Vespasien flexed the stiff hand he now kept hidden beneath stylish black riding gloves, bored to the point of tears.
There were many things Ves hated about the Vethyles, but at the moment the most memorable was that their parties were mind-numbing wastes of time. As the wretched musical troupe continued its horrid imitation of entertainment, Vespasien realized his life would be better put to use bashing his forehead into the seamless stone of the Spyre’s outer walls.
Ves tipped back another glass of barley wine and surveyed the room. It was near midnight and most of the guests had politely excused themselves hours ago. He’d been loitering ever since, hoping to see the Vethyle and Ganlin matriarchs come to blows.
For the last two hours, however, Auldin Cyriaca Vethyle had been conspicuously avoiding Auldheim Agathe Ganlin, their gazes not even falling in each other’s direction. Instead, Cyriaca circuited the huge hall, insidiously chittering on about the unfortunate state of Ganlin finances to all who would listen—and Ves knew sooner or later the Ganlin Auldin’s steely will would finally snap and the two woman would begin a verbal firestorm that not even Auld Rhydderch or Auld Rees could put out.
The idea left a warm tingle in his heart.
Instead, Agathe somehow continued to retain her queenly composure and the tired, ragged music troupe began a hideous rendition of the Ballad of Fire as the night dragged on. Unable to take the caterwauling any longer, Ves stood to go.
As he was turning, Ves realized that Auldin Cyriaca Vethyle had finally made the trek across the ballroom to sit down across from the fat, impassive Ganlin matriarch. Her conversation began with a contrived smile, though Ves could tell that the Auldheim was listening with increasing lividity as the sleek and elegant head of the Vethyle family whispered her false sympathies across the floral silk tablecloth.
Immediately, Ves sat back down to watch.
Nearby, Auld Rhydderch Vethyle had also settled into an adjacent table, eying his niece and her guest over his ale. Ves assumed Rhydderch could smell trouble emanating from the two women—the grizzled Auld had a love for his hounds that, some said, went well beyond that of a man to his beasts. Ves didn’t actually believe the rumors anymore, of course, though he did his best to perpetuate them at every bar and tavern in the Aulds’ quaint mountain capital of Siorus that he could find. The chiseled old Auld could definitely take a few more blows to his pride.
It had been especially poetic when the master houndsman had taken his beasts out on a romp through the countryside looking for the kennel killer, only to come back from the hunt empty-handed. Vespasien still laughed himself to sleep, thinking of it. It was better than crying, thinking about how close he’d come to getting caught.
Ves, being barren in a country where the strength of one’s veoh determined one’s rank, had not even dared lodge a complaint with the Spyre after the mauling. In Bryda, if a barren man complained about an Auld’s hound and the Auld found his hound innocent, it was the barren man who was put down.
And Ves knew without a doubt whom Rhydderch would choose to put down if he found out Vespasien had been the one to kill his beloved beasts. Instead, Vespasien had quietly gone to a village three days’ ride from the Spyre and paid a healer a great sum to repair the mangled flesh. Knowing that even then the killings were causing a national stir as the Vethyle family tried to pin the deaths upon a Ganlin conspiracy, Vespasien had paid even more for the healer’s silence.
Now more than ever, of all the Aulds and Auldin at the Spyre, Rhydderch was the one Vespasien would most like to see disappear. And he’d tried, repeatedly.
Unfortunately, despite Ves’s every effort, the man seemed to avoid trouble as easily as if he were guided by a divine hand. The last time Vespasien had made an attempt on the Auld’s life, the Auldhunds had come dangerously close to tracing it back to its source.
It irritated Vespasien. Rhydderch was one of the few truly powerful Vethyle Aulds who still maintained civil interaction with the Ganlins, and his disappearance under suspicious circumstances would make Vespasien’s job so much easier.
Ves took another sip of wine.
The Ganlin and Vethyle matriarchs were glaring at each other through false smiles, still making every motion of civility. Watching them, Ves would have given anything to hear their words. Cyriaca’s smile was all teeth. Agathe’s dark green eyes were narrowed, and her hand gripped the arm of her chair with pudgy white knuckles. She leaned forward—not far, because her large breasts could not move past the edge of the table—and said something fast and low under her breath. Cyriaca responded by setting her wine glass down a little too quickly.
Four hundred years ago, the Ganlins had produced a baby boy with veoh so powerful his cries made the very stone of the Slope weep. Agathe’s twin brother. He was the clan’s hope, the boat that would finally carry their drifting people back to prominence within the Spyre.
Before he could take up training at the Spyre, the Vethyle stole him, murdered him, and left his body for carrion deep in the mountains.
Or so the Ganlins claimed.
The Vethyles, of course, denied it.
Ves had always been naturally interested in deep-rooted blood-feuds, so when he wasn’t selling expensive thrills to the ruling families of Bryda, he spent a lot of time researching the Ganlin boy’s disappearance in the libraries of the Spyre. In his studies, he’d learned that directly following the incident, the entire Vethyle family had willingly undergone a series of truth spells, all cast by two ancient, absurdly powerful Ganlin Aulds. Aside from one nine-year-old boy who refused to answer the questions, the Vethyles had been innocent.
...or they had discovered a way to foil a Ganlin truth spell. That, in itself, was a good reason to research the Ganlin-Vethyle blood feud. Ganlins were notorious for producing Aulds and Auldins with such inexhaustible veoh they might as well have been Ayu. Agathe—fat, immobile Agathe—was one such.
The Auldheim’s great age did not show upon her round face, despite the rumor that she didn’t use illusionary spells. Her body was rotund, debilitatingly so, and Ves wondered if the great folds of fat drooping from the woman’s frame were, in actuality, the illusion. After all, with a source of veoh to make the gods cry, why would any woman allow herself to be confined to a chair, unable to walk, dependent on her auldlings to move her from room to room?
Ves watched Agathe, wondering if Cyriaca suspected the crafty old Auldin was not as helpless as she appeared. Seeing the little sneer on Cyriaca’s face as Agathe made a show of shifting her great mass in her chair, Ves doubted it. Though the Vethyle were devious when money or power came into play, they were also delightfully hollow.
Cyriaca was a fool.
Agathe was dangerous.
Ves glanced at Rhydderch, who still monitored the exchange between Cyriaca and Agathe with his full attention. Probably, Vespasien now realized, to help put out whatever fires Vespasien hoped they would start.
Ves snagged his bottle of barley wine and walked brazenly over to the Auld’s table. “Is this seat taken?”
“Yes.” Rhydderch continued to sip his ale, watching the two women carefully.
Ves grimaced at the nine empty seats at the table and continued to stand. “Forgive me if I am still unfamiliar with your customs, but the Vethyle woman is quite—oh, how do you say—pleasing to the eye? Isn’t she your niece?”
Rhydderch did not look at him. “Leave, beggar.”
That annoyed Ves. Rhydderch, of anyone in the city, was least impressed with the roots and potions and powders that Ves peddled. Thus, it made it incredibly hard to poison him.
And, while every other Auld in the city seemed to consider Ves’s trade making him an honorary Auld, Rhydderch treated him like the barren man he was. ‘Beggar’ was new, though. Ves wondered if it was a Brydian slur.
He took another sip of barley wine, which he had had imported from Glesche, and smiled, putting every ounce of personality into it that he had. “Again, forgive me if I mistake your customs, Auld Rhydderch, but—”
“You mistake nothing, beggar.”
Ves’s smile cracked. He hadn’t planned on ‘tipping’ the party tonight, but there was something about Rhydderch he just couldn’t stand, even before his dogs had tried to kill him. In Bryda, it wasn’t uncommon for an Auld to treat his barren brethren like vermin, but Ves had seen Rhydderch be courteous and companionable to servants and craftsmen who didn’t have an ounce of veoh to save their lives.
It was only Ves that received Rhydderch’s cold disdain.
Out of reflex, Ves grasped for the familiar thread that hovered just at the edge of his consciousness and pushed it out toward Rhydderch, feeling the energy he always felt when he was about to do something deliciously mischievous.
Then he took a breath and swirled the wine in his glass. Looking down at it, he said, “Beggar? If you discount your pretty niece over there, I do believe I have more sparks to my name than anyone in the room.” Ves took a sip of wine to cover the smile that came to his lips at Rhydderch’s sudden widened eyes.
The ‘tip’ always happened that way. Ves liked to think he had a veoh of his own, and that the half-confused, half-angry look that came to his victims’ faces was a symbol that he’d tipped their minds in the direction he wanted them to go. Even now, the good Auld was probably fuming over the fact that his niece had hoarded the family funds for her personal pleasure—usually in the form of lavish and boring parties like this one—ever since taking the helm. Any moment now, the good Auld Rhydderch would stand up and begin an argument with one of the other Aulds in the room—if Ves was lucky, it would be Agathe or Cyriaca—and a new blood-feud would begin.
Rhydderch glanced at Ves, then at Ves’s glass of barley wine. The momentary confusion was gone. Calmly, he said, “I wasn’t speaking of sparks.” Then the old Auld stood up and abruptly left the hall by the service door, taking his poor-man’s stein of ale with him. Ves sat down and smugly took another sip of wine. Too late, the smell of vinegar soured his nose. He choked it down, the acidic liquid searing his throat and lungs before he managed to catch his breath. Repulsed, he set down the glass and glowered at it.
It didn’t work on the whoreson.
Goosebumps broke out over Vespasien’s body. His tips always worked. Always.
A clucking noise from the Auldins’ table interrupted him. “What did the old goat do to you, Vespasien?” Cyriaca was staring at his wine glass. Unlike Ves, she could feel the magic Rhydderch had woven into his drink. If she was truly interested, she could channel her veoh and see it. Her eyes, however, did not gain the unmistakable look of concentration as she studied his glass.
It was only for a moment, but it left Ves feeling naked. Not for the first time, he would have given his entire fortune for a go-nowhere auldling’s ability to feel the threads of veoh Rhydderch had so casually woven into Ves’s wine to turn it sour. Staring down at his spoiled beverage, Ves felt like a fool. Once again, he was reminded that, in this country, the Aulds ruled. Barren fools like him were just the entertainment.
Not for the first time, Vespasien wondered what had possessed him to accept this particular assignment.
Ves smiled broadly at Cyriaca and stood, leaving his wine on the table. “A gentlemanly dispute, Auldin Cyriaca, naught more.”
“Rhydderch does not oft stoop to spoiling a man’s wine,” Agathe noted. “Especially a barren man’s wine.”
Ves beamed his most winning smile at her despite the fact he wanted to see her greasy jowls quiver under a dull and rusty blade. “I bring out the worst in him, I suppose,” Ves said, still smiling. “Perhaps the two of us would make a good marriage bed.”
Cyriaca, who was already under the impression Ves slept with men, as it was the only way Ves could keep her out of his own bed, twittered happily. “Oh Vespasien. You are so delightful. Perhaps that’s just what the old grump needs. Why don’t you sit with us?”
Agathe only watched him.
The bitter old sow knows I’m lying.
Ves continued to smile as he sat down beside Cyriaca. “Might I ask, Auldin, when your latest auldling will be rated? What’s his name? Aneirin? I hear he’s got quite a bit of potential.”
“Nirin’s ceremony will be two weeks from now,” Agathe said, her tone guarded.
“Will the ceremony take place in the Spyre?” Vespasien asked. He hoped it would—celebrations were perfect places to leave several nice tips amidst the festivities.
“The Slopes,” Agathe said. “Ganlin Hall.”
Vespasien tried to keep his disappointment from his face. “I don’t suppose I could come see it? I hear it’s quite a spectacle.”
“It’s a family celebration,” Agathe said, her scowl deepening. “Ganlins only.”
Vespasien decided to try his second tip of the night. A Ganlin-only celebration would be the perfect place to sow a little strife in an otherwise infuriatingly tightly-knit clan. He grasped the same strand he had used on Rhydderch and shoved it into Agathe. Casually, he said, “That’s a shame. I could supply quite a bit of wine for young Aneirin’s celebration. I’ve heard how much you Ganlins enjoy your festivities.”
Agathe blinked and Vespasien released the strand. It was Cyriaca, however, who had the dull, slightly-glazed look of a person who had just received a tip. She was frowning at Agathe, seemingly completely unaware of Vespasien’s presence.
“They do enjoy their drink,” Cyriaca said softly.
“The feast is for Ganlins only,” Agathe repeated.
Vespasien stared at her. It was twice in one night that his tips had not had the proper effect. He fought a fleeting worry that his odd little knack had rubbed off, and with it, his livelihood. The Emperor paid for strife, not gossip.
But, from the odd way Cyriaca was acting, Vespasien knew that he still had the touch. It was just becoming fickle of late, it seemed. The sudden quirkiness bothered him. He’d been tipping for almost thirty years, ever since he learned he could do it when he was five. Never once had it failed so abysmally twice in one night.
Cyriaca stood up suddenly. “I’m sorry, Vespasien. Agathe. I have matters that I must address in the kitchens. My cousin Taebin will see you out whenever you’re ready.” She turned and hurried from the room, her robes swishing about her ankles like a goodwife’s skirts.
As soon as she was out of earshot, the Auldheim leaned forward and said, “What did you do to her?”
Vespasien tried not to let his shock show as he turned back to Agathe. “Excuse me?”
The Auldheim laughed. “I’ve been trying to get rid of the wretch all night. I was getting so frustrated I was almost ready to strangle her myself. Then, the moment you sit down, she flees like she’s got Rhydderch’s hounds on her tail.”
“I have that effect on women,” Vespasien said, allowing himself to relax.
“Men, too, it appears,” Agathe said. “Just what did you say to Rhydderch to make him storm off like that?”
Vespasien laughed and prepared his lie, then caught himself. Under her guise of camaraderie, she was watching him a little too closely.
She’s spelling me, Vespasien realized, appalled. The Ganlins were notorious for doing it to everyone, even complete strangers, regardless of permission or courtesy.
“I spoke to him of money,” Vespasien said. “And how his dear niece seems to be wasting a lot of it.”
“Ah.” Agathe leaned back, satisfied. Now that he was waiting for it, Vespasien could feel the knot of veoh unravel from around his throat. His skin broke out in goosebumps and it was all he could do not to say something rude about her breach of propriety. “I’ve talked with him about that. He does find it distressing.”
Apparently not distressing enough, Vespasien thought, remembering his putrefied wine. But then he realized that Agathe was offering him an interesting little snippet that he could easily put to use tarnishing Rhydderch’s name. Since Rhydderch was so utterly hard to get dirt on—when viewing the history books, the man didn’t exist, and when speaking with others, the man was a hero—Vespasien’s heart gave an excited twitch. Calmly pouring himself another glass, he said, “How so?”
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a.k.a. Sara King, sci-fi/fantasy/thriller writer from Alaska. Check me out on Amazon or Patreon! Email me at [email protected] to get on my beta-reader list for upcoming work, or just to say hi. :)
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