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Authors: Katherine Kurtz

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“Just to reassure you, though, suppose that I have Cordan prepare a strong sleeping draught to be given to all the contingent who remain behind. If Lionel will agree to this precaution, I think it would be relatively safe for me to proceed to the parley that Wencit requests. After all, their agreement will require no little demonstration of trust on their part as well as ours, do you not agree?”

Gwyllim shook his head doubtfully, then shrugged in resignation. “It's still a risk, sir.”

“But a reasonable one, I think—and it may buy us some time. Campbell, find Cordan and see to the potion, will you? Gwyllim, you'll be riding with me to Cardosa. Help me into my mail.”

Minutes later, Bran and Gwyllim stepped from the tent and moved toward the waiting Torenthi emissaries. Bran had donned his mail and a cloak of royal blue over his blue tunic, with his blue eagle device picked out in blue stitchery on the breast of his leather surcoat. Bright mail showed at his throat and below the short sleeves of the surcoat, and an ivory-hilted broadsword hung from a white leather baldric across his chest. Gwyllim followed half a pace behind him, Bran's blue-plumed helmet under his arm and his master's leather riding gloves clutched in his left hand. Bran's golden eyes danced with cunning as he stepped into the sunlight.

“I have decided to accept your king's invitation, my lord,” he said easily.

Lionel bowed and controlled a small smile. Merritt and several of the liveried men-at-arms had dismounted during Bran's absence and now stood clustered at Lionel's back.

“However,” Bran continued, “there are certain conditions which I must impose before I proceed to Cardosa with your standard-bearer, and I am not certain you will agree to them.”

Campbell, a man-at-arms, and a slender man in field surgeon's garb slipped into the group clustered around Bran, and Lionel's eyes darted toward them suspiciously. The surgeon was holding a large earthen drinking vessel with knobbed handles on either side. Merritt stepped closer to Lionel and murmured something in his ear, and Lionel frowned as he returned his attention to Bran.

“Name your conditions, my lord.”

“I trust that you will not take offense at my caution, my lord,” Bran said with a nod, “but I must be assured that there will be no untoward behavior on the part of you or any of your men while I am away.”

“You have been given that assurance, my lord,” Lionel said evenly.

Bran lifted a hand and lightly shook his head. “And I honor your word, my lord,” Bran replied, “but my men desire further assurance, if I am to be absent. Therefore, in order to guard against treachery while you are here and I am not, I have had my master surgeon prepare a simple sleeping draught, of which you, Lord Merritt, and the remaining guards will partake before I leave. You see, I have no way of knowing your true motives at this point, not being able to see into your minds. You could even be Deryni sorcerers, for all I know. Do you agree to these terms?”

Lionel's face had stiffened as Bran spoke, and he glanced uncomfortably at Merritt and his men before replying. It was obvious that neither he nor Merritt was eager to spend the next hours drugged to senselessness in Bran's camp. Yet, to refuse Bran's terms would be to admit that they did not trust him, and perhaps that Wencit's invitation was not all that it seemed. Lionel obviously had been given his orders, and his tone was cold and formal as he addressed the young earl.

“You will forgive my momentary hesitation, my lord, but we had not anticipated such counter-terms. We understand your caution, of course, and wish to assure you that it was not the intention of His Majesty to bring disaster upon you through magic; if he had so wished, he could have done it without risking our lives. However, you will understand if we, in turn, now exercise a certain caution of our own. Before we may agree to your terms, we must be reasonably convinced that your draught is, indeed, only the sleeping potion you claim.”

“I concur, of course,” Bran said, motioning his surgeon to approach. “Cordan, who is to test your potion for His Grace?”

Cordan nudged a soldier standing at his side and stepped forward, bowing as the soldier came to attention.

“This is Stephen de Longueville, my lord,” he murmured. He held the earthen cup in steady hands, his eyes not leaving Bran's.

“Excellent. My lord duke, is this man acceptable to you?”

Lionel shook his head. “Your surgeon could have prepared him in some special way, my lord. If you meant to poison us, he could have been given an antidote. May I make my own selection?”

“Certainly. I must ask that you not choose one of my officers, since I shall require their services while I am away, but any of the others is acceptable. Feel free to choose whomever you wish.”

Lionel handed his helmet to one of his men, then turned on his heel and strode back to the mounted Marley riders still surrounding his own escort. He scanned the men carefully, then stepped to the side of one of the riders and laid his hand on the horse's bridle. The horse tossed its head and snorted.

“This man, my lord. There is no way he could have been prepared in advance. Let him sample the draught you would have us drink.”

Bran nodded and gave a curt hand signal, and the man swung down from his horse. As he crossed the grass toward Bran, Lionel followed at his elbow, watching him closely. When the man pulled off his helmet and attempted to hand it to one of his fellows standing in the earl's menie, Lionel interposed and took the helmet himself, passing it on to the man for whom the soldier had intended it. The duke was taking no chances that something could be slipped to his test subject without his knowledge.

Motioning Merritt to guard the man, Lionel crossed to Bran and took the earthen cup from Cordan. His black eyes measured Bran for a long moment as he held the cup between them; irritation hinted in his lean face. Then he raised the cup slightly in salute and strode back to where Merritt and the soldier waited. One of Lionel's men dismounted and took the cup to inspect it, sniffing at the contents suspiciously. Only then was Bran's soldier brought closer to place his hands on the vessel. Lionel and Merritt stationed themselves on either side of the man to watch, Lionel casting a suspicious glance at Bran as they prepared to administer the test.

“What is the required dosage?”

“A goodly swallow is sufficient, my lord,” Cordan replied. “The drug is potent and acts very quickly.”

“Indeed,” Lionel murmured, returning his attention to the man and the cup. “Very well, my good fellow. Drink deep if you dare. Your commander is said to be a man of his word. If he is, you shall awaken later, no worse for the wear. Drink up.”

The man, guided by the cupbearer, brought the vessel to his lips and took a mouthful, raising his eyebrows at the obviously pleasant flavor, then glanced at Lionel and swallowed. He had time to lick his lips once in appreciation—Cordan was known for his use of fine wines in his potions. Then he reeled and would have fallen, had not Lionel and Merritt caught him under the elbows and eased him down. By the time he reached the ground, the man was fast asleep, and no amount of shaking or calling would rouse him.

Lionel's cupbearer passed the cup to Merritt and examined the man, peering under the slack eyelids and locating a strong pulse, then nodded reluctantly. Lionel got slowly to his feet and gazed across at Bran, his face grim but resigned.

“It appears that your master surgeon is, indeed, accomplished, my lord. Of course, on the basis of what we have just seen, we cannot rule out a longer-term poison, or the possibility that you might administer something else while we slept, or even murder us where we lay. But, then, life is full of gambles, is it not? And His Majesty will be expecting either your return or mine. Even I am reluctant to keep him waiting.”

“Then you will accept my terms?”

“So it seems.” Lionel bowed. “I trust, however, that we shall be permitted to sleep somewhere other than on the ground, like your trusting friend.” He glanced down at the sleeping guard with a sardonic smile. “When we do return to Cardosa, His Majesty would be most distressed, were he to learn that my colleagues had been obliged to sleep in the dirt.”

Bran bowed slightly and held back the flap of his tent, returning Lionel's smile. “Come, then; you shall sleep in my own pavilion. I would not have it said that Eastmarch men do not know how to accommodate noble company.”

As Bran and his party stood aside, Lionel inclined his head and then signaled the rest of his contingent to dismount, led them into the tent. He surveyed the rich appointments in appreciation as he removed his gloves, exchanging resigned glances with Merritt and a few of his comrades, then selected the most comfortable of the several chairs in the space and sat down.

Taking his helmet back, he laid it on the floor at his feet and stashed his gloves inside, then propped his booted legs on a leather footstool and sat back in preparation. His long black hair gleamed in the glow of the light that streamed through the open entryway, and he toyed with the hilt of the flame-bladed dagger thrust through his sash as his men arranged themselves on the furs at his feet.

Merritt took the chair beside Lionel's, his homely face tense and apprehensive, and the man with the cup stood uneasily beside the tent's center pole. As Bran and Gwyllim entered the shelter of the tent, the Torenthi standard-bearer moved into the doorway to watch, his face whiter than the white standard he still bore. Only he and the cupbearer could be certain they would return to Cardosa, once the rest drank the cup.

Lionel studied the five men ranged trustingly at his feet, then signed for the cupbearer to go to each of them in turn. Each man kept his eyes locked on Lionel's as he sipped from the cup. The first of them slumped to a supine position as the cup came to Merritt. The cupbearer paused in alarm as two more passed out, and Merritt half-rose from his chair; but Lionel shook his head slightly and signaled for Merritt to drink.

With a resigned sigh, Merritt obeyed, soon nodding off in his chair as another of the men on the floor succumbed. When all were still, a few of them snoring, the cupbearer knelt at Lionel's knee and offered up the cup in trembling hands, unable to meet his lord's eyes. Lionel's look was almost tender as he took the cup and turned it idly in his long fingers.

“They are fine men, my lord Bran,” he said softly, glancing up at Bran with hooded eyes. “They have trusted me with their very lives, and I have gambled with those lives held in trust. If you, through any action, cause me to be forsworn—if any harm should come to any man here—I swear that I will avenge them even from the grave. Do you understand me?”

“I have given you my word, sir,” Bran said neutrally. “I have said that no harm would befall you or them. If your master's intentions are as honorable, you need have no cause for fear.”

“I do not fear, my lord; I warn,” Lionel said softly. “See that you keep your word.”

With a glance at the cupbearer, he raised the cup in salute and murmured,
“C'raint!”
Then he drank from the cup and gave it back into the cupbearer's hands. As he sat back in the chair, he shivered slightly, as though against a sudden chill, though it was warm enough in the tent. Then he laid his head against the back of the chair and slipped into unconsciousness. The cupbearer set the cup on the carpet beside him and felt for his master's pulse; then, satisfied that there was nothing more he could do, he rose shakily to his feet and made a curt bow toward Bran Coris.

“If you are ready to fulfill your part of the agreement, my lord, we should be on our way. We have a difficult ride ahead of us, a large part of it through icy water. His Majesty will be waiting.”

“Of course,” Bran murmured, scanning the sleeping hostages with admiration as he donned his helmet. He certainly could not fault their discipline.

“Look after them, Campbell,” he said, pulling on gloves and moving toward the entrance to the tent. “Wencit will want them back in good health, and we would not wish to disappoint him.”

CHAPTER FOUR

“And I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places.”

ISAIAH 45:3

THE
walled city of Cardosa lies nearly a mile above the Eastmarch plain, on a high plateau of sheer-faced rock. It has been the seat of earls and dukes and, sometimes, of kings, and it is guarded west and east by the treacherous Cardosa Pass, the major passage through the Rheljan Mountains.

Late each autumn, toward the end of November, the snows sweep in from the great northern sea, cutting off the city and burying the pass in snow. This condition persists well into March, until long after winter has fled the rest of the area. Then the melting snow turns the Cardosa Pass into a raging cataract for the next three months.

But the thaw is not uniform, even in the pass. Because of the mountains' run-off pattern, the eastern approach is negotiable weeks before the west: a quirk that has been a major contributing factor in the city's changing ownership over the years. It was this that enabled Wencit of Torenth to capture the winter-hungry city without opposition—high Cardosa, depleted by the previous summer's dispute and exhausted by the snows, which could not wait for relief troops and supplies from royal Gwynedd. Wencit could supply these things; and so Cardosa surrendered.

Thus it was that as Bran Coris and his nervous escorts made the final, wet approach to the city's gates, the city's new ruler relaxed at leisure in the apartment he had chosen in the city's state house and prepared to greet his reluctant guest.

Wencit of Torenth grimaced as he struggled with the fastening of his doublet's high collar, craning his neck as he made the final adjustment. At a discreet knock at the door, he smoothed the gold-encrusted velvet over his chest with an impatient gesture and thrust a jeweled dagger into his sash. The ice-blue eyes registered a hint of mild annoyance as he glanced in that direction.

“Come.”

Almost immediately, a tall, gangling young man in his mid-twenties stepped through the doorway and bowed. Like most members of the royal household, Garon wore the brilliant blue-violet livery of Wencit's personal service, with the leaping black hart of Furstán emblazoned over the left breast in a white circle, along with a flat-linked chain of office. His expression was one of acute interest and anticipation as he watched his royal master begin rolling up documents from the writing table by the window and slipping them into leather storage tubes. When he spoke, his voice was low and cultured.

“Sire, the Earl of Marley is here. Shall I send him in?”

Wencit gave a curt nod as he finished storing the last of the documents, and Garon withdrew without further words. As the door closed, Wencit began pacing the heavily carpeted floor with nervous energy, hands clasped behind his back.

Wencit of Torenth was a tall, thin, almost angular man in his late forties, with hair of a brilliant rust-red, untouched by gray, and pale, almost colorless eyes. Wide, bushy sideburns and a sweeping moustache of the same fiery red emphasized the high cheekbones, the triangular shape of the face. When he moved, it was with an easy grace not usually associated with a man of his size and stature.

The overall effect had led his enemies, who were many, to compare him to a fox—that is, when they were not making other, less complimentary comparisons. For Wencit was a full Deryni sorcerer of the ancient breed, his lineage descending from a family that had stayed in power in the east even through the Restoration and the Deryni persecutions that had followed. In many respects, Wencit
was
a fox. Of a certainty, there was no doubt that, when he chose, Wencit of Torenth could be as cunning, cruel, and dangerous as any member of the vulpine race.

But Wencit was well aware of his effect upon most humans, and knew how to downplay the more frightening aspects of his lineage when it suited him. Accordingly, he had chosen the day's attire with particular attention to detail. His fine doublet and hose were of the same shade of russet velvet and silk as his hair, the monocolor effect heightened rather than broken by the rich gold embroidery of his doublet, the glow of golden topaz at throat and ears and hands. An amber mantle of heavy, gold-embroidered silk spilled from his shoulders, rustling faintly as he moved, and a coronet set with tawny yellow gems rested on the oak table where he had been working, mute reminder of the rank and importance of the man entitled to wear it.

But Wencit made no move to take up the crown and complete his regal image, for Bran Coris was not his subject. Nor was the impending meeting in any way official, at least in any ordinary sense—which, perhaps, was fitting, because there was little that was ordinary about Wencit of Torenth, either.

After another discreet knock at the door, Garon again stepped just inside the room and bowed. Behind him in the doorway stood a youngish man of medium height and build, clad in a damp leather surcoat and mail and a soggy blue cloak. The plumes on the helmet under the newcomer's arm were drenched and bedraggled looking, the gloves dark with damp. The man himself looked both puzzled and wary.

“Sire,” Garon murmured, “the Earl of Marley.”

“Do come in, my lord,” Wencit acknowledged, gesturing toward the rest of the room with a flourish. “I must apologize for your obviously wet ride up the pass, but I fear that even Deryni cannot control the vagaries of weather. Garon, take the earl's cloak and bring him a dry one from my wardrobe, if you please.”

“Very good, Sire.”

As Bran warily entered the room, Garon took the sodden cloak from his shoulders and spread it on a nearby chair, then disappeared through a side door, emerging seconds later to lay a fur-lined cloak of mossy green velvet around the visitor's shoulders. Then, after fastening the clasp at Bran's throat, he took his helmet and bowed himself out of the room.

Still uneasy, Bran clutched the cloak around him, grateful for the favor in his chilled condition, but he did not take his eyes from his host. Wencit smiled disarmingly and put on one of his more reassuring demeanors as he gestured casually toward a chair by the heavy table, nearer the fire.

“Sit down, please. We need not stand on ceremony.”

Bran eyed Wencit and the chair suspiciously for a moment, then frowned anew as Wencit crossed to the fireplace and began tinkering with something Bran could not see.

“Forgive me if I seem unappreciative, my lord, but I fail to see what we can have to say to one another. You are surely aware that I am the junior of the three commanders ranged along the Rheljan Mountains to oppose you. Any arrangement that you and I might reach would not be binding on my colleagues or on Gwynedd.”

“I never thought it might,” Wencit said easily. He crossed to the table with a small pot of steaming liquid from which he filled two fragile porcelain cups. Then he took the nearer of the two chairs and gestured once more for Bran to be seated.

“Won't you join me for a cup of darja tea? It is brewed from the leaves and flowers of a lovely bush which grows here in your Rheljan Mountains. I think you will enjoy it, especially as cold and damp as you must be.”

Bran moved nearer the table and picked up a cup to inspect it, a wry smile twitching at his lips as he returned his gaze to Wencit.

“You play the perfect host, sir, but I think not. The hostages you sent did me the honor of drinking with me,” he glanced lightly at the steaming cup, “but then, I told them what was in the cup they drank.”

“Indeed?” Wencit's fair brows lifted. And though the voice was gentle and cultured still, it was suddenly tinged with steel. “I am led to surmise that it was not simple wine or tea which passed their lips; and yet, you would hardly have been so foolish as to harm them and then boast of it to me in my own house. Nonetheless, you have piqued my curiosity, if that was your intention. What did you give them?”

Bran sat down, the cup still in his fingers, but set it gently on the table in front of him. “You will appreciate that I had no way of knowing whether your emissaries might be Deryni, instructed to work mischief in my camp while I exchanged pleasantries with you. So I had my master surgeon prepare a simple sleeping draught for them. Since the gentlemen assured me that they were not Deryni, and did not intend me mischief, I doubt not that they will be safe, if somewhat drowsy, when I return. It is no more precaution than you yourself might have taken, had you been in my place.”

Wencit put down his cup and sat back in his chair, smoothing his moustache to cover a smile. Even when he picked up his cup to sip again, a trace of the smile lingered on his lips.

“Well played, Earl of Marley. I admire both prudence and daring in those with whom I wish to deal. However, allow me to reassure you that your cup holds no such additive. You may drink without fear. You have my word on it.”

“Your word, Sire?” Bran ran a gloved fingertip around the rim of the cup in front of him and glanced down at it, then gently pushed it a few inches away. “Forgive me if I seem rude, my lord, but you've not yet given me a satisfactory reason for this parley. I cannot help wondering what the King of Torenth and a rather minor lord of Gwynedd have in common.”

Wencit shrugged and smiled again as he studied his guest. “On the contrary, my young friend, I think the notion at least bears further exploration. If, once you have heard me out, you have no interest in what I have to say, nothing is lost except a little of our time. On the other hand—well, perhaps we shall discover that we may have more in common than you think. I feel confident that we will discover a number of areas of mutual interest, if once we put our minds to it.”

“Indeed,” Bran replied, a trifle incredulously. “Perhaps you would care to be more specific. I can think of a number of things you might do for me, or for any other man you chose to favor. But damn me if I can think of a single thing I have that you could want.”

“Must I want something?” Smiling faintly, Wencit made a bridge of his fingers and studied his guest through shrewd fox-eyes. Bran, for his part, sat back in his chair and returned Wencit's gaze unflinchingly, a gloved right hand resting patiently under his chin, silent. After a moment, Wencit nodded.

“Very good. You know how to wait. I admire that in a man, especially a human.” He studied Bran for several seconds more, then continued.

“Very well, Bran Coris Earl of Marley. You are correct, in a way; I do want something from you. I shall exert no undue coercion to bend you to my will; I do not coerce those with whom I hope to be friends. On the other hand, you could expect to be handsomely compensated for any cooperation that you might render. Tell me: what do you think of my new city?”

“I care little for your use of the possessive,” Bran observed dryly. “The city belongs to King Kelson, despite its current occupation. Come to the point.”

“Now, don't belie my first impression,” the sorcerer chided. “I have my reasons for progressing slowly. And I shall disregard your quip regarding my city. Local politics do not interest me at the moment. I am thinking in far broader terms.”

“So I have been informed,” Bran replied. “However, if you contemplate further expansion to the west, I would suggest that you reconsider. Granted, my small army could not resist you for long. But the loss of life would be high on your side as well. The men of Marley do not sell their lives cheaply.”

“Hold your tongue!” Wencit snapped. “If I wished, I could crush you and your army like insects, and you know it!” He reached out to touch his finger to each of the points of the coronet in turn, watching Bran like a cat as he tempered his next words. “But fighting with your army was not what I had in mind—at least not in the sense you are thinking. Alongside, more like. Actually, I had it in mind to move a little south of you, into Corwyn and Carthmoor and then the rest of Gwynedd. I thought you might be interested in…oh, the northern regions: Claibourne and the Kheldish Riding, for a start. There are ways I could help you accomplish this.”

“You would have me turn against my allies?” Bran shook his head. “I think it unlikely, sir. Besides, why should you wish to give an enemy two of the richest provinces in the Eleven Kingdoms? It makes me wonder what I am not being told about your little plan.”

“Ah, but I do not count you as my enemy,” Wencit replied. “For the present, let us merely say that I have been watching your progress for some time, and that I believe it might be…reassuring to have a man of your caliber holding the northern-most provinces. Of course, there would be a dukedom in it for you, as well as other…considerations.”

“‘Considerations?'” Though Bran's tone was still suspicious, it was evident that he was becoming intrigued. A spark of calculating greed had kindled behind the honey-colored eyes. Wencit chuckled softly.

“So, you
are
interested. I was beginning to fear that you could not be corrupted.”

“You are speaking of treason, sir. Even if I were to agree, what makes you think I could be trusted?”

“You are not without your own kind of honor,” Wencit observed. “And as for treason—ah, that is such a weary term. I know for a fact that you have opposed Alaric Morgan in the past—and King Kelson, too, for that matter.”

“Morgan and I have had our differences,” Bran allowed. “But I have always been loyal to my king. As you say, I am not without my own kind of honor. Besides, I would hardly consider myself in the same league with our good Deryni duke—or Kelson, either, for that matter.”

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