This Blessed Plot – Chapter Seven
We retreated back to the Testudo mech, the preponderous mobile command center that sat waiting for us behind the lines. A radio relay, communications hub, and partial sleeping quarters, the Testudo was very much the massive tortoise it was named after, slow to move but nearly impenetrable when locked down properly. Much to my surprise and that of Byrghir, the King was waiting for us when we arrived. On a comm screen, of course.
"Boyar Hunyadi, my aides tell me that Lady Jane has gone missing and her mech has stopped responding to beacon calls," Arthur said, a little testy. "Would you care to explain?"
"She and Michael were taken in by a trap -- a very old one. Hole in the ground with electronic disabler beacons around it. Jane wanted to go in for one last crack at a gun position without proper ground scans first. She fell through, and Michael went with." My voice was far calmer than I thought it would be, but this was Jane we were talking about -- she could handle her own. And Arthur was her commander, not just her cousin. Decorum had to be observed.
The King's shoulders sagged a little in the grainy comm screen. When he spoke again the annoyance was gone. "Your units are recalled to York for debriefing. Doubtless they will want to ransom Jane," He said, his voice tired. "I will need you here for that."
The ride back to York was one of the most dejected rides of my life – my good friend was behind enemy lines, in the hands of the Saxons, who would do God only knew what to her while they were waiting for their ransom money. If, of course, they decided on ransom. The Saxons were known to skip ransom altogether and send back corpses instead.
The King was waiting for us with one of his adjutants, a Commander Brutus, in the parking bay of the command hub. He motioned Byrghir and myself aside as the other pilots went off to the medical bay and the lounge. Silently, we followed him upstairs into the heart of the command hub.
"Sir, we're getting a communications page. The encryption sounds Saxon, sir," one of the techs debriefed as Arthur strode into the command center, the room filled with dim green light from a dozen comm screens and sensory equipment.
"Can you get a lock on the location?" Arthur asked. The tech shook his head.
"They're bouncing it off several satellites, sir, we won't be able to get a fix through their code. The preface says they want to talk to you."
Arthur glanced at me and planted himself in front of the largest comm screen. "Put it up on the projection," he ordered, arranging himself and his face into a neutral stance.
The techs murmured commands among themselves, tapping headsets and typing in code before the comm page was put up on the screen, and a man's face, unnaturally large on the comm screen, came into view, pixilating a few times for focus and then settling into a distinct image. It was an unfamiliar face, but somehow I knew exactly who he was. And, much to my displeasure, he was everything I had imagined him to be.
"King Arthur, how lovely to see you."
"Count, we had no idea we would be expecting your presence here in the Islands any time soon," Arthur responded levelly. The Count Rudolf of Saxe-Eisenach laughed, smiling and showing a few more teeth than he probably intended, making himself look more like a wolf than a man. "What do you want with my knight Lady Dame Gray?" the King asked grimly.
"Ah, see, that's where this gets interesting. King, you have in your company someone I'd like to have a word with regarding Lady Jane. Boyar Vladimir Hunyadi? I know you're in there somewhere -- a mech like Maugrim isn't without its marked impact on little Saxon footsoldiers, even if they think its name is Fenrir and that it presages the end of the world." His eyes swept the crowd behind Arthur – I didn't move, fairly certain he wouldn't be able to make me out in the dim lighting. I hadn't known his face, but that didn't mean he didn't know mine. "These Pagan idoltors -- such a waste of human flesh. But you make do with what you have," he said almost sweetly, smiling again and showing his teeth. "Vlad Hunyadi, come out and face me, or I think the next time you run to your old Baltic comrades for help you'll find Jane a little less...vivacious then when you last saw her."
Slowly I stepped from the crowd to stand next to King Arthur in front of the comm screen, my wife's intended husband leering at me with disgust written all over his handsome Aryan face. "What do you want with me, Count?"
"I should have thought that was obvious -- I want an exchange. This Catholic whore for yours. Mine, actually," He added as an afterthought. The movement of his shoulders seemed to indicate he was prodding something in front of him with his boot when he said 'this Catholic whore'. "I want the Lady Monica Pallavincini, as promised by her family. Did you really think you'd both be safe in England? I'd like your head as well, but beggars can't be choosers. If my demands are refused, your Lady will go the same way as her cousin. You'll see my messengers have brought you a little gift to illustrate the point. Open it now, please."
The entire room looked around and sure enough, there was a cryo-pod, sitting on the table like someone's Christmas present. The room erupted into a buzz of confused and hasty talking, everyone wondering how someone had gotten the unwelcome package inside.
"Who brought that in here?" Arthur roared above the rabble. Immediate silence -- no one spoke. On the wall, Rudolf laughed.
"If we had wanted to blow you up, King, we would have done that already. But I have my ways of getting things done. If you go to the crew quarters you'll find a very nervous young man by the name of Blaine with a gun to his head. If he's smart he will have pulled the trigger already, as we asked him to."
"Find him," Arthur said, ordering a few of the assembled knights out of the room and returning his attention to the box and the screen.
"Well, it's not going to keep, you know," the Count said, almost bored.
Commander Brutus, the King's aide-de-camp, pushed the opening button on the mechanized box and stepped back, afraid it might be an incendiary. The box's top unfolded and the sides slid back to the table, revealing Michael Machoney's severed, bloody head, eyes wide open in terror—he'd been very much alive when they hacked through his neck. A pagan symbol had been carved into his forehead, and the resulting bleeding had covered his face in blood. That kind of bleed indicated he'd been alive when they did that, too. I held a hand to my mouth, a little bile spilling up my throat. Even in the Balkans there are limits – this crossed them all. At least when we severed heads down there both sides made sure to put a bullet in first.
"Gentlemen, you want to know that I am serious and here is my proof – I am returning one prisoner to show you what will happen to the other one," The count said simply. "He squealed like a pig when we carved that in his forehead. I'm sorry to say that may have excited them a little bit more than it should have – I told them to shoot him first and they ignored me."
"You should rot in hell," the lump in front of Saxe-Eisenach voiced, the voice muffled by what sounded like a hood.
"Oh, look, it speaks," the Count said. "King, I'm sure you wanted some assurance that my prisoner is still alive; here it is. Say hello to home, Lady Jane." He knelt down next to the human form and pulled off the hood -- sure enough, Jane was underneath it, face covered in abrasions, probably from Talarios falling into the pit. She was still wearing her battlesuit, so it was unlikely she'd freeze in whatever dungeon they had locked her in, but she had a restraining collar on her neck and her hands were bound; her movement would be limited, with the collar giving her a shock any time she made a sudden movement. They were supposed to be illegal, but I wasn't going to put anything past Eisenach now.
"Get facial recognition and vocal checks to see that it's her," Arthur ordered softly to the techs behind him, not taking his eyes from the screen as he did so.
"Do you not trust me to deliver the real Jane Gray, King? How poor of you. These people aren't that clever that they could come up with a decent facial mask and vocal synthesizer in a matter of hours," Count Rudolf said dismissively. "Come on, Jane, tell your cousin who you really are," he said, stroking her face. Jane spat at him, the collar giving her a zap for turning too quickly. Rudolf wiped the spit off his shoulder and smiled at her again. "You know, Hunyadi, she's really quite a beautiful woman. I'm surprised the English waste her on a battle mech. She could be much more useful for, say...morale," he insinuated, stroking her cheek again. "In fact, she might earn her keep a little while she's here. Shame to let all this go to waste while we have use of it."
"She is of noble birth and is accorded the privilege of parole and ransom," Arthur cut in vehemently. "If you mistreat her you violate the terms of the Geneva-Rome Accords."
"I think we dispensed with rules and accords, King, when my betrothed was taken from me in the Rhineland!" The Count hissed. "Breach of contract, I think that's called. I'm only trying to get what's due me. Now, Boyar, this matter of exchange. Lady Monica for Lady Jane here. And Hunyadi – if I find my goods are …damaged, I'll inflict the same on the Lady Gray. An eye for an eye, yes? How does that sound to you, Lady?" Rudolf asked, looking at Jane.
"Vlad, remember my name," Jane said quickly before Rudolf gave her a hard slap and shouted something in German at her. It sounded like he was telling her not to try any coded message.
"You have two days to consider my offer, Hunyadi," Saxe-Eisenach said, standing up again and brushing off the knees of his military styled suit. "We'll be in touch," he said with his same leering smile, and then the comm screen went blank. I turned to look at Arthur, wondering how my friend's sovereign lord was taking this. He looked conflicted -- behind him, Byrghir looked like he wanted to kill something, his gauntleted hand digging into the back of a tech's chair.
"What does she mean, remember her name?" Brutus injected, his voice rather sour. As well he should be: one of Britain's Knights—the Table Knights, no less --was captured and being held for the ransom on account of a mercenary's bad business.
"It's a code, a Balkan code, to do with associations. Remember her name," I repeated, wondering myself what on earth it was Jane meant.
"The First Jane Gray was executed in the Tower after being queen for nine days," Arthur supplied. "Though I doubt that's what she wanted us to take away. Her middle name is Catherine. What does that leave us with?"
"Several queens of England by that name – Katherine of Aragon, Catherine Parr, Catherine Howard, Catherine of Braganza. Saint Catherine, but there's about a half a dozen of those…" one of the techs rattled off. Jane's shrine came to mind – Saint Catherine. But which one? That slight detail was escaping me.
"Start with the Saint Catherines," I prompted, trying to remember what each was famous for. Too many saints, too few names.
"Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church, patroness against fire and sexual impurity, Catherine Laboure, associated with the Miraculous medal, Catherine of Alexandria, martyr, pulled apart by spiked wheel, Catherine of Bologna, patron saint of…"
"No, no, Alexandria, that's it. A martyr." That wasn't the right saint Catherine, but it would do for now.
"Jane expects to die?" Arthur asked, confused and probably wondering if we were still talking about the same Jane Gray.
"If need be. But she's trusting us to break her out."
"Break her out! How? With what intelligence?" Commander Brutus asked, stunned. "We know nothing on where she's being held."
"With the code she's whispering behind the Count. Roll back the message to where we first see Jane," I said, pointing to the screen, where Jane's lips were just barely moving, her eyes clenched shut, as if she was praying against the pain. But she wasn't praying – she was telling us something. Directions, I hoped. "Find someone who can read lips," I ordered. "Rudolf thinks Monica's here in England, and that'll make him think we can get her to him quickly. I'll take Maugrim and break Jane out before he realizes which way the winds really blow," I said softly to the king, stepping closer than decorum perhaps dictated, but now was not the time for rules and proximities -- Jane would have broken them for me in a heartbeat.
"I ask that I be permitted to come with," Byrghir said quickly, stepping up beside me. Brutus shook his head.
"I'm sure King Olaf would consider a rescue mission a very bad use of his good-will officer," he began in a hissed whisper, but Haraldsson wasn't finished.
"With all respect, Commander, but the Lady Gray is also one of my comrades. I was in Saxe-Eisenach for a year as an attaché; I understand how Count Rudolf's mind works. I have skills that will prove more valuable to Boyar Hunyadi than they will here with you. I will write the King myself and explain to him, if you deem it necessary to do so."
Arthur looked reticent, but he shook his head and crossed himself. "If you wish it, Baron Haraldsson, I cannot stop you."
Byrghir nodded, leaving quickly, before I could stop him or even talk to him. And we needed to talk before we even thought about leaving York. The matter of Jane, and whatever understanding she had with him, needed to be discussed.
*buries face in hands* It's terrible, it's terrible, it's terrible…