Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 13 - Part 6
Albion let his fingers drift
randomly over the strings. His mind was wandering, he realized but he
had no will to focus on the music.
Isolde's presence was a constant torment. To see her each day, feel her close to him and not be able to so much as speak more than a few pleasantries tore at his soul.
Sophia's stoic acceptance of their relationship increased his guilt by tens. Since their wedding night he had not shared her bed, though his things had been moved to her chamber the next day. He spent his nights on the floor near the brazier, wrapped in his cloak.
Sophia was everything he should desire; titled, beautiful, well serving both her land and her lord. So why had their one encounter given him no more satisfaction than an hour spent with a practiced whore? He would not face that again.
Sophia deserved better.
Why was the heart so difficult to rule? Albion stared at a torch flaming along the wall and thought briefly he might have been better off to seek life in a cloister. Surely monks were protected from this torment.
"Sire?" Hugh's voice startled Albion out of his reverie.
When he glanced up, the lad lowered his voice. "I've a message for you."
"Well, give it to me." What was Hugh playing at? The lad shook his head. "It's for you alone, My Lord. I was told to see you got it when the time was right. All of a sudden it seems the time's come."
This sounded serious. Albion nodded and rose, motioning Hugh to follow. It took a few minutes to find an empty chamber. At last they took refuge in the cold, abandoned gallery.
"What's your message, lad?"
Hugh shook his head. "The man who gave it said you'd have to Read it, My Lord. I'm ready, before you ask."
Albion laid a hand on Hugh's shoulder and entered his squire's mind smoothly. The message lay buried deep, hidden by layers of false memories and expert shielding.
The final securities gave way when he touched them. Immediately he recognized the presence of his late father's seneschal.
The message came then, urgent and hopeful. His uncles' men were lax, weapons had been stored away ready for his word. Tolan could be retaken in a matter of days. The stupid brutes his uncles had left in charge suspected nothing.
And his father's seneschal waited for him at an inn near Butcher's Row.
Albion erased the message and gave Hugh's shoulder a quick squeeze. "Lad, have you any idea what that was?"
Hugh shook his head.
"Our salvation, if I'm not much mistaken. Fetch my cloak and one for yourself. We're going out."
The fury of the storm was dying by the time they reached the little inn. Still, snow lay in frozen ridges on the folds of their hoods and cloaks. Their hands and faces stung as they entered the warm taproom.
Albion passed Hugh some coin and ordered him to fetch warm mead from the plump woman who emerged from a side room as they entered. The inn had few patrons, owing to the weather. It was not difficult to find the man he was looking for sitting in a corner alone, his back to the wall.
The old seneschal inclined his head as Albion joined him but did not rise. "Good evening, Your Grace. I thought you might be coming tonight."
"It's good to see you, Harold." Albion switched their conversation from the spoken. *How are things at home?*
"There's no need for that here, Your Grace. The few morts in this room aren't likely to run to the constable with our conversation. That's why I chose this place." Harold grinned, showing yellowed teeth. "You look the image of your late father, God rest his soul."
Albion paused as Hugh returned with two steaming tankards. "My squire," he offered by way of an introduction. The less Harold knew of Hugh the better should they be interrupted.
Harold smiled and motioned for Hugh to sit with them. "I remember this fellow. Lots of courage, and not a bad mind. I see he gave you my message when I instructed him to."
"And why did you pick tonight for this meeting?"
Harold leaned over the table and lowered his voice. "Because I return to Tolan as soon as we are finished. The regents your uncles set are lazy, and their men take advantage of the loose control to avail themselves of whatever they wish. This gives us our opportunity.
"In two days, a ship bearing a large quantity of strong Fianna wine will arrive. One of our merchants ordered it, presuming to sell it for huge profits. Of course those brutes will not let such a treasure pass through the port without confiscating some of it."
Albion frowned. "Has this gone on for long? So far as I knew revenue has not fallen and the fortunes of Tolan are based on trade unless I am much mistaken."
"It's gotten worse and worse the past year or so, Your Grace. The merchants have always lost some cargo to confiscation, though your late father called it tariff. It's the same thing, really," Harold added when Albion snorted his disapproval.
"But of late the regents' henchmen have been confiscating cargo for their own pleasure. Thus our merchant friend intends the wine to be taken, and with any luck they'll take most or all of it."
"And they'll be drunk as lords by the next morning."
Harold grinned. "Better than that, Your Grace. The wine's been dosed thoroughly with a sound measure of opium. They should be sleeping like babes. You can take your capitol city in an hour. After that the rest of your uncles' forces will be without a leader."
"You set this up well, Harold. And I thank you." Albion fairly crushed the old seneschal's hand. "I've been looking for such an opportunity for years, and never found one."
"Of course you wouldn't, Your Grace. Not with the watch your uncles have been keeping on you." Harold grinned. "It'll be good to have you back, lad. Shall we see you day past tomorrow?"
"Count on it. I'll arrive well after vespers. Is the old portal still available?"
"Of course it is. I'll see to it your captains are waiting there."
Albion finished his mead and took his leave, Hugh by his side. The storm had lessened considerably, but the night was growing rapidly darker. By the time they returned to the castle dinner was long over.
Albion sent Hugh to the kitchens to find what he could and dismissed the lad for the night. He needed to speak privately with Sophia. She was the one person who could betray him to his death in this.
One of the maids told him Sophia had retired for the night. Albion hurried to follow her, already planning what he would say when they were sitting beside comfortably in her chamber.
She bid him enter with a soft mental touch before he had the chance to knock. The room was lit with two racks of candles, many more than usual. Sophia was alone, lounging in a large tub near the brazier. Several lengths of toweling lay on a chair nearby. The scented bath filled the room with frankenscence and ginger.
"You're late returning, my lord." Sophia's smile told him she was not angry, only curious.
"It could not be avoided." Albion laid his sodden cloak on a chest to dry before removing his boots. "Give me a moment to set the wards, Your Grace. We need to be certain we won't be disturbed this night."
"I fully agree."
Something in her tone raised the hairs on the back of his neck. Could Sophia be in league with his uncles? If she were they had a spy entirely too close to him for comfort.
He dismissed that idea immediately. If he had any allies in Rumeth Sophia was one. No doubt she planned to entice him into her bed this night. She would be disappointed, but surely not dangerous.
He set the wards and double checked them. When the room was locked for the night he turned his attention to his wife. "There is something I must discuss with you, Your Grace. An issue most dire."
"I'm listening." She shifted, sending water splashing over the edge of the tub. "Oh, bother. Will you pass me one of those towels, please?"
Albion moved toward the chair piled with toweling. Something amid the clutter of Sophia's jewel chest flashed brilliant blue. He froze and turned, startled.
Then a rush of power overwhelmed him before he could raise his shields to defend himself. Dizziness and lethargy nearly drove him to his knees. A warm, contented feeling filled every sense. The room took on a soft, rosy glow in the candlelight.
The feeling passed in an instant. When Albion focused his eyes again on the jewel chest he saw several blue stones in a necklace reflecting the myriad of candles.
The mead must have been stronger than he thought. Or perhaps he should have eaten something. He closed his eyes, drew a breath to steady himself, and reached for the towel.
When he turned back to the tub he gasped in surprise. Desire shot through him like a lightning bolt. Love for the woman rising from the water filled every pore of his being.
She reached a slim hand toward him. "Can I have the towel, please?"
Her voice sent shards of flame through his veins. Entranced by her beauty, Albion could only nod and hand her the cloth. She wrapped it around herself, concealing her perfect form as she stepped from the tub.
"What was it you wanted to say to me?"
What in the devil was she talking about? He certainly did not have conversation on his mind. Albion stripped off his tunic in the two steps it took him to reach her. When he embraced her, she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him down to kiss him soundly.
As she seemed willing, Albion swept her into his arms and carried her to the bed. The covers had already been turned down by some thoughtful maid. He laid his lady on the feather mattress and fell beside her, lost in the wonder of having his every wish in his arms.
Speaking would have meant moving his lips from hers. Instead he reached out to her with his mind. Now if ever was the time to show her how his heart lay, to let her feel everything as he did.
*I love you with all my soul,* he Sent as his hands moved over her body. *You and no other, until the day I die and beyond that. I love you, Isolde.*