He had never been a pious man. In view of the Court, he was considered godly, yes. Deep within, though, he harbored doubt. Questions from unanswered prayers persisted in the recesses of his soul for years, as did musings of the suffering he and his brothers had seen, and endured.
Yet, upon seeing Perceval again, his heart lightened, his skepticism eased.
“High Bishop,” Dawkin said, bowing. “Your Eminence.”
“Your Highness,” Bishop Perceval said in kind. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”
The answer to that came after further pleasantries. During that time, Dawkin and Perceval strolled the interior of the cathedral along with its perimeter, as well as the vegetable garden before pausing at the pride and joy of Perceval’s, his stable.
“Your Eminence,” Dawkin began as the High Bishop stroked the nose of his prized mare. “I confess, I have an ulterior motive in my visit.”
“I suspected so.” Perceval patted the mare before moving on down the center hall. Dawkin fell in step to his right. “Few make the trek up that forsaken hill to visit on a day not deemed holy, let alone an unescorted prince. Tell me, what has you so cautious as to come here without a retinue, save your Right Captain that you left to guard the road?”
He sees right through me. Am I so transparent? “Horses,” Dawkin blurted. “I need your finest.”
“Finest how? I have a range of colts, mares, stallions and geldings, all fine in their own right. Some have a sheen not unlike the finest sealskin or sable. Others are trained so well –”
“Racers,” Dawkin interrupted, knowing that if he did not, the High Bishop would go on boasting forever. “Runners. Those that can ridden fast and far.”
The High Bishop paused. He turned slowly, so that the whole of his body faced the Prince.
I should have let him ramble, at least a bit longer. Now I have insulted him.
Dawkin parted his lips to offer an obligatory apology when the High Bishop replied. “How many?”
“As many as you can spare.”
Perceval raised his brow. “And why so many?”
At that, Dawkin balked. Before arriving, he had suspected that the High Bishop would question his motives and need. In preparation, he went over dozens of half-truths and fibs, invented reasons he could feed him to satisfy his curiosity while giving very little away about the plans he and his brothers had drafted. The concocted tales included using the horses for the members of both Courts in a grand hunt to siring a championship mount and presenting it as a gift to the Ibian royals.
Yet in the face of the High Bishop himself, Dawkin found that such excuses would not hold. There was something about that he could not pinpoint, a trait that left Dawkin to believe that Perceval was beyond accepting masquerades of words and lies of fancy.
The silence of Dawkin’s consideration must have stretched longer than the Prince realized, for before he could utter an answer to the High Bishop, Perceval left his side to peer over the top of one of the stalls.
“My Prince,” Perceval beckoned.
Dawkin joined him to find a colt within, nursing from a mare that stood strong, her gaze meeting that of the two onlookers.
“Hard to believe she nearly died last week,” Perceval said, “from birthing that colt. His legs came out too early while the rest of him stayed wedged within. The mare kicked furiously at first but then allowed my attendants and I to approach and pull him free. Even then, the work was arduous. She lasted it through it though.”
“They are fine creatures.”
“I was seven when your . . . our beloved Queen Ellenora passed.”
The High Bishop paused. He stared back at Dawkin. Only a select few had ventured to speak of his mother in his presence, and even then, it was a passing reference meant to convey respect and condolences. Even his own father had not discussed her in more than a few short words, and yet here stood a man who was neither father nor brother, one tempted to speak on a subject that others would have considered forbidden.
Dawkin searched his eyes. He waits. He seeks my permission. My approval to continue.
The Prince nodded.
“My father had kind words for your mother,” Perceval continued. “He admired the stories he heard of her grace and beauty. Yet when an appropriate time of national mourning passed, he spoke heresy. He said that in her absence, Kin Saliswater had no claim to the Crown, even though it was she who married into the royal family and not vice versa. He even suggested then that the Conclave of Barons be called to cast votes on the issue.”
Perceval shifted his attention back to the mare and her colt. “I was just beginning to be addressed as master in my father’s manor, and as such, was able to join many of the gatherings and hunts he had with other barons. He voiced such dissent among other nobles. None were so bold as to join in his rants. Yet not one bothered to chastise him either.
“I could see it in their eyes. In the way that they cocked their heads and listened. Some even nodded. I knew. They shared his sentiment, even though no baron dared give words to his thoughts.”
Perceval shifted his gaze again to Dawkin. He waited.
“Why tell me all of this?” the Prince asked.
“I encourage the truth among all my parishioners. For me nothing is more apt to honor the sacred vows we are obligated to keep with Mar. I preach loyalty to the objective. I encourage the laity to be honest in all their dealings, no matter how it may hurt them. But you . . . I don’t expect so much.”
Dawkin’s face grew flushed. No one had ever dared to insult him in such a manner, and certainly never on the holy grounds of Mar’s cathedral.
“Oh, Your Highness.” The High Bishop, genuinely surprised by Dawkin’s reaction, stepped back. “Please forgive me. I did not mean to blemish your reputation. I speak not against you. I only point to the fact that sovereigns cannot entertain the same values that the rest of us take for granted. For men such as you, honesty is sacred but unattainable, a luxury that for all your wealth you are not able to afford.”
The blood drained from Dawkin’s visage, replaced with curiosity.
“You command and rule. The people are supposed to obey and serve you. Yet out of your sight and hearing, such edicts carry no weight. Commoners curse you for every ill and misfortune they experience, as though you are Mar Himself, able to turn the tide or will the rain and sun. Merchants use coins with your image, and will just as soon sell you if it grants them but a penny more.
“And the barons! The barons are rabid dogs fighting for the last bone – your Crown. They bark and tear into one another. They sacrifice any sanctity they hold, forsaking honor and honesty, valor and compassion. They lie, cheat, steal . . . and do much worse. No sooner does one claim his supposed rightful place then ten more vie for the honor.
“You happen to hold the bone - the Crown - at the present, My Lord. All while your kingdom sits back, with every other subject looking on not out of reverence but as a matter of envy. By Mar, I would never want that burden. I would never be at peace.”
“No one has ever taken such a tone with me before.”
“I know, and for that, Your Highness, I apologize. I erred in my questioning–”
“You did no such thing.” A tide swelled from within Dawkin. The High Bishop’s speech reminded him of every pleasantry he had ever witnessed, all the false words of praise he had suffered through with appearances at Court, like some obedient dog with no mind of its own. Since his youth, such displays of pomp had unsettled him. Even Sir Everitt, his most-trusted confidant and friend, would on occasion shield his true thoughts on certain matters from him. Only his kin could be trusted to speak the truth, save for the one who stood right before him. “Your father,” Dawkin started. “What ever became of his heretic musings?”
Perceval raised his eyes slightly. Now it was Dawkin who had caught him off his guard.
“He . . .” Perceval searched his lexicon for the proper phrase. “Relented. His rhetoric died down. As you survived your infancy and it became apparent that the line of Kin Saliswater would go on, he came to terms with his blunder.”
“You asked why I needed so many horses. I’ll tell you. I require them–”
“Your Highness,” Perceval begged, hold out the palm of his hand to urge Dawkin to stop. “Please, it is not my place to know.”
“You asked me for the truth, momentarily disregarding my rank and the burden of my obligations.”
“I am humbled.”
“Tell me. As a young master with a seat to the theater of a baron and all his noble friends, what more did you learn?”
“I gathered I wanted no part of their games. Hence my current line of duty.”
“Putting you at odds with your father, as the eldest son of a noble.”
“I did stand to inherit his title, with all its honor and lands to accompany it.” Perceval slid his fingers under the collar of his frock, to flick the lapel. “This just happened to suit me better.”
Dawkin managed a grin, as did the High Bishop.
“Plus,” Perceval went on. “Over the years I still managed to acquire a sizeable herd.”
“An admirable one. Which is why I came.”
“I know. You may have as many of them as you need.”
“I thank you.”
“Your use of them will put my equines in danger?”
Dawkin paused in answer to Perceval’s inquiry.
“I concluded as much,” Perceval reach over a stall door to beckon a steed forth. The stallion, with its coat a chestnut hue, complied, allowing the High Bishop to pat his mane. “Service to one’s country is not without risk.”
“I will guard your horses with my life.”
“No need for dramatics or false promises. I have faith you will care from them.”
“When will you gather them?”
“Of course. The fewer to watch the better.”
“Your Eminence –”
“It will be our secret. A sin, for sure. But one for the greater good of Marland.”
Dawkin bowed his head. The High Bishop offered a nod before shifting his full attention to the stallion once more.
As the Prince retreated from the stable, those equines he passed whinnied and neighed, as though knowing the jeopardy they would soon face under his guise. Dawkin brushed of their supposed concern, for he had a kingdom of men, not mares, to consider.
So few I can trust, he pondered. I came here to beg a favor of a man of faith. I even went so far as to concoct lies I thought he would believe. Yet when I saw him, I felt no apprehension. Only relief. Thank Mar. He is not of this world. For he is smart enough to have no desire for the Crown.
He may be one of the few in this country I can trust.Perhaps.