Osgary 14, 1013
The King was dead. But Port Graal was still besieged. Constantine of Caernavon was still in command of Vortimer’s army. Antonius Tarquinius had thrown his weight (light as it was) behind Constantine. And Francis?
Francis was still no closer to becoming King himself.
“Well, men?” he asked as he threw himself into his chair. “It’s been confirmed. Vortimer is dead. What now?”
Francis looked around the table at the men who formed, for the moment, his council. He first looked at Sir Elliot Regan, the dark-skinned man to Francis’s left. He was the most capable military man in Francis’s army, which wasn’t the same as the highest-ranked, but while Francis had at first rewarded those men of high rank who flocked to his banner with high command, he didn’t have the luxury to fritter away command now. Sir Elliot was the reason why Port Graal remained in Francis’s hands despite the long siege.
Next was Lord Shea of Johnston, in his typical court clothes of green and yellow. Johnston was a key trading hub, and keeping it in Francis’s hands meant keeping its lord happy. That was enough to explain Lord Shea’s position in Francis’s council. After him was Lord Vitalis Regan, Sir Elliot’s father (Sir Elliot favored his mother). Lord Vitalis was too old to lead troops, and his gout was often giving him trouble nowadays, but he had started life as the second son of an impoverished squire and had used a natural military mind to gain enough fame and riches to buy a small manor house with some tiny holdings, gaining himself the title of Lord. Sir Elliot might be the best choice of commander, but he’d learned everything he knew from his father’s knee and was still learning. It paid to keep Lord Vitalis on the council.
After him was red-haired Lord Luke Greene. Lord Luke was a quiet man, thoughtful, with no relevant military or political experience … but he was the brother of a duke. A sickly duke who had only managed to produce a single daughter in ten years of marriage. Lord Luke could one day be the rightful lord of quite a powerful holding.
And the last man, Leo Wilkie? He was nobody. A mere burgher — oh, fine, alderman of the Mercer’s Guild, but a burgher all the same. Unfortunately, it was Wilkie who was the natural leader of the town. It had been his men who opened the gates so Francis’s men could overrun the city and toss out its ruling lords. Wilkie had muscled his way onto the council mostly due to force of personality and a look in his eyes: Keep me out of power, they said, and I’ll open the gates against you, too.
“They’re saying the King was murdered,” Lord Vitalis replied.
Francis felt the sweat start. But he didn’t gulp. Or rub his hands together or anything that would make him look nervous. “Well? Fools will say foolish things. What difference does it make to us?”
“They’re saying you did it,” replied Wilkie.
“What? Such slander! Clap everyone who dares say such a thing into irons and throw them into gaol!” Francis snapped. He hoped that he was the only one who heard the panic creeping into his voice.
“Do you want to look guilty, my lord?” asked Wilkie, one bushy eyebrow quirking over his eye.
“How — how dare you –”
“I think Master Wilkie has a point,” interrupted Sir Elliot. “Reprisals against the rumor-mongers will only alienate the city. Don’t you agree, Father?”
Francis sneered and sucked in as much breath as he could fit around his teeth. He was sure every man around the table heard it. But none of them said a word. Few of them even looked at him. Good. They were showing him proper respect.
“Aye, it would,” Lord Vitalis agreed. “I understand your anger at being so … maligned–”
“Wait. Didn’t Lord Francis do it?” interrupted Lord Shea.
Silence slammed into the room. Francis felt both of his hands clutch the seat of his chair.
“Do I look,” he snarled at Lord Shea, “like a craven, cowardly murderer to you?”
… But he was, wasn’t he? Brother James … he’d attempted Sir Milo Carpenter several times … and the others … still. None of these men knew about that. He’d pinned the blame for those murders onto the Tarquinii brothers, and the blame had stuck very well. It was because it had worked so well that Francis was able to be sitting here, with these men willing to back his claim to the throne over the nephew of those men, legitimate though he was.
“But … but you couldn’t possibly rule while King Vortimer lived,” Lord Shea protested. “Therefore — well, he had to … I mean, it’s just common sense!” He looked nervously around the table. “Isn’t it?”
Nobody answered him. Not directly. But Lord Vitalis turned to Francis. “If this is what a lord, a man like us, is saying and thinking, my lord, I think it would be quite impossible for us to quash this rumor among the common folk.”
“Nonetheless, it is–” Francis started.
“And,” Lord Vitalis interrupted, “it’s not just a rumor. It’s what …” He sighed and nodded to his son. “Tell him, Elliot.”
“Tell me what?” snarled Francis.
Sir Elliot sighed. “It’s not just a rumor. It’s what Baron Constantine and Lord Antonius are saying happened.”
Francis’s heart dropped.
“You — you jest,” Francis gasped. Gulped. Shivered.
“I wish, my lord. But that’s what they’re saying. And …” He didn’t go on further. He didn’t need to.
The people believe them, he didn’t say.
Everyone in the kingdom is blaming you, he didn’t say.
You need to think of some way to bring the people back to your side. Nobody likes a regicide.
… Well, nobody likes a regicide who doesn’t have control of the throne either before killing off the old king, or as a direct result of doing so.
“It–it was dysentery! Bloody flux!” gasped Francis. “That–that is what your spies all said!”
“They weren’t doctors. They could have been wrong,” Sir Elliot shrugged.
“You just told me that I’ve been accused of murder, because YOUR spies were incompetent, and all you can say is they weren’t doctors?!”
And Francis had been so confident when he heard the reports of bloody flux! It had been a sign, he would swear. A sign the Lord had removed his favor from King Vortimer, from King Vortigern’s legitimate line. After all, King Vortigern hadn’t paid attention the last time that the Lord sent a sign — making his son mad — so the Lord had to send another one.
Granted, Francis hadn’t been sure how to direct the people’s loyalty from Vortimer onto him. But he had been sure that was a problem that could be solved. He could blame on Vortimer’s Reman blood. Or he could have simply taken advantage of the confusion to sweep through, destroy Constantine and Antonius’s army, and then gain enough momentum to seize the reins of the kingdom. He had been sure that it would only be a matter of time between the announcement jumped from “The King is dead!” to “Long live King Francis!”
But now …
“Well, if you didn’t poison him,” Lord Shea asked, “who did?”
“It’s a good question,” Wilkie muttered into his voluminous mustache. “Seek whom the crime benefits–”
“Silence!” roared Francis. “I could have you clapped in irons for saying that!”
Wilkie’s eyebrows rose. He snorted. But, blessedly, he shut up.
Francis looked, aghast, around the table. Each of the men met his gaze without a hint of trepidation. Worse — they looked expectant. Waiting. Expecting him to dig them out of this hole that he hadn’t even known was there until the ground opened up underneath his feet.
Francis snarled and stood up. “Do I have to do everything around here myself?” he roared.
The men looked around, finally nervous.
“I called you here to discuss solutions! To plan our next move! Not to–to hear slanderous accusations! My Lord! You are my supporters, my backers! And you–you of all people dare to suggest that I would stoop to murder? Murder of a King, no less? I say this once, and I say this now — I never did any harm to King Vortimer! And you know what we are fighting for, all of us! We were never fighting against King Vortimer! We were fighting to get the kingdom into capable hands, and away from the–the perfidy of the murderous Reman uncles! You remember that –” He glared at Lord Vitalis, then at Sir Elliot, then at Lord Shea, and finally at Lord Luke. “All of you! You remember that!”
“We remember that’s what you said,” replied Lord Luke. “But …”
“But what?” snapped Francis.
Lord Luke shrugged. “Did you think any one of us believed it?”
For the second time, Francis’s heart dropped. “You–you–you–
“You fools!” Francis finally exploded. “You fools — all of you!”
“My lord –” Sir Elliot murmured.
“Silence!” Francis roared. “I will hear none of this — from any of you! You –” He pointed a shaking hand at Lord Luke. “You as good as called me a traitor!”
“If I were you,” interrupted Wilkie, “I wouldn’t be so upset. After all, if you’re a traitor, and we all know it … what does that make us?”
It was a good point. But Francis could not hear it. He was too amazed. Not that Lord Luke had gotten him dead to rights. He knew that all the men around this table knew what the score was. But — and this was important — none of them would say so out loud. Because if they did … if they dared … then they might not be able to carry the masquerade forward. They would have to convince the people that Francis was disinterested, that he was only fighting for the good of the kingdom. That way they would be happy when he got the crown, they would be supportive of his reign, they would practically throw the crown in his lap when Vortimer died unexpectedly in his gilded cage–
Except Vortimer was already dead.
And they were already saying that Francis had had him murdered.
Francis collapsed onto his chair. “Get … out,” he snarled. “Every one of you. And think. Because if you’re right, Wilkie …” Francis shot him a feral ghost of a smile. “Then we’re all dead men.”
Wilkie sighed. But the rest of the men left without more of a sound than the pushing back of chairs and the creaking of wood.
Francis watched them go. He waited for the door to close behind them. He waited another few minutes, just in case one of them forgot a pen or handkerchief and had to come back for it, or decided to return when the room was theoretically unoccupied for Lord only knew what reason —
None of them returned.
Francis jumped up again.
What was he going to do? If Constantine and Antonius had already blamed this on him–
Wait. They couldn’t know it for sure. Maybe–maybe they were just making it up! Yes! Perhaps the King really had died of natural causes! And they were seeking to blacken Francis’s name in order to keep control of their own army and gain control of the country afterward! Yes–that made a certain kind of sense …
It was better than thinking that he had actually, legitimately been framed. It was better than thinking that somebody had planted actual evidence (although what that evidence could be was beyond Francis’s ability to guess) against him. If it was just a war of words, Francis could win it. Especially if he won on the field first. Wasn’t history written by the victors?
Except — except people were already believing them … even without anything like evidence … which meant …
What was he going to do?
“Ah. Francis. How glad I am that I caught you alone.”
Francis didn’t jump. He didn’t shout. He wasn’t even surprised. Things were going badly, weren’t they? So of course Sir Mordred would show up. He was like a bad penny that way.
So instead he turned and yelled, “Where the hell were you three days ago?”
Sir Mordred blinked, pointed at himself in an exaggerated pantomime of Who, me? and made a show of looking over his shoulder. As if Francis could be speaking to anyone else! “What happened three days ago?”
“King Vortimer is dead!” Francis yelled.
“Ah. Yes, I had heard of that–”
“And you could have saved him!”
Sir Mordred blinked, taken aback. “Come again?”
“They’re saying I murdered him!”
“Ah. Like you murdered your other brothers?”
“I–shut up! This is nothing like that!”
Sir Mordred’s eloquently arched eyebrows gave every answer possible and necessary to that statement.
“It is!” Francis shouted. “I mean–it isn’t! This is–”
“Do you honestly mean to tell me,” Sir Mordred interrupted, “that if you had had the chance to do away with Vortimer — poor soul, may he rest in peace — before he took the throne, you would not have done it?”
Francis stopped dead.
Well–of course he would have. If he could have — if Vortimer hadn’t been too well-protected, if Francis could have figured out a way to become Vortigern’s next heir. Who was he kidding? Of course he could have figured out a way. His mother had been Vortigern’s favorite lover. And she had two fully-grown sons and a daughter, all by Vortigern. He could have married her, legitimated the children, and solved all of his dynastic troubles.
In fact, when Francis thought of it like that, he had to wonder why Vortigern hadn’t removed Vortimer himself and then taken that exact course of action …
“And since you patently would have removed Vortimer and taken his place before Vortigern died — then why can you not say that this is what you did now? What, after all, has changed? He was just as incompetent and mad when he died as he was two or three years ago.”
“Because that’s regicide!” Francis snapped.
Sir Mordred blinked. “Regicide.”
“Aye! Killing a king! Don’t tell me you’re–”
“Oh, I know what the word means,” Sir Mordred waved a hand. “I’m just surprised that you, an accomplished fratricide, should balk at one more–”
Sir Mordred sighed, his eyes rolling heavenward as if to ask for strength. Then his eyes narrowed. “Don’t tell me you believe all that nonsense the monks say.”
“Which nonsense?” Francis shouted.
“The parts about regicides being sentenced to the deepest pits of hell, and–”
“Oh, of course not! Besides–I didn’t kill him! The Lord knows that if nobody else does!” Francis snapped, exasperated.
“A pity,” Sir Mordred sighed.
“And even though I don’t believe that, the people do, and–wait, what? A pity?” Francis demanded.
“Quite the pity,” Sir Mordred replied, nodding. “For I came all this way to congratulate you on your brilliant move. To be honest, I could barely believe you had it in you.” He sighed. “And it seems I was right.”
“You–you think it was a brilliant move?” Francis blinked. He licked his lips. Maybe — maybe this wasn’t the disaster he thought it would be —
“Well, it would have been, if you had done it. But if he just died of natural causes, as the rumors originally insisted — well, that’s far less brilliant.”
“They’re saying I murdered him,” Francis snapped. “How brilliant is that on my part?”
“Indeed–you being named and known as his murderer is precisely what made it brilliant. Any sneaking fool can slip poison into a King’s food. It takes a brave and capable leader to do so (or order it done, which is the same thing really) and then take the credit for it.”
“Credit? You call that taking credit? There’s no credit attached to regicide!”
“Unless you’re delivering the kingdom from a madman and a monster, braving putting your own soul on the line to save the people,” Sir Mordred replied.
Francis blinked. That–there was no way that could be right. None.
… Could it be right?
“Think of it like this,” Sir Mordred crooned. “You go before the assembled people of Port Graal. You admit what you did. And you tell them — it was all for them! Vortimer, alas, could never be really king. And he was now the cat’s-paw of unscrupulous men: men like Lord Antonius and Constantine of Caernavon–”
“They’ll never believe that of Constantine! He’s a bloody hero to them! Even the people here!”
“Ah, but the people of Port Graal are still angry over the closing of the port so many months ago, aren’t they?”
“Of–of course,” Francis stumbled. He licked his lips. Maybe … maybe … maybe Sir Mordred was speaking sense …
But he wouldn’t show that on his face. Not if his life depended on it.
“And if you tell them that it was Constantine who ordered it …”
“But he–” Francis started. And stopped. “He might have ordered the ports closed …”
Sir Mordred nodded.
“But he wouldn’t have demanded that the port stay closed after it was besieged. No. Only an idiot would order that.”
“But Constantine was in command of the army. If he didn’t order it, then who did?”
“Lord Antonius! He was afraid that the Remans would–”
“My lord. Listen to yourself! You have the opportunity to pin all the evils of this kingdom — well, all the evils that Vortigern didn’t cause — on the coattails of your chief rival, and you’re not taking it?”
Francis considered that. He blinked. “Well … even if I did try to take it …” He shrugged. “Who is to say that anyone would believe me?”
“Oh, my lord, my lord …” Sir Mordred clucked his tongue and shook his head. “Do you think any man who hopes to be king should be able to say that and have the people not believe him?”
Well, Sir Mordred did have a point there. But … there was one thing left. “It’s still risky, Sir Mordred. If–if they don’t believe me … or if they don’t think that I did it for them …”
“Ah, my lord — no risk, no reward!” He clapped Francis’s shoulder. Francis tried not to stagger under the weight of it. “Now, if you’ll excuse me — I’m not, after all, supposed to be in this country. I already had to miss one drag of a dinner party — I’d hate for people to start asking questions about my absence. Good luck, my lord. And if you need me … well, I’ll be around.”
“But wait — I still have ques–”
Sir Mordred had already nodded to him, cast his spell, and was slowly disappearing.
Leaving Francis alone. And worried.
But at least now he had the beginnings of a solution to his problem.