Dedicated to my fellow “Lunatics” at www.LUNA-Books.com, without whom I would be a great deal less sane
The world I created for the Five Hundred Kingdoms stories is a place where fairy tales can come true—which is not always a good thing. But it is important to remember that most people living in this world go about their lives blissfully unaware of the force that I call “The Tradition” and its blind drive to send certain lives down predestined paths. As long as their lives are not touched by The Tradition, as long as they do not find themselves replicating the story of some tale, song, or myth, most people go about their business never even guessing that such a force exists.
Such are the characters in this story, “Moontide.” There is no mention of The Tradition, nor of Fairy Godmothers. These folks have magic, indeed, but it is small magic for the most part. Do not underestimate the small magics, however. A great deal can be done with a very little magic at the right time and place. And even more can be done with a heart full of courage, and someone you can trust at your side.
Lady Reanna watched with interest as Moira na Ferson took her chain-mail shirt, pooled it like glittery liquid on the bed, and slipped it into a grey velvet bag lined with chamois. It was an exquisitely made shirt; the links were tiny, and immensely strong; Moira only wished it was as featherlight as it looked.
“Your father doesn’t know what he’s getting back,” Reanna observed, cupping her round chin with one deceptively soft hand, and flicking aside a golden curl with the other.
“My father didn’t know what he sent away,” Moira countered, just as her heavy, coiled braid came loose and dropped down her back for the third time. With a sigh, she repositioned it again, picked up the silver bodkin that had dropped to the floor, and skewered it in place. “He looked at me and saw a cipher, a nonentity. He saw what I hoped he would see, because I wanted him to send me far, far away from that wretched place. Maybe I have my mother’s moon-magic, maybe I’m just good at playacting. He saw a little bit of uninteresting girl-flesh, not worth keeping, and by getting rid of it he did what I wanted.” Candle- and firelight glinted on the fine embroidered trim of an indigo-colored gown, and gleamed on the steel of the bodice knife she slipped into the sheath that the embroidery concealed.
“But to send you here!” Reanna shook her head. “What was he thinking?”
“Exactly nothing, I expect.” Moira hid her leather gauntlets inside a linen chemise, and inserted a pair of stiletto blades inside the stays of a corset. “I’m sure he fully expected to have a half-dozen male heirs by now, and wanted only to find somewhere to be rid of me at worst, and to polish me up into a marriage token at best. He looked about for someone to foist me off on—which would have to be some relation of my mother’s, since he’s not on speaking terms with most of his House—and picked the one most likely to turn me into something he could use for an alliance. You have to admit, the Countess has a reputation for taking troublesome young hoydens and turning out lovely women.” The ironic smile with which she delivered those last words was not lost on her best friend. Reanna choked, and her pink cheeks turned pinker.
“Lovely women who use bodkins to put up their hair!” she exclaimed. “Lovely women who—”
“Peace,” Moira cautioned. “Perhaps the moon-magic had a hand in that, too. If it did, well, all to the good.” An entire matched set of ornate silver bodkins joined the gauntlets in the pack, bundled with comb, brush, and hand mirror. “There can be only one reason why Father wants me home now. He plans to wed me to some handpicked suitor. Perhaps it’s for an alliance, perhaps it’s to someone he is grooming as his successor. In either case, though he knows it not, he is going to find himself thwarted. I intend to marry no one not of my own choosing.”
Reanna rested her chin on her hands and looked up at Moira with deceptively limpid blue eyes. “I don’t know how you’ll manage that. You’ll be one young woman in a keep full of your father’s men.”
“And the law in Highclere says that no woman can be wed against her will. Not even the heir to a sea-keep. And the keep will be mine, whether he likes it or not, for I am the only child.” Moira rolled wool stockings into balls and stuffed them in odd places in the pack. She was going to miss this cozy room. The sea-keep was not noted for comfort. “I will admit, I do not know, yet, what I will do when he proposes such a match. But the Countess has not taught me in vain. I will think of something.”
“And it will be something clever,” Reanna murmured. “And you will make your father think it was all his idea.”
Moira tossed her head like a restive horse. “Of course!” she replied. “Am I not one of her Grey Ladies?”
Moira’s midnight-black braid came down again, and she coiled it up automatically, casting a look at herself in the mirror as she did so. As she was now—without the arts of paint and brush she had learned from Countess Vrenable—no man would look twice at her. This was a good thing, for a beauty had a hard time making herself plain and unnoticed, but one who possessed a certain cast of pale features that might be called “plain” had the potential to be either ignored or to make herself by art into a beauty. Strange that she and Reanna should have become such fast friends from the very moment she had entered the gates of Viridian Manor. She, so dark and pale, and Reanna, so golden and rosy—yet beneath the surface, they were very much two of a kind. Both had been sent here by parents who had no use for them; daughters who must be dowered were a liability, but girls schooled by Countess Vrenable had a certain cachet as brides, and often the King could be coaxed into providing an addition to an otherwise meager dower. Especially when the King himself was using the bride as the bond of an alliance, which had also been known to happen to girls schooled by the Countess. Both Moira and Reanna were the same age, and when it came to their interests and skills, unlikely as it might seem, they were a perfectly matched set.
And both had, two years ago, been taken into the especial schooling that made them something more than the Countess’s fosterlings. Both had been invited to become Grey Ladies.
It sometimes occurred to Moira that the difference between girls fostered with Countess Vrenable and those fostered elsewhere, was that the other girls went through their lives assuming that no matter what happened, no matter what terrible thing befell them, there would be a rescue and a rescuer. The Grey Ladies knew very well that if there was a rescue to be had, they would be doing the rescuing themselves.
There was a great deal to be said for not relying on anyone but yourself.
“You’re not a Grey Lady yet,” Reanna reminded her, from her perch on the bolster of the bed. “That’s for the Countess to decide.”
A polite cough beside them made them both turn toward the door. “In fact, my dear, the Countess is about to make that decision right now.”
No one took Countess Vrenable, first cousin to the King, for granted. And it was not only because of her nearness in blood to the throne. She was not tall, yet she gave the impression of being stately; she was no beauty, yet she caused the eyes of men to turn away from those who were “mere” beauties. It was said that there was no skill she had not mastered. She danced with elegance, conversed with wit, sang, played, embroidered—had all of the accomplishments any well-born woman could need. And several more, besides. Her hair was pure white, yet her finely chiseled face was ageless. Some said her hair had been white for the past thirty years, that it had turned white the day her husband, the Count, died in her arms.
“You are a little young to be one of my Ladies, child,” the Countess said, in a tone that suggested otherwise. “However, this move on your father’s part holds…potential.”
The older woman turned with a practiced grace that Moira envied, and began pacing back and forth in the confined space of the small room she shared with Reanna. “I should tell you a key fact, my dear. I created the Grey Ladies after my dear husband died, because it was lack of information that caused his death.”
She paused in her pacing to look at both girls. Reanna blinked, looking puzzled, but too polite to say anything.
The Countess smiled. “Yes, my children, to most, he died because he threw himself between an assassin and the King. But the King and I realized even as he was dying that the moment of his death began long before the knife struck him. We know that if we had had the proper information, the assassin would never have gotten that far. Assassins, feuds, even wars—all can be averted with the right information at the right time.” She passed a hand along a fold of her sable gown. “My cousin has kept peace within our borders and without because he values cunning over force. But it is a never-ending struggle, and in that struggle, information is the most powerful weapon he has.”
As Reanna’s mouth formed a silent O, the Countess turned to Moira. “Here is the dilemma I face. There is information that I need to know in, and about, the Sea-Keep of Highclere and its lord. But conflicting loyalties—”
Moira raised an eyebrow. “My lady, I have not seen my father for more than a handful of days in all my life. I know well that although my mother loved him, he wedded her only to have her dower, and it was her desperate attempt to give him the male heir he craved that killed her. He cast me off like an outworn glove, and now he calls me back when he at last has need of me. I have had more loving kindness from you in a single day than I have had from him in all my life. If he works against the King, it is my duty to thwart him.” She met the Countess’s intensely blue eyes with her own pale grey ones. “There are no conflicting loyalties, my lady. I owe my birth to him—but to you, I owe all that I am now.”
What she did not, and would not say, was a memory held tight within her, of the night her mother had died, trying to give birth to the male child her father had so desperately wanted. How her mother lay dying and calling out for him, while he had eyes only for the son born dead. How he had mourned that half-formed infant the full seven days and had it buried with great ceremony, while his wife went unattended to her grave but for Moira and a single maidservant. She had never forgiven him for that, and never would.
The Countess held herself very still, and her eyes grew dark with sadness. “My dear child, I understand you. And I am sorry for it.”
Reanna sighed. “Not all of us are blessed with loving parents, my lady,” she said.
The Countess’s lips thinned. “If you had loving parents, child, I would be the last person to remove you from their care,” she replied briskly, and Moira suddenly understood why she felt she had joined some sort of sisterhood when she came to foster under the Countess’s care. None of them had been considered anything other than burdens at worst, and tokens of negotiation at best, by their parents.
Which makes us apt to trust the first hand that offers kindness instead of a blow, she thought. Which was, of course, a thought born of the Countess’s own training. The Countess taught them all to look for weaknesses and strengths, and to never accept anything at its face value, even the girls who were not recruited into the ranks of the Grey Ladies.
But then her mind added, And it is a very good thing for all of us that milady is truly kind, and truly cares. Because she had no doubt of that. The Countess cared deeply about her fosterlings, whether they were Grey Ladies or not.
But it did make her wonder what someone with less scruples could accomplish with the same material to work on.
“Would that I had a year further training of you, Moira,” the Countess said, frowning just a little. “I am loath to throw you into what may be a lion’s den with less than a full quiver of arrows.”
“I am thrown there anyway,” Moira replied logically. “My father will have me home, and you cannot withhold me. I would as soon be of some use.” And then something occurred to her, which made the corners of her mouth turn up. “But I shall want my reward, my lady.”
“Oh, so?” The Countess did not take affront at this. One fine eyebrow rose; that was all.
“Should I find my father in treason, his estates are confiscated to the Crown, are they not?” she asked. “Well then, as we both know, your word is as good as the King’s. So should information I lay be the cause of such a finding, I wish your hand and seal upon it that the Sea-Keep of Highclere, my mother’s dower, remains with me.”
Slowly, the Countess smiled; it was, Moira thought, a smile that some men might have killed for, because it was a smile full of warmth and approval. “I have taught you well,” she said at last. “Better than I had thought. Well enough, my hand and seal on it, and if you can think thus straightly, I believe you may serve your King.” And she took pen and parchment from the desk and wrote it out. “And you, Reanna—you may hold this in surety for your friend,” she continued, handing the parchment to Reanna, who waved it in the air to dry. “I think it best that you, Moira, not be found with any such thing on your person.”
Moira and Reanna both nodded. Moira, because she knew that no one would be able to part Reanna from the paper if Reanna didn’t wish to give it up. Reanna—well, perhaps because Reanna knew that the Countess would never attempt to take it from her.
“All right, child,” the Countess said then. “I am going to steal you away from your packing long enough to try and cram a year’s worth of teaching into an afternoon.”
In the end, the Countess took more than an afternoon, and even then, Moira felt as if her head had been packed too full for her to really think about what she had learned.
The escort that her father had sent had been forced to cool its collective heels until the Countess saw fit to deliver Moira into their hands. There was not a great deal they could do about that; the Countess Vrenable outranked the mere Lord of Highclere Sea-Keep. The Countess was not completely without a heart; she did see that they were properly fed and housed. But she wanted it made exquisitely clear that affairs would proceed at her pace and convenience, not those of some upstart from the costal provinces.
But there was more here than the Countess establishing her ascendancy, for the lady never did anything without having at least three reasons behind her action. The Countess was also goading Lord Ferson of Highclere Sea-Keep, seeing if he could be prodded into rash behavior. Holding on to Moira a day or two more would be a minor irritation for most fathers, especially since his men had turned up unheralded and unannounced. In fact, a reasonable man would only think that the Countess was fond of his daughter and loath to lose her. But an unreasonable man, or a man hovering on the edge of rebellion, might see this as provocation. And he might then act before he thought.
As a consequence, Moira had more than enough time to pack, and she had some additions, courtesy of the Countess, to her baggage when she was done.
In the dawn of the fourth day after her father’s men arrived with their summons, she took her leave of Viridian Manor.
As the eastern sky began to lighten, she mounted a gentle mule amid her escort of guards and the maidservant they had brought with them. She took the aid offered by the chief of the guardsmen; not that she needed it, for she could have leaped astride the mule without even touching foot to stirrup had she chosen to do so—but from this moment on, she would be painting a portrait of a very different Moira from the one that the Countess had trained. This Moira was quiet, speaking only when spoken to, and in all ways acting as an ordinary well schooled maiden with no “extra” skills. The rest of her “personality” would be decided when Moira herself had more information to work with. The reason for her abrupt recall had still not been voiced aloud, so until Moira was told face-to-face why her father had summoned her, it was best to reveal as little as possible.
That said, it was as well that the maid was a stranger to her; indeed, it was as well that the entire escort was composed of strangers. The fewer who remembered her, the better.
This was hardly surprising; she had been a mere child when she left, and at that time she hadn’t known more than a handful of her father’s men-at-arms by sight. She had known more of the maidservants, but who knew if any of them were still serving? Two wives her father had wed since the death of her mother; neither had lasted more than four years before the harsh winters of Highclere claimed them, and neither had produced another heir.
Of course, father’s penchant for delicate little flowers did make it difficult for them. Tiny, small-boned creatures scarcely out of girlhood were his choice companions, timid and shy, big eyed and frail as a glass bird. Moira’s mother had looked like that—in fact, if she hadn’t wed so young (too young, Moira now thought) she might have matured into what Moira was now—ethereal in appearance, but tough as whipcord inside.
She felt obscurely sorry for those dead wives. She hadn’t been there, and she didn’t know them, but she could imagine their shock and horror when confronted by the winter storms that coated the cliffs and the walls of the keep with ice a palm-length deep. She was sturdier stuff, fifteen generations born and bred on the cliffs of Highclere, like those who had come before her. Pale and slender she might be, but she was tough enough to ride the day through and dance half the night afterward. So her mother still would be, if she’d had more care for herself.
The maidservant was up on pillion behind one of the guards. There were seven of them, three to ride before, and three to ride behind, with the seventh taking the maid and Moira on her mule beside him. They seemed competent, well armed, well mounted; not friendly, but that would have been presumptuous.
She looked up at the sky above the manor walls as they loaded her baggage onto the pack mule, and sniffed the air. A few weeks ago, it had still been false summer, the last, golden breath of autumn, but now—now there was that bitter scent of dying leaves, and branches already leafless, which told her the season had turned. It would be colder in Highclere. And in another month at most, or a week or two at worst, the winter storms would begin.
It was a strange time for a wedding, if that was what she was being summoned to.
“Are you ready, my lady?” She glanced down at the guard at her stirrup, who did not wait for an answer. He swung up onto his horse and signaled to the rest of the group, and they rode out without a backward glance. Not even Moira looked back; she had said her farewells last night. If her father’s men were watching, let them think she rode away from here with no regret in her heart.
They thought she rode with her eyes modestly down, but she was watching, watching everything. It was a pity she could not simply enjoy the ride, for the weather was brisk without being harsh, and the breeze full of the pleasant scents of frost, wood smoke, and occasionally, apples being pressed for cider. The Countess’s lands were well situated and protected from the worst of all weathers, and even in midwinter, travel was not unduly difficult. The mule had a comfortable gait to sit, and if only she had had good company to enjoy it all with, the trip would have been enchanting.
The guards were disciplined but not happy. They rode without banter, without conversation, all morning long. And it was not as if the weather oppressed them, because it was a glorious day with only the first hints of winter in the air. As they rode through the lands belonging to Viridian Manor, there were workers out harvesting the last of the nuts, cutting deadfall, herding sheep and cattle into their winter pastures, mostly singing as they worked. The air was cold without being frigid, the sky cloudless, the sun bright, and the leaves that littered the ground still carried their vivid colors, so that the group rode on a carpet of gold and red. There could not possibly have been a more glorious day. And yet the guards all rode as if they were traveling under leaden skies through a lifeless landscape.
They stopped at about noon, and rode on again until dark. In all that time, the guards exchanged perhaps a dozen words with her, and less than a hundred among one another. But when camp was made for the evening, the maid, at least, was a little more talkative. Lord Ferson had provided a pavilion for Moira to share with the maid; if it had been up to Moira, she would have been perfectly content to sleep under the moon and stars. She felt a pang as she stepped into the shelter of the tent, wishing she did not have to be shut away for the night.
She let the maid help her out of her overgown, and sat down on the folding stool provided for her comfort while the maid finished her ministrations. “I have not seen Highclere Sea-Keep in many years,” Moira said, in a neutral tone, as the maid brought her a bowl of the same stew and hard bread the men were eating. “Have you served the lord long?”
“Eight years, milady,” the maid said. She was as neutral a creature as could be imagined, with opaque brown eyes, like two water-smoothed pebbles that gave away nothing. She was, like nearly every other inhabitant of the lands in and around Highclere, very lean, very rangy, dark haired and dark eyed. The Sea-Keep had always provided its servants with clothing; hers was the usual garb of an upper maidservant in winter—dark woolen skirt, laced leather tunic, and undyed woolen chemise—and not the finer woolen overgown and bleached lamb’s wool chemise that Moira recalled her mother’s personal maidservant wearing. So her father had sent an upper maid, but not a truly superior handmaiden. This was not necessarily a slight; handmaidens tended to be young, were often pretty, and could be a temptation to the guards. This woman, old enough to be Moira’s mother, plain and commonplace, and entirely in control of herself and her situation, was a better choice for a journey.
“Has the keep changed much in that time?” Moira asked, as she finished her meal and set the bowl aside. It was a natural question, and a neutral one.
The woman shrugged as she took Moira’s braid down from its coil and began brushing it. Needless to say, the pins holding it in place were simple silver with polished heads, not bodkins. “The keep never changes,” she replied. “My lady has fine hair.”
“It is my one beauty,” Moira replied. “And my lord my noble father is well?”
“I am told he is never ill,” said the maid, concentrating on rebraiding Moira’s plaits.
Moira nodded; this woman might not be a superior lady’s maid, but she was not rough handed. “He is a strong man. The sea-keeps need strong hands to rule them.”
Bit by bit, she drew tiny scraps of information from the maid. It wasn’t a great deal, but by the time she slipped beneath the blankets of her sleeping roll, she began to have the idea that the people of Highclere Sea-Keep were not encouraged to speak much among themselves, and even less encouraged to speak to “outsiders” about what befell the keep. And that could be a sign that the lord of the sea-keep was holding a dark secret.
If so, then this was precisely what the Countess Vrenable of Viridian Manor wished to find out.
Highclere Sea-Keep was less than impressive from the road. In fact, very little of it was visible from the road.
The road led through what the local people called “forest.” These were not the tall trees that surrounded Viridian Manor; the growth here was windswept, permanently bent from the prevailing wind from the sea, and stunted by the salt. The forest didn’t change much, no matter what the season; it was mostly a dark, nearly black evergreen she had never seen anywhere else but on the coast. Though the trees weren’t tall, this forest hid the land-wall and gatehouse of the sea-keep right up until the point where the road made an abrupt turn and dropped them all on the doorstep.
And there was a welcome waiting, which Moira, to be frank, had not expected.
She had not forgotten what her home looked like, and at least here on the cliff, it had not changed. A thick, protective granite wall with never less than four men patrolling the top ran right up to the cliff’s edge, making it unlikely anyone could attack the keep from above. There was a gatehouse spanning both sides of the gate, which was provided with both a drop-down iron portcullis and a set of heavy wooden doors. Above the gate was a watch room connected with both gatehouses, which could be manned even when the worst of storms battered the cliff. Both the portcullis and the wooden doors stood open, and arranged in front of them was a guard of honor, eight men all in her father’s livery of blue and silver, with the Highclere Sea-Keep device of a breaking wave on their surcoats.
Moira dismounted from her mule—but only after waiting for the leader of the honor guard to help her. He bowed after handing her down from the saddle, as the sea wind swept over all of them, making the pennants on either tower of the gatehouse snap, and blowing her heavy skirts flat against her legs.
There was ice in that wind, and the promise that winter here was coming early, a promise echoed by the fact that the trees that were not evergreens already stretched skeletal, bare limbs to the sky.
“Welcome home, Lady Moira,” the leader of the guard said, bowing a second time. “The Lord Ferson awaits you in the hall below.”
“Then take me to him immediately,” she said, dropping her eyes and nodding her head—but not curtsying. The head of the honor guard, a knight by his white belt, was below her in status. She should be modest, but not give him deference. This was one of the many things she should have learned—and of course, had—under anyone’s fosterage. She had no doubt that this knight would be reporting everything he saw to her father, later.
The knight offered her his arm, and she took it. Most ladies would need such help on the rest of the journey. She and the knight led the way through the gates, with the honor guard falling in behind; the maid and her journey escort brought up the rear.
Just inside the gates stood the stables and the Upper Guard barracks. These were the only buildings visible. Just past them was the edge of the cliff, and the sea.
She took in a deep breath of the tangy salt air; for once, there was no more than a light wind blowing. This was home. And despite everything, she felt an odd sense of contentment settle over her as the knight led her courteously toward the cliff edge, and the set of stairs, only visible when you were right atop them, that were cut into the living rock of the cliff. And only when you looked down from that vantage did you see the sea-keep itself.
It was built both on a terrace jutting out over the ocean, and into the cliff itself. The side facing the sea was six feet thick, and needed to be, for when the winter storms came those walls would shake with the force of the waves crashing against them, and only walls that thick could prevent the keep from tumbling down into the foam.
Today, with the sun shining and the wind moderate, the spray from the waves beating against the base of the cliff far below was nowhere near the lowest level of the terraces—which, in a storm, would be awash.
From the highest terrace at either side were two walkways leading along the cliff. These led in turn to the second reason for the existence of the sea-keeps—the beacons.
It was the duty of the lord of each sea-keep to man the beacons and keep them alight, from dusk to dawn, and during all times of fog and storm. They warned ships away from the rocks, and provided a guide to navigators. In return, because even the beacons could not protect every ship from grief, the lords had salvage right to anything washed ashore. It was from this salvage right that the lords obtained their wealth. Ships could and did sink even far out to sea; ambergris and sea coal came ashore, and also here at Highclere, true amber and jet. Seaweed and kelp were burned for—well, here Moira had to admit she didn’t know precisely what they were burned for, but apparently the ash was quite valuable. And there were some types of kelp that were edible, by people and animals. She’d had kelp soup hundreds of times; it was one of her favorites. Other kinds made jelly superior to that made with calves’ feet. When the tide went out, the scavengers came out to scour the shingle, and half of what they found was the property of the lord.
If a typical keep were to be set on its side, its entrance facing upward, that is how the sea-keeps were built. The stair led downward to the entrance, a kind of hatchway with two enormous double doors, which now were open to the sky and laid flat against the roof of the topmost tower.
With her knightly escort holding to her arm and walking on the outside of the stair, Moira descended the stair to the tower top, and then passed into the keep itself.
Inside, the stair broadened, and continued descending into the Great Hall. There was only one set of windows in the Great Hall—because the glass had to be very thick, recessed into the stone, and protected by an overhang on the sea side. That set of windows stood in back of the lord’s dais, so that the lord of the sea-keep was haloed by light. He had a fine view of whoever entered his hall—but to those who came down that stair, or stood in the hall below, he was nothing more than a silhouette.
Moira was prepared for this, of course. She took only a glance to assure herself that her father was standing on the dais as she had anticipated, then paid careful attention to her footing.
I suppose it must be Father, anyway. I can’t think who else would dare to stand there.
Every step echoed in the vast hall, and she was glad of her cloak, because it was nearly as cold here as it was on the cliff with the sea wind blowing. During a winter storm there were rooms in the keep that were nearly uninhabitable, they were so damp and cold, and even with a roaring fire in the fireplace, more heat was sucked up the chimney than went into the room.
At last, she reached the floor, and her escort immediately let go of her arm. He released her so quickly, in fact, that it was rather funny. Was he afraid her father would be offended if he held to her arm a heartbeat longer than absolutely necessary?
Moira kept her expression sober, however. Lord Ferson would not find it that amusing.
She walked with her head up and her eyes on the dais between two of the long, rough wooden tables that would hold anyone of any consequence here in the keep at meals. Well, except for the kitchen staff. But everyone else, except for the very lowest of bound serfs, ate in the Great Hall. Lord Ferson liked it that way; he wanted his people under his eye three times a day. Moira wasn’t quite sure why that was; perhaps he thought it would be harder for anyone to foment rebellion undetected with the lord of the keep keeping a sharp eye out for the signs. Perhaps it was only because he enjoyed all the trappings of his position, and those trappings included having his underlings arrayed before him on a regular basis. She had been very young and entirely unschooled in reading men when she had left, and memory, as she had come to understand, was a most imprecise tool when it was untrained.
But except for those times when Lord Ferson had shared his position with a spouse, he had never in her memory had another person on the dais with him.
And as her eyes adjusted to the light, just before she sank into a deep curtsy, she realized with a sense of slight shock that he had someone up there with him now, standing deferentially behind him. There was something odd about the second person’s silhouette, as if he was standing slightly askew.
“And what do you make of the wench, Kedric? She’s learned some graces, at least.” Her father’s voice hadn’t changed much, except, perhaps, to take on a touch of roughness. Probably from all the years of shouting orders over a roaring ocean. It was still deep, still resonant, and still layered with hints of impatience and contempt. Moira remained where she was, deep in her curtsy, head down.
“Comely, my lord. And graceful. Obedient and respectful.” This was a new voice, presumably that of the man who sat at her father’s feet. Not much higher, but smoother, and definitely softer. A much more pleasant voice to listen to.
“Graceful, that I’ll grant, and it’s as well, since I sent her away an awkward, half-fledged thing. Obedient and respectful, so it seems. But comely? Stand up, girl! Look at me!”
Girl? Can it be that he doesn’t remember my name?
Moira raised her eyes and stood up. Lord Ferson had thickened a bit—not that he was fat, but he no longer had a discernible waistline. There was grey in his black hair and beard, and lines in his face. He peered down at her with a faint frown, hands on hips. “Comely, no. Properly groomed, neat, seemly, but pale as the belly of a dead fish. So girl, what have you to say to your father of that?”
“I am as God made me, my lord,” she replied, in an utterly neutral tone of voice.
“Oh, a properly modest, maidenly, and pious response!” Lord Ferson barked what might have been a laugh, had it possessed any humor at all. “And I suppose you wonder why I brought you home, don’t you, girl?”
“My lord will tell me when he feels it is needful for me to know,” she said, dropping her eyes, as much to keep him from reading her dislike of him as to feign maiden modesty.
“Another proper answer. You’ve been taught well, that I’ll grant.” Lord Ferson snorted. “You, men—report back to your captain. Go on, Kedric, escort the lady to her chambers. You’ll be joining us at dinner as is the custom, daughter.”
“Yes, my lord,” she replied, and dropped another curtsy—this one not nearly as deep—as the man, dressed in fool’s patchwork motley (though oddly enough, it was patterned in black-and-white rather than colors) descended from the dais at her father’s orders. He offered her his arm, and she took it, examining him through her eyelashes.
He was just as pale as she, though she couldn’t tell what color his hair was under the fool’s hood that covered his head. For a fool, he had a strange air of dignity, and of melancholy, though one didn’t have to look much past the hunched shoulder to understand the reason for the latter. He also was not very tall—just about her height—and quite slender, with long, sensitive-looking hands. There did seem to be something wrong with his shoulder. He wasn’t a hunchback, but it did seem to be slightly twisted upward. Perhaps an old injury—
“If you will come with me, my lady Moira,” he said, with a slight tug on her hand. He truly had a very pleasant voice, low and warm.
“Certainly, though I know the way,” she replied as he guided her to the door beneath the stair that led deeper into the keep.
But he shook his head. “You are not to be quartered in your old chamber, my lady,” he said, directing her down another stair, this one a spiraling stone stair cut into the rock of the cliff that she knew well, lit by oil lamps fastened to the wall just above head height at intervals. “You have been given new quarters from those you remember. The old nursery chamber would not suit your new stature.”
She bit off the question she was going to ask—And what is my stature? It was best to remember that she needed to tread as carefully here as if she was in an enemy stronghold, because, if the King and the Countess’s suspicions were correct, she might be.
“What is my disposition to be, then?” she asked instead.
“You are to have the Keep Lady’s suite for now,” came the interesting reply. Interesting, because as long as Lord Ferson had evidenced any intention of remarrying, he had kept those rooms vacant. So if he was putting her in them now, did it mean that he was giving up the notion of taking another wife?
Or was it simply that the Keep Lady’s suite was the most secure? Almost impossible for anyone to break into.
Or out of.
It had one window, which provided light to the inaptly named “solar,” and that one was tucked into a curve of the keep so that all one could see from it was the cliff face and a tiny slice of ocean. From the window it was a sheer drop six stories down to jagged rocks and the water. The rest of the suite, like this stair, was carved into the rock of the cliff and never saw daylight. Moira had once overheard Ferson’s second wife tell the handmaiden she had brought with her that it was like living in a cave.
At least it was not as drafty in a storm as some of the rest of the rooms. And the chimney always drew well, no matter what the weather.
“I regret that no handmaidens have been selected for my lady as yet,” Kedric was saying, as he gestured that she should precede him through the narrow door at the bottom of the stair. “I fear my lady will be attending to the disposition of her own possessions. Lady Violetta’s handmaiden departed upon Lady Violetta’s death, and no suitable person has been found for my Lady Moira.”
Interesting that he would know that; the comings and goings of servants were not usually part of a fool’s purview.
“I hardly think I will fall into a decline because I need to unpack for myself,” she said drily. “The Countess’s fosterlings usually took care of each other. However, if no one objects, I would not be averse to having the woman who attended me on my journey as my servant.”
“I will inform the seneschal, who will be greatly relieved, my lady,” Kedric replied. “My lord is reluctant to bring in outsiders; nearly as reluctant as they are to serve here.”
“Life in a sea-keep is not an easy one,” she said automatically as they traversed the long corridor of hewn stone that would end in the Keep Lady’s rooms. Their steps, thank heavens, did not echo here; the corridors and private rooms were carpeted with thick pads of woven sea grass, or no one would ever have gotten any sleep in this place. There was an entire room and four serf women devoted to weaving sea-grass squares and sewing them into carpets, which were replaced monthly in the areas inhabited by the lord and his immediate family and whatever guests he might have. Not that the carpets so replaced went to waste—there was a steady migration of the carpets from one area of the keep to another, until at last they ended up in the kennels and the stables as bedding for hounds and horses.
And as Kedric courteously opened the massive wooden door into the Keep Lady’s quarters for her, she saw that one or another of her father’s wives had made still another improvement for the sake of comfort. There were woolen carpets and fur skins atop the sea-grass carpets, and hangings on all of the stone walls.
The window—one of the few, besides the one in the Great Hall that had glass in it, a construction of panes as thick as her thumb and about the size of her hand leaded together into a frame that could be opened to let in a breeze when the weather was fair—was closed, and Moira went immediately to open it. The hinges protested, and she raised an eyebrow. Evidently Lady Violetta hadn’t cared for sea air.
“I should like those oiled as soon as possible, please,” she said briskly. If Kedric was—as he seemed to be—taking responsibility for her for now, then he might as well get someone in here to do that, too. “Do you know if my things have been brought down yet?”
“I presume so, my lady,” Kedric replied. “If my lady will excuse me, I will see that the seneschal sends the servant you require.”
Something in his tone of voice made her turn, and smile at him impulsively. “Thank you, Kedric. Yours is the first kindly face and voice I have seen or heard since I left Viridian Manor.”
He blinked, as if taken entirely by surprise, and suddenly smiled back at her. “You are welcome, my lady.” He hesitated a moment, then went on. “I have fond memories of Countess Vrenable. She is a gracious lady.”
Interesting. “How is it that you came into my father’s service?” she asked, now that there was no one to overhear. “When I knew him, he was not the sort of man to employ your sort of fool.”
He raised a sardonic eyebrow at her wry twist of the lips. “And by this, you imply that I am not the usual sort of fool? You would be correct. I was in the King’s service, until your father entertained him a year or so ago. Your father remarked on my…usefulness, as well as my talents. I believe he found my manner of jesting to his liking.”
“And what manner of jests are those?” she asked. She knew her father. Foolery did not amuse him. The feebleminded infuriated him. But wit—at the expense of others—
“The King was wont to say that my wit was sharper than any of his knight’s swords, and employed far more frequently.” The corner of his mouth twitched. “Perhaps he tired of it. More likely, his knights did, and he wearied of their complaints. My Lord Ferson finds it to his liking.” He shrugged. “At any rate, when he admired my talents, the King offered him my services, and he accepted. Like many another who serves, a fool cannot pick and choose his master.”
Now here, Moira had to school herself carefully, for she had never, ever known the King to dispose of anyone in his retinue in such a cavalier fashion. So either Kedric the Fool had egregiously overstepped both the bounds of his profession and the King’s tolerance, or—
Or the King had carefully planned all of this in order to plant the fool in her father’s household.
Someone had certainly sent the information that had led to Countess Vrenable asking Moira to spy on her own father. Could that someone have been Kedric?
“When you say talents, I assume this means you exercise more than your wit?” she asked, carefully.
If he was, indeed, an agent of the King, he was not about to give himself away—yet. “I am a passable musician, and your father did not have a household musician. I have a wide fund of tales, and at need, I can play the scribe and secretary. And I am useful for delivering messages to his underlings, since there are no pages here, either.” He shrugged. “As, you see, I am about to do for you, if my lady will excuse me?”
She tried not to allow a chill to enter her voice. After all, even if he was an agent of the King, why should he trust her? He could not yet have heard from his master that she was the Countess’s eyes and ears. So far as he knew, she was no more than what she seemed to be, a girl schooled in fosterage who had no notion of what the Grey Ladies were. And if, in fact, it was difficult for him to send and receive information, he might not learn this for weeks, or even months.
Not to mention that if he was not the King’s man—if, in fact, he had been dismissed from the King’s service to enter Lord Ferson’s—there was no reason on earth why he should have responded to that little opening with anything other than the statements he’d made. She needed to remember to walk cautiously….
“I do indeed excuse you, Kedric. And I thank you for your help.” She smiled again, though this time it was with a touch of sadness. “I hope you will not decide to exercise your wit at my expense, though I am certain my father would enjoy the results.”
He had begun to turn away, but he turned back at that, and his expression had darkened. “My lady,” he said, with what she was certain was carefully controlled anger, “can be absolutely certain that I will not abuse my talent in such a way.”
And then he was gone, leaving her to stand, dumbfounded, staring at the closed door.
What could have brought that particular comment on? It was very nearly an outburst.
There was only one thing she was sure of now. Lord Ferson might enjoy the wit and company of his fool, but his fool did not care in the least for Lord Ferson.
She was actually rather pleased that the maid did not turn up until after she had put her own things away. One of the Countess’s lessons for all her girls, and not just would-be Grey Ladies, was in how to contrive hiding places for things one did not want found. It didn’t take a great deal of work, just a very sharp and exceedingly strong knife. Most chests were never moved from where they were set; working at the bottom, one could remove one or more of the boards and create a hiding place between the bottom and the floor. The backs of wardrobes could often be removed as well, and often enough there were panels that had not been intended to conceal, but which could usually be removed and objects put behind them. By the time the maid appeared, her chain mail, sword, and knives were all carefully hidden away, as were a few things that the Countess had entrusted her with. When the woman turned up at her door, there was nothing visible that should not have been in the luggage of a well-born and proper young woman.
“My lady has been busy,” the maid said, blinking a little in surprise.
“I am well used to tending to my own things,” she told the woman. “I suppose it is not fitting that I should do so now that I am grown, but I saw no need to sit with folded hands and wait for someone to come to deal with my belongings.”
“I will tend to all such matters from now on, my lady,” the woman replied, though Moira thought she saw a brief glimmer of approval. “You are correct—it is not meet that you should be doing the work of a servant, now that you are a lady.”
And as if to emphasize that, she proceeded to bustle about the room, checking the contents of every chest and the wooden wardrobes. This made Moira doubly glad that she had taken the precaution of stowing away anything she didn’t want the woman to find.
That did not take long, and perhaps it was only that the maid wanted to be sure where Moira had put things in order to understand where they were to be kept. Soon the maid was helping her out of her traveling gown and chemise, wrapping her in a woolen robe, and tending to her hair.
“Do you know if Lady Violetta left any fine-work stores behind?” she asked, as the maid made a better job of combing out her hair than had been possible in a tent lit by a single small lantern.
“I can find out,” the maid said. “Shall I bring anything of the sort here for your use?”
“Please. And you do have a name, don’t you?” she added, feeling impatient, all at once, with this nonsense of treating a servant like a nonentity. That might do for her father, but it did not suit her. She had known the names of every servant she came into contact with at Viridian Manor. It was one of the little niceties that the Countess had insisted on.
“Anatha,” the maid responded, sounding surprised. “Milady.”
“Then, Anatha, if you would be so kind as to find whatever fancywork and supplies any and all of my father’s wives might have left behind and bring them to my solar, I would be most appreciative.” She turned her head slightly so as to meet the maid’s eyes. “As you know, I brought nothing of the sort with me. Such fine-work as we did was done for the Countess and her household. I wish my lord father to be aware that I am not idle, and I am well schooled.”
“Very well, my lady.” Anatha nodded. “If I may suggest the blue wool for dinner, my lady.”
So, she’s not entirely unfamiliar with what a lady’s maid is supposed to do. Good. “The blue wool it is,” she replied.
Anatha was entirely at a loss when it came to selecting jewelry and accessories, however. It was Moira who selected the silver circlet for her hair, the silver-and-chalcedony torque and rings, and the silver-plaque belt. But her cosmetic box was hidden away, and she was not going to get it out. Until she knew what her father was up to, she had no intention of doing anything to enhance her looks.
The jewelry, however, she felt she needed to wear. Similar sets had come, regular as the turning of the year, every birthday and every Christmastide. Although she had seldom worn any of it at Viridian Manor, the chest that it was all contained in made for a substantial weight, for these were not insignificant pieces, and she had the feeling that her father assumed she was wearing it all as a kind of display and reminder of his wealth and importance.
The fact that it had probably all come to him as gleanings from wrecks was something she had preferred not to think too much about. Clasping the necklets, torques, and necklaces around her throat sometimes made her shiver, as at the touch of dead men’s fingers there.
But Lord Ferson would expect her to wear it now, and might be considerably angered if she failed to do so. This was not the time to anger him.
Twilight was already falling and the torches and lanterns had been lit by the time she went up to the Great Hall. There was no signal to announce dinner, as there was at Viridian Manor, but she took her cue from Anatha’s behavior as to when to leave. The moment the maid began to look a bit restless, and just a touch apprehensive, she had asked for a lantern to light the way—not all the halls were well lit, and even when they were, when storms blew up, torches and lamps blew out. The lamps in the sea-keeps burned a highly flammable and smokeless fish oil, from the little ones of the sort Anatha carried, to the huge beacons above the rocks. It didn’t matter how the beacons smelled, but at least the lamp oil was scented with ambergris and had a pleasant perfume. Shell plates, thinner than paper and nearly as transparent as glass, sheltered the flame from drafts. Anatha followed her, holding the lantern high, and Moira’s shadow stretched out in front of both of them.
Moira took a light mantle, remembering how cold some of the hallways and the hall itself got, and as she made her way upward, the now-silent maid a few paces behind, she was glad that she had. The wind had picked up, and many of the staircases, as she well recalled, acted like chimneys, with a whistling wind streaming up them.
The Great Hall was half-full; a fire roared in the fireplace, and an entire deer roasted on a spit above it. That alone told her that, however little her father seemed to regard her, this evening was significant. Meat for the entire company was a rarity; the usual fare at dinner here was shellfish chowder and fish baked in salt for the common folk. They tasted meat three or four times a year at most.
Moira was used to the order and discipline that held in the Great Hall at Highclere, and the same was true of Viridian Manor; it had come as something of a surprise to her to hear of brawling and quarreling at the lower tables of other great houses. That discipline still held; as she entered the hall, there was no great change in the sound level. The steady murmuring continued, and those who were already here kept to their seats, though most craned their necks to look at her. Those who were still on their feet bowed with respect toward her before taking their seats on the long benches. Strict precedence was kept; there were choice seats at the tables—nearest the fire, for the lowly, and nearest the High Table for those with some pretension to rank. But the one thing that struck her after her long absence was that beneath the sound of restrained voices, there was no music.
The Countess had musicians and her own fool to entertain during meals, and sometimes the services of traveling minstrels and entertainers; that had never been the case at Highclere since her father had taken over. On occasion, Lord Ferson would call for a wrestling contest or the like at the final course, or when the women retired and the men sat over wine and ale, but traveling entertainers were few, and only appeared in summer, and he had kept no entertainers of his own until now.
And it was quite clear as she approached the dais and the High Table that he had not much changed his habits. He might have a fool, but the man was not making merry for the company; nor was there precisely “entertainment” to be shared by high- and lowborn alike. Kedric was sitting on a stool on the dais to one side of the table, fingering a lute but not singing. It wouldn’t be possible for anyone more than ten paces from the table to hear the soft music.
Lord Ferson was already in his seat, though nothing had been served as yet. Moira approached the table and went into a deep curtsy in front of his seat, but this time she kept her head up and her eyes on him, and rose at his gesture.
“Take the Keep Lady’s seat, girl,” he said. “We have guests, but they’ve not yet come up.”
She did as she was told, moving around the side of the table that Kedric was sitting at—but before she sat down, she took the pitcher of wine from the table and poured her father’s cup full. She waited until he took it with a raised brow for the courtesy, then filled her own, and sat in her chair. There were chairs at the High Table, another touch that showed the difference between the low and the high. The high need not rub elbows and jostle for room at their dinner.
Serving the Keep Lord his wine was, of course, the Keep Lady’s duty, unless he had a page, which Ferson did not—and it had also been a test, she suspected, to see just how well schooled she was. If so, she had passed it.
“Guests, my lord?” she said in an inquiring tone. This was a surprise, and not a particularly pleasant one. On the whole she really would rather not have the duty of being a hostess thrust on her so soon. And she could not help but feel that these “guests” might well have something to do with a marriage. Probably hers.
“You’ll see,” he replied simply.
And a moment later, there was a bit of a stir at the door, and she did, indeed, see.
And as soon as she did, she had to fight to keep herself from stiffening up all over.
Striding into the hall as if he were the right and proper lord here, was a tall, lanky, saturnine man, with a neat, trimmed beard and a long face. The trouble was that even if Moira had not recognized the emblem embroidered on his oddly cut and brilliantly scarlet, quilted silk surcoat—which she did—she would have known by the styling of the garment, by the voluminous ochre silk breeches and wrapped ochre sash instead of a belt, the pointed-toed boots, and by the matching ochre scarf tied about his head, ornamented at the front with a topaz brooch that was worth, if not a king’s, at least a prince’s ransom, that he was from the Khaleemate of Jendara.
And by the sigh of the phoenix rising from the flames embroidered on his surcoat, he was the eldest son of the Khaleem himself.
There was just one small problem with this scenario. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Khaleem was a pirate. His ships had been preying on this kingdom’s merchants and navy for the past two hundred years, at least. And the only reason that outright war had never been declared between the two countries was that the Khaleem always disavowed any knowledge of the piracy, and would, on occasion, make a show of attempting to “root out the problem.” Raids would cease for a few seasons, then it was business as usual.
She had been expecting many possibilities. This was not one of them. And, as Kedric fumbled three notes of the song he was playing, the fool was just as surprised and shocked at the identity of their “guest.”
Behind the Khaleem’s son came three more men. All of them were as richly dressed as he, in blue, ochre, and green, but their surcoats told those who had eyes to read them that these three were Great Captains—high of rank, to be sure, but barely more than servants when compared to their leader’s son.
Lord Ferson was standing. Moira remained seated, which was perfectly proper. No Jendaran would pay the least bit of attention to a mere female anyway, so it hardly mattered what she did. “Welcome to my hall and table, Massid,” her father said in that booming voice, as the man stopped at virtually the same place Moira had, and made a slight bow of his head with his wrists crossed over his chest. It did not escape Moira’s attention that heavy gold cuff bracelets adorned those wrists. Lord Ferson gestured to a servant, who brought a plate with half a loaf and a small bowl on it. He offered it to Massid, who tore off a small piece, dipped it in the salt, and ate it, then offered it to the other three Jendarans, who did the same.
The ceremony of bread and salt. So…suddenly my father and these people have a truce.
That truce would not bind anyone but Massid and the three captains with him, of course, and if the Khaleem chose to attack the sea-keep at this very moment, by his way of thinking, he would be violating no pledge. But he would be mad to try. Only a fool who wanted very much to die would attack a sea-keep with less than a hundred ships, and even then, it would take a moon, maybe two, to conquer it. Unless, of course, a storm blew up, at which point, the battle would be over and anyone not inside the walls would be dead.
Moira cast her eyes down to her empty plate, but watched all this through her lashes, so stunned for the moment that she fell back on the default expedient of appearing quiet and withdrawn. Massid of Jendara! Here! What could it mean?
Whatever was toward, her father was acting as if this pirate was an old and trusted ally; he gestured to the chairs on his left, the opposite side to which Moira was sitting, and the four men took their places, with Massid sitting closest to Lord Ferson.
This seemed to be the signal for service, for servants came hurrying through the doors from the kitchens laden with the serving stones.
This was an innovation Moira had never seen anywhere else, nor heard of being used except in the sea-keeps. It was a long way through cold hallways from the kitchens of Highclere Sea-Keep, and a very long time ago the lords of the keep had gotten decidedly weary of eating their food stone cold. So what came through the doors first at each meal were teams of men carrying boxes full of round stones from the beaches below. Those stones had been heating in and around the ovens all day. Once the boxes were in place around the perimeter of the hall, the food came in. Baskets of bread, huge kettles of shellfish soup and stewed kelp, roasted vegetables, all the courses needed for a full formal dinner. All of these were placed on the hot stones to keep them warm throughout the meal, and only then did the actual serving begin. Anywhere else, smaller bowls and platters of food would be brought to the tables from the kitchens; here those smaller platters were served from the food left warming in the stone boxes at the sides of the Hall.
The trencher bread was served first, to act as a plate—and as part of the meal—for those who were not of the High Table. Then bowls of shellfish soup were brought to the tables—wooden bowls, for those at the low tables, silver for those at the high. Lord Ferson had never stinted the appetites of his people; until the kettles were empty, anyone could have as much of the common food as he wished, and after a long day of work in the cold, appetites were always hearty. This was one of Moira’s favorite foods, but she had little taste for it tonight.
“And this is what, Lord Ferson?” asked Massid with interest, as the bowl was placed before him. Without waiting for an answer, he dipped his spoon in it and tasted it. Of course he wasn’t worried about poison—he’d seen himself that everyone was served from the same common kettles.
“Interesting!” he said after the first cautious taste. “It could do with saffron, but—” he dipped for another spoonful “—quite tasty. I shall have spices sent to your kitchen, with instruction to their use, saffron among them. I believe you will find it improves an already excellent dish.”
“Most gracious of you, Prince,” Ferson replied, managing to sound gracious himself, given that he had no interest whatsoever in what he was given to eat so long as it wasn’t raw or burned. “Instructions would be wise. I have never heard of, nor tasted, this ‘saffron,’ and I fear my cook would be at a loss to deal with it.”
“More precious than gold, I promise you.” Moira could not see Massid from where he sat, though she had the uneasy feeling that he was staring in her direction. “Though not so precious as…other things.”
Without a doubt, that was intended to be a compliment directed at her, and although she wished profoundly that she could call it a clumsy one, in all truth, it was courtly and elegant. And she only wished she could appreciate it. Massid was not uncomely. He was courteous, and if only he wasn’t the Prince of Jendara….
But he was. And the King could never have approved of this, or she would have been informed. So this was all happening without the King’s knowledge.
Treason? Very probably. Why else keep the knowledge of this little visit—and what Moira could only assume was going to be a marriage proposal and alliance with Lord Ferson of Highclere Sea-Keep—from the King?
This was bad. This was very, very bad.
And she had absolutely no idea what to do about it.
Whatever curiosity those at the lower tables had about the visitor was completely overshadowed by the slices of venison laid on their trenchers. The High Table had a full haunch, which Ferson himself carved, but even the least and lowest got some bit of meat and the drippings that had been thriftily saved during the cooking poured over his bread. Nothing in the conversation of their superiors could possibly compete with that.
Her father and the Prince continued to make polite conversation throughout the rest of the meal, which Moira ate without tasting. It was no more than polite conversation, however, with no hints of what was being planned; there was talk of how the weather had affected shipping this past summer, and how soon the storms would start. Massid spoke largely of falconry, her father of coursing hounds against stag and boar. And if there was a code in any of that, she couldn’t decipher it. By the time the sweet course came in, and the betrothal announcement she had dreaded throughout the entire meal never materialized, she felt a little of her tension ebbing. Only a little, but evidently there was going to be some negotiation going on before she was handed over.
Which was going to give her the chance to think calmly about her situation, and perhaps do something about it.
Or at least, so she hoped.
When the wine came in, after the sweet course, and all but the highest-ranked men in the keep departed for their duties or their beds, Moira rose as her father had probably expected her to do, and made the formal request to retire “with her ladies.” She didn’t have any ladies, of course, but that was the traditional phrase, and her father, deep in some conversation with Massid and his captains about horses, absently waved his permission.
She left the hall without a backward glance, although once again she felt Massid’s eyes on her until the moment she left the room.
And it was all she could do not to run.
Back in her chambers, after Anatha had helped her disrobe and she had gotten into bed, she stared up at the darkness beneath the canopy of the huge bed with only the firelight, winking through the places where the bed curtains hadn’t quite closed, for illumination. She needed to calm her mind, or she wouldn’t be able to think.
She heard the distant sounds of walking, but nothing nearby, so at least there wasn’t a guard on her door. Obviously her father didn’t expect her to do anything that an ordinary lady of the sort he’d been marrying wouldn’t do—such as go roaming the halls seeing what she could overhear.
Not yet. I want to save that for when I need to do it.
First, above all else, she needed to get word to the Countess—and thus, the King—of Massid’s presence here.
That wouldn’t be as difficult as getting detailed information out. She did have a way to do that immediately, though she’d hoped not to have to use it. Unfortunately, the communication would be strictly one-way; unless the Countess in her turn found a way to get a messenger to physically contact Moira, there would be no way that she could get any advice from her mentor.
She closed her eyes, and tried to reckon how likely that would be, and could only arrive at one conclusion: swine would be swooping among the gulls first. With the Prince of Jendara here, Lord Ferson would be making very sure that no one traveled into or out of his realm without his express knowledge and permission, and that would only be given to those whose loyalty he could either trust or compel. In past years, once past All Hallows’ Eve—and that night had come and gone while she was en route—there had never been so much as a hint of traveling entertainers or peddlers. It wasn’t just that the winter weather along the coast was harsh—which it was. Once winter truly closed in, the forest between the sea-keep and the rest of civilization became dangerous with storms and hungry wild animals. It wasn’t worth the risk for an uncertain welcome at a place where, if you were truly unfortunate, you could be trapped until spring came. Any so-called minstrel or peddler who showed his face now would simply not be permitted past the gates at the top of the cliff, because her father would be sure he was a spy.
So she was on her own, here.
Given that, what were her possible choices?
It had been a long time since she had lived here, but some knowledge never completely faded. There was a sound in the waves below that warned that she—and the Prince—had only just arrived ahead of the bad weather. Storms far out to sea sent echoes of their anger racing ahead of them in the form of surging waves, and anyone who lived at a sea-keep learned to read those waves. So, the prince would be here till spring, whether or not he had planned to be.
The first of her options that came to mind was the most obvious. Marry the Prince. She ignored the finger of cold that traced its way down her spine at that thought, and she looked that choice squarely in the face.
She could marry the Prince, in obedience to her father. Then what?
Well, the Jendarans did not have a very good reputation when it came to treating women like anything other than property to be sequestered away from the eyes of all other men. If he regarded her in the same light as a Jendaran bride, she’d find herself confined to these rooms with a guard on the door, never seeing anyone but her maid except during Massid’s…conjugal visits. Not that she was particularly afraid of those, but being confined to two rooms with no company but a maid would drive her mad.
Although the traditional guard is a eunuch, I don’t think he brought one with him, and I don’t foresee anyone of the keep men volunteering for the operation…
It would also leave Massid and her father free to do whatever it was they were planning without anyone at all able to discern what it was.
Then, when spring came and the sea calmed enough to travel on, Massid would probably send her back to Jendara, which would be even worse. She’d be a captive among his flock of wives and concubines, none of whom would speak her language, all of whom would probably be hostile. If she wasn’t driven to insanity by such imprisonment, one or more of them would probably try to poison her out of jealousy if Massid showed the slightest bit of preference for her. Travelers’ tales of war among the women of a Jendaran chareen might be partially apocryphal, but where there was smoke, there was usually flame somewhere about.
Not a good option, for herself or her King.
Next choice—try to escape.
She wouldn’t get more than a single chance at that, and she would need to be very careful about the timing. I won’t get a chance at all once there’s a wedding, so it will have to be before then if I try it. That much she was sure of—or at least, she wouldn’t get a chance unless something completely catastrophic happened that threw the entire keep into an uproar and removed the probable guard from her door. So any attempt would have to take place after she learned as much as she could, but before a wedding.
The autumn and winter storms were on their way, and both Ferson and Massid must be as aware of that as she was, so whatever her father and the Prince were planning was probably intended to take advantage of the storms. But those same storms would also make getting to and from the keep from the landward side quite difficult. Not impossible, but it took a very determined traveler to brave the wind, snow, and above all, the ice storms that pounded the coastline by winter. If she was to escape, she’d have to plan things to a nicety, and she would have to have a great deal of luck. The closest place likely to take her in was one of the two nearest sea-keeps, but there was no telling whether or not Ferson was including the Lord of Lornetel and the Lord of Mandeles in his plans. If she fled to either of them, she might find herself handed back over. So the safest direction to flee would be inland, and it would take her at least twice as long to get to another inland keep as it would to get to the nearest sea-keeps.
Escape was not a good option. It might be the only one, but it was not much better than going through with the wedding.
Whatever the King and Countess suspected, it was nothing like this, or surely they’d have given her more warnings—and more of the sort of arcane aid that resided beneath the floor of the wardrobe.
Nevertheless, there had been a lot of thought put into this plot, whatever it was.
He must have been planning this for a while—but not for too long, or he would have summoned me earlier. This scheme could not have been hatched before this time last year.
The moment she realized that, she was certain of something else.
This had not been Lord Ferson’s idea. Or at least, it didn’t originate with him.
It wasn’t that her father wasn’t intelligent, because he was. He wasn’t clever, he wasn’t good at coming up with cunning plans, but he was intelligent. He knew how to read men, to the point where some of his underlings thought he could see what was in a man’s mind. He was also cautious. Living in a sea-keep tended to make you cautious; the sea was temperamental and unforgiving; slip once, and she tended to kill you for your carelessness.
He also hated risk. He always measured risk against gain. But he wasn’t creative, and he never initiated anything if he could help it.
Any overtures would have to have come from the Khaleem, and the promises of reward would have had to be quite substantial before he would even have considered answering the initial contact.
Whatever Lord Ferson had been promised, it had to have been something big enough to override that intelligence and native caution. And whatever was afoot, it had to be something that Lord Ferson was quite sure of bringing to fruition without being caught.
This was probably the Khaleem’s idea. He had promised her father a great deal—and might even have already paid him some of what was promised as a gesture of good faith. Until this moment, there would not have been a great deal that anyone could point to as evidence of treason. Even now—well, entertaining Massid for the winter was a dubious move, but not precisely treasonable. It could even be said, and likely Ferson would if he was caught, that he had been trying to open negotiations to end the Khaleem’s piracy.
Only if he made some more overt move, such as pledging his daughter to Massid, would he enter the realm of treason, and he had timed things so word of that was unlikely to escape before the greater plan came to fruition.
Now, something about that tickled her mind, but she couldn’t put a finger on it. Mentally, she set it aside in the back of her mind and continued pursuing her original train of thought, jumping a little as the fire popped.
Nevertheless, even with powerful incentives, and a strong likelihood of success, there was something missing from this equation. There were too many things that could go wrong, too many uncertainties. The Khaleems were not known for fidelity to their promises in the past. Lord Ferson had never been noted for being a risk taker.
Something in his life must have changed in the past year to make him even consider such an overture, much less follow through on it.
She took in a shuddering breath. This was getting more complicated by the moment. She was going to have to watch every step she took, every word she spoke.
So far her options were marriage, and escape. Both were fraught with the potential to go wrong. There was a third option—to delay—but she didn’t think that she would get very far with that—except…
There was a narrow path through all of this, perhaps. She had boldly told the Countess there was no way her father could force her into a marriage against her will. Legally, that is, and when she had claimed that, she had assumed any such marriage would be to a fellow countryman, who would be bound by the law and custom of the sea-keeps. But that assumed there would be someone here to oppose her father’s will; she had also assumed that no actual marriage could take place before spring, and that such a wedding would involve the invitations to the other lords of the sea-keeps. At least one of them would have answered to an appeal from her. Especially since all of them were very jealous of their equality in power, and would resent anything that made the Lord of Highclere the most powerful of the lot.
The arrival of Massid put rest to all of those assumptions.
Part of what had been tickling the back of her thoughts finally bloomed into an idea. She couldn’t depend on the law…but she could use it.
She closed her eyes briefly and said a little prayer of thanks that she had managed to keep her father from knowing precisely what kind of person he had welcomed back into his keep. The good God must have been in the back of her mind, keeping her from betraying her intelligence this whole time, from the moment she had left Viridian Manor to this moment. Because using the law to delay was going to depend entirely on Lord Ferson’s impression that she was passive, ordinary, and above all, stupid. Stupid enough not to realize why Massid was here, and stupid enough to believe the law would actually protect her from a marriage to anyone she didn’t wish to wed. Stupid enough to blurt out her rights in public, thus reminding the rest of the freedmen of the keep that those rights existed, and make them feel unease that those ancient rights—as ancient as the ones that kept them free rather than serfs—were being threatened.
She was under no illusion that any of them would leap to her defense. Oh no. Those that weren’t blindly loyal to Ferson—and there would be some, perhaps many—were also smart enough to know that opposing him in this could mean an unfortunate slip on an icy parapet in the middle of a storm.
However, that was not what she was aiming at. Fully half of those who served Ferson were freedmen; they were jealous of those rights that kept them free, and though they were not quick to anger, their anger burned long and sullen when it was aroused.
It would be a mistake to arouse their suspicions of the motives of their Lord at any time, but to do so when the winter storms were coming and everyone was confined here for months…that was dangerous. It had not happened in recent times, but there were tales, and plenty of them, of winters when one man ruled a sea-keep, but at the arrival of spring, another pledged fealty to the King in his place. Unfortunate slips on icy parapets in the middle of winter storms did not happen to only the lowborn.
Those who dwelled in the sea-keeps were isolated from the rest of the land at the best of times. The King was a far and distant figure; their lords and ladies stood with them through the storm as well as the zephyr. It was hard to give loyalty to one who was only a profile on a coin; easier by far to tell oneself that loyalty should go to those whom one knew. They might soothe their consciences by telling themselves that the King did not matter, that he cared nothing for them, so they were not obliged to care for him. But if they thought that their own lord threatened their rights—then they would begin to doubt, and every doubt served her purposes.
It was a thin plan, but at least it was a plan. First, before she did anything else, she needed to get word to the Countess of what she knew.
And she would have to be as hard to read as the stones of Highclere Sea-Keep. Her best hope of success lay with her father expecting one thing from her, and getting something quite, quite different.
Anatha woke her in the morning, the first morning in a very long time that she had not awakened by herself. Part of it was the sound of the sea beneath the walls of the keep; it had been her lullaby as a child, and the familiar sound, at once wild and rhythmic, was strangely soothing. Even the warning of storm to come in the waves below her window was not enough to keep the waves from lulling her. Part of it was the darkness of her rooms. Not even in the long nights and dull days of winter were the rooms at Viridian Manor this dark.
But the sound of footsteps in the outer room did, finally, penetrate her slumber, and the sound was unfamiliar enough to bring her to full wakefulness in the time it took to draw a breath.
Anatha did not speak, but as soon as Moira was awake, she recognized the sounds of someone tending the fire and assumed it could only be her new maid. She pulled back the bed curtains herself in time to see Anatha flinging back the shutters in the solar to let in the daylight.
“My lady!” the woman said, turning at the sound of the fabric being pulled back. “What gown do you wish?”
“The brown wool, please, Anatha,” she said quietly. “And the amber torque and carnelian bracelet.” Not ostentatious, but enough ornament that her father would find nothing to fault in her appearance—and she had a use for the carnelian bracelet. “Have you found the fine-work you told me of?”
“I now know where it is stored, my lady,” the maid replied, removing the gown from the wardrobe and a chemise from the chest. “I shall fetch it for you when you are dressed.”
“I have been dressing myself since I was a child, Anatha,” she replied. “I think I can do so now, and I should like to have the fine-work here as soon as may be. It is dull here without other ladies to speak to. I shall need something besides my duties to occupy me.”
There. Let Anatha carry the tale that she was interested only in “womanly” things. And that there was some “womanly” vanity involved, probably. The gowns she had brought with her were plain and mostly unornamented; any embroidery to make herself fine she would have to do with her own two hands.
“If you will be so kind as to deal with the fine-work,” Moira continued, “I shall attend to myself.” She smiled at the maid’s hesitation. “I doubt anyone will question your diligence so long as I do not.”
Anatha bowed her head slightly. “Very well, my lady,” she replied, as Moira pulled the chemise over her head. The door was closing behind her as Moira’s head emerged from the folds of fabric.
Which was precisely what Moira had hoped for.
Quickly she removed the bottom from the wardrobe, and removed a small box. From the box she took a metal capsule fastened to a leather band, and a slip of paper as light and thin as silk. There were only a half dozen of those capsules, but she doubted very much that she would get many chances to use them all with storms coming. She took both, and the quill and ink from her desk, to the window. She needed all the light she could get to write the tiniest letters she could manage.
“Prince Massid, son of Khaleem of Jendara here,” she wrote. “Ferson’s guest. Purpose unknown. Possible alliance and marriage?”
She nibbled the end of the quill and added, “King’s fool Kedric also here.” It was all she could fit in; it would have to do.
She waved the paper until the ink was dry, then rolled it until it would fit inside the tiny capsule, and screwed the capsule up tight. She picked up her favorite bracelet, silver, with a carnelian cabochon. The metal backing the cabochon on the inside of the bracelet was hinged; the capsule fit snugly inside it with the thin leather tucked in around it.
Then she hastily pulled on the brown woolen gown, clasped the necklet around her neck, restored the wardrobe, and returned the ink and quill to their proper places.
By the time Anatha returned with two servants carrying wooden chests, she was sitting quietly on a stool, brushing out her own hair.
“I’ll do that, my lady,” the maid said, with faint disapproval, putting the casket she herself held down on the chest at the foot of the bed. “You two! Put those chests down next to my lady’s tapestry frame in the solar and go!”
Moira surrendered the brush to Anatha, and allowed the maid to brush and braid her hair with brown silk ribbons. She sat quietly during the whole process, only allowing her fingers to rub the surface of the carnelian. Was there a faint warmth there?
Well, the first, and easiest part was done with. Now she had to find an excuse to go up to the top of the cliff this afternoon.
Prince Massid was nowhere to be seen when she went down to the hall to break her fast, but she didn’t expect him to be there. Princes of Jendara did not eat with common folk, and only the evening meal was held in state at Highclere Sea-Keep. There was food set out in the morning, and again at noontide, and one was expected to help oneself. Though of course, anyone with rank to command a servant could have food brought to her room.
And I may just do that. The less Father sees of me, the better. Bread and butter, small beer, and an apple, all taken from the side tables, had served her well enough this morning; she was apparently Keep Lady now, and she should take up her duties as such.
An inspection of the kitchen and kitchen staff was definitely in order. They needed to see her; she needed to see them. In all likelihood, absolutely nothing would change, except that the order of responsibility would have been established. And this, too, was something she would have—and indeed had—learned under Countess Vrenable’s tutelage.
Lord Ferson was not the sort to allow his staff to be left to their own devices even though there was no Keep Lady. He must have established strong superior servants in place when his second wife proved unequal to the challenge of truly running the daily business of the keep. The head cook was a formidable man, muscled like a fisherman used to hauling in heavy nets, and the housekeeper his equally formidable wife whose build nearly matched his. They came after the time when Moira had been sent off to fosterage, but she found nothing to fault with either of them. She did, however, take charge of the keys to the spice cupboard and the wine cellar. Not that there probably wasn’t another set, and perhaps two, but the Keep Lady was supposed to be at least nominally in charge of the spices and fine drink, and appearances had to be maintained.
She spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon inspecting the rest of the household stores with Anatha in tow, then had exactly the excuse she needed to go up to the top of the cliff when the cook came to her with the evening’s menu for her approval, which included a dove pie for the High Table, and asked if she would also care to see the chicken pens and dovecote above.
“Indeed,” Moira said promptly. “And I will take the opportunity to see the stables and the kennels as well. There are storms coming, and I do not think there will be another good chance soon.”
“My lady has the sea sense,” the cook rumbled with approval, and sent her up with two of the sturdiest kitchen maids as escort.
Fish was a staple and plentiful at the sea-keeps, but those who sat at the High Table had the benefit of a more varied diet. There would be game laid away as soon as the first storm brought real cold, but the two things that could be depended on to supply a change in menu were the chicken yard and the dovecote. Both were in the lee of the seaward wall, to keep the worst of the storms off them. There was nothing to distinguish either from every other dovecote and chicken yard she had ever seen—though both were impeccably kept—but she went through the motions of inspecting them. Then, while the maids selected doves for the pie, she picked a bright-eyed, strong young dove on a perch, and calmly reached toward it with the hand bearing the carnelian bracelet. The dove stared at the stone, transfixed, and she picked him up as casually as selecting an egg. The maids didn’t even notice.
She took him outside, made sure that there was no one near to see what she was doing, then took off the bracelet. She had practiced this a hundred times under the Countess’s sharp eye; it was a matter of moments to extract the capsule containing her message, tie it to the bird’s leg securely, slip the bracelet back on, and toss the dove in the air.
The capsule, of course, had been enchanted. While it was touching her, it would freeze a bird in a kind of sleep. The moment it left her hand, it told the bird that home was not here, home was in the little dovecote where the Countess kept her “pets” in the solar of Viridian Manor. Pigeons were well-known for swift flight and homing ability. This one would be with the Countess by tomorrow at the latest, where, saved from becoming pie, he would live out his life as a pampered pet, and perhaps go on to sire more doves from the lines of Highclere. But the spell was strictly one way, nor would it have been wise for her to be looking for messages among her father’s doves. She could never be sure when a message would arrive, and for one to fall into anyone else’s hands but hers would be a disaster.
With the dove away, she turned her attention to the chicken yard, then the kennel and stables. All were immaculate, but she expected nothing less from her father. Firstly, he was a man with a powerful sense of order, and secondly, there were visitors to impress. Perhaps the Prince of Jendara was unlikely to venture up here to look at ordinary hounds and horses, but in case he did, Lord Ferson would want stables and kennels to be ready for him.
There was no mews here; the lords of the sea-keeps generally kept no birds of prey. The ducks that swam in the sea, coots and scups and the like, tasted like the worst of fish and fowl combined. Not much in the way of game birds populated Lord Ferson’s lands, and even if they had, they didn’t vary greatly enough in taste from dove, pigeon, and chicken for him to care to bother. And at Highclere, no one hunted for pleasure. This was a working, quasi-military keep; there were no highborn fellows idling about. Hunts were purposeful, for meat, and conducted with the intention of spending as little time on them as possible. Boar and deer were tracked, netted, and, if deemed “fair” game, quickly dispatched. Rabbits and hares were snared. The gamekeepers brought the catch in to be stored, and that was the end of it; Lord Ferson himself rarely participated.
So the kennels here were nothing like those at Viridian Manor; there were coursing hounds, calm and purposeful, but aloof. Nor were the stables full of anything but sturdy workhorses. Still, Moira had enough of sea-keep blood in her that she had never really enjoyed hunting and riding the way most of the other girls fostered with the Countess had. Riding was a way to get from here to there quickly, and as for hunting, why spend all day pursuing something your gamekeeper could take down in an hour? The only thing she had really enjoyed was falconry, and then it was in watching the swift and agile birds, riding the winds like the embodiment of wind itself.
She followed the kitchen maids with their burdens back down into the keep, noting as the door to the upper stairs closed behind her that the sound of the waves had intensified. The storm would arrive soon, possibly around dinnertime.
She wondered how the Prince of Jendara would like it. The Khaleemate was not noted for weather.
The storm broke over the keep as she was descending into the Great Hall for dinner. She had spent the remainder of her afternoon going over the contents of the chests her maid had hunted up out of storage, and they had been surprising. Her own mother had not been noted for her needlework, preferring to cut bands of fine work from old, outworn garments and stitch them with nearly invisible stitches to new ones, rather than embroider anything of her own. Sometimes, when the sea brought salvage in the way of clothing or fabric, she would use the ornaments from those, or carefully cut long strips of brocade to hem into trim. But Lord Ferson’s next wives, it appeared, had been expert needlewomen. The chests contained fine linen and silk, hemmed strips of frieze for covering with counted stitches, and skeins of fine, beautifully dyed wool for tapestry and the heavy embroidery called crewel. The smaller casket held embroidery silks and gold and silver bullion meant for a truly skilled worker with the needle—and golden needles. The latter were not for show—a needle made of gold would never snag on even the thinnest of silk, but pass through it smoothly and easily.
In this, Moira was not like her mother. She enjoyed needlework, and had brought her skills up to a level where even the Countess admired her work. She smiled with pleasure at the sight of such riches.
There was even a half-finished neck placket for a gown there, and she wasted no time in mounting it to the frame by the window and setting out what she would use to complete it before the sky began to darken with clouds racing before the storm. The next few days would be so dark that she would not be able to discern colors well; she would have to know what was where in her holder in order to work in the dim light.
The nearer the time came to dinner, the more her stomach knotted. Surely tonight the announcement would come—and she had no idea what to do yet.
By the time she paced into the hall, as the first bolts of lightning flashed outside the windows and the storm winds screamed at the stones, she was as taut as a harp string with tension.
But there was no one on the dais, and she took her seat with as much outward calm as she could manage. Already it was much colder in the hall than last night, and servants had set shields made of paper-thin slices of mica around any open lamp. Not that there were many of those; the one thing Highclere never ran short of was drafts, and most lamps were shielded.
The onset of the storm made no difference to the folk of the keep, except for those who would be manning the storm beacons. In this sort of weather, they would not be taking the path that clung to the cliff—that would be courting death. There were ways out to the two nearer beacons which cut through the cliff itself from the keep. The passages were narrow and claustrophobic, but better than trying to inch along the path with rain and wave striving to tear you from it. Those two near beacons marked the site of dangerous current and rocks, and were the reason the sea-keep had been built where it was. The further beacons, showing only where the coastline was, were built on the top of the cliff, much like watchtowers, and the men manning them stayed there for a week at a time.
Moira felt the stone of the keep shiver under her feet as the storm waves outside began to pound against the cliff side and the keep itself. Now the roar of the waves penetrated even the thick stone; it would be a hard night, and the storm might last two or three days altogether.
Then a bolt of lightning flashed down somewhere very nearby, for the crash of thunder that shook the entire keep came simultaneously with the flash that lit up the hall more brightly than daylight.
Moira was not ashamed that she jumped and smothered an involuntary scream. Half of the people in the hall did the same, and the other half started and clutched at something.
Her heart was pounding and one hand was at her throat as she forced calm onto herself, just as the Prince of Jendara and her father came in. She had barely gotten her heart under control. Kedric followed a few paces behind. Moira was secretly pleased that Massid was visibly shaken, wide-eyed and, she thought, a little pale under his tan.
Her father seemed to be assessing the Prince as they took their seats, and Moira thought he made up his mind about something as he gave the signal to begin the serving.
“You told me your weather was—formidable, Lord Ferson,” Massid said. To his credit, his voice was steady. “I did not grasp quite what you meant. This is an order of magnitude greater than I had thought.”
Moira looked down at her soup, but concentrated on every word, and especially, the nuances of expression in their voices.
“I have never known an outsider who had any grasp of what a winter storm could be like before he came to a sea-keep, Prince Massid,” her father replied, and there was an interesting inflection in his voice, something Moira could not quite grasp. “Nevertheless, this is an unusually strong storm, even for this time of year. I think it is a very good thing that your ship is safe in the harbor.”
The Prince of Jendara and her father exchanged a wordless glance. Moira could not see her father’s expression, but Massid looked like someone who was harboring a very satisfying secret. She felt the back of her neck prickle. “As my father told you, my lord, we have never lost a ship to a storm, though our enemies have—often.” He smiled then, a smile that called to mind the grin of a shark with a seal in its jaws.
“Depending on who was caught in this weather, what kind of ship and pilot they have, we may be gathering our winter harvest when the storm ends,” Lord Ferson replied, and he did not trouble to hide the satisfaction in his voice.
Moira shivered. Fortunately her father’s attention was on his guest, and to a man from Jendara, a woman was too unimportant to take note of. She knew very well what he meant. At a sea-keep, the “winter harvest” meant the salvage cast up on the rocks after a wreck.
“In a storm this strong,” her father continued, “any ship that’s been hugging the coastline had better have a sharp pilot and a good lookout to avoid the rocks, or she’ll be driven straight onto them. Even with the beacons, you need luck on your side when the Winter Witch comes in, because if you don’t make your turn, you’re on the teeth, and there’s an end to you.”
He was gloating. She knew it—she knew that tone. He was gloating, and she didn’t know why—
“So unfortunate.” Massid shook his head, and added, silkily, “And I suppose that turning out to sea and beating away from the coast is no better?”
“You’d better be provisioned for a double fortnight. The Winter Witch can take you a long way from where you ought to be, if she catches you away from the coast. And then, of course, there’s pirates.” Ferson’s voice took on a sly note.
Yes, and you both should know about pirates, Moira thought.
“Ah, pirates. A terrible scourge. I am told they often follow along behind one of these storms as if they knew where it was going,” Massid replied—but out of the corner of her eye, Moira saw him straighten, and abruptly his tone took on a lighter cast, with no shades of meaning. “Ah, what is this?”
“Fish baked in a salt crust, my lord,” replied Ferson, as if they had been discussing no more than food the moment before. “It is one of my cook’s specialties. This fish, baked in this way, leaves no bones in the meat, and the herbs it is stuffed with permeate the flesh, while the flesh itself remains moist. We make a virtue of necessity, having plenty of fish and no lack of salt. The salt sticks to the skin and never touches the flesh.”
“Interesting!” As the server laid a portion before the guest, he leaned over and sniffed it. “Thyme, bay, and basil, I think. How very pleasant!”
Moira knew some sort of secret dialogue had been passing between the two of them, but she simply did not have the key to understanding what was going on under the surface. It was exceedingly frustrating.
Kedric played quietly throughout the meal though his presence was not in the least soothing. At least, she didn’t find it so. The time or two she took her attention off Massid and her father, she found the fool staring at her with a strange intensity, which was as unnerving as the unspoken conversation going on between Ferson and his guest.
Once again, the announcement she had dreaded never came, and she excused herself as soon as she could.
She didn’t feel completely easy until she was in the semidarkness of the passage and out of sight of the High Table. As a child, during storms, she used to run through the passages as quickly as she could, because the lamps would snuff out seemingly by themselves. Strange currents of air would whisper or whine in corners, and all she could think about were the stories of how all those who had drowned when their ships ran up on the Teeth of Highclere followed the wind and the sea into the keep when the Winter Witch blew.
Now, as an adult, she knew that strange behavior of wind and sound was usual in a storm. No matter how well shielded the lanterns were, not all remained lit; drafts were so unpredictable that servants went through every passage at intervals, relighting the lamps that had blown out. And there was no way to keep drafts out of a place like this in storm season.
She felt sorry for anyone who had to take the passages to the beacons. There was no hope of doing anything except making your way in the darkness. No lamp flame could survive the blast that traveled along that tunnel, which was the source of the uncanny moan that signaled the beginning of a storm and didn’t end until it was over.
As she neared her chambers, she paused for a moment, then, prompted by a feeling that she ought to, she abruptly took a different turn, going down the corridor that led to her old childhood nursery. The nursery had a window, and one of the best views in the entire keep. This wasn’t an accident. The idea was that the children of a sea-keep should get used to the worst that storms could throw at the keep at an early age, and the cradle was not considered too early. Moira remembered many, many gloomy afternoons when it was too dark to have lessons or read or do needlework, lying in her bed on her stomach, peeking out through the curtains at the foot of her bed and watching rain lash the window. The curtained bed had seemed very safe when she was small, a good place to retreat to if the storm became so fierce the walls shook.
And she remembered nights, too, when lightning flashed through the cracks of the shutters while thunder vibrated the whole keep. Storms had never frightened her once she had gotten past a certain age; in fact, she’d found them exciting, exhilarating.
Though in the dark of the night, with witch fire dancing on the points of pikes, the tips of towers, and the tops of flagpoles, and the wind keening a death cry, the idea that those drowned souls might come looking for the warmth of the living could still make her skin crawl. At least they weren’t looking for revenge. It was the honor and the duty of the sea-keeps to prevent them from coming aground….
Yes, but why was Father saying those things to the Prince of Jendara, then?
She shivered, opened the door to the nursery, and wrinkled her nose at the cold, dusty smell of the place. Clearly no one had been in here since she had left.
She felt her way along the wall, huddling into her warm shawl. The stone was like ice, the room itself as cold as a snow cave, but she wanted to see the storm over the ocean for herself. It was a sight she hadn’t had since she’d left. The storms at Viridian Manor were impressive, but nothing like the Winter Witch riding the waves.
She came to the shutters and flipped the worn, wooden latch, opening them just as a bolt of lightning struck the sea outside.
In the brief flash of light, she could see that the waves were already washing over the stone terrace of the lowest level of the keep. As usual, water would be running in under the door there, and down the stairs. No matter. There was a drain for it at the foot of the stairs, and no one would go out that door until the storm was over, so it didn’t matter if the stairs were slippery. She’d gone down there once or twice, daring herself to touch that foot-thick door as it trembled visibly under the full fury of the storm. All the keep children did. It was a rite of passage, to prove that you dared the witch to take you, and you were brave enough to face her down.
This was, definitely, one of the worst storms in her memory, especially for one so early.
She sat down on the chest just beneath the window, propped her elbows on the sill with her chin in both hands, and peered through the darkness, looking for the northern beacon that marked the beginning of the Teeth—and frowned.
She should see it clearly from here. No matter how terrible the storm, she should be seeing the beacon! Nothing could blow it out, and never, in all the history of the sea-keep, had anyone failed to light it in darkness or storm and keep it lit. This was not tiny lantern flame to be blown out—it was a great, roaring, oil-fed conflagration, shielded in a large bubble of greenish glass as thick as a thumb and surrounded by polished brass mirrors that reflected all the landward light out to sea.
Then, turning her head a little, she saw it, breathed a sigh of relief—then frowned more deeply.
It wasn’t where it should be. It should be much farther away, along the cliff face. It wasn’t where she remembered, and she had very vivid physical memories of planting both elbows on this windowsill, in little depressions that countless other elbows had worn into the wood, and looking straight out through the center pane to see it. Not through the pane that was left of center.
But I’m older and much taller—
No, that wasn’t the problem. It couldn’t be the problem. Taller would make no difference in where the beacon appeared to be from the view through this window—
But I can’t be sure….
She stared at the warm, yellow light; it was, of course, much dimmer from the land side. The reflectors that sent as much light out to sea as possible saw to that. But the more she stared, and the more she positioned herself within the window frame, the more certain she was that it was not her memory that was at fault here.
But there was a way to be absolutely certain, and as she sucked on her lower lip anxiously, she decided she was going to make that test for herself. Because if something was wrong, she wanted to know, and she wasn’t going to go to her father to try to find out. He had, after all, brought the Prince of Jendara here, and she was certain that it was without the King’s knowledge or permission.
Quietly—in fact, on tiptoe, though she could not have said why she felt the need for stealth—she slipped back to her rooms. Anatha was not there. She was probably still enjoying her own dinner with the rest of the servants, for Moira had made it quite clear that she did not require her maid to dance attendance on her at every waking hour. There was no reason to leave the hall; the banks of hot stones that kept the food warm more than made up for the winds whistling in the rafters and stealing the warmth of the fires up the chimneys. And if she was in particularly good graces with the cook and the housekeeper, Anatha would be invited afterward to the warm room backing onto the baking oven, which the superior servants used as a parlor in winter.
Thank heavens. Anatha’s absence made this much easier—no need to conjure up excuses for going back to the nursery.
She opened her jewelry casket underneath the lamp and found the ring she was looking for. Slipping it onto her middle finger, she stole back down the hall to the nursery, carefully closing the door behind her this time.
She positioned herself at the window with her eyes mere inches from the center pane, and making a fist, rubbed a little scratch in the glass right where the beacon shone through the storm with the diamond in the ring.
There. When the storm broke, she could come back here in daylight and see if the scratch lined up with the beacon. If it did, she had been anxious over nothing.
If it didn’t—
If it didn’t, there was something very, very strange going on at Highclere Sea-Keep. And she would have to find out what it was—and more important, why it was happening.
When Anatha returned to Moira’s rooms, she found her mistress with her feet resting on a stone warmed on the hearth with a fur rug covering her lap, sitting beside the fire, knitting. Knitting was a very plebian pastime, and most ladies didn’t even bother to learn, but Moira found it soothing. It was one of the few tasks that could be done by the uncertain light of a flickering fire and guttering lamps during a storm. And it certainly did no harm to have extra soft, lamb’s-wool hose on hand in a sea-keep winter.
“A wild night, my lady,” was all Anatha said. “The Winter Witch has come early.”
“I thought as much—but I also wondered if my memory had been at fault,” Moira replied. “Well, what are the canny old sailors saying?”
“That—that it isn’t natural, my lady,” Anatha replied, looking over her shoulder first, as if she expected to see someone spying on them from a corner. “The witch has never flown before all the leaves are gone, not in anyone’s memory.”
Once again, Moira felt an odd little sense of warning. “The leaves will certainly not outlast this storm,” she replied, and yawned. “Are they saying this means a bad winter?”
Anatha looked over her shoulder, and this time, she leaned very close to Moira and whispered, “They’re saying, this storm was sent.”
Once again, that touch of warning, that sense as if a single ice-cold fingertip had been touched to the back of her neck. She thought about her father and Prince Massid exchanging cryptic comments and glances full of meaning about the winter storms.
But no one could control the weather. Even the greatest of magicians couldn’t control the weather—the one who could would have a great and terrible weapon at his disposal. Such a magician wouldn’t be content to serve a greater master. He himself would use that power to become a powerful ruler.
Not that Moira had any great acquaintance with magicians. They were few and far between, the genuine ones, anyway. The Countess had her wizard, Lady Amaranth, but she had never performed any magic more powerful than the spell that allowed the Grey Ladies to use pigeon-mail. And Lady Amaranth was supposed to be the most powerful wizard in the kingdom, except for those that served the King.
“How could such a storm be sent?” she replied, keeping her tone light and disbelieving. “And more to the point, why? This is a sea-keep—we are used to such storms. At most, it is an inconvenience. The men-at-arms won’t be able to hunt until it’s over, and we might run a bit short of fresh meat, but the High Table will not suffer. The beacons will have to be tended, and the poor fellows who have to do the tending will spend a miserable time of it. Soon or late, it doesn’t matter when the Winter Witch flies, she’ll have no effect on Highclere. And I hope you aren’t going to tell me that God has sent the storms early for our sins! I shall be quite cross with you.”
Anatha laughed at that. “No, my lady. You’re right, of course. It was all just kitchen talk.”
“Then I count on you to be sensible,” Moira replied, with a nod. “When that sort of talk begins again, make sure you are the one who keeps her head.” She yawned and set aside her work. “And I believe that I will be sensible and go to bed.”
Tucked up in bed, with the curtains closed tightly all around to prevent icy drafts from waking her, Moira did not feel in the least sleepy. She turned on her side to think.
If someone was a powerful magician, and could control the weather, at least in part—he’d use that power to make himself a king. Wouldn’t he?
But what if he already was a king? Or, say, a Khaleem, which was basically the same thing.
Massid had said that the Khaleemate had never lost a ship to storms. Maybe that wasn’t just good luck. Maybe the Khaleems of Jendara had power over the weather.
If that was their only power, it was a cursed useful one, especially for a nation that fielded an enormous navy, and unofficially fielded a second enormous force of pirates.
But why would that be attractive to her father? It was true that bad storms could bring a few more ships to grief on the Teeth of Highclere, and that in turn would certainly increase the coffers of the Lord of Highclere Sea-Keep. But the gain would be offset by some loss; the worse the storms were, the less hunting there would be, the less fishing, and the more likely that one of those unfortunate accidents would befall whoever was supposed to be working outside. She vividly recalled a particularly wretched winter when frequent, though not violent, storms had kept everyone pent up within the walls right up until late spring. The number of fights had been appalling. Feuds had begun that were probably still being played out to this day. Ferson had lost a dozen men to accidents and to fights; it had been hard to replace them, and the keep had been shorthanded for nearly a year.
So what possible use could Ferson make of such a power that would outweigh the disadvantages?
She couldn’t think of anything. So whatever had brought the Prince of Jendara here, it probably wasn’t that.
She fell asleep still trying to figure out what had.
After four days of wind and storm, the morning of the fifth day broke over calm seas and a cloudless—if icy—sky.
Immediately, the scavengers went out to comb the shores for whatever the sea had cast up. Heaps of extremely useful kelp was always thrown upon the rocks, of course, but there were other things. Amber, jet, sea coal. And sometimes the sea in her fickle nature elected to toss back things that had gone to the bottom in previous wrecks. By the time Moira went down to breakfast, the keep was practically empty. Everyone who could be spared was out combing the shore, and everyone who could hunt was up in the forest doing so. The cook would make only one hot meal today, as most of his helpers would be elsewhere.
It seemed as good a time as any to send the Countess another message. But what? Moira still had no idea why Massid was here. No marriage had yet been proposed. And yet—
Frustrated, she essentially repeated her previous warning with the addition of the rumor about the storm being “sent,” adding only that Massid was spending all his time in her father’s company. She released the dove with a sense of futility, and carried a basket of eggs down to the cook as her excuse for being up there in the first place.
With nothing much to do, she went into the Great Hall before returning to her rooms, and stood at the window, brooding down at the ocean.
“Pining for a beloved, my lady?” Kedric’s dry voice came from behind her.
“If you know anything at all about the women schooled by the Countess, you know we don’t pine for anything,” she replied, without turning. “And as for a beloved, you would know that we also are aware that our lives are not our own to give.”
“Ah yes, you are well schooled in obedience—” The bitterness in his voice made her turn and regard him with a lifted brow.
“Perhaps, Kedric, you are insufficiently acquainted with the meaning of the phrase noblesse oblige,” she replied, keeping her tone cool, and just on the polite side of sarcastic. “It means that those who are born into a position of power inherit obligations and responsibilities far in excess of the benefits of privilege. It means that we are obligated to protect those who give us their loyalty and service. Sometimes that protection comes at the cost of a life. Sometimes the cost is only freedom. But we owe them that. This is what noblesse oblige means.”
She could not read Kedric’s face, so she continued. “Men,” she said with some bitterness of her own, “think that being willing to lay down their lives is difficult. They have no conception of what it means to be willing to lay down your life as a woman does—not for a moment of sacrifice, but for years, decades of sacrifice. To surrender it in that way so that the people you have sworn to protect are protected.”
“And so, you lie down and let yourself—” Kedric began.
She interrupted him, a cold fury in her voice that she could not entirely repress. “Is that what you think? That this is mere, passive obedience, weak and weak willed? I thought you wiser than your motley, Kedric. It is hard, hard, to subdue the will, to force aside I want for I must. But you mistake me. Even in the most loveless and calculated of marriages, there are children to love and be loved by. I refer to the hardest sacrifice of all, for a woman to steel her will to live alone and unwedded, not because she wishes to, but because, for the sake of her people, she must—to look down the long years ahead and see nothing at the end of them but an empty bed and a lonely singleness.”
He made a little strangling sound, and she sniffed, interpreting his odd expression, she thought, correctly. “What? You thought the Countess remained single because she wished to? Or because she does not care for men? Oh, she mourns the Count her husband, and she truly loved him, but she stays a single widow because it is her cousin the King’s will, so that she can be the stalking horse, be dangled, like a prize at a fair, for all to see but ultimately never be won by any. And she takes no lovers, for she is the King’s cousin, and like Caesar’s wife, she must be above reproach. She knows that, has always known it, and she makes sure her Gr—her ladies know that there is more than one way in which the King may ask for their obedience, and what the cost may be.”
“I—see,” he managed. “That had not occurred to me.”
“And to protect my people, if I thought it would protect them, yes, I would give myself over to be locked away in a seraglio in Jendara,” she added, turning back to the window. “But I do not think it would protect them. I think the opposite, and I think the King would agree.”
“I think he would, too, my lady.” Kedric’s tone was firm again.
Well, there it was. The unspoken message and alliance she had been hoping to hear. Kedric was the King’s man, and he was here to be the King’s eyes and ears. “The trouble is, I do not know how to prevent it,” she said, sadly. “Short of throwing myself into the sea.”
“You are the heir to a sea-keep, my lady, and as such you can wed any of the King’s subjects you choose without his leave,” Kedric said slowly, as if he was thinking aloud. “But by the law of the land and the charter by which a sea-keep is held, you cannot wed someone who is not one of his subjects without his leave.”
And there it was—her escape. Or at least a way to stall for time. Her father would have to pretend that he was sending for the King’s permission. Probably he would forge such a message, but she had been schooled by the Countess, and she had seen and learned how to recognize the King’s hand and seal. She didn’t think there was anyone here with sufficient talent to successfully forge a royal decree.
“That,” she said aloud, “is quite true. And it is exceedingly useful to keep in mind.”
“I am pleased to have given you something useful, my lady,” he replied, as she turned back to look down at the ocean.
A movement along the cliff face caught her eye. It was the work crew, going out to replenish the fuel for the beacon—and that reminded her, suddenly, of the mark she had made on the window of the nursery, a mark which might give her some information, though what use she could make of it, she was not yet sure.
“You’ll excuse me, I hope,” she said, after a moment—but then, abruptly, added, “unless you would care to accompany me to the old nursery. I think I might have left something there that might interest you.”
He looked at her askance, but nodded. “If you wish, my lady, and you think I may be of service.”
She smiled without humor. “Say, rather, it might be instructive to you to see how a sea-keep child begins its life. We are not sheltered.”
“That,” the minstrel said, raising his eyebrows, “I can truly believe.”
He followed her to the nursery, and did not voice any objections to the chill, stale air as she opened the door. It was dark, as she had expected. As far as she could tell, no one had opened the shutters on the window since she herself had closed them.
She went straight to the window, and opened them—she didn’t fling them open, she moved them quietly, to make as little noise as possible.
“What are you—” Kedric began. She held up a cautioning hand.
“This, you see, is the view every child of the lord of a sea-keep gets from the time it leaves the cradle,” she said, as she leaned down to scrutinize the windowpanes. Finally she resorted to finding the scratch she had made by touch rather than by sight. Somewhat to her surprise, it wasn’t standing out the way she had thought it would. Perhaps too many fantastic tales of lovelorn maidens or tragically imprisoned heroes inscribing poems on the windows of their rooms had given her the mistaken impression that all it would take was a little rubbing with a diamond to leave a visible mark.
At length she found it, sat down on the window seat, and tried to make the mark line up with the beacon just visible from where she sat.
It did nothing of the sort. The trouble was, it didn’t line up with any place that people would be able to get to. While she could certainly imagine that her father would have the cleverness to construct a false beacon, this one was apparently somewhere beyond the cliff itself, out in the water.
“It’s a bit of a harrowing view for a child, I would think,” Kedric said. Then he whispered, “What exactly are you doing, my lady? I hope you didn’t bring me here to reminisce.”
“During the storm, I made a scratch on the glass to line up with the beacon,” she whispered back, “because it seemed to me that it was in the wrong place, and the only way to know for sure was to see if the mark lined up with the structure when the storm cleared.
“Here, take my seat and see for yourself,” she said, louder, relinquishing her spot on the window seat. “Generations of sea-keep children grew up on this view, come storm or sunshine.”
He replaced her, while she spoke in conversational tones about the beacon, the storms, and the beachcombers down on the rocks and what they might find.
He lined himself up with her mark, and peered through the window, frowning. “What keeps the beacon alight?” he asked, still frowning.
“Sea coal, but something’s done to it magically,” she replied. “A little of it burns with a tall, bright flame. There are reflectors behind the flame to send as much of the light as possible out to sea. We have to get the special coal from the King and store it. He sends it to us by packhorse. It must be very hard to make, because we have to account for every bit burned, and if we use more than we’ve been allotted, we have to say why.”
With his back to her, she could see that one of his shoulders was significantly higher than the other, and his spine was slightly twisted. It looked very painful.
Perhaps that accounted for his sourness.
“The beacon and your scratch do not match up, my lady,” he said softly. “Is there any significance to the position where it does match up?”
“Of course, the beacon is meant to show sailors where the coast is, when there are storms and fog,” she said aloud. “During times like those, ships hug the coastline, so they navigate by the beacons in order to avoid being lost at sea. But also a beacon has to be placed precisely, because at the spot where it has been built, there are generally shoals or rocks where ships can run aground.”
He nodded. “So if, say, something were to destroy this beacon, the new one would have to be built on exactly the same spot?”
“Oh, more than that. Even if this one were destroyed, some sort of temporary beacon would have to be put there immediately,” she replied. “It’s just too vital.”
She watched his lips compress and his eyes narrow, only at that moment realizing that they were a dark grey that seemed to darken even as she watched. He knew something that she didn’t.
“I wish, my lady, that we could discover just where along your coastline this scratch does line up,” he whispered.
“There is no way to tell, and I wouldn’t care to go outside in a storm to try to find out,” she whispered back. Then she said, in a normal tone, “If it were not for the beacons, of course, it would not be possible for trade ships to sail in the winter, nor for the coastal patrols to keep enemies from our shores. Fishermen have no need of them, of course, for when the weather is foul they wisely do not put out to sea.”
“Indeed. Well, this has been very enlightening, my lady, and I thank you for your hospitality.” He stood up abruptly, forcing her to step back with some haste. He sketched a bow. “There is a great deal more about this sea-keep and its daughter than meets the eye.”
He held the door open for her courteously, and she stepped through. They parted at the intersection of the two corridors, and she returned to her room, feeling irritated and uneasy. She had shared her information with him, but he had given her nothing.
Her irritation only increased when she returned to the Great Hall, intending, if nothing else, to watch the beachcombers and her father’s overseer below from the vantage point of the great window behind the High Table on the dais, thinking perhaps she might be able also to guess where the displaced beacon had been, though she could not for a moment imagine how the light had been displaced. As far as she could tell, though she was far from certain about this, it had been “moved” several hundred yards down the coastline and a bit farther out to sea. Which, if she was correct, would mean that any boat using it as a guide would think the promontory and rocks that the beacon stood over were there, and that once past, it would be safe to cut in closer to shore.
Which would, of course, depending on the accuracy of the beacon, put a ship directly on the rocks.
Was it just greed that had driven her father to storm-assisted piracy? That didn’t make a great deal of sense. In summer, when storms never lasted more than a day, yes. But winter storms lasted several days, and it wouldn’t do her father a great deal of good if the ship he wanted was wrecked on the first or second day of a storm. You couldn’t go out on the rocks for salvage in the teeth of a winter gale, and anything washed up after a wreck would soon be taken away by the sea and tides again. If he was colluding with the Khaleem to bring in invaders—
Well, that made no sense, either. You would want the beacon where it actually was if you were bringing in strangers to this coast, and anyway, where would they land? The docks for the keep were small, nowhere near big enough for an invasion force. And anyway, the Khaleemate ran to pirates, not soldiers. It was one thing to turn them loose on the high seas and tax them on their booty when they returned to port. It was quite another to expect them to come in to land and act like soldiers.
So why shift the beacon?
And who had done it? The only thing she could think of was that it had been done by magic, and aside from Massid and Kedric, there were no obvious strangers here.
And surely Massid could not be a magician. As rare as magicians were, surely the Khaleem would not allow a son who was also a magician so far away from home.
She brooded down on the waves crashing over the rocks in torrents of white foam, and felt a chill steal over her. That left Kedric.
Kedric, who she, not that long ago, had told almost everything. So now, if he was her father’s man, her father knew everything—from her own reluctance to be handed off in marriage to Massid, to the fact that she knew about the beacon. After all, he hadn’t said he was the King’s man, she had merely read it into what he had said.
Blessed God, I have been a fool! She stared sightlessly down into the water, feeling her heart slowly going numb, and her mind with it. She had showed him—she had told him—
What? asked an impatient and surprisingly rational voice inside her. You told him that you would do your duty and marry Massid if you thought it would protect your people, but that you didn’t think it would do any such thing. You made it clear you were unhappy about the idea, and who wouldn’t be? You told him a few choice things about the Countess, but nothing that’s not common knowledge, and you didn’t reveal that you are a Grey Lady. You pointed out what your duty was to your people, and how much that duty could cost you. You showed him the scratch on the glass and told him why you’d made it, but so far as he knows, you have no way of telling anyone else.
All that was true, certainly, but—
But if he’s your father’s man, now he has all the arguments your father needs—or so he thinks—to persuade you to marry Massid when he proposes it. There’s no harm in that. He knows you are more intelligent than you appear, but there’s no harm in that, either. He doesn’t know about the birds, or your weapons, or any of your other skills. The only thing you showed him is that you are an intelligent young woman who suspects her father is up to no good, but who certainly can’t tell anyone and can’t do anything about the knowledge.
She recognized that little voice in her mind; it was the one that coolly analyzed and put fears to rest, no matter how panicked the rest of her mind was. It was seldom wrong, and that only in degree. She sometimes wondered if it was the voice of some guardian angel. Sometimes the voice sounded exactly like the Countess, though, and while she admired the Countess greatly, she would have been the first to say that the Countess Vrenable was no angel.
She unclenched her fists and closed her eyes a moment to clear her mind. If Kedric was the King’s man, he had information he might be able to use. If he was her father’s man, he had nothing he could use to harm her—except that he—and her father—would now know that she was intelligent enough and quick enough to suspect something was wrong.
So—not “no” harm done. Though she was not an immediate danger to any plans they had in train, she could reveal them, now or later. So she had done herself harm enough that her father might move a little faster to put her where she could do him no harm…which was probably with Massid.
Time to send another bird. And more than time to resume her training. When the time came, she might need every bit of strength she had.
But two weeks, and another storm, passed with nothing changing in the keep or out of it, so far as appearances went. Every day Moira tended to the affairs of the keep as the Keep Lady should. Every evening she spent dining in the Great Hall with her father and Massid. Afternoons were spent at her embroidery; she quickly finished the half-finished placket, had Anatha stitch it to one of her gowns, and started another. But there was one change that no one was aware of.
The sea-keep was carved into and out of the rock of the cliff; with that sort of construction, it was difficult to create “secret” passages and “hidden” rooms, such as Viridian Manor, with its wood-and-stone construction. It was, after all, much, much easier to build something of that sort into the walls than it was to carve it out of rock, then try to hide it.
But there was one place in Highclere Sea-Keep that almost no one ever went to this time of year.
Even a place built out of stone has need of timber. Not firewood, but properly seasoned lumber, for repairs, paneling, cabinetry, furniture, and boats.
So when a particularly fine tree was cut down—or when the lord of the sea-keep was moved to trade for one with an inland lord whose forests were not subject to near-constant wind—cut and planed planks of every possible thickness were laid down to dry and season in what was called “the timber room.”
It wasn’t a room at all. It was a cave, but a peculiarly dry cave, and one which allowed the planks to cure and dry naturally. The oldest bits of wood—very expensive stuff it was, of fantastical grains and coloring—were three generations old. There wasn’t a great deal of that, and it was generally used for inlay work. The rest wasn’t more than ten years old, twenty at most, although there were some heavy oak beams that had been seasoning since Moira’s grandfather laid them down before he died.
In summer and early fall, this place was a hive of activity. In winter, though, no one bothered to look in. In itself, it was valuable, but no one was likely to steal a load of wood. Layers of planks laid down in soft sand made a floor that didn’t shift much. There wasn’t much light, and the noise from the ocean far below drowned out any sounds that might be made up here.
In short, it made a perfect place for Moira to practice.
There was a great advantage to being a modest maiden in winter. The loose, long-sleeved, high-necked gowns and wimples she wore allowed her to wear her fighting clothing, mail and all, and no one noticed. Heavy winter fabrics did not betray so much as a hint of chain mail. She didn’t bring her sword and dagger up to the timber room, but there were plenty of pieces of wood of the right size and shape there already. So once a day—and a different time of day each time, if she could manage it—she would, over the course of an hour, first get back to her room and put on her mail and armor, then find a way to get to the timber room, where she would doff her dress and begin her stretching exercises, moving into the fighting exercises as soon as her muscles were limber. It was frustrating, not having a partner to practice with, but at least it was practice, and she always tried to push herself a little more each day, in speed and accuracy. When she was tired, but before she was winded, she would go back to her room, take off the armor and hide it again, and go on about her business.
It was particularly interesting to be up there during a storm. Only one lantern could be made to stay alight, and the shifting shadows made footwork and blade-work a challenge. The wind howled through here; the place was like a chimney. She was exceptionally careful about the lantern. Under these conditions, if a fire actually started up here without first being blown out, it would be uncontrollable in an instant, destroying decades’ worth of valuable wood.
Though of course, with the wind howling through the place, it was unlikely that a fire could catch strongly enough to avoid being extinguished.
And still nothing happened. Except that Massid and her father began to play chess every night after the remains of supper were cleared away.
After the first night, she remained to watch out of curiosity. Their play reflected, she thought, their personalities. Her father played without speaking during his own turn, fiercely intent and intense, and scowling whenever he lost a piece. The Prince of Jendara was a complete contrast, outwardly relaxed, a smile on his bearded lips, apparently listening to Kedric’s playing and occasionally commenting on it or the game. But as she watched him, she became aware of a predatory glitter in his eyes just before he was about to swoop down on an opposing piece, and a little smile of satisfaction when he knew he was going to win.
Or, more rarely, his smile grew icy, and his speech less easy and more punctiliously polite when he knew he was about to lose. And when that happened, there was a flash of pure rage for just the barest fraction of a moment that made her shiver.
It was particularly frightening the second night of the second storm, when the wind and waves were crashing against the rocks below with such force that the stones of the keep groaned, and there was enough lightning they hardly needed lanterns. Chess was one game she had not mastered, so she couldn’t really tell what was happening on the board, but her father was grinding his teeth in frustration, and Massid’s eyes had that satisfied glitter as he toyed with his goblet. And then, all in an instant, her father’s face went from angry desperation to utter triumph. He swooped down on the board and moved a piece, slamming it down in front of Massid’s king. “Check and mate!” he shouted.
And for a moment, Massid’s face went black with rage.
Now, that was a phrase that Moira had often heard before, but she had never actually seen it happen, and had often thought it a picturesque fabrication.
Now she knew better.
It wasn’t that his face physically darkened—it was that his whole demeanor changed, and his expression for that instant was so suffused with the bitterest of hatred that it seemed to go black.
It only lasted a moment; it was gone so quickly that if she hadn’t felt that shaken by what she had seen, she might have doubted the expression was there at all. But she had seen it, and it was there, and she knew that if, in that instant, Massid could have gotten away with it, he would have killed her father, and possibly everyone else who had witnessed his defeat.
But by the time her father looked up, Massid was wearing an expression of rueful amusement. “I did not see that coming, my lord,” he said graciously. “A most unorthodox move. I congratulate you.”
Her father was not a gracious winner, but at least he didn’t gloat too long. Massid’s mask slipped a trifle, but he managed to maintain it long enough to excuse himself and retire for the night.
Moira went to bed feeling her insides quivering. If there was such a thing as a spirit of pure ruthlessness—too impersonal to be evil—that spirit dwelled within the Prince of Jendara.
And woe betide whoever crossed him in something he really wanted.
She had seen the face of the enemy. It frightened her in a way she had not expected to be frightened. It was one thing to face the possibility of having to deal with a forced marriage. It was another thing entirely to see what she had seen behind the pleasant mask.
The thought kept her in a restless half sleep that night, and she woke early to the sound that told her another storm was on the way. Her mind was preternaturally clear, and the first thing that came to her was that this storm would probably arrive on or about Midwinter Moon—the longest night of the year, and the highest tide until Midsummer Moon.
Not a good time to be having a winter storm as well. Any ships out at sea on that night would be better off well away from the coast.
In fact, if the waters surged in too high, parts of the keep would have to be temporarily abandoned. That hadn’t happened in decades. Certainly not while Moira had been alive.
But the keep had probably weathered a hundred such storms, and would weather a hundred more. Whatever was in the lowest levels would be taken elsewhere; probably not much, actually, or at least, nothing much worth saving. They’d been dug as hiding places and escape routes, and there was always sea water getting in….
Well, when the storm came, they’d be flooded.
Two days, she thought, listening to the waves outside. Three at the most.
Part of her was still exhausted from the restless night, but the rest of her could not lie still a moment more.
She rose from her bed and dressed herself before Anatha could arrive. There was a tension in the air today, or at least, it felt that way to her.
And yet, when she ascended to the Great Hall, no one else seemed aware of it.
Everyone could read the signs of the impending storm, however, and it didn’t take a sage to figure out that a storm combined with Midwinter Moon meant trouble. Small boats needed to not only be pulled into the sea caves, but winched up above the highest high-water mark. Large boats were manned with skeleton crews and sailed to the nearest safe harbor. The flotsam and jetsam that had collected since the last bad storm down in the lower keep levels was dragged out and sorted through, with anything deemed worth keeping packed properly away, and what was left over taken off to the rubbish pile for the next high tide to wash away farther down the coastline. The sea doors were checked and reinforced, supplies hauled down from storage places above, the heaviest of shutters locked in place over the most vulnerable windows.
With all this activity, Moira did not dare to slip away to the timber room to practice. With every able-bodied person scurrying on or about the keep making preparations, the cook was not bothering to lay out regular meals. Food was left in the Great Hall for people to snatch in passing.
This left her with nothing to do, staying in the Keep Lady’s rooms in order to remain out of the way. Even Anatha was busy somewhere….
She tried to sit at her embroidery, and could not manage to set more than a stitch or two. At length, she rose and began pacing back and forth in front of the window. She had measured the space in steps at least twenty times, when a light tap made her jerk her head toward the door like a startled deer.
“I have been told, in no uncertain terms, that I am in the way, my lady,” said Kedric, pushing the door open with one hand, the other clasping the neck of his lute.
“As am I,” she admitted. “I am too much the lady to be permitted to work with my hands, and not enough of one, it seems, to be allowed to direct the work.”
“Then we should obey Lord Ferson’s directive and stay out from underfoot,” Kedric replied lightly, and shut the door behind him.
His expression went from moderately amused to dead sober, all in an instant.
“Lady Moira, is there anyone among your father’s people who is a magician or a wizard?” he asked urgently.
She started but covered it swiftly. “Why do you ask?” she replied cautiously, wondering if he had some way of detecting the spell on her bracelet and the little message capsules.
“Because I have several times been to the old nursery at night, during calm times and during storm,” he replied. “And during calm nights, when someone walking guard or otherwise outside the keep might take notice, the light from the beacon is where it should be. But on nights of storm, it again comes from the wrong place. If the cause was some freakish reflection, it would not behave in such a manner, and the only way I know of to make such a thing happen is by—” he hesitated “—by magic.”
Should she trust him? That was a good question, and she too hesitated before she answered. She still did not know who he served.
“Lady Moira,” he said, as if reading her thoughts. “You must trust me. I have had word from the King and his cousin concerning you. The Countess Vrenable has identified you as one of her Grey Ladies. I serve the King in a similar capacity. The Countess was not aware of my presence here until after you had left Viridian Manor, or perhaps she would not have been so ready to send you here.” He grimaced. “I know that you have been sending the Countess information using the doves at the top of the cliff. I also know that you have no means of getting information back in return, except by some visitor, and your father has arranged for the road to Highclere to be closed since your arrival.”
She eyed him dubiously. “Then how are you getting word from my mistress and the King?” she demanded.
He laughed mirthlessly, and shrugged his good shoulder. “My lady, I am the king’s wizard. Or one of them, anyway. I am an alchemyst. See here—” He pushed up his sleeve, and tattooed around his wrist was the image of the Serpent of Wisdom, the great snake that eats its own tail, the symbol of the alchemysts. It was the same side of his body as his hunched shoulder, and she wondered—had he always been so crippled, or had that deformity been inflicted upon him in the service of magic? “When I think it safe, I speak to my own master, who also serves the King, in the fire. But since you showed me the moving beacon, I have been extremely careful, because anyone who suspects that I am an alchemyst will know I can do this. If there is another magician about, he will have the power to duplicate what I do, and can intercept my messages in his own fire. And I ask you if there are any magicians among your father’s people because the only way that I know of for the beacon to change its apparent position is by magic.”
She shook her head, to his obvious disappointment. “Never, not since my mother died, and even she had only the touch of Moon and Sea magic she needed to be invested as Keep Lady. She was pregnant with me at that time, so both of us were bound to the service of the keep at the same time.” It was her turn to laugh mirthlessly. “Trust Father to manage things so that he didn’t have to bring a sage in for a second Investment Ceremony. He hates magic—”
She hesitated. Kedric crossed the room to stare into her eyes as if trying to wrest the thoughts from her head. “What?” he demanded.
“Perhaps I should have said he hated magic. I do not know that he still does. And perhaps the only reason he hated it once was because he could find no way to make it serve his demands, only those of the King and the keep.”
“So if he has found a magician to answer to his will—he might have lost his distaste for the Arts Magical?” Kedric hazarded, his eyes narrowing.
“Maybe.” She shook her head. “But—” she hesitated again “—all I have is speculation—”
“The speculations of a Grey Lady are as informed as many a man’s certain facts,” he told her. “Speak.”
“I have only bits of things. Massid’s presence—I thought it was to secure an alliance, but father hasn’t even hinted at a betrothal, much less a marriage, and Massid has made no real effort at courtship.” She shook her head. “The thing is—”
“Ah,” he said, holding up his finger for a moment. “Here is the other reason for my being here. Your father wishes to persuade you to an alliance with Massid, as you have assumed. I believe he intends to find a way to force you to it, and only the certainty that he cannot do so publicly has prevented him from having you bound over already. He has asked my advice on the subject. He has even toyed with allowing Massid to abduct you, by the way, and it was with great difficulty I persuaded him that this was a bad idea. I finally pointed out that the King would probably send the Corsairs in pursuit, despite the season, since you are his cousin’s fosterling. I believe he wants this dealt with before the Midwinter Moon, and I believe that he intends to find a way to trick you or coerce you into agreeing within the next few days.”
She turned an indignant and appalled face to him. “Surely you are in jest!”
He shook his head. “But I have a plan—”
“Well, daughter.” Lord Ferson’s voice was low, but strong enough to carry to the heads of the nearest tables. “I believe you may have divined my will by now, with regards to a marriage with Prince Massid.”
Moira’s head came up abruptly, and as she turned to face her father, she allowed her real feelings to show on her face. “Yes, I have,” she said clearly, and more than loudly enough for most of the room to hear her. It was something of a relief to be able to drop her mask at last, enough to show her anger and her resentment. “And I find it difficult to believe, my lord, that you are so willing to flout the law and the will of the King in this matter!”
If she had not been warned, she might have tried to dissemble. As it was, though her father was not aware of it, his wine had been mingled with a much more potent distilled spirit all evening, courtesy of Kedric, and she had her response ready, hoping to push him into acting without thinking.
Exactly as she had expected, her father’s face darkened with the flush of anger, and the liquor seething in his veins spoke for him. “I find it difficult to believe that my own daughter, who owes me her life and her obedience, is so willing to flout my will!”
She stood up, and felt her hands trembling. She did not bother to try to hide her agitation; it would serve her purpose. “I am an obedient daughter, my lord, but the King’s will supercedes my will and yours! Anything less is treason!”
“Nothing supercedes my will in this keep!” Ferson roared, rising to his feet, although Massid placed a restraining hand on his shoulder. “Forget that, my girl, and you will learn the truth of it to your sorrow—”
“Sorrow!” She uttered a brittle laugh. “If that is all you can threaten me with—I have rights, my lord, and not even you can take those from me, and I say I will not agree to this treasonous marriage!”
By now every eye was on the dais. There would be no keeping this secret from even the lowest scullery boy, and by the looks on the nearest faces, Ferson’s words were not going down well. One did not threaten the Keep Lady; she embodied the Luck of the Keep. When she was contented, the storms were few, and the storm harvest rich. Moira could tell that people were beginning to think about the too-early and too-frequent storms of this winter.
They were also thinking that Ferson was talking about marrying the Luck of the Keep to an enemy, and that when the King got wind of it, there would be hell to pay. Her father was oblivious to the sideways glances, the unease in the hall. He was too consumed with rage, his face nearly purple.
“I tell you,” she continued passionately, in the words Kedric had chosen for her to speak, “I would rather wed your fool than allow this Massid, this foreigner, to touch the smallest finger of my hand!”
For one moment she was afraid she had overreached herself—that she had gone just a little too far, that her father, who was so much more practiced in deception than she, would see through her.
But her father seized the bait like a ravenous shark. His head came up, and his eyes flashed with rage. “Oh you would, would you?” He turned to the rest of the room and thrust his fist in the air. “You have heard it! You are all my witnesses! She will not take my choice of husband, but wishes to marry the fool!”
He turned back toward her and seized her hand. Expecting this, she did not resist him as he dragged her to where Kedric sat on a stool at the back of the dais. With a wrench, he flung her at Kedric’s feet. Kedric moved with amazing swiftness, somehow managing to put his lute aside and catch her before she fell.
“Take the ungrateful wretch, Fool!” her father bellowed. “She would rather be wed to you! Well, I declare it, here and now, and before witnesses!”
In an ugly parody of the peasant fisherfolk’s wedding rite, he pulled off his own belt and bound their right hands together, then poured the remains of his wine on the floor in front of them, following that with the entire contents of the saltcellar. “Wed and bound I declare you! Wed and bound you two are, by fruit of the land and the fruit of the sea, and the power of the lord of the keep!”
Even though this was exactly what she had wanted, Moira felt her knees start to buckle, and with surprising strength, Kedric held her up.
“And know that if you dare to touch her carnally, Fool,” Ferson growled under his breath, “I’ll have your stones for fish bait.”
“I understand, my lord,” Kedric murmured back.
“Now take her away from my sight, and keep her out of it until she’s ready to obey!” Ferson shouted. “Take her and teach her, curse you both!”
Kedric stopped only long enough to pull Ferson’s belt from their joined hands, and scoop up his lute. Then with one hand cupped under her elbow, he hurried her off the dais and across the now-silent Great Hall. Moira felt the eyes of every person there on the two of them—and with a prickling of her skin, she looked back over her shoulder to see that Massid’s eyes, black and cold, bored across the expanse of the hall with that same terrible, inhuman anger she had glimpsed once before.
She was glad to have Kedric’s hand at her arm, and gladder still to slip into the shadowed hallway, where Massid could no longer see her.
“You’ll have to keep out of his sight for now,” Kedric murmured, as they hurried down the hall to the Keep Lady’s rooms. A cold draft chased them down the hall, blowing out lamps in their wake. “I’ll have food brought to you.”
He opened the door to her rooms, and they stumbled inside, as the last of the lamps blew out in the hall behind them.
“And if you want to avoid accident, I think that you had better stay out of sight of Massid,” she retorted, feeling her spirits return as she closed the door of her rooms behind him hurriedly.
“I know. I felt his eyes burning into my back, and it was not just with rage,” Kedric replied, catching hold of both her arms. “My lady—Moira—those words your father said—I did not plan for a marriage—”
She laughed weakly. “We plotted better than we knew. We are well and truly wedded, my dear Fool, not merely betrothed as was the intention. It is no sham. That is a legal and binding ceremony by the traditions of the fishing folk hereabouts. It will take the King himself to undo the knot. Although I do not think my father intends you to enjoy your wedded state. I think he means for you to berate me, torment me with your sharp tongue, and humiliate me until I would take even Massid to get away from you.”
“I believe you.” He put his back to the door and looked at her soberly. “My lady, I fear I may have overstepped myself with my own so-called cleverness. If Massid is indeed the magician here, as you think—”
“Then he is still at dinner, trying to undo the damage my father has done, and very much occupied with repairing the situation,” she replied. “Which means that you are free to speak to your master. I very much doubt that my servant will return here before morning, so we will not be disturbed.”
His somber gaze brightened. “So I am. And perhaps he will have some better news.”
Fishing in the bag hanging from his belt, he brought out a piece of chalk from one of the cliffs, and bent to mark out a diagram on her hearth. It seemed to consist of six interlocking triangles, and when he had finished it, the thing seemed to pull at her eyes in a way that made her feel very uneasy. She didn’t have to look at it for long, however. No sooner had he finished it than he slapped his right hand, palm down, into the middle of it, obscuring the center.
The chalked lines suddenly flared with light. She looked away for a moment, and when she looked back, she had to stifle a little scream of alarm.
There was a disembodied head made entirely of fire suspended above the flames of her hearth. It was the head of a balding man with a thick fringe of hair at about ear level encircling his pate, and a pointed chin. The eyes looked like holes in the flames of the face.
“Master!” Kedric began.
“Be still!” the head said, “I haven’t much time! Have you learned Massid’s purpose there?”
“Not the chief purpose, though Ferson attempted to push through a marriage to his daughter tonight—” Kedric said. “But I have learned that someone here is performing magic to create a false beacon during storms that will decoy ships onto the rocks!”
The head interrupted him. “The beacon! Have you countered the magic that is changing the beacon? Have you even discovered what it is?”
Kedric shook his head, and the head in the fireplace swore.
“Listen! The King has been forced by a crisis to sail this very day for Linessa with most of the fleet. His convoy must pass by Highclere to reach it. You must make certain no one there learns of this! If the beacon is wrong—”
“Master! You must warn him!”
“Impossible. No birds could reach him from the shore, and there are no magicians with him that can speak at a distance—it is combative magics he needs, and those are the magicians he took. Kedric, at all costs, you must see to it that no one learns that the fleet has sailed, and if a storm comes up, you must counter the false beacon at all costs!” The head turned, as if looking elsewhere. “I must go! Heed me! Counter that magic!”
The head vanished. The fireplace held nothing more than glowing coals with a furtive flame hovering above them. Kedric sagged.
“You won’t want to hear this,” Moira said hesitantly, “but it isn’t a question of ‘if’ a storm is coming. One is on the way. It will be here by Midwinter Moon, and there will be a high tide at the same time.”
Kedric groaned. “I suppose there’s no chance you could be wrong? If the King sailed today he’ll be just off this shore by Midwinter Moon.”
She shook her head, and her hair fell out of its pinning, the long braid tumbling down her back. She didn’t trouble to pin it back up. “It’s partly the moon magic and partly sea knowledge, and no, I won’t be wrong.” She stopped then, and stared at the dark glass of the window for a moment. “Why would the King sail now? What kind of crisis could put him and the fleet on the water in such haste?”
He sat back on his heels and looked up at her. “I don’t know. It would have to be something very serious. It’s risky enough sailing in this season as it is. But Linessa is the key to the Daenae River. If it was taken, for instance, you could sail your invasion force all the way up the Daenae and into the heart of the kingdom without anyone stopping you.”
“And Linessa is another sea-keep, like this one. It’s next to impossible to reach during winter storms, so there’s no point trying to bring the army to reinforce it.” She clenched her jaw. “And what are the odds, do you think, that the message that sends the King and his navy in such haste was false? And that in fact, it came from here? I am not the only person who can read the wind and the waves. What’s more, I am not certain but that Massid can summon up storms at his will when the conditions are right.”
Kedric’s jaw dropped as he stared up at her. “God in heaven. A man sent by Massid! One messenger—no one looks very closely at a messenger. The man wearing Linessa livery gallops in on an exhausted horse, gasps out his message, then throws himself back on a fresh horse to take the King’s reply! No one would think twice about it. They’ve planned this all along!”
“With one storm, they eliminate the King and his navy.” She nodded. “This marriage my father plans was probably never more than a distraction for the rest of the keep folk. They will keep their tongues on that and pay no attention to my father and the Prince.”
“There I must differ with you,” Kedric replied, getting slowly to his feet. “There is a deeper game being played here. If Massid is to somehow gain control of the coast, which is, I believe, his plan, he must have some way to appease the lords of the sea-keeps. You, my dear, are that means. He will probably play the besotted groom, believing he can deceive them and you together. They will think they can control him through you. You are meant to think the same until it is too late and the Khaleem’s men are in command of all the keeps and the coastline.”
She ground her teeth in anger and frustration, but nodded. “So. What do we do? What can we do?”
“We have a few days yet,” he replied. “I will try to find the key to the magic that controls the false beacon. And you—”
“I am pent up here like a fish in a trap!” she snarled.
“No, you are not. You are supposedly isolated here, and yet, anyone who cares to can seek you out here virtually unobserved. I will search for some sort of answer, and you—” he actually smiled thinly “—you will remain here in state, and see if allies come to us. The lord may be the head of the keep, my lady, but I think you will find that you reign over the hands and the heart.”
And Kedric, she found as soon as the first light of dawn greyed the horizon, was right. Aided by Anatha, by ones and twos the servants and workers began to come to her, or send messages via their friends. It was true enough that Massid and his men had not thus far exercised any of the cruelty or arrogance for which the men of the Khaleemates were noted—but they had not made any friends here, either. She got the sense that if she had given any sign that she welcomed this marriage, the people of the keep would have bitten their lips and kept their tongues still. But since she had very vocally and publicly voiced her objection to it, not to mention pointing out the treasonous aspects—well, it seemed that she had more help here than she would have thought.
However, that “help” brought disquieting word. Down in the shelter of the boathouse lay the Prince’s ship that had brought him here. No more than a handful of men were here in the keep itself, but the servants told her that a great deal of food went down to the boathouse three times a day—and nothing came back up again. The Prince, it seemed, might not be taking the cooperation of his ally for granted.
Meanwhile the wind and the waves increased, and by midafternoon, with dark grey clouds scudding across the hard blue sky, she was getting the sense that this might be one of the worst storms the keep had ever weathered. Massid might not need the false beacon to lure the King’s ships onto the rocks. If they didn’t keep well out to sea and risk being lost or delayed, the storm might do all of Massid’s work for him.
But the wind and the storm might be her allies, too.
That night, she huddled at the fire with two of the men who worked the docks and one of the carpenters. A set of blocks and a toy boat from the nursery stood duty as Massid’s boat and the boathouse where it was being kept.
She had spent the better part of an hour being made acquainted with how the boathouse was put together. Now she was going to use that knowledge to take it apart.
“First, you need to make sure that all the ropes are untied or, at least, loose. If you can saw through the roof ties here, and here,” she said, tapping the crude model with her finger. “And then, at the right moment, fling open the door to the boathouse, so the roof will fly off and the walls will be blown out.”
Kedric stared at her. “How do you know that?” he demanded.
She shrugged. “Because that is what always happened to my model boathouses in a good breeze. If we can collapse the boathouse and turn the ship loose, Massid’s men won’t be able to get off it before it’s at the mercy of the storm.”
“Well, let me deal with the roof ties and the ropes,” he said firmly. “We don’t want Massid’s little army to know what we’re up to. I can make potions that will dry-rot both wood and hemp, creating in hours the damage of centuries.”
She blinked. “You are a dangerous man!” she said in astonishment. “Can you do the same with iron fittings?”
He nodded. “Child’s play.”
She turned back to the servants. “In that case, none of you need be on that dock at all once you’ve used Kedric’s alchemical potions. Weaken the roof ties, the hinges and hasp of the door, the ropes and anchor chain of the boat itself, and every crossbeam supporting that dock, or at least as many as you have potion for. We’ll let the wind do our work for us.”
She watched as the men looked solemnly at her little model, then slowly, gravely smiled, as they realized what was going to happen.
Because the moment that the doors went—and taking the brunt of the wind as they would, they would be the first of the weakened components to go—the roof would fly off, the walls collapse, and then the whole dock itself would fall apart. Even if Massid’s men realized that something was wrong, they would be too late to escape their boat. Some would certainly be crushed beneath a cascade of heavy lumber, or knocked into the icy ocean. The boat itself, if it was not sunk immediately, would be hit by the storm full force and driven up on the rocks below the keep. No one could survive that.
Kedric frowned. “I don’t—” he began.
The dockmen explained it to him. Moira held her tongue. No need for her to say a word at this point. The men were already turning the plan over in their minds until they could take credit for everything but the idea in the first place. And that harmed her not at all.
They left, after making arrangements to have their several gallons of potions waiting at the kitchen door. Anatha would bring them down as “dirty slop water” and complain how much Moira was making her clean. The metal-rotting ones would go first—they took longer to work. Then the ones that did for wood and hemp.
“You are a dangerous woman,” Kedric said, his eyes narrowed. “I’ve heard worse, and less cold-blooded plans out of seasoned soldiers.”
She tightened her jaw. “Is it cold-blooded to want to keep my people from having to fight Massid’s beasts in the halls of their own keep?” she demanded.
His expression softened a trifle. “Put that way—no.” He sighed. “But you may be the death of me as well before this is over. Buckets of potions and trying to find what magic Massid is doing on that beacon! I will be worn to a shred.”
“At least there will be something of you left when this is over,” she retorted. But despite her sharp words, she couldn’t help but cast a worried eye over him. He was looking worn and tired, and if he had slept more than an hour or two, she would be surprised. Yet, when she yawned, or blinked to stay awake, it was he who urged her to her bed if there was nothing for her to do—or brewed her some strange herbal concoction to help her stay awake if there was.
And she resolutely turned her mind away from what Massid would do to both of them if they lost this hidden war. Likely he would not even consider the notion that she could have been the author of at least half of the mischief; none of his kind gave women the credit for having intelligence. But Kedric—she remembered all too clearly the cold ire in Massid’s eyes as they escaped the Great Hall. No, Massid had likely planned something devilishly ingenious, diabolically painful, and excruciatingly prolonged for Kedric. That he would have proved himself a true King’s man would only make Massid the more determined to inflict as much suffering as possible. Compared to that—
Well, there wouldn’t be much comparison with what Massid planned for her.
She pulled her mind away from those unpleasant thoughts to find that Kedric was staring at her with a most peculiar expression on his face. She blinked. “What?” she demanded. “Have I got a smudge on my nose?”
“I was just thinking that—never mind.” He shook his head.
“Kedric, if you believe any woman would let you begin a sentence like ‘I was just thinking’ and end it with ‘never mind,’ you truly are a fool,” she snapped, her brows furrowing with irritation.
“All right!” He held up his hands. “I was just thinking that—this is going to sound very stupid—I was just thinking that I owe your Countess a great apology, as well as a debt of gratitude.”
She raised an eyebrow, and regarded him expectantly.
“I owe her the debt of gratitude for sending you,” he elaborated. “Although I confess that when I was told you, a mere slip of a child, was supposedly a Grey Lady, I was very angry and sure you would be less than useless. So I suppose I owe you an apology as well. I could never have hoped to stop this without you—I was never meant to be an assassin, and I cannot think of any other way of removing Massid.”
She smiled grimly, thinking of her own training and the weapons still hidden in her chest. “You would never have gotten past his bodyguards,” she replied firmly. “They are trained as assassins. The Khaleems require such, since treachery is so much a part of their lives. Not unless you could conjure up some subtle poison and the means to deliver it that they had never seen before.”
“Alchemysts make poor poisoners,” he murmured. “We do not meddle much with physic and medicine. We leave that to the healers and doctors.”
She tilted her head to one side, curiously. “Why did you choose to become an alchemyst?” she asked.
He laughed bitterly. “Trying to transmute this—” he tapped his hunched shoulder “—since healers and doctors had so little success at it. Then, well, I was apt to it, and alchemysts do make good spies, the more so when they have other talents to disguise their true nature.”
“Does it cause you pain?” she asked, regarding him steadily.
He gaped at her. Not surprising, it was a surpassingly rude question. But she had a reason for her bluntness.
“No—” he replied, clearly without thinking.
“Then why bother?” she retorted, with a shrug. “It makes you neither more nor less intelligent, nor healthy, nor any other thing that matters. Have you looked at the faces, the bodies, the hands of my people?” she continued. “Really looked? Or because they are merely underlings, have your eyes slid right by them? I will confess, before the Countess trained my eyes, I would have done the same.”
He shook his head.
“Then when this is over, do take the time to look. See how many of them are scarred, twisted, missing fingers or toes or hands or feet.” She nodded as his eyes widened. “The sea is a harsh mistress, and a harsher teacher. She often claims a tithe of flesh and blood, especially to pay for a mistake. But they carry themselves proudly, and find ways to do their duty—or find a different duty. They do not think overmuch of what they are not. And neither should you.”
She had intended to leave it there, but her mind was tired, and what she had intended to keep to herself slipped out before she could stop it. “What you are is a clever and kindly man, a skilled and wise man, more noble in heart than most are by blood—altogether the sort of man I wish was my husband in truth.”
He stared at her blankly. For the first time in a very long time she felt herself flushing, blushing so hotly she was sure that her cheeks rivaled the coals of the fire. “I have said too much. More than I ought. I was tired. More tired than I thought. Forgive my rudeness, my foolishness, and forget what I—” she blurted, and got up, stumbling out of the room and into the bedroom to hide herself behind the bed curtains and curse herself until she unaccountably fell asleep.
The transition from dusk to full dark on the evening of Midsummer Moon passed in the blink of an eye as Moira watched from her window. She had seen the edge of the coming storm itself just before the sun set, and as the light was sucked out of the sky, watched as it scurried across the waves toward them on a hundred legs of blue-white lightning. Then the storm came down on the keep like a shark on a herring. It roared across waves already washing over the lower terraces and hit the walls with an initial blast that shook the entire building.
She strained her ears for the one sound she was waiting for, over the screaming wind, the thunder, and the howling waves—and she strained her eyes during the lightning flashes for a glimpse of—
There! A tumble of planks and posts slammed up onto the rocks beneath the cliff face!
And there! For just one moment, farther out than she would have guessed, a glimpse of a slim fighting ship, masts stowed and sails safely stowed away belowdecks, tossing on the crest of the waves like a child’s toy, whirling rudderless and out of control—
She bit her lip in grim satisfaction, and turned at the sound of a familiar step, a familiar tap upon the door. “It’s—” said Kedric. He looked at her in shock.
“Yes, it is,” she agreed, shifting her sword belt a little. “It’s quite gone, boathouse, ship, and private army. Now it is up to us.”
He continued to stare in disbelief. So, she had managed to keep one secret from him, at any rate!
“Massid knows that the King is out there somewhere,” she said, waving a hand vaguely in the direction of the window. “And I have questioned every servant that has ever been around him when a storm has struck. I know where he goes, and I know he goes alone. I am going to stop him.”
Strange irony that where he went was the timber room. She must have just missed encountering him there dozens of times.
“If I am to succeed, I desperately need you to deal with my father and Massid’s men,” she continued. “I don’t know how, but you must keep them occupied! Keep them from learning what just happened to Massid’s ship, and keep them from going to fetch Massid!” She threw a mantle on over her armor. It looked enough like one of the loose gowns she favored, particularly in the uncertain light, that he might not notice what she wore beneath it for a few crucial moments. “You said yourself that you are not trained as an assassin. Well, I am.”
The look on his face might have been funny under any other circumstances. She hoped that she would survive to laugh about it later.
To laugh about it with him later…
“He won’t be expecting a female assassin,” she continued, staring into his dark, stricken eyes, willing him to believe her. “I’m going to pretend I followed him to beg his forgiveness and ask for him to take me as his wife. That should let me get close enough. Perhaps if you went to my father and told him you had persuaded me—?”
He swallowed hard. “That might suffice, my lady,” he said, his normally melodious voice gone harsh. “I will do that—”
She ducked her head, to avoid the pain and the fear—for her!—in his eyes. “Thank you,” she murmured, and started to push past him.
But he seized her before she could get out the door, and pulled her to him, holding her in an embrace that probably hurt him, given the armor she was wearing. He cupped one hand behind her head and crushed his mouth down on hers in a kiss that felt as if one of those lightning bolts outside the window had struck her on the lips. She couldn’t breathe—couldn’t think—didn’t want it to end—
He let her go, and she stood, wide-eyed and swaying, staring at him.
“You will return to me, wife!” he grated, his eyes wild. “You will come back to me whole and unhurt, for Grey Lady or not, I shall not give you or myself up to the service of any other, nor shall I let anyone part us, even if he be the King himself! And if you do not come back to me, then by the signs and the seal, I will follow you, though it be to the gates of heaven or hell!”
With that, he whirled, and was gone, his footsteps, half-running, echoing down the hall amid the noise of the storm.
She stood swaying a moment more, somehow managed to get some sort of control over herself, and walked with swift but uncertain steps to the first servants’ stair that would take her where she needed to go.
It was a good thing she knew the way by heart, because most of the lanterns were out, and she fumbled her way through the darkness in a kind of daze. Half of her wanted to shout with elation, and the other half was frozen with fear, for despite her brave words, she was not even remotely certain that her ruse would work. Women were used as assassins all the time in the Khaleemates, though usually it was poison in the festive cup or a knife in the dark, the pillow over the face or the serpent in the bath. But there was no guarantee. And no guarantee that Massid himself was not an assassin, and had already recognized her for what she was.
She stumbled out into the open space of the timber room, looking every bit the confused and distressed maiden, she was sure, though it was not by design. The cavern echoed with the storm below and all around; strange drafts whipped her clothing tightly to her body, and the flickering and uncertain light made bewildering shadows everywhere. She could not see Massid.
“Massid?” she croaked, her voice not even carrying a foot from where she stood. She coughed and cleared her throat. “My lord Prince?” she tried again. “Massid? My lord?”
A movement that was not shadow warned her, and she half turned as Massid, clad from head to toe in black, rose up from behind a pile of masts. She could not see his face, but there was anger in his voice.
“What do you want, woman?” he growled. “This is no time for the idiocy of females! Begone!”
She stumbled toward him, deliberately trying to make it look as if she could not make out her footing. But she knew every stick and plank in this room, where it was, and how steady or unsteady it was underfoot. Her stumbles, at least, were feigned.
“My lord?” she said plaintively. “My lord, I have sinned against you and my father. I was evil, disobedient, my mind polluted by that wicked woman with whom I have lodged all these years. I know I was wrong to say what I did, I know that I never deserved the honor of being made your wife, and in spurning you, I—”
The unmistakable sound of a sword being unsheathed made her freeze where she stood.
“Do you think I do not know about the Countess Vrenable and her Grey Ladies? Do you think I had not guessed that you were one of that detestable creature’s polluted assassins?” He took a step closer, and it was all she could do to keep from shrinking backward. “How like that weakling King of yours, to hide behind skirts and send little girls to do his work! Well, there is no dishonor to a blade in using it to spit a viper—and there will be no dishonor in using mine to rid the world of one more poison-tongued witch!”
He leaped, and that was enough to shock her into dodging, not backward, but to the side—to fling off her mantle and throw it at him in the hopes of entangling his blade while she unsheathed hers, dagger and rapier together.
A gust of wind caught it as she got her sword clear, and threw it over his head.
Her body recognized her one chance, even though her mind went blank.
Her body acted as she had trained, throwing her forward in a long, low lunge under his flailing blade, flinging her arm out in a swift strike.
Her body followed up the hit as the blade, instead of encountering the resistance of armor and a blunted tip, slid into his gut as a fish slid through water.
Her arm wrenched upward of itself, driving the blade in and up until it grated against bone, and hot wetness gushed against her hand.
And her body drove home the dagger into his throat, as he flailed at her head with the hilt of his sword, in blows already weakening, until he dropped to the floor of the cavern, taking her weapons with him.
His eyes stared up sightlessly at the ceiling; she turned and stumbled away a few paces, and fell to her knees, heaving and retching, until there was nothing left in her stomach—and weeping hysterically between each bout of gut-wrenching sickness.
Then, out of the darkness, a voice, and hands on her shoulders. “Moira? Moira! By God, if he has harmed one hair—”
She turned into his embrace, laughing and weeping at the same time, the taste of bile bitter in her mouth and her throat raw. “You’ll do what? Bring him back to life so that you can beat him?”
“Fiat lux!” came the unexpected words, and the cavern blazed with light from a globe that appeared just over Kedric’s head. “Oh, my love—” He wiped her mouth and chin with his soft linen sleeve, then dabbed at her eyes with the napkin someone behind him handed to him. He took her chin and tilted it up. “You’ll have a black eye in the morning,” he said, with calm matter-of-factness that belied the fading fear in his eyes. “And a sore stomach.”
“Yes, well, I’ve never—” She made herself say the words. “I’ve never killed anyone before. I suppose—I—” She started to relax in his embrace, then pushed him away in alarm. “Father!” she exclaimed.
“Lord Ferson has met with an accident,” said Kedric. “I don’t know the details. Your cook tells me I do not want to know the details. There was some little to-do in the Great Hall when one of Massid’s men came up with the news that the ship, the boathouse, and the dock were all gone. Unaccountably, they blamed me—and your loyal retainers rushed to my defense.”
She took in his own battered face now, for the first time. “Kedric!” she exclaimed, anger replacing the sick sourness in her stomach. “Are you hurt? Did they—”
“And you will do what? Send out men with nets to haul in what was thrown out the window?” With some difficulty, he curved his swollen lips in a smile. “I think we should both save our energy to deal with the King. He is not going to be very happy about losing his Fool and his Grey Lady—”
She brought up her chin at that, covering her wince—she thought—rather well. “He will not have a choice,” she said. “I am the Keep Lady, and you are sealed and bound to me by the Keep Lord and my own will. If he does not wish to begin a revolt of the sea-keeps, he had better keep his opinions on the matter to himself!”
“Well said, my lady!” crowed someone behind Kedric, and the Fool began to laugh, shaking his head.
“Oh, you are a terrible woman, Moira of Highclere,” he said, tears leaking out of his swelling eyes. “I fear for my sanity, if not my life!” But the arms that held her did not release her; in fact, he pulled her closer as some of the men behind him began to chuckle. “Come along with you.”
He pulled her to her feet, though his own balance was none too steady. “Do you think it is possible in this howling gale to manage a bath for your lady?” he called over the storm.
“Eh, trust a Fool to want a bath at a time like this!” someone shouted mockingly, and everyone laughed, as they parted for the two of them to pick their way across the lumber and down into the heart of the keep again.
Yes, she thought, with warmth and a sudden feeling of contentment! Trust a Fool. I shall certainly trust a Fool, with all my heart, for all my life.