25. The Last Calm
The Last Calm
While the battle raged on the plains many miles from the city, Tothmor was experiencing a day like any other. It would take days before any message could be brought to tell them that a battle had been fought, not to mention its outcome. Another story was instead sweeping Tothmor since it only had to travel from the palace to the rest of the city circles. In every household and every tavern was shared the story of a scandal involving the yellow-robed priesthood and members of Hæthiod’s nobility. The names in the story varied as did at times the colour of the clergy. All agreed, though, that it was a tale of the best kind. Sordid priests and lurid noblemen made for good villains among the tavern tables of the lower districts; according to rumour, the story had a hero as well, a dashing young swordsman to save the queen and a hero to the common people.
The final piece of the rumour, only shared once the full story had otherwise been told, was the identity of this swordsman. Some whispered the name solemnly, some with disbelief. That this hero should turn out to be none other than Leander, bastard son of the late king and generally considered a useless drunk, was a fact that half the city found enchanting and the other half found laughable.
In one of Tothmor’s establishments, Troy finished performing the first verses of his new ballad, ‘The Swordsman and the Queen’. It was received with great cheer, perhaps more due to the popularity of the theme than the skill of the verse maker, especially considering Troy had only finished the first few strophes so far. Bowing and taking his leave of the stage, Troy returned to his seat by a small table where a hooded person sat waiting for him. “What do you think?” asked the bard.
“Utterly ridiculous,” Leander snorted from inside the unwieldy hood that disguised his identity. “Our duel could most certainly not rival the battles of the Great War. I did not move with Elven grace, nor did my opponent have the grim perseverance of a Dwarf.”
“You are the person most lacking in taste I have ever met,” Troy said insulted and drank from his tankard of ale. “Songs embellish, people expect and appreciate it.”
“Clearly they have never been the subject of said songs,” Leander said derisively.
“Neither will you be if you keep this attitude,” Troy shot back. To this, Leander shrugged and drank. “I imagine things have changed in the palace for you?” Troy asked.
“People give me wider berth, I suppose. They seem unsure what to think of me, so they keep their distance. It is quite pleasant,” Leander smiled.
“What about the queen? You saved her life,” Troy pointed out.
“Well, I think to be precise, I did not,” Leander admitted hesitantly. “But she does seem to see me in a different light. So something good came of it.”
“If nothing else, at least your intentions towards her became clear. Even if you practically had to kill yourself to do it,” Troy said with a sting in his voice.
“I did not cherish the thought,” Leander said, raising his hands in exasperation. “I was at my wits’ end. I had to do something, and I could not think of anything else.”
“Even so,” Troy retorted, “next time you plan on dying, I would appreciate a word of warning. Perhaps some kind of farewell gesture.”
“I gave you a bag of silver,” Leander protested.
“Coin is a poor substitute for a friend,” Troy said quietly.
“That is fair,” Leander nodded, his own tone of voice dropping. “I am sorry for the way I acted. Next time I plan on dying, you will receive a day’s notice in writing,” the young nobleman added with a wry expression, and the bard could not help but give a vague smile. “Now I have somewhere else I must be. Have a drink on me,” Leander told his friend, dropping a small stack of coins on the table before he left the tavern.
Moving up the circles of the city, Leander reached the second district. He found an old house that looked all but abandoned. Entering, Leander walked cautiously through its dusty halls. “My lord Hubert?” he called out.
“Who is there?” came a voice in answer, soon followed by its owner peering over a balcony.
“I was your student once,” Leander told him as he walked a few steps forward. “When I was younger. My name is –”
“Leander,” Hubert replied, walking down the staircase from the upper floor. “I would recognise that lazy posture anywhere. Have you come to finish your training?”
“Not quite,” Leander could not help but laugh a little, but his demeanour turned solemn again swiftly. “I come to bring you ill tidings, I fear. Concerning your son.”
“He has been arrested for treason, yes, I am aware,” the count said flatly as he reached the lower floor, looking away from Leander and out into the empty hall.
“You knew already?” Leander said questioningly.
“I did,” the old man replied, sitting down on one of the lowest steps of the stairway. “Many of the palace guards were in the King’s Blades with me. They visit me from time to time. They told me what happened in the orchards.”
“I am sorry,” Leander said with hesitation. “I always had great respect for you, Lord Hubert, and I did not wish to be involved in something causing you grief.”
“Did you convince my son to be a traitor?” Hubert asked, turning his head to look directly at Leander.
“I did not, my lord,” Leander managed to stutter.
“Then I hold no blame towards you,” Hubert spoke with a casual voice. “But I appreciate that you would take the time to visit an old man.”
“I admired you so when I was a child,” Leander admitted. “My father spoke so highly of you, your skill with a blade, and your loyalty towards him.”
“He was a good man, your father,” Hubert nodded. “A good king. Not without faults, but fewer than many other men of power that I have known.”
“Will you tell me about him?” Leander asked. This made the count turn and send his young companion a scrutinising look once more.
“As you wish. But tell me something first. Our young queen, your father’s successor, is she worth fighting for? If my Hugh had skewered you, would she have been worth dying for?”
“Yes,” Leander said without hesitation. “I believe so,” he added more slowly.
“Then you know the most valuable lesson I could have taught you,” Hubert told the youth, placing one hand on his shoulder. “You would have made a fine King’s Blade. Done your father proud. You have done me proud,” the count added.
“I am glad to hear it,” Leander said with a faint smile. “Will you tell me more of my father?”
“Very well,” Hubert agreed. “But afterwards we are going to the gymnasion, where you will practice the proper stance until I am satisfied,” the count threatened.
“Understood,” Leander laughed.
While Leander had gone upwards into the city, Troy had gone downwards, finding his way to the fifth district and Guy’s tavern. Here, he exchanged playing a few verses of his new ballad for an evening meal. He was busy simultaneously eating stew and crafting the next verse, in which the heroic swordsman finally triumphs over the dastardly villain, when another person threw himself down into an empty seat next to the bard.
“You?” asked Troy. “What was it, Geoffrey?”
“Indeed,” Godfrey confirmed. “I am flattered you remember,” he added, though it sounded mocking.
“What do you want?” Troy said with a scowl.
“You seem hostile,” Godfrey remarked.
“You tricked me. You got me to say all sorts of things to you,” Troy continued, his scowl deepening.
“You seemed eager enough to talk on your own, and you were fed for your trouble. By that very man,” Godfrey said, nodding towards Guy. “I told you to ask him about me if you doubted my intentions. Did you?”
“No,” Troy admitted. “I sort of forgot.”
“Troy,” Godfrey said leaning forward with all hints of mirth gone from his voice. “Either you trust me or you do not. But you care about your friend Leander, am I correct? If so, I suggest you cease your doubts and tell me what I wish to know.”
“How is Leander involved in any of this?”
“Exactly what I want to know,” Godfrey replied. “Have you ever observed your friend meeting with a priest? Specifically those in white robes.”
“I don’t think Leander even knows how a temple looks from the inside,” Troy snorted. Godfrey’s grave expression made the bard become earnest as well. “No. I’ve never seen Leander talk to anybody in robes.”
“What about his mother?”
“Lady Diane?” Troy spoke.
“Yes, her. A beautiful woman with bright curls, lots of jewellery,” Godfrey said in description.
“Sounds right. But I don’t really meet her,” Troy shrugged. “I wouldn’t know what she does. How come?”
“Because I have observed her more than once going into the temple of Hamaring. And it is rare that a lady of the court should show interest in the god of craftsmen,” Godfrey contemplated.
“True, they seem more inclined towards Austre, or maybe Idisea depending on how old they are getting,” Troy commented. “But I don’t see how any of this matters?”
“There is a presence in this city,” Godfrey explained. “Foreign, hostile. One that is not aligned with any of the gods of Adalmearc. Mad prophets in the streets of the slum, hooded followers hiding and spreading throughout the districts. A cult with tendrils stretching into the priesthoods and possibly the court.”
“That sounds unpleasant,” Troy shuddered. “But what does it all mean?”
“I do not know. I see all the pieces, but I cannot put them together to form an image. I only know that somehow your friend seems to be at the centre, wittingly or not.”
“What do we do?” asked Troy with sudden urgency. “I mean, will they hurt him? How do we help him?”
“We do nothing for now,” Godfrey impressed on the bard. “If Leander is told of this and changes his behaviour, the consequences could be ill. Keep your eyes open, watch the whiterobes, but nothing more. Do you understand?”
Troy’s only response was nodding quickly while biting his lip.
Far from the taverns of the lower city, Leander was sitting upon the flat roof of the palace. His legs were dangling over the edge, and in his hands, he had a knife and an apple, which he was carving into pieces. Except for the Order tower to his left, he had a near unobstructed view of the city as it descended in semicircles below him; it resembled a gigantic theatre carved into the side of the mountain intended to hold an audience of tens of thousands. By his side, also with legs dangling over the edge of the roof, sat the queen of Hæthiod.
Carving out a piece of the apple, Leander offered it to Theodora. “Thank you,” she said and accepted it, putting it in her mouth while he cut a piece for himself. “Do you often come here?”
“I have not done so in many years,” Leander replied. “I did as a small child when the world felt overwhelming. Enjoying the tranquillity.”
“You never struck me as a man wont to feel overwhelmed,” Theodora said light-heartedly.
“I was not always this shining example of carefree attitudes,” Leander jested. “Things were different when my father was alive. When I was four, he sent me to begin training under Count Esmarch.”
“Four?” Theodora asked, to which Leander nodded.
“Yes. Only until I was nine, though. Then my father died, the count was dismissed, and my training ended.”
“That explains certain deficiencies in your swordsmanship,” Theodora teased.
“It does,” Leander smiled. “It was, as said, at times overwhelming until my father’s passing when all tutelage was abandoned. Then I was left to my own devices, becoming the paragon of virtue you see before you.”
“It is funny, I do remember those days. When we were children and still played. But I never noticed such.”
“You were only four years old yourself when everything changed,” Leander pointed out. “How could you have noticed?”
“I suppose not,” Theodora merely remarked.
“I do not mean to complain,” Leander abruptly continued. “Although strict, the count treated me with respect and showed a father’s concern towards me. Which I have never repaid him,” he added a tad remorseful.
“Perhaps you do not owe him anything,” Theodora said, becoming tight-lipped. “We saw how his son turned out.”
“I would not blame poor Lord Hubert for that,” Leander said carefully. “If my opinion matters anything to you, do not hold the count responsible. Lord Hubert served my father with the utmost loyalty, and he was shown only dishonour as they stripped him of his position. The blow to his pride might have caused him to fail in his son’s upbringing, but the fault does not lie in the count’s loyalty.”
“It does,” Theodora nodded slightly. “Your opinion does matter, I mean.”
“Good,” Leander said with a vague smile. He gave her another piece of the apple.
“Do you ever miss your father?” Theodora asked with a faint voice.
“I cannot really say that I do,” Leander admitted. “I saw him so rarely. In public, I was always hidden away. In private, he had many affairs to tend to, a realm to rule. I do not doubt his affection towards me, but it is difficult to miss something that was never present.”
“I miss my father,” Theodora confessed. “Even though I have not seen him more often than you saw yours.”
“I have had many years to come to terms with this,” Leander told her. “Seeing your father so briefly, having him leave so soon again, it must not be easy.”
“It was similar with yours, was it not? He rode out and never returned, I recall,” said the queen.
“Indeed,” the youth nodded. “A small incursion of outlanders in the northeast. He took the King’s Blades with him to investigate, and they were ambushed. Although they fought their way out, my father took a wound. Lasted for days until it finally killed him.”
“How ghastly,” Theodora shivered. “But one must admire his courage going in person. Not merely sending others on his behalf.”
“Courageous, true, certainly befitting a descendant of Erhard,” Leander admitted, “but perhaps not wise. The worst thing a king can do is die before his time, especially when his only son is born under such circumstances as mine,” Leander finished with a mirthless smile.
“Leander,” Theodora gathered the courage to ask, “are you envious of me? That your father adopted me.”
“Oh, gods, no,” Leander hurried to say. “At least there the old – I mean, Lady Irene made a good choice. I was never fit for the burdens of rule.”
“I do not think I am either,” Theodora confided in him. “I have been queen for twelve years, but I cannot recall making a decision beyond what clothes to wear each morning.”
“That is typically the hardest decision I make every day as well,” Leander smiled and was rewarded by Theodora making the same expression. He split the remaining part of the apple and gave her half. “Give it time,” he continued with an earnest voice. “There will be plenty of difficult decisions ahead of you.”
“Such as marriage,” Theodora shuddered. “Everybody has their own designs for me that I must navigate. I must choose somebody who can strengthen my position, but how can I trust any person of influence, knowing their chief interest will be marrying me precisely for my position and what it gives them in turn?”
“I do not envy you there,” Leander said, chewing on his apple piece.
“You are more fortunate,” Theodora claimed. “Nobody will care whom you are joined with in matrimony.”
“On the contrary, I think it would be disastrous if I ever married,” Leander replied.
“How so?” Theodora asked with a frown.
“I am a bastard,” Leander said casually. “I have no title, no income, and a dubious reputation at that, dishonourable even. The only thing I offer is my ancestry. Anybody willing to give me their daughter would do so because my children might inherit my claim. They would want to use any children I have against you,” Leander elaborated. “No, my dear cousin, I will neither marry nor have children. It will only embroil me in schemes, and I have had enough of those for a lifetime.”
“It brings me some comfort knowing despite our differences in status, your life is as miserable as mine,” Theodora said with a serious voice, and Leander could not help but laugh. He threw the remains of the apple over the edge of the roof, and they watched its arc across the sky before falling down into the gardens below. Letting his empty hand fall down to the side, Leander felt Theodora’s hand take hold of it as she leaned her head on his shoulder; in this manner they watched the slow death of the day while the sun set in the west.
With last bell ringing, Leander went to his room. As he entered it, he registered with an indifferent expression the other person present. “Hallo, Mother,” he said, removing his sword belt.
“You have been purposely avoiding me,” Diane said in accusation.
“Not at all, Mother, it happens naturally,” Leander smiled, draping the belt across his dusty armour rack.
“What were you thinking?” she demanded to know.
“I thought I would give green a chance, but I suppose it is not my colour,” he replied, examining his newly tailored, green doublet.
“So amusing,” Diane sneered. “You could have died!” she all but yelled. “That Esmarch boy would have cut you in pieces!”
“Evidently he did not,” Leander remarked, sounding carefree. “Would that be all?”
“Oh do not play coy,” his mother said, her voice growing lower but more menacing. “You will not fight on the battlefield, but you are ready to throw your life away with such nonchalance?”
“I thought you were upset that I did not ride to battle,” Leander said casually, avoiding eye contact. “Are you now upset that I did fight?”
“I wanted you to fight on the battlefield surrounded by others, keeping back, staying alive, not charging the enemy on your own!” Diane said loudly before lowering her voice. “How could you have put yourself in such senseless danger!”
“I am sorry if I endangered your plans for me, Mother,” Leander said with a touch of acid in his voice. “I will be more considerate in the future.”
“Do not dare presume you know my thoughts,” Diane burst out. “Until you have a child of your own, do not dare presume you could understand a mother’s pain.” To this Leander had no reply, and she was eager to continue. “You are my only child, Leander. You are all I have left of your father, all I have left in this place. If you were hurt, my world would end. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Mother. I am sorry,” Leander mumbled.
“With that in mind, I ask you again. What were you thinking?” Diane said exasperated. “Fighting with Esmarch’s son?”
“I had a little to drink.” Leander gave a shrug. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“You,” Diane shook her head, “you, the royal heir to Hæthiod. Five hundred years your ancestors have been kings, and this is how you honour them?”
“I am quite sure most of them greatly enjoyed getting drunk as well,” Leander argued dryly.
“The bluebell of Hæthiod is not just the symbol of the realm, it is your house symbol,” Diane continued without letting him interrupt her. “It is a reminder of how your ancestor Erhard defeated the outlanders and won the kingship! As you should be doing this very moment,” she insisted.
“Is that what vexes you, mother dear? That the one time I picked up a sword, I did not do so to steal the crown but to protect its rightful owner?”
“You are the rightful heir,” Diane interjected. “You are the last male descendant of Erhard, the only one deserving of the crown that he won.”
“Theodora is his descendant too,” Leander reminded her with a mutter.
“Theodora,” Diane said with disdain. “A girl whose claim furthermore is matrilineal. Erhard’s sister did not save this realm from the outlanders, he did! And his son inherited his crown, not his daughter.”
“Mother, did it ever occur to you that maybe Theodora is more suited to be a ruler than me?” Leander asked, and his voice was slightly strained.
“I refuse to believe so,” Diane uttered. “She is a silly girl, dancing on Irene’s strings. But at least your misplaced show of gallantry has earned you the court’s admiration.”
“If the pompous peacocks are happy, I have reached my goal,” Leander smiled sardonically. Then he began unbuttoning his doublet. “If you do not mind, Mother, I wish to rest.”
“At least your sleeping habits are improving,” Diane scoffed. “What was your goal? I mean that sincerely. What on earth did you hope to accomplish by throwing yourself onto that Esmarch boy’s sword?”
“Who said I was thinking at all,” Leander remarked with the same, joyless smile.
“I know quite well you were not thinking,” Diane said dismissively. “No, what were you hoping for, my son? What did you think would happen as you rushed to save that girl by throwing your life away?”
“Nothing,” Leander muttered. “If you would take your leave, please.”
“Oh, Leander,” Diane exclaimed softly as she narrowed her eyes. “What were you hoping for,” she repeated. Although phrased as a question, her final sentence sounded rather like a conclusion.
“I am very tired, Mother,” Leander told her, taking her by the arm and ushering her outside. “Goodnight,” he added and closed the door to his chamber. His mother stood, looking at the door for a moment longer with a dawning smile before she walked away.
After separating from her son, Diane moved through the corridors of the palace, passing through the eastern section of the palace where three of the shrines were located. As fate would have it, Irene came walking the same path from the opposite direction. “I did not know you were so pious,” Irene said to the other woman with an insincere smile. “Or are you simply lost and ended up here by accident?”
“I could say the same,” Diane replied in a disaffected tone as she regarded the shorter and less attractive woman, which included the ten years of age difference in Diane’s favour. “I am surprised altars do not crack in twain when you enter a holy site.”
“Mock all you want,” Irene said dismissively. “I was praying for my dearly departed husband as is the duty of any good wife. You see, regardless of how many years have passed, I will always be Everard’s queen.”
“A shame that your face does not retain the same imperviousness to time,” Diane responded with a sardonic smile of her own.
“I will not keep you, I am sure you are busy. There are, after all, still married men at court with whom you are not intimately acquainted,” Irene said as a parting shot and walked briskly past her rival.
“If you get lonely, let me know and I will make introductions,” Diane retorted and sauntered away.
Once Irene had left the hallway, Diane’s eyes darted back and forth a few more times; then she entered the shrine for Hamaring. At first glance, it appeared empty before a shape in a white robe stepped forward from an alcove. “You frightened me,” Diane gasped, calming down as she recognised Brother Renard.
“Just keeping out of sight,” the sinewy man said.
“You again? Where is the high priest?” Diane asked angrily. “I thought I was clear that I deal with him, not his underlings.”
“The high priest,” Renard said calmly, “does not wish to attract attention by frequent visits to the palace. I am more inconspicuous and may serve perfectly on his behalf.”
“Of course you would say that,” Diane snarled. “You can tell your master to be patient. I will bring Leander to him when I feel he is ready.”
“My master is eager to know when that may be? We have already waited weeks. The army has left the city, there is no better time.”
“My son needs to be properly – coaxed,” Diane said, choosing her words with care. “He cannot simply be thrust into things. I have already made great strides,” she claimed. “He is taking part in court life, and the affair with the geolrobes proves him to be decisive and with leadership qualities.”
“From what I hear, your son practically stumbled into this affair as you name it. It was sheer luck that landed him the accolades of the people rather than a blade to the stomach, which is not a very reassuring interpretation of events,” Renard remarked dryly.
“Interpret it differently,” Diane sneered. “Leander is almost ready to assume his role. I will bring him to your master when I deem he is ready, not before.”
“As long as you deem him ready soon,” Renard said with a blank expression. “There are others sympathetic to our cause. If we must, we will look elsewhere than to your son. Our plans will not be delayed forever on your behalf.”
“I do not care for your threats,” Diane replied.
“Simple statement of facts,” Renard replied casually. “You should leave before anybody notices your presence and wonders about it.”
“Nobody suspects a thing,” Diane said disdainfully. “You are the one sneaking into the palace. Have you taken precautions? There are several geolrobes in the dungeons right now who thought they had outwitted Irene, that old hag.”
“No need for concern,” Renard dismissed her fears. “They believe to have a spy in our midst, but he only tells them what we desire for them to know. They are completely in the dark.”
“If so, there is no need to hurry, is there?” Diane smiled and left the shrine. The white-robed priest waited a brief while, glancing repeatedly towards the altar of the statue but avoiding looking at it directly before he left the consecrated room as well.