An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

An Aged Vintage Shade

Twenty minutes later, Shade found herself sitting on another terrace, surrounded by orderly rows of grape vines, punctuated by several tall apple trees. She held a crystal glass full of dark red wine in one hand, while listening to the rustle of the unnaturally cool breeze that blew through the vineyard. A large, white pergola provided some protection from the sun’s heat, while an assortment of colourful songbirds chirped from a nearby cage. Shade hated seeing such beautiful creatures confined, but otherwise it was an idyllic scene—and not at all the way she had imagined her conversation with Alys Vander would go.

The small woman sat across from her, taking long sips from her own glass and chatting idly about a number of uninteresting topics. It was all a façade, of course, put on for the benefit of the servants who lingered near the edge of the garden, as though to wait on their mistress should she require anything else. Lady Vander acted as though she was oblivious to their presence, which was all but an open invitation to eavesdrop. The mindless chatter was intended to whittle away the curious, leaving only those who were being paid to watch and listen.

Shade had seen it all before. She had even participated herself when the situation demanded it. She knew enough to recognize that the servants were little more than a decoy. The real danger were the spies that remained hidden—or tried to. Shade had already spotted two of these, though she suspected there were others. The first had been either novice or an amateur hiding amidst the vines. He had vanished from his concealment the very moment he caught Shade looking directly at him. The second had been more difficult to spot. She might have missed him completely had it not been for a sudden gust of wind that had rustled his camouflaged cloak just enough to catch Shade’s eye and alert her to his presence.

She had to assume that Lady Vander knew she was being watched, so it came as somewhat of a surprise when her chatter turned abruptly to the topic of her husband.

“So tell me dear,” she said. “Just what is it that troubles you about our little arrangement concerning my husband?”

“Is it safe to talk here?”

“Certainly. I know that Oralon is spying on me, and he knows that I know, which has always brought us to somewhat of an impasse, wouldn’t you say? You may speak candidly, my dear.”

“Very well,” responded Shade. “I don’t think you were being entirely honest with me the last time we met.”

“At this point, I would think that should be obvious.”

“But I’m not convinced the entire thing was an act either. I think you really do despise your husband, and that you would like nothing more than seeing your son come to his inheritance.”

Alys Vander smiled. “It would not shock anyone to hear that my mourning would have been brief in the event that you had somehow managed to kill my husband. It’s fairly well known that there is no love lost between us.”

“Then why help him deceive me?”

“He gave me something I wanted.”

“And what was that?”

“You.”

“I’m not sure I follow.” Suddenly, Shade did not like where this conversation was going.

“It’s really quite simple. My husband found himself in very sudden need of an individual with your particular skill set. But before hiring anyone, he wanted to put them to a test. He came to me and explained his plans, along with the role he wanted me to play. I agreed, so long as I got to select the assassin. I’m sure he was suspicious, but then he’s always suspicious. It’s in his nature.”

“And you chose me.”

“Evidently.”

“Why?”

“You have a remarkable reputation, my dear. When I learned that you were in the area, it seemed like an obvious choice.”

“That’s it? There’s nothing more to it?”

“Nothing at all,” responded Lady Vander sweetly.

She was lying. The glint of deceit was reflected so clearly in her eyes that it was almost as though she was admitting that there was something more, some unknown facet of the game in this game she was playing with her husband. Whatever that facet might be, however, it was equally clear that she was not about to reveal it—at least not here, where eyes were watching and ears were listening. For the moment, there was nothing Shade could do but play the game herself.

“I understand that you will be accompanying us to the Capital,” continued Lady Vander.

“Your husband extended the invitation.”

“I’m sure he did. It seems a logical decision, of course. A Wind Carriage is the quickest way to reach Relen’ayar, and given that we are heading to the Capital ourselves, it seems only sensible that you should accompany us. I’m afraid we’ll have to do something about your attire, though.”

“Excuse me?”

“Oralon and I generally travel separately. It doesn’t do much for appearances, I admit, but it makes for a more pleasant journey. I’m sure that my husband intended for you to travel in his carriage, but I think that I will insist you travel with me instead, as one of my companions. He’ll object, of course, but in the end I’m sure he’ll come around.”

Lady Vander paused as a faint trilling whistle rose up out of the vineyard.

“Well now, it seems as though my dear husband is about to join us. How convenient. We can settle this matter right here.”

Sir Oralon Vander appeared moments later, strolling wordlessly into the vineyard flanked by two armed guards. His long black overcoat and matching, silken doublet were elegantly cut, trimmed and embroidered with gold. He carried himself with a quiet dignity and, though the expression was calm and impassive, when his eyes fell upon Shade, they narrowed dangerously.

“So here is my little bird,” he said. “I was most troubled at your unexpected disappearance. I believed that I had provided adequate accommodations.”

“The room was fine,” responded Shade. “But given what had transpired there, I found it had an unwholesome feel to it.”

“I was not aware that you had such a delicate constitution.”

“It has nothing to do with that. I simply don’t like being manipulated. In any case, I prefer to make my own accommodations.”

“Duly noted,” said Sir Vander dryly. “I must admit, I’m somewhat surprised to find you here. I was not aware that you had a friendship with my wife.”

“Oh come now, Oralon,” said Lady Vander. “There’s no need to be snarky. Miss Shaydra and I simply had some matters to discuss. You know this has always been one of my favourite places to chat.”

“And drink.”

“We all have our vices. Shall I begin naming yours?” She paused, as though inviting him to respond. When he said nothing, she continued as though the entire matter was already forgotten. “In any case, our dear friend and I we were just talking about the trip to the Capital, and how we will need to find some more suitable clothing. A nice, elegant dress should do just fine for a new lady, wouldn’t you say, dear?”

“What are you talking about, Alys?”

“Our journey to the Capital! Pay attention, Oralon. If Miss Saydra is going to be traveling as one of companions, she should at least look the part of a lady, don’t you think? You were planning on sending as a member of my party, weren’t you? It simply would not be suitable for her to travel with you and your men. What would the other Lords think? What would the High Chaplin think?”

Shade half expected Vander to retort angrily. Instead, he surprised her offering his wife a wry smirk. It was the first hint of a smile Shade had ever seen touch his face. He clearly enjoyed this verbal sparring with his wife. It was a dangerous game, and one which likely favoured Sir Vander, but both parties had clearly managed to survive this far, and Shade suspected that each knew when to pick their battles.

In this instance, the husband conceded to the wife.

“Of course, Alys” he replied. His eyes flickered momentarily toward the man still concealed in the tree, as he strolled casually over toward the large white cage. For several long moments, he seemed to be admiring the creatures locked within. “We must always keep up appearances, mustn’t we? The birds seem quite merry today. So beautiful. So colourful. Such beautiful songs. So full of life. But they’re silly creatures too, don’t you think?”

With a deliberate slowness, Sir Vander unlatched the door to the cage. It swung open with a long, drawn-out creek. Instantly the birds went still and silent, as though they sensed the sudden change, but were unsure what to make of it. As soon as the Lordling turned back toward Shade and Lady Vander, however, one small, red-crowned swallow jumped from perch to perch, approaching the opening with a tentative curiosity. With one final bound, it came to rest on the edge of the open door. It hesitated, casting nervous glances in all directions, before whistling one and bolting through the opening. Its little wings flapped hard, gaining speed quickly as it bolted for freedom.

It had not made it more than a hundred feet when a falcon burst abruptly from the trees. Before Shade even knew what was happening, the predator had already fallen on the smaller bird, catching it in in its talons. The swallow cried out in panic, trashing madly as it struggled to escape, but the falcon’s grip was just too strong.

“A shame,” said Sir Vander as he watched the falcon fly away with its prey. “It was perfectly safe within the cage. Fed, watered and well protected. But such is the price of freedom, I suppose.” He turned back toward Shade and his wife. “In any case, it’s always good to know that you have matters well in hand, Alys. I suppose that I shall see you both on the air fields later this morning. Until then.”

With a curt nod and a simple signal to his guards, Sir Vander turned and walked wordlessly from the vineyard. His silence only served to amplify the weight of his message. The swallow’s death was no accident. That much was clear. It was both a warning and a threat. But who was it directed at? Shade wondered. At Lady Vander? At me? Or maybe both of us? Either way, the message was clear.

Oralon Vander might see himself as the falcon, but Shade was determined to show him that she was no swallow.

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