A Count And His Son
Winslow Cardiff trudged down the hall, seldom noticing the paintings on the wall, and giving nothing more than an absentminded wave to the guards or servants who bowed to him. He should have been livid. But instead of seething, he was crestfallen.
He had ventured into the Smear with such high hopes. Only to have them dashed like the ocean’s swells throwing a ship against a cliff. How did he let three dregs scare him? As loathe as he was to admit it, the dregs had put so much fear into him he’d tasted it. To make matters worse, one of them had saved him.
The boy had to be a melder. No other explanation for what transpired came to mind despite Keedar’s denial. Where there was one, more existed. To think they were hiding within the Smear. Count Cardiff harbored suspicions since the raids sixteen years ago, but none had revealed themselves since. His father would be pleased. If I decide to tell him.
Not many melders had been discovered in recent years. In decades past, that wasn’t always the case. The Smear was once a place from which the kings chose and found such practitioners of soul magic. These men and women provided the base for many armies in bygone eras when the Kasinian Empire was establishing itself. As time went on, those discoveries grew less, until they were near nonexistent.
And now, he might have discovered one with some skill in the arts. Surely, the Dominion shone their Light on him.
Contrary to his current demeanor, Winslow managed a slight smile. He’d find a way to use Keedar’s ability to his advantage. Until now, Count Cardiff had denied him an apprenticeship with the King’s Blades. With his survival in the Smear, that would no longer be the case. Father or not, the count had to respect the arrangement laid down by the past monarchs.
Similar thoughts had repeated themselves on Winslow’s way home to Mandrigal Hill. He should have been elated at the prospect of becoming a melder, possibly a Blade, of the chance to go off in search of his own destiny, make a mark on the world, but it hurt knowing his achievement had come at the hands of a dreg. He sighed. Regardless, this was the start to a dream. As he strode through the mansion, he swore to make the most of his good fortune.
In the Grand Hall, a guiser had set up a play. Round and soft like a sack of pudding, Felius Carin, possessed a tongue so silvery, he could sell sand to a desert. Winslow paused despite the need to speak to Count Cardiff.
Voice clear and refined like spring water, Felius orated, his double chins jiggling with his pronouncements, while his performers reenacted the story. This one was a comical retelling of how Emperor Ilsindin, the last Dracodarian monarch, convinced many of the Mareshnan kingdoms to side with him by bedding their women, even the lowly commoners. If one were to believe those stories, his philandering spread some bits of soul magic to those not of noble blood. The tales went on to say that it was the king’s prick that eventually got him killed. Something to do with too many deformed births, lack of potent seed, and an angry husband or two. From the tale came the saying that women were the precursor to any man’s downfall, but also that a good woman could make a man stronger. To Winslow, a man’s failure began with bad judgment compounded by a lack of coin.
Several nobles watched the play, dressed in fine jackets and trousers or silk dresses lined with embroidery. They seldom clapped for anything, but the patter of their applause resonated down the hall.
Elaina Shenen was among them, her dress gold and blue with a split down the middle from breast to ankle, revealing silver satin with intricate, red scrollwork underneath. She was all curves and curls: her body, her lips, the way she walked, and the black tresses that fell down her back. Winslow shook his head. No matter what his father said, he wasn’t marrying that girl. He had no feelings for her beyond a warming of his loins when she was near, the scent of her perfume a sweet allure. He’d indulged a few times, but such a revelation would cause its own set of issues.
When he drew his attention away from the play, he was standing before the hallway to the count’s chambers. A man strode toward him, sporting a nose that overshadowed the rest of his face, dark hair in coiled braids, and a complexion that stopped short of nobility. A Darshanese, if Winslow’s memory served him right. Cloak aflutter, a small golden sword prominent on his lapel, the stranger bypassed Winslow without any acknowledgement. Seeing a Blade leave his father’s quarters made Winslow wish to be one, while at the same time he despised the man for being a dreg.
With a sigh, he nodded to the yellow-uniformed guards stationed on each side of the foyer and headed to the massive, oak double doors. He stood before the entrance pondering if he should enter. Whorls and carvings in the wood depicted two men fighting with fire. Scales covered their bodies. They were Dracodar: the original melders, the strongest soul magicians that ever lived. Most thought them extinct. His father believed a few still lived.
After sneaking into his father’s study, he understood the count’s obsession with the race. According to his father’s notes and books, legend had it that one could gain a Dracodar’s attributes by ingesting their flesh, blood, or donning their scales. Near impenetrable, a Dracodar’s scales were harder than the strongest metals and more malleable. However, the reports of the creature’s sightings were questionable. Most were rumors. None of them dissuaded Count Cardiff from his pursuit.
Taking a deep breath, Winslow knocked on the door. Moments passed in silence. For the first time, he noticed he still reeked of the Smear’s stench. He hesitated, but it was already too late to turn away. To hell with it, he will have to understand.
“Enter,” the Count’s deep voice called from inside.
Winslow pushed open the door. Mosquitoes buzzed at him, and he shooed them off. He hated the damned things. They seemed to take too much of a liking to him. He even thought his father enjoyed watching him bat at them. Once, he swore he saw a smile steal across the count’s face. Why his father kept his windows open and curtains tied at dusk was beyond Winslow. If he had his way, he would have closed them long before the insects gathered to invade the chambers. They were a nuisance, alighting themselves on any exposed skin to feed. As the thought crossed his mind, he slapped at one where it pricked the back of his hand.
Smoke rose in wisps from incense around the room. Its sweet aroma mingled with that from scented candles. Sitting at a table with a lamp illuminating his many books and papers was his father, Count Ainslen Cardiff. At times like these, when deep into his studies, a person might mistake the count for being anything but an able-bodied, demanding, and dangerous man. With the horn-rimmed glasses on his nose, he appeared more like a professor than a warrior; more some librarian or assistant rather than one of the most accomplished and deadliest melders outside of the King’s Blades.
People often said Winslow didn’t have much of his father in him. Some even went so far as to spread vile rumors that Count Cardiff was not his father, stating Marjorie had stepped out on him. Of course, they refrained from such statements in public. The report of such a rumor had left more than one man or woman dead. His father’s reaction was the main reason people were careful not to mention his deceased mother or brother within earshot of the count. Referring to them in the wrong light or in any way deemed inappropriate sent his father into a rage. Count Cardiff seldom spoke of them to Winslow. And when he did, his words were steeped in melancholy. On more than one occasion, Winslow had heard his father mutter their names while asleep.
Winslow still recalled the one time several years ago that he’d asked after his mother and Kenslen. Count Cardiff had broken his ribs. He shuddered to think of seeing that murderous glare in the count’s eyes again.
As far as looks went, Winslow could see why some folk thought the way they did regardless of how preposterous the idea was to him. Where his hair was long and obsidian, the count’s was cropped short, brown and curly. Winslow also didn’t have quite the same light skin tone. His shade was a touch darker. Some claimed it to be trait from his mother’s ancestors. But the two things he felt he had in common with the count were his height and his green eyes.
“It took you long enough to knock on my door. I could smell you from here.” Nose upturned, the count gingerly raised a yellowed piece of vellum to the light and inspected its contents, straining his eyes.
“I was somewhat lost in thought.” If he’d remembered his father’s ability to sense anyone nearby, Winslow would have presented himself sooner.
“So you survived the Smear,” the Count said, tone one of disinterest. “I guess this means I’ll have to appoint you to a Blade.”
“If you think I’m worthy.”
“That doesn’t matter now, does it?”
Winslow said nothing. He preferred not to appear enthusiastic lest the count change his mind for the joy of seeing him beg.
“Well, did you find anyone or anything of interest to report?”
“No. Several from the Snake’s guild set a trap, but some shopkeeper aided us. He let us through his store.”
Shadows flitted across the count’s face as he frowned. “Why would he do that?”
“He didn’t relish the idea of another riot or for the Blades to raid his home.”
“Smart man. I’m disappointed though. I made sure the guilds knew you and Gaston were both counts’ sons. I would have expected them to use that information.”
Winslow felt his eyebrows climb his forehead. He brushed away a nattering mosquito.
“Oh, do not look at me like that. You were both quite safe. Do you think I would risk something happening to my only heir? I had men stationed within the Smear. Still, you weren’t supposed to enter. To be honest, you weren’t to take the Trial at all.” For the first time the count met his gaze, eyes unyielding. “Your mother’s fate could have been yours.”
It took all of Winslow’s will not to fidget or show any reaction under that heated glare. “Why didn’t you have them help us then?”
“Did I send you into the Smear? No? Besides any help from me would have defeated the point of you going there. My people lost you in one of those wretched lanes anyway.”
“And you weren’t worried?”
“I didn’t say that, but showing my concern around the other counts would have been considered a weakness.”
Winslow smirked. A little bolder for the Ainslen’s admission, he said, “And you cannot afford that, can you?” All that ever seemed to matter to his father was their precious reputation and standing in the eyes of the court.
“Most certainly not,” the count replied with a shake of his head. “They did mention a young boy trailing you two using the rooftops, but I counted on you being able to handle one child. I’d hate to think all the years having you both tutored in swordmanship and touching your soul went to waste. Unless a person you encountered had developed an actual melding ability, they would not be able to beat either of you, much less both at once.”
It was an offhanded and indirect compliment, but Winslow had become used to his father’s unwillingness to give him praise. Too much pampering made a man soft. Glorify him and he stops trying. Winslow didn’t allow himself to relax or feed into his father’s words, keeping his face blank.
“The boy you mention helped us get into the store through which we escaped,” Winslow said. The admission almost made him cringe.
“Some would construe that as a violation of the test.”
“We didn’t ask for his aid,” Winslow protested. “Nor did he physically assist us in a fight.”
“Well, that’s something, I guess.” Ainslen shrugged. “Still, I wouldn’t reveal it to anyone if I were you. Act as if it never happened.”
“And if it comes out?”
“Deny it. We cannot afford such a blemish. Us Cardiffs have the oldest tenure among the Hills. We are as constant as Mandrigal himself, rising to rule each day, despite falling at dusk.” Count Cardiff drew the God of Rebirth’s triangular prayer sign on his forehead. “Remember that every time you feel his warmth. Nothing and no one must stand in the way of us reaching even higher. Mistakes such as the one made today could cost us.”
Winslow bowed his head, not only at the mention of the God, but also to appear sufficiently chastised. If he had his way, politics would be of no concern to him. But he didn’t. It was as much a part of his life as the air he breathed. Not wanting his father to go on one of his tirades, he remained silent, waiting for dismissal, but none came. The count appeared lost in thought. Relieved, Winslow waited.
“I was so sure they would see this as an opportunity not to pass up,” the count muttered to himself. “So why do nothing? What are you planning now? I cannot afford for anything to interfere with our day.” He shook his head and focused on Winslow once more. “Anyway, I will decide which Blade you will apprentice under in a day or two, but do not get your hopes too high. You will learn the basics and nothing more.”
“Yes, Count Cardiff.” Winslow turned to leave.
“Oh, before I forget, have a messenger sent to Antelen Hill. Tell Gaston I wish to speak to him immediately.”
Winslow merely nodded. He’d already gone over their story with his friend. The count would discover nothing new about Keedar. And he’d find a way to convince the boy to teach him all he knew.