The death of Penelope and the increasing infirmity of Marianne forced him to consider the end of his own existence. He might live a few years more, perhaps as many as ten, but he felt the impediments of a man at his century. He tired easily. He was long past the age when he could stay awake for days at a stretch. In his youth, an emergency such as the one he had faced this summer would have kept him at Council for twenty hours each day; now, he had to call for frequent recesses and he was often weary by midday. Though his physician promised that he was in excellent health, his joints ached, his sight deteriorated rapidly, his heart was not strong. Excellent health, perhaps, for a man of his age, but not the vigor he’d known all his life. He was not in his dotage, thank the Lord in Heaven, as his father had been in his last years. His mental faculties remained intact and his powers of concentration had not yet wavered, but Dafythe found himself thinking more and more of the past. Memories of his youth seemed more clear than recent events. The faces of people he hadn’t seen for decades—Rosa, Agnes, Gillefluere, his brother Kharles, his mother and the roaring Redlyon—were vivid before him.
He was losing control of his Council. This too was due to his age—not because he had grown infirm and lost the will necessary to command, but because all his court knew as well as he did that he was near the end of his reign and his heir would not continue his policies. Already, they sought her favor.
Young Lord Rafenshighte, who lounged near him now in the Manor garden, had been courting Mara. They made a strange couple, the foppish courtier and the rough-and-tumble, all too frank Shieldmaid, yet they were seen together so often that there was gossip about their pending betrothal. Though Mara preferred the company of her cousin Kat and that pretty little Shieldmaid captain to the young noblemen of Pendaunzel, she didn’t disdain them. She understood that marriage and the production of an heir were inevitable parts of her duty but, prior to this, no courtier had ever been so brave to dare make love to the stern Prince. Rafenshighte was more bold than most.
Dafythe might have been delighted in other circumstances to see his heir wed the son of Layn Rafenshighte, who had been his Chancellor for more than thirty years. In the abstract, Geoffrey was an excellent choice for Mara’s consort: he was the right age, of a noble and prominent family, and possessed of sufficient courtly experience to be the helpmeet and advisor that a Duke’s spouse must be. He was a handsome and well-mannered youth. If only he were not such a suspect character!
Young Rafenshighte’s oily arts made him useful in the diplomatic office. The young man was well liked among the foreign ambassadors and could even win the stubborn Don Peidro D’Yzaguerre to his will, but the Duke didn’t like to see these same sycophantic charms used to woo his daughter. Mara’s mind was not subtle. She didn’t possess the courtier’s mastery of deceit; guilelessly honest, she presented herself as she was and took everyone else at face value. She could detect an outright lie, but how did she perceive Geoffrey’s twisted truths?
Rafenshighte had been spending a great deal of time in Dafythe’s company this summer as well. Not to petition—no, Dafythe didn’t believe that this ambitious young man would bother to seek the favor of a dying lord while he anticipated the Duke’s successor. Rafenshighte had other reasons for dancing attendance.
While the rest of the heralds played a hide-and-tackle game of tag amidst the shrubbery, Andemyon walked alone on the shady garden paths. Whenever he joined the other boys’ play, the boisterous games quickly became an excuse for all the heralds to trample him. He wasn’t like them, and they knew it. The boy excluded himself rather than be subjected to this abuse. Dreamy-eyed, he seemed lost in thoughts far away from his duties and had stepped onto the circular path about the fountain, where Lord Rafenshighte sat, then drew closer to dabble his fingers in the water and scatter the goldfish. He looked up, startled, at Dafythe’s abrupt summons.
Though he was concerned with the welfare of all his heralds, Dafythe took special interest in this boy. From Old Toppet, who had charge of the heralds, he learned that Andemyon was so quiet and sensitive that he was often teased and bullied by the larger boys. Toppet governed enough of the heralds’ time to ensure that they couldn’t cause much mischief, but even under his stern eyes the elder boys met the newcomer with snubs and slighting words. Bertie and Arthur both spoke of the boy with scornful disinterest; since Andemyon was a kinsman, they felt obligated to defend him from the bullies, but they didn’t like this duty and they were contemptuous at his tears. From other sources, Dafythe heard that Andemyon spent his free hours alone in the libraries about the palace, favoring Magician Peter’s hermetical texts. The magician, scribes and librarians of the court praised his manners and studious interests. Andemyon would take up a book and read for hours in a corner until they nearly forgot he was there. He was also a frequent companion to Laurel. Dafythe encouraged this, allowing the boy to spend as much time with her as she liked and duty allowed. A common jest was that Andemyon was the Lady’s attendant, not the Duke’s.
Andemyon came to stand before Dafythe’s chair. “My Lord?”
“I have heard that you sing for the Lady Laurel’s pleasure.”
“Do you recall, my lad, that it is among your duties to amuse me? You’ve been in my service many months now and I’ve barely heard a word from you. Can it be you conceal this talent from me?”
“I didn’t mean to, My Lord,” the boy answered. “I didn’t think you’d care to hear me.”
“You are mistaken. If you amuse My Lady Laurel with your songs, you are fit to entertain me as well. Sing, Child. I would hear you.”
The herald blinked in alarm and looked frantically about for a means of retreat, but Dafythe repeated his command and the boy didn’t dare refuse. With a last glance at the shouting boys and strolling courtiers, he squeezed his eyes shut tightly and began to sing the hymn featured at the morning Mass, the ancient Song of Brother Caedmon, in a tremulous soprano trill:
Now sing we praise the Heavenly Lord,
His Might and His Creation,
His Wondrous Works—O Eternal Lord!
In the Beginning, He shaped for His children
The Heavens as a roof—O Holy Creator!
Afterwards He made for us,
A home to shelter us—O Mankind’s Lord!
Middle-Earth He gave to us,
Our land for perpetuity—O Almighty King!
His voice rose as he gained confidence. Dafythe was astonished by the sound. He was accustomed to hearing professional sopranos—church choirs, female minstrels, castrati—but this sweet, bright chirrup, as unaffected as an outpouring of bird-song, was delightful. The boy’s voice was untrained; his breath was shallow, his pitch wavered more than a singer in full control of his talent would allow, and the singing of both verse and counterpoint response by one person was strange to hear, but the overall effect was very pretty. The high notes were pure and clear once he found the courage to reach them. Andemyon rarely spoke. Who would suspect he sang so beautifully?
Andemyon opened his eyes to find he had drawn an audience. The boys had stopped their game to whisper and nudge each other. Courtiers had paused to listen. Lord Rafenshighte had drawn near.
“Was it not good?” the little herald asked.
“It was very good,” Dafythe assured him.
“Lovely,” Rafenshighte agreed. “`Tis a shame you’ve made laws to destroy such song, My Lord.”
“The price required to maintain that beauty is too high,” Dafythe answered.
The young nobleman’s eyes traveled over the boy’s blushing face. “No price is too dear to preserve beauty for the enjoyment of all.”