest, is a cause for concern. His father's passing affected him deeply. I believe that knowing he is unlikely ever to accede to power, he has decided to fritter away his days indulging in hunting or fighting or wild parties, pursuing pleasurable but hollow activities. The thing is, I know there is good in him, but his brother, the new duke, sees only a constant irritation whose mischief is bringing derision upon the household. Sixteen months ago, after being put forward by his brother and with a personal endorsement from the king in Branersh, Leonmarkh assumed the position of Watchman to the empire's observation post in the northeast following the end of the tenure of the previous custodian."

"Black Ice Keep?" said Brathay aghast before looking to Brokerman, who nodded grimly. He had only heard rumours about the station, infamous for its extreme weather conditions.

"Yes," said the duchess, staring into the ashes of the fireplace. "My son is not a bad person, and although he is no born leader, to say he is young and headstrong would be a wild understatement. His brother hopes this post will soften him, will calm his ways, and although having him away from me is saddening, I have to trust that he is right. I know there is good in him if only he would listen to sage counsel, to someone who could positively influence his actions and decisions and affections. Believe me when I say that he needs good counsel because he has none around him. Those reptiles he calls captains would have him unseat his brother and make a claim to the duchy. Since his departure there have even been rumours in court—unfounded, I am sure—about them stockpiling armaments and enticing mercenaries from across the land to join them, although who in all sanity would want to travel so far north is beyond me. Which is why the duke is contemplating extending his stay if he is dissatisfied, and I am back here again to solicit the assistance of the faculty of Aulderly because I do not want that to happen. A month ago, I called in favour with the dean to send one of your best to try to win over my son—"

"Belynda Moonstar. Brathay is familiar with her."

Brathay looked to Brokerman and then nodded. Although that explained the mystery of the return of Belynda, he still wanted to hear why she had not succeeded. Surely no man in his right mind could resist her appeal, her quick mind and innate magnetism.

"The difficulty for us, your grace, is that Belynda was—is—one of our finest. If she could not gain the trust of your son, then I am not sure he is ready for anyone to—"

"I refuse to believe that. I know my son, and with the right influence, he can be swayed. Do not forget that over half a century ago, I too was a student of Aulderly."

A smile lit the faces of both Brathay and the counsellor.

"An exemplary Interconnection student. How could any of us forget? To this day your accomplishments are taught, an example of what hard work can achieve." Counsellor Brokerman's smile faded, his face becoming troubled. "And Belynda has many of your qualities. I know I was not in the room when the choice was made, but the dean was right to call her the finest of her generation, which is why she was selected for the task you set—"

"At the time, the dean said you were the only one less forthcoming in support of her choice. Is that correct?"

"I—I did have my reservations."

"And they were…?"

"Of all my colleagues, I seem to be the only person who has—albeit briefly—met your son. Around three years ago, at a royal gala in Cormaland. Had he not already come of age, he would have made a perfect candidate for Aulderly or Cloristers. I remember having a strong impression of someone coldly perceptive and independent. Which is why, when you first came to us, I was concerned he might see through the hasty appointment. Privately, however, the dean persuaded me that Belynda would be the perfect match."

"And yet she failed. Belynda is a beautiful, intelligent woman, and I fully endorsed the choice. But on reflection—well—have you considered someone less obvious, someone unexpected, one of those rare creatures with brains and common sense, but with less overt beauty and ambition? An enigma he will not so easily unravel?"

"The deputy asked me the same question. For what seems like an almost impossible task, duchess, I do have somebody in mind."

"I wagered you might. Do I need to meet her?"

"Would you trust my choice on this occasion? I have not yet approached the person."

"Naturally. As much as I admire Dean Lillimond and everything she has built here, I can relate more to your accomplishments, both professional and personal."

"You are too kind."

"And I will ensure the duchy continues to support the institute, and in particular, Interconnection—"

"Again, my heartfelt thanks. Your endorsements mean everything."

"Now, I must go and rest before my departure tomorrow morning. If the weather holds, I should be home by the end of the month. I accompanied a train of Khloradich merchants here, tasked with bringing supplies to Aulderly and some who will continue on to Black Ice Bay to trade and deliver essential goods before winter sets in. As far as my family has been told, I am in Aulderly to meet a potential companion. The truth is I have no time or patience for another man in my life. My son, Charteris, the new duke, needs all of my attention. But I still have a special place in my heart for Leonmarkh. Will you do what you can?"

"You have my word. I will take care of this."

"Thank you, old friend. And again, I would ask that my name is not associated with whatever you have in mind. Sons despise meddling mothers, no matter how genuine and well-meaning their intention."

As she readied to stand, both Brathay and Brokerman climbed to their feet. Once she had stood, Brokerman helped her into her cloak while she turned her attention to Brathay.

"As for you, young man. Counsellor Brokerman told me of your appointment to the house of Mermillon. Yes, I know he broke a confidence, but for a good reason. I know I have met you only for this short meeting, but I can tell yours will be a perfect union at which I have no doubt you will excel. But that is why he allowed me to test you, to see if I could trust you. And, as expected, you gave nothing away. So can we be each other's confidante, with you keeping my secret and I keeping yours?"

Managing to mask his surprise, Brathay smiled and nodded.

"Of course, your grace. I would be honoured."

He could imagine her as a younger woman, beguiling yet tenacious. When offered, he bowed his head to kiss the back of her gloved hand.

"Sleep well, your grace. And have a safe journey home."

While Brathay talked to the duchess, Brokerman had gone out to the stairwell to summon an attending assistant to escort Lady Valisqua back to her chambers. Brathay waited behind until he had finished, curious now about what news Brokerman had of his upcoming placement.

"What did you learn from that encounter," asked Brokerman, closing the door being him and, with his back to the door. "From what the duchess disclosed?"

"In essence? An older brother, new to power, probably wanting to assert his authority in his new position, but embarrassed by the youngest sibling—painted as something of a spoiled wastrel—so he arranges for him to be shipped off out of the way. A decent tactical ploy, if you want my honest opinion. Although extraction is no guarantee of obeisance. Removal is merely the act of shifting a problem out of sight. Nothing is resolved. Which is why the mother, quite naturally worried about the welfare of her youngest, is calling in a favour to have an Aulderly prodigy sent to monitor—to spy on—him, to ensure he is in not plotting to seize power, all in the guise of providing wise counsel. How am I doing so far?"

Brokerman chuckled as Brathay spoke, nodding all the time.

"We have instructed you well, have we not? How is your schedule this afternoon?"

"Most afternoons, I have free study," said Brathay, pulling his book from the pocket of his robe. "Which I am using already to research Mulian palaces in readiness for my placement."

"Excellent." Brokerman made his way back to the sofa and indicated for Brathay to do the same. Once seated, he reached to the floor beside his chair and lifted up a large dusty bottle. "I would usually offer hot tea at this time of day, but how about sampling a cup of something rare with me? The duchess' merchants favoured me with six cases of vintage Branersh wine, and I would appreciate a second opinion. Will you join me?"

"What is it you taught me? Never refuse food or drink freely and generously offered."

Brokerman's laugh sounded tired as he uncorked the bottle and pulled cups from beneath the knee-high table in front of him.

"A lesson for us all. Unless, of course, your intuition senses mistrust. Never ignore intuition. To a poisoner, remember, good manners signals weakness, a flaw in a person, and something to be exploited."

"On this occasion, my intuition tells me I would be a fool to pass up the chance of a cup of your wine, especially from one of the renowned Braggadashi vineyards."

As Brokerman poured the wine, Brathay studied him and noticed for the first time that he appeared visibly older. In the seven years Brathay had spent at Aulderly, the counsellor had stood out as one of the more friendly and charismatic teachers, genuinely interested in the wellbeing of his students. Only lately had Brathay begun to perceive his rare but subtle talent. Brokerman could tame the wild temper of feisty adolescent cadets as quickly as he could bring a solemn reflective one to life. Anybody who left Brokerman's lodgings after an audience with him felt as though they had been gifted. Brathay did not know his whole story, only that the man had held a significant position in Mumberland for most of his life as an adviser to one of the princes, a man some twenty years his elder. Upon the man's death, Brokerman had not wanted to remain in court—much to the dismay of the remaining family members who held him in high esteem—and had instead petitioned the dean for a counsellor position in Interconnection. Any more salacious rumours from other students he had dismissed as conjecture.

"You know," said Brokerman handing a wooden cup to Brathay, "it is not uncommon for Aulderly, or our sister institute, Cloristers, to provide the assistance of apprentices in outposts across the empire. Most appeals come to us directly from incumbents who urgently need particular skills or simply an intelligent voice to guide them. Far less expensive and often more effective than procuring professional help."

"Does not appointing apprentices from Aulderly or Cloristers also serve the empire?"

Brokerman nodded thoughtfully.

"We are all servants of the empire, Brathay. But you are correct. The Royal Court relies on the faculty's timely solutions to prevent or solve problems. In dispute situations, this is even more critical. On behalf of the empire, we offer covert diplomatic assistance rather than defaulting to military action by the royal army. Allowing ambitious young nobles to fight amongst themselves, vying for power in their countries, weakens the region and ultimately the empire. Defaulting to heavy-handed methods might provide a short term solution but may also set the stage for resistance and possible division—"

"Do you believe this young lord is truly looking to take power from his brother?"

"No, I do not. I know very little about the DuMankin family, but I have heard of no animosity between the brothers. The point is, our offer of help to places like Black Ice Keep is genuine because nobody wants to see an aristocrat—most of these duties are undertaken by young inexperienced nobles—fall on their face. No such request came directly from Lord Leonmarkh."

"And because her baby son is too proud to ask, mother has had to step in?"

"Pride is a dark companion. To fulfil the duchess' bidding, the institute provided Belynda with an introductory letter, gifting her skills to him and drafted by the dean based on her significant knowledge of granite structures and how to weatherproof living quarters in harsh climes, especially in older buildings. Most of these places are functional but dreary, and none are built with comfort in mind. Any other Watchman would have been overjoyed to have someone with her abilities, and especially her personality."

"How is she?"

"Broken and furious. The dean is correct. She should have been perfect for the task. I brought her here to my room when she returned to give her a chance to vent. And goodness me, did she. According to her, the duchess' youngest is a cold-hearted, unforgiving, and cowardly blackguard who governs from within a predominantly male-dominated enclosure managed by his like-minded thugs, ensuring nobody can get close to him. Naturally, I am paraphrasing here. Belynda's descriptions went on far longer, were far more descriptive and scornful, her language so colourfully vivid that I had to close my chamber door. No common courtesy was shown her, no formal introductions were made. As soon as she arrived, she was frozen out, essentially confining her to her chambers. Some of the house staff befriended her, but none appear to have any level of influence over the lord. Two weeks she lasted before she had no recourse but to return, and you know Belynda as well as I. She does not take failure well. At the end of the last term the faculty considered her unstoppable, likened her to a beautiful tigress. The dean was even considering her a match for Duke Ervine, Regent of Thiradon. I am not convinced she is right for anyone right now, nor anytime soon."

Counsellor Brokerman had a point. Joining Aulderly in the same year as Brathay, Belynda had been a third hall paradigm. Hers was the classic mix of beauty and intelligence of hardy Brox women, striking features set in flawless dark skin and unbound black ringlets tinted with golden dye falling wild to her waist. Fearlessly confident, she had a natural, broad-shouldered and full-breasted allure, one she had already harnessed before walking through the gates of Aulderly.

In the three disciplines leading up to Interconnection, she had been admired and distant, but during her time in Interconnection had shone, becoming single-mindedly desirable and dangerous. Even though Brathay's natural proclivity leant more towards the male form, he had bedded her once—or rather, she had bedded him—as a part of third hall assignments, and he had nearly succumbed to despair when the experiment ended.

Bringing himself back from that encounter had been a punishing lesson, throughout which Brokerman had stood by and coached him while exploiting the experience unashamedly to help ironclad Brathay's sensibilities. During that time, Brathay had learned an important lesson. Self-defence was not alone in the domain of the physical. Paralysing mental hurt and pain could be inflicted wilfully without weapons or physical force.

"Who have you in mind to replace Belynda?" Brathay sipped the wine, which burst with berry fruits on his tongue but burned his throat pleasantly on the way down. "You said you had chosen someone. Surely not one of the Gourdney sisters?"

"No."

"Then who?"

Brathay watched as Brokerman drained his cup before placing the vessel down, refilling and then drawing his gaze level with Brathay.

"You."

"Me?" said Brathay snorting out a laugh until he noted Brokerman's seriousness. Right then, he felt all the blood drain from his face. "Surely you are not suggesting that I—?"

Brokerman raised a hand to silence him.

"I know you may think I have lost my senses, but hear me out. Lord Leonmarkh may be insensitive, but he is clearly no fool. We made the mistake of singling out somebody to bed him, even though Belynda has far more qualities than her attractiveness. And that ploy failed. The duchess is right. We need someone unexpected, with a good head on their shoulders and a good heart in their chest, who can not only stand up to the rudeness of nobility, impassively, and without wavering but also provide sage counsel. What is needed in this case is not a hurricane but a zephyr, a warm and gentle breeze to thaw the coldest of hearts. The only question is whether this is a challenge you are willing to undertake. Because I know you are able."

"If you are asking me if I can succeed where Belynda failed, then the only true answer I can give you is that I have no answer. When would you need my decision?"

"You would leave at sunrise the day after tomorrow. Accompanying the merchants who are heading on to Black Ice Bay. With their supply wagons, the journey will take six or seven days, depending on the weather. And the appointment will be for seven or eight months—"

"Seven or eight—? What about my placement?"

"Lord Redbridge will hold the post for you. And before you ask, I have not approached him—I would not be so presumptuous. But I know he will do my bidding. Moreover, substantial work on the new palace will not commence until the start of summer. By which time you will be free—"

"Or in six weeks if I fail."

"Unfortunately, no. Not this time. The reason for our haste is that winter takes a firm hold on the bay at the beginning of October. With the first heavy fall of snow, the mountain passage between here and Black Ice Bay will become impassable and does not fully thaw until March, sometimes April. And violent sea storms are common throughout October to December, especially around the promontory south of Black Ice Bay. No sea captain with any marine sense would dare voyage that far north after September."

"Are you saying I would be trapped there?"

Brokerman sighed and sat back in his chair.

"Brathay, I have thought long and hard about this ever since Belynda returned. And you are the best chance we have of taming the lion, so to speak. Lord Leonmarkh is the kind of challenge for which you were born. Treat this assignment as a precursor, an exercise in the meaning of patience and of successful influencing, before you take up your role in the court of Mermillon. Remember also. The appointment is not compulsory. You can decline if you so wish. And between now and your calling, you can continue to study here in the safety of the institute. Personally, however, knowing your maturity and array of skills, I would consider remaining here dead time and a missed opportunity, one when you could be learning about life from real-world experiences and issues—"

Brathay heard no more. Two things struck him. Brokerman being who he was, would already have thought long and hard about this problem. Never had Brathay known him make anything but an informed decision, always carefully selecting the right person for the right assignment, never compromising or diluting his choices. That the man had singled him out had to be one of the highest compliments Brathay could be paid. And even if Brathay did not fully trust his own suitability right now, without a breath of hesitation, he trusted Brokerman's judgment. How could he possibly turn him down? As soon as he had made the decision in his head, a weight lifted from him, and a sigh of relief escaped him.

"Any chance of another cup of that wine before I pack?"

A broad smile transformed Brokerman's tired face as he leant forward and refilled their cups. Once he had finished and handed Brathay his wine, he went to the door and called one of the attendants. After a brief conversation, he shut the door and returned to his seat.

"You will not fail," he said, his gaze drilling into Brathay. "The duchess mentioned inventing an endorsement from King Bruckbar. What she does not know is that the deputy had already solicited and was granted a written endorsement from him for an apprentice who knows about the logistical management of empire outposts. Another talent we would have added to those of Belynda's had the missive arrived in time, but which will now be yours. The deputy advised me that the king is extremely fond of Lord Leonmarkh and wants to assist in any way he can."

"I have studied domestic logistics, from large households to fortified structures, but would they not already have somebody employed for that very purpose."

"Naturally, but keep staff are not local. None know the region and the unique logistical needs of a northern fortress. One example is that overstocked firewood supplies and food are essential to see them through often unpredictable winters. Foraging for either late in the season is impossible when one is barricaded in by freezing snow."

"In which case, I shall pack extra layers."

"In the hope you would agree, I approached one of the local merchants who trades in northern attire, items woven by the Black Ice Bay natives. Tomorrow I will speak to him again about obtaining certain essentials in your size. Thick hide leggings, knee-high woollen boots, with matching thermal mantles and fur hats. Function rather than fashion. They may not best show your physical charm, but they will keep you alive. Pack several larger kerchiefs, however, to cover your mouth and nose and help you breathe in extreme conditions."

Brathay nodded grimly. Coming from temperate Thiradon, he had always considered Aulderly winters harsh. In the years he had spent there, snow had fallen consistently in early January and usually remained on the ground for at least three weeks. Hats, scarves and gloves tended to suffice during the cold spell, which generally accompanied brilliant sunshine and lots of laughter. From what Brokerman described, Black Ice Bay sounded a completely different level and experience of coldness.

"Now you are confirmed, I will ask the merchants to let their rider know. They send one on ahead to notify the keep staff of their visit, so they can announce you, ensure you are met by Lord Leonmarkh and have a chamber made ready for you upon arrival."

"Are we to let the duchess know before her departure—" he asked.

"I would rather not. Time is pressing, and if she objects to your appointment, I would have precious little time to find another. And I believe you are the right choice. One other person accompanies the merchant's train. Marietta is the partner of an elder of Black Ice Bay, a retired counsellor of Aulderly called Fleming, who is now the local physician. I strongly suggest you get to know them both. I warrant they will provide a much-needed voice of reason during your stay. I would ask that you do not feel tempted to speak of your appointment with Belynda. Not only because she is still hurting, but because I do not want her to negatively influence you. You must go into this informed but unblinkered, untainted by the humiliation of another. Does that make sense?"

"Perfect sense."

Brokerman reached back with his right hand and massaged his own neck, a gesture Brathay had seen many times when the counsellor considered a particularly vexing problem.

"Something does not sit right in this matter, Brathay, and while I charge you to uncover the truth, I also ask you to be careful." Someone knocked on his door as he spoke, and Brathay felt sure Brokerman would tell them to come back later. Instead, he stood but kept murmuring as he headed for the door. "The Lord Leonmarkh I met in Cloristers would never have willingly agreed to the appointment of Northeast Watchman, not without a fight or without good cause to accept. Neither is he a man to be won over easily, so you will need to exercise patience and pick your moments. Ah, thank you for coming."

When Brokerman opened the door and ushered the person in, Brathay knew him straight away. Not that the presence of this rotund older gentleman made any sense to Brathay's plight.

"I think you may already be acquainted with Fullroy,"

In Aulderly, students and faculty alike got to know Fullroy Mulligrew, the longest-serving of a handful of talented chefs in the hall of repast. Brathay had once overhead the dean ask the deputy how any sane person could possibly believe thaumaturgy did not exist when Fullroy could magic up such incredible dishes to quieten even the loudest of students and counsellors.

"Hello, Brathay," he said, coming over with his hessian bag laden with books dangling from his shoulder and taking Brokerman's seat without being invited. He also leant forward and took a large gulp from the Brokerman's wine, turning to nod his appreciation at the amused counsellor. "Brokerman, here, has solicited my assistance. This was on the basis that you agreed to the quest he has told me nothing about but something to do with you being sent to one of the empire's outposts. You need to know upfront that fortress kitchens are not known for their culinary creations. Most of the food will be nourishing enough but bland and tasteless. In my humble opinion, that is pure laziness on the part of the cook. Ingredients are likely to be the same as in the best dishes the land has to offer."

"According to Counsellor Brokerman," said a confused Brathay. "My goal is not to improve the kitchen menu."

"Nevertheless," said Fullroy, peering over the top of his glasses. "Having a simple understanding of a few good dishes does nobody any harm."

"Listen to what he has to say, Brathay," added Brokerman.

"I leave the day after tomorrow. What am I supposed to learn—?"

"Will you please let me finish, young man."

As soon as Brathay quietened, Fullroy reached for the hessian bag at his side, one that Brathay had incorrectly assumed contained books. Instead, he carefully lifted out a box of dark polished wood and rested the container on the low table.

"I call this my box of enlightenment. A family heirloom I have had replicated on occasion for special students. Come and take a look, so I can explain."

Up close, the container looked like a large jewellery box. When Fullroy opened the lid, the top compartment rose up. He plucked out a small book that sat on top. Exotic powders and herbs with autumnal hues of gold, orange, green, black and deep rich brown simultaneously aroused his senses of sight and smell.

"Alone, these distilled spices will mean nothing to most finders. But combined with this small cookbook, you will be unstoppable. Notice first how there are three shelves. In each, compartments have a unique number inscribed on the front edge. In total, there are one hundred. This small book provides two hundred of my best recipes for feeding large numbers. All you need to do is locate the staple food being used—fish, poultry, red meats, salted meat, or simple root vegetables—then, following the instructions in the book, add pinches of the numbered spices as instructed. A word of warning. Do not overseason. Do not decide to be inventive by adding an additional pinch here or there on a whim. These spices have been continuously reduced and refined. A small amount goes a long way. But I can guarantee, without any formal training, you will create dishes from across the empire to excite tastebuds and raise eyebrows of your most feared adversary."

Brathay caught the eye of Counsellor Brokerman and smiled and nodded. He could cook plainly, had been taught simple recipes by the kindhearted women who cooked in the barracks kitchens of Thiradon. But anyone who had sampled meals served up by any of the talented chefs of Aulderly, those artisans who liked to try out their inventions on a ready-made audience before heading off to plum roles across the land, knew the difference between a cook and a truly gifted chef. Brokerman had solicited the support of Fullroy for a good reason.

Fullroy enthused about the names of some of the more common spices, but after the first ten, Brathay felt his eyes come unfocused and had already forgotten their names. Eventually, knowing he was losing them, Fullroy stopped and made to leave.

"Thank you so much, Fullroy. I am sure this will serve me well." Brathay stood and shook the podgy hand of the chef, who did not appear wholly convinced. After finishing, Brathay led him to the door. "Actually, I was coming to ask Willem if I could transfer a favour he owes me to another. One of the wards I monitor, someone much like himself, is taking a young lady friend on a walk for the first time tomorrow evening, and I suggested he might bring her to the refectory for a special supper—"

"What is this ward's name?"

"Dorley."

"I will pass on the message. Tell him to come at eight bells and that if Willem is not around, he can ask for me. We will make sure to lay on something special for them both."

"You are too kind."

Brathay closed the door. He turned and noticed Brokerman, still seated, gazing at him with affection. Returning to the seat, he picked up his wine and finished the contents.

"This is exactly why you are the right person for this task. There is a selflessness to your humanity. You gladly do things for others without expecting anything in return."

"As you said earlier, you have instructed me well."

"Some qualities we cannot teach, Brathay. The kind of humility you demonstrate is innate but also remember your training. I do not believe there is anything treasonous going on, but if you discover the slightest hint of sedition, and are unable to persuade his lordship to your—to our—way of thinking, then you know what you must do."

"I never want to have to consider the option—"

"But you must. Sometimes we are left with no other choice. You know this from your fourth hall studies."

"I do. And I understand."

The words, however truthful, soured his mood. Deep in thought, he carefully closed the box of enlightenment and lifted the container back into the sack.

"How will I get word to you? From the keep?"

"You cannot. You will be entirely on your own once the snows settle. Just you and your good judgement."

Brathay nodded grimly and folded his hands into a bowl in his lap, the way he did when he meditated. One thing was for sure, he would have plenty of time and cause to practice the various forms he had been taught.

"Should I go now? Prepare for my departure. I suddenly find myself with a headful of things to do."

"Is there anyone, in particular, you need to speak with? Tonight? Or can it wait until tomorrow?"

Brathay stilled. Polsom, a male apprentice in hall studies, had become close—very close. They should never have bedded each other. Knowing about his placement in Thiradon, Brathay had not encouraged their friendship, but Polsom could not be dissuaded, and small gifts began appearing on his bunk after evening meal. Perhaps this new assignment had come at a perfect time. They would need to talk because to leave without an explanation would be heartless. He would seek out Polsom at breakfast, a conversation he would need to handle with care. He had not even stepped one foot out of Aulderly, and he was already being tested.

"Tomorrow."

"Good. Then I will light us a fire. Temperatures have already started to fall. I have much to brief you on regarding Black Ice Bay, with little time to do so. And I know you will have questions," said Brokerman, sniffing the neck of the empty wine bottle. "Fullroy is sending someone over with our evening meal. And I feel we may require another of these before the night is done, don't you?"

Brathay settled back in the chair. The last of the day's sunlight through the double arch windows cast a shape on the wall like the orange wings of a butterfly. Brathay had never been superstitious, but despite being warmed by the wine, and the thought of conversation and a cheerful fire, a shiver of foreboding passed through him.

Thank you for reading.

Please feel free to leave me any reactions, comments and suggestions. 

Copyright © 2021 lomax61; All Rights Reserved.
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That you very much for reading.

Any reactions, comments or observations are very much appreciated.

Let me know what would you think will happen next, or what you like to see happen.

Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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Chapter Comments

What an undertaking; and on such short notice.  I do think that the gift of the recipes and spices may be much more important than he realizes at the moment.  Can't wait to see what happens next.

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raven1

Posted (edited)

So much to learn in this chapter. Brathay's trust in his mentor has thrust him into a very difficult situation.  Brathay does know that he may need to use the information he learned in the 4th hall.  The spice chest might be a double edged sword that allow Brathay the means to reach to young Leonmarkh or to end his life.  So many characters are still known. The mostly male cadre of Leonmarkh, Marietta, Fleming, King Bruckbar and maybe Belynda. There are also so many things to speculate and questions to be answered.  You have a good grip on my curiosity with the intrigue and tangled web you have woven in this chapter Lomax. It seems that Orion's prediction of the omen was true.

Edited by raven1
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Right on--He is to stay 7 or 8 months in a prison-like frozen keep

This is going to be very perilous--The Duchess mother has heard from others that her youngest, headstrong son ruling the jkeep is being pushed by his Captains. They are rumored to be egging him on to be a traitor and stockpiling supplies. The mission as Brathay has figured out is much more than advising, if he is able to advise.

Brathay assumes...."In essence? An older brother, new to power, probably wanting to assert his authority in his new position,but embarrassed by the youngest sibling—painted as something of a spoiled wastrel—so he arranges for him to be shipped off out of the way. A decent tactical ploy, if you want my honest opinion. Although extraction is no guarantee of obeisance. Removal is merely the act of shifting a problem out of sight. Nothing is resolved. Which is why the mother, quite naturally worried about the welfare of her youngest, is calling in a favour to have an Aulderly prodigy sent to monitor—to spy on—him, to ensure he is in not plotting to seize power, all in the guise of providing wise counsel. How am I doing so far?"

What is the fourth hall skill might Brathay employ , if Leon is a traitor 

 

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I suspect that Brathay will have to employ all his talents and develop some lessor ones to be successful and his mission has not even begun.  But first the journey....

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