She left Hartshall, walking swiftly toward the Manor to find her cousin and Bel and tell them her good news. Rafenshighte raced to catch up with her.
“I must say you surprised me today, Prince Mara,” he said once he’d gained her side and matched her pace. “I thought you would be pleased to become Regent, otherwise I wouldn’t have voted as I did. Well, I daresay you know best about obtaining your own ends, but it delays some other important matters. We’ll have to wait to make any personal announcements. I’d hoped I might be allowed to continue to serve you as your consort intended, if not consort in fact, while you were away on your campaigns. Whatever else he allows in order to become Regent, My Lord Ambris as certainly won’t stand for that! I simply don’t understand why you refused this power when you’ve sought it so ardently.”
“I did seek power—to do as I wished,” Mara answered. “I’m not eager to be Duke yet, though I see that it must come to me one day soon. I’ve no desire to take up the burdens of governing before I have to. Ambris is welcome to those. He thrives upon such business.”
“And so you surrendered the regency to him in exchange for leading an army into the desert.” There was an asperity to this blunt statement that made Mara stop walking and regard him with surprise.
“You voted in my favor, Geoffrey. You said you approved.”
“It’s what you said you desired, and it is my desire to aid you however I can.” Rafenshighte resumed his usual deferential tones. “However, I must confess that I don’t understand why you desire this. I’ve heard you speak many times of your plans to march westward. You’ve spoken to me of little else for months. But I’d never heard the plans themselves until today.”
“I wasn’t allowed to speak of them,” said Mara. “You know that my father forbade it.”
“I grant you that I’m not military-minded. Perhaps your strategy eludes me. It isn’t my place to question, when you’ve had such great success in your previous campaigns. Your pardon, My Prince, but it’s a very long way to march for so little gain, and you gave up a great deal simply for the opportunity to do it. You might’ve got so much more. It seems a sad waste, after all the effort I’ve made on your behalf.”
“What efforts have you made for me?” Mara asked lightly. She remembered how Geoffrey had declared his loyalties to her at the Council meeting today and imagined that he’d been making similar declarations in her favor during these past months while their alliance had developed. What more could he have done? Then a strange and terrible, sickly feeling overcame her. He seemed to be alluding to some specific service he’d performed for her benefit. Seizing her companion by the upper arm, she pulled him abruptly off the path and into the shade beneath a copse of young trees so that their conversation might not be observed by anyone else passing by. “Geoffrey,” she hissed, “what did you do?”
Rafenshighte smiled confidentially. “Surely you don’t imagine that this situation has come about entirely by chance?”
“Situation?” she repeated the word without immediately understanding. “You mean, concerning my father? This awful gossip—you didn’t start it, did you?”
“No,” he answered with a quick shake of his head. “There’ve been jokes and odd stories going around the court since the lovely Andemyon first came into My Lord Dafythe’s service. I never believed there was anything it. Low-minded people will gossip, and the tales they whisper need not be true. There’s been much worse gossip about me, so I know well how the smallest and most harmless act can be distorted by one’s enemies. But I’ve since seen more for myself.”
Mara felt another chill creep through her. After questioning Andemyon, she’d been satisfied that both he and her father were innocent of any wrongdoing. Was she mistaken after all? “What did you see?” she asked, dreading the answer.
“I wasn’t the only one to notice how My Lord the Duke kept Andemyon close to him. You told me yourself, Mara, how he favored that one boy above the other heralds. If you’d seen how fierce he was when last I had audience with him, it would’ve astounded you as it did me. Lord Dafythe spoke of Andemyon being under his protection, but there was more behind his words than the usual noble obligation to look after the weak and defenseless. He was jealous. He thought I was infringing upon what he considered his own prerogative. I couldn’t bear the hypocrisy—to accuse me of having designs on his pretty herald when he has the boy in his bed half the nights of the week!”
“Oh, I don’t doubt My Lord Duke is too old to get up to any sort of buggery,” Rafenshighte assured her, “but the passion was there. I saw it, beyond a doubt. It was the same day he forbade our betrothal, but he wasn’t as hot against that. Of course, I said nothing to Lord Dafythe but agreed not to speak to his precious Andemyon again. When I later heard Dr. Dimitrios’s curious tale, I wasn’t so indiscreet to tell my own tale in turn, but I hinted to the good physician and to others that I knew more besides.”
Mara could scarcely believe what she was hearing. “You mean, you helped to spread this ugly gossip that’s ruined my father?”
“I saw an opportunity to do you a service. I thought it was what you wanted, My Prince. You’ve often spoke to me of your wish to have your father cease to stand in your way. I couldn’t imagine you meant assassination. This has effectively unseated him from power without doing harm to his life or his rank. He is still Duke, but he no longer opposes you. You have what you wanted, and I’ve had my own small part in assisting the inevitable along.”
“I never wanted this. I wanted my father to reconsider, not–” What had she wanted? Not Dafythe’s death. Not his abdication. His capitulation, no more. Even when she’d held the Dragonseye in her hands and wished with all her might for Dafythe to yield, she hadn’t foreseen such a terrible ending as this.
She was furious at Geoffrey, but she couldn’t blame him alone. Whatever despicable acts he’d committed, she’d been the one to instigate them. He was acting in her interests as well as to further his own ambitions. That didn’t mean, however, that she was able to forgive him.
“You’ve gone too far and presumed too much,” she told him. “As you say, my choice of consort is my own. Whatever was between us before cannot continue. Leave me, Lord Rafenshighte. I do not want you in my sight again.”
Rafenshighte’s mouth popped open. He was on the point of expressing one perfectly honest sentiment before he regained control of himself. “As you wish it, My Prince.” He bowed low, a sharp movement that gave an angry edge to his courtesy and made it plain he considered himself ill-used by one he had faithfully served, but Mara was in no mood to think of Geoffrey’s feelings, nor her own. Her deepest sorrow now was for her father.
Though he never spoke a word about it to her, Mara knew how deeply it must have hurt Dafythe to realize that his court, his subjects, even his family, could think him capable of such heinous actions. Whenever she went to Dafythe’s chambers, he looked ashamed. He kept his head down and avoided meeting her eyes, almost as if he were guilty.
Mara felt ashamed too of the part she’d played in bringing this about. She wished she could tell Dafythe how she had wronged him, but she was unable to confess. Her father wouldn’t be able to understand what she’d done, would most likely believe her mad for thinking herself responsible for his downfall. And if she told Dafythe or Ambris about Geoffrey’s actions on her behalf, he would bear the brunt of the punishment that she deserved. Angry as she was at Rafenshighte, honesty prevented her from trying to shift culpability to him. She had already dealt with Geoffrey herself. She kept her silence on this point, as well as on the progress of her plans to march before the autumn was far advanced. She and Dafythe talked of trivial things.
It was just after one of these visits, as she was returning to her own rooms, that she found Peter waiting for her. In his hands he held an object that looked to be made up of old leather.
“This has been sent me from London, Prince Mara,” he announced as he came eagerly toward her, holding the object up. “I know you’ve been preoccupied with more pressing matters, but I thought you’d wish to see it right away.” They went into her boudoir, where Peter explained himself further. “You recall that there wasn’t much to be discovered in my own library about magical gems, only some old folk tales and information about wizards’ experiments with crystals. To seek the particulars on the history of that gemstone you wear, I corresponded with My Lord the Emperor’s court magician, Ainaulfe. We were students together at Wittenberg. In reply to my inquiries, Ainaulfe has sent me this.” He presented her with the packet.
Mara turned it over in her hands. The leather was indeed very old, stiff, yellowed, and cracked. It had long been bound tightly shut by cords of aged string, which she observed had just recently been cut. “You’ve read it already?” she asked Peter. “Does it contain the answers I sought?”
“It does. It seems the history we’ve been searching for, Prince Mara, was already gathered by a previous magician or scholar at the imperial court. This work was done in the 1820’s or `30’s.”
“For Denys or Eduarde,” said Mara.
“I guess that it was done on behalf of Denys, My Prince. The emphasis of this research is upon the origins of the sword, not the gemstone, though of course the history of the two was identical for many centuries. I haven’t read all that’s within, but I was up ’til the early hours of last night with it. The famed sword carried by Spanish kings of old into battle was said to have been forged by the finest Moorish swordsmiths according to the secret traditions of their craft. Spells were wrought upon its blade by a wizard, who isn’t named here, but who was said to have given the sword in gift to his king. Not to El Cid, as the old tale has it, but to a later king of Castille in 1200 or thereabouts. The sword is mentioned now and again in Spanish history, but the person who gathered these tales makes note that it’s sometimes difficult to know if they all in fact refer to the same sword. The descriptions vary. You may read them for yourself, Prince Mara. One account is of a coronation in which the new king bore a ruby-hilted sword. Another tells of a king who led his armies into battle wielding a sword with an opal or black gem in its hilt. In another, the stone is said to be a flawed carbuncle. The last record of a sword with a similar description is from the days of the Sainted King Ignatius. The Sword of the Blood is listed as part of Ignatius’s inheritance, as an heirloom passed down from king to king for generations. There’s no indication here that he ever used this sword in battle, nor that he was the one who put it away at the abbey where Denys discovered it. It isn’t mentioned among the treasures that Ignatius passed on to his heir, and simply disappears from Spanish history after his reign. But the author of this research notes that Ignatius did travel in progress through the Madehef Marches early in his reign and may have visited that abbey, though no record of it remains.”
“Then the Spanish Sword of the Blood may be Denys’s Dragonsfang.”
“The person who conducted this research seems to believes it possible, Prince Mara, though he couldn’t confirm it beyond all doubt. He would naturally be reluctant to disappoint his prince.” Peter seemed to share this reluctance with regard to his own prince. “In answer to my questions about the fate of Dragonsfang’s missing hiltstone after Prince Denys’s death, Ainaulfe says that he’s found no written history of the Black Ruby’s whereabouts, but he refers me, or my patron, to portraits of Eduarde Redlyon.”