Even before she and Kat crossed the river and began the long moonlit ride southward to the encampment Sataumie had established as the base for her long-range scout patrols, Mara knew what they would find. Bertrande lay on his cot in the tent he shared with his elder brother, looking like a child asleep, but pale and still; there was no obvious wound on his body.
“Was he found in this same manner this morning?” she asked.
“Bertie was fine this morning, Aunt Mara,” Eduarde answered. Standing over his brother’s body, he was shaken anew. “He helped me put on my armor, as he always does, and we rode out together. We were together all day.”
“When did you see him last?”
“We returned about three hours ago. I went to make my report to Captain Sataumie.” Eduarde bowed his head respectfully at the captain, who had accompanied them into the tent. “I gave Bertie my horse and shield.”
“Bertrande returned Lord Laufegcrike’s horse to the corral along with his own,” Sataumie added. “He must’ve come here to his tent immediately afterwards. Lord Laufegcrike found him lying on the floor and summoned help. We moved him to the cot when we tried to revive him. We made every effort, Prince Margueryt. I’m very sorry.”
“Father will blame me,” Eduarde said mournfully. “I promised I’d look after Bertie.” Kat stepped closer and, though the young man had grown taller than she, brought his head down to her shoulder and bestowed a sympathetic pat. Tears were shimmering in her own eyes.
It’s not your fault, Eddy,” Mara reassured him. “You could’ve done nothing to prevent this. I will write your father tomorrow and explain to him how it happened.” Ambris was more likely to hold her responsible for his son’s death. The fact that Bertrande hadn’t fallen in battle would be but a small comfort. “You know that Bertie isn’t the first one of our number to die in this way. We’ve lost nearly a dozen among the troops on the eastward side of the river.”
“Have you found any bite or mark on Bertie’s hands or ankles that some crawling little creature might’ve made?” asked Kat.
“No,” said Sataumie. “We found nothing.”
Mara hadn’t expected a different answer. “Have my nephew conveyed with all state and dignity back to our camp in the Jamesmarch,” she gave the order. “He was a prince of the Northlands.” It would be impossible to convey the boy’s body home to Pendaunzel; because of the hot weather, Bertrande must be buried with no undue haste among the other fallen soldiers in the graveyard they had created on the outskirts of their camp. “I will write my brother and father tonight. A messenger must be sent at daybreak to Pendaunzel to bear the news of poor Bertrande’s death to them.”
“The first to fall victim on this side of the river—and it’s one of our own kinsmen!” Kat said angrily as she and Mara rode back through the dark and empty miles. Mara had invited Eduarde to return to the main camp with them, but the young knight insisted on remaining beside his brother’s body until it could be carried back in the morning. The moon had risen high in the sky by this late hour and the rocky tower beneath the fortress of Iagoburso rose to the north ahead of them, still several miles distant. Mara kept her eyes fixed upon it as a guide, for it was the only feature of note in the landscape. A long ride lay ahead of them, but they went slowly. Neither prince expected to sleep once they reached their own beds.
Mara had rarely ventured on to the western side of the river before this—not from lack of curiosity about the territory she hoped to conquer, but in order to avoid giving the Spanish opportunities to see her. She hadn’t used her Shieldmaid companions as proxies in royal garb during this campaign, as she had in the Redlands, for their duties were too widespread and various. Only Kat served in that capacity by wearing princely white robes and the Norman lions bannered across her breast. Mara intended to make it difficult for the Spanish to identify her, and difficult for their assassins to target her. On this occasion, however, she felt she was safe. She and Kat would cross the river well before daybreak.
“If the Spaniards aren’t behind this, it’s blasted convenient for them,” Kat continued speaking. “To strike at our own family strikes at the very heart of us.”
“It will rebound against them. If the Spanish are behind Bertie’s death somehow, they’ll pay for it threefold.” But Mara couldn’t feel any great outrage toward the Spanish, for she didn’t believe that the Spanish had anything to do with her nephew’s death, nor the deaths of the other soldiers. This devilish work was not in their power.
“Poor Ambris will be heartbroken,” said Kat. “What will you write to him?”
“I can say no more than the truth: Bertie died suddenly from some cause we don’t yet understand. I’ll say that he didn’t suffer, if that will make it easier for Ambris to bear the loss of a son so young. He’s never lost a child before, and will not have faced such grief. I’m sorry that we won’t be able to take the news to Pendaunzel ourselves. Father will be devastated too. He was very fond of Bertie, not only as his grandson, but as one of his heralds. He always takes particular interest in those boys and keeps a place in his heart for them even when they aren’t our kinsmen.”
Kat made a slight, muffled sound at this statement, as if she had been ready to make a remark and then thought better of it. Mara knew that her cousin was thinking of Andemyon and waved a dismissive hand. “There was never anything in that, Cos, save folly.”
“Ah, but whose folly?” Kat replied.
“Father’s. Ours. Geoffrey’s and Dr. Dimitrios’s, and the rest of those evil-minded gossips who made much of so little. No one emerges very well from that shameful incident, and the Northlands will no doubt feel the effects of it for years to come. At least it got us here, where I most longed to be.” Mara set her eyes again on the towering rock in the distance. “Though it wasn’t how I would’ve wished to win my own way. It seems that someone else must always pay for my victories.” She was thinking primarily of her nephew and the others who had fallen so mysteriously these past weeks, but when she heard Kat sigh, she knew that Bertrande wasn’t whom her cousin was remembering. “You do blame me for his death, don’t you?” she asked.
At the question, Kat started in her saddle. “Who? You mean Frederik? I told you once I didn’t, Mara, and I meant what I said. It wasn’t your doing. Any of us might’ve fallen at Spainfort. I can’t fault you for his death because you didn’t want me to marry him, and his dying spared you that. It’s not as if you wanted him dead.” She pulled her mount to a stop; Mara did the same. “Remember the night we found Sergeant Gilamus? Oh, of course you remember that—but do you remember what we were talking of before we found him, the conversation that was stopped?”
“Yes, I remember. We were speaking of Frederik that night too.”
“There was more that might’ve been said then, or I might’ve said to you since if I’d found the right chance for it,” Kat told her. “I’ve wanted to speak, Mara. This mightn’t be the best time, but it must be said between us.”
“About Frederik,” Mara prompted Kat to go on.
“No, not Frederik, though he has his part in it. I’ve come to understand a good many things I didn’t that night we quarreled before we went to battle at the Shieldwall,” Kat said quietly. “It wasn’t Frederik you disliked. I think you did like him when we first met him, `til you saw how I was growing to love him. It wasn’t `til I declared myself his beloved and said I meant to stay and wed him that you disapproved. You opposed our love-affair, not because he wasn’t a fit match for a Prince of Eirelande, but because you were jealous.”
“Kat!” Mara cried out incredulously. “What are you saying? That’s absurd! Jealous of your Frederik? How could you think I wanted him myself?”
“No,” Kat answered in the same quiet tone, “that’s not what I meant.”
Instead of explaining explicitly, Kat asked, “Have you ever considered how much less complicated our lives would’ve been if you or I had been born a boy? Uncle Dafythe would’ve brought me over from Eireland as a child intended for you instead of for Ambris. Instead of spending my youth waiting for a suitable match, you and I would’ve been wed as soon as we were of an age to sign the contracts. It would’ve suited everyone wonderfully. We’d be perfectly matched, Cousin.”
Mara couldn’t believe what she was hearing, and tried not to understand it. “You’re joking, Kat. This is nothing but nonsense.”
“Is it nonsense?” Kat went on, “Since I was a little girl, I’ve dreamt of a Prince who was strong and brave, with a lion’s heart of courage, an angel’s purity of resolution and righteousness, a true knight’s honor. One who was my equal at least in skill and will and intellect. I couldn’t respect anyone lesser, but I could admire one greater. I didn’t believe any such man truly existed. He must belong to a fairytale. No living man could match my ideal. Frederik–” She paused. “I loved Frederik. If he’d lived to be my husband, we might’ve lived happily together at Dennefort for all our lives, bringing up our daughter and perhaps other children too, but I knew from the first that he wasn’t my Prince. After he died, I thought nearly as often of that imagined Prince as I did of him, until I saw the truth of it. I realized that I sought all those virtues in a man because I’d learnt from my cradle to love them in a woman. Mara, youare my Prince. The one who exactly fits my ideal is you.”
She waited for Mara’s reaction to this announcement, but Mara was too shocked to say anything.
“I thought it ought to be said, and I don’t regret it,” Kat declared with her old defiance. “I don’t expect it will alter the nature of our friendship. Whatever talk there might be of sapphites among the Shieldmaids, I know you’ve never countenanced it. You like to pretend such things don’t exist. You care for me as much as you’re able to—I daresay more than you care for anyone—but love isn’t your business and never will be.”
Mara could hear no more. Spurring her horse, she rode away across the dark land. Kat did not try to catch her.