His grace the Duke of Savona held his breath. If he tried any harder not to laugh, he was afraid his ears would explode.
Really, who would have thought he’d get such amusement from a scrap of a girl who had the manners of a hill hermit and the taste of a farm laborer? Though this much he’d give Meliara Astiar: she appeared to be learning fast, for someone who’d made her first appearance in court scarce days before.
The dance ended, and once again, Savona positioned himself to watch the entertainment as the beautiful and enigmatic Flauvic Merindar relinquished Meliara’s hand, then strolled away. Nearly every female (and half the males) watched him go—except for Meliara. Flauvic could have been a barnyard rooster strolling to the coop for all the interest Meliara exhibited in him.
Who was she peeking at when she thought she was unobserved? None other than Russav’s oldest friend, Vidanric Renselaeus, who had sworn off love, romance, even flirting. Did Meliara languish? She did not. Did she flirt? She did not. She peeked with this little quirk in her expressive brows, as if she expected poor Danric to turn around and whap her with a stick.
Russav laughed. He couldn’t help it. At least he could turn the laugh into a cough.
“Catching a cold?”
The poisonous drawl belonged to Fialma Merindar. Russav mentally cursed himself for the moment of unwariness. It didn’t do to relax around any Merindar—ever. Galdran might be gone, but the Prince and Princess insisted that the real danger was the marquise, and Russav had learned to listen to the old folks.
“Yes,” Russav lied.
Fialma turned her head, regarding Meliara from under half-shut eyes. “And here I thought you were exhibiting the good taste to laugh at that clumsy rustic.” She snapped her fan. “Stars, Russav! Dance with me, and I will endeavor to give your mind a civilized direction.”
Nee and Trishe found themselves next to one another as everyone began riding. Trishe leaned over and said in the low voice that was still habit, though Galdran was gone, “Why does Meliara hate Danric?”
“Hate?” Nee asked, with that inward prickle of warning—regret. But the bad old days were gone, and Trishe was a friend.
Trishe made a scowling face. “She turned that on him last night at the ball. Such a face! I am glad the Astiars never came to court during the Galdran days. They would neither of them have lasted a month.”
Nee shivered. “Very true.”
"So . . . why does she hate him? Surely he didn’t say anything. Danric never says anything. He’s become so circumspect he’s like a steel mirror.”
Nee couldn’t help a smile at that, as they guided their mounts down the flower-dotted path toward the western end of Athanarel.
She thought about what to say. Meliara seemed to have become her own special charge, something Nee had never foreseen when she first responded to Bran’s merry grin. Memory replaced the wild tangle of springtime garden: their arrival at the Astiars’ mountain fastness, Bran and Nee in the coach, and Danric riding beside it, to avoid the motion sickness that had plagued him in enclosed spaces all his life.
Bran saying, “Ware my sister, Nee. Better warn you that she’s prickly.”
Nee had braced herself, expecting the cruel arrogance of Fialma or the calm superiority of Tamara. What she found was a stiff, frightened little person who, after a simple compliment, revived like a garden of flowers following a drought.
She blinked, and the memory was gone. She said to Trishe, “You have to remember that Danric defeated the Astiars’ revolt. Meliara knows it was on orders. She knows the justice of events, one could say, but she knows them here.” Nee touched one hand to her head. “In here,” she touched her heart, “there is still the rankling of defeat.”
Trishe’s brows lifted. “Mortification. I see! Poor soul. I quite understand that.” She shot a glance across the meadow, where in the distance Tamara strolled through the rose garden beyond Merindar House, the feathers in her hat bobbing. “To a very much smaller degree. Life! We will have to exert ourselves to convince Meliara otherwise.”
Trishe smiled, and Nee smiled gratefully back. People might whisper behind their fans that Trishe was idle, a flirt, never serious, but she’d always been kind.
Nee was thinking about these things a few days later, when she and Bran went by Meliara’s room to invite her along on a picnic. They discovered her bent over her desk, her pen dashing along what looked like her third piece of paper.
Nee tiptoed back out again, and whispered to Bran, “She’s writing another of those letters. Since we know who will be at the picnic, let her be.”
Bran cracked a laugh once they were safely outside, where they were joined by Vidanric, looking tired, Nee thought. She knew how hard he worked, and was glad that she’d organized this picnic, simple as it was.
They walked a little ways into the garden, and Bran spread the blanket under a shady tree beside one of the little streams. He was still chuckling as Nee and Renna and Vidanric each helped unload the baskets, under Nee’s direction.
“Why are you laughing, Branaric?” Vidanric asked.
Bran flashed the grin that melted Nee’s bones. “Mel! She’s turned into a scribbler, and when I think of last year, when she could scarce write her name, well . . .” He chuckled again. “Who would have thought any of us would be where we are?” He leaned over to kiss Nee. “Or where we’re about to be?” Another grin.
Nee blushed, as Renna chuckled. “Married! Tell me, Bran, do you foresee marriage for Meliara? What sort of man does she like?”
“Mel?” Bran cracked another laugh. “She’ll never be married. That’s why I’m so glad that Nee and Mel get along as well as they do. I confess, it had me worried, when we first went up to Tlanth. I hadn’t given Mel a thought before then, but life! You don’t just marry a person, you marry a family, did you ever think of that?” he asked earnestly.
Renna clasped her hands around her knees. “Now, how am I to answer that?” And after the answering chuckle died down, she said, “Though we in court all grew up together, so in some wise, we had a notion of our future in-laws. But Meliara . . . she is a mystery. Why do you say she will never marry. Has she said so?”
“That’s just it.” Bran raised a forefinger. “She hasn’t. Why, when we were growing up, we were too poor for new clothes, as you know, under Galdran’s taxes. But the village girls used to spend a certain amount of their time in winter—and some of the boys, too—embroidering their old clothes with bits of yarn and silk hoarded up all year. Then in spring, out it would all come, for the first dance of the year. The girls would gather wildflowers to bind in their hair, since no one had much in the way of ribbons or frippery.” He flicked Nee’s headdress, then twined his fingers in hers, warm and strong. “Ordinarily, you’d think Mel would be the leader of the girls, being the count’s daughter, but it was Oria, the blacksmith’s girl, who took the lead. You know what Mel would say, come spring?”
“What?” Renna asked, looking amused as she passed the plate of pastries around.
“She’d go like this.” Bran clapped his hands together, and rubbed them. “’Spring,’ she’d say. ‘Now we can practice sword fighting!’”
Everyone laughed at that, and Bran gave his head a shake. “No, Mel would be the last person in the world to marry.” He took a bite of apple, then waved it. “You heard her, t’other day, waving that ring around, and saying she liked the mystery, so she wouldn’t be stuck with a suitor? I pity the poor sot who laid down good money for that thing, grateful as I am to him for making my sister happy.”
“Because you forgot her Name Day,” Nee chided gently.
“I know. I feel terrible about it, but like I said, this same suitor didn’t forget. I just regret that he won’t get anything for his pains. The way she’s going, writing letters every time we turn around, she’s going to end up a hermit, scribbling the history of the kingdom. You watch.”
“Wine punch?” Vidanric asked, holding out the jug to Bran.
Arthal Merindar, Marquise and future queen (though she never permitted a word of such intention to pass her lips) had not been pleased to see Vidanric Renselaeus ride up to Tlanth's reputedly tumble-down castle at Erkan-Astiar with that fool Branaric and the witless hen the Astiar count had chosen to marry.
The girl Meliara, so utterly unprepossessing when briefly glimpsed at her brother’s court, had proved unexpectedly resilient. But also ignorant in every possible way. So . . . why did Vidanric ride up into Tlanth?
She bided her time, as always. A week or so after she took the rustic countess into her conservatory, she said to her daughter over morning chocolate, “What do you observe, my dear? Is the barefoot countess going to have to suffer an accident?”
Fialma rolled her eyes. “You mean, is Vidanric courting her? Not a whit of it. He ignores her, and as for the rustic countess, she makes a face every time he steps into a room. No danger there, mother, and,” the impatience in her voice sharpened, “I trust this isn’t just your way of nagging me about my courtship.”
“I would see you Princess of Renselaeus, and my eyes and ears there once rid of the three of them,” Arthal said, then added thoughtfully, “I had thought it unlikely that Vidanric, of all people, would bring down my brother, but he did.”
“Unlikely indeed. It was all Cousin Nenthar's fast, I keep saying. Vidanric is so very dull. There is nothing to talk about when I can get him alone, which isn’t often. All he does is talk about taxes and treaties.”
“It is that work—the attention to detail—that makes people talk about him as a likely candidate for king,” Arthal reminded Fialma. “If you wish to marry a crown, you are going to have to exert yourself.” And when Fialma sighed, “As for the little countess, we may as well spare our poisons. She is clearly as worthless as her nitwit of a brother.”
Deric frowned after Flauvic, who was watching Meliara from under his long lashes. Flauvic was so still that Deric could see the reflection of the candle light in his eyes.
There was definitely something amiss there, he could sense it. Flauvic was hiding . . . something. Deric fretted as he watched Meliara tripping down the dance, her toes pointed, her long hair swinging against her skirts. He was not the marrying type, but when he was with her, he could almost wish he were. She was so free, so artless in the best ways, and she seemed utterly unaware of the fact that Deric was one of the richest people in the kingdom.
He bided his time, until after sword practice the next morning.
He was thinking of a way to get around to his real question when another one occurred to him, a thought he’d had after a conversation with Meliara the night before. “Branaric, why isn’t Meliara at these practices? She’s told me not once but several times she is interested in fencing. Does she sleep late of a morning?”
“Not she! I don’t know why she doesn’t come. Thought she’d be the first one here.” Branaric shrugged, then went back to rolling his wrist ruffles.
Vidanric stood just behind him, warming up with quick, practiced strokes of his fencing sabre. No use in asking him about Meliara. So Deric said, “D’you think Flauvic might have political ambitions?”
Vidanric’s chin lifted.
"Flauvic?” Branaric laughed. “No, he’s much too lazy,” he stated, with the comfort of the honest man’s conviction. “Says so himself. Besides, isn’t politics a matter of policy? You told me that, Danric. And blast me if Flauvic has ever peeped a word about policy, not in the smallest matter.”
Vidanric’s eyes narrowed. Deric had seldom seen that expression of assessment, cool in its detachment. Flauvic isn’t the only one who seems dangerous, he thought, and was surprised at the thought.
“Why do you say that?” Vidanric asked.
Deric shrugged away conjecture. After all, he’d known Vidanric all his life. One thing he was certain of: you could trust him. But . . .
“Because he’s so glib. So mild. Yet I don’t trust him,” Deric said, uncomfortable now, for again, he had nothing concrete on which to hang that impression. So it felt like mere gossip.
“Might it be the name?” Vidanric asked. “We have not had much in the way of trustworthy proof from the Merindars, before Flauvic returned from Sles Adran. So we might be regarding him with the . . . call it speculation . . . that he has done nothing to earn.”
Deric said, relieved, “That’s it. It must be.” And took his place on the floor.
“So,” Vidanric said, with a welcome subject change. “The concert tonight. May I ask if you are escorting anyone?”
“Mel,” Deric said.
“It’s become quite a habit, your partnering Lady Meliara,” Vidanric observed. Deric thought that odd, that with Mel Vidanric invariably appended the title, but with the others he didn’t. Of course, he hadn’t grown up with her.
“We jog along pretty well together,” Deric said.
“I am glad,” Vidanric returned, and flashed his blade into the guard position. “Shall we begin?”
Mora waited until her lady tripped out. Meliara had no courtly walk, but a quick stride, her fan swinging at her waist, hat at the correct angle, silken skirts swishing. Mora gave way to the smile she usually kept hidden as she picked up the sealed letter waiting on the table.
A short time later, she met her cousin in the north suite. “Another?” Firsa asked, and handed a similar letter to Mora.
“He’s written back before seeing her answer?” Mora asked.
Firsa chuckled. “You missed an exchange yesterday when you were attending on the princess. They’re writing back once a day, now.”
“Where is this going to end?” Mora asked.
Firsa laughed. “If I knew, I wouldn’t be a steward, would I? One thing I can predict: before those two figure out where they are, every spick and spot of paper in this kingdom is going to be stacked up in their rooms.”
Elenet had met the little countess and her brother. They seemed an earnest, if awkward pair, lacking sophistication as well as education. She was inclined not to give them a second thought until she chanced to overhear a conversation at a ball, when Elenet was waiting for Vidanric to finish dancing with his hostess so that she might ask him for the waltz.
“Is Savona really serious about that little Astiar fool?” Olervec’s unpleasant drawl halted Elenet in her place. She was glad of the screen of the potted plant, for she did not want to talk to him.
“Of course not,” Arasa, his sister, replied cheerfully. “You must have noticed he never tries to walk alone with her into a secluded alcove, and they do not wear one another’s favors as heart gifts.”
“Why, then, his so-entertaining pursuit?”
“To snap his fingers under Tamara’s nose, of course. She’s ridden roughshod over the Astiar countess, and I don’t think he likes it.”
“I suppose,” Olervec said with a sigh. “How dull! I’d hoped there might be a duel in the offing.”
“Duel?” Arasa gasped. “Savona—and whom?”
“Our ice-faced putative king?”
“What? Over whom? Not Meliara—how could you come to that conclusion, brother mine? You’ve drunk too much wine-punch. Vidanric has never said a word about Meliara. He doesn’t even dance with her.”
“Then tell me, sister mine,” Olervec drawled, “why he goes so still every time she opens her lips?”
Arasa laughed. “Because he’s probably waiting for her next insult.”
“So you say . . . so you say.”
They walked on, leaving Elenet standing there, fan pressed between her fingers.
Azmus delivered the ring himself.
“Ah,” said the steward, with an appreciative glance, and then raised her eyes in question.
“I think,” Azmus murmured, “we need to talk.”
“Yes,” Firsa said. “But let me summon my Cousin Mora. She should hear what you have to say.”
“Look who is here,” Prince Alaerec murmured in a private voice to his wife.
Princess Elestra made a little business of straightening some papers, and found none other than Meliara lurking at the edge of the court gathering, stiff in her fine gown, her expression managing to be both wistful and wary.
“She expects us to fling her forth,” Elestra whispered.
“She expects our son to fling her forth,” Alaerec returned.
Mother and father noticed the faint edge of color along their son’s cheekbones, and each privately rejoiced, as they turned public faces to the waiting line of petitioners.
“So Lady Rustic went to court?” Fialma said derisively, as she sat down next to Tamara at the Lamancan ambassador’s ball. “What for? Did she possibly think it would impress Vidanric? What a jest! No doubt she embarrassed the kingdom and entertained the ambassadors with some suffiently stupid observation.”
Tamara had had enough. “She’s not stupid, Fialma.”
The sarcastic gaze was turned her way. “What? How could you come to that conclusion, Tamara? I thought you had more wit.”
“A stupid woman,” Tamara said in Fialma’s exact tone, “would have made an enemy of me.”
Fialma flushed. Tamara flirted her fan, knowing how much Fialma hated it when anyone dared to mirror her own scorn back at her.
Fialma then turned that fish-cold gaze on Meliara, dancing with Savona, and flirting away as usual. Only Meliara’s smile looked forced, and her movements seemed brittle. Savona, consequently, seemed hard-pressed to make her laugh. "Going to court to . . . court?" Fialma drawled reflectively.
Make her laugh, not entice her behind a curtain for kisses. Tamara looked away, and put her mind to the question. “Meliara? Court?”
Fialma’s fan waved slowly. “Do you think she’s chasing a queenship, then?”
Tamara drew a breath to keep a blush away. Yes, that was aimed at her, but then Fialma was doing the same exact thing: courting Vidanric for a crown. And so was Elenet, dancing with Vidanric now, and no doubt chatting knowledgeably away about Toaran tapestries, or Sartoran art, or Bermundi rugs. “No,” she said decisively. “She’s not stupid, but she’s oblivious. That’s why Deric likes her.”
Fialma’s fan shimmered. “And Elenet?”
Tamara had cordially hated Elenet when they were young—a hatred enthusiastically returned. Many was the time Tamara had lost her temper, just to discover that Elenet had somehow tattled, ever so soulfully, and even stood by looking sad and regretful when Tamara was scolded. But she appreciated her now; like Tamara herself, she was . . . complex. Elenet had inherited a troublesome family, a pack of debts, and ambition. Tamara fought her own private duel with ambition.
Tamara’s gaze flicked past the sedate couple—Elenet looking up so earnestly, Vidanric looking down so seriously—to Meliara and Savona dashing and whirling past so fast that Meliara’s long hair furled out like an unfolding flag.
Russav’s enticing mouth was curved in a smile, his powerful arms held Meliara close so that the speed would not separate them—and Meliara blathered on. She might as well be dancing in the arms of a wooden simulacrum of a man for all the awareness she exhibited of Russav’s seductive aura.
Back to Vidanric. Did he have a spark of that warmth in him? The very fact that Tamara had to ask meant that he certainly didn’t feel it for her. Or for Elenet, in spite of her chatter about rugs, Tamara thought.
In any case, she wasn’t going to share any insight with the likes of Fialma, who would regard truth only for its value as a weapon.
“Elenet? Danric and she are like cousins,” Tamara said. “They were friends when they were four.”
“Ah.” Fialma’s fan began waving again.
Flauvic timed his arrival with exquisite precision, knowing that the Renselaeuses would perceive the insult, and no one else would. Finesse, his mother had taught him, can be the most effective sword, for it has no hilt. And at Sles Adran’s court, King Bartal had further refined finesse into a needle.
An unexpected side effect was perceiving the patterns of the ball already in full swing, revolving with unexpectedly deft direction around the seemingly hapless Meliara. She was a surprisingly good hostess. But then a lot about her was surprising, including the passion that Flauvic’d kindled in her with a single kiss.
A month with her would be diverting, he decided as he watched her slight form in the flattering ball gown. Really, his suggestion had been excellent in so many ways. The seductive music, the provocative clothing . . . Meliara dancing freely and artlessly through it all, refreshingly heedless of her own style of beauty.
He was idly considering how to seduce her—a little reluctance would add piquancy to her final surrender—when she paused, but instead of perceiving him, as he was waiting to be perceived, her gaze lingered on . . .
Oh, now, this was interesting. .
Flauvic smiled with anticipation, then sustained another surprise when the two of them finally danced together, and Vidanric looked down at her with such tenderness.
Only for a heartbeat. Then his expression smoothed, but Flauvic had seen it, and waited with pleasure for Vidanric’s gaze to reach him, and observe the fact. There it was. Flauvic lifted his fan in salute. Now I have to seduce her, he decided. And he’s going to watch me do it.
Life was so sweet, so full of unexpected surprises. Oh, Danric, this is really going to hurt.
While Vidanric watched, Flauvic moved toward Meliara, and asked her to dance.
Vidanric’s eyes burned with exhaustion. He was not hungry, but he knew that forcing a few bites down would banish the tiredness for a time. Maybe even long enough to reach the camp.
He sat back, mentally arranging the list of orders he would have to give, when the door tapestry stirred. His hand slid to his boot knife, ready to throw as a finger parted the curtain . . .
Then, in total, brain-fogged amazement, he found himself staring at a familiar pair of eyes as changeable as the mountain sky in summer.
No. She couldn’t be conspiring—not Meliara. There had to be some other reason she was there.
The curtain fell, her step began to retreat. He bolted up and out, to find her leaning against the wall, her face blanched, her expression one of distraught disbelief.
He let out a breath. Now was probably the worst time in all their terrible history, but he no longer had the luxury of waiting, not with everything poised for either victory . . . or smashing, smoking, obliterating failure.
And Meliara could be at the center of it.
He drew her inside. She did not resist, but collapsed onto a cushion like a broken doll, then squeaked, “Azmus. How could you . . . I sent him . . .”
Azmus, the spy. Who had played a deep game once before. Could be again.
“Drink,” Vidanric said, aware of her ring on his finger under the glove—aware of the sodden clothing sticking to her form, her rainwashed face, her blank, unhappy gaze.
Aware that she alone could destroy him in a way that Arthal Merindar, with all her secret machinations, never could, with a single word. “Then we can talk.”
Russav Savona was the first one to find them.
He was vaguely aware of waking as if from a faint, only he was as cold as if he’d fallen into a snowbank, but the season was wrong. Something was amiss with his body—it was stiff and his joints hurt. But he remembered seeing Flauvic moving through the palace, and so he forced himself to pick up the old sword his grandfather had kept in the closet, and lumber off at a heavy run.
On the way he nearly tripped over servants sitting muggily on the ground as if drunk, guards and footmen and runners and courtiers rubbing heads, blinking blurry eyes, looking around.
Moving was the only way to cure this strange lassitude. Just as well, for instinct was sure: Flauvic was up to something.
But when Savona reached the throne room, the first sign that things had changed more than he could ever have imagined was the crunch of glass and plaster and flakes of marble underfoot.
He raised the sword, stumbled to a halt, and felt his jaw drop when instead of a bloody duel—or a standoff—he beheld an enormous goldenwood tree, grown impossibly where the throne used to be.
And seated on the marble floor at its roots, their arms around one another as if they would never let go, Vidanric and Meliara.
Savona flung away the useless sword, and advanced, buoyant with joy, relief, dazzlement, and laughter.
“I think I won my bet,” he said.