The Red Rose: A Dangerous Game
Sweat dripped down Lord Ramsey's brow. He dotted it away with his handkerchief, too quickly. The other Lords most surely noticed. What reason would Lord Ramsey have to be nervous at one of The Baroness's dinner parties? The noblest of Lords and Ladies attended this event every month. But this time, it was different. A Rose had been placed on the altar of The Blood God, in the royal palace. That could only mean one thing, and Conrad knew it would end in death and destruction.
The Kingdom was vast, immense, really. King Andicor the Conqueror ruled what used to be dozens of different nations. He made a career as a militaristic ruler, and his kingdoms often went to waste once conquered. It all made Conrad feel insignificant. He was a minor Lord in a small corner of the world, in a country called Valhaven before Andicor's armies came to the borders and The Baroness brokered an alliance.
Because of King Andicor's lax grip on his lands, Valhaven large ruled itself, as it always did. A small group of Lords and Ladies made up the Ruling Council of Valhaven. It was a small collection of Great Houses, never numbering more than ten and ultimately guided by a Baron or Baroness, who had a monarchal grip over the Council. But the Lords were constantly at war. A Great House would rise in power and look to overcome the current Baron or Baroness's seat when an assassination or scandal would cripple the house and send it spiraling out of the Ruling Council. A lesser Lord would seize the opportunity and force his way into the Council, where he would proceed to stab, slander and poison his way to the top until the same was done to him. That was just life in Valhaven: chaotic, dangerous.
Conrad Ramsey was not a lesser Lord, however. The Ramseys had been on the Council for over a hundred years, since his grandmother Victoria raised the Ramseys to the leading body of Valhaven. Conrad had been ruling for eleven years himself, but he had never seen The Rose be placed upon the Blood Altar. It was a declaration of war; an anonymous Lord or Lady on the Ruling Council made it clear that they intend to overthrow the Baroness within the month and eliminate any Lord that got in his or her way. There were nine Great Houses on the Council, and the Baroness made ten families, although the Baroness was an old woman and her family was long dead. Once, she was Hester Pierce of a great noble house, but such a name is now below her. Forty years ago she became The Baroness, and The Baroness she will remain until the day she dies.
Conrad wanted no part in these events. He had a family to think about, and he had read his history. It was common for children and wives to be kidnapped or killed to extort other Lords and Ladies. Lord Ramsey glanced over to his wife. Gladys Ramsey sat across the table from him. Like Conrad she was in her early forties. As most Noblewomen, Gladys had her own unique style. Conrad's wife had always been fond of fire; and it reflected in her flame colored dress and red hair that waved up a foot above her head. She was eccentrically dressed even compared to the others, but her beauty was not diminished in Conrad's eyes. You deserve none of this, my love. I will take you away from here. Ramsey thought. Lords have fled the Council before. Conrad can too. The chance for power is great, but also is the chance for destruction. He thought of his children; of sweet Corra and his boys Cyrus and Tobias. My contact should have them in the Royal Palace by now. They're waiting for their papa to lead them out of Valhaven, to safety. The Ramseys will finally be able to relax, to not need to look over their shoulder every waking hour. The concept was alien to Conrad, it almost seemed like a paradise in real life. I will be the first Ramsey in three generations to grow old with my wife. The first to see my grandchildren. Ramsey looked around at the large table he sat at. The Baroness had invited the Ruling Council, all nine houses, to her palace for a party. It was a sign of arrogance, a clear statement that said that she was not afraid of The Rose. But one of the Lords around Conrad had indeed planted The Rose, yet they all sit here with smiles on their faces and drinks in their hands. All except Conrad. What do they think of me? Do they look upon me and see a traitor to Valhaven? Are they plotting against me as I plan to escape?
Conrad studied the faces closely. There was Lord Arkmont, a soft smile on his lips, white hair fleeing from his forehead, piercing blue eyes. That one was always quiet, any number of things could be going through his head. To his right sat Lord Braddock, the strongest supporter of The Baroness, but only because he wanted to marry her and become The Baron. He wasn't alone in that matter, in fact. Lord Hargrave, Lord Braddock and Lord Thorpe squabbled endlessly over who gets to marry The Baroness. None had actually won her favor, but all thought they could. Lord Thorpe was only a single man for three months since his wife Ginger had the heart attack. The disgusting man of eighty was the only Lord older than the Baroness and the least likely to be chosen, but he still tried. Conrad could not help but notice that one of the Council was missing; Lady Kendrick. That woman scared him. Where could she be? Why wouldn't she come to the party?
The Baroness stood up from her seat at the head of the table. She was a woman of seventy, small and white haired, dressed eternally in black and gold. Her lips were black and her eyes were large dark pools as she surveyed the crowd, surveyed Conrad. Does she know of my betrayal as well? Conrad could only think. The Baroness tapped her spoon to her glass, silencing the Council. "The roast duck is ready. I hope you will all enjoy the meal." She stated, and sat back down. The Baroness always left the people talking to her wanting more. Conrad could never tell if it was deliberate or she just didn't like talking to people.
Conrad watched as the servant brought a special glass of wine to Lord Edwin Thorpe's seat. The small, round man was drunk already and banging his hands on the table. "The Rose be damned! I raise a glass to the Council! I raise a glass to Valhaven! I raise a glass to The Baroness and her secret enemy! I suppose I just like to drink, haha!" He thrust the cup of wine into the air in what seemed like slow motion. Conrad was sweating again. With a chuckle, Thorpe downed the wine in a single gulp. His face turned a shade redder, but that was not the drunkenness showing itself. The Bloodmist was a quick killer, but very painful. Lord Thorpe was sure to make a show, and indeed he did as the small man began to claw at his throat, and then at the table, and then at Lady Chance next to him, who screamed and jumped out of her seat, away from him.
Conrad stood up, as did the other Lords. Some of the squeamish ran away, most of the sheltered family members of the Council. Some ran towards Thorpe in an attempt to help him. It will do no good, Conrad wanted to tell them. Little Thorpe will die, as will you all. Poor fools. Why can't you see that? I see that, and here I am. He met Gladys's artificially red eyes. She gave a curt nod and the two began to walk towards the hallway at a brisk pace. May the Gods forgive me, Lord Ramsey thought sullenly. I did it for my children. I did it for Gladys. We do live in Valhaven, after all. I may not like the death that takes place in the Council, but that doesn't mean I can't partake in it if it gives me the distraction I need to leave this wretched place forever. Lord Conrad smiled as he met his steward, waiting at the servant's side door to the castle. His three children, the oldest not even thirteen yet, were waiting for him. "It is done." Conrad spoke to his steward, smiling towards Corra, Cyrus and Tobias. That was all the man needed to hear before he set out into the darkness of Valhaven City. Conrad had no hood and he stood out like a sore thumb in his tuxedo, his white hair just oiled and combed. His wife was worse, but if they remained casual then nobody should call them out. I am a Councilor, after all.
At least, that was what Conrad thought as his steward led them through twisting alleys in direction of the port. When they rounded their last corner, Conrad's heart dropped like stone when there were guards blocking their way, their swords drawn. No! I was so Goddamn careful! I took all of the precautions! This cannot happen, not when I was so close! When Conrad saw the tall woman in her sleek black dress stride forward from the center of the guards, he knew all hope was lost. Winifred Kendrick. Lady Bitch herself is my downfall. How dreadful. Kendrick's hair was long and dyed half white, half black on the left and white side, respectfully. With her high heels the Lady stood over six feet, and looked down on Conrad and his family.
"You've been a naughty boy, Lord Ramsey," The older woman purred in her sultry voice. "Plotting against The Baroness like that. Tsk tsk indeed." The woman threw her head back and laughed.
Conrad stood as still as a statue. It wouldn't be surprising if Lady Kendrick spun a story of my betrayal, destroying the Ramsey name for the rest of eternity. His children were clutching his legs, hiding from Lady Kendrick. Gladys clutched the hand of his steward, barely breathing. "I only wanted what was best for my family," Conrad said, holding his head high. If I am going to die, I will hold my head up high and not give that bitch the satisfaction of pleading for mercy.
Kendrick shook her head and frowned. "Yet you only succeeded in endangering them. I'm ashamed in you, Conrad. Well, we both know how this will end. Would you have The Baroness drag this long and tiresome execution out, or would you prefer to die here, with your family?"
"What?" Conrad gasped. "No! My family is innocent, Winifred! It was all my doing! Take them as hostages; let them return to a life of lesser nobility. Just let them live!" Behind him, Corra began to cry. Lady Kendrick only seemed to find joy in his daughter's tears.
"A moving story," She smiled a wicked smile. "A shame I do not believe a word of it. Guards, ready your weapons. I will deliver the heads of the entire Ramsey household to The Baroness before the night's end. She will appreciate that, I think."