The steel was quick and sure in her hand. It ought to be; she had wielded it from a babe, after all, and the time was long past when she needed to devote any thought whatsoever to the quick jabs and turns she executed in pursuit of her aim. The sharp point was almost liquid as it flashed through the air, beautiful in its accuracy—forward, back, left, right. She was an artist.
And part of her artistry, thought Diane de Tremontaine as her swift needle guided the white thread through the crimson fabric stretched across her embroidery hoop, was that she hated loose ends.
Loose ends like the boy Micah.
He would arrive soon, however, and she would twist him around her finger—no, she would hardly need her finger; she would do it with a glance—and the loose end that he represented, the possible release of the astronomical research William’s toad of a lover had been conducting, would be tied up.
And if she could not tie it up, well, she could just as easily cut the thread.
So the Duchess Tremontaine did not give a great deal of thought to the University student whom she had instructed to come midmorning to call on her at Tremontaine House.
She had even given up wondering about the unexpected fire in the Kinwiinik warehouse the previous week. It had of course crossed her mind that the Balam, impatient at the City’s reluctance to tear down the decrepit warehouses at the docks and replace them with new ones, might well have set the fire themselves to prove just how decrepit the warehouses actually were. But if the Balam had desired to burn down their own warehouse, they would surely have succeeded. And, more to the point, they were unlikely to have used their own stock of fireworks, so very much in demand for Starflower Fest, to do so. They were, after all, merchants first and foremost.
No, her attention was far more engaged with the call she planned to pay on Nicholas, Lord Galing. The Crescent Chancellor of the Council of Lords was the next pin in the game of bowls she was playing, and she needed to pitch straight and true if the others were to fall.
But even her impending visit to the Crescent Chancellor did not distress her overmuch. If she had the venomous Lindley to contend with, it might be a different matter, as Galing’s lover was certain to foil her in whatever way he could; but Lionel Chesney had, at her suggestion, obligingly taken Asper Lindley hunting with Basil Halliday. She would therefore find Nicholas alone, a state in which he would easily see how sensible her plans were.
At some point during the morning, however, as the shadows shrank on the floor of the sumptuous library of Tremontaine House, fantastical dark giants slowly returning to the size of the tables and sofas that cast them, distorted reflections of bibelots creeping back toward their originals, as the white thread began to birth a swan against the crimson, a curious idea occurred to the duchess.
No; it could not be. The University was an indolent tribe, its members slothful and undisciplined. Micah had been abed, perhaps, rising only now from the caliginous vapor of wine and pleasure that lingered still from the previous night. The light knock from one of the footmen would come soon, and by the time the sun began its descent she would be one lord closer to an Inner Council united behind her.
But as the morning wore on toward afternoon, as the clock on the mantel continued to regulate the placid silence, Diane had to exert more and more control over her ivory-white hand to keep her stitches relaxed and her swan graceful; Chesney would not keep Lindley occupied forever, unless it occurred to him to flirt, and, knowing his predilections, it might not.
At last it was undeniable.
Diane de Tremontaine was being stood up.
Two emotions began to roil within her breast.
The first, of course, was anger. Such a thing had never happened before.
Oh, it had happened to the woman sitting on the striped damask sofa in Tremontaine’s library, but only in a life lived so long ago that she had all but forgotten it had ever been hers. No, since she had traveled south to become the Duchess Tremontaine—and whose business was it of anybody’s whether she was the girl William had summoned? A duchess he wanted and a duchess he got—no one had dared stay away when Diane called: at first because of her husband’s position and the respect due to him, and eventually because people understood, instinctively, that she was not a woman it would be wise to refuse.
The second emotion, running beneath the first like a deceptive undertow, was fear.
If the young scholar had decided to deny her, after all, he must have had a reason. And whatever that reason was, it could not portend any good for the house whose crest was slowly growing against a field of blood-red linen.
At last she could tarry no longer; every instant’s delay increased the likelihood that when she arrived at Galing’s she would find Lindley there to oppose her. With a sure...