Authors: Bradford Bates
Copyright 2016, Bradford Bates
All Rights Reserved
This novel is a work of fiction. All characters, places, and incidents described in this work are used fictitiously, or are entirely fictional.
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Cover designed by Tom Edwards
Editing provided by Dj Hendrickson
Proofreading provided by Courtney Umphress
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out to the estate was a long and bumpy affair, but at least they had sent a carriage this time. Riding out here on horseback would have been a dreadful adventure, and the misty rain that was coming down would have ruined my newly tailored clothes. It was nice to get to play the part of a fop for this mission. The chance to stay in one of the country’s finest chateaus was not something that could be taken lightly, even if it was a business trip. Adam had told me to consider it an honor, that being selected to watch over the count as he held a party would be considered an award in and of itself. After a painstakingly small negotiation, Adam had agreed that a small token of his appreciation would be in order. I, of course, gracefully accepted the small pouch of golden coins and prepared to leave immediately. To me, it sounded and felt more like I would be babysitting the count, but the coins went a long way toward easing that burden. As the carriage bounced along, my mind drifted back to the day I had met Adam for the first time, and he had blessed me with such a wonderful assignment.
* * *
one of those days where you thought your life was going to change for the better, only to find out that isn’t what fate had in store for you. Adam had never spoken a single word to me, and now I was being called into his office. He must have finally recognized my excellence and would be sending me on an important mission. My body tingled with anticipation as I walked down the hallway. I struggled to contain the magic inside of me. It wanted to break free, to cry out to the world that I had finally made it. Every nerve in my body practically hummed with electricity. Each step forward sounded like a drum beat in my ears. My heart was working at a furious pace, as if I had just finished training in the yard.
The door at the end of the hall flew open, and a man in dark robes rushed out. The scowl on his face told me that his meeting with Adam hadn’t gone well. It gave me a momentary pause, but I knew that my meeting wouldn’t be tainted by his foul mood. Maybe the man was angry because of the hideous puckered scar on his cheek; looking like that would ruin just about anyone’s day. His eyes radiated a fury that was unbecoming for one of the order, and I was forced to dodge out of the way to avoid being trampled. My doublet had become jostled during the quick movement, and I was smoothing it out as Adam appeared in the doorway. He looked as if he was going to shout after the man, but when his eyes settled on me, he composed himself.
“Ah, you must be Jean,” he said, looking over my shoulder one last time before waving me into his office. “I have heard a lot about your exploits.”
He turned, heading back into his rooms, and I followed him, closing the door behind me. He had heard of my exploits. Well, that didn’t sound like a promising start. Just because I preferred to complete some of my tasks with a little bit of extra flair didn’t make them exploits, did it?
Adam moved through the room until he walked around a large desk and took a seat. He motioned for me to sit across from him, and I did without hesitation. I watched his every move. This was who I aspired to be, a true leader. Adam was the undisputed head of our order. Many men had tried to take his place over the centuries, and he had bested every single one of them. If there was ever someone that I could learn more from, it was him. His eyes almost seemed to rip my soul apart and simultaneously put it back together again. I couldn’t take mine off of him.
“Jean, I have a small favor to ask of you.”
“I would be happy to help you with anything that you require.”
“You don’t even want to hear what it is before you jump so eagerly to please me?”
Was it that obvious that I wanted to please him? That was something that I was going to have to work on. “I am sure that you wouldn’t request something of me if you thought it fell outside the scope of my abilities.”
“One of the counts is throwing a party three days from now, and I want you there. Charles, in his infinite wisdom, has granted him the use of one of his country chateaus for the event. I strongly urged him not to, but apparently he forgot our little talk while granting this courtesy.”
“So you called me here to go to a party?” While I quite liked parties and the chance to consort with many splendidly dressed women, this wasn’t quite the assignment I had been hoping for.
“The chateau in question holds one of our repositories. Recently an item was placed there for safekeeping that will be moved the morning after the party. The item itself is more dangerous than I care to express in words. Since I have been unable to sway Charles for the moment, I need to send someone to watch over it.”
“And you’re sending me.” Well, hopefully there would be dancing.
“Indeed I am.”
“Not to sound contrite, but isn’t this a task that we should have one of our novices handling?”
“Normally a novice would be assigned, but the item in question is too important. Three nights is all I require from you. Are you still up for the challenge?”
“Well, if I am going to be going to a party, I will require something new to wear, a carriage to take me there befitting of my station, and of course, a few gold coins to keep up appearances.”
“I thought you might make such a request. I have a tailor waiting for you this very morning, and as for the gold.” He tossed a rather large pouch on the table. “Do try not to go overboard.”
“I will do my best,” I said, eyeing the pouch he had placed on the desk. If that was filled with gold coins, then it was ten times the amount I had been expecting.
“Oh, and, Jean, if you could try and be so kind as to leave some of the count’s female guests with their clothes on this time, it would be greatly appreciated.”
Ah, so those were the exploits he was talking about. I was happy to know that it didn’t have anything to do with my magic, and concerned that word of my dalliances had made it this far. “I can make no promises when it comes to the fairer sex. I am something of a slave to my nature.”
“Do try and be subtle, then, and remember your assignment is to make sure that our repository stays safe and hidden, not to work your way into a woman’s heart.”
“I can assure you that the item in question will not be harmed. As for the ladies’ reputations . . . C’est la vie.”
Adam handed me a note. “The name of my tailor and his address.” Then he turned his eyes away from me and back to the papers that littered his desk.
I took that as my dismissal. I stood, and when Adam didn’t look up, I made my way out of his office. The large pouch of coins bounced against my hip as I walked out of his office. My thoughts had already turned toward wine, women, and dancing.
* * *
trip out to the chateau had robbed some of the joy I felt at the payment I had received, but the thought of women and wine was keeping me warm. Surely at the count’s party there would be dancing, and that inevitably led to further indulgences. Surely even Adam wouldn’t begrudge me some time to partake in the local culture. I think it would be unfair to deprive myself of the best that France had to offer. A full team would be there in less than sixteen hours to secure the item Adam had mentioned. I had my doubts that anyone even knew about the chateau let alone that it held a priceless magical artifact.
The carriage came to a stop, rocking gently back and forth as the driver dismounted. The door to the carriage opened, and I stepped out onto the beautiful crushed shell drive. A hand servant was already starting to unload my chests from the cart. I stepped forward and slipped him a gold coin. “Make sure the room you select for me is more than adequate.”
He nodded. “Of course, my lord.” His hand pocketed the coin quickly before anyone else could see it.
Without waiting, I moved away from the carriage and toward the main entrance. The count was waiting there with a young woman hanging off each arm. As I entered, he gave me a look of pure loathing. He pulled both of his arms free and motioned for me to join him. Something had his knickers in a pinch, and I couldn’t fathom what it had to do with me.
He took three steps back from the women and waited for me to cross the room with a look of pure impatience on his face. “I do not remember inviting you. I will give you five minutes to remove yourself with some sort of grace. If you are not gone by then, I will have my guards beat you and send you running back home, naked as the day you were born.”
“I would beg you to reconsider. I know this is something of an inconvenience, but I was added to the list by someone else.” I pulled out a small piece of paper with the royal seal attached to it. “I will do my best to stay out of your way.” I gave him a brief pat on the shoulder.
The count gave one more look to the royal seal, as if hoping that it had been faked in some way. Finally coming to the realization that there was nothing he could do, he stammered, “See that you do.” He turned with a huff and stormed the three steps back to his ladies. By the time his arms had entwined with both of theirs, the mask of joviality had slipped back onto his features. I was impressed. If this man managed to keep his head down long enough, he might become a duke someday.
I followed the valet to my suite of rooms. Once inside the room with the door firmly closed behind me, I opened my trunks to make sure that everything had arrived intact. Carriage rides sometimes had the audacity to jostle your clothes around, requiring a press before you could even consider wearing them again. I closed the trunks and rang the bell by the door.
My valet entered before I even reached for the knob. “What can I get for you, my lord?”
“Can you have someone heat some water for the tub? The journey took longer than I expected, and I would like to freshen up before tonight’s festivities.”
“Of course, my lord. I will see to it myself.”
I slipped him one more of the gold coins, and a huge smile broke out on his face. “See if you can also secure me a decent bottle of wine and some cheese.”
He ran off without saying anything else. Within minutes, the first of the women carrying the water made an appearance. I slipped each of them a few smaller coins as they left. I found it was easier to get almost anything done if you greased the right staff members with a few extra coins. I started to undress as the last of the water was poured into the tub. The young lady stopped for a moment and lowered her eyes to my bare chest.
“Do you need any help, my lord?”
“Not at the moment.” I slipped a silver coin into her hand. “But maybe later this evening I will be inclined to take you up on that offer.”
She gave my chest one last look as I started to unlace my pants, and then gave a small curtsy. “If you need anything else, just ask for Marie.” Her words dripped with innuendo.
“You will never be far from my thoughts, Marie.” She smiled and walked out of the room. I could never really tell if it was the coin, the sense of power, or my devilish good looks that they liked the most. I tended to think it was the coin. A silver coin could feed her family for two weeks. Although it did seem just as likely to think it had to do with my looks.
I slipped into the warm water, washing away the dust from the road. The water eased my muscles from sitting in the carriage for so long. The faint smell of lavender came from the water; they must have added just a few drops of oil. The steam filled the air; I lay back against the tub and smiled. Tonight had just enough promise to be extraordinary. The valet slipped in and set the wine and cheese on a board and slid it over the tub. I wondered if this was how easy life always was for minor nobility. If theirs was this good, how good did the king have it?