Chapter 15: The Tryst
While keeping a pleasant expression on her face, Parynna slipped into a quiet alcove where three of her maids waited. They each had brown hair that had been cut short as punishment for displeasing their mistress. “I have a reward for whichever of you succeeds in the following task. I require dirt on the dowager Lady Schlussels. She has offended me. The winner gets her pick of the new groomsmen as husband, plus ten thousand baden, and choice of her new assignment within Caswell. Or, freedom to leave my domain and two thousand baden. I know all three of you wish to leave me. However, you are mine until I release you.”
The three young women bowed. Two of them openly showed fear. The last, Sahdaya, glanced up with a flash of defiance, until she locked eyes with her ladyship. Then the girl gulped, dropping her head again.
“I see all three of you are sensible. The incriminating evidence I require must be significant enough that I can blackmail that old harridan. Go!”
Shadaya, least loved of Parynna’s personal maids, absentmindedly tucked her hair behind her ear as if it were still long enough. She made her way quickly through the crowd, seeking her grandmother. The old woman had once been the Earl’s nanny. He still doted on her, which irked Parynna, so she made the aging servant’s life as difficult as possible.
Slipping through a corridor near the kitchens, Shadaya found her grandma doing menial work. With an imperious look she announced, “My lady has need of you.” Then she drew the old woman to her feet and out of sight. “We have a chance! Lady Parynna has taken great affront to some dowager. If I can dig up something, anything sufficient to blacken the dowager’s name, we can be free of this place.”
“Shadaya, you cannot trust her. Whatever she’s promised, she’ll twist. Let one of the other’s ‘win’ this competition.”
“One of… how did you know that Lady Parynna gave the task to three of us?”
“It’s her way to pit you against each other. To get you to act without thinking. What has she promised?”
“A husband, money and choice of assignmen—”
“Within Caswell, no doubt. The winner won’t escape her clutches. She never lets go. Once she has you in her claws, the only release is death.”
“She also promised freedom and baden. Enough we could—.”
“You mean enough to pay the assassin she’d send after us.”
“Shadaya, how can you still be so naïve? You’re a good girl, but far too trusting. Still, perhaps there is a way out. Who is the countess’ latest prey?”
“Lady Schlussels. She’s a distant relative who arrived only hours ago. No one seems to know much about her. Apparently, a Caswell married into their line a generation or two back.”
“Schlussels…?” The old woman smiled. “I remember the name. Do as I say and things will be alright.”
“Yes, grandma.” Shadaya wondered what she knew.
“The first thing you need to do is…”
Being seated at one of the high tables was something Rebekah had not anticipated. She had intended to slip away before the feast began. However, Drake himself had sought her out and escorted her to a far too prominent – and visible – location, sitting only one tier below the bride, groom, and their hosts.
If that were not enough, seated to her left was one of the gossipy dowagers with whom she’d watched the wedding. While, on her right, was a disguised James of the Wood.
What are you doing here? Blast, I don’t even know what name you’re using. My maid was driven off before she could learn even that.
“Lady Millya Schlussels,” James began as he rose to his feet and bowed, almost convincingly, “it was not my intention to impose on this momentous day. The earl’s servant thought it fitting. Therefore, please accept the apologies of a mere merchant. I, Albertus Bekh, do humbly beg your pardon.” He ended with another bow.
Rebekah forced herself not to smile at his using the same surname as her Tomas Bekh persona. “Given that the situation was not of your making,” she paused, “I accept your offered apology. This time. There is a matter I wish to discuss with you later. In private. Regarding business dealings that I’ve had with your father, Tomas.”
The spy ambled awkwardly down a passage used only by servants.
During the wedding ceremony, he’d posed as an ancient bent-over bearded dodderer who’d leaned against a wall, protecting an open doorway. There were many extra servants for this occasion. It had allowed him to surveil all those present and mark some people for closer inspection.
On this occasion, he had not come alone. This assignment was far too important. He’d drawn in all his own people and every independent he could safely hire to act as additional eyes and ears. Paying his own people extra, plus a bonus for every viable lead, would motivate them to produce results. As for the outside-hires, he’d never pay them the baden he’d promised. The dead had no need for money.
His biggest problem was not finding suspects but the sheer number of them, starting with Lady Parynna. He’d been watching her for some time. There was a woman who’d benefit from experiencing a little terror. Not what she imagined she inflicted on her victims, something real. Something with lasting consequences, like a conspicuous scar that marred her beauty. Or loss of a foot. Or maybe an entire leg.
Then again, whatever game their hostess was playing might benefit him. Perhaps she could flush out his prey. Yes, that was a possibility.
Slipping into a darker passage, he shed his servant disguise and emerged as a man of quality, a baron from the far edges of the Sea of Glass.
“My father,” James paused, trying to work out how this woman knew Tomas Bekh, “has arrangements with a great many people, Lady Schlussels. I regret I’m not aware of your recent transactions.”
“That’s not a problem. This will be a new, urgent commission. I am willing to pay handsomely, within reason, to have your sole attention for a time. You can make commitments on his behalf, can’t you?”
“Within certain limits, I am completely at your disposal. If your generosity equals what it has in the past, there is no limit as to what we can do for you.”
“That’s exactly what I wanted to hear,” Lady Schlussels responded.
James wished he understood what he’d just committed to. Her wry smile made him nervous. However, he had to go along while playing this ridiculous role.
Why did I think it a good idea to pose as a Bekh?
The servant girl looked up at her grandma, wondering why she’d done as she was told.
Rhini, another of the short-haired maids, had agreed to work together with Shadaya. That way they could each get close in turn and one of them would always be within earshot.
Shadaya had taken the first pass and overheard what could only be Lady Schlussels arranging for the services of a paramour. But when she informed the other maid, Rhini had pushed her into a cellar, tied her up, and locked her in.
Grandma had arrived only moments later, but Shadaya was upset. “Why did you have me do that? Now, Rhini will claim the prize.”
“Excellent, child. This is going even better than I’d hoped. Brush out your skirts, we have a bodyguard to chat with.”
There had been little time to discuss the matter. James had insisted that, rather than stand behind him at the feast, Jon should watch from the back of the hall. Then, if he saw an opportunity, he could slip away as if carrying out a task for his employer.
Thus, Jonathan found himself – still helmeted – walking amongst the servants of the visiting nobles, prominent merchants, and the rich. Watching them jostle for position and primacy depending upon whom their masters and mistresses were would have been humorous, if he was not in fear of being discovered.
As a mere mercenary, every retainer thought themselves better than him. That suited Jonathan. He had almost worked his way to an exit when an old woman beckoned to him from a passageway.
“I must talk to you,” the oldster whispered. “Your master is in danger.”
Jonathan looked away and eased his way closer.
Then the woman continued quietly from behind him as he stoically scanned the room, “Lady Parynna believes he’s a provider of carnal pleasure. She intends to ruin him, blackmail him, or worse. If you have any loyalty to your employer, you must warn him. And leave immediately.”
Jonathan was tempted to laugh. Of all the things that James could be accused of, peddling flesh was beyond ridiculous. There must be a mistake. Yet, that would not stop the young man from being harmed. “What do you seek in return for this warning?”
“I… we, My granddaughter an I would leave Caswell, but cannot without Lady Parynna’s blessing. Get us out. That’s all we ask.”
“I cannot make promises on my employer’s behalf. But I will do what I can. Do you wish to accompany me or—”
“We cannot. If we are seen with you, it will bring down the lady’s wrath. Is there somewhere we can meet you?”
“Go to the stables on the south of town.”
“Thank you, sir. Thank you,” the old woman kept repeating as he strode away.
The table conversation had been everything James dreaded – full of gossip, careful slights and small talk. Yet, almost worse, was the growing feeling that he recognized Lady Schlussels’ voice. It was maddening…
…and then it all made sense. She had just, for the fourth-or-so time mentioned his ‘father’, Tomas Bekh. It was the way she emphasized his name.
James snatched up a napkin and used it to wipe his mouth clean of the juices that threatened to stain his tunic. Or, so he hoped anyone watching would interpret his actions. In truth, he did so to hide his smile.
She’s Tomas Bekh!
A revelation that raised more questions than it answered. Was this person male or female? What age were they truly? What was their background that they could impersonate an influential businessman and a dowager with equal believability? Not that he was going to get any answers while at the table.
“Is anything wrong?” she asked with a too-knowing smile.
She’s enjoying this.
Rebekah was beginning to wonder how many clues she’d have to drop, when the light of understanding flashed in James’ eyes. She hoped no one had witnessed it. Or, worse, misinterpreted it. Otherwise, that person might think she’d indecently propositioned him, as the dowager seated on her other side had hinted at doing.
“I… no, just eating too fast,” he replied as the second of his bodyguards approached, bent close and conveyed a whispered message. “However,” he flashed a dazzling smile, “I have just been informed of a matter that I must attend to with alacrity. After which, I must immediately depart. Therefore, as you’ve stated there’s something you needed to discuss in private, would you walk me out?”
He stood and helped her from her chair.
Drake cast an annoyed glance at them.
“I’ll be right back,” she soothed, causing their host’s attention to return to other matters.
Once they were far enough away from the tables, she asked, “What’s going on?”
“I have somehow offended our hostess, Lady Parynna,” James replied. “She intends to frame me for unseemly behavior, then blackmail or defame me. As I’ll never again play the role of Albertus Bekh, it’ll cause me no trouble. If I leave immediately. The same may not be true for my father.” He grinned.
“How do you know this?”
“Lady Parynna thinks me a flesh peddler. And that you are my latest customer. Thus, ensnaring you too. We must both flee.”
“Thank you for the warning. If there’s anything I can do…”
Her voice cut through Jon. “…anything I can do…”They were the first words the dowager uttered clearly, and could only belong to Rebeka.
Jon shook himself back to the current predicament, and forced himself to listen to James.
“I must help a maid and her grandmother I’d get them out of Caswell Castle. Lady Parynna is forcing them to stay. I’ve only horses for my bodyguards and myself. Riding double would slow us down, not to mention draw attention.”
“Leave that to me,” Rebekah replied.
You are amazing, dear wife.
Then James strode away with Rebekah on his arm.
Jon followed behind, noting a man across the hall pointing toward them.
Disguised as James’ bodyguard, he gave him a push and whispered “We’ve been noticed.”
A group of armed men was forming up.
He could not alert her to his presence. She’d stop. But he had to say something to her.
Arm-in-arm with James, whose pace quickened, Rebekah was led to stables south of the castle. As the first bodyguard opened the gate for them, the other murmured from behind…
“Nayadu wodu udali.”
It was perfect Mesteline for, “peace beautiful wife.”
She stifled a gasp, overcome and blinking away tears. Her heart clenched. She yearned to turn around, to hold him. Yet couldn’t. They were being pursued.
Even here, she could not be seen addressing a servant, much less a mercenary. It would be too memorable. She could, however, speak to her companion. “When you next see Jonathan Otual, tell him to send a letter to your father regarding the Gorum matter. I can’t meet in person. I’ll not risk it, given his reputation. Even though I’m sure it’s unjustified.”
“Hurry,” James insisted, scanning the street as many armed menrounded the corner and spread out. The two women he’d mentioned were waiting, cowering in the shadows.
“James,” Rebekah instructed, “introduce me to these ladies.”
Jonathan stepped forward. “This is my employer,” he pointed at James, “and this is the lady who will get you safely out of Caswell.”
“Do exactly as she says,” James commanded. “I trust her completely.”
“Come with me.” Rebekah motioned towards the stable’s rear door. Looking back, she saw Jon, James, and the other bodyguard don hooded cloaks bearing the green dragon sigil of the Lord of Lorness, then ride boldly out into the street.
A rendezvous location for Licht Gegen was only a block away. There, a quick change into common clothes, a little make-up, and spilled wine, permitted a gaggle of farmers’ wives to make their drunken way out of the city.
Outside Caswell Castle
The girl, Rhin-something, had been pretty and carried an excessively large purse full of baden. It had taken a short interlude to extract information from her. The spy enjoyed his work. He took pride in it, delighting in the suffering of another as he encouraged them to speak. Thus, for it end so soon was a disappointment.
The information obtained was more than worth inconveniencing Parynna Caswell. All he’d needed to confirm was that she wasn’t working for Gaelib Melazera. She wasn’t. Therefore, he hadn’t pursued that line of questioning further.
Better yet, Lady Parynna’ letter contained an intriguing idea: follow and, at the opportune moment, kidnap the knight’s daughter-in-law. That would off-balance the boy and, with luck, lead to the father.
Even if none of that happened, the spy was familiar enough with Gaelib’s pastimes to know that merely possessing someone close to Otual would bring his patron exquisite pleasure. That would cause the Lord of Lorness to be even more generous.
Full Moon, Summer
Fuming, seeking anyone to take her ill temper out on, Parynna stormed through Caswell Castle, servants scattering before her.
The fool! The absolute fool! If I’d known Rebekah Otual was in attendance as one of those doddering old harridans, I could have quietly scooped her up and shipped her off to Caileagh.
As it is, Lady Melazera has not responded to my missive. Surely, the former-serving girl was attractive enough. That stupid minx who won my contest couldn’t resist yet more baden to deliver a simple note. Not that she’d ever escape Caileagh.
Have I offended? What can I do to atone?
Locke Estate, Lexandria
Sarah leapt from the wagon, running. Melyssa embraced her. It seemed like moons since she'd left for harvest. But it was only one.
Finally, she was home. At least, it felt like home. Here she was a midwife. Almost a midwife. Her mother, Kennah Decker, was the Locke's midwife. She was her mother's assistant. But Sarah almost knew everything she needed to know.
Ma still attended births in the village so she often left Sarah here when any of the Locke wives were expecting. Midwifery was all about waiting. Waiting for the mother to look pregnant. Waiting for the baby to kick. Waiting for the baby to come out. And finally, waiting for the baby to cry.
The Locke's wanted ma to stay in Lexandria always. Someone was always pregnant. But ma was devoted to the women of the village, so she regularly traveled between the two locations. A hundred miles each way. As a compromise, she left her daughter to take care of the normal complaints of pregnancy and to attend to labors if Kennah did not make it back in time.
If that happened, they sent for other local midwives when contractions began. They couldn't trust a mere girl. And they shouldn't. Yet.
I understand that. I don’t want to be in charge either.
But last moon no one came. Oh, the family was there. all the old aunts and the sisters, looking at Sarah. At first, they chattered lightly to each other at the borders of the room. But as Aleyn groaned louder and louder, they moved closer. Finally, water splashed out.
I felt them all around me as I watched below her skirt. But the baby didn't come.
After the water, the baby just comes, usually.
Oh, J'shua, please tell me what to do.
I must do something, they're all looking at me. My skin's buzzing like bees. Where is that blasted midwife? I've seen mother do it many times. She’s told me exactly what to do, but this is my first time.
She felt for the head of the obstinate child, pushing up and turning it.
Praise J'shua! The babe’s crowning.
With an almighty groan, Aleyn, delivered a squalling boy.
After Sarah placed him in his mother's arms, she wanted to collapse in relief. But there was still work to do. The rest proceeded uneventfully, then she retreated and watched the family surround Aleyn. Sarah smiled as Bradley Locke, the babe’s father, was dragged in and congratulated.
Then she leaned back on the couch, smiling. Her first birth alone.