Tryst I

Chapter II

Tryst I


A toast then, to another successful session of Parliament,” one man said to another. Their crystal tumblers of rum clinked together audibly as they stood before the roaring hearth against the south wall of the expansive banquet hall.

The man offering the toast was Robick Mahash, Minister of Galren region and the newly minted Lord of Agriculture. For the better part of half an hour he had been boasting of his new position to Minister Ike Slake of Galdourn. However, it seemed that the Lord of Agriculture was more concerned with mining a newly found cache of cobalt in his region than he was with potatoes and turnips.

It was a dull conversation for the man sitting in a darkened corner nearby, yet he listened all the same. For listening was exactly what he had been paid to do.

Lord Mahash and Minister Slake were lesser ministers of the Elite Merchant Party, – or EMP, as they were more commonly known – the controlling body of the government of the largest nation on the largest continent of the Known World: Illiastra. Situated on the eastern edge of the Casparian Sea, it lay bordered by mountains to the east and south and a frozen desert of inhospitable cold to the north.

It was a country of lush green forests, fields, rolling hills, and rivers that cut and flowed where they may to the lakes and ponds they fed. Amidst it all were the cities of man, built from brick, stone, iron, and wood, and all of them pumping to the beat of industry. Those ruling over it were a wealthy group of sixty administrators of the sixty regions. Most were titled minister and a dozen again called Lord with one Lord Master to rule over them all.

Upon the dais, behind a small string quartet and seated in a chair of polished wood decorated with gems and gold, Grenjin Howland did just that.

The man watching the ministers on Lord Master Howland’s behalf was a swordsman of considerable skill from the Midlands Republic of Gildriad. Itself a country on Gildriad continent found on the far western side of the known world.

Men like Mahash and Slake did not have much of a care for the swordsman in the shadows strumming softly on his guitar. They tolerated him within their walls and borders, yet this man had never felt welcome by most of the leaders of Illiastra. Regardless, Tryst Reine was hired to protect the Lord Master, and this was the task his employer had asked of him.

To Tryst’s credit, he at least dressed for the part, albeit only in black. Tonight he had chosen a tight vest over a shirt of silk with its sleeves rolled to the elbows, his finest leather boots polished to a bright shine, and a pair of light, cotton trousers.

Even in matching finery, however, there was still a level of contempt rained upon him by those who felt themselves to be his superiors. Tryst Reine was born in a foreign land to modest parents of above average means and in the eyes of these aristocrats, that made him lesser than they. Yet, for all their snobbery they still feared him. These men all knew that their wealth made poor armour against a man who bore the title of Master of Blades.

From the corner of his eye, Tryst caught sight of Minister Slake excusing himself and wandering back into the herd of suits between the hearth and the dais. Lord Mahash lingered, took a sip of his brandy and glanced about. For the briefest of moments his eyes fell on Tryst and he saw Mahash’s unease. Their stare was broken just as quickly as it had begun, and Mahash departed for the centre of the room hastily.

I suppose I should go among them as well and see what the sheep are bleating about this evening, Tryst thought to himself while laying his prized guitar back in its wooden case.

It was part of Tryst’s duties to report any conversations of interest he overheard to the Lord Master and it was clear that he would hear no more by the hearth.

To the credit of the old man’s paranoia, the Lords and Ministers were certainly the liars Lord Master Howland suspected them to be. Every last one of them held an unmatched conviction to their part that could rival the actors of the stage. To one’s face, the government leaders could pay the sweetest of compliments with a feigned sincerity to fool all but the most astute of observers. However, when the back was turned, they could plunge it with the daggers of their true intent.

That deception made the EMP appear to be a unified body on the surface. Yet, there was no doubt in the mind of the Lord Master’s sworn shield that every man of the party was holding that unity for the betterment of themselves alone.

Then there was the woman, and once more Tryst felt her eyes upon him. She was Marigold, the daughter of the Minister of Daol Bay, Lord of Fisheries and Seas and Warden of the West, Marscal Tullivan.

Tryst’s eyes had befallen her several times that evening upon the dais where the Lord Master and his two warden lords had supped. Now, however, she was weaving her way through the maze of Ministers and heirs who were all taking their turns to remark upon her appearance. With her slender yet curvaceous body, her long, dark hair, and a face of green eyes and flawless features, there was no denying she was a rare beauty.

Tonight she wore a gown of crimson lace and samite that fell to the floor, the sleeves of which flowed down her delicate arms, flared around her hands and hung ostentatiously long. Its neckline was open and plunged low, revealing just a small taste of the supple skin beneath. There was no denying that she was truly a vision of loveliness walking amid an ugly game.

It was doubtless that she would proposition Tryst yet again, as she had been doing since the Parliamentary session in the spring of the year.

Marigold’s time grows short, and as time becomes lighter on the scale her desperation works to tip the scale away, Tryst said to himself.

Currently she was in the throes of what he knew must be a thrilling banter with the Captain of the Manor Guards, Egland Barrid. The rotund Captain’s self-appointed duty consisted of waddling around the floor and inflating his own sense of importance by engaging with the ministers. However, that didn’t save the affluent leaders from regarding him only slightly better than they did the serving staff.

Unfortunately for Barrid, despite his finely pressed cream coloured military jacket with its golden epaulets and collection of medals, he was afflicted by being born into only middling wealth. In the world of the EMP, a man’s worth was less in his abilities and more in the loins he originated from.

As Tryst made his way into the sea of suits milling about, he noticed Captain Barrid’s most famous contribution to the manor’s security alternating guard posts. They were the Honourable Guardsmen, Barrid’s handpicked group of the most handsome and skilled men-at-arms that the Illiastran military could provide. Tryst watched them move, clad in their violet and gold jackets and black trousers with a vertical stripe of gold upon either leg. The unit was one of special purpose and were convened to guard over the seasonal Parliamentary Sessions and any other major functions the Lord Master was expected to attend.

There was but one that Tryst knew as more than a name: Freyard Archer, First Class Rifleman, and Expert Marksman. When not summoned to duty, he was the Master-at-Arms and Captain of the Sun’s Rangers for Fort Dornett, one of several military forts dotting the south side of the Varras River. However, at present Tryst saw no sign of his friend and thought it likely that he had been given a break for the next fifteen minutes.

As it was, there were only a few of the ministers on the floor that glanced in Tryst’s direction as he passed, though he had no doubt that his presence was noted amongst the noblemen. Many of them would be talking as he sauntered through, hoping that he would overhear their conversations and bring the choicest bits of information back to the Lord Master. Of course, nothing any of them spoke of could be deemed valuable. The duty fell to Tryst to extract any minor worth from the thickly spun webs of lies and general kowtowing and tonight there was little and less to note.

Truth be told, this had been a rather dry session. The two main items were a new tax that had been levied on produce farmers and the passing of a law that permitted landlords to issue arrest warrants to delinquent tenants.

There were several other pieces of legislation, though they served no other purpose than to funnel funds from the underpaid many to the wealthy few.

For all intentions, the autumn sessions and the talk around them were just an effort to maintain the current status of affairs going in to the Winter season. Everything would go into a holding pattern before the frost fell in a few weeks and the Winter Parliamentary Sessions would go sparsely attended due to inevitably poor weather.

No, Tryst knew that the next time there would be anything worth hearing it would be in the Spring.

The loud voice of one Minister Braggen came close to Tryst’s hearing. Craiginald Braggen was the Minister of Farmourd, a city located in the southeast corner of the country. In a tone of grand overacting, the minister began to boast of how the mountain air had yielded his outlying farms the best harvest in all of Illiastra. The statement behind it was plain enough: Braggen had been among the ministers that had been vying for the Agriculture lordship that had been granted to Robick Mahash. There was truth to the matter of the crops, however. But Braggen had little and nothing to do with that. It was no secret that Craiginald was a largely incompetent oaf propped up by his five city councillors.

There was nothing else to hear on the floor at this time outside of empty praise and idle banter, Tryst determined, and he continued on his way to the dais. The ministers parted away from Tryst as he walked, daring not to hinder his egress through their flock.

The dais fell into his vision as he turned in its direction, particularly the Lord Master sitting atop it in his gilded chair of finely polished elm. At present, the old man was speaking to his Warden Lords of the East and West that were seated to either side of him.

Lord Marscal Tullivan of Daol Bay sat on Grenjin’s right. Aside from being the father of Marigold, he was also the Lord of Fisheries and Seas and the Warden Lord of the West. His face was pale and gaunt, a dark brown suit drooped from a sickly frame, and he constantly had a handkerchief to hand to mop his perpetually damp brow. It was said in whispers that the consumption disease had taken hold of him, though no one would dare say as much to his face.

In addition to Lord Tullivan’s woes, the eldest of his two daughters, Serephanie, had been kidnapped by a common fisherman, or that was how the story was presented, at any rate. The truth as Tryst knew it was that she had run away of her own free will, abandoning her family, inheritance, and legacy to avoid an arranged marriage.

Seated to the left of the Lord Master was the soon-to-be-father-in-law of both of the Tullivan women: Lord Eamon Palomb, Warden of the East, Minister of Hercalest, and Lord of Fuel and Mineral Resources. His mile deep mines dotted the lands east of Atrebell, marring innocent and otherwise picturesque landscapes for their precious coal, metals, and jewels buried within.

Twin sons of his sat in smaller, but no less lavish chairs. Closest at hand was the elder by two minutes, named Eldridge. With his short, wavy dark hair atop a tall, strong frame and a handsome face of striking, sharp features, he was the apple of his father’s eye. Barring the unforeseen, Eldridge was also the destined Lord Master of Illiastra. Aside from his betrothed that abandoned him, he was loved amongst the women of the upper crust and adored from afar by those beneath. With his easy smiles and gentlemanly façade, Eldridge Palomb played the part of a fine heir that would make any father proud.

Beside Eldridge sat his brother, who looked more like a distant cousin than a twin as far as Tryst was concerned. Pyore was shorter by several centimetres, with a mop of dirty blond hair atop a wide head and a stocky body. Though none would ever say it in his hearing, he was a homely lad. Had he been born to anyone else he would have been not looked at twice. It was being Eamon Palomb’s seed that made him somebody, and this somebody lacked the outward courtesies of his elder sibling and father. Nonetheless, the lad was destined to take the Wardenship of the West, the ministerial seat of Daol Bay and Marigold Tullivan’s hand in marriage, much to her continual disdain.

That marriage had been sealed long ago, starting when Grenjin Howland’s wife perished and left him without an heir. Rumours persisted that he was impotent at any rate. Regardless, fate had left the powerful Howland family’s patriarch as a childless widower.

Despite the nepotistic ways of the Elite Merchant Party, Lord Master Howland had already annulled any claim to the Lord Mastership from his four junior siblings and their lines. By his own estimation, none of his relatives was fit to succeed him, and he judged his entire family inept to varying degrees.

There had also been offerings from highborn ladies to remarry and ministers offering their sons to be taken to ward so that they might become the Lord Master’s heir. Grenjin Howland had rebuffed them all, effectively extinguishing his family name for what he deemed ‘the good of the party’.

Instead, Grenjin had concocted a plan with the two men seated beside him to unite the West and East by joining the Warden Lord houses together in marriage. Of course, with only daughters, Marscal Tullivan’s name was also due to be inevitably extinguished. That being a product of chauvinistic, theistic laws enacted by the Elite Merchant Party and the Triarchy religion a century ago, in fact, those laws prevented women from ruling in any capacity.

Marigold Tullivan, however, had no intention of being so obliging toward the laws of men or gods, even if she did stay when her older sister had run away.

The absurdity of it all was that if Serephanie were found, the marriage would still proceed. Even a cuckolded Palomb would not be so foolish as to cast away the eldest daughter of the Warden Lord of the West. Her name bore power, even if the law prohibited her from wielding it directly. Marigold, on the other hand, had decided on a different means of fighting her fate and was conspiring to void the marriage contract in order to rid herself of it entirely.

“Mister Reine, a pleasant dinner party, is it not?” she asked by way of greeting as she approached his left side, sliding a hand into the crook of his elbow.

Tryst had hoped to avoid conversing with her, but the woman was admirably persistent.

“It most certainly is, my lady,” Tryst gave by way of reply, doing his best to keep the conversation at a cordial level. “I trust the food and hospitality has been to your liking?”

“It was quite delicious and I do intend to pay my compliments to Chef Ruggard before the evening ends,” she said with a warm smile while the ministers on the floor pretended not to notice the two.

Tryst decided it would be prudent to end the banter then and there. “Would it be bold of me to assume that your being here means the Lord Master is ready for his report?” he asked in a tone that remained amiable, allowing the words to cut to the chase without harming feelings.

“Why yes, as it is, the Lord Master was going to send his steward, Mister Hossle, to get you, but I offered to go in his stead. In truth I felt the need to stretch my legs, as I had been sitting for quite some time and I had feared my legs had gone to sleep.” The woman offered up with a soft laugh, taking a quick glance up at Tryst. Soft painted lips pulled into a pretty little smile, though mischief lurked in those glimmering green eyes of hers.

“Then I shall not keep him waiting any longer,” Tryst replied back, detangling his arm from her hand and excusing himself from her company. It was a little curt, though it would be improper for him to be seen as being overly friendly with the eventual wife of one of the Palomb twins. Those twins, Tryst noted, had also left the dais and seemingly the room itself.

“As you wish, Mister Reine, I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening. If you’ll excuse me, I think I may refresh my wine glass and pay the staff my respects on another fabulous meal,” Marigold said, ensuring the last word was all hers before walking away. Her high-heeled shoes gave her backside a lift with each step that she fully intended to be noticed, by Tryst himself above all.

Tryst shook his head and headed towards the steps of the dais. Before which stood the small, grey haired, middle aged form of the Atrebell Manor’s steward, Breyer Hossle, tasked for the evening with managing the audiences with the Lord Master. Despite asking for such not being a step Tryst needed to abide by, he did for the sake of appearances anyhow. Tryst waited while the assistant to the Lord Master strode up the steps and across the dais to the three older men in the high-backed chairs.

Howland looked to be nearly asleep as droopy eyelids fluttered open at the sound of Hossle’s footfalls. The old man gave Tryst a glimpse before beckoning him forward with a quick flick of his index and middle fingers. Tryst joined the Lord Master and his colleagues, all of whom seemed to share in Grenjin Howland’s exhaustion with the evening.

“Mister Reine,” the Lord Master addressed Tryst as he approached the lordly trio. “Come to make your report, I trust?”

“Aye, ser,” Tryst replied as he took a knee. He always took care to never refer to Grenjin Howland as ‘my lord’. The reason for that being that Howland was Lord Master of Illiastra and Tryst Reine a mercenary born on the continent of Gildriad. A mercenary from a foreign land was not a soldier or a subject of Illiastra, merely a man who sold his sword and the arm swinging it. The Lord Master and Tryst were simply an employer and an employee, respectively. For that, Tryst begrudged the man who paid him the title of ‘ser’, but he would never call Grenjin Howland by the name Lord Master.

This titling arrangement was one Howland had been made aware of early in the time of Tryst’s employment in bluntly honest and straightforward terms. The Lord Master had formed a respect for Tryst based on that and he had granted Tryst’s request with no further argument.

“So what is it tonight?” the elderly man asked.

Tryst made sure to look at each of the three lords in turn as he spoke, lest they feel disrespected. “In truth, there is little to tell,” he explained. “However, it would seem that Minister Braggen is not pleased that Minister Mahash is the new Lord of Agriculture.”

“Not pleased, is he?” Howland replied in a bored tone, his gaze darting to Eamon Palomb, who sat silently with his hands intertwined and resting atop his belly. “I am sure he had more to say than that and I will hear it, but not before you get up off the floor. It will not do me any good to have a highly paid protector with a poor knee.”

“As you wish, ser,” Tryst said, standing once again before continuing on. “Minister Braggen also stated that he would have been the more suitable choice, basing this on his perception that Farmourd had a more bountiful harvest than Galren.”

Eamon Palomb gave a snort at that. “Braggen is the greatest fool in the entire caucus if he thinks I’ll ever make him lord of anything, let alone agriculture. If we depended on him to oversee the farming industry, we would be spending our winters with only melted snow and wild game to eat. Even that fishing captain from Tusker’s Cove is a more apt minister. At least he has the sense to keep his mouth closed and do as he is told, and that one is merely an upjumped commoner.”

“Braggen is indeed an oaf in fine clothing, Lord Eamon,” Grenjin turned in his seat in saying, coming to face the Warden Lord of the East and Minister of Hercalest, the most populous city in the realm. “Considering he is one of your Easterly ministers, I am sure you have a suggestion as to how to proceed in dealing with him?”

“I should say so,” Eamon sat forward and addressed his fellow lords as he spoke, ignoring Tryst entirely. “He is a fool and a weak link in the chain that is this government. We should cut him out and find a more suitable minister.”

Grenjin stroked his chin in contemplation, staring blankly into the crowd of ministers below the dais. “Would you make me ask whom you have in mind or will you tell me without a prompt?”

“Why of course, my Lord,” Eamon answered quickly. “I would nominate my good cousin, Patton Palomb.”

“He would certainly be an improvement from Minister Braggen,” Howland put back. “Though Craiginald’s brother may disapprove and certainly so may yours.”

“Mine own brother is an invaluable asset in my council and in his role as the executive of finance within the department of Fuel and Mineral Resources,” Eamon said, seeming to be entirely put off by the idea. “I could not spare him to leave for Farmourd. Patton would serve, and faithfully at that.

“As for Councillor Arneld Braggen, I should think he would be relieved to no longer have to worry about keeping his inept older sibling from ruining their family.”

“You raise fine points and they shall all be considered another time,” the old Lord Master commentated as he slid himself to the edge of his chair. “Bring this to my attention again when we near the election in the spring and we will discuss it further. In the meantime, I think I am thoroughly exhausted and ready to retire for the evening. Mister Reine, if there is nothing further would you be so kind as to escort me to my chambers?”

“Certainly, ser,” Tryst said with a nod as he offered the Lord Master his arm to help the arthritic seventy-four year old to stand. The man walked with a slow gait and usually a cane when the Parliamentary sessions were out. Though for that single week per season when the Ministers gathered at the Atrebell Manor the old fellow hid his weakness behind a call for an escort between chairs. Whether or not Grenjin actually believed he fooled anyone with the charade, Tryst could not be certain.

“I suppose I should address the good fellows before I leave,” Howland said as he reached a papery thin hand for the sculpted post at the top of the dais and stepped away from Tryst.

With a single wave of his hand, the Lord Master brought silence over the hall, with even the musicians coming to a halt mid-song. “My good fellow Lords and distinguished Ministers, the evening grows late and I fear in my age I can no longer endure being awake in the wee hours. I shall take leave of you all for the night to get my rest, though feel at liberty to stay in my absence. Tomorrow we adjourn this latest parliamentary session, to be followed by another exquisite meal with you all and your families that will join us then. Until such time, I bid you all a fond goodnight.”

Hossle joined Tryst to assist the Lord Master down the steps as the gathered men gave a polite applause for their vaunted leader. After crossing the floor and exiting through the oaken double doors to the expansive lobby, the Lord Master dismissed Hossle to move on ahead of them. This left Tryst alone to help Howland across the floor and over the tall stairs while the steward saw to having the elderly man’s bed readied for him.

After a journey that seemed to take forever, with each step up the marble staircase that led to the second floor a battle in itself, they stopped to rest. A chair sat beside the balustrade that overlooked the lobby and it was there that Tryst helped seat the geriatric. Grenjin looked about nervously to ensure that only his own guards were about before addressing Tryst.

“Mister Reine,” the old man began. His watery eyes flicked up and down Tryst’s form critically, before meeting Tryst’s own. “I couldn’t help but notice you haven’t worn a sword all week at the evening dinners. How is it a man can have a title like ‘Master of Blades’ and not visibly be wielding one? Is the sword I gave you to hang from your hip not acceptable?”

The comment caught Tryst a little off guard. When the old man spoke of noticing something in Tryst, the lack of an apparent weapon was not what he had envisioned. “My apologies, ser,” Tryst began.  “To be frank, the epee I was gifted from you is a beautiful piece and nothing more.” He worded his criticism of the blade carefully to avoid causing his employer offence, yet he had never been one to mince words. “It is improperly balanced and the blade is made of cheap steel. The gold plated hilt, though a marvellous piece of craftsmanship, is clumsy and uncomfortable to the grip. It is aesthetically pleasing, no doubt, but as an honest weapon it is not adequate. I did not want to insult you by equipping my standard sword, so I thought it wise to wear none at all.”

“Oh Tryst, the only thing blunt about you is your honesty. Believe me it is much appreciated to hear it from time to time,” Grenjin uttered exhaustively. The old man showed no signs of being put off by the disparaging remarks Tryst made towards the sword in question. “Do not worry about that sword I gave you then, I would rather that you equip yourself with what suits you best. Just do not arrive unarmed, for it makes me nervous. If someone was to make an attempt on my life, they would be most inclined to do so when they thought you were empty handed.”

The weapon under Tryst’s scrutiny had likely cost an exorbitant amount of coin, but it would hardly be noticed in Howland’s expansive bankroll.

Tryst’s words were not entirely as honest as Grenjin would like to believe. Certainly the sword was useless, but he was not without a weapon. Hidden in either boot was a narrow pocket above either ankle in which he could conceal a throwing knife. The slender blades were adequate enough to serve in their intended form or to be pressed into service as a dagger. The knives, combined with his expertise in Kav-Do-Roe, an Elven style of hand-to-hand combat, made him dangerous, regardless of whether there was a sword on his hip.

They lapsed into silence for the rest of the walk once Grenjin had resumed his slow, plodding trek. The last flight of stairs led to the third floor, the entirety of which was Lord Howland’s living quarters. The door to the expansive apartments was opened by the steward when he heard Tryst and Grenjin approaching. Tryst made a customary sweep of the suites for intruders to the old man’s satisfaction, and left him with Hossle to prepare for sleep.

Going back the way he came to the Great Hall, Tryst went in search of Freyard. The hope was that his friend would join him in breaking the seal on a bottle of rum of good vintage that he had acquired while recently in Aquas Bay. His eyes scanned the remaining occupants of the room, finding that the Warden Lords of East and West had also retired for the evening and their stewards with them.

At first glance Tryst missed sight of Freyard and was about to leave when he caught him subtly waving Tryst over.

The sandy haired rifleman had built a reputation as a ranger and had all but eradicated one of the three raiding gangs plaguing the Southlands. It was a feat that in its own right earned him a great measure of respect with Tryst, despite his usage of firearms, which Tryst wholly detested. As they came to know one another, that respect had turned out to be mutual, and Freyard had eventually become one of the few people that Tryst called friend.

“Another dull affair, wouldn’t you say, Reine?” Archer commented in a bored tone, referring to Tryst by his surname.

“Entirely, though dull is not without its benefits,” Tryst answered with a smile as he closed the gap between them. “What’s the word, my friend?”

“The word is that the Lady Marigold went into the kitchens some time ago and hasn’t returned,” Freyard noted dryly.

“Hasn’t returned?” Tryst grew a little perplexed as he said the words. He had seen her heading in that direction after their conversation earlier that evening, though that had been some time ago. “You’ve been monitoring the exits the entire time?”

“Aye Tryst, there’s only three: the west door near to me, the south door from the servant’s hall, and the north one behind the dais. She hasn’t emerged through either one, though she could have gone outside. Given that she went without a cloak or coat and it is more than a little chilly tonight, I have my doubts about that,” Freyard answered with a little concern in his voice. “Seeing as how you’re not on duty like I am, I was hoping you would investigate on my behalf?”

Tryst nodded, himself wanting to figure this puzzle out. “Aye, leave it in my hands. I’ll see what’s going on.”

After a quick thank-you from Freyard, Tryst left him and headed for the kitchen.

Inside the kitchen, Tryst found that the air was always warm, even after meals were finished being cooked and served. At this hour, no one was working, and the cooks, bakers, dishwashers, and servants had all gone across the west yard to the servant’s quarters to take their own meals.

Only Ruggard remained within. The man was a giant of a master chef who stood a head and then some over Tryst. The big fellow was frequently called ‘Lord of the Kitchen’, a title lovingly bestowed on him by his workers and one he wore proudly. Tryst thought he was a good man of honest nature who was kind and fair to those who answered to him. Even now, the Lord of the Kitchen was working alone to clean up while his staff ate and rested.

Upon entering, Tryst found the tall man drying and sorting away the pots, pans, and other cooking tools of the night. Ruggard turned his face to look over his wide shoulders as Tryst came through the door and turned back without a word, no doubt hoping Tryst would leave quickly.

Despite Tryst’s best efforts to be friendly and pleasant with the staff of the manor, they all fostered a great deal of fear and hatred for him. Of course, Tryst knew that to be the doing of the Lord Master, who had taken great pains to spread false tales of Tryst to inspire such reactions.

In the towering cook though, there was no such fear. However, his detestation was plain enough. “Can I help you, ser?” he asked with the deep bass he called a voice.

“Good evening, Ruggard, I was wondering if you had seen Lady Marigold lately? I had heard she came through here some time ago.” Tryst posed the question quite amiably. He bore the man no ill will, regardless of how that was reciprocated.

“She did,” Ruggard Helmsworth answered brusquely as he turned his head away, putting his full back to Tryst as he worked a towel over a large boiler.

“I see, how long was she here might I ask?” Tryst put back, keeping the tone friendly.

“I don’t know, not my job to keep track of the rich folk,” he replied again, laying the boiler off to the side and reaching for a heavy looking iron pot.

From the corner of his eye, Tryst watched as Ruggard lifted it easily with one hand, like it was no heavier than a bowl.

“What was she doing, could you at least tell me that?” Tryst gingerly asked.

“Thanked me for dinner,” he shot back as he put the pot down with a loud bang.

“That was all?” Tryst prodded, maintaining his poise in the face of the cook’s rudeness.

The man finally looked at him, his brown eyes gazing out under thick, bushy eyebrows of near black that matched the short cropped hair on his head. “Talked to her butler and then took two stemmed glasses, a flagon of wine, and left, like I wish you would do.”

“I apologise for troubling you, Ruggard and will take my leave of you shortly.” Tryst assured him. An eyebrow arched curiously as he caught on something the chef had said. “You said ‘her butler’, are you referring to her steward, Oire?”

“That’s him, yes. He went out the north door and she went out the south one, to my workers hallways. Pick one and follow it yourself if you’re done here,” Ruggard informed him as he put the pot in the boiler, lifted them in his arms like they weighed nothing at all, and walked out of sight to the storage pantry around the corner.

Tryst took the cue and turned towards the south exit.

Opening the door on the darkened passage, Tryst found it illuminated only by the electric lampposts shining through the windows. His eyes adjusted to fall on the figure of Marigold Tullivan, standing before one of the windows. A pair of wine glasses rested on the sill, one full and the other only half. From what he could tell, she had taken notice of him as soon as the door had opened.

The pale lights from outside fell across her face and upon which Tryst could see a slim smile as she turned to meet him. “Mister Reine, I see that Captain Archer passed along my message.”

Freyard played me coy, he thought before following her game. “That he did. I understand that you wished to speak with me?”

“I do,” she admitted. “I took the liberty of procuring us some wine, a fine red from the vineyards in the Bay of Fog. It’s got a blueberry taste to it and a tender sweetness that just clings to the palette. It is quite nice if I do say so. Care to try some… Tryst?”

He couldn’t recall if she had ever called him by his first name before. It had always been ‘Mister Reine’, just as all the lords and ministers had always done.

Nervously he stepped into the narrow hallway, closing the kitchen door behind him. “I… um… What is it you wish to speak to me about, Miss Tullivan?” Tryst heard the words stumbling out of his mouth as soft footfalls brought him closer to the brunette beauty.

She had a slight waver in her stance when she had been speaking, one that became more pronounced as she turned her body towards him. As she pivoted, her foot struck against the flagon on the floor and it rang hollow and empty.

She’s been here since I last saw her, drinking up the courage to ply me again to help her break her marital bonds.

“The same thing I have been trying to speak to you of for some time,” Marigold said, confirming Tryst’s suspicions in a low voice that still found a way to bounce off the walls.

“Miss Tullivan I-“

She cut him off with a pointed look. “Marigold”

“Pardon?” Tryst nearly stammered.

“Please, call me Marigold. There is no need of formalities between us,” she had picked up her wine glass in two hands as she said it, taking a gentle sip of the red.

“Fine then, Marigold. I don’t know who you think I am, but I am not in any position to help you with what you seek.” Tryst said to her as he inched closer, so that they might talk in whispers.

The second wine glass that had been resting on the sill was offered to him and he had taken it to hand while speaking.

Marigold lifted her own glass and softly tapped it against his. “To calm your nerves, Tryst. You are quite worked up. Be at ease, for I will not hurt you,” she said as she took another sip, to which Tryst responded to the toast by taking a similar portion to tongue.

It was indeed as sweet as she claimed, but not in a sickly way. It had notable texture and a good body that he swished in his mouth before swallowing.

“You give me cause to be nervous Miss Tul-er… Marigold,” Tryst caught himself from saying her family name.

“So you think you have cause to be nervous, Tryst?” she asked rhetorically with a humorous scoff. “After tomorrow I am to return to Daol Bay with my father, who as you know, is in poor health. Either by his death or on the birthday of the Palomb Twins on the sixtieth of winter, the Tullivans will lose Daol Bay. My family name, all of its holdings, titles, and lands will all be assimilated into the greater wealth of the Palombs and rendered extinct. This arrangement also relegates me to the useless role of being a voiceless trophy wife of Pyore,” Tryst noticed a fire in her eyes as she spoke the names of the twins before pausing to drink. She truly loathed them as much as she claimed. “My sister… My dear older sister Serephanie… Ran off into the night with a fisherman to escape it all, but I lack her free spirit it seems. I cannot ignore my people as she can, I cannot put my needs above theirs. I stay to fight as best I can to keep that marriage from happening, for their sake. So tell me again, Tryst, who is the one that should be nervous here?”

“I’m not saying you have no cause to be nervous,” Tryst began. “What I am saying is that I am of no use to your cause and if we are caught together cavorting like this they will take my head.” Tryst finished his wine, placing the glass on the sill.

“You are of much use to my cause, Tryst. You do not realise the power you wield and the power I could grant you if you were to join me,” Marigold put to him for consideration.

Tryst pursed his lips in a firm line and gave a little sigh of annoyance. “I am a mercenary under contract to the Lord Master of Illiastra, a different sort of mercenary than usual, but a mercenary nonetheless. I am not the answer to your woes and you would be wise to forget about me,” Tryst spoke as he gave her his back as he attempted to leave.

“As you would forget about me?” she queried, “You would leave Daol Bay and me to the mercy of the Palombs?”

Tryst rolled his eyes, knowing that she was making an attempt at shaming him into accepting her offer, though Tryst was having none of it. “What would be my alternative?” he asked, by way of reply. “While your sister remained, you wanted me to marry you and whisk you off to Gildriad, now what? You would have me marry you and assume power in Daol Bay?” Tryst’s tone was more than a little sarcastic, even a little stinging.

“No one would question you, Tryst. No one would dare challenge your rule,” Marigold shot back, her tone just as biting as his.

“Eamon Palomb would challenge my rule. He and the entire might of the eastern half of Illiastra. Goodnight, Miss Tullivan,” Tryst offered in the parting. Leaving her with that, he returned to the dining hall.

Even Ruggard had retired for the evening, it seemed and the lights in the kitchen had been turned out, save for one over the exterior door. The hall had grown nearly empty, with only a few ministers lingering. Mattersly of Tippard, Slake of Hawk’s Cove, and Feyman of Holliford, all Western ministers, were seated together at one of the tables in the back corner. A raucous bout of laughter from Mattersly and Feyman at some jape of Slake’s managed a snort from Craiginald Braggen, snoring softly from a nearby table. The old fop nodded off once more despite the noise, his empty wine cup pointing to a spreading stain of red across the white embroidered tablecloths.

“You found the lady, I trust?” Tryst heard over his shoulder, turning to see his smiling friend leaning against the same wall he had left him at.

“Why yes, Freyard, I did, thank you ever so much for delivering her message,” Tryst replied sarcastically.

“Anytime, old friend, I shall see you on the morrow.” Freyard chortled, evidently quite amused at himself.

“Aye, do me a favour before then, though. Keep our meeting between us and the tall cook and see Marigold safe to her quarters. She’s had a lot to drink,” Tryst said with a handshake before leaving his friend.

Alone once more, Tryst returned to the bench by the fireplace to collect his guitar and put the dining hall and its occupants behind him for the night.

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