The afternoon was pleasant in the woods, where the path cut through the forest, the leaves making a roof that let enough light through to make shade. The carriage ran in the ruts left in the road; the ground still solid despite the morning’s dampness.
The carriage slowed to a halt at the grey horse in the road, and its rider remained before the carriage instead of moving out of the way. The fine mezzo-soprano filled the air, and the masked figure in the grey cloak and doublet inclined their head, covered by a wide-brimmed grey hat in thanks. The mask covered three quarters of the face, leaving the upper right-hand corner uncovered, and was rigid and in the shape of a swan’s wing, with an eye hole for the left eye to see through.
Within, the merchant who occupied the carriage frowned, then banged on the wall across from him. That would alert the cart’s driver that he was displeased with the situation. The driver banged back, indicating a problem. With a grunt, he roused himself from the cushion, and then looked at the woman with him.
“Stay here,” he instructed her gruffly, then opened the door and started to get out. He heard hoofbeats as he stepped onto the first step and looked to see the figure on horseback riding towards him. As they did, they paused to scratch the ears of one of the carriage horses, who lowered both ears in pleasure.
“Do you know who I am?” the merchant bellowed, the sound echoing in the trees. “I am Master-Trader Rivolo, on my way to the Imperial Capitol! I’ll have Imperial justice on you for making me late!”
“Oh,” the figure said from behind the mask, a sweet feminine voice, “I am quite aware of you, Master Rivolo.” The figure bowed in the saddle. “I also know you decided to leave early and are waiting for your guards to catch up. Ah, but I am being rude. I am known in this area by the appellation of the Grey Swan, and it is my pleasure to meet you at this time.”
Master-Trader Rivolo went pale. The stories of a woman, single-handedly robbing travelers, had reached his business headquarters in the Western Reaches. Bold, brash, and as long as you didn’t fight…
Knowing the answer, he said anyway, “What do you want?”
“Money! Do not worry, Master-Trader, I will not leave you bereft! Present me the key, and I will not even break your strongbox. After all,” she said, tilting her head, “the Grey Swan is not a violent lady.” There was a sound of a smile in her voice.
The Master-Trader frowned, then reached to his belt. He touched the hilt of his dagger, but then the Grey Swan adjusted her cloak to show her hand on her sword, and he rethought his plan. He continued past it, and removed a key ring from a pouch. Holding it up, he sighed.
It was the work of a moment to go to the lockbox on the back of the carriage, unlock it, take out some money, close and relock it, then returned them to Rivolo. “Thank you, good sir! See, I return your keys to you. I have taken some money, but I assure you, there are no other highway agents in the barony, so you will be quite well. Ah, and also!” She reached into a saddlebag and withdrew a bottle. “Please, take this to calm your nerves. It is a pleasure to relieve a man of some funds with so little trouble, so I wish to reward you. Good evening, sir!” The hat was tipped, revealing light blonde hair, and then replaced, and the highwaywoman rode off past them into the darkness.
The Master-Trader went around the back, opened the lockbox, and checked. About half the money was gone, not all of it. He then remembered the bottle and looked at it. It had a label in white pasted to it, with a grey silhouette of a swan emblazoned on it.
“Keep going,” he gruffly instructed the driver, then closed the door. Rivolo sat back down, heavily, and hoped things would continue to be quiet.
The Grey Swan rode off into the forest for a few minutes, then made a quick turn. She knew the path very well and rode it until it came to a small hill. Dismounting, she reached down to raise and prop up a hidden wooden door covered with plants. Then she took the horse by the reins, leading it into the tunnel, which quickly opened up to a larger cave.
Tying up the horse at a post, and making sure the beast had food and water, she removed the saddle, saddlebags, and bridle. After placing it on a rack nearby, she went back to lower the door.
Once the door was closed and concealed again, she continued on deeper into the cave. A few more moments had her garments and mask removed and placed in a visibly salvaged armoire, a blonde wig removed and placed on a stand, and a completely different set donned. That was followed by going back to empty the saddlebag of coin.
It was the work of a few moments to remove a cunningly carved stone, revealing a hole in the cave wall. The coin was placed within, next to coins already there, and the stone fit back in place, such that it was nearly impossible to notice it. The Grey Swan was rather proud of that work.
A few steps farther on, the cave became a narrow tunnel. It was dark, but she navigated it with the surety of longtime knowledge. As she came to the end, she quickly climbed the ladder mounted there to the top. With a slight nudge to her right, the panel swung open, and she stepped out into a garderobe, then out of that into a room.
The room was well-appointed, with a large desk, a bed, an armoire, and two doors leading out to a hallway and the garderobe. She took a moment with a cloth to polish her boots to remove the last of the dirt, then straightened up as a knock came on the door.
With a sigh, the Grey Swan shifted her posture, relaxed her throat, and became Lord Jeyreme Corbeau, and strode to the door. In a strong tenor, he asked, “What is it?”, then pulled the door open.
“My lord, a message. The Grey Swan has struck again, robbing a trader passing through our lands.” Mackaver, the head of the guards that protected the family, saluted. Jeyreme returned the salute half-heartedly.
“Anything else I should know?”
The older soldier, unhelmeted and showing short-cropped greying hair, shook his head. “Same as usual, m’lord. Merchant traveling without extra guards, stopped by the Grey Swan, no violence, didn’t take everything, gave a bottle of wine with their mark on it, and rode off. Kindest road agent I’ve ever heard of. Didn’t even make a verbal threat, just showed their sword when the merchant thought about being brave, and he backed down.” Mackaver had been in the Imperial army before retiring and getting this job, and had seen a lot.
Privately, Jeyreme thought quickly about how to deal with this. Probably farther away before hitting the target – she’d been too close if the report came in already. If Mackaver had been a quarter-candlemark sooner, she wouldn’t have been back yet. Concealing all these thoughts, Jeyreme nodded, seemingly absently, to the guard captain.
“Well,” Jeyreme sighed, “I’d best take this to Father.”
Mackaver sucked in some air through his teeth. “Good luck, m’lord.”
It had become a very pleasant early summer’s evening. The air was warm and scented with blossoms on the fruit trees as the sun went down over the fields. The ruler of that land let himself relax, and hoped he wouldn’t hear a knocking on the door.
Baron Stefan Corbeau would not get what he hoped that night.
A knock came to the door, and he groaned, then called, “Enter!”
The door opened, and a tall, slender, raven-haired young man entered, carrying a note and a somewhat glum expression.
“It’s that blasted Grey Swan again, isn’t it?” the Baron bellowed. Over the past decade, he had lost most of his muscle and gone to seed. His eyes, brown and reddened with his regular drink, peered out of a face gone soft, and more often than not his brown hair was uncombed.
“Yes, father,” his third son, Jeyreme, said, as if prepared for a torrent of outrage, and he was not wrong.
“That wench is a menace!” the Baron roared, rousing himself from his chair with a bit of difficulty. “How does she know every time a trader travels without guards? Then she charms them into giving her what she wants!” He snatched the paper from Jeyreme. “And this time she gave him a bottle of wine?” He tossed the note aside, as Jeyreme stood against his storm. “Our best trackers cannot find her or where she hides!” He spun to point at Jeyreme. “Have you even given them the orders?”
“Of course I did, father,” Jeyreme replied, with the tones of someone who’s patience is rapidly coming to a middle. “They tracked the hoof-tracks to a part of the forest, then lost the trail in the creek to the west of the keep. They went a mile in each direction but couldn’t find where the horse exited.” Jeyreme had told his father this before, but it apparently hadn’t taken.
“Corruptor’s Forgotten Name, I want this person dead! They’re making a mockery of my guardsmen, robbing people on MY land!” The baron paced for a moment, then turned back on his son. “I’ve sent word to the capitol to have Simon return. HE can handle these duties, if you cannot!”
His face immobile but tight, Jayreme asked in a tightly controlled voice, “Will that be all, father?”
The Baron glared at his son, then gestured. “Get out of my sight!”
Jeyreme turned on his heel and marched out, closing the door behind him. With it closed, he clenched his teeth, then turned left and walked away from the door.
As he passed an open door, he heard a voice whisper, “Jeyreme?” He turned to see his younger brother, Tomas, peeking out the door. “Is father in one of his lovely moods?” Tomas, like Jeyreme, took after their late mother, with black hair, green eyes, and a slender build.
Jeyreme nodded, once. “The Grey Swan has struck again.”
Tomas looked thoughtful. “I do wish I knew more about her.”
“She’s a highway agent and steals from rich people coming through our lands. What more is there to know?”
Tomas turned a surprised gaze on his brother. “Why does she do it? What reasons are there to do that? Why here? Why now? So much to know! Frankly, it would make a most epic poem.”
“My brother the poet,” Jeyreme said fondly. “Written anything recently?”
“I’m working on a poem about sunsets. I think it’s about halfway done.”
“That’s good. I think I’m going for a ride to clear my mind.”
“Do enjoy an evening at the tavern, brother.” At Jeyreme’s surprised expression, Tomas sketched a half-bow. “Did you think that the last time we went out I did not notice your attention to that lovely redheaded maid? I’m a poet – I’d be a terrible one if I didn’t know how to read people.”
Jeyreme cleared his throat, then shook his head. “But are you going to make it into a poem?”
“Not one father would listen to, I assure you,” Tomas said with a smile. “Have a good evening.”
With a wave, Jeyreme continued on, heading down the back stairs, through the passage that went behind the kitchen, and then into the stables.
“Good evening, m’lord,” said Jakes, the groom. “Out for an evening ride?”
“Yes. Is Edmond available?”
“Edmond is your horse, far as we’re concerned, and always ready for you. Do you wish to do him up, or should I do it for you?”
“I’ll do it – keeps me in practice.” With that, he walked to the stall that held the chestnut, who raised his head and nickered quietly. With practiced hands, Jeyreme fitted the bridle and reins, then the saddle, and then pulled himself up and into the saddle. Taking up the reins, he guided the horse to the stable door, which had been opened by Jakes, through them, and then soon enough out of the courtyard and onto the road, riding it towards the tavern.
There, he felt, he could find the comfort he could rarely find at home.
The tavern, at the edge of the town that centered the Barony of Corbeau, was bustling with local activity that night. There was a carriage parked in the back by the stables, presumably with the horses that drew it in the stable.
Riding up to the paddock, Jeyreme began to tie up his house. A figure came out of the stables, then stopped short. “H’loo, M’lord! D’ye want me to give ‘em a brush-down?”
With a smile, he dismounted, and smiled. “I don’t think Edmond would mind that at all.” The horse nickered and tossed his head. “You like it when Miss Linsie gives you a brush, eh?” The horse tossed its head again, and he patted the horse’s neck. The girl – Linsie – grinned and went back for her brushes.
Jeyreme turned, knowing his horse was in good hands, and walked to the door. He glanced the yellow wandering dot of a firefly, unusual this close to town. Pushing it open, he stepped into the common room of the inn. It was a large room, with furniture once roughly- built, now polished with decades of people sitting on benches, drinking at tables and bar, cleaned nightly. A fire sat banked in the fireplace, to go higher if the room became chilly. The innkeep stood watch, as people talked and drank. In one corner, a lively game of shavasha was going on, if the calls meant anything.
One of the tables held the Master-Trader, who was busy regaling the nearby people with stories of his encounter with the Grey Swan. People were nodding and commiserating with him, especially since he was buying drinks for that table.
Weaving through the crowd, he made his way to the serving bar, to wait his turn and get his tankard filled. The maid handling the ale finished with a customer and turned to him. Gentle blue eyes regarded him from below auburn hair and brows, and her generous smile grew wider at seeing him.
Jeyreme’s comprehension of the rest of the world went away, falling into nothing but her and a rapidly pounding heartbeat. His mouth went completely dry. All he could do was watch the lovely face before him, and all he could hear was the beating of his own heart.
And then she spoke, and he could hear that too. The eyes broke contact with his, as she curtsied and asked, “Welcome, Lord Jeyreme. Would you like some ale?” She glanced up and gave him a very quick wink.
The world came back, as he offered his tankard. “Thank you, Miss Maisie, I most certainly would.” With a practiced motion, she filled the tankard, and offered it to him. He inclined his head in thanks, took it, then went to the chair that was reserved for a member of the Baron’s family should they visit as per the law. The mug was placed on the small table next to the chair, and he settled into it. Under one arm he felt a small piece of torn fabric, which he palmed, then took a deep drink of his ale.
And he continued to watch Maisie.
The evening was pleasant, and Jeyreme felt himself relax. Here, he was the Baron’s son, yes, but most of them acknowledged that he was also the acting caretaker. His father issued orders, and Jeyreme was the one to arrange for them to be carried out. The Baron wasn’t a very good ruler – in Jeyreme’s opinion, Simon would be a far, far better Baron than their father, because Simon gave a damn – and with their brother Mikyael on pilgrimage, it fell to Jeyreme to handle things.
As a result, the men and women in the inn that night both knew him and respected him. He was widely considered a temperate and even-handed man, and when they came to Baron’s Court, they knew that if Lord Jeyreme was sitting in the Bailiff’s Chair (since he wasn’t the Baron or the Marquis, he couldn’t sit in the Baron’s Chair) they would get the best-considered option.
More than one noticed Jeyreme’s eyes on Maisie, and they also noticed Maisie’s smiles towards Jeyreme. Everyone also noticed that Darrin was watching Jeyreme.
Suddenly the door opened, breaking the tableau, and a cloaked figure came in. Throwing back his hood, the face of Marquis Simon Corbeau was revealed, sweat- and dust-stained. “Master Darrin,” he called out as he crossed the room, “I am both parched and starved. Might I be so blessed to have a tankard and a plate? I am just in from the Capitol and require fortification before entering the manor and seeing my father.” The room gave up a rousing laugh, as Jeyreme prepared to move from the Baron’s Chair.
Out of the corner of his eye, Simon noticed this and called out, “Keep your arse right there, Jeyreme! I may be first-born, but you were first-seated!” He shot a grin, and Jeyreme returned it. A man at a nearby table moved one of the other chairs to the small table aside the Baron’s Chair, giving Simon a place to sit. That worthy, balancing a plate and a borrowed tankard, settled them on the table before plopping down into the chair.
Simon was the spitting image of their father as a young man: brown hair, brown eyes, broad shoulders, strong chin, strong nose. His hair was tousled, but usually was styled in the most recent fashion. He wore travel clothes, instead of the fashions he preferred. Simon preferred to dress in a trendy manner in the Capitol, where he tried to improve the family’s place in the court, find a wife, and apparently had gotten in with a gang of similarly-seeking younger nobles.
With another glance at Maisie, Jeyreme turned his attention to his older brother. “Father said he sent for you, but I didn’t expect you so fast.”
He’d said that in the middle of a drink, and Simon had to swallow first. “He sent it via the mage-network. I was sitting with Coressa and chatting when it hit me like a hammer. She understood, thankfully, and helped me get horses on the Imperial Post to the border of our lands, and then one of our own brought me here. I hadn’t eaten since luncheon with the court, and considering the message was I needed to get back here to deal with a baronial security issue, Father’s probably in a state. I wouldn’t want to face him without eating, and if I came home, he’d yell for me to come to him immediately.”
“Well, I can give you the story here, so you don’t go in completely unprepared.” Jeyreme took a sip from his own tankard. “There’s a road agent operating here calling herself the Grey Swan, and no one’s been able to track down where she lairs. She’s stopped and robbed a half-dozen merchants, always travelling with no guards, avoiding those with guards. What he will not tell you is that she doesn’t take all their money, she hasn’t hurt anyone, and gives them a bottle of wine, then rides off. It’s embarrassing to our guards, yes, but it’s not a huge threat as far as I can tell.”
Simon sighed. “Yes, but Father is not exactly the kind of person to let any possible threat go unchallenged, no matter how big or small, especially if he thinks it makes him look bad.” He took another drink, then drew his eating-dagger and speared a piece of the mutton. “Which a road agent would do, in his opinion.” He took a bite of the mutton, then closed his eyes as if thinking. Jeyreme took a moment to glance back at Maisie, who gave him a small head-tilt and winked.
“So,” Simon said, breaking Jey’s trance, “I’ll go to the manor and talk to father, and you can come home whenever. We’ll tell him you were our looking for something about this Grey Swan, which should make him less irritated about you. I’m sure you can occupy yourself until late in the evening,” Simon said with a small smile.
The man had always been damnably observant, Jeyreme remembered. “I dare say I can,” Jeyreme replied, stuffily.
After chatting a bit more, Simon finished his meal and rose. “Time to see father.”
“Good luck to you. You’re going to need it.”
Returning the plate and tankard to Darrin and praising him and his wife effusively, Simon heading to the door, pulling his cloak hood up as he stepped outside. Everyone watched him, some toasting his health as he departed, giving Jeyreme a moment to glance at the cloth left for him. The message in ink was a little smeared but legible: “After closing, our usual place.”
He tucked it away, feeling lighter. He glanced over at Maisie, who gave him a much warmer smile than the one she’d been giving all night, and then made a slow wink.
Jeyreme could have sworn his heart stopped for a moment.
The evening was pleasantly cool, and Jeyreme lay on a thick wool blanket, staring up at the trees and the stars, when he heard soft footsteps. Sitting up, he saw a figure walking through the woods towards him. He pulled himself to his feet and waited. The figure stopped at the edge of the blanket, stooped to remove shoes, then stepped onto it.
The night was lit only by starlight filtered through tree leaves, but that was enough; it could be pitch black and Jeyreme would know the features of Maisie. He reached out both hands, and she took them.
“Good evening, my lord,” she said softly. “I hope I did not keep you waiting too long.”
“My lady,” Jeyreme replied, “I would wait until the end of days for you.”
Then they moved together and kissed, and she felt her heart swell, as it had every time she had seen her, even since they began their trysting the year before.
When the kiss broke, they looked into each other’s eyes for a moment, then broke. They sat down together on the blanket as their laughter faded. Maisie, eyes dancing, glanced over. “You, my dear Jey, are a very, very amusing person.”
Jey put an arm around Maisie and eased both of them to lying down on the blanket. “And you are very beautiful.” A firefly hovered over them for a moment, and its yellow light briefly illuminated their faces.
She shuffled her body around, so she was laying with her head on the arm that held her, looking at Jey. “I’ve been told that a thousand times by a thousand people, and you are the only one that said it that I believe.” She closed her eyes. “How did I get this lucky?”
“How strange,” Jey said, smiling. “I was thinking the same thing about luck.”
Maisie opened her eyes again. “You weren’t lucky enough,” she said softly. “and I worry about you, Jey. How long can you do this and not get caught?”
“I need,” Jey said, then paused, thinking, “about another 400 princes to cover all that’s needed – the spellcasting and what’s needed to set us up to be comfortable somewhere else, dear one. Depends how they come along. The one today was 400 princes, and it’s all put away safely.”
“Someday,” Maisie mused, “I should like to see the lair of the Grey Swan. Some spectacular location, hidden from the eyes of mortal men, fit for a queen amongst thieves.”
“It was a hiding-place and escape tunnel in case the manor house was besieged, and it was forgotten for years,” Jey informed her. “When I found it, entirely by accident from inside the house, it was run down and filled with cobwebs. It’s got room for a horse, a half-useful armoire, a dressing-table, and that’s about it. Certainly not some subterranean chateau. This blanket is more comfortable.”
Maisie snuggled up closer. “It’s getting colder, my sweet love. What are we going to do?” She said it in the tone of someone assumed they knew what they were going to do.
Jey smiled, and then whispered a word. From the edges of the blanket, a grey haze rose, then moved inwards, forming a dome over the blanket. It started to get warmer almost instantly. Maisie’s eyes widened. “Magic!”
“In my time taking care of the manor and handling the things which my father ignores, I’ve gone through the inventory. If I was a less honest child, I could probably sell off a dozen things, make more money t han we will ever need, and disappear. Of course, if I did that,” Jey said, as Maisie sat up and opened her mouth to speak, “Father would probably order an inventory and then find out what’s missing, then call in the Imperial Investigators, and then we’re in a lot of trouble.”
“Pfou.” She sat back, changing as she did to lay her head on Jey’s chest. “What a bother. I want to be out of here, with you, and with you being who you really are, Jey!”
“Maybe that’s why you believe me when I say how beautiful you are. You’ve had a thousand men say it to you… but not another woman.”
Jey raised her head, and Maisie turned hers, and they kissed again. And then again.
The enchanted dome kept the night in the forest quiet, leaving it only disturbed by a soft breeze rustling leaves and the flickers of fireflies.
Jey woke up. Maisie was scrabbling, pulling things together. “Wha?”
“It’s half to sunrise! I need to get back.”
“Oh. OH!” Jey spoke the word that dismissed the dome, and then grabbed Maisie’s shoes and handed them to her. “Gods, I am so sor-“
His apology was cut off by a kiss. “Jey, shut it. I’ve got to run. I love you!” And she ran off into the woods in the direction of the inn and hostel. As if pointing her way, a couple of fireflies flickered in her wake.
Shaking her head, but smiling, she found his shirt and pulled it over her head, then looked for her other garments. Once dressed and the wool blanket brushed and folded, a whistle brought Edmond over, for mounting and riding back.
It was nearly dawn by the time Jey returned to the manor. Looking as if he’d slept fairly rough, he waved at the guard, then proceeded to the stables. Sarel, the head groomsman, came out from the stable, brushing off his hands, and came to take the bridle. “Out all night, young lord?”
“Trying to find one trace of the bandit,” Jeyreme said, sliding out of the saddle. “Failing, but trying.”
“Aye, your brother said that when you came in, and said to hold fast for you. Breakfast should be ready soon.”
“Thank you, Sarel. I’m going to go clean up and change.” With a nod, he walked into the door, then past the kitchen where he smelled the breakfast being cooked. Then it was up the back stairs, and to his room.
Just as he reached it, he heard a bellow from down the hallway.
“JEYREME! GET IN HERE!”
Jeyreme grimaced, then took a deep breath, steadied himself, and with a measured tread approached the open door of his father’s office. Another breath, and he stepped in front of it, then stopped in the doorway. “You called, father?”
“Where have you been?” Baron Stefan was behind his desk, with papers scattered and another dent in the wood paneling. On the nearby settee, Simon sat, looking supremely disgruntled.
“Out looking for anything that could tell me where to find the Grey Swan.” He gestured at himself, indicating his disheveled state. “When I got through, I was tired, so I slept rough. Before you ask, I didn’t find anything new. I did find that there was one coin dropped – a noble – and brought it back so we could give it to the merchant if he’s still about.”
The Baron was unmollified. “So why did you even bother going?”
“That way, father, if someone asks, you can say that you consider it so important that one of your sons is personally handling the situation.”
“It should be SIMON handling things!” Stefan turned to his oldest son, who looked exhausted alongside his irritation. “Instead, it’s Jeyreme! Why didn’t you do this?”
Simon rose from the couch, flushed and nostrils flaring. “Because you demanded I come back here immediately and report to you. I nearly ran horses into foundering to get here at your summons, father, and I could only do THAT because I am affianced to one of the Empress’s ladies in waiting, and SHE chose to intercede and get me an Imperial Post warrant.” Simon took a step forwards. “I am balancing a number of things in the Capitol, father, and you are cheerfully knocking every damned one of them off balance with your tantrums like a gurthak who just drank white pepper sauce in a porcelain shop!”
This was classic Simon: it took him a while to get riled up, but once he did, he was his father’s equal in rage, and his superior in cutting words. This argument had been a long time coming, and Jeyreme watched it as if it was a duel between a gurthor and kavasu, and he knew which was which.
The Baron sputtered, and gesticulated, then grabbed a wooden tankard and threw it at Simon. Simon, for his part, stepped adeptly aside and let it hit the wall and leave yet another dent.
“Jeyreme is exceptionally good at the caretaking that you are not, father, and if it wasn’t inappropriate to have a relative in the position, when I took the seat I’d name him Seneschal formally! When was the last time you presided over a Baronial Court, instead of just stamping the report? Or reviewed the tax rolls? Or any damn thing that a noble should do? I’ve half a mind to bring you up on charges of dereliction!”
“You would not dare,” Stefan growled. “And no one would believe you.”
“Push, father. Just push.” They held their glares at each other for a few more moments, and it was Stefan, not Simon, who looked away.
“Come, brother. We’ll breakfast in a more convivial spot.” Simon turned on his heel, and Jeyreme followed, hiding a smile.
A few moments brought them to Tomas’ door, where Simon knocked. Tomas opened the door, and smiled. “Breakfast, brothers?”
Simon smiled. “Indeed. Are the twins about?”
“Oh, probably in the hall. Knowing you’re here, I suppose they’ve got their instruments out and going to play something when you enter for breakfast.”
The three brothers walked down the hallway to the main staircase, then descended it, and turned left into the hall. As they entered, a two-part melody began playing.
On either side of the doors, the twins, Bernadetta and Musetta, had taken up their flute and harp respectively and begun playing a light tune, which the brothers recognized as a version of the Corbeau anthem. When the original was played, usually on trumpets, it was a martial fanfare; this version, on those more delicate instruments, was a gentle processional.
Amused, the three brothers continued to the high table, taking their traditional seats. As always, the seats for their brother Mikyael and their late mother were empty; as was more often than not, so was the Baron’s. Two others were empty, but as they were for the twins, they would certainly be filled soon.
In fact, once they finished the anthem, they laid down their instruments, stood and curtsied to the applause, and walked to the table to take their seats.
“Jeyreme,” Musetta said, “did you sleep in the woods? Your clothing is a shambles.”
“Musa,” Bernedetta scolded, “we heard that he did. And then hasn’t had a chance to clean up since.”
“Bera,” Musetta riposted, “we have to make sure he’s in good dress with the upcoming visit.”
“What upcoming visit?” Jeyreme asked, uncertain as to whether or not he should feel dread.
The two of them drew themselves up, looked at each other, nodded together, then recited as one: “Let it be known that the Marquessa Elizabeta Tselan shall arrive two days hence to speak to her affianced, Lord Jeyreme Corbeau, on the matter of issues concerning the advancement of their marriage, two days hence. The Marquessa’s train will be arriving at noon on that day.”
Jeyreme closed his eyes. “And how many days old is this message?”
“Two,” they chorused.
Jeyreme’s eyes sprang open. “It’s today?” His voice actually cracked.
“Yes, dear brother,” they sing-songed.
His eyes closed as he put his head in his hands. “I cannot deal with this right now. I need breakfast, and cava.”
As if summoned, one of the house servants came out with a large pitcher of cava. Simon subtly directed him to Jeyreme, and his cup was filled. Automatically, without even opening his eyes, Jey added cream and honey, stirred, and then took a long pull from the cup. He gave a shudder, then blew out. “That’s gone right, at least.”
“JEYREME!” came the Baron’s voice from upstairs. “GET IN HERE NOW!”
Automatically, Jeyreme started to rise, only for Simon to wave. “Eat first,” his oldest brother said firmly, then gestured over a page, a boy of perhaps ten years old. “Lad, go to the Baron and inform him that Lord Jeyreme needs to eat breakfast and clean up before visitors arrive, and that I said for him to come down here if he wants to say something.”
“And if he throws something at me, Marquis?”
Simon smiled and dryly advised, “Dodge.”
“Yes, Marquis.” The page turned and headed upstairs.
“Remarkably ballsy of you, Simon,” Tomas commented, taking a sip from his own mug of cafa.
“Father is in one of his worst moods, and Jeyreme has been dealing with him far too much lately. The man’s become a problem, and I told him this morning I was thinking of bringing dereliction charges. Which, I note, I am.”
The twins blinked in synchrony. “You’d have him removed?” they chorused.
“If he’s not fit. And frankly, calling me away from the capitol where I’m trying to improve our fortunes for a single road agent, as well as meeting the rest of the nobility and trying to get us some goodwill back is fairly ridiculous behavior. At least I got engaged – Coressa accepting my suit was a half-miracle.”
Plates arrived, with a breakfast bake. They each took a piece of the dish. Jeyreme ate hastily, knowing he would need to get running, when a series of thudding sounds came from the stairwell.
For the first time in months, Baron Stefan Corbeau had come down for breakfast. His face was red, his hair in disarray, and his eyes locked on the head table.
“I called for you, Jeyreme! And then Simon sent me a page to tell me you were defying me? I expect your obedience, you insolent fool!”
“Simon issued me an order, father, and as a good servant of the barony, I obeyed. Indeed, as my fiancée is going to be here today, it seemed best to prepare for it. Is there something I can do for you, father?”
“I came to find out where you had the most recent accounting of funds.”
Asking that question, Jeyreme knew that his father was about to do something remarkably foolish. “Where it always is, in your desk drawers, top one on the left side.” With his dread growing, he continued, “Why do you ask, father?”
“I sent that page to deliver a note to the post, where soon it should travel to the capitol and confirm the issuance the bounty I put out for the Grey Swan. I already sent it by mage-network, and now the certification to be sent!” The Baron clenched his fists, and then declared, “A ten thousand prince reward should bring us that bitch’s head!”
“No!” Jeyreme shot to his feet, as Simon glanced at his brother. “Father, that’s the entire tax income of the barony for the year! We will be nigh on bankrupt!”
“Assuming,” the Baron said smugly, “the taxes remain steady. I intend to raise them to double what they were. We won’t miss a bit.”
Simon rose at that. “That’s barely legal, father, and you know it. It’ll beggar the farmers and the town! We’ll be a laughingstock at the Ministries, much less what the Judicarate will do!”
“But the Imperial Court will see that we take this seriously!” The Baron leaned forwards. “I’ll be seen as someone strong enough to make sacrifices to take care of the security of my barony. And you, Simon, will stay here and take care of this for me, while Jeyreme goes back to whatever he does while sitting around here on his arse, Tomas makes his doggerel and the twins get married off properly!”
There was a moment of silence which grew brittle. Not even the servants in the hall dared to speak, or even breathe loudly. Simon and the Baron stared into each other’s eyes, the heat growing in the air.
From the entrance of the hallway, a voice called. “My lords, the Marquessa Elizabeta Tsuran arrives in one mark. As her advance, I have come to let you know.” A traveler, wearing a tabard with the Tsuran family arms over his dusty clothes, entered, and then stopped. One could almost hear him say, “I have apparently arrived at a most inconvenient time.”
The Baron spun and roared, “What do you mean, arrives?”, having ignored Jeyreme’s mention of his incoming fiancée.
Musetta spoke up. “Jeyreme has been handling the estates, and so we’ve been handling the social calendar, father. Lady Elizabeta is coming to see her fiancée. We did give you the invitation, but we understand you might not have seen it. There’s already a room ready, and things set up for her and her entourage, so you don’t need to worry about a thing!” Bernadetta nodded alongside her.
His eyes turned darkly to his twin daughters, and then he turned back to Simon. “We will be speaking later,” he promised, and then stalked off, just barely not pushing the advance to the side.
“I see father’s going to be ever so lovely to deal with,” Tomas said, gently. “Well, me for my room, brothers. I need to finish a poem to read after dinner to the Marquessa.” He rose, then gave a small bow to Simon. “If I may?”
“When have you needed my permission for anything?” Simon replied, and waved. Then he turned to Jeyreme. “You should get yourself cleaned up,” he observed.
“All right,” Jeyreme replied, sighing. With a last gulp of his cava, he gave the same shallow bow, then made his way to his own room in a way that didn’t go past his father’s.
Once there, he stripped down and wiped himself down with a damp cloth, cleaning himself off. He noticed as he did a set of four small scratches in the center of his chest, and the feeling that it should be a fuller curve was temporarily pushed back, as he checked it further and saw it made the glyph for the first character of Maisie’s name. She’s claimed me, she thought, smiling, and then went to her closet to dress. Pulling out some more formal clothes, she dressed herself up in her accustomed drag and became Jeyreme again.
With a deep breath, he opened the door, then stepped into the hall.
“You’re fretting.” Tomas whispered.
“I am not.”
“You are,” the twins chorused in a whisper.
“They’re right,” Simon added. “You two know each other. Why are you fretting?”
“Because I am depressingly certain what the entire point of this trip is, and that’s to get a proper date set.”
“Perhaps not,” Simon said. “She’s fond of you – perhaps she just wants to say hello?”
“I sincerely doubt that Marquessa Duelmaker is that fond of anyone,” Tomas whispered.
The twins regarded their younger brother with horror. “She feels terrible about that,” Musa exclaimed.
Bera added, “We spoke with her the last time she was here. She didn’t expect anyone to die – it was supposed to be to first blood!”
Tomas had the decency to look chastened.
A moment later, the coach arrived, and as it stopped, two servants moved to flank the door. One opened it as the other placed an extra step down for the coach’s residents to use to more easily reach the ground.
Resplendent even in her deep blue travel dress, the Marquessa Elizabeta Tsuran stepped down, and then to the ground. Simon stepped forwards to take her hand and escort her forwards. Behind her, her personal maid, Madame Varessa, stepped down, taking a position behind the Marquessa and to her left.
The Marquessa was tall for a woman, and had black hair that was swept back from her forehead and braided, covered with a travelling hat. Even pulled back, it showed a strong widow’s peak. Her skin was pale, her eyes a penetrating black, her nose a little large for her face, and her rouged lips pulled together in a judgmental expression. Madame Veressa, for her part, was a plump older woman clad in lighter blue, wearing a round hat atop her head, a veil around the sides and back framing her motherly face.
“Welcome to the seat of Barony Corbeau again, Marquessa. We are, as always, honored to have you here to stay with us.”
“Indeed,” she replied with a sharp tone. Elizabeta Tsuran was not noted for her enjoyment of what she viewed as flattery. “Ah, I see my putative fiancé is here.” She disentangled her arm from Simon’s, and offered it to Jeyreme. “Bring me to my room,” she ordered.
Jeyreme bowed, then took the arm. “Of course, Marquessa. My sisters have offered to act as your handmaids, but I see that Madame Varessa is here. Shall I inform them they will not be needed, or do you think they will be useful to you?”
“They can be about their own business,” she said, as Jeyreme led her through the door. “I do not see your father. Has he decided to snub me?”
“Father is busy with affairs of barony security,” Jeyreme said hastily. “We have had a road agent here, and it’s consuming his time and energies to arrange that this is dealt with swiftly and firmly.”
“Insufficient time to even greet a visitor. Hmf.” She remained silent, with Jeyreme escorting and Madame Varessa behind her, until Jeyreme brought her to the chambers she’d be occupying. He unlocked the door, then ceremonially presented her with the key.
“Will there be anything else, Marquessa?” Jeyreme asked, formally.
“Enter with me,”, she commanded, then stepped through the door. He followed, dutifully, and then Madame Varessa entered as well, closing the door.
Once the door was closed, the three of them relaxed, and Elizabeta gave Jeyreme a hug. “Gods and Demons, I hate that act sometimes.” She pulled off the traveling cap, then flung herself on the bed. “Vari, you must be as tired as I am from this trip. Have a nap.”
“Now, now, Elzi,” Varessa replied, “If someone comes and knocks, I’ll have to answer it.” The older woman wiggled her shoulders with audible pops, then removed her hat, revealing the pointed ears of her elven ancestry. “I’ll go sit in the front room, and get a bit of rest there.”
“The girls had one of the big chairs with the padding moved in the front room, Madame V,” Jeyreme told her, smiling.
“Oh, bless their scampery,” Varessa smiled. “That’ll be fine. I’m only a hundred, not even that old yet. You two chat, and I’ll be settling things in. Brasky should be up soon with the luggage.” She stepped into the front room, then pulled the door closed behind her.
Jeyreme settled onto a nearby chain. “It’s good to see you, Elzi,” he said. “How are things in County Tsuran?”
She counted on her fingers. “Boring, dull, humdrum, stale, and stuffy. And those are the good days. On other days, it almost seems like the entire place is run by a necromancer and everyone is just an animated corpse walking around. We had a kuryar village that was a holdout from Imperial citizenship, but they’ve come around – they weren’t able to hunt enough food, and decided that instead of raiding it would be easier to accept Imperial citizenship and trade. Half of them now work around the barony doing physical work and getting paid for it, and we’ve got teachers in for them. Ten years, and we won’t have any trouble with them.”
“A little peace can’t hurt.” He steepled his hands. “And we’ve got a number of kuryar and gurthor here. Only father’s prejudices have kept them down, and I keep pushing things to deal with him.”
“So you’re handling the baronial business? Given up your plan to leave?”
“Simon’s already planning for when father dies, and I’m sure he’s already getting a proper seneschal in place.”
Elzi smirked. “Ah, well, as to that, I’ve heard he’s also put in some feelers at the Imperial Academies for someone young and talented to take the position.” She frowned. “He’s also been seen in the Palace and at the Judicarate buildings quite a bit, when not with his fiancée. No one’s quite sure what’s on with that.”
“Ah, I can tell you that. He’s probably trying to prepare in case he decides he needs to have father removed through legal means, and making sure he’s got all the support he needs at both levels.”
An eyebrow was raised. “There hasn’t been a petition to remove a noble from his seat in years. That’s going to put the cat amongst the songbirds.”
“Which is why Simon’s making sure that the cat is slow, fat, and unable to catch them. As it were.”
She laughed. “And you? What are your plans?”
“Finish my work, run away, never come back. Lose myself in the Capitol.”
“With your lady-love?”
“Elzi, you and I both know we’re not in love, and you couldn’t love me if I was who I truly was. Maisie, for everything she may not be, loves me for my own self, not for position. We can be happy.”
Elzi sighed. “And I become the Marquessa Thrice-Denied.”
“I’m sorry, Elzi.”
“No, Jey. I’m sorry. You’ve lived in pain for years, and I’ve barely known any of it. I’m just glad I have a good friend.” She reached for her bag. “Also, I’m sure you can pass this along to your friend, the Grey Swan. Merchants who are quite well-off, travel this way, and skirt the edge of the trade-law, just enough to avoid trouble.” A folded paper was removed, and Elzi handed it to Jeyreme. “Put it to good use.”
The paper disappeared when it touched Jey’s hand. “I’m sure it will be, Elzi.” They shared a conspiratorial smirk, which dissolved at a knock on the door. Elzi straightened up, and then in her “lady” voice, called out, “Enter.”
The door swung open to reveal the ruddy-skinned, massive frame of Brasky, the kuryar who served her as porter, holding a massive chest. Behind him, waiting, was the diminuative form of Zukal, the kavasu who served her as butler, stood in his black and grey garb, the pince-nez on his snout being peered through.
“I have your wardrobe, ma’am,” Brasky stated in his gravelly voice around his tusks, as he entered and the chest down, then opened it to reveal a remarkable number of clothes and shoes.
Zukal followed, and was revealed to be carrying a metal-shod wooden box. “I have brought your jewels, Marquessa,” he added. “So you may properly attired for your station.”
Jeyreme smiled at the two of them. Both of them were utterly loyal to her, and wouldn’t have let her travel without them. They each had also killed to protect her, as had Madame Varessa, and she was utterly loyal to them as well. The two bowed to Jeyreme. “Lord Corbeau,” Zukal said, his tail shifting behind him, “if you would be so kind, we must prepare our lady for dinner.”
This was code for “make sure everything is okay and plan for the rest of the day” as Jeyreme well knew.
“Of course, good sirs.” Jeyreme rose, and gave the two a small bow, followed by a deeper one to Elzi. “I shall see the Marquessa at dinner. The room next door to this one is set up for you fine gentlemen, and the kitchen is instructed to bring you plates. You are also our guests.”
Brasky gave a wide smile. “Most splendid, m’lord. Most considerate.” He gave his own bow. While he might look a bit odd in the county of Tsuran livery of grey and blue against his reddish skin, Jeyreme considered, he had his own dignity in it. Zukal bowed as well, his own garb holding badges demonstrating his clan’s dedication to the art of jewelcrafting and his allegiance to the county.
Jeyreme departed for his own quarters, where he could finally breathe and review the paper, he hoped.
“SIMON! JEYREME!” With a bellow from his father, his hopes were shattered. He continued on, wondering what next disaster his father caused would require him to move heavens and pits to make right.
He approached the door to find his father, half-dressed, standing at the mage-network orb in his office (stained with beer, showing how the chambercleaners disliked going into that office), and looking triumphant. Simon came up behind, messing with his cuffs.
“What is it, father?” Jeyreme walked into the office, Simon behind him. Tomas peeked in as well, having come up behind Simon.
“I’ve just gotten a message. A hunter is on this way to take down the Grey Swan!”
Jeyreme felt a groan rising, and suppressed it. Simon, however, stepped in. “And how much is this going to cost us, father?”
The baron smiled. “Food, drink, whatever funds are recovered and no more. The hunter’s a former Judicar, and bringing his team with him. He sees this as a holy mission.”
“And did you get the name, father?” Jeyreme asked, almost casually.
“Of course! And when master Zaelar arrives, we’ll see some work done!”
Jeyreme heard footsteps behind him, a walk, then breaking into a run.
“How nice, father.” Simon’s face hid his irritation. “Do we know how long that will be?”
“A few days. They’re on foot.”
“Well, I suppose we should prepare a reception for them.” Simon turned to Jeyreme. “Let’s go plan that.”
Jeyreme nodded, and the two brothers left the office, as their father returned to his office chair, chortling.
“Tomas went for information. Probably the church,” Jeyreme said.
“Good. You go tell Mackaver, then meet me in the entrance hall. We need to figure out what’s going on fast.”
Mackaver, for his part, was unhappy.
“We don’t need a hunter here, begging your pardon, sir. Long as these fewmets are running about without guards and without letting us know so we can guard them, there’s not much we can do.”
“I understand that, Mackaver. But my father has decided on this, so we’ll just need to work with it. I’m hoping we can at least set it up that this hunter doesn’t get command over you.”
“Now, wait a moment, m’lord-“
“My father might just do that. If it happens, you tell them the Marquis has given you orders to protect the barony and it’s people, not go haring off a wild swan chase.”
Mackaver’s bushy eyebrows raised. “And has he, m’lord?”
“He will, Mackaver. He will.”
Jeyreme swung through the kitchens to get a goblet of small beer, then continued to the entrance hall. He arrived a few moments before Simon did, who glanced at the cup but said nothing.
Their worried waiting was broken as Tomas ran in the door, then dropped his hands to his knees, coughing and wheezing. When he could breathe normally again, Jeyreme handed him the cup, which he drained in a swallow.
“Gods blessing on you, Jeyreme,” Tomas gasped, then staggered to a bench and sat down.
“What did you learn?” Simon asked, looking worried.
“Zaelar was a priest of the Justicar, and he’s been laicized.”
The two other brothers glanced at each other in astonishment, then looked back to their younger brother. “For what?” Jeyreme inquired.
“He claimed it was because he was ‘getting too close to church corruption’, but the official notice says it was for blasphemous violations of the Justicar’s tenets of leavening justice with mercy.” Tomas took another cough. “They’re going to send to the Cathedral for the full report, since he’s wanted for crimes as well. Escaped in between the ceremony where they stripped him of his rank and handing him over to the Judicarate.”
“If they were going to hand him over…” Simon gave a low whistle. “The man’s almost certainly committed violence, possibly even murder. That’s the kind of thing you’d need to do to get that level of punishment. I’ll send a message, too, see if I can have Caressa get me some information.” His face stiffened with resolve. “All right, brothers. We’ve got to protect our sisters and the Marquessa first and foremost.”
“Oh, can you go over to the barracks?” Jeyreme asked. “They need an order to protect the barony and its citizens so they can tell this priest to stick his head in the jacks if he tries to command them.”
“Oh, good idea,” Simon said. “In return, help Tomas to his room. And keep this quiet. The last thing we need is a problem.”
The brothers broke their meeting, on to their errands.
As was expected, Jeyreme escorted Elizabeta into the dining hall for dinner. Once she was seated, the meal – a roasted boar with mushrooms, with bowls of buttered mashed roots, cooked greens, roasted carrots with honey and a bowl of gravy – was served, with the nobles served before the remainder of the castle staff, at the lower tables, taking their own. Simon was forced to issue an apology, that his father was not going to be attending as he was feeling poorly.
(“Too much beer disease,” Madame Venessa commented very quietly, and both Jeyreme and Elizabeta were well-trained enough to not laugh out loud.)
“The boar is excellent,” Elizabeta commented, eating daintily. “My complements on it to the chef.” Said chef, sitting nearby at one of the lower tables, rose and bowed to accept the complement.
One of the Corbeau traditions was that the Baron – or his representative, in this case – pour the wine for the high table, and so Simon did, making sure each of them had a glass. Tomas gestured Simon closer when his wine was served, and they had a whispered conversation. It didn’t attract much attention.
Once the meal was mostly done, Simon rose. Tapping his knife against a tankard. The hall settled to pay attention to him.
“My good friends, as you noticed, we have a visitor amongst us tonight, the Marquessa Elizabeta Tsuran. My brother Tomas has composed a poem, and has asked for permission to recite it to her, and I have granted permission. I do hope you enjoy it, Marquessa. Tomas?”
Tomas had dressed in his most formal garb for the dinner, even more formal than Jeyreme and Simon had, and looked quite resplendent in the maroon doublet and dark green trousers of the formalwear. He rose, now, and walked in front of the table. With a strength of voice many did not know he possessed, he stated, “A poem in honor of our beauteous guest, the Marquessa Tsuran.” He drew a paper from his doublet and began to recite.
“In days of yore, ‘neath the castle’s towering height,
Where banners fluttered in the gentle breeze,
A tale of love, a story pure and bright,
Unfolded ‘neath the ancient oaken trees.
In silken gowns of azure and of gold,
Fair maiden’s eyes, like sapphires, brightly gleamed,
Her tresses, spun from threads of moonlight’s hold,
In radiant beauty, like a vision dreamed.
Her heart, a fortress strong, in love’s sweet keep,
Yet vulnerable, like petals ‘gainst the storm,
She watched for her true knight while others sleep,
Awaiting love’s embrace, her heart kept warm.
He rode, a gallant knight with armor strong,
A trusty steed, his noble heart did guide,
Through battles fierce, he’d journeyed all along,
To claim his love, his precious, beauteous bride.
Underneath the stars that gently shone,
He knelt before her, armored heart laid bare,
Pledged love eternal, two souls became one,
In ancient times, a love beyond compare.
So, in the echoes of this timeless tale,
Where love and chivalry entwine their grace,
We find in history’s pages, a love so frail,
In times that have gone past, their hearts did embrace.”
He paused for a moment, and then the applause started. Tomas ducked his head with a smile, then turned and bowed to Elizabeta, before returning to his seat.
“He’s very good,” Elizabeta said. “He should attend the Imperial College.”
“I agree,” Simon said, “But father won’t have it.”
Lady Varessa sniffed. “The man’s a boor,” she said, very quietly.
Jeyreme said nothing, but found herself wondering about the way that Elizabeta’s face softened, and Tomas’s eyes shined, as the poem was recited. She was quite sure that poem was not about the supposedly upcoming nuptuals between herself and Elizabeta.
That evening, Jey snuck out through the tunnel to meet Maisie. The tunnel’s other end was not far from their usual meeting place, and Jey carried the blanket with her.
When she arrived at the clearing, she had to stop and remind herself to breathe. Maisie was already there, not in her work clothes, but in a plain, simple white dress, with a circlet of flowers above her red hair. She stood in a demure pose, facing the direction where Jey would come from, but eyes cast down. A swarm of fireflies had occupied the clearing, illuminating it with a pale yellow light.
It was with the greatest of difficulty that Jey did not drop to her knees in awe. Instead, she stepped into the clearing. As she did, Maisie raised her eyes up to look at her.
“My heart.” Maisie spoke the words like a prayer. “We need to go. We need to run. It’s going to be too dangerous for you now!”
“I still need the last of the money. I’m sure it’ll be just a couple of days, and then we can run away, together, and not need to worry!”
“No. I don’t care. Let’s take it and just go. Please, Jey! There’s things being said about this madman who’s coming!”
Jey felt a chill through her. “What? We sent for word, but nothing yet.”
“Some of the traders heard this Zaelan was coming and said they’d be leaving as soon as they could. He’s the wrong kind of zealot, love. He’s got this idea… people stay where they belong, and trying to change is wrong. He’s killed people! He executed one like you, and a dozen like me, whose only crimes were trying to be who they really were or loving who they love.” She came to Jey, holding her and putting her forehead against Jey’s. “He’s a madman, and only hasn’t been arrested or executed yet because they haven’t found him yet.”
“Well, he’s coming here. We can arrest him.” Jey put her arms around Maisie. “Bring him to justice before he harms anyone else.”
“We? What can you and I do?”
“I meant my family. I can’t just run now – my father won’t believe the Grey Swan is gone, and until something is done about Zaelan, everyone’s in danger. Your family. Everyone in town.” Jey reached down and lifted Maisie’s chin, and kissed her softly. “I swear, this will be the end of it. No matter what, we’ll go after this.”
“Oh, Jey… what if this madman finds the truth?”
“About which of us, sweet one?”
Maisie closed her eyes, then released Jey, and took one step back. She reached and took Jey’s right hand with her own. “Hear me, o gods. Hear me in this place and at this time where we stand, heart to heart and hand to hand. Hear the words of my heart. I am Maisie Licara, daughter of Dennis and Sally Licara, and I stand before the one who holds my love.” She opened her eyes and looked at Jey, love mixed with a challenge in her gaze.
Jey took a deep, deep breath. She’d begun one of the most sacred ceremonies that existed, and one that needed no priest, just two people. (It often had a priest, but it wasn’t necessary.) She steeled herself and replied.
“Here me, o gods. Hear me in this place and at this time where we stand, heart to heart and hand to hand. Hear the words of my heart. I am Jey Corbeau, daughter of Baron Stefan Corbeau and Lady Elissa Corbeau, and I stand before the one who holds my love.”
Maisie continued her recitation now. “Before you, o gods, do I swear my heart and my love to the one that holds it. To have, to hold, to protect and to be protected, to be as one, through all things till the end of days.”
Jey shifted her voice to the voice for Jey, instead of Jeyreme. “Before you, o gods, do I swear my heart and my love to the one that holds it. To have, to hold, to protect and to be protected, to be as one, through all things till the end of days.”
They leaned forwards until their foreheads touched, and said, together, “So shall it be.”
The fireflies that had remained oddly still suddenly moved, flying in a circle around them, then upwards, in a fountain of yellow light. They watched it, awed, until the flight was dispersed and gone.
“Well,” Jey said, mouth suddenly dry, “would you like to return to the manor with me, my lady wife?”
Maisie’s eyes went wide, and she kissed Jey very firmly. When it was released so they could both breathe again, she said, “I don’t think that’ll go over very well there, especially with Lady Tsuran.”
Jey laughed, and hugged Maisie tight. “Elzi and her maid are both aware of my lack of interest in marrying her. She’s the one who’s been passing me information!”
Maisie backed up, then whacked Jey in the chest. Jey winced, and Maisie made a grumpy sound. “You weren’t going to tell me about this?”
Rubbing her chest, Jey replied, “My love, what you didn’t know, you wouldn’t need to hide.”
“I apologize. But yes, they know and approve of me getting to be myself. I think they’ll adore you when they meet you. But first and foremost, my sweet, shall we retire to the hidden lair of that notable bandit, the Grey Swan?”
Laughing and shaking her head, Maisie allowed herself to be taken by the hand into the woods.
As they approached the the hidden door, Maisie’s eyes went wide, and then she looked around. “It’s so rocky here, there’s not going to be any way for your horse’s tracks to be followed.”
“Indeed. Hello – what’s this?”
The hidden door, was set into the side of a hill, and part of that hill was a large stone. Sitting on top of that stone was a bird of prey, its particular kind and color impossible to make out in the dark. Jey bowed to it. “Greetings to you, o raptor, and consider yourself at home. I am no hunter to consider you prey or pawn.” Then she bent and raised the door.
Maisie nodded, then stepped inside when Jey gestured. Once the door was back down with both inside, Jey took a rod from the wall and uncovered it. The magical stone revealed lit the room up, and she led Maisie deeper in.
“Here it is. Not much to look at,” she said, “but it holds my things, and also Pond.” At the sound of its name, the horse raised its head and nickered. Jey smiled and reached into a pouch, bringing out some dried apple, which Pond eagerly ate.
“Why Pond?” Maisie asked, as Jey gave her some more dried apple to feed to the horse.
“What else does a swan ride on? She was supposed to be a cull, considered too small to be a draft horse and too weak to be a riding horse, but I saved her. She’s very smart, and with training and feeding, she’s quite strong.” A ruffle of the ears, and Jey turned to the rest of the cave. “The armoire they were going to throw out, which I saved and brought here, which contains the Grey Swan’s garb. And…” Jey proceeded to show her the way to get through the locks on the hidden space. “The spoils of the Grey Swan.”
Maisie looked around. “To think there are some that call you lazy. This is brilliant, love.”
“Why thank you!” Jey turned and kissed Maisie, then put the hidden stone back in place. “If anything ever goes terribly wrong, this is all yours, my love. I pray it not be needed, but in case it does…”
“Don’t say such things,” Maisie said. “I couldn’t bear to lose you.”
“I need to. Just to be careful.” They embraced again, and then she looked into the armoire. “What’s the sword? It looks old.”
“It is fairly old,” Jey said, taking it from the armoire. She drew it, and the blade gave off a soft blue glow.
“Where did you get the enchanted blade?”
“It’s father’s. He never uses it, got it from grandfather, and I don’t think he understands that I actually learned the sword.”
“Why did you do that?”
“I wasn’t sure what would happen, so I decided it would be best overall to learn skills in case father turned me out as useless. Before father turned him out, I learned all I could from father’s sword master. Learned how to run the books, how to write, full on scribal skills. I probably know more about economics than most of those merchants. I had to, just to make myself useful.”
Maisie reached up and ran her hand through Jey’s hair. “I never realized how hard it was for you until I really knew you. I thought a noble’s son would be shallow, but your brothers aren’t, and you’re deeper than all of them.”
Jey kissed Maisie. “Thank you, dearest. Do you want to see the rest of the place?”