Okay, so after the excitement of meeting a double-layered skin-thief and his gang of minions two days ago, I slept fairly well. I woke up at a respectable hour yesterday – there were still some good pastries left, and the coffee was hot. Nid came over to where I was eating breakfast pulled out one of those enormous, embarrassingly conspicuous Ducal envelopes, and gave it to me. Sinking feeling. I opened it.
Congratulations, Leo! it said. You have been singled out to serve as direct minion to your favorite psychotic cousins and Ducal heirs, Ivan and Feodor! Well, the wording was a little more flowery and indirect, but you get the gist. The only upshot was, Nid pulled out a smaller envelope that indicated that he’d been simultaneously attached to Ivan and Feodor’s bodyguard staff, so at least we’d each have some company in our misery.
It was a lovely morning yesterday as we made our way up to the Ducal compound. Wafting breezes, singing birds – a perfect early spring day. It was almost soothing enough to put my mind at ease. Not quite enough.
Once we got to the compound, we were passed through multiple layers of security and sat to wait. Eventually a man and two women came in wearing house colors, and the younger-looking of the two women offered us some mid-morning nibbles from a tray. (I realized later on that her hair had been covering her ears – Fayla is actually an elf, so she’s probably closer to 80 than the 12 – 16 years I’d thought at first). The man – Dubek – introduced himself, Kayleon (the older woman), and Fayla. He coordinates staff, Kayleon runs the household day-to-day, and Fayla serves as the head of the heirs’ eyes and ears informants network. I’m not sure whether it’s weirder to have an awkward teenager or an awkward elf running the eyes and ears, but either way, it’s a bit strange. She’s one of those people who makes everyone around her feel awkward on her behalf for how uncomfortable and awkward she looks all the time. As far as I could tell, it wasn’t a put-on. Odd.
After some hedging by Dubek in his welcome speech, Kayleon translated what he wanted to say as “it’s not the easiest place to work, here – we look out for one another. Let us know if They push you too hard.”
They gave us a tour, then. The heirs’ quarters are self-contained like the children’s quarters on the other side – own kitchen, stable, guard barracks, wine cellar, etc., separated from the main house by a guard station. Missing from the tour were the sleeping quarters – easy enough to figure out – and a set of stairs down to below the kitchens. Kayleon and Dubek looked uncomfortable when I asked what was down there, and Dubek muttered something about “private studies”. From this I surmise that a number of people have been disemboweled down there for amusement when Feodor has nothing better to do with his time. Have I mentioned how much I love my cousins?
The tour wound up in what can only be described as a miniature throne room – a long wide hall leading up to a dais with two big chairs. The chairs are equal size and weight – I’ve always been interested that Ivan so willingly shares his heir’s place with Feodor. The two of them do complement each other’s skills fairly well, but it’s just fascinating that he’s never seemed to put himself above his younger brother. Anyway, the area up on the dais is decorated up like a study with bookshelves and fireplace, I guess to give plausible deniability to the fact that the whole thing is a throne hall. Ivan was sitting on the left, looking, as always, as if the sand in his underpants was chafing him. Feodor was sitting calmly on the right, reading a book.
It’s clear from the room setup that they expect to be treated like Dukes although they’re still heirs. A brief sweet thought occurred to me to play along with the charade all the way up the hall, with the prescribed number of bows and flourishes due to the Duke and then tweak them at the end by going all casual and treating it like their study, but I had promised myself I’d try not to get in too much hot water, at least on my first day. So instead I did the lesser bowing sequence due only to lords of a domain, rather than to a Duke. That had the benefit of tweaking them anyway, because it denied their lofty self-opinions, but it was exactly appropriate and delivered respectfully, so beyond reproach. Sweetness and light. Nid followed behind me and did exactly what I did – so it was double-good choice.
Ivan took this opportunity to be snide, haughty, and unendearing. He dismissed Nid and told me that Dubek would brief me on my duties. On leaving, I again had the choice – to the Duke, I would never turn my back while departing. To them, as it happens, it was appropriate. So I smiled, turned my back to Ivan and took my leave.
Until the door burst open ahead of me.
And a lot of large, armed men piled in.
Followed by Duke Markov Kalb.
Who opened his arms and enthusiastically embraced me like a son.
Remember how I’d wanted to stay out of hot water on my first day?
My brain was already stuck on OH SHIT before he had a table and chair brought in and had a bottle of ‘47 popped and poured for me. Yes, ‘47. You don’t drink ‘47. My parents have a single bottle of it in their winecellars, a cherished wedding gift. Markov sat me down with the glass and then went up to the dias to “talk” with his sons, audibly dressing them down (iron fist in a velvet glove) for being disappointing screw-ups.
It was like the most fucked up private dinner theatre imaginable – which is to say, it was a thing of beauty. It would have been a thing of pure beauty had it not also been clearly tuned to make them as pissed off at me as humanly possible. Feodor managed to play it fairly cool. Ivan – especially after his father pushed him back down into his chair – was trying to kill me with his eyes. And the wine was mind-meltingly delicious.
Then Markov called me up to the dias. Ivan was still sulking in his chair, Feodor standing near him. Markov asked me to have a seat.
There are just the two heirs’ chairs on the dias. The only seat I could take would be Feodor’s, which was the one the Duke had waved me at.
I desperately tried to play it cool, doing a casual “hey, did you want to sit in this seat?” nonverbal gesture to Feodor. He looked calculating for a moment, then gestured back at the throne-chair. “Please.”
So I sat, mind and heart trying to outpace one another, trying to look unruffled.
“How do you feel about the issue?” Markov asked
I had to ask for clarification. Which got Ivan another velvet smackdown for not briefing me. “Neutralizing political rivals. Stopping an embarrassing political experiment. Shutting down an embassy.” This wasn’t much clarification, but I got that the latter part was talking about the “ambassadorship” to Averton that Ivan and Feodor tried to send us on a ways back. I think I managed to be agreeable and noncommittal, which I tried to keep up then when he asked how I felt about the King, saying that I’d clearly gained the interest of the King’s guard. Holy fucking— what is this man up to? If he liked me half as much as he was putting forth, he wouldn’t be demonstrating it so much. But if he hated me as much as you’d expect from the effort put into goading Ivan and Feodor towards homicide, he could easily already have me dead. Which leaves me, I think, as a pawn in his game with his sons. I’d guess that the only relevance I have personally in the equation is that if I survive it will be a point in my favor in his book. And several points against me in his heirs’ books. That’s going to be particularly uncomfortable when the title eventually goes to them.
Still, on the whole, it was worth the price of admission just to get to be there on a pedestal while Ivan and Feodor were being lambasted. It was a brief, shining moment, but I’ll cherish it.
The Duke and his entourage swept out, and everything was suddenly quiet. I gingerly got out of Feodor’s chair and began to take my leave. Ivan ordered me to stop, so I turned around again.
“What was that about?” he hissed.
“What. Was. That. About.”
“Ah… as heir I’m sure you know better than I. I genuinely have no idea.”
He sat and looked angry and constipated for a few moments more, then gestured at me to leave.
Dubek was standing at the back waiting for me, holding the glass of ‘47 very carefully. He seemed about as taken aback by the whole production as the rest of us – if he knew the backstory, he didn’t let on. “Well, ah… here’s your glass of wine. That’s worth more than I’ll make in ten years. My lord.” I didn’t want to make any more enemies, so I offered him a sip. He declined. Now that’s professionalism.
He led me away and gave me the brief rundown on what I’ve been called in for, although he admitted that Ivan and Feodor had forbidden him to fully disclose some elements of it. That seemed to make him a bit uncomfortable, given Duke Markov’s sudden involvement.
At any rate, my first mission seems to have been in line with the “neutralizing political rivals” part of Markov’s abbreviated explanation. The request was to get signed papers or a personal item that could be directly tied back to Emile Mann – something large enough to be used as evidence. Evidence for what was one of the things I’m not allowed to know, but I suspect that the plan is for something to go poorly for Emile. Dubek gave me a dossier on Emile detailing his daily and monthly routines and led me to a private solarium to read the files, sip the wine, and formulate a plan.
Now don’t get me wrong – Emile Mann is an ass and I’m not particularly fond of him. But having had the King’s roof-crawlers trailing me for the past several weeks and knowing that there’s likely an equivalent dossier on me floating around somewhere made my skin crawl as I read his file.
The files detailed three places where Emile spends most of his time – at home in the family compound, at low court, and at a dawn dueling club. There was a whole section of the dossier detailing the grounds, the house layout and some guard patterns at the estate, although there was a good deal of missing information. Even without that extra information it looked to be a bit of a death-trap to try to break into on short notice. Low court presented some possibilities, but my sudden reappearance coinciding with the disappearance of a possession of Emile’s seemed unworkably conspicuous. Dubek had stressed that open house-to-house warfare was preferable over Emile knowing that I’d stolen something of his. Which left the dueling club on Tilters’ Field, where dozens of highly skilled fighters gather on a brightly lit field.
I realized that I needed to talk it through a bit with another sneaky sort, so I brought it to Alexei, since he’s a cousin and has no fondness for Emile. My only thought as to how to get everyone to look away from where the gear bags are kept long enough for me to snatch and dash would be to orchestrate a distraction. There’s a girl on my floor at the Clubhouse who’s in the dueling club and is both messy and hotheaded, so the plan I put to him was that one of her practice swords could be “accidentally” a lookalike sharpened sword. Bad for whoever she hit with it, but hopefully it wouldn’t be too deadly. I asked if there were any glaring problems or omissions in the plan and his only criticism was that I needed an accomplice for the getaway, which sounded like volunteering to me.
I pinched her practice blade and dressed Alexei up in a pretty good disguise (complete with eyepatch) to go get it sharpened enough to cut. This morning I got up way before dawn so that I could be in position well before any of the duelists got there. I noted where Emile left his bag – right in an uncomfortably open spot, as his dossier had said he usually did. And then waited. It was a few hours, but it seemed like forever before Amy finally used that practice blade. When the blade struck, everyone went over, and I dashed like a bunny in and out, grabbing Emile’s blade and another one from a nearby bag to keep it from looking too targeted. I met Alexei in our arranged meetup spot and he said it didn’t seem like anyone had noticed me.
I concealed and brought in the two blades with me when I came to the Ducal compound this morning, and passed them on to Dubek, noting who the second one came from and that it should be made to go away if possible. He turned that one over to Fayla who seemed to know what to do with it.
They didn’t seem surprised that I strolled in the morning after the assignment with something of Emile’s to turn in. I’m not sure whether to be flattered that they think I’m that good, or worried that I set that as a bar for my future assignments.
The next assignment is to steal a specific manuscript from a lockbox inside the Foamers’ compound. It’s a contract between two ships’ captains – Juan Marco and a pirate known as The Distillian – dated about 2 years ago. It was last known to be in the auditor’s office 11 days ago in a box that holds contracts that are still valid, organized by signer and date. Dubek gave me the guard patterns for the compound and information from specialists brought in for Security. Evidently there’s nothing on the box itself, but the office is trapped. Dubek gave me 2 healing potions and one that makes me immune to electrical zaps for five minutes – apparently that’s a particular fondness of theirs. Looks like it may be an exciting evening.