Samples: Peer 2
Haeg Mora stood before him, dressed in only a silk slip and an unbelted robe. One of her hands gripped the heavy wooden door, the other held the doorframe. With the way she was leaning forward, she was inadvertently treating him to a view down the front.
She made a low, guttural sound, and then hung her head, sagging a little.
A servant girl hurried to her side, ducking under Mora’s arm to put herself between Caspar and Mora, closing Mora’s robe and tying the belt. She was quick and efficient, even with a wooden bowl tucked under one arm.
The servant girl gave Caspar a sharp look, and he turned his back.
He hadn’t quite expected Haeg Mora to be the one to open the door, much less in that state of dress.
“An empty bowl? You joke me?”
“In case you need to… if you’re ill, madam.”
“I will not be ill.”
There was a pause. “Yes ma’am. We’re well behind in getting ready for the morning. If master Thorbay would be willing to wait, I think we can get you respectable.”
“I will get myself respectable. I paid attention as I was dressed yesterday, I will dress myself today.”
She’s in a mood, Caspar observed, but he kept his back turned. “I can wait. Take your time.”
There was a clatter, and Caspar momentarily thought Mora had fallen. When he turned, however, he saw that she’d taken a chair and was using it as a makeshift cane, crossing to her bedside to get her stone cane. She crossed to the other corner of the room where clothes had been hung up.
His eye fell on her right foot. It wasn’t a human foot, but a cleft hoof, twisted with nubs of flesh partway up. She leaned on the cane not because the foot wasn’t strong enough, but because the limb was bent at a right angle, towards her left foot, with nothing to set firmly on the ground.
The servant girl got in his way once more, protecting the modesty of her charge. “My apologies, Master Thorbay,” she said, not sounding terribly apologetic. He could forgive her the attitude. She couldn’t have had the most pleasant morning.
“May I have a word?” he asked her.
“With you. She doesn’t seem in particular need of assistance just this moment. Please?”
The girl frowned, but she stepped out of the room and closed the door behind her. He made sure to lead her a distance down the hallway, to be sure they were out of earshot.
“She’s ill?” He asked.
“The Lords and Ladies are fasting, the kitchen was closed to everyone but servants, and the Lady Mora-”
“Haeg Mora. They don’t have lords and ladies.”
“Haeg Mora was hungry. I asked around, and Lady Theda’s maid suggested I take her to the kitchen and see what she wanted.”
“The servants were curious, and she was friendly enough, answering questions and asking them in turn. We invited her to eat with us, it was something of a celebration for us anyhow, with the lords and ladies fasting and the kitchen staff free to make something for themselves. A spread,” the girl said, smiling. She seemed to recall who she was talking to and added, “Modest, I assure you. We wouldn’t rob the Lords and Ladies who employ us.”
“I’m not interested in getting anyone in trouble, I only want answers.”
“She ate until she was ill. It was grim,” the servant girl said, whispering that last word, “seeing her slowly and steadily eat well past the point of being full or enjoying the food. I thought she might injure or wound herself, even. Once we realized, we weren’t sure what to do. We couldn’t take the plates away without upsetting her, but she ate because the food was there. We thought of sending for the Lord of Letters, but he was in council the moment the day started.”
You could have sent for me.
“It’s not your fault. I should have left better instructions, or the Lord of Letters should have.”
The girl seemed to be upset and relieved at the same time. “La- Haeg Mora looked as though she might be… suddenly ill, and I walked her over to the stairwell by the kitchens, just in case. The staff that hadn’t already fled the table saw fit to clear the table while I had her distracted. When we returned, I thought she might club me with that cane of hers, seeing the food gone.”
The girl shook her head. “But she has been irritable since.”
“You’ve done well. Next time, send for me if you can’t get the Lord of Letters.”
The girl looked just a touch sullen as she nodded.
A sad reality, Caspar thought to himself, that anyone who knew who he was had no love or respect for him, by virtue of his background alone. This young servant knew he was the son of Rolf Thorbay, and even after he’d left her the order, he couldn’t be sure she would hurry to follow his instruction. Or would she sabotage him, even?
“It would be appreciated,” he said, for emphasis. He held her gaze, waiting, hoping she would look away before he had to.
She nodded, her eyes dropping. “Yes, of course.”
She turned to leave. He remained at the end of the hallway, waiting, while Haeg Mora finished dressing.
She emerged, surprisingly put together. Her hair was combed, though with a laurel of wrought silver to pin her hair back around her ears. Her dress was a simpler one than she’d worn the day before, in green with a short cape of silver covering one shoulder and a thin belt of metal leaves that matched the laurel, more decorative than supportive. It was perhaps not the best choice of belts, making her swollen stomach more apparent rather than less.
He habitually averted his eyes. Rude, for one thing, to stare at a young lady. Problematic for other reasons, as well. He’d woken to find the half-armored knight who wore his father’s face was gone, which was a burden off his shoulders. He didn’t want to slip and invite another vision to follow him for the day.
“Good morning, Caspar Thorbay,” she said.
“Good morning, Haeg Mora. Can I compliment you on how well and quickly you’ve put yourself together?”
“You can,” she said. There was no smile or curtsy to accompany the statement, nothing demure in her body language. It put him off guard, just a touch.
He found his bearings quickly enough, “Would you prefer to walk with the cane or my arm?”
“The cane,” she said. “Which way?”
He extended a hand, then fell in step beside her.
“Did the servant help you with the final touches?” he asked, conversationally.
She frowned. “I need no help. Talking and eating with these servant people, I keep getting feelings that you all think Ogden’s Kith are savage. We are stupid, we are clumsy, we dress in skins.”
“Cultural differences, nothing more.”
“Anyone can make themselves pleasing to look at if they know the rules. Failure in knowing and following these rules means any can be ugly and undesirable. You know this.”
She gave him a pointed look, her cane striking the stone underfoot. He declined to respond to the casual insult.
“We worked metal before you did. During the War of Tears, we had the greatest towers and thickest fortresses. When the thirteenth people fought us, they would steal the weapons of the fallen because they preferred them to their own.”
He held his tongue.
“No?” She asked. “You frown, Caspar Thorbay. What would you say?”
“Better to avoid diplomatic incident,” he said. “The Lord of Letters would be a better one to discuss this with. Rest assured, I don’t think you are savage.”
They made their way to the gardens in the center of the keep. The buildings had been arranged to frame open walkways and a series of fountains, trees and flower beds, growing more ostentatious, exotic and elaborate towards the center, where the shade was heavier and secluded benches more common.
“If you insist on being silent, I will insist on thinking you want to say the rudest, most offensive things I can imagine. Do you think I am the daughter of a beggar?”
“You accuse me of rutting with all manner of dumb beasts?” she asked, raising her voice.
He could see other nobles in the gardens were glancing their way. “No. Please, be quieter.”
“I take time to learn Surd language, am tutored from moment I join Haeg, I come here and dress like you dress, follow custom. Yet you do not meet me anywhere. I say honesty is important, but you lie with your silence.”
“Because saying the wrong thing can be worse than whatever you’re imagining I might say.”
“Ah. I heard your father once made a man blind himself in one eye, because he failed to pay debt. Perhaps you seethe with this kind of malice for me?” she pressed. “My imagination is good. I have heard other stories. Do you wish to scalp Haeg Mora and wipe your-”
“Enough,” he said. “Please, Haeg Mora. I am not my father.”
“You have his blood, as I have Ogden’s.”
He sought to change the subject, knowing he was bowing to her manipulations. “What I was going to say was that the War of Tears was two hundred years ago. Some things have changed since then.”
“Ah!” She smiled, and he could see how one of the teeth on the bottom row was longer than the others, sharp, positioned below where she had the scarred cleft in her lip. “You butt heads with me?”
“Different connotations, Haeg.”
“That turn of phrase means different things to the Kith than it means to us. We borrowed some terms from your language, in the past, but turned it to different meanings in times of war. To butt heads is to stubbornly argue to the point of being stupid.”
“It is to contest with each other, your thoughts against mine, bludgeoning each other with them until the other submits.”
“Debate would be a better way of putting it.”
“The…” she said. “How do you say?”
“Debate,” he repeated, for clarity.
“Two hundred years ago, we were better in many ways. We were made better, each Kith with different knowledges. That was then. Now we are still better at things. Our cloth, our oils, our rich desserts. We were better then, we are better some ways now.”
“Yet your army is little more than common thugs, carrying out the bandit raids without care. When people here think of the Kith of Ogden, they think of unwashed men in bloodstained armor, robbing our wagons and carrying off anyone young to enslave. So long as the raids continue, it will always be this image that appears first in our minds. Thieves and slavers.”
“We sell our own as slaves too. Our stupidest, slowest and weakest give back to the tribe that raised them by bringing in this slave coin. My tutor in all things Haeg was a slave once, released when she was too old. There is… the weights are even in this. We give, we take.”
“Dealing in buying or selling slaves is seen as savage, here. There isn’t a balancing of the scales to make it right.”
“But you buy slaves.”
“The underclass buys slaves. Those of us here in the court discourage it, for the most part. It makes for too much coin passing through the wrong sorts of hands.”
“Like the hands of your father.”
“If you want to, as you put it, bludgeon me into submission with your words, bringing things back to my father over and over again is a good start,” Caspar said. “If you want to discuss and learn, even be friendly, perhaps we could avoid that topic.”
He led the way onto a different path. The gardens had buildings on three sides, and a complicated arrangement of stone stairs spilling down from the fourth. They now made their way towards an overlarge set of double doors in the narrowest building, the middle of the three.
“Yes. We can avoid this.”
“Thank you,” he said.
He was about to launch into fresh conversation, to pave over the awkwardness, but a figure caught his eye. Between the building to his right and the court where the magistrates gathered, there was a gap, and he could see a young lady striding away. Her hair was black and piled high, held in place with bands that had been painted red, her neck and arms were long and thin, her ankle-length dress deceptively simple, black silk belted behind her neck and waist, leaving the whole of her back bared.
A massive three-fingered hand rested momentarily on the small of her back as she approached the stairwell that would lead her down and out of Caspar’s sight. As the young servant had tried to obscure Caspar’s view of Mora, another figure obscured his vision of the young lady. Half again as tall as the tallest man, he nonetheless stooped over, a slouch encouraged by years spent in buildings built too small for him. His skin was dark brown, his eyes pale, and where an ordinary man might have body hair, he had thick auburn wool. When he walked, thanks to his disproportionately large arms and small legs and the slouch that bent him forward, he had to periodically use one hand for balance. His curling horns seemed large and heavy, forcing his head lower.
“Kith of Barlus,” Mora observed, following his gaze.
“Yes,” Caspar said. He watched as the gigantic Kith made his way down the stairs, his shoulders bobbing with each careful step.
“Rare, to see one outside of his family. They are clever and strong and fearsome as a group, craven and stupid when alone.”
“So the texts say,” Caspar said.
“Rarer, too, to see one of Barlus’ children with that color, here. Red wool?”
“He’s not from here,” Caspar said, simply. He stepped forward to open the double doors.
There was no time for further conversation, their destination too close. They passed statues and walked to one side of a forked staircase that branched around a great stone statue. A naked man, twenty feet tall, bristled with muscles, leaning over one end of a great maul, a shaft of wood with an oversized gauntlet lashed to one end. The base was an inarticulate but artful mass of flesh from any number of different beasts, with an opening in the middle for the magistrates to pass through, leading to the inner chambers.
Slaying the mad god, Caspar thought, as he and Mora laboriously made their way up the curved staircase.
The statue had originally had a base, complete with assorted members of Sur’s retinue at the edges. In time, as the court had been remodeled, the individual statues had been removed, the various members finding homes in alcoves in the library. Only one had remained as part of the base, and that had been removed by one of the previous individuals to sit on the black chair.
A cutthroat and con artist who hadn’t liked entering the hall and seeing the high priest in the throes of despair as his patron god had its head caved in. She’d taken a hammer to it, and she’d hung from the gallows for the offense.
He imagined it, the statue, as crested the top of the stairs. He’d seen illustrations in books, and similar images in art. One strike, to end one reign and begin a new one.
He pushed the door open so Haeg Mora could pass through.
The meeting took place on a lower level. Each of the Magistrates sat in pairs and trios at various tables. One table for the Lords of City and Capitol, one for the three Lords of Sun, Moon, and Star, respectively, and so it went.
Lord Rolf Thorbay sat alone, at a table smaller than the desk in Caspar’s bedroom, no papers on his desk, but for a small leather-bound book, a pen and ink.
A small audience had gathered in seats around them, beneath where Caspar and the other seconds had gathered. They stood looking down on the floor, behind a series of railings that roughly matched the width of the tables below. Behind each of the seconds were tables where books, papers, scrolls and maps had been laid out.
The Lords of Sun, Moon and Star had the floor, and their respective seconds were listening intently. The religious leaders of the three religions that had the majority of the public backing them.
The priest with the golden mask and blades extending from the edges was talking. Though his mask might have made him a better fit for the sun chair, the empty chair behind him was engraved with a crescent moon.
He was saying something about ceremony and the limits on tithing, and hearing him speak, Caspar realized he recognized the man. Bardolf Wickim.
“…If I may take a moment to reference my records of tithes received,” Bardolf paused. His second turned, moving one book to seize another, and swiftly descended the staircase that led down to the floor, bringing him the tome. She placed it deliberately in his hands. She remained at his side.
He did not open the tome, however, but tapped it for effect, “I’d like to illustrate that the upswing on days of good tithing counterbalance period of drought.”
“When you speak of your records,” the elderly Lord of Trade said, “Do you speak of the religion you presently head, or is it one of the other five you’ve put to rest in recent years? Six religions total, in the last twenty years, hasn’t it been?”
“I confess I do not know what you’re talking about,” Bardolf Wickim replied. “What a crass idea.”
Emerick Suvain, the Lord of Capitol, was very similar in stature when compared to the musclebound hero who was showcased in the court’s lobby. Though armor made up the bulk of that, he had the natural strength to wear it. He was arguably the most powerful man in Surd. When he spoke, everyone listened. “You want the limits released, arguing the averages will put your earnings at an even keel with respectable businesses, even if the exceptional periods of growth seem… grandiose.”
He wasn’t restating the obvious for the benefit of argument or for Bardolf, but for the people in the benches around the floor, who would be reporting the details of the meeting to others. Laying it out in simple terms.
“That is the thrust of the matter,” Bardolf said.
Emerick’s voice was deep as he spoke, “We founded this nation on the death of a god. The people have a certain attachment to the idea, perhaps we even romanticize it. Every few years, a church closes its doors, there is fanfare, celebration, a brief-lived mythology comes to a close. A god dies, a messiah perishes, hope is offered or taken away. Surely you acknowledge this occurs.”
“I do,” Bardolf said.
“My question is, if we removed the limits, how many more gods and religions would die in the next twenty years? More than six?”
“The rise and fall of gods is the province of gods and the godly, nothing more,” Bardolf said. “Not of coin.”
“Yet coin can be the province of the godly as well? Or have you changed your mind about why you are addressing us, High Priest of Larva?”
“No need to be specious, Lord Emerick. We all need coin to feed ourselves and keep up the churches.”
“I’ll abstain from voting,” Emerick said. “You’re right. But consider… if we encourage the charlatans in robes to raise and slay false gods, will the people not tire of it? Will the balance be upset?”
“You lack faith,” the man in the golden mask said. “The gods will make it right.”
“I have changed my vote,” A woman in a black robe said. The Lord of Stars. “I am sorry, High Priest of Larva, but there are gods of ugliness and darkness out there. I do not trust them to keep a balance. What we have serves.”
“Agreed,” a man with a painted face said. The Lord of Sun. “Let’s put the matter to rest.”
Bardolf let the tome drop to the table with an impact, then found his chair. The other two lords of religion removed themselves from the floor as well, sitting in their respective seats.
Emerick spoke, “The next matter on the docket is marked as the woodsbridge dead stag concern. I would suggest Capitol and Bludgeon for the floor. Objection?”
The various lords at the tables held out hands, flat and parallel to the table.
Only Rolf didn’t.
“I would take the floor,” Caspar’s father said.
Emerick didn’t look particularly surprised. “Objections?”
There were none.
The lords of Capitol, Bludgeon and Black made their way to the open space inside the broken ring of tables.
Caspar was distracted by the approach of three others, who were keeping far enough away from the railing to be out of sight of the assembly that had gathered to watch proceedings.
Darios and Gared, seconds of Letters and Bludgeon, respectively, leaned over the railing. Glances were cast in Caspar’s direction. Klaros, in the company of the second of banners, didn’t even try to be surreptitious about it.
“-no less than twelve times,” Emerick said. “This is a subject for concern. The woods are reserved for the nobility, and even there the hunting is strictly controlled. Should illness, incident or drought bring a particular species to the point of extinction, the woodsbridge is a means of carefully replenishing it. Not possible when it is being overhunted.”
Rolf spoke. “I became aware of the matter when it was entered on the docket. I’ve seen to it.”
“So easily?” the Lord of Bludgeons asked. “Too easily?”
“Do we have to undertake this charade every time?” Rolf asked. “Many of the people in the audience have seen it often enough. Yes. You are exceedingly surprised that I still have contacts from my less than illustrious past. We must repeatedly hammer in the idea that I do not truly belong here, and every criminal act that occurs must somehow be my fault.”
“If you are restless, Black, we can give your chair to another.”
“If you do that, the reserve will be hunted to extinction. I passed on word to wholly legitimate individuals, who passed on word to less legitimate businessmen, who passed on word through the low streets and gutters.”
“You warned the poachers,” the Lord of Bludgeons said.
“I told them I was aware and I would be displeased if it continued, and my reputation did the rest,” Rolf said. “It’s done.”
“Except,” Lord Emerick said, “You forget the matter of the stags that have already died, and the poachers escape without paying for their crime.”
“Not to mention,” the Lord of Bludgeons spoke up, “The woodsbridge is guarded on both ends, and the poachers somehow found their way through. This is worrisome, and demands investigation.”
“A security threat to our castle and nation, even,” the Lord of Banners joined in, from the sidelines.
Rolf bowed his head a little, as if the pressure the others were applying was a physical force.
Caspar could imagine what the shadow his father had cast might look like, if he could see it now. However calm Rolf Thorbay appeared to be, his real attitude could vary. Was he just barely suppressing his rage?
Was he laughing at them?
The man straightened, raising his head, brushing at a lock of dark curl to get it away from his eyes. He spread his arms.
Caspar didn’t get to hear. Gared, son of the Lord of Bludgeons, spoke to Darios, his voice low, but somehow audible. A trick of the acoustics in the room, with every part of the layout encouraging sounds to travel and reach? “One day, the brute is going to hang. My father says he will be the one to personally see to it. He has a rope that needs stretching.”
“I know,” Darios said, his voice calm, sounding more disinterested than anything. “I’ve eaten at your table often enough. He’s made the joke so many times I’ve gotten sick of it. I can’t imagine how you feel.”
“I see the stretched rope in my sleep,” Gared said. He grimaced. He looked at Caspar, but Caspar was already averting his eyes, trying not to be obvious that he was overhearing.
“I said I would not bring up the subject again,” Mora said. “But…”
“I know,” Caspar said. “They’re speaking about my father.”
Gared went on, “I feel sorry for his wife. Born a little spotty, according to my aunt, and she gets taken advantage of by a thug twice her age. When the brute dangles from the gallows, what happens to her? She has no nobility worth speaking of, no coin, no stipend from the black chair, and none would be the one who takes the brute’s wife to bed… She winds up in the low streets? Mad enough to be unable to look after herself, sane enough to know how bad her situation is?”
“Caspar is seeking employment with the Lord of Letters,” Darios said. “As a lowly researcher. He could look after her.”
“No. That won’t do. I mean, I don’t wish the woman ill. She can’t be faulted for her frailty, but you’ll have to fire him.” Gared asked, eyebrows raised. “It isn’t right, that the black chair leaves any permanent marks in the court.”
Darios shrugged, noncommittal.
Gared frowned. He looked at Caspar, but Caspar was watching only through his peripheral vision. “Fat Caspar can’t be too clean, if he interacts with his father. My father could bring him in on suspicions of conspiracy, and I’m sure we’d find something.”
Caspar was suspicious they could. If they searched the house, they’d likely find any number of incriminating details. Worship of blood gods was technically forbidden, after a spate of cults had sprung up here and there, and there hadn’t been two straight days where the house had been utterly clean of anything suspicious. Letters to the wrong people, texts on poisons that wouldn’t be found in the library here, for teaching Caspar, Caspar’s juvenile ideas from when he’d been a child and hadn’t yet seen his father’s madness for what it was. Were some still around? Did his father keep them as mementos?
Rolf was smiling a little as he debated matters with Gared’s father, the Lord of Bludgeons. Criminal and judge, opposing one another on the floor. Was part of that arrogance because he was envisioning Caspar’s note, tucked away in some secret drawer somewhere, an eight year old’s crude ideas on how to systematically murder the various magistrates?
Darios leaned forward, and his voice was barely audible. “Perhaps we can discuss this later, over a drink? Some of us don’t have positions guaranteed by blood. I’d hate to lose my appointment because Klaros got the wrong impression.”
Klaros, a distance away, glanced at Darios, but didn’t reply.
“Ah well,” Gared said. “Soon enough. My father has taken to appointing guards on the brute, and he hasn’t said anything about why. He must anticipate something. The criminals always get more restless when they know their turn at the gallows approaches.”
“Do you hear what this boy says?” Mora asked.
“Yes,” Caspar answered. He pointed down at the floor, where the Lord of Trade was taking the floor, along with the Lord of Banners. “But I think you should listen. Ignore this and pay attention to the discussion of trade. It’s at least part of the reason you came, isn’t it?”
“I understand you better, now,” Mora said, her voice quiet. “We have warlords take power, sometimes, and they do not have the ability to keep power. They rarely go silently. I see it in him, and I think you see it to. You seek security, but you fear it is already too late. It probably is.”
“This isn’t what a diplomat should be talking about with a guest,” Caspar said, his voice more tight than he would have liked.
“Take it from one who has watched this play out again and again. Few find that security, when they desperately search for it as the water runs down the glass. You must take a risk.”
Caspar sighed, relenting. He met her eyes for a moment, then looked away, turning his eyes back to the floor. “A risk? What do you think I could do?”
An axe for one, a poison for another, to make him shit himself to death. Bleed another in their bathtub. So on and so on, down the list.
The scrawlings of a boy with the characteristic unquestioning adoration for their father, too young to know better.
Had it ever been more than that? Or were they just pretendings, for his father to cling to as he knew his time would run out. He would become too restless, push something too far. Or he would grow too comfortable and predictable, and he would no longer have a role in things.
“You know this world better than I do. But I do not think you should go quietly,” Mora said. “I have ideas, but-”
“Forgive me,” he said, interrupting her. He had a sick feeling in his gut, knowing he was burning a bridge, setting himself back in this feeble attempt at rescuing himself from the doom that was about to befall his father. “I… don’t feel well. My breakfast didn’t sit well. I need a moment’s fresh air.”
A feeble lie, drawing inspiration from the one he was lying to, of all people. Someone who detested lies, no less. Her expression, as cryptic as her eyes might be, left no doubt she knew he’d told a falsehood.
He might have made excuses, tried to shore it up, but he stepped away, instead, abandoning her and his duties.
The gods had brought him this far. A whim, a chair for a criminal, because it recurred in the myths enough times. But as the gods died, so did this whimsy. Maybe Gared was wrong, and Caspar’s father would occupy the Black Chair for years to come. Maybe war wouldn’t break out, necessitating that Rolf vacate the position so a warlord might occupy it.
But time would pass, and it would all come crumbling down.
He made his way down the stairs, then strode through the double doors into the gardens.
The air was crisp, even though it was summer, a result of the keep being based in the mountains. Vertical distances marked the paths between cities and settlements as much or more than the horizontal distances, roads zig-zagging down the cliff faces, framed by the aqueducts that controlled the flows of cold mountain water.
He turned left, passing between the court and the archives that framed the gardens. Stairs and patios were laid out along the cliff’s edge.
He traced the path, heading down, below the foot of the archives building, and around the corner.
Clusters of trees offered privacy here. It was an out of the way spot, originally a place for Lords and Ladies who worked in the court and the archives to share meals, it had fallen out of favor as new areas were set up and a wing was added to the archives, casting the patios in darkness at any time beyond early morning. Here and there, stairs were cracked, and weeds grew up and out of the way. Trees were tended, but leaned toward the overgrown.
The Lady with the open-backed robe and the Kith companion was on one patio, sitting in deep shade.
Caspar felt his heart thud in his chest.
“Lady Esmenet,” he said.
She turned her head, surprised. The surprise wasn’t diminished with recognition. If anything, she looked more confused. “Caspar Thorbay?”
He nodded. “May I approach?”
“I was enjoying a moment’s quiet,” she said.
He approached a step, and the Kith moved, his arm catching a railing, helping to shift his position.
Every step of the way, people bar my path, try to keep me from seeing.
“I’d hoped to talk with you,” he said.
“I can’t imagine we have any reason to talk, Caspar.”
“If you could ask your Kith to leave-”
“A silly notion,” she said. “My father bought him for me on the day I was born, so I’d never be without protection. You want me to dismiss him?”
Caspar glanced at the Kith. The man glowered at him, in turn. An ex-slave. But he’d been a child when he’d been ‘freed’, no connection to a distant clan that had been wiped out and enslaved in entirety, no coin, no means of acquiring food or shelter, beyond the basest options. He’d been offered a position, food and shelter, a bodyguard.
A slave, only without any obvious collar or shackles.
Caspar approached, and he raised a hand, placing it against the Kith’s forearm. “Rest assured, I don’t think I could hurt her if I tried.”
The Kith didn’t budge.
“Let him through, Linos. He’s no threat to me. If he insists on disturbing the quiet, we might as well get it over with.”
Linos backed off, and Caspar advanced, approaching the railing, so Lady Esmenet was behind him. “You abandoned your post.”
“My father doesn’t trust me to actually carry out the duties of a second,” she said. “His third sees to the job. I’m expected to stand there, be regal, and learn.”
He gazed out at the valley below. “You’re absent from the Alltemple, you’re absent from the court meetings and your duties as second. The only person in your company is Linos. People wonder.”
“They wonder what you do. I found myself wondering why. I think we’re kindred spirits, in a way.”
There was no reply. When he glanced over his shoulder, he saw Lady Esmenet exchanging a glance with her bodyguard.
“Sorry,” Caspar said, “If that’s taken as an insult. But… you let your reputation degrade, you skip events. I think we’re very similar in our feelings towards all of this. The ambition, the lies, the deception, the way the board keeps on shifting, one player or one piece being exchanged for another, but nothing ever changes. So much hinges on appearances, and there’s so very little substance.”
Still, there was no response.
“I despise it all. I loathe it, and I think you do too. Your father is Lord of Capitol, the highest position in the court, if someone wanted to argue there was one. My father is the Lord of Black. The lowest position, undeniably. Generations go by without one proposal being acknowledged or accepted from the Black Chair. My father has played along, so some of them humor him, but others wait for the day they can remove him from the chair and finally get around to hanging him. We stand at opposite ends of all this, and we’re the same.”
“So?” she asked. “I’m not saying that I agree, but what does it matter? We might be soulmates, destined for each other, or we could be mortal enemies tomorrow. What does it matter? What would you have me do about it?”
“Every day, it seems, you try to escape this. You seek refuges like this one, abandon your duties. I… I suppose I seek my own refuge. A stupid notion of being a researcher for little pay. I want your help. I want to ally. We want the same things, we can help each other accomplish them.”
“I’m to help you become a researcher?” she asked.
“No,” Caspar said. He clenched his fists. He was talking too fast, stumbling over his words. There was so much he wanted to say, but he couldn’t get it out in the right way. The more he tried, the worse it got. “In other things. Getting to the heart of the matter.”
“We can shake things up,” she said. “Undermine the court, force a change.”
They were the sort of words that he had wanted to hear. But the tone…
He turned around, and he could see how her expression mocked him. Sarcasm.
His gaze dropped to his toes.
“Where’s your fire, Caspar?” she asked, and the tone was too similar. “What do you really want?”
He didn’t dare answer the question.
“Fancy words, about me being your soulmate, about the stagnant disease at the heart of the court, the lies and masks we all wear so comfortably. And you frame it all like you want to rescue me.”
“You can’t deny that you hate this. That being in the court is like being in a cage. You dress a certain way, you act a certain way, and every time you do, you know you’re shoring up a system that you can’t stand.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” she said. She stood from the bench and brushed at the petals that had settled on her dress. “Shall I buck the system? Try to shake free of the restraints?”
He sensed a trap, but he’d walked into it. “As you wish.”
“A lady must be dainty, you understand,” she said. “Linos, come closer.”
The Kith approached.
“A lady must be demure,” Esmenet said.
“Yes,” Caspar said.
“Every week, I entertain suitors. Every time, I must find a way to deflect their advances. Over and over. I must be polite, sparing their feelings, and I can never be forceful.”
She pushed a branch out of the way as she approached Caspar. It swung, and emerald petals showered down behind her.
“So I can never refuse a suitor entirely. I deflect, they advance again and again. It’s a farce.”
“So I was right,” Caspar said. “You hate this.”
“And yet you’re going to reject me now, like you could never deflect your suitors.”
“Yes. Rest assured, Caspar Thorbay, the idea of befriending you or joining you in this inochate venture of yours makes the gorge rise in my throat. The idea of being associated with you, with being similar to you, it makes my skin crawl.” She extended an arm. “Look!”
He looked away. She was too close.
“No, look! Really! Goosebumps. I don’t have any little hairs on my arms, because my servants wax my arms and legs, but they would be standing on end.”
“I understand,” Caspar said, just a little disgusted, unsure if that disgust was with himself or with her. “A no would suffice.”
“Ah, but I feel so much better! You’ve interrupted my peace, tonight, and I’ll shudder when I recall the comparisons you drew, but I finally got to act.”
There was a note of anger in his voice, when he spoke, “Where do you wind up, five years from now? Still unable to act? Doing the same thing?”
“Where will you be, Caspar? It won’t be in a position as researcher or anything like that. There are rules. If you’ve moved one step from where you are, it’ll be to the gutters or the gallows.”
He would have responded, even retorted with an angry word or two of his own, but Linos loomed close, fully capable of dismantling Caspar if he had a mind to.
He let himself meet Lady Esmenet’s eyes. They were dark, glittering with anger. Her features, flawless, were so tight that it looked like she wore a mask.
“Fine,” Caspar said. “Fine. Then I’d like to make a request.”
“A request?” Esmenet asked.
“There are other terms for it, but I’m going to keep to the politest one. Your family has been investing in the merchant nobles. Your father will have given you some papers, teaching you the accounting and the details of investment. Patron’s notes, I imagine.”
“What does it matter to you?” she asked.
“You’ll give me some. Not many. Five papers will do. For any of the businesses your family is overseeing. Sign them over to me.”
“I think you’ve gone mad,” she said.
“Or I’ll let slip that I saw you and your bodyguard fucking,” Caspar said.
Linos tensed. He spoke in a low rumble, his words clumsy. “I can throw him over the edge.”
“They’ll wonder why you were willing to kill,” Caspar said, speaking just a little too fast. His eyes darted between them, so he couldn’t start to see things. “I imagine they’ll take it to the most obvious conclusion.”
“Many people have raised the idea,” Esmenet said. “It’s a scandal that’s never borne fruit, and people are tired of it.”
“People saw you leave the court, people saw me leave. One of those people was Haeg Mora. Kith don’t lie. If I or someone else ask her for the details, Haeg Mora will give a definitive answer. That she saw you going this way with your bodyguard. It only takes a nugget of truth to get them thinking, and the Haeg can offer that truth.”
“So you’re just as slimy as everyone thinks you are, Caspar,” Esmenet said. “But perhaps you’re right. Perhaps I loathe the court. I haven’t cared about the scandal now, why should I care if it comes to life?”
Caspar glanced between the two, “That scandal, given enough fuel, would separate you from your bodyguard. You grew up together. He must be like a brother to you, I imagine.”
“I could break him,” Linos said.
“Same issue as killing me. It’ll get people thinking.”
“As blackmail goes, this is flimsy at best,” Esmenet said.
“You could maneuver around it,” Caspar said. “Turn things back on me, even. But you won’t. Because I’m right. You want peace and quiet, before you’re married off to someone to further your father’s interests or keep the inner court in the hands of the inner court. It’s easier to sign over the notes.”
“Giving you an escape route, if things go sour?”
“It’s something,” he said.
“Linos?” she asked. She gestured, but he was too slow to see what the gesture was.
Linos struck him. A fist larger than Caspar’s head sank into his broad stomach. He doubled over, and Linos caught him before he could fall.
“I suppose I have to accept,” Esmenet said. “Again.”
He flinched, but it did no good. Putting his arms in the way of the incoming strike only served to get his arms bruised, very nearly getting them broken.
“You showed your hand. You’re desperate enough you can’t leverage your threat against me in retaliation. Again, Linos.”
Caspar managed a choked scream before Linos hit in a third time.
“I’ll send the notes to you by courier tonight,” she said. “Is that fine?”
Caspar nodded quickly.
“Very good,” Lady Esmenet said.
Linos propped him up against the railing, then used a large thumb to wipe at the dribble of spit that had leaked from the corner Caspar’s mouth.
Caspar hadn’t even caught his breath when Linos hit him again. He doubled over and tumbled to the ground, in too much pain to even groan.
“I didn’t order that one,” Esmenet said. She sounded further away. She was leaving.
“That one was mine,” Linos commented.
Caspar picked himself up. Twice, in the process of getting to his feet, he was utterly frozen by the wrenching pain that gripped him.
He did what he could to dust himself off, moving with a glacial speed, and then made his way up the stairs. He couldn’t bring himself to move at a regular pace, leading him to raise one foot to a stair, then raising the other foot to that same stair.
He was halfway up when he saw Klaros.
“Advice for you,” Caspar managed, huffing. “If you’re going to spy, you don’t want to be seen by the one you’re spying on.”
“I do not spy. I watch.”
“Very good,” Caspar said. “How much did you see?”
“You love this girl.”
“In the spirit of Kith honesty,” Caspar grunted, “I do and have. For far too long.”
“Yet you coerce her? Threaten her?”
Caspar shook his head. He couldn’t explain, because it hurt too much to talk, and because he wasn’t sure he could explain it.
He’d blackmailed her because he cared. The note went both ways. If she signed it over, it made it clear a transaction had taken place. He could leverage it, both the date she signed it and the date he received the courier’s scrip, to show that he’d been in Esmenet’s company.
It took a note of truth to get a scandal going. A note of truth could stop one. There were enough days where Lady Esmenet wasn’t where she was supposed to be, where he’d been absent too. When she wasn’t at the Alltemple, he was on the balcony, placed well out of sight.
He had evidence they’d met and interacted, the rest of a fiction could be spun from there. If someone leveled slander at her, accusing her of an affair with her Kith bodyguard, Caspar could refute it.
More would need to be done, to make it more solid, and to ensure it worked, but he was quietly confident.
He couldn’t get her out of the cage that trapped them both, but he could maybe act to save her nonetheless.
Stupid, reckless, when he couldn’t necessarily save himself. When she didn’t want to be saved. But he’d once believed in what he saw when he looked at someone too hard, and as a young boy in love for the first time, he’d turned it on Esmenet.
He’d stopped believing, that day. If only because he didn’t want there to be any truth in what he’d seen.