She didn’t wait long; her father summoned her to his private apartments that same afternoon. “Mara,” said the Duke, “it has come to my ears that you continue to think of your campaign to Santiago.”
“Has it?” Kat must have gone straight to Dafythe with the news. Only two other persons were privileged with any part of her secrets: Bel, who wanted another chance at the Spanish so badly that she would never dare breathe a word against Mara even if she could doubt her purpose or think of committing an act of disloyalty; and Geoffrey, who wasn’t trustworthy, but who had everything in the world to gain if he were loyal to her and nothing to gain by betrayal.
Her father was puzzled by her calm response. “You don’t deny it?”
“I’m certain your source was reliable.” It was her own fault. In her eagerness to have the old days back again—as if Kat were still that same girl!—she’d rushed foolishly into confidences better kept to herself. Indeed, Kat had warned her that she ought to.
Dafythe continued to regard her with concern. “I confess, Daughter, I’m lost as to what more I can say to you to return you to your proper senses. You hear no words you do not wish to. You’ve become mad in your pursuit of this meaningless goal. My commands are disregarded. You continue speak to Captain Belinde and your cousin as if your army were ready to march.”
“I haven’t!” Mara protested. “I haven’t spoken to anyone about going on a new campaign since you said I must stop all plans. I’ve thought of it, `tis true. I can’t help that, Father. But my thoughts are my own. In my chambers, I read whatever I can find in the libraries about the lands to our west. Is that madness? Bel is sometimes with me when I read.”
“That’s a petty distinction, Mara. Your captain comprehends your motives as well as I do, and it stinks of duplicity for you to pretend she doesn’t. Such tricks are beneath you. You used to have a finer sense of honesty.”
Those last words stung. Mara felt her father’s disappointment.
“And what’s this I hear about you and Magician Peter searching for the history of that gem you wear? Does that have a part in your thoughts for the marches?”
Mara’s hand went to the stone tethered at her breast. Dafythe’s eyes followed the gesture; he’d seen it before. “It’s nothing, Father,” she answered. “I wish to find out where it came from. That’s all.” This was a blatant lie, but her father already thought her mad. If she told the truth about the Dragonseye, it would only confirm his worst fears.
“You don’t think it magical?” Dafythe asked.
“I don’t know that it is. It’s what I was told, and I’ve asked Peter for his help in finding out if all I’ve been told is true.”
Dafythe seemed somewhat doubtful of this answer, but he accepted it. “You might not like Peter’s answer when he finds it, but I suppose these researches of yours are a harmless pursuit. They distract you from other interests. As to those other interests, Daughter, they must cease. Hear me in this if you hear nothing else: so long as I am Duke and have my voice to speak with authority in this land, you will not go on campaign to the western marches. I forbid it. Do not plan. Do not look at maps or histories of those far lands. Speak no word of it to anyone. I don’t like to be reduced to giving such tyrannical orders, but you’ve made it necessary. Look westward no more.”
“What did you expect him to do?” Ambris asked when Mara sought him out immediately after leaving the Duke’s rooms. “Father is Father. He stands firm on what he believes to be a matter of principle. You’ve done nothing to make him change his mind. In fact, if I may speak frankly, all you’ve done is make him stand more firmly against you. You’ve acted contrary to all his wishes. You’ve ignored his direct commands. You’ve taken counsel with his courtiers, including myself, behind his back. Even if he’d been persuadable at the first, Mara, he couldn’t bend before such defiance. He’d never be able to stand again. A duke can’t be seen as weak, particularly where his children are concerned. And since he’s made his will in this known, I’m afraid I can’t aid you any further. I must be his councilor before I am yours.”
“I didn’t mean for you to choose between us,” Mara answered, chastened. She knew that Ambris was right in all he said—her persistence had only made her father more determined to suppress her—but she also felt the awkwardness of the position she’d placed her brother in. Ambris had shown great loyalty to her by answering her questions and offering his advice. He’d done as much as he could for her without betraying his oath of fealty to Dafythe. “I’m grateful for your help. I know you have your own principles. You don’t like the Northlands going to war any more than Father does. Yet you’ve supported me in this.”
“I believe that Father is right,” said Ambris. “War is humanity’s greatest atrocity, encompassing all lesser evils, and a sign that in spite of our civilized manners we are no better than barbarians. But war it will be one day, whether I like it or no. As you are Prince of Gossunge and the Duke’s presumptive heir, I am bound to aid and counsel you. My opinions on the subject are of no consequence.”
He spoke without bitterness, simply stating facts, but Mara wondered at his seemingly calm acceptance of so unfair a fate. Usurped as he was, how could he not feel some resentment toward her? She would be Duke, but he was Dafythe’s firstborn. Even now, he wielded more power in the Northlands as magistrate, chief administrator, and the Duke’s closest advisor than she did as Prince. Ambris was well-liked and respected by all who knew him. If he put himself forward as the rightful heir after their Father’s death, she was certain he would have no lack of adherents. And yet he not only deferred from such ambitions to supplant her, he supported her. He seemed as willing to champion her causes as he’d always championed Dafythe’s. Could she behave so well if she were in his position?
“How horrid it must be for you,” she said with sincere sympathy, “to be at a younger sister’s bidding. You might be Duke yourself. You’re far more fit to govern than I am.”
“I have my place,” Ambris told her. “I do not begrudge you yours.” From his expression, Mara saw that he was astonished that she could imagine such a thing. “Mara, if I schemed against my sister and betrayed my father’s trust, I should be a monster. I far prefer myself as I am.”
“I’d give it to you if you’d only let me have my armies.”
“Mara, never say that! Even in jest, never say it before another person.” Then Ambris added in lighter tones, “If I were Duke, you’d have a harder time winning me to your will than Father. When you are Duke, you can do as you choose and I will stand by you. Until then, you must wait. Father will not relent.”
“I pray he relents of his own accord,” Mara said softly. She spoke more to herself than to Ambris, but he couldn’t help hearing her words. He looked puzzled by them.
“How else might he relent, Mara? What would compel him?”
“I have it in my power,” she answered reluctantly. “But I fear to use it, especially against someone so dear to me. I would have my way at last, but only at some terrible price.”
This reply only increased Ambris’s bewilderment. “Mara, what are you talking about?”
“This.” She grasped the tether about her neck and held out the murky red stone.
“I’ve seen it,” Ambris answered. “You’ve been wearing it for months. Kat tells me it was given you by the commander of Spainfort, who claimed it once belonged to Prince Denys.”
“It did,” said Mara. “Peter and I have confirmed that. He held it in his hands and saw in a vision how Denys and our grandfather discovered it. It was once in the hilt of Denys’s sword and it was the power behind all his great victories.” She hadn’t dared to tell her father the full truth, but she felt she could confide in Ambris. “I think that the Redlyon may have known of its power. He tried to steal it from his brother. Peter saw that in his visions too.”
“But it was Uncle Kharles who sent it to be hidden in the chapel at Spainfort. I can’t say why, except that perhaps he didn’t want in it his own hands and didn’t want it in anyone else’s. We don’t know how it came to him. Peter is looking into that on my behalf. It is the same stone, Ambris. I’ve made certain of that. As it was Denys’s, it is now mine. I haven’t lost a battle since it came to me.”
Ambris heard all this with astonishment. “A gemstone that grants you victory regardless of the circumstance?” He tried not to smile. “Mara, that is the silliest thing I’ve ever heard you say. I know that soldiers are given to superstition and keep talismans for good luck, but to hear a reasonable and well-educated noblewoman speak seriously of such ridiculous notions–! I can scarcely believe my ears.”
“I knew you’d think me mad if I told you. You’re too much like Father.”
“I don’t think you mad, Mara,” her brother assured her in more gentle tones. “But you’ve let your imagination fly wildly over what can only be a string of coincidences. That gemstone you wear might once have belonged to Denys. If you and Peter have found proof that this is true, then I accept it as fact. I will even agree it’s possible that Denys and our grandfather believed as you do, that that stone possessed some sort of magical power—though I find it difficult to credit such superstitious foolishness to a man of Uncle Kharles’s intelligence. But I refuse to believe that it actually holds any such fantastic powers. Remember, Mara, that Denys lost in the end. No doubt, a certain amount of success lies in having bravery and confidence, but even if you go into battle believing yourself invincible, you’ll be killed sooner or later.”
“What about my victories in the Redlands?” asked Mara.
Ambris couldn’t help smiling. “Everyone attributes them to your abilities, Sister. You seem to be the only person in the Northlands who questions your competence as a general.”
“I don’t. I am fit to lead. My commanders are the finest in the Northlands and our soldiers the bravest and best in the world. But our success in battle hasn’t been entirely due to good soldiery. Sometimes, our victories fell to us through extremely odd luck. You’ve heard the tale of how the Spanish troops were forced out of their strongholds in the mountains by heavy rains.”
“It was autumn,” Ambris answered. “The rainy season in the south. Such landslides due to the rains are not remarkable.”
“And the Con Permiso commander?” Mara knew that her brother had heard this tale too.
“He was attacked by a wild creature. Black bears and lions live in those mountains. I grant you these are fortunate coincidences for you, Mara, but they aren’t magical. Why do you think they are?”
Ambris’s rational explanations were no different from the ones she’d often told herself, and yet she felt in her heart that these events weren’t rationally explicable. “Peter isn’t the only one to have visions. I have also had dreams.” She could tell Ambris. “I’ve dreamt of my dragon.”
“Your talisman beast?”
Mara nodded. “The one who appeared to me as I lay wounded at the Shieldwall. He promised me gifts that day—this stone is one among them. The Dragonseye. It is his power I summon through it. In my dreams, I see him commit these acts to aid me. He destroyed the curtain wall at Spainfort. He killed the Con Permiso commander.” If Ambris hadn’t thought her mad before, surely he must now.
Whatever he thought of her, Ambris replied patiently, “Dreams are not always prophetic. I’ve dreamed of the palace garden all in bloom and Mother–” He meant Mara’s mother, “still alive and walking with me along the paths. I’ve dreamed of wandering through the woods near Eadbury in search of Laurel. What do these portend? Nothing! A dream can be simply a dream. It isn’t the same as a magician’s visions. But I see you are unconvinced. Very well. May I propose a test?”
“There’s one way to prove whether or not you’re right about that stone’s powers, Mara: employ it now. If you’re so certain of the power you wield, let’s see how it influences Father to change his mind.”
Mara balked at this suggestion. “I couldn’t!”
“What is it that frightens you more?” Ambris asked her. “That you may do some harm to Father, or that your magical gem will do nothing at all?”