Prologue - The Grim Decision
"Mommy, why do I have no friends?" asked Cyanne.
Amalga sighed. This was not the first time she had heard the question. "You have friends. Kestryl is your friend. Penthor is your friend."
The child shook her head, black hair falling into her eyes. "Not those kind of friends. I mean other children. Don?t they like me?"
"I?m certain they would, if they were allowed to meet you, but that’s just not possible." Amalga stopped speaking before she went too far. Indeed, how much could a five year old understand?
"Why aren?t they?" persisted the child.
"Because there are people who might want to hurt you and that cannot be allowed." "Why would people want to hurt me?"
Cyanne stopped and looked at her mother, violet eyes wide.
Because people are fools. Because you are not entirely of human descent and the Gondylarian nobility hates you for it. Because no one wants to see an Ethrell half-breed on the throne.
"There are a lot of people in this world that are bad. They like to see other people hurt."
"I wish I knew."
Amalga held out her hand and Cyanne took it. They continued down the palace corridor toward the courtyard.
"When I grow up, I hope I won?t be bad." Cyanne’s expression was so grave, the Duchess had to stifle a smile.
"I?m sure you won?t be."
"How do you know?"
"You?re too special," said the Duchess.
"Are we going to the gardens?"
"Why do you always ask so many questions?"
Cyanne giggled. "Because I?m a child and that’s my job. That’s what father says."
"Oh does he?"
"Mmm-hmm. Are we going to the gardens?"
"Good. That’s my favorite place in the whole wide world."
Cyanne pulled her hand from her mother’s and began to skip ahead. Amalga watched, delighting in her daughter’s happiness. If only she could be like this always.
Enjoy it now, my child. Even under the best circumstances the life of the Gondylarian heir is not an easy one. How much harder will it be for you?
Not for the first time, Amalga considered the Gondylarian reaction to Ethrellen. That both shared a common ancestry was well known among educated people of both races, evidenced by the fact they could interbreed. In fact, were it not for her violet eyes, Cyanne would be indistinguishable from a human.
Yet the Gondylarians hated Cyanne even more, if possible, than they hated their own Duchess. Could it be by looking human, Cyanne proved Ethrellen were more closely related to them than most Gondylarians would like to admit?
Cyanne’s voice, raised in song, brought Amalga back to the moment. Ahead, an arch of sunlight marked the courtyard entrance. She moved more quickly, well aware Cyanne didn?t need much time to work herself into mischief. She paused momentarily beneath the arch, eyeing the garden paths for some sign of the girl.
She was still looking when a man dressed as a priest emerged from behind a wide-boled tree. Cyanne chose that moment to stand. She?d been kneeling behind a rose bush. Even from where she stood, Amalga could see madness in the stranger’s eyes. She ran forward, but knew she was too far to interfere.
Cyanne looked up, then around. She started toward her mother, but there was no way she could outrun an adult. Sunlight glinted off the dagger in the man’s right hand. Amalga screamed. Cyanne stumbled, then fell, causing the first swipe to pass over her. Amalga still wasn?t close enough to stop him, but she could clearly make out his words.
The assassin dove. Amalga reached him only a moment too late. She grabbed his tunic and attempted to pull him up. Only then did she notice the two knives protruding from the man’s back.
She dragged him to the side, bent to help Cyanne up and held her until the girl’s sobbing began to ease. From nowhere, the Bladesman appeared and moved between the body of the would-be assassin and the royal family. He advanced, kicked the dagger away from the man and checked to make certain he was dead. Only then did he turn to the Duchess.
He bowed briefly. "M?lady, are either of you hurt?"
"Cyanne skinned her knees, an injury hardly worthy of comment."
The Bladesman looked to the sky. "Praise to Sheba. We were lucky."
"Too lucky. How is it you happened to be in a position to come to our aid?"
"I endeavor to always be in that position."
"You?ve been told before your presence would not be required in the courtyard."
"The safety of the royal family is my responsibility. You didn?t want me to interfere with your time with Cyanne. That is understandable. A mother and daughter should have time alone. Still, it wouldn?t do to leave you unguarded. I?ve been keeping watch from a distance. If this hadn?t happened, you?d never have known I was there."
"You do this every day?"
"If I am unavailable, I arrange for one of the guards to replace me."
At first, Kestryl had accompanied them on their daily stroll, but as Cyanne got older, Amalga had insisted on private time. She?d assured Kestryl the courtyard was safe, in spite of his protests. When it became clear she would not change her mind, the Bladesman had backed down and never brought up the subject again. Were it not for his devotion, her selfishness might have cost Cyanne her life.
"You have done well, my friend. I was wrong to have questioned your judgment."
The Bladesman bowed his head. "You are the Duchess. I have disobeyed your command and will accept whatever penance you demand."
"You just saved my daughter’s life. I do not require penance."
"As you wish."
Amalga sighed, exasperated. The man was insufferable. She took Cyanne’s hand and guided her from the garden. She would later learn Kestryl had been unable to identify the mad priest. The news did not surprise her.
She was certain of only one thing. This would not be the last attempt on her daughter’s life.
The throne room was all but empty. Usually there were more than a dozen people present, but on this bleak night there were only three; the Bladesman, Amalga and Dathan, the Duke of High Gondylar. Amalga and her husband sat upon twin thrones of gray stone. Kestryl knelt before them.
The throne room had never been a festive place, all gray stone and battle tapestries, but that night it contained an unnamed tension, in no way lessened by the silence. Finally, the Duke deigned to speak.
"We have given the matter much thought, Bladesman, and have come to a decision. The palace is too dangerous a place for our daughter. We were lucky today, but luck has a way of turning. Cyanne cannot stay here. Her welfare is of the utmost importance to us. We are placing her into your custody.
"Take her far from here, Bladesman. Find a place where Ethrellen are treated as equals. A place where she can live and grow old."
The Bladesman raised his head. "Then how will she learn the ways of Gondylarian nobility?"
The Duke raised an eyebrow, but it was Amalga who answered. "She is never to return. Penthor is heir to the throne of High Gondylar."
The Bladesman was stunned. Never had an heir been selected in such a manner. The nobility would not stand for it.
"You don?t need to do this. We can increase palace security. We can watch Cyanne more closely. We can take extra steps to protect her. She is the heir."
Amalga shook her head. "No, my friend, she is heir no longer. I will not have my daughter growing up as a prisoner, unable to enjoy life. And as much as you may believe you can protect her, I say it is impossible. You know how Gondylarians feel about her mixed ancestry. Can you guarantee me the total loyalty of every servant in the palace? Every guard? Can you say with authority every soul in this castle is completely immune to outside corruption?"
She paused, waiting for her words to penetrate, giving him time to understand. When he didn?t reply, she continued.
"I thought not."
Dathan leaned forward. "This was not an easily reached decision, I can assure you. I don?t know we will ever be able to live with our decision any better than we can tonight, but there is no other way. Even if you could protect her, when she gained the throne, what Gondylarian noble would not strike out at her? How long would it be before a crossbow bolt, fired from one of the towers or a window, found its mark? I?m sorry Kestryl. You?ll never know how sorry I am, but there is nothing for it, but to act accordingly and bear the pain gracefully. The knowledge I am doing the right thing for the blood of my blood must suffice."
The Bladesman stood rigidly, every nerve in his body rebelling against the grim decision. Yet the Duke and Duchess were correct. Cyanne could have no life here. He closed his mind to the pain, as he knew he must. Dathan and Amalga would have to suffer for him.
"I will not fail you."
Dathan nodded, satisfied. "You are to leave tonight. Take whatever you need, but bring my daughter to safety. I don?t care how far you have to travel or where your journey takes you. Cyanne must be safe."
The Bladesman raised his head and regarded the Duke. He did not want to leave High Gondylar for any length of time, but honor gave him no alternative. The Duke and Duchess were sending their only child away, never to see her again. Dathan hid the pain admirably, but the Bladesman knew him well enough to see it. Amalga’s anguish was more visible.
"Your will be done. I shall not return until Cyanne is safe from harm. You have my word."
If Dathan had a response, he never got the chance to speak it. The door to the throne room opened. Cyanne walked in first, followed a moment later by Penthor. She ran forward.
"Hi, Kestryl. Penthor says you?re taking me on a trip. I don?t go on many trips."
Kestryl looked back toward the throne. Amalga turned her head, unable to look at her daughter. Dathan stood and walked down the steps to stand beside her.
"I want you to listen to Kestryl. You?re to be on your best behavior."
Cyanne nodded solemnly. "Why aren?t you coming? Or Mommy?"
"Because, silly girl, we have a country to run. You know how hard your mother and I work, don?t you?"
"Uh-huh. Penthor says that some people work too hard and some people don?t work hard enough."
"That’s true. But it’s getting late and you have to go."
Amalga rose slowly and joined the four as they made their way across the chamber. No one spoke until they stood in a cluster by the door. Only Cyanne seemed oblivious to the mood.
Finally, Dathan broke the uncomfortable silence. "It is time."
He knelt and hugged his daughter. "Good-bye, Cyanne. I love you."
He embraced her briefly and pulled away, turning his head so she wouldn?t see his tears.
Amalga stepped closer and hugged her. "You take good care of Uncle Kestryl. You know how foolish men can be."
She clasped the girl tightly, until Dathan placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. Then she took a step backward and looked upon her daughter for the last time.
"I love you, my little Duchess."
"I love you too, Mommy. I?ll see you soon, okay?"
Amalga, not daring to speak, nodded.
The Bladesman took her hand and led the girl from the throne room. Cyanne waved before the pair turned down the corridor leading to the servant’s entrance.
Penthor waited until she was out of sight before easing the doors closed. He didn?t look at the Duke and Duchess. He couldn?t bear to see the pain in their eyes. Both had had to make many hard decisions during the course of their lives, but none could compare with this. What made matters worse; neither would ever know if they had made the right choice.
Dathan turned to the new heir. "Sound the Horn of Tenithior."
Penthor was surprised. "But that’s only for holidays."
"Or when someone dies," corrected the Duke. "Sound the Horn, then make the announcement. Cyanne is dead. Let us give no one reason to suspect otherwise."
Penthor walked to the far wall of the throne room and removed the ancient instrument from the brackets that held it in place. Dathan and Amalga returned to their thrones, each battling their own demons. Neither reacted to the mellow sound borne into the night, filling the chamber with its own brand of despair. Penthor sounded the instrument three times, as was the custom, then returned it to its resting place.
He departed, leaving the rulers of High Gondylar alone with their sorrow.