Crispin glanced toward Richard.
“Yes, Guest. You’ve marked it well. The Stone of Destiny is gone!” Richard reared toward him. “What have you done with it?”
“Sire? On my honor, I had nothing to do with its disappearance.”
“On your honor? As if that can be relied upon.”
Crispin gritted his teeth but said nothing.
Richard looked him over with disdain. Crispin knew the precise moment he noticed the sword at his hip. Richard’s eyes widened and he jabbed a finger toward it. “What is that? How dare you! Your sword was taken from you, and you have the gall to wear one in our presence?”
Folly, vanity. He began to regret ever listening to Jack this morning.
“Surrender it at once!”
Hesitating too long brought down Richard’s wrath. The king signaled to his knights. “Remove the sword from that man,” he ordered.
Crispin stepped back and drew it. The king’s eyes rounded further, until Crispin turned it in his hands and presented it hilt forward toward the king. He said nothing, even as he glanced toward a pale Henry Derby as he watched over the shoulder of Nottingham.
Richard grabbed the hilt before his knights could reach it. They stopped as the king read the inscription etched onto the blade: A donum a Henricus Lancastriae ad Crispinus Guest–habet Ius—A gift from Henry Lancaster to Crispin Guest—He Has the Right.
Richard jerked his head toward Henry who paled still further. Turning, he presented the sword blade toward his cousin. “My Lord Derby,” he said, voice tight. “What is this?”
Henry stepped out into the open. “As it says, sire. Master Guest saved my life, my house. He earned his reward. And I ordered the inscription to be there to prove his right.”
“Only the king may confer such on the likes of a traitor, my lord.”
“Forgive me, sire. But he did the house of Lancaster and the kingdom a great service. It needed a proper reward. Would you have me go back on my word?”
“And yet you would make me go back on mine? Did I not forbid this man to ever carry a sword again?”
“Your grace, much time has passed. And Master Guest has proved his loyalty…”
“To you. Not to me.”
“To you as well, my liege. To the crown.”
Richard’s jaw worked as he tightened his hold on the sword hilt. Crispin groaned inside. If Richard broke this sword, too, how could he bear it? He had lived so long in ignominy, so long. The sword was something special. Denied to him for eleven years, this gift from Lancaster’s son was at least some recompense for his exile. It wasn’t something he flaunted in London. On the few occasions he found it necessary to brandish it in the last year, its appearance was always met with deep suspicion, but no one could deny the inscription Henry had caused to be there on the blade.
Richard’s eyes flicked toward Crispin and locked. Still holding the sword forth, he sauntered toward Crispin as if ready to stab him with it. “Do you think you deserve this, Guest? Do you think you deserve to wear a sword after your traitorous deeds?”
He swallowed. His mouth had gone dry and his lips seemed to stick together. “No,” he whispered gruffly.
The king was taken aback. “By my life. Did you say, ‘no’?”
Slowly, he nodded. “Your grace. I know I do not deserve it…after…everything.”
It was the truth. Though he valued the gift, though he felt a part of himself restored by it, it was a bitter offering. For it could not erase the guilt nor the deaths of the other conspirators who had not been as fortunate as to have benefited from the love and trust of the duke of Lancaster. The duke had not begged for their lives.
Richard glowered, assessing the blade. It was an old sword. Probably garnered from Henry’s weapon’s stores. Not a particularly handsome blade. It was well worn and even the braided wire twining round the leather grip of the hilt was tarnished and rubbed down flat in places. No jewel sat atop the pommel. No foliate carving ornamented the crossguard. It was a serviceable sword, suited to any man-at-arms. Perhaps Henry had chosen it purposely for that reason. Its only ornament, in fact, was the etched inscription along the blade, the newest thing about it.
King Richard took a breath, took another. Crispin had saved his life, too. And the king had offered to restore his knighthood and lands, if only Crispin would grovel for it. He could not make himself do it, had refused it. And there wasn’t a day gone by when he didn’t repeat that moment in his mind, allow it to play differently. Would it have been worth it to give up his last scrap of honor?
Richard edged the sword forward. Perhaps he was thinking of that time, too. The blade was nearly at Crispin’s gut when he stopped. “Take it,” he growled. “Take it, damn you.”
He had no choice but to grab it by the blade. When he did, Richard stepped closer and with the sword held tight to his side, slid it forward across Crispin’s palm, slicing two thin lines. “Swear to me in your own blood that you will be loyal to the crown.”
Crispin hissed at the sharp pain and watched his blood drip upon the church floor. He gripped the sword tighter, raising his gaze defiantly once more to the king’s.
“I do so swear, your grace, to protect England’s crown, its people…and you, my king.”
Richard’s languid lids lowered over his eyes. He held the sword tightly for another long moment, before slowly letting it go. Crispin carefully pulled it in, grabbed the hilt with his bloodied hand, and sheathed it smartly.
Richard continued his pointed inspection of Crispin’s person. When he spoke, Crispin at first thought he was addressing him, but decided it must have been directed toward the abbot. “We need a place to talk. Where can we go, Lord Abbot?”
“The chapter house,” said Abbot William steadily. Crispin did not know the abbot well, but he knew he was a cool man who had faced emperors and popes on his many missions for the abbey while he served as archdeacon. One irate king of England surely could not fluster.
He gestured for the king to follow and turned on his heel, his cassock flowing over his slippered feet.
The king cast a glance over his courtiers and said in passing, “Only Guest. And his servant.”
“But sire!” cried his chancellor.
Richard never broke his stride and called over his shoulder, “Must we repeat ourselves?”
It took only another moment more of the seething men’s eyes upon him before Crispin strode forward, aware of a trembling Jack at his elbow.
A kerchief was thrust into his bloody hand. He looked down. Jack had gotten it from God-knew-where, but he was grateful, and clutched it tight to sop up the blood.
He followed Richard at a good distance behind him back through the south crossing, along the east cloister walk, and to a narrow passage that opened into the octagonal chapter house. Upheld by one center pillar, the vaulted ceiling was a riot of stone ribs and cross-ribbing. The large space was surrounded by reticulated windows, tall and arched, illuminating the room with bright autumn sunlight. Crispin squinted from the difference between the dark cathedral to the suddenly lit space.
Stools and benches were arranged in a circle, facing the abbot’s chair at the pillar and Richard made for that center chair. Abbot William had come in with them, and he waited on the king’s pleasure in the doorway whether he was to vacate his own chapter house or not.
Crispin stood before the king as Richard sat, leaning his elbow heavily on the chair arm. He pinched his lower lip between two fingers and stared at the tile floor. Crispin could hear Jack’s panting breaths behind him. Crispin longed to comfort him, but didn’t know how, or if he could. He hadn’t a clue as to why the king took him aside with only the abbot for a chaperon.
Stealing a glance at Abbot William, Crispin saw only the monk’s austere features. If he had met Abbot William on the street, he would have taken the man for a merchant, for he had that kind of face, with fleshy cheeks, round nose, and prominent chin. The abbot’s pale blue eyes skimmed Crispin. No more than that. Crispin had had a lifelong relationship with the abbot’s predecessor, Abbot Nicholas de Litlyngton, but with Colchester, none at all.
The king cleared his throat. “There was…an explosion of some kind.”
“Was the Stone demolished?”
Crispin looked first at the abbot, but the monk merely gazed at Crispin. The king continued to stare at the floor.
Crispin sidled closer. “The…the chair would have likely blown up with it, your grace. There was no damage to the chair, as far as I could see on so cursory an inspection.”
Richard nodded, still glaring at the floor. “And so. It was stolen.”
“It…would appear so, your grace. And something similar put in its place.”
He turned his head at last and fixed Crispin with the same glare he had bestowed upon the floor. “They say…you find things.”
Crispin nodded, breathless that he now knew where this was headed.
“Our army lost a battle not too long ago. In Scotland.”
“I…had heard the news. At Otterburn…”
“Yes,” Richard hissed. “First it was these damned lords peering over our shoulder, bringing an army against us. My dear cousin at its head! No peace, no safe harbor from them. Our counselors routed. Ex…executed.” His voice broke on the last, face anguished. “You almost got your wish, Guest.” He flicked his fingers toward his head. “This crown, so solid a thing, did not feel as solid a year ago. It was brittle, like frozen steel. Easily shattered.”
Crispin wanted to look away from the torment in his eyes but knew he could not afford to offend the king.
“We are the anointed of God.” He gestured toward his person. “And yet we were to heel to these lords like a hound. A hound!”
Richard breathed heavily, breath clouding in the cold and empty chamber, despite its brightness. Abbot William, accustomed as he was to waiting, stood by unmoving, emotionless, offering neither comfort nor counsel.
“Wolves, all of them,” Richard went on hoarsely. “And now this. I tell you, Guest, I cannot stomach one more loss, one more blot against my good name. If the Scots rise up and rebel, England will lose them. Lose that which my ancestor King Edward I gained? I cannot risk it. The Stone must be returned to me!”
“I see,” said Crispin quietly.
It was as if Richard suddenly realized Crispin was there. His pronouns changed again to pluralis majestatis. “It is more than a symbol of our dominion over the Scots. It is the very seat of power. The throne on which the crown is conferred. If we lost it, what would be said about us?”
Crispin said nothing. What was there to say?
“Do you understand, Guest? We want it found. We want you to find it.”
“Try?” He shot to his feet. “Try is not an option.” Jack, hoping to appear as small as possible in Crispin’s shadow, suddenly caught Richard’s attention and the king strode toward him. Jack cowered back, but Richard grabbed him and the boy let out a yelp. He slung his arm around Jack’s neck, slamming him to his chest, and drew his bejeweled dagger. Crispin made an involuntary step forward before he froze.
“Your Majesty, please!”
“Maybe you need an incentive, Guest.” Richard snarled over his shoulder toward Colchester, “Go and fetch my guards. Quickly now.”
The abbot hurried to obey and disappeared through the chamber door.
Richard glared, his teeth visible with a grimace. “And so we are alone. Now is the time. You can slay me as you had wanted to do twelve years ago. It would be easy. Oh, you’d never escape this room alive, but it would be done.” The knife blade raised to Jack’s throat and the boy tightened his lips over a whimper. Richard glanced down at the boy in his grip. “Is it this you fear? Is this what keeps you at bay? This boy?”
“No, sire. I have no wish to dispatch my king.”
“So you say. But here is your chance.” He lowered the knife and held it an arm’s length away. “Be a martyr.”
Crispin shook his head. “I have no such desire, your grace. It appears you do not know me, after all.”
Richard frowned. “Do I not?”
The king’s guards clattered in, with guisarmes held forth. Their mail shimmered in the bright light.
The blade was back at Jack’s throat. “Harken unto me, Guest. You will find the Stone in a week’s time. You will recover it for us, for the kingdom, or this boy will die the death of a traitor, for what else is he who consorts with traitors?”
Heart hammering, Crispin stepped forward, even as the guards lowered their spears toward him. “Your Majesty,” said Crispin softly. He swallowed. “I beg you…”
“A sennight, Guest. Before the Commons meet again. We will not appear weak without the Stone back in its place beneath the Coronation Chair before our own parliament. Do you understand us?”
Crispin stared into Jack’s terrified eyes. “But…surely you must realize that the Stone was taken some days ago.”
“That is your concern, not ours. Find it in one week or the boy dies.”