“Lady Hania, a moment if I may,” a deep, rich voice called out from across the great hall.
I had just finished my breakfast and was now adjourning to the chapel for morning prayers. Clutching my hymn book to my tightening belly, I halted when I saw who spoke. Argath Mercer trotted towards me, tugging a pair of riding gloves over his large hands.
People didn't frighten me easily. Most of the time, they were all too easy to solve. Even those who thought themselves mysterious were merely conceited. But Argath Mercer was not like those people. His predatory eyes set me on guard as he approached.
I didn't trust him anymore than he trusted me. Neither of us would be considered likable and nor were we much bothered by this fact. Perhaps we were too similar to ever seek common ground.
“Yes, what is it?” I kept my voice indifferent and met his eyes, refusing to show weakness.
He nodded towards the book. “You are very devoted in your faith. The late mistress of Highfire, Sidimund's mother, you are like her.”
I smirked, unsure of how to take his statement. “Wasn't she accused of witchcraft and adultery at Primiad?”
“She was acquitted, of course.” He shrugged, furrowing his brow. “I have heard that we will not only be welcoming one but two of my late master's children into the world come spring.”
“Yes, that is correct. His mistress is with child as well.”
“The woman was never publicly recognized by Lord Sidimund though.” He shifted his weight and stared down at me. “Why have you decided to give her the title?”
I hated being talked down to by those so clearly beneath me. “Squire, I am unsure why you feel you are allowed to ask me these questions? For the time being, I am the Lady of Highfire, wife of your former master and potentially the future bride of his son.”
Argath retreated a step with a flicker of a smile and dip of his head. “I do not wish to offend you-”
“Then I suggest you keep your questions to yourself. I have no time for them.” I whipped away.
“You know I am the bastard of the late Lord Vultuff, I am Sidimund's half brother.”
I halted and glanced back at him. “Why was that never said before?”
“I was never recognized as you have done for the nursemaid and her child. You are good to give the child a chance for more than just servitude in life.”
He flashed the first real smile I had seen on him. It was the same alarming charm that Sidimund had possessed, but like Theodric, he hid it just beneath the surface.
I clutched my book to me. “Perhaps. Good day to you, squire.”
The man's unsettling attentions stayed with me even as I entered the chapel. Perhaps the reason why he had disturbed me all along was that he and Sidimund were blood. Argath was certainly more serious than Sidimund but his presence was as commanding. His eyes were as cursed as Theodric's. I feared the sons of Sidimund would look the same when they grew to manhood. If Estra and I were to have any sons.
I prayed hard for male heirs that day and fasted through the afternoon even though Teàrlag has forbade me to do so. I needed to show my entire devotion to Dylene. Estra found me half awake at the alter by nightfall.
“You are going to kill yourself, my lady,” she grumbled, helping me from the cold stones and to my feet. “Then where we all be?”
“I am making sure the doors are opened to us, lighting the path,” I babbled, my head spinning with hunger.
“Begging your pardon, my lady, but you are being foolish. You need to eat something.”
I did not argue with her. Estra had become more bold with me ever since our agreement. She would never be as confident as Teàrlag but her apprehension around me was fading. I still hadn't decided if that was a good thing.
“The men are due back at Highfire within the hour. They are bringing a guest,” Estra whispered in the hall as we entered my solar.
Emalia looked up from the hearth where she sat playing with her rag dolls that Cook had made for her. Even with all the lovely gifts her father spoiled her with, Emalia loved the shredded, blank faced babies made from ragged linen and wool. She leaped over to us and reached for Estra's hand, not mine. I was too weak to be bothered by it.
“Lady Mother, we have been waiting all day for you. You must be hungry.” Emalia danced over to make me a plate with slices of wheat bread and hard cheese nearby. Pouring me a cup of watered wine, Estra hand it to me with a nod.
After getting something on my stomach and the drink settling my thoughts, I sat back in the chair with a sigh. “What guest?”
“A man from Primiad, I hear.” Estra leaned forward, “The servants have been gossiping.”
I scoffed, “Is that anything new?”
“It seems he was the one your husband was visiting during those trips to Primiad. A very powerful man, Tulin Odovacar.”
My one regret during my marriage to Sidimund was that I had never swallowed my pride and begged him to take me to Primiad. I much preferred my solitude in the Highfire chapel and my walks around the lake. City life had never appealed to me and the thought of visiting one was dreadful. But now, I wished I could have garnered a better understanding of the politics there. Especially with what Theodric had suggested to me weeks earlier.
He hadn't spoken of our conversation since it had happened. I had only seen him a handful of times and his behavior was pleasant but distant. I wondered if I had dreamed it all up, his words of treason, usurping Ervig's prince to put a child of mine on the throne.
“Who is he, this Tulin Odovacar?”
Estra sipped her own glass of wine and called Emalia away from the window. The wind howled with another snow storm that had crept up from the low lands. The men would be frozen to the bone when they arrived. “I would think you'd know the name.”
“He is your father's second cousin. I hear tell it was his scheming that had you married to Lord Sidimund so soon after-”
“After my father died.” I finished her sentence with a growl. “I knew a noble from Primiad had something to do with it but was never told his name.”
“Yes, well, he is very rich and very well connected. It was his influence that almost won back the throne to your family line for your father. Of course he lost.”
I smirked and stretched my aching back in the chair. “You certainly do soak up a lot, don't you?”
Estra nodded as Emalia sat in front of her. Combing her fingers through the little girl's hair, she began to braid it. “I am not on your level but neither am I equal with the servants. Hovering in the middle of the social classes within Highfire, I am nearly invisible. And so, I learn much from sitting in shadows.”
“You are becoming quite a surprising ally,” I commented and Estra beamed.
I studied her hands as she folded my daughter's golden curls into a plait. Estra noticed. “Would you like to try, my lady?”
Emalia didn't look at me but clenched her knees to her chest. I knew apprehension when I saw it. My daughter feared me like so many others within Highfire. For the first time, the knowledge of this bit me to the bone. “Yes, if she will have me.”
Emalia obediently scooted towards me but didn't look in my direction. Taking the bone white comb from Estra, I dug the teeth into the thick curls. Her looks were so different from me, she looked more like Estra's daughter than mine. I had been told she took after my husband's mother, the late Lady of Highfire with an explosive reputation. Honey haired and amber eyed with a mouth like a rose bud and a sharp chin, we were as opposite as cream and charcoal.
“Your hair is very lovely, daughter.” I attempted.
“Thank you, Lady Mother.”
I tied a strip of cloth around the end of the braid. Emalia hopped up and took a step away from me. She looked towards Estra. “May I be excused to the kitchen?”
Estra glanced over at me, her gaze awkward. “Miss Emalia, you must ask your mother.”
Emalia turned to me and folded her hands at her back. “May I?”
I wet my lips. “Of course-”
She darted away, grabbing her rag dolls as she left the rooms. I played with the teeth on the comb in my lap.
“She asks about you often.” Estra broke the silence. “She always wants to go to chapel but I don't want her to disturb you.”
A year ago, I would have agreed with her. I wondered what had happened in such a short amount of time to make me want to take on my role as a mother. It could only be the pregnancy warping my perspective. The thought that I would never be close to my daughter was painful.
“Yes, perhaps,” I replied, setting the comb on the table between us.
Estra drew breath to speak but the heavy throb of hooves on the snowy cobblestones below drew our attention. Like adolescent girls, we scurried towards the window. Theodric and Argath were already dismounting. Behind them were three more riders, one richly clothed in a gold embroidered cloak.
“That must be the man from the city. Only a fool would ride these roads in such expensive clothing. He is practically begging to be robbed,” I snarled.
“I wonder if he will invite you to speak with him, I can only assume there will be a modest feast with them.”
“Invitation or not, I will have his ear.” I tapped my fingers on the sill as the man dismounted.
After what he had condemned me to in marriage with Sidimund, this Tulin Odovacar owed me that much at least. I would not have Theodric directing both my and my child's destiny. If we were to make a try for the throne, I would have a direct hand in matters or I would refuse to lend my name to it at all.ns 188.8.131.52da2