5/1/1292 17:00 The Palace of the Duke of Alsae

Tania, raised in the courts of Queen Deirdre, learned to rescue dinner parties from politics, larger-than-life personalities, and arguments about faith. She learned to hold her liquor and to listen rather than talk. The Craobhachs present another challenge altogether, one for which she is wholly unprepared.

How to manage a dinner party when no one will talk?

Seated at the place of honor on the ancient Ethan Craobhach’s right hand, Tania’s manners are impeccable.

“So, Master Ward,” Tania says with a smile to Ethan’s oldest son, and the heir apparent, Ward Craobhach, “What did you do today that you truly loved?”

“Ate,” the retired owner of the Alsae Ballistics rifle factory says with a smile.

“Pray what was so delicious, good sir?” she smiles, attempting to draw more than a monosyllabic reply.

“Food,” Ward replies.

Tania turns to Ward’s middle-aged wife Keriann. “How ever do you contain your domestic excitement?” she ascerbically asks.

“We’re simple folks, Your Highness,” Keriann replies in a charmless, pinched voice empty of conviviality.

“I see,” the exiled Princess says, hiding her utter contempt behind a thick veil of understatement. She turns to Fogartaigh Craobach, Ethan’s second son, sitting on her immediate left. “Master Fogartaigh, I take it your day was much more exciting,” she says.

Fogartaigh opens his mouth to speak when his wife Avonmora breaks in.

“Can you believe the cost of a decent gown, Your Highness?” Avonmora says, jealously eying the Princess’ newest acquistion. “I can’t believe that Devon the Tailor, fresh out his apprenticeship can even consider such prices.”

“What do you and your husband do that you find his princes so objectionable?” Tania asks.

Fogartaigh opens his mouth to reply. Avonmore once again seizes the conversation. “Our margins at the Dunsmuir Foundry are much too modest. I told Fogartaigh to charge more, but it’s like he’s forgotten how to talk. I just… you know how men are, Your Highness,” she snips.

“How are the finances of Black Mountain Alchemical doing, Master Flannery?” she says looking down the table at Torin’s parents.

Flannery opens his mouth when Elvinia touches his hand. “I’m afraid we can’t discuss the company finances with a non-stockholder, Your Highness,” Elvinia says.

“But we’re always happy to talk to new investors!” Flannery cheerfully adds.

“Oh, that’s right,” Tania says, her voice dashed with the slightest discrete snark. “It’s first son, second son, third son. You wouldn’t want to hear about efficiencies that could let you all dominate the world market. That information is proprietary to majority stock holders in the Pan-Imperial, like me.” She turns to Ethan. “Desmond and I are going to find our way to the facilities.Would you all be kind enough to excuse us?” She motions Desmond into the hallway with a nod of her head.

Once the dining area doors close behind her, Tania turns to Desmond, grabs the front of his trousers, and pulls them towards her, craning her neck to look down towards his manhood.

“Excuse me?” Desmond says.

“Oh good!” Tania says, releasing him. “One man in that room actually HAS a set of yams.” She rolls her eyes. “What a bunch of simpletons! How is it these people have control of local industry?”

“They’re the Craobhachs,” Desmond says. “They’ve been royalty since the Exile.”

“Which apparently was the last time the ladies bought a dress,” Tania whispers. “How long are these meals?”

“Four hours at the least,” Desmond says. “This is Alsae. Nothing moves quickly.”

Tania pantomimes stabbing herself in the throat with a knife.“When I get my money in the Pennington, you need to set up a shell company here or in Milford. Then we can start buying out the minority shareholders. If I owned these companies, they’d make billions.”

“Wouldn’t you rather build up the agricultural section around Milford and break the monopoly that keeps twenty thousand Alsatians from revolting?” Desmond says. “If you’re actually interested in taking over here, start with the things people can’t do without: food and water. That’s the profit center that enables these people to run the duchy.”

“Red wins, these idiots lose,” Tania says. “Smart! We’ll talk, but we should get back.”

Five hours of social hell later, Tania and Desmond are being escorted back to the guest suites by bleary-eyed, slow moving servants. Entering her room, Tania flops onto a clearly cheaply-made mattress and lets out a deep, agonized sigh. Her palms rise to her forehead. The depth and breadth, the sheer weight of her ruined life, sacrificed on the alter of her ambitions, crashes down upon her. Her heart, a barren wasteland of loss, aches with the sight ahead of her – a cloud-shrouded mountain of effort that in the end might gain her something approximating what she thoughtlessly discarded, but not the lives sacrificed in vain – in vanity.

A knock sounds quietly on the door of her suite, interrupting her depressive musing. She rises with a grunt and goes to the door.

Sir Torin stands there, leaning on the door frame. He’s almost tall enough to look her in the eye.

“I…” he begins. “My note from this afternoon… we need to talk. May I come in?”

Tania looks away with a frown. “I was just about to turn in.”

Torin rises and bows. “This won’t take long. I’m afraid I must insist.”

“As you wish,” Tania says, her arms flapping down at her sides, her gaze hitting the floor. She steps aside.Torin enters, his scent cloud of mandarin, red musk and tobacco enveloping Tania. Her heart stirs. She turns and follows him.

Torin walks to the only chair in the room, turns it around and straddles it. He sits in his military kilt, his legs splayed wide apart. His forearms rest on the top of the chair’s back. A manly human musk drifts from his open kilt, adding to the scent cloud that is already kindling in Tania’s reptile brain. She rapidly shakes her head and sits down on the corner of the bed, her left leg over the edge of the foot, her right leg over the mattress’ left-hand side. She fall back, leaning on her hands. She’s grown used to relaxed informality in the close quarters of the wagon, surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting. The wantonly sexual position, never assumed by demure and dour Alsae debutantes, widens Torin’s eyes. He blinks, rubbing his eyes with one hand.

“Spit it out,” Tania snarls.

“How was your dinner with the clan elders?” Torin asks.

“You’re keeping me out of bed to ask how my dinner was?” Tania barks. “First, tell me whether these walls have ears.”

“The guest suites?” Torin says. “No, Your Highness.”

“Good,” she says. “Ethan spent the night looking down the neckline of my gown to the point where I was about to strip off my top just to stop the staring. The elder women are chattering harridans with the intellectual capacity of a retarded Arghentian serf between them. The men obviously left their yams at home, probably locked away by their harpy womenfolk. The lot have no ambition to be anything but what they are: inbred, provincial nobles in decline. I’ve met enough of those in my time to be able to smell them. Penamharik in general and Alsae in particular would be better served if they were all killed in a plague.”

Torin softly chuckles. “I’m glad we’re in agreement on something,” he says, shaking his head.

“So, did someone leave you on Elvinia’s doorstep in a basket?” Tania says, glaring at the black wall to Torin’s right.

“Just poured differently,” Torin says, staring at Tania’s crotch as if he could see through her gown.

Tania pushes herself up, leaning on the elbows braced on her splayed legs. She tilts her head to her right.“So what makes you think I’d even be interested in being Duchess of Alsae? And shouldn’t you be Duke before approaching me?”

“Actually, I thought you would be climber in this relationship,” Torin says. “I’m a knight of a famous international order, and you’re a wealthy exile,” he says. “You haven’t been stripped of your duchy yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Your treason against the Arghentian Crown was quite bold and ran up a considerable body count before you fled.”

“Indeed,” Tania says. “I’m a jumped up fraud. I toss my title around because it lets me bully naïve Penamhrikan yokels. I’ve got maybe fifty knights worth of muscle to back it up, and they’re not all here yet. Are you keeping me up to mock me, because you could do that in the morning.”

“No,” Torin says. “I came here for advice. Failure is instructive, and from what I read and the succession charts that are freely available in most libraries, you got within three bodies of the Arghentian crown. Fratricide is rather frowned upon in Penamhrikan law, or I’d have just staged a coup by now.”

Tania mops her forehead with her hand.The other hand starts unbuttoning her top. She lets out an exhausted sigh. “Does your clan have an intelligence arm, a secret police or other agents? And how much money do you have?” She yawns without bothering to cover her mouth.

“No,” Torin says. “Ethan and the elders do what they want. They control the army, except for my company. Nobody steps out of line.”

“Then you have an advantage in that you’re an ambitious man in a province full of rank, obedient cowards,” Tania says. “Find some observant locals who need money and work for the Elders. Make sure they have access to the books. No company’s books are ever clean. And nobles are almost always degenerate. Find out who they’re exploiting. Leak it to the press.”

“Is that all?” Torin says. “I have access to the books of all the companies. I know that Ward’s a pedophile, Fogartaigh’s an alcoholic and Elvinia wouldn’t talk about how the company’s going because she’s skimming the books saving up to move out. My father is too gutless to knock off his brothers and claim the crown, so Elvinia figures she’s building up dowry for a second marriage in some other province.”

“When my shadow company becomes a minority stakeholder in all these companies, I’ll come to you for proof of those allegations and hand them to my lawyer. By the time you return in military glory from the rebellion, you should be ready to ride a wave of popular support into the palace. Don’t waste that goodwill you build up, and make sure the press hears about and writes about your noble exploits. Have someone you trust locally leak the information while you're away. You’ll be too far away to be splattered by the mud. Stockholders will leave in droves. Stock price will drop. I’ll buy it up, and take over.”

“Interesting,” Torin says. “You arrived this afternoon and you already have a plan to take over?”

“It’s child's play. Your elders are so busy stabbing each other in the back, they have no defenses against a hostile takeover from outside the clan. They’re big fish in a small pond. They have no idea a shark just arrived in town. Come the harvest, I’ll use low overhead transportation to take over the food market in this filthy shithole. I’m going to also take control of the water authority, which shouldn’t be that hard or cost that much. Then I’ll start squeezing. I’m also instigating a predatory loan scheme at the Pennington Bank & Trust, though less predatory than the scheme already implemented by the Pan-Imperial.”

“What a woman!” Torin says. “You lose almost everything, but in less than a year you have a plan to take just as much away from someone else and take over. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were Drionnic.”

“I have almost nothing to lose,” Tania says. “Of course, now that you know my plan, you have two choices: become my man toy and do everything I say; or wake up dead tomorrow, and I’ll buy some other insider I can kill later to hide the evidence.”

Torin rises from his chair and dismounts. “I can’t believe I’m sitting here talking with a foreign traitor about betraying my entire clan,” he says, shaking his head. Tania rises, reaching into the pocket of her gown fishing for a rune stone. A light begins to shine from behind her eyes. Torin sees the display. He falls to a knee, grabs Tania’s free hand and kisses it. “I am yours, my beautiful, deadly conspirator,” he says.

Tania drops the runestone, slides her right hand up and undoes a couple of buttons.The skirt of her outfit falls to the floor, leaving her standing there in Devon’s skimpy, French cut silk panties.

“While you’re down there, Sir Torin, make yourself useful,” she says.

He reaches up and pulls down the luxurious underwear, wallowing in the delightful scents that follow.

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