Rhys dashed to the kitchen, startling a man and boy eating at the table. Both jumped up in alarm. The youth was the one who had taken the horses away.
“You—what’s your name?”
“Eric... my lord.”
“I’m Sir Rhys, Sir Spender’s son. Those two horses that were there when we arrived—who owns them?”
“The sorrel was His Lordship’s. The old gray’s Sir Spender’s, Sir Rhys.”
“And the three we brought belong to the king. Their hooves are marked with a crown. I want you to go out there and warn anyone who tries to take them away, understand? If they wave papers at you, tell them to talk to me. Do not let them put their horses in with ours! Say you have orders from the king’s man. That’s me. I’ll make it worth your while.”
Rhys saw him out, slammed the outer door behind him, and dropped the bar across it. The window was protected by an iron grille.
“You?” he asked the manservant.
“Frank, Sir Rhys.”
“Disappear, Frank. Go and dust the attics or something far away, because I expect men will try to enter here, shouting nonsense in the king’s name. I don’t want you able to hear them, understand?”
Rhys raced back to the front door in time to take his place between his two accomplices just as the first of the newcomers came waddling over to the steps. He was short, dumpy, and twenty years past his best, although his ermine-trimmed cloak and osprey-plumed hat proclaimed him to be a man of stature, legally if not physically. They made him vastly overdressed for the weather; his face was inflamed and shiny. His chain of office glittered.
Sharp had underestimated the invasion. There must be close to three dozen men out there, including six men-at-arms. Those were not the sort of mourners normally seen at funerals, but nothing to worry about. Six men-at-arms going against three Blades would be suicide. They and some of the younger men were collecting horses’ reins.
Osprey Plume stopped and frowned up at the barrier of three swordsmen standing across his path. They were not wearing Royal Guard livery, but they had tilted the swords on their belts to provide a clear view of the cat’s eye cabochons on the pommels. Everyone in Chivial knew what those meant.
“Good cheer to you, sir,” Rhys said graciously. “I regret to inform you that Lord Bannerville is not receiving visitors today.”
“I am Master Fitzroy Colford, mayor of Ambor.”
Rhys tapped his sword hilt in salute. “In normal times you would be welcome, Your Worship, but things are otherwise for the nonce. I am Sir Rhys of the Loyal and Ancient Order of the King’s Blades, son of Sir Spender of this house.”
“But not a companion, just a knight?” Meaning: the king did not send you. Obviously the mayor was better informed than most rustics. Pity.
“I am a knight, Your Worship, just possibly not as just as you would hope, and my brothers and I are here on the king’s business.” Rhys had his toes on the edge of a precipice there. “I repeat: Lord Bannerville is not receiving visitors today.”
“I was informed that the spirits of death had received Lord Bannerville.”
The invading horde had now divided into two. The fifteen or sixteen older, more important, men were clustered behind the mayor, while their younger helpers were leading off the horses. Poor little Eric was going to be massively outnumbered.
Rhys turned to Sharp, whose tongue was as facile as his rapier. “Surely there must be legal formalities to hurdle before a nobleman can be declared officially dead?”
Sharp barely had to draw breath. “Of course, brother. Firstly, the coroner who has jurisdiction in the area must view the corpse and certify that he is truly deceased. The body must also be identified by the next of kin, normally male, of course, but female if necessary. After that—”
“I am the coroner.” Another man stepped forward as the mayor turned to look for him. He was just as short, but slighter, and his clothing was both more suitable for the weather and less ostentatious than Colford’s.
Rhys was enjoying this hugely. “You are most welcome, sir, if under sad circumstances. I am sure that my father will lead you to His Lordship, whether deceased or not. But what are you going to do about the next-of-kin problem, as I understand that Lord Bannerville has none—or had none, as the case may be?”
The coroner minced up the steps. “I am personally acquainted with Sir Spender, who has been His Lordship’s Blade for over thirty years. His identification of the deceased will be perfectly adequate.”
Sharp was nodding.
“Very well, sir,” Rhys said, stepping aside and gesturing to Dad, who was standing just inside the doorway, eavesdropping on the confrontation with a wan, faint smile. He had belted on his sword, perhaps for the first time in years. He shook hands with the coroner as if they were old friends, and led him off into the house.
“Are you going to make us stand out here all day, young man?” demanded the mayor, puffed up like a pouter pigeon.
“You are free to go at any time, Your Worship. If Lord Bannerville is alive, he does not wish to see you. If he is dead, and you came to pay your respects, you may attend him on the funeral pyre, over there, not in here.” The undertaker’s men had departed, Rhys noticed. All that was needed now was the corpse and some tinder.
“You are insolent! I will report you to Lord Chancellor Roland.”
Rhys did not even try to suppress an entirely genuine smile at that prospect. “Please do.” Lord Roland was another knight in the Order whose name was written in the Litany of Heroes. He would most certainly take Sir Spender’s side in this dispute.
“That sword does not give you the right to break the law, young man!”
Rhys edged even closer to the precipice. “And that chain does not permit you to oppose King Ambrose, old man. Last night His Majesty called for me and sent me here to look after the interests and well-being of my father, Sir Spender, and also to convey his regards to him.”
“I was there and witnessed that!” Trusty said.
“And I,” Sharp agreed.
Rhys could see at least five men in the audience wearing attorneys’ robes and flowerpot hats. They could not all be representing the same client. “Divide and conquer” might be the best strategy here. “Perhaps, Your Worship, you would explain just why you are so anxious to gain access to His Lordship’s house?”
Mayor Colford turned to the onlookers, and said, “Master Nuckles!”
One of the attorneys edged forward to the bottom of the steps. He was tall and thin and wore both a satchel and an unhealthy pallor. “The town of Ambor, which I have the honor to represent in this matter, holds a mortgage on certain chattels believed to be located within these precincts. As you may know, Sir Blade, the word ‘mortgage’ means a death pledge, and now that the mortgager, videlicet Lord Bannerville, is reported to be deceased, the mortgagee, videlicet the town of Ambor and certain other—”
“Ahem!” barked one of the other attorneys. “My client also holds a mortgage on this property, viz the house and contents.”
Two other attorneys surged forward, brandishing documents.
In minutes the debate before the steps became a verbal free-for-all, learned voices thundering legalities, none of which made any sense to a Blade: seisin, usufruct, wadset, ut de vadio, and so on. Several younger, tough-looking men declared that they were the deputy sheriff’s bailiffs, and nobody was going to get their hands on... And so on.
Trusty chuckled. Sharp yawned. Rhys wondered what was going to happen next.
What did happen eventually was the return of the coroner, who stepped out between Rhys and Sharp. Everyone fell silent to hear his announcement.
“I, Maxim Swanside esquire, sheriff’s coroner for the town of Ambor and purlieus, do hereby certify, on this third day of Fifthmoon, in the thirty-seventh year of the reign of King Ambrose the Fourth, that I have viewed a male corpse identified to my satisfaction as that of the late Everard, Earl Bannerville, and that I judge his death to have been caused by natural decay. I hereby release his cadaver to his executors, charging them to return it to the elements with all deliberate speed.”
“Executors?” Sharp prompted in a whisper, but Rhys had already seen that opening.
Before anyone else could speak, he said, “Are Lord Bannerville’s executors present?”
An arm rose at the back of the audience, and a voice shouted, “Aye!”
The crowd parted to let the speaker come forward, leaning on a stout staff. He was tall and burly, limping as if every step hurt. His beard was white, his face unhealthily florid, but he bore an air of authority, as if he had been staying in the background out of indifference to the squabbling, not humility. He hesitated at the foot of the steps, and Trusty ran down to assist him.
To Rhys’s surprise, Mayor Colford decided that the tiny platform was going to be uncomfortably crowded, even unsafe, and went down one step.
When the newcomer had taken his place, he turned to face the crowd. “In case any of you don’t know me, I am Baron Weldon Arbrit, and I was sheriff of Dimpleshire long years ago. I have Bannerville’s last will and testament here, and I propose to read it out. It is witnessed by my attorney, who was unable to attend this meeting on such short notice, and by myself. I’ll let you pettifoggers see it right after. Anyone object?” He glared at the lawyers, daring them to speak, and none did.
Rhys sensed that he had just lost control of the meeting, but that it might now be in better hands than his. His father could have been wrong when he said that his former ward had lacked friends.
Lord Arbrit unrolled a paper and raised it up to let everyone see the dangling seals. Then he held it at arm’s length and squinted at the writing.
“This is dated, um, two years ago. It’s very short. I’ll jump the legal jargon and just tell you what it says. It says that he has nothing left to leave to anyone because it was all stolen by... Um. You don’t need to hear that bit, although it can’t hurt him now he’s dead. He makes only two bequests. He asks that any servants still in his employ at the time of his death be paid off with the sum of one crown apiece. He also thanks his long-serving Blade, Sir Spender, for saving his life in Fitain, many years ago, and bequeaths to him the painted document box that he keeps in his bedchamber, because he knows that it has no intrinsic value to anyone else, but holds memories of better days for him.”
Three Blades had ridden from Grandon to secure ownership of a painted wooden box?
The big man lowered the document and scowled at his audience. “How many of you believe that you have claims against this estate, or clients who do?”
A dozen arms were raised. Evidently Lord Bannerville had been more adept at raising money than Dad had suspected.
“Thought so,” Arbrit growled. “Well, I’m telling you now that you can’t settle it here. It will have to go to the sheriff’s court. You had better ask the sheriff to appoint a caretaker, too. ” He turned to glance down at Rhys, who was half a head shorter. “If these noble doorkeepers would agree, I’d suggest that the bailiffs now present be allowed to make an inventory of the contents, chattels, and other appurtenances.”
That sounded like a fair solution. Rhys nodded. “No more than four, and one of us Blades will accompany each man.”
Arbrit handed the will to the mayor, who stumped down to the gaggle of lawyers, where a melee developed around it, voices were raised, elbows were jabbing.
Rhys said, “Thank you, my lord.”
The baron grunted. “Bannerville was a fool. If he’d just put his estate up for auction and let it be know why he had to, the nobility wouldn’t have stood for it. The king would have had to back down. The trouble was that Ambrose should never have named him ambassador, and after the catastrophe he didn’t want parliament to know that he’d wasted a fortune.”
“Ambrose was green, back then,” Dad said, joining the conversation. “He had to learn on the job. I’m most grateful to you for coming, my lord. I didn’t know about the will.”
“Least I could do. Well, you’re free at last. This son of yours has done well for himself, hasn’t he? I liked the way he handled the ravens today. An ‘unkindness of ravens’ is the correct expression, I’m told.”
Dad chuckled as one should when nobility make a jokes. “An unkindness of bailiffs, too. I’d like to invite you in for hospitality, my lord, but I have none to offer.”
“No, that’s understood, and you still have to shoo the scavengers off the premises. Young sirs, you are a credit to your Order, all of you, but now, if one of you would be so kind as to steady me on these steps, I’ll go down and find my man and our horses.”
To make an inventory of a well-nigh empty house should not take long, Rhys considered. He promptly discovered that people were much harder to manipulate than swords. He began, naturally, by asking Dad, who ought to be in charge, “How do you want to do this, sir?”
His father smirked happily. “By leaving it to you, Son.”
Might there be a hint of criticism there, a suggestion that Rhys had run out on his filial duties thirteen years ago and had better start making up for that now? Setting this aside for later consideration, Rhys eyed the four bailiffs, who could swiftly be distinguished as Shifty Weasel-face, Gaunt Bad Cough, Wheezy Overweight, and Junior Brawn. Four bailiffs, four Blades to keep an eye on them, so divide the house into four, right? Wrong. None of the bailiffs trusted the other three, because each represented a different group of creditors. So each would have to survey the entire building independently, from cellar to attics.
Many rooms contained nothing but dust and mouse droppings. The roof leaked in several places. Rhys was relieved to see that some musty bedding remained in the servants’ quarters, because he and his friends would need to sleep now—a long-forgotten procedure that was going to take some getting used to. Lord Bannerville himself remained in what had been his bedchamber, wrapped in his winding sheet, but the few sticks of furniture in there were nothing like the elegant treasures that Rhys remembered from his childhood. The general impression he formed on his tour was that the house and its contents were not worth as much as one good horse. Attorneys’ fees would gobble up everything.
It took hours for the unkindness of inspectors to crawl around the musty old mansion, listing every cobweb, and hunger was probably what brought the procedure to an end at last. Rhys was very much aware that he had eaten nothing but a slice of bread and honey all day. Probably none of the others had either. By then evening was upon them, the bailiffs were eager to reach home before dark, and it was too late to light a funeral pyre.
At the end they all gathered in the hall, but no one was invited to sit down. The final topic of discussion was the painted document box that Lord Bannerville had bequeathed to Sir Spender. It was about the size of two outspread male hands, and about a thumb-length deep. The outside had once been highly decorated with paintings of flowers and fruits, but those had faded almost to invisibility, sockets that might once have held decorative stones were now empty, and the wood was both stained and scuffed. It was unlocked and empty. Each bailiff in turn peered inside it, shook it to see if it rattled, and hefted it to judge its weight. Then they paused, each one waiting to hear what the others thought of it.
“Doubt if it’s worth half a groat,” Dad said plaintively. “I’m not usually sentimental, but it does hold many memories for me—some sad, some happy.” That broke the impasse.
Wheezy Overweight said, “I say we let him have it.”
“Might as well,” said Gaunt Bad Cough.
Junior Brawn agreed. “Why not?”
Shifty Weasel-face shrugged. “Go ahead.”
So Dad was allowed to keep his legacy. Surprisingly, the appraisers accepted that the old grey horse also belonged to him—possibly because they understood the inadvisability of arguing with four cat’s eye swords. All present were warned not to remove anything of value until the sheriff of Dimpleshire had made his decision. Sir Trusty showed the bailiffs to the door. They took the sorrel horse with them.