Darid 2, 1013
Arthur rolled his shoulders. It was no good wishing he wasn’t so damn tense. He had reasons for tension multiplying with every breath he took. Just yesterday the envoys from the Order of St. Robert had arrived at the monastery, and Arthur was meeting with them today. The camps on the border remained, growing larger every day. The trickle of people allowed into Albion wasn’t going to be enough to relieve the pressure. When those waiting people had had enough, there was going to be a riot, which would probably end in a massacre — and Arthur couldn’t think of a single way to stop it.
Then there was the news Jessica had brought to him, detailing that magic had somehow been involved in the deaths of Lord Lucinius and Sir Septimus. Magic — in the heart of the Glasonlander court! Good Lord, if the people of Glasonland found out about this, they would riot against the wizards. The Albionese had gotten used to wizards at or near the top of the social heap, but Glasonlanders hadn’t and probably never would. The mismanagement of the country was so obvious that the people were more against the nobles than ever, and to hear that they were in charge because of something unholy … it would be disaster.
And to make matters worse, as Arthur waited in the small council chamber with his wife and his son, Alison was fixing him with that look in her eye.
“Turn around,” she said, crooking her hands in the air.
There was only one way he could answer that. “Yes, dear.”
“Stop acting like I’m a shrew making you eat your vegetables before giving you dessert,” Alison scolded, even as she got to work. Arthur barely held back a moan of relief as her deft fingers did their magic. Still, as soon as she had kneaded one muscle into submission and was preparing to move onto the next one, Arthur could feel it harden all over again.
“Relax,” Alison ordered. Arthur took a deep breath and tried to comply. “You’ve survived worse,” she murmured into his hair. “It’s just two envoys from the Order of St. Robert. They haven’t power to do anything to us.”
“I’m asking them for a favor,” Arthur mumbled. “If that isn’t terrifying, I don’t know what is.”
“Wasn’t aware that having them take their heads out of their arses was a favor,” Tom remarked, taking a sip from his tankard.
“Tom,” Arthur growled. “Language. Remember there are ladies present.”
“Ladies? I just see Mum — who, despite being a lady, is only one lady. Besides …” Tom grinned and winked at his mother. “I like to pay ladies the compliment of assuming they’re strong enough to handle a little naughty language.”
“Be that as it may, Tom, some ladies — and I count myself as one of them — prefer not to hear it coming from the mouths of their children.” Alison raised an eyebrow at Tom, but if Arthur knew her as well as he thought he knew her, she was also biting back a smile. “And of course what your father is asking them for is a favor. He’s asking them to give up a valuable resource and something to hold over the heads of the Glasonlander nobles. At least, that’s how they would see it.”
“And what else matters, other than how — ooh — they would see it?” Arthur asked, gasping as Alison hit a particularly tense spot and rubbed the nervousness away.
“Try now,” Alison murmured, letting go as Arthur took a step forward and arched his back.
“Eerrgh,” he stretched. “Wright, Allie, you’re good at this.”
“I’ve had a bit of practice.” She patted his shoulder blades, then Arthur felt deft fingers twitching the fabric along his back. “Sorry. Things got a little … mussed back here.”
“Take your time,” Arthur rumbled. “I’d just as soon leave Brother … Tom, what were the names, again?”
“Brother Timothy and his assistant, Brother Christian.” Tom stared into the depths of his goblet. “We should have figured out a way to get the monks to let Galahad stay in Camelot. We’d know exactly what makes Brother Timothy tick by now if we had.”
“Galahad?” Alison asked, startled.
“Aye, Galahad. He sees everything, doesn’t understand half of it — well, at least when Sims are involved — and is more than happy to talk about everything he sees. Brother Andy isn’t half so keen an observer or half as voluble a talker, and while Brother Tuck can both see and talk, he only talks about what he thinks will benefit him. And Father Hugh …” Tom held the goblet up to the light, as if he were trying to test the clarity of the wine within — which would have worked so much better if he were holding a clear goblet. “Alas, neither of us are cruel enough to try to pump him for information, since he’d see it as a conflict of interests and we both know it.”
“That ought to do it,” Alison said, straightening one last wrinkle. She glanced around Arthur, to Tom, as Arthur took a final step forward. “And it isn’t a conflict of interests? And if it is — wouldn’t it be just as much a conflict of interests for Galahad?”
“Of course, Mum! But — here’s the brilliant part — Galahad wouldn’t think of it that way! He’d be a perfect source of information.”
Alison sighed and clucked her tongue. “Where did we go wrong with this boy, Arthur?”
Arthur only grunted, and that was because he made a policy not to lie to Alison when he could avoid it. Still, if he didn’t say anything …
She wasn’t fooled. “Or where did I go wrong, I suppose I should ask. Tom, you need to start seeing people as people, and not just tools for your next scheme. And you too, I suppose,” Alison added, though her tone grew more teasing when she adjusted her focus to Arthur.
Arthur just turned to her with a raised eyebrow and half a smile. If I didn’t care so much about people as people, Allie, I wouldn’t need half so many schemes.
She replied back with a full smile, that said better than words just how well she knew that.
But despite the calm pleasantness of the little moment, Alison was the first to break it. “Well! Shall we go out?” she asked. “The day’s not getting any younger.”
“And nor am I,” replied Arthur.
“I wasn’t going to say that!”
“But your son would have,” Arthur replied with a wink. He glanced at Tom — sure enough, the boy was grinning the grin of the guilty-as-charged. “Notice how he’s not denying it. Anyway — out we go!”
It was, perhaps, the least inspiring of battle charges. But it got the job done. Arthur made for the door, Alison behind him, and Tom bringing up the rear.
Theoretically there ought to have been a blast of trumpets when he entered the room, but Arthur had about six better places to put his money than in the pocket of a man paid to stand around and do nothing, except for the twenty seconds a day when his trumpet-blasting services would have been required. Besides, even though it had been years since Tom and Kay had gotten over the phase of announcing Arthur’s arrival into a room by blasting their trumpets, somehow the idea still left a bad taste in his mouth.
He cast a quick glance around the room. As he had expected, there was a representative of each noble family in Albion present. The only ones missing were the Carpenters — and Milo was needed at the border today — and the le Fays. In other words, nobody with any interest in political power was going to miss this.
Arthur headed up the familiar steps of the dais, Alison to one side and Tom to the other. It was more polite for a gentleman to hand a lady into her seat, but no one could sit while the king stood, so Arthur sat and let Tom handle his mother. Then Tom was able to sit, too.
Arthur tilted his head back, leaned into the cushions, and rested both arms on the elaborate armrests. “Are the envoys from the Order of St. Robert safely arrived?” he addressed the court.
William answered from his post at the scribe’s desk. Today was a busy court day, so the job of official recorder had been delegated to William. “Aye, Majesty.”
“Good.” Arthur nodded to the great blue doors. “Send them in.”
There was, after all, no point in putting off the inevitable.
The doors opened, and in walked Brother Timothy and Brother Christian.
They both wore the distinctive red-and-white robes of high-ranking members of the Order of St. Robert. The red, fur-trimmed coif on the head of the older man betrayed his status as the more high-ranking of the two — Brother Timothy, then. One would hope that the Order would always send adults on this delicate missions, but often the Order chose to promote its monks based on wealth or family connections rather than traits like responsibility or even competence. Still, they were savvy enough to not send juveniles out as leaders in missions they deemed truly important.
Arthur breathed easier — they were taking this seriously. And his spine stiffened, too. They were taking this seriously.
The two monks walked calmly up the center of the court, came to the end of the colored tiles, and bowed. Their bows were, as well as Arthur could remember, exactly the same as the bows they used to give his father, back when Glasonland had had somebody on the throne with his subjects’ best interests in mind. Arthur’s spine loosened. They saw him as a king, a true king — not a mere upstart in borrowed land, as he had feared they would.
“Greetings, your Eminence,” Arthur said, for that was the title of courtesy given to all officials in the Order of St. Robert. “I trust your journey was well.”
“Extremely well, your Majesty; I thank you for asking.” Brother Timothy spoke in the smooth and urbane tones of a professional diplomat, and young Brother Christian appeared to drinking in every word. “I must compliment you on the conditions of your roads. Many lords, I fear, are often slack in their duties of keeping the arteries of the kingdom open. But your roads are as safe and well-maintained as any I have ever traveled upon — especially for this season.”
“I thank you, and I shall pass along your compliment to the workmen responsible for the condition of the roads. Allow me to thank you on their behalf as well.” Brother Timothy looked startled at the mention of the workmen, and Arthur barely held back a smile. “For that is who we are here to discuss, is it not? Working men.”
“Alas, the poor refugees!” Brother Timothy shook his head and tut-tutted. “Rest assured, Majesty, that others of my brethren are working night and day to secure a peace and allow these men to return to their homes. I hope,” he addressed his gaze to Alison, “that we can add your prayers to our efforts?”
“We pray for peace every day,” Alison replied — a wonderfully diplomatic comment, one that promised the world without actually giving up an inch of ground. After all, who didn’t pray for peace every day?
Brother Timothy seemed to sense as much, and so with a visible gulp he turned back to Arthur. “I thank you. We know, of course, that prayers will be of more avail than all of our earthly labors — for if the Lord wills it, then it shall be done.”
“Amen,” Arthur replied. “But in the absence of sure knowledge of the Lord’s will, we mere mortals must decide what is to be done about those refugees who languish in camps just outside our borders.”
Brother Christian’s eyes bugged, and he turned an incredulous glance to Brother Timothy. Brother Timothy blinked several times. “You are very free in your speech, Majesty, if you do not mind me saying so.”
“Not at all. I never mind when men speak the truth. I only ask that they pay me the same courtesy.” Arthur tried to arch his back, subtly — he could use another of Alison’s massages, but good luck of that happening before this was over. “So. About those refugees.”
“What about them, Majesty? I give you my personal assurance that all are being fed with as many rations as we can spare, and have the best of possible lodgings, given the circumstances. We are doing all we can to keep them safe and comfortable.”
“Except letting them cross over into Albion,” Tom pointed out. He turned to Arthur. “After all, sire, do we not have plenty of lodging and plenty of rations to give them?”
Arthur pinched his lips to keep the smile from escaping. Tom couldn’t have hit that any better if they had planned it. After all, what were young and impetuous heirs for, if not to dole out the blunt statements that their elders were thinking but had, somewhere along the way, lost the courage to say? And by the look on Tom’s face, he knew it, too.
Still, he’d left the follow-up to Arthur, and Arthur took it gladly. “Indeed, son, and we have what is better — we have work a plenty for them to do, so they can begin to rebuild their lives and regain their dignity, and not be forced to subsist on the charity of others.”
“Ah, but the Church exists to give charity!” Brother Timothy jumped in with all the glee of a debater scoring a key point. “It is one of the many ways we demonstrate the love of the Lord Wright for the world.”
“Oh, of course,” Tom replied, even though the remark had not been addressed to him, “but all the same, it seems rather silly to me to spend charity on men who are perfectly capable of caring for themselves — if only the Church would dismiss its guards and let them across the border, where there’s land and work aplenty.”
“Ah, while I appreciate your point, your Highness, and do agree somewhat — alas, it cannot be that simple. It is not the business of the Church to deprive men of their rightful property.”
“You mean indentures,” Arthur replied.
He did not bother to look at Brother Timothy as he spoke — he looked around the room instead. This was where he might well lose his own men, and if he lost them, what hope had he of persuading Brother Timothy? But so far, all he saw on their faces was mild interest … and an impossible to hide stiffening of William’s spine.
Good. At least he’d have the du Lacs. And with any luck, the arguments William had already propounded to him at some length would convince Pellinore, too. It was Bors who was likely to be the holdout, and perhaps Mordred, dark horse that he was.
“Indeed,” answered Brother Timothy. “You should understand, of all men, that it would be grossly irresponsible of us to allow these men to cross the border at will. Once in Albion, it would be impossible for their rightful lords to reclaim them. We must be sure that all the men we allow to cross the border are free men. It would be neither right nor legal, otherwise.”
“Is that truly the legal situation we find ourselves in, Sir William?” Arthur asked.
It was a gamble — William hadn’t expected him to say anything to him directly, and he had not Pellinore’s wily tongue. But William had something which Pellinore had not, in this instance: passion. “It is not, my liege. The bonds of fealty go two ways. It is the serf’s duty to work for his lord — but that is in exchange for protection from the lord. If the serf fails in his duty, the lord is free to punish him — and if the lord fails in his duty, then the serf is free to find a new lord. Otherwise our system is no better than Reman slavery.”
Brother Timothy jumped, taken aback. “Well — er –” The Church had always had an uneasy relationship with slavery, but at the same time, they also had a relationship to maintain with the Remans. “That is one opinion, of course — but, Majesty! For all that there are doubtless many legitimate refugees, what of those with ill will in their hearts — those who take advantage of the confusion to slip away from the lords’ lands, call themselves refugees, and throw away all their sacred obligations?”
“Speaking as a lord myself,” Mordred put in, surprising Brother Timothy — and Arthur, for that matter — “I can only imagine that any lord with half of a brain would be grateful to be rid of those men. Any man who would wade through a war zone to get to Albion is either too stupid to survive, or else so desperate to get away from his lord that he would gladly risk death — and either way, he’s not likely to be much of a worker, now, is he?”
Brother Timothy stared at him in open-mouthed shock. “You — my lord, I think, you are perhaps oversimplifying the matter –”
“I think it far more likely that you are over-complicating it,” Mordred interrupted. “Especially since it has been the custom from time immemorial in Glasonland that any serf desperate to win his freedom need only flee to a city and remain there a year and a day without being captured. Generally, it is far less of a risk to flee to a nearby city than to try to flee to another country — going through active war zones, I may add. Again, any man foolish or desperate enough to attempt that is no loss to his lord.”
“Speaking as a king myself,” Arthur added, as Brother Timothy’s face grew blacker and blacker, “I must say that I find Sir Mordred’s argument quite compelling. I doubt that there will be any lords coming to the Church or to Albion to complain that we allowed their best serfs to cross over our border.”
“But you forget the Lord!” Brother Timothy called out, waving his finger as he would to an errant schoolboy. “What would He have to say to us flouting his holy laws, eh?”
And that was where Brother Timothy made his mistake. He lost his cool. And unfortunately for him — so did Arthur.
But not right away, or at least, not all the way. He still had enough control of himself to begin to lead Brother Timothy up the garden path. “I do not know. I do not care to know the Lord Wright’s mind. However, I do ask myself — to which would the Lord object more? To allow a few men to break vows of fealty — vows which they themselves chose to break, not us! — or to allow a great many men to languish in ill-prepared refugee camps –”
“Majesty!” Brother Timothy gasped.
“–and starve, and shiver, and sicken — and perhaps die? Oh, and what of the women, Brother Timothy? And the children? Are they not all weaker than the men? How much more likely is it that they might die of cold and sickness, when there is light and health just across the border — a border you will not let them cross?”
“The Lord Wright shall protect the innocent … and if they die, then perhaps He is merely delivering them from their troubles,” Brother Timothy shrugged. “If they are truly innocent, then is not death the best thing for them, to allow them to enter Heaven before they have a chance to spoil their innocence with sin?”
There was a rushing sound — the sound of every man and woman in the room, save Arthur, Brother Timothy, and Brother Christian, gasping. Alison’s composure broke; she collapsed against the backrest of her chair, gasping, her green eyes wide and pleading with Arthur for patience. Even Mordred stood open-mouthed, his eyes on the back of Brother Timothy’s head, as if he could not believe what had come from the front of it.
Brother Christian started to look around nervously, trembling, clearly only standing in place because he could not decide whether it would be safer to edge toward Brother Timothy or away from him. Brother Timothy kept his body ramrod straight and his features composed — but he could not hide the way his eyes darted from side to side.
So when Arthur spoke, it was into a room so quiet that the sound of the smallest pin hitting the floor would shatter the silence. “So, by your logic,” he replied, “the best thing I could do for my grandchildren would be to strangle them before they grow up to sin — is that so?”
“What? Majesty! I said nothing of the kind!”
“Silence! You have so! You said yourself, it is better for the innocent to die before they can sin!” Arthur took a deep breath. “That is what you said, Brother. I can understand if you didn’t think through the implications. Most men don’t. What’s more important is that the Lord knows what you mean …”
As Arthur spoke, his voice became calmer, slower. But this did not put his courtiers and family at ease. Lancelot’s face had grown ghastly pale. Mordred watched Arthur in what could only be called terrified fascination. Alison had both of her hands pressed against her mouth now. And Tom was doing his best to edge the golden throne a few inches farther away from his Arthur, having already pressed his body as far to his left as it would go.
So no one, except possibly the envoys, was at all surprised when Arthur bellowed, “And so do I!”
He jabbed his finger at Brother Timothy. “You mean — and we both know you mean it! — to profit off these poor people’s misfortune! You want to steal them as laborers and serfs for your own lands! But you know damned well that they won’t submit to your yoke when Albion is ready and waiting — so you herd them into camps, hoping that the cold and the rain, their growling bellies and their sick children, aye, their dead children will break them! You put them through Hell so they’ll be grateful to accept Purgatory! And — and what is worse — you hide your intentions behind pious hypocrisy! The blood of these people is on your hands, Brother Timothy, whether you will admit it or no! You know it — I know it — and the Lord knows it!”
“As if you planned to do any differently!” Brother Timothy shouted. “You mean to defraud all of those lords of their serfs — lords of your own brother-kingdom! You should pray to the Lord for forgiveness, Majesty!”
“And if what I do is a sin, then I will,” Arthur replied. “But understand this, Brother Timothy — I have no blood on my hands! I am not responsible for the murder — yes, murder! — of innocents! I am trying to help those people, and if their lords complain, they ought to have taken better care of their country, and not let it come to his pass!”
Brother Timothy recoiled. “This civil war is a judgement upon Glasonland, for their sins! Have a care, Majesty, that your sins do not call down a civil war upon your lands!”
“All I have ever done is tried my best to care for the people under my protection. If that is a sin, then the Church, if it has done its duty, is in more trouble than I am,” Arthur spat. As Brother Timothy still paled at that onslaught, Arthur continued, “And if, as I am sure is actually the case, it is not a sin, and the Church acts as I have always thought it does — then the Church is in even more trouble!”
That was enough for Brother Timothy. “Enough! I will not hear this blasphemy, even from a king! Brother Christian, we depart! Now!”
“Not until you hear my message, Brother Timothy, and bring it back to your abbot! Unless those camps are taken down and the refugees allowed to go where they please, then not one clipped copper bound for the Order of St. Robert will make it out of my lands!”
That made Brother Timothy turn around. “You dare!”
“I do,” Arthur growled. And it was no idle threat. Plenty of gold bound for the great chapter house of the Order of St. Robert passed from lesser houses in Reme through Albion to get to Camford. If Arthur said it was not to pass, it would not pass. And with all the ports in Glasonland closed, and Camford not having its own port, Arthur would effectively choke off half of the Order of St. Robert’s overseas revenue. Hell, once word of this got to Reme, the Reman government would probably do Arthur one better and confiscate the gold themselves, for “safekeeping,” of course. They didn’t like the thought of gold leaving their lands, bound for Glasonland, at the best of times. They’d jump at the chance to just take it … if the chapter houses didn’t outdo the Reman government and just keep the gold themselves.
“The abbot will hear of this!” Brother Timothy shook his fist.
“Good! Perhaps it will awaken his conscience!” Arthur snarled.
Brother Timothy scowled, then, grabbing poor Brother Christian’s arm, he marched out the door.
As soon as it slammed shut behind him, Arthur leaned back in his seat and let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. “Bloody hell. What did I just get us into?”
“You did the right thing,” Alison replied.
Arthur turned a quizzical eyebrow to her.
She stood, and Arthur stood as well. “You showed them we are not to be trifled with. And you put the argument to them in the most forceful of terms — they have blood on their hands. When word of this gets out …” Alison smiled and tucked her finger under his chin. “There won’t be a king in Wrightendom not jealous of you for having the courage to stand up to them.”
“And what are we to do,” Arthur asked, “when the Order of St. Robert comes down on us like a ton of bricks?”
“Oh, we’ll manage somehow or other,” Alison shrugged. “And don’t forget, Arthur — you were defending the innocent. If nothing else … that ought to count for something with the Lord.”