“Hold your answers for the Duke, girl. I doubt you’re the kind to enjoy repeating yourself and he’ll have many questions. Aedan, go back to the stables.”
“Yes, Milord Seneschal.”
The redhead bowed down a little, had a last glance at Kayla, and left. Aleander led the siblings out of the room and towards the Duke of Vertcol’s quarters on the ground floor. Kayla wondered if leaving the corpse unattended was such a good idea.
“Did the Duchess of Fermont survive?” Toikem asked.
“Yes. Since this whole mess began, the Court’s been flocked with the best physicians. We have apothecaries, doctors, field surgeons and even Servants of Layenn – the healer priests.”
“What about the girl?” Toikem continued.
“Dead, most likely. By the time she was sent to the dispensary, gangrene had set root in her arms. A servant without hands is no servant at all.”
Toikem didn’t react. He did not appear surprised, or angry, but Kayla saw a tremor on his lips. His skin seemed a shade paler than usual. She knew just why: the girl had been stronger than her mistress. She should have lived, but she didn’t. This was nothing new, however. Nobles always came before commoners. Toikem, the stoic giant, mourned the needless death of a girl he never knew. There was something wrong with him, Kayla became sure of it.
They reached a big oaken door guarded by a man and a woman. A servant boy wearing a blue livery solemnly stepped forth once he saw them. Aleander nodded and the youth opened the door, announcing: “Milord Seneschal Aleander din Joitendre, with Gent Toikem and Gent Kayla.”
When they finally crossed the threshold of his study, the Duke of Vertcol was standing and had a bright smile on his face. He was a tall, lean man of forty, with an elegant stance and a keen look. He wore a cerulean toga, his left elbow keeping the drape from falling. Kayla felt he was trustworthy at first sight, but as soon as she identified the feeling, it vanished. She never trusted people upon meeting them. It was the first time she felt the influence of true noble presence and she didn’t like it one bit. Her brother remained as impassive as ever.
“You look younger than I had expected. Experts grow quickly in the provinces,” he joked. His joy radiated, trying to creep under Kayla’s skin, but she kept it at bay. If anything, he sparked fear in her. The kind of fear that makes a wolf bite. Before she could realize it, she had placed her palm on the hilt of her dagger.
“His Ducal Highness is most kind,” Toikem replied.
His Ducal Highness gives me the chills, Kayla thought.
“We are lucky to have such renowned exorcists with us,” the noble said.
“His Ducal Highness honors us, but we are not exorcists. We do not deal with spirits. Only with curses.”
“The rumors were true. You are a pragmatic man, Toikem.” The Duke flicked his fingers and the servant boy entered. “Wine and brandy and figs for my visitors,” he ordered.
At the mention of food and alcohol, Kayla forgot her worries for a moment. She was glad courtesy forbid her brother from refusing. The plum brandy was splendid and the figs candied. She noted the position of the cupboard that held the bottles almost unwittingly. She had a knack for locating things she liked. An old habit from the Wildlands, surely.
Toikem accepted a cup too, but he barely tasted the wine he was served.
“So, what is it we are dealing with?” the Duke openly asked.
“Imprecation and magic,” Toikem replied calmly.
“Aren’t they one and the same?”
“Imprecations are ancient. They take part in the Old Art. Mages nowadays deal with more elaborate spells, different energies. Curses are dismissed by most of the scholars because they grew scarcer over time. The Old Art is seen as unreliable.”
If the Duke feigned interest, he did well. He listened carefully to Toikem’s explanation and nodded. “So we are not only cursed, we are bewitched?”
“We use catalysts – objects that draw the imprecation and help people avoid its effects. Her Ducal Highness of Fermont’s chambers were warded against such devices.”
“You think the Court mages are involved?”
“I don’t know. It is possible. I suppose this isn’t the deed of a single person.”
“What should we do, in your opinion, Toikem?”