Maybe it wasn’t so much his company the high lady relished so much though. The man at her side, although only Count in the ranks of Nancarrow, had been seen at her side for years, and rumor had it he even came and went to her estate as he pleased. Ailill nobles didn’t see the use of a marriage just for love since premarital sex wasn’t shunned. The only reasons to marry were securing one’s own legacy, pregnancy or political connections, and none of those seemed to sway the Count Greyfell and Duchess Gladfall at this point of time.
“So, what do you think of the public punishment you saw today?” the Earl asked, trying to make light of a heavy conversation topic. Talking to women of high status had always been a bit of a problem for him, seeing as how most of the topics he usually preferred were taboo in polite conversation.
The Duchess smiled tightly, and he instantly knew that he had chosen the wrong topic. The Count, a young looking, ashen-skinned man with an aura Firun could only describe as ‘creepily lewd’, seemed to like his choice though.
“I must admit, as much as I enjoy a well done public punishment, I’m a bit bemused as to how that human could have survived so long. For all intents and purposes, he was useless to you, required constant beating to keep a minimum level of order, and went so far as to laugh at the whipping meant for his execution,” the Count purred, filling the room with his satiny, dark voice.
The Earl shuddered secretly, trying to ban a vision of the Court naked next to the Duchess from his touch-depraved brain. With a voice like that, how might his groans sound, what would he whisper with that soultry sing-song of his in the middle of pleasure?
“Ah, well, you see,” he rambled, blinking through the lusty haze his own thoughts had awoken, “it’s a shame to lose him at all, to be honest. His talents with weapons are amazing, his senses sharper than those of some of my Ailill guard, and sometimes I dare to believe he might be immortal, taking into consideration all the things he survives on a near-daily basis. But…” he sighed, looking at the small slices of raw fish and pink roe decorating his cracker, then shrugged.
“But?” the Duchess pressed politely, raising one eyebrow in question.
“But I think he broke at some point during training, and now there is nothing I could do to him that would still impress or frighten him. He is fearless, stubborn and suicidally mad,” he finished his sentence with a note of regret in his voice, and finally ate the small dish.
This time it was the black-haired Count who raised an eyebrow. “I mean no disrespect, good Earl, but the only thing broken on him that I could see today was his body. I honestly thought the reason you let him be whipped like this was because he wouldn’t give in to your will.”
A few pieces of roe nearly ended in the Earl’s lungs as he tried to breathe in, swallow and protest at the same time. He coughed a bit, then waved the servant patting his back away with an impatient gesture, and stared at the impertinent man.
“Good sir, I assure you that he has been trained by the best of my guard, to our noble House’s highest standards, and with the best intentions. He is not too strong, he is broken, and nobody could fix him. Believe me, I didn’t want to accept that for a long time, but no matter whom I invited to have a look at him, none of them could break him of his defiant, self-destructive ways!”
The Count didn’t look too impressed. “I could do it in a month,” he said dryly, almost condescendingly.
The Duchess giggled at that, and quickly hid her lips behind her silver goblet.
The Earl looked from the Count to the Duchess, trying to decide if he was being made fun of, set up, or still a part of this conversation at all. Only the presence of the fine lady made him keep his temper in check, but he couldn’t let those words sit on his pride without rising to the occasion.
“Could you, now? And next you’ll tell me you can walk on water without the aid of magic, right?” he grunted, laughing at his own words. The Count didn’t flinch though; he just swung his glass a bit, breathing in the nuances of the ruby red wine, and never took his eyes of the Earl’s face.
“You seem to want to be rid of him anyway, so why don’t you try my word? Your nephew informed me that he will be dead in the morning anyway, if nobody tends to his wounds, so you wouldn’t lose anything.” Taking a sip of the expensive wine, the Count even smiled. “We could make a bet out of it.”
This might be interesting, the Earl thought to himself. That young brat of a noble looked very self-assured, but the Earl had spent the last fifteen years worrying about his human pet, to no avail. If he played his cards right, he would not only get rid of his irritating slave without having to live with the humiliation of having been beaten by a mortal flea like that man, but he might even gain a bit of public standing with House Malach. After all, the witnesses to any and all bets would have to speak the final judgement at the end of the bet, and having the Duchess of Yahir around for a month might do wonders for his reputation.
“A bet, you say? How would you assess the results on the human? After all, in all the years he has been with me, there were more than enough phases in which he acted like he was supposed to, but only out of sheer circumstances. He would have to be tested by something that would require total obedience,” the Earl mused, picking up another canapé.
The Count swirled his wine again, staring bemusedly at the blood red ripples on its surface. “That, I have to admit, is a hard thing to verify,” he replied thoughtfully, then hummed and looked up. “How about the Day of Remembrance? Would it be enough of a demonstration if he took on the soul of an ancestor for the ceremony?”
A sudden blush crept over the face of the Earl. The Day of Remembrance was the one day of the year where the Houses called their most honored ancestors back from the afterlife to walk amongst them. It was a honor to serve as a vessel for their souls, but it was also a most frightening experience to lose control over one’s own body like that. The Earl knew instantly that Niro would never agree to such a thing. It was perfect.
“Those are high stakes, my friend. What would you ask for if you win?” he asked, already smiling gleefully.
The Count licked his lips thoughtfully. “If I win, I want to keep the human as my own to do with as I please.”
“And if you lose, Count?” the Earl went on, frowning by now. What would a Count want with a defiant slave?
“If I lose, I will give you what you want the most,” the Count replied smoothly, smiling. “Your Nephew as a new chief of staff.”
The Earl pondered this, but only for a few heartbeats. He had actually tried to persuade Tyell to come work for him for quite some time, but the stubborn boy had denied him outright, saying that his oath to the Count was solid and would only be canceled by him, and only him. With this bet, he would lose nothing, and win everything, be it peace of mind or a new, very capable officer.
“I agree to your bet, Count,” he said, and stood up to offer his hand.
The Count also got up, put his wine glass on the table and grasped his hand in symbolic unity. “Under the eyes of the Lord and the Lady, and with the Duchess Gladfall of Yahir to witness this act, I seal this deal,” he said, invoking every power possible. Although the Earl had been gleefully happy with the idea moments ago, he suddenly felt caught and betrayed.
What in all worlds had he just agreed to?