“A message came while you were at the Peacock last night,” Iole said over breakfast in the courtyard—well, over breakfast for Evander and Iole and Sanur’s two children, at least. Hermia and Melanippe had chosen to eat with their wounded partners, and cook, housekeeper, and maids typically ate together, but Iole’s presence at breakfast had resumed as life had normalized somewhat. It was, Narcissa had said, all but impossible to keep secrets from one’s handmaid, and if one had a good and trustworthy handmaid, it was often counterproductive not to have her aware of everything possible.
“Good or bad?” Narcissa asked, holding out a hand for it. Iole passed it over: not a scroll, just a rectangle folded in on itself with a wax seal holding it closed.
“It’s from Brykhon of Dromas, but I don’t know what it’s about. The messenger wouldn’t say, and wasn’t terribly pleased about leaving it with anyone but you, even when Hermia called me away from Phaidra to talk to him.”
“Brykhon.” Tyrel rather thought that would have been a groan, but Narcissa was entirely too elegant for such a crude sound. “What could he possibly want?” She accepted the belt-knife Kaveri passed her, used it to break the seal and open the message.
Everyone else waited while she scanned the contents quickly. Kieran gave Tyrel a questioning look; Tyrel shrugged. Dromas was a country sharing a border with Enodia, but that was all he knew.
“Let me guess,” Evander muttered, reaching for more heavy bread to dip into his wine. “He’s going to use you being almost killed as an excuse to call on you. Purely out of concern for you, he’ll point out that if you were married to him instead of pursuing your own idealistic plans, you would never have been attacked. And if he makes one more comment about the queens of old often having eunuch handmaids along with women, I may castrate him myself.”
“Brykhon is one of my more persistent suitors,” Narcissa sighed. “He’s the third son of the king and queen of Dromas, immediately east of Enodia. We’re close in age, which is usually not advised, but he’s been set on marrying me since we were adolescents and met for the first time.”
“I gather you have a different opinion on it being a good match,” Mirren said.
“I would rather cloister myself with the priests of the Silent God.”
Tyrel had no idea who the Silent God was, but that didn’t sound all that appealing.
“He’s no longer third son,” Evander said. “He’s now the only son. Both his brothers have died—the eldest in a hunting accident, perhaps three years ago? And the other in a fight over a woman, which doesn’t come as much surprise. I did send polite condolences. His replies weren’t worth passing on to you.”
“I missed that,” Narcissa said. “How fortunate for Brykhon. And how unfortunate for Dromas. Only the eldest of the lot would have made a good ruler. The daughters of the family are no better. I’m unsure how successful their parents were at finding them sensible husbands, since few sensible men would want them. Well. Brykhon has indeed heard that I was attacked, although I’ll spare you his dramatic description, and he fears for me and is making all haste to Phleion to reassure himself that I am well and offer his services in any capacity I wish.”
“Maybe Acantha can use his mighty strength in doing the laundry,” Evander suggested.
Narcissa glanced at him and grinned. “That would be more useful than having him lurking about trying to protect me.” The humour faded, and she sighed. “I suppose I have to see him, although I can think of better uses for my time currently. However, if he thinks he’s going to invade my house with his usual chorus of sycophants, he’s in for a surprise. This is, current company excepted for good reason, a house of women.”
“Sy-what?” Kaveri said. “Sorry, not a word we’ve encountered.”
“Arse-kissers and blood-suckers,” Evander said. “I can think of other descriptions, if you’d like me to keep going.”
“I think we get the idea.”
“It would, I think, be best not to be alone with him, even here,” Tyrel said slowly.
“I doubt Brykhon was in on the plan to kill me.”
“Maybe not. But right now, it’s probably best to assume that anyone is a potential threat and take precautions. Is he going to accept you having at least Kaveri or Mirren or Hermia with you?”
“Not easily, and he may decide to be offended. He has, in the past, tolerated Evander’s presence, on the grounds of propriety and my insistence on not being alone with a man I’m not related to. Alternatively, when Evander has been unavailable, Iole has stayed.”
“Probably the only example ever of me being on the side of propriety,” Evander said dryly. “I’m not much help as far as physical danger, however.”
“Timing?” Madoc asked. “Is he showing up today?”
“He expects to call on me the afternoon of the third day after this message is delivered.”
“At least it isn’t tomorrow,” Tyrel said. “Since Madoc and Mirren will be too exhausted to be any use all day.”
“Thanks,” Madoc said laconically.
“The day after that, well… Mirren would be the most subtle, but changing will still be extremely uncomfortable by then. I’ll be starting to push it a bit the other way, but not as bad. I can spend that day fox-form and be a pet. That’s a little more exotic than a cat…”
“We’ve seen much more novel pets in royal and aristocratic and wealthy hands,” Evander said. “So I’ll be without one of my shadows that day?”
“I don’t entirely like that idea,” Narcissa said.
“It’ll be all right,” Kaveri said. “Hermia and Melanippe are getting more comfortable about working with us. One of them can come along and cover, either outside with Madoc or in with you and Mirren can stay with Madoc.”
“My presence would require too much explanation,” Kieran said. “And it’s just as well if I’m here as unexpected assistance for whoever’s guarding the door, just in case. Should there be trouble during this visit, your fox can buy enough time for the rest of us to reach you. Where would you see him?”
“Typically, that would be the dining room,” Narcissa said.
“Can you plausibly use the courtyard?”
“Yes, I suppose so. Is there a reason?”
“Even should you need to meet his eyes directly, in full sunlight he’ll see nothing unless he’s sensitive and observant.” He inclined his head towards Evander in acknowledgement of the one person present who did fit that description. “It’s unlikely that during the day, indoors, he would see anything, but not impossible.”
“Then I’ll see him in the courtyard. That’s an easier place to reach quickly, as well. I had no intention of making eye contact, since he generally interprets that as interest and an invitation. I don’t anticipate this being a long visit, since I don’t plan to invite him to stay for dinner.”
Fox-form, Tyrel shifted position a bit to make sure he could be on his feet in an instant. Narcissa managed to make a fan-backed wicker chair under a potted tree look like a throne, all formal in a very white dress under a mantle of intense purples and reds and blues that must have cost a small fortune and another fortune in gold jewellery glittering with amethysts and rubies and sapphires. That was certainly not what she’d been wearing when she’d returned from the hospital, but then, Iole was very good at her job and had been ready.
Tyrel had his own padded rectangular stool right next to Narcissa, where she could keep a hand on him casually and comfortably. They’d worked out a few basic signals, as a precaution, though neither really expected to need them. Kaveri and Iole had even dismantled a necklace of square gold plaques set with black onyx and adjusted it into a fox-sized collar. Evander was on her other side, though back a bit, and while the indigo of that finely-woven tunic was probably expensive, it and the little jewellery he was wearing only made it easier for him to be simply part of the background against the foreground of Narcissa’s regal elegance.
Lysandra had pointed out, with a hint of mischief, something Tyrel found it hard to imagine Evander saying: referring to her pet fox as a vixen would be a subtle way of reinforcing the emphasis on Narcissa’s domain being feminine space. She had a point, and Tyrel didn’t much care which pronouns Narcissa used. Lysandra had teased him about keeping his tail down so Brykhon wouldn’t find out otherwise, and offered to tie a bow in it to help him remember.
“I should go into the theatre,” Narcissa murmured, one hand stroking Tyrel’s fur absently. “It would be no more performance than we’ve done a thousand times. What is this but stage and costumes, with tricks we’ve been trained in all our lives like dogs?”
Tyrel nuzzled her hand sympathetically.
“One thing you won’t miss,” Evander said.
Tyrel perked his ears up, catching the sounds of motion close outside the street door.
“Hermia,” Narcissa said, before Tyrel could even get as far as making a sound to warn them. Very alert to his reactions, their princess. That was good. Over time, they were all growing more adept at reading one another when unable to speak, but Narcissa lacked that familiarity.
Hermia, who was waiting nearer the door, nodded. Still, she didn’t hasten excessively to unbolt the door when the chimes rang.
“His Royal Highness Brykhon Hylactos to see Her Gracious Serenity Narcissa Diamantina,” an imperious voice announced.
What a mouthful.
“His Royal Highness is welcome,” Hermia said smoothly. “Her Gracious Serenity has taken a vow, and this is a house of women. I hope you do not expect to bring half a score of men, armed and otherwise, into her home?”
“Of course not.” That was a different voice, though no less supercilious. “I have no fear of my safety in the lady’s house. My attendants can wait outside.”
Creating a spectacle for the whole neighbourhood to watch. I wonder how long it will take the children next door and across the street to start throwing things at them?
Hermia dipped her head in deferential acknowledgement and stepped aside, opening the door entirely as she moved.
Tyrel braced himself, and knew that Kieran, in his own form, and the rest of his family and Melanippe, lurking out of sight, all prepared to move if necessary, but only one man came in. Hermia closed and bolted the door behind him, and Tyrel relaxed. No one had tried to force entry; that was a positive sign that they were being more cautious than necessary.
Narcissa rose with a charming smile, though she didn’t offer her hand. Her vow not to marry made her person semi-sacred, and gave her an ideal excuse to avoid contact.
The prince was well-dressed, if a bit hard on the eyes, in crimson with indigo borders and an indigo cloak; he wore more gold jewellery than Tyrel had typically seen on men in this part of the world, most strikingly a heavy elaborate brooch pinning his cloak, shaped like a muscular bull, but the wide cuff around his upper left arm shared the motif and was hardly less obvious. He did indeed look around Narcissa’s age, and in good condition at that: he was uncommonly tall for this area, and broad-shouldered, and what Tyrel could see looked muscular, though he couldn’t decide whether it was honestly come by through activity or deliberately cultivated.
The scent hit Tyrel like a gastraphete arrow.
Not human. Moonblood. Not our bloodline.
(chapter continued next post!)