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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 63


  HAL WAS HAVING A RUN OF LUCK. He seemed unable to lose, winning every throw of the dice. He was usually elated when he won at raffle, but on this cold, wet afternoon, he was finding it difficult to focus upon the game. His thoughts kept straying to other matters. He was still brooding over his brother’s improbable decision to surrender Clairvaux Castle; he would have wagered the surety of his soul that the old man would never be able to coerce or coax Richard into cooperating. And now what? Without Clairvaux, there was no reason for rebelling, at least none that his father would accept.

  “If I surrender unconditionally,” his friend Raoul de Farci pleaded playfully, “can we switch over to hazard?”

  Hal didn’t care which game they played, and Raoul quickly removed the third dice before he could change his mind. He had no opportunity to cast the remaining dice, though, for Hal’s brother had materialized at the table, and was insisting that Hal come with him. The other men were not happy at forfeiting the chance to recoup their losses, but Geoffrey was not to be denied, and they could only watch glumly as Hal was spirited away.

  Hal followed his brother out into the bailey with poor grace. He did not see why he must be the one to inspect Geoffrey’s lame stallion; their father had forgotten more about healing horses than he’d ever known. But he could not muster up the energy to object. It was sleeting again, and he felt damp and chilled by the time they entered the stables. Several grooms throwing dice scrambled to their feet, looking discomfited. When Geoffrey flipped a few coins their way and suggested they warm up with mulled wine, they did not argue and eagerly abandoned their duties. Hal was standing by one of the stalls, regarding Geoffrey’s stallion and looking perplexed.

  “If this horse is lame, he is hiding it remarkably well. What is this about, Geoff?”

  “Well, either I needed to talk with you out of earshot of eavesdroppers or I just fancied a stroll over to the stables.” Geoffrey glanced around to make sure they were alone. “I saw Papa this morn. He wants us to enter into a compact of perpetual peace and swear to abide by his disposition of his domains. Then he asked me again if I was willing to do homage to you for Brittany.”

  None of this was news to Hal, and none of it seemed worth freezing his butt over. “So?”

  Even in the subdued stable lighting, Geoffrey’s eyes shone like silver. “He is also going to ask Richard to do homage to you for Aquitaine.”

  Hal’s jaw dropped. “I am not Richard’s liege lord! He owes allegiance for Aquitaine to the French king.”

  Geoffrey had often marveled at Hal’s fondness for belaboring the obvious. “I know, and you may be damned sure that so does Brother Richard.”

  “Richard will never agree, never!” Hal burst out laughing. “And when he refuses ever so rudely, Papa will be so wroth with him that my minor sins will be forgotten. Geoff, this is a gift from God. How else explain it—unless the old man has gone stark raving mad?”

  “He is not mad,” Geoffrey said, “just desperate,” and he frowned, for however much he told himself that his father did not deserve it, he still felt an unwelcome flicker of pity.

  RICHARD STARED AT HIS FATHER in shock. “You cannot be serious?” As suspicious as he so often was of Henry’s schemes, he’d never expected this. “I will never agree to so outrageous a demand. Hal and I stand as equals. Just as he lays legitimate claim to your crown and lands, so do I lay claim to my mother’s inheritance. I owe him nothing for Aquitaine, and I owe you nothing either!”

  Henry had known how difficult it would be to gain Richard’s consent, and he was prepared to be as patient as needed. “Will you listen first whilst I explain my reasoning, why I want you to—”

  “No, I will not! Aquitaine is my mother’s and it is mine, and I will never give that lazy, idle drone any rights over it. I have been unable to gain my mother’s freedom, but I can safeguard the independence of her homeland, and by God, I will!”

  “You can at least hear me out—” But Richard was already heading for the door, and when Henry started after him, his son slammed it resoundingly in his face.

  RICHARD WAS CONFERRING with the most trusted of his household knights, for he and André de Chauvigny were cousins, André’s mother being Eleanor’s aunt. So tense was the atmosphere in the chamber that they jumped like startled cats when a knock sounded at the door.

  “I am seeing no one, Rico,” Richard instructed his squire, and the youth hurried to do his bidding. As soon as he’d opened the door, though, he spun around to face Richard, his eyes as round as moons.

  “My lord,” he stammered, “it…it is the king!”

  Richard was impressed that his father had been the one to seek him out, but he was not about to show it. Folding his arms across his chest, he regarded Henry stonily. André did not share his sangfroid and quickly found excuses to leave, with Rico right behind him.

  “Richard, we need to talk.”

  “No, we do not. There is nothing you can say that I care to hear.”

  “Do you not even want to know why I would ask that of you?”

  “I already know why—because you’d go to any lengths to secure my idiot brother’s feeble hold on power!”

  Henry shook his head vehemently. “No, you are wrong. I am trying to protect you, not Hal.”

  Richard was so obviously taken aback that Henry seized his chance, and said quickly, “An act of homage is a double-bladed sword. Yes, it would impose obligations upon you, but it would do the same for Hal. As your liege-lord, he would be honor-bound to respect your rule in Aquitaine, would no longer feel so free to conspire with your vassals. He would owe you protection, and you could hold him to that.”

  Richard wondered if his father really believed Hal could be fettered by an oath. “I am quite capable of defeating Hal on my own. Indeed, I would welcome the opportunity.”

  “Do not hold your brother too cheaply, Richard. Once I am dead, he will have the resources of England, Normandy, and Anjou to draw upon, money to hire more routiers than you could hope to count. Nor would he lack for allies in Aquitaine; you’ve seen to that.”

  “Let him do his best,” Richard said, with such bitter bravado that Henry took a step toward him, yearning to shake some sense into this stubborn son of his.

  “I am trying to help you, lad! Why will you not let me?”

  He sounded so sincere that Richard almost believed him. “Assuming your intentions are good,” he said, with less hostility, “it changes nothing. I will never agree to do homage to Hal. Aquitaine is mine.”

  “For how long? Christ Jesus, can you not see the danger you’d be facing? And not just Aquitaine would be at risk. If you and your brother lunge for each other’s throats as soon as I draw my last breath, what do you think will happen to my empire? My life’s work would be undone in a matter of months if you and Hal cannot make peace. Our enemies would be drawn by the scent of blood, and who do you think they’d choose to side with? They’d flock to Hal the way wolves go after a crippled deer, and after they helped take you down, they’d turn on him. Can you not see the truth in what I am saying? I can think of no other way to rein Hal in, to safeguard my legacy, and to keep our family from being ripped asunder.”

  “I do not blame you for fearing a future in which Hal is king. His reign will make Stephen’s look like a golden age. But the survival of your empire is not my responsibility. I am the Duke of Aquitaine, not the King of England. As for our family, it is too late. That ship has already run aground.”

  “No, you’re wrong, Richard. It is not too late. I will not accept that.”

  “Delude yourself if you will. It is no longer my concern.”

  Henry drew a labored breath. “What must I do to get you to agree?”

  “You have nothing I want.”

  “Are you so sure of that?”

  Richard’s eyes narrowed. “What are you saying, that you’d be willing to free my mother?”

  Henry had been braced for this. “If that is the price I must pay for your cooperation, yes
. I will release Eleanor after you do homage to Hal.”

  “No, I’ll do homage after you release her.”

  They stared at each other, having reached the end of the road once again. But this impasse was to be different than their others. Instead of storming out, Henry sat down wearily in the closest seat. “Do you remember asking me at Caen why I would not release Eleanor?”

  “Why—are you going to answer me now?” And to Richard’s amazement, his father nodded.

  “I am not seeking to punish her. In all honesty, I doubt that I could ever fully forgive her betrayal. But ten years have passed, and we’ve made our peace. Even you cannot deny that her life is much more comfortable than it once was. She has her own chamberlain again, her own servants. Despite your suspicions, I have no intention of keeping Tilda from her. I let Joanna see her, did I not? And the wound was still bleeding then.”

  Richard was searching Henry’s face intently. His voice was drained of rage; even those defensive echoes seemed to come more from force of habit than genuine indignation. “Why, then? Why have you not set her free?”

  “Because…because I no longer fear she’d conspire against me, but I do believe she’d do so for your sake, or for your brothers if one of you rebelled again.”

  That was such a simple answer, one that made sense to Richard, and he wondered why it had not occurred to him. Picking up a stool, he carried it over, and seated himself next to Henry. “Maman has always had an appreciation for irony, but this is a jest worthy of Lucifer himself. She told me once that much of your troubles could be traced to the fact that you saw her as your queen and she saw herself as the Duchess of Aquitaine. You could not have picked a worse time, Papa, to come around to her point of view.”

  At that hint of grim humor, Henry’s head came up sharply. He’d not truly expected Richard to understand, had fallen back upon utter honesty because he had no more weapons at hand. He saw now, though, that this son was capable of the sort of dispassionate analysis that had been the cornerstone of his own success, and that was a revelation.

  Richard was discovering that he felt more kindly toward his father now that he knew his mother’s confinement had not been rooted in vengefulness. It was even a perverse sort of compliment, he supposed, that Papa had recognized what a formidable adversary she’d be, even if she were a woman. But she was a woman with a man’s brain and a man’s daring and she ruled a duchy richer than the domains of the French king. “We are going to have to do something that does not come easily to either of us, then,” he said wryly. “We are going to have to trust each other.”

  Henry exhaled a deep breath; he’d almost forgotten to breathe. For the first time he saw in Richard what his wife had seen, and it was a bittersweet moment, this realization that his second son would have made a far better king than Hal. “You will do homage to your brother, then?” he said cautiously. “Here at Angers, on the morrow?”

  The younger man’s mouth tightened, but he gave a terse nod. “If you will give the order on the morrow to set my mother free.”

  “I will,” Henry said, and Richard studied him pensively, at last able to see the man in the masterful king and the flawed father. It was a pity, he thought, that they’d not been able to talk like this until now—when it was too late. Hal would not honor an oath of homage. Even if he meant well, he’d fall victim to the blandishments of others, let himself be talked into treason again. My beloved brother, the male whore. And now, God help him, but Papa is starting to see it, too. But if agreeing would gain Maman’s freedom and buy him time to make ready for Hal’s future aggression, he would not begrudge the price—or so he tried to convince himself.

  CONSTANCE WAS SEATED on a bench in her bedchamber while Juvette unfastened her braids. When Geoffrey entered, he seemed in good spirits, teasing Juvette, snatching up an ivory comb so he could brush out his wife’s long, dark hair, claiming he’d never understood why troubadours lavished such praise on day, when any man of discernment found true beauty in the night. Juvette giggled, for she was a brunette, too, and Constance marveled how her husband managed to turn sensible girls into simpering sheep with a smile and a few polished gallantries. When Geoffrey deftly steered Juvette toward the door, though, Constance’s interest sharpened. If he wanted more privacy than their curtained bed provided, either he had something confidential to tell her or he had one of his erotic games in mind. Lacking imagination herself, she’d come to value this attribute in her husband.

  As soon as they were alone, she turned to look up into his face. One glance was all she needed, for by now she’d learned to see past the mask he showed the rest of the world. “What is wrong, Geoffrey?”

  He’d already bolted the door once Juvette departed. “I am beginning to believe my father puts Merlin to shame. If my suspicions are right, he could turn dross into gold. I think he has somehow convinced Richard to do homage to Hal.”

  Constance was astonished. “That is not possible…is it?”

  “You tell me. Richard was planning to leave Angers at first light, but he changed his mind of a sudden—after my father made a surprise visit to his private chamber. And they were later seen in the hall, conversing together with remarkable amiability given the outrageous demand he’d made of Richard.”

  Constance did not ask how he knew so much of Richard’s plans, for Geoffrey believed that knowledge was power and he paid well enough to attract reliable agents. “I fear you may be right. Richard must have come to terms with your father, for nothing else explains his behavior. It makes no sense, though. Why would Richard ever agree?”

  Geoffrey shrugged. “Witchcraft, threats, a staggeringly rich bribe—who knows? But if I’ve guessed rightly, the rebellion has breathed its last gasp. Which means our best chance of gaining Nantes or Richmond has given up the ghost, too.”

  Constance gnawed her lower lip, a habit she reverted to under stress. She and Geoffrey had agreed, after considerable deliberation, that their only hope of claiming the rest of her rightful inheritance depended upon Hal’s alliance with the rebels. If he won control of Aquitaine, he’d reward them with the promised Poitevin castles now and Richmond and Nantes once he became king; given the lavish way he’d been willing to compensate his allies during the last revolt, they had no worries that he’d renege upon the deal. And if he lost, it was still possible that they could win, for the unrest might give them the leverage they needed to pressure Henry into giving up Richmond at least.

  “And if the rebellion sputters out like a quenched candle,” Geoffrey said morosely, “we’ll actually lose more than Hal. Those routiers I hired did not come cheap, and if I have to cut them loose, they’re likely to do what masterless men usually do, and plunder the Breton countryside the way Richard’s dismissed routiers sacked Bordeaux a few years back.”

  Constance frowned at this reminder of their financial investment in the rebellion, for she was thrifty by nature. “Let’s assume the worst and you’re right about Richard. Why does that mean the rebellion is dead? Why not just delayed until a more opportune time?”

  “Because Hal is ruled by whim, and who knows what he’ll decide to do six months or a year from now. And because if Richard really does homage, he will earn himself unlimited credit with my father for the foreseeable future. Which means that Papa is likely to turn a blind eye to Richard’s border incursions.”

  As they were convinced that Richard was too predatory a neighbor for comfort, this was a prospect that they both found daunting. Constance chewed on her lower lip again, thinking that Richard’s next Clairvaux Castle could well be on Breton soil. “Well,” she said, “then we have to make sure that Richard does not do homage to Hal.” They’d dissected Hal’s failings with merciless honesty, but they’d not really discussed Richard’s weaknesses. “You know Richard better than I do, Geoffrey. Where is he most vulnerable to attack?”

  “At one time, I’d have said his temper, but he is showing signs of learning self-control. So I would say his hubris.”

  “I
already know you had a fine education, so you need not flaunt it. What is hubris?”

  “Pride,” he said, “vainglory, arrogance, vanity, all terms that can fairly be applied to Brother Richard.”

  Constance nodded thoughtfully. “So we have a man who is prideful and hot-tempered. Surely you can find a way to turn those traits against him?”

  He was silent for some moments, and then he smiled. “Yes,” he said, “I think I do know a way.”

  BEFORE A DISTINGUISHED AUDIENCE of bishops, barons, and highborn lords, Geoffrey did homage to his brother for Brittany, and then it was Richard’s turn. Making little attempt to hide his aversion, he came forward, fixed Hal with a baleful hawk’s stare, and knelt in the floor rushes. Before he could speak, Hal held up his hand for silence, and beckoned to his chaplain. The man hastened over, cradling a silver-gift reliquary as if it contained the Host itself. Hal accepted it with equal solemnity, although as his eyes met his co-conspirator’s, he winked. Geoffrey winced, thinking that if this was Hal’s idea of circumspection, God have mercy upon them all.

  Smiling down at his glowering brother, Hal seemed in no hurry for the ceremony to begin, and Henry frowned, for he was taking too much obvious pleasure in Richard’s submission. All eyes were upon his sons, and Henry could see the bafflement on many faces; from the moment he’d announced that Richard would do public homage to Hal, there’d been no other topic of conversation at Angers, for none could figure out how he’d gotten Richard to agree to this. Wanting to get it over as soon as possible, exasperated by behavior he saw as juvenile and petty, Henry shot his eldest son a warning look, making up his mind then and there to return Clairvaux Castle to Richard’s custody, and if Hal liked it not, what of it?

  Taking his cue at last, Hal again signaled unnecessarily for quiet. “An act of homage is not to be entered into lightly,” he said gravely. “Whilst I am gladdened that my brother, the Duke of Aquitaine, has offered to do so, I regret that I cannot accept his oath without some misgivings.”