People, Places & Things
Just Add Dice
It Came from the SlushPile
A King for Hothar
copyright 1999 Christine Morgan
A serial novel written exclusively for Sabledrake Magazine
Vol. I -- The Red Blade
The Day of Executions had come around again.
Cassidor Ephes could look down from his window and watch the workmen putting last-minute touches on the devices of death, watch the merchants setting up their stalls to peddle food and trinkets to the crowds that would arrive with the noon sun, watch the women hang the white and scarlet banners of the Kathaks from posts, watch the children scamper close enough to touch a platform on a dare.
He could watch, but why in the name of the gods would he want to? He’d be down there soon enough, in his usual place.
Turning away from the window, he started at the sight of his wife in the doorway.
“If it sickens you, why go?” Gedren asked.
“I must go. The king commands it.” His tone turned self-loathing. “The king’s magician must read the omens and declare them favorable, for they are always favorable, no matter what I might see in the cast-stones. Especially today, this glorious anniversary.”
“I have seen what this does to you,” she said. Gedren was small and plump and rosy-cheeked, his complete physical opposite, but when the anger colored her voice, it made her seem fierce enough and formidable enough to take on an army. “Year after year, raising your arms to the sky and proclaiming that this senseless slaughter is the will of the gods ... it is killing you as surely as the blades kill the condemned, but much more slowly! You must stop doing it!”
“Defy the king’s command? You know as well as I what would happen if I did.”
“Then step down without defiance,” she persisted. “Claim that the rigors of your magic have taken a toll on your health. Let Nerrar be court magician now. He is older than you were when you began, and the queen would be pleased to have her brother so elevated in status.”
Cassidor took Gedren’s soft pink hands in his pale long-fingered ones. “Even that would be the death of me, heart of my heart, you know that. Davore would see any such act of mine as a betrayal. And come next spring, I’d be down there, in chains below the Ministry of Justice, waiting my turn on the platform.”
She opened her mouth to argue, then closed it again and sighed. “He would, wouldn’t he? He sees his own brother put to death today, after all.”
“And Coric’s only crime is to be eighteen and perceived by Davore as a threat to his crown. For that alone, he dies this afternoon.”
“For more than that,” Gedren said. “Coric was the only partway decent one of that entire family.” She glanced out the window at a flash of color and Cassidor followed her eyes.
It was a great unfurling flag, vast enough to have served as a sail on a seagoing galleon. The center was a pure white snowfield divided in two by a downthrust sword as red as the blood that would soon be loosed in the square. Around the edges were the crests of the lands that had fallen to Hotharian rule during the reign of the Kathaks.
Against his will, Cassidor’s gaze was pulled to the first of the smaller crests, the one in the uppermost corner. Something twisted in his heart at the sight of the gold eagle of the Lendrins, wings spread shiningly on a background of black.
“They’ve added Eastreach,” he noted, forcing himself to look away from the eagle. “And Trevale; that will come as a surprise to the baron. The last he knew, he still had two months to consider Davore’s terms.”
“Something must be done,” Gedren said darkly. “Davore’s greed will doom all of Hothar. He’s taken nearly every neighboring land, he taxes and misuses the commonfolk, he toys with the laws as it suits him --”
Cassidor shushed her urgently. “A single word against the king could be enough to put you out there next year. I don’t ask you to quiet your hatred of the Kathaks, but please quiet your tongue!”
“How can I? For twenty years, we’ve lived with their tyranny. There are grown men now who have never known anything but Kathak rule, who have no idea what Oldered and his son did to this country. Who do not remember the Lendrins. Surely you haven’t forgotten, husband!”
“No, never,” he said. “I’ve never forgotten that night. Nor the day after, when I sold my honor to Oldered in exchange for my life.”
As with the scene in the square, he could see it clearly if he chose to look. He could see himself, a tall but thin youth of fifteen, dragged bound and in terror before the red-haired warlord. The blood of the battle was still on Oldered, drying on his armor, matting his grey-streaked beard as if the usurper had done some of his slaying with teeth as well as sword and spear.
He could hear, if he so chose, Oldered’s booming voice, telling him what he already knew -- that Hadric, his master, was dead -- and adding that which he’d never expected to hear -- that as repayment for freeing Cassidor from that cruel apprenticeship, Oldered expected him to fill Hadric’s position as king’s wizard.
And hear his own craven lies of gratitude ...
Cassidor shook his head to clear the unwelcome memories from it, but Gedren wouldn’t let go so easily.
“I remember too,” she said. “I may have been only a child of ten, but I remember as if it had happened yesterday. How they died. Jherion and his queen, their sons and daughters and daughters-in-law ... the children ... what was done to them ...”
Her voice trailed off, and Cassidor flushed with shame for thinking how bad his own situation had been. Gedren, whose elder half-sister had been the wife of King Jherion’s brother, had been deemed too far removed from the royal family to be killed, and had spent the next six years as maidservant to Oldered’s warrior-queen, Verana.
“But they are dead,” Cassidor said. “We did what we must, we do what we must, to live.”
“I have done that. It fills my throat with bile every time I think of how I attended that woman. If you’d not taken pity on me and made me your wife, I’d be there still, unless I’d finally had more than I could bear and put a hatpin in her eye.”
“It was never pity,” he said, lifting her hand to his lips and kissing her wedding band. “Never that.”
“But you still attend them. You’re as much a pet and an amusement to Davore as I was to his mother.”
“I don’t mind it.”
“I do. You are the court magician; you should be giving counsel to the king, helping with your wisdom to guide Hothar. Not squandering your days telling fortunes for Queen Beris and her giggling ladies, and reading false omens to justify Davore’s atrocities! If only Coric had been the threat Davore believed him to be, and succeeded!”
“Gedren, hush!” Fear made him speak more sternly than he meant to. “There is nothing to be done but go along, and take care of ourselves.”
“While innocents suffer at the king’s whim?”
“Better than drawing his wrath on us.”
“Oh, Cassidor!” She dashed away a tear that had formed in the corner of her eye. “I knew when I wed you that you were a peaceable and cautious man, but peace and caution taken too far become cowardice.”
“What would you have me do?” he snapped. “Overthrow Davore and take his place? Hah! I am no warlord with an army at my back, I have no noble blood. Or would you rather I sought instead to murder the king? Since Beris hasn’t kindled, the crown would go to Oldered’s brother Avar, and Felin after him, and if you think they’d be better than Davore, you are a madwoman.”
She glared at him so hotly that he was certain she’d start throwing things next, and he would have to go to the Executions with the bruises because her anger never blinded her to the point that it interfered with her aim.
Instead, she whirled, her skirt fanning out to above her dimpled knees, and stormed from the room. The door slammed behind her hard enough to make the shelves leap on the walls, clattering the pottery and causing one jar to topple.
Cassidor exhaled slowly, then swept up the broken shards and herbs before beginning to dress.
No one much remarked on the old man as he made his way through the crowd, other than to jostle impatiently past him or, more rarely, pause considerately to let him go by.
That suited Ithor Drok just fine. In his years as a swordsman, he’d had all the respect he could choke down. Either fearful or admiring, it was respect all the same ... and as he nowadays had none for himself, being ignored was all he wanted.
His crutch thumped on the flagstones as he passed through the Arch of Hothar and into the great square beyond.
The winter-spirit had finally relinquished the land to her more amiable brother. Ithor squinted as the sun struck his face. If today had been any other day, he would have been content to sit out in front of the boardinghouse where he lived and draw the warmth not only from the sun but from the heat-baked stone steps.
But today was not any other day. Twenty years ago last night, Oldered Kathak and his men had attacked, sweeping on a bloody rampage through Hothar Castle. Twenty years ago this noontide, all of King Jherion Lendrin’s most loyal supporters had been put to death by order of the new monarch.
The next year, a handful of nobles suspected of plotting against Old Red had been executed. And so on and so on, becoming a bigger and bigger event with each passing year. A bloodbath, a feast of screams.
Ten years ago when Davore became king, he’d decreed that any and all criminals receiving a death sentence in all of Hothar and its provinces would be brought to the Ministry of Justice, held there until the next Day of Execution, and made a part of this spectacle.
These days, Ithor reflected as he made his way to a spot that was in the sun, gave a view of the platforms, and let him see into the royal box, it wasn’t just the treasonous and the murderers that got the death sentence. These days, it was handed down for something as minor as referring to King Davore as “Young Red.”
But if it was still just for treason, he thought, I’d be up there, right enough, if they ever found out. Wouldn’t matter if it was twenty years ago or not.
He braced his back against the wall and took some of the weight off of his leg. The place was filling up fast now, as the liveried hour-keeper appeared to turn over the next of the massive hourglasses mounted on the high wall.
An hour until noon. An hour and a little until the light-grey flagstones were wetted with the first spatters of a flood that would spread to soak the footwear of every commoner in the square. If they even had footwear, which in the case of most of them, wasn’t likely.
Several of the nobles’ boxes were already occupied. None of them would dare risk being on next year’s list by a conspicuous absence or tardiness.
In years past, despite royal decree that any and all able to attend must do so, the commonfolk had been tending to stay away. Not so this year, for this year they’d see something rare. They’d see a Kathak’s blood join the rest, see if it was as red and ran as readily as any other man’s.
Ithor waited. He paid out a few copper coins to a peddler in exchange for a chunk of soft bread coated with jam, knowing he’d have even less appetite later than he did now.
Soon the square was packed to capacity, and an expectant, morbid hush had fallen as the spectators kept glancing up at the hourglass, where less and less sand remained in the top half.
Movement in the royal box caught Ithor’s attention. Although his close-vision was lacking these days, he had no trouble with distances. There was still no mistaking the tall and almost cadaverous form of Cassidor Ephes, the court wizard.
Ephes wore a somber brown robe trimmed and sashed in scarlet. Dark hair combed straight back from a widow’s peak made his skin seem paler, his sharp features even more pronounced. For a moment, his piercing eyes seemed to meet Ithor’s, but moved on without pausing.
Not much sand remained now. A fanfare of trumpets sounded, and the eyes of the crowd shifted from the hourglass to the royal box. The curtains at the rear of it were pulled aside to admit King Davore and his wife Beris, both flushed with excitement.
The king had been a lad of five when his father seized Hothar. Now he was a grown man, with his father’s dark red hair (though worn impeccably styled rather than in Old Red’s wild mane) and jade-green eyes. By reputation, he was a fair swordsman; by inclination, he was as well-fed and indolent as a housecat.
His wife and queen was Kathani as well, imported as a bride when it seemed no local girls would do. And had that stuck in some craws? Oh, yes indeed.
A fluttering veil of sheer silk diffused the flame-orange tresses that flowed to Beris’ waist, and her emerald gown enhanced and exaggerated her voluptuousness. She glittered with so much gold and so many gems that she might have been handmade in a jeweler’s workshop.
The crowd cheered their king, though Ithor thought (wished?) it was somewhat forced and desultory. The nobles took greater pains to show enthusiasm.
The rest of the family filed in behind the royal couple. Here was Verana, tall and proud and looking out over her subjects with merciless eyes. Here was the Grand Duke Avar, uncle to the king and heir apparent once Prince Coric met the blade. Behind Avar was his son Felin, three years older than his cousin and seemingly content to spend his time as High Commander of the Red Sword Guard. Last but not least came Nerrar, the queen’s younger brother, a bit too handsome but with a vaguely ratlike demeanor all the same.
All but the king took their seats; Davore came to the edge of the box and raised his arms. He was a perfect target standing there, as his father had stood before him, within easy bowshot from any of a number of good hiding places. But in all this time, no one had ever tried. No one tried now.
“Once again, my people,” Davore said, “We bid you welcome to this day of justice. For all this past year, the most vile criminals in our land have been seized and held, to face their fates together. Far better this, to stain only one day with the blood of execution, than to taint the rest of the year.”
Ithor wasn’t the only one to make a sour face at that. Far better spectacle, he thought. To his surprise, he believed he saw, just for a fleeting moment, mind, a similar look on the face of the king’s wizard.
If he had, it vanished at once, before Davore could turn to request the reading of the omens.
Cassidor Ephes stepped forward with a velvet bag sewn with beads of gold and crystal. Nerrar, his apprentice, held up a wooden tray lined with soft felted wool, and Ephes poured the contents of the bag into the tray with one deft motion.
Smooth, polished opaque gemstones gleamed briefly as they tumbled to rest in the tray. If the apprentice was clumsy, he could dump a fortune onto the heads of the crowd below.
Ephes studied the pattern formed by the stones and the silver and gold markings with which each was inscribed. His carefully composed expression wavered again, for an instant becoming startled and perplexed. Then he straightened up with a calm smile, inclined his head to the king, and announced in a baritone that seemed utterly out of place coming from that thin chest, “The omens are most favorable, Majesty.”
Davore lazily raised a hand to signal the musicians. The traditional March of the Condemned began to clang and rumble through the square, growing louder as if to suggest the approach of an army.
As the music reached a thunderous volume, the huge iron doors set into the base of the Ministry of Justice swung open and the first of the prisoners emerged into the daylight. Then another, and another, limping or shuffling or crawling depending on how long and difficult their confinement in the dungeons had been.
A cleared path, cordoned off by guardsmen with spears, led from the doors to the platforms. After twenty years of practice, the guards and the executioners had it down to a science. The initial deaths drew cheers and reaction from the crowds, but as the prisoners kept on coming out, the noise tapered off into a drone punctuated by the thunk of honed metal shearing through flesh to meet solid wood.
Ithor forced himself to watch, as he did every year. Watch and wonder if anything could be done, if it was possible for an old man to make amends this late in life.
His gaze was drawn again to Cassidor Ephes. With all other attention now fixed on the business at hand, the magician had withdrawn into the shadowed rear corner of the royal box. Ithor couldn’t see much of his face, but he was a soldier and long-accustomed to reading a man’s mood in the set of his body, and he could tell that Ephes was both tense and frightened.
He made his decision, just as a new and ominous silence fell. The musicians stopped, the executioners rested their weapons, and the wind itself seemed to hold its breath. Davore, who had been sitting back chatting leisurely with his uncle, paused and leaned forward with a hungry smile.
Sunlight sparked fire from the hair of Coric Kathak as he was led into the square. He walked straight and tall, head held high, a prince in the rags of a prisoner.
Ithor saw stricken looks on many, mostly young ladies of noble birth but also from soldiers who knew the young man to be a natural and gifted warrior.
A sudden wild urge seized Ithor. What would happen if he shouted into that heavy silence? Down with King Davore; let us have Coric! Would other voices take up that cry? Would the people surge forth in immediate revolt?
No, they would gasp in horror even if they wished to do otherwise, and they would stand aside and do nothing as the nearest guards carried his struggling old body onto the platform. His head would roll just like the rest, his blood would spill just like the rest.
So he kept quiet as the prince mounted the stairs. At the top, Coric turned to look up at Davore.
“I do not know why you do this, my brother. I was ever loyal, and go to my death an innocent man.”
Davore’s eyes narrowed, but he hid behind a mask of haughty disdain. “You have betrayed us, brother, and that is why this must be done.”
“I say to you that I never have,” Coric said.
“Enough. Finish with him.”
Verana’s lips were pressed very tight as she watched her second son being led to the central platform. He was alone, the last, so the other five sides of the massive wooden block were empty. Deeply scored with blade-scars, sodden crimson, but empty.
“No!” a girl shrieked. In one of the noble boxes, a lovely brunette of perhaps sixteen threw herself supplicatingly to her knees. “Sire, I beg you!”
“Arayse! Don’t!” Coric cried, in more anguish for her than for himself.
Her horrified family pulled her back, but it was too late. The king had seen, and Ithor’s heart sank for he knew what was coming next.
“Arayse Halan!” Davore called, after quickly leaning to his uncle to learn her name. “For interfering with the due process of justice, you are doomed to be subject to it! Bring her.”
No one dared protest. Even the girl’s parents stepped away and did nothing, though tears streamed unchecked down their cheeks as the guards seized Arayse.
Coric struggled, but as he was already affixed to the block, it was a futile effort. He cursed his brother in the most vile of language, which only made Davore laugh.
Ithor wasn’t the only one to avert his eyes as the blades swung. If only he could have averted his ears.
Gedren brought him a meal that he couldn’t eat, and wine that was gone far too fast. He thanked her with a distracted mumble and she left him be, having long since learned that when these black moods came upon him, it was best not to try and cheer him out of them.
Though she hadn’t been at the executions, gossip flew on faster wings than hawks, and thus she wouldn’t have been able to offer him much cheer.
He sat in the darkness of his study, the shutters closed and latched as if the hateful view of the square might somehow leap through and bite him if they were open.
His fingers stirred restlessly through the spill of gemstones on the desk. He didn’t need to see them to know each by touch, didn’t need to re-form the pattern he’d seen before to remember what it had foretold.
Someone tapped at the door. “Cassidor?”
Had she decided to try anyway?
“What is it, Gedren?” How dead and listless his voice sounded to his own ears!
“There is a man downstairs wishing to speak with you.”
“The king’s magician is not permitted to work his arts for others,” he said hollowly. “Tell him to seek out the widow Frammis --”
“He says that’s not what he wants.” She was upset, perhaps even afraid.
Cassidor pinched the bridge of his nose to ward off a headache. “Send him in. It’s not as if the day could turn much worse.”
He heard her retreating, then returning with another. Slowly. Strangely. The clatter of wood on wood as they came up the stairs.
A single candle in a bronze dish stood on the corner of the desk. He lit it, and the firelight ran across the curved surfaces of the gemstones like water.
When Gedren opened the door, he understood the wooden clatter. His visitor was an old man dependent on a crutch, for most of his left leg was gone. Long ivory-colored hair straggled to his shoulders and a matching beard similarly straggled to his chest. Both were clean but in dire need of a comb and a trim. His clothes were plain and serviceable, a bit faded. Scars stood out pinkish against the walnut-brown of his skin.
“Yes?” Cassidor asked wearily.
“We need to talk.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know you, and I am not permitted --”
“Talk, not augur,” the old man cut in harshly. “And you may not want your wife to hear.”
Gedren looked worriedly at Cassidor. “What is all this?”
“It is up to her if she wishes to stay,” he replied. “We have no secrets from each other.”
The old man snorted. “Oh? Did you tell her what you saw in the omen-stones today?”
“How do you --” Cassidor began.
“What is he --” Gedren said at the same time.
As she stared suspiciously at him and he stared suspiciously at the old man, the old man clumped to a chair and dropped into it, easing his crutch to rest on the floor beside him. Spotting Cassidor’s untouched meal, he drew it to him across the desk and dug in.
“What did you see?” Gedren asked.
“Conspiracy, change, upheaval,” he said, keeping an eye on the old man. “A new beginning. Secrecy. Danger.”
“Do you agree Davore’s got to go?” the old man said through a mouthful of food.
“That is treason even to speak,” Cassidor said stiffly.
“Fine, then I’ll speak and you listen. If you don’t like what you hear, send for the guard. I wouldn’t survive a year in prison anyway.”
“Go if you wish, Gedren. I’ll hear him out. Have you a name?”
“Ithor Drok. Of Kathan.”
“A Kathani!” Gedren gasped. “But Davore is one of your own!”
“Kathani by birth,” he agreed, “but Hotharan by choice. And Davore’s none of mine, nor I of his. Anyone who’d do what he did today is more insect than man.”
Cassidor nodded almost without realizing he did so. “You were a soldier. I don’t need to read your palm to know that. Were you with Oldered twenty years ago?” He sensed Gedren getting ready to throw things and gave her a stern look.
“I was,” Ithor said. “I’m seventy-five, I was fifty-five then and should have been done with fighting. But my wife and all our children had died of the fevers, and the only other family I had was a sister who’d married a mercenary and settled in Westreach. Soldiering was all I had. I was a captain, mostly in charge of training the new meat, but when Old Red decided to take Hothar for his own, he wanted some old hands at his side.”
“So you’re a murderer,” Gedren said, having evidently decided that if he wasn’t going to let her throw objects, she’d settle for words.
It didn’t have much of an effect; Ithor only shrugged. “You can call it that if you will.”
“Innocent women and children torn from their beds, slaughtered in their night-clothes, yes that’s what I call it!”
“For what it’s worth to you, I only fought armed men. Disobeyed orders there ... Old Red was clear. Kill them all, he said, all the Lendrins, be they man, woman, child, or babe in arms. Most of the soldiers did just that.”
“But not right away,” Gedren said coldly. “Not the princesses. Irysse was engaged, Mindra was only a child, and Meryve had only been married two days before!”
“Let him tell us what he’s come to tell us,” Cassidor said.
“There’s no way to do it but plain out,” Ithor said. “Princess Meryve, the bride ... she survived.”
Gedren fell into a chair as if her legs had gone boneless. “Survived? How?”
“One of my men caught Prince Andris trying to get her over the wall. He’d made her switch her night-dress for a serving-woman’s clothes. Rekort, that was the soldier, saw them and as Old Red had promised rewards for each man who personally killed a prince, moved in to claim his prize. Andris felled Rekort, but not before taking a fatal wound himself. I got there as he was dying in his new wife’s arms. As bad off as he was, he still tried to fight me. He died before I could land a blow on him, and when she realized he was gone, Meryve went for his dagger and meant to seat it in her own heart.”
He paused and finished off the plate of food. “Maybe it was his courage, maybe it was because she reminded me of how my own daughter might’ve looked if she’d lived ... but I took that knife away from her and snuck her out of the castle.”
“It would have been death for you had you been caught,” Cassidor said.
“Don’t I know it! But some sort of luck was with me. They mistook another dead woman for her, so no one ever missed her.”
“You mean Meryve is alive?” Gedren asked, no longer wanting to throw things. “Where is she?”
“My nephew was with the town guard at the time. I had him take her to Westreach, where his mother lived.” He reached for the glass, found it empty. “He ended up marrying the girl. Far as I know, they live in Westreach still.”
Gedren sprang up. “I’ll bring you some wine.”
As she left, Cassidor said, “But what does Meryve have to do with Davore? She was only a Lendrin by marriage, and even then only for two days.”
“Two days, or rather, two nights, is long enough if you put them to good use,” Ithor said with a wink.
Cassidor’s mouth fell open as he realized what the old man was saying. He sat like that, unable to say a word, until Gedren came back in with a bottle.
“Do you mean to tell me that Meryve was pregnant?” he finally managed.
The bottle very nearly shattered on the floor, but Gedren got it to the desk and filled the glass, the neck of the bottle chattering on the rim and some wine sloshing out.
“The baby,” she said. “What about the baby?”
“A fine healthy boy.” Ithor raised the glass in an ironic toast. “My nephew raised him as his own. His name’s Jherion, for his grandfather, but they call him Jerin for safety.”
“A prince of the Lendrin line,” Cassidor murmured. “By the gods, this is astounding news! Does he know?”
“If he doesn’t, I think it’s time he was told.”
Cassidor felt a chill trickle down his spine as if someone had tipped a cup of melting snow to the back of his collar. “Overthrow the king, you mean?”
“Reclaim what’s rightfully his.”
“Yet you are Kathani,” Gedren said. “Why would you do that?”
“I’ve seen how Old Red ruled and Young Red’s even worse, and it’s partly my fault. Mine and every other soldier that helped Old Red take this kingdom and keep it. Mine and every other man that sat around and let the executions continue, the taxes climb, the commonfolk suffer. Maybe when I was with the army, I didn’t care as much, but after I lost my leg and was one of the taxpaying commonfolk all of a sudden, it meant a little bit more.”
Cassidor regarded him for a very long while, aware of Gedren anxiously waiting to see what he would say. Her stance on the matter was clear, aligned with Ithor’s. Out with Davore, install this Jerin in his place.
But the peace and caution that she accused him of having to the point of cowardice gave him more to consider.
First and foremost, that this could all be a fabrication designed to test him. If he agreed to such a plot, and Ithor turned out to still be a loyal Kathani, his life and Gedren’s as well would be forfeit.
Alternately, it could be the confusion of an addled mind. Ithor was old, unwell, and few fighting men reached his age without being unaffected by all they’d been through.
Even assuming for a moment that it was all true, the risk was enormous --
“It’d be worth it if we succeeded,” Ithor said.
“Are you some warlock to know my thoughts?” he asked sharply.
“No, it was plain on your face.”
Gedren nodded. “As dangerous as it is, husband, I agree with Ithor. If there is a chance, however small, that we can restore Lendrin rule to Hothar, and put an end to the Kathaks, we must try.”
“The three of us alone? We are, and with offense meant to none, a crippled old man, a woman, and a magician.”
“I can think of others who would support a cause like this,” Ithor said. “Nobody in the square dared show it, but what happened today was the last straw. You can wager all you’d like that while the people didn’t talk about it then, they’ve talked about little else since.”
“We’d need surer allies than ‘the people,’ I fear,” Cassidor said.
“Baron Halan, then,” Gedren said. “He saw his daughter die today, he’s forbidden by the king’s law to publicly grieve for her or even speak her name outside of his own house. His hatred for the king must be deep indeed. He rules Plesarv and Ryannt, two of the wealthiest provinces in the kingdom, each with an army. And his lands lie between here and Westreach.”
“You have a clever wife,” Ithor said, grinning.
Cassidor laughed ruefully. “Too clever for my own good sometimes.”
The royal palace was situated on a rocky rise at one end of a crescent-shaped lake fed by seven rivers. Dozens of smaller keeps lined the eastern shore, providing temporary residence for the counts, dukes, barons, and other nobles whose lands had fallen under the banner of Hothar.
Halan Keep had been in that family for generations, and must have seen an entire spectrum of sorrows and joys. But never, Cassidor thought, had it known such a bleak time as this.
There were no outward signs of mourning. There would be no funeral; those condemned to execution, even a spur-of-the-moment sentence, were all buried in the same mass grave, highborn and low alike, and the only marker erected simply told how many and the date.
But as the servant ushered the three of them into the keep, Cassidor saw a numb and terrible shock on every face. Slowed and listless movements, as if there was no pleasure to be found in anything. Tears quickly hidden, lest some spy carry word back to the king that there was an unseemly amount of weeping going on.
Halan had two other children. His son, Alkath, had been the first noble child born during the reign of Oldered, out of caution named in honor of the conquerors. As such, he’d always been regarded as something of a good-luck charm by the Kathaks. Cassidor wondered if Alkath would still enjoy the small privileges that had brought him, now that his family had fallen into this mild disfavor.
The younger daughter, Olinne, was in the garden as they crossed the courtyard. Sitting in a drift of cherry-blossom petals that adorned her dark hair like delicate pink opals, she didn’t look up as they passed. Her eyes were focused somewhere far from here, and in some happier time.
Gedren poked Cassidor meaningfully in the arm, as if to be certain that he missed not an iota of the suffering of the Halans. She would not let up, this wife of his. Like a small dog with large teeth, once she battened onto something, no force on earth could pry her jaws from it.
He’d hoped that the passing of a few days would bring a more sensible perspective, but Ithor Drok’s news had been too shattering. Cassidor himself felt that the secret was written in clear letters on his face, and that the king would notice it and question it. Even if he proved to be a skilled liar, a single suspicion would be enough to condemn him.
Alkath himself descended the steps to meet them. Lean and lanky, he moved with a habitual graceless amble that made it seem as if he were about to topple. But when the mood or the need took him, he could be quick and agile as a striking hawk.
“Lord and Lady Ephes,” he said, bowing in such a manner that Cassidor expected him to plunge headlong. “Welcome to Halan Keep. I regret my parents are not able to greet you personally, but my mother has been taken ill, and my father will not leave her side.”
He spoke in an overloud fashion, giving added strength to Cassidor’s concern that there were royal spies about the household.
“We’d heard of the baroness’ unfortunate illness,” Gedren replied in kind, and patted her basket. “I’ve taken the liberty of bringing her some of my herbal remedies. The dowager queen herself can attest to their abilities.”
Alkath kept up a stream of polite talk as he led them up the stairs and into the cool stone interior of the keep. Cassidor marveled that he was able to do so.
He continued even once they had passed into the family’s personal wing. Cassidor realized with chagrin that of course he did ... he would never dare voice his true feelings in front of them. Spies? What were spies, when he was bringing the king’s own magician into his home?
Gedren sensed it as well, and patted Alkath’s hand. “You needn’t, on our behalf. We’ll bear no tales of you to the king. I swear it!”
He paused and looked warily at her, then rapped on a door. From within, the baron answered in a strained and weary voice.
Baroness Emrana Halan was pale as the drift of linens in which she lay. She did not so much as open her eyes as they came in. Never a robust woman, she appeared to have wasted away in a matter of days. Her lashes, as silver-blond as the hair she’d passed on to her son, rested against the dark smudges of tear-puffed sockets like lines of finespun thread.
Her husband rose to meet them from a chair at her bedside. He had physically weathered his grief better than his wife; the grey might have advanced in his coal-black hair and the well-fed paunch of an aging noble might have dwindled a bit; but one look into his eyes chilled Cassidor Ephes to the core. It was like peering into the waters of Dernman’s Quarry, near the village where he’d been born.
Cassidor bowed. “Baron Halan ... my wife offers her skills as an herbalist to ease the melancholy that has gripped your lady.”
Maragon and Alkath both narrowed their gazes at his choice of words.
“Oh, for mercy’s sake!” Gedren said. “You needn’t fear us. We’re not here on the king’s behalf. What’s happened is abominable! I’ll say it if no one else will!”
“Isn’t that why we’ve come, Cassidor? To let them know what we think? We’ll get nowhere with all of this careful stepping-around.”
“What is the meaning of this?” Alkath demanded.
His father waved him to silence and looked expectantly at Cassidor.
“I would speak with you, Baron,” Cassidor said after a heavy sigh. “What I have to say will seem outrageous, and you may suspect me of some trick, but on my honor, I assure you that it is not. You have more reason than most to listen to me. Though it is too late for your Arayse, there may still be time to save all of Hothar.”
Suppertime had come and gone, a meal delivered by servants picked at by two of them while the third, Alkath, ate with the hunger of the nervous young.
Baron Halan touched taper to lamp, shedding only a thin light that would not show beyond the drapes.
“I am convinced,” he said.
Alkath exhaled in relief. “Then we will join forces?”
“Forces!” Cassidor laughed bitterly. “I have no forces. I have one old soldier and a wife who’s a fair shot with throwing things.”
“I mean,” Alkath said, impatient, “that we’ll help! Won’t we, Father?”
“This is no plot to expose treasonous leanings in my heart,” Halan mused as if he hadn’t paid attention to their exchange. “I am sure of that. It is at once too complex and too far-fetched. But what is it, precisely, that you seek from me, Cassidor Ephes?”
He spread his hands and shook his head. “I have no idea, baron. This is not something I’ve ever given much thought toward. We do not even know if the boy survived. Or if he’s fit to be a king. Or willing.”
“Assume for the nonce that he is all three,” Halan said. “Alive, fit, and willing.”
“Then he will need to be found,” Cassidor said. “And tutored in the kingly ways. He’ll need the support of armed men, for Davore will not give up the throne peaceably.”
“You believe he is in Westreach.”
“That was where his mother and stepfather were last known to be.”
Halan drummed his fingers thoughtfully on the armrest of his chair, then stilled them as a servant entered to clear away the dishes.
“I was thinking it might be best to send my wife and children home to Plesvar for a time,” he remarked off-handedly. “For Emrana’s health. And the capitol does get so hot during the summer.”
“Yes,” Cassidor agreed, sure that the servant was listening intently. “Gedren has often said how she wished we could escape the worst of the summer’s heat, but my duties make it impossible to get away.”
“Perhaps she would like to join them,” Halan suggested as if it had just occurred to him. “I’d feel much better about Emrana’s well-being during such a journey if she were under the capable care of such a skilled herbalist as your wife.”
The servant discreetly exited, and Alkath grinned broadly.
“Brilliant, Father! Lady Gedren and I can go to Westreach, and no one will be the wiser! No one would suspect us! We shall find the rightful king!”
Many objections bubbled up in Cassidor’s throat but he swallowed them back down. “I cannot afford to be absent from court, but Gedren would not be much missed. She knows all that I do. Yet ... Baron ... I wonder if it is best to send your son?”
“You’d send your wife,” Halan countered.
“Tragedy has already struck your family a fierce blow.”
“We’re all as good as dead if we’re found out anyway,” Alkath said. “I want to do this. I owe it to my sister, and to Coric, who was my friend. Coric should have been king, and Arayse would have been his queen. Since I cannot make that happen, let me at least see to it that their murderer doesn’t keep his crown!”
“I admire your passion and your conviction,” Cassidor said, truthfully. “But this is a matter of such vital import --”
“Further,” Alkath overrode him, “I’m nearly of an age with this Jerin. I’m noble-born and trained as a knight. I can teach him, and he might take better to all of this coming from another young man than from old ones.” He caught himself. “By which I mean no offense.”
Halan nodded. “Alkath has my permission to do this, and despite your misgivings, I believe he will conduct himself with caution and discretion. My men in Plesvar are loyal. Once Jerin is found, he can be brought to my estate there until we are ready to make our move.”
“I will not disappoint!” Alkath promised.
“But ...” Halan said.
Cassidor raised an eyebrow. “But?”
“I will raise an army, I will win the support of other nobles, and I will give much to see this succeed. I want something in return.”
“Such as?” Cassidor asked.
“I did not know that Arayse loved Coric,” he said. “She ... and you, Alkath ... kept that from us.”
“They did plan to tell you,” Alkath said, subdued. “But then he was jailed, and I warned her to say nothing. Even to you and Mother.”
“My daughter could have been a princess. Could have been a queen.” He bowed his head for a moment, then raised it and fixed Cassidor with his gaze. “But I have another daughter.”
It didn’t sink in until Alkath gasped in astonishment. Cassidor stared back at Halan.
“But she can’t be more than --”
“Fifteen last winter,” Halan said. “No older than you were when you became king’s magician.”
“This is a bit different ... I was Hedric’s apprentice for many years before that.”
“Olinne is young, but well-bred and knows her duty. The new king will have to marry right away and begin siring heirs.”
“Aren’t we getting a little ahead of things?” Alkath asked.
“I’m assuming we’re to be successful,” Halan said brusquely. “Any other assumption means we’ll all be dead and it won’t matter.”
Cassidor felt the first proddings of a returning headache behind his eyes. Gedren’s medicines couldn’t help this pain, and he had the dismaying feeling that it was one that would become all too familiar to him as the summer progressed.
I'd like to make a comment about this article.
This page has been visited times.