While walking the old road back to Vaina Town, I decided that I’d ought to pay a visit to the soon-to-be noblewoman Nilma and her family. She’d experienced the ghost directly and had also been close to the Lady Aevala, so it only made sense that I found out what, exactly, she knew.
I passed again through the newer portion of the town, much like the older but, ironically, populated by older smaller buildings in worse repair and greater number. Fouler smelling, too, for Old Vaina at least had troughs for the waste dumped from the houses that collected them and moved them along; it came to rest in New Vaina, a constant reminder of the difference in status of the two parts of the settlement. When people say that “shit rolls downhill,” they usually mean it metaphorically, but I’ve found that, both here and in Ilessa and the grand cities of the continent, this was literally true as well. But Ilessa at least had grant sewers carrying refuse out to the sea, even in the lower city with its crowded neighborhoods and ubiquitous poor. Here, the effluence simply found the lowest place in the New Town it could and waited to seep back into the ground, be moved by annoyed townsfolk, or washed away—into everything else, really—with the next rain.
Once back to Old Vaina, the im Valladyn house proved easy enough to find, even though few of the passersby would look at me, much less give directions. A rising palace of red brick with gray stone and wrought iron accents, a slate roof instead of the thatch so common in the houses lower on the hill. A low brick fence, ending just below my waist except for regularly-spaced columns, black metal railing ornately twisted and turned into two-dimensional shapes above my head running atop the brick and between each column, except for two narrower-spaced columns that held wrought iron double gates with brass details and filigree between, hemmed in an outer courtyard of sorts, if a space lined entirely with flagstones can be called a “yard.”
On either side of the gate stood a man with a sword and buckler at his hip, the affected calm bravado of one attempting to prove himself to a master hanging about them both like a cheap perfume. Their clothes matched, dark green linens without any badge or coat of arms. I supposed that the Vaina laws about carrying swords only stretched so far and remembered that these men had lost on of their fellows only weeks ago. The way they eyed me and my sword, they looked ready to take revenge on anyone who gave them the slightest cause.
I’d seen plenty of armed retainers like this before; their antics and brawling constituted a regular entertainment in Ilessa, so long as one didn’t get to close to the action and become inadvertently involved therein. The Council of Twelve had long tried to tamp down such street-fighting between the servingmen and -women of the noble and merchant families, but when they found that both parties tended to suddenly become allies against the watch when such presumptuous stewards of the general peace appeared, the City’s rulers took a more circumspect approach, harshly punishing those brawlers (and their masters) whose fights injured bystanders or their property, but largely leaving unmolested those frays that resulted only in injury to the participants. Hell, some of the Council families allowed their servants to participate in the same, these skirmishes minor proxy wars between those of power and influence to release some tension when politicking and backstabbing had become tedious and mundane.
Hands went to the hilts of their swords when they realized who I was—the staff must have given it away. I held my free hand up in a sign of peace, trying to appear relaxed while simultaneously readying myself to use the staff to stop an approaching blade at a moment’s notice. “Hold, friends,” I said. “I’d only like to speak with Mistress Nilma and her father.”
The one on the left took his hand off of his blade and made the sign of the Tree at me before asking, “And who should we say you are?”
I looked at him with my best steely-eyed stare, honestly not sure if it was worth anything. “Lord Iaren amn Ennoc,” I said in a hard voice. At my name, the one on the left looked to his fellow, undoubtedly because he wasn’t sure that I was a nobleman. Admittedly, I didn’t look much the part. The one on the right shrugged back, so I continued,“Agent of Lord Aryden amn Vaina in the investigation of certain events of late to which Mistress Nilma is a witness.”
Now the one on the right spoke, “A moment, sir. I’ll see if our master is available to see you. Please wait here.” He turned and passed through the wrought-iron gate, leaving it creaking back to closed, while the swordsman on my left continued to size me up.
We stayed like that for a long moment, him staring daggers and me pretending to be unaffected. Part of me wanted to turn and walk away; the rest of me wanted to open my mouth or draw my sword and demonstrate to the ruffian exactly what he had to fear from me. I felt sheepish at realizing the haughtiness of that response—how perfectly noble of me, in the worst of ways. I wanted to relieve the tension somehow, but I couldn’t think of what to say to the man. Ask about his dead friend? He’d probably take that as a threat or insult. Some stupid comment about the weather? Not worth the breath.
Before I’d thought of what to say, the other man returned. “Our master will meet with you. You’ll have to leave your weapons.”
After passing the servant my quarterstaff, I pulled my sword, scabbard and all, from the frog on my belt and handed it over as well. I began to move past him, but he cleared his throat, causing me to turn and see why.
“Your, um, wand, sir.”
With my left hand, I pulled the carved length from its short sheath on my right side, letting its point pass across the bravo, causing him to flinch, before I turned it in my hand and held its base out to him. Moving my other items into the crook of his left arm, he reached out for the wand, pinching it between forefinger and thumb as if it might bite, or explode like some mistempered pistol.
Smiling, I turned back to go inside, where a third man held the door open for me. This one carried no weapons and wore a finer set of clothes, the kind that the least wealthy of courtiers might wear to visit his liege lord. He bowed, lower than left me comfortable.
I’d spent most of my life away from places where anyone cared overmuch about courtly etiquette and the deference expected by the nobility, even in a place such as Altaena where, except for the rural towns such as Vaina, nobility didn’t mean much at all, except to mark you as a pain in the ass. While an apprentice, before I’d even been old enough to be subject to courtly treatment, my master had reminded me at every turn that the life of a lord would no longer be mine. The spirits care nothing for titles and “amns,” “elds” or the like. A working isn’t easier for someone with a notable lineage. For a practitioner, at least a beginning one, entitlement only bred frustration and anger, neither of which provides much assistance to the focus required for success in thaumaturgic workings.
Not long after I’d arrived at university, I lost my family, their holdings, and any real claim to nobility. I’d served as a sizar during most of my education, a servant to those of more noble blood in exchange for my tuition and board. There’d been nothing for me to return to in Ilessa when I came back, no lingering sign of amn Ennoc nobility, no claim to make for a return of possessions. One more dispossessed lordling in a growing crowd of them each year. And I’d be damned if I’d behave like most of the rest of them, complaining about my misfortune and insisting on every bow and deference from others to hang on to that last vestige of high birth. I’d at least had a trade, of a sort, to fall upon; the same couldn’t be said for many of my peers. Some turned to the mercenary companies, as I’d considered. Others fell hard and turned to work in the brothels, where common folk would pay handsomely to fuck someone with a name, just for the story to tell about it.
I shook my head to free it from these thoughts as I entered the home. Though you couldn’t tell from the street, the main building had a sort of courtyard in its center, with the upper floors closed off and window to a central square uncovered by the roof and left open to the sky. On the first floor, columns supported the weight of the upper floors around this central atrium, probably forty-feet to a side, with trees and grass immaculately maintained, the landscaping undoubtedly chosen to impress, and succeeding in this mission. Bushes with various colors of blooming flowers flanked a set of stone benches surrounding a statute of Ashaera looking mercifully down upon those seated before her. A small cluster of trees, just about to bear fruit, occupied the very center of the square, and I thought that I spied a small pond on the other side.
When my eyes finally broke free of the natural splendor hosted by the home my vision drifted to the strange gallery that surrounded the atrium. The columns, it appeared, were built of marble, carved in the style of the Gwaenthyri, mirrors, positioned almost out of sight just where the walls of the upper floors surrounding the atrium opened up into the wide rectangular gallery below, moved light into all of the spaces of this large room, without need for any candle, lamp or torch. The walls had been painted with frescoes, mostly scenes from the Book, it seemed, but a few that might have depicted stories of the Aenyr or the time of legends that followed their departure.
The im Valladyn family must have done a good bit of entertaining to justify the cost of a space like this, the careful architecture and construction, the elaborate decoration, the fine furniture of dark wood and iron that filled the spaces covered by the upper floors. Looking down, I noticed that the tiles of the floor, too, had been given every extravagance; they were brightly colored mosaics in a style that I thought I recognized as Qoshi. The dark-skinned dwellers of that place followed a different religion, or at least different enough that the Temple considered them heretics, and privateers and naval officers on either side often made the central sea a dangerous place to sail. But, despite the hatred between them and the followers of the Temple, they had much to offer, beautiful artworks and great knowledge of medicines and mathematics. So, no one protested too much when they sailed into harbor in the Sisters, trading their exotic foreign goods for cargos from around the rest of the central sea. And those whose Temple piety made them think that any succor offered to a non-believer threatened their own soul could comfort themselves with the thought that they had not traded with any infidel while they enjoyed their spices or their silks. As a merchant family, I wondered what exactly the im Valladyns felt about such arrangements, such petty hypocrisies in the name of elegance and ostentation.
Servants hustled from place on side room through the vast entertaining room to another chamber in the house, carrying flowers, bolts of cloth, furniture, and smaller household goods. The flitted like brightly-colored birds coming to briefly drink the nectar of the courtyard flowers before flying somewhere new.
My escort graciously waited for me to take in my surroundings; I’m sure he’d become used to this sort of reaction in the family’s guests. When I’d recollected myself, he extended a hand to beckon that I follow him. “I hope you’ll pardon the business,” the man said, “We are busy preparing for Mistress Nilma’s impending nuptials.”
“Of course,” I acknowledged, noncommittally.
We left the great central room—smaller but more beautiful than Aryden’s great hall, and not only because it was newer—for a humbler hallway and a staircase, this one thankfully straight and comfortably wide. On the second floor the servant led me into a room entirely paneled in wood, not unlike Aryden’s study, this one with shelves better organized and illuminated both by windows and by the soft blue glow of alchemic everlamps. A fat man, elaborately mustachioed, reclined against the corner of a silk-upholstered settee, a glass of wine in one hand and a pipe in the other. He did not rise to great me. He did, however, tip his pipe at me in a gesture that reminded me of some salty sailor greeting an old shipmate in some coastal tavern, nonchalance and easy familiarity.
“Welcome, good sir, welcome. Please, have a seat,” he said, now waiving to a nearby chair with his goblet, a splash of red tide creeping over the side. “We are so glad you’ve come to resolve our lord’s…little problem. And that he secured the service of one so well-born as well, ha! What good fortune!”
I took my seat, the chair overstuffed to the point of discomfort in its upholstery, the arms too sharply curved to provide suitable resting space for an elbow. All in all, I wished I’d stayed standing.
“Tell me, lord thaumaturge, how long do you think until you’ve resolved the matter?”
“I don’t know, Master—”
“Please, it’s Dalen to my friends. I do hope we shall be friends.”
“Call me, Iaren, Dalen.”
“Wonderful!” he said, smiling wide before puffing on his pipe to leave me to fill the silence.
“Your daughter will help speed things along, I’m sure,” I told him.
“Of course, of course. But perhaps I can assist you with some of the details so that we can leave her to her preparations. You know that she’ll be marrying Lorent amn Esto in a matter of days now.”
“I have heard, yes.”
“Our family and the amn Vainas are close, you see, so perhaps you have questions that I could answer.”
The servant who’d led me to the merchant patriarch’s chamber now appeared beside me with a glass of wine, which I took and held between both hands as if some Temple relic, both sacred and valuable. “What has Nilma told you about her encounter with the castle’s spirit?”
“She will not speak of it. Not even to me,” he confessed, “which I suppose does not bode well for you.”
I frowned. “Then tell me of her service as Lady Aevala’s handmaid.”
“A token of the friendship of our families, and one that she appreciated very much. She will be a noblewoman herself, soon; it will hold her in good stead to have learned the duties of the wife of a lord.”
“How long had she served as a handmaid?”
“Almost a year before the…incident.”
“Did she visit often while in the lord’s household?”
“We visited her, of course. We are often invited to dine with our lord.”
“And how did she seem when you visited?”
“Happy. She enjoyed her position and, even before we signed the contract with the amn Estos, had a bright future to look forward to. It was only a matter of time before one noble house or another made such an offer.”
I looked around, “Your family has done quite well for itself.”
“And there are plenty of noble houses who have fallen to ruin with profligate spending and an unwillingness to dirty their hands with trade,” he said, smiling until her remembered who I was. “My apologies, my lord.”
“Don’t think of it; I’m rather profligate myself,” I managed. “Did your daughter mention anything about Lady Aevala when you saw her? Or perhaps the lord or lady confided something to you?”
“Anything out of the ordinary?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
I shook my head. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure yet either.”
“But you suspect something?”
“I don’t suspect anything. I’m only asking questions.”
“Then why say, ‘yet?’”
I kicked myself for taking the man for a fool. A braggart, maybe, and unsubtle about his pretensions, but not a fool, despite his easy demeanor and shit-eating grin.
“There’s a connection between the spirit and Lady Aevala,” I admitted. “I don’t know what or to what extent, but there must be a reason for it. Perhaps your daughter will know more.”
“What else have you discovered?” the man asked from the sides of his mouth between puffs of the pipe.
“I really can’t talk about that with you.”
“Then I’m afraid that my daughter is indisposed at the moment.”
“Perhaps I’ll take that fact up with your lord. We can see what he says about it.”
“Nothing, I imagine,” he smiled. “He wants the amn Esto marriage as much as we do, and I don’t think he’d do anything to disturb it—or us.”
“Business, my boy. Business. Our family and the amn Esti owe the amn Vaini for the alliance between us. Those relationships increase his own prospects with House Meradhvor. Or Lady Vesonna’s, as the case may be. If our marriage agreement falls apart, then perhaps his does, too, and he certainly doesn’t want that. Have you been to the quarries or the mills? Have you seen the mechanica that Meradhvor has loaned, a taste of the rewards they offer for fealty to them? Have you seen the gifts to the amn Vaini directly? With mechanica, Lord Aryden can increase the yields of the farms, the woods, the stones and mining. This means more taxes, to say nothing of the income from the use of his Artificial servants.”
“The amn Vainas are already wealthy, why would they need any of that? Or why not just purchase the drudges from the Artificer Houses?”
Dalen smiled. “If I have learned one thing in my time as a trader, it is that there is only one accessory suitable for wealth.”
I bit. “And what is that?”
“Fine. Who takes offense to Nilma’s marriage, then?”
“The families of New Vaina, of course. The im Osi, the im Vardi, the im Norreni. Every time they see us drawn closer to our lord, they believe they are pushed farther away.”
“But it seems that they’d also benefit from the Meradhvor marriage as well, then. The im Osi control the farms, the im Vardi control the mills, and the im Norreni control the quarry and mines. If their yields increase, so do their own fortunes.”
“Yes, but they fear not as much as ours. And they hold their rights at the pleasure of our lord. What happens if he decides they are no longer necessary?”
In Ilessa, my investigations often turned on the money. Who’s got it, who wants it, what are they willing to do to get it. I’d thought to get away from that this far afield, but what if this spirit, ultimately, was about stopping these new alliances? I hadn’t thought of it like that until just now, and such a thing would mean that the spirit was purposefully installed in the castle. But by whom? One of the magnate families of Outer Vaina? Where would they have gotten the resources, the knowledge for such a thing? Falla? She seemed to have plenty of motive, and perhaps opportunity, but that didn’t seem to match with who she was. Or, at least, who I thought she was.
Vesonna came to mind as well, but she neither seemed to be upset by the prospect of marrying into House Meradhvor or to bear any ill well to her mother. Unless the effects on Aevala were unintentional. A side effect of the purpose of one who summoned a spirit of the dead to Vaina castle. If the spirit’s attachment had not been spontaneous. There were too many possibilities, to many unknowns. I could speculate endlessly and get nowhere without more information. But, in the present circumstances, that wasn’t a bad thing.
“I’ll play your game, Dalen. I’ll tell you what I’ve discovered so far. But I need to speak to Nilma alone.”
“Out of the question!” the man said, his cheeks briefly flashing red, though I couldn’t tell whether that was anger or the drink. “The impropriety alone is unconscionable. The amn Esti will be arriving for the wedding in mere days. What will they think if they hear that I’ve let some strange man—lord or no—spend time with her alone just days before her nuptials.”
“I’m flattered, Master im Valladyn, but rein in your imagination. Besides, who would tell? Or don’t you trust your servants?”
He thought about it for a moment. “I agree—but only with conditions.”
“First, my man here will stand just outside the door.”
“Second, you will use none of your Art upon my daughter.”
“I wouldn’t think of it.”
“Third, you will leave any mention of Nilma and my family out of any discussions of the haunting.”
“I do not need superstitious folk saying that we’re somehow tied to that spirit’s appearance. The amn Esti would balk and I cannot—will not—have that.”
“I’ll need to tell Lord Aryden, at least.”
“You will not. You can tell him the substance of your discussions but not its source. He will understand and want the same thing I do, for the sake of our mutual plans. And, as a token of my good faith, I’ll agree to pay you five swans once my daughter’s wedding has concluded.”
“I’m not here to protect your interests, Master Dalen. I’m here to do a job for Lord Aryden. I’ll not take your coin to relocate my loyalties. I am no mercenary. Here’s what I know so far: The spirit in the castle is of one deceased who has not crossed over as they should. I am unable to discern the likeness or identity of this person. It is probable that they did not receive proper rites and that this has contributed to their failure to ascend to whatever awaits us beyond this life, but it is also possible that some overriding obsession or a tragic end caused the phenomenon that anchors them to our world.
“Although the priest, Barro, lays heavy suspicion on the sorceress Falla, I have encountered her and I am not inclined to agree. Since visiting her, I have come here to speak to your daughter, so that I may discern what additional information I can glean to identify and allay the spirit that haunts the castle. Now, take me to your daughter.”
A subtle sorcery intertwined with my words, pulling slightly at the emotions of my host as I spoke, softening the resistance he bore toward giving me what I asked. When I’d finished, my head ached dully with the exertion, but Dalen waived his pipe at the servant to show me to Nilma. Not my finest work, but I’d take it.
We passed down another short hallway and into a well-lit sitting room. In a far corner of the room, a young woman worked at needlepoint, her hands moving swiftly as she drew the needle from one side of the from to the other and it dove back down again. From where I stood in the doorway, she appeared to be completing the amn Esto arms. A fitting wedding gift, I supposed.
She looked up over her shoulder, the bright expectation of seeing a beloved family member on her face. When she saw me instead, the light left her face in a rush and she turned her back to me. With a nod to the servant, I slid the door closed behind me, leaving us alone together.
“You’re the thaumaturge?” she said, speaking to the window on the far side of the room, in which I could catch the faintest reflection of her soft face, still almost childlike.
“If you begin any incantation, our family’s guards will hear you and kill you before you can finish.”
A small laugh escaped my lips unbidden, and I recollected myself. “I’m sure they would,” I assured her. “But there’ll be no need for that. I only want to ask you some questions. No thaumaturgy. Now workings. Just words—normal words.”
“You’ll deal honestly with me, then, as one who fears The One and their judgment?”
“Then ask your questions and begone.” Her free hand flashed the sign of the Tree between tugs at the needle.
“I am told that you saw the spirit that now dwells in your Lord’s castle.”
“I felt its presence. And I will not return to see it. I have wounds enough to remember the encounter the rest of my life. And perhaps in the next as well,” she said sullenly.
I found that a brush with supernatural death is often more disturbing than uplifting, proof that there are indeed fates worse than death that could await us on the other side.
“Will you show me?”
Without turning, she lifted her hair with both hands to expose the back of her neck. On either side were three parallel red lines surrounded by pink and irritated flesh. The wounds were light, relatively speaking; they could just as easily have come from an encounter with the household cat. A demonstration of affection or hatred—I’m not sure that felines much differentiate.
“Tell me how you got those,” I said, gentle, but firm.
“My lady had sent me to refill a jar of wine from the butts in the cellar. I didn’t want to go—we’d all heard about strange things happening down there. For a while, Eldis has accompanied each servant when they went down there, but he’d stopped doing that. I think he thought we were all playing some prank; once he concluded that we were not, he didn’t need to see more. I looked for him anyway so I wouldn’t have to go alone, but I couldn’t find him. So, I went down to the cellars for more wine, by myself. It was as it always was, bright and quiet—except the air felt cold. Not cool, as I’d expected. Cold. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end and I felt a sudden desire to run. But I knew that I could not return empty-handed.”
“What would have happened if you had?”
“My lady would have been disappointed in me. ‘A noblewoman must have courage,’ she told me. ‘For days often come when we must be the bravery of the household.’ I refused to disappoint her; she’d been so kind to me.”
“I forced myself to the keg that had been tapped. I filled the jug halfway with wine so that room remained for water. My lord and lady never take their wine without water. The wine steamed as it poured into the jug. It was warm, unnatural. It smelt of vinegar and I worried it had gone bad. That’s when I heard the voice.”
I leaned forward at this. “What voice?”
“It was a whisper, faint and far away at first. It said my name, I thought, but I wasn’t sure. I thought it might be Eldis calling to me from above, calling me to some other task. I called out myself, but heard only silence in reply. Just as I began to think I’d imagined the whole thing, it spoke to me again, but I couldn’t make out the words.”
“Because of the language?”
“No, not that. It spoke in Altaenin, but I could not hear well enough to make out but scraps. And yet, it felt as though it came from both far away and from inside my head. I dropped the jug of wine and ran. As I climbed the stairs, I felt something reaching for me from behind. Something hot touched my neck and I screamed, though it seems that only the very tips of its fingers got me.”
I nodded agreement at that, but realized she couldn’t see.
“Someone, I don’t remember who it was, was at the top of the stairs. He must have heard me screaming. I don’t remember what happened after that, I just remember being home. It was night, so one of my lord’s men must have brought me home. Must’ve carried me the whole way. I haven’t returned since.”
“And you haven’t felt the spirit’s presence here since you’ve come home?”
Her back stiffened. “No. Is it here? Can it come here?”
“If you haven’t felt or seen it since you came home, it’s unlikely that it can come here at all. What do you think about your upcoming marriage?”
“I look forward to it. It is a good match. I have good reports of Lorent, that he’ll make a fine husband. And I shall make him a fine wife, to the benefit of both our families.”
“You’ll go to live in Esto?”
“No. We’ll live in a townhouse in Ilessa, in the upper city.”
“I’m sure you’ll love it. What can you tell me about the boy Orren?”
“The im Varde boy apprenticed to Eldis. Surely you knew him.”
“Oh, him,” she said, voice dripping with scorn.
“So you did know him.”
“Not directly. But I heard a bit about him from the other servants.”
“He was always chasing after them. He’d have his way with one and then toss her aside for another.”
“Then why did young women keep falling for this?”
“They said he was smart, and charming, always seemed sincere. Perhaps they should have paid more attention to the Book, to the Temple teachings: ‘Beware those who come with smiles and gifts, thinking evil in their hearts. Know them by their deeds.’ Foolish girls, throwing away virtue and honor to some scoundrel. It’s a wonder that no father from the town took his revenge upon him.”
“How do you know they didn’t?”
“He’s too lucky for such an end. No matter his tricks on the gullible, his schemes for quick coin, he never seemed to suffer the consequences. His uncle being constable covered over many misadventures, I’m sure, but my lord and lady also thought highly of him, and that gave him great latitude for his behavior.”
“But he is missing. What do you think happened?”
“When he ran out of fools he could part from their money here, he decided to seek his fortunes in the City, I’m sure. Like so many of our town’s ambitious young men. It’ll serve him right if he ends up like the others, working in some factory or other until he’s too injured to work any more and he comes back crippled and in need of care from his family.”
“Sounds like you knew him rather well.”
She threw a sidelong glance, annoyance and umbrage, at me over her shoulder. “I said I did not, and I am no liar. But gossip is a favored pastime in noble courts, for the highborn and the low, and I listened well to what was said about many.”
“Did any of his dalliances result in children?”
“Not that I know of. Young women who have that worry and do not want to go to see the witch Falla, I’m told.”
“You’re told? You’ve been to see her yourself.”
“Lies!” she started, but calmed herself and brought her voice low again. I could hear movement from the servant on the other side of the door, but when no additional disturbance followed the outburst, he decided against barging in.
“There’s no shame in that.”
“Of course, you’d think so. You’re one of them.”
I smiled, chagrined. “So you’ve listened to Barro’s sermons enough to feel guilty about seeing her, to heap scorn on me to make yourself feel better, but not to stop you from visiting her when you felt you had need. How charitable of you.” She no longer held the needle delicately in her left hand; instead she clinched it tight, her knuckles white.
I decided not to press further on that tack. “Your family and the im Vardi do not get along, do they?”
“Petty squabbles and jealousy from them at our family’s success, nothing more. We do what we can to maintain civility, but they seek every advantage against us. They speak against us to Lord Aryden constantly, though my lord is a clever man and sees through their dissembling.”
“One of your family’s retainers was killed in a fight with one of theirs not long past. I’d call that more than petty squabbles.”
“A family is not its retainers, sir. You of all people should know that.”
She’d heard my name, then, but didn’t know much about me beyond that or she’d not have said such a thing. “I never spent much time with my family—or its retainers; I beg your pardon if I require some explanation.”
“The young men who serve our family and the im Vardi see little real fighting. They have little opportunity to prove their bravery save for conflicts they create themselves. It is not that my father—or anyone else from my family, for that matter—asks them to commit violence in our names. But sometimes blood runs hot and men become fools. Justice was done, and those men of both houses with any wits will take the lesson and avoid rough brawling in the streets for the sake of their own pride.”
I changed the subject. “What did you hear about Edanu of House Meradhvor?”
“Little to nothing; he’d only just arrived when I left my service.”
“Then what can you tell me of Lady Aevala?”
“Nothing. I am bound to keep her confidences.”
“Even if keeping those confidences means that she continues to suffer? You know that the castle’s spirit plagues her in particular. Having suffered also at its hands, I’d have thought you’d have more compassion for your lady.”
She sighed heavily, though whether with relief or frustration I could not tell. “What would you know, sir? I’ll tell you what I can without breaching the trust placed in me. It would be unbecoming and ungrateful of me to do anything to the detriment of the amn Vaini, through whose mercy and kindness I will have the life that lies before me.”
“I understand. The priest, Barro, says that Lady Aevala seemed preoccupied with something before the spirit’s appearance. Did you see the same in her?”
“She did seem worried about something, but she never told me what.”
“The Meradhvor negotiations, perhaps?”
“I don’t know. She and Lord Aryden started sending everyone out when they talked. We could hear some yelling, but I could never make out the words.”
“So the amn Vaini were fighting about something.”
She looked to her feet. “Yes.”
“And this was unusual, wasn’t it?”
“Because they usually got along very well, didn’t they?”
“They’re trothbonded, devoted, to each other.”
“So what might they be fighting about?”
“I don’t know.”
“You can make a guess.”
“That would be nothing but slander.”
“Only if I repeat it. I won’t.”
“I don’t trust you, thaumaturge.”
“Of course not. But you were willing to see Falla when you thought she could help you. And I am here to help you. Well, maybe not you specifically, but, if I’m successful in ridding Vaina castle of the spirit, you’ll certainly rest easier, and any threat to your marriage disappears. So, trust or not, it’s in your interest to help me.”
She thought carefully for a moment; a good sign. Logical argument only works on those who can think logically, and that’s a much smaller group of people than ought to be the case. “I think they were fighting about a romantic relationship, maybe Lady Vesonna’s.”
“Vesonna? Who did she have a relationship with? Orren?”
“No,” Nilma laughed. “She was one of the few people who saw through him, flatly denied his advances.”
“Anyone else it could be?”
“I don’t know.”
“No likely candidates?”
“No.” She bowed her head to her needlepoint, her left hand plucking up the needle again and working it back and forth across the frame. A clear indication that the conversation had ended. I knew, in my mind and in my gut, that she hadn’t told me everything she could have. Still, the only option I had now was to use thaumaturgy, to forcefully enter her mind and probe for the answers I sought. A surer method for extracting information, but a violation of the innermost portions of a person’s being, the very essence of their self. Rape of a different sort, and I had no desire to engage in that kind of behavior. A man has to draw lines or he loses himself. Besides, I’d promised her no workings, and that was another line I’d drawn. And, even if I’d wanted to, Nilma was probably right that I wouldn’t make it out of her family’s home alive. So, I let it lie. “Thank you for your help, Mistress Nilma,” I told her, already making my way out of the room.
In the hallway outside of the room I found her father waiting rather than the servant. How much he’d heard of the conversation I didn’t know, but neither did it matter much to me. “My lord thaumaturge,” he said, “I’d just like to reiterate the appreciation that this family would have for you if you could treat my daughter, and any involvement she might have had in events…delicately.”
“As I said, not everything is for sale.”
“My dear Lord amn Ennoc, I am a merchant. If I’ve learned anything, it is that everything is for sale if there’s profit enough.”
I nodded and frowned, not waiting for an escort to show myself out.
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