ARRIENA STARED A MOMENT LONGER at the bound books sitting on the shelves behind her cousin Mordon's desk in the Traxslan estate's combination library and study room. She could almost smell the dry, exotic, intoxicating perfume of ink and paper and leather binding, from six paces away.
She knew better than to come any closer to his desk or touch his books. A mere woman who dared to be a scholar had to be content with old parchment bundles and scrolls. Sighing, she turned her back on the forbidden half of the long study room and returned to the padded bench and racks of scrolls permitted her.
Arriena knew she was lucky she hadn't been sold into some unpleasant marriage alliance. Lucky she hadn't been handed over to a cloister after her parents' death when she was nine. She and her cousin, Mordon, were all that remained of the direct line of the proud Traxslan family. He had taken her in first because the king expected it. Then he made her his ward to frustrate several Traxslan offshoots who wanted her and hoped to use the fact that she was the previous heir's only child for their own profit. And most important of all his reasons, he put up with her presence and hid her away on the estate to save her for some future task to profit him. He reminded her of that fact quite often.
But what could he expect her to do? Arriena wondered how her cousin expected to marry her off to profit him if he never took her to court. Not that she wanted to be a painted doll, to dance on command, stand silently and endure the attention of men like a slave on the auction block. No man who considered her as a wife would actually talk to her and examine her mind, her beliefs, her hopes and dreams. All that mattered was her poise, her body, how she would be an ornament to his home and reputation, and if she could produce healthy, handsome sons--and daughters to sell into marriages for political alliances. Noble marriage was only a step or two above being sold to a bordello, she suspected.
"Do not complain," she quietly scolded herself.
She clenched her fists to keep from raking fingers through her hair in frustration. Arriena had learned early to always be dressed to welcome her cousin home and entertain his guests. Not one hair or ribbon could be disturbed until she retired to her room and locked her door at night. Much as she wanted to lie down on her padded bench and sprawl to read in comfort, she settled herself daintily to keep her three-seasons-behind-fashion dress from wrinkling. Mordon constantly reminded her that a noble woman only had three functions: to manage and be a decoration for her family's household, to make a good alliance for her family, and to provide her husband with sons. As long as she performed the first without cause for complaint, Arriena could pursue her scholarly studies until Mordon sold her to an ally to fulfill the other two.
Was it too much to hope he would give her to some old man with an enormous library, who would leave her alone?
"Please, Yomnian, if you ever listen to a woman's prayers..." Arriena closed her eyes and took deep breaths to quell the pressure inside that threatened to burst out of her in anger. She smoothed the dark blue panels of her dress and reached for the scroll she had been forced to put aside to attend to her household duties yesterday afternoon. She would not allow anger to eat up her precious hour of allotted study time.
Reshor. Yet another dry, dusty, meandering scroll dealing with the ancient enemy to the south, Reshor. Arriena wondered how many scrolls in her ancestors' library covered the subject, and how many held even a grain of truth. So many scholars painted Reshor as a land of gluttons, libertines, and shameless women, yet a logical mind had to ask how a dissolute nation could produce such magnificent soldiers and warriors and a navy second only to Eretia. The glasswork and woolen goods of Reshor were prized everywhere. Healers trained in Reshor's holy retreats were desired in royal courts all over the world.
The Sword Sisters originated in Reshor.
Arriena glanced toward the door, as if thinking of the women warriors would bring the seneschal running to beat the words from her mind. Every Lector in Sendorland preached against those abominations; dark spirits in the bodies of women, who carried swords and dared to raise their hands against men in battle.
Arriena had only asked once, when she was twelve, why the noble soldiers of Sendorland shuddered at the mention of the Sword Sisters. Only Mordon's need to preserve her looks had saved her from being beaten. She had gone without her scrolls for a month, and only had bread and water at her single meal each day for two weeks.
No one had ever answered her question. She hoped someday, in all the scraps of information she gleaned from neglected scrolls, she might find the answer. After all, if Yomnian had chosen Sendorland as the scourge of the world, then why should the soldiers of Sendorland fear anyone, even soldiers supported by dark spirits? The answer she rarely let herself consider was that this, too, was a lie, and Sendorland was not Yomnian's beloved nation, charged with purifying and punishing the world.
If everything she had been taught was a lie, would it be a sin, rebellion worthy of the vilest punishment, to hope, to pray to Yomnian, for some chance to escape and find a life elsewhere?
Metal-toed boots clattered against the stone floors as someone approached the wooden door. Arriena's hands trembled as she rolled up the scroll, tied it tight and slid it back into its proper place in the rack. She straightened her dress, took a deep breath and prayed. Surely Mordon was wrong and Yomnian did listen to a woman's prayers. If not, perhaps there was a bright spirit assigned the unpleasant task of answering women's prayers?
"Arriena." Mordon paused in the doorway as the heavy oak and bronze panel swung open. He glanced toward his desk first. The unpleasant twist left his mouth when he saw she was not there. She took a step forward and bowed her head to get his attention. "Yes. Properly dressed and ornamented. She is as I promised, my friends."
Footsteps scraped on the stone floor, then were muffled on the carpeting around the desk. The heavy oak chair thudded as Mordon pulled it away from his desk. More chairs scraped. How many people had he brought with him?
"Obedient and modest, I see," another man observed. His rich voice had a touch of humor.
If she was about to be sold, did she dare hope someone with a sense of humor would buy her? Or would that humor be the vicious kind that found laughter in the misery of others?
"Arriena, approach the desk," Mordon said after a moment.
She obeyed, raising her gaze enough to ascertain where the men sat around the desk. There were four, two on either side, creating an aisle and an open spot to step right up to the edge of the rug. From her glimpse of tooled leather boots and silver threads embroidering the hems of their cloaks, they were noblemen. Perhaps members of Prince Drahas' entourage. The last time Mordon had made the half-day journey from the capital to Traxslan, five months ago, he had boasted that he would soon be the Crown Prince's most trusted advisor and closest friend.
"Is she virgin?" another man asked. His voice scraped.
"Of course. She was raised properly. If any man tried to force her, she would kill herself before she would let our family name be dishonored. Isn't that right, Arriena?"
"Yes, my lord cousin," she responded immediately. Her face burned. Oh, most definitely, she was on the auction block.
"Lady Arriena, what do you think of Reshor?" the first man asked.
Muffling a gasp of surprise at the unexpected question, she lifted her gaze to Mordon for instruction.
For once, her cousin's smile held no anticipation of catching her in a sin. He looked pleased that she waited for his permission to speak. Their long, chiseled features were near mirror images with the same brilliant, gray-blue eyes and thick, golden, curly hair. Arriena wondered if he hated her for that resemblance. Her life would have been so much easier if she had been a boy. Mordon would have welcomed her presence in his house.
If she had been a boy, she would have inherited her father's estate and duties as the head of the Traxslan family. Then again, if she had been a boy, Mordon would not be Lord Traxslan now.
Or the boy she should have been would have been killed in a convenient accident, to get her out of his way, just like the suspicious, convenient accident that had killed her parents.
"You may answer Lord Zuran, Arriena," Mordon said.
"My lord, I know little of Reshor. All my studies say it has always been the enemy of Sendorland. The people of Reshor sorely test Yomnian's forbearance. Sendorland is Yomnian's sword of justice and though Reshor may resist, Sendorland will devour Reshor and teach them right living someday."
May it be never, she silently cried. May there always be at least one land in this world where there is joy and the freedom to dream.
"Ah, yes. You have taught her very well, Mordon," Lord Zuran said. He heaved himself from his chair and approached Arriena.
From the corner of her eye she saw his velvet longcoat and trousers, the color of dried blood, trimmed in silver. His glossy black boots had silver spurs and a long courtier's sword hung from his draped belt. His gloved hand filled her vision as he gently touched her chin and raised it, turning her head to force him to look her in the eyes.
Never show fear, Mordon had told her. Even if a man holds a knife at your throat, never show fear and never surrender your body. You are a Traxslan, even if you are a woman, and you will not dishonor us in your death. Be sure I will follow your soul to the Netherhells and make you suffer if you fail us.
She held her head still, refused to tremble, and met his gaze straight on. She held still as Lord Zuran looked her over, and tried to feel nothing, hear nothing, think nothing.
"She will do very nicely, Mordon," Zuran finally said with a chuckle. He released her chin with a caress across her cheek.
It seemed as if ice hid inside his glove, sending a chill through her.
"If she is still pure when this is over, and has performed heroically, I might take her for myself. Your reward for serving the kingdom so well," he added.
"Thank you, my friend." The smile Mordon turned on Arriena held rare warmth. "Do you hear that, Arriena? You will benefit our family by strengthening the alliance between two noble friends. What do you think of that offer?"
"Yes, thank you, my lord cousin. What must I do to serve?" tumbled out of her mouth. She wished she could take back the words; could almost feel the rod slapping the bare soles of her feet, her usual punishment for excessive curiosity. Then Arriena saw the pleased brilliance in her cousin's eyes.
What was so important that everything she did suddenly pleased him? Or did he only hold up a false mask in front of his lordly friends?
Even as she wondered, the other three men stood. Arriena bit her tongue against crying out, to beg them to stay and shelter her from her cousin's coming anger. Only a fool would expect sympathy or support from a friend of Mordon. She stayed firmly planted before the desk, waiting as he ushered his four guests out of the study room and called a servant to escort them to their rooms.
Silence, as her cousin settled down at his desk. She studied the whirls in the wood grain surrounding the paper he spread out on the desk and studied. They had played this game before down through the years; he waiting until her curiosity burst, and then punishing her for speaking before he gave her permission.
"I had thought to give you three choices, little cousin," Mordon said. "Perhaps I shall still. When this is over, Zuran may not be in the highest favor with either the king or the prince. Three choices: marriage, the cloister, or the chance to repay your debts to me by serving the kingdom. I'm sure if I told Zuran you were incompetent for the task, or that you feared too greatly, he might still be interested in you." A dry chuckle escaped him. "The man might beg for you, to bolster his standing in court, when this is all over."
"Please, my lord cousin, let me serve. Even if I die," she added on a whisper.
"Ah, but you might. These Reshor villains might kill you for the part you play. They think women have the strength and intelligence to decide their own course in life. They dignify them with men's punishments when they are caught in some crime." A sigh escaped him. Weariness, down to the bone. Anyone else, Arriena might have pitied him. "Odd, is it not, how Yomnian sometimes turns our burdens into weapons against our enemies?" His chair groaned as he pushed it back from the desk. "Look at me, Arriena."
She lifted her gaze, bracing herself. She barely breathed as her cousin examined her visually, from head to foot. It was some matter for pride that he showed no distaste.
"You have a most unwomanly curiosity, and a tendency to think beyond the limits of your world. You have passion, but it is a passion for righteousness, and that is a forgivable flaw. It pleases me that you work so hard to overcome your flaws. That is your Traxslan blood." He rested his head against the padded back of the chair and studied her again.
"It pleases me that you care little for your beauty, yet you make yourself pleasing to look at because I wish it. Yomnian has formed you as a tool perfect for this time. These Reshor villains will find you amusing and endearing and, dare I hope, a distraction. I set you free to indulge your curiosity, Arriena. You shall have access to the king's library. You shall indulge your notions of scholarship and offer your assistance and friendship to Reshor's ambassadors. Most especially Edrix Faxinor, who pretends to be a scholar." His smile turned down in one corner when Arriena nodded that she understood but said nothing. "Have you no curiosity why you were chosen?"
"Yes, my lord cousin, but it does not please you when I ask questions."
"Hmph. Yes. No matter. Torment others with your curiosity. I will be near you in the palace, but we shall tempt the sympathy of these Reshor fools by making you seem abandoned by your family."
A bitter bark of laughter pressed at her throat. Had she been anything other than abandoned since her parents were killed?
"Lord Edrix Faxinor suffered a terrible blow only a year ago. His betrothed bride died of the winter fevers. She had your coloring. She wore flowers in her hair--so shall you. She loved to dance--so shall you." He stopped short, his teeth nearly clicking together. "Can you dance, Arriena?"
"To please you, my lord cousin, I will learn."
"Yes, you will." But he laughed instead of his usual growl of threat. "We want you to trap Faxinor in an indiscretion. Shame him into betraying Reshor. Perhaps badly enough to force him to ask sanctuary with us. Be careful you don't soil yourself, or you will have no future. Not even the cloister will take you."
Arriena quelled a shudder. Many women in Sendorland considered the cloister the only shelter open to them, but she had heard too many unpleasant rumors about the enslavement of cloister women to believe that. She would run away if that were her only choice in life. She would rather run away and risk being caught, beaten, branded and given to a bordello, than go to a cloister. Bordello women were at least allowed to speak and laugh and have friends.
"The prince, I think, will take a fancy to you, and I will rise to the right hand of the throne by giving you to him. After a year or two, he will lose his interest and you will be allowed to hide in the library and pretend to be a scholar for the rest of your life. I will no longer be responsible for you." Mordon's warm, bright smile made her sick to the pit of her stomach. Arriena bowed her head, refusing to show weakness by the tiniest flicker in her eyes or twitch of a muscle.
EDRIX FAXINOR, HEIR to Lord Cernan Faxinor, was bored.
By the fires on the altar in Cereston, when will this blessing service end?
He couldn't even sigh or shift to a more comfortable position or even scratch his itching nose. He felt like a criminal on display, with every servant, landholder and ally of Faxinor spread across the outer courtyard of his father's castle. He knelt on the top step in front of the main doorway, facing them all, with King Davnell's other ambassadors spread out on either side of him. The king had sent his personal Shepherds to lead the ambassadorial party in prayers and blessings; he had sent his only son, ten-year-old Rafnar, and his niece, Junior Commander Jeshra of the Sword Sisters, to show the high regard he had for the nobles going to Sendorland to work for peace.
Edrix could not yawn or even look away from the Shepherd. Even with every eye watching him, his father would likely swat him with the flat of his blade for such a lapse in decorum. Not hard. Done with affection. Even teasing. But enough to embarrass him into acting the part of a high-blooded nobleman, even if he still felt inadequate.
He had his brother, Maxil and Maxil's wife, Gersta to consider. Maxil had always fussed and fidgeted and whined during worship services, and Edrix had always been held up as an example. Edrix loved his mischievous brother and still hoped someday he would learn compassion beyond his circle of friends and admirers. Maybe fatherhood would push him into maturity. Maxil had toned down his vocal support of renewed war with Sendorland after Edrix was chosen to lead the ambassadorial party. That was an improvement. Whether he was proud of the honor granted to Faxinor, or Maxil simply didn't want to be embarrassed by the disparity in their viewpoints, Edrix didn't care. As long as Maxil stopped endorsing the entire annihilation of Sendorland, that was good enough for him.
"May Yomnian's light shine before you," Shepherd Aneer said, taking the massive, four-wick square candle from Shepherd Dairu's hands. She climbed the steps to the ambassadorial party, holding the candle out before her without trembling, though the cube of pine-scented beeswax had to be as wide as a man's waist. She blew out the four flames and knelt.
Each member of the party held out his right hand. Aneer dripped wax on each hand and pressed the ten-point star emblem of Yomnian into the wax, sealing them to holy service to Reshor and Yomnian. Jeshra was the last. The tall, bony young woman flushed red and bit her lip against a grin of pure excitement as she took the wax. She stood, her warrior braids swinging in the bright sunlight. The purple and gold cords binding her braids, for the Sword Sisters and for her royal blood, gleamed bright against her red-gold hair. Shepherd Aneer winked at her as the warrior woman reached down a hand to help her stand. The rest of the ambassadorial party climbed to their feet.
Edrix let out a muted sigh of relief and fought not to bend over to rub life back into his knees. He glanced to the right at the bottom of the steps, where Lord Cernan, Maxil and Gersta waited. Gersta wore a puzzled little frown, as if she had never considered the spiritual truths Shepherd Dairu had spoken in his homily. Knowing what he did about the Henchvery family, Edrix suspected they neglected even basic spiritual training. He hoped his sister-in-law had learned something today, if only for the sake of the child she carried.
Lord Cernan met Edrix's glance and nodded. He raised his sword and tipped it forward in salute. Then he sheathed it, adjusted his crutches and swung his way across the courtyard to speak with the two Shepherds. His longcoat barely hid the absence of his left leg.
That dreadful wound had hung at the back of Edrix's mind as he deliberated accepting the king's invitation to head the ambassadorial party. If he could find a way to bring lasting peace between Reshor and Sendorland, and stop others from suffering loss of limb and life, fathers and sons, sisters and daughters, he would do it.
"Yomnian's light guard and guide us all," Edrix whispered. He had never felt so unprepared, though it was his analysis of the generations-long dispute with Sendorland, and his proposals for settling it, which had prompted the king to have him lead the ambassadors.
Could he serve his king and kingdom as ably as his father had done before him? What sacrifice would the peace demand of him? There were far worse things to lose than a leg.