Duke Lares Telli balanced a gold coin between the knuckles of his left index and middle fingers. It took drawing on the magics of his pact to keep his hands steady enough to perform the simple trick.
“My lord,” Serk Ketel, his chief attache said. “We have not received further word from the Denarius Consortium and it has been an hour since their last report.”
The gold coin tumbled to the carpet and with a long, slow breath Telli retrieved another from his desk and began his meditation again.
“Their summoner has been captured then,” Telli said.
“Does this present a problem?” Serk asked. He stood to the side of his lord’s polished wood desk, his body still as a drawn bow string.
“An opportunity,” Telli said. “It’s early to spend one of our pieces on misdirection but that will perhaps make the summoner’s tale ring even more true.”
“The last member of the Consortium who was caught perished by their own hand,” Serk said. “Isn’t the summoner likely to pass in the same manner as well?”
“They’re likely to try, but I suspect our Officer Kor will be ready for that stratagem this time,” Telli said. The coin was balancing well but he felt a tremor in his hand that was threatening to send it plummeting to the floor to join the others. Power was the answer to that. The strength age had stolen from him, could be replaced, he just needed the daring to seize it.
“Is there anything I should prepare for the next phase?” Serk asked.
“No,” Telli said. “The pawns are moving, already dancing to the tune that we’ve set. This part of the game requires that we step back and give them room to fail as we’ve prepared them to.”
Serk was silent in response to that.
“I can tell that you wish to say something.” Telli said. “Speak of it, there will be no censure.”
There were few men who Lares Telli regarded as worthy of respect and none who he felt were his equals. In Serk, the Duke found not someone of his own caliber but someone who at least was sensible enough to have opinions worth listening too.
“I’m concerned about this Officer Kor,” Serk said. “She has been significantly more aggressive in pursuing this case than any other member of the Dawn March would have been. And she’s been more successful at it too.
“Our plan did call for a resourceful and dedicated investigator,” Telli said.
“Yes. I merely find it worrying that she has been a very successful one as well.” Serk said. “Isn’t there a danger that she will see through the disguise we have wrapped this situation in?”
“I’m sure she will,” Telli said. “In time.”
“I have our own assets standing by,” Serk said. “We can move to neutralize her as soon as you command.”
“It’s a tempting thought isn’t it Serk?” Telli said. “She is dangerous, and so we want to make her an enemy. And we want our enemies to be dispatched as quickly as possible. It keeps our lives simple to fit people into that category.”
“I believe she is intent on becoming our enemy regardless of whatever we might make her,” Serk said.
“Yes, because she believes we are dangerous, even if she doesn’t yet know who we are,” Telli said.
“She will have an easier time striking against us if she should discover the truth of our plans,” Serk said.
“Will she?” Telli asked. “Officer Daelynne Kor is one woman, alone, with no more support than the time-withered affections of a small group of old loyalists. She was a torch which sputtered brightly with the first blush of adulthood and then was snuffed to a lingering ember after her great failure. Her power to accuse us or to make anyone listen to her is as broken and empty as her name.”
“Your Grace is doubtlessly correct on that,” Serk said. “My concern is chiefly with her lingering royal connections. She was able to transport her witness to the Queen despite our best efforts to prevent that.”
“Oh I won’t argue that she’s not resourceful,” Telli said. “If I’d had any idea that my son’s vampire would be in a position to cause me such strife I would have beheaded the monster rather than merely beating him.”
“I regret not counseling you to do so as well, my lord,” Serk said.
“But there too, Serk, we both would have been wrong,” Telli said. “The vampire is our enemy too, but an enemy without the power to strike back is what?”
“A tool?” Serk said.
“Exactly,” Telli said. “Thanks to Officer Kor’s heroic efforts we now have an Inchesso vampire to cast in the role of the agent for the Queen. No one will have any trouble believing the story that the Queen hired the Denarius Consortium to kill her own page because poor young Lorenzo saw her engaging in a tryst that he wasn’t supposed to witness. Not when she is engaging in private meetings with a disowned vampire of Inchesso stock.”
“The Queen herself will believe the vampire’s tale though, will she not?” Serk asked.
“Of course,” Telli said. “But the vampire doesn’t know the details she needs to be warned of and by the time they come out, any defense she makes will seem like a belated set of lies to cover her scandal.”
“A vampire and a Dawn March Officer are one sort of prey,” Serk said, “With someone as influential as the Queen though, will the same stratagems really work?
“Before she was a Queen, she was a princess and before she was royalty of any kind Alari was a woman,” Telli said. “Once her virtue is called into question, her word will be as open to question as any common scullery maid. With an air of illicit love, and conspiracy, and murder to set the imagination ablaze, there will be too many who want to believe in her guilt for royal privilege to silence all of their tongues.”
“Perhaps where royal privilege fails, royal power will be exercised,” Serk said. “She is the daughter of the Butcher King after all.”
“Yes, and she earned her sobriquet as the Bloody Handed Queen quite fairly,” Telli said. “But her reign has not been what her father’s was. She has not invested in the bedrock of terror that Sathe’s rule stood upon, nor will she undo the strides she’s made in walking away from her father’s shadow just to quiet the tongues that speak against her. She will bid her time and look for the right moment to strike back.”
“If she finds that moment, her wrath will be terrible,” Serk said. “We saw that at the end of the Unification war.”
“We saw very little of what a royal is truly capable of then,” Telli said. “If the Queen could bring her power to bear, we would count ourselves lucky if she only chose to personally behead us. But that won’t be an issue.”
“Your plans proceed at your pace, of course, your Grace, but I would urge you to ensure that they proceed as quickly as possible,” Serk said. “None thought the princess could overthrow her father and become Queen, I mistrust leaving her fate to chance.”
“In that we are agreed my good attache,” Telli said. “Where we differ is only in the timing.”
“Your Grace?” Serk asked, sensing that his master held a secret from him still.
The Duke maneuvered the coin he was balancing from one set of knuckles to the next. It was a slow, deliberate move, without the flash that a young performer would have put into the trick but the coin moved as Telli willed it to nonetheless.
“So as to calm your nerves, I will share a confidence with you,” Telli said. “You see the Queen growing in awareness of our scheme and reading to move against us. Though she is blind now, still she seeks those shadows she can see rising against her. You fear that if we do not strike soon, she will strike first and we will be undone. In one part of this you are correct. Those who strike first are those who prevail.”
“Then you will accelerate the plans and move against her soon?” Serk asked.
“There is no need,” Telli said. “I won’t attack her directly at all. The Queen is already undone, already the shadows strike against her. Even if our plan were uncovered this very evening and we were hauled to Highcrest in chains tomorrow, the Queen’s life is already compromised. She will die before we ever stand before her in a trial.”
From the corridor beyond Duke Telli’s study the sound of rapidly approaching boots interrupted their conversation. The runner paused at the door and knocked soundly on it, as the Duke insisted his subordinates do regardless of the urgency of the news they brought.
“Enter,” Telli said and fumbled the coin from his fingers as he tried to grasp it and hold it still.
A tall, thin, whip of a man entered. Volk, one of Telli’s trusted messengers, though not so trusted as the chamberlain, looked to his Duke for permissions to speak. Telli nodded at him to get on with his report.
“News from Elinspire,” Volk said. “Your son, Rendolan, has fled the estate!”
“Fled?” Telli gripped the edge of the desk and fought to stay in his seat. “There was supposed to be a guard watching him at all times. How did he flee?”
“The guard captain says that Renaldo was a model son, compliant with your orders until the previous evening. Then he tricked Marcelo, the guard who was watching his room in the small hours of the night. Renaldo gave Marcelo the wine he hadn’t drunk with supper and slipped out while all the house was asleep.” Volk said.
The Duke listened to the tale and grew visibly redder with each word that was spoken. When Volk finished the Duke was silent for a long minute.
“I strive to protect my boy, and this is how he thanks me?” Telli asked. “Volk, tell the guards at Elinspire that they are to spare no effort to find my son. If any harm comes to him, I will have every last one of them whipped. Tell the captain that if my son is not safely home within the day, I will have he and his family flayed alive. Am I clear?”
“Perfectly your grace,” Volk said and disappeared out the door, his boots beating an even faster retreat than their approach.
Telli picked up another coin and fumbled it. He grabbed it before it could fall completely and hurled it into the wall with enough force to flatten it. Forcing himself back to a state of seeming calm, he sat down at the desk again.
“All great plans must sail through uncertain waters,” Telli said, speaking as much for his own benefit as for Serk’s response.
“Here, again, we have an opportunity,” Telli said, grasping another coin in his hand and squeezing it between his thumb and fore finger.
“What opportunity is that my lord?” Serk asked.
“My son is integral to our plan,” Telli said. “The Consortium thinks they are working for the Queen and that I am her agent. Only by keeping them within our domain can I keep them out of her eyes, but that means many trails of inquiry will connect them to my house.”
“You wish to deflect that suspicion onto your son?” Serk asked.
“Not deflect no,” Telli said. “I will leave my son his good name, it would not do to cast aspersions on any who bear the name Telli lest we all be affiliated with their wrong doing.”
“But your son will provide you with a shield against the accusations of the other noble houses no?” Serk asked.
“Indeed,” Telli said. “In life Renaldo has ever been a disappointment. I hoped that as he came into his manhood he might find the spine that he misplaced as a child, but that was never to be. I have one good child Serk, only in my eldest son does the Telli blood run true. He will be a fit heir for me to hand power too when it is my time to pass. And my daughter, mad though she is, can be used to secure us a kingdom. Only Renaldo holds no value to this family, and so only he can I raise up and give the honor of shielding us from blame. Through his death at the hands of the Denarius assassins will we be cast in the victim’s light, our guilt washed to innocence by the blood he spills.”
A smile played across the Duke’s face, mirroring the fondness in his words. All would be as he had always hoped it to be, if only he could find his wayward son.