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Fiction: The Library of Eristat / The Seven Suitors, Chapter 3
A serialized mystery in a fantasy setting. A double-length chapter
Author’s note: The Seven Suitors is a novel-length mystery in a fantasy setting I’ll be serializing here. It’s also the follow-up to the Library of Eristat story you may have read. Chapter One can be found here, the previous chapter can be found here.
This chapter is essentially two separate chapters separated by the break point, but the connection between them is tight enough I thought it would be beneficial to read together.
Eight minutes was apparently all it took to judge a man’s worth. Silas based this observation on the fact that every eight minutes or so a new name was called, and another noble crossed from the courtyard to the castle to meet the princess. Typically this accompanied the last noble who had walked in returning with a distracted look, stopping only to shake a few hands before taking his leave. Condolences were offered, but Silas thought he saw more relief than sympathy among the crowd that remained. Two weeks wasn’t nearly enough time to get to know all of them, however busy the princess intended to keep herself, and every rejected friend leaving in disappointment was one less rival to worry about later.
“Excuse me, I don’t believe that we have met.”
Silas swallowed, feeling briefly intimidated by the tall muscled figure looking down at him. Despite himself, some primitive instinct he had yet to master took one look at a man towering over everyone else and said to itself, “sure, that looks like someone who deserves to be in charge of important things.” Which, if Alexander would prove to be right about anything today, this man was.
“I don’t believe we have met either. I am Silas of Nareth, from Erelia. I understand you are Lord Gideon?” Silas braced himself as he came in for the handshake, but Gideon’s grip was nothing beyond firm, no veiled display of dominance or an attempt to prove a point of strength as the other man took his hand.
“I am.” Lord Gideon cleared his throat. “I am sorry your journey to our country has found us in this state, but I am sure that the princess will appreciate your willingness to assist her, should she request it.”
Silas nodded, pushing away the awkwardness he felt from that implication. “Thank you. I’m sure she appreciates your presence as well.”
Lord Gideon’s mouth made the smallest smile on one side. “Duty leaves no room for appreciation. My responsibilities compel me to be here, to ensure that Rowena has at least one option to prevent the dissolution of her house. I can not say what the future holds for either of us. But should the princess not request for either of us to stay, it would be my pleasure to host you at my own castle for the remainder of your time here.”
Silas blinked in surprise. “Thank you, that is a generous offer."
The other side of Lord Gideon’s mouth finally joined the other as it broke into a balanced, but still slim smile. “You should probably be aware, but offers such as mine or the princess’s are generally not made here unless the other party expect to see a still greater benefit. For my part, I would be interested to improve our trade relations with Erelia, I have long thought our countries are too isolated from each other, and stand to benefit from mutual exchange.”
“Oh.” Silas thought quickly, racing through the last few things that he had read before leaving on this trip, as he tried to take the threads of knowledge he had gathered and quickly weave them into something that could create a favorable impression. “Well, you probably know that our largest exports are in iron and linen, but what you may not be aware of is—”
A voice called out, causing the lord to turn away, and saving Silas the effort of having to continue. “Gideon, of Trent. The princess is ready to receive you.”
Gideon nodded at him, his features straining into a polite smile as he turned to leave. “We can talk on this subject another time. It would seem the princess is about to ask me to stay, or send me home. Whatever the outcome, I hope we have the opportunity to meet again.”
Without waiting for a response, the tall man walked off in the direction of the castle, his shoulders raised and his posture upright. Silas felt like he could probably learn a thing or two by studying him. Some of these men must have spent years by now honing the art of conveying absolute confidence, warranted or not.
Against his better judgement, Silas found himself shuffling over to Alexander of Roth, who was leaning up against a wall, looking pensive and lost in thought for the first time since Silas had met him.
“So what happens next?” Silas broke the silence.
Alexander blinked and turned to look at him. “The most polite and gracious rejection of your life, most likely. But I wouldn’t let it get to you. Stick around for the wedding, I promise I’ll make it one to remember.” Alexander’s grin was back on his face.
Silas ignored the jab. “I mean, what happens in there? How does it all work? How do you know the outcome?”
“How do you know? How wouldn’t you—ah, but of course, you wouldn’t know anything about our customs. Pardon my lack of hospitality. It’s easy to forget some poor souls haven’t lived with the charms of Aeolia for their whole lives.” Alexander gave Silas a pitying look. “You’ll head in, supposedly to pay your respects, even if you both know what you really want. The princess will chat with, or rather, interview you for however long she feels necessary.”
“What will she ask?”
“Entirely up to her. But don’t take that as an invitation to drive the entire conversation yourself. You’ll stay or go at her whim, and she’s not one to appreciate being run roughshod over. At least, not until after her wedding.” Alexander smirked.
“But how do you know whether you’re staying or going? What’s the subtext?”
“You could probably figure it out yourself. If she doesn’t want you to stick around, she’ll thank you for coming, wish you all the best, and expect you not to bother her again. If she wants you to stay, she’ll say something along the lines of ‘You honor us with your presence’, and offer you a room at the castle so you can spend more time together. If not, you’ll be best off remaining out of sight for the next couple weeks so people don’t start to talk about you. I plan on being one of the honored ones myself. And from the looks of it, I might be the last one.”
Silas raised his eyebrows in disbelief. “Half the names haven’t been called yet. How is that possible?”
Alexander counted off on his fingers. “If I haven’t missed any return trips, she’s already brought in Cedric, Lucien, Valerian, Wesley...” Alexander shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe she’ll add a wildcard to keep the group guessing. But I doubt it. I suspect the princess already made up her mind about everyone she planned on saying yes to before they called the first name.”
“Then why even do all of this?” Silas gestured in a circle around the courtyard. “Why have the men she doesn’t want all stand around and wait, until they wander in to drop pointless flattery on her?”
“It reminds the suitors she selects how valuable her attention is, how lucky they are to be here. She doesn’t have to value your presence for it to be useful to her.” Alexander was clearly enjoying Silas’s surprise. “A woman is only worth as much as the best man she can turn down. Every rejection sweetens the pot, and calls attention to the value of the prize. I hear a noble from Erelia traveled six months for a chance to be one of these lucky few.”
“It was one month. Is this why you wanted me to stick around?”
Alexander stopped smiling for a moment and patted Silas on the shoulder. “No, no. I really do think you have a chance. A slim chance. But a chance nevertheless. You just have to understand, you’re coming into a game that’s been going on for years. All the serious players know each other, and know what’s at stake for their future and their families depending upon how this goes. I’m sure you’ll do your best, and if this was anywhere else and anyone else I might even take a bet on your side. But you have to understand, while you’re fumbling around and trying to figure out your opening, the rest of the players are polishing up their end games.”
“You make it sound more like war than love.”
“Two sides of the same coin.” Alexander grinned. “In pursuit of the object of his desire, what man wouldn’t be prepared to do anything to make it his? Love has claimed more lives than war in Aeolia as of late, depending on who you believe.”
Silas remained silent for a moment, hoping that Alexander would embellish his anecdote, but he seemed satisfied to leave it there. “So what will you say if I make it in?”
Alexander thought for a second. “Congratulations? Try not to make it too awkward at the wedding if I win? Put in a word for me with her sister if you win? I mean, sure, I hope you make it. Why not. Someone from out of the country, I think you’d even mix things up a bit.”
“But you’re not going to win. Pardon my candor. You don’t seem like you want this badly enough. You don’t have that drive that comes from knowing this could make or break you. I’m not saying you should feel that way. But you’re not going to win without it.”
A voice rang out from the castle doors. “Silas of Nareth.”
Alexander elbowed him in the ribs. “You’re up. And hey, best of luck.” Alexander grabbed his hand to shake it and winked. “Honor for us both, right? ‘Thanks’ for the rest?”
Silas shook the hand back. “Whatever you say.”
Silas walked towards the castle doors, taking note of the fact that he didn’t pass anyone moving in the opposite direction. Things must have gone well for Gideon. The steward guided Silas down a path as their feet passed from dewy grass to smooth gray stones. The man motioned to the left, and excused himself. The hallway Silas soon found himself in afforded an advance view of the throne room. It was a classic architectural trick to impress the viewer on the lengthy approach to be received by a monarch. Properly framed, the eye had nowhere else to look but forward, and the mind had nothing else to focus on but the regal sight ahead of them.
The throne at the center of the room ahead remained empty, presumably out of respect for the departed. It dominated the space ahead of them, but as Silas grew closer, the figure of a woman with long brown hair resting past her shoulders came to the forefront of his attention.
Whatever Silas thought of Alexander’s other exaggerations, he had to admit that the princess was undeniably beautiful. Distractingly pretty, he would even say, in a way that might prove difficult to deal with, considering the focus he needed to bear on what he did next. If he took his mind off the task of making a positive impression, a set of primitive instincts he was not entirely at peace with risked wasting his time by making a study of her soft features that looked like they could glow if someone found a way to make her smile, or in following the silky brown wave of her hair that flowed down without a snag or a curl.
Silas self-consciously attempted to straighten his own recently trimmed hair, before he was sharply in view of the princess. He wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead—all from standing out in the sun too long, he told himself. Rowena’s outfit was spotless, and looked tailor-made for her, likely the only occasion on which it would be worn. Her dress was black below the waist but blended into white from that point up. A trade-off between mourning and advertising purity, perhaps. Looking to the past and the future. But he had already run out of time to act like any other clueless suitor and just gawk at her, Rowena was already making eye contact with him. Soon he’d have to be ready to say his piece.
Silas bowed, in a motion frequently practiced, but rarely brought to better use. “My name is Silas of Nareth. Here from Erelia. I’ve come to pay my respects.”
Rowena nodded, and turned to the attendants on either side of the room. “Could you excuse us for a minute? We’d like some time to talk in private.” She turned back to face Silas. At this point Silas could only assume Rowena had heard it all already, from a collection of men willing to say or claim anything for a chance at her hand. The look on her face suggested it would be an uphill battle to impress her at this point.
As the attendants filtered out, Rowena began to speak softly, like she was waiting for them to be truly alone before either of them could speak their hearts freely. “So, Silas of Nareth. What brings you to Aeolia? What are you hoping to find?”
Silas thought for a split second before answering. The question itself didn’t matter. She must be waiting for her attendants to leave before they discussed anything important. Just small talk, phatic conversation with no purpose. So he might as well…
“I’m hoping to find the truth.”
Rowena raised her eyebrows. “Could you be more specific?”
This wasn’t the speech he’d been preparing for, but Silas tried putting his thoughts into words anyway. “Everyone here, yourself included, is putting on an act, playing a role in the hopes that they can get what they want. Aware that every interaction could just be a test, every response a bluff. With no way of finding out what’s real and what’s fake.”
“Until the game is won, at least.” Rowena’s gaze was directed at the end of the hall, waiting for the last figure to fall out of sight. “And the winner can do whatever they want.”
“At which point it’s too late. But prior to that, I want to do my best to figure out who everyone really is. What they really want.”
Rowena smiled lightly. “If you can tell me that for myself, I’d be the first who would want to hear it.” The brunette princess took one last look to confirm her attendants were out of sight, before turning to Silas with a regretful look on her face, the mask briefly dropping as she allowed herself to spare no illusion for how she truly felt about these proceedings.
Silas tried to guess what her next words would be, but soon he didn’t have to. “Thank you for coming.”
The words Alexander had warned him to dread—the euphemism for complete rejection, being sent home to never see her again—hung still in the air. Rowena was looking down at her dress, sighing, as Silas stood quietly, unsure if she expected him to say something in response. Finally, Rowena broke the ice herself.
“Did any of them suspect anything?”
Semote Verent sighed and dropped the act for a moment, the tension finally leaving his body as he allowed himself to stop caring about how he was being perceived. “I don’t think so. Your man validated my ‘credentials’, and the other Lords treated me as one of their own. As far as anyone else knows, I came here as Silas, a noble from Erelia, seeking your hand.”
“They’ll be surprised to see you're about to make it in.” Rowena relaxed visibly and let her more formal air disappear. “But hopefully not too surprised. We can say I was impressed by how much you knew about Aeolian law as a foreigner, if that plays to your strengths. Oh, and you won’t be the only foreigner among the suitors either. I’m bringing in one more, it should make your cover more plausible. One foreigner might stand out, but with two, they’ll probably think I’m fed up with them all and looking to try something new.” Rowena smiled to herself, the expression lighting up her features before disappearing as quickly as it came. “That would be amusing to see, at least.”
Semote cleared his throat, reminding himself that he needed to get something across before their time was up, that this was his last chance to exert a bit of influence on events. “What’s the final count going to be?”
“Excluding you, and only counting the men actually jumping at the bit to marry me, we have six suitors. I just accepted the last one I was going to bring in a few minutes ago.”
“Gideon of Trent?”
Rowena nodded. “I don’t know how much you’ve heard, but it’s the obvious choice for a reason, politically speaking. We can talk more about him later. Right now I’m curious to hear what else you’ve managed to learn so far.”
It was finally time to say his piece. “I think you should push it up to seven suitors. Take one more in.”
Rowena raised an eyebrow. “I might have been trying to avoid that number, but I’m open. Who did you have in mind?”
Semote offered a name. “Alexander of Roth.”
Rowena looked at him strangely, the skepticism in her eyes causing Semote’s heart to skip a beat. “I’m familiar with him...”
“There’s absolutely no way we should consider him.” Semote hastened to clarify. “He’s here for all of the wrong reasons. Honestly a little ridiculous too. But I think it would make my job easier if you would bring him, in all the same.”
Rowena seemed amused. “Interesting. And why do you think that?”
Semote shrugged. “He knows all the major players, and he talks too much. I think he’s going to be useful.”
Two weeks ago
Rowena’s own ancestral home had nothing on the castle of Eristat, she was quickly coming to realize. The reasons why became clearer upon reflection. Unlike Eristat, Aeolia was an exercise in decentralized power. Their country was divided up into fiefdoms where the local ruler held absolute sway. Inviolable rules of succession prevented families from feuding over who would next hold power, younger sons or daughters of any kind had no grounds on which to stage a coup. All the families with titles and land to their names had more of an interest in keeping the peace and maintaining their positions than fighting a war that would make enemies on all sides. Invading a neighbor to gain territory was all but unheard of. The only meaningful alterations in the balance of power came when a family left no male heirs behind, and had to be assimilated into another.
Eristat on the other hand had endured a painful and bloody history. For decades it had known nothing but war as one family tried to gain dominion over the others. But the result was consolidation. It possessed a single ruling body governing the country with one voice, reigning from the lavishly decorated castle she found herself in that could double as a fortress. The artistic wonders being displayed on the walls lacked the diversity of culture and style in Aeolia, but as she passed through sections of the castle that could fit her entire home, Rowena decided that she could see the appeal.
The fortune teller had simply given her a name, and told her to find him at the castle. There were any number of questions Rowena wished she had possessed the presence of mind to ask. Who was this man? What role did he play in the affairs of Eristat? Was he a trusted advisor to the government, or perhaps one of its leaders? And more importantly, what made the old lady so certain he could help at all, if no one could truthfully tell her the future?
Carrying on wondering would get her nowhere. Rowena decided to resolve the most pressing question with the help of a well-dressed man who seemed to be walking in her direction to greet her. “Excuse me. I’m looking for Semote of Verent.”
The well-dressed man paused, taking a moment to look her up and down before replying. “That is an interesting request. May I ask what assistance you're looking for? We have the finest library in the world, most visitors looking for answers of some kind begin their search there, before consulting an expert in its contents."
Rowena did her best not to flinch under the casual intensity of the middle-aged man's gaze. "I need his assistance with a matter too delicate to discuss in public. I am not able to say more. Can you help me find him?"
The man nodded, and gestured for her to follow him down a corridor. "I am Lord Terryn the Third, and you are…"
Rowena followed closely behind him, but remained silent. It might turn out that she had no choice in the matter, but her presence here becoming public could only complicate things later.
Lord Terryn continued his thought, seeming to take no offense at her silence. "...here from Aeolia, if I guess correctly from your dress, on behalf of one of its ruling houses."
Rowena flushed, hoping the reaction wasn't an obvious tell. She had dressed with the intention of looking like someone worth paying attention to, but apparently that itself was too much of a giveaway. Better to turn the conversation away from herself.
"You seemed reluctant to introduce me to this man before, is there a reason why?"
Lord Terryn smiled slightly, as he took her down a path that seemed to take them farther away from the buzz of noise and activity in the more frequently trafficked areas of the castle. "He provides a number of useful services for us, but we can spare his absence, if that is the intent behind your question. My concern was around whether you understand the nature of the help you are requesting. His services are… not well-suited for some."
"And why is that?" Rowena kept her voice measured, trying not to give away how little she knew about what she was doing here.
"There is a story which might illustrate the point, and the journey is not a short one. If you'll indulge me—Once, a powerful monarch summoned his three most trusted advisors into the throne room. He had heard rumors of a strange art being practiced among the people, a talent called numeracy, and he wished to understand it better for himself. ‘Who here can tell me’, the king asked his three most trusted advisors, 'What two plus two equals.'
"The first advisor spoke up without a moment of hesitation. ‘Four, your majesty. It follows from the definition of addition and the numbers themselves, counting up two on top of two gives you four. There is no room for dispute.’ The advisor nodded, having said all there was to be said on the subject, and seeing no further need for his services, departed out the back.
"The second advisor came up to the king, relieved to finally be able to get to the point. 'I have heard much talk of this at court as well, your majesty. Currently, the gossip among the lords favors four, as your humble servant just suggested, but there is a substantial faction who think the answer must be five or higher. If we wished to hedge the difference, I have heard of a numerical art which would allow us to say that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but I believe the battlelines on this also present an opportunity. If we side with the five faction, given their effective control of the mining trade, we can use the division as an excuse to cut off trade and wrestle the remainder into more favorable terms on taxation. Therefore, I would say that the wisest, and most correct answer as to what two plus two equals, would be five.' Having truly said all there was to be said on the subject, the second advisor departed, leaving the king with one advisor remaining, who so far, had nothing useful or insightful to add to the discussion, or given any indication that he had understood it.
"The third advisor gently closed the door behind him as the second advisor left, and made a trip around the room, shutting all the curtains as he went. Finally, he approached the king in a whisper and asked: 'What would you like it to equal, your majesty?'”
Rowena held back a bemused chuckle. Had this man spent really this much time on a story only for it to end in a joke? But the Lord continued, as though there was nothing particularly amusing or unexpected about the question.
"His Majesty sighed, relieved that someone had finally understood him. 'Well, yesterday I appeared in public and I may have said it was three…’
"The third advisor nodded his head with a cunning smile. 'Say no more, my lord. It will be done.'"
Lord Terryn cleared his throat as they began to slow down. "Semote is the first advisor in that story, a man who can tell you that two plus two equals four and similar blunt facts about the world, like whether your steward is skimming off the top of your payroll. And for that function, I suspect you could have traveled for months and not found anyone better able to assist you."
"However," Lord Terryn had come to a halt. It looked as though they were at their destination, but the Lord must not want her to meet this man before he had finished saying his piece. "If what you require falls under the domain of the other advisors, seeing what manipulations of the truth could favor you, or making your version of the truth into the one everyone else believes, he is not a man you stand to benefit from associating with."
Rowena nodded, still undeterred. "Thank you for the insight. And yes, I am still planning to meet with him."
Lord Terryn flashed a quick political smile. "Very well. You will find him in the dungeon below."
Rowena's eyes widened, and she could see the Lord study her reaction carefully, like his eyes were attempting to pick apart how much she knew in coming here. She desperately tried to keep her mask up, betraying as little as she could.
"He is not a prisoner," Lord Terryn continued casually, as though he saw nothing unusual in restating something any person seeking this man would be expected to know. "He comes and goes as he pleases. We enjoy sufficient times of peace that we had no need of an extra holding cell for criminals, and the space has become his home and center for research. I ask that you not inquire into the nature of some of that work if not absolutely required. And one final point."
Rowena looked up expectantly, as the Lord’s expression had turned serious.
"Our two kingdoms have enjoyed a bond of mutual trust since our new government formed, I would describe our relationship as nations so far as 'uncomplicated'. If one of our own were to visit your country, and have an unfortunate fate befall them and justice not meted out to our satisfaction, that sort of thing has ways of making a relationship more, shall we say, complicated. If only in how we advise our citizens on where they can safely travel and do business."
Rowena swallowed and nodded, doing her best to process a trilogy of related thoughts. First, she realized that for the first time in her life she was being addressed as if she were a ruling Lord, by a man who likely held more power than anyone she had ever met. To him, she was the one in charge. Which, for as a brief of a time as the laws allowed, technically she was. Second, that in this moment she was taking responsibility for a political decision which could have repercussions for her country, if she earned a grudge from a nation advanced enough in its science and capacity for destruction that it could swallow her entire country up whole if it wished. And lastly, whoever Semote was, he was someone who mattered enough to the Lord for him to request his safety personally. Nothing in Terryn's tone left her any clearer as to whether that was due to personal sentiment, or if she was simply seeing the same sort of attention he would pay to protect any asset he considered himself to own.
Rowena realized she was still nodding. "I believe we understand each other."
"Good." Lord Terryn gave a tight-lipped smile. "One last bit of advice, be explicitly honest with him, or you may find your conversation cut shorter than you intended. And do your best not to argue with him. It is unlikely you will change his mind, and he will only think less of you. And he already thinks he's smarter than we are."
"Is he right?"
"In my case? Yes, I agree completely with his assessment. By all the classic measures of intelligence: facility of memory, abstraction, and discovery of patterns, he likely exceeds the capabilities of myself, a man qualified to manage the economy of a nation. But raw intelligence, like raw strength, matters most in its application for how it affects the world. There are more reasons than birthright why it is appropriate that for the moment, I have my role and he has his. The truth of the world can be useful to know. But a leader must also know when the truth simply does not matter.”
Terryn nodded a final time, and took his leave, his steps echoing down the empty hall as he faded out of sight. Soon the only noises Rowena could hear were coming from the dungeon below. Praying that on this, at least, the old fortune teller knew what she was talking about, Rowena steeled her courage and took her first steps down the stairs.
What she saw looked out of place for a dungeon, a castle—anywhere really. Illuminated by pale orange light coming from lamps suspended from the ceiling, she could see that the walls were covered in chalk writing. Writing was probably an overstatement, the handwriting was less than legible, and appeared to be composed of a mix of letters, numbers, and symbols she had never seen before. Discarded pieces of furniture were laid out haphazardly around the floor, turning the room into something of a maze. Weights and measures could be found on top of some of the tables, there were glass jars filled with unusual substances, and samples of various minerals that Rowena recognized—to say nothing of the piles of books on the ground. Was this man an alchemist? Was that the source of whatever divinatory gifts he possessed? Weaving her way through the tables and taking care not to step on or upset any of the items strewn around the floor, Rowena spotted a man with tangled brown hair leaning over a table, fiddling with bits of shaped metal.
“Semote of Verent?” She called out.
The man didn’t even turn his head. “Excluding the preposition.”
Rowena stopped to process that. “I beg your pardon?”
“There’s no ‘of’ necessary. I am not the implied ‘Semote of House Verent’, I am simply Semote Verent. I’m not nobility.”
“I beg your pardon...” Rowena started to apologize again, then thought better of it. She tried again. “I was under the impression that only the nobility lived in the castle.”
The man looked up from his work and turned to face her. The stubble on his face suggested a few days of untamed beard growth, the hair on his head looked like it had gone months without help. He looked at her for a moment without saying anything. His eyes were squinting in the dim light, and his mouth drawn to a thin line. His face was much younger looking than she had expected. Looking past the particulars and making generous assumptions about a life lived differently, Rowena could have guessed they were almost the same age.
“I possess certain skills that are valued. For that, I’m welcome to stay here when I choose to. But that’s not why you’re here.”
Rowena shook her head. “No.”
“Who sent you?”
Rowena hesitated. “Lord Terryn showed me the way. But I’m here for my own reasons. You are Semote Verent then?”
Semote nodded. “That was the name that brought you here?”
“I’m sorry...” Rowena stopped herself, and made a mental note to stop apologizing. “I’m not sure what you mean, is that not your name?”
“It is. Just not the one I hear most often as of late.” Semote took another look at her. He seemed to be weighing something in his mind, with the result being that he looked on her more favorably now. But only slightly. He still seemed as wary of her as she would be to an unknown young man seeking her attention.
Rowena took in a breath. Whether he trusted her or not, she needed to know if he could help. “Do you know the future?”
Semote sighed softly, and turned back to the table. “No. If that’s what you’re looking for, I’m sorry, but you need to give up. It is in principle impossible to know the future. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to cheat you.”
Despite recent revelations about the trustworthiness of fortune-telling, Rowena felt a bit irritated by his supposed confidence in dismissing what probably added up to centuries of her country’s traditions. “What makes you so sure about that?”
“The reliability of methods of divination aside, it can be shown to be impossible by logical proof.” Semote resumed fiddling with what looked like pieces of a larger metal device. His mind was clearly elsewhere, as he appeared to run through the argument from memory. “The future is in a sense more accessible than most people think. My belief is that the future is written in mathematical laws, following a destiny derivable from the past. If you throw a stone with a precise amount of force, I can tell you where it will land, how far it will roll, and where it can be found later. Once it is in motion, it follows a progression of equations that can be calculated, and the outcome is inevitable.”
Semote nodded. “But people aren’t stones. If I tell a stone where it’s going to land, nothing changes, it’s still bound by the same laws and lands in the same spot. But if I were to trace an unimaginable number of causes and effects and tell you that you would die from eating a poisoned apple tomorrow, you’d take that knowledge into account and avoid that fate. You can predict a stone’s course and it won’t change. Predict a person’s, and it will. Unless your fortune teller gives you an endless list of conditionally branching futures arising from hearing their advice, I think you should spend your money elsewhere.”
Rowena wanted to follow up, but the man was clearly enjoying hearing himself talk. She let him continue. “And that is the paradox which makes it impossible. If you know the future, it won’t take place. So what you’re asking can’t be done, both in practice and in principle.” Semote looked back at her. “Does that answer your question?”
Rowena shook her head, having won the battle with herself to not interrupt him mid lecture. “Hardly. You’re no more help than anyone else.”
“That’s because the problem is with your question.” Semote slid a couple of pieces of his device into place, and turned back to her. “If your original query is impossible, what do you really want to know?”
Rowena studied the man carefully. He had less of a chance than anyone she had met to be a spy for one of the other houses, and she had nothing to lose at this point. “Whom I should marry.”
Looking carefully, Rowena thought she caught Semote fighting the urge to roll his eyes. “Somehow, even though knowing the future would let you predict the march of ideas and the rise and fall of nations, all anyone ever wants to know about is their own love life. You can stop by the Library before you leave, in the southwest you’ll find…”
“Excuse me, my love life may very well determine the rise and fall of nations.” Rowena interrupted, unwilling to let the point go. “I am the heir to the wealthiest house in Aeolia. If I don’t find a husband, I lose everything. If I find the wrong one, I lose my freedom forever. Knowing who to marry is the most important question I can have answered.”
This got the man’s attention. His gaze focused in on her again. “If that’s your situation this can’t have come as a surprise. I would have assumed you would have been preparing for this your whole life. And you still don’t have someone you want to pick?”
Rowena shook her head. “No one that I feel certain about.”
“Then the answer is simple. Don’t pick anyone.” Semote gave her a look to show he was serious. “You’re here on your own now. Leave with as much money as you can, and don’t look back. Right now you are in Eristat, not Aeolia. You can own property in your own name, and start a new life for yourself. That’s still more opportunity than most people ever get.”
Rowena sighed and looked down at her feet. “Don’t think I haven’t thought of it.”
“So what’s stopping you?”
“If I don’t find a husband, the only way to decide who gets my family’s lands and wealth will be to wage war. The people of Lithos would suffer the most from the fighting. Same if I pick the wrong husband. We’ll be bled dry, or have our wealth stolen away to make someone else’s estate richer. I’m the only one who has an interest in looking after any of our people. If I shirk my responsibility or choose poorly, it’ll all be over for them.”
Semote shook his head. “If your choice of suitors has the potential to ruin their lives, it sounds like they have bigger problems.”
“Which should be addressed.” Rowena didn’t like the judging look in the man’s eye. “But that’s nothing I can solve by running away.”
“Then I don’t think it’s something I can solve either. I’m sorry you wasted your time in coming here. You can still try your luck in the Library if you wish.” Semote turned away.
Rowena could hardly believe her eyes, as the man seemed to resume his work, not feeling not so much as a tinge of guilt in doing so, as if he thought there was no point in trying to help her. Was her situation really that far gone? There must be something he was holding back, how could the same person be trusted enough by the rulers of Eristat to have free reign of the castle, but not be trusted enough to want to introduce him to outsiders? “Please, I’m sure your time is valuable. I can pay you...”
“It’s not a question of payment.” Semote cut her off, sounding insulted by the suggestion. “There is no sum of money that would induce me to take a job I would not be able to do. Handing your decision over to me would gain you nothing. I don’t know anything about your situation other than what you tell me, and if what you know isn’t enough for you to make a decision, there’s no reason to believe it would be enough for me either.”
“The problem is what I don’t know.” Rowena sighed. “Some of the men who will be looking to marry me, I’ve known for years. But their own attendants probably know them better than I do. I only see how they act around me. It’s always a game to all of them. When they so much as talk to me, I don’t know if it’s because they find me interesting or their families are putting pressure on them to restore their flagging fortunes. Whether I’m someone they really care about or just one of a dozen women they’re discretely courting.”
“I would have assumed the wealthiest house in Aeolia could afford some spies to look into these matters.”
Rowena bit her lower lip. “I had one I trusted, but his loyalty may be compromised. I don’t trust him to be objective.”
“The rest of your family then, someone has to have known these men.”
“My mother died when I was little.” Rowena thought for a second before saying the next words out loud for the first time. “And I am afraid that my father may have been murdered to force me to marry.”
Semote froze in place for a second, his face showing the briefest moment of compassion before losing himself in thought again. “Really. Now that is interesting.” Something in his expression changed as he looked at her, like he was taking her seriously for the first time, his mind calculating several steps ahead to a possible outcome. It felt familiar in a sense, Rowena was used to being evaluated by men who wanted something from her—politically, or physically. But there was something else in his eye, like he was more than a little afraid of her, or of what she represented to him. “How did he die?”
“Officially, a sudden onset of illness. But it arrived right after he met with a number of potential suitors interested in seeking my hand, in meetings I never got to hear the outcome of. And the symptoms suggest poison.” Rowena rattled off a series of symptoms and the illness’s progression while the man stood silently, taking the information in and occasionally nodding.
“You may be right. But I hope you realize, your chances of not being married to a murderer were always close to nil.”
Rowena felt an unwelcome shiver come over her. “Excuse me?”
“I’m not sure what kind of a sheltered life you’ve lived up until now, but what exactly is it that you think the nobility does?” Semote looked at her with an expression that suggested disdain, the way she had seen some nobles look at commoners, only with the roles reversed. “Everyone who’s achieved that elevated position in life has done so by lying, stealing, and disposing of anyone in their way. The nobility has never played nice. If one of your suitors is a killer, that just means he understands how the game is played.”
Rowena gritted her teeth. She was beginning to understand why the rest of the castle was fine with this man staying in a dungeon. It might be a bluff on his part to test her, but it still needed to be answered. “My family has never done anything like that.”
“I would love to hear how you got to be the wealthiest house in your country then. You want the truth? It probably doesn’t even matter who did it. A noble killing to get what they want isn’t something that should surprise you. It would be more surprising if one or your suitors wasn’t prepared to do it.”
“It would be better to lose than win like that.”
Semote looked at her in disbelief. “Really.”
“Yes.” Rowena answered without hesitation.
“And why exactly is that?”
It was hard to articulate something so fundamental, so glaringly obvious. This had to be a test of some kind. “Because that’s not who I want to be. That’s not the way my parents were. I’d rather lose everything than hand everything over to someone who would do that.”
Semote took another long look at her. Neither of them spoke for almost a minute.
“What you’re asking for is still impossible.”
“And why’s that?” Rowena kept her tone defiant.
“Say we catch the killer. You’ll still be left with the rest. You can never really prove someone is a good man. All you can really do is try as hard as possible to prove he’s a scoundrel, and then fail.”
“At least I’m willing to try.”
For some reason that made the man smile, an unguarded smile that made her realize almost nothing she’d seen on his face to this point had been, well, unguarded. Something in Semote’s posture seemed to shift, as he finally stopped looking at her like he was praying she’d leave. "All right.” He shook his head and sighed. “I’ll give it my best shot.”
Rowena’s heart leapt. She prayed one more time that the fortune teller had known what she was talking about in sending her to this man. “Thank you. You won’t regret this.”
“You should hope that you don’t. But I do have one condition we should discuss.”
And there it was. This part of the conversation, at least, Rowena had been prepared for. “If it’s about money, I can promise—”
“I’ll take whatever you were planning on paying me. I’ll assume you were going to be fair.” Semote looked around the room carefully, like he was trying to avoid being too obvious about where he directed his eyes. “My one other condition is that I would like a book of my choice from your library, which I imagine must be quite extensive. Anything I would like to take back with me is mine, no questions asked. As far as you would be concerned, you never owned it, you had never heard of it.”
“That can be arranged.” Rowena didn’t feel the need to hesitate for long. If it was money or something of value Semote was interested in, there were easier and more explicit ways to ask. The fortune teller had said he was a librarian’s son; surely their Library had enough books without him bringing in more, just how highly did they value their collection? “Why is that so important to you?”
“I assume you don’t trust me enough to share everything yet.”
That was certainly true. “Yes.”
“Well, that goes both ways.” Semote was off in a corner of the room, loading some items into a canvas bag. “I can’t promise I’ll find you a husband. I can’t promise I’ll find you a good man. But if you’re really interested in finding out who murdered your father, that is something I think I could do.”
Rowena let out a breath she didn’t realize she had been holding, as she felt a flicker of hope fighting to stay aflame for the first time in a long time. “Thank you, you won’t regret this. I have a carriage waiting outside. We can go—”
“Oh, no.” Semote shook his head quickly. “I can’t be seen leaving with you.”
Rowena tilted her head to one side, feeling a mix of wonder and mild indignation as she asked herself how this man could possibly think he stood to lose social status by being seen with her. She, at least, had actually dressed up for this. “Excuse me?”
“If I remember Aeolian law at all, you’re either sending everyone into a panic back home while you spend your remaining 30 days traveling the world, or no one else knows your father is dead yet. Am I wrong?”
Rowena felt a chill, as her fears crept into reality, the very thing she had been been trying to hide since the moment she had arrived suddenly brought to light. This was not leverage she wanted anyone to have over her. She tried to steel herself, say the words her father would have said if confronting a potential blackmailer. “Please choose your next words carefully.”
Semote blinked and refocused on her, his eyes widening a little. “I’m sorry, I’m not saying this is what I want, I’m saying that practically speaking, we have no choice. It’s a matter of…” For the first time since they’d met, the man seemed tongue-tied, his intellectual bravado finally dispelled as he blinked his normally guarded green eyes, trying to find the words.
Rowena sighed to herself, recognizing in Semote’s expression something like that of a confused puppy, worried that it didn’t know what it had done wrong. Tactless or not, he clearly wasn’t intending to blackmail her. And despite being completely justified in how she reacted to what was essentially an accusation, she had the sense that she was going to need to be the bigger person here. “I’m sorry—nothing you said was incorrect. But this is a sensitive matter for me, as you can imagine, and one that could complicate my situation further if it got out. What exactly is it that you’re trying to say?”
Semote seemed to gather himself, crossing his hands together as he chose his words deliberately, his inner canine briefly soothed. “However it happens, I expect that not long after you return to Aeolia, things will immediately get underway to resolve the question of your succession passing to a potential husband. I’m saying that when that happens, I shouldn’t be someone who came back with you, I should be part of the crowd coming to court you, to see the game from the other side.”
Rowena paused, the pieces fitting together in her mind. “So you’re saying…”
Semote smiled, nodding with a sincere sort of eagerness that reminded Rowena of a pooch on the scent of a hunt, unable to stop wagging its tail. The recurring imagery was beginning to make Rowena worry that she was at risk of relating to men like dogs for the rest of her life given the similarities: strong by her standards, often a little dumb by her same standards, and generally barely able to handle their own emotions.
Semote didn’t seem to notice her brief journey into condescension, as he rushed out the words as quickly as his voice would let him, an almost contagious enthusiasm in his eyes. “If I’m going to learn anything about these men that you don’t already know, I’ll need to see what they’re like when they’re not putting on a show for you. And as not everyone shares your esteem for the Verent family name, I’d be better off passing myself as someone else, with your help. I think there’s a Silas out there not making much use of his title.”
It was a clever plan. Rowena almost felt a little jealous his mind immediately went to the possibility while hers had still been worrying about how to secure his help rather than thinking another step ahead, before reminding herself that this was the intended purpose of their association, she would quite explicitly be paying him to come up with clever plans.
Rowena took a closer look at Semote and hesitated for a second as she assessed the state he was in relative to the social gulf he was about to cross. “I can help with clothes and customs. And I assume you’d be willing to…” She flushed, gesturing generically at the tangle of hair above his head and the stubble on his face, doing her best to be both firm and non-judgmental.
Semote ran a hand through connected strands of hair that had begun to curl above his head, tracing his fingers down to the stubble on his chin, as he showed a bit of self-awareness for the first time. “It’s fine.” He said, rubbing the beginnings of a beard. “I’m not attached to it. Other than literally.”
Rowena felt a smile come over her face, one that for the first time in a long while didn’t feel forced. Maybe this hadn’t all been for nothing. Maybe the fortune teller had deeper reasons than she divulged for sending to her to this man, and this was about to change her fate. Or maybe she was about to find out that he was kept out of the public eye for good reason and this was all about to go terribly. But if nothing else, it felt good to finally have someone on her side. “I’ll do whatever I can to help prepare you. Thank you, Semote.”
Semote smiled at her, a sort of warm easy smile that made her want to smile back. If she could imagine him several degrees less furry and dressed to impress, he looked like he could pass for the sort of young man who often chased after her, betting on his charm to gain some time with her and sometimes winning.
Rowena didn’t think she would be able to smile that easily if she was in Semote’s position, considering what he planned to do next. She wondered how badly the librarian’s son must want whatever book he was hunting for this to be worth the risk to him. He was effectively giving up most of the protections she could offer him, joining a dangerous game with men who might be willing to do almost anything to ruin a rival. Including murder, if her suspicions were correct. She could at least offer some assurances…
Rowena swallowed, remembering what her father had once told her was the iron law of negotiations: once you have sold, stop selling. Semote’s opinion of the nobility might be even lower than hers, he must understand the risks. Even if she should say the words out loud. That her life might not be the only one about to be wagered on who they trusted.
Continued in Chapter 4, found here
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