“I give you a simple project, and what happens? You stir up trouble all over the southern provinces,” Tammon McLeod scowled at his youngest son, who stood before him unapologetic.
Parno and his men had returned to Nasil only the day before. Almost at once a courier had appeared, informing the youngest Prince of Soulan that the Kind demanded an audience first thing on the morrow.
The trip had been exhausting on both men and animals. They had, in fact, pushed into the night in order to reach Nasil rather than make camp again in the open. After three months in the saddle nearly every day, even the hardiest of the troopers were showing signs of fatigue.
Their travels had not been in vain, however. Over the course of their prison visitations, Parno, Darvo and Karls had found eight hundred and seventy-nine men they considered as ‘possible’ for the new regiment. True, some would undoubtedly have to be sent back. But considering the long odds they had faced at the outset, Parno was rather happy with the way things stood.
Or he had been, until now.
“I did not stir up trouble, My King,” Parno said evenly, on his best behavior. “I have, in fact, stopped a crime from being committed. Committed in your name, in fact. The priest in question had forged official looking documents that granted him ‘royal authority’ to burn people at the stake.”
“What?” Tammon’s attitude changed abruptly.
“And had co-opted the local constable into helping him as well,” Parno added with a nod, hoping to capitalize on the shift in Tammon’s attention.
“In my name?” the King almost yelled.
“Yes, Milord,” Parno answered. “I stopped the act before it could be finished, and took both men into custody. Took them to the provincial capital, in fact, where I handed them immediately over to the authorities. Our only involvement, after that, was to testify as to what we observed upon our arrival.”
“I also,” Parno continued, “took the liberty to speak for you in refuting the priest’s claim of any such Royal authority. I pointed out your unswerving dedication to equal justice for all under the law, and the fact that you would never authorize something like a man being burned alive.
“So all this rumbling about your interference in affairs of justice?” Tammon inquired, his voice, for once, minus it’s normal sneer. Normal when dealing with Parno, at any rate.
“Just that, Milord,” Parno nodded again. “Rumbling. I took no hand in the trial, other than my testimony as to what I had witnessed. Something any good citizen should do, and certainly something any member of the Royal Family is required to do.”
“Just so,” Memmnon nodded in agreement. Memmnon, in addition to his work as de facto foreign secretary, was also responsible for the King’s Justice. Appointments to the King’s Bench, and the King’s constables, a more powerful organization than the provincial constables, fell to him. As such, the officers of the King’s Justice, all officers, regardless of rank or position, were under his authority. Which meant under royal authority.
“It is the responsibility of all those of noble rank to ensure fair treatment, and adherence to the law,” Memmnon added firmly. “I deem you to have acted properly.”
Parno nodded his thanks to his oldest sibling. While it irked him to need Memmnon’s approval on his actions, the support from his brother was welcome in any setting.
“Very well,” Tammon said abruptly. “Then you have indeed, for once, acted like a member of this family, and fulfilled your duty. I trust you will return to your old self shortly, however, providing embarrassment and aggravation to the Crown.”
Parno grimaced openly at that. For once, he had believed, he had won his father’s approval. Leave it to Tammon McLeod, however, to crush those hopes while still new born.
“I’ll do my best, Father,” he replied, voice tinged with bitterness.
“How is your project coming, Parno?” Memmnon asked suddenly. He, too, was disappointed in Tammon’s attitude.
“We have a good group,” Parno replied. “I’ve no doubt that some will prove unsuitable, but I am fairly confident in the lot as a whole. As are Colonel Nidiad and Captain Willard,” he added.
“Their training?” Memmnon pressed.
“Will begin soon,” Parno nodded. “Probably within a fortnight, but no longer than a month. The prisoners are already under escort to Cove. I had planned to stay here only long enough to make my report to you.”
“What is their reaction to being allowed into this trial?” Tammon asked, genuinely curious.
“They seem genuinely happy for the opportunity to prove themselves, and to have a chance at making a contribution to society. The idea that they can earn even a limited freedom, especially with their families near by, has convinced more than one to try his hand at soldiering.”
“See to it they are not allowed too much freedom,” Tammon growled. “They are still criminals.”
“The rules are quite strict, Sire,” Parno assured his father. “With Captain Willard’s company, there are sufficient soldiers on hand to ensure security.”
“Well, so long as they don’t cause any trouble,” Tammon waved his hand in dismissal. “That will be all, Parno. I’m sure you will want to return to your men as soon as possible.”
Parno knew a dismissal when he heard it. He bowed stiffly, and deeper than usual, then turned to go.
“I will walk out with you, brother,” Memmnon said suddenly, surprising both Parno and Tammon.
“We meet with the Norland Ambassador in minutes, Memmnon,” the King reminded his eldest son.
“I will be there,” Memmnon assured his father.
Once outside, Memmnon looked at his youngest brother apologetically.
“I’m sorry, Parno,” he said sincerely. “There was no call for those final remarks.”
“It is a small thing, anymore, brother,” Parno lied easily. “I have long since learned to ignore him.” Just like I do the rest of you, he had no need to add. Memmnon’s face flushed just the same.
“Your actions were just, and proper, and I, for one, thank you for them,” Memmnon said. His voice was not grudging, nor condescending. It rang with honesty, and sincerity.
“You need to take a closer look at what’s going on in that region, Memmnon,” Parno advised. “There is an ugly feel to the whole area. The Constable’s office was a joke. I have to agree with Darvo. It would have been bad enough had it been in some backwards township, far removed from society as a whole. But the Provincial Capital?”
“I was only there a short time, of course,” Parno continued. “But in that time, I have to admit that things felt, well, off somehow. I can’t tell you anything specific, just a general feeling of unease among the entire area. Especially around Bingham.”
“I have already dispatched one of my best investigators, backed by a dozen King’s Constables. If there is anything out of sorts, it will be dealt with, I promise.”
“Good,” Parno nodded. “There is something else. Two something’s actually. Two cases I’d like you to look at, when time allows. I believe they were handled badly, and I’d like your opinion of them. I know too little to trust my own judgement in these matters.” He handed Memmnon a small leather valise. Inside were the records of Cho Feng, and Brenack Wysin. Memmnon’s eyebrows raised slightly.
“Interfering in the matters of Justice, Parno?” he asked lightly.
“There is no justice in these, if I am right,” Parno said darkly. “It grieves me to say it, but it seems so. I will let you be the judge, since it is your position. I ask only that you do that which is right. You will see what I mean.” Memmnon considered his brother carefully for a moment, then nodded.
“I will review this tonight, if possible,” he said. “I make no promises. . . .”
“I ask you for no promises, Memmnon,” Parno said evenly. “I ask only that you look for yourself. If it makes you feel better, it was Karls Willard who brought them to my attention.” Memmnon’s eyebrows rose to new height at that.
“As to Karls,” Parno added, “I have a request to make, one that I cannot broach. Willard is, in fact if not law, Darvo’s second. He should be promoted to Major, if not Lieutenant Colonel, something I am not allowed to do. Any suggestion I make to Therron will have negative consequences for his career, as you well know. Please mention to him that Karls is deserving of promotion.”
“I will do that,” Memmnon agreed immediately. “Today, in fact. Now, I must go. The Norland ambassador will be here presently, and I am required to be there.”
“The Norland Ambassador,” Parno repeated. “Doesn’t sound right, does it?”
“No,” his brother snorted. “No, it doesn’t. Nor does it feel right, I admit. The man is a weasel. And his words are far too silky. But Father desires peace if at all possible. And,” Memmnon added, reluctantly, “the Norland Emperor has been very forthcoming in the last year, two years really.”
“Too forthcoming, perhaps?” Parno asked.
“I. . .I would dislike to say that, in all honesty,” Memmnon said, his voice absent it’s usual confidence. “But, I cannot shake this feeling that the man is simply going through the motions. There have been many things discussed between us, especially in the last year. He has not. . .fought, if you will, hard enough. There have been several concessions made by the Norland government. All very favorable to us. And the ambassador has offered only token resistance in our negotiations.”
“It. . .bothers me, somehow,” Memmnon concluded. Suddenly aware of what he had said, and to whom, he resumed his Crown Prince persona.
“Anyway, I will do as you request, brother,” he said, voice now once again that of Ruler To Be. “I must go. Take care, and safe journey.” With that Memmnon turned abruptly and strode away. Parno watched him go, concern upon his face.
What was Norland up too, anyway? Among the Soulan people, it was an accepted fact that, once every generation, two at most, the hordes of Norland would come sweeping down upon the Southern Kingdom. It was a fact of life that Soulan had long ago gotten used to, just as they had the sun’s rising in the east, and setting in the west. Now, all of a sudden, Norland wanted to play nice?
It made no sense, not from a ruling family that had sworn to see Soulan subdued, brought under the Norland heel. Peace would be nice, Parno agreed, and did not blame his father for pursuing any chance there might be to have it. But after centuries of ill will, two or three years of diplomatic niceties were not enough to erase the natural distrust that Soulan had for the Northern Kingdom. The Empire, as they liked to call it.
What Parno needed was someone who ventured North regularly, a merchant perhaps, taking advantage of the North’s new trade allowances. Someone who would be able to simply look around. Not so much spy as simply observe.
As he returned to his rooms, Parno determined to find such a person. Someone who traveled to more than one area, if possible, and had an eye for detail. Maybe more than one person, even. He smiled as he thought of the possibilities. Parno McLeod, spymaster.
His father would have a stroke for sure.