The Mask of Mirrors – M. A. Carrick

After fifteen years of handling the Traementis house charters, Donaia Traementis knew that a deal which looked too good to be true probably was. The proposal currently on her desk stretched the boundaries of belief. “He could at least try to make it look legitimate,” she muttered. Did Mettore Indestor think her an utter fool? He thinks you desperate. And he’s right. She burrowed her stockinged toes under the great lump of a hound sleeping beneath her desk and pressed cold fingers to her brow. She’d removed her gloves to avoid ink stains and left the hearth in her study unlit to save the cost of fuel. Besides Meatball, the only warmth was from the beeswax candles—an expense she couldn’t scrimp on unless she wanted to lose what eyesight she had left. Adjusting her spectacles, she scanned the proposal again, scratching angry notes between the lines. She remembered a time when House Traementis had been as powerful as the Indestor family. They had held a seat in the Cinquerat, the five-person council that ruled Nadežra, and charters that allowed them to conduct trade, contract mercenaries, control guilds. Every variety of wealth, power, and prestige in Nadežra had been theirs. Now, despite Donaia’s best efforts and her late husband’s before her, it had come to this: scrabbling at one Dusk Road trade charter as though she could milk enough blood from that stone to pay off all the Traementis debts. Debts almost entirely owned by Mettore Indestor. “And you expect me to trust my caravan to guards you provide?” she growled at the proposal, her pen nib digging in hard enough to tear the paper.

“Ha! Who’s going to protect it from them? Will they even wait for bandits, or just sack the wagons themselves?” Leaving Donaia with the loss, a pack of angry investors, and debts she could no longer cover. Then Mettore would swoop in like one of his thrice-damned hawks to swallow whole what remained of House Traementis. Try as she might, though, she couldn’t see another option. She couldn’t send the caravan out unguarded—Vraszenian bandits were a legitimate concern—but the Indestor family held the Caerulet seat in the Cinquerat, which gave Mettore authority over military and mercenary affairs. Nobody would risk working with a house Indestor had a grudge against—not when it would mean losing a charter, or worse. Meatball’s head rose with a sudden whine. A moment later a knock came at the study door, followed by Donaia’s majordomo. Colbrin knew better than to interrupt her when she was wrestling with business, which meant he judged this interruption important. He bowed and handed her a card. “Alta Renata Viraudax?” Donaia asked, shoving Meatball’s wet snout out of her lap when he sniffed at the card.

She flipped it as if the back would provide some clue to the visitor’s purpose. Viraudax wasn’t a local noble house. Some traveler to Nadežra? “A young woman, Era Traementis,” her majordomo said. “Well-mannered. Well-dressed. She said it concerned an important private matter.” The card fluttered to the floor. Donaia’s duties as head of House Traementis kept her from having much of a social life, but the same could not be said for her son, and lately Leato had been behaving more and more like his father. Ninat take him—if her son had racked up some gambling debt with a foreign visitor… Colbrin retrieved the card before the dog could eat it, and handed it back to her. “Should I tell her you are not at home?” “No.

Show her in.” If her son’s dive into the seedier side of Nadežra had resulted in trouble, she would at least rectify his errors before stringing him up. Somehow. With money she didn’t have. She could start by not conducting the meeting in a freezing study. “Wait,” she said before Colbrin could leave. “Show her to the salon. And bring tea.” Donaia cleaned the ink from her pen and made a futile attempt to brush away the brindled dog hairs matting her surcoat. Giving that up as a lost cause, she tugged on her gloves and straightened the papers on her desk, collecting herself by collecting her surroundings.

Looking down at her clothing— the faded blue surcoat over trousers and house scuffs—she weighed the value of changing over the cost of making a potential problem wait. Everything is a tallied cost these days, she thought grimly. “Meatball. Stay,” she commanded when the hound would have followed, and headed directly to the salon. The young woman waiting there could not have fit the setting more perfectly if she had planned it. Her rose-gold underdress and cream surcoat harmonized beautifully with the gold-shot peach silk of the couch and chairs, and the thick curl trailing from her upswept hair echoed the rich wood of the wall paneling. The curl should have looked like an accident, an errant strand slipping loose—but everything else about the visitor was so elegant it was clearly a deliberate touch of style. She was studying the row of books on their glass-fronted shelf. When Donaia closed the door, she turned and dipped low. “Era Traementis.

Thank you for seeing me.” Her curtsy was as Seterin as her clipped accent, one hand sweeping elegantly up to the opposite shoulder. Donaia’s misgivings deepened at the sight of her. Close to her son’s age, and beautiful as a portrait by Creciasto, with fine-boned features and flawless skin. Easy to imagine Leato losing his head over a hand of cards with such a girl. And her ensemble did nothing to comfort Donaia’s fears— the richly embroidered brocade, the sleeves an elegant fall of sheer silk. Here was someone who could afford to bet and lose a fortune. That sort was more likely to forgive or forget a debt than come collecting… unless the debt was meant as leverage for something else. “Alta Renata. I hope you will forgive my informality.

” She brushed a hand down her simple attire. “I did not expect visitors, but it sounded like your matter was of some urgency. Please, do be seated.” The young woman lowered herself into the chair as lightly as mist on the river. Seeing her, it was easy to understand why the people of Nadežra looked to Seteris as the source of all that was stylish and elegant. Fashion was born in Seteris. By the time it traveled south to Seteris’s protectorate, Seste Ligante, then farther south still, across the sea to Nadežra, it was old and stale, and Seteris had moved on. Most Seterin visitors behaved as though Nadežra was nothing more than Seste Ligante’s backwater colonial foothold on the Vraszenian continent and merely setting foot on the streets would foul them with the mud of the River Dežera. But Renata’s delicacy looked like hesitation, not condescension. She said, “Not urgent, no—I do apologize if I gave that impression.

I confess, I’m not certain how to even begin this conversation.” She paused, hazel eyes searching Donaia’s face. “You don’t recognize my family name, do you?” That had an ominous sound. Seteris might be on the other side of the sea, but the truly powerful families could influence trade anywhere in the known world. If House Traementis had somehow crossed one of them… Donaia kept her fear from her face and her voice. “I am afraid I haven’t had many dealings with the great houses of Seteris.” A soft breath flowed out of the girl. “As I suspected. I thought she might have written to you at least once, but apparently not. I… am Letilia’s daughter.

” She could have announced she was descended from the Vraszenian goddess Ažerais herself, and it wouldn’t have taken Donaia more by surprise. Disbelief clashed with relief and apprehension both: not a creditor, not an offended daughter of some foreign power. Family—after a fashion. Lost for words, Donaia reassessed the young woman sitting across from her. Straight back, straight shoulders, straight neck, and the same fine, narrow nose that made everyone in Nadežra hail Letilia Traementis as the great beauty of her day. Yes, she could be Letilia’s daughter. Donaia’s niece by marriage. “Letilia never wrote after she left.” It was the only consideration the spoiled brat had ever shown her family. The first several years, every day they’d expected a letter telling them she was stranded in Seteris, begging for funds.

Instead they never heard from her again. Dread sank into Donaia’s bones. “Is Letilia here?” The door swung open, and for one dreadful instant Donaia expected a familiar squall of petulance and privilege to sweep inside. But it was only Colbrin, bearing a tray. To her dismay, Donaia saw two pots on it, one short and rounded for tea, the other taller. Of course: He’d heard their guest’s Seterin accent, and naturally assumed Donaia would also want to serve coffee. We haven’t yet fallen so far that I can’t af ord proper hospitality. But Donaia’s voice was still sharp as he set the tray between the two of them. “Thank you, Colbrin. That will be all.

” “No,” Renata said as the majordomo bowed and departed. “No, Mother is happily ensconced in Seteris.” It seemed luck hadn’t entirely abandoned House Traementis. “Tea?” Donaia said, a little too bright with relief. “Or would you prefer coffee?” “Coffee, thank you.” Renata accepted the cup and saucer with a graceful hand. Everything about her was graceful—but not the artificial, forced elegance Donaia remembered Letilia practicing so assiduously. Renata sipped the coffee and made a small, appreciative noise. “I must admit, I was wondering if I would even be able to find coffee here.” Ah.

There was the echo of Letilia, the little sneer that took what should be a compliment and transformed it into an insult. We have wooden floors and chairs with backs, too. Donaia swallowed down the snappish response. But the bitter taste in her mouth nudged her into pouring coffee for herself, even though she disliked it. She wouldn’t let this girl make her feel like a delta rustic simply because Donaia had lived all her life in Nadežra. “So you are here, but Letilia is not. May I ask why?” The girl’s chin dropped, and she rotated her coffee cup as though its precise alignment against the saucer were vitally important. “I’ve spent days imagining how best to approach you, but—well.” There was a ripple of nervousness in her laugh. “There’s no way to say this without first admitting I’m Letilia’s daughter… and yet by admitting that, I know I’ve already gotten off on the wrong foot.

Still, there’s nothing for it.” Renata inhaled like someone preparing for battle, then met Donaia’s gaze. “I’m here to see if I can possibly reconcile my mother with her family.” It took all Donaia’s self-control not to laugh. Reconcile? She would sooner reconcile with the drugs that had overtaken her husband Gianco’s good sense in his final years. If Gianco’s darker comments were to be believed, Letilia had done as much to destroy House Traementis as aža had. Fortunately, custom and law offered her a more dispassionate response. “Letilia is no part of this family. My husband’s father struck her name from our register after she left.” At least Renata was smart enough not to be surprised.

“I can hardly blame my gra—your father-inlaw,” she said. “I’ve only my mother’s version of the tale, but I also know her. I can guess the part she played in that estrangement.” Donaia could just imagine what poison Letilia’s version had contained. “It is more than estrangement,” she said brusquely, rising to her feet. “I am sorry you crossed the sea for nothing, but I’m afraid that what you’re asking for is impossible. Even if I believed that your mother wanted to reconcile—which I do not—I have no interest in doing so.” A treacherous worm within her whispered, Even if that might of er a new business opportunity? Some way out of Indestor’s trap? Even then. Donaia would burn Traementis Manor to the ground before she accepted help from Letilia’s hand. The salon door opened again.

But this time, the interruption wasn’t her majordomo. “Mother, Egliadas has invited me to go sailing on the river.” Leato was tugging on his gloves, as if he couldn’t be bothered to finish dressing before leaving his rooms. But he stopped, one hand still caught in the tight cuff, when he saw their visitor. Renata rose like a flower bud unfurling, and Donaia cursed silently. Why, today of all days, had Leato chosen to wake early? Not that fourth sun was early by most people’s standards, but for him midmorning might as well be dawn. Reflex forced the courtesies out of her mouth, even though she wanted nothing more than to hurry the girl away. “Leato, you recall stories of your aunt Letilia? This is her daughter, Alta Renata Viraudax of Seteris. Alta Renata, my son and heir, Leato Traementis.” Leato captured Renata’s hand before she could touch it to her shoulder again and kissed her gloved fingertips.

When she saw them together, Donaia’s heart sank like a stone. She was used to thinking of her son as an adolescent scamp, or an intermittent source of headaches. But he was a man grown, with beauty to match Renata’s: his hair like antique gold, fashionably mussed on top; his ivory skin and finely carved features, the hallmark of House Traementis; the elegant cut of his waistcoat and fitted tailoring of the full-skirted coat over it in the platinum shimmer of delta grasses in autumn. And the two of them were smiling at one another like the sun had just risen in the salon. “Letilia’s daughter?” Leato said, releasing Renata’s hand before the touch could grow awkward. “I thought she hated us.” Donaia bit down the impulse to chide him. It would sound like she was defending Renata, which was the last thing she wanted to do. The girl’s smile was brief and rueful. “I may have inherited her nose, but I’ve tried not to inherit everything else.

” “You mean, not her personality? I’ll offer thanks to Katus.” Leato winced. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t insult your mother—” “No insult taken,” Renata said dryly. “I’m sure the stories you know of her are dreadful, and with good cause.” They had the river’s current beneath them and were flowing onward; Donaia had to stop it before they went too far. When Leato asked what brought Renata to the city, Donaia lunged in, social grace be damned. “She just—” But Renata spoke over her, as smooth as silk. “I was hoping to meet your grandfather and father. Foolish of me, really; since Mother hasn’t been in contact, I didn’t know they’d both passed away until I arrived. And now I understand she’s no longer in the register, so there’s no bond between us— I’m just a stranger, intruding.

” “Oh, not at all!” Leato turned to his mother for confirmation. For the first time, Donaia felt a touch of gratitude toward Renata. Leato had never known Letilia; he hadn’t even been born when she ran away. He’d heard the tales, but no doubt he marked at least some of them as exaggeration. If Renata had mentioned a reconciliation outright, he probably would have supported her. “We’re touched by your visit,” Donaia said, offering the girl a courteous nod. “I’m only sorry the others never had a chance to meet you.” “Your visit?” Leato scoffed. “No, this can’t be all. You’re my cousin, after all—oh, not under the law, I know.

But blood counts for a lot here.” “We’re Nadežran, Leato, not Vraszenian,” Donaia said reprovingly, lest Renata think they’d been completely swallowed by delta ways. He went on as though he hadn’t heard her. “My long-lost cousin shows up from across the sea, greets us for a few minutes, then vanishes? Unacceptable. Giuna hasn’t even met you—she’s my younger sister. Why don’t you stay with us for a few days?” Donaia couldn’t stop a muffled sound from escaping her. However much he seemed determined to ignore them, Leato knew about House Traementis’s financial troubles. A houseguest was the last thing they could afford. But Renata demurred with a light shake of her head. “No, no—I couldn’t impose like that.

I’ll be in Nadežra for some time, though. Perhaps you’ll allow me the chance to show I’m not my mother.” Preparatory to pushing for reconciliation, no doubt. But although Renata was older and more selfpossessed, something about her downcast gaze reminded Donaia of Giuna. She could all too easily imagine Giuna seeking Letilia out in Seteris with the same impossible dream. If House Traementis could afford the sea passage, which they could not. And if Donaia would allow her to go, which she would not. But if that impossible situation happened… she bristled at the thought of Letilia rebuffing Giuna entirely, treating her with such cold hostility that she refused to see the girl at all. So Donaia said, as warmly as she could, “Of course we know you aren’t your mother. And you shouldn’t be forced to carry the burden of her past.

” She let a smile crack her mask. “I’m certain from the caterpillars dancing on my son’s brow that he’d like to know more about you, and I imagine Giuna would feel the same.” “Thank you,” Renata said with a curtsy. “But not now, I think. My apologies, Altan Leato.” Her words silenced his protest before he could voice it, and with faultless formality. “My maid intends to fit me for a new dress this afternoon, and she’ll stick me with pins if I’m late.” That was as unlike Letilia as it was possible to be. Not the concern for her clothing—Letilia was the same, only with less tasteful results—but the graceful withdrawal, cooperating with Donaia’s wish to get her out of the house. Leato did manage to get one more question out, though.

“Where can we reach you?” “On the Isla Prišta, Via Brelkoja, number four,” Renata said. Donaia’s lips tightened. For a stay of a few weeks, even a month or two, a hotel would have sufficed. Renting a house suggested the girl intended to remain for quite some time

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