Marigold

Chapter VII

Marigold II

 

There was no more denying the hard truth: Marscal Tullivan was dying. Nothing else could be as clear to Marigold as she stepped into her father’s designated quarters in the Howland Manor and laid her eyes upon him.

Propped upright on down pillows amongst a bed that could fit five men, he looked like a sickly and shrivelled old man nearing his hundredth birthday. A white night shirt that laced from chest to neck hung limp and untied on the depleted frame of a man who in truth was shy of sixty. His face was the most striking feature now. Marigold had not realised how much makeup had been applied to bring life to the loose, clammy and colourless skin. One would barely notice his eyes: they looked as though they had fallen backward into the skull and had grown dark circles that made them look like pale moons in the night sky.

All through the Parliamentary sessions and even in the months leading up to it, her father had taken painstaking measures to conceal his illness as best he could. In addition to a wig and makeup, Marscal had taken to wearing thicker clothing to atone for the weight loss and dark rimmed spectacles to cover his face and eyes. It was seeing Marscal with his disguise removed that left Marigold no doubt of his rapid deterioration.

He’s smiling. Marigold noted. The last time he smiled Mother and Brother were coming home. When the ship carrying them back to Daol Bay from Gildriad disappeared, Marigold thought Marscal’s smile had vanished with them forever. Yet, as Marscal sat in his bed, with the evening sun flittering through the tall, panelled window to fall upon his ill face, there it was: a smile and warmth in his eyes as they met Marigold’s. In his hands sat a book, bound in leather that was coloured a shade of evening blue. A golden silk bookmark was laid into place by the paper thin hands that once had been so strong, before they closed the book, letting it come to rest on a tired lap.

“Good evening, my darling Marigold,” Marscal beamed. “You look so splendid and radiant in your new dress. Please, come sit with me a moment, let me see it from up close. My eyes are going with the rest of me, I fear.”

A grinding noise caught her attention and Marigold turned her head to find Oire on the opposite side of the room. His back turned to her as he worked something between mortar and pestle on a dark stained desk. “Good evening, Oire.” She said to the steward as she strode gracefully across the room to her father’s bedside.

“Good evening to you as well, my lady,” he answered, still without turning to face her.

Marigold left him to his work and seated herself softly on the brown satin comforter trimmed in gold fringe that covered the twigs her father now called his legs. There was pain rapt across his face and beads of sweat running freely as he winced. The disease was sapping his strength and racking him with an incomprehensible misery. But in that agony there seemed to be delirium, as if he was drunk on it.

Tenderly, she laid a hand upon his, and sat there silently for a moment, unsure what to say as she forced a smile.

“You look even more gorgeous up close, Marigold,” her father spoke first. “I always said you were the very image of your mother and she was the most beautiful woman these eyes have ever looked upon.” His voice was still that gravelly tone Marigold knew so well, but a rasp coupled with heaving, laboured breaths made it harder for him to produce it. Yet, he pulled himself up higher on his pillows with a great effort expended and kept on. ”You’ve grown to become just like her as well, you know, so spirited, strong willed and brilliant. Both of you were and are too good for this old country of old men and older ways. I should have taken your mother to Gildriad when Serephanie was born and raised you all there.”

“You did what you thought was best,” Marigold said, wondering where these thoughts were coming from so suddenly. Her father was a man who kept his emotions hidden close and she felt this was all beyond strange for him to say.

“Did I, Marigold? Most days I feel like I made an incorrigible mess of things. In one stroke I signed away our home, my family’s name, our hard earned fortunes and most of all, my only daughters. Then there was my wife and son. Both gone now and I blame myself for that too.” Marscal’s eyes watered as they looked away into a distant memory.

Oire, who had heard everything, turned sharply, almost dropping his tools as Marscal uttered the last sentence. Ever so quickly, he walked around the bed to his master, holding a curved, wooden pipe in his left hand and a box of matches in the other. “My Lord, I prepared your medicine, shall I light it for you?”

“Yes, please,” Marscal said as his voice cracked. “Help me to dull this pain.”

A match was struck on one of the high rising, ornately carved bedposts and Oire lit and took a few quick puffs of the Johnahweed to get it burning. The steward ran a handkerchief over the mouthpiece of the pipe to wipe any saliva from it before handing it over to Marscal. At once his grip on his daughter’s hand was released so that he might smoke from the pipe.

That plant from the tropical nation halfway across the world was the only medicine they had been able to find that seemed to do her father any use. Usually, its effects served only to ease his pain and dull his senses with no detrimental effects to his cognition.

As the ill man in the bed drew from his pipe, Marigold turned to Oire. “Has father been given any new medication?” She cut straight to the point, a little perturbed by what Marscal had said thus far.

Oire exhaled through his nose and furrowed his eyebrows as he spoke. “That damn doctor that Lord Howland keeps paid a visit earlier. He claimed that Lord Howland himself had requested it.” The steward stated in an annoyed, though hushed tone. “Lord Marscal had not permitted anyone but our own Doctor Bannington to know of his ailment, but I suppose your father could only hide it for so long. Doctor Garrick offered the Lord a tonic, one I was trained to use a long time ago. It is really only useful for killing pain and lasts but a short time, yet is highly addictive. I would not give it to anyone but the immediately dying to ease passing, personally. Your father refused it three times over but the doctor stayed quite a while. I couldn’t prepare his Johnahweed and at any rate, Marscal would not have smoked it in front of him, given its illegality.

“Then that handmaiden of yours paid a visit to inform me that you had sent for me. I was about to send her back with a message to ask you to wait for me a little while longer, but your father insisted I tend to you first.” Oire had walked back to his counter and returned with a towel to mop the sweat from his employer’s brow as he spoke. “So, your father selflessly wallowed here in agony and endured the pain until I could return to him.

“And pain, as you well know, has a way of fogging the senses and can leave one as delirious as the drink. I wasted no time readying some of the herb from the tropical lands for him to smoke after I had returned. I don’t think there’s anything that fights the consumption quite as well as Johnahweed. It certainly has given your father quite an extension on his life where most would have already expired.”

Marigold nodded at Oire’s words, watching Marscal suck back the smoke from the burning plant. The room took on a pungent odour, one she had become accustomed to over the previous two seasons. It had become a familiar scene ever since Oire and Doctor Bannington both suggested the exotic plant be Marscal’s medicine of choice to treat the consumption disease he had fallen victim to. The old steward slid quietly back to the counter, leaving the father and daughter to talk in relative privacy.

Her father lowered his pipe, holding it in the left hand. All the while his eyes took on the familiar pink hue they usually did when he smoked his pipe and they fell to the book still on his lap. That strange smile crept back on Marscal’s face, just then and he tapped the book with a free finger before releasing his latest quarry of smoke. Coughing and sputtering a little before catching his breath again, he said, “I’m glad you came when you did, my darling daughter. I was just reading your mother’s favourite book. She had taken our copy of it across the sea all those years ago and I never thought to replace it. Oire was able to find one in the library on the first floor. I hadn’t read it in years, but it still makes me think of her with every page.”

There was a yearning for Marigold to bring the conversation back around to his claim of responsibility for the death of her mother and brother. Yet, she went along with his current want. “What book is that, Father? You never told me she had a favourite.”

“She most certainly did and this was it without a doubt. It is called The Romance of the Two Knights. A true story, though I think the author embellishes a little. It was one of the reasons she was so eager to move to Daol Bay with me, you know. She had wanted to see all the places in Illiastra that the knights in this book visited.” Marscal coughed as his face warmed from recalling the memory. “They’re gone though, the places, I mean and the knights too, for that matter. The world has changed much in eight hundred years, I am afraid.”

This was the chance to change the topic and Marigold took it. “I would like to read that for myself when I return home now that I know it was Mother’s fondest book. I will be certain to make a trip to the book store in our city to buy it.” She said with a slim smile, clasping his free hand in her own again. “Father, I am wondering about what you spoke of a little while ago. Why do you feel responsible for what happened to her and brother?”

The book on Marscal’s lap caught his eye again as he considered her question. A look of sorrow ran across his face as he tried to recall what was said just moments before in an agony induced haze. “I-I said far too much, my dear. This is not something that needs be discussed when the walls hear so well.” Her father’s eyes darted to the door she had entered through and then to the servant’s door that led to their passageway. The dying lord was still full of pain, Marigold knew. It would be a time before he would sober from it, but at any rate, Marscal was suspicious of something or someone overhearing their conversation. Marigold was aware that the servants often reported to Lord Howland himself or to whichever minister was willing to produce the gold coins to pay.

There was little time to worry about the past for now, with too much else to currently deal with. Marigold would have to leave it as the ramblings of a man tormented with a cruel disease and move on. “Don’t concern yourself over it then, Father. I’m sure we will talk when we are home.” She patted his hand before continuing on and abandoning that particular train of thought. “I did you well today,” she said by way of letting the topic switch to something more current. “Daol Bay’s business with the Parliament is concluded for the year. We can leave for home on the morrow feeling resolved.”

Marscal sank back into his pillows, relaxing once more. “I have no doubt you served the Tullivan name proudly. Likely, you could serve it far better than I ever have. I have done a lot of deeds I’m not proud of and I cannot alter that now, but you, my dear, can learn from my mistakes.”

“I don’t understand what you are saying, Father,” Marigold said while shooting Oire a look of concern.

The steward had turned to face the pair, leaning against the counter in the corner of the room as her father carefully contemplated his words while puffing on his pipe.

“I am saying we cannot fool ourselves, my dear. I am dying and Serephanie has run off with that damnable fisherman.” Spittle formed in the corners of his mouth, and the last word was tinged with contempt for a man he had never met. A coughing bout came over him for a moment, but he recovered, to continue on. “Everything named Tullivan will be yours and I don’t want you to make the mistakes I made. Do what is right, for yourself and for everyone. I was too weak and craven to do as much myself after your mother perished.”

“Why are you saying this now, Father? Why not wait until we were home safely?” Marigold uttered worriedly. Oire was standing behind her then, a gentle hand coming to rest on her shoulder.

Clearing his throat, Marscal gave her an answer in a lowered voice. “Because, my dear, as far as I’m concerned my record in Parliament finished yesterday and yours began today.” Marscal reached for her hand this time, laying it meekly over her own and squeezing it with the bit of strength left to it. “There are many eyes on you now and they know I am as good as gone. I can tell you that those Palomb boys are starting to slaver at the thought of my death. You and I know I won’t have time to turn cold before they try to lay claim to you and Daol Bay.”

Marigold felt a welling sombreness within her as she found words to respond with. “You’re still very much alive, Father. I don’t want to even so much as think about a world without you in it.”

“You must,” he answered with a demanding voice. “You are the only child that remains to me now. Felixander is long dead and Serephanie has placed herself out of reach by all. But you, Marigold, you are what remains to hold the Tullivan legacy. The Palombs will come for you, or rather, for your hand in marriage, and they will claim everything of ours and erase our name entirely. They had foolishly thought you were but a key to the west, but today, you showed them you are much more than that. You showed them that you are a Tullivan of Daol Bay and a proud woman, not an object. You are the keeper of the keys, not the key itself.”

A beaming smile crossed her face. “Thank you, Father. It gladdens me to know you have such faith in me. Might I ask how it is that you know all of this?”

“I had a visitor earlier, before the doctor,” Marscal said with a content sigh. “Apparently you made a bold statement and you should know that it was hard for me to mask my pride when I was told of it.”

“And might I ask who that visitor was, Father?” Marigold plied him, taking care to keep her tone hushed.

“The backbench minister from the Warrens in the Southlands. You know the fellow, yourself and Serephanie always had a certain name for him.”

“The Vulture,” she heard herself say aloud, even laughing a little at it. Marigold had called that long-serving minister by that name since the first time she had seen him as a child. He was perpetually hairless above the neck, with a long, hooked nose, a thin face and a wrinkled forehead. His facial appearance combined with the fact that he always wore a cape topped with a wide collar of feathers made him look almost identical to the scavenging buzzards. His real name was Minister Clay Harlowe, but the Vulture was what Marigold and Serephanie always referred to him as, though never in his hearing.

“The very same,” her father pressed on, “You know how pious he is, always insisting on staying in the city during sessions so he can be near a Tower of Ios for morning prayers and such.” Marigold nodded in reply and Marscal continued. “Well he was none too pleased when he saw you wearing breeches and sitting in my seat today. You broke quite a few of Ios’ rules in Minister Harlowe’s eyes, and he was quite offended at your slight of the god.”

Marigold allowed herself half a smile and her father gave one back, a hint of pride glinting in his reddened eyes. “Surely he did not bring himself here just to complain to you?” she asked.

“Just so, he was quite adamant that I burn those breeches and any other traditional men’s attire you might own to appease Ios.” Marscal let out a scoff as he spoke, a wisp of smoke curling up before his face. “Clay also had the audacity to suggest that I hasten your marriage to the Palombs so that a male may sit in your seat and rule Daol Bay. Lest our name be cursed for offending and disobeying Ios, which will take down the entire parliament by association and all of that nonsense.” He waved the hand that had just been over Marigold’s dismissively as he finished.

‘Your seat.’ Those were the two words that stuck out the most to Marigold. The rest were the typical complaints of such a devout man of the Triarchy, which was something that Marigold had grown quite accustomed to.

The entire parliament had fallen silent when she was announced today. Their eyes had followed and judged her with every step taken up the red, carpeted stairs to the wide desk just below and to the right of Grenjin Howland’s. The ire of the Lords and Ministers all stemming solely from the fact that she was a woman sitting in a man’s seat in trousers. Such frivolity from supposed leaders was abhorrent to Marigold and the Vulture was striving to lead the pack of fearful men shivering before the female form.

‘Your seat.’ The words seemed to Marigold like it was a blessing and an acknowledgement of Marigold’s intentions all at once. Her father could have said ‘My seat’ or ‘Your husband’s seat’, yet he clearly stated ‘your seat’. Marigold wondered if her father knew what her refusing to cower to the other men would really mean for Parliament and Illiastra. There was no doubting in Marigold’s mind that the majority of the Elite Merchant’s Party that currently held the nation would seek to remove her from her inherited position.

That would be pondering for later though, as there were things left to discuss. “Father, could you tell me what you said to the Vulture when he made his requests.”

“Pheh!” He quite nearly spat. “Those were not requests. Thinly veiled demands, more like. I apologized for your behaviour and told him I would encourage you to attend sermons daily so that you may learn to be a proper woman of Ios.” Marscal’s tone was one of sarcasm. Neither he nor Marigold kept much stock in the Triarchy and they both knew Marscal had no such intention of enforcing anything he had told Minister Harlowe.

“Well, I would ask you what transpired today, besides every eye in Parliament following you around.” He sighed. “Though we both know nothing of importance ever happens at the summaries. My dear, do enjoy yourself this evening. I know you will do me proud.”

A knock came at the door, loud and quick that prompted Oire to hurry across the room to answer it.

“I’ll see you on the morrow and we shall put this place behind us once more.” Marscal added. “In the meantime, something tells me that your escort for the evening has arrived.”

Marigold turned her gaze to see who it was and let her eyes fall to where Oire was showing a guest inside the room.

Clad in a captain’s uniform was the resplendent form of Freyard Archer. His golden hair neatly combed to one side and that finely sculpted face freshly shaven. The uniform consisted of a double breasted, deep blue jacket with a shining gold trim and matching buttons up the breast, the cuffs and pinning down the gold fringed epaulets. The uniform was ornamented with a golden patch on either bicep denoting his rank and station. He wore white cotton gloves over his hands and black trousers bearing a gold stripe on his legs. To complete the ensemble were boots in black, shining, brightly polished leather to the knee. Hanging from his hips on a leather belt was a golden hilted rapier and a white, ornate pistol with an etching of a dove in the grip. “

“My Lord and Miss Tullivan, I bid good evening to you both,” Freyard greeted them while taking a few steps into the room. “I hope I am not intruding, I was asked to escort Miss Tullivan to the Parliamentary feast this evening.”

“Well met, ser,” Marscal replied, trying his hardest to look and sound healthier than everyone knew he was. “I should say your timing is spot on, for my daughter and I were just saying our farewells.”

Marigold turned back to her father and leaned in to kiss him on the cheek, a gesture he returned. “Goodnight, Father, I shall see you come morning.” As she spoke, Marscal gave her hand a squeeze and gave a single, slow nod.

Rising from the bed, she smoothed out her haltered, black silk dress with its silver lined starburst and low, revealing cut and turned toward Freyard.

Who, from the expression he wore, clearly liked the sight before him.

The decorated soldier took her hand in his as Marigold approached and gently kissed it. “My lady Marigold, you look positively radiant this evening, as always you do. It is nothing short of an absolute honour for me to escort you to the feast.”

“The honour is mine to wear as well, Captain Archer,” Marigold felt her face grow flush as she replied to the compliment. “You are looking quite handsome in your uniform. It is far more suiting than the attire of the Honourable Guardsmen.” Despite her cheeks blushing and giving her away, Marigold was ever the lady.

The Captain thanked her for the kind compliment and stepped back to hold the door.

With a final farewell and wave to her father and Oire, Marigold took Freyard’s arm and the two departed the room for the evening.

Together they strolled down the long hallway to the marvellous staircase that rose from the manor lobby.

Marble columns with gold plated spirals roping upward sat in the dark brick walls at intervals. Brilliantly carved chandeliers of crystal lit with electricity illuminated their pathway, which was more stone lined with red, plush carpeting that muffled their footsteps.

The two exchanged pleasantries as they went, starting with Marigold asking Freyard how his day had found him. To which he mentioned that the biggest news to be heard was that some members of the Thieves had been captured in the night as they raided a farm house. The master-at-arms for Fort Dornett made no mention of Tryst, which told Marigold told that the two friends had not crossed paths.

A sparse few ministers, ladies and their offspring mulled about on the second floor, talking amongst themselves and exchanging pleasant greetings with Marigold as she passed by them. Eastern Lords mostly, she noted, like loquacious Minister Braggen, whom Lord Palomb wanted to replace with his younger brother.

The men all wore suits of dark colours, black, brown and blue mostly with a deep red as contrast here and there. It was evident to Marigold that the women had followed the men’s pattern of blandness when it came to evening attire. They all had opted for wide, hoop-skirted dresses with modest necklines or high collars and sleeves that covered them to the elbows at the very least. Marigold’s appearance was certainly a sharp turn from that of her peers. A notion that become apparent to Marigold when all eyes in the lobby fell upon her the instant she reached the balustrade.

The extravagant staircase began to either side of the railing, converging back into one long set of steps below a statue of a bare chested Ios. His massive, bearded head and shoulders emerged from the white marble with his giant hands pressed to the underside of the overhang, as if he were carrying it himself.

After a moment of pause, she was introduced to the gathered flock of ministers, families and loyalists below by a middle aged butler. “May I have your attention, my good fellows and ladies?” the servant began in a booming voice that echoed off the walls. “I give to you this evening a Lady of Daol Bay, daughter of Marscal Tullivan, Warden Lord of the West, Minister of Daol Bay and Lord of Fisheries and Seas for Illiastra: Miss Marigold Tullivan.”

A smattering round of applause rose from the folks gathered below as Marigold and her escort descended the staircase. Marigold waved politely at the onlookers. Most of whom she knew by name such as Minister Mattersly, who held the lighthouse keep and surrounding seaside town of Tippard. The coastal town lay just north of the Tear, a vast waterfall where the Varras River, the longest and widest river in Illiastra, emptied over sheer cliffs into the ocean.

Mattersly was one her father’s men and in the days before the rise of the Elite Merchant’s he would have been titled a Sealord. The man was exorbitantly wealthy on account of being the latest family member to inherit one of the known world’s foremost ship building facilities. The amiable elderly man with his round belly and cheery wife were the first to greet Marigold as she touched the lobby floor.

Elda Mattersly, a plump woman of sixty, patted Marigold’s hand gently and congratulated her on a job well done earlier in the day in the Parliament. The minister echoed his wife’s sentiments and if he felt that Marigold had slighted the gods, he made no mention of it.

For that much she was glad, Walter and Elda had always been kind to her and loyal to her father. It was that very same kindness and loyalty Marigold hoped she could come to rely on in the future.

The elegant, masterful musicianship of an orchestral band greeted her ears from inside the banquet hall. As was customary for the final feast of the Parliamentary session, Grenjin Howland had commissioned the Atrebellius Orchestra to perform. It had always been Marigold’s favourite part of the sessions and she had long committed all of their regular performance pieces to memory.

Craning an ear towards the doors of the hall, she tried to discern the song they were in the midst of when she caught sight of Lord Taves. The salt and pepper haired Lord of Crime and Punishment was clad in a powder blue suit of satin with a pattern of golden filigree. When Marigold spotted him, he was hastily following a servant to the guardsman’s office off the main entrance, behaviour that Marigold thought to be quite peculiar.

“Good evening, my betrothed,” an all too familiar voice called to Marigold, making her forget about the curious behaviour of Mackhol Taves for the moment. She turned to find Pyore Palomb standing to her right with a smarmy grin across his face. “You look as gorgeous as ever,” he told her.

The boy of seventeen was bedecked in a tailored military uniform in the teal and gold colours reserved for the guards of the Tullivan household.

The whole ensemble was complimented with a tightly cinched belt containing a rapier and pistol nearly identical to Freyard’s. It was a brash statement. Instead of the silver and black of the Palomb family, he’d gone out of his way to wear that of the Tullivan’s. It implied impending possession over Marigold and the western realm. The whole display was incredibly distasteful in Marigold’s eyes as it flaunted her father’s terminal illness in her face as if he had already succumbed to it. It was no mystery what game Pyore was playing at here and she had to wonder how implicit his brother Eldridge was in the scheme. The twin sons of Eamon were always cooking up such cruelties, though rarely did Eldridge play a tangible role. Such brazen behaviour was left to Pyore, who seemed to revel in his own audacity.

Marigold knew that she must make every effort to not allow him to see how much his mockery hurt. “My dear Pyore, you look splendid as well. My, are those the colours of Daol Bay you’re sporting? They suit you.” It was quite taxing for Marigold to restrain her sarcasm, and even harder for her to restrain her hand from slapping his homely face.

“You’re too kind, my lady,” Pyore said in a tone that smacked of scorn as he gave a facetiously apologetic bow. “I had thought it would be best if I wore your colours, given that your father is so very ill and I was absent to take his place today. I did not want the good lords and ministers to forget who the heir to Daol Bay really is, after all. So consider it a token of my apology for leaving you to do a man’s work, my lady. I assure you that it will not happen again.”

Though few dared to look, all in the foyer were paying close attention to the spectacle before them.

Freyard stood silently, belaying no sign of what he may be feeling, though Marigold knew he heard the threat in Pyore’s words as plainly as she had.

This was no apology. Pyore was relaying his anger toward Marigold for her decision to sit her father’s place herself without informing him of such. In Pyore’s eyes Daol Bay was his to inherit and in Marscal Tullivan’s absence, the blond twin of Eamon Palomb felt it his responsibility to tend to the region’s business.

This was precisely the response Marigold anticipated, and with such attention now cast her way, she proceeded forward cautiously. “It is I who should offer apologies, Pyore. When my father announced he was staying abed, I sent my steward, Oire, to find you, only to find you had already left with your brother for the city. I did only what I thought was right in such short notice and took the seat myself for today only,” Marigold replied calmly, offering a curtsy where he had bowed. She noticed that Pyore’s eyes were not on her, but on Freyard beside her, who was himself standing straight as an arrow to meet the hateful stare that the Palomb twin was shooting him.

“What’s done is done, my lady,” Pyore icily replied when he broke the gaze of the distinguished soldier. “I think we can both look beyond our misdeeds this time, can we not? I shall escort the lady from here, Captain Archer and I thank you for bringing her this far.”

“As is your right, my darling,” Marigold forced herself to say before turning to Freyard and letting go of his arm. “You have my thanks as well, ser. I promise you a dance after the feasting is done.”

Freyard backed off a bow. “You are more than welcome, my lady. I would be glad to take you up on your offer later in the evening.”

There was a glance of apology from Marigold to the dejected soldier, who met her eyes briefly before making for the staircase he had descended over not moments ago.

He understands how the game is played. Marigold told herself. Still, I do hope he does not feel I have slighted him.

Before she could wonder where Freyard was off to she was taken by the arm rather sharply by Pyore. The strength of the boy surprised Marigold and she had to step quickly to keep from stumbling over dress and shoes alike.

A pair of the Honourable Guardsmen stood to either side of the entrance to the hall, pulling open the heavy doors as the couple neared them.

The sounds from the orchestra greeted her wholly and she finally could identify the piece they were playing. It was one she rather enjoyed called Springtime Prelude. On another evening she might have even danced to it.

The music was the only thing she registered in the dining hall before Pyore painfully squeezed her arm and leaned in close to be heard over the band. “Don’t you ever do that to me again, do you understand? His grip tightened to the point of pain, but Marigold refused to even whimper as he went on. “I’m your betrothed. I shall be the one who escorts you, not some ranger from the Southlands. Don’t ever dare to embarrass me again or you will regret it.”

“Whatever are you talking about?” Marigold feigned the fear in her voice, using it to mask her welling anger. “I had sought you earlier in the evening but you were nowhere to be found, whatever was I to do, darling?”

“That’s another thing,” he went on as they made the slow journey to the head table upon the dais. “Don’t think I didn’t hear about you having the gall to sit my seat in Parliament today.” Pyore was visibly seething with a noticeable shade of red pouring into his cheeks. “If your father was too ill to sit, it should have been brought to my attention so I could attend his duties, as is my right as your betrothed. I am the man around here, need you not forget.”

Marigold glanced at the other nobles that had already taken their seats. Proud families from both the eastern and western halves of Illiastra were now in attendance and even if their eyes were averted, they were watching. They had not heard, not over the music, but they observed the language of Marigold and Pyore’s bodies and they knew what they saw.

Suffer the slights, if just for a few hours. Home beckons on the morrow and then Pyore’s perceived rights end when I am safely behind the walls of Daol Bay. Marigold reminded herself. “You are correct once again, my dear. I should have consulted you.” She said, fighting to keep the patronization from her tone of voice. “Please, forgive me for the slight.”

Marigold thought it strange that Tryst Reine had not intervened by now and her attention went to his usual bench in the rear of the hall. Empty. She realised. Has he not returned from the city?

As she scanned the room for the swordsman, Marigold noticed that the scene had captured the attention of one Nathania Taves. Nattie, as she was known, was of the same age as Marigold and the eldest of three daughters of Mackhol Taves. Tonight she had opted to wear a scarlet, velvet dress that looked to be all skirts. The exaggerated garment was sleeveless, but it had shoulders on it like throw pillows. Tight about her neck was a velvet collar with a brooch dangling from it bearing the triangular symbol of the Triarchy.

There was smugness about her as she watched Marigold being chastised by the vain teenager. It was a predicament that Nattie was only too eager to point it out to the other ladies seated nearby.

In their youth Marigold and Nathania had been friends, though by the time they had blossomed into women that friendship had dissipated. Nattie had grown to be shrewd, greedy and entirely too quick to cast aside friend and foe alike to climb the social ladder. Those traits that had driven Marigold away had endeared her to Mackhol, a man Marigold had even less time for. If rumours of her cruelty were true, then she was all but a replica of her father now.

All of Nattie’s work was largely for naught though, for she still was but a woman. Nathania’s efforts had merely netted her the unenviable position of being the prize wife and child bearer for old Minister Barnan of Ravenkeep. The sixty seven year old man was the owner of a high yielding diamond mining operation in the foothills of the northern portion of the Illiastran Mountain Range.

Even Marigold felt poorly for Nathania in that arrangement, as the woman had been traded as an investment in Barnan’s mining ventures. Left to make her own relationships, Nattie could have landed any man she chose with her curvy frame, golden complexion and matching golden ringlets falling past her shoulders. Even for you, Nattie, Marigold thought to herself. I would even fight for your right to marry as you please. If only you could see that this is no way to live and rise with me. I fool myself if I think anyone beyond Lady Orangecloak and the Thieves share my vision.

“Here we are, my dear, your table for the evening,” Pyore said, breaking her thought. He had brought her alongside an empty table just shy of the dais, where she had been expecting to sit. The empty chair at the table head was decorated with an ornately carved letter ‘T’. To either side of the letter was the pair of leaping codfish that were the insignia of the Fisheries and Seas office.

This was the table she and her sister Serephanie had ate at with Oire and any city councilmen that had tagged along to the sessions in the past. As a substitute for her father, her proper place for the evening should be at the long table upon the dais, where, beside her father, she had sat all week.

“I don’t understand, dear Pyore, why have you brought me here?” Marigold queried lowly, taking into account that the band was nearly finished with Springtime Prelude.

“I’ve brought you here for a very good reason, woman. It has come to my attention that you’ve been displaying a rebellious streak,” Pyore said, unsmiling and a little louder than Marigold would have liked. “It is beyond the time that you learned where your place as a woman is if you are ever to be a proper and obedient wife. You will sit here, alone and I will take your father’s seat at the head table from here on out. Am I clear?”

That was a threat and an insult all in one. She was five years his senior and yet he scolded her like a child all the same. Her teeth grinded behind closed lips as she glanced to the head table where Eamon Palomb and Pyore’s twin brother Eldridge had taken their places. There was no sign of Lord Master Howland yet, though a man dressed head to heel in black had taken a chair across from the Palombs. Tryst. Marigold knew at once. That’s where he’s gotten to, but why? He’s never been at the head table before.

The music had stopped now, anything Marigold said would be heard by all, she decided in the moment that it might be for the best. “My dear, forgive me for correcting you, but my father still lives and we are not yet wed. It is his wish that I represent him until such time. I apologise, but I have to politely decline your request.”

“You what?!” Pyore scowled, gaining the attention of the room. Marigold watched his fist curl and his face boil over with rage.

She stood her ground firmly and cast fear aside, waiting for him to do something brash. Go on, hit me you lout. I dare you to try with your father so near at hand and every elected official in Illiastra watching. I wonder if you could land more than a single blow before Tryst Reine himself descends on you.

Pyore’s nails dug in to her bare arm sharply and she still gave him no sign of the pain as he leaned in closely. “You dare disobey me again? Are you daft, woman?”

A voice cut through the air. “Pyore, bring Miss Tullivan here, please.” Marigold’s eyes went again to the dais and to Eamon Palomb, who had now gotten to his feet. A sigh of relief came over Marigold while Pyore groaned with embarrassment beside her.

In a complete turn of mood, Pyore clasped her arm as gently if she were a flower and led her up the three short steps to the terrace and the dinner table upon it.

Eamon watched ashamedly as the two approached, he was still standing, taking the time to smooth the wrinkles from his finely pressed black suit. Beneath his jacket was a ruffled white shirt and over the whole outfit he wore a silver cloth sash.

Eldridge had matched his father in attire down to the last detail and looked every bit the heir he was destined to be.

Opposite of them in both placement and apparel was Tryst. His muscled frame was wrapped in a silk shirt and tight cotton trousers. The man had passed on a tie or even an evening jacket and seemed out of place amongst formally dressed males seated with him.

“Miss Tullivan,” the middle aged lord began as his blond offspring approached. “I apologise for my son’s outburst, you’ll have to forgive him for being flustered. He had a harrowing encounter while in the city earlier today.” Before Marigold could think of a response, Eamon had turned his attention to Pyore. “Now, my son, I want you to tell me what she said that led to that outburst. Keep in mind that Miss Tullivan knows what she said, so I would carefully weigh my words, were I you.”

Pyore swallowed hard and told it truly from the moment they first met in the lobby. Either he was afraid of being corrected again by a woman or the teenager was sure he was in the right. Eamon, Eldridge and Tryst all listened intently, the former two nodding along as Pyore recounted it all. When he had finished his retelling, Pyore tugged on the bottom of his teal jacket with both hands and stood there looking smug and proud of himself.

The eldest Palomb took a deep breath. “Is what my son says the truth of how it happened, Miss Tullivan?” Eamon asked Marigold calmly with Pyore staring holes through her head, expecting another rebellious rebuttal.

There was nothing to correct though, he had told it true, and Marigold knew she had the wretched boy trapped. “It is as he says, Lord Palomb,” she said, holding her head high and watching from the corner of her eye as both brothers registered the trap being sprung.

Their reactions were wholly contradictory to one another as Eldridge seemed to find some delight in his brother’s misfortune that Pyore did not. As one side of the dark haired brother’s face curled into a smile, he leaned his head onto his propped hand in amusement.

“Then she has the right of it, son,” Eamon ruled decidedly on the matter. “That chair is hers, as denoted by my dear friend Marscal. It does not become yours by any rights until such a time that you are wed and her father bequeaths it to you. Now, I think a full apology to Miss Tullivan is in order and you will show her to the chair beside Mister Reine.” Eamon’s tone brokered no argument as he voiced his commands. “Her father’s usual place has been given to a special guest of the Lord Master’s for the evening. I do apologise on Lord Master Howland’s behalf, Miss Tullivan.”

Pyore’s lips curled inward in anger and he looked to Eldridge for support only to find him trying vainly to stifle his chuckling.

“I won’t,” the blond twin said sternly, standing as tall as his frame would allow. He came almost face to face with his father in that instant. They were two faces of striking similarity as Pyore was the only one of Eamon’s offspring that bore any likeness to him. Eldridge and his two younger siblings all bore the brown hair and sharper features so common among the Mortons of their mother’s side.

The gesture had caught Eamon off guard and he turned hastily from Marigold to his son. “I will give you one more chance, Pyore,” Eamon offered sternly. “Refuse again and you’ll be seated with your mother, sister and brother below. Further insubordination will leave me no choice but to remove you from the dining hall entirely. What will you choose?”

Pyore considered once more, silently keeping his father’s stare as he worked his jaw like a cow grinding cud. “My beloved, it has come to my attention that I may have been in the wrong to correct you,” he said, finally relenting to his father’s demands. “You have my sincerest apologies for any boundaries I may have overstepped and I beg for your forgiveness.”

Though he tried to mask his tone, it was clear to Marigold and perhaps the others that Pyore’s apology was empty. The words were dripping with bitterness and Marigold sensed that it gave him no pleasure to be admonished before the entire dinner hall. Even if everyone else had the decency to pretend they were unaware of anything going on.

That sulking behaviour was a good enough victory for Marigold. She had won and they both knew it. “Your apology is accepted, my dear,” she intoned with a grin that she hoped might convey her satisfaction with how Eamon’s judgement had unfolded. “Would you be do kind as to show me to my seat?”

The last line was intended as a jab, despite its cool and poised delivery. The wince on Pyore’s face told her that both it and the smile were received as she intended. If Eamon or the other two had noticed, none showed and any sign of it, save for Eldridge, who could hardly contain his chortling at his brother’s expense.

“Thank you for your forgiveness, your kindness knows no bounds, my betrothed. I would be glad to show you to your seat,” Pyore stated, still in that forced apologetic tone. As gently as if he were petting a kitten, he led her around the table, only releasing her hand to pull back the heavy chair beside Tryst. Ever so graciously, Marigold curtsied before taking her rightful place. Pyore’s new seat was beside his brother and directly across from Tryst, who made no attempt at false courtesy and ignored the boy entirely.

Eamon regarded Pyore again as he retook his own place. “You should be grateful that Lord Master Howland was not here to witness that,” the old man started in as Pyore lowered himself into the chair beside his brother. “Though I have no doubts that he will be made aware of it come tomorrow. Fortunately, you will be on a train back to Hercalest by then and Lord Master Howland will have the remainder of autumn to forget about it.”

“Yes, Father,” Pyore said, seemingly defeated and daring not to even make eye contact with his sire.

Tryst still had yet to speak a word to Marigold and though she understood why, it didn’t make the silence between them any more bearable and so she broke it. “Hello, Mister Reine, I trust you have had a pleasant day?” Marigold asked in a proper and friendly tone.

“Hello to you as well, my lady, it’s been quite fine, thank you for asking,” Tryst answered with full formality.

“If you don’t mind my asking, ser, what brings you to the head table this evening?” she inquired, wondering what he was able to say in front of the Palombs.

He turned to face her and it was then she noticed the sword moving at his side. Not the standard, useless ornaments the guards and Pyore Palomb wore, but a fine looking piece in a faded, red, leather sheath. The light from the chandeliers overhead rippled on the worn leather like the waters of a creek. The hilt was wrapped in supple black leather with a fine linen ribbon of dark red encircling it, ending in a dangling knot. Marigold knew this was no ordinary sword. This was his master’s blade from the University in the Mountains. It was forged of not just good steel, but the very best quality dwarven blacksteel and by the very best smith alive.

“I was invited by Lord Howland himself,” Tryst explained. “I know no more about his reasons than you, my lady.” Tryst was curt in his response, a little cold even, though he was a far better actor than the others would know and she made nothing of it.

“I see…” Marigold allowed her voice to trail off, and that ended their conversation.

Lord Palomb had fallen deathly silent, his hand occasionally going to a dish of hot pecans drizzled with honey before him. Each table had two bowls of them laid out for appetizers and between them a centrepiece made of a potpourri of colourful flowers.

Once things had quieted down, the servants began to approach with offerings of red and white wines, brandy and a hot, tomato based soup to whet the appetite. Marigold turned all but for the red wine away. It was a good vintage of blueberry sweetwine, the first taste running ever so slowly down her throat.

Footsteps and chatter preceded Mackhol Taves, who had returned from his impromptu meeting in the guard’s office off the lobby. The minister had paused to speak briefly with the rest of the Palomb family before he climbed the steps to join Marigold and the others upon the dais. “Good evening, my lady Tullivan, gentlemen of the Palomb household and Mister Reine. I am so glad that I am permitted to join you all this evening for I have most splendid and exciting news to share once the good Lord Master arrives.” His face was a wide, sly grin. As ominous a sign as any as far as Marigold was concerned with Mackhol Taves.

A servant appeared quickly and drew back the chair to Marigold’s left, which had always been her father’s, for Lord Taves to sit, to which he graciously accepted.

“Miss Tullivan,” Mackhol spoke as he drew his chair in. “I want to congratulate you on a splendid performance today in the Parliament.”

Marigold remained silent and waited for the slight she knew was yet to come.

His pearly teeth shone at her as his mouth widened in an arrogant smirk. “I must say, you did quite admirably for a woman. I believe you’re the first to sit in parliament since the legacy of the Elite Merchants began.”

There it is, as backhanded and sardonic as could be expected of the Taves family. Marigold thought to herself before framing a response. “Thank you, ser, you are too kind. I only sought to do my father proud,” she replied courteously while watching Pyore twist in his chair.

Mackhol nibbled on a pecan as Marigold spoke, chiming in again when she finished. “Ah yes, how is your father feeling today? He was sorely missed at the summations. I had meant to visit him, though I am afraid I became occupied following the session’s closing.”

He wouldn’t have wanted to see you anyway. “He is feeling better this evening.” She lied through her teeth. “I should say he will be up and about before you know it. You know my father. He is not one to stay down.” And neither am I.

The message behind Taves’ words was clear enough. He was no more pleased with her presence in the Parliament than Clay Harlowe or Pyore Palomb had been. To Minister Harlowe’s credit, he at least had the courage to say it forthright. Even that was far better than this game of thinly veiled insults that the Lord of Crime and Punishment was engaging her in. Although Pyore seemed to pick up on it, and from the expression on his face was clearly enjoying the verbal browbeating Marigold was taking.

Fortunately, Mackhol relented and changed the topic to the Palomb boys and to the events of their visit to the city earlier today. Eamon seemed none too pleased with the topic change and yet Taves insisted. Apparently, Lord Taves had a keen interest in a prisoner the twin’s personal guards had arrested and brought with them to stew in a cell below the manor.

Marigold’s ears pricked up at the sound of that, wondering what Eldridge and Pyore had gotten in to and if Tryst had seen it himself. The Master of Blades however was silent on the matter. He was content to stare at his hands folded on the table in front of him and relinquished no hint of what may be running through his mind.

After Eamon finished recounting the events in the city, he asked Lord Taves, as Lord of Crime and Punishment, for his counsel on the matter. “As you well know, Lord Palomb, I cannot take an elf as my ward.” Taves began, only too glad to give his opinion. “That would be a nettlesome situation for one to find oneself in, given the Elven Forest’s hostility towards human Illiastra. However, I do maintain and staff a small jail beyond my prison’s walls to serve the town outside. I would be happy to keep him as my guest for a few days. The family and I are only returning home briefly, for you see, we are heading east to Ravenkeep to see our Nathania settled away and wed before the winter. The Almanac Sages are forecasting a rather harsh winter season in the east that could run well into spring. I decided that it would be better to wed her before that, rather than wait too long for the thaw.” Mackhol took turns making eye contact with all three Palombs while he spoke. This was a man only too aware of the potential power those teenagers were destined to wield. He was taking every step to not give them any reason to dislike him before such a time.

It was Eamon who seemed to catch his meaning. “So I understand that you’re willing to take our burdening prisoner and deposit him back to the Elven Forest on your route to Ravenkeep, am I correct? You would see to his deportation personally, on our behalf?”

“Why yes I shall, my lord, if you would give me the honour of undertaking this task.” Mackhol sounded as humble as the lowly servants offering wine nearby when speaking with the Palombs. An all too noticeable contrast to the thinly veiled condescension he only offered Marigold.

Eamon gestured a hand, palm upwards toward Taves. “Then by all means, the elf is yours. I am indebted to you for relieving my family of this encumbrance.”

I had almost forgotten they had arrested an elf until Mackhol brought it up. This was an interesting development indeed. Marigold pondered. Any degradation by the Illiastran humans towards elves or their ancestral cousins, the amaroshan people, was an inevitable political nightmare if the Elven Forest caught wind of it.

All of the animosity between Illiastra and the Elven Forest stemmed from the conflict concerning the amaroshans, or half-elves. When the EMP received a majority vote in the election, they sought total control and found heavy opposition in the amaroshan community to the Merchant’s aggressive tactics. Subtly, the EMP began showing prejudice towards amaroshan people, which soon grew to a campaign of outright hatred against them.

In Marigold’s youth, the level of fear and malice against the increasingly oppressed and marginalised race of half-elves came to an ugly conclusion known as the Amaroshan Exodus. The EMP had voted to expel all the amaroshans from Illiastra and gave a timeline for amaroshans to leave. Any found in Illiastra beyond that date would be arrested and transported to Biddenhurst. Many amaroshans fled across the sea to any nation that might take them, however most ran to the Elven Forest. The elves were quick to answer the plight of the refugees and voiced their outrage at the EMP’s amoral actions.

That was before word reached the forest that the amaroshans who were taken to Biddenhurst were being executed by the dozen. A war seemed all but inevitable until the Elven Forest agreed to halt any plans of invasion on the basis that the remaining incarcerated amaroshans be deported to their borders. A treaty was later struck between humans and elves, though it was no true alliance, merely a tension-filled armistice.

What now weighed on the mind of Lord Palomb was a particular clause in the treaty. It stated that any member of either nation caught trespassing was to be returned to their respective border without question. To help enforce this clause, a neutral ground of one hundred meters was maintained between both nations, with border outposts set up at intervals on the human side. The countries had remained isolated from one another and the Elven Forest made it clear that they would never negotiate with Illiastra so long as the EMP retained power.

A bitter childhood memory came to Marigold when she thought of the amaroshan people. As a girl she had innocently begged, as only a child could, for her father not to hurt the amaroshans, insisting that they had done nothing wrong.

At the time, Marscal’s response seemed cowardly to her. “There is nothing more I can do, my dear,” he had tried to explain. “I helped those Amaroshans who would leave my city to reach safer lands. If they choose to stay, then they force my hand. I have to follow the law, even if I voted against it.”

“But, Father,” Eldridge complained, breaking her away from the memory and back to the present. “We had intended to bring the elf to Hercalest with us.”

Eamon grunted angrily at the notion. “What would you do with him, Eldridge? Incarcerate him indefinitely? Stick him in the stocks in the town square? Perhaps hang him for striking your brother’s face?

“I’ll be up to my armpits in letters demanding the elf’s release. Then they will send envoys and ambassadors seeking to return him home, dead or alive. Those damn elves would follow that with requests for an inquiry into the incident. Not to mention their outrage should he actually die in our custody. Either way, the elves will seek proper trial for him in their nation. Following that, they will try to come for you and your entourage to have you tried for wrongful arrest if he is found innocent of wrongdoing. Which I assure you he would be, since neither of you would be present to defend your claims. It is a headache I am only too happy to avoid if Lord Taves can quietly deport him. You fools made enough of a scene today. I would dare say that you are both even bigger fools if you think word of this incident is not already on its way back to the Elven Forest.”

“But, Father-” Pyore began to pout, before being cut off.

“No more, Pyore,” Eamon declared sternly. “It is done and I thank you again, Minister Taves. I owe you a great favour for this, I assure you.”

“You are the Warden Lord of the East, I am your subject and serve you as much as the man who brings the supper. Naught should be thought of the gesture,” Mackhol said sickeningly with a sly, beaming grin. The man turned to face the dejected twins then. “My good fellows, take heart, I only had your own best interests in mind. Your father is absolutely right to say there is no alternative to this issue but to give the Elven Forest back their own. My apologies if I have caused you any grief, it was not my intention.”

The two Palomb boys exchanged a look that screamed of malice, but beneath it was a hint of consideration. Scorned they were, yet they were not entirely without wit, Marigold had to acknowledge. There was no doubt the twins had a robust aversion to being corrected and reprimanded. In spite of that, they had to consider that even with his position beneath them in the hierarchy, that Mackhol Taves was not a man to be considered lightly.

He was quite cunning, with an underplayed, yet frightful disregard for humanity. Those traits alone made him quite possibly the most dangerous man at the table. Even when taking Tryst Reine and his combat skills into account.

The Lord of Crime and Punishment wore a wicked grin as he sat back in his cushioned chair and eyed the boys down. It was hard to say what Mackhol’s specific game was here. Barring some extraordinary circumstances, the Palomb boys were destined to rule above him, however far away that time might be. Their father was a seemingly healthy man barely into his sixties, and Grenjin Howland, despite long passing his seventieth year, was of sound body and mind. As long as he possessed both, the greedy old miser would never abdicate any measure of his power.

Mackhol, by contrast to his current overlord’s, was just pressing into his fiftieth year. So long as his health held up without sudden any deviations, then he could have decades left as the Lord of Crime and Punishment and Minister of Biddenhurst. It stood to reason that this future would be under the authority of Eamon’s sons. If Mackhol did have a play in action here, it was to ensure that both generations of Palomb regarded him as an irreplaceable branch on the hierarchal tree of Illiastra.

That is a game he can afford to play as a man. If only women were perceived to be so necessary I might have a horse in that race. Marigold knew that neither she nor any other woman warranted such and so Mackhol Taves and his kin could freely cast their barbs and insults at her without fear of repercussions. He is free to make that folly. Let him make his japes, for they shall not be forgotten.

From outside the dining hall came the loud heralding of a pair of trumpets, signalling that the Lord Master was at long last ready to make his own entrance. The band abruptly ceased their playing, allowing a breath of silence to wash over the gathered guests and members of the Elite Merchant Party.

The wide doors leading to the lobby swung open with a whoosh and the band broke into Ode to the Master and Lord. The anthem of Illiastra and the Howland family since Grenjin’s father rose to power a century ago.

The first to appear was an old sot draped in garish robes of maroon with a white shawl fringed in gold upon his shoulders. A ridiculous conical crown of gold set with amethysts sat upon a head of vanishing white hair that belonged to His Most Piousness of the Triarchy: Great Father Marburry.

The rotund Great Father waddled into the hall, mumbling prayers beneath his breath while tossing white flower petals at his own feet in blessing. To either side of the Crown Prince of Piety were men in simpler robes of matching maroon. Their heads were shrouded in long hoods and their hands clasped together at chest height, hidden in long sleeves. Silver hilted broadswords in jewel encrusted scabbards lay across their wide backs and the two men towered above the old priest to protect him from harm unseen.

Marigold had to wonder why a man who so astutely believed his god would protect him needed armed strongmen on either side of him. The thought lingered only briefly before everyone stood in unison at the sight of Grenjin Howland.

The old Lord had donned a lavish three piece white suit with a deep blue shirt beneath it. Upon his shoulders rested a cape in matching blue and embroidered upon it was a magnificent, shimmering white dove. To his side, acting as a surrogate cane was his faithful steward Hossle.

The procession began to slow to a near halt as the Great Father had taken to blessing the guests who ventured to kneel in his path. Chief among those seeking Marburry’s grace was Nathania Taves, inviting the doughy hands of the great father to be placed atop her head for a few mumbled words. It took the urging of the Lord Master himself to get the Great Father turned and moving in the direction of the dais once more.

Applause went up from the back of the hall as the hungry lesser ministers fought greedily for every scrap of attention the Lord Master threw at them. Those backbencher ministers disgusted Marigold to no end. They were all only too eager to grovel at Howland’s feet and agree with every word that came through his lips. What sickened her even more was that some of those ministers were westerners. Those supposed loyalists of Marscal Tullivan that should have rose to defend the honour of his daughter when Pyore nearly sullied it now stood in feigned adoration of Grenjin Howland.

Howland merely waved at them with his wrinkled hands, yet the applause continued until all the guests, save for Tryst and Marigold were applauding. She decided it best to politely put her hands together softly for appearances sake. Tryst, however, stood rigid and unmoving from beside his chair as the entourage drew close.

Following the blade master’s line of sight made Marigold realize he was studying the two men-at-arms beside the Great Father. Analysing their weapons, checking for signs of armour or other weapons beneath the spacious robes they wore. Most would say he was as paranoid as Grenjin, though this was a man trained to be in a constant state of preparedness. By his own convictions, Tryst could allow no less of himself. Those were the tenets of the Swordspeople of the University of Combative Arts in Drake, at least as far as Marigold was able to find in her research of them. As it was, Tryst was among an elite group of only five men over the course of a thousand years to be given the title of Master of Blades. It only stood to reason that he followed stringently to their methods.

It took Marburry quite some time to climb the four steps to the dais. Making Marigold wonder how he managed the many steps of Atrebell’s tall and opulent Tower of Ios on a regular basis. As it was, the Great Father was only capable of conquering the few steps presently before him while having the two tall guardsmen holding either arm for support.

Following behind, Howland fared only marginally better. He had grown overly arthritic in his seventy-eighth year and for all his wealth and authority, arthritis would not yield for even him. Yet by contrast, Howland was by far the more nimble of the two.

Once the stairs had been mastered, Grenjin walked around the table to shake hands with everyone but Tryst and Marigold. The former received a pat on the shoulder as Howland passed and Marigold was subjected to yet another kiss on the hand, much to her chagrin. For a moment the Lord Master lingered on Marigold, silently judging her revealing attire. It was plain to see that he wholly disapproved and seemed on the verge of saying something until Marburry spoke up loudly above all other voices.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen of the faith.” Started the Great Father on the evening prayer from where he stood atop the dais overlooking the room. As feeble as he was on his feet, the Great Father had a powerful voice that reached into the far corners of the banquet hall with ease. “I am most delighted to gather here with such fine people on this wonderful evening of the sixty second day of autumn. Tonight we shall celebrate, feast and eventually toast what Lord Master Howland has told me was yet another productive session of our Parliament. Yet before we begin the feasting of twelve courses, allow me to lead you in a prayer.” The old codger waited until the room had fallen silent, his own head bowing as low as the multiple chins would allow.

He put his hands above his head in a steeple and waited until the majority of the room were following his lead. “By the grace of Ios, our glorious god and unto Iia and Aren to form the merciful Triarch that grants us life.” Marburry’s hands went from the steeple position to draw out a wide triangle that met with his two upward facing palms joining below where the steeple was seconds ago. All but one at the head table had mimicked the movement, even Marigold out of habit more than anything. Beside her stood Tryst, head bowed and entirely unmoving as the lone holdout.

“We gather this evening, oh dear Ios, to give you thanks for the bounty we have before us,” the high clergyman droned in a singsong voice. Heads were bowed across the hall as everyone repeated the words in unison in a low murmuring that soon collected into a wave of voices.

Thank the farmers for their vegetables, the butchers for preparing their meat and the fisherfolk for the bounty from the sea. It was they who did all the work. Marigold thought to herself. Your god only seems capable of feeding the mouths that already have the coin to pay for it. Would not a god of love and mercy see to it that the hungriest mouths are fed first?

More prayers were said in the monotonous chanting fashion by Great Father Marburry. Marigold had drifted away into her own thoughts, particularly the unusual company of Mackhol and Tryst to either side of her at the head table. Something surely was afoot to warrant the presence of them both. Tryst had never been asked to dine at the head table before and had always taken his meals from the solitary bench in the rear of the room.

Then there was Taves. Unlike Tryst, he had been guested at the Lord Master’s table on occasion.

Marigold recalled one such time when Mackhol had been honoured with a guest place at the table. It was an end of session feast such as this one. The Lord of Crime and Punishment and Eamon Palomb had together hatched new legislation that allowed Biddenhurst to sell off their low-risk prisoners when housing within Biddenhurst threated on overcrowding. The right of first purchase would fall to the Department of Natural Resources, overseen by Eamon Palomb. This is turn allowed the lord to make a single, miniscule payment for shackled, browbeaten labourers to replace his workforce of men requiring a living wage.

The act was viewed by Mackhol Taves as his crowning achievement. In a single stroke, he had made himself a far wealthier man than his father or grandfather before him. He was bestowed with further reaching authority, greater respect and a tight bond with the top tier of the EMP who sought to purchase his human wares.

However, Marigold’s father had surmised that it would open a floodgate. Ministers and unelected businessmen would all be seeking to achieve their own roster of slaves with none of the rights and wages and Lord Marscal had not been wrong.

Soon, to fill the requests for prisoners, Mackhol Taves was having legislation passed in the Parliament to increase the sentences for the most petty of crimes. Of course, his outside demeanour indicated it was to combat a rising crime rate. This crime rate, of course, was such a manufactured work of hyperbole and fiction that no one could believe it, yet it was brandied about as if it were fact. The truth of the matter was that it was all in the business of laundering free people into slavery without them realising what was occurring.

With it came a foreboding and unified sense of fear amongst some and outrage among those courageous enough to wield that emotion openly.

Fear was the greatest commodity of this Government. Marigold said to herself. Hand in hand with it came a sense of isolation. As long as the populace was afraid of their governing body and felt alone against it, they would stay submissive and passive to its activities no matter how nefarious. However, in the face of such oppression there would always be resistance, whether from the outside, like that of Lady Orangecloak, or from within, like me.

“Now, my friends,” the Great Father said in conclusion of his prayers. “Reap the rewards of this holy bounty. Praise the Triarchy.”

The simultaneous reprise of “Praise the Triarchy” shook Marigold from thought just as Marburry concluded the prayers.

The old priest waddled toward the Lord Master’s table while the others sat down to discover there was no place set for him.

Before the robed one could ask, Lord Master Howland answered. “My apologies, Great Father Marburry, a sudden matter has arose that could not be delayed until after the feast and must be discussed during it. I have taken the liberty of sending Hossle to have a place of equal honour set for you and your guardsmen this evening.” Lord Master Howland was courteous, but blunt on the matter, which struck Marigold as an ominous sign.

The Great Father indeed took it as a slight, though, and Marigold could feel his eyes gazing at her while Grenjin spoke. When the Lord Master had finished, the pious one jumped at his chance for rebuttal. “What matter could this be that would see my trust and counsel looked over in favour of a woman’s?” he injected quickly and bitterly, catching everyone off guard. “A woman, I might add, who not only dresses in a provocative manner but shows no symbols of homage to Ios on her person?”

Marigold noticed that even Tryst seemed taken by the comment and had craned his head to look up at the smug high priest.

The mannerly decorum of the Lord Master emerged above all to field the questions. “Miss Tullivan is here in place of her father, Marscal, who I’m sure you’re aware of is terribly ill and abed. I require her to be his ears this evening and to bring the tidings of this meeting to him, as my vaunted Warden Lord of the West.”

Before the clergyman could object again, Lord Eamon spoke up to dispel both further protest and an encroaching incident. “I would be most honoured to host you at the Palomb table this evening, Great Father. My lady wife and children would ever so much enjoy your company.” The Lord of the East turned to his dark haired son beside him before Marburry could raise objection. “Eldridge, do the honour of seeing Great Father Marburry to our table, and inform Steward Crendle that he is to see to the Great Father’s needs as he would our own for the duration of the feast.”

“Yes, Father, I will deliver your commands at once.” Eldridge stood tall and bowed to Eamon, Grenjin, and Great Father alike, catching the urgency of the situation quite clearly. At least he has that much tact, Marigold thought while stealing a glance at Pyore to find him grinning like an idiot at her from across the table. That was until he noticed his father staring at him with dagger eyes, instantly wiping the smile from Pyore’s face.

The guards of the Great Father seemed none too pleased to be called back to duty to practically carry the old sot down the four small steps again. As the priest completed his descent he was met by Eldridge, waiting to personally escort Marburry to his new place with Jorette and the younger siblings Nareen and Dorian.

Servants began to bring the first course just as Eldridge retook his seat: a hearty soup of carrot, turnip, potato, asparagus and beef in an onion broth.

The sound of spoons and bowls clattering and people chattering in low voices filled the hall and the head table became no exception. The conversation remained light, with all waiting on Grenjin himself to turn the discussion to more serious matters.

Marigold’s thoughts went to her father lying in the soft bed of his quarters, likely huffing on his pipe and sipping the same soup she was drinking. It would be all he would suffer and the other eleven courses would be turned away at the door by Oire. They were turned away by Marigold as well. She ate only a few nibbles of thickly sliced ham cooked in pineapples from the southern continent of Johnah. Of the honeyed capon she took the smallest among them to taste and the same from a serving of fresh halibut from Daol Bay, one of her favourites. The remaining courses came and went with barely a second glance.

The eleventh and twelfth courses were desserts. The first was a slice of pie made of cream and coconuts harvested on the Garja Isles of the southern stretch of the Crescent Islands. After that came a hearty piece of trifle. A dish layered in fruits from all around the known world, thick custard, sponge cake, flavoured jelly and fresh cream.

When the pie plates cleared they were issued teacups that were then filled from hot carafes of bold coffee or pots of black tea.

The Lord Master turned to face his steward, presently sugaring Grenjin’s tea. “Hossle, my guests and I all have matters of crucial importance to discuss, ensure that no one disturbs us or even has the potential to overhear us. Instruct the conductor of the orchestra to resume his playing at a modest level and order the guards to permit no one under any circumstances. All matters of triviality can be dealt with either by yourself or one of my city councilmen below the dais until we have concluded our meeting.”

Without a word further, Hossle departed in haste to carry out his commands, leaving those at the table to their meeting.

Finally, Marigold thought to herself. Get on with it.

Howland sipped his tea gingerly, watching until he saw the Honourable Guardsmen put themselves directly before the bottom step of the dais before beginning. “Gentlemen and lady of the houses of Palomb and Tullivan, as you know, we have two special guests with us this evening. Both Lord Mackhol Taves and my personal bodyguard, Tryst Reine, were called to sup with us and with just cause. Prior to dinner I received news that was brought to my attention too late in the evening to delay the feast for a meeting in a more private setting. Considering that it is Lord Taves at the centre of this revelation, I shall let him be the one to deliver.”

“Thank you, Lord Master Howland, it will be my pleasure,” Mackhol said, leaning forward with his forearms resting on the table below tented fingers. “In my role as Lord of Crime and Punishment, I have direct participation in not only the incarceration of criminals, but in capturing them as well. It begs to reason that the most sought after criminals would then naturally be my main focus. As such, I am always collecting information that could lead to the apprehension of these criminals and following the most promising of these leads through one of my task forces.”

After a sip of black coffee and a clearing of his throat, the lord of Crime and Punishment went on. “With all that being said, I recently came into information that proved to be most fruitful and it fell to me to act upon it hastily. Failure to do so would have doubtlessly cost me a small, yet golden window of opportunity that I wasn’t like to see again. That is why I had to keep the Lord Master and his Lords of the East and West alike in darkness on the matter. There simply was no time to bring them into things without risking the information going stale and for that I apologise and beg forgiveness. I also judged it prudent that I not risk my information getting intercepted along the way, potentially compromising the investigation. However, I think my work may atone for my misdeed in maintaining silence.

“With the help of our most gracious Lord Master, I have used the walls of Atrebell as a hunter may use the iron jaws of a bear trap to apprehend the most sought after prey of them all: the one they call Lady Orangecloak.” Taves sat back upon delivering the last sentence, watching the Palombs, Tryst and Marigold soak in the information with a satisfied smirk across his face.

Marigold felt goose bumps rising on her arms as Taves said the name of Orangecloak and she looked across the table to see how the others had reacted.

Pyore was openly snickering, though his brother and father to the right of him were sitting sternly, neither of them looking surprised at the information. “Well done, ser.” Eamon spoke up first. “You will be receiving commendation for this work, I assure you.”

“There is more, my lord,” Mackhol intoned with great excitement. “A unit of my finest soldiers led an ambush last night in Argesse, half a day’s ride south of here by horseback. In that ambush, dear Captain Hoyt of Biddenhurst lost his life. I am proud to report that his courageous sacrifice was not in vain, however, for we captured four of Orangecloak’s lieutenants and a score more of her footpads. Currently, they have been consigned to the jail in Atrebell’s southwest district to await transport to my prison.”

The gentle creaking of Mackhol’s chair became the only noise amongst them and Marigold felt a queer feeling settling in the pit of her stomach.

Of all people, it was Tryst who asked the first question. “Do you know which lieutenants of Lady Orangecloak’s were apprehended?”

“Why yes, as a matter of fact, I do,” Lord Taves gleefully answered. “It was none other than the Three Sisters and Pretty Lazlo. Fine catches, if I do so say.”

“Did one among them slay your captain or was his end met some other way?” Tryst queried on further.

“From what I am told it was the one among the Sisters they call, with all pardons for the language, the ‘Red Bitch’.” His smile faded on cue at the mention of his deceased officer. “It would seem that the good captain was assisting his men in restraining the members of the Thieves when she snuck up on him, as cowards are wont to do. Before he could mount a fair fight, she put a spear through his throat.

“The captain’s own steward, one Corporal Cornwall, reported to me with this information just prior to supper. He has taken command of the unit in his captain’s death.”

Eamon chimed in then with a question of his own. “How many casualties were taken from our side in the ambush?”

“I was told there were seven, besides the captain. Apparently the pretty man and the sister called, forgive my language once more, the ‘Blonde Bitch’ are responsible for most of that damage. You should know, however, that our eight took two of their men to the grave with them,” Mackhol intoned proudly.

Marigold had heard of those lieutenants before. The ministers and soldiers alike had named the three female lieutenants of the Thieves ’The Three Sisters’. After the Thieves had taken to that nickname themselves, someone had coined the more disparaging name of the Three Bitches. Eventually, individual sobriquets came with the umbrella term. The Blonde Bitch, also known as the Big Bitch, was reputed to be a greatly muscled woman of unbelievable strength. The Red Bitch was so named for her head of red curls. Apparently, she was of an age and size comparable to Orangecloak and her hair allowed her to serve as a decoy for the leader of the Thieves on several occasions. The last of the Sisters was the leader of that pack and as such, she was called the Queen Bitch.

If they had real names they were not known to Marigold and she had only known the pejorative aliases for them.

Despite being women, the Three Sisters commanded a level of precaution from city guards. Marigold had heard it said the three either worked side by side or in close cohesion with one another. It was known that if you spotted one leading a party of Thieves, the other two were sure to be in close enough proximity with forces of their own. That, combined with the stealth tactics employed by the Thieves, made them dangerous foes when provoked and nearly impossible to ambush without setting oneself up for the same.

Apparently this Captain Hoyt had learned of their ferocity with fatal consequence.

The Pretty Man was a different sort of story. It was believed among the more superstitious that he was a shapeshifter, capable of altering his form from man to woman at the snap of his fingers. The more obvious explanation was that Pretty Lazlo was an incredibly convincing transvestite. There were also rumours that he bedded both sexes and even had both sets of parts. With those rumours came all sorts of wild stories of sexual prowess and a tongue that could seduce man and woman alike. Regardless of how unbelievable they seemed, the rumours only added to his reputation as the handsome man as skilled under the covers as he was in battle.

Marigold became morose to hear that such courageous members of the Thieves were apprehended. At one time she had thought that an alliance with the Thieves might somehow be possible if she rebelled. Now though, it seemed like the clan of outlaws might be at the beginning of their own end.

It was Tryst who jumped in again with further questions. “This trap you spoke of, it leads me to believe the Lady Orangecloak is within the city walls or will be soon enough?”

Mackhol addressed everyone when he spoke and rarely made eye contact with Tryst, as if the sellsword was not the man conducting the bulk of the questioning. “Why yes, as a matter of fact. We received word from an informer inside the Thieves that she was planning a protest in conjunction with our autumn session. The goal was to have this demonstration emanate from an unspecified rooftop between the Roghen plaza in the south east district and the train station we would all be boarding from nearby. Our information indicates that Orangecloak is hiding in the Batterdowns neighbourhood in the South East tonight. Hopefully the news of her lieutenants being taken will not reach her as I would not want her to be dissuaded from her protest. Atrebell is a big city. She could hide here for a whole season without turning up.”

“What were her four lieutenants doing in Argesse with a considerable unit, do you know?” Tryst relentlessly plied onward with his line of questions.

“I am glad you asked.” Mackhol seemed to have rehearsed the answers to such questions in advance. “It seems my little mouse squeaks through both corners of their mouth and let it be known to the Thieves that I was aware of the location of their leader. In turn they launched a counter move to warn Orangecloak and have her abort the mission. The little mouse squeaked that to me as well when I squeezed it hard enough. Afterwards, I sent my problem solvers to prevent any further information from going the wrong way.”

“That is great initiative, Lord Taves.” Eamon complimented, sitting back in his chair to fold his hands over his globular belly. “You have performed service above and beyond the call of duty for Illiastra. I will be glad when these Thieves cease plaguing us.”

“Ah, but I have not gotten to the plan for tomorrow yet.” Mackhol put in.

“Then by all means, elaborate, Lord Taves.” Grenjin gestured towards the Minister of Biddenhurst, who was all too happy to continue talking.

“With permission from Lord Master Howland, I shall position a line of guards in both the plaza and the train station. They will be placed inconspicuously before she emerges from hiding so that it merely appears that there is an increased patrol presence. To most, the reasoning for that would be the obvious fact of Parliament being concluded and the members and their families returning home together. Her staging point, we have been told, is likely to be one of three third storey balconies in the plaza. Once the Lady Orangecloak decides to reveal herself upon one of them and attempts to start her protest, our men will form up and surround her.”

The lord waited a moment to let that much of his plan process in everyone’s mind before continuing. “As you all may well know, Orangecloak’s preferred method of escape from city guardsmen across the country is a mad dash along the rooftops. In this instance, seeing the guards filling the plaza, she will have to leave by going east or west to continue. East leads to Hardnell Street and it is a dead end from the roofs. She will have to descend into the street from there, where my own task force that apprehended her allies last night will be lying in wait.”

“Where will her friends be during this?” Tryst asked bluntly.

Taves winced at that before turning to Tryst to give him answer. “They will still be safely under the guard of Major Burnson, who has retained my prisoners until such a time that I can personally retrieve them. Now th-“

“What reason did Major Burnson give to claim possession of prisoners arrested by soldiers not of his command?” Tryst curtly cut in, taking Mackhol back by the sheer abruptness of it.

“Um…Well you see, Mister Reine,” Mackhol emphasised the word ‘mister’, reminding Tryst that he was without a formal title in Illiastra. “I was told by Corporal Cornwall that Major Burnson had some complaints about the condition of the prisoners. What that condition was I cannot say as the corporal claims Burnson did not give him any reason. I will be filing complaint against the Major before I leave, to be sure.”

Tryst nodded slowly, considering what he had heard. “I see, do continue, Lord Taves. You have my apologies for rudely cutting in.”

“I accept your apology, ser,” the minister cordially said before clearing his throat to continue on. “As I was saying, my own guards will occupy Hardnell street in the west and-”

“You mean the east, Lord Taves,” Eamon said, correcting his subordinate minister.

Taves laughed nervously at his blunder. “Ah yes, thank you, Lord Palomb, I did mean to say the east, yes. That is where my men will be. West of the train station and the plaza will be, should he choose to be involved, Mister Reine and a party comprised of the Honourable Guardsmen of his choosing. This unit will be capable of giving a rooftop pursuit. The guards from within the plaza then break into two groups that will follow her from streets north and south of the row of buildings. That will further force her into one of two traps lying in wait to the east or west.” Mackhol leaned back smugly as he finished, having recovered from his earlier gaffe. “I am confident that barring anything sudden to the contrary, the plan should lead to a successful netting of the greatest menace that Illiastra has seen in living memory.”

Eldridge nodded in agreement, adding his own opinion. “This has been quite some time coming and I must say I’m quite excited to see our work paying off.”

That caught Marigold by surprise. “Pardon me,” she found herself saying. “Did Minister Taves not just say he accomplished this with no assistance from anyone outside of his own service? Why would you say ‘our’ work just now?”

Eamon recoiled when she said that, furiously looking to Eldridge and confirming it was not merely a poor choice of words.

Mackhol Taves leaned forward once more and took the lead on answering. “Well, you see, Miss Tullivan, the Palombs, as my direct overlords, were aware of my initial investigation, but not my latest progress, I assure you.”

She eyed him curiously. “But the Tullivans, Overlords of the West, were not informed?”

“Miss Tullivan, I ask you to watch your tone.” Grenjin stared her down and spoke in a tone that begged caution. “You are here to observe for your father, not to speak.”

Pyore spoke up from across the table to Grenjin. “I apologise for my betrothed, Lord Master. She is but a woman and prone to a reaction that is purely emotional.” He then looked to Marigold before she could muster a response to that insult. “As your husband-to-be and the heir to the West, I acted on your father’s behalf in the matter. You will raise your voice no more whilst men are talking, woman.”

“You overstep your boundaries, Pyore,” Marigold cut back sharply, her patience with him having long expired. “The West has not become yours to rule yet, for if I am not mistaken, we are not yet wed and my father still lives.”

“For now, we all know he won’t make it through the winter,” Pyore replied bitingly.

“How dare you?” Marigold kept her voice down, though she was seething. “How dare you speak of my father in such a way?”

Pyore was incensed. “The more apt question is how dare you answer me back? This matter doesn’t even concern you, Marigold. You’re just a woman, weak and simple of mind.”

“Pyore, enough!” Eamon cut in sharply, slamming a fist on the table that caught the attention of everyone in the hall.

Marigold stood from her seat. “This matter concerns me greatly, for not only am I the voice, eyes and ears of Marscal Tullivan, but the issue revolves around a fellow woman. A woman I might add, that despite a weak and simple mind, as you so put it, has become ‘the greatest menace in living memory’,” Marigold repeated Lord Taves quote with much added gusto, pressing both hands firmly upon the table as she leaned over toward Pyore.

She had quite enough of the Palombs, Taves and Howland all looking down their noses at her on this night. “Tell me, Pyore, how does a woman like Lady Orangecloak become such a threat to this government if we are but simple creatures that are incapable of harnessing our emotions?”

“Miss Tullivan.” All eyes turned to face the Lord Master, his face showing signs of frustration. “I think you are quite tired and you have had quite a long day. You are dismissed from this meeting. I will have Hossle find an Honourable Guardsman and have him escort you to your room.” Grenjin spoke to her dismissively as if she were but a child throwing a fit.

Marigold turned to face Howland, trying with all her might to bury her anger and disarm the situation. “With all due respect, Lord Master, I do not feel tired. If I may, I would like to apologise to you all and retake my seat, as soon as Pyore apologises for his remarks.”

“I will accept those terms, but I warn you I will take no further outbursts from you.” The old master was quickly growing tired of the bickering, Marigold realized. “You are only here because of your father and it is the respect and friendship I share with him that has kept you here despite your behaviour. You will conduct yourself in a manner that will do no further dishonour and require no subsequent reprimand from myself. Is that clear, Miss Tullivan?

“It seems more than fair, Lord Master. I thank you for your kindness in allowing me to stay and will heed your commands going forward.” Marigold cast her eyes downward, accepting the lecturing in light of the Lord Master’s leniency in allowing her to stay. Marigold cleared her throat and turned back to the disgruntled son of Eamon Palomb. “Pyore, would you care to apologise for your remark and allow our meeting to proceed?”

The young man stood and leaned in her direction, teeth gritted and face turning a deep shade of red. “Aye, I shall apologise.” Pyore said with fury in his voice. A flicker of dread went through Marigold and the last thing she remembered was catching a glimpse of an open right hand cocked back over Pyore’s left side.

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