“There’ve been terrible rumors around the court,” Ambris told Mara and Kat later that night after they’d returned to the Palace. Dafythe had gone to his bedchamber; the rest of the courtiers had likewise retired. The halls of the Manor were dark and silent and the only lighted candles were in Mara’s room, where the three now sat in private conference. Ambris was obviously embarrassed to speak of the matter, but after the incident at the theatre, he felt it necessary that his sister and cousin know all. “It’s rumored that Father has taken that boy into his bed. As you heard tonight, Mara, they call him ‘The Duke’s Cat.’ It is an abbreviation for ‘catamite.'”
“Christ’s Mercy!” Kat cried out, shocked.
“That’s absurd!” Mara was first struck by the ridiculousness of the accusation. “Father’s one hundred! Even when he was younger, there was never any gossip that he fancied little boys.”
“Andemyon is sixteen now—of an age to give consent—but only just,” said Ambris. “If anything has happened between them, it may have begun before this spring.”
“Nothing could happen!” Mara insisted. “They must be mad, those who say such things. It’s madness to believe it.”
“I’m not mad, but I am afraid Father may be,” her brother responded. “I would be happy to reject these tales as filthy lies. I too thought at first that it was impossible. As you say, Mara, Father is far too old for such activities, and his reputation has been impeccable these last fifty years. But there was more than this to consider. I’ve been told of strange behavior by Father that would be unthinkable for him if he were in full control of himself.”
“Told? By whom?” Mara demanded.
“It was Othel who drew the stories to my attention last week. Talk has been going on for much longer than that, but no one dared repeat these ugly rumors before one of us. He thought I must hear about them before the matter was spoken of openly. I’ve conducted discreet inquiries among Father’s personal staff, and discovered one or two points that are disturbing. First, they all say that Father is overly familiar with the boy. He openly prefers Andemyon to all his other heralds. Andemyon sings for him. He accompanies Father on private walks, reads to him, plays chess with him.”
“Yes, we’ve all seen that,” Kat said impatiently. “But I’ve never seen anything in it to alarm me. Have you?”
Mara shook her head.
“Nor have I,” Ambris agreed. “But there’s more. You also know that the heralds watch over Father through the night in case his health should suddenly fail. One boy is assigned to take the duty each night, yet Father requests that Andemyon stay with him three and four nights in a row. The next point is more suggestive: on one night recently, when Andemyon was in attendance, Father woke and complained of chest pains and shortness of breath. The boy was sent to fetch the physician—dressed in his shirt and a loosely-laced tunic. The heralds are meant to wear their livery during this night duty.”
Mara and Kat glanced at each other, but had nothing to say to this.
“I’ve conducted certain private interviews with various persons around the court and heard more alarming stories,” Ambris continued. “Some claim that Father has been seen kissing the boy in the gardens. Others say they’ve heard that Andemyon has received extravagant gifts, such as jewels, or that he’s been promised a prestigious position at court once he leaves the heralds. But these stories are unsubstantiated. I’ve found no proof that of any of this has actually happened and believe it to be no more than wild gossip. People repeat the tales they’ve heard, but no witnesses have come forward, save for Father’s physician.”
“What does he say?” Mara asked.
“For his part, it seems the tale is true. On the night that Father suffered his pains, the boy came to summon him and wasn’t dressed in full livery.”
“It could be perfectly innocent,” Kat spoke up. “You can’t expect a boy to sit up in that stiff tabard night after night.”
“That’s so,” Ambris agreed. “But one boy shouldn’t have the duty night after night. The court has noticed Father’s preference for Andemyon, and this one fact has surely been the root of all the gossip that’s followed. Whether or not any other part is true, this surely is. The rest remains to be examined.”
“It can’t be true, not the rest of it,” Mara insisted, though not with the same conviction she’d shown at the beginning of this discussion.
“I don’t like to believe it either,” Ambris answered, “but we can’t ignore it at this point. If the tale has carried to Pendaunzel, then it’s become too widespread to be disregard. We must confront it.”
“What are we to do?”
“I intend to continue my investigation until I discover the truth. If there’s nothing more to this ugly story but lies, then Father’s reputation must be cleared and his slanderers brought to account for their crime against him as well as against a young boy. If there is something to it, then I can only assume that Father is in his dotage. He’s no longer entirely in his right senses and become madly infatuated with a pretty youth—though we may hope, due to the infirmity of his age, that the worst has not occurred.”
“And if the worst has occurred..?” Mara allowed the sentence to trail off. She didn’t know how to finish it. What if the worst rumors were true? What would they do then? What would they be able to do? Ambris surely knew the law pertaining to governors unfit to govern. If their father was no longer in full possession of his faculties and had abused a boy under his protection, they could certainly remove Andemyon from danger and hush up any scandal. What else did they have the authority to do? Could they prevent Dafythe from committing greater abuses? Could they remove him from power?
The thought of it frightened her. In spite of her differences with her father, she never wanted to usurp him. No, the worst couldn’t be true. It was impossible to imagine Dafythe doing such a thing. Even in his dotage, he never could harm anyone. If there was any truth at all behind these stories, there must be another explanation.
Another explanation occurred to her so suddenly that it was almost as if someone had spoken the words near her ear. “There’s another possibility to be considered,” she said. “This may be Andemyon’s doing, not Father’s. Perhaps he isn’t so innocent as he seems.”
“Oh, Mara!” Kat protested. “You must be joking! You can’t truly be saying that that young boy–”
“No, nothing so bad as that. Andemyon is very young, but he’s not a child—perhaps a bit backward for a boy of sixteen, but no fool. Everyone says he’s remarkably intelligent. You’ve often said so yourself, Ambris.” Mara turned to her brother. “He thinks more deeply than boys his age are wont to, and he keeps his thoughts to himself. What if he’s ambitious? He must’ve seen how his family has risen under Father’s favor. You can’t deny that they haven’t, since Laurel has become your wife. Who’s to say that the boy hasn’t taken some advantage of Father’s affection for him? He needn’t have done anything really wrong–” she added quickly, for Ambris looked as astonished as Kat at hearing such thoughts from her. “I refuse to believe anything of the sort has happened between them. All Andemyon would have to do is look like an angel and be attentive to Father. He can’t help doing that much! If poor Father’s mind is turning, then he’d grant whatever favors Andemyon asked of him.”
Her brother and Kat were silent for so long following this speech that Mara began to wonder if either would speak at all.
Then Kat said, “It could be so, Ambris. I don’t like to think anything has happened either, but I’d much rather it be as Mara says than Uncle Dafythe preying upon an innocent boy. At least, we can protect him from Andemyon.”
“Andemyon must be removed from Father’s service immediately,” Ambris agreed. “I’ll see to that.”
“It won’t stop this awful gossip,” Kat said dispiritedly. “It might even start more talk. Some people will see it as proof—if there was nothing behind the stories, we wouldn’t have to take Andemyon away.”
“I know,” Ambris answered. “That can’t be helped. But it will at least prevent both from suffering further harm. If Father has forgotten himself in his dotage, it will take the boy out of his reach. And if Andemyon is playing up to Father, then Father will be safe from such blandishments.”
“Then you think I may be right?” asked Mara.
Her brother shook his head. “I don’t yet know where the truth lies. There are only two people who can tell us. We can’t approach Father until we are more certain. The one to be questioned is Andemyon.”