At the beginning of the Council meeting the next morning, Dafythe announced: “It is time that we form an answer to my nephew the Emperor. I’ve decided to send Kat as our courier. She will act as our representative and determine what services Kharles requires. My nephew shall know that the Northlands is prepared to support the Empire fully in this matter.” Dafythe didn’t appear pleased with his own decision, but loyalty to the Emperor was part of his duty as an imperial governor. He could not balk.
“Father, may I ask if my recommendation is included in our message?” Mara inquired.
“You wish to remind Kharles of the portion of the treaty which allows the Empire to claim Terrojos in the face of Naufarre’s defection. Granted: it has been done.” He gestured to Martleanne; the secretary lifted her notebook to show that Mara’s suggestion was indeed included, although Mara sat across the table, too far away to read the minuscule writing. “I am aware that you wish to invade the Spanish territory to our south,” Dafythe continued. “That, Daughter, I cannot support. It is an aggressive act of warfare, and I retain some hope of resolving this crisis, maintaining Naufarre as a Norman land, and keeping my wayward brother at least nominally a Norman governor, all without bloodshed. The threat of invasion must be sufficient to thwart Spain’s allegiance with Juan at this time.”
Dafythe looked surprised at this apparent reversal. “Mara?”
“But we must be able to give credible weight to that threat,” Mara continued. “I am not so impetuous as you believe, Father. If we can force Juan and his Spanish kin to concede without warfare, so much to the good. But can’t we create a show of force to impress them of our ability and willingness to fight? Our present border guard is small. A threat of invasion now is as comical as the barking of an old hound. It has no teeth.”
A chuckle rippled through the Counsel. The Prince smiled as she presented her argument: “Father, I propose that in addition to reminding my cousin Kharles of Terrojos, we make him aware of our exclusive power as Northlander to aid him. The Shieldwall is on our borders. We can have our troops at the marches more swiftly than Kharles’s army can reach the Northlands.”
“If we speak of invasion then,” said Lieutenant Uismarde, “Spain will hear us.”
“Exactly so,” said Mara. “If Spain concedes, we will have won our war without striking a single blow—just as you would have it, Father. However, if they choose to ignore the threat and take arms against us, we are prepared to defend ourselves and protect our claims. Hear me on this, Father, Ministers, I pray. I do not believe the threat of invasion will be enough to stop whatever the Spanish intend with this marriage. I lay simple truth before this Council: there will be a war. I have evidence of its coming. Last night, I consulted Magician Peter. In a vision, he beheld a battle about a burning city.” She turned to her brother. “You were there with me when he saw it, Ambris,” Mara reminded him.
“I heard Peter describe a battle,” Ambris confirmed.
The Duke turned to his magician. “Is it so, Peter?”
Peter was unaccustomed to speak at these meetings; the sudden shift of everyone’s attention to him threw him into confusion. “It is exactly as Prince Margueryt says, My Lord. Such a battle will come one day in the future. A tower will fall amid a great fire. Prince Katheryne will be there. I saw her most distinctly.”
The Council was generally doubtful and suspicious of all magical arts. “I understand that such visions are not completely reliable,” said Lord Tuxsetau. “The magician sees, but does he understand what he perceives? Does he describe his impressions accurately to you, My Prince?”
Dafythe smiled. “I know you, Mara. When you heard Peter’s words concerning a battle, you leapt upon them and construed them fit your own expectations. You believe he foretells the downfall of a Spanish city in Terrojos, but you know that when any city in all the world falls, there are fires. Towers collapse. Peter might’ve envisioned any one of a dozen cities you and your cousin will one day besiege or capture on some future campaign. I don’t doubt this will happen one day.”
“A magician’s visions are subject to multiple interpretations, My Lord,” Peter spoke carefully, “but their essential truth is unchanging. I saw what I saw.”
“There will be a battle,” Mara insisted. “Why and when and where—the rest is unimportant. It will come. I do not ask we take aggressive action if it is contrary to your principles, Father, but I must tell you that I think it is the highest folly to remain peaceable in the face of such danger as we face with the traitor Juan. Are we to be caught unprepared? I ask only that we establish our defenses. I request that you release troops in my name so that I can gather the city garrisons along the disputed border. I ask that this Council convey the message to my cousin the Emperor that we are ready to fight at the time when war is declared.”
Dafythe answered, “The accumulation of armies at the marches invites such a declaration, Mara. Our border guards are ready. The forts along the Shieldwall are equipped and the regiments currently stand more than ten thousand strong. We need no more at present. It is unlikely that Spain will cross our borders first. They’ve made no declaration of war. They have no claim upon the Eduardesmarch or other marches in our possession. Our most recent intelligence from the marches reveals that the Spanish troops at the border are smaller than ours and there is no sign of an increase in past months.”
Mara could not answer this. She was ready to think all the careful arguments she had constructed with Kat’s assistance were ineffective, when other ministers suddenly came to her defense.
“My Lord Duke, you cannot mean to leave us unready.”
“Prince Mara’s advice is no act of impulse, My Gracious Lord. I call it a prudent move.”
“There will be a war, My Duke. If it is so, surely it is in our best interests to make preparations.”
“It is not an act of aggression to guard ourselves.”
“My Lord, you cannot ignore our duty as proper Normans. We must not turn our backs blindly to an enemy!”
“Father, if we declare ourselves willing to carry out our claims in Terrojos, Spain may retreat. They will respect a show of strength even if it is not exercised.”
“And if they don’t, we will be ready to act!”
Dafythe saw the exultant light in Mara’s eyes as she turned to find unexpected allies rising about the Advisory Hall, all shouting to make their voices heard. He held up his hand for silence. “Yes, this war will come. I do not doubt it. I trust Peter’s visions. Yet I will not provoke it. I am old enough to remember what war was like in my father’s time.” He sighed. “However, I know the world too well to expect that my wishes are those of others—at this table or elsewhere. Ambris, begin your draft of the message to Kharles. Mara, I shall consider your requests and give you my answer before the letter is sent.”
Mara had left the Council and was now on the lower level of Hartshall. The voice had called to her from the gallery above. She turned to look back; Geoffrey, Lord Rafenshighte leaned over the rail at the top of the stairway.
“I commend you, My Prince,” he said. “You speak well to win the Council to your side. I pray you note who spoke first and most loudly.”
Mara thought of those who had been first to support her today. She saw the faces accompanying the shouting voices: Lord Kaeroth, Layn Ayrton, Layn Lamsford. Not Geoffrey, but many of the ministers he had named as his friends.
He smiled down at her, seeing that she understood. “You see how it might be, My Prince. All are ardent now with the memory of your thrilling speeches, but their ardor will swiftly cool. Those who cheer you today may stand by your father at the next meeting. You may lose the very ground you’ve fought to gain. No good general would stand for that.”
“Recall when you have your way, My Prince, who has been most loyal.”
“I’ve always wanted to visit Europe,” said Kat. “I was just a baby when I left.” She paused, reliving old memories. “I remember how quiet it was when my mother died. My nurse hushed me and everyone whispered. I remember when Ambris came. The nursemaid picked me up and handed me to his arms, and my father told him to take me and be off. I remember the ocean. Ambris lifted me up to the ship’s rail to show me the dolphins playing in the water. I think I was in London too, on the way from Eireland. There was a kindly old man who made a great fuss over me. I thought it was my grandfather.”
“Grandfather was dead by then,” Mara told her.
“Yes, of course. It must have been Uncle Kharles. I was in London once before, but I couldn’t tell you a thing about it.”
They sat in Mara’s reception chamber. The room, with its flowery tapestries, velvet-cushioned chairs and tables with slender, ornately carved legs, had once been Gillefluere’s. Mara had taken her mother’s apartments after her knighting. Although she had altered the bedchamber and offices to suit her own tastes and converted the boudoir into a personal armory, she kept this room as her mother had left it. As children, she and Kat had attended reception teas for the Pendaunzel dames, conferences with courtiers, semi-private audiences with distinguished visitors in this same room. There were too many memories here.
The Irish Prince smiled. “Do you recall, Mara, how we used to gather news of where Ambris was in the world and find him on the maps in the schoolroom? We talked about all the cities with the wonderful names—Paris, Venice, Prague, Kiev. Now I’ll have my chance to see a few grand cities for myself.”
“It won’t be a pleasure trip,” said Mara. “Father’s sending you on a most important errand to pledge fealty to our cousin the Emperor. You’ll speak for us all.”
“But that’s the best of it. For the first time, I’m doing something of use. If you could know how delighted I was when Ambris brought the news of my mission to me. `Tis a magnificent honor. Uncle Dafythe has chosen me to represent him before the Emperor. Do you know, I think they still see me as a child? I have no duties in the Northlands. I’m too young in the Council’s eyes. Too reckless. Too impulsive. Too excitable. Too much in–” she stopped.
“Too much in my influence,” Mara finished for her. Since she spoken with Geoffrey, she had begun to suspect that the Council thought the same of her. She was beloved, no doubt, but Ambris’s judgment was deemed more reliable. “I too feel as if this crisis has given me the opportunity to do something worthwhile. You haven’t yet reached your thirtieth birthday, Kat, but I know you feel as I do. We are still young, but we are past our girlhood. When I look at my accomplishments so far, I feel that they are nothing. I’ve done nothing I’ve meant to do. Until we had this promise of war, the next ninety years seemed as dismal.”
Kat nodded. “Ambris told me what went on in the Council today. Do you think our arguments will have any influence upon Uncle Dafythe’s decision?”
“I don’t know. He was about to reject my proposal, when some of the Council spoke in my support. He said…”
There was a knock at the chamber door and Mara cried, “Come!” Bel, the captain of the Prince’s honor guard of Shieldmaids, entered.
Bel had been the smallest girl in Mara’s cadet squad. During those first, brutal days of training, Mara’s sympathies had gone out to the petite maid with a pert, little nose, doe-soft eyes, and brown curls that were tamed into the four traditional braids with difficulty, yet she had admired the pugnacity that repudiated this pixyish appearance. She’d taken the little maid into her protection and Bel’s loyalty had been unwavering since.
“You sent for me, Prince Mara?” Bel’s eyes darted from Mara to Kat and back. “Your arm’s out of the sling.”
“The healer said I might have it free if I did not abuse it. Light exercise only. No swordplay. Shall we test its fitness on the archery range?” Bel was famous for her deadly accuracy.
“I don’t imagine any of the courtiers you match with give you a proper contest,” Bel answered with a laugh. “No, that pretty, flattering lot deliberately shoots you worse.”
Mara laughed with her. “`Tis true. All save Kat, and I must do without her for the next few months. But that’s not the reason why I called you in.” Although she intended to gain greater power in the court, Mara did not intend to overlook the influence of such friends as this. Her sister-Shieldmaids could do more to aid her than Rafenshighte would credit them with. “You’ve heard about the Council meeting?”
“I’ve heard little else this morning. Is it true? My Lord Dafythe might release the garrisons to you?”
“He said he’ll consider it and give me his answer. It’s the first time he’s shown signs of yielding. My request isn’t unreasonable. It’s a perfectly sound strategic move to impress Spain with our resolution. Surely, Father must concede to the sense of it. I’m not asking that he give me leave to overrun Terrojos with Northlander soldiers—not yet. Are you willing to ride with me, Captain?”
“You ask? Mara, my loyalty is yours. You know that. If war does come, we must be ready for it. No one can fault you for foresight.”
“True.” She gestured for Bel to sit down. “I know you keep up with our old company.”
“Most of them. Alyx was commissioned Captain of the Guard at Storm Port this winter. And you know Martine is at the marches. Sataumie is at the camp in Ystelake, teaching little maids to become swordswomen. The others are too far scattered. Jeandanyel has gotten God-knows-where as a free agent. When I last heard from her two years ago, she was on her way to the Far East with a caravan of rich traveling merchants. Tessa’s in France.”
“We have three then, who can receive the news within days,” Mara concluded. “Send messages to them—Alyx, Taumie, and Martine. I cannot write them myself—not `til Father gives me leave—but I think it best that we be prepared before the orders are given. Apprise them of the situation, of Prince Juan’s latest treachery, of the treaty that allows us to claim Terrojos, of my request that my father allow me to lead an army to the marches. Tell them to keep the news to themselves for the present, but tell them: Organize your troops. Be ready. They are Shieldmaids. They’ll know what to do.”
“They’ll be waiting for your word,” Bel promised.
Mara smiled and turned to Kat. “There we are, Cos. If Father releases the garrisons, I am ready to march. If not, then nothing is lost. If I win Father over later on, then our friends are prepared to join me within days. I have covered all possibilities. We’ll see the mountains of Terrojos yet!”