Part One: Beauty

When Lady Tenine Wrenwood strode into her daughter's chamber with her accustomed dancelike step, she definitely did not expect to find what she did. Though well past the days of her youth, the Lady still held a noble beauty and captivating charm for which she was renowned and sought after in many high social circles. She still had the fair, smooth skin and attractive form of her girlhood, a face both noble and kindly with a lovely smile, and her hair, though its shade was an uncomely brown, was long and thick and shone like gold in the light. Her daughter, Lauria, was quite a contrast to her.

Lauria Wrenwood, sixteen years old, was sitting at her table, writing, when her mother came, and she knew beforehand what her mother's discovery would entail. She steeled herself. A loose braid of dry, straw-like yellow hair hung midway down her back. Her eyes were dark blue over a long, crooked nose in a somewhat square face. Her figure was also somewhat square, giving, overall, a rather uncouth and baseborn impression, not very ladylike at all, and certenly devoid of her mother's beauty. But Lauria was resigned to her looks. "Mama," she said, looking her mother full in the eye. "I'm joining the army."

Lady Tenine stood stock still, her eyes widening, then resuming their natural shape. "By Fire, daughter, you nearly had my heart arrest with your jest!" she said, her white, long-fingered hand pressed against the rich wine-colored cloth of her bodice.

"Very bad, mother, because it's not a jest," said Lauria grimly.

"Don't joke about this, Lauria!" warned Tenine. "Your life is hardly a laughing matter to me."

"I wouldn't," said her daughter with wry earnestness.

"Have you got the faintest idea what you're doing? You'd be wrecking your life!" Tenine exclaimed, spreading her arms out.

"Oh, honestly, Mama!" retorted Lauria, rolling her eyes.

"Yes, honestly! Where, by Hell, did you get this unladylike and unbecoming notion?" asked Tenine angrily.

"I came up with it all on my own. Don't go blaming anybody," answered her daughter tartly. She and her mother had exchanged scathing words before, neither once nor twice, and she felt herself on firm and accustomed ground, talking back.

"A lady's daughter, in the army? What will become of you?" demanded the distressed and anxious Tenine.

"With luck, a good soldier for King's service," pointed out Lauria.

"Don't be coy, Lauria, you know precisely what I mean!" said her mother sharply. "Mercenaries and knights will have no mercy on a woman in an army camp." Ringed hand yet held to her breast, she sank into a chair, her form and expression speaking profusely of anxiety.

"By then I will know how to defend myself, there and elsewhere," replied the girl, holding her ground.

"But the shame! What sort of wife will you make?" said Tenine, now lifting her chill hand to her aching forehead.

"What sort of wife will I make now, mother?" asked Lauria with true bitterness in her voice. "Look at me! I'm not a beauty, like you were at my age."

"Why, with your lovely fair hair…" stuttered her mother and reached out a shaking arm.

"Don't be ridiculous, mother," Lauria said flatly. She knew she wasbeing callous, and she no longer cared. "I'm not pretty in the least, and even you know it. The only reason a nobleman would want to marry me is for my dowry, and I do not want to be wed over money. Not to a man who sees gold and land when he looks at my face."

"I wanted better than that for you, my dear," said her mother. "If only you'd taken better care of yourself, perhaps when you were young and lithe…"

"Perhaps nothing," said the girl with a scowl. "If I'm to make something of myself, I need to use my advantages, not dwell on my weak points. I'm strong, Mama. I can be a good soldier."

"But don't you see, my love?" pleaded the beautiful lady, her sapphire eyes wide. "There is a strength just for us women that is our due, a strength in beauty. You could have that, if only you try."

"No, Mama," said Lauria, gently pushing off her mother's hands, which had taken hold of her wide, tanned arm, "there's beauty in strength. If you'll excuse me, I really must get my hair cut."