Donato, a young man who worked as manservant to Burian, son of Einar, a gem-merchant in Dargon, hurried down the Street of Travellers. He was concerned, for he had received a message from his sister’s employer, Ballard Tamblebuck, proprietor of the Inn of the Serpent where she worked as a waitress, that she needed help. The bald, no-details message had cost him a sleepless night and he had set off as early as he could.
He entered a large, dirty building and went up the flight of stairs two at a time to the top floor. The staircase opened onto a long corridor with doors on either side; Donato strode to the very last door and knocked. No one answered, and a few moments later, he tried the door handle. It gave, and he opened the door and stepped into a small room with a fireplace in one wall. An unmade bed was pushed against one wall, and a skylight let in a little sun. A countertop against the far wall had some utensils stacked haphazardly on it; the cupboard beneath had one door open.
In the center of the room, a small red-haired woman was retching over a bucket. The similarity in features between the two hinted at their familial relationship: they were brother and sister. Donato leaned against the door jamb and watched her. He wondered if she had indulged in one tankard too many; perhaps that was why Ballard was worried about her. If that were the case, he would certainly give Raizel a strong, older-brotherly talk.
She patted the ground next to her, feeling for the small bowl of water sitting there and proceeded to wash her face and rinse her mouth. When at last she turned and saw him, she gave a start, one hand on her chest. “Donato, what are you doing here?”
“Ballard sent me a message and asked me to check on you. Said you were awfully upset about something last night,” he stared at her narrowly. “Raizel, what’s wrong?”
She rose slowly from the ground but did not meet his eyes. “Nothing’s wrong. I was just a bit tired, is all.”
“And that?” he nodded to the bucket. “Why were you throwing up?”
Raizel turned away quickly, one hand holding her mouth closed, the other at her stomach, and did not answer. She heaved dryly into the bucket and when she was done, she said, “I just had something bad to eat last night.”
Donato wondered if that were the truth, but she had never lied to him in the past and he was reasonably certain that she would not start now. “Come sit,” he said gently. “Let me make you some breakfast. I wish I’d known. Isla made fried bread; I would’ve brought some for you.” He heard her retch and turned back to see her heaving into the bucket again.
At length she said, “Just some weak tea.”
For a few moments, there was silence except for the chink of utensils as he worked. The fireplace actually had wood laid for a fire, which didn’t surprise Donato; his sister was a neat housewife. At length he poured the tea he had brewed into a mug and brought it to Raizel who was sitting on the bed. She accepted it and cautiously smelled the contents before she took a small sip.
He waited until she finished half the tea before he spoke. “Want to tell me what’s wrong?”
“Donato,” she said, and then paused. “Donato, you can’t tell me what to do because you’re only my brother, not my father.”
His eyes narrowed at her opening statement, and he was absolutely sure that whatever she had to say would be something he did not want to hear. “Want to tell me what’s wrong?”
“Not really.” She licked her lips and put the mug down on the ground, still not meeting his eyes.
He did not answer, experience having taught him that when a woman started a conversation with an irrelevant preamble, the main topic was going to be something unpleasant. It didn’t matter who the woman was — sister, friend, lover, or housekeeper, they all seemed to think that an important discussion should be preceded by an unimportant introduction that restated a fact that everyone knew.
Raizel began to pleat the rumpled bedclothes. “It shouldn’t matter to you what I do, straight?”
“What are you planning to do?” he asked, sighing in resignation. Raizel had always been unpredictable and even though he, as her older brother, was responsible for her, she fought him at every step if he tried to guide her ways. Most times, he lost.
“Don’t you think children are nice?”
He was totally confused, almost certain that he’d missed the point of the conversation. She had switched topics on him already. “Raizel, what do children have to do with whatever you’re planning to do?”
“That’s sort of the point, Donato. I’m planning to have one.” She met his eyes then.
“Planning?” Donato stared at her for a moment before it dawned on him that she had been vomiting because she was pregnant, not because she had drunk one tankard too many. “I’ll kill him,” he swore. “Who is he? I’ll kill him. Who’s the father? Does he think my sister is a whore? I’ll kill him,” he repeated. “I don’t care who he is. Who is he, Raizel? Tell me, tell me now!” Unable to sit still, he rose and began to pace.
“Don’t you dare,” Raizel snapped. “I wouldn’t even have told you, but it’s hardly something I could keep hidden from you like — well, it doesn’t matter.”
“Tell me who he is!” He threw the words over his shoulder, pacing back and forth.
“What does it matter who he is?”
Donato took another turn around the room. “It matters who he is because I’ll make him marry you! And I can’t do that unless you tell me who it is.”
“I don’t know if I want to marry him.”
“Raizel, please don’t say that. Think of the baby. You don’t want people to call your child a bastard, do you?”
She snorted. “I’ll raise my child properly. And if, in spite of that, someone calls him a bastard, he may deserve it!”
“Raizel! You don’t know what you’re saying!”
“Stop shouting,” she said testily. “I can hear you, and I know what I’m saying. If you don’t want to listen to what I’m saying, I won’t talk to you.”
He folded instantly, knowing that Raizel was capable of doing exactly as she threatened. “Listen to me,” he pleaded. “If you won’t think of yourself or the baby, think of the father. Think of how he’ll feel if you refuse to marry him.”
She laughed at that. “I’m pretty sure he won’t want to marry me, and I’m more than sure his father would rather give me a bag full of gemstones than let me marry his precious Burian.” As Donato’s expression changed, she grimaced.
“Burian!? You know Burian?” Donato felt his world crumbling; the sister whom he had constantly sought to keep safe was beyond his protection. He had always taken care to keep Burian, the man he worked for, away from his home, because Burian was a man filled with vice: he drank nothing but spirits all the time; he bedded any woman who was willing, and he was as dishonest as ever a man could be. Donato, who had refused to let Raizel visit him at the house where he worked lest she meet Burian, had forgotten that Raizel had every opportunity to meet Burian at the Serpent where she worked. When he had found out that she knew Burian, Raizel had promised him she knew how to take care of herself. He had even talked with Ballard and made the innkeeper promise to keep an eye on Raizel. And now this! Donato turned, ready to go and threaten Burian with a knife if he had to, in order to make him marry Raizel.
“Donato! Where are you going?” There was a real note of fear in Raizel’s voice, and she was clinging to his arm so tightly that he knew there would be crescent-shaped nail marks when she let go.
“To kill Burian, and maybe Tamblebuck as well, while I’m at it,” he growled, trying to dislodge her. “He was supposed to have been taking care of you.”
“He didn’t know! I swear, Donato, that Ballard didn’t know; he doesn’t know!”
“Stop screaming,” he said, turning his face away slightly so that his ears were away from her mouth, shuddering at the high pitch of her voice.
She obligingly lowered her voice, but continued to speak. “Ballard doesn’t know. It isn’t his fault. And as for Burian, well, it does take two, you know. Promise me you won’t try to kill them or something equally idiotish. Promise!”
“Straight, straight! Get your nails away from me, witch!” He couldn’t shake her away and his arms hurt already.
“Sorry.” She took her hands away, and as she glimpsed the nail marks on his arm, she gasped and smoothed them. “I’m sorry, Donato, but it was your fault.”
“What?” He couldn’t believe it. She had lain with Burian, of all people — Donato’s gorge rose as he even thought about it. Now she refused to marry the father of her child, and it was his fault! It was exactly like Raizel to say something perfectly outrageous!
“Well, if you hadn’t gotten so mad –”
He interrupted her, “I’m still mad and I’m still going to see Burian and –”
“You promised not to do anything foolish, and that includes getting into a fight,” she said, staring up at him with a pleading expression on her face.
“I did no such thing!” He knew he had not explicitly promised anything, but Raizel had a terrible fear of fights. Their parents had both been guards and frequently come home with black eyes, sore ribs, and the occasional broken limb. Raizel had always hated it, and when their mother had died in a fight, she had cried for days. Ever since then, fights had scared her.
Now she said firmly, “Well, you’re not going out of here without promising.”
“Oh, and are you going to stop me, radish?” The childish nickname slipped out and he knew he would promise her what she wanted. He had always protected her and she had needed more protection than most, partly because of her small build but mostly because she acted first and thought later. Consequences were not for Raizel; after all, he had always been there to deal with them for her.
He said, “Look, I promise I won’t get into a fight.”
“Promise me you won’t talk to Ballard or Burian about this,” she begged.
“I promise I won’t say a word to Ballard. But how can I not talk to Burian? I work for him,” he pointed out sweetly. And he refused to make any further promises in spite of Raizel pleading with him. Although after a while, she did seem to realize that she had gotten all the concessions she was going to from him.
That night, the Inn of the Serpent was almost overflowing and Ballard looked around with satisfaction. The carders’ tables were full, and the rest of the crowd seemed the well-behaved kind. That was good, because it meant he wouldn’t have to break up any fights. Such fights usually degenerated into free-for-alls and that was bad for the strongbox. His eyes started a circuit round the common room and his smile dipped a notch as he recognized Burian, seated at his usual center table with two tankards before him. The boy seemed to be drinking deep. Tamblebuck sighed. The waitresses, especially Raizel, always complained when Burian drank too much.
He continued to survey the room until his gaze came to the card tables set up against the far wall opposite the staircase. A frown replaced Tamblebuck’s smile as he recognized one of the carders. It was Ludovic, Burian’s twin, playing with single-minded concentration at one of the tables. Ludovic was a slender young man of medium height, and at that moment, his brown eyes were focused completely upon his cards.
“Ol’s piss,” Tamblebuck swore. Whenever the twins saw each other in public, it usually ended in a loud disagreement. Rumor had it that they were competing to become heir to their father’s shop; although Ballard did not normally give credence to rumors, this one had come from a source he trusted, his friend Farquhar. Besides, he had noticed that the arguments between the twins had become worse lately, almost always ending in fisticuffs. Tamblebuck had, only the previous sennight, had to throw Burian out when an argument between the two had erupted into a brawl. By his tally, at least three patrons had taken advantage of the melee that night to leave without paying for their drinks. It looked like his hopes for a quiet evening were not going to be realized.
“Deserae, give Burian as much as he can drink. The sooner he falls flat on his face, the sooner I can throw him out,” Tamblebuck said as his daughter approached the bar.
He handed her the drinks she asked for, and continued to observe the room. Every now and then, people wandered in and Tamblebuck served them absently, for he was waiting for the fight that he knew was sure to come that night. After some time, Deserae smiled in his direction and mouthed “good night” before going upstairs. Tamblebuck nodded to her, a little surprised at the time. He hadn’t realized it was that late and he wondered if the evening would actually pass quietly.
“You jug-bitten goat! I’ll kill you.”
Tamblebuck turned sharply at the loud voice. The twins were standing in fighting stance near the staircase. Ludovic’s chair had been overturned, and cards littered the table. The other three participants were backing away from the impending struggle. He approached the twins noiselessly and said, “Boys, you don’t want to fight.”
“Ballard, you don’t understand. He’s getting married,” Burian wailed. “I’ll kill him. Who do you think you are? I won’t let you inherit. Do you hear me, you thrice-cursed, plague-infected son of a hyena? Do you hear me? I’ll kill you.”
“Shut up. I will become the heir no matter what I have to do. You’re nothing but a drunk, and I’ll kill you before I let you inherit.”
They closed with one another, Ludovic with both hands on his brother’s neck and Burian trying to pull them off.
Tamblebuck watched, thinking that rumor had been right after all. He was on the ready to intervene if necessary but as long as the fight did not disrupt too much of his business, he was willing to let it go. After all, he reasoned, a good fight would let off steam, and Ol knew that the twins needed that badly enough. Although, he mused, he had heard something in both their voices, something that marked this fight as more serious than the ones he’d observed before. Was it that each voice was pitched higher? Or perhaps it was that the words were sharper. Whatever it was, he was fairly certain that there had been an underlying urgency in the twins’ voices. There was a glint of metal between the two, and Tamblebuck moved forward quickly.
“Help me!” he roared to one of the carders who was watching the fight. Tamblebuck separated the twins and pushed Burian aside roughly, but not before Ludovic had landed a punch to his twin’s stomach. Burian, his body pliant because of it, rolled backwards, hit a table, and collapsed on the floor. The carder was holding Ludovic from behind when Tamblebuck turned to face them.
“I’ll kill him,” Ludovic muttered. “I’ll –”
“I know, I know: you’ll kill him,” Tamblebuck said. “Boys, I think it’s time for you two to go on home. Where’re your shadows?”
Donato stepped forward from the entry way saying, “I’m here; I’ll take both of them home.”
“Where’s Karanat?” Tamblebuck was used to seeing the twins escorted home by their manservants, although Ludovic was seldom so drunk that he required the assistance of Karanat.
“I will take them,” Donato said again. “They will not fight now.”
“I don’t need anyone’s help,” Ludovic said rudely, and stormed out of the common room.
Tamblebuck sighed. “What’s with them? Lately it seems like they mean what they say when they fight.”
“They do. If they could, they would kill each other,” Donato said expressionlessly. “I’ll go now.”
Tamblebuck watched Donato drag the unconscious Burian into a chair and throw some water in his face. Burian came awake, sputtering. Within moments, both of them exited the inn, Burian leaning against Donato for support. Tamblebuck turned, and saw a knife gleaming in the corner. He sighed and picked it up; it must be Ludovic’s — the boy always carried a knife. Tamblebuck looked around the room and then cursed under his breath in annoyance. Just as he’d thought, two patrons had taken advantage of the fight to disappear without paying.
The following morning, Ludovic was shaving in his room. A loud knock sounded from the door and he swore as he cut his chin.
“Come,” he said, patting away the blood that had welled up and pooled at one end of the cut with an old rag. He glanced at the mirror and straightened as he recognized his visitor, a short, dumpy woman dressed in brown.
“Iolanthe, what are you doing here?” Iolanthe was a woman who was an herbalist with a gift for healing animals. Ludovic frequently took her strays that he found, and other animals that were abandoned to die. She cared for them, and sometimes they went back to their owners. Ludovic supported her on his erratic gambling wins.
“There’s a horse in my yard,” she began abruptly. “Someone has had him whipped so bad that the weals are bloody. And his knees …” She shuddered, and Ludovic threw down his shaving knife and turned to her.
“Ludovic, I need more cora and I need more oats; I want to make a hot mash, and I need money.” Her voice rose angrily toward the end of her litany.
“Calm down, Iolanthe,” he said softly, reading her anger in her narrowed eyes and pursed lips. Her body was stretched taut like the strings of a lute. “You can help the horse, straight?”
“Yes, I can.” She took a deep breath and her face resumed its usual indifferent expression. Ludovic marveled at it, because he could never control his anger, much less to the extent of wiping the expression off his face. Even though he and Iolanthe had been working together to help animals for almost two years, he knew very little about her. Although he wondered about her once in a while, he had never made the time to get to know her beyond their work together in helping the animals.
“I need money,” she repeated. “I have been expecting some money for helping a man care for his niece but I don’t know when he’s going to give it to me. Meanwhile, I need the money now so that I can heal the horse!”
“Straight, let me think.” Ludovic’s game at the Serpent the previous night had broken up because of a fight, and the winnings he had been counting on were not available. “I could ask Father,” he said slowly.
“I’ll wait here,” Iolanthe said immediately. “Go.” When he hesitated, she said again, “Go.”
Ludovic went slowly downstairs and into the dining room. “Father,” he said, seeing Einar finishing up his breakfast.
“Ludovic!” Einar looked up, a surprised expression on his face. “You’ve only shaved one side.”
He grinned sheepishly, hoping that the sight of him with one side shaved would put Einar in a good mood. It seemed that lately they fought more often than not, and he was glad to see a smile on his father’s face directed at him. “Well, you see, Father, I’m going to. I will. I just had to ask you something.”
Einar laughed. “Straight, what is it that’s so important you forgot you had only shaved one side?”
Encouraged by his father’s light demeanor, Ludovic decided to go directly to the matter at hand. “Could I have some money, Father?”
Einar threw down his napkin and rose, the smile gone as if wiped away. “Money, money, money, is that all you ever think of? No. I will not pay your gambling debts.”
“Father it’s not –”
“Well, if it’s for another of your wretched animals, you’re still getting no money from me, you hear?”
Einar brushed past him and was gone before Ludovic could complete his sentence. Ludovic stared after him, wondering where to get money, unsurprised at his father’s reaction. It had been a long time since he had held any conversation with his father that didn’t degenerate into an argument. Their interactions had deteriorated from unpleasant to downright acerbic ever since Einar had decided that Ludovic would marry Jessamina.
Ludovic sighed as he slowly climbed the stairs. He would worry about that situation later. Right now, he needed to think of someone who could lend him some money. When he was almost at the top, the door on the left side of the landing opened and Donato, his brother’s manservant, came out. They nodded to each other and Ludovic stood on the landing and watched Donato go downstairs.
The thought gave birth to action. Ludovic was inside his brother’s rooms before his mind could think of arguments for or against. The horse needed a hot mash; he needed to pay for it, and he would get the money in whatever way he could. He headed straight to the small dresser on the far side of the room. Snores sounded from the bed, and he knew that Burian would never wake; he had seen how much Burian had drunk the previous night.
A few moments later he was back in his room, handing some money to Iolanthe.
“Thanks,” she said. At the door, she paused and turned. “You know, after I heal the horse, I can sell it. I could use the money for all the supplies I don’t have.”
He laughed. “Be sure to sell it to someone who’ll take better care of it. Need a hand with the horse?” He picked up his shaving knife again and turned to the tiny mirror before him. “I have something to do this morning, but I could come if you need help.”
“No, I can manage. Go gamble,” she said with a smile as she left.
Later that morning, Karanat, Ludovic’s manservant, walked toward his aunt’s house on Murson Street. He was a sturdily built man with broad shoulders; his nose curved sharply, a sign that it had been broken at some time, and a tiny scar ran down one temple and across the eye. He entered the house without knocking.
“Oh, Karanat, I’m so glad you came!” His aunt, Francesa, threw herself into his arms and began to weep on his chest.
Karanat patted her back absently and threw a quick glance around the room. It was a small house, and his cousin Ruarc lounged on the single chair in the living area. In general, he presented a dirty, but youthful appearance with fine brown hair framing a triangular face set with watery eyes. At that moment, however, Ruarc sported a black eye, a swollen nose and a torn lip.
“Auntie, everything’s going to be fine,” Karanat murmured, his eyebrows rising in question as he caught Ruarc’s gaze. Ruarc grimaced and gestured to the kitchen behind him and Karanat said softly, “Auntie, don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything.”
His aunt, a buxom woman with wheat-colored hair and blue eyes that were presently swimming in tears, hiccupped and wiped her eyes off with a corner of her apron. “Why did you introduce Ruarc to Burian? Answer me that, Karanat.”
Karanat remembered when Ruarc had approached him for an introduction to his employer’s twin brother, Burian. Karanat had obliged because he had believed that Ruarc was trying to sell ale and Burian was a potential customer.
“If only you had asked him why he wanted to meet Burian.” Francesa hiccupped again, wiped a few more tears and said sharply, “You talk to him, Karanat. He simply won’t listen to me. It’s all because of that wretched Burian, and if I could kill him myself, I would. But that isn’t the answer, is it? You tell him, boy.” And then, in an abrupt change of subject, she said, “Have you had anything to eat? Probably not. Let me go put on a bowl for you.” She went into the kitchen and Karanat stared after her.
She was a smart woman; he had always known that. He knew she had deliberately left him to have a word with Ruarc. He sighed. He owed Francesa more than he could ever repay. His aunt and uncle had taken him in when his mother had died and Francesa had loved him as if he were her own. Ruarc was only two years younger than he, and had always resented the affection that his mother had showered on Karanat.
“What happened, Ruarc?”
“I — Burian and I had an argument,” Ruarc said hesitantly. “Listen, Kar, there’s really no need for you to get involved. I can take care of myself.”
“Yes, so well that you have a broken nose and a black eye,” Karanat snapped. “Tell me what happened.”
“I — Kar, please,” Ruarc begged. “Let me handle it. I feel terrible about it. I have to fix it myself.”
“But what happened? Ruarc –”
His aunt entered the room. “I’ll tell you. This boy,” she said the word “boy” in tones of such withering scorn that Ruarc winced and turned his face away, “decided he was going to get into the ale business. Burian told him he was looking for some special ale, so this boy got with an alchemist, paid him twenty Sovs — ten years of my savings, boy –” tears filled her eyes for a moment before she got her voice under control. “Well, what do you expect, if you actually believe what a drunken sot tells you?”
Karanat sighed. Ruarc had always been gullible, but this was truly hard for Karanat to believe. “What on ‘diar possessed you to take your mother’s silver?” Aware that his voice had risen, he struggled to bring his anger under control.
“Instead of yelling at me, why don’t you go and ask Burian to pay for the ale like he promised?” Ruarc asked sulkily.
“So you gave the alchemist the silver and he did what?” Karanat wasn’t sure what exactly had happened, but he did know that Ruarc had outdone himself in foolishness this time.
“He made the ale special,” Ruarc said.
“Yes, he changed the ale to water,” Francesa snapped. “And of course, Burian refused to pay for water.”
“What happened to the alchemist?”
“He wasn’t there. And this boy,” once again Francesa’s voice was scornful, “tells me that the alchemist looked uncommonly like Burian. He thought it was Ludovic.”
“What?” Karanat couldn’t believe his ears. “That’s impossible!” Karanat had worked at the house for years, and Ludovic and he were very close indeed, and he knew that Ludovic was incapable of blatantly cheating someone like that. Burian, however, was another matter; he could believe it of Burian easily enough.
“Yes, don’t think I don’t know,” Ruarc said sarcastically. “Karanat thinks Ludovic is special, don’t you?”
“You shut your mouth. Don’t you dare talk about your cousin like that. He’s worth ten of you and then some,” Francesa snapped.
“Ma, he lies with men; he’s a farking, codless –”
A cracking noise stopped Ruarc’s words. Francesa stood over him, face white, bosom heaving, and Karanat stared at them both, unable to string together a single, coherent thought. In all the years he’d known them, Francesa had never once slapped Ruarc.
“Aunt –” Karanat’s voice quavered, and he swallowed, trying to gather some poise.
“Karanat, you’re my sister’s boy and I’ve always loved you like you were my own. What you choose to do doesn’t matter. Just — I –” Tears filled her eyes again and she turned and went quickly into the kitchen.
Karanat stared at her receding back. He’d never seen her so upset, even when his uncle had died. He went after her into the kitchen. “Aunt?”
She turned and looked at him, sighing. “Burian dressed up as an alchemist and took all the money, Karanat,” she said. “I went and talked to Burian. He told me, and he laughed. They met at the stables behind Spirit’s Haven. All my silver, Karanat. Everything I was saving to buy this house from Coragen. What’s going to happen to me? A worthless lackwit for a son, who’d do anything if he thought it’d make him rich, and he can’t even tell the dross from the gold.” She sighed again, her eyes swimming in tears which she brushed off with a finger.
Karanat stepped closer and hugged her tightly. “Aunt, while I’m alive, I’ll never let anything bad happen to you. You’ll always have a home with me; you do know that, don’t you?”
She sniffed and then smiled up at him through her tears. “You’re a good boy, Karanat. Come, have some stew.” She wiped her face with her apron and silently began to dish up the stew. After a moment she said, staring down at him, “What are you thinking about? I know that look. What are you plotting?”
“Aunt, Burian is an odd man, you know. Ludo isn’t like him at all. Isla says Ludo is like his grandfather,” he smiled to himself as he recalled the look on the housekeeper’s face as she made the comment. She had come to Einar’s household with the twins’ mother and remained to raise them after the death of their mother, and she knew both of them very well.
Francesa placed a mug of mead before him, and Karanat returned to the thread of thought he was pursuing. “Ludovic is worth twice his brother, and as for Burian, well, he doesn’t do anything well …”
“Except get drunk and get laid,” Francesa put in dryly.
“Hmm. What do you think he’d do if someone threatened to kill him?” Karanat swallowed the last of his stew and smiled up at his aunt. “You do make the best stew in all of Dargon, Aunt.”
“Thank you, dear boy.” She patted his head absently and said smiling, “Why, he’d probably piss in his pants. I don’t think he’s very brave, do you?”
Karanat smiled, plotting ways to retrieve his aunt’s savings and get some revenge on Burian for the hurt he had inflicted on her.
That same day, Einar sat down to a solitary luncheon, frowning as he did so. “Well, where are the boys, Isla?” he asked. “This is supposed to be a celebration dinner for Ludovic’s wedding and both of them aren’t here. I –”
“I don’t know,” Isla said sharply. She was a stocky, well-built woman, gray hair heading toward white.
Einar looked up at her, wondering anew why he put up with her. He had kept her on after his wife’s death because she had been so good with the boys. The one time he had sent her away for a brief period to his father-in-law’s home, the twins had created havoc. Udele had advised him to bring Isla back and he had. Now that the twins were men grown, he wondered if perhaps it was time to send Isla away. But then he would have to find a housekeeper and cook, and well … Isla did make some wonderful fried bread. He sighed and then said sharply, “If they do not wish to be here, that’s fine. But by Ol, they will come to the church; Ludovic will marry Udele’s girl, and Burian will do his brotherly duty and present the wedding chalice; this I promise you, Isla.”
“Young master, why do you force Ludovic to do this? Surely you know –”
“Enough!” Einar said softly, and his voice shook on the word. He knew Isla doted on Ludovic, but he would not let her encourage the boy against his father’s wishes. “Ludovic will marry the girl. If that doesn’t cure him of his ridiculous fancies, nothing will. She’s a pretty enough chit; why I myself –” he caught Isla’s disapproving gaze and stopped. “Well, never mind that. Where are the boys?”
“Upstairs,” Isla said.
Einar reflected that the one-word answer meant that Isla was probably sulking. She tended to do that when she was annoyed. “Did you send anyone to tell them that luncheon is served?” he asked irritably. “I want to talk to them about the wedding. It’s in less than a sennight, and Udele wanted me to pass on some instructions.”
“If you want to see them that badly, you can go up to their rooms, you know. You are their father,” Isla said huffily and left the room.
Einar sighed. Perhaps it was a good idea to go up and check. He left the kitchen and went up the steps to the top floor. The staircase opened on a small landing with a door on either side, each door leading to one twin’s room. He knocked briefly on Ludovic’s door and entered without waiting for an acknowledgement.
Ludovic was sitting in an armchair, staring at a deck of cards on the small center-table. The cards were spread out in the game of Akelet, a game that could be played by one person. Einar glanced around almost anxiously but there was no one else in the room. Ludovic looked up suddenly and flung the cards in his hand carelessly on the table. “Father, I am honored.”
Einar said, his anger mounting, “Did I not send word that you were to have dinner with me? Why didn’t you come?” His voice softened on the last question, his face reddening.
“I did not come because I have nothing to celebrate.” Ludovic glared at him.
“I do. My son is getting married,” Einar said. “Ludovic, you will come down with me now. Remember, I could always name Burian as my heir.” Einar crossed his arms and stared down, waiting to hear the response to his blatant threat.
“Ah, the loving father,” Ludovic mocked. “You think you can force me to do anything you want, do you?” Nevertheless he rose to follow his father as Einar turned to leave the room.
Einar did not show his satisfaction when Ludovic capitulated, even though his feelings were tempered with annoyance at his son’s comments. What was the point in showing his feelings except to set up Ludovic’s back upon seeing his father’s gratification? Einar prided himself on his practicality and believed in a light touch in getting his sons to do what he wanted them to do.
At the landing outside Ludovic’s room, Einar knocked briefly on Burian’s door and entered, once again without waiting for permission. “Burian?”
Burian was lying casually on the couch and Einar’s irritation flared anew. “Burian, I requested that both my sons have dinner with me. Must I come up here to — Burian! Ludovic, get in here, now!” Einar felt his breath trapped in his chest as he approached the couch and glimpsed red on Burian’s clothes. A beautiful, ornate knife stuck out of Burian’s stomach, pointing downwards. “Burian?” he whispered.
Burian lay half-sprawled across the sofa, with one arm bent at an awkward angle. Einar looked at the knife and the blood that had seeped onto the clothing. A part of him, the pragmatic part, said dispassionately that Burian was dead; yet the father in him denied it.
“He’s dead, Father,” Ludovic answered from behind him, his voice trembling.
Einar spared a glance at his living son, who was staring at the blood. Ludovic had a blank look in his eyes, and just for a moment, his resemblance to Burian twisted something within Einar; an almost forgotten image of the twins as rambunctious boys flashed through his mind.
He swore angrily, “Saren’s own curse! What’re you smiling at? This is your brother who lies dead here.” Einar knelt beside the sofa and touched Burian’s arm. It slipped and hung lifelessly from the sofa. “No,” he whispered. “Wake up, you drunken excuse for a son. Wake up!”
“Father, he’s dead!” Ludovic placed a hand on Einar’s shoulder.
Einar shrugged off the hand and stared at Burian, but could not bring himself to even think of the word “body”; it was Burian, his son. Wastrel, drunkard and wencher no doubt, but it was still his son. Suddenly it didn’t matter that Burian had been more often drunk than sober; at least he had not had strange fancies like Ludovic. People said that Ludovic did not like women and that he had never bedded one. If Burian were dead, how was his line to continue?
“I know.” Einar sighed. Something damp fell on his hand and he touched the drop to his mouth. It was salty: tears, his own. He felt surprise that he could cry and then he felt more surprise that he could still feel. He was conscious of a strange reluctance to move. It was as if something kept him staring at Burian, at the body. He could feel himself begin to shake as he accepted the word “body”. No longer his son, it was just a body. The bibulous air that had always clung to Burian when he had been alive had deserted it, the body.
“Ol’s piss!” Ludovic took a quick step near the couch and fell to his knees, face paling. “That’s my knife.”
“You killed him, didn’t you?” Einar whispered, a part of his mind shocked at the death of his son, while yet another part of his mind lamented the fact that now there was nothing he could use to force Ludovic to do what he, Einar, wanted. He could not ever threaten Ludovic to disinherit him, for there was no other heir. “You killed my son.” As he repeated it, its full meaning floated through his mind; if the knife was Ludovic’s, he had killed his brother!
“No, I didn’t. Father, you must believe me, I did no such thing. And what do you mean, your son? Am I not your son?” Ludovic’s voice was high and faint.
“You did this because I don’t condone your ridiculous fancies. Murder! Fratricide!” Einar’s voice trembled. He reached out to the body but his fingers seemed to close of their own volition before touching and he shuddered. Ludovic had killed Burian!
Two voices sounded as one at the door, and father and son turned to face them. Donato and Karanat stood at the entrance.
“My son’s dead and this man killed him,” Einar said, a blank look in his eyes, the enormity of the situation crashing down on him in waves. Forget about forcing Ludovic to do what he wanted, Ludovic had killed Burian! “You killed him because you didn’t want me to choose him as my heir!”
“Father! Kar, do something,” Ludovic pleaded.
“May I summon the guard, master?” Donato asked in a dispassionate voice.
“Summon the guard?” Ludovic’s voice trembled.
“It appears you have killed your brother with your own knife, sir,” Donato replied. “Master?” He looked at Einar for instructions.
Einar turned violently away from the body, feeling something inside released. “Yes. Summon them –”
“You killed him!” Einar could not comprehend the fact that Burian was dead. Even though Ludovic had been the better one of his sons, in some ways Burian had reminded Einar of himself in his youth. Until he had met Udele, he too had made a practice of visiting as many beds as he possibly could, and he had hoped that Burian would eventually meet the right woman and change. “You killed him,” he repeated, unable to accept the reality of that one statement.
“Ludovic, everything will be fine,” Karanat came close to Ludovic, and Einar turned on him viciously.
“Leave him alone. Get away from him. I’ll have you put in jail, both of you. Unnatural, that’s what it is. Criminal! How dare you? I should never have let Ludovic keep you on. I should have made him marry Jessamina and everything would have been fine; I would have had a legitimate grandchild. All of this is because of you!” He raised his hand to Karanat angrily and Ludovic stepped in.
“Father, stop it! What’s the matter with you?”
“With me?” Einar drew in a deep breath, feeling his stomach roil unpleasantly. “You and he have a relationship that is never going to give me heirs. I ignored what people whispered and this is the result: he kills his own brother because I would choose him heir.” That sunk into his mind with a blaze that rivalled the furious heat of the month of Sy; he had ignored what was common knowledge, and now he had no heir, with one son dead by the hand of the other, and no possibility of ever having one …
“Father, no, please,” Ludovic said, his voice trembling. “It’s not true; I didn’t do it.”
“It’s your knife! You killed him!” Einar snapped, his stomach heaving, his thoughts running into one another. He couldn’t think past the punishment Ol had meted out to him. He turned to Donato. “Call the guard! Now! I will have you punished for what you did, both of you.
“Let us go down to wait for the guard.” He waited and everyone in the room filed out before stepping out and closing the door. The silence stretched tight, only broken by the sound of steps as Ludovic and Karanat preceded Einar into the small bookroom that served as his office. Donato went ahead out of the house on his errand to inform the guard.
Einar went to the window and stared out. It was just about midday, and somehow, he found it surprising. It seemed like he had sat down to luncheon a very long time ago. The silence continued uninterrupted for a long time. The sounds of the outside world filtered in through the open window: tree rats chittering, and the occasional dog barking.
After several menes, the quiet was broken. “Father, please!”
“Don’t, Ludovic. How could you do it? How could you have killed your own brother? Whatever he was, drunk and wastrel, he was still your brother and my son. How could you?” Einar breathed heavily, still looking out of the window. He could not bear to turn around and face Ludovic, the living image of the dead son.
Ludovic drew in a breath and it sounded to Einar like a suppressed sob. “Father! How could you think that of me? I didn’t kill him; I didn’t do it. Look at me, Father!”
Einar turned at that. “It was your knife; you said so.” He wondered if perhaps Ludovic wasn’t the killer after all. A great hope rose in his mind; perhaps he would not lose both sons in one go.
“Yes, it was my knife, but I didn’t do it. How could you believe that of me? That I would kill? And that too Burian, who is — who was my twin!” Ludovic moved his arms, as if the force of his feelings was too much for him. “Yes, I didn’t like him, and yes, I wanted to be your heir, but Father, he was my twin! You don’t know what that means. I could never kill my own brother!”
Doubt entered Einar’s mind. He wanted to believe Ludovic. The boy couldn’t possibly have killed his own brother, could he? Even if Ludovic was not much of a man, surely he wouldn’t done this?
The door opened abruptly and Donato entered, followed by two guards in uniform; the first was a stocky man with greying hair and the second was a young woman. The man spoke. “Ludovic? Master Einar?”
Einar stepped forward and said, “I am Einar and this is my son Ludovic.”
“Sir, I am Sergeant Cepero. I am sorry for your loss.” He paused for a moment and when Einar nodded, he continued, “I understand that the knife that killed Burian belonged to your son, Ludovic. I’m going to ask that he go with us to the guardhouse to help us get at the truth.”
“But I didn’t do it! It wasn’t me. I won’t go!” Ludovic turned, a fierce light in his eyes.
“I am sorry, but you must go with us. If you didn’t do it, we will find the real killer,” Cepero said, and Einar heard the implacability in his tone.
Cepero placed a hand on Ludovic’s arm and turned him toward the door, saying to the other guard, “Let’s go upstairs first.”
“Father, I didn’t do it. You must believe me. Father!”
The door swung shut behind him as everyone left Einar alone in his bookroom, alone to contemplate the loss of both his sons and the end of his line with no possibility of heirs, even if Ludovic were innocent of fratricide.