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Also by Stephanie A. Cain
Circle City Magic
Shades of Circle City
Storms in Amethir
The Midwinter Royal
Sow the Wind
Storms in Amethir Books 1 - 3 Omnibus
Watch for more at Stephanie A. Cain’s site.
Storms in Amethir
Books 1 - 3
Stephanie A. Cain
STORMS IN AMETHIR OMNIBUS
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Copyright © 2013-2017 Stephanie A. Cain
Cover art by Nicole Cardiff
The Midwinter Royal
Teeth in Their Song
The Midwinter Royal
A Romance of Tamnen
Stephanie A. Cain
For Peggy Larkin
Cousin Willat is entirely her fault
Izbel gritted her teeth and breathed out slowly as her maid tightened her corset. She was going to become a true lady worthy of the title if it killed her. And she was beginning to think it just might. She had established an entirely new line of horses from a fleet of foot foundation stud and a handful of strong, handsome mares, but that challenge was nothing compared to putting on a dress and prancing for the nobility.
“I’m sorry, my lady. One more should do it.” And with that warning, Guira tugged the laces so tight Izbel’s breath squeaked out of her.
“By the Seven, are you trying to kill me?” Izbel hissed.
“My lady will be so beautiful,” Guira said. Izbel heard the whisper of silk and then she felt sheets of the soft fabric settled around her.
The dress was nothing like the rough wool gowns she wore at home, when gowns were absolutely necessary, yet Izbel couldn’t hold in a sigh as she smoothed her palm over the pale blue and white silk. She would look beautiful, she thought. It was just that she didn’t feel beautiful. She felt like a nag dressed up as a prize mare.
A tap at the door announced her mother, and Izbel bit her lip.
Her mother bustled in, beaming. She was dressed for the ball, but Izbel could tell from the plain braid down her back that she wasn't finished preparing. “You are a vision, my dear. You will certainly catch some rich lordling’s eye at the ball.”
Her mother’s joy was the only thing that kept Izbel from snapping at her. She loved her mother, but she was not like her mother. Izbel had been content to be the younger daughter of the Fifth Family, the daughter with an affinity for horses, who might never marry so she could stay with the family and her horses.
When Izbel's sister died the whole predictable world crumbled. Zara's death had not been a shock—her lungs had been wasting for nearly a year—but the role Izbel was now expected to fill, of landed lady who must breed to carry on the family name...that had come as a shock, for all that it shouldn’t have.
She bowed her head, feeling the odd weight of her hair, piled into an intricate style full of loops and whorls. It was so different from the practical braid she usually pinned in place. “I will endeavor to make you proud of me, Mother.”
Her mother embraced her, careful not to crush the silk or muss her hair. “I am already proud of you. I ask only that you greet the eligible lords at the ball with an open heart. You know what must be, if you cannot find an acceptable husband here.”
The bottom dropped out of Izbel’s stomach. She did know. “I will try,” she promised.
Only Guira saw her fist clenching behind her back, and her handmaid was good enough not to mention it.
* * *
The Year’s Turning ball on the first night of the Longnight celebrations was a tradition almost as old as the Corrone dynasty, established three centuries earlier. It was there that each family presented its newly-available sons and daughters, hoping to catch a prize alliance. Over the next fortnight, courtships would take place, alliances be forged, and by Longnight, many families had weddings planned to take place before the Spring Evener.
Izbel knew she should be excited about the ball—she did love dancing—but her sister’s memory overlaid every thought she had of the ball. Zara had loved sharing her stories of the palace’s elaborate winter decorations and the intricate gowns the women wore. Zara’s betrothal to the younger son of the Ninth Family had been arranged there. Lorian had joined their household and fit in well, but Zara had been unable to carry a baby to term; she had succumbed to her illness just three years after the wedding. Lorian, grief-stricken, had declined to accompany the family to the capital for Longnight.
How could Izbel look forward to the ball when she felt so keenly that her sister should be here with her? Here instead of her, truth be known, Zara's black hair and flashing eyes accented by a deep burgundy dress and her laughter. Instead the court of Tamnen would be presented with Izbel, her golden-brown skin and brown-black hair perfectly made up, but sorrow lurking in her heart. And whether it was sorrow for her sister or sorrow over her own loss of liberty, not even Izbel was sure.
But Izbel was the heir, and she would be expected to become a proper little broodmare so the Fifth Family lineage could continue unbroken. Well, she wasn't a horse to be bred in season! Even if she did love caring for her own beloved mares during their birthing, she wanted more than that for herself.
And if she did not find an acceptable husband here, she could only think of two choices, neither appealing: marry her sister’s grieving widower—if he agreed—or marry her second cousin Willat in order to keep the estate intact. Izbel’s shoulders slumped.
Guira’s arm slipped around her waist. “All shall be well, my lady,” she whispered, and kissed Izbel’s cheek. Then she was gone and Izbel was left to make the journey from the Fifth Family’s apartments to the main ballroom.
“There you are, finally!” Willat was dressed in dark blue velvet, a ridiculous amount of frothy lace at his throat and wrists. Izbel narrowed her eyes, wondering which of the house servants had told him she was wearing blue.
“Cousin,” she said, trying to inject pleasure into her voice. She failed. “I was not informed you had called.”
“Called? No, indeed. I am here to escort you to the ball.” He leaned in close. “As is proper.”
Izbel drew herself up. “I beg your pardon, but it is not proper. I am a lady unattached, with no promises or expectations made of me. It would be improper for me to arrive with any company except my parents and chaperone.”
“No expectations?” Willat’s thin lips curled into a repellent smile. “But surely, my dear cousin, you know the family’s plans for us.”
Izbel lifted her chin. Gods knew it would be foolish to offend him, since she might yet be forced to marry him. But she would not let him push her into anything. “I know that I may yet catch the eye of some higher-placed younger son who would be pleased to join our family,” she said. “And I will attend the ball alone or not at all.”
Willat drew himself up. She had offended him; but of course Willat was the type to let himself be offended easily. She couldn’t bring herself to care. Her mother had been lucky enough to marry a gentle man, who had loved her almost at once, and earned her love in return. But Izbel knew Willat's character, and she wouldn't give a horse she liked to her cousin. For that matter, she wouldn't give a horse she didn't like to him.
“When we are married,” he hissed, “you will learn not to speak to me with such disrespect.”
Izbel clenched her teeth together before she could reply that she would die before she married him. It would only make the situation worse, and for that matter, it might not be true. She couldn’t disappoint her family like that. She knew her duty, even if she might hate it. After a moment she smiled. Perhaps she could use on herself the trick to introducing an abandoned foal to its adoptive mother. She could roll Willat in something strong-smelling—like manure, perhaps—and then roll in it herself, until she couldn't tell the difference between them.
“Until that day, I shall continue to speak as I like,” she promised, and strode away from him.
Her long, confident steps only lasted her halfway to the ballroom. She’d told her mother yesterday that she wished to be presented alone. Not out of any disrespect for her parents, but because she still missed her sister. Zara will accompany me, she’d told her father, and then felt a pang of guilt at the tears welling in his eyes.
At last she reached the soaring double doors and gave her name to the herald. He would announce her during the next break in the music. In the meantime, she had a few moments to catch her breath and prepare for this.
I’m sorry, Zara, she thought. Sorry you aren’t here with me. Sorry we won’t grow old together. I promise I’ll take care of Lorian for you, but please, help me find someone pleasing tonight.
It was a superstition that the spirits of beloved dead came back in Longnight season to guide maidens to true love. Izbel didn’t believe it, not really, but oh—how she wanted to. She closed her eyes and pictured her laughing sister, cheerful even through the days of coughing up blood, and imagined Zara taking her by the hand and introducing her to some nice younger son. He would be kind and bookish, thoughtful, observant. Perhaps he would be nice looking. Most of all, he would be excited to join her at the estate, and he would share her passion for good horses.
“My Lady Izbel,” the herald murmured to get her attention, and she opened her eyes. Then the music ended with a great flourish, and the doors were flung open. Time to introduce the new mare to the rest of the herd.
Izbel’s melancholy lingered through her presentation. It didn’t help that she had to dodge Willat until the first song was underway. There could be no joining the dancing sets after a song had begun, so she was safe for several minutes after that. Hopefully he would resign himself to not dancing with Izbel. If he found himself another partner, she could position herself artfully to catch an invitation for the third song.
Unfortunately, he found her before the first song was over.
“Ah, there you are. Izbel, my dear, you are so lovely you should be on display for the entire ballroom to see. It would be good for the court to be jealous of the Fifth Family for once.” Willat smoothed a finger over his thin mustache. She knew he fancied it made him look distinguished, but Izbel thought it looked like a caterpillar had crawled onto his face and died there.
“I fear you mistake me for Zara, cousin,” she said. “The whole kingdom envied us while she lived.”
“She was lovely, true, but she proved too weak to continue the family, didn’t she?” The smile he offered was likely meant to be sympathetic, but it was too close to a smirk. If Izbel hadn’t already hated him, she would have hated him for that.
Six months ago she would probably have hit him for saying such a thing. Just a few weeks ago she would have blistered him with choice words. But they were in public, at court, and at a ball. She must be a lady. Only a lady would catch the interest of a gentleman who wasn’t Willat.
"What's to say your bloodline would prove any stronger?" Izbel fanned herself and blinked. “Is that why you always avoid strong drink?”
His expression froze. “If you wish for a drink, you have only to ask. I will be but a moment.” He turned and strode off.
As soon as his back was turned, Izbel darted around a fat marble column, looking for a better hiding place. Perhaps there, in the midst of that potted shrubbery she might find a private spot. Hopefully unclaimed by a trysting couple catching a moment alone. She glanced furtively around, saw he was still on his way to the drinks table, and slipped between laughing nobles to her chosen hiding place. Along the way, she found herself a glass of something that sparkled and shimmered in the light. She wouldn't want any drink Willat chose for her, anyway.
The potted shrubbery had been claimed by an amorous couple. The young man was proclaiming his undying affection and kissing her hand while the young woman blushed and giggled. It wasn’t as embarrassing as it could have been, but Izbel stammered her apologies—which went unnoticed by either of them—and stumbled back out of the plants. She would just have to hope Willat didn’t think to look over here.
Her drink began doing its work, letting her relax her shoulders as a pleasant warmth spread through her. She began looking around, noting which young noblemen were involved in conversation with young ladies. That was one of the younger Birona sons, she thought—Second Family, and he would raise their political pull considerably, though she didn’t imagine she could catch his eye. She might do better with Restin or Talt—both houses had younger sons, and their noble rank was lower than Izbel’s.
She suppressed a sigh and looked down into her glass, losing herself in the play of the bubbles. It was hard to think of getting a husband without remembering the reason she needed one. Zara had never expected her to be anything but a devoted younger sister who would be content to help raise her sister's children along with her own. With a deep breath, Izbel squared her shoulders and lifted her head. She had been that devoted younger sister, but that was the past. Now she needed a husband, and that meant she should dance.
The musicians drew the piece to a close, paused half a minute, then played a few bars to announce the next piece. Rather than a lively tune, this was a stately one, full of movement, but possessing a certain dignity or reticence that appealed to her. As did the tall young man with black hair who approached her and bowed over her hand.
“Lady Izbel, I believe,” the man said. “Would you honor me by dancing this set with me?” Then he looked up at her with warm golden eyes and she realized she was looking at Prince Marsede.
“Thank you.” She dropped into a curtsy. “It is you who honor me, my prince.”
“I warn you,” Marsede said as he caught her free hand in his, “I am a more enthusiastic dancer than a skilled one.”
She laughed in surprise. “If only you had chosen a set with a feminine lead, then,” she said, letting him swirl her into his arms.
Despite his words, he moved gracefully, his feet and touch light, so he seemed to guide her rather than possess her. She had learned to dance among her younger cousins, which might explain why she had expected a tighter hold, but whatever the reason, she was grateful. He must be a good horseman, if he could maintain this light a touch but still guide her steps.
“We have never met before,” Marsede said.
“No, my prince. I have been at our estate until this year. My sister died in the summer.” Her eyes prickled as she spoke, but with effort, she kept a pleasant smile on her face.
“By the Seven, I am so sorry, lady. I should not have forgotten.”
Izbel tossed her head to hide the tears sparkling in her eyes. “It is just that I am not used to being the heir. I...I miss my horses.”
“And your sister, more than the horses, I daresay,” he murmured. He ducked to look into her face. “I have distressed you.”
“Oh.” Izbel wet her lips. “I was already distressed. Your kindness eases it.” It was true, but after a moment, she added, "It is still difficult for me to speak of it."
Marsede smiled at her and pulled her gently, ever so slightly closer to him. “Then we shall not speak, but dance to ease your cares.”
She let herself relax into the steps, into his arms. He was taller than she and broad-shouldered. As they danced, her grief did ease. Zara would have loved to see Izbel like this, wrapped in silk and commanding the dance floor with Tamnen’s prince. And although Zara couldn’t be here, she would still want Izbel to relish this. After all, it had been Zara who first showed Izbel that there was more to the world than just her obsession with horses.
When the song ended, Marsede touched Izbel’s chin with a single fingertip, looking into her eyes. “Lady, would it please you to dance another with me, or I shall I remove myself?”
And this time, Izbel found it easy to smile at him. “It would please me a great deal, my prince. And...” She hoped she wasn't blushing, though her cheeks were hot. "You may call me Izbel."
He grinned at her. “Then you must call me Marsede, if you would.”
Her smile widened as the music started up again, a lively, joyous song that soon had them skipping and spinning with the other couples in their group. Under the song’s influence—or the prince’s—Izbel’s sorrow transformed into a warm contentment that allowed her to skip and laugh with the others until she was breathless, her heart pounding in her chest. She had never felt this strange light-headed giddiness before, and she didn't want it ever to end.
The end of the song came abruptly, and with it, Izbel’s only misstep—but what a misstep. She hit her last place and tried to freeze there, holding position, but she was off-balance. Time stood still, the air rushing around her. She couldn't find her feet as the world spun about them—and then it was over, and the world stopped spinning, and Marsede had caught her.
“Oh dear,” she murmured, her cheeks heating as she met his gaze. Marsede smiled down at her. “Thank you for catching me.”
“Believe me, it is my pleasure,” he murmured. “But perhaps we should pause for a breather.” He caught her hand in his and led her away from the other dancers.
Izbel caught a glimpse of her cousin’s outraged face, but she ignored him and turned her head to look more directly at Marsede. “I am disappointed that you lied to me, Marsede,” she said, making her tone arch. She had never flirted before. She hoped this was how it worked.
He stared at her in astonishment. “Lied? I, lady? I would not lie to you.”
Izbel pursed her lips, then smiled at him. “You said you were a poor dancer. But I found you perfectly lovely.”
He chuckled. “Did you?”
“Your dancing,” she corrected hastily. Oh, by the Seven, how clumsy she was. “Your dancing was lovely. Is lovely.”
His mirth grew, though his laughter was gentle. “Your dancing is also lovely, that last step notwithstanding,” he said. He drew their joined hands to his lips, brushing them against her fingers. “As you are lovely.”
Izbel’s throat felt very dry. Oh, she knew he was a flirt, but hearing the stories was one thing. Having it directed at her was another thing entirely. She suddenly wished she’d adopted the fashion for fans, so she could cool her face.
That was, of course, when Cousin Willat chose to interrupt.
“There you are! Izbel, I have been looking all over for you. I got the drink you wanted.” He looked a fool, his velvet tunic rumpled, a glass of red punch in each hand. Izbel hated him, but she couldn’t quite suppress the pang of humiliation. She wasn't sure if it was for Willat or for herself.
“The prince asked me to dance,” she told him, “and I was pleased to do so.”
Willat stared at her, his face slowly turning the color of the punch. “Well, I have your drink,” he said, and held it out to her.
Izbel dared a glance up at the prince. Marsede was frowning absently past Willat, almost as if he didn’t see her cousin.
What should she do? If she accepted the drink, would Willat go away? Would he expect her to dance with him? Would the prince think it meant something? But why did it matter what the prince thought? The prince certainly wasn’t going to marry her and move to her family estate.
But still, he’s the prince, she thought, and took the drink from Willat anyway.
“Thank you for getting my drink, Cousin,” she said. Perhaps emphasizing their relationship would make it seem less as if Willat had a claim on her.
Willat didn’t respond. He looked from her to the prince, then back at her. Marsede seemed to come back to himself then.
The prince straightened and took Izbel’s arm. “Yes, you do your cousin good service,” he said to Willat. “That will be all.”
Izbel sucked in a breath. Oh, please let Willat understand he had just been dismissed.
Apparently he did. He bowed stiffly and walked away.
Izbel’s hands had gone cold. She hated confrontation. Negotiations and planning were all well and good, but actual conflict...she wasn’t good at that.
Marsede looked down into her face. “Forgive me if I spoke out of turn, Izbel,” he murmured. “You did not seem pleased to have your cousin near.”
She rolled her eyes. “He is so pushy. And he has no fondness for horses.” Then she remembered who she was talking to and couldn’t believe she had spoken so flippantly.
Marsede made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snicker. He quickly stifled it and cleared his throat. “I agree, those are grave flaws to have in a cousin.” He spoke solemnly, but there was a twinkle in his golden eyes that made her stomach feel funny.
She lifted her punch and took a sip, wishing Willat had brought her more of the sparkling wine. Of course he would choose punch—a child’s drink—as if she were still a child. He thought of her as a child still, believed he could marry her and run the Fifth Family. But she would not be ruled by Willat.
“I cannot remember what we were discussing before Cousin Willat interrupted,” Marsede said.
Izbel cast back and remembered all too well that they hadn’t been discussing at all. “Oh, dancing, I believe,” she said hastily. Her fingers still tingled from the touch of his lips.
Marsede’s gaze was intent on hers. “Yes. Dancing.”
Looking back at him, Izbel felt herself growing flustered again. She stepped on the hem of her dress and stumbled. Another quick step kept her from falling, but it was too late to save herself from humiliation; her arm shook and red punch sloshed onto her wrist and across the prince’s tunic.
For a moment, she could only stare in horror at the dark stain spreading against the rich brocade. Then a crystalline laugh broke her paralysis.
“I’m so sorry!” Izbel gasped, not looking around at the lady who had laughed. She had to suppress her first instinct to blot at the spill with her skirt. It wouldn’t be ladylike, though she had mopped up any number of spills that way at home. She pressed a hand to one hot cheek. Everyone was staring at her, surely. How would a socialite react? Would she laugh or swear? Izbel's own experience gave her no basis for knowing.
But to her surprise, Marsede smiled, ignoring the others. “Ah, and here I protested that I would be the clumsy partner,” he teased, his voice low and warm. “Come, Izbel, let us find someone to help me clean this.”
Before she could think of a reply, Marsede captured her hand in his and led her away from the dance floor. Izbel thought she heard someone titter, but she gulped and managed to hold her head high. After all, she was walking with the prince, and whoever had laughed was not. But, oh, gods, please let Willat not have seen that!
The prince’s manservant was dispatched to his royal apartments to fetch a clean tunic, and Marsede led Izbel outside to the grand terrace that spread the length of the ballroom.
It never snowed this far south, but the air was crisp enough to sting her nostrils. Izbel took a deep breath, grateful for the cold against her cheeks. She tilted her head back, staring up at the stars. She was content not to talk if Marsede was.
They stood a decorous distance from one another. Izbel was grateful Marsede had shown her attention tonight. He was known as a flirt, and for political reasons he was destined to marry one of the princesses of Amethir, or possibly the noblewoman of the Long Coast who had been presented ahead of Izbel. And, whispered a mercenary thought that sounded suspiciously like her mother, if the prince showed her favor, she would be that much more desirable to men of lesser families who might pay her suit.
The servant returned, and with him one of the queen’s ladies in waiting. Izbel smiled at the lady, who didn't give her name, and allowed herself to be drawn away from the prince and into conversation about how cold it was and how lovely the ball, and all manner of other unimportant comments.
Izbel was sketching in her parlor when, two mornings after the ball, Guira stepped into the room, her face shining with excitement.
“My lady, Prince Marsede is here to request you ride with him.” Her hands were clasped before her chest. "I intercepted Sira before she set herself up as your chaperone. I want to go with you."
Izbel laid aside her pen. “Then you intend me to accept, I take it.”
“Oh, but you must. The prince! He is ever so much handsomer up close, isn’t he?” Guira was smiling, but there was a glint in her eyes that told Izbel how pointless it would be for her to argue.
She argued anyway. “Yes, the prince. Who is not likely to marry me and come home to Silverhills to breed horses. Don’t forget what we are doing here, Guira.”
Her maid tilted her head. “He is the prince, my lady. One does not refuse the prince’s request.”
“If one doesn’t, then why does the prince request at all?” Izbel countered.
“For good form’s sake.” Guira sniffed. “Gracious, look at that sleeve.”
Izbel looked down at her plain gray dress and made a noise of dismay at the ink splatter on her sleeve. “I suppose I should wear something nicer.”
“It is cold outside, but we have a very pretty blue in medium-weight wool, with a split skirt for riding. I think that would be best, with the white cloak.” And Guira set about dressing Izbel without waiting for so much as a by-your-leave.
Fifteen minutes later, Izbel stepped out into the front room, where Marsede waited, hands clasped behind his back. He was inspecting a sketch she had done of her foundation stud. She had brought the framed sketch as a reminder of what she left behind at Silverhills.
“This is exquisite,” Marsede said. “Your work?”
“It is. Thank you.” Izbel wondered how she should speak to him. He had requested she call him Marsede, and according to Guira, one didn't refuse the prince's request. But that seemed overly familiar, despite the four dances they had shared at the ball. Then again, she had spilled her drink on him. Perhaps that was a reason to dispense with formality.
“I thought you might like to see the sights of Tamnen City,” Marsede said.
“Guira said something about horses,” Izbel prompted.
Marsede darted a glance at her maid, who stood straight and severe by the fire. “I brought three horses and had thought we might ride, but I had not taken into account whether your chaperone might be capable.”
"Guira will be fine," Izbel said. "She often rides with me at home in Siverhills."
As Marsede handed Izbel up onto the back of a spirited white filly, he explained she had just been trained to the saddle that summer.
"Is she Salishok or Rivarden?" Izbel asked, examining the fine curve to the filly's ears. "What amazing conformation!"
"Neither." The prince grinned at her. "Dinnsan. But you can be forgiven for not knowing the difference. I'm told it's something about the shape of their eyes, but you've obviously got a better eye than I have." He patted the filly's shoulder. “I remembered how much you said you liked horses, so I thought you might like each other.”
“I do,” Izbel said, smiling as the filly snorted and tossed her head. She patted the horse’s shoulder, absurdly pleased by the prince’s thoughtfulness.
“She’s yours to ride as long as you are in the city.”
Izbel blinked. “I—Did you just give me a horse?” she blurted. And a desert horse, the fleetest there was! But then, what was one desert horse to a prince? And yet...if word got out that the prince had given a young lady a horse, wouldn’t people talk? But no, he’d only really given her the use of the horse. ‘As long as you are in the city,’ he’d said; well, she might leave at the end of the Longnight celebrations, for all he knew. She shook herself back to attention.
Marsede was laughing. “I can think of no one who would be a better match for her.” He grinned at her and nudged his horse into motion.
As they pranced down paved roads between stone buildings, the conversation turned to his hopes for the future. Marsede wanted to expand the university and dredge the harbor to allow for larger ships. She was pleasantly surprised when he invited her opinion of all his ideas—and grateful that she thought them mostly solid ideas, so she didn’t have to attempt a polite fiction.
It was only when he mentioned that he would like to expand on their trade relationship with Amethir that Izbel’s heart sank. Of course he would want that—he was expected to strengthen the alliance between Amethir and Tamnen. He might begin with commerce, but it would not end there.
Fool, she chided herself. You know he’s likely meant to marry Amethir. You must not allow yourself ridiculous notions. But it was so difficult to guard herself with him, for all that she tried. And when he hit on her favorite topic, it was impossible.
“I have heard the Amethirians think our horses are superior to theirs,” he said. “Apparently what they call horses over there are really little more than tall ponies.”
That caught her attention, and she laughed. “That’s unfair. They are smaller than our horses, true, but they are also sturdier, if less fleet of foot.” She tipped her head. “Still, I think we could make a good effort at introducing our bloodlines to their stock. We might keep the sturdiness but introduce a bit of speed.”
Marsede nodded. “I thought you might be the right person to ask about that.”
She tilted her head. “Does his majesty have no horse breeders of his own?”
“You are the horse breeder I wished to ask,” Marsede said, “and Father allowed that it would be good to have a second opinion.”
She cocked an eyebrow at him. “What does the royal breeder say?”
“Like you, she says it would be a good cross. You have convinced me. I shall recommend to my father that we approach the subject with the Amethirian trade ministry.”
Izbel had to fight to keep the smile on her face. She glanced at Guira, who rode behind them at a distance that made it seem she was not eavesdropping. But Izbel knew Guira's hearing was sharper than a cat’s. Her maid's gaze as she met Izbel’s was sober, but encouraging.
“What is it, Izbel?” Marsede murmured. “You have an objection?”
“I...” Oh, gods, she couldn’t just blurt out the reason for her sudden opposition to a treaty marriage with Amethir. What else might have bothered her? “You will not have to travel to Amethir yourself, I hope. I believe it is near to their storm season, is it not?”
Marsede’s golden eyes studied her face for several more heartbeats, then he shrugged. “We will send emissaries. And I think it best to wait until after the storm season is over. I have many preparations to make.”
Preparations to change his life utterly by sharing it with a foreign woman, Izbel thought. That would be quite an adjustment. Certainly he was not a man who shirked his duty, though; everyone agreed the prince was an upstanding figure, a man who loved his kingdom and his people. King Cosha was popular, but his son was more popular still.
“Of course,” she murmured.
She was still contemplating her unexpected disappointment when Marsede’s hand touched hers. He had stopped, so Izbel drew the filly to a halt and looked up.
He’d brought her to the royal horse market.
Izbel looked over at him and found him watching her. A broad smile spread across his face when she looked at him. Izbel’s heart fluttered. Oh, she was a fool, but how could she help it? He had seen her sorrow at the ball, and now he had brought her to the horse market.
“Come,” he said. “You shall help me select a horse to introduce to the Amethirian stock, and I will introduce you to Horsemaster Seren. I hope you shall advise her on this project.”
* * *
The next fortnight was filled with meetings with Horsemaster Seren, which Izbel enjoyed a great deal, as well as social morning visits with one or more of the suitors who had set their aim on Izbel, which Izbel enjoyed a good deal less.
Her hopes that the prince’s notice would enhance her status had been well-founded, but now she found herself attempting to balance the prince’s horse-breeding project with her suitors. Jashel Birona of the Second Family had called twice on her, despite his elder brother’s lack of approval. And of course there was Cousin Willat, who was maddeningly persistent in his obtuse, heavy-handed way.
Every time she met with Seren, she found herself looking around eagerly to see if Marsede had joined them that day, but he rarely did. After the first week, Izbel was forced to admit the horse-breeding project was purely a matter of profit to him, rather than a passion or pretext to see her.
In the meantime, court gossip had it that the Amethirian ambassador had been seen several times in company with the prince. The beautiful Long Coast noblewoman, Timara, was said to enjoy the prince’s attentions as well. Some members of court were placing bets on whether Marsede’s father would choose Amethir or the Long Coast for their next matrimonial ally.
With Longnight celebrations nearly over, deep winter was settling in, which meant icy rain nearly every afternoon. On the days when it was too icy for her to make the trip to the royal horse market, Izbel was forced to stay in and socialize with other women of the court. It became a popular pastime for young ladies to visit Izbel’s apartments and sit for a sketch portrait.
One morning Izbel had a precious hour to herself. She brought out the sketch she was finishing of the desert filly she had taken to calling Lalasa. Lalasa was the sweetest horse Izbel had ever known, though she was by turns stubborn and impatient. Izbel knew they must part eventually, but she wanted something to remember the filly by.
A knock at the door made her groan, though she suppressed it a moment later. As Sira the chambermaid hurried to answer, Izbel hissed, “I am not receiving gentleman callers.”
But her visitor was not a gentleman.
“Lady Timara,” Izbel said, rising and smoothing her skirts. “Welcome.”
“Lady Izbel. We have spent little time together.” Timara had a lovely accent. “I hope to change that this morn.” Her dress was a shocking deep red, her lips painted to match. Her silvery-gold hair was artfully arranged.
Izbel gestured her to a seat. “How do you like Tamnen City?” she asked, and braced herself to endure an onslaught of insipid remarks about how different it was.
“I like it quite well,” Timara said. “Particularly your prince.” Her red lips curved in a tiny smile. “He is so kind to those of lesser station.”
Izbel was grateful that Guira was so quick with refreshments. Izbel could turn her attention to pouring for Lady Timara, so she didn’t have to think of a retort. By the time they were settled with their coffee, she felt settled enough to smile at her visitor.
“I am glad you have called on me. I have heard so much good about you, but I have not had the pleasure of your company.” She let her tone hang slightly at the end, just hinting that she would have to judge for herself if the good she had heard were true. To soften the implied insult, she tipped her head to one side. “You are certainly as beautiful as everyone says.”
Timara arched an eyebrow, her smile never faltering. If she were a horse, she would be arching her neck and prancing, preparing to buck. Izbel wondered if Timara were preparing another snide comment. A rider could often distract a horse who was preparing to buck. Could Timara be distracted?
“I wonder,” Izbel said, making her tone as diffident as possible, “if I might sketch you while we talk.”
To her surprise, Timara’s smile became more genuine and she sat forward. “I confess, that is why I came to see you, Lady Izbel,” she said. “I have seen your clever sketches of some of the other ladies, and I hoped to have one for myself.”
Pleased to have avoided a duel of witty remarks, if suspicious about the true nature of Timara’s visit, Izbel nevertheless set aside her tea and took up her pen and sketchboard. She checked the freshness of her ink and then studied Timara for some time.
The Long Coast noblewoman was certain in her beauty, there could be no question. Her posture was straight but not stiff—proud, rather, Izbel judged. Her green eyes flashed, and a tiny dimple on one side of her mouth gave her beauty an inviting air. She had clearly selected her dress to set off her paleness, emphasizing how different she looked from most of the other ladies at court. She did not fidget under Izbel’s protracted gaze.
Finally deciding she had Timara’s measure, Izbel dipped her pen and began to sketch. Her wrist rode the curve of Timara’s cheek, jaw, and throat like a caress, long sweeping strokes capturing the basic lines of Timara’s form. She would fill in the details once she had the form.
“I fear I am a poor conversationalist while I am sketching,” Izbel lied. “But I am an excellent listener. Perhaps you would tell me about your home.”
Timara launched into a description of her estate along the rocky cliffs in the central Long Coast. She spoke eloquently about the bracing winds and the alluring cries of the gulls, and Izbel’s fingers itched to rough in a background to match Timara’s words. Timara’s eyes lit when she spoke of the windswept beauty of her home, and how she enjoyed the more temperate climate of Tamnen City but still longed to return to her brothers.
Izbel was surprised when Guira interrupted their conversation. With a curtsy, the maid reminded Izbel she had an appointment shortly. Timara responded graciously to an invitation to return to finish the portrait and departed in a flutter of apologies, leaving Izbel bewildered.
“You were observing, I presume,” she said as Guira helped her out of her morning gown and into something more appropriate for an appointment in the stables.
“Of course, my lady.” Guira’s hands made quick work of lacing her up. “Lady Timara is very beautiful, and she knows it. But beyond her initial cut, she seemed to wish to ingratiate herself to you.”
“So you don’t know what she’s up to, either.” Izbel sighed. “I was not made for court games. I had far rather people speak their minds openly, even if it brings us in conflict.”
“My lady does an admirable job of hiding that fact,” Guira said dryly.
Izbel huffed. “I’m perfectly capable of minding my manners if I have to.”
Guira patted a few stray locks of Izbel’s hair into place. “Of course you are.”
* * *
Izbel had not seen the prince in over a week. She knew the stable mistress was reporting to him on their plans, but to Izbel’s disappointment, he had not made a personal appearance.
No. Not to my disappointment, she thought. I cannot afford to be distracted by him. Focus on Jashel Birona.
With a sigh, she pushed aside the ledgers she had been studying. The Fifth Family was neither the richest not the poorest of the Nine, but the hay harvest had not been as bountiful as she had hoped it would be. If she wanted to expand her breeding program, she would have to import hay from one of the estates further north, and that would be an added expense. While her father handled most of the actual financial matters still, he had involved her after her sister’s death. She needed to know all aspects of the job, he told her, and the numbers had proven a welcome distraction from her grief.
Emotion would not change the meaning of a number. Numbers were not open to interpretation. They were themselves, without equivocation.
“I’m not sure we can afford as much hay as we’ll need,” she told her father, who had a short reprieve from his business at the docks. “Not if we intend to keep the tithe low. And we can’t afford to raise taxes unless we want to import more food against the possibility of a shortage.”
He nodded. “Your assessment is correct. Do you have thoughts regarding a solution?”
“No.” She fought the urge to whine. “Well, yes, a solution. Not a solution I like.” She folded her hands in her lap. “I’ll have to postpone the expansion of my breeding program until we have a good store of hay. Next year at the earliest, but probably the year after.” Her lips twisted in disappointment. “And in the interim, Windqueen won’t be growing younger.”
“She’ll still be capable of years of foaling.” Her father tested a hand on her shoulder. “If my opinion is worth anything, I think it is the right decision.”
“Your opinion is worth a great deal, Father.” She leaned her cheek on his hand. “It is so hard,” she whispered. “I only wanted to breed horses. I didn’t want all this. I wanted to be Zara’s horse breeder, not the head of the Fifth Family.”
Her father hugged her. “We don’t always get what we want, my dearest. But I hope you know how proud I am of you. Your strength and courage have given me hope. And there will always be horses. You must not abandon your passion to duty. Just learn to balance them.”
Izbel swallowed. “What would happen if I didn’t marry Willat?”
“If you found another young man to bring into the family? That Jashel Birona seems a good prospect.”
“I meant...” She ducked her head, unable to meet her father’s eyes. “I meant, what if I refused to marry? Willat isn’t the heir. I’m the heir. Just because he’s the next in line to take it after me—that doesn’t mean I must marry right now, does it?”
There was a heavy silence in the room. Izbel wasn’t sure if her father was still breathing. She rushed on.
“I could wait a year or two. Perhaps Lorian would amenable to marriage after he’s grieved. And if not, I could designate Willat’s eldest child as my heir.” She swallowed. “I cannot marry him, Father. I cannot.”
The silence stretched, but her father did start breathing again. She finally ventured to look up at him. His expression was sad. “I do not wish to force Willat on you, Izi. I see him for what he is. But the council is never pleased when there is no blood heir. It sets a precedent no one likes.” He ran a hand through his hair. “And you have seen the figures. All our fortune is tied up in keeping Silverhills alive. What will you do for income, if you don’t marry someone with money?”
“I don’t know. But anything would be better than Willat.”
Her father’s smile was grim. “Then you had best ensure things work out with Jashel Birona.”
The next day was a fine one, for midwinter. Feeling suffocated with all the good manners and politicking, Izbel bundled into her warmest cloak and went to the palace gardens. Guira, only grumbling slightly at the cold, trailed along behind her.
Izbel had expected to find the gardens full of people, since the sun was bright overhead, but she only saw two other people, walking together at a distance that prevented her from recognizing them. Even better, she thought. She needed to clear her thoughts.
She sucked in a breath so cold it stung her nostrils and made the back of her throat ache. "Isn't it glorious? I wish it would snow. That's what I regret most, being away from home."
"It's unlikely this far south, Seven be praised," Guira sniffed. "You are so peculiar about the snow. I had just as soon warm my feet by the fire when it's this frigid out."
"Oh, bosh. You aren't still angry about the snow fight last year, are you? That was one of the best days..." She smiled out across the empty flower beds.
Her sister had still been well enough to get out of bed when the first snow came last winter. Zara had demanded they bundle up and go outside, and though everyone insisted it would be unhealthy, she wouldn't be denied.
They had all known, by then, that it was just a matter of time. What harm could it do to humor her? So they did as she commanded, Mother, Father, Lorian, Izbel. Even Granna Bet and Guira, along with some of the younger cousins who were fostering at the estate. Under Lorian's direction, the cousins had built a dragon of snow, curled around a treasure of piled stones. Then they'd broken out into an all-out war, snowballs flying in every direction.
Izbel closed her eyes. She could still see Zara, her cheeks flushed from cold, snow stuck to her eyelashes, as she fell over, laughing, into a snowdrift. Izbel had fallen down next to her, laughing, and they had made snow pixies. When the cold finally drove them all indoors, they'd drunk hot toddies and toasted nuts by the fire.
"It was a lovely day," Guira murmured. "My lady Zara was so happy."
When Izbel looked over, her maid had a faraway look in her eyes. Guira had been a chambermaid-in-training when Zara was born, and their mother had chosen Guira to help the nurse. By the time Zara and Izbel needed a ladies' maid, Guira was the natural choice.
Impulsively, Izbel hugged her. "I forget sometimes that you loved her as much as I did," she said. "And with as much right. Guira, I'm sorry if I have ignored your grief."
Guira hugged her back briefly, then pulled away and smoothed her skirts. Guira was so much more aware of propriety. "Of course you haven't, my lady," she said. "What would I have done without you, this past year?"
If Izbel's smile was a bit watery, Guira's was too. Izbel pulled her cloak up around her cheeks so she could surreptitiously dab at her eyes as they resumed their walk.
The other people in the garden seemed to have disappeared. Izbel wasn't sure what to think about these strange court nobles, who were so fond of their parlors and ball rooms they couldn't bestir themselves from their fires when the sun shone. You ought to take advantage of any good day the winter offered, she thought. If she had any shopping to do, she might have called for Lalasa, but she had ordered new sketching materials already, and she had no other needs. Besides, her father's comments yesterday had reminded her that she should be budgeting her resources better. The new gowns had been necessary, if she were to catch a husband, but she shouldn't indulge in fripperies. Not if she wanted to make a go of her horses.
"Izbel." The voice breaking into her thoughts was masculine and husky. Behind her, Guira squeaked and dropped into a curtsy so deep her knee brushed the snow.
Izbel looked up into the face of Prince Marsede. His golden eyes were warmer than the sun, she thought in confusion. Then she realized she should do him courtesy. She dropped into a deep curtsy, dragging her gaze from his face. She had somehow forgotten just how handsome he was.
Marsede's warm hands gripped hers, drawing her up. "Your hands are like ice," he said, folding one of them between his. "I couldn't believe there was anyone else out here."
"I’m from the north, remember? I like the cold. I just wish it would snow.” She tilted her head. “Was that you I saw earlier? Who were you with?" Izbel blushed as soon as she said it. That wasn't her business.
"The Amethirian ambassador," Marsede said, and her stomach swooped. He looked preoccupied, even unhappy. She wanted to ease his cares as he had done for her at the ball.
"What is it, Marsede?" she asked, stepping closer to him. "You look melancholy."
He turned, tucking her hand into his elbow. They walked in silence for a while before he answered her. "I am, a bit. But it's no matter. It'll all be sorted out soon." He smiled down at her, but the melancholy lurked in the corners of his mouth. "The Amethirian ambassador has had a letter from his trade ministry. They are amenable to a deepened trade relationship, and eager for our horses." His lips tightened. "I am not keen on some of their terms, so negotiations are still open. But I believe we are making progress."
"That's wonderful," she said, smiling up at him.
"It is." But his tone was grim. "It should be."
Izbel watched his face, not understanding. He looked as if he were torn between two impossible things, and didn't know which way to turn. She wished she could help him somehow. A glance over her shoulder told her Guira had retreated out of earshot. When she looked back up at Marsede, he was gazing fiercely into her face.
"Do you not understand, Izbel?" he demanded. "Do you not feel it as I feel it? I cannot stop thinking about you! Every time I visit the horsemaster I am jealous of the time she spends with you. I tell the Amethirian ambassador we wish stronger ties, but whenever he presses for a marriage alliance, I can see no other face but yours."
Her mouth dropped open. His face was anguished, not at all the expression of a man who sounded like he was professing his love. Is that what it is? she thought then. It sounded like love. But that wasn't what she had expected from a man with a reputation as a flirt, let alone a man who...
She wet her lips. "But you..." she whispered, and her voice faltered. She swallowed and tried again. "But you could never be serious about me." Her heart was leaping inside her chest like a frightened hare. "You—we all know you are meant to—"
"Marry Amethir, yes, I know," he broke in bitterly. "You see my trouble."
Izbel couldn't catch her breath. The prince loved her. Couldn't stop thinking about her. A shock of warmth flashed through her as she finally understood what he was saying. But it was making him miserable. How could love do that? Wasn't love supposed to be a blessing?
"I think of you, too," she admitted in a low voice. She looked up at his face in time to see his eyes flare with hope—and then dim with misery. "I look for you when I go to the stables." She wet her lips again. "But I am meant to marry—"
"Someone who will join your family, yes." He shoved an impatient hand through his hair and turned away from her. "And I hate him, whoever he is. Jashel Birona, I suppose? His brother's against it, but Jashel's taken with you, and he's stubborn, and I hate him." His voice shook.
Izbel stared at him. His fists were clenched, his shoulders moving as he took harsh breaths. There was so much passion and energy in him. How could she be the one who had inspired that?
"I thought dancing with you was harmless," she said faintly. "Because you are such a flirt. I thought you only asked me to make me feel better."
Marsede barked a laugh. "How I admire your plain speech," he said, turning back to her. There was no mirth in his expression, but he stared down at her as if drinking in her face. "I did only ask to make you feel better. I could see the sorrow lurking in your eyes, and I wanted to lighten it. I wanted to be the one to make you smile." He stepped closer. "And you were so honest with me, so artless." He snorted. "So utterly unaffected by me."
"Is that what you thought?" she breathed. She had definitely not been unaffected. She had just tried to ignore it. "I spilled my punch on you."
This time his laughter was more genuine. "And if you can believe it, I think that's what made me start falling for you." He ducked his head to hold her gaze as she blushed. "No, be honest, you almost blotted at the spill with your dress, didn't you? You're nothing like these ridiculous, fawning, insipid court ladies I've known all my life. You're so—so yourself. It's..." He shook his head. "Ah, by the Seven, I want to spend forever learning you."
She swallowed through a growing tightness in her throat. How could she make him stop saying such things? She didn't want to. But he was destined for a treaty. Shouldn't she love her kingdom more than herself? Shouldn't she put the good of her kingdom ahead of her own desires? But she wanted to put her arms around him and damn the consequences.
Instead she squared her shoulders and clasped her hands in front of her. "But you are going to marry the Amethirian princess. And I am...I am going to have to continue looking for someone who will come to Silverhills with me." She faltered and couldn't go on.
"I cannot go to Silverhills." Marsede tilted his head back to stare blankly at the horribly blue, cloudless sky. Izbel hated that sky. How could the day be so beautiful, so cheerful, when she was being offered every chance at happiness, but had to refuse it?
"What use is it to be prince if you can't do what pleases you?" he muttered.
Izbel clenched her fingers so tightly they ached. "What use is it to be prince if you only do what pleases you?" she whispered.
A silence fell between them. She could hear his ragged breathing. She felt ragged herself. She wanted to throw herself at him and ask if he would swear to throw it all away for her. She knew she would hate him if he said he would. She wished she had never come to Tamnen City. She should have just spoken to Lorian about rewriting his marriage contract to her instead of Zara. Then she would never have met Marsede, would never have known what she might be missing.
Never have met Marsede?
She shuddered. "It's so cold," she whispered.
Marsede groaned and pulled her into his arms. He caught her by surprise, but she tucked her arms against his chest and pressed her forehead against his neck. He didn't speak, just held her so tightly she felt she could melt into him. She heard the erratic beat of his heart under her ear. She squeezed her eyes shut, losing herself in that sound.
If someone found them here, it might spell disaster—or she might be written off as the prince's latest flirtation, with no other harm done. It might also frighten off any other suitor who might consider her. But Izbel couldn't bring herself to care.
She freed one arm to worm it around his waist, pulling him closer. Maybe it was a mistake to let him know she felt the same, but it would be too cruel to send him away without knowing. Whether cruel to him, or cruel to herself, she wasn't sure.
"Izbel." His lips were by her ear. His breath sent a shiver through her. "Izbel, may I kiss you? Just once?"
"We mustn't," she whispered. "It will make it worse."
"Just once," he repeated.
"We shouldn't." Her will was weakening along with her knees.
She lifted her face to Marsede's. His lips brushed hers, ever so softly at first, the sweet touch sparking a thrill that ran down her spine. She gasped and pressed into the kiss, and Marsede's lips parted slightly against hers. She heard herself whimper, her free hand raising to cup his jaw. Then he lifted his head, breaking the kiss.
She didn't realize she was crying until he traced his thumb under one eye. Gulping against a sudden sob, Izbel stepped back, staring at him. Marsede's eyes glistened.
"You were right," he rasped. "It did make it worse."
Without another word, he turned and left. Walking at first, but his strides lengthened until, by the time he left the garden, he was almost running.
Izbel pressed her fingers to her lips and watched him go.
Thank the Seven Guira had no words of chiding for her as they walked back to her apartments. Or even words of sympathy. Izbel felt as if she were made of the finest porcelain, cold and brittle, and she feared any acknowledgment of what had just happened would shatter her. She pasted a false smile on her face in case they encountered anyone, and then concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.
As they turned the corner in the passage to their apartments, Guira made a soft noise in her throat. That was all the warning Izbel, who had been staring at her feet, was given.
“There you are.” Willat’s nasally tone grated on her ears. It took all her willpower not to scream with frustration.
“Good afternoon, cousin,” she said, her tone flat. “I do not believe we had an engagement.”
“No, no, but I wished to call and share with you some of my ideas for the management of Silverhills.” He rocked on his feet, smirking at her.
“I beg your pardon. I do not recall that you are involved in the management of Silverhills,” Izbel said through gritted teeth. The dull misery that had wrapped her pulsed through suddenly with anger. She moved to walk past him into her apartments.
“It is true that I am not yet involved in it,” Willat said. “But I have spoken with your father, and he received my ideas with a great deal of equanimity. He was adamant that you were a part of all management decisions, and of course it will be good for you to know what your husband needs to do.”
“My husband?” She didn’t bother to keep the outrage from her voice. “I assure you, Willat, that whatever is done in regards to the management of Silverhills, it shall be I who oversees it. Not my husband. I will not allow some man who marries into the family take over when I have worked so hard myself.”
Willat gave her a condescending smile. “Oh, but you’ll be so busy with the children that I’m certain you’ll lose interest in such boring matters as business. Come, let us go inside and discuss matters."
She widened her eyes in astonishment. “Let us not.” Her voice was cold. “You have called upon me without an invitation, forced your opinions on me, insulted me, and—most egregiously—you have assumed you are welcome.” She straightened. Here, at last, was a target upon whom she could justifiably vent her anger. “You are not welcome here, Willat.”
She turned her back on him and nearly ran into Guira, who was backed up against the door, her face expressionless. Izbel gestured for Guira to open the door, but before Guira could do so, Willat’s hand shot out and gripped Izbel’s elbow.
“You are unwise to reject my assistance, cousin,” he hissed. His fingers were so tight Izbel could feel them leaving bruises. “Your father may be the nominal head of the Fifth Family for now, but we see what his stock has produced—a woman who bore no heirs and a willful child who styles herself a house head! The family will not stand for this. What Silverhills requires is a firm hand and aggressive cultivation. There will be none of this ridiculous horse-breeding nonsense when I am lord!”