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Authors: McKenna Juliet E.

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BOOK: Darkening Skies (The Hadrumal Crisis)
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A peremptory knock on the door startled her into dropping the book of poems.

‘My lady?’

‘Mistress Rauffe.’ Zurenne braced herself as the door opened.

The steward’s wife was as thickset and uncompromising as her husband was lean and jovial.

‘My lady.’ She curtseyed. ‘I was wondering if you have given any further thought to my proposal?’

‘I have,’ Zurenne said firmly, ‘and it is out of the question.’

‘My lady.’ Mistress Rauffe curtseyed again. ‘It is hardly seemly for the household lackeys and the maidservants to be living in adjoining rooms. If my husband and I were to take—’

‘I would have thought you would be grateful to have a room to yourselves, even one so small.’ So they would be, Zurenne was sure, if the former storeroom between the scullery and the kitchen wasn’t right next to the other one which had been cleared out for Doratine’s use.

‘Everyone else is forced together like beans in a pod. You cannot see the floors for sleeping pallets.’ She swept a hand towards the current great hall, built on the lodge’s eastern face with all the florid ugly stonework of generations long past. Her other hand carried the gesture across towards the guest suites on the other side of the original hall, now the lodge’s entrance. The servants’ rooms that Mistress Rauffe coveted sat across the corridor from those suites.

‘The kitchen wing is the newest building here.’ Zurenne had to blink away more tears. Her own husband had commissioned a devotee of Tormalin Rational architecture to design the clean-cut wing, after she had pointed out the deficiencies of the earlier additions on her first visit here after their marriage. ‘You will be warmer than anyone else, as the season turns to Aft-Autumn.’

Zurenne really didn’t want to imagine what the rest of the demesne servants would endure once For-Winter arrived, crammed into the extended garrets beneath the lodge’s mismatched rooflines.

‘Very well, my lady.’ Mistress Rauffe curtseyed a third time but Zurenne knew better than to take that as a sign of acquiescence.

Sure enough, the woman insisted on the last word as she went out into the entrance hall. ‘Perhaps we can discuss it further when the baron arrives.’

Zurenne longed to call her back, to demand which baron she meant. Corrain, confirmed as Baron Halferan? Or did the steward and his wife truly believe that the parliament would refuse his claim in favour of Lord Licanin?

But she let the woman leave. This haphazard household wouldn’t run half as smoothly without Mistress Rauffe’s brisk attention to a myriad practical details and her talent for getting the very best work from the most dilatory maid.

Zurenne told herself firmly that was only the couple’s former loyalties talking. After all, they had come to Halferan from Licanin, after their lord had so belatedly learned of the abuses which Zurenne, her daughters and the barony had suffered at the hands of that scoundrel Master Minelas with his forged claim to their guardianship.

After the villain had murdered her husband and no one had come to her aid for a year and more. After the neighbouring barons of Karpis and Tallat had given that supposed grant only the most spurious examination, doubtless bought off with coin stolen from Halferan’s own coffers.

All at once, Zurenne was paralysed by terrifying memories. Of Minelas intercepting her letters. Of him dictating the lies she must write to her sisters. Of him wringing the necks of Halferan’s courier doves in front of her. Of the threats the usurper had made, as he plundered her daughters’ inheritance; to wed and bed Ilysh himself with all the violence he clearly relished. Of the ruffians he had hired to replace her husband’s honest guardsmen. Of the way those evil men had kept Zurenne a prisoner in her own home, even after Minelas himself had departed on whatever business had proved to be the death of him. But even that hadn’t brought her salvation.

She came to her senses and looked afresh around the cluttered, inhospitable room. Once again, tears threatened, now with a headache pressing close behind.

Zurenne longed to leave but there were no gardens to walk in here, only kennel yards and stables and a deer park beyond. Besides, as soon as she stepped outside the dour sanctuary of this sitting room, she would be besieged by the expectant gazes of those who’d survived Halferan Manor’s destruction. When would their true lady, their beloved lord’s daughter lead them home to rebuild?

Doratine wasn’t the only one who would struggle to address Corrain as the new Baron Halferan when the parliament was obliged to grant him that honour. Everyone knew that the marriage was a convenient fiction to keep the barony out of another outsider’s hands. They persisted in their old allegiance and looked to Ilysh as her father’s true heir.

Which was exactly as it should be. Zurenne drew a resolute breath and surveyed the plastered walls above the walnut panelling. She wouldn’t remove any reminders of her husband’s presence here, not even those ugly trophies wrought from the antlers of prized deer. No matter how lacerating she found daily recollection of their companionship, of the consolations of their marriage bed, of their shared joy in their beloved daughters.

Nor would she yield to the nightmares that persisted after she woke alone, night after night in the silent darkness. The fear that the parliament’s barons would somehow rule against Corrain and hand her and her children to some other guardian. She could not stand the thought of even one as benign as Lord Licanin.

Zurenne’s hand strayed to the triangular silver pendant on its ribbon around her neck. Adorned with her private sigil made from the upright runes shown on the bones rolled at her birth, the Archmage’s gift was enchanted so she might summon his help if the corsairs ever reappeared.

She would use it to speak to him, if the parliament denied Corrain’s claim. Let the Archmage use his influence to change their mind, or the coin that he seemed to be able to summon out of thin air. Whatever it took, Zurenne didn’t care.

Otherwise she would tell the world that Master Minelas, that charming man who had so convincingly sworn that the lamented Baron Halferan had appointed him to care for his widow and orphaned daughters—

Zurenne would tell the world that the scoundrel had been a renegade mage. That the wizard isle of Hadrumal’s so-called Council had never so much as suspected his vicious nature, much less acted to curb it.

Once they had learned of his villainy, they had only sought to conceal it. If Corrain hadn’t returned, ready and willing to bear witness to the wizard isle’s disgrace, Planir need never have admitted to Minelas’s crimes. He had made no effort to find those Halferan men enslaved in the Archipelago, even after he had learned the renegade had sold them to the corsairs.

In the dark silence of the night, Zurenne wondered if the magewoman Jilseth hadn’t been trapped alongside them when the corsairs had besieged Halferan, would the Archmage have let Zurenne die with her children; the last witnesses able to denounce Minelas for the villain he was?

Though of course the Archmage had told her no one would believe her, when Zurenne had threatened to tell before. But if he didn’t want her to keep his secret, why had he handed over so much gold and silver, supposedly making good on Minelas’s thefts? Zurenne knew that coin was the price of her silence without any wizard having to say so.

She sighed. Demanding the Archmage’s help, if Corrain’s claim was dismissed, assumed that Planir could find some way to defend Halferan from the parliament’s decree. Zurenne suspected that saving them all from slaughter by corsairs had been simple by comparison.

She realised her restless feet had brought her to the sitting room’s heavy oak table, long enough to seat five men on each side. It had been pushed back against the wall opposite the hearth, sturdy benches tucked beneath it.

Now it held stacks of leather-bound ledgers and bundles of the rent rolls that had preceded them; record of the barony’s dues collected at solstice and equinox. Singed and scattered remnants of folded parchments were heaped haphazard beside them. All that Master Rauffe had salvaged from the muniment room as they fled the corsairs. Along with the shrine ledgers, this was all that remained of the archive relating the barony’s pact with generations of tenantry.

Zurenne had no notion what to do with them. Her husband always dealt with such matters. Besides, there was no point her starting such an undertaking. Once Corrain was confirmed as Baron Halferan that would be one of his many challenges.

Though of course, she could address her own correspondence. Zurenne contemplated her prized writing box holding pens, ink and paper, the two halves cunningly hinged to open into a leather-faced slope. She should already have written the greetings customary at the turn of each season, sharing the latest news of her children and the household with her sisters and the neighbouring baronies ladies.

Several of their letters had arrived in the past day or so. They lay on the top of the writing box, their wax seals uncracked. Zurenne didn’t want to read her sisters’ protestations of affections or their excuses as they sought to explain why it had taken them so long, even after all her letters had stopped, to persuade their husbands that something was amiss in Halferan.

She didn’t want to read Lady Diress of Karpis’s warm and friendly advice that Zurenne should yield to the inevitable and surrender voluntarily to Baron Karpis’s protection. Since the parliament would undoubtedly agree it would be wholly irresponsible to abandon the lamented Baron Halferan’s tenantry, his helpless widow and her innocent daughters to some trooper more used to taking orders than to giving them.

No. Zurenne would write once she knew which way the parliament’s scales had tilted. Or perhaps she should say; which way those runes had rolled.

Her hand strayed to her pendant again. As well as using the three-sided bones for gambling as the household troopers did, some of the old women used them for telling fortunes. Roll them and one rune would be hidden on the bottommost face. On the two facets that showed, one rune would be upright and the other one reversed.

Were all her hopes to be overthrown by the parliament’s barons, as easily as some bone cast from a gambler’s hand landing wrong sides up?

The door from the entrance hall opened, unheralded by any tap. Ilysh stormed into the room.

‘Lysha.’ Zurenne immediately sat down on the end of a bench and reached for those unwanted letters. ‘Kindly do me the courtesy of knocking.’

‘Mama, the dress-lengths have arrived from Claithe.’ The set of Ilysh’s jaw ominously strengthened her resemblance to her dead father. ‘Evrel says that the silks are for you and the broadcloths are for me and Neeny.’

‘That’s correct.’ Zurenne snapped a wax roundel with the Fandail seal. Would news from her remote sister Celle offer some distraction?

‘I want a silk gown.’ Ilysh took a step to demand her mother’s attention. ‘I am Lady Halferan. You cannot dress me like a child!’

‘I will dress you as I see fit.’ Zurenne tossed the still-folded letter aside with sudden concern. ‘Where is Neeny?’

Why wasn’t her younger daughter’s outrage echoing around the building if Lysha had given her the slip?

‘In the kitchen.’ Ilysh brushed her long brown hair back with something perilously close to a shrug.

Zurenne slammed her hand on the table. ‘You are supposed to be looking after her!’

‘I am not a nursemaid,’ Lysha retorted hotly.

‘No,’ Zurenne snapped. ‘Your nursemaid Jora has leave to visit her brothers and sisters as they mourn their murdered parents. Had you forgotten that? If you wish to be honoured as Lady of Halferan—’ she was on her feet before she realised it ‘—then take some measure of responsibility!’

Ilysh stared at her, fury kindling in her hazel eyes. Then she flushed scarlet and burst into tears.

Before Zurenne could take back her words, the girl fled for the master bedchamber opening off the sitting room, which the three of them were sharing amid a similar mismatch of old and new furnishings and truckle beds.

Despite the weight of the heavy oak door, Lysha managed to give it a creditable slam.

Zurenne sank back onto the bench. It wasn’t as if she wanted silk dresses. Silk came from the Aldabreshin Archipelago where the corsairs lurked, when they weren’t raiding the Caladhrian coast, robbing, burning and murdering innocents. But she had to keep up appearances and such opulence spoke of a safe and secure barony, to her own people as well as to those neighbours watching for any sign of weakness.

Her head ached, this time with anger. The parliament’s barons knew that the Archipelago sheltered those accursed corsairs. Yet they eagerly purchased Aldabreshin glassware, silks and spices, brought from Relshaz’s merchants. The trading city on the muddy delta of the River Rel had grown rich on its inhabitants’ willingness to buy and sell anything from anyone, up to and including trading slaves with the Aldabreshi warlords.

Thanks to the corsairs, some of those slaves were Caladhrian. Corrain could swear to that. Of all those Halferan men captured when Zurenne’s husband was killed, he had managed to escape after a year or more in chains. What would the inland barons say to that? How could they deny they had any duty to act? That the corsairs’ raids were the coastal lords’ problem and none of theirs?

How long would they have to wait for news? Jilseth looked at the four-sided timepiece on the lofty mantel shelf. It had been turned promptly to its autumn face that very morning, now showing the day and night divided by ten equally spaced chimes instead of summer’s longer hours or the far shorter divisions of winter daylight.

BOOK: Darkening Skies (The Hadrumal Crisis)
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