Ambris spoke to Old Toppet, who was in charge of the heralds, early the next morning to ensure that Andemyon would no longer be given night duty with the Duke. He intended to bring the boy into his own office as soon as he could do so without drawing undue attention. So much was easily accomplished. Finding Andemyon alone so that he could be questioned proved a more difficult task, for Andemyon was never alone. He continued his daily duties of attending Dafythe with the other heralds, and when he wasn’t thus occupied, he spent his time with Laurel. It was impossible to summon him away without having to explain why he was wanted; Ambris was more anxious to keep this state of affairs from his wife than he was to keep it from his father, for Laurel was very fond of Andemyon and almost as protective of him as her own small children.
They found no opportunity for several days, until the night of the Duke’s 74th anniversary of his coronation. All the court and half the city turned out for this grand celebration on the Palace grounds. The lawns and gardens around the State Hall were ablaze with lights and the Hall itself crowded when Dafythe made his appearance with his seven heralds.
Andemyon stepped forward from this group to shout out the well-practiced announcement, “Gentle nobles, good citizens, all hail thee Dafythe Gabriel Holyrood Ambris Lyonsbloode Plantagenet, Prince of the Norman Empire, Grand Duke, Sovereign Lord Governor and Protector of the Northlands, Preserver of the Peace, Defender of the Faith, by Grace of God!”
Mara watched this angelic child in his velvet and ribbons, bright curls tumbling about his shoulders. Was he no more than an innocent boy? Was he an ambitious young schemer, or was he a victim of the aged Duke’s misplaced affections?
Andemyon returned to his place at Dafythe’s immediate right. As the small procession came slowly down the ancient stone steps, Dafythe reached up to place a hand on Andemyon’s shoulder to keep his balance. His fingers brushed the boy’s curls. Mara shuddered. It was an innocuous gesture, but with such thoughts in her head, it was unbearable to see. From the murmurs in the crowd around her, she knew that others had seen it too and were wondering as well. She began to feel sick.
“Can’t we get Andemyon away tonight?” Kat whispered to her and to Ambris, for the three of them stood together near the foot of the stairs. “Surely Uncle Dafythe won’t keep his heralds in attendance all evening? It isn’t a formal ceremony—it’s a party! He must let the boys go and have their fun once he takes his seat. At his age, he won’t be wandering around greeting his guests for long.”
“We’ll have to be quick if we want to draw Andemyon out without being observed,” said Ambris. “Mara, you’re the strategist. What do you recommend?”
“If we can, one of us ought to take him out into the courtyard,” Mara suggested after a moment’s thought. “The other two must watch and follow. We’ll be noticed if we all go out together. The best time for it will be when everyone’s gone out to the great lawn to see the rockets set off. There are sure to be people wandering about the gardens even then, but we’ve no better chance of speaking to him privately without being interrupted or overheard.”
“What are you whispering about?” Laurel asked as she approached them. “You look as if you’re planning a conspiracy.”
“We’ve been discussing Father’s intended activities,” Ambris lied—a remarkable event!
“I was wondering if he planned staying up late for all the festivities,” Kat added quickly. “Uncle Dafythe gets tired so early in the evenings, I don’t expect he’ll remain with us long enough to see the Cathay fire-rockets. `Tis pity—he’s always had a liking for such tricks from foreign and faraway lands. But he’s sure to hear them, even from his bedchamber!” The conversation continued along these lines while Laurel was with them.
“Doesn’t she know?” asked Mara after Laurel had gone to speak to Dafythe herself.
“She guesses that something troubles me, but I haven’t told her of the gossip, nor confided our plans,” Ambris replied. “I am most reluctant to. It isn’t usual that I keep things from her, but I dread to imagine what she might do if she believes the worst.”
“Do you mean what she might do to Father, or to the people who’ve carried tales against Andemyon?” asked Mara.
“Then we must take care she doesn’t learn of it ’til Andemyon is safely away from Father.” She glanced at the Duke, who had taken his seat on the dais beneath the Northlands’ hartshead. Laurel was with him among a group of courtiers offering their good wishes and hopes that Dafythe’s reign would continue for many years more. The heralds stood arrayed at either side of the Duke’s throne. Some of the boys were trying not to look bored; others had their eyes on the refreshment tables laden with countless delicacies. “Watch for the first chance that presents itself,” Mara said to her brother and cousin, and they went their separate ways.
Each made the motions of enjoying the celebration, took refreshment, chatted with the courtiers, but all three kept an eye upon the Duke. When the musicians struck up cheerful music, Geoffrey humbly requested to lead the first dance with Mara.
“You seem distracted, My Prince,” he teased her after they’d taken hands and led the long column of dancing pairs through the opening steps. The dance was a simple promenade, with no complicated maneuvers; Mara had learnt it in childhood, but she faltered tonight, for she paid little attention to her movements and cast frequent glances at the Duke’s dais. “What can be more important, I wonder, than a dance?” Geoffrey turned his head to see where she was looking. “Are you concerned that My Lord Dafythe mightn’t approve of my partnering you, even for half an hour?”
“No,” Mara answered absently. “I’m not troubled by that.”
“I’m most gratified to hear it! I gives me greater hopes.” Geoffrey lowered his voice. “Your father has heard that you’ve considered honoring me above all other men, and he means to put a stop to it. Did you know? He called me to his chambers not long ago to speak severely about our presumed betrothal and said he would never consent to it. That is of course his right, so we must abide until your choice of consort is your own to make. While I trust My Lord will continue to reign for some time to come, I don’t imagine we will have to wait as long as that.”
But Mara gave less attention to these attempts at flirtation than she did to her dance-steps.
More than an hour passed before Dafythe retired. Before the Duke departed for his chambers, he bid the festivities go on and his guests enjoy themselves. He gave his heralds liberty until their bed-time.
Andemyon, now free of his duties, wandered shyly around the edges of the crowd, then went to a table bearing crystal decanters and enormous silver bowls of wine-punch. At the end of this table stood tall doors open to the courtyard. Ambris followed the boy as if he meant to refresh his own cup from the same bowl where Andemyon was filling a cup for himself. He took Andemyon by the elbow. “Come with me, Demy.”
They went out into the garden. Mara and Kat, who had been covertly watching from positions on either side of the open doors, waited until the pair had gone past them, then fell into formation like a phalanx of guards at the rear. It was done so quickly that Mara was confident their exit went unobserved. Andemyon, however, heard their footsteps on the flagstones behind him; he turned and looked from one Prince to the other, then up at Ambris, but didn’t ask what was going on, nor did he try to break free. When they reached the fountain at the center of the courtyard, he sat on the stone rim where Ambris indicated.
“Andemyon,” Ambris began gently, “we must ask you certain questions about what has passed between you and my father the Duke. You are often alone with him during the nights.”
“I attend him at night, My Lord,” the boy responded promptly, as if this were the information Ambris sought. “That is, I did until this past week. Toppet says I mustn’t anymore, for I’m to begin new duties soon.”
“Yes, but tell us: what occurred when you were called to this duty?”
“I would sit up with My Lord Duke. If he couldn’t sleep, I would amuse him as he requested me. If he were taken ill, I was to fetch the physician.”
“As you did one night shortly before Midsummer?”
“Yes.” Andemyon nodded. “He—My Lord the Duke—awoke in the night and said that he had a terrible pain just here.” He placed his own hand on the left side of his chest. “So I ran to Dr. Dimitrios’s room and brought him back. He said that it was something My Lord Dafythe had eaten before going to bed, and not his heart, that distressed him, and gave some physic to soothe his pains.”
“When you went to fetch the physician, you were not in your full livery,” said Ambris. “We have confirmed from Dr. Dimitrios that this is so.”
Andemyon first looked frightened, then relieved. “Yes, that’s so,” he admitted.
“You are aware, Andemyon, that it is the custom for the herald who attends my father in the night to remain fully dressed.”
“Yes, I know,” the boy answered meekly.
“Then why did you remove your tabard?” asked Ambris.
“My Lord Duke said I might.”
“Did you ask if you could, or did he invite you to?” Kat asked. She and Mara had allowed Ambris to take the lead in questioning Andemyon, but they were growing impatient with his roundabout, lawyerly way of asking questions.
Andemyon turned to her. “My Lord saw one night that I wasn’t able to sleep comfortably in it, Prince Kat. He said it was foolish for me to keep it on, and I needn’t wear it again whenever I spent the night with him so long as no one else saw. I should’ve put it on when I went for Dr. Dimitrios,” he added in apologetic tones, “but I was frightened for Lord Dafythe and didn’t think of what was proper.”
“Do you truly know what’s proper?” Mara wondered. “What else has Father bade you do, Demy? Is there nothing more you have to tell us?”
“I don’t know what you wish me to say, Prince Mara.”
“We want to know what Father’s done with you—or what you’ve done with him.”
The boy gaped up at her, but gave no answer.
“Andemyon, we must have the truth,” Ambris spoke more sternly now. “Before God and upon your honor. This is a very serious matter. My father’s reputation may depend upon it, and yours as well. You are very young and mayn’t comprehend the danger you are placed in. I vow to you that we will not be angry with you so long as you tell no lies. You spend many nights in the Duke’s chambers, at his request. You say you’ve been bid to sleep without your full livery. Tell us more. Where do you sleep on these nights? On the coucherie at the foot of Father’s bed? On the bed? Have you ever lain in bed beside him?”
“What is this? Why are you asking him such things?” The unexpected voice from the darkness of the shrubbery startled them all. Laurel stepped forward. She had obviously overheard the last part of their interview. “I guessed that something was going on. Is this what you three have been whispering over and making plans for—the filthy questions you meant to put to Demy?”
“I didn’t want you to know,” Ambris explained. “Rumors are wild about the Palace and Pendaunzel, and perhaps beyond. We have to discover the truth behind them.”
“You can’t believe such rubbish, Ambris! You–” Laurel looked from Kat to Mara. “Do you truly think that there’s been something scandalous between them? Mara, by your own words, you seem to be implying that Andemyon’s done wrong.”
“We don’t wish to believe it,” said Ambris, “but Father’s behavior toward Andemyon has been most peculiar lately. The gossip can’t be ignored. Demy is the only one who can answer for the truth or falsity of it.”
“The truth is that you’re too frightened to confront your father, who can answer for himself more readily than Demy can. `Tis far easier to interrogate a little boy than a Duke, isn’t it? You don’t have to be careful of what you say. You can bully him into giving whatever answers you choose. I don’t believe a word of it, but if there was any wrongdoing, I’d suspect the grown man first, not the child.”
“You speak of my father,” Ambris reminded her.
“And you speak of my brother!” Laurel spat back.
This answer jolted Andemyon from his confusion at the quarrel going on over his head. He hadn’t guessed. The others were likewise surprised. There’d been much speculation around the court about the Lady’s true parentage, but Laurel herself had never before declared that she knew whose daughter she was.
“You know well, my love, that Lord Redmantyl will not forgive you for our marriage,” she told Ambris as she lay a protective hand on Andemyon’s shoulder. “He thinks it the ruin of me. And you know what he did when he thought that Orlan had been deceived and disgraced by the Mayor of Storm Port. Demy is his darling pet, more dear to him than even Orlan or I. What do you imagine he’d do to those who threaten the reputation of his best-beloved child? Pendaunzel and all those courtiers who tell lies wouldn’t stand long before his wrath.”
Sparks of some previously untapped power rose in Laurel with her anger. She “blazed with it”; the Princes had heard this phrase used to describe the glamour of powerful magicians, but they’d never before seen it manifest. Laurel shone more brightly than the light from the torches at the State Hall’s doors. She’d given up her apprenticeship to marry Ambris, but she kept the full force of her magic all the same. If she employed it, she might truly be a wizard to match her father.
The intensity of this speech stunned Ambris, but he responded evenly, as if he’d seen his wife in a blaze of fury before and was undaunted by it. “If Andemyon is your brother, then he is also mine in law. I must care for his best interests as I would for my own brother, or for one of my sons if they were in this same position. It’s my duty to protect his reputation as well as Father’s.”
Laurel nodded. “So he is, and it’s well you remember it.”
“I will speak with my father, Laurel, but I cannot confront him with questions about such terrible deeds unless I’m certain what crime has been committed. We know nothing of what’s passed between them—has Father actually taken Andemyon into his bed, or is he merely infatuated? Has Andemyon encouraged Father’s affection for him?”
“You can’t accuse Andemyon without proof either,” said Laurel.
“I don’t. I seek the proof—if there are such proofs to be found—now. We brought Andemyon out here so that we could question him in confidence. If I see any cause to believe some improper act has in fact taken place, I will also ask Dimitrios to examine him,” Ambris answered. “No one has made accusations.”
“I heard questions that sounded very like accusations.” His wife looked pointedly at Mara and Kat.
“We meant no harm to him, Laurel,” said Kat.
“Then you needn’t have gone about this in such a bullying way! Very well—If you must have the truth of it, I’ll ask him.” Laurel sat down beside Andemyon and forced herself to be calm as she spoke to him. “Demy, we must clear your name, and the Duke’s too. You needn’t be afraid, for I will defend you. Tell me: when you attended My Lord Dafythe at night, what did you do?”
“I would tell him stories,” Andemyon answered.
“What sort of stories?” asked Mara.
“Mama’s–” he looked to Laurel for assistance.
“His mother was a storyteller as well as headthesper,” Laurel explained. “She used to tell wonderful tales of the old myths—Oedipus in medieval trappings, the fall of Troy, Arthur’s knights.”
“And you repeated these tales to Uncle Dafythe?” Kat asked.
The boy nodded again.
“What else?” asked Laurel.
“I would sing to him. When he couldn’t sleep, he asked me to sing his favorite hymns, or else a lullaby. He taught me a Galsh one that his nurse used to sing to him in the nursery when he was a little boy.”
While this wasn’t the sort of detail they were dreading to hear, there was something vulnerable and intimate about it that made Mara feel uncomfortable. They were prying into her father’s secrets and learning things that they had no right to know. “What else?” she asked.
“We talk, Prince Mara,” said Andemyon.
“What did you and Lord Dafythe talk about?” Laurel prompted him.
“Different things. I would tell him about Wizardes Cliff, and Mother’s troupe. He wanted to know what sort of place I would be suited for at court when I was of an age to leave off my service as a herald.” Growing more confident under Laurel’s protection, and anxious to give whatever information would help him out of this frightening situation, Andemyon was finding his voice.
“Has Father promised you advancement at court?” asked Ambris. “Have you asked him to grant you some prestigious place?”
“My Lord Duke says that I ought to go to the university to be educated,” Andemyon volunteered. “He said that was how I would serve him best. He promised to write to Father about it.”
This was touching and interesting, but it still wasn’t what they wanted to know. Although she was careful to speak gently to the boy, Laurel had to be more specific. “Andemyon, has My Lord the Duke ever put his hands upon you in a familiar way or kissed you—not as he might touch or kiss one of his grandchildren, but in a way that felt wrong to you? Has he offered you gifts? Has he spoken to you of love?”
To each question, Andemyon answered, “No, Laurel,” with an ever-increasing look of puzzlement.
At last, Laurel sighed. “Demy, do you understand what’s been said about you?” She explained patiently, “Do you know of how a man and woman will lie together in love? They embrace so that they join together. Do you know about such things? Has the Duke done such a thing with you?”
Andemyon’s eyes were wide. “But, Laurel–”
Laurel looked up at her husband triumphantly.
“But, Laurel,” Andemyon continued his protest. “I’m a boy.” He twisted to look up and around at the others, wondering that they hadn’t considered this most pertinent fact. “I’m a boy.”
“Yes, my darling,” Laurel embraced him fiercely. “A most wonderful boy. Go along now. You don’t want to miss the fire-rockets. Speak to no one of this, not even My Lord Dafythe. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Laurel.” Andemyon rose and darted back into the State Hall. There was a loud, sizzling hiss from some distant point on the lawn. A bright point of light shot high into the dark sky to explode in a burst of red and yellow sparks like an enormous flower overhead. The first rockets were being set off, but their colorful light was nothing to the flash of anger in Laurel’s eyes as she turned back to the Princes and Ambris.
“Innocent? Beyond all doubt, he is! Have your father’s physician confirm it if you like. He’ll find nothing amiss. Demy’s done nothing. He knows nothing about it. The poor child didn’t even understand the questions!” She left them and followed after Andemyon.