Daughter of the Wolf-head
Agata would never forget the long walk from her quarters to those of her uncle. Arzen was a big fortress, sprawling across the side of the mountain. Her footsteps tapped clearly on the flagstones. The torches, guttering in their holders sat high on the wall causing shadows to dance and swing while Agata walked like the sacrificial lamb. Preserve me, she said silently, for in You do I put my trust...
Providence would direct her path and nothing else for her army was lost, scattered and broken on a lonely windswept hill. Her hidden Lair was far away and the Abbess, once her great hope, had proved to be a scurrilous traitor in league with the Marauder high king. Once again she dashed away a betraying moisture from her cheeks with flying finger tips.
Although the sun still shone outside, the walls of the fortress were thick, carved out of stone making the air in the fortress cool and damp.
Her entourage halted in front of Prince Ren's quarters. Pilar tapped softly on the door. A rectangle of light with a curved top shone through the opened door. Her women stood either side of the door and Agata stepped through first. Arched windows lined the long wall and light spilled through. Agata's eyes took a moment to adjust from the gloom of the windowless corridors.
A look of wonder entered her uncle's face when he saw her.
"Come in, my dear niece," Prince Ren beckoned her forward, "you look very well this evening."
Her feet made no noise on the long, wide carpets that covered the stone floor. Only the swish of her skirts sounded as Agata stepped numbly forward. Prince Ren sat comfortably in his great chair before a huge stone fireplace. A serving man ushered Agata into a chair opposite. Between them, a table bore a chequered board, its playing pieces at attention, facing one another. Prince Ren ose and bowed as she settled and sat back down.
"Thank you, Uncle, and I bid you good evening. You wished to see me?"
Her uncle smiled with great warmth.
"My dear, I have news that will please you."
Agata raised her eyebrows and he went on.
"Yes, I have heard from the Tuli at long last with news that your brother is well."
Agata's hands crept up to her throat. "You mean Pertinax is alive?"
She gulped, a new river of hope streaming through her conscious. That meant that she could find him and bring him back to her side. They would regain Iberia together and--
Her uncle was still speaking and Agata caught the gist of his words in dismay. "Kait and Pilar will leave in two days to ascertain his welfare."
Agata's breathing was fast and shallow and her heart beat in an uneven tattoo. So Pertinax was suddenly found, after all these months of her enquiring, and her two faithful henchwomen were being sent to affirm his wellbeing? Agata's internal voice of warning began to shriek. She fought to keep her face bland.
"Why do the Tuli have him? How did you find out?" she asked and in spite of her best effort, the suspicion in her heart resonated in her voice.
Her uncle shifted in his seat and he did not meet her gaze. His glance flickered about as he searched for words. "A messenger came but your women will be able to tell you all when they return."
Agata's fingers clenched and her hand balled into a fist in her lap. She wanted to blurt out that they would not go but she remembered old Baba Gu's advice. If she said that Kait and Pilar would not go, then Uncle Ren would make an excuse to confine her to her room and force them to go.
She calmed her heart.
"It would give me great happiness to know my brother is safe," did Uncle Ren's eyes flicker away? She saw his tongue dart across his lips, "I will be able to spare Kait and Pilar soon."
She met his eye squarely, marvelling at her new-found ability to lie through her teeth. Prince Ren placed the tips of his fingers together and the tense watchfulness left him. He opened his arms wide.
"Ah, then. That is settled. On to other good news - I believe you met my young cousin, Prince Artak today. How did you find him?"
Agata knew immediately that Prince Ren favoured his cousin over Prince Gurgen. "He was most mannerly."
Prince Ren looked pleased. "Good. This is good."
He rubbed his hands together and Agata took a deep breath, trying not to feel repelled by his eagerness. She must tell her uncle about Prince Gurgen's behaviour first. That thought alone caused the heat of anger to smoulder in her chest. Keeping her eyes on her hands, she blurted out her story in a rush.
"I believe he is capable of anything," she said at the end, "and I am not safe with him here."
Only then did she look up and see the flush of shock and anger in her uncle's face. His mouth was tight and there were white patches either side of his nose. He thrust himself from the chair and took a couple of hasty turns up and down in front of the fire, shooting her glances all the while.
He stopped in front of her and cleared his throat.
"I beg your pardon, dear Agata," he swallowed, "to have you so manhandled under my roof and by a guest of mine is outrageous! It is an insult to both your honour and mine."
He bent down on one knee and took one of her hands gently. "You are right. Prince Gurgen knows no restraint. He will go straight for the thing he wants."
Agata watched him carefully but remained silent. Prince Ren's beetling eyebrows drew together as he thought.
"Say and do nothing," he said at last, "I will ensure you have men guarding your door at night and while Prince Gurgen remains here, my men shall accompany you whither you go."
He shot her a glance from under his eyebrows. Agata gave a small, outraged gasp. Uncle Ren continually sought extra methods to constrain her. She did not match his notions of ladylike behaviour. She wanted to ride out when he thought she should be bent over stitchery. She talked politics with him much to his discomfort and dissuasion.
"Men at the door at night will be enough. Prince Gurgen won't try to snatch me in daylight."
Prince Ren rose and returned to his seat. He gazed deep into the depths of the fire. He tapped the curling brass knobs at the end of the armrests before wrapping his fingers fully around them and gripping hard. Agata watched, mesmerised.
"Tcha! That man is such a villain but I saw nothing of it when we travelled together to Iberia."
"Prince Gurgen was in Iberia?" Agata was surprised.
Prince Ren was not going to pursue that thought. He switched topics. "And you found Prince Artak to your liking?"
Agata lips lifted, remembering the Prince's slow smile as he looked up at her while she stood brandishing a sword in his face. He hadn't seemed at all shocked that a woman would try to defend herself. "He appears a gentleman, Uncle."
"Good. That's settled then."
"Nothing is settled. I merely say he seems a nicer man than the other prince. I still desire to remain single."
Prince Ren returned to the contemplate the leaping flames. A log cracked and broke in the depths of the fire sending blue and red-gold sparks flying upward.
"Impossible," he said heavily and with a touch of anger, "one of them you must choose. Now consider this, there is bad blood in Gurgen's family but if you choose Prince Artak we will have another problem - how do we send Prince Gurgen away without losing his support?"
Agata felt his glance but didn't meet his eye. A quiver of alarm held her silent. Had Uncle Ren heard her at all? She felt as though she had somehow assented to something without agreeing to it. Her jaw clenched.
I must choose for Iberia. I must. I cannot.
Her uncle lifted a hand, halting her speech. "Say no more now, Princess Agata. We will talk later. I'll see you at the feast in the Great Hall shortly."
She rose and he stood with her. They spoke no more and Agata returned to Kait and Pilar at the door and went quietly swishing back to her rooms. Along the way, several of her uncle's warriors joined them. They said nothing to Agata but when Kait asked they said they were under orders from Prince Ren to guard her door.
Kait turned startled eyes to Agata but she tilted her head, gesturing for Kait to follow her within. The former guard said no more and followed her princess into the chambers.
"What happened?" Kait asked.
Agata shook her head, "I couldn't speak properly with him. I don't know what it is about my uncle but when I see him my tongue freezes and all my good logic vanishes."
She lifted her shoulders in a helpless shrug, "Terrible things are afoot, Kait. My uncle means to send you away. He claims that Pertinax is with the Tuli people and you and Pilar will go to prove it to me. I don't believe him. He wants to get you away from me and news of my brother is the lure."
"It could be true," Kait said quietly.
Agata sat in a deep chair and stared into the distance. She failed to see Pilar and Kait exchange glances.
"Where are you, little brother?" she murmured.
"Princess, brace yourself to stand up to them," Pilar spoke gently and Agata was absorbed in thinking of ways to find Pertinax and didn't hear her soft words.
All too soon, a knock sounded at the outer door.
"It is Lord Izak come to escort you to the feast, my lady," Kait returned with the message.
"Tell him I will be a few moments."
Kait delivered the message and returned. She waited until Baba went to fetch a bracelet for Agata from the other rom.
"Princess," she said softly, "this Lord Izak is too eager to be in your presence."
Agata made a face.
"He tries to comfort me in this new life is all, Kait."
"Let's hope he doesn't try to comfort you too much," Kait replied acidly, "I don't trust him."
Agata was startled. Lord Izak was the only man in the fortress with whom she felt comfortable. She shook her head, a smirk lifting the corner of her mouth.
"Between us, Kait, we don't trust anybody in Uncle Ren's fortress."
Kait braced her hands on her hips and leaned back, "And for good reason, Princess. We are surrounded by wolves. They circle you waiting to strike."
She broke off at Baba's return and Agata held out her arm automatically to Baba Gu. Catching sight of the emerald studded silver bracelet, she gasped.
"Baba! Where does this come from?"
"Prince Ren sent a chest of your mother's things. There were some jewels. "
Agata lifted her arm to inspect the beautiful bracelet. Worked into the silver was the figure of an egret, wings outstretched and elegant head lifted high upon the long slender neck.
"My mother's emblem," she murmured, drawing forth one of two necklaces tucked under her dress, "I wear its twin."
Indeed the medallion dangling at the end of the gold necklace bore an identical egret with wings outstretched, looking to the sky.
She stared into space, her eyes half-shut. In her mind's eye she saw her own hand holding another round, gold medallion. It too had the same emblem. She'd found it among the goods she'd taken from the supply train, only a few moons ago. After her great leap over the edge of the cliff, she'd left the medallion there as an offering to her mother, a sort of thank you for watching over her from heaven.
She turned to Baba.
"Where does mother's emblem come from, Baba? You came with her when she married my father, you must know."
"Only that it was on her own mother's necklace, child."
Agata traced over the white polished figure with a sensitive fingertip.
"An identical image adorned a gold medallion I took from a supply train. Do you remember, Kait?"
"Do I remember our glorious raid? Or the medallion?" Kait drawled, "Both, actually."
She loved to remind Baba of Agata's adventures.
Baba winced but before she could say anything, Pilar reminded them that Lord Izak still waited outside. Agata sighed. She must face them.
Agata was familiar now with Prince Ren's feasting hall. The great doors swung back and beyond them the hubbub of many voices filled the room. They hushed at her entrance, a sea of faces turned from the tables on either side and followed her as she trod with steady steps up the centre to the raised table. She fastened on her uncle's face and without looking was aware that Prince Artak sat on his left and Prince Gurgen on his right. There was a scratching thunder as all at the head table pushed back their chairs and rose to their feet.
"Welcome, Princess Agata."
The voices lifted in a chorus of greeting. Lord Izak pushed her chair in as she sat beside Prince Artak.
"Welcome," Prince Artak said, "I'm glad to see you again so soon."
On the opposite side of the table, Prince Gurgen raised his eyebrows and gave Agata and Artak a slanting glance. He said nothing but began to eat
"So, my lord prince," Gurgen's booming voice cut across the polite chatter, "I believe the Princess Agata and I have reached an understanding."
Agata froze. Her eyes flew across the blue tablecloth to meet Prince Gurgen's bold, challenging look. The impact hit her like a baton. The personality of the man! Without saying a word he mocked her, daring her to contradict him. She placed her hands flat on the table to steady them. He knew she was afraid and that she remembered in detail his threats from the day before. He had no compunction about intimidation or coercion.
"My niece mentioned your pleasant conversation, Prince Gurgen," Prince Ren spoke calmly, "and the good news she shared with me, I joyfully share with you all now."
Prince Gurgen's face showed surprise followed swiftly by a tense watchfulness. He shot Agata an intense glance but saw at once that Agata looked surprised also.
Prince Ren got to his feet and gently swirled the ruby-coloured wine in his glass. The silver cup shone white in the soft light, as though it was made of a thousand diamonds and Agata's stomach tightened in alarm. What was her uncle going to say? She noticed that Lord Izak also sat bolt upright, making no pretence of eating, whereas next to her, Prince Artak ate, seemingly oblivious to the tense atmosphere.
"It pleases me greatly to announce an alliance between the House of Artsruni and the House of Bagration."
Agata dropped her hands below the table where she clutched and squeezed her fingers together until they hurt. How dare he! How dare he declare her betrothal without her consent!
Prince Gurgen leaned back to stare expectantly into Prince Ren's face.
"My lovely niece, who reminds me so much of her mother, my sister, will be joining her hand to that of..."
Prince Gurgen's eyes narrowed and he shot a look of sinister warning at Agata. He held her gaze as the Prince delivered his final word.
"Prince Artak of Artsruni."
A sick, helplessness filled Agata's heart until she thought she would burst. She dug her nails into her hidden hands to stop tears from rising up and spilling over. How dare her uncle publicly announce this without consulting her! It was outrageous and she wouldn't do it. She'd refuse in front of all these people and he could bear the embarrassment. The startled guests, Prince Artak among them, lifted their glasses to partake in the toast but Prince Gurgen replaced his on the table with a solid thud and cleared his throat.
"I'm not sure the Princess agrees with this, Prince Ren," he said deliberately and bent a lambent gaze upon Agata, "I think she is as surprised at such a sudden declaration as the rest of us are."
He glanced pointedly at Prince Artak.
The familiar terror crept up Agata's throat and sent colour rushing to her face. Prince Gurgen thought he had the upper hand. He thought she would agree with him in fright. Agata's eyes flew from the violent one of Gurgen to the unconcerned one of Artak. She must not give Gurgen any ground.
"You are wrong, Prince Gurgen," her voice was soft and quivered but all heard her, "I spoke with my uncle this afternoon."
She turned to Prince Artak with her glass raised. A grin leapt to Prince Artak's face.
"To Princess Agata, my future betrothed," he clinked his glass against hers, tipped it up and drank deep.
Agata took a sip and set her glass down, trying to avoid looking at Prince Gurgen. Fury whitened his cheeks and a spark gave his eyes a narrow, glittering look. He said nothing more but drained his glass and sat gazing at Agata, his expression alternated between anger and retribution. She endured the feast, talking lightly with those either side of her, ignoring Prince Gurgen opposite but her stomach was so twisted in knots that she could barely eat. Gurgen made no attempt to be polite to the other guests but ate moodily, every now and then stabbing Agata with a burning glance.
Before long he rose from the table and left the hall without a word. An uncomfortable silence followed his departure but soon voices rang out merrily once more as the wine ran freely and toast after toast was drunk to the happy couple.
Agata was in a welter of dread and unease. She doubted Prince Artak had the gumption to stand up to his cousin and protect her from him. She cast her eyes down at her plate, the clatter of the celebrations fading into a blur around her. What had she done by agreeing with her uncle? She'd just signed her own fate, all to defy a cruel, callous man.
It's what you came here to do anyway, she scolded herself for feeling forced. These men will win Iberia back. But you want to find Pertinax and help him take the throne, not marry. Not marry. Not marry.
She tried to think clearly but Prince Gurgen's hard, glittering gaze haunted her. Agata just wanted to get away. She was relieved when she could finally excuse herself and left with an entourage of Prince Ren's warriors leading the way back to her rooms.
"Are you well, Primavera?" Pilar whispered at her side, "You look terrible."
Kait stood close on Agata's other side.
"Did something happen, Princess?"
Agata took a hiccuping breath. "I wasn't ready for my uncle to announce my betrothal to Prince Artak."
Pilar's eyes widened and Kait Tamm gasped.
"He did that?" Kait echoed unbelievingly.
"Is this what you talked about earlier?" Pilar asked, her fingers twisting together.
Agata shook her head from side to side, completely numb. "I didn't...we didn't talk about betrothal. He just asked if I found Prince Artak to my liking and he is compared to Prince Gurgen."
She glanced over her shoulder but the men behind weren't close enough to overhear nor were the ones ahead.
"The thing is, I was ready to make an excuse but then Prince Gurgen looked at me with his harsh, hateful eyes and I found myself confirming Prince Ren's announcement - just to escape that horrible prince."
Agata whimpered deep in her throat in a most un-princess like fashion. A shiver of pure fear rippled down her spine. "Something about him unnerves me. Kait, Pilar, I am afraid," she clutched Kait's sleeve with deathly cold fingers, "I know he's going to do something terrible."