‘And leave Aslade’s freshly baked bread to get cold?’ Dolmant protested. ‘Be reasonable, Sparhawk.’
Sparhawk laughed as Dolmant turned to Kurik’s wife. ‘You have fresh butter, I hope?’ he asked.
‘Churned yesterday morning, your Grace,’ she replied, ‘and I just opened a pot of that plum jam you’re so fond of. Shall we step into the kitchen?’
‘Why don’t we?’
Almost absently, Aslade picked up Flute in one arm and wrapped the other about Talen’s shoulders. And then, with the children close to her, she led the way into the house.
The walled cloister in which Princess Arissa was confined stood in a wooded glen on the far side of the city. Men were seldom admitted into this strict community of women, but Dolmant’s rank and authority in the Church gained them immediate entry. A submissive little sister with doelike eyes and a bad complexion led them to a small garden near the south wall where they found the princess, sister of the late King Aldreas, sitting on a stone bench in the wan winter sunlight with a large book in her lap.
The years had touched Arissa only lightly Her long, dark blonde hair was lustrous, and her eyes a pale blue, so pale as to closely resemble the grey eyes of her niece, Queen Ehlana, although the dark circles beneath them spoke of long, sleepless nights filled with bitterness and a towering resentment. Her mouth was thin-lipped rather than sensual, and there were two hard lines of discontent at its corners. Although Sparhawk knew that she was approaching forty, her features were those of a much younger woman. She did not wear the habit of the sisters of the nunnery, but was wrapped instead in a soft red woollen robe open at the throat, and her head was crowned with an intricately folded wimple. ‘I’m honoured by your visit, gentlemen,’ she said in a husky voice, not bothering to rise. ‘I have so few visitors.’
‘Your Highness,’ Sparhawk greeted her formally. ‘I trust you’ve been well?’
‘Well, but bored, Sparhawk.’ Then she looked at Dolmant. ‘You’ve aged, your Grace,’ she observed spitefully, closing her book.
‘But you have not,’ he replied. ‘Will you accept my blessing, Princess?’
‘I think not, your Grace. The Church has done quite enough for me already.’ She looked meaningfully around at the walls enclosing the garden, and her refusal of the customary blessing seemed to give her some pleasure.
He sighed. ‘I see,’ he said. ‘What is the book you read?’ he asked her.
She held it up for him to see.
‘The Sermons of the Primate Subata,’ he noted, ‘a most instructional work.’
She smiled maliciously. ‘This particular edition is even more so,’ she told him. ‘I had it made especially for me, your Grace. Within this innocent-looking cover, which deceives the Mother Superior who is my jailer, there lurks a volume of salacious erotic poetry from Cammoria. Would you care to have me read you a few verses?’
His eyes hardened. ‘No, thank you, Princess,’ he replied coldly ‘You have not changed, I see.’
She laughed mockingly ‘I see no reason to change, Dolmant. I have merely altered my circumstances.’
‘Our visit here is not social, Princess,’ he said. ‘A rumour has surfaced in Cimmura that prior to your being cloistered here, you were secretly married to Duke Osten of Vardenais. Would you care to confirm – or deny – that rumour?’
‘Osten?’ She laughed. ‘That dried-up old stick? Who in her right mind would marry a man like that? I like my men younger, more ardent.’
‘You deny the rumour, then?’
‘Of course I deny it. I’m like the Church, Dolmant. I offer my bounty to all men – as everyone in Cimmura knows.’
‘Would you sign a document declaring the rumour to be false?’
‘I’ll think about it.’ She looked at Sparhawk. ‘What are you doing back in Elenia, Sir Knight? I thought my brother exiled you.’
‘I was summoned back, Arissa.’
‘How very interesting.’
Sparhawk thought of something. ‘Did you receive a dispensation to attend your brother’s funeral, Princess?’ he asked her.
‘Why, yes, Sparhawk. The Church generously granted me three whole days of mourning. My poor, stupid brother looked very regal as he lay on his bier in his state robes.’ She critically examined her long, pointed fingernails. ‘Death improves some people,’ she added.
‘You hated him, didn’t you?’
‘I held him in contempt, Sparhawk. There’s a difference. I always used to bathe whenever I left him.’
Sparhawk held out his hand, showing her the blood-red ring on his finger ‘Did you happen to notice if he had the mate to this on his finger?’ he asked her
She frowned slightly ‘No,’ she said. ‘As a matter of fact he didn’t. Perhaps the brat stole it after he died.’
Sparhawk clenched his teeth.
‘Poor, poor Sparhawk,’ she said mockingly ‘You cannot bear to hear the truth about your precious Ehlana, can you? We used to laugh about your attachment to her when she was a child. Did you have hopes, great Champion? I saw her at my brother’s funeral. She’s not a child any more, Sparhawk. She has the hips and br**sts of a woman now But she’s sealed up in a diamond, isn’t she, so you can’t even touch her? All that soft, warm skin, and you can’t even put so much as a finger on it.’
‘I don’t think we need to pursue this, Arissa.’ He narrowed his eyes. ‘Who is your son’s father?’ he asked her suddenly, hoping to startle the truth out of her.
She laughed. ‘How could I possibly know that?’ she asked. ‘After my brother’s wedding, I amused myself in a certain establishment in Cimmura.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘It was both enjoyable and profitable. I made a very great deal of money Most of the girls there overpriced themselves, but I learned as a child that the secret of great wealth is to sell cheaply to many’ She looked maliciously at Dolmant. ‘Besides,’ she added, ‘it’s a renewable resource.’
Dolmant’s face grew stiff, and Arissa laughed coarsely.
‘That’s enough, Princess,’ Sparhawk told her. ‘You would not care then to hazard a guess as to the identity of your bastard’s father?’ He said it quite deliberately, hoping to sting her into some inadvertent revelation.
Her eyes flashed with momentary anger, then she leaned back on the stone bench with a heavy-lidded look of voluptuous amusement. She put her hands to the front of her scarlet robe ‘I’m a bit out of practice, but I suppose I could improvise. Would you like to try me, Sparhawk?’