‘Not too far from the palace gate, Sparhawk saw a familiar figure. A lame beggar boy wrapped in a ragged cloak crutched his way out from the corner where he had been sheltering himself. ‘Charity, my Lords, Charity,’ he begged in a broken-hearted voice.
Sparhawk reined Faran in and reached inside his robe for a few coins.
‘I need to talk with you, Sparhawk,’ the boy said quietly after the others had ridden out of earshot.
‘Later,’ Sparhawk replied, bending in his saddle to place the coins in the boy’s begging bowl.
‘Not too much later, I hope,’ Talen said, shivering. ‘I’m freezing out here.’
There was a brief delay at the palace gate where the guards tried to deny entrance to Vanion’s escort. Kalten resolved the problem by pulling open his robe and putting his hand meaningfully on his sword hilt. The discussion ended abruptly at that point, and the party rode on into the palace courtyard and dismounted.
‘I love doing that,’ Kalten said blithely.
‘It doesn’t take very much to make you happy, does it?’ Sparhawk said.
‘I’m a simple man, my friend – with simple pleasures.’
They proceeded directly to the blue-draped council chamber where the kings of Arcium, Deira, and Thalesia sat on throne-like chairs, flanking the slack-lipped Lycheas. Behind each king stood a man in formal armour. The crests of the three other militant orders were emblazoned on their surcoats. Abriel, Preceptor of the Cyrinic Knights in Arcium, stood sternly behind King Dregos; Darellon, Preceptor of the Alcione Knights of Deira had taken up a similar position behind the aged King Obler; and the bigboned Komier, leader of the Genidian Knights, stood behind King Wargun of Thalesia. Although it was early in the day, Wargun was already bleary-eyed. He held a large silver cup in a hand that was visibly shaking.
The Royal Council of Advisors sat to one side of the room. The face of the Earl of Lenda was troubled, while that of the Baron Harparin was smug.
The Primate Annias wore a purple satin cassock, and the expression on his emaciated face was coldly triumphant as Vanion entered. When he saw the rest of them accompanying the Pandion Preceptor, however, his eyes flashed angrily. ‘Who authorized this entourage of yours, Lord Vanion?’ he demanded. ‘The summons did not mention an escort.’
‘I require no authorization, your Grace,’ Vanion answered coldly ‘My rank is all the authority I need.’
‘That’s true,’ the Earl of Lenda said. ‘Law and custom support the preceptor’s position.’
Annias gave the old man a look filled with hate. ‘What a comfort it is to have the advice of one so versed in the law,’ he said in a sarcastic voice. Then his eyes fell on Sephrenia. ‘Remove that Styric witch from my presence,’ he demanded.
‘No,’ Vanion said. ‘She stays.’
Their eyes locked for a long moment, and Annias finally looked away ‘Very well, then, Vanion,’ he said. ‘Because of the seriousness of the matter I am about to present to their majesties, I will control my natural revulsion at the presence of a heathen sorceress.’
‘You’re too kind,’ Sephrenia murmured.
‘Just get on with it, Annias,’ King Dregos said irritably. ‘We’re gathered here to examine certain irregularities involving the throne of Elenia. What is this burning matter that is important enough to delay our inquiry?’
Annias straightened. The matter concerns you directly, your Majesty. Last week a body of armed men attacked a castle in the eastern part of your kingdom.’
King Dregos’ eyes blazed. ‘Why was I not informed?’ he demanded.
‘Forgive me, your Majesty,’ Annias apologized. ‘I myself learned of the incident only recently and I felt it wiser to present the matter to this council rather than to advise you in advance. Although this outrage occurred within the boundaries of your kingdom, the implications of it spread beyond your borders to all four western kingdoms.’
‘Get on with it, Annias,’ King Wargun growled. ‘Save the flowery language for your sermons.’
‘As your Majesty wishes,’ Annias said, bowing. ‘There are witnesses to this criminal act, and I think perhaps it were best that your Majesties hear their accounts directly rather than at second hand from me.’ He turned and gestured to one of the red-liveried church soldiers who lined both walls of the council chamber. The soldier stepped to a side door and admitted a nervous-looking man whose face went visibly pale when he saw Vanion.
‘Don’t be afraid, Tessera,’ Annias told him. ‘So long as you tell the truth, no harm will come to you.’
‘Yes, your Grace,’ the nervous man mumbled.
‘This is Tessera,’ Annias introduced him, ‘a merchant of this city who has recently returned from Arcium. Tell us what you saw there, Tessera.’
‘Well, your Grace, it was as I told you before I was in Sarrinium on business. I was returning from there when I was overtaken by a storm, and I took shelter in the castle of Count Radun, who was kind enough to take me in.’ Tessera’s voice had the sing-song quality some people assume when they are reciting something previously committed to memory ‘Anyway,’ he went on, ‘after the weather cleared, I was preparing to leave and I was in the count’s stables seeing to my horse I heard the sounds of many men in the courtyard, so I peered out the stable door to see what was happening. It was a sizeable body of Pandion Knights.’
‘Are you certain that they were Pandions?’ Annias prompted him.
‘Yes, your Grace They were wearing black armour and carrying Pandion banners. The count is well known to be most respectful of the Church and her knights, so he had admitted them without challenge. As soon as they were inside the walls, however, they all drew their swords and began to kill everyone in sight.’
‘My uncle!’ King Dregos exclaimed.
‘The count tried to fight them, of course, but they quickly disarmed him and tied him to a stake in the centre of the courtyard. They killed all the men inside the castle, and then –’
‘All the men?’ Annias interrupted him, his face suddenly stern.
‘They killed all the men inside the castle, and then –’ Tessera faltered. ‘Oh, I almost forgot that part. They killed all the men inside the castle – except for the churchmen – and then they brought out the count’s wife and daughters. They were all stripped naked and then violated before the count’s eyes.’