Warning: Violence and some disturbing imagery in this post. Probably SFW, though.
Darid 12, 1014
Antonius’s back was already hurting as he made his way into the depths of the camp to Constantine’s yellow camp. Not for the first time, he wondered why the hell Constantine hadn’t just moved out of the camp and into the central castle of Port Graal, now that the city was back in their hands. Well, he knew why. Constantine said that conquerors were free to move into the castles of the enemies they conquered. But he was no conqueror. He was a liberator. And liberators did not invade the homes of the people whom they helped.
Whatever. The castle, into which Antonius had moved at the first opportunity, was comfortable. It was cool in the building summer heat. It had a roof that didn’t leak. It had real furniture, not just camp furniture. Good candles. Baths! Antonius could go on — and he had the perfect justification for staying the castle, too. He (or, more to the point, his guards) were keeping it safe from looters and malcontents until the rightful lords came back. In the meantime, they wouldn’t mind him sleeping in their beds. He was sure of it. They certainly wouldn’t mind Constantine, the Hero of Graal, Avenger of Vortimer, doing the same.
But … listening to the shouts and cries from behind him, many joyous ones from their men, and one in particular that … wasn’t, Antonius thought he knew why Constantine would not go to the castle.
He had important business to attend to here.
But … Antonius looked around the spartan tent.
Where was Constantine? Brother Mortimer, Constantine’s family monk and secretary, had said he would be in here!
Then Antonius heard it: a soft murmur, coming from behind the screen. Antonius flushed. He had had a similar screen in his own tent, and he knew exactly what he kept behind it … he certainly didn’t mean to interrupt Constantine while he was on the pot …
So he coughed. “Baron? Are you there?”
“Lord Antonius? I’m back here.”
Well, that was an invitation if there ever was one. Apparently Constantine wasn’t that private. Antonius walked around the screen. “My lord–”
Antonius never would have pegged Constantine as more pious than the common run of men. And now he knew why. Had not St. Robert once written to his followers that they should retreat to their closets to pray? A closet was a bit hard to pack along with an army, but a screen and a portable prie-dieu would do very well.
Still. It just went to show, you very rarely knew a man as well as you thought he did. Antonius was just glad that the only thing Constantine was keeping in his closet was, in fact, a prie-dieu.
“Er–I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt–”
“No trouble. Just let me finish my prayer.”
“Of course, of course.” The tone was easy and light, Antonius made sure of that, but standing there waiting for Constantine to finish was …
Finally, though, Constantine stood. He carefully wiped the top of the prie-dieu, then he absently dusted himself off. The smile he sent to Antonius was just as absent.
So Antonius made stupid small talk. “A prayer of thanksgiving, my lord? I should be doing more of that myself!”
“Alas, no.” Constantine’s smile turned rueful. “No sooner does the Lord grant me one favor than I am petulantly whining for another. And I wonder where Uther gets it from,” he laughed.
“He’s but a child — and you, sir, have every right to be asking the Lord for favors, as far as I’m concerned. You’ve spent so much fighting for a noble cause, the Lord’s cause if there ever was one! Of course you’ll pray to return safe and whole to your family.”
“Ha! Alas — that’s the next favor I’ll be praying for! The Lord will be sick to death of me soon enough.”
Antonius chuckled, since that seemed to be the response requested. “Well, if that’s not it, what are you praying for?”
Too late Antonius realized that that was a horrible personal, prying question. He opened his mouth to retract it, but before he could, Constantine spoke, and all the mirth was gone from his voice and demeanor.
“For strength, my lord. Strength to do my duty, and what is right in the Lord’s eyes.”
Antonius felt chilled. “Strength?”
Constantine laughed again, another rueful, mirthless chuckle. “Aye, and here is where you shall laugh at me–”
“No, no. No, my lord. Forgive me, but …” Antonius smiled. “My father used to often pray, as you were, for strength to do his duty. He told me …” Antonius laughed. “Well, he was a self-serving old schemer, so take what he said with a grain of salt, but … he used to tell me that there was no prayer more pleasing to the Lord.”
“Then I suppose we shall have to both pray that he was right, your father — and the Lord shall grow heartily sick of all of us!”
“Indeed he shall!”
For a moment the laughter was genuine — brief, and not that intense, but genuine. And then gravity descended over Constantine. Antonius wished he could understand these Glasonlanders: in Reme, what they were about to do would be a cause for celebration. Hell, it wasn’t that far off here in Glasonland; Antonius could still hear the men laughing and jeering and having a grand old time. It was just Constantine who saw this as an unpleasant duty to be endured.
But perhaps … there were worse things.
“Shall we go, my lord?” asked Constantine.
“Indeed, sir. Let us.”
They left the tent, walking ever closer to where the men had gathered to laugh and point and otherwise enjoying themselves thoroughly.
But even though the soldiers were boisterous and rowdy, they parted like waves on the shore when Constantine and Antonius passed. Mostly Constantine. It had been his brilliance that had broken the siege, especially since he and his spies had managed to ferret out a turncoat within Port Graal who could open the gates for them. Antonius had no idea how he had managed that, but his respect for Constantine had grown accordingly.
And after the city was taken? It was Constantine who had arranged for a tribute to be drawn from each hearth in the city, proportionate to their wealth — a punishment for the city’s earlier traitor status. The loot was distributed to the men without them having to go through the trouble of pillaging and burning to get it. As for the raping that usually followed such pillaging, it was easy enough to negotiate with the town’s burghers to round up the women from the city’s less reputable brothels and those who walked the streets and toss them to the starving men. So the men got what they wanted, and the town was spared another round of burning, looting, pillage, and rape, all for goods that they were bound to lose in said burning, etc., anyway. And everyone loved Constantine for it.
Everyone except the prisoner in the cage, the man the men were having such sport with.
“Cowards!” shouted Francis as soon as Antonius and Constantine came in sight. “Bloody — cowards!” He leaned toward the rusty bars — or did he fall on them? He’d been kept in that cage for three days now, while the city was pacified and all the terms worked out. He can’t have slept much.
And Constantine was none-too-impressed with his bluster. “Cowards? You call us that? When we found you hiding underneath a turned-over rowboat, shaking in fear that your sins would finally find you out?”
Antonius snorted. That was hardly a dignified capture. Their contact in the city, a Master Wilkie of the Mercer’s Guild, had seen to it that all the ships in the harbor — from the heaviest galleon to the simplest child’s raft — had holes drilled in them or were otherwise unseaworthy, to keep Francis from escaping when it became clear that the city was being taken. Francis and his men had found that out at the last possible moment, so what did Francis do? Take shelter under a rowboat and pray for the trouble to all blow over. And to think, when they had found him, he had sworn he had no idea how he had gotten there!
Not that it mattered. After all, everyone knew whose prayers the Lord was answering this week.
“Francis of Lothario, you have shown yourself throughout your career to be a man marked with cowardice, slovenliness, and only the lowest cunning for intelligence. All the attributes, in fact, of a rat.”
Something made Francis start when Constantine said that. Then he looked confused, as a man who had heard something from far off, or perhaps heard a name or seen a face that reminded him of something — but he could not recall what.
“But face your end with dignity, Francis, and perhaps men will remember you as something more than a rat.” Constantine nodded to the jailer. “Let him down.”
“Let him down” turned out to be “hit the trapdoor at the bottom of the cage,” which deposited Francis below the cage in a manner even less dignified than he had been standing before. The jailer grabbed his arm and seemed ready to bind him, but Constantine held his hand up, and the jailer backed off.
“Now, Francis — are you ready to hear and take your sentence like a man, or will you end your days the sniveling coward you were when you started them?”
“Sentence! You — you cannot sentence me! I have not been tried! And–and you have no authority!” Francis blubbered.
Constantine rolled his eyes. So did Antonius. Any Reman knew that true authority went to the man who had an army behind him — everything else was a technicality.
“You are a traitor; that much is obvious. And more than that … you are a self-confessed regicide. What do you think I was doing these past days, Francis, while you cooled your heels in yonder cage? Do you think I was not gathering a fine selection of men, women, and children — children! — of Port Graal, all willing to swear on the Good Book or the saint of their choice that they saw and heard you confess to our beloved King Vortimer’s death?”
“No!” shouted Francis.
Constantine took a deep breath, ready to speak again–
But Francis interrupted him. “I didn’t do it! I lied! I lied to all the people! I thought–I thought since they were saying I did it, I would lie, and pretend to admit it, and — and — I don’t know! I don’t know what I was thinking! But I swear, I never harmed Vortimer!”
Quicker than Antonius could blink, Constantine leaped forward and slapped Francis. “KING VORTIMER! Our sainted monarch, a man with the pure soul of a little child — cruelly murdered by you!”
“I didn’t! I didn’t! I swear by all the saints, all the Llamas, all–”
“Silence!” Constantine’s roar was probably heard clear into the city, perhaps even as far away as Ludenwic. It certainly got the men to be quiet, even as Francis stood and trembled before them. “Not another word! I care not for your justifications. I–” Constantine swallowed and held a hand over his eyes. “King Vortimer deserved better subjects than all of us, even those who would have gladly laid down their lives for him. And Lord knows he deserved a better subject, and a better brother, than you!”
A lump rose in Antonius’s throat. Vortimer truly did deserve better, before his accident, and, heaven knew, after …
“So enough — I stand here now, Francis, to sentence over you as a traitor!”
The men cheered. Francis looked about to be sick.
“Understand this, Francis: I have every right to sentence you to a traitor’s death. And you know what that means. Hung, drawn, and quartered — all without benefit of clergy.”
Antonius did not shudder. As if death wasn’t terrifying enough, but to die without having an opportunity to confess and have a chance at paradise? The Remans were not so cruel … but then again, their laws were made by men who knew all too well that they could very well be standing someday at the wrong end of them. Such were Reman politics. The Glasonlanders tried to avoid such messes by making the punishment for treason more than any reasonable man dare risk.
“But no man will say that I have no mercy in me — not even for scum like you, Francis. So hear me: you will be hung, drawn, and quartered. But the drawing and quartering will happen after you are dead.”
Francis howled and nearly fell — the jailer had to jump forward and grab his arm before he did.
“And you will have clergy on one condition: you confess your sin, your regicide, here to all these men, and let them be witness as you let your captives in Port Graal.”
“Never! I never killed Vortimer! I sw–”
“SILENCE!” Constantine shouted, this time punching Francis’s gut. Francis bent over double with a cry of pain.
And then he stood. “You–you–I could tell these men things about you–”
Constantine laughed. “Like what, Francis?”
And then a strange thing happened. Francis’s face clouded over. His eyes grew confused. For a minute — just a minute — his expression was the same as an old man just beginning the long descent into senility: forgetful, confused, and seeing all-too-clearly the abyss of forgetting that lay before him.
Then Francis started shouting, “You! You! You!” and kept shouting as the jailer dragged him, screaming, away.
“Keep him here!” Constantine shouted. Then, “Arnold!”
Arnold — the elder one, coincidentally also named Francis — marched forward. “Sir!”
“Flog the prisoner until he confesses his sin. Then see to it that one of the monks takes his full confession. I will not have it said that I did not give this man every chance to redeem himself,” Constantine said. “But … no more than thirty strokes. One for every year of our King’s blessed life. If he does not confess after that … then see to it that the sentence is carried out.”
“Aye, m’lord! With pleasure!” laughed Sir Francis. “Ho, jailer! Tie that piece of shit to the whipping post!”
And as Francis, still screaming, was dragged over to the whipping post, Constantine turned on his heel and strode toward the tent. Antonius hurried to follow. “Where are you going, my lord?”
“I asked for strength from the Lord to do my duty,” Constantine murmured. “No one ever said I had to watch.”
Amazing. A man as deadly in battle as Constantine did not even want to watch the death of a traitor, a deserving man if there was one. That took a nobility of spirit that Antonius could not even begin to emulate.
But he could protect it. He would probably have to protect it. “Ho! Out of the way!” he shouted to the men as he strode forward. “Baron Caernavon and I have business to attend to!”
The only things that followed them were sounds, mostly Francis’s screams.
They went back into Constantine’s tent, Antonius taking a seat at the table without waiting for an invitation. This was why he had really come here, after all; Francis’s sentencing and death was only a pleasant diversion. “So. My lord. The time has come to turn our thoughts to the future.”
“Princess Lucilla,” Constantine agreed, taking a seat himself. “We ought to find her a reliable regent. Perhaps you mind want–”
“No, no!” Antonius disagreed. Playing the part of regent, or something damned close to it, had only gotten Lucinius and Septimus killed. It had nearly gotten Antonius killed, too. If it had not been Princess Jessica of Albion … it did not bear thinking of. And he doubted that he would have a Princess Jessica on hand to save him from the next murderer’s (or, more likely, assassin’s) knife. “I am, of course, quite capable of being her guardian … and I was thinking, much as it pains me to say this … as her guardian, I think it would be best if she abdicated all claim to the throne.”
Constantine blinked. “What? What do you mean?”
“She is my niece … my beloved nephew’s only child … but she cannot rule, Constantine. You and I both know this. She’s not even two! She will be safest, and Glasonland will be safest, if she, or those empowered to act in her interests, give up her claim in favor of a man who will rule Glasonland well and fairly, and look out for her also.”
“Good luck finding such a man,” Constantine snorted, shaking his head.
“Oh, come now — do you not think that, say, that a man such as yourself would deal fairly with our dear little Princess, especially if he were offered a throne as a prize for doing so?”
Constantine blinked and stared at the maps in front of him — not, Antonius thought, that he saw a thing. “I … I could not imagine myself mistreating the poor little fatherless girl. But … if there is anything this civil war has taught me, my lord, it is that you can never trust what a man will do until you have seen him do it.”
“But you would not mistreat her. And you would rule Glasonland well — look at how the men here look up to you, and follow your every order! You’re a hero, Constantine! Why, if you walked to Ludenwic and demanded that you be crowned, every subject would fall at your feet and thank you for saving them!”
“I–I wouldn’t say that,” Constantine demurred. “Besides, I have no earthly claim to the throne.”
“Have you?” asked Antonius.
Constantine looked up with eyes wide — but knowing.
“Your Brother Mortimer is a chatterer, you know. So excited about his researches. And–”
“I made him swear not to talk of that here!” Constantine gasped.
“He didn’t break his word — but anyone clever could put the pieces together, my lord.” Antonius winked.
“I cannot possibly have the best claim to the throne …” Constantine murmured, resting his head in his hands.
“You have the loyalty of the strongest army. You have the support of the guardian of the Princess. You have the love of the people. At this point, my lord, the blood is just an extra. How much better a claim could you want?”
Constantine was deathly pale — which was to say, paler than usual — as he stared at his maps. “Is there no way for this cup to pass from me, then?”
“I hope not, my lord. Not if you love your country. And between you and me …” Antonius looked over his shoulder, but the men were all too involved in watching Francis be dragged from the whipping post to the gallows they had constructed to care much what the commanders in the tent were saying. “You’ll probably be the best king we’ve had since Uther.”
Constantine started. “Uther … I was told in a dream … name my son Uther …”
Antonius gasped. A dream? Constantine had never mentioned a dream before! And if it was true …
Maybe this was the Lord’s will! Maybe this wasn’t just Antonius’s craven way out!
“But I won’t force myself on the country,” said Constantine in the tone of a man drawing a line in the sand. “If there is another candidate the country favors, I will stand aside.”
“Of course, my lord.” There wouldn’t be another candidate. The bastards would all stand down after the death of Francis. The nobles would fall into line behind Constantine. And the common folk would be glad enough of the war being over to go with Francis. Even Antonius could tell that much.
And Antonius? Finally — for the first time since Vortigern’s death — he would be safe. He might even be able to wrangle from Constantine a nice castle, some good lands, and leave the blasted Glasonlander court forever! He might even take Viviette and Lucilla with him, raise her in obscurity, keep out of everyone’s hair …
And it would be wonderful!
Yes. Soon enough this whole unpleasant episode would be forgotten. The soldiers would be buried, the refugees resettled, traitors dead and their land re-apportioned as Constantine saw fit …
And life could return to normal.