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Authors: Michael J. Sullivan

The Crown Conspiracy

BOOK: The Crown Conspiracy
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Michael J. Sullivan
The Crown Conspiracy
Book One of the Riyria Revelations
To my wife, Robin, (my biggest fan, critic, contributor, and publicist)
whose hard work and dedication made it all possible.
And to my daughter, Sarah, who would not read the story until published.

Chapter 1: Stolen Letters

Archibald Ballentyne held the world in his hands, conveniently contained within fifteen stolen letters. Each parchment was penned with meticulous care in a fine, elegant script. He could tell the writer believed that the words were profound and that their meaning conveyed a beautiful truth. Archibald felt the writing was drivel, yet he agreed with the author that they held a value beyond measure. He took a sip of brandy, closed his eyes, and smiled.
He sat by the fire, savoring the moment and appraising his future. As Earl of Chadwick, he already possessed ample wealth, a modest position at court, and of course, his exceptional good looks. Most ruling nobles were potbellied, gout-ridden, old bores. He, on the other hand, was in his prime: fit and tall with a full head of auburn hair, chiseled features, and piercing blue eyes. Archibald was proud of his appearance. He could obtain wealth and fame through any number of means, but to be born handsome was a gift for the deserving. He accentuated his natural virtues by wearing the finest imported fashions made with expensively dyed silks, embroidered linens, and feathers from exotic birds. His fellow nobles admired him for his elegant style. Soon his prestige would be elevated to the same enviable level.
“M’lord?”
Reluctantly, Archibald opened his eyes and scowled at his master-at-arms. “What is it, Bruce?”
“The marquis has arrived, sir.”
Archibald’s smile returned. He carefully refolded the letters, tied them in a stack with a blue ribbon, and returned them to his safe. He closed its heavy iron door, snapped the lock in place, and tested the seal with two sharp tugs on the unyielding bolt. He then headed downstairs to greet his guest.
When Archibald reached the foyer, he spied Victor Lanaklin waiting in the anteroom. He paused for a moment and watched the old man pacing back and forth, and it brought him a sense of satisfaction. While the marquis enjoyed a superior title, he had never impressed Archibald. Perhaps he was once lofty, intimidating, or even gallant, but all that was lost long ago, shrouded under a mat of gray hair and a hunched back.
“May I offer you something to drink, your lordship?” a mousy steward asked the marquis with a formal bow.
“No, but you can get me your earl,” he commanded,” or shall I hunt for him myself?”
The steward cringed. “I am certain my master will be with you presently, sir.” The servant bowed again and hastily retreated through a door on the far side of the room.
“Marquis!” Archibald called out graciously as he made his entrance. “I am so pleased you have arrived—and so quickly.”
“You sound surprised.” Victor’s voice was sharp. Shaking a wrinkled parchment clasped in his fist, he continued, “You send a message like this and expect me to delay? Archie, I demand to know what is going on.”
Archibald concealed his disdain at the use of his childhood nickname, Archie. This was the moniker his dead mother had given him and one of the reasons he would never forgive her. As a youth, everyone from the knights to the servants had used it, and he always felt demeaned by its familiarity. Once he became Earl, he made it law in Chadwick that anyone referring to him as such would suffer the loss of his tongue. Archibald did not have the power to enforce the edict on the marquis, and he was certain Victor used it intentionally.
“Please do try to calm down, Victor.”
“Don’t tell me to calm down!” The marquis’ voice echoed off the stone walls. He moved closer, his face mere inches from the younger man’s, and glared into his eyes. “You wrote that my daughter Alenda’s future was at stake and you had evidence of this. Now I must know—is she, or is she not, in danger?”
“She is most certainly,” the earl replied calmly, “but nothing imminent, to be sure. There is no kidnapping plot, nor is anyone planning to murder her, if that is what you fear.”
“If you’ve caused me to run my carriage team to near collapse while I worried myself sick for nothing, you will regret—”
Holding up his hand, Archibald cut the threat short. “I assure you, Victor, it is not for nothing. Nevertheless, before we discuss this further, let us retire to the comfort of my study where I can show you the evidence I mentioned.”
Victor glowered at him but nodded in agreement.
The two men crossed the luxurious foyer, passed through the large reception hall, and veered off through an ornate door that led to the living quarters of the castle. As they traversed various hallways and stairways, the atmosphere of their surroundings changed dramatically. In the main entry, fine tapestries and etched stonework adorned the walls, and the floors were made of finely crafted marble; yet, beyond the entry, no displays of grandeur were found, leaving barren walls of stone the predominate feature.
By architectural standards, or any other measures, Ballentyne Castle was unremarkable and ordinary in every respect. No great king or hero ever called the castle home. Nor was it the site of any legend, ghost story, or battle. Instead, it was the perfect example of mediocrity and the mundane. For twelve generations, the Ballentynes lived there. Each earl, including Archibald’s father Albright, had tried to advance his position, but in the end, his failures left the House of Ballentyne anchored to the morass of nobility’s middle tier. Only time would determine if Archibald would succeed, where so many others had previously failed.
After some time, Archibald led Victor to a formidable door made of cast iron. Impressive, oversized bolts secured the door at its hinges, but it displayed no visible latch or knob. Flanking either side of the door stood two large, well-armored guards bearing halberds. Upon Archibald’s approach, one rapped on the door three times. A tiny viewing window opened, and a moment later, the hall echoed with the sharp sound of a bolt snapping back. As the door opened, the metal hinges screamed with a deafening noise.
Victor’s hands moved to defend his ears. “By Mar! Have one of your servants tend to that!”
“Never,” Archibald replied. “This is the entrance to the Gray Tower—my private study and treasure room. This is my safe haven, if you will. I want to hear this door opening from anywhere in the castle, which I can.”
Stationed behind the door, Bruce greeted the pair with a deep and stately bow. Holding a lantern before him, he escorted the men up a wide spiral staircase.
Halfway up the tower, Victor’s pace slowed, and his breathing appeared labored. Archibald paused courteously.
“I know it’s a long way. I’ve climbed these stairs a thousand times. I used to hide up here when my father was Earl. This was the one place I could be alone. No one ever wanted to take the time or effort to climb these stairs to the top. While it may not reach the majestic height of the Crown Tower at Ervanon, it is the tallest tower in my castle.”
“I’d think people would make the climb merely to see the view,” Victor speculated.
The earl chuckled. “You would think so, but this tower has no windows. After I became Earl, I decided it was the perfect location for my private study, and I added doors to protect the things dear to me.”
When they reached the top of the stairs, they encountered another door. Archibald removed a large key from his pocket and unlocked it. He gestured politely for the marquis to enter. Once they were both inside, Archibald left Bruce outside to stand guard and closed the door behind them.
The room was large and circular with an expansive ceiling. The furnishings were sparse: a large disheveled desk, two cushioned chairs near a small fireplace, and a delicate table between them. A fire burned in the hearth behind a simple brass screen, illuminating most of the study. The candles, which lined the walls, provided light to the remaining areas and filled the chamber with a pleasant, heady aroma of honey and salifan.
Archibald smiled when he noticed Victor eyeing the cluttered desk overflowing with various scrolls and maps. “Don’t worry, sir. I hid all the truly incriminating plans for world domination prior to your visit,” he quipped. “Please do sit down.” Archibald gestured toward the pair of chairs near the hearth. “Rest yourself from your long journey while I pour us a drink.”
The older man scowled and grumbled, “Enough of the tour and formalities. We are here now. Explain what this is all about.”
Archibald ignored the marquis’ tone. He could afford to be gracious now that he was about to claim his prize. He waited while the marquis took his seat.
“You are aware, are you not, that I have shown an interest in your daughter Alenda?” Archibald asked, walking to the desk to pour two glasses of brandy.
“Yes, she’s mentioned it to me.”
“Has she told you why she has refused my advances?”
“She doesn’t like you.”
“She hardly knows me,” countered Archibald with a raised finger.
“Archie, is this why you asked me here?”
“I would appreciate your addressing me by my proper name. It is inappropriate to call me that since my father is dead and I hold title. In any case, concerning your question, it does have a bearing on the subject. As you know, I am the twelfth Earl of Chadwick. Granted, it’s not a huge estate, and Ballentyne isn’t the most influential of families, but I am not without merit. I control five villages and twelve hamlets, as well as the strategic Senon Uplands. I currently command more than sixty professional men-at-arms, and twenty knights are loyal to me—including Sir Enden and Sir Breckton, both of whom rank in the top fifty on the tournament circuit. Chadwick’s wool and leather exports are the envy of the whole of Warric, and there is talk of the Summersrule Games being held here on the very lawn you crossed to enter my castle.”
“Yes, Archie—I mean Archibald—I am well aware of Chadwick’s status in the world. I don’t need a commerce lesson from you.”
“Are you also aware that King Ethelred’s nephew has dined here on more than one occasion? Or that the Duke and Lady of Rochelle have promised to invite me to Wintertide this year?”
“Archibald, this is quite tiresome. What exactly is your point?”
Archibald frowned at the marquis’ lack of awe. He carried over the glasses of brandy, handed one to Victor, and took the remaining seat. He paused a moment to sip his liquor.
“My point is this. Given my position, my stature, and my promising future—why would Alenda reject me? Certainly, it is not because of my appearance. The rest of her suitors are old, fat, or bald—in several cases all three.”
“Perhaps looks and wealth are not her only concern,” replied Victor. “Women don’t always think about politics and power. Alenda is the kind of girl who follows her heart.”
“But she also follows her father’s wishes. Am I correct?”
“I don’t understand your meaning.”
“If you told her to marry me, she would.”
“That is not a certainty. Alenda has been known to disobey me.”
“As her father perhaps, but would she refuse a command from the Marquis of Glouston?” Archibald pressed. “You could order her to marry me.”
“So, this is why you coerced me into coming here? I’m sorry, Archibald, but you have wasted your time and mine. I refuse to force her to wed a man she doesn’t want. She would hate me for the rest of her life. I care more about my daughter’s feelings than the political implications of her marriage. I happen to cherish Alenda. Of all my children, she is my greatest joy.”
Archibald took another sip of brandy and considered Victor’s remarks. He decided to approach the subject from a different direction. “What if it were for her own good? To save her from what would be certain disaster.”
“You warned me of danger to get me here. Are you finally ready to explain, or would you prefer to see if this old man can still handle a blade?”
Archibald disregarded what he knew was an idle threat. “When Alenda repeatedly declined my advances, I reasoned something must be amiss. There was no logic to her rebuffs. Look at me. I am a rich and handsome man. I have connections and my star is rising. The reason for your daughter’s refusal is quite simple: she is already involved with someone else. She is having an affair—a secret affair.”
“I find that difficult to believe,” Victor declared. “Who is this man? Why would she not tell me?”
“It is little wonder she’s kept it from you. She is ashamed. You see, the man she is entertaining is a mere commoner without a single drop of royal blood in his veins.”
“You’re lying!”
“Perhaps you’ve heard of him. His name is Degan Gaunt. A troublemaker I hear, part of the Nationalist movement out of Delgos. They rendezvous at Windermere near the monastery. They meet on nights when you are away or occupied with matters of state.”
“That is ridiculous. My daughter would never—”
“Don’t you have a son there?” Archibald inquired. “At the abbey, I mean. He’s a monk, isn’t he?”
Victor nodded. “Myron. He is my third son.”
“Perhaps he has been helping them. I’ve made inquiries and it seems your Myron is a very intelligent fellow. Perhaps he is masterminding liaisons for his beloved sister and carrying their correspondence.”
“You are insane,” Victor shot back, suppressing a bitter laugh. “I sent Myron to the abbey when he was barely four years old. He hasn’t set foot outside its walls in thirty-two years. All he is good for is scribbling books. To my knowledge, Alenda has never even spoken to him. This whole story is obviously a pathetic attempt to have me pressure Alenda into marrying you, and I know why. You don’t care about her. You want her dowry. The Rilan Valley borders ever so nicely against your own lands. Not to mention, marrying into my family would be quite a boost for you, socially and politically.”
“Pathetic, am I?” Archibald set down his glass and produced a key on a silver neck chain from inside his shirt. He rose and crossed the room to a tapestry depicting a Calian prince on horseback abducting a fair-haired noblewoman. He drew it back revealing the hidden safe, and inserting the key, opened the small metal door.
“I have a stack of letters written in your precious daughter’s hand that proves it. They tell of her undying love for her disgusting peasant.”
“How did you get these letters?”
“I stole them from her. I knew she was seeing someone and wanted to know who y rival was, so I had her followed. Once I discovered she was sending letters, I arranged to have them intercepted.” From the safe, Archibald brought forth a stack of parchments and dropped them in Victor’s lap. “There!” he declared triumphantly. “Read what your daughter has been up to, and decide for yourself whether or not she would be better off marrying me.”
Archibald lifted his brandy glass victoriously; he had won. In order to avoid political ruin, Victor Lanaklin, the great Marquis of Glouston, would order his daughter to marry him. Finally, he would have the borderland, and perhaps in time, he would control the whole of the marchland. With Chadwick in his right hand and Glouston in his left, his power at court would rival that of the Duke of Rochelle.

BOOK: The Crown Conspiracy
5.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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