Family Loyalty (Part 1)

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Looking into Philomena's eyes, Rainhart saw his own shock reflected back at him. But the real question was why either of them were shocked. Holle couldn't be trusted. That was why Philomena had come to find him, and why they had followed her. Because it was Holle.

"Oh yes, how rude of me," Holle was saying. "Dear Maldwyn; embrace me. How is mother? Hale and healthy, I hope? And shall you now ask after Princess Idella, or is she no longer of any interest to you?"

"Mother is well," said Maldwyn. "She sent me."

"It must have been such a relief when Valdon took you both captive," Holle drawled. "I don't know what you would do without each other."

"Dull the edge of your tongue, Holle," said Maldwyn.

Holle's tone became caressing. "You're right; I'm being spiteful, aren't I?" She paused, as if for effect. Rainhart and Philomena shared a look. Holle continued, "Why did mother send you to me?"

"We have an offer to make."

A scornful laugh. "You want me to throw my lot in with the man who threw a Teuta baroness from the parapet not twelve hours ago. What does Valdon offer me to turn traitor? A Cimbra husband? A barony, perhaps?"

"I didn't say Valdon had an offer, sister dear," said Maldwyn.

There was a silence. "Ah," said Holle, delighted. "A turnabout? Are you throwing your gauntlet in the ring as well?"

"Valdon has the barons, Tancred has Jovan. I have Merot."

"Of course."

"I have put aside Idella. But I have not--yet--married Valdon's niece."

Another silence. "What exactly is it you propose?"

"There is nothing for you in a Deusetats ruled by Valdon. If Tancred rules, you stay a princess. If you support me, you will be queen."

Rainhart heard Philomena's stifled inhalation. For once, Holle seemed to be robbed of words. In an odd voice, she said, "You mean that you and I marry."

Maldwyn said, "The heirs of your body are my heirs as well, sweet sister. You and I united could bring Deusetats to its knees, and in time, our child would be king. Why should my kingdom pass to another man's seed?"

"I see the practical argument," said Holle. Rainhart couldn't read her tone.

"Why do you think you were sent away?" said Maldwyn. "We are strangers who share a bloodline and an interest. Nothing could be more natural than our union."

"I almost wish that were why I was sent to the temple," said Holle, a note of old sadness in her tone. "You and I both know it was not. And though I credit our mother with a great deal of ingenuity, I doubt it was always her plan to marry her children to each other and snatch Deusetats. She is taking advantage of an opportunity."

"An opportunity that opens its doors to you as well, Holle," said Maldwyn. "We are family. We should cleave to each other. Not to Valdon, or Tancred, or Jovan. If you are concerned for Rainhart, don't be. There will be a place for him as well, if he wishes it."

"I need to consider what you have said," said Holle at length.

Philomena rustled beside him. "I must go back," she breathed. "To try and beat Holle, if possible."

Rainhart nodded. "Go," he said. "I'll keep listening." He shifted around to let her past. She slipped out of the thicket and was gone.

"Time is short, sister," said Maldwyn. "It would be enough for now to know you are on our side."

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