5/2/1272 2:00 The Palace of the Duke of Alsae
All Tania wants is to get to bed after an exhausting five hour dinner ‘party’ with the Craobhach clan. She splashes her face with cold water, wishing she had brought her slaves with her to remove her makeup and help her with her newly purchased gown. The tiny coach that runs from Milford to Alsae does not allow her such luxuries. She is alone.
As she looks around the cheaply furnished guest suite in which her luggage rests, the tawdry curtains shielding her view from the lights of an ugly city, something within her unshakable resolve breaks.
What am I doing?
Tania is as far away from her home, her culture, her clan, as the map of the known world shows she can go. And this wretched accomodation is what she has to show for her efforts: a cold black cell with a bed displaying the unbecoming thrift of her hosts and their unconciously offensive isolation.
She could have it, easily, the mountainous province in which the palace she inhabits exists, but why would she want it? Alsae, though defensible, is a miserable pile of rock, dependent on the fields of Almeignia to eat. The stink of old nobility, serving exile in their own country for crimes of a century and a half ago, permeates the city in the guise coal smoke and the hunger of the mountain wildlife outside the city walls, waiting for the slow moving yokels to emerge to take the air.
This is the cost of her ambition, the return on her unsuccessful bid for the Arghentian Crown. She stares in the dingy mirror above the sink with bitter, shattered eyes while barely containing her urge to scream out her frustration and rage. She saved her fortune, but her flight from Queen’s Convent has left her with nothing.
The knock on the cheap, hollow door serves as the crescendo to her misery. She straightens her posture, walks to the door and opens it, silently praying it’s her sister’s assassins.
Instead, the dim hallway light reveals Torin Craobhach, standing in his Templar formals, his hands behind his back, a smug smile on his face. “Good evening,” he says.
“Nothing good about it,” Tania says. “I was just about to turn in.”
“May I trouble you for a few minutes of your time while you make your preparations?” he replies.
“Pardon my lack of courtesy, sir,” Tania says with a sneer. “Won’t you come in?” She steps out of the doorway, sweeping into the suite with her free arm.
Torin strides into the room. Tania closes the door behind him and follows. “I’d offer you a drink, but the room seems to lack the courtesy of any vessels out of which one would imbibe.”
“Unhappy with the accomodations?” Torin says turning.
“They display a thoughtless disregard for your guests,” Tania says, crossing her arms.
“That’s rich, coming from someone who to all appearances is in exile from her homeland,” Torin says, clasping his hands before him.
“A homeland that displays its wealth by generosity to its guests,” Tania says. “A courtesy I was born to, and a consideration I was trained in.”
“But –” Torin stammers.
“But nothing. I’m still a billionairess,” Tania continues. “I have not yet received the divorce from the Eternal Throne of my birthright of the Duchy of Säerglen, though I am three months removed from the nation of my birth. So you, Templar, still address a Princess of the Blood.”
“Just what I wanted to hear from you, Your Highness,” Torin replies.
“I’ve something you don’t want to hear,” Tania says.
“Oh?” Torin says with a smile.
Tania pulls out his note and hands it back to him. “You cannot offer me what you do not own,” she says with a whiplash smile. “Why would I be interested in the heir of a third-born son?”
Torin pushs the note back into Tania’s hand. “I’m a temporarily inconvenienced Duke, coming to someone who came within three heartbeats of the Arghentian Crown. Failure is instructive. I was hoping you would share with me the lessons that brought you here.”
“Those are expensive lessons, Sir,” Tania says. “You offer me something I could casually acquire.”
“Something a woman of your means and your wiles could convert into a ten-fold profit,” Torin says. “And tax revenues in excess of the gross national product of your nation.”
Tania’s right eyebrow shoots up. “Have a seat,” she says.
Tania watches as Torin pulls the rickety chair from the shabby desk and mounts it from the back, his legs splayed as if he were mounting a horse. The arrogent display sells her on the notion that Torin isn’t the flaccid milktoasts with whom she dined earlier in the evening. She sits down on the bed, the sagging corner of which forces her knees together and summons from her back the trained posture of her youth. “What do you get out of it?”
“A chance to improve the lives of not only myself, but with the assistance of your acumen, the life of every man woman and child in Alsae,” Torin says. “And an unassailable fortress of a city from which I or our children could launch a bid for the Penmhrikan Crown.”
“There are twenty-seven people between you and what you want,” Tania says, her eyes narrowing.
“What a young man with access to all the books of the family businesses could tell you,” Torin replies with a smug smile. “I read about your exposés on your mother’s courtiers. Brilliant.”
“Your first mistake,” Tania says. “That information was so closely held, it was manifest to the court and the public who exposed it and that my ends were self-serving. I pretended at moralism while surrendering the moral high ground. I armed my own downfall, exposing my plan to the wary eyes of my siblings.”
“How would you do it if you could do it again?” Torin asks.
“I would find a disenfranchised employee of those companies who has the same access,” Tania says. “Through agents, I would persuade them of their moral duty to expose the information. They expose the malfeasance, take the fall, and I merely use my means to buy up the now-much-cheaper-shares of the public companies until I control them through an anonymous shell company the lone shareholder of which is hidden under numerous legal obstancles. And that morally righteous employee has an accident while my people, people I can trust, take his position.”
“Careful investigation finds a mythical acquaintence inspired the moralism, the beneficiaries of which are unknown and unknowable,” Torin says. “Interesting.”
“And repeatable,” Tania says.
“How would I escape suspicion?” Torin asks.
“Deploy,” Tania says. “Go off to some internal or external conflict with your company and display valor and wisdom. Make sure the press goes with you. Your self-agrandizement is merely expected of a templar and not a bid for more power.” Tania replies. “Your disgraced relatives go to jail or fall on the sword. Your hands never get dirty. You, and perhaps your wife if you feel trusting, are the only people who know or even care that you engineered your own rise.”
“What’s the lesson?” Torin asks.
“Being a Princess of the Blood made me arrogent about my ambitions,” Tania replies. “That, more than anything else, offended my sister, who only found it too easy to step on my coat-tails after I performed the ugly work of clearing the path. I was stupid. You don’t have to be.”
“What will this cost me?” Torin asks.
“Now that you know how I will steal the duchy, it will cost your life,” Tania says. “Or you can become my boy-toy and see from the inside how it’s done.”
Torin rises. Tania does the same. He stares into her eyes with a burning passion.
“But the legitimacy of your reign passes through me, the sole survivor of your plan,” he says.
Tania puts a hand on Torin’s chest. “Convince me.”