King Duncan watched the lights flicker in the great hall of Araluen, the royal banners of the assembled delegation hung from the rafters swaying gently in the same breeze. A few diners still lingered near the lamps, pockets of conversations too interesting to abandon despite the servants clearing away the remains of the meal. The state dinner would be hailed as a success come morning, but there was still work to be done. One of the Hibernean kings had requested a 'private discussion' which usually meant the man would complain about his countrymen ad nauseum.
The king of Araluen pushed himself to his feet. One of these days he was going to find out who had originally had the bright idea of appointing Araluen arbitrator between the petty squabbles Hibernea indulged in. It made Duncan nervous to think of himself or his country as the guiding star by which the neighboring countries steered their ships of state. He knew all to well how close he'd come to the rocks, and he knew how little each individual king listened to his advice. As Crowley observed wryly, the trick was keeping each of them thinking that all the others listened to Duncan and acting in line with the group.
As an afterthought, Duncan took the flagon of the Gallican red wine served with the final course from the servant standing nearby. If things went much later, he'd probably want something to drink.
The door to the king's study swung open before him on well-oiled hinges. A fire had been laid on the stone hearth, casting a warm golden glow throughout the room, and one of the windows had been opened to let in the fresh air of a summer evening. He moved some papers to rest the flagon on the polished wood top of his desk and slid his goblet within easy reach.
Moments later, the Hibernean king let himself in. Duncan noticed immediately that Ferris O'Carrick of Clonmel had also supplied himself with wine. "Beautiful evening," said Ferris, his glance skittering around the room and assessing the battered leather seats that made Duncan and his friends comfortable through long policy sessions. He seemed taken aback by the cracks and mends in the chairs offered.
"Make yourself comfortable," said Duncan. He wasn't going to sit on some hard, ornate, throne just because Clonmel thought being a king meant surrounding oneself with gold and glittering jewels and more ceremony than substance. In contrast to Duncan's embroidered linen tunic and breeches of serviceable brown the smaller man wore an ornate doublet of embossed leather over a crimson silk shirt paired with white beeches. It was a striking outfit, made more so by the fact that Ferris wore more jewelry than the Araluan princess—as if dressing like a Hellene pirate compensated for his lack of physical presence.
"Thank you," murmured Ferris, making no move to chose a chair. Instead, he paced toward the window and began a series of complimentary observations about the dinner. When he had a mind to, he could be a genial companion. "I was diverted by tales of the exploits of one of your rangers—but surely his name isn't really Halt?"
Duncan smiled. "Why not?" He rummaged in his memory for the few pieces of official paperwork that had been graced with more than a scrawled Halt, Redmont. "Halt ...Arratay... is a remarkable man."
Ferris raised an eyebrow. "Arrêtez?" The word took a decidedly Gallic turn, and while Duncan's knowledge of the language was limited to a few pleasantries the correction allowed him to make the connection. He shrugged, and Ferris shook his head. "How original."
"It's his name," said Duncan, mildly.
"Is it?" said Ferris. "He's Hibernean, isn't he?"
Duncan felt the first flicker of unease. Ferris wasn't just making conversation anymore. There was a harsh edge to the other king's words. If there was a reason Halt had left Hibernea, he'd never seen a need to share it with Duncan. "He was," said the Araluan king, slowly feeling his way forward. "He swore an oath of allegiance to me years ago and I've never had cause to regret accepting his word."
"Oh?" There was a bite in Ferris' words, and he followed it with a thrust. "But you banished him just a few years ago."
"Politics," said Duncan, his unease growing. He regretted having driven Halt to such an extreme act, and he hated himself for being goaded. It wouldn't happen again... "I am honor bound to defend him as one of my loyal subjects—and my friend."
"Ah, politics, is it?" Ferris threw him a bright smile, but the firelight drew deep shadows across his face and highlighted the false cheer. He knew something—thought he knew something—and was prepared to use it to strengthen some position. "I want him back."
"Why?" What had Halt done that the king remembered him years later?
On the hearth, a stick cracked in two and settled. Duncan filled his goblet and raised it to his lips, keeping an eye on the Hibernean king. Ferris had stopped in front of the window, back straight and face turned away. Surely they could negotiate their way out of this...
Passion slid through the cracks in Ferris' voice, the stroke going home with more force than he'd intended. "He murdered my brother."
"...Maybe it was an accident?" ventured Duncan, because he had to say something. Not even the news that Halt had been apprehended spouting treasonous nonsense had sent him reeling like this. Regicide was a crime that couldn't be smoothed over with a few pretty words and some royal concession. His first thoughts weren't helpful, wouldn't keep the situation from escalating beyond retrieval. If he's anything like you, he probably deserved it—
His second thoughts skewed toward the other party. Maybe it had been the one time Halt's skill with the bow betrayed him—
"No." Cold and certain, Ferris didn't sound like he was bluffing.
It couldn't be Halt's fault, could it? Officially, Albrian O'Carrick, heir to the throne of Clonmel, had drowned in a boating accident and the Araluen royal family had sent their sympathies to the bereaved. Duncan tried to recall the details—it'd been a small thing at a time when Araluen was more concerned with internal affairs. "What proof do you have? People do drown."
"Especially when they're struck with an oar to the head and held under," said Ferris.
Murder—deliberately lying in wait to take another's life—was an ugly act. It wasn't Halt's style. He was brusque and more likely to challenge you head-on—it didn't matter if you were a princeling or twice his size. But it would explain the ranger's tight-lipped silence about his past. The worm of doubt writhed in Duncan's breast. As a king it was his duty to deliver justice and no one was above the law. Murder was a crime that couldn't be explained or rationalized away as easily as a few drunken insults.
Duncan clenched his fists. "What proof do you have? How do you know?" he asked again. It was only a weak parry, but he'd said he'd fight, and so he would argue and demand until there was no possible defense left against the accusation—and even then, Lord Anthony might be able to find one.
Ferris drew breath to answer, but the words that finally tumbled out weren't what either monarch had anticipated. "...Because I—I told him to do it."
There was a long silence, Duncan afraid to even breathe, wondering if he'd actually heard the words. A cricket chirped insolently, one of the night noises that went on regardless of the affairs of men. The little king dropped into one of the battered leather chairs, abandoning his drink on Duncan's desk. Ferris put his head in his hands. "I told him to do it," he repeated, half-muffled. His shoulders began to shake with ugly sobs. "My own brother—I wanted him gone. I hated him. I hated him."
One point was clear to Duncan. If Clonmel's case against Halt rested on the testimony of her king, it was equally damning to both parties and Halt would be the first to point it out. He exhaled slowly. "I'm...sorry."
Ferris raised eyes burning with unshed tears. They gave him a fanatical look. "I wasn't," he said. "I was glad. I was more suited to throne. It should have been mine—and the little fool offered to give it to me. Who does that?" He shook his head in wonder at the memory.
Duncan wondered if Albrian O'Carrick hadn't been the wiser of the two. There were days when he would have handed his crown to anyone who asked, simply for the relief of not dealing with the innumerable problems for a few days. But it was never that easy to give up an inheritance, and putting the crown on the wrong personality would leave the country to suffer. Ferris O'Carrick wasn't the worst of the Hibernean kings, but he was too self-absorbed in his own image to be a truly good leader.
"So you had him killed instead." And covered up for the killer? Curious, when you stopped to think about it. Duncan would have expected Halt to be dragged to 'justice' almost immediately—probably Halt had too, which would have been why he'd run.
"That way he couldn't regret his choice," said Ferris, making a perverse sort of sense. He began to weep again. He'd overreached on the attack, leaving him vulnerable. The wine he'd drunk to nerve himself for the encounter had loosened his tongue and revealing one secret loosed a torrent of others. He spoke of expecting to meet his brother in the corridors and how he'd relied more than he knew on Albrian's opinions. "I even missed complaining about being rousted out at dawn for weapons practice."
Duncan pulled piles of paper off his desk, setting them safely on the floor. Waterspots on official correspondence would be awkward to explain. He took a quick gulp of wine to steady his nerves and inspire some wise solution to Clonmel's problem. There was a tap on the door, and he swore softly. "Who is it?"
The door opened instead.
Duncan remembered that he'd arranged to meet with Halt that night. Hibernean heritage gave Halt a unique insight into some of the more convoluted affairs presented when dealing with the six kings, and Duncan often relied on his advice. The ranger was scarcely more than a shadow in the doorway, and Duncan could only imagine the raised eyebrow with which his friend took in the scene playing out in the study. "What'd I miss?" asked Halt, carefully closing the door behind him.
"Not much," said Duncan, since he doubted the ranger would obey a dismissal and the situation directly concerned his adviser and friend. He tried to make light of the situation now that there was another pair of shoulders to bear the weight. "Only the revelation that you neglected to tell me that you murdered the previous heir to Clonmel on the orders of our friend here." He gestured to Ferris, who straightened up and blinked at the cloaked and cowled figure.
Any surprise at the accusation was hidden by the deep cowl of the ranger's cloak. "So that's how it is, is it?" said Halt, his voice only slightly gruffer than usual and making no comment on the veracity of the claim.
"Forgive me," blurted Ferris. He rose unsteadily, swayed a moment, then dropped to his knees before Halt.
"What, regretting your lot?" Halt inquired. Duncan had heard—it was probably Halt who told him—of a far eastern tribe where one proved one's skill and dexterity by standing atop a pair of galloping horses and completing an obstacle course. Halt, never one to take the safer course when presented with options, straddled flippant impudence and mockery and rode the fine line between them at breakneck speed. "Buy yourself a new outfit in the morning and the feeling will pass."
"I ruined your life!"
"Wasn't that enough?"
Under his carefully barbered beard, the king of Clonmel's face was red and splotchy. "Forgive me," he pleaded.
Very deliberate, Halt went on one knee and put a hand under Ferris's chin, applying pressure until their eyes met. His cowl slipped back to his shoulders, revealing the silver in his dark and uneven hair and a face set in grim lines. Voice cold and hard as ice, he asked, "Do you really think I care what you've said and done?"
Ferris flinched, and made as if to pull away. "Don't you?"
"Years go by where I don't have to think of you at all," Halt informed him, the verbal follow-through a knife-twist in a reopened wound. He released the lachrymose king, eyes wary.
Head down, all traces of authority wiped from his posture, Ferris looked very small. "Please, Halt," he whispered. "I—I'm sorry."
Halt sighed. "Ferris. Look at me."
Ferris shifted, raising his gaze until it met the ranger's which was no longer cold and guarded. Halt offered his hand, and they rose to their feet, eyes locked.
"I forgave you almost as soon as my shoulder healed."
"Truly," said Halt, allowing Ferris to lean heavily on his arm and removing the half-filled goblet from the king of Clonmel's reach. "Now. That's enough and plenty for one night. Allow me to escort you back to your quarters."
Duncan could only shake his head as Halt steered his charge firmly from the study.
Their departure drained the room of tension and left the king of Araluen mentally wrung. The fire crackled on the hearth, loud in the ensuing stillness. Wondering if perhaps he'd dreamed the whole thing in all its bizarre entirety, Duncan replayed the scene in his head and realized that when they stood next to each other the two men were almost the same height. There'd been a similarity in their profiles too—and something in the way the cheeks were molded.
Halt let himself back into the study and took the chair opposite Duncan. He picked up the abandoned flask and topped off the goblet. He shook his head. "And that's where the expression 'Drunk as a king' comes from. With any luck, he won't remember anything in the morning."
"Did you really... kill... Albrian O'Carrick?" asked Duncan, finding that of the possible questions, this was the point he wanted clarified.
Halt paused, glass halfway to his lips, and his expression stilled. "I made sure he'd never sit on the throne of Clonmel," he said. He owed Duncan that much, whether it was his king or his friend asking the question. His eyes narrowed as he studied the blood-red liquid in his hand and the two flagons on the desktop. "Who brought this in?"
A moment's further consideration, and Halt poured the wine out into the fire without tasting it. The rest of the flagon followed and the flames leaped high, turning blue as the Gallican red burned swift and hot. Duncan blinked against the after-images, believing he'd seen traces of purple and green as well.
"That was an expensive display," Duncan observed.
"I wouldn't put it past him to have faked the whole thing and then poisoned the wine," said Halt. "Ferris'd be congratulating himself on a masterstroke if I died now."
Duncan swallowed, his own throat feeling tight. "But... his remorse... and you..."
The shadows drew deep lines on Halt's face as he stared somewhere over Duncan's shoulder. "I may love my brother," he said. "But I don't trust him." The ranger shifted in his chair. "Will that be all?"
"Wasn't that enough?" asked Duncan, dryly.
"I'll see you tomorrow, then," said Halt.
The door closed silently behind him, leaving the king alone with his thoughts. The fire had burned low when Duncan emptied out his own flagon onto the embers. Bright color flared for a moment. If Halt thought it was better to be safe than sorry, it probably was.