Chapter 3

From his elevated position on the dais, Benoic watched as his subjects entered the great hall and found their places at the dining tables. Beyond the tables, at the far end of the hall, he could see his steward giving orders to the servers and kitchen staff. He had personally overseen the cook to make certain everything was prepared correctly. Benoic turned to the empty seat on his left. He would not want his most important guest to be disappointed. This meal could mean everything for the future of his kingdom. One mistake by the cook or any of the other servants, and he would have them dismissed. He turned to his right and motioned to Coenwalh. The young knight rose from the bench.

“Yes, lord?” Coenwalh said. He wore a long sleeved silver tunic made of soft wool that stretched below his knees. Drawn about his left shoulder was a green cloak secured by an iron brooch.

“Where is he?” Benoic asked.

“I do not know, lord.” Coenwalh smoothed the front of his tunic.

“He’s late already.”

“Perhaps his absence is for our benefit. His arrival gives me concern. I do not trust him.”

“I didn’t ask for your opinion,” Benoic said. “Besides, I have no other choice. Go and find out when he will be here.”

“Yes, lord.” Coenwalh bowed and descended from the dais. He crossed the room and exited through the doors at the far end of the hall.

Benoic turned to his wife who sat silently observing the many guests. Katriana looked beautiful in the afternoon sunlight streaming in through the high windows, her dark hair and smooth skin glowing as the light brushed across her face. She appeared lost in though as she stared out at the crowd. Benoic reached over and touched his wife’s hand. She cut her eyes over at her husband, gave a weak smile, and returned to observing the guests. Was she as nervous as he felt? Like Coenwalh, she had reason to be concerned, Benoic supposed, but Benoic knew he must not appear worried. His wife, like all women, was a fragile creature, and Coenwalh was not old enough to truly understand the politics of war. Yes, he needed to be strong and confident for his wife, for Coenwalh, and for his nobles gathering in the hall.

The notes of the harp, lute, and viele drifted across the room, echoing off the granite pillars and stone arches, their soothing melodies drifting upwards to the wooden rafters. Benoic turned and studied the wall hangings off to his left. One hanging showed the mighty city and castle of Arundel dominating the surrounding landscape. Another depicted his exhibition party as it first landed on the southern coast of Pagannia. And on the hanging nearest the dais was an enormous portrait of Benoic himself. Benoic—he coud call himself a king now, he supposed, since both his brothers were dead and he was the only heir old enough to rule—took a deep breath, and he thought of the words he would say when his guest arrived. His kingdom, his marriage, his life depended on these words. He would certainly not refer to himself as king, and he would not make the same mistakes his brothers had. Lolek had been careless, and Perceval had been arrogant, and both had died, and now Cobus had crossed the channel to negotiate terms with the kingdom of Pagannia. Where his brothers had failed, he must succeed.

Coenwalh returned shortly and ascended the steps to the dais. He took his seat to the right of Katriana.

“Well?” Benoic said.

“I spoke with the steward,” Coenwalh said. “He’s just arrived.”

A steward’s word could not always be trusted. As Benoic recalled, Cobus had been steward to Lolek for many years.

But Benoic’s steward had not lied, for a man entered shortly after at the far end of the hall. The guests quieted as Cobus crossed the room. He was clothed in all black: boots, hose, cloak, tunic, and surcoat, with the image of the red dragon emblazoned on his chest. His hair was dark and long, his face bearded. Three soldiers accompanied him, and they also wore black except for their surcoats, which were dyed a deep scarlet. The king rose as his guest ascended to the high table.

“Welcome to Arundel,” Benoic said, extending his hand. “How was your journey across the channel?”

“Rainy, cold, and miserable,” Cobus said, taking the king’s hand in his. “I almost lost three men and two horses to the cold. I could spare the men but not the horses.”

“I’m sorry to hear it. I’m sure you will find it much more comfortable here.”

Cobus sat, and Benoic motioned to the rest of his guests to be seated. The low murmur of the crowd started up again, and the musicians began to play from the gallery above the opposite end of the hall. Coenwalh took his position to the right of Katriana, while Cobus’s three soldiers sat on the left side of the table.

“It is a fine place,” Cobus said. He scanned the hall. His eyes traced the pillars to the ceiling rafters where oil lamps hung and illuminated the bright green walls of the room. He glanced at the wall hangings, then out at the crowd, and then back to the high table, his eyes resting on Katriana. “I’m most impressed. One of the finest halls I’ve seen.”

“Thank you,” Benoic said. He noticed Cobus’s eyes moving over Katriana before returning to address him. The staring didn’t bother Benoic. All men stared. It was impossible not to; she was so beautiful. But only Benoic took her to bed at night. He reached out and rested his hand on the back of her neck.

“I’m glad we finally have the opportunity to meet,” Cobus said.

“It is my honor,” Benoic said.

Two months ago, Benoic had sent emissaries to Cobus. The dragon lord had accepted the invitation to sit down and discuss the futures of both their kingdoms. The kingdom of Barathea, and the kingdom of Pagannia.

Barathea.

The name still sounded strange to Benoic. But by whatever right, Cobus was a king now too, or at least he called himself king. Perceval had called himself king as well, even though as the youngest of three brothers, he had no rightful claim. Younger by not even an hour, Perceval had always reminded him. Though it didn’t matter anymore. Both his brothers were dead, murdered at the hands of the dragon lord, who was now dining at his table. Benoic had called him here for two reasons: one, because he wanted to ensure the protection of his island kingdom from future threat, and two, because he had hated Perceval.

Cobus glanced at Katriana again. “This is your wife?”

“Yes, I’m sorry,” Benoic said. “This is Katriana,” and then pointing at Coenwalh, “And this is the Lord Coenwalh. Our families have known each other for a long time.”

Cobus took no interest in the knight, though he obviously had an interest in Katriana by the way he continued to stare at her. Benoic quickly turned the conversation to other matters.

“I understand you control Pointhou and Flancerre,” Benoic said.

“Yes,” Cobus answered.

“The northern lands were once mine. My brother took them from me.” Benoic lied. He had simply abandoned the provinces and allowed Perceval to have them. Benoic knew that once Cobus gathered his armies and marched on northern Aricin, it would be much easier to defend his island kingdom than the continental lands, and so he had fortified himself across the channel with water and stone and watched while his brother fought for a kingship. He also knew Perceval would lose, and once defeated, Perceval’s supporters would scatter or join with Cobus, and the dragon lord would not treat the brother of an enemy kindly. He had already killed two brothers, so why not a third, and for this reason, Benoic wanted to distance himself from Perceval.

“You’re brother had blind courage,” Cobus said. “It’s what drove him to his death.”

“My brother was an arrogant fool and I hated him,” Benoic said, and he meant it.

He knew he would have no trouble convincing Cobus of this hate. Since his youth, Perceval had always pressed his claim to the throne, believing Lolek would never have any children. The priests believed this thorn of infertility had been put in Lolek’s side, a burden he must carry, and when the king’s son Seth was finally born, Benoic had no doubts that Perceval had wanted to–and perhaps had even tried–to have him killed. The boy was now living somewhere in the south, protected by a fraction of Lolek’s former household troops, and even if he had died, Lolek would have never recognized Perceval’s claim. Benoic was the second brother, if only by an hour. Still, it did not matter. Even under different circumstances, Perceval would have tried to claim the throne after Lolek’s death, and he would have tried to have Benoic killed as well.

And so, Benoic hated his brother. Hated him more so because he believed Perceval had tried to kill an innocent child. Perceval had infected the child with something, with what Benoic did not know, and how he did not know, but that was why Seth was always weak and sickly.

“Then we have something in common,” Cobus said.

“Did he die well?” Benoic said. He imagined Perceval cowering behind Alecon’s walls waiting for death to come, waiting because there was nothing else he could do, and because waiting was what he had been doing his entire life. And now, he would never be king of Aricin.

“He asked to be ransomed.”

“I wouldn’t have paid it.”

“He wouldn’t have asked you. But he wanted life, so I gave it to him. He died with a sword in his hands, a warrior’s death. He is with the warrior saints now.”

Saint George. Saint Demetrius. Saint Theodore. Saint Michael. Benoic doubted his brother was in the afterlife dining with such revered figures. He is burning. The keys of pride and greed and envy did not open the narrow gate. Quam angusta porta.

“I should have been the one to kill him,” Benoic said. And if I see him again, he will die a second death.

“And you would have died.”

It was true his brother had more supporters for the throne and could raise a larger army. “Not if he had crossed the channel. He would have broken himself if he tried to attack me.”

Benoic’s steward climbed the steps to the dais. Cobus glanced over his shoulder at him and then turned to look out at the crowd.

He knows what stewards are capable of. If Lolek and Perceval, then why not me?

“Lord, dinner is ready to be served,” the steward said.

Rumors said Cobus had poisoned Lolek and Aoife with a fruit pastry at Castle Ganya. Some claimed it was venison or cheese or wine, but it mattered little. It could have been anything.

Benoic watched the kitchen staff through the slit in the screen at the far end of the hall as they prepared to bring the dishes into the room. He had paid one of his servants to taste all the dishes before the meal. He only hoped the man had done his job. Perhaps, he would let his guests eat first and then eat only what they ate. It was the courteous thing to do, after all.

“My lord?” the steward asked again.

“Yes, yes of course,” Benoic said. “Go ahead then.”

The steward nodded and hurried off to the other end of the hall, while another attendant came forward and poured everyone a cup of wine. Benoic waited for Cobus to drink first, but the dragon lord did not reach for his cup and neither did any of his men. Katriana stared out at the crowd, and Coenwalh was far too cautious to be the one to drink first, and so they all sat at the table, their cups full with red wine.

“And what about your other brother?” Cobus said. “Did you hate him too?

Benoic could only think about the cup of wine in front of him and how obvious it must have been that none of them were drinking.

“I loved him like a brother should,” Benoic said.

And he took a sip of wine. If he had waited any longer to drink, Cobus might have guessed the reason for his caution, and so he drank only a sip, and he waited, and he lived. He was afraid to insult Cobus by not drinking. He was afraid to show any distrust, though by drinking first he took a great risk. But the risk was worth it, for if they could not trust one another and come to an agreement, then Benoic knew he might die anyway. Cobus would bring his armies across the channel, and there would be a great slaughter. The price of peace was always paid in blood. Just not mine. He would give Cobus what he wanted, and Pagannia would be safe.

“And I loved him like a steward should,” Cobus said.

Coenwalh spoke up from the other end of the table. “Is that why you killed him then?”

“You disrespect our guest,” Benoic said.

Cobus looked past the king and queen at Coenwalh. “He came for me with armed guards and was going to hang me for treason. What would you have done?”

“Not committed treason,” Coenwalh answered. “I heard you poisoned Lolek and his wife.”

“A lie.” Cobus took a sip of his wine, and his men drank as well.

Coenwalh still did not lift his glass. He leaned out over the table. “And I heard you sent assassins to find and kill his son.”

“More lies.” Cobus turned to Benoic. “Your brother began to suffer greatly from paranoia. He was afraid for his son, afraid for his throne, afraid of Perceval. He thought I was working for Perceval, and he tried to have me arrested.”

“And were you working for Perceval?” Benoic asked the obvious question.

And Cobus provided the obvious answer: “Of course not. I was loyal to your older brother.”

“So loyal that you killed him,” Coenwalh said.

“Enough!” Benoic said.

“I show no respect for a murderer,” Coenwalh said. “They were your brothers after all. You may have hated Perceval, but he was still your brother.”

“Perceval got what he deserved,” Benoic said. But not Lolek. He deserved better. He deserved a healthy son and a long life. Requiescat in Pace, brother. The king turned back to Cobus. “Please, forgive him.”

Benoic thought about dismissing Coenwalh, but he also did not want to cause a disturbance in front of so many guests. He just needed a way to keep him quiet, or else everything he had worked so hard to achieve might fall apart.

Cobus leaned forward to address Coenwalh. “Have you ever killed a man?”

The knight hesitated and then shook his head. “No.”

Coenwalh was barely seventeen, a masterful fighter in tournaments, but he had never experienced real battle. He had never stood in a shield wall, never tasted blood on his tongue, never smelled the fear of men before battle, and never used his blade to slice another man’s throat. Yet he was invincible.

The youth always are.

“Then you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Cobus said.

Benoic wanted to ask how Lolek had died, but he also knew it was not the best time, for he could sense the growing irritation in Cobus’s words. He needed to control Coenwalh.

“Does it concern you that his son still lives?” Coenwalh asked.

Cobus didn’t have time to answer, for the Lord Chancellor entered the hall to bless the food.

Bless the saints. “Time for the first course,” Benoic said.

The Lord Chancellor crossed the hall to stand in front of the dais. He led everyone in prayer, and after blessing the food, he took a seat and the servers began entering the hall carrying baskets of bread and jugs of ale and mead. Following behind them, more attendants came through the curtain with the first course of dishes: meat stews, soups, boiled beans and peas served with saffron, onions and garlic, lettuce topped with oil and vinegar, apples and pears, roasted beef and mutton, smoked herring seasoned with ginger and pepper, and a variety of sauces made from ground herbs. The airy notes of the flutes and viele floated across the room as the servers moved from table to table with the dishes.

One of the squires ascended the platform to the high table and placed a silver platter full of beef and mutton in front of Benoic. The squire then held the meat while the king carved. Benoic stood and pushed his scarlet, fur-lined robe back from his arms. He took a knife and cut a section of beef and placed it on Cobus’s platter. Cobus stabbed the meat with his knife and put it in his mouth. Benoic waited for a reaction, but Cobus said nothing. The guests in the hall stared at their king and Cobus, and Benoic finally signaled for them to begin eating. The thrumming of conversation continued, and Benoic sat down. Katriana then took the platter and started passing out the food to those seated at the high table. She shared a dish and cup with her husband, and Cobus shared with the three men to his left.

Benoic resumed his talk of business before Coenwalh could say another word. “The northern lands my brother took from me. What can I offer you in return for them?”

Cobus thought for a moment. He drank wine and stared out at the crowd, and then he turned, looking past Benoic, to glance at the king’s wife. “Nothing,” Cobus answered. “I have already given those lands to some of my men.”

Everyone at the high table was eating now, even Coenwalh. They ate the bread and stews and meat and fruits, but Benoic still could not bring himself to touch anything. Though his lack of appetite no longer came from fear of poisoning, but from uncertainty as to how Cobus would respond to his impending offer. His stomach churned. Here was his chance to make his kingdom great.

“You’ve heard of Chermon?” Benoic saw Cobus’s eyes flash when he said these words.

“Yes, what of it?” Cobus said.

“It is said the city is somewhere beyond the mountains in the east.” The City of the Ancients. “It is the last refuge for the people of Aricin. The kingdom will not be entirely yours until you have captured it. As long as they still hold it, you will have trouble.”

After three years of war, Cobus had killed or subdued the majority of the Aricin nobility, with many switching their allegiances to Cobus, but a small faction, mostly minor nobles and peasants, were still loyal to the kingdom, and they had caused many problems for the dragon lord within the past year. It was in this growing rebellion that Benoic saw his greatest power.

“It’s not even certain that the city exits, or if the Aricin nobles hold it,” Cobus said.

“It exists,” Benoic said, “and the last remnant of the Aricin people are there, fomenting rebellion against you, lord.”

“How do you know that?”

“I know someone who has seen it.”

“And have you seen it?”

It was a fair question, an expected question, one that might have concerned him except that Benoic trusted the person who had told him the city’s location, and so he could speak with confidence. “No, but I would trade my life on it.”

“Who told you?”

Benoic expected this question also, and he answered like a true diplomat. “It’s not important.” The king could see this response frustrated Cobus, but the dragon lord held his tongue. “What is important,” Benoic continued, “is that the city exists, and I can show you where it is.”

Cobus’s eyes flashed again, and the king of Pagannia knew he had put himself in an unbeatable position.

A flurry of music announced the second course of dishes. Servers emerged from behind the screen carrying more platters of food. An attendant ascended the steps to the high table and placed a pie in front of Benoic. When the king cut into the crust, three blackbirds flew out and perched themselves upon the ceiling rafters. All the guests applauded. The other dishes followed: entrails and testicles of boar and stag, venison steaks, and a peacock redressed in all its feathers and posed as if still alive with its plumage spread out behind it. Everyone marveled at the sight of the bird as the servants brought it in on a cart and set it just below the high table. The guests applauded a second time, and then resumed eating.

Benoic wanted to impress Cobus. He wanted the dragon lord to marvel, as his guests had, at the spectacle of food and drink and the magnificence of his hall. He wanted to demonstrate the wealth of his island kingdom, however small, and prove his importance as a potential ally.

Cobus stabbed a chunk of venison with his knife and chewed in silence. Whether Benoic had impressed him or not, he couldn’t be sure, but he could guess that by the lord’s silence, Cobus burned to know the location of Chermon.

Cobus finally spoke: “What makes you think I want to find Chermon? It’s insignificant.”

“Because it is a city lined with silver and gold, and the Aricin nobles are there, and if you don’t want to know where it is, then I will gather my armies and take it for myself.”

“So why not do that? Why not march your armies across the lands of snow and ice, and if the city is where you say it is, why not take it for yourself? Why offer it to me?”

This was the question Benoic had been waiting for. He had spent many sleepless nights thinking of how he would answer it. Countless times, in the cold of morning before dawn, he would rise and walk the battlements, gazing out at his magnificent city and thinking about this moment. With the fires of the city houses burning low, he would stare into that gray, pre-dawn mist and imagine how much greater his kingdom could be. His answer had to be perfect, and so it was in the darkness of those morning hours that he had decided what he would say. And he knew Cobus would agree.

“My fight was with Perceval,” Benoic said. “Not with Lolek. The Aricin lands were Lolek’s lands, not Perceval’s, and Lolek gave me the Northern provinces. Perceval took those from me, so all I want is what is rightfully mine.”

A server climbed the steps and poured everyone a cup of mead.

Cobus finished his cup of wine, bit into a slice of boar, and then drank a gulp of mead. “So I return to you Pointhou and Flancerre, and you give me the location of Chermon?” The dragon lord stared at the thick drink in his hand.

“Yes, that is my offer.” Benoic still could not bring himself to eat. The herring and venison and boar sat on his platter, untouched, while Katriana ate only bread and cheese and fruit, and some small slices of venison. With control over Pointhou and Flancerre, Benoic’s powers would once again extend to the continental lands, and if Cobus ever turned on him, it would be much more difficult for the dragon lord to take the island kingdom of Pagannia with an enemy on his borders. If he brought his armies across the channel, Cobus would leave his own lands vulnerable to attack.

“And what else?” Cobus said.

“Nothing else,” Benoic said. “If my brother is dining with the warrior saints, I want him looking down knowing I control those lands. Even though you killed him, he would die a second death with that knowledge. If I couldn’t kill him with my own sword, then I’ll kill him with jealousy.”

Cobus paused, stirred his drink with his finger, and gazed out at the crowd of guests who were busy laughing and getting drunk on the ale and mead.

“All right.” Cobus turned to Benoic. “You will have your lands.”

Benoic had waited for so long to hear those words that when Cobus actually said them, he was surprised when he felt no excitement. Cobus had agreed to the terms much too quickly, and instead of joy, Benoic felt uncertainty and mistrust. Chermon was valuable for sure, if in fact it was full of gold and silver, but still he had not expected Cobus to be so cooperative.

“What is it?” Cobus said.

The king shook his head. “It’s nothing.” Benoic realized he had been staring past Cobus, his eyes locked on the far wall on the portrait of himself. “So that’s it?”

“That’s it.”

For the first time, Benoic allowed himself to smile. It was a sign of weakness, he knew, but he didn’t care. Others had warned him not to trust Cobus–his wife and Coenwalh both had–so he was still cautious, but it was a moment of triumph. He had succeeded where others had not. He took a piece of bread and a slice of beef and savored the taste. He washed it down with mead.

“I will have one of my clerics draft the agreement before you leave,” Benoic said. The meat’s juices tasted sweet on his tongue.

“Of course,” Cobus said, and Benoic reached for a pear. “There is one more thing,” Cobus continued.

The pear was almost in the king’s mouth, and these words made his stomach tighten. “What is it?”

“As part of our arrangement, for Pointhou and Flancerre, you will pay homage and swear fealty to me. You will remain a king and the lands will once again be yours, but you will be under my rule. Pagannia will be a part of Barathea.”

Barathea.

It was the first time Cobus had used that name in Benoic’s presence to refer to the Aricin kingdom. The name did indeed sound strange, especially coming from the man who had killed his two brothers. Benoic started to speak, but Coenwalh interrupted him.

“You ask too much,” Coenwalh said. “Your proposition is unacceptable.”

“Then we have no deal,” Cobus said.

“It’s outrageous!” Coenwalh could no longer be controlled. “The king has given you something worth much more than two provinces, and still you want all of Pagannia.”

“What I’m offering is worth more than that.”

“Worth more than our freedom?”

“I’m not taking your freedom. I don’t want Pagannia. It will still be yours, though I will retain the right to crown future kings. What I’m offering you is protection, an alliance, and continental lands where you can live well and live in peace.”

Coenwalh stood and pressed his hands against the table. “Did you speak similar words to Lolek before giving him the poison?”

Cobus’s men at the far end of the table stirred at this outburst. They looked as though they could have been brothers. All three were large, brutish men with gangly faces and long, bearded hair. They looked ready to kill, so it was fortunate they had left their weapons outside. Benoic put a hand on Coenwalh’s shoulder, and the knight sat down.

Benoic turned to Cobus. “From whom do I need protecting?”

Cobus leaned in close. “From your own people of course.”

“What are you talking about?” Benoic said.

“I’ve heard some of your subjects want to form an alliance with Aricin.”

“That’s absurd. Why would they want to do that?”

“Because they believe an alliance with Aricin will give them what they want.”

“And what is that?”

“Lands. Wealth. Your lands and mine.” Cobus leaned back and took another swallow of mead. “Really, what do you have to offer your vassals?”

Benoic thought about that for a moment. Cobus did make a good point. The island kingdom had no more land to give. He could offer his men nothing, and he knew his knights were first and foremost warriors, and they were a greedy class. If he could not give them more lands–and to do so he would have to expand his kingdom–then it was likely they would join the side where they would have that opportunity. Which was one reason he needed to come to terms with Cobus about the continental lands. The two provinces would expand his kingdom, though in truth it would not be enough to satisfy all his barons. Some would receive additional lands, others would not. And then there was the issue about Pagannia paying tribute to Barathea. Most of his men would not like that idea.

“I can offer them the lands you are going to give me,” Benoic answered.

“I doubt Pointhou and Flancerre will be enough to satisfy them,” Cobus said.

“I’m not talking about Pointhou and Flancerre. I’m talking about the lands you’ll give me after you’ve taken Chermon.”

Cobus sat his cup back on the table. “And what lands are those?”

“The price for Chermon and my fealty are worth more than Pointhou and Flancerre. I want a third of the Barathean kingdom.”

Benoic used the word Barathea to show his willingness to recognize the dragon lord’s legitimacy as king. A third of the Aricin kingdom would ensure the satisfaction of his barons in terms of land, though there was still the matter of tribute, and even with the additional lands, he wasn’t sure how his vassals would react to such a proposition. He would need to call them together and seek their council. He knew of one man who would not support the decision.

The king leaned forward to glance at Coenwalh. The knight sat with his arms crossed and eyes shifting over the crowd. What was he thinking? Benoic had always trusted Coenwalh, but these were strange times, and now he was not certain what to think. He would have to convince Coenwalh first, for his influence could sway the opinions of the other nobles.

“Now you ask too much,” Cobus said.

“Those are my terms.” Benoic turned back to Cobus. The king finished eating his pear and washed it down with mead.

Another flourish of music began as the attendants entered the hall carrying the dishes of the final course: fruits, nuts, cheeses, wafers, pastries, and glamorous fountains spurting streams of spiced wine into the air. The servants also wheeled in a replica of the king’s castle of Arundel constructed of painted pastry. The guests marveled, and once again they applauded. Cobus applauded as well this time. He took an apple pastry and placed it on his platter, and a servant filled a new cup for him with wine.

“I will have to think on your terms,” Cobus said.

“Of course,” Benoic said, not that he was ready to agree to Cobus’s terms. The sovereignty of his kingdom was not something he was willing to give up so freely. He had to think about what his barons wanted first, or they could just as easily turn on him as Cobus could. And if his barons could not agree, then Benoic would have to make a decision and convince them it was the right one. Whatever that might be.

“I have to return to the mainland tomorrow,” Cobus said. “But we’ll meet again in a few weeks time.”

“Yes, of course,” Benoic said. That would give him plenty of time to talk to his barons. “You will stay in Arundel tonight, then? I have already prepared the guest chambers.”

“What about my men? Where will they sleep?”

Cobus had brought with him a party of thirty men: five knights, fifteen men-at-arms, and ten archers. That did not include the captains and oarsmen who had ferried them across the channel and waited with the boats at the port city of Dother.

“There are three guest chambers,” Benoic said, “and the rest of your men may sleep in the hall.”

Benoic glanced at Coenwalh. The king knew what his knight was thinking. Cobus had killed Lolek in his own house, so would he do the same here? The thought did cross Benoic’s mind, but he had to show faith. It was important he establish trust between himself and Cobus, as the future of his kingdom depended on it. Besides, he didn’t even know if the rumors were true. Benoic needed to find out for certain how his brother had died. If not poison, then what?

Cobus must have sensed the uneasiness, for he said: “If it makes you more comfortable, you may take our weapons and keep them guarded. We’ll not need them anyway.”

“I have no need of your weapons,” Benoic said. “Keep them.” It was risk, he realized, but a necessary one. “You’re our guests, not our prisoners.”

“We’ll stay tonight then and leave in the morning,” Cobus said.

“Good. My wife will show you where to go.”

Benoic turned to his wife. He whispered in her ear, and she stood, bowing to her husband and to Cobus, and then left the room. She returned moments later with three male chamber servants. The servants were no more than fourteen years old.

“Please, follow Katriana,” Benoic said. “She’ll take you to your room, and afterwards, we’ll go hunting. You do like to hunt?”

“Of course.”

“Good. There’s excellent game in the forests west of here.”

“In a little while we’ll hunt,” Cobus said.

“Yes, yes, of course. When you’re ready, we’ll go.”

“In two hours,” Cobus said, “we’ll meet in the courtyard.”

“Two hours,” Benoic confirmed.

Katriana and the servants led Cobus and his men from the high table. Cobus took several sugar and spiced candies, another apple pastry, and a cup of wine with him. Once they had left the hall, Coenwalh came over to Benoic.

“I don’t trust him, lord,” Coenwalh said. “He killed Lolek, and he will do the same to us.”

“We don’t know that,” Benoic said.

“You do know it. You will not agree to his terms, will you, lord?”

“Once he leaves tomorrow, I want to meet with my barons. Go and tell them before they leave.”

“The barons will not agree to an alliance with Cobus. They will not want him to rule over their lands.”

“And what would they rather do, ally with Aricin?”

“Some, yes.”

And in many ways, that made perfect sense. If his barons allied with Aricin, and they could somehow defeat Cobus, it would give them the opportunity to carve out the Aricin lands for themselves.

Perhaps they are conspiring against me.

“Then what he said is true?” Benoic said.

“Their loyalties lie with you. They would not turn on you.”

Benoic glared at Coenwalh. “Are you one of them?”

Coenwalh stared back at the king. “You already know what I think.”

Benoic hated to hear him say that. Their families had been close for a long time, and when Coenwalh’s father had died, Coenwalh had taken over his father’s estates and had served well. Benoic didn’t want to think about losing Coenwalh’s support. He had to do something, but what? He could offer him nothing, and even if he had more lands to give, it would not do any good. Coenwalh would not support an alliance with Cobus, and nothing would change his mind. How many others thought like him?

Will they all turn on me if I sign the agreement?

“Tell the barons,” Benoic said. Half of the guests had already left the hall, and Coenwalh would have to find them before they returned home. “And where is my cousin Robert?”

“He would not come.”

“I know that. Is he like you too? Does he want me to ally Aricin?”

“I’m not sure what he wants. I hear he claims to have met with Leolin.” Coenwalh said.

“Elias’s heir?” Benoic said. So the king across the great sea had finally sent someone to collect tribute.  “The nobles won’t like that too much, will they? Not that there’s much left to collect.” The king laughed. “My cousin has lost his mind. He’ll say anything to get attention. But he is powerful, and he has many supporters, so we should keep an eye on him.”

“Of course, lord.”

“And on Cobus while he’s here. I have my concerns about him as well.” Coenwalh’s face showed relief. “I thought you’d appreciate that. Watch him closely and tomorrow we’ll meet with the barons.”

Give him something to do, Benoic thought. Less time for him to conspire against me.

“He won’t leave my sight,” Coenwalh said, and he hurried off to find barons.

Sometimes he wished Coenwalh was more like his father: weak-minded, frail, and loyal to a fault. He would have done anything Benoic told him without asking questions. Though Coenwalh had his advantages too. He was a skilled swordsman, and his subjects would follow him to the grave. He was also more opinionated than his father, and while he gave prudent council, he was stubborn and sometimes unwilling to listen. If he was determined to support Aricin or no one at all, it might be difficult for Benoic to persuade him otherwise, and if Benoic could not persuade Coenwalh, then he could not hope to persuade the majority of his other barons.

Tomorrow could not come soon enough.