7. In Castle Pulchra Mane
“Fair morning, my lords. Lady Avice.” Mariel Grandmesnil gestured with her right hand, resting her left on globum domini auctoritate. Her bond with the lord’s knob was that pure.
“Your grace.” The subject lords and lady spoke as one, bowing their heads; five of them kept both hands touching their respective lord’s knobs. Only Wymar Thoncelin and Lady Avice Montfort could maintain a bond with one hand. Eudes felt certain Mariel’s control was surer even than theirs. She rules her castle with ease. Yet another reason they will obey.
“Where shall we begin today?”
“May it please the queen?” Paul Wadard never hesitated. It would be something about money, and it would be something mean and cheap. Mariel acknowledged him with a gesture.
“As you know, your grace, Hinxworth is a city under the protection of Beautus Valle and my family. The merchants host an open fair every summer, something your father always encouraged. Traders come from distant parts of Herminia, and there are musical contests, drinking fests, jugglers and all sorts of entertainments. It is a fine thing, I will say, to see the small folk dancing on the green of an evening . . .”
If boredom were a weapon, the Lord Wadard would be king of Herminia. Mariel allowed him to carry on for a few minutes. Very slowly he came to the point: the merchants of Hinxworth were balking at the taxes Wadard wanted to impose on their fair. Lady Avice and the other lords were showing signs of impatience.
Mariel interrupted. “My lord Wadard, why do you need these fees?”
“Why, to pay for sheriffs, to provide public safety.”
“Charge them nothing.”
Wadard looked as if he swallowed chokecherry. “Nothing, your grace?”
“That’s right. The crown will pay all reasonable expenses for public safety for the Hinxworth fair. We estimate that to be . . .” Mariel glanced at Aweirgan.
“Twenty golds,” said the counselor.
“But your grace, twenty golds will hardly be enough.” What this really meant was that Wadard wouldn’t be able to line his pockets. He tried another tack. “As a member of your Council I must counsel you: The crown cannot assume all debts. It will bankrupt Herminia.”
“I’m not assuming all debts, just this one. I do want to encourage the Hinxworth fair; all Herminia will benefit from increased trade, and each of us will collect a bit more in taxes. Imagine how the merchants of Hinxworth will love you when you tell them. You may charge the traders who come to Hinxworth from other towns a penny each, as a registration fee. But protecting the peace of the realm is my job—and yours.”
Eudes kept his face blank, studying the expressions of the lords and lady. Wadard was frowning, but he was also thinking how the merchants would respond. Beaumont was relieved to have Wadard’s weekly complaint behind them. Toeni wore a little smile; he probably guessed Mariel was overextending her treasury. Eudes made a mental note: Remind Aweirgan to check castle Prati Mansum’s accounts. Has Toeni been paying his due? Giles and Mowbray scowled, but they always scowled; they could not look at Eudes without resenting and fearing him. Thoncelin, by contrast, looked pleased. He understood and approved Mariel’s policy encouraging trade. Lady Montfort’s face was inscrutable; she might have been mildly interested or distracted.
After some silence, Mariel prodded: “Lord Wadard?
The gray-haired lord acquiesced. “As your grace commands.”
Mariel nodded politely. “Next? Lord Thoncelin?”
“I have no urgent matters, your grace. As I reported two weeks ago, my scribe of the castle, Albin Bearning, has taken it upon himself to design a better bridge for the Loud River. His drawings are not yet complete, but when they are I will beg your grace’s assistance in building the thing. It would be a benefit for Ventus in Montus, obviously, but I believe for the whole island as well.”
“Aweirgan and I look forward to seeing the plans. Next. Lord Mowbray?”
“Your grace, I humbly request advice.”
Eudes scowled as darkly as Mowbray had minutes before. Whatever virtues Denis Mowbray had, humility was not among them. Eudes suspected a trap.
“Whatever advice I, my counselor or my husband can offer, you shall have. What is the matter?”
“There is a village called Haxby in the mountains, a small place. Your grace may never have heard of it.” Suddenly Lady Avice was paying close attention. The Green Mountains lay between Mowbray’s castle Rubrum Vulpes and Montfort’s Tutum Partum.
“Let us say I have not.” Mariel brushed at her long tresses with her free hand, her eyes looking at the floor. Eudes recognized the signs of wariness. She sees where he’s going.
“The good men of Haxby have asked to pledge liege to Rubrum Vulpes.” Mowbray gave slight emphasis to men. “It occurred to me that I ought to inquire of your grace before accepting their pledges.”
“I see. Lady Avice, please comment.” Mariel smoothed blonde hair on her shoulder.
The white-haired lady responded, “Your grace, Haxby is nearer Tutum Partum than Rubrum Vulpes. In fact, the village is on the eastern slope of the mountains, and your father established the watershed line as the boundary between us. I am Haxby’s rightful liege.”
Keeping her voice even, Mariel said, “Lord Mowbray says the villagers desire to pledge to him.”
Eudes thought: Only after he told them how unmanly it would be to be ruled by a woman. And he probably promised some village elder that his son could marry one of Mowbray’s daughters; he’s got enough to go around.
Avice tilted her head without answering. The lady knew well that Mariel had to guard against rebellion from Denis Mowbray or Godfrey Giles. But if the queen could not provide justice, why should the house of Montfort support her? The two women locked eyes for several seconds.
Mariel continued to hold Avice’s gaze while she spoke. “Lord Mowbray, how large is Haxby? How many folk live there?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, your grace. It’s a small place.”
“Small. Fewer than two hundred? What would you guess, Lady Avice?”
Eudes thought: Ah! A way out—if Avice seizes it.
The older woman smiled. “I am sure more than two hundred live in Haxby, if one includes grown women and those who worship the old god.”
Mariel made an open hand gesture. “In justice we must certainly count grown women. And if Herminians want to worship the old god, they may—so long as they swear obedience to the crown. It seems to me that Haxby may, if the villagers elect, become a free town, thus making Haxby what? The twenty-first free town in Herminia?”
Aweirgan said, “The twenty-second, your grace. Should the elders choose to pledge to the crown.”
Mowbray blustered: “That’s outrageous. There can’t possibly be two hundred souls in Haxby, counting even children.”
Mariel nodded solemnly, as if agreeing with Mowbray. “The question must be investigated. Lady Avice and you, Lord Mowbray, will each send a deputy to Haxby. Fourteen days from tomorrow, your deputies will count the citizens of Haxby. If the grown men and women number more than two hundred, they may register as a free town of the realm. Worshipers of the old god will be included in the count, provided they swear fealty. Your deputies will supervise Haxby’s organization as a free town. I will expect a report, including names of the town’s Councilors, three weeks hence. Both Tutum Partum and Rubrum Vulpes may regularly send a deputy to represent the interests of the crown as members of said Council. If, however, the citizens number less than two hundred, that shall be reported to me three weeks hence and I will decide then who will be liege.”
Eudes smiled only inwardly, his face as expressionless as ever. Haxby will leap at the chance to become a free town of the realm. They’ll scour the countryside for live bodies to make the count. In the wall of windows, Denis Mowbray ground his teeth. Avice Montfort bowed her head to the queen’s decision.
Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.