Mara returned to Pendaunzel late one evening at the beginning of April, more than four months after she’d begun her long homeward journey. Her entourage had been small to facilitate rapid travel; when she’d left the Jamesmarch, only Kat and her nephews and their squires, Bel, Ren, Bard Delphyn, and the Spanish child had accompanied her. These last two wouldn’t travel all the way to Pendaunzel with the rest of the party, for Delphyn had been charged with a special errand to convey the child safely to the Sisters of St. Samandra, where Mara’s own younger nephews and niece were being educated. She and Kat had agreed on this.
In spite of Mara’s plans, travel was slow. In addition to the more arduous work of navigating boats upstream on the Michelne and Myame rivers, the journey was fraught with small delays at every town and village where they stopped. All the Northlands had heard of Dafythe’s death before the news had reached Mara. While the Northlanders sincerely mourned the passing of the only Duke all but the very oldest had ever known, those who had the opportunity were eager to see his successor. Mara couldn’t refuse them: being viewed by the public was one of the primary duties of royalty, and this journey home from the westward marches was unofficially her first progress as Duke. She was obliged to stop, if only for an hour or two, to show herself to her subjects before taking a meal or finding a bed for the night. But there were many such stops along the way.
By the time they reached Pendaunzel, she and the other members of her family were past their initial grief, and Mara had had plenty of time to make plans. These, she discussed with Kat.
Though she’d received a hint of Mara’s plans in her refusal to occupy Iagoburso, Kat was openly baffled by her cousin’s declaration that she would never again campaign against the Spanish territories at their borders. “Not ever, Mara?”
“Not unless they become a clear threat to us,” Mara had answered. “If the Spaniards dare attempt to invade the Northland marches, of course I will defend what is rightfully Norman land. No good Duke would do otherwise. Even Father would’ve granted that such defense is necessary. But I will not seek war for its own sake without provocation.”
“What will you do instead?”
“Strive to see that the Northlands are governed by a Duke as worthy as the last. I will give all my life to that cause.”
Kat had smiled at this. “You hope to become more like Uncle Dafythe?”
“I doubt I can ever be so good as he, but if God will it, I shall try.”
Mara hadn’t confided, however, her reasons for this decision. She never told her cousin what had occurred on the day when Iagoburso had fallen, what Alys had said to her. If Kat or any of Mara’s other companions had noticed that she no longer wore the Dragonseye, they didn’t remark upon it, nor connect its absence with her abrupt change of heart.
Along the final stages of her journey, Mara had been met by messengers from her brother, keeping her apprised of events in Pendaunzel. She knew that her news regarding the capture of Santiago and the death of Bertrande had been received by Ambris. She knew that her father’s body had been embalmed and lay in state upon draperies of imperial purple and gold, as befit an Emperor’s son. Liveried palace guards kept vigil, while monks from Belminstre knelt and intoned constant prayer for the departed soul. The obligations of royalty to be seen did not end with death; per long-standing custom, Dafythe had initially been available for viewing in an open coffin, but a carved wooden cover bearing an effigy of the late Duke had since been placed atop the coffin lid. Thousands of people from all over the Northlands and beyond had come to view him and, according to Ambris, were still coming every day. Distinguished personages from all parts of the world were converging to pay their respects to a man they had greatly admired. Many were lodged within Pendaunzel, but those of the highest ranks were made welcome as visitors within the Palace. Dafythe’s final resting place, a grand tomb of marble and granite was being prepared in Othelie Chapel; he would be interred there beside his predecessors during the performance of the final funeral rites, which would be held once the new Duke was present.
In reply, Mara sent these same messengers riding back to Pendaunzel more swiftly than she was able to travel herself, informing her brother that that day was not far ahead.
The streets of Pendaunzel were still festooned with banners of white crepe, symbolizing the city’s state of mourning, but it seemed as if the inhabitants were also past their first grief. Mara and her companions sensed a curious air of excitement within the city as they made their way toward the Palace. It was more than the arrival at last of their new Duke, though those who spotted Mara riding down the Processional with her entourage shouted their delight and good wishes to her.
“It’s the Emperor, My Gracious Layn!” the sergeant at the Palace gate told Mara after he had let them in. “He’s here! I was here on duty this same hour last night, when there was news from the docks that a ship with purple flags had come in, then a herald came right here to this very gate and announced it was the Emperor Kharles himself.”
“He must’ve come for Father’s funeral,” said Mara, touched by this gesture from her kinsman.
“That’s right, My Duke. He was expecting to meet you, but Lord Ambris went down to the ship to welcome him in your stead, and they came back together with all the imperial guards and attendants marching in front of them as well as behind so that I could scarce catch a glimpse of him even though he passed nearly as close to me as you are now yourself. The Emperor’s been up at the Palace since.”
Mara sent Ren to see to her rooms and Bel to announce her arrival to the Palace guard and take them in hand as their new commander. Then she and Kat gave their horses to the squires and went to seek Ambris. Eduarde and Arthur were already crossing the lawn ahead of them for, even from the gates, they could see lights blazing in the State Hall.
A somber sort of celebration was going on in the ancient hall. There was no music, but everyone was dressed in their finest garments and wine and dainties were abundantly available. As Mara and Kat entered through one of the open doors to the lawn, they gazed upon a crowd of faces, some familiar, others belonging to strangers. Laurel was present, but this came as no surprise to Mara, for Ambris had written that she’d brought his younger children from Eadeshire to attend the funeral. Andemyon was here too, and that was a surprise. The boy was inconspicuously dressed in the sooty grey of a wizard’s son, but he’d grown tall in the year and a half since he’d been sent from the court and his bright golden curls drew her attention even with so many fair-haired Europeans among the crowd. He was in the company of a gaunt and awkward-looking dark-haired youth in the black robes of a magician; Mara had no idea who this could be.
But what struck her foremost was the number of guardsmen, attendants, and nobles wearing imperial livery—golden lions on cloth of rich, reddish purple. The hall seemed awash in the royal color, which overwhelmed the finery of the other guests. This must be the moment Magician Peter had foreseen.
The crowd fell silent at Mara’s entrance. Everyone bowed low, except for one man who remained upright, regarding her with frank curiosity. This attitude of superiority alone would have told her that she faced Kharles V, Emperor of the Normans, even if he weren’t wearing a gold crown. Kharles also had the Plantagenet face; like Frederik, he bore a strong resemblance to her own father. Dressed in long velvet robes, he reminded Mara of the portrait of young Duke Dafythe at his coronation, which hung in the gallery of the Manor—but Kharles’s face wore an expression of amused cynicism that she’d never seen on Dafythe’s face nor Frederik’s.
Under her imperial cousin’s appraising gaze, Mara felt a little shabby. She and Kat had only just left their horses and were still in their riding leathers with muddy boots and hair pulled sloppily back into braids. They might easily be taken for messengers from the new Duke instead of the Duke and Irish Prince themselves.
Ambris had been embracing his sons, but left them now to cross the hall and greet Mara. “I hadn’t expected you to arrive tonight, My Duke,” he apologized, and dropped to one knee at her feet. “We’ve kept watch for your return for many weeks, but I received no notice that you were so near Pendaunzel.”
This formality of address from her brother was jarring, but Mara understood that it was a public declaration of his loyalty to her. Ambris meant to make it clear to everyone present that, although he’d taken charge during her absence, he’d been acting all the while in her service and didn’t intend to remain in charge now that she was here.
Mara held out her hands to take his and raise him before she responded. “There was no time to send notice. We rode as fast as we could these last few days, since we were so near to home and eager to be here. `Tis wonderful to see you again, Ambris, even under these circumstances.” She hugged him without formality. This was her public declaration; she meant everyone to witness how much she loved and trusted her brother. She didn’t intend to govern the Northlands without him.
“You mustn’t mind that you weren’t ready for us, Ambris,” Kat added. “We’re hardly ready for such a party as this ourselves.”
Others around the room were rising now. Kharles came forward, smiling. “My dear cousin Margueryt!” he said. “I’ve looked forward for so long to this meeting.”
Mara bowed to him as her liege and sovereign lord. “No more eagerly than I have, sire.”
“Ambris has given me news of your success at the frontier. So we have a new march to protect the Northlands! I expect you’ll expand the borders of this Dukedom to double its size before the end of your reign if you carry on this same course.”
“You honor me,” Mara responded modestly, though a dry tone in Kharles’s voice confused her. She wasn’t entirely certain that this was meant to be praise. “But I have no intention of continuing any further campaigns against the Spanish on our borders. The governing of the Northlands as they are is my principal concern.”
“I’m astonished to hear it, Cousin. From all I’ve heard of you, you enjoy nothing better than fighting the Spanish wherever you find them. You might well spend half your life on the frontier and safely give little thought to the mundane tasks of government. Your brother seems to have done very well in this respect during your absence,” Kharles observed.
Ambris likewise did not appear pleased at this remark even though it sounded like a compliment.
“`Tis strange we haven’t met before this, Cousin Margueryt. Your brother Ambris, of course, I’ve known since I was a child, and I had the great pleasure of welcoming our cousin, Katheryne of Eireland, to our court in London when this trouble over Naufarre began.” Kharles nodded to acknowledge Kat, who also sank neatly down on one knee and rose again.
There were many other dignitaries and grand nobles beyond the Emperor in the State Hall, though they hadn’t come forward: German and Italian princes, or their representatives, the Tsar of Russe’s emissary, the Doge’s, the Duke of Burgundy, even courtiers from Spain. Ambris had undoubtedly extended the proper courtesies to each of them on their arrival, but Mara would have to make them welcome personally once she was fit to do so. It might be seen as a slight if she greeted them while she was still mud-spattered and disheveled from her travels.
“Your pardon,” she said formally to Kharles, as well as those who were near enough to hear her. “As our cousin of Eireland has observed, we weren’t expecting to return home in the midst of such festivities. I pray you await while we make ourselves more suitable to receive such company as are gathered here.”
“And I’d like to see Tyrelspethe—my daughter, sire,” Kat told Kharles. “I’ve thought of little else during the months we were away. She must’ve grown greatly since I saw her last. I don’t doubt she’s walking and speaks full sentences now.”
“Indeed she does, though she isn’t always easy to understand,” said Ambris. “You’ll hardly know the child when you see her.”
“Nor she me, I’m afraid.”
“Yes, certainly go, Cousin Katheryne,” Kharles responded with a generous laugh. “I understand how it is. I’m devoted to my own children, my little Prince and all his base-born brothers and sisters.”
Some appeared shocked, and Mara herself was startled to hear the Emperor speak so frankly of his illegitimate children but, after all, Kat had mentioned her own daughter first. “I shall return shortly,” she promised, and with another bow to Kharles, accompanied Kat out.