Michael Sullivan: The Crown conspiracy

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Michael Sullivan The Crown conspiracy
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    The Crown conspiracy
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    Фэнтези / на английском языке
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    Английский
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Michael J. Sullivan


The Crown conspiracy

Chapter 1: Stolen Letters

Archibald Ballentyne held the world in his hands, conveniently contained within fifteen stolen letters. Each parchment was penned with meticulous care in a fine, elegant script. He could tell the writer believed that the words were profound and that their meaning conveyed a beautiful truth. Archibald felt the writing was drivel, yet he agreed with the author that they held a value beyond measure. He took a sip of brandy, closed his eyes, and smiled.

He sat by the fire, savoring the moment and appraising his future. As Earl of Chadwick, he already possessed ample wealth, a modest position at court, and of course, his exceptional good looks. Most ruling nobles were potbellied, gout-ridden, old bores. He, on the other hand, was in his prime: fit and tall with a full head of auburn hair, chiseled features, and piercing blue eyes. Archibald was proud of his appearance. He could obtain wealth and fame through any number of means, but to be born handsome was a gift for the deserving. He accentuated his natural virtues by wearing the finest imported fashions made with expensively dyed silks, embroidered linens, and feathers from exotic birds. His fellow nobles admired him for his elegant style. Soon his prestige would be elevated to the same enviable level.

"M'lord?"

Reluctantly, Archibald opened his eyes and scowled at his master-at-arms. "What is it, Bruce?"

"The marquis has arrived, sir."

Archibald's smile returned. He carefully refolded the letters, tied them in a stack with a blue ribbon, and returned them to his safe. He closed its heavy iron door, snapped the lock in place, and tested the seal with two sharp tugs on the unyielding bolt. He then headed downstairs to greet his guest.

When Archibald reached the foyer, he spied Victor Lanaklin waiting in the anteroom. He paused for a moment and watched the old man pacing back and forth, and it brought him a sense of satisfaction. While the marquis enjoyed a superior title, he had never impressed Archibald. Perhaps he was once lofty, intimidating, or even gallant, but all that was lost long ago, shrouded under a mat of gray hair and a hunched back.

"May I offer you something to drink, your lordship?" a mousy steward asked the marquis with a formal bow.

"No, but you can get me your earl," he commanded," or shall I hunt for him myself?"

The steward cringed. "I am certain my master will be with you presently, sir." The servant bowed again and hastily retreated through a door on the far side of the room.

"Marquis!" Archibald called out graciously as he made his entrance. "I am so pleased you have arrived-and so quickly."

"You sound surprised." Victor's voice was sharp. Shaking a wrinkled parchment clasped in his fist, he continued, "You send a message like this and expect me to delay? Archie, I demand to know what is going on."

Archibald concealed his disdain at the use of his childhood nickname, Archie. This was the moniker his dead mother had given him and one of the reasons he would never forgive her. As a youth, everyone from the knights to the servants had used it, and he always felt demeaned by its familiarity. Once he became Earl, he made it law in Chadwick that anyone referring to him as such would suffer the loss of his tongue. Archibald did not have the power to enforce the edict on the marquis, and he was certain Victor used it intentionally.

"Please do try to calm down, Victor."

"Don't tell me to calm down!" The marquis' voice echoed off the stone walls. He moved closer, his face mere inches from the younger man's, and glared into his eyes. "You wrote that my daughter Alenda's future was at stake and you had evidence of this. Now I must know-is she, or is she not, in danger?"

"She is most certainly," the earl replied calmly, "but nothing imminent, to be sure. There is no kidnapping plot, nor is anyone planning to murder her, if that is what you fear."

"If you've caused me to run my carriage team to near collapse while I worried myself sick for nothing, you will regret-"

Holding up his hand, Archibald cut the threat short. "I assure you, Victor, it is not for nothing. Nevertheless, before we discuss this further, let us retire to the comfort of my study where I can show you the evidence I mentioned."

Victor glowered at him but nodded in agreement.

The two men crossed the luxurious foyer, passed through the large reception hall, and veered off through an ornate door that led to the living quarters of the castle. As they traversed various hallways and stairways, the atmosphere of their surroundings changed dramatically. In the main entry, fine tapestries and etched stonework adorned the walls, and the floors were made of finely crafted marble; yet, beyond the entry, no displays of grandeur were found, leaving barren walls of stone the predominate feature.

By architectural standards, or any other measures, Ballentyne Castle was unremarkable and ordinary in every respect. No great king or hero ever called the castle home. Nor was it the site of any legend, ghost story, or battle. Instead, it was the perfect example of mediocrity and the mundane. For twelve generations, the Ballentynes lived there. Each earl, including Archibald's father Albright, had tried to advance his position, but in the end, his failures left the House of Ballentyne anchored to the morass of nobility's middle tier. Only time would determine if Archibald would succeed, where so many others had previously failed.

After some time, Archibald led Victor to a formidable door made of cast iron. Impressive, oversized bolts secured the door at its hinges, but it displayed no visible latch or knob. Flanking either side of the door stood two large, well-armored guards bearing halberds. Upon Archibald's approach, one rapped on the door three times. A tiny viewing window opened, and a moment later, the hall echoed with the sharp sound of a bolt snapping back. As the door opened, the metal hinges screamed with a deafening noise.

Victor's hands moved to defend his ears. "By Mar! Have one of your servants tend to that!"

"Never," Archibald replied. "This is the entrance to the Gray Tower-my private study and treasure room. This is my safe haven, if you will. I want to hear this door opening from anywhere in the castle, which I can."

Stationed behind the door, Bruce greeted the pair with a deep and stately bow. Holding a lantern before him, he escorted the men up a wide spiral staircase.

Halfway up the tower, Victor's pace slowed, and his breathing appeared labored. Archibald paused courteously.

"I know it's a long way. I've climbed these stairs a thousand times. I used to hide up here when my father was Earl. This was the one place I could be alone. No one ever wanted to take the time or effort to climb these stairs to the top. While it may not reach the majestic height of the Crown Tower at Ervanon, it is the tallest tower in my castle."

"I'd think people would make the climb merely to see the view," Victor speculated.

The earl chuckled. "You would think so, but this tower has no windows. After I became Earl, I decided it was the perfect location for my private study, and I added doors to protect the things dear to me."

When they reached the top of the stairs, they encountered another door. Archibald removed a large key from his pocket and unlocked it. He gestured politely for the marquis to enter. Once they were both inside, Archibald left Bruce outside to stand guard and closed the door behind them.

The room was large and circular with an expansive ceiling. The furnishings were sparse: a large disheveled desk, two cushioned chairs near a small fireplace, and a delicate table between them. A fire burned in the hearth behind a simple brass screen, illuminating most of the study. The candles, which lined the walls, provided light to the remaining areas and filled the chamber with a pleasant, heady aroma of honey and salifan.

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