Year 60 AR
A scent seeped into the tent, like the posies Iri’s mother used to treasure, of lotus, narcissus and peony. It made him think of roads in the woods, far away from the dusty hillside of the rag road, where flowers sprinkled the shoulders and their auras wafted through the air to mingle with the earth, bark and leaves. He felt relaxed, until he noticed that the odor had a very different effect on Zarie and the other servant girl, who stiffened and stood up, watching the door expectantly. That explained it, he thought — it was perfume.
The bouquet that had heralded the duchess had made him think of a gentlewoman, a queen out of story. He knew she was his age, and a widow, that she hid a disfiguring scar on her face with a mask, but he still pictured her as a straight-backed lithe woman, the picture of a Broshan lady that tipped along in a tight dress on tiny feet, trailing a small umbrella to shield her skin from the sun. It was no wonder, then, that he audibly gasped at what came barging through the flaps.
Duchess Chartagne did not look like a lady at all. She reminded him more of a toad than anything else, with a wide and flat face, thick jowls and a powerful jaw. Her body was broad and flabby, hidden beneath silken robes like a man might wear in alternating layers of black and red. It was all embroidered with golden flowers in a design that wound up toward her shoulder, set to match the gilded quarter-mask over her left eye, behind a lovely flourish that gave her a perpetual half-grin. She sniffed the air when she entered and looked around until she spotted Iri, and then her look of determination melted away as she completed her mask’s expression.
“Sir Iri!” Her voice was low and jolly, and she drew out her r’s like a raspy underline to everything she said. “I just received word you were awake! How glad I am to see you up and about! Well, up!”
“Y-your highness,” Iri stuttered when it was clear no one was going to help him out. “I would bow, but it seems I’m quite fractured. I hope you will settle for my regards, and my heartfelt thanks for your assistance.”
“Nonsense!” The duchess waved him off with a dramatic gesture. “No, it is I who should be thanking you, Sir. It appears you have saved my life, and that of my entourage as well, with your brave intervention in that murderous plot at the Bellows. I owe you my gratitude.”
“I…See, your highness. Well, to be quite honest, neither me nor my sister were aware that you were travelling this way…”
Her grin turned vulpine at that, a wide mouth splitting apart to reveal white teeth that seemed somehow too numerous. “So modest. Please, you may address me as Duchess, I will not have formalities get between me and my brave savior. Perhaps you did not, but that merely makes you all the braver. To intervene because it was right, not knowing they were after me!”
“Ah, I do believe they were-” Iri grimaced as Auri clamped down on his shoulder. They exchanged a brief look, and then he cleared his throat. “I do believe they were.”
“I have heard of you before, Iri,” her expression did not waver for a second, though he did feel like she must have noticed. “You are quite accomplished for a man of only thirty years. A Master Alchemist, and a fellow of five societies besides. How many are there again?”
“There are eleven of them.”
“A child of Broce herself, or mostly at least,” she paused for a moment and Iri felt painfully aware how much paler he was than even the duchess, for though she spent little time in the sun, her complexion was still fundamentally Broshan. “Nurtured by her bosom, and now perhaps one of the most accomplished scholars of our time. And now you have averted a political assassination. That means something to me, Iri.”
Her face fell into a somber expression, and she reached up to the golden mask and traced its edges with a finger. “It means more than you might think. This is not the first attempt on my life, and it will not be the last. I lost my husband, you know.”
“I had heard,” Iri said quietly. “I am sorry for your loss.”
“It is a long time ago,” she said. Then she put her nail under the edge of the mask and peeled it off her face to reveal a wrinkled, melted scar. Iri’s breath caught in his throat as he recognized it — there was only one thing that caused such marks. He had seen it work back at the tavern. “They were a cult of witches. Men of noble blood who thought they could claim power.”
“I’ve felt that burn myself,” Iri admitted, and noticed Zarie nodding at the duchess next to him. “But nowhere so personal.”
“Then you know. To make a trusted friend — that is why I despise magic.” The duchess spat, twisting her mouth into disgust. It only found footing on the unblemished half of her face. Nerve damage, Iri thought. That explained the mask more than the burn itself, and he found he respected that she defied letting herself be defined by a mark placed by another. “It is fitting that they tried to use magic to kill me once more, and more fitting that they failed, considering why I am here. You have done me a great service, Iri. I want to repay you.”
“I’m honored,” said Iri, “your gratitude is more than en-”
“Nonsense!” She carefully replaced her mask, and then smiled. It really did work wonders; its brow sat somewhere between expressions, letting the rest of her face fill in the blanks. “I will not hear it. It will never be said that the Duchess of Broce does not honor her heroes. No, I intend to make you my charge. I wish to be your patron, Iri, if you accept.”
If you accept. As if an offer of patronage from the duchess herself was something that could be rejected. Patronage was, after all, the end goal of most academics — an entry into the gentry alleviated many of the jurisdictional concerns that often hindered research, and lead the way into the kind of work that had serious practical application. It usually involved a very significant stipend, as well as funds allocated from the royal treasury, and in that pursuit Broce was by far the principality that had the highest regard for scholarly work. Twenty years ago, when the King had launched his decrees and campaign for an age of knowledge, Broce had embraced it wholeheartedly, and though she had been very young at the time, age had only steeled her resolve in the years to come.
“I am already serving the King,” he said, and then clamped his mouth shut. “I can’t accept a conflict of interest.” It was a snub, although an acceptable one. He had dropped the one title that bore weight in a situation like that, but throwing the crown up against a ducal seat made him feel so small he thought he just wanted to sink into the pillows and disappear. The duchess, however, kept smiling.
“I understand, of course, Sir Iri. I think we can still come to some understanding. There is a path that serves all three of us.”
“I want you to hear my offer before you answer, and then tell me what you think.” Her eyes, shrewdly narrowed and locked on him made him think of a haggler at the bazaar, and he gulped.
“Why?” Iri narrowed his own eyes right back. He was getting the feeling that the duchess knew more than she let on.
“That I cannot tell you unless you accept. Now, you will hear my offer, and then we will talk.”
He nodded at that, and cast a glance up at his sister. She had not moved a fraction of a muscle since the last time, standing there as if she were a statue somehow clad in skin.
“You will assist me in a project of my choosing. It is one which the King himself has made it clear to me that he supports completely. I will allow you to support it in such a way that you do not create a conflict between my patronage, and your current service to the crown. In return I will make you my charge. I will recognize you as part of the gentry, with the title of freeman, with the option of promotion to the title of viscount should you wish to pursue a further arrangement with the ducal seat. As my charge, you will be given a one-time grant of six thousand Royal gilder, as well as an annual stipend of one hundred Royal gilder for as long as you live. What say you?”
Iri was speechless. He was a scholar of high order, and every month they paid him in tin. He doubted the sum of his salary throughout his career would add up to more than ten Royal gilder in total. What she was giving him was the kind of fortune for which one could buy land. While the wage was probably not such a big thing for the Duchess, even for her, a grant like that was an investment that eschewed other ventures. It meant she wanted him to do something only he could do. And, if his time studying commerce was worth anything, that his bargaining position was strong.
He took a breath. Iri had never wanted riches, he wanted to make a difference. For his sister, for the kingdom, for the people on the rag road despite the fact that they had just tried to kill him. He wanted to change the approach to the war, wanted to even the battlefield and give the common man a way to fight back. He wanted to make certain such a thing could never happen again. He studied the woman in front of him. She was tough, and determined, and he thought perhaps for a moment that he saw something of the same in her. Wondering if perhaps he had found an ally in his vision, he found that he had to put it to the test.
“I assume you want me to build you a weapon.”
The Duchess merely glanced sidelong at nothing as her grin receded into a clever smile, giving a noncommittal shrug.
“Well, if we are bargaining, may I make a counter-offer?”
She nodded at him, a comfortable gesture that combined with a slow blink to put him at ease.
“I do not need the grant.” Iri couldn’t believe what he was saying, and from the slight squeeze of her hand on his shoulder, neither could his sister. “I need to get the mines in the Pales operational for my plans with the King to work. I accept your patronage, and will do your project, as long as it does not interfere too much with the my service to the King. In return I want you to support my effort to reopen the mines. Men, necessary resources, and a personal stake in their operation equal to yours. Other than that you are free to bargain with the King, considering the Pales fall within his direct jurisdiction.”
His host tightened her lips into a thin line, raising a hand to feel lightly along the innermost of her robes where it met her skin on the collar. Her eyes closed and and her face lowered so that when she opened them again, she was looking at the ground. She tapped her fingers on the silk several times, and then squared her shoulders and lifted her chin, giving him a balanced, regal look.
“Really?” Iri was a bit astonished. The Kingdom needed iron, and he needed it for his cannons. The King had been trying to get investors for the mines in the Pales for some time, but the political situation in the Kingdom made the prospects grim until the front was moved further ahead. The venture was an expensive one, and due to the King’s enforced monopoly on steel, not something that would be profitable for some time to come.
“I could have asked for more,” Iri sighed.
“Yes. By far. The deal is struck, however.” She spoke matter of factly, and that shrewd smile crawled back onto her features. “I have you. You have entered the grand stage, Iri, and I will be the one to pull aside the curtains. Which reminds me — now that we are agreed, you should consider your second name. For me to name you into the gentry, you will need a family name. Commonly, it is the name of your father, or your birthplace, but you are free to choose for yourself.”
Iri shook his head, and for the first time since she entered he was reminded that his ribs weren’t all where they should be. “I’m confused. How can you guarantee operation of the mines when no one else has been able to?”
“She can’t,” Auri answered. “It’s not her project. It’s yours. You will have to solve the problems involved, she merely has to put her resources at your disposal.”
“Your sister is quite sharp. She is correct, and it will cost less than six thousand gilder. Your stake in the mine, however, is worth far more if you can make it work. Do not feel foolish, Sir Iri. You are a cunning bargainer, just inexperienced.”
“Well, now that’s settled,” Iri broached, not wanting to dwell on the waste. “Will you tell us why you are here, and how I can help?”
Taking a moment, the duchess wrapped the long sleeves of her robes several times around her forearms, and then pushed them part way up to her elbow. Then she looked to Zarie, who was still standing at attention, and nodded. While they exchanged no words, Zarie made her way to the entrance of the tent and disappeared outside.
“I will, but first, I would like to tell you a story. By your own words, you know of the attempt on my life by a group of witches from the nobility. A circle of men who begrudged my inheriting the ducal seat at only ten years old, and thought me a naive little girl for embracing the King’s rally to academia. Who grew jealous at my choice of a husband not from one of their great houses. What was worse, as time passed, it was successful. Broce is the richest of the principalities because I chose to invest in our people, even those who were not of Broshan blood, like you.”
Iri smiled at her. This much was true, Broce was by far one of the greatest places to be from when it came to scholarly pursuits. It had a great amount of grants, offered many jobs and occupations previously held to the nobility. Iri could see how the Duchess’ upending of the traditional, aristocratic ways of the country would have upset those with vested interest in maintaining them.
“So it was that their coven gathered and brewed an insidious poison. One meant not to kill me, for that would have been too obvious even for them. No, one that turned my men mad, and set them upon one another and myself. Over one night, my house became a killing field. My husband succumbed to the madness, but me and my son were spared. My physician wounded my face, as you have seen. It was my husband, however, stirred into maddened anger who stabbed me and wounded my soul.” She took a deep breath, and stood still for a moment merely blinking although Iri could not see any tears. He wondered for a moment if perhaps she was not able to due to the damage. “I dragged myself and my son into the sewer below, and we made our way only by blind luck.”
“I am sorry, your grace.” He knew it was inadequate, but could not find any words that suited his sympathy. That did not mean he could not empathize at all — if anything, the memory was still fresh in his mind of what magic had done to his own family.
“Sorry,” she spat. “I was not, am not sorry. No, I was angry. I still am. Once I was safe, I tracked down those men. I found them, but I did not kill them. For years, I drew from them every breath I could, drew from them every secret of their cult, screaming, whimpering or crying.” She radiated hatred, was almost snarling at the end. The switch in tempo was so fast that Iri was relieved when she paused to collect herself, as it gave him a chance to do the same. “I hired every witch hunter I could find, and I began to hunt them.” There was a rustling at the flaps leading to the tent and she indicated the new arrival with an offhand gesture. “It is to that end, I would like to introduce you to my good friend Salanar Habesh.”
The man who entered was short and thick and covered in scars. He wore a leather vest with thin bronze splints, and had a bandolier filled with crossbow bolts and throwing daggers strapped over it. Loose cloth pants rang with the tell-tale clatter of sewn metal rings when he moved, his boots went up to the knee, and he had a thin sabre hanging from his hip in a worn leather scabbard. Iri thought he looked like a mercenary, but his pants and the shirt he wore under the vest were striped with the Duchess’ black and red, and her floral insignia was carefully stamped over his heart on the leather armor.
“It is an honor, Sir Iri,” Salanar greeted him and gave a salute, stomping a food on the ground as he stood to attention. Iri nodded at him, and he fell at ease.
“So,” Auri said. “Your first class has graduated, I take it. Congratulations.”
Feeling like he was the only person in the room who did not know what was going on, he looked from Auri to the duchess to the soldier, and even Zarie slipping quietly into the room behind him. Meanwhile, the duchess was studying his sister, who met her gaze without a hint of deference.
“First class of what?”
“How many Martial Academies are there in Broce, Iri?” The Duchess asked, and it was clear from her tone she already knew what he would say.
“Two, the Ecrue and the Bataile.”
“No,” she smiled at him, confirming that it was the answer she had been after. “There are three. I opened a new one in secret five years ago. A witch-hunters academy, one that trains soldiers to deal with magical dangers. Salanar is the captain of the very first company to graduate from the Lyses.”
His eyes widening, Iri felt a thrill tense his body enough that it ached. Rather than exhilarate him uncomfortably, however, it came with the deep calm of a blooming hope. He was not the only one who resented the unevenness of the modern battlefield. Now he thought perhaps he had found someone who could help him smooth it out.
“So the reason we are here-” he started.
“Is to hunt witches.”