Kita clenched her teeth as she crossed her long dagger and sword against Petersen’s longsword—the three blades locked in a battle of strength. Despite her gritty determination, he pushed her down. Twisting her dagger, she parried his sword with hers while sidestepping and thrusting her dagger into his exposed ribs as he stumbled from his overexertion.
Petersen recovered with a wry smile. “I see you did more than tour the Champignon countryside in your travels.”
Is that where Mother said I was? Good to know. “I did stay a few weeks at the Ecole Militaire for some private tutorage.”
“Impressive. It’s good for you to learn new forms. The Yorqian fighting forms aren’t designed for women.”
Kita rolled her blue eyes. Only Yorq thinks brute strength is the solution to every problem. A pair of knights in gold and green livery galloped past the training grounds. Kita’s pet war cat, Sarge, scrambled out of the way from basking in the sun.
“Hey! You blind donkey lover, that’s my cat!” She yelled after the knights. Sarge trotted over and sat next to Kita, resting his head on her thigh. She scratched his ears. “It’s okay, boy.”
Petersen didn’t look pleased. “You know how your father feels about you yelling and insulting his soldiers. Consider yourself lectured.”
Kita huffed. I hate being home. “Why is Jeffrey’s guard here? Didn’t they leave with him for Razor’s Pass?”
“They did. The only reason they’d be here is if Lord Jeffrey has returned.”
Kita bristled. She’d been enjoying not having her brother around. It was one less person to make her life insufferable.
“You should probably go find out,” prodded Petersen as he placed the practice weapons in the racks.
“It’ll have nothing to do with me.”
“It might. Lord Jeffrey’s not back because of a military matter, or I would know. It must be something family related.” He gave her a dismissive nod.
Kita grumbled to herself. With luck, maybe Father had fallen ill.
Kita trudged up the path toward the castle proper with Sarge trailing. He was her fuzzy shadow, following her whenever she was home. Bloody moons, I hate it here. Why does Mother always drag me back? Why can’t they just let me disappear? I don’t need them to build a life of my own. I can build my own kingdom.
She passed through the curtain wall and started the long climb to the inner castle. As Kita reached the courtyard, Sarge let out a growl. She looked down to see what he wanted as she rounded a corner into one of the duchess’ gardens, running into the back of a teenage girl wearing a red velvet dress, her hair in big loose curls flowing down her back. Kita glared at Sarge, while he snickered.
“Oh, sorry, um…” Kita searched for the girl’s name. As one of the town’s lower nobles, Kita had met her several times. None of the young nobles liked Kita, so she had never bothered to learn their names. Instead, she assigned them pet names; but addressing this one as Cute Redhead wouldn’t help her cause with these sexually repressive brats, nor did she want her ill manners and sexual desires getting back to her father.
Before she could come up with the girl’s name, Cute Redhead spoke. “I’m so sorry, my lady. I shouldn’t be standing in a blind spot. Are you all right?”
“Lady Allison. My father is Lord Marsham, the assistant to the Estate Tax Collector.”
“Oh don’t be, my lady. I know you’re busy and can’t remember everyone’s name.”
If I tell her the only reason I remember her face is because she’s cute, would that make her feel better? Probably not. Kita sighed. Why is every major and minor gossip in town here? “What’s going on?”
“You haven’t heard, my lady? I thought you’d be the first to know, living in the castle and all,” Lady Allison said with a perky smile.
Oh, I bet you love knowing something before I do. “Pretend I don’t and enlighten me.”
“Oh, yes, of course, my lady. There is a senior legionnaire in town. He arrived this morning.” Her excitement bubbled over into her voice.
She gets any more excited, and she’s going to pop.
“So? They come recruiting all the time.”
“Yes, my lady—but supposedly, this isn’t just any legionnaire. He’s the commander.”
“Huh. He must be going to Razor’s Pass and is here to pay respects to my father, uh, the duke.”
“Well my lady, we believe he’s here to recruit someone special. Lady Dianna thinks he wants your brother, Lord Jeffrey.”
That would explain Jeffrey and his thugs returning.
“Maybe I’ll go to the main hall and find out. Thanks, ah, Allison.”
“My pleasure my lady. Please come back and let us know when you get a moment.”
“Uh-huh, sure.” Like I’d ever voluntarily come back and cluck with you chickens.
Kita navigated the gilded group, looking out of place in her tattered leather armor amongst their fashionable clothes.
Kita approached the guarded speaker’s entrance of the main hall. She flashed the guard one of her enticing smiles. He nodded and opened the door for her. From an early age, she’d learned with her smile and a little movement in the right areas she could get a lot of things from the young guards. And what you don’t know…
The main hall was as much a museum as the place her father held court. A variety of antiques, tapestries, and artwork hung or stood along the walls. She entered on the stage. A staircase led to the floor. On both sides of the hall, giant fireplaces supplied light and heat. Some genius engineer had designed movable walls to expand the hall right into the ballroom and banquet room.
Her father, brother, and another man stood in a group across the hall. Jeffrey looked freshly groomed and wore his parade armor, shined to a mirror finish. The hair on her arms stood up on recognizing Duke Cunningham. She swallowed a lump of bile.
They must really believe Jeffrey’s to be recruited. This could be entertaining if the Legion is here for someone else. And if they do take him I’m here to support the family. Isn’t that what I’m always being yelled at to do? Kita descended the stage and moved across the hall. Their voices drifted to her as she approached.
“My men are arriving as we speak, and the crossroads is in the wrong direction,” said Cunningham. “What’s wrong with them staying inside the curtain wall?”
“It’s not big enough, Serge,” said her father.
“There are some fallow fields on the south side of the castle,” said Jeffrey.
Why does he want his soldiers in the castle when there’s plenty of room outside? Maybe his men carry the bastard’s teddy bear.
“Hello, Father, Jeffrey, Duke Cunningham,” Kita said as she joined the men. They stopped and stared at her. Kita ignored their looks. “Jeffrey, I didn’t think you’d be back so soon. Is the war already over?”
“No,” Jeffrey said in his gruff baritone. “I’m back on some urgent business.”
“What requires the unveiling of the mirror armor?” Ribbing her brother was a dangerous yet amusing pastime.
Her father’s sour voice squashed their banter. “Speaking of armor, Kita, why are you wearing yours in here?”
Kita kept her face neutral under her father’s glower.
Great, he’s mad, and I haven’t been here more than a minute. Kita expected him to be in a better mood. His favorite child was about to get another turkey feather in his hat. “I heard Jeffrey was back, a—”
“From that disgusting garb, am I to understand you’ve been wasting Sergeant-Major-at-Arms Petersen’s valuable time teaching you, instead of my new recruits? I’m tired of you playing soldier. It’s not becoming of a girl of your station…” We’re reaching a new low doing this in public. I guess Cunningham is here often enough he could be considered the unwanted bastard stepchild. “…You should be learning social graces, the arts, how to run a house and be a proper lady and wife…” Like I’d ever lower myself to be like Allison. “…You’re almost past your prime! Most girls your age have married or are on the way to finding a suitable husband. How am I supposed to present you as a candidate when you don’t know the first thing about being a proper lady?” Proper lady according to whom? The Champignons love me.
Both her brother and Cunningham nodded in agreement.
“You should listen to your father, Miss Kita,” said Cunningham. “The supply of eligible lords is dwindling fast. Your…maidenly demurral”—he coughed—“will only hinder the effort. Families want young girls who can produce healthy, strong heirs as soon as possible. You don’t want to have to join a cloister, do you?”
How long have you waited to get back at me even a little? Have your words. I’ve got blood, and I’m not done yet.
“I’m going to put an end to this right now.” Her father was red in the face and his hand motions had become erratic.
Things are going to get ugly.
“First, you’re to turn in your weapons and armor to the quartermaster—”
“But I paid for them with my money!” Kita cried.
Jeffrey and Duke Cunningham exchanged amused glances. Kita tried not to sneer at them.
“Don’t raise your voice to me, child! I am your father and your lord. I’ll not tolerate this behavior, especially not in front of your brother and my guest.”
You started it!
The soldier left his post by the main door. His face was stone as he reported. “Yes, my lord?”
“Take this order to the Officer of the Watch. Sergeant-Major-at-Arms Petersen is to stop training my daughter immediately, and no other soldier in my army shall either. Disobeying this order is punishable by a year in the dungeon and a dishonorable discharge. Take her to the quartermaster and have her turn in her armor and weapons. Use force if necessary. Is that understood?”
A cold sweat trickled down Kita’s back as she swallowed hard. This wasn’t the first time her father had threatened to stop her training, but it was the first time he’d acted on it. Fear flashed to anger. Could I kill them all before the guards can stop me?
Sergeant Crispin saluted. “Ye—”
“You. Will. Do. No. Such. Thing. Priatt.”
All three of the men’s faces turned ashen. A wave of relief washed over Kita. I’m sure if Mother ordered, the planet would stop rotating and stand at attention. The duchess covered the ground between the side door and the group so fast the men hadn’t any time to react.
Kita felt there must be some secret signal among the staff to alert her mother when she was in trouble. The duchess always seemed to appear when Kita needed her most. Now, her mother stood between her and her father. The duchess’ eyes blazing as she looked into her husband’s.
“What is the meaning of this? Why are you threatening our daughter? Explain yourself, Priatt.”
Kita swore the three men shrank a few inches.
“My lady…Marie, please calm down,” Cunningham interjected. “Priatt was only trying to tell the girl to think about her future. I admit, and I’m sure Priatt will as well, he got a little carried away. I do agree with him. She’s turned down all suitors, and it’s getting harder to find suitable husbands. He’s only looking out for her best interest and well-being. I think we should stop and cool off. No harm has been done. Perhaps the two of you can discuss this later when you’re both feeling a bit more rational.”
The duchess wheeled and stuck a finger in Cunningham’s chest. “If I want your advice about my daughter I’ll beat it out of you,” she said with acid in her voice, “and if you ever speak to my daughter like that again, I’ll flay and gut you.”
Cunningham couldn’t hide the terror in his eyes.
Slither away, you snake.
The duchess faced the duke, who had recovered from his initial shock at being interrupted and overtaken. His face was set hard as a rock.
The duchess’ tone softened. “Priatt, I’m tired of having this conversation every six months. We agreed on this when Kita first showed interest. If she could find the teacher and the equipment, she could learn. When she’s ready, she’ll find someone who will accept her for who she is.”
The duke drew in a long breath. “It’s not that simple anymore. Kita is no longer sixteen. She is twenty-three. It’s time for her to take on the responsibility and duties required as a member of this family and as a noble. That includes marrying and producing children.”
Oh bloody moons, no. I am not doing that.
“The battlefield is no place for a proper noblewoman.”
The duchess leaned into him. “You’re such a hypocrite.”
Her father frowned and lowered his head.
The door to the main hall opened, drawing the duchess’ attention. Everyone’s gaze followed. The tall figure in the doorway brought a smile to the duchess’ face.
“May I present Commander Angus of the Legion of Yorq,” announced the butler.
Kita felt his presence take command of the room. I must learn that trick. Angus’ hair and beard were clean and nicely groomed. His armor was unique, made of angular, fitted blue plates that covered strategic areas of the body. Under the armor was a blue uniform and he wore black boots. A half-helmet was hanging from a strap connected to his utility belt. On his back he carried a sword and shield.
Angus stopped at the edge of the group. “Duke Logine, a pleasure to see you again. I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
“No, no, of course not, Commander. It’s been a long time. Welcome to Castle Arbol. I’m sure you remember Serge?”
“Good day, my lord. I see the years have been good to you.”
“Greetings, Angus. How nice of you to say, but time catches up to us all I’m afraid. However, you look like the war ended yesterday,” said Cunningham, with a slight frown.
Angus smiled. “The vigorous training regimen of the Legion keeps one looking young.”
He smiled, but his eyes didn’t. Why lie?
“May I introduce my son, Lord Jeffrey?” said the duke. “He currently commands my forces. Previously, he has served on the king’s Command Staff and graduated second in his class from the king’s war college. In the king’s service, he served as a platoon leader and on the Command Staff. He’s partaken in several battles against ravagers. Unfortunately, he’ll be leaving shortly to join the king’s forces.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Lord Jeffrey. A most impressive resume. I’m sure you will do your estate proud.”
Jeffrey smiled humbly. I’m going to gag.
“Thank you, Angus,” said Jeffrey in a pious tone. “I’m honored to hear such praise from such a respected and honored warrior as yourself. I look forward to serving with you at Razor’s Pass.”
Angus smiled warmly and bowed over the duchess’ offered hand. “Marie, you look lovely. It’s good to see you again.”
The duchess inclined her head. “Pleasure to see you again, Angus.”
“The pleasure is mine, my lady. It’s been a very long time. It looks like the gods have smiled upon you.”
How far back did Mother and Angus go?
“They have indeed.”
The Duke reached out and touched the Duchess’ arm. “So—”
“This is our daughter, Lady Kita,” said the duchess. “I apologize for her appearance. She’s just returned from her arms lesson and stopped in unexpectedly.”
Kita became conscious that her blond hair must look like a rat’s nest.
“It’s quite all right, my lady. I’m glad to finally meet you, Lady Kita. It’s good to see someone willing to get her armor dirty. I know in Yorq, few women are allowed to fight. I commend you on your courage and that of your father. It isn’t easy to wave your banner in the face of social norms.”
The duke waved Kita aside. “So Angus, what brings you to Arbol? The Legion recruiters were just here and took three of my best senior sergeants. Was there a problem with them?”
“No, my lord. They’ve been a welcome addition and have adapted very well to the Legion. I’m here on a separate recruiting mission. Because of the person’s stature and position, I felt I should do the recruiting myself.”
Why hasn’t he mentioned Jeffrey by name yet? Maybe he’s seeing if he can get Father to explode from the suspense. As amusing as the image was, Kita had made a mistake in coming to the hall. She seemed only to have reinforced her father’s notions for her future. I will not bend to his will. I’m not his pawn. It’s my life…but that’s easier said than done. Where can I go that they won’t follow? There’s always Leedings…
Her father rubbed his hands together. “Of course, of course. You know you’re putting me in a tight spot, Angus.”
Angus’ left eyebrow rose a fraction. “Why, my lord?”
The duke laughed. “You’ll be leaving me without a commander. I’m too old for that kind of thing. How’s your second coming, Jeffrey?”
“George could still use some time, but he’s been learning fast. The senior sergeants like him well enough and can cover the gaps. We’re to be in the same brigade as Duke Cunningham’s forces, their commander is excellent. I’m sure he’d guide George.”
“Wonderful, then it’s settled,” the duke nearly shouted.
They’re strutting like roosters, chests out, feathers fluffed, crowing loudly, and ready to pounce on the nearest hen. Kita glanced at Angus, but he didn’t look excited or happy—he looked annoyed. Oh, this is where it gets entertaining.
“My lord,” said Angus, “I’m not here for your son.”
The room went silent. The three noblemen traded looks, as if Angus had spoken in a foreign language. Kita felt her face redden from trying to hold in the laughter.
“Lord Jeffrey is an excellent soldier and in other circumstances might make an excellent addition to the Legion. However, our policy is not to enlist active commanders and soldiers unless they’re veterans whose service to their lord is coming to an end. You and the king have spent a great deal of time and energy training Lord Jeffrey. It would be unfair for us to enlist every excellent commander that comes along and leave the region’s armies in a weakened state.”
The duke’s face reddened. “Then who are you here for, Commander? Or are you here to waste my time? Jeffrey raced back last night to be here for you. Are you to make us look like fools in front of my family and guest?”
Angus didn’t waver. He spoke without hostility, but with great authority. “I’m here for your daughter, Lady Kita.”
Kita stared at Angus open-mouthed. Her father and brother looked dumbfounded.
“Kita? You want Kita?” the duchess said, a smile spreading on her lips.
“Yes, my lady,” said Angus with a firm nod.
“I think that’s an excellent idea. It will work perfectly.” The duchess beamed with pride. “Kita’s worked so hard. I can’t think of a better reward. Thank you.”
Wait…Work perfectly for what?
Jeffrey recovered from his shock first. “That’s not fair! She’s not even a soldier, just a little girl with a stick playing pretend. She’s only allowed to because of Mother. She has no leadership training or tactical schooling.”
Oh, brother. Now you know the sting I’ve felt for my entire life watching you.
“Why we want her is a fair question,” said Angus. “As you’ve said, she doesn’t have any formal training as a soldier or commander. She is not a veteran, but I didn’t say we only took veterans. We occasionally take younger members who have skills the Legion needs. We recruit shapers as soon as they’re identified. The earlier we can help them harness their magic, the better. We also take in criminals and fugitives who have demonstrated they would make good legionnaires but would otherwise be wasted rotting in prisons or executed. To be one of us, you need the necessary combat skills and the desire to serve.”
Angus looked at Kita. “The Legion has been interested in Lady Kita for some time. We’ve witnessed her various activities. She has shown determination, resourcefulness, resilience, steadfastness, and dedication—qualities the Legion holds in the highest regard. The Legion is highly structured, except for one position: the Legion commander. It is neither an appointed position nor is it attainable through promotion. Commanders hand-select their replacements. And I’ve chosen Lady Kita to be my replacement. When my time as commander is done, she’ll become the next commander of the Legion of Yorq.”
The duke’s face had ebbed from apoplectic to merely angry and he let out a deep breath. “Kita has obligations and duties here. It’d be unfair to others if I let her gallivant about the region.”
“My lord, I only ask out of courtesy and respect. If I must, I’ll invoke the Power of Conscription. With or without your blessing, she’ll be leaving with me.”
“You can’t do that! I won’t let you.”
“You may turn me away today, but I’ll be back with a full detachment of legionnaires and the king’s troops, if necessary.”
Kita’s father threw his hands in the air. “Get out! I won’t be threatened in my own home.”
“Enough! All of you. What is wrong with you, Priatt? Jeffrey?” The duchess demanded. “Kita has been chosen to lead one of the most honorable and prestigious groups on The Mass. You should be excited and happy for her. Instead, you belittle and embarrass her. Jeffrey, I didn’t raise you to be a spoiled brat. I’m ashamed of your lack of respect for your sister. You should be the most honored and proud. She wanted to learn the sword because of you.”
Jeffrey shrank, his eyes darting side to side like he wished he could disappear.
The duchess glared at her husband. “Priatt, you ignored her until two years ago when you decided she should marry or join the temple. Now she has a place...”
The temple? First I’ve heard of that. Father’s that desperate already? Being a priest was a fate worse than being a wife. She wouldn’t qualify anyway. The conversation explaining why would be interesting. Yes, Daddy, I’d love to go, but I can’t. Why? The bit about being a virgin, I’m not. What do I mean? I mean I’ve had sex before. When? I started when I was eighteen. His name? Well, not ‘his’ name. What’s that mean? I find men to be repugnant. You don’t like it? At least I haven’t come home pregnant.
Just like the sour prickerberry pie she’d made at Midsummer’s, her one and only foray into baking, it would cause a lot of grimaces.
“…Now you’re saying ‘no’ to the biggest opportunity she’s ever had,” the duchess scolded. “Are you so petty and pigheaded you’re willing to deny Kita because Jeffrey wasn’t chosen?”
Kita sensed her father’s anger being eclipsed by her mother’s quiet rage. He quickly went on the defensive. “I just want the best for her. Being the commander of a group like the Legion is dangerous. How will she be received by the nobility of Yorq? Women shouldn’t be—”
“Shouldn’t be what?” The venom in the duchess’ question spoke of a deadly trap. “Think very carefully about how you finish that statement.”
The duke’s eyes shifted and he gulped. “Uhm, I know in other places women in military roles are commonplace, but not here. We’ve raised the ire of many of the conservative estates by letting her learn the sword. So far, I’ve deflected them by saying it’s self-defense. But as she’s getting older, that line is getting thin. I don’t know what they would say if she became the commander of the Legion of Yorq. How will this reflect on me?”
“That didn’t bother you twenty-seven years ago.”
“Times were different. I was different,” pleaded Kita’s father. “At the time, there weren’t enough nobles, let alone fighting men, left to fight. We needed women to fight if we were going to win. But, it’s been over a generation and we have the men we need. We no longer need or want our women to fight our battles for us.”
“When did you lose your spine, hmmm? Unlike other women, I don’t keep your jewels in my purse. I don’t know if it’s Angus’ plan to change social customs by choosing Kita, but her holding such a position would make others take notice. I think Arbol can weather that kind of change. Now, everyone’s had a say about Kita’s future, and I know it’s already decided, but has anyone asked her what she wants?”
They all looked at Kita.
“Kita?” the duchess prodded in a gentle tone.
Kita’s mind raced furiously. She had plans or, at least, maybe an opportunity in Leedings, but this was greater than that. She didn’t know anything about the Legion, but Father respected and feared Angus. Her father couldn’t touch her in the Legion. And one day she would return with an army greater than her father’s and he would have to bow to her. This is an opportunity not to miss. “Uhm, I…don’t know. It’s a little sudden, and I don’t have a choice. What does it matter if object or not?”
The duke spoke with bitter acid in his voice. “Fine, get out, both of you. Now! Never set foot here again. I don’t want to see you again. Ever.”
The duchess spun on her heel and stormed toward the door she’d entered through.
“And where are you going?” the duke yelled after her.
“I’m leaving for the New London house. I’m not going to be part of throwing our daughter out like a leper. Leana!” A tall blond woman was already taking position next to Duchess Logine. “Tell the staff to pack their things. We’re leaving for the capital as soon as I’m ready.”
The handmaiden changed course for a door leading to the kitchens.
“You can’t do that! The staff shall remain here,” yelled the duke.
The duchess stopped and whirled to face him.
“According to you, I’m charged with running the household. It goes wherever I go, and they are coming with me. If you don’t like it, feel free to hire another staff, or you can starve and freeze. I don’t care what you do, but I will not have any part of this or you!”
The duchess strode to the door with quiet contempt.
“Stop her!” the duke ordered the door guard.
The guard moved to obstruct the duchess. She grabbed his outstretched arm and spun, landing the guard on his back, gasping for air. She drew his sword and threw it end-over-end above the men and Kita’s heads. It stuck in the middle of the giant coat of arms above the fireplace as she swept from the room.
“She’s getting rusty,” observed Cunningham as everyone looked at the sword. “It’s slightly off center.”
The duke blew out a long breath. “Excuse me. I must attend to my wife.”
Mother, what secrets do you hold? Throwing a man and a sword are not something you learn running a house. And where does Angus fit in? He and Mother seem to have chemistry and father was possessive. Well, this little adventure looks to have been worth it after all. What should I do next?
Kita glanced at the nearest exit. She didn’t think she should leave. If she left, would she need Angus’ permission? She sighed and decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. But she didn’t want to listen to Jeffrey plead his case to Angus and being in Cunningham’s presence made her skin crawl. She walked around the main hall looking at the artifacts of dead men and gave herself a history lesson. If I’m going to cry tonight, it’ll be from boredom, and it’ll be my own doing.
The first stop was a large tapestry that was a map of The Mass. It looked like a C, Yorq in the far southeastern corner. The family coat of arms marked their estate in Yorq, between Mount Razor and Razor’s Mountains. Her eyes followed the road from Arbol across Yorq to their only neighbor, Champagne, a seven day stage ride just to the boarder across awful roads.
She liked to imagine what it was like to live in one of the other regions. Champagne had many wondrous things, like steam engines and machines. Yorq’s leaders didn’t see the need for them. They had too many laborers as it was. So stupid. Silly old men hanging on to power through any means necessary. Someday…I’ll be free.
She went to look at one of her favorite objects. No one knew what the metal box was for or where it came from. Her father considered it one of his prize possessions. It had two slits on top and a lever on the front. When the lever was pushed down, the inside heated up and the lever popped back up. No one knew how it worked. When she was eleven, she’d been determined to figure out where the heat came from. Her parents had scolded her numerous times for sticking things in it or for trying to take it apart.
Her parents arrived through the same door they’d exited earlier and stopped in the middle of the hall. The waiting parties moved to join the couple.
The duchess spoke first. The duke’s eyebrows went up in surprise.
“I apologize for our sudden departure. Angus, we’ve decided not to interfere with Kita joining the Legion.” The duchess looked at Kita. “Do you have any questions, now that you’ve had some time to think about it?”
Everyone looked at Kita.
“No.” And the sooner we leave, the better.
The duchess smiled. “Excellent. In keeping with our traditions, we’re going to hold a farewell banquet for Kita—”
“We are?” decried the duke.
“We are. Jeffrey gets one every time he leaves, why should Kita be any different? I promise you and Serge can go play with your toys and I will take care of everything.” She looked at Angus. “If it’s all right with you, Angus.”
That doesn’t sound much like a question.
“Of course, my lady. We can leave for Razor’s Pass in the morning.”
Jeffrey cleared his throat. “I should catch up with my men. Good luck, Kita. Maybe I’ll see you at Razor’s Pass.”
“Jeffrey, you’ll stay,” Kita’s eyebrows went up as the duke spoke. “This is an incredible honor for our family. This is a great chance to expand our influence and place in society.”
Anything I can do to help you, Father.
Jeffrey frowned but said nothing.
The duchess smiled at her husband. “Very good. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go inform my staff of the changes. Kita, why don’t you show Angus around the grounds? I’m sure you’ve much to talk about. And Kita, when I’m finished, I want to talk to you. I’ll send for you when I’m ready.” The duchess gave orders as her handmaiden fell in beside her. The pair parted ways at the main door, the duchess called one last order as if it was an afterthought. “And I need to see the pastry chef.”
Why would Mother want to speak with the pastry chef and not the head chef? Maybe the duchess had a special dessert in mind for the evening. I bet no one even remembers what I like. Still, I can pretend to like anything for a few more hours until we leave. Kita turned to Angus, patiently awaiting her.
“Well…Sir…Commander…Lord…uhm?” It dawned on Kita she’d no idea how to address her new commander.
“Angus, just Angus.”
“All right…Angus, I guess I’m playing tour guide. What would you like to see first?”
“I thought we might go look at the view.”
The main lookout tower gave a commanding view of the area around the castle. Angus walked around, looking out. A nagging question plagued Kita with doubt.
“So, why me? There must be thousands of people better suited to take your place.”
Angus smiled. “There is your first reason. Few women in Yorq would question a man directly about a decision he’s made.”
“You know my mother. Most people just call me rude, pushy, or a bitch.”
“That is what I’m looking for. Someone who can be a bitch, but can be poised and restrained like you pretended to be downstairs. With a little practice you’ll be a master stateswoman.”
“It was enough to fool my father.”
“Your father is naive to statesmanship. His emotions easily get the better of him.”
“I wonder what potion my mother slipped him to calm him down.”
Angus chuckled. “Your mother doesn’t need potions to handle your father, just her voice and logic.”
“How long have you known my mother?”
“If she hasn’t told you, she has a reason. I’ll leave it up to her to tell.”
“Back to my original question: Why me?”
“I’ve followed the career of L’Ange de Yorq since she burst onto the dueling scene in Champagne. Four tournament wins with a record of thirty-three wins and no defeats. That is impressive, especially part time and a two-year absence.”