Shadow Raiders

The Dragon Brigade

Margaret Weis - Author

Robert Krammes - Author

ePub eBook | $8.99 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9781101514634 | 704 pages | 03 May 2011 | DAW | 18 - AND UP
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A new epic swashbuckling fantasy series-by New York Times bestselling author Margaret Weis and Robert Krammes.

The known world floats upon the Breath of God, a thick gas similar to Earth's oceans, with land masses accessible by airship. The largest of these land masses are ruled by the rival empires of Freya and Rosia. Magic is intrinsic to the functioning of these societies, and is even incorporated into their technological devices. But now a crucial scientific discovery has occurred that could destroy the balance of power-and change the empires forever.

The events that would eventually shake the foundations of the Church of the Breath of God, threaten to topple two monarchies, and plunge the world of Aeronne into war began simply enough in a modest house on the Boulevard of Saints, city of Evreux, continent of Rosia, year of Our Lord, 516 DT (abbreviation for Dark Tide) at six of the clock in the evening and began with the words, “We are broke.”

The words were spoken by one Monsieur Rodrigo de Villeneuve to his friend, Lord Captain Stephano de Guichen, formerly of the Dragon Brigade, and they would never be recorded in any history book.

Rodrigo placed an iron-banded heavy wooden box on the table where the members of the Cadre of the Lost were finishing supper. He touched the box and a magical sigil flared into light, warning anyone trying to tamper with the box that he was about to meet a most unpleasant fate. Rodrigo removed the sigil by tracing another sigil over it, then thrust an iron key into the lock, turned it, and opened the lid. He removed three small cloth bags, and placed a bag in front of Dag Thorgrimson, another bag in front of Miri McPike, and a third in front of Miri’s younger sister, Gythe. He then brought out a slim leather-bound ledger and thumped it down on the table.

“That doesn’t bode well,” said Dag, eyeing the ledger gloomily.

“Nor does the heft of this,” said Miri. “So much smaller than the job we did for that bastard, Le Marc.”

She measured the weight of the coins in the cloth bag with her hand, then opened it and poured the contents into her palm. The small pile was comprised mostly of large copper ten-pennies with a few small silver coins thrown in.

Rodrigo opened the ledger. “That’s because we had bills to pay. I paid for the repairs on the Cloud Hopper and for a crafter to fix Dag’s stowaway pistol and I compensated the Han brothers for their services. You know the Han brothers—payment at once for services rendered, or they break your kneecaps.”

He cast a severe glance at Dag. “That gunsmith crafter friend of yours was extremely expensive.”

“Better to be safe than sorry,” said Dag imperturbably.

“Especially with a weapon that can blow off my hand.”

“I notice you and Stephano didn’t take a share of the money,” said Miri, frowning

“I told you,” said Rodrigo, “we’re broke. For the moment, Stephano and I can survive. I have my allowance. Our esteemed captain has his military pension—such as it is.”

He looked at Stephano and added, with an exasperated sigh, “Would someone wake him up?”

Stephano heard Rodrigo’s voice, but he wasn’t attending to the words. He had taken a sip of the Duke of Bourlet’s favorite red wine and was holding the liquid in his mouth as he had been taught, detecting the various flavors: black fruit, chocolate, leather, and violets. The taste brought back memories: the smell of the herbs and spices used to marinate the roasted beef, the sound of his father’s ringing laughter, the sparkle of the crystal goblets in the candlelight, the sense of warmth and camaraderie, the sense of family.

Stephano swallowed the wine, the last dregs left in the glass. He kept his eyes closed. Beneath his hand was fine linen, silver knives and forks and spoons, porcelain plates painted with dragons. Cut roses in crystal vases added their own scent to the air. He was fifteen and the fifteen-year-old Stephano looked around the table at his family and friends and knew that he was blessed . . .

“Stephano,” said Miri, giving his arm a shake.

“I’m here,” said Stephano.

He held a cracked crockery mug filled with beer, not wine, and not very good beer at that. Beneath his hand was the wood of the kitchen table, a tin plate, a knife that didn’t match the spoon, and a fork with a bent prong. The smell of a stewed chicken, boiled greens, and warm bread filled the small kitchen. The raspberry jam and butter had ended up, once again, in front of Dag.

Miri had noted its movement and was whispering something, with a giggle, to Gythe. Her sister smiled and caught hold of Doctor Ellington just as he jumped onto the table in the fond but vain hope that no one would notice a twenty-pound, orangestriped tabby cat licking the butter. Gythe bumped heads with the cat, whose rumbling purr resonated around the small kitchen, then handed the bag of coins back to Rodrigo. She made a sign with her hand.

Miri translated, “We will contribute our share to the cause.”

She tossed her bag back to Rodrigo.

“What the Hell,” said Dag. “Who needs to eat?” He handed over his bag.

Thirty-four-year-old Stephano de Guichen looked around the table at this family, at those who had become his family, and knew that he was blessed.

“I heard you,” said Stephano, sighing. He kicked out a chair and propped his booted feet up onto it and leaned back. “You said we were broke.”

“Perhaps I overstated the case a bit to catch your attention,” said Rodrigo. “Let me put it this way—we are in less crushing debt than we were before the job.”

“In other words, they’re not going to throw me in debtor’s prison today,” said Stephano.

“Today,” Rodrigo emphasized. “I make no guarantee for the morrow. If you would like to see the bills, we have them from the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker—”

“Very funny,” said Stephano, growling. He glanced over his shoulder at an elderly man seated in a rocking chair in a cozy corner by the kitchen fire. “We are finished, Benoit. You may clear. And I’d like another mug of beer.”

“Very good, sir,” said Benoit, and, reaching for his cane, he made a feeble attempt to rise from the chair.

He sank back down with a groan.

“What’s wrong now?” Stephano asked testily.

“Touch of gout, sir,” said Benoit. “The old complaint. But, you notice, sir, that I don’t complain. If you’ll give me a moment, sir . . .”

Benoit placed his gnarled hands on the arms of the rocking chair and tried again, pitifully, to heave himself to his feet. He glanced at them out of the corner of his eye. They sat at the table, waiting. Benoit gave another groan.

Miri bit her twitching lip. Exchanging laughing glances with her sister, she rose briskly to her feet, walked over to the old man, and rested her hands on his shoulders.

“Don’t trouble yourself, Mr. Benoit,” she said solicitously, giving him a soothing pat. “Gythe and I will do the clearing and the washing.”

“Ah, thank you, my dears,” said Benoit gratefully.

Stephano glared at the old man, who pretended not to see as he settled himself comfortably back in his chair. Grabbing his mug, Stephano followed Miri into the cold storage room, where Gythe was placing the butter on a high shelf, out of the reach of Doctor Ellington.

Miri turned to face Stephano and, winking, said loudly, “I think it’s a disgrace, the way you make that poor sick old man wait on you hand and foot.”

“He’s the family retainer! It’s his job!” said Stephano, pitching his voice so that Benoit could hear. “And poor sick old man, my ass! Only this afternoon I saw Benoit running down the street in hot pursuit of one of the local lads who had snatched his wig off his head. The lad outdistanced him, but not by much.”

“He’d have been sorry if I’d have caught him!” Benoit stated, shaking his cane.

Stephano and Miri looked at each other and laughed.

“And, by the way,” said Stephano, grinning, “when did you ever see Benoit wait on me or anyone else?”

Stephano reached for the beer pitcher and saw that it was empty. He gave the barrel an experimental kick. The barrel rang hollow. The beer, too, was almost depleted and there wasn’t money for more. His grin vanished. He heaved a sigh and handed Miri the mug for washing.

“Benoit has free room and board, and I never knew one old man could eat so much. As for drink, he always has such a pleasant beery smell about him.” Stephano kicked the barrel again and muttered, “I should chuck him out into the street.”

“Then why don’t you?” Miri asked pertly.

She left the cold room and returned to the kitchen, where she took out the washtub and filled it with hot water from the kettle.

Gythe, escorted by Doctor Ellington, returned to the table and picked up the plates and mugs and flatware.

“I’ll tell you why,” Miri said, answering her own question. She plunged the plates into the water and began vigorously scrubbing. “He is the old family retainer. The only family you have.”

Stephano reached into the washtub, took hold of Miri’s red, sudsy hands, and brought them to his lips. “Not the only family. I was thinking that this evening.”

He smiled down into Miri’s green eyes and brushed a lock of flame-red hair back from her pretty, sun-freckled face. The two had met five years ago; the night Stephano had resigned his commission as an officer in the Dragon Brigade. All he had ever aspired to do in his life was to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and be a Dragon Knight. He had served proudly in the Dragon Brigade for almost ten years. But King Alaric had disbanded the Dragon Brigade, claiming his “modern” navy had no need for dragons. Stephano had resigned in furious protest, and the admiralty had been only too happy to accept his resignation.

That night, Stephano had put on his full dress uniform with the dragons embroidered on the leather flight coat and then thrown his commission into the fire. Then he sat, watching his past burn to ashes, drinking to his own misery. He was alone; his friend Rodrigo having traveled to visit his parents in the Duchy of Argonne, where they had been exiled.

Stephano had gone out for a walk, taking a bottle of wine with him for company. He had wandered the streets of Evreux, paying no heed to where he was going. He found himself near the dockyards, where a host of Trundler houseboats, notable for their brightly colored balloons and sails, and short, stubby wings, had taken up residence. In a field nearby, the Trundlers were having some sort of celebration, perhaps a wedding or a funeral. With them, it was hard to distinguish which.

The Trundlers were rovers, belonging to no country, paying allegiance to no king or queen. They were loyal only to their own people. Governments down through the years had given up attempting to impose any sort of regulation over them, perhaps out of some sort of sense of world-encompassing guilt; these nations having come together to defeat and sink Glasearrach, the island the Trundlers had once called home, with heavy, though unintentional (so the governments claimed) loss of life.

Trundlers had their own laws. They tried those who broke them in their own courts. Trundler laws differed somewhat from the laws imposed by kings and princes. Smuggling and thieving were viewed with a tolerant eye since one had to earn a living, whereas murderers could be executed on the spot.

Sometimes such small differences in the legal system did tend to cause friction between Trundlers and the local authorities, who occasionally tried to raid Trundler gatherings. Thus, the sight of Stephano, wearing his full dress uniform, with his sword at this side, had roused intense and immediate suspicion among the young men of the Trundler community.

Six young toughs, strong and muscular, armed with clubs and flaming torches, had confronted Stephano. He could have apologized and talked his way out, but he was in a mood for a fight. The next thing he knew, he had been lying on the ground, his skull cracked, pain everywhere, looking up into the flashing green eyes and freckled face of a lovely young woman.

She had examined him, then had risen to her feet and immediately began to lay into the young men, hitting and slapping them and kicking them in the shins.

“Can’t you see the dragon he’s wearing, you daft buggers?” she had cried.

The young toughs had crumbled beneath her fury, mumbling in their defense that: “it was dark;” “a king’s man is a king’s man;” “he should’ve said something;” and the like until the woman had grown weary and they had been able to escape her wrath.

“I’m sorry, my dear,” the woman had said to him, rubbing her stinging palms. “The young fools didn’t know who you were.”

Stephano had smiled at her blissfully and then thrown up on her shoes.

He had regained consciousness in a houseboat belonging to the woman’s uncle, where he was a guest for the next week until the young woman deemed he was healthy enough to leave. Her name was Miri, she had told him, and she was a Trundler Lore Master. Since most Trundlers could neither read nor write, Miri and those like her were responsible for keeping the Trundler history, the old tales and legends, alive.

Miri had realized that simply handing down histories from one generation to another had resulted in inaccuracies and contradictions. Most Trundlers didn’t care, but Miri wanted to know the truth behind the myths, and she had decided the only way to find out was to seek the facts in books and that involved learning to read. She had taught herself, with the help of a priest, and had learned the fascinating fact that the history of the Trundlers and those of the great dragon families were entwined, though just exactly how was lost in the mists of time. Miri had longed to talk to the dragons about this and had sought an invitation into the households of the noble dragon families. They had looked down their long and elegant snouts at a Trundler and never even bothered to respond. Then Stephano, a former Dragon Knight, had come into her camp, and her cousins had beaten him senseless.

Miri had healed his wounds, and he had gained her access into the houses of some of the dragons with whom he had served. She and Stephano were close in age; both having been around thirty at the time, and it was inevitable that they became lovers.

Any number of beautiful ladies of the court would have been happy to invite the dashing young former captain of the Dragon Brigade to their salons or even their beds to listen to his troubles. For reasons of his own, Stephano did not trust beautiful ladies of the court.

He trusted Miri, who was always honest—brutally so. Their relationship had been complicated over the years. Once he had thought he was in love with her and once she had thought she was in love with him. If these periods had coincided, the relationship might have worked. As it was, there had been confusion, hurt feelings, tears, and recriminations. Then, one night, as they lay in bed talking, they came to the realization they were friends.

“So much more comfortable than being lovers, my dear,” Miri told him. That night, she ended the affair.

“I want you to meet my sister,” she said. “And I only invite friends to my home. Never my lovers.”

Home was the sisters’ houseboat, the Cloud Hopper.

Stephano might have smiled at this notion of Miri’s that only those she considered friends were allowed to visit, but when he met Gythe, he realized that Miri had honored him with a special trust, one he would forever cherish.

Gythe was twenty-one—fourteen years younger than her sister. But she seemed more like a child of fourteen. She was beautiful, with hazel eyes and hair the color of champagne. Where Miri’s eyes glinted with green flashes of laughter and merriment and her legendary temper, Gythe’s eyes were wandering, searching, shadowed. She never spoke a word. She was not mute, for though she would not talk, she could sing, accompanying herself on the harp.

“Gythe’s never been quite right since ‘Then,’” Miri would always say of her sister. Miri never told Stephano what happened “Then . . .” When he once hinted that he would like to know, Miri said brusquely, “No good will come of talking of it.” By the glint in her green eyes, he knew to let it drop.

Stephano guessed “Then” had something to do with the deaths of their parents and the fact that the two girls were on their own, but beyond that, nothing more.

He was thinking all this, remembering. Miri’s laughter brought him back to the kitchen.

“If we’re a family, we’re the bloodiest, messed-up family there ever was, my dear,” Miri told him.

“You’re right there,” said Stephano.

When the dishes were done and Miri had returned from dumping the water out of the wash bin, Dag placed his large hands on the table and levered himself slowly to his feet. The table, which was made out of a butcher’s block and was heavy and solid, groaned a bit beneath the big man’s weight. Dag Thorgrimson was six-foot-two, a Guundaran mercenary, and he was also part of the “bloodiest, messed-up” family. He and Stephano had met on opposing sides of a battle eight years ago—a battle Stephano had always considered both sides lost.

“We should be starting for home, girls,” said Dag in his deep, grave voice.

He was invariably grave, serious, and earnest; he rarely smiled. He dressed in plain black clothing. His hair was cut short in the military style, and he had the straight and upright bearing of the soldier he had been for many years. He would speak of his past only to say proudly that he had served in the army since he was eight years old, his sergeant father having made his son a drummer. Dag had fought in his first battle at the age of twelve.

Dag and Stephano would often talk of battles in which Stephano had fought. Dag would share his opinion on the strategy or the tactics involved, but he had only once spoken of his own experience, and that had been when Stephano had wanted to hire him to help with a small job.

Dag told Stephano his story, saying that it was only right “the captain” should know what had happened before Stephano put his trust in him. Dag told a horror tale of flame and blood, men dying all around him, men dying because he had ordered them to their deaths. Dag had been the sole survivor. Stephano had listened and, at the end of the recitation, which Dag had made in a low voice, never lifting his head, Stephano had taken the man’s hand and shaken it and said in a husky voice that he would be honored to serve with him.

Dag had looked up, perplexed. “Perhaps you didn’t understand me, Captain. I ordered those men to die!”

“I understand better than you do, seemingly,” Stephano had answered. “And don’t call me ‘captain.’ We’re neither of us in the service of any king. Neither of us will ever order any man into any king’s battle again. Let Their Majesties look after themselves.”

Miri took down her cloak from the hook on the wall. Gythe picked up the cat.

“If you will settle Doctor Ellington, child,” said Dag, turning his back to Gythe, who, with great care, placed the cat on Dag’s shoulder.

Doctor Ellington dug his claws into the quilted shoulder padding Dag had added to his coat and purred loudly. Wherever Dag went, the Doctor went with him, riding proudly on the man’s shoulder, boldly challenging the world with golden eyes, his striped tail waving like a flag.

“I’ll walk with you,” said Stephano, taking up his hat.

Miri was fussily wrapping a cloak around Gythe’s slender shoulders, Dag was putting on his hat, and Stephano was starting to open the door when Rodrigo, who had been out of the room, visiting the chamber pot, returned. He saw them preparing to leave and came to an abrupt stop.

“Where do you all think you are going?”

“Home,” said Miri, adding teasingly, “to revel in our riches.”

“Oh, no, you’re not,” said Rodrigo severely. He pulled out a chair and pointed to it. “We are all of us going to stay here until we figure out how to solve our deplorable financial insolvency.”

The four looked at each other, sighed, and came trailing back. Stephano took off his hat and tossed it onto a marble bust of His Majesty, King Alaric, which graced a table. The marble bust had been a gift from a grateful nation to Lord Captain Stephano de Guichen of the Dragon Brigade for meritorious action. Rodrigo had once asked Stephano why he kept the bust. Stephano had replied that on days when he woke feeling a brotherhood with all the world, the sight of the king’s face reminded him that there was still one man on this world he hated.

Dag removed his own hat and sat with it in his lap. Miri and Gythe took off their cloaks and sat down at the table. They stared at each other blankly. The only sound was Doctor Ellington’s throaty purr. The cat perched on Dag’s shoulder, his eyes golden slits, kneading his claws into the padding.

“Come now,” said Rodrigo at last. “Someone must know somebody who is trying to smuggle jewels to his exiled family or wants to avoid paying the king’s tax on a shipment of brandy. You, Miri, have you talked to your Trundler uncle and myriad Trundler cousins? Do they have any jobs for us? Dag, what about your underworld connections?”

Dag’s face darkened. His brow came together. His hand, resting on his knee, clenched to a fist.

“Now, now, my friend,” said Rodrigo soothingly, “it’s no use pretending you did not once break legs for a living . . .”

Dag scowled. Stephano saw Rodrigo’s life flash before his eyes and he was about to intervene when the meeting was interrupted by the sound of wyvern wings and the clatter of a carriage coming to rest on the cobblestones outside the house. The wyverns’ raucous croaks were followed by the voice of the driver shouting at the beasts to settle.

Stephano and his friends all looked at one another. Judging by the sounds of the jingling harness, the scraping of claws on stone, and the wyverns hissing and snorting, the carriage had stopped right outside the front door. Someone arriving in a carriage—a large, airborne carriage—at this hour . . .

“I smell money,” said Rodrigo, his nose twitching.

There was a clatter and a scraping noise. The driver was lowering a step for the convenience of the carriage’s passenger. Then came the bang of the door knocker.

Stephano turned to Benoit, who was pretending to be asleep in his chair. The knock was repeated with a bit more force. Stephano cleared his throat.

Benoit blinked and opened his eyes, looked about blearily, and said, “Someone at the door, sir.”

“I know,” said Stephano.

He sat stubbornly in his chair.

Benoit sat in his. After a moment, the old man said wonderingly, as if the thought had just occurred to him, “Would you like me to answer that, sir?”

“If it’s not too much trouble,” said Stephano bitingly.

Groaning, Benoit rose to his feet and began to shuffle across the floor. “If I might suggest, sir, you and Master Rodrigo should remove yourselves to the sitting room. Unless you want your visitor to find you sitting in the kitchen. He might mistake you for the cook.”

“By God, he’s right,” said Rodrigo. “Stephano—sitting room! Run for it!”

The kitchen was on the ground floor at the rear of the two-story house. A back door opened out into a small patch of ground that was meant to be used as a kitchen garden, but which had been turned into an exercise yard. Benoit’s rooms were on this level, as well. On the upper floor were a sitting room, two bedrooms, and two dressing rooms for Rodrigo and Stephano, a library, and study.

“We’ll stay here in the kitchen,” said Miri. She and Gythe and Dag remained seated. “I don’t mind being mistaken for the cook.”

Stephano flushed. “You know it’s not that—”

“I know,” said Miri, smiling.

She meant that she and Gythe and Dag weren’t “hiding” in the kitchen because Stephano was ashamed of his “low-born” friends. The three kept out of sight because the Cadre of the Lost often found it advantageous for people to assume there could be no connection between the son of a noble family (albeit a noble family in disgrace), the son of an ambassador, and a mercenary and two Trundlers.

Dag reached into the sleeve of his coat and drew from a hidden pocket a small pistol known as a “stowaway gun.” The cheaper models of these guns relied on a flint to strike a spark to fire the weapon. Dag’s pistol used magical constructs—a fire sigil carved into the metal—to accomplish the same purpose. Such pistols were expensive because they required the regular services of a crafter to maintain the magic, but Stephano saw to it that his people had only the best. Dag inspected the gun, made certain it was loaded. He nodded at Stephano to indicate readiness.

The cat, Doctor Ellington, seeing the pistol, leaped off Dag’s shoulder onto the table and from the table to the floor. Tail bristling with indignation, the Doctor stalked off to the cold room. He disliked loud noises.

“Move! Move!” Rodrigo yelled, grabbing his coat and hustling the reluctant Stephano from behind.

Once in the sitting room, Rodrigo put on his coat and smoothed his brocade vest. Careless of his own appearance, Stephano walked over to the window that looked down into the street. He saw the coat of arms on the door of the carriage and said, “Son of a bitch.”

Crossing the room, he flung open the door, and shouted down, “I’m not at home!”

“Very good, sir,” said Benoit.

Rodrigo looked out the window and quirked an eyebrow. He remained standing by the window, a smile on his lips, humming a dance tune.

Stephano walked over to the fireplace, where a small fire burned in the grate. Though the days were warm in late spring, the evenings were still chill. He listened to the sound of voices and heard the door bang shut. He smiled in relief and was on his way out the door to rejoin his friends when Benoit came in.

“May I present Monsieur Dargent,” Benoit said in a loud voice. “Confidential valet-de-chambre to the Countess de Marjolaine.”

Stephano’s face flushed in anger. “Damn it, Benoit, I told you I wasn’t home—”

Benoit, who had now gone conveniently deaf in addition to his other infirmities, stepped aside to allow the gentleman to enter.

“Thank you, Benoit,” said Dargent, smiling at the elderly retainer. “Good to see you again.”

“Thank you, monsieur,” said Benoit, bowing. “Always a pleasure.”

Stephano caught the flash of silver in the old man’s hand.

“Traitor!” Stephano yelled after him as Benoit descended the stairs.

“Perhaps next time, Master, you will answer the door yourself,” Benoit returned, pocketing the coin.

Stephano, pointedly leaving the sitting room door open, turned back to glare at Dargent, who smiled at him pleasantly.

“Stephano, you are looking well,” said Dargent. “And you, Master Rodrigo. You seem fit. How are your father and mother?”

“In good health, monsieur, thank you,” said Rodrigo.

“Your father is ambassador to Estara now, I believe,” said Dargent.

Rodrigo bowed. “He was so fortunate to be called out of exile and given that assignment.”

“The king’s way of making amends,” said Dargent.

Rodrigo bowed again in acknowledgment. “His Majesty is the soul of generosity.”

Stephano snorted and went to stand by the fireplace. He rested his arm on the mantel and stared moodily into the flames.

“I’d invite you to sit down, Dargent, but you won’t be staying that long. What do you want?”

“I have a letter from the countess, Captain,” said Dargent. “She asked me to deliver it into your hands.”

Though a creature of a court known for its elegant and extravagant dress, Dargent wore tailored clothes in somber colors, as became a man of business. His stockings were snowy white, his buckled shoes polished, and they made no sound as he walked across the carpet. He was even-tempered, quiet of manner, discreet. He handed Stephano a missive that was folded like a cocked hat and sealed with lavender wax bearing the countess’ insignia—a bumblebee.

Stephano took the letter from Dargent’s hand and tossed it into the fire.

Dargent reached into the pocket of his vest and drew out another letter. “Her Excellency said to give you the second after you destroyed the first.”

Stephano’s angry flush deepened. He was about to seize the letter and cast it to the same fate as the other one, when Rodrigo, moving with uncustomary speed, plucked the letter from Dargent’s hand and withdrew to the window to read it in the failing light. He gave a long, low whistle.

“What does she want?” Stephano asked, glowering.

“You are summoned to attend Her Excellency, the Countess de Marjolaine, in her quarters at the royal palace tomorrow morning at the hour of nine of the clock,” said Rodrigo.

Stephano glowered. “I’ll see her in—”

“—in the palace, my friend. There’s more,” said Rodrigo. “It seems the countess has bought up all your debt. Either you favor her with your presence in the morning, or she will demand that the debt be paid in full.”

Rodrigo handed Stephano the letter. He glanced over it, then turned to Dargent.

“And, knowing the countess, she’ll send me to debtor’s prison if my bill is not paid. What’s this about?” Stephano asked.

“I am sorry, Captain,” Dargent murmured. “I was not apprised.”

“Like Hell you weren’t,” Stephano said, sneering. “You know all the countess’ dirty little secrets.”

“Perhaps it’s a job,” Rodrigo suggested in a low voice. “We could use the work. The countess pays well and on time.”

“She might say it’s a job for her, but we would really be working for the king,” said Stephano bitterly, not bothering to lower his voice.

“Pays well,” Rodrigo repeated. “On time.”

Stephano watched the first letter dwindle to ashes, then said abruptly, “Tell the countess I will attend her at nine. I’ll hear what she has to offer. I can always say no.”

“And if you say no, we can always move to Estara,” said Rodrigo. “Our creditors might not find us there.”

Dargent bowed. “I will show myself out, Captain.”

“You do that,” said Stephano.

He waited until he heard the front door close, then he picked up his hat and cloak and said shortly, “I’m going for a walk.”

“Want company?” Rodrigo asked.

“No,” said Stephano.

“What do I tell the others?”

“What you like,” said Stephano.

Rodrigo returned to the kitchen alone. Miri, Gythe, Dag, and the cat all looked at him expectantly. Benoit was again pretending to be asleep, but he had his head cocked to hear.

“Benoit told us the man was from the countess,” said Miri. “Is it a job? Will Stephano take a job from her?”

“God knows,” said Rodrigo, throwing up his hands. “Most of the time, Stephano de Guichen is a rational man. But he loses his head completely when it comes to his mother.”

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