Promise that forever we will never get better at growing up and learning to lie I’m on my way back home now. Good lives are gold, like the oldest story. Will mine be told while I’m still young and horney? I know my role is to be a confusion. Set the clock back when I’m growing old
Hybel 2nd, 1513 – Finessa Estate, River Sulis, Lothianshire, Albion
Knowing it would be all too brief, but enjoying it all the more for the brevity, Firenze Finessa, known to most as “Squeak” pulled his wife a little closer to his side. It was a bright, sunny summer day, his younger three children were here, and they were expecting company in the form of old friends who’d be staying for a few days. If he thought about it that way he could almost forget all of the stress that came with why their company was coming, of what was happening here.
“I should double check the linens.” Lianne murmured.
“The house keeper is quite competent, my love. Everything will be perfect.” He kissed her nose and she giggled like the girl of fourteen he had first met, not the woman of forty-one she was now.
“It’s like you forget who is coming.” Lianne pouted slightly.
“Your cousin.” He pointed out blandly tapping her pouty lower lip. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, we’re excused on the grounds of being family.” Lianne smiled and shook her head but made no move to get up and check the linens–or on the dinner preparations or on the parlor maids, so Squeak figured that he had won the argument, though he wouldn’t say that to her, especially not when she levered herself up off the cushion and settled onto his lap.
“Ugh.” The twins said at the same time as they did, sometimes. “You know,” Severus said turning toward Charlie.
“If we’re going to meet up with the lads at the pub, we should probably get going.” Charlie agreed.
“Boys, you’re not even going to be here when they arrive?” Lianne asked.
“We can get clucked over–”
“–And told how grown up we are–”
“And how handsome and like our father we look when we get back, because you know we will.”
“I’ve practically got the speech memorized.” Charlie told her.
“Well, you boys are very handsome and it never hurts to be told so by a beautiful woman.” Lianne said, more as a way of extending the protest so they wouldn’t think she was agreeing than anything else.
“Family doesn’t count.” Charlie said after exchanging a look with Severus.
“You’ve been spending too much time with your brother.”
“We’re twins, it was bound to happen.” Severus reminded her. Lianne just shook her head before nuzzling against Squeak’s neck. “Ugh.” The twins said again on their way out of the parlor.
Vivi continued to sullenly plunk away at the upright ignoring her parents. He wasn’t sure if it was insistence that she practice the piano that had her glaring and sullen or something else. It was no secret that Vivi didn’t care for the piano–nor did the piano seem to particularly care for Vivi as it snuck a sour note into her song.
“Mum, dad, you might want to stop sucking face, the king is here.” Severus’ impertinent comment accompanied another sour note from the piano.
“The King? Is that all I am? A hatrack for a crown?” Hector’s familiar voice came from the entry. “And what about your aunt?”
“Sorry, Uncle Hector.” Severus said.
“Oh, you two look so grown up and handsome, aren’t the twins handsome, Hector?” Lynnette’s voice came a moment later. “You look more like your father every time I see you.” He could imagine that Lynnette was distributing kisses on the cheek and Hector shaking hands and giving hugs, the twins trying to pile toward the door and the flow of royalty pushing them back into the house.
“And I keep telling you, Lynnette, I’m not the best judge of handsome men. I’ll trust your judgment there.” Hector told his wife, as he did every time she asked him that.
“See you later, Mum! Dad!” Charlie called a moment before the door shut.
“They’re leaving?” Lynnette asked, sounding puzzled.
“Aye, they made plans to meet a few of their mates at the pub. That’s teenagers for you.” Squeak said from the doorway to the parlor. “Your majesty.” He bowed lowly to his king who rolled his eyes. Hector’s hair had gone completely white over the past few years, but his face was still boyish and nearly unlined.
“Baron Finessa.” Hector inclined his head regally. “Oh, damn me, Squeak. It’s good to see you. Even if the circumstances are pretty lousy.” He didn’t get a chance to say anything more about the circumstances, even if he were inclined to as his wife and Squeak saw each other and suddenly the small entry was filled with the sounds of bird-like chatter.
“You would swear that those two hadn’t seen each other in years, when I will swear to you, I saw they together just last week.” Hector commented shaking his head before extending his arms toward Squeak. After hugging and back pounding and general good-to-see-you comments, both Squeak and Lianne’s attention was turned to the other occupant of the hall.
Nathaniel had been much blonder as a child, however, he had apparently grown into the Pendragon copper. Though Squeak wasn’t a lot better at truly judging how handsome a man was than Hector was, but Nathaniel had no obvious flaws of face except a scar on one cheek. Squeak wasn’t sure which of the innumerable accidents had caused said scar. The boy had spent years trying to grow into those long legs and arms and was only very recently managing to catch up to them.
“Nathaniel. Oh, it is so good to see you! I wish the circumstances had been happier, it’s been so long.” Lianne drew the young prince in for a long hug. “You look so grown up and handsome. Doesn’t he look handsome, Squeak?” Squeak choked back a laugh that he didn’t want to explain. He had no idea if his wife and Lianne did that on purpose, or if their thoughts just ran along the same line, but they did always say that when they were confronted with one of the other’s children, at least the boys, the girls were “lovely” rather than “handsome” most of the time.
“Is it just Nathaniel then?” Lianne asked, drawing back.
“Clarys may be coming with Matilda, if they make it, but her cat was just starting to birth a litter when we were leaving. We couldn’t ask her to leave the cat.”
“More Father crumpled when confronted with Clarys’ teary eyes.” Nathaniel murmured.
“Well, aye.” Hector coughed into his hand.
“And Sebastien–well, he’s going through a sensitive phase, I didn’t know that exposing him to so many grieving people would be good for him.” Lynnette finished. Squeak quirked an eyebrow at Hector, who shook his head just slightly. They’d talk about it later, he imagined.
Vivi’s playing from the parlor suddenly wandered terribly off key as if to remind them that she was there.
“Is that Vivi?” Lynnette asked. Squeak and Lianne both nodded.
“So I’m guessing Piano Virtuoso is not Vivi’s chosen career path?” Hector asked.
“Hector, honestly.” The queen frowned sourly at her husband. “Be nice.”
“What, mother?” Vivi called back, still poking at the piano. Hector mouthed “mother?” and it was Squeak’s turn to shake his head to indicate they’d talk about it later.
“Aren’t you going to come say hello?” Lianne asked.
“Fine.” Her song–such as it was–came to a sudden jarring halt.
“Though, I don’t suppose we have to keep you out here in the entry.” Lianne said, coloring slightly. “There’s really no reason for it.”
“No beautiful chambermaids you want to keep an old lech away from working on the cobwebs in the corners?” Hector asked so solemnly you’d almost think he was serious, except the sparkle in his green eyes.
“Hector.” Lynnette poked her husband with an elbow as they all piled toward the door. Vivi had come about half across the parlor only to stop short when she saw Nathaniel behind Squeak and Hector. Her eyes narrowed slightly.
“Oh, Nathaniel,” Lianne said, “I don’t suppose you even really remember our daughter, Vivianne.”
“I–remember her as well as can be expected.” He dropped his lashes to hide his blue eyes for a moment. Vivi’s expression remained unchanging.
“Vivi, this is Prince Nathaniel Pendragon, Nathaniel, this is our daughter Lady Vivianne Finessa.” Lianne introduced formally. Nathaniel extended his hand to Vivi as if expecting to shake, then seemed to remember that this was a lady and one usually kissed the hand of ladies. Vivi, her lips tightening slightly, extended her hand for a shake. Nathaniel’s cheek flushed slightly and he took a half-step back before speaking.
“A pleasure to remake your acquaintance, Lady Vivianne.”
“I guess you can call me Vivi.” She seemed to dismiss him with that as she turned to her mother. “Mother, now that I’m finished with my piano practice, I have a book I’d like to finish so that I can return it to the library tomorrow.” She said.
Lianne looked at Squeak who shrugged. “All right, Vivi. Well, come in, everyone, make yourself comfortable.” She gestured around at the parlor.
Nathaniel took the chair that faced the fireplace, Lianne and Lynnette sitting down next to each other on the settee. Vivi walked out, without even a glance at Nathaniel. That had gone well.
“Well, how about a drink,” Squeak offered Hector by way of excusing them from the parlor. Hector nodded.
“Well, don’t get drunk. I remember all to well when that happened.” Lianne said primly. Lynnette nodded in agreement. Hector chuckled as they walked out of the parlor, into the hall and into Squeak’s study.
Hector paused in the doorway, looking around. “How is it that your wife never notices your paranoia? It never fails to amaze me.” He said upon closing the door.
“Whatever do you mean?” Squeak asked.
“Do you really think that I haven’t noticed that, while they are an excellent example of Sminese paper panels, that there are only two windows and they’re both up there?” Hector jerked his chin at the windows above the fireplace and the bookshelf nook. Squeak shrugged and snagged a bottle of wine at random from below the bar before uncorking it and pouring a couple of glasses.
“Or how bout the fact that there is no seat in this room that doesn’t have something behind it?”
“Paranoia keeps me alive, Hector.” Squeak shrugged.
“But in your own home, in your study?” Hector sank into one of the chairs by the fireplace and Squeak joined him, leaving the wine where it was, it was really only there for verisimilitude, they were working and only the sloppy drank while they worked.
“If you’re going to insist on sending me to live in dens of snakes, I’m going to probably continue to be paranoid.” Squeak told him bluntly.
“Is it that bad here?”
“I felt more comfortable when you sent me into Tower Prison as a prisoner to get to the bottom of that mess with Patron Cassidy.” Squeak said bluntly. “Jayson of Carico would slit his own mother’s throat if it served his purpose.”
Hector’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Anything I can use?”
“Unfortunately no. Hearsay, guesses, rumors, the fucker is damnably good at covering his tracks.” Squeak shook his head.
“So this thing with Rance?”
“Well, you know that brothel I told you about?” Squeak asked.
“The one they populate with slaves who probably aren’t as old as they’re purported to be and they call them after animals or something?” Hector asked.
“There’s no probably about it. I’ve been there, once, Hector. The average age of someone working there is somewhere between my Vivi and the twins. But they have kids as young as five or six working upstairs.” Hector stared at Squeak for a long moment.
“Surely you jest, Cousin.” Hector said almost pleadingly.
“I wouldn’t joke about something like that.” Squeak reminded him.
“I was afraid you were going to say something like that. Though I’m not sure joking about something like that is that much better than saying it in seriousness.” Hector passed a hand in front of his eyes. “Continue, obviously this has something to do with Rance.”
“He went there. I was actually at the tavern across the street watching Carico’s steward, who also frequents the place. Are you sure we can’t do anything about that place?”
“If I dared.” Hector sighed. “But with the new lord of Rance being a twelve year old boy, who I’m told they’re having trouble finding a guardian for the estate.”
“Doesn’t he have a mother?”
“Who is Reman-born, with family close to the border. The Remans are still none to happy about the fact that we are both currently sitting in Albion and not in Reme.” Hector sighed. “And with Rance being close to the border, there are advisors who truly think that if I let Adelina Rance guardian her own son, I might as well gift Rance to the Remans, they’d come in that quick.”
“And he has no relatives who aren’t Reman?”
“Rance has a brother–somewhere–but no one knows where he is. He’s been in the wind since graduating from Camford two years ago. He might have gone into Reme, he might have gone into Glasonland, he might still be in Albion under another name, he might be in Smina for all I know.”
“Hmmm, much younger brother?” Squeak asked.
“Apparently, Rance was older than you and his brother would be twenty-four or so.” Hector shrugged. “Why?”
“Just thinking about where he liked to spend his spare time. And–I’ve heard that he likes to break them.” Squeak told his king with a sour taste in his mouth.
“Wright. I hope it’s just a fight over money, I don’t know if I can handle knowing a man I saw on a regular basis raped his own baby brother.” Hector passed a hand over his eyes.
“I’m not sure that I think that raping someone else’s baby brother is any better, Hector.” Squeak pointed out. Hector sighed and bowed his head.
“As an answer to your question, the last thing I need to do is start prodding across the border right now. Is Henry black or white?” Hector asked.
“White as a bloody lily, cousin.”
“You’re sure?” Squeak looked at Hector flatly.
“If the whole thing doesn’t implode, which it admittedly might, I’m marrying my heir off to Henry’s eldest. Plus the rest of my kids are tight with two of his. I know him pretty well. He doesn’t have a devious bone in his body. I wouldn’t have thought that a good-hearted, kind, hardworking man could make it as a diplomat, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about him. His wife has the personality of a cow-demon, but he’s white as snow.” Squeak told him.
“Then if I slipped into a dispatch or two to let something like that fall in appropriate ears, he’d do it?”
“He’s got an eight year old daughter,” Squeak sighed. “Most fathers would.”
“Rance?” Hector asked.
“And Cox–and I’m sure more of those bloody bastards who frequent the place.” Squeak told him. Hector nodded with a sigh. “And that’s not even touching Jayson.”
“Oh–no. Okay, what about Jayson?”
“I’ve heard rumors, just rumors, mind, that Rance’s death might not have been an accidental lightning strike.”
“You fill me with dread–say on.”
“The official story is Rance was struck by lightning while riding. But his horse is fine. So he wasn’t on his horse when he was struck. He had guards in the park with him. But they were not by his side when he was struck. They didn’t get to where he was until he was already dead and I talked to one of the nuns from the hospital. Rance would have still been alive for probably five-ten minutes after he was struck. So his guards were, say ten minutes away. Why do you take guards with you and then go off on your own?” Squeak asked. Hector just watched him.
“Plus, again, according to the official story, the lightning startled the horse of Lady Elizabet, Carico’s daughter, and she was thrown. So why did Elizabet’s horse spook and not Rance’s horse who was, I’m told, calmly grazing nearby his body. And–this is hearsay because I haven’t seen the girl or the body, but I’m told, it looks more like Elizabet got in a fight, bruises where they’d be if someone hit you not where you’d get them if you were thrown. And Rance’s nose was broken and he looked kinda worked over himself. And nobody’s saying he was thrown.”
Hector steepled his fingers and looked into the middle distance for a minute. “Would Elizabet fight if someone attacked her?”
“Elizabet would punch out St. Robert if she had reason to. Someone attacking you sounds like reason to me.” Squeak told him.
“Is there any chance Rance could have come up with the harebrained scheme to attack Elizabet on her own?” Hector asked in a pained tone.
“Think about what you know about Jayson of Carico, then ask yourself would you want to be the one who raped his daughter?” Squeak drew his mouth into a hard line.
“Fuck. Me.” Hector said pounding his forehead with a fist. “Do you have any good news for me? Any at all?”
“So, did you solve all the world’s problems?” Lynnette asked as they sat down to dinner later.
“Nah, just drank and shot the breeze, mostly.” Squeak told her. “What are you looking at, Hector?”
“This book–what’s it doing in a display case?”
“I’m told that my ancestors brought it out from Underhill. I have no idea whether it’s true or not, after all, being sales people is kinda in the blood and we tend to exaggerate for effect, but that’s what I’m told.” Squeak told him.
“So why is it in a display case?” Hector repeated as he took a seat at the table.
“Well, I just thought it was the custom of the land to keep odd things on display. After all, our neighbor keeps a dead relative as a paperweight in his study.”
“I think it’s a bookend, daddy.” Vivi disagreed.
“What? Either way, how do you even keep a dead relative as either!”
“There’s a funerary jar–with ashes in it–on the console in the baron’s study.” Lianne told him. “There are all sorts of rumors, but the most persistent one is that one of his uncles sided with the Remans when the Baron’s father was trying to retake River Sulis, he was killed in the battle and because he was considered a traitor, he was not buried in the family crypt. And that is–supposedly–the ashes that Baron Jayson keeps in his study.”
“Has anyone ever asked him about it?”
“Of course. He just looks at you and asks if he really seems the sort of man who would keep a dead uncle’s ashes in his study and use it as a bookend.” Squeak admitted. “Then he just changes the subject.”
“Does he seem like the sort of man who would keep a dead uncle’s ashes and use them as a book end?” Nathaniel asked. Squeak and Lianne looked at each other for a long moment.
“Yes.” Vivi put in finally. “Yes, yes, he does.”