the royal heir.

The king took no part in the conversation-nor did I. I watched him surreptitiously as I finished dessert without tasting it. He looked both excited and oddly contented. The queen, on the other hand, sparkled with wit, keeping the conversation going constantly, pressing the duchess for details on every thing from the harvest carnival in Ascelin’s principality to what Father Noel had brought the twins for Christmas. But I thought I saw a deep pain at the back of her emerald eyes and wondered if the king saw it too.

At last the servants began clearing the tables, and the king gathered the knights and ladies around him before the great hearth. The members of the court, who had no idea what the king would announce, looked puzzled as he had them bring up chairs. I considered creating some magical illusions to help set the mood, perhaps palm trees by an azure sea, but decided to let King Haimeric make the announcement in his own way.

The fire snapped and flared orange. A king could not go off to face unknown dangers without his Royal Wizard, and if he did not realize it then I certainly did. He would have to take some knights with him too, of course. I glanced at their faces, wondering which ones. Joachim, the royal chaplain, cocked a questioning eyebrow at me, but I just shook my head.

“As I said,” said the king when he had everyone’s attention, “I want to tell you all something. I’ve mentioned to several of you at different times that I would like to go on a quest before I die. And now something has happened that indeed makes such a quest imperative. The queen’s uncle, Sir Hugo, who left on pilgrimage a year ago, has disappeared, and with him his wizard and two knights.”

The court had not heard this, and there was a murmur of concern and surprise.

“My quest, then,” the king continued, “will be to find him if he is alive, to avenge him if he has been killed, to rescue him if he is in danger, and if possible to bring him home.”

Again there was a surprised murmur. “How are you going to find him?” asked the queen’s aunt, the Lady Maria.

“The only thing go do,” said the king, “is to follow the route he took, through the western kingdoms, through the eastern kingdoms, to the Holy Land. He last sent a message to his wife from the pilgrimage sites.”

Most of the court were still trying to assimilate the news that their king, who rarely left Yurt, was actually planning a long journey. But two people reacted at once.

One was Prince Paul, who had been sitting quietly beside his mother. He now leaped up with an eager shout. “Oh, please, Father, please, may I come along?”

The other person was the chaplain. At the mention of the Holy Land, Joachim’s dark eyes caught fire, and he started to rise from his chair. He stopped himself then, but I could tell that the king was no more going on pilgrimage without his Royal Chaplain than without his Royal Wizard.

Prince Paul’s shout, even though he was immediately overcome with shyness when he found everyone looking at him, shook loose reactions from the rest.

“Ascelin and I will come with you, of course,” said the duchess. “After all, Sir Hugo’s wizard was once my own ducal wizard.”

“And I’ll come!” “And I’ll come!” cried all the knights present.

King Haimeric waited until the hubbub died down a bit, then turned first to his son. “I would love to have you with me, Paul,” he said solemnly. “But this quest is too dangerous to risk both the king of Yurt and the royal heir to Yurt. If I don’t come back, you’ll need to be here to take care of your mother and to succeed to the throne.”

Paul nodded, as solemn as the king. “All right, Father,” he said, swallowing disappointment with visible effort. “I’ll try to be a king you can be proud of.” He paused. “But when I grow up, I’m going on a quest, and no one will stop me then!”

King Haimeric smiled at his son and turned to the rest of us. Behind him, I could see the queen quietly and thoroughly ripping a lace-trimmed handkerchief to pieces.

“I appreciate everyone’s willingness to accompany me,” said the king. “But I can’t possibly take you all. We’ll have a better chance of finding the queen’s uncle if we can move quickly and unobtrusively. I’m not even going to travel as king of Yurt, but only as a simple pilgrim. I might take two or three of you, perhaps …”

There was a new outbreak of voices as all the knights pleaded to be among the two or three. The servants had long since given up any pretense of clearing the tables and hovered at the edges of the group, listening. The king looked genuinely troubled to have to disappoint so many people.

But he made his choices quickly. “You come with me, Dominic,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot together over the years, and it seems right that we should share this quest.”

Prince Dominic was the king’s nephew and had been heir apparent until Paul was born. He had come to the royal castle of Yurt as a young boy, almost fifty years ago, and had been there nearly ever since. Since I planned to be along on this quest as well, I would not have picked Dominic. Like his stallion, he tended to be surly, and I had never been one of his favorites.

But he might be a good person to have along in a tight spot. There was still plenty of muscle on him, even if he now had to brush his sandy hair carefully to hide the thin spot.

“Thank you, sire,” he said gravely, twisting the ruby ring on his second finger. “I probably know Sir Hugo better than anyone else here, from that year I lived with him in the City. And I am delighted to serve my king.”

“And me?” said the duchess, irrepressible.

“No,” said the king regretfully. “Not you. I can’t take the queen, because she needs to be here to bring up Prince Paul, and I can’t take both you and your husband for the same reason. Someone has to bring up those twins of yours, and they’re quite a handful from everything I hear. If I took the duchess of Yurt, then both my counts would hear about it and insist on coming, too. No, my lady, I’ll take your husband if he’s willing, but I can’t take you.”

The duchess started to frown but stopped herself in time. There was a brief pause while everyone remembered that, while the rest of the knights present were the king’s liege men, Prince Ascelin, the duchess’s husband, was prince of his own principality as well as duke of Yurt by marriage. He would accompany the king as an equal.

Ascelin rose to his feet. He was by far the tallest man in Yurt, being well over seven feet tall. Another man might have been overshadowed by the force of his wife’s personality, but Ascelin had always been a formidable person in his own right. He bent into the formal bow, trying not to smile. “I shall follow you with pleasure, Haimeric,” he said in his deep voice.

Good, I thought. Between his height and Dominic’s bulk, our group should present an imposing enough appearance that no cut-throat would try to sneak up on the slightly-built king.

King Haimeric looked around the room. “Two knights,” he said thoughtfully, “especially warriors like you two princes, should be enough.”

“You’ll need servants with you, certainly,” said the assistant constable quickly. “I’ll gladly come with you, sire.”

But the king smiled again and shook his head. “Thank you for the offer, but this will be a pilgrimage as well as a quest, and we will travel very simply, without servants.” The assistant constable nodded reluctantly, but the cook, to whom he was married, positively beamed.

“I shall of course ask the Royal Wizard to accompany us,” the king added.

That was a relief. When he turned down servants, I was afraid for a moment he was going to turn down everyone in his pay. “And the Royal Chaplain,” I said quickly.

The king looked slightly surprised, then nodded. Years of my company had made him used to me speaking up without what the finicky might consider proper respect. “Since our trip will take us to the Holy Land, we should certainly have our chaplain with us.”

The chaplain’s eyes were still ablaze, but he replied calmly. “Thank you. I shall ask the bishop to send another priest to serve the castle while I am gone.”

“If the chaplain’s going,” said Prince Paul, trying desperately to salvage something, “does that mean I won’t have to have any lessons until all of you come back?”

“No, you’re old enough for a tutor now,” said the queen, speaking for the first time since the end of dinner. She smiled as she spoke and seemed to have her voice well under control.

The king looked around slowly at the assembled court. “There are five of us, then,” he said, “a good number for a dangerous mission. We’ll start preparations at once, and I shall write to other royal courts in the western kingdoms to tell them to expect us. We’ll leave right after Easter.”

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