“What a dismal place,” Lord Sagrie Gribbane murmured under his breath as he looked up at Castigale Keep high in the hills of Duchy Asbridge. The long ride had been so cold that he had dallied at every stop before arriving on the fourth night since he had set out from his estate in his aunt’s barony in Duchy Narragan.
“Castigale: my future barony,” he mused aloud as he urged his horse to climb the incline that led past simple farmlands and into the town proper. He considered finding an inn to wait out the night before presenting himself to Baron Kelleman, but dismissed the thought. He was supposed to have arrived the previous night or this morning at the latest, but here it was nearing the night’s second bell, and he had yet to appear. What would his future bride think? More importantly, what would her father, the baron, think?
With a wave of his hand, he urged his group through the cobblestone streets towards the main gate of Castigale Keep and peered up at the battlements. He was about to have his page call out when a distant voice saved him the trouble with the traditional hailing, “Who goes there?”
Sagrie nodded to his page, and the boy shouted back, “The Lord Sagrie Gribbane –” He was about to go on, listing the titles he had memorized for just such a challenge, but Sagrie stopped him with a gesture.
The sound of activity echoed through the night air; the guards were obviously expecting him. A few moments later, the gates swung open, and grooms emerged to lead them into the courtyard. Beyond, Sagrie was impressed with the quick efficiency of the servants; the cheery glow of lanterns lined the steps leading to the great main door to the keep. After the group dismounted, the grooms led the horses away as the visitors walked past an honor guard standing at attention. Each soldier wore a tabard displaying the blazing red sun on gray: the symbol of Castigale. Despite the cold, the guards did not so much as shiver. With such flawless presentation, Sagrie wondered drolly if they had stood there for the past day and night waiting for him to arrive.
Nodding at the greeting, he walked towards the main door. At the foot of the stairs stood a lithe figure in the garb of a common guard, but with blue velveteen edging that gave the uniform a feminine look. Approaching her, Sagrie assumed that the edging signified captain’s rank, although why she was standing there waiting for him was baffling. He had expected a courtier or castellan to meet him, not a mere guard, whatever her status.
Still, his upbringing prevented him from being less than polite. When he reached her, he bowed and said, “Mistress, would you tell your baron that Lord Sagrie Gribbane has arrived?”
“Welcome to Castigale Keep,” the guard said, ignoring his request. “We were expecting you yesterday.”
Quick annoyance sprung through Sagrie because she did not bow; he was, after all, the future baron while she was a mere guard. However, he was not one to show his vexation, so he smiled and bowed again. “My apologies, madam.”
“Please follow me.” Without waiting for his response, she turned on her heel and marched back up the stairs.
Shrugging, Sagrie followed. The air was warm in the lobby, and he threw back his cloak as he removed his gloves and studied his surroundings. Well-dressed servants plucked the baggage from his men and began leading them away. Sagrie handed over his outer raiment and made a move to follow, when the guard stopped him.
“A moment, Lord Sagrie,” she said. “With respect to the fact that you are tired after such a long journey, I regret to request your presence in the study, as Baron Kelleman would like to speak with you.”
Sagrie nodded, unsurprised at the invitation, but taken aback that it could not wait until the following morning. He had first visited Castigale Keep eight months past at Kelleman’s invitation, and the latter’s subsequent letters had made his intentions obvious: that the aging baron sought a suitable husband to sit beside the future baroness, his daughter Evelain. Sagrie assumed that Kelleman had requested the meeting to conduct some final negotiations before the betrothal was announced.
The guard led the way down a long corridor, her stiff gait the mirror of his own. If she were a mere guard, Sagrie mused, she carried herself like a noble. He went over the list of Castigale’s retainers that his informants had provided him with, trying to discern her identity. But none of the names seemed even close, save perhaps the baron’s eldest daughter, known to be insane and confined in the castle. The thought that he could have been met by a madwoman and was following her through the castle to Ol knew where amused him, and he chuckled as he followed his hostess.
As they passed a wall sconce, its light showed Sagrie that the guard was also amused about something: a tight smile played upon her lips. Curiosity getting the better of him, Sagrie stepped closer and asked, “Do you find something amusing, mistress?”
She started and then regained her composure. “I was going over the plans for the Firil Firstday feast, my lord. I was confirming that we would have enough food for all the guests.”
“I did not know you were the cook,” Sagrie replied. He had no qualms about angering her; after all, he was a nobleman and no mere guard’s ire could touch him.
She, however, stopped in her march and turned to face him. “I am not the cook. I am Dagny Ludoran, Baron Kelleman’s sister.”
Sagrie was not chagrined even though he recognized the name; it occurred to him that the illegitimate, widowed half-sister of the baron no doubt hated him for what he represented and was powerless to do anything about it. Fighting to keep a smile from his face, he replied, “I stand corrected, Lady Dagny.”
Dagny’s hazel eyes turned from frigid to furious and it was several moments before she spoke. “I hold no rank.” Lifting her chin, she continued, “I am not a legitimate daughter of the Castigale family.” Then she turned and marched down the hall.
Unable to hide his mirth any longer, Sagrie grinned at her back, murmuring, “My apologies, mistress.” His informants had told him of Dagny’s quick temper, and his blind arrow had found its mark. It took all of his ingrained politeness to keep from laughing aloud at her discomfiture. Pasting a casual expression on his face, he strode after her.
She led him to a large door and opened it, holding it for him and following behind to close it. The room had an air of opulence. A plush gray animal skin lay on the floor before the desk and Sagrie wondered what it was; he had never seen an animal with fur of quite that color. Shelves against one wall displayed a multitude of ornate trinkets: pink-tinged crystals of different shapes, wooden dolls painted and dressed in what looked like real velvet, and some ancient tomes, whose leather binding had turned wine-colored with age. Next to the shelves, an abstract sculpture in dark red wood rose in twisting tendrils reminiscent of flames rising; the carving, as high as Sagrie’s shoulders, had a hypnotic allure that invited more than just a second look. Small tapestries dotted the farther wall, one of a seascape, one of a sorcerous battle, and one that was a depiction of Ol with the sun and moon on either side, whilst a lar ge portrait of Dagny faced the desk. As she stood next to the painting, Sagrie was struck at the artistic talent that had captured the ambitious look in her eyes.
Now, her face was expressionless. Sagrie wondered if she was still angry over his “accidental” reminder that she could neither inherit the barony nor pass it on to her son. Without meeting his eyes, she said in a bland tone, “Thank you for coming, Lord Sagrie. May I present to you my brother, Kelleman Castigale.” She turned the question into a statement, making her seeming disinterest all the more obvious.
Sagrie turned to face the baron who sat behind a desk littered with papers and maps. The man had not looked up at their entrance, and if he was insulted by the conspicuous lack of title in Dagny’s introduction, he did not show it. “Have you summoned my daughter?” he asked, bushy eyebrows arching to peer at them without having to raise his head.
“I sent a servant to fetch her as soon as Lord Sagrie arrived,” she responded. “But she is in her painting room.” Her impatient tone made Sagrie wonder about the relationship between aunt and niece: it sounded as though she would rather clean chamber pots than deal with her brother’s younger daughter.
The baron grunted acknowledgment but still did not address Sagrie. Unembarrassed by the uncomfortable silence, Sagrie took the opportunity to study his future father-in-law. The lord of Castigale Keep seemed his sister’s utter opposite. His plump features, including a large belly and round, bearded cheeks, contrasted sharply with Dagny’s rather angular, gaunt face. Even Kelleman’s age, which appeared to be past fifty, was far removed from Dagny’s, which appeared in the vicinity of thirty. However, both siblings shared the auburn locks and hazel eyes that were Castigale features, though his hair was wavy while hers was curly.
Kelleman appeared to be studying a map of his barony on the desk. Even upside-down Sagrie could make out the border of Nulain, north of Castigale Keep, which showed that the map was recent. The barony stretched the entire length of Duchy Asbridge’s border with Duchy Narragan, which contained the Gribbane barony.
The map made Sagrie think of his aunt, Baroness Veronie Gribbane, who was the cause of the old feud between the baronies of Castigale and Gribbane. She had raised no objection to Sagrie pursuing this marriage and he had reached his own conclusions about the reason. A singular trade route ran through Castigale, and if there was no feud, merchant wagons would arrive in Gribbane often, and with as wide a variety of goods as anyone could want.
The feud had started when the present baron’s father, Tilber Castigale, had courted Sagrie’s aunt, Veronie. Of course, everyone knew that the borders of Castigale and Gribbane marched together; an alliance marriage would have consolidated the lands. His aunt, however, had refused to accept Tilber’s suit; she had also gotten herself with child and refused to name the father, much to the consternation of the older members of the family. To this day, Sagrie remembered the huge furor that had erupted when she had announced that she was with child. Gossip had it that Tilber had taken her pregnancy as a personal insult; he had gone on to close the trade route that ran through his barony, with disastrous implications for the then-prosperous Gribbane barony.
A soft knock on the door interrupted Sagrie’s musings and he turned to look back where Dagny stood. Something tightened around her eyes, but she opened the door without comment to admit a beautiful young woman.
Blushing, the girl smiled and soft dimples appeared beneath her graceful cheekbones. She appeared to be about nineteen years of age, and her hazel eyes sparkled between long lashes as she looked around the room. She wore a formal dress that was gaudy: it had broad, green stripes running from bodice to hemline, and the skirt was decorated with far too many frills and furlebows of various hues from purple to yellow. The effect was striking, and as vulgar a display of wealth as Sagrie had ever seen. Lifting the skirt that fell to the ground in folds, she floated across the room to her father.
“Ah, my dear Evelain,” Kelleman said, his voice softening as if he were speaking to a child, “I am glad you came. I would not want you absent while I discussed your future. This is Lord Sagrie Gribbane.”
With his most charming smile, Sagrie stepped forward to take and kiss the girl’s hand. Evelain giggled and blushed all the more, averting her eyes from his.
“Please, both of you, be seated,” Kelleman said.
Sagrie was aware of how completely the baron’s mood had changed when his daughter had entered the room. He watched Kelleman regard them both, the baron’s expression full of pride. Then Kelleman’s eyes turned serious again and he looked at Sagrie. “In five days we celebrate Firil Firstday with our traditional feast. At that time I would like to announce the betrothal of my daughter to you.”
Evelain simpered while Sagrie blinked in surprise. Though he knew that this was the intention behind his invitation here, he had not expected the lord to come to the point at once.
The baron, however, seemed to misinterpret his expression, for he continued, “This should not be such a surprise to you, Lord Sagrie. There are many reasons I want this marriage. As nephew to Baroness Veronie Gribbane, you will help heal the old wounds between our lands, and it is my hope that it heralds a new peace in which both baronies can prosper. As a nobleman with both grace and manners, you will be a suitable husband for my daughter and will care and provide for her. And as a young man of good breeding, you will provide me with some grandchildren … before I am gone.” The pause before the last few words made them resound in the otherwise quiet room.
“My lord is both logical and wise,” Sagrie complimented. He had expected the baron to ease into the discussion; at the abrupt and tactless statement, Sagrie had to remind himself that Kelleman lacked many of the social graces, a fact that had become obvious during their earlier meetings. So he smiled and paid an elegant compliment to father and daughter. “I am overjoyed that you should find me an acceptable husband for your beloved daughter.”
Kelleman waved his hand in disinterest. “Yes, yes,” he said. “The wedding is all but planned. As for the bride-gift, now, let’s see here.” With a fat finger, he traced out a section of the land on the map before him. “The Valley of the Thumb,” passing his finger across two mountains to a slender river running north and east, “all the way across to the Pass of Amante past Myridon.” The baron nodded and folded his heavy arms across his chest.
“Bride-gift?” Sagrie said, confused.
Dagny spoke from the back of the room, “It is a Castigale tradition that the father of the bride offers a gift to the married couple, something that will help them start their new life together.”
There was a moment of silence while Sagrie digested this, then he said, “This is a fine proposal, my lord.” He studied the map with exaggerated interest. “But I had thought you would be naming Evelain as your heir, in light of her sister’s … condition. Since she will inherit all of this land, might not a bride-gift of gold be more appropriate?”
The baron’s expression darkened, but he waved such irritation away and said, “Heirship to the barony of Castigale stands, as before, with my brother Curran, who resides now on his mother’s lands in Duchy Dargon. Castigale tradition is that the title is passed to male heirs. That is how it has been done for countless generations before me, and that is how it will be done now.”
Shocked, Sagrie’s fingers tightened into a fist as he fought to keep his face from showing his emotion. He had realized, of course, that Curran would be Kelleman’s successor if an heir was not named, but everyone knew that Kelleman regarded his younger half-brother as little more than a wealthy criminal. Sagrie had thought the aging baron would welcome any opportunity to deny Curran the barony.
Kelleman continued, “Besides, Evelain has no desire to rule the entire barony. Isn’t that right, dear?” His voice softened when he spoke to his daughter.
She blushed and smiled. “Yes, Father. My lord, I’m not interested in this responsibility.”
Sagrie mentally threw out one argument after another to regain the power he had thought within his grasp. “Certainly,” he flailed, while Kelleman’s brows darkened and his jaw set in a stubborn look. “I’m sure fair Evelain would feel overwhelmed ruling this whole barony by herself.” He patted Evelain’s hand in a false gesture of affection and she smiled back at him. “But I believe that with the two of us ruling together –”
Kelleman threw his head back as deep rolls of laughter spilled from his throat.
“M-my lord …?” Sagrie said in confusion and barely-contained frustration.
The baron waved him to silence as he calmed from his paroxysm. “Boy,” he said, “do you think I’m as senile as that? I may be old, but I’ll not hand over my entire barony to the nephew of my family’s enemy. I chose you because you will help end that silly feud, and because you are a known gentleman who will care for my daughter and provide her with a comfortable home. But I won’t choose you to run this barony after I am gone.” He smirked at Sagrie in self-satisfaction.
“Then why give us anything at all?” Sagrie bit off before he could stop himself. “Why cut your daughter from any inheritance but give us a worthless chunk of land?” Anger now flooded his features as he faced Kelleman. His hands shook in his lap but he struggled to keep his lack of control from the other man’s eyes. Sagrie had underestimated the fat lord, assuming that he little realized and less cared what would happen after his death. But it seemed now that the baron had concocted a scheme that would cut off both Sagrie and his own daughter from inheriting his title and his lands. Or had he?
Sagrie spared a quick glance behind him at where Dagny still stood between the door and painting, and found her smiling like a cat at him. He saw in her eyes a flash of victory and, behind that, the steely resolve of an ambitious woman. She was apparently more of a competitor in this race for the barony than he had thought. Narrowing his eyes at her, he turned back to the baron.
Kelleman had yet to answer Sagrie’s question. He seemed thoughtful, as if trying to make up his mind about something. Inwardly, Sagrie cursed his quick tongue, fearing that he had doomed himself from any dowry at all. After another moment of hesitation, the baron answered, this time in a soft voce, “I have another plan for my heir.” His faraway gaze focused on Sagrie and his voice resumed its deep pitch. “Give my daughter a son before I die, Lord Sagrie, have him raised here on Castigale land, and I will name him heir to my name, my house, and my title.”
Sagrie’s confidence returned; this was an opportunity he could live with, for children were easy enough to beget. Behind him, however, he heard a gasp.
“Kelleman,” Dagny said from the back of the room. When the baron didn’t acknowledge her veiled warning, she continued, “Kelleman, we never spoke of this …”
Kelleman sneered up at his half-sister. “And who are you that I, the baron of this land, should share my designs with?”
Dagny’s voice was sharp as she replied, “There are other options, my lord.” Her biting tone emphasized the word “lord” in such a manner that it sounded more an insult than a title.
“Enough!” Kelleman erupted, baring his teeth across the room at his sister like a rabid wolf. “I”, he shouted, “am Baron of Castigale! I make the decisions! Especially when it concerns decisions of such import as the passage of my barony! On the day of my death this land and title will pass to my brother Curran, as was dictated by my father on the day of his death –”
“Our father,” Dagny retorted, her own voice rising so that her anger matched her brother’s.
Kelleman waved the interruption away. “The path of the inheritance is set, sister. The only way I will interrupt it is if I have a male heir of my own lineage before I die. Should that not happen, and should Curran inherit this barony, at least my innocent daughter will have a noble estate and be well cared for on the lands of her birth.”
The baron had calmed from his momentary rage, but Sagrie could still see a fire in his eyes that threatened to explode should Dagny push him further. She seemed to recognize this as well for she kept herself tightly leashed.
“Well, my lord, is it agreed?” Kelleman asked, looking at him.
His thoughts whirling over the possibilities of the heirship, Sagrie smiled. If the old baron died after naming Sagrie’s son heir, then he would serve as steward until the boy grew up. And as father of the underage baron, Sagrie would have true power and status. “Very well,” he agreed, “I will accept the offer of this land, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to provide your daughter with the life she deserves. It’s barren and wild. What will I do with a couple of mountains and a river?”
Kelleman’s face purpled as he jabbed his finger on the map. “Fool! Wild lands beg to be tamed! I am giving you at least a hundred more acres than that petty estate you run in Narragan. All you have to do is move your painted arse and fix it up!”
Sagrie shook his head, forcing himself to ignore the baron’s uncouth language, reminding himself of the stakes involved. It wouldn’t do for him to lose his temper over an ill-chosen word. “At least I have an estate on my lands. What you offer doesn’t even have that. Would you have your daughter live in a peasant’s shack until I’ve tempered the land?”
Kelleman slammed his clenched fist down on the table. “I will build my daughter a noble mansion on these lands! A house to dwarf yours and any other in your aunt’s lands!” He stood and began to pace behind the table, his words coming in a rush. “It will have a horseyard and three stables, a pond, a magnificent banquet hall, and a huge room for her to fill with her art.”
At the mention of her paintings, Evelain’s face lit up. Kelleman noticed that and said to her, “Would you like that, dear? Would such a dwelling make you happy?”
Evelain nodded to her father’s question, and Kelleman turned back to Sagrie. “See, I want my daughter to be happy. Accept my offer for this land and the house, and I will begin building it tomorrow. By Ol’s grace, it will be at least habitable by the wedding and finished in full by winter.” Narrowing his eyes again, he leaned across the table to say, “No one will say Baron Kelleman Castigale’s daughter had to live on her husband’s land because her father didn’t provide for her.”
Sagrie took a deep breath, staring at Kelleman. Then, with a quick glance at Evelain, he inclined his head and said, “How can I refuse what will make my bride happy?”
Evelain beamed as he raised her hand to his lips. Glancing from her to her father, Sagrie said, “I accept the bride-gift with pleasure, Baron Castigale. I only ask that Evelain be consulted with the building of the house so that it is exactly what she needs to live in happiness with her husband.”
Kelleman looked suspicious at the compromise, but said, “Done.” He looked Sagrie and Evelain over one time then nodded and smiled as if all the anger had disappeared. “Well, then,” he said merrily. “It’s time for dinner. You will join us in my dining hall, won’t you, Lord Sagrie?” At Sagrie’s nod, the baron heaved his girth from behind the desk and moved to the door, not waiting for anyone else. Before leaving, he paused and said, “We will announce the betrothal at the Firil Firstday feast, five days hence.”
Despite being unnerved by the baron’s rapid mood swings, Sagrie felt that the meeting had gone well, considering the plot that had nearly cut him from any inheritance but for a couple of wooded peaks. One quick glance at Dagny as he stood to leave the room, however, showed that the baron’s sister did not share his feelings. She glared at her brother like a she-bear about to attack, her eyes never leaving him as he brushed past her.
Dagny sighed as she leaned against the couch in her quarters later that night. Throughout dinner she had spoken to her brother, trying to make her displeasure known without openly shouting at him across the table. He had all but ignored her, changing the subject whenever she tried to steer the conversation to her son. After dinner, she had followed him to his room, but he had closed the door, telling his guards that he had a headache and did not wish to be disturbed. Admitting defeat at least for this day, Dagny checked the guard patrols one last time, ensured that the butler had no problems or situations to discuss with her, and then retreated to her room.
“He gave Evelain the barony, did he?” Gleuder, Dagny’s maid, stood across the room from her.
Dagny glanced up. “No,” she replied. “But he did agree to name any male child she bears as his heir as long as the child is born before his death.”
The older woman crossed the bare floor and put a comforting hand on Dagny’s shoulder. “Well, there’s time still to convince him to adopt Slevin.”
The mention of her son made Dagny frown. She set her jaw and stared at the floor, though she didn’t shrug off the older woman’s hand. “I know,” she murmured. “I just have to find a way to make him see.” She tapped her booted foot for a moment, then looked up at Gleuder. “I thought Kelleman was starting to give way when he agreed not to name Sagrie heir. Between Curran and my son …”
“Yes, and he hates Curran,” Gleuder agreed. “Slevin is the next logical choice. Anyone would be better than Curran, who is no better than a rat fink.”
Dagny ignored the insult, for although she disdained the words, she agreed with the sentiment: Curran was a betrayer by nature. She remembered being punished by her tutors for various pranks throughout her childhood due to Curran’s talebearing. She dismissed that train of thought and returned to the topic uppermost on her mind. “I don’t understand why now Kelleman has all but thrown his land away by agreeing to name Evelain’s son heir. What will happen after Evelain births a son? Sagrie will be the ruler, in spirit if not in name, for Evelain is too simple a maid to do aught but paint her silly little pictures.”
Gleuder made a clucking sound with her tongue and said, “Dagny, Evelain isn’t even married yet. She may not have a son at all.”
“That isn’t the point,” Dagny objected. “After arguing with Kelleman for months, I finally manage to make him understand that Evelain as heir would be disastrous for the barony, and now!” She fumed for a moment before continuing, “Now he goes and promises to name her son heir. He’s making any sort of proclamation just to prevent Slevin or Curran from inheriting.” She looked away from Gleuder to her bare walls and plain bed. As castellan, she had the right to a more comfortable bed and could afford decorations on her walls, but as the captain of the keep guards, she preferred her room to resemble the barracks where she had quartered while training to be a soldier. The only concession she allowed herself was rooming in the family wing of the keep.
“Of the two,” Gleuder said dryly, “Curran has the more legitimate claim to the seat.”
Dagny looked back at her maid with absolute fury on her face. “Gleuder!” Then the truth of that statement hit her and she hung her head between her shoulders. It was true that her own illegitimacy prevented Slevin from being in the line of inheritance, no matter that her father had accepted her and raised her in the keep as his own daughter.
“Dagny, girl, look,” Gleuder said. “You know that I want Slevin to rule this barony as much as — if not more than — you do.” She cupped Dagny’s chin in one aged hand and brought her face up. “But Kelleman stands between your son and his title like a jealous bull. That’s a formidable wall even for you, and Slevin is just six years old. This is a battle you have to fight for him.”
Dagny sighed and leaned back on the couch. “I know; Gleuder, I know. What am I going to do?”
Gleuder smiled, a crafty look coming to her eyes. “Do you remember the day your father brought you here?” At Dagny’s noncommittal shrug, the older woman continued, “I remember that we all thought he had done it because he loved your mother. He had no love for the illegitimate daughter who had sullied his name. I thought he would keep you hidden away for a few months then ship you off to some distant duchy to be forgotten. But within a year you had proven yourself far wiser than Kelleman and more righteous than Curran, and you secured a place for yourself here. And so you stayed; in spite of your father’s shame, you stayed.”
Dagny smiled a little as past memories surfaced. “But my father was stubborn too. When he discovered I had an affinity for numbers where Kelleman had none, he had the best tutors teach me; when he found out that I was more disciplined than Curran, he had his best warriors train me. He even encouraged Sir Poulson Ludoran to court me and saw that I was married before he died. But he never acknowledged me as his legal daughter.” She shook her head.
“Nor did he offer a bride-gift to your husband,” Gleuder said with a sniff. “If Poulson had taken land like a normal knight you and Slevin would have had a place to go after he died.”
Dagny sighed and then chuckled. “He wouldn’t have taken a dowry even if my father had offered. He was a true knight, and a true warrior, honorable in every sense of the word. Not money, land, or status meant anything to him. It was just like that when the war with Beinison broke out. He was so quick to wield his sword for Baranur.”
“And look where it got you,” Gleuder retorted. “But even then, when we came back again to Castigale Keep and you pregnant and your father’s health failing, I expected Kelleman to toss us all out by our ears as soon as your father died.”
Dagny laughed at the thought of her fat brother trying to pull her by the ear.
The maid finished, “Instead, you made yourself first useful, and then indispensable, to him. Now he can’t get rid of you unless he wants his keep and his guards to fall apart in disarray.”
“Forget the past!” Dagny made her voice harsh, for she wanted none of the weakness that sweet memories brought; indeed, the crisis of the moment was such that she could afford none. “What is the point to all of this, Gleuder?”
“My point, dear child, is that to best a baron, you don’t try to convince him through argument to see things your way. Instead, you take away his alternatives until yours is the only choice he has left. Like you did with Kelleman before Slevin was born. You made yourself the only choice for castellan and only choice for master of the guard.”
Dagny stared at her in amazement. “You want me to take a sword to Sagrie so that there’s no one to marry Evelain? Gleuder, a duel won’t solve anything.”
The maid smiled slyly. “You have other weapons you will not use; there are other kinds of duels that can be fought.”
“I don’t understand,” Dagny said, wondering what the older woman meant.
Gleuder persisted. “Come with me,” she said with a wink. She stood, took Dagny’s hand, and led her to the back of the chamber, where on the bed lay a garment that appeared to be nothing but lace and cords.
“What is it?” Dagny asked, staring.
“That is the weapon you will need,” Gleuder said. “Sit down, Dagny.”
Dagny allowed herself to be pushed to sit on the bed. “Gleuder –”
“No. Listen to me. You’ve always chosen not to use the weapons Ol gave every woman. If Sagrie cries off from this wedding, you can still persuade Kelleman to accept Slevin as his heir. All you have to do is listen to me, Dagny, and do what I say. I promise it will all work out the right way.”
Dagny began shaking her head as she realized what Gleuder wanted her to do. “No. It’s wrong, and I can’t do it. I won’t do it! It’s dishonorable!”
“Honor!” Gleuder sniffed. “That’s something that men made up so that they could get out of doing things they didn’t want to do. You need to learn the womanly arts, and no man can teach you that. I’ve tried to teach you that men think with what is between their legs. And you can control that, if you choose to. Now, strip.” Gleuder started to undo the buttons and ties on Dagny’s tunic. When her charge was down to nothing but skin, Gleuder picked up the garment and handed it to her.
Dagny screeched, “Nothing underneath! Gleuder, you can see everything!”
Gleuder laughed. “And you the mother of a child, Ol help me. Put this on, girl.” Pulling down the night rail over Dagny’s head, she tugged it into place. Taking the single cord that secured the garment, Gleuder tied it so tightly that it was difficult to breathe. When Dagny looked down at herself, she understood why. The tie was positioned under her breasts and pushed them upwards. The neckline gaped, and she feared a deep breath would make her fall out of the bodice. As for the skirt, it appeared to cover her completely, but when she took an experimental step forward, it split open all the way along the length of her right leg to the hip joint.
“Gleuder! What — where on ‘diar did you get such a garment? This is vulgar, obscene!” Until that moment, Dagny had never thought that her body, which appeared muscular in the guard’s uniform, also had such plush curves. She had never played on her femininity; that was a part of her that seldom came out in her daily life. She was the castellan and the guard master well before she was a woman, and she was always far too conscious that someone in a position of leadership needed to maintain a certain decorum.
The older woman chuckled. “If only you could see — well, you look beautiful, girl, absolutely beautiful. If he can resist you in this, I — never mind that. Sit down.” Gleuder pushed Dagny down and brushed out her hair. The arrangement made it fall forward at her neck, curling around her face like a halo. “It’s a good thing you haven’t cut it yet,” the maid said. “Now, go to Gribbane and take him to bed. I’ll come in there in about two bells with the page — no, with Quiggin! That butler is such a prig that you would not believe.” Gleuder paused. “That should be enough to stop the marriage. Kelleman will never allow an amorist to wed his precious daughter.”
“But Gleuder, I can’t do that!” Fear swept through her as she thought of Sagrie seeing her dressed like this. It had been many years since her husband had died, and even though she lived and worked with soldiers every day, Dagny never spent any time thinking of men like that. The thought of someone, especially one whom she considered an enemy, seeing her clad in close to nothing was enough to make her reach for her sword.
Meanwhile Gleuder was adjusting at the fabric in Dagny’s bodice. “Yes, you can. Think of Slevin. It’s all for him,” she emphasized.
Dagny hesitated, feeling torn at the mention of inheritance. Was the cost too high, she wondered? It occurred to her that she had a place in the keep now as long as she was useful, and Kelleman knew of her efficiency; but what of Slevin? Would Curran or Sagrie suffer her own presence, much less her son’s? The question resounded in her mind and the hesitation blossomed into fear. Slevin had no father, and it behooved her to secure a good future for him. For her son, she had to do this. She swallowed, thinking of Sagrie’s knowing eyes, nervousness dancing in her stomach like a small craft in a stormy sea. Wishing futilely for an easier way to settle Slevin’s future, she met Gleuder’s eyes and nodded.
“Well then,” Gleuder said, “this is for Slevin. Go and do your duty as a mother. Here,” Gleuder fetched a brown, ankle-length robe, “put this on over that. You can take it off once you’re inside his room. ‘Twon’t do for the castellan to run around the keep in a little bit of nothing.”
“Come,” Sagrie called while he continued to read from the parchment on his desk. He looked up just in time to see a woman closing the door behind her. Out of her uniform he didn’t recognize her for a moment. As she slipped off the robe and walked forward, he was surprised at seeing the cold castellan in such revealing clothes. Temptation beckoned and he felt it would be easy indeed to forget their positions.
“I was not expecting you,” he said, his eyes roving over her body.
When Dagny smiled, he knew that he had allowed his feelings to show. He composed his face into a neutral expression and watched as she stepped into the room. The light of the sconces danced over what skin she bared, and played in the shadows of what little she did not.
“You weren’t expecting Evelain, were you?” she purred.
He laughed. “No! Evelain is a child. And you … are not.”
As she stepped perilously close to him, his eyes were level with her breasts, which were encased in some sort of lacy confection and tied with a velveteen cord. Then she leaned in and his face was just a breath away. He stared straight without flinching or shying his gaze, unwilling to show weakness.
“This is a surprise,” he said. With effort, he turned his face away and picked up a paper from the desk, feigning disinterest.
Dagny hesitated a step and Sagrie smiled. For all her seductive words, she seemed unsure of what she was doing. He wondered if she had been with a man since her husband had died. He knew this woman’s strengths were in the way she maintained three things, the accuracy of her accounts, the efficiency of her servants, and the battle-ready state of her keep guards, not in using charm, allure, or seduction for her ends. Also, his reports said that she was an honorable woman. Sagrie was a little surprised that she would try so blatant a trick.
He surmised that she must be desperate to stoop to such a tactic; but he had to admit she was ably equipped for it. Then he realized the parchment he held was upside down and he hoped that she would not notice, for as keep castellan, she would know how to read and write. After a moment of awkward silence, Sagrie spoke in an attempt to distract her. “I did know that you were Kelleman’s illegitimate sister when I addressed you as ‘lady’ in the hall.”
She blinked at the sudden change of topic, then frowned. “You deliberately insulted me?”
“The measure of a man, or a woman, can be taken when he is angry,” he said. “But I had no idea provoking you could be so … provocative.” A small smile played about his lips as he watched a flush of embarrassment color her features, confirming his guess that she was uncomfortable with her present strategy. His amusement grew until he was laughing aloud.
The blush disappeared from her face, and her eyes brightened with anger. “Sagrie, you have no idea who I am.”
He was shaking his head as she spoke. “No, Dagny, I do know who you are.” He lifted the paper, unobtrusively turning it right side up and began to read. “Dagny Ludoran, castellan and master of the guards. Illegitimate daughter of the late Baron Tilber Castigale, widow of Sir Poulson Ludoran. Has a young son, Slevin. A tricky swordswoman,” he recited.
“Spies!” she exclaimed.
Sagrie nodded. “Well, you know how these things are played out. As pretty a chit as Evelain is, I wouldn’t be marrying her if I didn’t hope to get something out of it, apart from a biddable wife.”
Dagny laughed, and it was a short, brittle sound. “Biddable, oh yes, that she is. But –” she paused, as if looking for a new topic.
Sagrie spoke first, his eyes roving over her body once again, “What are you doing in my bedroom?”
“If I have to explain, then I must not be doing it right,” Dagny said tartly. “Mayhap I should take lessons.”
He threw back his head and laughed. After a moment, he looked at her and allowed his appreciation to show. “Oh no, Dagny, you are doing it right. So right that –” he paused for a moment. “But I am too old a hand to be caught by this tactic.”
“Tactic?” Dagny said, her voice breaking.
“Beautiful one, do you think that I don’t understand your situation?” Sagrie asked. “You want Kelleman to adopt your son and make him heir. You want to discredit me so that Kelleman will not permit me to marry Evelain.”
Dagny’s mouth fell open as he stated her position. “Spies,” she murmured again, closing her mouth to grit her teeth together.
Sagrie smiled at the dawning awareness in her expression. Despite the resolve he had seen in her before, he now realized that Dagny was little competition in this race. She had spent far too much time concentrating on soldierly duties and keeping a castellan’s book to manage the intrigues she was attempting.
Meanwhile, Dagny’s anger seemed to have worked through to the forefront. “You can’t do this to me,” she growled.
Sagrie laughed. “What can’t I do?” he mocked. “I can do whatever I want, so long as I agree to marry Evelain. The only thing I can’t do is bed you … for now.” Despite his best efforts, a trace of regret crept into his voice.
“No!” The word seemed to be torn from her throat, and then she conquered her anger. “Sagrie, choose your enemies well.”
“Enemy? You? You have no power to hurt me,” he dismissed.
“Look around you,” she replied. “This is a prosperous barony. Where do you think the money goes? To the soldiers, who are loyal to me.”
“Are you threatening me, Dagny?” Sagrie was incredulous. Then he sighed, rose, and crossed the room to the door. He bent and picked up her robe and held it out for her. “This is all pointless. You’re powerless and I … I have to marry Evelain for the sake of a treaty. Leave, Dagny, before your actions dishonor both of us.”
When she did not move, he came towards her and draped the robe around her shoulders. Then he returned to his seat. “Put it on,” he growled, and then clapped his hands. “Bertrid!”
Dagny pulled the robe into place and secured the cord with shaking hands. “It may have been a mistake on my part to have come here tonight,” she admitted. Her voice strengthened as the brown robe covered her skin and less was bared to his eyes. “But beware, Sagrie. I will not stop because one tactic failed. I suggest you watch your back.”
Just then, Sagrie’s page entered the room through the connecting door, knuckling his eyes. He yawned, one hand covering his mouth as he rubbed his eyes with the other, and said, “Yes, lord?”
“Escort mistress Dagny out, will you? She’s scared of the dark.” Sagrie could not resist adding the last comment; Dagny’s reactions were so illuminating.
He was not disappointed; her eyes narrowed and her lips thinned and he recognized her ineffectual rage. But as he straightened in his chair and met her gaze, his smile disappeared; he understood that he had made a lifelong enemy with that one comment.