[ 三 ]
Illeia, one month later
It was not unusual for the King to gather his ministers in morning assembly. Reports were after all the first thing he tended to in the day, and it was what kept him briefed and informed about the nation’s matters, and on known occasions, the rest of the world.
But today, the atmosphere was different. Today the King had his head cradled in the palm of his hand, and the air seemed to twitch like a fretful pigeon in hunting season. The ministers whispered among themselves in low tones, and the great hall held its breath.
A messenger rushed in, robes crumpled and hat askew. He had been ordered to deliver the message as quickly as possible, but in the great hall he could not run, and it resulted in an ungainly, jerky gait. The ministers watched him walk the length of the red carpet until finally he stood at the base of the throne.
“Your Majesty. There are reports coming in about our neighbouring country. The new regime in Drihani has taken full control. They are calling it the new era of leadership, this – this – democracy.”
Outrage exploded amongst the sitting ministers. A fist slammed down on a table.
“Infidels! How dare they betray the monarchy! How dare they turn against their King? Your Majesty, such sacrilege cannot happen in Illeia. The rebellion must be stopped before it takes a turn for the worse!”
Seated in front of his squat lacquered desk, one of the ministers let out a heavy sigh. His hair was whitened with age, and deep creases lined his temples. This was not the first King he had served, but the aching in his bones told him it would probably be his last.
“It will be difficult.” His voice was soft but commanding. “Drihani will only serve as proof to The Fifth Column that what they seek is achievable. Then there are the people . . . They are hesitant now, not knowing who to side. Many fear the uncertainty of the rebellion, but with this news about Drihani they might be tempted.”
“Then we shall tempt them back,” a new voice roared. “Put bounties on the rebels’ heads! Imprison whoever that supports the rebellion! Flood the town with WANTED posters and warnings of execution! We shall see then, who still desires to join The Fifth Column.”
“I hardly think violence is the way to approach this matter, War Minister Jann.” The next minister that spoke was small in frame, and wiry. His eyes were sharp and adroit as they travelled the length of the hall. “May I suggest something? Adapt to The Fifth Column’s demands. They wish to obliterate poverty – very well, we provide free rations for the poor. A sack of rice every month, for example. What else? They seek to eliminate the tax system – from now on we reduce it. I’ve always found the taxes a little too pricey myself.”
Indignant, the ministers raised their voices and more fists banged on tables.
“Ridiculous!” Tax Minister Khoo squealed. “Our taxes are perfectly reasonable and in line with the nation’s needs. Did we not build better infrastructure for the people? Did we not build schools and edification centers for the young? I assure you, Education Minister Zyu, every penny collected from the system is used for the betterment of Illeia!”
Minister Zyu merely sipped from his green tea. He eyed the corpulent belly of Minister Khoo that was jiggling from his indignant outburst. “Well. At least there can be no doubt as to where all your wages go.”
Swaddled in his silk imperial robes, Minister Khoo looked like an angry red pimple ready to explode. “Well I never -”
The single word resonated and reverberated all throughout the hall. The ministers settled quietly back in their seats as the King lifted his head from his hands, at last.
The dark circles under his eyes were prominent, and his skin as pallid as that of a corpse. Beside him his vizier hovered, anxious.
“Enough.” The contrast in his voice was alarming, as if that single shout before had drained all of his energy. “I . . . I am tired. I will retire to my chambers and tomorrow . . . tomorrow we shall counsel again. You are all dismissed.”
Murmurs fluttered amongst the gathered ministers. It was their fourth meeting of the week and the third time the King had ordered an early dismissal. The nation’s affairs were slowly but surely slipping behind schedule.
“Your Majesty,” a minister tried, “these are crucial matters at hand. We must make a decision as soon as possible – ”
“I said enough!” the King thundered. “Are you questioning me, Minister Yew?”
The Minister of Foreign Affairs felt sweat streaking his palm. “Of – of course not, Your Majesty. I would n-never dare – ”
“Then shut up,” King Gwangmu growled, and all the eyes of the ministers bulged.
With his trusted vizier at his side, the King staggered out of the great hall.
She had been waiting inside the room for a long time now. Her legs protested fervently, begging for her to unfold them and let them stretch out. There were the beginnings of a cramp in her calf but she made no movement to adjust her position. On the hardwood floor she sat, legs tucked under her thighs, hands placed in her lap. Her back was straight and her eyes focused on the intricate design of the desk, just a few inches in front of her. There was no sound saved her silent breathing.
The door was closed but the study room well-lit. Behind the desk stood a bamboo screen, imported all the way from Cara-Lin. In gentle watercolour brushes the artist has rendered a painting of a green scaly dragon, its long body encompassing all four panels. It was breathing fire onto a desolate, ruined village, while near its tail a new village was being birthed into existence, the villagers happy and glowing.
The door to the room slid open and a man peered in, his face kept in the shadows by his hat. He said nothing, sitting down behind the desk.
Tea was poured out of the white porcelain teapot into matching cups, set in emerald leaf bases with green handles. He pushed one close to the girl, who inclined her head. She drank only after he did, and it was a delicate sip.
The man’s voice carried a pleasant timbre. “Are you feeling comfortable, my dear niece? I can always ask for another cushion to be brought in.”
Iseul’s limbs were screaming but a smile flitted across her lips. “That will not be necessary, uncle. I find this position quite agreeable.” A little spark entered her eyes. “Why else would I have sat like this for the past two hours?”
A similar glint reflected in the older man’s hazel pupils. Where the girl was slim and supple, the man was athletic and strong. Where the girl’s skin was smooth and soft, the man’s was rough and tanned. But compare both their eyes side by side, and there was no longer any doubt left that these two were blood-related.
“Quite. You have proven your point.”
With those words, the atmosphere in the room changed, became friendlier. The girl relaxed, even as the man took off the wide-brimmed hat he wore. Now she could see him more clearly. His hair was flecked through with gray, and his face weathered. Time had cut rugged lines in his forehead, but his jawline still held strong.
He spoke, and this time there was brisk business in his tone. “From tomorrow onwards, you will be alone. You will have to fend for yourself, and use all your skills to survive. Do not make the mistake of thinking that the palace is safe. It is instead far more dangerous than the battle frontlines and dank alleyways.”
“The King is dying. The Fifth Column is no longer the infant it once was, and before the first snow falls, we will have changed Illeia for the better. A leader for the people, by the people. And so, we cannot afford any mistakes.”
Suddenly she was acutely aware of the leather bracelet brushing against her skin. Her uncle went on.
“You are the only person among us who have met the Red Clover, face to face. This strange man who writes in the dye of red clover blossoms, hence earning him his nickname. This mysterious vigilante who popped out of nowhere early spring, contacting us. Expressing his wish to help us, to spread our messages and expand our reach. And all for the fee of one bag of silver, as well as total secrecy. We were not to see his face. We were not to pry into his identity. A mercenary, by all accounts. And a highly skilled one at that.”
Her uncle’s eyes narrowed. “Of course, my colleagues were all too eager to accept his offer. The Red Clover was willing to take all the risks they didn’t dare, or couldn’t take. He gets paid, we get publicity, and everyone is satisfied.”
The older man paused. Iseul’s voice was quiet.
“But you aren’t satisfied.”
“No. I am not. That man is shrouded in secrets. We know next to nothing about him, and the unknown is always a liability. He claims to do this for the money, yet never takes the extra cash from the safe house. You are in charge of keeping that place up to date are you not, Iseul? And in all that time has the cash ever gone missing?”
Iseul shook her head.
“Exactly. A man who seeks money, yet does not take free money. Odd, is it not? And then there are the arrows he uses. Blue-dyed feathers, which are present only on imperial arrows. The rebellion loves it, of course. The King’s arrows, used against him. What a way to mock the monarchy. But that in itself begs a question, how did the Red Clover obtain those arrows? He had to have had serious clout to get them, especially now with the palace security stepped up. This is a man with high connections to the palace, and that can pose to be a very dangerous problem for us.”
“Is the rest of the rebellion not worried? That the Red Clover could be a spy sent from the palace to infiltrate us?”
Her uncle snorted. “There are more dumb idiots in there than you think. Besides, they value him too much to let him go. He has done a lot of good work for us. Too good. Then again I could be overly paranoid. But no matter. Because you, Iseul, will find out the truth for us.”
Iseul sat up a little straighter and her eyes gleamed a little brighter.
“You have seen the birthmark on his skin.”
Iseul thought back to when she was bandaging his abdomen, and saw a curiously dark mark there. An irregularly-shaped blob, that was what she had told her uncle. There was really no better way to describe it.
“The arrow wound too, if we are lucky, will scar. And then there is the Red Clover’s pretty gift to you. Using these, you will find out who our mysterious man is, as well as his true intentions. Besides, a spy within the monarchy is never a bad thing. You will have to be extremely careful, do you understand?”
Iseul nodded in deference. “Yes, uncle. What is to be my cover?”
“You will enter the palace as a lady-in-waiting.”
“An attendant to the royal ladies, you mean?”
Her uncle threw his head back and laughed and laughed. When he had finally composed himself, he smiled, his teeth a brilliant white.
“Oh no, my dear Iseul. You will be a different kind of lady-in-waiting.”
There was sly humor in his voice.
“A very different kind, indeed.”