Friends and Foes

~ a short story

Mathis sat at the head of the table, waiting for Damian Denestribe to reveal the method of his treachery.

Or not. There was always the chance I’ve been wrong about you…

A half-lit chandelier overhead wielded a gaudy light upon the scene, the two men sitting on the opposite sides of a long and storied dinner table. As promised, they were the only two within the room. How many royals had been cajoled, spurned, assassinated, in body or spirit, at this very table? Damian, the ‘prince of thieves’ as he’d come to be known in the court, sat there at the south end of the room, back to the door, his blue eyes electric with constant surveillance. Upon me. How sleight of you… aping me aping you. You are mired within *my* scheme, and not the other way around. But I digress… Garbed in the crimson cloaking of his own family’s home, with unkempt auburn hair and at least three days’ growth of a bad beard, he still remained ill-at-ease. Even here, protected and free from all immediate harm — at least of the immediate physical kind — you cannot maintain yourself. I wonder why? On one side of the room lay small tables holding reserve candles, with space for the trays of a feast of another day. On the other end, to Mathis’ continuous dismay, were towering shelves of books. A library in the dining room, a garish display…

Mathis, adjusting himself in his seat while he angled his vision accordingly to watch every tic from the man always fated to be his courtly foe, angled at the proper words to say to complete their small affair on this night. Outside, the moon plunged its faintest tendrils into their conference at the dining table, every chair empty and tucked but these two. Mathis had his back to the window’s display of the cool night. A strategic flaw, certainly — back to a threshold. Though Damian hardly gave me any choice… Better than the door. Damian dabbed his mouth, still feigning his feast, oblivious of Mathis’ visual daggers being thrown his way. Mathis, by habit, kept his gaze always leveled between the man and the door, always expecting a sudden, catastrophic turn from one or the other. Always one or the other. The door or the man. Maybe not you. And maybe not tonight… The glass at his back, a many-paneled monstrosity fit for a cathedral or a palace, held the dinery is a magnificent blaze during these hours of fading dusk. It was not fitted to be opened. At night, it gave this space the ambiance of a tomb. Might it become one for you soon, friendo? Ha-ha!

~

For many moments, songs of the insects played out their quiet eating to its finish.

Out within the far countryside where this estate lay, the spiriting bustle of town miles away, the night was natural and quiet and pure.

All of the noise lay within the two men’s mindscapes at battle.

~

The Denestribe’s, such a gaudy pack, Mathis thought to himself of the family of Damian, his brothers and forefathers and sisters and sons. Vermin! he thought, though he wanted to say such things to his counterpart’s face. If only it were the time and place for such direct actionsNot yet. Soon. But not yet. Mathis’ plan was coming to fruition, his countermaneuver to Damian’s own counter of his original salvo. They’d been at this for the better part of a decade. Many scars, all of them unseen, some still growing to completeness, graced their respective brains. The endless spiral of this game that we play. Contrary to any dumb and diseased tiller’s half-witted intimations, power was certainly not wasted on us, the nobility.

Mathis drank his red wine confidently, feeling the combining fullness of his enriching meal of meats and sweets within his gullet. Under a grin of infinite mischief, he held the thought,

No. On the contrary, we devour it with the utmost concern for its potential maximized and engorged and made fit for as far as it can possibly go.

Mathis’ mind jabbed in the dark at the apparitions of his foe’s hidden blades waiting in his opponent’s sheathes, near or far. Poison? Not your style. No, you prefer to face your opponents head on, for better or worse. No guns, either then. You need to be in close range of their final breath, that final flash of their soul which can only be beheld within the eyes… We are alike in this way-

“Do you intend to make it to Valentino’s banquet this weekend?” Damian asked at length in a sing-song tone.

Mathis’ steady grin disappeared. His adrenaline spiked at the mention. Eyes flared wide and then resolved into a neutral glare, as before, the discipline of his years of successive intrigues settling into his heart to calm it and reveal nothing. Inside, he brewed a discontent which he struggled to bottle. An array of questions flooded him.

Valentino!? What does he have to do with us, with any of this? Valentino, my childhood companion, returned from years abroad, back among us at court, refreshed and revitalized after his long time away…

Valentino, a king. A time-honored companion now seasoned with true. worldly machination. Valentino, a prince of kings!

Mathis took a deep breath to prevent his heart from radiating enough rage to burst it from his chest. The pain of his name releasing from out of this snake’s mouth nearly made him strike out from his chair, crawl the length of the long table and drive his dagger into the neck of his rotten counterpart, ending their intricate dance of intrigues right then and there, bloody and premature and disgraceful.

“Valentino,” he whispered, trying to figure some response to Damian’s inquiry. Simple small talk? No. Impossible. Rarely do your aims enter that department. Well, not fully purposeful in its lunge at least. Something else… A final devious word for our affairs on this night?

Just previously, we discussed the flows of debt between the Agra and Boyez families and how we might come to capitalize upon their plight in its final hours of development. After entrees, we drifted to the campaign of the yakobins in the east. Could their respective clans profit from this bloody struggle for a kayfabe egalitarianism that’d never be reached no matter how hard they killed and died for it? Perhaps. And could they remain throughout not at eventual cross-purposes? Perhaps not. At any rate, Damian and he were in absolute agreement that they musn’t reveal their aid — for the yakobins or the anti-yakobins — until the final possible moment met with one side or the other’s final defeat. Lightly, they explored the marriage of Lady Marianne to Charles Vi VII, and the possible political fallout from the strange pairing. Where might their gambits and intrigues play a role within their respective families’ union? Damian and he were of like mind — it would be disastrous, utter chaos. A pair of plebian minds trying for noblesse. Preposterous! Quite amusing. Chaos. Just the kind that they most enjoyed…

But Valentino… Damian had no relation-

Suddenly, the icy grip, unrelenting and blood-stilling in its squeeze upon his soul, of a possibility overtook Mathis then. I can’t… I cannot explore such a thing… Mathis finally shook his head, returning himself to the moment-to-moment intercourse with his counterpart.

“I … will be there,” he said weakly. Rage boiled within him. I sound unsure. Because I am… Truth leaks from out of my wretched gullet where he has plunged this ghost blade… He will press the advantage…

“Interesting to see him back in … the scheme of things here, yes?” Damian spoke with unrestrained slyness in his tone. He sipped his wine. His eyes, like that of an eagle’s upon her prey, struck out at Mathis, talons in and threshing deeper for an inner viscera.

What schemes? What schemes has your blackened heart been employing with my eldest fellow Valentino?! Oh, how he wished to ask… Sharply, Mathis layered through other possibilities, ignoring the one at tip of mind. When was the last time he spoke with Valentino? How much does he know of his current course? What are his thoughts on the yakobins? I can’t remember… Because we haven’t spoken of it. We have spoke of practically nothing of materiality… I saw him at the festival. That was only a tenday ago. And the comptroller’s council before that… The burger’s birthday… Has he been avoiding me? Only with purposeful intention could I be so out of the loop of Valentino’s motions within the court, so impactful as they are as a new player within… It could only be… Only if he-

“If I only close my eyes and focus,” Damian began, raising his voice from the other end of the table. “I can summon your very thoughts’ energies into my own skull, Mathis. The waves from the distant storm lap at me from here! Come, use your words! Speak yourself before the table like a gentleman. There will be time enough-”

Quiet, you knave! He mocks with the advantage like an arrogant simpleton… Mathis screamed within his heart. His scowl expressed much the same to Damian even across the length between them. I need to think… I need to work this out… What is their connection? What am I missing? What am I forgetting?!

Damian put his hands up. He backed his chair a bit from the table. The lines of his face, the slow-dawning grimace, his whiskers flaring like a tic… “Ah, but there are more … engaging topics for us to deal in. Er, what say you of the rise of this ‘Count’?” Damian spoke quickly, as if trying move on as soon as could be.

“He sails to and from our coasts to an unmarked isle, cargoing intrigue as a commodity all its own. An undefeated duelist with a finger in every pie in sight. Three wives. That dashing face, a swagger that is oh-so-familiar…”

Damian’s voice trailed away as he rose, wine glass in hand and paced over to the corner of the room. He stood before the bookshelf, examining the rows of spines with his delicate fingers, one hand behind his back with the wine glass. Mathis’ glare followed him while his mind raced.

A change of subject, and now on the move. Swift motions to cover the revelations in his face. The mention of Valentino was not only intentional, Mathis realized, it was a slip. Val was top of mind. He made a mistake. Or, in his arrogance, he did not believe me equipped to spawn any sort of suspicion from the words. Especially after so pleasant and uneventful this strange dinner had been… No. There is something here. Sweat pooled upon his scalp, under his layers. Mathis felt the pressure of the moment. And… it is imperative I figure it out before it’s too late! I have to find the crease before he wins the round.

He returned fire while his mind tracked the facts and circumstances surrounding the return of Valentino, exactly a quarter-year’s worth of days ago, from stem to stern.

“The Count is a true player. He is no novelty, vying for attention under the duration of short march. Make no mistake, the man is playing for keeps,” Mathis stated flatly.

The Valentino family has no historical ties to the Denestribes. Damian, as far as I know, does not personally know Victorian Valentino; or he did not, until his return. His time in the Outlands certainly drew the attention of the entire court… Naturally, everyone made his acquaintance, wishing for his stories, siphoning his adventuresome clout.

Damian, still studying the tomes, turned to him and cocked his head, saying, “I am inclined to agree. But what makes you make such firm declarations?”

There, in the days of festivities surrounding his eventful return to the court’s drama, Damian might have snared him with a converse. Installation into his schemes? Perhaps. But how? No way to know… Why? Well, of course… there is one connection. Me. Damian understands me and Valentino’s kinship, dating back to childhood. He would ingratiate himself to him with the singular drive to gain on me, either with knowledge or … with something else. Undoubtedly, I must assume a vital play within his scheme now involves Valentino. To be consummated at this banquet he casually, dastardly brings into the fore of our arena here tonight?? Perhaps. Perhaps!

“Everything about him is so lavish as to name him a jesterly fop, a man of novelty and style and potentially nothing more,” Mathis returned, maintaining both tracks of mind as only a master mind-battler such as he could. “He acts as the lead in a troupe that no one knows of but everyone loves, with every person he meets playing side roles and background song to his leading monologue. Every interaction with him is mutualistic appeasement. Who can deny his electrifying charisma? I cannot! The man is full of hubris, certainly. But who can defy the attribute among us? Arrogant but yet lightens every soul he encounters of their own burdens, for a spell at least. With his words. But also in his very presence. However, none of this providences that crucial turn toward true purpose he carries, that only a seeker past the coats of gloss and glam that he puts on, underneath even that pale, vampiric skin that he wears so naturally, contradicting his turn as a constant man o’ the sea under its ever-glaring sun… No, it lies within-”

“His eyes,” Damian proclaimed, nearly tripping over his tongue to interject and ensure the tie.

Mathis smiled. “Yes.” Still at the game, Damian, the unrepentant one-upsmanship of a true gamer. The foolish wretch cannot help himself…

And neither can I! I must learn to use that against you just as you must learn to use it against me… Mathis kept watching his opponent with discerning eyes, as if his body language there before him, capturing books by their spine to peak at their dusty covers and then returning them, one after another, might reveal to him the crucial break in the puzzle that he pieced even then. So you placed yourself into Valentino’s world upon his return. But there must have been something beyond admiration, beyond candied words that you can so readily supply and net many a fish into your circles of commerce and corruption… Something more must have been played for you to entice yourself into his days, into his banquets… Valentino is a man of character, only something of true consideration could proffer his alliance… What? What did you offer? And what would Valentino have readily taken from such a brush-breeding snake??

With Mathis offering no more analysis upon the Count, Damian looked back at him and nodded. “We have both seen it, then. The eyes the Count carries seed evidence to counter his every limb’s motion. For they are the eyes of a predator, and not a dancer. He is a man divided. A soul at war with itself. This slight evidence of his glaring, hungry eyes culminates undoubtedly in a man full of ulterior motives, a formidable man not be underestimated. A man ‘playing for keeps’, as you say.”

I don’t know him… the revelation fell with burdensome weight upon Mathis’ shoulders concerning his old fellow Valentino. Not anymore. Not since his campaign of desperation and full-gritted survivalism within the Outlands, those deserts and jungles of death and physis. A quest of the humane and the real. A violent odyssey wherein his soul was likely torn open and sowed back up again with weak and trembling hand… No man could ever be the same. Who could know the man save for himself? All his priorities are altered without recognition. All his previous relations recontextualized. In his return — a crucial, and non-obvious choice for a newfound adventurer such as he! — there is a purpose. A purpose I should have gone out of my way to discover in time alongside him… What madness have I wrought upon myself by abdicating this responsibility to one of my oldest companions! Mathis trembled then, near to an outwardly violent display in his seat still at the end of the table. He silently cursed himself for not calling upon Valentino more ardently in these months. The offering Damian gifted him with: Something about me. Mathis grimaced. And given Damian was the one cultivating it onto a platter for Valentino, something devastating. And something true… For hidden, violent truths alone were the currency they traded within their high stakes game of cards and chaos.

“They say God alone possesses supreme power and infinite wisdom. And yet, this Count,” Damian chuckled. “This Count seems to have captured a mote of his grandeur, wouldn’t you say? It is indisputable that he is the kind of man,” Damian finished, violently snapping a book he’d just opened back to its close, “that we both so desperately love…”

In my absence from the field of his regard, Damian entered and not only displaced me as a source of converse… not only alienated me from his continuing companionship… But he has made us enemies! There can be no doubt! Mathis seethed as he glared at Damian. He turned from the bookshelf but kept his stand there, drinking his wine slowly, with the comfortable gravitas of one watching a slow show of drama before him, for his own silent benefits.

But how? Mathis muttered inside his depths.

Mathis spit the words slowly, “I look forward to the Count’s procession within the court. He must be allowed every opportunity, every impasse vanquished before him, to let his ultimate plan be unfolded for us to watch with the delight it deserves.”

Damian smiled like daemon, nodding in total agreement. Such absolutions between enemies were less rare than either would admit; certainly, the third parties implicated within their conjoinders make for undesirable lodging.

But I have never done anything adverse to Valentino or his family!? To his allies? … The exile of the Baldurian cavalry, the regiment heralded by his cousinry. Justified. Valentino could find no fault with such a dictate. They betrayed the crown in the troubles… My *alleged* murder of the Wooten child… Unproven. And no longer currently allied with Valentino’s clan. Happened during his time away. Even if Damian filled him in on it, again: uproven. Too much work to make it work in so small a time, even for one with the devices of Damian.. My backing of the Treaty of Patriots? The consequences of that decree were far-ranging. Damian and the Denestribes did not support it or end up signing it themselves, even after its democratic formation as majoritarian that half-decade ago. That dissension between us might be capitalizable… But no! Such cross political playing is abstract, complex. Valentino — the man that I knew, at least — is not taken in by such discourse. Less so now, as a man of the stones and arms of the world. There is no way that Damian could describe it such a way, even in the worst possible faith of the half-hidden truth, that could end with Val allying with him, and against me! Not for politics. Never for trivialities! No and never! It must be something real, something dark… Something close to *him.*

Damian led the wine glass away from his mouth and with an off-hand glancing at the night behind Mathis, said, “For many reasons, I think it is certainly true that neither of us would ever wish to face off against the Count in a duel…”

A duel… Mathis’ mind inspirited the word into his own backgrounding fortunes with such a dramatic and archaic art. One of my favorite artsWhat duels have I played a part in, either as patron or duelist himself, that might intervene with Valentino’s livelihood?

A chill ran up Mathis’ spine. The connection was here. As if charged up his core with the bolt of the goddess Eureka herself, Mathis fit the final piece into place.

Concepción!

The young Spaniard woman of long ago… Valentino’s first love as a child. We used to tease her in the woods, playing chase, speaking of kingdoms in the sky and of the beasts under the earth, scaring ourselves into laughter and tears among those towering trees. They grew apart after trying to be together in adolescence… When was the last time Val spoke with her? She… Yes, she… Oh no…

Mathis’ mind returned there, to the moment, when he stared down the sight of his pistol to the younger man in the field across from him, crying and pissing himself at the prospect of his own impending death at the hands of a superior. A death that Mathis delivered to him dispassionately. He did not know of the connection then, in the moment. Only learning after, the knowledge was not so crucial as to stay his trigger finger. And he had hardly thought of it in the years since. But now, in the realization of his layered, indirect betrayal of Valentino from out of the barrel of that shot not fired so long ago, he could not help but admire Damian’s ingenuity in the find — and the unforgiving usage of it! The bastard!!

Damian took a deep breath. His eyes were wide and scanning listlessly, still on the night through the glass at his back. Mathis turned away from him, not wishing to be distracted or revealing in this moment by his strange body language… He returned himself to staring straight ahead, at the door, at the calming presence of that threshold where threats might ever-be-entering…

Two days after he’d slain that young man named Benicio, Mathis could only credit his prodigiously gifted mind’s strength with the memory of the name of that weepy, unremarkable little man, in a fair and fairly witnessed duel — Concepción, the beautiful young woman in the prime of a promising life, had committed suicide. It was only then that the families and the court itself — of which Benicio was a second son of a lesser noble who played only small games himself — learned of their secret love. Concepción and Benicio were lovers, and had been for over a year. His death had brought her despair. Altogether it was a tragic, but forgettable, affair. Just as Mathis had.

But Damian had not! Holding it like a memento, knowing such a tragedy might do me in in the following decade, the brilliant bastard…

And neither had Valentino forgotten his young beloved!!

Not a conscious err. But an err, nevertheless… Mathis cursed himself once more. This is where Damian’s dagger lay, dangling even now above my skull…

The still door stilled his mind. What to do? What to do?!

Mathis held his breath, and in the intervening slowdown of time itself — he noted two things within his present purview in and around the dinner table on this evening.

First, as he stared straight ahead, his form perfectly perpendicular to the table’s front, he noticed out of the corner of his eye the moonlight glinting off of one of the silver platters to his right side, on the table in reserve, empty and useless at the moment. Nearly blinding in its faced-constancy, it had been addling him during his entire reverie, but only now did he notice it. And only now did it blink away for a split, something obscuring the moon’s ray for a single second, and then, the glint returned, the same as ever.

Second, as his eyes drifted back to the countenance of his devious counterpart, he could not help but notice, however subtle he was trying to be, the devilish sense of anticipation within his eyes. The eyes of a cat at the primacy of its hunt, eyeing the very moment of its hunt’s consummation.

Bugger the banquet! The play is NOW! Here and now!!

As Mathis reached into the folds of his shirt, under his sash, to the ready-made steel of dozens of years of rogue work, kicked back his chair and began to turn with the unconscious culmination of his realizations, he was somewhat surprised — even within the midst of their machination! — at the fluidity of his motions. How easy it was to freeze his heart and deal himself to the duty of the task at hand. He did not blink as he turned to face the shattering window at his back, saber angling for his heart at the end of the the white-knuckled claw of his beloved fellow Valentino. Former beloved fellow. His crazed and newly blood-soaked face fell to despair as he saw his target ready for him and dodging his killing blow, delivering his own counter in a single maneuver. The greased hair and tanned wilderness within his old friend’s face met him there, through the crash, as his dagger sunk deep into his chest, finding his heart.

“Maty!” were the last gasping words of Valentino, the surprise apparent in his visage as his attack botched. Garbed in the abyssal cloaks of the eastern ninja, the now middle-aged adventurer crashed through the dining hall window of the Denestribes to his final fate.

“I’m sorry, Valy,” were the first and last words Mathis spoke to his fellow since his return from those distant lands. He whispered them into his ears, the last thing Valentino conceived before the curtains fell within him. Val’s saber fell to the red carpet, redder now from the drips off his face and down the folds of his cloaking. Mathis shut his eyes to the world for the final time and let him down soft and slow. Silence pervaded a moment within him while he paid his final respects.

As soon as I figured it, just a flash ago… I killed you in my heart. You were already dead. And now … you are.

“You really loved her, Val,” Mathis whispered down to him as he released him, standing over and cleaning his dagger with half-hearted yet still methodical precision. “Even still. After all these years… A lesser love could not last a man such as you…”

Back turned, the task at hand cleared, Mathis breathed clean and easy. And then, his instant security regained, the man grinned with victory. Yes! YESSSS!! I beat him! He had me… And I beat him. Killed my own fellow to burn his play in the wind, just as it caught its decisive gusting! Mathis nearly fell to his knees to curse with joy.

Expectedly, both doors, the visible and the secret one in between the side tables to the east, opened with a burst. Denestribe guards emerged to protect their master, sabers drawn and pistols readied and aimed for Mathis amidst all the shattered glass at the center of the commotion. With sleighty hiding, Mathis stowed his dagger, put up his hands and revealed the end of the violence, hiding his grin within his heart as he turned back to his adversary, hardly able to contain his glee at what no doubt would be the ghostly face of a man trumped, defeated utterly.

Instead, he mirrored such an expectation himself as he looked upon the confident cheshire grin of Damian, watching along with his guards the still of Mathis standing over his slain “foe.”

No… NO! He got me…

Mathis’ stilled heart began to pound with panic and animus and regret, something rare and strong and despised by a man such as he.

He knew I’d figure it out. The play was to see if I could burn my own heart in a moment and transact to instantly to kill him… And the fact that I could… That I just did… What have I done? He wins either way…

Mathis turned back to the lifeless form of Valentino. Sweet Valy, stabbed through the heart at the moment of your triumphant redemption… For what? For a long-fated sacrificing pawnhood within our game? Despicable. Disgraceful.

Mathis grit his teeth. Eyes were locked on Damian as he raised his glass to a final sip. He shifted his painful regret to anger, trying his damndest to transmute it into the crafting of his next counter-maneuver.

“God as our witness, what will you do now, Mathis?” Damian finally asked aloud, singing the words simply. His guards stayed by his side on his command, the slight holding of the palm at his side.

Mathis grasped his cloak and leapt through the shattered window and into the night, fleeing the scene of a most devastating humiliation.

To his surprise, the latest within this string of them on the night, cold tears flowed freely from his eyes, sparkling in the moonlight as he ran through the countryside to nowhere in particular, to his next vengeant venture within the game, the wretched Damian Denestribe firmly within the crosshairs of his soul’s freshly burning sights.

As he ran through the threshing grass, he repeated a mantra to himself to calm himself and make himself feel strong as he found his way to steal a horse and ride back to the east, to his fortress and his plans and preparations:

“Rest in peace, old friend.” ~