Lady Reanna watched with interest as Moira na Fer-son took her chain-mail shirt, pooled it like glittery liquid on the bed, and slipped it into a grey velvet bag lined with chamois. It was an exquisitely made shirt; the links were tiny, and immensely strong; Moira only wished it was as featherlight as it looked.
"Your father doesn't know what he's getting back," Reanna observed, cupping her round chin with one deceptively soft hand, and flicking aside a golden curl with the other.
"My father didn't know what he sent away," Moira countered, just as her heavy, coiled braid came loose and dropped down her back for the third time. With a sigh, she repositioned it again, picked up the silver bodkin that had dropped to the floor, and skewered it in place. "He looked at me and saw a cipher, a nonentity. He saw what I hoped he would see, because I wanted him to send me far, far away from that wretched place. Maybe I have my mother's moon-magic, maybe I'm just good at playacting. He saw a little bit of uninteresting girl-flesh, not worth keeping, and by getting rid of it he did what I wanted." Candle- and firelight glinted on the fine embroidered trim of an indigo-colored gown, and gleamed on the steel of the bodice knife she slipped into the sheath that the embroidery concealed.
"But to send you here!" Reanna shook her head. "What was he thinking?"
"Exactly nothing, I expect." Moira hid her leather gauntlets inside a linen chemise, and inserted a pair of stiletto blades inside the stays of a corset. "I'm sure he fully expected to have a half-dozen male heirs by now, and wanted only to find somewhere to be rid of me at worst, and to polish me up into a marriage token at best. He looked about for someone to foist me off on—which would have to be some relation of my mother's, since he's not on speaking terms with most of his
House—and picked the one most likely to turn me into something he could use for an alliance. You have to admit, the Countess has a reputation for taking troublesome young hoydens and turning out lovely women." The ironic smile with which she delivered those last words was not lost on her best friend. Reanna choked, and her pink cheeks turned pinker.
"Lovely women who use bodkins to put up their hair!" she exclaimed. "Lovely women who—"
"Peace," Moira cautioned. "Perhaps the moon-magic had a hand in that, too. If it did, well, all to the good." An entire matched set of ornate silver bodkins joined the gauntlets in the pack, bundled with comb, brush, and hand mirror. "There can be only one reason why Father wants me home now. He plans to wed me to some handpicked suitor. Perhaps it's for an alliance, perhaps it's to someone he is grooming as his successor. In either case, though he knows it not, he is going to find himself thwarted. I intend to marry no one not of my own choosing."
Reanna rested her chin on her hands and looked up at Moira with deceptively limpid blue eyes. "I don't know how you'll manage that. You'll be one young woman in a keep full of your father's men."
"And the law in Highclere says that no woman can be wed against her will. Not even the heir to a sea-keep. And the keep will be mine, whether he likes it or not, for I am the only child." Moira rolled wool stockings into balls and stuffed them in odd places in the pack. She was going to miss this cozy room. The sea-keep was not noted for comfort. "I will admit, I do not know, yet, what I will do when he proposes such a match. But the Countess has not taught me in vain. I will think of something."
"And it will be something clever," Reanna murmured. "And you will make your father think it was all his
Moira tossed her head like a restive horse. "Of course!" she replied. "Am I not one of her Grey Ladies?"
Moira's midnight-black braid came down again, and she coiled it up automatically, casting a look at herself in the mirror as she did so. As she was now— without the arts of paint and brush she had learned from Countess Vrenable—no man would look twice at her. This was a good thing, for a beauty had a hard time making herself plain and unnoticed, but one who possessed a certain cast of pale features that might
be called "plain" had the potential to be either ignored or to make herself by art into a beauty. Strange that she and Reanna should have become such fast friends from the very moment she had entered the gates of Viridian Manor. She, so dark and pale, and Reanna, so golden and rosy—yet beneath the surface, they were very much two of a kind. Both had been sent here by parents who had no use for them; daughters who must be dowered were a liability, but girls schooled by Countess Vrenable had a certain cachet as brides, and often the King could be coaxed into providing an addition to an otherwise meager dower. Especially when the King himself was using the bride as the bond of an alliance, which had also been known to happen to girls schooled by the Countess. Both Moira and Reanna were the same age, and when it came to their interests and skills, unlikely as it might seem, they were a perfectly matched set.
And both had, two years ago, been taken into the especial schooling that made them something more than the Countess's fosterlings. Both had been invited to become Grey Ladies.
It sometimes occurred to Moira that the difference between girls fostered with Countess Vrenable and those fostered elsewhere, was that the other girls went through their lives assuming that no matter what happened, no matter what terrible thing befell them, there would be a rescue and a rescuer. The Grey Ladies knew very well that if there was a rescue to be had, they would be doing the rescuing themselves.
There was a great deal to be said for not relying on anyone but yourself.
"You're not a Grey Lady yet," Reanna reminded her, from her perch on the bolster of the bed. "That's for the Countess to decide."
A polite cough beside them made them both turn toward the door. "In fact, my dear, the Countess is about to make that decision right now."
No one took Countess Vrenable, first cousin to the King, for granted. And it was not only because of her nearness in blood to the throne. She was not tall, yet she gave the impression of being stately; she was no beauty, yet she caused the eyes of men to turn away from those who were "mere" beauties. It was said that there was no skill she had not mastered. She danced with elegance, conversed with wit, sang, played, embroidered—had all of the accomplishments any well-born woman could need. And several more, besides. Her hair was pure white, yet her finely chiseled face was ageless. Some said her hair had been white for the past thirty years, that it had turned white the day her husband, the Count, died in her arms.
"You are a little young to be one of my Ladies, child," the Countess said, in a tone that suggested otherwise. "However, this move on your father's part holds… potential."
The older woman turned with a practiced grace that Moira envied, and began pacing back and forth in the confined space of the small room she shared with Reanna. "I should tell you a key fact, my dear. I created the Grey Ladies after my dear husband died, because it was lack of information that caused his death."
She paused in her pacing to look at both girls. Reanna blinked, looking puzzled, but too polite to say anything.
The Countess smiled. "Yes, my children, to most, he died because he threw himself between an assassin and the King. But the King and I realized even as he was dying that the moment of his death began long before the knife struck him. We know that if we had had the proper information, the assassin would never have gotten that far. Assassins, feuds, even wars—all can be averted with the right information at the right time." She passed a hand along a fold of her sable gown. "My cousin has kept peace within our borders and without because he values cunning over force. But it is a never-ending struggle, and in that struggle, information is the most powerful weapon he has."
As Reanna's mouth formed a silent O, the Countess turned to Moira. "Here is the dilemma I face. There is information that I need to know in, and about, the Sea-Keep of Highclere and its lord. But conflicting loyalties—"
Moira raised an eyebrow. "My lady, I have not seen my father for more than a handful of days in all my life. I know well that although my mother loved him, he wedded her only to have her dower, and it was her desperate attempt to give him the male heir he craved that killed her. He cast me off like an outworn glove, and now he calls me back when he at last has need of me. I have had more loving kindness from you in a single day than I have had from him in all my life. If he works against the King, it is my duty to thwart him." She met the Countess's intensely blue eyes with her own pale grey ones. "There are no conflicting loyalties, my lady. I owe my birth to him— but to you, I owe all that I am now."
What she did not, and would not say, was a memory held tight within her, of the night her mother had died, trying to give birth to the male child her father had so desperately wanted. How her mother lay dying and calling out for him, while he had eyes only for the son born dead. How he had mourned that half-formed infant the full seven days and had it buried with great ceremony, while his wife went unattended to her grave but for Moira and a single maidservant. She had never forgiven him for that, and never would.
The Countess held herself very still, and her eyes grew dark with sadness. "My dear child, I understand you. And I am sorry for it."
Reanna sighed. "Not all of us are blessed with loving parents, my lady," she said.
The Countess's lips thinned. "If you had
loving parents, child, I would be the last person to remove you from their care," she replied briskly, and Moira suddenly understood why she felt she had joined some sort of sisterhood when she came to foster under the Countess's care. None of them had been considered anything other than burdens at worst, and tokens of negotiation at best, by their parents.Which makes us apt to trust the first hand that offers kindness instead of a blow,
she thought. Which was, of course, a thought born of the Countess's own training. The Countess taught them all to look for weaknesses and
strengths, and to never accept anything at its face value, even the girls who were not recruited into the ranks of the Grey Ladies.
But then her mind added, And it is a very good thing for all of us that milady is truly kind, and truly cares.
Because she had no doubt of that. The Countess cared deeply about her fosterlings, whether they were Grey Ladies or not.
But it did make her wonder what someone with less scruples could accomplish with the same material to work on.
"Would that I had a year further training of you, Moira," the Countess said, frowning just a little. "I am loath to throw you into what may be a lion's den with less than a full quiver of arrows."
"I am thrown there anyway," Moira replied logically. "My father will have,
me home, and you cannot withhold me. I would as soon be of some use." And then something occurred to her, which made the corners of her mouth turn up. "But I shall want my reward, my lady."
"Oh, so?" The Countess did not take affront at this. One fine eyebrow rose; that was all.
"Should I find my father in treason, his estates are confiscated to the Crown, are they not?" she asked. "Well then, as we both know, your word is as good as the King's. So should information I lay be the cause of such a finding, I wish your hand and seal upon it that the Sea-Keep of Highclere, my mother's dower, remains with me."
Slowly, the Countess smiled; it was, Moira thought, a smile that some men might have killed for, because it was a smile full of warmth and approval. "I have taught you well," she said at last. "Better than I had thought. Well enough, my hand and seal on it, and if you can think thus straightly, I believe you may serve your King." And she took pen and parchment from the desk and wrote it out. "And you, Reanna—you may hold this in surety for your friend," she continued, handing the parchment to Reanna, who waved it in the air to dry. "I think it best that you, Moira, not be found with any such thing on your person."
Moira and Reanna both nodded. Moira, because she knew that no one would be able to part Reanna from the paper if Reanna didn't wish to give it up. Reanna—well, perhaps because Reanna knew that the Countess would never attempt to take it from her.
"All right, child," the Countess said then. "I am going to steal you away from your packing long enough to try and cram a year's worth of teaching into an afternoon."
In the end, the Countess took more than an afternoon, and even then, Moira felt as if her head had been packed too full for her to really think about what she had learned.
The escort that her father had sent had been forced to cool its collective heels until the Countess saw fit to deliver Moira into their hands. There was not a great deal they could do about that; the Countess Vrenable outranked the mere Lord of Highclere Sea-Keep. The Countess was not completely without a heart; she did see that they were properly fed and housed. But she wanted it made exquisitely clear that affairs would proceed at her
pace and convenience, not those of some upstart from the costal provinces.