The Player, Part 1
“It’s a bad idea.”
“Artus, are you suggesting that I cannot do it?” Tyvian Reldamar surveyed the glasses of red wine on the tray offered him by a powder-wigged servant. He dipped a finger into one and tasted. Making a face, he waved the tray away.
“I didn’t say you couldn’t do it, I just said it was a bad idea.” Artus scratched under his lace collar for the twelfth time that hour.
Tyvian slapped his hand. “Please, Artus, try not to look so pedestrian.”
Around them, in a grand ballroom of shimmering mageglass and ivory, the ball progressed much as it had that last hour. As a string quartet played a Saldorian waltz, women floated through the dance in massive dresses like a fleet of galleons on maneuvers, their hair and sleeves glittering with enchanted jewelry and illumite. Watching from the sidelines, wealthy old men smoked imported tracco from Ivistan, and clapped their hands to send black-liveried servants scurrying. Voices were polite and muffled; the smiles were plentiful and insincere.
“Is this the whole reason you came here?” Artus was doing his best, but was still uncomfortable. Not a year ago he was just some northern peasant boy, running from home, trying to dodge the draft, knife-fighting in the streets of Freegate, eating only what he could steal. Now he was shoe-horned into some frilly gentleman’s outfit standing among people whom, upon a whim, could buy all the possessions of his family farm five times over and not even skip a meal. Hann’s Boots! They wouldn’t even have to skip an hors d’oeuvre.
Tyvian smiled. “I don’t think she’d even miss it.”
“It’s a two-pound diamond resting between her breasts. She’ll miss it.” Across the room from where they stood, the Lady Velitiere Numeux du Akral stood beside her husband, Lord Orsienne. She had chosen this evening, the night of her daughter’s marriage, to showcase her most infamous of possessions, the Eye of H’siri. Until now, Artus had been confused as to why Tyvian insisted upon coming to Jaliette’s marriage celebration. Now he knew.
Tyvian fiddled with the plain iron ring on his finger. It seemed out of place when matched with his incomparably exquisite clothing, but then he was never without it. “Is Marik waiting with the horses?”
“Yes. Is this really necessary?”
Tyvian gave Artus a wink. “Is anything?”
Artus snatched a glass of wine from a passing tray and downed it in one gulp. “This won’t get you Jaliette back, you know.”
“Who cares? Jaliette’s just a woman.”
Tyvian slipped into the crowd.
Artus surveyed the layout of the ballroom for the fifth time since entering. Four chandeliers of mageglass and illumite, which wouldn’t break, but they’d fall readily enough; sixteen windows, approximately twenty feet tall and very breakable; twelve guards in plain sight, all breakable to varying degrees. Of course, then there was Lord Orsienne Numeux du Akral himself—a former initiate of the Arcanostrum who could have been, had he chosen that path, a staff-bearing mage. He might be trouble, real trouble.
Artus sighed. “Why does every party end like this?”
* * * * * * * *
Tyvian coasted across the dance floor, noting the intricate pattern in which the wood had been inlaid. Good workmanship, that. He’d have to remember it for that far distant day when he was too old to do anything else but buy a house.
He spotted Jaliette on Remieux’s—no, make that her husband’s—arm. A military fellow, was Ramieux, which on this side of the Dragonspine meant broad shoulders and a barrel chest to hold in all the hot air. Tyvian set a direct course for their position, cutting through a few waltzing couples. A few of them complained, but he didn’t tarry long enough to listen.
She turned around. “Tyvian?” A white gown with sapphires to match her eyes, her midnight hair bound atop her head by an elaborate marital apparatus of pins and pearls. To think he’d almost had her. She could have ruined his life, and he might have let her.
He bowed with a grace born of blood and the tutor’s lash. “You are stunning, as ever, milady.”
She had the temerity to blush. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”
“I wasn’t expecting to be invited.”
Tyvian smiled. “I know.”
“Monsieur Reldamar, I presume.” Remieux extended a gloved hand. “Jaliette has spoken of you. I had the privilege of meeting your mother last spring—a truly brilliant woman.”
Tyvian took his hand, and Remieux gripped hard. “The pleasure was all hers, Captain, I’m sure.”
“You should come visit us sometime.” Remieux squeezed harder, smiling.
Tyvian put one leg back in time to trip a passing servant. With a clatter, the poor fellow’s tray of soft Eddon cheese and cocktail wafers splattered all over Remieux’s immaculate uniform. “I’ll be sure to.” Tyvian returned the captain’s smile.
“Clumsy fool!” Remieux glowered over the groveling servant. He even went so far as take off his glove to strike him. Fortunately for the servant, the quizzical gazes of polite society stayed his hand.
Tyvian examined his sleeve for crumbs—none, thank Hann. Remieux, of course, looked like a buffet. “It seems as though your doublet may have suffered a fatal wound, Captain. Perhaps you ought to attend to it.”
Remieux wiped away his rage long enough to favor Jaliette with a tender kiss. “I’m afraid he’s right, my lovely. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Hurry.” Jaliette let her eyes linger on Remieux’s wide back for a moment before turning to Tyvian. “You haven’t changed.”
Tyvian moved a strand of her hair back into place. “Ah, but I have, my dear. I seem to be short one lover.”
Jaliette stepped back. “Ex-lover, and you never seem to have a shortage.”
He caught her hand in his. “Come, introduce me to your parents.”
Jaliette searched Tyvian’s face for the joke. He composed his face into a mask of earnestness, but he could tell she saw the sparkle in his ocean-blue eyes. “What are you scheming?”
Tyvian laughed. That was what he liked most about Jaliette—she always knew when he was planning something. It had made the chase that much more interesting. “Nothing drastic, I assure you.”
“Since when do you do anything that isn’t drastic?”
“Since now.” He kissed the back of her hand so lightly that she couldn’t even feel it through her glove. He backed the gesture up with his most winning smile. “Please?”
Jaliette growled something under her breath and led him off.
* * * * * * * *
Artus’s pickpocket hands twitched as he shouldered through the wealthy throngs to where the ropes that held up the chandeliers were tied off. He would have put his hands in his own pockets to stem the urge, if only he had pockets. Bloody pants cost fifty gold marks and didn’t even have any bloody pockets.
Tyvian’s ettiquete lessons welled up in his head. ‘Pockets are the province of those too poor to have porters. If it’s too precious to give to your man, it’s too precious to be carrying about, anyway.’ Easy for him to say, what with Artus and Marik carrying around all his junk, but what if you were the man? What then? Bloody stupid nobles and their bloody stupid rules.
Artus made it to the chandelier tie-off and along the way only snatched two wallets, a bracelet, and a truly foul tasting meat pie off someone’s plate. He wasn’t sure, but he thought it had spinefish in it. It figured—only Akrallian fops and lunatics would spend that much money to put a poisonous fish in a pie.
Having no pockets, Artus simply deposited most of his booty in the corner by the chandelier ropes. He selected the fattest of the wallets from the bunch to stuff in his shirt. It was now his job to wait for Tyvian’s signal. Of course, he had no idea what that would be. Tyvian had only said it would be ‘obvious.’ Artus hoped he was right. Between all the money and all the girls, this was an easy place to get distracted, and he didn’t feel like waiting all night.
* * * * * * * *
Lord Orsienne Numeux du Akral was built like a porcelain teapot—squat, pale, and decorative. Tyvian entertained the notion that, were he pushed down the stairs, the Akralian noble would start rolling and never stop, his stubby little arms and legs flapping like the fins on a turtle. His wife, as though through the artifice of some storybook convention, was tall and graceful despite her years. How the spheroid Lord Orsienne had secured such a beauty for a bride was utterly beyond Tyvian, though he was grateful that Jaliette took after the Lady Velitiere. He had a rule about bedding egg-shaped women.
“Very pleased I am to meet you, Monsieur Reldamar. I had the privilege of being instructed by your mother whilst at the Arcanostrum. Never was an archmage so skilled at conveying the intricacies of Etheric enchantment.” Lord Orsienne passed Tyvian a glass of his atrocious wine. Tyvian took it and resolved to find a convenient plant in which to dump it at his earliest opportunity.
“My mother spoke of you as well, milord.” Tyvian lied.
Lord Orsienne’s painted eyebrows shot up an inch. “Really? I’m flattered! It was nothing bad, I hope.”
“Of course not.”
Orsienne poked his wife in the shoulder. “Did you hear that, Velitiere? Maybe I should have stayed and been a mage, eh?”
The Lady Velitiere smiled. “How is it that you know my daughter, monsieur? I’m surprised that she did not bring a man of such good family to our attention sooner.”
Jaliette pounced on the question. “We do not know each other well, mother. I’ve only met Tyvian a few times, and then only briefly.”
Tyvian smirked. “And we didn’t do much talking.”
“I see.” Lady Velitiere put a hand on the Eye. The big diamond, made her hand look thin, almost sickly.
The conversation progressed at a plodding, predictable rate. Tyvian was consistently amazed at the consummate worthlessness of so-called ‘noble’ conversation. He would have taken the company of a hundred drunken criminals over a single lord if for no other reason than the criminals would have something interesting to say. Of course, it would be stupid and interesting, but that was better than stupid and uninteresting, which appeared to be the overriding motif in Lord Orsienne’s anecdotes.
“…and then the footman said, ‘yes monsieur, if you please!’” Orsienne erupted into a fit of laughter. Tyvian conjured the picture of him rolling down the stairs again, and laughed along.
Jaliette’s laughter was light and airy. Tyvian knew that laugh—that was her fake laugh. She had used it before when the two of them were together—‘partners,’ as she called it—and they were caught by pirates or about to be roasted by a firedrake or some similarly dire situation. Tyvian could hear her sarcasm before it arrived. “Oh, Father—you tell that story so well. You must excuse me, I think Remieux must be missing his bride by now.”
“Who wouldn’t?” Tyvian smiled. Before she left, Jaliette shot him a glare.
“Now, Monsieur Reldamar…”
“Please, milord, call me Tyvian.”
Lord Orsienne clapped his hands. “So be it, Tyvian. And for you, a Reldamar, I shall grant the privilege of addressing me as Orsienne! What of that, eh?”
Tyvian bowed. “I am flattered, Orsienne.”
“Naturally, Tyvian. Now, as I was saying, I remember back in the fifty-seventh year of the Keeper Polimeux—the last time a son of Akral was privileged with the Seat—I was a young boy and I had this falcon…”
Tyvian let Orsienne drone on, nodding when he thought it might be appropriate. He let his eyes drift to the Eye of H’siri and, more importantly, to that which cradled it. Velitiere may have been a woman some twenty years his senior, but her bosom seemed none the worse for wear. She was, in fact, better endowed than Jaliette herself, which, he reminded himself, was only natural for a woman who had borne a child…at least, he was relatively certain that was natural. He was a nobleman, not a midwife, so he didn’t know all the intricate details of such things. Maybe when Jaliette had popped out a brat or two, he could conduct a comparative exercise.
Ordinarily, Tyvian would eye an attractive woman for recreational purposes alone, but this case was different. He wasn’t about to bed Orsienne’s wife, though not out of any respect for Orsienne. Rather, it was based off the assumption that a woman who would willingly submit to a union with some vapid penguin of a man undoubtedly was afflicted with a mental or emotional deficiency that Tyvian wanted no part of. No, Tyvian’s discerning examination of Velitiere’s more womanly attributes was based solely in his wish for her to notice him doing so, and to secure her enthusiasm when he asked her to dance.
“…and the falcon, it flew away! Ha!” Orsienne had finished his glass of wine and immediately began another. Tyvian smiled and nodded.
They were midway through another tedious anecdote when Velitiere noticed. She blushed and put her hand to the Eye again. “A nervous habit…” Tyvian licked his lips ever so subtly, “…I suppose I’ll just have to make her comfortable.”
Tyvian met her eyes. They were Jaliette’s—clear crystal blue. As Orsienne droned, Tyvian and Velitiere had a conversation of looks and expressions. At first, Tyvian did all the ‘talking.’ With subtle twists of his lips, the careful motion of his head, and the practiced flicker of his deep eyes, he spoke:
“You’re beautiful. Don’t you know that you’re beautiful? Come closer to me. Please, I’m begging you.”
At last, Velitiere let out a breath, and her eyes began to speak back.
Tyvian inclined his head.“Why?”
Velitiere shrugged and nodded towards Orsienne. “My husband…”
Tyvian let his lips twist into the barest smirk and shook his head. “Him? He doesn’t care. He doesn’t even know.”
Velitiere shook her head. “I don’t like this.”
Tyvian fixed himself with the barest pout—a manly pout, but still a pout.“Please?”
Velitiere played with the ends of her hair absently, glancing around.“I’m flattered but…”
Tyvian let his eyes fix on hers.“You are beautiful.”
She let her hand brush her neck and inclined her head.“Thank you.”
Tyvian shot Orsienne a dismissive look and smiled at her.“He doesn’t appreciate you. How will it hurt?”
She sighed just enough.“Speak to me.”
“…and that’s why I never go to Iyhn without a…”
“Orsienne?” Tyvian interrupted.
The nobleman tripped on his words. “Yes?”
Tyvian never took his eyes from Velitiere. “May I ask your wife to dance?”
Orsienne blinked, downed his wine. “Well…uhhh…certainly Tyvian. Is that all right with you, my dear?”
Velitiere extended her hand. “Are you a good dancer, Monsieur Reldamar?”
Tyvian called to the string quartet. “Conductor, play me the Revien Nu’Kasaar.”
He was pleased at the gasp.