Seryl 7, 1014
Beau had no sooner taken a step into the tavern than he was looking over his shoulder, wondering if he should leave again. No, not should. There was no question that he shouldn’t be here. It was just a short step up from suicide, coming at all. But could he leave?
No, of course you can’t, said the only voice Beau ever listened to with consistency: the voice of reason. There was no way that his entry would not have been noted. If he left now, he would be seen, followed … and then, who knew? Camford had kept him safe enough from civil war, but he doubted it would keep him safe from targeted assassination.
Or would it be assassination? Was that what you called the killing of a traitor’s brother if it was done by royal forces?
Beau took a deep breath and tried to shake off the shivers, to little avail. He was not brave. He was not quite the coward that Francis had been, sneaking, sniveling, hiding behind assassins and strongmen to do his dirty work for him. But at the same time, he did not care to put himself under illusions about his own courage. Coming here at all required more than he thought he had.
He wouldn’t think too hard about that. He rolled his shoulders and looked around.
The crowd was rather sparse. That could mean anything. Anyone who was anyone was invited to one of a thousand feasts being thrown for the coronation. There were plenty of young man in Camford who weren’t anyone in particular … but even then had friends, compatriots, balls enough to sneak into a large party and hope everything went well.
But at the same time … every one of these men could be a Royal agent. They didn’t cast a second glance at Beau. But if they were skillful, they wouldn’t need to. Even if they were rank novices trying to gain favor by removing a traitor’s relative whose only danger was in his surname, they could have looked their fill while Beau was gawking at the door and gauging his chances of escape.
He took a deep breath and headed for the stairs without so much as a nod or a word to anyone. He knew just where to go, luckily. The letter in his pocket “inviting” him to this meeting had given him most precise instructions.
Inviting. Beau snorted below his breath as he climbed the stairs. Last he checked, cordial invitations did not conclude, If you value the lives of your mother and sister, you will come.
He reached the top.
He stopped. Five men up here, one who had come in just before he had and barely preceded him up the stairs. Two of them were openly in armor and a surcoat. One even wore the green of Glasonland.
But if this was a trap, as Beau instantly thought it would be, it was a decidedly slow one. None of the men rushed him. Or jumped him. Or even sauntered casually in his direction and stabbed him off-guard. They barely seemed to register his presence at all.
If they were good, though …
Beau shook himself and forced the maudlin thoughts away. He was either a dead man walking, or he wasn’t. Standing here woolgathering wasn’t going to change that either way. Beau continued down the corridor, to the door that had been mentioned in the letter, the first one he would see after he reached the top of the stairs and turned to the left.
He found the door in question and, not giving his courage time to flee, briskly knocked.
“Come in,” said a mild, pleasant voice. Beau muttered a prayer below his breath — at least he had had the presence of mind to go to confession today — and went in.
“Please shut the door,” replied the man in the room.
Beau shut it. Then — he stared. “You — you came yourself,” he finally managed to stammer. Then, belatedly, “Your Majesty.”
Constantine of Caernavon — now King Constantine of Glasonland — nodded. “Of course. If you want a job done correctly … do it yourself.”
Beau swallowed. He’d heard that Constantine passed judgement on his brother himself.
“But please, sit down.” He gestured to the table set with bread and fish. “Refresh yourself, if you like.”
Beau did as he was bid. At least, for the first part. He eyed the fish askance.
“Not hungry, Beau?” Constantine asked. He tore off a hunk of bread and popped it into his mouth.
Beau swallowed. “You could say that. Your Majesty.”
“Beau, our acquaintance will be very short and not particularly pleasant for either of us if you are anything less than honest with me.”
“… I don’t know how long I’ll live if I eat any of this food, Majesty.”
Constantine laughed. “If you die quickly, it will not be the fault of the food — or, if it is, it may well kill me as well. Trust me, Beau, if I want you dead, I will not stoop to poison to do it. Unlike some other … men of our mutual acquaintance, I am not so craven as that.”
Beau blinked. Then the words came out without his bidding them: “Francis didn’t kill King Vortimer.”
Constantine snorted. “Do you have as much faith in your late brother’s goodness as that?”
“No,” Beau admitted. Goodness had nothing to do with it. “It … to have poisoned King Vortimer would not have been Francis’s way.”
“Beau, you will have better luck convincing me that your brother was too good to do that than that he was too courageous to kill a man in such a cowardly way,” Constantine chuckled, cutting off a slice of fish for himself.
“That’s not what I mean, Your Majesty. Francis …” Beau took a deep breath. “Francis …”
How to explain this? Constantine had said he wanted honesty … and Francis … Francis ought to be the last person to object to anyone maligning another’s name in order to save his own skin. Besides, it wasn’t just his skin Beau was concerned with, which was more than could have ever been said for Francis.
“Francis would not have killed King Vortimer until he was safe, Your Majesty,” Beau replied. “That would have been his plan.”
Constantine stopped chewing. He stared at Beau. “And what else,” he murmured, “do you know of your brother’s plans?”
“M-Majesty?” Beau asked. But it was too late.
“There’s a reason you’re still alive, you know. I would have been perfectly within my rights to have you arrested even here. The Robertians would not have gainsaid me tracking down the brother of a self-confessed traitor and regicide. So. Prove to me that I did well to keep you alive. What else do you know of your brother’s plans?”
Beau shook his head. “Nothing.”
“I said I wanted honesty from you, Beau.”
“And you are getting it, Your Majesty.” That, perhaps, was the most pathetic part of it. “I don’t know anything about Francis’s plans. How his mind worked — aye. I know that. He was my brother. But I don’t know anything specific.”
“Now tell me, Beau — why should I believe that?”
Beau forced himself to shrug, to look nonchalant. “It’s the truth. You do not seem, Your Majesty, like a man who cares to waste time by trying to turn the truth into lies so he can hear what he wishes to hear.”
“You are correct that I do not like to waste time. But that is not a reason for me to believe you, Beau. Tell me instead — why would your brother not share his plans with you?”
“I didn’t want to know.”
Constantine blinked. “You jest.”
“No, Your Majesty.”
“Why didn’t you wish to know?” Constantine cocked his head to one side and raised an eyebrow. “Cowardice? Did you think ignorance would keep you safe?”
Beau laughed — if something like that, a dry cough devoid of all mirth except for the bitter joy of the pessimist seeing his worst predictions come true, could be called a laugh. “Not at all. Nobody would believe I was ignorant. If I wanted to be safe, I would have asked for something — some angle of the plans — so I could give the torturers something when they started on me.”
“Ah.” Constantine slowly nodded. He started to play with his knife, spinning it on the table. His fingers would reach in and stop it from time to time, by some miracle always falling on the handle and not the circling blade. “A wise precaution — if you had taken it. Why didn’t you?”
“If I had wanted to know the plans, Francis would have expected my assistance. I did not want to give it to him.”
“And why not?”
Why not? Why not? How about Beau liked having his head attached at the neck? How about Beau didn’t think his brother had had an icicle’s chance in hell of success? Or perhaps — speaking of hell — there was this to consider: being a King, or the right-hand brother to one, was closer to Beau’s idea of hell than his idea of heaven … by far.
Beau swallowed and replied, “You — your yourself, Majesty, only took up the burden of a kingdom with the greatest reluctance. And you’re a general, a leader of men. Me … you can surely understand that someone like me — a coward, a man who aims only to be a scholar, not a great king or even a great lord — would not be willing to risk my life in pursuit of something that is more burden than reward.”
By the look on Constantine’s face, he didn’t understand that at all.
But luckily, he seemed to understand truth when he heard it. “I see. I see.” Then he let fly the arrow. “But you designed the codes that your brother used to communicate with his allies and associates.”
Beau’s stomach dropped. That …
That was true.
But it wasn’t like that! protested the voice of reason. He hadn’t been designing codes for a rebellion! It had been — a game! A game with numbers and letters, other words. A substitution game. He had been fifteen, bored, getting ahead of his tutor, desperate for an intellectual exercise that wasn’t another boring translation of another historical or religious work. And then he had found one.
When Francis had come home for a rest, Beau had shown his codes to him in the way only a smug, annoying fifteen-year-old could: Look, brother — you might be in Camford, but look how much smarter I am than you are! Francis had, for once in his life, looked impressed by something Beau had done. He’d asked for the full codes. Beau had given them to him.
Beau didn’t understand why Francis had wanted them until years later, when Francis asked for more. By then Francis was neck-deep in murder, treason, and plot. Beau had refused. Francis had whined and pouted and shouted, but Beau held firm, and that was an end of that.
Beau swallowed. “I–I did. As an academic exercise. I didn’t know what Francis was using them for until it was too late.”
“I believe you,” replied Constantine, nodding.
Beau’s jaw fell. He did?
“They were quite serviceable, according to my men who intercepted your brothers’ communications,” replied Constantine. “But they were obviously a beginner’s work. It was quite easy for anyone experienced in codes to see just where you got your inspiration from. However, they would prove quite baffling to a layman, and that, Beau, is where you did well.” Constantine nodded.
Then he asked the last question that Beau had been expecting to hear. “Can you do better now?”
“Y-Your Majesty? I’m not sure–I’ve not–”
“Let me rephrase that question,” Constantine interrupted. “Do you know that I have your mother and sister under house arrest?”
Beau’s stomach plunged as he felt himself shaking his head.
“So far, they are being kept quite comfortable — with all of their luxuries, all of their income, and complete freedom to roam the grounds of their estate. Of course, all deliveries are thoroughly searched by my men, as are any communications they may send — but all in all? They are barely under arrest at all, I would say. And, you see, it could be so much worse. As they are the mother and sister of a traitor, I would be well within my rights to have them killed.”
“They had even less to do with this than I did!” Beau protested before he could think better of it.
“They are still guilty by association,” Constantine shrugged. “Again — nobody would protest if I had them killed. Nobody. And you …” Constantine leaned back and shrugged. “The brother of a known traitor and regicide … one who confessed to having designed the codes his brother used to commit his treason … tell me, Beau, can you do better now?”
There was only one answer Beau could give to that. “Aye, Your Majesty. I can.”
“Excellent. Now –”
“But,” Beau interrupted, “if you’re going to have my mother and sister — and me — killed anyway … why should I make better ones?”
Constantine closed his mouth. He glared. “This is not a negotiation, Beau. I am your King. You will–”
“If you’re going to kill me, my mother, and my sister anyway,” Beau went on, “then I have no reason to do what you say. You can say that you’re my King, and I acknowledge that — but according to you, my brother killed the last king we had. What would stop me from simply running away from you?”
“You would not get far,” Constantine shrugged.
“Or I could join an order,” Beau replied. “Do you think the Robertians would let you drag a novice out of an abbey for crimes he didn’t commit?”
“If you would do that, then I should have to avail myself of my right to kill your mother and sister. I do not want to do that …”
“And I do not want to do everything you say and end up dead — and watch my mother and sister — end up dead anyway.”
Constantine tilted his head to one side. “If you do everything I say … and if you do it well … then you will not end up dead. At least, not right away. Perhaps not anytime soon.” Constantine shrugged. “After all, if you show as much skill now as you showed promise then, then I should have need of you — and you would have to be alive in order to fulfill my needs.”
Beau swallowed, but he nodded. That made sense.
“And as or your mother and sister … they have no usefulness to me. However, I also have no wish to begin my reign with slaughtering an old woman and her very young daughter. I may have the right, but, in the minds of the people, that may not make it right.” Constantine shrugged. “So, as long as you perform your work well, to the very best of your ability … you will remain alive, and your mother and sister will remain unmolested at their country estate. Who knows?” Constantine chuckled. “Perhaps someday, in a fit of mercy, I may even let them out of house arrest.”
Beau swallowed and nodded. That was better than he had hoped for, and certainly more than he had a right to expect.
“However … if you were to renege on your word … not do the work as asked … run away …’ Constantine shrugged. “I would not like to kill them. But a King must make difficult decisions sometimes. You understand?”
“Excellent. Now, let me tell you what will happen. You will continue your studies here unmolested. Every so often, you will get a message from me — a new code requested, or an old code broken. Then … when you graduate …”
Constantine leaned back. “You will return to Glasonland. You will surrender to my guards. They will convey you to your mother’s estate. And there, you will continue to work at my pleasure, until such time as it pleases me to lift the house arrest. There. Is that acceptable?”
Beau swallowed and nodded. “But … Majesty … why do you want me to graduate?”
“Because you have a fine mind, Beau. And a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
Beau didn’t believe that for a second. But he would not disrespect a King by making it clear that he doubted his word. There is no sense in pushing his luck. “Thank you, Majesty.”
“You are very welcome. Now, Beau …” Constantine raised his glass. “Shall we drink?”
“D-drink, Your Majesty?”
“This talking is thirsty work,” Constantine shrugged. “And let us not forget, Beau — we have just started a beautiful partnership here. Who knows? Perhaps your cleverness, put to the service of Glasonland, may got a distance toward expiating your brother’s crimes.”
Beau doubted that. But to show his doubt would be rude. “I hope so, Majesty.”
“Yes, you ought to. So!” Constantine raised his glass. “To a beautiful, and mutually useful, friendship!”
“To our friendship,” Beau repeated dully. He lifted his glass. So did Constantine. They clinked them together and mutually drank.
And as they drank, Beau wondered: Just what the hell have I gotten myself into?