“The Lord Consort.”
Ilemina raised her eyebrows.
“He approached me at Communal,” Arland said. “We had some words.”
“What kind of words?”
“He said, ‘You’re upsetting your mother.’ I asked him if he were planning on doing something about it, and here we are.”
“Is Otubar alive?” Ilemina asked, her voice flat.
“Yes. Although I did dislocate his shoulder. I expect he will make a full recovery by evening.”
“I wish you would reach an understanding,” Ilemina said.
“We understand each other perfectly well, Mother. He doesn’t care about anything except making sure you’re safe and happy. I, however, can’t afford such a delightful luxury. I have to worry about the stability of our House, readiness and commitment of our troops, and our reputation. Normally Otubar and I strive to get along with each other, because it makes things simpler. However, I’m the Marshal and I won’t allow him to take me to task like I were a child. Especially in front of witnesses. He knew this would only end one way when he started it.”
“He knows,” Ilemina said. The medical robot moved on to her leg and she winced. “He holds back.”
“Perhaps, the next time he could hold back enough to conduct his inquiries in private and use words, so I don’t have to break my stepfather’s arm in front of the entire House!”
“Do not raise your voice at me,” Ilemina snapped.
“Was this planned, Mother?”
“Yes, Arland, I planned for you to break my husband’s arm.”
“Did the two of you conspire to give me and my fiancé a beating?”
“She is not your fiancé. She turned you down.”
They glared at each other.
“I will say this,” Ilemina said. “She isn’t a pushover.”
“What were you thinking attacking her, Mother? What was the plan?”
“There was no plan.” Ilemina sighed. “You’re my only son. I want only the best for you. I wanted to see you married to a strong House. To someone worthy of you. With a lineage and a legacy. Someone who would walk with you into Cathedral and the entire House would be in awe.”
“I see.” Arland furrowed his eyebrows. “And was my happiness ever a consideration in this glowing picture?”
“Of course! I want you to be happy! I want that most of all for you. I could have handled you marrying down, but a human, Arland? A human! And she doesn’t even want to marry you! Does she not understand who you are? Did you not properly explain your station in life? Your achievements? How dare she!”
Water touched her nose. Maud realized she was sinking deeper into the water to hide and caught herself.
“She knows exactly who I am, Mother. She wants to marry me. She loves me.”
“Then why did she turn you down?”
He ran his hand through his hair. “It’s complicated.”
“No. That’s between me and her.”
“I waited for years for you to find someone. I should be knee deep in grandchildren by now. Instead you’re off, running back and forth to Earth, to Karhari, to Hierophant alone knows where. And you come back with this… this… woman. A woman exiled in disgrace! You have the audacity to demand I ready our House for her as if she is worthy of the honor. You don’t talk to me. You don’t talk to your uncle or your cousin. You don’t talk to anyone.”
“I spoke to Uncle Soren at length,” Arland said. “He approves.”
“What?” Ilemina jerked up, and the medical robot screeched in disapproval. “Why?”
“Because he is my uncle and I sought his counsel.”
“No, foolish child. Why does he approve?”
“You would have to ask him.”
Ilemina shook her head. “Both of you have lost your minds. You brought this woman here. She didn’t introduce herself. You didn’t even talk to me about her. You didn’t seek my counsel.”
“And for that you decided to kill the woman I love?”
Maud shivered in the water. He said he loves me. For a second, she simply glowed in it and then reality intruded, and she put her hand over her face. What am I, twelve?
“I wasn’t trying to kill her. I was… frustrated. And there she was, wearing armor as if she knew what to do with it.”
“She does,” Arland said.
“Well, I know that now.” Ilemina waved her hand. “It went too far. I admit it.”
“If this was a real fight, you would be dead.”
Ilemina laughed, a low wolfish sound that raised hair on the back of Maud’s neck. “You presume too much.”
Arland smiled. “You assume she would meet you in a duel. She wouldn’t. One day you would travel somewhere, step out of the vehicle, suspecting nothing, and there she would be with her blade. If she didn’t cut your head off with the first strike, she’d let you win until you got close enough to her, spit poison gas into your face, then run you through and be gone before anyone was the wiser.”
“So, she’s an assassin,” Ilemina said.
“No. She’s a woman who had been dumped on Karhari with a three-year-old child and a husband who was a snake. She is a survivor. She doesn’t fight for fun or glory. She fights to eliminate the threat. Every time she draws her sword, it’s life or death. She gives it everything, because her child’s life hangs in the balance. Of all people, I thought you would relate.”
Ilemina fell silent. “I’ll say that, sparring with her was an illuminating experience.”
“And the child is adorable.” Ilemina smiled. “The daggers were so cute.”
“I’ve seen her kill with those daggers,” Arland said.
“The baby, Helen?”
He nodded. “She cut a Draziri’s assassin’s throat in the middle of a battle. She did it the right way, mother.”
Ilemina recoiled, shocked.
Maud ducked her head under the water and wished she were a better mother. Helen shouldn’t know how to kill. Sitting under water wouldn’t change that fact, but she would have given everything to take that back from Helen.
“But why?” Ilemina asked.
“Karhari,” he said. He was right. That was the only explanation needed.
“What sort of House exiles a child?” Ilemina growled.
“The kind of House that’s beneath our contempt.”
Ilemina sighed. “You really love her?”
“But are you sure, Arland? Are you sure she would make you happy?”
“Yes, mother. Give her a chance. At least find out who you’re dealing with before you reject her.”
“And if I do reject her? If I reject this union?”
“I’ll go with her,” he said.
Maud fell off the shelf and splashed, scrambling back on it.
“Arland, you wouldn’t dare!”
“You walked away with Father. I don’t see any reason why I can’t do the same.”
She opened her mouth, closed it, and opened it again. “You’re a Marshal.”
“So were you. You’ll just have to replace me with another.”
“What if she rejects you?”
“I’ll respect her wishes.”
Ilemina threw her hands in the air. “This is blackmail, Arland.”
“No, it’s a boundary. Your blessing isn’t necessary, Mother. But I would like to have it. I know she would, too. She respects you a great deal. She’s a daughter of the Innkeepers. She has vast knowledge and understanding. She will be a great asset to the House.”
Ilemina held up her hand. “I will give her a chance. But only a chance, Arland. I will make up my own mind. If she stumbles, if she endangers you in any way…”
Arland bowed his head. “Thank you, Mother.”
The recording faded out.
Maud leaned back against the tub. He would leave with her.
She wouldn’t ask for that sacrifice. She had no right. If she wanted him – truly wanted him – she had to make sure not to stumble.