King Vortigern had apparently survived the shock coming out of Albion, that soft-hearted King Arthur had not allowed his sister the witch to go free. Francis of Lothario was not certain how he felt about that. On on the one hand, the King’s continuing survival gave him more time to allow his plans to mature. On the other … Glasonland was a powder keg, aye, but it wasn’t waterproof and was sitting outside on a decidedly overcast day. A sudden shower — a pregnancy on the part of Princess Viviette, an attack of apoplexy to Lord Lucinius, a surprise marriage of King Vortigern to one of his mistresses and an equally-surprising legitimation of a bastard — could soak it and render the powder useless.
If Francis was ever to become king, then King Vortigern needed to get a move on and shuffle over to that other sphere already.
Those were the thoughts that lounged idly in Francis’s mind as he surveyed the titles of the books his younger brother Beau had left behind when he left for Camford. His brother was a great worker of potions and philtres … perhaps there might be something …
No. Francis turned away. Beau was remarkably lacking in common sense some — most — days, but he wasn’t a complete idiot. And despite the fratricides Francis had arranged, he was not quite sure he wanted to make the leap to patricide, even if Vortigern had never done much to deserve the name of “father.”
Perhaps he ought —
A sudden stray sunbeam, of flash of golden light, caught the corner of his eye.
Wait — that wasn’t a sunbeam — Francis jumped away with a shout for the guards building in his throat —
“Lord Francis of Lothario, I presume?”
The stranger — dark of hair, gray of eye, with a bearing that could only belong to a nobleman — pointed at Francis, and Francis felt his voice die away. “Please don’t do anything foolish, like calling for the guards,” the stranger said. “You have no idea how difficult it was to find you.”
Find? This — this warlock was looking for him? Why?
“Well,” the stranger mused, stroking his chin, “I shouldn’t say that. It was very easy to find you, once I knew it was you whom I was looking for. Your mother’s lands? Not a very strategic place for a murderer of almost-princes to hide. You do know that if they found out who you were, you would be incredibly easy to dispatch?”
Even if he had not been a victim of most foul witchcraft, Francis could have no more spoken at that moment than he could have flown to the moon — either of the moons.
The stranger raised his eyebrow. “You … are Francis of Lothario, correct? Nod your head yes or no.”
Francis didn’t move.
The stranger sighed. “I’ll take that as a yes. You truly are a coward, aren’t you?”
Francis’s mouth opened of its own accord. Coward? he mouthed. You dare call me coward? And who are you, sirrah? I should have you — At that point, his brain caught up to him and realized that no sound was coming out.
The stranger raised his eyebrow, sighed, and waved his hand. Francis gasped as a weight seemed to lift itself from his throat. “Co-coward?” he sputtered. “How — how do you dare –”
“You wouldn’t even admit who you were,” the stranger sighed. “How is that not cowardly?”
“And who are you, sirrah?” Francis fired back, rather than attempt to engage more deeply with the insult. If it went much farther, he would be honor-bound to demand a duel … and this man was built like a oak tree and had magic to boot. Such a duel could only end one way. That was not cowardice; that was sense. “And by what right do you trespass in my house?”
The stranger’s brows twitched. “I was under the impression that this was your mother’s house, no? It did not automatically come to you when you came of age?”
Francis felt the vein in his temple begin to throb. This trespasser, this churl dared to bring up his dependency in their very first meeting — in his very own home? Francis would —
“But as for who I am,” the stranger continued, surveying his nails with all the nonchalance of a goodwife gossiping in the market, “I am Sir Mordred Orkney, at your service.”
Francis blinked. “The — the son of the witch –”
“Don’t go there.”
There was something of a snake in this man’s stance. Tense — coiled — ready to hiss and bite at the least provocation. There was no doubt in Francis’s mind that this snake’s bite would have venom in it. Francis, opting, as he always did, for sense over stupidity, did not go there.
But he could not resist a potshot all the same. “You are Albionese, are you not? Don’t the witches and war–wizards of Albion wear their witchcraft on their sleeves?”
“Oh, aye,” replied Sir Mordred, the coils smoothing into the straight spine of a man. All the same, a cobra stared out from behind the hooded eyes. “I take no offense to you calling my lady–my late lady mother a witch. She … claimed the title with pride all her days. A pride that no one could steal from her, take what else they might.” Did his eyes go misty? Too soon they were steely again. “However, you were about to slander her good name, and I must warn you, sir, that as much as I think we could have a profitable and mutually beneficial partnership, I am not entirely certain that I could refrain from killing a man who slandered her so soon after her death.”
Francis was not entirely certain how one went about slandering a woman who had been convicted of witchcraft, kidnapping and attempted murder, and who had proved herself guilty by killer herself in her cell the night before her execution, but he held his peace on that subject all the same. Instead, he snarled, “Partnership?”
“Is it not a proverb in Glasonland as it is in Albion that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’?”
“How in the good Lord’s name am I the enemy of your enemy? I’ve never seen you in my life!” He’d not even heard of Sir Mordred before the scandal of Lady Morgause. He had avoided the Albionese entirely during his time in Camford. Oh, he might have approached them, but that whoreson Milo had gone and befriended Prince Thomas first. There could never be room for simple, open Milo and deep, cunning Francis in the same group of friends, so Francis had stayed well away.
Unless … Milo was in Albion. Had Milo somehow … but how would Sir Mordred know that Milo was his enemy?
“One can have mutual enemies without having met,” replied Sir Mordred, “indeed, without both parties even having met said enemy. King Arthur is determined to see Prince Vortimer on the throne after his father, you know. Or at least, so he publicly asserts. I doubt he cares much about who rules Glasonland … but he is very worried that any unrest in Glasonland could spill into Albion, and the best way to avert that is to make sure there is no unrest in the first place. Hence his public support of Prince Vortimer and his equally public sheltering of any of Vortigern’s bastards who is willing to renounce his legally nonexistent claim to the throne. And that is where you come in.”
“Come in to what?” Francis snorted. “You make no sense, man!”
“Because you are the bastard who intends to claim the throne.”
Now Francis knew how the rabbit felt when the hungry snake fixed its eyes upon it. “I don’t — I don’t –”
“Yes, you do know what I’m talking about, don’t deny it — and don’t worry about anyone hearing, either. The servants probably all already know, and if they don’t, do you think I would be so foolish as to not set up spells to keep anything we say for our ears only?”
“You — you — you used magic in my house?”
“Your mother’s house, technically.”
Sir Mordred’s eyebrows both climbed upward. “And here I thought I was going to discuss a mutually beneficial arrangement … but if you are so certain you do not want the assistance of an expert wizard, one who found out your secret, and one who is on the Privy Council of Albion and is thus, well, privy to many diplomatic whisperings, rumors …” He leaned closer. “Military plans, troop movements, spies’ reports …”
Sir Mordred took a step backward, but Francis’s weak will flashed out. “Wait — wait,” he said. “I — I admit to nothing …”
Sir Mordred only smirked.
“… but what made you think that I am determined to see myself on the throne of Glasonland? I shan’t deny fantasizing about it — who wouldn’t? But to think about it, and to commit treason are … two very different things.”
Sir Mordred smiled. “First of all: you are a coward. Yet after that so-called attempt on your life –”
“So-called?” Those hired assassins had come all too close to killing him — especially since Francis was the man who had hired them!
“So-called,” repeated Sir Mordred. “You accused — in the King’s public audience — the brothers Tarquinii of orchestrating the attempt, and of orchestrating all the attempts, successful and otherwise, on the lives of your half-brothers. Now, if the brothers Tarquinii were responsible for these attempts, it would only be logical for them to destroy the man who dared to publicly accuse them. Yet you, a coward, accused them. Now, why would you take such a risk … unless you knew it was no risk at all?”
It had been a risk. Sir Septimus would have called him out if the King hadn’t stopped him. But speaking of risks … “Perhaps,” Francis said, straining to keep his heart beating soft enough that the wizard’s surely heightened senses would not hear it, “perhaps it would be wise if we were to repair to somewhere more … private?”
Sir Mordred stepped to the side. “After you, my lord.”
So Francis led Sir Mordred into the most private space — for him, at least — in the whole of the house.
When they entered the room, Francis glanced sidelong at the Albionese knight, wondering if he would see him casting his heathen spells upon the room, or if he would bother with the spells at all. Sir Mordred, however, only stared about him open-mouthed. “You must be jesting.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“When I said private,” Sir Mordred snarled, “I meant a study — a meeting room — something of that nature. Not a bedroom! Whatever your proclivities may be, sirrah, I am not a sodomite!”
“You — you dare! You — you warlock!”
Sir Mordred knit his brows. “Is that supposed to be an insult?”
Francis blinked. Did not all wizards hate to be called warlocks? It was something that was whispered, was always said amongst those who might have cause to visit the clandestine practitioners of magic. And certainly, if you wanted to insult a shabby peddler or other nonentity, you called him a warlock — why didn’t it work on Sir Mordred?
Francis took a deep breath. “You said someplace private. This is the most private place I have.”
“You don’t have a study?”
“Then — then how — where — how in the good Lord’s name are you fomenting a rebellion if you don’t even have a study?”
“I have my methods,” Francis smirked, “and I never said I was fomenting rebellion, in any case.”
Sir Mordred stared at him. “You,” he sighed, “are the strangest rival claimant to a throne I have ever met.”
“And how many others have you met?”
“Two,” replied Sir Mordred. “Sir Milo Carpenter and Christopher Tower. And there may well have been more, incognito, at Camford.”
It was at the mention of Christopher’s name that Francis knew — by his heightened color, by his clenched teeth — that he gave himself away. Milo was one thing — even though Milo’s connection to the Albionese prince had moved his name up several places on Francis’s mental list, he could not be said to bear his half-brother ill will. But Christopher … of all the bastards who could have been spooked away, Christopher, Warden of the Tower! He could have been so useful — he was a man of conscience, despite his job, a man dedicated to law and order. If he could have been persuaded that Francis was the true hope of Glasonland, the best way to keep the laws and the country in peace, why, the Tower could have been an open book to Francis! He could have undermined Vortigern’s power while he lived! But no. Sir Mordred called Francis a coward — what would he think of Christopher, who had fled ere he was even threatened?
“Well,” Francis replied, trying to cover his ire with a smile, “I should hardly call them rival claimants. They gave up all claim, didn’t they, when they went to Albion?”
“Technically? Technically? Technically, they had no claim to give up!” And never would have had the guts to grasp it if they had, the lily-livered cowards —
“Nor have you,” Sir Mordred replied. “But you’re man enough, coward that you are, to reach for it, aren’t you?”
“I am not –”
“Save it,” Sir Mordred interrupted, rolling his eyes. “You are a coward. A truly courageous man would lead an army and demand that he be made King Vortigern’s heir, since Vortimer is obviously unfit for the throne, and there are no other legitimate choices. But you do not. You prefer to operate in the shadows, unseen, unheard, unnoticed save for the damage you cause. Rather like a rat.” Sir Mordred smiled with all the charm of a snake. “But you’re in luck. I like rats.”
To eat, no doubt.
“Wonderful,” Francis snarled. “So how do you intend to make yourself useful to me, eh?”
“I beg your pardon? You’re not a king yet, my lord.”
“Yet,” Francis repeated. “But I will be. And since you sought me, I assume you already have ideas about your own utility? Or are you merely here to blackmail?”
“Blackmail is such an ugly word …” Sir Mordred sighed, no doubt measuring the very temperature of Francis’s blood as it ran cold. “Which is why I have no truck with it. No, my lord, I have ideas. Such as –”
“Frankie! Frankie, are you — oh! I didn’t know you had a friend over!”
Mother! Lord — why didn’t I lock the door?
Sir Mordred turned on one heel — Francis wished he could see his face. He had just met the bastard, but would already give half his mother’s lands to see that knowing smirk wiped off his face just once.
Alas, from his tone, it was not to be. “My goodness! Do my eyes deceive me, or is it the radiant Lady Donna of Lothario?”
“I …” Donna began, blinking her sea-green eyes. “Hello … my …”
“Sir Mordred Orkney, my lady — do forgive my baseness in introducing myself.”
“Oh, I’m happy to meet any friend of Frankie’s,” Donna demurred. Her hand made a slow upward movement. “But how on earth did you know who I was?”
“My lord has said so much about you my lady,” replied Sir Mordred, taking her hand. “But even if he had not, why, who could fail to recognize on sight the charms that felled a king?” He kissed her hand.
Oh, Lord. A bolt of lightning? Sudden earthquake? Crossbow bolt from the blue? I’m not picky, truly!
“Oh, Sir Mordred!” purred Donna. “But you have me at a disadvantage, I’m afraid,” she pouted. “Frankie has barely told me anything about you.” She glared at her son, eyebrow raised. Francis wondered about his odds of getting away with the murder of Sir Mordred in front of his mother.
“Ah, we were but Camford acquaintances!” Sir Mordred sighed. “And of course, Lord Francis had so many friends and close companions, I’m not surprised he forgot all about me. I’m just a poor Albionese lord … but I was in the neighborhood, and thought I would pay my respects.”
Francis saw his mother’s eyes light up when he said Albionese and knew that she had put the pieces together. But she did not ask, proving that despite her reputation as the most brazen of King Vortigern’s harlots, she did have tact. “Oh? And where are you staying, Sir Mordred?”
“An inn in –”
“An inn!” gasped Donna. “What, a fine lord like you, in a common inn?”
“It is not so common as that,” Sir Mordred chuckled. “I’m fairly certain I counted six different species of bedbugs last night. Now, my lady, is that not decidedly uncommon?”
“It’s unheard of!” Donna replied. “Why, have you no friends, no kin you may stay with?”
“Alas — I am making this journey to reacquaint myself with my father’s kin, having assumed throughout my young life that my mother’s kin would be enough to guide me … and having only recently been cruelly undeceived,” Sir Mordred sighed. “Of course, since I do not know them well yet — and since they are not, well, in the neighborhood — I can hardly beg them for a –”
“But staying at an inn! That’s nonsense. Please, Sir Mordred, consider staying here while you break your journey! A fine knight, in an inn! I’ve never heard the like!”
“Oh, my lady, I could hardly trespass –”
“Don’t be silly! It’s not a trespass at all! In fact, I insist that you stay!”
“Well … madam, if you insist …”
“And I do insist. You won’t mind sleeping in Beau’s bed, would you?” Donna asked, gesturing to it.
What — NO! No! Move Adrienne in here — give him Adrienne’s room! Don’t you dare —
“Why, madam, a bed all to myself? I can’t remember the last time I had such a luxury. You are too hospitable.”
“Then that’s settled! Frankie …” She turned to him, her mouth opening and shutting. “Goodness! I’ve entirely forgotten what I came in here to ask you!”
Why am I not surprised? “Then perhaps you should come back when you remember.”
“Aye, that’s a good idea. Such a smart boy!” She pinched Francis’s cheek, and Francis renewed his prayers for lightning, earthquakes and things of that nature. Meanwhile, Donna turned back to Sir Mordred. “Shall I send a man for your things?”
“No need, my lady. My equerry is just outside.”
“Ah! That’s no trouble, then. Well, I shall leave you boys to get on with your reminiscing!” With as much sense of purpose and feeling as she had swept into the room, Lady Donna floated out of it. As soon as she was gone, Francis locked both sets of doors.
When he turned around, Sir Mordred was smirking. “So. We are to be roommates.”
“Tsk, tsk. Is that a polite way to treat your guest?” Sir Mordred shook his head. “Besides, you need not fear — the spare bed shall soon be open to … more pleasant guests for you, shall we say? I need to get back soon. Nobody knows I’m out of the country.”
“Nobody know you’re out of the country?” Francis half-barked, half-laughed. “How do you expect me to believe that you managed that?”
“Magic! Mag –” Francis stopped.
Magic. Magic powerful enough to let the man leave the country without his King or anyone else the wiser …
“So,” Francis mused, “magic, you say?”
“Magic more powerful than anything you ever dreamed to see — let alone be able to call upon for your own purposes.”
“I see,” replied Francis. “I see. Say on, Sir Mordred, say on.”