tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Blood Pact Ch. 19

The Blood Pact Ch. 19


"Where have you been?" Lord Ruvano asked as I stepped into his chambers.

Having sex with a couple stable hands in one of the storerooms. "Out riding."

"Riding," he said, lifting a lock of my still damp hair and looking over my rumbled dress. With a humph, he stepped away and took a sip of wine. "I heard you sent your attendants away."

"Yes," I said. "I couldn't stand their incessant prattling or their condescending little smiles one more minute."

"You're a baroness now. You can't send away the wives of influential knights on a whim." Lord Ruvano shook his head, a gesture of infinite displeasure. "Or go traipsing around the palace looking like a trollop."

"I'd rather have the company of my old friends from the servants quarters than those two," I said. "But of course, I can't even have that, can I? They all hate me now because they think I was a part of the plot to kill the king."

"Yes, I've heard that rumor."

"You have?" How could he sound so nonchalant about the whole thing? It was a bloody lie. "Have you told anyone it's not true?"

"Of course not," he said with a sneer. "Rumors like that are far more valuable than the truth."

Everything was just a game to him. Manipulating and maneuvering everyone around him to achieve his own goals.

"Damn you!"

I reared back and dropped my palm across his face but he caught my wrist before I could make contact. As he stared into my eyes, his grew cold and hard.

"Careful, Stephanie. Don't forget your place."

"My place?" I cried. "My place! Why is THIS my place? Just give me Master Oringel's wand like you promised and let me go back to the way things were."

"That's not a choice for you to make anymore. Events have moved on since then."

"But I did as you asked. I'm sick of being a noblewoman! I'm sick of this life! I'm sick of you!"

"It doesn't matter what you what, Stephanie. We're all just puppets dancing on someone's strings. You might not want to be noblewoman, but that's the role you've been given to play so you'd better start acting like one. Accept it, or there won't be any need for you in this production."

With that uncaring look in his eyes, his meaning was perfectly clear: do as I was told or he'd have me eliminated. Now that I knew about his plot to one day overthrow the king, it would be too much of a risk for him to just let me go. I was trapped, sealed into this infernal nightmare without any escape. I felt all the life seeping out of my body. My arm went limp in his hand and he released me.

"Are you ready to cooperate, then?"

What other choice did I have? As long as he had the wand, there was nothing I could do. If I refused to do as he wanted, he would dispose of me without ever letting me get so much a look at it again. At least if I stayed by his side, there might be some small chance that an opportunity for escape would yet present itself.

My eyes on the floor, I nodded.

"Good, now get ready for bed."

Tonight, Lord Ruvano remained well on his side of the bed while I stayed on mine. Now that he had no need to string me along with false words and promises, he was probably no more interested in sleeping close to me than he would have next to his dog. Or did the knowledge that I'd been sullied by the king repulse him? Maybe he even suspected what I'd done down in the stables.

Not that I minded. The thought of sleeping affectionately next a man now made my stomach heave. How could I have acted the way I did last night? I wasn't really a woman. Why had I allowed myself to give in to all the wild urges I'd felt?

As Lord Ruvano slept soundly beside me, I found myself staring at the darkened ceiling most of the night. Occasionally I'd slip into a light doze, but never for long. When the first traces of predawn light began to filter through the rose window, I was still just as lost as ever.

I needed some air.

Getting dressed by myself proved to be a bit of a challenge, but after selecting the most uncomplicated dress from my nascent wardrobe, I managed to get all the fasteners secured in only about twice as long as if I'd had the help of servants. Having slept so feebly my hair required only a light touch with the brush. I chose to go without any cosmetics. Even if I was in a mood to try applying them myself, I probably wouldn't need to impress anyone at that early hour. Besides, having only watched others do it in the past, I seriously doubted I would have achieved any kind of passable result on my own.

Much like yesterday, Bakoro was waiting for me outside Lord Ruvano's chambers. Didn't he ever sleep?

I wandered the hallways at random, barely noticing my skulking shadow. I had nowhere to go and nothing to do. I'd never seen the noble's wing so quiet before. My only other companions were the characters in those old paintings that hung in the gilded alcoves lining the hallways. Had any of those regal ladies of the court ever been in a position similar to mine?

I doubted it.

Even with my new title, I was still an outsider in these halls. No amount of money or prestige would ever change the fact I was still just a commoner at my core. Every other noble in the palace saw right though me at a glance, but yet Lord Ruvano and Nikelle both expected to be their spy by infiltrating this society I had absolutely no knowledge of how to behave within. They'd both threatened me with death if I didn't.

If I wanted to stay alive long enough to find a way out of this mess, I needed to learn how to be Lady Stephanie. Unfortunately I could see no way to do that. With no one to turn to for help, I was as good as dead.

As I wandered the halls, the palace came awake around me. First with the servants scurrying to the nobles' apartments with buckets of hot water and an occasion tray of food, then a noble or two heading off to take care of some early morning business.

Lord Ruvano would be rising soon, if he hadn't already. Just how long I could stay away before I would be missed? It's not as if I could escape; I had Bakoro following my every move, after all. Even if I succeeded in getting away, I had nowhere to go.

Quite by chance, I happened to be nearing the chambers of the Marquis and Marquis of Jalifria as a servant wheeled a cart through their front door. Staring at nothing in particular, I found myself plodding to a stop right in the middle of the corridor.

It was true no one wanted me in the palace, some less than others, but if all of us really were someone's puppets as Lord Ruvano had said, why couldn't I be the one pulling a few of those string myself?

I walked right up to the door I'd just seen the servant enter through. The gilding was marred by several sword strokes but was otherwise still intact. I gave it a hearty rap with my knuckles and the doorkeeper answered promptly.

"Could you please inform the Marquis and Marquise that the Lady Stephanie would like to have a word with them?"

Within moments, I was let into their spacious chambers. Bakoro, still watching from the end of the hall, rushed toward me in something of a panic, but the doors closed before he got anywhere near. He'd likely report this to Lord Ruvano but that didn't matter. It was time for me to start playing this game of subterfuge in earnest.

As I entered an antechamber, a pair of young women were standing in a small sitting room to the side. Both of them were blonde and quite tall, laughing as they tossed a pair of knives back and forth between them. The blades flashed in the firelight, spinning erratically, but caught each time with a feathery touch before quickly being flicked back in the opposite direction with barely a pause.

Noticing my eyes upon them, their laughter died in an instant and the knives disappeared from view as if I'd just been imaging the whole thing. The looks they gave were not like the ones I'd come to expect from the other nobles. They were predatory, like wolves sizing up their prey.

I left them to their outlandish game and hurried after the doorman into the inner rooms. Unlike Lord Ruvano's chambers, these were a distinct series of rooms connected by adjoining vestibules. Everywhere I looked, there were the lush furnishings and rich decoration of a comfortable household that had long been in residence there.

I hadn't been escorted far when I entered into a cozy parlor where the Lord and Lady were in the middle of breakfast, the Marquise lounging elegantly on a couch while the Marquis was reclining in an deeply upholstered wingchair.

"The Lady Stephanie," the doorman announced with a bow and then promptly left me standing alone.

"Well, if it isn't the Hawk Queen, herself," the Marquise said with a impish smile.

The Marquis scoffed and wrung his hands in a napkin. "What do you want, disturbing our breakfast like this?"

"My apologies." Remembering his words to me yesterday, I took a moment to compose myself before speaking. Flustered by their sudden demands, however, I hadn't even bowed upon entering. It was probably too late now. Erring on the side of caution, I curtsied anyway. "I thought it best not to tarry any longer than I already had."

The two of them shared an inscrutable look and then turned their back attention to me.

"Go on," the Marquis said.

"I have been thinking a great deal about what you said to me yesterday. Your words were -- "

"If you have come looking for an apology, you will not get one from me!" The Marquis sat forward, clasping the arms of his chair. "Unlike some, I do not speak unless I intend to do so."

Somehow, I stood my ground, quivering in my boots only a little.

"No, I seek no apologies. Your words to me yesterday were entirely correct. They, along with other events, have reiterated just how out of my depth I am. I don't know how to be a baroness -- I never wanted to be one -- but I do not want to disgrace the nobility as you fear I will."

The both of them stared at me, waiting for me to continue. I took a deep breath.

"I...need help learning what I do not know."

The Marquis scoffed again. "So of all people, you come to US?"

"Everyone else in the palace seems more than content to simply let me founder." I said. "You are the only ones who have so far shown any concern for how I present myself. You're also honest. You were willing to speak the truth, not only about me, but the king as well. I would very much like some honesty in my life at the moment."

The Marquise might have smiled at that, but she hid her mouth behind her coffee cup so quickly I couldn't tell for certain. She must have thought I was nothing more than a bumbling village idiot. The Marquis, however, stroked his chin and smiled scornfully.

"I suppose you have already passed our treasonous words about the king on to your master of lies?"

"No," I said with an emphatic shake of the head. "I have no more love of Lord Ruvano than you obviously do."

"Even if that were true, you're still his woman." Being reminded of that fact made my skin crawl. "It only stands to reason that you're here at his insistence."

It had already been hard enough simply to ask for their help, but now I had to prove my intentions as well? This was hopeless. But after coming this far, I couldn't just give up now. I didn't know if I had the resolve to try something like this again. I had to try at least one more appeal.

"I can only offer you my word that I am being sincere. I know that means nothing when dealing with the likes of Lord Ruvano, but if you accept my offer of friendship under the assumption that I am merely doing so to learn your secrets, you will be in just as good a position to learn about mine, won't you?"

The Marquise looked across at her husband and gave him something of a facial shrug. In reply, he sat back in his chair, frowned deeply, and shook his head.

I never should have come here. The Marquis wasn't any more interested in helping me than I was in remaining in his presence even a moment longer than I already had. As the silence stretched on and his critical eyes bored into me, I had to resist fidgeting.

This had been a stupid idea from the beginning. Why did I think I could just barge in uninvited and force myself upon these people? Maybe I could just excuse myself now. They would probably be grateful to be done with my intrusion.

"We would be happy to accept your offer of friendship, LADY Stephanie," the Marquise said at last. "Would you care to join us for breakfast?"

"Seriously?" I could so scarcely believe what I was hearing, I almost lost my footing.

The Marquis stood suddenly and tossed his napkin down on the table. "Excuse me, I have business to attend."

I watched uncomfortably as he left the room. All I'd done by coming here was deliver myself into yet another precarious situation while further upsetting a noble who obviously felt nothing but contempt for me. And now he was also angry at his wife for extending me any courtesy whatsoever. Was it still too late for me to leave as well?

"Please, have a seat," the Marquise said, taking a demure sip of coffee. "For your first lesson, do not question whether a noble has spoken truthfully -- especially my husband. Anyone who aspires to true nobility does not use sarcasm or doublespeak in polite conversation."

Unable to refuse her invitation, I stiffly I lowered myself into the upholstered couch across the serving cart from her.

"Help yourself," she said.

There were several trays with eggs and sausage, bread, cheese, coffee, fruits, and black pudding. I was famished, but yet had no appetite. Over the rim of her coffee cup, the Marquise stared at me with those icy blue eyes of hers, her mouth an unreadable smile. She certainly appeared to have taken my offer to heart: I was nothing but a pawn to her, another tool of espionage to be used and then discarded.

But I could do the same to her. I just had to be strong and take charge of the situation.

"So," she said before I could even compose my first thought, "tell me about yourself, LADY Stephanie."

Of course she was only looking for some scrap of useful information. She certainly didn't care about my life any more than anyone would.

"There's...there's really nothing to tell." I couldn't believe how difficult it was to meet her gaze. Instead, I merely tried to pretend like I was deciding what I should eat. "Up until yesterday, I was just a servant."

"You're obviously an accomplished rider," she said. "Where did you learn to ride like that?"

"I used to work in the stables..."

Her brow rose questioningly.

"Oh, um, not here in the palace!" I said. Her suspicion was hardly surprising; no women had ever worked in the palace's stables. How had she managed to knock me complexly out of sorts with such a simple line of questions? I had to be smarter than this. "My parents, um, ran a livery in...Eagle's Head. I came here because my cousin said he could get me a job in the palace."

There, that would put the matter to rest. Now we could move on.

"You sound like you wish you hadn't done so," the Marquise said, setting her cup down with a delicate motion that seemed impossibly calculated. "What of your childhood? Your family?"

She was practically interrogating me. Just like Lord Ruvano, this was nothing but a game to her. Would she even teach me anything at all, or would the only lesson learned here today be that I was a fool to have come asking for help?

"My life would be terribly uninteresting to you, I'm sure."

"Oh, not at all," she said. "All this duty and honor can often become quite tiring. I would very much like to hear about the uncomplicated life of a peasant girl."

And now she was patronizing me. Not that she didn't have every right to do so. I was nothing but a lowly stable hand and she a Marquise, born from a long line of nobility. I should not have even been talking to her like this, and she knew it.

This whole thing had been a mistake. I WAS a fool to think that I could have attempted even a fraction of the underhandedness Lord Ruvano performed by second nature -- a bloody fool!

But then that was nothing new. My whole life was nothing more than a long string of mistakes: my gambling problems, my frequent debts to the Steward, my hasty deal with the wizard, my unrequited feelings for Nikelle, my misplaced trust in Lord Ruvano, my indiscretions with half the men in the palace, and now this ridiculous arrangement with the Marquise.

I hated it all.

I hated Stephanie.

I hated Mathis just as much.

Maybe it was time to throw myself from the High Tower like I'd first considered back on the day of the festival.

"I'm sorry," I said as I stood to leave. It was hard to keep my voice level with that lump in my throat. "I apologize for having wasted you and your husband's time."

The Marquise rose unhurriedly but still managed to place herself between me and the door as if she'd leapt. "For your second lesson," she said, "don't turn away from someone you have asked for help after they have agreed to do so. Allies are scare enough in this world without forsaking those few you do have."

"Please," I said, blinking away tears. "I'm sorry to have bothered you. I really need to be going...I just...I just..."

And then the tears began to flow in torrents. I shouldn't have allowed myself to break down like that in front of an enemy, but I couldn't stop myself. In an instant, the tears were rolling down my cheeks and blurring my vision. I tried to push past the Marquise but she grappled with me, preventing my escape. I must have been too great a prize for her to let slip away so easily.

I struggled to break free, but in my addled state, I'm sure it was a pathetic display. It was only after several unsuccessful attempts that I realized the Marquise was, in fact, not restraining me, but rather embracing me. As she held me to her bosom, I lost all sagacity and my body was overcome, wracked by an uncontrollable sobbing that wouldn't even let me breathe.

I no longer cared if she was supposed to me my pawn or I hers. Held in her arms, my barriers fell away and I wept like I'd never allowed myself to do since I was a mere boy. I clung to her as she guided me back to the couch. She was warm and soft. Her perfume was sweet like flowers. I buried my face in her lap as she stroked my hair.

"I can't--I can't--do this any more!" I wailed incoherently. "Nobody--nobody wants me--except where I least want to be!"

"There, there, child," the Marquise said in a tone completely at odds with everything else I had so far seen of her. "Even Queen Vindrell faced her setbacks."

I must have been quite valuable to her indeed. No reasonable person would ever have put up with a blubbering idiot like myself for as long as she did. Even when my sobbing stretched on to the point it would have tried the patience of a saint, the Marquise never once attempted to reign me back in. She simply held me, offering soothing words.

It was quite some time before I was able to regain some small measure of control over my emotions, but even then, the slightest thought of my situation would instantly send me back into the depths of sobbing for apparently no reason at all. Damn this female body of mine.

It was even longer yet before I felt secure enough in myself to leave the Marquise's sheltering embrace, but I did so cautiously. Now that I'd allowed her to see me so vulnerable, it would be almost impossible to evade her questions with any degree of cunning. What a mess I'd made of this entire plan.

As she offered me a handkerchief to dry my eyes, her smile was little different from those she'd displayed earlier. However, it now seemed somehow more gentle, tempering her strong features with an almost motherly warmth. So serine and composed, she must have made me look like a sordid waif in comparison. Feverishly, I took the tissue and wiped my eyes and nose, if for no other reason than to give me something to think about other than breaking down into tears once again.

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