The delicate task of speaking to Dafythe was left to Ambris. Mara never learned precisely what was said during that private conference, but she saw the effects of it upon her father. That anniversary celebration was to be the Duke’s last public appearance. Dafythe withdrew, first from all official duties, then to his chambers, then deeper and deeper into himself. Only a few select people—his children, his physician—were admitted to see him. No boys attended the Duke in the night now; Dr. Dimitrios’s assistants, grown men and women, took that duty. Though the physician said that there was little physically wrong with Dafythe beyond the ailments common to a man of his age, Mara was shocked at how much her father was changed in only a few days’ time. Dafythe had truly become old. Not merely his face, but his hesitant voice, his impersonal tone of conversation, his uncertain demeanor, were unlike the father she’d always known. It was as if the news of the gossip had struck at his mind and his heart and caused greater damage than the physical pains he’d suffered on that night when Andemyon had gone to fetch the doctor.
She and Ambris had agreed that an open denial would only give credence to the rumors by acknowledging their existence and might make matters worse. They would behave publicly as if they’d never heard a word whispered against Dafythe. Ambris, believing firmly now that Dafythe had done nothing disgraceful, privately made efforts within the court to dispel the rumors, but the stories had spread too far to be effectively suppressed. Some people would always wonder if there’d been something to it after all.
Andemyon along with four other heralds were quietly given posts elsewhere within the Palace. He worked now assisting the scribes in the Hall of Record. Andemyon had also been moved to chambers near Laurel’s and Ambris’s; in fact, his two little rooms, intended for an attending maid or lady-in-waiting, were connected to Laurel’s. She had charge of him during the evening hours while Ambris oversaw his days. Both protected the boy though they remained at odds. Laurel hadn’t completely forgiven Ambris for doubting the boy’s innocence. She hadn’t forgiven Mara or Kat either, but they could avoid meeting each other. Husband and wife, however, must see each other every day.
“Laurel has written to Lord Redmantyl, to gain his permission to send Andemyon to Maryesfont in the autumn,” Ambris informed his sister and cousin at the beginning of August. “Since Father spoke of it when he was in his own mind, it must’ve been what he wanted for Andemyon’s future. I believe it is the best course. We can’t keep the boy here at court much longer. He’s become too dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” echoed Mara. “What do you mean? He and Father haven’t been allowed to see each other in weeks.” Since she overheard no recent whispers about “the Duke’s Cat,” she’d believed that the gossip was dying away, having nothing to sustain it.
“It isn’t Father I refer to, but myself,” Ambris answered with a note of embarrassment. “You mayn’t have heard, but since I’ve taken charge of Andemyon, he’s become notably attached to me. When he isn’t occupied with his new duties, he follows me about and wants to be of service in any way he can.”
Mara was astonished and yet she couldn’t suppress a slight smile at this strange turn of events. “I would’ve thought he’d resent you for the way we questioned him, as Laurel does.”
“No. I’ve become his champion. People told wicked lies about him, and I’ve made them stop—that’s how he regards it. Laurel doesn’t like to see it, though it’s difficult to say if Andemyon or I anger her more. It’s a child’s admiration for one who’s defended him, no more, but he doesn’t realize how others perceive it after the propriety of his relationship with Father has been put to question. Laurel is quite right. He’s too innocent to understand the impression he leaves.”
Mara was trying not to smile, when Kat laughed aloud. “Poor Ganymede! I don’t suppose he ever meant to draw the eagle’s attention.”
Ambris wasn’t amused. “It isn’t a joke,” he said. “What’s said in jest today may be ruinous gossip tomorrow. We can’t afford a second scandal, not after what’s happened to Father. Andemyon will be safer at Maryesfont. His mother’s family lives there. They will house and look after him while he completes his education. I must also tell you that Laurel intends to leave for Eadbury with the children as soon as Andemyon is sent off.”
“She’s not leaving over this?” asked Mara.
“In part. She says she’s sick of the court and its vicious gossip, but there is another reason too. She sits up late at night in her bedchamber, watching the sky from her windows. She’s sensed something… out there, and it frightens her. I can see that much for myself, but when I ask what disturbs her so, she refuses to explain. Magicians will keep their secrets, and I’ve always known that she has her own to guard. Whatever the reason, she’s anxious to be away from Pendaunzel, and I will not detain her if that is her wish.”
As Dafythe abrogated his responsibilities as Duke, it became clear that those duties must be shifted to another. The Council considered appointing a Regent. They met frequently during those summer weeks to debate the merits of the only two possible candidates: Dafythe’s Lord High Chancellor and firstborn but illegitimate son, or his daughter and heir. Ambris and Mara were summoned to hear the results of these conferences.
“We’ve voted more than once,” Lord Tuxsetau informed them, “and we find ourselves divided evenly each time. For the sake of future accord, I will not reveal who has voted for whom.”
“I’m not ashamed to declare where my loyalties lie,” said Lord Rafenshighte.
Tuxsetau glanced at him disapprovingly, but didn’t otherwise acknowledge this interruption. “I’m certain that no one here wishes to be disloyal, nor intends offense to either you, My Prince, nor to you, My Lord Ambris.” Brother and sister nodded graciously to indicate that they took no offense. “Both of you in your respective positions have certain rights, and there are precedents of tradition to favor each in the case of a Norman governor becoming unfit to govern. It is with the deepest sorrow that we must acknowledge that it is so with My Lord Dafythe. His physician’s reports give us little hope of his eventual recovery. We’ve discussed the advantages of appointing our Chancellor, who has many years of experience of governance in his father the Duke’s service, versus the appointment of our Prince, who will of course become Duke in her own right when My Lord Dafythe goes to his final rest, as we all must one day.”
Though Tuxsetau made every effort to express himself diplomatically, Mara understood the source of the Council’s division very well. She was certainly less experienced in administrative matters than her brother. Many of the councilors would be relieved to have Ambris take up the duties of their Duke. At the same time, the Council was wary of giving Dafythe’s son a position of power that might tempt him to usurp his younger sister’s rightful place. No member of the Council would dare say so openly to Ambris or herself. The first implied that she might be incompetent to rule her own future dukedom. The second was an even greater insult to her brother’s impeccable integrity. Ambris was surely as aware of this as she was. Tuxsetau and the other members of the Council were hoping that the two of them would consent to a compromise that allowed the government of the Northlands to continue without disruption and without either of the Duke’s children feeling as if they’d been slighted.
Were they expecting her to accept the title of Regent and Ambris to agree to aid her? This solution wouldn’t deprive her of her rights as Dafythe’s heir, but at the same time it would make use of her brother’s greater political experience. But it would also mean that, as Regent, she must remain in Pendaunzel indefinitely.
If this was their hope, then she intended to surprise them. “I believe I have an answer to the problem that will suit us all,” she announced to the councilors seated around the great table, then turned to her brother. “Ambris, you once told me that, if you were Father’s heir and Duke after him, you would agree with him and not allow me to go to war against the Spanish on our western borders as I wish. Would you do so now if it were in your power?”
“It isn’t in my power, Mara,” Ambris answered. He seemed as taken aback by her question as anyone else at the council table. “Nor will it ever be.”
“It might if you were Regent. I would prefer that place for you, if I were certain you wouldn’t stand in the way of what I desire most. I say it plainly: I will not oppose your governing in Father’s stead if you do not oppose me taking an army to the western marches.”
“You can do whatever you like once you are Duke,” Ambris answered with the same circumspection.
“I’d rather not wait like a crow upon Father’s death. Besides, once I am Duke, I won’t be able to do as I like. I’ll have my dukedom to see to first. I won’t be able to attend to my duties here if I’m hundreds of miles away. If I am free to march now, as soon as troops can be made ready, I will leave Pendaunzel confident that the Northlands are in the most competent of hands. You’ll look after things for Father, and for me if I’m gone for very long. I trust you beyond all others.” That declaration of her faith should quash any fears among the Council that Ambris would attempt to usurp her. Treachery was not in him. “Will you agree, Brother?”
“What does the Council say to it?” Ambris asked back. “If they consent to your plans, I won’t stand in your way and I will assume the responsibilities of Regent while you are gone.”
“We must hear more about this Spanish venture,” said Lady Peaque.
“If it’s what you want, My Prince,” Rafenshighte spoke carefully, “then I will vote to approve it.”
Others too agreed, some more reluctantly than others. Mara explained her intention of going to Santiago to lay siege to the fortress on its rocky heights above the desert, but this was little more than a formality. If the Council was astonished to hear that she’d seen this fortress in a vision, they didn’t express it aloud. There was some discussion on the subject, but since Mara had made it clear that she wasn’t interested in assuming the regency herself and would give it to her brother on this one condition, then they would grant her one condition. In the end, enough votes were cast to support Mara’s proposed campaign to the western marches. The whole matter was settled with remarkably swiftness. She’d won.