Come to the capitol at once. We would speak with our daughter.
Although it was well past midnight and even though she had long since committed the wording of the summons to memory, Selova continued to stare at the sheaf of parchment in the dim light of her bedchambers. As much as she wished otherwise, there was no doubting the validity of the document; while it was within the realm of possibility that an expert at forgery had crafted the note, and the guilds of Nameless certainly had access to such con artisans, the bold penmanship and brief diction contained therein were unquestionably the work of her father. She read the message once more, as if hoping to find it changed.
Come to the capitol at once. We would speak with our daughter.
Count Batsuen Lowell had summoned her to court. Gods be merciful, for her lord father would not.
Seized with sudden anger, Selova crumpled the page and threw it from her. The sudden noise and movement wakened Muriel, who lay next to her. Selova had brought her maid to bed this evening, hoping to take her mind from the dire events of the past few days. The experience had been disappointing; comely as she was, her maid had clearly never lain with another woman before.
Everyone else has failed me, Selova thought bitterly. Why should this base-born fool be any different? Rising from bed, Selova pulled her robe about her and walked over to the corner where she had thrown the bit of parchment. Sighing, she bent over to pick it up.
“M’lady?” Muriel inquired drowsily; she drew the covers about her body as she rose to a sitting position. “Is something wrong?”
“Only everything,” Selova replied. She uncrumpled the parchment carefully as if to read it again; she forced herself not to. Gravely, she carried the message to the girandole that served as the room’s only source of illumination and slowly fed the paper to its flames.
I must not give into despair or I shall be truly lost. Selova shivered slightly; spring had come to East Rim, but the night air still carried a remnant of winter’s chill.
“Some tea, Muriel. And something to eat.” The servant woman looked at her quizzically, as if she were confused by her lady’s commands. “Now, girl. Or have you forgotten your station?” she snapped.
“Yes, m’lady,” Muriel replied, hurrying out of bed as she ought to have initially. “Pardon, m’lady.” Selova watched as the flustered maid dressed herself before scurrying hurriedly from her apartments. Perhaps she might improve with practice, she mused as the door closed behind the chestnut-haired woman.
Selova banished these idle thoughts from her mind once the maid had taken her leave; their awkward coupling had left her in no better mood and she had much to ponder before she departed for court. She dropped herself into her largest and most comfortable chair sullenly; staring into the candle flames of the girandole, the young woman who had sought to become Countess of East Rim mentally retraced the events that had led to her downfall.
Three days past, the militia expedition Selova had raised against the raiders of Palervale had met with disaster at Rand’s Gorge; the so-called Justinii had shattered the whole of East Rim’s standing reserve forces in a brutal ambush. Far from removing the threat of the marauding orcs from her lord father’s lands and proving her worth to both him and his subjects, Selova’s plan had left all of East Rim in danger of attack from the First Gnomish Church of the Rangelic Bardicon.
The trouble, she decided, did not lie with the army’s defeat; the blame for that could be placed upon the company’s commander easily enough. No, the real problem was ascertaining just how many enemies had conspired against her father’s forces. Against her.
If Lady Rawlins had born her little love before the battle, Selova could expect none now that she had sought to slay her “husband.” And as imbecilic as the woman might be, the Baroness kept powerful company; there was the bugbear himself, for starters. There was also the painted elf he traveled with; he had built a fortress on Rawlins’ lands and the gods only knew how many men lay under his command. Their triumvirate was completed by the gnome from the betrothal party; there could be little doubt that he and the Justinius these orcs worshiped were one in the same. And unless Selova missed her mark, he was her true enemy in all of this.
So, Rawlins stood as one member of East Rim’s nobility in the gnome’s camp … did Baron Seelu make a second? Seelu had been awfully quick to sue for peace with the Justinii after Rand’s Gorge. If questioned, the lord of Palervale would no doubt claim that he had no other choice with an army on his doorstep and any rational, third-party observer would be hard pressed to fault the logic of that argument. What concerned Selova was the when of that particular alliance. Had Seelu turned after Rand’s Gorge … or had he sold her out before?
Regardless, there was one inescapable conclusion: Justinius J Justinius would have to die. And if her tenuous grip on power was to be maintained, Selova would have to make her father see that when next they met. Count Lowell was probably already bemoaning the number of kingfishers it would cost to hire the Jade Fist to protect his lands; she could turn that to her advantage. An assassin from the Flock of Dawn, she could and would argue, would cost far less. Selova knew the Flock’s blood price well; she had been fifteen when she had contracted them for the first time.
Count Lowell, Selova remembered, had been grief stricken when the sweating sickness took his only son suddenly and without warning some six years hence. In his grief, her lord father had panicked and agreed to a pair of matches for his girls, herself and her younger sister, Penelope. The boys had belonged to a pair of lesser houses from amongst Batsuen Lowell’s bannerman, men far below their station, men unworthy of betrothal to the daughters of a count. Penelope had fled Nameless, never to be seen again; Selova had prided herself on her more pragmatic solution to the situation ever since.
Selova’s schemes were interrupted by a timid rap at her chamber door announcing Muriel’s return. “Come,” she instructed.
The chambermaid bore a tray containing an ornate tea kettle with a matching pair of tea cups and saucers as well as sweet flat biscuits and an assortment of jellies and spreads. Muriel carefully poured the tea, a Facan green, into one of the cups and then added two cubes of sugar before offering it to her. Selova smiled at that; the maid’s service had improved markedly in a short time.
“Would m’lady care for a biscuit?” Muriel asked as Selova blew the steam from her drink. Selova nodded in response before taking a sip.
If the gnome is removed, two armies fall with him, Selova thought. Seelu would come crawling back, the two cults would likely destroy one another, and Rawlins would literally be fucked into oblivion. With one stroke, the county of East Rim could be her’s one more.
“Muriel, what is that?” The maid had taken a flat spread knife and was using it to apply a thick, brown paste she had never seen before upon a biscuit.
“A halfling confection, m’lady. Ingrid bought it at market just the other day. They call it peanut butter.”
“Peanut butter?” Selova repeated.
“Aye, m’lady. Try it, won’t you?” Muriel suggested. “It’s delicious.”