“A pity,” Cavallo said. He sat behind a large, ostentatious desk, all scrollwork and gilding. It was vulgar even by Fel’Mekrin standards. The lights in the corners of the room flickered as if in imitation of candlelight. He wore his straight black hair hanging over one shoulder. It was washed and combed within the last hour, glowing with an almost bluish sheen. His shirt was a perfect, pristine white, laced to the collar. A vest hung from a peg behind the desk, the elaborate gold embellishments speaking of his family lineage and personal rank. All told, he was dressed as if he were going to a very formal affair.
Gwen stood before him, a fine layer of dust and grime covering her training uniform. Her own hair, usually luxurious, was coming loose from its braid, and was oily from the sweat that clung to her. The disparity in their appearances annoyed her, as it established the true gulf between their positions. As expected, he did not offer her a seat. It was a time-honored family rule that subordinates did not sit in the presence of their betters.
He took his time straightening the papers he was occupied with when she’d walked in. From the lack of clutter, she knew it was nothing more than a prop, yet another symbol of his importance. Still, he made sure the edges were squared just so.
“I was rather hoping you would choose to defy me yet again,” he said. “It would have been gratifying to close the doors against you.”
He held up the top parchment, the tight lines of flowing script visible from the distance that separated them. “I even took the liberty of writing to your mother informing her of my decision.”
He laid the letter down and folded his hands on top of it. A tight, supercilious smirk bespoke his triumph. “There is still space, as you no doubt saw, to add a few lines.”
Gwen did not respond. She let her glare speak for her as she focused on the wall behind him. He was not the only one who understood the subtle arts of power. She did not stand at attention before him, but rather stood with a jaunty and self-confident air. She had grown up at her mother’s side, and there was not a better practitioner of all the executions of authority. Let the pompous ass play his little games. He would see that he was dealing with the daughter of Endeara Fel’Mekrin.
“Nothing to say?” Cavallo said. “No snippy remarks about bloodying my nose?”
When Gwen did not respond, he drummed his fingertips on the edge of the desk as he watched her.
“Very well.” Cavallo stood and lifted his vest from the peg. “We might as well get started then. We do not want to be tardy.”
There were no implements of pain to be seen. No paddle, no switch, no club. She was expecting a beating to compare with the one she’d just given Nole, and had mentally prepared herself for such. It was obvious, however, that the sick son of a bitch had something more sinister planned for her.
Cavallo noticed the movement and chuckled.
“I am not so base as to punish someone of your stature with physical torment,” he said. The glee in his voice was palpable. “Come.”
He stretched out his arm to her.
“Where are we going?” she said, ignoring his offer, but unable to conceal her apprehension.
He walked to the door and held it open for her. The revelry echoed through the halls from the communal celebration of the Twelfth’s victory. By the sound of things, they were gearing up to run well into the night. The celebration appeared to be the stuff of legend. It was too bad she would have to miss it.
Cavallo walked ahead at a brisk pace, suffering only once to admonish her to keep up. The rest of the time he did not speak. The formed stone walls of the barracks flowed past them as they walked deeper into the heart of the mountain. Mosaics depicting the valor and heroism of House Fel’Mekrin lined them, with floor to ceiling portraits of distinguished Blades interspaced between the battles. The House prided itself on its martial abilities, and the fact that its members had been involved in every major conflict going back to the war against the Apostate. Indeed, a grand tapestry of Burbank Fel’Mekrin, first councilor to the King hung in a place of prominence in the main concourse.
They arrived at a pair of ornate double doors, rich wood that seemed to grow through the very stone surrounding it. Cavallo ushered her inside with a mocking bow. Two Elc’atar sat at a low round table, lounging on cushions and talking quietly to each other. Gwen paused as she entered the room, unsure of what she was seeing. Cavallo was the only Fel’Mekrin besides her present. Deidra had confronted the Twelfth in the Le’Manon barracks, and Christophe was Mer’Chien. Gwen sent a questioning glance at Cavallo, but he breezed past her and took a cushion at the table.
“My apologies,” he said as he arranged himself. “The help kept me waiting until the last moment.”
“Scrubs can be taught,” Deidra said, giving Gwen a nod of recognition. “I’m glad to see you’re taking an interest in this one. From what I’ve seen she’s incorrigible.” She affected
a relaxed air, but her sin’del quivered around the edges. It was obvious she was not comfortable here.
“I’m sure you’ll mold her admirably, my friend,” Christophe said. He appeared more at ease, as he should. Mer’Chien was a close ally of her House. As a substantially smaller line, it maintained a diffident position, but enjoyed a tolerant hospitality.
Cavallo gave a half bow as a gracious host should in acceptance of a subordinate’s compliment.
Deidra affected a stage whisper. “She doesn’t seem to be taking the initiative.”
Cavallo wore a long-suffering expression. The pantry is off to the side, he sent to Gwen, not bothering to hide his scorn. You are to assist serving the tea. Your “partner” today will tell you all you need to know. I expect you to behave yourself and move with alacrity so as not to shame your family.
I thought other Houses weren’t allowed inside each other’s barracks, Gwen sent.
A leer crept across Cavallo’s face. We are Elc’atar, and as such we are beyond the scope of normal law.
Gwen bit back the vicious retort that rose within her. He was making her serve? This was her punishment? And he had the nerve to have her do so before other Houses? Gritting her teeth, she made her way to the pantry, doing her best to maintain her composure.
Another graduate was already there, assembling the paraphernalia of the elaborate tea they were to serve. His white-gold hair screamed his lineage as clearly as her own dark hair bespoke hers. Not only was she to act the servant, she was to do so accompanied by a Kal’Parev! And he was filthy! A layer of mud, pine needles and leaves covered his rumpled clothing. His face was scoured clean, but his sin’del was harrowed, as if with exhaustion.
“Wonderful,” he muttered as he noted her entrance. “This day keeps getting better.”
“And you are?” she said, lifting her chin just so.
He placed the cup he was holding on the tray and his fists on the table top to either side. His gaze was presumptuous and he made no effort to disguise his appraisal of her. The colors of disdain rose in his sin’del as he regarded her. He straightened and gestured to the kettle sitting over the small fire in the corner.
“Tend to the water,” he said, dismissing her as he resumed his task. “Make sure it doesn’t boil.”
“Excuse me?” Gwen said, indignant with his response.
He made an obvious effort to maintain his patience, but said nothing. He just watched her, waiting for her to continue.
“Tend the water?” she said, stepping closer. “That’s it? I ask you your name, and you tell me to tend the water? Do you have any idea who I am?”
He sighed and folded his arms. “Look, princess, Aye’m not in the mood right now—”
“I am Gwendolyn Fel’Mekrin,” she said, her chin lifting higher still, “daughter of Endeara and Lucien!”
“Aye know damned well who ye are, princess,” he said, turning back to the cupboard. “And Aye’m really not impressed. Aye’m tired, and Aye want a bath. Aye need this to be done with. Please don’t make it any more difficult than it has to be.”
“Then learn to speak with respect,” she said.
“Why?” he said, continuing to assemble the implements on the tray. “Yer a servant right now, just like me. Aye’ll speak to ye as Aye damned well see fit.”
“You may be a servant, but I most certainly am not.”
“Ye are tonight,” he said. “Why else do ye think yer here?”
“Apparently I’m being taught some type of lesson,” she said, a mocking smile on her face.
“As am Aye. What better punishment for the Heir Apparent than to serve? Teaches us humility. Ye might want to check that water.”
Gwen splayed her fingertips on the table top. She was squinting, giving him the same obvious examination he’d given her.
“You must be Thomlin,” she said. “Your squad is terrible.”
Thomlin paused in his arrangement, clearly offended by her statement. He replaced his fists on the tabletop.
“Well, princess, my terrible squad just ripped yer Fifth to pieces this evening,” he said, spreading his arms to either side of him and bowing. “Five were taken to the infirmary, Aye believe. And none from mine. Oh, and that was after being porcupined, and completing four pyramid passes today, Aye might add. Yes, four. Apparently, defending one of our own means we were being disorderly. And Brodhi drags me off here to set me straight. So, Aye’ll thank ye for keeping yer opinions to yerself.”
Gwen paled at the news, her pride in her House preventing her from believing him. There was no way Thomlin’s Third could have beaten the Fel’Mekrin Fifth. They were the best on the field among the graduates. They were disciplined, organized, and skilled. There was simply no possible way that an eleventh tier could best a first tier. Not by honest means, at least. He did not appear to be dissembling, but rather filled with an intense inner pride.
“You beat the Fifth?” she said, unable to hide her disbelief. “Tonight?”
“Aye,” Thomlin said, his enjoyment evident as he resumed his task. “Just after ye finished playing with Nole the way ye did. We hated breaking up yer celebrations, but hey, you lot started it.”
“You had to have cheated.”
Thomlin dropped some cutlery onto the tray with more force than necessary and lifted his head with a slow, deliberate movement. His sin’del reared above him, showing his raised ire.
“Do not presume to question the honor of my House or Pride,” he said, a single finger raised to make the point. “Kal’Parev do not cheat. Yer fecking people started it. Yer soldier, Hyde, drew on me cousin when he was only using his fists. Angus damn near took his head off for it, and Aye fer one am glad he did. So don’t be talking about cheating, princess.”
She knew something had happened on the periphery of the field, but had been too consumed with her elation, and her impending visit to Cavallo to pay it much attention. She had been convinced her own victory had secured her House’s standing in the tiers, but now Thomlin had thrown everything into turmoil again.
“The water, princess,” Thomlin said, calling her out of her reverie. Distracted, Gwen moved to the kettle. Little bubbles were just beginning to form on the bottom, so she moved it further from the flames.
“Where’s the tea?” she said after a cursory glance about the pantry.
“Don’t worry ye self about the tea,” Thomlin said. “Aye’ll be taking care of that.”
“But you’re taking care of the implements,” she said. Thomlin pointed into the air with a mien of determination. “Listen,” he said. “Aye don’t really care to be here tonight. Aye had high hopes of snoring right about now. As it is, Aye’m stuck here serving tea to a gaggle of low-born upstarts trying to prove they’re better than me. Personally, Aye don’t care for the idea.”
“Neither do I,” Gwen said. “But there’s nothing to be done for it. We are here. If we don’t do as instructed, we shame our House.”
“True,” Thomlin said, “to a point.”
“What do you mean to a point?”
“Do ye need to repeat everything Aye say?” Thomlin said. “It’s a bit infuriating, and ye don’t strike me as dumb.”
Gwen clenched her fists and reminded herself that a scuffle in the pantry would surely be frowned upon. She wanted to be done with Cavallo, not give him a reason to continue tormenting her.
“What’s your point?” she said through gritted teeth.
“There’s a reason Brodhi didn’t stay when he brought me by,” Thomlin said with a smile. “He knows well that Aye don’t take to this sort of thing.”
“What are you going to do?” Gwen said. She felt a sudden premonition of vengeance playing out before her, and she knew that whatever he’d planned, Thomlin would make his point to the three Elc’atar waiting for their tea in the next room. She also knew that she was very eager to help in any way possible.
“Can Aye trust ye?” Thomlin said. “Will ye swear it by the name of yer House not to breath a word of this to anyone?”
Gwen was nodding before he’d finished speaking. “I swear by the name of House Fel’Mekrin,” she said. “I will not speak of what we do this night to a soul, nor will I betray by word or action our intent.”
Thomlin accepted her oath.
“This is quickroot,” he said, holding up a small triangular package. “It’s an integral part of the tea for the ceremony. But, it needs to be prepared just so. If it’s not, the digestive results become . . . bloody catastrophic! That’s why they prepare the root
themselves before adding it in. We, however, will be adding a wee bit of the unprepared part to the bottom of the teapot.”
Gwen’s eyes were lit by excitement. This would show Cavallo not to take on airs with her. And Thomlin, despite his disheveled appearance and House, was becoming much more to her liking, especially when he smiled.
“A pinch will do.”
“Good,” she said. “Add two.”