Eostre's favourite guard had shamelessly used her confidence to see himself promoted to the rank of captain, even if it was beyond his level of skill. He was a handsome enough man with a ruddy face and coarse ash blonde hair he wore just long enough to fall over his clear and even forehead in thick curls. A great blustering moustache covered his upper lip and gave Eostre the constant opinion he was about to burst into a bout of ebullient and heartfelt laughter. He wore dark rich earth colours which gave him a brick red complexion and made his full lower lip kissably pouting. Eostre had never used him for that purpose, after all she had been the bride of a king, what could a lowly soldier offer her, but she shamelessly used him for other sordid details. If she needed a poison delivered or a minor noble knifed in the dark it was Captain Aristide that served her.
Aristide also had the advantage of knowing not to ask any questions. He was either smart enough that he knew not to get involved in the machinations of the noblesse or stupid enough to think himself immune.
So for this kind of intrigue Aristide was perfect.
Eostre sat beside the fire, warming her hands over the embroidered firestand, her formal wig had been removed and in its place she wore a soft velvet turban such as they wore in Araby, but pulled back to reveal her forehead in all it's glory. Like many ladies of the court when it had been in her prime as queen, she shaved her head completely and wore her wig slung back to reveal a smooth expanse equal to her ears.
Without her wig and her cosmetics Eostre knew that she looked her age, a woman who was slipping past her prime. She made sure that grey lace covered the expanse from the stomacher of her gown, which was a darker, more charcoal grey, up around her neck where she wore a large chunk of haematite. It was clear that she was still in mourning although suspicion still remained that she had killed the husband she mourned.
“Aristide.” She said bowing her head to him, and indicating that he take the other seat by the fire, which he did gratefully, having been on his feet all day. Gillonne, Eostre's maid, stepped forward and poured him tea. He had a simple glazed up where hers was delicate porcelain. She did not trust him enough that she shared the good porcelain. After all Aristide was a soldier and his hands were easily the size of her head, he would crush it to powder without realising when he lifted and she did rather like the pattern. “I am so glad that such men as yourself are in the employ of my son, I do what I can but I am a simple woman far from her home country where sisters squabble only over hair ribbons and here there are so many dangers, both for myself and my honoured son.”
Aristide nodded politely, he looked concerned as Eostre lowered her eyes to the floor. When she was younger she had used her sexuality to promote her gains, learning fast how to swim in this dangerous court, but now her beauty was fading she used her maternal fierceness to the same end.
“My poor Charles,” she used his true name when she spoke to the servants though in her own heart she named him the same as the rest of the court, Etienne, “there are so many who would arrange a terrible end for him, and now he has a wife who is no less safe.”
“There is a threat against the new queen?” Aristide asked, stupid enough to be led in the right direction, or clever enough to know exactly what he was expected to say.
“Maitre Rene,” she said referring to her head of information, “only this morning intercepted a message from Alinson threatening the queen. I have sent the message with Sereys to the Palais d'Justice, that we could act upon it.”
“But majesty,” Aristide said leaning forward, “Sereys is known to have heretic leanings. Can he be trusted with such a message, he might not deliver it to the Palais d'Justice, he might return it to Alinson or deliver it where it was first intended.”
Eostre looked horrified as if this was the first she had thought of it, when it had been her plan all along, Sereys would deliver the message to Castellani, the Deicin assassin, and her hands would be totally clean of it. “What have I done?” She brought her hand to her mouth which was a perfectly shaped o. “I might have hastened the problem, I am so out of my depth in these Cambrain politics.” She did her best to look distressed. Aristide was either stupid enough to believe her or clever enough not to question her.
“What did the message say, majesty? Perhaps we might still curtail this.”
“That the money was to be transferred to C for the request about A.”
Aristide frowned, “it does not narrow the target exclusively to the queen,” he creased his nose and the skin around his eyes as he thought about it, again making Eostre question whether he really was the simpleton he wanted to be thought as. “It might be the boy, Angelo, or Lady Ariane de Morangais. The boy is close to the king's consort and his lack could easily distract Lord Cesare and thus disrupt the king's ability to function, or if the heretics acted against the de Morangais, Lord Guy would be forced to act, especially with the rumours at the moment that they murdered the young Papess.” These flashes of brilliance were why Eostre had promoted him the way that she had.
“She is not dead.” She corrected automatically.
“She is not confirmed alive by the Biscop of Nantes and thus knowledge that she was not the one murdered in the Haga Sophia has been withheld from the public who only heard that a girl of her age was murdered and that the Curia have announced it to be the Papess. The city is already alive with rumours that the Heretics have done that.” Eostre nodded, “if they act again against the De Morangais then Guy will be forced to react in kind and bring his armies to bear. A civil war would open the country to the Hessian who are more open to the heresy than we.”
“You suspect that the Hessian are involved in this?” Eostre said, she had not considered this angle but it just made her own innocence more likely.
“Alinson and Angouleme are not rich enough to raise an army that would rival De Morangais without outside wealth, and they would not act against him without such an army in place. If they murder Angelo Pardi they impair the king's ability to make decisions making Cambrai an easy target for the Hessian armies that are holding the north, they could sweep in from both Hesse and up from the Deici. If they kill the queen then the king will be forced to go to war against them. It is a very cunning plan, majesty, and I do not believe the heretics capable of such thinking.”
He frowned for a long moment stroking his thick moustache. “Of course the A in the letter might refer to D'Aurro, which would make the target Lord Cesare himself. The king would be desolate without him, any might use that opportunity to seize the throne.”
Eostre adored Aristide. The man was simple, logical and truly quite stupid. He could see the myriad complexities of a murder without ever considering that the heretics themselves might be completely absent of blame, or if he did he was certainly clever enough to lay blame where it was most likely, where Eostre had so carefully guided him.
“We cannot allow this to happen,” She said, “my honoured son and I might have disagreements over his choice of consort but I cannot deny that Cesare makes him happy. Double security upon him and the queen, and we must find out the identity of this mysterious C just in case Sereys has acted against us and delivered the message for the heretics.” Sereys had not in fact delivered the letter, Danielle du Mauvais, Eostre's own handmaiden had given it to a servant to pass to Castellani with a promissory note from Alinson to kill the queen.
“Certainly, majesty, we,” he said referring to the guards under his charge, “will do our best to protect the king and those he holds dear.”
Eostre might have laughed if it would not have given away her utter contempt of the entire system of politics that existed here. “You must protect him,” she was past fluttering her eyelashes but a hand laid on Aristide's knee had the same effect. “He is all I have.”
“Your majesty,” he said with a bow, putting down the cup of tea he hadn't touched, “even if he was not my king, and I did not owe him my oath, I would stand up and defend your son for I can see how much you love him, in fact I can see that you care for him as much as I do for my own daughter.” Eostre tried to hide the narrowing of her eyes at that information, she had not thought that Aristide was married let alone a father. “I shall double the guard straight away.”
She offered him a smile, “also, my dear Aristide, would you arrange for me a small boar hunt, just some excuse for us ladies to take some exercise.”
“Majesty?” he asked, “would that not give opportunities to attack?”
“I cannot imagine that Lady Ariane or her majesty will attend.” Eostre said shrugging off the argument, “I visited the sorceress in town and she suggested it.” She laid her cup down on the table and then stood up, smoothing out the hard taffeta of her skirts in a calm gesture, “and you know that we ladies of Ygrec will not breathe without our soothsayers to guide us.” Aristide took it as a flirting joke and laughed, nodding and clipping his heels together, his hand on the hilt of his sword he bowed and turned to leave, closing the door behind him.
Eostre smiled as she watched him go, and then licked her lips, lifting her tea and draining it, she was never sure if Aristide was brilliant or stupid but he allowed her flirting without taking it any further, or consider using her wealth for anything. She wondered for a whole moment if she should take him as a lover, but decided against it, she simply didn't have the time.
Catherine bustled into the room with the box on her hip and her dogs nipping at her heels. She wore a pale blue silk embroidered with red roses and hanging tassles. “Why Miss Lia,” she said putting the box down on the table, pushing aside the tray that was sat there, “and my dear love, Angelo, I come bearing gifts from La Massif.” With the box, which was held shut with a length of twine, set down Catherine flopped down on the couch next to Angelo, the whippet jumped up and circled twice before laying its head on its mistress' knee, she rested her hand on its skull between its ears almost absent-mindedly. The pugs had gathered around Lia and shared the couch she had made a well of with her blankets.
“And what can they want to send me from La Massif?” Lia said, she made no move towards the box at all.
“A dress that should fit, not one of mine to wear to court, and a winter cloak lined with fur.” Catherine said, “from Cesare not from the usual suspects. It appears to have been made by the tailor who makes Cesare's own clothes.” She looked quite content with herself. “I have never been able to get him to make anything for me, he has a waiting list that even the queen mother cannot cut through, so he must have asked especially. Cesare clearly adores you to have these made.”
“I must send him a note to thank him,” Lia said primly, “but court fashion doesn't suit me.”
“Nonsense,” Angelo corrected her, “every woman is a queen if she puts her mind to it.”
“I am not a queen,” Lia said, absently stroking the pug on her knee, “I am a papess, and different rules apply, shouldn't I wear a priestess' vestments not one of the sugared confections of court.”
Angelo waved his hand, “at court you wear what the courtiers do,” he stopped himself, “I very nearly said courtesans, but you are our holy maiden,” he grinned at her, “and I know a lady that would be every inch a queen dressed only in a potato sack, I shall call on her tomorrow and ask if she will help. Vanozza is a dear and I can't imagine she'll say no.”
“Vanozza?” Lia asked, “the name's familiar.”
“She was Briar's father's mistress years and years ago,” Angelo told her, “but she lives here now with her son, who is ranked in the army and her daughter who married a rich merchant, she probably remembers you better than you remember her.”
“That's not hard,” Lia said, “Over the years I've met so many people, most of them fall into a blur.”
“But you don't say that,” Catherine said, scandalised, “you are supposed to remember the face of every supplicant. It is one of the cornerstones of our religion.”
“I couldn't remember the name of every novice,” Lia said, “I used to call them all my child so I wouldn't make a fool of myself forgetting their names.”
“Just try the dress,” Angelo said, standing and opening the box, from it he pulled a peach coloured satin mantua, “at worst it won't fit and we can send it back to an outraged tailor and get you some widows weeds or something more suited to your melodramatic sense of fashion.”
“I'm not a court bauble,” Lia said, “all those people at court, it's like the buzzing of a hive of bees, I don't know what to do, I knew where I was in the Haga Sophia.”
“Murdered,” Michelotto said from the fireplace in a low drawl. It was the first time Catherine even noticed his presence he was so unobtrusive.
“Mika,” Lia said to him over her shoulder, “always so dramatic, I just meant that I understood what was expected of me when I was told to sit there and be quiet.”
“You are the papess.” Michelotto said calmly. “The goddess descended from the heavens to guide us, you are one to whom empresses bow, so stand up as a goddess, wearing the froth of this court and demand that they act on your injuries as you should.”
Lia lowered her eyes. “I don't know if I can any more.”
“You can,” he told her firmly, “and you will, I believe in you, Lia, and as we travelled here you proved my faith in you a hundred times. You are a little intimidated, I know that,” he stepped over and laid his hand on her shoulder. Catherine recoiled at the very familiar gesture, after all she was the holy maiden, not a woman, but a goddess incarnate. “But you are the papess, and you must be prepared to act like it.”
Lia looked at his hand before laying her own upon his. “I know,” she said, but it sounded defeated. “I know.” She took a deep breath and then gave him a winning smile over her shoulder, even if it was clearly forced, “I was just beating Angelo at cards, would you like me to deal you in, Mika?”
He ran his hand through his hair as if he too was controlling an emotion, perhaps disdain or rage at Lia's sudden apparent transformation of mood, and then said, “yes, dove, I'd love to. And perhaps Angelo,” he looked across at him with cool blue eyes, that were not in any way jealous just wary, “could tell us of his adventures around the world. I'm sure, my dove, that you would love to hear of the Eparkhiya.”
Angelo narrowed his eyes. “If you deal me out of the game,” he said, “or Michelotto takes my place in this round, I can fetch my sketches of the Silenced Cathedral and the places I have been, I'm sure that they will be more entertaining than simply hearing my tales.”
“Oh wonderful,” Catherine said with mock glee, “and then Lia can try on the dress and some others I have just lying around and we can play at being beautiful, because ladies such as you and I who stand outside court must use every advantage we have to get our way.”
Michelotto's answering look was chagrined but he said nothing.
Don Castellani was infamous throughout the courts of the world as probably the most inept assassin ever to lift a pistol. This gave him a rather mixed reputation, people would hire him because he was cheap in the hope he might actually manage to achieve the kill, or because they knew he would make the error and that they intended to use it for their own advantage.
Of the primary assassins in the known world Don Castellani was considered one of the most famous because he had never been caught, he had never turned down an assignation, and he was cheap. Like the other famous assassins no one knew what he looked like, which meant he could maintain his notoriety as well as work, but in those circles where such names were traded only one was considered infallible, the Deicin Michelotto.
Don Castellani was an arrogant man, refusing to see his failures as a problem of his own ineptness rather than the universe conspiring against him. He was reaching the point where he was stepping past his useful life as an assassin and had, over the past ten years, put money away for a nice retirement in the south of the Deici where he could live like a king. At the moment he lived in a comfortable house, well beneath his means, with his mistress and enough servants to look like a reasonably successful merchant.
One of his servants knew enough to fetch assignations for his master, but assumed they were simply shipments he did not want the government to know of, so when he delivered the letter from Alinson and saw his master smile, counting things on his fingers he could not have foreseen what would come from it.