The Blood Pact Ch. 28bykimtheelf©
With the Marquis's contacts, it didn't take long to arrange the details of my plan. All I had to do then was wait for the right opportunity. That came only a few days later in the form of Lord Ruvano deciding to accompany me on one of my shopping trips to the city. He didn't seem to think this excursion was any different from the other times he'd displayed like a trophy for everyone to see, so it took quite a bit of effort on my part to pretend the same.
My heart was thumping in my chest from the first moment we set out. I knew I would eventually be heading for a tiny pawn shop that sat on the boarder between the good part of the city and mud-paved outer districts, but today nothing could be forced, lest I wanted to tip off Lord Ruvano to what I had set in motion. The first few shops at which we stopped had absolutely nothing to do with my plan. I simply had to make my arrival at our ultimate destination seem as natural and coincidental as possible.
When I finally caught sight of the pawn shop some short distance down the street we walked, my heart skipped a beat and I nearly abandoned the entire plan right there. Lord Ruvano was the king's Spymaster after all. What hope did I have of fooling him like this? If my disloyalty was discovered, I'd be executed for sure. However, if I did not take action on my own behalf soon, my fate would likely be just as terrible.
I entered the shop as if on a whim, merely looking for some pretty bauble or jewel which would catch my eye. As always, Lord Ruvano wore a scowl when he was out amongst the commoners. I could never quite tell if it was their presence or simply my extended shopping which he found so distasteful.
"Good day, m'lady! M'lord!" The shopkeeper greeted us like any other customer, bowing slightly upon our entry. I'd never met him before or set foot in his shop. He looked utterly common, just like any number of shopkeepers in the city. Had I not been aware of his affiliations, I never would have suspected that he was one of the Marquis's contacts. I could only hope that he did not bungle his role and expose all of us. "Is there anything that I might be able to help you with this morning?"
"Oh, no, thank you, I'm just browsing," I said as I drifted though the cluttered little shop, glancing at all the various knickknacks on display. Much of it was the sort of junk you'd find at any pawn shop but there were just enough expensive trinkets mixed in with the rest to give the entire place a slightly more affluent feeling. Occasionally I'd stop to take a closer look at some bauble or another and the shopkeeper was always quick to mention how nice that necklace would look on me or that he'd cut me a discount if I bought the entire writing set all at once.
When I saw the dragon-shaped teakettle sitting on a shelf, newly polished and glistening more brightly than brand new, my step faltered. This was the moment; the culmination of my plans. I had to act now, casually so as to not arouse Lord Ruvano's suspicions. He was still on the far side of the room, idly looking at a rack of daggers and trying to pretend like he wasn't bored completely out of his mind.
Trying to do so no differently than I had with any of the other artifacts in the store, I picked up the teakettle and turned it over in my hands. "Oh, now that's awfully pretty," I cooed.
"You have quite an eye, m'lady. I just got it in," the shopkeeper said. "Pure silver, and the craftsmanship is impeccable."
I continued handling the kettle for another few seconds. From the reflection in a glass-fronted cabinet, I could see Lord Ruvano was still on the other side of the shop. This wouldn't work if he didn't take notice. I'd already been holding onto the teakettle too long to be comfortable with. At this rate, when he did see it, he was going to think I'd been trying to get his attention on purpose.
I started to put the teakettle back down and, against my better judgment, was just about to say, "Master Oringel used to have one just like that," when Lord Ruvano lunged in from out of nowhere and snatched it out of my hands. His scowl deepened considerably as he turned the teakettle over, examining it from every angle. The ridges of his brow furrowed in irate disbelief.
"Are you interested in it, m'lord?" the shopkeeper started to say.
Lord Ruvano cut him off, grabbing him by the shirt front and knocking many small curios onto the floor as he pulled him half-way across the counter. "Where did you get this!"
Even though I had been expecting something like that to happen, I still jumped with a girlish shriek. I'd seen Lord Ruvano in all manner of moods but never this enraged. It was no act when I cringed away from him. He'd never harmed me in the past but if he realized what was happening here, it could very well be the end of me.
"I -- it was sold to me by a man off the street, like most of my wares," the shopkeeper said in a rush.
"What man? What did he look like!"
"Tall, thin...wispy blond hair...a scar down his face!" Gods, he sounded so sincerely terrified as he said it, even I believed that Bakoro had really been the one who'd sold it to him.
The Spymaster's scowl turned to a snarl as he gazed into space for a moment. Releasing the shopkeeper, Lord Ruvano grabbed me by the arm and pulled me back into the street. The shopkeeper, gasping for breath, didn't bother to raise the alarm at having one of his pieces taken without payment.
"Ow! What's going on!" I said.
As he stormed down the street with the teakettle in one hand and me in the other, he didn't even face me when he spoke. "We're going back to the palace. There are things which require investigation."
At the front gate, Jorven and Stanos, two of Lord Ruvano's men, were assigned to take me back to his chambers and hold me there until he returned. Was he going to discover what I'd done? Did he already suspect me? Maybe I'd pushed things too far, too quickly. After all, what did I really know about these matters of espionage?
"Do either of you know what all this is about?" I said as me and my two guards entered Lord Ruvano's chambers.
Jorven shrugged and shook his head. Stanos appeared just as baffled. "I'd actually been hoping you might know, my lady. We haven't been told a thing."
"No, I'm sorry, but I haven't a clue either," I said, wringing my hands as I took a seat in one of the large upholstered wingchairs. Playing innocent even when Lord Ruvano wasn't watching couldn't hurt my defense if he did turn on me. If only I could have stopped my body from quivering.
"Not to worry," Jorven said. "As long as we're here, no harm will come to you."
"Not that you're likely in any danger," Stanos added, anxious to calm my fears. The both of them must have thought this was another coup or some equally devastating turn of events. Not that they wouldn't be justified. The last one had come upon us just as suddenly and had been preceded by a similar tension in the air. "Whatever's going on, I'm sure this is just a precaution."
"Yes, I'm sure it's nothing," I said, as much to reassure myself as them.
Even if either of my guards had been in a mood to discuss these matters further, I was not. I wanted to pace the room, but instead I forced myself to sit still and quiet. It was something of a struggle to keep my heel from tapping against the floor, however.
I'd known this was a risky endeavor when I'd set it in motion, but I'd been confident it would all end up working in my favor. Now that my trap had been sprung, I was shaking in my boots. However, even if my involvement did come to light, I could at least take comfort in the fact Delphina and her husband would not be implicated as well. We had taken every precaution we could think of to isolate them from the duplicity being orchestrated here, but if we were found out, I would not let the accusations pass beyond myself. This was my plan, and if it came to that, I would take full responsibility for everything.
Eventually, another two of Lord Ruvano's men entered the room, dragging a livid Bakoro between them. My back went stiff as they brought him before me.
"What the hell is the meaning of this!" he cried. When the guards came to a stop, he threw off their hands and hastily straightened his cloak. "I'm your bloody commander! You're gonna answer for this!"
"No. No they won't," Lord Ruvano said as he strode in after them. "You, however, DO have a great deal to answer for."
Bakoro shook his head. "What are you talking about?"
"What do you make of this?" Lord Ruvano said, holding out the teakettle.
Bakoro's expression was one of angry confusion. "It's a bloody teakettle! What's that got to do with anything? I've never seen it before in my life."
"Don't play games with me!" Lord Ruvano said. "This belonged to Master Oringel. It was locked in his tower. You were supposed to be responsible for everything in there, so don't tell me you've never seen it before."
"Well -- perhaps, now that you mention it, it does look kinda familiar." Bakoro threw out his hands. "But I still don't know what this is about."
"I found it for sale at a pawn shop in the city."
From Bakoro's stuttering panic, realization was starting to dawn on him, but of course, he was still just as confused as ever. "It...there must be a million teakettles like that. How do you know it came from the wizard's tower? Nobody's been in there but me: nobody!"
Lord Ruvano slammed the teakettle down on the table. The resounding crash was so fierce I jumped right out of my chair.
"There's only one teakettle like this in the whole world, it's one-of-a-kind!" he said. "And I just checked the tower, it's also missing!"
"That's...that's not possible."
Lord Ruvano scoffed and shook his head. "You disappoint me Bakoro. You stood at my right hand. I gave you authority over my men and I paid you well. Yet you betray me? How much more of my property have you taken without my knowledge?"
"I've never betrayed you!" Bakoro shook his head vehemently. "And I've never taken anything of yours without your permission!"
"What about the night of the coup?" Lord Ruvano said, his eyes nothing but cold blue embers.
Bakoro's own eyes, now desperate, swung in my direction. Hastily, I fled to Lord Ruvano's side.
Rather than offer any defense for his attempted rape of me the night Lord Ruvano helped install a new king on the throne, he motioned toward the teakettle. "That little chamber pot is worthless compared to the gifts you've given me freely! Why would I ever do anything so stupid as to steal something like THAT!"
Lord Ruvano merely glared back, his expression immutable.
"It wasn't me!" Bakoro cried.
"Who else could it have been? You yourself just said you're the only one with access to the tower."
His eyes flittered about the room in a panic and then suddenly latched onto me. "Her!" he cried, pointing fiercely. My heart stopped for a moment, but somehow I was able to keep my poise. This could yet work. Bakoro had nowhere left to run. I just had to remain calm.
"Stephanie?" Lord Ruvano all but laughed.
"Yes! She and I..." he trailed off, knowing full well the dire straights that statement would put him in if he finished it. Accepting the theft might allow him to keep his life, but admitting to bedding me would get him killed on the spot. Sweat rolled down his face as he swallowed hard.
All eyes were on him, Lord Ruvano's critical, the other guards in shock at the possibility their commander had betrayed their master's trust. Bakoro's, meanwhile were on me, a mix of panic, disbelief, and pleading.
After all the times he'd followed me, shadowing my every move; all the lewd stares and off-color comments he'd made to me; did he really think that I would come to his rescue and provide him with an alibi now? Subtly, I shook my head. His eyes went wide and his nostrils flared.
"You filthy bitch!" He lunged forward, thin fingers reaching for my neck. "I'll kill you!"
The guards grabbed him by the arms and held him well back but I clung to Lord Ruvano and cried out all the same. My legs felt as if they were ready to give out. I could barely catch my breath.
"Put him in a cell," Lord Ruvano said. "I'll deal with him later."
"You set me up, you filthy god-damned whore!" Bakoro howled as he struggled incessantly against the guards who dragged him from the chamber. Once his cries died away down the halls, Lord Ruvano turned to me. Still scowling, he held up a single cautioning finger.
"And you: stay here until I return."
I nodded, but was unable to speak. My plan had done exactly what I'd hoped, but I was not yet in the clear. All I could do now was hope Bakoro did not become desperate enough to sign his own death warrant by implicating me in this affair.
Without having been given any further orders from Lord Ruvano in regards to watching over me, Jorven and Stanos stood uncertainly in the silent room.
"You can both go," I told them, my voice tight but firm. "I'll be fine on my own."
"Yes, m'lady, or course," Jorven said, as if in shock. The apparent betrayal of their commander had hit them hard. Bakoro could hang for all I cared, but I almost felt bad that decent men like Stanos and Jorven would be left in quite a state by all this as well.
Once they were gone, I allowed myself to let go of the last few threads of composure I'd managed to hang onto and all but collapsed onto one of the couches. I couldn't seem to stop my limbs from trembling or my breath from coming in quick gasps. Images of what had just happened kept replaying themselves before my eyes. Imagined punishments for my betrayal joined them and left my whole body limp. I wanted to cry but was too exhausted to even do that. Had I signed away my own life just for a chance at freedom?
I sat slumped there for what must have been hours before I was finally able to think about anything in the least coherent terms. It was even longer before I was able to light a single lamp against the deepening twilight. When my dinner was delivered to me, as it customarily was at 8 o'clock sharp, I could hardly believe so much time had passed. The food was just as fine as ever and I ate heartily, being more famished than I'd realized, but I could not help but wonder if this was intended to be my last meal. Afterward, I sat down with a book about the royal lines of Arnoth which Delphina had given me. I didn't really want to anything at all, but if I was left alone with nothing but my thoughts to keep me company, I would only end up worrying about things which I could not effect.
When Lord Ruvano eventually returned as promised, I merely looked up from the book without making any attempt at more formal greeting. His jacket was unfastened, his cravat untied, and the scent of fresh soap followed in his wake. As he stopped a pace before my chair, I couldn't help but notice how heavily bruised his knuckles were.
"Why does he accuse you?" Lord Ruvano said flatly.
There could be no doubt about who and what he was referring to. I closed the book with a measured movement and reminded myself once more that I was supposed to be innocent in all this. I had no reason to be nervous.
"He appeared quite desperate," I said. "He was obviously just latching onto anything that might deflect suspicion from himself."
Lord Ruvano's eyes narrowed. Even with the blinders he supposed had toward women, he must have seen too much truth in Bakoro's words to look the other way. Maybe Bakoro had already given him a complete confession. However, even if his corpse was already being carried out of the palace, I had to keep my nerve. I couldn't give away anything more than Lord Ruvano already knew.
"You certainly do not seem much concerned by this news," he said.
"I never made it a secret that I didn't care for Bakoro. Half the servant girls in the palace would gladly put a knife in his heart if they could get away with it. He's a brute and an idiot. There was never any doubt of the first and this only confirms the latter. I'll not shed any tears for him."
"You surprise me, Stephanie. But then you've been doing quite a bit of that lately, haven't you? It wasn't that long ago that you were like a startled deer here in the palace, terrified by everything happening around you, but now you take in this without the least concern."
"I have no interest in your games." I rubbed the bridge of my nose and set the book aside. "I learned long ago that when I think about them too much they just make my head spin. I've stopped trying to make any sense of them at all."
"Still, it makes me wonder what else you might have become capable of."
He didn't know a thing. He was simply digging, hoping that I might let slip with some incriminating bit of information. I wasn't about to give him the satisfaction, however.
"When have I ever done anything to harm you? You hold my freedom in your hands. If anything ever happened to you, I'd be passed off to the king, or forced to become someone else's pawn. I've found my place here; it's...comfortable. I'd not do anything to unsettle that."
"Perhaps you're trying to find employment with Lady Delphina and Lord Marcus."
I stood suddenly, fists clenched at my sides. I would not allow him to destroy them when he clearly had no proof of anything we'd done. "You and I both know the only interest they have in me is as a source of information! If I wasn't in your employ, they'd cut me loose in a flash! Now, unless you wish to lock me up beside Bakoro, I'm going to bed."
Lord Ruvano grabbed me by the arm and pulled me back with a jerk. Maybe he knew more than I suspected. Had I just condemned myself by lying to him like that? Even if this was the end for me, however, I was not going to face it sniveling like a child. For better or for worse, I'd brought this on myself, fully aware of what the consequences could have been. At least I hadn't bumbled into it like so many times before.
I met his gaze with as much determination as I could muster and attempted once to pull myself free. He did not let go, but instead placed his other hand at my neck and leaned down until his face was mere inches from mine. I could feel his hot breath on my skin and his rough fingers pressing against my throat. The musky smell of his cologne filled my nose.
"It's a shame I have to share you with the likes of the king," he said. The fingers gripping my throat loosened and slipped behind my head, running through my hair and caressing my scalp. "This maturity you've recently developed is far more fetching than that naiveté from our first meetings."
So he wasn't going to kill me after all. Apparently, the dreaded spymaster really didn't think very highly of a woman's cunning. As his fingers kneaded my weary flesh, the tension which I'd felt since first setting out into the city on my mission drained from my body. Involuntarily, I sighed and lolled my head against his hands. I'd done it. I'd really done it!
As he continued massaging my neck and shoulders, I melted into him. Our lips brushed and our breath mingled. If ever there was a time for celebration, this was it. He was still a monster but there was no reason I couldn't make the most of this unenviable situation I'd found myself in. After all, I still had no choice but to share his bed each night. I also had needs of my own to consider, and he certainly knew how to service them. I could use him for all he was worth, right up until I was finally able to make my escape. It would be made all the more sweet by the fact he didn't even know he was being used. I was beginning to see just how intoxicating these games of espionage could be.
He kissed me then, or perhaps I kissed him, I wasn't entire sure, but our tongues intertwined in our mouths as the embrace grew frenzied. I rubbed my body against his, pressing my breasts to his chest and rubbing my hip against his thigh. I could already feel the growing wetness between my legs and the hardening of my nipples.