Clatan 5, 1013
Constantine threw himself from the saddle and winced as soon as his boots hit the ground. It had been a long, long ride. Muscles and bones he had forgotten he even had reminded him of their presence by sending up aches and pains. Part of him longed to do nothing more than stand and stretch his back, but he hesitated. It wasn’t because he was afraid his men would see him and sneer — he’d left them all behind in the tavern in the village, and they’d hardly sneer. No, it was because he was afraid, if he stretched, he might break something, and this was the last thing he needed right now.
To make matters worse, in his mind at least, this was a ride he shouldn’t have even taken. He was needed at the front, and not merely for the sake of his own ambitions. He had finally convinced Lord Antonius to besiege the city of Port Graal, where Francis of Lothario was holed up. It was a tactically risky move, not least because he and Francis were still clandestine allies. But it was, Constantine thought, a necessary move.
Still, other things were necessary to a man. Things like seeing his wife.
And his son.
Constantine turned, then took a deep breath and began to climb the dozen or so steps between the hitching post of the horses and the door. As he climbed, he thought — as he always did — about how to defend his castle.
Take the steps, for instance. They’d certainly slow down an attacker … for about thirty seconds. Would they be easy to defend? Any defenders would have to be fighting backwards up the stairs. That sounded like a recipe for getting killed. Maybe it would be better to forgo defending the stairs as such and simply use projectile weaponry from the top of the stairs. That would be a far more economical and sensible …
His mind turned over the familiar problems, as comforting as fur blanket in the depths of winter. As necessary, too. Emilia and Uther were here in the castle. If he couldn’t defend them — well, what was the point of the rest of it?
Constantine reached the head of the stairs, taking a deep breath even though the walk hardly counted as exertion, not after these past months. Then he saw something — red — from the corner of his eyes. He turned automatically, his hand going to his dagger–
Flowers. What he saw were flowers. Not a man bleeding out his last. Not the guts of the enemy — or an ally — spilled on the ground. Not a horse so covered in the filth of the battlefield that it galloped through the lines like a fiend from hell. Just red flowers carefully planted in a stone urn. Constantine moved closer to feel them …
“My word, Uther,” came a familiar voice from Constantine’s left. “You’d think your papa hadn’t even noticed us!”
Constantine turned. “Emilia!” He hurried up the stairs.
She stood there, a vision of red — beautiful red, for once, not the ugly red of life spilled. Her cloak was in a perfect shade of ruby, a present he had given to her for their first anniversary. Her coral lips pouted at him. And then there was the glossy black hair, the healthy, tanned skin, the womanly figure hinted at by the contours of the cloak … Constantine’s heartache was appeased by looking at her, but his loins ached with an unreasonable fire that Constantine thought had left him after he finally married Emilia and knew that he’d have the joy of bedding her whenever he wanted.
How wrong he had been about that.
But even more intriguing than Emilia was the little one she was holding, a sturdy toddler who watched Constantine with curious dark eyes. “Is that … Uther?”
“Of course it is! Uther,” Emilia went in for a tickle, grinning at Constantine all the while, “say hello to your papa.”
“Papa!” laughed Uther.
“He’s talking …” Constantine gasped.
“Of course he is! He’s fourteen months old!” replied Emilia, laughing and clucking her tongue. “You should be more worried if he wasn’t talking.”
Constantine only grunted in reply. He leaned closer to his wife, staring at Uther over her shoulder. It wasn’t too long ago, if he remembered correctly, that she had been at a loss with Uther, sending for the midwives and nurses in a panic if his crying sounded a note different than the crying of the day before. And now she was an expert on children. How things had changed while he was away!
And yet … while Emilia had been panicking over Uther’s every little burp and bubble, Constantine had been trying to worm his way into the inner circle at the court, with limited success. The Tarquinii brothers had every reason to suppose he was competent, and so were willing to listen to him — to a point. And now the Tarquinii (well, the ones who mattered) were dead, and Constantine was the man in charge of the largest army in the kingdom. How things had changed!
“Here, Uther,” Emilia crooned, “go see your papa.” Brooking no protest from either Uther or his father, she pushed the baby — if Constantine could even continue to call his son a baby — into Constantine’s arms.
Uther, however, didn’t protest — he laughed and went willingly. Neither did Constantine, after he got used to the fact that Uther was quite a bit heavier than he had been the last time Constantine held him. “He … remembers me!”
Emilia smiled without a word.
Uther, meanwhile, wiggled and squirmed, bouncing up and down in Constantine’s grip. “Whoa, lad! What is it you’re wanting?”
“Don’t put him down!” gasped Emilia. “He’s walking all over, these days — and he keeps wanting to try the stairs!”
Constantine surveyed the dozens of hard, stone steps between Uther and the soft ground below and shuddered. “No, no, lad! Not today! No stairs!”
“No!” yelled Uther, and he reached for Constantine’s hair in retaliation.
“Did I mention,” Emilia chuckled, as Constantine tried to dodge the little hands, “that ‘no’ is his favorite word?”
“Is that something I should be worried about?” Constantine muttered. Uther was laughing as he reached his hands one way and another, watching Constantine bobble his head to keep away from them. He seemed to have forgotten about trying to pull Constantine’s hair.
“No, that’s also normal for lads his age.”
“No! No! No!” Uther giggled.
“Oh, I’ll show you, my lad,” Constantine laughed. “How would you like to go flying?”
He saw startled fear leap into Emilia’s eyes — but to his dying day, he was never sure whether it was because of the promise of rough play, or because of the door that flew open and the golden light they both saw at that moment.
And Emilia was standing right in front of the door —
Constantine shoved her out of the way, blocking the doorway with his body. Whatever was out there — whatever made that light — whatever fiend of hell had come into his courtyard, it would have to get to Emilia through him–
He realized a split second after he had pushed Emilia out of the way that he was still holding Uther. His heart contracted–
Then the golden light faded, the door stayed open, and Sir Mordred was staring up at him with a raven-black brow lifted quizzically over his eye. He strode up the steps and through the door, leaning on the arch as if his mode of entry had been the most natural in the world. “Good afternoon, Baron Caernavon.”
Constantine was unable to return the greeting, as his heart was still lodged in his throat and beating furiously.
Uther, however, bounced up and down, as if this all was a game. “Hi!”
Sir Mordred blinked, his gaze going to the little one. Then he … smiled? It was a reptilian smile, also a rusty smile. But for all of that, it was not a false smile. “So this is Uther? You have a charming lad, my lord, my lady.”
“Thank you,” Constantine replied. He was rather proud of himself — the words didn’t sound like a croak at all.
Nonetheless, Sir Mordred rolled his eyes. “And for the love of Wright, you can stop looking at me like that! I’m hardly about to eat him!”
Interesting. This was the first time Constantine had seen Mordred as anything less than suave, smooth, and urbane. Yet the annoyance, like the smile, did not seem false. Still, Constantine swallowed. “You …” He gestured vaguely toward the courtyard. “Appeared into our home with no warning, no invitation — and you expect us not to be worried?”
“My apologies for my unconventional appearance,” replied Sir Mordred, bowing, “especially to you, my lady — but my lord, I do believe we need to chat.” He raised his eyebrows expressively.
Constantine’s stomach dropped, but his face remained schooled. He handed Uther to Emilia without a word, then led the way to his audience chamber. Sir Mordred followed, pausing only to divest himself of his cloak.
It was not a long walk, but it was in the opposite direction that Constantine wished to go, so he resented every step. When he reached there and sat, his travel armor creaked with every move. The leather folded itself into the sweat-salted blisters on his skin. What he wouldn’t give for a bath, followed by some time playing with Uther, followed by a very early bedtime for the baby and a long night in bed with Emilia!
Constantine leaned back, the carved wooden backrest cutting painfully into every sore spot in his muscles. “Well, Sir Mordred?” he asked.
Sir Mordred did not speak at first. He folded his hands on his lap and blinked at Constantine. Then he asked, “I came to determine what your next move was to be.”
“My next move?” Constantine effected a blink. “I am unsure what you mean, sir.”
“I mean that you are moving the army to besiege Port Graal,” Sir Mordred replied. “Now, if you were King Vortimer’s loyal general, dedicated to his cause, that would be a fine move. If you were to stamp out Francis of Lothario’s rebellion, the other bastards would be much easier to stomp out. However, you are not King Vortimer’s loyal general. You’d be much wiser, in fact, to continue chasing minor armies up and down the country, or, if possible, let them chase each other up and down the country, ridding yourself of as many minor opponents as possible before …” He trailed off.
“Before what, Sir Mordred?”
Sir Mordred’s next words were simple and stark, and all the more shocking for it. “Before you killed the King.”
Constantine swallowed in spite of himself. Even to Emilia, he’d never said those words out loud so bluntly.
“You have, after all, already laid the groundwork admirably — everyone in the kingdom knows you are the most competent military man to be had. And you also have a claim to the throne in your own right –”
Constantine waved his hand. “Brother Mortimer — the monk who serves our family — has a penchant for genealogy. I tell Emilia to let him potter around in the old family records, and the next thing I know, he’s claiming I’m descended from King Margh II! It’s quite embarrassing, I assure you.”
“That the people lapped up the lies so easily?” Sir Mordred asked. So there was no fooling this man. “Aye, I’d be embarrassed for my countrymen, too.”
“Yes, you’re remarkably well-placed to step into Vortimer’s place … but he’s still in it, my lord. So — how do you propose to remove him from it?”
Constantine’s eyebrows lifted. “And assuming that I had such a dastardly plot in mind — why on earth would I share it with you?”
“So I could help you with it, of course,” replied Sir Mordred. “You’ve already indicated that you desire my further assistance.”
Yes — at least, Constantine would much rather have Sir Mordred on his side than, say, Francis’s, if Sir Mordred insisted on involving himself in Glasonlander politics. For he could see, now, that he and Emilia had badly underestimated Sir Mordred when they first heard of his liaison with Francis. They had called him Francis’s tame wizard. But Sir Mordred was nobody’s wizard — and he certainly wasn’t tame.
“And assuming that I was the author of such a treasonous plot … of course, my end goal would be to become King of Glasonland myself. And in that case …” Constantine narrowed his eyes at Sir Mordred. “Any man who helped to put me there would not be unjustified in asking for a … favor or two in return.”
“And if you were a man to put a king on a throne, Sir Mordred … what kind of favors would you ask for?”
“Who says I would ask you for anything?” Sir Mordred shrugged.
Anyone with an ounce of common sense, Constantine thought, but did not say. Instead, he chose to muse aloud. “But a king — especially of a country as wealthy and powerful as Glasonland — could give you so many things. For instance …” Constantine brought his fingers together in a steeple-shape. “I know that you are quite annoyed with — in fact you hate — your uncle, King Arthur, for sentencing your mother to death. It would be child’s play for the King of Glasonland to remove the King of Albion from the throne.”
“And then what?” asked Sir Mordred.
Constantine blinked. “What do you mean?”
“Let’s say you remove Arthur for me — although why you think I’d want you to remove him for me, I can’t say — then what? Who rules? What happens next?”
Constantine let his eyebrows rise. “What would you want to happen, Sir Mordred?”
“If you are asking if I would want to be king of Albion myself, the answer is no.”
Constantine blinked in spite of himself.
“Explain to me, my lord, why I would want to be the King of Albion? Unfortunately for me, Albion has been in excellent hands this past generation. And do you know how that happens? Arthur’s been a slave — a slave — to the kingdom and its needs. Every problem that the country faces is his problem. His problem. Do I look like the kind of man who willingly would sign up to have all of the problems of an entire country dumped in his lap?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” laughed Constantine. “Even if that is how Arthur rules, why should you rule in the same way? Delegate, man!”
“Says the man who plays every card so very close to his vest that it is a wonder he can even see it,” smirked Sir Mordred. “And to whom would I delegate? Arthur is not a foolish man, you see. He’s married his eldest son to the daughter of one family — his daughter to the eldest son of another — and his third son is betrothed to yet another noble family. As for the last noble family, other than my own? Their eldest son is married to the sister of the Crown Princess! None of those families would stand for my reign. They would all have to be eliminated, leaving me — once again — with all of the problems of the kingdom sitting upon my plate.”
“Doubtless you could find knights who would only be happy to take up the lands vacated by the old noble families.”
“Not necessarily …”
“Ah. You mean impoverished troublemakers you would seek to foist off on me? I think not, my lord. I would not put you onto a throne in order to inherit the problems of your kingdom as well as mine.”
Well, there went that nascent idea.
“And all of those,” Sir Mordred mused, “are quite powerful objections that do not even take into account the fact that I am a Dark wizard.”
“What has that to do with anything?” asked Constantine.
“My dear lord — have you ever heard a story where the Dark wizard steals the throne by force or trickery and manages to keep it until he dies in his bed of a ripe old age?”
“Well, no,” Constantine replied, “but certainly –”
“There is no ‘but certainly.’ There is a reason why you have never heard such a story. It has never happened.”
“Oh, for goodness sake! You jest!”
“No. I do not.” Constantine blinked — Sir Mordred’s tone was deathly serious. “Dark wizards do not do well if you pull them into the light — and what is being the ruler of a country, open and acknowledged, other than being in the light? We either give up the Dark — in which case we are completely out of our element, and are slain at the first reasonable opportunity — or else we attempt to bring the Dark with us, through a reign of terror, and that never works.”
“And why would it not?” asked Constantine testily.
“Because … and this reason is so simple, my lord, it is obvious why you do not see it,” Sir Mordred smirked, “the people do not like it.”
“What? What has that got to do with anything?” laughed Constantine.
“No ruler can rule if his people hate him,” Sir Mordred shrugged. “Not for long, anyway. When a challenger — of any stripe — arose, they would support him. Or at the very least, they would refrain from supporting their current leader, which would kill him just as dead, sooner or later.”
“Sir Mordred, I cannot believe that you would say such things! What difference does it make what they people think? They never liked Vortigern, but they still obeyed. They would obey you.”
“There is a long way between ‘not liking’ and ‘hating.’ Vortigern never earned the people’s hatred. The Tarquinii brothers did. Vortigern died in his bed. The Tarquinii brothers did not.” Sir Mordred shrugged. “Arthur understands this — he understands it well. So do I. That is why I do not want his job.”
There were many replies Constantine could have made to that. But he was tired, and sore, and he wanted nothing more than to see his wife and son. And a bath. So he snapped, “Then what is it that you do want, Sir Mordred?”
“Plenty of things,” Sir Mordred replied. He said nothing further.
“… I would appreciate some elaboration, sir.”
“And why should I do that?”
“Because I am a man who likes to know the price of goods before I buy them.”
“Ah!” Sir Mordred lifted one finger into the air. “But you have already bought some goods, have you not, not knowing the price?”
Yes. He had. Lord only knew what kind of debt he had racked up with the deaths of Lord Lucinius and Sir Septimus. But that struck Constantine as further reason not to add to the debt. So he did not, only staring at Sir Mordred with his eyebrows raised.
Sir Mordred finally sighed. “I want many things, my lord. I will not share most of them in words, not with you, but you will give them to me anyway. It may not even cost you much. However, there is one thing I do want, that you can give to me, and that I will tell you. I want the Pascallians brought to heel.”
The Pascallians? “A bunch of theologians who are so busy determining how many angels can dance on the head of a pin that they barely have time to count the grain in their stores?” laughed Constantine. “How on earth could they be ‘brought to heel’? Were they ever off the leash?”
Sir Mordred waved a hand dismissively. “Oh, they can have their angel debates. I won’t begrudge them that. But they have jurisdiction over my marriage … and I want an annulment. I would also like them to very, very much regret not giving me the annulment in the first place.”
Ah. That was different.
But it was also doable. Constantine had never had much to do with the Pascallians, since they seemed to care little for worldly power. But they had to want something that a King could provide — young goats, perhaps, to make the vellum for their books, or something of that nature. It would be a simple negotiation, once Constantine was king. So he shrugged and nodded. “Done.”
And while Sir Mordred smirked, all Constantine could think was, There. Was that so hard?
“Now, my lord,” asked Sir Mordred, leaning back, his fingers threaded behind his head, “how do you plan to make yourself king after besieging Port Graal?”
Constantine frowned, but Sir Mordred had given him something, and Constantine supposed he ought to give Sir Mordred something in return. “A siege is dangerous. There are … many accidents … diseases … terrible things that can befall a king.”
“In other words, you have no idea how you are going to eliminate Vortimer.”
Constantine scowled. “I find it is better –”
“Oh, don’t get upset, my lord. This is wonderful news.”
Constantine blinked. “Pardon?”
Sir Mordred jumped to his feet, and Constantine followed, bemused. Sir Mordred seized his hand and pumped it with great force. “It means, you see, that we still need each other — and hopefully we’ll continue to need each other for a long, long time. There. Isn’t that wonderful, my lord?”
Whether or not it would be wonderful was anyone’s guess. But Constantine knew one thing.
He would be much, much wiser if he simply let Sir Mordred think that.