A portrait of the Redlyon, painted early in his reign, hung in the gallery of the Manor next to a similarly larger-than-life-size portrait of his consort, Duke Diana. Mara and Peter left the packet in Ren’s care and left her chambers to go down the stair to the gallery to examine it closely. Though Mara had walked beneath this painting nearly every day of her life, she’d never given it more than a glance.
Peter was the first to find it. “There it is, Prince Mara! Look!”
Mara stood close beneath the painting’s frame and stood on tip-toe to peer upwards at the spot Peter was pointing toward. Among the massive chains of office that hung heavily covering the late Emperor’s breast was a single dark-red pendant—a blob of paint like dried blood. Could it be…? She held up her own gemstone by its tether; the two appeared to be identical. “So he did have it!”
At last, she had proof enough to confirm that all she believed about the Dragonseye was true. She might even convince Ambris, but she wouldn’t bring her evidence to him. Her brother had enough to trouble him at present as he assumed the responsibilities of Regent. He had probably long forgotten his challenge to her to test the power of this little stone.
She could trace the path of the thing easily now. Denys the Bright Prince, hacking his way to victory with this stone on the hilt of his Spanish sword. He had discovered it on his first campaign and had enjoyed enormous success thereafter until the gemstone was stolen from him by Eduarde. Then he had been tragically cut down. Eduarde Redlyon, undefeated throughout his glorious reign, wearing this same gemstone hung about his neck. Uncle Kharles had somehow seized it from his father, and the valiant Redlyon had thereafter sunk rapidly into madness and degenerative idiocy. Kharles had used the stone’s peculiar power for only a short time, long enough to wrest control of the Empire from the Redlyon and set up the framework of this modern, peaceable world, then abandoned it before becoming Emperor himself. Kharles had, in effect, returned the gem to the place where Denys had found it. It had been discovered in a Spanish chapel, and had been sent back to another. Thereafter, Kharles had enjoyed a respectable but uneventful reign.
What had made her uncle renounce so wonderful a power? Had he believed it too great for him to wield? Had he thought it dangerous? Had he sensed some corrupting influence from it? Perhaps he’d learned something about the nature of the stone, which Mara was herself only now beginning to perceive. It would grant whatever its master desired, but with an unexpected and often unbearable price attached. Eduarde had wanted Denys’s success, but he’d only obtained it at the price of his beloved brother’s death. Terrojos had been conquered, but it wasn’t hers to govern. Her father no longer opposed her plans to march against the Spanish fort at Santiago, but poor Dafythe was in no position to oppose anything now.
What of Uncle Kharles? He’d remade the Empire to suit himself—but what price had he paid for that reconstruction? What had made him put the stone away as the Sainted Ignatius must have done centuries before?
There was only one person here at court who might tell Mara something about the true nature of the Dragonseye, though they were presently not on good terms. While Peter had been of enormous help to her in her researches, she couldn’t consult him on this point. Peter, like her brother Ambris, understood magic only as a set of natural laws that obeyed certain principles: Just as heavy objects always dropped to the earth at a certain and constant rate, ice and wood floated while metal and rock sank, and the angle at which the catapult was launched predicted where the stone would land, so it was with magic. But they weren’t magicians. They didn’t truly understand the principles by which these laws operated any better than she did. They didn’t know how to manipulate them, to cast spells. That ability was beyond most mortals. Laurel had forsaken her education, but she couldn’t have forgotten what she’d once learned.
Peter had suggested that she ask Laurel when they’d first begun to seek information about the stone, but Mara had delayed doing so for fear of the answer. At the time, she’d been afraid that that the Dragonseye would turn out to be an ordinary gem with a minor historical importance, and its powers all a delusion. Now, she was more afraid to discover that the power the stone held was a very real and dark magic and its influence would corrupt her even as it fulfilled her every wish. She didn’t want to learn that it was useless, nor that it was an instrument of evil. She needed it to be the sign of her talisman beast. No other truth would suffice.
The day for Laurel’s intended departure drew nearer; Mara saw that she must ask her sister-in-law now, or never have another chance. She went to Laurel’s chambers. The gentyl-maid who answered the door informed Mara that her Ladyship wasn’t well but, after consulting the Lady, admitted Mara to see her.
Mara entered a darkened room. The draperies were drawn over the windows and no candles were lit. Laurel reclined on the coucherie at the center of the room in her dressing gown; Mara could only see the plaits of silvery-white hair until her eyes adjusted to the dim light. “I hope you’re not very ill,” she said. “I don’t wish to disturb you, Laurel, if you are.”
“You don’t disturb me, Mara. Why have you come?” asked Laurel without rising. “Not to apologize?”
“No—although I am sorry, more than I can say.” As Mara stepped closer, she could better discern the figure on the coucherie. She also saw that a circle—in chalk?—had been drawn on the floor around it. “That isn’t what I’ve come about.” She stepped inside the circle and stood over the coucherie. As Laurel looked up at her, Mara could see that her sister-in-law was very pale, more than usually so even for her strange fairness. There was no glimmer about her today; Mara had recently seen Laurel blazing with fury, but that light had since been put out. Was Laurel suppressing it herself? Ambris had said that she’d been frightened by something she’d sensed in the night sky.
“You may have heard about the gemstone I found in the Redlands,” she plunged on, regretting now that she hadn’t come sooner.
“Yes, Ambris told me of it.”
“He thinks my ideas about it are nonsense and superstition, but I know they are not. Magician Peter and I have searched its history and confirmed that it once belonged to Prince Denys, and that my grandfather bore it also during his reign. I believe there is some extraordinary magic in it, though we haven’t the ability to discern what it is. I hoped you might, Laurel, as only a true wizard can. You have perceptions that we lack.” Mara had drawn the gem up by its tether and removed it from around her neck. “Can you–?
She held the stone out toward Laurel, who sat up and began to regard her with increasing interest and curiosity as she listened to this explanation. A white arm extended from the dark fabric of the dressing-gown sleeve. But just as Laurel’s fingertips were about to touch the polished surface, she recoiled.
“For God’s Sake, Mara! Throw that thing into the river! Drop it in the deepest well you can find and pray it never sees the light of day again!”
“Why? What’s wrong with it?” Mara’s hand closed protectively around the stone as if she expected Laurel to try and destroy it on the spot. “Do you say it is evil?”
“No.” Laurel shook her head. “`Tis only a gemstone, neither good nor evil. But it draws–” She stopped suddenly, on the point of saying more.
Mara knew that the young woman before her had abruptly left her apprenticeship with Lord Redmantyl and abandoned her magic over some mysterious disaster; she would never tell anyone about it, not even Ambris. Would Laurel reveal the secret to her now? Mara felt as if an important magical mystery were about to be revealed to her.
But instead of confiding wizardly secrets, Laurel retreated back into her old, well-guarded state of vigilance. “Mara, I pray you put it away from you. Mortals shouldn’t play with such trinkets. You don’t realize what you’ve stumbled upon, but ignorance won’t save you from the consequences of employing it. A thing like that will draw the attention of… forces you can’t possibly comprehend, nor defend yourself against. If I couldn’t stand before them, what hope have you?”
On a misty early October morning, the Pendaunzel garrison and local volunteers marched out of the city to join the rest of Mara’s army on their long westward journey. The city-folk and half the court turned out to see them off. From his closet windows, Dafythe had watched his daughter and niece, Captain Bel, and their squires ride from the stables across the lawn toward the Palace’s gates, but he wouldn’t attend the parade. Today of all days, he had no wish to expose himself to public view.
He had opposed this war from the first, but he’d become powerless to prevent it. Since Ambris had been appointed Regent, he consulted Dafythe every day and made a polite pretense of deferring to his father’s wisdom, but both were aware that Dafythe’s opinions mattered very little now. Mara’s campaign had been approved by the Council before the Duke had even heard of the bargain she’d made to obtain her goal.
Ambris had told him about it afterwards in tones of apology. “She was determined to do it sooner or later, Father. I like it no more than you do, but if it must be, better that it comes now than when she is Duke.”
Mara herself and Kat had come to see him last night, to kiss his cheek and tell him that they were “going away.” Neither had said where they were going, though they surely must know that he knew. They meant to spare his feelings. Mara wouldn’t wish to gloat over her triumph; in fact, Dafythe thought he saw something apologetic in her demeanor too.
Though his children had benefited most from his disgrace, Dafythe couldn’t blame them for it. They’d each done what they’d perceived to be necessary, and his retirement was his own choice. He might’ve disputed the rumors. Instead, he’d sunk before them, wounded at the blow. He’d first been stunned, not so much by the vicious nature of the gossip, for he knew what people were capable of, but that those who knew him best had believed it possible. Then, he’d been too mortified to go out among his people and ignore their whispers. Now, he felt sorrow at his own folly in falling prey to evil-minded gossips who could perceive no other reason for his fondness for a young boy—or, had deliberately made it seem so.
Dafythe wasn’t naïve; he understood that certain court factions observed the recent prominence of Lord Redmantyl’s family. The wizard himself had been elevated by Dafythe from the traditional title of Redmantyl to Lord of Greenwaters Island. His niece had married Dafythe’s own son. His adopted son was a recognized court favorite. In three generations, they’d risen from obscurity to form an alliance with the Norman imperial house. They were therefore a threat to the established court influences. That these upstarts were a magical family must be especially alarming.
This vile slander had achieved its purpose. Since Andemyon had been taken from him, he hadn’t even be able to say farewell when the boy left Pendaunzel. A serious rift now separated Laurel and her husband. She too was leaving Pendaunzel. These interlopers were effectively removed from the court.
This disaster had given him a peculiar gift, rare among rulers: he’d survived beyond the end of his reign and had the advantage of looking back upon it from its promising beginnings to its final days. He could, in effect, read his own epitaph. While he’d done much to be proud of as Duke of the Northlands, he wouldn’t be remembered for his great work—his pax normania, his prosperous reign, the splendid palace and city he had built here—but for this ending. History would recall him as a doddering old man who’d made a fool of himself over a pretty boy.