Times are changing in Rendelsham. The old King is dead, and the foolish Prince Florian has assumed the throne. Florian's mother, Queen Ysa of the House of Oak, still controls the land from behind the scences, but her job grows more difficult every day. Her unworthy, headstrong son is harder to control than her husband was, and she must spend more time than ever masking her own movements. Her husband's illegitimate daughter Ashen, heir to the nearly dead House of Ash, still causes trouble by her very existence, and must never be given an opening to the throne. The barbarian Sea-Rover clan presents problems from the edge of the Bog, Ysa's newest magical ally has been exposed as a traitor, and nothing is going as Ysa had planned.
And still the unknown yet encroaching threat from the North continues to grow.
Through births and deaths, marriages and duels, love and betrayal, magic and force, the four Houses of Rendelsham can only survive by the strength of their unity--but is unity possible in such a court of intrigue as this one?
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For well over a half century, Andre Norton has been one of the most popular science fiction and fantasy authors in the world. Since her first SF novels were published in the 1940s, her adventure SF has enthralled readers young and old. With series such as Time Traders, Solar Queen, Forerunner, Beast Master, Crosstime, and Janus, as well as many stand-alone novels, her tales of action and adventure throughout the galaxy have drawn countless readers to science fiction.
Her fantasy, including the best-selling Witch World series, her "Magic" series, and many other unrelated novels, has been popular with readers for decades. Lauded as a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America, she is the recipient of a Life Achievement Award from the World Fantasy Convention. Not only have her books been enormously popular; she also has inspired several generations of SF and fantasy writers, especially many talented women writers who have followed in her footsteps. In the past two decades she has worked with other writers on a number of novels. Most notable among these are collaborations with Mercedes Lackey, the Halfblood Chronicles, as well as collaborations with A.C. Crispin (in the Witch World series) and Sherwood Smith (in the Time Traders and Solar Queen series). An Ohio native, Ms. Norton lived for a number of years in Winter Park, Florida, and now makes her home in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where she continues to write, and presides over High Hallack, a writers' resource and retreat.
Sasha Miller has published: Three Ships and Three Kings, Priam's Daughter, The Last Heracles (under her former married name of Georgia Sallaska), The Quest (under the pen name G.S. Madden), Falcon Magic; Ladylord, and a tetralogy with Andre Norton: T o The King a Daughter, Knight or Knave, A Crown Denied, and Dragon Blade, scheduled for late 2003, in addition to numerous short stories. Her nonfiction book, Mother Miller's How To Write Good Book, is currently available from FoxAcre Press. She is a member of the Authors' Guild and SFWA, and is a Clarion '84 survivor. Married to Ben W. Miller, she resides with him in Colorado Springs.
In the capital city of Rendelsham, a steady drizzle had been falling for days, keeping all inside whose duties did not require that they venture out. Also it was unseasonably cold. Servants kept fireplaces stoked and the damp, green wood they were forced to use--all the seasoned having been used during the winter--sent clouds of smoke over the city. Inside houses where chimneys were not efficient, a similar veil of smoke hung in he air, making people cough and sneeze as they huddled into warm clothing they had thought to put away until winter.
The forced idleness had its uses, however, for there seemed to be no one at court who was not occupied with the problem of what to do with Ashen, daughter of the late Kind Boroth, newly come to Rendel from the Bale-Bog where she had spent most of her life. This was an illegitimate daughter, to be sure, but one possessing a strong claim to the throne, perhaps enough to topple the new King, Florian, if only the lady herself had been of a mind to undertake such a thing.
Thus, in many residences this topic was the subject of much conjecture, and prominent among them were the households of the Dowager Queen Ysa, who consulted frequently with Lord Royance, Head of the Council of Regents, and Count Harous, now officially the Lord Marshal of Rendel, who consulted with no one. Rather, he was given to action and it was obvious that the action upon which he was now embarked was the wooing or Lady Ashen herself.
This day Lady Marcala of Valvager--in reality, Marfey, Queen of Spies--had come seeking audience with the Queen, who granted it willingly. "Welcome!" she said when Marcala came into her privy chamber. She turned to her ladies. "Being heated wine and spice cakes, and then leave us."
Marcala let Lady Ingrid take her rain-dewed cloak to hang near the fire where it might dry. She approached the fireplace gratefully, rubbing her hands. "Even with gloves lined with rabbit fur the cold seeps through and pinches my fingers," she said. "I've forgotten the last time I saw sunlight."
"I welcome your presence, but I know the errand must have been urgent to bring you all the way from Cragden Keep. Come, take a seat by the fire. You'll soon be warm enough."
Lady Ingrid hurried in with the flagon of wine and two goblets, and a plate of cakes on a tray. Marcala poured for both herself and the Dowager and waited until Ingrid had left again before taking up her tale.
"If I could draw upon the heat inside me, I would not need a cloak," the younger woman said, a bitter note in her voice. She drew up the low chair the Dowager indicated and sat down with the air of one on intimate terms with the actual ruler of Rendel. "Instead, I am left to molder in Cragden, while Harous dallies with Ashen here in the city."
"Surely our good Count is not behaving improperly."
"As to that, I do not know. But, to be fair, Ashen lived for many years in the Bog, and defended herself from what threatened from any quarter. Surely she is not so bedazzled that she would yield to Harous's blandishments before marriage for all that he was the one who rescued her and brought her here."
Ysa looked keenly at her noblewoman, her own creation, the supreme spy she had set to be her human eyes and ears in the household of one who might be a threat or a danger to her plans. She did not miss the reference to marriage, nor did she miss the unmistakable resentment in Marcala's voice. This resentment, Ysa knew, came from jealousy--and this jealousy came from the spell Ysa had herself performed to make sure Marcala's interest focused on Harous. With Marcala enthralled by Harous, Ysa knew she could keep her Queen of Spies under her complete control, first advancing and then retracting her approval regarding. Harous. Also, she had seen to it that Harous was in love with Marcala, according to the spell. His ambition, however, was not subject to any such weakness as matters of the heart and therein lay the weakness in this scheme. Ysa thought again about what Marcala had said.
"But you have yielded to the Marshal," the Dowager remarked, trying to keep her tone neutral. She was rewarded by seeing Marcala blush to the roots of her hair.
"He has visited my apartment on occasion. It seemed the appropriate step to take," she said defensively.
"To what effect?"
"He says he loves me. When we are in private he acts like he does. But he is wooing Ashen. And he says he is making good progress."
Ysa kept herself from frowning with an effort. She had enough to worry about concerning King Florian and his latest escapade, without this added. It was all well and good for Harous to pay suit to Ashen, as long as the wench stayed aloof. But if she seemed to be yielding--No, it would not do at all.
"Have you spoken to Lady Ashen?" Ysa said.
"I have not. Though Harous has given me no direct orders, my feeling is that he wants me to stay away from his residence here in the city, where he has installed her. And so I have had no opportunity to visit the lady. Besides, I do not think that she would confide in me." Marcala's lips twisted. "A Princess--so much better than I am. Bog-Princess, that's all she is."
Ysa had to bite her own lips to keep from laughing out loud. Bog-Princess, indeed! And yet, she understood. "It is only natural that you would not be able to summon up much warmth toward her. After all, she is standing in your way."
"If you could but find someone else, another nobleman--"
"Do you know of anyone suitable?" Ysa sipped at her wine, keenly aware that Marcala was not telling everything that was on her mind. It was a delicate problem. Ashen, last known heir of the House of Ash, in ancient times the cradle of Kings, and the late King Boroth's acknowledged bastard daughter at that, had become much more than an annoying Bog-brat or even, in Marcala's amusing phrase, an annoying Bog-Princess. Unmarried, she was the center of a political faction opposed to King Florian, whether she willed it or not, and a temptation to every hedge-knight eager to improve his station in life. Too lofty a marriage and she was a danger to Florian and even to his heir, when he should have one. Too base a marriage, and she was still a danger, because of those who would become angered at the insult and glad to have this matter as an excuse for opposition to the Crown.
She wondered if the rumors about Rannore, the new Rowan heiress since Laherne had died, were true. Well, time would tell if there was going to be another heir to dispute Ashen's claim.
"Perhaps I could think of a suitable candidate," Marcala said. She set the empty goblet on the tray and did not move to refill it. "But my strong feeling is that Ashen will marry no one at all, if she does not want to. She has not been trained to set aside personal feelings, the way she would have had she been brought up properly."
"And what do you suggest?"
Now the Dowager raised one eyebrow. This was something she had not anticipated having to endure--bringing the bastard child of her late husband into her very home, speaking to her face to face. She had not laid eyes on the girl since that awful day when the King was dying. Royance had brought her into the very death chamber, giving Ysa a chance to throw her support to this sturdy Ash twig rather than the spindly, gawky, unworthy product of her union with Boroth.
And now, this new King, Florian, was creating his own share of personal mischief with Rannore. Her cousin Laherne had died in childbirth, so the story went, only a few months after a visit to Rendelsham. The gossip was that Florian was responsible and also that the aged Erft's passing had been hurried along because of the shame. His younger brother Wittern, a contemporary and friend of Royance, now governed in his place. Ysa had thought to address this matter today, rather than the question of Ashen and a potential marriage. The Dowager sighed. One unpleasantness versus another. Both must be dealt with, but each in its time. Marcala was here present, and Rannore and her guardian, Wittern of Rowan, had not yet arrived at the city.
"Send for Ashen," Ysa said. "Tell a messenger to go and fetch her while you wait with me."
Marcala inclined her head. "Yes, Madame." Then she arose and went to do the Dowager's bidding.
* * *
Obern flexed his arm, the one that had been broken in a battle with giant birds atop a cliff at the edge of the Bale-Bog. It was whole and well again, though it ached a little in the damp weather, and this day he wanted nothing more than to go back home. He missed his Sea-Rover companions, missed the freedom of being able to go out in a ship where the sea air blew away the miasma of city life.
That, however, would be as Count Harous pleased. For the moment at least, Count Harous pleased to keep Obern as his "guest" and Obern still did not know why.
Once in a great while, since the doctor had decreed that he no longer needed to keep his arm in a sling, Obern had been allowed to go out on a patrol. As long as it did not involve ranging a great distance from Cragden Keep or actual skirmishing with the Bog-men, who still kept up their campaign of raids on honest Rendelian farmers, he could ride with the soldiers as he pleased. Even that break in the routine was denied to him now, however, since he and Ashen had been removed to Rendelsham and Harous's great house at the foot of the rise where the castle perched.
Still, this part of his sojourn had been interesting. Before now, he had never really learned to handle a horse, and now he was counted more than adequate. He had never been among a group of land nobles, so that he could observe their ways. He had never before attended a royal funeral, or a coronation, when the new King Florian was crowned.
Obern studied Florian appraisingly. So this was the one who had come, as the report had it, to his father, Snolli, with his little private treaty paper in his hand. Obern almost laughed, but that would have interrupted the ceremony. Oh, the King looked good enough stripped to the waist for the anointing but that was merely...
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