"My dear," the Duchess Tremontaine said carefully, her hands folded in her lap, "you simply must sit down."
Her great-niece, the youngest daughter of the Courtenay-region Campions, took a seat with a disgruntled and altogether inappropriate huff. "It simply won't do, Aunt," Marissa Campion said, and crossed her arms.
Tremontaine bit into a little iced cake and chewed thoughtfully while the wayward girl sweated out her temper. "You are determined to go through with this, then?" she asked mildly. "I know the famous Campion temper quite well, and your family could benefit by you learning to serve society well - and vice versa, of course."
"Society," Marissa sniffed. "I've no interest in society - and you're one to talk, Aunt; everyone knows how you hate politics."
"Indeed," Tremontaine said, smiling the dainty smile of one whose reputation has proceeded her and is thus unshakeable. "And they are correct. I merely offer advice to a dear relative. Even the noblemen do not learn swordsplay; it is why we have swordsmen. For a nobleman's daughter to become a swordsman is unthinkable and, I note, impossible."
Marissa rose again and began pacing the room in a swirl of skirts. "Nothing," she declared dramatically, "is impossible. Not when one's a will to do it!"
In the quiet of her own mind, Tremontaine sighed. The Campions were one and all failures of varying degrees. From Raymond Campion, who lured her own foolish daughter away, to David Campion, whom she had been willing to declare heir -- but who had preferred to live a pauper in Riverside with a swordsman of his own. It seemed at times the entire family line was destined for decay, which was a pity in that it was tied so closely to her own line.
Nevertheless, such things could be useful.
"Darling Mari," Tremontaine said in a voice that Marissa seemed to take as indicating a deep sympathy for her plight. "While I cannot help you openly - understand it would be my death in society - I believe I may have a way to get you in contact with a swordsman, one of the best."
Marissa's powder-blue eyes opened, their dark lashes outlining them in stark surprise.
"It involves," Tremontaine explained, a faint smile lingering helpfully about her lips as she leaned forward in a wash of satin to whisper secrets to Marissa, "your cousin, David..."
"You like that cat better than me," Alec accused Richard St Vier, finger pointed to punctuate his comment.
Richard didn't bother responding, busy in his slow sword practice. The point of his sword dipped and wove and the gray cat - no longer a kitten, but still lean and agile as one - stalked him. The cat had apparently learned that while the swordspoint was intriguing enough, it was weilded by someone, and it had decided that its hunt was only successful when it managed to gain a good hit on the swordsman himself. St Vier had commented on it more than once to Alec, and was now dodging another leap for his shoulder, the first one having left a few small red marks.
Best swordsman in the city or not, a feline opponant attacked at completely different angles than a human one.
Alec was at least in a good mood, and didn't take Richard's change in affection too personally, sitting by the fire with what remained of his most recent textbook. He thumbed through it with the laziness of a man who had read it enough times that it worked better as reference than as resource. "It's cold, Richard. I'm adding another log."
"We can't afford another log." Richard slowed his movements to a stop and caught the cat in midair, slinging the startled feline over his shoulder. "It's been a week since my last commission."
"So kill somebody anyway," Alec threw out in his elegant drawl.
St Vier sheathed his weapon and stretched, letting his muscles cool. "Hadn't you won enough at dicing for another log?"
"Yes, and I spent it on the fish which was supposed to be our dinner." Alec gave Richard an arch look. "But which you gave away to your love."
Richard looked back mildly, only the corners of his lips twitching. "You said you were done with it."
"How soon they forget us," Alec sighed, and put the book down. "Leaving us alone and cold. Mostly cold."
Having exercised in one way and beginning to develop something of an interest in exercising in another, Richard eyed Alec thoughtfully, letting the cat jump to the folor. "Perhaps you may need to find a way to get warm, then."
"Can you find room for me in your bed when you've run out of room in your heart, then?" Alec asked, clearly in a bit of a mood to play around first.
Richard, who wasn't, said, "Yes. Come to bed, Alec."
Alec clearly thought about debating the point, but his mood shifted as it was wont to do and he let the automatic scathing retort die on his lips. "Well. If you put it like that..."
Alec went over, shedding clothing as he went. Richard observed the cat burrow happily under Alec's abandoned shirt. While Alec would doubtless later complain of cat hair over anything and everything he owned, he had more pressing matters and decided not to mention it.
The firelight made interesting patterns on Alec's skin and lined his face more harshly than his years demanded. His hair hadn't grown out much since he'd cut it and fell raggedly around his cheeks, unlike the long scholar's hair he'd had before. The shadows cast by the fire darkened the lines around his mouth, made it take on a twist more sardonic than usual. It was sometimes hard to tell what was tricks of the light and what was truth, with Alec.
"Come to bed, Richard," Alec said. "It's cold."
Richard came over and placed his fingers against Alec's lips, soft and smooth and not twisted, before Alec grabbed his wrist and yanked him off balance and into the bed.
St Vier thought to play with him a little, as Alec'd been so playful up to now, but they'd apparently switched places sometime in the few moments of firelit silence. Richard found himself pressed to the bed with the weight of the taller man on top of him. His hands danced over Alec's shoulders, sought out weak spots - a strike here, a parry there and discarded them, ignoring both attack and defense for simply-
They were interrupted by a knock on the door.
Richard's shoulders tensed.
"They can wait," Alec said tightly, but the mood had been broken and Richard cursed, found his breeches and did them up. "Damn it," Alec swore.
Richard didn't envy whoever was on the other side of that door.
The person on the other side of the door was, in fact, a woman wearing miles and miles of crinoline and flanked by armed and nervous-looking soldiers. Richard didn't envy them, either; it was a miracle that they'd made it this far into Riverside while accompanying a woman whose clothing alone would sell enough to keep the average Riversider's belly full of beer for a month at least, not to mention all the jewels she was wearing. Two guards weren't enough to keep her safe; the Watch itself never came into Riverside when it could avoid the danger.
"Yes?" Richard asked mildly.
"Richard St Vier, I presume?" The woman's voice had the nasal sound of a country noble, and Richard reflected that she was even further out of her depth than a noble from the Hill would be, here.
He heard Alec groan behind him, presumably at the sound of her voice.
"I am," Richard said, but she was paying little attention to him, having gone to the tops of her toes to peer over his shoulder. He glanced down and caught sight of a satin slipper irrevocably stained, as well as a shapely ankle. One of the guards glared at him.
"David!" the woman exclaimed in delight. "It's been simply forever, darling!" Alec muttered something rude under his breath, which she apparently misunderstood as lack of recognition. "It's Marissa, David, don't you remember your own cousin?"
Alec sat up in bed, letting the blankets fall to his waist and pool about his middle. "Of course I remember you, you stupid bint," he drawled. "Shove off and die."
Marissa laughed gaily. "Oh, David. Don't tell me you're still upset over the time I shoved you into the pond. It was all in good fun!"
Considering that Alec's glare could have melted steel, Richard wondered how the lady couldn't notice. "Madam," he murmured. "If I can help you?"
"Yes, yes," the woman said. She looked Richard up and down and one of her guards cleared his throat. "I come with a business proposition."
Richard said, blandly, "I see." She was more of a country bumpkin than he had expected, then, openly willing to negotiate a duel - no, a murder. Richard always finished his opponants with a single strike to the heart, and nobody would come to him to expect a combat to first blood. And besides, it was poor politics to let one's enemies know that you had hired a swordsman to kill them, after all - what if the swordsman lost? "Will you enter, or would you rather give your target's name to me in the hall?"
"Target?" Marissa blinked guileless green eyes in a way that was likely supposed to be appealing. "Oh, no, sir! You misunderstand. I am not here to hire you - at least, not for that."
"I don't do weddings," Richard said shortly. "Good day, madame."
Marissa scowled, the expression oddly reminiscent of Alec. "I'm not getting married! I wanted you to teach me."
"Teach you," Richard repeated. Behind him, Alec started to laugh.
"I was told that you were good," Marissa informed St Vier. "So I don't believe you need to immitate everything I say. I want to learn the sword."
"Neither nobles nor ladies learn the sword," Richard told her. "Good day."
Marissa crossed her arms and looked disgruntled. "Well, I'm a noble and a lady, and I want to."
"Want doesn't come into it," Richard said. "And besides, I don't teach. Ever. If you truly wish to do this, find yourself another swordsman."
With a simple, smug smile, Marissa said, "I don't think you quite understand, St Vier. I am Marissa Campion. You can't refuse me."
Richard looked at her flatly. "I can, in fact. And I am. Good day, my lady."
"Oh, just kill her," Alec called from the bed. "She's only a cousin, I've got three more where she came from." Richard opened his mouth, and Alec sighed. "I know, I know, you don't do women. Can't you make an exception?"
"David!" Marissa said. "Tell your friend to help me! Auntie said you would."
Alec snorted. "A Tremontaine who told you something is a Tremontaine who's just lied to you. I should know, I am one."
Marissa stomped a delicate slipper. "David! I'm getting very cross with you!"
"Madame," Richard said. "I suggest you leave before word gets too far that a very rich woman with very few guards is in the heart of Riverside."
"Well, I won't go," Marissa said.
"Then I suggest," Richard told the guards, "that you take her. If you care for her life, that is. It's not my business, either way. Good day."
And he detached her and shut the door.
She yelled on the other side for a few moments, before the low murmur of the guards calming her down seeped through. After a while, she even went away.
In a put-upon tone, Alec said, "Relatives," as if it explained everything. He shook his head, then patted the bed beside him. "Come on, hurry up. Before she comes back."
Although Richard doubted she would be, he went.
It wouldn't do to keep Alec waiting.
The Duchess Tremontaine was having a very nice visit with young Lady Halliday, who was clad in bonnet and afternoon gown and was terribly shocked to have heard the latest gossip. It was this that she was commisserating with the poor duchess, who was doubtless greatly troubled by the behaviour of her visiting relative.
"Honestly, in Riverside," Mary Halliday said, scandalized. "It's no wonder she was taken hostage by ruffians in such a terrible manner. What she was doing there, I can't begin to imagine."
Tremontaine sighed sadly. "I wish I knew! She only told me she was going out for an afternoon's walk. Had I known what she was planning..." She shook her head and trailed off.
"It's simply terrible," Lady Halliday murmured, and sipped from her cup of chocolate. "The dangers she was in! I hope she wasn't terribly... injured."
"No, no," the duchess reassured her. "Not at all. She was lucky enough to have been captured by thieves who had some respect for her rank and class, at least."
Lady Halliday made a noise of relief. "At least her father paid the ransom with all expediency. I daren't think about what might have happened had he delayed..."
"Fortunately, all such troubles were cut off before they could happen," Tremontaine said, chidingly. "It's all in the past now, and let's not worry over things that didn't happen."
"Still," Lady Halliday said. "What grace to have such a loving father."
Tremontaine smiled. She had paid, of course, in Lord Campion's name; it wasn't too much, though more than common thieves could get on a normal day. And Lord Campion would be so very grateful for her help. She was sure he'd remember it.
"Yes," Duchess Tremontaine murmured. "Isn't it."
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