The next morning
At the door of the Duke’s study, Ivaia waits while one of the Palace servants announces her. Inside the room, the Duke stands up from behind his desk. “Welcome back, my Lady. Please, take a chair. First, I’d like to state that I am not expecting you to respond to what I am about to tell you. You may say nothing at all, if you choose. This is a message for your aunt, Lady Elavandra, to relay to her husband.”
As soon as the Duke mentions her uncle, Ivaia’s shoulders tense and her pulse picks up speed. The words aren’t surprising - Aunt Ela guessed that the banquet invitation was a prelude to negotiation. But…
He’s demonstrating how serious this is. Last night, he treated me as an honoured guest. Now, he offers me nothing apart from a chair, as if I’m an envoy from a hostile force. Which I am, perhaps. Is he going to show mercy? How much? And what conditions will he impose?
She sits down opposite the Duke, clasps her hands together tightly and tries to look patient and calm.
The Duke also sits down. “I want your uncle to present himself at my court and do three things,” he says. “Confess his part in the plot, ask for my pardon and give his word that he will obey the laws of Tuarensi in the future. Once he's said all of that, I will pardon and free him - there will be no further consequences for what happened in the past. I understand that your family may not trust my motives. But my request for a confession is not a trap. I am prepared to guarantee my side of the bargain in writing. Or proclaim it publicly, if necessary.”
It seems he really does want to end the feud. Even the demand for a confession is reasonable - it would provide some clarity for the people of Tuarensi. But…
“Your offer is magnanimous, your Grace,” she says. “As long as we assume that my uncle is guilty. What if he’s innocent, though? Is it fair to force him to lie for a chance to live with his family again?”
Why am I taking this risk? My aunt will be appalled if she ever hears about this. But perhaps my uncle would want me to speak.
The Duke leans back in his chair. He rests his hand on the desk, taps a finger once against the dark polished wood and gazes at Ivaia for a while before he speaks. “You do not have to answer this question - I promise that I won’t draw any conclusions from silence. But I am curious. Do you really think it’s possible that your uncle is innocent?”
“I know I’m influenced by childhood memories - my uncle always seemed to be filled with life, laughter and generosity. The only thing that ever made him angry was injustice. Or any sort of unfairness, really. So I find it almost impossible to believe that he would try to harm you and your brother in revenge for something your father might have done.”
She looks down at her hands as she continues talking. She’s used to her family talking around serious topics or minimising them, and she realises she’s fallen into that habit herself, saying the word ‘harm’ to a man who was stabbed in the back and very nearly killed.
“I know the evidence. The surviving assassin claimed that my uncle hired and paid him. That could have been arranged, using disguise or coercion. My parents’ departure, though… Their passage was booked days before the attacks, and timed too conveniently. It’s very hard to explain unless my father knew in advance. But what I wonder is… Could it have been my father’s plan alone? What if my uncle wasn’t involved at all? It would explain why my uncle pleaded not guilty but refused to give any other testimony at his trial. He didn’t want to perjure himself but did want to protect his younger brother. Perhaps he thinks you’ll put more effort into pursuing my father if you believe he was the only one responsible.”
I should feel like a traitor for saying this. But it’s the only explanation that’s ever made sense to me. I don’t want it to be true… but I owe it to my uncle to suggest the possibility to the man who controls his fate.