They made one more stop before heading out of town, to pick up Benedicta. With the three of them in the coach, and their picnic baskets and blankets, it was getting crowded.
The roads were packed, too. It seemed that everybody was heading out of town to watch the battle.
“I guess there isn’t much else to do on Krim.” Benedicta peered out the window at the pedestrians walking past. Due to the traffic jams, the coach was making slow progress on its way north out of the city. She turned back to the other two women. “Do either of you know what the battle is about?”
“I got the playbill.” Margarett pulled a color pamphlet out of her basket. “It says that Armforge Guild will be defending Krim City against the Cult of Qualdir, God of the Underworld.” She flipped pages. “The guild is fielding an army of two hundred people.”
“That’s not a very big army,” said Wynefrede.
“The other side is even smaller,” said Margarett. “This says they have about a hundred and fifty people, but they’re more motivated.”
“Is it just a play battle?” asked Benedicta. “Are they just going out there and fighting because they have nothing better to do?”
“Probably,” said Wynefrede. “Isn’t that what people on these small medieval worlds come here to do?”
“According to this, the cult has a grudge against the guild because a bunch of their members were massacred recently.” Margarett held up the pamphlet. “They had kidnapped someone well-connected in order to either make them a slave or sacrifice them to their god up in the northern mountains.”
“So the cult are the bad guys?” asked Benedicta. “And we’re rooting for the home team?”
“The Armforge Guild, yes,” said Margarett. “There’s a woodcut here of their leader, Rodge Bannister.” She showed the picture to the two other women.
“Handsome,” said Wynefrede.
Benedicta slapped her hand. “Stop that. You can date random medieval role players any time you want. Keep your eyes on the prize. Everyone in the Royal Season is a quality person, invited for maximum compatibility.”
“And you’ll never have to worry that they just want to be close to you just for your money,” said Margarett.
“I know. I know. That’s what my parents kept telling me.”
The coach drew to a stop again and Benedicta stuck her head out the window. “How much further?” she yelled up at the driver.
“At least an hour,” he called back.
Wynefrede sighed. “Maybe we should walk,” she said.
“In these dresses and shoes? Never.” Benedicta pulled her basket onto her lap and opened the lid. “Anyone hungry? Oh, there’s a pack of cards in here. Who’s up for Rummy?”
They drove north out of the city until they came to a ridge blocking their way. The road veered around, but the driver stopped to let them off near several other coaches and horses. They could see people gathered at the top of the central hill and along the shoulders of the ridge in both directions. Everyone was facing away. The action must be happening on the other side.
Even the queen herself had come out for the occasion. She sat on an ornate throne that had been carried up the hill by an army of servants. Pleasance Platt, her staff, and the ladies and gentlemen of the Royal Season had arranged themselves on blankets on the ground immediately around her.
When Pleasance saw Margarett’s coach pull up to the hill, she sent several servants down. They helped Benedicta, Margarett, and Wynefrede out of their vehicle and escorted the women to the top, where they laid down the blankets for them to sit on.
The women found themselves next to a couple of familiar faces.
“Nigel! Raphe!” Benedicta said, sitting down. “Are we too late? Is the battle over already?”
The hill overlooked the plains that stretched out to the north of Krim City. The two armies were camped out below, separated by a muddy field with a small stream running through the middle of it. The queen and her retinue occupied the top of the hill, but other spectators were spread out to the sides and on the slopes facing the battles. There must have been several hundred people already there, more people than both armies combined.
“It hasn’t even started yet,” said Raphe. “The guild is over there.” He pointed to the left. “That’s the Krim River behind them, and, beyond that, Sangeries Castle. It belongs to the guild.” He pointed to the right. “That’s the cult. Their leader is someone named Skullash.”
“You know a lot about this,” said Benedicta.
“It’s all in the playbill,” said Raphe. “Page seven.” He moved over on his blanket so that he was sitting closer to Wynefrede.
“Why is it taking so long?” she asked him.
“I think they’re waiting for all the spectators to arrive.”
“Why do they care?”
“A good battle can help with recruitment,” Raphe said. “So they want a lot of people watching and telling their friends how fun it was. Plus, I think both leaders are having their portraits painted.” He passed her a pair of opera glasses and pointed.
She looked through the glasses in the direction indicated. It was hard to tell from this distance, but the cult leader was posing on a horse, his arm stretched out heroically. The effect was a little spoiled by the fact that a servant was propping up the leader’s arm with a long stick.
She moved the glasses to find the other leader. He was standing in a power pose, one foot propped up on a rock, hands on his hips.
“So. Anything new with you?” Raphe asked her.
“Just letters from home. My parents want me to meet someone nice. Work is going fine.”
“Feels weird to be getting paper letters, doesn’t it?” Raphe asked.
“What’s weird is that apparently there’s a problem with a contract negotiation. Nothing that they can’t handle without me. But it involves the Carlyle Group. Must be a coincidence, right?”
“You mean, because of Elea Carlyle being the queen?”
“I know she doesn’t have much to do with the rest of her family’s company,” Wynefrede said. “But still.”
What she didn’t add was that she might have received an invitation for the Royal Season because of that connection. Maybe Elea Carlyle thought that a nice gesture on her part with respect to Wynefrede might carry some weight. Of course, Wynefrede herself had already dismissed the Carlyle Group’s bid. Her family was looking to invest in asteroid belt mining infrastructure, but the Carlyle Group’s ventures were a little less attractive than those of their competitors.
“It’s probably a coincidence,” said Raphe. “I mean, most of us here are pretty high-profile in our real lives. We all run big companies, or manage large investment portfolios.” He glanced at Benedicta. “Or are famous movie stars. I’m sure most of us have some dealings with the Carlyle Group. I mean, my company is competing against them right now for a sizeable investment. Like I said, purely a coincidence. Or maybe a shrewd marketing move on their part.”
“She is the only one here under her real name,” Wynefrede said.
“Or maybe she just enjoys having people bow down to her and treat her like royalty.”
“Can I bring you anything?” a servant asked right behind them. Wynefrede gasped, startled. She and Raphe turned slightly to look back at the servant, who was dressed in the queen’s liverie. “Something to drink? A parasol to guard you from the sun?”
“No, we’re good,” Wynefrede said as Raphe shook his head.
“If you change your mind, just ask,” the servant said. “Queen Elea Carlyle is mindful of her subjects. She’s not doing all this just to have people bow down to her.”
Raphe flushed. “I didn’t mean…” he began, but the servant was already moving away. He turned back to Wynefrede. “Well, that was embarrassing.”
“More for her than for us,” Wynefrede. “The Carlyle Group is overextended. And Elea Carlyle herself has had a series of public relations disasters over the past few years. She needs us.”
“Well, then let’s hope that we don’t all get accidentally killed in this battle,” said Raphe. “That wouldn’t help her image at all.”