When Heiro was 15 years old her father offered her in marriage to a middle-aged baron whose wife had died the previous winter. Heiro wondered why the baron was interested in her. She was no beauty; her dowry was paltry; with three brothers and an older sister Heiro was unlikely ever to become her father's heir; her father had nothing to offer politically or militarily; and her suitor already had his own heirs. What did he want with her?
Docility, Heiro surmised. A wife he could easily dominate. If not beauty, then charm and the sweetness of youth.
When the baron came to the estate to inspect his potential bride Heiro was ready for him. She had plucked her eyebrows so that her face looked crooked; she dressed in her most unflattering clothes; she quarreled openly with her mother and her younger brother; she hunched her shoulders as she bent over her embroidery; and she disagreed bluntly with her suitor when he condescended to give her his opinion of the play she was reading.
The baron went home without pursuing the marriage. Heiro’s father beat her, but her mother intervened, saying that it wasn't the girl's fault that she was so naïve and artless.
Heiro was reasonably certain that her mother knew exactly what she had done, but they never spoke of it.
A few months later Heiro’s sister, Themis, was widowed and came home to their father's estate. Themis was glad to be home and obviously relieved to be rid of her late husband. But their father quickly arranged a new marriage, and Heiro knew that her sister would do nothing to chase away a suitor.
"Even a bad marriage is better than none," said Themis, looking pityingly at her sister. "And how can a woman make anything of herself without marrying?" Heiro shook her head, glad for once that she was not the beauty of the family.
The next year Themis was widowed again. After two marriages, each lasting less than a year and producing no offspring, she might not marry again; men were superstitious about that sort of thing, despite the fact that it was only to be expected that a young girl married to an old man would become a widow sooner rather than later.
That same autumn Baron Erondites came to the estate for a few days to confer with Heiro’s father, who did not seem to enjoy the visit at all. Heiro didn't know exactly what hold Erondites had over her father, but she had overheard enough of her elder brothers' conversation to know that her father was wholly at the mercy of Erondites and could not afford to deny him anything. After their guest departed, the whole family moved to the capital. Heiro’s father said that it was time for her to be presented at court, but Heiro knew that was not the true reason for the move. A widow, especially a young and beautiful one, might be useful at court—as the tool of Baron Erondites.
For the queen had been forced by political necessity to marry an Eddisian thief, a goatfoot so beneath her that the marriage could only be a punishment for both of them. The history between the two was notorious. The Eddisian had spied upon the queen and stolen from her for years until he was finally caught and she had his hand cut off. The new king could not very well care for or trust the woman who had maimed him, and, conversely, nobody could imagine the queen allowing him to satisfy his lusts upon her. The king would doubtless be in want of a mistress: someone pleasing and distracting; someone who could worm her way into his confidence; someone upon whom he would become dependent, and upon whose advice he would rely.
Or so the thinking went.
From all that she had heard, Heiro surmised that the Eddisian goatfoot had married the queen as some sort of twisted revenge and that, as in the great tragedies, his revenge hurt him as much as it did Attolia. Common report said that the king had soon regretted his action; that he was lost, a foolish boy trapped in a prison of his own making. It was common knowledge that the king and queen had not slept in the same bed since the wedding night. It was somewhat less well-known, but not a secret, that the king's attendants and many of the palace staff took every opportunity to humiliate him. But after a few days at court Heiro began to see that her father and Baron Erondites, along with nearly everybody else at court, were wrong about him.
Heiro wasn’t certain how old the king was, but he could not be much older than she. And yet, from what she heard, he had adventured all over Eddis, Attolia, and Sounis. He had done one impossible thing after another. He had stolen Hamiathes Gift; he had cheated death countless times. He could not be the buffoon that he pretended to be. Heiro wondered why nobody else saw this; eventually she concluded that they believed the king a fool because it was what they wished to believe.
The courtiers also wished to believe that he didn't care for the queen, and they were wrong about that, too.
And what of the queen? Most people at court saw her as an icon, an object of loyalty and devotion, of awe, of terror. A few, to their peril, saw her as an obstacle to work around or a pawn to be manipulated. The most astute saw her as a skilled politician whose every action was calculated to preserve and extend her power. But Heiro wondered about the beating heart concealed within the queen's icy bosom.
The queen pretended to regard the king with anger and contempt. She looked over his shoulder while they danced, and she seemed aloof, enduring this ritual until she was free to return to her throne. But Heiro saw, in the grip of their hands (her right, his left) a balance and a sympathy not reflected in their faces.
After watching them for several evenings, Heiro still did not understand their relationship, but she knew that each had great regard for the other.
Why, then, did they pretend otherwise?
Heiro lay awake late one night pondering the situation. Clearly, this was internal, court politics. A fiction of rancour between the king and queen could not strengthen them contra the Medes or Sounis. The most likely object of these machinations must be Baron Erondites, the greatest internal threat to the queen's hold on power; Erondites or someone in his orbit. If she was correct, then the trap that Erondites was laying for the king played right into his hands. Judging by what she had seen, she doubted that Erondites would succeed; but not knowing exactly what the king and queen were about, she couldn't say how much damage they could do to Erondites, if any. In a way, it didn't matter. If they managed to seriously weaken Erondites, then his allies, including her family, would suffer. And if Erondites did manage to emerge unhurt, it would be because he had diverted any damage onto his allies—including her family.
Perhaps there was something Heiro could do about that.