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About the Author
William Dufris has been nominated nine times as a finalist for the APA's prestigious Audie Award and has garnered twenty-one Earphones Awards from AudioFile magazine, which also named him one of the Best Voices at the End of the Century.
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"Good morning, sir," offered the duty guard to Charyn as the heir approached the door to the rex's official study.
"Good morning, Maertyl." With a smile, Charyn held up a hand. "Not until the glass chimes."
Maertyl raised his eyebrows.
"He doesn't like it if I'm early." Or late. As soon as the first chime of eight sounded, Charyn nodded.
Maertyl turned and rapped on the door. "Lord Charyn, sir."
Lorien's response to the guard was inaudible to Charyn, but Charyn had no doubt it was short and perfunctory.
"Thank you," murmured Charyn as he opened the study door and stepped inside. He closed it quickly and walked toward his father.
"Waiting until the last moment, again, I see," growled Lorien.
"You did say, 'as the chimes strike,' sir." Charyn smiled pleasantly as he took the middle chair of the three facing the goldenwood desk.
The rex's study was dark and gloomy, with the only real light coming from the two oil lamps in the bronze sconces on the wall behind the goldenwood desk. The light did not carry except faintly to the large oblong conference table at the west end of the study, where, occasionally, the rex met with either the High Council or the Factors' Council of Solidar, if not, occasionally, both of the councils. The wind continued its low moan outside the chateau. From where he sat behind the desk, Lorien lifted the sealed envelope that rested on the desk, likely delivered earlier that morning by a guard or a courier. "This just came. It can wait ... for a bit." He set the envelope down. "I received the accounts on your Chaeryll lands. Minister Alucar says that over the past three years, you've done well in managing it. He doesn't know how."
"I went up there and talked to the tenants, sir. They suggested I let them try potatoes. Alucar had limited them to maize or wheat corn. I did. Because everyone else around there is growing wheat corn, potatoes brought more."
"How much more?" Lorien's question was almost a formality, as if he didn't really care, but felt obligated to ask.
"Around two parts in ten more." That was conservative. In two out of the three years since Charyn had been gifted the lands, the increased return had been more like four out of ten parts. He'd not only collected the rents personally, but kept track of the harvests. Some of the extra return might have just come from his closer oversight, but he had no way to know. He'd only put half of rents into the strongbox that was his in the family strongroom, since Alucar kept ledgers on each property. Even so, he'd had to use considerable ingenuity to keep a rather significant amount of golds hidden, and that was worrisome. At the same time, he didn't like the idea of being totally beholden to his sire, not when Lorien might live another twenty years ... or at least ten.
"That's good, but don't start to think like a factor." Lorien coughed hoarsely, covering his mouth with a large kerchief. "Half of those that grow things spend more time at their exchange or whatever they call it than in doing what they should. Speculating on what price wheat will have three months from now? Or maize or flour? Ha! Not even the Nameless knows that. And the High Holders are worse in their own way, always moaning about how the weather makes it hard to pay their tariffs."
Charyn nodded, then watched as his father, with hands that had come to tremble more and more over the last months, opened the envelope. Just from the silver-gray sealing wax even Charyn could tell that it had to have come from High Holder Ryel.
Lorien, without so much as another glance at his son, murmured, "Yet another trial," and offered a heavy sigh as he began to read. Several more sighs followed.
Knowing that his father would only snap at him if he asked the nature of this particular trial, Charyn kept a pleasant expression on his face as he waited.
Finally, Lorien looked up. "The absolute gall of the man." He glared toward the window to his right.
Charyn wondered why he bothered, since neither of them could see it, frosted as it was on the inside, even behind the heavy hangings. Although the sun had come out, it wasn't that warm, even if winter was almost a month away, by the calendar, anyway.
"You read it," said Lorien, handing the letter across the desk to his son.
Charyn took it and began to read.
8 Erntyn 408 A.L.
Your Grace —
I trust that this missive finds you and all your family in continued good health as we approach Year-Turn, and I offer my best and heartfelt wishes for prosperity in the coming year.
You had asked that I request another year's extension of my current term as head of the High Council. As you well know, I have already served in that capacity for a full six years. During that time, I have seldom left L'Excelsis and then only for the briefest of periods because of personal travails, notably the early and untimely death of my only son Baryel from the red flux. These past years have been a time of change and of great stress for all, and in consideration of the difficulties we have faced, especially at your suggestion a year ago last Erntyn, I requested from the other councilors a year's extension of my term as head of the Council, because I did not wish to be considered for another five-year term. They were gracious enough to grant that extension.
What were they going to do? thought Charyn. Deny it when both the rex and the Maitre of the Collegium wanted him to stay?
Much of my family has scarcely seen me for the past six years, and this has placed a great burden on my lady in dealing with Baryel's children and all the duties of administering the holding. I trust you can understand my desire to return to Rivages.
Charyn had forgotten that Baryel's wife had died after the birth of her daughter Iryella, and that Baryel's death left the High Holder and his wife as guardians of the holding's heirs.
Also to be considered is the fact that another extension of my term would be seen as very much against past practice and tradition, and might well generate unrest among those High Holders who have already expressed great concerns about the changes that you and the Collegium Imago have implemented and continue to pursue ...
Charyn knew what Ryel wasn't saying — that the High Holder had no desire to be associated with the additional changes, and that if he stayed he would be forever marked as a tool of the rex and the Collegium. But then, isn't Father already a tool of the Collegium? Why should he alone suffer that burden?
... and for these reasons, I would suggest that it would be best for all concerned that you allow the High Council to choose another head of the Council for the next four years, either from the remaining members or from other qualified High Holders.
If not before, Doryana and I look forward to seeing you at the Year-Turn Ball, as do, I am certain, all the other members of the High Council.
Charyn lowered the missive.
"Well?" asked Lorien in a tone that was barely less than a bark.
"He doesn't want to preside over another increase in tariffs and over any more limits on the powers of the High Holders. He also likely does truly want to leave L'Excelsis."
"So he can plot from the relative safety of Rivages? That's what he wants. That's what he's always wanted. He doesn't want to tell all those High Holders who complain every time the weather turns bad that the weather's always bad part of the time, and that they still need to pay their tariffs."
"You don't think that he worries about his grandson?"
"The only worries he has about those children is how he'll use them to gain power. Karyel is fourteen, and Iryella is eleven or twelve ... something like that. If it weren't for your mother, he'd have been making overtures to marry her to you."
"Why not Bhayrn? He's closer in age."
"Because Bhayrn won't be rex. Ryel's always been after power. He was behind pushing my late and unlamented brother to lead the High Holder revolt because he could influence Ryentar."
Charyn wasn't about to let his father rage on about his ungrateful brother ... or more about Ryel, who was, unfortunately, his mother's scheming brother. At times, it was hard to reconcile the warm and seemingly kindly Uncle Ryel who had once presented him with new-minted golds on special occasions when he had been barely old enough to remember those events. "You haven't told me if you and Maitre Alastar talked this over and if the Maitre had anything to say about Uncle Ryel leaving the High Council."
"No, I haven't. As you could see, if you even thought, I just received the message early this morning."
Charyn again had to suppress his desire to snap back. "I have a thought ... just a thought, sir."
"Spit it out."
"His missive emphasizes that he doesn't want to be Chief Councilor any longer. He also says that it would be a bad idea for him to continue in that post and that he would like to see his family more, doesn't it?"
"He just wants to go off and plot."
"But that's not what he wrote. You can act in terms of what he wrote, rather than what he may have in mind. What if you agree that his time as Chief Councilor should come to an end —"
"Sir ... might I finish before you make a judgment? There's more that you might find to your liking."
"I doubt it, but go ahead."
"You agree that his time as High Councilor should come to an end, but ... but in order for there to be continuity and a smooth transition, he should serve the next year as just a councilor, and that he and the other councilors should choose the new Chief Councilor from the current councilors. That way, he would be free to occasionally travel to Rivages and see his family ... but his options for plotting would be limited and much more likely to be discovered while you still have him under some measure of scrutiny. That way, you also can portray yourself as somewhat sympathetic to his concerns."
"I don't know ..."
"Why don't you talk that over with Maitre Alastar? Tell him it came up in a family discussion."
"Why not say you thought it up?"
"Because it's better that it be seen as ... less specific. Either Mother, me, Bhayrn, or even Aloryana could have suggested it. If you do it that way, rather than suggesting it was your idea or mine, the Maitre is more likely to consider whether it is a good idea or not on the idea itself, rather than whether you came up with it or I did." Charyn smiled self-deprecatingly. "He might think it a bad idea, but how he answers might suggest other possibilities."
Charyn had the feeling that was about as much of a comment as he was going to get on that, and he eased the missive back onto his father's desk. "When do you meet with the Solidaran Factors' Council?"
"Not until the eighteenth of the month. That's when I meet with both the High Council and the Factors' Council. That meeting will be little more than a formality. The meeting in Ianus will be where everyone tells me what's wrong and what I should do that they don't wish to pay for. That's soon enough. Too soon."
"Are the factor councilors still opposed to the High Council's proposal to forbid excessive interest rates?"
"No one has told me. Since factors will do anything for gold, and hate to pay even an extra copper for anything, I imagine they are."
Charyn nodded. "What about the expansion of the regial post roads?"
"I almost wish that Maitre Arion hadn't disciplined the imagers in Westisle by making them build roads."
"Weren't the roads to Liantiago in terrible shape? Didn't they need rebuilding?"
"They did, but now the factors around Estisle want better roads, and the imagers building the new branch of the Collegium there aren't established enough to do that yet. The High Holders away from L'Excelsis and Liantiago are complaining that they can't get goods and crops to markets quickly, and that they're suffering from an unfair situation."
That made sense to Charyn, because in the years immediately after the failed High Holder revolt, the Collegium Imago in L'Excelsis had improved and widened the post road all the way to Kephria, as well as sections of the river road from the capital to Solis and the roads north from L'Excelsis to Rivages. "I thought the stone roads in old Telaryn were still in good condition."
"They are. Most don't lead to the larger cities or ports."
"Aren't the regional governors supposed to supervise post roads?"
"They claim I don't give them enough golds for all the work that needs to be done." Lorien shook his head. "There probably isn't after what they pocket."
"Maybe ..." Charyn immediately broke off his words, then added smoothly, "Perhaps, as you replace each regional governor, you should make it clear that certain roads need to be repaired and improved, and that such repairs will determine in part how long they serve."
"They'd just steal more until I caught them."
Charyn was afraid that was true as well, but wanted to keep his father talking, in hopes of learning something he didn't know. "What about an additional tariff on the banques ... the exchanges ...?"
"A plague on the banques and exchanges — they're what led to the revolt. Trading crops and debts and everything instead of producing. Speculation! Bah!"
Charyn nodded, but did not move. He'd learned early that patience was a necessity in dealing with his father ... and most people.
Close to a glass later, he left the study, nodding again to Maertyl as he did.
He was headed toward his own chambers before his other appointments when he passed Aloryana's door, just slightly ajar.
"Oh, no! Noooo!"
Charyn was struck by the distress in Aloryana's voice, and since her sitting room door was indeed ajar, he knocked and pushed it open. "Are you all right?" Aloryana was straightening up as he stopped in the doorway.
"Oh ... it's you. Thank the Nameless it wasn't Father. Or Mother!" Aloryana's eyes did not meet Charyn's.
"Oh?" Charyn could see that Aloryana held something silver in her hand. He thought he saw bluish gems as well. "Did you drop something?"
"Oh ... nothing."
"It didn't sound like nothing." Charyn waited.
"It's just a hair clasp."
"Is it broken? Maybe I can fix it."
"Thank you, Charyn. I'll take care of it." Aloryana immediately turned away and hurried into her bedchamber, closing the door behind her, and leaving Charyn standing alone in the sitting room.
Charyn couldn't help wondering what she had broken that she didn't want him to know about. Finally, he stepped back into the corridor and gently closed the door to the main corridor. He thought he heard sobbing, but he was far from certain.
Charyn was waiting in the receiving parlor of the Chateau D'Rex on Meredi morning when the footman appeared and announced, "Ferrand D'Delcoeur-Alte has arrived, sir."
"Please show him in." Charyn rose and waited.
Ferrand appeared. He was perhaps several digits taller than Charyn, with the blond hair, gray eyes, and narrow face that ran in that branch of the family. Unlike Charyn, he had unblemished skin and a weak pointed chin. He wore a dark green riding jacket and trousers, with gray boots that were polished, but not enough to disguise the fact that they were well-worn. He inclined his head as he entered the parlor and stopped.
"How are you, cousin?" asked Charyn.
"I'm near-destitute, and I'd have few enjoyments at all, if it weren't for you."
"Let's not talk about that," replied Charyn cheerfully, lowering his voice and adding, "Not here." Then he said, his voice louder, "The weather's not the best, but I need to get out of the chateau. I'd hoped you'd join me on a ride through the hunting park. You could take the gelding you've ridden before."
"I suppose I could manage that." Ferrand grinned. "Especially since your invitation was to go riding."
"I do try not to surprise people. Not my friends, anyway." Charyn gestured. "Shall we go?" He turned and headed for the north center door to the chateau, the one that opened onto the rear courtyard, at the back of which were the regial stables.
Neither young man spoke beyond pleasantries until they were mounted and riding away from the chateau across the ring road to the west and through the old wrought-iron gates in the stone wall that bordered the western edge of the ring road and out into what remained of the hunting park that dated back to before the times of old Bovaria. Two guards with rifles followed at a distance, far enough back that quiet conversation could not be overheard.
Excerpted from "Assassin's Price"
Copyright © 2017 L. E. Modesitt, Jr..
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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