The eastern tower was built to overlook the southern highway as it led to the sea. The high castle walls dominated the landscape and were well supported by the sloping hills set to either side of the sweeping domain. Castle gates that were lowered each day followed through to a series of rotary turnstiles which belonged to the local millers for grinding the wheat used for bread in the bakeries each morning. The streets were bustling with townspeople moving through the market grounds, it was the sixth day, the day for markets and trading and the castle keep had been rife with stalls and carts as people went about their business.
There was a changing of the on-duty guards patrolling the areas as Aaren and Eamonn trotted their horses through the entrance into the King’s keep. These patrolmen would have the responsibility of nipping any trouble that brewed in the bud. The afternoon sun was a burnt orange, it was on the brink of starting it never-ending sliding down the warm sky to make way for onset of the cool evening gales.
Two days had passed since they left home. They made the journey quickly. They stopped only once more at a local farming property on their way to the King’s own castle for the yearly Commission conferences. As far as they knew, this was to be a customary meeting for the King and his advisors. Aaren had been hoping they’d arrive in the early afternoon, but after his discussion with Eamonn around the camp fire, Aaren decided there was further explaining to be done. They’d enjoyed their meal together and the shock of the revelation and desire to sleep forced them to their beds. They breakfasted early the next day and were on their way. Things came to a head around midday.
It soon became apparent to Eamonn that disputes had caused irreparable damage to the relationships within Eamonn’s family. Aaren was quick to reassure the boy that he didn’t cause of it, telling the boy he had already left for Faraday quickly and it was only by chance that he’d heard about it through his reports when he arrived at his office in Faraday.
Eamonn shrugged away the thought, he hadn’t lose any respect for Aaren at the news. Aaren told the boy of the outburst between Aaren and Blane in the cell in Blackden and as Eamonn had the thought, he realised that Aaren and he were a lot closer to being family than he had ever thought they’d be. The emotion Aaren had shown at the loss of someone he loved had been expected, and he was now seeing the man in a different light. Eamonn liked to think their friendship was stronger because of it.
Aaren had withheld some information from the boy, the knowledge about this insider Blane had mentioned was important. He didn’t want Eamonn putting himself in danger, if it were an insider, another agent involved that wasn’t Dallin, they could wind up being trouble.
This was why he had spent some of the time since Blackden thinking over past events by himself. He’d distanced Eamonn thinking it would protect him. He studied all of the reports that had been filed away in relation to that day with Marlow, he had promised himself that he would get to the bottom of it all, the idea that he and Blane had been wrong set alight the fire in him to bring the person to justice.
The pair walked through the wide streets, Eamonn was taking in the scenery, he wasn’t used to such a busy place, he’d grown up in a country town, while he’d had spent a some days in the castle of Faraday, they were intermittent as he lived with Aaren in his lodge. He couldn’t say that he never visited the castle grounds, it was routine for them to report to Maddox on occasion or to purchase supplies, but in those times he’d been there for specifics and had never taken the time to look around. For him, Castella, the King’s land, was like he was in a foreign world. Everything was dazzling to the eye, everywhere he looked there was something new to see, and he reveled in it.
He was fixated on the way the castle’s palace was separated from the rest of its occupants by a rounded field. At eight different locations that matched that of a compass, the field was laden with marble walkways that shimmered under the sun’s gaze. The illumination gave a sense of warmth and comfort that embraced Eamonn. So much so that he almost didn’t notice the figure approach them.
“Aaren, great to see you, we were beginning to think you weren’t coming” called a voice. Eamonn snapped out of his momentary lapse, and saw the newcomer approach them. Aaren was walking towards the well-built man, the sharply-kept features and neat goatee accompanied a slightly misshapen nose and brilliant green eyes, the man was a strong figure, brimming with confidence and enthusiasm as he said the words aloud.
Warmly, embraced the man, “You haven’t changed a bit! How’ve you been, Marlow?” Aaren regarded his friend. It was Marlow, Aaren’s long-time friend, Eamonn realised as he stepped forward in line with his mentor. He watched as the curious green eyes followed him as he made his approach. Eamonn noticed there were a few subtle changes to Marlow’s shape and body language. The man faced Aaren again.
“I’m well, and you haven’t changed much either I noticed. Now tell me, since when did you get yourself a puppy to look after.” Marlow grinned easily at Eamonn to take the edge off the remark. Aaren laughed in turn and introduced his pupil to Marlow. A quick query had Aaren telling him of the boy’s progress whilst under his tutelage, however though neither he nor Eamonn mentioned Blackden, simply pushing it aside as being ‘just another assignment’ at the mention of any missions they’d undertaken.
“And what have you been up to?” Aaren asked.
He could see Marlow was being his usual magnanimous self as he downplayed a few of his recent tasks, “Oh just a few things here and there, been by to see Blane a while back. You should go visit him sometime, Aaren, it’ll do you some good.” He frowned as his suggestion, along with the accompanying sympathetic smile, fell on deaf ears. The ugly silence grew, until Eamonn decided a change of subject was needed. “I noticed those sentries are enjoying a nice time of things. Isn’t it a little irregular for them to be changed at this hour?”
Marlow contemplated the statement for a moment as he gazed at the nearest example. “Yes, they do have it a little too easy in my mind.” he said, his voice loaded with contempt. “If you ask me, the Commission could use all the men we can get, its audacious of them to think that anyone would enjoy being taken off the job to tend to the jobs of a common guard.” He ridiculed.
“What do you mean?” Eamonn wondered, puzzled by the man’s expression, he looked to Aaren for an explanation, he too was perplexed by the brashness of his friend in front of someone as young as Eamonn, “The King draws his men from the ranks of the Commission.” Aaren said, stepping in to end any argument before it started, he knew only too well where this was going. “Once members reach the age of fifty or achieve a great service under our Lord, they are encouraged to join his ranks of hired guards, they’re paid well and live a good life as a way of repaying their loyalty to the crown.”
Marlow however was shaking his head at that though, “Still prattling the same nonsense, Aaren.” he spat, “You see Eamonn, the Lord Jarvis feels the need to keep his retainers on a leash, that way he feels he maintains his control over their actions, while this form of dictatorship served the country well when Caledonia was a nuisance, given we’re past all of that, it’s unnecessary for him to continue this scheme. It will only prevent our nation from expanding.”
Eamonn nodded his understanding at the idea, but there was something that wasn’t sitting quite right with him, “Then why are you still a member of the commission then?” Marlow smiled at that, he liked the boy’s direct approach to things, “I am a loyal man, I put my trust in the crown and the ruling court of Aylesbury. Though Jarvis has a few odd qualities, he is a wise and fair ruler, those assets more than make up for a few…distasteful ideas.” he concluded, pausing momentarily as he chose the right adjective for his leader’s actions.
“Anyway,” he started, as if shaking off the feeling of melancholy that had descended upon them, “I think it’s time for me to show you to your rooms, no doubt you’ll want to settle in before the conference begins.” He said directing the suggestion to Aaren, who, in turn nodded.
They entered the high archways through to the palace. There were staircases stationed by a number of walls and one placed in the middle of the room up to the walkways above. Eamonn felt the sudden sensation to duck as Marlow ignored all of these and moved under a lowered path through an open door. Marlow seemed to be heading towards the rear, into what looked to be the corridors to the suites that were allocated for the use of the King’s men.
“Have you heard anything, yet?” Aaren directed the question to Marlow, he only assumed that his friend had been brought up to date on the latest news. He was, however, to be disappointed. “Actually, I haven’t. Jarvis has kept pretty quiet so far, he was conducting a meeting this afternoon with a few senior members of his council, Tyson and Romarne, an exotic name if ever I’ve heard,” Marlow added quickly, “were there, of course for several discussions. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a part of them.”
Eamonn knew Tyson and Romarne to be the two highest ranking members of the Commission. They were the only ones distinguished enough to earn the title of “Director” within the group. They had deferred from joining the King’s guard and instead took on the vacant jobs as leaders, when the previous titleholders retired. The two of them were essentially as important as you could get when you were compared to a king.
“There’ll be a summit this evening in the hall.” Marlow continued, “Whatever it is that he’s got cooked up, we’ll find out about it then.” With that announcement, Marlow showed the new arrivals to their rooms for the night.
Eamonn and Aaren were located on the third floor in the room closest to the west tower. It was typically quiet throughout the year. Aaren explain that the king reserved most of the west wing suites for royal visits or for those he held with the utmost respect. As members of the Ayleserowan Royal Commission, they were included in that distinction.
“Will I get to meet any of the members who are stationed in Azarowa?”
Aaren placed his kit on his bed and looked back at the boy as he fiddled with his cloak where the hood had gotten caught up at the back. “Those who maintain watch over settlements in Azarowa aren’t usually given as much consideration. We might form an alliance with them, but the King’s allegiance lies with his country, he only trusts Aylesburian members, and the Azarowan King only trusts his men. Although I’d say trust would be a loose term for Azarowa, their king tends to leave his Commissioners on the outskirts of the country, preferring to have little to do with them.”
Seeing that he hadn’t answered his question, Aaren stopped what he was doing and spoke clearly. “It’s unusual for high ranking members from the Azarowan faction to make an appearance at the Aylesburian King’s conferences. When they do they’re often granted a suite amongst us. I only know a few by name. Every four years the Commission holds an assembly for all members to update intelligence and treaties within the two countries and further abroad. So it’s unlikely you’ll meet any while we’re here. But that doesn’t mean they’re not here. Speaking of which, I’ll be back soon.”
Eamonn’s confused gaze followed Aaren as he left the room. The boy then looked questioningly at the weapons left behind on Aaren’s bed and shrugged, he supposed they should be safe in the nation capital.
Aaren stalked the corridors for some time. Most of the rooms near theirs were empty, it seemed like there was no one around. There were a few by the training yards, but none of which were from the eastern quadrant, Damian, Litton Myerscough and Fleming Landon were not around, nor where the others that were positioned further north. He scratched his head, none were from Azarowa either.
Strange he thought as he wandered the tower corridors, the differences between the two parties were noticeable by their emblem and he’d only seen the Aylesburian crest. The Commission emblem was a simple red brimmed conical shaped helmet surrounded by the figures of a golden coloured lion and eagle set to each side. The only difference being that for Azarowan members, the eagle sat atop the emblem also with its wings fanned out, whereas for Aylesburians the lion was in place in a striking pose.
To any member the difference was instantly noticeable and dealings in the past had suggested that many folk and criminals tended to overlook this minor alteration. Aaren, who had spent his past ten or so years peering a little closer and digging a little deeper than others dared to to find that extra information that may be the key to success, could pick out the difference in only a second or two.
This was a puzzle, and Aaren didn’t like puzzles. He had always prided himself on his ability to track down his next vital piece. He moved through the tower, making himself acquainted with several other members, seeking out any information he could find. Aaren spent the last rays of light moving about the castle grounds, he had several friends in the commission and it had been a while since he’d seen any of them, while things were still quiet, he took the opportunity to catch up on the latest events in their lives.
None of them were senior members, but they’d still be expected to make an appearance at this conference, it was by no means a mandatory conference, those that were already on assignments were free to carry on and could afford to miss the summit that evening. For any event, it wasn’t unusual for a large group to attend and he sensed that this occasion would be no different.
There was something that made him uneasy about it all however, there was something that he was missing, he had spent two hours that evening talking to the other members, scattered around the suites as they were, he managed to cover most of the areas. Still, he felt that he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was. He checked the sun’s position, deciding that it was time for him to return to his room to prepare for the conference. He passed several other commissioners through the corridors, more had arrived throughout the wing and most of the doors to the rooms were closed. He called a greeting to one as he went by, seeing they too were going to freshen up.
Eamonn watched as his master entered the room. Closing the door quietly behind him, Aaren, as he was wont to do, took a peek for anyone following him. Eamonn had spent the previous hours replacing the set of springs and levers in his crossbow. Firing the shot at the wild cat, he’d felt a little additional resistance as he pulled the lever back into place to load up a cartridge shot. He removed the panel and found that one of the springs had started to stick in the firing mechanism and decided to replace it. While he was at it, he figured he might as well rotate them all.
He used liberal amounts of the oil he carried to lubricate the steel riggings before putting them into place. The oil helped for a smoother release as well as offered some further protection for the steel and would extend their lifespan. As for the old ones, he could easily use his file to smoothen down the rough edges and he could keep them as spares in case of an emergency while he waited for a new supply.
Eamonn had originally planned to use the previous day making the needed amendments to his equipment, but he had lost that opportunity with the call up to meet with the king’s assembly. The weapon was still in working order, the constant care and attention he paid to it ensured that, he was simply nitpicking.
He replaced the catcher over the front, worked the groove on his gauntlet into position and turned. He could feel the shifter and springs inside moving much more fluently as he wound the rotator. As it came to rest, there was a sharp click, louder than usual. He frowned at the sound, he could work to seat the spring a little better, but as Aaren came over to him, it seemed he’d have to wait a little to finish the adjustment, “You can finish that later tonight.” Aaren said, confirming the boy’s suspicions, “We need to head over to the eating hall. On our way out can you stoke the fire a bit? It’ll be colder in here tonight than you’d expect. These upper floors rooms tend to be a little draughty.”
With that, Aaren quickly washed up, ready for the evening meal, while Eamonn added a few branches and some kindling to get the fire going again. The fireplace was an interesting design, it was wide and fairly deep but not very high, He simply assumed that it would create more radiant heat than anything else. There was a small barrel of fire wood beside the fireplace and he quickly pulled the door open and selected several larger pieces of wood that he knew would last while they were gone.
He noticed that the door mechanism of the fireplace was a single piece hinged and welded together with a small window in the middle of the door to check the fire. He found that it would be possible to remove the entire front panel with the right tools.
He stood to stretch the tired muscles in his back, remaining seated for a few hours left a slight knot in his back. He paused to make sure his crossbow was tucked away out of sight and removed the loaded arrow and cartridge and placed them to the side. He fed a small hooked rod in through a small opening he’d drilled and pulled the trigger. He felt the sudden thrust against the rod as the crossbow bucked and released its pressure. He pulled the rod clear and shoved it into a pocket on the inside of his cloak. He cleared the rest of his tools away into their proper compartments and stored the bag with the rest of his gear. Aaren was already waiting for him at the door as Eamonn quickly washed up. The older man held it open for his friend, and let the door shut slowly behind them as they made their way down to the hall.