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Barbarians at the Gate

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Then

“The Caloxan problem” was a topic of contention over the dinner table that made Ferrand’s mother thin her mouth unhappily before she retired with the other ladies so his father and the other gentleman could linger on the southern malcontents over good spirits and fine-fried poppy to stimulate the conversation. Rothmarlin had been a problem thought all but resolved when the old margrave went to his death against the Usara, leaving only a half-grown heir and a handful of daughters, but the boy quickly proved them all wrong with his bloodthirsty performance on the battlefield, gaining back more territory against the Usarans in a summer campaign than his father had managed in the prior three indictions. Of course, there were intervening reasons concerning the shifting of the pastureland and a particularly bad winter in the Perblanches that had devastated several Usaran camps, but it was impressive nonethless, Ferrand’s father said with an air of finality.

The freshly minted Rothmarlin was young, stunted they said, and a half-breed to boot, but his men were already loyal, and he had the ear of the young Hume prince, always a dangerous consideration.

"Backcountry southerners," his uncle, habitually red-faced and given to gruff exaggeration--a stiff Corambin of the oldest stripe if there ever was one--spat out the words like meat gone bad, "sending their children to war like they're no better than those mountain monkeys they fight. And they ask us for help. Just like Eadians to fall on bloody rituals at the least sign of trouble."

Ferrand had been to one Eadian ceremony, a visit to one of his mother's relatives who worshipped at a craggy, rather monstrous spectacle of a church, Our Lady of Bloody Flesh Rent from Innocents or something equally lurid. He remembered the ordeal chiefly for its length and the plentiful viscera that seemed to be present in all the canticles. He hadn't been asked to take on the coraline, but the ambient sound of the local intended's flock dutifully reciting their stations had created a stir like a stiff wind upon a quiet field.

"How old," he was unable to stop himself from asking, "was Rothmarlin when he went to war?" He was competent enough with a blade, and had a good seat on a horse, but the thought of a man’s blood on his hands seemed distasteful, reserved for moldering histories and somewhat distant wars.

It would be years before he’d be splashed across all the northern papers as the Dragon Duke, before he’d meet Isobel Brightmore or her brother. His older brother was still, by all accounts, perfectly sane and note headed for anything other than taking the duchy after their father passed. Then, the Insurgence seemed like a dream of the naive and pastoral south, besieged by the Usara and without even the civilizing benefit of the railways in half its margravates. Backwards pigs, his uncle called them over a pinch of snuff.

"Fourteen," answered his father, an unreadable look upon his face. Years later, Murtagh looked back at that expression as no less than a provocation.

***

Now

Murtagh had twenty-some indictions to his name by the time he ceased to be simply Ferrand Carey and inherited the duchy. Even when one of his strongest desires in life had been to choke the life out of Isobel's brother, he'd always had a simmering respect for the foul-tempered bastard, not a drop of political blood in him no matter his title. At sixteen, Murtagh had been exercising the horses and the stable boys and milkmaids with them, administration of the duchy and any distaff estates the furthest thing from his mind. Desperen Field had been far in the future, and Caloxa little more than an exotic footnote in his mind, full of faceless savages to one side and the hardly less savage margraves in a constant and puzzling state of discontent closer to the border.

Grimglass was a northern territory, a barren place of exile on the western coast of Corambis, nothing like the hills or fields of old Caloxa, and as unlikely a place for a Brightmore as he could imagine, the air all salt-wretched, and as cold as he remembered. Suitable enough, he thought, for Vanessa in her more dour moments, though she despised the distance, and quiet enough for Kay in his present melancholy. It was unfortunate that his own journey's peace was regularly interrupted by the sound of Clara Hume huffing about the train like a bird with her plumage forcibly plucked.

As soon as he'd gotten wind of her plans--to "challenge" her husband's former hound at his new home, and put a stop to the Caloxan rumblings once and for all--he'd volunteered himself and a cadre of his own men as her escort, on account of seeing both his heir and his dear cousin Vanessa. His stature was enough that it had been impossible for her to refuse him without offending half a dozen of her supporters in the northern duchies, not to mention showing her tail as the missish, petulant girl she was rather than the martyred, royal beauty she purported to be.

The offer been only a little difficult to choke out, especially in light of the fact that she'd doubtlessly been pushed into it by Glimmering and his cronies, or parties even more dangerous from within the Convocation. The question of the governorship of Bernatha was still unresolved, and the fate of the other margraves who had answered Gerrard's call a trickier fate still. Caloxa, Murtagh maintained, was a cauldron to be watched carefully and dealt with delicately. Their petition for home rule--however much it enraged certain members of the Convocation who would whisper practically Eadian visions of the Lady’s vengeance on the Caloxan rebels on the floor but rarely to Murtagh’s face--was not unreasonable and altogether probably the best solution for preventing another Recusant from rising.

He doubted Charles would follow in his father’s footsteps. If all the legalities bore through, Lady willing, and his fosterage was with Quithenrick, any secessionist spirit would be ironed out of him early, and even if Clara Hume had her way, she had neither husband’s charisma nor his determination. The poor boy would probably be trotted out for sympathy outings and otherwise coddled into a soft manhood.

There were those--Gerrard’s widow first and foremost--still calling for Kay Brightmore's head. Anyone who had seen him since the death of the rebellion at Summerdown could not have possibly made the ridiculous case that he was still dangerous, but Murtagh had learned long ago that reason was often too much to ask for when it came to matters of politics.

The princess had had at least the sense not to bring with her child with her, and he allowed that she made a pretty enough figure in the sunlight streaking in from the windows, with her graceful violet gown, surely a dig at Kay, and her fair hair arranged in a shining corona about her head--no accident either, he was willing to bet. She had a weak chin though, entirely too delicate for his tastes, and hers was an insipid sort of beauty. It would fade soon enough--and thank the Lady for that.

"Your Grace," she said coolly when he was announced in her compartment.

"Miss Hume," he answered, deliberate in his address. It was more difficult than it should have been to contain his satisfaction at the way her nostrils flared her rage. She kept her temper better than he'd witnessed in the past, though it was no graceful maneuver. He could see all pretense of politesse leaking from her face as she rounded on him.

"Surely you have no more wish than I to see that animal kept in leisure. The dog who led my husband to his death and will be the death of my son."

"I think it was rather your dear husband who nearly led Kay to his death." The smirk he could not contain.

"Is it Kay now?" she said, all acid, her delicate brows knitting.

"Do you suggest that I call him Gerrard's dog to his face? As you do, princess?" He'd perhaps overdone the sharpness on that last, but he couldn't bring himself to regret it.

She remained as icy as the surrounding air all the way to the lonely tower of Grimglass, growing larger in the distance as the fields receded and they came within an arm’s length of the iron-gray sea.

***

"What is the meaning of this?"

Vanessa had begun to take on her mother’s cadences, never a good sign, her jaw set rather severely.

"Charming as ever, Vanessa."

"Don't play with me. What is she doing here?"

"To make a case for Gerrard's hound to be dragged out of Grimglass and pilloried before all the people of Corambis, I imagine." His tone was light and dry as her face darkened considerably.

“Glimmering?”

It was hardly a question--she knew--but he nodded anyway. “I suspect. She would not have been so decisive on her own.”

Vanessa snorted in a way that left little doubt as to her opinion on Clara Hume’s ability to be decisive.

“She’s brought men from the papers too. I managed to bump a few of them, but you know how they are.” She’d certainly heard enough from the cream of Corambin ink after her marriage to--depending on who you read--a blood-drinking monster from the mountains, a martyred and ill-used invalid, or a Caloxan inbreed little better than marrying a bear-baiting dog.

She bit her lip. It did her features no favors. “I never liked the theater, Ferrand.”

He couldn’t disagree.

***

Then

It was eminently clear that Kay Brightmore was no hotheaded Primrose Man ready for a fight where no fight was called. He was compact and dangerous-looking, with an unexpectedly soft mouth set tight in a face that seemed rather ill-suited for the laughter echoing amongst his armsmen, probably at Murtagh’s expense. From all the accounts, he’d half expected the Cougar of Rothmarlin to turn up in furs riding some Usaran beast and baying for blood. Instead, he was serious-eyed and efficient.

“You’re shorter than I thought you’d be,” he threw out, earning a glare from the angel-faced giant standing to Rothmarlin’s right.

“Have heard that often, Your Grace.” Ah, and there was the rolling Caloxan accent, straight from the hills, not the slightest attempt to smooth the vowels in proper Corambin fashion. He wondered if he should expect the same from his bride.”

“Shall we begin negotiations?” The giant looked ready to cut Murtagh down on the spot if they didn’t start moving soon.

Rothmarlin nodded, a certain grace of carriage to him that told Murtagh his reputation on the field was no lie. His mother’s Usaran blood was clear in the broad brush of his features, his lack of stature, though his voice was all Caloxan. Isobel, who was his senior and closer to Murtagh’s own age, did not carry the taint, as Murtagh’s uncle put it. An heir to one of the oldest and most prestigious of the Corambin duchies with a Brightmore for a mother and Rothmarlin blood in his veins could mean--well, it certainly weakened that fool Gerrard Hume’s claims of the intolerable southern situation.

“An you are willing?”

The question, delivered in an almost impossibly even thicker iteration of the accent, was a matter of polite formality, but he played along.

“I am willing, Kay.”

Rothmarlin’s face flickered at the presumption of Murtagh using his given name, but something that was almost a smile played about his mouth.

***

Now

Vanessa had clearly been hard at work repairing all of Grimglass’ receiving rooms, since they were in far better repair than he remembered. It was a touch of the Carey pride, he thought, since her husband and Warden certainly wouldn’t care how it all looked. He recognized Felix immediately even though his back was turned.

“Virtuer Harrowgate,” he said, startled into formality, and Felix pivoted to face him, a book still loose in his elegant hands.

“Surely you can call me Felix?” His striking eyes were amused, and Murtagh could humiliatingly feel himself flushing remembering his near identical exchange with Kay, how needling he had been.

“Felix,” he acceded. “I’d expected you’d be out at the lighthouse.” Poring over some old virtuer’s papers as far as he could tell based on Julian’s still nearly incomprehensible letters. He would never bring himself to ask about Felix to Kay directly, though Kay surely would have provided him with a more accurate portrait.

Felix raised an eyebrow. Murtagh thought again that the short hair really did suit him, though his looks were not so shocking now on repeated glances, and there was a degree of peace in his eyes that was unfamiliar. It likely said nothing good about his own nature that he found the man less interesting for his new-found serenity. He no longer had the startled appearance of a cut flower.

“I’d heard trouble was coming to Grimglass.”

He laughed. “She’d not thank you for calling her that.”

“It’s a pretty tale--the Prince’s grieving widow.” Felix’s voice was dripping with so much disdain Murtagh was surprised the carpet was still intact. He wondered if he and his brother had seen her back in Bernatha, swathed in black tulle like a pampered crow.

“She’d like to make it prettier still with a gory punishment in order.”

Felix’s mouth thinned. “A girl made of gears.”

He raised his own brows in question, and Felix only shook his head. “Something Kay told me about myself, something I value.”

“He has that gift when he’s roused to it, I suppose.”

Felix laughed at that. “Quite right, Your Grace.”

There was a stirring at the doorway, and Murtagh saw that the brother was there. It was still startling how similar their faces were, poised and elegant and rather lovely--the twisting scar on the younger man’s face only highlighted how their jaws set in the same way, the arch of their brows. Mildmay Foxe did not seem like the type to frequent a battlefield, but he’d certainly seen action of some sort. Kay had spoken well of him, which was a strong recommendation in Murtagh’s mind.

Felix immediately crossed the room to speak to him, their voices lowered enough that he couldn’t make anything. They seemed easier about each other than the last time he’d seen them, Felix’s hand resting easily and with affection on his brother’s shoulder, something his eyes Murtagh had certainly never seen when they’d been alone, and the small shudder of Mildmay relaxing like a cat into his touch. He’d heard all sorts of nasty rumors from the University, but he’d never trusted the virtuers and their endless theories.

Looking at them, though, bright hair blending, he sensed he had gained two more soldiers in his campaign here.

***

Then

Kay was enjoying the sunlight by the window and trying to appear as if this was not at all the case. It was the type of trick he’d had indictions to familiarize himself with in Isobel. The sun was directly in his eyes, but he could clearly feel the warmth. Murtagh resolved to put him in the old sunlit nursery when they reached Carey House.

“How does it feel, really?” he asked. Blunt was usually the right tactic when it came to Brightmores.

“Like walking upon swords,” said Kay, not looking away from the window, his face tight.

There was an old Caloxan story that Murtagh had heard on campaign, an Eadian pecularity, about a maiden who lived deep in the hills or in the sea, depending upon the telling. She was a darling of her own kingdom, but fell in love with a human prince. She gave up her eyes and tongue to an old warlock to be with him, her fish tail or her mountain goat’s hooves transformed into tender legs so she could greet her beloved as one of his own. She was doomed to feel as if her feet were being flayed by hot blades with every step, but she endured it all gladly for the prince’s love. She’d died, Murtagh thought, unloved and unknown by the callow prince--typical Eadian melodrama--no happy end or immortal soul for she who went with joy to her doom.

***

Now

“At Angersburn,” the reporter said. “You slew three hundred men in cold blood.”

“Is true,” said Kay, all calm, though his knuckles were white upon the chair, and his eyes were not focused on the reporter.

Clara was clearly trying not to smile.

“And at Marrah Ford, a battle you waged, Rodger Pallister died.”

“He did,” said Kay.

“At Beneth, you let Benallery’s woman die.”

Here, the reply was sharper. “Did not let the margravess do anything. She held the siege, and paid with her life.”

“At Summerdown, you tried to wake an automaton, a monster.”

Kay was iron, Murtagh thought, the cords in his neck tight with tension, but nothing in his face. He had instructed Murtagh not to interfere, had called it a necessary thing despite the fact that this account, with Clara’s back and Glimmering’s, could easily result in the witch hunt they so clearly desired. More penitence, he thought, for what had been Gerrard’s foolishness. Larrowen had raised his banner before Rothmarlin, and his heirs were untouched. The questions did not even bear the appearance of objectivity. It had been easier to face the soldiers at Desperen Field than it was to hold his tongue now.

“He saved us at Summerdown, when the Usara tried to wake the engine.” It seemed, Murtagh reflected, that he and his sometimes witless nephew were growing unfortunately alike.

The reporter and Clara both startled at the interruption. The entire interview had been carried on in a near sepulchral tone until then.

“I felt it,” Julian continued heedlessly. “I could hear--”

Murtagh rose, and this time Kay beat him to with a sharp “Julian.” His nephew’s face was flushed bright, and Murtagh was startled to realize that almost all the softness of childhood had gone out of his face, though his trembling mouth was evidence enough of boyhood. He’d been worried that he would go like Clovis, but apparently he should have been paying more attention to restraining the boy from battles he couldn’t win on his own.

“I can attest to that fact as Virtuer of Grimglass,” said Felix abruptly, like a foot soldier stepping in smoothly to fill the gap a fallen comrade had left behind. “Kay Brightmore’s help at Summerdown was invaluable.”

“A foreign warl--” Clara Hume began, but Vanessa had clearly also decided to throw down the gauntlet.

“I thank you, princess, not to insult the virtuer at my own holding.” She sounded as if she could have thrown ended the Usaran issue in one blow, not a single weakness to her voice. Gerrard’s widow quailed a little.

“Perhaps we should take a rest,” Murtagh forced his drawl to be relaxed, heart dropping a little as Clara Hume opened her mouth, clearly outraged.

Felix’s brother said something mostly incomprehensible through the deep scrawl of his accent and scar, but it was so clearly prevaricating to the presumptive princess of a restored Caloxa that she began drawing panicked, scandalized breaths that looked like they were headed straight for a fainting fit--Murtagh could imagine that headline quite clearly--and the room dissolved into chaos.

***

Then

“I am saddling you with Grimglass because I know that you will not merely take responsibility for it, but you will care for it, that you will be the same good steward for Grimglass that you were for Rothmarlin, and that you fill fight Darne tooth and nail to protect it.”

In the silence that followed, it seemed like enough timed for Cymellune to rise and fall and rise again.

“I hear you.”

It was a relief and also a surprising spike of sadness, unaccountable to Murtagh, who had always considered Corambin sovereignty unquestioned and necessary. Kay was recognizing the death of the Hume line, a future of bright Caloxans lost to northern education, just as his own mother had married enemy nobility and turned her back on her people, fast going the way of the vanished Verdara, whose bones were still beneath the great cities of Corambis.

***

Now

“Kay, just listen.” He’d almost said “look,” a slip of the tongue. Look at Vanessa standing guard like a disappointed intended, at Julian near tears with his anger, still breathing hard, at Felix still licking his lips like a cat content with his kill, and his odd brother with his eyes fixed on where Clara and the reporter had exited the room.

“It will be all right. Do you hear?”

Kay had not, as far Murtagh knew, ever acceded to things being “all right.” Not with the Usara, not with the Insurgence, not with Rothmarlin, not with his handling of Grimglass and its debt. But there was a softness that crept unaccustomed to his face.

“I hear.”