Saeward stopped, his shoulders tightened, and for a moment he stood motionless as a rabbit caught in the open while scurrying from one burrow to another. The court, he must have been thinking, was not so very wide. It was rotten luck, he must have been thinking, that Ralf chanced to arrive at just that time.
But he was polite enough to turn and say, “Good morning.”
It was too late for Ralf to disappear now. “Good Monday,” he said as he fell in beside Saeward. “I hope it finds you well?”
“Well enough, thank you, and you?” Saeward replied smoothly. They arrived at the door, and as an additional politeness Saeward pulled it open and said, “After you.”
Ralf slipped into the tunnel-like corridor ahead of Saeward, and shuffled awkwardly as he waited for Saeward to close the door and catch up.
“Thank you,” he said when he did.
Before Ralf could think of anything else to say they had reached the door to the stairs. This time Ralf pulled it open.
Saeward stepped into the stairwell. “Thank you.”
Ralf knew better than to ask Saeward about the kittens, though he would have liked to know how they fared. He had only seen them once more, when he had gone to fetch the body of the runt of the litter, who had died after three days.
Still, Ralf had been glad that Saeward had allowed him to take the kitten home to be buried. In spite of Saeward’s huffy annoyance at the “inconvenience,” Ralf had recognized a real discomfort with the idea of tossing the tiny body to the pigs, as was customarily done.
And no amount of laundering or brushing could hide the signs of an affectionate, shedding cat from Ralf’s eyes. Even if the wisps of fur on Saeward’s tunic could be explained by a room too infrequently dusted, there was no mistaking the tiny loops of thread on his sleeves, teased out of the weave by gently kneading claws. Littlefoot had claimed a lap for her own.
But unless Saeward brought up the subject himself in a hushed, hurried conversation—quite as if the two of them were engaged in a criminal enterprise—a mention of cats earned Ralf only a curt word and a cold shoulder for the rest of the morning.
So Ralf merely observed, “Looks to be another fine day.”
Saeward said, “It does. I wonder whether we shall have another frost.”
“I hope not. I already got out to scratch around a bit in the garden yesterday.” Ralf chuckled. “I hope that doesn’t count as breaking the Sabbath.”
Saeward, who had necessarily gone first up the stairs, necessarily opened the door at the top and said, “After me.”
Once through he turned back to Ralf and said, “I daresay not, if ‘scratching around’ implies you didn’t accomplish anything.”
Ralf smiled. “My only accomplishment was a big pile of dead leaves and a ferocious appetite.”
He paused—stoutening, middle-aged royal vizier that he was—to reminisce about his Sunday dinner. But the memory paled as it occurred to him that he had eaten it alone again, with only his housekeeper for company.
Saeward always rebuffed him, but this week Ralf had not even asked. He wondered sometimes whether Saeward had ever accepted a dinner invitation from anyone, and whether it was kinder to persist in making invitations or rather to take the hint. Some cats simply did not want to be tamed.
“What about you?” he asked Saeward. Quickly he amended his question to allow a one-word answer. “Pass a pleasant Sunday?”
Saeward did not grant him even that single word—only grunted and stroked his beard.
Ralf took a hasty step forward to reach the cloister door first and push it open. “This one’s on me,” he said.
He stepped back to let Saeward through. As he passed, Ralf caught a glimpse of a smile beneath that perfectly-trimmed mustache, or imagined he did.
“It was pleasant enough,” Saeward said outside. “I rode out across the river to look up a certain gadabout boundary stone. The dispute is bound to come up at the audience on Thursday, if I may impose upon you with my feeble talents at word-play.”
Ralf laughed. “I don’t know, that sounds suspiciously like working on a Sunday to me.”
“If I said I took a picnic dinner?”
“Only if you enjoyed it immensely.”
“Enjoying it immensely would be problematic during Lent. Let us say I was grateful for my food.”
Ralf sensed a voice hardening, a shoulder growing cool. They walked the last few paces through the cloister in silence. Ralf wondered whether he had said something wrong, or whether Saeward had simply noticed he was being led into a conversation and decided to cut it off.
Still, hearing Saeward volunteer information about how he had spent his Sunday was something rare. Ralf had seen him sometimes, or imagined he saw him, walking over fallow fields, or anywhere far enough from a road that he would not risk an encounter. Hands in his pockets, head down, beard hidden in his scarf and the wind ruffling his hair, Saeward could nevertheless be recognized through mist and distance by his trim silhouette and his scissoring stride, so unlike the rambling of a farmer over the land. But he was always alone.
They reached the door to the Yellow Room. Ralf said, “I believe this one is mine?”
“I owe you for the top of the stairs.”
“Oh, right.” Ralf waved at the handle. “After you.”
Saeward opened the door and bowed. “No, after you.”
“Err… That’s what I meant.” Ralf ducked through the door, growing flustered. “After me.”
Given that only two empty chairs remained, it appeared that everyone was waiting for the two of them. Ralf flushed and dropped directly to his knee, forcing Saeward to step awkwardly around him. Saeward must have breakfasted with the King, for he acquitted himself with a bow.
“Well, good morning, gentlemen,” Sigefrith said, nodding at Ralf to bid him rise. “Don’t tell me you two have been out there all this time working out your order of precedence.”
Saeward said, “It was not a matter of precedence, but of that notion known to small children as ‘taking turns.’”
“And you two large adults couldn’t come to an understanding?”
Ralf protested, “There are five doors between the court and this room. With two men and an odd number of doors, one door is bound to be left over.”
Sigefrith sighed and shook his head. He said to Brede, “That’s what I get for turning a bean counter and a rule whore loose in my castle.”
Brede laughed. It was strange to see him again after such a long absence. Stranger still to see him in Malcolm’s chair. The chair had sat empty for only one day. Sigefrith had not wasted any time.
Ralf shook Brede’s hand and said, “Welcome home.”
Brede had grown thin. He looked both exhausted and unusually alert, and a new silver pendant hung prominently over his breast, the medallion of some shrine or saint perhaps.
Ralf leaned closer and murmured, “I’m so sorry about your daughter.”
Brede winced, but he nodded.
Ralf bid good morning to the others: Prince Caedwulf, the royal secretary Aldwin, and, strangely, Eohric, Nothelm’s reeve. Something must have happened there.
When they were all seated, Sigefrith clapped his square hands and said, “Excellent! Now, our first business this morning is to express our delight at the safe return of our cousin Brede”—he gestured handsomely at Brede—“and our erstwhile Captain of the Guard, Sir Eadred.”
He flicked his hand at Aldwin, and Aldwin hurried to transcribe the royal delight into his account of the morning’s business.
“With appropriate gratitude due to the Almighty, if you please,” Sigefrith said.
He watched Aldwin vaguely for a moment before bringing himself to sharp attention and looking between Ralf and Saeward.
“The rest of you must have realized that I shall be occupied with affairs of state today, so that leaves the running of the kingdom to you. See that you take turns, hmm?”
Ralf smiled foolishly.
“Ralf—” Sigefrith slid an all-too-familiar calf-bound register down the table, and Ralf stopped smiling. “—you’re in my study. Gwrien will be downstairs on the front line, but if he can’t handle something, it’s up to you.” He pointed at the book: fat and fanned out from the scraps of scribbled parchment that interleaved almost every page. “When you’re not busy, see how far you can get with that.”
Ralf stifled a sigh and dragged the book onto his lap. “Yes, sire.”
“And after dinner, unless my domain is actively on fire, I want you to ride to Bernwald and meet with Wynn, and see that the week is off to a good start there.” He shot a scroll of worn parchment down the table at Ralf. “I thought of a few things I wanted to mention to him. You’re welcome to look it over before you go.”
“If there’s anything you need signed, leave it with Gwrien and I shall see to it later.”
Sigefrith turned away from Ralf, and Ralf relaxed, relieved that nothing worse awaited him than ironing out the errors in the tax rolls and a fair-weather ride to Bernwald. When Sigefrith knew he would be away for the day, Ralf’s duties could become almost menial. It was not that Sigefrith did not trust his steward to make decisions on his behalf… it was simply that Sigefrith adored making decisions and liked to save the fun for himself. Ralf had just had his breakfast, and he was already looking forward to dinner.
He looked up suddenly, noticing the quiet. Aldwin’s quill scritched and scratched behind him, but no brisk barrage of orders rained down on Saeward.
Instead Sigefrith slid a pair of neatly-lettered parchments across the table. Before turning them around, he said, “None of this leaves this room. Aldwin, you may put down your pen.”
Aldwin stopped in mid-scritch.
Sigefrith spun the pages so that they could be read by Saeward and Eohric.
“You two,” he said, “have one task this morning.”
He lifted his hands. Saeward slid one of the parchments to the edge of the table and glanced it over. He looked up suddenly, his eyes glittering and his brows arched into a challenging stare.
Ralf glanced at Brede. Brede was leaning over the table, pinching his lip between thumb and finger, but he did not appear to be trying to read the documents. Ralf concluded he already knew what they were.
“An arrest warrant and a writ of banishment for one Egelric Wodehead,” Sigefrith announced. “Your task is to figure out how to unbanish the man.”
Eohric picked up one of the documents, but Saeward went on staring at Sigefrith.
“On the grounds of what new evidence?” he asked, each word sharp and cold as a dart.
“That’s what you two need to puzzle out. Saeward, I intend for you to make the request on Thursday, at the Audience, and the writ shall be read at all the markets on Saturday. It needn’t be explicit, but I expect you two to come up with some idea of how we might have come by new evidence, or found some flaw in the old, or what have you, in case we are called upon to elaborate.”
Saeward’s stare was scintillating. Sigefrith met it with a look of aloof tolerance until Eohric cleared his throat and spoke up, handling his parchment warily around the edges as if it might smudge.
“My lord, why can’t you just… pardon him?”
“Because a pardon is not the same thing as an acquittal. I’m not forgiving him, I’m unaccusing him.”
Brede interrupted, “It was a ruse.”
Everyone looked to him, and he looked contritely at Sigefrith until Sigefrith nodded his permission.
“He was with me at Ramsaa the whole time,” Brede explained, glancing from face to face. “It was when Young Aed was here. His banishment was a ruse to sneak the three of us to Ramsaa right under Young Aed’s nose.”
Saeward seemed to find his stare insufficient to express his outrage, and he gasped.
“And he served honorably there,” Brede said. “He befriended one of the lords, and I did Diarmait and the other, and between the two of us we knew everything that was happening there. And we all stayed alive. And, frankly, I consider him sufficiently punished for whatever crimes he may have committed. Maire’s brothers met him at Ramsaa.” He lowered his eyes and looked up again, glancing at all the faces surrounding him. “Let us say simply: he managed to survive.”
Ralf let out a slow breath. He had never found much to like in Sir Egelric, but his friend Ethelwyn was heartbroken merely to know him banished. And Ralf felt sick at the thought of Sir Malcolm and his poor wife learning of this. Or did Malcolm already know?
“I told him,” Sigefrith said, scratching idly at an ink stain on the table, “that his name would be cleared by the time he returned. If he chooses to return.”
Saeward said, “That was months ago!”
Sigefrith looked up, but his fingernail scratched a few more times unobserved.
“Young Aed left here months ago! And you’ve left his name blackened all this time!”
Sigefrith’s tone soured. “Yes, well, I couldn’t know he was serving honorably all this time, could I? For all I knew he had truly turned on Brede at the coast, and robbed him and fled.”
Saeward smacked his palm on the table. Ralf jumped, hugging his tax rolls.
“Then condemn him for robbery!” Saeward shouted. “You cannot let charges of rape and murder stand against a man simply because for all you know while out of sight he’s committed robbery!”
“For all anyone knows he’s a rapist and murderer too. For that matter, so are we all. God alone knows.”
Saeward said, “You told me you had evidence!”
Sigefrith lifted his hand from the ink stain and slouched a shoulder against the cushioned back of his chair. His pose was languid, but his stare was narrowing to a dagger edge.
“Because you asked me why I ordered his arrest,” he said coldly. “As I recommended to you two: be prepared to elaborate if necessary.”
Saeward smacked both his hands on the table and leapt to his feet. Ralf cringed. Even Caedwulf looked unnerved. Only Sigefrith did not flinch.
Saeward leaned over the table and shouted down at the King: “You sent me to arrest an innocent man!”
Sigefrith waved a hand. “Calling Egelric innocent is a bit rich.”
“You knowingly sent me to arrest a man for crimes he did not commit, and you have let those accusations stand to this day! And what would you have done if he had died abroad? Let them stand forever?”
Sigefrith worked his square jaw on its hinges and met Saeward’s accusations with a withering stare.
Ralf clutched his book in his lap and peeked at the others. They all sat hunched and nervous, bewildered by this unprecedented act of defiance.
While the King’s men were permitted to question his acts and ideas, it was always done with humility, and always with the understanding that he might choose to overrule them. And when he did, one did not question that.
Ralf peeked up at Saeward, looming over him, half-stranger, half-friend, with his fur-sprinkled sleeves, his hands knotted into fists, his angry grimace, and his unmistakable beard.
Who was this man? Ralf could not help but recall the old, discounted rumors calling him Sigefrith’s bastard son… Then he glanced at Caedwulf and disbelieved them all over again. Not one of Sigefrith’s children had escaped the birthright of his chin. Saeward’s narrow wedge of beard could not make a triangle of a solid square.
Sigefrith said, “Egelric’s… activities, as well as my own involvement in the affairs of Ramsaa, have put me in a very delicate situation with regard to a number of my allies. In such situations I prefer not to commit myself until circumstances oblige.”
“Which is a diplomatic way of saying you would have let the sentence stand!”
Ralf cringed at the shout. He was mortified for Saeward’s sake, and a little frightened for them all.
Saeward straightened, and Ralf prayed he was about to sit down. Instead he said, coolly musing, “In other words, you sacrificed a man’s reputation and, possibly, his life in order to spare yourself. I should have seen it coming.”
Sigefrith whacked his hands on the table and bounded out of his chair, sending it cracking against the wall. Everyone jumped, and even Saeward jerked back, raising an arm against a coming blow.
Sigefrith shouted, “What did I tell you when you arrived here?”
Saeward lowered his arm halfway.
Sigefrith demanded, “What did I tell you was the one thing you had to do in order for me to trust you?”
Pale and nervous as Ralf had never seen him, Saeward whispered, “Trust you.”
Sigefrith repeated slowly, “Trust me.”
Ralf glanced at Caedwulf. Caedwulf smoothed back his hair and lifted his eyebrows in helpless expression of “Don’t blame me!”
“But I did trust you,” Saeward said, shaking his head. “You told me you had new evidence, and I believed you.” He leaned over the table, easily within swinging distance. “And you lied to me.”
“Name of God!” Sigefrith smacked his fist into his palm and threw wide his arms. Saeward swayed back. “What are we here? Five-year-olds? When I say to my men, Trust me, I don’t mean Trust me, I’ll never lie to you! I mean Trust me, even when I lie to you! Do you see the difference?”
Saeward stared at him, open-mouthed and breathing through his lips. His quivering beard magnified a shiver of his chin.
“I can’t make you trust me,” Sigefrith said. “So if you can’t or won’t do it, then get out. Talk to Ralf before you go. He’ll see that you’re paid what you’re owed. Otherwise, sit the hell down.”
Saeward hesitated a breath longer. Ralf prayed with all his might to send a message into Saeward’s brain: “Sit down!” Saeward pulled up his chair and sat. Ralf sighed in relief.
But Saeward could not resist having the last word. As Sigefrith straightened his cushions and settled into his chair, Saeward grumbled, “I submit, lord, that you did not trust me either. Else you would have told me about your ruse.”
Sigefrith snorted and smiled a little wryly, a little warningly. “Noted. And I submit, sir, that somebody had to go first.” He bowed his head and waved graciously at Saeward. “After you, Cockchafer. It’s called taking turns.”