It was a small window facing the outside wall, but it let in enough morning light to burn Tyr’s eyes. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, he racked his brain for ways he might help that young man from the courtyard. Breaking out of his cell wouldn’t gain him any favors with his host, he was sure, but waiting around might drive him to the brink. The viscount had a sourness about him, and if he was willing to have his own flesh and blood hauled away by guards, Tyr shuddered to think what he might do to an intruder.
A bad feeling usually proved itself correct, if one waited around long enough, Tyr figured.
The heavy door creaked open, scraping against the wooden door sill, the viscount’s ruddy face poking through the gap.
“I haven’t had my breakfast yet, so I suggest you keep your answers brief and very simple.” He stepped in, flanked by the two guards who had escorted Tyr the night before. There didn’t seem to be too many unfamiliar faces here, the city being small as it was.
Tyr stood and brushed his hands off on his trousers. There was nowhere to go, and he wasn’t thrilled to be outnumbered.
“Well? Do you understand?” the viscount snapped, jowls quaking.
Tyr shifted his eyes between the two men on either side of the viscount and finally looked the round bastard in the face. All he could think of was the chaos in the garden as they dragged away a suffering man as his father gave orders like his son was livestock. His hands balled to fists, but he swallowed his temper like burning bile.
“Yes. I understand. Though, if you’d rather take breakfast first, I believe I can tolerate the delay. I do have a way of getting under the skin, and if you’re already irritable—”
“Enough,” he turned and waved his guards out of the room. They exchanged a look, but their hesitation only pulled a swift, commanding, “Get out,” from their lord. The viscount turned and moved to the wooden chair by the table, yanking it toward him with a squeal of the wooden legs against the floor. The furniture croaked its protest when he sat, but seemed to support him just the same.
Opting to stand, Tyr stared unblinking at his captor, arms folded.
“You said you were a doctor. Is that true or were you simply here to rob me?”
“I was not trying to rob you. I was here to investigate the rumors about your son and perhaps find a remedy for whatever torments him. I wanted to ensure he was receiving proper care.”
The viscount’s shoulders drooped, and he tugged a handkerchief from his sleeve, mopping his forehead the same fashion he had the night before: weary and familiar, though he was nowhere near as bursting with sweat as he had been. “They say he is plagued by demons sent by the Otherworld. I think they are afraid to tell me they have no earthly idea what’s wrong with him,” he confessed, stuffing he handkerchief back up his sleeve. “I have watched my son fall from vibrancy and enthusiasm to a paranoid, screaming wraith of a thing. Whatever demons they say haunt him, I would pay a good deal to have them gone. A king’s ransom, you might say.”
The tension slid from Tyr after that moment, and he stepped toward the other wooden chair. “May I?” When the viscount waved him on, he settled down and rubbed his palms on his knees. “It sounds as though you’re trying to bribe me to do a job I came here to do in the first place. My lord, you must understand that your son is not plagued by demons or whatever nonsensical thing your doctors are selling. He needs medicine, and I can help.”
“I’ve heard that quite a lot in the last several months. I am rather at the end of my rope. Even if you did come to rob me, it isn’t as though you’ve got much to steal here. You claim you can help my son, Tyr Cairwyn, so I will put you to the test.” The viscount sat a bit straighter, trying to regain the authoritative bearing befitting of his station.
All Tyr could see was a man pushed to exhaustion now that they were in the light of day, without the eyes of a dozen guards and staff to see the man sag like a sack of grain.
“I would appreciate that opportunity.”
“And if you make this situation worse in any way, I will have your hide. I hope there is no misunderstanding there.”
“No, my lord. That’s perfectly clear. How should I begin?” What little relief he felt knowing he made his way in, even if he got himself a little arrested doing so, faded when the viscount thrust a finger in his face.
“I’m not sure you do understand. When I say I will have your hide, I do mean it in a physical sense. It will hang on my wall. Yes?”
He swallowed hard. “Yes. Of course.”
“Good.” His captor rose and tugged down his doublet to cover the bottom of his belly. “I will have you brought to Niclas’ apartments, where you and he can share breakfast. Get him comfortable with you. The moment he sees you as someone to put a stop to his… affliction, he will be rebellious and difficult. Approach him delicately.” The viscount opened the door and stepped out, turning back to Tyr. “At least you don’t look like a doctor.” He looked Tyr up and down, and started down the hall. “I will send someone for you.”
When the door shut, Tyr scrubbed his face with his palms and groaned. Leave it to Raghnal to get him into a situation where he was likely to get himself skinned alive if he didn’t succeed. Success wasn’t his strong suit the last few years.
Within minutes, the door opened, and a bowing girl stepped in. He had to wonder if she could even see where she was going, bent in half like that. She made it to the rug, before rising, fidgeting with her apron. He was sure there were rumors about him after his entrance last night, and it didn’t appear that they were good rumors, judging by his escort’s behavior.
He stood, and tilted his head. “You’ve come to take me to Master Niclas’ room?”
She finally lifted her eyes to meet his, quickly, as if she didn’t realize she hadn’t announced herself yet, but took a step back. “Yes, sir. If you’ll follow me, sir.”
“Lead the way,” he said, falling into step beside her as she slipped out of the room. “Do you know much about the young lord’s current condition? Can you tell me what people are saying about him?”
A heavy hesitation, but she glanced sidelong at him, and ducked her head. “He’s a sick man, sir. Plagued by demons.”
“Sickness can be cured by medicine, though, can’t it? If he’s plagued by demons, that implies the need for a spiritual healer or a priest to intervene. Have they?” Tyr slid his hands into his pockets. Faking theological debate was always fun, but he couldn’t justify poking fun at this girl. She was concerned for Niclas, whatever his condition may be.
“Yes, sir. They couldn’t help him.” She spun on him then, her unease replaced with desperation. “He was a nice boy, sir. Even as he grew into authority, sir, he has always been kind to us.” She was walking frantically backward now, facing him. “It only makes sense that there are demons tormenting him now, and it isn’t fair. Master Niclas is a good man.”
The girl’s heel caught a wrinkle in the carpet, and her arms flew above her head as she stumbled backward, but Tyr darted forward and caught her by the elbow. Once she was back on her feet, her face was so red he was sure he could have cooked an egg on it.
“I’m not doubting his worth as a person, and I promise you I’ll treat him with absolute respect and care.” He drew a deep breath as she hung her head. “What’s your name?”
Again, she hesitated. Doubtless, she thought he would have her scolded for her outburst. “Selene, sir.”
With his hand still on her elbow, he began walking again, gently guiding her with him, before letting her go. “I don’t think that Master Niclas has demons in his ear, Selene, but I will find out what he does have tormenting him. You aren’t the first who’s told me he’s a good man, and I witnessed his treatment last night. Whatever you hear, can you bring it to me when it’s convenient to you? Anything you think might be useful or even if it’s just something that doesn’t sit right with you?”
“I—Yes, sir. Is someone trying to harm him?”
Tyr offered a reassuring smile. “No one in the viscount’s employ, but I feel that people hear things and they talk about those things, even if they think they’re unimportant. Can you help me with that?”
“I don’t want to get anyone into trouble, sir.”
“I’ll not be reporting any of this to the guards or the viscount. It will only be for my own, personal work with Master Niclas. I know I technically broke into your employer’s estate in the middle of the night, but my intentions are good. I assure you, you can trust me when it comes to my work.”
She stopped outside of a door at the end of a hall and gave a nod. “Yes, sir. If you think it will help Master Niclas, I will tell you anything that I hear.” She pushed the handle down, and stepped into the room.
The curtains were drawn, heavy velvet obscuring the better part of the room, with bright sunlight pooling at the top and bottom of the massive window, with a quilt tacked up in the center to break the wind. A haze of incense and extinguished candle smoke hung in the air, the scent of burning tallow and what Niclas thought might be ginger and something else, something earthy making his nose tingle.
“Master Niclas,” Selene curtsied deeply, holding it as she spoke. “I’ve brought the visitor from the courtyard last night, as per the viscount’s request, sir. Doctor–.” She froze when she realized she didn’t know his name, and Tyr stepped forward into the dark room.
“Tyr Cairwyn, my lord.” He bowed, but did not hold it the way that Selene had. Instead, he rose and stepped deeper into the room. “I’ve asked your father if I might take breakfast with you.”
“My father ordered you to take breakfast with me.” The voice was tired, hoarse, and the figure that slid from the shadows seemed like a shell of a man, worse even than Tyr remembered from the night before. “You saved my life. Whether the old fool ordered it or not, I think breakfast is reasonable.”
Niclas was a wraith. He looked like a statue left in the elements for years, weathered and beaten down, the weight of the rain boring holes into him. His dark hair curled at the nape of his neck in unruly tufts, but the top was matted to his forehead with a shine of sweat. The dark circles around his eyes finished off his fresh-from-the-grave look, and Tyr winced.
“When was the last time you slept, my lord?” he asked, despite the viscount’s warning to speak with him casually first.
“Right to it.” Niclas offered a wry laugh. “Thank you, Selene. You can tell my father I won’t be tearing our guest’s heart out and eating it just yet.”
Selene paled and backed out of the room. “I’ll bring your breakfast, Master Niclas.” Tyr could imagine she might he hesitant at this point.
The door shut, and Tyr turned his attention squarely on the viscount’s haggard son. “I was told to befriend you, but I don’t like false pretenses.”
“I appreciate that. He sends his glorious finds in here to soothe my savage tendencies. I don’t need another priest.” Niclas draped himself languidly into a high-back chair, upholstered with a rolling landscape of hills and flowers. The seat was torn, but he didn’t seem to care. “And, with respect, Doctor Cairwyn, a doctor can’t help me, either.”
“I know that. Your father would have executed me, I think, if I hadn’t given him a proper lie. A doctor seemed a safe bet, all things considered.”
Niclas laughed a little, but it sounded so hollow.
“I was sent by a rival of your acquaintances.” Tyr stepped a bit deeper into the room and took a seat in a chair that looked like someone had smashed it into a million pieces, then hastily glued it back together. It creaked under him.
The amusement slid from Niclas’ face and exhaustion replaced it. A furrow formed between his eyes and those dark circles almost looked darker. He leaned back in his chair, stretching his back out like a stray cat. “They didn’t board the window back up, so I have to assume they’re hoping the problem solves itself. If that’s the case, then why send you?”
“Desperation, probably. The viscount thinks I’m a doctor, and you know I’m not. This can move in two directions.” Tyr leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees, his hands clasped before him.
“Only two that matter. You can believe that I came to help you, you can trust me, and we can work on getting you free from your bargain you made,” Tyr shrugged a bit. “Or you can expose my position to your father and you can watch him skin me alive and hang my hide on his wall. His words.”
A little smile reappeared on Niclas’ lips, and he shook his head. “He would, too.”
“I have little doubt,” Try laughed wryly and rubbed the back of his neck, as if the thought piled tension across his shoulders.
“But you wouldn’t be caught. You came in here without a single soul knowing you breached the wall. Didn’t raise a single alarm. I find it had to believe you couldn’t just spirit yourself away.”
“I’m not made of smoke, my lord,” Tyr laughed. The chair groaned as he shifted his weight, and he tried not to grimace. “I’m as flesh and blood as you are. I just happened to catch your father’s security detail off guard, I suppose. I only came in through a hole in the wall, hoping it might make it easier to request audience with the viscount.”
“An audience on my behalf.” It wasn’t a question. Niclas was more astute than he let on, or perhaps less afflicted by the demons everyone claimed whispered in his ear.
Cautiously, Tyr milled over his next words, rolling them around in his head for a moment before he nodded. “Yes, my lord. On your behalf. Though, to say it was out of altruism wouldn’t be quite true. Your current state is upsetting a certain balance in the Fae realm of Magh Meall, and I’ve been tasked with putting a stop to it. Lucky for you, it’s to your benefit.”
“Is it?” Niclas leaned back in his chair and slumped a little. “You have no plans to execute me, then?”
A stone sank in Tyr’s stomach, and he furrowed his brow. “Of course not. Who has you under the impression that someone would be along to execute you?”
Silence stretched between them, but Niclas wouldn’t meet his eyes, even as he waited for an answer. He’d been shut up in this room for long enough that the air smelled a bit sour under the incense, and, from all accounts he’d heard, even the window had been shuttered to keep Niclas’ screams in.
“Everyone believes you to be ill, my lord, but I would like to create a trend of complete honesty between us. Do you think that would be possible?” Tyr asked, and the young lord let his eyes fall shut in response, not bracing, but… accepting.
“I shan’t struggle, doctor. I’m quite tired, and the possibility of what I might have gained from this terrible decision weighs on me heavier every day. I only ask that you make it quick.” He did look up then, a wan smile tipping the corner of his lips faintly. “I’m nothing if not a coward.”
Rolling his eyes, Tyr pushed himself to his feet and crossed to the broken window, peeking out the curtains and yanking down the quilt.. Someone had fitted sturdier shutters outside, but didn’t bother boarding the gaping hole in the room at the same time.
“Tell me what happened. How you came to be here.” Tyr leaned forward, a hand bracing on the window frame.
“I’ve told you, doctor, there is no medicine that will help me. This is a bed I made myself, and it is my fate to lie in it.” He leaned back, folding his arms around himself, averting his eyes.
Tyr turned just enough to see Niclas from where he leaned on the wall. “Well, you’re not a vampire, my lord. Don’t mistake wallowing for suffering.” He threw the draperies wide, and let the sunlight stream in, leaving Niclas to throw an arm over his eyes to shield them. “You made an ill bargain with the Fae, and now they’re tormenting you to uphold your end. You’re frightened, but the dark certainly can’t shield you from them, if that’s your aim.”
“I wasn’t hiding—”
“What was the bargain, Niclas?”
The young noble’s arm dropped, his hand falling heavily into his lap, and he stared at Tyr as if he’d been slapped. Mouth working to form a word he couldn’t find, Niclas scooted himself a bit stiffer in his seat.
Tyr rounded the chair and sat back down, elbows back on his knees. “Was it for power? Money? Women?”
Niclas scoffed, his face still twisted in the light. He looked so pale, and the circles under his eyes were like coal smudges, dark and angry.
“It’s usually one of the three.” Tyr tried to keep his tone even, but the way Niclas sat there, first smug and now furiously panicked, aggravated him. Did he think he was clever? Did he expect his clandestine deal to be some grand secret?
“You could have paid with your life.”
“I expect I still might,” Niclas said, his voice hoarse like paper rubbing together. “I didn’t ask for power or sex or anything like that. I didn’t expressly ask for anything, if you must know.”
“I must know,” Tyr confirmed, brow knitting. “What do you mean you didn’t ask for anything? How did they come to you if you didn’t summon them?”
Niclas drew a quaking breath, and his voiced hitched against his words. “I begged the gods for help, and what came to me looked godlike enough. I didn’t expect—” He cut himself off with a shuddering sigh, and squeezed his eyes shut. “I told the god I was worried for my father. Our estate is broke. No one knows yet, but the king has sent messages, asking my father’s support in his campaign to rid the countryside of the Istre. My father has refused time and again, not just because chasing the Istre out would be immoral, but because doing so would disrupt rural commerce.
“Naturally, with my father’s poor financial standing now, the king is looking to unseat him and install a viscount who would bend to his will.” He dragged the back of a hand under his eyes, drying his tears as they welled up. “When I was through explaining, the god—Fae. That’s what he said he is. Not a god. The Fae said he would help my father. I couldn’t turn him down. Not with so much at stake. I want my family to be all right, and I know my father will never give in to eradicating innocent people for the king’s campaign for… for purity.” His lips turned down as he spat the word.
“Purity,” Tyr said, rolling it across his tongue like a rotten grape. He would have to come back to that. “What did he give you? The Fae. What did he give you and at what price?”
Red-eyed and looking positively downtrodden, the viscount’s son leaned back in his chair, tipping his head back to look up at the ceiling.
“He gave my father stability. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know. He just said that our family would be safe from the king and financial ruin if I—” He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes and let out a sob.
More often than not, Tyr met with people who gave up more than they understood to have a little of something fleeting. And it never worked out the way they imagined it to. The Fae always took more than they let on, and their marks always wound up worse off than when they started. Opening one’s self up to Fae interference gave nothing but a headache.
“What did you promise them?” he coaxed gently, even as Niclas continued to dissolve across from him. “I can help you, Niclas, but you’ve got to talk to me.”
“My mind. He asked me to devote my thoughts to him. It seemed innocuous enough, and I agreed, because what sort of son would I be if I allowed my family to fall apart when I only have to sacrifice a few thoughts.” Another sob punctuated his words, and gave his head an aggressive shake. “But it’s not a few thoughts, doctor. It’s every thought. Every moment I’m alone, my thoughts are tormented by visions of him. I think he thinks it’s funny. He’ll show up and give me visions of my death or fires or other awful things I can’t stop.
“When he comes, I never know what he’ll do. Sometimes, he just sits here and talks to me, and I wait for the blade to fall. Other times, he’ll torment me with questions, but… they aren’t just questions, doctor. They… create things in my mind, and those things feel so real that… that—”
“That you’ll jump out a window to escape them.” Tyr said quietly.
Niclas wasn’t crying anymore, but his face was blotchy and puffed.
He just sat back in his chair, head tilted back, occasionally hiccuping with a sob now and then.
“He doesn’t want your thoughts or your adoration, Niclas. He took advantage of your naivety. It’s possible he wants your mind, literally. Sanity is a powerful thing, and so is perceived insanity.” Tyr bit his lip, his focus falling to the floor. “It doesn’t mean you’re actually going mad.”
Niclas barked a laugh, but he fell immediately sober, his eyes darkening as he leaned forward. “What does that mean, exactly? He plans to drive me mad?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time madness was part of a bargain of this kind. But true madness comes with a sort of clarity, and you’re not being driven quite that far. At least not yet.” Tyr glanced up at the door as the latch clunked free, and it swung inward. Selene carried a tray with a cloth draped over most of it, an exposed pitcher on the right side, a sheen of dew glazing the crystal, and another on the left, steaming through the pour spout.
“Forgive the intrusion.” She managed a curtsy, even with her hands full.
Tyr was on his feet in a second, lifting the tray out of her hands. “Thank you, Selene.”
Peeking around him, her brow knit and she tried to scoot around him to get to Niclas. “What’s wrong with him, sir?”
Tyr slid between her and the young lord, holding the tray out of the way on one hand. “We’re working through that right now.”
“It’s alright, Selene. The doctor is already helping immensely,” Niclas stated, though, perhaps not quite as convincing as he could have been, were his voice not thick with tears.
Tyr took a cup from the tray, dripping with condensation, and held it out to the young lord. With a shaking hand, Niclas took the cup and glanced into it, wrinkling his nose.
“Water. I’ll take some wine, Selene. Thank you.” He thrust the cup outward, at no one in particular.
Furrowing his brow, Tyr pushed the cup back at him, though Niclas resisted only slightly. “You’ll drink the water and save the wine for when you’re well.”
Niclas’ lips tightened, and he bobbed a curt nod. Selene’s attention darted between them, settling on Tyr and his firm bearing over the viscount’s willful son. Tyr would swear she refused to blink at him. How dare he, after all?
“I’ll look after him, I promise,” he said, setting the tray on the low table before the sofa. “Please send him some dinner when the time comes. I’ve little doubt he’s been skipping meals.”
With a pained smile, Selene bent a curtsy and slipped out of the room.
“I’d like to face this properly drunk.”
“I’ll bet you would.” Tyr plopped down in a chair opposite him, resting his forearms on his knees. “Once you’ve confronted the Fae who are tormenting you, we’ll hopefully be able to deconstruct this deal and get you out of it. I’ve been asked to make certain you come out of this in once piece.”
Brow furrowing, Niclas threw himself backward in his chair and stared at Tyr, dark eyes boring into him. “Asked by whom?” he said after a time, his voice level now, even though the tears had stained his face with blotches of red. “My father’s given up on me. He wouldn’t have sought you out. I’ve been penned in up here since the first time I—” He swallowed hard.
Tyr stayed silent. Niclas turned the possibilities over in his mind, but the sudden sag in his shoulders told Tyr he came up empty.
“Someone I’ve worked closely with in the past has a stake in your… benefactor’s failure to gain a political foothold in Angharad. Your father may be aiming to hide you away here, but you’ve become quite sought after by those from whom he can’t hide you.” Tyr nodded to the water, and, after a moment, the young noble took it in hand and sipped at it, his lips curling as he fought it down. “I need you to tell me everything.”