A Zahnia Short, part 3

Major Anda Othro and Lady Norva Othro are two characters I’d like to do more with in future stories. In scene three, the longest of the four scenes in this story, we learn how strong and politically savvy Lady Norva is, as well as how seriously badass Anda is. This scene also alludes to Queen Viarra’s current alias as Lady Ellona, head of the First Empress Trading Company. (Part 1, part 2)


A Zahnia Short, part 3

“Mr. Wernod, kindly go to hell,” Lady Norva interrupted tiredly, still staring out the window of her sitting room. It took all of Major Anda’s self-control to not grin at the request as she stood nearby.

Financial attorney Sir Nerrek Wernod looked up in surprise, a few sentences into reading aloud one of his inheritance-management contracts. “I–I beg your pardon, my lady?” he blinked, though Anda was half certain his stammer was deliberate.

“Begging won’t earn you my pardon,” the annoyed widow replied, turning irritably toward him. “My husband has been dead for barely three hours, and here you are, already attempting to weasel in on my finances. You may have been Velex’s friend and associate, but I know what a hearse-chasing son of a bitch you are. If I signed that contract it would make me, what, the seventh widowed noblewoman you’ve swindled ridiculous amounts of money from by taking over her affairs? Or would I be the eighth?”

“I don’t know to what you’re referring, my lady,” the lawyer said stiffly.

“Horseshit, you don’t,” Lady Norva told him, rising from her chair. “I’m familiar with your reputation, and I know how cads like you operate. You seek out the widows of men you called friends, offering a sympathetic ear and reduced fee to sort through their late husbands’ affairs for them. Then you skim as much as you like from they and their children’s inheritance using legal loopholes. I’m not stupid, Mr. Wernod,” she continued. Anda had to force down another smile at the fact that she kept addressing him as Mr. instead of by his title. “I’m not interested in your assistance and your presumptuousness offends me. I strongly suggest you remove yourself from my home before I have the major remove you for me.”

Anda drew her basket-hilt partway to emphasize the threat. Part of her had a strong desire to beat the shit out of something, so she was rather hoping he’d refuse.

Sir Wernod licked his lower lip, then returned his contracts to his case and left without a word, glancing briefly and nervously at the major. Anda sheathed her broadsword as he closed the door behind him. It was good to know she still had a reputation among Velex’s colleagues.

“Do you know that you’re my hero?” Anda asked as Lady Norva dropped tiredly back into her chair. One of the strongest women the major had ever known, it pained Anda to see her ladyship looking so emotionally exhausted.

“You’ve said so before, but thank you for repeating it, my dear,” Lady Norva answered with a weary smile. Anda felt the same warmth she always felt when her lady called her my dear. Still a head-turning woman in her late-forties, Lady Norva Othro had poise and grace to match any noble Anda had ever met. The bodyguard had always felt herself somewhat plain and mannish by comparison. “Did the constables learn anything about the shooter?” her ladyship continued. “I was going to ask before Mr. Wernod interrupted.”

“No, and I don’t expect them to,” Anda admitted, pulling up a chair and sitting beside her lady. “The only description we have of the boy is ‘around eight or nine years old with dark hair.’”

“Which doesn’t really narrow it down,” Lady Norva agreed grimly. “So unless the shooter turns himself in or gives himself away somehow, we’ll probably never find out who he was.” She gave the bodyguard a concerned look, as if noticing her contemplation. “Have you a thought on the matter, Major?”

Anda hesitated a moment. “How well do you know Lady Ellona of Fildor?” she asked, voicing the half-idea she’d been bouncing around for the last three hours.

“Not well,” her lady admitted. “I’ve met her twice, I believe. Tall, with hair like polished copper, she’s one of the Emperor’s closest advisors and head of a major merchants’ guild.”

“More of a merchant empire, really,” Anda informed her, “appropriately named The First Empress Trading Company. Plus she owns thirty-odd warships from sloop-size up to a pair of forty-six-gun frigates, which she uses to guard her merchantmen or hires out as privateers. She also has the most extensive spy, smuggling, and black-market goods network possibly in the world. If she’s not as powerful as the Emperor himself, she’s damned close.” The major paused before continuing. “Is it possible that the senator did something to earn her ire?”

Lady Norva looked startled—an expression Anda wasn’t used to seeing her wear. “I… nothing that I know of,” the lady replied. “Are you suggesting she may have had something to do with my husband’s death?”

“It’s just speculation on my part,” Anda admitted. “But I’ve heard she has a midget in her employ as an agent or enforcer, who has been known to disguise himself as a nine-year-old boy or girl in order to spy, steal, or assassinate. And it occurs to me that such an attribute could easily be used to make an assassination look like an accidental shooting.”

Her lady was silent a long moment. “Do you have any evidence to suggest…?” she trailed off.

“No, it’s just a gut feeling, based on how quickly it all happened and how cleanly the shooter got away,” Anda sighed, dropping her elbows to her knees. “And I wouldn’t even know how or where to begin investigating.”

“Nor would you be able to touch Lady Ellona if you did find some kind of proof,” Lady Norva agreed, sliding an arm across the younger woman’s shoulders. “But it says a lot about you that you’re willing to consider possibilities beyond the obvious.”

Anda smiled slightly at her lady’s praise. “Have you given thought to the succession of the senator’s titles?” she asked next.

Lady Norva sighed, sitting back in her chair. “His brother Irik is technically next in line for the Othro family lordship, but he’s a fool if he thinks anyone in the family beyond his parasitic wife and snot-faced children want him to have it. Well… he’s a fool regardless, but that’s beside the point. If he won’t relinquish it to my daughter Ella under pressure from the rest of the family, I’m hoping perhaps he’ll accept a reasonable bribe.”

Anda nodded as she sat up. “And if he doesn’t?” she asked next.

“I’d prefer looking into… nonviolent solutions first,” the lady admitted.

Anda smiled grimly at the sentiment. “What about his seat on the senate?” was her next question. Senate seats weren’t necessarily hereditary positions, but family members of a deceased senator had first priority when petitioning for the vacancy.

“I won’t petition for it, but if the Emperor offers it to me, I’ll take it,” Lady Norva decided after a moment’s consideration. “However, if Ella wishes to petition, I’ll back her move all the way.”

“I’d be proud of her if she did,” Anda agreed.

“What about you, dear?” her lady asked. “With Velex’s death, your contract is renegotiable. Have you considered what you’ll do now?”

“I hadn’t considered,” the bodyguard captain admitted. “The way the situation is looking in the north, I’d not be surprised if my colleagues in the Legions try to convince me to reenlist.” She looked away bitterly. “After my failure here I—”

“Don’t you dare try to take blame for this,” Lady Norva cut her off sharply. Anda looked up at her, shocked at the hardness in her voice. “Whether this was an accident or cunningly designed to look like one, in no way are you responsible for my husband’s death. Do you hear me?” Her lady’s face and voice softened and she reached over to take both the major’s hands in hers. “You’ve foiled three attempts to kidnap my daughters. You’ve taken not one, but two bullets that were meant for the senator. That night those pirates boarded our ship you rushed on deck in your nightshirt to help the crew fight them off. With a broken arm and a knife wound, you held a doorway against four bandits while my daughters and I ran for help. If you couldn’t save my Velex this afternoon, none could have.”

Lady Norva took the bodyguard’s chin firmly in both hands. “You keep telling me that I’m your hero, but the part that you never seem to grasp is that you’re our hero,” her lady continued. “I’m sure you’re going to tell me that you’re just doing your job—that risking your life for all of us is part of your duty to your lord and family. But you’re more than just our bodyguard. You were like a sister to Velex and remain my closest friend and confidante. Both of my daughters look up to you as a mentor and role model.”

“Ora once told me I’m the reason she wants to join the Imperial Officer Corps,” Anda admitted. “And I’ve promised her a letter of recommendation once she’s old enough to apply.”

“You see? Never underestimate how important you are to all of us,” Lady Norva smiled, her eyes watering. She leaned in and embraced the guardswoman, kissing her briefly on the cheek. Anda wept and held her lady close, resting her chin on her shoulder. Like a levee breaking, the emotional defenses she’d built around herself crumbled. Anda wasn’t sure how long they wept together, but for her it was as cathartic a cry as she could remember ever having.

Anda smiled gratefully as they parted, her lady’s hand lingering on her sleeve a moment. “I’ll probably never be able to convince myself that there’s nothing I could have done to save Velex,” the major admitted, “but thank you for keeping your faith in me. You’re… right. I should stay—leaving would only hurt you and your daughters.”

Lady Norva smiled and patted her shoulder as they stood. “Speaking of my daughters, they’re going to be crushed when news reaches them,” the noblewoman mused as she looked back at Anda. “Major, how well do you know the post roads going south?” she asked.

“Well enough,” Anda admitted. “You want me to ride south and get passage on a ship to the capitol?” Iella and Ora were currently visiting Lady Norva’s family on Kel Fimmaril.

“If you would please,” her lady said gratefully. “I think learning of their father’s death would be easier on them coming from you than through ‘official channels.’”

“I’ll pack some money and clothes and leave at once,” Anda promised. It occurred to her that she could probably shave two days off the trip by riding most of each night and changing horses at every post-rider station. Technically, stations weren’t allowed to lend horses to non-postmen, but station masters were as easy to bribe as tollbooth guards and customs officers.

“Thank you, Anda, for everything,” Lady Norva smiled tiredly and squeezed the major’s arm as they left the sitting room.


Continued in part 4.

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2 Responses to A Zahnia Short, part 3

  1. seraph4377 says:

    Reblogged this on Dreams of the Shining Horizon and commented:
    Part 3 of Dubiousbyhabit’s ongoing story set in the Renaissance of his First Empress setting. Looks like a part 4 is coming, though I didn’t expect it!

    One thing you’ll notice that Dubious is good at – better than I am, certainly – is making sure that all of the characters are real people with loved ones and points of view, who behave in ways that seem reasonable to them (to the extent that the characters are reasonable themselves). The brave, wise, good-hearted characters grieving for a lost loved one in today’s installment are very much in opposition to Dubious’s protagonists, but there are no Dark Lords in Dubious’s world.

    (Well, probably not…I’m running into some characters in First Empress who are engaged in illegal magical experiments on human subjects, and they’re pretty vile, but even they’re human in the end.)

    • Thanks! It’s true that there’s no Dark Lords in First Empress (though I do have Queen Viarra channel Darth Vader a little when she confronts a nobleman who tried to have her assassinated). While I love a well-written Dark Lord, part of my goal with this novel is to present very… human antagonists with motivation to their deeds beyond simple greed or cruelty. The only characters I can think of who are truly evil are the experimenters, as you said, and a barbarian king we meet later who believes in a Manifest Destiny for his people and had this ‘only the strong shall survive’ sense of racial/cultural purity.

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