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Even the most hurried of coronations, I soon learnt, took time to arrange. Invitations had to be sent; people needed to be contacted; ceremonies needed to be rehearsed. Rebecca was promptly drawn into the midst of this – few doubted her claim to begin with, and the High Court approved it in a rare unanimous decision. The Duke of Wafret, distancing himself from the heinous deeds of his traitorous guard captain, became one of Rebecca’s staunchest supporters in the House of Lords; as the evidence of just how many people Trellig had tainted came to light, the sheer scope of her plans made clear that even those who had been implicated in the past had nothing of substance to do so now.

Aside from a brief consultation with the Court’s telepath, an aging woman named Alisande, I was spared the bulk of this, which was as well; I had my own difficulties to deal with, and most of them centred around that final skirmish, and the horrible realization I’d been faced with in the wake of it.

My mother had long been distant; how much of that had been a life of crime, I had no way of knowing. I’d been worse off for not having a roof over my head, in the course of those months, but the lack of affection wasn’t so great a difference from what I’d known those last few years under her roof.

Still, there was such a strange turn of events there. Smuggling dream-spice was one thing – the drug rings wielded power of their own, it was true, so it was hardly so petty a crime as stealing a loaf of bread, but it was perhaps the strongest a crime could be and still be petty. To go from such a thing, to be let out of prison, only to turn to a plot that had come all too close to regicide…

What on earth could prompt anyone to do such a thing, never mind my own mother?

The other assassins’ bodies were spirited off I don’t know where; she, though, was buried in a cemetery for the nameless and penniless, though her marker, simple though it was, at least bore the name Cassandra Larson and its proper dates. I wasn’t quite aware of why anyone had bothered; nor was I aware of what drew me to the place afterwards, standing in the blowing snow, gazing down upon the grey stone. The fresh-turned earth was covered, now; the stone fit in among the rank and file as well as any of them.

“She was not the best of women,” Rebecca’s voice carried into my ear, “but she gave rise to the best of men.” Her hand came up to rest on my shoulder, giving it a squeeze. “I couldn’t allow her to simply be disposed of like the others.”

“The others doubtless had families as well,” I said, half in protest, though it was a weak protest indeed.

She leaned in against my side, then; I held my cloak out to let her under it before I was quite aware that I was doing so, and once she was there, it was a comforting enough feeling that I wouldn’t have pulled away for all the gold sovereigns in Vard.

“None of their families were you,” she replied at length, taking my hand in hers. “Whatever you may think of yourself, Edmond, if not for you, I’d not still be alive today. Leave aside all the ceremonies and titles and official recognition if you wish, but for that, you have my thanks.”

I was uncertain of how to respond to that. I’d done what I had needed to do – what some distant part of my mind remembered from my earlier years as being taught as the right thing to do. And all of those with me had shown no hesitation in doing much the same. Was I truly so special?

But none of them, even I had to admit, had been able to pull the truth out of unwilling minds. None of them would have known that Rebecca was in danger until the fire had already been set.

It was a strange feeling, truly. Hero of the Realm, they had wanted to call me. And for what? For the accident of birth, for a gift I’d never sought, that had landed on me without me even being aware of it?

“It’s not only about the opportunity,” she said, as though divining my thoughts. “There are many who never have the chance to to great things, it’s true. But there are also many who are given the chance, who have the skills at the time to make it happen, but lack the conviction to see it through. Whatever you may think of yourself, you are a rare person for that combination.”

The best answer to that, if indeed there was an answer to it, was not in my power to give.

Whatever was keeping me rooted to the spot faded somewhat; there was still an uncomfortable weight upon me, but it wasn’t so much that I couldn’t turn away, starting out of the cemetery. “What brought you after me today?” I asked, hoping that my tone didn’t sound horribly ungrateful. “I’m somewhat surprised that you were able to escape all the pomp and ceremony.”

“That would be exactly why I came here,” she sighed. “Well, one reason, at any rate; I did need to get away from the goings-on. I know you feel somewhat awkward, having so much attention only because of how you were born, but…”

“But you’re in a very similar lot yourself, I know,” I sighed, bringing a hand up to rub behind her ears. It was a touch strange, that moment of quiet affection; we’d not had another chance for its kind since returning to Nordport. Just indulging in it that once made me realize something of how much I’d missed it, and how much I would miss it. But she had a busy life ahead of her now, a life always in the public eye. She would need a consort who could provide her with an heir, someone who could quite visibly be her prince. And I…

“So what will you do now?” she asked.

I confess, the manner in which she could divine my thoughts was uncanny to the point of being vexing. She at least would have the privacy of her thoughts; suddenly, around her, I was feeling as though I had not even that. “Are you certain you aren’t looking into my mind, now?” I asked – snapped, in truth. “Alisande has said I should be able to keep my thoughts from being sent to those around me, now.”

“I know you too well, is all,” she said gently, reaching up to touch my cheek. “I can tell when you’re thinking of the future. I don’t know why, but I can see that it pains you. Every time. I wish I knew why, and I wish that I could take that pain away… but I’ll not press you to talk about it unless you wish to do so.”

Hells. She hadn’t deserved that outburst in the least, and I knew that full well. I took a breath, trying to get my thoughts in order. She was right, of course – but that pain was hardly her fault. Just because she’d taken a life in which sex had degenerated into a bland melange of sameness, each month just like those before, and put into it some fresh spice… that didn’t mean it was her choice that had her slated to a queen’s life and myself…

“I should think I’ll go back to what I was doing before,” I sighed. “I put my name to paper, saying that I’d work for ten years, at the Blue Ribbon House or wherever its owners saw fit to put me, paying off my debts for the opportunity they’ve given, providing for my own future thereafter. It’s comfortable, it’s familiar, it’s…”

“Boring,” she supplied. “You don’t need to say it; I can tell the prospect doesn’t excite you anymore. And though I can’t say I’m certain what it’s like, to be exposed to such a pleasant thing so much that it becomes routine, becomes a chore… I do know something about what it’s like to be doing the same thing all day, every day.” She squeezed my hand. “Did you know, Zach Martin is staying in Nordport? He’ll be joining the Army – says he needs to make amends for his old Captain.”

“It’s not as though he had any part in carrying out her orders,” I protested.

“So I told him,” she replied, “but he was set on his course.” She gave my hand a squeeze. “Truth be told, even if he doubts he’ll ever have another chance, I imagine he wants to be a touch closer to you. It’s not Trellig’s plans he feels badly for – it’s his own involvement in bringing Trellig’s attention upon you.”

I could understand that, and yet… “If he hadn’t, I’d not have had the chance to confirm them until it was entirely too late. You might have come out well enough, it’s true… but most likely Duchess Halston would be dead by now.”

“Also true.”

“Why is he so certain that he’ll not have any more opportunities with me?” I asked, though given that such thoughts had been heavy on my mind as well, I rather fancied that I knew the reason for it.

“Once he learned you’d not planned to start a life outside the capital, that you’d only come for my sake, I imagine he thought you would return to your old life,” she confirmed. “And he’d not be able to schedule himself some time with you… and likely felt that what free time you do have to yourself, you’d not wish to spend on sex.”

Indeed, that was something of my worry. I’d grown rather attached to Travis on the course of our journey and during our time in Wafret town, and Zach himself had been quite pleasing, especially for a man whose name I’d not known at all during the course of our encounters. It might have been nice to know what he was like as a lover, not only a client, but I couldn’t offer any sort of promise that I’d have any energy to spare for such things. I’d been away from my duties for an unacceptable length of time as it was; I’d be most fortunate if the Blue Ribbon house still gave me space to practise my trade, instead of simply sending a barrister after me for breach of contract.

I considered asking about Rebecca’s plans, but with so much in her future that wasn’t according to her plan at all, I thought that would be rather indelicate. Instead I asked, “How is Nancy faring?”

“She will recover,” Rebecca said, somewhat hesitantly. “It’s not known if she’ll regain the full use of her arm. If she does not, she’ll have an honourable discharge and the strongest commendation I can recommend her for. Well, all of them will get that, but… she’s the only one to be injured for it, and that deserves recognition in itself.”

It was, at least, comforting to know that she would mend. If the wound had gone foul… I shivered, tugging my cloak closer around myself.

We’d reached the edge of the cemetery, and stood now at the bustling street; I paused, uncertain of quite where I ought to go next. Duty told me to go to Blue Ribbon House, to make some efforts toward restitution, to plead for their mercy and the opportunity to resume my work, more or less as I’d left off. And yet I had no wish to merely send her on her way, not when the heavens only knew when we’d have another opportunity to meet. “Where are you bound?” I asked.

“I came here to seek you,” she replied. “More than that, depends greatly upon what you wish to do with the evening.”

“At the moment, my craving is for a bed I can call my own,” I had to admit. “Someplace where I feel I might actually fit, not… rattle around. I’ve been glad for the hospitality and the attention of the staff while I was still sore from the journey, but now… now I want a home.”

A pause. “And you wish to return to your old duties, truly?”

“It’s what I know,” was my response. “I was passing successful at them, and they were familiar, comfortable… sometimes more enjoyable than others, sometimes more of a chore, but never so horrible that I dreaded the doing of them.”

“Have you yet spoken to your madame?”

I shook my head. “Not yet. Having been gone for a month, I’m… afraid.” I had to shake my head at that. I’d travelled across the land, hunted for my own food, faced those who might kill me – and once Trellig met her sentence, I would have outlived them all. Some were dead by my hand, some by others, but I would have won, one way or another… and yet I was afraid. Afraid that I’d wind up on the streets of Nordport again, begging for my dinner, or walking the streets at night, giving myself to any who’d give me a few coins in return, without the surety of the guards I’d had before.

“If the worst happens, Edmond, there are those who would gladly take you in,” Rebecca offered – again cutting to the core of my thoughts. “If the royal palace isn’t to your taste, which is entirely understandable, I’d imagine that any of our companions would be quite willing to offer some assistance.”

“I wouldn’t want to bring solicitors on their heads.”

Suddenly she brightened, standing up straighter. “Leave that,” she purred, “to me.”

“What have you in mind?” I asked with some trepidation.

“With the proper pitch, I’d imagine that I could have your employers nigh begging to take you back, Edmond.” Laughing, she reached up to touch my nose. “However little you may know it yet, as news of these events spreads, you’ll become something of a celebrity figure. You might as well make the most of it, rather than endure the scrutiny to no benefit at all.”

“Is that what you’re doing now, then?” I couldn’t quite keep an arch tone from my voice.

“But of course,” she replied, much more lightly than I’d expected once the words were out of my mouth. “If I can’t at least make life a touch easier for those who have helped me in mine, what good is a fancy title? Though…” She turned to face me, her expression growing more sober. “I… must confess to some self-interest in that, Edmond.”

“You know I’d gladly help you however I could,” I said, letting my hands come to rest on her shoulders.

“Perhaps,” she breathed, leaning in a little closer, “but what I wish now is something you could be back to earning money for.” One of her hands came up to glide along my chin. “Assuming all goes well, might you be willing to have me as your first regular client after your ordeal?”

The sudden proximity made my head spin. It took me a few moments to realize that, yes, it had been about a month since the last time she’d had that particular need; we’d enjoyed each other’s company often enough after that on the course of the journey that I hadn’t quite kept that in mind.

“I…” I swallowed, trying to put my thoughts into some semblance of order. “It would feel… strange, to have as a client someone who’s been a friend, a lover, a companion.” I couldn’t deny, though, that the thought of another evening with her made me almost giddy.

She smiled up at me, and then turned somewhat, reaching under her cloak. “I realize that the timing of this is a touch awkward, but on reflection… it would mean much to me if you would accept this. And it might help to assuage your concerns.” She held up a small black box, opening it before me.

The thing that glittered on its bed of red velvet was quite familiar. The white-gold stud had a fairly distinctive pattern to it, and the perfect blue circle of the lapis lazuli was gold-flecked without the slightest trace of white. I stared a moment upon it. “Is this…”

“I’ve kept it close to my heart, this past month,” she confirmed, stretching upward to brush her lips against mine. “More certain every day that I’d want you to bear it.”

I confess, I stared for a few moments. “I thought you would need… well, a fertile consort,” I said at last. “For an heir.”

“In due time, I don’t doubt that I will,” she granted, “though I’ve an idea there that may make it less tiresome than it might be. But for other times, Edmond, I’ll still want someone to pleasure me… whether I’m on heat or not. So long as you’re available, I’d very much like that to be you.”

I was a trifle dumbstruck. All this time on our journey we’d grown closer together, and I had half dreaded the time it would end, for then it would mean she would seek a husband and we might never encounter again.

Now… this.

“I…” Speaking was difficult; I swallowed to wet my throat. “If you want me, Rebecca, I am yours, and gladly. I will wear it with pride.”

“You speak as though it’s a medallion of bravery,” she laughed, touching my nose. “Worry not, that will come in time. Now, come; let us find your erstwhile employer, and I’ll do what I might to ensure you come off better for it.”

The reaction as we entered the Blue Ribbon House – flanked by a pair of serious men in plain clothes, who had matched her path in silence since the first step we took on the street outside the cemetery – was… not what I’d expected. I’ve no idea what I expected. But the reaction was more on her than it was on me; this was the Princess, the Queen-to-be, visiting their establishment. And while the Blue Ribbon house was more for the well-to-do than some such brothels, it had mostly catered to artisans and tradesmen, not the nobility. Certainly not the highest nobility.

Rebecca made much apology for dragging me across the land, but, she said, my assistance had been most urgently required, as a man of known loyalty who proved to have crucial skills, without which she would not have survived to return and claim the throne. It was at around this point that the madame – not Clarissa, who’d first drawn me into the trade, but Ophelia, the serious woman who owned the Blue Ribbon and a number of other such institutions – arrived to meet her, and she, Rebecca, her guards, and I were drawn into a little-used fine lounge.

“It is my sincere hope,” Rebecca said, “that no blame or difficulty falls on Edmond’s shoulders for coming to help me when there was need. I understand his departure may have cost your establishment some measure of business; the Crown, or my personal funds if more haste is needed, will of course compensate you for any losses suffered.”

“No, no, that’s quite all right,” Ophelia replied. “As I understand it, you yourself paid adequately for two weeks of his time on the two nights you spent here already; the rest can of course be forgiven for service to the Crown. But begging your pardon, Your Highness – what manner of task was it which required his attention, specifically?”

“Firstly, he learned of the plot against my life, and those of my family, in time enough to warn me and draw me away from it,” Rebecca said, as though this thing were simply a minor point on a greater list. Her next point was a touch more conventional – “He tended to myself and to the women accompanying me while we were on a rigorous and dangerous journey, from which he never shirked or made complaint.” But then: “He was also vital in uncovering the truth behind the entire horrible affair, and again in unmasking the true culprit and bringing her to justice in Wafret. And he personally saved the life of Duke Wafret, here in the city, not long ago. So, Madame Ophelia…” She leaned forward, flashing a winning smile. “Do you feel, as I do, that the allure of being serviced by a Hero of the Realm, favoured of the confirmed heir to the throne, and, once I am crowned, the second blue courtesan ever to be granted a knighthood for conspicuous bravery and loyalty to the Crown – to say nothing of a man who is impeccably and infallibly aware, thanks to the same telepathic talents that allowed him to gather the intelligence I needed, of what he does that pleases a woman and what displeases her, might make amends for his unplanned and unasked absence?”

Ophelia’s brows rose over the course of this narration – in truth, so did my own, hearing my own exploits regaled thusly – but she was a competent and collected woman, and did not take time to quibble. “Goodness, yes, of course,” she declared. “I already have some notions of how we might capitalize on that – indeed, it’s gracious of you, Your Highness, to not simply ask that he be released from his contract, and speaks quite well of you, Edmond, that you wish to fulfil the remainder of it. I shouldn’t doubt that some renegotiation will be necessary, once we see how well these plans perform; it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to learn that your total time of obligatory service be cut in half, though we will of course be glad to host you for so long as you wish to remain in the trade.”

Feeling rather dizzy, I simply nodded.

“However,” Ophelia selected a paper from a folder of them, “it seems that your old room has already been reassigned. We did put your possessions in storage, in case you should return to us intact, but I’m afraid I cannot offer you lodging quite this instant. There is a building I have that should suit your new station well, a one-bedroom house that we’ve lacked a suitable worker to place in for some time; but even working in a great hurry, it will take the rest of today and much of tomorrow to put it right for you. If you need lodgings for the night still, I’m certain I could find an inn with an adequate room…”

“That won’t be necessary, I’m sure,” Rebecca cut in. “If nothing else, he has a place as my guest should he ever wish it.”

“Well, then. I will see to it that your new quarters are ready for you by sunset tomorrow, Edmond, if you wish to meet here to be guided to them. All business will be arranged there, and I’ll be sure to have staff on hand to see to your safety as well.” She stood, offering her hand to me; still feeling rather awed, I shook it. Then she turned toward Rebecca, bowing. “Does this arrangement meet with your approval, Your Highness?”

Rebecca gestured toward me with a spread hand. “I will defer that to his judgement, Madame Ophelia, as he is the one who will be living under it.”

“Well, I have no wish to offend either one of you, of course. I’m pleased to have the chance to personally welcome you back to Nordport, Your Highness; tragic though the circumstances were that saw you depart, it’s good to know you are safe here once again.”

“You know whom I have to thank for that,” the Princess replied, grinning.

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