The tall nobleman next to her tensed even more at her words. He had gotten that distracted look ever since the human whipping boy had started to scream and bleed, and Ilydra could only guess what went on in his head. She did know his tastes ran into erotic whippings, and maybe seeing what usually went on in his bedroom be used as a means of killing was just too tasteless for him. Or maybe he was fighting a whole different kind of feeling? Who knew what those paid murderers found pleasing.
Still, she decided to be blunt. “Do you want to leave, Rhysling? You look unwell,” she whispered, leaning over so the guarding soldiers wouldn’t have to listen in.
“You know I don’t like it when you call me by that name,” Rhysling Greyfell of House Nancarrow, Count of Yahir and soon-to-be appointed reeve of Tetharion, replied, but his words had a distracted note to them. “But no, dear. This is something I didn’t expect, but will cope with anyway.”
It was surely a strange reply to her question, but then, Rhys had always been a man of quirks and secrecy. Smiling amusedly, Ilydra watched him lean slightly towards his lieutenant of arms, an Ailill soldier by the name of Tyell, who was in some way related to the Earl of Wilmoor. Ilydra had never been interested enough to find out in which way that strapping lad had bloodbounds to the local regent, but she was quite sure that those bonds had something to do with Rys’s appointment in Tetharion.
Since it was improper to listen in when two people were obviously trying to speak privately, Ilydra tore her gaze away from Rhys’s profile, and looked back at the raised gallows. The whipping had gone on for nearly half an hour, and the second soldier was already flagging in his relentless beating. The human’s screams were hoarse and low by now, his shirt ripped to shreds and drenched in blood, and he looked to be on the verge of passing out. Not pleasant at all.
Rhys straightened himself, and Tyell took off, waving another soldier with him as he walked briskly towards the gallows. This, Ilydra could watch without being improper, although it didn’t fully sate her curiosity. Tyell and his escort stopped next to the steps leading up to the whipping post, and Ilydra could see him give instructions to the burly man, then turn away and run towards the Earl’s residence. The soldier meanwhile stepped onto the gallows, talked to the panting, whip-wielding man, and then took it from his hands.
Ilydra was puzzled. “Isn’t that your court marshal up there?” she asked Rhys, who seemed much more intent on watching the human than the ones bleeding him. What was a man proficient in the art of corporal punishment doing at an event explicitly meant to kill someone?
“Yes, that is him,” Rhys mumbled distractedly, taking a half-step forward. He didn’t offer any more explanation than that, but Ilydra knew him well enough to see the wheels clicking behind his oh-so-calm facade. He was planning something, and whatever it was had already been set in motion.
A loud, deafening crack sounded from the gallows, and the whip bit into the delirious, moaning man. The crowd cheered with admiration, pressing forward to watch the newcomer’s proficiency up close, gushing over the way he could make the whip crack louder than any of the men before him.
A small smile trailed over Rhysling’s lips. “I had to send him, he knows how to capture the crowd,” he explained softly to his escort, pulling her hand onto his courteously bent arm to indicate he wanted to walk with her.
“But I can see in your face you don’t want the human to die there, do you?” she inquired, keeping up effortlessly with his controlled, calm pace.
This time, Rhys smiled wide, rocking his head from one side to the other. “That is the other reason for sending that man,” he purred, then stopped their pace, discreetly pointing at the gallows. The court marshal just performed another lash, and from this angle Ilydra could see what probably neither the crowd, nor the guards noticed: The cracking sound didn’t come from the whip hitting flesh, but from the tip cracking against its own leather closely to the human, right before it scraped almost harmlessly against the torn up, bloody skin.
What a perfidious mind he has! Ilydra pondered, smiling amusedly. It explained the presence of the court marshal on the gallows, but Tyell was still gone and nowhere to be found.
“I can see you keep an eye out for my confidant, and I bid you to stop. You will draw attention to my little charade,” Rhys whispered right next to her ear, leaning into her frame like a courtier begging for her affections. It was another game of his, trying to hide his true intentions from onlookers, and this particular one was all too well known to Ilydra. Ailill nobles had been wondering for years which way the young Count bent for pleasure, and Rhys himself did everything in his power to keep them guessing. Well, all except for her, his almost constant companion to social functions. Ilydra knew she’d never grace his bed with her presence, and she was content with this. Rhysling’s tastes in foreplay were not of the kind she’d ever enjoy.
“Fine, as you please. But you will have to tell me what game you are playing later. You know how much I hate to be blindsided,” she chided him with a smile. Eons of life might be boring, but consorting with this young Ailill noble usually tided her over many drawn-out social functions. Rhys’s life was never dull.
The human had fallen silent and lifeless at this point, rocking softly in his chains as the whip kept on cracking. Even the people watching were quiet at this point, unhappy about the amount of violence presented, unhappy about their obligation to stay there until the punishment was finished, and distraught with the sight of so much blood and pain.
When the Earl stepped onto the balcony of his residence overlooking the main square, the chatter of voices picked up once, and stopped once more. Even the whip fell silent as the court marshal looked up to the ruler of Tetharion, standing proudly next to a younger, blond Tyell.
The Earl Wilmoor of Tetharion raised his hands to call for attention he already had, and Rhys snorted softly. “Pompous ass,” he mumbled for Ilydra’s ears only, and she had to bite down a laugh.
“Hear, people of our fair city!” the Earl thundered, pointing at the hanging, bleeding human. “I hereby declare this man punished, and order his body to the hands of my nephew to dispose of as he pleases. You may now go back to the pleasures of the fair, sing, dance to the music of the bards, and gorge yourself on wine and roast. Remember this day, as this will be the fate of everyone who dares to oppose my orders!”
As soon as the words had been spoken, the court marshal on the gallows handed the whip over to the waiting deathsman and gave a whistle that called two more soldiers away from Rhysling’s side. They made quick work of the chains, catching the falling man clumsily in their attempts to stay clear of the many deep wounds on his back.
“So your lieutenant is the Earl’s nephew,” Ilydra whispered with mirth, “and you are using his influence to have your wicked way with a dying man? That is depraved, even for you.”
She had meant it as a joke, but the look Rhys gave her for those words was one of contained fury, hot enough to make her miss a step.
“That was a tasteless thing to say, even for you,” he growled, then he took a deep breath to contain his disgust and patted her hand. “No, I plan to nurture him back to health, and keep him,” he explained with a hushed voice, smiling happily.
“The Earl wants him dead. You are risking your life, your career on this,” Ilydra blurted out almost too loud. Tightening her grip on his arm, she tugged at him and hissed, “don’t do this, not for a piece of dirt like that human!”
Instead of the fury he had shown before, Rhys just sighed and patted her hand calmingly again. “Don’t worry, dear. I know what I’m doing.”
And he knew what he would get out of this risky game. His prize was carried away quickly, disappearing into the dungeon he had come out of, accompanied by three of Rhys’s men. They would take good care of him, and they would see to having him transported into Rhys’s residence safely.
All he had to do was out-maneuver the Earl, and find a way to persuade him that the human was worth more to House Nancarrow alive than dead. Easy, right?