he bright pennants of Ordnung, High King Uorsin's rampant bear topping them all, snapped in the cool breezes from the high mountain peaks. Those pristine white towers, the banners of the Twelve Kingdoms gathered under one, all symbolized my father and King's greatest triumph. One I believed in with all my being.
Or had once believed in.
From the ravages of internecine wars and crippling enmities, Uorsin had united the kingdoms, bringing them together in lasting peace, capped by the shining castle he built on the ruins of the past. Always, no matter in what condition I returned home, I'd felt a surge of elation at the sight, pride in my legacy and sacred duty.
Not this sick dread.
As we rode closer, the formidable grandeur of Ordnung only mocked me for my many failures of the past months. Soon I would stand before my King, and I had no idea how I would explain myself and my actions. Or what price he would exact.
“Nervous?” Dafne, riding on her gentle palfrey, studied me with serious eyes. A scholarly woman with a quiet manner, she asked with complete sincerity what might sound like a taunt from another.
“Being nervous would imply that I'm uncertain about the confrontation to come,” I told her. “I am . . . readying myself for King Uorsin's sure disappointment.” And his rage. Never forget the bear's towering fury. As if I could.
“You don't need me to tell you, but you did the right thing, Your Highness. I wasn't sure which you would chooseâlove or duty.”
“Think you I could have ripped a newborn from my baby sister's arms, with her barely recovered from believing her daughter dead, hard upon the heels of her husband's murder?”
Dafne considered the question with due gravity. Which made her interesting. No court sycophant she, with ready answers to most please the people who governed her fate.
“Before I answer, I'd like to make clear that I don't agree with the word âmurder.' You did not kill Prince Hugh in cold blood, but rather in the heat of battle. More self-defense than anything.”
Remembering the sickening feel of my sword cutting through Hugh's neck, realizing I'd killed my sister's husband, I knew better. All of it had happened so fastâHugh lunging to kill Rayfe, my other sister Andi thrusting herself between them. I'd acted without thought, though hardly without consequence.
“Self-defense means defending one's own self. I was in no danger. He was my ally and did not deserve to die by my blade. Nor for me to compound my guilt by fobbing off responsibility for it onto Andi and the Tala.”
“Queen Andromeda was right to insist on taking the blame. If Princess Amelia hadn't taken it as a reason to incite Avonlidgh to civil war, Old King Erich would have.”
“Which is happening anyway. Warring over an infant heir.” The disgust and frustration that had ridden me these past months leaked into my tone. Speaking to Dafne, though, and surrounded by my loyal Hawks, I could say what I normally would not. Ami and Hugh's son belonged neither to Uorsin nor to Old Erich, though you wouldn't know it from the way the two kings behaved, both claiming him as heir. If I hadn't killed Hugh, we wouldn't be in this particular battle. One the Twelve, already plagued with problems, could ill afford.
“That's on Erich, not you. As for the question of murder, I'd put forth that defending your sister is the same for you as defending yourself. Both of your sisters are part of you on a profound level. In a way that even Queen Andromeda and Princess Amelia don't fully appreciate.”
A legal scholar's mind, there. Always useful in a companion for someone in my position. “And the answer to my question?”
“Yes,” Dafne decided. “I think you would and could do anything. You're certainly capable.
you believed it to be the right thing to do.”
“Obeying the High King is the right thing to do,” I replied, knowing full well I hadn't done so. The grind of guilt and failure made my bones ache. “Semantic arguments aside, the High King commanded that I bring Amelia's son to Ordnung. I could have and did not.”
“Some truths exceed the law of man.”
“But not the law of the King.”
“The King is but a man.”
“Don't let High King Uorsin hear you say that, librarian. You won't long keep your placeâor your headâspeaking that way.”
“Would you report me?” She cocked her head, brown eyes sparkling with curiosity. No trepidation thereâonly apparent genuine interest. As if she had already gathered her information and predicted my actions. The answer I gave her would simply confirm or deny her theories.
“Have you no fear at all, Lady Mailloux?” I asked, instead of feeding her the insights she sought. Let her continue to speculate.
She transferred her gaze to the castle, imposing on its rise, framed by the snowcapped mountains. The corners of her soft mouth tightened. “It's always strange to me to see it as it is,” she commented. “In my mind's eye, I still see Castle Columba, though it's been gone nigh on thirty years. I don't know if it's fear or something else that digs at me now.”
“And yet, you return, for a second time.”
“It seems to be my fate.” She gave me a wry smile. Amelia was right that Lady Dafne Mailloux often failed to observe courtesy. Not that it bothered me. So did my Hawks and the other soldiers I regularly trained, traveled, and fought with. Something about focusing on a greater purpose relegated the bowing and scraping to the negligible category. “Besides, I owe you. When we thought Stella dead, you wanted to spare Princess Amelia the pain of it, to let her rejoice in having Astar happy and healthy. I expected you to be angry with me for forcing the truth into the open.”
She would be the one to lay it out there, when others would avoid the subject. Those had been dark hours, Ami near death from birthing the twins, then finding the girl, Stella, dead in her cradle. At least the boy, Astar, had stayed strong.
“I was wrong to conceal it from her.” I shrugged, using the motion to loosen my shoulders. Not that it worked. “Not only because she had the wit to see through the trick that I did not.”
“I saw Stella's dead body, too,” she reminded me. “That black magic fooled us both.”
Enough that we'd even buried her, giving someone enough time to abduct little Stella. Everything in me champed at the bit to be searching for my niece, to be helping Amelia instead of riding into Ordnung. Infinitely preferable to facing the High King with the news I brought. Neverthelessâand though it had nearly killed meâI'd followed my duty and returned home. Though we'd traveled fast, a messenger could have caught up with us. I kept expecting one, saying they'd recovered the babe. With each passing hour that the news failed to arrive, my dread and uneasiness that I'd made the wrong decision grew. Lately what had once been black and white had shaded into disturbing grays.
“I disobeyed a direct command,” Dafne persisted. “You would have been within rights to kill or dismiss me for it. So I owe you.”
“I should have given her credit for needing to know the truth, for being strong enough to stand up to the pain. You owe me nothing.”
“Nevertheless, I have an idea of what you'll have to deal with at Ordnung, and I couldn't live with myself if I let you face it alone. Returning with you was the least I could do.”
She meant that well, in all earnestness, so I didn't comment. Didn't say that no one and nothing could spare me my father's wrath. I'd learned that lesson early.
We'd passed through the outlying farms and rode through the extensive township that surrounded Ordnung. People moved about busily, with the many chores of summer at hand. They acknowledged our passing with respectful bows and salutesâand something else. A sense of wariness that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
We did not travel with fanfare. Out of long familiarity with my comings and goings, the people did not dote as they might have on the rest of the royal family, so I did not expect effusive greetings. I preferred it this wayâin part because it relieved me to dispense with the pomp and formalities when not necessary, but also because it gave me opportunity to take the measure of the people of Mohraya, the small kingdom that housed Ordnung.
Uorsin saw to his own first, so the Mohrayans generally fared better than the other eleven kingdoms, regardless of the swings in harvest yields and other variable producers of wealth. No matter how severe the troubles in other parts of the Twelve Kingdomsâsome I'd seen too much of lately, sorrows that weighed on meâI could usually count on at least Mohraya to be doing well.
Not so, it appeared. One more problem added to the precarious pile that threatened to topple over onto us all.
No, things were not right here. The town burst at the seams, crowded with people. Overly so, despite the increased activity of the warm season. The farmers and livestock growers ought to be out on their land, tending to those concerns.
Perhaps I'd lost my count of days and they'd come into town for market or a fair. But I didn't think so.
For a start, many of the people gathering in the squares were neither buying nor selling. I'd never expect to recognize all the faces, but the citizenry teemed with unfamiliar looks. More men than usual. Tall ones, light haired, with broad, exotic features.
I called over my lieutenant. “Marskal.” I kept my tone easy, conversational, so he wouldn't go on alert. “What am I seeing here?”
“Seems the population has grown during our travels, Captain,” he replied blandly. He'd been taking note, too, then. Part of why I relied on him.
“What do you put it down to?”
“We've long heard of the increasing conscription rates.”
“Those are foreigners, not raw recruits and new conscripts.”
“True,” he agreed.
“I've read the people of Dasnaria across the Onyx Ocean described as such,” Dafne, still riding on my other side, observed. “Tall, fair-haired, strongly built.”
“Is that so,” I replied. Both of them, knowing I did not ask a question, remained silent. I misliked it, foreboding crawling up my already aching spine. They could only be here with Uorsin's knowledge, which made no sense to me. But then, so much of his behavior had become erratic. Ever since Andi rode home with the Tala on her tail. Absolute loyalty to my King and father meant I should not question him. As his heir, it fell to me to give him my unqualified faith and support.
I hated feeling that erode, even in the quiet depths of my heart, where I harbored doubts I spoke of to no one. That I could hardly bear to examine myself.
The nearer we drew to the castle walls, the more of these exotic men we spied. All hardened warriors to my eye, all heavily armed. Uorsin had dropped hints about having other resources beyond the somewhat questionable loyalty of the Twelve. Ordnung's guards manned the outposts and the usual positions on the wallsâand then some. I counted surreptitiously, lazily turning my face to the sun. More than twice the standard posting. Looked like he'd dug into those other resources after all.
The conflict with the Tala and the overall unrest in the Twelve had made the High King wary. Understandable. But these changes edged past that into paranoia. Along with an expense we could not afford. More fears I'd never give voice to.
“Jepp reported no alert, correct?” I asked Marskal. I knew our scout hadn't, but it never hurt to confirm.
Jepp, at Marskal's head tilt, jogged her agile mountain pony closer. “Captain.” She nodded at me. “I checked only at the guard gates, and they gave the all clear. No mention of . . . this.”
“Pass the word to be on alert, then.”
Jepp saluted and fell back. Not that I needed to tell my Hawks that something was awry in Ordnung. They knew it as well as or better than I did. As much as we could not be less than on alert, telling them so meant that they pulled in closer, taking long-rehearsed positions. Dafne remained placid, a pleased smile on her lips, though she had to be aware of her vulnerability.
“You might have done better to stay at Windroven, after all,” I commented to her.
“I'll stick with you, if that's all right. Right with you. I'll keep up.”
Before we undertook this journey, I had doubted that. Now I felt certain she could keep up with the best of my Hawks. Unless we fled flat out and it was frankly too late for that. Even if I hadn't been honor bound to return to Ordnung to face the King with the bad news, my instincts warned we'd have to fight our way freeâimpossible odds, not to mention a traitorous act.
On that thought, guards stepped up to bar our passage into Ordnung. More of the foreigners, their helms making them look even taller.
“Who approaches Ordnung?” one demanded in our Common Tongue, though his accent twisted the words.
I stared him down, showing my great displeasure at being questioned, transforming the deep unease into righteous fury. “Who dares raise a blade to a Princess of the Realm, Heir to the High Throne of the Twelve Kingdoms?”
Jepp and Marksal drew up closer, their battle readiness almost an audible buzz in my ears. For a moment, it seemed it might come to that, the foreign guard undaunted, scrutinizing me for some sign that I was who I claimed to be. I flexed my hand on the hilt of my sword, edging Dafne more behind me.
A series of shouts in another language relayed from the walls and my challenger cocked his head, nodded, and stepped aside. “Welcome home, Your Highness.” He bowed but did not apologize. I ignored him and rode forward, not feeling welcome at all.
We passed through the outer gates, the shadow of the walls passing chill over me.