Mordred was late. And Francis was losing patience.
His heart had been hammering for days on end; Francis was sure of it. It had been pounding in his ears ever since the news from the capital had come: King Vortigern had suffered a serious attack of apoplexy. He was alive, but confined to his bed. Now doctors as well as midwives flocked to the great castle in Ludenwic. There was much shaking of heads, and making of potions, and quacks showing up at the castle door swearing that they would be able to cure the King of all his ills. Unless they were intending to give the old man a swift and painless poison, Francis doubted that was possible — and apparently the castle guards thought so as well, since they were turning away all the quacks without so much as a hearing.
So much for getting rid of the King that way.
The news had come yesterday. Francis had only refrained from rushing to the capital, to be on the spot, because he knew Mordred was coming today. He had hoped that the warlock might have some ideas — or at least, some means to put his ideas into practice.
And the bastard was late!
And there was no one else to whom Francis could turn just now. Constantine of Caernavon was too new a recruit, and even if he hadn’t been, he had gone all but incommunicado since his son was born. The last time Francis had contacted him, he had only received a terse message in reply that he was not to be bothered at this time. Francis had found out later that his messenger had arrived just as Constantine’s wife was in labor. But still! Women had babies every day! Did the affairs of the kingdom stop just because some woman had to push a slimy infant from out between her legs? No! Then why was Constantine acting like he was the only man to ever sire an heir?
Babies! That, of course, led to still other thoughts, even less profitable than his rage at Constantine. Princess Viviette was growing bigger and rounder by the minute. All of the rumors from the capital insisted that the pregnancy was going smoothly and splendidly. What was he supposed to do with that? If she bore a healthy boy, the populace would never continence a rebellion — at least, not a rebellion now. They would see hope, light at the end of the tunnel. They wouldn’t upset the apple cart when they weren’t sure they were getting cider at the end of it. Whereas if King Vortigern were to die now, while things were still so unsettled …
But the people still might not want to rebel, not if they saw a reason to wait and see — the problem was that, with all of this conflicting information, with all of these frightening possibilities, Francis simply did not know which way to jump.
“Good day, Francis. I trust all is well with you on this fine morning?”
And there Sir Mordred stood, blinking guilelessly, innocent as if he had not just nearly made Francis ruin this pair of hosen. “I’m sorry. Did I say something wrong?”
“Did — you –” Francis felt that familiar ache in his jaw, the grinding of his teeth. He was waking up with a sore jaw every morning, these days. “I told you never to do that again!”
“That — that — just show up right behind me! Wright! Would it kill you to knock at the door and walk up the stairs like a normal Sim?”
“It may very well.” Sir Mordred shrugged. “You know very well that I do not publicize the fact that I am here in Glasonland. Kings do tend to want to know when their knights leave the country — and they want to know even more when their close relatives leave their borders. But you would know all about that, I am sure.”
Sir Mordred smirked and Francis seethed. Trust him to bring up the fact that, excepting his sojourn at Camford, Francis had never left the country. But why should he bother? It wasn’t like he had foreign relatives he could gain as allies. And King Vortigern all but forbid his sons to leave the country, stating more than once that any bastard of his who left Glasonland’s borders should think long and hard about what he would lose upon returning — probably to keep the ones with foreign relations from gaining allies.
“And there’s another thing!” Francis snapped. “How the hell is it that you’re able to get here and back without your King knowing? The journey should take weeks! You should scarcely return home before you have to turn back around for our next meeting!”
“That,” Sir Mordred replied, surveying his nails as if he had found something rather surprising beneath them, “is for me to know, and you most certainly not to find out.”
“Not to find out? Allying with you could very well lead to my damnation, and you won’t even tell me what you’re doing?”
“Ah, but that is for your own protection, Lord Francis!” Sir Mordred smiled and patted Francis’s cheek. Francis slapped his hand away. “The good Lord can hardly damn you for things of which you were ignorant, no? Besides …” He leaned forward conspiratorially and smirked. “If anything is going to damn you, I think it just might be the fratricide and the treason.”
“Shut up!” Francis stumbled backward and brushed off his cheek, his tunic, his face, as if he could thus rid himself of Sir Mordred’s contamination. “Have you anything useful to report?”
“Yes,” Sir Mordred replied, smiling sweetly. “I have done exactly as you asked me to do. I am now back on … shall we say, decent-enough terms with all of the other nobles of Albion, even, I dare say, my soon-to-be-former wife’s family.”
“And how the hell did you manage that?” snapped Francis.
“Mostly through Sir Lamorak,” replied Sir Mordred. “I took him aside one day and informed him that, although it grieved me to think of the circumstances that led to him no longer being my brother-by-marriage, I look greatly forward to the day when he will again be my brother-by-marriage. And told him that, since my father did not stipulate what lands were to make up my sister’s dowry, only the approximate amount, he was free to choose whatever plot or plots he desired, with my blessing. Do you know, I think the foolish boy took me at my word?”
The sad thing was, Francis believed him. Sir Mordred had barely known him for a week, if you put together all of the times he and Sir Mordred actually spent time together. But he knew how to get Francis riled up like none other. How much better would he play upon the emotions of a man whom he had known since childhood?
“Of course, I doubt my soon-to-be-former father-in-law will ever come around,” Sir Mordred continued, “but I take comfort in the fact that he is elderly and doubtless only has a few more short years to live. And once he is gone … well, Lamorak will be easy enough to manage. So there, I have completed your ‘impossible’ task. Now, will you please consent to take my advice so that we can accomplish something useful?”
Francis could have pointed out that his “impossible” task wouldn’t be completed until the Gwynedds were staunchly Mordred’s allies, and that would clearly take a few years. But his thoughts flew in other directions. “Yes … about the elderly and those who have no long to live …”
“You want me to do something about your father,” Sir Mordred replied.
“No,” Francis replied, Now it was his turn to smirk. “I merely wish to know what can be done.”
Sir Mordred shrugged. “If you want him dead, that will be easy enough. If you want him cured … that is beyond the scope of my powers, I fear. I know little of the healing arts. Besides, he is a very old man, and who knows how many diseases of a venereal nature are currently warring in his system? You’d need a field marshal to control them all.”
Francis scowled. “Ha ha.” Then he shook his head. “And if I, say, want him kept alive — not made better, but simply kept alive and strong enough to continue ruling?”
“That would be far more difficult than merely killing him. You see, I would need to be on the spot — which I cannot be — or else I would need to have somebody who I trusted on the spot to see to Vortigern’s health needs. I don’t suppose you’re volunteering?”
Francis laughed. “As if any bastard son would be allowed near him on his sickbed!”
“A pity. It would be easy enough to arrange for strengthening potions –”
“You said this would be more difficult than killing him!”
“And it would be. You see, when you kill a man, you need only ensure that the poison reaches him once — well, most of the time,” Sir Mordred replied with a smirk. “Whereas this potion would have to be administered regularly, which is logistically more difficult.”
Unfortunately, Francis could think of no more arguments to that. But before he could suggest another idea, Sir Mordred continued, “However … if you merely need him alive, but were willing to forgo the idea of him being able to rule –”
“No! No! Love of Wright, don’t you ever listen! If he is going to be alive, he needs to be able to rule! If he cannot rule, he may as well be dead!”
“So you claim. But, you see, there are any number of ways in which I could incapacitate him, but leave him alive — so that the incapacitation can be recovered from. Whereas dead is much harder to fix, still less to do so believably, and quite impossible for a man of my talents to do so without leaving some … unfortunate side effects.”
“Believe me, once he is gone, nobody — myself included — will ever want that man back,” Francis snorted. “So all of your ideas there are utterly useless, my friend. And you say you can’t cure him. Or even keep him stable!”
“No, you cannot keep him stable, unless you have –”
“It can’t be done! All right? Good Lord! Do you have any idea how often I’ve tried to smuggle things into that palace — things not even meant for Vortigern! Things meant for Vortimer — for Viviette! I can’t even get anything to them; do you have any idea how many thousands of times harder it would be for me to get something to Vortigern?”
Sir Mordred, however, only blinked. “For Princess Viviette?”
“Indeed. If …” He lowered his voice, but continued. “If she has a healthy son, we are lost. I know these people. If they think they have a chance — if they have something to hope for — they’ll sit tight and hope.”
“If she has a healthy son …”
Francis blinked. “You — you can ensure that she does not?”
“It would be extremely difficult. To make a babe sickly and frail while it is still in the womb … I daresay a practitioner of the Light could manage it, but, of course, he wouldn’t. But I could –”
“You need not make sure it is sickly,” Francis prodded. “Only that it is a girl! A girl may be perfectly healthy and still be no damage to our plans.”
“Can’t be done.”
“What? What? You throw these possibilities in my face, then tell me they can’t be done? What the hell is your game?”
Sir Mordred sighed. “It is impossible — utterly impossible — to change the sex of a child within the womb. Or outside the womb, for that matter. And that is assuming you could find out which it was in the first place, which I’m not sure you could. Again, the Light wizards — or Light witches, really — are in the best place to accomplish this, and as far as I’m aware, none of them have determined how to do so. They’re also not to keen to try, for reasons that I’m sure are obvious.”
“Obvious? Obvious? If you could know what sort of baby a woman was going to have ahead of time –”
“Then what? You cannot change it. The only real response you can make — other than knowing precisely what colors to use to decorate the nursery, which I doubt is that important to anyone — is, if the child is not of the sex desired by one or the other parent, to clear the womb of it in order to give a chance for a child of the desired sex to be conceived. Now, since a lot of these discarded babes would likely be girls, can you not understand why Light witches may have decided that there are some things in which man ought not meddle, and this one one of them?”
Put like that, the logic did seem rather obvious, if rather … female. “And I cannot believe that your Light wizards do not simply tackle the problem themselves.”
“First of all, there are few enough pregnant woman who at all relish the thought of a man who did not engender the baby putting his hands all over her stomach — still less a wizard. Secondly, the Light witches have already explained their logic to the Light wizards many, many times, and the Light wizards are largely in agreement with them. So, again, that brings us nowhere. Now, next question?”
“So there is nothing you can do to ensure that Princess Viviette is not brought to bed of a healthy son?” Francis snorted dismissively.
“I–did–not–say–that,” Sir Mordred snarled. “It would be easy enough to induce a — well, at this point, it wouldn’t be a miscarriage. A stillbirth. One simple potion, and Princess Viviette would be brought to bed, and only a Light witch or wizard could keep her from bearing — and only a Light witch or wizard could keep any babe she does bear from dying after a few breaths. All very tragic, but –”
“But nothing! Do you not understand? I cannot get a potion into the palace! I’ve tried! Every bloody midwife in the kingdom knows how to make a potion to induce a miscarriage! I’ve sent dozens of them into the palace! None of them made it to the Princess! What I need — what I need is a way to make certain that she does not bear a healthy son! Or else the son dies soon! Or else to get rid of Vortimer — or Vortigern! — before she is brought to bed!”
“So what you need, then, is a murder done. Ah, Lord Francis! Why did you notsay so?” Sir Mordred laughed.
“Which do you want dead? The King? The Prince? Princess Viviette’s son, assuming she has one?”
Francis’s lips parted. That — that was it? All he would have had to say was that he wanted them dead, and Sir Mordred would see that it happened?
“I –” Francis started. “I would need at least two gone — if Vortigern and Vortimer remain, there is still hope — the same with Vortimer and the possibility of a son, and frankly if Vortimer were murdered and his son and father lived — or just his son! — then … then there would be no crisis. Vortigern would never appoint the Tarquinii as regents for his grandson, and they’re too hated to take control if they aren’t taking control of Vortimer, so –”
“So, in other words,” Sir Mordred sighed, “you really haven’t thought this through.”
“I — what?”
“I told you I could kill any of the three of them. I asked you which. And you hemmed! You hawed! You have presumably thought of nothing but this for months, and yet you did not know which one you wanted dead when I all but put the knife in your hands!”
“I wasn’t expecting this!” Francis roared. “I thought — we all thought — that girl was barren! Or else Vortimer could no more sire a child than he could think in a straight line! And then she turns up pregnant, and Vortigern is holding on to life just long enough to pass his kingdom down on to someone who isn’t barking mad, and nobody knows which way to turn or where to jump because it’s all so damn uncertain! And now I’ve got myself a wizard, and he can’t even tell me what Princess Viviette is having, so I know how to plan!”
“So stop planning.”
Francis blinked. “What?”
“Stop planning. If you do not know how or what to plan — stop planning, because it is clearly not accomplishing anything of use.” Sir Mordred hesitated, then asked, “If I may inquire … what was your original plan, before Princess Viviette started increasing?”
Francis sighed. “Wait for Vortigern to die — wait for the Tarquinii to do something to incense the populace — then … strike. Or better yet –”
“Incite someone else to — or as many someone elses as can be reasonably arranged — then, when they inevitably fail, rise to prominence as a ‘reasonable authority figure’ to pick up the pieces?”
Francis reeled. “No, no! That would be madness! What if one of them were to succeed? Or what if I were to fall in the meantime?”
“That is why you –” Sir Mordred started. Then his eyes narrowed. “Never … never mind that. What would you do instead?”
Francis smirked. “Lead a campaign against the Tarquinii — a campaign that seems to be highly civil and without any violence — but which, of course, thanks to those despicable Remans’ bloodthirsty nature, inevitably erupts in bloodshed. I myself would scarcely escape from the initial attack with my life,” Francis added confidentially, “and after that, of course, I would have no choice but to lead an insurrection of all good Glasonlanders to gain control of our King and kingdom. And then … well, after some years, Vortimer would unfortunately pass away, given his illness, it’s inevitable, you know. And as he left no heir … who would be a better choice to be King than his faithful regent and half-brother?”
“Ah. I see. I see. Well, Francis,” Sir Mordred pronounced, “it seems to me that your plan is, on the face of it, a very good one. And frankly …”
He grinned. “I see no reason not to stick to that plan — for the time being. For, as we all know, giving birth is dangerous for both mother and babe. And even if both parties make it through alive … well, who is to say that either will live long? Stick to your plans for now, Lord Francis. I see, thus far, nothing to demand that you change them.”