Three separate lords had now presented invitations to her. Duchess Vitalia sighed. The worse part was her uncle, the king, had looked in her direction whenever the word ‘alliance’ came up. She hadn’t disposed of one useless old man just to get stuck with another. Any husband the king saddled her with would mean trouble, as would the sycophants after her wealth and position. If she did marry, it would have to be on her terms, and none of those louts would agree. Many of them seemed to think she would benefit from a ‘governing hand’.
Adding to her current frustration was the fact she dare not relieve her frustration with her lover. Not with so many eyes about. Durante was both base born and a bastard, and it was scandalous enough merely having him as her groom. Marzia, her maid, was lush enough, but she was in the mood for something else. And any husband she ended up with would likely insist both they and Gian be sent away, if he didn’t come up with a pretense to have them killed. Her not so sadly deceased husband had killed her lovely Nico.
She picked up her drink, then noted Marzia was staring down at the tournament with a small smile. “Someone caught your eye?”
“That count who annoyed you earlier was just unhorsed. He is not happy.” Marzia’s smile became an open smirk. “Not happy at all.”
Vitalia followed her gaze to see the sputtering count. It took her a moment to determine who had unhorsed him. She hadn’t been paying attention to the games. The knight was young, and his armor battered as though it had seen war rather than just tournaments. “Who is he?”
“I believe that is Baron Orso’s second son, your grace. I’m not sure of the name…” Marzia tilted her head. “Something foreign. His mother was Ipruci or Gaebli or something.”
“I’m surprised he was allowed to compete.” She frowned at the scene. “Though that seems to be the count’s issue as well.”
“The boy has ridden well. He’s in the running for…” Marzia trailed off. The count was clearly pleased at whatever the tourney master had decided. The handsome young knight looked frustrated and angry as he turned and stalked away. “He has been disqualified.”
“Pity.” Vitalia settled back into her chair. “I rather liked the thought of Count Servo taken out by an upstart.”
Ruarc kicked the wall in frustration. He’d been so close. His horse whickered softly, and he pressed his forehead against the mare’s neck. There were no more options. If he wanted his brother to survive the week, he’d have to sell her. “I’m sorry, girl.”
“What happened?” Teague’s voice took him by surprise.
“What happened?” It was all he could do not to stride forward and punch his brother. “What happened is you not only gambled away the money we had, you gambled away a small fortune we didn’t. What happened is you got yourself in debt to people you shouldn’t have been anywhere near. And what’s going to happen is if I don’t come up with fifty gold by tomorrow morning, they’re going to start cutting pieces off you.”
“Ruarc…” Teague shrank away from him. “I was just trying…”
“You thought you saw an easy score.” Ruarc exhaled. “And they saw you coming ten miles away.”
“What about the tourna —”
“I was disqualified.” Ruarc swallowed. “They figured out my patron wasn’t Thatelan.”
“What now?” Teague’s voice was small. With his delicate build and features, it was hard for many to believe Teague was actually the elder brother. His brother would be lucky to survive the kind of beating the sharks gave.
“Maybe I can sell Sita for —”
“But you love that horse.” Teague started shaking his head.
“And I love you, borther.” Ruarc closed his eyes. Sita had saved his life twice in the fighting. Selling her felt like cutting his own arm off. “Her at least maybe I can buy back if…” It was a stupid dream. Even if he went back to the army, he’d never be able to buy her back. He’d be lucky if his pay was enough to keep food in the bellies of their mother and sisters. There was no way he’d be able to salvage their estate. Teague, for all he loved him, was all but useless. He caught Sita’s reins. “Lay low until I can…” He swallowed. “Come up with something.”
She was walking to get her horse when she heard Durante talking to someone. He was apparently negotiating the purchase of a horse. A frown came to her face, at least until she recognized the man selling the horse. Close up, the young knight proved to be even more attractive than the previous glimpse had indicated. He was tall, with delightfully broad shoulders topping a muscular build. Durante clearly admired the horse, but was refusing to go higher than forty gold for her. She blinked. The knight was selling his horse?
Vitalia gave him a slow, contemplative look. Young. Nobly born. Handsome. And desperate. Possibly just what she needed. She stepped closer. “Durante?”
“Your Grace.” Durante bowed. The young knight immediately followed suite. “Let me get your horse ready.”
“Quite alright.” She looked over the mare being offered for sale. She was a beautiful creature, clearly bred for war but with an elegant shape. The knight petted her neck as she nuzzled him affectionately.
“My apologies, your grace.” The knight bowed again. “I did not meant to inconvenience you.”
“I saw you ride, earlier.” She kept her voice light as she looked over the mare. A well-kept creature. There was a trace of gauntness in the knight’s features, but none in the mare’s. She’d wager the horse ate before he did, thus if he was selling her… “You unhorsed that odious Count Servo.” She turned her eyes to him, and smiled. “I’d hoped for the opportunity to cheer your victory.”
“Thank you, your grace.” He smiled, and the expression reached emerald eyes.
“I do hate to interrupt negotiations. Join us for the evening meal, and we can discuss matters then.” That would give her time to learn more. She inclined her head. “I would hate for such a lovely creature to get away.”
He looked at his reflection in the polished metal and sighed. At least he’d been able to shave. Even his best clothing showed signs of wear. If he could impress the duchess enough to gain her as even a casual patron, that might be enough to keep Teague safe. There were still contests at the festival. He could still win enough to get them through, at least until the next tournament. Even if all she wanted was to annoy the count, he could work with that.
The duchess hadn’t replaced the night that had died alongside her late husband. If he could secure her full patronage… His sisters might still have a future. Ruarc squared his shoulders, then caught movement in the reflective surface. He turned to see his mother in the doorway. The events of the last year, starting with his father’s death, had turned her brown hair gray. “Be careful, Ruarc.”
“The duchess has been known to take lovers. You…” She sighed. “She may just want to make some lord jealous, and that is a dangerous game.”
“If it keeps Teague alive, I’ll play.” He shook his head. If that’s what she wanted in exchange for her patronage, it… At least it wouldn’t ruin him like it would his sisters. Just one tournament. If he won, he could secure another patron.
She kissed his cheek. “Be careful.”
Marzia gave the knight an admiring look as Durante took his cloak. She didn’t miss that Durante did the same, though fortunately the knight did. His clothing, though well-made and of good quality, was old, and his boots and belt were worn. The polite smile he gave her couldn’t hide that he was nervous. Good. That meant he knew how much rode on this dinner. She returned the smile as she led him down the hall and into the trap.
The table was laid simply and intimately. He hesitated at the door, clearly confused, but recovered enough to keep moving without being prompted. His gaze went to the side table, and he paused again. It was empty save for a coinpurse, open to show the glint of gold inside. “Lord Ruarc.” The duchess entered, resplendent in her silver threaded gown. She wore jewels, making both her wealth and power clear. “So pleased you could join us.”
“Your Grace.” He bowed. His head came up sharply when Durante turned the key in the door behind them, clicking the lock closed. The key went into Durante’s pocket. “I…” Ruarc looked confused, and if she wasn’t mistaken, there was a small trace of fear. It sent a small thrill through her.
“Please. Sit.” The duchess gestured at the table. “I believe we have some negotiations to discuss.”
“Of course, Your Grace.” He swallowed, but maintained his manners. Ruarc pulled Duchess Vitalia’s chair for her before taking his own. “I brought Sita’s pedigree. I…”
“The mare’s lineage and background do not interest me.” Duchess Vitalia let Marzia pour the wine as she spoke. “Yours does.”
“My —” Ruarc blinked.
“You are the second son of the late Baron Oslo. Descended from the Sinagra family, yes?” The duchess arched an eyebrow. Marzia had spent the last few hours learning all she could about Baron Oslo’s family. She stepped back and to the side, the better to watch the knight squirm as the trap closed around him. On the other side, Durante caught her eye and winked. The duchess continued watching her prey. “And your mother. Deasun?”
“Yes. Though I…” The knight swallowed.
“Your service record also interests me. You fought with distinction along the border of the Wild. I’m told you even survived an encounter with one of their so-called ‘dragons’. The duchess smiled. “Blooded him, even. Which one was it?”
“Their crown prince, Your Grace.” He relaxed just a little.
And far too soon. “Your brother, Teague, is in debt to a particularly uncouth viscount known to have ties to the thieves’ guild. For a debt of five hundred gold.”
“Your estate is also in arrears, and due to its disrepair, it cannot be sold for sufficient funds to cover your family’s debts. And one of your sisters suffers from a breathing sickness, yes?”
He was still, and then she saw him straighten. He lifted his head. “I fail to see the reason for these questions.”
“You may leave at any time, Lord Ruarc.” The duchess gestured at Durante, and he laid the key down next to Ruarc’s untouched wineglass. “On the table there is a coinpurse. It contains one hundred gold. Enough to get your brother out of immediate danger, and see your family doesn’t starve this month.” The duchess’s smile became predatory. “If you remain until ten bells, you may take it with you when you leave.”
“I don’t —”
“If you fail to do as I request, I will ask you to leave. Again, the purse is not yours until the tenth bell has rung.”
His instincts told him to run. They were practically screaming the word at him. It was the purse and his brother that kept him in the chair. And he could tell from the smile on the duchess’s face that she knew it. She knew exactly how desperate his situation was, and more, she had the means to make it even worse. Ruarc stayed in the chair, and said a silent prayer. “If you are not looking to purchase the horse, Your Grace…” He looked across the table at her. “Why have you asked me here?”
“It is my belief we can be of use to each other.” She gestured, and the maid began serving the soup. “You are aware I was recently widowed, yes?”
“My condolences on your loss, Your Grace.” There had been rumors she’d had a hand in her husband’s death. He hadn’t believed them before.
She sipped from her wineglass, looking at him over the rim. “You’re an attractive young man, Ruarc.” She set the glass down. “If I offered you my patronage, in return for you accompanying me back to my bedchamber, would you accept?”
He froze. As much as the situation didn’t surprise him, her putting it that bluntly did. He swallowed, then took a sip of his own wine before nodded. “If that is your offer, Your Grace, I would accept.”
“It is not my offer. I merely wished to know your answer.” She settled back in her chair. “You have considerable troubles, Ruarc. As it happens, I have a few of my own. I am being courted by various buffoons, and the situation is growing…” She spun her wineglass. “Tiresome. A few of them have demonstrated some reluctance to accept polite refusals.”
Ruarc frowned. Was it a guard she needed? If that was all, he saw no reason for the performance. He was a younger son, being hired as a noble’s guardsman was not unusual for younger sons. Still, this time he didn’t relax. “I am not certain —”
“Stand.” She waved a hand. He blinked, before realizing she was serious. He took a deep breath, then set aside his napkin and stood. “There.” She pointed to a spot a few feet from her. He took another breath, then moved to where she pointed. If she brought in hoops, he’d have jumped them. Time was running out for his brother. She looked him in the eye, and nodded. “Good boy. Now, remain still. If you move before I give you permission, I will ask you to leave. Do you understand?”
No, but he knew enough to realize that if he didn’t play her game he’d leave with nothing. The hour was already growing late. “I understand.”
She leaned back in her chair to observe. He’d cooperated quickly, a good sign. But then, he was a soldier, used to taking orders. And he was desperate. Rather than risk setbacks, she’d had Durante purchase his brother’s marker already. Vitalia gave Marzia a nod, and saw the woman smile in response. A most wicked smile. Vitalia nearly laughed at Ruarc’s expression when Marzia reached to unfasten the buttons on his doublet. “What are you doing?”
“Undressing you.” Marzia shrugged.
“Remain still, Ruarc.” Vitalia picked up her wine glass again.
“What the hell do you take me for?” He glared. But he didn’t move.
“As we established only a few moments ago…” She took a sip of her wine. “You’re a whore. Now we are merely establishing terms.”
“I —” He started shaking his head.
“Speak or move again before I give you permission…” She met his eyes. “And I’ll ask you to leave. Empty handed.” He glared at her, his fists clenched. But he went silent. Marzia went back to unfastening his buttons. “As I mentioned earlier, I am being courted and require a solution to that problem. I believe you may be what I need. The simplest solution would be for me to acquire a husband.” She smiled, watching as he bit back whatever he’d been going to say and remained quiet. “To be clear, Ruarc, I am not courting you. I am considering buying you. And I never make a purchase without knowing what I am getting. You understand, I’m sure. You wouldn’t buy a horse without checking its teeth.”
He gritted his teeth as Marzia stripped the doublet from him. His fists were still clenched. Behind him, Durante was watching carefully. The knight was unarmed, but Durante had a blade at his side. “You will do as I instruct this evening, Ruarc, or not only will you leave with nothing I will inform the king’s guard that your behavior was…” She smiled. “Less than exemplary.” He glared, understanding full well what her words meant. He was all his family had, and if he were arrested or disgraced…
A grimace crossed his face as Marzia continued removing his clothing. The only protest he made as she stripped him was a shake of his head whenever she started on a new article of clothing. Marzia was efficient, and soon he stood before her unclothed. Naked he proved to be an impressive specimen indeed. He had a few small scars, enough to give him a rugged look without detracting from his pleasing shape. He was muscular, without an ounce of wasted flesh. A soldier, not a man who had opportunity to indulge. And to her delight, he was also well hung. The best part, however, was the look of humiliation on his face as he simply stood there, obedient to her will.
“You may redress, Lord Ruarc.” He was grabbing his cloths almost before she finished speaking, hurriedly putting them back on. She caught Durante’s gaze, and he grinned. Vitalia waited for Ruarc to redress before gesturing for him to sit once more.