They met in the ladylike parlor that had once belonged to Mara’s mother. Warrior women with copper clasped braids and daggers strapped to their leather jerkins or thrust into the tops of their tall boots lounged on velvet cushioned chairs meant for more gentle females at less serious business. Ren served them wine and honey-cakes, then retreated to the windows, where she usually sat during the Prince’s conferences.
“The removal of our troops from the Redlands complicates matters,” Mara told her Shieldmaids. She knelt on the carpet, a map of the Northlands spread open before her. “Our armies are now disbanded, or else returned to the towns where they were garrisoned. I have no hope of recalling them swiftly for the journey westward, but I’ve given the problem some thought since we last met. It is to our advantage if the army isn’t so large as it was during our last campaign. A smaller force will be more easily supplied and more readily moved by ship and barge. However, it also requires a more specialized soldier—only the most fit and able will be chosen to go. You three will act as my agents: Alyx returns to her command of Storm Port’s garrison this summer. Taumie, you remain here as Uismarde’s aid for the present, but I will contrive to have you commissioned elsewhere when the opportunity arises. Bel will be my liaison with the garrison captain at Pendaunzel. When the time is right, we can reassemble the army of the Northlands in a matter of weeks!
“Ships will gather at Storm Port—here,” Mara tapped the map. Bel left her chair to stand behind the kneeling Prince and look over her shoulder. Sataumie, on the coucherie, sat forward. “Also at Ystre Harbor, Johnesport, Lammouthe, Heofon, New York, and the Frankeshire ports to the south. Our greatest numbers will already be stationed at these towns, and the rest will be no more than a few days away.”
“Save the Gilleshires,” said Alyx.
“I do not forget them,” Mara answered. “Those regiments will travel by river—the Myame flows into the great Michelne and it is navigable by barge. I shall take that route myself.”
Kat leaned forward to view the map. “Where do we reunite?”
“On the westward banks of the Michelne. ‘Tis not on this map.” Mara waved in the general direction of a larger, rolled sheet of parchment on the sideboard behind her; Alyx rose to get it. “I can show you on the full Atlantea map, if you like, Cos. We land at the river ports of the Jamesmarch and assemble our troops there.”
“Have you written the governor there?” asked Kat.
“No, not yet.”
“Our plans haven’t gotten beyond this room,” Alyx added, smiling as she helped herself to a second glass of wine as long as she was near the decanter. Bel glanced up to scowl at her for speaking so lightly of this solemn matter.
“Nothing we say here may leave this room ’til Father gives his consent,” Mara continued as she rolled out the large map purloined from the Hall of Record. “We land here,” she tapped the thick, blue line of the Michelne River with her fingertips. “The troops will assemble and resupply themselves at the port towns. We’ll march across the Jamesmarch to the Santiago border. Once we are there, our first target will be the fortress which sits above this little river. It is built upon a tower of rock and is nearly impregnable, but we shall take it.”
“This fortress,” asked Kat, “What’s it called?” She looked to the others: Sataumie shook her head; Alyx shrugged. Bel, still at Mara’s shoulder, watched the Prince trace the thin line of blue which marked the border between the Jamesmarch and Santiago and didn’t look up. “Where is it?” Kat joined her cousin on the floor. “This map makes no mention of a fortress, upon a rock or otherwise,” she announced after a close examination of the pale yellow cluster of Spanish marches. “Mara, where did you learn of this?”
Mara looked up at her from the other side of the parchment. “I’ve seen it—a fortress above the desert. It was promised me.”
“Promised?” Kat glanced from one Shieldmaid to another; they had all heard this before. “By whom? Not your talisman dragon?”
Mara smiled. “I knew you’d be skeptical.”
“I’m not skeptical,” Kat protested. “I only wish to understand. Do you mean that you’re going to invade Santiago because you saw it in a vision?”
“Yes, of course. Oh, I know it sounds odd to you—you haven’t seen your talisman beast yet. You haven’t heard it speak to you of wondrous gifts. Victories which will be yours for the taking.” Mara gripped the gemstone dangling at her throat as she spoke. “Kat, if you’d seen that desert land as I have and known that it was meant to be yours, you would do the same as I’ve done.”
“Perhaps,” said Kat. She sat back against the legs of her chair, frowning as Mara continued to explain the deployment of her troops.