41. Promises (2)

Wes woke to a throbbing, percussive headache that nearly put him out again. He squinted into a bright fog, his eyes slowly working to recognize shapes again. After a long, painstaking moment, his vision settled.

He was in his room. Not the little property on Gallows Square, but his luxurious personal chambers in the country estate of House Geppett, all of its pretentious wooden tracery and florid weaponry and five-foot ceiling mural of the legend of Excalibur. It had been a long time since he’d last set foot in this cold and gaudy room, which had always managed to feel empty despite the crowded piles of books, fine apparel, decorated instruments, and other paraphernalia befitting a son of nobility.

Wes turned his aching neck. He found, surprisingly, Lord Roland Geppett himself sitting at his bedside, engrossed in a stack of papers bearing majestic seals. His father, here? Waiting like a common servant? Perhaps House Geppett was hosting guests and he needed to keep up appearances. Lord Geppett was not one to waste even a second of time, could he afford it.

Wes tried to speak. His tongue was clumsy and sandy in his mouth, his throat so hoarse that he swore he could polish stones by swallowing them.

“Lord Father,” he croaked.

Lord Roland Geppett glanced up from his papers. His eyes were severe beneath thick brows, his rugged beard crowning a harsh mouth.

“So, you wake,” he said, moving to stand. “I shall hail the physician.”

“Wait,” Wes blurted, and winced as the noise scraped up his throat.

He wouldn’t be weak, wouldn’t be pathetic—wouldn’t be subject to his father’s scorn. He schooled his features appropriately. A Geppett was not to show pain, even with his head hurting like hell and his body feeling like a bruised apple.

“How long has it been?” he asked, his tone all business, if not hoarse business.

Lord Geppett’s face was stony. “Seven days.”

Wes nearly choked.

He’d been out for a week. The Storm above had been accumulating, the anxious tensions among the nobility had been building, and the city had been prepping for the final strike, all for an entire week. And—no, surely Lord Geppett hadn’t been perched at his side for seven days. The very thought was ridiculous.

“The Storm?” Wes tried.

“It has yet to strike.” Lord Geppett looked to the windows. It must have been around midday, but the daylight was grey and shrouded with gathering clouds. “But it shall soon. Perhaps in another week.”

“The Thorn Company?”

“Twenty casualties.” Lord Geppett glanced in his direction. “They died honorably, in protection of their homeland. I doubt they harbor regrets.”

Twenty. Wes shut his eyes and breathed. He knew that many would die because he’d been underprepared. He hadn’t realized just how many. Those soldiers had had lives, families, betrothals and weddings. And he’d failed them. Nearly half of his company, dead.

“I have to meet with their families,” he mumbled, pulling the covers away. “Give my condolences. And the money—”

“Sit down, boy,” Lord Geppett barked. “You are in no condition to present yourself to company.”

Wes flinched and sat back in his bed. It was true; if he looked anything like he felt, then he was a mess, and his image would reflect poorly upon the Geppett family.

“Does image really matter?” he bit out. “When other families have lost their only sons, their breadwinners?”

“I have already seen to the bereaved,” Lord Geppett said harshly, “so there is no need for you to be redundant.”

This surprised Wes. Certainly, he had been unconscious for a week, which was a long time to wait on condolence notices—but his father was also a man who prized responsibility and authority. Sending condolences was a captain’s duty, and Lord Geppett would have made Wes learn it.

Then why had he taken on the responsibility himself? Surely it couldn’t have been for the sake of sparing Wes’s feelings, or showing compassion to the grieving families. Kindness was simply not in his nature.

“Still,” Wes managed, eying his father carefully, “a loss of twenty in a company of fifty is unacceptable. The soldiers of Thorn deserve a direct apology—”

“Which they shall not be receiving,” said Lord Geppett, “as an apology is not in order, but a commendation. Grimwall was an unexpected critical zone. To prevent all civilian casualties with a novice unit is unprecedented. As a captain, you have done your duty and beyond.”

Now Wes stared at his father as if the man had sprouted an extra head. Lord Geppett was being gracious. Uncharacteristically gracious. It put Wes on edge and made him want to squirm.

“Just get it over with,” Wes said tightly. “I know that you’re not here to sing my praises. You’re here to scold me.”

Lord Geppett’s face turned thunderous. “I would not waste the better part of a week waiting to censure an unconscious soldier.”

Waste. Censure. Soldier. Every word lanced Wes through the chest. “Well, sorry for not waking up earlier,” he said bitterly. “I did have to make the long journey from death’s door.”

Lord Geppett pounded his fist onto Wes’s bedside table. Small implements jumped on its surface. “Your histrionics are unnecessary, boy. You were far enough from death.”

Wes closed his eyes, suddenly weary. Myths, what did it matter? What did any of it matter? He’d expected absolutely nothing from his father, and still, he felt cut down.

He fell into stony silence. Lord Geppett pulled back his hand and returned to his papers.

“Reports say that you led well,” he said gruffly.

“What a surprise,” Wes muttered.

Lord Geppett’s eyes narrowed. “You never lacked the talent, boy. But you lacked the courage.”

“A coward unfit for the battlefield. There goes your plan of succession.”

“Silence,” Lord Geppett snapped. “Your cowardice is a matter of choice, not temperament. You shun battle because you are afraid to look like me.”

Wes fell silent.

“Your fears are childish,” Lord Geppett said. “Do you think that the citizens of Airlea can thrive and do business and keep their hands free of blood, all without a cost? No. The sacrifice comes from someone else. Garrison soldiers, Hunters, militia—countless others must dirty their hands to protect the fragility that is peace.”

Wes’s fingers tightened in his ornate duvet. “I’m aware of that.”

“Are you? Then why are you not willing to stave off the beasts that threaten your homeland?”

Wes lowered his gaze. Because he’d tasted power before. The thrill of prestige, invincibility, ultimate authority. Its seductive lure had dragged him into a darkness that had almost consumed him.

“I’m…not fit to wield it,” he forced out. “Power, I mean.”

Lord Geppett’s brows knitted together. “Power is nothing but the greatest shield, boy. To cast it aside is merely to cast the burden upon someone else.”

Wes flinched. His father thought he was afraid of power, but no; Wes’s fear was only of himself. He had made a promise, and he would not break it.

A sudden and sharp knock on the door disturbed his thoughts. Wes raised his head, and Lord Geppett frowned.

“State your business,” Lord Geppett commanded.

The voice outside was tentative and diminutive. A house servant, then. “A visitor has come calling, most eminent liege.”

“I was not expecting guests,” Lord Geppett said. “To whom is credited the audacity?”

“I, I believe it would be Lord Magnum Valence himself, my liege.”

“Lord Valence?” Lord Geppett’s brows knitted together. “Curious. Has he stated the nature of his business?”

“He wishes for a private audience with the young lord Wesley Geppett, my liege.”

Lord Geppett’s eyes cut to Wes, who instinctively slumped back against his headrest. He hadn’t the slightest why the lord of a major House would be seeking a private audience with him. Surely it meant nothing good.

Surprisingly, Lord Geppett did not make any accusations, nor did he press for answers. “Your response?” was all he said.

Wes jerked upright. “Uh. Pardon?”

“A major lord has made an excursion specifically to speak with you.” Lord Geppett folded his hands together. “Naturally, his business must be urgent for him to hail without prior arrangement.”

“Ah,” said Wes numbly. He did not quite understand what was happening. His father was the lord of the estate. His father was the one with knowledge, influence, holdings. Not Wes. Who would want to visit an absentee heir who had lain unconscious for the past week?

Wes would understand if Lord Valence had daughters of marriageable age—but if he recalled correctly, Lord Valence was rather young himself, coming to power only after a tragic fire had killed his father and mother four years earlier. His business was unlikely to be related to marriage.

“I, I suppose we should host him,” Wes said slowly. His mind still felt sluggish and it was difficult to force it ahead. “It would…be rude to turn him away when he’s gone through the trouble.”

Lord Geppett nodded with an impassive expression and clapped his hands once. He commanded the servant at the door to accept Lord Valence, tend to his steeds if he had any, and set the pavilion by the lush flower garden for tea.

Wes stared at his father, dumbfounded. Had he been unconscious for longer than a week? Since when had Lord Geppett asked him for his opinion? Or, for that matter, listened to him at all?

Sensing his gaze, Lord Geppett turned to him. “You are to one day inherit this estate,” he said. “It is time you grew in your responsibilities.”

Wes looked down. Of course. His father only listened when it already suited his own agenda. He shouldn’t have expected otherwise.

After Wes dressed quickly in his ordinary formal fare—gritting his teeth through the shrieking agony of his every limb—he was guided to the pavilion out on the estate’s magnificent, immaculately kept flower garden, which bloomed with a countless assortment of camellias, daylilies, lavender and snapdragons, all painting a rainbow of color over verdant green shrubbery. The gazebo, covered with white wooden tracery and lush vines, had been dressed with cushioned chairs and an intricate tea table. Porcelain crockery, bite-sized sandwiches, and pastoral cookies generously decorated the table’s surface.

What commanded Wes’s attention, though, was the prominent guest occupying one of the chairs.

Lord Magnum Valence was not large and looming like Lord Geppett, but he lacked nothing in poise. Layers of white silks, black furs, and copper accents highlighted his alabaster skin. The flecks of bloodlike crimson in his accessories brought out his single visible eye. His other eye was covered with an ornate silver half-mask; allegedly, it had been irreparably damaged in the fire of his estate.

Wes closed his eyes and breathed. Slowly, he felt his scattered senses honing into complete focus. When he opened his eyes, he was back in the realm of socialites, ready for the rhetorical battles of pleasantries and parleys.

Something told him that for this encounter, every bit of perception would be necessary.

“Hail, young Lord Geppett,” said Lord Magnum Valence. “So nice to finally meet you.”

He greeted Wes with an incline of his head and a sharp smile. A white wolf greeting its prey.

Very well, strange lord. Wes laced his fingers together and smiled back. Let the hunt begin.