Bahzell was walking slowly towards his own quarters, cutting across the passage outside Tellian's library, while he considered the baron's response to Sir Yarran's message from Lord Festian. Tellian had spent three days deciding his course of action, and Bahzell hoped it would do the trick, although he had to admit that he still cherished a few reservations. If people like this Lord Warden Saratic were sufficiently determined to undermine Lord Festian's wardenship, they might not take the hint Tellian was about to send their way. Especially not if Baron Cassan was as deeply involved as all the evidence seemed to suggest. In which case, Tellian's decision to dispatch two hundred of his own men, commanded by his nephew, could end up provoking the very confrontation it was intended to prevent.
The fact that Tellian had selected Trianal to command the reinforcements left Bahzell feeling a bit in two minds. The youngster possessed a disposition as fiery as might be anticipated from someone that young. Yet he'd been better blooded than most his age during the previous year's royal expedition against the Ghoul Moor. He hadn't been in command then, but he'd seen the reality of battle and bloodshed, and for all his native impulsiveness, he had a level head. And if he still nursed any reservations about what Bahzell and his uncle were attempting to accomplish, he wouldn't let them get in the way. Trianal's devotion to Tellian was obvious, and he'd amply demonstrated his basic intelligence. More to the point, perhaps, he'd had it explained to him in detail that he was to defer to the judgment of Lord Festian and Sir Yarran, and he was smart enough to do it.
Still, it was enough to make a man nervous, which probably explained why Bahzell wasn't paying as much attention as he might have as he started up the stair outside the library. If he had been, he might have noticed the sound of the light, quick footsteps pattering down it in his direction before the actual moment of impact.
Unfortunately, he didn't, and the shock of the collision was enough to jar his teeth.
His right hand flashed out as Leeana caromed off of him. She'd been moving at something much closer to a run than a walk, and he caught her elbow just before she tumbled headlong off the stair. He didn't have time to be gentle about it, and she gasped in as much unanticipated hurt as surprise as his fingers snapped tight.
"Here now! I'm hoping I've not dislocated your arm, Milady!" he said quickly, setting her back upright.
"N-no," she said, and his eyebrows flew up and his ears flattened at the strange little break in her voice. She looked away from him as she flexed her wrenched arm.
"I-I'm all right," she said, still keeping her face averted, but Bahzell had too many sisters to be fooled.
"Now, that you're not," he told her gently. Her shoulders jerked, and he heard something very like a smothered sob. "If you're wishful to tell me I should be minding my own business, that's one thing, lass," he said. "But if you're wishful for an ear as has nothing better to do than listen to whatever it may be weighs on you so, well, here I am."
She looked at him at last, unable to resist the gentle, genuine sympathy of his voice. Her jade eyes brimmed with tears, and under them was something more than mere sorrow. It was fear, he realized, and he reached out to her once more. He rested a huge, powerful hand lightly on her shoulder, with a familiarity very, very few Sothōii would have shown to the daughter of such a powerful noble, and met her gaze levelly.
"I— It's just that . . ." She drew a deep breath and shook her head. "That's very kind of you, Prince Bahzell," she said, rushing the words ever so slightly as she forced her voice to hold together. "But it's not necessary, I assure you."
"And who was it said anything about 'necessary'?" he asked, with a crooked smile. "But you're the daughter of a man who's after becoming a friend of mine, lass. And even if he wasn't, I know someone as has an over-full heart when I see her. I'm not saying as how you couldn't be dealing with whatever it is all on your own. I'm only suggesting there's no least reason in the world why you should be."
Her mouth quivered for a moment, and then every muscle seemed to relax simultaneously. She stared up at him, one tear trickling down her cheek, and nodded slowly.
* * *
They sat at a stone table on a terrace on the castle's south side. It wasn't 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 maid's reaction was the last thing on her mind.
She felt horribly embarrassed—not at finding herself alone with Bahzell, but for having so little control that she'd 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 didn't 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."
"I'm sorry, Prince Bahzell," she said finally. "I'm afraid I must seem pretty silly, carrying on this way."
"I'll 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 I'll grant. But as for the rest—"
"I think we have different definitions of 'carrying on,' " she said, but she felt herself relax further, even so. "I don't usually get this upset," she continued. "But Father's 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.
"It's just that I always thought there'd 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. "I'm thinking you're 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. It's not unheard of for us to be betrothed before we're out of our cradles, for that matter! And at least half of us are married by the time we're 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 you'll 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. "I'm not so very much more than that myself," he told her. "I'm but thirty-nine, and that's no more than a warrior of eighteen or nineteen years—your cousin Trianal's age—amongst 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 . . . hadn't thought about it that way."
"Aye, and my da would be saying as I hadn't, either—thought about it, I mean. Which, as he'd 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 we've established, in a manner of speaking, as how we're both of us young and foolish, why don't 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 you're not so very fond of the proposed groom?"
"I don't even know him," Leeana said. "Not personally, at any rate. Not that that's 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 fiancée 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 you've not met this fellow?"
"No, I haven't."
"Well, I'm naught but a poor, simple hradani, but it's in my mind that a man as hasn't even met a lass has no business proposing marriage to her."
"Oh, I couldn't agree more!" she said forcefully. "And neither, for that matter, could Father and Mother. Unfortunately, it's 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 can't have more children. The fact that the entire Royal Council hates the thought that the succession hasn't 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 who's really behind this offer," she said, "and he's no friend of Father's."
"So you're thinking as how he's after pushing an offer as he knows your father won't accept so very happily as a way to be putting still more pressure on him before the Council?"
"That's 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, I'd not like to have a mind like that, but that's not to say as how I can't be seeing how it works. But I've come to know your father pretty well, too, lass." He shook his head. "That's 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 isn't," she agreed. "But sometimes that's a dangerous quality in a nobleman. One enemies can use against him."
"I can see as how those who're thinking as how this marriage would be a good thing could be pressing him to say aye to it," Bahzell said. "But surely the decision's after being his, not theirs, when all's said."
"Normally," she said, and her smile turned bitter. "But you're forgetting whose daughter—whose only daughter—I am. As Father's liege lord, the King has the power to require him to secure the succession." Bahzell stiffened, and she shrugged. "I don't like it, but I have to admit I can understand why the law gives His Majesty that prerogative. The King literally can't 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 didn't know," Bahzell admitted. He sat thinking for several seconds, then grimaced. "I'd no notion the law gave your King such power as that. Still and all, I'm thinking as how Markhos wouldn't be so very happy to be pressuring your da on a matter such as this. There's naught I can think of as would be more likely to drive your father into things the King wouldn't care to see him driven to."
"You're 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 I'm thinking he's unbowed yet, mind you."
"So far, at least," she agreed.
"So what's really upset you so, lass, isn't that you've any least fear your da will be after forcing you to marry this fellow, whoever he might be. It's that if he isn't forcing you to, he'll find himself losing allies on the Council."
"So he might," Bahzell said. "Yet I'm thinking as how your father's one of the most canny men I've yet to meet. It's 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. "Don't you be panicking, lass. The Baron's more arrows in his quiver than most, and he'll be using all of them where you're concerned."
"I know he will," Leeana replied, and smiled tremulously, her eyes bright once more. "I know he will."
* * *
"Have you seen Leeana yet this morning, love?"
Baroness Hanatha looked up at her husband's question and gave him a small, sad smile.
"No, I haven't," she said.
"She's not taking this well," Tellian said fretfully, and Hanatha actually laughed.
" 'Taking this well'?" she repeated. "My dear, that has to stand as the understatement of at least the last decade!"
"Well, I know that," her husband said a bit irritably. "But at least she understands I'd never constrain her to marry anyone—least of all someone like Blackhill!"
"What the heart knows isn't always what the mind knows, when you're fourteen," Hanatha said gently. "And much as I love you, and as good a man as you are, you're still a man, dear."
"Which means what, aside from the obvious?" his tone was definitely testy this time.
"Which means that ultimately you can't really understand what it means to know every single important decision in your life lies in someone else's hands."
Hanatha's voice was neither angry nor condemnatory, but it was flat, and Tellian looked at her sharply across the breakfast table.
"Leeana knows how much you love her, just as I know how much you love both of us," his wife told him in a gentler tone. "But the fact remains that we live our lives as we choose only on the sufferance of your love. She's constrained in ways no son of yours would be. In many ways that makes her love you even more, you know."
The baron looked puzzled, and she shook her head sadly.
"Of course it does. She knows how much freedom she's been allowed. And she knows how fiercely you'd protect her. She knows how much you're prepared to sacrifice for her, and she loves you for that. Yet in the end, Tellian, she also knows how much it could cost you . . . and she can never forget that she can never truly hold those decisions in her own hands. That she has her freedom only because someone else gave it to her, not because she can secure it—forge her own life—on her own. So is it really any wonder she's not 'taking this well'?"
"No," he said softly, looking down at the eggs and ham on his plate. "No, it's not, of course." He poked at the food with his fork for a moment, then selected a fresh, flaky biscuit and began spreading butter across it. "Do you think I should discuss it with her again?" he asked after a moment.
"No," Hanatha said. "Not right now, at any rate. You two have already said all that needs saying. Whether you've both heard exactly what the other one was really saying may be another matter, but until her emotions—and yours, sweetheart—have had some time to settle down, you're not going to be able to make things any clearer. Best to give her some time to herself. Let her cope with it on her own terms."
"You're probably right," he conceded thoughtfully. He bit into the biscuit and chewed slowly, then frowned. "On the other hand, the fact that she isn't here for breakfast might seem to indicate she isn't coping with it very well yet," he observed.
"I don't expect her to cope with it for at least a day or so," his wife said. "In fact, before she went to bed last night she told me she intended to take Boots out for a ride early this morning. A long ride."
"How long a ride?" Tellian looked up again, his expression concerned, and Hanatha shrugged.
"Probably all day," she said frankly. "That's why I'm not surprised she didn't join us for breakfast. She intended to make an early start, so she probably dropped by the kitchen when the servants were having breakfast and wheedled something out of Cook, like she used to do when she was a baby."
"What about the Mayor's banquet?" Tellian frowned. "You know we'll have to leave for it by midafternoon."
"I told her she didn't have to attend," Hanatha said. "It's not as if there'll be anyone else there her age, you know. You and I may have to suffer through it, but there's no real reason she ought to be forced to do the same thing. Besides, I know what it's like to need to spend some time away from parties and banquets."
"Still . . ." he said slowly.
"She said she wanted time to think, and she thinks best in the saddle. Like someone else I know." She smiled, and despite his manifold worries, Tellian chuckled.
"At any rate," she continued, "I didn't really have the heart to tell her no. I did ask her if she intended to take her armsmen along. I didn't come right out and tell her that if she didn't, she wasn't going anywhere, but she's not exactly a dummy, your daughter. She only made a face and said she knew perfectly well that she wasn't going riding unless Tarith did, too."
"Tarith, all by himself, isn't exactly her armsmen," Tellian observed.
"I thought about pointing that out to her," Hanatha agreed. "On the other hand, you didn't pick Tarith as her armsman when she was two whole years old because of how incompetent he is. As long as they stay on our lands, he should be able to look after her just fine. And," for just an instant all of her own love for her daughter put a quiver into her voice, "I wanted to give her at least that much, Tellian. It's not all that much of a victory over tradition and convention, but at least we can let her have that much."
The baron looked at his wife and started to speak. Then he stopped, his own eyes just a bit misty, and nodded.
He sat there for a moment, then drew a deep breath, shook himself, and smiled at Hanatha.
"You're right, of course, love," he said. "On the other hand, this is Leeana we're talking about. You know—the daughter who broke her arm when she tried to walk all the way around the north tower across the battlements? The one who took her pony across a three-rail fence when she was nine? The one who—"
"All right. All right!" Hanatha laughed and threw a balled-up napkin at him. "And your point is?"
"That as soon as I finish eating, I'm personally going down to the stable to make sure Tarith's horse is gone, too."
* * *
"Milady Baroness! Milady Baroness!"
Hanatha Bowmaster came awake almost instantly in response to the imploring whisper. It was dark, without even a trace of gray dawn glimmering through her window. She sat up, and Marthya stepped back from the edge of her bed.
"What is it?" Her voice was husky with sleep, but she kept it low enough not to disturb her husband.
"It's—it's Lady Leeana," the maid said wretchedly, her lamp quivering in her hand. "Her bed's not been slept in, Milady!"
"What do you mean?" Hanatha demanded, not because she'd misunderstood Marthya, but because her mind refused to grapple with what the maid had just said.
"I mean she never came in at all last night, Milady," Marthya said even more wretchedly. "I know you said she had permission to stay out all day with Tarith, but I should have suspected something when she wasn't back in time for supper. But I didn't—truly, I didn't, Milady! I lay down, just to nap until she came in, and then, somehow . . ."
The maid shook her head, and a bright flash of panic flared through Hanatha.
"What's the hour?" she demanded.
"Barely three hours till dawn," Marthya admitted. "I just woke up, Milady, and the instant I did—"
"I understand, Marthya," Hanatha said. She wanted to be furious with the maid, but she couldn't. Not when she hadn't made a point of going to Leeana's room to check on her herself when she and Tellian finally returned from the mayor's banquet. She should have. She'd known at the time that she should have. Yet she'd decided not to—decided to respect her daughter's need for privacy.
"Let me get this straight," she said after a moment. "You're saying no one in Hill Guard has seen her at all since breakfast yesterday?"
"Breakfast, Milady?" Marthya looked at Hanatha in obvious confusion.
"Yes, breakfast—before she went riding with Tarith!" Hanatha's frightened worry sharpened her tone, but Marthya shook her head.
"Milady, she told me she and Tarith would be leaving before breakfast. She said they were getting an early start because she planned to ride over to Lord Farith's in time for dinner. She said she could dress herself and there was no need for me to be up even earlier than usual. And she said Cook had already packed sandwiches for an early lunch, so they wouldn't need breakfast."
"Lord Farith's?" Hanatha looked at the maid blankly. Farith was Lord of Maldahowe, almost a full half-day's ride north of Balthar. She'd never agreed Leeana could ride that far from home with only Tarith for an escort! Which meant—
The Baroness of Balthar went paper-white and reached for her husband's shoulder.
* * *
"There's no question about it," Tellian Bowmaster said harshly. The sun was perhaps an hour above the horizon as he stood staring out a window at the city of Balthar, his face haggard. "I've ordered a door-to-door search through the city, but it's not going to find her. Damn the girl! How could she do something like this?!"
Love and fear made him furious, and he slammed a fist down on the stone windowsill.
"We don't—we don't know for certain what she has done," Hanatha said. He shot a glance at her, and she shook her head. "Well, we don't, Tellian. Not really. I know what it looks like she's done, but there's no way Tarith would help her run away. Wherever she is, he's with her. You know he'd never let her out of his sight once they left Hill Guard!"
"I know. I know!" Tellian drummed on the windowsill with both hands, his shoulders tight and his face clenched with worry. "But no one saw them leaving together, Hanatha. In fact, no one saw Leeana leave at all."
"That's preposterous," his wife protested. "She had to have been seen by the sentries!"
"Well, she wasn't," he said grimly. "And Tarith was seen leaving—by himself."
"What? When?" Hanatha demanded.
"The evening before you gave her permission to stay home from the banquet," he said, and then looked up quickly at her small, choked sound of distress.
She stared at him, her face white, her eyes huge with guilt and fear, and he shook his head sharply.
"No, love!" He turned and drew her into his arms, hugging her tightly. "Don't blame yourself—and don't think for a moment that I blame you, either! You asked her exactly the same questions, set exactly the same conditions, I would have. You had no more reason to suspect she might do something like this than I would have had!"
"But . . . but if Tarith left then, and no one saw her at breakfast . . ." Hanatha's voice trailed off, and she turned paler than ever. "Lillinara, Tellian!" she half-whispered. "Marthya put her to bed night before last, but how do we know she stayed there?"
"We don't," he said harshly. "In fact, I don't think she did." His wife stared at him mutely, and he shrugged. "She told the stable master to turn Boots out into the south paddock the day before yesterday. He didn't think anything about it, and no one told him she was supposed to be going anywhere yesterday. All he can say for certain is that her riding tack is missing, and Boots hasn't been seen since night before last."
"But how did she—?" Hanatha chopped herself off, and her jaw tightened in sudden understanding.
"Exactly," her husband said. "I've sent riders out in all directions, searching for her—and for Tarith—but I already know how she did it."
He shook his head, but though his expression was grim, there was something else in it, as well. Something almost like pride.
"She knew we'd give her permission to skip the banquet if she asked for it. So she sent Tarith off on some errand before she ever spoke to you."
"But she promised to take him with her!" Hanatha protested, unable to accept that her daughter had lied to her.
"No, she didn't." Tellian shook his head. Hanatha stared at him, and he grinned sourly. "I'm sure she told the exact truth, love. It just wasn't what you thought she said."
"You said she said she knew she couldn't spend the day riding unless Tarith did, too," he told her. "I'll wager she never actually said she couldn't do it unless Tarith rode with her. What she meant was that she had to send him riding off on some pretext or another to keep him from stopping her."
"Lillinara protect her," Hanatha whispered. "You're right. She didn't say specifically that he'd be with her. I only assumed that was what she meant."
"Just as she knew you would. And just as I would have done," Tellian said. "But with Tarith out of the way, and your permission to go riding, she knew no one would miss her between breakfast and lunch yesterday. So night before last, she told Marthya she and Tarith had to leave early the next morning for Lord Farith's. Then, as soon as she was confident almost everyone else was asleep, she crept out of her room, went down to the stable with the food she'd tricked Cook into giving her and 'Tarith' for lunch, took her riding tack, and let herself out through the southern tunnel."
Hanatha nodded. Only members of the family and their personal armsmen knew how to find and use the castle's two secret escape routes. They couldn't be opened from the outer end without battering rams, and concealment was their best protection, so guards were never posted except in times of high alert.
"So she went to the south paddock, saddled Boots, and disappeared . . . over thirty-six hours ago."
"But . . . but to where?"
"That much I think I know," Tellian said grimly. "If I'm right, she already has enough of a head start to make overtaking her all but impossible, but I can't go after her until I know for certain that Tarith isn't with her. Or that there isn't . . . some other explanation."
His voice wavered on the last three words, and Hanatha's hand rose to her lips. They stared at one another, paralyzed by lack of information and terror for their daughter's safety, and beyond the window, the sun crept steadily higher beyond the rain-weeping clouds.