tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Blood Pact Ch. 22

The Blood Pact Ch. 22


"The Marquise is waiting in the parlor," the doorman said as he closed the door behind me.

Involuntarily, I again rubbed the bump on the back of my head. It had stopped hurting except when I touched it, and my long hair hid it from view, but I couldn't quite put it out of my mind.

While I'd been out with the King and his Dark God, the Marquise had sent a reply to my earlier note, inviting me to lunch since I'd been unable to attend our morning meeting. I had no interest in eating -- or doing much of anything at the moment -- but I feared if I stayed in Lord Ruvano's chambers by myself any longer, I'd start to go crazy.

After the doctor assured me there would be no lasting damage, he'd encouraged me to rest. Every time I closed my eyes, however, my mind was filled with all those sinister things I'd experienced in the throne room. With luck, the company of the Marquise would be enough to keep my mind from such terrors -- provided that yesterday hadn't been a fluke and she was still as personable as I'd last seen her.

The Marquise rose from her seat as I stepped into the parlor and came across the room to meet me. Taking my hands in hers, she squeezed them warmly.

"Vindrel returns!" she said. "I heard you had a bit of excitement this morning. Are you alright?"

"I..." I started to reach for the back of my head yet again, but caught myself before my hand had risen above my waist. "What have you heard?"

"Only that there was some commotion and that the doctor had been summoned."

"Oh, it was nothing...I, um, fell and hit my head. I'll be fine."

Her brows rose almost imperceptibly, but she said nothing. If she had agents of her own in the castle, she might have already known what I'd been doing with the king. Although if the Queen herself was still in the dark, maybe the Marquise was as well. Regardless, no matter how comfortable I might ever become with her, I did not want to discuss it.

"I'm glad to hear you're well," she said, sounding sincere. Putting an arm around my shoulder, she lead me to a table where a light lunch had been laid out. "Please, have a seat."

"Thank you." Stiffly I lowered myself into the offered seat, carefully smoothing my skirts.

As the Marquise poured us tea, I let out a long breath. It felt good to sit in the presence of someone I was relatively certain didn't want to stab me in the back. I took the cup she handed me, but made no effort to drink. No matter how comfortable I might have been, I still wasn't in the moo for such things.

It was a small miracle I'd lived through that encounter with the King. If the queen had been a few minutes sooner in responding to Natalie's summons, we would have been caught in the act. She probably would have killed me on the spot with her bare hands. There would have been nothing I could have done to prevent it.

Why did everyone feel they could push me around and use me however they wished? I was sick of feeling so vulnerable and frail. Hands quivering with pent-up anger, I set the tea cup aside without having taken a sip.

"What is on your mind, Stephanie?" the Marquise said.

"You're from Arnoth, aren't you?" I glanced back toward the front room where her two attendants could be heard laughing softly between themselves. "Those two as well?"

"Yes, my family is originally from Arnoth, as are Traemene and Wilona. They were married to knights who died in the Talgeeanus War." The conflict was completely unknown to me. "Having heard of my influence in certain circles, they petitioned me for help when claims against their husbands' property threatened to leave them destitute. I did what I could for them, but in the end the best I could offer them was a place in my household. Why do you ask?"

"I've heard it said that Arnothian women are taught to fight with knives." I said somewhat hesitantly.

"In the Calagearan Empire, which gave rise to modern Arnoth, the women were often just as fierce in combat as the men, as the story of Queen Vindrel well illustrates. Times have changed, but we still maintain some of those old customs."

I looked up through the locks of my golden hair with a determined fire in my eyes. It was long past time for me to take charge of my own destiny. "Would you teach me?"

She looked at me for a long time, examining me, her features growing harsh and distant. "And why would you want to know the ways of the knife?"

"I no longer wish to be at anyone's mercy."

"Violence is not an ideal path to freedom."

"But sometimes it IS the only one."

"You've already asked a great deal of me, Stephanie, and this is a thing not readily shared with outsiders."

I should have known better than to overstep the hazy bounds of our newly forged friendship, especially when it was built on such precarious footings. The casual way we had become around each other was making me forget that we were not really friends. In fact, with that simple request, I might well have ruined everything we'd already achieved.

"You're right," I said, retreating back inside myself in a flash. "I've never had any right to ask anything of you. You've already been more generous with your time than anyone could expect. I'm sorry, m'lady."

The Marquise smiled and sat back in her seat, shaking her head. "You have nothing to apologize for. I was merely curious about your intent. But when we are alone, please call me Delphina. It just wouldn't be appropriate for you to address your knife mistress so formerly."

"Knife mistress?" My eyes grew wide and I sat forward. I almost asked if she was serious, but remembering her warning from yesterday, I instead amended myself. "Then you mean you will teach me after all?"

"Yes. But only under the condition that you keep your earlier promise to teach me to ride a horse as well as you."

The smile which slipped onto my face appeared before I even realized it.

"Do you own a dagger?" she said.

I thought back to the blood dagger still laying beneath the sideboard in Lord Ruvano's chambers. Even if I wanted to use that cursed thing again, I probably shouldn't do so now. How would I even explain something like that? Instead I simply shook my head.

"And they say Arnoth is a land of barbarians," the Marquise said, shaking her head as she rose. "Come along. You can use one of mine for the time being."

Noticing out of the corner of my eye that Traemene and Wilona were watching from the doorway, I followed the Marquise to one of the cabinets lining the walls. The drawer she opened was filled with lacy undergarments, but she folded them back delicately to reveal a flat case of the most deeply polished yellow wood.

Inside was a row of marvelous daggers, some highly jeweled and others worked ornately in gold and silver. She took one of the latter and drew it partially from its sheath. The hilt was a burnished silver of intertwined coils and the blade delicately narrow with a mirror polish and a keen edge. She resheathed it with a sharp click that made me jump.

"This one should serve you well," she said. Looking me over, she paused and then thrust it into the valley between my breasts. "There you are."

From the doorway, Traemene and Wilona giggled loudly.

"What do you think you're doing!" I said. My first attempt to extract the dagger released it from its sheath and nearly cut the tender flesh of my breast.

"Just consider it another piece of jewelry," the Marquise said. "I know quite a few women who wear it like that. The men are always less eager to tease them."

Well, that WAS possible, but I didn't see any of these three women drawing attention to themselves with a dagger stuck into their cleavage.

"And where do you carry yours?" I asked, indignant.

With a flip of the wrist, her sleeve fluttered and then there was a dagger in her hand. I hadn't even seen where it had come from. She smiled at the daft expression plastered across my face. With another motion, the dagger disappeared again.

"Don't worry, you'll learn all those little tricks soon enough."

"Well, if it's all the same to you..." I finally managed to get a solid grip on the carven sheath and safely extract the dagger from the front of my dress. With a move not nearly as smooth as the Marquise's I slipped it into the hidden pocket of my dress. "...I'll just carry it here until I do."

The Marquise's brow rose. "Now that's an interesting accessory."

"A friend of mine insisted on it."

"She sounds like quite a practical woman."

"Perhaps," I said. "But any practicality in her nature is far overshadowed by her less desirable qualities. More than anything, she's a pain in the ass."

The Marquise smiled, just short of laughing, but the other two ladies did not show the same restraint. It was too bad we were only temporary allies. Under different circumstances, I felt like these people could have been true friends.

"We should begin your training right away," the Marquise said. "Most girls start far younger than you are now and I think a bit of physical activity wouldn't go amiss this afternoon. However, there are too many prying eyes in the palace for us to do it here."

"I may know of a place," I said. "Have you ever been to the western greenwood?"

The Marquise smiled covertly and nodded. "Why yes, I think a ride out to the western greenwood might be just the thing. Traemene, Wilona: you know what we need. Bring food and drink as well. We'll go on ahead and prepare the horses."

The two nodded obediently and hurried out of the room like a couple of girls excited about going on a picnic.

"They'll be coming too?" I said. I was rather hoping it would just be me and the Marquise again. Having those two along could very well ruin the chemistry we'd found. "Can they ride?"

The Marquise smiled slyly and patted me on the shoulder as we headed for the door. "Oh, they might not quite match your skill in the saddle, Vindrel, but I'm quite certain they'd give you a proper run for your money all the same."

If that were true, maybe their company wouldn't be so bad. It would rather be nice to be around people again who shared at least one of my interests. Yes, I suspected I just might end up liking all three of these women after all.

To Be Continued...


Sorry about the long delays between chapters. I've recently gotten a new job which is really cutting into my free time. But rest assured, new chapters will continue to be posted as I find the time. I will not allow myself to stop until this story is finished. It might take a little longer than I originally expected, but it will eventually come to its proper conclusion.

All I ask is that you bare with me while I muddle through with everything.

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