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Authors: Roberta Gellis

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BOOK: Roselynde
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Once the fact that certain expenditures were unbalanced came clear
to him, he checked still again, hissing through his teeth with satisfaction.
Probably it would be beyond his power to lift the hide off the clerk with a
whip, but he would speak with such purpose to the abbot of his order or the
bishop of his diocese that no other clerk would play games with the accounts on
this estate for a long time.

He rose from the table he had dragged into the windowed
antechamber, bellowed for a manservant, and sent him running to fetch the clerk
who wrote the books. In a few minutes a frail, elderly friar entered. His feet
were bare; his robe was decent but by no means of fine cloth. Simon was a
trifle taken aback. He had experience of many rich and corrupt priests, but
this did not look like one of that kind. The old eyes met his questioningly but
not fearfully.

"Is it you who writes Lady Alinor's books?" Simon asked
quietly, reserving judgment.

"Yes," the old man agreed. "It is a great pleasure
to serve a lady who—"

"It is a great profit, too," Simon interrupted sharply.

"Sometimes, but, alas, I fear—"

"Sometimes!" Simon exclaimed. "You do well to
fear," he added fiercely. Was the man so sure of his place he was ready to
admit to his corruption?

The old man bowed his head. "Perhaps it is right I be
corrected, but I have told my abbot, more than once, and he says Lady Alinor is
so young—"

"Your abbot! Your abbot also profits from this?"

"My abbot is a holy man," the friar said reprovingly.
"He could not profit from my simple work."

"Well, I am glad to hear that, although I suspect it is not
true, and I must say, your work is not so simple."

The gross sarcasm in Simon's voice had no effect on the friar who
looked up again with a pleased smile. "It is very kind of you to say so.
Indeed, I have spent long hours over it, and it is a pleasure to share—"

"Share!" Simon roared, appalled at the sly insolence
that was so certain it could buy his silence.

The old man started and stepped back. "It is not hurtful, my
lord," he quavered. "I have written no word of illicit lust, only
fair tales of brave knights—"

"You mean you write romances for Lady Alinor?" Simon
choked.

As there were priests and brothers who were too much interested in
the things of this world, so there were others too little interested. From the
beginning Simon had suspected this one to be of the second sort. Now he saw he
had been right at first.

"Yes, but I assure you I write many saints' lives, too,"
the old man said placatingly, "and the saints' lives I write more
beautifully, with many colored pictures to draw the eye. The abbot said the
tales were permissible because the young—"

"Yes, yes, of course." Simon suppressed his urge to
laugh at the ludicrous mistake. "The servingman did not understand me. I
desire to speak to the clerk who keeps the books of accounts."

"What books of accounts?"

"These here," Simon said, the laughter gone from his
voice. Was he going to be faced with another mass of evasions and pretended
ignorance? He stepped aside so that his body did not block the table upon which
the wood-bound sheets of parchment lay open.

"Those are Lady Alinor's. A clerk? I do not know. Perhaps
Father Francis helps with them sometimes, but—"

"God writes them with his little finger?" Simon snarled.

The old man drew himself up. "Even the mighty should not
blaspheme," he said.

"Then tell me who writes these books!" Simon bellowed at
the top of his powerful lungs.

He nearly blew the frail old man out of the room. In the silence
that followed his outburst, while the friar was collecting his scattered wits,
Simon heard an urgent whispering among the servants and footsteps running
across the Great Hall.

"My lord, my lord." The old man trembled and shrank
away. "Be not so wroth. I told you the books are Lady Alinor's
books."

Simon closed his eyes and swallowed, gripping his hands together
in front of him so that he would not be tempted to raise them against a man of
God. "And I heard you tell me so," he said with deadly quiet.
"Friar, do not tempt me too far. Tell me who it is who writes the words
and numbers in the books that belong to the Lady Alinor. Have I made my
questions clear now?"

"It was always clear, my lord. I do not know why you will not
believe my answer. Lady Alinor writes the words
and
the numbers on the
pages of the books that lie there with pens that I trim for her."

The friar looked at Simon, frightened but hopeful. Simon looked
back, swallowed again. "Lady Alinor?" he repeated weakly.

"Yes?" Alinor asked.

Simon turned toward the entry way. The light was full on her face
as she stood at the opening to the antechamber, and her cheeks were red as fire
so that her eyes gleamed almost black. Slowly the meaning of what the friar had
said in conjunction with what he had found came to Simon. Color rose in his
face, too. Alinor slid her arm around the friar's bent shoulders and hugged him
briefly.

"Go now, Brother Philip. This is my affair, and I will deal
with it."

"But he is a blasphemer, and—"

"These are worldly things and not for men of God to meddle
with," Alinor said firmly. "He will do me no hurt. Go now."

Alinor wished she was as confident as she sounded. She was not
worried that Simon, on whose straining hands the knuckles and scars showed
white, would hit her. A bruise or two would be a cheap price to pay for peace.
Unfortunately she could not give him that outlet for his frustration because
the antechamber was open to the Great Hall. Either her servingmen would rush to
protect her, or they would summon Sir Andre and Sir John. Her color changed
from red to white as she thought of the results that would ensue if her vassals
found Simon beating her.

But Simon made no move toward her. He went back around the table
and sat down in the chair again. It had occurred to him that there might be
some innocent explanation for the peculiar entries.

"I have been looking over your books of accounts," he
said quite mildly.

Because she was furious with him for frightening Brother Philip
and also furious with herself for getting into this situation, Alinor made a
mistake. "And you have found that I have falsified certain amounts.
Indeed, my lord, I do not know why you were examining those accounts at all.
They are nothing to do with you."

Simon felt his mouth drop open. He was having enough difficulty
absorbing the fact that Alinor could read and write and keep accounts. He had
been dumbfounded at her extravagance. But this bold assertion of forgery and a
round rejection of his authority—all from a child who looked as white and pure
as a churchyard lily—bereft him of speech. The sickening thought that
churchyard lilies grew out of decaying corpses came to him, and to strangle
that image he forced out the first words that he found in his mind.

"There is no matter to do with your lands that is beyond my
knowledge or my authority."

"What?" Alinor rejoined furiously. "You mean I am
responsible to you for the trinkets my grandfather chose to buy me ten years
since? Or for the straw babies I played with when I was three? Or perhaps you
wish me to account for the milk from my wet nurse's breast?"

"Do not be ridiculous," Simon shouted, getting to his
feet again so suddenly that his chair crashed backward. "What have straw
babies and mother's milk to do with anything!"

"That is what I am asking you!" Alinor spat. "If I
am responsible to you for what I spent last year, why am I not to be held
responsible for the pennies paid my wet nurse?"

Just as he was about to repeat in an even more full-throated roar
that Alinor should stop talking like a fool, Simon choked on the words. In
fact, she was not talking like a fool. She was asking—in a highly uncivil
manner—a very reasonable question. The idea that she was capable of raising so
subtle a question—she whose blush of innocence mantled her cheek so
readily—further infuriated Simon.

"You are responsible for nothing during the lifetime of your
grandfather," he snarled, "so let us have no more idiot babbling
about straw babies and wet nurses."

"You mean that I must account to you for every Mass I paid
for my grandfather's soul that was not ordered in his will? That I must explain
to you why I purchased samite for mourning rather than another cloth?"
Alinor shrieked.

"Of course not," Simon bellowed back.

He was aware again of movement in the Great Hall beyond the window
embrasure but eyes and mind fixed on Alinor did not attempt to determine what
that movement was. And, even in the midst of a violent argument, Simon felt no
need to guard himself against personal attack. This would have occurred to him
as very strange, had he time to stop to think about it. In the course of his
labors as justiciar for the King, Simon bore as many scars from attempted
assassination as from pitched battles. He simply knew that could not happen
here. Rage there could be in this keep, but not treachery. Simon wore no armor,
and nothing but his eating knife hung at his belt.

"Then when does my accountability start?" Alinor hissed.
"Name a time. Tell me when I must begin to explain why I ordered four pair
of shoes instead of two."

"It is none of my affair if you ordered four hundred pair of
shoes," Simon roared. He was aware that something was wrong, that this
argument was somehow missing an essential point, but he was too angry to stop
arguing and think about it. "I will see that you do not do so again, but
what you did before I became King's warden is nothing to me."

"Then why," Alinor asked with such acid sweetness that,
had the words been liquid, they would have seared Simon's skin, "are you
examining the accounts of my expenditure over the full two years past?"

Simon's eyes bulged as he gasped for breath. His motive had been
totally innocent. He had wished to protect this—this viper, who needed
protection about as much as a venomous serpent. And then, just before he burst,
the termagant changed before his eyes.

"Let us cease this brangling," Alinor said in a quite
normal voice. "I have no wish to challenge your authority, my lord. It is,
indeed, your right and your duty to know what the estates yield and what the
costs upon them are. So long as we

are agreed that I am free and clear of any guilt for what was done
before the King's writ came two weeks since and that what was mine then is
still mine, to me, you may hold all else in your hand as it pleases you."

Momentarily Simon was rendered even more speechless by this return
to sweet reasonableness. Finally his mind focused on a phrase. "Yours to
you? Who seeks to deprive you of what is yours?" he asked aggressively but
no longer in a shout.

"No one. At least, I believe no one here," Alinor said.
"What I seek to discover is what is mine and what belongs to the King. If
five pounds that were collected last Lady Day lie in my chest, will you take
those five pounds?"

"Are you accusing me of intending to steal from you?"
Simon gasped.

"No, of course not," Alinor exclaimed hastily. She
certainly did not want the King's warden to expire of a stroke in her keep, and
Simon, at this moment, looked as if such a death might be imminent, so purple
was his countenance. "I want to know whether the rents collected before
the coming of the King's writ are mine or the King's. Cannot you tell me that
much plainly?"

"Plainly! Did you ask a plain question until this moment?
Straw babies! Wet nurses!"

Restless with impotent rage, Simon came round the table and moved
toward Alinor. If, instinctively, he had sought to cow her by towering over
her, his instinct was at fault. The technique might work excellently with men,
but Alinor was accustomed to standing up for her authority while being towered
over by some male or another. True, she had never needed to face up to any man
quite as large as Simon, but absolute size had little effect upon her.

The movement had another good effect, however. As if the restraint
upon Simon's muscles had also paralyzed his brain, movement freed it. The color
began to fade from his complexion and his eyes, which had shone like pinpoints
of white light, began to show misty gray.

"You did this apurpose," he said softly, his voice near
to trembling. This innocent flower—this venomous serpent, this woman—had been
enraging him deliberately.

"Most assuredly," Alinor returned promptly. "I had
to know for what I was to be held accountable."

"No, I do not mean your questions. You angered me apurpose.
Why?"

Alinor uttered a little girl giggle.
"If
I did it
apurpose, I should be a great fool to tell you why, should I not?" Then
she sobered and lowered her head a trifle, glancing at him upward from under
her long silky black lashes. "But truly I did not begin with the purpose
of enraging you. I was angry myself, because you frightened Brother Philip. He
is not—truly, he is not entirely of this world."

BOOK: Roselynde
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