In the clear light of dawn, the Duchess Tremontaine knocked at the door of Arlen House. She had no doubt that the Serpent would be awake, and of course he was.
Geoffrey, Lord Arlen, the Serpent Chancellor of the Council of Lords, received the duchess in a small eastern room with broad windows through which he watched the sun rise over the city. The Serpent was dressed in grey linen the mutable color of stones, the sun playing in the silver ribbon that tied his hair back in an immaculate queue. Together they looked out as the sky turned to pearl over the river.
“I take it you have succeeded?” Arlen said.
The duchess hummed a little, just to make him wait. “That, my lord chancellor, you shall witness for yourself when the Inner Council meets at noon.”
“And do you plan to attend? Or will you send an intermediary? I must confess it would be a pleasure to have a woman of your wit and charm to grace our proceedings from now on.”
“Oh,” Diane said, “I will be there at noon. But only this once, I think. It would not do to be thought ambitious.”
Arlen chuckled. “Quite.”
Whereby she knew that the Serpent had heard of the various stratagems she had employed, appealing to the vices of his peers, and that he approved. “There is one more call I must make, and then I will go home and robe myself for Council. May I ask, my lord of Arlen: Will you be wearing the grey linen?”
“Ah, Diane,” he said, and she was vaguely pleased at the familiarity, “what would you have me wear?”
“Why, sir; your robes of state! But I think, considering the warmth of the day, that the linen would be most comfortable underneath.”
“White,” said the duchess. “I will wear white, I believe. It shows the dirt most horribly; but then, I think I need not wear it for very long.”
Gregory, Lord Davenant was not awake. She had not thought he would be. She bade his servants rouse him anyway, and was pleased to take chocolate in the parlor as she waited for him to join her, as she had no doubt he would.
Davenant was unshaven, dressed in a loose robe of some magnificence over his bedgown, and she remembered how thrilling his touch had once been. As he stepped toward her, fully sure of himself, of her acquiescence, of his right to her, vibrating with joy and desire, a wave of amusement washed over her, and she sweetly allowed him to kiss her. He tasted of clove water; he had rinsed his mouth before he’d come down, maybe expecting the kiss. But when his hands began to rove, Diane decorously sat back in her chair.
“My lord Davenant,” she said. “Will you sit and take some chocolate?”
Gregory Davenant sat across the table from her. “My darling love,” he said, smiling at her with genuine fondness, “when we are married, I expect to hear you ask me that every day. And I will always answer, Yes, my dear, as meek as you please.”
Diane had to bite her tongue to keep herself from laughing. She went through the ritual of pouring the hot water, scraping the chocolate into it, and whipping it together with the little silver whisk, and of course she remembered that he took cream and sugar. Only when he had taken his first sip—and duly swallowed it—did the duchess say, “Well, that’s just it, Gregory: I’m afraid we are not to be married after all.”
Ah, the words were so delicious! She had considered not telling him at all, just letting him discover it today at the Council meeting. In a way, doing so would have been more insulting—and therefore more befitting the depth to which he had fallen in her esteem.
But it would have been far less satisfying.
Lord Davenant put his cup down softly. “What do you mean?” He kept his smooth orator’s voice under control. “The vote is today, my love. I am fully prepared to make you Tremontaine in your own right, but only when we have been duly betrothed.”
“I’m afraid I cannot accept your proposal, for I am in no position to marry you, now or ever.”
Lord Davenant took another careful sip of chocolate. Finally, he spoke. “Surely I have no need to remind you that the Inner Council vote must be unanimous if your petition is to be approved.”
Now Diane laughed, the sound a soft bell in the air. “You are correct, Gregory; you have no need to remind me.”
He rose, and Diane admired the chill in his voice. “Then I fear,” he said, “that, as disappointing as this meeting is to me, the meeting to take place this afternoon is likely to be even more disappointing to you.”
“We shall see.” She bestowed a dazzling smile on him. He did not bow as she left the room.
In the hall, she met his wife, roused early along with her husband, and clearly wondering what had brought the Duchess Tremontaine to their door.
“Isabella!” Diane greeted her warmly, with a kiss on both cheeks. “I am desolate to have disturbed you. No, no, I cannot stay for breakfast; the Inner Council meets today at noon, and Gregory had a few final words of advice for me. I am so nervous! What a wonderful man your husband is. I hope...