To give credit where credit was due, Sparagmos did seem to genuinely like the Cittadella. Every time Alba stopped to show him the view, or tell him about the story behind one of the few frescos that had been saved from the renovation effort he showed a calm and thankful demeanor.
At times he could even pass for a guest like any others, if she wasn’t sure that beneath the pleasant exterior he hid a rotten core.
They were about to reach the rose garden on the top of the Cittadella’s highest tower. It was a bit of a secret place but the view from there was the best you could ask for. Alba had been there often with her father, and she hoped that standing there she could find the strength to face the actual reasons behind his visit. Maybe there the spirit of the Malcastria would burn stronger inside her.
“This place is magical,” Sparagmos mused, a few steps behind her. She stopped on the first step of the staircase leading to the gardened terrace. What did he mean by that? “It’s so full of history and behind every stone sits a legend. Do you think someone could look at this place and eternally remember it? Do you think stones can speak forever, your Highness?”
“Forever is a bit too long a time,” she replied with a frown. “But yes, that is a good point. From everywhere in Eridania, we can look upon the Cittadella and know the Principality stands.”
“So you believe a country lives in its stones.”
“A country without a history to tell or to learn is merely a band of lost souls, Duke. Let’s not mince words here.”
“I wasn’t suggesting anything different. But I do believe the strength of a country rests in its blood. Or so they say. At least as far as your family is concerned… if the legends about Lantanius Malcastria are true, then-“
She interrupted him with a derisive chuckle, even as her heart beat so fast it almost burst through her chest.
“Duke! Are you playing a joke on Us? If you are to believe such superstitions, you’ll also end up believing the mists around the Evenmere lake can speak, or that lightning strikes Raven’s Peak when the sky is cloudless. You will find all sort of tales about giants and dwarves and witches…”
“I wouldn’t be so harsh with my judgment,” he replied with a weird smile. “But then again, you are the Regent here. I will have to defer to your better judgment.”
What did he mean? Did he perhaps know something about… about the Witch? But how could it be?
No, she had to keep a clear mind. He was just playing with her.
“That would be most wise.”
“Those stairs look steep.” He walked up to her, offering her a hand. “Would you give me the honor?”
“Duke. You wouldn’t deprive Us of the pleasure to show you around? Nay.”
She refused his hand and began to walk upstairs.
The nerve of this two-timer Jacobin traitor of a spineless Austrian!
How did he dare help her around in her own home? He’d be lucky if she didn’t push him over the rails!
She reached the top of the stairs and opened a thin iron gate, revealing a wide circular garden, perhaps thirty steps in diameter, covered from side to side by tall and thick rose bushes. The air smelled sweet, even with the cool wind flowing bitter against her face. The sky was clear and displayed the bowl of the Eridanian valley, from snowy peak to dark valley.
She sat on the same wooden bench she had occupied with Father the last time they had walked up to here, two years before. Sparagmos walked to the edge, where a marble parapet regrettably stopped him from tumbling down into the void.
As she looked at him lean against the parapet her eyes caught two black birds floating about. What were they? Not hawks, too dark, and surely couldn’t be eagles. Too small.
Weird, ravens usually didn’t leave their namesake’s mountain.
“I hard never seen it from up here,” he mused, raising his voice against the wind. “Eridania, I mean. It’s a lovely valley, full of hardworking people, rich in resources, and with a long and deep history. A jewel.” He slowly turned and sat next to her on the bench. She bristled at the sight of this Habsburg bootlicker taking the same spot once occupied by her father.
For a long time, they did not speak. Sparagmos just looked at her with that silent smile of his, as if to challenge her to erase it off his face with a well-deserved slap.
But she was not a wench fighting off a too-eager soldier. She had been taught how to reign in her emotions.
And something did not add up. All this praise, coming from an army officer, supposedly going back to the Court? He surely couldn’t be here just to gather a few postcards and interesting stories to share.
“What did you actually bring you here, Sparagmos?”
He started, likely surprised by her accusation. She had dropped all pretenses like a bad hand at cards, and though she had now given him the initiative, at least she had made the first move.
She knew smart people were used to playing chess, but she had never played a single match. So she couldn’t use that metaphor to describe her line of thoughts. More like a hunt – the marksman and the wolf, encircling each other, trying to decide which one was the prey.
The Duke leaned back. He passed a hand through his black hair, lingering over the scar.
“Now, now. I hoped I could relax a little longer, but you ask me to cut through straight to the point. Bold move, your Highness.”
So he had an ulterior motive. She was right.
Oh, Holy Virgin, she was right.
“I came to take a better look at the Principality. Your tiny kingdom is such a treat: even more so when supposedly under the care of such a young and gorgeous ruler. One who surely must feeling she has large shoes to fill, after the untimely death of such a beloved Prince.”
“Do not bring Our father into this, Duke.”
“I’d never! I merely want to assure Your Highness we all share a good memory of him. And the entire Court is perfectly aware of the frightening challenges Eridania faces now, challenges that would be faced much better together with a powerful ally. Don’t you agree?”
So that was his game.
“We have passed through the mists of history on our own, Sparagmos.” She omitted his title once again. “Eridania is a sturdy ship. We need no allies, true or false. The wolf does not ask for help to the fox.”
“Maybe not to the fox. But perhaps an eagle might be a better companion. And a dreadful enemy. I told you I am going back to Court, so I will be frank, make you a favor and reveal to Her Highness that there are certain people, close to the Emperor, who whisper there are missing pieces to the majesty of the Habsburg crown. Pieces that, now that we are pushing the revolts back into the mud, we can’t ignore anymore.”
“By people you mean yourself, and by whispers you mean your forked tongue. You claim to know about Our ancestors Lantanius: then you will know he did not bow to an army of Goths twenty thousand strong. We will do the same. The gates of Eridania are closed to invaders.”
“Closed with no padlock,” he replied. “My dearest Alba Malcastria: with all the due respect, they would fall at the first bayonet charge! Not a hard challenge for the Imperial Army.”
“You have no justification for a war…”
“Justifications are found just as easily as fabricated. I see we are now playing by showing all our cards, so I will be just as frank: so long as your father sat on that throne, you have enjoyed a precarious peace. But that can’t be so anymore.”
He stopped, leaving her grasping at straws for a rebuttal. This was the worst news she could receive. She gasped in the thin air, the sweet scent of roses now seemingly mocking her. She was so close! If only she could have freed the Witch, then she’d have a card to play – nobody would expect anything like a Witch to still draw breath, she could have laughed in the face of all his threats…
“I don’t want to antagonize you, Your Highness-” he sighed, taking out an envelope out of his uniform. “I do feel a deep respect for all you represent and all you can do. I do not want to mobilize an army for an invasion – not if you give me the chance.”
“… the chance?”
“Yes.” He smirked, passing her the envelope. “Open it. There is something here that might save your country from the bloodbath it does not deserve. Call it a modest proposal on my part.”