“We’ll reach Shipbrook Harbor an hour after dusk,” Clifton Dargon informed his cousin as he approached. Luthias was leaning on the side of the ship, staring at the ocean. “It should only take a half an hour or so to reach Shipbrook’s keep from there.”
“The sooner the better,” his cousin replied, not taking his eyes from the calm, vibrant water. “It’s been too long already.”
“Can’t make the wind blow any faster, manling,” Clifton remarked, leaning on the edge of the ship with his cousin.
“Don’t be flip, Clifton. She may be dead already,” Luthias snapped. Angrily, he threw a bit of wood at the water. “When I think of what Oleran and Shipbrook must have done to her–”
“Easy, manling,” the Duke of Dargon soothed, placing a hand on Luthias’ shoulder. “If she were in that much danger, Lauren would have sensed it and let Marcellon know by now. Besides, Tylane said Warin was looking out for her.”
“Well, knowing Shipbrook, Warin’s been kicked out of the estate by now, and Sable–”
“It’ll all be well,” Clifton assured him. “Don’t worry, Luthias. We’ll take care of it. And if they’ve hurt Sable–” The Duke of Dargon grimaced; he didn’t relish the thought of Myrande’s being hurt. He had grown up with her, and he cared for her as if she were his sister. “Then we’ll do as the King says and execute the pair of them.”
“Won’t bring her back,” the Count of Connall pointed out, tossing another bit of wood at the silent waters. “Didn’t bring Roisart back.”
“Don’t worry,” Clifton repeated. “We’ll be in Shipbrook within an hour and a half. I’ve sent messengers to Lauren, and she and some of my forces will meet us there. We’ll get Sable and you married within the week.” Luthias allowed himself to smile a little.
The Count of Connall was silent for a moment. “I still can’t believe it.”
“That I’m in love with her.” Luthias appeared puzzled. “I know that I’m in love with her, but I don’t believe it.” He shook his head against the thought. “I don’t feel any different about her than I ever did, than I did last week, last month, or before my father and Roisart died. It’s–strange.”
Clifton laughed merrily. “Come on, Luthias,” he choked, “you’ve been in love with her for years! Of course what you feel for her hasn’t changed. You just finally found the right word for it.” Luthias gave his cousin a sobering look. “Why are you so surprised about it, anyway? Myrande is very special; she’s…”
“A consort for the war-god,” Luthias finished, repeating Marcellon’s words. He finally looked at his cousin the Duke. “What was that legend you and the King were talking about?”
“Something about a moon-jewel.”
“Oh, that,” Clifton chuckled. “It’s about the war-god Gow and the night-goddess Alana. They used to be worshipped here–still are, in some parts of Baranur, and in most of the Beinison Empire.” The Duke turned toward his cousin and lounged against the side of the ship. “The war-god fell in love with the night-goddess, and to woo her, he slew this terrible monster, and brought the night-goddess back the treasure: the moon, as a jewel to wear around her neck, and the stars, as a mantle for her hair.”
“Moon-jewel,” Luthias repeated, slightly contemptuous. He flung another piece of wood into the water. “I probably won’t even have time to get her a betrothal ring.”
Clifton smiled. “It won’t matter to Myrande; believe me, Luthias.” Luthias gazed seriously at his cousin. “Come on, manling,” the Duke invited, putting his arm around Luthias’ tired shoulders, “we’ve got a damsel to rescue.”
Luthias smiled slightly, tossed the last bit of wood into the river, and followed his cousin to their cabin below.
Myrande opened her eyes as Warin Shipbrook entered her room at the top of the highest tower in Shipbrook Keep. She had been sleeping much lately. She had never been so lazy–or sleepy–in her life. It came of having only one meal a day, the one Warin brought her before dawn each morning. She sat as her cousin approached, reached for a brush, and began to stroke her hair with it.
“I didn’t mean to wake you,” Warin apologized as he approached. Myrande smiled him serenely; the nap had done her good. “Father wants you to prepare for the wedding.” He looked away, then abruptly set the goblet he had brought on the table. “Here is some wine.”
“Did your father send it?” Myrande asked, struggling with a snarl in her dark locks.
“I wouldn’t have brought it if he did,” Warin answered scornfully. He stared at his cousin’s ebony eyes. “I don’t know if you’re thirsty, but you may want it anyway.”
The snag in her hair finally loosed itself. Myrande resumed the rhythmic brushing. “Why?” she asked. “I don’t want to be drunk for this, Warin.”
“You want to have your wits about you when you marry Oleran?” Warin wondered.
“Yes. In the ceremony, I am asked to accept the bridegroom,” Myrande explained patiently. “If I don’t accept Oleran, there’s no way I can be married to him.”
“This won’t make you drunk,” Warin rushed. “It will make you dead.”
Myrande stared at him, shocked. “You want me to kill myself? You’ve been risking your inheritance for weeks to keep me alive!”
“I thought Luthias would have come by now,” Warin retorted. “It seems he has more important things to do.”
“Luthias does what he has to,” Myrande retorted, her black eyes snapping at the insult. “If he could be here, he would be here.” She tossed her head proudly. “He will come to get me as soon as he can.”
“Well, he isn’t here, and I think he’d rather see you dead than married to that monster Oleran.”
“Maybe so,” Myrande returned calmly, still brushing her hair. “And, barring no other solution, I would rather be dead than married to a man who will beat me and rape me.” Myrande rose, set the brush on a table, and faced Warin. “But I won’t kill myself. Luthias has lost too many people already. The Duke of Dargon and Ittosai Michiya may be dead by now. I’ll be the only person he has left.”
“Your life will be hell,” Warin warned her seriously. “You should see what Oleran does to the horses and the servants!”
“Better my life is hell than Luthias’,” Myrande said firmly. She went to the mirror, picked up the brush again, and began to pile her hair on the back of her head. “Luthias will overturn the marriage, assuming I can somehow be tricked into accepting Oleran. If I’m dead–” Myrande remembered how Luthias had been when Roisart died. If she were dead, would he then love her? There was no way to know, and no way she would leave Luthias. She had promised, on that night when he had kissed her and she had pushed him away, that she would always be there for him. Married or single, she would be.
“Take it away, and let me dress,” Myrande ordered Warin gently. Stiffly, Warin bowed and took the wine away. As the door shut, Myrande slipped the chop sticks into her hair.
Alarm bells were clattering as Luthias, Count of Connall, Clifton, Duke of Dargon, the High Mage Marcellon, and Ittosai Michiya arrived on horseback at Shipbrook Keep. Luthias was armed, as was Michiya; the Duke had said that he didn’t expect a fight, but the two warriors thought it best to be prepared. Michiya had even brought a crossbow.
Luthias and Michiya were different than the other men. Marcellon was serene, if somewhat amused; Clifton seemed grim but placid. The men-at-arms that had come from Dargon were grim, as was their Duke, but they were somewhat jovial about it, as if the rescue of Lady Myrande Shipbrook were nothing but an excuse to celebrate at a later time. But Luthias was insanely worried and furiously angry and deeply frightened. Ittosai was also worried and as hell-bent as Luthias on revenge if Myrande had been hurt. Riding to Shipbrook Keep, Luthias had idly wondered aloud, a bent smile on his face, “Are you in love with her too, Michiya?”
Ittosai looked away, as if the matter were beneath him. “Do not be silly.”
Then they arrived, and the warning bells clanged to announce them. Frightened guards of Shipbrook Keep saw the force coming and hastily shut the main gate. “Surround the walls,” Clifton ordered. “Leave the largest detachment here at the gates with myself and the Count of Connall.” The Duke of Dargon turned to his cousin. “Here goes, manling.”
“Hurry it up, Clifton,” Luthias snapped. “They were supposed to marry her to Oleran today! If the beast has touched her–”
“Easy, Luthias,” Marcellon ordered with stern equanimity. “All will be well.”
“Who comes?” bellowed a man from the top of the walls.
“The Duke of Dargon,” Clifton shouted his answer, “and the Count of Connall. I demand to speak with the Baron of Shipbrook and the Baron of Oleran!”
“I will fetch them, your grace,” the man promised.
“Hurry!” Luthias screamed at him.
“We could break the gates,” Michiya was suggesting. “Do we have a…how do you say it?…a battering tree?”
“Ram,” Luthias corrected. “It would work, but we’d have to fight our way through.”
“I am not afraid,” the Bichurian said.
“Nor I,” Luthias assured him, “but it wouldn’t be practical. It would take too much time to find Sable. By that time, they’d have her out of the castle.”
“True,” Michiya agreed.
“Why do you come, Duke Dargon?” Shipbrook’s voice echoed from the walls. He appeared as a shadow above the gate. Two other shadows, a slight one and a heavier one, stood with him. Next to Clifton, Marcellon murmured a spell, and a great light shone on the top of the walls. Shipbrook, Warin, and–Luthias assumed–the muscular Baron Oleran, shielded their eyes. “You are not invited to my niece’s wedding.”
Luthias was about to shout something defiant, but Clifton held up his hand. “Quiet, and let me handle this.” The Duke focused on the Baron of Shipbrook. “Open your gates and allow us to take Lady Myrande away.”
“I have a right to marry my nice to Oleran,” Shipbrook returned. “I am her kinsman–”
“I advise you not to resist,” Dargon shouted angrily. He waved the sealed parchment that Haralan had given him. “I have orders from the King for your arrest and Oleran’s.”
“On what charge?” Shipbrook asked pompously.
“Kidnaping, for one,” Luthias shouted. He stared at Shipbrook, his eyes burning. Suddenly, he realized that Oleran was no longer there.
“If you resist,” Clifton continued, “you will be put to death. Allow us entrance!”
“I am quite serious, Shipbrook,” Clifton emphasized. “I will have you put to death if you do not allow us entrance peacefully.”
“You cannot enter by force,” Shipbrook challenged.
“Would you like to see us do it?” Luthias countered. “You have my ward, Shipbrook; you have no claim on her. If you do not return her to me, I am quite prepared to take her from you.”
“You have no right to trespass on my grounds,” Shipbrook returned, his voice veiling a warning that scared no one. “I–” Suddenly, he turned to Warin and shoved him away. “Let them in? You’re no son of mine! Get away from me!” Warin stood still for a moment, then walked away, anger evident in his step. Shipbrook turned back to his unexpected guests. “You may also leave.”
“You defy the King’s justice?” Clifton asked haughtily.
“I’ll defy anything opposed to my family’s honor!”
“Fool,” Clifton muttered to his father-in-law. He shouted to Shipbrook, “We will force ourselves in, then.” Again, he turned to Marcellon. “Can you open the gates?”
“Line up the men,” Marcellon commanded, “and give me room. I’ll take care of it.”
The men-at-arms shifted back and drew their weapons. Luthias and Ittosai dismounted and placed themselves at the very front with Clifton. Michiya loaded and cocked his crossbow; Luthias drew his sword. In front of the soldiers, Marcellon raised his arms.
The doors slowly opened, as if affected by the spell that Marcellon was about to cast.
Puzzled, Marcellon lowered his arms slowly. “Even I am not that good,” he muttered. He turned to Clifton and his army. “They are letting us in!”
Without further words, Luthias sprinted into the gates. Warin was waiting with the gate key. “You opened it?” Clifton asked, not far behind his cousin.
Warin gave the key to the Duke. “He is a fool,” young Shipbrook admitted, “but I have no wish to see him dead. He is, after all, my father.”
Luthias snatched Warin’s arms roughly. “Where’s Sable?”
“In the tower,” Warin explained swiftly, casting a hurried look over his shoulder at five of Shipbrook Keep’s towers.
Furious at the ambiguity, Luthias shook him. “Which one?” he hollered. “Where is she?”
“The center one!” Luthias released him abruptly and sprinted toward the high, center tower which bordered on the courtyard which the Ducal forces were quickly filling. Michiya rushed with his lord, and Warin hurried to follow.
“The highest room!” Warin shouted as Luthias threw open the door. Without even acknowledging the direction, Luthias began to fly up the stairs, taking them two or three at a time. It was too important not to waste any time. Those monsters– Slightly less frantic as Luthias, Michiya followed slightly more slowly; his legs were shorter than tall Luthias’. Warin, who was in poorer shape than the warriors, accompanied them as best he could.
Luthias was bolting, the wind in his ears. He didn’t truly see where he was going. All he knew was that he was going to the highest room. Sable would be there. The young Count strained to hear the sound of Myrande’s voice. Was she dead? What if she were hurt? Where was Oleran? Oh, God, if she is hurt–if they have–Sable!
Luthias collided with the door. It was bolted from the outside, and it had a heavy lock on it. With a bestial cry, Luthias threw the bolt off the door and tried to open it. Locked. The Count of Connall grimaced briefly, then threw his shoulder against the door. It didn’t budge. He battered it again, feeling no pain in his shoulder. The door remained solid and unmoved. Well, damn it, he’d break the thing into splinters before he allowed them to hurt Sable! With obstinate determination, Luthias threw himself against the door. It better move!
“Luthias-sama!” Michiya’s voice called him. It didn’t register in Luthias’ ears. He assaulted the stubborn door again. Ittosai grabbed the Count’s arms. “What are you doing?”
“I’m breaking the God-damned door down!” Luthias screamed. “Get out of my way!”
“It is too slow,” the Bichurian complained. “Stand aside; I know a better way.”
Luthias, blind with fury and purpose, somehow managed to move aside. Michiya backed up two or three steps on the landing and made himself ready.
“Wait!” Warin called, a dozen steps below. “I have the–”
With a Bichanese war cry, the Castellan of Connall raged forward and landed a solid, powerful kick directly beneath the lock. The door flew open. Without waiting, Luthias barreled through the door, thinking wildly that he would have to have Michiya teach him that trick. Ittosai nearly stepped on Luthias’ heels in his haste to follow the Count.
“Key,” Warin finished weakly.
Luthias found himself in the top tower room, a round, stone room with a canopied bed and some tables and a fireplace. Across the room was a stone staircase leading to the flat, round ceiling of the room. Being dragged up the staircase by an irate Oleran was–
“Sable!” Luthias screamed, rushing forward with his sword drawn. She turned and stared at him, her black eyes wide, and then she smiled at his very presence. Oleran saw the grin and hit Myrande hard across the temple with the pommel of a very large dagger which he held in his free hand. Myrande made no sound, but Luthias saw a trickle of blood flow, like a tear, down her cheek.
“Oleran, you son of a bitch!” Luthias screamed. Sword in his right hand, Luthias dashed across the round room to the stairs and proceeded to take them four at a time. He saw Oleran yank Sable through a trap door, then it slammed shut, almost hitting Luthias’ head. Without thought, he pushed through to the roof of the tower and rushed forward to make an end to Oleran.
“I suggest that you stop where you are, your Excellency,” Oleran’s urbane voice greeted him. Luthias, for some unknown reason, stopped in mid-step and slid until he was still. Oleran stood on the edge of the roof by the waist-high crenolations. He held that large dagger’s point at Myrande’s breast. “Thank you, your Excellency. I am sure that neither you nor I wish Lady Myrande harmed. But I assure you, your Excellency, that I will do just that if you come any closer.”
Luthias stared at the man: Oleran was tall, muscular, and handsome, despite the fact that he more than twice Luthias’ age. His left arm held Sable’s waist securely; the right hand confidently held the dangerous dagger. Uncertain of what action to take, Luthias kept his body still as his brother Roisart’s, but he did not release the sword. Behind him, the trap door crashed open, but Luthias did not look to see who came.
“Now, sir,” Baron Oleran continued, “you will make it possible for me to leave here with Lady Myrande.” Luthias opened his mouth to make a scornful reply, but Oleran added, “And I do suggest that you order your Bichanese friend to lower his crossbow. By the time the bolt reaches me, your Excellency, Lady Myrande will be dead.”
Without turning or removing his eyes from Oleran’s, Luthias held out his hand. Luthias felt Michiya lower the crossbow behind him. Luthias took a step closer; Oleran pressed the point; a drop of blood appeared on Myrande’s blue dress. Luthias halted. Oleran removed the dagger and pointed it at the Count.
“Better, your Excellency,” Oleran praised, smiling. “And now–”
Myrande suddenly collapsed double over Oleran’s left arm. Angry, the Baron slammed his dagger’s pommel into the back of her neck. “Stand! What do you think you’re doing, woman?” the enraged Baron demanded.
Myrande appeared to retch. “I’m afraid of heights,” she cried pitifully, putting her hands over her dark hair as if she were panicked by the altitude. Nervously, she played with the piled tresses.
Heights? Luthias thought wildly.
“You will, your Excellency,” Oleran was saying, holding Myrande twice as securely, “procure for us horses–”
“Let’s see who can climb highest,” an eight-year-old girl named Myrande had once challenged the twins. She had climbed the tallest trees in Connall. Sable, afraid of heights?
Behind Luthias, Michiya smiled.
Fast as a whirlwind, Myrande turned, buried one of the Bichanese chopsticks two inches deep in Oleran’s right side, and pushed herself away from him. “You bitch!” Oleran screamed, raising his dagger to murder her. Luthias dove for his ward, caught her in his arms, and twirled away, putting himself between Sable and the dagger. Myrande screamed his name. There was a burning in his back, and Luthias heard the crossbow snap with deadly finality. Oleran cried out once.
Luthias held Sable tight, and she clutched him desperately. She was warm, alive, all right. Oh, God, she was all right. All right. Luthias buried his head in her loose hair and whispered, “Marry me.”
Then he cursed himself. Damn it, he should have been more romantic, more like Roisart, moonlight and roses, something. He could have done better for her. Sable deserved better.
But she didn’t seem to mind. “When?” she whispered back.
Luthias tried to laugh, but it left him as a shaky pant. “Next week,” he cried, “next month, tomorrow, I don’t care. Soon.”
Again, Luthias attempted laughter, but it came out like sobs. “A little too soon, Sable.” He held her away from him a little, smiled. She smiled back, but she was pale and uncertain. He felt her unconsciously move her hand up and down on his back. “You deserve better.”
Gingerly, Michiya approached, the crossbow empty and relaxed now that it had done its work. “Myrande,” he began, “Luthias-sama, are you all right?”
“Fine, Michiya,” Luthias answered. The Count Connall remembered, belatedly, that there was an enemy to contend with. Luthias scanned the roof. “Oleran–?”
Ittosai grinned like a child. “I shot him in the neck. He went right over the edge. If he was not killed by the bolt–”
Suddenly, Myrande gasped and jumped backwards, putting a hand over her mouth. “Sable, what’s wrong?” Luthias asked. Then he felt the pain of the wound on the right side of his lower back. Warm blood dribbled on his skin.
Ittosai and Myrande sprang to look at the wound. While Myrande inspected her betrothed’s injury, Michiya retrieved the dagger which had clattered to the stones unheard. “It cannot be deep,” Michiya reported, scrutinizing the blade. “It has blood only on the edge.”
“No, it’s not deep,” Sable confirmed. She reached into her gown’s pocket and produced a handkerchief. She folded it and applied pressure to the slash.
“Don’t fuss, Sable,” Luthias requested briskly. “I’m all right.” He was better than he had been in weeks. He reached back, put an arm around her, then held out his hand to his friend. “Thanks, Michiya.”
The Bichurian smiled and took it. “Do not thank me, Luthias-sama. What is it you say…that is what friends are for.”
Somehow (Luthias was never sure how, and quite sure he didn’t want to know) Marcellon got the Count Connall and his bride, the Duke of Dargon, the former Baron of Shipbrook, and Ittosai Michiya back to Dargon Keep in less than an hour. There the High Mage examined Luthias’ back and Myrande’s bruises. He turned Myrande over to his daughter and sent Luthias to bed with a sleeping potion. “You need the sleep,” the High Mage told him. “You haven’t slept well in weeks, and there is much to be done in this fortnight, Count Connall.” The High Mage grinned, rejoicing in using the young man’s earned title.
Luthias went to the guest bedroom in Dargon Keep dutifully, but he did not take the potion. There was too much to think about. For a while, he stared at the fireplace, holding the document the King had given him. Finally, he stood and walked to Myrande’s room.
He boldly knocked on the hard door. “Who’s there?” Sable’s voice, muffled, inquired.
The Count of Connall opened the door quietly and entered the room. Her dark hair glowing from the light in the fireplace, Myrande waited for him, her arms hugging her knees. She was wearing a nightgown that was obviously intended for the tall Duchess of Dargon; the cuffs fell past Myrande’s thumbs, and the bodice draped lower than it should have. Gently, Luthias approached her and sat on the bed. “I hope I didn’t wake you,” he began.
“No, I couldn’t sleep,” Myrande confessed tiredly. “I’m not sure I want to.” She paused, stared at the flames. “I’ve never hurt anyone before.”
“You were marvelous,” Luthias praised her. “You were wonderful. I’m proud of you–and so is Michiya. You should have heard him bragging to Marcellon.”
“How is your back?” Sable asked, touching his arm lightly.
“Nothing serious,” Luthias related. “Oleran just sliced the skin a little.” The Count Connall shrugged. “Marcellon wasn’t worried. He just bandaged it. There won’t be a scar.”
“You and your scars!” Myrande laughed, touching the (now) small, white one above his right eye. “You’re so vain!” She stopped laughing, touched his cheek. “I’m glad you came, Luthias. I didn’t want to be alone tonight.”
Luthias took her hand and pressed it to his cheek in the manner of the Court. “I need to talk to you, Sable.”
Myrande smiled. “You’ve been saying that since before the Sy tournament.” She withdrew her hand. “What’s wrong?”
Unsure how to begin, Luthias looked away. He was silent for a long moment; then, he reached out and took her hands. They were very small. “Sable,” he started, “I don’t know why you want to marry me…I don’t know why you agreed to it.”
“Because I want to,” she explained, happy but confused. “I want to marry you.”
“Look, Sable,” he began again, “I want you to be happy. Here.” He handed her the parchment, heavy with the King’s seal.
Myrande inspected it dubiously. “What is it?”
“It’s an order from the King,” Luthias told her quietly, not looking her in the eye. “I–it’s an order–look, Sable, I don’t want you to be trapped into a marriage you don’t want. That royal decree says that the man you love must marry you. I–” God, why was it so hard to tell her he loved her? “I won’t have you unhappy.”
For a moment, Sable stared at him with confusion and astonishment. “I thought…you knew,” she said slowly, incredulously. “I thought…when you asked me to marry you…I thought you knew…”
“Know what?” Luthias demanded, looking her in the eye. There was pain in his face, but it was the brave pain of a lover willing to let his beloved go free. “All I know is that I love you–” There. He said it. “–but I also know that you’re in love with someone else, and–”
“No!” she interrupted him with abrupt finality. Luthias shut his mouth mid-word. “There is no one else.”
“What?” asked Luthias, gazing at her as if she had lost her mind.
“There is no one else,” she repeated, gripping his forearm. “There never was anyone *else*. Only you.” Myrande stopped suddenly, timidly reached out to touch his face. Her hand dropped. “Always…you.”
“*What?*” Luthias squeaked. Unbelieving, he snatched the paper from her and read the neat, formal words: “…We decree by Our Royal Hand and Seal that Our vassal, Luthias, Count of Connall, take in marriage Our subject, Lady Myrande Shipbrook, on account of their great love….” He stared at the paper, then at his bride. “It was me?” he questioned. “Me? But, Sable…”
“You,” she confirmed. “I love you, Luthias.”
“But…all these years…four years, Sable! And I never–” Suddenly, he was flooded with memories of exactly what he had done those four years that Myrande had loved him silently. “The women–I was with so many other–”
“I know,” Myrande reminded him without bitterness or judgment in her voice. “I mixed the contraceptive potions, remember?”
“And my temper,” Luthias continued, astonished. “I drink when…Sable, you love me?”
“It isn’t hard,” Myrande told him, smiling. “You’re a good man, Luthias, and I don’t mind your faults.” He snorted in contempt. “Besides, I have my faults, too.”
“What faults?” Luthias made a dubious sound. “You’re perfect.”
(Hadn’t Clifton said that about Lauren once….?)
“Well, for one,” Myrande chanted as if it were a litany, “I’m proud.”
“Oh, yes,” Luthias agreed with utter and complete sincerity.
“Don’t I know it!” Luthias concurred.
“And I have one fault I know you never wanted in a wife.”
“What’s that?” Luthias wondered, rolling the decree.
Luthias let the paper drop and stared at her, stunned for an extended moment. Then, suddenly, he began to laugh. Chuckling, Myrande watched as the Count laughed, the sound of wedding bells, until tears of mirth rolled down his cheeks, until he released all the ills of the summer, until the halls of Dargon Keep rang with the homecoming of the Count of Connall.
Still laughing, Luthias finally gripped his bride’s shoulders gently. “Ah, Sable, Sable,” he laughed breathlessly, kissing her firmly on the mouth, “may I be able to cure all your faults as easily!”
The Duke of Dargon was anxiously pacing the vestry adjoining the chapel in Dargon Keep. He stopped suddenly and glared at his cousin. “You could at least have the decency to be nervous!” Clifton exploded at the seated, composed Count of Connall.
“But I don’t have anything to be nervous about!” Luthias protested, laughing.
“You’re getting married,” the Duke growled, resuming his rounds. “Most people consider that enough to be nervous about.”
Ittosai Michiya, leaning against a chair, chuckled and expanded upon the Duke’s concern, although his voice showed that he was too jovial to share it. “After all, Luthias-sama, you’re going to be spending the rest of your life with her.”
“But I’ve spent all but six months of my life with her already,” Luthias countered. “It’s been fine so far.” The young Count shook his head. “I don’t understand what all the fuss is about, anyway. I don’t know why you and Lauren feel you have to throw this huge wedding, not to mention the feast and the ball. I don’t want it; Sable doesn’t want it.”
“She deserves the fuss,” Clifton grumbled. “Besides, it wouldn’t be right if she wasn’t married off properly. You have to admit that.”
“Granted,” Luthias acknowledged, “but did we need to have something this big?”
“You are a Count, manling,” the Duke reminded him. “We have to do things properly. That means inviting half the Kingdom.”
“And receiving gifts from them,” Luthias finished, rolling his eyes. His town keep, two hours from Dargon Keep, was filled to the ceilings with wedding gifts.
“Anything interesting?” Clifton wondered.
“Lord Winston of Gateway sent me some beautiful silver arrows,” Luthias told him, admiration for the weapons in his voice. “He sent Sable a silver jewel box. And we have this fine, Freothold tapestry from a Lord and Lady Thorne.”
“Who are they?” Ittosai Michiya wondered, feeling for the wedding rings in his pocket. He was acting as Luthias’ second in the ceremony, and he took the privilege very seriously. “I do not know them.”
“Neither do I,” Luthias admitted. He paused. “The King sent us a gift as well: our own house in Magnus.”
“He’s being very generous to you,” Clifton remarked. “And to Sable. He sent home with me twenty ells of indigo silk for her wedding gown.” The Duke of Dargon grinned. “I think he wanted to make up for the fact that she has to give you up so quickly.”
“It didn’t work,” Luthias laughed. Myrande had been quite unhappy when she discovered that her husband-to-be would be leaving her fourteen days after his return to the Duchy. “Sable’s ready to rip him apart.”
“Why do you not take her with you?” inquired Michiya practically.
“I don’t trust the Beinisonians,” Luthias replied frankly.
Michiya grimaced, but nodded. He had as little reason as Luthias to trust the Beinison Empire. Then he grinned. “This reminds me,” the Bichurian began, “that I have not yet given you a gift.” The Castellan of Connall reached behind him and tossed Luthias a book. With a sly grin on his face, Michiya explained, “It is a pillow book.”
“A pillow book?” Luthias echoed dubiously. He opened the tome and read a few lines. His jaw dropped, and he threw the book back to his Castellan with somewhat mock indignance. “What are you giving me this for? I don’t need it! I’m not some amateur like Clifton!”
“What is it?” the Duke asked. Wordlessly, Ittosai Michiya handed Dargon the book. Clifton opened it randomly, read a few words, then blushed a fine shade a purple. “Who are you calling amateur?” he demanded gruffly, shutting the tome quietly. “My wife is pregnant, isn’t she?”
“Accidents happen,” Luthias quipped, smiling. He looked at his still pacing cousin, who scowled at him. “How soon, Clifton? Can we get this performance over with?”
“As soon as Lauren comes,” Clifton assured him. The Duke stopped mid-step. “You do have a wedding gift for her, don’t you?”
“Of course.” Luthias didn’t know much about weddings, but he did know that bride and groom received gifts from each other. He handed Clifton an old, velvet box.
The Duke opened it and smiled at the sapphire necklace, broach, ring, hair pieces, and bracelets. “I helped your father pick these,” Clifton said. Although he had only been four at the time, Clifton Dargon could still remember his uncle Fionn’s wedding. “They matched your mother’s eyes perfectly.” Dargon closed the musty box and handed them to the bridegroom. “They’ll look well on Sable.”
There was a quiet knock on the door. “Clifton,” the Duchess called him, “you have a bride to give away.”
Clifton smiled. Since Luthias, as bridegroom, was in no position to give his ward in marriage, his Duke had pre-empted him by reason of rank and kinship. “Let’s go, manling.”
The Count and his Castellan left the vestry and walked onto the sanctuary. “What do we do now?” Michiya wondered as Luthias nodded to the High Priest of the Duchy of Dargon.
“Wait,” Luthias answered, handing his second the jewels. Then he leaned close and whispered, “Did you get the horse ready?” The Castellan nodded, and only then did Luthias take the time to look at the chapel.
The high stone walls were decorated with “all manner of sentimental stupidity,” as Luthias had called it earlier. Evergreen branches, to represent long life, adorned the walls and the altar. Blazing torches, symbols of passion, burned brightly in the wall sconces. Apples and bread, representing fertility and security, were piled on the altar. Rose petals and autumn flowers were spread in the aisle framed by the guests to soften the bride’s steps into marriage. Sentimental refuse, Luthias groaned internally. Roisart would love it.
Soon, Luthias heard the sounds of harps and singing announcing his Sable’s approach. At a nod from the High Priest, Luthias began to walk the aisle toward the door. He glanced from side to side at the guests; although they had invited the entire Duchy, Luthias had not expected so many people to come. His Aunt Tornia, Duchess of Asbridge, had sailed from Magnus for the occasion. The Duchess of Narragan and Dame Martis Westbrook had come with her. Luthias almost sighed, wishing briefly that Marcellon and Sir Edward could be here. Edward couldn’t leave the King, not with a possible war on the way, and Marcellon, for the same reason, returned to Magnus and his duties as High Mage soon after Myrande had been rescued.
There were other guests missing, too, a pair of kinsmen…and Luthias missed them most sorely of all.
Slowly, the heavy doors of the chapel opened when Luthias and Ittosai arrived. Behind them was the bridal procession: Bartol, the Ducal bard, Lauren, and finally, surrounded by minstrels, Clifton and Luthias’ sable bride.
Her well-fitting wedding gown was of the indigo silk the King had sent; her ebony hair, left mostly loose, was bedecked with sapphire ribbons. Her onyx eyes were glowing softly, and she smiled shyly at Luthias, who returned the expression.
My God, she is beautiful.
Clearly, and without warning, the Duke of Dargon spoke the ritual words: “Count of Connall, I give my kinswoman unto thee for thy wife.”
“My lord,” Luthias answered, “I thank thee.” Confidently, Luthias held out his hand. Myrande wordlessly put her small hand into his. They turned and traveled the aisle, Myrande’s full skirt and train reaping rose petals. Michiya and Lauren followed.
The High Priest welcomed them by offering them his hands. The couple knelt. “May the blessings of the Almighty God be upon you, Count of Connall and Lady Myrande, upon the day of your marriage.” He made a sign of blessing above them, then helped them to their feet. “Count of Connall, Lady Myrande: do you both come here of your own volition?”
“I do,” Luthias and Myrande answered. Luthias cast a glance at the pompous priest; Myrande rolled her eyes, and Luthias somehow managed to stifle his laughter.
“Do you both seek the blessings of God and of the Church?” the priest continued in a ritual voice.
“I do,” answered the bride and groom. This was taking too long, Luthias thought. Couldn’t that priest move any faster?
“Then you must both ask, each the other, to accept you,” the priest instructed. He didn’t have to talk through his nose, Luthias thought. He saw Sable biting her lip; she was stifling chuckles, too. Luthias compressed his mouth. He knew he had to be serious.
And then the priest said something that surprised the Count Connall: “If any here can give cause why the Count of Connall and Lady Myrande should not pledge themselves to each other, let him speak now, or speak never!”
So that was why Clifton wouldn’t let him bring his sword! Luthias tensed. If anyone tried to stop this–
But no one spoke, and Luthias realized that it was his turn–finally!–to recite the ritual. He had memorized it hastily, and hoped he wouldn’t forget anything. “My lady Myrande,” he began slowly. Please, don’t let me forget the words. “I ask thee to accept me as thy husband, as the man I am. I am a man imperfect and faulted, yet this I will promise thee: I will be a faithful and true husband to thee until God takes one of us to Himself. With myself, I offer thee this gift.” Luthias hated that part; it seemed like he was trying to bribe Myrande. But he handed her the sapphires. She opened the box, recognized the jewels, and smiled. “Wilt thou take me, Myrande?”
“I will,” she answered, smiling. Luthias felt like laughing with joy, but it was his bride’s turn to speak. “My lord Luthias, Count Connall, I ask thee to accept me as the wife, as the woman I am. I am a woman imperfect and faulted, yet this I will promise thee: I will be to thee a faithful and true wife until God takes one of us to Himself.” Myrande reached out a hand; Lauren put a silk-wrapped package into it. Sable offered Luthias her gift. “With myself, I offer thee this gift.” Luthias undid the ribbons; it was a well-done portrait, the size of his palm, of Sable in her wedding gown. He smiled and handed the portrait to Ittosai. “Wilt thou take me, Luthias?”
“I will,” he said firmly. Luthias was damned if he was allowing argument on this.
The High Priest raised his hands ceremoniously. “May God the Almighty bless and sanctify this union and keep them faithful and true, one unto the other, until the day when He brings them unto Himself.” The High Priest relaxed his arms and looked expectantly at Michiya.
“The rings!” Lauren whispered hastily. Ittosai jumped, properly embarrassed, and handed the priest the two golden bands.
The priest made a blessing sign over them. “May these rings, symbols of your pledges, keep you one unto the other. Confirm your troth.”
As was custom, Luthias picked Myrande’s ring from the priest’s palm. “With this ring,” he recited, “I thee wed.” It would just be his luck, Luthias thought, to forget the words now. “This golden ring to thee I give. With my body, I thee worship, and with my goods, I thee endow.” He touched ring to her thumb, her forefinger, her middle finger, then finally slid the golden band onto her fourth finger. “So be it.”
Her voice strong, Myrande took his ring from the priest and recited the words, repeating the ritual. She touched each of his fingers, then put the ring on him. It gleamed like her eyes. “So be it,” she finished, smiling at him. Luthias squeezed her hand.
“Do you, Lauren, Duchess of Dargon, and you, Ittosai of Michiya” Damn it, *no* one could say his name right! “witness this union?”
“I do,” replied the Duchess and the Castellan.
“You are now in the eyes of God and the Kingdom husband and wife,” the High Priest finished authoritatively. He looked at Luthias with irate expectancy.
Luthias gave him an amused look.
“Kiss her, stupid!” the Duke of Dargon called without any trace of dignity.
Luthias laughed like a boy, leaned forward, and kissed his wife firmly on the lips. As was custom, he suddenly took Myrande’s hand and dashed from the chapel in the symbolic attempt as escaping the feast to be alone. With a cheer, the wedding guests followed in a confused fashion.
Luthias was pulling his Countess along at a terrific rate. Myrande was laughing like a girl. “You’re supposed let them catch us, you know,” she playfully chided her husband.
“Like hell,” Luthias responded. “Run!”
Myrande’s eyes widened admiringly at Luthias’ audacity, grabbed her endless skirts, and ran. Luthias pulled her around the corner, pushed on a loose brick, and yanked her into the secret passage. “Now, let’s hope that Roisart and I were the only ones who ever found this,” the Count breathed, grinning at his bride. “Let’s get out of here, Sable.”
Expertly, Connall led his wife through the dark passage, which led eventually to the garden. There, near the exit, was Dragonfire. “Thanks, Michiya,” Luthias breathed. Abruptly, he took Myrande’s waist and lifted her onto the horse. He gracefully placed himself behind her, took the reins, and galloped out of the courtyard.
Sable leaned against Luthias and laughed. “I don’t believe you did this!”
The Count put one strong arm around her waist. “I don’t like that bedding ceremony.” He paused. “I don’t want anyone undressing you but me.”
“Well,” laughed Lady Connall. She shivered in the cool autumn air and leaned against Luthias for warmth.
“Do you mind missing the feast?” Luthias asked her suddenly.
“Not one bit.” Myrande twisted and kissed him. “I only have you for a week more; I want as much time as I can get.”
Luthias glanced behind him for pursuit; there was none. He reigned Dragonfire and kissed Sable deeply. She pulled away, her arms around his neck. “And now, my lord,” she began, “where do we go from here? The keep?”
“No,” the Count Connall denied firmly. “That’s the first place they’ll look.” He steered Dragonfire into the woods. “We’re going to Warin’s town house, outside the city.” His wife stared at him. Luthias grinned. “Warin, Michiya, and I arranged this days ago. Don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried. I trust you.”
“We’ll go back tomorrow,” Luthias told her. “I have some things left to arrange with the trip and with the incorporation of Coranabo’s lands.” He looked at her. “You’ll be regent as soon as you turn twenty-one.”
“Whatever you like. How long will it take us to get to Warin’s house?” Myrande wondered after a pause.
Luthias grinned. “Afraid to be out after dark, Sable?”
“Not with you,” she returned the banter.
“I won’t let the ghosts get you,” he promised playfully.
Sable laughed merrily. “Why should I be afraid of ghosts? They’re only dead people. What dead person would want to harm me?”
“Inconsequential,” Myrande asserted. “There are too many dead people who would want to protect me.”
“My father and mother. Roisart. Your father.”
“Father…” Luthias echoed, halting the horse. He stared into the darkness, thinking something he had not allowed himself to ponder before the wedding.
Myrande gently touched his jaw. “What is it?”
“My father wouldn’t approve of this, Sable.”
She stared at him quizzically. “Approve of what?”
“Our marriage.” Luthias looked away. “He told me to stay away from you, not to toy with you…”
Myrande looked as if she suddenly understood something. “And that’s why you never…” She smiled, turned his face toward her. “Luthias, he was only trying to protect me. He wasn’t sure you were ready to love me as I loved you. He…” Sable shrugged. “He told me to wait for you. He planned on us marrying, eventually. He was hoping for it.”
Luthias met her eyes. “Really?”
“Truly. I wouldn’t deceive you.”
The Count kissed his wife, then pulled away and looked at her mutely. “Let’s go,” she whispered. “I only have a little time with you left.”
“I’ll be back to dance with you at the Melrin Ball,” Luthias vowed, starting the horse forward slowly. Sable leaned tiredly against him. “You’re beautiful, Sable,” Luthias told her, watching her in the moonlight.
“Watch where you’re going,” she returned harshly.
Luthias halted Dragonfire abruptly and put his arms around his wife. “Easy, Sable,” he soothed her, “I won’t be gone for long.” Myrande held his arms as if she never wanted to let go. “I’m ambassador, Sable. No one’s going to hurt me.”
Myrande’s eyes were hard. “If you believed that, you’d take me with you.”
Luthias cursed internally. Sable knew him too well, always had. The Count turned his wife to face him. “Listen, Sable. Nothing is going to keep me from returning to you. Do you hear me? Nothing. No one.” He then repeated, “I’ll be back to dance with you at the Melrin Ball.”
“Even as a ghost?” she tried to play, but her voice sounded choked.
“Don’t be silly,” Luthias quipped. “Ghosts don’t dance.” Myrande smiled, and the Count hugged her tightly. “Better?” he inquired.
“I still don’t want you to go,” she said. “But there’s no help for it, I suppose.”
“No,” Luthias agreed, “and there’s no use staying out here all night in the chill when we should be home in bed.”
Sable laughed gratefully and kissed her husband. “As you wish, your Excellency. I would not think to dispute you.”