170. In Castle Pulchra Mane
Mariel opened her eyes. The high ceiling of her bedroom, created so long ago by the gods, floated in azure distance. Growing up, she had often asked why the gods made Pulchra Mane’s ceilings look like the sky. Neither Aweirgan Unes nor her father, Rudolf, had been able to tell her. Why had the gods made the castles of Two Moons in the first place? Aweirgan couldn’t answer that either. Rudolf told her not to waste time on such questions. The gods had arranged things—no doubt, in great wisdom—so that noble persons could bond with castles and command their magic. The only important question was this: How pure was a ruler’s bond with his or her castle? Rudolf’s magic was very strong, and he was sure Mariel’s would be as well. Someday, he told his daughter, the knob will glow under your hand. His prophecy proved true. Mariel wished her father could have lived to see the perfect violet ball that surrounded her hand on globum domini auctoritate.
I am Grandmesnil!
But now… things had changed. She could not silence the wearying voice in her mind. The color isn’t the same. Not quite. What if I don’t recover all my strength?
Blythe noticed Mariel had woken. She came quickly from a cot by the wall to Mariel’s side. How long must I have a girl sleep in my room and watch me through the night?
“Fair morning, your majesty. Would you like breakfast here, or shall we bathe you and take you to the great hall?”
“Bath, then breakfast in the hall. But summon Aweirgan and Merlin immediately.”
“Aye, my lady.” Blythe went to the door, which swished open at her approach, and spoke to someone just outside. Mariel’s scribe and commander of sheriffs entered while Blythe was running the bath.
“Your majesty.” “My liege.” Aweirgan and Merlin inclined their heads. Mariel, sitting up in bed, acknowledged them with a nod. “Report,” she said.
“A perfect night. Nothing happened.” Merlin Torr smiled wryly. “I suppose it would be even better to report the rebels abandoned their positions and went home, but at least they did not attack.”
Mariel sighed. “If Allard Dell doesn’t have the courage to attack, I would think he would leave; disperse his men to their respective lords.”
Aweirgan said, “He hasn’t the courage to go home, my lady. Not without convincing proof that you are securely in command of Pulchra Mane. Paul Wadard will hold him responsible for the failure of the rebellion.”
Mariel pursed her lips. “Send a message to Dell. Invite him to come, in person, to my hall. We will give him proof that I am alive and active. And now, my bath is ready. Gentlemen, if you please.” She nodded toward the door. “I will come down for breakfast presently.”
Bestauden Winter aided Mariel down the stairs to the great hall. Her sense of balance was returning, but she there was no point in risking a fall. With his powerful right arm around her waist and her left arm around his, he practically carried her. A stranger seeing them might have thought them intimates. Once in the hall, she walked more demurely, with one arm tucked in his.
She ate a solid breakfast of summer fruit, eggs, and meat. She anticipated hard work at Videns-Loquitur. A smile: Eudes had often said she ate like a plowman on Council days. But then the smile faded. The images of Eudes at Inter Lucus worried her; he had been his ironic, normal self at first, but the second Eudes seemed dazed or drugged. He looked as if he had aged ten years. She wanted very badly to see him again, but she did not move toward her lady’s knob. One thing at a time, she told herself. Allard Dell first. When it’s time to talk with Eudes, maybe the boy Alf can help.
Finishing her breakfast, Mariel asked Aweirgan, “Do you think he will come? Dell, I mean.”
Aweirgan sipped hot tea. “He will certainly come, my lady. Dell cannot go home, having never attacked Pulchra Mane, unless he can show Paul Wadard that the attack would have failed. I presume you intend to give him some proof that will satisfy Wadard. But I don’t know what it is.”
“I’m going to let him watch me work.”
Aweirgan frowned, but before he could speak his mind, Merlin Torr entered Pulchra Mane with a stocky newcomer. Not a complete stranger; Mariel thought, I’ve seen him before.
Torr said, “Your majesty, I present Allard Dell, from Beatus Valle.” Dell had short, tightly curled black hair and a trimmed beard.
The rebel commander bowed. “Fair morning, your majesty.”
Mariel and Aweirgan rose to acknowledge Dell. “Welcome to Pulchra Mane,” Mariel said. “We have several matters to discuss, Commander. Your future, for one. And the army you have brought to my city. But before we talk about these things, I invite you to breakfast.” She motioned to an unoccupied table. “Tait, my chief cook, is very skilled. If you like, we can ask for bread or meat or anything you prefer.”
Dell licked his lips. “You are gracious, your majesty. A glass of wine would be sufficient. My chief assignment in coming to Pulchra Mane was to see you in person. My master had heard rumors of your demise and was concerned for your health.” He moved to the indicated table. “Shall I sit?”
“Please do.” Mariel overcame her urge to laugh at Paul Wadard’s supposed concern for her health. “You can see that reports of my demise were greatly exaggerated. I think our conversation will proceed better if you see my health demonstrated first hand. You will see that I command Pulchra Mane.”
Allard Dell slipped into a chair. One of Torr’s young sheriffs stood close by, ensuring the guest would stay in his seat, and one of the castle serving girls brought a tray with a glass and wine bottle.
Mariel looked at her scribe and Merlin Torr. “Shall we, gentlemen?” She walked to her purple-cushioned chair to sit by her lady’s knob. Aweirgan took his place at the writing desk. Torr stood behind Mariel, resting his hand on his sword hilt. She bonded and for a few seconds simply enjoyed the warmth of the connection. Then she gave a mental command: Videns-Loquitur. She specified: Ventus in Montes and Tutum Partum.
Wymer Thoncelin and Avice Montfort appeared in window frames almost immediately. They’ve been waiting since yesterday morning, Mariel thought. Unless the boy has talked with them, they don’t know Martin has fallen.
“My liege!” said Thoncelin. “Your majesty! I am so glad to see you!” said Montfort. “I expected to see Lord Martin as well. Will he join us?”
Thoncelin’s scribe, Albin Bearning, and Montfort’s scribe, Gentian Bearning, bowed formally to Mariel. Father and son also nodded silent salutations to each other. Meanwhile, Mariel eyed Avice suspiciously.
“Fair morning, Lord Wymer. Lady Avice.” Mariel acknowledged their greetings. “Perhaps you see now that I am not dependent on Martin’s magic. My strength grows. I want to speak with you privately, to confront you with your misdeeds. You two have long been my most loyal councilors. But three days ago, you joined Martin’s conspiracy against me.”
Montfort looked as if she had been slapped. “Not so, my lady! You are my queen whether you adopt Lord Martin’s parliament plan or not. I did say, and I do think, that a parliament is a good idea. There is no conspiracy here.”
Mariel felt her face flushing. “And you, Wymer? Do you hold to similar nonsense?”
“My liege…” His bushy eyebrows bunched together. The gravel voice rumbled, “Mariel, are you ill? Is something wrong?”
“I, I… Oh, damn!” Mariel’s heart was beating too fast. “Can you help…?”
The Videns-Loquitur burden lessened. Mariel read strain on both their faces. “My lady Mariel, you are my queen.” Thoncelin spoke deliberately. “I will always help you in any way I can.”
Mariel felt she might choke on the lump of fear in her chest. “I am the queen. I am Grandmesnil.” She drew in a long shaky breath.
“Oh, Mariel.” Avice Montfort sounded like a mother, like the memory of Mariel’s mother. “You are Grandmesnil. You will rule. Wymer and I have supported you and support you still. But we do think that Martin’s parliament can help you.”
The lump of fear occasioned new fear. She feared her fear. She was losing control. “But Martin is dead,” she said. “He cannot help me.”
Montfort frowned, puzzled.
Thoncelin said, “How can you know this? If he is dead…”
Mariel’s arms were shaking. I am losing control. Damn it! I should never have done this with Dell watching. “A boy, a new lord of Inter Lucus. He named himself Alf Cedarborne. A son not of Martin’s body. Adopted, he said.”
“How can that be?” asked Montfort. “Only an heir of the body…”
Trembling, Mariel said, “I don’t know! He said he was Martin’s adopted son.”
Thoncelin: “This boy said Martin was dead?”
I am losing control. If Dell isn’t stupid, he knows I’m weak. Damn! Mariel felt sure her fear would strangle her. Surprisingly, like an ice flow, fear cracked. She closed her eyes for a moment. Opening them, she said, “Not exactly. He said… I don’t remember.” Her voice quavered, but she watched their faces, full of compassion. Wymer and Avice really are loyal—to me, not just my power.
“Your majesty,” said Montfort. “If Martin is dead, it is a terrible loss, but I think a parliament could be a help with or without him.”
But I am Grandmesnil! Terror flooded back, threatening to overthrow her mind, but now it was a brittle fear. She looked into Thoncelin and Montfort’s eyes. I am losing control. But there are others who will help. With that thought, a new path opened before her. “I need to talk with my husband,” she said.
“What?” Avice’s voice shot up an octave.
Thoncelin rumbled, “Have you found General Ridere? Spoken to him? Where is he?”
“At Inter Lucus,” Mariel replied. She smiled wanly. “They’re all there, it seems. Eudes and Archard and Milo Mortane, the brother of Aylwin.”
“Your majesty, rest.” Montfort’s words were more than a suggestion. “Rest half an hour. Wymer and I will attempt to assist you when you summon Inter Lucus.”
“Very well.” Mariel removed her hand and the Videns-Loquitur windows disappeared. She blanked her face, stood, and turned to face Allard Dell. “What do you think, Commander Dell? Isn’t it time you took your army home?”
Dell’s hands were steepled in front of him, his expression impassive. “It does seem that you can command Pulchra Mane.” He sighed. “I should get back to my men. We need to prepare to march.” Dell rose and inclined his head.
“Just a moment, please.” Aweirgan finished writing something on his slate. “Merlin, take Commander Dell to Materias Transmutatio.” He waved vaguely toward the east end of the castle. “Show him some of our steel. It will remind him of the queen’s power.”
Mariel nodded. Aweirgan knows.
“As you wish.” Torr nodded to Dell, motioning him toward the eastern end of the great hall.
Dell looked at Mariel, hesitated. “I would rather get back to my men. It’s a long way home.”
I should never have let him watch. “It will only take a couple minutes,” Mariel said. “Please go with Commander Torr.”
Dell sighed. “Very well. Lead on, Commander.” As the two soldiers departed the hall, Aweirgan held out his writing slate. His finger tapped the last words written there: He sees.
“Wymer and Avice had to help me. Did he notice that, do you think?”
“Perhaps. More importantly, he saw your color, my lady.” Aweirgan swallowed and slumped onto a chair. “I’ve seen this Allard Dell before. More importantly, he has seen you.”
Mariel remembered. “Oh, aye. He stands sometimes behind Paul Wadard, during my Councils.”
“Aye, my lady. He has seen you command Pulchra Mane many times. He has seen the color of your bond.”
Mariel felt shaky. She sat down as well. “And you think…?”
“My lady, the color of your bond has improved each day since you awoke. I trust that you will one day—soon, I pray—recover all your strength. But today, I fear, you have given Dell proof not only that you can command Pulchra Mane, but also that your command is not as strong as it has been.”
Mariel pressed her hands on the tabletop. “You speak very carefully, Aweirgan, but the truth is I have played the fool. Attempting to demonstrate my power, I have shown him my vulnerability.”
Aweirgan laid his hand on hers. “Sometimes, when we have plunged into a dark wood, the best way out is to press forward. I suggest you invite Dell to observe you yet again.”
Mariel raised an eyebrow.
“It’s your intention, is it not, to talk with General Ridere, and the lord of Inter Lucus? Montfort and Thoncelin expect this, and they will help support Videns-Loquitur. Allard Dell may well hear things that caution him against rash behavior.”
When Merlin Torr escorted Allard Dell back to the great hall, Aweirgan Unes was sitting by himself, sharpening a quill. “What did you think of our steel?” he asked.
Dell said, “Very impressive. Queen Mariel, I must admit, is far stronger than my master, Paul Wadard. Where is she? I wish to offer her the blessings of the gods before I go.”
“My lady stepped out for a few minutes. She will return soon.” Aweirgan gestured toward a chair. “Please sit. The Queen invites you to observe another demonstration of her command of Inter Lucus.”
“That won’t be necessary…”
“Her majesty insists. You will stay.”
Dell bristled. “I am a prisoner?”
“I do not say so. You may decide—after you observe the Queen’s next council.”
Copyright © 2015 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.