05 April 2017

Prologue

Vicomte Michel Gascault was certainly not a spy. He would have scorned the name if he had heard it used of him. Of course it went without saying that the French ambassador to the English court would report anything of interest to his monarch on his return. It was also true that Vicomte Gascault had considerable experience in the royal palaces of Europe as well as the field of war.

He knew what King Charles of France might want to know and, with that in mind, Vicomte Gascault took careful note of all that went on around him, little though it was. Spies were grubby, low-born men, given to hiding in doorways and hissing secret passwords at each other. Vicomte Gascault, de l’autre côté, – ‘on the other hand’, as the English said – was a gentleman of France, as far above such things as the sun above the earth.

Those and similar thoughts were all he had to amuse him in his idle hours. He was certain to mention to King Charles how he had been ignored for three full days, left to kick his heels in a sumptuous chamber in the Palace of Westminster. The servants sent to attend his person were not even well washed, he had noticed, though they came promptly enough. One of them positively reeked of horse and urine, as if he found his usual employment in the royal stables.

Still, it was true Gascault’s bodily needs were met, even 2 if his ambassadorial ones were not. Each day began with his own retainers dressing him in the most gorgeous raiments and cloaks he possessed, choosing them from among the garments pressed into the enormous trunks he had brought from France. He had not yet been forced to repeat a combination of colours and if he had overheard one of the English scullions refer to him as the ‘French Peacock’, it bothered him not at all. Bright colours raised his mood and he had precious little else to while away the time. He did not like to think of the food they set out for him. It was clear enough that they had engaged a French cook; equally as clear that the man had no love of his countrymen. Gascault shuddered at the thought of some of the flaccid things that had appeared at his table.

The hours crept by like a funeral and he had long ago read every scrap of his off cial papers. By the light of a candle- lamp, he turned at last to a dun- coloured book in his possession, marked throughout with his notes and comments. De Sacra Coena by Berengarius had become a favourite of Gascault’s. The treatise on the Last Supper had been banned by the Church, of course. Any argument that strayed into the mysteries of body and blood brought the attention of Papal hounds.

Gascault had long been in the habit of seeking out books destined for the fi re, to set his thoughts aflame in turn. He rubbed his hands over the wrappings. The original cover had been stripped and burned to ashes, of course, with those ashes carefully crumbled so that no questing hand could ever guess what they had once been. The rough, stained leather was a sad necessity in an age where men took such delight in denouncing each other to their masters.

The summons, when it came at last, interrupted his reading. Gascault was used to the booming bell that rang each hour and half-hour, startling him from sleep and spoiling his digestion at least as much as the poor pigeons that lay so limply on his dinner platter. He had kept no count but still knew it was late when the horse- servant, as he thought of him, came rushing into the rooms.

‘Viscount Gascart, you are summoned,’ the boy said. Gascault gave no sign of irritation at the way he mangled a proud name. The boy was surely a simpleton and the Good Lord expected mercy for those poor fellows, set among their betters to teach compassion, or so Gascault’s mother had always said. With care, he laid his book on the arm of the chair and rose. His steward, Alphonse, was only a step behind the lad. Gascault let his eyes drift back to the book, knowing it would be enough of a signal for his servant to keep it from other hands in his absence. Alphonse nodded sharply, bowing low while the horse- boy stared in confusion at the dumbshow between the two men.

Trinity by Conn Iggulden

The English king had been near senseless for months, fallen so deeply into a stupor that he could not be raised to life

Vicomte Gascault strapped on his sword and allowed Alphonse to drape his yellow cloak around his shoulders. When his gaze dropped once more to the chair, the book had somehow vanished. Truly, his servant was the soul of discretion and not simply because he lacked a tongue. Gascault inclined his head in thanks and swept out behind the boy, passing through the outer rooms and into the chilly corridor beyond.

A party of five men awaited him there. Four of them were evidently soldiers, wearing a royal tabard over mail. The last wore a cloak and tunic over hose, all as thick and well-made as his own.

‘Vicomte Michel Gascault?’ the man said. Gascault noted the perfect pronunciation and smiled. ‘I have that honour. I am at your service . . . ?’

‘Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury and lord chancellor. I must apologize for the late hour, but you are expected, my lord, in the royal chambers.’

Gascault fell easily into step at the man’s side, ignoring the soldiers clattering along in their wake. He had known stranger things than a midnight meeting, in his career.

‘To see the king?’ he asked mischievously, watching the earl closely. Salisbury was not a young man, though he seemed wiry and in good health to the Frenchman’s eyes. It would not do to reveal how much the court of France knew of King Henry’s poor health.

‘I am sorry to report that His Royal Highness, King Henry, is suffering with an ague, a temporary illness. I hope you will take no offence, but I am to bring you to the Duke of York this evening.’

‘My lord Salisbury, I am so very sorry to hear such a thing,’ Gascault replied, letting the words spill out. He saw Salisbury’s eyes tighten just a fraction and had to repress a smile. They both knew there were families in the English court with strong ties to France, whether by blood or titles. The idea that the French king would not know every detail of King Henry’s collapse was a game to be played between them and nothing more. The English king had been near senseless for months, fallen so deeply into a stupor that he could not be raised to life. It was not for nothing that his lords had appointed one of their number as ‘Protector and Defender of the Realm’. Richard, Duke of York, was king in all but name and, in truth, Vicomte Gascault had no interest in meeting a royal lost in his dreaming. He had been sent to judge the strength of the English court and their willingness to defend their interests. Gascault allowed his pleasure to sparkle in his eyes for just an instant before snuffing the emotion. If he reported that they were weak and lost without King Henry, Gascault’s word alone would bring a hundred ships from France, to raid and burn every English port. The English had done the same to France for long enough, he reminded himself. Perhaps it was time at last that the devil had his due of them as well.

Salisbury led the small group along an endless stretch of corridors, then climbed two flights of stairs to the royal apartments on the floors above. Even at such a late hour, the Palace of Westminster was ablaze with lamps set just a few paces apart. Yet Gascault could smell damp in the air, a reek of ancient mould from having the river so close. As they reached the final, guarded door, he had to control the desire to straighten his cloak and collar one last time. Alphonse would not have let him leave with anything awry.

The soldiers were dismissed and the door opened by guards within. Salisbury extended his hand to allow the ambassador to enter before him.

‘After you, Vicomte,’ he said. His eyes were sharp, Gascault realized, as he bowed and went in. The man missed nothing and he reminded himself to be wary of him. The English were many things: venal, short- tempered, greedy, a whole host of sins. No one had ever called them stupid, however, not in all the history of the world. If God would only make it so! King Charles would have their towns and castles in his grip in just a single generation.

Salisbury closed the door softly at his back and Vicomte Gascault found himself in a smaller room than he had expected. Perhaps it was only right that a ‘Protector and Defender’ would not allow himself the trappings of a royal court, yet the stillness of that room made a shudder pass down Gascault’s back. The windows were black with the night outside and the man who rose to greet him was dressed in the same colour, almost lost in the shadows of low- burning lamps as he came forward.

Richard, Duke of York, extended his hand, beckoning Gascault further into the room. The Frenchman felt his hackles stand up in superstitious fear, though he showed no sign of his discomfort. As he stepped forward, he glanced behind, seeing nothing stranger than Salisbury watching him steadily.

‘Vicomte Gascault, I am York. It is my pleasure to welcome you and a source of great distress that I must send you home so soon.’

‘Milord ?’ Gascault asked in confusion. He sat where York gestured and gathered his wits as the man took a seat across the wide table. The English duke was clean- shaven, square- jawed and yet slim enough in his black. As Gascault stared, York pushed loose hair off his forehead with one hand. He tilted his head as he did so, yet his eyes never left Gascault’s own.

‘I’m afraid I do not understand, my lord York. Forgive me, I have not yet learned the correct term of address for a Protector and Defender.’ Gascault looked around for some sign of wine, or food, but there was nothing in sight, just the deep golden oak of the table, stretching bare before him.

York regarded him without blinking, his brows lowering.

‘I was the king’s lieutenant in France, Vicomte Gascault. I am certain you were told as much. I have fought on French soil and I have lost estates and titles to your king. All this you know. I mention it only to remind you that, in turn, I know France. I know your king – and, Gascault, I know you.’

‘My lord, I can only assume –’ York continued over him as if he had not spoken. ‘The king of England sleeps, Vicomte Gascault. Will he wake, at all? Or will he die abed? It is the talk of all the markets here. I do not doubt it is the talk of Paris as well. Is this the chance for which your king has planned and waited for so very long? You, who are not strong enough to take Calais from us, you would dream of England?’ Gascault shook his head, his mouth open to begin a denial. York held up his hand.

‘I invite you, Gascault. Throw your dice. Take your chance while King Henry drowses. I would walk again on lands that once were mine. I would march an army on French earth once more, if I had the chance. Please, consider my invitation. The Channel is just a thread. The king is just a man. A soldier, well, if he is an English soldier, he is still a man, is he not? He can fail. He can fall. Come against us while our king sleeps, Vicomte Gascault. Climb our walls. Set foot in our ports. I welcome it, as our people will welcome you all. It may be a rough welcome, I grant you. We are rough folk. But we have debts to repay and we are generous with our enemies. For each blow landed on us, we give them three and we do not count the cost. Do you understand me, Vicomte Gascault? Son of Julien and Clémence? Brother to André, Arnaud and François? Husband to Elodie? Father to two sons and a daughter. Shall I name them, Gascault? Shall I describe your family home, with the red plum trees that bracket the gate?’ ‘Enough, monsieur ,’ Gascault said quietly. ‘Your meaning is clear enough.’

‘I wonder,’ York said. ‘Or should I send an order to wing faster than you can ride, faster than you can sail, so that you understand my meaning, as well and as fully as I intend it, when you return to your home? I am willing, Gascault.’

‘Please don’t, my lord,’ Gascault replied. ‘Please?’ York said. His face was hard, darkened by the dimming lamps as if shadows crept over his jaw. ‘I will decide, after you are gone. There is a ship waiting for you, Gascault – and men who will take you to the coast. Whatever news you report to your king, I wish you all the fortune you deserve. Good night, Vicomte Gascault. God speed.’

Gascault rose on trembling legs and went to the door. Salisbury kept his head down as he opened it for him and the Frenchman took a deep breath in fear as he saw the soldiers gathered beyond. In the gloom, they had a menacing aspect and he almost shrieked as they allowed him out and turned in place to march him away. Salisbury closed the door softly.  ‘I do not think they will come – at least, not this year,’ he said. York snorted. ‘I swear, I am in two minds. We have the ships and the men, if they would follow me. Yet they wait like hounds, to see if Henry will wake.’ Salisbury did not reply at first. York saw his hesitation and smiled wearily. ‘It is not yet too late, I think. Send for the Spaniard as well. I will speak my lines to him.’

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