In August, news reached Spainfort that Arnauld’s armies on the coast had successfully engaged the reinforcements from Spain, but another transport ship had landed further south, beyond their reach. More troops now marched inland. Mara’s shoulder had healed completely, and Kat officially relinquished her command and returned to Dennefort. The common soldiers whispered that grief for her beloved had unsettled the Irish Prince’s mind, but Mara and her Shieldmaids were privileged to the truth. The truth had been suspected for some time before Kat’s departure.
“She didn’t look well at this morning’s review,” Bel observed in late July. “Pale. Weary. I don’t think she sleeps.”
“There’s no mystery to that. It’s barely been six weeks.”
“I don’t believe it is sorrow that makes our commander ill,” Sataumie said obliquely. “Though Frederik is certainly is the cause of it.”
“Oh, Taumie, you don’t think–?”
“Haven’t you thought of it yourselves? She shows all the symptoms.”
“The symptoms are easily mistaken,” Alyx answered. “A dozen ailments might produce the same pallor. Christ knows this heat is enough to make us all turn away from our food.”
“And none of us is accustomed to this thin mountain air,” interjected Bel.
“True. You are no more a midwife than I am. How can you know?”
“I can’t know with certainty,” Sataumie admitted. “But I have eyes and ears and I have observed enough to wonder if it’s true.”
“Can it be true?” Bel wondered as well. “Oh, poor Kat.”
Mara put a stop to these speculations before the scandalous rumor was whispered all around the camp, but she couldn’t stop her own worst imaginings. She had heard her cousin being quietly sick in the adjoining chamber early every morning. If she asked, Kat always insisted that she was fine; she bathed and dressed and attended to her duties without complaint. Indeed, her illness might be attributed to other causes: the high altitude, the muggy, summer heat, the windowless little room, formerly occupied by Miguel’s attendant, which Kat insisted on keeping even after Mara no longer required a nurse—any of these might make her pale and sickly. Her sorrow still fresh, it wasn’t strange that Kat spent so much time in the chapel, nor—though the walls were thick and Mara heard only the faintest sobs—that she wept at night. All might be explained, but Mara thought again and again of that night when Kat had returned exultant from her lover’s arms. She counted the days since. Like Sataumie, she couldn’t be certain, but she saw enough to be worried.
On the morning after Arnauld’s news reached Spainfort, Mara went into Kat’s room to find her cousin sitting on the floor in her nightdress, chamber pot set before her—by this time, a familiar sight.
“Kat, are you carrying a child?”
Kat pushed her unraveling braids away from her face and looked up at this blunt question. “I think so.”
Her fears had been confirmed, and yet Mara’s moral sensibilities were not so outraged as they might be. It was useless to scold now. Kat sat before her, still shaky from her recent bout of morning sickness. With her rumpled nightdress, disheveled hair, and eyes wide with worry, she looked quite young and vulnerable. It was as if her beloved Kat had returned, the little sister who had admired her, followed her, wanted so to be like her before Frederik had come between them. Now, in this time of trouble, Kat turned to her again.
“What are we going to do?”
Mara couldn’t refuse this appeal for help. “Don’t be frightened.” She tried to reassure the girl. “Let me attend to everything.” Leaving Kat to dress, Mara turned to practical matters.
The morning review of troops was postponed while Mara’s chief officers and confidants quickly assembled in the private closet in her chambers.
“There is a personal problem before me which I require your aid to address,” the Prince began. “It concerns my cousin Kat, but it mustn’t pass these rooms.”
“You can’t hope to keep this secret for long, Mara. I don’t intend to.”
Kat had emerged from her own bedchamber in full dress uniform, her braids freshly woven. She stood at the closet door and looked at each member of the little group Mara had gathered—Bel and Alyx at the window overlooking the terrace, Sataumie on a chair facing Mara at the map table, and Khrystophania apart from the others on the bench beside the door. “What is this?”
“I’ve called a counsel,” Mara explained. “Our friends must hear of it first. They can be trusted.”
“Trusted with what?” asked Bel. “You haven’t told us your secret.” But she glanced at her fellow Shieldmaids as she spoke.
“It will become obvious soon enough.” The last traces of the vulnerable girl had disappeared. In her pressed, white linens, bronze-trimmed armor, and imperial sash bearing the golden lions, Kat looked every inch a stern warrior-prince. Impossible to imagine this forbidding young woman asking for aid! She stood alone, feet planted firmly, shoulders squared, chin up and hands loosely clasped at the small of her back, and delivered her announcement with the air of a commander addressing her subordinates. “I’m pregnant. I’m not ashamed of it, though I would rather the father had lived to see his child.”
Sataumie threw an I told you look back to Bel.
“Oh, Kat.” Khrystophania leaned forward as if she meant to embrace her, then hesitated. Kat’s military posture was not inviting. The younger woman blushed and looked very embarrassed.
“Shame or no, certain changes must be made to accommodate this,” Mara pressed on before further sympathetic outbursts delayed her. “As my cousin observes, it won’t be possible to conceal her condition for long, but I will not have her become an object of gossip among the common soldiers in her command. The matter must be conducted with discretion—I rely on all of you.”
“Yes, of course,” said Alyx.
“There will be modifications in the chain of command. Though I meant to resume my place at the head of the armies before the Spanish reinforcements reached us, I did want you, Kat, to continue your duties as commander of Spainfort. It will remain our base in Terrojos throughout this campaign. Now, I must appoint a new commander. Obviously, Kat cannot remain here much longer.”
“Why not?” Kat turned to her.
Mara was astonished at the question. Killing a pregnant woman was an atrocity according to the codes of civilized warfare. None but barbarians and monsters would dare deliberately lay sword against a woman with child; like cutting down a foe who had surrendered or executing a ransomed prisoner, it simply was not done. In consequence, civilized soldiers were horrified at the thought of a pregnant woman entering battle. Among Northlanders, the horror was so deeply fixed in their traditions that it had become visceral. Even the sturdiest Shieldmaids were barred from active service in the months before childbirth. Kat couldn’t stay. So much was obvious to Mara. Why did Kat refuse to see it?
This was another example of Kat’s new perversity. For all their lives, Mara had imagined Kat to be the person most like herself. Their moral standards, their spiritual beliefs, their understanding of what was and was not proper had always seemed to be the same. But in these past months, she’d seen that Kat would cut down surrendered foes, would pledge herself to a man with a seduction, and now this–! Had Kat always been like this? Mara felt as if her sister were truly a stranger. Did she know this woman at all?
“It’s been less than two months,” Kat continued. “The child hasn’t yet quickened. I won’t ride to battle, but I am capable of continuing my duties here.”
“That’s beside the point. Pregnant women have no place in war.”
“If I am pregnant, I was so when I charged the Shieldwall gate. I have been so all the weeks I governed this fortress in your place. None contested my abilities then.”
“None contest them now, Kat,” Sataumie offered in placating tones.
“You’ve proved yourself wonderfully capable,” Mara added. “But it isn’t proper for you to be here while the Spanish march against us. We did agree that I would care for you. You asked for my help.”
“This is not at all what I expected,” Kat answered dryly.
“It’s the best I can do. Believe me, Kat, I do not send you away as punishment. It is meant for your own safety. What if there is a siege? It is unthinkable that I allow you to face such danger. ”
“But I don’t want to go.”
“Then you should’ve guarded yourself against this.”
“I never meant to bear a child so soon.”
“Didn’t you?” After Kat had shown such calculation in taking Frederik as her lover, Mara could easily imagine her deliberately foregoing the contraceptive techniques known to Shieldmaids. Consummation might have sealed their illicit betrothal; pregnancy would ensure their marriage. None would wish to see Kat’s child in the uncertain status of a bastard when it might be avoided. The imperial family endured enough complication with Ambris’s family and Kharles’s acknowledged children. Dafythe would not only approve the match, but hasten it so that there could be no question of the child’s legitimacy. Everything would have happened exactly as Kat had hoped. But Kat hadn’t foreseen Frederik’s death. “You would not be troubled now if Frederik had lived. This would be your triumph. If he were here, I would have seen you wed long before this day.”
She was aware that the others were extremely uncomfortable witnessing this scene, particularly hearing her speak on this sensitive topic, but she went on.
“I would not have seen him harmed—nevertheless, he is gone. All of us must alter our plans for the worse without him. Your plans for the baby must change. I don’t imagine you wish to abort?”
Kat’s vehement “No!” was echoed by Khrystophania.
“Then you must accept the consequences of your choice. If you mean to have this baby, you must think of its welfare before all else. You are not well. Oh, you deny it and carry on your duties without regard for yourself, but we can all see how you’ve taxed your health. You cannot continue to do so. It won’t be easier in the months to come. If you don’t have a care, you may lose the baby. Don’t scoff—Heartier women have miscarried.” Her words were more harsh than she had intended. Mara didn’t wish to bully, but she had to make Kat understand that she was right. “You don’t belong in this place.”
“I took this place,” Kat retorted.
“I know. And I know how. `Tis why I would not have you face the Spanish again even if you were fit to fight. I can’t know what you’ll do.”
In spite of this oblique phrasing, Mara’s meaning was clear. Kat went white and drew back as if she’d been slapped. There was a quick intake of breath from Khrystophania, and the Shieldmaids shifted from foot to foot and glanced at each other.
“Who’s spoken to you?” Kat asked, barely above a whisper.
“None of your officers betrayed you,” Mara assured her.
“It was that damned Spanish puppy,” Bel growled. “Always underfoot. If I lay hands on him–”
“Captain, you will not touch him,” Mara snapped. “No prisoner, not even a Spaniard, will come to harm in my custody.”
She’d never meant to let Kat or her companions know that she knew what had occurred, but Kat’s willfulness was infuriating, goading her into saying things better left unspoken. This conversation had gone wrong from the first. When she’d left Kat in her room not an hour ago, she had genuinely desired to help her cousin. Her first thought was to protect Kat from any form of disgrace. Indeed, she had called this meeting of her sister-Shieldmaids—including Khrystophania because it seemed right that she be here—to enlist their aid. They had proved themselves trustworthy; they would provide invaluable assistance in silencing wild rumors, assuming Kat’s duties and seeing her safely away before the Spanish troops approached. Every difficulty she could think of had been attended to. That Kat should resist her efforts was incomprehensible. What more did she want?
Mara regretted her hurtful words, but it was too late to take them back. She wouldn’t continue to dash herself against that implacable barrier between them. Nor would she encourage the suspicions and hostile intentions of her Shieldmaids. If she had to give orders as their liege to make them obey her, then so be it!
“No more of this. We must address the disposition of the fortress before the morning’s review runs too late. Everyone bears unexpected duties as it is and my cousin’s absence will leave a greater gap. Khrysta is heavily burdened without the added responsibilities, and at any rate she leaves us soon.” Though she was prepared to take up her brother’s duties, Khrystophania could not lead the armies of the Marches until Kharles appointed her as governor. Pending her confirmation as Marchion, she would return to Dennefort. “Alyx will continue to ride as my left-arm ward as well as act as my liaison with the March lieutenants. Bel, you’ll captain the archers as always. These are the tasks you are best suited for, though I may ask other offices of you both later. Khrespian will captain all my knights. I cannot spare Uismarde or Tortos from their regular duties. Taumie, you have assisted my cousin through these weeks and you know her routine as well as she does. Do you think yourself fit to govern Spainfort in her stead?”
“I will try if you require it of me, Prince Mara,” Sataumie answered formally. Like the others, she was surprised by these swift decisions. “Though I doubt I’ll do so well as Kat.”
“You’ll do admirably. I want you to begin to relieve Kat of her lesser duties this week so that you will be prepared to take up the appointment and she may depart as soon as possible.”
“Yes, My Prince.”
“If you insist,” Kat murmured. While Mara issued her orders, she had moved from her place at the door to sit beside Khrystophania. She had ceased to fight. “Where will you have me go?”
“I can’t send you home,” Mara said. “It looks too much like disgrace.”
“Kat can come with me,” Khrystophania offered. She’d been silent throughout the discussion, but now she addressed Mara. “If Pendaunzel will not acknowledge Frederik’s child, I shall. It is all of my family that survives. It ought to be in the Marchion’s line. None will deny it.” Abashed at her own boldness, she ducked her head and shyly invited Kat, “Will you? The baby will be born at Dennefort and christened in the Princes’ chapel where Frederik and I were named.”
“It would be best,” Mara told her cousin. “It isn’t far to travel and you’ll be safe there.”
Kat looked up at her, lips drawn back tightly and teeth bared in an unpleasant smile. “That’s settled then.”