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Authors: Sharon Kay Penman

Tags: #Eleanor, of Aquitaine, Queen, consort of Henry II, King of England, 1122?-1204

The queen's man : a medieval mystery

BOOK: The queen's man : a medieval mystery
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This book made available by the Internet Archive.

TO EARLE KOTILA

THE QUEEN'S MAN

Sharon Kay Penman

he prided himself upon his hospitality, so much so that men said none in the Marches set a finer table than His Grace, the Bishop of Chester. The servers were bringing in the next course, a large peacock afloat in a sea of gravy, bones strutted and skin and feathers painstakingly refitted, a sight impressive enough to elicit admiring murmurs from the guests. Aubrey's cooks had labored for hours to create this culinary masterpiece. Now he gazed at it with indifferent eyes, for the shadow of treason had fallen across the hall.

Was King Richard dead? Many men thought so, for certes. In alehouses and taverns, they argued whether his ship had been sunk in a gale or attacked by pirates. The credulous speculated about sea monsters. But as the weeks went by, more and more of the missing king's subjects suspected that he was dead, must be dead. And none willed it more passionately than the man Hugh de Nonant served.

The Crusade had been a failure; not even so fine a soldier-king as Richard had been able to reclaim Jerusalem from the infidels. But to Aubrey, the Lionheart's greatest failure was that he'd not sired a son. He'd named his young nephew Arthur as his heir, but Arthur was a child, dwelling with his mother in Brittany. There was another royal rival, one much closer at hand, Richard's younger brother, John, Count of Mortain. No one doubted that John would seek to deny Arthur the crown. What none could be sure of, however, was what the queen mother would do. All knew that Queen Eleanor and John were estranged. Yet he was still her son. If it came to war, whom would she back: John or Arthur?

Aubrey doubted that John would make a good king, for if the serpent was "more subtle than any beast of the field," so, too, was Queen Eleanor's youngest son, unfettered by scruples or conscience qualms. But he did not doubt that John would prevail over Arthur—one way or another. And so he'd concluded that if he were ever faced with that choice, he'd throw his lot in with John.

But this was far more dangerous. The Bishop of Coventry's deceptively innocuous question confirmed Aubrey's worst fears.

THE QUEEN'S MAN

John was not willing to wait for word of Richard's death. John had never been one for waiting. But what if Richard was not dead? What if he returned to reclaim his crown? If Arthur was no match for John, neither was John a match for Richard. His wrath would be terrible to behold. And even if he eventually forgave John, there would be no forgiveness for the men who'd backed him.

But Aubrey knew that if he balked at supporting John's coup and Richard was indeed dead, he'd be squandering his one chance to gain a king's favor. For John nursed a grudge to the grave, and he'd not be forgetting who stood with him . . . and who had not.

"Well?" the Bishop of Coventry prodded, smiling amiably as if they were merely exchanging pleasantries. "What say you? Is he dead?"

Aubrey's own smile was as bland as almond milk. "If I knew the answer to that question, my lord bishop, I'd be riding straightaway for London to inform the queen."

"I fear the worst, alas," Hugh confided, though with no noticeable regret. "If evil has not befallen him, surely his whereabouts would be known by now."

"I'm not ready to abandon all hope," Aubrey parried, "and for certes, the queen is not."

"It is to be expected that a mother would cling to the last shreds of hope, no matter how meagre or paltry. But the rest of us do not have that luxury, for how long can England be without a king?" Hugh had a pleasant voice, mellow and intimate, ideal for sharing secrets, and his words reached Aubrey's ear alone. "How long dare we wait?"

Aubrey was spared the need to reply by the sudden appearance of his steward on the dais. "My lord bishop, may I have a word with you?"

"What is it, Martin? Is something amiss?"

"It is Justin, my lord. He rode in a few moments ago, is insisting that he must see you at once."

"Justin?" Aubrey was startled and not pleased. "Tell him I will see him after the meal is done and my guests have gone to

Sharon Kay Penman

their beds. Have the cooks see that he is fed." To Aubrey's surprise, the steward made no move to withdraw. "Well?"

The man shifted uncomfortably. "It is just that . . . that the lad seems sorely distraught, my lord. In truth, I've never seen him like this. I do not think he's of a mind to wait."

Aubrey kept his temper in check; he had contempt for men who were ruled by emotion and impulse. "I am not offering him a choice," he said coolly. "See to it."

He was vexed by Justin's unexpected and ill-timed arrival, and vaguely uneasy, too, with that peculiar discomfort that only Justin could provoke. Nor was his mood improved to realize that Hugh de Nonant had overheard the entire exchange.

"Who is Justin?"

Aubrey gave a dismissive shrug. "No one you know, my lord ... a foundling I took in some years back."

He'd hoped that Hugh would take the hint and let the matter drop. But the Bishop of Coventry had an eerie ability to scent out secrets. Like a pig rooting after acorns, Aubrey thought sourly, finding himself forced by the other's unseemly and persistent curiosity to explain that Justin's mother had died giving him birth. "The father was known but to God, and there were none to tend to the babe. It was my parish and so when his plight was brought to my attention, I agreed to do what I could. It is our duty, after all, to succor Christ's poor. As Scriptures say, 'Suffer the little children to come unto me.' "

"Very commendable," Hugh said, with hearty approval that would not have been suspect had the speaker been anyone else. He was regarding Aubrey benevolently, and Aubrey could only marvel at how deceptive outer packaging could be. The two men were utterly unlike in appearance: Aubrey tall and slim and elegant, his fair hair closely cropped and shot through with silver, and Hugh rotund and ruddy and balding, looking for all the world like a good-natured, elderly monk. But Aubrey knew this grandfatherly mien camouflaged a shrewd, cynical intelligence, and Hugh's curiosity about Justin was neither idle nor benign. Ever on the alert for weaknesses, the good bishop. And Aubrey

THI QUEEN'S MAN

was suddenly very angry with Justin for attracting the notice of so dangerous a man as Hugh de Nonant.

"It may be, though, that you've been too indulgent with the lad," Hugh remarked placidly. "It does seem rather presumptuous of him to demand an audience with you."

Aubrey declined the bait. "I've never had reason to complain of his manners . . . until now. You may be sure that I'll take him to task for it."

A loud fanfare of trumpets turned all heads toward the door, heralding the arrival of the meal's piece de resistance: a great, glazed boar's head on a gleaming silver platter. Men leaned forward in their seats to see, Aubrey's minstrels struck up a carol, and in the flurry of the moment, the bishop's foundling was forgotten.

Aubrey began to relax, once more the gracious host, a role he played well. The respite gave him the chance, too, to consider his options. He must find a way to intimate—without actually saying so—that he was indeed sympathetic to John's cause, but not yet ready to commit himself, not until there was irrefutable proof of King Richard's death.

It was the sharp-eyed Hugh who first noticed the commotion at the far end of the hall. In the doorway, the steward was remonstrating with a tall, dark youth. As Hugh watched, the younger man pulled free of the steward's restraining hold and stalked up the center aisle toward the dais. Hugh leaned over and touched his host's sleeve. "May I assume that angry young interloper is your foundling?"

Oblivious to the intruder bearing down upon them, Aubrey had been conversing politely with the seatmate to his left, the venerable abbot of Chester's abbey of St Werburgh. At Hugh's amused warning, he stiffened in disbelief, then shoved his chair back.

Striding down the steps of the dais, he confronted Justin as he reached the open hearth, trailed by the steward. "How dare you force your way into my hall! Are you drunk?"

"We need to talk," Justin said tersely, and Aubrey stared at

Sharon Kay Penman

him incredulously, unable to believe that Justin could be defying him like this.

He was acutely aware of all the curious eyes upon them. The steward was hovering several feet away, looking utterly miserable—as well he ought. Martin had always been friendly with Justin, too friendly, it now seemed. "I told you that you must wait, Justin!"

"I have been waiting—for twenty years!"

Aubrey hesitated no longer. As bad as this was, it was about to get worse. Justin was a smoldering torch; God only knew what damage would be done if he flared up there in the hall. "Come with me/' he said abruptly. "We'll talk above-stairs."

Aubrey could have led Justin up to his chambers above the hall. He chose, instead, to enter his private chapel, for that was his own province, and the familiarity of the surroundings might give him an edge. He was going to need every advantage he could get.

Two tall candles were lit upon the altar, and glowing between them was the silver-gilt crucifix that was Aubrey's particular pride, both as a symbol of faith and as a work of art. Reaching out, he ran his fingers lightly over the smooth surface while bracing himself for what was to come.

Justin had followed him toward the altar. "Were you ever going to tell me?"

"Tell you what?"

"That I'm your son."

There was no surprise. He'd known as soon as their eyes met in the hall. What else could have gotten Justin so agitated? His mouth was dry, but he still managed to summon up a thin, ironic smile. "Surely you are not serious?"

Justin was close enough now to touch, close enough for Aubrey to see the muscles tighten along his jaw. "I've come from Shrewsbury," he said. "I tracked down Hilde, the cook at St Alkmund's rectory. She told me about you and my mother."

"And you took an old woman's ramblings as gospel?"

"You deny it?"

THE QUEEN'S MAN

"Yes," Aubrey said emphatically, "I do."

Justin looked at him, saying nothing. The silence seemed to fill every corner of the chapel, every corner of their lives. When Aubrey could endure it no longer, he said, "This night never happened. We need not refer to it again."

"How generous of you." Justin's voice was toneless, impossible to read. Turning away, he stood motionless for a moment before the altar, and Aubrey dared to think he had won. But then Justin swung around, holding out the silver-gilt crucifix.

"Swear it," he challenged. "Swear upon Our Lord Christ that you are not my father!"

Aubrey opened his mouth. But no words came out. It was so quiet that he could hear his own breathing, uneven and much too rapid. Or was it Justin's? After an eternity, Justin lowered the crucifix, replacing it upon the altar.

"Well," he said, "at least you'll not lie to God."

Aubrey found it unexpectedly difficult to meet Justin's gaze. "There was no need for you to know," he said at last. "What mattered was that I did right by you, and you cannot deny that I did. I did not shirk my duty. You always had food for your belly, a roof over your head—"

"What are you saying? That I ought to thank you for not letting me starve?"

"I did more than that for you," Aubrey snapped, "and well you know it! I saw to your schooling, did I not? Nor did I turn away once you were old enough to fend for yourself. If not for me, Lord Fitz Alan would never have taken you on as a squire. You have nothing to reproach me for, Justin, nothing!"

"A pity my mother could not say as much!"

Aubrey's mouth hardened. "This serves for naught. The woman is twenty years dead. Let her lie in peace."

Justin's eyes were darker than Aubrey had ever seen them, a storm-sky grey. "Her death was convenient, was it not? How disappointed you must have been that I was not stillborn, for then you could have buried all your sins in one grave."

Aubrey lost color. "That is not true. You are not being fair, Justin." '

Sharon Kay Penman

"Fair? What fairness did you ever show my mother, even in death? Have you forgotten what you told me? I was fourteen, had finally gotten up the courage to ask you about her. You said that any woman bearing a child out of wedlock was a wanton, and I should put her out of my thoughts/'

"I thought it was for the best."

"Best for you," Justin said scathingly, and then stunned Aubrey by starting toward the door.

"Justin, wait!"

Justin halted, his hand on the door latch, and then slowly turned around. "What more is there to say?"

"A great deal," Aubrey insisted. "We must decide how to deal with this. Do you mean to go back to Lord Fitz Alan? I think it best if I find you another position. You need not fret, for you'll not be the loser for it. I will write on your behalf to Walter de Fauconberg, Lord of Rise in Holderness up in Yorkshire, ask him to take you into his service."

"Will you, indeed?" Justin's face was in shadow, for he'd moved out of candle range. "Is Yorkshire far enough for you? Are you sure you'd rather not send me up into Scotland?"

Aubrey sucked in his breath. "Damnation, lad, I am trying to help you!"

"Are you truly as blind as that?" Justin asked huskily. "I do not want your help. If I were drowning, I'd not want you to throw me a lifeline!"

Aubrey stared at his son. "As you will. You may be sure that I'll not offer again. But I want your word that you'll say nothing of this to Lord Fitz Alan."

"I have no intention of telling Lord Fitz Alan that you're my father." Justin jerked the door open, then paused. "You see," he said, "you're nothing to boast about."

Aubrey's face flamed. Clenching and unclenching his fists, he stood before the altar, watching as the candles guttered in the sudden draft. Only gradually did he become aware of the cold. A pervasive chill seemed to have seeped into the stone walls of the chapel, as damp and icy and desolate as the December night.

THE QUEEN'S MAN

It was a wretched January night, the air frigid, the sky choked with billowing clouds, the wind snarling at shuttered windows, chasing all but the most foolhardy of Winchester's citizens from its iced, empty streets. Most were huddled before their own hearths. But for Justin, who had neither hearth nor home, shelter on this dismal Epiphany Eve was a seedy, squalid alehouse on Tanner Street, in one of the city's poorest quarters.

BOOK: The queen's man : a medieval mystery
12.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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