Fair Reader,

You may find this story a tad difficult to follow if you haven't read "Seven Days to a King." Please note that the rating for this story has been upped, lest Your Author decides to use a few colorful terms and metaphors.

S.B.

PROLOGUE

In the drafty basement of an aging inn, a group of conspirators held their first meeting. A day's journey from the capital, the assembly of well-heeled aristocrats fidgeted and grumbled around a long table.

Lord Gilbert Smalley, a cherub-faced blond man of fifty, glanced around the table and leaned over to his son, Gerald. "How many in total, then?"

Gerald, a near copy of his father at thirty, shrugged his lean shoulders. "A dozen or so, I think. That's what Lady Devon said."

Lord Smalley grimaced. "How are we supposed to pull this off with a dozen? What he's proposing, it's audacious. Bloody dangerous."

Gerald shrugged again and examined the nails on his right hand. "He's out of prison, isn't he? Or wherever he'd been held. That had to take some real doing, didn't it?"

"I hope he hurries," groused the father. "We need to be back to the capital as soon as possible. Can't be seen here with this lot."

Gerald continued to examine his fingernails.

Lord Smalley leaned in closer to his son and whispered, "I don't recognize some of them. I don't want to be dealing with people I don't know. What have you gotten us into?"

Gerald whispered, "Calm down. That's Mr. Tremaine, the lawyer. Lord Black's right by him, and he's in shipping. Lady Rowlands, isn't she in publishing? Mr. Foster, he's another lawyer. Lord Dannett, his daughter's that artist, remember? He's into politics and has his own banking interests. You'd know all this if you weren't such a damned hermit."

The father grunted his assent. "Where is he? He should be here by now. We can't wait. What if -"

Conversation at the table halted, and all heads swung back to the stairway. A tall, gaunt figure descended, his vivid blue eyes sweeping over the assembled. His brown hair was cropped thin and short to his head, which accentuated his angled, craggy features. The figure was flanked by two men in dark suits, one short and wiry with a shock of red hair, the other nearly as tall as the first with black hair pulled back into a queue.

The tall man approached the table and sat down with deliberate slowness. His two followers stood behind him.

Mr. Augustus Tremaine, a portly lawyer with a full head of white hair, struggled to his feet with a smile on his round face. "Welcome, my lord. It is exquisite to meet you in person at last. I trust your journey wasn't terribly onerous?"

The tall man placed his large white hands onto the table. He swung his vivid gaze to Mr. Tremaine and stared.

After a moment of silence, Mr. Tremaine cleared his throat noisily and continued. "I expect you're fatigued after such a journey, my lord. And who are these gentlemen you brought with you? Might we know their honored names?"

The man at the end of the table leveled his gaze on the lawyer for a long moment, then spoke. "You may consider them my colleagues and chiefs of staff."

Mr. Tremaine forced a smile to his face. "I see. Quite right, my lord. Very proper. Shall we commence, then?"

The plotter said, calmly, "Let me see the latest report."

Mr. Tremaine reached down to pluck a large parcel of paper from the table. He rounded the table, ingratiating smile fixed on his features, and brought it to the tall man. The schemer nodded once in thanks, then opened the first page and began to read.

Mr. Tremaine returned to his seat. Minutes passed as the assembled watched the plotter flip through each and every page. Chairs creaked and fabric rustled as the assembled fidgeted in impatience.

Finally, after several minutes, the plotter raised his head and placed the report on the table.

"Unacceptable," the plotter said, his statement rumbling through the basement and bouncing off the walls.

Mr. Tremaine glanced around the table, then shuffled to his feet. "My lord, I completely understand your reservations about the figures you see within those pages. I myself was surprised, but you must see, my lord, that in these difficult, turbulent times, we simply don't possess the vast resources that we previously enjoyed. Why, with the war with the harpies, and - "

Mr. Tremaine cut his speech short. The tall man had quietly raised his hand.

"We are undertaking the largest act of treason in our kingdom's history," said the schemer, his voice firm. "Mere pittance will get us nowhere."

Mr. Tremaine noisily cleared his throat. "Quite, quite right, my lord, but I think you will agree that those numbers don't represent a mere pittance. We have pledged much, and will continue to -"

"Mr. Tremaine," interrupted the schemer, clasping his hands together on the table, "you will take your seat and cease speaking."

The lawyer's considerable backside hit his chair with a thump.

The plotter raked his cerulean gaze around the table. "You are the scions of society. Collectively, you own a vast assortment of businesses, lands, and funds. You can, and will, pledge more to this cause." He paused, unclasping his hands and setting them palm-down to the scarred tabletop. "If you do not, you will either be killed outright or ruined entirely."

Another round of nervous glances circled the table as another moment of silence stretched and lengthened.

The schemer stood and clasped his hands behind his back, slowly walking around the table. "You may think me cruel for threatening in such a manner. I concede that my methods may shock you. Your suffering will be more than rewarded, however. This assembly will ascend and become the new Great Council. You will wield unlimited influence and power. You will dominate your respective industries. I will replace every cent you invest in this scheme, and then I will give you even more."

The plotter allowed silence to fill the space again before resuming, his tone commanding but quiet. "I have plotted for twenty years. I have suffered. I have risen to the surface after burial. I will not be stopped, or delayed, because my compatriots refuse to loosen their purse strings."

The man stopped his pacing, hands still clasped behind him. "By meeting here, you signed an oath. There is no turning back from this pledge. You will, each and every one, fully see this plot to its end. I will not tolerate deviation or passivity. If I ask you to contribute more, you will do so, and give no fumbling excuses. If you feel that you cannot obey me without question, raise your hand."

The redheaded colleague drew a pistol from the band of his slacks.

"Threatening with a pistol is crude," said the plotter, his voice a shade calmer. "I have other methods at my disposal. There are many ways to kill or ruin a man, and I know them all."

The redheaded man replaced the pistol and resumed his attentive, watchful position at the end of the table.

"Our tasks are daunting," continued the plotter to his rapt audience. "We have a throne to recapture. We have a kingdom to rule. We have a war to win. It will take resources and nerve, for treason and assassination aren't to be undertaken lightly."

The man paused, looking each of the men and women in the eye. "We will meet again in one week. I will see augmented figures in the next report. I will see a group of men and women who are deadly serious about this enterprise."

The man unclasped his hands and strode to the staircase, banked again by his two colleagues. The trio made their way slowly, deliberately, up the stairs. Their footsteps echoed through the room.

A shocked silence gripped the men and women at the table.

Mr. Tremaine swallowed the lump in his throat. "Well. What do you make of that?"

Lord Smalley sighed as he slumped back into his chair. "Garret Moorstan will win. I would bet on it. We can all bet on it, my friends. He'll get to his throne even if he has to step over Cyrus Moorstan's dead body to get there."