Ilinot de Balsarda sipped his wine uncomfortably, as the young woman before him smiled at him cheerfully. “How does it taste?” she asked. “Monsieur swears that the wines of the Tranchera region have the most astonishing bouquet! That they simply float upon the tongue!” She peered at him eagerly. “Do they float on your tongue, count?”
“I really haven’t been noting the flavor,” said Ilinot stuffily. Like most of his uncle’s servants, the lady was rather scantily clad in such a way as to flaunt what Eustace de Calx liked to refer to as ‘charms’.
“Then why are you drinking it?” came his uncle’s voice. The Duke of Tranchera strode into view, still wearing his ridiculous bird mask, with the Count of Joyeuse tagging along at his side. “If you do not wish to enjoy what I am serving, I have provided water, and simpler fare to satisfy instead of to delight.”
“Yes, uncle,” muttered Ilinot. “My apologies.”
“Ha!” snarled Eustace de Calx. He turned to the Count of Joyeuse. “Do you see what sort of nephew I have? A little sneak, who humors me, and imagines that I won’t notice!” The Duke gave an imperious wave of his hand. “You may be my most likely heir, Ilinot, but you’re far from the only one! Why I have a small horde of bastards, everyone of whom would be thrilled to be the next Duke of Tranchera.” He brought a hand to his mask, and stroked the bird’s beak. “Of course, that would require some dealings with the faith, but, I’m owed a few favors in the Synod…” The Count of Joyeuse’s eyes widened. “Merely a few loans. Well, that and solving a certain matter for the Flamen Pomonalis.” He turned to the woman. “That reminds, Maisie--Lord Viege was seen heading to the menagerie. Now, much as I enjoy his company, I would rather not have to see a repeat of what occurred last time, so if you would kindly head him off…?”
Maisie gave a slight bow. “On it, Monsieur. I am certain I can… figure something out.”
“You saucy minx!” said Eustace with a laugh. He gave her a swift slap on the bottom as she passed by. “Off with you! And have someone send me a cup of punch! My ingrate nephew may not be enjoying this repast, but I shall!”
“Oh, Monsieur!” tittered Maise merrily, as she walked away.
“Is all that really necessary?” muttered Ilinot.
“Tell me, nephew, do you know why Count Seisyll, Duke Gwynedd, and young Cortana are all dead?” asked Eustace. “It is not simply because they planned things--oh, no--it is because they obviously planned things, while being obvious threats. Now, I in contrast, appear to be planning nothing, and am a harmless old degenerate who Amfortas feels he can deal with easily if it should ever prove necessary. Which he rather doubts it will. Which is why I rather doubt he knows where I am at the moment, and rather doubt he cares, even though I am making NO effort to hide my whereabouts. While I know for a fact that he is at Joyeuse at the moment, even though he is trying to keep that a secret.”
Ilinot and the Count of Joyeuse both stared at the old man in shock. “But… but I heard for a fact that he is still in Hauteclaire…”
“Yes, well, you heard incorrectly,” answered Eustace. “The Prince lies about his whereabouts with some regularity. He seems to feel it is infinitely clever. That is why he seems to move about so amazingly quickly at times.” The Duke spread his hands wide. “Now--does that, perhaps, calm any doubts you might feel about siding with me?”
“Your punch, Monsieur,” said a scantily-clad young man, approaching the group with a goblet.
“You are a miracle-worker, Stefan,” said Eustace, taking the cup, and then rubbing his servant’s bare chest with an affectionate hand.
“I live to serve, Monsieur,” said Stefan with a bow.
“Oh, I know that, darling boy.” Eustace gave him a light familiar slap on the bottom. “Now off with you! I have great matters to discuss, and you distract me.”
“Oh, Monsieur,” tittered Stefan as he walked away. Ilinot and the Count of Joyeuse glanced at each other, as if to confirm that there was someone else here as uncomfortable as they were.