Joram waited once more in the antechamber to the Portal, barely managing to contain his anxiety. Niallan had succeeded in contacting Ansel the previous evening but had pulled himself out of his trance subdued and thoughtful. He had refused to say anything other than that Ansel preferred to speak to Joram himself and would make his way to a Portal sometime during the next day. For all his gentle ways, Niallan could radiate an air of quiet authority which Joram could not bring himself to challenge.
But it had been a long, troubled night. Not only was Joram desperate to know what was happening with Rhys Michael, but also he had his anxiety about Ansel’s safety to contend with. All too well he knew his nephew’s tendency to underrate the danger of an action and overrate his ability to deal with it --not that Ansel saw it like that, of course.
Without warning Ansel appeared in the Portal, and Joram knew at once that something was very wrong. He stood to move towards his nephew, a query already on his lips, but stopped dead. He had never seen Ansel so angry. He knew him to be a young man who displayed profound emotion -- distress, almost to the point of despair; frustration, as was only to be expected of a young man who by rights should have been a belted earl, in the king’s favour, and liege lord to many; sullen under correction, and resentful of what he saw as the inertia of his elders – but Joram had never seen him like this.
The power crackled as Ansel’s shields flared, and he advanced on Joram with an attitude of barely contained fury.
“How dare you...how bloody dare you? How dare you believe that of me? Just because I’m not a bloody Michaeline doesn’t mean that I have no discipline. Oh, I know you don’t think very much of me! Well, we’ve all learnt to live with your disapproval: me, Jesse, Aunt Evaine. Jesu, you even disapprove of your own father, for God’s sake—and come to think of it, I sometimes doubt you even approve of Him!”
Spoiling for a fight, his pride touched on the raw, Ansel fully expected --and knew he deserved--a blistering reprimand for his near blasphemy. He was close even to meriting a blow across the face, and in his present mood he would almost have welcomed it. To see his uncle back off and slump into his chair, head in his hands, was as effective a deterrent to insolent anger as he could have imagined.
“It’s not true then?” Joram managed to get out.
“Of course it’s not true ... Ansel began truculently, but the words trailed off as Joram raised his head, and the hopelessness in his expression completed Ansel’s disorientation. Tentatively he tried to probe past his uncle’s shields, to get some hold on why this most predictable of men was behaving so out of character. Ansel’s probe slipped over shields as hard and smooth as steel but Joram’s eyes, soft with unshed tears, betrayed him despite himself--those piercing blue eyes which were normally as hard and bright as the diamonds which Ansel could just remember from his early childhood at Court.
“What is it...?”
“Shall I fetch someone...?”
“I didn’t mean...”
But each sentence once begun trailed off, as Ansel knelt slowly and gently beside his uncle and wondered what he would do if the man he knew did not return soon. It was all well and good railing against the strength and immovability of a wall – and Ansel freely admitted that he and Jesse were open in their criticism of Joram, at least between themselves – but that did not mean that you wanted the wall to take it upon itself to collapse.
A whole new perspective opened up for Ansel and he was not sure he liked it. Trying desperately to get them back on familiar ground, he took refuge in the language of formal contrition:“I’m sorry, uncle, I went too far, and I ask pardon of you and God for any offence. I’ll willingly accept penance from you.” Despite everything, Joram’s eyebrow raised a fraction at that, as if by its own volition, and Ansel took courage from this sign of returning normality, slight though it might be.
“I know you quote at me, “Be angry, but do not sin,” but how did you expect me to react? I’ve spent my life serving the Haldanes; Davin died protecting Rhys Michael. Why in Go...Heaven’s name should I want to harm him? How could you think it of me?”
“Because I was foolish enough to allow myself to hope.” Ansel winced at the bitterness in his uncle’s voice but did not dare to interrupt as Joram continued in a tone otherwise devoid of expression ,“ I thought that you might be repeating family history, that you intended to bring him here so that we could get him to understand what is at stake. Not that it worked that well last time.” This last in a voice so subdued that Ansel was not sure whether or not it was addressed to him. Not that it mattered, as he had not the least idea what Joram was talking about.
Seeing that Ansel’s anger had now given way to total confusion, Joram made a made a great effort to pull himself together. Sighing, he sat up, rubbing his hands across his eyes, and then centering to allow the fatigue to drain from his mind and body. His pride was embarrassed that Ansel had seen him so off balance, but maybe it was time that his nephew saw something of the reality behind the facade. Or maybe not... yet again, Joram felt rise in him the fear that even with all his Deryni powers and the discipline of his training, if he once let any of the facade slip, then he might not be able to contain the pent-up flood of years. Knowing that he needed grace from outside himself, he blessed himself and allowed the acerbic voice of his erstwhile Michaeline confessor to speak in his memory, chastising him for his self-absorption.
He pushed his distress deep down and concentrated on the young man kneeling by his side. Reaching out cautiously to slip behind the residual anger in Ansel’s mind, and finding that in the turmoil of fury and confusion his nephew was less than tightly shielded, Joram read the enormity of which Ansel had believed himself accused. He had not stopped to think that it was likely Ansel would not know the truth of Cinhil’s abduction against his will from his monastery. The Haldane mythology even in Cinhil’s day had downplayed his reluctance, and had had him come willingly out of his refuge to prepare for kingship. God knew what story most people believed now. In truth, Joram conceded, he had probably got off more lightly than he deserved, given that Ansel had thought that his uncle believed him capable of what amounted to high treason. Looking properly at his nephew Joram realised how tired and unkempt he looked. Now that the anger had left him, the dark bruising of shadow under his eyes and the pallor under the wind-chapped skin were all too evident.
“It’s not fair on all of you, any of this”. Bemused at yet another non sequitur from his uncle, Ansel looked up and was surprised to see a smile of compassion on Joram’s face. Pleased but still more than a little unnerved, he smiled tentatively in return.
“Can you stay long enough for a sleep and a meal before you need to return? I take it you left everything covered before you left?” The tone of authoritative query in Joram’s voice was reassuring rather than otherwise, and the real concern was unmistakable.
“You should trust your own teaching well enough to be sure of that, but yes, a bed and a meal would be wonderful.” He found the courage to add, “Once I’ve eaten and slept, am I allowed to ask you what all this is about?” He was hardly prepared for Joram’s answer.
“And I’ll tell you, once I’ve asked and been given your pardon ...no, don’t interrupt” – this as Ansel made a gesture of protest, feeling that he really couldn’t deal with his proud uncle apologising to him -- “there has been altogether too much deception and too many half truths allowed to take root.” But even as he spoke, Joram thought of the deception that was not his to reveal; Ansel must never know that his grandfather had not died at Iomaire. But enough, there was much of the truth that he could share with Ansel, and he must prepare himself to do so.
Gnawing at his consciousness was the fear that if Ansel was not responsible for Rhys Michael’s abduction, then who might be? He longed to seek out Javan and find out something, anything. But he knew that the relationship with Ansel was still fragile, that he had dealt it a blow that must be atoned for and restored, and that this time, his first duty was to his kin. Rising to his feet, he looked down at Ansel still kneeling by his chair.
“Go... sleep. There’s a spare bed in the room next to Jesse’s.”
“Thank you. I could sleep standing up these days, but a real bed will be a welcome luxury.” Ansel realised that now the surge of anger had retreated, he could barely restrain his yawns. He rose and moved to leave the room, his slight bow towards his uncle combining both renewed, if puzzled, respect and thanks, but stopped as Joram spoke once again.
“Go then, but next time” – and now his voice was that of the austere priest Ansel knew all too well – “watch how you speak of God; there is always a price to pay when we cross forbidden boundaries.” Ansel should have felt rebuked, but as he left the room, he had the strangest feeling that once again Joram was not speaking to him.