The Dragonbone Petticoat

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Chapter Five

“Renae! Renae! Renae! Renae! RENAE!” Although the nurse only said it once, she trusted her eyes less than her ears, which heard it four times, to which she added her own shriek of her name. Drowning in blankets, she cuddled them by flailing until she plopped from her own stink to un-die in a floor puddle, where light slipped into life.

When the nurse set down the jug for her daily bath, Renae felt her mind slip from the night side to the day side. One second, the jug budded from the water; in the next, the water beaded on the jug. As she breathed in the accepted order of things, she felt a little more herself, and this thought led to a relief more pathetic than proud, for though she was more Renae now than she was all year, she was still shattered several times a day: when she woke up; a few instants scattered in the evening when her mind dipped in and out of dreamland; and, whenever she opened her mouth, her meaning exploded into gibberish, and she lost continuity of consciousness for a moment, until she felt that she had picked up all the shards of Renae.

“Pain my grass,” said Renae, and when the Brynnelmark smiled and waited for more, Renae poured water into the basin, dipped her hair, and pointed to her scalp. “Smoke. Pain my grass.”

“I’ll say you are,” said the warrior nurse good-naturedly, then dunked Renae’s head in the basin. While Lady Renae’s skull and scalp had healed, and her hair was now nearly three inches long, closing her eyes under running water was too much like the streaming pain of the mace blow. One day she hoped to describe this to the hero nurses that wrestled her clawing hands to wash her hair, for while it was trying for them, it was so impossible for her to do it that if they had left her to herself, her head would still be caked with mud and blood. As Brynnelmark Wycera had taken to wearing gloves during Renae’s ablution, today’s wounds were limited to Renae’s stinging pink eyes from the trickling soap. Today she had only opened her eyes one time.

“Ashes.”

“Whatever that means. Do you understand me, my lady?”

Renae nodded.

“Starting tomorrow, you’ll help in the kitchen.”

Renae started at this, then shook her head.

“Your funds were cut off, my lady. Your husband died and never wrote a will. Since you were his second wife, the estate went to his son.”

Renae shook her head vigorously. “Candles and frogs!”

The Brynnelmark could not help laughing. “At least you’ll always be a lady, my lady. Your stepson agreed to visit so we could discuss your maintenance by way of an annual stipend. But from the sound of it, it won’t be enough to keep you here unless you work to supplement it.”

Renae lunged, but as Brynnelmark are selected for, among other intrinsic qualities, great height and strength, the massive woman pushed the angry and poor aristrocrat onto her bed.

“Syphillis!” Through her anger, Renae was excited. This was as close as she came to speaking what she intended in almost a year. She had meant to call the Brynnelmark a whore.

“Please, my lady. You are welcome to stay and deserving of our care. And if the terms of the arrangement are changing a little, it will keep you trim so you can land a new doddering husband. One that likes crazy--or is too deaf to hear what you’re saying.” Wycera snickered, held up a stiff arm to repel the furious Lady Renae, then closed and locked the door.

Renae was stunned. They had locked her in! While it wasn’t the first time a Brynnelmark took that precaution, it had been months. As the shock quivered to a rage, Renae’s neck drew taut under grinding teeth, and she seized the ewer and shattered it on the wall. Laughing and screaming, she turned to her dresser and end table, both of which she rattled, upended, and smashed.

When murmurs gathered outside her door, she palmed sherds of the ewer, crept to the door, and stood behind its hinge.

“Remember,” came a mutter, “she’ll be hiding behind the door.”

“A scrawny hen that rushes the farmer shouldn’t be surprised when its neck gets wrung.” It was Wycera’s voice. “Hear that, Renae? Stand clear.”

Forewarned, Reane climbed into her bed, dangled her legs over the footboard, and arranged one hand to look conspicuously closed and guarded on her lap. “Yellow the trail,” she called out.

Having unlocked the door, Wycera took two quick strides to the bed, seized Renae’s closed hand in her ham-fists, and said,“let go, or I’ll squeeze.” This cruel but practical strategy might have worked but for the other sherd, palmed tenuously in Renae’s open hand, which she now dragged across the hulking woman’s wrist, producing such copious blood as to stagger not only Wycera and the other Brynnelmark, who shuffled away from the grotesque fountain of blood, but Renae, who had not imagined such audacious success with an improvised weapon that minutes ago was a peaceful curve in the body of an ewer.

As Renae was lathered to a violent rage prior to the attack, she recovered first, and leaped to the floor, where her escape was abetted by a slide on the pooling blood into the hallway, where she stamped red footprints in her dash down the hall, down the stairs, through the foyer, and across the lowered drawbridge. When she ran through passersby, one jostled back, and after she hammered his flailing arms with the bloody sherd until he collapsed, she turned and fled.

Wending her way to downtown Duremar, she stared down the bawd posted outside a brothel and scurried inside. “She’s looking for her husband!” came a snicker. While the woman was clad in a yellow dress in the narrowed, tapered fashion preferred by Klyrnish noblewomen, her unaffected hair style and slatternly sneer were all whore.

“Plant a post!” As Renae’s retort was both a literal contrast and a metaphorical likeness to their profession, the whores tittered or guffawed according to their varying pretensions toward refinement.

When Renae slammed a door wide with a clattering bang, the conjoined lovers fluttering in the sheets sputtered Klyrnish gibberish and the whore’s indignant and incensed sneer. Drawing the man’s short sword from his jingling belt, Renae then clutched the belt in the other hand and backed from the room.

“Bustle the bank, horse head,” said Renae. “Bustle the bank.”

“Whether for the hour or by the hour, this is my fiancier, girlie,” said the whore, “so back away...”

When the man interjected “stop, thief!” Renae sprinted downstairs, flicked her sword toward the husky bawd at the brothel door, then dashed into the streets. While the bawd and his bully boys chased her for a spell, Renae had some history in Duremar, knew the byways from the backstreets, and evaded them handily.

She must find Gaspar—while she expected no empathy or pity from that worm, she would wring his fearful compassion drop by terrified drop, and if she could not shame him, she would shake him down; there were many ways of making a coward understand.

The idle and indolent were out in force, and leaning saucily on lamp posts, store fronts, and benches. Although her mental calendar was spotty due to long convalescence, by dint of mental exertion, she realized that no nearby holiday would justify the gathering of such a mob. She was less curious of their intent than in awe of their instincts, which now swarmed along the street, as if responding to the summons of some occult magnetism. Although she turned her head here and there to spot whatever intelligence beckoned the throng, there were only human droves everywhere she looked.

At the sound of horns, she settled in. It would not do, if the brothel keepers were still out searching for her, to be seen striving against the flow of the parade in blatant contrast to the idle observers.

After the horns, she heard the pipes, then the drums, the light strings of lyres, and the gentle rise and fall of marching hoofbeats.

On a donkey-pulled float, a lumpish oaf wore a burlap sack cut into a gown splashed with garish gold paint; a beard of streaming spun cotton; a wig of tinselly silver capped with a cardstock crown; and a smile so drunken and broken-toothed that it could be said to be doubly-smashed. Renae chuckled, for the blatant parody was also a well-contrived likeness of the former King Algus.

The roaring crowd drowned out whatever humorous gibberish Renae thought to air, but when this mocking effigy passed by, they quieted to a murmur as they admired the trailing pageantry in earnest.

On a massive ten-horse float, ringed by the shimmering scales of Klyrnish knights with shields bearing white banners embroidered with descending black dragons, their gaping maws blending with the fringed banner hems, was a resplendent silver throne, which may not have had the stamp of authenticity you would expect had you glimpsed any of the conqueror’s true thrones, but did have the stamp of newness imprinting such a heap of precious metal that it was an impressive statement on the fabulousness of its seated monarch, the Klyrnish Emperor in all his glory.

Flanking and trailing the Emperor’s float were four exquisitely graven coaches, one each to left and right, and two in the rear, each cut in the shape of a mythical beast of Klyrn, a theme further accented by elaborate etching, so that the wyvern coach had scales notched into its struts and walls, and the firefrog coach had the likeness of a fly carved into the mouth etched under the driver’s perch. Trotting to both sides of this coach menagerie were columns of Klyrnish soldiers, accoutered more pragmatically than those riding floats, horses, or coaches, with armor and weapons of a duller and more menacing finish.

Compounding the excitement of this subjugating celebrity’s arrival was his entourage, which included not only Vanoor’s chief steward and humbled former king Algus, who sat upon a three-legged stool of the most practical and understated manufacture available, but the chief scribe, who, unbeknownst to the multitude, once numbered brother-in-law among his honors, this distinction accorded by the incredulous Renae’s sister Adelae, Gaspar’s first wife and now deceased. While Renae had not borne the shock of Adelae’s death well, the Brynnelmark prevented her from strangling Gaspar. Now this disappointment was not only revived, but invigorated, as the drudge held hands with a Klyrnish lady, who was such a consummate looker that Renae envied her immediately, and suspected her of being a professional beauty wed less to that graying ape Gaspar than to the emperor’s bold new political reality. While Gaspar had only minutes ago figured into her plot to regain her status, the fates conspired to bring him both in and out of reach, dashed hopes which rallied in the dawning realization that though Gaspar had a new set of powerful in-laws, and would be difficult to bully in consquence, he also had the ear of the emperor. If the attempt failed, Gaspar could only turn her away.

With so much hanging on a clear and unequivocal message, Renae did not trust herself to open her mouth. So she simply barged through the spectators, marched briskly to the emperor’s float, was seized by no less than three of the jogging retinue, and then was curtly dragged towards a crossing alley for some nefarious and punitive purpose when she heard Gaspar’s anxious and reedy voice. “Bring that one forward.”

When the soldiers paused, Gaspar continued with a hint of groveling, “if it pleases his majesty.”

Though all eyes swarmed to Renae, in the quiet that gathered, this attention flitted back to the emperor, and her own eyes were also irresistably drawn. Neither short, tall, thin, nor fat, she might have passed the emperor a dozen times without recognition were it not for the fabulous gown, the luxuriant and pretentious beard, and the sensational face tattoo, which appeared to be the original from which his guard’s shield banners were drawn. While the dragon’s maw met the fringe on the banner, on the emperor, its yawing fangs merged with his upper lip, and the rest of its dyed trail ran up the bridge of his nose to his brow, where the tail curled.

When the Klyrnish ruler muttered, an officer with an aristocrat’s bearing and a red jacket bearing medals, emblems, and other Klyrnish insignia, raised his right fist and barked in such a deadly tone that it stilled not only the soldiers, but the footfalls, rumors, and even the breaths of the crowd.When Renae was dragged to this military functionary, he asked, “who dares intrude into the presence of the Emperor?”

“She’s mine,” said Gaspar, then stammered with a glance that slid from the Klyrnish noblewoman to the Emperor, “I mean my family.”

“What chicanery is this?” said the woman, whose eyes remained trained on Renae. “You have no brothers or sisters—and besides, she’s much too young to be your sister, Gaspar. What’s your name, madwoman?”

Renae had to admit that was a fair assessment, for she had belted the stolen swordbelt over her hospital robe, and looked very much like someone playing the part of an escaped lunatic. However, Renae thought it a very unfair thing to say, and did the only thing she could while gripped by three soldiers: she growled.

If the soldiers jumped, the emperor scowled, the noblewoman laughed with delight, and Gaspar pulled his feet onto his chair, it was because Renae voiced not a human growl but a beastly one, like a hybrid of tiger, bear, wyvern, manticore, and a harried mother of eleven.

A few months ago, Renae might have leaped onto the float, for she had not yet learned to do less crazy than she was. Recovery was such a long, arduous process that she skipped to the end as a matter of convenience, as she did everything else in life, especially marriage and the inheritance she stole by declaring her husband insane—a great irony now, she had to admit—so that she could enjoy the fruit of her insanity while she had her youth and health. While the Brynnelmark had seen a pretense of sanity before, and had not believed her, perhaps it was practice for this moment--if she showed restraint, no matter what came out of her mouth, she might be allowed near enough to do some damage. While she didn’t know what restraint felt like, she was familiar with caution, and relaxed her growl into a simpering smile.

Though Renae’s face was now a mask of calm, beneath that placid surface was another, less composed layer stretched into a silent scream of rage, just as her apparently limp hands concealed claws that yearned to scratch Gaspar’s new wife, to seize the giggling, girlish woman and tear her in two. Not that she ever cared for Gaspar one way or the other; many times she had wanted to cut him in pieces for the effrontery of existing, a frustration she expressed by barging through and bowling him over when he was stocking shelves, counting coin, pencilling in the squares of his ledger, flirting with her sister, coming out of the toilet, or doing literally anything at all in her sight. It was simply that this woman galled her more, for she was too beautiful not only for Gaspar, but for life; in a world where beauty scaled a hierarchy of political power, this beautiful woman would be Emperess, and the float would not only be arranged in a different order, but none of the other faces here would maintain their status in that aristocracy of perfection. His resplendent tattoo notwithstanding, the Emperor might find himself a librarian, a zookeeper, or an officious and pedantic scholar, but Gaspar would still be a shopkeeper. Renae could not imagine that face as anything but a shopkeeper. By the time Renae was done with Gaspar, he would be a shopkeeper, or one of them would die in the attempt.

“If you own this woman, Gaspar,” the Emperor said, smiling thinly, “I will bring her in my train.” When the Emperor gestured, the soldiers took her to the rear of their procession, then hoisted her on the rear runner of the leftward coach.

While she inwardly erupted, and the concealed under-face’s scream burned a hole through her tightening mask of composure, she acquiesced meekly and eyed the retinue.

Once she realized the leftward coach was the weak link, with no other riders on the runners and the interior containing only baskets and casks, she smiled. She was where she wanted to be.

At least, that was what Renae thought until the coaches began rolling over the cracked cobblestones, and Renae was nearly spilled from the runner more than once, and so sloshed that her brain felt jiggled, as if loosened by the wheels’ jarring impact. When she leaned in, and pressed her cheek against the grain, so as to shiver with the wagon and not against its rhythm, her skull’s rattling lessened to a numb tremble but her teeth chattered so hard her jaw hurt, and if not for her layered loathing--which smeared a new hate for the beauty over her age-old hate for Gaspar, thus freshening up the frightful corpse of her favorite hate before entombing it in her patriotic detestation for the Klyrnish emperor--she might have let go, and taken her chances with the wheels, hooves, and jogging boots.

As she had walked Duremar many times, not only laying out her lusts on holidays

but paying off her passions during ordinary time, Renae was familiar with this sordid suburb, and saw many familiar haunts, not only Joric’s and Elsett’s taverns and the many eateries where she was too drunk to be bothered to learn the proprietors’ names, but her favorite hotels, and a few where she never stayed, but learned their names in order to misdirect the ugly and ill-favored who were either too slow to mind an insult, too persistent to be disappointed, too egotistical not to laugh at no, or too lazy to look elsewhere for satisfaction. At Joric’s she was such a celebrity that as she passed by on the bumper, the patrons raised a glass, cheered, then broke into a raucous laughter that set her cheeks on fire.

She thought about dropping off the coach to set Joric’s on fire, then paint the town red, but she was already lit by a burning abhorrence for the good fortune clustering around Gaspar. By leaning around the back of the coach, she glimpsed the top of Gaspar’s head, which was turned to the piled-up black hair of the Klyrnish lady and bobbing gregariously as he no doubt regaled her with The Tale of Renae. When the pretty face tossed her head, no doubt to laugh, Renae imagined that Gaspar mocked her skimpy attributes, reviled her acquision of the manly arts, and dressed Renae up to parody the succubus that tempted, caged, and murdered by cruelty the doddering wreck of her former husband. Or worse, Gaspar bragged, padding his own meager manliness and parading the refinements gleaned from slaving for her own ill-fated, imperious sister, not to mention two stints under King Algus, then The Emperor.

What she would give for a lightning bolt smithed by the dark drudge of the quiet gods--whose name and all else she had forgotten, aside from that myth of hammering not only electric darts but the chains by which Love bound him to his hellish forge. Pending the existence of gods, Renae felt that her long dead admiration of a tale which may have set the unconscious pattern for her own life, and which now brought the gods’ dubious existence to a wavering flicker between doubt and belief, should have been worth a single sparking javelin. Since no divine dart was forthcoming, she might have vomited her soul for a loaded crossbow; failing that, she might have dived off the runners for a good-sized stone and a clear arc towards the beauty. Failing all three, she grumbled and waited, and every time the coach stopped, only to teeter forward and roll further ahead, she glared and seethed.

Having arrived at the outskirts, the Emperor, Gaspar, and the beauty entered a flanking coach, and the parade float was re-folded by some trickery into a pefectly ordinary wagon, which was then hitched to the rearward coach. Perhaps because it was filled to capacity with embroidered float decorations, no one escoreted Renae from her precarious place on the runner.

Once the donkey was stowed at an agreeable stable, the coaches lurched into a rural gait, clip-clopping at such a rapid pace that it seemed a race. While Renae’s coach was the follower in this contest, she was nonetheless jostled to the point of nearly waving like a pennant in the breeze had she not hung on by her toe-hold on the runner. As the road was pocked, pitted, and studded with small boulders, this only added to Renae’s bouncy ride, and she added not only her driver, but the teamsters ahead of them--both of whom set the route which tormented her—to her to-do list.

By evening, the treeline blurred into a green swath streaming left and right, the road churned endlessly, and only the wood warmed by her sweating hands was a constant in the dissolving landscape. If she felt dizzy from the receding backdrop, she blamed the year-long aftershock of the mace blow, for other than her scattered brains and shattered speech, she felt herself full of the angry potency of youth. Never a swooning maiden, never a fainting widow.

A widow. The thought echoed. With her ancient husband’s death, she was now lumped in with matrons, grandmothers, and busybodies past their prime. She would deny it. Deny the death, deny the marriage, deny the husband. Except in court, to claim her rightful assets, from this moment forth she was Renae Vara. If she made the assertion sharply, and glared at Gaspar darkly, that coward would take a stand on any lie. Provided Renae looked daggers at him, Gaspar could be poked in any direction, and if she bared an actual dagger, he would say the sun was a teacup, his feet were snails, and his beautiful lady was a smoldering dragon. A widow, Renae scoffed; not in my hearing, not on my life.

Renae admitted--sourly--that the roads were better maintained by the Emperor. While the conquerors had only laid down preliminaries for the expansion and improvement of Vanoori roads, teams had laid wooden panels or quarried stone over the glaring defects, giving the oldest sections a patchwork look, while the sections paved during Algus’s reign were weeded and swept clean of stones, dirt, twigs, and leaves, thus erasing their run-down and rustic character, and prompting Renae’s resentment, as well as a nostalgia for a regime that let things slide rather than one that wouldn’t let a pebble slip by.

As evening passed, the jarring stammer of the runners shivered through her tremoring calves and trembling thighs. When Renae could no longer prop her exhausted legs or drooping eyelids, she sunk gradually until she was seated on the runner, dangling her pained feet and leaning against the trunk. While it would be harder to resist a sudden stop, it was better than falling asleep on her feet and belly-flopping from a speeding coach.

Hearing the tapping clank of what must be wine bottles, Renae became even thirstier than she was tired, and fiddled at the trunk for well past a reasonable point of time--about five minutes after accepting that the wine was beyond her reach. As her bottom numbed, her legs froze into solid ache, and her eyelids sagged, her thirst was buried in her fatigue, and her senses were snuffed out one by one, until only hearing remained, dwelling in the creaking wheels, the shuddering horses, the twitter of birds, and the patter of rain fluttering the leaves.

Since the injury, Renae knew when she was dreaming, for only in dreams was she understood. When she heard herself say, “the stars are flooding,” it was less the absurdity of her comment on the gushing night sky that flagged the dream than that she comprehended her own meaning. In this moment of doubled consciousness, she seemed not to dream herself, but read herself, and the dream was an open book. Even as she drowned in welling stars, she clung to the nightmare, enthralled by the hope of spoken meaning. When she woke, she would rejoin the world where her every word was chaos, a proof that she was not herself, and that her body was possessed by the meaninglessness that infested the unthinking inanimate. If they treated her like furniture, so did she think of herself, for until she mended, she was without use. Nothingness was made only for mischief. “The Emperor is a baboon!” she shrieked, as the stars cascaded over her shoulders and drenched her hair. “Gaspar is The Emperor’s wife!”

When the flowing stars closed over her bubbling gasp, she stifled the thrill of terror that prefaced an awakening until it was a murmuring undercurrent in the stellar river, where she floated, profoundly conscious of her unconsciousness.

Knowing it illogical to breathe once the nightmare reduced her to a corpse, she thought of not breathing for the sake of the right dream effect, but as her dream body stiffened, the murmur of fear buzzed, and she felt a restlessness she could not see, as her thrashing limbs in the waking world shivered the watery stars.

“Garbage lips!” Renae sat up with a start, seized the runners, then clung to her perch, swaying from the coach’s abrupt stop and the violence of the streaming stars, as the emperor and his train disembarked in the shadow of a gray castle. Though its gatehouse and looming wall were obscured by the setting sun, it looked familiar.

“Excuse me?” The guard stepped toward her, screwed up indignant eyeballs and a nose wrinkled past the point of confusion, then leveled a menacing stare that wouldn’t have scared Renae at eight years old, the ripe old age at which she had beaten a neighbor bully, who had terrorized the neighborhood with staredowns, until his eyelids were so blue and misshapen that he could only see to the left.

Restraining herself with great difficulty—for this guard, if he merited her death list, would be tacked on the very end of it—Renae only grabbed his gorget and hauled herself to her feet by such a violent yank that he was not only knocked off-balance, but choked half to death, so that as his hands flew to his neck, his face whacked the trunk.

Was that click the sound of her luck changing? Hoping his flying face had popped the lock, Renae shoved the hacking guard off the trunk, tugged at the handle tentatively, then pulled, then yanked until her gritted teeth seethed and her eyeballs bulged, then flailed at the locked trunk. It must have been the wine bottles tapping again.

“What did you do?” At the thin and reedy voice, Renae whirled, outflung her hand until it clenched buttoned-up fabric, then dragged Gaspar to melt under her hot breath and searing scrutiny; while his mouth pinched tight, his eyes squeezed shut, and he was unmanned by her angry attentions, Gaspar looked better, somehow younger, with less gray streaking the dark brown tufts reclaiming bald spots, and a lustrous skin that seemed appropriate for one of the Emperor’s appliances, if it was loathsome in Gaspar. But everything was loathsome in Gaspar.

Now Renae was not only outraged that Gaspar had attained high position, she was galled that it had improved him; moreover, she was infuriated that his larval effeminacy molted into a social butterfly of such monstrous influence that was she not accustomed to breaking him, she might have thought twice about daring to offend the Emperor’s favorite.

“Toad cakes!”

When Renae’s hands were clutched and wrested behind her back, Gaspar held up a finger and sputtered, “no! Not yet.”

“She might lose a hand for such presumption, my lord.”

“Did you not hear? We are family!”

“Maggots gliding in glass!” blurted Renae. As Renae struggled with the guards, her nonsense was both muffled and deepened by her grunts.

“She looks nothing like you, my lord. Is she some by-blow of your father?”

“She is my sister-in-law, Toromal.”

The short, husky warrior scowled. “Does Lady Bryttienne know of your other wife, my lord?”

Gaspar grew flustered. “She was my sister-in-law, Toromal. And yes, Bryttienne knows of my late wife.”

Renae slacked in the guards’ grip.

“Although she has no claim on you, we will show mercy, my lord. Though I number it in my duties to exact punishment from those who presume, her mind is gone. However, when we reach Kelisori, some satisfaction must be awarded Iramel.” He glanced at the one she choked, who staggered to his feet, removed his helm and gorget, and began breathing hoarsely.

“Whatever justice demands, I will pay it,” said Gaspar.

“You will not!” As if poofing in from fairyland, the satiny gown flounced into the conversation, and the beauty raised her nose to such a snooty degree that though they were the same height, Renae could have counted her nose hairs if she was so inclined.

“I must,” said Gaspar. As he sighed, he straightened the waistcoat and doublet Renae had rumpled.

“Must not,” sneered Bryttienne. “Your money was my dowry.”

“I doubled it in the horse trade!”

“As the risk was mine, the doubled portion is also rightly mine!”

“Your Chief Scribe knows the law, my love. What’s yours is mine in Vanoor or Klyrn.”

“Your slatternly past relation can work off the judgment, if his majesty and Iramel decline mercy.”

“Let’s shelve this conversation until Kelisori.”

Bryttienne glared, shrugged, then took her leave, alternatively bowling over or brushing back the servants that came to unload the coaches.

At the sight of familiar faces—not that she knew any names in this rabble—she again felt she had been here before.

Gaspar scratched his head as he turned towards Renae. “Why does Kelisori sound so familiar?” While he looked at Renae with as much curiosity as she looked at him, his attentions were more circumspect, as he stood three feet back and leaning in like an ostrich. “What am I going to do with you, Renae?”

“Bare blood,” she said vehemently, but when a hot tear slid down her cheek, she turned away.

“Is this a poetic illness?” asked Gaspar. “Bare blood indeed, when seeing you brings home the shame of Adelae’s death. While I would never call her an evil woman, I would lie in saying I loved her for any goodness. Can I say that frankly? You’ve never been one for fancies or illusions, except in Duke Vargun, whose raptures of love were a prologue to a dry tower loft, where you kept the old bird like an owl. I may never forgive you for shutting in my best partner for table games. He was unsurpassed at Limori.”

Renae’s first shock was that, of all people, the first to understand her was that worm, Gaspar. Her second shock was that Gaspar dared to dress her down, for while what Gaspar said was mild, this was him bawling her out. Her third shock was “kept,” for she had not expected Gaspar to be privy to the tragedy which made her a widow; was she the last to know? Why would the Brynnelmark keep that back?

“It also brings home a fresher shame, Renae.” Gaspar looked away for a moment, then looked back with a smile, gestured toward the guards clutching Renae, and set such a modest pace for the Klyrnish guards that their mincing quickstep battered her back and forth between them until she copied the timing of their shallow steps.

“Although you won’t curry favor with the Emperor, he’ll remember your name. Not that we’re staying here more than a night; Bryttienne persuaded his majesty that it’s good enough for a hotel, but not for the Emperor’s summer retreat. Tomorrow we’re moving on to Kelisori.” Gaspar rubbed his jaw. “Why do I know that name?”

Renae’s contempt stretched into incredulity as her head tilted, her eyes rolled back in an upward, gawking stare, and her jaw remained where it was, in that gaping position.

Where rampant green stallions once flew on black flags, crimson penants, embroidered with descending black dragons, hung in their place, and the grass was adorned with broken horses on her slashed, crumpled banners. Her former heraldry yet rode on the oak doors, which she had ordered reinforccd by steel plates cut into the form of a charging horse.

To warm her heart, she had often watched the candlelight in the Duke’s loft from her own embrasure window, where she dropped more than one wine glass to the courtyard. While both windows were darkened, there was no doubt this was Castle Vargun.

As she gawked, Gaspar turned on Renae a deeply patronizing bow, then said, “you need your rest, Renae. I hope you approve of our adjustments to the floor plan. Toromal, take her to her room.”

When the guards steered her toward the tower, Renae’s legs went limp, and she had to be dragged the rest of the way.

“Night bottles!” Renae shrieked so loud that if the night was glass, it would have shattered into drowning stars.

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