Captain Dumas got us through the attack with surprisingly little bloodshed on our part. Tiago would be basking in the glow of his small part for years, having provided a distraction and then taken the initiative to bite one of the attackers with a fury that unsettled me in no small way.

Only two of the bandits forced our hand, but the rest were taken prisoner and secured to the back of the final wagon until we arrived at the estate of Viscontessa Greco. The Contessa had written ahead and so we were met by servants instead of rogue crossbow bolts. The horses were led away and the supplies were sorted and members of the household guard came to secure the bandits until they could be escorted to town to receive their sentence.

“Why do people turn to banditry?” I asked Tiago.

He looked up at me. “Thievery is easier than honest labor.”

“Is it? How far from home were they? Do you think they slept in their beds or on the forest floor? The weather can be unpredictable, and you always run the risk of capture or injury. Or death.”

Tiago watched the men and women disappear around the corner. “Why then?”

“If resources are unreliable, money isn’t available, work isn’t possible, wages aren’t enough, food is scarce… We need to do better for our people. Something can be fixed so that the next time we’re at risk of bandits, they’re relaxing at home with full bellies and a cadre of children to sing to.”

Tiago’s face hardened into a serious expression. “Yes, Don.”

Captain Dumas and Lieutenant Filippo stayed close behind while we mounted the steps and entered the grand foyer. It was a beautiful space, though gaudy, with an enormous marble statue and water feature immediately in view of a bare woman bathing.

“Welcome, Don! I see you enjoy my statue; my husband had it commissioned when we were married. I had to pose for the artist for hours, simply exhausting.” The Viscontessa Greco descended the curving staircase in a series of the smoothest steps I’d ever seen; she appeared to be floating above them. Her beaming smile made me smile in return and when she stopped and curtsied before me, I took her hand and bowed over it.

“Thank you for welcoming us into your home, Viscontessa.”

“It is my great pleasure, Don. Who is this by your side?”

Tiago made an elegant bow. “Tiago De Santis, Viscontessa. We have met once before, but I fear my growth has disguised my features from your eye.”

“Of course! You have grown, and have much more to do, I am certain.”

“Tiago is my ward,” I explained further.

She looked surprised, but covered it smoothly. “An excellent choice of guardian – Contessa De Santis has a good sense for people.”

“You are kind.”

“Forgive me for holding you here. The servants will show you to your rooms and when you are refreshed from your travel, there will be entertainment.”

She disappeared in a swirl of fabric. I saw Tiago open his mouth and laid a hand on his shoulder. He quieted until we reached our room and the servants had left us alone.

“My apologies, Don,” he said when I closed the door. “Too much time with mai-am had me forget myself.”

“The Viscontessa has no children, but I expect the servants do – you’re still of an age where playing outside your class is unquestioned. If you can learn anything of use, I’ll give you a sip of pinèt’i.

“I’ve never heard of that,” he smiled. “Is it a treat?”

My heart skipped. “It’s like campar, but sweeter. I doubt they have it here, but if campar is available, you may have some.”

His eyes widened. “Where shall I find you?”

“Leave me until we dine.”

He bowed, left his jacket across the foot of the bed, and scampered away. I let out a deep exhale and leaned against the bedpost. I knew I was tired from travel, but I also knew that the Contessa was less of a trial than any of the rest of these nobles would be; it was why Tiziano insisted I visit her first. If Greco refused me, I would have to travel to Galli or Oscuro. I smiled to remember my chance encounter with Visconte Oscuro already. I might travel to his lands for entertainment value alone. Truly, he might consider it a favor owed, which I would happily receive.

I dropped my top layer across Tiago’s and left the room. Captain Dumas feel into step behind me; I assumed Lieutenant Filippo had done the same with my ward. A shudder of worry washed down my spine to imagine the damage it would do for him to be killed before I had even reached the capital.

I stopped. I examined my thoughts and felt shame wash through me. The thought of death to a child and my first consideration was the political ramifications? Where was my empathy? When had I lost my humanity?

“Don?” Dumas asked gently. “Are you all right?”

I gritted my teeth. A king was political above all things. He was for humanity, and apart from it. I had to think this way. In my private moments I could weep over the deaths of my subjects, but I also had to be willing to order them to die for this country if necessary. Still, the change in me was jarring.

“Yes, Captain.” I continued. I had no true destination in mind, but expected I could poke about with impunity and if questioned, simply say I was searching for my luggage. Or lost. I found the kitchen by following my nose and was rewarded with a blackberry scone, which settled the groaning in my stomach. I wandered and found a library, access to the outside walk, and a water closet, of which I made use.

When I exited, a passing servant gave me a glance, and then another with widened eyes. My expression mirrored hers, but she did not stop, instead speeding away without a word.

“Trouble, Don?” Dumas asked softly.

“Please keep an eye out for her,” I answered. “I’d like to know if she comes near my property or my people.”

“Of course. You’ve seen her before?”

“I have. We met in a bank. She went by the name of Prevot.”

We continued wandering and found an enclosed yard where a handful of children, Tiago included, were kicking a ball under the watchful eye of a couple of nursemaids. I watched for a short time. Tiago looked so different without that thoughtful and calculating and proper expression he always wore. I wondered when it had developed and then wondered the same of my own – I’d had more time, certainly, but Tiago wouldn’t have the freedom Tiziano had granted me, growing up so far from the court.

I left before they saw me. “Do you have family, Captain Dumas?”

“I do,” she answered. “A slew of sisters and a brother, all with too many children to keep track of. If you come across a young thing who claims to be my niece or nephew, it’s safe enough to believe them.”

I laughed. “No one yet for you, though?”

“No. That was never an interest I shared with them. And this way all the kiddies light up to see me when I visit home. Always remember to bring bags of candy – that’s what builds the foundation for their love.”

“I will make note,” I laughed again.

She didn’t ask me. We both knew I would have a political marriage to secure an alliance and have as many children as possible to secure the throne. My father’s refusal to remarry had been a point of romance for me when I was young; to think he’d loved my mother so much that no other could replace her was a beautiful fantasy. But it confused me now. There would have been no contention between half-siblings; my arrival would have transferred the crown to me just the same, but it would also have secured the line and kept the Renaud House from moving in. I would probably never know his thinking.

“Dumas, make sure to tell the rest of my guard that Tiago is to be taught any and all of their games and how to cheat to at them. But keep it a secret from me, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Ah, Don Gentillini, I’ve been looking for you!” Viscontessa Greco swept toward me down the hall with a labor of servants in tow. I smiled pleasantly and bowed.

“I did not mean to hide from you, Viscontessa. I was admiring your beautiful home while I stretched my legs from the day in saddle.”

She beamed at the compliment. “I wished to show you some of my family artwork before we dine.”

“It would be a pleasure to learn of your family and history, Viscontessa.”

April 26, 2021

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