tagMind ControlA Bargain Made: A House Fallen Ch. 05

A Bargain Made: A House Fallen Ch. 05

bySaddleRider©

Author's Note:

The next two chapters are plot resolution and set up. There is no sex, though there is set up for sex that will follow in Chapter Seven. I didn't tag them 'no sex' because someone who might be looking under that tag will not appreciate maybe backtracking the story and finding sex aplenty.


*****

General Neral Jaye stood proudly at the mirror as she smoothed the front of her dress uniform. The double-breasted uniform coat was so black it seemed to swallow the light around it, making the small gold buttons that fastened it stand out even more prominently. Gold braiding ran across the thick fabric over the shoulders, around the stiff collar, and down the arms so that, in profile the braid met the thin lampasses on the pants, creating the illusion of a single line.

On the chest of the coat, on the right side, in exactingly perfect lines, were pins in gold and silver that denoted battles fought in, battles won, and battles won where it was she who commanded the forces involved. That there were many marks of battles won and victorious battles commanded was a testament to her skill, and, she would always admit aloud, some bit of luck.

On the left were pins denoting her awards for behavior on the battlefield, from making her times wounded to instances of exceptional valor. They were smaller versions of the seals that affixed the formal ribbons, as the larger versions were only meant to be displayed at home, and to wear them in public was considered gaudy. Matching black gloves were optional and something Neral generally skipped. Boots, stiff and polished to a high sheen, completed the look.

Tessa, House Mistress for the House of Jaye, busied herself behind the General, combing out her long brown hair so it could be properly tailed and tamed with a gold barrette that matched the uniform braiding. The young redhead did so much to keep everything running smoothly in Neral's life that the woman was, in some ways, an extra pair of arms and legs for her. Usually several extra, she amended. As such, there were times, like now, that she felt guilty that Tessa's time was being spent on Neral rather than herself, especially tonight with the Spring Festival hours away. All of Court would attend, and all of Erette would celebrate winter loosening its grip on the land and the promise of growth and renewal that was spring.

"I really can tend to this myself, Tessa. Take time to spend with your mother. Take time to get yourself ready."

Tessa dismissed it, her copper hair moving with the shake of her head, "Nonsense, Mistress. It's early yet. You are nearly dressed. Twenty minutes to make sure that your makeup is proper gives me plenty of time to prepare myself. Mother and I spend our time talking about our respective Mistresses, amongst other points of gossip, so it also qualifies as my own fun time that is just for me."

The corner of her mouth turned up and her brown eyes twinkled, "And just what secrets of my mother's do you posses?"

Tessa was supremely focused on the placement of the barrette, so there was humor in her reply if not her expression, "None to which you are not already privy, Mistress. Your mother's secrets belong to mine as yours belong to me." She looked at Neral in the mirror and, satisfied with things, she continued, "The House of Jovis cherishes its ties to yours, we would not endanger them." Her voice turned almost loving, "Those ties are based on not a fear of lost status as in some other Houses, but in genuine affection. You have long not only treated us honorably, but as friends."

Neral indeed felt many levels of affection for the young lady. She turned and was struck once again by the other's simple beauty, from those freckles that gave the woman a look of perpetual innocence to those naturally plump lips that asked for kissing just by being. Thank you, Deres. Without the gift you offered, I would have been forever blind to it. Thank you, Husband. "Does she know that we have grown together a bit?"

"That pleases her." Such closeness was not uncommon with Houses working so closely to and in service with other Houses over generations. Within the privacy between the two it was an expression of trust and as much it was affection and could serve many mutually beneficial ends, from furthering both lines to being willing and safe outlets for wandering spouses.

"It does me as well," Neral touched that cheek and felt her lean into it. In some ways, her House was responsible for theirs. If Jaye fell, Jovis would be dragged with it, though Neral knew that Tessa, her mother and, likely her entire line would jump after. It was a responsibility she was proud to bear. Besides, it won't be either of our Houses that falls tonight.

Tessa took Neral's hand firmly, "While it's still very early, there really isn't time for that sort of distraction."

Neral prodded her, "Then put those enormous breasts away. How will I endure a night at Court with those distractions feet away and at my beck and call?"

The redhead sighed, "You have distractions enough with a husband and your guild mage love."

Neral shrugged and immediately smoothed the wrinkles the movement created. "You are quite right, what's one more in the grand scheme?" She sat in preparation for her makeup. She had little personal use for it as archers didn't wait until your lips had the sheen you were looking for before loosing arrows, but tradition demanded it. She admitted to a bit of concern for her husband at this time, but only for the potential humor to be had, "My husband is still preparing himself, I take it?"

Tessa leaned in, placing the makeup palate on the vanity, deliberately lingering for a moment to provide an extra distraction, "He is. Refused any of the handmaidens fussing over him. He refused me as well, so I sent Bryana in and she's helping him now, though he attempted to dismiss her as well."

Neral already knew how that ended. "She would have none of his childish protests and he relented."

"She behaved as you would have, Mistress."

She did. The woman hired to use her forbidden magics to kill her queen and destroy her home so that her House would fall and a rival could rise now so much a part of her life that it was nearly impossible to see it without her there. The twists and turns of life could be extraordinary. Deres as a mage the likes of which none of the kingdoms had ever known or suspected was possible didn't hurt either. No matter the cause, it was the three of them as one and it was a joy to look upon and be a part that interplay every day.

"I hope she was merciful. This is his first true participation at Court."

"'The sooner you are properly ready, the sooner it will all be over' was what I heard before the door closed."

"I live by that myself."

"Indeed, Mistress," Tessa prepared a darker tone for Neral's slightly more olive complexion, "now give me your lips."

Oh, I would much rather do that all night than this.

Preparations complete save her dress cape that wouldn't go on until she left, Neral went downstairs, relishing this time. She loved the weight of her full dress and the look of it and the way her heels clacked hard on the floor. She felt the weight of her responsibility and in little moments such as these, she felt such pride in it. The people trusted her. Her queen trusted her. Only two other women in the history of Erette held her position and, by any measure, she held it well.

As she reached the bottom of the stairs Bryana had come into view. Long blonde hair, curled and tended in such a way that it never looked like she bothered with it much. When she looked up and that twinkle in her bright blue eyes appeared Neral warmed from a place deep in her chest. Bryana in a flowing dress that almost matched her eyes reminded Neral of a wave on the sea.

"Good evening, General."

"How do I look?"

"Beautiful. Official, but beautiful."

She gave a nod, "Thank you. How is Deres?"

"Taking his nerves out on me so that you suffer less."

Neral wanted to laugh. "I'm sorry."

Bryana eyed her critically. "I question your sincerity, my love." She waved it off, "No matter. No reason it shouldn't be me since I'm not sitting through it."

"You could still go as my guest."

"No. I will go, but not as a guest."

Neral lowered her tone, even though she knew them alone just then, "Vesik would not try anything in open Court."

"What would you have said if, before Deres came to you that night, someone told you that he was planning what he was? You are probably right, but Deres and I agree in this. He, as your husband, is the protection they see. I am the protection they will not."

"By my side always?"

Bryana caressed Neral, running her thumb across the other's jawline. "Until death, and beyond that if I can manage it."

"If anyone could, it would be the two of you," Neral was quick to attempt to lift the sense of melancholy that was drifting over them, "though I would rather not have two shambling corpses following me about."

She shrugged, "It would at least be a point of conversation." She looked thoughtful. "Is it wrong of me to wish that he would try something so that they could see what magic is truly capable of? In banishing all but the healing arts, he and his kind have clearly forgotten even as they flirt with the hidden guilds to their own ends."

"Still evil," Neral teased.

Bryana put her thumb and forefinger a fraction of an inch apart, but said nothing. "Your mother awaits you in your study."

Neral gave a quick nod. It was something she'd expected, as she'd had to deal with the friction almost since she'd married Deres, a man that in her society would have virtually no status in society without having married her. That would have meant a life in the poverty-stricken southern quarter and bleak prospects for a future if not for the intervention of a sorceress from a land thought to be the stuff of fairy tales. Aching to return to the more pleasant aspects of his childhood home, he re-emerged as arguably the most powerful mage in the known world, with knowledge of the art that would bring a death sentence if it were widely known.

So, as far as her mother was concerned, Neral had doomed herself to a life of whispered jokes at Court, and, in an effort to end that, had been trying regularly to get her middle daughter to see her version of reason. It was not successful, was not going to be, and while Neral understood that it came from a place of concern, she had just about reached her limit of all of it. But, as her mother would have expected, the general straightened her spine and prepared to walk with purpose to the study.

Bryana looked up the long staircase and groaned, "I suppose I should see to Deres. By the Goddess, I expect that infants are easier to dress."

"He fusses to amuse you."

Bryana gave her a sidelong glare, "Do I look amused?"

"Slightly."

Her head jerked in the direction of the study, "Be off with you, General."

Neral enjoyed the clacking of her boots a bit longer before stopping at the door to her study and gripping the handle more harshly than necessary as she fought back the dread. She loved her mother dearly, but this continued argument, not to mention the fact that it was increasingly becoming the singular topic of their conversations was a strain that Neral was becoming tired of.

She opened the door to see her mother stand just as it swung inward. A'marin Jaye looked every bit the part of the head of a noble House of Erette. That she had technically abdicated the role in favor of Neral once the latter had achieved arguably the highest status outside of royalty had changed nothing.

The elder Jaye held on to the beauty of youth quite well. Dye kept her hair the honey blonde it had been in her youth, but that had been her only real concession to vanity, and, given the softness of the lines associated with her age, it didn't seem entirely incongruous. Her green eyes could still cut like a sword and the gears always working behind them clicked more smoothly than any other woman at Court.

She wore a dark gray gown with gold buttons angling down both sides of the chest before it gave way at the waist to a flowing skirt in a way reminiscent of and complimentary to Neral's dress uniform without attempting to mock or upstage it. A'marin looked her daughter up and down, her smile pleasant, "Neral. You look well."

The general briefly tilted her head, "As do you, Mother. It's good to see you." While that was true, in the back of her mind she'd already begun ticking off the seconds before the inevitable topic change. They met in the middle and embraced warmly. A'marin's hands rested on her shoulders as she looked her daughter over. "You are looking wonderful tonight."

"As are you, Mother. The Spring Festival is your holiday, after all."

A smile toyed with her lips as her exuberance seeped through, "I do love it so. It's simply a beautiful time of year. I remember well my daughters popping fireworks on the walk.

Neral went there for a moment, "I liked the purple ones best."

"I'm not sure where you went wrong."

It was said half in jest, but there it was. In a way, it wasn't a bad thing, it was better than dancing around the issue for an hour or so before hitting it. "I have followed the path of my life where it led me, as I always have."

A'marin kept the light tone, but the undercurrent was clear enough, "I'm not sure what would have led you to a man like Deres."

Neral had married him in exchange for his help against the threat posed by Vesik and his House and she partook of a love spell to bind herself to him for personal reasons. None of that could be known to anyone, much less her mother, but the intervening months have shown her that he was a man that she would have loved anyway. "I love him, Mother."

"Of course you do, and that's something I have not considered when talking with you about annulment."

Neral perked up in surprise. Was this a change of heart? Could it be? She dared hold out hope.

A'marin saw the look, took it as a cue, and became more animated as she spoke, "I have been indifferent and unfeeling to that fact. You love him and want the best for him. To that end, I've made some discreet inquiries to House Brane. Admittedly they are but a modest House, but they have some wealth and are very stable."

Neral sighed as though literally deflating. She inhaled sharply and tapped her military discipline. "Mother..."

A'marin didn't seem to notice. "Their second oldest is searching after previous plans fell through. House Brane has no ambitions for High Court, so Deres' birth status is not a great concern for them, and Anyet is quite lovely.

"No, Mother." Neral moved away from her mother, taking a more adversarial position in both posture and tone. "Even if I were inclined, which I am most assuredly not, what would you have me do, tell my husband on the night of Spring Festival that tomorrow I shall ask the queen to make certain that our marriage is voided, but, worry not, by the end of the week you will have an attractive new wife you'll have never seen until you pledge yourself to her?"

A'marin puffed up, "I met your father three days before we married and were we not happy? Besides, how is that different from the two of you already? You go from shunning offers for me to find you a suitable mate to simply announcing that you had chosen that man and gone before a priestess, a wedding befitting your position and your House, much less any sense of propriety, be damned."

Neral forced herself to mellow, "I regret shocking my family in that fashion, but, one night, not long after we met, I knew it would be the two of us together and that it could be no other way." That was as much of the truth as she needed or would understand.

"So much so that Court doesn't matter to you?"

She threw her hands up as she moved behind her heavy, reading table that was preserved with a dark finish, "Court talks, Mother. Court always talks. Court exists, not to help govern Erette, but to gossip and judge everything around it. Had you picked my mate, his hair would be simultaneously too short and too long and they would debate it, or some other inanity, until the next inanity."

Neral paused for a long time, "Honestly, Mother, I have tried to be tolerant. I have tried to allow you to adjust to this thing that I admit I dropped in your lap, but, you are not today the woman I remembered as a girl who had no qualms about going to the kitchen and baking her own bread and pastries while she talked and laughed with the kitchen staff."

"That's different."

"You mean they are worthy of enough notice to not be treated like soiled undergarments, or to own outright, but they are still wretched things that we should limit our contact with?" She shook her head, "That's not the lesson I learned from you. I learned that they mattered to you all the same when the families of some of my friends only spoke to them at all through their house mistress. Clearly I misunderstood and that saddens me."

A'marin was apologetic. "I did not create the system as it is and neither did you, but we all must live within it. We are judged in all things."

Neral looked upon the neat calligraphy in the opened book, "At the moment I am being judged for my choices by a Court that matters not to me when only a scant few have ever risked their lives for their home, and by my mother, a woman whose opinion I value a great deal."

"Your sisters tease you mercilessly about him."

She smiled in spite of her annoyance. "My sisters tease me because they are my sisters and we have slipped the needles under each other's nails since we could speak. They accept him. The queen herself is done with it unless I beseech her otherwise."

A'marin was annoyed. "Her Majesty values her friendship with you to the point where she is willing to blind herself to what is best for you and urge you to that. And how is it he can go through Court and the small ceremonies well, but, I attempt to be cordial and invite him to lunch with friends, more than once, and it's error after error?"

"Small matters, Mother. It's not as if he tips the gravy bowl to his lips. He knows of each of them after the fact. He all but recites each in turn to Tessa or me when he returns."

"We are judged in all things."

Neral looked at her mother, attempting to point out what she thought should be obvious. "Because Court doesn't matter to him, Mother. He realizes the necessity of it all for me and his House, and it matters for that, but he does not care. He knows there is strife between us and he knows that he is why. He tries so hard to show that you matter so that you may find him worthy of me that he picks up the wrong fork on occasion."

That forced her silence for a time, which was almost unheard of by itself. "He would rather be down there where he came from, Neral." He falls into being free of it, yet he spends hours of every day there. On some level even he knows he belongs there. How can you not see that?"

"As a healer, Mother. How many could afford magic to heal the worst of what they face without him?" Sadness welled up in her chest and sat there as a weight threatening to suffocate her. "You shame me, Mother. Not only that, you shame my position. I would think that, with your grand concern for it, you would see how your attitude does."

A'marin shook her head and pointed an accusatory finger, "You run off in the night and marry him without even telling me before the fact and you speak to me of shame. And, under what delusion, do I shame your position?" Anger faded in favor of gentler emotions. "Your position is the pride of this House. It's my pride."

"I have worked all my life to be where I am. I have trudged through knee-deep mud for days. I've stood tall against armies before outwitting and or hacking my way through them. I've endured men in my own company in my first days that asked what I was doing there because they would never salute a woman. I endured that and a million more trials, but I stand tonight as Defender of the People of Erette. That is one of the titles that will be read; the people, not just Court."

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