Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Works-in-Progress Wednesday: "Inkweaver" Excerpt--In the Court of Count Bergen

I just realize that it's been a while since I have posted a regular excerpt of my current project, Inkweaver. The last consecutive excerpt I posted is here, and this excerpt is what follows. Enjoy!

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As soon as I reached the market square—a wide-open area in front of the castle courtyard, a hurtling body nearly knocked me over. I felt arms around me, gripping firmly as a voice squealed, “I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it! It wasn’t me! Help me, please! You have to help me!”
I heaved the person off of me, feeling the coating of grime he left upon my hands. His hair was matted and coarse, his clothing hung in dirty tatters from his dirty, gaunt body. He crumpled to the ground, fawning at my feet and grabbing my ankles as he begged, “Help me! Help me! I didn’t do it, I swear!”

“Stand aside in the name of Count Bergen!” Four soldiers in glistening armor approached us. One of them stepped forward and grabbed the babbling man by the hair. “There you are, you miserable miscreant!” he growled.
“Wait!” I cried as the man whimpered. “What are you doing with this man?”
The soldier leered down at me. “Man? Ha!” he spat. “This is no man—he’s only an empty-headed fool who is under arrest for publicly ridiculing the Count!”
“Please!” the fool wailed, “It wasn’t me! I didn’t do it, I swear!”
“Shuttup!” The soldier gave the man’s head a shake. “Of course you did it! No one else could have!”

“Sir,” I knew Larryn was watching, so I had to take the “leap” like she wanted; more than that, I needed to show her that not all encounters were providential. It very well seemed that this situation was well in hand already, and she needed to see that. I stepped forward, “Do you have proof that this man committed the crime you have named?”
The soldier glared at me, “What are you, his counsel?”
He still held the man’s head—and I knew that the longer I kept talking, the longer the man might live, whether he was innocent or would be proven guilty. “Let us assume for the moment that I am,” I said. “Please tell me your proof.”
“Well, lookee here, simpleton!” the soldier guffawed, “Looks like you’ve got yourself a lady champion! Lissen here, girl: everybody at the party last night heard his awful jokes, and he was seen leaving the castle shortly after the cry was raised to call him account for his shoddy showmanship! What do you say to that?”

To hear the man speak, it sounded like they had a solid case built against this man—but I watched the fool, and the more I did, the more I could not tear my eyes away. He held my gaze, and his eyes seemed to bore into my mind.
“Well?” the soldier growled.
I blinked; an idea took shape in my mind of a clever way I could outwit the falsehoods and gain the truth of the matter. The Inkweaver’s voice echoed clearly in my mind: A hasty word stirs up anger, but a gentle answer deflects wrath. “Take the man to trial, if you must,” I announced, “But I will go with you into the castle.”
The soldier stared at me for a long time—then he snapped, “Come, then!” he said, and he hauled the wailing fool toward the castle courtyard. I scurried after them, leaving my astonished friends to wait and find out what would happen to me now.

The fool’s cries bounced off the stones and began to grate on my nerves.
“Fool!” I cried through clenched teeth.
The soldier stopped and whirled on me, “What did you call me?” He thundered.
I shook my head. “Not you; him,” I pointed to the prisoner. “What’s your name?”
“Call me Thorn,” he said, panting heavily from the pain of the fist still clamped on his head.
I glanced up at the soldier. “I would like a private word with Thorn,” I said.
“Oh no you don’t!” the burly guard growled. “For all I know, you’re in league with him, and you’ll escape the moment he’s out of my grasp.”
“I promise,” I said, holding the soldier’s gaze, “he will not disregard this chance to clear his name. What I have to say to him will make him more agreeable.”
The soldier swung his fist forward, releasing Thorn as he did so. The frail man tumbled over the stones of the courtyard. I bent down to whisper to him.

“Listen carefully, Thorn; I think our best chance of getting the truth out of these people will be to remain silent. You know what they say, ‘A fool can be thought wise if he holds his tongue’; perhaps we may find truth in that statement.” Actually, it was another one of the sayings of the Inkweaver, but I figured it might fit the circumstance, with there being a fool and all.
Thorn blinked at me. “Where have you come from?” he gasped, more lucid than I ever thought possible.
“That’s enough!” The soldier’s hand came between us, and hauled Thorn upright by his collar. “Walk, fool!” He commanded.
Thorn obeyed, and—true to my suggestion—he kept his mouth shut the whole time. The two of us were so quiet, I could hear the guard mutter under his breath, “There’s something funny about this lady, that’s certain!”
I just hoped my behavior wasn’t too “funny” to be taken seriously when we were at the trial—whatever that would be.

Two minutes later, we stood in the court of Count Bergen—adjacent to the ballroom I had visited only the night before. The Count himself presided—if it could be called that.
He sprawled on his high throne, red-faced and irritable. His steward stood before him, reading off a list of duties.
"Taxes are due—"
"Collect them!" hollered the Count.
"There is the matter of the treaty with Vordin—"
"Not till they agree to my terms!" he snapped irritably. "No more negotiating! It's time to act!"
"I quite agree with your Lordship." The servant cast a sidelong glance at us as the soldier led us into the court. Now, as for the trial of the traitorous fool—"
"Eh? What's this?" The Count leaned out of his chair suddenly, blinking his bloodshot eyes at us. "What trial?"

The steward licked his lips and cleared his throat for a prepared speech. "The fool who told offensive jokes at your party last night, Excellency. You ordered him to be tried and executed."
I glanced at Thorn, and he shook his head—but, true to our agreement, he did not say a word.
"I did, did I?" Bergen was saying to the self-important steward. "Well then, carry on—"

"Your Grace!" I stepped forward just as the count was in the act of signing the death sentence. "If I may—"
"What is this?" The count asked, peering at me.
"Who are you?" demanded the steward.
"Milord, my name is Shereya and I am here prepared to defend this man as the evidence allows."
"Defend a dissenter?" the servant hid his nervousness with incredulity. "Defend a rioter? Defend a murderer? Lady, do you have any idea what you are doing?"
The words came floating back: "As a mirror reflects a face..." I turned to the steward. "Pardon; perhaps I have misjudged him because his face is dirty. If his face were clean, I could see him for the troublemaker he is."

"You're stalling!" cried the steward. "Your Grace, this woman is not from Aberon; she knows nothing of this case! She is only getting in your way."

"Pipe down, Umbarge!" Count Bergen waved a hand. "So much for this babbling fool of yours! So far you've said ten times as much as anybody, and I'm tired of your jabber. Go and get this man a towel to wipe his face!"
The steward Umbarge could do nothing against the command of his master.

Minutes later, a servant-girl brought a damp towel in a dish. I handed this to Thorn, who picked it up and wiped his face with it.
The man underneath the grime had strong—if rather hollow—features, and a piercing gaze.
Umbarge stepped forward again. "Now, if your Excellency requires nothing further, we may continue with the formal order and have the miscreant punished for his crime!"
I couldn't let that happen. "What crime?" I asked just as Count Bergen reached for the quill to sign the order.
"Why, insubordination, treachery, rebellion—no dissension must be allowed in the Count's presence!" Umbarge grinned smugly. "Defend that, if you can!"
I looked up at the Count to discern whether he was buying the words of his steward, but his gaze seemed fixed on Thorn.
“What did you say your name was?” he asked in a low, husky voice.

Umbarge could see his dominance slipping. “He did not give a name, Your Grace,” he said quickly. “No doubt when we discover it, he will be revealed as some fugitive from a neighboring—“
“Thorn,” I answered.
Umbarge broke off and blinked at me. “What?”

I took a deep breath and ignored the steward, looking instead at the Count. “His name is Thorn.” Then, as a flurry of hope filled my chest, I asked further. “Do you know him?”
The Count couldn’t tear his eyes away, neither could he speak. I was worried Umbarge might take advantage of him again, but suddenly I heard the same strong voice that had spoken to me in the marketplace.
“The Count knows me as well as any man might know his savior.” Thorn had finally spoken up in his own defense!
Now it was my turn to turn to him and cry, “What?”

A thin smile played around Thorn’s lips. “Your Eminence, what is the method for escaping the clutches of blackrope?”
“Blackrope? What nonsense are you babbling about now, fool?” Umbarge seethed, but the Count seemed stricken by his words.

“Years ago… I was trapped… nearly smothered by the foul vines…” The eyes were clearer now, and the Count seemed more alert as he adjusted his posture upright. “If it had not been for the actions of one man, I would have suffocated… and I never knew—" Suddenly the Count leaped to his feet. “You were the man! Why did you not come forward sooner?”

Thorn smiled and bowed as both Umbarge and I stared incredulously. “There was no need—until last night, Milord, when one of your servants tried to poison you.”
Count Bergen raised a hand to his throat. “Poison? Who has done this thing?”
“It has not happened yet, Milord,” Thorn answered, “and what your dim-witted servant would have you to believe were vulgar jokes on my part last night was actually a cryptic conversation between myself and a few others. Through our combined efforts, every scrap of tainted food was successfully diverted from your Lordship’s table, and I am here to warn you that if you do not take action against the perpetrator, he will again attempt on your life tonight, and I will not be there to save you.”

I had been so engrossed in the scene unfolding before me that I didn’t notice until just that moment the disappearance of Umbarge. When had he left—and why?
The Count, meanwhile, was indignant that someone in his company the previous night had tried to poison him. “Who is it? Tell me, that I may mete out justice on him!”
Thorn now noticed that we two were the only ones in the Count’s presence, and shook his head. “It is your servant Umbarge, who—if I am not mistaken—is attempting to escape at this very moment.”

“Guards!” Count Bergen thundered. He stepped down from his throne and took Thorn by the hand. “Thank you for your faithfulness, even when I could not acknowledge it. Such a man I would pay handsomely to have as my steward. I hereby appoint you to the post once occupied by the traitor Umbarge, and I swear that there will be no safe place in Aberon for him hereafter!”
Thorn bowed, and as Count Bergen swept out of the room, he turned to me and took my hand.
“Thank you, Lady Shereya, for representing me in this matter; I do not doubt it would have turned out very differently if it were not for your prudent counsel and wise words.” He bowed and kissed my hand, and my face burned as I considered what I would have done if it had not been for Larryn’s dare. I had almost believed Umbarge’s accusations myself, and would have never considered the ramifications of calling for his face to be washed.
I floated out of the castle on a cloud, and met my friends at the gate.

“It’s done,” I said, as the old fear returned and gripped my heart. I had stood calmly in the courtroom, but all the confidence seemed to slip away from me, leaving me trembling all over.
“See Shereya?” Larryn encouraged, “Was it really as terrible as you thought?”
I had to admit, it wasn’t the total failure I thought it would be. “In a way it wasn’t,” I allowed, but, “Then again—I don’t want to go through another situation like that any time soon. Let’s keep going, and no more talk about the voices, okay?” I asked her.
Larryn nodded, and she and Greyna walked ahead of Belak and I.
He glanced down at me, his face full of concern. “What happened in that castle?” he murmured to me.
I shook my head; how could I tell Belak that the level-headed, sober-minded girl he’d left behind was now hearing voices on a regular basis? “I’ll explain later; you wouldn’t understand,” I said.
Belak sighed and didn’t press the matter—but I could practically hear his thoughts buzzing as loudly as my own.