Several months before 'Marquis' and years before 'Dragon'
The Baron had been waiting outside the front door for fifteen minutes, straining his eyes, and ears for this sound. He had been standing nearly perfectly still with his eyes fixed on the road curving out of the tall evergreens, watching for flashes of movement between the branches. Before this he had been waiting for an hour inside the manor house, ever since one of his men came sailing up to the back dock to tell him that Charles Dielle's ship had arrived in port and the young lord was disembarking. Before that he had been waiting weeks since the idea formed in his head, fourteen straight days since he asked his secretary to check when the young man was expected on his next visit. And now he had arrived, riding calmly up the road in the midsummer glare of sunshine with no idea that this time the whole household had been looking to his arrival with baited breath. With practiced skill Dielle dismounted and the men bowed to each other across the seashell drive.
"Ah, and there he is now, young Dielle. Even my sons don't have the energy you do." The older lord smiled as he clapped a hand on the young man's shoulder. Behind them, the groom led away the sweating horse in the afternoon heat and the two men walked towards the manor's doors.
"I'd say your sons accomplish far more each day that I do, sir," the young man replied, eyes sliding over the dark reddish-brown structure before them.
In some ways arriving at the Baron's estate just outside of the port city of Margate was starting to feel like coming home again. It probably had to do with the fact that he was spending almost as much time there these days as he spent at his family's secondary residence, and the fact that the Baron's family had welcomed not only his cause, but him as well, right into their inner sanctum.
"Nonsense," Lord Donghai laughed as he drew the younger man through the gaping entrance. "All they do is paperwork."
Somehow it always reminded him a bit of a cave, especially the entrance: a wide archway projecting from the building a few paces and hanging with ivy. It didn't help, either, that at first they entered a long hallway lit only by old-fashioned torches or that the main hall, which it led to, was decorated in the old style. Dark wood paneling lined the room, formed dark coffers on the high ceiling and ended only where the tall windows admitted narrow beams of light. The fireplace at the far end, crackling even now, cast flickering warmth into the room. It was cavernous as well, tall enough for the Baron himself to walk in (and he was no small man), supporting a granite mantle carved with the lord's ancestors in stone effigy, armed for long voyages and raiding parties.
"Come my boy and sit so we can talk."
With a hand still on his shoulder the Baron steered him past the heavy chairs and dense tables lining the walls to the two seats of honor before the fireside. He was waved into the one on the right, facing the high windows with his back towards the second floor gallery that ran along the opposite wall. During feasts the heavy curtains lining the railing would be pulled back and light from the high windows would fall into the dining hall above them. When the curtains were closed however, servants, family and whomever happened to be staying the night would sit on the floor and eavesdrop on the conversations occurring below. He himself had spent several tense hours with the Baroness and her children, listening to negotiations on his last visit.
Lord Donghai, the Baron of Margate settled into his own armchair and rang a bell on the table between them to summon a servant. "Still going strong Dielle, that's good to see. We're never sure if one day the post will come saying your family has 'disappeared' as well."
"Thankfully, that has yet to happen, sir." He settled into his chair as well, leaning back into the familiar fabric and breathing the smell of the sea that pervaded everything here. After a moment he asked: "Did my last shipment arrive?"
"Yes, everything was fine, all accounted for. We sent them off to Kahechka; the seagod himself knows they're loving this. Not only is your country denuding itself of its magic, the only real protection against invasion, but everyone who can get out is flowing to your traditional enemies!"
Charles Dielle sighed and rubbed his forehead as the servant appeared. "Centuries of history being slaughtered. Do you know it is now illegal to publish a history book in which it mentions magic that helped win battles?" His eyes drifted over the ancestors on the mantle and glazed slightly, a reaction Donghai was not oblivious to. "Our kin networks are almost completely destroyed. You know my sister is the keeper of that; she's had a nightmare keeping track of all the lines that have gone extinct. It was two more this month."
"Bring in the sherbet, some of the new shipment." As the footman bowed and disappeared, the older man smiled again. "You have to try this. It never survives the trip inland but we can always keep some in stock if it's within a half hour ride of the dock. But tell me Dielle, how do you find these people, aren't they in hiding?"
"It's not us finding them, though we try, it's more them finding us. They know who we are and we're the only family left. Every few nights there's a knock at the back door and some witch or warlock has managed to smuggle themselves and their children halfway across the kingdom to get to us. That or someone's realized one of their children can do magic and so uproot the whole family to run for safety. The rest of the family are all nonmagical too, it's a shame to rip them from their homes as well."
"A shame, but it's for their safety. Ah here, hand Dielle his," the Baron ordered the servant who had reappeared. "He's our guest after all."
"Thank you sir," the younger man said as he took the small bowl. 'The finest imported porcelain,' he noted wryly as he took the dainty silver spoon as well.
They sat for a long time after that, slowly enjoying the treat as the matters they discussed became more serious. Charts and maps appeared and spread across the small table between them and spilled onto the floor as they spoke of the numbers of people that could be hidden in the hold of a new ship design, the rates at which refugees had been extracted over the past ten months, and new restrictions on border crossings between their countries. After the last chart was rolled away Dielle leaned back in his chair and stretched, ready for afternoon tea, but the Baron made no move to get up. The young lord cast him an inquisitive look and waited for him to speak. When he did it was the last thing the young man had expected.
"I believe you are still looking for a wife."
"Yes sir, and having no luck," he replied readily enough while rubbing his temple. "All the nobles have distanced themselves from us, but I can't truly blame them, we're marked. The only ones who have yet to snub us are those from the most remote provinces who have pulled back into their fortresses and doubled their guards, and they get away with hiding because the borders are now so insecure."
"Have you thought about searching for a candidate outside of Feningale?" the older man asked with fatherly consideration.
"Actually, yes. As part of my traveling for my 'art' trade I made enquiries in Briem, but they hold long grudges and won't marry into Fenningale. They did however ask after my sister and intimated that if she were to divorce her husband someone suitable could be found for her at court. Kahechka made similar requests; they said I could be adopted by a 'best family' if I wanted."
"Well that is understandable, neither country has had a strong sorceress family in generations. However, I was thinking of a Maureitan family."
"Really sir?" he asked, leaning back and folding his hands in his lap. Maureitans very rarely married out of the princedom and few of the noble families had daughters who were still available. Something strange would have to occur for them to consider him of all people. "Might I ask who?"
"Well," the lord said with a wide smile, "my daughter Anabella is in need of a husband."It was said the dark lord of the dead would have a lower asking price for returning a soul to life than the Baron demanded for one of his children's hands. No matter that they were allies, trade partners and friends, there was no way he could afford to become the man's son-in-law. Two generations of marriage in the seaside princedom had built the largest shipping empire the world had ever seen and Dielle knew he was in no position to compete for a place in the empire.
"While it the greatest honor I can imagine that you would consider me," he said slowly, "I do not think I would be able to provide for your daughter as she…"
If anything, the laughter caught him off guard, but while it was loud and shook the lord's frame, it did not reach his eyes as he wiped them and smiled. "Smart and cautious as ever, but I think we might be able to accommodate each other here, my boy."
"Lord Donghai," Dielle said slowly, however much he needed to be married he could not enter into any sort of agreement without the other family knowing just what a danger it would be to their daughter and any children she bore, especially to the children. He leaned forward to make his point more clearly, spreading his hands and looking into the sea-green eyes of the Baron. "You, better than anyone else, know the dangers my family face every moment that we stay in Feningale. Lady Anabella—"
"Is still my daughter, no matter who she marries or where she goes, and I'm sure Edric's advisors at least will remember that I have an interest in seeing my daughter alive and well. And I hope they will also remember that they have an interest in keeping me happy and peaceable. It would be a shame for your fine kingdom, with enemies holding the overland trade routes, to be cut off from the sea as well. No timber, no gold, no salt."
"There's always Beishuay," Charles said quickly. "Trade could be shifted to them, and the king's oldest son married their princess."
"Beishuay, come boy," Donghai laughed, with more mirth this time, "I thought you knew better than that. Their harbors are frozen more than half the year and you forget that I could have them banned from ports across the world. My trade's more important."
"Sir, if I may be completely honest—"
"Then I would like to say that as much as it would be a great honor and a comfort, I am not yet the marquis and I don't think I can afford the expenses normally associated—"
The lord leaned forward, his fingers laced together as he rested his elbows on the arms of his chair. "Just get her out of the country as soon as possible and that'll be all I ask of you, my boy. And of course take care of her while you're married, treat her well and with respect. And naturally you can't divorce her."
"Of course," he said while still dissecting the first part. "But, you want her out of Maureit?"
"She needs to get out, I'm afraid," the Baron said, seriousness creasing the lines of his face. "We're just not enough for the girl anymore."
"And she would like to move to Feningale?"
"I'm sure she would enjoy it very much."
Dielle closed his eyes and rubbed them with his right hand while his free fingers beat impatiently on his knee. The Lady Anabella, three years older than himself, had always been a vibrant spirit around the manor house during his visits, though a little overactive for his tastes. She had her father's green eyes and dark auburn hair his sister referred to as 'unfortunate' though she was pretty enough. He couldn't imagine what had happened to her that her father would want to get rid of her, maybe an accident of some sort? Maybe a sickness? Great Goddess forbid she had gone mad, he could never introduce that into his family line, knowing what it had done to the royal house.
"I should like to see the lady first," he said at length and heard the Baron's breathing catch. "To…hear her opinion on the matter?" He opened his eyes slowly to see the stony expression on the lord's face. It seemed he had been too slow getting the words out to make that sound anything but offensive.
"You want to make sure she's still intact?" the lady's father asked with a voice that masked all emotion.
"I want to make sure she knows the danger of the situation. And frankly sir, I want to make sure she can understand the danger."
"Hmph, no worries there, boy."
With that the Baron stood, and Dielle jumped after him as the man was already striding across the room. He followed Donghai up the familiar staircase to the dining hall and along the now deserted room towards the family's living apartments. For once it seemed that nobody had been eavesdropping, and that alone made him uneasy. As they passed further into the depths of the manor Dielle noticed fewer servants than on previous visits, and they all seemed to be the oldest hands. There was no sight or sound of the Baron's other children and he couldn't help but wonder if this had to do with Anabella.
At the very end of the house, in the infrequently used guestrooms, they came to a stop. The curtains had all been pulled over the windows and the heat was less oppressive in this corner of the house, but the darkness and the quiet was ten times more so. Before the door that obviously led to the lady's new rooms the Baron turned to face his guest and his countenance was the grimmest the young man had ever seen it. He knew if there was one thing the man before him cared about more than his trade and his money it was his family and this did not bode well.
"How badly do you want to be married, Dielle?"
"I do not want to be married sir, I need to be married. I will do most anything it takes to preserve my family."
"It is a good thing we are so similar," the lord said and opened the door.
They entered the apartments, Dielle holding his breath as they crossed the threshold. In a chair by the window the lady was sitting and she looked much as she had the last time they'd met. She was a rather pretty woman, her auburn-brown locks pinned back under a slightly matronish cap. She had on a voluminous dress and the beginnings of a blanket on her lap as she knit. Dielle caught the sharp intake of breath from her father as she stood and her eyes shifted to him. They were no longer bright and laughing as they had been the last time he'd seen her. Now she looked cold despite the heat, the bags beneath her eyes spoke of sleepless nights and her expression, it was that of a convict resigned to her fate. The same look he had seen on too many over the years.
"He has a right to know, father, to walk with eyes open to disgrace," she said.
That was when he saw her belly, swollen, round, the unmistakable shape of pregnancy. Not even the yards of extra fabric built into her dress could hide it. Pregnancy, in the unmarried daughter of his closest foreign ally. Obviously her father needed her out of the country, especially if he had managed to keep it quiet up to this point.
"Please forgive me if I don't curtsey, I am having some trouble bending."
Her father made a tisking sound and turned towards the windows, running a hand through his grey locks.
"And you should know, Lady Anabella of the dangers that await you as my wife," Dielle said as quietly as he could while meeting her eye. 'At least she is sane,' he told himself as she stared back at him. 'At least she has some sense, if poor judgment.'
"I don't care," she shrugged and returned to her seat. "I am already dead."
"Such drama," her father said, turning his imposing glare on the woman. "You are twenty-five, you are not dead because you cannot see one man."
"I think it will work fine," the young lord said with a cool look between them. "We both love people we will never see again, and we both need this to survive."
There was a moment's silence while the three of them adjusted to the idea, took a moment to process that the agreement was being made here and now with no negotiators or lawyers present and that it was a most unconventional arrangement.
"What—what about the child?" she asked, breaking the silence and placing a hand over her stomach.
"That's another requirement," Donghai said, turning back to the window to avoid them. "You must take it as well. Not as yours," he said quickly, anticipating the young man's response. "But it cannot stay in my household, and it is my grandchild so it cannot go to the street or another family."
"Bring it then," Dielle replied. "Though I hope you won't mind if I don't include it at our table. We can say it is her ladyship's practice child, a servant's that she uses to prepare herself for our children. Then, when it's older, we can keep it in the household, a footman, or a maid." He saw the baron's hand clench and unclench and the woman was looking at him with a slight degree of horror, but he was speaking his jumbled thoughts aloud, trying to rationalize the decision to himself before committing. "We can elevate him to butler at one of the large houses, or lady's maid, or set him up in a small business."
"Butler," the Baron said, turning back to them at last. He glanced at his daughter, muttering "that's higher than his father was," before striding from the room. The woman's hands clenched her skirt as she sunk back to her chair, eyes on the floor. Dielle stepped forward and handed the lady his handkerchief as the warm drops began to splash across her knitting. He saw now that it was a baby's blanket.