Hybel 16, 1014
Viviette was back in Ludenwic, in the great palace where she had passed so many years. It should have been a homecoming. She remembered the first time she had entered the great city: borne in a golden carriage drawn by four white horses, the crowds cheering the arrival of Viviette du Gaul, the woman who would become their princess and someday their queen. The womb on which all of their hopes rested.
And how did she enter into the city now? In a plain, unmarked carriage with the curtains closed tight despite the summer heat, under the cover of near-darkness. Her carriage had been the last let in before the gates to the city closed on St. Agnes’s Eve. It had been drawn quickly and anonymously to one of the many homes Lord Antonius owned in the city. Once there, Viviette had alighted in the courtyard with Lilla, her lady-in-waiting Shelby, and Lilla’s nurse and had been whisked inside. She hadn’t set foot outdoors until this morning. She hadn’t even gone to church; a nun had come and said a brief service in the house.
This was no triumphant homecoming. But at least the Viviette of today had an advantage over the young, naive Viviette of all those years ago: she had every reason to hope that this time, her stay in Glasonland, in this horrible palace, would be short.
“Mama?” asked Lilla. She probably sensed just how uncomfortable Viviette was now. She was unusually attuned to Viviette’s moods, according to all the women. Most babies and children were better at sensing their nurse’s moods. But Viviette suspected that this was what happened when a queen’s husband was murdered and she became terrified to let her daughter out of her sight.
And speaking of being allowed out of people’s sight … “My lady!” came the cry from the door leading to the reception hall. “The Dowager Queen has returned! Truly, today is a day for rejoicing!”
She had not seen Lord Antonius in over a year. But she had felt his eyes upon her ever since the messenger had come bearing news of poor Vortimer’s death. There had been countless removes all over the country, always staying one step ahead of real or imagined rebels and assassins. Every time Viviette had been told to move, the orders had come from Lord Antonius. Every place she had stayed had been one of his properties. Viviette had marveled at how he had been able to amass so much money and land until she remembered Lord Lucinius and Sir Septimus. Doubtless many of these properties had belonged to them.
But all that was over now. She had moved for the last time at Lord Antonius’s bidding. The civil war was over. Constantine of Caernavon was now safely king. Viviette had not even heard that his was the name chosen until after he was crowned — she had been forbidden all correspondence in the name of keeping her and Lilla safe — but no matter. The point was that nobody needed her anymore. Nobody needed Lilla.
As soon as Viviette paid her respects or did whatever this audience with the new King and Queen was supposed to accomplish, she was going home to Gaul and never looking back.
“The King and Queen have requested to see you the instant — the instant! — you came into the palace. How is that for respect, my lady?” asked Lord Antonius, smiling fatuously. Viviette barely refrained from rolling her eyes.
“If that is the case, then it would be best not to keep them waiting,” replied Viviette.
“Indeed! Indeed! Come along. Although, you –” Lord Antonius pointed to Shelby. “You stay in the reception hall. But my lady! Come!”
Viviette shifted Lilla on her hip and followed Lord Antonius into the reception hall.
There was a stir of interest when she entered. Those of the men who were sitting stood. Those she passed closely, or whom she looked at directly, bowed, the bows divided between perfunctory respect paid to a lady of higher rank and the deep bow accorded a queen. But nobody spoke to her. Nobody even smiled. She’d spent seven years among these people, years that ought to have been the best of her life, trying to be a good princess and queen to them. And they couldn’t even smile.
Viviette made her back straighter and held her head higher. It didn’t matter. She was leaving Glasonland forever, wasn’t she? As soon as she had shaken the dust of this accursed land off her feet, the whole country and everybody in it could go to hell for all she cared.
Lord Antonius led her to the double doors leading to the throne room. Today must have been an audience day. The guards stationed at either side snapped their heels together, held their halberds at attention and swept the doors open. Lord Antonius and Viviette with Lilla passed inside.
The doors thudded shut behind them.
As soon as the sound faded, Lord Antonius stepped forward. “Your Majesties! I present to you the Dowager Queen and Princess — safe and sound and back home where they belong!”
“Safe and sound thanks in no small part to your care, Lord Antonius,” replied — Emilia? She dared to speak before the King had his chance? Viviette clutched Lilla closer, as if her hand was enough to shield her baby from the kingly wrath that was sure to erupt.
No wrath came. “Indeed. Allow me to thank you, Lord Antonius, on both my behalf and Queen Emilia’s — and, of course, on the behalf of Prince Uther.”
Prince Uther? The little prince was seated on his mother’s lap. Emilia rubbed his back from time to time, or played with his hair. He was a chubby, healthy-looking, if squirmy little lad. And Viviette was glad of it. Not just for her friend, but for herself: as long as King Constantine had a healthy heir, he’d have no reason to care about Lilla.
Except … except what he had just said … Viviette felt her stomach start to sink.
She had no time to process that feeling, however, for the King had turned to her. As she had when it was Vortigern who sat on … an entirely different throne, Viviette froze and held her breath.
But Constantine had nothing to say. Instead, he stood and slowly bowed.
He thumped one hand to his heart in a brisk soldier’s salute. “My lady. I am sorry I could not better protect your husband, our sainted King Vortimer.”
Viviette felt eyes turn to her — but what was she supposed to say? And why should she play along with whatever masque they were acting out?
Because you want out, and you can’t get out without their permission. So Viviette took a deep breath. “I am certain you did all you could, your Majesty. But the Lord had decided that it was Vo–King Vortimer’s time, and there was nothing any man could do to gainsay that.”
Emilia sniffed. “Blame the traitor Francis of Lothario rather than the Lord for that deed.”
There was ill-logic there almost begging to be pointed out. Viviette let it go. It didn’t matter. Soon this would all be behind her.
Emilia, however, was not done. “My lady — you must be tired from your journey. I wish we could allow you to rest, but the King thinks it best that we complete our business as quickly as possible. So at least allow Lady Sandy to take Princess Lucilla from you.”
“What?” Viviette gasped — but it was too late, Lady Sandy had already arisen from her unobtrusive seat and taken Lilla from Viviette’s arms. And Viviette couldn’t snatch her back without looking like an ill-bred fishwife.
… What was Emilia playing at? And what was Constantine trying to do?
“We do indeed have urgent business,” agreed Constantine. “But it is not so urgent that I cannot first attend to the most urgent business of all: seeing to it that my King and commander’s widow and orphan are well-kept and comfortable. So, my lady. What is it that you need or desire from us?”
Here it was! Her chance! Viviette took a deep breath. “Your Majesty — your Majesties — I humbly request your leave to take my daughter and return to my homeland, Gaul.”
Viviette’s arguments marshaled themselves unbidden, so well-worn and practiced. She would sign whatever Constantine wanted her to sign to relinquish any right Lilla or her children might have to the throne. She’d give up her jointure in exchange for a cash payment equal to her dowry (which had been perfectly respectable for a count’s daughter, but not much for a princess). She’d even pay for guards to convey her across the border herself.
She never had a chance to use them. “Out of the question,” replied Constantine.
“Of course,” Constantine continued, “if you yourself wish to return to your homeland, my lady, I would not dream of preventing you. I understand that this past year has been exceptionally painful for you. And Queen Emilia tells me,” Constantine nodded to her, “that you were not precisely happy even when King Vortigern reigned and our kingdom was at peace. If you have decided that this land has given you more sorrow than joy, and so you wish to leave it … well, I certainly shall not blame you, sad as we would all be to see you go. But Princess Lucilla will stay here.”
“Besides,” continued Constantine, “even before you ask me for permission to take Princess Lucilla from the country, you would have to apply to her guardian. I do not think you have done that.”
“Her–her guardian?” gasped Viviette. “What guardian? I’m her mother!”
A hush fell over the room. Emilia’s eyes slid to Constantine. Constantine looked not at Viviette, but through her. To …
To Lord Antonius.
Viviette turned to Lord Antonius. At least he had the courtesy to look sheepish. “It–it was in his late Majesty’s will,” Lord Antonius replied. “I am her guardian. His Majesty knew that she would need a level head to keep her safe and guard her interests –”
LIAR! Viviette wanted to scream. Vortimer hadn’t known anything of the kind. Lord Antonius had practically written that will himself — or rather, Lord Lucinius had, and Lord Antonius had simply altered a few things when Lord Lucinius died. If anybody had needed a guardian, it was Vortimer, not Lilla.
Viviette turned back to Constantine. “What will it take for me to get the guardianship of my daughter?”
Gasps — from Sandy, from Emilia, from even Lord Antonius. But Constantine did not blink. “Before you grow angry, my lady, please, hear what Lord Antonius had arranged for his ward. I daresay you could not improve on his plans.”
Constantine only paused to clear his throat. “Pursuant to papers signed yesterday, Lord Antonius has promised Princess Lucilla to my son, Prince Uther, the union to be solemnized and consummated on her sixteenth birthday.”
Viviette stumbled back. “What?” No, no — no, no, no, no, no!
“She is speechless with joy!” laughed Lord Antonius. Nobody who could see Viviette’s face could be fooled by that. Lord Antonius himself probably wasn’t fooled.
But Constantine only nodded. Then he gestured to his wife.
Emilia understood the signal — it must have been a signal — and set Prince Uther down on the ground. “Go say hello to your betrothed,” Constantine murmured, smiling at his son.
Uther nodded and slowly traversed the stairs, plopping on his rear and thumping down step by step. Sandy set Lilla down right in his path.
“Lilla –” Viviette croaked.
But Lilla was not listening to her. She was too busy looking at Uther. Uther had been her playmate, inasmuch as children their age had playmates, for a brief time. Did she remember him? Did she recognize him?
“Give her a kiss,” said Emilia.
Uther looked up at his mother and nodded. Then he stood up, arms spread wide as he tried to balance.
Lilla knew what that gesture meant. And though she was shy, she never said no to it. She squealed and stood up, toddling toward Uther.
And when the two babies met in an embrace that presaged the one they would share some fourteen years in the future, if Constantine and Lord Antonius got their way, Viviette felt her heart break.
That was when Viviette snapped. “No!” she shouted. “I am her mother! And I do not consent to this! You cannot promise my daughter away without my consent!”
“My lady!” snapped Lord Antonius. “This is uncalled for! You should be thanking us! Imagine the bright future Princess Lucilla will have!”
“No! I will not thank you for wresting control of my daughter away from me, scheming behind my back, and pulling my baby into the same trap that killed her father!”
She had hoped for — expected — a reaction to that. Some indication of shock. A gasp or two. But there was nothing. Even Sandy looked unimpressed.
Emilia sighed. “Viviette. We are friends, are we not?”
Viviette turned to her, face as stony and mulish as she could make it.
“Don’t you want your daughter to be at least as successful, as powerful, as high as you?” Emilia coaxed. She thought she was being reasoning, reasonable. What a fool she was. “Think about it. She will be queen someday, Wright willing, as you were. How many mothers can say that? How many queens can say they managed to pass their title, throne and crown to their daughters?”
Viviette shook her head. “No.”
“Don’t ‘no’ me, think about it.”
Think about it? She wanted Viviette to think about it? Viviette felt the anger rush into her again. “I don’t care if Lilla gets my title or crown. I never wanted it anyway! I want her to –”
To be happy? No. She’d be laughed out of the room if she said that, for all that it was true. But Viviette had learned something during all those months she was hidden away — no, she realized, kept out of the way. She had watched the children in the villages play and prance outside her windows. She had realized that she wanted that for Lilla. She wanted her daughter to be that carefree. She wanted Lilla to be free, as Viviette never was.
Maybe Lilla never would be free. Freedom was not for high-born women. But at the very least, Viviette wanted to provide her with a better prison than this.
“I want Lilla to live,” Viviette finally replied. “A title and a crown mean nothing if you’re dead.”
“My lady, please, you are worrying needlessly,” soothed Constantine. “Do you not think we will protect your daughter with all our strength? She is the hope of–”
“You couldn’t protect my husband!” Viviette snapped. “And he was your king! You might want my daughter for your son, but if — Lord forbid! — something happened to her, you could find someone else! If King Vortigern was able to find someone for Vortimer, you can certainly find someone for Prince Uther!”
“That is true,” replied Constantine. “But as you yourself said — the Lord had decided that it was your late husband’s time. Though men might argue about whether I did everything I could to protect King Vortimer from Francis of Lothario, no one will assert that I could do anything to alter when the Lord would call your husband home.”
“And Viviette,” Emilia added, “think about it as we would. King Constantine has the best claim to the throne of all the candidates. He is the Lord’s anointed King. But we know that might not be enough for everyone. But if Uther is married to King Vortimer’s only child — imagine how much stronger our claim will be! Who could gainsay us then? We don’t just want Princess Lucilla for Uther — we need her.”
No, thought Viviette, you don’t. Constantine had the army. He had the Church. The people, Viviette judged, were just as sick of war and strife as she was — especially since they would probably think, as she did, that all these kings and princes were just the same. None of them gave a damn about anything other than their own power and their own pleasure. The only one different had been Vortimer — and Vortimer might wear a crown, but he could never rule.
Constantine and Emilia did not need Lilla. They wanted her. They wanted her to assuage any last doubt that might be in anyone’s mind. They wanted her because she represented the easy way of solidifying their hold on their godforsaken throne.
“My lady?” asked Constantine. “I see you are upset. Because you are, I do not think you quite understand your position, particularly your position vis-à-vis your daughter. Lord Antonius is her guardian. Legally speaking, you have no place in her life, except that which Lord Antonius is pleased to give you. So far, he has thought it best to keep her in your care, but if there is a chance you might poison her mind against this match, I for one would advise him to keep her as far away from you as possible.”
What?? Viviette’s heart almost stopped.
But Constantine was leaning back against the back of his throne, eyebrows raised, and on his face …
Viviette did not gasp. But she wanted to. She recognized that look. It was Vortigern’s all over. It said, I have all the power, and you have none. You live and breathe because I allow it. And if you make things difficult for me, I might think twice about allowing you even that.
“However,” Constantine continued, “if you are willing to support Princess Lucilla’s match, and act toward her as a good mother should, then of course she shall remain in your care. And who knows? I do not think Lord Antonius will take it amiss if I point out that he has more gray hairs in his beard than black ones. If it should happen that he pass away before the end of Princess Lucilla’s minority, he might be persuaded to let her guardianship devolve to you.”
That was Vortigern’s way, too. He would start by brandishing the stick over your head. Then, when you were well and truly cowed, he’d hold out the carrot and dangle it in front of your nose, keeping it just out of reach to keep you doubly obedient.
Viviette was no longer cowed.
But she was stuck. Constantine had her daughter in his clutches, and there was nothing Viviette could think to do to get her back — other than be obedient, and patient, and pray that Lord Antonius choked on his meat right after he wrote a will making her Lilla’s guardian.
So she replied, “I know my duty, your Majesty. I have always done it, even when it has come at great personal cost. Queen Emilia can let you know the details of that.” She nodded to Emilia. “I will do it now.”
Constantine stared long and hard at her. Then he leaned back with a smug smile. “Indeed you will. Forgive me for doubting you, my lady. And in the meantime, please, allow Lady Sandy to lead you to your chambers. Prince Uther has taken over Princess Lucilla’s old nursery, but we have prepared another one for her. And you yourself will be staying in your old chambers.”
With that Constantine waved his hand in dismissal. Viviette collected Lilla from Sandy and followed her from the throne room. And though she knew better than to utter her prayer aloud, still she prayed.
Lord, you let this country take from me my girlhood, my happiness, my husband, and now my daughter. Now Constantine and Emilia have the throne my husband died for inheriting. And they’ll take my daughter, too. If you love me at all, Lord …
Viviette closed her eyes. Spare Lilla. Or if you won’t–at least make Constantine and Emilia half as miserable as this country and this throne has made me.