The King was laughing when Marcellon, Sir Edward, and I walked into his private audience chamber. There was a chess board set up in the corner; the red king was lying prostrate in the center of the board, defeated.
Fine thing, for a King to be laughing and playing chess in the middle of the war. But I am a Knight, and as Sir Lucan and my uncle Sir Clifton Dargon taught me, I held my peace.
King Haralan turned from his other advisors when he saw us enter. “Greetings, Mage,” the King began, slowing his mirth. “Greetings, Edward. Welcome, and welcome to you, Sir Knight.” I bowed my acknoledgement. “What think you?”
Marcellon advanced and helped himself to a goblet of wine from a tray. Marcellon’s often bold before the King, bolder than anyone, even me, and I’m fairly forward, King or no King. “What think I? Of what, your majesty?”
“That I take a Queen–that I take the Countess of Connall to wive.”
Marcellon swallowed the wine quickly to avoid choking. Sir Edward stared. I smiled and bowed to the King again. “Your majesty shows excellent taste in women,” I complimented. “The Countess of Connall would make a fine queen. It’s too bad your majesty won’t be able to do it.”
The King raised his eyebrows. Sir Edward stared at me unbelievingly. Marcellon shot me a friendly glance of admiration. The Master Priest, who stood behind the King, scowled at my boldness. The King recovered first, blinked, and spoke to me. “You think her difficult to court, Sir Knight? In that, I would agree.”
“That’s true, your majesty,” I answered, smiling. And don’t I know it!
“That’s the least of your problems, sire, if you want to marry Lady Myrande,” Marcellon interrupted. “For one thing, you’ll never get the Church to agree to it.”
“You overstep your bounds, I think, Mage,” the Master Priest replied scornfully. “The Church would do nothing to stop such a marriage. It could bring only good. Although the Countess is far below the King in station–the mere daughter of a Knight–” I frowned. Sir Edward scowled. “–she is well-liked and capable. She would make an excellent guardian of the Princes Sadron and Kalien should the King fall in battle.”
Sir Edward finally found his tongue. “You’re not going to fight, are you, Haralan?” he burst out. “Don’t be a fool.”
“No more than I must,” the King promised. “I am no great warrior.”
“Besides,” the Master Priest continued as if he had not been interrupted, “there is no reason to prohibit such a marriage.”
Marcellon looked at me and I at him. “Forgive my boldness, your holiness,” Marcellon began, his voice deferential, “but I believe the Stevene stictly forbade adultery and bigamy.”
“So he did, Mage,” the Master Priest answered darkly. “But no such impediment exists here.”
King Haralan gave Marcellon an odd look. “I don’t understand you, Marcellon,” the King admitted softly. “I am a widower, and the Countess is a widow.”
“Not while I’m still breathing!” I ejected finally. Marcellon and Sir Edward had wanted me to keep quiet, to see how long it took before the King realized who I was. But the hell with it. I wasn’t letting him think he could marry Sable while I’m still alive. And if he didn’t recognize me now, he was really dense.
The King stared at me in disbelief, much as Sir Edward had a few moments ago. “Count Connall,” he finally breathed. “My God.” He became a little calmer, and began again. “Greetings and welcome, Sir Luthias, Count of Connall. Forgive my rude assumptions, but I did not recognize you with that beard–and the rest of your body–attatched to your head.”
“I hold no grudges,” I admitted graciously. I can be gracious, sometimes, if I want, and King Haralan didn’t deserve my wrath. He did, after all, think I was dead, and he does, after all, have good taste in women.
“And we are glad to see,” King Haralan continued, switching from Normal Person to Royal Pompous mode, “that you are so difficult to suprise.”
“What’s so suprising?” I returned. “I admire my wife, too.” The King laughed.
“This,” the Master Priest said contemptuously to King Haralan, “is the Count of Connall?”
“He is,” Sir Edward answered for the King. “Apparently, the Beinisonains didn’t kill him, but rather tortured him.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said.
“If your majesty still wishes to marry with the Countess, I will arrange the divorce.”
I glared at the Master Priest. What a–! “Over my dead body!” I shouted at him. Then I took two steps forward and pointed at him angrily. “Better yet, over yours!”
Marcellon gave the Master Priest a cool look. “The Stevene allowed for divorce only in extreme cases,” the High Mage reminded him. I knew that, somewhere. But theology was one of Roisart’s hobbies. I like history better. Marcellon continued in his dry way, “You would do well not to abuse your power.”
“Is that a threat?” demanded the Master Priest.
“If need be. You are not the only one with power, your holiness.”
“We would recommend that you worry more about the Count Connall’s threat,” the King said light-heartedly. I gave him a wicked grin. Sometimes King Haralan and I understand each other, which is strange, for we are so different. But then, Roisart and I understood each other perfectly–sometimes, I think Roisart understood me better than I understand myself–and we, too, were very different. “The Count Connall threatened your very life, Master Priest, and in the matter of the Countess, he rarely stays his hand.” The King paused and waved a herald forward. “The Countess Connall cannot be far; summon her to my presence immediately.”
“And the Bichanese lords with her, your majesty?”
“Bring them,” commanded the King. King Haralan looked at me and Sir Edward. “The gracious Emperor of Bichu has sent us thirty knights–what do they call them?”
“Samurais,” I offered.
“Just so. The Emperor has sent us thrity samurais–” As usual, no one in the Kingdom can manage a correct Bichanese pronunciation! “–to aid us in the war against the Beinison Empire. Among them is your Castellan, Count Connall; do you require him for the war?”
I nodded and began to thank the King. Michiya was just the man I wanted for my chief aide and advisor. He is one of the few men I know whose military knowledge I completely respect and whose military prowess I would fear, if we were enemies. But that Master Priest began again–damn him!
“The Count Connall would not be so foolhardy as to raise his hand against me, a holy Priest of the Stevene.”
I was going to say something about how the Stevene hated hypocrisy, but instead I turned to the King. “Your majesty, I believe we have settled the matter of my wife. Would your majesty grant me the favor of requiring the Master Priest to shut his damn mouth? As a ‘mere knight,’ I have not the rank to do so.”
“I do,” Marcellon volunteered. “Shut up, Jehan.” The Master Priest scowled, and Marcellon offered his sweetest, most innocent smile.
“The matter is closed,” the King proclaimed. “We will not marry the Countess; indeed, we had only meant it as a jest, although we admire Lady Sable greatly. Now, your holiness, be so good as to hold your tongue. We have other matters to discuss.”
“Tell me about the Bichanese, Haralan,” Sir Edward requested, sitting. “You said there are thirty. Who leads them?”
“A very respectable man of perhaps Marcellon’s age named Kirinagi.” Somehow I knew that Michiya would pronounce that name differently. “He is very knowledgeable and very capable. His second, I gather, is Ittosai Michiya’s brother, whose name I don’t recall.”
“Ito,” one of the advisors said. “Ittosai Ito. An odd Bichanese. He has blue eyes.”
I vaguely recalled Michiya once telling me about an older brother named Ito, but I had other things on my mind. How far had Sable gone? Would she recognize me? Did she still–
“Speaking, as we were, of generals, Haralan, would you approve my appointment for General of the Cavalry?” Edward asked. “I have chosen Sir Luthias, Count Connall.”
“I approve completely. The post is yours, Sir Luthias.”
“Thank you, sire,” I said automatically, but I was watching the door for Sable.
“How are matters in Pyridain?”
And Marcellon and Sir Edward started in on it, the whole romance, from start to finish. In the middle, the door slammed open, and I heard Sable’s voice in the hall beyond: “Your majesty will forgive me if I speak candidly and say that this had better be good!”
King Haralan whirled. I knew Sable would never speak that way to the King. And then she came in, leaning heavily on Michiya’s arm and on another man, a tall Bichanese with blue eyes. I suppose he was Ito, but I didn’t care. Right then, I fell against a wall, terrified.
Sable was pregnant.
God, no, I prayed. I didn’t mean it. I wouldn’t kill a Master Priest, God. Don’t take her from me. No, don’t take her. You took Roisart and Father–before that Mama-Aunt and Sir Lucan and Uncle Clifton–not her, God, not her too!
“I lost her, Lucan; she’s gone, and there’s no remedy for it!”
“How can you understand? How dare you? Your wife lives; Morwyn’s alive, and so is Sable! How do you know what it is to lose your wife to your sons?”
The King was standing. Sable was panting; she was pale, and her dress was soaked from the waist down. Marcellon was at her side in a second. “When did the water break?”
“Are you in pain?”
“I have been, all day, but I didn’t realize it was labor.”
“You?” Marcellon laughed. I wanted to be with her, to hold her before she died, but I couldn’t move. “You, the midwife, Lady Sable?”
“I’ve never been in labor before,” she snapped. Then she smiled a little, till pain erased it. “I’m glad to see you, Marcellon, and you, too, Sir Edward.”
I stared at her. No greeting for me?! I hadn’t been gone that long! But I couldn’t speak, couldn’t tell her, couldn’t move…
Sable finally looked at me, but I don’t know whom she saw standing there. “I regret I’ll not be able to get to know you, Sir Knight. Your majesty–”
“*Sable!*” I finally screamed, but that was all I could do.
And she looked at me again, frightened and pale, and fainted right into the arms of the big, blue-eyed Bichanese.
Now I could move. Marcellon was beside her, and Michiya and his brother were propping her up. I knelt beside her. “Don’t let her die,” I begged, taking her hand. “Don’t let her die.”
“What nonsense are you talking?” Marcellon wondered, half-interested. “Your majesty, excuse us. I will see to Lady Sable.” The King consented, and Marcellon turned to Michiya. “Lords Ittosai, help me move her.”
“I can carry my own wife,” I snapped, lifting her. She was awkward to manage, so pregnant…oh, God, don’t let her die.
But she was going to die. She was going to die. And it was my fault.
“Luthias-sama,” Michiya was saying excitedly, “they told me you were dead!”
“I’m much better,” I grumbled, shifting Sable. “Where do you want me to take her?” I asked Marcellon.
“You do not look much better than a dead man,” the tall blue-eyed Bichanese said.
“Let me take her,” Michiya offered.
“No.” I turned to Marcellon. “Where?”
“This way,” said the mage, and I followed.
“Can I stay with her?” I asked, barely aware of Michiya and Ito following me.
The High Mage nearly stopped dead and stared and smiled. “You wish to stay with her? You’re more unusual than I thought!”
“Do you think I’d let her die alone?” I shouted.
“Die? What are you talking about? Hurry,” Marcellon continued without waiting for my answer. “We’ve got to put her to bed. Gentlemen, return to Sir Edward.”
A little boy was sneaking through the halls. It was past his bedtime, and he would be punished by Mama-Aunt if he were caught. It was harder tonight; he was tired, for today had been his fourth birthday, but he persevered. He must once again thank his father for the gifts: a new sword, of real iron just like Sir Lucan’s, and his very own pony!
And he crept, alone in his nightshirt, to his father’s study. His bare feet made no noise on the cool stone.
Michiya spoke quickly in Bichanese to his brother; Ito replied. “I shall stay with Luthias-sama,” Michiya announced, and marched beside me. I was glad he was there. God, if only Roisart were here! If only Father–
Damn it, it was *his* fault, not mine! I didn’t do it! I didn’t mean to do it–
But deep down, I knew it was my fault. I’ve always known. And now, I was being punished.
Marcellon opened a heavy door and ushered me inside. I put Sable on the soft bed. Marcellon spoke to Michiya, but I don’t know what he said; Sable was stirring, and she cried out in pain.
“Easy,” I soothed, brushing her hair.
“Luthias,” she breathed, “you’re alive.”
Normally, I would have given her a sarcastic or funny answer, but I choked. Maybe Beinison took the humor out of me. “I’m sorry,” I finally managed. “I’m sorry, Sable. It’s my fault. I never meant for this to happen. I didn’t want you to be–” When had this happened? I thought I was careful. I thought–
It didn’t matter. She was pregnant, she was dying, and it was my fault. It was all my fault.
“That first night,” she breathed. “Everything was so confused.” She smiled, touched the chain across my shoulders. “When were you Knighted?”
She was dying, and she wanted to know about my Knighthood? “Sable,” I began, but I couldn’t finish. What was I going to tell her? What could I tell her? What did it matter? She was going to die!
“I’m glad you’re home,” she whispered, then pain crossed her face, and she shouted.
“Do you want an anestetic?” Marcellon offered, coming to her bedside with a cloth. I took it in one hand and wiped her forehead. With the other hand, I searched for hers and grasped it.
Sable shook her head. “It won’t be long.” And she cried out again.
How could someone be in this much pain and not die?
The Baron drank from the blue decanter and whirled on his castellan. “Do you know how it feels?” the Baron demanded wildly. “How can you? How can you know how it feels? Morwyn lives still; my Julia’s dead!” The Baron turned toward the portrait of his dead wife and sobbed. “Oh, Julie…” The castellan approached gently and put a hand on the Baron’s shoulder, but the Baron furiously pushed him away. “I don’t want your sympathy; you have none.”
“You’re drunk, Fionn. Go to bed,” the castellan suggested mildly.
“What does it matter? What does anything matter?” The castellan turned away and shook his head. He stared at the door, helpless. “What can matter after your sons murder your wife? God, I hate them–I curse them! May they feel the same wound–may the women they love die bearing their children!”
The castellan’s eyes widened. Swiftly turning, he struck the Baron angrily. “For God’s sake, hold your tongue!” he shouted. The Baron toppled, and the castellan turned to the door.
But the little boy had fled.
Sable held my hand tightly. I thought she was going to break it. How long had this been going on? It seemed like hours. Yet Marcellon was calm–she was dying and Marcellon was calm!–as if everything were all under control.
What did he know? Damn the Mage! Or maybe he didn’t understand, but that’s very strange for Marcellon, who knows mysteries as if they’re obvious.
Sable cried out again. “Push,” Marcellon commanded gently, and Sable’s face twisted with the effort. She cried again, but Marcellon said, “Push, Sable. I can see the head.”
And that, I knew, would be the end.
The little boy leapt into his bed and pulled the covers over him. Unable to be strong any longer, he sobbed into his pillow.
Suddenly, there was a voice at his side. “Luke?” Little arms went around him. “Luke, what’s wrong? Don’t cry.”
He couldn’t tell him; no, he wouldn’t burden his brother. The little boy would bear the secret, the hate, the guilt–and the curse–alone.
But still he sobbed till dawn in his brother’s arms.
There was a baby in the room, a crying baby, but Sable still breathed–and she was still in pain. I stared. Marcellon was smiling. “Another push, Sable, and we’re through.”
“It shouldn’t be…this bad,” she panted.
“There’s another child here,” Marcellon explained. “There are twins.”
Oh, God, she really is going to die! Just as Roisart and I had killed our mother, my sons would kill theirs! Oh, God, please!
Marcellon gave me a strange look. Then he looked at Sable again and produced another screaming child. “Now just the afterbirth,” Marcellon encouraged.
I remember wondering what the hell *that* was. And Sable, in less pain–she was dying for certain–pushed again, I suppose, and it was over.
And she still breathed.
She smiled at me and squeezed my hand–gently, thank God; it was sore as hell–and I stared at her. She was alive. I couldn’t believe it.
She must be dying peacefully, gradually, so painlessly that she must not even realize it. Thank God for that; at least she would die in peace.
And Marcellon came forward, bearing two bundled lumps. “Would your excellencies deign to view your perfectly healthy children?” he asked gaily, putting them on the bed next to Sable. I stared at the Mage in disbelief, then looked at the babies as Marcellon moved away to wash his hands.
“They’re so small,” I said. Then I felt stupid.
Sable whacked me playfully. If I hadn’t known she was dying, I would have thought she was getting better. “Newborns generally are, dullard,” she laughed breathlessly. “Especially twins.” Then she looked at me seriously. “Roisart and Luthias?”
“What?” I asked.
“Fionn, not Luthias.”
“Lauren and Clifton called their little boy Fionn.”
“All right,” I conceded dully, “Roisart and Luthias.”
“That,” said the approaching High Mage, drying his hands, “would be highly inappropriate.”
“Inappropriate?” Sable asked. “Inappropriate to name my children after their father and uncle?”
Marcellon, in that annoying way of his, raised an eyebrow. “They’re girls,” he explained simply. And I felt even stupider.
“Julia?” Sable suggested, looking at me.
“Fine,” I said without fighting. Perhaps calling my daughter after her would free me of her death. “The other…Morwyn?” She nodded and smiled, and I knew that she was glad to name our daughter after Mama-Aunt.
“After your mothers?” Marcellon questioned, and I nodded. “Very good. If you don’t mind, I’ll take the babes to be blessed by the priests.”
“By the Master Priest?” Sable asked sleepily, snuggling toward me.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Marcellon answered dryly. “His breath would wilt the poor children.” Sable smiled. “I shall return shortly.”
I kissed Sable swiftly, then rose. I caught Marcellon’s sleeve. “How much longer?” I asked in whispers.
“Until she dies.”
Marcellon gave me a very strange look. “Your wife is fine, Luthias,” he soothed, putting a hand on my arm. “It was an easy labor.” *That* was easy? “She was never in any danger of death. She will live for many years. Don’t be alarmed.”
“She’s not going to die?” I asked incredulously. But that couldn’t be…any woman I cared for…
“Of course not,” Marcellon returned with slight irritation. “Go back to your wife, Sir Luthias, if you like; she will sleep for a while, however.”
“Sleep? After that?”
“They don’t call it labor for nothing, manling,” Marcellon scoffed, using Clifton’s horrid nickname for me. His eyes were smiling, though. “Go on, Luthias. It’s all right.”
I stood rooted, staring at the door as Marcellon closed it, until I heard Sable call me. I turned. “Are you all right?” she asked, holding out her hand.
I came to her and took it. “Me? I’m fine. You’re the one who was in the pain. Sable, how are you?”
“Wonderful,” she told me. I sat in the chair beside her bed. “Are you all right, Luthias? I thought sometimes that you felt the pain more than I did.”
She’d never know how much. I touched her face, and then I kissed her. “It’s all right, Sable.” She had said she was wonderful; she was going to live, Marcellon had said. It was going to be all right.
Seeing the change in my face, she sighed, closed her eyes, and slept.
And I laid my head down beside hers, thanking God that my father had not cursed me after all.
The Baron drew his little son onto his knee, but the normally exuberant boy trembled and looked away fearfully. “Don’t be afraid,” the Baron said soothingly. “It’s all right.”
The boy would not answer.
The Baron held his son close. “I didn’t mean what I said last night, my son,” the Baron whispered, rocking the boy. “Grown-ups…when we hurt, sometimes we say crazy things, and they hurt others…I never meant to hurt you, my son.”
Uncertain, the boy withdrew slightly and looked questioningly at his father.
The Baron saddened at the pain on the little boy’s face. “I love you, my strong son,” he said, holding the boy close. “I would do anything to spare you pain–I would give anything to be certain that you never feel the pain I felt when your mother died. I love you and your brother; please believe that, my son, and believe that nothing you did hurt her and nothing I said was true.”
And the boy sobbed and held his father tightly. “It’s all right,” the Baron whispered. “Don’t cry, Luthias.” The Baron held his boy at a small distance. “You believe me?” The boy nodded. “I would never curse you, nor would I ever hate or hurt you.” The boy nodded again and gulped his tears. “Now come,” invited the Baron, offering his hand. “Let’s go riding.”