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Blackthorn - 3. Tansy

As they passed through the giant door way of the Royal Dining Hall Tara looped her hand around Michael’s in an uncharacteristic move. Her usual confident gait slowed to an uncomfortable shuffle. Michael leaned closer to whisper in her ear.

“Are you alright?”

“Uh huh. Just go with it, won’t you?” she whispered back.

Zhen walked ahead of them and made a beeline towards Elena.

Tara had wanted to meet her betrothed who had travelled to the Capitol on more neutral grounds than one of their favorite spots or in the rooms she shared with Zhen. Elena had suggested that they all meet in the Dining Hall at the Royal Court to make sure that no one had more advantage over another. Even though Tara never commented on the topic of her betrothed, Michael had often felt that she was discontent at the loss of choice over the matter. Her discontent seemed to mount in the past few months for reasons that Michael hadn’t looked closely at.

They reached the Royal Table where Elena waited for them, alongside the Queen and Duchess. It was just in Elena’s style to pick the most ostentatious setting imaginable.

The Tlemecenean Viscount stood little ways off to the table and looked extremely uncomfortable as he was being thoroughly ignored as the women were deep in conversation.

“Lady Tara, I almost believed I was being stood up.”

The man sounded sweet despite his cutting words.

The royals looked over at the greeting and gesture them over. Tara let go of Michael’s arm and curtsied to the Queen and the Duchess.

“Lady Tara, why won’t you come sit with me here? It’s not every day I have the good fortune to sit with a fellow Master of Sword.” The Duchess said.

“Your Majesty, Your Grace, allow me to introduce you to Lord Behar Tallinn, my betrothed.” Tara pointed to the Viscount.

“How lovely. You must be an exceptional young man to be betrothed to such a wonderful lady of Dyausan court, my lord. Now, why won’t you sit next to me and tell us a little about yourself.”

The Queen’s enthusiasm was almost believable with her beaming smile and kind voice for anyone who did not know the Khatri siblings close enough or their public faces as opposed to their private faces that were shrewd and calculating. Lord Tallinn seemed a little taken aback from the Queen’s invitation. Tlemecenean court was notoriously popular for its formality which easily spoke for the viscount’s discomfort as he bowed and sat next to the Queen, effectively separated from his betrothed.

Michael walked over to the Queen at the head of the table and kissed her outstretched fingers, surprised at the familiar greeting before bowing to the Duchess and kissing Elena on the cheek. He settled next to Elena and wondered why the Duchess was not seated at the head of the table instead choosing to sit to the right of the Queen. Zhen was flustered at the sight of the Queen as he was wont to do and quickly bowed and sat on the chair farthest from the Queen where he faced Michael.

“Master Michael, I’m glad to hear that you have settled at Boreas quite easily. The Imperial Steward had nothing but praise about your wonderful work on the new tax reforms. Iain’s previous Steward was rather baffled by the whole business for some reason from what I heard.” The Queen said.

“I can’t take any of that praise on the matter, your Majesty. Everything was perfectly in place even before I came in. I simply had to suggest a few changes that favored my house and agree. That was all.”

The delay of tax reformation the Queen spoke of baffled Michael. It had been discussed at the Steward’s Council for over a year without consensus for reasons that Michael still had a hard time believing yet solely revolved around the previous Steward of Nothernlands. It had only taken two sittings for Michael to untangle the mess and get the rest of the realms to agree to his amendments and move ahead with the reformation.

“Still, that doesn’t diminish what you’ve done, Master Michael.” She admonished.

An odd hush fell around them and they turned to see the cause, the sinfully confident form of the Duke of Northernlands reaching their table. He walked towards the group and greeted his sister.

“Irene.” He kissed her on the cheeks and let her return the greeting.

“Iain, what a happy occasion. It is not every day I’m graced with my brother’s presence.” The Queen cooed at her brother.

“Well, I was in the vicinity and decided to see if there was space at my sister’s table tonight.” He promised her before turning to the Duchess.

She kissed him on the cheek, awfully familiar for a friend, almost a lover’s touch that made Michael turn his eyes away from them towards his place setting. When he looked back, the Duchees was watching him, her face an unreadable mask. In the periphery, he noticed the Duke greeting Elena before walking towards the empty seat next to Michael. He regretted his seating choice immediately. The Duke stopped next to him.

“Michael.” The Duke murmured at him and extended his left hand to be kissed just like the Queen. A familial greeting across the continent, blood or chosen.

Michael hid his surprise at the gesture and touched his lips to the outstretched knuckles as he tried to ignore the warmth and the familiar scent of blackthorn that stirred things at the pit of his stomach.

The Duke rarely dined at the Great Dining Hall. The occasion he let other people greet him was even rarer. Michael could see how people had taken notice and whispered among each other. He lifted his head and observed the Duke surreptitiously as the Duke only nodded to the other two guests in acknowledgement, his eyes quickly returning to Michael, to the blue flame of sapphires peeking from Michael’s white shirt, neck opened just so to display the gems at the base of his throat. Michael regretted the choice of his outfit as well as the decision to wear the Duke’s gift as his skin warmed and reddened as the Duke’s gaze caressed his skin.

“Michael, you, of course, know Elena, and Lord and Lady Liang. But were you introduced to everybody else?”

He wondered what prompted the Duke to call him so familiarly while he tried hard not to cherish how his name sounded on the Duke’s lips.

“I was introduced to her Majesty, and the Duchess, your Grace. Lord Zhen and Lady Tara have been my friends forever.” He was sure the Duke knew that already. “We were being introduced to Lady Tara’s betrothed when you joined us.”

“Yes, Brother. What Master Michael was too sweet to point out is that you were rude when you cut in to our new friend’s introduction. Please, Lady Tara, do introduce Master Tallinn better.” The Queen said.

“Tallinn,” The Duke exclaimed in surprise, a touch too overdone to Michael’s taste. The Khatri Siblings were up to something. “My Lord, do tell me you are not Lord Behar Tallinn of Kalevan!”

“I am indeed, your Grace.” The Viscount confirmed, visibly relieved to be recognized.

“Lady Liang, next time you introduce a foreign dignitary perhaps lead with their title.” The Duke admonished Tara before turning to his sister. “Irene, this is His Excellency, Lord Behar Tallinn of Kelevan. The new Tlemcenean Ambassador to Dyaus. He was to be formally presented to the Court next evening, at the feast on his honor.”

Everybody gasped at the news.

Michael took the opportunity to watch the Duke as he turned towards the Viscount. Iain Khatri was a fine male with his long form and warm golden skin. He wasn’t as dark as the members of the royal line were, his features not as lovely as his sister’s either. His cheek was scarred with what seemed to be a sword cut even to the untrained eye of Michael, nose crooked from being broken one too many times. His eyes were dark pools of void instead of the cherished vibrant colors. Yet his presence was smothering in a room from how people reacted to him.

Mostly people were uncomfortable with being in the same room as the ruthless Imperial commander. The rest tried to catch the attention of either the most eligible bachelor of the Dyausan court or the most influential courtier. Michael, however, had a hard time keeping a series of more intimate images off his mind. Images of trailing kisses down hard muscles that were dotted with yet more scars that strengthened the intoxicating effect that they had.

He shifted on his seat and returned his attention to the conversation, desperately trying to keep the images of the Duke’s naked body off his mind.

“I apologize for the misconduct on our behalf, your Excellency. I can only hope you have not taken offence at how we have conducted this evening.” The Duke said.

Michael closed his eyes and breathed in and let the blackthorn that was cloying the air fill his lungs. He wanted to bask in the feeling of the Duke’s eyes shifting back to him every so often and he hated how the Viscount held the Duke’s attention longer than he could.

“There was no offence taken, your Grace. It was my carelessness after all. I did not make sure that I was properly introduced.” Tallinn turned to the Queen. “Your Majesty, if I may be granted, I wish to be treated with the same warmth you regarded me earlier. I have always despised the stiff formality that came with my title.”

“Of course Lord Tallinn. Please tell us the news from Tlemecene. I’ve unfortunately been able to Visit Tlemecene only once during our early years. Oh, how I wish to see those expanses of deserts again. ” The Queen beamed at the Viscount, oddly reminding Michael of a viper coiled to strike.

The Duke relaxed into his chair as dinner was served and trained his intense gaze on Michael, who simply couldn’t look away from the deep pools of darkness until the Duke’s eyes travelled to the base of his throat and his breath hitched sending Michael’s own pulse higher.

The rest of the dinner was a blur to Michael and he was genuinely happy with how the attention remained on the Viscount for he could not focus between the heated glances the Duke shot his way and his own blood seemed to shift between rushing to his ears and further south with the banked arousal that fought to come to prominence. As the dinner drew to an end Michael noticed the Duke’s eyes trained on the tiny bunch of white clover pinned above his heart and was suddenly happy that the Duke was utterly hopeless at floriography.

“You want to tell me what last night was about?”

Michael asked as he set aside the file he was reading.

“I can ask you the same.”

Tara was back to her annoyingly calm self.

“I don’t know what you are talking about.” Michael said.

“Well, let me jog your memory, my friend,” she looked up from the papers she was reading. “A certain Duke could hardly keep his eyes off you and you weren’t any better.” She raised her brow.

“Did you know that the Viscount was appointed the new ambassador?” he shamelessly avoided the point Tara made.

“Not really. He did write to me to let me know that he was going to be in Dyaus for a while. I should admit that I did not read the letter to the end.”

Tara chuckled.

“Tara, you always seemed fine with how everything has been in your life this far. I’ve never even heard you complain about your betrothed. Why the sudden resistance?” He hurried to add, “Not that you can’t change your mind. I’m just curious.”

“You know I loathe to stir trouble. I was resigned to my fate because I had nothing better to look forward to, I suppose.” Tara trailed off.

“And that’s changed. Is there someone else?”

“There is. But I don’t want to talk to you before I tell them.” She set her folder on the sofa next to her. “Wasn’t it rather odd that the previous Steward of Northernlands was as incompetent as she proves to be? Are you sure that you’ve not come across any discrepancies with the finances?”

“Surprisingly, I haven’t. I’ve been going through everything I can think of, but I haven’t found anything that looks suspicious. It just seems that the she was simply incompetent or willingly sabotaged any bridges Northernlands could build with other realms.”

“The Duke didn’t interfere?”

“From what I see it seems he is more concerned about the duties as the Imperial Commander, not those of the Duke. I can’t entirely fault him as I’m sure that task alone is enough for four people. The Steward hadn’t stolen from the Duchy as far as I can tell. She had just been neglectful.”

“It’s baffling how some people can just not do their work,” Tara said. “If I were you, I’d keep my eyes peeled to threats that aren’t even there.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, while I undo the mess that woman left behind. Next, I want to tackle the matter with the border camp that the Duke wanted put up at the Turkan border.”

“I heard the High Council shut it faster than the whole proposal could be presented to them when it was first taken to the Council.” Tara crossed her feet and rested her chin on her palm. “That does not make any sense strategically or otherwise. Dyaus had been wealthy enough forever to get the project done before it was ever suggested by the Duke. It’s ridiculous how our court prioritizes their ego over listening to someone who actually is an expert on the topic.”

“You of all the people should know how they always value someone born to their class over some commoner. The King’s insistence of peace keeps supporting their argument about how unnecessary it is to establish a military post at the Turkan Border. But we both know that it has more to do with how they don’t really want to listen to an Imperial Commander who rose to his post from nowhere. It’s bad enough for them to have to bow to the Queen even though she was born low.”

“Do you think you can sway these people?”

“I can try.”

“If anybody can, it’s you.”

They both fell silent as they contemplated the task Michael had ahead of him.

“Also, there are things you must know about your Duke. I didn’t think to share them with you even when you accepted the position here at the Northernlands simply because they didn’t really concern you.”

“Why do you sound like you are going to tell me those now?”

“Because you are more invested in him than you were supposed to be.” She held a hand up to stop his protest. “There’s nothing wrong with it though I don’t see the appeal.”

“Go on then, tell your story.”

“There is a hushed rumor that the Duke was in love with Princess Adhyant.”

Ice shot through his heart, sudden pangs of jealousy and pain taking him by surprise. He kept his expression composed as not to let Tara in on his emotions.

“He had been the one who found her dead on the Isle of Death. They say that he slayed the mercenaries that were on the isle, including the Princess’ people. From there, the story takes different shapes. Some say that the Princess refused him and he lost control and killed her while some say that she was killed by a political rival and a lover’s spat between the two had caused him to neglect his duties and inadvertently caused her death.” Tara sighed. “Every version of the rumor has one thing that doesn’t change, that the Duke was infatuated with the Princess. And many stories speak of how she returned his affection.”

Michael remained quiet as Tara shifted on the seat and looked at him, her eyes holding unfathomable grief.

“His moniker, ‘Spirit of Death’ didn’t come to him idly, Michael. I’ve seen him kill and he doesn’t even register the magnanimity of what he is doing anymore. His eyes are already dead before he brings down the felling blow. Something must have died in him that day.”

Michael looked away, unable to hold Tara’s sad gaze anymore.

The High Council gathered at the Court Offices instead of the Palace. The Court Offices was a labyrinth of rooms that were contained in a humongous building in the shape of a crucifix. The chambers Michael was waiting in front of were the largest in the building complex. Nothing he heard for the past two weeks about the Duke or the lack of necessity to have a military post helped deter him from trying to get the High Council to listen to his proposal. He breathed in and out, slowly and methodically to keep his agitation hidden as he waited for the Council to call him in to present his proposal.

Michael had cherished the past two weeks for a wholly unprofessional set of reasons. The day after his conversation had seen him hard at work talking to the best stonemasons and such in the capital and gathering information as to what sort of expenditure they would be looking at if they were to build a military post on the Turkan border. It had been easier to get the stonemasons quote after Joan had found a set of blueprints from a few years ago that had been drawn for just this purpose.

“This print is detailed, yet lacks the finer points of developments we have added to the outposts around Tamar and other major cities, my lord.”

The military architect had said and proceeded to add finer detailing to the older blueprints without any prompting from Michael. Most of the things the architect babbled on as she worked had sailed right over his head yet he hoped that he nodded and hummed in the correct place to show his engagement.

Four days of rigorous working had left him with a presentable stack of papers with blueprints, quotes and whatnot to present to the Duke who seemed thoroughly annoyed with his invasion at the Offices of the Imperial Commander before he realized what Michael seemed to be offering.

“How did you even find these blueprints in the first place?”

“I didn’t. Joan, my secretary had stumbled upon them by accident when she was sorting through the previous Steward’s documents.”

“This is the girl with an obsession of flowers, right?”

He was taken aback by the observation.

“Um, yes?”

The Duke had asked for the folder to be left with him and dismissed Michael.

Two days later, he had stormed into Michael’s office and everybody had scuttled out of the Duke’s way.

“What exactly did you expect by putting this folder together, Master Helvig?”

There were no more warm gazes or calling him by his name.

“I had some extra time in my hands and thought that I could attend to this given how far you’ve progressed with this project already, your grace. I apologize if I were too forward and misinterpreted the matter.”

The Duke had rubbed his forehead as if to stave off the frustration he was feeling.

“Elena told you about this whole thing, didn’t she?”

“Actually, no. it was Tara.”

Michael did not know how to elaborate without making it seem as if he gossiped about his employer with his friends. The Duke scrunched his brow as he tried to place the name and after a moment realization dawned on him.

“You mean Lady Liang? She is the finest Sword Master I’ve seen in all my years with the Imperial Military. What a shame that she has chosen to leave Dyaus for Tlemecene.” The Duke’s disdain at Tlemecene was as obvious as the sun on the day of Haloa.

“Well, in her defense, she never chose to go to Tlemecene on her accord. Instead, she was betrothed ever since she was a child.” The Duke scrunched his nose in disgust at the prospect and Michael continued, hiding his amused smile. “I’m not entirely convinced that she is all too pleased with the arrangement herself. She does bemoan not being able to make use of her skills with the military fully given how she never wants to walk into Tlemecenean court one day with secrets of Dyausan military.”

Tara was fiercely loyal, to her friends and above all her county. She constantly chose to take small commissioned work, mostly in training others in Mastery of the Sword instead of stepping into the position waiting for her with any of the mercenary bands in the Imperial Military. It hurt her to not be able to serve her country as she was capable, yet she mostly kept her discontent quiet in true Tara fashion for the most part.

The Duke returned his gaze to the folder he had brought in when he walked into Michael’s office.

“The numbers aren’t too great for Northernlands to bear, are they?”

“I would say no at the first glance, my lord. However, it would cut into the reserves of resources put away for hard times significantly. Should you commission the project to proceed, those reserves would be quite affected very quickly.”

“Haloa forbid any disaster that befell us, I suppose.”

Michael inclined his head in agreement.

“Besides, I personally believe that this isn’t your crusade to take on alone. Strengthening the borders benefit the entire kingdom, not simply Northernlands.”

“The Council has turned their backs on me for a time or two already. Do you believe that you could sway them?”

The Duke’s tone was his usual combative tone, yet with a simple work desk separating them Michael could not ignore the genuine curiosity or the spark of hope in his eye.

“All I can promise you is not to give up until they are swayed in one way or the other. I may not be able to sway them to the exact place where I want them, but it doesn’t mean I’d not try.”

The Duke had simply nodded.

A warm body settled next to him on the bench he was sitting on and startled him from his thoughts.

“Master Helvig.”

Viscount of Kalevan, Behar Tallinn sat next to him, all too close to his comfort.

“Your excellency, what a surprise to see you here.”

Michael angled his body to focus his attention on the Viscount, subtly shifting away from the too close body.

“Behar, please, Master Helvig. I can’t stand the ceremony. I was in the vicinity when I saw you sitting here all on your lonesome. What are you doing here?”

“I’ve been summoned to speak to the Council.”

“Not in trouble, are you? Is there anything I can do to help?”

Who did this man think he was?

“No, simply routine.”

“Well, let me know if there’s anything I can do. Any friend of my betrothed is a friend of mine.”

“You are too kind.”

They fell into a silence, uncomfortable on Michael’s part. People bustled through the corridor, some acknowledging Michael – old friends and acquaintances as well as new ones.

“Tell me, Michael, what does a betrothal in Dyaus look like? I’m a bit confounded. I’ve met a number of courtiers in the past few weeks who are betrothed. None seemed too bent on staying all too faithful to their betrothed.”

Michael could list off every single lord and lady that the Viscount must have met. It seemed that the Viscount had found his way into the inner circle of the spoilt brats of the Dyausan Court.

“Well, it depends on the individual, I suppose. Only the nobles practice betrothals in Dyaus anyway. No one else here would dream of entering a token marriage. So, the nobles test the waters elsewhere before they finally settle down.”

“I’ve heard you are quite the promiscuous man yourself.”

The Viscount leered at Michael.

“I’ve been lucky not to be tied down with a betrothed, lord Tallinn.”

Michael tried to hide his irritation.

“I suppose you are right. Lady Tara is a wonderful woman.” He paused. “She just simply isn’t who I desire. I’d prefer someone a lot calmer. I know you’d say that she is calm, but you must admit that there is something decidedly stormy about a Master of Sword.”

The Viscount of Kalevan had the uncanny ability to surprise Michael. His perception of Tara was rather accurate. Michael had seen her in training and the quiet, collected noblewoman one met at the court was not the ready to strike predator he witnessed on the training grounds.

“I don’t believe I may be of any help to you with this dilemma.”

Michael wondered why he was not called in by the Council yet. As much, he wanted to storm away from the odd situation that he found himself in, he could not leave the corridor given that he would be called any minute now. The Viscount leaned closer.

“Master Helvig, if you’ve finished making out with your friend’s betrothed, the Council would like to hear from you.” The Duke called.

The Duke’s expression was as calm as the waters of Sari. Michael stood and walked over to the Duke as Tallinn rose to his feet

“Your Grace, I apologize for stealing your Steward for a bit.” Tallinn bowed to the Duke and turned to Michael. “Some other time, Michael.”

The Duke turned on his heel and walked into the Council Chamber without acknowledging either of them and Michael followed with an awful weight lodging in the pit of his stomach.

Look forward to hear what you thought. 🙇‍♀️

Copyright © 2021 Ruslana di Angelo; All Rights Reserved.
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