As Luthias opened the door, the Duke of Dargon whooped, scooped his pretty wife into his arms, and twirled her in the air. Lauren, clad in a sunshiny yellow gown, clung to the Duke’s neck and laughed gaily as a debutante. Luthias paused, unsure of the situation and what to do about it. He looked at Myrande for guidance. She shrugged.
Above the laughter, Luthias called irritably, “Well, I’m glad you two have something to be happy about.”
Clifton set his wife gently on the floor and sprang across to the room to his cousin. “Luthias!” he greeted him. “You’re going to be an uncle!”
At this, Luthias blinked. “What? You’re joking! Roisart went out and got some girl pregnant before he died?” A smile seeped across the young Baron’s lips. “That wasn’t Roisart’s style at all.”
Myrande swatted him. “You dullard,” she groaned. She looked at Lauren. “When, your grace?”
“The seventeenth of Feber,” Lauren stated confidently.
“Lauren, you can’t know that accurately,” Clifton protested affectionately.
Lauren nodded with assurance. “I just know.”
“I didn’t think you’d start having children this soon,” Luthias commented, collapsing into a chair. “Don’t you want to be alone for a while?”
“Oh, we’ll find time enough to be alone, don’t worry,” Clifton assured his cousin.
“Sure, cousin, and make more babies,” Luthias finished irritably.
“Married people have a tendency to do that sort of thing,” Lauren teased her kinsman. “Of course,” she continued, eyes twinkling, “it isn’t exclusive to marriage, eh, Luthias?”
Luthias glared at the Duke. “You told her! I don’t believe this!”
Clifton opened his mouth to reply, but his wife silenced him with a quick gesture. “Wait. Does Myrande know about this?”
“What, about his wenching days?” Myrande asked. She smiled, waved Lauren’s concern away. “Certainly. I’m the seneschal. I’m the one who holds the keys and lets arrant knaves in when they’ve been wenching.” Luthias scowled at her teasing grin. “However,” Myrande defended him, “he always made certain that there were no babies involved.” He had almost been fanatic about it, as Sable recalled. Then she looked at the young Baron. “You haven’t done anything like that in over two years, though.”
“That’s because my father started hearing about it,” grumbled Luthias. He glared at his seneschal.
“It wasn’t me!” she protested. “Don’t you think that Roisart noticed your coming in late all the time?”
“Besides, your father wasn’t easily fooled,” Clifton concluded. Seeing Luthias’ discomfort, he moved behind his desk and changed the subject. What was past was past, after all. “So, Luthias, I gather you aren’t having the best of days.” The Duke scanned his cousin’s face. “You don’t look well.”
“Oh, I’m well enough,” Luthias assured him sarcastically. “I’m just losing my mind.” He flung one of the letters across the desk. “Take a look at that.”
Clifton opened the folded parchment and skimmed it. “The legal elections? I’ve already been informed,” he said, handing the paper back to Luthias. “So?”
“Clifton, I’m going mad just trying to run the barony. I can’t be Duke’s Advocate, too. The mere traveling takes up so much time, and the preparation…besides, I know nothing of law. Even if I had the time to dedicate to this, I wouldn’t be a good Advocate.”
“As I understand it,” Lauren interposed, “you wouldn’t be trying many cases, Luthias. You’d only be involved in cases where a member of the nobility were being tried, and then only for major crimes, such as murder or treason.”
“Right,” Clifton confirmed. “That doesn’t happen too often, manling. You should do well enough.”
“Can’t you get someone else?” Luthias requested. “I really don’t need the extra responsibility.”
“It’s not my decision,” the Duke reminded him. “By royal decree, the members of the Tribunal and the Duke’s Advocate are chosen by election. Sorry.” The Duke leaned back in his chair. “I hope you two are going to stay the week. The Tournament’s only five days away, and besides, it’s cooler here than in Connall.”
Luthias wiped the back of his hand against his sweaty forehead. A few grains of grit from the road scraped annoyingly across the scar above his right eye. It didn’t help; nothing did. Not even the sea breezes sweeping the air of Dargon brought much relief from the heat and humidity. “I don’t know,” Luthias said. “There’s so much to do…”
“You mean you aren’t entered in the Tournament?” Clifton asked incredulously. “You almost won last year!”
Luthias smiled, almost sheepish. “I don’t have much time for games. I’ve got too many responsibilities at home.”
“That’s what Michiya said, too, and you told him to go ahead and enter,” Myrande pointed out. “Besides, what duties will you have at Connall? Most of the people of the barony are coming to the city for the Tournament!”
“True,” Luthias sighed. “Michiya’s fighting, Macdougalls is a sure bet to take the archery–”
“Again,” Clifton interjected.
“And God only knows how many men you’ll have fighting for you, Sable,” Luthias finished tiredly. “And not one of them asks for you.”
“Someone has, haven’t they?” Lauren asked, looking at her husband. “I recall you saying something to me a day or so ago about a letter…”
“I had wanted to forget it,” Clifton almost snapped. He opened up his desk drawer abruptly and pulled out a folded piece of fine velum. “I think you’d better see this, cousin.”
Luthias’ mouth twisted angrily when he recognized the seal of the Baron of Shipbrook, and a red cloud of rage covered his face as he read it. “That son of a bitch!” Luthias exploded furiously. “How dare he!”
Frantically, Myrande snatched the letter from the Baron of Connall. “I don’t believe this,” she murmured. “He threatened this in his letter to you, but this was sent before yours.”
“What did you tell him, Clifton?” Luthias asked, only slightly calmer than he had been. “Are you going to take Myrande’s guardianship from me and give it to him?”
“Are you mad?” Clifton demanded. “Do you think I’d let any woman of this Duchy marry Baron Oleran? I’ve already written him and told him to mind his own barony.”
Luthias took the letter from Myrande, read it again. “He’s right that I should have found a marriage for her…”
“No, he isn’t,” Clifton argued. “I know why your father refused to marry her off, and I agree with his reasons.”
Myrande stared at the Duke. “Uncle Fionn told you!” she accused, incredulous.
“Only because he wanted my advice,” the Duke explained.
“He wanted your advice?” Luthias echoed.
“Well, I am the Duke.”
“Yes,” Luthias agreed, “but you’re twenty years younger than he was!”
“Actually, my age made me closer to the man she was in love with, and your father wanted to know whether or not I thought something would develop,” Clifton explained casually. He leaned back in his chair.
Luthias glared at his seneschal. “Does everyone in the whole Duchy but me know who you’re in love with? I’m the only one who can arrange your marriage, and–”
Clifton grinned, amused. “Luthias, I don’t think you’d want to handle this one.”
“I agree,” Lauren advised quietly. “You’re much too close–”
“And you know too?!” Luthias cried, enraged. He turned toward Myrande and shoved her slightly. “Thanks a lot for trusting me, Sable.”
Myrande blinked once, then turned and silently left the room. The door closed quietly behind her.
“Now you’ve gone and done it,” Clifton grumbled. “And you said you had ‘the touch’ with women.”
“She doesn’t keep it from you out of spite or distrust,” Lauren said quietly, carefully keeping anger and accusation out of her voice. “Her reasons are just.”
Luthias sat again. “I don’t mean to yell or hurt her,” he confessed. “I want to see her happy, and she won’t let me arrange it!” He slammed his fist into his open palm to emphasize the point. “She won’t even tell me about it.”
“Never mind,” Lauren soothed. “I’ll go make sure she’s all right. Excuse me.” She touched Luthias’ shoulder reassuringly, smiled at Clifton, and left his office.
Clifton sighed and shook his head at his cousin. “The hell with all of this nonsense, Luthias. Go marry her yourself.”
“I’m getting that advice from all over.” The young Baron of Connall smiled ruefully. “Roisart said the same thing in my dream last night.”
“Well, he’s right,” the Duke continued. “It would stop your constant arguing and get Shipbrook off your back.” Luthias looked reluctant. “What’s wrong? I thought you liked Sable. Would you mind marrying her?”
“Not at all, if it were me she wanted,” Luthias admitted, shrugged. “Or if she didn’t care who she married. But I refuse to have her resent me because I kept her from whoever she loves.” Suddenly, the Baron smiled with irony on his lips. “I’ll tell you one thing, though, Clifton: if she ever steps before me again in nothing but that nightgown, I’m not responsible.”
Clifton lifted his eyebrows. “Responsible? Why? Was it that ugly?”
Wickedly smiling, Luthias shook his head. “No. Nearly invisible.”
“Ah,” the Duke said knowingly, relaxing in his chair. “One of those nightgowns.” He smiled, thinking of his bride. Then he teased, “Why didn’t you do something about it, manling? Then we wouldn’t have to worry about marrying her off.”
“I wouldn’t so dishonor her,” Luthias protested, dignified.
“Dishonor? I don’t think any dishonor is involved.”
“Nor I, but she’d see it that way,” Luthias sighed. “She’s been saving herself, and I wouldn’t deny her that privilege.” A shadow crossed his eyes. “My father once…screamed at me when he thought I was fooling with Sable. He said…” What had he said? It was a long time ago, and it still shamed him. “He said if I toyed with her body, I’d be toying with her heart, that I’d do nothing but hurt her.”
“Sable’s a big girl now,” Clifton commented. “I also don’t think any man–including you–would be able to touch her without her allowing –and wanting–it. Still, manling, you should have tried.”
“No, Clifton, I’m not going to try to force her to marry me. That’s how she’d see it,” Luthias added, seeing an objection on his cousin’s face. Then, suddenly, the young Baron of Connall smiled wickedly. “Of course, if I see her like that again, I just might lose control of myself.” The Duke grinned. This sounded like the old Luthias, or rather, the young one.
The young Baron of Connall looked over his shoulder. “Speaking of Sable, I suppose I ought to go apologize to her. “See you later, Clifton.”
The Duke reached for some of his paperwork. “Staying for the tournament?”
“Might as well,” sighed the Baron. “Put me on the lists.” He shut the door quietly.
The Duke pushed the parchment away, mused silently at the situation. “I give up,” Clifton muttered finally, pulling paperwork toward him.
Luthias found Myrande standing in front of three tall portraits in Clifton’s gallery. The long, white hall ran almost the length of the keep, and in it were hung paintings of the Dargon family, Luthias’ and Clifton’s ancestors. Myrande was standing before the three most recent.
To her left was a grand gentleman, in grand armor, holding his helmet beneath his arm and his sword in the other hand. He was tall, dignified, solemn; his brown eyes were Clifton’s eyes, Luthias’ eyes. This was the Duke of Dargon, Clifton’s father, Luthias’ uncle, the man who had given Myrande’s father his knighthood. The Baron of Connall gazed at the painting with respect. He had always admired his uncle.
To Myrande’s right, and Luthias’, was the newest portrait, not more than seven years old. The young man in it stood, like his father to Myrande’s right, with a dignified posture, but this man was surrounded by books, papers, and musical instruments as well as war. Luthias smiled at Clifton’s image and thought, this is what Roisart might have been like, had he gone to the university.
The center portrait held Myrande’s dark eyes, however. The man in the center of the painting, a man in his thirties, perhaps, had the looks of both the Dukes of Dargon. He was seated before a desk spread with papers, and although he looked as if he were trying to concentrate, his lips were twisting into a quiet smile. He was not alone; behind the desk, a nine-year-old boy challenged a lion’s head with a sword, and seated on the floor by the man’s chair was another boy, a twin of the first, reading a book of fairy tales.
“I hate that picture,” Luthias remarked.
“I know it,” Sable returned laconically.
“You’re angry with me.”
“You’re perceptive,” she returned coolly.
Luthias grimaced angrily. “I came to apologize,” he snapped.
“You should,” Myrande returned in kind. “You know I trust you.”
“Then why don’t you just tell me?” Luthias demanded. “I’m the one who can do something about it! Just tell me who this man is!”
“Why, Sable?” Luthias growled, taking her shoulders. Her onyx eyes glared at him. “Give me one reason why. One good reason.”
“I’ve given you my reasons,” Sable reminded him coldly.
“Not good enough. Tell me!”
“I can’t!” Myrande spat between her teeth. She squirmed beneath his hold. “I tell you, I can’t. If you knew, you’d understand why I can’t tell you!”
“But I *don’t* know,” Luthias shouted, “and I *don’t* understand! Don’t you think I want to help you? And you don’t even give me a chance!” He released her in disgust. Scornfully, he added, “I’ll wager you haven’t given him a chance, either, whoever he is.”
Myrande turned her back coldly to him, as if she didn’t want to hear or see him. “By God, Myrande,” Luthias exploded, “it’s your own fault! You don’t want him to love you–you’d rather languish on like a simpering heroine in one of Roisart’s romances than give the man a chance to accept you!”
“Why bother?” she asked. “I don’t want his pity. Why should I tell him and watch him reject me when I already know he doesn’t love me?”
“How do you know? Has he told you this?” Sable was silent. Luthias wrenched her shoulders again so that she was forced to face him. She struggled, but the Baron held her fast, and while she was the more determined, Luthias’ arms were stronger. He shook her once. “Has he told you?”
Myrande opened her mouth, but only glared at him furiously.
“No, I thought not.” He released her again. For a wild, furious moment, he wanted to strike her with all his strength. He began to speak, but fell silent as his eyes met her hard stare. His eyes lost the anger and suddenly all Luthias felt was hurt–that she couldn’t tell him, and that she was hurting. “Sable, damn it, if you can’t tell me, at least tell him. He’d be crazy if he didn’t love you. Give the man a chance.”
The sorrow in the young Baron’s eyes and voice pierced the icy wall behind Sable’s black eyes. “I can’t,” she said tiredly. “I can’t.”
“Why?” Luthias coaxed softly, reaching for her hand.
“For the same reason I can’t tell you,” she whispered. She paused and raised her eyes. Luthias felt strangely, as if she were searching for something in his face. “Luthias, I would tell you–oh, God, I want you to know–” Luthias heard her voice break, and she averted her eyes and turned away as she tried to regain control. She would not cry in front of him, Luthias knew, not if she could help it. Her hands flew to cover her face. “It’s the same as always!” she cried out. Luthias reached to touch her, but for some reason, unknown to him, he withdrew his hand. “I don’t have the courage,” she finally choked.
“Oh, Sable.” Luthias put his arms around her waist and shoulder and pulled her close. She shook once beneath his arms, a silent sob. “Don’t cry,” he whispered.
“I’m not crying,” she insisted thickly.
“Sable, let me do something.”
Beneath his hand, her head shook negatively.
Luthias felt tired. “Then do something yourself. I don’t want to fight you…I’ve got enough to fight…but I want you to be happy. I can’t stand seeing you like this.”
“There’s nothing you can do,” she said sadly, her chin resting on his arm. “There’s nothing anyone can do.”
No, Luthias denied it. There was something he could do, and by God, he would do it. Luthias slowly, gently, tightened his grip. Myrande’s body snuggled against him, her form and her warmth welcome even in the obscene heat. Luthias bent toward her ear, received a wonderful view, and buried his head in her rose-scented hair to concentrate. “Forget him, Sable,” the young Baron of Connall whispered. “If he’s hurting you, he isn’t worth it. Forget him, and–”
“Luthias!” The Baron of Connall gave an inward, violent curse as he heard his cousin call him. He turned to see Clifton, Lauren, his castellan Ittosai Michiya, and two visitors approaching. Luthias silently swore again and reluctantly, he released Myrande. Before she stepped slightly away, the Baron saw unshed tears shining in her eyes. She blinked once, but did not cry. Luthias put his hand on her shoulder and gently squeezed it.
“We’ll talk later,” he promised softly as the Duke and Duchess of Dargon, the Castellan of Connall, and the visitors came closer. Luthias recognized one of the men: Baron Richard Vladon, a member of the Tribunal and an old friend of his father’s. Luthias politely offered his hand. “Good day, Baron Vladon.”
Vladon, a serious-looking, gray-haired man in his sixties, shook Luthias hand firmly. “Good day, Lord Luthias–forgive me, Baron Connall.” Luthias smiled. He preferred the first title.
“Luthias,” the Duke of Dargon interrupted, “this is Sir Edward Sothos, Knight Commander of the Royal Armies. He’s come to judge the tournament. Your excellency,” Clifton continued politely, “my cousin, the Baron of Connall.”
Luthias bowed slightly to dark-haired Knight Commander, over whom Luthias towered slightly. He had met Sir Edward once, five years ago, when he was sixteen and Edward had come to visit Sir Lucan Shipbrook, Myrande’s father, a few weeks before Sir Lucan fell ill and died. As a youth he had stood in awe of the stern, reserved man with the scar across his face. But Luthias grew, learned to bear his own scars like a warrior, and learned to admire the strong, black-clad Knight Commander.
Luthias extended his hand. “How do you do, your Excellency. A pleasure to meet you.”
“How do you do, Baron,” Sir Edward returned gravely, but not unpleasantly. His grip on Luthias’ hand was firm and hard, the hold of one warrior to another. “An honor and a pleasure, sir. Ah,” the Knight Commander continued, smiling as Myrande turned toward him. He bowed low and pressed her small palm to his cheek. “How do you do, my lady. I believe I have the pleasure of addressing the Baroness of Connall?”
Clifton glanced sharply at Myrande. She paled as she heard Sothos’ words. Luthias seemed caught between smiling and frowning, but did not lose any composure. “Unfortunately, your excellency,” Luthias rued, “it is not the case. My friend, ward, and seneschal, Lady Myrande Shipbrook.”
Sir Edward straightened. “Oh, yes, Sir Lucan’s daughter! How could I forget a face like that? You are the image of your mother. A pleasure, my lady.” He smiled by way of apology. “Forgive my rude assumption. I saw you in the arms of Baron Connall, and naturally, I thought–” The knight faltered and smiled sheepishly. “Things are very different in Dargon than they are in the capital.”
“There’s no need to apologize,” Myrande said. Luthias’ mouth twitched; somehow her voice sounded strange. He wanted to put his arms around her again; she felt too good to let go of.
After a lame moment of silence, Lady Lauren suggested, “Come, Sir Edward. My father will be pleased to see you again. He should be in the library now.” Sir Edward bowed to Myrande again, nodded to Luthias, and left with the Duke, the Duchess and his cousin. Ittosai lingered.
“I hear you are entering the lists, Luthias-san,” Michiya commented, smiling. “I am eager to meet you.”
“Any objection to practicing now? The servants should have returned by now with my armor and weapons.”
“You want to impress Sir Edward, don’t you?” Myrande asked in a low voice.
Luthias smiled. “Of course. He’s the greatest knight in the land.” For a moment, the young Baron was wistful. “I always wanted to be just like him and Sir Lucan. He’s the greatest Knight in the Kingdom.” Then he clapped his seneschale’s back. “Come join us, Sable. I want to see how good you really are with this naginata.”
“You may regret it,” Myrande warned. Ittosai, her tutor, smiled. “But I’ll join you later.”
“Let us go then,” Michiya suggested. He bowed in the Bichurian way to the lady and left with the Baron.
The atmosphere had not cooled by the day of the tournament. Luthias had barely slept fourteen hours between the time he arrived in Dargon and the day of the tournament; it was too hot, and he was plagued by bad dreams. But the little vacation from the barony and the concentration of fighting had done him good; he had been more relaxed, and he was ready for the fight when it came.
The fact that Sir Edward was judging the tournament had made him nervous, though. The greatest Knight in the Kingdom, watching him, watching Ittosai, watching all the men, young and old, who were entering the tournament. Sir Edward himself, the Knight Commander. And with war coming–
That was nonsense. He and Sir Edward had discussed it over the dinner table at Clifton’s home days before. The Knight Commander and Ittosai Michiya had agreed with him that Bichu and Baranur fighting was close to impossible. Bichu’s navy, primitive as it was, could hardly reach Baranurian shores, and were there ever a confrontation, the encumbered Baranurians would never be able to withstand the light, quick weapons born by the Bichanese. But still the rumors–and Luthias’ nightmares of horror and war–continued. The young Baron didn’t like it.
Despite the pressures and the ugly rumors, Luthias had enjoyed the tournament, which had taken place earlier. Macdougalls took the archery, bow down, and no one was surprised. Carrying Myrande’s colors–and the struggle Luthias endured to win that privilege surpassed the tournament fighting–the Baron of Connall won the tournament by defeating his castellan in the final round.
Luthias glanced around the ballroom, slightly uncomfortable. He had always hated balls, hated dancing, and now he hated wearing the baldric of the Duchy champion. He didn’t deserve it, and he knew it. Ittosai had allowed him to win. Oh, Luthias didn’t realize it at the time, but as soon as he struck the final blow, he knew that Ittosai had allowed it. He understood Michiya’s reason for doing it, so Luthias said nothing to his castellan, but Ittosai knew that Luthias understood.
He made his way through the crowds, searching for his seneschal. He supposed he should dance with her. She was clumsy, but she did dance well, and she looked stunning tonight in a gown of ruby silk. He caught sight of her, dancing with the Knight Commander, so he moved to the side of the dance floor and watched.
“Luthias!” someone called. Luthias frowned, trying to place the slightly familiar voice, and turned. Facing him was a thin young man, shorter than Luthias and slighter, blond, and hazel-eyed. He was dressed in the fashionable clothes of Magnus, as was Sir Edward, and this man’s clothes were also black. He bore himself confidently, and however serious his face was, he moved as a fighter.
Luthias peered at him as he came forward. Then he recognized him: “Warin!” Luthias smiled. Warin Shipbrook, like his brother Tylane, had been good friends with the Connall twins and Sable since they were small. It certainly wasn’t their fault their father was crazed. “When did you get back?” Luthias asked, clasping his friend’s arm. “I thought you were still at the University in Magnus!”
“I’ve graduated,” the scholar admitted proudly, “and I came home with Sir Edward. I’ve got to learn to rule, now that I’ve studied all the laws.” Warin smiled, then sighed. “Roisart would have loved the library.” He paused, tried to smile again. “And it seems I’m not the only one learning to rule.”
Luthias shrugged, looking away. It had been months, but part of him still grieved for his father and brother. “I do what I have to.”
“If you need help, you know where I am.”
Luthias almost laughed. “As if your father would let me near you. He hates me.”
A cross expression triumphed over Warin’s face. He kept his deep voice low. “My father and his notion of family honor. As if he had any, throwing Uncle Lucan out of the family! And marrying Myrande to Oleran!” Warin looked Luthias in the eye. “Damn it, Luthias, give her to me, if there’s no one else. I could bear living with her. She’s a sweet girl–”
“Whom you haven’t seen for five years,” Luthias chuckled. “She’s grown into quite a hellcat.” He lost his good humor. “A stubborn, proud hellcat, in love with a man who doesn’t love her–she won’t accept anyone else.” The young Baron threw his hands out in confusion. “It’s not for lack of anyone to marry her to–*I’d* marry her. She and I would get along excellently. But she won’t do it!”
Warin smiled. “Just like her mother. No one but Uncle Lucan for her!”
“Sir Lucan loved her back.”
“True,” Warin agreed.
“Well, when I get my hands on the fiend, I’ll kill him,” Luthias vowed. “She’s been hurt enough in her life.”
“Luthias-san,” Ittosai Michiya announced himself. He bowed to the Baron, then to the Baron’s friend. “How do you do,” he said carefully to Warin, using Baranurian manners. “I am Ittosai Michiya, Castellan to the Baron of Connall.”
“Lord Warin Shipbrook,” he introduced himself, and bowed in the Baranurian fashion.
Ittosai continued, “There was a Bichanese merchant at the market with katanas. I am in need of a new one, and I thought that you as well would like to have one.” He held out a supremely crafted katana.
Luthias smiled. “Thank you, Michiya. You didn’t have to do that.”
“You well earned it today on the field, Luthias-san,” the castellan cut him off. Ittosai smiled. “We shall practice together tomorrow.”
Small hands suddenly appeared before Warin’s eyes. Luthias smiled, recognizing them. Warin removed the hands and turned. “Myrande!” he greeted his cousin, kissing her warmly on the cheek. He stepped back, inspected her. “You’ve grown no taller.”
“Nor have you,” she teased testily.
“But at least you’re bonnier,” Warin offered.
“Bonnier? I’m falling apart, and he says I’m bonnier.” But Myrande was smiling.
“I must go,” Ittosai interrupted, “for I have promised to dance with the Duchess. But these are for you, Myrande,” he stated quickly, pushing two ivory sticks, tipped in silver, which were carved with Bichanese characters on the blunt end.
“Thank you,” Myrande said politely. She looked confused though.
“They are chop sticks,” Michiya explained. “In my country, they are used for eating, but the ladies also wear them in their hair. Like this,” he explained. He took the ivory sticks and slipped them, silver pointed end first, into the pile of hair at the back of Myrande’s head. Michiya took a step back and admired the effect of the crossed sticks. “There. You are perfect, except your eyes are too round.” Myrande laughed. “Excuse me, prease,” he concluded, hearing the music paus. He bowed to his lord and his company. “I must dance with the Duchess.”
Luthias took him aside as he was leaving. “Let me know how much the katana cost,” Luthias asked quietly.
Ittosai smiled. “I have more than enough, Luthias-san. It is a gift; besides, you give me too much gold for my services.” He bowed toward the Baron slightly. “I shall see you on the later, my friend.”
Luthias turned back to his ward and his old friend Warin, who were trying to catch up on four years of one another’s lives in less than an hour. “Do you want to dance, Sable?” the Baron of Connall asked.
She smiled shyly. “I already promised Warin.” Shy? Why does she look shy? It wasn’t as if he had never asked to dance with her before.
Come to think of it, he hadn’t.
“Go ahead,” young Shipbrook offered easily.
“No, I’ll dance with you later,” Luthias insisted. “I see Clifton wants to see me.” He nodded to his friends and left.
“Now,” said Warin, taking his younger cousin’s arm, “we shall have to see if your dancing has improved.”
Myrande laughed. “Improved? You must be joking.” She stepped with him, and they began to dance. “Are you glad to be home, Warin?”
The scholar considered. “I am, and I’m not. I’m glad to see everyone again, Tylane and you, Luthias, the Duke…but still, I’m having a hard time getting along with my father–”
“You’re not alone.”
“I realize this. Has he really tried to supersede your guardianship from Luthias?” Myrande nodded. “I wonder if he’s insane–belittling the Baron of Connall and trying to marry his niece to Oleran. And the way he treats Tylane…”
“What’s he doing to Tylane?” Myrande asked quickly. She was fond of Tylane, her cousin, and had been very happy for him when his engagement to Danza Coranabo, who had been offered to Luthias, had been announced several weeks ago. “Is he disinheriting him?”
“Worse. Whenever Tylane does so much as disagree with him, he threatens to refuse Danza.”
“How can he do that? The banns have been announced, and the dowry paid.”
“Tylane’s only nineteen, Myrande, and my father legally can still speak for him,” Warin explained, as if he didn’t really like the fact. “And disinheriting him isn’t a threat; Tylane will be one of the heirs to Coranabo when he marries Danza. No, disinheritance is what he uses against me.”
“For anything. For disagreeing with him. He wants total control, Myrande; he wants his family to think of him as King and God.” Warin made a sound of disgust and turned away. Neither mentioned the Baron of Shipbrook again; neither wanted to think about him.
Luthias approached his cousin, the Duke, and Sir Edward. The Knight Commander smiled. He and Luthias had spoken much over the last few days. “Come into the study,” the Knight Commander invited. Luthias nodded and walked with his cousin and the Knight Commander to Clifton’s office.
Luthias turned his head and grimaced when he saw the Baron of Shipbrook. Unlike his two congenial sons, the Baron was tall, dark-haired, and bore himself arrogantly. Luthias didn’t like him and had never liked him. He found it difficult to tolerate people who insisted that their will govern the world.
“What do you want, Baron?” Luthias asked, trying to keep his voice low, steady, and polite. He motioned to his oncoming manservant to wait a moment.
“A word with you, nothing else.”
Luthias’ mouth quirked with annoyance. He didn’t exactly wish to speak with this man, now or ever. But he was the Baron of Connall… He looked at the Duke, who nodded. “Come to the study, and speak.”
“I wish to discuss my niece’s marriage to Baron Oleran,” the Baron of Shipbrook announced as soon as the door closed.
Curse him! Tactless brute, bringing this up at a ball, in front of the Knight Commander! Luthias’ eyes caught the metal of the Bichanese katana at his side. It was an excellent weapon, quick and sharp, just the thing to remove this cretin’s head.
Fine thing, for the Duke’s Advocate to be tried for murder…
“We have arranged for the ceremony to take place on the twenty-fourth of Seber.”
“There will be no marriage,” Luthias contradicted, his voice firm and low. His hands began to curl into fists.
“You have no right to deny her this,” Shipbrook stated guardedly. “I am her kinsman, and I know best for her. If you have your will, you will keep her as your slave for the rest of her life, but she deserves better–a home and title of her own.”
“I am her guardian, and I have every right to protect her,” Luthias replied carefully. “I will not have her wed to Oleran.”
“She is of my blood. I have more right to her–”
“You have NO right,” Luthias seethed, his words slipping tightly between his teeth. “You gave up any rights to her and her family when you cast Sir Lucan out! Myrande is my ward, and it is I, sir, not you, who holds sway over her life.”
“Lucan left her to your father, boy, not to you,” Shipbrook argued. “You have neither the wisdom, nor the–”
“Sir Lucan left her guardianship to the Baron of Connall; I am the Baron of Connall, Shipbrook, and I shall judge what is best for Myrande.” Luthias wondered fleetingly how his cousin and the Knight Commander would react if he began to strangle the Baron of Shipbrook before their eyes.
“She was left to Fionn Connall–”
“She was left to the *Baron* of Connall,” Luthias repeated angrily. “I have seen the words, sir. Now leave!” The young Baron’s hands were at his side, clenched so tightly that the entire fist was white. His eyes were wild and dangerous.
“You want her dishonored, an old maid to be mocked!”
“I want her alive and happy!” Luthias shouted. He wished he had more–or less–control. “You want her miserable, or dead. Get out of here, Shipbrook!”
Shipbrook took a step back, seeing the fury in Luthias’ eyes. Silently, he left. Luthias cursed him mentally. He shook his head, as if to clear it, and bowed his head when he saw Sir Edward. “I apologize, sir, for my outburst.”
“Think nothing of it, Luthias,” the Knight Commander said gently.
“Excuse me,” the Duke said, and he brushed past Luthias on his way out.
“Not a discreet man, this Baron of Shipbrook.”
“No, Sir Edward.”
“Not at all like his brother,” Sothos continued. “Sir Lucan was a good man. Is it all that hard to find a suitor for his daughter?”
Luthias smiled, and his fists loosened. “Not at all, Sir Edward. Her cousin, Warin Shipbrook, has offered, and I would marry her, but she doesn’t want either of us.”
“And stubborn,” Luthias agreed. “But I’ll get around it…eventually.” He didn’t add that he hoped that Shipbrook would do nothing stupid before he, Luthias, could figure out how to handle Myrande.
“Good luck to you, then, Luthias,” laughed the knight. “However, I called you here for something of a different nature.”
Luthias sat. “What?”
The Knight Commander perched himself on the edge of the desk. “I know–just as you and your Castellan say–that war with Bichu would be ludicrous. But I still sense war coming; from whence, I know not. Do you have any opinions?”
“The countries to the east are too small; would Benison risk it? They’ve waged wars without warning before.”
“True, but I doubt they would be so stupid as to attack us. We’re too evenly matched with them.”
“Of course,” Luthias said.
“No matter what, the army needs preparations. Did you know that your father had asked that you train beneath me?”
Luthias blinked. “What? No–he never told me…”
“Yes, the Duke tells me he was killed before he had the chance.” Edward smiled. “I wanted him to tell you this part, but your father had intended for you to come to Magnus and become a knight beneath me. Your brother, I’m told, was to have gone to the University.”
“I knew Father was planning to tell Roisart that on our birthday.”
“I see. But he didn’t live that long.” Luthias nodded. “In any case, Baron Connall, I would ask that you return to Magnus with me, to become a officer in the Royal Army.”
Luthias leaned back in the chair and considered. “Am I to be Knighted, then?”
Sir Edward smiled. “I would think so, but not yet. You’re a fine fighter, Luthias, as far as that goes, one of the finest I’ve ever seen. But there’s more to Knighthood than fighting. Honor.” Sir Edward frowned. “Were you aware that your Castellan threw away his chance to win the tournament?” Luthias nodded. “Why did you allow it?”
“Because I understood why he did it,” Luthias explained.
“Knighthood involves truth, Luthias. You won dishonestly, and you accepted the prize and honor for that victory without a word.”
“I would think that discretion is also a knightly quality,” Luthias argued easily. “There are rumors of a Bichanese attack, Sir Edward. If Lord Ittosai won the tournament, the panic would rise. A Bichanese man better than every fighter in Dargon, better than the Duke’s cousin? The people would go mad. How long do you think Ittosai would have lived, if he had won? I would rather sacrifice the truth than my friend’s life,” Luthias concluded firmly, his jaw tight. Ever since he was a tot training under Sir Lucan, Luthias had wanted to be like him–a great fighter, a great Knight. But if wanting to keep Ittosai alive was a fault to Knights, then he wouldn’t be one.
Sir Edward sighed. “You are right, Lord Baron Connall.” He smiled. “I would be pleased if you would join me in Magnus. I think you would be Knighted by spring.”
Wild hope rushed inside Luthias. Go to Magnus–become a Knight in the spring. Go to Magnus… “My lands,” he murmured. “Myrande.”
“I’ll have to wait and see, Sir Edward,” Luthias replied. “I have no one to govern my lands, and the way Baron Shipbrook is, I doubt I should leave Lady Myrande.”
“Bring her with you.”
“You said things were different there. They wouldn’t understand my friendship with her.”
“People aren’t very tolerant of…that sort of thing,” Sothos agreed. “The Princess’ marriage was dissolved due to that lack of tolerance. But you said you wanted to marry her.”
“She won’t let me,” Luthias rued, but he smiled slightly. “I will think on it, Sir Edward.”
A knock sounded. “Come,” Sir Edward invited.
Baron Vladon entered the room. Behind him stood the Baron of Winthrop and the Baron of Coranabo. “Please excuse our interruption, your excellency,” Baron Coranabo apologized. “We must speak urgently with the Duke’s Advocate.”
Sir Edward glanced at the Baron of Connall. “Should I leave?”
“No, stay, Edward,” Vladon advised his cousin. “It is well that we should have a Royal Official as a witness.”
Witness? “What is it?” Luthias asked, wary.
“We have evidence,” Coranabo began slowly, as if it were difficult for him. Yet his eyes were cold, not at all as if he were uncomfortable. “That there is a conspiracy to start a war with Bichu.”
“I know there was,” Luthias replied gravely. “My father and brother died because of it.”
Baron Winthrop, obviously unsettled, coughed. “My boy,” he addressed the Lord Baron of Connall, “this is gravely serious.”
Luthias grimaced. “Tell me.”
“There are witnesses,” Coranabo continued slowly, “that say that some people of this area are plotting with Bichu against the Kingdom.”
“Who?” Luthias demanded.
“Your Castellan,” Coranabo told him, “Ittosai Michiya.”