No trust without truth.
Fleeing his murderous brother-in-law, Vicont Yveni, heir to the Duchy of Sardelsa, seeks safety abroad until he can reclaim his birthright. Instead he ends up shipwrecked, captured and taken to the one country where he dare not reveal his identity. Worse, he's just been bought by a man with no love for Sardelsa.
Ripped from his family as a child and sold into slavery, Paole's natural gift for healing made him a valuable asset but did little to shield him from abuse and prejudice. Though he's now free, for the first time in his life he's alone--and he hates it. All he wanted was an apprentice and traveling companion in this hostile land. Instead he winds up the unintentional owner of a slave with a mulish attitude...and a suspicious history.
Yveni dares not tell the truth about who he is, and Paole refuses to trust him until he comes clean. The battle of wills only serves to heat up a sizzling attraction that throws a new complication into the mix: love.
Paole wants acceptance. Yveni wants his birthright. Even if they manage to come to an understanding, forces are gathering against them that could tear them apart forever...
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April 20, 2009
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Excerpt from Many Roads Home by Ann Somerville
The only sound in the cabin now was the rattle of Mathias's breathing. The fire in the hearth had died down to little more than embers some time ago. Paole could have gone over and built it up, but the old man wouldn't release his hand, and Paole couldn't deny him this small comfort for the sake of a warmer fire.
Mathias strained to lift his head a little from the pillow. "Tonight, my boy? You're sure?"
"Yes, master." Exactly when, Paole didn't know, but the old man's lungs were filling with fluid, and his aged heart laboured. Some time in the next few hours, it would fail. Mathias had made Paole tell him this fact, though he hadn't wanted to. Most people didn't want to know. Mathias wasn't most people.
He sighed and lay back. "Good. I'm tired of being old and sick. Sorry to leave you alone, Paole. It's a hard world out there for one like you."
"Don't worry about me. I've managed until now."
"But never on your own." He lifted a shaking hand and patted Paole on the cheek. "One thing left to do." He paused to suck in more air, struggling against his failing lungs. "On the desk. A wooden box. With the leaf pattern. Bring it?"
Paole fetched it. It had been part of his master's desk furniture for so long, his eyes no longer noted it whenever he walked past. He'd learned a very long time ago, and very painfully, that masters didn't like slaves who poked into their private affairs. He'd never been tempted to touch anything on the desk.
"Take out the letters on the top." Paole obeyed, but still didn't attempt to scan the contents of the documents as he handed them over. Mathias pushed them back. "No, they're for you. Forgive me."
Puzzled, for he had no idea what his master could need forgiveness for, he read the ornate hand of a lawyer in Kivnic. They'd last been there more than six months ago--his master had prepared this back then?
He looked up and stared into Mathias's rheumy eyes. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Mathias coughed with heartbreaking effort. Paole, long practice making it easy, lifted him up and wiped his mouth. Mathias's breathing was a little worse when he finished.
"I...wanted to be sure you'd be free when I died. But I couldn't bear to part with you either." He closed his eyes. "I have loved you these ten years as my son, Paole. I'm giving you all I have, but it's not enough." He coughed again, in a long and tiring fit. His face flushed with effort but then returned to the fragile, bloodless state that so clearly spoke of his great age. "Can you forgive me...for not telling you?"
The old man smiled. "I'm glad to hear you call me that," he whispered. "Don't live out here alone. Use your gift, continue the work. Go home if you want."
"I have no home," Paole said simply. "None but this."
"Now it's yours. Build the fire...stay with me."
So Paole did, holding Mathias's hand, easing the coughing that grew less frequent, listening to the breathing change, feeling the pulse weaken. Seeing with his gift the internal changes as Mathias's body slowly gave up the fight to keep the old man going.
A little after midnight everything went quiet, and the faint throb at Mathias's wrist stilled forever. Paole bowed his head, unsure of how he felt. Mathias had always been kind, and had taught him the craft of medicine and healing. But...he'd always been the master, and Paole could never release the distrust in his heart for those in that position.
He stripped the old man's skinny body and covered him with the shroud prepared years before. Tomorrow he would lay Mathias in the coffin in the woodshed, to await the spring and the softened ground. Tonight Mathias would rest a final time in his bed, now Paole's.
He threw more wood on the fire, wrapped himself in a blanket and sat in the armchair. He'd keep a vigil until dawn, the only way to pay respects he knew. As the fire burned down over the long hours, he could put a name to one emotion in his heart.
"That hostel has rooms." Gerd pointed at a large brick and wooden building wedged tight between a clothing shop and a vintners. "Looks respectable. Let's give it a try."
Yveni nodded. He didn't care where they slept. He wanted to be clear of Nukin port and Sardelsa so the pain in his heart could be amputated cleanly. Until they left the duchy he loved and was born to rule, his grief was ground open afresh every day.
They were flush with ready money. Not only had Gil given them a generous stash, they'd also sold their horses for a good price at the hostelry. No need for the mounts any longer. They had to pay for accommodation and passage on a ship to Horches, but that should still leave them with funds to spare.
Another matter that held little interest for Yveni. After the frantic scramble to leave the castle and the fear of being caught as the two of them fled across Sardelsa to the coast, he only felt numb. The risk of discovery was slim now he'd changed clothes and Gerd had crudely cut his hair short, more befitting the son of a trader as he pretended to be rather than the vicont he really was. Or had been.
At the hostel, Gerd dealt with renting them a room with meals supplied for the next couple of days. Yveni stared around the hostel with some curiosity since he'd never been in such an establishment. He had no idea what a hostel room even looked like, or what facilities would be found here. The hostel looked clean enough, though far from luxurious. Not as welcoming as Gil and Sofia's home, but it would do.
His throat seized as he saw a portrait of his father, draped in mourning white and ducal blue, high on a wall in a place of honour. Flowers had been placed on a small table below it, clearly from subjects lamenting the loss of their beloved grand duc. Official mourning hadn't yet ended. Yveni hadn't even been given time to grieve properly. Though his father had been failing for months, the final illness had been rapid and a shock to all the children. Yveni still couldn't believe he was now an orphan.
Father, I miss you. His eyes filled but he quickly wiped them dry. Though Grand Duc Arkady had been deeply and sincerely mourned, to stand weeping before his portrait was too dramatic for a humble subject.
"Come along, Gaelin," Gerd called to his "son".
Yveni shouldered his pack and obediently followed his "father" up two flights of narrow stairs. Gerd opened a door at the end of a dingy corridor and went in.
Yveni stood still at the doorway, blinking. "This is it?" he whispered in horror.
"Come inside, boy," Gerd snapped. He waited until Yveni obeyed and closed the door before coming to him and speaking in a low voice. "This is standard accommodation for traders."
"But it's tiny." The room contained only a washbasin and mirror, two bunk beds, and two chairs at a tiny table. Miserly grey paint covered the walls, and the sunlight struggled to enter the single grimy little window. It looked more like a barn than a bedroom. At least the bare floor was swept.
"Good enough for the likes of us." Gerd lowered his voice further. "The walls are thin, and the ducal authorities are searching for you. I saw a note on the receptionist's desk with your description. Fortunately they don't know who you're with and there are many Tueler youths who look much as you do, but we can't afford to be careless, 'Gaelin'."
Yveni nodded. "I understand, father."
Gerd patted his shoulder. "Stay here, rest. There's a privy and washroom on each floor. Make sure you hide the you-know-what," he added in a whisper, indicating on his own arm the place where the familial tattoo sat on Yveni's. Yveni had covered it with a bandage, and would claim to be hiding a burn if asked. "I'll take our papers and book the passage. Supper's in the dining room here."
"Don't let anyone in. Keep the door locked. I'll knock like this." He tapped out a quick double beat. "And cheer up, lad. It could be worse."
Yveni couldn't even raise a smile. It could be worse, for sure, but Gerd wasn't on the run from his murderous nearly brother-in-law, or about to be stateless for the next three years.
He wished Gerd had taken him on the errand, because being alone gave him too much time to think. Too much time to miss his sisters, Olana and Serina, and his friends Gil, his wife Sofia and their sons. To worry about them too. Serina's betrothed, the Margrave Konsatin, couldn't harm her if he wanted to retain his right to the regency, but little Olana's position was by no means so secure. Serina and Olana would have to depend on Gil, but a vengeful Konsatin could easily threaten Gil's position as huntmaster. They'd been very careful not to leave a trail back to Gil, but there weren't that many people in the castle both willing and able to arrange for the heir to vanish on one of his daily horse rides.
All would depend on whether Konsatin believed that Yveni had been kidnapped, or fled for his own reasons. Gil had assured Yveni he could take care of himself and his family. Sofia's Seer ability would give them some warning of anything Konsatin might do, but if they had to flee suddenly, they'd lose everything. And unlike Yveni, they couldn't return in three years to reclaim Gil's position.
He rubbed his face with his sleeve, disgusted with his self-pity. So many had sacrificed their safety to help him, and yet he whined like a child. Better that Sardelsa had a corrupt and greedy regent than a spineless, weepy grand duc. His father would be ashamed of him. No, he would cry no more. His parents in the spirit world wouldn't have to watch their son behaving like a snivelling cur. I love you, he told them. I'll make you proud.
Gerd returned within the hour and switched on the main light as Yveni let him in. "Why are you sitting in the dark, lad?"
"Nothing to read, no need for it."
Gerd grunted. "Thought that might be your problem. We've to amuse ourselves for three days before the ship leaves, so I bought some cheap books. They do a good trade in second-hand items here in Nukin."
"Second-hand?" Yveni frowned. He'd never heard the term before.
"Sold for cash, bought discounted. Like the horses." Gerd grinned. "I guess the idea's a new one to you. Here you go."
Yveni took the slightly grubby books from him. The large and rather ugly typeset was printed on crude paper. The front cover showed a woman with a rather improbable bosom and a man either trying to undress her or begging her to cover up. It wasn't clear, since the illustration was smudged and worn.
"People read such things?"
"Oh yes. Very popular. In a town like this with people coming and going, they're traded all the time."
"But they don't look very improving."
"Don't know about that, my lad, but they're entertaining. Read or don't read, up to you. But since you'll have to stay here," he added in a low voice, "you best take what you can." He took papers out of his satchel. "Two tickets to Horches. Two and a half week journey. Hope you don't get seasick."
"I have no idea. I've never been on a boat."
"Ah. Oh well, too late to complain now. Are you hungry?"
The next few days held nothing but tedium for Yveni, and if it hadn't been for the horrible little books Gerd had bought, he'd have gone mad from boredom. The books had no redeeming value whatsoever, and the fantastical and implausible stories of great adventurers, grateful women of loose morals, and monsters of every type were written in a highly vulgar manner. But they served to distract Yveni from his thoughts and pass the time well enough. Other than the books and visiting the dining room three times a day for plentiful but rather stodgy meals, there was nothing else to do. He couldn't talk to Gerd about Gerd's fascinating if unsavoury history because of the risk of being overheard, and he couldn't commit his thoughts to writing for fear of discovery. It would be better on the boat, Gerd said. Yveni hoped so.
Gerd could go about freely, and with the new supplies of books, he brought news--what there was of it. The disappearance of the heir to the duchy of Sardelsa still caused a huge stir, and feverish theories filled the newssheets, along with stern messages from His Grace, the Regent Konsatin, that the perpetrators of this foul crime would be found and severely punished. Gerd brought several of the newssheets back to the hostel for Yveni to read, and Yveni took great pleasure in stabbing his knife right through Konsatin's hypocritical words.
Of his sisters, there was no news, other than a court-issued statement from Her Grace, the Vicontes Serina, that she placed every faith in her betrothed, the regent, to find the man or men who had so brutally stolen her beloved brother from them. Serina would certainly have torn up such tripe offered for her approval rather than authorise it. But her authorisation wasn't needed, not with Konsatin in such tight control.
Yveni only had to survive until he turned twenty-one, and return to claim the ducal throne. But the obstacles to his return were formidable. Sofia's gift could only See four days into the future. He would have given anything if she could have told him what the next three years would bring.
The dull wet weather on their day of departure fitted Yveni's gloomy mood. The ship was to sail at noon, allowing plenty of time for breakfast and a leisurely checkout from the unloved little room. Yveni was glad to leave it and the hostel behind, hopefully forever. Gerd thought they could risk a short stroll for Yveni to stretch his legs and see something of the port before they left, so long as he spoke little and played the simpleton.
While he relished the chance to absorb the sights and sounds and distinctly odd smells of the port town, his heart ached to see his father's hand in so much of this city. The grand duc had left his mark not only on his castle with its extensive telephonic and electrical systems and brand new plumbing, but on the society too. Electrification had been carried out in almost every town, telegraph stations and telephone exchanges installed in every county, every village, and new schools, infirmaries and libraries built with the most up-to-date equipment and much of it bought with the duc's personal fortune. Nukin had benefited like the rest from the modernisation, and Yveni's fist clenched as he passed a postal-service store. The service had been established just a year ago and had rapidly spread to the rest of the duchies in the Unity. In the window of the store, his father's portrait stood, draped in white and blue, and as Yveni watched, several people stopped and bowed their heads in respect.
All he'd wanted to do with his life was to have a chance to work on these great projects with his father while he lived, and to carry them on after he died. Fat chance of Konsatin doing anything like that. He'd said all the right things when he'd come for the betrothal and pretended to be interested in modernisation, but his home in the duchy of Enholt was backward and rigidly formal, and Konsatin's brother, the duc of Enholt, refused to allow telephones even in his palace. The only hope was that the people, now used to these modern services, would not easily allow Konsatin to remove them. If they did, Yveni would have a huge task ahead of him on his return.
Gerd touched his shoulder. "Gaelin, we have to go. There are a couple of things I need to buy."
"Yes, father." But his eyes lingered a moment or two longer on the beloved face of his real father. Gods, he missed his family.
Gerd purchased food, which made sense, and a curious-looking belt for Yveni, which did not.
"I already have a belt," Yveni said as they walked down to the docks to board.
"Not like this. Wait and I'll show you."
The purser took a long time to examine their papers and tickets. Gerd picked his teeth and appeared unconcerned despite the close scrutiny of two soldiers. Yveni stared into space and hoped he looked vacantly stupid--as little like a missing vicont as possible.
But finally the purser waved them on board with a grunt, and at the top of the gangplank, a sailor, raggedly dressed in short trousers and a perfectly disgusting bandana around his neck, examined their tickets and told them how to find their cabin. The ship was principally a cargo vessel so there were only a dozen passengers on board, though there were over forty crewmembers. Yveni wouldn't have known the difference between one kind of ship or another. He was simply fascinated by all the strange shiny equipment and the sailors working at the huge sails and with ropes as thick as Yveni's forearm. The very motion of the boat as wash slapped against its hull was new and beguiling to him, though the odours from the murky water in the dock enticed him less.
Gerd urged him to stop moongazing and to move along the deck to their cabin which, to Yveni's relief, turned out to be less worn than the hostel room, with more storage. Bunk beds again, but private washing and toileting facilities offered more privacy.
Gerd claimed the lower bunk, being older and heavier. Yveni didn't mind.
"Now one thing, Your Grace." Gerd used his title for the first time since Yveni had met him. "See those things on the wall?" He pointed to two bulky objects that looked a little like horse collars. "Those are life preservers. If the ship's in trouble, you put one on as soon as you can. It'll save your life if you end up in the water. Not for long, since the water's cold this time of year, but long enough maybe to let you be picked up."
Gerd demonstrated how to put the preserver on correctly, and gave him a few other tips on what to do if the ship sank. Yveni hadn't even contemplated the possibility before. "As if I don't have enough on my mind," he muttered as he undid the straps.
Gerd lifted the preserver over his head, laid it on the bunk, then contemplated him. "To get through this, make it work, you'll need to be tough. To rule, you need to be tough. Think you're up to it, Your Grace?"
Yveni stuck out his chin. "I'm here, aren't I?"
"Not by choice. The chances are, this'll fail. You know that. Gil knew that. But if you set out with the attitude it will, then it's bound to. I agreed to help him because I owe him more than I can ever repay, but I'm telling you straight, Yveni, you don't strike me as someone who'll make this work."
"Why? I've kept up with you all the way."
"But you've resented every bit of it. Your heart's still back home. I saw you looking at the pictures of His Highness. You let your sorrows drag you down. You don't have that luxury."
"My father's not a month in his grave."
"Will he be any more dead for your moping?"
Yveni's lips thinned and he hissed in anger. "Don't you speak of him in that way!"
His emotion left Gerd unmoved. "I'm speaking of you, Vicont. That sorrow you carry is a burden. Your longing for what's gone is a burden too. Leave it behind now and look forward. You've a long way to go and you can't afford to drag that along with you."
"What would you know of grief, you poacher?"
Gerd bared his teeth, and for the first time Yveni felt just a little afraid of the man. "Lost my parents and two brothers to the kirten fever when I was ten, Your Grace. Taken in hand by my uncle and beaten every day until I was thirteen and made a run for it. What do you know of that, boy? Anyone ever belt you? Were you turned out of your home by a landlord greedy for rent? No. You're nearly grown. Sure, it's hard now, but until now you've lived the good life. You could afford to weep and carry on for your father. I never had that. Don't talk to me about grief."
He turned to pick up the preserver and hang it back on the wall. "I know it's hard but sorrowing's a luxury. Saps your strength when you need to be hard and strong. Even with Gil's cousins helping you in Horches, you can't sit down and cry like a child. Uemire's poor, and life's tough there. Only the strong survive. Be strong or be dead."
"Why do you owe Gil?"
Gerd sat on the bunk, his eyes distant. "Like I said, I ran from my uncle when I was thirteen. Still scrawny and I knew nothing. The only way I could survive was to hunt--to poach on the ducal lands. Even then, I barely caught enough to survive. Anyway, being so useless, I caught my leg in a metal trap, laid to catch dunels ravaging the deer and kardip herds. Two days and nights I lay caught there, unable to get free. Nearly bled to death. Gil found me. Now, he could have done two things--handed me over to the castle authorities and the doctors, told them to heal me and imprison me as a thief, or he could do what he did, which was to take me to his own home, Sofia with Migel still a babe at her breast, and care for me. Cleaned the wounds, treated the infection, washed me, dressed me, fed me and hid me until I healed. Could have lost his job over it. He didn't even hesitate. And when I was healed, he found me a job as an apprentice to a toolmaker, and made sure I went to school as well. Kept his eye on me, did Gil. I disliked the toolmaking and when I was of age, I made my own way in life, but thanks to him I didn't end up in prison, I didn't lose my foot, I learned a trade and had an education. I could be dead or worse."
"So when he called you a poacher..."
Gerd smiled. "Just his little joke. Poaching's no way to make a living."
Yveni scratched his head. "But you've been a smuggler, you said."
"Aye. I never said I was an upright man. But I never stole from the duchy lands again, or put myself in Gil's way. He's done me one or two favours over the years--legal--and I've done some for him. I still owe him everything."
"You never cried for your family."
"Never said that, boy. I just said I didn't have the luxury then. Sometimes the tears have to wait."
"I'm...sorry for what I said before."
Gerd shrugged. "A grudge is a luxury too. Hate--now there's a powerful motivation."
"Good, because I hate Konsatin."
"Then let that be the thing that drives you, if you can't find something else."
"What happened to your uncle, Gerd?"
The man showed his teeth in what no one would call a smile. "Oh, it was very sad. Ended up with a knife between his ribs. No one ever found out who did it. Died all alone and unloved. What a fate, eh?"
Yveni repressed a shiver. Even though a threat had been made against his life, it wasn't the same as knowing someone in the same room had actually killed a man. "Have you killed many people?"
"Only those that needed it, Your Grace. You're safe. I'd never touch a hair on the head of anyone under Gil's protection. Now. Enough of that. Get your gear stowed and we can eat lunch on the deck. The mess won't be working until they set sail."
"What will I do if I get seasick?"
"Puke, Your Grace." This time Gerd really grinned.