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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 8 "The Commission" (part 1)

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nordmann
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PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 8 "The Commission" (part 1)

Collier’s guestrooms above the inn were large and basic, judging by those which stood open; the majority were simply roughly pine-panelled chambers containing a bed, a trestle chair and a lockable armoire in which a guest could store clothing and valuables. The rooms lined both sides of a surprisingly lengthy corridor that wound its way along several levels, proof that the inn had expanded over the years into its neighbouring buildings. Each door had a number but also a symbol chalked upon it, an obvious courtesy to the inn’s illiterate guests. One locked door far into this passage, marked simply by a chalked arrow pointing upwards, opened directly upon being unlocked by the innkeeper into a small compartment that contained nothing but a steep and narrow stairs, its ancient cracked steps suggesting that the passage had not been used in many years. It was up these rickety old stairs that Collier now ushered them, himself leading the way with a lantern aloft in one hand while the other pointed out rotten timbers or exposed nails that might prove treacherous to his guests. Indeed, so constrained were the walls, and so steep and uneven the steps, that they were forced to take them slowly and in single file, and to allow a generous space between one man and the next. To Titus’s wry amusement he saw that the more flamboyantly attired and impetuous of the strangers, who had insisted on going first after the innkeeper and had barged past the mapmaker at the entrance, now found to his disgust that his dress was more generously proportioned than the space afforded and that his expensive cloak snagged constantly on the splinters and exposed brads of the chamber’s grubby walls. The mapmaker picked his way carefully behind the struggling man, stifling a satisfied smile at the stream of muffled oaths emanating from the darkness ahead. They reaffirmed Titus’s accord with those sentiments of Francis, Duke of Rochefoucauld, which were such a favourite axiom of his father, albeit with a different meaning than in the current context – there may indeed be merit without resulting elevation, but there was no elevation without at least some resulting merit.

On reaching the top he was amazed to find that the narrow grimy passage led into the centre of a spacious, clean and high-beamed attic, its extent in both directions indicating that it, like the corridor below-stairs, ran the length of the entire premises. Two bright oil lamps hanging from a stout crossbeam had already been lit by Collier, but their glow failed to reach the room’s ends and the resulting darkness lent the chamber the illusion of even greater size than it probably had. A table and two heavy benches were conspicuously placed directly beneath this pool of light. More furniture, stacked against the wall, was just about discernible in the gloom beyond, and the room smelt strongly of beeswax. That this was no ordinary storage area or garret, and that some care and effort had been taken to keep it tidy and clean, was obvious. The spotless wooden floorboards were polished to a high sheen, which explained the smell, and the sloping rafters had been lined with tiers of planed pine still young enough to add their distinctive fragrance to that of the polish. This combination of aromas was a distinctive one; Titus struggled and failed to remember where he had encountered it before. And that was not the only thing that perplexed him. He could see that some considerable expense had been taken in making this huge room comfortable, a very odd thing given its inaccessibility. Yet what made it all the more incongruous to Titus was the loft’s noticeable absence of windows. Even on the brightest sunny day the gloom within this chamber would be no different to what it was now.
Collier stood politely at the stairs’ exit with lantern held high as each man clambered up into the loft. When he saw the last of the four appear he indicated wordlessly that his guests be seated, and just as wordlessly they obeyed his direction, settling themselves on the two benches provided, each pair silently facing the other across the wide surface of the table like opposing teams of card players in a game that neither side seemed overly eager to begin. As the portly Collier disappeared down the stairs and they waited for his cumbersome footsteps to recede Titus took the opportunity to study his adversaries in the light of the lamps that hung directly overhead. The glass globes cast their shade at an unfortunate angle that made all beneath them appear ghoulish and daunting. He could only console himself with the hope that he and his partner were served as ill by their gruesome illumination, and that his opponents were equally put off by what they saw. Both men were tall he noticed, and each sported the same neatly cropped beard and clothes of fine material that advertised affluence. Both men likewise carried swords hung in scabbards from their belts, light rapiers with heavily gilded pommels of the kind popular amongst those for whom a weapon was a sign of rank rather than something that would ever be used in combat. But that was where the similarities ended.

Whereas the one he had met earlier was still dressed in the sombre clerk’s attire he had worn that afternoon, his colleague’s brightly embroidered collar and cuffs suggested that this was a man who enjoyed opulent wealth and wished no one to be mistaken about the fact. Titus guessed his age to be about fifty years, and the soft skin on his face and hands told of a man who had an aversion to physical labour and the good fortune in life never to have had to endure it. He advertised a mild distaste for his surroundings, though whether this was designed to reflect his unfamiliarity with such humble accommodation or indeed such inferior company was hard to gauge. In truth, Titus assumed, it was probably a bit of both.

Their silent contemplation of each other continued a few uncomfortable moments longer until finally the more soberly dressed of the two broke the impasse in a friendly and measured voice, though the effect was far from reassuring. “Do you know where you are, gentlemen?” he suddenly asked, and then answered himself. “This was a church once, a most unlikely looking one don’t you agree?” The question, oddly, seemed directed specifically at Flitch and the man’s gaze settled on Titus’s secretary as he awaited a response, not in the affable manner of a person politely ceding the floor to the other party in a discussion but with rude and overt inspection, the kind employed by those who wish to give offence and dare the offended party to acknowledge it.

Titus, whose last visit to a church had been many years before, now realised why the room’s aroma had seemed so familiar. The oppressive stuffiness of the air seemed to grow with the realisation, and to mask his discomfort he averted his eyes, looking to his partner. Flitch was holding his opponent’s stare, though he could sense a mounting hostility in his secretary at such blatant scrutiny. With relief however he saw that, for once, Flitch was showing sense enough to hold his tongue. The questioner, seemingly unperturbed at Flitch’s lack of response, simply chose to continue where he had left off, his eyes at last shifting to include Titus again in their scope. “It was a chapel, as a matter of fact, for the holding of mass. Indeed the room can hold – and often did, I have heard – upward of three hundred Catholic souls. Not a bad tally, you will agree, for a convention held but a stone’s throw from Cromwell’s own bed.” He smiled and pointed his thumb behind him in the general direction of the castle. “Of course we live in more enlightened times in this land now, our Roman brethren don’t need to resort to such subterfuges any more. Mind you, I believe that they find it hard put in Dublin to get even a tenth of that number to a mass nowadays in any case.” He leaned forward a little, as if taking them both into his confidence, but it was soon obvious that Flitch again was the sole subject of his address. “That must tell you something about the mind of the Irishman, don’t you agree? Remove the law to break and you remove the will to break it. The Englishman could do well to observe that lesson if he wishes to rule here for long.” He paused, his gaze continually focused on Titus’s colleague. “Or it could tell us something about the mind of man in general, Mr Flitch, don’t you think? A rule that applies to us all, like that we are all of us drawn to the shade sometimes for no better reason than it is there. Throw the light of reason on that which attracted us and we wither like slugs in the sunlight when the rock has been lifted.” Suddenly he laughed out loud, a conscious device, no doubt, to dispel the ominous mood that he knew he had generated. “But I detect that you gentlemen would prefer a little sunlight thrown on our business here this evening nevertheless. Allow me to make some introductions – a little belated in my own case I believe you will agree, Mr Perry. My name, as I’m sure your old friend in Kilmainham has already advised you, is John DeLacey and my colleague here is Sir Richard Butler, Lord Arran.”

Titus refused to react to this bald admission by DeLacey that he knew of Titus’s movements that afternoon, but simply nodded curtly to both of his adversaries.
DeLacey’s smile widened. “I note your caution, and you are right to be wary, Mr Perry.” Again he looked pointedly at Flitch. “Very right, indeed. It is a sad indictment of the age we live in but we have all become more circumspect than Chaucer’s crow in our reluctance to admit what we know. Better to say nothing, is it not, than risk the wrath of Phoebus, especially when we do not know from one moment to the next who plays that role?”
Titus understood DeLacey’s reference, Chaucer having been a favourite of his since childhood, even if he had never imagined himself compared to the unfortunate crow in the Manciple’s Tale before. He disliked men however who threw literary allusions into their conversation without first checking that they addressed an audience appreciative of their conceit; the intention was usually to impress rather than to inform, and he normally allowed such windbags simply blow themselves out rather than pander to their inflated self-opinion. But to say nothing in retort on this occasion, he reckoned, might well be taken by DeLacey as mistaken confirmation that he and his secretary were ill-read men of lower intellect than himself. It was necessary to prick the man’s complacent smugness, so he answered. “Phoebus punished the crow for telling the truth, sir. Where I come from, the lesson in that myth has always been that one should be wary of egotistical men in positions of power who fear honesty lest it expose them for the frauds that they are, not that the truth itself should ever remain unspoken. Now, sir, tell me again that I am right to be wary.”
DeLacey’s eyes glinted, though it was hard to see if it was from anger or mirth. His smile however remained intact. Ignoring Titus’s request he turned instead to his secretary. “And you, Mr Flitch. For the defence of what truth would you be willing to lose your smooth plumage and dulcet tones?

If Flitch was meant to be overawed or intimidated he showed no evidence of either, but his anger was evident as he spoke. He had had enough of the rude scrutiny, it seemed, and his patience had been exhausted. His eyes narrowed, and he replied to DeLacey with such obvious restraint that his words came out slowly and purposefully, almost with menace. “I’ve a better idea. Why not begin with a little truth from yourself? It seems to me you haven’t introduced all of your mates Mr DeLacey. I saw three of you downstairs. There was another one by the door, was there not?”
DeLacey laughed. “Well spotted, Mr Flitch, and another two on the street as well, though I have no doubt you saw them too, didn’t you?” He received nothing from Flitch except a cold stare. “But don’t worry, gentlemen. They are not here to block your egress, but to ensure ours. You see, Mr Perry,” he said sardonically, “we egotistical men in power have bigger fears than simply that the truth might expose us. Phoebus, for all his vindictiveness, was also the restrainer of evil, and it is in that guise that we are here this evening, despite your secretary’s suspicions. Unlike Phoebus however we can not be so sure of where that evil may reside, or in what guise it awaits us. And nor can we hide behind the brilliance of Phoebus’ alter ego, Apollo, should those enemies seek us out. ” He rested his hands on the tabletop, and smiled again at Titus. “But your secretary is right, let us get to the nub of the matter. You are wondering why you are here.”
Titus nodded.
“In simple terms you are here because you are known to us, and known to us for a small while longer than you might have imagined.”
Titus felt the trepidation he was sure the remark was meant to induce, but tried hard not to betray it. Flitch merely snorted derisorily.
DeLacey continued unperturbed. “Don’t be worried, you are known to us as a friend, Mr Perry, or at least as someone who will not prove our enemy.”
“You think a mapmaker could be your enemy?”
DeLacey laughed outright, and it seemed with genuine mirth. “No, Mr Perry,” he said, “but we collect so many enemies that it has become second nature to gauge each man in that light.”
“Then I care neither for your irrational view of strangers or for your need to investigate them surreptitiously. Besides, in my experience a man who fears everyone as his enemy has good reason to, and that reason has rarely anything to do with the character of those whom he chooses to fear!”
DeLacey smiled and seemed about to make another humorous retort but Richard Butler, silent up to now, suddenly leaned forward across the table, his face red with rage and his voice tremulous. It was obvious that he did not share his colleague’s diplomatic tendencies, or care much for Titus’s insolence in questioning his betters. “Did my name mean nothing to you, sir? Do you know to whom you speak?” he asked with a rising level of indignation that bordered on hysteria in its tail.
Titus, a little taken aback by such a sudden fit of rage, decided he was as unimpressed by it as he had been of DeLacey’s smoothness, and he knew instinctively that Arran should learn this fact before the interview could be allowed to progress. Lord Arran he knew only by repute – the son of the Duke of Ormonde, who hoped to ‘inherit’ his father’s office as Lord Lieutenant and had already begun to assume some of his father’s administrative duties. He had a reputation that Titus had already learnt of from Hayter in London for interesting himself personally in anything that helped promote the image he wished to convey, that of Ireland’s chief officer in waiting. But such interest bordered often on interference, Hayter had warned, and only ever hindered the crown’s work rather than abetted it. He had advised Titus to steer clear of Richard Butler if at all possible. As for DeLacey, other than his name and that he was a close associate of Ormonde, Titus had gleaned little from what Cormac or Sarah Reilly had told him earlier. He could see for himself that Sir John was a shrewd and intelligent man in his manner, and that his earlier warning about the letter to Wilson should be taken seriously. But there was yet a doubt about both the man and the manner in which he had instructed Titus to attend this parley that could not be dismissed. It was time, he decided, to wrest some control over this exchange from the men across the table, if only to show that he had noted their condescension and cared little for it. Besides, he had some questions of his own.
“I am well aware of who you both are, Lord Arran.” He was exaggerating liberally, but did not care. “Just as I am aware that our status may vary but our roles, all four of us here around this table, share one thing in common. We are all, to put it bluntly, servants to Lord Ormonde, each hoping to meet that call to the best of our capabilities, though I am pleased for the sake of my own conscience that my services do not require the same measure of stealth and subterfuge as yours obviously do. Your colleague has implied that you place yourselves at some risk meeting us here, yet it was you who decided the venue and the time. So perhaps you can begin by explaining to me why we are not now seated in your rooms in the castle, Lord Arran? Unless I am very much mistaken it is all our workplace. Why this secrecy?”
Arran sneered, and Titus could see that it was the closest he could come to a placatory smile. He was not used to being spoken to so directly by his lessers, and it showed. “Oh, it is not secrecy, but prudence, Mr Perry, prudence.”
“By prudent I assume you don’t mean that we are here because it is cheaper to burn an innkeeper’s lamp than one’s own?”
The sneer turned in an instant to an angry scowl. “Enough impertinence! When I use the word prudence I …”
DeLacey coughed politely – an obvious signal to his companion – at which Arran sank back on his bench, his rage still evident, but apparently with common sense enough to let the man more skilled in talking take up the theme. Sir John let a moment pass and as soon as a calm of sorts had re-established itself, broke it with words that were spoken softly, but with an edge to them that underlined their seriousness. “You are right, Mr Perry. We are all of us loyal servants of Lord Ormonde, and therefore loyal servants of the crown he represents in this land of ours. But, alas, we live in times when such loyalty does not remove us from the obligation to be prudent and cautious, as Lord Arran has said. Regretfully it even enhances the requirement. You see, these days loyalty to the crown does not necessarily infer loyalty to the man who wears it. Do you follow my meaning?”
“No, I don’t, and I fail to see what the hell your political loyalties have to do with me in any case.” Titus could sense an impending coercion and he was determined to resist it.
DeLacey’s voice grew momentarily sharp. “More than you might possibly think, and seemingly more than you certainly know!” He paused again and then continued in more reasoned tones. “Think of loyalty and tax as brothers in definition. A king expects his taxes to be paid to his treasury, and so they are by all but the most foolish or treacherous of his subjects. But it is a foolish king who assumes on that basis that all revenue thus obtained has been donated through the good will of his subjects. If tax is a gift, after all, it is such as we might give to an ailing relative in the hope that we be remembered in his will. In the end of the day loyalty too is just such a gift – whether the monarch accepts the fact or not - and moreover, one that can be withheld by his subjects the moment they fail to see a return on their investment. We live in a time when many men are not content to wait any more for their relative to die, and begrudge the obligation to shower him with gifts while he lives. Now, do you see my point?”

Titus was damned if he could. The man seemed to be hinting at some impending insurrection by the masses involving withholding of taxes, and Titus was not sure that he liked where this discourse was heading. Cynical and all as he was, he had simply suspected that this meeting would be an elaborate preamble to some unreasonable demand being placed upon his professional services – a free survey of Arran’s private estates perhaps, or some promise to include these men in some way in the profits from his labours. He was used to the ways of the wealthy when it came to getting what they wanted; inordinate threats, secret meetings, and displays of petulance and arrogance were commonplace devices employed by such well-heeled leeches, especially when they detected an opportunity to add to that wealth. He had assumed, or had hoped, that this was all that this meeting would amount to, and had steeled himself from the outset to counter such demands. What had discomfited him though at this meeting was the presence of Arran himself. Men in his position rarely lowered themselves to doing their own intimidating, least of all with functionaries of Titus’s modest status. Whatever it was that Arran wanted it was something he obviously trusted no other man to procure for him, and that in itself boded ill. Worse, his colleague was speaking openly of popular disloyalty to the king, and such talk coming from so elevated a source could only be designed to achieve one of two ends, Titus was sure – either to assess his predilection for plots, or to actively engage him in one. Either way it was time to nip such enquiries in the bud. “I am not aware of any such mutiny on the horizon,” he answered calmly. “The king has his detractors, but has done nothing so outrageous to my knowledge that would warrant another rebellion.”
“Except to near the end of his days.”
This was news to Titus. “The king is dying?”
“I did not say that. But he does not grow younger. In the last year or so he has taken to a quiet life at home, as you know, and it has become common knowledge that he has lost his vigour and is prone to long dark periods of foul humour and pessimism.”
“Hardly fatal.”
DeLacey ignored Titus’s remark. “I have spoken with one of his physicians. He is worried that these periods grow more frequent and longer with each occurrence. On one occasion at least there were convulsions and the king needed bleeding. In a man of Charles’ age this augurs ill enough, but worse, his attacks have been noted by others. The rumours may exaggerate to what extent he ails, but they have begun to run rife nevertheless. That has been enough. The horses have not even waited to assemble at a starting line. The race is already on.”
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