“She’s had no more to do with her own family or ours than necessity and courtesy require. Naufarre is hers, Spanish as she is herself but for no more political reason. Merciful Lord Alone knows what she’s taught her son to think of his relations in both nations. I think Juan has agreed to this marriage to make mischief and to play his Norman relations against his mother’s family. He may promise Naufarre to Spain, but that doesn’t mean he’ll give it. He is at heart a separatist. He would like to see Naufarre an independent kingdom and himself its king, but he knows that so small a nation cannot survive long between two mighty empires which desire it. So he takes what revenge he may on both, stinging when he can.”
“What will you do, My Lord?” asked Lady Roodebroke.
“I recommend that we do not respond overmuch to this threat of marriage, in the hope that Juan will abandon his plan for it. You see, Prince Juan means to provoke a response. He always has. He’s like a naughty child who misbehaves to draw the attention of his elders—save that he is no child and his naughtiness no mere tantrum. He is far more dangerous if we take up his challenges. My brother Kharles knew how to restrain him. Juan respected our late Emperor, as an elder brother if not as his rightful sovereign. Kharles could always make him behave. Marianne also respected my brother’s authority. Neither, I believe, cares for young Kharles. My nephew doesn’t yet know how to command that same obedience from them. He has little experience of Juan’s outbursts. He doesn’t understand them and, if Juan is provocative, Kharles is certain to react precisely as Juan wishes.”
“Will the Spanish try to take back Naufarre with this marriage?” asked Lady Roodebroke.
“If they do, Kharles will demand retaliation,” said Laurel. “He must, as a point of honor.”
“I wish it were not so, but I believe that Kharles desires this confrontation as much as Juan. They are both alike in that—they enjoy creating a grand explosion and never think of the injury they cause,” Dafythe answered. “There are so few living who recall my father’s wars over this same land.”
Above in the stone heights awaited their prize.
Ten thousand encamped there, for dawns light they gathered.
They hoped to retrieve the lost Eyes.
Yet in that night was base treachery committed
Villains in the darkness the encampment alarmed
Denys leapt from his bed, but his foes were too many.
His young brother fell dead in his arms.
“Do you think there’ll be a war over this Spanish business, Prince Margueryt?” Orlan asked.
“It is impossible for us to endure such insult and treachery,” Mara answered. “If Juan persists in his games, we must certainly defend our Empire. It is our duty. The Spanish have always been our foes. It is an ancient rivalry between us though my father has kept things peaceable for so long. Peace cannot hold forever when we have such traitors as Prince Juan at our backs and his Spaniard kin at our borders.”
“At our borders?” the boy asked. “Spain is half the world from the Northlands.”
“Surely you know that there are Spanish colonies to our south.” She waved in the minstrel’s direction as Delphyn sung the ballad’s most stirring verse:
Heavens cry outrage! Lament at this blow!
Eduarde was wroth at the merciless slaying.
Revenge! cried the Prince for his foe.
“Only a narrow strip of neutral land separates us from them. The Spanish will not be slow to gather their garrisons because we are not yet at war.”
Limbs he hacked from the butchers in outrageous assault.
Unslaked by this bloodlet, he rode to the mountains
No Spaniard must live lest this crime be forgot.
“Do you think they’ll invade?” the young damosel at Orlan’s left wondered. “Surely they could never be so bold as to touch Norman lands.”
“But they have already. The march they call Terrojos was once Norman. It is the Redlands of the old songs and stories. My grandfather Eduarde captured it. It would be ours now, save for this treaty that trades Terrojos for Naufarre.”
He would tear stone from stone to force them to yield.
Fires burned at the walls. Rams battered the tall gate.
The cannons rolled up from the field.
“The marriage treaty,” said Orlan, with a little gesture toward the Duke. He’d been listening to that conversation as attentively as Mara had.
“Exactly. My grandfather would have Naufarre instead. But the Spanish will claim Naufarre once Juan marries their Infanta. They can’t have both!” Her voice was rising. “Can proper Normans endure such insult without demanding rightful recompense?”
Orlan and the damosel both shook their heads.
They surrendered to Diane and pled pardon full thrice.
The Red Prince would not have spared them in mercy.
The Eyes were retaken, but at tragic price.
She heard the hoof-beats of the Duke’s riders, the battle-cry of the Redlyon’s men as they stormed up to the gates of Spainfort to have their vengeance. She heard the rumble of cannon like thunder. Eduarde’s blood, Diane’s blood, ran in her veins. She saw the mountains. Mara had never seen a mountain, but the image of the red peaks twisting up to spear the clouds was vivid in her mind. Cleft between the jagged heights, she saw the formidable stone walls of the Spanish fortress. It was in Spanish hands again these days.
“That land was once ours. We can have it again if we have the courage to claim it.” She was suddenly aware that others around the table were listening to her, some with admiration, some in astonishment at her passionate words. Dafythe’s eyes were upon her. He clearly did not approve. “It is ours,” she finished defiantly.
“If the Redlyon had been so fierce upon it as you are, My Prince, we might have it and Naufarre,” Lord Tuxsetau jested. “And all of Atlantea to the Orient Ocean as well.”
So ends my tale of Prince Denys the Brave.
At the chapel of Dennefort the princes lay sleeping.
The children of Khrysta weep over the grave.
As the court rose and left the dinner table, Mara stopped when a hand touched her shoulder.
“Prince Mara? May I offer advice? I am in agreement with you, and I hope to be of greater service in your cause.”
Geoffrey, Lord Rafenshighte, was a handsome young man with sharp, elegant features and long, black hair braided in the latest, thesperish fashion. His ministerial robes were new; he’d been appointed to his office little more than a month ago.
Mara didn’t refuse to hear him, and he went on in secretive tones. “If I may say so, My Prince, you are not subtle. Not knowledgeable in getting things done. `Tis all very well if you have your faction with your swordsmaids, your cousin, My Lady Laurel, but these women have no power in political concerns—save what influence My Lady’s faction may work upon her husband.”
“I didn’t know she had one.”
“Perhaps she doesn’t know it herself,” Rafenshighte agreed, grinning. “Yet it exists. That family has risen much. It is impossible not to notice how My Lady’s wizard-uncle is favored. And the wife of our Lord High Chancellor has her husband’s ear. You may be sure that others desire the opportunity to tell her what to whisper into it. He is highly sought.”
Though he didn’t say it, Mara understood: now that Dafythe was growing old, Ambris was considered the primary power in the Duke’s Council. She was a little angry at the suggestion. She was the Prince, Dafythe’s heir; why did the court not seek her favor? But, even as she felt the insult implied by Geoffrey’s words, Mara knew that he had already provided the answer: she took no interest in court intrigues and political goings-on.
“What do you suggest?” she asked.
The young man smiled. “Power lies in the Council, My Prince. I’ve learned that at least since my appointment. It is there that significant alliances must be formed if you wish to carry your point. Many among the Council agree with you. We would see our Empire returned to its glory of old and we believe that you are the instrument of that rebirth. With our allegiance you’ll have the opportunity you require to drive the threat of the traitor and his Spanish kin from our homeland.”
“And what of my father? He will not give over so easily.”
“No disrespect is intended to My Gracious Lord, you understand. But he is old. His judgment, I think, is not so reliable as it was and his will not so firm. If enough of the Council advises against his inclinations, he will sway.”
“Ambris would speak to Father on my behalf…” Mara said thoughtfully.
“I would not dare suggest it, My Prince. I don’t know My Lord Chancellor’s sympathies in this. After all, he is the Duke your father’s chief advisor and his first office must be to serve Dafythe’s will. If I may say so, Prince Margueryt, you ought not turn to your brother as a mere courtier seeking our Chancellor’s support. Step forward on your own. There are younger ministers whom I know to be your admirers and who will swear loyalty to you with only a little encouragement. The elders, Lady Peaque, Lord Tuxsetau, remain with the Duke even when they know him to be wrong, but Layn Lamsford, Lord Ayrton, Kaeroth, are sympathetic to your cause. They are my friends. They will be yours. Who would not wish to be called your friend?”
This was flattery in a form Mara was unused to. “Will you speak to them?” she asked.
“If you give me leave, My Prince, I would call it my highest honor.” He bowed and left her.
“What did he want?” Kat asked. She had been waiting for her cousin at the banquet-hall doorway.
“He thinks I ought to court supporters among the Council.”
“If any but Geoff offered his fellowship, I would call it sound,” Kat answered grudgingly. “But you know him.”
The Princes had known Lord Rafenshighte from childhood. His mother had been Layn Chancellor until her death last winter and he had grown up at the Palace. He was Kat’s age, a few years younger than Mara; they had taken their first lessons with him, but had always thought him a little talebearer. He’d been the sort of boy who ran crying to his mother whenever he and his playmates got into some mischief and laid the blame on them although he was often the one to start it.
Even today, there was an obsequiousness in his manner which Mara didn’t like, but he had given her useful advice. The Council might agree with her from time to time, but she didn’t hold their allegiance. Though she was on good terms with most of them, she always chose her companions elsewhere. She’d never troubled to gain their friendship, but now she required a strong faction among the Council if her arguments were to carry any weight. She couldn’t bear another defeat in the Advisory Chamber.
“You missed the first skirmish last night, Mara,” said Kat. “Ambris and My Lord Redmantyl. `Tis a wonder he didn’t explode on the spot.”
“Ambris never loses his temper.”
Kat laughed. “Not Ambris, simpleton. My Lord Wizard. They say he casts bolts of lightning to strike down his enemies. I thought we’d have a battle there in the nursery when he came in and Ambris was there. But do you know what came of it? He froze. I could feel the blast of cold when he made his greeting to Laurel. `Twas a fearsome thing to see. He didn’t even give poor Ambris the courtesy of a glance. Of course, Ambris did the sensible thing and sounded retreat, took Laurel’s cousins off to show them about the palace. I didn’t stay long myself.”
“I wonder why he’s bothered to come at all,” Mara said absently, her mind still on Rafenshighte’s proposals. “He didn’t attend the wedding.”
“Well, he had to see her baby. You know why—you’ve heard the same stories I have. Besides, the little lad, the pretty one, is going to have a place here at court. Uncle Dafythe’s made him a herald. I heard the talk around the table tonight. Is it true? Uncle Dafythe won’t call for troops?”
“He won’t hear of it.”
“Surely he can’t–”
“Oh, you know him. I’ve never met a Norman so reluctant to charge in where his sword was needed. Wait, he says.”
“I must. He is my liege as well as father. When I took my oath as a knight, I didn’t mean I would be loyal only when it suited me. You did the same.”
“And so we must abide.”
“Yes, but not for long. Even a peaceable man as Father is can’t stand by and be seen as a coward when his nation is threatened. Did you hear him tonight? How can he speak of ignoring Juan? A naughty child, is he? Then the brat deserves a good smack. If Father and Uncle Kharles had put Juan in his proper place at his first tantrum, he wouldn’t be playing these same tricks today. I pray young Kharles does strike back with all harshness. He has a heart like ours, my Cos. If he calls for the aid of our Northlander armies, Father must concede!”
Neither Prince had met their cousin Kharles. The young Emperor had been crowned at the age of twenty-one upon the death of his father in 1939; now, he was thirty-five and unmarried. Occasionally, they heard news of his life at Ouesteminstre and Paris. There had been a great scandal in his boyhood when he’d refused to wed the Bavarian princess chosen for him, and another scandal soon after his coronation when he’d become infatuated with a lady-in-waiting against the protests of his mother, the Dowager Penelope. The Princes knew that he had fathered two children by this favorite and rumors whispered of more shocking love-affairs since.
Kharles was reputed to be an expert hunter who rode to hounds frequently. He enjoyed all sports; travelers who came from his court carried tales of how the Emperor made them welcome by inviting them to match against him with swords or tennis rackets or the pieces of a chessboard—though he was happiest when he won. In his fourteen-year reign, he had shown a fondness for the trappings of soldiery: he’d created a dozen new regiments and two new orders of knighthood and he spent time drilling the honor guards at every castle he visited in his realm. It was said that he had battle-maps painted on the walls at Ouesteminstre Palace. Because of this, Mara believed that he was like her, keen for a warrior’s life and impatient for his skills to be put to proper use. As a kinswomen, she gave him sympathy; as a vassal, she gave him ardent loyalty.
“Ambris has little compliment to give our cousin the Emperor,” said Kat. “He calls Kharles an unprincipled youth.”
“Yes, well, Ambris would call any man who lived more wildly than a cloistered Brother lax in his morals. You can’t judge by that.” Mara turned to her cousin and spoke with swift purpose, “We must make our strategy to win Father over. A battle of wits is like a battle of swords. We need a plan…”