It was a time of mourning in Red City. The Countess, their mortal Countess, had died. She held a special place in the hearts of the citizens. She had been their ideal. She had captured the Count while they had both been very young and their romance had become a thing of legend. It was even said that without her to bolster his Will, he would never have been able to defeat his mad father.
Even though the Count was acknowledged as the most powerful man on the continent, he had never strayed. Over the decades hundreds of women had thrown themselves at him, all to be left devastated by rejection. He was a complete contrast to his father, the man with a girl in every town, and with more bastards than he could count. Not that he didn’t have children, he had a round dozen, all of whom turned out to be Willed. That was another of the Countess’ charms. She had been admired for keeping her looks and figure after all her pregnancies. Even though everybody knew that her husband, who was renowned as a healer, had removed any lingering effects on her body that those confinements might have left, she had been universally admired. All the people had simply loved her.
In stark contrast to her over the years stood the Count’s chief helper and administrator, Chancellor Vanni. She was rumored to still be a virgin after eighty-five years, and had acquired several nicknames. Even though several alluded to her coldness, the most used one was “The cog”. It was a fair description, as the affairs of the whole region could not have managed without her. While the Countess had been the center of the Count’s personal life, Vanni was the center of his working life. Even though sometimes the Count spent more time with Vanni than with his wife, there had never been any rumours. It was as if she was married to her job and had time for nothing else.
Months later, Milady Iria, the Waygand ambassador, was visiting the Count. While she was there she made a point of seeing Vanni in private. They were old friends, both having known the Count while he was still Art, the apprentice. She came straight to the point. “How’s Art holding up?”
“He is a very strong character, and he has his children. Sallo especially, as she looks so much like her mother, has helped him a lot.”
“It must be strange, having such a large gap in his life.”
“I’m sure it is, but he hasn’t missed a beat when it comes to the business of running the country.”
Iria curled her lips into an impish smile. “You mean when he’s with you.”
Vanni coloured. “You could say that.”
“I am saying that. He still has you to keep him together and on an even keel. The time for mourning is over.” She grabbed Vanni’s shoulders. “So when are you going to make a move?”
“In that case you won’t object if I put myself forward?”
Vanni went almost white. “I’ve known Art since we were teenagers and I understand him better than anyone. He has his own agenda and he will stick to it. Whether it’s his public or private life, he knows exactly where he’s going and what the consequences are. I trust him.”
“It must be wonderful to be trusted so implicitly.”
“Yes,” was the quick reply, “it is!”
The vegetable seller was telling her customer in the busy marketplace, “I told you so, blood will out in the end. Countess Ellary was some woman to be able to keep the Count faithful all those years, but without her…”
“You’re right,” she replied, packing away her onions, “Half a dozen bastards in as many months.”
“But he did the right thing and acknowledged them all.”
“He can afford to. I always thought he’d go for that red headed woman who runs the truthreader’s court when he had the chance, what’s her name?”
Another customer came up, “That’s Lady Amica, and can I have two pounds of leeks, please. You must never have heard the rumor.” They both looked at her eagerly. “She’s the Count’s daughter.”
“Then that must have been…”
“…before he met his Countess.”
“So she really did keep him close even though his character must be rather wayward.” She stifled a small giggle. “How many more do you think there will be?”
“His father lost count…”
They all laughed. The new customer added. “He’s our Count and I’m sure he has our best interests in mind.”
“Oh Vanni, that’s twenty in a year and a half, it must be awful trying to keep up.”
Vanni looked back dully. “Actually it’s twenty three. It’s a bit odd, these are all with women he rejected while Ellary was alive, and all he seems to have done is allow them to have his baby. It’s all very clinical.”
Iria was annoyed. “Dozens of other women falling all over him, and when I subtly offered myself, he managed to adroitly sidestep the issue completely.”
“I can’t see you ‘subtly offering’ yourself, at least not to Art. In any case, he’ll do exactly what he wants to do when he wants to do it.”
“It’s been well over two years now, time for him to find a companion, even if he doesn’t marry her.”
There was a discrete knock on the door. It was the Count. He went over to Iria and gave her a friendly peck on the cheek. “Do you mind if I borrow Vanni for a while.” He put a paternal arm around Vanni and steered her away. Outside the room, Art said, “There’s something I want to show you.” He led her not to the business offices, but to his private rooms. In all her seventy years working in the palace with him, she had not entered these rooms. These had been Ellary’s home and no one but family went there.
They went through two reception rooms to a small private study. When she was seated on a sofa, Art opened a desk and brought out an envelope. Sitting beside her, he pulled out several old sheets of paper and chose one. “This was a letter that my father left for me to find, assuming I managed to kill him. Read from here.” She picked it up:
You may have thought that my behaviour towards your mother was harsh. In many ways it was. Although anybody can be born with the Will, I found that there was a much greater chance if one of the parents was Willed. My own children even more so. Since Will adepts were sorely needed, I took it upon myself as a duty to help as best I could.”
Vanni looked up. “Sounds like he’s justifying all his playing around.”
“Read on a bit further.”
Whether or not you believe me, I would have much preferred, looking back, to have had a constant companion to support me. I simply couldn’t bear the thought of Red dying before I did, or even seeing her grow old. Try not to make the mistakes that I did. For the good of the country, you should still try to have a lot of children, but you can do that when you are not in a long term relationship.
He took the letter from her and held her hand. “My marriage to Ellary was wonderful and was everything I could have wished for. She’s been dead for nearly three years now and I have to move on. I always knew that she would die centuries before me, and the experience of living with her taught me that I need someone with whom to share my life.” He gave Vanni’s hand a little squeeze. She needed it, she was shaking. “I have always trusted you, and I know you trust me, although I may have strained it recently. What I have done lately was primarily out of a sense of duty. A duty that delayed me being able to do something that I wanted to do, something I have looked forward to for longer than you can guess.” He got up from the couch and kneeled down in front of her. “One of my most treasured memories is our first kiss.”
“Don’t you mean our only kiss?”
“Vanni, the last year and a half has been very hard for me, just as I know it has been hard for you, with us spending so much time together. I want the memory of that kiss, seventy three years ago, not to be our only kiss, but the first of more than we will be able to count.” She grabbed him and pulled them into a tight embrace.
She was shaking and crying. It took a very long time for her to calm herself, and even then she was still tightly wound. “Seventy three years! Can you imagine what it’s been like waiting all that time. You had better make it all worthwhile!”
She leaned forward and made Art’s memory to be of a first kiss in truth.