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An Ominous Song

An Alternate History Tale

By Kenny PennPublished about a year ago 12 min read
2
Midjourney Bot + Kenny Penn

Time was slipping away, and with it, Joon's hopes. He needed to find Wymand's portfolio soon.

It must be here! He thought, running the candlelight along the joints and cracks of Wymand's heavy desk. There had to be a hidden latch or a pressure switch here. He probed with experienced fingers sensitive to anything seemingly out of place.

If only there were something he could use to brighten the Lord’s study. Like a torch. But he was already taking a big enough risk. Even with the curtains drawn over the great stained-glass windows, an observant eye might detect the candle's yellow glow from outside. Worse, a servant or guard passing by may see it through the crack under the door.

He glanced at the huge iron clock behind the desk, checking the time. Too much gold plating made it a gaudy thing to behold, even in the dark. Joon always hated looking at it. It served as the centerpiece of the room and as a symbol of Wymand's opulence.

Seven-Thirty, or near enough. Which meant he had under an hour to find the portfolio and turn it over to General Thomas. Each second ticking by felt like rope tightening on his heart. Every minute took him further from redemption. Further from Lin.

He could give up. Maybe he should. He was no hero. Far from it. Forget about exposing the traitorous bastard and turn over the plans Wymand had sent him to steal. No! That can't happen! Thousands of lives will be lost! I could never look Lin in the eye again.

At last, he found it. Inside one of the drawers, a stack of no-doubt shrewdly written ledger books concealed a false bottom. After removing it, he shone the light inside and found a small round button that, when pressed, dropped open a small compartment hidden beneath the desktop with a silent click.

Joon reached in with trembling hands and pulled out his prize. A leather-bound portfolio, worn with age and use.

Voices echoing from the outside hallway. Two people, from the sound of it. Not Lord Wymand, but his servants, or worse, guards. Once they found the guard he’d taken down . . . He needed to leave, and soon.

Hurriedly, he stood and sat the candle on the desk, pulled out a random page and scanned its contents. The scent of old ink and vellum greeted his nose as he leaned closer.

This is it! Finally!

Just this single document would be enough to have Wymand beheaded. It detailed his dealings with Pierre Guiot, a well-known ambassador from the southern kingdom of France. According to Wymand's own hand, he conspired with Guiot to have certain members of King Edmund's court framed for embezzlement.

That was ten years ago. King Edmund had those nobles and their families beheaded, their lands and titles stripped, and their names forbidden to be spoken out loud. Their deaths must have helped Wymand somehow.

He wished he had time to go through them all, but it was time to go. General Thomas awaited, and with these documents, perhaps Joon could reclaim some of his honor.

#

General Thomas' quarters were quite modest in comparison to some of the other military leader's Joon had seen. The rectangular room contained just enough space for a comfortable bed, a sturdy table littered with papers, and a cushioned chair next to a small nightstand. A light scent of cinnamon and clove gave the room a welcoming feel.

They were modest quarters, for a modest man, a fact Joon appreciated. You could trust a humble man because they weren’t typically overly ambitious.

Thomas sat in his chair; the portfolio opened in his lap as he read one of the documents within. A steady stream of smoke drifted from a wooden pipe clenched between his teeth. Frowning, he set the paper back into the portfolio and placed it on the nightstand.

"Do you know," he asked, "exactly what you have brought me?"

Despite his peppered hair and weathered face, the general's voice was strong. He had a presence about him which made Joon want to knuckle his forehead, though in truth the general held no real rank over him.

"I haven't read everything in it, sir." Joon answered. "But that's not what you're asking me, is it?"

"Indeed." The general suddenly stood, walked over to the table, and started shuffling through the papers there. "You were always one of my brightest students. Easy to train in combat, quick to pick up on even the most complicated fighting techniques. Wymand chooses his spies well. Yet when it comes to politics, you don’t have a clue, do you?"

Joon shrugged uncomfortably. He hadn't spent the last twenty years of his life living under a rock. But he remained silent.

"I have no love for Lord Wymand. He is a pompous pig of the lowest breed, noble or not. He is a known gambler and cheat, and not only with money, but with people's lives. He flaunts his wealth the way some soldiers flaunt battle scars."

He found the paper he was looking for and straightened, turning to look Joon in the eyes. "But what you brought me," he shook his head, "is nothing short of a catalyst for civil war."

Joon frowned. "I don’t understand sir, I -"

"No, son. I don't think you do." He handed the paper to Joon and began refilling his pipe. "Take a look at that memo."

Confused, Joon read the document. Wymand was hosting a party tonight at the capitol building. He’d be making a special announcement. Wymand's daughter, Matilda, was to be married. Engaged to ..."

Joon swallowed and dropped the memo. Shit!

The general nodded. "Yes, now you have the whole picture. Lord Jeffrey Wymand is soon to be the father-in-law of Prince Henry. Perhaps one day a grandfather to a king."

Joon nearly swore under his breath. How could he not have known about this? He'd been away for far too long. Hadn’t even known the prince was seeing anyone. "But surely that makes this all the more important? He has to be exposed!"

"It's not that easy, Joon." Thomas sighed, stepped forward and brushed a wrinkled finger along Joon's yellow doublet. "You just got back, what? Three weeks ago?"

"I don't understand what that has to do with -"

"You were sent on a mission to spy on the Song's in the eastern empire. I believe you were there for seven years, yes?"

Eight, actually. Joon glanced down at his doublet, at the sleeves of his white shirt and the legs of his tanned breeches. So different from the colorful Hanfu robes and skirts he'd been wearing until a few months ago.

A face flashed in his mind's eye, brief and beautiful. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, features unblemished by hidden agendas and dark secrets. Lin’s lips were small but perfect and soft, and she wore a smile which spoke of years of happiness and peace to come. If he couldn’t get the general to help, he might not ever see her again.

He shook his head, banishing the image, and met the general's eyes. "What of it?"

"How do you think Song would have handled the situation? Would he have risked the stability of his empire to administer justice?"

Joon didn't have to pause. He gave an emphatic nod. "Yes, without a doubt."

General Thomas sighed again. Joon thought he looked older than at any time he'd ever seen before. "Well then, he is either much wiser than I, or a complete fool. Either way, I cannot do what you want, Joon. I won’t risk starting a civil war. Please, take the portfolio and leave. For your sake, I advise you to put it back where you found it."

#

Joon sat in the shadows of a high balcony in the great hall of the capitol house, brooding. The darkness hid him well, despite the festivities happening below. He'd changed into something much more suited for skulking, a long black sleeved shirt and a pair of black breeches.

Beside him, leaning against the railing, was his crossbow. Behind him, the two soldiers who had been unfortunate enough to pull guard duty up here lay on the floor. They would have bad headaches in the morning, but they would live.

It seemed every noble within a hundred miles turned up to congratulate Wymand and his daughter on her engagement. There were dozens of people, all dressed in fine colorful clothing, laughing, drinking, and dancing, but Joon only had eyes for one of them.

Lord Wymand was a striking figure, though rather rotund. Tonight, he wore a purple doublet over a bright red shirt and pure white breeches. He looked quite jovial with a cup of wine in one hand and a broad smile painted on his greasy face.

Joon stared down at him angrily.

Wymand, the snake. How could one man have such luck? Now Joon had no chance to restore his dignity. To get out from under the shadow of this despicable man. All that time and effort spent getting information on Wymand's secrets had all been for nothing. He didn't know if he was angrier at Wymand, Thomas, or himself.

He watched as Wymand shook another noble’s hand, grinning. The master of spies had a charming smile, one Joon knew well. He could still recall, in perfect clarity, that smile being used on himself for the first time, over fifteen years ago.

A sixteen-year-old kid, proud to be born English but always the outsider because of his face and his name. The son of an English fletcher and an eastern woman. When he’d joined the military, he’d been determined to make something of himself. To make all the bullies see him as more than an occasional joke.

Wymand picked him out early on, while Joon was still a green recruit. Singled him out during a training exercise. He’d acted like an interested uncle, convincing Joon with that smile and a clap to the shoulder that he could do great things. Soon Joon trained to be a spy along with his combat training.

Then came his first test. A mission to Barcelona in the south. A chance to prove himself to the man who had taken special interest in him. To show he’d been worth the investment. The day prior to leaving, Wymand called him into his office, that charming smile displayed in full.

"While you're there,” he said, “blending in with those heathen god worshippers, perhaps I could convince you to run an extra errand for me? Nothing too dangerous, of course, but I'd make it worth your while." He'd spoken with a silken tone of voice, a master manipulator at his craft, and Joon fell for it as easily as a newborn child.

Nothing too dangerous, Wymand said, and he'd been right. Simply deliver some pesticide the spy master arranged to be given to some of the local grape growers. Joon did as asked, but only found out later that while the chemicals worked to repel pests, they also made all the grapes too sour or bitter to make proper wine with.

Their economy, which relied heavily on wine and grape exports, nearly collapsed, with widespread unrest and civil war soon to follow. Luckily for them, Wymand was willing to sell them quality wine for far less than it's worth, as long as he was given the first option to purchase any vineyards going out of business.

In a single stroke, Wymand became the wealthiest winemaker on the continent, and Joon had given him the means to do it.

Well, the promised bonus had been more than expected, but it was the pride Wymand showed in him that made Joon overlook his dishonesty. What did Joon care if a bunch of farmers went out of business, if the English did well?

One excuse led to others, and soon enough, Joon had been too deep in Wymand's schemes to do anything other than what he was told. Things that shamed him to even think about.

Then came the mission to the East. “I’ve heard whispers,” Wymand said, “of a powerful substance the late emperor worked on. Something that can entertain as well as harm. Find out what it is and, if possible, bring some to me."

This time Joon was to remain in the East until called home. He would be the perfect asset, because he looked like an easterner already and spoke their language, a gift from his mother's side of the family. Emperor Song and his people had been warm and welcoming.

Joon touched the package still in his pocket, rubbing it thoughtfully with his thumb. He didn't intend to give it over to Wymand. He'd entertained the idea of giving it to General Thomas. Why hadn't he? Because he'd been disappointed by the general's decision? Another mistake then. Joon was burying himself in them.

The package contained both the substance Wymand wanted and a painstakingly copied formula on how to make it. A powder-like substance, gray and coarse, with a sulfuric scent to it. Joon witnessed some of the eastern people setting it alight and causing bright flares of fire and loud noises. He didn't have to be a genius to understand what a man like Wymand would do with something like that.

"He would break the world." Joon whispered and shivered.

No, Wymand couldn't have it. But without the man's portfolio to condemn him, how would Joon stop him? Even if he disappeared, Wymand would simply hire someone else to dig out his secret.

He couldn’t let that happen. Couldn’t stand by idly while the world burned, knowing he could have stopped it. How could he honestly be there for Lin, be someone worthy of her, with that shadow hanging over his head?

Watching as Wymand shook hands with yet another noble family, Joon took up the crossbow and aimed carefully down its sight. From this distance, it should be a sure shot. Wymand would die, and Joon would probably be killed, but at least his conscience would be clear.

Taking a deep breath, he allowed himself to think of Lin’s lovely face one last time. He imagined her warm laugh, her soft hands, her amazing touch. He thought of the life they may have had together, the children they may have raised, the love they could have shared.

Then he pulled the trigger.

###

HistoricalShort Story
2

About the Creator

Kenny Penn

Thanks for reading! I enjoy writing in various genres, my favorites being horror/thriller and dark/epic fantasies. I'll also occasionally drop a poem or two.

For a list of all my work, and to connect with me, go to www.kennypenn.com

Reader insights

Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

Top insights

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  3. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  1. Masterful proofreading

    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

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Comments (2)

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  • Mackenzie Davis6 months ago

    This was a great read, Kenny. I feel the stakes, the self-sacrifice, the pressure; just, wow. The way you chose to bring in the exposition in the last act of the story worked perfectly to build up to his final decision. If you'd front-loaded the exposition, the whole story wouldn't have worked! I love getting a glimpse at the process though awesome decisions like this. Well done!

  • Claire Guérinabout a year ago

    This is not your regular, James Bond style spy story. The alternate history, the Asian influence, the deeply flawed main character and the explosive ending make for a very interesting read!

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