For the weeks I had to stay with the Contessa, the manor was a flood of new faces and they brought work. I was taken for measurements immediately and she helped explain the changes in clothing style and showed me where to find the most recent books on genealogy. They weren’t as updated as they would be in the capital, but Madam Sword sent missives to request updates and I studied them when they arrived. When I told her the nickname I’d given her in my mind, she refused to allow me to call her anything else.

Other than studying genealogy, I refreshed my knowledge on capital laws, and those surrounding the nobility. Duels had been outlawed unless the crown gave special permission, but that didn’t stop anyone and I expected I would have to protect myself at some point or another.

The guards the Contessa provided were unassuming in stature, but I worked with them to learn the commands and orders I might hear, and how I was expected to behave in whatever circumstances they expected to face for me. I was impressed with their coordination and when time allowed, invited the captain into my room’s sitting area. Upon learning my true identity, she knelt and offered fealty, which I accepted readily. To the others, I was merely a countryside nobleman who had reached his majority and was being sent to court for the first time.

The tailors knew the truth, of course; they knew everything about everyone. They did clever things with my colors and styles to allow me to reveal myself at the time of my choosing and made sure the seams were sturdy where they needed to be. The cobbler made me new boots that were more comfortable than any I’d worn and the milliner gave me a selection of styles and explained their purpose at length.

Throughout all, the Contessa watched, guided, offered assistance when I asked, and reminded me of gaps in my knowledge. My father had prepared me as best he could, far better than anyone could have hoped, but he had been away for over twenty years and lacked the resources that would have eased my sudden workload.

Horses arrived from the Contessa’s eastern lands and I spent hours learning how to care for them and their equipment, and as much time as I could learning how to ride. I would likely never be as proficient as those who had been raised in the saddle, but I hoped it wouldn’t come to any kind of extraordinary show of sport.

As an evening fell after weeks of preparation, the Contessa invited me to her sitting room. My guard captain, Elise Dumas, came with me. As the time of our departure grew near, she began to perform her duties as she would be expected in places less secure than this. She knocked and opened the door, checking the space inside with quick eyes before allowing me entrance.

The Contessa had small foods available, and steaming tea canisters that filled the room with a mix of intriguing scents. The table was laid with cards and colored stones, but what held my attention was the young boy seated beside her. His dark hair was trimmed in the style of noble children and his blue gaze held mine with an intensity that he had inherited from his great-grandmother’s line.

“Ah, Pietro, join us. Do you prefer white or black tea?”

I stepped toward my seat and eyed the game on the table. “Black with a dash of salt, Contessa.”

She nodded and a servant stepped away from the wall to serve us. Captain Dumas took up position near the wall closest behind me and faded from the room’s attention.

“My great-grandson has arrived from his northern estates.”

“It is a pleasure. By what name are you called?” I asked politely.

He stood to match me bowed deeply. Upright, he answered in a high but steady voice, “Your highness, I am Tiago De Santis.”

“How far are you from majority, Tiago?”

“Ten years, your highness.”

“Are you sworn in marriage to any house?”

“No, your highness.”

“Does any house hold contract to your future?”

“No, your highness.”

I glanced at the Contessa. She met my eyes and sipped her tea without a hint on her features. I was pretty sure I asked all the right questions.

“Do you swear fealty to me, as your rightful king?”

Tiago dropped to a knee and bowed his head. “Your highness, I swear myself in whole to your rule and governance.”

“Rise as my subject, Tiago De Santis.” He stood and blinked at me. “What title do you expect to inherit at your majority, Tiago?” His eyes widened slightly as I departed from my expected script.

“Your highness, I expect the title of Conte.”

“Are you satisfied with such a position of responsibility?”

“I am, your highness.”

“You haven’t aspirations to raise your family higher?”

His young voice was thoughtful. “Your highness, my title, and those of my family, are granted by the king and his decedents. Should I prove myself of use and good purpose, it would be my greatest honor to accept the gift he might offer. Should I remain a Conte until death and raise my sons and daughters to the position I achieved, I would consider it a life well-lived.”

I was impressed. “Whose death might benefit you the most?”

“My father’s death would bring my inheritance to bear, but my subjects and responsibilities would suffer to my lack of training.”

“Yes?”

He considered silently. “I do not know, your highness.”

I nodded. “Thank you, Tiago. Contessa, I wish to take your great-grandson as my ward.”

“Sit, Pietro. Do you play ansil?”

“I have played, but I profess my lack of skill.” Tiago and I took our seats and I sipped at my salted tea.

She picked up the cards and shuffled them with dexterity I envied. When the deck was set, Tiago selected a card and reached across the table to place it under the blue stone. I did the same with the red stone, the Contessa the green, Tiago the white, me to the yellow, and the Contessa the black. I had seen more players with access to orange and brown, but three players did not need so many. We flipped the cards to be visible and the Contessa dealt six on top of them, starting with the one closest to her right.

We played in silence and I could tell Tiago was better than me, but we both lacked the Contessa’s experience. I managed to spoil Tiago’s hold on the blue and he paid me back thoroughly in destroying my red and yellow holds, leaving the Contessa with too many points to lose.

“Guardian to a ward is a high responsibility, Pietro.”

I nodded.

“Tiago is important to me.”

“I will raise him as my own, Contessa. And I am sure you will not deny me guidance in such matters.”

She smiled. “I accept. Tiago?”

“I accept, mai-am.”

“When do you leave?”

“I have a fina package arriving,” I said and sipped my tea. “As soon as it is in my possession, I can be on my way to the Viscontessa Greco. I expect Tiago and I will come to know each other better in the meantime.”

The boy smiled and I winked at him despite my nerves. I wasn’t expecting this kind of responsibility for at least a couple of years.

“I believe you have all well in hand, then.” She leaned forward. “I’m proud of you, Pietro. All you have left is to see it through.”

I leaned back and sipped my tea. “Is that all?”

April 18, 2021

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