The Marquis of A— reluctantly acquired a fiancée in the spring after an exchange of brief but formal letters. Miss B— had come highly recommended by his awful uncle, who described her as a charming woman on the brink of spinster-dom. She was rich due to her merchant father but without title due, again, to her merchant father. The Marquis had a title worth only its connections and prominence but little else due to the debt attached to it. He suspected Miss B— would like to be a marquise. He, himself, could happily continue to go into further debt for the room his mistress, Arla, kept in town overlooking the White Hill Beast.
“Your library could be larger,” Miss B— drawled when she met the Marquis in person. Most of her face was occupied by a nose that protruded with all the subtlety of a hawk’s. Her eyes were small and deeply set. “There’s a bookstore in town. Why don’t you buy some leather-bound editions for us?”
The Marquis smiled. “Of what?” He had read so much more in his youth, stacks of books beside his bed. The only thing he read now involved unusually lithe agreeable young nuns and priests with no interest in keeping their vows.
“It doesn’t matter. You buy, I’ll sort. Fiction, memoir, and histories, please.”
This, then, would be the pattern to their marriage. His uncle had always found insolence disquieting, but the Marquis, who had grown to dislike his uncle since he had been forced to live with him at the age of six, knew better. Insolence was a badge of honor. He adored those who cultivated it well. “I read as a boy.”
Her smile was tight. Was her chin weak or did her hatchet-nose make it seem like it was? “What did you read?”
“Books about the sea. I was convinced I would be a sailor and needed to know how to conduct myself.”
“I liked stories of pirates, myself.” Miss B— took her drawstring purse from her side and put it in his hands. His mistress kept her purse between her breasts, but his new fiancée had very little of that, as the flat bodice of her dress showed. “I still like stories of sea creatures. Whales and serpents, mostly.”
He frowned at the purse. “What is this?”
“Your uncle explained your situation to me at length. It’s for the books.”
The Marquis related the story to Arla, who was less entertained than he was. As he spoke, she frowned out the window at the bones of the White Hill Beast, slain three hundred years ago this summer. Its bones were perhaps a little less tough than diamond and far denser, much too heavy to move. On the main thoroughfare, Our Lady of the Hill had been constructed inside its skull. The Marquis’s mistress was a religious woman and went to light a candle there each day. She would make one of her ilk a pious wife one day.
“Miss B— sounds foolish with her money,” she said. “What if you were the sort to gamble it all away?”
“I suspect it’s a test, then.” He weighed the purse. “Do you think she wants the books right away?”
Arla laughed. “I won’t give any guidance on that.”
His mistress was part serpent, likely a descendant of the White Hill Beast who had copulated widely and with unexpected success before his death. When she went to light candles in its skull, she did so with great solemnity. She was covered in beautiful jade scales and in possession of sharp, pretty teeth. When he came to visit, she kept her long dark hair down, but he liked to sweep it back to see the ridges along her ears and down her neck. When they first met during a downpour under an awning, he complimented her on those ears. She communicated her thanks and smiled demurely. Concubines had extensively good breeding from mothers and aunts who had tutored them so.
In a moment of thoughtlessness, the Marquis extended to her an invitation to his wedding. He kissed her sharp cheekbones and then down her throat. “I will have no one else there to speak to who is half as kind as you.”
Arla’s smile was gentle. “I doubt I’ll be welcomed.”
He had not considered this. The Marquis had taught himself to be pleasing to those he wished to stay by his side until his uncle drove them away. He had failed, however, to teach himself propriety or sense. “I’m sorry,” he said with feeling. Do not send me away, he wished to add.
She kissed him back. Forgiveness. He was intensely relieved.
They were very productive at doing little for the rest of their visit except that which pleased them both.
The Marquis of A— took his leave soon afterward to buy the books. He chose volumes regarding the unexpected nautical discoveries of pirates and kidnapped explorers. He both wished to please Miss B— and found the covers themselves terribly interesting, all embossed gold waves and horned deep-sea serpents. What he sent back to his home had a note to his future wife. Otherwise, his uncle would see the delivery and have it returned without thought. His uncle had done similarly with the Marquis’s other purchases, knowing full well who had bought them.
After, there was money still left in the purse, and he wanted to apologize further to Arla. He preferred to over-apologize as extravagantly as possible, always. She had never asked him to provide her gifts, but he insisted on it.
He took her to a show at the Bleached Rib, a theater where she had never been. The show that evening was secretly but very clearly about the Marquis’s uncle and the time, many years ago, when the family estate in the country had been robbed by the Masked Vandal. The actor they chose for the famous thief was tall; wore a red scarf over his mouth and chin and a wide-brimmed hat that cast an impressive shadow. His ward, the Child Robber Baron, was a boy with a domino mask who said his lines stiffly.
Arla spent much of the first act excitedly looking between stage and program. It was a single piece of paper, listing the players and the writer. “Why do you think they always use the first initial? ‘The Lady D—’ or ‘Sir F—?’ We know who they are.”
“They don’t wish to be accused of libel. Why, there’s my uncle, now!”
Arla looked around in a panic. Then she saw he meant the actor on the stage. She stifled her laughter with her handkerchief, attracting the glares of several men in the gallery, all starch-collared lawyers who seemed far too serious about their entertainment. The Marquis smiled back at them, and his mistress pretended to have a coughing fit.
The actor meant to be the Marquis’s uncle was shorter than the one who played the Masked Vandal. Like the Marquis’s uncle, he wore a powdered wig several decades out of fashion and an enormous coiled serpent ring on his thumb. This was the family coat of arms, after all, as the Marquis’s ancestor had been the one to kill the White Hill Beast in the center of town and earn his title. This ancestor, Sir A— of M—, as the Marquis understood from family histories, was a humble, honorable son; morally superior in every way to his descendents, according to local papers. This was a convient claim to make, as the ancestor was dead. Both the Marquis’s true uncle and the uncle on stage laughed broadly and told everyone of his importance.
“Surely your uncle must have some redeeming qualities?” Arla asked. “I suppose those would make him too human.”
“The real one has a delightful singing voice, which I’m sure the players would embrace readily,” said the Marquis. It was the only compliment he had ever paid his guardian that wasn’t greeted with a doubting sneer. This had been a shame, as the child Marquis had, for a very long time, hoped only to gain his uncle’s approval. In many ways, he had never given up. Maybe this year would be the one where he received a kind word from the man.
She laughed. “Did he sing at Edmund Fremont when he and the child came to rob the house?”
“My uncle wasn’t there. No one was. Just a watchman, the gardener, and the housekeepers. The estate used to get terribly hot during the summer. Everyone vacationed North.”
“Did anything in this play happen, then?”
“The Masked Vandal did rob it.”
This Masked Vandal swung from one end of the stage to the other on a chandelier, and the Child Robber Baron threw him his foil.
“I suspect there was no swordfight, then.” Arla looked a little disappointed. “As a girl, I used to hope there was.” How long had she known the story? He had thought she was new to the city.
In the gallery, the lawyers turned and hushed his mistress at once. Both Arla and the Marquis had been speaking, yes, but of the two of them, she was the one with scales. The lawyers regarded those scales with disdain.
He stopped smiling at once. The lawyers’ behavior was not a new reaction to Arla, true, but the Marquis had the privilege to forget about the insults she suffered. Remembering them annoyed him afresh.
His mistress said it was all right, she was fine, but at intermission, she suggested they leave to enjoy some chocolate at a cafe. The Marquis agreed.
Over chocolate, he confirmed that, to his knowledge, there had never been a sword fight at his family’s estate, despite her girlhood fancies. “It’s ours no longer, of course. After the Masked Vandal took everything, my uncle issued a lawsuit against my father for ‘severe negligence in protecting the family wealth.’ He hadn’t been there, either.”
His mistress then ordered a smoked lamb jelly. She paused to pick it from her sharp teeth. “That case must have been thrown out of court immediately.”
The Marquis laughed. “It wasn’t! The judge attended school with my uncle. Not only did the case go to court, my father had to fight it for years. By the end of it, his lawyers had been paid with his remaining money. He and my mother couldn’t even provide for me! I had to live with the very man who—who—!” He was laughing too hard to continue; if he didn’t laugh at this, he would start to cry. His eyes were already wet.
“But you don’t blame the Masked Vandal?”
He stopped laughing, clearing his throat. “The Vandal is a kinder figure than my uncle.”
On their way back to her apartment, they passed by the Bleached Rib Theatre again. The chief of police shouted as he ushered the audience outside.
“The play couldn’t be over yet,” said Arla.
The Marquis knew what was happening at once. “My uncle doesn’t go out of his way to shut down every performance of the Masked Vandal, but he doesn’t hesitate.”
“I hope they don’t think you’re the one who requested it be closed! We left in the middle, as it were,” she said, sounding doubtful. “People know who you are.”
They did, and unless they were interested in his status, they did not like the Marquis much and feared him only a little less than his uncle.
He and Arla watched the actor who played the Child Baron dragged out of the front doors. His domino mask hung at his chin and one of his arms hung badly from his shoulder.
The Marquis felt ill. “Once, my friends and I went to a bawdy play at the Wicked Shin. It was a retelling of Sir A— and the White Hill Beast, but the beast was dressed as a woman who lost her clothes during the course of the night. My uncle came down to close it himself.”
“What did your friends say? Perhaps you all had a good laugh?”
“They were not my friends afterward.”
The Marquis saw his mistress home but did not stay. Instead, he went back to the house of his uncle and became very drunk, the wine cellar smelling of mold. He slept through the next morning and woke up alone.
The Marquis’s fiancée declared she was wholly satisfied with the books. She was not surprised when he said he had spent the rest of the money. “Gambling?”
“Better than cards, I suppose, but I could never stomach theatre.”
“Too boring! I always fall asleep. The fights are awkward and strange and none of the swords look real. Are we meeting your uncle today?”
“I would like to see him again. It’s been ages since Lady C—’s ball!”
The Marquis was horrified at her enthusiasm.
His uncle, unfortunately, not only accepted their request to see him but smiled when they entered his rooms. “Miss B—! How well a young woman takes to the city.”
Miss B— curtsied. “My father and I lived in urban climes much of my life. I’m at home here.”
“Even among the ghastly dragon kin?” His uncle laughed. “Those green children run far thinner in the country, thank the Gods. We put them to work here, I suppose, but what’s the use? None of them ever get any better for it. Too much serpent blood. Too stupid.” He tapped his temple.
His fiancée continued to smile. The Marquis could not do the same. He had fought with his uncle over Arla when they last spoke. He suspected that was why “dragon kin” were brought up now.
“How are you two getting on?” His uncle sat in his chair and leaned too close.
His fiancée sat down, too. She happily described the Marquis’s kindness as if he were not standing at attention.
His uncle interrupted her to turn and say, “Slouching again?”
The Marquis’s face reddened. “No.”
“I see it. You’re slouching. Stand up straighter. Your mother slouched since she was a child. Your father encouraged it in her as he did so, himself.” He turned to whisper loudly and conspiratorially to the Marquis’s fiancée. “He’s probably slouching in debtors’ prison right now. I’ve heard he’s acquired a paunch in recent years from nothing but gruel. Nice and fat.” He blew his cheeks out wide and put his arms out an then burst out laughing.
The Marquis’s fiancée had the decency to look uncomfortable. She changed the subject. “What a wonderful ring!”
“Oh, this?” His uncle was very pleased. “Older than this house. The ruby in its mouth is the last drop of the White Hill Beast’s blood.”
The Marquis liked this story. “The blood rolled down Sir A—’s sword and became as hard as the bones of the animal—”
“Obviously untrue, of course. Rubies aren’t made in such a fashion.”
“But it might have a bit of truth in it,” said the Marquis.
“It doesn’t. Shut up.” His uncle then smiled at Miss B— and asked her to sit at the pianoforte.
She was an accomplished musician, it seemed. His uncle loved this and burst into a rousing “The King’s Great Man” and “How the White Hill Beast Was Slain,” the ruby on his thumb catching the light as he waved his hand. He ordered his nephew not to join him.
“This boy sings like a back alley tomcat,” his uncle said with a labored sigh. “Tin ear. I could have been a performer, an auteur—I’m not titled the way he is and can do as I please—but my father said that a descendent of a dragon slayer should never be allowed to pen an aria.” He put on a tragic face, sincerely torn.
Deep in his chest, the Marquis felt for his uncle. It was unfair to be kept from the things you felt passion for. He thought of Arla. Also, if his uncle wrote operettas, he would be terrorizing the theaters in an entirely different way.
His uncle reached to turn a page of the sheet music at the very same time Miss B— leaned forward to squint at it. Both pulled back quickly. The Marquis was amused to see his uncle’s ring catch on the front of Miss B—’s muslin gown in the process. When he jerked back further, her dress tore.
The Marquis saw nothing so terribly scandalous besides a flash of pink skin. Not much bosom was there to fall out in the first place. He saw his fiancée frown briefly before meeting his gaze. She raised an eyebrow as she hid herself.
Meanwhile, his uncle was pale and shocked. He looked as scandalized as a priest at the Wicked Shin. He had a wife, yes, who had been on holiday for the past few years on a far off island country, but he seemed always embarrassed around women. He either feared contaminating them or being contaminated by them.
The Marquis laughed. He couldn’t help himself. Neither could Miss B—.
His uncle responded by turning very red and demanding both leave.
In the hall, the valet gave Miss B— a shawl. She swept it around her neck heroically, like a soldier recently decorated in war. “That was harrowing.”
“You are a talented pianist.”
“I’m excellent,” she agreed. “I never thought it would be a useful skill. I endured lessons under protest. Your admiration is appreciated, of course.”
“Wives and husbands ought to be friends,” he said.
The Marquis once again found himself wishing he could introduce her to Arla.
He communicated the entirety of the exchange to Arla when he went to visit her that evening. Their lovemaking progressed slowly, interrupted by conversation. The Marquis was a firm believer that intercourse shouldn’t be treated with the gravity of prayer. He joked and talked often, disarming more lovers with jokes than acts that proved athletically challenging.
“Wives and husbands who are friends? It’s a wise sentiment, I suppose.” Arla’s green cheek lay on his bare shoulder. Something about the way her eyelashes cast shadows across his cheek made her seem sad. She always looked sad when they were together too long.
“You don’t think I’ll love her more than you, I hope?”
She pressed her lips into a line. “I enjoy our time together and have tempered my expectations accordingly. My mother was mistress to a duke. Her mother was mistress to a king.”
The Marquis had never heard this before. “Which one?”
“The one who was my grandfather.” His mistress would say no more on the subject, but he called her “princess” for the remainder of the evening. She rewarded him with a shy smile and he pleased her greatly after that. He was not good at many things, but he knew how to make women happy.
They parted ways in the morning, Arla leaving to attend mass at the skull cathedral. At his uncle’s house, the Marquis was greeted with news that the father of Miss B— had contracted pneumonia a month ago and died the other day.
The Marquis assumed his fiancée would take the news in stride. She was so utterly stoic. Instead, she greeted him with red-rimmed eyes and a dress like coal. Without feeling, she told him they could be married in a few days. She was no longer an heiress but a rich woman. “Your uncle has been gracious enough to offer to give me away.”
She then retired to her rooms and did not leave them.
The only part of the wedding the Marquis looked forward to was retiring with his wife to bed. Even then, it was because he wished to see if she had any particularly shrewd thoughts during the ceremony. His bride remained pale and quiet in company, only nodding when Lady C— and other guests gave her their congratulations.
When the Marquis and his wife were alone together, all she said was, “Your uncle gave me this.”
He saw the giant ring in her hand. The serpent glowered with the small ruby in his mouth. “Did he? He never gives anything away.”
She was silent.
He pushed on, feeling awkward. “Its scales look like they used to be painted.”
“Rust. The ring has been kept very poorly in the face of your, well, our family’s diminishing fortunes.”
He nodded. “Under my uncle’s thumb isn’t a healthy place to be.”
She turned away from him to undress.
He wondered for the first time if she was afraid. “Sharing a house with him is easy if you know where and when to stay away.”
“Of course. I’m happy to gain his confidence. I flirted with him, a little, at the ball when we first met, but he was not receptive.”
The Marquis burst out laughing at the image. “Perhaps you’re afraid of living with me?” He began to undress, as well. Under his jacket he unlaced his shirt. “You won’t join his wife on permanent tour, will you?”
“I didn’t realize how little I had to work for your trust.”
He laughed less. “You remind me of a cat I had as a child.”
“I’m afraid I’m no one’s cat.” Beneath her wedding dress were not the lacey undergarments Arla would wear. No, she wore trousers and boots. They stretched tight over her legs as she crouched and reached for something under their bed.
Something was wrong. As his heart sounded in his ears, all he could manage to say was, “Those must have been awfully hot under your dress.”
“Oh yes.” She stood. In her hand was a foil, the tip pointed at him.
It seemed she had every desire to be widowed. Everyone always seemed bent on getting rid of his company, eventually.
The former Miss B— appeared to be waiting for him to pull out a sword himself.
He seized the candlestick at the bedside, the flame guttering. Wax dripped and slapped the floor. “I’ve seen many plays with sword fighting, but I’ve never been in one myself.”
“Theater is a poor home for facts. Playwrights never get the sex of the Child Baron right, certainly. But you knew that.”
“Of course you did! It wouldn’t make any sense if you didn’t.” The former Miss B— did not drop her sword but her brow wrinkled. “My father and I were the ones who burgled the rich in the countryside. You and your uncle of course figured this out long ago. That’s why my father—who’s hurt no one and nothing for a decade—now lies dead.” She said this too stiffly to be play acting.
“But he died of pneumonia!”
“Regardless of his illness, I doubt the sword in his stomach helped very much.” She thrust forward.
He stopped the sword with the the candlestick, the flame leaping up hotly. Melted wax splashed his knuckles and it hurt. Letting go meant his life, however, and he would at least fight for that. “Have you gone mad?”
The former Miss B— steadied herself, pressing her blade down more firmly on the candlestick. “At your rotten family? Mad enough to kill.”
“He doesn’t know!” said a reedy voice from the window.
The Marquis turned to see Arla pry open the shutters and climb in. Her voluminous ripped skirts were too much for the sill, causing her to trip over herself and land on the floor.
He set down the candlestick and ran to help her. “Good lord! What are you doing here? How did you get up here?”
“I climbed.” She held him off. With dignity, she got back up again.
The former Miss B— at last put down her sword. “You said you were staying in the country!”
“Once we figured out their family had the ring, I had to come and see for myself!” she said.
Miss B— was upset. “What do you mean ‘He doesn’t know?’”
He saw between Arla and his wife not simply share a look of recognition but friendship. “A world of things, it seems!” he said.
The former Miss B— glared at him. “You and your uncle have been toying with me these last weeks! I only realized when my father turned up dead.”
Arla looked sad. “I only heard just now. I’m so sorry. He had nothing to do with it. His uncle has withheld all he has done. The Marquis is not just well in hand but well in the dark.”
“But we’ve been parrying! He must have known.” Miss B— was beside herself.
“I know, my dear,” said Arla.
“How long have you known each other?” he demanded.
“Since she attempted to rob my house when I was a child,” said Arla.
“You rob courtesans?” said the Marquis.
“Only when they are granddaughters of kings with secret fortunes,” said Miss B— as Arla looked away. “Her mother caught my father, and instead of jail we were invited to dinner. We created an alliance.”
“To do what?” he asked.
“To find the blood of Arla’s ancestor.” Miss B— held up the ring.
Arla was baffled. “You got it? At last?”
Miss B— presented it to her with a sweeping half bow.
He looked at Arla. “You thought I had it. Is that why we met in the rain all those months ago?”
“I meant only to take stock of who you are.” Arla looked as if she were about to weep. “I did not mean to seduce you. Or discover you were a good lover. We cannot bury our forefather’s bones, though I may pay them my respects, but I will bring back his blood, for myself, my mother, and my people.”
“I would have gotten the ring for you,” he said. “I wouldn’t have asked questions. Whether or not you loved me, I would have gotten it.”
Arla shook her head with doubt, but he nodded, yes, yes, he would have. “I wouldn’t have asked. I have already taken advantage of you. I have gone to mass to beg forgiveness from the Gods every day.”
Miss B— laughed. “I would not have moved forward with marrying anyone if your uncle hadn’t come to town, looking desperately for a rich, brown-nosing fool girl to marry his nephew. I knew of Arla’s great hesitance and shyness.”
“So it was marriage in exchange for that?” He looked at the ruby. It was worth more to the world than he was.
“It was only going to be an engagement,” she said. “I just needed to be in your uncle’s presence and slip the ring off his hand while he was distracted. My last attempt ended in my dress getting caught.”
“And you stole it just now?”
“No. He gave it to me, like I said.”
Arla examined it. “It looks real. What do you think?” She held out her hand to the Marquis.
Miss B— started.
The Marquis knew an invitation for alliance when he saw one. He took Arla’s hand and it felt like a more meaningful ceremony than the one uniting him to Miss B—.
“It’s the one he’s always worn,” said the Marquis. “We have too much debt to buy a new jewel.”
“You don’t have too much debt to buy chocolate at a cafe,” said Arla.
“That is debt I’ve never minded,” he said with absolute honesty.
Miss B— was flummoxed. “He gave me the ring and said that I am now family. I have never felt more disgusted.”
The Marquis had to think. He knew his uncle’s mind better than anyone, he was sad to say. In all his years, he had been the man’s most steadfast companion. Valets had left speedily, and he had never known his uncle to entertain any lovers, women or men. “Giving away the ring was two things at once,” he said slowly. “My uncle both fears company and wants it desperately, like myself.”
He did not miss the look Arla and Miss B— shared.
“If he knew your father was killed, if he was the one to ask an assassin to do it, then the ring was a brag,” said the Marquis. “It was a sign that he knew who you were. But it must also have been exactly what he said it was. A tie to our family. He wants to have and hate you as much as he does me.”
Miss B— no longer looked at him angrily. “If he hates you, why have you never left your uncle’s side?”
He was surprised. No one had ever asked. “My father is in prison. My mother joined a nunnery. My friends always leave in the end. There was no one to leave with. I tried to run off at the docks to be a sailor when I was fifteen, but they knew who I was and knew my uncle’s power extended beyond shutting erratically down theaters.”
“What you need, then,” said Miss B—, “is to be kidnapped.”
The Marquis choked. “What?”
Miss B— was excited. “You need to be kidnapped by the Child Baron, who has now taken up the mantle from her father, the Masked Vandal, and brought to all sorts of wonderful adventures on the high seas. And Arla, the secret Bastard Princess of D—, will be our financier.”
The Marquis’s spirits lifted. “Are you sure?”
“Only if those are good terms for you!” Arla looked deeply pleased with Miss B—’s idea. “I may pay you back for all your gifts then, I hope.”
The Marquis nodded quickly. “My uncle will never find us.”
“Get dressed,” said Miss B—. “We must take care of him to ensure that.”
The Marquis did not need convincing. He dressed and Arla helped him pack, renewed in enthusiasm. Still, he felt sure the entire arrangement would dry to nothing in the morning like the rain falling outside right now. The thought of escape was too enticing, though, certainly more than his books on thoroughly fictional, lithe, young nuns had ever been.
“Should we keep this or leave it?” Arla held up one such volume. It fell open and she noted the illustration—a soldier, his bride, and her sisters, all together—with an, “Oh. Didn’t you say your mother was in a nunnery?”
The Marquis colored. “That has nothing to do with that. And I do not need it, really,” he said. Then he looked Arla up and down and then Miss B—.
She snorted. “Are you getting ideas?”
“No! Pardon me. I assumed much. You did call your friend ‘dear.’”
“I call many people ‘dear.’” Arla smirked. “Even those who do not justify their own ensnarement by their charms in the bedroom.”
The Marquis flushed pleasantly. “I’m very willing to please. It’s how I am.”
“I will not be a part of plans that I do not, myself, help make.” Miss B— handed the Marquis a dagger that had been strapped to her thigh. “Do you know if your uncle is in his study or bedroom?”
The Marquis suggested the study, first. He was fine with dispatching his uncle, he told himself, but the dagger was heavy in his hand.
His uncle was not only there; his chair was facing the door when all three of them came in. He made a note on a piece of paper. Without looking up, he held up a finger for silence. There was no valet in attendance, but the Marquis stopped immediately out of habit.
But Miss B— strode forward. “You’re wondering why we’re here, of course.”
“One moment,” said his uncle. “Let me finish. Yes. All right.” He blew on the ink so it would dry. Then he folded up the paper and put it in his coat. “There. No, Marquise, I am not wondering. Your father is dead because I sent an assassin. I’ve been told your father, the Masked Vandal, was too weak to struggle.”
The former Miss B—, now the Marquise of A—, the New Masked Vandal—the woman who was all these things—gritted her teeth. “You are a coward.”
“And yet I face my death bravely. Cowardice, itself, is a family trait. Sir A—, it is said, became friends with the White Hill Beast before feeding the monster poison and taking his land.” He looked at the Marquis. “And look at my nephew, who has a dagger trained on my face because his wife and serpent mistress have seduced him away. They will milk all you can give them, boy, all the opportunities you present, and leave you by the wayside.”
In that moment, the Marquis felt better about being bundled off by these women more than anything else. “I am too much an idle waste to be worth anything to my wife but a title. If she had killed me a moment ago, she would have had it.”
“Ah, but they could still do it, couldn’t they?” His uncle laughed at him. “You would prefer the company of women who might kill you to your own independence?”
“I would prefer their company to the moldering house of a man who has decided to commit suicide in the most complex way possible.”
His uncle visibly deflated. “Just have the dragon woman sink her teeth into me. Or have your wife spear my guts. Do it.”
“I will not kill you.” The Marquise sighed as she put away her sword. “Your misery is your own. My father died because he got the best of you in life. You found us, but your vengeance meant nothing, means nothing. Taking away your nephew, the only person who ever stayed, is enough. Arla? Do you wish to kill him?”
Arla shook her head quickly. “I have my ring and a man who treats me sweetly.”
It took the Marquis a moment to realize she meant him. It took him another moment to realize that now his uncle, wife, and mistress all looked for his reply.
“Hubert,” said his uncle, using his given name. “What ever will you do?”
“Show me the paper you tucked into your jacket,” he said.
Without hesitance, his uncle drew it out.
The Marquis unfolded it. It was sheet music. The notes were grand and sweeping. “You wrote your own finale.”
His uncle gave a brittle smile. What a treasure it must be to be understood by someone in the world.
“I’m taking this with me.” The Marquis gave the dagger back to his wife. “I am also leaving, though I have nothing in my name. Then I will free my father, send news to my mother, and never see you again.”
His uncle rose and struck him in the eye. It hurt. “No! Kill me! Do it! Give me my damn ending! Give me my tragedy! My wife no longer loves me and you, who I wanted to adore, I only hurt. Do this for me!”
The Marquis pushed him back, and his uncle landed heavily on the chair.
When he turned, he found his mistress offering her arm. His wife looked content. What a difficulty and a relief to leave one’s own vengeance behind.
His uncle did not yell after them, but he thought he heard him weep.
The trunk with his things—including a few books, his own and the Masked Vandal’s—was difficult to carry to the docks. It was far easier for his wife to buy passage on the ship for three. They shared one room, but the Marquis found, newly married, kidnapped, and empty of despair, he was far too tired to think of anything but sleep.
He woke to the smell of the ocean. He had never been on a ship before, and the way it rocked was new.
Arla combed her hair and plaited it in the mirror, seeming far more comfortable. His wife laughed as she swept grandly into the cabin, proud and at home here. Like his uncle, he wept, too, but with relief at being at last unmoored.