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Our Lady Of The Snow

The small kingdom of Vyskir is under threat of invasion by Duke Arec, leader of the neighboring state. The people of Vyskir look to the benevolence of their god and his consort, the Lady of the Snow, but for some years now, the Lady has sent no visions and the religious elders are secretly questioning her very existence.

A marriage union between Arec's daughter and the heir of Vyskir's ailing Imperator would eliminate the threat, but such a union can--and must--involve the Imperator's second son only, for the true heir apparent, Prince Osiv, is a congenital simpleton. As the law decrees that the eldest son must be the first to marry, the elders set out to find Osiv a bride.

Nanta is the perfect choice; meek, docile, well-bred, and beautiful--and, along with the rest of the populace, unaware of Prince Osiv's condition. But Nanta has a sinister secret. For many years she has been haunted by visions of the Lady of the Snow; vision she dares not reveal to a living soul. For in them the Lady is dead. And a powerful voice, that's getting harder to resist, is calling Nanta to avenge her...

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Louise Cooper

May 29, 1952 -- October 21, 2009

Louise Cooper was born in Hertfordshire in 1952. She began writing stories when she was at school to entertain her friends. She hated school so much, in fact—spending most lessons clandestinely writing stories—that she persuaded her parents to let her abandon her education at the age of fifteen and has never regretted it.

She continued to write and her first full-length novel was published when she was only twenty years old. She moved to London in 1975 and worked in publishing before becoming a full-time writer in 1977. Since then she has become a prolific writer of fantasy, renowned for her bestselling Time Master trilogy. She has published more than eighty fantasy and supernatural novels, both for adults and children. She also wrote occasional short stories for anthologies, and has co-written a comedy play that was produced for her local school.

Louise Cooper lived in Cornwall with her husband, Cas Sandall, and their black cat, Simba. She gained a great deal of writing inspiration from the coast and scenery, and her other interests included music, folklore, cooking, gardening and "messing about on the beach." Just to make sure she keeps busy, she was also treasurer of her local Lifeboat station.

Louise passed away suddenly in October 2009. She was a wonderful and talented lady and will be greatly missed.

Reviews

One of the finest writers of epic fantasy.

Michael Moorcock
Excerpt

Chapter One

Evening devotions at the Metropolis temple were a public ceremony, and the congregations were always large. There was a popular notion that particular spiritual credit was earned by attending this greatest and most elaborate of the three daily rites; and on the secular side it was certainly a sound move, for the Fathers and Mothers took especial note of faces in the crowd and there was always the chance that the occasion would be graced by the presence of one or more members of the imperial family in their galleried box high above the tiers of the temple amphitheater. Tonight, too, there was an added incentive, for the anthems and sanctification chants were to be sung by the choir of the Court Academy. The choir rarely performed on everyday occasions, but everyone knew that they were rehearsing intensively for the imminent visit of the Sekolian ambassador with its attendant pomp and ceremonial. This was a dry run, so to speak, and the choir were gathered now in the amphitheater’s great semi-circular bowl; two hundred and thirty women and girls, all dressed in identical gold-threaded gowns, awaiting the arrival of the officiating High Father. In the shimmer of a myriad lamps and candles they looked ethereal, as other-worldly as the carved figure of the Lady, who sat eternally at the feet of her lord and consort in the massive, high-relief devotional image behind the altar. The figure of the God himself, towering, faceless and utterly dominant, rose above the altar and the choir’s massed ranks like a colossus. Already a number of offerings had been laid before the image, and more would follow as people petitioned for advice or intervention or blessings.

The gazes of most of the congregation were on the choir, though some shifted upwards now and then to glance with hopeful speculation at the imperial box. The box’s damask curtains were closed and the fretwork screen was in place, making it impossible to tell whether it was occupied. The Imperator and his family did not show themselves to the common gaze except on the most prominent ceremonial occasions, but the possibility that they were here tonight, albeit invisible, was a valuable sop to public contentment.

From his own lofty perspective in another screened cubicle on the elevated gallery, Exalted Father Urss had also been studying the imperial box, though his interest was cursory and a matter of habit rather than anything else. In his opinion, none of the royal family were likely to be present in the temple. The Imperator himself, burdened by the failing health of old age, rarely made the journey through the private tunnel from the palace these days; his elder son, Prince Osiv, could not be expected to do so, and Prince Kodor, his younger son, usually managed to find a plausible reason for staying away. Urss made a mental note to have another stern word with Prince Kodor on that subject, and one or two other matters while he was about it, then turned his attention once more to the patiently waiting choir.

Which one of them was the girl in question? Father Urss’ sharp eyes had singled out several possible candidates, some of whom looked acceptable whilst others clearly were not. But he took no pleasure in guessing games and was growing irritated by waiting for the devotions to begin. Sound—even a whisper—carried clearly in the gallery, and he could not speak to his companion, and thus risk being overheard, until there was music and chanting to mask his voice. There was no excuse for this delay, and another mental note was filed away to the effect that the attitude of some temple Fathers towards their offices was becoming slipshod, and the failing must be nipped in the bud.

The rite did finally begin, with a cold fanfare of trumpets that brought the congregation dutifully to its feet. Father Urss did not rise, and neither did his companion; hidden as they were behind the fretwork it seemed an unnecessary waste of energy. As the ceremonial (which both knew so thoroughly that they could shut it from their minds) got under way, Urss turned at last to the small, dumpy woman seated in the chair beside him.

“We can speak now, I think, Beck. Kindly point out the girl you have in mind.”

Grand Mother Beck leaned forward with a rustle of her blue silk robe and scanned the vista below through a conveniently placed gap in the fretwork. Seventy years old, which gave her a decade over Father Urss, she had been head of the Imperial Sanctum of the Lady for four years and was widely regarded as the most astute politician ever to grace the post. Short, stout, with a jowly face and formidable eyes, she was well aware of her increasing value to Father Urss and his allies on the Exalted Council in matters such as this one, and her face reflected her confidence as she replied in a practiced undertone.

“The fourth row, eighth from the left. The small one with the fair hair.”

Father Urss followed her direction. “Ah. That one.” Had he noticed her during his private speculation? He couldn’t remember. At this distance detail was sketchy, but the first impression was encouraging. The girl was young—eighteen or nineteen, he would surmise—and appeared pretty; her hair was corn-gold rather than merely fair (though that, of course, might be the effect of the lights) and, above all, she looked demure. Docile. Obedient.

He raised the magnifying hand glass that he had brought with him for the purpose and held it to his right eye. The girl’s face sprang into clearer focus, and he nodded, satisfied by what he saw. She was pretty; so delicately innocent as to be almost doll-like. In terms of her appearance, at least, she was eminently suitable.

“What is her name?” he asked.

“Nanta,” said Grand Mother Beck.

To Father Urss’ certain knowledge there had not been a Nanta in the highest echelons before; but the name was not flamboyant, and it sat well enough on the tongue. He nodded again. “And you say she is of the EsDorikye family. Which house?”

“The north-eastern.”

“Mmm.” Urss’ tone implied neither approval nor disapproval; he was merely assimilating facts. “Her pedigree, I presume, is what prompted you to choose her over any other potential candidates?”

“Yes, Father.” Beck did not mention the other factor, the uncommon and unfamiliar instinct that, for some reason, which she did not trouble to question, had led her to Nanta EsDorikye. Priest he might be, but Father Urss had no time for instinct and intuition; to him they were women’s foibles and thus to be disparaged. Opening a leather wallet she carried, she handed him a folded piece of paper. “I have a copy of the pedigree here. I checked the details personally against the Crown Registry, and they are all correct.”

“You are thorough, as always.”

Beck smiled. “Thank you, Exalted Father.”

Neither spoke for a while as Father Urss studied the paper. Beyond the screen the ceremony was progressing but they were hardly aware of it. Even when the choir began to sing, neither spared so much as a moment’s attention for the spine-tingling beauty of the women’s clear, pure voices filling the temple. The Academy choir might be second to none in the whole of Vyskir, but Beck and Urss had neither the ear nor any partiality for music and ignored it as they might have ignored a buzzing fly.

Eventually Father Urss folded the paper and said, “It seems, Grand Mother, that you have made an excellent choice in every respect.” He paused. “I trust the girl herself has no inkling of what’s in the wind?”

“Naturally not.” Beck’s voice was level but her eyes betrayed momentary annoyance that he should even need to ask the question.

“Good. Then it only remains to put our choice before the Imperator and persuade him to our way of thinking. Frankly, I doubt if that will be a problem.”

Beck’s eyebrows lifted faintly as she noticed how, already, he was crediting himself as well as her with the choice. “I hope not, Father. Though I understand that the Imperator would prefer Prince Osiv not to be married at all.”

“That,” said Urss with faint asperity, “is not a matter in which even the Imperator has any choice now.” He rose to his full, considerable height. “I have seen all I need to, Mother Beck, and under the circumstances I’m sure the God will understand and pardon our early departure.”

Turning in the direction of the statue he made a deep, reverent bow. Beck followed suit and they moved to the door at the back of the cubicle. Beck drew aside the silk curtain, stood back to allow Urss to precede her, and they walked together along the gallery towards a side staircase that formed a private and privileged link with the complexity of the temple’s inner offices. As they started down the wide, shallow steps, Beck said, “What will you require of me now, Father?”

Urss eyed her obliquely. “I think we can safely count on the Imperator’s agreement to our proposal. So the next stage will be twofold. Firstly, the Sekolian ambassador, when he arrives, must be fully acquainted with the situation and reassured that it presents no threat to his own mission.”

“Quite,” said Beck.

“Secondly, the girl herself must be prepared for the change in her circumstances. Where that is concerned, I’m sure I don’t need to stress the need for absolute discretion.”

Beck nodded. “Of course, Father; I understand your meaning.”

Her tone suggested that she also had a strategy, but Urss knew her too well—and trusted her methods too implicitly—to demean himself by asking a direct question. He smiled, so that for a moment his saturnine face was almost pleasant. “Do whatever you think fit, Grand Mother Beck. Just keep me informed. That is all I require.”

They continued down the stairs in companionable silence.

 

****

 

Flurries of snow were falling on the towers and domes of the Metropolis as the blue coach bearing the crest of the Imperial Sanctum of the Lady clattered in full panoply over the river bridge and into the city precincts. People on foot, heads down against the wind-blown white turmoil, scrambled and slithered out of their path; an outrider’s whip cracked to liven one or two stragglers and the coach with its four caparisoned black horses swept by, hurling up a bow-wave of slush and spray. A few of those they passed recognized the crest and made obeisance or cried out for benedictions. But the cloth-of-silver curtains at the coach windows didn’t so much as twitch, let alone afford any glimpse of the august passengers inside.

Behind the curtains, in gloom relieved only by a single lamp that swung wildly from the roof as the bridge cobbles did their worst, Sister Chaia, the Imperial Sanctum’s messenger and emissary, glanced surreptitiously at her senior companion and wondered at the quirks of human nature that could have produced such a flaw in an otherwise sternly dauntless personality. High Sister Marine was sitting rigidly upright in one comer of the plush seat, her mantle drawn tightly around her and her face, in its frame of wimple, grey with affliction. Her narrow lips moved ceaselessly in silent prayer. Despite the fact that she had never before set foot in the capital city she would, Chaia knew, have given a very great deal to be utterly oblivious of her surroundings at this moment.

Marine loathed traveling and always had. She had discovered at an early age that she was prey to severe journey-sickness whenever she ventured more than a short distance, and for years now she had rarely left her own district. But this summons was one that could not be ignored, so for the past four days she had been obliged to suffer the bouts of nausea and the confusing agoraphobic-claustrophobic syndrome engendered by traveling in a closed carriage through vertiginously open country.

The two women had exchanged few words during their journey, partly because of Marine’s sickness and partly because hers was not a personality that encouraged chatter. Now, though, Chaia leaned forward and ventured gently:

“If you have never visited our great capital before, High Sister, the view from the bridge is well worth seeing.”

Marine opened her eyes and gave Chaia a pained look. “Thank you, Sister Chaia,” she said testily, “but views are of no interest whatever to me. I would prefer to know how much longer we have to endure this jolting.”

Chaia raised one hand and lifted the curtain enough to peep out. “The city is busy today.” A fond smile touched the comers of her mouth. “And the light on the river is very beautiful. The boats—”

Marine was uninterested in such trivia and interrupted. “Can you see the Academy yet?” She had no intention of demeaning herself by exposing her own face to the common gaze.

Chaia stifled a sigh. “Yes, Sister. The bell tower is visible. It’s one of the highest in the Metropolis; with a blue dome—”

“I understand that the Sanctum of the Lady is attached to the Academy. Is that so?”

“Yes, Sister.”

“Good.” Marine leaned down and pushed away the foot warmer beneath her seat. The coals had gone cold long since, and despite fur-lined boots her feet were numb. “I shall be thankful for a welcoming fire. The inns on this road leave a great deal to be desired.”

“I’m sure they did their best, Sister.”

“Perhaps they did; in which case all I can say is that their best is no cause for celebration.” Marine raised her gloved hands to her head. “Put down your veil, Sister Chaia. Court custom requires that women of rank do not show their faces unless they are within doors.”

Chaia knew that as well as she did, but didn’t have the courage to point out that custom wasn’t always followed to the letter. She obeyed, drawing the fine grey veil forward, and Marine followed suit. Through her veil, Chaia thought, the High Sister looked like a corpse. But at least once the veil was down she did finally unbend enough to draw the other curtain back a little and peer out. They were over the bridge now, and the outriders shouted to clear the way once more as the little cavalcade turned into one of the broad thoroughfares that followed the riverbank towards the heart of the Metropolis. There was more traffic here: other carriages, traders” carts, curtained sedan chairs, opulently dressed men riding well-bred horses with servants following on foot. And on the broad pavements, among lines of market stalls, people in the hundreds: a moving, bustling sea of colorful humanity. Despite her mood Marine was fascinated; for all the tales that were told about the Metropolis she had never seen people in such enormous numbers before, and no amount of imagination—of which, anyway, she possessed very little—could have prepared her for the sheer scale of everything. Many of the buildings beside this thoroughfare were four or five stories tall, and above their rooftops the great towers of the more exalted city center rose taller still, climbing high enough, or so it seemed, to pierce the clouds.

The coach rolled on, and after perhaps a quarter of a mile turned again, this time into a quieter street. Marine saw several small groups of religious women, veiled and with their hands in fur muffs, hurrying through the still falling snow, and once a velvet-cloaked High Brother walking carefully along the pavement under the protection of an oilcloth canopy carried by two pages. They were drawing closer to the towers now; façades pressed in and the horses” hooves began to echo hollowly, while the sky dwindled to a narrow ribbon between the crowding domes. Then came another turn, and ahead of them suddenly were black wrought iron gates set into a high stonewall. Carvings covered the wall’s face, depicting sacred themes and devices, and along the coping, between rows of murderously sharp spikes set to deter any would-be intruder, statues bowed their heads and upraised their hands in attitudes of prayer. Beyond, faintly unreal in the haze of snowfall and the rising vapors of the city, was the greatest structure in the entire kingdom: the gigantic central tower of the temple, its grey walls all but lost against the sky’s backdrop so that its mosaic dome seemed to float ethereally above the animation below.

Marine murmured a pious word as the tower loomed high above them, then, with no further interest in the architecture, let the curtain fall again and gestured to Chaia to do likewise. Two guards in the grey and gold of Imperial service recognized the coach’s device and opened the gates to let them through, and the horses slowed to a sedate walk as they entered the Academy precincts. The sound of the hooves and wheels changed, suggesting that the walls to either side were closing in, and at last the coach rumbled and squeaked to a halt.

The coachman had been given instructions to avoid the Academy’s public courtyard and instead deliver his passengers to the more private reception square of the Sanctum itself. High walls, again adorned with religious carvings, surrounded them on all sides, and the only sign that this was a place of any significance was the blue canopy that arched over the door, surmounted by the Lady’s own emblem of a stylized snowflake. Servants were waiting to escort them; as they passed under the canopy Marine bowed her head over clasped hands and murmured reverently, “The tears of the Lady are the blessing of the snow,” then looked sharply at Chaia to ensure that she did not forget the ritual obeisance. She was already feeling better. And, for the first time since the westward journey had begun, her sense of curiosity and interest in the reasons behind her summons to the Metropolis was reawakening.

The door closed behind them, enveloping them in a sense of warmth and opulence, which surprised Marine until she remembered that austerity was not practiced in the city as it was in more rural districts. They were conducted along a carpeted and lamp lit corridor, then up two flights of elegantly balustraded stairs that took them into the heart of the Sanctum complex. Sisters of every grade glided efficiently about their business, the lower ranks pausing to curtsey to Marine as she passed. Somewhere in the distance girls” voices were raised in the massed harmony of a Sanctification Chant; they paused while a single woman’s voice spoke firmly for a few moments, then after a brisk clap of hands the singing began again, fading behind the party as they walked on.

They reached a secluded part of the building, aloof and remote from the comparative bustle, and stopped outside an ornate door. The servants knocked respectfully; from the far side a voice called crisply, “Enter!” and Marine walked in.

Grand Mother Beck was sitting in her favorite armchair, behind a desk designed to daunt more timid spirits. A fire blazed in the grate, making lamplight unnecessary; at a hearth table two postulant Little Daughters were setting out wine and biscuits under the gimlet eye of a chatelaine. Beck looked up from a ledger on the desk before her, and her stern expression relaxed into a formal smile.

“High Sister Marine—welcome. Come in, come in. Thank you, Chaia; I’ll have no need of you now, so you may be excused until after the refectory hour.”

Chaia curtseyed and left, and at a nod from her superior the chatelaine also departed, chivvying the Little Daughters before her. The door closed, and Beck exhaled a sigh that combined relief with faint vexation.

“Sit down, Marine, do,” she said. “I don’t need to ask how you fared on your journey; your face tells me all. There; take that chair by the fire, and I shall move from this infernal desk and join you.”

Marine perched on the edge of the chair and pulled off her ermine gloves one meticulous finger at a time. “I’m glad to see you looking well, Grand Mother,” she replied. “Sister Chaia gave me to understand that recent events have proved a little…stressful for you.”

Beck knew Sister Chaia well enough to be sure that she had told Marine precisely what she had been instructed to tell her, no more and no less, and understood what lay behind this genteel probe. Marine’s curiosity had been aroused—and that was precisely what Beck had intended. For twelve years Marine had been her official amanuensis when she herself was head of the First Eastern Sanctum, and during that time she had also become, at least in private, Beck’s closest confidante. Four years ago, when Beck had been elevated to her role as the highest female religious in the kingdom, Marine had succeeded to her place in the east, and since then they had met only on a few occasions. But old ties did not weaken with distance.

Father Urss would have had grave doubts about this meeting, had he known of it. He had made it clear that he did not wish Beck to involve any new players in this particular game. But Urss was not a realist—very few of the Fathers were, Beck reflected cynically—and he was not the one who would be obliged to deal with the practicalities. That, as always, would be left to the Sisters. Beck saw no reason why she should be expected to shoulder the burden alone. Besides, whether the Fathers liked it or not, Marine was indirectly involved.

“Pour me a glass of wine, Marine, if you please. And take one yourself.” She waited until Marine had complied, then cupped the delicate, faceted vessel in her hands and gave the younger woman a shrewd look. The fire lit her heavy face and a thin tendril of hair that had escaped from her linen head-cap; for a moment she looked as old as the temple itself.

“The nature of this summons,” she said, “was, I know, peremptory in the extreme. I called you here without notice or warning, and now that you have arrived you find yourself hurried to my office with barely a moment to catch your breath.”

“I’m sure there’s a good reason, Grand Mother,” Marine replied.

“There is.” A faint, hard smile touched Beck’s mouth. “You’re not entirely out of touch in the east, are you, Marine?”

Marine bridled slightly. “I hope not. We try to keep abreast of developments—”

“And I don’t doubt you have your own thoughts on what lies behind the public façade. Thoughts that you don’t necessarily reveal to the Sisters under your care.”

Marine leaned forward slightly, her blue-grey eyes suddenly and acutely alert. Beck continued to regard her for a few moments longer, then continued.

“I have sent for you, High Sister Marine, because I have a task to entrust. And trust is the key word, for what we are about to discuss now must not, and I repeat not, be divulged to another living soul. Do I have your assurance?”

“Of course, Grand Mother.” Marine was avid now, which was all to the good. Beck nodded.

“Very well. You know, presumably, that the Imperator has been ailing this past year or so. It’s a degenerative illness, and one which neither prayer nor physic has been able to arrest. The fact is that His Majesty is unlikely to see another spring.”

Marine’s tongue appeared and licked cautiously around her lower lip. “That is very sad news.”

“Indeed. We shall all morn him. However, it is not the Imperator’s impending death that concerns the Fathers of the Exalted Council most deeply. It is the question of the succession.”

Marine said, “Ah...” There was a pause, then she added carefully, “But the succession is not open to selection…”

“Indeed,” Beck agreed. “However much anyone might wish it otherwise, the Imperator can’t choose who shall follow him. The eldest son must take the throne as always.”

“But—” Marine’s voice cut off swiftly, but she had given away enough to satisfy Beck. Marine knew. That was the one uncertainty Beck had had, and abruptly it was dispelled.

“You’re aware of the problem, then.” Her voice was level. “It has been kept from the populace at large, of course; to reveal the truth would have been unthinkable. But there is no such thing as an impenetrable secret.”

Marine smiled faintly. “You trained me yourself, Grand Mother. I hope I’m worthy of you.”

Oh, you are, Beck thought. Aloud, she said, “Unfortunately, the fact that Prince Osiv isn’t fit to rule makes no difference whatever to law and custom. He is the heir apparent, so he must succeed to the throne when the Imperator is called to his final rest.”

Marine nodded. “I’ve never seen the prince for myself, of course,” she mused. “Is he truly beyond redemption?”

Beck sighed. “I’m afraid he is. He’s twenty-seven years old now, but he has the mind of a little child, and a child’s tempers and tantrums to go with it. How can one hold an intelligent conversation with a young man who understands nothing beyond playing with toy bricks, and who cries and screams if any attempt is made to take his toys away from him? More to the point, how can such a creature be instructed or even cajoled to perform the Imperator’s duties? The sheer practical problems, aside of anything else, would be an unimaginable nightmare.”

Marine stared at the fire, and chose her next words with the greatest care. “It pains me to say it, naturally, but it seems a pity that Prince Osiv’s physical health is so much greater than his mental health. If he had not survived into adulthood...” She let a small moue say the rest.

“When his condition was first realized,” Beck said, “the incumbent Grand Mother suggested to the Imperator that perhaps it would be better for all if his life were terminated—without pain or suffering, of course—and an end be made of the whole matter. The Imperator might have agreed at that time, I think, but the Imperatrix wouldn’t hear of it.” She tapped the glass” stem, producing a small, cold, ringing sound. “She was a very stubborn woman, and while she was alive the Imperator paid her opinions altogether too much attention.”

“I was only a Low Sister at the time. I knew nothing of it, of course.”

“Oh, there was quite a furor. Grand Mother Borne even petitioned the Fathers to have the Imperator’s marriage pronounced void and a more docile wife found for him. But they were still debating the appeal when the Imperatrix bore a second son, so the question was shelved.” Beck’s eyebrows lifted eloquently. “That caused a second furor, at least in a few dark corners. It was whispered that the Imperator’s line had been so tainted by inbreeding over the centuries that he was incapable of producing anything but idiots. He and the Imperatrix were first cousins, of course. So there was a rumor that she had looked elsewhere, shall we say, for the source of a healthy heir.”

Marine was shocked. “You mean that the second child wasn’t the Imperator’s son at all?”

“As I say, it was a rumor.” Beck shrugged noncommittally. “But the Imperator didn’t hear of it; he accepted the new child as his own. The baby bore a passing resemblance at least to its putative father, and the tale died away as such things do. Pragmatically, the truth hardly matters, does it? All that Vyskir needed was a wholesome new prince to carry on the line. And at that time Prince Osiv wasn’t expected to live beyond his fifth birthday.”

“But he did,” Marine said quietly.

“As you say; he did. And he’s continued to confound the physicians ever since. Which leads us back,” Beck looked directly at Marine now, knowing that it was high time they both stopped procrastinating, “to our present problem, and the unfortunate new development. You see, Marine, it has become necessary for the Imperator’s younger son, Prince Kodor, to be married.”

Marine’s eyes narrowed as she stared at her superior. “Ah, yes,” she said. “There have been rumors that, possibly, Sekol might be involved…?”

She let the words trail off on a diffident interrogative, which was what Beck might have expected. Marine was too well schooled to ask bluntly for the facts, but she had made a shrewd guess at what those facts were. And she was right.

Beck smiled thinly. “The intended bride is Pola, Duke Arec of Sekol’s daughter.” A note of sour irony crept into her tone. “She is his only legitimate child, and he chooses to style her with the title of Marchioness.”

“I see.” Marine paused, then: “Grand Mother…you used the word, necessary.”

“So I did. Oh, there’s been no impropriety; to my certain knowledge Prince Kodor and the Marchioness have never even met. But Duke Arec is very anxious that the marriage should take place without delay. In fact, one might say he is most insistent. And, unfortunately, the Imperator and the Exalted Council are not in a position to argue with him.”

“Ah,” Marine said again. “I believe I understand.”

Beck nodded. “Sekol has always been a potentially dangerous neighbor; they covet our fertile land and kinder climate, and for the past century they’ve been militarily far stronger than we are. Duke Arec succeeded his father less than two years ago, as you know, and he is of a very different mettle. He has a martial attitude and little subtlety, and the mountains between our countries are too riddled with passes to present any real obstacle to a determined invader. Sekol has always been a threat in potential, and now the potential has turned into a reality. Duke Arec has offered a proposition to the Imperator which, shorn of its fine diplomatic language, amounts to an ultimatum. He wants Sekol and Vyskir to become, effectively, a single kingdom. His arguments are very persuasive; I could recite you a dozen or more of them without pausing to draw breath. But what he’s really offering, of course, is a simple choice: alliance, or invasion. The more accurate term for it is blackmail.”

She could tell from the look in Marine’s eyes that she had tacitly grasped a good deal more of the situation than had yet been spoken, and after a short pause to allow the information to be digested she continued.

“It is Vyskir’s good fortune that our Imperator has sons while Duke Arec has a daughter, and not vice versa. This way the match will give the Sekolians what they want without threatening the security of our own kingdom. So four days ago the Sekolian ambassador arrived in the Metropolis, and the details of the marriage contract are even now being finalized.” She paused. “However, there is one complication.”

“Prince Osiv,” Marine said thoughtfully.

“Exactly. I don’t need to spell out the nature of the dilemma, do I? Obviously, even though Osiv is the Imperator’s heir there can be no possible question of the Sekolian girl marrying him.” “Duke Arec knows of his affliction, then?”

“Oh, yes. It would hardly have been practicable—or safe—to keep it from him. So she will wed Prince Kodor instead. However, by our law, younger sons of the royal blood are forbidden to marry until the eldest has taken a wife.” Beck made an impatient gesture. “The measure was invented to stop a spate of assassinations and usurpations centuries ago. It’s a complete anachronism now, but it’s so enshrined in custom that there would be a public outcry if the Exalted Council dared depart from it. We do not want to stir up a furor of that kind. So the only feasible way round the problem is to find a wife for Prince Osiv. That, Marine, is why I have summoned you. You see, the bride chosen for Prince Osiv is a member of your own family. Nanta EsDorikye—her mother is your cousin, I believe?”

Marine stared, her face registering shock and incredulity. Given to the religious way at the age of six, she had had little direct contact with her family through all of her life, and could barely remember the faces of her parents and siblings, let alone cousins. But as she racked her memory, a few snippets started to surface. Letters from her eldest sister—years ago now—which had mentioned a cousin’s marriage to an aristocratic landowner. The name, EsDorikye, rang a bell. As did the recollection that there had been one child of the marriage. A daughter, yes. Some small mystery about it as she recalled: hadn’t the couple tried fruitlessly for years, before, suddenly and unexpectedly, a child had come? The details eluded Marine, or perhaps she had never known them, but there had been something special or unusual about it.

Seeing the memory click into place, Beck continued. “The girl is twenty years old now, and a scholar at the Court Academy here in the Metropolis. She is also a member of the Academy choir; junior, of course, but I understand that she has considerable talent and had been earmarked for training as a soloist. She is very comely—even Father Urss of the Exalted Council hasn’t failed to notice that.” Then she remembered that as yet Marine had had no dealings with Father Urss, so the sardony would be lost on her. “These assets, combined with her pedigree, are enough to satisfy the requirements for a royal bride. And according to her tutors she is also very tractable.” This time the pause was long enough to be significant. “Under the circumstances, as I’m sure you appreciate, that is the most vital quality of all.”

Marine saw her point immediately. “If she knows nothing of the prince’s affliction, the discovery will come as a shock,” she said.

“Indeed. So we must ensure that when she does discover the truth, she will not create any…difficulties. In other words, she must be thoroughly and carefully prepared for her new role. That, Marine, is the task I want you to undertake.”

A combination of teacher, chaperone and custodian, Marine thought. She nodded. “I understand, Grand Mother. I’m honored that you should consider me worthy.”

Beck smiled dryly again. “Your experience as head of the Sanctum will stand you in good stead. And the fact that you and the girl are related will help to smooth the path.”

“I’ve never met her, of course.”

“That’s irrelevant. Blood still counts. Now: Nanta has not yet been told of her betrothal, and until the negotiations with Sekol have been completed, the Exalted Council would prefer her not to know. However, rumor has a habit of running ahead of fact, so it’s vital that she should be removed from the Academy and placed in seclusion before any whispers start to circulate. She, and you, have been assigned a suite of rooms here in the Sanctum of the Lady, and you will keep her under supervision until the Council send word. It should only be a matter of a few days.”

“Of course, Grand Mother.” Marine hesitated. “She will need to be given some reason for her removal. What should I tell her?”

“I leave that to your judgment and discretion,” said Beck. “Though I see no reason why you should tell her anything. Part of your task is to teach her to obey without question, so that will be a useful lesson.” She finished the last of her wine, then set the glass down and sat back in her chair with a grunt of satisfaction. “I think we’ve covered the bones of the matter, or as many as we need to for the moment, and I don’t doubt you would appreciate the chance to unpack and rest for a while before your duties begin.” She grasped a bell rope hanging by the hearth and gave it a hard tug. “The chatelaine will show you to your quarters, and Nanta will be brought to you early this evening. Ask the chatelaine for anything you need, and convey any messages to me personally or through Sister Chaia. I’m dining at court tonight, so I won’t be available until morning, but in my absence you may entrust Sister Chaia with any queries.”

Marine, who disliked wine and had not touched her own glass, recognized the tacit dismissal, rose to her feet and bowed respectfully. “Thank you, Grand Mother. Oh…may I ask where the Sisters” chapel is?”

“Of course; you’ll want to make your devotions, won’t you?” Beck rarely visited the chapel herself, but Marine was tiresomely devout. “Sister Chaia will direct you there and show you all you need. I will see you tomorrow morning. Not too early.”

“Yes, Grand Mother.” Marine bowed again. A tentative knock at the door announced the chatelaine, and with a benevolent gesture Beck waved both women out of the room.

When they had gone she poured herself another glass of wine, then moved closer to the fire and frowned at the flames. In almost all respects Marine had lived up to her expectations; as she would have anticipated, seeing that she had trained the younger woman herself. But for all her shrewdness and quick understanding, Marine had neglected to ask one question, and that surprised Beck, for in her opinion it was the most obvious question of all. Was Marine, perhaps, being exceptionally tactful? No; it was more likely that the obvious simply hadn’t yet occurred to her. It would, Beck had no doubt, for Marine was too intelligent to overlook it for long. But until it did…well, in truth Beck was relieved to have been spared the necessity of explaining that part of the Exalted Council’s strategy. Marine could be told in good time. Nothing would happen, anyway, while the Imperator still lived. And even when he was dead, the girl Nanta need never find out the truth; not if the thing were done with proper care.

For when the Imperator did finally go to the arms of the God, Duke Arec of Sekol wanted more for his daughter than the role of the new Imperator’s sister-in-law. Prince Osiv would sire no children, of course, so Prince Kodor was destined to succeed him eventually. But while Prince Osiv’s physical, as opposed to mental, health continued to be robust, Arec would have to wait for his daughter to become Pola Imperatrix.

And that, as had been made emphatically clear to Father Urss, was something Duke Arec was not prepared to do.