Beneath the Silver Rose
Beneath the Silver Rose – An Unwanted Guest
BELLS CLAMORED throughout the Silver Rose. Shadyia glanced up from her board game as the sisters around her stopped mid-sentence and leaped to their feet. The tones were far from the usual rhythm beckoning them to meals or a lesson with the madam. Could the palace be under attack?
The doors to the east vestibule burst open and Mistress Sybaris strode into White Hall. “Reception Etiquette,” she said and made a shooing gesture with a flick of her arms. Her silver clips scarcely held her frizzled hair in place and dampness stained the armpits of her burgundy gown. “To your positions.”
The sisters scattered and Shadyia stepped toward the doors of the audience. Whatever had kicked over the anthill had to be serious. During the six years she had resided within the palace, she had never known Sybaris to lose her poise or move at other than a steady and measured pace.
“Sister Shadyia, wait. Come with me,” Sybaris said over her shoulder as she lifted the hem of her gown and glided up the grand stairs. “The madam wants a word with you.”
Shadyia froze in her tracks. Why did Madam Amrita want to see her? She hurried to catch up, her house slippers slapping the shallow steps built for ladies in dresses. The bells fell silent as they entered the east ballroom. Only moonlight pushing between the tall, purple curtains showed the way as they crossed the dance floor, viewed by the silhouettes of ghosts tooled into the tapestries. Madam Amrita and Mistress Makayla stood buried in the drapes as if hiding from someone. The madam beckoned them over.
“We must use all our skills, Sisters,” Amrita said as they drew near. “Dustan is the most dangerous of the House of Mienhard.”
Shadyia parted the heavy drape and peered down at the dawn gate. Lord Dunstan Mienhard—here? Beneath the light of lanterns set on high poles, three shadowy figures dismounted gray chargers. Stable hands rushed to take over the horses as the riders moved toward the gated arch. A well-dressed man in a brimmed hat led the other two, his head tilted back as if searching the windows where Shadyia observed. As he neared the gate, his elbow pushed aside a leather riding coat and his gloved hand rested on the hilt of sword.
Cold fingers grazed her spine. It was he, sure enough. Dunstan Mienhard, the infamous swordsman known as the King’s Beloved Uncle. The man to Lord Dunstan’s right had hair that hung straight and fair, his stern gaze and hewn physique suggested years of hard training. Tattoos of black flame covered his arms. He kept pace with his master, his fist tight on the hilt of a curved dagger at his side. The other man mirrored the first perfectly, save for a longsword strapped across his back.
Shadyia gripped the curtain. Wolfguard!—the sentinels of the king’s family, trained from birth to kill at a nod.
The three men halted before the gate and Lord Dunstan leaned slightly as if to speak to the man with the curved dagger. The wolfguard answered and pointed with his chin at the palace.
“What are they saying?” Amrita asked.
“He said she’s in there,” Sybaris replied.
Shadyia glanced at her mistress of guardians. How had she—? Ah! Lip reading. Useful.
Lord Dunstan pulled hard on the bell. Guardian sisters dressed in white tunics and armed with slender batons rushed down the marble steps. They unbarred the gate and Dunstan’s guard shoved them aside. He marched up the steps into the palace.
Shadyia backed away from the window and glanced at the madam and her two mistresses. Hopefully, someone would tell her what all this was about—and why she, of all the sisters, had been invited to bear witness. Sybaris knelt and loosened a stiletto sheathed in a boot. Uttering grim predictions, the raven-haired Makayla paced, gripping the sides of her black gown.
Madam Amrita turned from the window. “Ladies, please wait for me at the back doors to the audience. I’ll be with you shortly.”
They bowed and departed.
The madam gathered her dark brown hair, streaked with gray, behind her shoulders. “I believe I know why Lord Dunstan is here. He’s come for you, Sister.”
Shadyia blinked. There must be some mistake. Dunstan wasn’t one of her coins; he wasn’t any sister’s coin. The madam forbid servicing House Mienhard. No amount of silver, she often schooled them, was worth the peril of learning the secrets of the king’s house.
“For me? Why?”
“You are the favorite of Lord William Querry. This afternoon at the Diamond, the horse owned by William defeated the horse owned by Lord Dunstan. That race was very important to Dunstan, and he is furious.”
Shadyia stared hard at her madam. The ringing bells, scrambling sisters, Sybaris appearing as if she were moments from wading into battle—all this over a horse race? Then again, nobles obsessed over such things, but what had she herself to do with—
A chill seized her. Dunstan killed men who offended him, but for women he was known to pursue a different form of amusement.
“Dunstan will punish William Querry by commanding his guard to rape and beat me.”
“Correct,” Amrita said. “That is why you must hide. Don’t go to your quarters. He may know where that is. I suggest one of the storerooms beneath the kitchens. Go now and avoid the east vestibule.” She turned to leave.
Madam, wait. Mistress Sybaris said the wolfguard knows I’m here.”
Amrita stopped. “I’ll tell him you’re not,” she said over her shoulder. “I’ll tell him you are servicing a coin and are away from the palace.”
“Dunstan will never believe you over his guard. Even if he does, he’ll just choose another sister.”
Amrita faced her. “Unlikely. To beat another would fail to send the message he desires to William Querry.”
“But it would punish you for denying his wrath. Madam, this is Dunstan Mienhard. You were with me at the plaza last month. Did he strike you as a man who will just walk away on your word alone?”
She hoped her point had hammered home. Just the month before, Dunstan had accepted a challenge from a retired knight-general, a veteran of numerous campaigns and a grandfather of sixteen. The stodgy general had little choice but to demand a duel when Lord Dunstan called him a coward. Duels were a common form of entertainment for the gentry, and seldom to the death, so quite a crowd had gathered to bear witness, Amrita and Shadyia among them. They’d watched in shock as Dunstan repeatedly sliced the elderly knight-general and finished him with a piercing stab to the throat. ‘Cowards deserve no quarter,’
Dunstan had said, using a white cloth to wipe the general’s blood off his blacksteel sword.
“What is your concern?” the madam asked.
“If Dunstan has come for me,” Shadyia answered, tapping her chest, “then it is I who should deal with him.” She didn’t know exactly how she would deal with him, but another sister would not suffer in her stead.
Amrita studied her for a moment, but Shadyia couldn’t tell if her madam’s thoughts were filled with admiration or doubt. “Very well,” she said at last. “Take your place in the audience, but keep your hood low and blend in with the others. You are not to reveal yourself until I command it. Understood?”
Amrita walked toward the back steps to the audience. Shadyia pulled up the hood on her short sapphire dress, dashed from the ballroom and hurried down the grand stairs to White Hall. She followed the last of her sisters into the audience and closed the doors behind her. Lanterns on hooks pooled light throughout the domed, circular chamber. Hood pulled low, Shadyia leaned against a pillar and crossed her arms above her waist. The others had taken various postures meant to distract, lure and entice, their faces partly hidden under low hoods. Red-haired Deresi, a sister from Shadyia’s own circle, looked particularly tempting as she sat on the lip of the fountain, her fingers playing in the rippling water and her legs parted just enough to tease a man’s attention.
The doors to the Welcome Hall thundered open and Lord Dunstan entered. He swept his gaze over the chamber, his hand resting on the pommel of his sword, and made for the madam’s chair. His wolfguard slammed the doors in the face their guardian sister escort, and then turned their backs to better observe their master. Dunstan halted before the single-step dais and scowled up at the statue of Luun standing protectively behind the madam’s chair. He removed his hat and cast it over the hand of the statue that held the silver rose.
Shadyia seethed. Luun was more than the sister’s patroness; she was an emblem of feminine strength and dignity—one that Dunstan had reduced to a rack for his hat.
The rear doors to the chamber opened. Chin elevated, shoulders back and one hand placed upon the other at waist-level, Madam Amrita entered with Mistress Sybaris and Mistress Makayla a few steps behind.
Lord Dunstan pivoted toward the approaching women, grasped his blacksteel longsword and tugged it within reach. Shadyia furrowed her brow. Was he actually afraid of the madam? Ah, of course. She grinned beneath her hood. His hilt-grip was meant for Sybaris. The mistress of guardians had a fearsome reputation.
Holding the hem of her elaborate pearl gown, Amrita dipped, her gaze lowered. Sybaris and Makayla did likewise.
“Lord Dunstan, you honor my house,” Amrita said, rising.
Dunstan puffed his cheeks behind a blond mustache. “That’s not saying much.” He removed his riding coat and flung it across the chair. Their backs still to the main doors, his wolfguard grinned like jackals over a fresh kill. Shadyia ground her teeth. The pig! He would not even allow the madam her place of honor.
“How may I be of service?” Amrita asked with—remarkably—no hint of outrage in her voice.
Dunstan faced her. “Service? I thought you didn’t service House Mienhard.”
“As a matter of policy, my lord.”
“Your girls suck half the cocks in Anderholm, but the king’s house isn’t good enough for them?”
“Take no offense, my lord. Even the most skilled courtesan can conceive a child. With any other house we are free to terminate the seed, but if the house that straddles a sister also sits upon the throne, this…solution…is inappropriate.”
Shadyia tensed as Dunstan took a step toward Amrita. “I am offended you think me fool enough to accept that excuse. But it is of no matter.” He addressed the room. “This policy ends tonight. I require one of your girls, the favorite of Querry’s third son, William. She goes by the name Shadyia. Bring her to my guard at once.”
“I’m sorry, my lord, but Sister Shadyia is away from the Silver Rose until tomorrow.”
Dunstan rounded on Amrita and struck her across her face. She cried out, fell back and only Sybaris’s reflexes kept her head from smacking the floor. Gasps erupted from the sisters about the chamber as Shadyia pushed against her pillar, her hands becoming fists.
Dunstan rubbed his knuckles in the palm of his hand. “Do not lie to me, whore. I know she’s here. Bring her to me at once.”
Sybaris reached back to her boot—but the madam caught her wrist. “She is not, sire. I swear it. She lies with her client, Lord Martel—”
Amrita cried out as Dunstan kicked her hip with a steel-tipped boot and reached for his sword.
Enough! Shadyia swept the hood off her gown. Amrita would not suffer on her behalf. No one would. She stepped to the center of the room. “My lord, I am here!”
The wolfguard rushed forward and seized her arms. Amrita shot her a seething look, but changed to an expression of pleading as Dunstan glared back down at her. “Mercy, Lord. She’s just a girl.”
Dunstan sneered, a look of victory in his eyes. “She’s no girl. And, from the way William boasted, he’s quite taken with her.” He turned his vulturous gaze on Shadyia and followed her curves. “But, after my men are finished, he won’t find her so attractive.”
Disgust nearly forced her to twist away, but she closed her mind to Dunstan’s words. Think. Don’t struggle. The calloused hands clamped on her biceps offered no hope for escape. What could she do?
Once again, Dunstan addressed the women in the audience chamber. “Let this stand as a warning. My horse is not to be defeated, at the Diamond, or anyplace else!”
Deception. It was her only chance. Deceit had worked six years ago when the king’s men had found her covered in blood near a dead noble. It would work here as well. She went limp and hung in the men’s arms, her dark hair obscuring her face. The wolfguard’s laughter jostled their hands.
Dunstan chuckled from across the room. “Rouse her. Do her here, before all.”
She’d counted on that. Few cruel men enjoyed battering an unconscious girl—and Dunstan would want plenty of witnesses. The brute to her right released her arm. Boots appeared below her limp knees as his companion took her full weight. A fist seized her hair and jerked her head upright—but the man’s grin melted beneath her searing glare.
Putting some strength back into her legs, she reached low and slid his curved blade from its sheath. Slash hard with the edge! Fast! The upward cut she dealt beneath his chin spattered his blood across her face. His eyes bulged like a toad as he freed her hair and grasped at his spurting artery. Perfect. One down and the other had his hands full—of her. She reversed the dagger and plunged it into the hip of the man behind. The guard shrieked and released her arm. She glanced over her shoulder as he snatched at the sword strapped to his back. Idiot! With a twist on the balls of her feet, she yanked the dagger out of his side and slashed open his throat in one smooth circle. The man gurgled on a red spray beneath his chin, his knees buckled and he fell like a wall of bricks. His head struck the floor and his sword, half drawn, slipped from his fingers. A grin tugged at the corner of Shadyia’s mouth. Not bad at all. Four seconds, three cuts, and two of Dunstan’s finest were down, thrashing in their own blood.
A sword hissed from its scabbard to her left. “You bitch.” Lord Dunstan pointed his blade at her.
Shadyia glanced at his weapon. Blacksteel, probably Erebros. It would be light and fast. She took a quick measure of the room. The area wasn’t ideal for a duel, but it should pose little hindrance. Slender pillars supported the dome around the madam’s chair and several ornate stands held potted plants, but there was still plenty of open space. Many of the sisters had pulled back their hoods and gawked with wide eyes, but they were far enough away to be out of danger. Over at the dais, Sybaris helped the madam back to her feet. The mistress of guardians would protect the madam if Dunstan attacked her.
Shadyia dropped the dagger on the corpse of the man who had grabbed her hair. He could have it back. A drop of blood slid from her chin and stained her short gown as she put her foot on the shoulder of the dying wolfguard and slid free his half-drawn longsword. She swung the blade high over her head and faced Dunstan.
He slashed the air. “Yes, come to me, whore. I’ve killed eleven men in duels.”
The leather-wrapped hilt felt good in her hand. She smirked at Dunstan. No man walked into her home and battered her sisters.
“I’ll need to catch up. I’ve only bagged two today.”
Laughter skipped among the women. Lord Dunstan snarled and lunged with an overhand strike, his sword a whistling blur. Their blades met with clang of steel that shocked her arms from wrists to elbows. Dunstan leaped back and thrust forward, a tactic she’d observed when he had killed the fat general. She knocked his blade aside and repeated the move so perfectly he nearly died from his own assault. He recovered and charged, swinging wildly. She sidestepped and smacked his bottom with the flat of her sword as he passed. The sisters laughed and even Amrita rewarded her with a grin.
The doors to the audience swung open and four guardian sisters poured in, their batons held at the ready. Dunstan maintained his gaze on Shadyia and took up a balanced, controlled fighting stance. He’d gotten the message. Here was no easy prey. She risked a glance past Dunstan. At the dais, Sybaris jabbed at the air, pointing at positions around the chamber. The guardians dispersed, likely to defend unarmed sisters. Shadyia nodded in approval toward her mistress of guardians. This was not their fight. She touched the sword’s hilt to her forehead and mirrored his pose.
Dunstan opened with a thrust. She parried and stepped back to hold her balance. The slash and slice of sharp steel echoed off walls and pillars as she fended off Dunstan’s every assault and thrice forced him to retreat. She passed over an opening to critically wound him and end the duel, and then another a few parries later. This was the great swordsman? Oh, how I’d enjoy skewering you before the madam and my sisters—but she mustn’t. Slaying guards was permitted, but no one could kill a member of the king’s house and hope to be excused. She would just have to settle for humiliating him.
Sisters scattered as, swords striking, the pair moved toward them, some diving behind the fountain or Amrita’s chair. Dunstan leaped past a pillar, reversed his step and stabbed where he had obviously hoped she would chase him. Shadyia scoffed and stepped back—Did he think she would fall for that?—and re-engaged with a slash at his ankles that forced him to block low and stumble. Sweat beading his brow, he parried her follow-up stab at his side and backed toward the fountain. Dunstan glared at her, his sword trembling in his hand. He looked to be on the verge of surrendering. Pathetic. Shadyia glanced over her shoulder and offered the madam a sardonic glance. Was this the man they feared so much?
As her attention returned to Dunstan, he seized a potted fern from a low table. Before she could advance, he hurled the pot at her and, his sword raised for a strike, leaped at Sister Deresi who knelt next to the fountain.
Shadyia struck the pot out of air with a swipe of her sword and charged Dunstan. She could not bring her blade up quickly enough, but slammed her shoulder into his back and knocked him into the shallow water. Thrashing, cursing and coughing, he rolled out of the fountain and flopped like an eel on the floor. He tried to rise, but Shadyia held the tip of her sword at his throat. He had almost killed Deresi. Bastard!
Shadyia glared down at him, her teeth clenched and her heart hammering a river of hot rage through her veins. Dunstan had one chance to live. Just one. She jabbed his throat. “Yield, my lord.”
He cleared mucus from his throat. “Fucking whore”—and spat at her.
Thick warmth pelted her cheek in the same place he had struck Amrita. The sisters, the audience chamber, the madam and her mistresses vanished in a red haze. Her entire world became this vile man and her—and it wasn’t big enough for them both. She caught the sword by its pommel in her fists and lifted it, point down, over Dunstan.
“Shadyia, no!” Amrita cried.
Shadyia slammed her heel into his crotch. As Dunstan heaved up, she impaled his chest with such force the sword pierced clean through his ribs and struck the floor behind him. Dunstan looked at the spreading stain on his soaked shirt and turned a shocked gaze up at the woman who had killed him.
“Cowards deserve no quarter,” Shadyia said and twisted the blade.
Lord Dunstan’s final gasp ended with a sob as the life drained from his eyes. His chest slid down her sword, leaving it red. She grinned. Those fine words would follow him into Abysm. She pushed her sandaled foot against his groin, wrenched the sword free and stepped back.
Only the rush of the fountain filled the audience. Shadyia flung down the sword. The impact startled her sisters and spattered Lord Dunstan’s blood in red streaks across the floor. She swept her gaze over the chamber, meeting the eyes of each woman. If any of them should speak of this night to a coin or whisper it in a tavern, Shadyia would trade the mattress in her quarters for a pile of filthy straw before her life ended in a noose. Or worse.
She knelt beside the shallow fountain and washed the blood and spittle from her face. Deresi peeked over its far edge and gaped at her through unkempt red hair. Their gazes met and Deresi bit her lower lip, an enthralled look in her green eyes. Shadyia winked. That was quite a show, wasn’t it?
Mistress Makayla broke the thick stillness. “We are finished. Ruined.”
Shadyia stood and shook the water out of her hands. She stared down at her handiwork. Dunstan’s eyes were open and disbelief was still etched in his face. What had she done? The beloved uncle of the king lay skewered on the floor.
I don’t care! She glared at her mistress of sisters and kicked dead Dunstan’s leg. “He tried to kill Sister Deresi.”
Makayla gnashed her teeth. “He was at your mercy and you butchered him like—”
“—like a pig, yes.“
Makayla rounded on the dais. “Madam, we should send a rider to Anderholm at once and summon Magistrate Alberich. Have the guardians hold Sisters Shadyia in custody and turn her over to the Redcloaks when he arrives.”
Shadyia scowled. Did Makayla just—? One more word like that, bitch, and I will…
Amrita dabbed at the cut on her lips with her sleeve. “I will do no such thing.”
“She did this!” Makayla pointed at Shadyia. “She! Are we all to suffer because of one idiot girl?”
Shadyia charged. Before her fist could make contact with Makayla’s jaw, her arm was caught and the room blurred. Pain drove the wind from her ribs as her back slammed onto the floor.
A finger stabbed down at her like the tip of a spear. “Stand down, Sister.”
Shadyia blinked to clear her vision. Sybaris! How had she crossed the floor so quickly?
“You see, Madam?” Makayla said, her face pale. “She’s out of control. You must have her confined and summon the Redcloaks.”
With a groan, Shadyia rolled to her feet. Sybaris moved between her and Makayla, but she held up her hands in submission; she had no desire to meet the floor again.
“What’s done is done,” Sybaris said, directing her words to Makayla. “Alberich will never believe one sister killed three men—not without help, which means by the madam’s command. If we involve them, we will all spend a fortnight in the bastille.”
A visible chill moved through the room. Shadyia, a caged tiger, halted her pacing. There were laws in Anderholm against torturing women, but none of those laws mattered in cases of treason—and slaying a member of the king’s house was treason.
Makayla threw up her arms. “When Dunstan and his guard fail to return to his estate, the Redcloaks will get involved whether we tell them or not.”
Amrita stepped down off the dais. “I need three volunteers to dress in the dead men’s clothing.” She leveled her gaze at Shadyia, appointing her as one of the volunteers. “They will pretend to be Dunstan and his guard, in case we are being watched, and ride into the forest for Waytower clearing. Mistress Sybaris, arm a detachment of guardians. Sister Deresi, kindly go—Sister Deresi!”
Startled, Deresi pulled her gaze off Shadyia and jumped to her feet. “Yes, Madam.”
“Kindly go to the stables and ask the hands to ready a covered wagon. Tell them nothing and drive the wagon back to the palace yourself.”
Deresi hurried out through the main doors.
Makayla’s heels clicked across the floor. “Count me out of this.” The rear doors to the audience chamber slammed shut behind her.
Madam Amrita addressed the room. “The rest of you, roll up the bodies in carpets and load them into the wagon when it arrives. You will meet with the imposters in the forest. Guardians will provide an escort.”
“We’ll need more blood,” Sybaris said.
Amrita took a quick breath and blew it out. “Dunstan’s horses will provide that. Get moving, all of you.”
Shadyia glared down at dead Dunstan. Would she really have to wear his wet, bloodstained clothing? She stepped out of her house slippers, yanked off one of his boots and sniffed it. Ugh. That was a mistake. She’d wear his bloody shirt and sodden trousers, but his hose would remain where it was. Nothing that had cradled Dunstan’s cock and balls would touch her. She stripped him and pulled his soaked shirt and trousers over her house gown. Her bare foot bitterly protested being in Dunstan’s clammy boot. A sigh pushed through her lips as she tucked in the leg of his damp trousers. Wearing wet clothes was better than being locked up in a room and waiting to be handed over to the Redcloaks. She reached for the next boot—and paused. What would happen at Waytower clearing?
And why would they need more blood?
Fingers of gray from an unseen moon silhouetted the black trunks of trees, their branches closing overhead until the packed road nearly vanished. Shadyia shifted in the saddle of Lord Dunstan’s horse and glanced back at the sisters who rode behind her. They said nothing and looked away. Yesterday they had laughed, bathed and dined with her. Now they refused to make eye contact. She shivered in the damp clothing and stroked the horse’s neck, grateful for the animal’s warmth. At least Dunstan’s hat and cloak, recovered from the statue of Luun and the madam’s chair, were dry and comfortable.
Shadyia ground her teeth. Didn’t her friends understand? She had slain those men to protect their sorority. The moment a man of privilege such as Lord Dunstan believed he could rape and kill women without consequence, other vicious men would do the same.
The thought of Dunstan made Shadyia grip the reins until the animal took that as a command to stop. She clicked her tongue and urged him on. Dunstan had ordered his thugs to rape and beat her because his horse had been bested at the Diamond by the one owned by William Querry. He had struck Madam Amrita as if she were a servant who had spilled his ale. Such disrespect could not go unchallenged.
She had tried to speak to Amrita as the sisters rolled Dunstan and his guards into three carpets and loaded them into a wagon. Shadyia had wanted to explain why she had defied the madam’s order, but Amrita had silenced her with an icy glare. ‘We’ll talk upon your return,’ she had told Shadyia before walking away.
Shadyia concentrated on guiding the horse along the dark road to stave off her fear at the madam’s demeanor. Damn Dunstan and all gentlemen of his ilk. She should be having supper now, not creeping through a murky forest full of outlaws and bandits.
My father liked to ride at night. He had often told her the silence allowed his spirit to roam lands unseen. Father, may the gods favor you to ride their mighty horses across the eternal plains of Eriensym. The prayer was calming and Shadyia took a deep breath of the night air. It would be the reward her father deserved. He’d spent decades in the royal cavalry protecting Anderholm from its enemies, and upon retirement had received a small pension and patch of land. Afterwards, he had adopted Shadyia, just eleven summers old, from Mother Sara’s orphanage. Raising her as his own, he had trained her to ride and plant and harvest. Moreover, he taught her the hard values he’d learned from years of untainted duty. Once she had asked him why he had taken a girl from Mother Sara and not a boy. His response had surprised her. ‘Women are superior to men in every measurable way’ he’d said. She liked that answer. The years with him had been the happiest of her life—until a noble like Dunstan had driven him to his death. That had been six years ago. She’d lost a home she loved that night and the nearest she had ever had to a father.
What would he think of her now? Would her father understand why she had come into Madam Amrita’s service? Would he blame himself? Or would he curse her and never call her daughter again?
Shame clouded her thoughts until she forced them aside by reminiscing about William Querry. She grinned in the dark. She enjoyed his company as much as his money. He was well muscled and handsome enough to have his pick of women in the city, but like most nobles he preferred a professional touch—and the fact that sisters chewed larsenic leaves to prevent conception lessened the chance of bastard children wandering the streets of Anderholm. Each meeting with him ended the same: dinner, followed by a story about his beloved horses, and then an evening of well-paid passion.
At last they reached Waytower clearing. Shadyia listened for the wagon the sisters should have loaded with dead Dunstan and his guards after she and the others had ridden into the forest. Only the wind in the leaves, the hoot of an owl and a grunt from one of the horses disturbed the inky silence. Amrita had chosen the clearing well. This road through the Kingsleaf was one route Lord Dunstan might have taken back to his estate. Shadyia now understood. The madam intended to make it look as if he and his guard had been attacked by hostiles in the forest. It was a sound plan. Magistrate Alberich and the Redcloaks should have no trouble believing a man with Dunstan’s arrogance would ride through Kingsleaf at night with only two guards.
Lost in her thoughts, she failed to hear the wagon approach until it was almost upon them. The sisters who had masqueraded as Dunstan’s men dismounted and began stripping off the guards’ clothing. Shadyia dropped from her horse. Guardians formed a protective ring, their batons replaced by swords and loaded crossbows in case actual bandits attacked while they staged the faux assault. Two sisters held torches while the others dragged out three bundles wrapped in carpets. The bodies of Dunstan and his men were unrolled by the time Shadyia stood shivering in her thin house gown, damp and stained with blood from Dunstan’s clothing. She pulled out the house slippers she had tucked into her gold belt as the sisters redressed the bodies before tying them upright on the skittish horses. Sybaris passed crossbows and several bolts to Shadyia and two of her guardians. Shadyia once had a coin who enjoyed shooting bottles off a fence with bolts from his crossbow. He had allowed her a few tries and she rewarded him well for the practice. Sisters were busy securing the horses to prevent their escape as she grounded the stirrup, loaded an iron-tipped bolt and used both hands to lock the string. She rested the tiller against her shoulder, clenched her jaw and took aim at the gray stallion she had ridden into the Kingsleaf—but lowered the weapon. Couldn’t the horses have escaped or had been captured and sold? She sighed. No. For the ambush to seem genuine, the ‘bandits’ could show no regard for the animals Dunstan and his guard had ridden.
“Aim for the neck,” Sybaris said.
They loosed at her command. The horses reared and cried out in agony. Misty-eyed, Shadyia reloaded. May you shriek in the empty torment of Abysm for all time, Dunstan! She reloaded and released again and again until her horse stopped thrashing. Her remaining three bolts proved far easier. These she shot into Dunstan, who lay on his slain horse, slack-mouthed and eyes glazed over. The ropes were then removed and Sybaris added the finishing touch by soaking a cloth in horse blood and dripping it profusely where the bolts had struck the men. The bodies were stripped of rings, purses, boots and weapons. After one last search to ensure nothing could be traced back to the Silver Rose, Shadyia helped her sisters roll up the carpets and load them into the wagon.
The others took a place in back. Sybaris turned and held up her hand. “Sister Shadyia, you will stay and see that the tracks are covered.”
Fear stabbed her. Was Sybaris really going to leave her here? Did she want her lost in the forest, like the unwanted baby of a peasant? She turned down her gaze. “Yes, Mistress.”
“Do you know how to do this?”
“Yes, Mistress. I will find heavy branches and drag them over the tracks.”
None of her sisters looked back as the wagon pulled away. Her breath frosting, Shadyia stood shivering in her damp house gown and sandals. All she had wanted to do was protect herself and the home she loved, and they were punishing her for it.
She searched for a suitable branch.
The moon shone so bright it washed the stars from the sky by the time Shadyia staggered back barefoot to the Silver Rose. Her sandals had caught so often in the underbrush, she had cast them away in frustration. Her gashed and throbbing feet constantly reminded her how much of a mistake that had been. She gazed up into the night. There was a tale from her childhood of the Goddess Luun battling constantly against giants of darkness that sought to devour her sacred light. The memory gave her enough strength to scale the vine-covered wall.
A guardian sister stepped into view from her station on the tower. Shadyia waved and the guardian lifted a hand in greeting. There was a servant’s door hidden by thick ivy that allowed her to enter the vestibule. Limping, she crossed the freezing floor and glowered at the stairs that led up to her apartment. Would she even have the strength to climb them? I’ll make it to my bed, even if I have to crawl. Makayla and Sybaris would be denied the satisfaction of finding her collapsed on the floor in the morning. She would wake fresh and face them with dignity.
A flurry of movement caused her to whip her head around before finding herself caught in a sudden embrace.
“Oh, thank Luun you are safe!” Deresi’s words were muffled in Shadyia’s hair. “I was so worried.”
Shadyia returned the hug with as much strength as her numb muscles allowed. “I am well. I am well.”
“I cannot believe they just left you out there. What was Sybaris thinking? You could have been raped, killed, even worse.”
Shadyia snickered. “Worse?”
Deresi’s own laugh turned into a sob.
“I am well, Sister. Shh.”
Clicks against the stone floor forced them apart. Shadyia groaned. Only one person in the Silver Rose tapped her heels like that.
Makayla emerged from the dark between the pillars. “Mistress Sybaris was thinking that Sister Shadyia needed to learn a lesson.” She placed her hands on her hips and tilted her head. “And from the looks of her, I would say she learned it rather well.”
Shadyia kept her jaw tight. She would enjoy seeing Makayla after a stomp through the forest dressed in nothing but a house dress and slippers. The pampered witch would have fainted after ten steps. “It was a good lesson, Mistress, and I thank her for it.”
Makayla’s scowl pierced into her. Shadyia pressed her knees together and refused to cringe. At last, the mistress dropped her hands to her sides. “Rest, Sister Shadyia. The madam has retired for the evening, but she will speak with you after first meal. Before you return to your comforts, take a moment to look at all the Silver Rose has given you. Take a good, long look.” Makayla spun and clicked away, her long black hair on a black dress merging with the shadows. Her voice speared out of the dark. “It will be the last you see of it.”
Shadyia rubbed her forehead. Had she lost her home after all? Six years of whoring just to be returned to the streets. She put her foot on the first step and gathered her strength for the long climb to her apartment.
Deresi laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Come with me.”
“The baths. You need one, badly.”
Shadyia groaned. That would hardly help. Without servants to stroke the fires, the baths would be cold and the water freezing.
Deresi placed a finger on her lips. With a mischievous glint in her green eyes, she ushered Shadyia across the floor and down the circling steps to a heavy door that Deresi pulled open. Shadyia expected darkness and cold air, but was greeted by soft light and scented steam. Caprasia, another sister from Shadyia’s circle, stood next to a shallow pool filled with foaming water. Lit candles, accentuating the blond woman’s golden hair, lined the floor around the pool’s edge.
Shadyia gaped at the warm pool. They had done all this for her? Deresi loosened Shadyia’s bloodstained robe and slipped it off her shoulders, followed by her undergarments. She took Shadyia by the hands and, walking backward, led her into the pool. The cuts on her feet jabbed like wasp stings as the she waded in, but her wounds soon crooned with the rest of her legs. Caprasia filled a decanter and poured a foamy cascade of warm water over Shadyia’s head. Her hair held as much as it could then released rivulets of warmth down her back and over her breasts.
“Blessed gods, that feels good,” Shadyia said as Caprasia upended a second decanter.
Deresi tossed her unkempt hair over her shoulder and, sensuously rubbing with her hands, worked an amofous blossom to a rich lather. She and Caprasia caressed off layers of dirt and sweat until their hair hung in wet strings and their gowns clung to their skin. Caprasia doused her once more to wash off the soap and Deresi led her out of the water to a masseuse bench covered with a white cloth.
Shadyia sat on the bench, dripping wet and wonderfully clean. Deresi raised her foot and poured a small vial of golden oil over her cuts and bruises. Shadyia gasped. Jilqu oil! She tried to pull her foot free, but Deresi held firm. Her sore feet sent messages of relief as the healing oil sealed her cuts and soothed her blisters—but the pleasure collided with a rush of guilt. Sisters were issued one vial of jilqu oil every six moons, each containing twenty drops of oil, each drop worth a laymen’s yearly wage. Deresi must have sacrificed her private allotment. Mist formed over Shadyia’s eyes and became streaks of tears.
While Deresi lifted her other foot and rubbed jilqu into her wounds, Caprasia stepped in front of her. She kissed Shadyia’s lips and cheeks, instantly drying her tears. Not a kiss of passion, but of comfort. Inviting Shadyia to lie on her stomach, Caprasia worked a deep massage that bordered on the edge of abuse on Shadyia’s shoulders, lower back and neck.
Shadyia groaned with bliss. Men would pay a fortune for this—and probably twice that to watch it, but they would see something that wasn’t there. Her sister’s caresses were meant to relax, not arouse; to comfort, not excite. The massage complete, Caprasia slipped a clean robe over Shadyia’s shoulders and soft sandals on her feet. Deresi led her up the steps to the apartments of the gold belts, entered Shadyia’s room, and guided her to bed. Deresi pulled a heavy blanket up to her chin, kissed her cheek and exited quietly.
Shadyia sailed on a calm, euphoric sea. Damn it. I didn’t thank Deresi and Caprasia for the bath. She would have to remedy that tomorrow.
Storm clouds raged on her peaceful horizon. Would the Silver Rose still be her home tomorrow? Makayla had said this would be the last Shadyia saw of her comforts. That could only mean one thing. Expulsion. Dismissal.
Of course, I could always go to work at one of the other brothels in Anderholm. Eat pasty porridge and sleep on a straw-stuffed mattress crawling with fleas. Service men who had no fear of a Mistress Sybaris to keep them in line. Tomorrow she might be back on the street—or arrested for Dunstan’s death and brought in chains to the bastille. She honestly didn’t know which was worse.
She had seen the poor wretches who lived on the street. Before that would become her fate, she would find a sharp knife and cut her—wait a moment. How had Caprasia and Deresi warmed the baths just for her? It must have been—yes!—it could only have been on the orders of Amrita. Only the madam could have roused the staff and commanded them to do so. It would be just Amrita’s style to teach a lesson with pleasure, to make Shadyia fully appreciate what she had risked by killing those men. Could that mean Amrita had no intentions to expel her, despite what Makayla had said?
Please, goddess, let that be so. Allow me to stay in my home.
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