“Constantine!” called Lady Emilia as she pushed open the door to her husband’s office — nary a knock, either! Good Lord, what would Francis have to do to get away from women who thought they owned everything? “Lord Francis is here, as is …” She turned her sloe-dark eyes sidelong, smirking slightly. “His friend.”
Francis, halfway through the door, froze. She wasn’t — she couldn’t be — she could not possibly be suggesting —
He and Sir Mordred were not even friends! And they were certainly not anything more!
“Ah, Lord Francis,” replied Constantine, rising smoothly from his seat and his papers. Francis glanced at them — of course he looked, he could hardly be leading this nascent rebellion if he didn’t know what his subordinates were up to at all times — but all that he could see seemed innocuous enough. Rents, taxes, reports on acreage and harvests, that sort of thing. All the usual detritus that went into running an estate.
Constantine, however, was still smiling, even as Francis shrugged off his cloak and hood and Sir Mordred made his way into the room. “What a pleasure to see you again,” Constantine continued. He thrust out his hand, and Francis shook it. “And to meet your … friend?”
Sir Mordred was casting a faintly bored glance about the room, but the moment he was referred to, however obliquely, he snapped to attention and bowed. “Sir Mordred Orkney, sir, at your service.”
Interesting. So Mordred was willing to give his true identity in front of Lady Emilia. Francis would not have done that himself. You never could trust women with matters such as these; they were too liable to blab about it to all of their gossips. But let Sir Mordred hang himself if that was his desire — Francis just hoped he would refrain from doing so until after he had outlived his usefulness.
“Baron Constantine of Caernavon,” replied the Baron, “at your service. And you have already met my dear Emilia, I take it?”
“Indeed I have,” Sir Mordred replied, bowing again to Lady Emilia. He smirked as he turned to Constantine. “I already mentioned as much to her, but I think it deserves to be said again: you are an incredibly lucky man, my lord.”
Lady Emilia laughed. “And you, Sir Mordred, are an unmatched flatterer! Which I too already mentioned,” she added, smirking to her husband.
Constantine only smiled. “I know it,” was his only reply. But to what, exactly, was he replying?
There would be no enlightenment from his next statement. “Dear, is the audience chamber ready?”
“Indeed it is,” replied Emilia. “Would you like some refreshments sent up?”
Constantine made a show of considering that. It had to be a show, for surely Constantine was too clever a man to actually be seriously toying with the possibility of allowing servants to come walking in on their conversation at any moment! But it was a useful show, all the same. It told Francis that Constantine hadn’t taken his wife into his confidence. Hardly surprising — Constantine was a clever man.
“No,” he said finally, “I do not think so … unless of course, Lord Francis, Sir Mordred …?”
“We will be fine,” Francis answered for the both of them, lest Sir Mordred take this opportunity to be difficult. “But we thank you — both of you.”
“You are most welcome,” Lady Emilia replied. “Now, my lords, if you will excuse me, I really must check on my son. He ought to be getting up from his nap just about now.” Then she sashayed out, her hips twitching in a way that was completely at odds with the domestic picture she was attempting to present — much as Constantine seemed to enjoy the view.
Still, he spent only a moment watching his wife leave before he turned back to his guests. “Shall we?” he asked, before leading the way down a short corridor to another small chamber. He took a seat in one of the two nearly identical, ornate chairs on the east wall. He gestured to the two chairs opposite. Francis sat immediately.
Sir Mordred, of course, chose to be difficult — or at least appear to be difficult — by hesitating a moment, but soon enough he sat by Francis’s side.
And though Francis smiled, inside, he seethed. He was no fool. Maybe Constantine had only chosen this chamber because it had the requisite number of chairs and because they were unlikely to be disturbed here. Maybe he always did his business that involved multiple Sims in this room. Or maybe — just maybe — he enjoyed sitting in the seat of power, projecting himself as above the men with whom he spoke, even if, or especially if, they outranked him.
Well, Francis, the bastard son of a king, definitely outranked Constantine. He wasn’t sure where a mere lord from a backwater kingdom ranked in the grand scheme of things, even if Sir Mordred was the nephew of the king of that kingdom. Still, Constantine had no right to sit before them, holding court, as if he were man of power here and not Francis.
That would be rectified when Francis was king. But Constantine couldn’t know that — not yet. Now, he must still be led to believe that their only goal was to deliver the kingdom from the hands of the Reman uncles and place it into more trustworthy, Glasonlander hands.
“So, gentlemen,” asked Constantine, seeming to open the meeting, “I take it that you have more recent news from the capital than I do. What new atrocity has Lord Lucinius chosen to spring on us?”
“It’s official,” replied Francis. “Lucinius has wrested the High Constableship away from Lord Howell and given it to his brother.” He shook his head and clucked his tongue. “A sad day for our kingdom, when a loyal officer of the Crown like Adam of Howell should lose his life’s post –”
“But a good day for us,” Sir Mordred interrupted. “Every misstep the Tarquinii make is a move in our favor. Is it not, my lord?” he added, turning to Constantine.
Constantine shook his head. “I would much prefer that the Tarquinii were good men and capable rulers, so that none of this was necessary.”
Sir Mordred snorted. “Please, my lord. With all due respect — if one is is to start along the road of preferences, why ask for so little? Why not prefer that King Vortimer were a strong and healthy ruler in his own right, a ruler who would see his uncles as the bloodsucking pests all good Glasonlanders view them to be? Or even better, why not wish that men were as angels, and stood in no need of kings or government at all?”
Francis watched Sir Mordred in open-jawed panic, then turned to Constantine, aghast. Surely he would — surely he would not —
Constantine, however, only surveyed the wizard with a faint, unreadable smile. “Sir Mordred,” he replied, “you have a point. All the same, I stand by my wish that none of this was necessary.”
Sir Mordred shrugged and leaned back. “All good men who are called upon to complete hard tasks in harder times wish that the task had fallen to someone else. But what separates the good men from the great, my lord, is how quickly they get over that wish and get on with the job that needs to be done.”
“No one could disagree with that,” replied Constantine piously. He turned to Francis. “I heard that you had already sworn fealty — is that not true?”
“My lord!” gasped Francis. “Of course it is true! Indeed, I would have done so at the coronation itself, had not the adverse weather prevented me from traveling as quickly as I would have liked.”
“Yet you were not invited to the coronation,” Constantine mused.
Under that thoughtful but unblinking stare, Francis tried not to wither. Yes, he was running a fine line here. But it was essential — absolutely essential — that all think him Vortimer’s most loyal subject. If they did not, all was lost.
So he shrugged. “I did not think an invitation was necessary. I assumed that all lords who could possibly make it were to attend the coronation as a matter of course. Little did I imagine that the Tarquinii would start off Vortimer’s reign with so divisive and insulting an act! Indeed, I thought them clever enough to at least attempt to get on the people’s good side before betraying their trust.”
“And yet,” Sir Mordred mused, “were they anything other than divisive, insulting, et cetera — as the Remans would say — none of us would be sitting here.” He smiled brilliantly at Constantine. “Would we, my lord?”
Constantine did not rise to the bait. Instead, he leaned back, eyes faintly narrowed, one hand stroking his chin, “You know,” he murmured, “as a point of fact, I do, in fact, wonder what brings you here, Sir Mordred. Glasonland is not your country. Why is it that you have interested yourself so deeply in our affairs?”
Francis barely bit back a gasp. Good Lord — what now? Would Sir Mordred actually say to Constantine what he had said to Francis? The “enemy of his enemy” and all that rot? Would he —
But Sir Mordred was hardly so stupid. Indeed, he didn’t even blink. “My lord!” he laughed. “Surely it should be obvious for a man of your acumen. What do you think is the first thing that the Tarquinii will do, should they gain the stability and control over Glasonland that they so crave? Why, they will set to war against the Remans and try to take control of the Empire. And, of course, Albion happens to sit right in between Reme and Glasonland. Where do you think most of the primary battles between your two mighty powers would take place?” Sir Mordred shook his head. “In my backyard. No, thank you, my lord. I will do all that I can do to prevent such a tragedy from coming to pass.”
“Is that what you truly think would happen?” asked Constantine. “That Lord Lucinius and his brothers would be that eager to reclaim the throne of their father? They are all old men, and none of them are married,” he pointed out. “Even if they got the throne, what would they do with it?”
“I haven’t the least idea,” shrugged Sir Mordred. “But not having an heir — and indeed, even foreseeing some difficulty in procuring one — has never stopped a man from seeking a throne that was not his. Besides, the Remans do have a tradition of adoption. It would not be difficult for Lord Lucinius, or one of his brothers if he chose to give the throne to him, to find himself a young man who would do well on the throne after him.”
“Perhaps even our King Vortimer himself?” asked Constantine.
“Indeed. And — meaning no disrespect to your king, of course — if Lord Lucinius were to do that, where, then, would Albion be?”
Constantine did not reply; instead, he only nodded. Then he turned to Francis. “I have heard reports that Daniel of Sulis has been arrested for treason.”
“So have I.” Francis bowed his head, mostly to hide his smirk. “He refused to go to the capital to swear fealty to the King. He said that for a natural son of Vortigern’s, like him, it was most likely a trap. And now — now they say that if he is found guilty, he will get the fully penalty!” He shuddered, a genuine shudder. Much as he might be grateful to Lucinius for removing some of his rivals for him, no man — even a prize idiot like Daniel of Sulis — deserved that death.
Then he turned to Sir Mordred, effecting a gasp. “Sir Mordred! Perhaps — perhaps you could free him! Rather than allow his injustice to come to pass!”
No sooner did he ask than Francis kicked himself for so doing. It would be just his luck for Sir Mordred to agree! No, no, admit it — luck would have nothing to do with it. But Sir Mordred’s perverse sense of humor surely would have plenty to do with it.
Luckily, Sir Mordred did not seem inclined to play such games. “Indeed,” he murmured, “and how would you propose I do that? Swoop down on my broom and carry off this hapless Daniel, in full view of Sir Septimus and his men? Letting all the world know that there is a wizard working against the Tarquinii in the process?”
Instead of playing games, it seemed, Sir Mordred would rather insult his intelligence. Francis bit back a sigh. He truly could not win with this man!
But after a moment’s consideration, he did sigh, leaning back theatrically. “True. True. It was but a passing thought. You gentlemen must understand — it pains me to know that my own brother faces such a fate.”
“It is a pain that reflects well upon you,” replied Constantine. “Truly, though,” he added, “is there anything to be done to save Daniel?”
“Do you truly want to save him?” asked Sir Mordred. Francis shot him a murderous glance before he could think better of it. “If he dies … then perhaps that could be the spark needed to persuade the people that the Tarquinii will only do them harm, and cause their overthrow.”
“You would sacrifice a man’s life to this cause like that — so callously?” asked Constantine.
“It is not my sacrifice to make, so I cannot answer that,” Sir Mordred replied. “But I would much sooner sacrifice one life — or two — and hopefully put those deaths to good use, than start a civil war and spilling the blood of thousands for the sake of sparing one life or two. And face it, my lords, if I were to save this Daniel through obviously magical means, it would mean civil war.”
“Let us try everything before we resort to that,” Francis interjected, hopefully before Constantine could ruminate on the possibility. He needed to conduct a civil campaign before any blood could be spilled, to build his own credibility and his own following. If a civil war started now, what would Francis be but one warring bastard among many? “If only, though,” he sighed, “there were some way to remove the Tarquinii before they caused too much damage!”
“And what makes you think there is not?” asked Sir Mordred.
… Eh? He knew the plan! He ought to know that Francis needed time!
“What do you mean, Sir Mordred?” asked Constantine, leaning forward. Francis, too, leaned forward — he could afford to do nothing else.
Sir Mordred shrugged. “My lords, please. I am a wizard, strong in the Dark path of magic. You do not think we have as many subtle and careful ways to remove a rival as the day is long?” He laughed before quickly sobering again. “However, this is only if we are all agreed that the Tarquinii brothers need to be — removed, and permanently removed at that.”
No, no, no! thought Francis. Not yet! And you know it, Mordred!
“You mean — dead?” asked Constantine.
“That is exactly what I mean.”
“But if they were removed by magic …” Constantine started.
Sir Mordred snorted. “My lord, I beg of you, do not insult me so. Of course they would be removed by magic — but it would not appear so to the eye of the layman. Indeed, one would need to be a wizard — or a witch! — himself in order to work it out, and I doubt any wizard would so expose himself by exposing us.”
Francis could not scoff at Sir Mordred now, no matter how much he may have wanted to. Not with Constantine sitting right there. Thankfully, Constantine seemed ready and willing to scoff for Francis. “And how would you do that, Sir Mordred?”
“Oh, it’s quite simple — the plan, if not the magic involved,” Sir Mordred replied. “I would need a knife — a few drops of blood, or hairs, from the man or men you want dead — and equally, a few drops of blood or hairs from the man you wish to do the deed. A few spells later, you present the knife to your murderer, sit back and wait. Before … hmm, well, it depends on how strong I make the spells. But I would guess, within a fortnight at the most, your murderer will have destroyed your targets — or died trying.”
“Impossible!” Francis could not help but laugh. “Sir Mordred, you must be joking! Why, if it were that easy for a wizard to kill another man, and not have any blame attach to his head for it, why, wizards would so kill good Wrightian men every day!”
“My dear Lord Francis,” replied Sir Mordred, as smoothly and soothingly as a snake, “what on earth makes you think that they don’t?”
Before the true horror of that could sink it, Sir Mordred continued, “After all, we all know what happened to the late Abbot Tank of the Order of the Grunts, do we not?”
Francis blanched. He remembered hearing tales of Abbot Tank, though the man had been dead for well over a century. (He was not the original Tank Grunt, either, but a man who took that name when he became abbot.) He had been the greatest crusader against witchcraft in his day. And he had been attacked in broad daylight by a man wielding a dagger. He had died of his wounds.
Constantine was the first to reply. “His murderer was a madman. All of the records agree. Indeed, even Abbot Tank knew it — he forgave him on his deathbed!”
Sir Mordred shrugged. “He may well have been. That would be been most expedient on the part of Tank’s true killer. However … a man long under the influence of that kind of knife will often go mad, if he is trying to resist it. Luckily,” Sir Mordred continued, leaning back with his hands pillowed behind his head, “there are ways to avoid that.”
“And they would be?” asked Constantine.
“There are two. The first, of course, is to pick a man who is mad to begin with. The second is simpler. Pick someone who has an excellent reason to want your victim dead. Sometimes, men of that nature won’t even resist the call of the knife, for all that they may try to be subtle and plan how they do the deed.”
Sir Mordred looked between the two of them. “I don’t suppose you might happen to know any men of the latter type?”
“Adam of Howell,” murmured Constantine. “He has a great temper. And he just lost his life’s work.”
Yes, yes, from all Francis had heard of Adam of Howell, he would be —
His mind came to a screeching halt. Constantine was not actually considering going through with this mad scheme, was he?
… Of course he was. Constantine only wanted the Tarquinii gone. He did not seek to replace them with himself.
“My lords!” Francis gasped. Both Sir Mordred and Constantine turned to him. “Shall — shall we not, before we seek to remove the Tarquinii, prepare our ground first? What good is it if we destroy them if we do not have a good and decent alternative in place?” He watched Constantine out of the corner of his eye, but Constantine appeared no more than perhaps a bit unsure.
“It will take some time before I can have the spell prepared,” Sir Mordred shrugged, “especially since you must procure for me this Howell’s hair, as well as some of the hair of the Tarquinii. And then you must get the knife to Howell. I see no reason why you cannot prepare the ground, so to speak, while I work on that.”
Francis cast a beseeching look at Constantine, but by his nod, he seemed to agree with this reasoning. “But,” Francis hedged, “what if it does not work? What if — what if Howell fails, I mean? You cannot guarantee success, after all, you never said you could.”
“If Howell fails, no blame will attach to either of you,” Sir Mordred answered, “and as for other possible consequences … well, you two know the political situation better than I, you would be more equipped to guess.” Sir Mordred bowed. “But I ask you — you wish to remove the Tarquinii, and to avoid civil war, do you not? This plan could do both. Is that not worth the risk?”
“Yes,” replied Constantine without hesitation. “Yes, indeed it is.”
Francis did not notice the sharp look Sir Mordred sent in Constantine’s direction.
But Francis sighed all the same. There would be no arguing with Constantine over that. Constantine was a loyal man — that was why Francis had recruited him. Francis would just have to pray that Howell was unsuccessful, but that his attack — and his probable brutal execution, if and when he failed — galvanized the Glasonlander nobility against the Tarquinii enough so that Francis could start to position himself as the only feasible alternative.
In fact, the more Francis thought of it, the more he realized that was the most likely outcome, anyway. Howell was an old man. What were the odds that he would be able to beat the Tarquinii and their guards in a fight?
So pleased was he by this turn of events that, when he rose to go, he did not even notice Sir Mordred make his way over to Constantine. Nor did he hear their conversation — though that may have had more to do with Sir Mordred than with Francis.
Sir Mordred cut to the chase: “My lord, I have a very personal question to be asking you.”
Constantine blinked. “A … personal question?”
“Indeed. And I swear on — on my mother’s grave that your answer will be safe with me. So, tell me. If you were to have the … the dastardly desire to take over a kingdom from within, especially a kingdom in a rather unstable position — rather like, alas, Glasonland today — how would you go about it?”
Constantine rocked back on his heels. “I — I fear I cannot answer that.”
“Yes, I was afraid you’d say as much,” murmured Sir Mordred. “Very well. I shall tell you how I would take over such a kingdom, and you can tell me how close I am to your vision, eh?”
He did not even wait for Constantine to nod before continuing. “Now, if I were to have that dastardly plan, what I would do is … hide behind a stooge or two, at first. Allow them to be the first to rebel, to stick their necks out, take the risk. And of course, allow their armies to take the brunt of the first battle. And as they fought, I would continuously be urging others to join the fray, to fight for the throne … until all were dead or so weakened that they could not fight any more. And then, do you know what I would do? I would be the last man standing, and moreover, clearly the most reasonable potential claimant of the lot … and so I would ride on the backs of the people’s love to the throne. Now, tell me, my lord, is this not what you would do?”
Constantine did not answer. But he did smile.
“Yes,” Sir Mordred murmured. “Yes, that is as I thought. Well, my lord,” he stuck out his hand, a hand Constantine heartily shook, “it was a pleasure meeting you today. And I very much hope,” his smile morphed into a full smirk, “it will be as pleasurable to do business with you in the future, as it was today.”