Darklaw – Episode 80

THAT IS WHAT I think, Your Grace.” After a moment, he added, “Unless you want me to think something else.”

She thought she might enjoy seeing how far she could push him. “Have something to eat and clean yourself up. Do you drink whiskey?” She let him blink nervously before adding, “I’ll expect you at my tent in an hour.”

She spent the next hour wondering about his boldness. The more she thought about it, the less able she was to dismiss it. Wald had been deferential since the moment she had met him. After she took his hands, he had grown up a bit, become more challenging, more secretive. She knew he spent time with Gerard, but she knew, as well, that Gerard spent time with other men. Wald was brilliant, and Avestine often found that the hearts of such men were complex.

Rook had returned only to leave again with instructions for moving the prisoners and breaking down camp. He passed through the tent as Wald arrived.

Wald had not yet filled in with the weight and muscle of a man. Although his face had grown clearer since the bonding, acne still scarred his cheeks near his ears. He had managed to clean himself up quite well before arriving at Avestine’s tent. His green eyes blinked incessantly.

“Have a seat.” Avestine’s hand waved him to the table in the middle of the tent.

A fire to Wald’s right sent smoke through an open flap above it. He glanced from it to his left. She sat down opposite him, forcing him to see the bed just behind her.

Servants put a ceramic mug beside each of them and poured whiskey. Avestine raised hers and waited for Wald, who carefully did the same. “Long life and women to—well. Just long life.” She finished off her drink. “Did I ever tell you that I read your love letters to Gerard?”

Wald’s response was constrained by a tight throat. He cleared it and repeated himself. “Yes, Your Grace.”

“Kami thinks you’re quite gifted.” Avestine noticed the genuine pleasure he took in Kami’s admiration. “You read a lot. I also know you’ve attended every musical performance and play at the palace. Even the shows at the Gateway.”

Wald didn’t respond. Avestine had made the Gateway explicitly off-limits to everyone in the palace, and any man concerned about his reputation avoided it. Besides the bawdy shows, it was a place a few enterprising traders had set up a secret system for selling opium. She wondered if Wald knew about that, too.

“I’ve seen the shows, too. Do you remember The Toad and The Bootlick?”

Wald smiled with the memory, but forced it away when he looked into her eyes.

“If you were anyone else, I wouldn’t care that you went there, as long as you were discreet. Unfortunately, I can’t risk losing you to some cutthroat or sick whore.”

Wald’s eyes went wide. “Whore?”

“There are plenty of boys offering themselves.”

“But I would never do that.”

“Why not?”

He hesitated. “Because I love him.”

“Yes. My warmaster is a charming man. Drink.”

Wald obeyed. 

“Why risk the Gateway?”

“The shows.”

“You truly go for the shows? They’re nothing compared to what we have at the palace.”

“I like them, Your Grace.”

“Well, you won’t go there again. I can see about bringing the shows to the palace, although I’m sure Gerard will complain about that.”

“No, he’s not much interested in shows.” He smiled at the thought but sobered quickly, as if realizing he was becoming too familiar.

“Essanti, you’ll spend the rest of your life with me. That may be a dozen years, perhaps many more. What you need to understand is that I’m first of all the Emissary. I’m only your queen by circumstance. You belong to me. You’re not serving the queen of Ureth Mourning. I’ll tell you why you’re here. I’ve never had an Essanti I didn’t sleep with. That’s been twenty-three men and women, starting when I was ten.” Wald tensed and began to say something, but Avestine cut him off. “You’re a bad liar and you’re ridiculously principled. That shows gullibility. You’re a danger to me as long as you remain so innocent. You could be used against me.”

She knew he needed to have his heart broken a few times, and perhaps his nose, too, before he could be the kind of servant she needed. But then she remembered what he had done for Gerard. It seemed the gift of resurrection was always bestowed on the most innocent. “I’ve known seven Essanti of Mercy before you.”

Curiosity brightened his dour expression.

“They were like you. Naïve. Maybe it’s the emanation.”

“Which are the most…” he searched for the word a moment before finishing, “sophisticated?”

“The Emanations of Man. Those who follow the lights of Wisdom or Knowledge.”

“Not Instinct?”

“Does Kami seem sophisticated to you?”

“Sometimes, Your Grace.”

“She’s pragmatic, not sophisticated.”

His jaw flexed a few times, but he refused to say what was on his mind.

“We all owe you for convincing her to help. You saved many lives, even those of the enemy. If our two forces had engaged, more would have died here today on this beach. She wouldn’t tell me what you two talked about, how you convinced her.”

“I told her you were going to fight this battle no matter what. You would kill them all rather than surrender your city. She saw my logic and was willing to save as many as she could.”

Avestine felt her eyebrows rise despite her attempt to appear unaffected. “You told her she must save the people from me? Is that it?”

The flap of her tent parted unexpectedly, and she was already reaching for her sword when her door guard bowed.

The guard presented a soldier who had small red sores all over his skin. Another was shivering. “Sorry, Excellency,” the guard said, bowing. He straightened and adjusted his leather cuirass. “These men were gathering firewood when we heard their screams. He seized one of the soldiers by his arm and shoved him forward. It was the man with sores.

 Avestine said, “What happened to you?”

Published in Darklaw |
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