A kingdom besieged, p.6
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       A Kingdom Besieged, p.6

           Raymond E. Feist

  Moving a short distance away from the throng surrounding the victor, Jim said, ‘Tal, I need to ask you a favour.’

  ‘What?’ replied Hawkins. His relationship with Jim Dasher and everyone else associated with the Conclave of Shadows had been a mixed one at best. They had saved his life as a child but exacted a high price in service, and even now, after he had been formally released from their service, they still were a presence in his life. He knew he owed all that he was to them, but there was no tender affection in his sense of obligation.

  ‘I need you to keep a close watch on young conDoin over there.’


  ‘Something’s coming. I will tell you more tonight, in private.’

  ‘Very well, but how am I to keep watch over him while he’s at the university living in the students’ dormitory?’

  ‘We don’t let him return there.’ Jim glanced over his shoulder at the two young swordsmen and their admirers. ‘Invite him to dine with your family at the River House tonight and I’ll chance by afterwards to have words with you both. Yes, that would serve.’

  ‘Very well, again,’ said Hawkins, nodding his head once, then moving past the dark-eyed Kingdom noble.

  Jim Dasher glanced around the room, trying to discern who might be observing him. If Kesh had agents in the room – which was almost certain – they would be very good at their jobs, which meant that he stood scant chance of identifying them. Still, a moment to scan the room was a little price to pay against the slight chance an agent might make a mistake and reveal himself.

  Or herself, he amended as he caught sight of a young woman staring at him, then averting her eyes a moment later. Jim resisted an impulse to sigh; irrespective of her true intent, she had wished to be noticed, and notice her he had. If she was only an am bitious status-seeker, singling out the slightly older, but still very eligible nobleman from the Kingdom for a possible profitable liaison, or a Keshian spy, he had to find out.

  Relaxing his expression and attempting to appear merely an interested spectator in the day’s events, he appeared to meander through the crowd, but made a straight path towards this woman.

  A brief distraction arrived in the form of Lord Carrington, a minor court baron attached to the Kingdom’s delegation to Roldem, a fussy, officious man with an inflated sense of his ability at diplomacy and a strong appetite for gossip. ‘Lord Jamison!’ he exclaimed, taking Jim’s hand for a brief, limp squeeze.

  ‘My lord,’ said Jim trying not to take his eyes off the beautiful brunette he felt certain was a Keshian spy.

  ‘Pity young Lord Henry didn’t continue,’ said Carrington. ‘Had a bit of gold wagered on him and it would have done wonders for the Isles to have a champion in the Masters’ Court. Still,’ he said glancing over his shoulder to where Ty and Hal still talked to the onlookers, ‘I suppose it’s the next best, what with Hawkins over there claiming some title or another in the west, even though he now resides in Olasko.’

  Sensing a potentially long conversation, Jim said, ‘I’ve known Talwin Hawkins for years, my lord Baron. His title is not “claimed” but his own.’

  ‘Oh?’ Like every other member of the King’s court in Rillanon, Carrington wasn’t entirely certain what Jim did for the Crown, but he knew it was important and, besides, his grandfather was still Duke of Rillanon. ‘I see.’

  ‘Somehow I don’t think you do,’ said Jim under his breath, then loudly spoke up. ‘Excuse me, my lord, I must speak to someone over there.’

  Before the portly courtier could reply, Jim was away from him and heading straight towards a large pillar next to which the object of his attention had paused. The woman glanced at Jim, and a small, almost flirtatious smile crossed her lips. Jim wondered if perhaps he had misjudged the woman: perhaps she wasn’t a agent of the Empire but merely a young woman with her eye on a man of position and wealth.

  He reached the pillar a moment after she had passed behind it, and she was nowhere to be seen.

  ‘I’ll be damned,’ Jim muttered, glancing around. He was very good at keeping watch on someone in a crowd, even across a busy market in a big city, but for the moment, he seemed to have met his match. She was better.

  Chapter Three



  At Tal Hawkins’ REQUEST, Hal and Phillip had dined at the River House, a restaurant located in one of the richer districts in the city. Named after the original establishment Hawkins had opened in the city of Olasko years earlier, it enjoyed much the same success and reputation as the original. The food was splendid, the most important personages in the Kingdom came to dine there, and not being a tavern or inn, the dining room was not crowded with travellers, merchants, and foreigners. In other words, the establishment appealed to the worst in Roldemish elitism and snobbery.

  To Hal’s surprise, a healer had arrived before the meal and had used some impressive magic to heal the groin injury and now he was beginning to wish he had agreed to a one-day postponement. He found himself drawn to Ty, though he still was fairly sure he disliked him after the way he had looked at the Princess. Hal was working himself into a fair state of youthful jealousy over a girl he hadn’t even spoken with, despite the fact it was a foregone conclusion he was to marry Lady Bethany of Carse.

  Jim had acted as host at dinner, despite the invitation coming from Tal. At first Hal and Phillip had been a little surprised, but after the first course of wine and food arrived, all questions of who had made the invitation were put aside. For Hal and Phillip, this was the finest meal they had ever had.

  At the halfway point, Hal said, ‘I feel fit to burst, my lord Hawkins, yet I can’t wait to see what your next culinary surprise is.’

  ‘Not “my lord”, just Tal.’

  Jim smiled. ‘Our host is being modest. He holds the title of Court Baron in the Kingdom, though he abides in Olasko now, and has a few commendations from Roldem.’ For years an in dependent duchy, Olasko had become part of the Kingdom of Roldem as part of a treaty settlement after the last independent duke, Kaspar, had been deposed. Tal had played a major hand in that and as a result was highly regarded in Roldem. He still resided in Olasko, but kept quarters in the River House.

  ‘Still,’ said Tal, ‘I fear my patents are—’ he glanced at Jim, ‘not of sufficient import to deserve the honorific.’ In fact, both men knew that the original role played by Tal, that of an obscure Kingdom noble, was a charade. Born of a tribal people high in the mountains called the High Fastness which bordered Olasko to the west, he had been one of the few survivors of a brutal war waged on his nation. Fate and circumstance, and the invisible hand of the Conclave of Shadows had led him around the world and had gained him fame and wealth, but it had come at a bitter price. Finally, he said, ‘Just Tal is fine.’

  ‘Where did you learn to fence?’ Ty asked Hal. ‘I didn’t expect such skill from someone from . . .’ he paused as if trying to pick his next words carefully. The Far Coast of the Kingdom might as well have been on another world to those who lived around the Sea of Kingdoms.

  Hal grinned. ‘The rustic West?’ he supplied.

  Swordmaster Phillip shrugged. ‘It’s true, but there are several lads I’ve trained who would be no shame to the Duchy of Crydee had they come in his stead.’

  ‘It’s not all broadswords and heater shields,’ said Hal. ‘Our family’s tradition is to train in a variety of weapons. The Far Coast is heavily wooded, with few places for battles on open land, so we train as we must to defend our homes.’

  ‘Interesting,’ said Tal. ‘I know from experience that terrain is critical, and those who do not know how to fight where they find themselves are at a disadvantage.’ He was thinking of his mountain ous homeland and how different warfare was there compared to the more civilized regions of the Eastern Kingdoms where there were roads and rivers to transport armies and their necessities.

  ‘We have a good number of archers,’ said Hal. ‘Both bondsmen and franklins, most of whom are ski
lled hunters with the longbow.’

  At that Tal smiled.

  ‘You know the bow?’ asked Phillip.

  As wine was poured by the servants, Talwin began to shake his head, but it was Jim who answered. ‘He can take a rider out of his seat at a hundred yards.’

  Tal’s eyes narrowed. That story was only known to a few and up until this minute he would have bet every gold coin he had that Jim Dasher had never heard the tale of his hunting down the mercenary named Raven.

  After being silent for a brief second, Tal said, ‘Could once, but I fear my skills have declined with age.’

  Suddenly Swordmaster Phillip was animated. ‘You know, speaking of riders, there’s this new sort of bow, Keshian originally, a double recurved laminated with ox horn instead of heartwood. Have you seen it?’

  Jim caught Tal’s eye and Hawkins said, ‘Yes, but perhaps we can discuss archery another time, Swordmaster.’ He had noticed that the last of the other diners had departed. ‘We are alone, Jim.’

  ‘The servants?’

  ‘All with me for years and trusted. If Roldem or Kesh has an agent in my employ, Pug’s got some magic-users who cannot do their jobs.’

  ‘Good enough,’ said Jim. He turned first to Hal, then Tal, and said, ‘I have sought you out to bring you warnings, both of you.’

  ‘What?’ asked the young Western lord, under the influence of a little too much wine, but not quite drunk.

  Jim held up his hand to silence him. ‘On instructions from the Prince of Krondor, the call has been sent to your father for the Western Muster.’

  Phillip was half out of his seat at hearing that. ‘I must return to Crydee at once!’

  ‘Please, sit,’ said Jim. ‘You can’t find a ship until morning to get you to Salador, so abide a few moments longer.’

  ‘Why the muster?’ Tal asked. ‘I would not have thought the West was at much risk.’

  ‘The Prince, at the King’s direction, is being cautious. All forces in the West – the Principality, the Southern Marches, Yabon, and Crydee – are to muster.’ Jim sat back, obviously unhappy. ‘It’s what we don’t know that has us worried.’ Glancing at Hawkins, he said, ‘Our Western friends are probably not too current with the gossip from the Imperial Keshian Court.’

  Hal said, ‘I suspect you’re not talking ladies’ fashions, as from what I hear, they hardly wear enough clothing to worry about such a thing.’ Seeing that his humour was falling flat, he sat back in his chair and said, ‘Sorry,’ to Ty’s obvious amusement.

  Tal shook his head. ‘Just that there’s a growing faction within their ruling body, the Gallery of Lords and Masters, between some of the Trueblood, especially among the Masters of the Chariots and some generals of the Inner Legion.’

  Phillip said, ‘If I know my history, it’s only about twenty years since the last time that alliance nearly plunged the Empire into civil war.’

  Jim paused for a moment, before saying, ‘Correct. Tal, what else is being gossiped about in the halls of power?’ He was uncertain how much either man knew (and he was certain both boys were ignorant of) the true nature of the events Phillip referred to. An evil sorcerer by the name of Leso Varen had taken possession of the old Emperor’s body and almost destroyed the heart of Great Kesh. The story made public had been that Pug and other members of the Academy of Magicians at Stardock had hunted down a rogue spell-caster who had attempted to destroy the royal family.

  Tal continued, ‘Most of what we hear seems to be the usual Keshian politics. The envoys to the Court of Roldem are much as you’d expect; Truebloods with ties to the Imperial Family, loyal beyond question to the Emperor, so what we hear over dinner is fairly much what you’d expect from those worthies.’ He looked at Jim. ‘Emperor Sezioti feels a debt to Pug and the Conclave, as well as having a much kinder perspective on the Kingdom for the aid that saved his family from Leso Varen.’

  ‘He does,’ said Jim. ‘However, not so many in the Gallery of Lords and Masters feel as the Imperials do. Remember, it’s been more than twenty years since Sezioti took the throne, and while his brother Dangai still commands the Inner Legions, outside the Imperials there are many of the Trueblood who seek to expand their power.’

  ‘But war with the Kingdom?’ asked Hal. ‘It makes no sense.’

  ‘On the surface,’ said Jim. ‘But there are two things that make me itch.’ He held up one finger. ‘A common enemy defuses internal conflict, and while the Emperor and his brother may feel some debt to the Kingdom for events long past, we’ve had more than enough bloodshed along the border, especially in the Vale of Dreams, to overwhelm those happier reminiscences.’ He held up a second finger. ‘They smell weakness. The Kingdom has never been more vulnerable.’

  Tal let out a long sigh. ‘The King.’

  ‘Yes, the King. Gregory is weak. And while his father Patrick was hardly that, he was imprudent. He let his well-known temper bring him to insult Kesh on more than one occasion. So we’ve lacked a prudent ruler for many years.

  ‘Edward is a fine administrator, but the West has been almost forgotten in a generation, and . . .’ He sat back.

  ‘What?’ asked Hal, now alarmed. ‘You don’t expect Kesh to attack Crydee, certainly?’

  ‘We must prepare for all eventualities,’ said Jim.

  Hal was suddenly focused, all hint of intoxication gone. ‘The muster will be kept close to home and no companies sent east until Krondor is threatened. Should we be attacked, Yabon will answer our call for reinforcements and Crydee’s forces will be sent to Yabon. Kesh would be foolish to sail up from Elarial and attack Tulan or Carse.’

  ‘You’ve a good military mind there, young Henry,’ said Jim. ‘But logic in war is often knowing things your enemy does not.’

  ‘We must be prepared,’ said Phillip, frowning. He had reached his limit of understanding. He might be a fine soldier and a decent tactician but complex strategy was beyond his area of expertise.

  ‘What makes you think Kesh might strike in the West?’ asked Tal.

  Choosing his words carefully, for only a handful of men in the Kingdom really understood his true role in the affairs of the Kingdom, Jim said, ‘I am led to believe there are large mobilizations of forces in the South, including garrisons in the Keshian Confederacy.’ The Confederacy was a large region of tribal lands, city states, and loose alliances dominated and controlled by Kesh for centuries, though they had never been fully pacified.

  ‘Can they draw forces from the garrisons in the Confederacy?’

  ‘Normally, no,’ answered Jim. An expression of concern crossed his face for a moment before it became unreadable once more.

  ‘The nations of the Confederacy are constantly in one of two conditions: open rebellion against the Empire, or planning the next rebellion. Those legions are vital for the stability of the southern third of the Empire. Without them, the Confederates would sweep north and occupy as much Imperial land as possible.’

  Ty glanced at his father, then asked Jim, ‘Why? I mean, if the Empire pulls its forces out of the Confederacy, wouldn’t the people in the Confederacy just . . . let them go away?’

  Jim forced a smile. ‘Not much Keshian history in your edu cation, eh?’ He turned serious again. ‘If you were to ride through that region, Ty, you’d find yourself in a miserable land.’

  He put his hands together and formed a circle, thumbs pointing upward, an inch apart. ‘Imagine this is the Confederacy. Across the top of the circle lie two ranges of mountains forming the Girdle of Kesh: the western, longer half is called the Belt.’ He wiggled his right thumb. ‘The shorter, eastern half is the Clasp.’ He wiggled his left thumb. ‘There are two towns on the north of the Girdle, Lockpoint and Teléman. Neither is rightly a town, more like very large garrisons with civilians to support them. Their task is to keep murderous hordes of very angry Confederates from sweeping north through the only major pass, between the Belt and the Clasp.

  ‘To the east of what passes for arable land is the Drahali-Kapu
r desert. To the west the Dragon Mere swamplands, and south an arid, rolling plain leading to more mountains, swamps, and woodlands aptly named the Forest of the Lost, because no one who’s ever ventured in there has come back to tell us what’s in there. As for the plains, they’re hardly useful: thin topsoil and little water, except when it’s storm season and everything is under three feet of water for a month.

  ‘In short, the people who reside in the Confederacy would prefer to live just about anywhere else in the world but on their own land. But, and here you see the perverse nature of human-kind in fullest flower, they’ll happily kill one another over who gets to squat on which miserable piece of land. There’s one town on a rocky peninsula called Brijané, home to the Brijaner sea raiders. The Imperial treasury pays them handsomely not to build ships to transport people north from the Confederacy. And they pretty much hate everyone else down there, especially the Ashunta horsemen.

  ‘But the one thing that keeps the mountain people from killing the flatlanders, the flatlanders from killing the swamp raiders and everyone from killing the desert-men is a universal hatred of the Empire. That’s what binds them together.’

  Jim looked off into the distance for a moment, thinking, then said, ‘No, I cannot begin to imagine how Kesh could strip her southern garrisons for a war in the north. Yet . . .’

  ‘Doesn’t the King have agents in Kesh?’ Hal asked.

  Jim glanced at Tal and then said, ‘It is rumoured so.’ He shrugged. ‘But information is scant and unreliable.’

  ‘Well, then,’ said Hal. ‘We’ll just have to be ready for whatever Kesh brings.’ He didn’t sound like a young man exhibiting false bravado, but rather a thoughtful future leader of men.

  Jim studied him for a moment, then glanced around. ‘It’s getting late and I must get to bed soon, for there’s a full day of diplomatic nonsense I must endure before tomorrow’s gala.’ Everyone stood, and Jim said, ‘Hal, if I might request something.’

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