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The Duchess in Play

Almost immediately upon his return to Douma and to his Keep, Duke Jiri found himself ushered, by his wife Franka, up the Keep’s great stair to the Great Hall and into an unexpected encounter with Baron Dokovic, the interloping agent of the Bordurian governor at Djordjevaro. Having first stirred up the rebellion in Hum and then having been defeated by the rebels, the Baron was sullenly scheming up ways to save his own hide and to appropriate Hum’s small military (and perhaps parts of Hum itself) for himself. « That is a most unpleasant welcome for Jiri » thought Franka ,“But only the Duke’s presence will make a real effect on Dokovic. He is dangerous and I am running out of tricks to distract him ». Franka descended the great stair of the keep and opened the door to an adjacent storeroom, where she began sorting through a chest full of linens, putting the older ones into a basket on the floor. As she worked, she could hear the faint murmurs of the conversation between the Duke and the Baron drift down from the Great Hall. The exchange quickly grew louder and more heated and the two voices echoed off the masonry walls. The Duchess winced, feeling her husband’s obvious sense of frustration at feeling trapped. Soon afterward, she could hear the approaching sound of the Baron’s boots as he stomped out of the Great Hall and down the stairs. She stood in the shadowy door of the storeroom and watched him descend, grimacing tensely and muttering to himself. Then, as if he was unconsciously aware of being observed, he smoothed out his tunic and hair and straightened up. Looking around the dark entry hall, the Baron finally spotted Franka and his expression transformed quickly from vulnerable surprise to a cold and oily smile though which he presented no pleasure, only predatory teeth.

« Ah, good day to you, your highness. Are you searching for vermin? I was certain I spotted a few in the Hall the last few days…”. Angry after meeting with Duke Jiri, the Baron pleased himself by baiting Duchess Franka. «Hmphf. I am, in fact, making more bandages for your poor soldiers, Baron. Someone has to look after them. I come to believe, finally, that it was a good thing that your troop was as small as you say; we would surely be out of cloth had you a real army” replied Franka, effectively inflaming the Baron’s anger. Unable to restrain himself, the Baron coldly and quickly retorted “A word of advice Duchess, you might well set the women of the market to weaving. I suspect that Hum will soon need many more bandages”. The Baron fixed the Duchess with a cold stare then turned and stalked out of the Keep wearing a little smirk. The Duchess defiantly returned his stare with one of her own, then gathered up her basket and she walked out the Keep’s door as well.

Having sauntered through the gate of the inner Bailey, and past a pair of guards who regarded him skeptically, Baron Dokovic veered to head toward a ragged beggar waiting at the roadside. The beggar looked up at him expectantly. The Baron glanced somewhat furtively behind himself, seeing the guards still watching and a hundred paces away, Duchess Franka was walking quickly and determinedly toward the gatehouse, still carrying her basket of cloth. “That is curious… the wounded troops are in an old barracks hall in the inner bailey. The Baron reached into a pouch on his belt and pulled out a few copper coins, exclaiming loudly, “Here is a little charity from the Viceroy Surov, for the poor of Douma”. “God save the Viceroy and you gentle lord!” declared the beggar, who had dropped to the ground, a little dismayed, to collect the coins after the Baron dropped them into the dust before him. Quickly, sotto voce, the Baron murmured to the beggar “Well done, Tebor, you are looking even more wretched than usual, I almost didn’t know that it was you. Listen, have any of the Duke’s officers left the keep yet this morning? No? Allright. That witch of a Duchess is about to pass through the gate. I want you to follow her, keep her in sight at all times, find out where she is going and who she talks to. Don’t let yourself be seen and report back to me at the usual place this afternoon. Keep up the good work and I’ll see what I can do to get your sentence remitted”. “Thank you my lord” replied the erstwhile beggar, clutching the coins, followed by “as you wish, liege”. Once the Baron had departed,Tebor, one-time merchant, convicted smuggler and now Bordurian spy, muttered “what a bast___”, and eyed up his approaching quarry, the Duchess .

The Duchess walked through the market, stopping to purchase cheap cloth and arranging for the delivery of other useful supplies, such as strong spirits and soap, for the makeshift hospital in which she had installed the wounded Bordurian soldiers under the care of nuns. While there, she took time to test of the townspeople and reassure them about the rumours of rebels and Bordurians which were now rife in the town. Then, while returning to the keep, she stepped into a small chapel which was empty except for a single person, who sat up and then closed the chapel door. The person, a well-built man in travel-stained black cloak, pulled back a hood to reveal the face of an aging but strong man looking both tired and serious. He reached out to take the Duchess’ hand then knelt to kiss her ring. “Welcome cousin” he said to Franka. “And welcome to you, cousin; I received your message as the Duke arrived this morning” she replied with a sigh and a faint rueful smile. “You have come in the middle of trouble but perhaps just in time…”


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