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Authors: Mercedes Lackey

Winter Moon (6 page)

BOOK: Winter Moon
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The moment she realized that, she was certain of something else.

This had not been Lord Ferson's idea. Or at least, it didn't originate with him.

It wasn't that her father wasn't intelligent, because
he was. He wasn't
clever
, he wasn't good at coming up with cunning plans, but he was intelligent. He knew how to read men, to the point where some of his underlings thought he could see what was in a man's mind. He was also cautious. Living in a sea-keep tended to make you cautious; the sea was temperamental and unforgiving; slip once, and she tended to kill you for your carelessness.

He also hated risk. He always measured risk against gain. But he wasn't creative, and he never initiated anything if he could help it.

Any overtures would have to have come from the Khaleem, and the promises of reward would have had to be quite substantial before he would even have considered answering the initial contact.

Whatever Lord Ferson had been promised, it had to have been something big enough to override that intelligence and native caution. And whatever was afoot, it had to be something that Lord Ferson was quite sure of bringing to fruition without being caught.

This was probably the Khaleem's idea. He had promised her father a great deal—and might even have already paid him some of what was promised as a gesture of good faith. Until this moment, there would not have been a great deal that anyone could point to as evidence of treason. Even now—well, entertaining Massid for the winter was a dubious move, but not precisely treasonable. It could even be said, and likely Ferson would if he was caught, that he had been trying to open negotiations to end the Khaleem's piracy.

Only if he made some more overt move, such as pledging his daughter to Massid, would he enter the realm of treason, and he had timed things so word of
that
was unlikely to escape before the greater plan came to fruition.

Now, something about that tickled her mind, but she couldn't put a finger on it. Mentally, she set it aside in the back of her mind and continued pursuing her original train of thought, jumping a little as the fire popped.

Nevertheless, even with powerful incentives, and a strong likelihood of success, there was something missing from this equation. There were too many things that could go wrong, too many uncertainties. The Khaleems were not known for fidelity to their promises in the past. Lord Ferson had never been noted for being a risk taker.

Something in his life must have changed in the past year to make him even consider such an overture, much less follow through on it.

She took in a shuddering breath. This was getting more complicated by the moment. She was going to have to watch every step she took, every word she spoke.

So far her options were marriage, and escape. Both were fraught with the potential to go wrong. There was a third option—to delay—but she didn't think that she would get very far with that—except…

Hmm.

There was a narrow path through all of this, perhaps. She had boldly told the Countess there was no
way her father could force her into a marriage against her will. Legally, that is, and when she had claimed that, she had assumed any such marriage would be to a fellow countryman, who would be bound by the law and custom of the sea-keeps. But that assumed there would be someone here to oppose her father's will; she had also assumed that no actual marriage could take place before spring, and that such a wedding would involve the invitations to the other lords of the sea-keeps. At least one of
them
would have answered to an appeal from her. Especially since all of them were very jealous of their equality in power, and would resent anything that made the Lord of Highclere the most powerful of the lot.

The arrival of Massid put rest to all of those assumptions.

However….

Part of what had been tickling the back of her thoughts finally bloomed into an idea. She couldn't
depend
on the law…but she could use it.

She closed her eyes briefly and said a little prayer of thanks that she had managed to keep her father from knowing precisely what kind of person he had welcomed back into his keep. The good God must have been in the back of her mind, keeping her from betraying her intelligence this whole time, from the moment she had left Viridian Manor to this moment. Because using the law to delay was going to depend entirely on Lord Ferson's impression that she was passive, ordinary, and above all,
stupid
. Stupid enough not to realize why Massid was here, and stu
pid enough to believe the law would actually protect her from a marriage to anyone she didn't wish to wed. Stupid enough to blurt out her rights in public, thus reminding the rest of the freedmen of the keep that those rights existed, and make them feel unease that those ancient rights—as ancient as the ones that kept them
free
rather than serfs—were being threatened.

She was under no illusion that any of them would leap to her defense. Oh no. Those that weren't blindly loyal to Ferson—and there would be some, perhaps many—were also smart enough to know that opposing him in this could mean an unfortunate slip on an icy parapet in the middle of a storm.

However, that was not what she was aiming at. Fully half of those who served Ferson were freedmen; they were jealous of those rights that kept them free, and though they were not quick to anger, their anger burned long and sullen when it was aroused.

It would be a mistake to arouse their suspicions of the motives of their Lord at any time, but to do so when the winter storms were coming and everyone was confined here for months…that was dangerous. It had not happened in recent times, but there were tales, and plenty of them, of winters when one man ruled a sea-keep, but at the arrival of spring, another pledged fealty to the King in his place. Unfortunate slips on icy parapets in the middle of winter storms did not happen to only the lowborn.

Those who dwelled in the sea-keeps were isolated from the rest of the land at the best of times. The
King was a far and distant figure; their lords and ladies stood with them through the storm as well as the zephyr. It was hard to give loyalty to one who was only a profile on a coin; easier by far to tell oneself that loyalty should go to those whom one
knew
. They might soothe their consciences by telling themselves that the King did not matter, that he cared nothing for them, so they were not obliged to care for him. But if they thought that their own lord threatened their rights—then they would begin to doubt, and every doubt served her purposes.

It was a thin plan, but at least it was a plan. First, before she did anything else, she needed to get word to the Countess of what she knew.

And she would have to be as hard to read as the stones of Highclere Sea-Keep. Her best hope of success lay with her father expecting one thing from her, and getting something quite, quite different.

 

Anatha woke her in the morning, the first morning in a very long time that she had not awakened by herself. Part of it was the sound of the sea beneath the walls of the keep; it had been her lullaby as a child, and the familiar sound, at once wild and rhythmic, was strangely soothing. Even the warning of storm to come in the waves below her window was not enough to keep the waves from lulling her. Part of it was the darkness of her rooms. Not even in the long nights and dull days of winter were the rooms at Viridian Manor this dark.

But the sound of footsteps in the outer room did,
finally, penetrate her slumber, and the sound was unfamiliar enough to bring her to full wakefulness in the time it took to draw a breath.

Anatha did not speak, but as soon as Moira was awake, she recognized the sounds of someone tending the fire and assumed it could only be her new maid. She pulled back the bed curtains herself in time to see Anatha flinging back the shutters in the solar to let in the daylight.

“My lady!” the woman said, turning at the sound of the fabric being pulled back. “What gown do you wish?”

“The brown wool, please, Anatha,” she said quietly. “And the amber torque and carnelian bracelet.” Not ostentatious, but enough ornament that her father would find nothing to fault in her appearance—and she had a use for the carnelian bracelet. “Have you found the fine-work you told me of?”

“I now know where it is stored, my lady,” the maid replied, removing the gown from the wardrobe and a chemise from the chest. “I shall fetch it for you when you are dressed.”

“I have been dressing myself since I was a child, Anatha,” she replied. “I think I can do so now, and I should like to have the fine-work here as soon as may be. It is dull here without other ladies to speak to. I shall need something besides my duties to occupy me.”

There. Let Anatha carry the tale that she was interested only in “womanly” things. And that there was some “womanly” vanity involved, probably. The
gowns she had brought with her were plain and mostly unornamented; any embroidery to make herself fine she would have to do with her own two hands.

“If you will be so kind as to deal with the fine-work,” Moira continued, “I shall attend to myself.” She smiled at the maid's hesitation. “I doubt anyone will question your diligence so long as
I
do not.”

Anatha bowed her head slightly. “Very well, my lady,” she replied, as Moira pulled the chemise over her head. The door was closing behind her as Moira's head emerged from the folds of fabric.

Which was precisely what Moira had hoped for.

Quickly she removed the bottom from the wardrobe, and removed a small box. From the box she took a metal capsule fastened to a leather band, and a slip of paper as light and thin as silk. There were only a half dozen of those capsules, but she doubted very much that she would get many chances to use them all with storms coming. She took both, and the quill and ink from her desk, to the window. She needed all the light she could get to write the tiniest letters she could manage.

“Prince Massid, son of Khaleem of Jendara here,”
she wrote.
“Ferson's guest. Purpose unknown. Possible alliance and marriage?”

She nibbled the end of the quill and added,
“King's fool Kedric also here.”
It was all she could fit in; it would have to do.

She waved the paper until the ink was dry, then rolled it until it would fit inside the tiny capsule, and screwed the capsule up tight. She picked up her fa
vorite bracelet, silver, with a carnelian cabochon. The metal backing the cabochon on the inside of the bracelet was hinged; the capsule fit snugly inside it with the thin leather tucked in around it.

Then she hastily pulled on the brown woolen gown, clasped the necklet around her neck, restored the wardrobe, and returned the ink and quill to their proper places.

By the time Anatha returned with two servants carrying wooden chests, she was sitting quietly on a stool, brushing out her own hair.

“I'll do that, my lady,” the maid said, with faint disapproval, putting the casket she herself held down on the chest at the foot of the bed. “You two! Put those chests down next to my lady's tapestry frame in the solar and go!”

Moira surrendered the brush to Anatha, and allowed the maid to brush and braid her hair with brown silk ribbons. She sat quietly during the whole process, only allowing her fingers to rub the surface of the carnelian. Was there a faint warmth there?

Well, the first, and easiest part was done with. Now she had to find an excuse to go up to the top of the cliff this afternoon.

Prince Massid was nowhere to be seen when she went down to the hall to break her fast, but she didn't expect him to be there. Princes of Jendara did not eat with common folk, and only the evening meal was held in state at Highclere Sea-Keep. There was food set out in the morning, and again at noontide, and one was expected to help oneself. Though
of course, anyone with rank to command a servant could have food brought to her room.

And I may just do that. The less Father sees of me, the better.
Bread and butter, small beer, and an apple, all taken from the side tables, had served her well enough this morning; she was apparently Keep Lady now, and she should take up her duties as such.

An inspection of the kitchen and kitchen staff was definitely in order. They needed to see her; she needed to see them. In all likelihood, absolutely nothing would change, except that the order of responsibility would have been established. And this, too, was something she would have—and indeed had—learned under Countess Vrenable's tutelage.

Lord Ferson was not the sort to allow his staff to be left to their own devices even though there was no Keep Lady. He must have established strong superior servants in place when his second wife proved unequal to the challenge of truly running the daily business of the keep. The head cook was a formidable man, muscled like a fisherman used to hauling in heavy nets, and the housekeeper his equally formidable wife whose build nearly matched his. They came after the time when Moira had been sent off to fosterage, but she found nothing to fault with either of them. She did, however, take charge of the keys to the spice cupboard and the wine cellar. Not that there probably wasn't another set, and perhaps two, but the Keep Lady was supposed to be at least nominally in charge of the spices and fine drink, and appearances had to be maintained.

BOOK: Winter Moon
13.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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