Thrune Family Dinner
Gwen pulled at the cuffs of her sleeves nervously – a childish old habit, but one that she’d never quite been able to shake. She certainly had reason to be nervous tonight, however. Alasdair’s cousin, Lord-Mayor Barzillai Thrune himself, was coming to dinner at their house.
She knew why, of course; how could she not know? She hadn’t been able to stop rereading her brother’s letter for weeks. It was an embarrassment, a black mark on such a distinguished family – Alasdair had said as much, although he had been attempting to comfort her. She had to give her husband credit for trying, at least. Gwynnie, darling, it’s not your fault. No one could have known he’d go this far astray…
But Gwen had known. She’d seen the writing on the wall, so to speak, and the meeting she’d had with that half-elven girl had sealed her suspicions that Corthos Tanessen and Aldo Mondragon were one and the same. She should have told someone, maybe their parents, so they could have pulled him back from the edge. If she were a good Thrune, she would have told Barzillai, or at least Alasdair. But she had done nothing.
And yet, somehow, she felt no regret. Anxiety, certainly, but not regret.
The knot in her stomach grew tighter. It was almost time for Barzillai to arrive, and though she’d only met the man once, she had a feeling he was punctual to a fault. She rose and began to cross to the door of her chamber, then turned back. With a single swift motion, she picked up Corthos’ missive from where it had been sitting on her vanity and dropped it in the fire. Even though Aldo Mondragon’s work had been banned, not Corthos Mondragon’s, it was probably safer to be rid of it when the man responsible for the proclamation was in her house.
Alasdair gave her a kiss on the cheek as she descended the last couple of stairs to the entrance hall. “You look lovely, darling.” Although he was acting as cavalier as ever, Gwen knew her husband well enough to tell that he was as nervous as she was, though for very different reasons. Alasdair desperately wanted to impress Barzillai – the other branches of the family were typically disdainful towards Kintargo, and Alasdair hoped that a Thrune’s appointment as lord-mayor meant that Queen Abrogail had at long last reversed her attitude towards the city. Her husband was a very optimistic person, sometimes too optimistic. It was one of the things Gwen liked best about him.
She smiled, accepting Alasdair’s kiss. “I’m glad you and Barzillai set this up. It’ll be wonderful to have dinner with family.” The knot twisted even tighter.
Alasdair nodded. “It’ll be good to see him, at least. I was surprised when I got his note – he’s been a bit standoffish since he arrived, though I understand he has many responsibilities.” Gwen had to bite back a laugh. Alasdair didn’t understand the concept of responsibilities in the slightest. His job was a joke, a meaningless appointment given him by Jilia Bainilus to pacify House Thrune, and Barzillai had only kept him in the position because it kept him busy.
Be nice, she reminded herself. Alasdair had been seeking out more actual responsibilities of late – he’d thrown himself wholeheartedly into his new position as a delegate for House Tanessen, poring over law books late into the night. Truthfully, it seemed that he had an aptitude for it, or at least a strong desire to succeed.
It wasn’t long until the butler began to announce the arrival of their guest, but before the words were even out of his mouth Barzillai was striding into the room. The first thing Gwen noticed was that he was in full plate armor, his heavy boots clanging against the parquet floor. She tried not to let her surprise show on her face. Really? This is how he shows up to dinner with his family?
Alasdair stepped forward, clapping his cousin on the back congenially. “Barzillai, always a pleasure! All’s well, I hope?”
The inquisitor smiled thinly, the expression not quite reaching his eyes. Gwen noticed that he looked somewhat paler and more haggard than he had last time she had seen him, as if he had aged. Perhaps the duties of his office were weighing on him more than he let on. “As ever. I’m afraid my time has been somewhat taken up with my duties of late, so I thank you for your hospitality – it’ll be a nice respite.”
Alasdair nodded. “Of course, of course. Gwynnie, darling, don’t be shy, come say hello!”
Gwen ignored the panic coursing through her and forced a gracious smile as she stepped forward and took Alasdair’s arm – she’d had a lot of practice pretending she didn’t have emotions. “It’s a pleasure to see you once again. Your presence honors us.”
Barzillai eyed her. “Likewise.” Why did everything the man said sound like he was sneering? How did one even manage that? “Shall we proceed to dinner, then?” Without waiting for a response, he turned and started marching towards the dining room.
Gwen let out the tiniest breath. It was going to be a long evening.
The conversation was sparse as they picked at the first course – caviar from Irrisen, very expensive to import. Alasdair tried several times to engage Barzillai, but the man shrugged off all attempts at conversation. Why did he even come? Gwen wondered to herself as she pushed the food around her small plate. She had never liked seafood.
They sat through two more courses in silence before Barzillai finally deigned to speak. “So Alasdair, I was informed that you are now moonlighting as a delegate for House Tanessen in the Court of Coin. I must admit, I had never realized that you had an aptitude for law.”
Alasdair visibly brightened. “Oh yes! I had never really considered it before, but Gwynnie’s father suggested that I might have some talent for it. It’s been quite the enjoyable experience so far.”
Barzillai took a sip from his goblet. “You needn’t be so modest. My sources tell me that you have been very successful in the lower courts, especially for someone who has only been practicing for a few weeks. I always knew you had the makings of a true Thrune in you.”
Alasdair tried to hide his reaction, though Gwen could tell that he was overjoyed to hear validation from his cousin. But Gwen could hear the mocking tone in Barzillai’s voice, the way his lip curled like he was telling some cruel joke. It made her blood boil. Alasdair had worked hard to impress Barzillai and the Tanessens, and he didn’t deserve to be made fun of. But she stayed silent as ever.
Her heart nearly stopped as Barzillai turned his attention to her. “And my dear Guinevere. I imagine this must be a trying time for your family, considering the very public nature of your brother’s breakdown.”
Gwen nodded, keeping her eyes on her plate and trying her best to look heartbroken. It wasn’t particularly difficult. “We’ve all been trying our best. Corthos has been in a difficult state for some time, but none of us could have predicted that he was keeping that kind of secret from us.” Liar, liar…
Barzillai looked as sympathetic as he could, which wasn’t much of a change from his regular sneer. “House Tanessen is of course unimpeachable, but even the strongest trees occasionally produce a bad apple. I believe your family responded as well as it could, considering the circumstances.”
Gwen nodded, praying for the conversation to be over. Even with all her restraint, she wasn’t sure how much longer she would be able to stop herself from saying something she would regret. Thankfully, the room fell silent once more.
It wasn’t until the last of the plates had been cleared that Barzillai leaned forward in his chair to address Alasdair again. “I must confess, my purpose in coming here tonight was not purely social. I have found myself in need of someone to advise me in legal matters – my background is mainly in the Church, and I have little knowledge of the vast and somewhat labyrinthine Kintargan legal system. I had planned to send for someone from Egorian, but my plans changed when I learned of your recent activities. Is this something that would be of interest to you?”
Gwen thought Alasdair might faint dead away from shock, but he managed to compose himself before responding. “I…That would be wonderful, cousin, I am honored that you thought of me. I do have obligations to fulfill for House Tanessen in the Lower Court…”
Barzillai grinned, a sharp and dangerous expression that Gwen had never before seen on his face. It was the expression she had always imagined as a child in storybooks when a drider managed to lure the hero into its lair. “I daresay a man of your legal talents would be able to do both. Especially considering the close relationship between Houses Thrune and Tanessen.”
Alasdair nodded almost frantically. “Then yes. I would love nothing more than to help you.”
Gwen smiled as best she could, her anxiety only growing worse. She didn’t know what Barzillai had planned, but no matter what, she would do her best to keep herself and the people she loved safe. Including Alasdair. Including Corthos.