Osgary 24, 1013
Jessie had heard the phrase “needle in a haystack” before. But she had never really lived it until now.
She pushed a trailing curl back from her face, frowning over the spellbook. The trouble wasn’t that it would have been difficult to kill poor King Vortimer by magic. The trouble was that it would have been easy. There were any number of magical poisons and potions that could create symptoms similar enough to an illness that even Glasonland’s best doctors would be fooled. Jessie didn’t even know what the symptoms were: the official reports didn’t give details, and unofficial ones were mixed and muddled. Some said the poison had worked like bloody flux. Others said it was like cholera. Still more said it was like influenza.
Most said that it didn’t matter: poison was poison, and Vortimer had been murdered, and the man who was responsible (Francis of Lothario) needed to be hunted down and killed like the traitor he was. Jessie couldn’t help but agree with the latter half of that equation, but she would not accept the former. Because if magic had had something to do with the death of the King of Glasonland …
… That could change everything.
“Jessie,” said Penelope from the desk, where she was supposed to be taking notes as Jessie dictated them, which would only work if Jessie opened her mouth every once in a while as she read, “if magic did have a hand in King Vortimer’s death … are you sure we want to know?”
Jessie’s hand fell back to the book stand. That was the question, wasn’t it?
“And are you sure you don’t want to sit down?” asked Penelope. “You shouldn’t be spending all this time on your feet, you know.”
“Morgan says it’s better to study magic standing up. It focuses the mind.” Of course, that was the stupidest reply Jessie could muster, and she knew it. That was the sort of rule one gave to apprentices, and fully-trained witches and wizards could follow it or not as their personal preference dictated. Besides, Morgan would be the last to impose a blanket rule like that on a pregnant woman.
But Jessie was only four months along, and she was used to reading magical tomes on her feet. Besides, she didn’t see how sitting down would help. Though, for that matter, standing up wasn’t doing her much good, either. Standing up only kept the mind alert, on guard against the soporific qualities of some of the most referenced magical texts. It didn’t help when the brain was moving so fast as to threaten to break free and circle the room a few times to let off excess energy.
Luckily for Jessie, though, Penelope chose not to reply to her patently stupid excuse. She satisfied herself with a look. “That still doesn’t answer whether it might be a better idea not to know,” she replied instead.
Jessie hesitated, eyes unfocused even though they stared at the text. “But if we don’t know,” she answered, “we can’t prepare — one way or the other. We’re … lost. In the dark.”
It was another stupid reply, though, and Jessie knew it, and Penelope knew she knew it, and Jessie knew Penelope knew she knew it, and so forth. Because knowledge of this kind would not be able to sit quietly on a shelf. It could not be filed away in the back of the mind, only to be taken out when absolutely needed. There were some forms of knowledge that forced the knower to act. Jessie was very much afraid that this was one of them.
“But … can we even know? Truly know?”
“Lord Lucinius and Sir Septimus were killed with magic. We know that.”
“Because you were on the spot,” Penelope pointed out. “We’d need a magically-sensitive witness, at the very least, to King Vortimer’s poisoning and death to know if magic was involved. If we don’t have that — and we probably won’t have that — then it’s impossible to ever say we know.”
Jessie’s finger skimmed the edge of the marble book stand. That was the difficulty, wasn’t it? They had no witnesses. No reliable reports, even. No evidence, as Will would say. No proof. Just speculation.
“Well … Tommy did ask me to look into it,” Jessie answered, her last weak defense. “And you know he’s supposed to be here at two.”
“He sent that note here yesterday, and you know he and Sir William had planned for him to come over a week ago — before we even knew King Vortimer was dead,” Penelope replied. “He’d never expect you to have an answer that quickly.”
Maybe he would. Tommy had lots of ideas about magic — she could see that in his eyes whenever Jessie made reports to her father and Tommy sat in — but at the end of the day, he had little idea of how it worked, or how quickly one could piece things together and come up with an answer. Or rather, how slowly. Still, Jessie knew her brother was reasonable (most of the time). If she told him she couldn’t possibly come up with an answer on twenty-four hours’ notice and paltry information, he would understand.
“Jessie …” Penelope stood up and walked to her. “Is there something else that’s bothering you? Truly?”
“A king might have been killed by magic,” Jessie replied with a shrug and a faint smile. “I think that’s plenty to bother … me.”
She could cling to that excuse for a long, long time. As far as Jessie knew, she was the first in the general region of Reme, Glasonland, and even Gaul and Simspain to be both a princess and an openly-practicing witch — certainly the first since the spread of the Wrightian faith. Balancing magical and temporal power was never easy. And the balancing act gave you a unique perspective on both. Keepers of magical power could try to ignore the mundane and claim it couldn’t affect them, and mundane powerbrokers could try the same thing in reverse. But if you were in Jessie’s position, you couldn’t fool yourself that easily.
“That isn’t it, though, is it?” pressed Penelope. “You were upset ever since you got the news.”
Jessie looked down. Yes. She had been. Thinking of poor Vortimer … Vortimer who had never hurt anybody in his life, certainly not after his injury … Vortimer being bullied by his uncles into saying what they wanted him to say, ruling as he wanted them to rule … Vortimer staring at her the first time they had met, then his gasp: “I remember you!” They had not seen each other in more than twenty years, and Vortimer’s mind had not been at all the same since his injury, but he still remembered. And he seemed pleased, like a little boy would be pleased to see a long-lost relative who had once been sweet to him.
Murdering Vortimer was no better than murdering a child. The last time somebody Jessie knew had tried to murder a child, she’d watched the entire legal machinery of Albion rise to life with the express purpose of taking that person down. She had been Jessie’s own aunt, and the child a boy Jessie had never seen before the trial — and Jessie was barely even sorry. She felt worse for Garnet, for young Agravaine, for Mordred, for her father than she had ever felt for Morgause.
How was she supposed to feel when somebody she had (probably) never met murdered her own childlike cousin?
She couldn’t say as much, though. She heard the church bells chiming two o’clock, thanks to a spell she had devised that would relieve Galahad of having to do it himself. Even though it tended to break down once a week, it still kept far more accurate time than Galahad would have, bless his soul. “We should probably go down. Tommy will be here any minute.”
Penelope didn’t answer. But she did nod and precede Jessie through the secret door and down the stairs to the main hall. And when they got there, Tommy and Will were already waiting.
“My word, Your Highness!” laughed Penelope. “You’re very punctual today!”
“Ah, I am always punctual — except for when I’m not,” replied Tommy. “And for heaven’s sake, Penelope, you’re some kind of a cousin — cousins should be on a first-name basis. Call me Tom.” Tommy got up from the couch, strode forward and kissed Penelope’s hand. Then he turned to Jessie.
“And how’s my newest target of corruption?” he cooed to Jessie’s belly.
“What? I have to get an early start, else Kay will beat me to it entirely. He’s already beating you when it comes to corrupting my children. You know that Wart doesn’t even look up if you call him Arthur?”
“Can you blame him?” asked Jessie.
“Frankly, yes! Lynn and I thought long and hard before we gave him that name! We certainly never intended for it to result in Galahad crowning King Wart I of Albion!”
Jessie rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you can let him know what his real name is before it comes to that.”
“Let’s hope. Else Albion will move from being merely unconventional, I fear, to being a complete laughingstock.”
“I doubt that,” Will replied. “If nothing else, a king who’s able to call himself Wart without shame ought to be twice as frightening as a king with a more … conventional name.”
Tommy straightened, processing that. “You’re right — blast! Kay wins again!” He looked from Jessie to Will and back again. “Well, you two have to promise me one thing — if you’re both too much of killjoys to allow me to corrupt your children, we have to join forces once Kay and little Dilys get themselves some bundles of sweet revenge — I mean joy.”
“Tommy, dear, you act as if Will and I don’t stay up half the night planning strategy every time Kay comes over,” Jessie replied, patting his arm.
“Good, at least I’ve got one ally. Lynn seems determined to leave me high and dry on this.” He sighed. “Even casting me — me! — as the villain in her own masque! With Kay as the hero!”
Will snorted — probably because Jessie had strong-armed–that is, gently persuaded him into being said villain’s second-in-command, leaving him very little sympathy left over for Tommy.
“Think about it this way,” Jessie replied, leading the way to the sofas — her feet were starting to bother her. “If she cast you and her as the hero and heroine, it would look unfair. She went with the next-best option … and still gave you a main role. Which you will do wonderfully in.”
“Aye,” Tommy replied, throwing himself onto the sofa kitty-corner from Jessie’s. Will sat next to Jessie and Penelope next to Tommy. “Up until the part where I have to let that little snot beat me.”
“Think –” Penelope started, and stopped, as Tommy’s eyes came to rest on her. He motioned for her to continue.
“Think of it as an extension of the masque’s theme. True love conquers all.”
“How?” asked Tommy.
“Princess Gwendolyn asked you to be the villain. And you agreed, because you love her.”
“Thus enabling true love to conquer what’s left of my pride. I see!” Jessie had to bite back laughter at that one. Will didn’t fare much better, wearing the exceptionally stoic look that told anyone who knew him that he was guffawing inside.
But Tommy didn’t leave them too long to their misery. “So — Jess — I don’t suppose you could cast one of your anti-eavesdropping spells, and we could get down to business?”
Oh, dear. But Jessie nodded, cast a small bubble of sound protection over their couches, and nodded again to Tom when it was safe to speak.
“What have you found out so far?”
“Tom,” Will replied. “She’s barely had a day.”
Jessie smiled. Will had been up half the night, waiting for Jessie to come to bed. And when she’d come, he’d helped her out of her dress himself and held her in bed for a long, long time, until she could finally stop shivering and get to sleep. She had no idea when Will had slept, or how he looked half so awake today.
“True. But I have faith in my favorite sister.” And Tom transferred his gaze back to Jessie.
Jessie rubbed her nose. “It’s … well, there’s no reason why Vortimer couldn’t have been killed by magic …”
“Is that the same as saying it’s likely that he was killed by magic?” Tom asked.
“… No,” Jessie admitted. “Not in the least.”
“So it could have just as easily been mundane,” Tommy mused.
Jessie waited — but her brother was not forthcoming with more than that. She cleared her throat. “But all I have to work on are rumors and innuendo, Tommy. There are dozens of mundane poisons that could have caused the symptoms I’m hearing about King Vortimer. And there are dozens of magical poisons, too.” Jessie bit her lip. “It–it doesn’t help that no two sources agree on just what symptoms he had.”
“So … if you had more concrete information, you’d think you’d have a better chance of figuring out what it was?” asked Tommy.
“Tom — why are you even asking that?” replied Will.
“Honestly?” Tommy shrugged. “I’m trying to determine if it’s worth it to try to get better information.”
Will stared at Tommy with his jaw hanging open. So did Jessie.
Tommy sighed. “Look, mate — Jess — you see this as a crime to be solved. And that’s lovely. But I see it as a foreign crisis. And if it’s true, what you say — that there are any number of mundane poisons that could have been used — then nobody’s going to be playing up the magical angle, if there is one, and nobody’s going to be pointing a finger at us.”
“Us?” Jessie squealed. “We’re the last ones to have tried to hurt poor Vortimer!”
“Maybe, maybe not. However,” Tom raised one finger, “we had every reason to want Lord Lucinius and Sir Septimus dead. They were killed by magic. Albion allows witches and wizards in its kingdom. We even sent a witch as a diplomat’s wife. Who was on the spot when the brothers Tarquinii were murdered … and fled with her husband about five minutes after the deed was done.”
Jessie barely held back a gasp. It was patently absurd, of course, that Albion could have had anything to do with Lord Lucinius and Sir Septimus’s deaths. But the way Tommy put that … it all made such sense …
“Except,” Will pointed out, “that barring the murderer or murderers, nobody outside of Albion has the least idea that magic was involved.”
“And may that happy state of affairs long remain,” Tom replied. “However, you understand why one might worry.”
“We had no reason to hurt poor Vortimer, though,” Jessie murmured. “Lord Lucinius and Sir Septimus … aye. But not Vortimer. We wanted him on the throne, stable, and somebody … somebody who wouldn’t run roughshod over Albion to get to Reme behind him.”
“Did we?” asked Tommy. “Because you know, now that Vortimer’s dead, who’s the next heir?”
“Princess Luc–” Jessie started. And stopped.
“Women can’t inherit the throne of Glasonland,” Will murmured.
“Precisely,” Tommy replied.
“But Vortigern’s bastards would have a better claim,” Will replied.
“Nobody likes them, though. The strongest one of them is now the most hated man in Glasonland, I’ll guess. And the rest? The brightest of them are flocking to Constantine of Caernavon’s banner — it’s the only hope they’ve got, what with the whole country being turned against them and all. So … it wouldn’t be so far-fetched for Dad to be offered the throne, now, would it?” Tommy shrugged.
“Would he take it?” Will asked.
“He wouldn’t fight for it.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“But that’s the best answer you’ll get — for right now, even if somebody came and offered it, Dad would have to fight through the whole bloody country to actually get it. And he won’t do that.”
Too much risk, Jessie thought, nodding. Too little reward.
“Do — do you think it would be likely that Dad would be offered it?” she asked.
“Oh, somebody’s bound to, sooner or later. Some disaffected noble or some free town that’s had it up to here with idiotic nobles. Not that they’ll do it in so many words, of course. But …”
“Dad would never take up that offer,” Jessie replied. “It’s barely even a serious offer.”
Will stroked his chin. “The most serious offer … would likely come from Constantine of Caernavon. He’s the man with the biggest army, aye? And he is still with Lord Antonius — isn’t he?” Will asked Tommy.
“Last we heard, aye,” Tommy agreed. “And there’s no love lost between Dad and the Tarquinii brothers — or, well, brother.”
“No.” Will snorted. “That — that doesn’t matter. Lord Antonius …” He stroked his chin again. “He managed Vortimer. He was the weakest, politically, of the brothers. Lord Lucinius managed the country, Sir Septimus the army … they hated the King. Lord Antonius … now that he no longer has a reason to fight for Vortimer, he will fight for whomever is most likely to save his own skin.”
Tommy’s eyebrows rose, and he nodded, slowly. Then, without warning, he turned to Penelope. “And what do you think, Penelope? Would anybody want our King to come back? Rule Glasonland?”
“I …” Penelope started. She shrugged.
“They all think he’s mad? You can say it if that’s the case, Penelope. Half the time, Jessie and I aren’t sure about our dear Papa.”
“That–that is not what I meant,” Penelope answered, slowly. “The people … you have to understand, King Uther is like a … like a dream in Glasonland. A very good dream — but it was so long ago, and barely anybody remembers it after King Vortigern. But at the same time … the people didn’t much mind King Vortigern. The little people, I mean. He never harassed them overmuch. It was the nobles, mostly, whom he clashed against. And then you add King Arthur …”
Tommy tilted his head to one side, motioning for her to continue.
“He’s not even a dream. He’s a legend. You don’t understand how something like that … can be real. They’d be certain it’s all too good to be true.”
“And in Glasonland, some of it very well might be,” Tommy murmured.
“So …” Penelope shrugged again. “The people might not oppose him. But they wouldn’t think of him. And they might not … support him, either. You have to believe in somebody to support them.”
Tommy nodded briskly, only once — as if Penelope had merely confirmed something he’d suspected all along. Then he turned to Jessie and Will. “So there you have it. Even if the offer is serious …”
“Dad wouldn’t take it,” Jessie replied.
“Indeed. Which leaves us the question …” Tommy raised a finger to his lips and tapped it there several times.
“What the bloody hell are we going to do now?”