Author's Note: Odd title, I know, but I was struggling to think of one. I was thinking, earlier, about the fact that a lot of the time, the same ideas come up again and again. Something different is done with them each time, and often I'll find that two of my favourite fics are ones which take the same basic idea but run in different directions with it. There's a whole load of stuff that nobody ever seems to go near – Íñigo's travels as a young man, or how Vizzini came to be a master criminal, for example, and yet there's other things, like this, which come up so often they've become fic clichés. I've seen at least five other what-if-Rugen-had-a-daughter fics. OK so one of them was mine, and a right load of old tosh it was too, but it's always a daughter. It's never what-if-Rugen-had-a-son. Is that because PB is so short of female characters, or is there some other reason for it? Anyway, that's a rather long-winded way of saying sorry about the rubbish title and the fic of no originality, but I'm still ill, therefore I'm still writing, and this is what came out this time.
The Countess Cliché, Chapter 1
Vizzini didn't deal directly with Prince Humpedinck. He dealt with Count Tyrone Rugen, who owed his position in part to the fact that he was prepared to deal with such "little jobs" for Humpedinck. If anything went wrong, it would be Rugen who took the blame, but he was a careful man and planned everything to the last detail. Nothing ever had gone wrong, and he had benefited greatly. He wasn't a stupid man, by any stretch of the imagination, and so he was also careful to keep records which implicated Humpedinck, even if the Prince thought he was in the clear. Should the unthinkable happen he would not be facing the torturers – men he himself had trained – alone.
Rugen didn't meet the Sicilian at the castle, of course, it was usually at an inn somewhere along the route the Count had chosen when taking his daughter Betha to visit some vague relation or other. It never occurred to the Count that his daughter might just be growing up to be every bit as sneaky and ruthless as her father, or that there was any possibility of her knowing what his plans were. She was only a girl. A son would have been more useful, a son he could have taught things, but all he had was a daughter. Useful, at times, but mostly just a chore.
He often thought it a shame that she'd not been prettier, or at least glamourous like her mother, but he'd be able to marry her off to someone eventually. He would say goodnight to her and tuck her into bed at the inn then go downstairs to "have a little night-cap" in the bar. On his return, he always thought he was being as quiet as a mouse and not disturbing the girl asleep in the next room, but firstly, he was always more than a little tipsy by then, and secondly, she usually wasn't there.
"You know," Vizzini said as she sat down at the table, "One day he's going to catch you." It was what he always said.
"But not tonight," she replied with a smile, just as she always did. It may seem strange that she trusted Vizzini not to betray her to her father, but to the Sicilian, Humpedinck and Rugen's plans were just business. He'd no loyalty to them, and dealing with Betha, helping her with the few little things she wanted was not really a conflict of interest. He was a genius, he had plenty of brain power left over. Besides, he actually liked the girl. Unlike her father, she spoke to him as though he were her equal, not an employee. Also, unlike her father, he had noticed that she had something of a brain in her head.
Until a few minutes after her father had left, she'd sat in the bar, as she had many times before, her disguise nothing more than having her hair down and wearing peasant clothes as she ate, drank, and chatted with some other woman "travelling alone". In another time, and born into another family, she might well have been an accomplished actress, as she was very good at becoming someone else. She could easily make people think she was years older than she was just by her manner. She could watch a person for a few moments and then imitate them. Had the Count noticed her, he would simply have thought that she was a peasant who happened to look a lot like Betha, maybe even wonder if she was a bastard he'd fathered before he was married, but never that it might be Betha.
In any case, the count didn't look at peasants. He'd note the positions of any men who might just be armed, be aware in a moment of anyone looking their way or walking too close, but other than that, they were invisible to him. The women were usually whores, and looking in their direction would often mean they came over in the hope of making some money, and what threat could a woman be? They were doubly invisible.
The education Betha had got from chatting to the whores in the various taverns was something she had to be careful not to betray in her day to day life. It wasn't just the physical aspects, it was the independence of the women. To these women, men were not people, they were things, a source of money and nothing more, while she was more used to the idea that women were possessions. That had never really sat well with her, but after talking to those women, she was starting to have Ideas and Opinions.
When her companion for the evening had left the table for whatever reason, she would catch Vizzini's eye and go over, and sitting a little too close, he'd fill her in on her father's plans.
"You know about the Princess, of course," he said, waving at the wench to bring them drinks. Betha asked for the most expensive spirit on the menu, as that was what most of the whores did. The wench brought the drinks, and Vizzini paid – Betha had already slipped him several coins under the table.
"Yes," she said, before taking a sip of the drink. "But there's something more, something in his manner... I'm involved in this, aren't I?"
"He should be watching himself more around you. Yes, once she's out of the way, after a suitable period of mourning... your father is going to suggest Humpedinck marries you." Betha smiled, and took Vizzini's hand, turning it over to run fingertips across his palm.
"That can't happen." She felt sick. Oh, yes, it meant that one day she would be Queen, but at what a price... If any man treated a whore too roughly, there was always a man nearby in possession of a club with a nail in it, who would ensure that they would not do such a thing again. She would have no such protection, and she knew only too well what sort of man Humpedinck was. If she were not completely meek and subservient, he would make her so. She had seen it happen to other women and she would have no real power even as Queen. "You will help me?"
"I can't," Vizzini said, running a finger down Betha's cheek and blowing her a kiss. "Your father would find you."
"No, I don't want to run away," she said, before licking her lips. "I have no desire to lose the one advantage I have in life. No, I want you to find me a husband. There's a law which should help me, brought in when old Lotharon married his first wife. If a noblewoman can get a clergyman of sufficient rank to perform the ceremony and her parents do not object for a month, then even if they knew nothing of the wedding, it is legal and binding. It won't save me from my father's anger, I know that... beatings I will accept, Humpedinck for a husband, never."
"This needs a little longer," he said, after a moment. "My room." He took her hand and led her off up the stairs. Once in his room, he sat on the bed. She didn't. The little hunchback was always just a little too convincing in his flirting with her.
"So... how do you propose to convince a clergyman to..."
Betha cut him off with a wave. "The archbishop owes me favour. That part is no problem, and if I can meet with you without his knowledge, then I can marry without it as well."
"Very well. Then it's just a matter of what sort of man you want me to find for you." It was something Betha had considered often since she had realised that her options were marriage or a convent and that being a nun really wasn't for her. She really wasn't a morning person, if nothing else. She just hadn't expected to be looking for a husband just yet. Oh she'd evaluated every man she met, what woman didn't, but not seriously.
"I want a peasant," she said, marking off her points on her fingers, "so that he will be willing to marry me for the money, but have nothing if something...happens to me. I want him stupid, but in a kind way, if you see what I mean. A man I can manipulate easily, not a thug. He must be able to defend me, and himself, however. Also, he must be handsome, or people will wonder why on earth I would have chosen him."
"You don't want much..."
"I realise that finding a handsome peasant who can handle a sword is asking for a lot, but I have faith in you."
Vizzini grinned. "I'll see what I can do."
"That is all I can ask. I'll need you to keep track of him, of course... but keep him away from me, where possible, until he's needed..." She clapped her hands together in front of her, and looked Vizzini in the eye. "So... payment?"
They discussed terms and Betha slipped away back to her room.