A/N: I am faced with the task of thanking more than a year's worth of reviewers - my gosh! A thousand thank-yous to bedlamandbroomsticks, siromygod, singinandlovinit, sylphides, SilkenPetal, Frogster, merryabandon, ybs, get-a-grip38, the wonder of you, Manwathiel, like frogs in your soup, X23 Maximoff, Maren Burk, math music reading, Dark Duchess and Shadow Queen, Mickeygee, lablondie, Penned With Love, and Sharpest Satire for reviews that electrified me and pushed me to keep trying to write this chapter. I finally made it!

Thank you to everyone who has faved or put this story on their watch. Thank you to anyone who has taken the time to read this. I am honored! I am very sorry for being so absent! :( I tried to make this chapter long for you!

Disclaimer: Crown Duel belongs to Sherwood Smith.


The Cut and the Thrust

It was then that the insanity that lurks under all our pretty Court faces made a cameo appearance.

Reader, I do not think that there exists anyone in this world more merciful than you are. You have endured my waxing eloquent upon matters that do not concern you. You have endured silence in response to your pleas for news. I regret from the bottom of my heart that I cannot lay bare what happened during my silence – suffice to say the game for the crown has picked up its pace considerably. Please accept both my deep gratitude and my profoundest apologies. It is my dearest hope to not be silent again.

It is also my hope to repay you for your marvelous forbearance by telling you a tale from the Period of Silence. I am certain will amuse you because it fully disconcerted me. I need this distraction, however embarrassing the telling may prove, because tonight is the Marquise's party. Tonight, Galdran Merindar's sister will have Meliara between her sharp claws ... or slimy tentacles, depending on my mood. If the claws must change to tentacles, rest assured, you will be the first to know.

You may remember from my last address that Renna and Trishe were planning a horse race for the following week. Tamara … indicated that she was confident in my riding skills. I assumed that if she attended the race at all, she would observe from the finish line, and likely try to foist upon me a square flimsy fabric - which I would be taxed with misplacing sometime during the race. However, when she arrived on horseback, her hair braided military-style and wearing a deep russet riding outfit tailored within a hairsbreadth of perfection, I realized misplacing a handkerchief would have been a lovely alternative to whatever would happen now.

Tamara has never been outwardly athletic in any way. Even when we were children, she always played the princess sitting in the shade with her skirts arranged around her. When we were too old to dementedly run around the gardens and were forced to specialize in "grown up sports," she never got into sword fighting the way the rest of our group did. However, she always enjoyed horse riding, and she can hold her own at it. The difference between us is she uses it as a tool where we use it as a reprieve. With her face and figure, riding could only become a means of unsettling arrogant suitors, and life, she has made much of it. The tales of wide-eyed men are nearly legendary. That being said, it follows that we all were surprised at her attendance. The others seemed mostly curious, but by the look on Russav's face, I was not the only one experiencing a sinking feeling.

I must take a moment to express my satisfaction with the size of the previous paragraph –it is longer than usual. My paragraphs have become disturbingly uniform as of late, which is irritating. If you cannot relate to this, then you may roll your eyes with the Russav in my head. However, if you find this amusing, then you may laugh with Meliara, as I hope this quirk would make her at least chuckle at me. Now let us proceed.

After greeting us and paying her respects to Trishe, Tamara smiled at us. I had to repress a shudder. You see, Tamara has many smiles. One makes men's knees go weak; another sends female competition away at a sprint. One beams honest delight; another whisks its charming self over a brittle interior. And one smile is so full of secret connivance it makes even the King of All Things Duplicitous (otherwise known as me) cringe. I've done so many cunning things myself I know trouble when I see it.

"I've just has the most amusing idea!" Tamara exclaimed, right on cue. She turned toward Trishe. "If you don't mind?"

Trishe graciously inclined her head, the ebony jeweled band on her riding hat glistening in the overcast light.

"What say you to playing a game as we race?" Tamara tapped the ends of her reins in her gloved palm. "I propose that we each give a favor to whoever we beat. A sort of reverse favor-giving, if you will."

As everyone murmured, she shot me an arch glance. Russav shifted in his saddle in an annoyed motion, forcing her to look at him. "So, if you beat me, you have to give me a favor." He paused. "Whatever I ask."

"Yes, whatever you ask," she said sweetly, "but within reason, of course."

This evoked a few chuckles. Russav's brow quirked wryly. "What if I lose to Danric? How can he give me –another male- a favor?"

"He would give his favor to the lady of your choice," Tamara responded evenly. "And if the situation repeated with two ladies, one lady would give her favor to the loser's choice of man."

Another murmur went through the group. Trishe and Renna looked amused. Geral looked a little confused. Russav was trying to look unaffected but there was a calculating gleam in his darkened eyes. Deric looked ready to laugh but his smile was forced. Probably, I reflected with all the glorious sullenness of a pubescent boy, he is disappointed that Meliara isn't present and he is missing a chance to coerce a kiss from her. The twat.

"I like it," Deric said, interrupting my half-murderous meditations. "Let's do it."

Trishe and Renna were smiling as well. "Deric likes it, so we must," Trishe said. "To the starting line!"

We obeyed our hostess. I wasn't worried about finishing anywhere near Tamara – her mare was excellent but my gray could easily leave them both behind. I made sure I settled at the end of our line of seven because I wanted nothing to do with the who-is-next-to-whom jostling that took place in the middle. After making sure my hat was tight on my head, I stroked my gray's neck briefly, feeling his eagerness to run. At least one of us was going to enjoy this.

Two servants stood at either end of the starting line. They both raised green and gold flags, and suddenly the tense chuckles and whispers in the line died. We all leaned forward in our saddles, barely breathing.

The flags snapped down. I dug in my heels and charged into a damp meadow with the rest. The increasing gale of our speed ripped away every thought except one: Get as far away from the mess as possible.

Our course took us into a wilder part of the grounds that had been left to its own devices exactly for races like this. This race was like any other, with neck-and-neck strains, close calls with sadistic rocks and branches, and a lot of rain down the front of one's tunic. I will not draw out the ordeal inflicted on your eyes by my handwriting by describing the entire event. Instead, let us advance to the only part of any race that matters to observers: the end.

We crossed the finish line in this order:

1. Myself (Rest assured, I write this with utter humbleness. I am simply lucky to have a natural riding talent surpassing all others, as well as a horse whose speed makes other horses want to stay home and eat oats).

2. Renna

3. Geral

4. Trishe

5. Tamara

6. Russav

7. Deric

You will note that Tamara beat Russav. This is completely preposterous – you could see it in the flag-bearer's surprised faces. Indeed, as we gathered after cooling our mounts down, there was a general air of amused shock. Russav is a better, stronger rider than Tamara and his stallion is a beast (a beast who seemed more than a little confused at having lost to Tamara's ginger mare).

I heard Deric asking Russav about a collision with a tree branch while Trishe wondered if Tamara's mare was all right after "that nasty trip." Russav looked more than a little gleeful and Tamara's expression was cosmically flat. She would not look at me. The thought of them both trying to lose to the other almost made me smile, but their disregard for their mounts made me sigh.

A mud-spattered Renna seemed to share my thoughts. "Glad nobody got hurt," she said under her breath as she joined me.

I quirked a brow in response. "What favor may I grant you, my lady?"

She smiled. "The tack you use – it is from Shevraeth, yes?"

"Handmade by the best," I said.

"I should like to borrow it for a week. I have been considering ordering some of my own but I need to make sure we both like it." She stroked her stallion's nose.

"It is yours." I bowed, and she dipped her head with a big smile.

It was then that the insanity that lurks under all our pretty Court faces made a cameo appearance.

I heard Russav name the favor he wanted from Tamara: to accompany him to the Marquise of Merindar's party. She gave her assent with a venomous smile. It was a bold move on Savona's part; those who didn't know about this game would think that Tamara was starting to prefer him again.

Deric came up to Tamara and Russav. Russav looked at him a little warily, and rightfully so – the wicked glint in Deric's eye was stronger than usual. "What is your wish?"

"The favor you would give me belongs to Tamara," Deric proclaimed. He now had everyone's attention. "I want you to order her to bestow her kiss on whomever she desires."

In that moment of insanity, someone gasped and Tamara's eyes flew to me. I am fairly certain that Russav swore to despise Deric forever and an eternity, if the stiffening of his shoulders was any indication. I wasn't feeling all that charitable toward Deric myself. My instinctive reaction was to claim a prior engagement, mount up, and scuttle away as fast as I could, but I could only wait.

In an admirable show of self-control, Russav bowed to Tamara. "Very well; you must give a kiss to whomever you wish."

She smiled and curtsied, but because I knew her, I didn't miss the glance of vicious satisfaction she gave Russav from under her lashes. I don't think you can imagine how I felt as she turned … and strode toward me. Everyone was watching, and someone tittered in the background. I couldn't move, but my gray snorted and tossed his head as he sensed my stinging consternation. I thought I had escaped something like this!

Tamara stopped a polite distance from me and my body prompted a jerky bow. Somewhere inside I was scrambling for the careless, foppish persona I had used so extensively in my past – surely he could handle this smoothly.

Tamara glanced around as if seeing our audience for the first time. She gave an embarrassed laugh. "You are my choice, your grace, but I believe I will defer until a later, more private time?"

This caused another murmur to go around the group, all of whom I fiercely wished would disappear. I gestured graciously. "Your favor is yours to bestow as you wish."

She gave me a glinting smile. "Until later, then." She turned away. It took all my effort to calmly mount up instead of staring blankly like an idiot at the air in front of my nose.

And that, my friend, is the story that is so disconcerting to me. As you can imagine, we were likely the most befuddled riding party ever to return to Athanarel's stables. I will not even try to describe anyone's state of mind, leaving it all to your capable imagination. I now wonder if this is Fate's revenge for my wager with Meliara? Whatever it may be, Tamara has not yet tried to "bestow" anything on me yet. I am left in suspense. However, this situation is merely a pinprick next to everything else I must meditate on, and for that I am perversely grateful.

And now, tonight. Tonight, Meliara will be in the Merindar house, and though all her friends will be there, we cannot interfere. In short, this is the Marquise's golden opportunity to woo the Countess, to follow up the letter she sent to Tlanth this spring.

That isn't even considering her offspring, the vacuous, puckered Lady Fialma, and he of the Beautiful Yet Blank Face -or the Flower- as Lord Flauvic is often called. I doubt Meliara has never seen facial-feature-arrangement of his caliber. I must put my faith in her hardy mountain upbringing, trust it to protect her from him. And yet I worry that it is this very upbringing that may leave her vulnerable to his outward glory.

It is raining hard, pounding and glittering on the dark windows.

I am worried.


Life, her eyes would always make me start inwardly. I'd seen my share of pale blue eyes, but none had the deadly arctic quality of the Marquise of Merindar's gaze. Resplendent in a gold and green gown, she inclined her head and smiled blandly. I felt like she had coated my chest with snow. "I am delighted to welcome you to my home," she said. "Please, enjoy yourself."

I bowed silently to her and moved to greet her children, willing the hairs on the back of my neck to lie back down. Fialma was as disinterested as ever, and Flauvic as unreadable as a wall. I moved into the sitting room, scanning it quickly for Meliara. She hadn't arrived yet, and probably would appear on Deric's arm. I glanced back at the Marquise, who was greeting Tamara and Russav. Both of them looked perfectly content, though I knew the whispers their appearance together was prompting would take Tamara to her limit.

Renna waved me over to the fireplace where she sat with Lord Geral, Nee, and Branaric. Nee gave me a smile that was a little wan. Before her connection with Branaric, she never would have been invited to an event like this. I gave her a reassuring smile and incline of the head, and she gave me a grateful nod. She kept glancing at the entrance, no doubt watching for Meliara - for whom I'm sure she worried as much as I did.

Branaric grinned at me. "I hear you're to be congratulated on winning a rather unusual race this morning."

I tilted my head to the side in acknowledgement. Beside me, Renna held her peace, though the corners of her mouth twitched – whether from amusement or annoyance I was uncertain.

"The event had several unexpected elements," I said, "but we enjoyed the run."

"Remind me to be absent if my cousin-in-law decides to play sportswoman again," Branaric chuckled, earning him a good-humored smack on the arm from Nee.

I caught an unmistakable flash of red hair in the corner of my eye and a hot pulse went through me. She was here. Angling my body a little to the right, I caught Renna's eye. "Tielm seemed strong today," I said. "He seems to have recovered well from that pulled muscle."

Renna smiled at my mention of her ebony stallion. "It's as if he never pulled it. He was antsy after all that rest. Oh - did you know Geral is having two new horses shipped in next week?"

"I heard something about that!" Branaric exclaimed. "What're they like?"

As Lord Geral launched into a detailed equine description that had all my friends salivating, I was able to scan the room and watch the entrance without seeming to.

Meliara had already greeted our hostess and was facing the siblings. Lady Fialma's chin was up higher than usual and she barely gave Meliara the respect of a glance. Typical.

I took an instant to nod to Russav and Tamara, who had settled on the outskirts of our group. They would not be in each other's vicinity much longer if their body language was any indicator.

Now Lord Flauvic was taking Meliara's hand, bowing over it. Their slender figures, his in black-blue and hers in deep brown, were silhouetted against the glow of the Marquise's gown. Meliara turned from him after he released her hand. Was it just me, or did she almost linger too long, gazing at him? For a moment, I was grateful she was with Deric, who swept her attention away. He led her over to our group, and they arrived in a breeze of scented air. "What's toward?" Deric asked with a relieved grin.

"Geral's bringing new horseflesh. Should arrive next week," I told him. His eyes lit up as the mania of the group infected him. As Lord Geral described the horses yet again, I covertly took Meliara in. I am aware of how this sounds like one of those deplorable sonnets that turn readers green, but it was like taking the tiniest sips of the finest wine. Her gown was made of soft brown velvet sewn with pale green gems in a vine and leaf pattern. It set off her loosely gathered blaze of hair remarkably well. One small hand curled around her fan, where it hung at her waist. She was taking her surroundings with huge, serious blue eyes. She did not look at me but once.

I saw Tamara coming long before she arrived, but she took Meliara by surprise when she touched her arm. "My dear Countess," she said, ignoring the rest of us as she drew Meliara over to her side of the group. What followed was another sally against Meliara by Tamara, with Fialma throwing in her own punches as well. They even tried to draw me into the festivities. Meliara handled it well, sipping her wine and looking cool as you please. If I wasn't waiting for the Marquise to make her move, I would have felt more proud.

At last, my suspense was ended. Under the guise of mingling with her guests, the Marquise made her way to Meliara and practically dragged her out of the room. It was done smoothly, but it was obvious enough to make the rest of us guests feel awkward after they both had gone. Conversation continued, but it was tight as all of Meliara's friends tried to swallow their tension. All I could think of was how badly I wanted to trust Meliara in that moment, and how terrible it was that my mind would not let me. Fialma and Flauvic seemed unaffected by their mother's obvious maneuver, not bothering to step in for their mother and soothe the guests' nerves. They probably didn't dare.

When the Marquise brought Meliara back, Meliara looked as calm as she had before, but a starliss blossom was tucked behind her ear. It was quite becoming, but that scented symbol for ambition made my shoulders try to tense. I forced them to relax. As the atmosphere of the room swung back into something comfortable, Renna, Nee, and Deric swiftly moved to surround her and guide her back to our group. I hung back. To go to Meliara now would be far too obvious of me.

As we all settled in for a musical performance, I made sure I kept my distance from Meliara. Though I was watchful, neither Meliara nor the Marquise revealed anything in their expressions. I reflected grimly on how different the Marquise was from her brother. She was a woman. Meliara was a woman. I was a man. I felt strangely helpless.

Women are curious creatures. Nee and my other female friends embody the side of woman I am comfortable with. On the other hand, the Marquise embodies everything about women that makes men shake in their boots. The Marquise's brother was a monster, but I understood him. She, on the other hand, has (in Russav's words), Woman Thoughts. Please allow Russav to expound on the subject:

Treatise on Male-to-Female Interactions for Inept Men, an In-Depth Study by One Rascal Who Knows It All

CHAPTER 6: It Doesn't Matter How Clever You Are - All Efforts are in Vain.

Girls and boys grow up together. When we are young, our minds have their differences (ex. Girls generally get upset when boys try to fry ants with glasses), and yet we understand each other. It is as if we walk parallel roads. This benevolent time of utopian peace is short-lived, however, for girls quickly spot demented side-paths and rush off into the hills, leaving us boys down on our straight paths in confusion. Eventually the girls come back, but they are completely different. I propose that the mental heights they run to lack oxygen, inducing thought-patterns of unfathomable depth and complexity.

These are called Woman Thoughts.

Just as donkeys have Donkey Thoughts, seagulls have Seagull Thoughts, and the Hill People have Hill People Thoughts, women have Woman Thoughts. Nobody tries to understand the mental workings of donkeys, seagulls, or Hill People. However, since women are the same species as men, we are lulled into the belief that we can decipher them.

We can't.

Don't argue. We just can't.

Yes, there are those of you who may say, "Can't never did anything." Well, I want you to see how well you stick to that philosophy when she's crying for the third time that day, and all you did was take her to a concert. See how jaunty and clever you are when she's making noises that make you cringe, her teary eyes are making your mouth cotton-dry, and that helpful part of your brain that produces speech has excused itself and gone on vacation.

So what must we do? Firstly, when you are frustrated and befuddled (and you will be), simply repeat this: Mysteries are marvelous. Mysteries are marvelous. Mysteries are marvelous. Because they are. We must revel in the fact that there exist creatures we don't understand - creatures that fall in love with us and make us into better men than we thought we could ever be. It is also good to develop a keen sense of when to duck and run… and always be willing to give long hugs for no (apparently) good reason.

Also, that spectacular gem of a metaphor at the beginning of this chapter is mine. No stealing, Danric.

I am sorry to deprive you of more description of the event, but nothing else happened of importance. I had come in the rain; I left in the rain, returned to the palace with that starved ache that comes from being close to the one you love but never speaking to or touching her. Back in my rooms, there were letters asking for my attention, and I gratefully surrendered to their papery embrace, working into the profound hours of morning.

I briefly slept and when I woke, the rain had stopped. The sun was rising, squinting between the horizon and the receding clouds - a rare scarlet ray finding its way into my room. I sat in that bloody sun-wink and felt the worries of my world come back down. This happens every morning, and the best method of coping I've found is to just breathe.

When I could finally stand, I dragged myself toward a hot bath. I was so focused on reaching a watery haven that I almost missed it: a neatly folded, unmarked piece of parchment sitting on the table near my door. When my gaze found it, my heart skipped a beat. I stumbled to it and fumbled with the folds-

Dear Unknown,

I sank in the chair beside the table with a ragged breath. She had written to me!

You probably don't want to answer a letter, but I need some advice on Court etiquette, without my asking being noised around, and who could be more closemouthed than you? Let's say I was at a party, and a high-ranking lady approached me…

She had taken the initiative. She wanted my advice. That meant she trusted me.

I was exultant, honored-

Undone.

Loved her. Stars above, I loved-

Loved her!

Thanks for reading! Like always, any input is welcome! Let me know if you think I've compromised anybody - we want none of that! :)