Even in Rome, even in Byzantium, attention was falling on the remote borderlands where the Emperor of the Romans searched for the Grail-relic that would complete his empire, and where the Shatt al-Islam had suffered its first turning-back in more than a hundred years.
But the One King himself sat in the sunlight and linked fingers with his mistress, smiling foolishly.
“Completely slit-struck,” snarled Brand to the rest of the king’s council, watching the pair at their table by the harbor from a decent distance. “Always happens to him. Treats women as if they all had snakes up their skirts for years on end, then one of them does something or other to him, can’t think how, and bang! You can’t even get his attention. Behaves like a fourteen-year-old who’s just been taken behind the barn by a milkmaid.”
“There may be no harm in it,” offered Thorvin. “After all, better that he has a woman than that he doesn’t. Who knows, he may get her with child…”
“The way they’re going on they should have triplets already, whole ship shakes half the night…”
“…and if that were to happen, it might make the King—take his responsibilities more seriously. And she is who she is. Daughter of Ivar, granddaughter of Ragnar. She can trace her line back to Völsi himself, and through him to Othin.” Thorvin pointed to the ship moored a furlong off on the still water. “Fafnisbane, Sigurth the dragon-slayer, his blood runs in her veins. No-one was more pleased than I when her father and uncles were killed. But there was no-one alive who did not in some way respect them. She is one of the god-born, and of a family favored by Othin. Maybe that will avert some of the anger of the god, which some of us have feared for him.”
The council pondered his words. On the whole the Vikings among them, Hagbarth and Skaldfinn, even Brand despite himself, were impressed. Cwicca and Osmod looked at each other silently: their memories of Ivar the Boneless had not faded. Only Hund allowed trouble to show on his face. Brand, with the champion’s sensitivity to matters of honor and precedence, noticed it.
“She was never your woman,” he remarked with as near kindness as his voice could manage. “Do you feel he owes you a debt because she was your apprentice?”
“No,” he said. “I wish them well, if they have chosen each other. But what is all this about the god-born and the blood of heroes?” Bitterness tinged his voice. “Look at them over there! Who are they? A pirate’s bastard who spent most of his youth in a wattle hut. And a woman who has been a drab to half of Denmark. And that is the One King and the One Queen-to-be!”
He rose abruptly and stalked away across the bright and crowded quayside. The others watched him go.
“What he says is true,” muttered Hagbarth.
“Yes, but he worked his way up, didn’t he?” contradicted Cwicca, aflame with anger at any criticism of his master. “And I expect she only done what she had to, too. I think that’s as important as kings’ blood anyway. Me and Osmod should know: how many kings have we been at the death of, Osmod?”
“Six,” said Osmod briefly. “If you count the Frankish king, that is, we didn’t kill him but his men did it for us once we beat him.”
“The trouble is,” said Thorvin, “the more you kill, the more power goes into the hands of the ones you don’t.”
Only a few yards away from the Northerners on the crowded quayside, a different group watched the pair of lovers. They squatted in the shade of an awning where a tailor advertised his wares, the tailor himself crouched on a tiny stool, passing cloth through his hands while he stitched with the speed of a serpent. As his feigned customers felt material and from time to time called out the cries of surprise and outrage which were part of normal negotiation, tradesman and clients exchanged muttered comments.
“That is him for sure,” said one in the thick and sweaty homespun of a mountain shepherd. “The one eye. The gold circlet. The charm round his neck.”