Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 1 - Heart's Honor
Rhemuth - October 823
Festil I, King of Gwynedd by the Will of God and the grace of battle, leaned back in his padded leather chair and stretched his feet toward the brazier. For all the comfort of his new home, Rhemuth in October was cold and damp.
He extended a be-ringed hand and a cup of mulled wine floated to him from a table not two paces from his chair. He could have summoned a servant to fetch it, but the display of his feared Deryni powers kept the humans still at court the way he liked them best. Cowed.
At the far end of his hall musicians began to play. Not well, but that was to be expected on a night when no special celebration demanded skill. Some of his companions glanced toward the players, impatient for the meeting to end.
As was he. "So what business have we left?"
Lajos Furstan rose and gave his king a respectful bow. His grey beard and velvet robes were spattered with the same dark ink that smudged his fingers continually. For a man who won a fearsome reputation on the field, Lajos seemed to be enjoying his position as King's Seneschal thoroughly.
"Your Grace, there is still the matter of rewards for several of your followers. Not all have yet received the wealth promised should this expedition succeed."
Festil waved his wine cup lazily. "They seem patient enough. Consolidating power takes time."
"Yes, my liege. Still, if you will remember my suggestion of a few weeks past, there are estates that could be taken without undue expenditure on your part."
"I know, I know. Marry some poor bastard to the grieving widow or orphaned daughter of a former lord, with her estates his compensation. I doubt many men would find that sort of cold bed much reward for their efforts."
Lajos lifted a parchment from the stack at his feet. "If the King's Grace will permit me, not all heiresses are given their fortunes by war. This lady here has little reason to fear your attention, and her estates are rich. Perhaps a good beginning? . . ."
Festil took the parchment and scanned it briefly. The lady mentioned was indeed wealthy, daughter of an earl with estates rich in land and a successful stud farm. Surely enough to make any man's mouth water.
"There are no male claimants?"
Lajos shook his head. "She had brothers, Sire, but all have died without issue. Her father lies on his deathbed, and she is unwed. Not even betrothed."
"At twenty and two?" Festil frowned. "What's wrong with her?"
Just then an overdressed fellow carrying a lute joined the trio of musicians. He plucked a few strings, then began to strum chords to match their rhythm. Even Lajos winced.
Prince Albion Cammeron rose from his place beside Festil's chair and gave his king a neck bow. His dark copper hair glinted in the flickering light. "With your permission, my liege?"
"Go show him how it's done, nephew." Festil smiled as he watched his sister's son stride through the hall. Courtiers and servants parted before him like the Red Sea before Moses.
"As I was about to say, Sire --"
Festil waved Lajos silent. "I want to watch this."
Albion reached the musician. Silence fell, expectant and tense.
The lute player glanced up. His eyes widened.
Albion slowly drew a slim jeweled dagger from his belt. Steel whispered against sheath. He placed the tip of the blade at the unlucky musician's quivering adam's apple.
Albion's voice carried deadly calm. "Tune it or die."
The musician nodded. As soon as Albion stepped back he scurried off, clutching his lute.
Festil laughed. "For God's sake, Albion! I'd hoped you'd show him some real talent with that thing. Tuning won't help him much."
"Forgive me, Sire. I thought the council's business more important than music tonight."
"Nothing is so important that I must listen to incompetent troubadours. Fetch your lute, as you've driven off that one."
As Albion left, Festil turned his attention back to his council and the problem at hand. "If the lady is so well dowered her marriage should present no problems."
Lajos nodded. "There are several of your knights who would be well served by such a marriage, my liege."
Festil steepled his fingers and considered the matter as he stared through his knuckles. "As much as I like your plan, Lajos, I hate to see good Deryni blood contaminated by a union with a plain human. That is the only flaw."
Lajos smiled. It was the indulgent look of an older, wiser man who has thought the whole problem through.
Festil set himself a mental reminder to give Lajos something unpleasant to do as soon as possible. It would serve his kinsman right to have to settle some feuding between border lords, where his cool logical mind would be sorely tested.
"But, Sire, if you will note not all of your supporters are of strong Deryni blood. Indeed, some are fully human and many others have so little talent to their credit that one single generation of human mating will do little harm. If we are careful where their offspring breed, I think we should see little dilution and gain much."
"I see you have been studying breeding patterns of hounds and horses, my lord." Festil nodded slowly as he came to the reluctant decision that he must tell his over-smug counselor he was right. "Then you have already cleared the major obstacles for me. The only difficulty lies in deciding where to bestow her hand. For that I think I must meet the lady." Festil drained his cup and dropped it carelessly. "Why has she not been to court?"
Lajos shrugged. "From what the letters say, Sire, her father has been very ill for some time. He leaves his affairs to his seneschal and takes little care for his daughter's future."
Festil felt a smile pull at the corners of his mouth. "I do like this well, Lajos. Now I may play the caring monarch and take charge of this neglected dove. No doubt that will look very good, and please my own men at the same time.
"I think I will send Albion to fetch her," Festil continued as the tall knight returned to the hall with a finely crafted lute in his hands. "After all, he is my nephew and, more important, soon to wed the most lovely daughter of a Forccin prince. I know I can trust him in his duty and his skill at persuading ladies should prove useful."
From the far end of the hall the clear tones of Albion's lute hung in the air like liquid silver.