The first hurdle had been jumped. Vortimer was now crowned King of Glasonland, Viviette his queen. The nobles and commons alike — those who could make it to Ludenwic, considering how quickly all had been arranged — had sworn their fealty to him. The babe had been presented to all who would see her, so that all might know, despite the deficiency of her gender, that she was at least strong and healthy. It had been done.
And yet Lucinius knew that that was only the beginning of the battle.
Still, they had gotten the coronation off without a riot or a rebellion, and that was saying something. For now, the commons were sated by the fountains of wine still playing throughout the city. There were also bottomless barrels of ale in every inn, paid for by the Crown. With any luck, men would be happy enough to toast the King’s health when he paid for the ale.
However, as for Lucinius, he would be toasting the Queen’s health.
For their hopes, what hopes they had, all rested on the Queen. The baby Princess was every bit as healthy as Lucinius had told the populace she was. Lucinius had paid off several influential monks to bring this up in their sermons. They were to give thanks to the Lord for this healthy girl. They were to sell Princess Lucilla’s birth to the populace as an encouraging sign from the Lord Wright. Boys were sure to follow.
In the meantime, Lucinius would focus his attention on the Queen. She had been forbidden to nurse the Princess, for every midwife that Lucinius consulted swore that nursing an infant could delay the conception of the next. They did not have time for that. As soon as the Queen’s body was ready to bear another child, she and Vortimer would begin trying again. That was Lucinius’s decree, and he had entrusted Antonius with seeing that it was carried out. Antonius was the only one of them who could hope to manage Vortimer personally.
Lucinius wished he could take on the matter himself, but he knew that such a task was beyond his talents. He would insist that the task be done according to his timetable, and that would not do. According to the midwives, resuming intercourse too soon after the birth of a child could be painful for the mother. While Lucinius could not bring himself to care overmuch about that — not after Viviette had left them hanging for four years — Vortimer would.
For the problem with Vortimer was that he had the heart and the mind of a child in his man’s body. And he had always been a loving child. Now that he was a father — now that Viviette had given him what he termed the “perfectest” baby in the world — his heart had opened up even more to loving Viviette and their baby.
Vortimer would not countenance hurting her. If he did, then they would be back in the same rut they had been before the Princess’s conception. No, it was far better to wait.
There was also the matter, of course, of the risk to Viviette’s life. Of course to take on such a risk was simply her part as a woman, and there was no helping it for anybody. But pregnancies too close together raised that risk more than Lucinius could quite countenance. Like it or not, they needed Viviette. It had been difficult enough to find a young woman of decent-enough blood but little enough power and wealth — little enough that her parents would give her in marriage to a mad Prince — the first time around. Now? How many parents thought so little of their daughter that they would send her off to a land that could be rent by civil war at any moment? No. If Viviette died under any circumstances that did not leave them with a healthy Prince, then they were lost.
Whether Lucinius liked it or not, he needed Viviette.
Still, for now, all was well. If Lucinius could keep the country pacified until Viviette was increasing again, then he ought to be able to keep them for the duration of her pregnancy. And as long as she survived the pregnancy, no matter what the outcome, he ought to be able to keep them for a little while longer. Sooner or later sheer inertia would kick in, and the people would grow used to his — that is to say, Vortimer’s — rule, and they would be content to wait until Viviette finally produced a son. Then, as soon as the son came of age …
Well, truth to tell, Lucinius would probably be dead by then. But as long as death came to him when he was in his bed, not on the field of battle, not under an executioner’s axe, and not by the hand of a subtle murderer, he would be content. He wasn’t asking for very much, after all.
But as he realized when he walked into the room the Tarquinii brothers used for their gaming — everyone else would still be at the feast at this hour, so it was as private a place as he was likely to find — even if one’s requests seemed simple, there was little chance of getting what one wanted.
“Truly?” he asked. “Truly?”
His brothers looked up. He wished he could say they looked guilty. Instead, both looked mildly surprised — maybe even affronted by his reaction.
He ran a hand down his face. Is it too much, Oh Lord, he wondered, to ask for a little help around here? But of course it was. The Lord expected men to make their own fates.
“Truly what?” asked Septimus from his position at the dartboard.
“You’re here!” Lucinius snapped. “Amusing yourselves! There is a kingdom out there,” he flung his arm toward the closed door, “waiting to be ruled, waiting to be snatched up in the first hands strong enough to take it — and you’re playing silly games!”
“Well, you’re here too,” Antonius shrugged as he continued to shuffle his cards.
“I came here for five minutes of peace and quiet! Whereas I haven’t seen you lot for an hour! I’ve spent the last two hours trying to worm my way into Constantine of Caernavon’s good side, and do you know what is the only reason why I stopped?”
“You decided to go hunting after us?” asked Antonius.
“No! The dancing started — and his wife fancied a turn, and he would not refuse her! The nerve of that man!”
“Aw, come now,” Septimus laughed, lightly and easily. “Surely you’re the last man on earth to begrudge Constantine of Caernavon trying to keep his wife happy?”
Lucinius, in that moment, was quite grateful that looks could not kill. If they could, there would have been too neat little holes bored in the back of Septimus’s skull, striking him dead instantly. He couldn’t have Septimus dead. He still needed him.
“She is yours, you know,” Septimus continued with more than a touch of pride. “She’s got that calculating look in her eyes — that’s you all over. And she looks just as much like you as she does like Maria.”
“That could make her mine just as easily!” cackled Antonius.
Lucinius smacked the back of his brother’s head as he marched up to Septimus. “None — none — of that has anything to do with anything! I cannot fathom how a man so indulgent to his wife has managed to garner the respect of a good two-thirds of the lords in this kingdom!”
Septimus rolled his eyes. Lucinius couldn’t see it, but he knew it all the same. “Lucinius, it’s not indulgent for a man to favor his wife with a dance. Besides, Emilia might have your mind, but it’s Maria’s body she has –”
Septimus turned to Lucinius with a half-grin. “So you do have some fatherly feelings in you after all.”
“Shut up! I am not that girl’s father! Her sire, maybe, but not her father!” He scowled. Finding someone to marry Maria after she had unexpectedly turned up pregnant had been one of the first scandals of his political life. And they had had such a good relationship before that, too. But then she had become pregnant, and instead of taking care of the matter as discreetly as possible, she had openly expected him to marry her! Imagine that! He, Lucinius Tarquinius, son of an emperor, marrying a mere liberta! He had gotten her a far better husband than she deserved, and then he had washed his hands of her, which was more than Maria ought to have ever asked for or expected.
Septimus shook his head. “If you insist.”
Lucinius did not insist again. He glared at his brother. “Now, rather than strike me with accusations of paternity where none are welcome,” he snarled, “have you nothing better to be doing? Such as, for instance, taking control of the army?”
“You know damn well I can’t be doing any of that until you’ve given me command,” Septimus pointed out. “And I’d like to know how you plan on stripping the High Constableship away from Lord Howell. I don’t look forward to inheriting that mess.”
Lucinius scowled. Howell had won that post through the simple expedient of whoring out his wife to Vortigern over a score of years ago. Or had it been his daughter? Truly, after all this time, it was hard to remember. Anyway, in the past two decades, he had acquitted his duties well enough — which was to say, he had not stolen from the treasury, he had not sold out the army to Gaul or to Simspain, and he had not attempted a rebellion. As for actual competence in running an army, well, that was a bit much to ask. But Vortigern was nothing if not infernally clever. As long as he was not actively running a war, he saw no reason to have somebody capable running the army.
That is to say, someone capable of overthrowing him.
“Wait,” Antonius asked, stopping his shuffling dead, “if we’re all in here — who’s watching Vortimer?”
“King Vortimer, or better yet, just the King,” Lucinius snapped over his shoulder, “and Viviette has him well in hand.”
“Not Queen Viviette?” Septimus asked, eyebrows lifting.
“Not until she bears us a son, she’s not,” Lucinius growled, “I don’t care what that abbot said in the coronation this morning.”
“Oh, give the poor girl a break,” Antonius sighed. “She’s delivered a very healthy daughter. Not bad for her first try. And the baby looks just like Lucy, you know. I think it’s a sign.”
“A sign of what?” Septimus laughed, pushing around Lucinius and taking a seat at the card table. “Care to join us, Lucinius?”
Lucinius scowled, but seeing no feasible alternative, he took a seat. After all, he might as well get a brief conference with his brothers out of the way before he chased the two of them back out to the feast.
“So,” Septimus asked as Antonius began to deal three hands for cacho, which had been Lucilla’s favorite card game when she was alive. Lucinius barely refrained from rolling his eyes. “What’s little Lucilla’s birth and accident of black hair and green eyes a sign of, eh? Other than that the Lord doesn’t like us enough to send a boy at once and make life easier on all of us.”
“Her complexion!” Antonius pointed out. “Don’t forget that. She’s got some healthy color to her, not nearly as pale and fretful as her mother.”
Again, Lucinius barely refrained from rolling his eyes. Viviette could hardly help her paleness, and even he was generous enough to guess that her pallor and her tendency to be fretful had little to no relation to each other.
“Anyway, I think the little princess looking so much like Lucy is a sign that she’s looking down on us, watching over us. She won’t let anything happen to Vortimer, you’ll see. She loved him more than anything.”
“She had a funny way of showing it,” Lucinius muttered to his cards.
“Oh, for the good Lord’s sake, don’t start,” Septimus huffed.
“And why shouldn’t I? If Lucy had cared for her son, she would have been sure to give him brothers. She knew what Vortigern was, and she knew how many dozens of bastards he was producing a day. The best way to ensure the throne for a son of hers would have been to produce lots of sons to take that throne. No, instead, she got caught up in her damned pride and refused to have anything more to do with Vortigern.”
“She had no way to predict what would happen to Vortimer,” Septimus pointed out. “He was shaping up to be a fine king. Smarter than the three of us and his father put together. Or at least,” Septimus rolled his eyes as Lucinius glared at him, “smarter than two and a half of us and his father put together.”
“And Lucy had every reason to stay away from Vortigern’s bed,” Antonius pointed out. “He probably caught the Great Pox twenty times over! What if he had given it to her?”
“That was the risk she took when she agreed to become Queen of Glasonland. You know our father didn’t force her.”
“He didn’t need to force her,” Septimus snorted. “She wanted to become Queen as badly as any of us wanted her to become queen.”
“It’s still a risk she took by agreeing to marry,” Lucinius shrugged.
“Rubbish!” Antonius snapped. “None of us knew how bad Vortigern was! Old man Uther made damned sure we didn’t learn about that until it was too late. And,” Antonius pointed out as he surveyed his cards, “what if Vorigern had given her the great pox, and she ended up passing it along to a child, eh?”
Lucinius said nothing, if only because the notion stole the breath clean out of him as forcefully as a punch to the gut. A child born with the Great Pox … if it surveyed, it would have gone blind and perhaps mad eventually. The people would have seen it as a judgement for sure. A child born with the Great Pox, and Vortimer’s accident … with their luck, that child would have been the next and only heir after Vortimer …
He had not thought their predicament could have possibly been worse, but Antonius had just opened up a range of horrifying possibilities to him.
“Enough,” Septimus growled. “All of that is twenty years gone and past. Nothing we can do about it now. The question is … what do we do next?” He turned to Lucinius.
If Lucinius had not very much liked being in charge, he would have cursed him for that. All the same, a traitorous thought stole through his mind: Why do I have to be in charge of everything?
Lucinius sighed. “We must get all of …” He sighed. “We must get all of the bastards here.”
“What?” Antonius yelped. “Are you mad? We’ve spent the past years trying to keep them all as far away from here as possible! You didn’t invite half of them to the coronation!”
“We’ll get them here separately,” Lucinius assured him. “They will swear fealty to Vortimer in full view of the court, church, and commons. And then they will be allowed to return home, with an escort,” he smirked, “of honor, befitting their place as natural sons of a former king.”
“Under guard, you mean,” Antonius filled in.
“And where do you intend to get so many guards?” Septimus growled to his cards.
“I’m sure you’ll find many men willing to carry a pike in the King’s name,” Lucinius replied, hand waving airily.
“With what money? And how and when to train them? And how many guards are we talking about here, eh?”
“Calm yourself, brother,” Lucinius clucked his tongue. “You can reuse the same troops again and again. They will only need to escort each man to his home and return back again.”
Septimus looked up in shock. “Are you mad, Lucinius? You’ll be exhausting and irking all those men — and for what? To prove a point? You won’t have a point to make if you’ve turned half your army against you!”
“Please,” Lucinius snorted. “A true general of Reme could get his reserves straight into a melee that utterly destroyed his first army. Are you telling me you cannot get a few companies to do escort duty?”
“Reman soldiers I could, with no difficulty. But these fat layabouts? Face it, Lucinius. With the way Howell’s been managing things, I’ll need to train up a whole new army before I have anything worth working with.”
“Then train up your new army,” Lucinius snapped. “And do it quickly. It is essential that we make it clear to all the bastards thatwe hold the upper hand now, and we can reach out and destroy them as easily as we would reach out and destroy a fly.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Antonius pointed out. “We’ve all had days when we’ve been chasing after a damned fly, and no matter how we run after it, it’s gone before we can smash it!”
Lucinius slammed his hand against the table; the chips and cards alike jumped. “You know what I mean!”
“I know, I know,” Antonius muttered, ducking his head nearer to his cards.
“You could have fooled me,” Lucinius muttered.
“And what of the bastards who refuse?” Septimus asked. Lucinius glared at him. “Stop that. You know there will be some who do. They’ll be convinced that we only mean to lure them to the capital in order to slay them. Your murders and attempted murders will only make them more sure of that.”
Lucinius scowled. Still he could not convince his own brothers that he had not had a hand in the deaths or near-deaths of any of Vortigern’s bastards! Well, given that that was the fact, he had nothing to do but to shrug and attempt to ensure that more credit than blame found its way to his door. After all, there was nothing wrong with removing a few rivals, and whoever the mysterious murderer was had removed some rivals for Vortimer.
“Those who refuse,” Lucinius replied, “will be arrested and charged with treason. And when they are found guilty, they will face the full penalty.”
Septimus blinked. “The … full …?”
“Hanged, drawn, and quartered, aye. And why not?” Lucinius asked. “Should even a king’s natural son be above the law?”
“They’re noblemen, Lucinius,” Antonius pointed out. “To do that …”
“We’ll only need to do it once,” Lucinius waved his hand. “Twice at the most. The rest will fall in line when they see how serious we are.”
“And what if they try to leave?” asked Septimus.
“Leave for where? Who will take them?”
“Albion,” Antonius murmured.
“Albion! A provincial backwater! Come, now, what have we to fear from Albion?” Lucinius laughed. “Of course, if we catch them trying to leave, we’ll treat them as the traitors they are — but if they succeed, so what? There’s another rival or two for Vortimer, gone.”
“Unless they can convince Arthur to back their claim.”
“They won’t. Please.” Lucinius rolled his eyes. “The only claim he’ll countenance is his own. And he wouldn’t do that twenty years ago, when he had at least had a chance of winning the people over. He won’t do it now.”
Lucinius chuckled and shook his head. “Believe me, brothers — if there’s anything we have to fear, it shan’t be coming by way of Albion.”