Sword of a Saint
Chapter 2 - Part 5
One Week Later
"Christina seems quite taken with you." Prince Phillip of Bremagine gave Michael a lecherous grin. "Tell me, have you taken advantage of her attraction yet?"
Michael pressed his tongue against his teeth as he gave the prince a deferential nod. "Not thus far, Your Grace. But then the lady did not make her intentions quite as plain to me as she did to you."
Philip howled with laughter and slapped the velvet covered high table so hard wine splashed from jeweled goblets. The mute slave Michael had brought with him hastened to blot the spills before Michael could risk setting the elbow of his embroidered silk tunic in one.
Christina, seated to Michael's left, gave a musical laugh. Her voice was laced with a delicate Llanned accent and her manner also indicated such an origin. "Oh, Your Grace reads my mind." Christina sipped delicately from her own goblet. "I would adore a closer acquaintance with our newest companion."
Michael eyed the huge sapphire ring on her left hand as he gave her the most agreeable smile he could muster. Unless he guessed very wrong, the ring concealed a compartment that could be opened over a victim's plate or cup. He had found the prince's assassin, despite her elaborate heart shaped headdress and simpering laughter. He'd be a dead man before he'd bed this one.
Philip speared a large piece of roast pork with the end of his knife and tore a bite from it. Grease dribbled down his already stained sleeve, but he did not seem to notice. "Christina is an especial friend of Ours, my lord. It would please Us greatly if you would give her everything she desires." Michael raised his eyebrow at the prince's use of the royal reference.
Philip set his knife beside his plate and wiped his mouth on the edge of the velvet table cover. "Some men have all the luck, I tell you." He turned to face Michael. The wine he'd consumed reddened his face and slurred his words. "Take the Haldane in Gwynedd, for instance. His father had the courtesy to get out of the way and let his son rule while he was still young enough to enjoy the life. Mine, on the other hand, continues to hang about. I swear the man plans to live forever."
"All men die, Your Grace, in God's good time." Michael handed his jeweled dinner knife to his slave. Contempt for the dissolute prince turned his stomach sour. Then again, were the prince a sharper man he could hardly have found his way into such exalted company so quickly. Philip's friendship rested entirely on the wealth Michael displayed in his clothing, his falcon, his horse and his servant. His reflection was interrupted when the prince belched loudly.
"Not all, my lord. Not all. Some die at times other men choose for them." Philip dipped his hands into a bowl of rosewater to rinse off the grease before he left the table. "After all, can you say that a criminal we see hanged has died in God's own time?"
"As the order of the universe is directed by The Most High, Your Grace, I would say that was surely true. After all, did not God Himself set in place the overlord who saw justice given to the wretch by ending his life?"
The prince howled with laughter. On Michael's other side, Christina giggled.
"You argue the point most eloquently, my lord. Now let us be off." Philip pushed himself back from the table and stood, swaying slightly. "You promised to hunt with Us this afternoon, and the falcons are restless."
"I am most ready, Your Grace. Providing the lovely lady will accompany us." Michael turned to Christina and offered his hand to help her rise. "Her company intrigues me most heartily."
As Christina took his hand, Michael slipped lightly into her mind. The lack of shields confirmed his earlier assessment; she was completely human. He did not linger lest she detect his presence, but decided he would discover all he needed to know on the ride.
The hawking was marvelous. The weather was clear with a light breeze, and Michael let his tiercel fly with little direction. Christina's goshawk and Philip's fine black falcon brought down a bagful of sparrows and guinea fowl, which made the prince snicker and the lady croon in sympathy for the apparent ineptness of Michael's bird.
Then he found the quarry he wanted, a great heron feeding on frogs in a marsh not far distant. That kill should provide ample distraction. Michael sent an image of the bird to his tiercel's mind and smiled as he watched the hunter begin to circle the marsh. The tiercel dived sharply. Startled, the heron rose with a flurry of huge wings. It climbed slowly, fighting to escape the smaller bird. The tiercel climbed too, its' smaller wings beating frantically to raise it high enough for a killing strike. When it dove again it lashed out with wicked talons and a vicious beak, slicing at its prey as it fell. The heron faltered but did not go down. The tiercel struck twice more before the other hawks could reach the prize. On the third hit the heron tumbled from the sky, finally dead.
Michael spurred his stallion after the prize. As they entered the swamp he suddenly dismounted and lifted his mount's front foreleg. A thought sent heat into a muscle, making it swell painfully and laming the horse.
"What's the matter?" Phillip reined in just behind him, sounding like a petulant child. "Why did you stop? That bird will have eaten our dinner by the time you reach it."
"I am certain the baggers have already claimed the heron, Your Grace." Michael pursed his lips briefly to hold back the retort he wanted to throw at the arrogant fop. "I fear my horse took a bad step."
"And you are ruining your boots in that muck, my lord." Christina held out her hand to him. "Come up and join me. My mare is sturdy enough for two if we return right away."
Michael glanced toward the site of the kill. Indeed, the baggers had the heron well secured and the tiercel was already being rewarded with bits of liver.
"I would most enjoy that, my lady." He swung up behind her, disdaining the saddle. "Let us be off before I catch a chill."
The prince gave them leave to return, though he wanted to continue the hunt for his own pleasure. Michael took the reins from Christina and gave her the smile he had long practiced to perfect its charm. "I always control my mount, my lady."
"And you seem to take good care of your steed as well, my lord." Christina ran a long fingered hand over the patterned silk of his split tunic. "Do you care as well for your women?"
"None have ever lacked for my attention so long as they desired it." Michael's gut tightened as the lady moistened her lips with the tip of an exquisitely pink tongue. Deadly she might be, but she was also firing his blood to a dangerous level.
He had to take control of this situation immediately. Michael leaned close enough that he knew his breath teased the delicate flesh of her exposed throat. "I find," he whispered as he brought his arms more closely around her, "that both horses and women benefit from constant attention. When well cared for and carefully maintained, both provide a far more stimulating mount."
Christina snuggled close against his chest. "And do I infer that you have the ability to care well for a woman should you desire to, my lord? I hardly have known you a day, but the richness of your dress and that of your servant leads me to great hope."
"You may infer what you like, my lady." Michael caught her chin on his fingers and turned her face up to meet his. The kiss he gave her was light, practiced and firm.
It gave him all the opportunity he needed. While Christina was distracted kissing him, Michael invaded her mind. It took him only a moment to discover her plans. They turned his nerves to ice.
Her memory of the past hours unfolded for him like a tapestry. Pretending to wait while the horses were readied, Christina approached the table in the great hall. The servants had laid out the jeweled goblets and golden plates the royal family dined on. As she pretended to examine one of the goblets, Christina opened the chamber in her sapphire ring. She dipped one slim finger in the moist ointment concealed inside, and then traced the inside of the king's crested cup with a bit of the poison. With a furtive glance at the servants she repeated the process with all the cups save two. None of the servants noticed.
She then laid the table, carefully placing the un-poisoned goblets at Philip's seat and at the chair she shared with Michael. One of the servants came to assist her, but she waived him off. She was merely bored, she said, and waiting for her maid to fetch her cloak so she might join the hunt.
Then Michael saw the image of her plans. An unwitting servant pouring wine for his king. The royal family and their most honored guests writhing in the death agonies the poison gave. Philip feigning anguish and righteous indignation, executing the hapless servant in the hall. Christina's promised reward, the consort coronet, coming before winter.