Chapter Seven: "New Friends"
Maaike strolled on a path in the gardens of Castle Sentat and took a deep breath. The air was thick with the smell of the summer blossoms, but there was a scent under that she had missed. Dirt, grass, trees—all the smells she had forgotten and now took in like a drowning man did air.
The gardens were not exceptional large or lush by Sentatian standards. But, after five years in Voxfeld, where they preferred to arrange sand and rocks, and another five in Adervyn, where the only green a person ever saw was the tarnish on brass or some colored glass, they were one of the most beautiful things she had seen. And no matter how often she explained this to Becka and Ariel, they never seemed to understand why she spent so much time in them.
Well, to be honest, it was not the main reason. While they did make her realize how much she had missed a proper garden, she spent time here because of the solitude they offered while not inviting suspicion of impropriety or conspiracy. Most nobles preferred to gather in the court proper or one of the several salons, and if they wished to seek a garden, it would be in one of the estates north of the city.
The man walking next to her laughed softly. “My lady has a way of making even the simple act of breathing seem a work of art.”
She hid her face behind her fan. “Ah, Lord Holmes, five years in Adervyn can truly make a person relish even the simplest of things, including a breath of clean air.”
“A horrid city,” Holmes said. “A shame we were unable to wipe it from the map.”
“More the shame because we should have been able to,” she said. “Had it not been for Lazris and his revenants, we would have taken the city easily.”
“Nasty business, that.” He shook his head and paused to admire an azalea hedge. “But you cannot patch a broken glass. Adervyn will reap the fruits of its decision with those vile creatures.”
“It’s more the shame that we still should have been able to defeat them, though.”
He turned to her with a crinkled brow. “And how would you suggest that? Even after we allowed women into the ranks, the best we managed was to beat them to a stand still and keep a stretch of land.”
“Why, with our own meister,” she said. “Isn’t it odd that High Meister Barak never came forth with anything as amazing as Lazris? I’ve heard of his shockrods and other strange weapons. Why were they not in the war?”
“The meisters supported the war,” Holmes said. “They provided us with advanced artillery, better airships, bombs even.”
“All things Adervyn managed perfectly well before Lazris,” Maaike said. “I’ve heard such things about Tesma and his lightning, and no few people claiming he is a superior meister to Lazris. Where is his great invention, then? Why did he not give us the edge we needed to defeat Adervyn?”
Holmes looked at her through squinted eyes, and she feared she had pushed too hard, too fast against Tesma. She had chosen Lord Holmes because he was established in the court but not known for having ulterior motives. Had she confused the signs of simplicity with what should have been read as extreme shrewdness?
Holmes shook his head and sighed. “My lady, I cannot answer your question, nor do I think I wish to try. Perhaps Tesma isn’t as great as his supporters make him out to be, and instead all of his gadgetry is exactly that. Or perhaps Tesma will simply usher in an era of convenience for us as opposed to machines of war. I’ll be honest, I’d rather steady, blue light to monsters. But, this is such a dark topic for such a beautiful day.”
Maaike made an inward sigh while she smiled and let Holmes redirect the conversation to those trifling matters that nobles seemed to think were important. He went on at nauseating length about how he turned a wonderful profit on peppers he had been drying and storing for sale down south once the war was over, and then droned on about his daughter, Brittanie, who would be about Maaike’s age, although he did not approve of the meister she had taken to fancy.
She made all of the right non-committal responses but still somehow was harangued into agreeing on an outing with Brittanie at some point in the indeterminate future. If Maaike had her way, it would be pushed off until it was forgotten; she had more important things to do with her time than talk with a powerless lady, especially after her father had proven unfit for Maaike’s plans.
She thanked Holmes for joining her in the gardens then went inside to the Prince’s salon. This time, the prince was not even actually the center of his own group, with instead a large group of nobles standing between him and Duke Tonniger. Oddly, Jaeger did not seem to be in attendance. With another sigh, Maaike walked over and joined the group around the prince.
Becka smiled at her as she walked up. “Had enough of the trees?”
“Go years without seeing a tree,” Maaike said. “Perhaps you will find a new appreciation for them.”
Becka shrugged. “I don’t see why. They’re just trees.”
“Have you given up your quest against the meisters yet?” Ariel said.
“My what?” Maaike gave Ariel her sweetest smile.
“You really should just forget it,” Ariel said. “It really will be for the better. If Tesma found out what you are trying to do, it would not end well.”
Maaike narrowed her eyes. “Are you threatening me?”
“Of course not, my lady,” Ariel said. “I am merely advising you, as you have been absent from Sentat for so long. This isn’t Voxfeld or Adervyn, where they crave some sense of proper noble blood.”
“What Ariel is trying to say,” Becka said. “Is that the court is not going to take kindly to someone who hasn’t been in it very long trying to upset the status quo. Surely you can understand that, my lady.”
“Of course,” Maaike said. “I will take your words to heart.”
Ariel smiled as if she had won some victory, but Becka looked at her in doubt. Maaike did not have to be savvy in the machinations of court to know Becka was by far the craftier of the two, even for as simple and open as she seemed. No doubt that was why Jaeger was having her spy.
Not that Maaike had proof of the spying, but it seemed the most logical answer for the way Becka attached herself to the prince’s group without any overtures of gaining power herself.
Still, Maaike had not lied. In their misguided attempts to help, Ariel and Becka had shown her a simple truth. The nobles were not going to be influenced by a freshly arrived equal. In fact, the most she would likely do was fracture the nobility even further and make whatever plots the meisters had all the easier. She had been seeking allies among the fringe nobles, trying to build power, but that would take too long, if it would work at all.
No, she needed an ally that already had a power base. But such an ally would be risky. She would be at best an equal, at worst a supplicant. Any ally with enough influence would likely seek to introduce his own plots, and even if it did end with Tesma’s downfall, it would not help her or Kanadis. From her observations, there was only one man in the court that would serve her needs, and he would likely balk at any attempt for an alliance from her.
She stayed in the salon for nearly an hour, trying to think of someone, anyone else while she partook in the frivolous conversations of the court’s ladies. When she finally felt she had stayed long enough to not look suspicious at withdrawing, she excused herself and went up to her rooms. Not a single other noble would do. With grim conviction, she went to her study and composed a letter.
* * *
Markus sat down at a table in the dining area with a bowl of radish stew, an unremarkable change from the usual dinner, and stared into the broth. He had purposely sat alone, away from where Kira, Gavrial, and Vlad were eating, and he was not surprised to see they did not even glance his way. Ever since he had returned from that job in the Brass Purses, things had suddenly been different. To his chagrin, Margot, who had entered the room after him, plopped down across from him with a grin across her face.
“Not looking too shiny there, brassman,” she said.
He looked up from his soup. “Brassman?”
“Well, you’re more brass than flesh, right? Seems like a fitting name.”
“And Markus isn’t?”
“Bah, everyone calls you Markus,” she said. “But we’re a team now. You need a nickname!”
“Yeah, a team,” he said. “The lockpick who is relegated to look-out duty.”
Margot narrowed her eyes. “Something wrong with being a look-out?”
“No.” He raised his hands defensively. “I just don’t know what I did. It feels like I’m being punished, but Gavrial and Bryon both told me they understand why I didn’t kill that man.”
“You aren’t being punished,” she said. “You’re being kept safe, I’d imagine. Bryon may have a stick stuck up his nethers half the time, or maybe that cat of his, but he does everything for a reason and for the best interest of The Hole. If he wants you on the less dangerous job, there’s a reason for it.”
He sighed. “Thanks, Margot. Oddly, that kind of—”
“Or he could just not trust you to not botch it again,” she said. “So you need to build his faith back up in you. That’s just as likely, I’d imagine.”
He stared at her. “—doesn’t help at all.”
She smiled again. “Finish up, Brassman. We got a house to go watch.”
He pushed his bowl away. “Whenever you’re ready. I’ve lost my appetite.”
She finished her soup in a long draw then smiled. “As you will. Let’s go!”
* * *
Gentle strains of piano music drifted in from the parlor, but Jaeger paid no attention as he pored over his reports. Crime was up, and the so-called Lord Shadow had once again made a mockery of the constabulary with his Thieves’ Race. And since that same day, he had not received a single report from Constable Black, not that such was necessarily out of the ordinary. While every precinct technically worked for Sunset House, they typically worked, more or less, autonomously. Still, Black had been sending reports nearly daily, all with no content but indicating that he was homing in on Salteen and his gang. That he had been silent over the past week was, at best, worrisome. Jaeger made a note to send an inconspicuous inquiry to the Slums constables.
The music stumbled mid-strand, and Jaeger pulled the shutter down over the back half of his desk in a quick yet quiet motion. Documents were still visible before him, but none that were important. A moment later, he heard footfalls behind him, and he turned around with a smile on his face.
Tonniger stood in the door. “Hard at work, I see.”
“As ever, Warwick.” Jaeger let his forced smile warm to one that was slightly more real. “And to what do I owe the honor of this visit?”
“I have news,” Tonniger said. “The kind that you asked me to keep an ear out for. Apparently, there’s a revenant in the city.”
Jaeger tried to cut Tonniger off with a gesture, and groaned when the man did not stop. Jaeger waved the duke over and pitched his voice low. “That is a strong thing to say in uncertain company, friend.”
Tonniger looked back over his shoulder. “The only other person here is you niece, and seeing as you have her standing guard on that piano, I’d have thought you trusted her.”
“Standing guard? Phaw. She just likes to play, and I like to listen.”
“And she is better than to muss up like she did when I entered,” Tonniger said. “You keep your secrets well, friend, but I think you’ll find it hard to keep one from me.”
Jaeger frowned. “Becka is a nice lass, I give her that, but she has her own agendas just like any other noble.”
Tonniger put a hand to his chest. “Any other noble?”
“Any,” Jaeger said. “I believe it was you who asked why nobles must all be the same. But, come, you said you have information about a certain man?”
Tonniger laughed. “Ah, of course, I did and I do. There was a murder a few nights back, up in the Brass Purses. Word on the street is a revenant did it.”
“I’d heard of the murder,” Jaeger says. “A young industrialist, shot in his office late at night. No one saw or heard anything besides the gunshot. I hadn’t heard any mention of a revenant, though. I can’t say I see any evidence for it either. Any skilled thief or assassin could have done the same, and the young man was hardly well-liked.”
Tonniger shrugged. “As I said, rumor on the streets. But it is on enough lips that I might give it credence. I can tell the difference between truth in a rumor and people jumping at ghost stories.”
Jaeger nodded slowly. “Any chance you’ve heard any gang names attached to that killing as well?”
“Alas, no. Should I look for one?”
“I have a lead that this monster is sheltering with a gang in the slums,” Jaeger said. “I can only hope that there is only one. If there are more . . . .”
“I see.” Tonniger rubbed his chin. “I’ll ask around, for you. Any other favors?”
Jaeger eyed the younger man for a moment. “Well, since you ask, and since you pride yourself on being able to root out secrets, why don’t you go about trying to find out who this so-called Lord Shadow is? I’m sure you’ve heard of him.”
A hint of a smile touched Tonniger’s lips. “Ah, now that is a grand mystery, isn’t it?”
Jaeger leaned forward in his chair. “Don’t tell me you already know who he is.”
The smile stayed for a moment more, and then Tonniger shook his head. “Alas, no. But I can’t say I’m not curious. I just haven’t ever been curious enough to go digging. That might also be a dangerous secret.”
“You’re a duke,” Jaeger said. “I doubt it could be all that dangerous for you, as opposed to a mere count.”
A stumbled strain of the piano cut Tonniger off, and both men looked towards the parlor. A moment later, a page walked in with a tray bearing a letter.
“From the Lady Kanadis, my lords,” the page said. “For Jaeger, Count of Sunset.”
Tonniger turned a curious eye to Jaeger and stepped aside so the page could walk in. Jaeger took the envelope and looked it over then dismissed the page with no reply. Once the boy was gone, Jaeger broke the wax seal, which was in the molded shape of a snowflake, and read the letter.
My Dear Count Jaeger,
I must admit that I am remiss in not having called upon you sooner. It is rude of me, as a guest in this castle, to not have even enjoyed an afternoon tea with the man who so selflessly welcomed me to our grand capital. I can only beg pardon as I am still acclimating to the ways of Tijervyn court, which are, I must admit, quite different from any other court I have hitherto attended.
But, such a thing would only be an excuse and not a remedy. As such, I would hope that you might join me for an afternoon tea in my parlor two days hence. I think that we might have much to talk about that is of mutual interest.
Maaike, Heiress to Kanadis
“She implies that it is of her own fault that we have not spoken more.” Jaeger handed Tonniger the note. “She is either more sly or more daft that I had thought to give her credit.”
Tonniger read the note. “Will you attend?”
“And be drawn into whatever her game is?” Jaeger snorted. “I think not. I have enough on my plate, and from what I can tell, she is hardly making any sort of headway. Becka tells me the girl has some sort of grudge against the meisters, not that she’ll tell me why, and has been making it a poor secret she is campaigning against them. Her lost cause is of little concern to me.”
“The meisters?” Tonniger looked over the letter again, as if some hidden missive might be contained in its simpering lines. “I wonder why she thinks she could draw you in on such a foolish endeavor. And I have to wonder how this revenant of hers ties into it all, if it is indeed hers.”
“Oh, it is hers,” Jaeger said. “I do not believe in coincidence, not when nobles are involved. And on the amazing chance that it isn’t hers, it is still a monster in our city.”
“I never doubted the second,” Tonniger said. “But as to the first, who knows. I think you should meet with her.”
Jaeger snatched the letter back and looked it over again. For the life of him, he could see nothing hidden in it besides her possibly realizing that he had been avoiding her. “Is there some other secret I should know about, Warwick?”
Tonniger laughed. “Ah, Jaeger, not all of my actions come from whispers of shadows and deceit. No, this is a simple risk assessment. What could listening to her hurt? Perhaps she might have a point to be made. Have you ever thought of that?”
Jaeger folded the letter and tapped it against his palm. Tonniger had a point. True, the girl might be raving mad, trying to make a splash by attacking an enemy no one expected. If that was the case, she would fall flat in trying to find enemies of the meisters. They were no threat to the city, and far too helpful besides. But where did her monster fit into it? Was she trying to topple Tesma and extend Adervyn’s influence via that Lazris man? Although, by what he had heard from his recently reestablished contacts in the far off court, Lazris had fallen out of favor since his monsters had not won the war. Never mind that they had effectively saved Adervyn from a crushing defeat.
No matter how he tried to put it together, he could not make the puzzle pieces fit, and now that Tonniger had piqued his interest, Jaeger had to admit that he could not resist the urge to know. He sighed and turned back to his desk.
“I suppose tea cannot harm anything,” he said. “And if anything, it will make my own adversaries think in circles about my intents.”
“You always do find a way to sweeten a poor situation,” Tonniger said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have other circles of intrigue to wallow in.”
“Of course,” Jaeger said. “If anyone asks after me, tell them I’m anywhere but here, would you? I’d like some time to finally get through my papers in peace.”
Tonniger flourished his cane in a mock salute and withdrew. Jaeger waited to hear the door to the parlor close before he reopened his desk, found a clean paper and his ink, and wrote his reply to Maaike.
* * *
Markus walked into the tavern and looked around. It was not all that bad of an establishment; the floor was wooden, and the tables were mostly clean. The gaslights were kept low, likely to both provide the dark atmosphere and to save the proprietor money. At the end of the bar, a woman in a dark cloak was staring into a mug. Markus walked over and sat next to her.
“I was once told that cloaks are really the worst way for a person to hide,” he said.
Megyn pushed her hood back and looked at him. “I’m sure whoever told you that would know from experience.”
“I kind of learned it myself,” he said. “I see you got the message I left with Father Morgan.”
She smiled and nodded. “So, your new life not all it should have been?”
“I never really knew what I thought it was supposed to be,” he said. “I can’t say I even know what it will be.”
“I could always try to get you back into the military, if you want,” she said. “I am stationed in the administrative offices now. It wouldn’t be that hard.”
He signaled to the bartender for a drink then looked back at her. “And tell me: are you happy with your new lot?”
She narrowed her eyes then shook her head. “I’d suppose not, but now that I’ve seen battle, I don’t think that I could go back to work in my mother’s seamstress shop. What about you, what were you before the war?”
“A boy who didn’t know what was good for him,” he said. “I joined the military as soon as I was old enough.”
“What would you have done if not the army?”
He accepted his lager from the bartender. “I don’t really know. It seems like so long ago. When I joined, there was only the hint of a possible war with Adervyn. Being a soldier is really all I’ve ever known.”
She raised her mug. “To the lives we never had nor can ever return to.”
“I can drink to that.” He raised his mug and took a long draught. He could not say why, but talking to Megyn seemed far more natural than any other conversation he had in recent times. They sat there in the tavern for hours, and then they walked through the night along the more well-lit streets. He insisted on at least escorting her to the edge of the slums, and by the time he finally returned to The Hole, everyone else was already asleep and the lamps were at a bare flicker. He refilled his tank quietly and tucked away to bed, and for the first time in months, maybe years, went to sleep content.
* * *
Steam rose from the cup, and Maaike blew on it gently before sipping. Across the table from her, Jaeger put a bit of cream into his tea before picking it up. They had already exchanged the inane pleasantries of nobles innocuously meeting for tea, although Maaike could tell from the slight tightness around Jaeger’s eyes and the stiffness of his posture that he hardly thought this was the social call it had been presented as in the letter.
“So, Jaeger,” she said. “Your niece tells me that you actually asked to be made the Sunset Count. I can’t say I’ve ever heard of anyone doing that before.”
“It was common, once,” he said. “Long before the crown prince made a habit of absconding the Count’s power. And despite Dorian’s efforts, there is still plenty for me to do.”
“You speak so casually of the Prince,” Maaike said. “I’d daresay you don’t like him.”
Jaeger smiled over his tea. “Milady, it is no secret that I dislike our good prince, and the feeling is mutually held. He uses me as a messenger boy, and I deride him to his face and behind his back. Do not think you have found some great secret in my distain.”
“Still, he is the prince,” she said. “Such a blatant act can only come from one with strong ties and influences.”
“Or from one who does not care for what goes on outside of the city walls,” he said. “This city is my charge, Lady Kanadis, and I will not see it harmed, even by its supposed rulers. I am sure you feel the same of your duchy.”
Maaike caught her breath. Did he know about the problems in Kanadis? Her mother, while inept, had at least managed to hide the woes of the duchy to any outside the family, but the last five years might have changed that. She forced an even breath out and nodded.
“I see your point.”
“Now,” he said. “Why don’t you come to the point where you tell me what you want? I don’t presume you a fool aside from your stance against the meisters, and I’d hate to be disabused of that notion. Am I to also presume that this meeting is in relation to that?”
“Your niece has been reporting to you about me, I see,” she said.
He shook his head. “The Lady DeRosa may have a fondness for her and my blood connection, but I can assure you, I honor the vows of the Count of Sunset and have put my family behind me.”
“You say you do not presume me a fool,” she said. “And then you tell me a lie only a fool would believe? My good count, I can see that any alliance between us would be strained at best, but this does not discourage me.”
He raised an eyebrow. “An alliance? Again, I presume against the meisters. Why would I enter such a thing? The meisters are harmless at worst and beyond helpful at best.”
“Tell me, has Becka told you what happened when I accompanied her and Lady Dunny to the Meisters’ Guild some days ago?”
Jaeger raised an eyebrow. “I told you—”
“Meister Qristina Barak struck me,” Maaike said. “With no fear of retribution and unprovoked save for me having mentioned my acquaintance with Quintin Lazris. Tell me, sir, does that sound harmless to you?”
“The Baraks are both rather touchy around the subject of Adervyn’s High Meister,” Jaeger said. “Qristina over-reacted, perhaps, but right now all I can see is that you have a petty vendetta against her, not some threat to city and country.”
“I threatened to have her hung, to tell the prince,” Maaike said. “All she did was laugh, insult me, and then sent DeRosa and Dunny on their way like underlings that had fallen out of favor, and they meekly accepted it.”
He leaned back in his chair with an uncomfortable look in his eye. “Yes, well—”
“I have researched the meisters,” Maaike said. “I’ll be honest, my first goal was to seek to ally with them, not against them. I can see that the age of nobility is quickly coming to an end. Before long, the commoners here will demand to be able to pick their own rulers, much as they do in Voxfeld, and to a lesser extend Adervyn. And honestly, with what I have seen of the nobility here, I do not blame them. But Tesma is not just a man rising to power.”
“And what crime would you accuse him of?” Jaeger said. “I can see your ire over Qristina, but she is well connected enough that any attempt to level charges against her will be swept under a rug. Tesma, though, has committed no crimes.”
“Has he?” Maaike tapped her lip. “I must wonder at this man, this foreigner, who only came to this city twelve years ago. Only a few years, and he was suddenly the head of the Meisters’ Guild, and had started the construction of their new castle-like compound. And now, today, he is as powerful as any noble, if not the royalty, and the city does not even realize they are being slowly taken over. Have you, Count Jaeger, or have you been blind to it from being here. My absence is a blessing in letting me see how queer this truly is.”
Jaeger looked truly shaken. It had been a risk, being as truthful with him as she had, but no man was as powerful as Jaeger appeared to be without being shrewd enough to detect manipulation. So, Maaike had taken yet another lesson from Voxfeld to heart: when a scheme will not work to win a person, conviction will.
Jaeger recovered himself, took a sip of tea, and stood. “What you say, milady, is distressing, perhaps more so for the ring of truth in it. I trust you will not begrudge me time to think and to perform my own quiet investigation before I make any commitment one way or the other.”
Maaike smiled and nodded, and Jaeger took his leave. He would quickly see what she saw, and the more she thought about it, the more it terrified her. She finished her tea and started out on a stroll about the castle grounds to try and calm her nerves. Yes, she and Kanadis could benefit from this, but there was a deeper truth: the meisters were not only powerful, but they had to have an intended use for that power. One did not simply gain power to sit on it.
* * *
Jaeger pulled a kerchief from his pocket and blotted sweat from his brow. What harm could tea be, indeed! Was he letting himself be pulled into a plot? No, he could spot schemes and plots like a bloodhound could a trail. Yes, there was a scheme, something Maaike hoped to gain from all of this, but that was tangential to a real threat. Perhaps a real threat. He would test the meisters with a few well placed favors and see how they responded. If there was something going on in that compound, he would sniff it out. He hoped that he was not about to poke a sleeping bear, yet feared he was about poke a very much awake one. Awake, and ready to pounce.
Still, even if she was earnest, he did not trust Maaike. She had come to Tijervyn with schemes a plenty, she had all but admitted. He doubted she had abandoned them all. She still had that revenant out there, somewhere, and he would find it and hang her for it if he could, all the while helping her against the meisters. Such was an alliance in Tijervyn, where the only one you could ever trust was yourself.