Chapter one

"I don't see why I have to be there, Father," Mara said morosely, sinking into an empty armchair in her father's study.

Gabriel Hamilton sighed and prepared his limited supply of patience for the trying task of reiterating the importance of the meeting between his daughter and their coming guests, Lady Emily Marks and her son, Roald.

"Marania," he began in what his daughter liked to call his "lecture voice". "It is imperative that Lady Emily and Roald both meet me, and my family, as well as those I trust most, like Michael, for instance."

"You mean they wish to see your snivelling dogs," Mara said blatantly.

"Marania," her father warned.

"But it's true, Father. Michael is nothing but a thoroughly aggravating, obsequious pain in the rump."

Gabriel laughed at the vocabulary his daughter had applied, making a mental note to himself to scold her later. "You're only saying that because Michael caught you coming into the house through your window at midnight last week. How you ever managed to make it past the guards is beyond me, but you forgot that Michael makes his own rounds of the house every night before bed."

"No, he goes to the kitchen to steal food. I caught him at it."

Gabriel cleared his throat loudly, his signal that they should return to the topic at hand. "You will meet our guests cordially, and courteously, and you will do nothing to make them believe that you are anything less than a lady. Do I make myself clear?"

Mara glared at her father for a moment, then stood up brusquely and saluted him in the same way the guards did. "Yes, sir!" she said, then turned on her heel and hurried out of the room.

She ran right into Michael, who'd been standing with his ear pressed up against the door.

"Stand up straight," she ordered, "and don't let me catch you spying on my father again, or he'll find it out from me."

Michael, a thin, balding man of about forty, sneered, "My lady, I was doing nothing of the sort, and even if I was, who would your father believe? You, his disobedient, disrespectful daughter, or me, his ever faithful, ever steadfast servant of over ten years?"

"You've ruined him," Mara snapped. "Father was so much fun before you came along."

Michael only shrugged and began to whistle as he wandered back down the hall in, thankfully, the opposite direction Mara was intending to head in.

Still in a rage, Mara stormed through the house, frightening a maid who was carrying fresh towels down the hall by yelling that those towels weren't going to be white enough for Lady Emily. The maid only smiled politely and said, "Yes, milady," before continuing on her course. Everyone who worked in the Hamilton household knew to ignore Mara's orders when she was angry. She would work it off eventually.

Marania Hamilton was a spirited young woman of seventeen. Her chestnut brown curls had been hastily pinned back that morning, after receiving her father's summons. The green eyes she shared with her father glistened with tears of rage - the only tears she ever shed - and her small, callused hands were thrust into her pockets to keep them from shaking. A light sprinkling of freckles could be found dotting her nose and cheeks, slightly darkening her already quite tanned skin. Marania Hamilton looked no more like a delicate flower of a noble lady than a bee looks like a butterfly.

It didn't matter to her father that she was well versed in three languages. There was no appeal in the fact that she could haggle with a merchant until he ended up paying her for his services. No one cared that she could paint as beautifully as some of the queen's own Court artists. Especially not her father. All he seemed to care about was if she was enough of a lady to manage even a fraction of a suitable marriage. Tonight's occasion would be no different, even if he had told her three times that marriage had nothing to do with Lady Emily and her son what's-his-name's visit. Her father liked to lie to her when he thought the truth might distress her "maidenly heart".

Mara headed straight outside into the fresh spring air in an attempt to calm her steadily rising temper. She wasn't exactly sure what had made her so angry, for certainly the simple affair of an innocent dinner with guests wasn't so horrible that she was ready to kill in order to get out of it. But this was indeed what it was. This dinner was surely the root of the problem - or was it?

Her mother was killed when Mara was only seven years old. And now, ten years later, Mara could vaguely see that night, as if it had happened in some alternate dream universe, far, far away from her own. It was as if her life since the horrible night her mother had been killed by robbers didn't really exist, and that at any moment, she would wake, still seven years old, with her mother cooing gentle words softly into her ear.

But no. Her mother, Amelia Hamilton, had died standing upright, shielding the cupboard in which her daughter hid with her own body, bearing her husband's sword with the steady hand of a bred warrior. She'd managed to kill all but one of the robbers, who died at the same moment as her, on the point of Amelia's blade. In one last breath of life, that particular robber had sought vengeance, and driven his own blade deep within her mother's flesh. Mara, horrified, watching through the keyhole of the cupboard, had witnessed her mother's murder, promptly thrown up, and then cried herself, astonishingly, to sleep.

It wasn't how she remembered her mother. She'd imagine Amelia gently stroking her daughter's hair as she sweated her way through a fever. Amelia again, murmuring a lullaby to Mara as she drifted off to sleep.

One night, Mara remembered, her mother had said to her, "Marania, my little dove, what a pretty girl you'll be. And strong, too. You are worth much more than people think, my darling, you remember that. You are one worthy of great things, and one day you will find those things, you'll see."

Well, so far Mara hadn't managed to do anything great during the ten years her mother had been dead. With all the rules her father had laid down, how was she supposed to do anything at all?

Her thoughts were interrupted by a familiar voice calling, "Oi, Mara, whatcha thinkin' 'bout?"

Mara smiled at Tim, the stable boy, and her long-time friend. "My father," she sighed.

"Aye," Tim said, rolling his eyes. "What else could it be?"

"You've heard about the dinner Father's going to hold, haven't you?"

"Of course I have! What d'you think I am, daft?"

"It was just a question. Anyways, he wants me to go."

"So? You go to all the others, and you always come out fine."

Mara sighed. "It's not that simple. I scream and I holler and I throw a fit for him before he makes me go to those awful things. You don't know what it's like, Tim, being poked and prodded and examined from head to toe, and you can't say a word about it because you might offend someone. Offend someone who's clearly offending you! What a horrible affair Father's dinners are, Tim, just horrible."

He raised an eyebrow. "Then don't go. Plead ill, or just refuse to leave your room. Could put you up in the stable 'til it's done, if you want."

"No, I couldn't do that to him. Father means well, he just tries too hard, you know?"

"Wouldn't know. Me Ma's dead, never met me Pa."

She winced. "Sorry, I forgot."

"Nah, don't you worry your pretty little head about it. I was raised right proper, 'cording to my auntie." He puffed himself up regally and added, "Right proper indeed! Look at me, I'm a bloody stable boy!"

Patting his cheek sympathetically, Mara said, "And a good one, at that. 'Right proper' may not be the best thing to say, because we all know how terribly improper you are, Tim, but you're a good lad, and in that at least you were raised right."

Tim smiled. "You always know just what to say, Mara, you know that? Melt a lad's heart away, you can."

With a grin, Mara replied, "It's one of my many charms. I'll see you later, Tim. I have to 'prepare'." He languidly saluted her and walked carelessly back to the stables while Mara returned inside.

Lady Emily and Roald would arrive a little before supper. This gave Mara only about an hour to prepare, but this was enough. She'd bathed, dressed, and combed out her hair in only half that time, then sat in her room to read until her father sent for her.

When a distressed maid came to her room, panting that their guests had arrived and something else about the house hardly being clean, Mara only shrugged and walked calmly out of the room. The maid gaped at her as she passed, marvelling at how she could be so composed in a disastrous affair such as this. Clearly this was a new maid, for the rest had learned early on that Lady Marania hardly cared what the outcome of things like this would be, and therefore they caused her not the slightest bit of distress.

Her father had shown their guests into the sitting room. When Mara approached the door, she could hear him telling them all about her. Not a marriage issue, indeed, she thought furiously as she pasted a smile on her face.

"Father," she said quietly, lowering her eyes to the floor.

Gabriel smiled warmly at her. "Ah, here she is. My Lady Emily, this is my daughter, Marania."

Lady Emily was a tall, thin woman with neat black hair and a pale complexion. She didn't sport a single freckle, and was so pasty white Mara had to wonder how long it had been since the lady had last set foot outside. When she smiled at Mara, it didn't seem like a genuine smile, and she could tell that Emily was only inspecting her for every possible flaw.

Mara curtsied. "It is an honour to meet you," she said graciously.

"And you," the lady replied. Her voice was soft and somewhat hoarse from disuse. She turned towards her son. "May I introduce my son, Roald?"

Roald smiled weakly at Mara, and she instantly noticed that he didn't seem to want to be there any more than she did. He was tall and gangly with skin as white as his mother's and a mop of black hair sitting chaotically atop his head. His fingers were long and bony, and his arms seemed limp under the weight of his bones. Somehow he managed to muster the strength to kiss Mara's hand, then returned to staring vaguely out the window.

Gabriel gestured to the chair beside Roald, but Mara took the one beside her father instead, noticing with glee the way in which Lady Emily's lips pursed. Roald seemed indifferent to this, and hardly aware of anything that was going on.

They sat in an uncomfortable silence for a few minutes before Gabriel cleared his throat loudly and said, "I hope your trip here went well, Roald?"

Roald looked up, surprised that anyone was even speaking to him. "Yes, my lord," he said. "Splendidly."

Mara groaned inwardly. This was not going to be an interesting dinner.

Another silent stretch might have commenced if it weren't for that blessed dinner gong ringing throughout the house. Gabriel jumped to his feet and offered Emily his arm, immediately drawing her into painfully dull chatter about the weather as they walked out of the room.

Roald only looked at Mara curiously, then, after what seemed to her an eternity, offered her his arm. She accepted, only out of politeness, and they walked together into the dinning room.

"It was very kind of your father to invite us here," Roald said quietly.

Mara nodded. "My father is a good man."

"Tell me," he said. "What would you rather be doing right now?"

"I'm sorry, I don't know what you mean. This is all I have to do, and I will do it graciously." There, Mara thought with a satisfied smile, I've played nicely with the other children, now we can get on with our lives.

The dinner was remarkable. Marania couldn't remember a time when the cooks had ever made something so delicious. The table was filled with roast duck, mutton, several different kinds of bread, soups, salads, wines, cakes, pies, and various other things it would only take an eternity to describe. Oddly enough, they all tasted bland to her tongue.

She didn't speak to Roald at all during dinner, nor afterwards when they retired to the parlour for tea. Much to the disappointment of her father, she remained mute, a quality she never exposed when she should, and at times when she ought to be laughing and telling jokes she chose to remain mute. It bothered Gabriel to some extent, but he brushed it aside by telling himself that Mara was probably just shy, although they both knew that she was anything but.

Finally, when Emily and Roald left many hours later that night, Gabriel rounded on his daughter.

"What did you think of Roald, then?" he asked innocently.

"He is a tediously uninteresting man with no character at all," Mara replied calmly, as if describing the weather. "And if I ever chance to meet him again, I hope to be on a bridge, so that I might throw myself from it."

"Ah, he was only shy. He does a lot of horseback riding, you know."

Mara snorted. "I'm sure the carriage he rides in is beautiful."

"That isn't funny, Mara."

"But he's just so dull."

Gabriel sighed and crossed his arms over his chest. "Lady Emily seemed pleased enough with you. She wishes to convene like this one more often, and further pursue negotiations for a marriage between you and young Roald."

"Did you tell her that was ridiculous?" Mara asked expectantly.

"No, I told her I thought it was a marvellous idea. If all goes well, you and Roald could be married by fall."

He was grinning as if he'd just handed her a gift he was sure she would love.

"Now that isn't funny, Father," Mara said slowly, getting to her feet.

"It isn't meant to be."

Bringing a hand to her mouth, Mara gasped, "You're actually serious."

Gabriel nodded. "I am. I think it would be a very good match."

"A match that will fatten your purse, you mean!" Mara cried, outraged.

"No." His voice was harsh. "Mara, my first concern is for your well-being. You know that. Roald is a bright young man of many talents. If you had spoken to him some, you might have gotten to know him. Will you not give him a chance? Don't dismiss him before you even know who he is."

"I do know who he is. He's a boring man who will later become an incompetent husband. I will not marry that man, Father, and according to the Queen's law, there is nothing you can do to force me into such a thing."

Drawing himself up dauntingly, Gabriel ordered, "You will marry that man because I believe it to be in your best interests, and if I have to drag you to the altar by your feet, then so be it."

Mara didn't say anything. She turned and fled to her bedroom, where she enshrined herself for the next two days, refusing any food and water. When she emerged, as Gabriel had guessed, she was still upset, but composed.