The next morning, when the court assembled at the Othelie chapel for Ash Wednesday Mass, Mara sought out Bel. The captain was the only one of her companions who had accompanied her back to Pendaunzel.
“I think of leading another campaign against the Spanish this summer,” she said softly as they took seats in the forward pew. Although the benches behind them filled rapidly with bleary-eyed courtiers who had been up late at the Grand Tuesday revelries, none would join the Prince and her captain without explicit invitation. Their conversation wouldn’t be interrupted.
“Mara!” Bel was delighted at the announcement. “So soon?”
“So soon as I can.” After a night during which she had turned more restlessly than usual, she knew she must choose her course of action swiftly.
“What of My Lord Duke? Will he allow it?”
“I fear not.”
“I hoped that after we had marched once, he would have no reason to refuse a second time–” Bel stopped abruptly as the murmuring courtiers behind her fell silent and rose to their feet. The Duke had entered the chapel. Dafythe moved slowly down the center aisle past them, a herald supporting each elbow, and took his usual seat in the boxed pew to the immediate right of the altar, beneath the stained-glass window depicting the Sainted Othelie converting the pagan tribes. The chaplain had only been waiting for the Duke’s arrival to begin the Mass. Once Dafythe and his heralds had settled themselves, the priest blessed the congregation—In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti—and began the penitent’s prayer:
“Spare me, Almighty Lord Our God,
For I have sinned in thought and word and deed.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. ”
Mara and Bel knelt for the invocation, elbows upon the rail and heads bowed. Bel glanced up at the Duke.
“Where?” she hissed.
Where indeed? Mara had spent the night at this question and had not yet formed a satisfactory answer.
“Iardinez is the logical target,” the Prince whispered, her face hidden against her upraised arms. “Much of our army remains in the Redlands, not one hundred miles from the new border. But now that the Redlands have been restored to Norman rule, we can expect no threat from that quarter. The Spaniards to our south go in terror of me these days, since we filled their sanctuaries with Terrojos refugees. Tales carried.”
“Kyrie eleison,” the priest intoned.
“Christe eleison,” the congregation responded.
“If not Iardinez, where?” asked Bel. “The nearest Spanish territories elsewise are the marches north of Tenochitland. Not that I mind where we go. Wherever you choose, Mara, I’ll ride with you. Only give me the opportunity to have at those bastards again—Christe eleison!”
More than once, Mara had observed that Bel was too eager to lay her hands on the Spanish. She hated them with a passion. She looked forward to another war only because it enabled her to spill more of their blood. But were Mara’s reasons any more noble?
“Cast me not from Thy presence, O Lord, but embrace me to Thy Bosom.
Deliver me from blood guiltiness, and I shall sing of Thy Glory.
When Thou open’st my lips, Lord God, praise of thy works shalt flow.
Thou desirest no greater sacrifice, else would I give it Thee.”
Her God demanded blood spilt in his name. That, more than her restless craving for excitement, more than promise of victory, drove her on. But she didn’t act from hatred. This was no base lust for revenge. Her desire served a higher purpose. The blood was her sacrifice. It was the praise she offered to the Almighty. His foes were her foes. With her sword, she cut her obeisance.
“O Merciful Lord, wash from me my wickedness and cleanse from me my sins.
Against Thee have I sinned and evil have I committed in Thy sight.
For I was conceived in wickedness, and in sin hath my mother borne me.
But Thou shalt grant divine truth unto my heart.”
The blood spattered hot on her face. It stained her princely tunic. It ran down her face like teardrops. And nightly, she washed the blood away.
“My soul shall be purged of all corruption and be made whiter than snow.”
The prayer concluded, the priest moved among the congregation to place the ashes upon each brow. As he passed from one penitent to the next, he repeated the same phrase: “Memento, pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris.”
Remember: Dust thou art and to dust shalt thou return.
The priest smeared the ashes upon her brow.
Bodies lay dead and dying on the battlefield. Blood seeped from the wound in her shoulder. The sun blazed into her eyes.
Pray for us sinners, now, at the hour of our death.
“Amen,” she whispered. Her hand went from her brow to her breast to form the sign of the cross, but she stopped in mid-genuflexion to clasp the red stone.
She offered a prayer of her own: O Lord Almighty, as I am Thy most humble servant and the instrument of Thy will, guide me to Thy use. You give me gifts of great power—show me how I am to wield them. You grant me victory in all battles—show me the land I shall conquer. Show me the way I am meant to go.
Next came the presentation of the holy gifts. The priest’s attendants filled the silver communion chalice with red wine; the host was brought from the tabernacle and placed on the silver salver. The priest moved toward Dafythe first. Rank and age gave the Duke the privilege of remaining where he was, while the rest of the congregation filed in turn to the altar to receive the body and blood of Christ.
Mara and Bel rose first. Ambris, shepherding the heralds, joined them. They knelt on the single step before the altar, in the dapples of green, yellow and rose-colored light from the tiny panes of Othelie window. Colors danced over them.
Vast green-scaled wings spread into translucency.
The priest offered Mara the host.
“Accipite. Hic est corpus meum. ”
The host was placed upon her tongue. The chalice was offered.
“Accipite. Hic est sanguines mei. ”
A single tear of blood dropping from the Sonnedragon’s curving claw.
This is my blood.
Mara drank, dissolving the wafer with the wine before she swallowed it.
There was the final prayer, and then Mass concluded. The congregation rose.
“Bel, I pray you that no word of my plans reach my father’s ears `til I am ready,” Mara whispered as they shuffled toward the doors. I ought to decide where I’m going before I speak to him–”
She stepped out of the chapel, and a blast of heat nearly knocked her back.
The sun was dazzling. Mara blinked and lifted a hand to shield her eyes. The scene before her was not the little churchyard she’d known all her life, with its twin rows of shrubbery flanking the path to the ducal mausoleum, and the bare trees not yet in flower obscuring the walls of the Manor.
This was a desert. The sky was brilliant blue without a cloud, the sun searing white. Heat scorched her cheeks and dry air cracked her lips and reached even into her lungs. Tough-looking tufts of tall, faded grass studded the dirty yellow hills before her.
Atop a massive platform of wind-sculpted rock in the distance, dark in silhouette against the blazing sky, sat a fortress. This was no Spainfort, nor even the size of Alcazar Norte or the citadel of Tolo Invencible. It was tiny, but inaccessible upon its perch. The broad, glistening line of a river curved about its base and another, smaller stream flowed into the greater.
In her head, she heard the voice of the dragon: It is thine, O Prince.
She blinked. There was a hand on her shoulder. Bel stood at her side.
“Mara, what is it?”
They stood in the churchyard of the Othelie chapel on a dreary and grey February morning. “What happened?”
“I would ask you the same,” Bel answered. “You’ve been staring at the sun as if you’d never seen it before. I thought you were in a fit.”
“No, I’m fine.” She took the hand from her shoulder, squeezing once before she released it. “Everything’s going to be fine. We’re going to go.”
“No, somewhere else.” That desert land she’d seen couldn’t be any part of swampy Iardinez. But where could it be? She’d been shown her goal; now, she must find the path.