42. Promises (3)
Lord Magnum Valence. A fearsome aristocrat, an influential financier, a recluse from the inane soirées of the gentry.
And merely another mask that Echo wore when it suited him.
It was all a lie, of course, as most of Echo’s identities were. The real Magnum Valence—Echo’s half-brother—had burned to death in his own bedchambers four years ago. The entire Valence manor had. Lord, lady, and heir, all gone in the span of a single night. What a tragedy, the aristocracy would whisper. What a horrifying accident.
But months later, Magnum would rise from the ashes and take command of what little holdings remained for House Valence. Only it was not Magnum himself, but Echo claiming his identity, and with it, all rights to the Valence people and property.
Not that anyone would know otherwise. Echo would pass every blood test of which Airlea could conceive. For he truly was the son of his father, Lord Rufus Valence. Any physical differences could easily be explained away by errors in regen reconstruction after irreparable burn damage.
It was a despicable thing Echo had done, killing his blood family and seizing their assets as his own. Awful, as Azalea would have put it, in every way.
He paid for it sometimes. He could still remember every moment of that heinous night. Stalking silently into Rufus’s bedchambers. Chaining him to the headboard and dragging away his drugged wife. Letting Rufus wake to a cold night and an even colder smile.
How sweet the begging had been. I’ll give you anything. Money—you want money? Property? Take anything. Just spare my life.
Echo had leaned in slowly, his smile broadening. What I want, he’d said, is for you to burn in hell.
Then he’d taken his time with his bone knife. He’d spoken soothingly as Rufus had writhed and screamed to a silent, empty house that would not hear him.
Let me tell you a story, he’d begun. A sweet little girl, growing up in a ratty orphanage at the edge of the Mythaven underworld…but oh, you don’t seem to be listening. Then what good is it to keep your ears?
Once his bloodlust had been sated, Echo had concluded his story by setting fire to the bed and walking away, leaving it to spread. Eventually it would consume the house—the lord shut in his bedchambers, the heir shut in his bedchambers, and the lady shut in the wine cellar. The entire manor would burn to ash and leave nothing behind.
Echo had expected relief. Vindication. A sense of justice. But the searing bite of fire, the stench of burning flesh, the raw screaming and cursing to high heaven—they were phantoms that haunted his dreams and throttled him in paralysis when he woke. He loathed it. He wanted to be stronger than regret. He had planned his revenge for two years and craved it for seven. It was a sin he could not erase, and had no business trying.
But as Echo regarded the Geppett heir before him, he wondered.
The young man’s face attempted to appear stern and carefully controlled, but there was still that unmistakable gentleness, that innocence—the open look that always reminded Echo of Arya, even though they looked nothing alike.
You could be fulfilled, whispered Azalea’s voice in the dark recesses of his mind. A part of something more.
There was something to the integrous light in Wes’s eye, the determined set of his jaw—something that made him look so keenly, painfully similar to Azalea. A kind soul, a boy who believed that the world could be made right with enough love and hard work. He could be Echo’s second chance.
Second chance? Echo realized, bewildered. But for what?
He waved the thought away. Azalea had made her choice when she had walked straight into the jaws of death. It was not his fault that she was a foolish idealist, and it was not his responsibility to fish her out.
Not my problem, he told himself. Deliver the letter. Deliver the letter and be done with it all.
He would skulk back to what he knew—the comforting shadows of the underworld, and the hidden machinations of the aristocracy. He did not need to be fulfilled. There was simply no such thing.
Lord Magnum Valence did not speak for a very long moment, which left Wes enough time to collect his thoughts.
Lord Valence was rarely seen in public, which was often a point of gossip for the aristocracy. Perhaps he was of unsound mind, they said. Perhaps he was ashamed of his disfigurement. Perhaps he was hiding a dishonorable mistress or child.
The actual answer, Wes thought, was probably much more practical. In the years leading up to the fire, House Valence’s influence had dwindled significantly from scandals, embezzlement, and broken treaties, as if somebody had been setting it up for failure. When Lord Valence had returned, his first priority was likely to restore the former glory of the house. He’d simply been too busy to entertain any events that would not directly further his efforts.
Which makes this meeting all the more intimidating, Wes thought to himself. A busy lord, the head of a notable estate, had taken time out of his schedule to visit in person, without warning.
It certainly couldn’t lead to anything good.
Wes sipped his tea and served himself one of the sandwich bites. Whatever the reason, it was apparent that Lord Valence would not be the first to speak.
“Thank you for coming all this way, Lord Valence,” he began politely. “I trust your journey was pleasant.”
Lord Valence’s crimson eye swiveled to Wes. It was unnerving, but Wes did not flinch or look away. To do so would show fear. Cede power. Numerous things that were not good for a noble to do.
“Pleasant,” Lord Valence said softly. “Is anything pleasant with the noose hanging around all our necks, I wonder?”
“I suppose not,” Wes admitted. “Then to what do I owe the pleasure of your visitation?”
Lord Valence chuckled. “I see you’re getting right to it.”
“Pardon my curiosity,” Wes said readily, “but I believe a meeting of this nature to be rather uncommon.”
Lord Valence’s smile widened. “Between the lord of a manor and an unrelated heir apparent? Particularly one without a marriageable daughter?”
Wes did not respond.
“Fear not, young lord. I’ve no wish to complicate your prospects.” Lord Valence slid a hand into his coat and extracted a simple cream-colored envelope. “Your own life seems to do so rather splendidly.”
The envelope fell upon the table. Wes’s eyes fixed on it, attempting to dissect its appearance. It was plain and unmarked, sealed with simple red wax. There was no hint of its contents, save for a few dirt smudges and a moisture crease on the corner.
If it had been pristine, he could have guessed what lay within—gold, a property deed, some critical document. But no, it was slightly worn, probably due to passing from hand to hand.
Hand to hand?
Your own life seems to complicate your prospects splendidly, Lord Valence had said.
The answer dawned on Wes instantly.
Something confidential—and incredibly damaging—lay in that envelope.
But then Wes was bewildered. Blackmail over his romantic life? What blackmail? He wasn’t in courtship or betrothed. He wasn’t even involved with a girl. His only secret was his identity as an ingeniator, and his entire House already knew it.
Wes’s gaze flickered back to Lord Valence. He managed to blanket his confusion with a cold, imperious look.
“A rather audacious claim, Lord Valence,” he said.
Lord Valence cocked a brow. “Then you deny it?”
He had to be bluffing. Most lords and their heirs partook in questionable dalliances. He must have assumed that Wes was like them and had something to hide.
Wes spread his hands. “I have nothing to deny,” he said easily. “Though I find your attempts endearing.”
Something clicked in Lord Valence’s gaze. A dangerous gleam that had Wes’s fingers drifting to the knife strapped to his waist, ready to draw it at a moment’s notice.
Until Lord Valence threw back his head and burst into full, hearty laughter.
“Myths and stars!” he whooped, brushing away a tear of amusement. “Do you think this a threat? Blackmail, perhaps—an allegation of some hidden sin? How small-minded I must appear in your eyes.”
Stunned, Wes’s hand dropped from his knife. He flailed to find words. “But I—isn’t it—I mean—”
“Please, little lordling.” Lord Valence flicked the envelope across the table with slender gloved fingers. It spun to a convenient halt right before Wes. “Had I any information of actual use, you would be the last to hear it.”
Wes stared at the missive before him. If it was being given to him so freely, then it could only be a trap. Reading it was quite possibly the last thing he should do. Not that he had any choice in the matter; Lord Valence was watching him expectantly, and to return it would not only be rude, but come across as weakness.
Wes warily broke the seal and thumbed open the envelope. He unfolded a simple page.
The familiar penmanship on its surface gutted him.
Wes stood inadvertently and his eyes scoured the page. Devoured those crisp, flowery little letters that bloomed over the rough surface. Stopped on the little doodle of a cat by a signed name.
I always knew that our paths would diverge one day. I hoped it would be much later, but it seems that now is the time.
I’m making good on my promise. I will do everything I can to keep you safe. You’ll be the most wonderful leader, ingeniator, husband, father. Please be well.
I’m sorry to leave like this. Thank you for the past years. I was truly happy.
The world was spinning. His chest felt tight, his head feverish. He couldn’t see properly.
Azalea. What happened to Azalea? Why hadn’t he thought of her earlier? Where was she?
He slammed a hand on the table. “Where did you get this,” he ground out.
Lord Valence only smiled wolfishly. “Ah. Now you’re listening. Good, good. Listening is the first step to effective communication.”
Wes felt that blinding, crystal clear rage crawling up to his eyes, embers burning in his veins. He forced it down with a sharp breath, willing himself to stay calm.
Focus. The tea table is just another battlefield. You’ve always known that.
The last he’d seen of Azalea was a pale, stricken face as he slumped into darkness, the countless silhouettes of terrifying beasts converging on her. An entire week had passed since then. Seven days. Seven days where he lay useless and unconscious, seven days whereshe could have died or disappeared.
I’m sorry to leave like this, she’d written.
Where was she now? What happened during the surge? Her presence had always been solid and constant in his life. Now he had no idea of her possible status, and it was dangerously disorienting.
Please be well.
Wes tilted his head up and forced an unaffected smile. “Consider me surprised. I did not realize we shared such an…unusual mutual acquaintance.”
“Acquaintance seems too light a term,” said Lord Valence with a glimmer in his eye. “You should hear how she fawns over you. Wes this, Wes that. What a precious little creature.”
A muscle twitched in Wes’s jaw, but thankfully, his expression remained otherwise blank. He could not further betray just how much Azalea meant to him. Anyone in the aristocracy who caught wind of his affection would surely drag her into the unending purgatory of high society and use her as a pawn.
If she was alive.
Don’t think of that. Focus, Wes. Focus, damn you.
Her sweet voice echoed those crippling words over and over: Please be well. Be well. Please—
Wes bit his tongue hard enough to draw blood. The shock of pain, thankfully, startled his mind into temporary clarity.
Yes, he had to consider the more important detail here: Lord Valence had spoken with Azalea at a length, and was in possession of her final words. Evidently, he was not just a mysterious noble lurking in the shadows. He knew her, somehow, beyond mere passing familiarity.
Somehow being the key word. Azalea had not mentioned the Valence estate, not once. Was she keeping secrets?
No, this was Azalea. A book so open she may as well have been a flat page. So unaware of political agendas and social tensions that, when they’d first met, she hadn’t realized that Wes belonged to an important family.
Most likely, she had interacted with Magnum Valence at a length without the slightest suspicion that he was a noble. But who, then? Who was he?
Wes thought hard, recounting everybody Azalea had recently mentioned.
Karis, the Second Hunter. Halcyon, the First Hunter. The guildmaster, Nicolina. Then the Dragon Whisperer. And…
A scavenger and mercenary from the underground? The one named Echo?
Wes’s eyelid twitched as he studied Magnum Valence’s perfect, polished, unaffected air. A far cry from the congested, grime-coated thoroughfares of Mythaven’s slums. Yet, through process of elimination, there was simply no other explanation.
Wes sank back into his chair, sliding his fingers together.
“I would ask how you came upon a letter intended for me,” he said smoothly, “but I presume that nothing is out of your reach, Lone Wolf.”
A minute pause from Lord Valence. Tiny, but successful nonetheless.
“Are you well, young lord?” he said mildly. “I fear that your thoughts are not quite coherent.”
“Not coherent, you say?” Wes set down the letter and leaned on the tea table. “Then allow me to speak plainly. You are the Lone Wolf, the scavenger and mercenary who was often in contact with Hunter Fairwen. That is how you secured this letter, whether through fair or foul means. You now convey this letter with the aim of eliciting an unbecoming response from me—something that can later be used as ammunition to hold sway over me. Am I wrong?”
To Lord Valence’s credit, not a single emotion passed his face during Wes’s accusation. He only smiled emptily, invincibly.
“Was I successful?” he said.
There was no thrill of victory for Wes, even though Lord Valence had admitted to his wild claims. Instead, he only felt a deep, permeating dread sinking in his veins.
A dangerous scavenger, a cutthroat mercenary, a powerful noble with his sights set on Azalea.
Now, more than ever, it was important for Wes to break his ties with Azalea. He would never let himself be the reason for her suffering.
“You thought wrongly,” Wes drawled. He tried to sound bombastic and cavalier, like his brothers speaking of one of their distasteful conquests. “The girl was an amusing diversion, I admit. But that was the extent of it.”
“Really, now? It seemed as if she cared tremendously for you.”
“A problem that is her own.”
Lord Valence’s mouth twisted slightly. “So cruel. Yet another commoner girl, thrown away by yet another incorrigible noble.”
“A common enough tragedy.”
Lord Valence heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Will you truly continue this charade, young lord? I saw the look in your eyes when you read her penmanship. Terror. Complete, delicious desperation.”
“I simply did not wish to leave a loose end,” Wes said.
Lord Valence stiffened, his impervious shell finally cracking. “A loose end?” he whispered, dangerously soft.
Finally, Wes had drawn blood. He sat up straight, gathering his senses. It was time to strike while he held the advantage.
“Like my father before me, I value tidiness,” he said. “Any loose ends and outstanding liabilities must be eliminated. That is the way of perfection.”
Lord Valence’s fingers slowly pulled in, forming a loose fist. The closest he’d ever come to losing his composure.
“You wish to know where your loose end is?” he said darkly. “Allow me to tell you.”
A slow chill crawled down Wes’s back. He opened his mouth to speak, but it was too late, and Lord Valence was talking, the words spilling out in a slick, black flood—
“The guilt of your near-death broke Hunter Fairwen and made her desire martyrdom. She took it upon herself to enlist the strongest ally possible for the Storm’s final strike—the volatile Dragon Whisperer himself. A foolhardy enough notion, only made more ridiculous by the fact that she must scour the Noadic Range to do so. All in a sorry attempt to protect you.”
Wes’s hands shook as he clamped his fingernails into his palms, his knuckles flushing white with exertion. Lies. He has to be lying. “You forget yourself,” he said hoarsely.
Lord Valence’s smile widened. “She is certain to encounter nightmarish creatures of which you can only imagine, who will peel off her skin, tear her from limb to limb, send her mind into the throes of madness unknown. There, lordling, is your loose end. See? You have nothing to fear, for she will certainly die, alone and in utter agony.”
Wes could not stop himself. His hand shot out and wrapped in Lord Valence’s collar, yanking him over the tea table. Lord Valence’s weight jolted the furnishings, sending crockery rattling dangerously close to the edge.
An utter breach of etiquette. Enough to have Wes barred from gatherings for years.
Lord Valence’s damned smile did not falter.
“What’s this, lordling?” he said softly. “Could it be that you harbor some feelings for the Hunter after all?”
Let go, screamed every voice in Wes’s mind. The pragmatic voice of his tutor who wished for civility, the stern command of his father who wished for power, the gentle urge of Azalea who wished for peace. Release him. Betray no weakness. Inflict no pain.
Wes’s jaw locked. He forced his fingers to pry open one at a time, slowly hooking away from Lord Valence’s coat. Index, middle, ring finger. Pinky and thumb.
He stepped away, his control barely reigned in by a single fraying thread.
“You’ve overstayed your welcome,” he said, his syllables biting and frigid. “Hailing unannounced and bearing no honorarium, demanding a private audience without notice, and spewing lies with such vitriolic fervor. You have sullied the Valence name this day, and you will depart the premises. Now.”
Lord Valence only laughed harshly. “Lies? Oh, you would like it if I was lying, wouldn’t you? But you already know, lordling. You already know that every word I speak is truth, or it would not disturb you so.”
He gathered his cloak around himself and gave a mocking bow.
“Run, son of Geppett,” he said softly. “Run before your precious little songbird strays off the path and is swallowed up by the wild wolves. Run and save her. If you dare. If you are anything more than your father’s puppet.”
He turned, and in a flash of white, strode out of the pavilion, leaving Wes cold and shaking behind.