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Sofira did not answer Lerric’s summons and he was forced to entertain the King and the General alone. Increasingly nervous and fearful, Lerric did his best to convince them Sofira’s unhappiness and the welfare of his grandchildren were the reasons for his agitation. And because there was truth in what he said, neither Robin nor Blaine detected any falsehood.
Elias was all for leaving Bordenn immediately when he realized Sofira did not intend to put in an appearance. He saw no reason to pander to her whims, whims designed to anger and upset him. Her vicious remarks the night before rendered him even less inclined to speak with her than usual. But the General, despite his initial resistance, knew they had not fully exploited the possibilities presented by this visit and persuaded the King to remain a little longer. At the very least, they would get a warm meal before having to brave the winter freeze again. If Sofira remained absent, it was one less problem to worry about.
So at midday they gathered once again in Lerric’s dining hall, casting appreciative eyes over the array of hot food. Its variety gave the lie to Lerric’s constant carping about his province’s poverty, although Elias was too shrewd to mention it. He did not want to give Lerric the opportunity to bemoan how little they would have once the King’s party left.
Once they were replete and had repaired to the inner chamber with fellan and brandy, Elias and the General traded a private glance. Robin placed himself where he could watch Lerric without being too obvious, and Blaine nodded to his sovereign.
Elias stretched his legs to the fire, captured his vassal’s attention, and leaped in with no warning. “So, Lerric, what did you make of the news about the traitor, Reen? I take it you heard what he did?”
Lerric stiffened. His face turned pasty and the goblet trembled in his hand. “What … what he did?” His gaze fixed on the King’s face. “I … don’t understand.”
Elias snorted. “Oh, come, man! Did you not hear the news? Surely you heard he escaped imprisonment?”
Lerric’s demeanor turned desperate and his gaze flicked between his three guests. “Escaped? I … hadn’t heard that.”
Robin, watching Lerric closely, pondered the man’s conflicting emanations. Uppermost was a fear that was almost terror. Lerric would naturally feel fear at the news the traitor who so nearly succeeded in killing the High King, and who had come originally from his own court, had escaped. Yet deep within the complex swirl of emotions Robin also sensed a strange surge of hope, almost as if Lerric wanted them to discover something. He frowned and concentrated harder. There was something odd here.
Elias warmed to his deception. “You hadn’t heard the traitor escaped justice? Strange. I thought you would have known all about it. We knew Reen corresponded with someone while he was on the island, and the only person who might be … interested, shall we say? … in his circumstances was you.”
“Me?” Lerric almost yelped the word. “Why would I be interested in him? Why should I correspond with a convicted traitor? I want nothing more to do with the man!”
Robin’s frown deepened. Lerric’s tone carried a distinct ring of truth, an emphatic assertion that flooded his voice, yet the undercurrent of terror and reluctant hope remained. It was almost as if he was not master of his own emotions, a thought that made Robin distinctly uneasy.
“Ah!” Elias injected a tone of enlightenment into his voice. “Maybe it wasn’t you. Maybe it was someone else in your household.”
Lerric froze, his eyes haunted. He cast a swift glance at the door, whether in fear or hope, Robin could not say. But the man was desperate to end this conversation, that much was clear.
“What are you saying, Elias?” Lerric’s whisper was almost pleading. “What are you accusing me of? Has my House not suffered enough at the hands of that dreadful renegade? Did our family not lose enough? What have we done that you should question us so? Why can’t you leave us alone?”
Robin closed his eyes, the better to sense Lerric’s emotions. It was clear he hardly knew where to turn or what to say. A great fatigue filled him, as if he had been under tremendous strain, yet there was also a futile sense of bitter anger. His emanations were so complex and convoluted that their import was clouded. Robin gained a strong impression of dark fear, deep unhappiness, and a strange, almost eager hope. The debilitating weakness pervading Lerric’s spirit might well lead to collapse. Even as he scanned the man, Robin felt his spirit struggling, almost as if he had decided to voice some kind of revelation. Robin wondered whether he ought to say something to Elias, but the door opened abruptly, saving him from the decision.
Stiff-backed and furious, Sofira stood in the doorway. She glared at Lerric, fear behind her eyes.
Her sharp voice slit the tension like a knife ripping silk. Lerric jumped half out of his skin and his pale face flushed. Elias startled also, but hid his reaction far better than Lerric. Robin could see he was annoyed with himself. Had he not cast aside the feeling that Sofira still held power over him?
Sofira strode into the room, her face white and angry. She ignored the other three men and glared at Lerric’s sweat-sheened face. “Father, you’re not well. Why did you not send for me? Your Majesty, General, I must ask you to excuse my father. He is not strong these days and this terrible winter has further sapped his strength. Had I known your visit would have reduced him so, I would never have left him. Father, you ought to go to your room. You are weary and need to rest. I am sure our distinguished guests will not be offended.”
Lerric hesitated, looking surprised. Robin saw him glance up at her, a furtive, guilty look, as if she had caught him betraying secrets. Then his shoulders slumped and a sigh escaped him.
“I beg your indulgence, your Majesty, but I fear my daughter is right. I do feel less than well. Perhaps a short rest will restore me, and I will be fit to speak with you again before you take your leave.”
Elias, clearly displeased by Sofira’s appearance and intervention, could hardly refuse. “By all means, Lerric. You should have spoken of this before. I had no idea you were not at full fitness. I hope I am not so ill-mannered a guest as to impose on a gracious host.”
Lerric gave a small frown, peering at Elias as if suspecting him of irony. But Elias waved a casual hand. “I wish you peaceful rest, Lerric. I will not be offended if you are not well enough to bid us farewell. I am sure your daughter will fulfill your duties admirably.”
Sofira took her father by the elbow and guided him toward the door. Robin barely heard their whispered exchange.
“Be silent! I will speak with you later.” Sofira raised her voice. “Go and lie down, Father. I will send a servant to tend you.”