“Why don’t you bring your cutler inside?” she suggested. “I have much to explain.”
Drustan strolled up to my mother and handed her a sack that jingled like it was full of coins. Then he walked toward me and looked me over from head to toe. The man’s eyes alone brought me to the boiling point of my rage, but I simply said, “I hope my beloved doesn’t mistake you for an enemy of this household. Unless,friend, that’s what you are.”
Drustan laughed, the self-righteous sound of a man who held a winning hand. “She’s good,” he said to my mother. “You’ll be all right, both of you.” He nodded at me. “Syndrian won’t hurt me,” he said. “Not when he understands we’re all in business together now.”
I shook my head. “Never. Mother, what—”
She motioned for me to take a seat and then rang a bell to summon the butler. Norwin scurried in, looking disheveled and absolutely terrified. “Gather the household, Norwin,” my mother ordered. She pointed to the blood and saliva on the floor. “And a mop. We’ve all got some messes to clean.”
Syndrian rushed inside the main hall, and I ran for him before grasping him about the waist.
“You’re unhurt?” he asked, brushing the hair from my face.
I nodded. “My father’s been arrested,” I said.
“I saw,” he said. “But you were not? And your mother?”
“She seems only too happy to have my father carted off to his death,” I said bitterly.
“Oh, hush now, Daughter.” Lady Lombard straightened her shoulders. “Your father will be fine. In a couple of days, he’ll be comfortably situated in an estate in the realm of Drammen. Where I’ll be joining him.”
I studied my mother’s face. “Joining him? How, if he’s been arrested?”
My mother perched on a chair and explained, “Darling, the people your father works for have, unfortunately, become a bit too—demanding. It’s the way with large organizations. The more those at the top want, the harder those at the bottom have to work. Your father truly wanted to retire. To step away from the travel and the grueling service he’s given to his employers. But theirs is not an organization that’s easy to leave.”
Syndrian gripped me around the waist, his hand tightening around me protectively.
I knew that my mother had given me the counterfeit coins. I knew as well that those very coins—the ones from our family treasury—had been the undoing of my father. The realization that Lady Lombard was behind all of this—that she was the criminal mastermind who’d bested even her own spouse—sickened me to my core. “So you had your own husband arrested? Set him up to be discovered? And you used me as a pawn…” My body began shaking so hard, Syndrian pressed against my back, steadying me with his solid strength. “Why?” I demanded. “So that you could marry Emeric Otleich like you always wanted to?”
I couldn’t believe my mother could be so…calculating. I’d always known she was brilliant and cold, but this? My heart sunk within my chest in disgust. Even horror.
“What if I—” I whirled away from Syndrian, pointing at my mother’s chest. “You used me… I could have been caught in the tournament with those coins! Do you know what they do in that place to cheaters, Mother!”
My mother lowered her eyes and gave a tiny, indignant snuffle. “There it is again,” Lady Lombard said gently. “You think so poorly of your mother you would not consider any alterative motive, would you.” She said it sadly, with resignation. I was not moved to compassion, even when she seemed to wipe a tear from her eyes. No, not a full tear. The shimmer of one. “I know I’ve done little to deserve higher esteem,” she said, her chin high. “But…I confess, your low opinion does sting.”
I nearly rolled my eyes, but the response was not nearly enough. Screaming with indignation and rage, even flying at my mother would not have been sufficient release for the toxic pain I felt at her betrayal. I looked back to Syndrian where he stood just a few steps from where I’d moved away from him.
Drustan looked on, a highly irritating smirk on his face. “You’ve kept her quite sheltered, Petra.” He nodded in what I thought was approval. “Well done.”
Syndrian sighed and reached a hand to reassure me. “As unpleasant as this looks, I believe Lady Lombard did know she was providing you with counterfeit silver to put into play in the tournament. But unless I’m grossly mistaken, she also knew that no harm would come to you. Not with Drustan in her pocket.”
My mother nodded. “He’s smarter than I expected for a cutler.”
“For a cutler! By the gods, what is wrong with you?” I was about to defend him, but my mother went on.
“As much as I’d love to debate the finer points of your young man’s intellect, I’ll need your full attention. Things are about to get a bit messy, dear. But I hope you’ll be pleased in the end.”
“Messy?” I echoed. “Pleased?” I crossed the floor and looked at her, fire blazing in my heart. “All my life I’ve done what you wanted! Been what you wanted! And tonight I learn I’m still, even now, just a pawn? Just a plaything you and Father move as you wish? How do you expect me to be pleased when my entire life has been a lie!”
My mother nodded solemnly. “I’m sorry, Pali. I know you feel I’ve failed you as a mother. I can only hope with time, perhaps”—she looked at Syndrian—“if you have children of your own, you’ll understand that not all evil comes to do you harm. I brokered your freedom in the deal I made for your father and me. And not just your freedom. That of the crofter boy and his mother as well.”
Drustan chuckled into his hands and then wiped them on the fine fabric of his breeches. “Petra is quite the strategist,” he said appreciatively.
My stomach churned as I wondered whether my mother and this…this snake had something intimate between them. Whatever the nature of their bond was, I cared not for it. I cared not for secrets, but it appeared that my mother even to the last would hold fast to the truth.
I looked from Syndrian to my mother, confused, angry, but too captivated by the smallest ember of hope to release the one word she’d said. The word that had meant everything to me, and yet which had been so elusive for so long.
I’m…free?” I echoed. “What does that mean? How am I free?”