tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Blood Pact Ch. 20

The Blood Pact Ch. 20


The Marquise and I chatted idly as I ate. Now that I gave her a chance, she actually proved to be quite personable. It was all too possible this was just a ploy on her part to win my trust, but if it was, it was perfectly fabricated. And after crying myself out in her embrace, I had to be especially wary of everything I said for fear I might let something important slip.

Even when I thought I was being quite cleaver in avoiding some detail about my bizarre origins, I could tell from that look in her eye that she knew I was holding something back. That alone might have been enough to undermine my new-found ease in her presence if it were not for the fact that she never once pushed to know more.

When I finished with my breakfast, servants were summoned to take away the dirty trays, and cold water was provided for me to wash my face in. Though it did little to remove the puffiness from my red eyes, it did make me feel much better. My frazzled hair, however, would need quite a bit more work before I made an appearance in public. The Marquise remedied that by starting to brush my hair before I could even voice any objections about how inappropriate it was for her to so.

I sat stiffly in front of her wardrobe mirror, watching the reflection as she tenderly removed the tangles from my golden locks. I didn't know what to say and so I said nothing. When she was finished, she looked at my reflection and smiled agreeably. I could only think to offer my timid thanks in reply.

As we crossed the antechamber on our way to the royal court, the two women I'd seen upon my entrance rose from their seats.

"Will you be needing anything, m'lady?" the slightly taller one with the thin face said.

"No, Traemene. You and Wilone can have the rest of the morning off."

Both of the women cast wary glances at me, but curtsied respectfully all the same.

"As you wish," Traemene said.

"Thank you, m'lady," Wilone, the girlish-looking one with a heart-shaped face, added.

"Now, let us be on our way."

Before I could get to the door myself, the Marquise opened it and invited me to go first. Even with my limited knowledge of such things, I knew this was no more appropriate than having her brush my hair. A mere Baroness should have gotten the door and let the Marquise go through first. However, it was too late to do anything about it. I sheepishly tipped my head in a miniature bow as I stepped outside.

No sooner was I back in the hallway than I heard a harsh cry and saw a flash of movement descend upon me.

"Come here, you!" Bakoro said. "Just what the hell do you think you're doing?"

I cringed, anticipating his hard to clamp onto my arm and drag me away. However, he stopped dead in his tracks as the Marquise joined me in the hallway.

"Has the Lady Stephanie been summoned?" Her voice sounded as if her blood were made of ice.

"Eh...no, m'lady..."

"Then you have no right to be speaking to her," the Marquise said. I didn't know how she could possibly stand up to a man like Bakoro without flinching. She was a strong woman but even she would be no match for a man like him if he got aggressive. "And I would further suggest you do not presume to address a noblewoman in that tone ever again."

"Yes, m'lady," Bakoro said, slinking away like a whipped dog. With eyes lowered, he backed up several paces and then disappeared around a corner.

My own eyes were wide and my mouth agape. The Marquise simply smiled and patted me on the shoulder, urging me to follow her as she started down the hall. "Come along now."

The council chambers of the royal court consisted of several richly adorned rooms in the very heart of the palace. The outer waiting room was a large, round chamber with a low arched ceiling that would almost have been intimate if it was not so wide and vast. I was told by the Marquise that a pair of closed doors at the far end of the room lead to the inner chamber where the king met with his closest advisers to discuss secret matters of vital importance to the kingdom. No doubt that's where Lord Ruvano and the Marquis were at that very moment. Meanwhile, the outer chamber was populated by messengers, scribes, and the wives of those important nobles who were currently behind those closed doors.

Several of them I recognized from my earlier forays into their realm. Many more glared at me upon our entrance. My first instinct was to shrink away, but the Marquise strode forward unaffected in the least. I stayed close to her but I knew I would never be able to match her confidence.

Judging from the stares we received, the others did not approve of me associating with the Marquise at all. Maybe she'd damage her own reputation by associating with me, but then she probably knew exactly what she was doing.

Not that I really cared about what became of her.

As she made her way across the room by a seemingly random and circuitous route, she nodded demurely to some of the ladies and ignored others as if she had simply overlooked them, while making it all look perfectly natural. All I could do was bumble along at her heels, praying I didn't trip over my own feet.

Once she finally arrived at a spot which suited her, she took on that same haughty expression all the others were wearing, casually surveying the room as if it were perfectly natural to do so and also terribly boring at the same time. Alongside her, I did my best to emulate her performance, but I was no doubt shaking so badly I looked more like a frightened kitten next to this proud lioness.

"The politics of the kingdom may take place behind those doors," the Marquise said to me, tipping her head slightly in my direction but not taking her eyes off the other women in the room. "But the events which transpire in this hall are often just as important."

I didn't see how that could be possible. All these milling women looked like they were attending a tea social, not dealing in the high-level affairs of state that would decide the fate of kingdoms.

"Do you see those two?" With a tip of her chin, the Marquise indicated a pair of women not too far away who were conversing with each other and laughing as hard as etiquette would allow under the circumstances. "What do you make of them?"

I shook my head. What was there to see? "They must be old friends," I ventured.

The Marquise clicked her tongue in a chiding sort of way. "You might suppose that, but the fact of the matter is that they are bitter rivals. Their husbands have been jockeying against each other for years. Recently they managed to broker a deal which determined mining rights on a piece of land disputed by both of them. Though they may act friendly in public, they are both actively seeking ways to undermine the other's claims. What you see is merely an affectation. No one can ever be trusted entirely. Like everyone here, there are no friends, merely temporary allies."

"Like you and me?" I said.

The Marquise looked at me suddenly with a sharp intake of breath. For a moment she appeared pensive, a slight frown creasing her face.

"Yes..." she said at last. "Just like you and I."

At least she was honest about it.

Just then, the doors to the inner chamber opened and out poured the various ministers of state and the advisers who had been in conference with the king that morning. The Marquise drew the attention of her husband with a subtle wave. Lord Ruvano, eyes dark and cold, swept a furtive gaze across the room. He was about to continue on his way when his eyes fell on me. Suddenly his expression turned from merely cold, to pure ice. I tried not to back away and hide behind the Marquise like a frightened child.

He and the Marquis arrived before us at the same moment. In greeting, the two of them flashed each other scowls.

"Lord Ruvano," the Marquise said as if it were the most pleasant moment of her day to run into him like this.

"Lady Delphina, Lord Marcus," he said with a slight tip of the head to the Marquise and Marquis in turn. "I pray that Lady Stephanie has not been bothering you."

"Oh, on the contrary, I've found her company quite stimulating. We're becoming fast friends."

"That's very good to hear," Lord Ruvano said, though he didn't look at all pleased. "If I could take Stephanie away for a moment, I need to have a word with her."

"Of course."

As Lord Ruvano lead me away, I looked back at the Marquise. Her husband had begun speaking to her in no uncertain terms the moment we were out of earshot. The Marquise, however, remained unflappable, apparently unconcerned in the least by her husband's remonstrations.

"So you've now made the acquaintance of Lady Delphina?" Lord Ruvano demanded as he came a stop. I pulled my attention away from the Marquise and swallowed hard. I hoped he wasn't going to make me sever my association with her. True friend or just temporary ally, I couldn't afford to lose all the potential help she might yet be able to offer me.

"Those two are a dangerous pair," he said. "You looked like you were getting on quite well with the Marquise though."

"I...that is, our paths happened to cross yesterday. She's agreed to offer me some advice concerning my place in...all of this."

"Has she now?" Lord Ruvano's eyes narrowed and a thin smile creased his lips. I felt my skin writhing. "That's very fortuitous -- very resourceful, in fact. Good work. I'll expect a full report of their activities."

Of course he would. As he left me without another word, I didn't even bother to argue with him.

A short distance away, the Marquis had just finished speaking to his wife. He cast a long hard stare in my direction and then hurried on his own way. As the Marquise glided across the room with that inscrutable smile on her face, I felt my heart sink. I didn't want to deceive her, especially after I'd assured her in all honesty that that was not my intent when I'd first asked for her help.

"Why Stephanie, you look like your horse just died," the Marquise said. "Did Lord Ruvano bring you ill tidings?"

"I..." I threw up my hands and shrugged. What did it all matter? Shaking my head, I said, "He told me to spy on you and your husband for him."

The Marquise laughed in a light, singsong way. "You're not very good at it, are you? And to think my husband just urged me to be careful around you. He even ordered me to end our acquaintance before it was allowed to go any further."

Maybe I shouldn't have said anything. Even a fake friendship based on deception would have been better than being alone all the time.

"Come along, my Hawk Queen," the Marquise said. Putting an arm around my shoulders, she guided me toward the exit. "We still have much to do."

"You mean you're not going to..."

"Of course not! I never go back on my word. Besides, I would be thoroughly remiss if I were to set you adrift in your current state -- like throwing a babe to the wolves. No, Vindrel, your lessons have only just begun."

I smiled, an expression that grew until I was actually laughing just like the Marquise was.

To Be Continued...

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