Stories / Anve /

A retainer proves her worth

“Gran’ma!” Nalichenda flounced into the room in an ill-fitting silk dress, and jabbed an accusing finger at Hayochi. “That slave was being vulgar again!”

“Oh dear,” said Marichescua, calmly sipping her tea. Hayochi giggled.

“She was!” Nali insisted. “She was saying vulgar things about my sister to get rid of me, she was!”

“My, my,” said Marichescua, glancing at the elf. “Is that true? Did it work?”

“It worked wonders, milady,” said Hayochi.

“I’ll have to remember that,” said Marichescua, smiling mischievously. “Next time you’re being a pest, Nali dear, I’ll have to tell you about the time I spent three days screwing sailors in Cuedre—”

“Ew ew ew!” Nali clapped her hands to her ears.

“You’re right, it does work,” said Marichescua, winking at Hayochi. “Good work, dear.”

Nali drew herself up. “You better have her flogged, gran!” she declared.

“That would only encourage her, sister dearest,” said a quiet voice from the hall. A young woman stepped into the room, tugging on a coat over her satin temple dress. “Believe me, I know.”

“LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” Nali shouted, and fled to the porch.

“Tara!” Hayochi darted across the room and nuzzled up to the girl. Tara smiled and put an arm around her.

Marichescua smiled. “Tara, dear, this is our new retainer, Len Win. Len Win, allow me to introduce my granddaughter, Taracuele.”

Tara curtseyed. “It is a pleasure to meet you, messere,” she said. She looked... off, to Len. Most of the freewomen here were slightly plump, but despite the golden band across her neck, Tara was painfully thin. Her cheeks were gaunt, and Len could see anxiety deep in her lavender eyes. And Tara was visibly leaning on the little elf for support.

Len bowed in response. “I am your humble servant, milady.”

Tara turned to her grandmother. “I didn’t know we were taking on further help, gran.”

“Nali dragged her home from the brothel with her,” said Mari.

“Oh-ho!” Tara snickered. “So she’s—”

“Not like that,” Mari interrupted. “—Ale, there you are,” she added, as Aleguarda padded softly into the room with a platter of tea.

“Here you are, milady,” Aleguarda said to Len, proferring a mug of tea. Len took it.

“Thank you, milady. And it’s messere now, I believe,” said Len, smiling and taking the tea.

“You hired her?” Aleguarda raised an eyebrow at Marichescua, who nodded.

“Too good a deal to pass up.”

“That’s nice.” Aleguarda set the platter down. “Tara, I made your tea - sit down and finish a mug before we’re off to temple, would you?”

“I’m fine, mother,” said Tara.

Aleguarda gave her a pleading look. “You haven’t had any since this morning. It’s not good for you to miss a dose—”

So the girl is sick, Len thought. And the family’s body language said they had been through this routine too many times. Whatever Taracuele had, it was chronic. Len made a note to watch her for symptoms.

“Please, mother, I’ll be fine. It’s just another hour or so.” Tara smiled weakly, but Hayochi squeezed her hand.

“Do as your mother says, love? Please?” she murmured. “For me? I worry about you.”

“I—” Tara’s face was contorted with indecision and guilt. Len decided it was time to step in.

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of, Mistress Taracuele,” she said, inflecting her tones with a calm and matter-of-fact warmth she decided would reach Tara the most effectively. Tara turned to stare at her.

“You need medicine,” Len continued. “It’s not because you’re weak, milady. Taking it doesn’t mean you’re admitting some kind of weakness.”

Tara took a sharp breath. “How did—”

“You have nothing to prove to yourself,” said Len, picking up the mug of tea meant for Tara and walking over to her. She breathed in deeply, trying to identify the medicinals. Sablevine and charmosé, they were obvious enough — fairly standard painkillers. There were other scents she couldn’t place. One in particular frustrated her. She knew she’d smelled it before, but where? Damn it.

She pressed the mug into Tara’s reluctant hands, and held them. “All you will do is hurt yourself and frighten those who love you.”

Hayochi nodded urgently. “The goldeneyes is right, mistress,” she said. “Please, we’ll all feel so much better if you take care of you self like the doctors said you should.”

Tara closed her eyes, and exhaled softly. “I’m an idiot,” she said quietly. She looked at Len. “I’m sorry. You’re right.”

“Menora be praised Nali wasn’t here to see this,” said Marichescua crossly.

“Mother!” Aleguarda rounded on her in shock.

“Tara’s right,” said Marichescua, sitting forward. “She’s an idiot. She’s been being one for a while now. This is the sixth time we’ve had this little argument, Ale. Risking her health for her own—”

Iceberry extract. The thought slammed into Len like a charging bull. That was the scent she had recognized. That was —

Tara was raising the cup to her lips already. Len spun and knocked the mug from the girl’s lips in a single fluid movement. The ceramic shattered against the wall, and a bright red stain splattered across it. It took a second for the rest of the room to process what had happened.

Tara staggered back in shock. Aleguarda turned to face Len, her face twisted in anger, her fists balled. Hayochi gave a cry of alarm. Marichescua was staring in astonishment.

“What in Menora’s blessed name —” Aleguarda began.

“Someone,” said Len, her voice shaking, “tried to poison your daughter.”

Aleguarda went white as a sheet. Marichescua sat straight up in her easy chair.

“What?” the matriarch roared.

“I am deeply sorry for damaging your property,” said Len, bowing. “But someone put iceberries in your granddaughter’s tea. They’re—”

“An extremely potent nyctotoxin,” Marichescua finished. “Tara would have been dead by morning, and we would have blamed her illness.”

Len inclined her head. “Exactly so, milady. It’s a very distinctive scent. I am only sorry I didn’t notice it sooner.”

“Aleguarda,” said Marichescua coldly. “Did you leave Tara’s tea unattended at any point?”

“No, mother,” Aleguarda whispered, collapsing in a chair.

“Then fetch every container of herbs you used to make it,” said Marichescua. “Tara, go find the records of the orders we made for herbs this billing cycle. Hayochi, be a dear and go bring Nali in before she catches her death in the rain.” She turned to Len as the rest of the family scattered. “There are two possibilities here, goldeneyes. Firstly, that Meraya saw fit to deliver you to us in our moment of need to save my granddaughter from an assassination attempt. Second, and by far the most likely scenario—”

“—is that I am lying to you in an attempt to win your favor,” said Len smoothly. “Of course. I would be worried if you did not suspect me of deceiving.” She took a handkerchief from her robes and knelt to wipe up the residue of the tea. “Here,” she said, passing it to Marichescua. “Take this to an alchemist’s and ask them to run chemical tests for poisons. Iceberries are not difficult to detect.”

Marichescua studied her face for a moment, and then nodded. She pocketed the handkerchief. “I will,” she said. “In the meantime, I’ll assume you’re being truthful.”

Aleguarda stumbled back into the room, awkwardly toting a number of jarge jars. She knelt by the table, setting them down. Marichescua gestured.

“If you wouldn’t mind, messere?”

“Of course.” Len began unscrewing the lids of the herb jars. She inhaled deeply from each one in turn, until she caught the unmistakable scent of iceberries rising from an unlabeled jar. She looked at Marichescua. “This one,” she said.

Aleguarda swore. “That’s the most important ingredient,” she said, her voice shaking. “It’ll cost five hundred tialo to replace—”

“Have it replaced,” said Marichescua. “And find a different supplier this time. Tara, there you are,” she added, as Tara came back into the room bearing a binder. “Thank you.”

“Of course, grandmother.”

Marichescua took the binder, and then hesitated. She turned to Tara. “My dear, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have called you an idiot.”

“It’s alright, grandmother,” said Tara, inclining her head. “I understand. You’re under a lot of stress, and—”

“And it’s no damn excuse,” said Marichescua. “If I’m letting that get to me, I’m a failure as a matriarch.” She leaned forward and embraced Tara. “If I ever say something like that to you again,” she added, “knife me before I lose my mind completely.”

“Grandmother!”

“Mother!”

Marichescua raised her hands defensively. “Sorry, sorry. Poor joke, given the circumstances.” She looked from Aleguarda to Tara. “Don’t tell Nali about any of this,” she said quietly. “We don’t need to frighten her.”

“Of course not, mother,” said Aleguarda, inclining her head. "My lips are sealed."