By Night in the Land of Men by Luke Thomas

 

I travelled through a land of men,
A land of men and women too,
And heard and saw such dreadful things
As cold earth wanderers never knew.

-William Blake, “The Mental Traveller”
 

 

Nina heard waves as she approached her father’s study in the villa’s north wing. There were no waves, not near the bluffs where the villa was situated above Kamlech de Montserrat, the administrative capital of the province. These sounds of water did not come from the deep wells below the villa whose fortifications had spread over the bluffs like scars; the well water was still, musty but potable, the deliverance of Nina’s ancestors during sieges. These wave noises, these glistening crashes, were only lapping the inner ear of this woman who had not slept, not really, for days.

Anxiety surged, receded, and then surged again in her veins. She would be a fugitive the moment her father found out what plans of hers had, days ago, been dashed silently and at a distance like a man fallen over the cliffs that overlook Lake Quatre Bras, the province’s disputed southern border. Fallen and gone in the waves; the distant but audible waves.

A fugitive? Not for long. If she was found out she’d be trapped in her ancestral home. Not much of a fugitive, but a special kind of traitor—the blood kind.

 

Alphonse de Montserrat had not been sleeping as much as an old man ought to. He was withered, something his daughter would have been glad to see a week ago when she’d been prepared to fill the throne in the event of the old man’s passing. Alphonse de Montserrat, this spiteful husk of a Duke.

“Father,” she said,” we need to talk about justice for Otto.”

For “father” he did not turn, but for recompense he did. Now he looked at her, his eyes more buried in aged flesh than usual. “Pietro…the wolf. The rapist. And his wolf rapist son.”

Nothing in Nina’s father but bitterness. That she’d long been aware of. What she hadn’t known, had failed to anticipate, was that he’d managed to pass that bitterness on to his son, her brother Otto. Dead now, the latest casualty in a civil war that she knew to be propagated just as much by her father as by Pietro Villon.

“Send me to Duon Amnoch. I’ll lobby the Archduke for reprisal.” Send me well away, that I might be among more powerful, more sensible people when you find out what I’ve done.

Alphonse’s jowls plummeted on his face. “Duonorod doesn’t care to listen to me. His justice only intrudes in the Four Arms when there’s a copper concern at risk. Or,” he grumbled, “some Villon quarry. When real honor is at stake he send pissant commoners. His ministers.” He waved his hand west, toward the villa’s Gryphon Hall, in reference to the minister of investigation who’d arrived yesterday to ask questions about Otto’s murder and the disappearance of the prime suspect, Eiko Villon.

“He doesn’t listen to you, father. But I’m asking you to send me to speak for our family.” She kept her voice soft, if solid. Reasoned. A handhold to lead the old man to some reward here, near the end of a lifetime of hatred committed to his enemy.

“Women,” he began, but trailed off as his hand found a silver bowl of walnuts perched on the fireplace mantel, over the outstretched wing of a marble hawk.

“Women,” she offered as he chewed,” are perfectly traditional diplomats.”

“For betrothals, sure.”

“There’s a case to be made.” No longer soft now, if not loud. She was growing impatient, despite her desperate need to escape the province without alarming him. “Eiko Villon broke the oath of cadre when he killed Otto. The oath of cadre is the Archduke’s way of uniting the new generation. Otto is my brother; therefore it’s my generation that has lost him. Send me to sue for justice and the Archduke will understand that the soul of his law is at stake.”

She approached her father as he watched the embers of the study’s fireplace. She placed a hand on his sloped shoulder. “If Pietro doesn’t give up the murderer, I’ll make the Archduke call for Pietro himself to answer for his son’s crime.”

Watching the dying coals, her father gave her the answer she needed.

“Three days. You finish observing the proper mourning period, then you go seek Pietro Villon’s head.” He dismissed her with a brittle flick of his hand.

As she left the north wing the wave noise fell away, receding further than it had in days. Alphonse would try anything if it might bring down Pietro Villon. He’d try anything even to bring down some sergeant in Pietro’s storied army. Alphonse hoped, of course, that Eiko, the son who struck down his son, was in fact vanished. In that case the way to Pietro would be clear…according to his daughter.

Nina hoped Eiko was gone for a different reason. Eiko was her husband. Married in secret, they’d planned to displace her father. They’d have installed her brother in his stead after a decisive coup, backed by Villon military superiority. Everything had been poised to move once Eiko brought in his brother in cadre by explaining that they were, with the marriage, brothers in life.

But Otto, infused with the family bitterness in a way she’d somehow never perceived, had attacked Eiko on their father’s orders, and against the oath to which the Archduke bound the young men. It had ended in blood and disgrace. And now Nina had to flee her province before her part in the affair became clear.
Three days.

Her father had been dealt with. The only remaining obstacle was that damned minister.

 

Nina’s drawing room was always her best refuge from her family, but it had never been as dear. In these final two days before she left the province, her composure was eroding. The urge to talk to someone, to confess and confront, surged. The waves roiled again in her chest. Her drawing room was where she came to succumb. To cry: a mere and shoddy relief.

But not confess. She would not so much as write her outrage on parchment, even to immediately burn the note. The envoy from the Archduke’s Ministry of Investigation would have deployed aethereal spies all over the villa. Probably some minor sylph was at this moment perched atop her armoire, or straddling a branch of the chandelier, watching.

But it was expected that she shake with anxiety. Expected that she retire to weep and grasp at her linens. That wasn’t suspect. Her little brother Otto was dead, slain at the offering ceremony that would have consolidated his position as the scion of the family bloodline. And that did make her shake, weep, and grasp in the privacy of the drawing room. So too the bafflement that plagued her.

 

Now she sat at the marble table in front of the mirror she’d covered with her mourning shawl. She watched flecks of what she presumed was grape debris swirl in her glass of port. What else could explain the bloody collapse of her and Eiko’s plan? All the equally improbable reasons braided and separated in her head. They begged to be written out, parsed, and evaluated in logical fashion. A pen would relieve her bafflement just as it would ease the burdens on her heart.

She tugged absently at a tassel of the shawl. Bright cobalt blue, instead of ash gray, to mark that the passing had been contrary to the course of nature. Otto’s rapier had been in his hand when he fell. His windpipe hacked open by her own husband’s machete.

She knew Eiko’s style was traditional. His rapier was for attacking, the machete his primary defense. Therefore it seemed Otto had drawn first.

Yet, if that was the case, how could Eiko could have survived ? Had he taken a wound? Killed her brother only to die of infection in the wilderness?

A sob kicked up in her throat, but she breathed deep, calming herself. She was sick of tears.

Why, Otto? Did you love war so well? Did father show you some aspect of the family relationship with our spirits that impelled you to walk his same brutal path?

She couldn’t believe that. Whatever aethereal influence Alphonse de Montserrat once wielded had diminished to nothing long ago. Eiko had told her how capricious the world spirits were, which meant you had to be patient to anticipate their desires. And so her father was bereft.

Nina sighed. She dug in her drawer for a candle, spiked it on a silver holder, and struck a match. She watched the wax pool and sipped her port without conviction. Everyone said it helped, but for that she’d need more than a few glasses. Yet far-gone drunkenness was another thing she couldn’t risk while the minister remained on the estate.

She focused on the vague yet delineated ovality of the candle flame. The increasing randomness of the wax drippings. One loose end remained from the conspiracy she and Eiko had meant to bring Otto in on. The military force that was to back their coup against her father: his enemy, Pietro Villon.

Father-in-law was, given the way things had fallen, a term that curdled Nina’s gut. But that summed up the problem. She was, by law because witnessed by world spirits, a hound among wolves, even if the wolves didn’t yet realize. But Pietro could find a way to make her treachery clear to her family. She’d born the risk of the coup, and now she sat in its wreckage with none of the sway she’d allied herself with the Villons to gain.

She unstoppered a jar of hesperis extract, slid it absently toward the candle, watched the flame fatten in the scent. She’d be better off, she supposed, approaching Pietro instead of waiting for his move. Likely he’d try to blackmail her and thereby foist one of his younger sons on her. Thais, probably. A pretty enough boy but he’d never be able to approach the raw brilliance Eiko had for handling spirits. Her son by Thais would have far less influence over the aethereal forces that were, in the end, the currency of real power. A child by Eiko, well, but…

Best not to think of that. She returned to considerations of the future.

Regardless of what he would eventually try, Pietro wouldn’t yet act. Not until the Archduke’s attention was turned away from their two bleeding provinces, the Upper and Lower Arms. She’d be in the capital then, under the Archduke’s protection as long as she could find allies at court.

A knock came from her antechamber. She quaffed the remaining port before answering. Remo Drinkwater, one of her father’s personal staff. Always with too much of a relaxed, sardonic posture for someone heading a regiment in a failing war effort. “Lady Nina, the Archduke’s envoy has called a meeting. Tonight. Now, in fact. Your presence,” he shrugged, a creak of ill-oiled leather. “Apologies for the short notice, but you understand.”

This she didn’t like. “Alright then,” she said, striding into the hall.

“Don’t you, um, would you not care for a wrap or overcoat? Chill in the air and—”

“No. Let’s get on with it.”

 

On a specific autumn day in her youth, after throwing a silent fit on the seventh landing of the Falconer’s stair, she’d decided it would be silly to ever be frustrated again with the vertiginous layout of the Villa de Montserrat. The defensive architecture had at least three times provided for the continued survival of her forbears. Yet the evening was windy, her skirts manifold, and her stomach empty of much other than port. Grudgingly she accepted Drinkwater’s arm when he offered it. With a few more minute’s toil they gained the top of the narrow redstone stair.

Before they entered her father’s atrium Nina reestablished her hairpin’s hold on her riled black mane. “Oop,” Drinkwater said, noticing her adjustment only when he had the door half open. He paused, struggling to hold the giant oak slab still while the wind eddied with all its altitudinal zeal.

Inside were four of her father’s bodyguards, her mother, her mother’s handmaiden, the minister of investigation—Weston, she recalled after a moment of blankness—and another man who she did not recognize. The newcomer conferred politely with the Duchess de Montserrat. He was approaching middle age and wore long, bunned hair and a waxed beard after the fashion of the capital. (Weston also wore his hair long and up, but his naked face was smoother than, for instance, Otto’s had been by his fourteenth year.)
The stranger noticed her eye on him and performed a courtier’s half bow. She disliked the ensuing seconds of unbroken eye contact.

“Nina, thank you for coming so quickly.” Alphonse de Montserrat was present too, conspicuously removed from the rest of those gathered, slumped in his throne. “It wouldn’t do to keep his Excellency’s emissaries waiting, no matter how little notice they give us.”

She crossed the atrium, pointedly ignoring the others until she paid homage to her father, which she knew he’d enjoy in this company. After ladylike nods to the two visitors she took a place by her mother.

Weston approached her and bowed low. “Milady Nina, I and my colleague do apologize for disturbing you so discourteously. He assures me the matter is urgent, so I was forced to acquiesce despite my sincerest wish to respect your time in these trying, uh,” He stuttered lightly, presumably because he was about to say time again in the space of a dozen seconds and courtiers were manifestly allergic to the slightest inelegance of speech, “…days.”

“Minister Weston, consider yourself forgiven. The Archduke’s business is more important than my private contemplations. Is this your colleague?”

Weston smiled with a tiresome air of flirtation. He made a small noise, meant as a sigh between confidants, and gestured toward the newcomer. “Minister Bernard Thriel is my fellow at the Ministry of Investigation.”

Thriel gave another half bow. “My pleasure, milady.” His accent was odd. It took Nina a few moments to parse out the undercurrent of low Bismic chuffing out beneath a veneer of the upper class accent of the Amnochine court.

He turned to Nina’s father. “Milord Montserrat, I’m arriving into your hospitality from that of Count Villon.” Duke Alphonse let out something between a snarl and a wheeze at his enemy’s name, but when Thriel deferred the old man only beckoned for him to go on.

“It was, of course, the same terrible event that sent me to the Lower Arms as brought Weston here to the Upper. And, again, I convey my deepest apologies, milord, and,” he turned on a booted heel to Nina’s mother, “to you again, milady, and to the Lady Nina as well. Terrible loss for your family. For all the Confederacy. Archduke Duonorod sends his deepest condolences.” All present bowed an obligatory head. “We understand Lord Otto was—”

Now Nina’s father did interrupt. “My son was. Just that: he was and is no more. Yet the Villon rat who betrayed him—who ambushed him from behind the cover of the Archduke’s own law—roams free. Probably hiding in his father’s chamber pot. If you do not have news for me on the matter of Eiko Villon I do not know why you are here.”

“I can assure you, milord, that I have verified that Eiko Villon has not been in contact with his father since before the presumed crime.”

“Presumed?” Alphonse groaned. “So you doubt the little murderer’s guilt? Or that Pietro Villon issued the very instructions.”

“Milord, I understand your—”

“You do not, Minister Weston!” Nina’s father coughed at Minister Thriel. “If you understood you’d have brought me the head of the traitor Pietro Villon.”

Thriel bowed low, his eyes straying to Weston, who, wan and silent, didn’t notice his signal for assistance.

Nina spoke up. “Father, the minister acts on behalf of the Archduke. Surely he is attending the probability of the Villons’ treason against the Confederacy. We must hear his current conclusions, though, before we put forth our own.”

Alphonse reached a quavering hand back, seeking the arm of his ceremonial chair. He stared at Thriel’s bowed head for a long while before he relented. He opened his mouth to say something to Nina but instead sat, blinking tears from his eyes. He inhaled, rasping. “We know where my son is. Now tell me of his killer.”

“Milord his killer’s whereabouts are currently unknown, but we are seeking him. And we will find him, no matter how long it takes. But the reason I am here, requesting your gracious convocation of this meeting, is that Eiko Villon is not a sole operator.”

Nina bristled. She felt abruptly sober.

Her mother cut in, her own voice as brittle with grief as her husband’s. “Who then? Was it another of the boys in Otto’s cadre?” She teetered toward Thriel. “Minister, who took my boy from me?”

“No, milady. I have no reason to believe any other member of the cadre knew of the planned attack, if that is what it was. What I learned from Count Villon needs corroborating, but to do so I must ask a few questions of…” He paused. The torturous bastard paused. Nina felt hot, then cold, then nauseous, aware of an increasingly unsteady association between her wooden heels and the floor. The waves rolled in her head. She ran a hand along the pleat of her outer skirt.

“…you, milady.”

“Me?” her mother gasped.

“Oh, apologies milady. Well, yes, actually. There is some confusion in the matter that you might clear up for me, but first I must ask a few things of Lady Nina.”

Nina watched Thriel. She felt Weston sidle closer to her. She stilled her hand, froze it in place on her skirt. What could she do? Caught here, among wolves. Two more days and she’d be on the road to freedom. Why would Pietro have done this now? And via an agent of the Archduke? To what end?

And then her lightheadedness passed. She understood. Pietro had simply given up on her. Instead of salvaging her plan, or extorting her, he’d expose her to her father while Otto’s death was fresh. He wanted to tear his enemies apart from the inside, now that a coup was out of his reach. He’d right now be massing to beat her father’s frontline northward all the more quickly while strife over her betrayal kept the command busy. In two days’ time the roads out of the city might be crawling with troops seeking Montserrats to ransom.

She heard the sound of something like a question from deep in her father’s throat, but his eyes were red with the tears that preoccupied him. He was too overcome with the memory of his son to fathom what was unfolding around his daughter.

Thriel wasted no time. “Don’t be alarmed now,” he said to Drinkwater and the other soldiers in the atrium. “I’m not calling on anything dangerous. It’ll just let me understand what’s what. What’s true.” He closed his eyes and began to summon whatever spirits he had at his beckon call.

How strong could they be? Answering to a commoner? But she realized the futility of such questions. He knew, and had rushed here, calling a twilight meeting, to confront her with it. His spirits would be strong enough.

The minister’s veins bulged from his neck. His nose began to bleed until a wave of dry heat radiated forth from him, staunching the flow and caking the blood in a ridge atop his mustache. He opened his eyes: two orbs gone entirely black.

When he spoke his already layered pretender’s voice contained a new, more foreign tone. An aethereal tone, maybe several.

“Nina de Montserrat, when I ask you a question you must respond with a yes, or with a no.” Nina felt aethereal tendrils reaching out to her from Thriel, brushing feathery against her skin to feel the sure traces of her deception. (Feeble deception, her hopeless last hope.)

“Lady Nina: Have you ever met Eiko Villon?”

Nina, at great effort, coaxed her tongue into motion, “Yes.”

“When was the last time you—”

Before Thriel and the thing aiding him could go on a commanding voice burst forth from her father’s thin frame. “You overstep yourself, minister! Who does the Archduke entrust that would take the poisonous word of Pietro Villon and carry it into the heart of my court? Into my family!”

Duke Alphonse de Montserrat rose, reached somewhere in his tunic for a handful of salt, and flung it at Thriel. “Away spirit of air, or fire, whatever you may be. This hall is my own, and you, lowly thing, are banished from it until my last breath is drawn.”

The probing aether, lately pressing up under Nina’s chin to know the truth of her answers, evaporated. Thriel bent double, moaning and covering his eyes.

“Milord, I apologize on behalf of my colleague. He was only—” began Weston.

“Only sowing dissent because Pietro Villon can trick his peasant’s spirits like the devil tricks a whore. I’ve had enough of you both! The Archduke can send more of his long haired fools when my family is done mourning. But you—the lot of you—must be gone by daybreak.”

Thriel had regained himself enough to speak through clenched teeth. “Milord, on the Archduke’s authority, I implore you…permit me my investigation.”

“The Archduke’s authority didn’t prevent Eiko Villon from butchering my son, and it can’t keep you out of my dungeon if you are not gone before sunrise.” And that was all. The ministers left the chamber before Nina fully comprehended that she’d been saved by the man she’d conspired to overthrow.
Saved for the moment.

 

Back in her drawing room, she removed the blue shroud from her mirror. The days of existential stress had rendered her gaunt. Fierce, especially in the eyes of an Amnochine politician looking at a woman of the Four Arms. She administered some kohl around her eyes to play up the effect of a resolute fury from the Bloody Arms, drank a quick measure of port, and went on her first errand.

Weston and his retinue were quartered in the Gryphon Hall, a structurally independent annex reserved for dignitaries. When she was escorted into the study she found him writing energetically at the corner desk. He didn’t immediately notice her, and his man was slow to announce her presence in the weighing, hesitant manner of a servant who is often berated.

She watched the minister, less wondering about the contents of his letter than of his mind. He was a courtier, a climber by definition, and had been making overtures to her at every chance he’d had since his arrival. The combination of coquetry and persecution that Weston embodied for Nina was repulsive enough, but on top of that he paled as a man compared to either Eiko or her brother. They’d both been raised to kill and dominate, both hardened by raids throughout the schismatic heart of the Four Arms before their feet could fill a man’s riding boots. And they’d become good killers, each well practiced in the slaughter of the others’ familial militia.

She felt Otto’s accomplishments were actually greater than her husband’s. Otto’s teachers were Remo Drinkwater and his ilk, where Pietro Villon’s banner drew the most seasoned free knights and mercenaries on the continent. Eiko had had an advantage. Nina hadn’t been shy about reminding him of that.

And then they were yoked in Cadre by the Archduke; an attempt to stop the bleeding in the Bloody Arms. At the time she’d offered her own angry words to please her father’s ears, and maybe then she’d believed her oaths, but in fact the Archduke’s ploy nearly did end the civil war, because of her.

She’d have been the suture that closed the region’s wound. And Otto—she’d known that just as he’d exceeded his teachers as a soldier he’d exceed them as a man. He hated the war, the inherited butchery, and had told her he meant to stop it as soon as he established his rule. He’d have joined her and Eiko. Otto would have played more than his own part in the coup.

But he didn’t, and instead attacked Eiko.

Nina’s felt a chill as she understood that she’d not been wrong about Otto. She’d been wrong about her father. He’d banished Thriel’s spirits with a shocking ease. Otto must have come under the sway of the family spirits somehow, initiated by Alphonse. The men of her family, forbidding the women to participate in congress with the aether, turned the power only to spite.

So now, Otto, corrupted by his birthright, was slain by the other great hope for the Four Arms.

And it was left to foppish ministers like this to find out why.

“Minister Weston, sir…” Weston whirled around, glaring. The servant’s voice tapered off, but Weston checked himself when he noticed Nina.

“My lady Nina. I’m, ah, so sorry for what happened with Minister Thriel summoning his, ah, spirits. He is, you must understand, not well versed in how best to comport himself in that regard.”

“Sir Weston,” she began. He rose, erecting himself regally at this generous salutation. “I am the one who should apologize. My father’s grief got the best of him. Minister Thriel was within his rights, even if he was abrupt in their use.”

“He was. Yes, he was.” Weston offered her a seat and told his man to bring some brandy. (Her father’s brandy, of course, but the courtier treated the hospitality as his own.)

She waited until they were settled, and Weston was giving her his full, tender attention. “Sir Weston…well I’d call you Paul if you’ll permit me.” He nodded, eager. “I’d like to speak to you candidly, for though we haven’t known each other long I do feel I can trust you as a friend.”

“As do I, milady.”

“The fact of the matter is that I don’t know—with my brother gone—what is here for me anymore. Here in the Arms, I mean. It’s my family’s home, of course, but I’ve never done anything but travel elsewhere. A series of holidays, that’s all. I want to live, to be wholly myself, in a new place where everything isn’t a matter of war.”

“War is a harsh thing,” Weston offered.

“I’ve been weighing a move to the capital for some time now. It’s difficult, though, not only to leave my parents in the days of their grief but also because while I’m sure you could show me the finer society of Doun Amnoch, I worry about coming into contact, I suppose that’s the word, with…elements like, and forgive me please, but like—”

Seeing Weston’s pregnant nod she paused. “Like Thriel,” he snarled.

She agreed with him, and to her surprise she had to offer very little else in the way of encouragement before Weston dismissed his servant and began to spout forth like an alpine spring, providing all the information she needed about the minister who knew of her treason.

 

It was past midnight when she, traveling alone, arrived at the inn where Thriel was staying. She covered her face when she entered, but relaxed when she saw that he’d paid to take the whole establishment over for the night. There were no natives of the Arms to recognize her.

She bribed a soldier to take her directly to the minister’s room instead of rousing him to come down. When he opened his door she was surprised to see he’d been sleeping during the few hours before his deportation from the province. Not, like Weston, burning lamp oil to draft gossip that passed as intelligence.

Yawning, but with alert eyes—which, she now knew, came from a smuggler’s past—he invited her to sit on the one hard stool in the room. She declined the stool, but closed the door behind her.

“Bernard Thriel, I understand you are a man of uncommon capacity.”

He didn’t reply.

“I’m here to have a frank discussion about what it is we both want.” The slightest smirk ticked Thriel’s mouth. “I want, in short, a man of uncommon capacity. And for a generous number of reasons. I’m curious, therefore, about your most grand desires.” She withdrew her hood, letting the black wilderness of her hair spill everywhere. “And what I might do to help you realize them.”

Thriel sat on the bed, thinking on his reply. He absently straightened the wool blanket under his right hand.

“Minister,” she continued, keeping an amiable tone, “I hope you’re considering what I can offer you right now. And what would go away if you kept on with the investigations that we both know you’re following.”

“You couldn’t have me killed, you know,” Thriel said. “I sent sealed envelopes out to men who open them once they stopped being paid not to. I didn’t come to your father’s domain unprepared.”

She nodded.

“At the same time,” he said, “I can’t ask you the questions that I’d like to right about now. Your father’s house spirits reach well past the villa. My spirits are mutes now that the Duke,” he paused for half a moment, and she saw some shift in the weft of his brow, “…now that your father…has banished them. They won’t answer me for miles around.”

This was a gift she hadn’t expected, though it chilled her again to realize how substantial her father’s aethereal influence still was. She rolled her shoulders back, bucking the anxiety over her past misjudgment.

If she fled the Arms she’d need allies, and tying Thriel’s fortunes to her own was the best chance she had at hand. That said, she hadn’t been sure she could convince the man’s aethereal interlocutors that she wouldn’t seek to silence him forever whenever the chance arose. She couldn’t deceive such entities with words and, once they were on the road, couldn’t rely on any protection from an opposing influence.

“But what,” Thriel said, “can you offer me that the Archduke wouldn’t, given what I know? Hell, what do you have that Pietro Villon couldn’t offer me?”

“The Archduke doesn’t want an even greater fiasco. He’ll reward you for a successful investigation, certainly, but pouring pitch on a roaring fire won’t win you any great favor at court.” She sat next to him on the bed. “Thriel, with a word from you I’m disgraced. But regardless, I’m done with the Four Arms. Our war. I need asylum. A new home in a new place. To get that I’m prepared to give you more than you could have ever aspired to.”

The canny man didn’t widen his eyes here, but she could feel his surprise. A commoner, even as sly as this one, couldn’t anticipate how badly she wanted to keep her freedom. “Tell the Archduke about me and Eiko, and my uncle will inherit the dukedom. Or don’t, and it will be passed to me. And you’ll be the man with a Duchess in his lifelong debt,” she leaned forward, placed her hand firmly on his thigh, and squeezed. Ambiguity was a fine tool of seduction, but she had no use for it here. This was a proposition.

Thriel’s nonchalance had eroded in the face of her offer. “What of…but he must have a child in you. To make it a real union.”

This she would not respond to. Wouldn’t even mask her disgust for the question. She stared into Thriel’s dark, inquiring eyes with hard, obvious scorn. This was a line, she needed to make it clear, that he could not cross in the future.

As she lifted her hand from his thigh she felt it gripped in his. “Sorry, my lady. I’d thought we were being clear with each other.”

She stood, removed her riding cloak. “How long do you think it’s been since I last saw Eiko Villon, since the last chance would have been.”

“Five months, three weeks.” No hesitation.

She smoothed her dress and turned her slim profile to him. “So shall we wait until you have your spirits to verify what you can plainly see?”

Thriel sat, stroking his beard. He watched her, and didn’t blink.

He stood. “We’ll not await sunrise. I’ll tell the men we’re leaving in an hour.” He went to the door. “Well,” he said as, grinning over his shoulder, he bolted the door shut, “perhaps an hour and a half?”

This was the first thing in all these horrid days that actually made her laugh. Whether it was the relief at having carved out some volition for herself (even at such a price), or the welcome bluntness of the courtier—a tonic for the long deception she’d been living since she’d begun courting Eiko—she didn’t know. But she went to him, pressed herself against his back, and told him that he’d wait until he’d discharged his duty before he’d collect any reward, as would a genuine nobleman.

They left before the hour was through. She, Thriel, and two spare horses rode hard ahead of Thriel’s equipage so as to be well along the road north before sunrise. And so Nina de Montserrat was absolved of treason before she was even charged.

 

 

Luke Thomas published a story in The Devilfish Review last year and an essay in The Escapist. He recently licensed a story to Bewildering Stories, and another to the Parsec-winning audio podcast Cast of Wonders, look for its broadcast in early 2014.
 

 

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