Norman law permitted the acknowledgment of illegitimate children, but not to the disadvantage of the legitimate. History often recorded the monstrous results of such acts of generosity. Ambris wouldn’t consider such treachery. Dafythe knew it. His brother Kharles, who had always had the power to name Ambris legitimate, knew it. The young Emperor knew it. Nevertheless, Ambris remained a bastard, a Prince in all but name.
The Emperor Redlyon had played his children as bargaining pieces, promising alliance through marriage to gain an advantage over the neighboring smaller countries and upstarts in his own kingdoms, yet withdrawing before the contracts were signed. In his youth, Dafythe had been betrothed to Leona of Napoli, Ysabella of Portugal, the Polish Prince Sarah, Katriana of Norway, Lorena of Hanover, and both the daughters of the Duke of Burgundy, sometimes two or three simultaneously. This political juggling had kept Dafythe and his brother Kharles in a bachelor state until they were both past fifty, but it didn’t prevent them from taking occasional lovers.
These affairs could never last long; inevitably, the Redlyon would spoil his sons’ romances once he discovered them. He wouldn’t have objected, Dafythe believed, if they’d engaged in meaningless dalliances. But the Emperor’s sons must be serious about women. Eduarde regarded such emotional attachments as weakness. Few things angered him more than the possibility of one of his princes falling in love. To Eduarde, women were creatures for pleasure. Wives were not fundamentally different from lovers, save that they were expected to provide their husbands with heirs. Diane, Aline, Marianne—none had had much power at court.
Dafythe’s mother, Diane Hartsrider, had been Duke of the Northlands before him, though she lived in exile from her homeland after her marriage. As a child, Dafythe had heard tales of his mother’s remarkable tactics when she’d led the Northlander troops in the first border wars. The skill of her riders was legendary. But she was long past those days of adventurous youth by the time he’d known her. He remembered her as a quiet woman who spent much of her time in her chambers, sipping wine and writing her memoirs. Eduarde often bragged of his wife’s prowess in battle, but he wouldn’t think of her riding out with him. A Lady’s place was at her Lord’s home. Dafythe guessed that there’d been a clash of great powers, and Diane had lost. He knew no more than this; the first years of his parents’ marriage were obscure to him. He’d only learned recently from an unpublished history of the Redlyon’s reign that Kharles hadn’t been their firstborn. Two sons, both in turn christened Denys, had been born and died in the 1840’s. Dafythe had never heard a word about their existence while his parents had lived.
When Diane had died in 1881, his father had summoned him to make a brief announcement: “Dafythe, you are now Duke. Arrange passage to Pendaunzel to assume your duties.” Months had passed before he’d heard the details of his mother’s illness and final days. His brother had written him, revealing what Dafythe had only suspected: Diane had been drinking heavily during the last years of her life.
Dafythe had been twenty-six and free of his father’s forceful personality for the first time when he’d arrived at Pendaunzel and taken up residence in the ruins of the old castle. His mother’s regent lived in a house in the city and the disused sections of the castle had been allowed to decay to an unbelievable state. It would be twenty years before he completed the construction of his new palace.
There were women during those early years, but young Dafythe dared not give his heart to anyone. He made no promises and when these lovers were sent away, he didn’t miss them unbearably. Once he was past his first youth, Dafythe yearned more for a wife and children than another insignificant liaison. Then he had met Rosa.
O where is she now? O where has she gone?
The path she leads down bears thorns of pain
O wither she? Wither she? Who?
My Lord’s Love has raven hair
O where is she now? O where has she gone?
Dark as the nightsfall, this gypsy fair
O wither she? Wither she? Who?
My Lord’s Love. Minstrels still sang of her.
Tradition recalled her as a sultry temptress, black-eyed and fiery-tempered, but Dafythe remembered a peasant girl with wild curls and a sharp, bird-beak nose. Not a beauty, but possessing a sulky sexual appeal. He’d first met her in Paris, when she’d been one of the maids in the Infanta Marianne’s retinue. It was folly, he knew, to take as a lover a woman low-born, and Spanish besides. She couldn’t be important to him. Yet she was. The depth of his emotions took him completely by surprise.
When duties recalled him to the Northlands, Rosa did not accompany him. She left the Emperor’s court and Marianne’s service soon after, but didn’t return to Spain. Instead, she took up the life of a wanderer. Dafythe didn’t know how she lived; from time to time, she arrived at Pendaunzel like a long-lost cat who returns safely home but remains coolly mysterious about its adventures. She offered no explanations, no promises, no more than her presence, and he was content with that. His desire for her was still strong, but he wasn’t the sort of man to install a courtesan in his own household nor, of course, could he think of offering marriage to a peasant-maid even after the Redlyon’s death. Always unimpressed by his exalted rank, she received his gifts, heard his loving words, and disappeared as abruptly as she had arrived.
O where is she now? O where has she gone?
She’s left my love heartsore and all forlorn.
O wither she? Wither she? Who?
My Lord’s Love had gone again, but that was not the end of it. Some months after her last abrupt departure, she sent him a message from the almshouse at Belminstre: she’d given birth to a healthy boy. If Dafythe wished to claim his son, he would find him there.
His son. Dafythe’s indiscretion wasn’t that he’d made a fool of himself by loving an impossible woman nor that he’d fathered a bastard by her, but that he treated Ambris as he would a legitimate child. Eduarde Redlyon had fathered illegitimate children before Kharles and Dafythe and after them, but none were acknowledged as imperial offspring. They were cared for, educated, given positions befitting their mothers’ stations, married well, but none were openly named as Eduarde’s sons and daughters even if they appeared at court. Dafythe’s secretary Martleanne was, in fact, the granddaughter of a child conceived during Eduarde’s first visit to his son’s dukedom. She didn’t know it, but Dafythe advanced her career, as he’d promoted her father, now master-scribe in the Hall of Record, because they were his nephew and grand-niece.
After the bloody civil wars, royal bastards were an especially delicate matter. Provide for them, but do not know them—that was how a prince was expected to deal with his by-blows. Dafythe had been unable to do that. Once he’d gone to Belminstre, he couldn’t have considered any other course except the one he had taken. Could a man of fifty look for the first time in his life upon his own child and refuse it? At the time, Dafythe believed he would never see another child of his. It was impossible to abandon that baby to namelessness.
Ambris had been baptized at Belminstre, then Dafythe had taken his son to Pendaunzel to present him to the court. The little boy was brought up as a rightborn princeling. This was considered outrageous behavior, more scandalous than any sexual impropriety.
Dafythe had long remained unmarried, but when he finally took a wife, he chose a woman who would accept his child. Gillefleure was a noblewoman of ancient lineage, a descendant of one of the tribal chieftains who had ruled Atlantea long before any European had set foot on the continent and whose families, once they submitted to Norman rule, had been absorbed into the aristocracy. Since he hadn’t been born in the Northlands, Dafythe thought it politically expedient to choose a wife from among the native nobility. But a greater point in Gillefleure’s favor had been her treatment of his son. Ambris was a toddler when Gillefleure had first made her appearance at his court. A widow, childless, she seemed more at ease in Dafythe’s presence when the little boy was there. Other women had fussed over Ambris, as if to convince Dafythe that they would be excellent mothers for his children, but Gillefleure was the first to win Ambris’s affection. When the little boy first smiled at the sight of her and raised his arms to be lifted, Dafythe began to consider her seriously.
During the childless years at the beginning of their marriage, she treated Ambris as tenderly as if he were her own son. Ambris loved her as a mother and Dafythe had grown to love her himself though that had played no part in his decision to marry. After Rosa, he’d believed he could not feel such passions again. Nevertheless, he’d been broken-hearted at her death. Could it be ten years ago? He hadn’t thought of another woman since.
At twelve, Ambris took a place in the court of Kharles IV, as Dafythe’s heir would have done. Others might whisper of Dafythe’s audacity but from the Emperor there was no rebuke. Frequent correspondence praised the boy’s cleverness, his obedience, his courtesy and sweet temper, his honesty, his open affection to his imperial uncle and aunt and, because of these qualities, his popularity. Kharles understood his brother’s intentions perfectly. Both of them knew what possibilities lay in Ambris’s future: There was an unspoken understanding between Duke and Emperor that this boy, though illegitimate, was the only child of the Norman royal house besides Juan Maria. Their half-sister Agnes looked to be barren, and Dafythe and Gillefleure promised no better. Dafythe felt himself responsible: although he’d had many lovers in his youth, Ambris was his only child. Honesty forced him to acknowledge that their infertility might be his fault. It seemed unlikely that he would ever produce another heir. Kharles and his Empress Penelope had had three little princelings—Diane, Robert, and Cordelia. Dafythe had never met them, but he’d expected Cordelia, the youngest, to be educated at Pendaunzel and become his heir. He’d even hoped that she might marry Ambris when both were grown. But these plans were never fulfilled; a sudden fever in the nursery took all three princelings at once. The grieving imperial parents had embraced their nephew tenderly, and brought him forward.
The Norman people were more likely to accept Ambris than Juan. Kharles and Dafythe knew that they couldn’t have a Spaniard ascend the Norman throne. Ambris might also be of Spanish blood, but he had grown up among Normans. No one looked on him with suspicion. The Emperor had considered naming Ambris Prince of France, the title of the imperial heir-apparent. The boy’s virtues promised that he would be a good governor, perhaps even a good Emperor. But the unexpected late births of young Kharles, Mara, and Kat had put an end to these plans before Ambris could have realized the prospect existed.
A rightborn prince would have begun preparation for his eventual knighthood at seventeen, but Ambris was sent to Oxford to study law. After receiving his degree, he’d served in whatever official capacity Kharles required him, even to his first marriage to the Bavarian princess Margaude. He spent years away from the court on diplomatic missions, serving in the embassy at Venice, traveling to the Tsar’s court at Russe, and achieving great success as emissary to Naufarre during the 1920’s, when Juan first proved himself troublesome. He’d earned a reputation for fairness and honesty in negotiating difficult disputes.
Ambris didn’t return to Pendaunzel until he brought the little Prince Kat from Eireland at Agnes’s death. He met his six-year-old sister, the heir to the dukedom, for the first time. Dafythe had never properly explained the situation to his son, but Ambris seemed to understand.
Dafythe looked for signs of Rosa in their son. The dark complexion, the black curls, and the onyx eyes were hers. That hawk-beak nose had a certain elegance on the Plantagenet face. But there was nothing of her wayward personality. Ambris’s temperament was calm and equitable, his sense of duty unwavering, his moral purpose and principles an echo of Dafythe’s own, if not more refined. The name of Ambris the Just was known and respected throughout the civilized world, and Dafythe was enormously proud, and often astonished, that he’d produced this remarkable young man.
Though he loved his daughter and niece and he had sworn allegiance to his nephew, Dafythe knew that Ambris would be a better ruler than any of these three. He was the proper one to carry on Dafythe’s vision of a mighty and peaceable Northlands. He believed in it. He understood the importance of a secure kingdom in relation to its neighbors. The legitimate royal offspring were eager for excitement and would destroy the world’s peace to have a taste of it. Young Kharles was self-indulgent, Mara impulsive, Kat impractical and too pliant before her cousin’s stronger will; the pax normania which Dafythe and his brother had built so carefully would not survive them.
By acknowledging Ambris, Dafythe had assured his son a certain position in the Norman house, but the promising young man was out of the line of succession. Ambris was the Duke’s son, the Emperor’s cousin, yet forever misplaced. Ambris’s understanding of this was apparent to Dafythe in his circumspect nature: he carried himself as one who has been granted every privilege, but knows that none of it is his by birthright. All was offered freely through the generosity of Dafythe and the elder Kharles, but Ambris was in no position to make demands.
When his sister Agnes had died and her little daughter was received into his household, Dafythe hoped again that he would one day see Ambris wed into the legitimate line. But, once again, these plans were not to be fulfilled. Ambris was so much older than the little Prince—Kat was just three years old when Ambris escorted her from Eireland. Years must pass before a formal betrothal; Norman law forbade the contracting of marriages for children less than sixteen. Ambris had married elsewhere long before Kat reached that age of consent. Meanwhile, Kat had grown up in the Northlands and, even if Ambris were free to marry now, Kat was entirely out of the question. A cousin grown up away from her betrothed might be considered a suitable bride, but a young woman who’d been brought up in the same household was too much like a sister.
It had been a mistake to bring her here, but what else could have been done? Dafythe’s custody of his niece was originally meant to be a hostage fostering; Kharles had granted it in the hopes that Agnes’s little daughter would insure her father’s good behavior, but Count Egan turned this upon them. Kat meant more to them than she did to him. Kat was their sister’s child. Dafythe had dearly loved Agnes, but she’d been no more than a means to power for Egan. Could he leave his sister’s child in the care of a father who saw her only as his surest claim upon Eireland? Dafythe feared neglect: it was in Egan’s interest that the little girl survived, but that didn’t promise that she would be well cared for. Only after Ambris had spent weeks in negotiation did Egan agree to release the child. Once Kat had left Eireland, there was no opportunity to return her. Egan was firmly entrenched as its Regent and Kat was removed from her rightful inheritance. She was a stranger to Irish ways. Since she couldn’t be restored to her homeland, Kat awaited another marriage, which would occur once a suitable bridegroom was found. But that would not be to Ambris.
Soon after his first wife’s death, Ambris had met and married his second wife.
During the winter of 1947, Ambris had ridden between Pendaunzel and Eadeshire so frequently that the court began to jest that he traveled more than the most ambitious merchant. On each journey, he stopped at New York; it wasn’t immediately apparent that he made these journeys primarily to pass through the town.
His first references to the object of his interest were casual. “The Mayor of New York is wed to a kinswoman of My Lord Redmantyl,” he told his father. “The Lady has that same odd look to her. Silver-fair. Her daughters too. And there is a niece—she is a magician.”
Then: “My Lord Redmantyl’s niece is also his `prentice. She speaks to me of her education in the craft, yet she stays in New York. Why, I wonder. She isn’t pleased to stay on there.”
And, at last: “Father, do you believe in the Faerye? In truth, I begin to think myself spellbound. Such a thing has never happened to me before. There is a maiden—a magician…”
He confided his love. He described with great wonder how this young woman had captured his heart. He forgot his responsibilities for her. He thought of nothing save how to win her. He had even promised, defiantly, that if he didn’t receive his father’s consent, he would go to her without it.
Dafythe had wished him happiness. What else could he do? He’d never seen his son so impassioned. Ambris was the most dutiful of sons: his obedience had been tested in a thousand circumstances and he’d always been willing to act as his father wished. Certainly, if this girl meant so much to Ambris that he was ready to risk everything for her, Dafythe couldn’t refuse him. He knew what it was to feel such love for a woman.
Laurel arrived at the court wild and mud-spattered in courier’s garb, and Dafythe welcomed her as a noblewoman of highest birth though it meant that he must give over his plans for a more prestigious alliance for Ambris. He ceased to wonder that Ambris was entranced by her. He was enchanted by his son’s beloved himself.
Dafythe had long been fascinated by Lord Redmantyl and had tried to cultivate a friendship with that remarkable young wizard since his introduction at court. His interest increased as he met others of that strange, upstart family: Laurel, the Lady Kaiese, her lovely daughter Igren. Even among the magical, they were singular. Dafythe was no traveler, but as Duke of the Northlands he received dignitaries from all parts of the world: Europeans, Africans, Asians, Incans. No one looked like this. Native Northlanders and citizens of the Spanish colonies to the south were usually much darker; the Uinlanders, their northern neighbors, were sometimes extremely fair due to their Scandanavian blood, but never so frosty haired and pale in complexion! This over-fair family wasn’t even truly albino, for their eyes were clear, pale grey rather than pink. What were they then? Faerye, as Ambris had once suggested? Dafythe couldn’t believe in that fantastic world of superstition and nursery-tales, but he had no better answer.
Magicians intrigued Dafythe. What were these beings who possessed powers that other humans did not? Where did their magic arise from? And for what purpose? Magicians were aware of things beyond the perception of ordinary folk, and their unearthly comprehension provided them with superior knowledge. It was their custom to suggest that they held great secrets, though they could never reveal these secrets to lesser mortals.
The look in Laurel’s eyes that first summer after Ambris brought her to Pendaunzel was like that of a wounded creature, hunted, awaiting a doom which was inescapable. Dafythe had never observed such fear in any magician before. Though she quickly recovered her strength and lost the fragile, cautious quality of the gravely wounded, the Duke thought she was still frightened. He wondered what had shaken her so. She had abandoned her apprenticeship upon her marriage, though it was well-known that wizards were meant to hold their magic above all else.
Was she Lord Redmantyl’s daughter? If the rumors were true, it was no shocking thing to Dafythe. Too many of his own relations were joined in such alliances for a first-cousin union to seem unnatural. It was a common source of jest; bards forever mocked the peculiar practice of the highest nobility and backwoods folk.
If Laurel knew the truth, she didn’t reveal it. The wizard never spoke of it. Dafythe could only guess, but he couldn’t resist seeing the results of a union between a royal son and wizardly daughter. His youngest grandchild had silvery curls. What talents might emerge once the child was grown?
“What’s this?” asked Ambris as his sister dropped a rolled sheaf of parchment onto his desk.
“The Marriage Treaty of Naufarre. You spoke of it only this afternoon. Father bids you study it. It’ll be the chief point of discussion at tomorrow’s Council.”
He unknotted the faded purple ribbon which bound the pages; Dafythe had opened it earlier in the day, and the fresh knot presented no difficulty. The ink, though old, was still dark. Ambris’s eyes traveled over the written lines swiftly, taking in the pertinent phrases.
Mara turned to examine a large map on the wall depicting the eastern half of the continent Atlantea. “Where is this march, Terrojos?”
Ambris glanced up briefly. “Just above the southern peninsula.”
“This thick, red line denotes the Shieldwall?”
“And there is Dennefort, not ten miles from it! An army might travel from here to there in less than a month. Ambris, what is Terrojos? Is it a swampy land?”
“No, the swamps are to the south and along the coast. Most of it is mountainous, with red clay. That is the name of the place—red-earth or red-land. By the way, the j is pronounced softly. Rohos.” Ambris spoke Spanish very well, though in Norman courts he kept that knowledge to himself. Mara’s unskilled pronunciation, however, was too chafing to be ignored.
“Rohos.” With deliberate care, she reproduced her brother’s trilling r and that unfathomable j which had turned out to be an h.
“Our grandfather calls it Redhills in his journals of the last campaign. There are pine forests. They grow cotton there, and tobacco.”
“And oranges?” asked Mara.
“No, oranges grow in Iardinez.”
“But it would be a good land to possess?”
“The mountains are an effective barrier against invasion—`tis why the Redlyon had so much difficulty in taking it. The Spanish might make a dozen strongholds in the hills south of the Shieldwall.”
“So might we.”
“You are determined to start a war, aren’t you, Mara?”
“Juan’s started it,” she answered. “We’d be fools to ignore his challenge. Ambris, do you see the importance of this to us Northlanders? If Juan marries, his Spanish relations will lay claim to Naufarre and the treaty is broken. They forget we have claims to counter theirs! We may turn this treachery to our advantage.”
“What does Father say to this?”
“He hopes that the threat of renewed warfare will force Juan to reconsider this alliance. But it won’t! `Tis obvious that war is exactly what Juan and his Spanish kin desire. They want Naufarre. Juan will wed the Infanta regardless and Kharles will send his troops to put a stop to their plans.”
“Yes,” agreed Ambris cautiously.
“You know so well as I—it is inevitable. Juan has crossed into open treachery with his announcement of this betrothal. He can’t retreat. Naufarre’s forfeit if he does. He has no other choice but to fight for it. Whether or not Kharles takes back Naufarre, this Terrojos march is ours by rights as it was in the Redlyon’s day. It will be as if the last sixty years had never existed. And we shall be ready. At the first word of war, we’ll break the Shieldwall.”