"When is the funeral?" the question, put in appropriately subdued tones by Joscelin, Prince de Besancon and heir to the crown of Bremagne, brought a slightly embarrassed reply from the his cousin, the nearly fourteen year old King of Gwynedd:
"Father was buried three days ago."
Joscelin, a year older than Kelson Haldane, stared in open consternation struggling to find a polite way to put his next question.
His sister, the Princess Roxana, saved him the trouble. "But - I thought Uncle Brion was killed in a hunting accident." she faltered in her soft, little girl voice, eyes wide with troubled innocence.
Kelson swallowed. "We were hunting but it wasn't an accident. He - his heart failed."
Jehana, the queen dowager, got abruptly to her feet and walked quickly, black velvet skirts swishing, to a window overlooking the palace gardens, her back to the youngsters.
Of the three Kelson, her son, resembled her the least with his straight black hair and pale gray eyes. It was her brother's children who shared her bright red-golden hair and the little princess had the same darkling emerald eyes but Joscelin's were gray like Kelson's, inherited from a Haldane grandmother.
"I'm sorry." Roxana said nervously to her aunt's rigid back. "It's just such a quick burial - I thought something must be wrong," Jehana tensed visibly, "some sickness..."
The queen turned to face her niece manufacturing a reassuring smile. "No, dear. Nothing like that. There were - other reasons."
Reasons Kelson did not approve of or agree with Joscelin thought, studying his cousin's mutinous face. He'd sensed the tension between mother and son the moment he set eyes on them. He watched his aunt pour herself a glass of wine from the sideboard then come back to sit beside Kelson in a gilded chair, the arms of Bremagne impaled with the Lion of Gwynedd on the high back.
Much as Joscelin hated to think about it what had happened to Kelson could happen to him. Father could die suddenly, unexpectedly, and he'd be King of Bremagne with all that entailed. It would happen someday - many years hence pray God! - but whenever it did he'd need his mother's help and support desperately. Kelson must need Aunt Jehana just as much so what was so wrong between them? He couldn't believe she didn't want to do everything possible for her only son!
"We haven't missed your coronation too have we?" Joscelin asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
Kelson produced a pallid smile. "No, you're in good time for that. It's not 'til the fifteenth."
"The day after your birthday." said Joscelin.
His cousin nodded. "A king can't be crowned before he's reached his majority."
"And is of age to make binding vows." Joscelin finished for him. "We have the same law in Bremagne."
"As do most kingdoms." Kelson glanced sidelong at his younger cousin, an unexpected hint of the familiar teasing breaking through. "After all a child like Roxana wouldn't understand what she was swearing to."
"Two years don't make that much difference." the twelve year old princess responded tartly. "But with three brothers I'm never likely to be queen anyway."
"Maybe not of Bremagne," Joscelin conceded, "but there are other kingdoms. What about Gwynedd? Kelson's going to be in the market for a wife one of these days."
Their cousin registered unflattering alarm. Roxana shook her head. "We're too closely related."
"You could get a dispensation." Joscelin suggested. Aunt Jehana clearly liked the idea, Roxana'd always been a favorite of hers. Kelson continued to look appalled at the very thought.
"You're both much too young for thoughts of marriage." the queen said firmly. Kelson's bright smile of relief was extinguished as she continued meditatively; "However it is certainly something to consider for the future."
"Thanks a lot!" Kelson snapped as the three young people went down the steps into the sun filled warmth of the sunken rose garden.
"You don't want to marry me, Kelson?" the princess pouted.
"No!" he said bluntly. She dropped the pretense and laughed.
Joscelin shrugged. "You could do worse. And it would be awfully convenient given Roxana's dowry is a Gwyneddan barony."
He was here to represent Bremagne at the coronation - and to remind the Shadowed One that Kelson had powerful kin, Deryni kin, who would not let her usurp his throne in peace. Roxana had accompanied him not only to cheer up poor Aunt Jehana, but to do fealty for lands inherited from their Haldane grandmother.
Desiree Fitz-Donal, natural daughter of Kelson's grandsire, had been formally acknowledged by her father and granted the barony of Kintagel in Carthmoor before her marriage to a Tralian prince. Her title and lands passed to her only daughter, Joscelin and Roxana's mother. Now Queen Dulchene had decided to transfer her dower lands to her own eldest daughter and Roxana had to do homage for them..
Joscelin cast around with his mind to be sure they were indeed alone, then said bluntly: "What's wrong, Kel? What really happened to Uncle Brion."
Taken by surprise the words burst out of their cousin. "He was murdered!"
Joscelin set his jaw grimly, so Father's suspicions had been right! "By the Festillic pretender?"
"I think so." Kelson sank onto a bench, looking up at his older cousin with a sort of relief.
"By magic?" Roxana asked. sitting beside him.
"It must have been." Kelson answered. "Father wasn't old, and he was in perfect health. It can't have been a natural death."
"My father was afraid it wasn't." Joscelin agreed. "And Charissa is a sorceress. It's the natural thought."
"Not for Mother." Kelson said a little bitterly. "She gets hysterical every time I mention the possibility."
Joscelin frowned, sitting down on Kelson's other side. "Well nobody would expect her to like the idea, but closing her eyes and pretending isn't going to make the Shadowed One go away!"
Kelson made a helpless little gesture. "I can't talk to her, she's been impossible these last few days."
"Maybe she's gone mad with grief, like the ladies in songs." Roxana suggested unhelpfully. "Everybody knows how much she and Uncle Brion loved each other."
Joscelin snorted. "Very romantic, but not very likely."
"What about the Haldane powers?" Roxana asked. Kelson stared at his younger cousin incredulously as her brother rolled his eyes at her bluntness. "Do you have them, can you get them?"
"How - how do you know about that?" Kelson demanded, shocked.
"It's not exactly a secret, Kel." Joscelin put in quickly. "Everybody knows how your father defeated the Marluk - and how Cinhil killed Imre for that matter. Even if Charissa didn't kill Uncle Brion she's likely to challenge you, and you can't face her without your ancestral power."
"I know." Kelson put his head in his hands. "Father never talked about such things with me - because of Mother I guess. I've sent for Morgan, the Duke of Corwyn. If he doesn't hold the key then the power died with Father and I'm dead too."
Roxana patted his hunched shoulder. "Duke Alaric will know what to do. He's Deryni."
Kelson raised his head a little to give her a curious look. "You don't hate Deryni like Mother do you?" turned his head to Joscelin, "either of you."
"They're - just like Humans really. Some good, some bad." Joscelin said choosing his words. "So we were taught. I don't know why Aunt Jehana's so fanatical about them. Father certainly isn't."
"I guess I always thought everybody in Bremagne felt the way she did." Kelson admitted. "Maybe it's because she was convent educated."
Joscelin and Roxana exchanged looks over his head. Abbess Rohane had forsworn her powers - as Aunt Jehana was to do - maybe it was her fault.
"Magic's just like any other kind of power, good or bad according to how you use it." Joscelin said. His cousin looked at him and he continued carefully; "We de Besancons have powers too, like the Haldanes, it's part of our kingship."
"In a world full of magic, bad as well as good, kings have to have the power to protect their people." said Roxana.
"I wish to God Mother felt that way!" said Kelson.
"I know Aunt Jehana's forsworn her powers, doesn't even remember that she is Deryni, but that shouldn't have made her hate us!" Roxana said to her brother, troubled.
They sat over the remains of their supper at a small linen draped table in an oriel window of the solar of their guest suite The third chair was occupied by a senior knight of the Household, Sir Berardin, appointed to protect the royal pair. Joscelin's squire, and a couple of pages in the black and white livery of Bremagne moved quietly around the room, clearing the dishes away. There would be no meals served publicly in the hall until the mourning period ended.
"Maybe you've got it the wrong way around," Joscelin suggested. "maybe she forswore her powers because she hated them, and being Deryni." He looked up at their knight-governor "What do you think, Berardin?"
The man, old enough to be his charges' father, fingered the nutshells on his plate as he considered. "I fear my late lord, your grandsire, made a grave mistake in entrusting his daughter's education to the Abbess of Saint-Elie." he said at last. "They say Mother Rohane died mad, raging against her Deryni blood."
"I heard she committed suicide by opening her veins." Delrae, the squire, put in offering the finger bowl to his master. Brother and sister flinched, as well they might. Suicide was mortal sin, for a holy abbess to do such a thing she had to have been mad!
Berardin folded his mouth in a grim line. "I fear that might be true. Of course it happened long after Princess Jehane left her tutelage but who is to know when her madness began?"
"So she could have poisoned Aunt Jehana's mind against her powers and her people." Joscelin said heavily, drying his hands with a linen towel.
"God knows she wouldn't have been the first of our kind to turn on us." Berardin agreed as the squire passed behind his chair to offer the bowl to Roxana.
"Poor Aunt Jehana." the princess sighed, dabbling her fingers.
"Poor Kelson!" her brother retorted. "He needs the Haldane power, and she's likely to fight him every step of the way."
"Duke Alaric worked King Brion's empowerment, no doubt he can do the same for his son." Berardin said reassuringly.
"If Aunt Jehana lets him." the prince said bitterly.