“Won’t his death breed suspicion of you. It would be obvious, would it not?” Marielle still looked down, away from Augustus. He continued to watch her as she worked with her hand, painfully slowly.

“Not that obvious. Giovannus would probably even have a last testament accusing me of his death. But once I am head of the family, I will be able to untangle whatever scheme he’s been up to. I’m sure he’s allied himself with some other family, and they will have expectations of him. I will make that scheme public, using it to implicate that family in Giovannus’ death–The price he needed to pay for not holding up his end of whatever arrangement they had.”

“I was there at dinner. Even I could see how overwhelming Giovannus’ support is. Pascal’s family, plus Quintus isn’t enough.”

It wasn’t going how he expected. She wore her worry like a gaudy dress for anyone to notice. Augustus moved closer to her and with his hand he touched her chin, adjusting her face so he could look into her eyes. “Marielle, listen to me. We will get through this. You know that right?”

Hesitantly, she nodded, her eyes still looking away as Augustus peered relentlessly, refusing to break eye contact.

“Look at me.” She did as he requested. Her eyes met his, then immediately darted away for a split moment, before returning again. He could tell she had to force her intent to look forward, fighting against the back of her mind that just wanted to look away. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you. We’ll get through this–You will get through this. You are strong, I know from the way you acted last night that you’re brave and smart. No matter what comes your way, you will be able to face it, and you will win.”

Her eyes watered but shed no tears. In the silence that followed, her gaze broke with her chin overpowering the gentle grasp Augustus held on it, allowing her to look away.

“I promise you, if I suspect Giovannus has the upper hand, I will use my coin to whisk you away back to Jorland. Then I will face him myself if I have to. But, for now, I need you to help me. I need you to make sure Quintus comes over for a meal. Once I have him in front of me, I’m sure I’ll be able to convince him to back me. You can do that right? For me?”

“Yes,” Marielle said, meekly.

“I want you to believe in yourself. Believe in me!” Augustus grasped onto Marielle’s shoulders, one hand on each. “Now, answer the question again with confidence.”

Marielle turned her own head back to Augustus. With stoic eyes, she said, “Yes. I can do it.”

“Good.” He smiled as warmly as he could and let go of her to return to planting the seedlings. “Tomorrow, you will pay for her meal and your own, and whatever incidental costs you incur during your outing. Since, technically, I am of higher standing than Quintus in the family, you, as my wife, are of higher standing than his wife. Traditionally the higher standing member of the family pays when visiting eateries in the city.”

“I’m sure we can break from tradition, given the circumstances. After all, she was the one who invited me out.”

“No, you shall pay and don’t be stingy trying to save some coins. By taking care of the expenses you’ll do two important things. First, you will reinforce that you are of higher standing in her mind, making her unable to turn down an invitation. Secondly, it’ll help you exude the confidence it’s vital you display tomorrow. Earlier, you showed your fear and frustration to me, and that is fine–to show it to me, that is. If you display fear to her, it will nurture her doubts in our ability and position. In your mind, you can’t allow any doubt that we will win. During lunch, act as if it’s a foregone conclusion, and that you are acting merely out of kindness by having lunch with her.”

“That’ll be difficult. I don’t know the city so I’ll be forced to constantly ask questions and rely on her knowledge. It’ll be hard to act confident while being in such a subordinate position.”

“Those are different matters entirely. She knows you are new to the city. She will expect you to ask questions, the important thing is to ask your questions properly. Maintain eye contact, have a good posture, have an expectant tone in your voice when you ask your questions, do these things and despite your ignorance, you will portray yourself as assertive and dominant, traits she should respond to positively.”

As Augustus mentioned posture, she immediately held her head up. “I had posture training back in Jorland. I understand what you’re trying to say, and I’ll try–I mean, I will do that. I’ll make sure she believes we are the ones in control here.”

He looked at her and she stared back, refusing to retreat her gaze. “Good, you do understand.” With a knowing nod to each other, they returned to their work.

“While you are having your lunch with Revenica, I will be having lunch with Yander and my brother Cladius, at an eatery I requested. I will expedite the sale of the spice and the rest of the ores. You will have Gillivan guard and I’ll bring Heratio as my guard. That would leave the servants and our valuables here vulnerable. To protect our home, I have invited Pascal’s son, Mallius, to visit for the day tomorrow.”

“Mallius? I don’t think I met him yesterday.” The two finished with the current flower bed. They stood up and moved on to the next.

“No, he wouldn’t have been there.”

“Oh yes, now I remember. The runt that Revenica talked about.” Augustus had to pause for a moment at Marielle’s words.

“Yes. He was born cursed. He will forever have the mind of a child, even though he is much larger than me. I used to read to him. Pascal will assign him a guard, or maybe even two, while he is at our estate. We will then leave him in the care of our servants, and his guards, hopefully, should ward off any potential attacks.”

“Are you sure we should have someone who’s cursed visiting our home?”

“I don’t care about what we should do, this is necessary. To protect our interests.”

“If you say so. But priests will look down on us for fraternizing with someone who’s been cursed by one of the gods.”

“Our family gives the temples enough coins that they know to look the other way when it comes to stuff like that.” Augustus went to place another seedling, but the dirt disintegrated in his hands as he moved it.

“Oh, Augustus, just be a bit more careful. You need to keep the dirt intact, so the roots are spread out properly. It’s still usable, it just might end up a day behind the other flowers.” Marielle took the time to demonstrate the planting process again.

“Sorry. I’ll be more careful. And, if you don’t want to interact with Mallius that’s fine. We’ll be out at our respective meetings for most of the time he’s here anyway. I’ll just read him a short book before I leave, then another when I return.”

They continued to work, filling the rest of the flower beds, and when all done, went inside for dinner. They all sat together, masters and servants, around the same table with Augustus leading the discussion. Purposefully, he turned the conversation towards topics that would help Marielle feel included. His way of keeping her mind focused in the moment. Talk of the weather, of the upcoming change of season, the harvest season would be coming up, a topic that allowed Marielle to reminisce and tell stories of her childhood.

Augustus laughed at every beat she could expect him to. Half because he thought her stories funny, and half to put her mind at ease.

“Then my father had to jump into the water after the beans. My mother heckled him from the boat. I remember her shouting, ‘Beware the Fingle fish, I hear they like to bite on men’s nipples!’ I couldn’t stop laughing,” said Marielle, concluding her story. Her smile wider than Augustus could remember seeing it.

Cressa laughed too. “Dumb bastards!” Said Cressa, between her uproarious laughter, with tears in her eyes. But her laughter caught Marielle off guard, abruptly putting an end to Marielle’s wide smile.

“Cressa, that’s Marielle’s family you just called dumb bastards.” Augustus shot a glare at Cressa that turned her pale. “That was a very funny story, Marielle. I thank you for sharing it.”

“My Lady, I apologize for my words. I didn’t mean to offend you,” Cressa said solemnly.

“Speaking of Fingle fish, they are no joke. I’ve been bit by one,” said Heratio with a grin. “But, it’s really the fear of them that gets you. I remember Castor told me about them before I was about to swim in the ocean, just at the dock in the city. Kept me on that dock for longer than I would care to admit, as I just imagined them biting on my nipple. Eventually, I went in, the brave warrior that I am. It was weeks later that I found out they aren’t even in the waters over here. Then I went up north with him one time, forgot about them completely, and I decided to take a dip in the ocean. I’m just swimming along, not a care in the world, then I feel something weird on my nipple. I jump out of the ocean as fast I can, and guess what? The whole time, Castor was there, watching and laughing. He didn’t bother to warn me that time when they were actually in the water. It was red and sore for a week.”

Augustus and Marielle laughed uncontrollably, imagining the exchange. As their laughter waned they fixed their gazes upon each other.

“So, are you two going to perform your marital duties tonight?” Asked Heratio, casually holding his wine glass. His leaned forward relaxed posture and drooping face showed how the drink had gotten to him. “I don’t think you’ve done them since your wedding.”

“Heratio, it’s inappropriate to talk to your masters about that,” said Cressa with a shocked expression.

“Cressa, it’s fine,” said Augustus. Cressa scrunched her face and looked annoyed, but knew well enough not to say anything more. “I guess it would be appropriate. We have proper beds and bedsheets now. Do you mind Marielle?”

Augustus returned his gaze to Marielle and watched her take a large gulp from her wine glass.

A note from TaxReligion

Hey, I am looking for all kinds of feedback.  I would be extremely grateful to anybody willing to come to my discord to give me useful constructive criticism.  I plan on eventually doing a big rewrite and getting a professional editor to turn this into an E-book.  I have been known to give a sneak preview of the next chapter to those who have given useful feedback... just saying.

I would also appreciate any ratings, comments, or even full reviews!  Thanks for reading!

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