After the tumultuous summer of 1953, autumn began placidly. Rumors proved themselves true when Guenithyre gave birth to a son; the infant was christened Lyonel Eduarde Pendragon. Mara was listed as a godmother to the newborn princeling and sent him twelve silver apostle spoons as a christening gift.
Juan Maria was well-behaved, so quiet in fact that the Pendaunzel court was certain he must be up to something. Everyone knew the rebel Prince wouldn’t acquiesce to the Emperor’s demands so easily. Dafythe himself said that his half-brother’s pride would never allow him to surrender. And so they waited.
The news came at All Hallows.
“Juan’s wed!” The cry went up about the court. “The Spanish Infanta! They were wed this summer, secretly, in spite of his promises!”
“It is a characteristic act of defiance,” Ambris said at the Council which followed. “He might be persuaded to turn away from his plans if he believes it’s to his advantage to do so, but Kharles made demands without condition. To Juan, that is sufficient incentive to act. He would marry against our Emperor’s wishes even if he sets two great nations at war with each other and imperils his own little land—even if he dies for it.”
“It is an act of war!” cried Mara. “You see his sneaky Spanish ways! He can’t be trusted! Father, we must respond now!”
Every day, the Northlanders expected their Emperor to call them to war, but no message came. The situation remained at an infuriating standstill. Prince Juan had taken his defiant stand and seemed satisfied. He had married and his bride had come to Naufarre, but Naufarre remained Norman. The Spanish did not claim it. Juan did not declare his allegiance to his bride’s family. Kharles sent reinforcements to the Naufarre garrisons, but Serafina brought no troops with her beyond her personal honor guard, a compliment of six women more ornamental than experienced soldiers.
Mara was especially baffled by her cousin’s complacency. Kharles ought to have declared war. Juan should have been arrested for treason. He ought to be imprisoned with his Spanish-Infanta wife right now. Yet they lived unhindered in Naufarre, free to work whatever sedition they chose. Why did Kharles allow it? He was no pacifist, reluctant to join in conflict against an open foe. He wouldn’t dawdle over a difficult situation when the solution was so obvious. He had only to command, and his will would be done. Juan would be removed from his given fief and the problem in Naufarre ended. Instead, it was said that Kharles intended to receive Juan and his bride at the Paris court at Christmastide.
What could the Emperor be thinking? Surely Juan had announced his intentions with his marriage. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t acted yet; he would in time. He only waited until the Normans had relaxed their watch upon him. It would be prudent to strike first, to thwart Juan’s treachery before he could initiate his plans. Delay only gave him more time.
Kharles must mean to do something.
At the beginning of December, Kat was called to an audience with the Duke.
“I’m to be sent to Naufarre,” she announced to Mara after this private conference. “Kharles proposes a marriage contract for me.”
“To whom?” Mara considered the possibilities. Juan had a son. “Not little Eduarde? He can’t be more than twelve.”
“No, not Eduarde. Serafina has a brother, Iosephus. He isn’t the Infant Raimond’s heir-apparent, but a younger son of the house. I’m to take a place in Juan’s household, in order that I learn something of Spanish ways. My betrothed and I might eventually meet there, but the contract will not be signed—may never be.”
“Did you know of this?”
“The possibility of a match with a Spanish Prince was discussed when I was in London last spring, so I can’t say it’s a full surprise.”
“It is to me! You never said a word!”
“I hoped nothing would come of it. `Tisn’t what I wanted at all. Kharles calls me a bride, but in truth I’m to be his spy. I’m to keep our relations in Naufarre well-behaved with my presence so long as it’s deemed necessary. I’ve seen the private missive Kharles sent Uncle Dafythe about it, so I can’t mistake the purpose of my mission. I’m authorized to take command of the garrisons and direct a coup if I see that Juan and his bride are treacherous to Norman interests. I may become Regent of Naufarre, if it comes to that.”
“A Prince cannot have her choice of duties,” said Mara. “Our marriages are a matter of politics.” But she knew as well as Kat that this betrothal was nothing like the usual sort of marital alliance.
“I’ve always understood it to be the fate of the third Prince to marry as the Empire requires,” said Kat. “`Tis why Eireland makes such riot—its princes are betrothed to Russians or Danes or Italians and the Irish are forever slighted in their loyalties. So, they would have my natural father before me and I’ve no right place. I do not mind being commissioned as an agent in my Emperor’s name, but this– this infuriates me! Yet what else is there for me? I might as well be Naufarre’s governor as Eireland’s.”
“You’ll always have a place with me, Kat.”
Her cousin smiled softly. “A place in your heart, I know. But I am no Prince in the Northlands.”
“Then I shall make you a proper place once I am Duke. Layn Lieutenant of the Armies, Chamberlain, Chief of Council—whatever you like.” Mara had always known that Kat would leave the Northlands one day, but now that she was faced with the very real possibility of it happening, it was impossible for her to let Kat go. Kat was as dear to her as a sister. “You shan’t go to godforsaken Naufarre if I can prevent it.”
“You don’t have that kind of authority,” Kat answered. “But Uncle Dafythe doesn’t approve Kharles’s proposal either. He intends to delay my departure.”
“Ah, Kat,” said Mara, “the whole problem hangs on a scarcity of eligible men. I too have a duty to wed—but who is worthy to become my consort? I cannot choose a man of higher rank than myself, and I have no equals. If Kharles had a younger brother, or Alex of Russe, he might suit. Honestly, Kat, I feel no urgency to birth my own heir. Ambris has done enough duty for all the Norman house. When I am Duke, I shall name Eadrik my Prince of Gossunge. He’s a good lad and he’s had the governing of Eadeshire since Ambris came back to Pendaunzel.”
“It’s different for you, Mara. You know it is.”
“True,” Mara admitted. “Whether I wed or no, I shall be Duke of the Northlands for all the days God in His Ultimate Mercy allows me. What matter if my consort is a German or even a Spaniard? He must come to my household and make himself pleasing to me for duty’s sake. Of course,” she added, grinning, “I might marry Geoffrey.”
The words were spoken on impulse. She’d spent a good deal of time with Geoffrey in Kat’s absence. She hadn’t meant to, but he always seemed to be there, ready to escort her to the theatre in the city, to dance with her at balls, to ride at her side on hunts, even to watch her sparring matches though he declined to compete with her himself. Mara first thought that he’d only sought to retain her favor now that she held a little power in the Council, but he was so attentive, respectful, flattering that she began to imagine that he desired something more.
Kat exploded with astonishment. “That predatory sod?”
“Only a rumor, Cos,” Mara answered lightly. “He exaggerates his vices, I think. He likes to make a show of admiring pretty lads and behaving as if no youth’s virtue was safe from his voracious appetites. True, he flirts shamelessly with the young lads around the court, but he can’t have taken very many of them to his bed. Surely there’d be daily scandals if he were the wicked seducer he presents himself to be. No boy’s ever made a charge against him, and no outraged parent has come to Father for justice for their disgraced son. No one’s taken a horsewhip to him. Even if it were all true, I imagine he’d give over his fancies long enough to sire the next Prince of Gossunge. I don’t need him for more than that. In truth, I’d rather not have a lovesome husband hanging about me.”
“You’re joking,” said Kat. “But I pray you never let him hear you say such things. He’ll do it. You know he couldn’t hope to climb higher. He’s ambitious, that lad.”
“Yes, but he declares it quite openly. His ambitions are so plain `tis impossible to be misled.”
“Marry Geoffrey,” Kat said scornfully. “Naufarre would be a pleasure by comparison! Uncle Juan has not so bad a character. He was most courteous when we met at London. He spoke his highest admiration to me of my father.”
“Begin by thinking so well of him, Kat, and he’ll bring you around to his traitorous opinions before the end of a fortnight.”
Kat laughed. “I think not. `Tis true, I didn’t expect to find him so well-mannered and well-spoken. His claims are modest for a revolutionary. He doesn’t seek to overtake the Empire—he only wants to remove Naufarre from it. I can respect his desire to see Naufarre an independent state, but I can’t forget that it must be either Norman or Spanish and we cannot let it fall to their hands. No, I like him but I am in no danger of taking up his cause. Besides, My Lord Rosandre will be there. He will meet me at the port and escort me to Pamplona. I can’t imagine a more delightful companion.”
“There are rumors about that young man as well.”
“Yes,” Kat answered after a pause. “The advisors we traveled with from London were full of stories.”
“Repulsive stories! My Lord Rosandre is supposed to have told Laurel tales in confidence while he was here this summer. `Tis said he claims to be a victim of our cousin Kharles’s abuse of imperial privilege—or a beneficiary, depending on how one views it.”
“You don’t believe it.”
“How can I? `Tis nothing to banter gossip on the conduct of one courtly dandy or another. But to carry tales of our Emperor! The suggestion is nearly blasphemous.”
If she expected Kat to agree with this, she was disappointed. Her cousin only replied quietly: “Kharles is not as you imagine him, Mara.”
But Mara refused to hear her. “You’re mistaken. Of course, everyone knows of Lady Mellisaunte’s children and we can all count the months between the Emperor’s wedding and the birth of the little princeling, but Kharles’s misbehavior with court ladies gives no one an excuse to whisper worse about him. One tale doesn’t prove the other. Rather, it refutes it. No, Kat, your imagination has run riot with this vile slander. I will have no more of it.” And, as abruptly as Mara’s indignation has arisen over the insult to her liege lord, it abated. “When must you leave for Naufarre?”
“Kharles asks that I be prepared to travel as soon as the weather permits.”
“Why then there is plenty of time to act! You cannot think of travel when the roads are deep with snow and mud and there is ice in the harbor. February, at the soonest. March, more likely. If Father chooses to hinder your departure, you may remain here `til summer. Six months, Kat! In six months, everything may change again. This spy-match may be all but forgotten. You won’t go. I can almost promise it.”