After his interview with Mara, Dafythe sent for Lord Rafenshighte to have a private conversation. “Geoffrey, I’ve heard reports of your conduct which do not please me,” the Duke began in his most authoritative tones. He was gratified to observe that Rafenshighte had the decency to look surprised and abashed. “It must stop—now—before you’ve brought irretrievable disgrace upon yourself. This is a dangerous game you meddle in.”
“Dangerous, perhaps, My Lord,” Rafenshighte agreed, his spirit rallying. “But disgraceful, how?” Dafythe began to bluster, amazed at the young nobleman’s reply, when Rafenshighte went on, “The Prince your daughter is a grown woman. Your pardon if I offend, My Gracious Lord, but it is for her to decide if she finds me a fit companion. I assure you that my conduct with regard to her has always been irreproachable. My intentions are of the most respectful and honorable nature.”
It was obvious that they weren’t speaking of the same thing. “You and Mara–”
“Surely, My Lord, you’ve heard ugly gossip which twists the truth of the matter.”
“Indeed,” Dafythe answered, as if this was what he’d meant to discuss from the first. “There are so many odd rumors going about the court these days. I should like to hear the truth from your own lips, Geoffrey.”
Rafenshighte nodded. “The truth is simple, My Lord: I’ve asked Prince Margueryt for the undeserved honor of her hand in marriage. She hasn’t yet given me an answer, but she promises to consider it.”
The Duke had known for some time that Rafenshighte was courting his daughter for political reasons, but he’d never imagined that the strange relationship had advanced so far. Rafenshighte must be lying. He meant to be provoking. Even if he had dared to ask her, surely Mara couldn’t mean to accept a proposal from such a glib and ambitious puppy? “I can stop it.”
“You can delay it, Lord Duke,” Rafenshighte answered. “Both Prince Margueryt and I realize that you must grant your approval as our liege before we are permitted to wed. I’m sorry you think me unsuitable as a husband for the Prince, but I’m not surprised to hear it’s so. I didn’t expect you to approve when you learned of it. Still, the proper forms must be preserved where fathers are concerned. It’s only fair that you know how matters stand between us.”
Dafythe didn’t know how to answer this respectfully phrased but insolent response. Rafenshighte gave every appearance of humble courtesy, but his eyes were merry. He was enjoying Dafythe’s discomfiture.
“I find it a remarkable match,” the Duke answered. “I can’t imagine why either of you thinks of it.” But he did know very well why Geoffrey sought this marriage: as husband to the next Duke, Geoffrey would have more influence over her than anyone except Ambris. He would flatter her more than Ambris ever did. Dafythe didn’t believe for a moment that he was at all fond of Mara. He meant to use her power. Why Mara intended it—if she did—Dafythe could only consider it as further evidence of her increasing irrationality. “You are so different, Prince Mara and yourself.”
Rafenshighte grinned. “That’s precisely why we’re suited to each other, My Lord. I don’t mind having a wife who rides off to campaign at the ends of the earth, and she will not be disappointed if I’m not the conventional sort of husband. `Tis no worse a match than the arranged marriages made between strangers these past thousand years or more. Prince Margueryt might’ve been married at your discretion to one of a dozen noble youths for political expediency—men she might like less well than me and men less fond of her. I expect we’ll get on far better than most.”
Dafythe’s temper rose at this smirking response. “My daughter may put up with a great deal from you, Geoffrey,” he answered tersely, “but she will not tolerate your chasing after boys.”
“My Lord?” Rafenshighte looked confused for a moment, not expecting this accusation, then he laughed. “I see. You’ve heard other rumors too! Is there a particular boy you refer to?”
“You know whom I refer to! Andemyon tells me you’ve been hanging around the magician’s home at nights, waiting to escort him through the gardens. You can’t deny it’s true. The boy has no reason to lie. He doesn’t even see the danger in it. Geoffrey, I’ve endured quite enough of your predatory behavior. No more! Have you no decency? Andemyon is still a child!”
Rafenshighte was unabashed. “Never fear, My Gracious Lord. As it happens, I agree with you. Andemyon is too young to engage in the sort of pursuits you accuse me of. If it soothes your moral outrage, I assure you that I haven’t harmed that splendid innocence of his by one word or deed.”
“Then why do you seek him out?” Dafythe demanded.
“May I be honest?”
“I doubt it, Geoffrey.”
Rafenshighte grinned. “Surely, My Lord, you see as well as I that our little Andemyon is going to be an extraordinary young man.” Rafenshighte’s tone was now conspiratorial, as if this understanding of Andemyon’s qualities was something the two of them alone shared. “I wouldn’t see him subverted from that fate. At present, he is a deliciously tight bud which can be ruined if it’s forced to open too soon. I seek his friendship. I encourage the slow unfolding. I hope to be nearby to observe when that bud blossoms in a few years’ time. Three or four years. Even five. Patience is one of my virtues.”
“Then you do mean to have him eventually,” Dafythe accused.
“I can’t deny that I’d like it.” Having promised truthfulness, Rafenshighte was apparently committed to its delivery. “But I doubt it will ever come to be. You know as well as I, My Lord, what happens to people who meddle with Lord Redmantyl’s children. I have my weaknesses, as all men do, but I’m too fond of my own life to dare risk being struck by lightning even for the sake of such a beautiful boy.”
“You will keep away from him while he is under my protection,” Dafythe insisted. He might’ve been reassured by Geoffrey’s last words, but the young nobleman’s refusal to be ashamed of himself was too outrageous to endure. “In seventy years, I’ve never seen any beauty cause such a stir among my courtiers as much as that one innocent boy has done, especially among your sort.”
“My sort,” echoed Geoffrey. “What do you know of ‘my sort’?”
“I know your wickedness.”
“My Lord, when I was no older than your innocent little pet, I knew that I was condemned to Hell for what I was and no amount of prayer could alter that fact. What was there to do but ensure that I paid the full price of admission? I must say, you’ve usually been quite understanding in spite of my unrepentant wickedness.”
“I’ve always tried to be tolerant of my courtiers’ foibles in private life as long as they harm no one, but you–! You pass all boundaries! I may be able only to delay your plans with Margueryt, but she is a grown woman and must answer for herself in the end. Andemyon is another matter. As long as he is my herald, he is under my protection. I’ve sworn it. I warn you, Geoffrey—keep away from that boy!”
“Ah, of course.” Rafenshighte’s eyes brightened. “If you place the matter in that light, My Lord, I must obey. There are stories about the court to such effect, but I didn’t believe them. I humbly pray your pardon for my intrusion.”
Dafythe wasn’t reassured by this sudden acquiescence, but it wasn’t until after Geoffrey had bowed and retreated from the room that he realized what the young man meant by it.
Mara sat alone in her bedchamber, clasping the Dragonseye between the palms of her hands as if in prayer. She’d dismissed Ren for the evening and shut her doors against all visitors. For this, she needed to be alone.
Since her conversation with Ambris that afternoon, she’d begun to doubt all she believed to be true, and that was almost as frightening as being right. Her brother was always so reasonable. Did she dare to test the gemstone’s powers as Ambris suggested? She’d never done so deliberately before, and the thought of evoking the Sonnedragon against her father was terrifying… but tempting. He would yield to her by no other means.
What if nothing happened? If her father didn’t change his mind, that would mean that Ambris was right. This gem was only a flawed and ugly stone. Whatever its history, it held no powers. Her victories were due entirely to her own skill and some strange twists of luck. The Sonnedragon existed only in her imagination.
There was only one way to know.
She tightened her hands about the gemstone and shut her eyes. It was done.
For one moment, she was horrified at the irrevocable step she’d taken, then she felt a sense of great relief. For better or worse, events had been sent into motion. The gem would do its work. Father must come around.