“And now,” said Arthur, shuffling the papers on his desk, “for the man Clarence of Philippine.”
And his lord laughed. “My! Has he been that much of a thorn in your side already?”
“You could say that, my liege.” Pellinore leafed through his own pile of parchment. “We’ve been after him for years, you know that.”
“Aye. Not just the warehouse robberies, either?”
“No, sir. Do you really want me to go over this again?”
“Aye,” Arthur replied, this time with a sigh of his own, “so that when the inevitable pleas for clemency come, I have bevy of reasons to say no.”
“Well, to start, he was branded as a thief around about the age of twelve, in his hometown of Philippine. That would have been twenty years ago. He was branded on the shoulder …” Pellinore flipped through a couple more pages. “According to the shire reeve, there was a monk involved who pleaded for mercy. He thought there was hope for the boy.”
“Hence the shoulder branding?”
“Aye, my liege. So he could cover it and have a hope of learning a skill, earning his bread and living a normal life. He was committed to the care of the monk who pleaded for him, ordered to stay there for at least six months. Within a fortnight he’d run off.”
“Any reason for that?” Arthur asked.
That was his liege all over — if there was a telling question to be asked, he would ask it. But for this, Pellinore shook his head. “The shire reeve has one — that the boy was rotten to the core and wouldn’t know gratitude if it hit him in the face with a cudgel. He’d been raised by that same monk, so he would know.”
“Very well. Continue?”
“He moved into Albion proper at that time, we think. It would have been just as we were setting up the kingdom — he could disappear for a bit. And he did.” Pellinore sighed. “There’s no record of him for ten years, when we started hearing his name in connection to some violent robberies taking place along the border.”
“I see. How violent?”
“There were deaths, my liege — both immediately and … some time after.”
Arthur raised his eyebrows.
Pellinore closed his eyes. “There was a young woman with one of the groups that was robbed. Though she claimed — at the time they all claimed — that the robbers hadn’t touched her, she was obviously bruised and shaken … and within six weeks, she … she was found drowned in the mill-pond.”
“Suicide following rape?”
“It wasn’t publicized as such, but yes.”
Arthur sighed. “Any proof that it was the man Clarence who raped her?”
“Her brother, sire, came to us after her death and told the truth. It was definitely the man Clarence.”
“Wright Almighty.” Arthur drew his hand down his face. “So Joyce Pelles wasn’t his first?”
“The first reported by the woman …”
He knew that tone. “Between young Joyce Pelles’s testimony and the man’s demeanor … I would wager my lands that no, she wasn’t.”
Arthur shook his head. “So how do we see to it that this — piece of filth is not set free to harm any more women?”
“To say nothing of the stolen property, assaulted men and murders in this file,” Pellinore murmured, “and this is just what we can definitely connect to him. However, that’s not what you asked … we have good proof, eyewitness testimony, to connect him to a highway robbery from five years ago.”
“Five years. That’s chancy. Memories can shift.” Before Pellinore could protest, Arthur held up his hand. “And even if you and I are convinced by the evidence you collected five years ago, a jury might not be.”
“We still have the witness — the son of a man Clarence killed when that man did not stand aside and let him take his property. I think a jury would believe the boy — er — young man’s testimony.”
Arthur gave the ghost of a grin — the grin of a man beaten and not too upset about it. “Good. I should know better than to doubt you, eh? One of these days, Pellinore, you ought to tell me to shut it and let you do your job.”
“It’s perhaps better for you to keep in practice,” Pellinore demurred, “you’ll have to issue these reminders to your son-in-law before long.”
“Son-in-law! Don’t remind me!” Arthur laughed. “She was just this big,” he held his hand somewhere below the desk, where Pellinore couldn’t see, “a day ago, I swear. What happened?”
“I believe it is called ‘time,’ my liege, and it flew.”
“Aye — alas, alas, and all that rot. Speaking of time, and flying … how long are you planning to stay on after young William comes back?”
“As long as it takes, my liege. Whenever he’s ready to step up, I’ll step down.”
“And you think that will take …?”
Pellinore stroked his beard. “It’s hard to tell, at this point. The boy has a fine mind, but …”
“He’s not a blustering prosecutor who will bully the juries into voting guilty?”
“Not by any stretch of the imagination. And he’ll need a good deal of experience before he’s ready to take the reins as Chief Magistrate.”
“So what you’re saying is that you’re not planning on going anywhere anytime soon.”
“My wife has asked me from time to time whether I intend to die at my desk and have yet to get up the courage to inform her of this,” Pellinore smiled.
“Well!” Arthur chuckled. “Didn’t think Lady Eilwen had it in her to say that!” He reached for his quill, but paused. “Pellinore?”
He sighed. “Go easy on the boy. He will be my son-in-law. And he’s a good lad. About the only one who can drag Tom kicking and screaming back from the brink of some of his more asinine stunts.”
Pellinore chuckled. “If he finds it in himself to work some of that magic on my Lamorak, he will not only earn my indulgence for whatever mistakes he inevitably makes, but also my undying gratitude.”
Arthur opened his mouth to let out a joking reply, but a knock from the door stopped him. “Enter!”
A chambermaid entered and curtseyed. “Majesty.”
“There’s a man from Glasonland here, requesting an audience. He says his name is Christopher Tower.”
“Tower?” Pellinore asked, sitting up. “Of the Towers?”
The maid started. “I — I don’t know, sir.”
“Is he armed?” Arthur asked.
“The guards say no, my liege.”
“Then send him in.”
After the maid curtseyed again and left, Pellinore turned to Arthur. “A Tower! Of the Towers, possibly! What in the world could King Vortigern have …” He paused, observing Arthur’s scrunched face. “My liege? What is it?”
“I’m counting,” Arthur murmured.
“Aye.” He sighed. “Counting the months between when my brother made a very public tour of Tower Prison and when old Jason Tower’s only daughter gave birth to a bastard son, whom she called …” Arthur raised his eyebrows.
“Oh,” Pellinore murmured. “Oh, dear.” Wonderful, he thought, just wonderful. A renowned civil servant of Glasonland, from a long line of civil servants, just happens to be an illegitimate son of Vortigern — who doubtless wants to take up King Arthur’s offer of clemency and protection, because it is as not as if he has a well-paying position, a high place in society, plenty of security and absolutely no chance at the throne — and thus no reason for anyone to want to kill him — back at home.
Yet when young Christopher Tower slipped into the room, two things became immediately apparent to Pellinore. The first was that the man had some Pendragon blood in him.
The second was that he was looking a very frightened young man, for all that he held himself so stiffly and barely seemed to breathe for fear of gulping openly. “Your Majesty,” he said, and started to kneel.
“At ease — er — arise — whatever the hell it is that you say,” Arthur blustered, and laughed at himself, which made the young man stare at him — and then, slowly, start to smile.
“That’s better,” Arthur replied. “Have a seat, Master Tower.”
The poor young man’s jaw dropped, but he managed to stumble to the other seat and stammer his thanks.
“Hardly any trouble, my good sir — if you will notice, the chair was empty,” Arthur replied with a wink. “Now, what can I do for you?”
The young man blinked rapidly and glanced at Pellinore, his blue eyes — the blue eyes of old King Uther, current King Vortigern and young Prince Vortimer, if Pellinore remembered aright — seeming to plead for … something. Perhaps an explanation as to why the sovereign of a land — any land — would be so open and welcoming to a young man whom he had never before seen in his life.
“Ah, but where are my manners? Forgive me, Master Tower. This is Lord Pellinore Gwynedd, my Chief Magistrate. And I am King Arthur.”
“P-pleased to make your acquaintance, my lords,” managed Master Tower.
Arthur smiled, which was probably the wrong tactic. Vortigern tended to smile just before he did something to ruin the life of whomever he was smiling at. Pellinore would know — never had Vortigern smiled so often at him, an unassuming, lowly courtier, except for that brief period when he had been chasing Eilwen.
As if to prove Pellinore right, Master Tower shrunk in his seat.
Arthur kept smiling, as if he intended to dispel the demons of Vortigern and cruel Pendragon smiles by force of will alone. “Now, Master Tower, what brings you to Albion?”
Master Tower looked from one of them to the next, then swallowed and gathered all his courage in one fell swoop. “Majesty, I’ve heard — we’ve heard — in Glasonland, it’s said that you’re willing to offer amnesty and protection for any bastard of King Vortigern willing to move to Albion and renounce any claim he might have to the throne. Is — is this true?”
“Aye, it is. Why do you ask?”
The young man gulped. “My — my liege, I’d like to take you up on that.”
“Ah,” was Arthur’s only reply to that.
“I know you will probably think it — disloyal, and unpatriotic, and unfilial, and cowardly, and — and many things like that. And perhaps, Majesty, if it were just me, I would — I would have the courage to stay at my post, and continue to serve Glasonland. But …”
“But?” Arthur prodded.
“But I have a family, Majesty. A wife, and a daughter, and — and right before I left on this journey, my wife told me … we’re expecting another.”
“Well! That is excellent news! Congratulations, my boy!”
“And –” The young man clearly had some sort of set speech, but something that Arthur had said stopped him short. “I — excuse me, Majesty?”
Arthur smiled — a wry, rueful smile that even a man who was far too used to Vortigern’s serpent’s smiles could hardly interpret as threatening. “You just said you and your wife were expecting another child, and so I offered my congratulations. A new baby is always a reason for congratulations, is it not — don’t you agree, Pellinore?”
Master Tower looked at Pellinore as if to beg him to restore sanity to the situation — to answer brusquely that of course no nobleman could be expected to care about a commoner’s breeding habits, and to exhort his liege to return to the situation at hand.
Alas, Pellinore could not do that, both out of loyalty to his king and the fellow-feeling of one Sim to another. “Indeed,” he replied. “You have my congratulations as well, Master Tower.”
“Oh — er — well — thank you,” he murmured.
“I bet,” Arthur interjected, “that your father would not have done that, would he?”
Master Tower turned to Arthur with a look like a stricken stag.
“Aye, I bet the only time he’s bothered to congratulate a prospective father is when he’s the father in need of congratulations,” Arthur spat. “We do not do things that way here in Albion. First of all, if I even thought of straying as Vortigern has so often, my wife would skin me alive — ask Pellinore if you don’t believe me.”
Again, came that pleading look, the visual begging to restore sanity. And again, Pellinore could not answer that plea — well, not entirely. “‘Skin alive’ is perhaps an overstatement, but I have no doubt that Queen Alison would make our King’s personal life very, very unpleasant.”
“And that, Master Tower, is a lawyer for you — cautious as the sun is bright, but fundamentally truthful so long as you’re the one paying him.” Arthur winked.
Partly to put the young man at ease, and partly because even Pellinore couldn’t let that one pass, he answered, “I’ll be sure to tell your future son-in-law you said that.”
“Oh, touché!” Arthur laughed. “The boy’s studying law,” he remarked to Master Tower.
And finally, young Master Tower cracked a smile.
Arthur saw it — Pellinore could tell that by the twitch of one side of the lips, the grin that so nearly went lopsided — and then he was all business again. “So, Master Tower, you are willing to swear before witnesses that you will give up any rights you may or may not have to the throne of Glasonland, both for yourself and for any heirs you might have?”
“Yes, yes, Majesty!”
“Then I believe I can offer you amnesty, and my protection.”
To see the young man sag in relief was almost enough to make Pellinore regret every word he had said and left unsaid against Arthur’s plans for Vortigern’s bastards — almost. For even though this one might be a good apple, it would take only one apple to spoil the barrel, and cause Wright only knew what horrors in Albion. And there would be one bad apple. With a father like Vortigern, there had to be at least one bad apple.
“Oh — thank you, thank you, Majesty! I — I don’t know how to …” He leaned forward, shaking even as he rested his head on his hands.
“You don’t have to,” Arthur answered. “Believe me. Once upon a time — nigh on twenty years ago — I too came to this land, with a wife and two small children whom I was very anxious to protect.”
The young man did not just crack a smile at that — he beamed it.
“And now that we have those formalities out of the way,” Arthur breezed on, “why don’t you tell him about the new prison we’ve just built, Pellinore?”
“New prison?” Master Tower asked, looking at Pellinore.
“New prison?” Pellinore repeated. Oh, no. Oh, no. Letting them into the country is one thing, but —
“Indeed, it’s a fine place,” Arthur continued, “or at least, as fine as one can expect a prison to be. State-of-the-art and all that. It should be very hard for any prisoners to make an escape from there! And, I should mention, there’s a whole tower dedicated as an apartment for the warden and his family … isn’t there, Pellinore?”
“Well, yes, but –”
“And Pellinore and I, we’ve been at our wits end trying to find someone to run it,” Arthur said. “You see, our noble families have been … somewhat sparse in younger sons. Those who are old enough to be able to give some thought to a career in prison-wardenship have, alas, other plans — plans which we can unfortunately not dissuade them from — and those who aren’t old enough to give some thought to a career in prison-wardenship are … well, babies, to be frank. Lionel’s about one, isn’t he?”
“Aye, my liege,” Pellinore sighed.
“And my nephew Agravaine will be two next year. So you see the bind we are in,” Arthur said to Master Tower with the air of one man letting another into a conspiracy.
“I — I’m not noble, Majesty.”
“Ah, true! But you see, Pellinore and I were looking among the noblemen because most of the commoners in this area are either indentured men, or men who see only too well the many, many opportunities this relatively new land for profit. You, after all, would know — none better — that prison-wardenship is not the best paid of professions. Surely not as well-paid as bringing home boatloads of spices, furs, silks and exotic woods from Smina.”
“I would indeed know that, Majesty. But — it’s a comfortable living. At least, it was in Glasonland.”
“And it shall be here. The nice thing about encouraging one’s commoners to bring in the boatloads of spices, furs, etc. from Smina is that it does tend to increase the tax revenues. I would tell you to share that with King Vortigern, except that I’d really rather he didn’t know — less competition and all that. Besides, I doubt you’re on speaking terms at the moment.”
“He was a bit … upset when I tendered my resignation …”
“So there’s no bonds of loyalty to keep you from accepting the job!” Arthur replied, grinning.
“I — I — you’re offering the position? To me? But we’ve — we’ve …”
“Just met,” Pellinore finished. He glanced at the young man, then sighed and turned to Arthur. “My liege, please, slow down a moment. I understand you are excited to meet your nephew and welcome another talented young man into our kingdom, however –”
“We just met, and for all I know he could be a spy of Vortigern’s, or completely incompetent?” Arthur asked.
“Well — er — yes.”
“I’m not a spy! Majesty, I swear, I’m not!” Master Tower protested.
“I doubt very much as you are, but as I said — that is a lawyer for you. Fundamentally cautious.”
“I believe, my liege, that the last time you said that, it was fundamentally truthful,” Pellinore pointed out.
Arthur smiled. “True.”
“And I am sorry, young man, to — to stand in your way like this, but I must protest. I must. We know nothing about this young man, my liege. We have no idea whether he as an able administrator of the Tower Prison or not, and we cannot ask, for we cannot expect your brother to be truthful. And let us be honest with each other — both of us know what the Tower has become since your brother took the throne! It is no longer merely a gaol, a place to put criminals while they await trial or punishment, but a — but a next of torture! Frankly, we cannot be sure that this young man’s being an able administrator of that at all fits him to be warden of your Majesty’s prison!”
The young man winced. “There — Majesty, what Lord Pellinore says is — is somewhat true. But the torture … the stories are exaggerated. Most the prisoners aren’t tortured. The ones that are … it’s by royal command.”
“And if you refused, they’d be turning the screws on you?” Arthur asked.
“I thought as much. And as for your objections, Pellinore, I completely understand them. That’s why you’ll be supervising young Master Tower during his probationary period — which will end when you give him your approval.”
Pellinore blinked. “Oh, my liege,” he sighed.
“You do have an office inside the prison, do you not?”
“Indeed, sire, I do.”
“Right above the new courtroom, if I remember aright.”
Arthur grinned. “And so, you will be on the spot and easily available to supervise!”
Pellinore sighed. “Indeed, my liege, I will be.”
“And if this young man does anything objectionable,” Arthur nodded, “you will doubtless hear about it immediately and be able to deal with the problem. In fact …” Arthur mused, “I might permanently make the office of prison warden subordinate to the Chief Magistrate, and not one that reports directly to the crown. What do you say to that?”
Pellinore sighed. “I think, Majesty, that you are determined to give this young man a chance, and for me to continue to protest would be a waste of breath.”
“You would be very right about that — I would you would save your breath for your reports on his performance, which I assure you will be given all the attention they are due.”
“Thank you, my liege,” Pellinore murmured.
“And as for you, young man!” Arthur turned to Master Tower. “What think you of taking this job, eh?”
Master Tower slowly smiled. “I — I think, my liege, I should like to try it — and I would only be too happy to be subordinate to Lord Pellinore.”
“And so we solve both your problems and mine with one neat trick! Wonderful. Pellinore, these are the days I like — the days when answers to all of our problems walk in the door under their own power.”
Pellinore sighed and shook his head, but he could not quite hide his smile.
“Now, my boy,” Arthur said, rising. Young Master Tower rose as well. “Let me have a good look at you.” He clapped the boy on the shoulders and held him at an arm’s length.
Then he grinned.
“You’ll do, my boy, you’ll do,” he said, leaning in to bestow the formal kiss of kinsmen. “Now — allow me to introduce you to your aunt. Pellinore will doubtless object to my phrasing, but I assure you, she would have my head if she knew that she had a new nephew in the room and I let him get away without her having a chance to give him tea.”