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They sat at a stone table on a terrace on the castles south side. It wasnt exactly concealed, but it was in an out of the way spot where no one was likely to stumble over them. Leeana suspected that Marthya would have been officially horrified at the thought of her creeping off all alone for an assignation, but her maids reaction was the last thing on her mind.

She felt horribly embarrassednot at finding herself alone with Bahzell, but for having so little control that shed been unable to hide her distress from him in the first place. Now she gazed out over the terrace, studying the formal garden below it, and prayed he didnt think she was as foolish and fluttering as she felt.

He simply sat there, on the far side of the table from her, looming like some sort of ogre, but with a calm, unjudging expression and patient brown eyes. He seemed prepared to wait until high summer, if that was how long it took, and she managed to smile more naturally at him as he neither pressed her to begin nor filled her silence with assurances that everything will be all right, little girl.

Im sorry, Prince Bahzell, she said finally. Im afraid I must seem pretty silly, carrying on this way.

Ill not say someone as I have to be prying every word out of with a crowbar is carrying on, he told her, with a slow, answering smile. Upset and unhappy, aye, that Ill grant. But as for the rest

He shrugged.

I think we have different definitions of carrying on, she said, but she felt herself relax further, even so. I dont usually get this upset, she continued. But Fathers had some news that took me by surprise. She felt her lips tremble again and forced them to be still.

Aye, I thought as much, he said as she paused once more.

Its just that I always thought thered be more warning, she said. I never expected it to just come out of nowhere this way.

What, lass? he asked quietly.

A formal offer of marriage, she told him. She looked away as she spoke and so missed the flicker in his eyes and the brief twitch of his ears.

Marriage, is it? he said after a moment, his deep, rumbling voice no more than merely thoughtful. Im thinking youre a mite young for such as that.

Young? She turned back to him, her expression surprised. Half of the noble girls I know were betrothed by the time they were eleven or twelve years old, Prince Bahzell. Its not unheard of for us to be betrothed before were out of our cradles, for that matter! And at least half of us are married by the time were fifteen or sixteen.

Bahzell started to say something, then visibly made himself stop. He gazed at her for a few seconds, then shook his head.

I suppose I should be remembering the difference betwixt humans and hradani, he said slowly. I hope youll not take this wrongly, but amongst my folk a lass your age would be little more than a babe. Something besides distress flashed in her jade eyes at that, and he shook his head quickly. Im not so very much more than that myself, he told her. Im but thirty-nine, and thats no more than a warrior of eighteen or nineteen yearsyour cousin Trianals ageamongst your folk.

Leeana blinked, then cocked her head.

Really? she asked.

Oh, aye. He nodded, then chuckled. Or were you thinking a man as had come to what you might be calling mature judgment would be after flinging himself into all the harebrained, never-a-thought scrapes Brandark keeps putting into that curst song of his?

The question surprised a giggle out of her even through her misery, and she shook her head.

I hadnt thought about it that way.

Aye, and my da would be saying as I hadnt, eitherthought about it, I mean. Which, as hed be pointing out, is by the way of explaining how I come to keep ending up in em.

She giggled again, louder, and he nodded in approval.

Better, lass, he approved. And now that weve established, in a manner of speaking, as how were both of us young and foolish, why dont you be after trotting out whatever it is about this offer for your hand as has you this upset? Should I be taking it that youre not so very fond of the proposed groom?

I dont even know him, Leeana said. Not personally, at any rate. Not that thats so unusual in cases like this. She paused, then continued in the voice of one determined to be as dispassionately accurate as possible. Actually, it is unusual. Normally, a man would at least want to meet his potential fiancee before he asks for her hand. And to be fair, most parents would at least insist that their daughter meet him before they even considered accepting the offer.

But youve not met this fellow?

No, I havent.

Well, Im naught but a poor, simple hradani, but its in my mind that a man as hasnt even met a lass has no business proposing marriage to her.

Oh, I couldnt agree more! she said forcefully. And neither, for that matter, could Father and Mother. Unfortunately, its not quite that simple, Prince Bahzell.

And why not? he asked.

Oh, for dozens of reasons, she sighed, sitting back on the bench across the table from him. The fact that Father has no male heir. The fact that Mother cant have more children. The fact that the entire Royal Council hates the thought that the succession hasnt yet been secured by a male heir which would have to be a son of mine. And, she looked at him very levelly, by the fact that this is one more weapon for his political enemies to use against him.

Aye? It was his turn to lean back on the bench, his expression thoughtful, and she nodded.

I think I know whos really behind this offer, she said, and hes no friend of Fathers.

So youre thinking as how hes after pushing an offer as he knows your father wont accept so very happily as a way to be putting still more pressure on him before the Council?

Thats exactly what I think, Prince Bahzell, Leeana said flatly.

Well, he said after a moment, I can see where such as that might be in his mind. Mind you, Id not like to have a mind like that, but thats not to say as how I cant be seeing how it works. But Ive come to know your father pretty well, too, lass. He shook his head. Thats not a man as gives in under pressure, and especially not where those as hold his heart in their hands are concerned.

Leeana blinked again on sudden tears, then gave him a misty smile.

No, he isnt, she agreed. But sometimes thats a dangerous quality in a nobleman. One enemies can use against him.

I can see as how those whore thinking as how this marriage would be a good thing could be pressing him to say aye to it, Bahzell said. But surely the decisions after being his, not theirs, when alls said.

Normally, she said, and her smile turned bitter. But youre forgetting whose daughterwhose only daughterI am. As Fathers liege lord, the King has the power to require him to secure the succession. Bahzell stiffened, and she shrugged. I dont like it, but I have to admit I can understand why the law gives His Majesty that prerogative. The King literally cant afford to have the titles and lands of such a powerful noble fall into dispute. She managed a chuckle that sounded almost genuine. It can be a bit hard on the occasional only daughter, I suppose. But in the final analysis, one or two unhappy marriages are a small price to pay for the stability of the Kingdom.

That I didnt know, Bahzell admitted. He sat thinking for several seconds, then grimaced. Id no notion the law gave your King such power as that. Still and all, Im thinking as how Markhos wouldnt be so very happy to be pressuring your da on a matter such as this. Theres naught I can think of as would be more likely to drive your father into things the King wouldnt care to see him driven to.

Youre probably right, Leeana said, although he had the distinct impression she was agreeing with him more to keep him from worrying than because she actually thought he was correct. At the same time, though, if Father resists an offer of marriage which so much of the Council will consider is a reasonable way to resolve the succession concerns, it will give his enemies one more club to beat him with. And you know as well as I do how many clubs are already beating on him.

That I do, he conceded. Though Im thinking hes unbowed yet, mind you.

So far, at least, she agreed.

So whats really upset you so, lass, isnt that youve any least fear your da will be after forcing you to marry this fellow, whoever he might be. Its that if he isnt forcing you to, hell find himself losing allies on the Council.

Yes.

So he might, Bahzell said. Yet Im thinking as how your fathers one of the most canny men Ive yet to meet. Its in my mind that anyone wishful of getting on his bad side will be after finding himself bruised and bleeding in the gutter. He shook his head. Dont you be panicking, lass. The Barons more arrows in his quiver than most, and hell be using all of them where youre concerned.

I know he will, Leeana replied, and smiled tremulously, her eyes bright once more. I know he will.


Chapter Thirteen | Wind Rider's Oath | * * *