Clarissa fixed her eyes on the radiant face of the Theotokos smiling compassionately down from above the altar as the castrati choir raised their pure, soaring voices in the final anthem.
The jeweled interior of Hagia Iob glittered in the light of a thousand fragrant candles, the richness contrasting with the somber hues of the celebrants' vestments. Clarissa herself was garbed in the purple of royal mourning, kneeling on a faldstool of carved ivory between King Wencit and her husband Termod Furstan-Vechta-Al-Marluk. Her son, Mark-Hogan was just beyond his father and the rest of the congregation, Furstani princes, lesser nobles and courtiers, knelt in black clad ranks behind them.
Charissa's requiem ended at last and Clarissa accepted the hand Wencit extended to help her rise. They processed from the church, Clarissa on the King's arm with Termod and Mark-Hogan a half pace behind them, in a silence finally broken by Wencit as they neared the barges.
"Ride with me my sister and brother, we must talk." Clarissa inclined her head in assent. She'd been expecting this.
The purple curtains of the royal cabin enclosed the three of them in amethystine half light. Clarissa, seated on piled cushions hands folded demurely in lap, shook her head, refusing Wencit's offer of wine, and came directly to the point.
"I renounced my rights to the Festilic succession, for myself and my heirs, nine years ago. I will not go back on that. Charissa made you inheritor of her claims and you are welcome to them. But I want Tolan."
Wencit smiled faintly and threw a glance at his silent half-brother. "Blunt as ever, my Clarissa. And what do you say, Sayid Al-Marluk?"
"That I never had any claim save through my wife, and her wishes in this matter are as mine." Termod answered quietly.
He resembled Wencit it height and build but his lean, chiseled features favored his beautiful mother, Nimur II's beloved but lowborn second wife. Her son had also inherited her thick, ivory pale hair and her serene dignity, but the black, piercing eyes beneath dark, level brows came from his royal father. He was five years Wencit's junior and despite - or perhaps because - of his lesser status as a morgantic son without dynastic rights the two had always been close and fond.
Wencit did not now make the mistake of thinking Termod either weak or henpecked to have chosen to follow his wife in this matter. Indeed there was a hint of genuine relief on the King's thin, triangular face. He did not hold his younger brother lightly as a potential opponent, and loved him too well to wish to be at odds with him.
"Add Tolan to your other holdings and you will govern a full quarter of Torenth." he observed.
Termod smiled faintly. "In what better or safer hands could they be?"
Wencit laughed. He knew very well where he could trust - and where he could not.
Clarissa spoke again, abruptly: "Charissa loved you, Wencit. You are the only man besides our father she ever loved." The King's face tightened in sudden pain as she continued. "For her sake and for Torenth who needs strong, stable rule I beg you not to go to Gwynedd. Claim the crown if you will but do not seek to enforce it! If you do you will die. As Charissa died. As my father died. It is God's will that Haldanes, not Festils rule Gwynedd."
Wencit snorted. "Superstitious nonsense!"
Clarissa's pale blue eyes bored into his. "Is it nonsense that every attempt from Ariella I on down has ended in death and disaster? Our claim - such as it is - stems from an incestuous bastard. Would such be allowed to succeed in Torenth, or any other civilized state? I think not. You have one fair kingdom, Wencit, and rule it well. Rest content with that as I am content with what I have!"
Wencit looked away, covering sudden uneasiness. "And what of vengeance for Charissa's blood, and your father's?"
"Both offered or accepted challenge and fought according to the Code Arcane. I accept God's judgment - and so should you!"
Wencit's head snapped back, pale eyes glaring. "Never!"
"Then you will die." Clarissa said flatly. "And may God have mercy on Torenth!"
The long train of state barges, their gold and silver and nacre inlays glinting in the pale autumn sunlight, put in one after another at the Quai du Roi beneath the walls of the royal palace. The purple curtains were looped back and Wencit gestured graciously for his brother and sister by marriage to proceed him, turning to exchange a few words with an attendant lord.
Termod handed his wife ashore, followed by her two eunuch bodyguards and a pair of Termod's Varangians. They proceeded, arm in arm, down the quay, the crowds of disembarking nobles and attendants parting before them, to their own barge moored a short distance away with the orange banner of Marluk and the green banner of Vechta snapping above it in the chill breeze.
"Clarissa, Wencit is my king as well as my dear brother. Where he leads I must follow whatever I think if his course." Termod said quietly in her ear.
She squeezed his arm reassuringly. "I never would ask you to do otherwise." her face clouded. "I didn't really expected him to heed me."
"Nor did I." Termod's lips set grimly. "Perhaps I can at least keep this folly from costing us our king."
"I hope to God you can."
Then they were engulfed in the confusion of their disembarking retinue: young Moorish nabils in Termod's green and orange livery; more towering Varangian guardsmen with their fair hair and beards hanging in braided tails over scaled steel hauberks and furred cloaks; the Duchess' scarlet clad girl guards; her handmaidens veiled and cloaked to invisibility; her eunuch chamberlains their white livery bordered with black; and a bevy of noble ladies draped in sad colored velvets and brocades.
Young Mark-Hogan came to his parents' side, trailed by his own entourage of governor, arms-master and squires. Termod put an arm about his shoulders. "Come, my son, attend the King's council with me." and the boy's face lit up.
Clarissa kissed her menfolk and watched them sweep up the quay, after the King and other great lords, circled by Varangian guards and followed by a long train of attendants. She smiled a little sadly. Mark-Hogan was thirteen, nearly a man, and not her little boy anymore. Her hand went to her belly, soon she'd have other sons to cosset and pet for a little while before manhood claimed them.
She sent the bulk of her retinue; eunuchs, ladies and guards, directly back to the vast ducal apartments but Clarissa herself, with Albanus, his fellow Mauritius, and a pair of handmaidens, turned aside through a small, hidden door and climbed a winding stair that led directly to the private apartments of the Princess Morag, Duchess of Arjenol.
Clarissa and Termod had decided their five daughters, ranging in age from eleven to three, were too young to suffer through the endless ceremonial requiem and left them instead in the princess' care. Morag had arranged a shorter, simpler service in her private chapel for the Marluki princesses, her own young sons and Wencit's petted bastards.
The stair ended in the Princess' bower, a small but luxurious gold and purple chamber with latticed windows overlooking the river. Morag herself, white of skin, jet black of hair and eye, radiant in the rich purple of royal mourning, sat on a cushioned divan sipping spiced coffee and chatting with Armida de Benevant, her brother's long time mistress and mother of his daughters, a small, delicately made woman with honey colored skin, rich brown hair half hidden beneath a purple edged veil and great, melting dark eyes.
Both ladies rose at once to greet Clarissa, Morag sweeping forward to gather her into a warm, sisterly embrace for a loving kiss before pushing her back to arms length for a long, assessing look. "Are you all right, little one? Not feeling ill nor too distressed I hope?"
Clarissa managed to produce a smile. "My belly is well enough, as for my heart - at least it's over. Nothing more to fear."
"Or hope?" Armida asked gently.
Clarissa shook her head, eyes bleak. "I gave up hope for Charissa long ago."
"What a dreadful thing to say!" Morag exclaimed, genuinely shocked. "Charissa did what she thought was right - and I for one do not blame her! I know you didn't agree Clare but you mustn't be so hard."
Clarissa smiled faintly and declined to argue. "Where are the children?"
"In my little garden." Morag made a move towards a curtained door but Clarissa held her back.
"No, not yet. I want to talk to you first - to both of you."
The handmaidens disappeared silently through another door to join Morag's women and Armida's in the outer room and the two eunuchs took up stations by the stair entrance, their continued presence completely disregarded by their mistress and her friends.
Morag poured a small, jeweled cup of fragrant coffee for Clarissa before settling back among the richly brocaded cushions of her canopied divan. "Now then, little sister, what do you have to say?"
Clarissa, upright on a gilt chair, took a tiny, courteous sip of the spiced beverage before speaking: "As you both know Wencit inherits the Festilic claim to Gwynedd and I am sure it will come as no surprise that he means to press it."
Morag frowned. "Of course."
"Wencit is ambitious." his mistress said matter-of-factly from her place, cross-legged upon a heap of pillows.
"He wants his rights!" Morag protested, "as did Charissa. Gwynedd should be an appendage of our crown."
"It should not." Clarissa said flatly. "Oh I grant you Festil I had a remote claim in the distaff line but he took the crown by force - and his heirs lost it through bad government." Morag opened her mouth to protest but Clarissa continued over her: "As for us we are descended from a bastard born of incest. Since when have such had dynastic rights?"
"Ariella I declared her son her heir and he was legitimated by both King and Church!" Morag replied fiercely.
"And his attempt to reclaim his parent's throne failed miserably." Clarissa snapped back. "As did all succeeding efforts. Dear God, Morag, have you forgotten Rengarth and Killingford? Not to mention my poor father's death and now Charissa's!"
"You fear a similar fate for Wencit should he seek to impose his claim." said Armida.
"Yes! God has made his will clear. He favors the Haldanes not the Festils."
Morag was shaking her head. "Little sister, little sister, you are overwrought and your condition has made you fanciful. Hogan and Charissa were unfortunate, that is all."
"All of our house who have challenged Haldanes over the last two hundred years have been 'unfortunate'." Clarissa answered grimly.
"Wencit has never failed in anything he has undertaken," Wencit's loyal sister declared firmly. "He will not fail now. You will see."
"All else aside he will never leave Charissa unavenged." Wencit's mistress said gently. "Me he loves a little. Queen Euphrosine he loved not at all though he was good to her. But Charissa de Tolan was the woman of his heart - his true mate for all she was forever out of reach."
"And Charissa loved him." Clarissa cried passionately. "The last thing she would want is his death!"
"He will not die." Morag said firmly.
"I pray you are right." said Armida. "But I know my lord too well to believe he can be turned from this course whatever the peril."
And that was the bitter truth. No doubt Wencit would be as deaf to the pleas of his sister and mistress as to Clarissa's own warning even if they could be persuaded to try - as clearly they could not. "I will pray too." she said, resigned.