Diane, Duchess Tremontaine, went to the Crescent Chancellor’s annual Convocation for the Opening of the Council of Lords to do three things: to select a new lover, to seek out a new swordsman, and to show the ambassador from Chartil her shawl.
The nobles of the city had already begun to gather in the formal reception chamber of the Council Hall. The high-ceilinged room swirled with the colors of their flamboyant dress and jackdaw chatter as they exchanged greetings and gossip after a summer away from the city at their country estates.
Nicholas, Lord Galing, the elected Crescent Chancellor of the Council of Lords, stood on a dais at one end of the hall to greet the arrivals. Galing’s lady wife, Clara, had finally died of her lingering illness over the summer, and many took the opportunity to press his hand and murmur their condolences.
The Crescent Chancellor was flanked by his colleagues of the Inner Council: Lord Ranulph Lassiter, the Raven Chancellor, secretary to the Council; Gregory, Lord Davenant, who held the post of Dragon and oversaw finance, and the Dukes of Karleigh and Hartsholt, members by tradition of the Inner Council that presided over the whole. The chancellors were resplendent in their robes of office: sumptuous blue velvet, with the insignia of each one embroidered on the chest in gold thread: the Crescent, the Raven, the Dragon.
Only the Serpent Chancellor was not present; but everyone knew that Arlen always came late.
Behind Lord Galing, his latest lover, Lord Asper Lindley, stood smiling and nodding, looking for all the world, as Lord Nevilleson put it to his friends, like a debutante receiving guests at her first ball—“Which I suppose, in a way, is just what he is,” Nevilleson said acidly. “Heaven only knows what this Council season will be, without Lady Galing’s moderating influence.”
“Did Lady Galing have a moderating influence?” Lord Adrian Berowne asked. Like the other men who stood with him in the hall below the dais, he was an enthusiastic member of the Council of Lords, socializing as well as voting with his peers at every opportunity. “I thought her primary interests were music and throwing parties. I shall miss the one, but not the other.”
“Her chocolate was always excellent,” Nevilleson conceded. “But my point is that, however Galing felt about poor Clara, he always knew that she was watching him. As did dear Lindley. With that restraint lifted—”
“Surely Galing will marry again.”
“Heavens, why?” Lord Martin Condell drawled, licking his lips like a cat after cream. “I can assure you, Asper Lindley is enough to keep any man busy.”
Nevilleson raised carefully groomed eyebrows, and Condell took a sudden interest in his fingernails. “Nonetheless, Nicholas Galing will be wanting an heir. Otherwise, it all goes to the nephew, young Vernay.” Nevilleson twirled a tassel on his tight-fitting brocade jacket. “I think we shall see dear old Nicholas out on the Young Ladies’ Racetrack this season, looking for a winner among the second-years.”
“Not the first-years?”
“If Galing ever knew what to do with a sixteen-year-old girl, he has long forgotten.”
“Hmmm,” said Berowne. “Why not a widow, then? Young, proven fertile, and with a bit of property?”
Condell said boldly, “Why not a duchess?”
Nevilleson turned his head carefully to one side and the other, making sure the lady in question was nowhere near. “Diane de Tremontaine? The most exquisite creature ever to grace a chamber? What would Galing do with so much verve and style?”
“But more to the point, Condell, unless your information is more current than ours, Diane is not a widow. The duke her husband is still alive, after all.”
Condell shook his head. “Poor William. I suppose he is, in a manner of speaking.”
A somber mood took over the small cluster. “He was a beautiful man,” Berowne said wistfully. “One of the stainless ones: devoted to his wife, for one thing, and then, I gather, to his books.”
“Maybe that’s what drove him mad. Books are all very well and good when you’re young—history, and all”—Condell indicated the frieze on the wall above his head, depicting the triumph of the noble Councilors over the corrupt ancient monarchy—“but after that, one must have better things to do.”
“One must indeed.” Lord Martin’s wife bore down upon the group like a stiff breeze, and like leaves on the wind they scattered before her. Her piquant little face turned up to her husband’s. “You know, Martin, as this is the first time you have brought me to the Convocation, I have a great desire to see all the famous friezes. I understand they were painted by Bellerocque . . .”
She slipped her arm into her husband’s, and he gave a wink and a shrug to his old friends before dutifully escorting her on a tour of the chamber’s historical friezes that rehearsed the land’s glories, making it perfectly clear that everything they depicted, from the royal marriage uniting the North and South kingdoms to the overthrowing of...