Fictober, Prompt 6 – “Didn’t we already have this conversation?”
Warnings: nothing much, a very vague, passing allusion to past abuse of a side character.
I swept into the front hall as the footman opened the door, his timing as impeccable as always. I gave him a slight, grateful nod. The chill of autumn followed me in, leaves swirling as several more people followed me in. I would have preferred to leave them outside, but my temper had not quite tipped over into outright rudeness.
“Your Grace,” my butler bowed, stepping forward to take my cloak and gloves as other servants materialized to help my guests, uninvited though they might be.
“Thank you, Julian,” I told him, catching his eye. He would see the tension and annoyance in my own furrowed brow, but the lack of true fear would let him know that all was well enough for now. The slightest hint of tension eased from his still perfectly upright posture, and he bowed.
“If you and your guests will follow me, Your Grace, I took the liberty of having hot drinks prepared.”
“I have always envied your household staff, Duchess,” one of the hangers-on simpered as we settled into the parlor.
“Too kind,” I murmured, sipping my tea, into which Julian had kindly slipped just a little something extra. Extraordinary man. It had already occurred to him, as it should have occurred to me before now, that with the hour already so late, they would all undoubtedly have to stay the night, which meant that I would have to host them again in the morning, my least favorite time of day.
My manor was not large as such things went, and my lands were deliberately isolated. This worked well for discouraging guests in the general sort of way, but worked against me once they were already here.
At least I could probably get them all packed off to bed relatively soon, and retire to my own rooms.
“Daria,” Aled murmured, coming over to sit in the chair closest to me with his own cup, his voice lowered. “Can I please ask you to reconsider?”
“Didn’t we already have this conversation?” I asked, voice low but crisp with renewed annoyance. “I will not.”
“But the other lords…and the Temple—” He stopped as rage flashed over my face. I had myself under control a breath later, but I should not have let it happen.
“The Temple,” I said carefully, “have no say in how I govern my estate.”
“They do if you are—” he hesitated, glancing quickly to make sure the others were talking amongst themselves before continuing, “if you are using dark magics.”
“I am not.” I held his gaze without a hint of hesitation.
At last he slumped back, looking away and sighing. “All right, Daria, I believe you.”
“I should hope so,” I told him, acerbic as I sipped my tea. I wished Julian had put a little more liquor in it, but it was for the best. “How long have you known me?”
Aled smiled wryly. “Most of our lives. I don’t remember the exact year.”
“Neither do I. Are we truly getting so old as all that?”
He laughed. “Perhaps we are.”
He was not, at least in his looks. He had always been a handsome man. If things had been different…
But they were not.
I summoned up a better façade of graciousness, and played hostess for another hour before I was able to get them all escorted off to rooms in the guest hall. I could send them all on their way after breakfast without being thought ill-mannered.
It grated that I had to consider such things at all, but I had to tread carefully.
After the last of them had disappeared from the parlor, I remained, too fatigued even to make my own way upstairs for the moment.
The fire had burned low by the time Julian and my personal maid, Lara, and one of the newest junior maids, Maddi.
“How have you settled in?” I asked Maddi, and she did not seem too startled to be addressed by me, so the others must have warned her.
“I’m well, Your Grace,” she dipped a brief curtsy to me. “Thank you again for…for giving me somewhere to go.”
I wanted to wave away the thanks, but did not like to be dismissive of the genuine emotion behind her words. She was not the only person I had brought into my household because she was not safe in her own home the way she should have been, but she was the most recent.
“I appreciate your work,” I told her truthfully, and then rose so that she could begin gathering the dishes to bring them back to the kitchen.
Julian and Lara bowed me through the door, then followed me up to my rooms, a habit too old now to require words.
“All is well then, Your Grace?” Julian asked, stationing himself by the door as Lara followed me behind the screen and helped me out of my gown.
“For now,” I told them. “For now.” I hesitated, then admitted, softer, “I’m not sure how long we have. People are beginning to suspect. Even if we have enough time to prepare…I’m not sure it will be enough.”
I did not like to admit to weakness in front of any of my people, but these two had been with me too long and through too much to truly worry about that. I could give them nothing less than the full truth.
Even Aled had not earned that, much as I wished he had. But he was too set on seeing me “redeemed” in the eyes of the other lords and especially the Temple. He wanted a reconciliation.
He did not see what they really were, what they were really doing to people. Not just to me and mine, but to everyone. I didn’t care about everyone, but those who had sworn themselves to my name would have every protection that I could give them.
“We will succeed,” Lara said firmly. “You are powerful, and Julian and I becoming more so. We can win, if we have enough time.”
I smiled at her, and let her help me into my nightclothes, though they were far simpler than the formal gown. “If I have any hope, it is because of you two, and the rest.”
“We are glad and proud to serve you,” Julian said, his light eyes steady as Lara and I stepped back into the open.
I was glad and proud to have them.
“Get some rest,” I said aloud, knowing they understood. “We will confer more tomorrow after my guests have gone.”
“Your Grace,” they murmured together, and went out.
Alone, I went to sit near the fire, staring into the flames. After a moment, with just the slightest narrowing of my eyes, the dancing light shifted to blue, then to green, then to violet, and then back to their natural red-gold.
Dark magics, Aled had called it. But then, that was what the Temple called it.
Whether it was truly dark or not I was not yet sure, but it was power that the Temple did not want me to have, and that alone was enough to make me want to have as much of it as possible.
With a last, grim smile at the fire, I rose, and retired to bed.