A man did not get to be his age without regrets. Or so Vortigern often told himself. A king doubly did not live to see his age without regrets.
King Vortigern of Glasonland was threescore and three years old, and he had seen not quite a score of those years on the throne. He’d spent another ten trying to stay ahead of the popularity of his younger, handsomer, cannier bastard brother. And he had spent as many of those years as possible enjoying himself to the full; after all, for what was he born a king if not to take full advantage of it?
A monk or nun would have told him that he was now reaping all he had sown from that — were there a monk or nun within Glasonland with the courage to tell King Vortigern what they truly thought, and not what they thought the royal ears desired to hear.
He fingered the silk of his robe and sighed. It was his first day up, dressed and out of bed in a week. The doctors whispered and looked grim, but none would tell him what was wrong — only that he would surely feel better if he swallowed this noxious potion or allowed those leeches to be placed on his wrist or suffered his back to be stuffed with more needles than a porcupine’s. That last one had been the suggestion of a doctor from Smina, and it was after that that Vortigern had ordered all foreign doctors from his court.
He knew what the doctors thought, of course. They were certain he was dying. None was man enough to tell him, but he knew that was what they thought. As for what they thought he was dying from, well, that was tougher to tell. Perhaps one of the whispered diseases that laid between the sheets of the beds in houses of pleasure, and which often came home with the customers?
Vortigern saw the bed out of the corner of his eye and chuckled, remembering times when he had not just lain there like a pain-racked log and had put the bed to the use for which the Lord Wright intended it. How many orgies had that bed seen? How many children sired — by him, and not by his ancestors and their ancestors and their ancestors before them, all the way back to Brutus, first Wrightian king of Glasonland?
The thought of children sired in that bed made his shoulders slumped — for, at the end of the day, he could only count one child whom he knew for certain had been sired on that bed. His son, Vortimer. His only legitimate child. The one whom he had watched, and worried over, and coddled and spoiled and tried to make a man of, all at once. His son, his heir.
The heir whom all had gone so well with, until that fateful hunt, a week before his departure for Camford, when he had fallen from his horse and regressed mentally ten years, and picked up an infernal appetite for cheese sandwiches.
And it had all been going so well until that point! True, Vortimer had been a little too bookish for his tastes, and Vortigern had been hard put to toughen him up, but he had been succeeding! Vortimer might never be a conquering king, but he knew his way around a military camp; if Glasonland was ever attacked he would acquit himself well. Or he would have, before that fateful fall from his horse.
After that fall, Vortimer had laid unconscious for three days, steps away from death — or so the doctors had thought. It had been the only time Vortigern had regretted his wife, Lucilla’s, early demise. That damned woman’s Reman pride notwithstanding, he would have started on a spare while Vortimer lay unconscious. His kingdom needed an heir, and as Vortigern’s father Uther had taught him, the good of the kingdom came before everything — even a father’s worry for his son. Uther had lived by those words, too. Vortigern did not respect his father for much, but he respected him for that. After all, had Uther followed his pleasures and not the needs of the kingdom, Arthur would have gotten the whole kit and caboodle; Vortigern was sure of that.
Yes, the needs of the kingdom had assured Vortigern of his rightful inheritance, while Arthur had gotten that provincial backwater, Albion. A bit of half-forgotten land that his little brother had the gall to call a kingdom!
Aye, a half-forgotten stretch of land that’s growing, and thriving, and that Arthur has an heir and a spare to inherit …
Vortigern scowled. His valet, Alfred, entering, caught the scowl and made his bow that much deeper. Alfred had been his valet for two score years, now, and one did not serve that long under Vortigern without learning his moods.
Vortigern placed his hands on the arms of his chair. “Help me up, Alfred — I’m going down to the throne room.”
One also did not last so long in Vortigern’s employ without learning when not to argue.
Vortigern made his slow way down the stairs, nodding at any courtiers he happened to see. Alfred hung behind him, two steps behind as always. Close enough to catch him if he faltered, not so close that it was obvious that catching him was his intention.
But as it so happened, Vortigern did not falter. Perhaps it was the audience; he always did his best when there eyes upon him. Perhaps it was that his legs were so glad to be working again after a week’s enforced idleness that they did not even think to wobble and shake beneath him. Perhaps the doctors were wrong and he was not dying after all.
Or perhaps the journey was just short enough to be completed with a minimum of difficulty, for though it was but a five minute’s walk, it was with a feeling of relief that Vortigern sank back against the cushions. His father had had a hard wooden throne — some sort of symbolism about the role of the king, Vortigern was sure — but Vortigern held no patience for that.
He nodded to Alfred. “Send in the petitioners.”
Alfred did not ask, “What petitioners?” for, after two score years in Vortigern’s service, he knew that there would be petitioners. He only bowed and went out.
Not thirty seconds later, Vortigern’s brother-in-law was kneeling before him, his cloak puddling behind him in an orgy of black silk. “My liege,” said Lord Lucinius. “Allow me to be the first of your subjects to congratulate you on your recovery.”
Vortigern snorted. Aye, to cover up the fact that you were praying loudest for my death?
No, no, that wasn’t true. Even if — if — Lord Lucinius was most fervent in his wishes for Vortigern’s death, he would never speak them aloud. And it was doubtful that he was even that hopeful. Lord Lucinius was no fool. As much as he had to gain if Vortimer came to the throne — for the throne in Vortimer’s hands would be Lucinius’s — he had that much and more to lose if the people, or more accurately, the nobles of Glasonland rejected Vortimer and tried to replace him with one of Vortigern’s bastards.
It was not, after all, through foolishness and gullibility that Lord Lucinius had survived being the younger son of a deposed Reman emperor.
“Get up,” Vortigern snapped. “And come up here. What decisions have you made during the time of my … indisposition?”
“None but those I thought might meet with your approval, my liege.” He bowed as he mounted every step. Vortigern hated that. He was pretty sure that was why Lucinius did it.
If Lucinius hadn’t had a mind cannier than that of a hundred serpents, and the complete loyalty that could only be bought by him having nowhere else to go, Vortigern would have had him beheaded years ago, just for that.
“Get on with it,” Vortigern growled.
“They were mostly routine matters, my liege. The training of troops –”
“Who gave you authority to train troops?”
“My liege, this is the regular army! I only received the reports in your stead. I ordered no changes, and merely approved the disciplinary measures, etc., that the commander suggested.”
“And by ‘the commander,’ you mean your brother.” Vortigern glared at the younger man, with his simpering smile and plausible gestures. If only he had sent them back to Reme as soon as the wedding with Lucilla was concluded … or if only he had married Lucilla a week earlier, or a week later (and thus, not at all)!
“Indeed, my brother, Sir Septimus.” Lucinius bowed. “You have been most generous to your poor, impoverished brothers-in-law.”
“Yes, well, when all of the other promising military minds of your generation either died untimely deaths, retired early, or defected to my bastard brother’s joke of kingdom, what choice did I have but to be — generous?”
“Your Majesty has always been one to — what’s the quaint peasant phrase? — make lemons from lemonade.”
When I’d much rather cut your hearts out and rub the lemons in the wounds! Vortigern sighed. But as much as he wanted to do that, the kingdom came first. The kingdom needed an heir. Vortimer was the only heir he had.
And if there were any three men in the kingdom more dedicated to seeing Vortimer on the throne than Vortigern, it was the brothers Tarquinii — Lord Lucinius, Sir Septimus, and even the feckless Lord Antonius.
“However,” Lord Lucinius added, “there is a matter that came up this morning, which makes me even gladder than I already am of your recovery, for it is not at all routine.”
Vortigern sat up. “And what would that be?”
“It concerns a knight of absolute insignificance, but for some … family connections, shall we say?” As Vortigern racked his brain, Lucinius added, “Sir Milo Carpenter.”
“Sir Milo Carpenter, the –”
“Bastard son of now-Lady Anna Somerset — a Mistress Anna Carpenter, as she was known in the period of your … acquaintance, shall we say?”
Lucinius never gave any of Vortigern’s bastards the title if he could help it. Bastard, yes — but not Vortigern’s bastard. As far as he was publicly concerned, Vortigern had but one child, and that was Vortimer.
One living child, that was …
“What about him?” Vortigern asked.
“Some of your royal spies have reported to — to their superiors that he is planning another trip to Albion.”
Vortigern blinked. “Another?”
“Aye, sire. Surely you remember the first trip he made, some three years ago now?”
“So this is his second?”
“And what he has he had to do with my half-brother’s so-called ‘kingdom’ since then?”
Lucinius was silent.
He sighed. “Your spies,” he said, “have been able to discover very little interaction between Sir Milo and the country of Albion … but it is well-known throughout Camford that he is one of the bosom companions of Arthur’s eldest son Thomas.”
Vortigern leaned back, blinking. “What’s the boy’s excuse for going?”
“There is a short break coming up in the university’s schedule, short enough for those students who live nearby to make a quick visit home, but too short for Sir Milo to return to his home. Thomas invited Sir Milo to his home instead; Sir Milo accepted. A weak excuse — but he is consistent in it, for that is all that your Majesty’s spies have been able to ferret out.”
Lord Lucinius would not have looked nearly so put out if his spies had been able to discover anything more, so Vortigern did not even bother to ask the question. “Your advice as to what to do about it?”
Lucinius sighed. “Your Majesty had my advice the first time Sir Milo went to Albion.”
Vortigern narrowed his eyes. “And your lordship had my response then! I will not have my sons killed until they have been proven guilty of treason!”
“With all due respect, your Majesty –”
The sound of echoing footsteps was all it took to cut him off, and Alfred appeared in the doorway to the throne room.
“What is it, Alfred?” Vortigern did not add “This had better be good.” After two score years in Vortigern’s service, Alfred knew for what causes he might interrupt the King and one of his counselors.
“The warden of your Majesty’s prison, Master Christopher Tower, awaits outside.”
This was one of them.
“Send him in,” Vortigern replied. “You, stay,” he added to Lucinius. Lucinius nodded and stepped to the side of the throne. Vortigern’s right-hand side, to be precise. Vortigern wrinkled his nose.
And so, when Master Christopher Tower walked into the throne room, it was with the King and the King’s most feared advisor staring down at him. No wonder the man gulped.
“Majesty,” said Christopher as he knelt before the throne. Vortigern did not look at him — he never looked closely at Christopher Tower, if he could help it. He glanced sidelong at Lucinius instead.
Lucinius gave Christopher the same look a man might give a bug he longed to crush beneath his boot. Vortigern sighed. “How do the prisoners, Warden?”
“Well, Majesty. It was not — not because of them that I came this day.”
Vortigern sat up. “Then why did you come?”
“To — to speak with your Majesty.” Christopher gulped again. “Privately.”
Lucinius laughed. “And in what world does a mere prison warden claim the right to speak to the King privately?”
Vortigern sighed. So Lucinius would continue to play this game, even with Christopher right in front of him. Did he really want Christopher to come out and say it?
Christopher didn’t say it.
Instead, he looked up and announced, “A prison warden about to tender his resignation, my lord.”
Even Lucinius’s jaw dropped at that.
“Lucinius, out,” Vortigern said when he found his voice again.
Lucinius swept out, his cloak billowing behind him.
“You — get up,” Vortigern ordered Christopher. “What the hell is this about?”
“I wish to resign, my lord,” Christopher repeated, wringing his hands together.
“You ungrateful — do you have any idea how lucky you are? How many men would kill to be in your position?”
Christopher shuddered. “Indeed, Maje–”
“So you wish to save them the trouble, then, by resigning? Are you that much of a coward?”
The young man narrowed his eyes. “With all due respect, I was not referring to my position as warden of Tower Prison. There aren’t many men other men who care to take up that responsibility.” Christopher snorted. “After all, a Tower has been in charge of the Tower as long as there’s been a Tower. Or so they say.”
Vortigern narrowed his eyes. The last time he’d heard that had been from this young man’s grandfather, as he stood before this very throne. But it had been Uther sitting on the throne, and Vortigern had stood beside him. And beside Jason Tower had stood his very pregnant, and very unmarried, daughter Marietta. “And what has that got to do with anything? You’ve got no cousins to take over the duties, and your son is hardly old enough.”
“I don’t have a son, my liege.”
“What? You sent notice of his birth a year ago!”
“No, Majesty. I sent notice of the birth of my daughter — Coralie.” He sighed again. “I thought you might have remembered that at least — sire.”
There was only one class of men with the ability to wield that word as a weapon. Until now, Vortigern was sure that, though he belonged to the class, Christopher hadn’t the courage.
Vortigern snorted. “I receive many similar announcements a year — why should yours stick out more than any of the others?”
“I don’t know, sire. Perhaps hope merely springs eternal.” Christopher looked up. “Perhaps, I hoped, upon becoming a father myself, you would –”
“I would stop there, Christopher,” Vortigern growled. “I made a very specific deal with your grandfather. It involved no acknowledgements, no payments, no word even whispered — all in exchange for you –”
“Having the rights you should have given my mother!”
Vortigern snorted. “Please. As Warden of the Tower, you know that whores often pass through your gates. You think I should have put another whore in their charge?”
“My mother was not and is not a whore!”
“She seduced me for material gain,” Vortigern shrugged. “If that isn’t being a whore, what is?”
“Maybe she saw your eye on her, and thought to gain something from the inevitable, instead of being used and then discarded like an old rag, like all the others!”
Vortigern sat up. “I’d watch my mouth if I were you, boy,” he whispered. “You’d find it awfully hard to support young Coralie and your bastard wife if I tossed you out of the Tower on your ear — instead of being allowed to resign on your own terms, as I’m certain you want.”
“Toss me out, then. It’ll be that much easier for Sandra and Coralie and me to go to Albion, then, if I don’t have to train my replacement.”
Vortigern stared. Then …
“We’re leaving,” Christopher repeated. “At the start of the new year.”
“By what right?”
“By the invitation of King Arthur! He’ll give amnesty and protection to any son of yours who flees to Albion and cedes his rights to the throne!”
“Rights to the throne? You have no rights to the throne!”
“Nor did Brother James, but that didn’t stop someone from murdering him in his bed!”
Vortigern gasped and sat back. “And you think I had something to do with that?”
He could see Christopher’s Adam’s apple bob up and down, the vein at his temple throb as he clenched his jaw. “I don’t know.”
Perhaps that answer was not so bad — perhaps it was good, perhaps if the people of Glasonland thought he was that ruthless, they would be frightened enough to accept Vortimer without a fight —
“But I don’t care, either,” Christopher added, shattering the spell. “Someone is murdering your sons. Acknowledged or not. I have a family to protect. I’m leaving.”
“Not if I say you nay! Not if I say anyone who leaves is a traitor! And you know, none better, what happens to traitors!”
Christopher winced, and Vortigern thought he had him.
Then Christopher looked up. “If you call all those who attempt to get out of Vortimer’s way traitors,” he asked, “then who will be left but those who actually will betray him?”
“To even think about such disloyalty, such a sin is treason! And you know –”
“Aye, I know what happens to traitors! And I have no wish to have that happen to me! Which is why I am leaving — sire!”
“You would betray your homeland so? Who will run the Tower if you leave?”
“If you accept my resignation, effective at the beginning of the year, I’ll have plenty of time to train a replacement.”
“And if I don’t?”
Christopher only shrugged. It was the closest he would come to pointing out that the problem would then be Vortigern’s, and not his.
“And if I declare leaving to be treason?” Vortigern asked.
“Then, my liege, I shall endeavor to get me and my family out as quickly and secretly as I can.”
“You — you –” Vortigern brought his fists crashing down on the arms of the throne. “Damn you, Tower! Don’t you see I need loyal men?! Don’t you see that Vortimer needs loyal men?!”
“Then perhaps it is best that the men you would call traitors for harboring thoughts you deem disloyal are leaving.”
The young man stared up at Vortigern. Then he bowed. “I hereby tender my resignation, sire. Effective at the beginning of the year. It is yours to accept or reject.”
Vortigern sighed. “I demand a fortnight to consider the question.”
“As you wish.”
“You are dismissed.”
Christopher nodded, bowed, and left the room without a further word.
And Vortigern sat on his throne, in an empty throne room, and wondered how many more of his sons he would have to see the back of before this would all be settled, one way or another.