The evening was for a state celebration: Luriel's wedding night and all the grand commotion of a noble union, the bride and groom feted in hall, with course after course of food.
It should have been an unbridled festivity, but the undercurrent of matters in the court had Ryssand and Murandys, those traditional allies, doing a dance around each other more delicate than any paselle on the floor… the uncle of the bride tending not, as was traditional, to the side of the groom's family, the lord and lady of Panys, but to his old fellow in misdeed, Lord Ryssand.
Consequently the eyes of every experienced courtier in hall were less for Luriel than for Ryssand's daughter Artisane, emerging tonight as a whispered candidate to marry into the royal house. Efanor had loosed that rumor deliberately: far better to be the source than the subject of speculation.
And perhaps Artisane had also let word slip out. Certainly Ryssand had done nothing to restrain her. Her gown outshone the bride's; it all but outglittered the royal regalia, for that matter.
And clearly Luriel did not like the competition on her evening: her stark-set, basilisk stare settled on Artisane at every moment they crossed one another's line of sight.
A wild bedding tonight, Cefwyn said to himself. Luriel's temper was oil on tinder, in that realm… he could say so, who had Proposed to marry the lady himself. Now he asked himself how he could ever have fallen into Luriel's web of angers and passions, piques and rages and most of all how he could ever have thought her continual upheaval the ordinary way of women. That was a basilisk indeed, tonight, stalking the cockatrice.
The lady beside him, in the simple circlet crown of Elwynor, in fine embroidery and a comparative lack of ornament otherwise… this was a woman, and she far outshone the pair of combatants on the floor.
So Cefwyn leaned across the difference in their seats— Ryssand's damned stone—to whisper to his consort.
"You're the sun and the moon. They're summer lightning, and a dry night at that."
"And what will you be?" Ninévrisë asked with that wry response he so loved. "Ah! The stormy north wind."
"When Ryssand presents us his little play tonight, by the gods, he'll think so. And they could pile the wealth of the southern kingdoms on that minx and not improve her disposition."
"Which?" Ninévrisë asked, dagger-sharp.
"What, no love for Luriel either?"
"I welcome Artisane. The two of them will not make common cause, not till pigs make poetry. It should keep the two of them busy and provide entertainment for the rest of us."
They never had loved one another, Artisane and Luriel, contrary to the politics of their houses. Luriel's detestations were legion, her uncle among them, and while the ladies warred with glances across the hall, the uncle and father made solemn converse behind a thick column, and tried to pretend no one saw them.
At a reasonable hour in the wedding-night celebration it was the custom for bride and groom to retire with the maids and ladies and young men trooping after them, bearing lit candles and fistfuls of acorns… the latter of which posed great annoyance to the marriage bed, when they cast them in. He and Ninévrisë had found the last wandering nuisance in the small hours of their wedding night, and flung it ceremoniously in the fire.
So on this evening, young Rusyn of Panys finished a solitary paselle with his bride. And on the very last notes, with a flourish and squall of pipes, the traditional chase was on, the young couple, warned by the pipes, dashing for the door, the young men and married women of the court in close pursuit, snatching candles conveniently in the hands of servants and having brought their own supply of missiles. The couple might be spared the gifts in the bed if they were fleet of foot, but few made it.
Scores of nuts in a marriage bed, open wishes for children cast among ribald comments: a perfectly respectable tradition that roused nothing but laughter. But a man presenting a single acorn to the love of his life on the ballroom floor was a matter for scandal.
No, not a man: a king. And not the love of his life: the ruler of a rival court. And the fruit of that union would be no ordinary child, but would arrive into the world shadowed with political debts and promises he and Ninévrisë between them would have set for all his life to deal with. What a man started in his lifetime, his sons—and his daughters—needs must finish, and in finishing, set the incomplete pattern for their sons and daughters.
A sobering thought as the shrieking festivity departed, the province of the matrons and the young—which left the somber elders to enjoy a round of wine and contemplation… or so it should be, in happier times.
As it was, it left all the lords in position for the confrontation Cefwyn expected, Ryssand lurking about, waiting a summons, trying to obtain one by every means short of walking up and asking.
"Master crow," Cefwyn said.
"My lord king." The shadowy eminence hovering at his back and Ninévrisë's came forward on the dais and leaned down near his ear.
"Is there more news, at this last moment for second thoughts?"
"Nothing more than my king already knows. Shall I summon him?"
"Oh, stay, converse about the weather. Let the scoundrel wonder what we say to one another. Frown and laugh. I'll not help his digestion."
"He's talked to Murandys all evening, and Murandys has been passing more than pleasantries to the other lords about the hall tonight, too, which is just as well: otherwise it would have to come from Your Majesty to explain matters."
"I'd not plead his case.—How is the weather riverside?"
"Much the same as here… cold winds, bitter weather…"
"Bluster of priests."
"With thunder and lightning. Much of that."
"Any word on the whereabouts of the Aswydds?"
"Three of their household are dead with the nuns, nurse and two maidservants, that's certain, but no report of the sisters, dead or alive.
My wager is they lived: Orien has sorcery to warm her feet. A further wager: that they went to Amefel. Where else might they go?"
"Tasmôrden. To ask him to set Orien on the throne of Amefel."
"There is that chance, and a very good chance. But reaching Elwynor requires a walk through Amefel, and by my sense of things, my lord king, wizards do tend toward other wizards. Inconveniently so, at times, but it does keep them collected, and largely concerned with each other."
He was not certain he liked that thought any better. "One wonders if Cuthan knows her whereabouts."
Idrys lifted a brow. "Being Aswydd? Might we ask whether Lady Orien herself brought down the disaster on Anwyfar?"
"An alliance with Ryssand, and Cuthan her messenger? Gruesome thought, all our enemies in one camp."
"Oh, a good thought, my lord king. One strike and we're rid of them.
But I doubt we're so fortunate."
"If she's gone anywhere, I fear you're right about Amefel. She'll have gone right for Tristen's soft heart."
"Worrisome that the heir to the Aswydds might have gone to Mauryl's piece of work, the very man I do recall my lord king wrote his late father was—"
"Hush, crow. Hush! For the gods' sakes!"
"I think Her Grace is no stranger to that surmise."
"Don't press me! Not now, damn you."
"Aye, damn me while you like. But I pray my lord king think on it when you take counsel what you'll do about this barbed proposal Cuthan brings you."
"You're not free of error yourself, master crow."
"I never claimed to be."
"I don't like a damned procession coming into the town before I know it's on the road!"
"The fault is mine and several dead men's. I am not possessed of all information, and my sources have no more protection than their own wits and no more speed than a chance-met mule. But since my lord king has abandoned the habits of his wastrel youth, I'm glad to report he's frequently well informed on his own."
It seemed to be both justification and praise of him, of a convolute and twisted sort, and Cefwyn took it as such, nor did he greatly blame Idrys: they had, after all, what they needed, thanks to Idrys. Idrys had rid the streets of the zealot priest Udryn, but they had lost the Patriarch in retaliation—yet on Idrys' advice he had appointed Efanor's priest Jormys to the office, again, a good recommendation, for Jormys, though devout, was not naive in politics, not in proceedings within the court and not matters within the sacred walls.
Udryn's silence had not prevented the spate of retribution against the Bryaltines and even the moderate Teranthines, but the zeal of the populace seemed to have spent itself in the cold… granted Ryssand was not the next voice he had to silence.
And granted Orien Aswydd did not find some way to have her dainty finger in the stew.
Ryssand was the likeliest next use for master crow's darker talents.
But then again, Ryssand might become useful—if he could be brought to see his own interests as linked with the Crown, for with Brugan's death, everything had changed for Ryssand: he had no male heir, no more than Murandys. He was in the same situation, with Artisane the prize. He needed to marry her up the ranks of nobility, not down, and there was no one higher than a prince of Ylesuin and inclusion in the royal family.
That would change his interests on the sudden.
And for the sake of the realm and the agreements that bound the kingdom together out of its former separate, kinglike duchies, it was far better to bring Ryssand into line than to destroy the house with all its alliances and resources.
That was surely Efanor's thought in letting slip the rumor of royal interest in Artisane tonight. Last of all possible motives was any love lost in that marriage: it was utterly impossible to conceive that Efanor loved Artisane or even remotely admired her. It was rather that Efanor loved the kingdom and loved the land more than he loved his own comfort, and thought so little of his chances of a bride he could love… shy, serious Efanor never having had much converse with women in his sheltered, circumscribed, and pious recent years.
Gods send him enlightenment, Cefwyn thought, hoping the marriage never needed take place.
And to Idrys, leaning close, he said, regarding the compliment, "I take your meaning, master crow."
"Your Majesty is forgiving and generous."
"To the deserving." He never passed Idrys compliments. He did so, after making the unworthy accusation regarding Ryssand's slipping up on them. He felt bad about that, and could not find a way to unsay it, not with Idrys' acerbic wit. "Well, well, do you think it's time?
Let's summon the old fox before he has an apoplexy. I'm anxious to hear the performance."
Idrys straightened with his usual sleek, dark grace and Cefwyn turned a silent stare on Ryssand, who had not failed to watch His Majesty's lengthy conversation with the most feared man in royal service—a lengthy conversation on the very night Ryssand meant to beard the king in his lair.
Cefwyn stared thoughtfully at Ryssand, and stared longer, completely expressionless; and when the rest of the hall had noted that fact and conversations all around had ceased, he crooked a finger and beckoned Ryssand forward.
Ryssand came as he must, and bowed, and the musicians faded away into silence.
"You said you had a matter to bring before me," Cefwyn said. "Here I sit. Bring it."
"Your Majesty." Ryssand bowed a second time, and bowed very slightly a third and even a fourth time, perhaps summoning scattered wits. "Your Grace. Your Highness." He included Efanor, the usually silent presence on the peripheries. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me yet. You're entertaining scoundrels who've met a just condemnation… my condemnation, since I've had the fair report of what they've done, and you have, I trust, some awareness of that condemnation when you bring them to this hall. Do you intend I behead them and save you the bother? Or would that action utterly surprise you?"
"Brother," said Efanor, advancing a step from the side of the dais.
They had agreed Efanor would intercede to keep the fire and fuel separate, when the snake had to feel the stick on its right hand— and that Idrys would provoke Ryssand when the snake had to feel the stick on the left: there was indeed a way to shepherd a viper toward an objective. "—Brother, I've heard somewhat of Ryssand's business.
"You and all of this court, down to the scullery maids, have heard His Grace," Cefwyn said. "We've all heard some version or another.
Discretion has not proven one of His Grace's otherwise extensive gifts.—Oh, I'll hear him," Cefwyn said grudgingly and with a limp wave of his hand. All of this they had agreed beforehand as their position, and so had Ninévrisë. "But I don't welcome traitors to my court!" Having acceded, he burst into a tirade in Ryssand's very face.
"And I hold backhanded rumormongers in utter contempt! Let us hear this version." He waved his hand, tacit leave for Ryssand to speak, if he could muster calm against the royal storm.
"Your Majesty," Ryssand said, seeming shaken, "I do not support any man caught in wrongdoing, as I have no cause to doubt Your Majesty's word, but Earl Cuthan has a tale to tell, and I beg you hear him… not for matters in Amefel, which is another matter altogether.
He comes straight from Tasmôrden's court with a letter."
"Tasmôrden's court," Ninévrisë said scornfully. " Tasmôrden has a court! Indeed!"
"Your Grace." It was the first time Ryssand had turned conciliatory toward Ninévrisë—his desperation was a remarkable sight, and perhaps it was even a true sentiment he expressed, insofar as the lord of Ryssand might have recognized that the Lady Regent of Elwynor represented a potent force in the Crown's camp, one it was more expedient to deal with—certainly should Tasmôrden's proposal see acceptance, he would have to deal with her in the future. And should Artisane marry into the royal family Ninévrisë was the power over the women's court. His reasons were clear enough.
"Your Grace," Ryssand said mildly to Ninévrisë, "he has an army."
"An army bought and paid for," Idrys interjected sharply. "My lord king, this is no respectable lord: they're scoundrels. Mercenaries with no stake in the lands they are stealing, bandits, some of them within this so-named court."
"As the Lord Commander objects," Ryssand answered, "there are irregular elements. But an army nonetheless, and with that army Tasmôrden sits in Ilefínian, which is a fact. He holds a court there—
whether legitimate or illegitimate, I leave it to others to say."
"I do not admit it," Ninévrisë said, and Ryssand reprised, refusing to be shaken from his point.
"But that he held court there enabled him to receive Earl Cuthan when he fled Ylesuin. And through Cuthan, who alone of his resources could pass our borders alive—merely a courier, Your Majesty!—he sends a convincing offer of peace."
"Convincing," Idrys echoed dubiously.
"Hear him," Efanor said, and said so just as Ryssand drew a large breath in anger. He had to let it go and reprise in a mild, a reasonable voice.
"Thank you, Your Highness. I am honor-bound to lay this letter before His Majesty, for the good of Ylesuin, and pray to do so."
"Peace with Tasmôrden?" Cefwyn said. "I think not."
"Your Majesty, I have brought the letter. Only hear it."
"A letter to me?"
Ryssand hesitated. "A letter which Earl Cuthan was authorized to unseal—"
"A letter from a scoundrel, unsealed by a scoundrel!"
"So that I would know its import to bring it to Your Majesty!"
"You allowed the opening of a sealed letter," Idrys said, and by now sweat stood on Ryssand's face.
It was time to have the content of it. Cefwyn waved a negligent hand.
"The letter is compromised, but no less so than the source and the letter-bearer. We will hear it, since you've read it, in its Principle details and as best you remember it. I will not entertain Earl Cuthan in my hall, a man who has betrayed his own brother lords and connived with a man recommended to me as honest—" He had no need to say that it had been Murandys who had recommended the appointment. He only shot Duke Prichwarrin a burningly resentful glance… and at the same time found it noteworthy that Prichwarrin did not stand immediately next his former ally in this; moment of peril, but rather over against the nearer column, as far as he dared remove himself from the area. "A man who turned out to be a common thief and a liar, besides. A man who ordered the murder of surrendered and disarmed noblemen. What a pedigree for this business!"
"Your Majesty." Ryssand was not finding it easy going, his immediate plan overset, his witnesses disallowed. "I pray you hear the exact words…"
"Tasmôrden's? As if they were sacred writ? As if any letter the bearer could unseal at will is proof in itself? I find all our enemy's arrangements curious. If Cuthan could pass our border at will—why come to you, a league and more to the north? Why not send to me, for the good gods' love? Why this care to have it in your hands, pray?"
"The enemy knows Her Grace's presence in the court and feared lest the letter—"
Well struck. "Don't say it!" Cefwyn burst out. "Don't dare to suggest—"
"Your Majesty!" Ryssand cried, "not my suspicion at all, I assure you, but rather the imagination of our enemy—"
"A lie," Ninévrisë said. "Lies and deception are old allies of his."
"Nonetheless, Your Grace, Your Majesty, if you will hear his proposal—Tasmôrden is prepared to make peace with Ylesuin, and to agreed that the Lady Regent rules in the districts east of Ilefínian, granting to her the title of Queen of Elwynor, granting to the king of Ylesuin the district northward, and agreeing for himself to the titles and honors of the King of Ilefínian and High and Lower Saissond."
A woman who was a fool, perhaps, might have leapt up in rage and tears and lost her case with a people never in the least enthusiastic about their king's foreign war and foreign bride, and for such a response Ryssand undoubtedly hoped.
Such a response the man who had raised Artisane would undoubtedly expect.
But Ninévrisë was not such a fool. She sat, chin on fist, staring at this recital.
"Ridiculous," Cefwyn said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "The man consorts with sorcery! He claims a kingship, in Elwynor, where prophecy claims a High King will rise against us! Gods save us, Ryssand! To what do you counsel us? To give this snake a lair from which to breed and strike at our heart?"
"By no means sorcery, Your Majesty!"
"Oh?" Cefwyn asked in mock mildness. "And who informs us of that?"
"Your Majesty, his own words… if Your Majesty will read his letter…"
"Damn his letter! Word from a heretic!"
"Quite the contrary, in a land rife with the old ways, he contends against the dark arts which sustained the Regency—"
Now Ninévrisë' did move, drew herself up with a breath. "There is a lie, sir."
"The Regency depended on wizardry," Ryssand said in a rush, "as the Lord Regent was a wizard, no less than Aséyneddin's ally—"
"A great deal less than Aséyneddin's ally!" Ninévrisë cried. "Who was a sorcerer!"
"Yet this man struggles against the remnants of Aséyneddin's forces and Caswyddian's, your enemies, Your Grace, which have kept the land in turmoil. He struggles against a rise of the old powers—against the far greater threat from across the Lenúalim, where contrary to Your Majesty's law, the old Sihhë walls are rising and a claimant exists to the High Kingship…"
Corswyndam of Ryssand was dangerous and quick. They already knew that. He delivered a telling shot and Cefwyn lost no time in returning fire, with a slam of the royal fist on the arm of the Dragon Throne.
"You are deceived, Ryssand. Dangerously deceived. Good gods, I had thought a man of your years would see it!"
"I am not so deceived, Your Majesty!"
"What, and bring me a murderer and a thief to swear to Tasmôrden's character? It seems apt, but hardly persuasive! And you take his word, above your own king's? What are we come to? And wherein do foreign powers write you letters and send you my messages as if you were—what, a king?"
'If Your Majesty please, only listen to an agreement which may save the realm from great, from incalculable danger! The war Her Wace urges can only cast more and more power into the south, where the dukes of Ivanor, Lanfarnesse, Imor, and Amefel have raised an army, and authorized fortifications your grandfather ordered demolished.
This new lord in Amefel, this wizard's fetch, this Sihhë-lord as they openly hail him in the streets of Henas'amef…"
"… is not the enemy of this realm!" Cefwyn shot back, strike and parry, and now with full knowledge how much this rebel duke was willing to risk in public. This Sihhë-lord, as you are at such great pains to call him, is the true friend of this court and the fortifications he restores at my order are all that stand between our land and that purchased army of brigands Tasmôrden has raised against us, no less than Aséyneddin, with no cleaner claim, no less allied with sorcery—silence, sir! I've heard enough of this brigand's letter!"
There was an uneasy stir in the court, all the same, and he had let it through his guard. Tristen's doings in the south were rumored, but not the wall, and not the current adoration of the populace, or its connection with the High Kingship, and now there was a dangerous murmur throughout the hall as all of it came into the open. Cefwyn rose to his feet and let loose the notorious Marhanen temper, letting any waverers in the court know what the stakes were and what he was prepared to do.
"As for you, sir, do you count Tasmôrden your friend? This man, the heir of Aséyneddin? This man who raised war against his lawful lord? A man who insulted Her Grace, murdered her friends and relations? A man who's purchased army rapes and murders and robs the very people he would claim to lead? Is that our preferred friend, sir? And you swear to his honesty?"
Ryssand had the sense to bow, and bow deeply, and lower his voice.
"I swear to nothing, Your Majesty. I only bear the message."
"Receiving the messenger from an enemy of the realm—gods, sir! as if you were king?"
That shot had scored the last time. This time it raised a stir, a charge revisited, clearly a threat.
And Ryssand looked afraid. "I received a traveler, Your Majesty, who turned out to have such a message, and who had alarming reports out of Amefel… reports of which I had no knowledge Your Majesty already knew."
Dangerous man, subtle as a snake, but there was no escaping the inappropriate nature of his actions and Cuthan's, and on such subtle issues did the support of those listening sway.
"We knew. We knew from the source, and we knew the truth of the conditions in the lands to the south and the reasons for the building of those fortifications. We based our judgment of those reasons on our personal knowledge of that source. Have you personal knowledge of Tasmôrden's character? Of Tasmôrden's actions this past year? Or how long have you received his messages?"
And so, without accusing, he planted his own seeds in the minds of those wine-touched individuals hanging on their every word.
Opinion of those outside these walls, however, had less to do with protocol than with rumor. And Ryssand's resources in that sense went far beyond Cuthan and Parsynan, beyond anything even a king could muster. Rumor spread on the wings of religious fear: they had rid themselves of Udryn, but now they had the Quinalt Patriarch of Amefel newly arrived in the town, complaining in the inner councils of the Quinalt that the old ways were gaining far too firm a foothold in Tristen's lands. Here was a man who had fled his post and a tolerably comfortable living rather than endure Tristen's rule over him—or so the Quinalt would see it. Guelen soldiers, too, Parsynan's men, whom Tristen's soft-handed mercy had let leave his land alive…
they had talked in the taverns and all the low places, so the rumors were fairly sped.
Oh, there were a dozen ways men of Ryssand's stamp could take any mercy and turn it back as a weapon.
He had known Ryssand would do this, had seen no real way to prevent it, but he had prevented the worst of the damage, and made his case in front of witnesses half-gone with wine, minds on which subtleties and details would be lost.
And so he waited for Efanor to move in, as he at last did, and interposed quiet, personal words to Ryssand. The intervention became a small, urgent conference, the drift of which came to him, anger on Ryssand's part, fear, and Efanor's solicitous promises.
Ryssand was not unscathed in the view of the hall, either: his countenance had gone from ruddiness to pallor and back to congested redness that suggested ill health. The man had lost a son to his quest for power, a recent loss, and no sham; but Cefwyn had no pity.
"I beg Your Majesty's pardon," Ryssand said at last, bringing a reluctant silence to the murmur of speculation among the courtiers.
"I urge Your Majesty grant it," Efanor said… playing his part.
"I will not hear this," Cefwyn said, playing his, while Idrys loomed over all.
"Your Majesty," Efanor repeated. "I ask it."
It was what they agreed. When the storm had grown too great and become dangerous to the realm, Efanor would ask pardon, and intercede for Ryssand. Efanor would thus widen his own small court, hitherto mostly scholars and priests, include among his debtors a potential father-in-law, and thereby set himself as confessor to receive all the things that an unreasonable king would not hear.
Cefwyn settled back against the throne in his most forbidding manner. "I shall hear you, brother. In the meantime, do not consider we entertain this traitorous Amefin earl or any of his connections, Elwynim or otherwise.—Play!" he shouted at the musicians, who had not stirred in this utter stillness of the hall. After brief hesitation they took up the paselle they had been playing, from its beginning.
It was a light, a graceful music, little appropriate to a royal tantrum, but the whole court drew a collective breath. No one moved to dance except two very young folk who hesitated toward that notion, and desisted, frozen in place.
Slowly, very slowly, Ryssand backed and bowed his way to safety, ignoring Murandys in his retreat.
Slowly the court began to murmur and to move, half a hundred statues come to life. The musicians struggled on, and Cefwyn waved a hand at a cluster of the young people and smiled, waving them to the floor. They moved with uncertainty, and the talk broke out among their elders, almost fit to drown the music.
Cefwyn drew a breath and a second, willing to be soothed as Ninévrisë sought his hand across the gap between their seats.
"Well done," Cefwyn said to his small company of conspirators.
"Detestable man," Ninévrisë said.
"Is he not?" Cefwyn said acidly. "Is he not, indeed? But he didn't have all he wanted."
"The court knows the royal disposition," Idrys said, "to the good, say I."
They had married Luriel to Panys, and regained Ryssand and his vixenish daughter… well, to no great profit, that latter transaction, but inevitable, once Ryssand dared return.
And it was probably best. Ryssand in the country was apt to breed secret ills, rumor and supposition let loose unchecked by fact. Now Ryssand had to mind what he said. He knew he was watched.
And for good or ill, the rumors were abroad tonight, and those who had not heard would hear. The leaven of the zealots was still fermenting, the discontent of the populace with what, in taverns and in higher places, they called Her Grace's war… was no less in certain quarters.
So Tasmôrden magnanimously offered Her Grace sovereignty over a third of Elwynor, and Ylesuin a third, with not a blow struck, their mission accomplished, and no Guelen or Ryssandish lads to bury as a consequence. He had no doubt he had given Ryssand a few wounds in kind.
"Ryssand and the zealots," Cefwyn muttered so only his brother and Ninévrisë and Idrys could hear. "Backing Aséyneddin's heir, and him the ally of the sorcerer who brought down Mauryl. What a contortion they made to get everyone into that alliance!—Do you know, Jormys should preach against it. A few good sermons would do great good."
"I'll speak to Jormys," Efanor said. And a moment later: "I'll go speak to Ryssand and his daughter, and smooth his feathers."
"Mind your own," Cefwyn said and, with great misgiving, watched his brother descend the steps.
Ryssand wanted that royal alliance, oh, indeed Ryssand wanted it. It must give him indigestion, considering the situation he was in now.
Clever men could become great fools when what they most wanted dangled in reach of their fingers. And Ryssand might well enter into conspiracy with Efanor, who posed himself to draw the lightning of all the discontents in the court.
"If that marriage goes forward," Ninévrisë said faintly, beneath the music, "that man will wish Efanor to be king. Have you taken account of that?"
It was a thought. It was certainly a thought. But his trust in Efanor was oldest of all trust in the world. Efanor would countenance no move against him: that was solid as the rock under the throne.
"The army will move to the river on the first clear day," he said, "and let Tasmôrden make you another offer when you're standing in Ilefínian. When there's no enemy across the river, and the worry of the war is past, then let Ryssand consider his position with me, and speak me fair again."
"My lord king." Idrys had moved close, after brief absence, and had that edge to his voice that meant urgency.
Cefwyn turned his head, saw the black eminence of his reign bearing a grim look indeed.
"What is it?" he asked in honest alarm, and Idrys came close, closer, to his very ear, and whispered a handful of words:
"A letter from Amefel: the Aswydds did reach Tristen. Lady Tarien's with child and claims it's yours."
Cefwyn was not certain whether his heart beat the next moment. He did not let his face change: royal demeanor was schooled from far too early to betray him now. He was aware of all the room, all the reach of consequences, and of his lady sitting at his side.
It was possible, on all counts. He had been a fool, defying his father, disdaining his responsibilities. He had done things he now regretted.
"One of Tristen's letters?" he asked, fey attempt at humor, for they all agreed Tristen wrote the worst letters any of them had ever read, letters utterly lacking in detail. If that was the case he truly despaired of learning more than Idrys had just said.
"Master grayfrock wrote, too," Idrys said with uncommon gentleness.
"I have the letters safe with me. I don't know how long this will go unrumored. There are witnesses enough in Amefel, where I fear it won't be secret by now."
Cefwyn's fingers were numb. He rubbed fingertips together, feeling very little, and looked at Ninévrisë, who had heard some of it, but not all.
They won the joust with Ryssand, damn the luck, and were hit from ambush—his own doing.