This is it, folks. This is the end. Are you excited yet?
There was one thing you could say about the Signolini: they were very efficient at wrapping up loose ends.
Twenty four hours after the attempted assassination by poisoning of Patrician Leandrono, a venerable and respected member of their house, they had determined that it was the work of one deranged and disgruntled physician, attempting to extract revenge from House Argentus for some ancient slight. The fact that it was impossible to prove whether House Isidrus had been involved at all, or merely co-victims with their rivals did not seem to factor into anyone's assessment when they decided that the foiling of the complicated scheme had been a triumph for all the players involved. House Signolini demonstrated their cleverness once more, advertizing to the rest of the houses exactly how unwise it was to even think about attempting a shift in the power, and was feeling generous enough to officially thank Vespasian for bringing the matter to their attention, and for "aiding" them in concluding it.
Vespasian, looking remarkably fresh and chipper for someone who had been poisoned only the day before, was gracious and polite – one might almost say humble, if the word were not a foreign concept to him – in his acceptance of their thanks. The speeches proceeded towards the business end of affairs with a speed that he found acceptable, and before he knew it negotiations had begun, and the vast majority of the Eillenian houses approved heartily of allowing the Renuan silver to be shipped through their port for the conceivable future.
In five or ten years, Vespasian knew, he would have to re-negotiate, assuming that the mine lasted that long. But for now, he was greatly satisfied when the Patriarch of House Signolini allowed him to officially sign his contract with Patriarch Argentus.
Lord Vespasian Hadrian Xylandos, ambassador of Renua. Vespasian had to admit that it had a nice ring to it, which was made even nicer when Patriarch Argentus, having signed his name as Giovanni Niccolo Septimus Argentus, Patriarch of House Argentus, shook his hand effusively.
"How can I ever thank you, my boy?" he said, pumping Vespasian's arm until it felt like it might come loose.
"Pay down that last loan and get yourself some good ships," Vespasian replied, dead serious. After all that had happened in the past week, he did not have the time or energy for dealing with House Argentus in a state of continued insolvency.
The Patriarch let out a great guffaw. "Always business," he said, slapping Vespasian in the shoulder – the side benefit was that he was no longer pumping his arm – and he went off chuckling to himself. Vespasian just shook his head. House Argentus would bear watching: his information net in Eillen had been in a deplorable state when it had failed to inform him ahead of time of the house's original fall from grace, but with a little work it was proving to be salvageable. He vowed to himself to personally inspect all of his other sources at the closest possible date, in order to ensure that he never neglected his father's legacy so sadly again. His mother, he thought, could use a holiday. Fiarin was said to be quite lovely this time of year, and she would simply love all the Renuan ruins and artifacts.
House Argentus had agreed to ship the Renuan silver at bargain rates, and the Patriarch would have had Vespasian stay another week if he had his way. But he had already been away from Renua too long: who knew what new stupidity the duke had cooked up in his absence? It was another twenty four hours before the whole party of Renuans was packed up, horses brushed and saddled and shod, and out the gates of the city into the open countryside once more.
Rynar was riding towards one side of the little procession, casting a weather eye over his men. None of them were too much the worse for wear - there were a few visible bruises, and some idiot had managed to split his knuckles against a stone wall during their brief imprisonment – but they were uncharacteristically sober for a motely crew of mostly young men on a ride in the countryside on a beautiful day. If he had to guess, he'd say that they were counting being captured by House Signolini as something of a defeat.
They had also apparently ostracized one of the youngest men, who was riding with his head down near the back of the column. Clicking his tongue at his horse, Rynar headed backwards.
"Eloan," he said, and the young man jerked his head up, guiltily, as if he had been waiting for a reprimand from his captain for the last few days. There were several things that Rynar was going to have to straighten out with the lad.
"Up front, with me," Rynar said, and kneed his horse forward, the ranks parting for him and the young man following him. It wouldn't harm the boy to ride point for a while, nor would it harm him for his friends to see him up there scouting with their captain. And there was the added advantage that there weren't a lot of people around to overhear.
"I'm sorry, Captain," was the first thing out of the young man's mouth, "I don't have an excuse. I was scared – and I promise I won't make a fuss when we get home and you ask me to leave."
Rynar let his sternest face of command do the talking for him. "Are you planning to leave, guardsman?"
"Well, I thought… I surrendered, so yes, I mean, I don't think you'll want…"
"Guardsman." Rynar stopped the boy, who was beginning to splutter, in his tracks. "Listen to me, and listen well, because I don't intend to repeat myself. Surrender is not always a defeat."
The boy looked like he wanted to say something about that, but he obeyed his instructions and kept his mouth tight shut.
"In open war, things are very straightforward. You attack or retreat. You live or you die. In a less open war, like politics, there are a lot of conflicting shades of grey. People win not so much by having the tactical advantage, but by looking like they have the tactical advantage, but it's often possible to turn the enemy's advantage into a stalemate. If you hadn't surrendered, if you and the others had decided to fight, it might have cost all of us our lives. Certainly House Signolini wouldn't bat an eyelash over executing the lot of you, or simply slitting your throats and dumping you in the river."
Eloan, despite his best efforts to be brave in front of his captain, had to suppress a shiver.
"There's bravery," Rynar continued, "and there's stupidity. Bravery is when you take the risk because there's a chance that you'll make it, and that the reward is worth it. Stupidity is when you have no chance and it isn't worth it. Fighting the guards of House Signolini in their own city, when all of you were unarmed would have been stupidity."
There was a quiet punctuated by the sound of horse hooves for a moment.
"So, what you're saying is that it's all right that I surrendered?"
Rynar nodded, just once. "More than all right. Smart of you."
"Then why -" Eloan cut himself off, unwilling to complain to his captain, or even to sound like he was about to. "It just doesn't seem like a victory," he said, instead.
His captain let out a bark of a laugh.
"Victory doesn't seem like victory," he said. "A real fight on a real battlefield –no matter what they say, the dead are no victors, and the living – well, victory is a messy business. And that's before politics gets in the way and makes it sound like a bunch of chessmen being moved around."
"We did win, though."
"That we did. Go on back to your friends, see if you can't cheer them up. And," Rynar added, seeing the young man's doubtful glance back down the line, "It won't hurt for them to know that I gave you my opinion on your actions." He nodded as the implications of that statement, for Eloan to act as if he'd gotten a dressing-down, filtered through the boy's head. The other men would be more inclined to accept him back into their ranks when sympathetic towards him about their commander's censure.
"Thank you, sir," Eloan said, and he turned his horse smartly around.
Rynar nodded once – the boy was too smart to make a proper soldier, and he had to admit that he did not find the idea much of a disappointment – before turning to the next task at hand. Lord Vespasian should not be riding alone, forty-eight hours after being poisoned, or mock poisoned, or whatever it was. Personally, Rynar was of the opinion that poison was poison was poison, and that Vespasian was going to turn his hair grey: the portion that Patroneus himself hadn't managed to prematurely lighten himself, anyway. He'd promised Patroneus that he'd let the boy learn on his own, but he knew it would be harder every day not to interfere. If it he'd been Patroneus, he'd have told his son the truth a long time ago, but then again, Patroneus had always had strange ideas about how to teach Vespasian – why should that stop after death?
He reached the middle of the column once more, and was pleased, or at least not irritated, to discover that the magician was riding alongside Vespasian. The man might be a certifiable quack, but his skills as a physician at least were up to par, and Rynar was ready to offer a temporary truce in light of the fact that Venturos was more or less solely responsible for Vespasian's ability to be up and about. The old man of House Signolini was still ill in bed, while the young lord was suspiciously smug and energetic. He was young, though, and he could bounce back from illness surprisingly well – or, more likely, he was acting as if nothing were wrong until they got back to Renua, where it would be revealed that he was actually doing much worse than anyone had thought. That had been a favorite trick of Patroneus too.
Stubborn pig-headedness ran in the family.
When Rynar got close enough to hear the conversation, all of his other thoughts flew out of his mind.
"You're doing very well for a man who was poisoned the day before yesterday," Venturos observed dryly. "One might almost think that you'd never been ill at all."
Vespasian evaded the comment. "Your medical skills are impressive. How much does the duke pay you, would you say…?"
"I am not an Eillenian physician, my lord. Nor can you dismiss the fact that, by all rights, you should still be suffering from the effects of Mercury poisoning. As you are perfectly well, several other questions spring to mind, and you can no longer use your illness as an excuse for not answering."
"In that case, I'd like to know how you managed to knock out six men without even touching them."
Rynar's ears perked up: it sounded like a good wrestling trick. But the magician was too close-mouthed to comment.
"I will borrow your strategy of 'stating the facts,' as you put it," he told Vespasian. "You were never poisoned. Yet you managed to correctly identify the symptoms of Patrician Leandrono, who we can truthfully say is not an easy man to read."
Rynar blinked a little. Vespasian hadn't been poisoned after all? Now there was a relief. The boy was as good an actor and strategist as his father had been after all.
Vespasian gave him a thin smile. "I watched his actions and categorized what kind of symptoms that they would logically stem from. He kept rubbing his eyes, to begin with, and scratching at that bandage. As for his difficulties speaking as the poison progressed, that was obvious to everyone in the room."
"Yet you asked him about his tingling fingers before he made any move that might have indicated his discomfort," Venturos replied, blandly. The Renuan lord's eyes flashed in his direction before his face settled into a mask of impassivity.
"He was kneading his fingers," Vespasian said.
"You, my lord, were kneading your fingers, though at several points you forgot to do so. Patriarch Leandrono did not make any such motion, and in fact is incapable of it, because he suffers both from extreme arthritis in both hands and a touch of gout. The man is incapable of holding a pen to sign his own name. I assume that you merely overlooked that point in your extensive research into the man's health and history. Perhaps you were distracted by the more scandalous pieces of old news, such as the family's unfortunate tendency to kill each other off."
Vespasian flushed. "Your point, magician?" he said, and his voice had gone cold.
"Merely this: without the tingling fingers, you had only two visible symptoms to go off of, an infirmity of vision and a slowing and slurring of the speech. The scratching of the bandage is too general to consider. Either of those two symptoms could be the work of a wide variety of poisons in varying degrees of lethality. It's quite fortunate that your first guess, Bichloride of Mercury, proved to be correct. However, what I find curious is the fact that you and the Patrician were attacked by two assasins in matching livery and matching weapons, yet there happened to be a third, smaller dagger found at the scene of the crime, which was the only one treated with the poison."
Rynar dropped back a little once more: so far, the two riders ahead of him hadn't noticed his presence, and they were far enough away and speaking in low enough voices that no one besides himself could overhear. But it didn't hurt to be sure.
The staring between Venturos and Vespasian was becoming intense.
"House Isidrus," Vespasian finally said, "is eminently predictable. They would never have been content with their rival meeting such a quiet end. As far as I can tell, they convinced their ally to attend the gathering hosted by House Argentus, presumably so that he could discover for them what measures he may have to still take against them in order to secure the Isidrus supremacy. They then hired mercenaries to infiltrate the ranks of the Argentus guards, and equipped them with poisoned daggers, in a nearly-successful attempt to frame our Eillenian allies. After our arrest, I inflicted my own wound with a cloak pin, and waited for the opportunity to take control of the situation."
"House Signolini," the magician replied, "has not retained its position for nearly a full century by becoming lax in its observations. Yet neither do they ever waste a good political opportunity. It was a foolhardy plan, and one that could very well have killed a great many people, the majority of which are under your protection."
"It was a risk," Vespasian replied, "but a justified one."
The magician's dark eyes flashed dangerously. "It is your privilege to gamble with lives that don't belong to you," he replied, in tones that made even Rynar want to back away. "See to it, my lord, that you never meet the man cleverer or more ruthless than yourself."
And with that, he put spurs to his horse and rode to the head of the column. Rynar, still riding a few horse lengths behind Vespasian, sat back in his saddle to mull over the implications of what he had just overheard.
Vespasian was not the unparalleled tactician, strategist, and diplomat that his father had been. He was something else entirely, and Rynar wasn't entirely certain what.
I can't believe this is finished. I stayed up late to get through it and everything.
This is my first finished story on the site, and the first thing I've properly finished in several months now. Don't be too sad though, because sooner or later there's likely to be a sequel/prequel/story set in the same world. Vespasian will likely be in it with all those entertaining Renuans that you met in the first four chapters.
I'm putting a poll up for the entire month of January, during which I'll be out of the country, so that you good people can select what you'd like to see more of during my spring term: more of the world surrounding Renua, or another original (non quasi-historical: I don't rip my worlds off from anyone) world such as the one in Prodigal. I'm also still accepting the format of predictions, praise and chocolate for reviews, so if you don't have an opinion on what kind of story you'd like best, but want me to start writing as fast as I can, feel free to drop me one of those. Or PM me – I can't guarantee that I'll respond in a timely fashion (meaning that you probably won't hear back until a few weeks into February,) but I can guarantee that I'll respond eventually.
Oh, and head over to Prodigal while you're hanging out on my page. It's different from Silver in Eillen, but if you were looking for something exactly the same you'd be re-reading this story instead of reading this long and annoyingly involved author's note.