For only the second time in his kingship, Arthur was staring in the face of news he did not know how to begin to share with his Council. The first time had been just after Morgause’s arrest, when he was forced to explain to the whole Council just what the accusations were and why he was willing to believe them to the extent that he was demanding a trial. Now …
Now Glasonland had officially gone to hell in a handbasket, and Arthur had no idea what this might mean for Albion.
He also had no idea where his daughter and his son-in-law were, what had happened to them, or even if they were still alive.
He wasn’t sure which bothered him more.
Arthur laid his forehead on his hand and sighed. “Well, gentlemen,” he began, “I’m sure most of you can guess why I called you here.”
Tom knew, and he sat grim-faced and close-mouthed beside Arthur. On Arthur’s other side sat Lancelot, not even bothering to conceal the depth of his worry. Arthur had already told Lancelot the worst of it in private. There was no way he would have let Lancelot — or any of his men — find out that his son had gone missing in the middle of a Council meeting.
He was probably wondering how to break the news to Guinevere, Galahad, Leona. At least Arthur didn’t have that worry. Alison, Tom, and even Lynn, since Morgan thought it would be good for her to get more involved with governance, had been with him when he read Lord Antonius’s missive. Arthur only had to wonder and worry about how Kay would be told.
And his Council.
He took a deep breath. “It’s news from Glasonland. Lord Antonius writes me –”
“Antonius?” broke in Bors. “That half-wit? What’s he doing sending official communications?”
Nobody protested the interruption, probably because none of the younger men were in a mood to tangle with Bors and all of the older men privately agreed with the sentiment. Arthur sighed. “Allow me to finish, Sir Bors. The reason why Lord Antonius writes to us is that he is now Regent –”
“What?” gasped Pellinore, then slapped a hand over his mouth. “My liege, I apologize, I –”
“Don’t worry about it, old friend.” Arthur managed half a smile. “There was … well, to make what seems to be an extremely long story short, there was an attack. Not a military attack, a more … personal attack. Lord Adam of Howell, the late High Constable of the Glasonlander army before Lord Lucinius stripped him of that post and awarded it to Sir Septimus, grew enraged by his demotion and attacked all three of the Tarquinii brothers. He seems to have acted alone. But so great was his rage that he managed to slay both Lord Lucinius and Sir Septimus, and Lord Antonius was badly injured, but survived. And so Lord Antonius is now Regent.”
“How …” murmured Lamorak. “How in the — the good Lord’s name was one man able to slay two of King Vortimer’s uncles?” He glanced at Milo and Christopher — both here under Arthur’s orders — as he asked his question.
But both of the sons of Vortigern looked as shocked and uncomprehending as the noblemen of Albion.
Arthur rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I will freely admit that I have no idea. Lord Antonius did not dwell on the details of the attack.” Or rather, he had dropped a few key details, enough to enable Arthur to read between the lines and guess other details, but he had no intention of sharing these with the full Council. “And I doubt any man here can blame him. But unfortunately for Lord Antonius, losing two of his brothers and nearly losing his own life appears to be the least of his problems.”
“Oh, no,” Lamorak murmured. Arthur sent him a half-smile. Some day — some day far into the future, when he and Lancelot and Pellinore were all gone — Lamorak would do an excellent job filling Lancelot’s role at the Council meetings, even as Will filled Pellinore’s. If and when Will came home.
“It’s civil war,” Arthur continued. “Once the hue and cry went up in Ludenwic regarding the murder of Lord Lucinius and Sir Septimus … well, everyone with even a back-handed shot at the throne and a ragtag army has declared his intentions. Mind, when Lord Antonius wrote, they were all claiming they wanted his job,” Arthur added, “but I’m not sure if that excuse has held up even until now.”
“All those weapons …” Richard gasped. “We absolutely flooded the market …”
“Aye, and we’re all engineers hoist with our own petards, we are,” Arthur sighed. He carefully did not look at Christopher and Milo as he spoke. “We hoped to keep Lord Lucinius from realizing imperial ambitions — and the job was done for us, by someone else. But we did the best we could with the knowledge and the resources we had. We couldn’t risk a war in Albion. And our actions have led, so far, to the avoidance of a war in Albion.”
Arthur would keep telling himself that. And he would remind himself of Milo and Christopher, who both took him up on his offer of amnesty. He had probably saved their lives and spared his own kingdom. Whatever happened in and to Glasonland — it would have to be worth it.
“Where’s the fighting concentrated?” asked Bors.
“Far away from our borders, thank the Lord.” There was a general signing of plumb bobs over the councilors. “All of the combatants seem to be converging on Ludenwic. No surprise, since the King and Lord Antonius are there. But some of them are already starting to lay waste to the countryside. Lord Antonius’s messenger barely got out.”
Arthur was trying very hard not to think about what meant for Will and Jessie. But of course Bors had to go and spoil that. “What? Then how is Sir William to get out when you recall him?”
Arthur, Tom, Lance — they could do nothing but stare.
Bors’s jaw opened, fell. He swallowed, eyes darting about the room. “Er …” He scratched the back of his neck. “You, er, will be recalling him, won’t you? It’s a civil war, you said so yourself! Lance, tell the King he has to –”
“Oh, Bors, for the Lord’s sake, shut up!” Lancelot moaned.
Bors stared at him slack-jawed. “Lance?”
It was Tom who broke first. “Bloody hell! Will and Jess already left the palace, all right? They disappeared right after the attack. Lord Antonius doesn’t know where they are. And probably nobody else does, either.” He cradled his head in his hands.
And Arthur? Arthur found his eyes flitting from one councilor to another. Lamorak and Milo looked the most openly dismayed. Pellinore’s eyes were very wide; Richard had a stoic expression he must have perfected over the years of receiving bad news about ships. Christopher had the look of a man who didn’t know what to think. Bors was ashen-faced, and Lancelot had buried his head in his arms.
Only Mordred’s face was perfectly blank.
And only Mordred spoke. “Why?”
“Why what, Sir Mordred?” Tom asked.
“Why did they flee?” Mordred leaned back, stroked his chin. “Sir William is no coward. Neither, I believe, is the Princess. They would not have … disappeared unless they had a very, very good reason to.” Mordred turned his gaze to Arthur. “Did Lord Antonius tell you that?”
“They were both … present during the attack,” Arthur replied, choosing his words with care. Mordred blinked, but his face was otherwise expressionless. “Lord Antonius was generous enough to credit Sir William with the fact that King Vortimer was not injured. Apparently, Sir William pulled him out of the way.”
“That does not explain why they fled,” Mordred replied. “The country is not fond of their King as a king, but no one is yet bold enough to call for his death. There is still too much pity for him. So, what else happened?”
Damn it, Arthur had not wanted to say this in front of the full Council. Christopher and Milo, they didn’t need to know this — Lamorak either — Bors sure as hell didn’t need to know — and Mordred especially he did not want to know.
But while Arthur was still racking his brains for a way to not answer, Tom took the bull by the horns. “According to Lord Antonius, Jess saved his life. She treated one of his injuries before it could kill him. I call that reason enough for them to get the hell out of Ludenwic before it got around that Jess is the reason one of the Tarquinii brothers is still alive.” He raised one eyebrow, daring Mordred to contradict him.
He did not. But he did smile a faint, reptilian smile. “Magic.”
“Eh?” Bors demanded.
“She used magic, did she not?” Mordred directed the question to Tom. Arthur let him take it.
“Lord Antonius didn’t say so,” Tom answered. “And, you know, considering what rabid witch-haters Remans tend to be, I rather think that if he’s not mentioning it, he doesn’t want to make an issue of it. Plus, let’s be sensible — the Church is going to be all over the civil war in Glasonland. The last thing we need to do is give the witch hunters in it any excuse to add a magical angle to the mess, aye?”
Mordred opened his mouth —
“I’m saying that for your good, Sir Mordred,” Tom interrupted. “You’re a wizard. Your mother was convicted in a court of law of using magic to kidnap, torture, and damn near kill a little boy. And I don’t care if you still think she was innocent,” Mordred’s jaw fell, “in the minds of the Church, she’s guilty. In the minds of most of the Glasonlanders on all sides of this civil war, she’s guilty. If so much as a whisper of a possible magical connection to any of this leaves this room, we will all suffer, and you will suffer most of all. Do I make myself clear?”
Mordred leaned back again, this time with a frown instead of a self-satisfied smirk. “As crystal, Your Highness.”
He looked up from his writing. “Yes, Prince Thomas?”
“None of that — any mention of magic whatsoever — is to go into the record. Records can fall into the wrong hands. Aye, Father?”
Arthur knew what that lift of the eyebrow, that tilt of the head, meant. Tom was seeking approval for all of it — not just the expunging of the record, but the neat take-down of Mordred, the clear instructions to every man at the table that magic was not to be mentioned. Even Bors seemed to have gotten the picture.
Tom had certainly gotten the message across much more bluntly than Arthur would have, but such was the prerogative of the young. Perhaps double-talk and subtlety would come to Tom with age. Or perhaps his store of patience for such things would never grow. Either way, Tom would make it work. So Arthur nodded. “Aye, son. Absolutely.”
“Excellent. Now that we’ve established that Glasonland has fallen into a civil war and Will and Jess are in the thick of it,” Tom added, looking to the whole Council, “what do we intend to do about it?”
That was the question, wasn’t it? But of course there was still more that the councilors would want to know. Arthur knew that, even if Tom didn’t. “My liege,” Pellinore asked, “forgive me, but … do we know who the main combatants are?”
Arthur sighed. “It wasn’t in the letter, but the messenger knew. The biggest army is led by Francis of Lothario. He’s managed to drum up support from plenty of the big players … the Earl of Greene, Michael of the Bachelors, the Duke of Goth. He’s even got Adam of Howell’s son and female-line grandsons on his side, which is rather a coup, I think.”
“Why …” Lamorak bit his lip. “Why is that?”
“They’re Vortigern’s bastards, all,” replied Christopher. “The grandsons, I mean. At least, that’s the rumor. Howell got his army post by … well …”
“You need not go into any more details,” Pellinore said hurriedly, and Arthur was glad. That meant he didn’t have to say it.
“Aye, my lord.”
“There are a few other bastards with their own armies,” Arthur added. “And by ‘a few,’ I mean, according to the messenger, every bastard of some kind of noble blood has grabbed his stepfather’s villagers, armed them, and advanced on Ludenwic. How much of that is rumor and conjecture and how much is fact, the Lord only knows. And …” Arthur bit his lip. “The messenger also claims that Lord Antonius has closed the ports.”
“What?” gasped Richard. “Why?”
Arthur winced. The other men at this table — for good or for ill — did not care about ports. But Richard? They were his lifeblood. If he could not get his goods into Glasonland …
Well, there was always Reme. He did a more than healthy business there. And there were plenty of coves to smuggle things into in Glasonland. Half of Richard’s Glasonlander business came from there already. He would survive.
“I can imagine many reasons: to keep damaging news from reaching Reme by the sea, the quickest route, for one,” Arthur replied. “The Remans like the Tarquinii as little as we do. And they have none of our … residual affection for Vortimer. They would just as soon not have the Glasonlander throne held by a man with a claim to the Reman. They might be persuaded to send aid and troops to one of the rebels by sea.”
“They haven’t got the navy for that,” Richard replied.
“But … we might,” Lancelot murmured.
It was the first time he had looked up since Bors had agitated him last. He did long stay looking merely up, though. He soon glanced at Arthur, then at Tom. “Isn’t that right? What you and Leona are working on …?”
“Won’t be ready to sail until the spring,” Tom sighed.
“But we and the Remans …” Lancelot glanced at Arthur.
“Come spring, if this hasn’t been settled one way or another? Aye. I expect Rodnius of Jung to be making the suggestion as soon as our navy and the weather make it feasible.” Arthur sighed. He had not yet decided how he would respond to such a request. On the one hand, now that the Tarquinii brothers were no longer a threat, stability in Glasonland — with a King who owed him something, too — was only to be desired. But if it didn’t work? The Reman army was not what it used to be. And did Arthur really desire to grow so entangled with the Remans in any case?
“It’s something to think about,” Lancelot replied doggedly, as if he knew exactly which way Arthur’s thought were trending. He probably did.
“Aye. And think on it I shall. But not today, gentlemen. Today we have too many other problems on our plate.”
“Aye,” Pellinore agreed. “Too many variables are unknown — too many events have yet to play out. There is no use thinking and planning if all of our plans may have already come to naught, if only we knew it.” He took a deep breath. “And I have another question for you, Majesty. Lord Antonius — what is his response to the attempts on his life, and now his position?”
“He has named Constantine of Caernavon as the High Constable — no surprise there,” Arthur replied. “Constantine is the highest-ranking, most capable man to have not flocked to one bastard’s banner or another. And …” Arthur glanced at the letter, then at Christopher and Milo. “Master Tower, Sir Milo, you have a better sense of the politics among the younger generation of Glasonlanders than I do. Do you think Caernavon has a chance of holding the army to him?”
Christopher looked to his brother. Milo answered. “Aye. He gained nothing but favor after his rescue of Sir Dustin’s men — well, those who were still alive when he got there. And he’s got a reputation as one of the most level-headed military men in the country. The army will stick to him. I …” Milo pursed his lips together. “In all honesty, my liege, I don’t know if there is another man who would have a chance of keeping the loyalty of the Glasonlander army. The whole country is convinced that Lord Antonius is a fop and a fool. The army won’t be pleased to be serving him.”
Christopher nodded. That was the best intelligence they were likely to get.
Arthur drummed his fingertips on the table. The trouble was that he knew nothing of Constantine of Caernavon, now the man with Glasonland’s army at his command. He had known Borre of Caernavon, Constantine’s father, slightly. But he was a quiet, stay-at-home man, content to manage his barony and leave the running of the kingdom to others. Vortigern had once bragged, in his cups, that he had “known” Borre’s mother, and that Borre may have been his “first youthful indiscretion,” but Arthur was not sure how far he credited that. Certainly, other than that one boast, there had never been any whisper that Borre was anything other than the son of Sanam of Caernavon. It was doubtful Constantine was even aware of the possibility, if there was a possibility.
What sort of man was Constantine? Was he the type to fight for his King until the death? Or would he sell out, taking the army with him, and thus award the crown to the highest bidder?
“I think …” Tom started, and Arthur, grateful, turned his attention to his son.
Tom sighed. “Look, we’ve got a civil war in Glasonland — which, now that the Tarquinii are effectively out of the picture, is exactly what we didn’t want — and nobody knows which way things are going to go. Plus, we’ve got Will and Jess still in there, and nobody has the faintest idea where either of them are. Lord Antonius,” Tom nodded to the letter, “has promised them safe-conduct out of the country if he tracks them down, but what’s that worth? Even if he’s sincere, the country is falling apart. They’ll probably be better off trying to make their way out. So I vote …”
Tom took a deep breath. “I vote we open the border to refugees — and there will be refugees — and start making plans for what we’re going to do with all of them. It’s the best way we’ve got to get Will and Jess home. And if we’re allowing in the people who flee, we won’t be making them desperate. Since the fighting seems to be going in the other direction for the moment, I think it’s the best chance we have to keep the violence from spilling over the border.”
“What? Your Highness, that is — forgive me! — madness!” gasped Bors. “We can’t be opening up the borders! Who knows how many outlaws, vagabonds, and men fleeing their military duties will we let into our country?”
“And who knows how many farmers, sailors, craftsmen and -women?” Tom retorted. “We’ve got enough work to be done that we could always use more hands to do it. More artisans, more farmers … we could approach the monks and nuns of Camford to see if they’ll help us with the refugee situation. The Church would probably be happy to give us all kinds of funds if it meant it didn’t have a refugee crisis in the midst of Camford itself. We could give men new homes, new starts — and get their loyalty to Albion, too.”
“Your Highness,” Pellinore asked hesitantly, “are you truly … truly trying to think of a way we could turn this situation to our advantage? Out of all the other things you could be considering?”
“Such as?” Tom asked, one eyebrow raised.
“Which side in the civil war to support … how to ensure that the fighting does not spill into Albion …”
“I just said how the fighting won’t be spilling into Albion — we’ll be letting refugees in. And we’ll have the Church on our side. You know how the Camford monks have been grabbing land. They’ve been left a nice-sized strip of estates from the Maxis Ocean to the Sea of Prydwyn. Vortigern tried to keep it out of their hands, but you know they’ll be grabbing every acre they can now that the royal house has its hands full. If we partner ourselves with them in handling the refugees, we can get that strip as a buffer zone between us and the civil war. How many generals, d’you think, are going to risk their souls to march an army through Church land?”
Pellinore leaned back. Arthur had to bite back a smile — in spite of himself, the old lawyer looked a tad impressed.
“And,” Tom added, glancing at Arthur, “since Lord Antonius has gone and closed all the ports, and the war is bound to interfere with the farming, they’ll probably be facing a famine sooner or later. Richard, you can buy up grain from the Remans and whatever extra we can produce — thanks to our new refugee labors — and ship it overland, through the Camford strip. You’ll make a killing, and we will continue to look like the good guys. The Church will have to support us even more, unless they want to look like liars in everything they say and do.
“Then, once Leona and I get the navy up and running …”
Arthur leaned back and continued to let his son do the talking. In spite of himself, he was impressed. He never would have thought to use a civil war in Glasonland as a way to enrich and stengthen Albion. But given how little they knew, how little they could do about the war — what else could they do?
There was only one flaw in Tom’s plan. Other than keeping the borders open, it had no suggestions for how to get Will and Jessie out of Glasonland.
But surely, if Tom had thought of something, he would have said it. So for now — until they came up with something — it would simply have to do.