Afternoon slowly faded to dusk which, itself, faded to the blue-black of a moonless night. Sullivan waited a few more minutes just to make absolutely sure that he had not been followed to the clandestine meeting place that had been specified in the note passed to him during his afternoon rounds of the castle. He knew that Jenner was getting more and more paranoid about his safety by the day, keeping a large, heavily armed escort at hand even when he was just out on a walk through the castle grounds. He had also learned that Jenner had hired a number of spies to keep tabs on the few members of the house-keeping staff that remained from King Nicodemus's reign. He knew that they wouldn't hesitate to report that his own Captain-of-the-Guard was involved in a subversive plot against him if he were discovered in this place.
But he'd seen no sign that any of the staff or his subordinates had taken any interest when he'd left the castle. In fact, much to his amusement, he'd heard a rumor to the effect that he'd taken a mistress and that it was her that he was seeing when he was away from the barracks or the castle. Well, if that was what they chose to snicker about, it certainly suited him just fine. Deception was a time-honored military tactic.
With one last glance into the near-darkness, he made his way to a door set well into a small stone building. Above, a street lantern threw a dim light on the entrance. After giving a prescribed series of knocks, which were answered by another series, he was told to enter, the voice on the other side of the door obviously heavily disguised. Sullivan took a deep breath and stepped into what he knew would be his most dangerous power-play yet.
The darkness of the room almost matched that outside, but was punctuated by the weak light of about a dozen small candles that were set into niches in each wall.
"Please take a seat on the stool in the center of the room." The voice came from a backlit figure that, now that his eyes were adjusting to the new light level, he could see was seated behind a long table. He didn't
recognize the voice, nor could he tell what kind of animal had spoken. He could also see a number of other figures at tables to each side of the first. He figured that they must have been wearing masks or hoods in order to disguise their profiles. Sullivan strolled to the stool and took a seat. He knew that intimidation was a game that two could play and that if things got out of hand, well, he had plenty of experience in changing or, if the situation demanded it, breaking the rules; and if a little blood got spilled or a few heads got broken in the process, so much the better. He could always tell Jenner that he'd stumbled into this ring of potential traitors on his way to visit his "mistress" and did what he saw as his patriotic duty by rounding them up.
"Alright, I'm here," He said, his voice hinting at arrogance. "What d'ya want from me?"
"Please remember, Captain," The voice warned sternly, "That it was you who requested this meeting with us." Sullivan smiled to himself. Whoever he was dealing with, they weren't the bumpkins that he was
expecting. Sullivan had indeed cornered one of the maids and asked her to put him in contact with someone, anyone who could be considered to be against Jenner's rule. She had been suspicious at first, but when no one had come to arrest her during the intervening weeks, she had slipped a note into a pocket of his vest.
"Yeah, yeah. Whatever. Let's just get down to business. What exactly is it that you're planning against His Majesty?" He asked matter-of-factly.
"At the moment, we really have no plan to do away with King Jenner. But we do believe that he is leading Britain on a road to destruction and he must, somehow, be stopped!" The voice said gravely.
Sullivan nodded. His interrogators had arrived at their conclusion from a more idealistic angle than he had, but the answer was pretty much the same: Jenner must, if he could not be steered toward a more moderate course of governance, be overthrown. But Sullivan was no fool. He had decided that if he were going to put his life on the line to betray his Sovereign, the price to be paid for his cooperation; even if all that was required of him was to look the other way; would be very, very steep. "Okay." He said slowly, carefully trying to form some terms in his mind. "But what's in it for me? I mean, I'm only the most exposed member of this little plot in the whole room. I expect something more than a pat on the back and a 'Hip Hip Hooray!' once Jenner's off the throne."
"What do you have in mind, Captain? You want to wear the Crown yourself I suppose?" The voice asked sarcastically.
Sullivan laughed out loud, the sound echoing from the walls.
"This question amuses you, Captain?" Irritation replaced sarcasm.
"Well, I must admit that the idea has a certain, uh, temptation to it," He chortled. "But recently the job has had a less-than-secure status accorded to it."
"Aided by your own efforts, no doubt." The voice pointedly replied.
Sullivan shrugged. "I'm no soothsayer. Yeah, I'll admit that I helped Jenner plan to overthrowhis brother. But I was as surprised as anyone that he actually stooped to murder. Even I couldn't have predicted that; so far as I knew, once Jenner had stripped Ol' King Nic of the Crown, he was gonna send Nic off to a permanent exile in either the Scottish Lands or one of the Continental Empires. How was I supposed to know that Jenner'd had a change of whatever passes for his Heart?"
"Then exactly what sort of reward do you expect, assuming that our efforts meet with success." The voice asked.
"I'll make it pretty simple for you." Sullivan stated. "I want The Chancellorship, I want a Titlement; a Barony, or perhaps even a Duchy; and I want the Amulet passed down generation to generation only in my family, no matter what offices they happen to hold in the future, in perpetuity."
This elicited a collective gasp throughout the room, then a heated, whispered argument among those at the tables. When calm was restored, the voice asked, "Is that all? Perhaps we could also arrange for the clouds to decend during your funeral and take whatever passes for your soul up to the spirit world."
Sullivan stood and angrily motioned toward the door. "Look," He sneered, "If you want my help, you gotta pay my price! Otherwise, Jenner'll stay on the Throne. An' you know as well as I that the longer he's on
it, the harder it'll be to shove 'im off! So d'we talk a deal or do I walk out that door?"
Another whispered argument ensued. After a few moments, the voice asked, "Would you please excuse us for a few minutes? My, er, colleagues and I wish to consult on your demands in a more private venue for a few minutes. Please don't leave your seat."
Sullivan nodded and relaxed as the other conspirators made their way through another doorto another small, dark room. This was actually going a lot better than he'd ever expected. They had not thrown him out of the room or, worse yet, killed him when he'd asserted his demands. The details of a deal would probably take some time to work out with this crowd, but they seemed to have a leader with a couple of brain cells to rub together and he obviously wasn't afraid to use 'em. Besides, he reassured himself, he was going to take every precaution that, even if this bunch couldn't get its act together and wound up on a one
way trip to the gallows, he'd leave no evidence that could possibly connect them with him.
He could now hear a noisy debate through the walls of the small building; voices, none of whom he recognized, rising or falling to the tide of the passions of their views. Eventually, the committee of conspirators proceeded solemnly from the other room and resumed their seats.
"We've come to a decision." The voice stated. "Since we have no workable plan, as yet, we've decided to do nothing at present. If you, at some point, should see an opportunity to accomplish our mutually stated goal, please don't hesitate to take direct action toward that end. We've decided that your price, while pushing certain ethical boundaries, is acceptable; but be warned, our King is not the only employer of spies. We are also watching."
The meeting was then adjourned. Sullivan was instructed to remain seated until the others had left and three knocks were given at the door. Sullivan was tempted to try to follow one of the conspirators, but he needed them to trust him in order for his plan to succeed; so he decided to obey the instruction.
After what seemed an eternity, but could not have been more than a few minutes at most, Sullivan heard three taps at the door. He ran and threw it open, but in the dimness of the nearby street lantern found himself staring down at a tiny young rabbit; a street urchin from the look of him, dressed only in a raggedy old shirt several sizes too large; who stared back at him from empty, emotionless eyes. For a moment, Sullivan wanted to kick the child out of his way and run back to the barracks. He had spent years trying to forget that he too had been left to the horrors of the streets after his mother had abandoned him just after his father had been killed in one of the riots started by two factions involved in the Continental Wars. He'd had to steal food, clothing or anything else that meant another day of survival. The Plague had somehow missed claiming him as yet another victim, but he was near starvation when he was caught stealing from a fruit vendor. The vendor had called the local constable,but a member of the King's Guard had showed up instead and explained that the Guard was under orders to augment the local constabulary until the situation quieted down. The vendor had made his opinion clear as to what kind of punishment Sullivan should recieve for his infraction; but the Guard, a wise and experienced Sergeant-Major, had merely listened politely and bundled him off to the King's Orphanage where he'd recieved his first hot meal in memory and slept in a warm and comfortable bed instead of shivering himself to sleep on some chilly footpath. But old habits had never really died. Even though the Sergeant-Major had eventually adopted him and tried to in still in him some sense of honor and honesty, he never seemed to be able to rid himself of the anger that he felt toward his real parents; but because they were no longer a part of his life he would take it out on others, usually anyone smaller and weaker than himself. The thought of what he had been and what he had let himself become; a traitor, a murderer in thought if not deed, an arsonist and damn near a child-killer; sickened him. If he was already beyond redemption, so be it. He would reckon with his fate when the spirits called.
But the pitiful creature at his feet stirred something within him that he'd never felt before. He bent down and gently took one of its grimy paws in his own. "How would you like to eat a hot meal and sleep in a warm bed tonight, huh?" The child looked at him uncomprehendingly. For what was probably the first time in his life, Sullivan gave a smile of genuine warmth and said, "Come on, young'un, I'll see if I can get a bath thrown in for you as well." Paw in paw, he led the bedraggled young rabbit down the street.