‘We have had no orders to admit the Queen’s Champion,’ one of them declared.
‘You have now,’ Sparhawk told him. ‘Open the door.’
The man in the maroon doublet made a move as if to scurry away, but Sparhawk caught his arm. ‘I haven’t dismissed you yet, neighbour,’ he said. Then he looked at the guards. ‘Open the door,’ he repeated.
It hung there for a long moment, while the guards looked first at Sparhawk and then nervously at each other. Then one of them swallowed hard and, fumbling with his pike, he reached for the door handle.
‘You’ll need to announce me,’ Sparhawk told the man whose arm he still held firmly in his gauntleted fist. ‘We wouldn’t want to surprise anyone, would we?’
The man’s eyes were a little wild. He stepped into the open doorway and cleared his throat. ‘The Queen’s Champion,’ he blurted with his words tumbling out over each other. ‘The Pandion Knight, Sir Sparhawk.’
‘Thank you, neighbour,’ Sparhawk said. ‘You can go now.’
The functionary bolted.
The council chamber was very large and was carpeted and draped in blue. Large candelabras lined the walls, and there were more candles on the long, polished table in the centre of the room. Three men sat at the table with documents before them, but the fourth had half-risen from his chair.
The man on his feet was the Primate Annias. The churchman had grown leaner in the ten years since Sparhawk had last seen him, and his face looked grey and emaciated. His hair was tied back from his face and was now shot with silver. He wore a long black cassock, and the bejewelled pendant of his office as Primate of Cimmura hung from a thick gold chain about his neck. His eyes were wide with surprised alarm as Sparhawk entered the room.
The Earl of Lenda, a white-haired man in his seventies, was dressed in a soft grey doublet, and he was grinning openly, his bright blue eyes sparkling in his lined face. The Baron Harparin, a notorious pederast, sat with an astonished expression on his face. His clothing was a riot of conflicting colours. Seated next to him was a grossly fat man in red whom Sparhawk did not recognize.
‘Sparhawk!’ Annias said sharply, recovering from his surprise, ‘what are you doing here?’
‘I understand that you’ve been looking for me, your Grace,’ Sparhawk replied. ‘I thought I’d save you some trouble.’
‘You’ve broken your exile, Sparhawk,’ Annias accused angrily
‘That’s one of the things we need to talk about. I’m told that Lycheas the bastard is functioning as Prince Regent until the Queen regains her health. Why don’t you send for him so we won’t have to go through all this twice?’
Annias’ eyes widened in shock and outrage.
‘That’s what he is, isn’t it?’ Sparhawk said. ‘His origins are hardly a secret, so why tiptoe around them? The bell pull, as I recall, is right over there. Give it a yank, Annias, and send some toady to fetch the Prince Regent.’
The Earl of Lenda chuckled openly
Annias gave the old man a furious look and went to the pair of bell pulls hanging down the far wall. His hand hesitated between the two.
‘Don’t make any mistakes, your Grace,’ Sparhawk warned him. ‘All sorts of things could go terribly wrong if a dozen soldiers come through that door instead of a servant.’
‘Go ahead, Annias,’ the Earl of Lenda urged. ‘My life is almost over anyway, and I wouldn’t mind going out with a bit of excitement.’
Annias clenched his teeth and yanked the blue bell pull instead of the red one. After a moment the door opened, and a liveried young man entered. ‘Yes, your Grace?’ he said, bowing to the primate.
‘Go and tell the Prince Regent that we require his presence here at once.’
‘Yes, your Grace.’ The servant scurried out.
‘There, you see how easy that was?’ Sparhawk said to Annias. Then he went over to the white-haired Earl of Lenda, removed his gauntlet and took the old man’s hand. ‘You’re looking well, my Lord,’ he said.
‘Still alive, you mean?’ Lenda laughed. ‘How was Rendor, Sparhawk?’
‘Hot, dry, and very dusty.’
‘Always has been, my boy. Always has been.’
‘Are you going to answer my question?’ Annias demanded.
‘Please, your Grace,’ Sparhawk responded piously, holding up one hand, ‘not until the bastard Regent arrives. We must mind our manners, mustn’t we?’ He lifted one eyebrow. ‘Tell me,’ he added, almost as an afterthought, ‘how’s his mother – her health, I mean? I wouldn’t expect a churchman to be able to testify to the carnal talents of the Princess Arissa – although just about everybody else in Cimmura could.’
‘You go too far, Sparhawk.’
‘You mean you didn’t know? My goodness, old boy, you really should try to stay abreast of things.’
‘How rude!’ Baron Harparin exclaimed to the fat man in red.
‘It’s not the sort of thing you’d understand, Harparin,’ Sparhawk told him. ‘I hear that your inclinations lie in other directions.’
The door opened and a pimpled young man with muddy blond hair and a slack-lipped mouth entered. He wore a green, ermine-trimmed robe and a small gold coronet. ‘You wanted to see me, Annias?’ His voice had a nasal, almost whining quality to it.
‘A state matter, your Highness,’ Annias replied. ‘We need to have you pass judgement in a case involving high treason.’
The young man blinked stupidly at him.
‘This is Sir Sparhawk, who has deliberately violated the command of your late uncle, King Aldreas. Sparhawk here was ordered to Rendor, not to return unless summoned back by royal command. His very presence in Elenia convicts him.’
Lycheas recoiled visibly from the bleak-faced knight in black armour, his eyes going wide and his loose mouth gaping. ‘Sparhawk?’ he quailed.
‘The very same,’ Sparhawk told him. ‘The good primate, however, has slightly overstated the case, I’m afraid. When I assumed my position as hereditary champion of the crown, I took an oath to defend the King – or the Queen – whenever the royal life was endangered. That oath takes precedence over any command royal or otherwise – and the Queen’s life is clearly in danger.’
‘That’s merely a technicality, Sparhawk,’ Annias snapped.