In which the companions discover that
Edric - he had, perforce, reverted to his given name - arranged a hearing as a kind of informal trial for his brother. He hoped that when the truth came out into the open, it would assuage the indignation of the mutterers and help Kieran come to terms with the past. The only part he himself would play, would be as a witness. That way, it could be seen that there was no deliberate bias.
The hearing took place in the Great Hall before a panel of three of the new councillors. A hundred citizens from all sections of society packed the gallery, and three secretaries were to take notes so that an account of the hearing could be circulated.
To his credit, Kieran took the whole thing very seriously. He spoke clearly and unemotionally, made no excuses and was inclined to take more than his share of the blame. In spite of this, it came across clearly that it was his youthful innocence that had enabled the daemons to twist his perception of good and evil.
"In the catacombs," he went on, "they took me by a secret way into a beautiful place. At first, I could not believe that anyone who lived there could be anything except pure and good. They showed me visions of how wonderful life could be in Belsaria if only someone who cared about the country controlled it.
"In my heart of hearts, I knew my father really did care, that what I was being told was wrong, utterly wrong, but in my foolish conceit, I allowed myself be talked into believing that I was the one who really mattered - the only one able to bring Belsaria to greatness - and that anyone who did not see that sacred truth was an enemy - even among my own family...
"How could I? Looking back, I cannot comprehend how I could have done the evil deeds I did, and believed that what I did was right. I must have been aware "
He went on to catalogue his misdeeds in minute detail, an expression of disbelief and self-loathing on his face, as though he were hearing it for the first time.
"The noble beings - they looked so fair, so virtuous at that time - allowed me to return to the beautiful place beyond the catacombs whenever I wished, and the wish to do so became stronger and more frequent with the passing years, until I was spending more time there than anywhere else.
"I did wonder occasionally that no one seemed to have missed me. Once, I asked them about it. They were protecting me magically they said. They had made it seem as though I was still attending to my duties. I know now how it was done. It seemed so plausible. I was the Chosen One. Chosen for my vanity, I think."
Kieran hung his head in shame for a moment, then continued.
"After father died, I spent almost all my time there, until I felt no desire ever to leave it. Then everything changed. What my eyes had perceived as that beautiful place fell into holes somehow, as though someone had splashed turpentine over a fresh painting. I saw then that it was only an illusion. The forms and colours ran together into a murky brown that burned away as reality asserted itself. It was at that instant that everything became crystal clear - hard and stark - and.. and there was no escape... "
His voice faltered as he shuddered at the memory of that dreadful realization. Some of the more compassionate listeners in the gallery shuddered in sympathy. Perhaps he had, in truth, been suffering even as they had suffered at the hands of the Daemon Lords. But many had hardened their hearts against him and were glad of his suffering.
After Kieran had given his account, which lasted for most of the day, the three councillors questioned him about particular aspects of his testimony. To their questions, he replied freely and fully, holding nothing back. At the end of the day, any citizen in the gallery who had further questions they wished to be asked, were told to pass these on through the secretaries for the next morning's session.
Most of these questions related to the reign of "King Kieran the First", and Kieran, looking acutely uncomfortable, found himself unable to find answers to many of them. Most of the answers he could give, contained a strong element of supposition. Although he made no overt attempt to deny blame, his responses were patently unsatisfactory.
Edric heard the muttering and shuffling with some alarm. Maybe he had overestimated his people's capacity for reasoning. It was looking as if Valarien's earlier gloomy observation were correct. He could only hope that their own testimonies in the afternoon would carry enough weight.
All those who had had experience of the ability of the daemons to misdirect testified first including Mistress Caitlin and her brother. Leon and Ewan related the obstacles encountered on the journey. Valarien made a spectacular and very credible witness. No one would have dared to disbelieve him. But was the mood of the gallery sufficiently impressed?
Finally, Edric himself was called. He stood nervously before his councillors and his citizens, knowing that not only his brother's life but his own reputation and thus the future well-being of the realm were at stake.
His testimony was as full as Kieran's and almost as long, but while Kieran had tended to be rather cool and detached, Edric was earnest and passionate. Even before he reached the point of the Goddess's intervention, he could feel that he had his people with him. He sank to his knees as he related their divine rescue and concluded by calling upon all present to give thanks to their dear Lady.
Silence filled the Great Hall.
What would be the response?
The silence stretched out unbearably, then suddenly the entire gallery burst into spontaneous applause and cheering. There were no further questions. As soon as maybe, the hearing was concluded and an announcement made that the coronation of King Edric the Fifth would take place in a month's time on the Eve of the Hunter's Moon.
After the hearing, Edric dined quietly with his companions. They began the meal in a melancholy mood. Their quest was over and they all felt a little deflated now the last flurry of excitement was past.
"What will you all do now," Edric asked with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Their adventures over the past six months or so had forged a bond that he was loath to break but they would have their own plans, no doubt. Leon in particular was acting like caged lion, impatient to be free. He had been quite amused by his handsome appearance, all tricked out in velvet and satin finery, but he rapidly found such garments irksome and constricting, and reverted to his usual, comfortably scruffy apparel.
Before anyone could answer the question, however, there came a totally unexpected interruption. The doors to the private dining chamber flew open and a regal lady paused for a moment on the threshold.
All the company save Leon stood up in surprised courtesy. Edric stared at her for a few seconds, hardly daring to believe his eyes. Before he recovered his breath to welcome the sister he had not seen for nearly twelve years, she had entered and thrown her arms around him.
"Edric, oh Edric, it is wonderful to have you back, but indeed, you must stop it!"
Seeing a totally confounded look upon his face, she went on. "The coronation! You must stop it. It isn't right."
"Merle, darling, it is an answer to my prayers to see you again, but please calm yourself. This is not like you. What will our guests think?"
"Of course," she gasped, recollecting herself and dropping a stately curtsey to each as Edric introduced his companions.
"Now, do sit down and have some refreshment, and then you can explain your strange request."
The atmosphere during the rest of the meal was somewhat strained, with everyone making an effort at small talk while wondering what was to come. When they had finished, they all withdrew to the king's private salon. Princess Merle had hinted at a private conversation, but Edric would have none of it.
"My dearest, if, for some obscure reason, the coronation has to be cancelled, they would be the first to know about it. Without them, I wouldn't even be here so they may as well hear your problem now."
"Let it be as you wish. You know I could never deny you." Princess Merle smiled fondly at her brother and the missing years seemed to slip away. He squeezed her hand gently.
"I cannot imagine why you should wish me to abandon the coronation, but you were never one to do things on a whim, so I presume you have a good reason. Go ahead. You have our full attention."
"There can only be one reason to stop the coronation, and that is that you are not Belsaria's true king."
Five pairs of eyes stared at her in stupefaction.
"But - Reyner's dead, yes? And Serlo's dead. Who can possibly stand between me and the throne?"
"Reyner's son ? But surely Reyner only had a daughter."
"No. Aislinn is not Reyner's daughter. She is a baseborn child."
"But you cared for her after her mother died and took her to live with you in Caralonia."
"Yes, and she will continue to live there in the manner to which she has become accustomed."
"Then, where is Reyner's son?"
"I have no idea."
"Well, what's his name."
"I'm afraid I don't know that either."
"Merle! How can you expect me to abandon my throne to a child whose name and whereabouts are unknown? The country desperately needs stability right now. For all we know, he may be dead."
"I don't think so."
"Wonderful!" Edric's voice grated harshly while the Princess looked abashed.
Valarien looked from one grim face to one troubled one. "I think it might help if we - um - heard the whole story," he said gently.
Edric was quick to catch the look. "Of course," he agreed quickly. "Sorry, Sis. Please forgive me. I've had a rather trying day."
Leon groaned loudly, which evoked a belated smile from those less quick on the uptake. It did much to lessen the tension, however, and Princess Merle began her story.
"The night you left, you warned me about Kieran and voiced your concern for Heloïse and her unborn child. I found it hard to accept. My eyes, too, had been blinded to what was going on. Had anyone but you said those things, I think I would have laughed, but it was you - and you believed it strongly enough to go away, so it had to be true.
"After that, I began to see things clearly, to be aware of what Kieran was doing. Later on, I think he sensed it, too, for I began to feel sometimes that I was being watched and I was afraid. He was furious after you left. The others weren't aware of it, but I could tell, and it confirmed your story.
"I knew then that Heloïse's child, should it be a son, would be in mortal danger, and that I was the only one who could save him. It was all down to me alone. You had placed that responsibility upon me and I was determined not to let you down.
"Whenever I could escape unseen, I left the castle and took to visiting the market place dressed in peasant's clothing. No one recognized me. I chatted to the womenfolk and mentioned my sister 'oo was in a int'restin' condishun."
Edric laughed. "You always loved the little dramas we used to stage when we were children, didn't you."
"Yes, and mother used to get dreadfully upset when I 'lowered mai standards of speech'! Do you remember?"
"Always." Edric laughed again at a more recent reminiscence. "There's a lady you should meet who lives in Harlonne. You'd get on like a house on fire, me dear!"
"Désirée!" the others chorused in amusement, recognizing the accent.
"Oh yes?" Merle queried with interest.
"That tale will keep a little longer," Edric grinned.
"Yours isn't finished yet."
"Well, gradually, I compiled a list of young women who were all in the same 'int'restin' condishun' and due around the same time. I made friends with them, took them little presents for their new babies.
"Three of them had their children before Heloïse gave birth - all boys, and I was beginning to panic. Then I heard of a young girl outside the city, a farmer's daughter who had just had a daughter out of wedlock. Her parents had tried to hush it up, which is no doubt how it came to my ears!
"She was a fine healthy young woman of seventeen who'd been seduced by the son of a wealthy neighbour who promised marriage. Needless to say, he didn't redeem his promise.
"There was another young man interested in her, the son of the village blacksmith, but he'd been cut out by the neighbour. Now, they'd made it up and wanted to marry, but the smith refused to let his son 'wed that strumpet', and threatened to throw him out if he did. With no money on either side they'd reached an impasse. So I said that I knew as 'ow the Princess would soon be wantin' a wet nurse and 'ow it'd be good money an' I could get 'er the job - if she were int'rested-like... She were.
"That night, just before the spring equinox, Heloïse went into labour. There was quite a commotion with all the women of the bedchamber dashing in and out, and making sure there were no men around, not even Reyner and certainly not Kieran.
"Under cover of all the fuss, I took two horses and rode out to the farm. She was awake, nursing her bairn, so I bade her pack her things and come with me, the child as well. She didn't recognize me and five silver crowns answered her questions well enough. I took them both back to my room. There I found her suitable clothing and we waited. We waited for nearly three days. Poor Heloïse...
"I made sure we were there when the infant was born. I'm afraid I behaved very badly then, elbowing the midwife out of the way, and wrapping it up quickly, cooing over my beautiful little niece the while, for I couldn't afford to let anyone see the baby's sex before I did.
"It was a boy! I laid the baby in his mother's arms. She was barely conscious by then, but she was aware enough to smile briefly, then she slept. Once the midwife had finished her work, I dismissed all the women except Heloïse's maid and the farmer's daughter, to whom I handed the baby.
"I took a roll of fresh linen and went back to my room. The country girl's daughter was sleeping peacefully, so I wrapped her in the linen, and returned to Heloïse's room"
"A switch!" exclaimed Edric. "We never thought to question the veracity of that announcement."
"Nobody did. How could they? I was above suspicion. Even Kieran fell for it."
"Perhaps a higher power was watching over the child that night," Valarien mused.
"I was certainly praying for a little divine assistance! I found an excuse to be rid of the maid for a while, and laid my plan before the girl. She was to take Reyner's son as her own, marry her young man and travel as far from Belsaria as she could, telling no one where or why she was going, not even her family. For this she would be very well paid.
"Once clear of Belsaria's borders, she could tell her husband that they had in their care the future heir to the throne of Belsaria. I explained that he was now in very great danger. If he were ever to claim his throne, he must be hidden away in some quiet corner of the world beyond the knowledge of those who would harm him.
"Where they went, I did not want to know, lest I unwittingly betray my nephew. The money they were to receive, together with her young man's earnings as a smith, would enable them to live comfortably, but not ostentatiously. They must not attract attention to themselves in any way lest trouble come of it.
"By now she was shivering, and between the honour I was offering her and the unknown fear that threatened her charge, not to mention a solution to her personal problems, she looked quite overcome. I asked if she was willing to do this thing for the good of her country.
"At first, she was loath to leave behind her own little one, but once she knew that a girl was in no danger, and moreover, would be brought up as a Princess, she consented."
"Aislinn," Edric nodded.
"Yes. Quickly we made the substitution, and I sent her off to my room with the little prince all bundled up in the linen and hidden from prying eyes. The maid came back shortly after so I took my leave. Back in my room, I brought out two leather pouches, each containing two hundred and fifty gold marks "
"Where did you get that sort of money?" Edric demanded incredulously.
"I sold some of my jewels."
"No, of course not. Shortly after you left, I went to visit our sister, Odelia, in Sigoinia. You remember she married Creon, Grand Duke Hadden's eldest son? Well, it occurred to me then that I might at some time have urgent need of funds so it seemed like a good idea to be beforehand.
"Anyway, I also gave the farmer's girl some small items of jewellery, such as could be sold at need without occasioning undue comment, and a ring of Reyner's which bore the Phoenix of Belsaria. That, I placed on a chain around the little prince's neck so that he could prove his birthright when the time came.
"There was a terrible commotion when its disappearance came to light, I can tell you, but that was several months afterwards, and nobody looked my way. As I recall, Kieran used the 'theft' to have someone dismissed that he didn't like. I felt bad about that, but there was nothing I could do without arousing suspicion and that was not to be considered.
"It was almost dark by this time. We had no difficulty in making our escape unseen. I rode home with her and the Prince, frightened half to death lest we encountered vagabonds or one of Kieran's spies, but nothing untoward happened.
"On the way back, I visited one of the other women whom I'd befriended in my peasant persona. I knew she'd had previous experience of wet nursing, and she was delighted at the prospect of nursing the new Princess. No one noticed that the wet nurse had changed - one peasant girl looks pretty much like another - and so life went on as normal, or what passed for normal in those days.
"And so, you see, I know neither the name nor the whereabouts of the true king of Belsaria, but I'm sure he is still alive, for his foster mother was to send the ring back to me in the event of his death. It has not been returned."
The listeners looked meaningfully at each other. "Looks like we've got another job to do, dunnit?" Leon said cheerfully.