The author of the Ascendancy Trilogy fantasy series, Caprice Hokstad was born in San Diego and has lived in southern California for most of her life. She attended Baylor University in Texas. Caprice shares a mobile home with her family of five people, a dog, a cat, two big pet rats, and a tankful of fish, but she would love to someday live in an undersea colony.
Duke Vahn Rebono eased into the offered chair. He steepled his long fingers, arched a brow, and watched Terzak expectantly. He’d had better manners as a squire than the elder marquis currently displayed. “I’ve been outside in the cold for a long while. Might I trouble you for some tea?”
“Of course, how rude of me,” Terzak answered. He stepped out of the room and headed to the kitchen.
Vahn kept his seat, looking over Terzak’s unruly desk. He had a great urge to rifle through the parchments and scrolls strewn all over, but he restrained himself.
Terzak hurried back with a tray holding two cups and saucers. Vahn frowned. His optimess wasn’t with him to test for poison. Even at home, where there was little danger, he always had her do it for the ceremony. Here, he wondered if Terzak might actually slip him something.
“Anything wrong?” asked the marquis, giving Vahn first choice of two cups.
Vahn hid his suspicion behind a carefully crafted visage. He chose the furthest cup then held it untried on the arm of his chair. “Actually, yes,” he said. “I just found the Dronak Death Gang in Fendrus Forest. What do you make of that?”
The marquis studied Vahn’s face a long moment, then collected the remaining cup with a jittery hand and downed steaming liquid in one gulp. Vahn’s lips curled into a smirk before he took a swallow from his cup.
“I know they’re wanted in Dronak,” Terzak offered sheepishly.
“They’re wanted in Latoph too,” Vahn added with a tone of annoyance. Terzak was wasting his time.
Terzak swallowed. “Yes, of course. But what does that have to do with me?”
“I just found it odd for them to escape to Fendrus after raiding a farm south of Ny. You wouldn’t be harboring fugitives, would you?”
“I harbor no one, your highness,” the marquis replied. “The fact that you caught them outside my gates should dispel that myth immediately. So, are you returning them for the reward then? I’m sure old King What’s-His-Name will be making a sizable donation to your coffers…”
“No. I pronounced their sentences myself. I care not for gold or silver when my subjects are terrorized.”
“Your subjects?” Terzak sputtered. “Last I heard, Arx still wore the crown. I should think that his inability to safeguard poor Itzi women would only weaken his popularity.”
Vahn arched a brow. “I never said they attacked Itzi or women, only ‘a farm’. How would you know who was attacked?”
Terzak frowned and shifted in his seat. “I never said Itzi women were attacked. I only said that they are poorly safeguarded and that it was King Arx’s problem, not yours.”
“Hmmmn. So you did,” Vahn conceded. Though his private thoughts were far from excusing, he had no proof and thought it best to see whether he could instead turn the situation to his advantage. “So, tell me, Marquis Terzak, where do you stand with my dear brother?” His tone was sugary sardonic.
“Let us say that my ambitions do not include aspiration to the Throne myself, but if my personal goals were to be furthered by someone with legitimate claim to the Throne…” He paused briefly to give Vahn a knowing look. “…I would return the gesture in kind and aid in furthering his goals.”
The careful wording was not lost on Vahn. Terzak was no idiot. Nothing in his statement could get him hung for treason, but the offer was unmistakable. Vahn leaned back into the chair casually and took another measured swallow of tea before sliding his gaze over Terzak. “And what, praytell, dear cousin, are your personal goals?”
Terzak tried to feign surprise, but his act was less than convincing. “Well, as you can see, I have less than standard amenities for someone of my position. I want my house to rival yours and your brother’s.”
Vahn chuckled. “You’re not saying all you want is a staff and some better décor, are you?”
Terzak frowned, then answered diplomatically, “Staff is only the beginning of a proper house. I want my name known and feared. I want a reliable income—substantially greater than what I have now. My father left me woefully inadequate means to be whom I was born to be.”
Vahn shook his head and clicked his tongue. “I see. Such a shame. Do you have plans for how this is all to come about?”
“I do have some preliminary outlines, but I wouldn’t want to bore someone of your importance at this point.”
“But how could a family member help your cause if he didn’t know the plan?” Vahn asked, being just as careful to keep his own back clean from treason charges.
“For right now, I don’t think you could. But it would be helpful to know if you were interested.”
“I am always interested in mutually beneficial alliances.”
“Excellent, then perhaps we could talk further at a later date?”
“I will look forward to it,” Vahn said as he stood up from the chair. He narrowed his eyes and set the muscles of his jaw before resuming. “Just one more matter. If I ever discover that your plans include terrorizing any resident of my duchy, our ways will part. Violently. My brother may be technically responsible for the entire kingdom, but Occi is a long way away. The people look to me… and to you… to uphold justice in the south. This is not a topic of compromise. I need the support of the commoners to further my goals. Are we understood?”
Terzak nodded, hiding his eyes. “Understood completely, your highness.”
“Well then, I thank you for the tea and I leave you to your servant-hunting. It seems you haven’t a moment to lose.”