Marlae marveled at how different Blacktower Castle looked when Vilnik was not in residence. The stonework, of course, was unchanged. The battlements still stood in their square and functional lines, the flagstones of the inner bailey were still dirty from the traffic of foot and horse, and here and there the vestiges of the Sword and Crown could still be seen: a bonfire’s shadow in the courtyard, a ghost of smoke on the tower wall. The people, Marlae reflected, were perhaps the most altered. Now they smiled as they passed one another at the castle gate. A stout goodwife with her hands folded in her apron made idle conversation with a young guardsman. The pall of fear cast by the Black Shirts was nowhere to be seen.
With some difficulty, Marlae swung herself out of the saddle, waving away offers of assistance from a gaggle of stable boys. “I am pregnant, not crippled,” she told them irritably. In truth the baby had begun to weigh on her, making the ride from Ghoried seem far longer than it had in previous seasons. Once on the ground, she stretched her back and sighed in relief. “Come along, sir,” she said, passing a hand across her slightly swollen stomach. “Let’s see what your Uncle Daenal has done with the place, eh?”
Daenal was in the throne room. Marlae found him seated on a wooden chair placed low on the dais, listening to Gaered Biersen with an alien expression on his face. It took her a moment before she realized that her younger brother was actually being serious. The sober mien made him look like their father, and Marlae’s breath caught around a sudden pang of nostalgia.
“Lady Marlae!” Gaered cried as she approached the dais. “We have been beside ourselves without you in Proudglaive! I had convinced myself that the Ghiesters had stolen you away from us entirely! But,” he paused, looking her up and down, “surely you did not ride all the way from Ghiere in your delicate condition! Sir Noelen, a chair for the lady, if you please! Have a seat, have a seat…”
“I am fine, Gaered,” Marlae said, masking her irritation with a laugh. Was she to be treated like an invalid every time she and Aydin performed their conjugal duty? She took the seat that Sir Noelen offered with the barest modicum of grace. “And I did not ride from so far away as Ghiere. I travelled back with Guilder Ghorien’s entourage as far as Thoeren’s Landing, then rode Marigold the rest of the way.”
“Ah.” Gaered Biersen paused as though preparing to make a comment on the subject of Siele Ghorien, then pursed his lips. Marlae realized suddenly how old Gaered had become. The seneschal had worn a harried look throughout her father’s reign, but now his eyes were sunk deep into shadowed creases of flesh, while his face was seamed with worry.
“How is old Marm Ghorien?” Daenal asked. “She’s been looking better these past few years…and she’s about the only one who’s been looking better,” he continued, whispering and cutting his eyes at Gaered Biersen at the seneschal stepped away to speak with a courtier wearing the insignia of Edlin.
“I know,” Marlae whispered back, “I know. But Siele is doing very well. She seems quite happy with her son, in any case. I haven’t seen that husband of hers too often. She says that he is away in Aerenwe, dealing with the guilds there.”
“Mmm. I have to say that I’ve been…well…surprised, I suppose, at how things have turned out. Even as far away as Ilien, I heard whispers that Siele’s affections had turned in a very different direction.” When Marlae did not immediately reply, Daenal continued, “I heard that your affections were inclined toward a much larger target…or two…as well, darling sister.”
At this, Marlae did have to laugh. “You know that romance and politics rarely mix, Daen. But I’m impressed that you kept your ear to the ground so well in Aglondier’s court. Yes, Aydin and I both have our checkered histories. I don’t think…that is, I don’t know that Aydin really quite knows in what directions his affections lead, and you know me and big, ugly men.”
Daenal laughed as well. “Oh, I know it. Speaking of Michael Agnelie…”
At that moment, a very striking woman stepped out from the crowd of courtiers and ascended the dais to stand by Daenal’s elbow. “I heard all of zee hilarity from over here and I thought I should come and see what eet is that you were finding so funny,” the woman proclaimed in a lilting Brechtur accent. “Lady Marlae,” she continued, dropping a deep and cleavage-baring curtsey, “and sweetpea,” with a kiss on the cheek for Daenal.
“You remember my sister, don’t you Katreda?”
“Oh of course, how could I forget zees lovely face!” Katreda smiled. She was the kind of woman that Marlae had always especially loathed. Tiny and dark, in the way of most Brecht women, she had perfectly curling cocoa-colored hair down to her shoulders, a plump rosebud of a mouth, and curves that could best be described as ‘buttery.’ The knowledge that she was, in fact, not a woman at all only slightly attenuated Marlae’s distaste.
“I see that things are going well for you in the domain of romance, Daenal,” she commented, as her brother reached up a hand to snag Katreda around the waist and pull her onto the arm of his chair.
“Isn’t she amazing?” Daenal said, looking up at the Brecht woman’s face with an expression of rapture. “We’ve been talking, and we’re thinking of asking Vilnik…”
Whatever terrifying pronouncement Daenal was about to level was cut mercifully short by the blustering intrusion of Gaered Biersen.
“My lord, my lady…Lady Katreda…” the seneschal said, “I’m afraid I have received some terrible news.
“The count of Edlin, Karl Ritter, is dead.”