After the last of her party had gone, Mara kicked out her bedroll by the dying fire. She didn’t expect to sleep. How could she with the dawn only a few hours away and Kat still absent?
Oh, she knew where Kat had gone. It wasn’t difficult to see; even the Shieldmaids had guessed. They might laugh, but Mara was troubled. Kat had been out with Frederik before, but never so late.
These past six weeks, the relationship between Kat and Frederik had grown alarmingly intimate. Though they must work together in coordinating the Border Guard with the Norman troops, Mara observed that they quickly passed from professional courtesy to casual friendliness—and perhaps to more?
From the day of their arrival, Kat had responded playfully to Frederik’s warm and open manner. She was the one to speak indiscreetly of his ancestry when Mara had understood the delicacy of the situation and Frederik had been embarrassed to allude to it. Once this barrier had been breached, all traditional conduct crumbled. Kat let Frederik consider himself her kinsman and equal. She addressed him as Cousin. And, more provoking still, Kat seemed indifferent to the importance of their mission here, and persuaded Frederik to disregard it as well. They attended to their duties efficiently, but they were too merry in the face of imminent battle for Mara’s liking. At the welcoming banquet, Kat had sat beside their host and teased him until he laughed out loud. At strategic conferences, they whispered together over the maps spread on the wardroom tables. They rode slowly behind the other officers when they reviewed the troops. More than once, Mara caught them smiling at each other over a chance word and knew that she had stumbled into some private joke. This was infuriating: war was grave business, and two of her most important subordinates gamboled like nursery playmates!
It was all Kat’s doing. Frederik, for all his frontier informality, would never abuse the proprieties if he were not encouraged. Nor would he dare to court an imperial prince unless that prince had made it plain that his advances were welcome. Though she was no delicate beauty, Kat was attractive. They looked much alike, but Mara saw that her cousin was more fair than she: her nose was pleasantly pert; her blue eyes were full of good humor; her figure was slender, for her training as a Shieldmaid had toned her body but not made it boyish. Plus, the reckless Irish spirit she had inherited from her rebellious father gave her a fey boldness that was strange, yet heartening, to the grim Northlanders. Frederik must have admired her from the first. And Kat flung herself at him. What could he do, surprised, smitten man, but reciprocate?
Mara didn’t have the time to act as chaperon, but she tried to keep an eye on her cousin. She had overheard a dozen personal conversations between Kat and Frederik, each more disturbing than the last. The young man grew less reticent. Where he had first blushed at the name of his celebrated great-grandfather, he now spoke freely
“`Tis no secret to us,” he said once. “The first Khrystophania told her heir and her granddaughter whose blood they bore in their veins. Mother made me know it too. `Twasn’t shame that kept me silent, Prince Kat. You must understand that. We know we have no rights in the imperial house, and we’ve always believed that we behave ourselves better to keep silent on it rather than seem pushing.”
“It isn’t right that your family is ignored,” said Kat.
“Not ignored,” Frederik answered. “The Emperors have always been generous to us. We have been raised to the highest ranks. We’ve been given this land to protect in our Emperor’s name—and we bear that duty with pride, since our exalted ancestor fought to claim it and died here. Prince Denys’s sword has hung in Dennefort Manor from the day Eduarde Redlyon left it to my great-grandmother. What more honor can we expect?”
On another day, he showed Kat and Mara this family treasure. The sword hung on the wall of the gallery between two long murals, one depicting Denys on horseback amidst a throng of victorious Norman soldiers, the other showing the Prince standing bravely against the Spanish assassins minutes before his death.
Kat took down the ancient steel. “So this is Dragonsfang,” she said. “The sword of legend. When the bards sing of Denys’s talisman, I often think that this must have been it.”
Frederik grinned. “If it is, it can’t have done him much good. He had it at his side to the last. We keep it as a showpiece, polished but not sharpened. I won’t take it to battle.”
“It’s so old. I thought it’d be a twin to Dentelyon.”
“No, our swordcrafters place it at the twelfth century, Moorish Spain. Denys won it in his first campaigns in North Africa. See the swirls of interworked metal? Two ores are hammered together to give the steel a wonderful strength. `Tis a craft that none employ today and few know of.”
“What do these mean?” asked Kat, her fingertips tracing the finely etched markings just below the hilt. “Are they Arabic?”
“I’ve no idea. It looks to be some sort of spellcraft.”
“As Maxim Gnome cast runes upon Dentelyon. There’s a jewel missing here.”
“The Black Ruby,” Frederik answered. “A rather famous gem. It is described in the old tales. `Tis said that it was knocked loose while Prince Denys fought his assassins. Look to the hangings.” Taking Kat’s hand, he led her across the gallery so that the tapestries on either side were in full view. “Do you see? There’s a red stone on the hilt in that one, yet it is missing in the other. For all I know, it lies still in the dust of the old battlefield.”
“When these campaigns have ended, we ought to look for it.” She smiled at him. “It belongs to you.”
Frederik squeezed her hand, then released it with sudden shyness. “Will you be able before you return to Pendaunzel?”
“Oh, there’s no reason for me to hurry back,” Kat laughed. “I’m not needed. With so much to be done once we’ve retaken Terrojos, I’m certain I can be of more use if I remain here—if you will have me stay.”
Mara had heard Kat say such things several times, and these remarks alarmed her. So much of what she observed between Kat and the young Marchion suggested an improper intimacy. Though she never heard them exchange the pretty love-talk she imagined sweethearts shared, nor even once caught them in a kiss, she knew that they were entangled in a romance that was both imprudent and dangerous. They had gone too far. What else could she think after this night?
It wasn’t that she disliked Frederik. On the contrary, Mara’s first impressions of him hadn’t changed. As Marchion of Princeland and the Eduardesmarch, he was admirable. As commander of the Border Guard, he was more than capable. As a young man, he was handsome, earnest and charming. Mara would’ve been pleased to see him win another woman’s heart—but not Kat’s. This love affair was insupportable. In spite of his finer points, Frederik was not an appropriate suitor for Prince Katheryne of Eireland.
Mara remembered when the little Irish Prince had come to Pendaunzel. Even in the earliest days of her childhood, her father had read aloud to her from Ambris’s letters, for she was fascinated by this grown-up brother she’d never seen. Whenever a packet arrived from remote parts of the world, she always asked if he mentioned her, if he had sent her any gifts, if he was coming to see her. And then, when she was six, a great many letters had come at once. There was trouble in Eireland, which she didn’t understand. From the passages her father read to her mother in private chambers, she knew that Ambris was arguing with some nasty man who refused to yield on a number of baffling points. At last, this man seemed to surrender, and Father had made a wonderful announcement: Ambris was coming home! More wonderful still, he would bring a little sister for her.
At that age, Mara had known nothing of how babies were born and she imagined that this was how they were normally delivered, brought from across the sea with great fanfare. At least, that was how a little Prince arrived. She recalled it vividly: the stiff velvet of Mother’s long, ceremonial skirts, which she stood against, the trumpets’ blast, the herald’s cry of “My Lord Duke, My Lady, Ambris of the Northlands presents the princeling Katheryne!” A strange, dark young man clutching a bundle to his chest had entered the Duke’s chambers and bowed before her father, then rose to kiss him. Father had smiled and embraced him; until that moment, Mara hadn’t truly realized that this was the Ambris she’d waited so long to see. Then Ambris pulled back the bundle of blankets concealing the child he carried in his arms. A head of curly, fair hair emerged; wide blue eyes blinked at the courtiers who pressed forward to see, then stared directly at her. Then Kat had howled.
In the hours that followed, Mara had offered this strange, noisy little creature sugar-plums, her favorite toys, and a multitude of pats and kisses, none of which had stopped Kat’s wails. The little girl shrieked whenever Ambris set her down and struggled when Mother or her ladies tried to take her from his arms. She was only quiet when she fell asleep. They put her to bed in the old cradle in Mara’s nursery. After the nurse had put out the light, Mara stood watching the sleeping child with fearful wonder, for who could say when she might wake and begin screaming again?
Mara hadn’t understood at the time that her Aunt Agnes in Eireland had recently died and this toddler was her cousin. So far as Mara was concerned, Kat was her sister. Even today, she considered her no less.
Dafythe and Gillefleure had never treated Kat differently than Mara, save for those natural distinctions between a firstborn and younger daughter, but they couldn’t make Kat a Northlander Prince. Eireland was her place of birth and her land by rights, though she hadn’t seen it since infancy. She couldn’t return to it now; her father, Count Egan, wouldn’t relinquish his regency and the Irish threatened rebellion if he were removed. Eireland’s standards for good governors were precise and unyielding. No foreign regents were tolerated. Norman Princes were accepted, for the blood of Irish kings ran in the imperial veins, but the governing Prince must first prove to be one of their own, placing the welfare of Eireland before the rest of the Empire. Long ago, Emperors had found it easier to accede to these demands than to suppress every uprising caused by an unsuitable administrator. Eireland was peaceable under Egan’s authority. They might be persuaded to accept his daughter at his death but, once Kat went to Eireland, she must stay there. A temporary governor would not be received. The Irish felt it was an insult to lose their Princes in marriages to foreigners and both the elder and younger Kharles had decided that it wouldn’t be prudent to install Kat as governor until all possibilities for her marriage were exhausted. The possibility of a foreign marriage remained likely and so, for the present, Kat remained in the Northlands.
From the first, Kat’s marriage had been a topic of discussion at Pendaunzel. It had seemed inexplicable to Mara when her mother and father told her that this three-year-old was meant to marry grown-up Ambris. What could it mean? Surely her sister must be his sister and if that were so, why couldn’t she marry him herself? She saw even then that her father wanted Ambris to marry into what he called the “rightborn” line, and to her this seemed the most sensible solution. When she had a better grasp of the situation, Mara fully supported the betrothal of her brother and cousin; the two little maids had followed Ambris’s career in their uncle Emperor Kharles’s service with great interest. Kat, caught up in the tales of fairytale princes, endowed Ambris with similar heroic virtues. Yet when Ambris returned to Pendaunzel four years later with his German bride, the little girl was able to meet him without disappointment. She explained to Mara afterward: he wasn’t at all as she had imagined her betrothed.
After Ambris had married, Dafythe contemplated a series of tentative betrothals for his niece—young Kharles, various German and Italian princes, even the Tsar of Russe—but each in turn came to nothing. Kat took an interest in each prospective bridegroom. As a child, she had gathered whatever news she could of Ambris’s career and prattled endlessly about her handsome prince who traveled everywhere. After Ambris, Kat looked to each new betrothed with the same romantic optimism. She spoke their names aloud. What must her future husband be like? Her fancy ran wild, and the qualities she had bestowed on the last prince were quickly retailored for the new. As she grew from a little girl to a young woman, the image grew more elaborate and eventually took up a life of its own.
Mara knew this imagined prince quite well. His physical form was never described—for it might not match the figure of her future husband—but his character was well-defined. He was bold and brave, perhaps reckless, but good-hearted; he was honest in his desire to act for the good of his homeland and his subjects; his people loved him; he was a knight; he was a skilled horsemaster and rode to the hunt with dogs and falcons; he was generous; he was a better swordsman and archer than she, but she would be able to beat him from time to time; he didn’t care for high ceremonies and fancy dress; he was plain in his tastes and simple in his piety, but by no means slow witted! Mara knew the catalog of virtues well, and knew that they applied to no one.
While she waited for a husband, Kat conducted little romances with young noblemen of the court, officers of the Pendaunzel guard, and once a thespian from the Duke’s Theatre. None of these men, however, had distressed Mara as Frederik did. Even the most handsome and most pleasantly mannered among them had meant little to Kat. She flirted with them, danced at court festivals, rode the countryside, and perhaps kissed the ones she liked best, but she’d never taken one of these transient suitors to her bed. Mara was certain of that. No, Frederik wasn’t like Kat’s Pendaunzel romances. Kat had never spoken of leaving all her responsibilities to remain with a lover before. She’d never been out so late as this.
Mara was still awake when the sound of soft-stepping boots cautiously approached her campsite. She opened her eyes as Kat reached the circle of firelight.
Mara leaned up on one elbow. “It’s long past midnight,” she hissed.
Kat spread her cloak on the grass on the opposite side of the fire and sat down to unlace her boots.
“Have you been with him?”
“What if I have? I’m nearly thirty years old. Maids of sixteen may choose their own suitors.”
“Not you. You are meant for another match.”
“To whom?” Kat demanded, flinging one boot aside petulantly. “Tsar Alexandre? Little Robert of Champagne? Infant Iosephus? I have been half-promised to one man or another since I was too small to understand what that meant, and yet I remained a maiden. No spectacular match awaits me. Can’t I be permitted to choose for myself who I will have?”
“Have?” Mara sprang upon the word. “You fly off to meet him in the night like a common soldier’s drab!”
Kat flinched and Mara immediately regretted the accusation. Before she could speak, Kat answered, “It isn’t so disgraceful as you imagine. Frederik’s asked me to stay as his wife. I shall marry him once this campaign has ended.”
“You cannot do it,” Mara protested. “Leave the Northlands!”
“I would’ve gone eventually, either to Eireland or as a bride to a foreign land.”
“Yes, but those are matters of duty. I would have hated it, but I couldn’t speak against your obligations to the imperial good. I cannot let you go for a pleasure-romp. This is nothing but folly! You forget every duty in some base passion for a man you’ve only known a few weeks.”
“I might’ve been married blind to any one of a dozen men,” Kat replied. “I’ve been in Frederik’s company enough these days to form a reasonable opinion of his character. I see how his sister admires him. The Dennefort guard adore him. They would follow him to the Four Corners, and even to Hell’s gate to do battle with the Devil’s Legion.”
Mara laughed. “A fine recommendation if you wish to join the Border Guard.”
“It shows what sort of man he is,” Kat retorted. “If Khrysta went in fear of him or if those in his command mistrusted his judgment, I would know him for a coward and a bully. If the guardswomen whispered tales rather than wishes, I would see him as wanton. But he is not! Frederik’s lived as we always wanted to. Mara, imagine—While you and I have been playing our battle-games these ten years, he’s been riding the borders in his Emperor’s service. Granted, he’s never fought Spaniards more than we have, but he’s worked for the safety of the Empire. I envy him that. I want to be with him while he does so. I would wish to stay here even if I didn’t love him.”
“You admire him as a captain admires a good commander.”
“I love him,” Kat insisted. “He is brave, honest, kind–”
“Do you think him your fancied prince?”
This was perhaps the cruelest taunt Mara could make, but her cousin didn’t reproach her. Kat appeared to consider the suggestion seriously for a moment, then she shook her head. “No,” she answered, “but he’s as close as I can expect any living man to be. You know Frederik nearly so well as I do. He is no inferior man. On your honesty, Mara, can you speak ill of him?”
“No, Kat,” Mara replied honestly. “You know I’m fond of him myself. But–”
“Frederik’s blood is as good as ours,” Kat went on before she could finish. “I should think Uncle Dafythe would welcome the opportunity to restore the descendants of Denys to the legitimate line. We cannot continue to treat Frederik and his sister as outcasts. Even if he were not our kinsman, he is Marchion in his own right. He is eligible. Extremely eligible,” she smiled a little to herself. “`Tis criminal to let so extraordinary a young man go unnoticed!”
“Is that why you do this?” Mara asked. “You wish to redress the wrong done to him? Then take it to Father and you’ll see justice done without marrying yourself into it.”
Kat frowned suddenly. “Cousin,” she said in her most serious tones, “it isn’t outrage over the injustice. Nor is it envy of his place, nor admiration for his skill as a commander. You mislead yourself. You can’t know—you’ve never felt as I do. `Tis true I want to see him acknowledged as one of our family. I want to ride these marches at his side and act as his lieutenant as I have been yours. I want to fight for him. I also want to hold him down and cover him with kisses and tear the leathers from his chest with my bare hands.” This was meant to shock, and it did. “These are all in me and I feel them, but there’s more than that. I can think of nothing to make me happier than staying with him. I see the rest of my life here.”
“That’s not my concern,” Mara answered. It frightened her a little to hear Kat speak this way. “Love as you will, but Father will insist upon his choice above yours.”
But Kat refused to be reasonable. “You don’t understand, Mara. I will have Frederik, or no one. We pledged our troth tonight.”
“Not in public.”
“No,” Kat conceded. “Privately. Our promise was not witnessed, but it binds us. We sealed our troth in the flesh.”
This confirmation that her worst suspicions were correct was more than Mara’s sensibilities could bear. “You abandon chastity–!” she sputtered.
“Deliberately,” Kat explained. “I didn’t forget myself in passion. I meant to do it. I may die this day and I wouldn’t lose my one chance at love if it were all I ever had, but I thought of tomorrow too. Do you see? No other contract can be legal. Uncle Dafythe must let us wed.”
“What of Frederik’s allegiance to Kharles? What if he refuses?”
“Kharles has made his own marriage of choice. He’ll understand. If he doesn’t, I’ll marry Frederik without his approval. Hang it, they can’t have me brought back to Pendaunzel under guard.”
“You wouldn’t,” Kat answered with a touch of her old playfulness. “You have too much need of me tomorrow and you can’t spare the guards. Will the Shieldmaids keep watch over me during the battle?” She tried to smile, but her eyes were sad. “You can’t stop me, Mara. But you might make it easier for me to leave you and my home if you can say you’re glad for me. Wish me happiness, even if you don’t mean it now.”
Mara couldn’t give her blessing. How could she condone this? Kat had always been light-hearted and fanciful, but tonight she passed from simple folly into wild indecency. And without a sign of remorse! Rather, she flaunted her new-found licentiousness—tear away his leathers!—and delighted in her calculated loss of virginity. Dafythe might well be forced to give his consent rather than see his niece disgraced. Mara was lost before this strange young woman who stood in the place of her beloved Kat. Never had she seen her cousin so defiant. What further argument could she make to bring Kat back to her senses? Duty, virtue, the consent of Dafythe and Frederik’s liege—each of these arrows struck their mark and fell away useless. Kat wouldn’t listen. She was ready to abandon everything for her love. Mara was used to bending Kat to her own will, but for once Kat refused to bend.
Kat waited awhile for an answer, then drew her feet up, hugging her knees to her breast. She sighed once or twice. Mara turned her back and lay awake knowing that her cousin was watching her, but neither spoke.