Behind Closed Doors
Erdess Neifel was a proud woman. Once upon a time she'd been entirely too serious and studious, though appropriate, considering that her entire House depended on her skill and cunning. Now that her reputation and ability were well-established, she had more leeway to be as eccentric and cynical as she wanted. The ladies of the Court hated her, the men endlessly pursued her wealth, and she snubbed them all to have dinner with the Korciloni ambassador, a man from beyond the Black.
"How do you like your bird?"
She chewed thoughtfully on the moist meat, swallowed, and dabbed her mouth daintily with the silk napkin.
"Excellent. You call it 'duck?'"
"Yes. I always liked it over other birds because the fat tasted better."
Geor Octeve wasn't bad, as far as men—let alone Korciloni—were concerned. He had as fine a palate as she did, and it wasn't long after his appointment that they discovered this, and took to sampling the restaurants in At'Luann. She actually enjoyed his company, though would never admit it.
"The birds in Meikshoreai are supposed to be good," Erdess replied, "But I've never had occasion to eat one. In Torr we have the cormor, and of course various sea birds that are big enough, but I never took a liking to them."
"Have you ever eaten anything from the Wastelands?" Geor asked.
Erdess shook her head. "No. Everything that grows there is wiry, you wouldn't want to eat anything from the Wastes."
"We have someone there, you know," Geor added offhandedly. "Poor devil. He was the emissary here, years ago. Caused some sort of scandal and they sent him packing down south."
"I think I heard of that fellow. I enjoy a good scandal. It's the only time anyone admits people are vulgar behind closed doors."
Geor laughed at that. "That's why I like you, Lady. Never afraid to speak the truth."
She chuckled. "When one cannot clothe oneself in niceties, the truth must do. What shall be our dessert?"
They had something creamy and delicious, made all the more so by the young Wose lady glaring jealously at her a table away.
"I believe I am monopolizing you," she chuckled. "Shouldn't you be socializing with other important people in the capitol?"
He rolled his eyes, a curious expression. "This planet is so strange, I find everyone else's mannerisms nauseating. I don't know how you put up with them."
"A country estate, and fabulous amounts of money that keep me independent."
A chuckle from her companion. "I must try that some time."
He looked to his wrist, where he had strapped a timekeeper. "Oh, great. I have to get back to the suite to make my report. No one ever wants to schedule things according to my time."
"Truer words were never spoken," Erdess agreed. "Same time next week?"
"Hopefully. But you, you've been here a month already. What's keeping you away from your estate and your money?"
"My nephew," she replied with real warmth. "He'll be a man in a few short years. I'm doing what I can to prepare him."
Geor arched a brow. "Don't tell me you're going to let him replace you?"
"I'm not, and he certainly doesn't want the job, at least not yet. But everyone has to think he has, or they'll be scandalized."
"I thought you liked a scandal?"
She grinned. "I'm a hypocrite. Really, you should know me better by now."
They stood. He gave the back of her hand a kiss—another strange Korciloni gesture, not strictly unpleasant, so she let him get away with it—and then they went their separate ways.
The next morning, she woke to a summons from the King. She dutifully answered it, more than a little curious. His Majesty usually never gave her the time of day.
She was escorted to his office and found him waiting for her, busy signing proclamations or something.
"Lady Neifel," he greeted civilly. Despite the fact that he had a good five years or so on her, Erdess could never shake the feeling that she was in some young fool's presence. His brother was a little better, but Erdess knew Wylyn was the only Torr who was really worthy of the throne. All the same, she served her king, at least until he told her to do something stupid.
"I want you to get married."
Just how hard would it be to put the Admiral on the throne?
He set down his Korciloni quill and folded his hands, no doubt attempting to look officious.
"This new Ambassador from the Korciloni, he pleases me. I would like you to marry him, so maybe we can keep him."
"I don't think he wants to marry me, Majesty," she replied dryly. Perhaps she shouldn't have.
The King glared at her sharply. "We both know that isn't how this works. Your family is wealthy and titled; he will want to share in that. In return, he keeps his post here, in the center of Alderan civilization."
"I have told you my wish, Lady Neifel. I am penning a letter to the Ambassador now. Dismissed."
How kind of you to warn me.
She only tentatively called the man 'friend.' She could not wait to see how he would respond to it. She didn't have to wait long: he called on her that evening.
"I had no idea you regarded me so highly, my lady."
This was all wrong.
"Geor, listen. I don't-"
"Of course, I couldn't take you off-world, the trip would injure you, I think. I'm sure we'll be very happy."
What in the world did the King put in that letter?
Erdess opened her mouth. She was about to say it, she really was. She was about to tell him that, as a rule, she detested marriage, he was barely her friend, and he was far too tall, but then she remembered. She remembered a figure in the night who once threatened her brother. She remembered the King's glare. She remembered just how tenuous her position was, and she stopped.
If Geor thought she didn't like him, he wouldn't marry her. If he didn't marry her, the King would punish her. Her family already knew something about the King's punishment.
Lady Mora Neifel.
"Nothing," she said at long last, trying on a small smile. "I'm sure you'll love the estate."
They had dinner again that night—more duck, but she couldn't enjoy it. She was-
-a hard, cruel hand, picking her up by her dress and tossing her aside, who's the pretty little lady now, no, your mother won't ever be jealous of you, will she?
"How do weddings work here?" he asked conversationally.
Trying to answer. "Exchange of gifts, to start-"
-exchanging rage for weeping, leave my mother alone, why is her dress like that?
"Do we get a honeymoon? You know, a week away, just to ourselves?"
"How silly, why should we go anywhere? The Hold will need me-"
-needs her to run, but the horse is too big, she's too small to learn, she falls off. Her body hurts all over, she knows she'll never be the same again, she'll be ugly. All he does is laugh.
"Tell me more about your brother."
"He's incredibly kind-"
-and quiet, always quiet, after he fell down the stairs. He saw it happen, she thinks he made it happen but no one will listen.
The meal is done.
"Why don't you come back with me? We'll have a drink."
She stammered something about impropriety, just needing to get away.
Geor is not my step-father. He won't beat me. Even if he tries, I won't let him.
A deep breath of cool night air makes the memories go away, but not the sentiment. Her mother was irrevocably bound to a man who turned out to be poison. Drawing the poison only got her killed. Now Erdess was going to be similarly bound. Hopefully, she would be luckier with her husband.
She had once had idle fancies about a certain thief-spy, but that was all they were. Idle. She refused to be bound...except by the order of her King, apparently.
No one questioned her when she returned to her city residence. Her sister-in-law skittered out of sight, and that pleased Erdess more than she wanted to admit. She shut her door, bolted the sturdy iron lock, and flopped belly-down onto her ridiculously puffy bed. She needed a drink.
"Oh, do please give me the pleasure of watching you undress."
She was too tired to flinch, as she wanted to. She wasn't too tired to be irritated, though.
"What?" questioned the semi-familiar figure melting out of the corner. There was a little paunch to his stomach that was new. Her thief-spy was older, now.
"Six years you leave me alone, and show up now?"
"I had to come up with something to top my last performance. Nice bars on your window, by the way."
Nothing would top hearing he was going to be executed, then showing up to learn he had escaped. She didn't doubt he would try, though.
"A safety measure."
"They don't appear to work."
"I'm beginning to agree with you."
"Oh, and congratulations."
She forced herself up so she could glare at him properly. He only grinned.
"Not you too. Four above, don't you be taken in by this."
He chuckled. Chuckled.
"I'm not, but it's funny."
Aalor clasped his hands in front of him and batted his eyes, adopting a terrible falsetto. "Oh yes, I do take you to be my husband forever, darling."
Erdess got up, trotted over, and smacked him. She was short, and it wasn't easy, but his dumbfounded eyes were worth it.
"You don't get to waltz in an laugh at me after six years. What do you want, Aalor?"
"Maybe I wanted to see you."
His mouth was smirking, but his eyes were...something else. She looked away.
"I need your help," he said more seriously, and Erdess could feel the Lady in her taking over. She had a debt, and finally, she could repay it.
"What do you need?"
"Access to Geor Octeve's personal and diplomatic communications."
"If I ask why, will you tell me?"
He looked pained. "I can't."
"Is there anything you can tell me?"
A straight face. "...Not really. Not yet."
"Will what you're looking for disgrace him?"
The Butterfly looked away this time. "No."
Erdess looked down, smiling wryly. "I guess I've got to save myself this time, then."
"I could always kill him. You'd be a widow, not a murderer, and maybe I can be your mistress."
The wry smile turned into laughter at the image. "Better not. He's kind of nice, actually."
Aalor scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Strange, though. Met a few Korciloni, they don't usually do arranged marriages."
"He thinks I care for him."
An arched brow. "Well then. That's...committed of you."
Erdess ran a hand through her hair. "I do what the King commands. It is a small matter."
The Butterfly was fixing her with an oddly intense gaze.
"It scares you, doesn't it?"
The words hit her like a sturdy right hook. Erdess was stunned, but only briefly. The short woman drew herself up, gathering what pride she could.
"I fear nothing."
"Except your mother's fate."
She narrowed her eyes. "I will learn what I can of his habits. You may leave."
"As you wish," the Butterfly said with a mocking bow. He melted into the shadows once more. Erdess breathed a sigh of relief. She threw back the covers on her bed.
"Now, if you would be so kind as to unlatch the door..."
Erdess had to admit to herself: she had no idea Geor liked her so much. It was almost flattering. She wondered if she would like him, one day. Perhaps in ten years' time.
Her debt was easy to repay, it seemed. Geor invited her to his workplace and let her observe. Foolish, really. This was less flattering: he seemed to think her stupid. Admittedly, there were many metal machines she did not understand, but she understood the writing apparatus with the shiny vertical face. What gave her trouble was all the Korciloni Geor and his assistant spoke to each other. Naturally, they wrote in it too.
"Do you do all your...work...on this machine?" she asked him, indicating the apparatus.
"Just about," Geor replied, then tapping a shiny clear plate. "Need to use this, too. I can take it anywhere, very useful."
He tried to invite her up once more in the evening, but she declined. She'd have to start working on some convincing way to express affection. A betrothal gift, perhaps?
She ate dinner alone that night, at her residence, while checking over some ledgers the Steward gave her. He stood to one side, and coughed politely into his hand.
"You have something to say?"
"Merely, my lady, the question of when to start preparation for the ceremony?"
"How about never?"
"Oh, I don't know. Let's wait til he gets anxious. In the meantime, I'll call him Lord Neifel and maybe that will delay it."
"Of course, my lady."
She expected Aalor to visit her for an update, and she prepared a nice little report. The Butterfly did not disappoint her.
"I should be alarmed at how easily you infiltrate my home."
"You are far too busy being impressed."
"That's not the word I would have used, no." She cut off whatever he would have said next by telling him what she'd learned.
Geor kept his portable apparatus on his person at all times. It was locked with some sort of password, which she knew. The stationary apparatus in his office was also locked, and that password she didn't know.
"The office machine won't be a problem, I'll take care of it. Geor's device, however, could be," Aalor said, scratching his chin in thought.
Erdess arched a brow. "I don't see how."
The Butterfly ran a hand through his hair. "It will be easy to break into the Embassy suite, and I can break into the machine there. But Geor—his quarters will be slightly more difficult, and even then, I cannot risk him waking up. If he sees me, I will have to kill him, and that will be a problem."
Now that they were speaking in earnest about the possibility of Geor dying, Erdess was surprised at the jolt of concern she felt for his life.
"That is not acceptable," she snapped.
Aalor regarded her with a veneer of nonchalance that puzzled her, the moment lasting longer than was comfortable before he finally replied.
"I agree. You must be there."
She stumbled back as if she'd been struck, wide eyes regarding his stony expression.
"We are not married yet," she sternly reminded him in her best Lady voice, stalling for a better excuse.
Tall and proud and headless, husband inflicted upon her.
"I need this now, Erdess," he pleaded, her name on his lips so rare she struggled to recall if she'd heard it before. Certainly not in that desperate tone. "I can guess how this pains you, and I would not ask if it was not necessary. People...people will die."
That gave her pause.
"This isn't some political scheme?"
He made an irritated sound in his throat, running his hands through his hair again and pacing back and forth. She had never seen him look so...distressed.
"I'm a selfish man," he began, "I want money and women, and normally, I don't much care about other people. But there are some things that exceed my selfishness. Yes, I'm getting paid for this, but I'm trying to stop something terrible."
His expression was so raw, more honest than any other face she'd seen, just then. It occurred to her that he could be lying, that he'd figured out how this call to duty would tug at her soul, and manipulate her with it. She decided that if there was any chance he was telling the truth, she had to comply.
"What do you need me to do?" she asked, only partly successful in banishing the tremor from her voice.
Aalor pasted on a grin that did not reach his eyes. "Be charming."
Erdess arranged her brown curls carefully. She had chosen a flashy set of crystal earrings—a gift from some Shunnois suitor, if she remembered—and her most flattering dress. She even put on her special shoes that gave her a little more height. She had no idea what she was doing.
Geor was expecting her for dinner at the Embassy suite in the castle. Her palanquin took her as far as the gates. The guards did not question her as she strode by, head held high in determined pride. She wondered if her mother felt this way as she marched towards the headsman's block.
Geor kissed her hand when he admitted her into the suite, leading her into the dining room. They sat and made the customary small talk while a servant poured the wine and set out some delicacies. The ambassador broached a more serious topic with troubled eyes that intrigued her.
"I don't normally pay attention to idle court gossip," he began gently, Erdess feeling her blood freeze. Had someone let loose the game? "But you have been everyone's favorite topic of late, and I cannot hope but hear things. I—I heard tell of More Neifel."
Erdess let out a slow breath. But for her purpose, and his gentility, she would not have answered.
"You heard how my mother killed her second husband."
"Does that bother you?" she demanded.
"No," he replied with conviction enough to do him credit. "And you may tell me it is none of my business, but I do want to hear the truth. I do not wish to believe what these strangers say about your family."
There was a light in his eyes she could approve of. She had seen it before in Aalor's eyes, and sometimes, in her own.
"My stepfather was a monster," she said simply. "Betrayed his duty to protect his family and House. My mother rightfully ended that betrayal, but still they called it murder."
Geor stared at her for some moments, then nodded. "I thought it was something like that. You'll forgive my saying so, but your people are primitive is some ways."
She raised her goblet with a smirk. "I could forgive you saying that much, at least."
They finished dinner, speaking of more pleasant topics. He offered his arm to escort her back to her vehicle. He kissed her hand again in goodbye, but she did not let him release her.
She tried on a smile. "Aren't you going to invite me to your home for a drink?"
Geor, poor man, blinked dumbly, then nodded.
He had a city residence equal to any noble. There were guards at the door, but none inside. Erdess watched him empty his pockets at a small table; his portable device was there. He took her upstairs, and poured them some fine liquor that warmed her belly.
"Why did you pick me?" he asked suddenly, sitting beside her on a couch. Erdess gripped her glass hard, thinking quickly.
"Because you're different from the men here," she said, latching onto a further thought. "I like your ideas of how to treat women."
She stiffened when he brought a hand to the side of her face, but forced herself to relax.
"Probably not always so different," he said ruefully. "I think you're being too charitable."
"You wouldn't beat your wife," she blurted, surprised to find she believed it. "You're a good man."
He chuckle halfheartedly. "Is that the only qualification you demand of your partner?"
"No," she said. "I demand he respects me as an equal."
Erdess could feel the challenge in her gaze, and watched his eyes intently. If she was going to spend the rest of her life married to this man, she might as well take the measure of him now.
"I didn't," he said softly, guiltily. "Not before. This posting—it seemed like some sort of joke. I didn't take anyone seriously. But tonight—the story of your mother—I don't know. You're more complex than I thought. And much tougher."
If Aalor had said these things, she would have branded him a liar. Why? Because she wanted to hear them from him. She didn't expect them from Geor, didn't want them from him. That was why she believed him. She knew how difficult it was to admit to shortcomings.
She kissed him, likely clumsy and unsure, but he didn't seem to mind.
Later, wrapped in his arms and caught somewhere between comfort and wanting to scrub her skin off, she wondered if love began this way.
A shadow came to the window, and her stomach fluttered. She remembered a sleepless little girl, scared and intrigued of the figure robbing her uncle. She decided that yes, it did.
Erdess gently extracted herself from her sleeping fiancee and pulled her shift back on. She padded silently to the window, thankful for the deep carpet, and unlatched it.
The Butterfly melted into the room like the shadow of a stream, taking in his environment in one glance.
"The device?" he mouthed.
"Downstairs," she replied similarly, jerking her head towards the door.
They reached the landing, and she pointed at the device. Aalor pulled a tiny object from his clothes, ran his fingers along the edges of the device, and plugged it in. He tapped in the password, eyes fixed on the screen.
"Are you all right?" he asked, voice barely a whisper.
His fingers paused, hovering over the screen, though his eyes never left it. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," she murmured. "I owed you."
He fiddled further with the device, then unplugged the tiny object and pocketed it once more. He gave her the full force of his attention.
"I never wanted to call in that debt."
"I know." She smiled. He blinked wordlessly at her. She said again: "I know."
A second man kissed her that night, equal parts gentility and desperation, and they did not part for a full minute. Erdess knew what it was, just as she had known the first time he kissed her all those years ago. This time, the sentiment was final. She believed it because she didn't want it.
"That went better than last time," he grunted.
"Did you get the other-"
They stared at each other for some moments more, Aalor looking as though he had more to say, Erdess waiting to hear it.
"There's a storm coming," he said quietly. "Probably soon. Geor may be able to protect you. Stay out of the capitol, keep your wealth close. Remember how easily your world could crumble."
"It already has."
He put a hand to the side of her face, a fond smile on his own. "You're tough. You will survive it."
Then he was climbing the stairs. She followed him into a different room from the one he entered, stopped when he opened the window and stood on the sill. He looked back to her.
"Be well, little sparrow."
Geor shifted sleepily as she slipped back under the covers.
"Did you go somewhere?" he mumbled.
"Just chilly," she replied quietly, accepting the arm around her middle. He kissed the sparrow-scar on her forehead and settled back to sleep. Erdess closed her eyes, and dreamed there was so such thing as destiny.
Author's Note: This is actually a sequel, but I hope it wasn't confusing for new readers. The previous story is Four Times Lady Neifel Met the Butterfly, and One Time She Didn't.
So ends the tale of two of my favorite characters. The larger story continues.