Lord Ranin Versal sighed. He loved his princess with all his heart, but she could drive him to distraction.
“The new emperor,” said Edera, “is a courtly man. How can you imagine, my lord, that he might be planning treachery?”
“Your highness,” Ranin said wearily, “the reason for Emperor Comnar’s reputation as a courtly man is that his courtiers stand in fear of him and would never give out a different story. Those of us with more experience understand that Comnar came to power in the same way that all emperors come to power: lying and treachery. Those with any wisdom hold the opinion that he murdered two elder brothers and poisoned his father. The chronicles will never hold the true story of the emperor—and if you do this, I fear they will never hold the story of the principality of Amidia either. To accept his invitation to this parley is folly.”
“Who is the princess and who the chancellor?” Edera asked, her fair cheeks growing pink with her frustration at the challenge from Ranin, as he knew to his sorrow she must perceive his efforts to keep her safe.
If only her father had taken a little more care with her education. But as a girl, Edera, princess of Amidia, had been allowed to use her native wit to whatever purpose she chose—including a great deal of mischief in the palace of her father, the prince of Amidia—and now the prince had gone to join his Aurian ancestors in the sky, leaving Princess Edera behind as a young, inexperienced, willful female ruler of a perilous principality. And Auner had left Lord Ranin Versal, his favorite captain of horse, as chancellor to watch over Edera as best he could.
Prince Auner had ruled his tiny principality as well, otherwise, as Ranin could imagine any prince ruling an Aurian kingdom, planted from across the sea by refugees from the Aurian homeland. Besides the over-tender treatment of Princess Edera after her mother died bearing a stillborn heir, Auner’s only crime was to die far before his time in a storm at sea, leaving Edera princess of Amidia and Ranin her chancellor, justiciar, and chief marshal.
Still, Ranin had thought that all would end well: he would find a husband for Edera and he would teach that husband how to rule Amidia, and then he would pass into retirement gratefully and perhaps even return home to faraway Auria, where the wars had long since ceased.
He looked at her across the dark oak of her father’s table in the little writing closet that had been Auner’s and now had come to Edera, along with Amidia itself. If only she would give over this foolishness and let him pacify the emperor as her father had done so many times, he would have no trouble finding a good husband for her—perhaps even from the imperial court. Her sea-blue eyes and golden tresses matched a mouth so lovely any man would kneel down and do homage to win the honor of kissing it for the first time. Ever since the princess had turned eighteen, indeed, Ranin—a widower for the past fifteen years—had found himself unable to keep completely from his mind the desires the princess awoke even in him.
“You are the princess, your highness,” Ranin said, trying not to let his own frustration sound clearly in his tone and knowing that he failed.
“Then kindly allow me to tell you my will, my lord. I ride out tomorrow at daybreak to parley with the emperor.”
“Your highness,” Ranin said, trying one last time, “you must not do this.”
“Do not use that word with me, my lord,” Edera said. The determination and stubbornness in her voice was unmistakable. There was no way to avert it: this parley would take place. All Ranin could do was pray that he had mistaken the emperor for a more cunning warrior than he truly was. Perhaps the princess’ hopes would actually be realized. Ranin knew that behind her willfulness in this matter lay the dream, which Ranin thought foolish, that the emperor might plan to wed one of his sons to the princess of Amidia. Again, Comnar would have to be a stupider fellow than Ranin took him for to waste a son on Amidia. But Edera’s beauty, to be fair, had already gained fame throughout the Maqian Empire, as the minstrels who ventured up the ascent to the vale of Amidia constantly told her.
“Very well, your highness. We will defend you as best we may.”
“No, my lord. You shall not. My honor guard and my ladies-in-waiting will bring me to the parley, and my chancellor shall remain here in my palace, for the emperor knows that you are the marshal of my armies, and he would take it in bad part should you be there. Besides, if the emperor wished to have Amidia, would he not simply send a legion to take it? We do much better to show him that we know our place.”
“What sort of fancy is this, highness? We have survived because we do not offend, and because our mountain fastnesses make it too troublesome to destroy us. Surely, you cannot mean that you should ride down from our mountains without proper escort by your knights…”
Ranin knew the moment he spoke that he could well regret the outburst for a very long time. The pink spots in the princess’ cheeks, which had begun to fade a little at having put him in his place, now grew to the size of silver coins. He knew that all hope of persuading her to reason had gone.
Still the vehemence with which she spoke her final cutting words to him seemed extreme. “I do, my lord. It is the courteous thing. And, of course, it will pay you out for your want of faith in me. Perhaps on my return I shall find a new chancellor. Pray, do not let me keep you, my lord, from your duties with your knights.”
With his stomach sinking into his boots, Ranin turned and left the princess to write the response to the emperor that Ranin knew with absolute certainty would spell great suffering for her, for him, and for their little kingdom.
The next morning, he was there in the courtyard of the palace to see the little party off on their morning’s ride to the border of Amidia with the great Maqian Empire to the north. He could hardly bear to look at Edera and her ladies-in-waiting, primping and preening—so sure they would all find imperial husbands. To the honor guard, four handsome young knights in burnished armor, he said, “I beg of you: keep careful watch over the princess. I do not like her highness’ decision, and I fear it will go ill with you, and with her.”
“My lord,” said Sir Lennar, “you worry overmuch. Surely the emperor would not do something unchivalrous. We have taken his word, and he will keep it.”
“Sir Lennar,” Ranin replied. “I could not hope any more strongly that you are correct. The princess seems to wish to humble me to the ground, but I will love her to my dying day nonetheless.”
Edera herself rode her palfrey over at that moment. “Farewell, my lord chancellor,” she said. “I look forward to returning this evening with the proof of my ability to judge the occasion.” Her tone had softened from the day before, and so Ranin could tell at least that she did not truly have plans to replace him as chancellor. If only his misgivings about this parley could indeed go for naught. Ranin wished with all his heart that it could be true that he had grown too suspicious in the service of Amidia.
He watched the small party ride through the gates of the palace and down the steep road that lay beyond, stretching into the valley that made the heart of this little mountain realm. An hour would take them to the top of the ascent, where Ranin, like his predecessors as chief marshal, kept a scout camp. Two hours more of painstaking riding down that same ascent, the series of steep switchbacks that made Amidia formidable despite only having one hundred knights and five hundred men-at-arms to defend her, would bring them to the border. In the hundred-year history of the principality, several much larger forces—including an imperial legion—had been broken with relative ease in the attempt to make their way up that road toward the vale of Amidia and the little city of Amidia proper.
It had been Edera’s great-grandfather, the Aurian prince Auner, who became Auner the First of Amidia, who had found the valley with its wonderful herd of horses, and recognized that an impregnable fortress might be built at its head. Building that fortress had occupied the next ten years of his life, after he had—according to his excited account—had a marvelous dream in which an angel had pointed to the spot where Auner should build a castle, and had declared, “There your house must stand against the rush of the unfaithful.”
Ranin had come to Amidia at the age of sixteen, in the company of his uncle, seeking his fortune as a squire in the several Aurian realms in exile, of which Amidia numbered as the smallest. Edera’s father, Auner the Third, had seen in him the gift for leadership of men in battle, and Auner himself had knighted Ranin a year after his arrival, offering him the captaincy of his household horse.
“Your uncle is dead,” Auner had said bluntly. Ranin’s uncle had died in a pointless border squabble with the Aurian kingdom of Jersala, to the south, the week before. “And you tell me that you have four older brothers back home in Auria.”
Ranin nodded mutely.
“Amidia is small, I know,” Auner said. “And she may never offer you the glory of which you dreamt when you came east. But the time comes when a warrior must choose where to make his stand. They may have more silk and more peacocks in Auria, but do we not have the vale, and the best steeds ever a man rode? Surely Amidia is as good a place to stand as any.”
And Ranin had agreed. Truly he needed no persuasion, for those were the days of Edera’s mother Princess Marga, and the court of Amidia was a fine, gay place where a man flew his falcon in the morning and feasted with the prince into the night. Nor, after Marga died, had Ranin felt tempted to depart. Though Marga took the hope of an heir to Auner with her, and the future of Amidia grew much less certain, as the task of finding a new wife of sufficient nobility for Auner seemed more daunting every day, Ranin never truly felt that his decision to stay by Auner’s side had been the wrong one. No, he had never felt that until now.
He had lived only thirty-five years thus far, eighteen of them in Amidia, but he felt like he had passed three score in the service of his prince and then his princess. The legs on which he climbed to the top of the tower above the gate felt leaden to him. The eyes through which he watched the figures of Edera’s little band disappear down the slope at the other end of the valley felt to him like they had seen too many moments when all could be lost through a single foolish act.
The life of service to which Auner had invited him had never failed to make Ranin feel that he spent his days usefully and well, but to be chancellor of Amidia was to live in constant peril. A sufficiently large and determined legion could force an ascent up even the steepest slope, and heaven knew that the emperor had as many legions as he needed—at least when it came to conquering tiny principalities.
Thinking ruefully of how very beautiful Edera looked when she grew angry, and how the pink fired her cheeks, Ranin turned and climbed back down the stairs, bound for the training ground where he would go through the mounted battle exercises he had gone through every day but for feast days for the past eighteen years. Silently, he entrusted Edera to the care of the gods in the sky. Surely the gods must preserve a girl so beautiful, he thought, and of such true heart. His princess did not really lack judgment—nor indeed had her father truly spoiled her. She simply needed experience, and even without a husband she could rule Amidia fairly and well. Every ruler had his—or her—youthful errors, Ranin told himself, trying to push away his forebodings.
Then he sighed once again, forced to admit, if only inwardly, that most youthful errors did not carry such a terrible risk of dire consequences, and wishing that Edera had chosen to dance with the wrong knight instead of going to a parley with the emperor of Maq from which she might never return.