When the group disbanded, Kat took Bel’s arm in the corridor outside Mara’s apartment. “You’ve been with her these months while we’ve all been in the south,” the Irish Prince whispered. “How long has she been like this?”
“February,” Bel answered. “She had her vision of Santiago at the beginning of Lent. I was at her side when it happened.” There was a distinct note of pride in her voice.
“Did you see anything?” asked Alyx.
“No, of course not. I’ve never seen the Sonnedragon either, but I don’t doubt its truth. She sees it.” Bel looked from one to the other defiantly, challenging them to deny this evidence.
None of them could. Question a talisman beast? They might as well question the existence of the Blessed Virgin Mother.
“Is it sensible to you, this plan of hers?” asked Kat.
Here, Bel faltered.
“No, Prince Kat,” Sataumie admitted. “We thought it strange when Mara first told us.”
“But you said nothing to her?”
“Christ’s Mercy,” cried Alyx. “Are we to contradict our Prince?”
“We did ask if Iardinez might not be a more reasonable target,” Sataumie added. “She would have none of it.”
“Your pardon, Kat, but if our Prince and General wishes to lead us halfway across the continent to conquer a desert land on the advice of a visionary dragon, then we will march with her,” said Alyx. “Won’t you?”
“If Uncle Dafythe consents to this venture, I will go,” Kat answered. “Mara will need sound advisors for this peculiar campaign.”
Alyx nodded. “If it eases your mind, Prince Kat, I was at Mara’s side every day of our campaign through the Redlands and I’ve seen her as frightening—in battle, her eyes were fixed upon nothing, yet she struck true at whatever foe stood in her way. She’s never miss-stepped when the spirit of her dragon guides her. I don’t pretend to understand it, but trust her in it.”
“We’ve all been frightening at one time,” Kat agreed. “It’s easier to act when you don’t think, and you find yourself doing things you couldn’t have imagined before.”
“All of us, save Sataumie,” the Storm Port captain answered, grinning. “She’s never known a moment’s madness. Her wolf would never send us on a thousand mile quest.”
“Santiago, Iardinez, Naufarre,” Bel said impatiently. “It matters not the least to me. So long as it’s a Spanish land and we go.”
Ren emerged from Mara’s apartment, her arms filled with rolled parchment maps to be returned to the Hall of Records. The gathering in the hallway dispersed.
“Alyx, what’s that stone that Mara wears?” Kat asked as they walked on. “Have you noticed it? Red.” Her hand went to her breast, mimicking Mara’s gesture.
Alyx glanced to Sataumie. “Is it the one Don Miguel gave her?”
“Miguel? The Spainfort commander?”
“Yes, Prince Kat. ‘Twas after you left. He made her a present of a gemstone, told her it belonged to Prince Denys or some such nonsense.”
“I’m pleased to learn that you and Kat are friends again. You haven’t truly been happy without her,” the Duke said to Mara the next time they met. “She’s joined the little circle gathered about you, has she?”
“Who’s told you that? Kat?” While Mara was personally delighted at her reconciliation with her cousin, she couldn’t help recalling how Kat had questioned her plans at yesterday’s conference. She felt a stab of suspicion. Was Kat carrying tales to her father?
“Ambris told me,” Dafythe answered. “He has noticed your sessions with your Shieldmaids and wonders at them as much as I. Tell me, Daughter, what is it you discuss? You aren’t still fixed upon that ill conceived plan of yours, are you?”
So they’d come to the true reason for this interview! Father already knew the answer to his question; Mara was certain of that.
She said nothing.
Dafythe frowned. “And now you’ve dragged your companions into your schemes. Mara, I do not like this.”
“I do no harm to speak of it,” she protested.
“It is dangerous! You do yourself no good service if you place yourself among such friends, who consent to your every wish.”
“What do you mean?” Mara asked. “Do you suggest that my Shieldmaids are not trustworthy? Alyx has been tested at my back a hundred times. And Bel—”
“I’m fond of your Bel,” Dafythe stopped her. “You know I am. I’m certain the rest of your companions are equally loyal. I mean, Mara, that they are not the best advisors you could choose. They champion your cause, regardless of its merits. Right or wrong, they will follow you to the corners of the earth and be ready to die at your side. But will one of them disagree with you? I don’t doubt their sincerity. They do not mislead you deliberately, as I know Geoffrey does. It confounds me, Mara, that you favor him.”
The Prince seized this opportunity to change the subject. “Geoffrey is your advisor, Father.”
“He sits on my Council. I do not hear his advice on all matters. He hangs upon you, whispering his lies. I don’t like it.”
“You dislike him for the same reason you disapprove the rest of my friends,” Mara retorted. “They agree with me. Bel, Geoffrey—they say I’m right and you are wrong, and so you call them unreliable!”
“They tell you that you are right whether you are or not,” Dafythe answered tersely. “How can you know? Mara, if you are to govern well, you must learn that those who cheer you on in all pursuits and offer only the advice you wish to hear will fail you when you have need of them most. Whether they act from blind loyalty or courtly deceit, they betray your best interests. Yet you surround yourself with such people! I cannot allow this to continue. Dream of Santiago if you like, Mara, but henceforth you are forbidden to make plans. You have called your last war council. One word from you is a promise to your followers, and you are in no position to promise them anything. Not one soldier shall be alerted. Nothing will be commissioned in your name. No rumors of a second campaign will be spoken outside the Palace. The tales within will die away if there is nothing for the court gossips to feed upon. I don’t wish to be harsh, but if you will hear no other voice of dissent, you will hear mine. Daughter, I command you: not another word of Santiago.”
There was no help for it. Her father was also her liege lord. She had sworn obedience to him and could not refuse his command.
“Yes, Father,” she answered. “As you wish it.”
“It could be worse,” Rafenshighte consoled her that same afternoon once she’d spent her outrage in repeating this latest quarrel with her father. “My Lord Duke hasn’t forbidden you your Shieldmaids, only limited the topics you may discuss with them. He might’ve sent your friends from court. He might have forbidden you to speak to me.”
“It is unfair!” Mara continued her tirade. “Father warns me against the advice of those who support me—he thinks you sycophants—but he gathers his own favorites about him. His legal lass, his pretty pet herald–”
“Yes, you would notice that one,” but Mara smiled as she said this. “The boy is always in Father’s chambers. He’s made himself indispensable. He sings.” She often heard that soprano voice trilling in the corridor when she passed by Dafythe’s apartments. “He plays chess. He’s become a second secretary. He knows where everything is—he’s sorted all of Father’s papers and tied them up with cloth tapes of different colors and made up indices. Father calls him a marvel. He sits in attendance night after night at Father’s request when the other heralds are meant to share the duty. Father hasn’t doted upon any child since Martleanne first came to his service.”
“No, he rarely makes such a fuss,” Geoffrey agreed. “I know that it displeases some to see it.”
“Why?” Mara wondered. “What harm could Andemyon possibly do?”
“It isn’t the boy himself,” Geoffrey spoke as if he were reluctant to explain the truth of the matter. “I have the highest regard for My Lady Laurel and a healthy fear of her wizard-uncle, but they rise too fast to please some here at court. That overly fair family has come from nothing and risen to the Duke’s household in two generations. They stand amidst the oldest noble families of the Northlands and My Lord Dafythe picks them out for special honors. Where did they come from? What was Lord Redmantyl’s father? A farmer? A wheelwright?”
“He was a village miller, I believe.”
“And the grandchild is the Duke’s pet. He has the Duke’s ear.”
“I doubt the boy gives my father advice good nor bad that need concern anyone at court. What will you wager, Geoffrey, that my father’s favorites never speak a word of disagreement when he seeks their opinions?”
“I wouldn’t take such a wager, My Prince,” her confidant replied. “My Lord’s personal secretary and his herald would no more disagree with him than I would disagree with you.” Observing that she was calmer now, he continued in more serious tones, “Take heart, My Prince. This ban can’t go on forever. The Fates may conspire to see that you have your way yet.”
Mara looked a little guilty. “What do you mean?”
“My Gracious Lord Dafythe is very old,” Geoffrey answered obliquely. “Even if the Almighty in His Infinite Mercy allows him to reign twenty years more, his resolve isn’t so strong as it once was. He relented once before, bending to the wishes of our Emperor. He may again.”
“Your cause isn’t dead yet, Prince Mara. If I were you, I wouldn’t be ready to abandon my plans—but surely you don’t need my humble advice on this point.”
“No, I’d like to hear it,” said Mara. “No one else offers such interesting options.”
Rafenshighte smiled, gratified. “I suggest that you cease your conferences with your Shieldmaids, just as My Lord Duke commands. Open defiance will only distress him. He may forbid you the counsel of your friends but, if I may speak frankly, even so prominent a nobleman as the Duke of the Northlands and son of the glorious Redlyon cannot keep a freeborn woman from her own thoughts, even if she be his daughter and a knight sworn to his service. Can he prevent you from reading what books you like, My Prince? From looking upon maps of your own land and its neighbors? He cannot stop you from taking notes for your own personal memoranda.” The courtier paused to be certain Mara understood. “And, should My Lord Dafythe relent one day, these same private writings may be of interest to others.”
This level of subterfuge was unfamiliar to Mara, yet she found it appealing. Nothing Geoffrey proposed directly contradicted her father’s orders. She wouldn’t discuss Santiago with her Shieldmaids. No word of her plans would escape the Palace. Father would have no reason to complain… if he even knew. She wouldn’t be the one to tell him.
“I will not disobey my father,” she said, “but I’m going to Santiago. If he places me under such arbitrary restraints, then I am justified in using whatever means I find at my disposal to evade them.”
For the second time, Mara considered using the power of the Dragonseye. Under its influence, Dafythe would relent tomorrow and hear her proposals for the invasion of Santiago; the consequences of invoking this strange magic, however, were too unpredictable. She wanted her own way, but not if she must injure her father to get it.
“It would be best if I had the proper words to persuade him,” she continued. “But I never am able to say the right words. We don’t understand each other, Father and I. He doesn’t think of war, even when the cause is most reasonable and urgent. He calls my plans impractical. Certain victory means nothing to him. If I rode into Toledo and captured the Emperor of Spain, Father would only shake his head and say Mara, as if I were a child up to some naughtiness.”
Geoffrey grinned. “I must confess, My Prince, I don’t always understand you myself. Oh, I’m in full sympathy with your desire to drive the Spanish from our borders even though I have no wish to march with you. But I am also unceasingly amazed at your soldierly intensity. It astonishes me that a woman born to the luxury of soft beds and silks should choose to ride in from the woods so many mornings with mud on her cloak and last autumn’s leaves in her hair. Most of the world sleeps on dirt and straw, you know. They dream of the feather stuffed mattress you scorn.”
Mara laughed. “Geoffrey, you’ve never given a thought to most of the world’s discomforts!”
“I don’t pretend to. I present myself as I am.”
“Ambitious, glib, self-interested,” she counted these qualities on her fingers.
“Exactly, My Prince.” Rafenshighte’s indomitable grin flashed again. “I refuse to apologize for it. Is there evil in honest ambition?”
“If I thought so,” Mara answered, “I’d banish you from my company exactly as my father wishes.”
“Yet you do not.”
“No, Geoffrey. You’ve been of service to me.” She knew where this turn of conversation was leading, and she didn’t discourage him.
“I hope I may be of greater service in the future.” He paused, meeting her eyes with something like uncertainty. “Margueryt– May I address you so? Mara, you know my ambitions, but you also know that you alone possess the power to fulfill the summit of my hopes.”
“A Duke’s consort?” she asked. “Is that as high as you wish to climb?”
Geoffrey’s eyebrows went up in surprise. “How much higher can I go? True, you may become Emperor by the Grace of God one day if My Imperial Lord Kharles is unfortunate in the health of his children—but that’s too much for either you or I to fix our hopes upon. My dear Prince, reassure yourself I have no intention of overtaking you. Supplant the Sonnedragon of the Northlands? I’d be a fool as well as a knave! No, I’m content to be a satellite and reflect the luminescence of a greater light.”
“That sounds very humble,” said Mara. “How do you intend to serve as my reflector?”
Geoffrey was still smiling. “I shall counsel you and hope that the words of a husband have at least as much influence as the words of a mere courtier. Have you found complaint with the advice I’ve offered you so far?”
“No, of course not.”
“And then, when you’re away from Pendaunzel on your campaigns against the Spanish, someone must take up the burdens of governing in your absence. My Lord Ambris will not be able to bear all your responsibilities. Do you trust me less?”
“Than my brother? Yes, certainly.”
This was probably what Geoffrey had sought since the beginning of their friendship, but Mara didn’t mind. At least, he was honest about his reasons for proposing this marital alliance and didn’t insult her by trying to make love to her. Geoffrey wasn’t the sort of man for it, and she wasn’t the sort of women who would enjoy it. He was of use to her; today, especially, he had been enormously helpful. Would she have found so simple a way of slipping past her father’s restrictions if she’d consulted anyone else? As long as she could rely on his support, and as long as Ambris was here to keep a check upon him, there was no reason why Geoffrey wouldn’t be a suitable consort.
Geoffrey was watching her hopefully. “Well, Mara, what do you think?”
“I’m not afraid of your ambition,” Mara answered. “I think I can control you.”
If Rafenshighte was startled by this strange reply, he was too courteous and circumspect to reveal it. “I am always yours to command, My Prince,” he said smoothly, “whatever honor you choose to grant or refuse me.”
“I’ll think on it, Geoffrey.”