Tornmile: Part 26
Part XXVI: Lady In Waiting
Brielle sat in front of the mirror, trying to resist the urge to snatch the brush from Léa’s hands, but her patience was thinning with every pulled knot. It was ridiculous anyway. She was perfectly capable of brushing her own hair, and Darian’s house had no shortage of servants to do any other jobs she might require. Why had he asked Léa if she wanted to be her maid? Maybe he just wanted to keep her around. She is pretty after all. No, she’s not.
“Thank you, Léa, that’ll do.”
“Yes, mistress,” Léa said.
Her voice was completely infused with happiness, which made Brielle’s eyes narrow. She knew the happiness had nothing to do with brushing her hair, even if that had been the girl’s idea. Apparently, Léa had been apprenticed to a lady’s maid when she was younger, but hadn’t completed her apprenticeship. Brielle wondered why. Probably bedded the lord, she thought, darkly. It was too late to change though; Darian had made the offer at tea and Léa had accepted immediately, quicker to speak than Brielle, because the girl hung on Darian’s every word.
In fairness to Léa, she had done Brielle a great favour in looking after her father and it was Brielle’s fault, in a way, that the girl had no employment. She owed the girl, much as she wished that she didn’t, and this was the easiest way to repay her kindness. She wasn’t so bad, really, at heart; she just needed to stay away from Darian, that was all. And she would brush her own hair, she would instate that rule. Whatever having a maid might mean and whatever rooms Darian gave her, she was not a lady, not even a noble. She was Brielle, the innkeeper’s daughter. ‘Never lose sight of who you are.’ That had been Caiden’s advice when she was young and dreaming of being a princess. She had cried over it at the time, thinking him cruel to puncture her dreams so harshly, but she knew what he had meant now. It was not about not dreaming of rising higher or working to get there, it was knowing where you’d come from and knowing what weaknesses you had. ‘Everyone shits, even the king.’ That had been his other way of saying it, but that was harder to use in polite company.
“Do you want me to lay out a dress, mistress?” Léa asked, twiddling her fingers and hovering being Brielle.
“No, thank you, Léa. And you don’t have to call me mistress. I’m no lady.”
“It’s the proper form for a lady’s maid,” Léa said, frowning slightly.
“Look, I’m grateful to you for what you did for my father and hopefully this job will help repay that favour, but I don’t really need a maid. I can look after myself. I ran the inn by myself, for the Emperor’s sake!”
“My mother says if you do a job, you should do it properly,” Léa said, brightly, “but I’ll do as much or as little as you want. You’re in charge.”
“All right,” Brielle said with a sigh, “lay out the green dress, but I will brush my own hair and you needn’t call me mistress.”
Léa bustled off to find the dress and Brielle sighed, taking up the brush to finish the job properly. At least she had drawn that line in the sand, and she knew that she would be able to keep plenty of independence, whilst keeping Léa busy. Besides, when the war began, there would be little need for maids, unless Léa was particularly adept at burying cutpurses. Laughing to herself, she went through to dress.
Léa was standing by with the green dress and for a moment Brielle thought that the girl was going to help her into it, but she merely passed it over. She did begin doing up the buttons before Brielle had the chance to reach behind her back, though. Brielle didn’t try to stop her; there were lines in the sand and then there was going too far.
“Lord Darian is going to teach me to fight,” she said happily as she buttoned.
“Lord Darian said I ought to learn to fight and he said he would teach me.”
Brielle tried to ignore the anger that flooded through her veins, but the girl was evidently deliriously happy about the prospect. Keeping her temper was not easy. Remember the kiss! That was hard to forget, but it wasn’t strong enough to beat the dark voice that whispered speculation about the man’s reason for hiring Léa.
“Did he?” she said, her voice strangled slightly, which Léa didn’t seem to notice.
“Yes, I’m looking forward to it. He said that it wouldn’t be right for you to have a maid who wasn’t good with a sword.”
“I see. That was nice of him.”
“He said we should begin as soon as possible. It was imperative, he said.”
Brielle stood up abruptly, unable to sit patiently and listen to the girl enthusing about time with Darian. That man needed talking to, but she wasn’t sure she could. He’d done so much for her with no reward and she couldn’t throw that back in his face so ungratefully. But the anger needed abating.
“I’m going for a walk,” she said to Léa, not waiting for a reply before moving out into the corridor.
As she stalked the halls of the house, she cursed under her breath; she cursed Darian, she cursed Léa, and she cursed herself. She paid no attention to where she was walking and didn’t stop to talk to the servants as they went about their duties. Most bowed or curtsied before hurrying off; servants relied on sensing the moods of those they served. Her wandering brought her to the armoury and she went inside, picked up the first practice sword to hand and set about beating a practice dummy with it. The armoured dummy rattled and shook with the force of her blows, and its lack of response spurred Brielle on to hitting it harder, giving full reign to her anger.
“Something he said?”
She turned to see Darian standing in the doorway, leaning on the frame, grinning at her. It did nothing to reduce her anger.
“He grinned at me like an idiot,” she said, raising the sword slightly.
Darian stopped grinning, turning it to a frown. He came towards her, slowly, but he didn’t seem worried about the sword.
“What’s the matter?” he said, opening his arms to take her into them.
She stepped back; she wouldn’t be as easy as that to pacify.
“When are we going to something about Ferrer?” she asked.
He dropped his arms to his side and his frown deepened.
“Soon. The time isn’t right yet.”
It was the response she had been expecting and the one that made her anger pulsate. She loathed sitting about doing nothing and she hated that he was keeping her out of her own fight. She pursed her lips and half turned away from him, running a finger along the wooden lathes of the practice sword.
He reached towards her and took her arm, trying to turn her back towards him. She did not want to resist, but she refused to turn just because he wanted her to. She looked back towards him though. His face was lined with concern.
“What is it?”
“You don’t tell me anything. I thought this was my war.”
“Then why don’t you tell me anything, why are you keeping me in the dark? Ferrer needs to pay for what he’s done.”
“I know and he will.”
“When the time – ”
“ – is right,” Brielle finished.
She felt a bit sick. This was exactly what she had said she shouldn’t do, and here she was doing it. Every time she looked at him, though, she saw Léa’s smile, the way she waggled her hips and leaned forwards to emphasise her neckline and it made her more and more angry, until her head began to ache with the effort of it. She knew it was not Darian’s fault, but she couldn’t help feel that he wasn’t helping at all.
“That doesn’t satisfy you?”
“How could it?”
“Look, the first steps of any war aren’t about attacking. First of all, I need to know what I’m up against, so Konrad and I have been trying to learn as much as we can about Ferrer’s operation without raising suspicion. Ferrer’s empire has grown, his reach has expanded. He owns most of the Tanneries and he’s branching out into other areas. We have to be careful.”
She snorted and moved the practice sword effortlessly between her hands, each time pausing a moment in the guards. The faintest flicker of a smile lit his face as she did so, but it was gone as soon as she gave him a challenging look.
“And I can’t help with that? I have to stay at home waiting for you to deign to tell me what’s happening?”
“Ferrer’s reach is extended; I told you that. You don’t really thing that he’s forgotten you, do you? No amount of gold would interest a man like Ferrer. No one gets to be that powerful, if all they care about is money. What I gave him, he probably makes that every day, if not more. He will be looking for you; men like Ferrer don’t let anyone get away with defying them. It’s not good for business.”
That was more sensible, but she didn’t want to admit it. Of course Ferrer would be after her, though having used a false name it should protect her a little. Then again, he knew that she was with Darian, and Lord Astur’s mansion was not exactly an unknown backwater.
“I can look after myself,” she said, and though she tried to make it sound defiant, it came out petulant.
“I know you can. But this isn’t a case of a few men that you can cut down with a sword. What Ferrer has is an army. I don’t want you getting hurt.”
Did he really care about her? Was that the real reason for it? The small voice told her that it was exactly what it was. The dark voice, louder and more forceful, shouted it down.
“Is that why you’re giving Léa sword lessons?”
“I thought it would be best if you had someone close by, who you knew you could trust, and it would be better if they could help protect you and protect themselves. That’s part two of starting a war: make sure you can defend yourself.”
“But you’re a noble. Your father sits on the Council. Surely you have a retinue that can protect us?”
This time he frowned and blew a breath out through his nose. He was not annoyed, she didn’t think, just frustrated. The dark voice revelled in the effect she was having on him.
“We do, but Ferrer isn’t the only concern. With Lord Minham dead there’s a power vacuum; the lords will be fighting for control of the regency, and vying for power at every level below. If it gets out that my father has summoned a retinue to his home in the city that could spark more than gossip, more than a war on a crime lord. The Empire’s in a precarious state as it is without a full scale civil war. Besides which, even if that had no effect, I can’t just march a thousand men into the Tanneries and storm Ferrer’s compound. I wish that I could, but that’s the kind of action that makes revolutions inevitable. I’m sorry that it’s taking a long time, but there are other things at stake. Most of all, you. I have to know you’re safe and that you’ll go on being safe before we move on Ferrer.”
“I understand that, but couldn’t you just pick a man to help defend me? Why does it have to be Léa?”
She put as much emphasis onto the woman’s name as she could. She positively spat it. He didn’t seem to notice it, but it she shocked herself in doing it. Why am I letting a girl make me so jealous? He kissed me!
“I thought a woman would be more appropriate and the best protectors are ones no one would expect. If someone does come here looking to hurt you then they’ll kill any soldier I leave near you. They’ll ignore Léa and that will be a very bad mistake on their part, once she’s been trained. Anyway, I thought you liked her.”
“I do, I suppose, it’s just…”
Brielle looked at the ground. It sounded stupid to say, but she knew that it was this that was bothering her.
“She’s interested in more than just sword lessons from you,” Brielle finished sullenly.
Darian laughed. Curse the man, he actually laughed.
“Is that all?”
Brielle jabbed him in the ribs with the practice sword and he backed away, still laughing, but clutching the spot she had hit.
“All she will be getting from me is sword lessons and most of those will be from Konrad. All of them, if you prefer. She’s just a girl, barely old enough to know about…sword lessons…and even if she was it wouldn’t matter. I only have eyes for you.”
Brielle lowered the sword and looked up at him. He was smiling at her, his eyes bright, and it seemed as if he looked through her, rather than at her. It was like he saw everything about her inside and out and all of it made him smile.
“Well,” she said, “that’s good.”
He held out a hand to her and she took it, letting him move her into his arms. The feeling of his body against hers drove away her anger, drove away her worry. She looked up at him and smiled as he moved his head down to brush his lips against hers. The kiss that followed banished her doubt forever, as the small voice whispered ‘I told you so’.