Osgary 8, 1013
The longer Vortimer spent on campaign, the less he liked it.
Uncle Antonius said it would be over soon. He said that Port Graal would be starved out, that they would have to surrender. Vortimer didn’t mind Port Graal surrendering, because that meant the wicked rebels would be put to justice and he could go home to Viviette, to Lilla. But he didn’t like the thought of “starving them out.” They were making the people go hungry? Wasn’t that the opposite of everything a King was supposed to do? He’d asked that of Uncle Antonius, but all he would say was that “desperate times called for desperate measures.”
That sounded like something Uncle Lucinius would have said. Vortimer didn’t like that.
There was more. The people in Port Graal, who Uncle Antonius said were wicked rebels, all of them (even the women and the little children, he insisted), were not the only ones starving. There were people from the neighboring villages who came up to the camps, begging for food. When Vortimer had asked why, Baron Constantine had explained to him that these people’s farms and stores had been destroyed between the different armies rampaging. When Vortimer had asked if their army was one of those armies, Baron Constantine had said yes. But it was all right, according to Baron Constantine, because he was the King and he could take whatever he wanted, since everything ultimately belonged to him.
That didn’t sound right to Vortimer. But there was something that, to his mind, was even worse.
He was bored.
He spent every day in his tent, or else in a very small area of the camp. Guards watched him wherever he went. Sometimes Uncle Antonius and Baron Constantine would have him make a speech to the men, after rehearsing it several times and making sure he got everything exactly right, but as soon as the speech was over they would whisk him back to his tent and not allow anybody to talk to him or him to talk to anybody else.
Wasn’t war supposed to be about valor and deeds of arms? Wasn’t he supposed to be showing what a good king he was by fighting out with the men? He’d feel better about punishing wicked rebels himself than he did about letting women and little babies starve to death. Uncle Antonius kept telling him that as soon as the city fell, he could pardon all the old men and women and little children inside of it, and everyone would think he was a good and merciful ruler. It didn’t seem right to let people die when you were going to pardon them anyway.
But what did Vortimer knew? He couldn’t think right. Everybody told him that. And he used to be smart, he knew that much. He used to read big books with lots of long words in them, and he used to write lots of stuff in those books. Questions in the margins, comments, that kind of thing. He’d looked through some of the books he’d been reading before the accident. He was once–
“Good afternoon, Your Majesty.”
Vortimer yelped, fell off the couch, and scrambled to his feet. “Who–who are you? And what are you doing here?”
“Calm down, Your Majesty.” The man — a knight, by the look of him — waved his hands, as if just moving them up and down could make him calmer. Uncle Antonius did that a lot with Vortimer. It didn’t make him want to be calmer. “I’m a friend.”
“No, you’re not! I’ve never seen you before!”
“Ah, but you’re a king, Your Majesty. You have many friends in many places. You haven’t even met them all.” Slowly, he circled around the sofa to come closer to Vortimer, smiling all the way. If a snake could smile, Vortimer thought, it would look something like that.
“How did the guards let you in?” Vortimer challenged. “They’re not supposed to let anyone in unless Uncle Antonius says they can come!”
The stranger tilted his head to the side. “Not even messengers from the Queen?”
Vortimer gasped. “You came from Viviette? Oh, how is she? And Lilla? How’s Lilla?”
“They are doing very well, both of them. But they miss you greatly.”
Vortimer’s eyes widened. “Uncle Antonius says that Lilla won’t even remember me when I see her again …” He sighed. “It’s been so long, too.”
It had been such a long time. Months and months and months. The last time he had been able to go home had been for Lilla’s first birthday, back in Tyves. She had just been toddling around then, holding on to people’s hands and legs and furniture as she made her first slow steps through the world. He couldn’t believe how much she had grown since the last time he had seen her.
And Lilla hadn’t remembered him, hadn’t recognized him. She cried when Vortimer tried to touch her or pick her up. Viviette would always pluck her out of his arms when she started, telling him not to be sad, that Lilla was very little and she couldn’t be expected to remember Vortimer. She told Vortimer to give Lilla time. He had — and three days after he had come, she had smiled at him and let him take her by the hand as she tried to walk across the room.
The next day, Vortimer had to go. That made him sadder than anything.
“That is the silliest nonsense I ever heard,” the stranger said. “You are her father. Of course she will remember you.”
“Oh, you think so?” Vortimer gasped, hoping against hope.
“I know so.”
Vortimer’s eyes narrowed. “But … how do you know?”
“Why, I have six children myself!” the stranger laughed. “Do you think there is a single one of them who would not know me when I came back from a long journey? And your journey will end soon. I can promise that to you.”
Vortimer blinked. “Huh? How can you?”
“Because I am a very wise man, Vortimer, and I know many things. That is why Queen Viviette sent for me. And that is why she wanted to use me as a messenger. So I could bring something to you.”
“A letter?” Vortimer gasped.
He loved Viviette’s letters! They were short, and the sentences in them were simple and easy: just like the ones Vortimer liked to read. Viviette’s handwriting, too, wasn’t like the scribes’: small and brisk and businesslike, and so much neater than anything Vortimer could manage. No. It was big and loopy, clearly written slowly and with great care. Just like Vortimer’s handwriting. It made him feel like this was one place where his very smart wife wasn’t so far above him.
And there was always news of Lilla in them. According to Viviette’s last letter, she wasn’t just walking now, she was running. She was learning new words every day and repeating them. She loved listening to stories and songs, too, although she tended to want to hear the same ones over and over. Vortimer couldn’t wait to see her next, or get more news of her.
“Unfortunately,” the stranger sighed, “I don’t. But I do have something better.” He smiled. “I have a present.”
“A–a present?” Vortimer’s ears perked up. But something niggled at him. He looked at the sentry wandering near the tent. “Did–did the guards say it was all right?”
“The guards don’t know,” the stranger winked.
“But …” Vortimer’s shoulders slumped. “Uncle Antonius says I’m not supposed to accept any presents unless the guards look at them first.”
“Oh, the Queen knows that. That’s why she sent this present with me. Sometimes …” The stranger clucked his tongue and shook his head. “She’s tried to send you this present many, many times. Each time, the guards take it away and won’t give it to you. I’m sure you can guess why.”
“… Um …” Vortimer felt so stupid. He hung his head in shame.
“Or at least, you will guess why once you get the present.” The stranger took a bag that was hanging from his belt and put it into Vortimer’s hand. “It’s special spices.”
Spices? Vortimer wondered. What would he need spices for?
“For your grilled cheese sandwiches.”
Vortimer gasped. “For my sandwiches?”
Viviette never talked about his sandwiches. She didn’t like to hear him talk about them. He didn’t know why. Who didn’t like the ooey gooey goodness of a grilled cheese sandwich? Who didn’t like to experiment with different cheeses and breads for new and exciting tastes? Who didn’t …
Vortimer sighed. Most people didn’t. Most people laughed at him for devoting so much time and attention to peasant food. And for many years, he hadn’t been allowed into the kitchens to make his own sandwiches, even though it was the only thing he wanted to do. Finally Uncle Antonius had convinced his father and Uncle Lucinius to let him, and Vortimer had been much happier since then.
He even got to cook his own sandwiches now, on the campaign. It was one of the few things that made him happy.
“Oh, yes!” the stranger replied. “She knows how much you love them. And these are very special spices.”
“They are?” Vortimer gasped.
“They were blessed by a very holy monk — Abbot Peter of the Pascalians. They’ll cure all of your earthly ills.”
Vortimer cocked his head to one side. “But I don’t have any earthly ills.”
“You don’t?” asked the stranger. And he surveyed Vortimer with a raised eyebrow an encouraging expression. There was something Vortimer was supposed to guess here–
He guessed. He gasped. “They’ll make me smart?”
The stranger didn’t answer directly. Instead, he winked and nodded.
“Oh! Oh! I can’t wait! I’ll go tell–”
“No, no.” The stranger laid a restraining hand on Vortimer’s shoulder. “You can’t. Abbot Peter’s prayers won’t work if you do. And, in order for the spices to work, you have to use them very soon. Today would be best, in fact, to start.”
“And I use them all at once?”
“Oh, no. That won’t do at all. You need to spread them over at least two meals. But no more than three. And you have to put the spices on after you’ve cooked the sandwich. Otherwise the prayers will be spoiled.”
Vortimer nodded eagerly. “I’ll do it for dinner today and breakfast tomorrow!”
“Bravo! That would be perfect!”
Vortimer grinned. “I can’t wait! This will be great! And –”
He stared at the stranger. Then, without thinking, he launched himself over and wrapped his arms around him. “Thank you. Nobody–nobody’s been this nice to me …”
The stranger went stiff at the hug, but after a pause, he hugged Vortimer back, patting him awkwardly. “You are welcome.”
“But how can I repay you? After it works?” Vortimer asked.
The stranger smiled — but why did he look almost sad, in spite of the smile? “Oh … your happiness is reward enough to me, Your Majesty.”
Osgary 11, 1013
“What are we going to do?” Antonius fretted to Constantine, wringing his hands together and trying not to whimper.
The doctors had just left. Vortimer’s bloody flux had gotten worse. The diarrhea was bad enough, but his case included a great deal of vomiting. The doctors had bled him three times already, and they said at first that it was essential that he drink plenty of water.
But Vortimer couldn’t keep anything down, no matter how much water and wine they poured down his throat. No matter how much he was bled. And now the doctors had advised Antonius and Constantine to send for the monks.
“If he …” Antonius looked nervously over his shoulder. He couldn’t say the word dies. It was too solid, too real. And after Vortigern’s agonizingly protracted passing and all the strictures Antonius had gotten used to, he could no more speak freely of the death of a monarch than he could sprout wings and fly to the moon. “We’re doomed!”
Constantine turned to him. “Not … necessarily. Our military position is unchanged. And–”
“But we won’t have a king!” hissed Antonius. He couldn’t speak any louder than that hiss. What if some of the men outside heard him talking? The doctors had been sworn to secrecy, so that was all right, but if anyone knew … They could lose the whole army. “What will the men have to fight for?”
“There’s the little princess.”
“Ha!” Antonius spat. “As if anyone would rally to the banner of an infant girl! Especially since …” Antonius shuddered and leaned closer to Constantine. “You know what they’ll say about Vortimer, won’t you? Once he …? They’ll say it’s a judgement! That the Lord’s favor has left us! That–”
“It’s dysentery,” Constantine dismissed. “It happens. It’s tragic, but …”
“The people are already convinced this war is due to Vortigern’s sins! All those bastards!” Antonius snapped. “And — and if Vortimer … with just an infant girl for an heir …” Antonius clawed at his hair. “We should have kept him closer to Viviette! Sent him home more often! She might have gotten pregnant! As it is, he hasn’t seen her in six months and–”
“We’d know if she was with child by now.” Constantine sighed. “It is unfortunate.”
“Unfortunate?!? It’s a bloody disaster! Why can’t you see that?”
Constantine shrugged. “I’m your man of military affairs, Lord Antonius. I don’t understand rulership the way you do. As far as I can see, the situation on the ground is unchanged. This is an unfortunate setback, but –”
Antonius wanted to shake him. “Are you blind? Listen to yourself! I’ve seen you lead those men! You–” Antonius bit back the words are better than I’ll ever be! But it was true that Constantine had a talent and a charisma that Antonius lacked. Lucinius hadn’t had it, either. Septimus sort of had it, but it was mostly predicated on a wild courage that made men willing to charge the very gates of Hell if he was in the lead. He couldn’t carry it over to peacetime.
Antonius looked at his nephew, lying alone and fever-tossed on the big bed. His heart came dangerously close to cracking. If Vortimer … he’d be all alone …
He swallowed and turned back to Constantine. “You have to understand what this would do to morale! You of all men!”
Constantine didn’t answer at once. Instead he looked outside the tent, eyes narrowing as he watched the soldiers milling about. The doctors might have been under strict orders not to talk, but like that would stop them. Like that would —
“Morale …” Constantine murmured. Antonius looked at him sharply. He knew that tone. It meant that Constantine was thinking something over. It meant that a brilliant idea was on the way.
“You–you may be right. The men are superstitious. They have to be … it’s the only way you stay sane. Keep control. And if they think that Vortimer’s … difficulties are a judgement …”
“We’re doomed,” Antonius whispered.
“Aye. But if they think of him as a martyr …”
Antonius cocked his head to one side. “He … he was so good, so pure, that the Lord called him home?”
“That’s sainthood–but not martyrdom. No. If Vortimer dies of illness, it’s a judgement. But if he’s murdered …”
“What?” Antonius gasped. “That’s–that’s–how can you even speak–”
“Stop looking at me like that!” Constantine snapped. “We wouldn’t hurt him! But–but if worse comes to worst — we can say that the wicked Francis of Lothario hired a subtle poisoner …”
“A poisoner could have never gotten in!” Antonius protested.
“Oh, really?” Constantine snapped. “Is that what you want to tell the men? That this disease is a judgement, like you said they’d think?” He grabbed Antonius and shook him. “Do you have any idea how the bloody flux works? It usually spreads through a camp like wildfire! But nobody else has it! If everyone had it, then we could sell the story that it was an unfortunate mishap — but since nobody else does …”
Antonius shuddered. “My Lord! They’ll say–”
“Yes. You were right. That’s what they will say,” Constantine interrupted. “But if we say …”
“If–if it’s murder, and not …” Antonius chewed his lip as he watched Vortimer groan on the bed. “Aye … who wouldn’t rally around a murdered king?”
“And his innocent, pure, baby daughter. Horribly deprived of her father before she was even old enough to know him. Now left all alone, with no one to protect her. And perhaps …” Constantine smiled. “A wife expecting a child?”
“But that’s impossible–” Antonius stopped. His eyebrows went up. “How–how would we explain when she doesn’t give birth?”
“The shock of losing her husband, of course, in such a foul and unnatural way. It would cause her to lose the child.”
Antonius bit his thumbnail. “Do you think the men would believe it?”
“They’re fighting men,” Constantine replied. “The last thing they would want to do is slunk off, defeated, when they haven’t even been defeated on the field of battle. And if we say that Lothario did it?” Constantine’s eyebrows arched. “They’ll be ready to rip him limb from limb. And once they do–the rest of the rebels will come to heel.”
“Will they? Princess Lucilla can’t rule.”
The idea of a woman sitting on a throne of a nation as great and powerful as Glasonland — it was preposterous. And who was the next heir? Antonius didn’t even know. Vortigern’s bastards excepted, the royal line was not a fruitful one. A single heir was all that had been managed for several generations running. Who was the next heir? Antonius didn’t even know!
… Whoever he was, he’d probably be working his way out of the woodwork soon …
“We can figure something out. Perhaps it might be time for a change. Is there, in truth, a law barring Princess Lucilla from the throne?”
“Well … I don’t think so …”
“Then we can support her for now. And if a better opportunity presents itself — we will take that opportunity. While ensuring that Princess Lucilla is safe and protected, of course, and her place in the country protected as well. In the meantime, no matter who is said to be the king — the power will remain with us. And isn’t that what we want, Lord Antonius?”
Antonius looked at the prone figure on the bed. He didn’t want power. All he wanted was to live in luxury and safety, eventually dying in his bed of profound old age. But he was in a country that hated him. He had no place else to go. The only way to be safe was to be more powerful than all of his enemies.
He used to do that by hiding behind his sister Lucilla’s power. Then he had hidden behind his brothers. Then Vortimer. He would hide behind that infant if he had to.
… Or … he could hide between the confident, charismatic man who stood before him …
Antonius nodded. “Aye. That is what we want. Now, my lord — what are we going to tell the men?”
“We will start,” Constantine said, “by gathering them in an hour or so, telling them that their king is in extremis, and that it is all the fault of that wicked Francis …”
Antonius nodded eagerly. He would go along with this plan. He would go along with any plan. Because no matter what his ideals might be, his world had narrowed to a simple truth and a simple want:
The truth: The King would soon be dead.
The want: Long live Antonius.