A cup of crushed belladonna, tossed by a pale hand, hung motionless in the air for a breathless second before cascading into the bubbling liquid below. The cauldron swallowed it greedily and belched an aftertaste of orange smoke. And when the smoke cleared, there stood Sir Mordred.
Or rather, Mordred became easier to see. He had, of course, been standing there the whole time. Who else was there to throw the belladonna?
But Sims tended to forget the obvious when presented with the fact of a witch or wizard standing before them, complete with the requisite cauldron full of evil red liquid, the flowing robes, the wand, and all the other peripherals. Had some of Mordred’s brethren of the Dark path been here to see him, they might have roundly criticized his lack of attention to the details. Those details — the show, the spectacle — were all that kept the ignorant in greater fear of them than of the Church with its foot on their necks.
Of course, Mordred’s wiser brethren would glance about the room, note the wards on it, then take another look at Mordred’s chosen attire. His breeches were tight-fitting, his sleeves carefully laced, every last fold was perfectly creased and every possible bit of trailing fabric was neatly gathered out of the way. As long as there was no one here to see him, those smarter brethren would acidly note, there was no use for Mordred to risk setting himself on fire thanks to trailing sleeves or loose robes that could get too close to the flames.
While Mordred would certainly agree with them on the efficacy of wearing clothing appropriate to the work one was performing, he would, however, have to question whether the robes or any of the rest of it were necessary in the first place.
Look at that fool Francis! The fact that Mordred would materialize in front of him wearing clothing that was not functionally different than that of any other lord, that he could melt into any court scene and be unknown as a wizard, seemed to unnerve him almost as badly as the fact that Mordred could materialize in front (or behind, which was much more fun) of him at all. And the amphibian Constantine of Caernavon was not much better. For all that he seemed to accept that it would be idiotic for Mordred to go among lords while wearing a pointy hat and a robe spangled with astrological symbols, he did not seem to like it overmuch.
At least Mordred did not have to deal with that kind of idiocy in Albion. None of the other lords on the Council seemed to devote a moment’s thought to what he wore, or even the fact that he was a wizard. Here, in Albion, the fact that he was a wizard was just that: a fact. It was of no more salience than the fact that he had black hair or gray eyes.
Yet since he was the only wizard on the King’s Council, one would think that the fact would garner him more attention …
Mordred sighed as he stirred the bubbling cauldron. It probably would, had not the King surrounded himself with exactly the wrong sort of witches.
Or perhaps it was not witches, but a witch, who was the problem. Morgan — even when Morgause had been alive, even when she was unstained with accusations hurled by the jealous, Morgan had always been Arthur’s preferred source for advice and services of a magical nature. Before his mother had been arrested, Mordred might have accepted that he would never gain as much influence and traction with Arthur in magical matters as Morgan had. He could have chalked it up to still being too young in Arthur’s eyes, or even to Arthur’s pragmatic attitude that one should not fix what was not broken. But up until the moment Arthur and the others had told him on that fateful summer’s day that his mother was under arrest for kidnapping, attempted murder, and the Lord only knew what else, he had held out hope for Thomas. Hope in vain. Thomas would turn to his sister, too, in magical matters. Look how staunchly he had defended her at the last Council meeting, without seeming to defend her at all!
Clang! Mordred’s long ladle crashed against the wall of the cauldron. Certainly one could hear the iron ring from the battlements to the dungeons. And there was nothing Mordred could do about it, either; a spell to dampen the sound could affect the potion he was brewing.
There was nothing to do but to wait it out.
Like so many other things …
The news that the Princess had not only interfered in the aftermath of Howell’s attack but had witnessed it was most vexing. If Mordred had had the lily liver of a Francis of Lothario, it would have been more than vexing, it would have been positively frightening. Mordred’s plan for the assassination of the Tarquinii brothers had been as foolproof as one could wish, at least from the perspective of keeping Mordred himself from shouldering any of the blame for it. The Glasonlanders certainly had no inkling that it might have been magically motivated or accomplished. All of the intelligence he had received from Francis and Constantine both had been in agreement on that score. All of the blame — and the praise — was laid squarely at Adam of Howell’s feet.
And the only Sim who might say otherwise had disappeared, gone to ground with her husband, presumably fleeing the country. It left Mordred grappling with the essential question as he poured some oil of rue onto his palm, preparatory to throwing it into the cauldron:
He had gotten involved in Glasonland for one reason and one alone: to harm Arthur. Arthur had wanted, first and foremost, to keep the Tarquinii brothers from invading Reme by way of Albion. Well, unfortunately Mordred’s own self-interest, always a greater motivator than mere vengeance, had kept him from seeking to bring that to fruition. The Tarquinii brothers were Reman. They could not abide wizards. Even if they had taken Mordred’s offer of assistance — rather unnecessary when they held the reins of Glasonland’s power in their hands — who was to say whether they would deal fairly with him afterwards? No, Mordred was fairly certain that his only reward for giving them the keys to the kingdom would have been a knife to the throat.
So that left attacking Arthur’s second objective: keeping Glasonland stable and out of civil war. Civil wars, despite Thomas’s grand ideas of humanitarian intervention to hide the theft of Glasonland’s most sensible citizens, had a habit of overflowing borders. And so much of Albion’s trade and foreign policy was dependent on Glasonland, too. That country in civil war could wreak havoc on Arthur’s plans for years to come.
So Mordred had done it. He had found the sower of discord and added his arm to the throwing. Now armies converged on Ludenwic; the ports were closed; and at least two nations trembled in the fear of what was to come. He had succeeded.
And now that his success was at hand — now it suddenly became personal. Now there was someone who had the potential to tie him to everything.
It would have taken a most observant man to see, as Mordred bent and tasted the mixture he was making, just how the thought unnerved him. But just because a thing was not seen did not mean that it was not there.
For the moment, though, Mordred’s potion had reached a point where he need not watch over it every second. He focused his mind on that. He summoned a servantus and brusquely ordered it to stir the potion once widdershins every five minutes. When it was not stirring, it could chop mandrake roots. The potion would need to simmer for an hour before Mordred could add the mandrake roots. He could use that time to go into his study and get some work done.
And he could use it to think.
The quarterly rents sat open on his desk, scolding him for negligence. Or so the casual, non-magical observer would think. Truly they were communications from Francis and Constantine, both of them asking in their own way for his further aid. There had not been a rupturing between the two of them — not yet — however, both knew there soon would be, even Francis was exactly wrong about why that rupture would occur. Despite their true nature, however, the papers still scolded him for his negligence. Here Mordred had the opportunity given to few men before him — the opportunity to make a king with his own hands — and instead he was wasting time worrying about whether a stupid young sorceress would manage to make her way out of a war zone alive.
He paced from window to door, thinking — thinking — and thinking some more. Once again, the idea of traveling to Glasonland, finding Sir William and Jessica, and killing them came to him. After all, Sir William had argued the case against his mother — Jessica had helped to arrest her. They had done him wrong enough to deserve it. There was also a poetic justice in it, at least insofar as Arthur was concerned. Arthur took Mordred’s mother, very well, Mordred would take his daughter.
Furthermore, every time the true significance of the fact of Jessica witnessing the assassination sunk in, Mordred was ready to hop on his broom and do the deed immediately. It was only the fact that the weather had been uniformly foul since that Council meeting — sleet alternating with hail only to break into blizzards — that kept him home.
But that was a good thing, not only because flying in this kind of blizzard was a great way to get oneself killed. Even with magical means at his disposal, how was he to find William and Jessica, two annoyingly sharp needles in a haystack of refugees? It could take him weeks, and he could not simply disappear for weeks without encountering harsh questions when he returned. The first time he went to Glasonland, he had not covered his tracks well enough, and look what he had to find when he returned: a distraught Rosette convinced that in his grief he was starving himself or going mad or worse. As wonderful as it had been to come home to find Rosette worried over him, she was not the only one to have noticed his absence from public life. Other questioners would not be relieved merely to see that he was all right.
Mordred flung himself into his chair and addressed himself to the letters before him with all the appearance of industry and care. It was only an appearance. He had read both letters several times by now. He could practically recite their contents by heart.
He was still no closer to making a decision on any of it.
Mordred leaned forward and sighed, fingers threading through his hair. He had this much hope: Constantine had the knife. It had been child’s play for him to gain control of it after Adam of Howell had been arrested and carted off to the Tower to await execution. Constantine had it, and he wanted to know if Mordred wanted it back.
The answer to that was no. Magically, the knife was knife was now useless, unless another wizard wished to examine the spells on it and determine who made it. More practically, the knife was a gaudy piece, the pommel in the shape of the bear of Glasonland with a giant emerald set in the crosspiece. The knife had in fact been quietly commissioned by Francis, bespelled by Mordred, and then given to Constantine, who convinced Lord Lucinius to give it to Adam of Howell as a thank-you for his years of service. All irony of delivery aside, Jessica or William was bound to have noticed the knife’s unusual appearance. If either saw it in Mordred’s possession, there could be hell to pay.
It was safer where it was. Mordred had advised Constantine to have it melted down. Time would see if that was done. But even if wasn’t, it would be harder to connect the knife to Mordred if the knife was in Glasonland than if it was in his own home in Albion.
Twice this week he had woken with nightmares that the reason why Jessica and William had disappeared was because they were searching for the knife. Jessica had sensed the magic on it, and — impossible though it should be in the waking world — she had somehow known Mordred was connected to it and had enlisted William to seek it with her. Then they had found it, Jessica had examined it, and —
Mordred never knew what came after the and. He always woke up at that point. Even now he could not think of it: a knock at the door severed his train of thought as cleanly as a knife. “Yes, what is it?”
Barber slipped in, rubbing his hands against the cold of the outdoors. “My lord, the Royal Steward is here and desires an audience with you.”
Ambrosius? Mordred’s eyebrows lifted. What could he — no, what could Arthur want? “Send him in.”
“Yes, my lord.” Rubbing his hands once more, Barber bowed and shuffled outside.
It was not long before Ambrosius himself came in. His armor was wet from the snow and sleet, shinier than usual even in the wan winter light. Mordred wondered how long it would be before he started to rust. “The King has sent me on a message of great import, my lord. The Dyfed bridge over the Firth is closed. The snow and ice have been too much for it. There’s fear it might collapse.”
Mordred blinked. “You are telling me this because …?”
“Do your men not use it, my lord, in bringing goods to Port Finessa?”
“Aye, but that hardly justifies sending out the Royal Steward to tell me in person. A note would surely suffice. And even if it did not get here in time, what of it? Surely the guards at the bridge would keep any of my men from attempting to cross it.”
“That’s the difficulty. There aren’t any guards, my lord. All of our available troops are gathered at the border of Glasonland. The King has sent for some to go to the bridge, but in this weather, who knows how long it will take them to get there?”
“Ah. I see. Well, worry not, Ambrosius, I will pass along the message to any of my men who happen to be traveling in that direction. Thank you for coming. Is there anything else?”
“No, my lord. Thank you for having me.” Then, with a nod of his crested helmet, Ambrosius was gone.
Mordred shook his head. Of all the blasted interruptions! But it was not long before his thoughts went back where they had been before Barber and Ambrosius between them conspired to disturb his peace.
What to do about Jessica and William! About Constantine and Francis! All of it!
Well, if he had to take a side between Francis and Constantine, he knew which side he would take: Constantine’s. That was not in question. Mordred never saw much of a point in betting on a race if one wasn’t backing the winning horse. Of course, Constantine had no actual claim to the throne, but that might be an advantage to him. There were far many men who did have a claim, and each of them had the enmity of all the others. It was much wiser to let them all kill each other for a while and then step in as the last decent leader left.
In fact, if he wrote to Constantine now, extended him his offer of further aid … Constantine could help him. Mordred had helped Constantine, had he not? The Tarquinii brothers — the competent ones, at least — were as much an enemy to Constantine as they were to Francis. Mordred had removed them. Therefore, Constantine owed him something.
And what better way to reclaim that debt but to ask for Constantine to keep an eye out for William and Jessica? After all, if Lord Antonius genuinely meant to offer them safe-conduct out of the country, then as High Constable, what could be more natural than for Constantine to lead the search for them? And once he found them — hold them safe and in comfort until Mordred could come to fetch them home. Mordred would say he was worried about his young cousin. Men like he and Constantine knew better than to question those types of motives.
Yes, yes, that would be excellent. Mordred would be spared the effort of the search, and once he found them … well, he could do anything once he found them. He would certainly be able to tell if William and Jessica had the least suspicion of his involvement in the matter. If they did, that would be easy enough to resolve. If they did not, would it not be sweet to conduct them both to Albion in safely? Would it not be fine to be the hero? Would not the expressions on the faces of Arthur and Lancelot be well worth the price of letting their offspring live for a little while longer? After all, it was Arthur who had ordered the arrest and the death of his mother. Would Mordred not be better served to wait on his revenge? It was, after all, a dish best served cold.
Yes, that would be —
What now? Mordred wondered. “Enter!”
Lukas Pelles entered.
After he bowed, he shuffled from foot to foot, tugging on his forelock every chance he got. He even tried to smile. Insufferable boy. What did his parents teach him — to betray a man with one word and then butter him up with the next? Such skills in a peasant were unthinkable, more treasonous than anything Mordred had done or contemplated doing.
“What?” Mordred barked, shooting the boy a this-had-better-be-good look. That was how he looked at all the Pelleses these days. But Mordred doubted very much that the look would be less fearsome for that.
“We’ve got another load of timber ready, m’lord. Me da wants ter know, do ye want us to be bringin’ it ter Mas–er, Baron Ferreira now?” His dark eyes — the same shade as Accolon’s — slid to the window, as if to ask pity because of the weather.
“The contract clearly indicated that the timber would need to be delivered by tomorrow for full payment,” Mordred replied. “Your father knew this from the outset. If he could not spur the men to work accordingly, then that is his own fault.”
Lukas hung his head. “Aye, m’lord.” He began to shuffle to the door.
Wait — that blasted bridge! “Lukas, stay a moment. The –”
For all that Arthur had wronged him and his mother … Arthur was not the only one who had wronged him. He was not even the first one who had wronged him. Who had that been?
The woman who — assuming she had found any boy at all, which Mordred was still not sure he believed — had not spoken of it to him. No, she had gone to his worst enemy under his roof: his wife. And then she had brought the boy to Lord Pellinore. And then she had brought the boy to the worst enemy in the world Morgause had: Morgan. And then? She had been actively complicit in the foul plot to arrest Morgause.
Furthermore, that was merely the best case scenario, assuming that Betsy really had found the little boy and that the whole scheme had not been cooked up between her and Dindrane! If Mordred was holding Arthur responsible for robbing him of his mother, as well he should, how much more should he hold Betsy responsible?
He couldn’t touch her. Morgan was watching, and Morgan would know. But her family …
Her family was nothing more or less than Mordred’s own property.
“Your father will be guiding the wagons in person, of course,” Mordred said, just in case Martin had any thoughts of handing this off to a subordinate or even to his son. Lukas, after all, was a young man, and Mordred still needed him. “I trust no one else with a shipment this important. However, given the weather, after the delivery, he is welcome to stay as long in Port Finessa as necessary. He and the other men may stay at the Dragon’s Teeth, and I will see to it that their expenses are paid.” The Dragon’s Teeth was one of the better inns in that town. If Lukas spread it about that Mordred was willing to pay for Martin and the other men to stay there, then there would be no reason to suspect Mordred had anything to do with … anything. Which he wouldn’t. Why act when the weather and an unstable bridge would do it for you?
“Aye, m’lord. Thank’ee! Ye’re right generous, sir.”
Yes, you think that. Mordred smirked. But in his most even tone, he only asked, “Is that all?”
“Aye, sir! I’ll be off now! Thank’ee!”
Mordred only continued to smirk as Lukas made his bow and left the room, whistling. Yes, he thought. You whistle. You whistle as long as you like.
He stared at the door, still smirking, for a long time.
Then he got up and went once more to the window.
The snow was truly coming down now — faster and faster, as if the Lord had grabbed his salt-shaker and was dumping it on the world. Mordred could not have asked for better weather. Who could blame him for laughing to see it, as he had not since he was child?
And as he stood at the window and laughed, the words of a childish ditty ran through his mind:
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow …