Strategy

A silence stretched between them and then Nan Mara shrugged. “Who knows? I see only one way but perhaps there are others. Perhaps it could be as you said. Take the child to the king, and expose him before the councils. See what they think.”

“No, it was a foolish, desperate idea,” Laveth conceded. “The King is weakened by the Earth Skyll’s drink. I cannot be sure what William will say or do.”

“Then you have no choice,” said Nan Mara, adding softly. “Or only one.”

“Things will never be the same.”

“No,” agreed the nurse. “They never will.”

“Someday my son will come back to reclaim his throne, and I won’t recognize him. Nor him me.”

“He will have the limp,” said Nan Maura bluntly. “You will know him by that.”

“Oh, yes, the limp,” said Laveth bitterly, and closed the shutter with a bang. “Well, there is no use railing about what I can’t change. I will speak to the King of your leaving tonight during the feast. Before he takes the Earth Skyll’s drink, while he can still think. William will give his consent, I’m sure, and two days hence you will begin for Glynnis Fen.”

The Queen crossed the room and, disregarding her pearls and silk, sank to the floor and laid her head across the knees of the old nurse.

“My son is not the only one I will miss.”

Gently, Nan Mara began to trace the braid woven about the golden circlet, the blue veined temples, the brows. Laveth was a pretty woman but this ordeal had aged her. Nan smoothed a line across her forehead, wishing with all her heart that this anguished expression was nothing more than a mask she could pull off.

“You are my child as much as the boy is yours.”

“Tell me what to say to the King.”

Nan Mara began in a soft voice that surely must have told tales and sang songs to her child now Queen. “Tell him that Nan Mara is old and wishes to die by her own fire. He will understand death. I will require only a few belongings and the deaf mute from the stable, Taft, who came with us and knows the way.

“And the basket?”

“The basket will be large, warm and secure. Safe for a slumbering prince.”

“The sleeping tonic?” Laveth raised her head. “Nan, you must be careful not to give him too much.”

“Have no fear. It is the same tonic I used with you.”

“If we are caught?”

“I will be caught. But we must not think of that now. We must not give into fear.”

Laveth nodded. “And the new . . . prince?”

“He will be sleeping in the royal crib, consoled by the same tonic. He is a fair, bonny babe just like your own. I have seen him, Laveth. The two boys could be twins.”

The Queen grimaced.

“I swear I’ll not be able to hold him. I’ll bring in a wet nurse.”

“As you will. These things cannot be helped.”

The knock at the door was sharp and unexpected, followed by a series of hammer like blows. Laveth jumped to her feet, smoothing her skirt, straightening her rope of pearls.

“Calm yourself,” cautioned Nan Mara. “We have done nothing yet.”

“Enter,” called Laveth, but the door was opening even as she gave permission.

Mirella stood in the doorway, but a Mirella neither one of them had ever seen. It was not only her disheveled appearance that was so startling, but the look in her eyes. She wore the haunted expression of someone who has seen something she ached to forget.