It was hours before dawn when Myrande Shipbrook woke. Quietly, she slipped from her bed and quickly made it. She went to the small table to the left of her bed, poured the water from the china pitcher into the bowl, washed her face and hands with rose-scented soap, and finally scrubbed her face and hands dry with the folded towel that had been resting on the little table.
She silently slipped out of her plain nightgown and pulled on her muslin chemise. Over this, Myrande put on a plain white overdress of muslin, a cool dress, and one easy to clean. She belted the dress with a plain leather belt which wrapped once around her waist, slipped through a round iron buckle, and left a long strip of leather hanging by her left leg. At the end of the dangling strip was another iron ring, to which Myrande attached a heavy ring of keys.
She slipped into her shoes and left her room.
Myrande was, by nature, an early riser, but not even she enjoyed leaving her bed this early. Still, there was much to be done today; the Baron of Coranabo, his Baroness, and their daughter Danza were coming tonight to visit the Baron of Connall. She was the Seneschale for the Baron of Connall, and it was her duty to see that all things in his household went smoothly.
First things first. Breakfast. Clutching the keys in her hands so that they would not wake the household, Myrande went from her room in the family wing of the keep toward the kitchen. Suddenly she stopped, surprised by lamplight spilling from the Baron’s study.
She knocked on the open door and entered. “My lord, when are you going to bed?” she asked as she crossed the room.
Baron Luthias Connall sat behind a desk with an open book in front of him. “In a little while, Sable, I promise. I just want to finish this chapter.”
Myrande slipped behind the Baron, placed her hands on his shoulders and began kneading them gently. Luthias groaned as she began loosening the tense muscles, and his head dropped back to rest on Myrande’s chest. She brushed her hand over his eyes so that he would close them. “Relax, my lord,” she invited. “What are you reading?”
“‘History of the Beinison Emperors,’” Luthias told her. “I am reading it to clear my head. I was reading Fernusius Cai all night. I needed a break from laws.” He opened his eyes, looked at her. “And don’t ‘my lord’ me, Sable. I do not want to hear it from you. You have known me all my life, and it’s no time to start ‘my lord’ing me now.”
Myrande smiled. “All right, Luthias.” She continued her massage, as Luthias closed his eyes. “When were you planning to retire?”
“Midnight. That way, I figured I could get up at dawn and still have several hours of sleep and be reasonably awake for Coranabo’s visit. And you,” he continued, his tone playful, his lips smiling, “you, Mistress Mother, when are you going to sleep?”
“I just got up.”
The young Baron’s eyes snapped open. “You’re joking.”
Myrande shook her head. “No. This is the third time you have done such this week, Luthias. You have got to stop this.”
“There’s just so much I don’t know,” Luthias sighed, closing his eyes again and relaxing a little beneath Myrande’s touch. “I wish Roisart were here to help me. I have been Baron a month, and I still feel so inadequate.”
“You’re doing well,” Myrande reassured him. “The people respect you, and your cousin, the Duke, asks your advice, and your lands are run smoothly.”
“That’s your doing, Lady Seneschale,” Luthias growled. “You take care of this castle, you administer the castle lands, and that alone is the work of two people. Then, on top of that, you help me run the barony, you act as my hostess, and help me take care of my social responsibilities. Besides, you do a job you shouldn’t have to.”
“What one is that?”
“Take care of the Baron.” Luthias took a deep breath. “Maybe I should marry and let some woman be my Baroness, and she could take some of the work from you–help me with the barony–”
“And take care of the Baron?” Myrande suggested playfully.
Luthias began to smile, but then groaned as Myrande hit a sore knot in his muscles. He opened his eyes, looked Myrande in the face, and smiled. “No one could do that as well as you. Perhaps I should just marry you, Sable, and find myself another seneschal. You’d make a superb Baroness, and not only are you the most beautiful woman in Dargon, you give the best massages in the kingdom.”
Myrande smiled and continued rubbing Luthias’ tired flesh. Looking down into his open eyes, she said, “You never found me so before.”
Luthias gazed up at his seneschale. She possessed long, thick, raven hair wound into a single braid behind her head. Her eyes were almost as dark as her hair, eyes near the color of polished ebony. The simple white dress flattered her slim figure and made her dark skin seem duskier. Luthias took her hand–a small, strong hand–pressed to his cheek in the courtly manner. “You’ve always been beautiful to me, Sable, ever since we were children.” He kissed her callused palm. “You’re working too hard.”
“So are you, Luthias,” Myrande reminded him, touching his cheek.
Gently, Luthias reached up, brushed her chin with his fingertips. “You look exhausted. You’re doing too much. You should appoint yourself an assistant.” Then Luthias smiled again. “You’re still beautiful.” He stared at the ceiling. “I always thought you’d be the next Baroness, that Roisart would marry you.”
“He did ask me, not long ago,” Myrande revealed.
“I know,” Luthias said, smiling wryly. “He told me about it. I’ve never seen a man so happy to be refused. He said you were in love with someone else. He must have been very impressed with him–he said he couldn’t have chosen a better man.” He sighed, closed his eyes. “But he would never tell me who it was–he said it was in confidence.”
“It was. I swore him to secrecy.”
“I was hurt that you didn’t trust me, too, Sable.”
At this very candid revelation, still laced with bitter pain, Myrande’s hands froze. “I didn’t think you cared much for love or lovers, Luthias.”
“I don’t, but I care about you.”
Myrande slowly started to massage again. “I was afraid you would laugh at me.”
“You had no trouble telling Roisart,” Luthias accused, and there was an edge of anger in his voice.
For a moment, Myrande, too, was angry, but she forced calmness on herself. Thinking of that moment, when Roisart had asked her to be his wife and she’d had to wound him, brought tears to her eyes. “I would not have told him, but I wanted him to understand why I couldn’t marry him.” For a moment, she fell silent. “I was afraid that you would laugh at me. Or that he would be scared away.”
Quickly, Luthias rose and faced her. He took her small hands in his. “I would never, never laugh at that, Sable. Have I ever laughed at that sort of thing? Gods know that Roisart provided enough opportunity for me to laugh at love, but I never did.” He stopped and dropped her hands. “And I would never laugh at you, Sable.” Then, he looked confused. “What do you mean, scared away?”
“You and Roisart were very protective of me.”
“True enough,” Luthias admitted. A thought flashed in his brain, and he smiled. “You weren’t afraid I’d be jealous, were you, Sable?”
“He better treat you well, or I’ll bash his head in.”
“That would be interesting,” Myrande said, a grin lighting her eyes. “I told you that you were very protective of me…” Myrande gazed at the young Baron, whom she thought handsome, but she could see the strain in his face and the fatigue in the circles beneath his eyes. “Looks like you are ready to bash your own against a wall.”
“There’s so much to do,” Luthias told her. “There’s a near panic, what with all these rumors about a Bichanese attack–”
“I’ve heard them,” Myrande commented. “I’ve been watching food and getting ready to store and preserve the harvest, just in case. But would Bichu really attack us?”
“Of course not,” Luthias said confidently. “Considering their distance from us, it would be idiotic. According to Michiya, the Bichanese already have posts on another continent, one closer to their own nation, and it would be simpler and more profitable for them to wage war there.”
“Still, as you said, there’s a panic.”
“Yes, and it bothers me.” Luthias was grim. “People so frantic become paranoid. Mob paranoia, Sable, has to be one of the most dangerous and destructive forces. Its victims are more likely to be innocent than guilty. It is the panic, more than the rumors, which truly worries me.”
“Well, get some sleep,” Myrande advised, brushing some hair from his eyes. “I’ll wake you mid-morning, and then you’ll have some sleep and most of the day to do some work.”
“I’m not that tired, Sable,” Luthias asserted.
“Don’t lie to me,” Myrande cut him off with a smile. “You can’t lie to me, Luthias; I know you too well. Go to bed. There is no work that cannot wait a few hours, and you look like you’re about to drop.”
“The words were becoming a little fuzzy,” Luthias admitted. “But after I eat breakfast and drink some tea–”
“Go to bed, or I’ll wake the men-at-arms and have them carry you,” Myrande threatened.
Luthias chuckled. “By God, Myrande, you would make an excellent Baroness.” Suddenly, he sobered. “Sable–Myrande. The man you love…it isn’t Clifton, is it?” He paused a moment then rushed, “Because he…I never thought he was particularly interested in you. They say he’s making eyes at some girl from Magnus. Sable, I don’t want you to be hurt, and Clifton–”
“It isn’t Clifton,” Myrande assured him, putting a hand on the Baron’s arm. “Get some sleep, and sweet dreams, Luthias.”
Luthias covered her hand with his own and squeezed her fingers. “Thanks, Sable. Good night.”
“Good night.” With a sigh, the young Baron of Connall left the room. Myrande turned out the lamp, and closed the door on her way out.
She watched him trek slowly down the hall. Myrande knew how hard being a Baron was for Luthias. He, by nature, was a warrior, not a governor, but he was smart and was learning rapidly. It was a heavy burden to be borne, especially by a young man who had just lost, not a month before, his beloved father and twin brother, Roisart.
She sighed, understanding what it was to take on responsibility so soon after– why, she herself had become the seneschale to Luthias’ father soon after her mother, who had been seneschale before her, and father, who had been castellan, died of the Red Plague. Fionn Connall, the late Baron, had been father to her, and she had lost him; and although Roisart had not been twin to her, he had been her brother, and she missed him sorely.
Alone, she walked to the kitchen and began to pull supplies out of the pantries. In an hour, the servants would be coming to prepare the breakfast, but she had to prepare the preparations, it seemed.
Myrande ate some bread and cheese, drank some tea, which warmed her, and wished she could go back to bed.
After checking supplies, she started a quick inspection of the kitchen. She sat for another moment, reviewing what needed to be done for the day. After making a list of work, she inspected the castle (clutching her keys to keep her presence silent), and checked which rooms needed to be cleaned and aired, seeing what little repairs needed to be done. The grounds, gardens, and stables she would check after dawn. Then she silently returned to the kitchen.
Myrande greeted the servants, who entered the kitchen in pairs or small groups. As they ate, she gave her orders for the day: this needed to be repaired, and this needed to be cleaned, and this must be done for the visit of the Baron of Coranabo, and this must be done because the castellan and the inspecting guards were returning today.
A man-at-arms interrupted them by entering the kitchen. “My lady,” he called, “the castellan and the inspecting troops have returned.”
“Kindly tell the castellan that I will attend him later in my office,” She sent the message formally. The soldier bowed and left.
After giving a few final orders, Myrande took her keys in hand and toured the gardens, grounds, and stables. All was in good order, except a tree felled by the particularly horrendous thunderstorm of the previous night. Myrande ordered it cleared and cut for firewood.
When she returned to the keep, it was nearly mid-morning. She retired to her office to work on the household accounts, which must be presented and explained to the Baron at the end of each month. Myrande kept her accounts in order, and was only adding this day’s purchases.
There was a knock on the door. Myrande looked up and saw Ittosai Michiya, Castellan of Connall, in the doorway. She rose and bowed in the Bichanese manner. He returned the bow and motioned for a young servant behind him to bring in the tea tray.
“Welcome home, Castellan,” Myrande greeted as the servant left.
Ittosai Michiya smiled and sat. He took the teapot in his hands and poured the aromatic, steaming liquid into two small Bichanese teacups. “Tea, my lady?”
Myrande accepted the drink with a Bichurian bow. “Thank you. And, Castellan–”
“Yes, my lady?” asked Michiya, sipping.
“You don’t need to address me so formally. We are of the same rank–persons of noble blood, in high service to the Baron. My name is Myrande, and,” she added, in the tone of a good-spirited command, “I intend that you shall use it.”
“As you like, Myrande.” Her name sounded foreign on his tongue. “And I am Michiya.” He paused a moment, appeared confused. “But…”
“If your name is Myrande, why does Luthias-san call you Sable?”
Myrande grinned, then laughed. “That’s a long story, and an old one.” She sipped her tea, then continued, “It was a name the Baron, his father, and his brother Roisart called me.”
“It is because of my hair and eyes, I suppose,” Myrande explained. “And because of something that happened when we were little.”
Michiya looked very interested, so Myrande went on. “When we were babies just learning to walk and run, Roisart, Luthias, and I were playing in the late Baron’s study.”
“Late Baron? As if he were delayed and you were still expecting him,” commented Michiya. He shook his head. There were some expressions in this confounded language that were plainly idiotic.
Myrande laughed. “It is a strange expression.” She continued, “Apparently, I was trying to keep up with the twins, who were older and could run, and I could only walk. I fell, but didn’t cry. Still, I must have looked pretty pathetic. Roisart saw I had fallen, and he started bringing me every thing he could get his little hands on–toys, the flowers in a vase, then the vase, a book his father was holding, everything. Luthias, being a little bit more forward, just put his arms around me and kissed me.”
Ittosai Michiya watched the seneschale intently. She had a happy, nostalgic look on her face as she pictured the twins. Michiya pictured her, a tiny child of elfin looks, night-dark hair, and black eyes.
“Then the twins’ father said to my father, ‘Your Myrande is going to grow to be quite a sable beauty. See, she’s enchanted my boys already.’” Myrande brought her focus out of the past and looked Michiya in the eye. “Ever since, the Connalls have called me Sable. You can call me that too, if you like.”
“Luthias-san’s brother, he called you Sable?” Myrande nodded. “Then I may do so. I thought it was a name only he had for you.” She shook her head. “It is sad, what happened to Roisart. And Luthias-san, he needs a brother.”
“Oh, I think you and Duke Clifton are filling that need rather nicely,” Myrande commented. “He relies on your advice, Michiya, and he must respect you a great deal to have made you castellan.”
Michiya grinned. “In Bichu, I am a second son, and I would have been what you call castellan to my own brother if I had stayed. But I am here, and will be brother and castellan to Luthias-san instead.”
Myrande asked, “Did you know that the Baron of Coranabo is coming to visit the Baron today?”
Michiya shook his head. “Why visit? Will he not see him in the city in a week’s time, when the Duke holds his ball again?”
Myrande considered this. “I’m not sure why he’s coming. He said in his letter that he had a private matter to discuss with the Baron. But he’s bringing his wife and his elder daughter…” Myrande shrugged casually. “Well, Coranabo is an odd man, Michiya. Anything is possible.” She took a sip of her tea. “In any case, Baron Coranabo may bring some soldiers with him. Have you room for them in the barracks?”
She nodded, satisfied. “I trust you can take care of them then?”
Michiya nodded. “Of course.” He paused. “I must make a report to you about the inspection. Do you wish the report now, Myrande, or do you wish me to wait until Luthias-san awakes?”
Myrande considered. “Best wait until he’s up; you’d only have to give it twice otherwise. Besides, Michiya, he should be up shortly. I’ll have him join us after his breakfast. In the meantime, you can tell me what supplies you need for the soldiers and the barracks.”
Ittosai dutifully began naming his needs. Myrande jotted them down on a scrap of parchment. “These shouldn’t be a problem. Is there anything you need personally, Michiya?”
Ittosai screwed up his visage in thought. “Yes, Myrande. I need clothes for attending formalities, such as the Duke’s ball next week.”
Myrande wrote this. “That reminds me, I need new gowns, and several nice chemises. I only have one gown, and since Luthias is doing so much entertaining now and I’m acting as his hostess, I’m going to need to dress up more often. I’ll order your suit and my gowns tomorrow, Ittosai. Would you like it in the Bichanese style? What colors?”
“Yes, I like most the style of my home. For colors, I prefer blue and white.”
Myrande noted this on her paper. Just then, there was a knock on the office doorframe. “Come,” Myrande answered.
Jahn, Luthias’ manservant, entered the room. “My lady, I hate to trouble you, but I…” The servant looked abashed. “I can’t seem to wake the Baron.”
“It’s going to be one of those days,” Myrande sighed. She rose. “Lord Michiya, I’ll be back as soon as I can, but this may take a little while.” She clutched her keys, and followed Jahn out.
As they approached the Baron’s chambers, Myrande asked, “What did he do when you woke him, Jahn?”
“He just said something and turned over.” He remember late to add, “My lady. I tried again, but he will not budge.”
“All right,” Myrande acknowledged. “You can go about whatever else you had to do. I will see to the Baron.”
Jahn’s face lit with a knowing look. “As you wish, lady.”
He left her, and Myrande didn’t give him a second glance. Still, the look on the manservant’s face stayed with her.
Yes, now it’ll be all over the castle that Luthias and I…Myrande smiled and shrugged. Oh, well. There were many worse things.
Still clutching her keys, she opened the door to the Baron’s bedroom and walked in. Silently, she shut the door behind her. In the darkened room, Luthias still lay, barely clad, on his bed, with the covers doing everything but the function for which they were intended.
She crept over to the bed and sat on the edge. Gently, she touched his forehead. He didn’t move. Myrande put her hand on Luthias’ strong shoulder and gently shook it. No response. Again, she shook his shoulder, but harder this time. No response. Myrande shook him again, called him: “Luthias.”
“A few more moments,” muttered the Baron, turning away from her.
Myrande smiled. Some things never changed. Both Luthias and Roisart had been like this since the gods knew when. “Come on, Luthias. No more time. You’ve got to get up.”
“A few more moments, Sable,” mumbled the Lord of Connall. “Just a few more moments. And then I’ll get up. I promise.”
“Knowing you, you said that to Jahn five minutes ago,” Myrande returned. “It’s past half-noon. Get up.”
Luthias’ eyes opened. “Past half-noon? Sable, why didn’t you get me up sooner? You know that I want to be up by–”
“I don’t doubt that Jahn tried,” Myrande rued.
“Damn it, Sable,” Luthias swore, sitting up. “Here you are, taking care of the Baron again.” He was grim. “I wanted to be up earlier. Everything’s going to be late now.”
“Don’t worry. Everything’s under control,” Myrande assured him.
Luthias, half-growling, left his bed and went past his seneschale to his wardrobe. He flung it open. “If it is, it’s your doing, Sable. You’re doing the work of eight people.”
“Nonsense,” said Myrande, smiling.
Luthias removed a light-colored tunic and some darker breeches, which he proceeded to pull on in front of his seneschale. “When is Coranabo coming?”
“This afternoon.” She went to the wardrobe and leaned against it. Luthias struggled into his lighter tunic and belted it. “Do me a favor and meet me and Lord Ittosai in my office.”
“Why don’t I just eat breakfast with you?” Myrande just nodded and she left the room.
Now that it was nearly over, Myrande knew that she had been right: it was one of those days.
The Coranabos had come two hours earlier than Myrande or Luthias had expected. Luthias looked fine, if informal, but Myrande’s white cotton overdress was stained and streaked with sweat. She had hardly looked the hostess, but Luthias told her she looked fine, and together, they had greeted their visitors.
There was a fire in the kitchen, right after that, and Myrande had her hands full keeping the servants calm and the fire small. With the help of a few courageous grooms, the small grease fire was quickly extinguished, and the visitors and Luthias never knew it happened.
Myrande had hardly time enough to take a quick bath and dress herself in her only nice gown before dinner, which, luckily, went well. The meat was juicy and tender, and the greens fresh and tasty, the bread newly baked.
The talk was pleasant, general. As they all talked, Myrande watched the visitors, but inconspicuously. She was trying to discern why Coranabo had come. It was hard to figure out anything about the Baron of Coranabo. Coranabo was a tall, hard- eyed man, his gray hair balding, his age, perhaps five and fifty. He smiled, but the smile was superficial. Myrande wondered if something were wrong in Dargon and he was just waiting to discuss after the meal.
His wife was pleasant: a petite lady with graying hair who spoke gaily of society. The daughter, though, was enigmatic and why she had come, Myrande could not guess. Danza, the girl–for so she was; she could not be older than fifteen, Myrande guessed- -was silent throughout the dinner, and did not lift her eyes from her plate. Myrande couldn’t attribute the silence or shyness to lack of confidence; pretty, petite, golden-haired Danza held herself proudly and confidently. It made no sense that a gorgeous girl of marriageable age would stare at her plate instead of flirting with the Baron of Connall, the second most eligible man in the duchy.
After dinner, Luthias led his guests into the study for an after dinner drink. “Brandy, Baron?” Luthias asked politely.
“Yes, thank you, Luthias,” Coranabo answered congenially.
“My lady?” Luthias asked the Baroness as Myrande went to the spirits cabinet.
“Some wine would be fine, thank you, Luthias.” The Baroness smiled at the younger Baron as she would have smiled on her own son, if she had one. “Lady Myrande, would there be some of that famous golden wine of Magnus in the cupboard?”
“I believe so, Baroness,” Myrande replied cheerfully, moving a few bottles around.
“Would you care for some sherry, Lady Danza?” Luthias asked his youngest guest gently. Myrande had noted the gentle manner in which Luthias had treated Danza during dinner, and she didn’t like it. Angry at herself, Myrande shook it off. It was just like Luthias to be protective toward slight, delicate girls. He was the same way with Pecora. That never bothered her. There was no need that this should.
Danza shook her head and mumbled something. “Some sherry for lady Danza, Myrande.”
“Yes, my lord,” she replied docilely enough. She smiled at the Baron, who smiled back: the casual intimate grin of long-time friends. Myrande wrenched her eyes away from Luthias’, took out the brandy, the gold wine, the sherry, and five glasses from the cupboard. “What would you like, my lord?”
“Brandy, thank you, Sable,” Luthias replied, losing his formality, slipping into the normal affection he showed towards her. He still was aware of his obligations of host, however, and he motioned for his guests to sit. Coranabo and his wife took a seat near the west wall, directly in front of the small table where Myrande was pouring. Danza took a seat opposite her, and Luthias moved to stand behind her, so that he might face his guests.
Myrande passed Coranabo and his wife his drink. The Baron thanked her, then said, “Luthias, my boy, it’s time that I got to the reason for this visit.”
“I wish you would,” Luthias said congenially. “I’ve been wondering about it.”
“I wished to surprise you,” Coranabo said with a smile. “Not that I thought you’d suspect, but–”
“Why don’t you tell us what it is, Baron?” Myrande suggested with the lilt of laughter in her voice. Just like Coranabo to keep them guessing. She could remember her father and Luthias’ laughing about the shrewdness of Baron Coranabo, how he used ploys to feed his flair for the dramatic. She unstopped the sherry bottle.
Now, Coranabo laughed. “I never knew a Shipbrook to be so direct, Lady Myrande.”
“You forget, Baron,” Luthias defended her lightly and teased her simultaneously, “she grew up here in Connall.”
“And you were always a blunt lot,” the Baroness chuckled.
“True enough,” Luthias admitted politely. “Now, tell me, Baron, why have you come here?”
“Your brother Roisart would have figured it out, but he was a romantic, as I recall,” Coranabo laughed, still evasive, still working to a climax. “I have come to offer you, Baron Connall, the hand of my daughter, Danza.”
Without warning, Myrande’s face went white and she nearly dropped the sherry bottle. Her legs went weak, and she stumbled, grabbing the corner of the table to steady herself.
Immediately, Luthias noticed a problem. “My God, Sable!” he cried, crossing the room to her. He put one hand on her arm, and with the other, he took the sherry from her clenched hand.
“I’m all right,” she whispered, but Luthias scowled at the lie.
“Better sit her down, Luthias,” the concerned Baroness advised. “She looks like she’s about to faint.”
“Yes, come here,” Luthias ordered, guiding her to a seat next to Danza. Myrande collapsed into the seat. Luthias went to the table, poured some brandy into a glass, and brought it to his seneschale. “Drink this. Damn it, Sable, I’ve told you you’re working to hard.”
Myrande dumbly held the brandy in her hands. “Here, drink,” Danza encouraged. Myrande looked at her, saw Danza’s eyes for the first time. They were–very, very slightly–rimmed with red, but they were kind. Myrande swallowed the lump in her throat.
“Come on, Sable,” Luthias encouraged, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Drink.”
Myrande lifted the glass and gulped the brandy. After a moment, she coughed and said, “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“Think nothing of it, Lady Myrande,” Coranabo reassured her. He looked at her with hard, glittering eyes, but he seemed kind. “No harm done. I hope you’re all right.” Myrande nodded. Then Coranabo shifted his attention to the Baron behind her. “Do you need me to repeat what I said, Luthias?”
Luthias crossed in front of Myrande and went back to the table, where he poured Danza’s drink and his own. “No, Baron, I heard it. I admit,” Luthias continued with a hard smile wreathed in confusion, “that I’m stunned.” Luthias looked at Danza. “Lady Danza, I had no idea that you favored me.”
“Oh, she does,” Coranabo quickly answered for his daughter. He leaned back in his chair, smiling with satisfaction. “And I admit there’s no man in Dargon whom I’d rather have for a son-in-law.”
Luthias seemed slightly confused, and his face told Myrande that something didn’t seem right to the young Baron. Myrande couldn’t blame him. Loud alarms were ringing in her mind, too. But Luthias only said, “Thank you, Baron. But I don’t know what to say.”
“Well, think about it, Luthias,” Coranabo offered. “Sleep on it. Let me know.”
“I will,” Luthias promised. He went back to the table, poured Danza’s sherry and his own brandy. He and Coranabo began discussing the rumors of Bichanese attack, but Myrande didn’t hear a word.
Myrande remained up and about long after the Baron of Coranabo, his wife, and his daughter went to bed. There were preparations to be made for tomorrow, and it was her job to see to them.
Around midnight, a courier arrived at the keep with a message for Baron Luthias Connall. Myrande took the message and ordered food and bed for the tired man. She then went to the study–if she knew Luthias, he was still awake and reading–to give him the message.
She was right; the light still burned. Myrande knocked on the doorframe. “Luthias,” she called softly.
“Come in, Sable,” he invited. She did. The Baron sat behind his desk, very serious. Luthias tiredly smiled. “What is it?”
Myrande offered the sealed parchment. “Message for you. The messenger just arrived.”
Luthias took the paper, began to open it. “Have the man fed and provided with–” The young Baron looked from the paper to Myrande’s half-smiling face. “But you’ve already taken care of that, haven’t you.” Luthias chuckled softly. “I’m sorry, Sable. I should know better.” He looked at the parchment and read the message once, twice. “I wonder what this is all about.”
“What is it?”
“Clifton wants me to come and see him, as soon as possible,” Luthias told her, showing her the parchment.
Myrande read it. “I wonder what the Duke wants.”
Luthias shook his head, re-read the message. “No telling. I’ll have to go to Dargon tomorrow.” Luthias set the paper on his desk. “I want you to come with me. The castle can survive a few days on its own, and if nothing else, I’ve seen tonight that you need a break.” He took a deep breath. “And some help. I’ve thought about it, and tomorrow, I’m going to tell Coranabo that I’ll marry Danza.”
Myrande hurriedly sat down in the nearest chair. “Why?”
Luthias looked her in the eye. “This barony needs a baroness, Myrande. You’re doing too much, I’m doing to much. We’re going to kill ourselves if we go on like this.”
Yes, that was Luthias, always practical. “Do you think a girl that young can handle being a baroness?” Myrande asked.
“Of course. She’s been trained to it since birth,” Luthias argued confidently. “She’ll make a good baroness.”
“Are you sure about this, Luthias?” Myrande asked gently.
“I told you, we need help, Sable.”
“We could hire help, Luthias. Do you actually want to marry her?”
Luthias leaned back and appeared to think about it. “It might as well be Danza as anyone else,” the Baron sighed with resignation. “I’ll have to marry sometime, Sable. There has to be a Baroness, and, eventually, when Danza is less delicate, I do want to have a son.” He smiled. “And name him Roisart.”
“Wouldn’t you rather marry a woman you loved?”
Luthias shrugged. “There have only been four people in my life that I’ve ever loved, Sable. My father, my cousin, my brother–”
“And some lady who jilted you?” Myrande prompted, incredulous.
Luthias smiled, reached across the desk and took her hand. “No, Sable, you. You’re my best friend, other than Clifton, and always have been.” He sighed again. “But there has to be a baroness eventually, whether I love her or not, and we both need help, Sable, face it. I don’t want to see you work yourself to death.”
“Luthias,” Myrande ordered sternly, “don’t do this for me. I don’t want you to marry and be miserable for my sake.”
“Hey,” Connall said gently, squeezing Myrande’s hand. “I won’t be miserable, I promise.” She bitterly smiled at the vow. “It’s just what I need, Sable, what this place needs.” He peered at her intently. “You’re not jealous, are you?”
“Of course not,” she said.
“No, I forgot, you’re in love with the mysterious stranger,” Luthias recalled, his tone a cross between amusement and sarcasm. “Look, Sable,” he began, serious this time, “I’ll go to him, try to arrange the marriage for you–”
“No–no, Luthias. You’d feel too awkward–he’s–” Myrande paused. “You’re too close, and you wouldn’t want to try to convince him–”
Luthias released her hand. “It is Clifton, then.”
Myrande shook her head. “No, Luthias. I give you my word, I’m not in love with Clifton Dargon.” She leaned her head on her hand. “Not even your father, when I told him about this, wanted to arrange a marriage. He wanted to wait until the man was older, to see if something developed…”
Luthias laughed. “I loved my father dearly, but he was a romantic, just like Roisart. Very few people love like my father and mother. And as for me–I’ll never fall in love. I’m not built for it, I think.” Myrande smiled. “I’ll just marry Danza and be reasonably content.”
“Do what you think best,” Myrande rose. “Good night, Luthias.”
“Going to bed?” he wondered, taking out Fernusius Cai’s treatise.
“Not yet. There’s work to be done.” Abruptly, she left the room.
Myrande couldn’t believe it. He was going to marry that child and make her Baroness of Connall. Would Danza want him, Myrande wondered, if Roisart were alive and Baron and Luthias were merely Roisart’s castellan or the Duke’s? Myrande thought not. In fact, Myrande had heard rumors six weeks ago about Lady Danza and Tylane Shipbrook. And now that Luthias was Baron, this Danza was wiling to abandon Tylane like a plague carrier!
And as for her being a ‘good’ Baroness–Myrande thought it was unlikely and scowled. Danza was only fifteen, a child! How would she handle some of the crises around here? She hadn’t handled Roisart’s death well–Myrande remembered her sobbing hysterically when she arrived in Dargon in the middle of the night–
And suddenly, Myrande was back in that nightmare night, that night of horrors, when soldiers came to Connall keep. We’re here to arrest Manus the Healer, they told Myrande. Why? Oh, well, there’s a conspiracy against the Duke and the Lords of Connall. There was an assassination attempt tonight. No, no, lady, the Duke’s fine. The twin lords? No, lady, sorry, they’re dead.
Luthias dead? Roisart, his twin, her friend, dead too? Was there no comfort? Pale, she rode with the squadron to Dargon keep. If nothing else, she would see that Luthias, and Roisart, would be well buried. She clutched the leather reins all the way to the town. The stars glittered coldly, and she wondered if Luthias’ soul and Roisart’s were among them.
Oh, gods, Luthias dead, and Roisart dead beside him! Myrande was unsure that she could bear it.
When she arrived at the keep, she demanded immediately to see the Duke. She was ushered to the blue ballroom on the ground floor. The door was opened for her, and she saw Roisart’s body laid out in state. The Duke was there, talking with Lord Coranabo, she recalled, and little lady Danza, who had hardly known Roisart at all, was sobbing like a babe on her father’s arm. Myrande stood tall and straight, though pale, and walked toward the Duke.
And then Luthias stood up.
Myrande gasped his name, ran to him, and flung her arms around him. Slightly bewildered, but needing comfort, the young Baron put his arms around her as well. Myrande felt Luthias’ heart beating against her shoulder–he was somewhat taller than she–and for a moment, it didn’t matter that Roisart, her best friend, had been foully murdered. She couldn’t grieve for Roisart Connall, her brother, the wonderful boy who had wanted to marry her. All she could do was clutch Luthias close and thank every god she could name that he still lived.
“They’ve told you then,” Luthias said softly, putting a hand on her head and holding her close. “They told you that Roisart is dead.”
For a moment, Myrande lost control completely and sobbed, “They told me you both were dead!”
“Sable, my God, Sable, Roisart’s dead, and I’m Baron,” Luthias rasped. Myrande held him more tightly, knowing that only with her or Clifton could Luthias show this much grief–and fear. “I’m Baron, and my brother is dead.”
“I’ll help you, Luthias, I swear it,” Myrande had whispered. And she had helped him, she stayed by his side when Roisart was buried, and later when he was invested as Baron of Connall. And ever since, she had been helping him. Would this baby Danza be able to help him? Did she deserve to become a Baroness? Myrande didn’t think so.
She blindly went through the motions of the little work left to be done, and then, exhausted, Myrande decided it was time she collapsed in bed. As if in a daze, she wandered back to the family wing of the keep, past Luthias’ study–the lamp was still on, he was still reading–to her room.
Luthias was going to marry a baby he didn’t love, a puppy in love with him. Bitterly, she laughed softly at herself. As if she had the right to condemn Danza for that!
Suddenly, a blond ghost brushed past her–a blond ghost in a lacy, silken nightgown. Myrande stared. Danza. What was she doing up? Myrande took a step toward her, but some instinct halted her voice as Danza stepped into the study.
Myrande shrugged at the girl’s quick departure and dodged into her room. Suddenly, she found herself sobbing. Luthias was going to marry Danza, and then– Luthias was very bright, and he would figure it out eventually. And how she would hate to live with his pity!
Myrande brushed her hands across her eyes quickly and severely silenced her own sobs. She would not be able to live with Luthias’ pity, she knew that. And when Luthias married little Danza, Myrande would leave the castle. Perhaps her uncle, the Baron of Shipbrook, or Luthias’ cousin the Duke would have a position here. Myrande could not live in Connall Keep, seeing the pity in Luthias’ eyes, seeing the pride in Danza’s.
She went to her night table, picked up a hairbrush, undid the long braid that hung behind her head, and began to brush her black hair. Her hands shook; the nervous fingers made the brush a weapon against her, and she accidentally struck her own temple. Myrande dropped the brush. This was no good. She’d never be able to sleep like this.
Myrande rose and left the room. A large goblet of milk would comfort her a little, calm her a little, and allow her to sleep. There would be much to do tomorrow before she and Luthias left for Dargon.
She went silently to the kitchen, downed the milk, and began to wander back to her room. She smiled sadly as she passed the study; the light was still burning. She knocked again. “Luthias?”
“Sable? Come in. I thought you had gone to bed.” Luthias was still behind the desk, reading the words of Fernusius Cai. He closed the book when Myrande entered the room. “Why haven’t you gone to bed yet?”
Myrande shrugged. “What about you, Lord Luthias?”
Luthias smiled. “Just reading some. I’ll go to bed when you do; how’s that?”
“I was on my way,” Myrande confessed.
Luthias kept grinning. He leaned back in his chair. “I’m going to refuse the Baron of Coranabo,” he announced casually.
“Why?” Myrande asked, stunned.
“Danza came to me, told me she was in love with Tylane,” Luthias revealed. “She marched in here and said very firmly that she had no objections to me personally, but she couldn’t marry me, that she wasn’t a virgin, and she did not want to disappoint me.”
“Danza, not a virgin?” Myrande echoed, incredulous.
Luthias grinned. “That’s what she said. It took me a little while to get the real reason out of her–that she loved Tylane and wanted to marry him. And what could I say, Sable? If we married, she’d resent me all her days and we’d both be miserable. And you’d hurt, Sable, to see me hurting.” Luthias leaned toward Myrande again, looked at her lazily. “So, it’s off, and I’ll marry someone else someday, Sable, but until then, we will have a lot of work, the two of us.”
“I don’t mind,” Myrande told him. She smiled and leaned forward. “I’d rather exhaust myself than see you miserable, Luthias.” Myrande shook her head. “She must have been pretty desperate to tell that she wasn’t a virgin. Not many girls her age would admit that. But would you refuse a girl on those grounds?”
Luthias shrugged. “No. I’m not a virgin; why should she be? I actually don’t want to marry a virgin. I don’t want my bride to be terrified on our wedding night.”
Myrande laughed. “I know it is all very practical, Luthias, but somehow you sound more romantic than Roisart.”
Luthias laughed too. He rose and crossed to her. “We should be getting to bed, lady Seneschale. We have a long journey tomorrow.” He put her hands on her shoulders and began to rub them gently.
“Mmm,” said the seneschale, closing her eyes tiredly. “You shouldn’t do that, Luthias.”
“Why not? You take care of me,” Luthias argued. He fell silent then, kept rubbing. Then he asked, “Sable, don’t answer, if you don’t want to.” Myrande relaxed beneath his touch. “Are *you* still a virgin?”
Myrande answered, not opening her eyes, “Yes. That surprises you?”
“Yes,” Luthias admitted frankly. “You’re almost twenty-one- -”
“And you and Roisart had a habit of scaring my suitors away. They all thought either that I’ve been promised to one of you or that you were going to destroy them if they touched me.”
Luthias shook his head. “I hope you’ve been kissed, at least.”
“Yes, I’ve been kissed. You and Roisart didn’t start scaring men away until I was seventeen or so, and by then I was in love with–and I don’t think you could scare–him–away.”
“Sorry, it was a silly question,” Luthias mused. “Roisart must have kissed you when he proposed.”
“Only my cheek.”
“No wonder he never got anywhere with girls!” Luthias laughed, squeezed Myrande’s shoulders one last time. “Come on, Sable, I’ll walk you to your room. We both could use some sleep.”
Myrande rose, and Luthias turned down the lamp. Exiting the room, he put his arm around Myrande’s shoulders in a casual way, and she leaned on him a little. Silently, they walked down the hall.
They soon arrived at her door, and Myrande opened it. She then turned to her Baron and touched his cheek. “Good night, Luthias.”
“Good night,” answered the young Baron. “And, Sable?” She looked up at him. Suddenly, Luthias leaned forward and kissed her lips quickly. “That is from Roisart, because he was too stupid to do it when he had the chance.” Luthias kissed her again, longer and more firmly this time. “That is from me. Good night, Sable.”
Myrande smiled at him and said, “Good night.”