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“If things weren’t already in motion, would you have taken the offer?”

“I don’t think so. It’s hard to know what you would have done, given some different circumstances. But living out there, knowing that Giovannus holds power here, just isn’t an acceptable life for me. Accepting that offer just isn’t who I am.”

The flames held a hypnotic sway. Marielle’s eyes became strained as she watched them. She still felt the lightness for what drink she did consume, and it beckoned her to bed, but she rallied against it. Augustus barely kept himself awake too, though he had resolved to keep watch. “You didn’t sleep well last night, did you?” she asked.

“No. Would you have been able to, knowing what I’d planned for today?”

“I guess not. I couldn’t even sleep before our wedding day. I just stared at the ceiling the entire night.”

“Don’t worry though. I’ll keep myself awake somehow.” Augustus leaned forward in his chair to grab an object on his person. He revealed a dagger that he held firmly. “Even if I need to cut my hand so that the pain keeps me awake.”

“Before, you explained the negatives should the mission fail. What is to be gained in success?”

“It will limit his resources and divert his attention.”

“Surely, his attention will be focused on you even more intensely.”

“In a way, yes. But, to act against me he must rely on his circle of competency. With one fell swoop, I hope to devastate that circle. People you trust, both in their intentions and ability, are a valuable resource for extending your agency. Accountants, maids, cooks, and guards are all extensions of your will. Without them, making moves becomes difficult. With their loss, his attention will be forced to turn to recruit the staff he has lost. Allowing me time to act as I need to. However, there was a greater purpose for the move.”

Marielle nodded her understanding. She thought of her father, and how much he relied on his servants. How would he cope with the loss of those servants? And he didn’t even need to be concerned about spies or betrayal. Giovannus needed to be incredibly suspicious of any potential hires, looking into how they might have been or could be compromised. A time-consuming task. “And what would that greater purpose be?” she asked.

“To strike fear into the hearts of those who side with Giovannus. A clear message, that I too am capable of atrocities. By design, it will look like the work of agents of Horus, but in their hearts, they will know the real culprit. At least, the smart ones will know, and they are the ones that matter. First, the ones who wanted to support me but couldn’t, because they feared Giovannus, would switch sides. Then, like a cascade in the game of stixis, those on the periphery will see how the winds have changed and will look to my shores as a safer haven.”

“You make it sound so easy. As if, all we need to do is make it through tonight and all will be well.” Marielle smiled. “You should go to bed, I will stay awake and keep the fire going. I’ll wake you when I’m ready to sleep. That will make it easier for you to last the rest of the night.” Marielle opened the palm of her hand expectantly, waiting for the dagger.

With a hearty yawn, Augustus handed over the dagger, stood up, and began to undress. “Yes, I suppose that is for the best.” He opened his old drawer to find something suitable to wear for bed, and once dressed he placed himself under the cozy covers of his childhood bed. “I know you must feel worried, with your future looking so murky. But, try your best to only ponder over the things inside your control. Worrying for the sake of worrying is just wasted labour. Wake me whenever you start to feel drowsy.”

“May the gods inspire you in your dreams,” said Marielle. Augustus took his pillow and covered his face, blocking the light from the fireplace. She snuffed out the lanterns on the walls, to dim the room for Augustus’ slumber. Then sat before the hearth and waited.

At first, Augustus would toss and turn, until he found his slumber. Then that rustling of sheets subsided. All she heard was the crackling of the fire and sometimes hurried footsteps in the hallway outside, or the muffled thunder penetrating walls. She moved her chair closer to the fire so she could be wrapped in the warmness it offered.

She saw a deeper red than she expected in those dancing flames, the matte red of blood-covered walls and floors. The image haunted her mind and she gripped the dagger taut. She looked over to the sleeping Augustus, her husband, the man who so easily sent men to fight and risk their lives. Either way, whether friend or foe, blood would be spilled tonight. And Augustus slept, albeit at her insistence, but still, there was a calmness to how he lay there that she found interesting.

In the peculiar loneliness one could only feel in a house full of people and with a husband sleeping nearby, she thought of her homeland. A place in time she wasn’t so far removed from, it had been less than a week since her wedding. Her family back home were completely ignorant of the dynamics taking place here. Could there be repercussions if Augustus' move went badly? She knew that the Castellians valued her family’s port. Would they give up their own profits to spite her family if she were to be exiled by them?

She imagined her and Augustus arriving by boat, to take refuge in her old home. Her father’s face filled with disappointment as she explained the situation. They could live a peaceful, unambitious life, whiling their days away helping her father with the logistics of his county. Or did Augustus soften the blow? Maybe, even what she imagined, was a flowery picture of what could happen in the future.

If Heratio failed then they would be without bodyguards. Giovannus, from all she knew about him, did not seem the lenient type. He would surely end things in blood rather than settle for knowing Augustus was exiled. She would, in all probability, end up as collateral damage, meeting the same fate as her husband. She imagined her mother, opening a letter to notify her of Marielle’s passing. Her mother cried reading it, then went to the other members of her family to tell them of the sad news.

The fireplace had reduced its heat, possessing only embers, that she saw as deformed halos of light. Her distorted vision, the result of a thin layer of salty water covering her eyes. She wiped away tears as she stood up to rekindle the flames.

Then she heard it, the creak of the floorboards outside in the hallway. Quiet footsteps. Marielle stopped in place and just listened. The footsteps stopped. She delicately walked over to the door, her ear, all the while, pointed in the direction of what she heard. Once next to the door she waited, dagger at the ready. The footsteps began again, slowly, each step taken carefully.

She watched the handle twist. A weight pressed against the door, but the chair held firm and the door didn’t budge. Again the weight pressed. Marielle held her breath. She hid such that if the door opened, she would still be behind the door, ready to strike whoever this intruder would be. But, the door didn’t open. The weight removed itself, and the footsteps began again, this time moving off into the distance, less carefully, with harder steps.

Marielle breathed in again. Still reserved, she moved quietly over to Augustus and shook his shoulder. He roused quickly. Immediately he seemed to spring up from the bed glancing about himself to check for some expectant threat.

Once he stopped moving his head about and looked up to his rouser, she said in a hushed whisper, “Someone was outside. They pressed against the door a couple of times. But, I think they gave up and left.”

Augustus looked to the door, still shut. “It's alright. It could have been a servant coming to have a quick check on us. Just to make sure we didn’t need anything.”

“Yes, maybe.”

“You’ve stayed up long enough. I can see how tired you are now, it’s painted on your face. Have some rest. I’ll stay up the rest of the night.” Augustus rubbed his eyes then slipped himself out of bed, moving the sheets in a way to invite Marielle’s entry.

She handed him the knife, though, as she did it, some part of her wanted to hold onto it tonight. A part of her wanted it next to her bed as she slept, for safety. Augustus, with his dagger in hand, still in his nightwear, sat next to the fireplace with his back turned to her.

She, without access to her old nightwear, simply disrobed all but her undergarments and climbed into bed. When the sheets covered her, Augustus turned around and stood over her.

“May the gods inspire you in your dreams,” said Augustus in a soothing voice.

She shut her eyes and covered her face and let the world fade away. In those black moments, as slumber began took hold, her mind still raced. Thinking through the conversations she had, simulating conversations she could have. Like a play in a theatre, she watched herself on the day out with Revenica visiting some eatery, talking about the food and walking around the city. Then she thought of her and Augustus earlier, sitting and playing stixis. His smile and patience. She remembered the things he said, the way he said them, and was left wondering which was the false image. The kind man or the man who could order atrocities done.

A knock at the door abruptly broke her slumber just as it was beginning to settle in. She opened her eyes and removed the pillow. She watched Augustus open the door, and in the doorway stood a well-dressed servant.

“There’s been a fire at the Gallinius estate, Giovannus’ home. Don’t leave the room until we say that it’s alright. Under Giovannus’ orders, we have stationed guards outside your door.”

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