Ren had had time to order hot water brought to Mara’s chambers and laid out clean linen for her, so that Mara could wash immediately and make herself presentable. Months of living in camps had taught her how to dress swiftly; within a very few minutes, she had changed into a clean shirt and hose, and put on a plain velvet tunic of dark blue. With Ren’s assistance, she unbraided and combed out her hair so that it fell long and unbound in the fashion of the nobility, but she put on no ornaments nor devices of her rank. Since Dafythe’s death, she was no longer Prince of Gossunge, but she wouldn’t be consecrated as Duke of the Northlands herself until she was anointed and received the ducal coronet at her coronation. That ceremony would not take place until after her father’s funeral.
These refurbishments completed, Mara went down the corridor to the nursery, and found that her cousin was still reacquainting herself with her small daughter and Ambris’s younger children. She hadn’t changed her clothes yet.
“Make my excuses, please, Mara, and go on without me,” Kat requested. “It’s you they want to see. No one’ll regard my absence at all.”
As Mara made her way back through the Manor alone, she passed the rooms that had been given to the Emperor for his visit. These were the finest apartments in the Palace, except for those usually occupied by the Duke’s family. More servants and attendants in imperial livery were here. For one horrifying moment, Mara glimpsed the figure of a small and dark-haired young woman walking down the corridor some distance ahead of her. Alys? But, no. The resemblance was merely superficial. That creature couldn’t be here in Pendaunzel.
Once she returned to the State Hall, Mara performed the proper ceremonies of welcome, then thanked all her guests for honoring her father’s memory with their presence. Surely a golden age had passed with the death of Dafythe. The world was diminished without him. As for what the future foretold for her, she could only do her duty and serve the Lord’s will.
She next sought out the members of the Council—her councilors now—Peaque and Tuxsetau, Lt. Uismarde, and Rafenshighte, to speak to them about her plans for new appointments. Places must be found for her trusted companions, not only Kat and Bel, but her other friends still in the Bertrandesmarch. They must be rewarded for their loyalty, but she would discuss this with Ambris before she made any decisions. There would be additions among her advisors, but those currently in the Council could be assured that she wouldn’t dismiss them.
“Even me, My Duke?” Rafenshighte asked. “You know that I’ve been as loyal to you as any of your Shieldmaid companions, and it has always been my hope to serve you as I served my late lord.”
Knowing how Geoffrey had served her father, Mara didn’t find this a reassuring prospect. Nevertheless, she answered carefully, “If you are willing to serve me better than you served my father, Lord Rafenshighte, then I will be pleased to keep you as my diplomatic officer. I can’t deny you have great skills in making yourself agreeable, and you’ll be of use when we must have dealings with the Spanish.” This much was true, but Geoffrey mustn’t be allowed to hope that he would ever be more to her than one among her many advisors. She had no plans to choose a consort but, if she ever did, it would not be him.
Thereafter, she went about the room, speaking informally to those she met. She embraced Laurel and her eldest nephew Eadrik, who hadn’t gone on the westward campaign with his brothers, and had a brief but civil conversation with Martleanne, who was now serving as Ambris’s secretary. She found Magician Peter and promised him a longer talk when time allowed about the fate of the Dragonseye. Andemyon shyly presented his young magician friend, Mikha, who had only just been confirmed a full wizard and was looking for a position to begin his career.
At intervals, she spoke to both Ambris and Kharles, and again perceived a peculiar tension between the two men. She was well aware that her brother disapproved of the young Emperor’s personal conduct, even when Kharles had been a boy. Ambris couldn’t forgive the cruel and dismissive treatment of the princess who had later become Ambris’s first wife. But that had been more than twenty years ago, and this resentment seemed fresh. Was it simply that she was seeing her brother with Kharles for the first time, or had they quarreled anew since the Emperor’s arrival yesterday?
When she asked Ambris, he told her, “Be wary of him, Mara. In spite of his smiles and semblance of good cheer, I believe he doesn’t mean well by you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Last night when we first met, he questioned your fitness to be Duke. He’s heard some muddled tale about your vision of the Sonnedragon and asked if you truly believed in it. He seemed to me to be suggesting that you might be mad.”
“And that you might be more fit to govern?” Mara saw now why her brother had made such a public declaration of his loyalty. “Well, he can see for himself that I’m not mad. You’ll be pleased to hear that I’ve given that all up as nonsense, dear Ambris. My dragon was a dream, no more.”
As the evening’s festivities drew toward their end and people began to retire, Mara thought longingly of her own bed. She’d spent a long and weary day riding hard for many hours without stopping long enough to have a proper meal, only to come home and find the duties attending this occasion awaiting her. She was exhausted.
She made her apologies to the persons still in the hall and bid them continue to enjoy themselves as long as they pleased. Kharles was among those remaining; as Mara was about to leave, he caught hold of her sleeve and said softly, “A moment’s conversation, I pray you, Cousin Margueryt, before you go to rest. There’s a matter of grave importance to the safety of the Empire that you and I must discuss between ourselves. It cannot wait `til tomorrow.”
“Ambris…” Mara turned to look for her brother. Surely he must also be apprised of this serious matter? And, after Ambris’s warning to be wary of the Emperor, she would be glad to have him at her side during this conference.
“No, this doesn’t concern him,” Kharles said quickly. “What I have to say is for you alone to hear. It is the chief reason I came to the Northlands at the news of Uncle Dafythe’s death. Will you come with me, Cousin?”
Together, they walked across the torch-lit gardens to the Manor, and went up to the rooms where the Emperor and his attendants were lodged. Kharles waved aside those lordlings, grooms, and servants who bowed low as he and Mara entered, and escorted her to a private closet adjacent to his bedchamber.
“What is it?” Mara asked once they were alone. “Is there some danger?”
“Yes, I suppose you could say there is a danger,” Kharles replied as he took a seat with his back to the door. “It is a delicate and most difficult problem, and I consult you so that we can find a resolution to it that safeguards us both.”
“Do you ask my aid in your campaign in Naufarre?” Mara guessed that this must be the ‘problem’ Kharles was alluding to. “You haven’t subdued Prince Juan?”
“Alas, not yet,” said Kharles. “Uncle Juan continues to evade capture, but I have no need of your assistance there. Naufarre will soon be brought under my hand and order restored. It isn’t Uncle Juan who troubles me. He is no threat to this Empire. There is another relation, closer to me in blood, dear cousin Margueryt, whom I fear more.”
Mara couldn’t imagine who Kharles was referring to. “Uncle Egan, Kat’s father?” she guessed a second time. “Is there rebellion in Eireland?”
“No,” Kharles answered. “Our upstart Irish uncle has been behaving himself of late.”
They had many other relatives beyond the Empire’s borders but, as far as Mara knew, all were currently on peaceable terms with the Normans. “Who then?”
“Me?” Mara was astounded and bewildered. “But why?”
“Your reputation precedes you,” Kharles explained. “In these past years, I have heard tale upon tale of your triumphs. They say there hasn’t been a general in the field to match you since the days when our Grandfather Redlyon wielded his sword at the head of his armies. You never lose a battle. All enemies fall before you, one way or another. Who wouldn’t fear such a fierce warrior-maid?”
He smiled as he spoke. Was this a jest? Mara would like to believe that Kharles was only joking, and yet she felt that her imperial cousin meant every word. “You feel me a threat to you because I’ve been more successful in battle?”
“Well,” Kharles admitted, “I do grow weary of hearing your name cried up and down the streets of London, Paris, and even Edinburgh. The only thing the common folk of all my kingdoms can agree upon is their hatred of Spain and their love of you. You may think it petty of me, but it is no small matter. We Normans worship our valorous heroes, and you’ve given them a new hero. They might begin to think you’d make a better Emperor than I. It isn’t wise to steal a sovereign’s place in the hearts of his people, Cousin, especially when you are so close a kinswoman. Surely you realize how near you are? I have no brothers nor sisters living, and only one legitimate son, whom I confess I worry for. Now that your father is gone, one frail little boy is all that stands between you and the imperial throne.”
“I’ve no ambition to become Emperor!” Mara protested, appalled at this accusation.
“No?” Kharles regarded her with his eyebrows upraised. “Well, perhaps the thought of it hasn’t occurred to you… not yet, at any rate. In addition to your bravery in battle, the other quality everyone speaks of when I ask them of you is that you are a devout woman of the highest religious principles. It may take a great many cheers from adoring crowds and even more encouragement from interested advisors to convince you that God wills it so. From all the stories I’ve heard, Grandfather was just the same. You believe in Divine Will, don’t you? I don’t myself. I believe in power seized and wielded for its own ends. When I listened to the tales of your victories and saw where they might lead, I was greatly troubled about how I might maintain the power I now possess. I’m not so valiant a warrior, as my efforts to quash our rebellious Uncle Juan attest. I didn’t see how I could succeed if you were to challenge me—and then an answer came from a quarter I didn’t expect. I’ve recently made the acquaintance of an extraordinary young maiden.” He smiled. “No doubt you’ve heard gossip about my penchant for pretty maidens, but she isn’t one of those. Not pretty enough to my suit my tastes. I’m certain she must be a Seer of great gifts. She says not, but she did tell me a most astonishing tale. She promised that I’d see an end to all that troubled me. My fortunes would improve. My enemies would be vanquished. I might even have a glorious future to rival Grandfather Redlyon’s.”
Mara had begun to tremble at these last words. “I am no enemy to you, sire.”
“I hope you will never be. I’ve no wish to see harm befall you, dear Cousin. No sudden unfortunate and grotesque accidents. But I must protect my own position. That’s why I hope we can come to an agreement between us that will preserve us both. I tried to suggest to that priggish brother of yours that he’d be a better Duke than you would, but he refused to hear it. Too damnably honest. He won’t think of usurping you even with my blessings! At least, I have the comfort of knowing that Ambris’s honor keeps him from acting against me as it prevents him from acting against you. But he’s no use to me. I also considered your marriage. Old Ulaf of Iseland is a widower again, and our cousin Alexandre of Russe is in want of a bride. I had thought you might do well as Tsarina, thousands of miles away in Moskba, but now that I see you, I realize that that won’t do. It seems to me now that the best solution to our difficulty is for to you remove yourself voluntarily.”
“You mean, you want me to abdicate?”
“I want you safely out of my way, Cousin. What I propose will keep you safe from me, and I from you. Tomorrow morning when you meet with your Council, you will announce that you intend to go into religious retreat and contemplate taking holy orders. Some remote abbey, I think. You may choose whatever one suits your preferences, as long as it is far from Pendaunzel, on the outskirts of your dukedom. Keep your title if you wish. You may remain nominally Duke of the Northlands, since Ambris will refuse to take it himself. He will continue to serve as Regent in your stead. So long as he believes you’ve made this choice of your own will, he’ll accept this duty. Neither of us need worry for the Northlands in his care. Once there are no more campaigns against the Spanish to increase your fame around the Empire, your past glories will slip from the memories of the common folk. You agree?”
“What if I refuse?” Mara responded desperately. “You can’t force me into retirement. You can’t depose me as Duke unless you mean to accuse me of treason—and I’ve done nothing to warrant it! Even an Emperor doesn’t hold such power.”
“Not an Emperor,” Kharles agreed. “Nevertheless, I do have such power. It was given me recently, with proofs that I cannot disbelieve. I’ve been told that if you do not comply with my wishes, then some horrible fate will befall you and I’ll have precisely what I want in the end regardless. It’s better that you not stand against me. You know what this strange magic can do.”
Mara could scarcely believe what she was hearing. Kharles’s demand that she leave her place as Duke was terrible enough, but now this conversation was taking on the unreal and horrific tones of a nightmare. Kharles seemed to be referring to things that only she knew. She, and one other. “How–?”
The door behind Kharles opened and a person entered the room without apologizing for the intrusion nor making any obsequies toward either Kharles or Mara. Why indeed should she bow to them? It was Alys, no longer dressed as a common guardswoman, but in the Emperor’s livery.
“You refused my gifts, Duke Margueryt,” she said, “but the Emperor Kharles has not.”
Kharles’s hand went to his throat. Mara saw that among the heavy chains and seals of office, another, slender golden chain hung about his neck. Suspended as a pendant from it was a streaked red stone like a flawed opal.