Royce swung around on his heel, fully intending to smash his fist into Graverley’s grinning face, but behind him the liveried footmen were already pulling open the tall doors to the throne room. Restraining himself with the knowledge that Stefan’s future, as well as his own, would not be improved by murdering Henry’s most valued councillor, Royce turned away and strode through the doors the footmen were holding open for him.

Henry was sitting at the far end of the room, garbed in formal robes of state, his fingers tapping impatiently on the arms of his throne. "Leave us!" he ordered Graverley, and then he turned his cold, distant gaze on Royce. Silence followed Royce’s polite greeting—an unusual, icy silence that did not bode well for the outcome of the interview. After several endless minutes of it, Royce said with cool politeness, "I understood you wished to see me, Sire."

"Silence!" Henry snapped furiously. "You’ll speak to me when I give you leave to do it!" But now that the dam of silence had been breached, Henry’s own anger could no longer be held in check, and his words issued forth like lashes from a whip. "Graverley claims you had your men turn their weapons on my men. He further charges that you deliberately disobeyed my instructions and impeded his efforts to free the Merrick women. How plead you to this accusation of treason, Royce Westmoreland?" Before Royce could reply, his enraged sovereign shoved himself from his chair and continued. "You condoned the seizure of the Merrick women—an act which has become an affair of state threatening the peace of my realm. And having done so, you let two women—two Scottish women—escape from your clutches, thus turning an affair of state into a joke that has swept all England! How plead you?" he said in a low roar. "Well?" he roared again without taking a breath. "Well? Well?"

"Which accusation do you desire me to address first, Sire?" Royce replied with courtesy. "The accusation of treason? Or the rest, which constitutes stupidity?"

Disbelief, anger, and a twinge of reluctant amusement widened Henry’s eyes. "You arrogant pup! I could have you whipped! Hung! Pilloried!"

"Aye," Royce quietly agreed. "But tell me first for which offense. I have taken hostages many times in the last decade, and on more than one occasion you’ve commended it as a more peaceful means of scoring a win than outright battle. When the Merrick women were taken, I could not have guessed you’d suddenly decided to seek peace with James—particularly not when we were defeating him in Cornwall. Before I left for Cornwall, we spoke in this very chamber and agreed that, as soon as the Scots were subdued enough for me to leave Cornwall, I was to take command of a fresh army near the Scottish border and install it at Hardin, where our strength would be very visible to the enemy. At that time, it was clearly agreed between us that I would then—"

"Yes, yes," Henry interrupted angrily, not wanting to hear again what Royce intended to do next. "Explain to me," he ordered irritably, unwilling to admit aloud that Royce’s reasoning in taking the two hostages had been valid, "what happened in the hall at Hardin. Graverley claims your men tried to attack mine on your order when he placed you under arrest. I’ve no doubt," he said with a grimace, "your version will vary from his. He detests you, you know."

Ignoring the last part of that, Royce replied with calm, indisputable logic, "My men outnumbered yours almost two to one. Had they attacked your men, none of them would have survived to take me into custody—yet they all returned here without so much as a scratch."

Henry relaxed slightly. With a curt nod, he said, "Which is exactly what Jordeaux pointed out in the privy council when Graverley told us his tale."

"Jordeaux?" Royce repeated. "I wasn’t aware I had an ally in Jordeaux."

"You don’t. He hates you, too, but he hates Graverley more because he wants Graverley’s position, not yours, which he knows he cannot have." Darkly he said, "I’m entirely surrounded by men whose brilliance is only exceeded by their malice and ambition."

Royce stiffened at the unintended insult. "Not entirely surrounded, Sire," he said coolly.

In no mood to agree, even though he knew his earl spoke the truth, the king sighed irritably and motioned to a table on which reposed a tray with several jewelled goblets and some wine. In the closest thing to a conciliatory gesture he was willing to make in his present mood, Henry said, "Pour us something to drink." Rubbing the joints of his hands, he added absently, "I hate this place in the winter. The cold dampness makes my joints ache incessantly. Were it not for this tempest you’ve created, I’d be in a warm house in the country."

Royce complied, carrying the first goblet of wine to the king and then pouring one for himself and returning to the foot of the steps which led up to the dais. Standing in silence, he sipped the wine, waiting for Henry to emerge from his brooding reflections.

"Some good has come of this, in any case," the king finally admitted, glancing at Royce. "I’ll confess I’ve had many second thoughts about letting you fortify Claymore and keep your own liveried retainers. However, when you let yourself be taken into custody on charges of treason by my men, who were obviously outnumbered by your retainers, you gave me proof that you will not turn against me, no matter how tempting it might be to do so." In a lightening-swift change of topic, designed to trap the relaxed and unwary, Henry said smoothly, "Yet, despite all your loyalty to me, you didn’t intend to release Lady Jennifer Merrick into Graverley’s custody so that she could be escorted home, did you?"

Anger raged through Royce at this reminder of his utter stupidity. Lowering his goblet he said icily, "I believed at the time that she herself would refuse to go and would explain that to Graverley."

Henry gaped at him, open-mouthed, the goblet in his fingers tipping precariously. "So Graverley spoke the truth about that. Both women duped you."

"Both?" Royce repeated.

"Aye, my boy," Henry said with a mixture of amusement and annoyance. "Standing outside the doors to this chamber are two emissaries from King James. Through them I have been in constant contact with James, and he has been in contact with the earl of Merrick, and everyone else involved in this mess. Based on what James has somewhat gleefully reported to me, it appears to me that the younger girl—who you believed to be hovering at death’s door—had actually put her face into a pillow filled with feathers, which made her cough. Then she convinced you it was actually a recurrence of an ailment of the lungs, thus duping you into sending her home. The older one—Lady Jennifer—obviously went along with the ploy, stayed behind for one day, then duped you into leaving her alone so that she could escape with her stepbrother, who’d undoubtedly managed to get word to her where to meet him."