Well, surgery is well behind me now and all of the work I’ve been putting into my health really feels like it’s finally paying off. I have a lot less pain and and am a lot more mobile. It’s still difficult to sit for long periods of time, and I still tire easily, but it’s nothing like where I was before my surgery.
First, I want to thank everyone for sticking with me throughout a very difficult 2016. I know many of you were disappointed when I said I couldn’t get you a new Bethany book, and I am sorry for that. It was a difficult year with my health. I’m not back to where I was, but I’m still improving.
I am going to be looser with release dates this year because I’m still unsure if I’m going to continue improving or if where I’m at is where I’m at now. But here is the current plan:
- Traitor (Book 1 of the Collaborator series) will be out March 16, 2017.
- Liberate, the first book of the Gods of Tranquility story arc (so, Bethany’s next book), is 30% done the first draft. I’m aiming for a summer release currently.
- The Nightmare We Know is outlined and I’ll be starting it when Liberate is done. I’m aiming for a late autumn to early winter release.
- Fugitive, the next Collaborator book, is due around the end of the year or early 2017. However, since they are shorter books, I might fit it in between Liberate and Nightmare, depending on how burned out I am from writing fantasy.
Then, the hope is to start a more regular rotation: Bethany (Tranquility) – Rebecca (Collaborator) – Allegra (Demons) – either Rebecca or a one off – Bethany…That way, I can more easily avoid burnout of writing too many of the same kinds of books close to each other.
The final Spirit Caller novella is coming September 28th.
- You can preorder the novella now for the special release price of 99c (regular: $2.99) on Amazon and Kobo.
- If you are behind in the series, you can preorder the Spirit Caller: Books 4-6 bundle for $5.99 (release October 12) on Amazon and Kobo.
- You can also pre-order the entire series for $9.99 (release October 26) on Amazon and Kobo.
Nook and iBooks links are coming, but as I can’t load directly to them, there is a delay of up to a week sometimes.
Thank you to everyone who has been with the series since the beginning. And, for those of you who are new, I hope you enjoy Rachel’s crazy adventures as much as I enjoyed bringing her to you.
The biggest book surprise for me this year was Tanya Huff’s Enchantment Emporium. It was a breath of fresh air from all of the urban fantasy I’ve been reading. There were no PIs, no detectives, no James Bonds. Just a girl inheriting a store, taking on some dragonlords, and banging her second cousins. (That ‘s’ was not a typo; it does make sense, as they use sex magic). I adored this book.
I fell in love with Jane Glatt’s Unguilded this year. Such a beautifully uplifting book. After so many books of the hero having to make the Hard Choices ™, it was nice to read about someone who looked at those choices and refused to go against her nature. It was an amazing book.
Sorcerer’s Legacy is one of the best romance books I have ever read. This is the best fantasy-romance hybrid book I have ever read – and all of you know how picky I am about hybrids, cross overs, and fence sitters. This book was amazing. I wept. I was at the dentist reading. I was in line at the grocery store reading. I could not stop reading.
The book is about Elienne (heroine, main character) trying to honour the agreement she’d made to protect this Prince, but also to keep her own head well placed on her shoulders. It’s a tricky thing because she has no agency in the world she’s placed in…yet she personally finds big and small ways to find as much control over her situation and life as possible, which I really liked seeing. Even though things happen to her constantly, she is always trying to control them as best as she can.
The pace is break-neck. There’s barely a pause.
This book was so great. It takes a common theme of “duty” and digs really deep into what does that actually mean, and how far does it go. The main character, Captain Mykkael, really has the patience of Job; the people around him can’t even be bothered to say his name right half the time. Yet, he’s stuck with investigating the disappearance of the princess. So what seemed like was going to be an interesting tale of fantasy Sherlocking turns very quickly into this explosive adventure with mythical beasts and shapeshifting sorcerers.
Oh, and Janny really makes the horses and hounds real characters. They aren’t just creatures who do someone’s bidding. Don’t be surprised if mid-book you start shouting, “To Hell with the prince! What about the horses! Are the horses okay! Someone answer me!” And then staying up two extra hours before you find out if the horses are okay or not.
Do you enjoy my posts and reviews and want to support me while I write more (I pay for all of the books I review, or use my KU/Scribd accounts)? I use Amazon Affiliate links on all of my links; I make a couple of pennies anytime you use one of the links. You can also treat me to a latte!
Poison Study by Maria V. Synder
This was an adorable book. Yelena was such a sweetie and I liked her ongoing attempts to improved herself and be her own rescuer. The romance was…okay, you need to really not think about it too much. If we just set aside the wildly inappropriateness of it all, they are so cute together.
The addition of the ghost haunting her was a nice touch to the story, adding to the despair she often feels.
The first person POV and easy language makes for a really good introduction to the S&S/high fantasy style for those who are used to reading contemporary settings.
A fun, cozy murder mystery set in an English steampunk setting. It is basically an all-ages book. The steampunk has a light touch, making it a good introduction to the subgenre.
Maddie is smart and determined to make her way as a newspaper reporter (under a man’s name, of course), and I found myself cheering for her the entire book.
It’s one of those rare books that grandmother, mother, daughter, and great-granddaughter can all read and all enjoy.
Palace Job by Patrick Weekes
This was a re-read, but I did the audiobook this time.
The first time I read the book, I came away with this hilarious, over-the-top crazy impression. This time…I come away with an almost endearing feeling of fun and friendship. I think this current impression is the correct impression; I think I’d read the book originally after reading a huge amount of dull slogs of dullness, so it made the book pretty out there.
Loch and Kal are hilarious together. The “your mother” jokes never got old – which is saying something because I loathe “your mother” jokes as a general rule. The gang was like a fun RPG meets Oceans 11 gaggle.
Anyone who plays RPG games will recognize the format: personal quests, side quests, party banter, and new character introductory scenes.
This is a great book for people who play video games and want to get back into reading.
Rippler by Cidney Swanson
This was a great amount of fun. Even though this is SF, the science part could really work just as well as magic. The romance is sweet and G rated, and never takes over the story. It’s also so appropriate and typical of the age (15, just turns 16). I found it very believable.
The friend fights, likewise, remind me of ones I had as a teenager and felt real, as opposed to manufactured.
The reading level is easy enough that I’d be okay with giving this to even a middle grade reader, if they were interested. Likewise, it’s a good book to get a strict YA romance-only reader to cross over into a bit of SFF without issue.
This was originally posted on /r/fantasy.
Do you enjoy my posts and reviews and want to support me while I write more (I pay for all of the books I review, or use my KU/Scribd accounts)? I use Amazon Affiliate links on all of my links; I make a couple of pennies anytime you use one of the links. You can also treat me to a latte!
Lady Acardi’s Summer Residence
He listened helplessly as the royal guards stormed into the great foyer of the estate. Crammed into a hidden corridor with six other mages, he couldn’t help their protector if any of them were found. So they all waited, listened, and hoped.
Lady Acardi spoke first. “General, why have you barged into my home uninvited?”
General Bonacieux’s voice was loud and unyielding. “By the authority of Queen Portia and the Holy Cathedral, you are accused of being an elemental witch.”
One of the mages behind him gasped. Walter kicked her in the shin. The mage made another muffled sound of protest before she settled down. If the Butcher of Fort Bonnet even thought he heard voices in the walls, he’d burn the ancient estate to the ground before risking a mage run free.
Lady Acardi laughed, a mocking sound. “Starve in the abyss, you upstart pissant. How dare you come in here and accuse me, a woman of the blood, to be an elemental! You have no proof.”
“I have the authority of the Queen and I require no proof, witch bitch.” He paused to regain his composure. “Property to be forfeit and all assets seized, pending investigation.”
“You swine! I’ll never see a trial and we both know it. You’ll have all of my money spent before I’m crushed to death in a mine explosion.”
“You can choose to kill yourself now and save us the expense of a trial.”
Even through the walls, it was clear Lady Acardi had spat in the General’s face. He couldn’t help but grin silently at her brass courage. His smile quickly faded, however, as he knew what would come next. It was the same thing over and over.
The General’s voice turned enraged. “Guards! Arrest everyone in the house. If she won’t show herself the witch we know she is, then we’ll send the entire household to the prison mines.”
“You bastard,” Lady Acardi snarled, even as she grunted and gasped. They must have attacked her. “There are children in this house!”
“Then tell the truth, bitch, or they will all meet the same fate!”
Don’t do it. Don’t do it. He didn’t dare speak the words aloud, but he prayed them as hard as he could, as if the Almighty would condescend, just this once, to intercede on a mage’s behalf. As ever, Almighty took the side of oppressors and murderers.
Lady Acardi had spent a lifetime successfully hiding her talent from the world, so it didn’t surprise him what came next.
The floor beneath their feet shook as Lady Acardi screamed, “Demons take you!”
He was thrown against the wall as the house shook. Once he found his feet, he pushed his compatriots. “Go!” he whispered. “We have minutes before they discover the panel.”
Lady Acardi’s screams died abruptly. He closed his eyes and asked the Almighty to accept her into His arms, for she had been good to mages. She had given her life in the fight for freedom.
Almighty, if you care at all, protect us now.
“The only good witch is a dead witch,” the General shouted. “Arrest everyone in the house for harboring an elemental mage.”
“Run,” he said, as they rushed through the underground tunnels of the ancient stone house.
“Where are we going to go, Walter?”
He kept running, heart pounding, knowing that every step might be his last if the soldiers found the loose panel in the foyer. They’d be looking for it, too. They always looked for the secret doors and passageways.
Finally, he said, “Just keep running.”
His Radiance Francois III, Holy Father of the Beloved
My dearest friend,
May the Grace of the Lord God Almighty find you in good health. News of the failed assembly reached me this morning. I am once against saddened to discover our lands continue toward conflict.
I turn my gaze upon your leadership in this matter and realize, with much regret, that I have no understanding about your choices. Have the pressures of your station given you dementia? Another opportunity for peace lost because you refuse to appoint someone who understands the plight of the mage slaves. Appointing a slave owner, of all people, as Arbiter in this growing rebellion is like asking a demon over for tea and biscuits. Surely, you cannot be surprised when the demon destroys the party and kills all of your guests.
Indeed, I hear that you have expressed astonishment that the former appointment of Lord Castigara as Arbiter made things worse. Castigara owns over a thousand slaves, nearly all of them mages, who he brutally forces to make endless magical trinkets for his personal army. Did you forget that this personal army has been accused by Viscount Perry as having been responsible for no fewer than eight acts of violence against his territories? Tell me, does political news reach the Cathedral or have you forgotten the people who pledge themselves to the faith under your leadership?
The people need a strong Arbiter, trusted and respected by all sides. The mages—I refuse to use that vulgar word “witch” to describe my own kind—are rebelling against their masters, as is their right under the Holy Word of our Lady Tasmin, who wrote Tomas 11:45 that, “All men’s lives are their own, to worship the Almighty and to praise his name.”
Yet, by appointing notorious brutes to mediate this crisis, you are saying that the Cathedral does not follow the word of Tasmin. And, wasn’t that the direct cause of the last full-scale war that sent our entire civilization backwards by five hundred years? Is this your brilliant plan?
I offer my services as both one of the blood, as well as a mage. While I live in retirement, I am very eager to assist you in any way you see fit. Perhaps you could forward your list of potential candidates for the job and I shall curate them appropriately.
I eagerly await your response.
Allegra Vittoria Beatrice, Contessa of Marsina
Captain Stanton Rainier smirked at the Contessa’s letter to the Holy Father. High rank had its privileges and he couldn’t fault her for using hers to say what was on the minds of many people, including his own. “Her wit is sharper than my sword.”
“Don’t mistake sarcasm for wit,” the Holy Father said sourly.
The two men sat in the priest’s personal chambers. Personally, Stanton liked the sitting room, though His Holiness found it stuffy and overblown. Stanton disagreed: it was the seat of power for the most powerful man in all of Serna. Stuffy and overblown was a requirement in Stanton’s opinion. “When did you receive the letter?”
“Earlier in the week,” the Holy Father said as he sipped at his glass of wine. “I need your help, Rainier.”
Stanton chuckled. “Surely you’re not going to make me write the lady?”
Francois threw his head back and laughed. “Gracious blessings, no. I have a better task for you. Travel to Borro Abbey and retrieve her.” Francois’s smile turned vulpine. “Allegra thinks she can deal with this mess better than I, so I shall let her try.”
“Your Holiness?” Stanton blinked at the older man. “What did the cardinals say?”
Francois sighed heavily. The priest had aged a lot in the last two years. New lines seemed to daily etch themselves into Francois’s dark, blue-hued features. “Nothing. The inner council is…weary. They are willing to try anything once.”
“You think this sarcastic noblewoman is the answer?”
“Allegra is the highest woman of rank that is also a witch.” Francois rolled his eyes. “Mage. Whatever they call themselves these days. She is a notorious unbeliever, too, and lives permanently at Borro Abbey. She doesn’t own any slaves and her family are all supporters for witch slave rights. Mage slave…Blessings, why can’t people stick with the same word everyone else uses?” Francois sipped his wine. “Perhaps she can do better than the rest of us suffering the early symptoms of dementia.”
Stanton smiled again at the Holy Father’s bitter words. “How is she going to make things better between the rebelling slaves and the nobles?”
“The Contessa is well respected, even if she doesn’t appear at anyone’s Court anymore.” Francois swirled his red wine around in his crystal goblet. “She’s intelligent, resourceful, and is not afraid to speak her mind. She was properly educated, too, in not just the fine arts. She speaks and writes four languages, she is skilled in diplomacy, rhetoric, philosophy, and economics.”
“She sounds more qualified than most kings,” Stanton said dryly.
His Holiness laughed. “Yes, she is.”
“Can she stop the rebellion?”
Francois put his goblet down on the table. He considered his words carefully before speaking. “That’s the heart of it all, isn’t it? Is there anyone who can stop this damnable rebellion before it escalates into full-scale warfare and slaughter? I do not want to live to see the great nations of Serna crumble under that.”
Stanton didn’t have a reply, for the question was far greater than any one man could answer: could they be turned from the path they were now on? For two years now, enslaved and indentured witches rebelled against the yoke their masters wrapped around their necks. Whenever the masters tightened the leash, the slaves yanked harder at their own end. Runaway witches risked their lives to free their compatriots. Sympathizers risked their property and titles to hide the runaway slaves. And as nations and city-states cracked down on any pockets of resistance, word spread and ten more pockets cropped up in defiance.
The ecclesiastic edicts for calm and peace were unheeded, but Stanton knew the lily-watered sermons carried no weight with the three most powerful nations in Serna. Queen Portia of Cartossa, for example, was a mere sixteen-year-old girl in charge of the largest and most technologically advanced army. She followed her late father’s advisors and dedicated her policies to the complete enslavement of all magical practitioners.
Queen Portia’s advisors would never tell her to heed anything but papal law. Directives, opinions, and desires were for everyone else. The Council of Cardinals would never excommunicate Queen Portia specially nor Cartossa generally. The cold fact was Cartossa brought in too many golden sovereigns in taxes, tithes, and papal donations for the Cathedral to ever turn its back on them and their heavy purse.
“You don’t approve of my plan?”
Stanton smiled at the Holy Father. Even with the pressures of his position, Pope Francois remained a vibrant, energetic man. Still well in his prime of life, Francois was decades younger than any of his nearest cardinal rivals. His election to the papal chair still remained a shock to the establishment, and Stanton did enjoy how Francois held his power like a shard of obsidian. Francois could be a glossy, mesmerizing stone that, when stuck, morphed into a deceptively sharp edge that could—and did—slice through his enemies.
Stanton had known Francois a long time, since before he was the Holy Father. So he knew better than to disagree with the Almighty’s messenger. “Actually, I was thinking you have more gray in your beard than last I saw you.”
Francois laughed in his rich, basso voice. He stroked his graying chin whiskers. “Yes, well, age catches up to all of us. It will soon find you, my friend.”
“I’m more worried about baldness than the gray,” Stanton said.
That made the priest laugh. “Not all of us were blessed with hair that stayed past our fortieth birthday. Now, be honest, tell me what you think of my plan, knowing that I’m not going to change my mind regardless of your reply.”
Stanton grinned. “Well, you haven’t tried appointing a witch. There are worse plans. The Contessa of Marsina. That’s quite a title. Is it hers or by marriage?”
“Oh, it’s hers,” Francois said. “She’s unmarried, and likely to remain so. Her brother, the Viscount of Rence, maintains the day-to-day management of her seat of power, but she is an active enough landlord, even if she lives in retirement. She is the richest woman in Amadore and among the richest in all of Serna outside of royal families. Well, actually, including several royal families. She basically owns most of northern Amadore.”
Stanton considered the point. “So she is a wealthy, privileged, titled woman of the blood. She’s also a witch. She lives in an abbey, but isn’t overly religious.”
Francois snorted. “She’s practically blasphemous.”
“I hate to say, Father, but she might be perfect. All of the viscounts and princes from the city-states will love her. The witches might actually send representatives this time from the various factions because one of their own will be leading the discussion.”
“When can you leave to retrieve her?”
“I’ll leave with a few Consorts in the morning. The roads aren’t safe for unaccompanied carriages and I’m sure she won’t want to ride horseback all the way here.”
Francois scoffed. “She might surprise you.”
The double doors opened and both men turned to see the new arrival. In strolled a lean man with smile lines around his narrow, hooded eyes. His straight, silver-streaked black hair was, as ever, pulled back and tied at the nape of his neck before breaking off into two braids. When he saw Stanton, his expression brightened.
“Captain! I didn’t know you were in here. Am I interrupting?”
Stanton waved to Francois’s husband. “Come on in, Pero. I was preparing to leave, in any case.” Turning to Francois, he asked, “Does Pero know her?”
Pero strolled into the parlor and took a seat at their table. “Ah, Rupert has told you his master plan of making the Contessa of Marsina the Arbiter of Justice?” “I still remember the first time I met her. It was…bracing.”
Stanton smiled at the Holy Father’s husband, one of the very few people who ever called him by his given name in front of others. The privilege of spouses, he supposed. Perhaps one day, he would have his own spouse to breach etiquette rules, too.
“I know nothing about her. What’s she like?”
“In a word, opinionated,” Pero said, grinning. “In two words, very opinionated. In three words, stunningly very opinionated.”
Stanton laughed at that and sipped at his own glass of wine. He only sipped, not liking wine first thing in the morning. However, he didn’t wish to be rude and not take at least some of the drink. “What did the cardinals say when you told them your plan?”
“Their responses were typical,” Francois said.
Pero rolled his eyes. “Here we go.”
“Don’t be like that,” Francois said, his voice laced with annoyance. “We’re all frustrated, and quite worried. If violence escalates, this rebellion could destabilize the entire area. We could have civil war! We could even devolve into full-scale warfare, with states attacking each other and themselves. Over what? Witch rights? That’s hardly worth dying over.”
“That’s the only good reason for a war, Rupert!” Pero exclaimed, throwing his hands up in disgust. “What else says faithful than the willingness to get your hands dirty?”
“We are not talking about a little mud. We are talking blood.”
“Blood that our Guardians shed to seal the demon gates! Yes, we should shed that blood now!”
Stanton knew better than to get in the middle of the Holy Father’s domestic dispute, so he let the two argue it out without his input. As he listened to the long-time married couple, Stanton was filled with the opposing feelings of loneliness that he had no one to share such arguments…and the relief that there was no such person in his life.
“Pero, we’ve been over this. There is no freedom in starvation.”
“Yes, yes, yes! I’ve heard the saying before and it is meaningless. The desire for freedom, however fleeting, is a potent one. Denying that basic existence to people who are slightly different than ourselves is an offense against the Lord Almighty.” Pero glanced at Stanton and offered a bashful grin. “But, I shall save the remainder of the abolition lecture for suppertime.”
Pero gave his husband a side-eye glance. “Why not?”
“Cardinal Vittorio and his wife are coming to dinner. He’s returned from his pilgrimage to Basina.”
Pero made a disgusted sound. “What kind of sick man goes to a horror site for his spiritual development? Captain, do you have plans this evening?”
“I’m heading to Borro Abbey. Why? I don’t know Cardinal Vittorio personally. Is he horrible?”
Pero gave his husband a disdainful glance. “Anyone who goes to Basina without burning the place to the ground is horrible in my opinion.”
Francois smiled. “I find Cardinal Vittorio quite passionate.”
Another disgusted sound escaped Pero. “That’s not passion, my love. That’s senility and cruelty.”
Stanton smiled politely at Pero before asking, “Any advice before I depart?”
Francois nibbled on a piece of butter cake. “Allegra is suspicious of most parish priests, most bishops, and all of the cardinals. And she’s convinced anyone who comes from Orsini is a moron.”
“Just tell her Pero says hi, and she’ll be easy,” Pero grabbed his husband’s wine goblet and finished off the rest of the wine. “Oh, and tell her that the cardinals are wrong about her. That’ll help.”
“Opinionated and paranoid,” Stanton said. “Wonderful combination.”
Pope Francois gave Stanton a disapproving glance. “Come now. Look at the world from her perspective. She is a witch—”
“Mage,” Pero corrected automatically.
“Mage,” Francois said, giving his husband an annoyed look. “Her rank has been the only thing that’s sheltered her from servitude and slavery. It was only because she is of the blood that she avoided being marked and tagged.”
Pero snorted. At his husband’s annoyed glance, Pero raised his hands. “Fine. I’ll keep my opinions to myself.”
“That would be a first. But, yes, she’s very political and writes letters, yet she does little more than garden, cook, and attend an annual party or two. She’s become a touch fragile, I think. Be gentle to her.”
“Oh, please,” Pero said, sarcasm lacing his words. “The Grand Duchess thinks she’s fragile.” He turned to Stanton and said, “Grand Duchess Katherine believes Allegra is a fragile, delicate flower that must be kept from the harsh glare of the sun. The Contessa is a strong woman and knew to get out of court politics before she made enemies.”
Stanton grimaced at the Grand Duchess’s name. They were well acquainted with each other, as she was once the ambassador to Orsini. In the early days, Stanton was assigned to her personal guard whenever she visited Orsini, until Francois promoted Stanton to his personal staff to create the Consorts.
“Ah, yes,” Francois said. “You know the Grand Duchess.”
“Didn’t you used to work for her?” Pero asked, now munching on a tiny pastry he’d stolen from Francois’s plate. “This is stale.”
“Yes. The Grand Duchess and I are acquainted.” Stanton stood and bowed to both men. “Gentlemen, if there is nothing further, I will take my leave. I shall depart this afternoon to retrieve this delicate lady and ensure she doesn’t wilt in the sun.”
“Almighty be with you.”
“Good luck,” Pero murmured.
Stanton gave both men a final nod before turning on his heel to walk back to the barracks. He was not fond of the idea of traipsing about the countryside escorting some rich, old lady, but there were worse assignments, he’d supposed. Latrine digging was near the top.
He weaved his way around the various mothers and fathers of the lower clerical orders who bustled about the outer sanctums of the palace proper. The guards along the main entrances acknowledged him and he gave them all a quick nod. His men weren’t going to be pleased with this trip, either. He chuckled to himself, knowing that some of them would be missing tonight’s dancers at one of the back alley brothels that the Cathedral guards allowed to stay open provided the noise wasn’t excessive and the faithful pilgrims never gained admittance inside.
A lean youth slipped into step next to Stanton and said, “Good morning, Captain.”
“Good morning, Lex. Your boots are filthy.”
“It’s your fault.” Lex didn’t bother to hide his annoyance.
Stanton eyed him. His normally pale, pink face was smeared liberally with dusty sweat and there was a cobweb hanging off one lock of hair that served as a sideburn. “Where in the abyss have you been?”
In a sing-song voice, forced full of cheer, Lex said, “Why, I’ve been in the stables looking for your missing button, sir. Don’t you remember?”
“Did you find it?”
Stanton grunted. “Maybe it fell off in my bedchamber.”
“You didn’t think to look there first, sir?”
Stanton stifled a grin. “No, I didn’t.”
“What is the punishment for hitting a superior officer, sir?”
“Looking for my button in horse shit.”
“I’ve already done that,” Lex grumbled.
The two headed up the staircase to the main barracks and Stanton filled his second-in-command in about the Holy Father’s plan.
Lieutenant Lex sat on the long wooden bench and leaned their elbows against their knees. Shit-encrusted boot in one hand, brush in the other, Lex brushed their only good set of boots as the Captain described the details of the new mission. The others were still eating luncheon in the dining hall, so Rainier was taking the opportunity to fill Lex in now.
It also gave Lex the opportunity to clean their disgusting boots. Fucking cow shit. Fucking Rainier for the order to search the fucking cow shit.
Rainier went on about some prissy noble they’d have to pick up from Borro Abbey and then drag back to the palace. Rainier didn’t seem overly pleased about the mission, but in his usual form didn’t add much personal commentary. Lex both liked that about Rainier and found it vastly irritating, depending upon the situation. But after seven years of working with the Captain, Lex was used to him.
“So do you know anything about this fop we’ll be fetching?” Lex asked. Flecks of debris flew in the air and landed on the Captain’s shiny boots. Lex gave him an apologetic smile. “Like, what do you know about her?”
Rainier returned the smile with a dirty look. “She’s the Contessa of Marsina. I don’t know much about her, to be honest.”
This time, some of the dried shit hit Rainier in the face.
He scowled. “Could you not do that right now?”
Lex looked up at Captain Rainier and gave the boot two aggressive brushes before offering up a wide grin of apology. “Sorry, m’lord. Happy to stop, m’lord. Anything for you, m’lord.”
Rainier crossed his broad arms across his chest. In a stern voice, he said, “Lex, no one likes a smart mouth, and you’re not as funny as you think you are.”
“Everyone thinks I’m funny, sir,” Lex said with a grin. However, they put the boot down on the wooden floorboards and dropped the brush next to it. “But who is she? I’ve never heard of her.”
Rainier shrugged. He crossed the floor and grabbed one of the wooden chairs from the card table. He dragged it over near Lex and sat down. “I’ve told you everything I know. She’s some recluse witch who lives out in Borro Abbey. We’re to escort her to the palace. One assumes we’ll be escorting her back once her business is concluded.”
Lex considered that. They also looked down and considered the state of their boot laces. Lex really had to go into the market soon, or risk having to tie up the boots with a belt. “Is she an older woman then? Is that why we’re escorting her?”
The door flung open before Rainier could answer them. The loud, vulgar new arrivals were some of the Consorts, the Cathedral’s elite branch of guards. Well, in theory that’s what they were. That was the deal Lex had been sold when they came to work for Rainier. However, as the years went on, Lex came to realize that they weren’t a part of the real papal guards posted at the Cathedral. Instead, they were Francois’s personal soldiers, to dispense as he saw fit. It made sense, considering Rainier’s military career.
Lex wasn’t overly religious or anything, though they believed in the Almighty and the Guardians and the stories of the martyrdoms. Lex didn’t actually believe the Guardians died sealing an actual tear in reality between the demon abyss and this world, but they believed the core of the story that selfless people did great acts to protect others.
So Lex didn’t mind working for the papal robes. And Rainier was a good captain, and an honest-to-Almighty war hero. Rainier didn’t care who or what Lex was. He didn’t care why they were at Orsini, or who Lex’s parents were. Rainier wanted a strong arm and a stronger brain, and Lex could offer both.
“Hey, Lex! You missed it, man. They had creamed celery,” Dodd shouted. He glanced at Rainier and said, “Hey, Captain. Creamed celery. You missed out, sir.”
Dodd was shorter than most men, but not by much. Lex had a couple of inches on him, a point the two old friends often bantered back and forth about. Dodd’s uniform was in need of laundering, the dark green of his jacket now a dingy gray-green. There was a line of mud splatter up the ass of his dark trousers and up the spine of his jacket. He was missing two of the round buttons, meaning he’d lost two of the magical defenses that were woven into the garment by mothers of the faith.
Well, Lex knew one thing. Dodd could shift through the shit for his own buttons. Lex was finished.
“Why do you two look so serious? Oh, good! Laundry came.” He hauled off his jacket and tossed it on his bunk. He did the same with his white tunic.
Lex winced. “Dodd, I can smell you from here.”
Stanton waved a hand in the air, making a big show of coughing and gagging.
“The maid lost all my shirts, so I’ve been wearing the same damn one for four days now.” Bare-chested, he turned to the communal basin on a dresser between the two bunked beds. He poured in water and began to splash water on himself. “I was tempted to start wearing lavender oil.”
“Lavender oil can’t work miracles,” Lex said. “So, everyone, we got new orders. Some of us will be riding out this afternoon.”
The new arrivals who’d entered with Dodd all groaned and protested their disappointment, but they shuffled over to the wooden bench and collapsed alongside Lex.
Dodd spoke first, as he was Lex’s equal in terms of rank and seniority. “What dark abyss are we being sent into this time?”
“Borro Abbey,” Captain Rainier supplied.
“Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiit,” Dodd said, dragging the word out. He scrubbed his face with his wet towel. “Why are we going there? Oh! Are we invading it?”
“The roads still aren’t safe and we have to bring back an important contessa. I got the impression she was an older woman. His Holiness believes she can help with the rebellion, so off we go to fetch her.” A corner of Rainier’s mouth quirked up. “In two hours.”
Dodd groaned. “How am I supposed to get the mud out of my jacket in two hours?”
“Let Lex handle that,” Rainier said. “He’s very good at cleaning today.”
Lex made a rude gesture.
“So, is the whole gang going?” Dodd asked, now scrubbing his armpits with the towel. Dodd didn’t have a chiseled physique, but his broad shoulders flexed well-formed muscles as he scrubbed. When Dodd caught Lex looking, Lex wrinkled their nose. “What?”
“You better be planning to burn that towel when you’re done,” Lex said, eyeing the communal towel. “To answer your question, no. Maybe me, Dodd, Rainier…Martin? Rahna? You two wanna come? Anyone else?”
“Rahna, you should come for sure. Get more experience,” Dodd said to their newest recruit.
Rainier and Lex both nodded in agreement. The Consorts didn’t have many women—three, counting Rahna—and she hadn’t had much experience outside of running errands around Orsini’s countryside.
Rainier said, “I think that’s a good idea. Martin, you should come, too. Give Rahna some tips.”
“Of course,” Rahna said. She barely came up to Lex’s shoulders, but she was as solid as Dodd. Her skin was almost as pale as Dodd’s, with high, round cheeks that were always a touch rosy. She could also kick the consciousness out of a man twice her size in ten seconds flat.
“Sure,” Martin said. Martin had joined the Consorts only a year after Rainier had formed them and had grown up working for the Cathedral guards as a runner when he was a kid.
Lex nodded. “Good. All right then, everyone get your shit together. Kingsley, you’re in charge of the group while the adults are away.”
Kingsley, a handsome, muscular man with a goofy smile, said, “You can count on me, Lieutenant Lex.”
Lex rolled their eyes. “Suck ass.”
“Always,” Kingsley said.
With that, Rainier nodded and headed into his office, which was connected to the main hall where the guard spent their free time. At one point, it had been some cardinal’s bedchamber, built back when people had receiving rooms attached to their bedrooms. Now the room was in the administration wing of the palace, where the secretaries, stewards, and housekeepers all busied themselves with the important task of running the palace, while the cardinals all sat in the glitzy new addition to worship the Almighty.
Lex had never been through the entire palace, nor had they visited the Holy Father’s residence. They wondered how pompously gilded it would be.
While Lex pondered the expensive nature of the palace, Dodd mimed putting his head into a noose and hanging himself.
Lex picked up the brush and went back to brushing their boot. “What’s your problem?”
“Some of the boys and I were going into town to play cards tonight,” he whined.
“Why didn’t you invite me? What, I’m not good enough for you anymore?”
“First, the last time we played cards I had to wash your clothes for a week.”
“That was lovely, wasn’t it?” Lex said dreamingly. Looking down at the disgusting boot in their hand, Lex said, “We could play cards right now for boot cleaning.”
Dodd rolled his eyes. “If you must know, I didn’t invite you because they have those dancers you hate.”
Lex groaned. “Figures. Dodd, what in the abyss happened to your hair?”
Dodd grabbed a particularly greasy section of his dark blond hair and pulled it out in front of his face. He studied in suspiciously before looking over at the others. “Beatrix?”
Beatrix Galindo grinned even as her pale skin glowed with a rising blush. “I’m sorry, sir. The others put me up to it last night, when you were…” She coughed. “Passed out.”
Lex laughed and leaned over to sniff Dodd’s head. “What did you use? Lard?”
“Hey!” Dodd protested, pushing Lex away. “Personal space, man!”
Lex ignored him and continued sniffing until Dodd puckered up his pale, pink lips. It was Lex’s turn to push. “Ugh, I know where that mouth has been. Get it away from me.”
“I’m glad someone knows where it’s been because I sure don’t,” Dodd said, and the group laughed heartily.
Lex rolled their eyes and tried bringing the conversation back on course. “Anyone here know about this Contessa of Marsina? Martin, aren’t you from around there?”
Martin nodded. He was a short, thin man, with black hair that made his light skin seem paler somehow. Martin seemed like a poor choice for the guard when Rainier brought him on board, but soon proved Lex’s preconceptions wrong. What Martin lacked in size, he made up for in speed and agility. The man could run for days and not get winded.
“Yeah, I was born up Amadore way. I got a cousin who still lives there. He’s a tenant farmer for her estate and he’s never said a bad word against the family. They don’t have slaves and don’t hire them for seasonal work, either. They just pay the locals to come and do it.” Martin snorted. “My cousin keeps trying to get me to move back to work on the farm.”
“You can leave us,” Lex said.
Eyeing Lex’s books, Martin said, “There might be less cow shit up there.”
“So, she’s an abolitionist?” Dodd asked.
Martin shrugged. “I don’t know that, but not using slaves is a big statement, isn’t it?”
“Rainier says she’s a mage. Interesting that they think she can help with the peace,” Lex said, but then answered their own unspoken question. “Well, maybe this is the cardinals’ way of appeasing the factions, right? Bring in some high and mighty noble who is an abolitionist, but isn’t going to make any real changes.”
Dodd looked down at Lex’s boots. “Seriously, dude, where in the abyss did you go to get so dirty?”
“Cow shed,” Lex said, wrinkling their nose.
“Why in the world were you there?”
“Rainier’s fault,” Lex replied. “Borro Abbey? Where is that?”
“Four day’s ride from here,” Dodd answered. “It’s up in the hills, near the base of the Borro Mountains.”
“Up there? What in Almighty’s name is she doing there?” Martin asked. “Isn’t the season happening in Cartossa’s capital right now? Shouldn’t she be dancing with the Queen or doing something useless like that?”
“Don’t women give up dancing after they hit a certain age? My mother did,” Lex said.
“Those are the boring women,” Dodd said.
Lex eyed him. “Are you saying my mother is boring?”
Dodd winked by way of a reply.
Lex went back to boot scrubbing. Contessas were the worst, even worse than duchesses. At least a duchess knew their place in society; just below that of the royal family. A grand duchess was a member of the royal family. A contessa was a woman of rank, used to rubbing elbows with royalty, but never quite able to get any further. Lex could imagine the attitude this one would have, if she was important enough to be personally known to the papal throne.
“Why do we always get the shit assignments?” Lex complained.
“Could be worse,” Dodd said. “We could be going to Vurray.”
“Thank the Almighty for small mercies,” Lex mumbled.
“I know it’s too late, but why weren’t you coming tonight, Lex?” Rahna asked.
Lex held out the boot for inspection. Satisfied, they put the boot down and picked up the other one and began the tedious job all over again. “I hate the dancers.”
“No,” Dodd said, exaggerating the word, “you hate one specific dancer.”
Lex rolled their eyes.
“Why? What happened?” Rahna asked.
Lex made a disgusted sound and ignored the conversation. Dodd always told the story better anyway. Lex lacked Dodd’s flair.
“I’ll tell the story, since I tell it better anyway,” Dodd said. He tipped his head at Lex. “Lex was so drunk that night I’m surprised he even remembers.”
“He was drunk?” Martin asked incredulously. “This I have to hear.”
“You don’t know the story?” Dodd asked.
“No,” Martin protested. “He would never tell me.”
A small smile creeped across Lex’s face as a wave of contentment washed over them. He. Lex had spent so much of their life struggling to fit into the mold. Her this. Her that. Girl. Girl. Girl. Lex was never a girl. Lex didn’t think they were exactly a boy, either, though they leaned in that direction more often than not. So to be called he by their peers filled Lex with a quiet joy and comfort.
There was no word for what Lex was, as far as they knew. Dodd once said that Lex was Lex, and that was the only word anyone needed. Of course, Dodd had been Lex’s childhood friend, all the way back to when the pair took cello lessons together. Dodd was even the one who came up with the crazy adventure of trying to get jobs in the Cathedral guards at fourteen, as opposed to joining Southumberland’s army. These days, Dodd called Lex “he” by Lex’s request. Everyone else followed suit. That gave Lex the luxury to let their own identity flux back and forth on the stream in private, the way Lex wanted it.
“Then she breaks a vase over Lex’s head!” Dodd shouted.
That, along with Martin’s laughter, pulled Lex back into the present. “The surgeon had to stitch my head up. I still got a bald patch on the back of my skull.”
Dodd nodded. “It’s true! His hair is too shaggy now…Lord’s mercy, Lex, you need to cut your hair. You’re looking like one of the sniffer dogs.”
“Better a dog than a pig,” Lex said with the sweetest smile they could make.
Dodd rolled his eyes, and the conversation devolved into the usual bickering about travelling on the road, sore asses, and how it had better not rain.
Lex chuckled. Life was good these days.
Allegra scowled at the letter in front of her. For the last year, Allegra had invested over one hundred gold sovereigns into a girls’ school just outside of Orsini’s palace walls. It was a bold proposal, and one of the bishops had recommended the school contact her, as opposed to the clergy, for investors. They wanted to address the lack of education amongst Orsini’s laboring poor, and Allegra had a well-established reputation for being a patron.
In fact, Allegra was the patron of nine such schools catering to the education and upbringing of very poor girls. Outsiders saw it as just another way a rich woman spread a little charity around. Those who knew Allegra understood her motives were far more personal.
Too many so-called witches were the children of poor mothers, ragged from twelve or more births, and pregnant again because their drunkard husbands wouldn’t leave them alone. Unable to feed the mouths already born, these desperate women would report one or more of their eldest daughters to a local magistrate. Young sons had an easier time finding grunt work, so daughters were more likely to be handed over. The mother would be given a bounty of a silver crown—easily two months’ salary for a laborer—and she could tell herself that the child would be “properly cared for” and given “appropriate training” and all the usual platitudes and comforts.
Allegra knew that was not the reality of things. What faced most of them was slavery of one form or another. Girls with actual magical talent would be sold to merchants and factories to make magical trinkets, all eventually laced with a touch of despair. Many would be defective, and some would bring the users harm if the girls were filled with rage and vengeance. To be discovered creating “defective” items would bring on the beatings, and much worse. If that didn’t kill them, they’d be sold to the mines to die horrific deaths underground.
The girls who were just normal and without any magical talent could expect to be sold off as domestics or farm help. Scrubbing floors, digging carrots, working various cottage industries—it didn’t matter provided they worked hard. Those with “attitudes” unbecoming of proper young girls would be shipped off to the handful of factories they were cropping up if they were lucky, and mines if they weren’t. The prettier ones were eventually sold to brothels to be “taught a lesson” as a priest had once told her.
Allegra hated that priest, and she openly despised the system. It was ungodly, and she didn’t even believe in any such being. There was no evidence such a being as the great Almighty even existed and, if he did, he was probably long gone by now. And, if he did truly once exist, she didn’t respect him enough to give him her loyalty and devotion. After all, this was all his fault.
Because of the Lord Almighty, so lofty they didn’t even bother giving him a name, common people believed mages gained their power from sexual rituals with beasts from the abyss. That ill-gotten power could then lay dormant in a family for generations before it mysteriously cropped up. The Almighty’s followers excelled at punishing children for their fathers’ crimes.
So here Allegra was, reading yet another letter shutting down her program because the uneducated or the devout, or both, believed her schools went against nature and the will of a non-existent Almighty.
She crumpled the letter up and threw it across her small drawing room. The program would have stemmed some of the abuse Orsini’s poor children endured. Allegra would have paid the entrance fees for any impoverished child who wanted to attend the school. She was rich without vices; charity was the only thing she could spend money on these days! It could have worked so perfectly. The school would have quietly identified true mages and Allegra’s purse strings would have seen those children moved to a special boarding school to be properly trained.
They’d still be tattooed, but at least they’d most likely avoid subjugation. The others would learn handicrafts and a trade. They’d find work, and be able to support themselves and their families once they finished school at fourteen.
And now it was over before it barely begun!
My dearest Contessa the letter had begun. How dare a man she’d never met address her with such intimacy? He was nothing but a washed up bishop. His family name made him too important to ship to the backwoods, but his incompetence meant he’d never climb the ranks of the Cathedral.
He had canceled her program. He had stomped on the dreams of dozens of innocents for nothing more than his hope of impressing the Holy Father. Well, she had been childhood friends with the Holy Father and he would not take kindly to knowing this had happened in his name.
You will be no doubt pleased to find that I have diverted your investment toward the purchase of furnishings, linens, oil, candles, as well as ten copies of Archbishop Alistair Sheppard’s excellent, and uplifting, publication, Hymns for the Faithful. I am certain you will be pleased with knowing your kind and generous gift has been used to spread the word of the Lord Almighty to the poor.
Thief! He knew she wouldn’t have approved if he’d asked, so he did it behind her back. He had no intention of doing anything beyond lining his own purse. Linens? What did a school for the poor need with linens? She knew the students were returning home at night to sleep. The only people living at the school were the teachers and the servants, and she’d already paid for their supplies.
She glared at the crumpled paper on the floor. She had sworn to herself not to play the game of politics. She loved retirement at the abbey, where they left her to live in peace and obscurity, doing her good works to atone for her inherently sinful mage heart. But right now, all Allegra wanted to do was mount a horse and ride into Orsini Palace and demand to be treated as the woman of rank she was.
Instead, she opted to pour herself a glass of wine. A very full glass of Orsini special vintage, a gift from her brother that accompanied his steward who’d visited her a month ago to update her on her estates’ account books.
She leaned back in her chair and imagined stealing all of the bishop’s new linens and furnishings and giving them to the poor. Picturing his befuddled and outraged protestations amused her. Those daydreams kept her content through another very full glass of wine.
A knock interrupted her thoughts, and just as well. She was enjoying her daydream so much that the journey was becoming tempting. Her maidservant entered her drawing room and gave a quick curtsy. Nadira was a short, sturdy matron who worked directly for Allegra, unlike the rest of the servants at Borro Abbey who attended her. Allegra didn’t force Nadira to wear livery or a uniform, so she sported a simple blue dress with a beige apron, white sleeve protectors, and a gray scarf about her neck to ward against the evening mountain chill. She’d taken to wearing her graying black coils in thick braids tight against her head these days, all ending as soon as they escaped past the nape of her neck. Nadira said she was too old to bother with long hair.
“Pardon the interruption, Your Ladyship, but you have visitors.”
“At this hour?” She glanced out her window; the sun was already setting. “Tell them I’m not at home. They can come back tomorrow at a civilized time.”
“They come from Orsini Palace, Your Ladyship, on business directly from the Holy Father.”
Allegra stared down at her writing desk with a frown, but opted to leave her letters out. Doubtful this company would be here long. She tugged off the billowy white sleeves protecting her dress and stuffed them inside her writing desk’s storage. She nodded to Nadira, then stood to smooth down her dress.
Nadira curtsied again and left, entering a few moments later with three dusty men in tow. “Your Ladyship, may I present Captain Rainier, and Lieutenants Lex and Dodd, of the Holy Father’s Own Consorts.”
The oldest of the three was a tall, broad-chested man, and rather handsome. The insignia sewn into his sleeves identified him as the rank of Captain. He had several days’ growth on his face that was longer than the hair on his head. He was darker complexioned than herself, with a firm, chiseled jaw, and very easy on the eyes. Allegra’s mouth quirked in spite of her annoyance over the interruption.
Captain Rainier spoke first. “Your Ladyship, thank you for seeing us at such a late hour.”
Allegra motioned at the sofa before seating herself on a nearby chair. She kept a tight guard on her tongue. She had no idea why these three were here, but she was certain it wasn’t for good.
The two younger companions moved to sit, but stopped when Captain Rainier spoke. “We don’t wish to dirty your furniture, Your Ladyship.”
“I insist,” she said, and the three men sat down across from her.
Allegra suppressed the urge to both cough and put her hand to her nose. They had definitely just arrived. “Would any of you like some broth? I don’t like to eat this late in the evening, so I usually take hot broth instead. I believe this one was made with mostly salt beef, so it’s quite delicious.”
“Only if it isn’t a bother for the servant,” Captain Rainier said. “Otherwise, we can wait until the morning.”
The sad, pathetic expressions of Rainier’s companions said their young stomachs could not wait until the morrow. She stood back up, and took a mug down from the rack on the wall. She dipped the mug into the pot near the fireplace, and then wiped it down with a cloth that hung nearby. She placed the mug on a saucer and handed it to the Captain. She repeated the action twice more for the other two, who gaped at her. They had not expected this fine lady to know how to dip a cup into a pot.
Normally, Allegra would have made an innocent quip, but she knew to keep a stern exterior. She didn’t trust anyone from Orsini, and she certainly wasn’t in the mood for clerical politics today. She could, and would, be polite for politeness’ sake, but it wouldn’t extend further than the basic hospitality she’d show anyone.
Mugs now safely handed over, she retook her seat, folded her hands on her lap. She let her guests take their first tentative sips. “Now, how may I help you?”
“His Radiance sent us to deliver a letter. Lex?” Captain Rainier nodded at the lean, young man seated next to him.
Lieutenant Lex balanced his cup and saucer in one hand while digging in a side satchel with the other.
Allegra waited for the letter’s imminent arrival, giving her an opportunity to take stock of Captain Rainier’s companions. Lieutenant Lex was quite lean, with narrow shoulders and long, thin fingers that would have made him a perfect pianoforte player, assuming he’d ever learnt. He was pale, but had enough of a tan from the southern Orsini sun to not look pallid and sickly. He had no facial hair at all, not even a shadow, so he must have been younger than his eyes made him out to be.
The other man, therefore, must have been Lieutenant Dodd. Dodd was the color of cooked lobster. Allegra winced; that was obviously a painful sunburn.
Dodd caught her staring and said, “I lost my hat two days ago, Your Ladyship.”
Allegra winced again. “I will have my maid bring you a healing cream.”
“That would be very appreciated.”
“A man of your skin should not be without a hat,” Allegra said idly when she spied several blisters on his ears.
Lex found the letter finally and handed it to Rainier. In turn, Rainier stood to hand it to her. “Your Ladyship.”
Something about the Captain’s name tugged at her memory. The accent suggested he was from the north, perhaps Cumberland or Northumberland. Maybe Southumberland? Summerland, maybe? One of the –lands.
That name sound familiar, but why. Captain Rainier of Cumberland? No, it didn’t mean anything to her, but yet she was sure she should know this man. Damn, it was going to bug her all night now.
Rainier handed over the sealed envelope. “His Holiness said you should read it immediately.”
“How lovely,” Allegra said before her brain caught the snide remark from slipping aloud. She didn’t bother looking up, to save her guests the trouble of attempting to hide their smirks.
She tore through the seal and read the sprawling, educated handwriting inside:
To the Gracious and Humble Allegra, Contessa of Marsina
The Lord God Almighty’s greetings upon Your Ladyship. Thank you for your last correspondence. How fortunate I am to have been blessed with such a friend in these trying times. For you to offer your assistance and guidance is indeed a blessing from the Lord God Almighty himself.
I have mediated on this situation. I even fasted in hopes that the Almighty would show me which of the roads before me I should choose. Your letter came as I labored and struggled to comprehend the direction He would wish me to take.
As ever, I should have turned my thoughts to the word of Tasmin, who said “The prideful will fall upon my sword.” You must have been inspired by her remembrance in your selfless act.
Therefore, I have dispatched Captain Rainier and his guard to personally escort you to Orsini Palace to begin your new role as Arbiter of Justice for the Cathedral during these most trying times for your kind. I am certain, once you pray upon this, you will know this is the right course of action for all of us. Thank you for volunteering to take on this nigh-impossible task.
May the Lord Almighty smile down upon you.
His Radiance, Holy Father Francois
“I am going to murder Rupert,” Allegra muttered.
“Who’s Rupert?” Dodd asked. A beat later, he lowered his voice and said, “What? What did I say?”
Rupert was Allegra’s childhood friend, rival, potential suitor, and partner in crime. He was more commonly now known as Holy Father Francois, His Radiance, The Annoying One, and so on. He knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote that letter, and most likely was grinning while he penned each word.
Through gritted teeth, she asked, “Captain, are you aware of the contents of this letter?”
Rainier cleared his throat as way of reply.
“I will assume that is a yes.”
“We are your escort back to the Cathedral,” Captain Rainier said.
Stanton stared at the Contessa in wonderment. He knew he was staring. He knew he needed to stop. And he knew he was still staring at her. She was nothing at all like what he’d expected. For one thing, she couldn’t have been much more than thirty, and while true that wasn’t young enough in many aristocratic men’s eyes, she was not the decrepit, feeble old woman he’d imagined.
She wasn’t pretty, either, which was a point in her favor. She wasn’t all ribbons and silks. No, that wouldn’t have suited. The Contessa wore a stylish, but practical dress. She lacked adornments and was without rouge or stencils marring her flawless, golden-brown skin.
There was a hint of arrogant superiority that lingered in her posture, but it never crept into her voice. Her body posture announced her high breeding and station, but that haughtiness was tempered by the haphazard tail of wavy, black hair that cascaded over one of her shoulders.
She was handsome, beautiful, elegant, poised, and confident.
She stood up quickly, and the others struggled to their feet to match her movement. She thrust her chin out and said, “I’m sorry for your long journey, but I don’t wish to leave the abbey. Please let Francois know I said no. Good evening.”
Stanton ignored Lex’s elbow digging into him, as Lex tugged Dodd upright. When they got back to Orsini, Stanton was putting Dodd through another round of etiquette classes, and would continue to put him through them until that damned kid decided to act in the manner appropriate to his birthright.
Stanton inclined his head slightly and said, “Your Ladyship, I am under strict instructions from the Holy Father himself to convince you to accompany me back to Orsini, to meet personally with him at the Palace.”
“I don’t care in the slightest,” she said.
Lex made a choking sound. Stanton glared at his second-in-command and made a mental note that Lex would be attending classes soon, too, if he kept this up.
“Sorry. Swallowed the wrong way,” Lex wheezed.
The break in conversation did allow Stanton enough of a pause to choose his words carefully. “The Holy Father believes you are the best candidate to broker a…”
“Captain, you have disrupted my quiet evening at home, so give me the courtesy of not lying to me in my own drawing room. He’s doing this because I embarrassed him. This is his way of getting his revenge. I will not fall for his tricks. We are not children anymore, and I will not have him treating me as one.”
Despite knowing better, a smile tugged on one side of Stanton’s mouth.
Fury flashed in her eyes. “Are you laughing at me, Captain?”
“Not at all. Pero warned me that you were a firebrand. Francois said you were frail. I see now which of them knows you best.”
The Contessa’s dark eyes sparkled and a wicked grin cracked her stern disguise. “Frail? Oh, am I not what you were expecting, Captain?”
“Not even remotely.”
Her anger dissipated in a flash and she barked out an undignified laugh. “Did the Holy Father give you the impression I was some frail old woman? Oh! Did he say I was low in spirits?” Stanton’s mouth twitched, which was all the affirmation she needed. She laughed more. “He’s turned into such a mother hen since his elevation to the papal chair. I am not to be trifled with, and he knows that.”
“Indeed he does.” Stanton reached down to place the mug and saucer he was still holding on the small table next to the sofa. “I apologize for disrupting your evening, Your Ladyship. We are staying in the stables tonight if you should happen to change your mind. Good evening.”
Stanton knew enough from his mother and sisters not to argue with a woman of rank when she’d dug in to make her stand. He bowed and turned on his heel. He would speak to her again in the morning.
Courtesy demanded she’d speak with him first, ensuring she had not offended him, so he had every expectation she’d send for him. Then, after her assurances that she’d meant no offense, his duty would be to insist he had been the offender. They would banter back and forth until, finally, he would guilt-trip her into coming to the Cathedral to salvage his duty and honor.
That was Francois’s plan.
“I’m sorry, Captain. I’ve lost my manners this evening.” He turned around to face her; she was still standing. “Please sit and let us discuss this like adults.”
Damn Francois to the pit, and his letter with him. And damn that idiot bishop’s letter arriving and throwing her off. She was angrier than all of the demons in the abyss, and it was a hair’s width tie of which problem topped the list.
How dare Francois send these three here to kidnap her. He knew she never left Borro Abbey these days, and he knew why. Least of all Cathedral politics! Which was why she resorted to only letter writing and charitable donations. She could remain an active part of the world without having to step into it.
But she’d also been rude to her guests, who’d done nothing more than fulfill their duty and assignments. “It’s been a long day and I apologize for being rude. Captain, would you mind having your companions step outside?”
“Certainly, Your Ladyship,” Lex said.
Dodd nodded sharply to Allegra and said, “Your Ladyship.” The two left together without a return glance or a whisper.
Once the drawing room door shut behind them, Allegra sat back in her chair. She motioned with her hand at the sofa. “I wish to begin again.”
Captain Rainier inclined his head and retook his seat. “As you wish, Your Ladyship.”
Allegra smiled. “Gentlemen’s manners?”
She slipped into court language, the tongue of the elite. She could small talk her way into a decent enough mood, and maybe drag some information out of this captain in the process. “Gentlemen’s manners from a guard captain. Well, I suppose you do work for the Cathedral, so I shouldn’t be too surprised.” She made a scene of sizing him up. He was easy on the eyes, so at least that task was enjoyable. “Obviously, a younger son of rank. The military is usually the province of second sons and the clergy that of third. Hmm, I am guessing you are a fourth son, with no property of his own, and achieved his position through the influence of his two older brothers and perhaps an uncle. Am I close, Captain?”
Rainier’s mouth formed several silent words before his mouth quirked upwards. “I’m a fifth son.”
“Your poor mother.”
“Indeed,” Rainier said with a snort. “Later in life, I took a position at the Cathedral, escorting cardinals and bishops between their homes and the palace. Eventually, I was raised through the ranks and here I am, escorting beautiful ladies to the palace.”
Allegra shot him an unimpressed look, though she knew the mirth in her voice gave her away. “Flattery will get you nowhere.”
“I’m relieved, as that was the extent of my skills.”
It was Allegra’s turn to let out a little snort. She eyed the letter and asked, “Did they really tell you I was a recluse?”
Rainier made a show of hesitation, but then he nodded. The sparkle didn’t leave his eye. “His Holiness for certain, as well as several bishops I spoke with while preparing for my journey. I have a few friends amongst the clergy, so I deliver letters or small parcels if it’s not out of my way. Even Father Michael, here at the abbey, was very concerned that I not disrupt you, for fear of unsettling your nerves. It was your maidservant that convinced him you were still up and could use the distraction from your…” he glanced at her writing desk, “work.”
“I’ll have you know, Captain, that I am not fine lacework. I am made of much stronger material.”
“I’m discovering that for myself, Your Ladyship.” He leaned forward. “They expect you to refuse, claiming some malady or nervous complaint. Then, there is someone to blame if the peace talks fail once more.”
She nearly fell for the bait, but she kept her spine straight and said, “I see you also spoke with Pero.”
“Yes. It is his opinion that you should take this position to spit on the slave-owning cardinals.”
“Pero’s a fop.”
Rainier shrugged. “He can still be right.”
Captain Rainier was too good at this game, and Allegra was out of practice. He was obviously more than simply a Cathedral guard captain, and it irked her he was getting the better of her. He knew just what words to say to spur her underlying ambitions that hid safely out of view. How did he even know they were there?
Pero, of course. If Pero had his way, Allegra would be holding Elemental Mage Rights rallies while flaunting the law until it caught up to her. Then, upon arrest and a showy trial that would go down in the annals of judicial history, she would be sentenced to the mines. She would burst out into her elemental form, burning through her oppressors and go on the run. Support would gather for her, and soon the people would stand up against injustice and the laws would be changed.
Pero was a dangerously idealistic fop.
“Captain, I have no interest in politics, let alone being the Arbiter. Doing nothing but listening to prattling nobles and merchant upstarts whine about how religious law impedes their pursuits, I…I would lose my mind and my temper.”
“Think of the influence you’d have.”
She made a dismissive sound. “I am one of the richest nobles in all of Serna. I’m wealthier than some princes. I need no more influence.”
“Then do it to spite them all.”
Oh, Pero had prepared him well. It had been a long time since Allegra had been at Orsini’s palace or the Cathedral. Most of them back at the Cathedral had no idea she kept up on politics, or that she was active in her letter writing, protests, and funding of various peaceful organizations. And, perhaps, a couple of less-than-peaceful organizations who were smuggling elemental mages to safety. But no one needed to know that, especially not a magistrate who would attempt to arrest her.
“I do not want the position.”
“Then don’t take it,” Rainier said. “I’m here to escort you, not to force you into a career.”
The very act of her showing up at the Cathedral could cause beautiful trouble. She could visit the Bishop of Orsini himself and give him a very large, very angry piece of her mind; she could even demand to see what her money had purchased. She could make loud protestations about the clergy’s treatment of mages, get a feel for the number of abolitionist hardliners in the Cathedral’s ranks, and begin a renewed campaign for mage rights.
This was the perfect reason to get her out of Borro Abbey for a few weeks and to cause trouble elsewhere. She didn’t have to take the position.
Allegra looked up at Rainier and smiled. “We’ll take my carriage.”
Thanks so much,