"You've got to be out of your mind," Richard said, flexing his arms against the wall. "A baby's Naming-Day party? Why on earth would we want to go to one of those?"
"For the tiny eclairs, of course; they're traditional. And the sugared almonds, and lemon squares, and fruit tarts, and..."
"You're the damned Duke Tremontaine. You can have all the eclairs and fruit tarts you want, three, four times a day. Why do we need to dress up and go make small talk with a bunch of boneheaded nobles, just because one of their wives has farrowed again?"
"I like getting dressed up. And it's Bertram Rossillion's wife who's farrowed, finally; apparently, it's taken him all this time to figure out how it's done. Or perhaps they brought in some help, who knows? It would be amusing to go point and laugh and try to figure out who the baby looks like."
"Bertram Rossillion?" Richard let out a low whistle. "I remember him." Alec raised his eyebrows, but Richard continued thoughtfully, "Poor Olivia. All right, let's go, but let's try to be nice this time."
"Richard!" Alec purred. "I'm always nice."
The major-domo's announcement of Lord David Alexander Campion, the Duke Tremontaine, and Master Richard St Vier caused a stir in the ballroom, as it always did; Richard wondered how many of these things they'd have to attend before their appearance finally became old hat. One thing about Alec, though; he know how to lay on the charm, when he chose, managing to seem almost-sincere in greeting the ladies, and not-quite cynical towards the men.
They made their way through the festive crowd to the sitting area, where Olivia Rossilion was enthroned on an elegant chaise longue, surrounded by at least twenty of her dearest friends, all chittering like a flock of brightly-colored birds behind their lace fans. The baby lay in its cradle nearby, attended by a fretful-looking Nurse, nursemaid and two exceedingly bored-looking footmen.
"Is it a boy or a girl?" Richard whispered as he peered down at the lace-enwrapped bundle. The baby was awake, and regarded him thoughtfully with wide, deep-blue eyes.
"Damned if I know. Rossillion's father's been pestering him for an heir for years; this baby's going be stinking rich, either way. I don't suppose it much matters at this point what it is, or whose; the Naming ceremony this morning is legally binding. What lovely eyes it has! You’ve not been faithless, have you, Richard?"
Richard smiled. “It’s common for newborns to have blue eyes. Or so I’ve been told.”
After paying their respects to the new mother, they moved out towards one of the smaller rooms along the gallery. A voice carried, high and shrill. "Well, I suppose turnabout is fair play; he was St Vier's whore when they lived in Riverside, it makes sense now that St Vier is Tremontaine's. It's not like he'll ever be employed as a swordsman again, who would bother to challenge him? He's got nothing to do any more than sit on his arse on the hill, when Tremontaine's not buggering it silly, that is."
Richard froze. Alec turned slowly towards the speaker, guests parting before him in waves, as if this were a scene in a play. "My dear Bertram," he said softly. "Those are hardly words I'd expect to hear spoken by a host about one of his guests. Two of his guests, actually, since you've insulted both myself and my consort. Are you jealous, perhaps, that St Vier is my lover, and not yours, or even - he shrugged toward Olivia , cooing at the baby now on her lap, blessedly oblivious to the goings-on in the game room - "your wife's? The child does have such beautiful eyes." Alec's eyes narrowed. "I demand satisfaction for these insults."
There was an outcry among the onlookers. "Come now, Tremontaine, you can't challenge a man at his child's Naming-Day party!" Lord Davenant cried.
"Can't I? He ought to have better manners. If he'd not been drunk, if he'd not have been as stupid. Poor example to his child, that." He glared at Rossillion, who was managing to look both defiant and sick at the same time. "Well?"
They called for Rossillion's swordsman, and waited, but he was nowhere to be found. “Use my swordsman, Bertram,” Lord Filisand offered, but Rossillion shook his head.
“No, just let me borrow your swordsman's blade. I’ll fight myself.” Lord Filisand's man passed over his sword, obviously reluctant. Rossillion stared at it, as if momentarily confused about what to do with it, then faced St Vier, assuming a ridiculously theatrical pose. His hands were shaking.
“To the death, Richard," Alec said coldly.
St Vier nodded. This was like the old days, when they were first together: Alec picking a fight and Richard finishing it. He felt badly for Olivia, though. This would probably spoil her party.
He barely had to move his feet at first; most everything he did was from his wrist alone. One smooth step, then another; a feint to the right, then to the left. Rossillion made a few clumsy attempts to parry St Vier's strokes, but everything he did seemed as though he had learned it from watching swordplay on the stage, those ridiculous melodramas the nobles seemed to love. There was nothing of skill, and hardly anything of intelligence, to Rossillion's movements. It was hardly better than a small boy waving a stick around.
Relentlessly the swordsman pressed the nobleman back towards the wall. Onlookers scurried out of the way, wine sloshing out of their crystal goblets, and Rossillion suddenly slipped on the parquet floor. He fell to his side as the blade dropped from his hand and clattered away. He was down now, crab-scuttling away from Richard’s sword.
St Vier could see the sweat dripping from Rossillion's forehead, the mingled fear and desperation in his eyes. It reminded him, again, of Alec, when they had first met, and suddenly he understood the motive for Rossillion's challenge. Now that there was a legally acknowledged heir, his responsibility to his House had been discharged. He was tired of living a lie.
Come on, Alec, that’s enough, you’ve made your point, Richard thought. Killing him is playing to his whim, not yours. But as swordsman he would never gainsay the noble who had commissioned his services. If Alec wanted him dead, Richard would see it done.
The point of his blade was mere inches from Rossillion's chest when Olivia threw herself between them.
"Oh, please God, please, St Vier, Tremontaine, I beg you, don't - " Olivia wept. The baby in her arms began to howl.
"Enough, Richard." Alec said quietly. The swordsman stepped away. Rossillion turned, gasping and retching, as his wife and his footman rushed to his side.
Alec's voice was icy. "Not for you, Rossillion, nor for your lady. Ainsley Greer Rossillion," he reached out one finger to stroke the infant's cheek. The baby howled even more angrily. "I apologize for spoiling your party, like the wicked fairy in the story. But, like her, I leave you a gift: the gift of your father's life. Keep his hands off the brandy bottle, keep his mouth shut, but mostly, keep him away from me." He and Richard turned and walked out of the silent ballroom.
Once in their carriage, Richard let out long sigh. "That wasn't a great deal of fun, you know."
"No, it really wasn't. I don't imagine they'll invite us to too many more of their parties."
"I don't either."
Alec's laugh was cynical. "I think they'll still want to come to our parties, though, just to see what will happen."