21. Taverns and Palaces
Taverns and Palaces
Little over a week passed since the lighting of the beacons and the attempt to murder the queen. Life continued as normal in Tothmor, but anxiety had crept into the city and lay stirring below the surface. The first reports of the outlander army had reached the capital, and they spoke of thousands if not tens of thousands. Hitherto, the people of the heath had only known those beyond the Langstan as raiders, thieves, and brigands. Blackboots, as they were called. An actual army marching together with a purpose was something hitherto unimaginable. Thus, it was met with immense relief when the guard on the outer city wall raised the cry that the Order army had arrived.
From all over the city in every district, people lined up along the road to watch the entry of the army. Ranks of imposing riders, knights and their squires or sergeants in gleaming armour and heavily armed. At the forefront rode the lord marshal and his first lieutenant, Sir William. While people cheered loudly upon seeing their defenders, both leaders of the Order vanguard had grim countenances.
“As soon as we arrive, I want the queen to assemble her counts. We need the levies raised without delay,” Reynold declared.
“Of course, my lord,” William replied. “I suggest we speak to the lady Irene, however. Best before we speak with Queen Theodora.”
“The dowager queen? I do not see what importance she holds,” Reynold argued.
“Unless matters have changed greatly since I left, she is of the utmost importance. Her niece may be queen, but the lady Irene rules,” William told the lord marshal.
“I never really understood how the last succession took place here,” Reynold mumbled as they passed the gate into the fourth district. “I thought the last king had a son.”
“He did, my lord,” William explained, “but the mother of this son was not the dowager queen, Lady Irene. It was to be expected that she would oppose his ascension to the throne.”
“Ah,” Reynold said knowingly. “That is always complicated.”
“Indeed. When the king was on his deathbed, tensions rose greatly. The lord Leander was the only male heir, but his claim could not be recognised.”
“So how did the crown pass to Queen Theodora?” Reynold asked confused.
“She was the king’s niece,” William continued patiently. “Her mother is the lady Beatrice, who was sister to King Everard, and so he adopted her. Once he died, Lady Irene, now dowager queen, had Queen Theodora crowned immediately to quell any dispute of succession.”
“How old is this Queen Theodora exactly?” Reynold enquired.
“I left twelve years ago, and she was four at the time, I believe,” William said, making calculations. “Sixteen, my lord.”
“This all happened before I was lord marshal,” Reynold muttered as they bowed their heads while riding through the gate to the third district. Both men noticed how many of the onlookers wore robes in the different colours of the priesthoods. “I did not know the state of affairs in Hæthiod.”
“It was a – troublesome time,” William said, spending a few moments in choosing his words. “But that is how matters currently stand. Officially, the queen regnant is named Theodora. In truth, the regent is Lady Irene.”
“So it is Lady Irene we must inform to call the levies,” the lord marshal said, finally understanding.
“Yes. Unofficially, beforehand. Once she accepts, we must make a public request to the queen,” William instructed.
“Hel on a horse,” Reynold cursed. “This is too complicated for my taste. They do realise that this Theodora is a vassal queen, do they not? She is subject to my authority as lord marshal of the Order.”
“No doubt they are aware, my lord,” William said in his most patient voice, “but nonetheless it might ensure everything went more smoothly if we observe the proper procedures. Formal as well as informal.”
Reynold sputtered a few more indignities as they rode onwards, leaving the third district in their approach towards the inner circle and the Order garrison.
As the procession of riders passed through the city circles, a group of white robes were among those looking. Some had purely white robes, signifying their status as acolytes. A few had the black bear signalling they had been initiated into the priesthood, and one stood with the patterned hem descrying him as the high priest of Hamaring in Tothmor. “Damn beacons,” muttered the highest ranking of the white robes. “We should have acted before the Order knights arrived.”
“We were not ready, Reverend One,” said the priest next to him. “It would have failed.”
“But what now, Brother Renard? Are you advising we postpone until this war has ended? I will not wait for what might take years!” the high priest exclaimed in a sudden outburst, drawing attention.
“Peace, Reverend One,” Renard said quietly. “Let us speak back at the temple.” With a disgruntled expression, the high priest accepted this suggestion, and they moved out of the crowd. From a distance, Godfrey watched their departure; as they left, so did he, following in their wake but remaining unseen.
The crowd in the second district was a curious mix of servants and nobles. While most of them, particularly the commonborn, expressed the same relief as others that the Order knights had arrived to defend the city, some of the counts and their relatives were less thrilled. With the Order here, levies were now to be raised; this meant paying for equipment and provisions, not to mention many peasants would not be available to bring in the harvest for their lords.
Thus, the mood in the second district was polarised, though two of the onlookers seemed unaffected. Troy was making note of the knights riding in rank and already mumbling a few attempts of composing verse; Leander was watching with disinterest. They were sitting on the wall between the third and second district, which gave them a good view of the long columns of riders processing through the city. Troy had his lute between his hands, while Leander was lazily eating a carrot.
“There aren’t as many as I would have thought.” Troy said, abandoning his unfinished strophes.
“They could hardly bring more soldiers in,” Leander argued. “There is barely going to be room for all these horses in the city.”
“But are they enough to defend it?” Troy asked. “What are they, six, seven hundred strong?”
“Closer to a thousand,” Leander guessed with a shrug. “Anyway, these are just the knights and their attendants, I would wager. Those fellows are always ready and itching for a fight. The infantry will probably follow at their own pace.”
“You think? I hope so if the rumours of the outlander army are true.”
“My father did it this way as do the march wardens,” Leander continued explaining. “Have a strong force of riders always available so you can quickly react in times of war. The rest of the army follows if and as needed.”
“Sometimes I forget you know things,” Troy admitted reluctantly.
“Part of my disguise to avoid being saddled with responsibilities,” Leander said, throwing the end piece of his carrot over the wall. An outburst of anger could be heard from where it landed, but since they were separated by a wall, nothing followed. “Come along. I know where we can get something to drink.”
“Should you not be at the palace? For when the queen receives the Order knights?”
“Good grief, I could not imagine anything more tedious. No, the alluring song of wine calls to me. A tune vastly superior to anything you have ever plucked, so I suggest you pay attention and learn a thing or two.”
“I’m rather low on silver these days,” Troy admitted.
“Again?” Leander said, raising an eyebrow, to which Troy simply shrugged. “Very well. You can pretend to pay the tavern keeper with a song. I will slip him some coin meanwhile and preserve your dignity,” Leander said casually, eliciting laughter from Troy before the two compatriots walked down the wall, disappearing into the crowds.
It took hours for all five hundred knights as well as their squires and sergeants to pass through the city circles and reach the first district. Once there, space quickly became an issue as there were barely quarters enough for this influx of men, not to mention their horses. Leaving the responsibility to others and his horse to his sergeant, the lord marshal quickly left the open yards of the inner circle of Tothmor and walked straight for the palace; as his first lieutenant, William had no choice but to follow Reynold immediately.
Their pace lessened slightly as Reynold allowed William to catch up and lead the way; unlike the lord marshal, William had been in the palace before, and he knew the route to the throne room. As with most buildings in Tothmor, the palace was not built very tall, and so the throne room was somewhat unusual. Whereas in other kingdoms they would have built a great hall to emphasise size and make the visitor feel small, such was not possible here.
Therefore, while the audience room was large enough to accommodate hundreds of people, the roof stood only a little higher than the tallest of men. Columns were also erected at intervals, upholding the low ceiling and acting as gathering points for courtiers behind which they might whisper and exchange idle chatter. Such noise of tongues rose to a clamour as the lord marshal strode into the room with William by his side; they walked briskly through the hall towards the elevated throne in the other end.
Upon it sat Theodora, queen of Hæthiod. By her left hand stood her aunt, Lady Irene, and her mother, Lady Beatrice. By her right hand stood Brother Dominic, high priest of Rihimil in Tothmor and the court seer. Close by, now wearing armour and weapons, stood Hugh. Ever since saving the queen’s life from the attacker in the garden, he had often been found near the queen. As the two knights came to stand before the throne, they each bowed, Reynold as a nobleman to an equal, while William gave a bow to one acknowledged as a superior.
“We bid you welcome, Sir Reynold,” Theodora spoke with a clear voice once she had cleared her throat. “It is reassuring to know the Order’s swift response towards the incursion of our enemies.”
“My lady queen,” Reynold said, returning the greeting. “We are honoured to stand here in pursuit of our duty. With me I have brought five hundred knights, and thousands of footmen are to follow.”
“That is promising to hear,” Theodora replied. “Reports say that the outlander army is many thousand strong.”
“That is true, my lady queen,” Reynold acknowledged. “While the Order’s ultimate victory is not in doubt, we will require every sword and bow available. But perhaps such is better spoken of under less formal terms.”
“If that is your cautious approach towards the subject of calling for conscription, you need not be concerned,” Lady Irene interjected. “We have already sent out messages summoning the counts and the march wardens, including their levies and standing forces.”
“That is most clear-sighted of you, my lady,” Reynold muttered. “I did not realise such foresight reigned in Tothmor.”
“We are well aware of the danger emitting from beyond the Langstan,” Lady Irene said with a cold smile.
“It was I who told them to begin mobilisation,” an old, gnarled voice broke in. Parting the crowds of courtiers came Leonard, marshal of Hæthiod. His armour and surcoat looked heavy upon his old body, but he stood upright and showed no signs of frailty as he reached the throne and gave the queen a small bow.
“Sir Leonard,” Reynold said gruffly. “You took it upon yourself to issue commands before my arrival?”
“I was given the duty of marshal thirty years ago,” Leonard retorted. “I took nothing upon myself. I only carried out the command given to me when I was made marshal.”
“Would this be your first lieutenant?” Irene asked, interrupting the argument between the marshals with a question directed towards William.
“Indeed, my lady. Sir William of Tothmor, declared champion at solstice in Middanhal and a great champion of the Order as well,” Reynold introduced his aide.
“He is known to us,” Irene said, and again she spoke with a smile that lacked any warmth. “Even if it has been many years since Sir William was in this city.”
“I am grieved to only return in such ill times,” William spoke for the first time and turned his attention from Irene to Theodora. “But I am glad to see my queen in such good health.”
“And we are happy that in such ill times you have returned to our defence,” Theodora said cordially. Irene placed a hand lightly on her shoulder before removing it again. “Lord marshal, we are certain you have preparations to make. We will give you leave of our presence that you may tend to them,” the queen said and rose. As she walked down from her throne, her courtiers bowed their heads. She moved to leave the room, followed by her aunt Irene, her mother Beatrice, the court seer Brother Dominic, and finally Hugh.
As the small procession moved through the hall, everybody stepped away to let the queen and her followers pass. One of these, a lady with her own servile companion, exchanged scornful glances with Irene as the latter walked by. As soon as the queen’s retinue had retired from the hall, the lady turned to her handmaiden. “Did you see the contempt that Irene shows me?” she complained.
“She is only jealous, Lady Diane,” replied her personal attendant. “It was you who gave the king a son, not her. She will always be envious of that.”
“Yes, my son. Where is Leander? I explicitly told him he was to be present today.”
“Your son has his own will,” the handmaiden said cautiously. “He is a strong character like his father was.”
“Stubborn, you mean,” Diane said, sounding exasperated. “Nothing I say will ever take root inside that head of his.”
“Come, Lady Diane, and let me prepare you some tea,” said the servant in a soothing voice, leading her lady away by the arm.
At the other end of the room, the lord marshal and the marshal of Hæthiod along with William left the chamber; a rising argument between the marshals could easily be heard over the whispers of the court attendants.
The excitement of the Order’s arrival lingered for many hours in Tothmor until daylight began to grow scarce and most people returned to their homes. Among their number was Godfrey, who now occupied one of the vacant rooms at Guy’s inn. Upon entry to the establishment, however, Godfrey did not go upstairs but told Guy’s son to bring him an evening meal and sat down at a table by the window. It gave him a view of the madman that Godfrey had encountered upon his first day in Tothmor. He was still ranting and raving, and nearly all who passed by ignored him.
A short while after, Godfrey’s meal arrived in a bowl. It was delivered by Guy, who sat down afterwards. “I have seen very little of you these last few days,” Guy ventured to say.
“I have not had much time for rest or food,” Godfrey replied. “I rarely seem to do.”
Godfrey shrugged. “Just keeping an eye on people. There is something simmering in the city, just below the surface. And the whiterobes seem to be in the thick of it.”
“The priests of Hamaring?” Guy asked surprised. “What could they be up to?”
“It seems they all want the same, gaining the position of court seer. Or in the case of the blackrobes, retaining it.”
“Never really understood what the fuss was about there,” Guy admitted with a guilty look.
“It is a high position at court, it brings influence. Hæthiod has no dominant clergy like all the other realms of Adalmearc,” Godfrey explained. “To be court seer elevates your priesthood above all the others.”
“I thought priests didn’t care about all that,” Guy mumbled, which made the corners of Godfrey’s mouth curl.
“Perhaps they should not, but they do. At least the position is only given to men,” Godfrey said with a mirthless smile. “Imagine the chaos if the priestesses were also plotting.”
“Why does this concern you, though?” Guy asked and hastily continued. “Not that I doubt your intentions. I just thought, courtiers and people of high influence, aren’t they always making schemes? Does it make a difference to us?”
“True, they are,” Godfrey conceded, “and normally I would argue in favour of giving the priests a dagger each, locking them in a room, and letting them settle it that way. But,” Godfrey said, now more contemplative, “but, something is different. Madmen preach of new faiths, and I think people are listening. Maybe only covertly, maybe only few, but there are always some who will listen.”
“What does that mean?”
“I do not know,” Godfrey had to admit. “But the beacons lit, trouble in Adalrik, murmurs in Hæthiod… I feel like a storm is about to break. I cannot see it yet, but I sense the pressure against my skin.” There was a brief silence as Godfrey seemed lost in thought, and the tavern keeper did not disturb him. “My lack of knowledge on the Hæthian court impairs me,” Godfrey said at length. “Who is the current ruler?”
“Queen Theodora,” Guy said with a slightly confused look.
“I realise she is the monarch,” Godfrey said with a hint of impatience, “but last I was here, she was a child. That was not many years ago.”
“She’s still young,” Guy said, sounding uncertain about the exact nature of their conversation. “I don’t think I know what you’re asking, Master Geoffrey. But maybe there is somebody here who does,” he added.
“You entertain members of court here?” Godfrey said, not able to hide the notion of disbelief from his voice.
“Not as such. Lord Leander has been here a few times, but he prefers wine from Ealond. But his friend, however,” Guy added and pointed towards a man sitting with a lute in the other end of the common room.
The bard was playing it somewhat quietly; he was not giving an actual performance, but perhaps preparing for one or simply checking his instrument was in tune. “You have a bard playing at your establishment?” Godfrey asked with raised eyebrows.
“Not as such,” Guy repeated his phrase with a shrug. “But he plays here from time to time, and I give him something to eat. Plus, when he does bring Lord Leander here, his lordship puts a lot of coin in my pockets.”
“Is he playing ‘The Sorrow of Glen Hollow’?” Godfrey asked with a frown as he strained to listen to Troy’s song through the noise of the room. “Rather odd considering we are in Tothmor, not Middanhal.”
“To be honest, I think it is the only song he knows how to play properly,” Guy confided in Godfrey with a whisper. “I don’t always know if he helps me keep patrons or if he drives them away. But, Lord Leander’s silver…” Guy shrugged again. “In any case, Troy is often at the palace. He is the one to ask,” the tavern keeper finished.
“Let me have two mugs of ale,” Godfrey requested, “and bring the bard a meal in a moment.” Guy nodded and readily supplied two drinks overflowing with foam.
Godfrey waited until Troy had finished his song before he walked over with the ale and took the seat by the bard’s table. “Wait, I remember you,” Troy exclaimed. “You are the man who helped my friend!”
“Indeed, I thought you were familiar,” Godfrey said. “I am called Geoffrey.”
“I am Troy. Troy the Troubadour,” he added with a smile.
“I would restrain myself to just Troy if I were you,” Godfrey confided in him, to which Troy gave a defeated shrug. “I thought you might appreciate this,” the traveller spoke while letting one hand slide the second tankard of ale towards his companion.
“My gratitude,” Troy replied, grabbing the mug and raising it in salute before he drank deeply.
“I wondered about the song you played,” Godfrey said meanwhile. “It is unusual to hear songs of the dragonborn in Hæthiod.”
“I always liked the tune,” Troy explained. “You from the city?”
“No, newly arrived,” Godfrey shook his head. “From Adalrik, in fact.”
“Middanhal?” Troy asked with piqued interest.
“Exactly,” Godfrey nodded.
“Always wanted to go there. See the Temple,” Troy said with a dreaming voice.
“It is quite the sight,” Godfrey agreed. “Perhaps you would even have the chance to play your tune and have the dragonborn hear it,” the traveller suggested.
“That might be a bit much to aim for,” Troy said with an anxious grin.
“I hear that you have illustrious company yourself, though,” Godfrey proceeded. “Perhaps not dragonborn, but princely nonetheless. You must be a bard of some renown to have attracted royal patronage.”
“Who, Leander?” Troy spoke with mirth. “He’s just a friend, hardly a patron. I’ve known him since we were children.”
“Quite a friend to have, still,” Godfrey argued. “I admit, I am curious about court life,” he continued with careful words. “Something I never quite understood. I have been told that Queen Theodora was crowned many years ago when she was still a child, which strikes me as unusual.”
“Yes, she was four years old or so, I think. And that was… twelve years ago? Or something,” Troy said. “Oh, thank you,” he added as Guy passed by their table and placed a bowl of stew and a piece of bread in front of him.
“I seem to remember she was not the late king’s daughter, however,” Godfrey said tentatively, and the talkative Troy needed no further encouragement.
“Oh no,” he said while chewing his bread. “She is the daughter of Lady Beatrice, who was the king’s sister. He adopted her as his heir.”
“Ahead of your friend if I have understood correctly? Leander was his name,” Godfrey said, cautiously treading the waters of the conversation.
“Yes,” Troy replied, his voice growing quiet for a moment. “For the best, I think. Leander isn’t interested in ruling, and he probably wouldn’t know what to do with it either,” the bard continued.
“So it was the king’s idea to adopt Theodora? But others must have supported the idea, ensuring it came to pass even after the king’s death,” Godfrey suggested.
“It was the lady Irene’s idea,” Troy said, stuffing stew into his mouth. “The old queen. She’s dowager queen now I guess. She made sure Queen Theodora was crowned and that all the counts accepted it. Well, most of them.”
“I see,” Godfrey said contemplatively. “I can imagine this Lady Irene would not have been keen on seeing Leander becoming king after his father.”
“Hardly,” Troy managed to snort with a full mouth; then he swallowed and spoke again. “She was always at odds with his mother, Lady Diane, I’ve been told. Of course, happened before my time,” Troy shrugged. “I only got to know Leander after his father had already passed. I do know Lady Irene has never shown Leander any kindness. Living proof that the king sought another woman’s company than hers, I suppose.”
“Not to mention proof that he could father children. Just not with her,” Godfrey muttered.
“I never thought of that,” Troy admitted, ceasing to eat for a moment. “I guess Leander never stood a chance with her.”
Troy continued eating while Godfrey leaned back in his seat. “King Everard and Queen Irene, no children. Leander, the bastard son of Everard. Theodora, the daughter of Beatrice, who in turn is sister of Everard,” Godfrey recited. “Theodora is queen, but Irene rules. For now.”
“Sounds about right,” Troy nodded and used his remaining bread to soak up the last of the stew and clean the bowl out.
“I am starting to regret my foray into the court of Hæthiod,” Godfrey said with a strained voice, rubbing his forehead. “Something else that I wonder about, though.”
“Yes?” Troy spoke willingly. With his food gone, he picked up his instrument again and tested the strings.
“Who appointed the current court seer?” Godfrey asked.
“Brother Dominic?” Troy asked, plucking one string and listening intently to the sound it produced. “Lady Irene, I think. He was the one who crowned Queen Theodora at her behalf.”
“Seems plausible,” Godfrey nodded. “So she’s unlikely to cast him aside.”
“I suppose,” Troy said, sounding disinterested as his attention was on his lute.
“But the queen is growing up. And one might influence her to make her own choice rather than Lady Irene’s,” Godfrey considered.
A shrill sound came from Troy’s instrument as he accidentally pulled on the strings. “Why are you asking me all this?” the bard said with a frown as his attention returned to Godfrey.
“A bit late for you to consider that,” Godfrey said dryly. He leaned forward and stared into Troy’s eyes until the latter moved uncomfortably in his seat. “But you do not seem like a bad soul,” Godfrey finally said and released Troy from his gaze.
“Is that some sort of compliment?” Troy mumbled.
“The highest,” Godfrey smiled in a way that made it impossible to deduce if he was mocking the other man or not. “Since you do seem rather fond of talking, you will understand if I am hesitant to enlighten you.”
“I told you what I know,” Troy said sourly. “If this concerns my friend, I ought to know.”
“I do not know if it concerns him,” Godfrey said, his voice now earnest. “I will tell you this. There are schemes within plots within conspiracies in this city. For better or worse, I would say you have cast your lot with me.”
“I don’t want to be involved in any of that,” Troy was quick to say. “Nor does Leander.”
“We do not choose whether we wish to play,” Godfrey remarked, “only which side to play. If you hesitate to trust me, which may be the first sign of intelligence you have shown, then ask Guy,” the wanderer said while nodding towards the tavern keeper. “I may need your help in the future. If you grant it, in return I shall do mine to help your friend. As I have already done once in this very place, I might add,” Godfrey finished; he stood up, gathered his hat and staff, and left the tavern.
In the palace corridors, the lady Beatrice walked towards her daughter’s chambers. They were in the innermost part of the palace, built right against the mountainside; the reasoning was to make it as difficult as possible to infiltrate the palace at night and reach the monarch. As Beatrice approached, she saw numerous guards; their numbers had increased since the foiled attempt on the queen. Just as Beatrice reached the doors to Theodora’s rooms, they opened and revealed the same person who had kept the dagger from reaching the queen. Hugh was laughing and had his head turned towards the chamber even as he left, speaking some words in jest. As he turned to face forward and saw Beatrice, her presence made his countenance formal again.
“Lady Beatrice,” Hugh greeted her and bowed slightly. She in turn nodded at him as she passed him and entered the royal chambers. There she was met by the sight of Theodora and her handmaiden, sitting on the queen’s bed and exchanging laughter.
“Theodora,” Beatrice said to gain their attention. Theodora’s servant immediately fell silent while the queen looked at her mother.
“Mother,” Theodora said, still with a smile on her face. “What brings you at this hour?”
“I notice that I am not the only one visiting you at late hours,” Beatrice said with less mirth than her daughter, glancing back at the doors through which Hugh had left.
“He entertains me,” Theodora said in a casual tone. “I am more comfortable in his presence than alone.”
“You have your share of guards already,” Beatrice argued.
“They cannot show me the same attention,” Theodora countered.
To this, Beatrice fell silent for a moment. She turned to look at the handmaiden. “Leave us.” The young girl immediately complied and left the queen alone with her mother. “Theodora, you must be careful.”
“Mother,” Theodora replied while rolling her eyes. “Do not be silly. It is not as if we spend any time alone.”
“That is not my sole concern,” came the answer. “Take care to whom you gift your attention.”
“Mother,” Theodora repeated, sounding even more exasperated. “Somebody tried to murder me! Do you really begrudge me the presence of the man who saved me?”
“Not at all,” Beatrice hastened to say. “But if you show him too much favour, others will take note.”
“And if they do? The queen may grant her favour to anyone,” Theodora said forcefully.
“People will question how far those favours extend. As long as you are unwed, you are in a precarious position.”
“Not again,” Theodora complained as she stood up and moved around, away from her mother. “At least Aunt Irene never tells me to get married.”
“That is another thing,” Beatrice said, moving the conversation along another avenue. “Be careful with Irene. She is angered that Sir William has returned in such high honours. Do not make it worse.”
“Why?” Theodora asked curiously. “What does she have against Sir William?”
“He displeased her, long ago,” Beatrice said curtly. “In return he had to leave Tothmor.”
“He seems to have done well enough for himself,” Theodora pointed out.
“That is not the point,” Beatrice said strictly. “Your young favoured, Hugh, is the son of another who displeased Irene. She will never consent to any – arrangement between yourself and the son of Count Esmarch.”
“Why does her consent matter?” Theodora said with a touch of anger. “Am I not the queen?”
“You are,” Beatrice said in a soothing voice, “but you cannot rule alone. You need someone to keep the counts in line, the priests, somebody to help you with the Order and the outlanders. You need influential allies at court,” she urged her daughter.
“And that has to be Lady Irene?” Theodora questioned.
“She has the court seer in her hand, the counts fear her,” Beatrice argued. “Maybe with the right match you can secure a husband to replace her influence. But until such a time, you need Irene.”
“And you do not think Hugh could fulfil such a role?” Theodora asked.
“He seems a good boy,” Beatrice admitted. “But no. He will not strengthen your claim on the throne, he will not bring military might or wealth to your cause or any political influence here at court.”
“Maybe I need none of that,” Theodora said with force in her voice. “Really, who could take my place? Who would dare?”
“I do not know,” Beatrice conceded, “but do not take my words lightly. I understand the pull of choosing somebody you care for personally. I was fortunate myself with your father,” she added, and the invoked memory brought a smile to the woman’s face.
“Have you heard from Father?” Theodora asked quietly.
“He is mobilising the South,” Beatrice said gently. “You will see him here before long.”
“I look forward to that,” Theodora said, her voice sounding like she was many years younger.
“I as well, dear child,” Beatrice said with a hint of a sigh. “It is almost last bell. I will leave you to your rest. Tell your eavesdropping handmaiden she best be discreet. Irene is not as forgiving as I am towards gossiping servants.” Beatrice glanced towards the door behind which the queen’s handmaiden had her bedroom. Then the lady gave her daughter a goodnight kiss on the cheek and left.
After leaving Theodora’s chamber, Beatrice walked down the hallways. In the distance, she heard the dissonant tolling of the bells belonging to the temples. Last bell, declaring nightfall and that all decent folk should be indoors. One person had only just managed to get through the gates to the inner district and inside the palace itself; now he stumbled down the corridors, approaching Beatrice who came from the other direction.
“Leander,” she called out to him, and the youth raised his head.
“Aunt Beatrice,” he smiled with a slurred voice before lowering his head again.
“I am glad to see that tonight you made it inside the palace gate before last bell,” she chided, though she could not hide a faint smile either.
“I like to change the pace now and then,” he replied while standing wavering until one hand shot out and steadied himself against a wall.
“At least you are carefree,” she said and gave him a pat on the cheek.
“Did you come from Theodora’s room?” he asked, raising his eyes to look at his aunt.
“I did. Was there something on your mind?”
“I have not seen her. In a while. For some days. How is she?”
His question made another faint smile appear on Beatrice’s face, and she caressed his hair. “Maybe you are not entirely carefree. She is well, Leander. You should get to bed and get well yourself.”
“Yes, my lady,” Leander said, straightening up as if saluting his superior. It almost made him lose his balance, but he recovered and continued forward. Beatrice followed him with her eyes as he walked past her, shaking her head and smiling as he disappeared through the doors into his room.
Leander stumbled inside his chamber and once more had to employ the steadfastness of the wall to keep standing. Normally, his room would have been empty since Leander had never used a valet, and he had fought all attempts to impose one upon him. However, a female figure sat on his bed, waiting for him. She was elegantly dressed in clothes that emphasised her slender figure and with hair arranged in an intricate way.
“Hallo, Mother,” Leander said as he managed to send a glance towards her.
Lady Diane, mistress to the late king and mother of his only child, rose from her seat. “You know why I am here, presumably? Why I have been waiting hours for your return?” she said sharply.
“Regardless of whether I do, I am sure you will tell me,” Leander mumbled.
Ignoring him, Diane continued. “I told you today was important! It was your chance to mark your presence at court.”
“What, like a dog marking its territory? Because if so, I have marked my presence in numerous alleys and behind many a tavern,” Leander said with a snort of half-stifled laughter.
“This is no jest,” Diane reproached him. “Your father would be sorely disappointed if he could see you.”
“Then it is fortunate he cannot,” Leander muttered, still leaning against the wall.
“Take care what you say!” Diane hissed, walking over to stand in front of her son. His breath made her recoil again, however. “Your father had great plans for you, and I will not have you dishonour his memory.”
“Father was a great man, or so I am told,” Leander said, straightening up as best he could. “But that does not mean his son will be. Have you considered Father knew this when he adopted Theodora?”
“Nonsense!” Diane snorted. “That was Irene’s doing, that venomous woman. She poisoned your father’s mind, turned him against us.”
“Mother, while I adore being embroiled in your feud, which I might add began before I was even born, I really should get some rest,” Leander told her.
“Very well. But I tell you this, Leander. When the counts arrive to be received by the queen, you will be present. Or I will do my utmost in stripping you of every coin that allows this leisurely life of yours,” Diane warned him, to which he gave a slight, mocking bow as she passed by him.
As soon as he heard the doors close behind her, Leander straightened up properly. He blinked a few times and walked over to sit on his bed, affected by weariness and intoxication but clearly less so than the impression he had given. He removed his shirt, getting undressed for sleep; he paused, holding his head between his hands instead. It took him a little while to summon the fortitude to continue his preparations and finally go to sleep.
Leaving her son’s chamber, Diane moved through the corridors until she entered a small room. It was a shrine, one out of six found in this wing. Due to Tothmor’s complicated religious state, the palace needed to have an altar dedicated to each of the lesser divines.
This particular shrine had a statue of a great man, clad in bearskin, holding a heavy hammer, and standing by an anvil; he was Hamaring, god of smiths, craftsmen, and associated with the mountains. In front of the altar knelt a figure clad in the white robes belonging to the priesthood of Hamaring. As Diane approached and the priest rose, she could see the black bear upon his chest, which signalled that he was initiated into their order. His hem did not have the pattern, however, of a high priest.
“Where is Brother Bernard?” she asked with the same sharp tone that had permeated her conversation with her son.
“The Reverend One was busy,” answered the priest. “He sent me in his place. I am Brother Renard.”
“Sounds like a poor jest,” Diane scoffed, her gaze sliding over the priest. “I do not deal with lackeys.”
“I am the right-hand man to the high priest,” Renard assured her. “I am intimate with all his plans, including those involving your son.”
At the mention of Leander, Diane jerked her head up to stare at the priest. “Has your high priest made a habit of being open-mouthed to everybody?”
“No, milady,” Renard assured her in a soothing tone. “Only me. No others know.”
“You do not look like a priest of Hamaring,” Diane said, her eyes once more scrutinising the white-robed man. “Are you not all supposed to have forearms like tree trunks?”
“Trees take many shapes,” Renard shrugged. “My master values me for my head, not my strength.”
“Is that so,” Diane said doubtingly. “You can tell your master I do not value surprises. Next time he will meet me personally.”
“I shall bear your message,” Renard said with a slight bow, gathering his arms in front of him and sliding his hands into their opposite sleeves. “But I believe the Reverend One expected to hear more?”
“I have not told Leander,” Diane said with another sharp look. “It was not the right time.”
“You would know best,” Renard conceded while inclining his head. “However, we noted that he was not present today at court when the lord marshal was given audience. The Reverend One is concerned.”
“Tell him that Leander is my concern,” Diane imprinted upon the priest. “You whiterobes handle your part, I will handle mine.”
“As you say,” Renard replied. “My master will eagerly await to hear more.”
“He can wait as eagerly as he wishes,” Diane said dismissively, turning to leave. “Leave Leander to me.” The priest bowed again in silent farewell and stood in contemplation, watching the elegant lady exit the room and then shifting his gaze to the statue of Hamaring upon the altar.