one step

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Clara was sitting by her mother's bedside, her head nodding towards the bed when she was snapped awake by a commotion down the hallway. She ran out to find one of the attendants screaming. "What is it?" she called.

"It's Lady Fidelina," said the attendant. "Somebody tried to murder her!"

"What?" Clara's heart climbed into her throat and she ran down the hallway to the open door of her aunt's room. Fidelina was lay on the floor, her legs and arms bent at odd angles, her brown hair fanned out around her head. She was tugging weakly at a red and gold scarf wrapped around her neck. Clara dropped to her knees beside her aunt and helped her loose the scarf.

"Inne's judgement," Clara breathed. She raised her head and said to the attendants near the door. "Help me get her up to the bed."

Fidelina tugged at her wrist and her lips formed the shape of a name.

Clara nodded. "Send for my father. And find Lord Enrico."

She helped Fidelina into bed, and watched as her breaths scraped through her bruised windpipe.

"Clara, what in Aelas' blessed name..."

Clara turned to face her father. "Enrico has tried to murder Aunt Fidelina," she said.

"Is that true?" said Alan, turning to Fidelina. Fidelina closed her eyes, and a tear slipped down her cheek. Wordlessly, she nodded.

* * *

Duncan strode through the holding, trying to look as if he knew where he was going. The scream had come from the back of the house, on an upper floor, he thought.

He jogged up the stairs and turned towards the the back. Down the hallway. A dead end. He turned around, and this time took a different route at the top of the stairs. This looked more promising; open doors revealed bedrooms.

Yet, at the end of the hallway he still had not found Clara. He frowned and peered into the last room again.

"Looking for me, I suppose," said a voice behind him.

Duncan started back and almost impaled himself on Enrico's drawn sword.

Stepping back into the doorway, Duncan took in his tormentor. "I--" he said, and stopped, hearing the wobble in his voice.

"Because of Fidelina."

"What?" Duncan blinked.

"Oh," said Enrico, "so you're here for some other reason. I just assumed. Does Lord Alan wish to see me?"

"He--hm, yes," said Duncan.

"Lead on, then," said Enrico.

Enrico had him at swordpoint. Duncan saw no alternative. He was captive again, and the only things saving him from Enrico's punishment was the mask he wore. But with the terror running uncheckable though his system, it was difficult to concentrate on his knack. Difficult to hold the mask.

His breathing began to thicken.

The worn patches in his knack began to pull and he felt the beginnings of a familiar headache.

Imagine you are in the forest, he thought. What do you hear?

The crunch of leaves under my feet. Bird-calls. It was easier to breathe.

Enrico poked him in the ribs with the sword.

"This way," he said, although he had no idea where Lord Alan would be.

"I am yours to command," said Enrico with dark irony.

* * *

Clara stood in the opposite corner of Lord Alan's study to her father, her arms crossed, when Lord Enrico appeared in the doorway, pushing in front of him a Vallebrion guardsman.

"I told you to take him to the dungeon," said her father, rising from his chair.

"The dungeon?" said Enrico. "Not very hospitable."

"You tried to murder my wife's sister," said Lord Alan. "The bonds of host to guest are severed."

"Ah, so it is about Fidelina," said Lord Enrico. "This lout would have me believe it was some other matter." He took a guard by the scruff of the neck and pushed him into the room, levelling his sword at the man, who stood on the rug, gaze locked with Clara's.

Clara felt a bolt of shock as she recognised the face of Duncan's seeming. She started towards him, and barely caught herself.

Lord Alan barely spared the guard a glance. "Of course it's about Fidelina. You tried to murder her."

"And aren't you sorry I failed, Lord Alan?"

Spluttering, it took Alan some time to find his voice. "How dare you? What on Aea would lead you to think I would sanction such violence against my wife's family in my holding?"

Enrico sighed. "I am burdened by fools," he said. "But your daughter is back, and I think we can take my arrangement with Fidelina to be at an end, so our original agreement holds."

Duncan. Clara made a pained noise and half-stood. Enrico's eyes fixed on her. "You're awfully interested in this wretch," he said, taking the guard's hair and tugging him close. Clara saw Duncan shudder. Did she imagine it, or did his guardsman's mask slip for a moment?

"You're outnumbered and outmatched," she said. "What can you hope to gain by more violence?"

A slow smile crawled across Enrico's face. "Leverage, my dear." He brought his sword alongside Duncan's neck. Duncan had his eyes closed tightly and his fists clenched. Why did he not struggle?

"What is going on?" said Lord Alan.

"I've no idea," said Enrico. "Ask your daughter why she is showing me the whites of her eyes." His cruel smile deepened. "Mistress Clara, have you been carrying on with a lackey? Is your cold heart perhaps not so cold?"

"Don't be absurd," said Clara. "I have no taste for violence, that is all. I do not even know this man's name."

The sword pressed harder. One moment there was a guardsman, and the next moment, Duncan himself was in Enrico's grip.

"What the witching--" said Enrico, loosening his grip.

"Duncan, run!" said Clara, but Duncan didn't move. He stood with his neck bared, eyes closed, shaking.

Enrico turned his head and studied it. "Little spider," he said. "Now this is a surprise."

"Thandi's mercy, what is going on?" said Lord Alan.

"Your girl has been aiding my runaway halfblood," said Enrico.

Lord Alan turned to Clara. "Is this true?" he said.

"Father, now isn't the time! Duncan may be a halfblood, but he has never harmed anyone. Unlike Enrico."

"Yes," said Alan. "Guards, restrain Lord Enrico now."

"One step, and I slit the halfblood's throat."

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