Posted by: lordkyler | April 15, 2016

Alike In Dignity – Short Story Week 2016

Forests of candles filled the great ballroom, painting the feast in a soft, romantic light. Jewels sparkled on throats, and cleverly placed mirrors made the spacious hall seem infinite, extending the festivities beyond the scope of human imagination. Wine, music and talk flowed steadily and carefully. Dancers spun in the center of the room like some great clockwork machine, whirling and stepping in perfect time.

In shadier corners, however, the talk was less glib, and the dance was of a different sort entirely. Alliances were made and broken by whispered words, and few were foolish enough to take food or drink untested.

Though they might appear under a civil facade at banquets and balls, every soul in Vérron knew about the fierce rivalry between houses of Montreneu and Cabulesse. Harsh words here had sharper echoes elsewhere, and every lesser house weighed their decisions carefully, lest they tread on the toes of giants. Merely wearing the wrong color or making an idle joke could be deadly, should certain folk catch wind of it.

Thus, while poorer folk might watch the proceedings with envy, there were few that would trade places with those inside the great hall, for they danced on a razor’s edge that shifted with every passing wind. Already their battles had left large sections of fair Vérron damaged, stripped of wealth or ravaged by false riots and outright attacks. If not for the stabilizing hand of the church, these two great lions would have already torn the city to pieces.

And yet, for all this, they say love must conquer all. Somiere was counting on it.

He skulked around the edges of the ballroom, slipping past knots of noblewomen and clusters of dignitaries, searching for his target. Beautiful Esselle, a newcomer to Vérron, as he was. She was a cousin of Duchess Murie, come from the countryside after the death of her father. She was already quite popular, beloved among the entire Cabulesse family.

Unfortunately, he was of House Montreneu, which made things complicated, despite their mutual attraction. They’d been meeting in secret ever since that fateful day they met under her balcony. She insisted things were impossible between them, but he’d always believed nothing was truly impossible, and she hadn’t resisted his private advances. Hence his mission.

Ah, there she was, coming in from the veranda. Despite himself, Somiere found himself sighing at the sight. She was lovely as a lily and clever as a clock, quick and cunning in movement and thought. If only he were free to truly pursue her… no, there was no sense in that. Stick to the plan. If she had been honest in what she’d said after the tragic results of the duel, she would agree to his proposal, and he could be free of this cursed city and its veiled war.

She looked up, laughing at some joke made by her attendant. Their eyes met, and a novel’s worth of dialogue passed between them in a moment. His eyes darted to a quiet spot on the upper levels, and she smiled agreement. He would wait for her until she could make the appropriate excuses and step away.

He turned away discreetly, making a few stops to speak with allies and take some refreshments, just enough that nobody would notice his absence. Gradually he made his way to the upper levels, staring out over the crowds and listening to the slow music. From here, the division was more apparent, with the reds and golds of Montreneu thicker on one side, and the blues and greens of Cabulesse grouped on the other. Even those in the middle, mostly those of the lesser houses, tended to gravitate to one side or the other. This feud was ludicrous, driving a wedge into the heart of the city and tearing it apart. Maybe things would change after this, or maybe not. So long as he was free of it.

Time seemed to drag on as he waited, each song seeming to stretch into a symphony. The candles slouched and grew fat, just as the people did, and the clockwork dances wound down, seeming to slow time with them. At last, just when he was about to give up for the night, Esselle appeared. Her hands were clasped before her, holding something Somiere couldn’t see. She quickly pulled him into a quiet corridor, leaning in close, eyes bright and voice breathless.

“Pray excuse my lateness, sir,” she begged. “My cohorts flutter about me like magpies, enamored of anything novel.”

“You are indeed novel, or perhaps an epic, as the poets once wrote. Little wonder they are drawn to you like moths to a flame,” Somiere fluttered his hand by Esselle’s face in pantomime. “Drawn to brightness they can scarcely imagine and warmth beyond their ken. In faith, I am fit to be burned myself against your splendor.” His fingers brushed against the delicate line of her jaw, and then pulled away as if scalded. Esselle laughed, a sound like birdsong.

“Not so, good sir! If I am the element of destruction, you are that of nurture, cool water that grows a garden within me, tempering my passions.”

“And being warmed in turn,” Somiere said smoothly. He’d never used to be much for the high talk of nobles or the over-sweet language of romance, but this woman made it easy. If his colleagues heard him speaking thus, they would laugh themselves into fits. Focus on the plan, he chided himself.

“My lady, I must speak with you, for as you said, our affinities are opposed–”

Esselle stopped him, placing a hand over his lips. “Speak not of such things, I beg you. There is no healing draught that can cure the hatred between our two houses, but our kin need not fix our fate.” She paused. “I have something I must confess, good sir.”

She blushed and looked up at the ceiling for a moment. “Lord forgive a simple maid… I am no mere country courtier. Like yourself, I am one of the primary heirs of my house.”

Someire tried to feign surprise. As if that fact hadn’t been the cause of this whole mess. Still, he had to ask the questions she would expect. “What of Sir Richeu?”

“The family hides it, but he is afflicted of consumption, I fear.” She frowned, and Somiere struggled not to embrace her in comfort. “He likely will not last the year. As he is without child, inheritance passes elsewhere – to me, the scribes say, though I do not know what strange laws or acts of God must lead to such a conclusion.”

Neither the law nor God would approve of what made you heir, poor lady, Somiere thought. He hesitated before asking the next question, even though she would expect it. It was impossible that she would say yes, but the mere possibility that she might agree was terribly tempting.

Surprisingly, Esselle broached the subject herself. “I know this must seem most fortuitous, sweet Somiere, but I fear it does little to help us. Even if we took our places on the morrow, the feud between our bickering houses would never permit such a union. They would dismiss it as madness, and if we forced the matter, the whole of the city would be wracked with bloodshed.”

“So what are we poor souls to do?” Somiere questioned. “I envy the leaves, that may in an instant sever that which holds them captive and wander with the wayward wind to fairer climes…” he trailed off, as though he were just having the all-important idea that very moment, but Esselle was only half listening. She took her hidden object and pressed it into his hands.

Somiere stared at the small glass vial, now actually confused. “What is this?” he asked.

“A different sort of madness, perhaps. Of a truth, I have seen men changed by plays and pageantry. Legends are the truest of lies, they say. Perhaps if we were to become players, we might soften hearts with subtlety and subterfuge.”

“Esselle, what is this?”

“Poison.”

Somiere nearly dropped the vial. “Poison?”

Esselle hastend to steady him. “Careful, sweet. There is no medicine to cure our houses, but perhaps a poison might, if we are careful. This vial contains something most rare, given me by the vicar to help unite our houses. For us it will be a philtrum, sealing our love for all time. We need only take a dose of this beforehand” – she held up a second vial – “and we shall only appear to die. We shall leave a letter explaining that we would prefer to perish together than live apart. God willing, this tragedy shall bring our houses together in grief, and we may miraculously recover.”

A thunderbolt could hardly have shocked Somiere more. His head was spinning, trying to rearrange the world so that it made sense again. “And if they do not?” he asked automatically.

The young lady sighed. “Then we shall flee in secret. That was your plan, was it not? To forsake all and elope? Why not try for peace first?”

Somiere struggled. This was everything his heart had ached for, but it was the last thing he needed. No, as badly as it might hurt, duty called. “Very well,” he said. “Into death, the final deliverance, and may God grant we return free once more.”

She kissed him then, and Somiere almost told her truth. Instead, he put his tongue to other tasks and tried to forget the future. After all, dedication was the mark of a true assassin.

•••

The woman known as Esselle came awake with a gasp, the musty air sweet in her parched mouth. She took a moment to look around and get her bearings, a habit that had become instinctive. They were still inside the church, though the sky was now dark outside the massive stained glass windows. Somiere lay lifeless beside her. A pity. He was far more charming than most of the men that had tried to claim her in the past.

Shakily, she reached into her bodice and retrieved the antidote. The preventative antidote they’d taken beforehand was false – she was relying on her carefully-built immunity – but this dose was genuine, to help fully purge the toxin from her system. She could only hope it worked quickly. She’d paid the vicar a pretty price for it, and she had work to do. As soon as she could stand properly, she would finish off the poor Montreneu heir and collect her pay. This ridiculous scheme had taken long enough. The city could work itself out after she left.

Just as she was working her way to her feet, however, Somiere began to stir. Esselle stared in surprise, tripping over her own wobbly legs. He should have kept sleeping until he died of dehydration.

Nevertheless, there he was, rising to hands and knees. Was this some miracle? Or was this naive courtier more than he appeared to be? Someone like her?

Still sluggish, Somiere reached for a knife at his belt, searching to find his supposed lover. He looked around wildly before finally spying her next to the pews where she had fallen. This time, when they locked eyes, there were no masks, no lies.

“You… you’re an assassin too?” Somiere croaked. “I thought you were a Cabulesse heiress.”

“And I thought you were a Montreneu noble,” Esselle replied. “Our schemes, it seems, have run afoul of each other.”

Somiere laughed a little. “This whole damned city is more tangled than a Caldish weave. Two false heirs sent to eliminate each other? What are the chances? What do they even plan to do after the killing? Strike during the moment of weakness? Cry murder and sway neutral houses? Foster infighting? A pack of lunatics, the lot of them.”

“So… what now?” Esselle asked. “Shall we duel? Stage another elaborate ruse? Or simply go our separate ways?”

Somiere sheathed his dagger and pulled out a small vial of his own antidote, draining it in a single quick gulp. “It’s not often you meet a woman in this line of work,” he said conversationally. “Much less one as good as you.”

She shrugged. “Got to make a living somehow. Better than whoring, in my estimation.”

“I’d have to agree with you there,” Somiere said, grinning. “Bit lonelier, though.”

There was a moment of silence. “Are you trying to woo me, sir?”

“We’d be a good team, don’t you think?”

Another pause. “It would be nice to be with a man I don’t have to kill or rob,” she mused. “Someone to be honest with. Watch my back.”

“Milady, I would watch any part of you with rapt attention,” Somiere said, leering. So much for flowery talk. “Say the word.”

She didn’t have to think long. “A love story after all. Who might have guessed?” She grinned, a sweet smile, with fangs in it. “My real name is Juliesse.”

“Romeno,” he replied. He stood up, unable to keep from smiling. She smiled back, but then started to cough violently. Romeno rushed to her side, but pulled back when she vomited, spilling blood-tinged vomit across the carpet. “Esselle? Are you well? Juliesse?”

He rushed to her side, but it was too late. She slumped over, eyes staring sightlessly at the stained glass window. The empty vial of antidote rolled from her limp fingers, sparkling in the moonlight. Romeno stared in horror, and then felt a stab of pain in his gut, muscles twisting. The last thing he saw before collapsing was fair Juliesse, and a pair of hands taking her away…

•••

Vicar Ambrose dragged the unconscious assassins to a secluded place deep in the catacombs, wiping his brow with a sleeve from the exertions. Playing both sides was dangerous, but it paid richly enough.

Both of the false heirs had turned to him, assuming him to be a neutral party, but that wasn’t true. He belonged to the church, through and through, and he was tired of watching idly while sinful houses oppressed the honest poor of Vérron.

So when he caught wind of this delightfully ironic pair of schemes, it had been a simple matter to concoct a plan along with the potions. Mixed with the antidote was a more pernicious poison. When the two assassins awoke, they would find themselves with an intense craving for a drug only he possessed, a longing so powerful that they would perish if they went more than a day without it. They would do anything to get more.

Somiere and Esselle were dead, but in the wake of their deaths, Romeno and Juliesse would be his weapons to seize back the church’s rightful power. One day the history books might call this a tragic romance, but he would know it for what it truly was. Victory.

The vicar whistled a jaunty tune as he locked the door of the prison cell. It was time to arrange the first of many funerals.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: