23. City of Lies
City of Lies
The lord marshal and Sir William had been quartered in the Order tower inside the first district of Tothmor. Since arriving, they had spent their days with Marshal Leonard, preparing the campaign and drawing up battle plans; occasionally they had included the local nobles such as Stephen, Theodora’s father. However, for this meeting the three commanders of the Order alone were present.
“I do not believe this,” the lord marshal mumbled. They were inside the office belonging to Leonard, although his chair had been taken by Reynold. This left Leonard and William standing up, the latter by the window, the former by the desk. On the table was a map of the region with various carved pieces resembling army units. Numerous stood by Lake Myr, representative of soldiers that would never arrive.
“Regardless of your beliefs, we cannot deny it any longer,” the aged Leonard growled. “We are not getting more soldiers than we have.”
“But Adalrik,” Reynold complained. “Middanhal seized by rebels! How could this happen? How could Theobald let this happen?”
“What does it matter,” Leonard said through gritted teeth. “We still have an invasion to deal with. We need to march our army to battle, or else it will be blackboots standing outside our gates!”
“We have to go back,” William said quietly, and the other two men did not hear him at first. “We have to lead the army to Adalrik,” William repeated, turning from the window to look at the two marshals.
“Are you mad?” Leonard asked incredulously, staring at the knight. “Abandon Tothmor to its fate?”
“We leave a garrison. There are no trees for many miles. If the outlanders want to besiege the city, they must bring equipment with them from beyond the wall which will slow their progress.”
“With an army of that size any delay will not matter, they will still be able to storm the city!” Leonard argued. “We are talking a few months at most before the city falls.”
“Probably,” William conceded.
“We will not be able to reach Adalrik, end the rebellion, and return here to relieve the siege in that time,” Leonard continued his objection. “You are dooming the city, abandoning all of Hæthiod to the outlanders!”
“Yes,” William accepted.
“Yes?” Leonard repeated in disbelief. “You are prepared to accept this?”
“Hæthiod is a border,” William explained. “If lost, it can be retaken. Adalrik is the heart of these realms, the heart of the Order. If it descends into chaos, the rest of the realms will follow.”
“You were born in this city!” Leonard all but shouted. “And you are ready to abandon it so easily! I do not believe what I am hearing,” he shook his head.
“I am merely prepared to do my duty,” William answered sharply, “regardless of personal inclinations. The longer that Adalrik is plagued by civil war, the more it will be drained of strength. We will end up fighting the outlanders without support, without reserves or reinforcements from the other realms. Only the lord marshal,” William continued, now gesturing at Reynold, “has the authority to make the other realms and the marshals step in. We must assume Sir Roderic and any Order forces in Adalrik are lost. We must return and restore order.”
“And when you tell the army assembled outside the city to march west,” Leonard countered, “when you tell the Hæthian counts and all these heathmen to forsake their homes to the barbarians, how will they react? Do you honestly believe a single soldier will follow you?”
“They will obey or be hanged for treason,” William said simply, which only made Leonard scoff.
“You cannot hang the whole army. Especially when it is the only army we have,” Leonard insisted. “They have assembled here to defend Tothmor, to defeat the outlanders! Ordering them to do anything else while the threat is so imminent is ludicrous!”
William was silent for a moment before he spoke. “Korndale can relieve Tothmor. Have King Adelard gather his levies along with any Order troops and march here. Keep the outlanders in check and prevent them from storming the city.”
“What sense is that?” Leonard said, raising his hands in frustration. “We are already here! Have Korndale march north and fight the rebels in Adalrik! Why in Hel’s name make us march west only so that Korndale can march east and take our place?”
“Because Korndale cannot resolve the situation in Adalrik,” William bit back. “King Adelard’s army is scarcely stronger than what the jarls can muster. He may lose to them in an open battle. And should he manage to win and wrest control of Adalrik from the jarls, our position is no better.”
“Why on earth not?”
“Because Korndale is dragonborn on his mother’s side. He can very easily be tempted to seize the crown and high kingship for himself, just as the rebels are attempting to do now. It is the foremost duty of the Order to safeguard the union of the realms,” William said pointedly. “We cannot allow rebels, jarls, or kings to decide these matters through brute force. We must show the Order has strength to keep all of them in line, and let it be decided by law.”
Before their argument could escalate further, Reynold stepped in. He rose from his seat, and the movement made the other men look at him. Gazing down at the map, the lord marshal finally spoke. “Sir Leonard, I want you to have your secretary write to the marshal of Korndale. He is to order King Adelard to raise his forces and march them to Tothmor.”
“But my lord,” Leonard began to protest, “Tothmor may very well have fallen before Korndale can arrive. And how do we even know that Korndale will come to our aid?”
His objections were silenced by a raised hand from the lord marshal. “Korndale will come, or I will lead the Order to Plenmont myself and throw him in chains for treason,” Reynold said sharply. He continued with a less tense voice. “We will not abandon the city. We will march east and engage the outlanders in battle. With a solid victory, they will be driven back, forced to delay their advance. This gives Korndale time to arrive, take over our position, and keep them checked. Then we may return west and crush the rebellion in Adalrik.”
Neither the marshal Leonard nor the knight William seemed satisfied, but nor could they challenge the lord marshal’s decision. With a final glance towards the map lying on the desk, Reynold reached over and toppled the pieces at Lake Myr.
With the decision made, no further time was wasted. The very same day, Reynold gave the order to depart. The army camped beyond the walls was told to break up and prepare for march; the knights and their attendants staying inside the city gathered their horses and began their procession out of the city, followed by the noblemen. As when they had arrived, people lined up to watch the departure, many with bluebells that they gave to their relatives among the soldiers marching out. The various counts received one from their wives, daughters, or sons too young to ride with them; exceptions were the counts Lykia and Larisa, who had found reasons to remain in the city. Riding in front, William pulled out a flower from where he had hid it in his bracer; it was pressed flat and dry but still distinctly blue in colour. Glancing at it, the knight tucked the flower away again.
Leander and Troy had found a spot on top of one of the walls to have a good view, having chosen the wall between the first and the second district. On their left hand, they had the court watching the departure, whereas on their right hand was the rest of the city down the mountainside. “Shouldn’t you be standing down there?” Troy asked, nodding towards the rest of the court.
Leander’s mother was there with her handmaiden and friends; a little further away, standing by the palace entrance, was Theodora. As customary, she was surrounded by her closest relatives and advisors, including Hugh. They watched as the queen gave a bluebell to her father, who accepted it and placed it in his belt; then the march warden rode past them, out of the gate, and down towards the lower circles.
“My mother is somewhat displeased I am not one of those riding out,” Leander explained. “Thought I would keep a bit of distance,” the young nobleman said as his eyes glanced over the members of court assembled. “That fellow is still there,” he muttered.
“Who?” asked Troy.
“The young one, the one with the sword,” Leander explained haltingly.
“Most men here have swords. All of them except the court seer, really,” Troy said in a mocking tone.
“The one by the queen,” Leander exclaimed, “the young fop!”
“You mean Lord Hugh, who saved the queen’s life and by all accounts is not only an accomplished swordsman but a true person of worth?” Troy said amused.
“Yes, yes, him,” Leander said irritated. “If he is so accomplished at killing others, should he not be on a horse heading east?”
“Somebody tried to murder the queen,” Troy replied. “Makes sense she wants somebody close by to protect her since they never found the man. Makes even more sense she wants the one protecting her who already proved he’s up to the task.”
“That is odd, though,” Leander said with contemplation resonating in his voice. “I mean, the palace is so heavily guarded. How did he escape? For that matter, why would anybody want to kill Theodora? Who would gain?”
“Outlander spies?” Troy suggested. “Throw the realm into chaos while they attack?”
“Maybe,” Leander said, not sounding convinced.
“It is strange though that the assailant escaped. I mean, he ran past me into the palace, you’d think running inside would only have made his escape more difficult,” Troy speculated.
“What? He ran past you?” Leaner asked, turning to look at his friend.
“Yes. I told you,” Troy said impatiently. “I was in the palace that day, looking for you. When I couldn’t find you, I left… Well, actually I stopped to pray at Egnil’s shrine inside the palace first. As I was leaving the palace, fellow ran into me, knocked me on my feet.”
“How peculiar,” Leander said pondering. “Could you not recognise him if you saw him again?”
“Well, maybe,” Troy shrugged. “Where do you suggest we start looking? Among the thousands of people in the city? Presuming he stuck around for weeks after failing to kill the queen.”
“Yes, yes, forget about it,” Leander said dismissively. They both turned their attention back on the procession of mounted warriors, which now had progressed down the streets to the lower districts. “Want to get a drink? Think the owner of the Salt Pig is supposed to have a new barrel in today.”
“I’ll meet you there later,” the bard said. “I haven’t been to the temple for a while, come to think of it. Probably time I went again.”
“Ask Egnil for a lute that plays in tune while you are at it,” Leander teased, which earned him a slap on the shoulder from Troy. The two friends got up and leapt down from the wall, heading down into the lower circles until they finally split and went in different directions.
While watching the knights and noblemen ride down from the inner circle, Theodora cleared her face of all expressions and raised her hand to bid her father farewell. Stephen returned the gesture, sending his daughter a brief smile before his movements sent him forward and Theodora was out of his line of sight.
“You seem less than pleased, Your Majesty,” Hugh said softly while standing by Theodora’s side.
“Last time I saw my father, I was four. There barely was time to speak with him on this occasion,” she explained, speaking softly as well.
“It may take some time, but eventually the war will be won and he will return,” Hugh assured her. “There will be further occasions soon.”
“I hope so,” Theodora said. “And we have exchanged many letters over the years. It is not as if I have had no contact with him.”
“Even so, separation is never easy,” Hugh told her in a comforting voice.
“Is your own father far from here? Is he fighting in Esmarch?” Theodora asked, sending her companion a glance before she looked back on the procession of warriors.
“Ah, no, that would be moot. Nobody lives in Esmarch anymore.”
“What, nobody? Surely the farmers remain or your father’s household?” Theodora said, sounding slightly shocked and this time keeping her gaze on Hugh.
“Alas, no. Esmarch is too near the mountains. The outlanders have paths there which they use to circumvent the Langstan,” Hugh explained. “They have raided us for decades until nothing was left. I have not seen Esmarch in fifteen years or so, not since I was a small child.”
“I did not know,” Theodora said, her voice growing softer again. “You spoke of the bluebells blossoming, I thought you came there often.”
“It was long ago I saw that sight,” Hugh admitted. “I apologise for giving a false impression. No, Esmarch is desolate, a wasteland. Nobody lives there, which is why my father came to Tothmor and became one of the King’s Blades.”
Finally, the last of the knights and noblemen had left the inner circle, and the queen turned around to walk inside the palace with her retinue. “I am so sorry to hear this,” Theodora confessed. “I had no idea such was the state of things.”
“None will fault you for that, Your Majesty,” Hugh claimed.
“But I am the queen,” Theodora argued. “I should know. Is that why you came to see me? That morning in the gardens when we first met,” she asked, a little smile being evocated by the memory.
“Among other things,” Hugh nodded. “The cause is irrelevant, however. I am only glad I was there.”
“But where is your father now? Whenever you spoke of him, I merely assumed he was in Esmarch.”
“Oh, he is in the city,” Hugh nodded again. “He has a house, of sorts.”
“Really?” Theodora exclaimed and stopped in the corridor where they were walking. “And here I have been keeping you in the palace at all hours.”
“It is no matter,” Hugh smiled.
“I should not rob your father of his son entirely,” Theodora chastised herself. “You are free to visit him any time you desire,” she told Hugh, and they began walking again.
“That is kind of you, Your Majesty,” Hugh mumbled. “I am not sure it would make much difference. He does not seem to take much note of my presence.”
“My sympathies,” Theodora said, her voice growing soft again. “It would seem we are both absent fathers.”
“So it would,” Hugh said, her sentiment causing a smile to show on his face. They had reached the end of the corridor; beyond lay the wing reserved for the monarch, her family, and her closest advisors.
“I have affairs to attend to with my aunt Irene,” Theodora began explaining as they stopped. “She is rather particular about others not overhearing,” she said slightly apologetic.
“I understand,” Hugh said and inclined his head. “I shall leave Your Majesty to your duties. But perhaps we may speak at a later hour?”
“This afternoon, we will take a stroll in the orchards,” Theodora smiled, which Hugh reciprocated before they parted.
The Salt Pig was one of many establishments serving beverages in Tothmor. It lay in the fourth district, the second-lowest circle, and so it had a more diverse clientele than its counterparts of the very lowest circle. Inside, Leander was becoming acquainted with a goblet of wine when he spotted the red cap belonging to his lute-wielding friend. “Troy,” the young nobleman called out. “Just in time to join me on second round.”
“I don’t think I want anything to drink,” the bard said quietly, dropping down into a seat next to Leander.
“What is the matter?” asked his companion, putting his wine down on the table.
“I saw something at the temple of Egnil,” Troy revealed.
“Go on,” Leander encouraged him.
“It kept bothering me, the day the queen was attacked. Why the assailant fled down the corridor towards Egnil’s shrine, the one inside the palace. That wing and the shrines are pretty much closed, barely any doors or windows to escape through.”
“I realised something. Who could hide in a shrine without anybody questioning it?” Troy asked and gave the answer himself. “A priest,” he said triumphantly.
“So?” Leander asked impatiently.
“So, the attacker escaped the guards by dressing as a priest and hiding in the shrine!” Troy said excitedly. “Which had me thinking. You can’t just get a robe from one of the priesthoods. They make them themselves, and there’s harsh punishment for wearing them without being ordained,” Troy explained.
“Yes, yes, your knowledge about the clergy is impressive. The point?”
“I went to look around the temple of Egnil. Figure out how anybody could have stolen robes or if the brothers knew that any had been stolen.”
“And?” Leander urged him on.
“I saw him,” Troy said slowly, looking into the eyes of his friend. “Wearing a yellow robe. The man who tried to kill the queen. He wasn’t just disguised as a priest. I think he is actually a priest of Egnil.”
Leander’s eyes widened and he took a hefty gulp of his wine. “Are you sure?”
“I know it may be hard to believe,” Troy said forcefully. “Obviously he wasn’t wearing robes on that day when he ran past me, and his hood obscured some of his face when I saw him today. But we looked at each other, and he recognised me. Not in a disinterested way. He looked at me with wide-open eyes and hurried away, all pale in his face. Yes,” Troy said with conviction, “I am sure.”
“Hel’s bell,” Leander muttered.
“Leander, what do we do?”
“Just hold on,” Leander said, leaning back and running a hand through his hair. “If this is true, we need to consider carefully what we do. I mean, accusing one of the priesthoods is not done lightly, and we will be accusing others probably.”
“Maybe he acted alone?” Troy suggested, to which Leander shook his head.
“I find that hard to believe. Getting inside the first circle is not that easy even for a priest. Somebody must have given him access or a reason to enter along with a weapon. Perhaps helped him escape afterwards as well. This speaks of more people involved.”
“But what would the geolrobes stand to gain from the queen’s death?” asked Troy.
“Nothing as far as I can see. I cannot see how that would change anything for them,” Leander admitted, grabbing his goblet again. “It seems like an inordinate amount of risk they took with nothing to show for it.”
“True,” Troy admitted. “Nobody gained anything. Well except Lord Hugh. It was fortunate he chanced to be there,” Troy added.
It took a split moment before Leander almost dropped his cup against the table. “Not by a chance,” he whispered. “It was never a coincidence.”
“What?” said Troy confused.
“Consider this. It is not a secret that Theodora spends her mornings in the rose gardens. An attacker finds his way inside with a knife to murder her. On that exact same day,” Leander explained carefully, “Hugh enters the garden as well, being allowed inside since he has no weapon. I have been told that on numerous occasions how he stopped the attacker unarmed,” Leander added with a disdainful expression.
“I am not sure I follow,” Troy said slowly.
“It was staged. Like performing a play,” Leander elaborated. “The murder is prevented, Hugh is a hero.”
“But what is he going to gain from it?” Troy asked with a frown.
“He already has,” Leander continued. “He has the queen’s ear. About a month ago, he was a pauper of a nobleman. Now he is her confidant, most likely her trusted advisor.”
“What about the geolrobes?”
“I imagine that one day, this Hugh will suggest to the queen that she should have a new court seer. Why stop there? If Theodora is to marry one day, the court seer will perform the ceremony. Whom might she choose but the man who saved her life? Whom would the court seer support but the man that gave him his position,” Leander said with a sneer. “It is like a story from one of those terrible ballads you perform.”
“You really think that would happen?” Troy asked with doubt in his voice.
“Theodora is sixteen years old. She has been isolated most of her life with no friends. Here comes a handsome man, a dashing hero to save her, befriend her,” Leander said derisively. “I do not know if she would fall for it. But I can imagine the geolrobes and Hugh believe she would, and that might be enough for them to enact such a plan,” the youth finished. He raised his cup as if to drink from it, but ceased his movement; instead, he threw it away with a forceful gesture, letting the fluid spill over the table and floor.
“We must tell her,” Troy urged. “We must warn the queen.”
“Tell her what? That her saviour and closest friend these past weeks has betrayed her trust? Do you think she would believe me, whom she has always been told is her rival?” Leander asked harshly.
“But I am a witness,” Troy insisted.
“You are a bard,” Leander corrected him. “Your word means no more than a peasant’s, whereas Hugh is a nobleman.”
“But I am telling the truth,” Troy argued. “You believe me, right? I recognised him,” he mumbled.
“I believe you,” Leander nodded, and Troy gave a slight sigh of relief. “But you are my friend. Theodora has no cause to believe me or you.”
“What about others? The lady Irene has as much power as the queen, more even. We could tell her,” Troy suggested, which elicited a bitter laugh from Leander.
“The woman who has hated me since birth? You think she would trust anything I said?”
“Right,” Troy said downtrodden. “How about we avoid mentioning Hugh? We just accuse the priests and let them spill the story in the dungeons.”
“Once word gets out that the geolrobes have been arrested, Hugh will know he is in danger of being discovered. He might do something drastic while he still has access to Theodora,” Leander pointed out. “I will not allow her to remain at risk from this viper in velvet.”
“What should we do then?” Troy asked dismayed.
Leander picked up his toppled goblet and peered into its empty insides. Placing it back on the table, he gave a sigh. “I do not know. Let me think.”
Troy sat in silence, staring at his friend. Leander leaned forward, placing his head between his hands. He leaned back again, resting left hand on the hilt of his sword while he ran his right hand through his hair. “Leander?” Troy asked as softly as he could without whispering.
“I know,” Leander answered. “I know. I have to do something.”
“We,” Troy corrected him. “I’ll help you. I’m the one who’s a witness, after all.”
“Sorry, Troy,” Leander said. “That will not help. I will have to do this on my own.”
“Do what? Do you have a plan?”
“Yes,” Leander said slowly. “I am going to the palace. Thank you, Troy, for being my friend. Have a drink on me,” he said and placed his heavy purse in Troy’s hand. Before the bard could speak, Leander patted Troy on the shoulder as he stood up and walked away, leaving the tavern.
The guards at the gate between the first and second district were used to seeing Leander; he was typically in and out of the palace at all hours possible. However, he normally walked either with a quick step in his feet or else with certain difficulty stemming from imbibing. This time he was walking slowly yet steadily. He passed through the gate, giving the guards a slight nod. Continuing, he entered the palace. Like walking in a dream, Leander moved at this slow pace until he spotted the steward of the palace. “Where is the queen?” he asked.
“In the royal wing,” the steward replied. “But she is in meeting and not to be disturbed, my lord.”
“Good,” Leander nodded. “Where is Lord Hugh?”
“In his rooms, I imagine?” the steward suggested, shrugging from uncertainty. “He has at times lately spent afternoons out in the gardens, but usually in the queen’s company, not alone.”
“I see,” Leander simply said. “Thank you.” With that, he continued his journey through the palace.
Eventually, having searched other places, Leander emerged in the orchard adjacent to the palace that supplied it with fruits. The trees were blooming and there was a ripe scent in the air. Further ahead, he saw Hugh. As the latter discovered Leander’s presence, he turned, and they exchanged looks.
“I offer you a choice,” Leander began to speak. “Leave now. Do not speak with anyone, bring nothing with you. Leave, go west, never return.”
“Is this some manner of jest?” Hugh replied with a confused smile as Leander approached.
“I know about your involvement with the geolrobes.”
“Ah.” Hugh’s smile turned knowing. “And what exactly is the nature of your threat?”
“I am the queen’s cousin,” Leander began to speak.
“In name, yes, but little more,” Hugh interrupted. “You have no reputation here save for infamy and being a drunkard.”
“I will stop you, one way or the other,” Leander claimed, and his right hand crossed over to touch the hilt of his sword hanging by his left side. Hugh’s response was a raised eyebrow.
“I think we both know how that would end,” Hugh said, his left hand casually resting on the hilt of his own sword. “No, I will offer you a choice. Leave, never speak of this again, and I shall forget this ever happened.”
“I cannot accept that,” Leander said simply, and he drew his sword.
An amused smile found its way onto Hugh’s face as he drew his own sword. “Really, then? You against me? The son of the best swordsman in the realm?”
“I was trained by your father same as you,” Leander cautioned his adversary while advancing.
“And if I recall, you were the worst student he ever had,” Hugh said with a knowing smile; already his sword was in his hand, making its first strike.
Immediately Leander was on the defensive. He managed to deliver a high blow with no other effect than it struck into a nearby tree and sent leaves falling from above. He was forced to retreat several steps, fleeing from the swiftness and accuracy of Hugh’s attacks. Crouching low, Leander struck back to no avail; as soon as he made the first motion of his strike, Hugh read his intentions and evaded. A succession of speedy assaults pushed Leander further back until he had his back against a tree. He almost lost his balance and had to swing back, striking blindly with his sword to buy him time. Hugh took a step back, watching with amusement, and moved forward again quickly. He brought his sword high in an arc, forcing Leander to raise his sword as well in defence. While their blades were locked, Hugh smiled and used his superior sense of balance; with Leander pressed, Hugh raised one boot and aimed a kick straight onto Leander’s right kneecap.
With a gasp of pain, Leander was sent to the ground, falling on his back. He tried to raise his sword, but his grasp had weakened; Hugh struck it aside and sent the blade flying. With a swift motion, he aimed the tip of his sword at Leander’s throat. An expression of fear flashed across Leander’s face before it was replaced by defiance. “Why the wait?” Leander spit out.
“If I kill you, regardless of circumstances, the queen cannot forgive that,” Hugh said with a contemplative voice. “Infamous or not, you are her blood. She cannot simply forgive somebody spilling royal blood. Was that your plan, little man?” Hugh continued, crouching down to stare into Leander’s eyes. “Force me to kill you, make me lose all standing? I am not so easily duped. Guards!” Hugh yelled, standing up again. He sheathed his sword and walked several steps away while yelling as loudly as his lungs could bear. “Guards, help! Guards!”
Soon after, guards came running alarmed by the call. “Restrain him,” Hugh ordered them while nodding towards Leander, who had stood up. “Do not let him take his sword.” The guards did not comply, however; they looked in confusion between the two noblemen, unsure what to do. “For Hel’s sake,” Hugh cursed, “bring the queen! Tell her she is needed.”
“I am already here,” came a female voice. Down the path between the trees walked Theodora, frowning at the scenery. “What has happened here?”
“Theodora,” Leander began to speak, “Hugh is a traitor and a liar! He –”
“He spouted this nonsense and attacked me,” Hugh cut in. “Raved about priests and murderers and whatnot, and then he attacked me!” Hugh claimed and pointed towards where Leander’s sword lay in the grass. “I disarmed him, but he is still delusional.”
“That is a lie!” Leander said fiercely. “He is deceiving you, Theodora, he manipulated everything since you met!”
“I am ‘Your Majesty’,” Theodora said coldly. “Those are serious accusations.”
“Do not be harsh on him, Your Majesty,” Hugh intervened. “He must have had perhaps too much to drink, although it is early to be this affected.”
“No!” Leander objected. “I am not drunk.”
“Then perhaps heat stroke,” Hugh suggested. “Or his mind is unwell. Let a physician examine him.”
“Theodora, please,” Leander pleaded. “I am your cousin, your kin, your friend. I am telling you that Hugh arranged everything, the attack on you, protecting you, it was all a lie!”
For a moment, everything was silent. Nobody dared speak. The insistence and urgency on Leander’s face was contrasted by the tension apparent in Hugh’s countenance; Theodora’s expression was indeterminable. Finally the queen spoke. “I do not believe you,” she said quietly. “Guards, take him away.”
“Theodora, no! Your Majesty, please,” Leander begged, shying away from the guards.
“What is the meaning of this disturbance!” exclaimed a new voice, belonging to Irene. Followed by the court seer, she now joined the gathering.
“It would seem my cousin has gone mad,” Theodora said. “Or worse, he is some kind of traitor. He tried to kill Lord Hugh.”
“What on earth possessed you to do that?” Irene asked.
“He is the traitor,” Leander mumbled. “He has been deceiving us all. I was trying to stop him,” he said weakly, glancing towards Hugh who did his best to mask his smile.
“You stupid child! You thought this was the best way to handle it?” Irene said in disbelief. “To get yourself killed! Is your mind addled?”
There was a brief moment where confusion spread among some of the others present. “Aunt Irene, I think you misunderstand. Leander attacked Hugh without cause,” Theodora said carefully, hesitantly.
“On the contrary,” Irene said impatiently, “while his method is questionable, there is nothing wrong with Leander’s motivations. He is quite right about Hugh, though I wonder how his feeble mind discovered the truth.” Irene’s words left everyone stunned. As Hugh recovered from his stupor, his right hand fumbled to grasp his sword. “Oh, do not even try,” Irene said dismissively as she noticed. “Guards, seize him and throw him in chains.”
This time, the guards did not hesitate and they swarmed Hugh. He managed to draw his sword, but it was immediately knocked from his grip. He began to yell something, but a guard hit him on the mouth and silenced him before they dragged him away.
“But Aunt Irene,” Theodora protested, “what is going on? Why are you doing this?”
“Like the boy said, Hugh is a traitor. He is in the league with the geolrobes. They orchestrated the attack on you so that he could gain your favour,” Irene explained. “Dominic, we must act immediately,” she said to the court seer. “Have the priests arrested before they are aware that their plans are spoiled.”
“Yes, milady,” the blackrobe said, bowing to the nobles present and leaving.
“But,” Theodora spoke slowly, “you knew this? You knew this and did nothing?”
“My dear,” Irene said impatiently once more, “when a plot comes to your attention, you do not panic. There was no immediate danger, and we needed time to unmask all the conspirators. The priests, people working with them here in the palace, it takes time to learn the full extent. Torture will have to get us the remaining names.”
“But you kept this from me!” Theodora burst out incredulously. “You let me spend every day with him, knowing he was manipulating me!”
“Always under observation,” Irene countered. “You did not think you were allowed to be anything close to alone with him?”
“That is not the point,” Theodora argued. “How could you keep me in the dark for weeks?”
“For your own safety,” Irene told her. “If you had known, could you have kept up the pretence? Very clearly Leander could not,” Irene added with a disdainful look towards the youth, who so far had been quiet through the exchange between the queen and her aunt. “If I ever had doubts about your capabilities, you certainly proved them right!” Irene spoke, directed at Leander. “Typical men, only way to solve a problem is to hack at it with your sword. You are as useless as I ever –”
“Irene!” Theodora said sharply. “That is enough. You may leave us.”
“As you wish,” Irene said with a mocking smile.
With the lady gone, Theodora glanced towards Leander. “I am not sure what to say to you,” she admitted when they were alone; her voice was quivering slightly, but it did not sound unkind.
“I think I am hurt, actually,” Leander replied, pressing his hand to his side. There were traces of blood upon his clothes and hand. “He must have nicked me. Not serious, but it is a bit painful.”
“Oh dear,” Theodora exclaimed. She took hold of Leander’s free arm. “Come, let us get you to the physician,” she said, guiding him out of the orchard and into the palace.
Once they reached Brother Laurence’s apothecary, he briefly examined the wound and applied a paste to it. “That will seal it up. Rest and don’t open it up, and you’ll be fine,” the gruff surgeon stated and returned to his herbs and powders.
“Anything for the pain?” Leander asked, to which Laurence merely scoffed. “Right,” Leander added and left the physician’s quarters along with Theodora.
“Come, I will follow you to your chamber. You should get some rest before supper,” she admonished him, to which he did not object. They walked in silence for a while; Theodora once more took Leander’s arm in support even if his wound did not necessitate it. “I am still confused by what you did,” Theodora confessed at length.
“Me too,” Leander mumbled. “Apparently it was not even half as clever as I thought.”
“If you had killed him,” Theodora spoke, avoiding Hugh’s name, “did you think your explanation would suffice? That without proof you would not be considered guilty of murder?”
“I did not think too much about it,” Leander admitted. “I figured there was a limit to how bad you would treat me. He would be gone, that was more important than what happened to me.”
“But,” Theodora argued further, “did you honestly think you would win? I mean not to cause offence, it is merely that –”
“I am terrible with a sword, and he is not,” Leander finished. “Yes, I know. No, I was more or less certain it would end with his blade in me and not the reverse.”
Hearing this, Theodora stopped and turned to look at him. “But why?”
“Well, if he killed me, there would be consequences,” Leander explained. “I mean, I assume you would not simply have let that slide.”
“No, I mean, you were ready to die? I do not understand.”
“I guess I did not contemplate it much. I just thought nobody was looking out for you,” Leander said, one hand on his wound and the other making a defeated gesture. “Yes, it was foolish of me. But we are family, in some way. I did not know what else to do. I have no skills of any kind. Getting killed seemed like something I might reasonably accomplish, though I somehow failed at that too,” he added with a smile.
Theodora stood staring at him for a moment; then she took hold of his arm again, and they continued walking while she leaned her head on his shoulder. “You are a fool,” she said, “but at least it would seem you are my fool.” Finally, they reached the entrance to his chamber. “Now rest, and if you are up for it, be at supper. Maybe we can do something to reward you for, well, being wounded in your queen’s service,” Theodora added with a wry smile towards his injury.
“There is something, in fact,” Leander said quickly.
“Yes?” his queen said as a question.
“Would you share salt with me? But not with the whole court present,” Leander specified.
“Take meal with you alone, you mean?”
“Yes,” Leander nodded. “Somewhere secluded. Not the orchard,” he added hastily. “But maybe the rose gardens. Have a table brought, food and wine.”
“Wine as well?” Theodora said with wry smile. “Being injured has not changed you profoundly, I see.”
“As they say, ‘in salt is life, in wine is trust’,” Leander said with a smile of his own. “I am not so fond of the great hall. But I should enjoy sharing a meal with you in privacy.”
“That can be arranged,” Theodora granted, “if you promise to rest.” Leander gave a small bow, careful not to disturb his wound, and it was settled.