An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

The Lordling’s Manor Shade

Kilinshire did not have a palace, at least not in any official capacity. Only the Lords of the Major Houses had palaces, generally located in the primary holdings of their respective provinces. Minor Lords were only permitted private estates or manors, though Shade had  discovered that the distinction was merely semantic in nature. Many of the manor houses she had seen throughout the south—such as that belonging to Sir Oralon Vander—would dwarf the palaces of the northern provinces, where the ever-present threat of Titans and the promise of frigid winters made warmth and defensibility a priority over opulence and grandeur.

In Shade’s view, Lord Vander’s manor house was a hulking monstrosity. It was not that it was ugly. Constructed on a man-made hill at the very heart of the city, it was a sprawling complex of beauty. The colours of its carefully manicured gardens and terraces contrasted against the polished white columns and great, vaulted archways that surrounded the inner buildings like an intricate architectural web. The primary residence was octagonal in shape, with spire-capped towers at each of its corners and a massive bulb-shaped roof that gleamed bright and golden in the morning sunlight. Altogether, it radiated an aura of wealth and self-importance that set Shade’s nerves on edge.

She had come a long way from living as an orphan on the streets of Relen’ayar, but there was still enough of that little girl in her that she always felt a strong disdain for excessive displays of wealth. Of course, disdain was not enough to keep her away. It only served to reinforce her opinion of her most recent patron.

Shade spent less than a quarter hour strolling casually around the perimeter of the manor house, watching for an ideal entry point. She found it easily enough, and slipped into a public garden that rested just beneath one of the open terraces. She strolled along the path, admiring the colourful flowerbeds and intricately shaped shrubs. She slowed as she approached the stone wall that supported the terrace. When she was confident that nobody was watching, she slipped into a small grove and scampered into the branches of an old pear tree.

The terrace wall was constructed from thousands of different sized bricks, set in a complex pattern that provided plenty of footholds. Shade set her attention on another tree that was growing near the edge of the terrace, carefully plotting the path that would bring her to the top as quickly as possible, while also offering the greatest degree of concealment from any watching eyes.

She glanced behind her once more to ensure that nobody was coming up behind her. Assured that she was alone, she began climbing with a practiced agility. Placing her hands and feet confidently, she reached the top of the wall in under a minute, slipping quietly over the top and dropping into a crouch behind the tree toward which she had been climbing.

Immediately, she heard the sound of approaching voices.

She could not see who those voices belonged to. Nor could she hear what they were saying, though from the casual timbre of their voices, she was confident that she had not been seen. Fixed in place, with her back pressed against the tree, she listened intently in an effort to determine the proximity of the strangers. They sounded as though they were drawing closer, perhaps enjoying a morning stroll. Shade drew one of her knives, cupped it in the palm of her hand and held it out before her. In a matter of just a few seconds, she caught a glimpse of the approaching strangers reflected on the polished surface of her blade.

Shade smiled.

It seemed that after having been duped into killing the wrong man, and the debacle on the rooftops earlier that morning, fortune had finally chosen to smile on her again. It was a man and woman approaching and, though their shapes were distorted by the slight curve of her blade, Shade clearly recognized the small, roundish figure of Alys Vander.

Shade did not recognize the man, though it was clear that it was not the Lady’s husband—he was too tall and thick through the shoulders to be Oralon Vander. He carried a sword at his side, however, and even from the small, indistinct reflection, Shade could tell that his clothing was rich and well-tailored.

A courtier? Too familiar. Probably not a bodyguard either. A lover? If so they’d be foolish to be walking together so publicly. Family then, Shade determined. It was possible that it could be a visiting brother or cousin—Shade new little about the woman’s kin—but it was far more likely that the man was Cerin Vander, Alys’ son, and the only living heir to the wealth of Kilinshire.

“I don’t understand why father won’t let me go,” Shade heard him whine as they approached, all but confirming her suspicions. “I’ll need to acquaint myself with the court sooner or later.”

“Patience, my dear,” said his mother. “Your father does not expect much to come out of this council, and he wants you to remain here to look after his affairs. Between the droughts in the Lowlands and trouble brewing in Tallavorn, we can expect a higher than usual demand for our grains come harvest time—”

Trouble in Tallavorn? Shade had heard rumours that the Islanders were stirring up trouble along the coast, but if Vander was planning on profiting from the situation, matters must have been worse than she thought. It would be something to keep an eye on while in the Capital.

When Lady Vander and her son were nearly out of earshot, Shade fell into a low crouch and began tailing them, moving from concealment to concealment with all the silence of a shadow.

“It just seems grossly unfair,” complained Cerin.

“When has your father ever concerned himself with what’s fair? He doesn’t trust the Steward to oversee the farming while he’s gone, so he’s leaving you in charge.”

“He doesn’t trust me either.”

“Of course he doesn’t, my dear. He doesn’t trust anyone, but at least you have something at stake in the matter. Reymen Sale is growing more senile by the day. I can only assume that your father’s simply waiting for him to die, rather than having to deal with all the nastiness of disposing him. He’s held his position for more than forty years.”

“Do you think you could talk to him?” pleaded Cerin.

“To Reymen?”

“To father!”

“No, Cerin. I don’t think so. I don’t speak to your father. Not like that. He does what he does, and as long as I don’t stick my nose in his business, he leaves me well enough alone. I make a habit of picking my battles, and you’re injured pride is not reason enough to go to war with him. Your time will come, my boy. But run along now. You’ll be wanted in the Steward’s office, and I intend to visit the vineyard before we depart.”

“More wine, mother?”

“I’m preparing to spend the better part of a week surrounded by some of the most vicious, venom-tongued gossips of our age. Trust me—there is never too much wine.”

In spite of herself, Shade could not help but smile at the woman’s deadpan humour. While she had never spent much time moving among the highborn circles, she had encountered enough nobles to attest to the truth behind Lady Vander’s words. It was a broad generalization, of course. There were some intelligent, kind-hearted women in the court. Still, Shade prefer an evening among the thieves and cutthroats that lurked in the shadows of the Capital’s underworld than among the women of the court.

She continued watching from her concealment as Cerin bid farewell to his mother and turned back in the direction from which they had come. Lady Vander continued on alone. Her casual pace providing Shade with all the time she needed to weave between the trees and shrubs, until she was well ahead of Alys Vander. When she felt the moment was right, she stepped out of her concealment and directly into the other woman’s path.

“Lady Vander,” said Shade in quiet, level tone.

“Well hello dear,” responded the woman, as though greeting an old friend. While the crown of her head did not even reach Shade’s chin, she was still a commanding presence. She wore her dark hair up, in a severe style that leant a certain hardness to her otherwise round face. She was clad in an elegant golden dress, trimmed with green silk that was a perfect match to her Flameborn eyes. “I’d been wondering when you might pop up. I trust this is not an assassination. It seems far too public and direct for you.”

“I was just hoping to talk.”

“Very good. I’m in no mood to defend myself this morning.” As if to emphasize her point, she traced her fingers casually through the air, conjuring a thin line of fire. It vanished as quickly as it had appeared, but the implication was clear. “Not that I wouldn’t, mind you. It’s just that my stomach feels a little sour. I think the prospect of travelling by Wind Carriage has upset my constitution.” She smiled. “I’d heard that matters went a bit awry on you.”

“You might say that,” said Shade. “It seems that not everybody was entirely honest with me.”

“Very sorry for that. But a woman has to do what a woman has to do. I’m sure you understand.”

“Not entirely. Let me put this simply, Lady Vander. You don’t strike me as the devoted wife. It puzzles me that you would play into his games.”

“Does it now?”

“I also pride myself on my ability to read the truth of a situation. It surprises me that you were able to deceive me so readily. Thinking back, it seems to me that there was some truth to what you told me. So while I certainly appreciate the need to look out for our own best interests, I’m not convinced that you are being forthright with your motivations—either with me or your husband.”

The small woman responded with a cunning smile. “I think I like you, miss Shade. I think I like you very much. Tell me dear, do you like wine?”

“I enjoy the occasional cup.”

“Excellent. I was just on my way to our private vineyard—though I would imagine you already knew that, didn’t you? Why not join me? We have some of the best vintage in the Realm.”

“Isn’t it a bit early?” Shade asked, drawing a deep laugh from the small woman.

“In this house, my dear, it’s never too early.”

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