“Good morning, my lord.”
Tem was awoken by his steward drawing back the thick curtains from the windows. Since the fire, he had rebuilt his house. He had acquired staff enough to fill it in a manner that befitted a man of much greater rank than he really was, and had furnished it in the same way. Everything he had purchased for his house gave off an air of opulence. It was not gaudy, but it did not need to be. It was a subdued richness, seeming to say that the owner of this house did not feel it necessary to show off. Even the curtains said it. He still was not used to it; he'd never stopped to think about furnishings before her death – he'd never needed to; his focus had been elsewhere.
The sun shone golden through the glass, full in Tem's face.
“Good morning, Sten,” he answered sleepily and half-blinded, rising halfway in his bed, his dreams still clinging to his thoughts.
“Lord Gellor just arrived and wants to see you, sir.”
“I'll be down momentarily. Feed him breakfast, will you? Only make sure he leaves some for me.” He yawned extravagantly, cat-like, and stretched.
Sten bowed in acquiescence. “Of course, my lord.”
Tem slid out of bed and dressed. Gellor arriving this early and without warning could only mean one thing. The people were ready. This was the signal, the tocsin bell. He could not keep a gleeful smile from his face.
Downstairs, Mayor Gellor of Marronay rather uncharacteristically picked delicately at a plate of scrambled eggs. His stomach protested eating anything and threatened violently to turn traitor. He carefully sipped some tea (which he had fortified from a flask in his pocket – hair of the dog, after all) in hopes that it would settle his insides so he could eat properly. It was far too early to be awake, let alone to be out making calls on people, and his head was pounding, but Tem was the only man he felt he could trust, given the situation at hand.
The Mayor was not a really stupid man, just very ineffective. He was aware that he was too attached to the bottle, and he knew very well that this did not do the city any sort of good. He had been semi-capable before all the House trouble started, but the city had been peaceful. There had not been a need for quick decisive action then. Since the recent events, he had found Wine and her cousins Ale, Sack, and Mead to be excellent distractions and they soon became his dear companions, so that he didn't feel so impotent. He shook his head sadly – and regretted it instantly. He felt like his head was a horseshoe laid over an anvil, being hammered out of a hot piece of iron. He groaned.
Of course it was at that moment that Tem thumped his merry way heartlessly down the stairs. The Mayor's head rang harder.
“Damn it all, Derion, must you make that fearful racket?” he asked despairingly, still wincing, when Tem finally popped his head in the dining room door.
“I'm very sorry, Gellor. It's a beautiful day. I couldn't help myself.”
“No, it's not,” said the Mayor glumly.
“It's not a beautiful day? How's that?” he asked, as he sat down and began serving himself some breakfast from the various dishes on the table.
“I received a message this morning. I didn't know what to do, so I came here.”
“Blood, Derion, they wrote it in blood – on my bedroom wall!”
“They? They, whom? Wrote what?”
“'Down with the Houses and down with the Mayor!', it said. I don't know who was responsible, but whoever it was wrote it in blood on my wall – while I was sleeping, Derion! The kind of people who would do that – well – they'll have no scruples. They'd stop at nothing. For heaven's sake, they could have killed me in my bed! Do you hear what I'm saying? I could have died, man!” He was becoming agitated.
“I understand, Gellor. I do. Take a deep breath and have some more tea, it'll calm you down. We'll sort this out once we've finished our breakfast. Probably just a couple of loudmouths causing trouble.
“Tell you what, I'll bet you a pair of gold ducats that they'll have done nothing more sinister than buying a bucket of pigs' blood from the butcher and bribing the guards to let 'em in. Don't worry about it.”
The Mayor took a deep breath. Tem always knew the best way to reassure him. The man had a gift that way.
Tem, meanwhile, hid a smile in his cup of tea. Gellor was becoming more and more compliant, turning to him more and more often for help. Everything was falling into place. Down with the Houses and down with the Mayor. That was the sign, the warning that the end of the current way of things was coming. He had instructed his captain, the chief spy, to write that specific message, in that specific place, when he felt that the province-cauldron was about to boil over. Bending over his plate for a bite, he chuckled silently into his ham-and-eggs. Poor Gellor; Tem's captain was the Mayor's chamberlain. It made perfect sense, really: the Mayor was the centre of everything in Marronay, and had ties to the other towns in Upnar. The chamberlain was thoroughly out of suspicion as far as the Mayor was concerned. He was therefore exactly situated to be the spider in the middle of a web; to mix metaphors horrendously, he was a marionette-spider whose legs were pulled by Puppet-Master Tem.
It had not been easy, earning the loyalty of the man. The Mayor was not a stingy employer, so money was not an incentive Tem could use to turn him. It had taken some promises of future power, some flattery, and some pledges of present familiarity with the more elite and exclusive of Tem's friends – all reinforced frequently to keep him teetering just on this side of uncertain – to influence him to the cause. The chamberlain was mostly a decent man and Tem did not have any serious evil to say of him, but he did like to feel that he was in the inner circle. He liked secrets best of anything, and he especially liked knowing them while others did not.
When the Mayor had left for Tem's house that morning, the chamberlain had slipped out quietly and sent out carrier pigeons – the Mayor's own – to the five nearest towns, in a prearranged signal. Those five towns would, in turn, also pass on the message to their nearest neighbours, in an Upnar-wide shockwave with Marronay as the epicentre. The message was brief, though it carried weight. It said only this:
The knell has rung.
He himself then collected the ten men he had chosen, and sent them each to a tenth part of the city, there to gather all those who were to rise and fight.
The death knell had indeed rung, and its echoes would ring for a long time.
After breakfast, Tem and Gellor took a carriage back to the Mayor's big stone house on the hill. Tem had suggested questioning the guards first, to see where that led, and the Mayor, of course, agreed.
A good two hours' interrogation, bringing in each guard individually, even those who had not been on duty the night before, and cross-examining him thoroughly, resulted in nothing more than twenty-five or thirty answers, all sung to similar tunes.
“No, my lords, I saw nothing unusual last night. No, my lords, I didn't see anyone go into my lord the Mayor's chamber last night. No, my lords, I didn't see anyone come into the house or leave it during the night. Yes, my lords, I was awake and alert for my shift on duty.” Then an offended, “No, my lords, I would never take a bribe, not on my mother's life! I know better than that,” followed by a mollified, “Thank you, my lords,” each man tugging his forelock respectfully and bowing carefully as he backed out of the room.
“Well, they can't have paid off all my men,” the Mayor muttered grumpily, as the last guard left, “at least, not unless they have ridiculous amounts of money. Surely one or two ordinary vandals don't have that kind of resources! but for none of them to have seen anyone enter or leave, well – logic dictates, then, that it must be someone in my own household. That's a simply terrifying thought, Derion!” He took a sizeable swallow from the glass at his elbow, as if to strengthen himself against the idea. Lunch had followed the departure of the last guardsman, and the Mayor began to tuck in with a right good will. All those questions had given him an appetite.
Calm and smug as a cliff in a storm, Tem was standing by the window with his hands held still behind his back, peering past the thick curtains to the street below. He turned back towards Gellor, a small smile of triumph hovering around the corners of his mouth, and ruthless iron behind his eyes.
“You'd better come look at this,” he said.
The Mayor picked himself up and stepped over to the window. A crowd was gathered, most of them armed and all of them angry. It had taken a long careful time to stoke their anger – too hot, and it would burn out without fuel long before they were needed, and further, would have made the Mayor and others wary of rebellion; too cool, and it would fizzle out without doing anything useful. The crowd – mostly tradesmen, servants, farmers, and peasants, but in huge numbers – yelled for the Mayor, calling for his de-seating. Slowly a chant emerged. The Mayor, already a weakened man, slumped in defeat when he heard what they were saying.
“Tem! Tem! Tem the Liberator!”
Gellor, now made the ex-Mayor of Marronay, shook in his boots.
“Tem,” he murmured, “what have you done?”
High in the northern mountains, three provinces away from Upnar, a small boy was playing in a puddle. He had just been throwing rocks in it to see them splash. A gurgling laugh and a much larger splash caught his mother's attention; he had thrown himself in, and was now muddy up to his shoulders – and was enjoying it thoroughly.
“Oh, Rhwnn, look at you! You're all over dirt.”
“Yes, mama,” part bashfully, part joyously, as he rolled in the mud. He paused, unsure whether or not he was about to get in trouble, but not quite ready to care what the consequences were.
“Well, there's no sense in trying to wash you now, you'll just get dirty again,” she said. “I'll just have to make sure there's bathwater ready when it's time to come in.”
“But mama, I'm already in a bath!”
“I see that,” she returned, smothering a smile. “Like a little piggy.”
“Yes, mama! Just like a piggy!”
Errel had continued in a roughly south-eastern direction on foot for a few weeks, pausing only to eat and sleep. He had stayed on the roads for the most part, except where his path and their direction had deviated; he was a street thief when he was in a city, but he was just as good a woodsman as a pickpocket and only rarely – though not for more than an hour, until he saw the movement of the sun – got confused.
He had encountered fleeing House members, of various alliances and allegiances, along the way, easily known by the sigils on their clothing and highly amusing by their ill-preparedness for travel. Many of them were walking, rather than horsed, most of them were tattered and dusty, and all of them were obviously escaping Upnar and the madness that had overtaken the province. He had questioned a few of them about the events in Upnar, and the theme common to all responses was that they had not seen it coming. They had been too busy with the fighting between Houses to even notice the undercurrent of tension building among their inferiors.
“He's too good,” they said. “He must have bewitched them all. There's no way they pledged their fealty to him without us noticing.”
Errel had two thoughts in response to this, both of which he kept to himself. His first thought was that witchcraft was a preposterous excuse for shortsightedness, made by self-centred people. The second thing that occurred to him caused him a little worry: here was a man who might almost rival his own talent for inspiring devotion and zeal in others. If that was the case, this task might be more difficult than he originally planned.