Daughter of the Wolf-head
NB: I have passed over a chapter where Prince Artak shows himself to be a rude, spoilt, dishonourable man and Agata's uncle is too busy to hear her out or restrain his nephews.
Flanking the doors outside, Kait and Pilar took one look at Agata's face and hurried her away.
"Come to your apartments, Princess, and tell us what happened when we get there," Kait said.
Agata nodded, still numb with dread, anger and heartache. Pilar tucked an arm through hers.
"Through here," she said gently, leading Agata through an unfamiliar doorway, "we're less likely to run into people this way."
As soon as Pilar shut the door of her chambers, Agata checked each of the five rooms it contained. Baba was not present in any of them.
"Bar the door," she commanded.
She paced around the room, so full of anguish and helpless rage that she thought her heart would burst.
"I can't do this!" she exclaimed, "I cannot stay here any longer."
Kait and Pilar watched her anxiously and exchanged glances.
"What has happened, Princess?" Kait was blunt.
Both Kait and Pilar looked deeply troubled when she shared her uncle's view.
"He excused Prince Artak's behaviour and wants a speedy marriage. He wants to march upon Iberia before snowfall."
She took another turn, pacing around the main room. Both the other women were silent.
"I know what you're thinking," Agata burst out, "I must do what must be done, as all noblewomen do. I must surrender to the decree of my uncle but how can I do it when it means you will be sent away from me and my darling Q'ursha will be killed."
At the sound of his name, Q'ursha thrust his big head under Agata's hand and leaned trustfully against her leg. Agata thought her heart would shatter. She stroked his head and blinked away the hot tears that gathered and spilled over.
Pilar licked her lips nervously and glanced at Kait but Kait was lost in thought. After a moment she started and looked to Agata.
"I wasn't supposed to go and look for Sveeli when raiders captured her and took her away. My parents wanted me to stay. They needed me to stay and support them, yet my sister needed me too."
She lifted her shoulders and let them drop.
"You are a princess, Agata, born in the purple. I think if any woman could justify making a decision contrary to the wishes of her male relatives, it is you."
Agata let out a breath she didn't know she was holding. In all the struggles, the battles, the triumphs and the disasters they'd shared together, it was only the second time Kait had addressed her by name.
The last time she'd done that, Agata had been in danger of being skewered by a sword when they raided an outpost, manned by the Abbess' men. It had been Agata's first real fight and the first time she'd deliberately killed a man.
She shuddered at the memory and realised that solemn, composed Kait must be gripped by strong emotion.
"Thank you," she said huskily, hoping Kait wouldn't realise her slip for Kait was deeply committed to protocol.
A soft thud from the next room carried clearly in the quiet atmosphere.
Agata and Kait stiffened and Pilar snatched her knife from her belt.
Agata was sure there had been no one in any of the rooms within her private apartments and Q'ursha was right beside her, so it wasn't him settling down with thump.
He stared toward the other room, tense as they were, nostrils quivering. She saw his ears dip and rise again and his tail gave a small swish.
She frowned in puzzlement.
Her heart jumped to her throat when the door flung open and a figure appeared in the doorway. A long, black-haired woman stood there, surveying them through laughing, mocking eyes, hands on hips.
The name leapt from each of them simultaneously. Beloved, controversial Viyan. Once the Abbess's enslaved assassin, now Princess Agata's loyal-until-death warrior and expert spy.
"You really need to upgrade your security team, Princess," she gave Pilar and Kait a slanting, teasing glance.
She swept forward and bent on one knee before Agata, taking her offered hand.
"You look well, my Princess," she said, "but odd in that beautiful dress."
She rose, with Kait and Pilar surged around her, clapping her on the shoulder and hugging her all at once.
Agata laughed, her astonished joy at Viyan's appearance chasing away the sick anxiety of moments before. Viyan made the impossible seem possible but she was supposed to be many miles away, hidden in Agata's former Lair in the heart of Iberia.
"Viyan! How do you come to be here?" she exclaimed, once the initial greetings were made, "and why haven't you returned any of my messages?"
Viyan swept to the outer door and checked the lock. She paced right over to the fire in the adjoining, bigger room.
"We must be careful," Viyan looked at each of them earnestly in turn, "I mustn't be overheard."
"Only Baba Gu, the princess's old nurse, will come," Kait assured her.
"I must be gone or hidden when she does," Viyan replied.
She turned to Agata.
"Princess, I have stayed in Iberia as you commanded but I received no messages, either written or from a messenger."
Agata took her hand.
"And I have missed you every day, Viyan."
The hand in hers squeezed gently once, then Viyan stepped back, standing in front of the fire.
"You left too soon, Primavera," the black, amber-flecked eyes held an accusation.
Agata's head reared back but Viyan continued.
"We found many survivors there on the battlefield. More than we expected.
Some didn't make it," a ripple of sorrow quivered across her face, "some were so badly damaged that they will never be the same again," Agata winced, "but there are about fifty women hale and well."
"Fifty!" Agata gasped.
"About that amount. Come back, Primavera," Viyan looked about the comfortable room and her lip curled, "come back and join the women who bled for you."
Heat flushed Agata's face.
"Are you suggesting that I've abandoned them for the comforts of life?" she demanded.
No one but Viyan would dare to suggest such a thing. No one stirred Agata to rage and sorrow quite like Viyan. Viyan simply shrugged and gazed fearlessly at Agata with that restless, raw energy of hers so tangible that Agata, Pilar and Kait could almost see it. Agata opened her mouth to answer but before she could, the knob of the outer door rattled and they all heard the echo of Baba Gu's voice without.
"Quick," Agata beckoned Viyan into the room shared by Pilar and Kait, "Baba never steps foot in here."
She closed the door softly without waiting to see where or how Viyan hid. While Kait went to answer the door, Agata sat in front of the fire and Pilar began to undo her hair, brush in hand. Baba Gu came in with two man servants and three women.
"Tut, tut, Princess. You will be missed at the supper tonight."
"I am tired, Baba," Agata kept her eyes trained on the flames dancing in the fire, keenly aware of the listening ears of the servants.
They laid down covered trays of food where Baba indicated and, keeping a careful eye on the great hound Q'ursha, they backed out as quick as they could. Kait locked the outer door after them.
"There is enough food here to feed an army, Baba," Agata joked lightly.
Baba watched her with a sharp eye and put her hands on her hips.
"Well?" she said irascibly, "What is it now?"
Agata gave a small glance at the others and they knew to say nothing about Viyan.
"The princes have frightened me again, Baba."
The old lady bustled to her side and sat down. She took Agata's hand and stroked it. Agata marvelled at how soft her hand was. A hand that had never roughed it out in the wild. A hand that had never held rein or sword. Quickly, she told Baba about the events of the horse barn. Baba listened without interrupting and by the time she'd finished, Agata was surprised at how upset she really was. Those Artsruni noblemen! How dare they?
"How dare they?" Baba echoed Agata's unspoken thought.
Pilar kept brushing, running one long, soothing stroke after another, through Agata's long, auburn hair.
"What will you do?" Baba asked, concern in her whispery old voice.
"I can't marry him, Baba," Agata said softly, "it would be just like my mother's story all over again."
"And yet you are here because of that union, Princess," Baba replied softly, "And I bless that day you were born."
She leaned forward and folded her nursling into her arms.
"There, my chick, you will manage as all noble women do in these circumstances."
Holding Baba tightly, taking comfort from her affection, Agata caught Kait's eye, over Baba's shoulder and lifted a finger to her lips. Kait nodded folding her own tight. The minutes and hours ticked by slowly as Agata ate and listened to Baba chat.
"Leave the food. I'll have some more later," she said as Baba went to summon the servants.
The gnawing impatience grew as Baba slowly tidied up Agata's things and the rest of the room before finally excusing herself for the night and going to her own room. Kait, Pilar and Agata made stiff, uncomfortable small talk among themselves for as long as Agata could stand it. She went to stand next to Baba's door. All was quiet within. Kait and Pilar gathered up the remaining food, of which there was plenty and the three of them tiptoed to the other bedroom. Viyan was curled up, fast asleep on the bed, without a care in the world. Pilar chuckled quietly.
"Eh, that's our Viyan," she crowed.
"Shhh," Kait said and shook Viyan's shoulder until she blinked and sat up.
"At last," she yawned, "I thought the old one would never go to bed."
"She is my old nurse, Viyan, and more like a mother to me than any other."
Viyan stood up and straightened her hair and clothes.
"You are lucky," she said stiffly and Agata knew that she meant it genuinely.
Viyan, raised in the cold care of Abbess Shingli, had never known warmth or affection.
Pilar laid out the food on the bed and Viyan ate neatly in spite of her obvious hunger. Agata waited as long as she could before asking the question that burned on her tongue.
"Why are you here, Viyan? You could have sent a message that many of the women survived the battle."
"I've come to take you back, Primavera," Viyan said, speaking with her mouth still half full, "come back and finish what you started."
"The Marauders are too strong and we have word that their numbers will be fortified soon by the arrival of the Marauder king, himself. I must gain an alliance with my Arstruni relatives."
She was amazed that her voice remained steady.
"True," Viyan nodded, "and he has already arrived in Narikala but things have changed and there is a new chance to defeat them."
"Madness," Agata said, "I tried that and look where it ended."
This time Agata winced at her own words and Pilar gave her a sympathetic glance. They all still felt the raw pain of that day where the General ambushed Agata and her army of women and decimated them in the high mountains of Iberia. Many dear friends and loyal followers had died that day. Q'ursha had disappeared for days and Pertinax stayed silent even though his ability to speak had returned. Agata closed her eyes.
Immediately, Prince Artak's face, no longer handsome but sneering, rose in her mind's eye followed by the relentless, cruel face of his cousin, Prince Gurgen. Stay here with them or go with Viyan and Pilar and Kait. Back to the free life she'd come to love or stay and face a fate tied with one of them.
Her food threatened to rise back up her throat. She coughed and forced herself to breathe deeply. Even if the princes sent their armies to Iberia, even if they won and threw the marauders out, they were still terrible men and not fit to rule her beloved country. Uncle Ren would not support her alone. The realisation broke through her lifelong conditioning, she could not leave it up to her male relatives to win Iberia. She could not pin her hopes on Pertinax. He had vanished. Agata must do it herself.
"I'll come," she said.
"W..wonderful," Viyan's eyes widened. She was all geared up to deliver her best persuasive arguments and still held valuable information but the Princess had agreed. Her eyes narrowed speculatively.
"How will we do it?" Agata said, looking at her henchwoman and rubbing her hands along her thighs encased in the delicate dress, "My uncle won't let me leave."
As expected, Viyan had it all worked out.