Home > The Core (Demon Cycle #5)(8)

The Core (Demon Cycle #5)(8)
Author: Peter V. Brett

“Tarisa!” Leesha was horrified.

“I was treated fairly,” Tarisa said. “Given money and reference to take a commission from the Duchess Mum, wet-nursing and helping rear young Prince Thamos. He was like the son I never knew.”

She reached out, laying a gentle hand on Leesha’s belly. “We don’t get to say which children the Creator gives us. There’s love enough in this house for any child of yours, my lady.”

Leesha laid a hand over hers. “Enough with my lady. Call me mistress, please.”

“Ay, mistress.” Tarisa gave the hand a squeeze and got to her feet. “Water ought to be hot by now. I’ll go see about that bath.”

She left, and Leesha allowed herself to raise her eyes once more, taking in the reminders of her lost love.

And she wept.

Leesha kept the curtains pulled through the day, staring at Olive with her warded spectacles, glorying in the strength and purity of the child’s aura. Olive ate hungrily and slept little, staring up at Leesha with her bright blue eyes. The magic in her shone with an emotion beyond love, beyond adoration. Something more primal and pure.

There was a knock at the door, startling Leesha from the trance of it. Wonda went over to answer it, and there was muffled conversation. The door clicked as Wonda closed and locked it again, then came back to the sleeping chamber.

“Arther’s waitin’ outside,” Wonda said. “Been tellin’ him yur busy, but he keeps coming back. Wants to talk to ya somethin’ fierce.”

Leesha pushed herself upright. “Very well. He’s seen me in dressing gowns before. Tarisa? Please take Olive into the nursery while we talk.”

Olive clutched Leesha’s finger painfully in her little fist as Tarisa pulled her away. Her aura made Leesha’s heart ache.

Lord Arther stopped a respectful distance from the bed and bowed. “I apologize for the intrusion, Countess Paper.”

“It’s all right, Arther,” Leesha said. “I trust you would not have done so if it wasn’t important.”

“Indeed,” Arther said. “Congratulations on the birth of your daughter. I understand this was…earlier than expected. I trust all are in good health?”

“Thank you, we are,” Leesha said, “though I expect Wonda has already told you as much.”

“She has, of course,” Arther agreed. “I came with another rather urgent matter.”

“And that is?” Leesha asked.

Arther drew himself up straight. He wasn’t a tall man, but he made up for it in posture. “With respect, Countess, if my command of the house staff has been relieved and I am dismissed, I do not think it too much to ask that I be informed directly.”

Leesha blinked. “Has someone informed you indirectly?”

“Lady Paper,” Arther said.

“Lady…Night, my mother?” Leesha asked.

Arther bowed again. “Lady Paper moved into the keep a week ago, when news of your new title reached the Hollow. She has been…difficult to please.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Leesha said.

“It is her right, of course,” Arther said. “Without word from you, she and your father are the ranking members of your household. I assumed you had sent them to ready the keep.”

Leesha shook her head. “It meant only the keep has richer furnishing than my father’s house.”

“It is not for me to say,” Arther said. “But this afternoon, after announcing your daughter’s birth, she told me my services were no longer required, and that house staff would be reporting to her directly.”

Leesha groaned. “I am going to strangle that woman.” She looked at Arther. “Be assured the Core will freeze before I give my mother dominion over my household. I will make it clear to her before the end of the day.”

“That is a relief,” Arther said. “But with the dismissal of Gamon and Hayes, I cannot help but wonder if I am next in any event. Do you wish my resignation?”

Leesha considered the man. “Is it your wish to remain in my employ, with Thamos dead?”

“It is, my lady,” Arther said.

“Why?” Leesha asked bluntly. “You’ve never approved of my policies, particularly entitlements for refugees.”

Indignation shocked through the man’s aura, but Arther only raised an eyebrow. “My approval is irrelevant, my lady. It was my responsibility to keep the prince’s accounts balanced and see his funds spent wisely. I questioned every spending policy proposed by the council because I would have been remiss in my duties not to. Nevertheless, when His Highness made a decision, it was carried out diligently and without delay. You may have every confidence that I will do the same for you, if you will have me.”

There was no lie in his aura, but her question remained unanswered. “Why?” Leesha asked again. “I expected you would volunteer your resignation soon after my arrival and return to your family holdings in Angiers.”

An image flashed across Arther’s aura. It was distorted, but Leesha could make out a once great Angierian townhouse, fallen into disrepair. It linked to Arther with shame, and with fierce pride.

“My family’s holdings were mortgaged to buy my commission in the Wooden Soldiers,” Arther said. “That and a bit of luck saw me squire for young Prince Thamos. My life was his. Gamon is no different.”

Another image. Thamos, Arther, and Gamon, inseparable as brothers.

“But now the prince is gone.” Arther gave no outward sign of the pain tearing across his aura. “As is the Angiers we left. Euchor’s Mountain Spears occupy the city now, with their flamework weapons. The Wooden Soldiers will soon be relegated to policing the boardwalk, breaking up domestic disturbances and illegal Jongleur shows. There is no longer anything for us there, even if we wished to return.”

Leesha had not considered that. “Where would you go, if I asked you to resign?”

“I remain quartermaster for the Hollow’s Wooden Soldiers, unless you relieve me of that as well,” Arther said. “I would return to the barracks while I sought employment among the barons. Baron Cutter, perhaps.”

“I am still not certain of your loyalties, Arther. I fear I must be quite blunt,” she tapped her spectacles, “and see the answers in your aura.”

Arther looked at her a long moment, eyes flicking to the lamps and curtained windows, and then to her warded spectacles. His aura was active, but it was too complex for Leesha to read, as if he was still sorting his own feelings about this invasion of privacy.

At last he sniffed, pulling himself up straight. “You are forgiven, my lady, for any blunt questions you put to me. As it was my due diligence to question your policies, it is yours to question my loyalty before taking me into your service.”

“Thank—” Leesha began.

“But,” Arther cut in with a raised hand. “If we are to work in good faith, you must agree that you will never again subject me to this…” he waved a hand at Leesha’s spectacles, “…undue scrutiny without just cause and evidence.”

Leesha shook her head. “If you feel I have invaded your privacy I apologize, but my spectacles are a part of me now. I won’t take them off every time you enter the room. There are going to be changes in the Hollow, Arther. If anyone in my employ is uncomfortable about ward magic, I will of course provide excellent references and generous severance.”

“Very well, my lady. I shall inform the staff. As for myself, if you have additional questions regarding my integrity, pray ask and let us have it done.” Arther’s aura roiled with growing indignation. He considered himself above reproach and was offended by her mistrust.

Leesha knew she must step carefully. She might find Arther loyal, only to drive him away by refusing to give trust in kind.

Leesha crossed her arms. “The child is Ahmann Jardir’s.”

Arther’s aura did not change. “I am not a fool, my lady. Even if my lord had not informed me months ago, your mother would be shouting it from the turrets if the child belonged to Thamos.”

“And still, you would remain in my service?” Leesha asked.

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