(Previous chapters can be found here.)
Drew and Aaron pulled up short as we approached the estate. Aaron reached over and gently shook me out of my stupor.
"Laren, please, we're going to need your help to get back inside." I stirred and looked around, wondering what we should do next. I didn't want to go back into the manor. I didn't want to face the reality of what had happened, or of what had yet to happen still. Worst was the knowledge that it was my fault this had happened. I had been the one to insist we fight back against Riordan, and that I accompany them to get the documents. I knew Liam was suspicious, I should have made sure to check on him before stepping foot out of the manor...but how could I have ever imagined he would follow me in person? It was so unlike him. "Laren?" Aaron asked quietly.
"It was all for nothing, wasn't it?" I whispered. "Liam is dead, Ballard is likely arrested, and Riordan will have even more fuel to use against all of us. We didn't even get what we went for."
"We did, actually," Aaron said, quietly, reaching inside his shirt.
"Aaron?" Drew asked sharply.
"When Jonah was pulling you out of the office, Laren, I grabbed what I could and hid it, just in case we managed to get out of there."
"You...you did?" I asked. He nodded. Maybe I could soothe my conscience at least a little if we could see Riordan face justice. It was why Ballard had sacrificed himself after all. That, and to try to keep me safe, damn him.
"Maybe it's the only good thing to come of all of this," he added, "but the letters I found before we were discovered, they're important. They contain correspondence tying Riordan to the death of the Magnate in Denara last cycle." I inhaled sharply. That went far beyond blackmail and petty crime.
"Will Vinnis even care about that, though?" Drew asked.
"After the economic havoc the Magnate's death caused in Pelos?" I commented, "He'd be a fool to ignore it." Aaron nodded in agreement. I glanced at Drew sharply. He was of Iron. He would know that as well as Aaron and I, if not better. He caught my look and gave me a small approving smile. Ah. Asking a question he knew I would answer to bring me back to myself more fully. Well played. I tipped my head at him. Oblivious to the byplay, Aaron spoke up.
"Pelos and Denara are allies, at least officially. Vinnis is on shaky ground with the new Magnate, though. But if he can offer up the person responsible for all of the chaos Denara went through..."
"Alright, but how do we get that information to Vinnis now?" Drew asked. There was no heat in the question, just pure curiosity. He had a point. Ballard's sacrifice was also an attempt to give us protection from the authorities--and from Roslyn. We couldn't acknowledge that we had been in that shop.
"We will find a way," I said firmly, resolving not to let Ballard's actions be in vain.
"Right now, however, I am more concerned with how we're going to get back inside," Aaron said, gesturing toward the manor. "Without Ballard, I don't know how we pull that off." I frowned in thought. Ballard had planned to give us an opening to sneak back in through the tunnel nearest the stables. Not knowing how long the job would take, he had arranged the guards' schedules so that we might have at least one opportunity every hour to sneak back in and return the horses unseen so that they would not be missed in the morning. It had been a calculated risk, but he believed no one outside of the manor would notice the openings if they didn't know about them beforehand. As I was thinking, the clock struck the half hour.
"Right," I said, straightening a little, "I think that the original plan, this part of it at least, should still work. We've got about fifteen minutes until it should be safe to go into the tunnel." Both men nodded and a silence fell as we moved to be better placed to act on time.
"I don't get it," Drew said suddenly. "Jonah and Walon shouldn't have been there. Even so, if Riordan had ordered the building watched, we made sure we weren't seen when we got there. And why did Liam follow us?"
"Jonah was already in the cellar, Drew, he must have been. He couldn't have approached through the alley without being seen, not before Walon sent Ballard off, and we never heard him enter the cellar from the shop. He knew exactly what we'd go for if we made a move. He must have had Walon waiting in another building nearby, to come out after we'd entered the alley." Aaron shook his head, continuing, "We should have been better prepared for Riordan to expect us." Again, I felt a twinge of guilt. If I hadn't insisted we could do this all on our own...I curbed that stream of thought sharply. What was done was done. I could second-guess my decisions and actions for the rest of my life and it wouldn't change a damn thing.
"Liam told me earlier today he knew I was up to something. He said he was going to find out what it was." I heaved a sigh of frustration. "I just assumed that he would badger Roslyn until she told him, or set a servant to watch me, at the very least. I can't imagine what he was thinking, following us. He has--had--been on edge lately." I shook my head. "If I had thought for even a second--" Drew placed a comforting hand on my arm.
"That part of it wasn't your fault." He said intensely. "He made his own choice when he decided to follow us. Frankly," he added softly, "I'm not entirely sure he didn't deserve what happened to him." The memories of Liam's last words rang in my ears. I couldn't bring myself to agree with Drew, but once more I felt that horrid sense of relief at avoiding the fate my husband would have so callously left me to.
"It's time," Aaron said after a moment, and we made our way to the manor. The tunnel's entry gate had a smaller door built into it and Aaron dismounted and quickly picked the lock. It was a tight squeeze for the horses but we led them through into the inner courtyard. All was silent and still. We kept to the shadows and quickly made it to the stables without running into anyone. We got the horses into their stalls and brushed down, none the worse for the wear, then returned the way we had come, still keeping to the shadows. I hoped with every fiber of my being that no one was looking into the courtyard. I saw no lights in the windows and the hour was late enough that the odds were in our favor here. Next to the tunnel was a door that led to the kitchens. We slipped inside to find them blessedly deserted and from there made our way back to the north wing. At the landing to the second floor we parted ways, Aaron and Drew continuing upward and me heading to my own rooms.
At least one part of this blasted evening went according to plan. I forced myself to clean up and dress for sleep, even though I wanted nothing more than to fall into my bed. It was only a matter of time before someone reported finding Liam's body to Roslyn, and naturally I would be sent for. I couldn't give any indication that I had been out of the manor that evening. I climbed into bed and stared at the ceiling, waiting, until eventually I fell into a restless slumber.
I was woken by knocking on the outer door to my rooms. I glanced around groggily and saw that the blackness of night was fading into the grey of predawn. It had only been a few hours then. Blearily I stumbled to the door, not even bothering to find my robe. I swung open the door to find Roslyn on the other side. She looked grave.
"Get dressed quickly," she told me quietly, her tone stating that questions would not be welcome. "I need you to come with me."
"Of course," I said, turning back to my room. I reached for the first thing in my armoire, a modest dark blue dress, and slipped it on. As I did up the buttons I looked up to find Roslyn had followed me in and was looking around the room closely. Was she searching for evidence of my activities the previous evening? I started to ask her what was going on but she saw my mouth open and shook her head sharply. I slid on a pair of shoes and she turned on her heel, leading me out of my rooms. I followed her through the manor in silence, tension mounting with every step. I could only assume this was about Liam. Had she been notified of his death? Did she suspect that I was involved? She led me to her office and stopped just outside, her hand on the doorknob.
"Did you know that Ballard was not guarding your brother's rooms last night, Laren?" She asked suddenly, looking at me carefully. I bit my lip and nodded before I had a chance to overthink the question. Roslyn understood secrets, but she did not like lies. The fewer I told, the better this would go. I would just have to be very careful about what answers I gave. "Did he tell you what he was doing instead?" Hesitation was the enemy here, I knew, so I shook my head. She clearly knew that Ballard had been out of the manor but from her questions she didn't seem to know about Aaron, Drew, or myself. Ballard had never actually told me what he was doing. Roslyn made a noncommittal sound and turned away, opening the door.
Inside we found two men in the uniform of the Pelos Guard standing to the side of the room next to the window. Seated in front of Roslyn's desk was Ballard, looking tired and drawn. My heart leapt at the sight of him. I kept my face schooled in a mask of concerned confusion, however. It wasn't that hard. From this point forward I had no idea how things would play out. I noticed with some relief that Ballard was not restrained in any way, nor did the guards seem to be watching him as if he was a suspect. When we entered the guards hastily removed their caps and bowed their heads to us.
"My ladies," one of them said in a deep and sad voice. He clutched his cap between his hands. "I am so sorry to be the bearer of this horrible news."
"What news?" Roslyn demanded, moving to sit behind her desk. She gestured for me to take the free chair next to Ballard. "You said you had news concerning my son, and you show up with a ranking member of my household guard, but you haven't actually told me what you came to say yet."
"Forgive me, my lady, we thought it best to tell you in private, and you wanted to send for your lady daughter-in-law, so it seemed best to wait until you were both gathered."
"Very well, we are all here," she nodded with irritation. "Now please get on with it."
"I regret to inform you that late last evening your son and your lord husband," he turned to me, "Liam of the Stag, was found dead in the Quarter of Trade." I covered my mouth with my hand, widening my eyes in what I hoped was an appropriate amount of horror. Roslyn closed her eyes and inhaled sharply. As she exhaled slowly she pressed her hands to her eyes and I chanced a quick questioning look at Ballard. The guards were both looking at Roslyn nervously and he risked a quick nod of reassurance.
"You were with him, Ballard?" Roslyn asked, lowering her hands and folding them on her desk. Her composure was shaken but she seemed to have a firm grip on her emotions.
"Yes, my lady," he answered.
"Would you care to explain how it is that my son is dead? And why he was in the Quarter of Trade in the middle of the night?"
"He was meeting with two parties in a shop, my lady. He did not explain the situation to me, but they seemed to have information they planned to use against him and the Stag." Ballard began. I thought I saw what he was doing.
"Blackmail?" Roslyn asked sharply. He nodded again. She sat back thoughtfully, gesturing for him to continue.
"Yes, my lady. He said he had need of a guard and that we must move in complete secrecy. I arranged the guard schedule so that we would not be seen leaving or returning and then accompanied him to a tavern in the Quarter of Trade, where we left our horses and proceeded on foot to an alley a few blocks away. He headed to a cellar door in the alley and left me stand guard outside while he went below. After a short time I heard the sounds of a struggle and I went into the cellar to investigate. I found my lord fighting with a man holding a knife and another man pulling out a pistol. My lord seemed to be holding his own with the man who held the knife so I attacked the man with the pistol, trying to disarm him. During our struggle he managed to fire the pistol into the air before I got the gun from his hand and was able to subdue him."
"I went to aid my lord to find both he and the other blackmailer collapsed on the ground. The blackmailer was on top and I pulled him off to find that my lord had managed to wrest the knife from his attacker and open his gut." I sucked in my breath in surprise. That hadn't happened! But if Ballard was including it in his story, that meant he had.... He avoided looking at me as he continued. "My lord was not moving, though, and upon closer inspection I saw that he was dead. The bullet from the gunshot must have ricocheted off of something in the cellar and struck him even as he killed his attacker." All was silent for a few moments.
"Well?" Roslyn asked the guards, turning to them with an arched eyebrow.
"My lady?" The one who had spoke before answered, though he seemed unsure of what he was being asked.
"How do you fit into this?"
"Ah. Right. Well, we heard the gunshot, my lady. We were a few blocks away, and it took us a bit to find the source of it. We finally found it when this young lad here," he indicated Ballard, "ran out into the street shouting for help."
"I see." She said. "And the other attacker, you have him in your custody." The guard looked uncomfortable. "What is it?" She asked impatiently, turning a sharp gaze on the guard. "Did he get away?" Ballard cleared his throat and her head swiveled to face him.
"In my haste to aid my lord, I fear I might have been a bit excessively...forceful when subduing the man." Her eyebrows shot up. I stared at him in astonishment, my jaw falling open. Oh Ballard, what have you done?
"His neck was broke clean, my lady," the guard added. Ballard looked sheepish, but I caught just a hint of satisfaction beneath the facade. I closed my eyes, trying to fight the surge of nausea that coursed through me. The penalty for murder was death. How could he so openly admit to killing Jonah? At least he's dead now, a quiet voice chirped up, and Walon too. They can't hurt you anymore. They can't tell Riordan what happened in that cellar last night, either.
"Since your man here didn't know the men your son was meeting," the other guard piped up, "we went and roused the nearest employee of the shop. He recognized them, said their names were Jonah and Walon." A calculating part of me that I hadn't even known existed seized the opportunity and I gasped quietly at the names. Just enough so that Roslyn and Ballard could hear. Roslyn looked at me sharply for a heartbeat and then turned back to the guard as he continued, "The shop man said that they worked for the owner and sometimes delivered the payroll. He claimed not to know what they were doing in the shop though, or even that they had the keys to get in."
"They must have gotten keys from the owner, then," Roslyn said speculatively, "unless there was sign of a break-in?" The guards shook their heads and she went on, "I highly doubt two delivery men would take it upon themselves to try to blackmail the heir to such a prominent House all on their own." The guards were nodding in agreement. "Who exactly owns the building?"
"We are looking into it, my lady," the first guard said. "There seem to be some irregularities with the bank's paperwork on the matter." Roslyn's eyebrows shot up once more though she said nothing. I saw connections being made behind her eyes. "We will let you know as soon as we find anything more, of course." He added. "As far as the matter of your man here," Ballard straightened in his chair and I braced myself for them to take him into custody, "given the circumstances, and the fact that he came straight to us for help, well, our captain sees no need to hold him accountable for the unfortunate death of the suspect." Roslyn nodded and Ballard relaxed slightly, a very small smirk playing about his lips. He knew that would happen! He had been playing a dangerous game though, if they hadn't believed his version of events...controlling my emotions became nearly impossible for the next few moments but I somehow managed it.
"Thank you, gentlemen." Roslyn said quietly. "Given the delicacy of the matter, I would appreciate the discretion of yourselves and your captain about the manner of my son's death. I would prefer it not be known he died during an attempt at blackmail."
"Of course, my lady," the second guard piped up. "The captain wanted us to assure you we will not publicize the events."
With that, the guards made their farewells and left, promising to keep her apprised of developments in the search for the blackmailers' employer. She saw them out personally, asking Ballard and I to remain in the office and wait for her return. As soon as she was out of earshot, I whirled on Ballard.
"What were you thinking?" I whispered furiously.
"That we couldn't risk those two getting free and talking," he said quietly, arching an eyebrow at me. "That I had to keep you safe," he added, his voice dropping even lower.
"Ballard, I..." I started to reach for him but thought better of it. Roslyn could return at any time.
"That was them, wasn't it? The two who..."
"Yes," I sighed, the relief returning.
"Good." he said firmly. "I am sorry about your hus--Liam," he said awkwardly. "If I could have gotten the gun away from that thug sooner..." I blinked at him in surprise, and then remembered that he hadn't been in the cellar when Liam had offered me up to Jonah. That was...probably for the best. I resolved to make sure Aaron and Drew didn't tell him about that little scene. Thinking of my brother reminded me.
"We did get the documents," I told him, quietly, "some of them at least. Aaron found letters implicating Riordan in the death of Denara's Magnate. I have an idea of how we can get those to Vinnis anonymously, but we're going to need to act swiftly. Jonah pulled us out of the office so fast, Riordan is sure to know we have the papers..." I trailed off when Ballard shook his head.
"I closed the safe and covered it back up, locked the office door. Hopefully that buys us some time until Riordan wonders where his lackeys are and finds out they're dead. He shouldn't go looking for any missing papers until then." I looked at him in amazement. He must have thought and acted incredibly fast to take care of Jonah and Walon and cover up evidence of our theft before chasing down the guard. I shook my head in wonderment. I had been in shock, maybe it had taken longer than I thought for him to follow us out of the cellar.
"Well," Roslyn said, slipping back into the office and disrupting my thoughts. She closed the door and sat down behind her desk again. "This is certainly distressing news, on many levels. Ballard, do you know why Liam asked you to accompany him last night?"
"I really couldn't say, my lady." His voice was even, I wondered if she would believe him. "I did have to change around the guards' schedules, maybe my ability to do so was a factor." Roslyn nodded thoughtfully. I marveled at how calm she seemed despite the deep sorrow I could see in her eyes.
"Perhaps. Do you think this had something to do with our visitors? Was Riordan behind this? Did he perhaps intend to coerce Liam into giving up Laren's brother?"
"I..." Ballard hesitated. "My lord did not explain what these men wanted to meet with him about. I did not hear any of their discussion."
"Hmph. He did like to keep things to himself, didn't he?" Roslyn muttered, displeased at the lack of information. She turned her attention to me. "Now, Laren, would you like to explain why the names of Liam's attackers surprised you so?"
"The men who took me last spring, my lady. One of them was called Jonah."
"You knew one of their names and you never told me?" She seemed surprised.
"I was never asked, my lady," I said honestly, trying not to sound accusing. "By the time I could have talked about it, there seemed little point..." She held up a hand to stop me, sighing as she turned back to Ballard.
"Well, it seems I was wrong to deny you the chance of an investigation into Laren's abduction." I was amazed she would admit such a thing. "Was your abduction related to Riordan, I wonder?" She asked of no one in particular. "It would explain some of the oddities surrounding the event. When did you say your brother returned to Pelos?" She asked me sharply.
"Very shortly after my abduction," I said quietly. She tapped her finger to her lips.
"Hmm. I will require some further proof of course, but it sounds as if Riordan of the Griffon has quite a lot to answer for to the Stag. It seems I will need to reach out to my contact at the banks...Ballard, you will tell me exactly where this shop was." He nodded and gave her the location. "Very well, you may both go." We stood and turned to leave. "Laren, please tell your brother I will be speaking with him later this evening. After you've cleaned yourself up, I will need you in the largest sitting room. I will join you as soon as I've begun the arrangements for the memorial service, but I will have to send Prime Vinnis the news immediately, which means it will be all about Pelos before long." I paused in the doorway.
"What will you tell him, my lady?" I asked, curious as to how she would keep the true details of his death a secret.
"To Prime Vinnis I will tell the truth, otherwise I will have no support from him when I seek justice from the Griffon. To the public? Hmm. Ballard, you saw the body, how noticeable was the wound?"
"It was quite small, my lady," he said somberly. She nodded.
"I think my poor Liam went out for a late night ride and had a fall from his horse. His neck was broken instantly, I fear," she said after a moment's thought. It was not the most solid lie, but it was believable enough. Liam was known for his solitary rides. Of course, I had long since realized those were to rendezvous with his lover. Still, it was an established habit.
"As my lady says," I bowed my head to her and left, Ballard trailing quietly behind. I made my way through the manor, trying to ignore the pitying looks from the servants as I passed. I headed for my rooms and then upon ensuring that Ballard and I weren't observed, I ducked down a back stairwell and up to the third floor, reaching Aaron and Drew's rooms in short order. I knocked on the door quickly and didn't wait for the answer, pushing my way into the room, Ballard on my heels.
"Laren!" Aaron exclaimed, standing from the couch where he and Drew had clearly been waiting. They both looked shocked but relieved to see Ballard. "What is happening?"
I had Ballard explain what had happened after we left, noting the hard looks of approval on both men's faces when they learned the fate of Jonah and Walon. I then filled them in on the official story and let Aaron know that Roslyn would want to speak to him later in the evening. He looked rather alarmed at the prospect.
"I think she just wants to find out from you if Riordan was behind my abduction, and therefore behind Liam's death as well," I reassured him. "If she can confirm that, she'll take care of making sure there's not enough of him left to bother anyone ever again," I added wryly. "Just avoid letting her know we were there, and all should be well. Though if she mentions the shop and you can get her to tell you its location...maybe you can tell her about Riordan's connection to it. If we can lead her to the rest of his documents before he realizes he's in danger..."
"That could work," Drew was nodding along.
"But what about the letters I took?" Aaron asked, pulling them out of his shirt. I knew he was keeping them close until we could either get them into the right hands or decided they must be destroyed. "We can't give them to Roslyn or she'll ask how we got them...."
"Unless you tell her that those are the reason you ran," I interjected. He looked at me in surprise, understanding dawning on his face. "It hinges on when they were dated, though," I said. "If they were written after you got here, that won't work." Aaron was rifling through the letters, a smile of triumph spreading across his face.
"The latest one is dated a full two moons before we came to the Stag," he said, looking up. "Riordan can't refute when they were stolen because he'd have to admit they were his to do so. It would make sense for me to take these, because of all of the harm that did to Jade.... Look," he said, straightening up and glancing at each of us. "As far as you and Ballard are concerned, I never told you about these letters. You don't know they exist. I didn't know if I could trust you, or if I wanted to put you in that kind of danger. Now, of course, after last night's tragedy, it would only be the honorable thing to give them to her." Drew was nodding along. It occurred to me that Roslyn might vent some of her wrath at Aaron for holding on to something so vital for so long, but before I could change my mind about the idea, Ballard spoke up.
"It's a good plan, Laren," he told me quietly. "Roslyn might be angry at Aaron, but she's already admitted she should have investigated your abduction, once she finds out for sure that Riordan was behind it, she's going to hold herself just as accountable for what happened to Liam as she can hold Aaron. She'll also want to keep these two within reach in case she needs witnesses to make her case." He was right and I knew it.
"Alright, I said. Is there anything else we need to discuss?" When no one answered, I stood. "Very well then. I fear I must excuse myself. I need to make myself presentable to greet the sympathizers." I was not looking forward to that. Aaron surprised me by wrapping me up in a strong hug, and Drew pulled me into another as soon as I was released by Aaron. I gave them each a small smile. It looked as if we might have just managed to pull it off after all. I wondered if I would be able to live with the cost.
The aftermath of Liam's death was somehow even worse than that of my parents' deaths. I suppose because, while I was truly sorry Liam had died as he had, I was not sorry that he was no longer in my life. The added element of the great lie that was the official story made the whole thing even worse, somehow. Lies upon lies, and I couldn't deny their necessity.
By lunch time that first day, Kara of Stars had arrived at the Stag and firmly ensconced herself in the sitting room with Roslyn and myself. To spend the day listening to condolences for my husband's death was unpleasant; to do so with his openly grieving mistress in the same room while I was unable to force myself to shed a single tear was downright miserable. I considered it a penance for my actions though, and a rather light one at that, given the circumstances.
Near the end of the evening a frightened looking maid scurried into the room and quietly told me that a visitor was requesting to speak with me outside. Confused, I asked her who it was.
"Sebastian of Blades, my lady," she squeaked. I realized she was the same maid who had fetched me the day before. No wonder she looked so frightened. Hearing the exchange, Kara looked up and glared at me with what could only be described as disapproval. I met her gaze levelly, refusing to accept the clear rebuke.
"Oh for goodness sake Tandy, calm yourself." Roslyn said to the girl. "Please tell Sebastian he is welcome to come in and pay his condolences." Kara looked at her in indignant surprise but Roslyn steadily ignored her son's lover.
"I tried my lady," Tandy gulped. "But he says he promised not to step foot inside the manor without my lord Liam's leave and so outside he shall remain." She managed to steady her voice by the time she finished relaying the message. Kara made a disgusted noise and for once I was inclined to agree with her. As welcome as a friendly face might be, I was certainly not in the mood for Sebastian's stubbornness.
"You may as well go meet him Laren," Roslyn said, playing her hands at her temples and rubbing as if to banish a headache. "I'll thank him not to cause a scene today of all days. Besides, the hour grows late, I don't expect many more visitors." She glanced wryly at Kara, "I daresay we've got things covered in here."
"Of course my lady," I said, rising from my seat and bowing to her as I turned to leave. Kara looked torn between triumph at being acknowledged by Roslyn and scandal that I would entertain Sebastian's antics. I found him just outside the main entrance, pacing across the steps leading into the manor. My annoyance with him fell away quickly when he rushed to embrace me as I stepped out of the building.
"Laren," he breathed sadly, almost crushing me with his hug. He pushed me out to arm's length and scrutinized me carefully. "How are you holding up? I can only imagine what a confusion of emotions this must be for you." You have no idea how right you are there, I thought. I offered him a small smile of reassurance.
"I am as well as can be expected Sebastian. His death was a shock." Sebastian grunted.
"I won't tell you I'm sorry he's out of your life Laren, but..." He ran a hand through his hair. "I won't keep you, I just needed to see for my own eyes that you are alright. Please, offer Roslyn my condolences. Whatever my grievances with her son, no parent should have to suffer the loss of their child."
"You can offer them yourself, Sebastian," I told him softly. "She wanted me to remind you that your quarrel with Liam was not with the Stag, you know. Despite what Kara seems to think," I added wryly. His cerulean eyes widened.
"Kara is here?" His voice was filled with incredulity. "She has the nerve to intrude upon you today of all days?"
"She has more right than I do to mourn him, Sebastian," I chided, wrapping my arms around myself in a small hug.
"Oh Laren," he sighed and pulled me into another swift embrace. "Are you going to be alright? Truly?" He pulled back once more and searched my face. In that moment I wanted to confess, to tell him everything that had happened over the past moon. But this was neither the time nor the place. Perhaps once everything had calmed down and a new normal had been established. For the first time it crossed my mind to wonder what my place would be in the Stag now that I was no longer to be wife of its Head.
"I will be fine Sebastian," I answered him. It was not what I wanted to say, not really, but it would have to do. "I always manage to pull through, don't I?"
"That you do, my dear," he replied with a small smile. Something of my emotions must have come through because his eyes narrowed ever so slightly. He tipped my chin up and gave me a long hard look. "Once your mourning period is ended Laren, we will have a long talk, you and I. I suspect there is more to this story that I have yet to be told." I drew in a sharp breath and then nodded once in agreement. Satisfied, Sebastian released me and sketched a quick bow. "Be well, my lady," he said at a more normal volume. "I am here if you need me." With that he turned and strode down the stairs to the lawn where his horse was waiting. With a last parting wave, he was gone. I returned to Roslyn and Kara, passing along Sebastian's condolences. Roslyn nodded solemnly, again ignoring Kara's soft sound of derision. A strained silence descended over the three of us as we returned to our duty.
Roslyn lit the funeral pyre the next evening and I stood by her side the entire evening. Kara remained as well, of course. She hadn't left since she'd arrived the day before, decked out in full mourning grey.
Within a moon, Roslyn had utterly destroyed Riordan of the Griffon. She had emerged from her discussion with Aaron with flames in her eyes and had ordered a carriage to take her, along with Aaron, Drew, and Ballard, to House Prima immediately, regardless of the late hour. The letters Aaron had provided gave Vinnis incentive enough to order the prompt arrest of the Head of Griffon as well as a search of the candle shop for other damning documentation. Riordan had apparently not yet learned about Jonah and Walon's deaths and was, for perhaps the first time since he had begun his empire of crime, caught completely off guard.
Once word got around about Riordan's arrest, blackmailed parties began to come forward in (discreet) droves to testify before private courts about his activities. Not every crime he had ever committed came to light, of course, and even what was revealed was sealed to the Council of Houses. The stripping of a Head of his title, property, and wealth was apparently a matter of utmost secrecy. After weeks of investigation and private trials, Riordan was executed for treason against Pelos and its people. Because of the seriousness of his crimes the House of the Griffon was dissolved completely.
Gossip was rampant, but so far as I know, the true details behind the series of events, or anything even close to them, never came to light. I was at once both amazed and disgusted by the way the nobility of Pelos rallied to protect the dirty secrets of its membership in order to keep its own reputation from becoming tarnished by association. Still, Riordan was dead, and his network of spies and criminals destroyed. Maybe some other noble would take up the mantle in his place, but building a new shadow empire would take time.
Spring was starting to peek through the foggy curtain of winter once more when Roslyn called me to her office one morning. I went with a sort of curious dread. She had hardly spoken to me since Liam's funeral. I passed Kara in the corridor on my way, she had taken up permanent residence in the Stag, it seemed. She seemed oddly at peace and did not appear to notice me as our paths crossed. I noted that, while a moon had passed and I had just given up the mourning grey, Kara was still early in the cycle, dressed in a deep grey dress.
"Please shut the door and sit down, dear," Roslyn said when I entered her office. I did as she asked. She did not waste any time before looking at me and saying, "Laren, I dislike being so frank, but I must ask you, are you with child?" I blinked for a few moments. It certainly hadn't been a question I had been expecting, although, maybe I should have been. With Liam dead the line of the Stag had ended, unless he had managed to produce an heir before he had been killed. "No, Roslyn," I said softly, shaking my head. My womanly burden had only recently ended, I knew it was not possible. She sat back, a sad frown on her face. "I am sorry," I said. "I wish I had a different answer for you.
"As do I, Laren, as do I. Very well." She absentmindedly fingered some official looking documents on her desk. "It pains me to have to tell you this, but I see no other choice. It seems Liam and Kara were not as careful as they should have been, and she is three moons along." I sat up a little straighter in my chair. She couldn't mean what I thought she did! "I will acknowledge the child as Liam's and he will be named my heir when he is born. Kara will come to live here and raise the child under my supervision. Vinnis has already approved of the measures, and Kara's father has agreed to give legal custody of the child to the Stag."
I turned my head away, closing my eyes. I supposed it was a good thing for the Stag, there would be no doubt that the child was Liam's by anyone in society. I had no delusions that he would not have much preferred a child of his making with Kara to follow in his footsteps if he had ever been given the choice of the matter. Had he known? Was that why he had been so agitated in the time before his death? Was that why he had been so quick to irritation with me, and to give me up as a lost cause? It galled me more than I cared to admit that Roslyn appeared to have already made all of the arrangements, as if she had expected me to fail in my most important duty as her son's wife.
"What if the child is a girl?" It was all that I could think to say in that moment. Roslyn heaved a sigh. Perhaps she had expected an outburst of some sort from me. I felt a twinge of disappointment. I would have thought she knew me better than that by now. Odd that I still worried about how well she thought of me, after all that had happened.
"That contingency has been thought of," Roslyn replied. "If that is the case, she will be betrothed to a suitable member of the House, far enough removed in relations to avoid a scandal. There are already a few candidates in mind, boys young enough to be brought up here and taught what they will need to know to run the House and as soon as she is of age they will be married. Her children will inherit and Liam's blood will continue to control the Stag."
I shook my head in disgust. This poor child. It had been conceived out of Liam's desire to take what he wanted in his life, and it would have to be the one to suffer the consequences for that decision. Selfish as I might think Liam's actions, I at least understood them. He had found love, and he wasn't willing to let it go. I hoped his child was benefitted the same opportunity, though I feared it would not be so.
"And what of me?" I asked quietly, my mind finally settling on the question it had been avoiding. "I can't imagine it will do anything other than stoke the fires of gossip to have Liam's mistress raising their child in the Stag while his widow haunts the manor."
"No." Roslyn said simply, "You are right about that. While I do not believe that you would ever try to undermine the validity of Liam's heir, there are those that might rally around you as a focal point for resistance if they do not like the future course of things. Your presence here and in the city will only serve to remind society of the child's unorthodox origins, which will make life rather difficult for the child in question. You can't return to the House of the Jade because you would still be a figure of much curiosity." I closed my eyes again. I had faintly hoped that my family home might be an option, but hadn't really expected it to be the case. I suspected what she would say next. I was, of course, wrong. "So, Laren, this means you have a choice." My eyes flew open and I stared at her in confusion.
"A choice?" I asked, trying to understand.
"Yes. Similar situations are, sadly, not unprecedented in Pelos' history. The normal solution is to pack the lawful wife away to a private estate in Denara or Dumais, or to send her to 'manage' one of the House farms or plantations outside of the city. The Stag possesses a small farm in the southwest corner of Pelos, beyond the Quarter of Citizens. You may retire there, where you would live out the remainder of your life managing the farm and staying out of the city proper."
"And my other option?" I asked tentatively.
"I have informed your brother and his companion that they will be leaving the House of the Stag, and Pelos, first thing tomorrow morning." I had fallen back into my chair in resignation but now I shot forward again in surprise. I knew they would have to leave soon, but I was not ready for it to be so sudden a departure. "I cannot have them here any longer," Roslyn continued, "I am, in fact, amazed we have been able to keep their presence a secret for so long, necessary as it was. For their part in helping to bring the man behind both my son's murder and your abduction to justice, I have given them each a horse from the stables as well as enough coin to secure passage on a ship headed out of Pelos, and a little bit of extra coin as well, for their trouble. You may go with them."
"You would let me...just go?" I asked in amazement.
"There would be conditions, of course," she said, raising her eyebrows. "You would have to agree never to set foot in Pelos again, and to cut off correspondence with any residents. No one can know where you have really gone."
"Where I've really gone?"
"Of course I can't have it get out that my son's widow fled the city in the wake of me declaring his mistress' child my heir," she told me. "Officially, you will be sent to that farm, and in a moon or two, you will contract an illness and die quietly in isolation. For all intents and purposes, you will be legally dead. At least in Pelos." I nodded to myself. It would minimize scandal and crush the hope of anyone who wanted to resist the new heir's validity.
"What of the Stag's agreements with Jade?" I asked.
"They would stay in place," she promised. "I will uphold them. You acted in good faith to fulfill your obligations as Liam's wife. You have done nothing to tarnish the reputation of this House despite how difficult my son might have made that for you. I will keep my bargains with your family. Jade will not suffer from these events. You will, of course, receive the same gifts as your brother and his companion, I will not have you leave here with nothing." I mulled it over. "If you needed any further incentive," she said after a few moments, "I feel I must also tell you that I have dismissed Ballard from the House guard."
"What?" I exclaimed, nearly shooting out of my chair.
"He was given a generous retirement pay," she said, smiling slightly. I slowly settled back into my chair. "As a final favor to me, he has agreed to accompany your brother and his companion on their journey, to ensure that they are safely established wherever they choose to settle." She sat back and laced her fingers together under her nose. Her eyes sparkled as she peered at me. My own widened in instant understanding.
She knows! Oh by the flame, she does! How long...?
"Ballard's infatuation with you was quite plain to me shortly after you arrived here, Laren." Her voice was soft and kind. "I assigned him to your personal guard as much because I knew he would be fervent in his protection as because he knew the truth of what you had been through. I was rather surprised it took you two as long to submit to your feelings as it did, to be honest." I could only stare at her in shock. "I thought maybe you deserved a chance at some happiness of your own," she added in an even softer voice.
I looked down at my lap, unsure of what to say. We sat there for quite some time in silence. Eventually I cleared my throat and looked up at her.
"I will go with Aaron and the others," I said, standing. Roslyn nodded. I turned to go and then stopped, turning back. "For what it is worth, Roslyn," I told her sadly, "in many ways you have been more a mother to me than my own ever was. I wish that things had happened differently." She said nothing, only sat there watching me sadly, so I opened the door and stepped into the corridor. As I closed the door behind me I thought I caught a very soft reply.
"So do I, dear. So do I."
I returned to my rooms and looked around them. Less than two cycles I had called them home, and yet, I was afraid to leave. Still, I was being given a chance to finally make my own decisions as to how my life would go. I could not pass it by, especially when the alternative was a life in solitude, never to see any of those I loved or cared for again.
That thought prompted me to pull out some stationary. I sat down at the table and composed a quick letter to Sebastian. I let him know that I was leaving for the farm the next day. I sent my regrets that I could not say goodbye to him in person and my thanks to him for being a true friend to me. I wished that I could tell him the whole story, as I had all but promised to do, but it could never be put in a letter. I asked him to make my farewells to Nathaniel and Madge for me and to convey my fondest wishes for their happiness, and his. Sadly, I informed him that I would not be allowed to correspond with anyone from my retirement. I signed the letter and sealed it carefully, trying not to let myself cry. I had made my decision, and there was no use worrying about regrets now.
I had no desire to start packing yet so instead I left my rooms again and took the letter to a messenger to be delivered. Then, for the first time, I went to the guards' quarters. They were rather empty at this time of day and I wandered about for a bit before I located Ballard's room. His door was open and I could hear him muttering to himself as he rifled through his belongings, no doubt deciding what to take with him on his journey. Our journey. I knocked on the doorframe and he turned around to face his visitor.
"Laren!" He exclaimed. "What are you doing here? If someone sees you..."
"I do not think Roslyn can dismiss you twice in one day, my love," I said quietly.
"You know." He said, resignation entering his voice as he sat down on the end of his bed.
"I was called to Roslyn's office a little while ago," I answered, "she told me you are leaving, and where you are going." He looked up at me, his eyes pleading for understanding.
"She can't let me stay, you know," he told me, clearly hoping I would understand, "I know the truth about how Liam died. She can't risk me ever telling that to anyone, even if she knows it would have to be forced from me. The guards who found him have already been reassigned to the prison outside of the city. They won't have a chance to talk to anyone there." I hadn't known that bit. "At least this way I will be able to keep your brother and Drew safe," he said. "You won't have to worry about them. I can give you that much, at least."
"Kara is with child," I told him. He frowned and cocked his head to one side at this apparently random addition to the conversation.
"What does that have to do with--"
"It's why Roslyn wanted to see me. She's going to acknowledge the child as the heir." I could see a flare of indignation in his eyes, he was offended on my behalf. I fought down a laugh and continued. "Of course, that means I cannot remain in Pelos." He frowned again, and then looked up at me, hope dawning in his eyes. "I was given a choice. Retire to a farm and be permanently exiled from Pelos and isolated from society, or leave with Aaron and never return. After enough time has passed, Roslyn would put out the story that I died of illness."
"Does that mean...?"
"Yes, I am coming with you." I couldn't help it, I beamed at him. He rushed forward and scooped me up in his arms, spinning me around in a circle. He grabbed my hands in his own and leaned his forehead against mine.
"I would never have thought...is it wrong to be happy that all of this happened? That it gave us the chance for this?" He asked me.
"As long as we never forget the cost of what it took to get here," I told him quietly, "I think we are in the right. We just cannot ever squander what we have been given." He nodded and leaned down to kiss me.
After a moment he jerked back suddenly. I looked a question at him and he hastily stepped to the door, pushing it shut and locking it. Then he pulled me back into his arms and kissed me again. This kiss was full of hunger and desire and I suddenly realized how long it had been since we had been together. We began pawing at each other's clothing, removing just enough to complete the coupling. It was over with quickly, and had been more about scratching an itch than experiencing one another. But we have all the time we need to make up for it now, I told myself, smiling softly as we straightened our clothing.
"I should go," I told him. "I am having lunch with Aaron and Drew. I need to tell them that I will be joining your little party. Would you care to join us?"
"I can't," he shook his head. "I need to finish packing and make arrangements to see that my replacement is sufficiently prepared to take over." He reached over and brushed a lock of hair from my face. "But perhaps I might join the three of you for dinner?" I nodded happily and took my leave.
As I made my way to the third floor I began mentally planning what I would pack for my exile. I would have to leave most of my books behind, pity though it was, but surely there would be new books wherever we ended up.
The next morning dawned warm and clear. Not exactly ideal for sneaking away unseen into exile, but it fit my mood well enough. The sun was barely peeking over the top of the trees as we four made our way once more from the House of the Stag in secrecy. We faced our coming venture with no less uncertainty than the last, but at least this time we had some assurance of a happy ending.
We reached the main road and stopped short at the sight of a cloaked man on horseback waiting at the entrance to the estate. When he saw us, he pulled back his hood and I was shocked to see that it was Sebastian.
"Well, now, I was starting to worry that I'd missed you," he said jovially. Aaron and Drew looked at each other in concern and then to me and Ballard. I noticed that Sebastian's saddle bags were full and he had a large satchel hanging from his back. Ballard simply shook his head and I realized he was shaking with suppressed laughter. Had he expected this?
"Sebastian! What are you doing here?" I said, bringing my horse next to his so we did not have to raise our voices. Drew cocked his head to one side, surveying Sebastian carefully. I remembered Drew him telling me of speculation that I might take up an affair with Sebastian, and my insistence that we were close friends but nothing more. Drew seemed to approve of whatever he saw, because he relaxed in his saddle after a few moments. I saw Aaron follow suit.
"Why, I am coming with you, my dear Laren," he said, as if his answer were obvious. "Assuming that your guard does not object, of course?" He glanced at Ballard, who simply waved a hand in acceptance, still struggling to hold in his laughter. I glared at him, but it did no good.
"You are planning to accompany me into retirement on a farm?" I asked pointedly. "I can't imagine your father will approve of that, or the gossip it will spawn."
"You obviously are not retiring to a farm, Laren." I raised my eyebrows at him. "Even if your letter hadn't made me suspicious enough, on top of the word spreading around Pelos of Kara's condition, the state in which you are leaving the Stag is a clear indication."
"But...you couldn't have known that" I protested.
"True." He said, smirking, "But you have just confirmed it." I growled in frustration. Aaron and Drew were grinning now as well. Ballard had given up his internal struggle and was chuckling quietly. What was I getting myself into? I had one last chance to talk him out of this madness.
"What of your family Sebastian? We leave in exile, we will never return to Pelos. I am forbidden from corresponding with anyone here once I am gone, as terms of my agreement with Roslyn."
"Well, you may have noticed that my father has a few extra sons, and it is not as if I am his favorite. So he can hardly begrudge me going out to explore the world." He shrugged, "I have simply grown weary of this city and my inability to find happiness here, so I am off to seek my own fortune. He was quite understanding about it, really." Sebastian grinned. "Besides, I am under no constriction against returning to Pelos. Should I choose to come back again, I will know where you are and that you are safe and, hopefully, happy. I can discreetly assure your other friends of this as well."
I had no argument against that. So I just sighed and nodded my head in acceptance.
"Excellent! Now that we've gotten past that, perhaps some introductions are necessary?" He glanced at Aaron and Drew.
"Sebastian of Blades, may I introduce my brothers Aaron and Drew?" Drew looked sharply at me at the introduction. It was true enough though, and after a moment he smiled and nodded at me. Sebastian looked at the two of them carefully for a few moments, glancing between myself and Aaron and then surveying Drew. After a moment understanding seemed to dawn and he nodded as well.
"Very pleased to make your acquaintances," he told them, bowing his head. "Now," he looked up again and clapped his hands together lightly. "Where are we going?"
"South," Aaron said, speaking up for the first time. "We had best hurry, too, if we mean to catch the next ship out."
We turned our horses down the main street and made our way to the docks. Aaron and Drew led and Sebastian fell behind to the rear, leaving Ballard riding beside me. I glanced at him and smiled. He smiled back, reaching over to grab my hand. We rode like that for some time, moving apart as we reached the docks. Within the hour we had secured passage south down the river through the Wildlands. As the ship left Pelos I stood at the bow with my strange wonderful family around me, watching our future approach while the sun climbed into the sky.