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I'm so sorry this chapter took so long to post. I got stuck, hard. Fortunately the next one is almost finished and should be up within the next week or two. (And it's a Luca chapter! Hooray!) (Seriously, when did writing Luca become so much easier than writing Robert? Have I stumbled into Opposite World?)

Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] voidmancer, [livejournal.com profile] heliosette, [livejournal.com profile] annae89, and [livejournal.com profile] yingtai for being amazing beta readers!


The steps to the King's dais hadn't seemed that steep from the ground, but now, climbing them, Robert felt as though each riser was a mile high. He hoped that the last step would never come. It did, of course, and all too soon Robert found himself standing before the King of Lyonesse.

Robert went to one knee, right fist over his heart, left arm straight at his side. His deportment master must've made him practice this posture a thousand times, all in anticipation of this moment. Naturally, the deportment master had failed to warn Robert that he was going to feel like an utter fool. He wobbled on his knee and tried not to notice the way his hands were trembling.

“You may rise,” intoned the King in his high, flutey voice.

Robert stood, attempting a fluid gesture and probably failing. He stood on a marble floor strewn with wildflowers; green bunting was draped into a canopy above, and the pillars that bordered the circle were carved with scenes of the hunt. In the center of it all sat King Eustace on his golden throne.

Robert had seen the King before, of course; had even been formally introduced during one of the interminable Court affairs Grandfather used to drag him to. Robert was sixteen and still more a boot-boy than a lord. He had blanked out most of the blessedly brief encounter, remembering only that the King made some comment about Robert's nose. Grandfather spun some story about a fencing accident. The next day a surgeon came to House d'Argent and hammered Robert's nose into shape with all the professional detachment of a sculptor molding stone.

Now, seeing the King again, Robert's hand flew up of its own accord to touch his nose. Still straight, thank the gods.

It was no wonder King Eustace had been so interested in the symmetry of Robert's face. His own was every inch as handsome as it had been four years ago. Though King Eustace must have been nearing forty he still looked little older than Robert, only his features were round and boyish where Robert's were stern and hawkish. The King's false beard was dyed to match his dark curls, and his buckskin armor showed his athletic figure to distinct advantage. His cheeks were ruddy with health. Even without the antlered helm, the King would have borne a striking resemblance to the god Chernon—though Chernon would probably have stood a full head taller. Eustace was almost as short as Luca.

Robert realized that the King had been studying him as intently as he had been studying the King. The royal attendants, Grandfather among them, looked positively scandalized. Robert reddened and dropped his gaze.

“The elusive Robert d'Argent, come to Court at last!” King Eustace clapped his hands. “How splendid!”

Robert bowed. He couldn't think of anything else to do. The monkey chittered at him. The lion snored. Robert wanted very badly to go home.

“Oh, come now.” The King's tone was suddenly annoyed. “You're being very dull, Robert d'Argent. I heard you were clever, yet there you stand bobbing like a servant.” His expression shifted like quicksilver, emotions rippling across his face faster than Robert could mark them. The King leaned forward and bellowed, “Speak! By order of your leige!”

“I – I don't know what to say,” Robert squeaked, then quickly added, “Your Majesty.” He licked his lips. “Except perhaps to correct you on one point.”

The attendants drew a breath of shock. King Eustace's expression became one of dangerous amusement. He gestured for Robert to continue.

“When it comes to the wit of my family, I am afraid you have been misinformed, Majesty. I see no evidence of unusual cleverness in either Lord d'Argent or myself. I must conclude that upon seeing us malingering at the edge of a party, dressed all in black and scowling into the distance, Your Majesty's courtiers assume that we are contemplating the mysteries of the universe. In fact we are simply itching for a drink.”

There was a long moment of silence. Then a delighted smile broke over King Eustace's face.

“Oh! Oh! Too funny. I may die.” The King wagged his finger at Grandfather. “Tsk, tsk, Old Bob! I accuse you of keeping secrets from your liege. Here I thought you were aloof, when in reality you are a despicable lush!”

“My grandson has quite the sense of humor, Majesty,” said Grandfather through gritted teeth.

“I wish to be amused by him more often.” The King clapped his hands. “From now on, Robert d'Argent shall make regular attendance at Court!”

It took an almost superhuman exertion of will for Robert not to run screaming from the ballroom. Instead he clenched his fists at his sides and sketched a bow.

“As you wish, Majesty,” he forced himself to say. “I am—honored.”

“Naturally,” said the King. Another quicksilver ripple, and his expression changed once more. He tipped back his head and howled, “deBorse!”

Robert started dumbly. He couldn't keep up with the King's rapidly-changing mood. It wasn't until Grandfather snatched his sleeve and dragged him back into the rows of ranked attendants that Robert realized King Eustace had lost interest in him.

A man with the face of a monster stepped out from behind the throne.

As always, seeing Councilor deBorse made a shiver run down Robert's spine. It wasn't the man's appearance that caused his reaction, though that was certainly gruesome enough. deBorse had been pox-struck as a child. The disease went to his face, blistering away skin and muscle until what was left was barely recognizable as human. deBorse wore a false nose carved of ivory; an embroidered cap was pulled low over his scarred forehead. There was nothing whole left of his face except his eyes—and it was his eyes, not his face, that caused Robert to look away. They were a deep, clear blue, almost violet, and glittered with a ruthless, calculating intelligence that seemed to strip Robert bare. The Councilor was the one man in a Court of mannered vipers of whom Robert was stark terrified.

“I am here, Your Majesty,” said deBorse, voice as polished as new metal. “What is your will?”

“I'm bored,” whined the King. He exaggerated a pout, drumming his heels against the throne's pedestal. “Have you a new entertainment for me?”

“Naturally, Majesty. Allow me to retrieve it.”

The Councilor gestured to a slave waiting below. The slave carried a covered tray up the steps and came to kneel before his master. Even at half height, the man must have been almost as tall as King Eustace. He was massive, broad and thew as oak with muscle. His collar was hung with a bell.

Robert blinked. He could have sworn he'd seen the slave before. In fact, he almost—no, he looked exactly like the satyr from Bacchanal. Robert shook his head to dislodge the image of Luca crying out from under the beast's heaving bulk. No. The lights had been dim and Robert was drunk; his recollection was hardly trustworthy. It couldn't be the same man. It wasn't possible.

Was it?

The Satyr—no, the slave—presented the tray, eyes cast down. deBorse lifted the tray's cover to reveal a round wooden box carved like a globe. When he wound the crank on the side of the box a tune began to play, simple and sweet. The top of the box unfolded like a flower to reveal two miniature figures: a lion and a man with articulated metal limbs. The man wore the red and black mantle of Guy. The lion wore a crown.

deBorse continued to wind the crank. Now the lion and man began to move, the lion snapping its jaws at the man, the man jabbing at the lion with a knife the size of a needle. The tune became a battle anthem. The lion and the man circled each other around and around the globe. The man jabbed, the lion snapped. Robert found he was holding his breath.

Finally a mechanism clicked and the lion lunged. His jaws closed around the man's neck. The mechanism clicked again, and the lion bore the man to the ground.

The music changed into melody that played at the beginning. The mechanism clicked; the lion and man snapped back into their original positions, and the battle began anew.

King Eustace burst into applause. The attendants made noises of approval behind their gilded fans. Even Robert was impressed. He'd seen clockwork machines before, but nothing so elegant and complex.

“Oh, give it to me, give it to me!” The King grabbed the music box like a child with a new toy. “You have pleased your liege, deBorse.”
King Eustace turned the music box upside-down and shook it. deBorse winced at the resulting clunk.

“I am delighted that Your Majesty enjoys my little contrivances,” said deBorse.

“Oh, immensely.”

King Eustace wound the crank and watched the figures dance across the miniature stage. He giggled and wound the crank over and over again, each time more distracted. The lion and the man began to move jerkily, the tune run too fast. The monkey ran down the arm of the throne, screeching through its sharp little teeth. King Eustace yawned and gave the music box to the monkey.

“Wine!” called the King, clapping his hands. “Where is the jester? I want to watch him juggle.”

Robert suffered through his attendance on the King's dais for a subjective eternity that probably spanned only an hour on the clock. During that time the jester juggled oranges, gold coins, candlesticks, and, when King Eustace became particularly bored, knives. Nobles were summoned and dismissed, seemingly at random. The lion was fed a whole rare steak which the King proudly declared had been butchered from one of his own stallions.

Robert had been sneaking punch every time a server passed with a tray. He was now at that stage of inebriation where he could barely stand upright. When King Eustace shouted for him, Robert almost fell over.

“Here—here, Your Majesty!” Robert stumbled forward, bowing.

“Robert d'Argent, I am told you are quite the scholar,” said King Eustace. He was shifting constantly, almost squirming with restless energy. His eyes darted across the room, not seeming to take anything in. “I would have attended College myself, had my station allowed.”

“What a terrible loss for the academy, Majesty,” said Robert. He found it was a lot easier to be obsequious when drunk.

“Your Majesty's enviable intellectual capacities are best bent to matters of state,” Grandfather put in smoothly. “You are the shepherd of your people, after all.”

King Eustace brightened. “Sheep,” he said, “cannot herd themselves.”

This observation was met with exclamations and applause from the attendants. A little bald man in livery leaped forward with a pen and parchment; he wrote down the King's words with a flourish, then disappeared again. Robert blinked. He wondered if he had begun to hallucinate.

King Eustace sat up straight. His aspect transmuted from delighted to coolly removed faster than Robert could blink.

“A student of College should not be out disporting themselves at this hour,” said the King, tone imperious. “You are dismissed from my presence.” He flapped his hand, waving Robert away like a bad smell.

Robert almost fell over again, this time from a heady rush of relief. He bowed and began to back away.

“Wait,” the King said suddenly. He caught the monkey's leash and dragged it shrieking into his lap. The music box was still clutched between its leathery paws. King Eustace wrestled the box away and held it out to Robert. “Here—a mark of my favor.”

A sussurrus of astonished murmurs rose from the attendants. Robert did not look at Grandfather. He had never given the old man any reason to be pleased with him before, and now the moment had finally arrived Robert was afraid that he would see his Grandfather's expression completely unchanged.

“I am honored, Your Majesty,” Robert said, taking the box with two shaking hands. The crank hung from its spring and the monkey had scored teeth-marks in the wood. Even broken the box was the most valuable thing Robert had ever possessed.

“Of course you are,” said the King. Then he yawned. “Go away now. I'm done with you.”
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