The woman was toothless, and the sudden lighting of the rush torches made her sunken cheeks appear even more so. A page hurried from bracket to bracket, lighting the rushes. Soon Open Court would be at an end, and the fine ladies and gentlemen would need to see their way to the banquet hall. For the moment, however, the throng was held in abeyance while Blatico, the current court wit, studied the peasant couple before him.
They weren’t a couple in the strict sense; they were a couple of peasants who’d managed to get into a heated argument over a pig. Hardly a stimulating case, but he’d heard one of the outer guards laugh about some smelly evidence and Blatico, knowing the King rested intermittently during these final sessions, had asked to judge the case in his absence. Elymas had granted it, but the King had returned from his private chamber earlier than expected and things were going badly.
One of Blatico’s chief delights was the discomfort of his victims, but the woman was too simple to recognize ridicule while the man, a muscle-bound farmer, faced him with a black stare that made his skin crawl. He would have liked to have the man whipped, but there was no point in asking. Elymas might allow it, but William wouldn’t. Sitting on his throne, rotten with whatever disease was killing him, the Warrior King still held some notion of justice.
Blatico tried to gauge the crowd but his attention was diverted by the sight of a redheaded youth sitting in the acolyte section. Their eyes met and the boy blushed. Blatico smiled. Here was his next victim, he decided, a delightful redhead to torment. He imagined the acolyte’s face, red and mottled, a flaming testimony to every indignation.
He turned back to the couple. Despite the comedic relief of the pig, they had been a poor choice. The man frankly scared him, and the woman was too ugly to be borne, the coarse hairs curling from her chin like potato sprouts.
“Forgive my deliberation,” Blatico sighed. “This is a difficult case. One does not lightly judge the fate of such a fine hog.”
“Not a hog. He’s a p..p..p..pig.” The peasant woman spoke unexpectedly, her toothless gums exaggerating the plosives. To a few her efforts were painful, but the majority tittered. A gleam appeared in Blatico’s eye.
“Of course! How blind of me!” he said quickly. “A p..p..p..pig! And does this p..p..p..pig have a name?”
Fear-haunted eyes showed she realized the trap. Miserably, the woman shook her head.
“How about yourself, sir, did you give him a name?”
Blatico raised a hand in mock warning. “My good man, there are ladies present.”
The farmer shrugged, then spat a wad of amber-colored phlegm just inches from Blatico’s boot. Blatico knew he’d just been called a bastard. He also knew it was time to end this farce. He wondered if the man had a knife in his boot.
“Very well,” he continued gamely. “Then for the sake of discussion, shall we call the pig, ah, Peter? Peter the Pig. How does that sound?”
“Aye, but still a bastard,” said the man, spitting again. This time the blob came closer and Blatico flinched.
“Madam, do you agree?” Blatico gave a meaningful stare at the old woman.
” We’ve given a name to the pig. Peter. Do you agree?”
“P..p..p..” she began, only to be drowned out by rude laughter.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is no time for levity!” Blatico quieted the crowd with three short claps. “An important matter is before us and we must review the facts. Peter, the defendant’s pig, and a fine young gentleman by anyone standards, I can’t imagine how I mistook him for a hog, wandered into this farmer’s property and–“
“Uprooted all my parsnips , he did!” the man shouted. “I say he’s mine to pay for the damages. I could do with a bit of bacon, fatten me up as well!”
The woman set up an anguished, piercing wail. The pig awoke and darted forward, the rope escaping the grasp of the hapless page. The animal headed for the woman, then, in a quirk of pig perversity, ran to Blatico and began to sniff at his highly polished boots.
The laughter was deafening. Sisinelli, damn him, called out, “It’s Blatico’s pig!” The call was taken up and shouted in unison. Minutes passed before the persistent thumping of the sceptor from the dais could be heard. The crowd quieted gradually until the King brought down the end with a final blow.
“Enough!” he shouted, his habitual mask of pain replaced by one of outrage. To Blatico, he issued a curt command. “Stop this nonsense. Time grows short.”
The King challenged the crowd with his stare. They were not a pleasant sight, certainly not enough to cheer a dying man. The Blood Wars had wiped out most of the old lines, and the nobility now filling the Great Throne Room seemed scarcely more than well-dressed rubes.
Listening to the brutal voice of Blatico baiting the woman, William wondered how many shades of suffering a man must endure before entering the Deep. All his life had been a struggle against something: the constant fighting, his father’s anathema, the poverty and disease of war. Nor had the battle ended with the treaty at Ron Jonna. He’d hoped to build Casoria on a grand scale, but before the plans could be drawn up, the city had been reborn a jumble. And now this. This bastardized version of his grandfather’s vision was the final blow.
It was his fault, truly, but could he help it if the pain in his bones had reduced him to little more than a figurehead? He thought he’d learned all these was to know of pain in battle, but this was different; this pain was a hunger that gnawed at his bones. The picture of kingly strength he’d hoped to present to the populace, as well as the acolytes gathered for the Winnowing, had vanished. Indeed, at times he could scarcely hold up his head. For the past three nights, since the beginning of Open Court, William had refused the bitter, quince colored tonic that the earth wizard, Elymas, carried nightly to his room. HIs mind was clearer for it, but now his body cried out spasmodically for the relief it brought. Tonight, he knew he would not dismiss Elymas when he brought the tray.
But he would deal with Baltico now, now when his mind was clear and the ground solid beneath him. He knew Blatico was the epitome of all that was rotten at his court. Articulate and cruel, the lantern jawed noble had nonetheless been chosen by Elymas to arbitrate the smaller matters while he, William, was forced to take a rest. Until now. After today, the court would no longer be burdened with his waspish tongue. Elymas had taken too much on himself. The King dug his spine into the hardness of the throne. From this day forward, he would set the tenor of these sessions. He’d have to learn to endure the pain, that was all.
“This is your last decision, Blatico,” said William, crisply. “Reach it and be done.”
Blatico searched out his mentor, but Elymas wouldn’t look at him. The Skyll’s eyes had, narrowed and he seemed to be studying the double-entrance door.
“As you wish, Sire,” Blatico said meekly, but as he turned to the couple, he assumed a defiant expression. His last judgement? Well, so be it, but they would leave with more than a memory of a pig licking his boots.
Blatico walked to the peasant woman and knelt. It took every ounce of his control not to kick her, but he managed, even stroking the pig’s snout.
“It seems to me this p..p..p..pig must be p..p..pardoned for he is a p..p..porker who p..p..prefers two p..p.. properties.”
It was rich. It was splendid. He had mimicked the woman to perfection, and now it was laughter he should be hearing, despite the King’s reprimand. Instead, there was a hushed silence. Had he overstepped his bounds? Blatico looked to the throne, only to see the King as well as all the Skylls and Ondred, staring at the entrance doors.
Blatico turned. His cape flapping as he forgot the matter at hand as well.
Filling up the doorway was a giant of a man, hair white as snow loosed from a leather band.