The Lady's Handbook of Intrigue and Murder (High Fantasy Politics) - 11: Marriage Muse (Part 1)
The Great Hall of Aigis was heady with the scent of high spirits. Their servants had had to crack open yet another oaken barrel as the proud people of the peaks sought to drink each other under the table. Even as the first hour of the feast ended, the kitchens were still hard at work sending them dishes—grilled minced meats and onion slices dripping with fat served on metal skewers; a lamb stew flavored with herbs, sour plums, and white wine; baked salmon, fried sturgeon, and a hot onion soup.
After all, she was their host and it was the Night of Nomos: a holy day separate from and separating the months of harvest and winter. Like all gatherings, it was also about power and politics.
Fresh from their successful journey north nearly a fortnight ago, it was a chance to impress upon their vassals that Kolchis remained in control. If even the furthest lords and freest cities could be compelled to pay taxes, what of those nearer and weaker? Those who thought them wounded would now wonder: “What had she done to them” and “Am I next?”.
Mydea toasted with her cup of chilled honeywine served over ice, savoring its minty undertones as eyes met Dame Rothston’s. The landed knight averted hers guiltily, and, oh, what a sweet sight that made!
Even Lords Andras and Alkaios had attended—having been invited before she left their keep. No doubt they’d travelled to Phaleinas and boarded a ship south, same as Mydea’s party. Not only did it make for better time, it wasn’t practical to bring the chest with her while travelling so she’d entrusted it to the city council after confirming she’d not been cheated. A portion of said chest’s contents were now stacked into a neat pile in the altar outside as an offering to the Pantheon all present had borne witness to.
She was not fool enough to think she could rest on her laurels now. Lord Eminent Pleonexia’s warrant still needed to be forced, and the rest of their recalcitrant vassals had bowed out of caution, but weren’t broken. Yet, just for tonight, she let herself bask in the warmth of victory.
“To House Kolchis!” Andras said, toasting with his cup of sweet ambrosia.
“Kolchis!” answered her guests in good cheer, knocking back drinks as servants struggled to serve them all.
Tomas smiled wryly from beside her on the high table. “You seem to be enjoying yourself, my lady.”
“To the victor goes the spoils, Tomas,” Mydea said after swallowing a mouthful of fire-roasted pork, salted and cooked with fresh onions and southern peppers. A short, slender man of Monsi stock took out his lute to perform a jaunty song for them.
“As you say, Lady Advocate,” Tomas said, toasting with his cup of spirits before taking a sip.
She returned the gesture, the honeywine flowing down her throat like melted butter. “One must strike while the iron’s hot.”
“You’ve learned the lessons of Jaeson the Conqueror,” Tomas said. “What shall be your next conquest then?”
Mydea leaned in so close that her lips might brush against his ears. “I think I shall conquer you next,” she said with an impish grin.
Tomas gasped, even as he offered her his hand. “My lady! A soilborn and a steelborn mingling brazenly? Think of the scandal it would cause among your vassals.”
“Let them watch. Let them whisper,” she said as they stood. Let them wonder if I am my mother’s daughter.
Already the murmurs were starting, and when they’d reached an open section of the room just below the dais, they had captured the whole room hostage without uttering a word. Tomas played his part to perfection, bringing the back of her hand to his lips.
Mydea giggled visibly. “I should like to hear something with a good beat to it,” she declared. Above in the gallery, other musicians—drummers and pipers and fiddlers—prepared to play at her command.
As the dance began, Tomas asked, “What is it you’re trying to accomplish tonight?”
“I’m taking advantage of you, obviously.”
“Obviously,” he repeated with a grin.
Mydea twirled, her long satin dress blooming open like petals at the motion. “You’re clever, Tomas. I’m sure you can figure it out,” she said when they came back together, and now more lords and ladies joined them on the floor like clockwork.
“Such praise,” Tomas said.
“I consider it your best quality.”
His brow rose. “Very high praise indeed. Well, if I must wager … I would guess it has something to do with your prospects?”
“Perhaps I’ve had too much to drink,” Mydea said. “Perhaps I’ve taken more than a liking to you.”
“Perhaps,” he said with an incline of his head, “but you know I’m to be wed to some girl my family’s chosen. You cannot be thinking of impropriety.”
“How can soil compare to steel?” she asked. “I think I might sway you on this night.”
“You wouldn’t,” he said, certain as the seasons. “You’re not even trying really.”
Mydea’s brow arched this time. When Tomas spun her into him, she pressed her body against his, tighter than what the move called for. “I pray you reconsider.”
“My betrothal, or my opinions?” he asked.
“Yes,” she answered.
He laughed. “How precise. So this is about your marriage then, not mine?”
“Yes and no,” Mydea said. She tilted her head to the side, where Lord Lorne’s daughters sat watching. “Every eye is on me, and therefore, on you. I’m sure a handful of ladies have taken note of you now, if they haven’t already.” It was no mistake that she had sat him by her side all evening when she could have granted that honor to anyone else.
“You still hope to poach me away from my family, I see.”
“Can you truly blame me?” Mydea asked. “Coming across you is like finding a thread of gold in a field of straw. I had to try at the very least. So, who shall it be? Lord Lorne’s younger daughter makes for a pretty sight, though you may find her dull. Still, I know some men prefer that.”
“Do I really strike you as the type?” Tomas asked.
“I confess that you do not, but we’ve not known each other so long that I could be sure of who you are,” Mydea said. “Perhaps Dame Rothston’s kin then? She has a cousin, witty as a whip.”
Tomas seemed to consider it for a moment, before shaking his head. “A cousin does not usually inherit.”
Ah, so there is a price? Mydea thought, a small smile creeping up on her. “If it means that much to you, I can convince my brother to carve out a plot of land for you and her. Enough to make you a landed knight then.”
They drew close together once more. “What if my ambitions ran a little higher than that?”
“The son who reaches for the sun burns his hand,” Mydea quoted from The Sayings of Syngian.
“But he grasps the whole world in the other,” Tomas finished with the common rejoinder missing from the book. “Passion consumes, my lady.”
“And where do your passions lie?”
Tomas leaned in to whisper. “Would you object if I asked for you?”
“My hand in marriage?” Mydea asked.
“Your hand and everything attached to it,” he said, brows waggling.
She snorted. “I shall have to give it some thought.”
He feigned the look of a wounded fawn, eyes all wide. “After all you’ve said tonight? Have you been leading me on?”
“I said I would conquer, not be conquered,” Mydea said. “The fools see bright silver in the soil, yet fear of dirtying their silken gloves,” she remembered her mother’s writings.
A marriage with Tomas was not the worst thing in the world, she supposed. She might even come to care for him with time. Yet, she had more than mere feelings to consider, for House Kolchis was not so strong now that it could do whatever it pleased. There were interests to balance, alliances to forge.
You might have been perfect, if only you were of good stock, from a family of strength, she thought. Alas, perfection was ever elusive.
“Is our charade coming to an end? I’m afraid I must leave soon,” Tomas said. They bowed to each other as the music faded.
“It is a shame to see you go,” Mydea said. “I hope you’ve enjoyed our hospitality?”
“Very much so,” Tomas said, escorting her back to their seats. “My matriarch is sending someone to accompany me home in a few days. I shall have nothing but good things to tell her.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Mydea said. It was a shame to lose him, but though the strongest bonds were bought with vows, there was no reason they could not be good acquaintances … friends, even!
After they’d sat back down, Tomas asked, “So, I’m curious. What was your scheme with that? Something to do with your marriage, but what exactly?”
“All the room’s a stage, and I its only player,” she said.
“Do I not deserve some credit?”
“Can you really be said to have performed, if you did not know your role to begin with?” she asked.
He snorted. “So a show then?” Tomas’ gaze swept across the room. “For them?”
She offered him a grin. “Isn’t that part of what nobility is? The show?”
“You were bidding yourself up, and using me to do it,” he realized. “It would have taken me a good while to figure that out.”
“You’re lacking some context is all,” Mydea said. After all, how could he have known of her family’s recent history when House Kolchis was not what it once was. It was still a name recognized in the Deeplands, but increasingly less so the further south or west one traveled. “My father is strawborn, if you haven’t realized yet.”
“I had an inkling,” Tomas said, “but strawborn are married into lordly lines every so often.”
“He was always a bit of a rebel,” Mydea said. “He did not graduate from the athenaeum, nor observes lordly customs. Most importantly, he is too quick to commit violence.”
“Your lords fear I would be like your father?”
“They fear that House Kolchis will take in another strawborn who refuses to play their game,” Mydea said. “My father broke their board over his knee with the sheer strength of his sorcery. They wonder what it is in you that’s drawn my attention so … and if they’re about to lose their chance of marrying up. It will make them worry, and worry brings with it weakness. Still others concern themselves with stealing you and your service from me.”
Tomas nodded slowly. “They think I have some secret that’s enticed you.”
“Mystery has its allure,” Mydea said. “I meant what I said before, about keeping my offer open if your future partner is not to your liking.”
“I shall keep that in mind, Lady Advocate,” Tomas said with an amused expression.
As the night winded down, they retained the attention of her brother’s retainers. Many came to pay their respects and to pry them from each other, their breaths smelling of peat smoke, spice, and good spirits. Mydea kept track of a dozen knights sworn to their service for pay or privileged rank and dames in dresses far from distressed; the red-haired Rothstons, brown-skinned sorcerers from Skali, the Lornes of Lone Stone, pale as their peaks where the pegasi foaled…
She danced only once more that night, and it was with none of them.
“May I have this dance, my lady?” Alkaios asked, standing below the raised table and looking up at her with his blue eyes. There was a rugged quality to him some women found pleasing even without his father’s beard and windburnt skin.
Mydea rose from her seat, to his visible surprise. “How could I refuse? You are the son of a mythslayer,” she said in a loud voice. Murmurs broke out among the onlookers, and some cast speculative looks at Andras Pyli, as if merchants valuing another’s wares.
“I should hope to earn your favor with my own hands then,” Alkaios said.
He has ambition, Mydea thought with approval. Nobility was a fine thing, but it was the achievement of their ancestors.
“His deeds have earned you this one dance. Whether we dance again after tonight is up to you, my lord,” Mydea said.
“I shall endeavor to do my best,” Alkaios said.
“See that you do,” Mydea said. “I despise disappointment.”
It was a delicate balancing act to keep her lordly suitors at arm’s length, but interested. Here, her staunch ally was that greatest of gifts, that cruelest curse—what people called hope. So long as they believed themselves a chance, they would continue competing with each other. In turn, the higher her hand in marriage would be valued, and the two would continue in an upward spiral with each other.
When Mydea returned to her seat, she spotted Tomas sporting the strangest face. “You look as if you’ve had something disagreeable,” she said.
“You seemed to enjoy yourself,” Tomas said.
“It was pleasant,” Mydea said. To her amusement, Tomas looked away. It was a curious thing that men wanted that which other men wanted, and for no other reason.