My pet gander’s racketing woke me at dawn. I had not slept until late into the uneasy hours and cursed as I swung my bare legs from a mattress stuffed with new hay and sweet herbs, encountering icy cold even through a thick bed of rugs. From the corner of my eye, I saw Marus, the serving girl, back out the door with a tray in her hand.
“Shut up, you fool,” I mumbled, pulling back drapes to open my bed chamber shutter. Outside a window with a specially inserted pane, the gander sat atop a ramp. Born of a misalliance between a domestic goose and a gray one, my pet was a roan color that caused the tame white geese to shun him, but he was too heavy to fly south each fall with his wild brethren. I had taken pity on him when I heard him honking his life away on a promontory and so he haunted my mornings, fat and entitled.
“Here.” I tossed him half-frozen bread with a rude gesture, though I did want to be up early. On this Awakening Day when I was ten-and-eight, two years past the age of betrothal, Father had finally given his word that I would be pledged. The only question was…to whom?
Seeking solace, I raised my eyes to the impregnable defense of the cliffs. A scant handful of yards out and three hundred feet below, the Alcinic Ocean roiled, jade green, frothing against black rock. Gulls and terns floated on thermals, white specks against darkness, while hardy Alcinic sheep grazed perilously close to the edge. My vision was keen and I could see fog banks sitting like guardians offshore, nearly obscuring the island called Lady’s Weeping for its habit of causing wrecks. The rank, icy wind blowing out to sea promised a foul day, but should delay the arrival of our ancestral enemies. It had been a dreadful winter, so cold that I saw a hen with its eyeballs frozen, and everyone knew the Tumagis were starving. As soon as that wind ceased, they would swarm upon our shores like hungry demons.
I had no appetite, just a heavy sense of dread. A fancy dress and accoutrements lay spread on benches and I knew Marus lurked outside with my breakfast, so I made haste to the door and slid its bolt, locking her out. There must be no witnesses to my next actions. I was freezing, but I didn’t stir up the fire before going to my altar. It was penance.
While I had been on retreat with the Holy Sisters, supposedly preparing for marriage, my father had had an altar constructed next to my hearth. Though I could expect to use it for only a short time, no trouble or expense had been spared. Father would give me anything but freedom; he could hardly grant what he did not possess. Instead, I had a private niche of blue marble from Easterling—creamy white stone shot with blue-green mineral stain, highly prized, available only to the wealthy.
Shivering, I knelt on freezing marble willing myself to calm as I turned a fixed gaze upon tapers burning for Goddess, Lady and Mother. Focusing on blue-orange-yellow flame, I sought the trance that would enable me to shed bodily concerns. I had been well schooled by Sisters and the state came quickly, giving me a serenity which touched the eternal.
“Lady, You know my heart,” I appealed to the ruling face. This was proper for one of Royal blood expected to rule upon earth as the Lady did in the Ether. “I come to You with a true heart to ask Your intercession and I make you my Vow. If, of Your grace, You grant me the man I desire, a child of my womb will return in service to You. It is sworn.”
Recalled to the earthly plane by the effort of speaking, I felt a flush of triumph. No offer of a Royal child had been made in centuries. The dowry for such a daughter was magnificent and would not come from the Treasury, but from funds which were mine upon marriage. It was a splendid bribe. My vow could not be contravened once made to the Deity. It committed the life of an unborn child to a fate that child had not chosen and I was not unaware of the moral implications. Yet, after much soul-searching, I had concluded that it was not wrong to promise a child away from the lonely life I saw beating my father to his knees.