In Which Caitlin Meets A Count

Note: This is a draft. The contents here may change or alter between now and publication.

Copyright 2023 Dax Murray – All Rights Reserved

Content Note:

This is a work of fiction. It contains depictions, scenes, and discussions of topics that some may want to avoid. I have tried to make this list as exhaustive as possible, but I cannot know everyone's possible triggers and sensitivities. Please know that this book handles mature topics and themes. This chapter contains:


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AFTER LEAVING THE SHORES OF THE VEIL, the Ástfríður only wore her ahnhörn on their wedding day. Otherwise, she kept it in a small box, tucked in the back of a closet. It might seem crass to treat such a treasure that way. Half-forgotten, gathering dust, mingling with old coats, brooms, and dustpans, the etcetera that one might collect over the years. It was moot; one could tell she was Ástfríður even without it. Her eyes too round, almost too large. Her nose softer, her chin sharper and her mouth smaller. Not just variations you might find in humans. The sun reflected off of her amber skin in rainbows, glimmers, and flashes even from a distance. There was no mistaking her. She had boarded a pirate ship that was returning to Fayn.

She told the captain she wanted to see more of the world. She joined their crew. She accompanied this ship for some years, and then joined the crew of another for several more years, partaking in the undiplomatic negotiations just as much as in the drinking. Until she met Caitlin.

Caitlin was settling accounts with the captain when she saw her. Everyone saw her. Everyone both wanted to stare and look away from the Ástfríður disembarking from that ship. Everyone wanted to bask in the iridescence of her skin, watching as she set down a crate, her hair sparkle in the wind. She was a star descended from the heavens. And Caitlin wanted to be the one to catch her. Everyone wanted to be the one to hold her.

Caitlin struggled to stay focused, inspecting the crates, haggling with the sailors or, more often, pirates. Caitlin would look back at this moment and wonder if she always knew what would happen one day. Even though the Ástfríður arrived on a pirate ship, other pirates might see her as an opportunity, a guide through the maelstrom that protected the Isles of the Ástfríður. Most of those who came and went at Whick were respectable, or inasmuch as pirates can be. None of the regulars would dare to mistreat a person in such a way. Later, when she looked back, Caitlin would further chide herself for assuming that it would be pirates that would try to harm her.

The Ástfríður approached Caitlin she had finished her transactions with the captain. “I was told that you were the person I should speak to here.” The Ástfríður smiled slyly. “I’m afraid to admit it, but I am a little new to this town.”

Caitlin stepped back a little, mouth falling open. “I…” She wanted to come up with something witty. Later, of course, a thousand flirty replies would come to her. But for now, Caitlin was speechless. “Yes, I am the one who mostly runs the shipping and trading around here. How can I help you?”

“I just arrived and am not wanting to go back out to sea right away. Are there places to stay here?” “Of course, there’s an inn about five blocks away. Down that road—” Caitlin pointed to the street and but then decided instead that she wanted to take the Ástfríður to the inn personally. It wasn’t because she was gorgeous, her smile confident, her chin high, and her eyes gleaming. It wasn’t because Caitlin was already smitten with her. It couldn’t be because of that. Caitlin was welcoming, forging a relationship with a potential buyer or seller, or, at the very least, a new resident of Whick. It wasn’t because she kept trying to flirt with Caitlin. It wasn’t because Caitlin felt unique for being the one that the Ástfríður approached.

“Actually,” Caitlin said. “Come with me; I can show you.”

Maria nodded in greeting to Caitlin before taking another round of drinks to a table full of regulars, the crew of the Red Sword. They weren’t the most boisterous of the regular crews who came about, but they were often not too far behind. The Ástfríður looked them up and down, almost imperceptible, but skilled merchants and business people were often good at discerning these sorts of things; haggling was an art. Caitlin leads the Ástfríður to a table in a corner to wait for Mary to come back around.

“So are you the…” the Ástfríður paused. “The mayor? Executive? Lord?”

“I’m a director of the port. The town doesn’t have its own government. We are on Duchy lands but mostly autonomous. We mostly work on a consensus at monthly town meetings.”

“Ah,” she leaned forward. “So, you do dealings with almost everyone here, permanently or transient. A real gem, this town has.” This wasn’t the confident, playful flirting from the dock; it was soft, warm. “You’ve been here your whole life?”

“Yes, my fathers were both employees of different merchants, but would run into each other over and over at different places and fell in love. They moved here, to set up their own business together. They’ve been here ever since, and I’ve helped them ever since I’ve been able to.”

“They are lucky to have you. And this is what you want to do?”

“I guess. What about you? You’ve come a long way from your home. What is your hope?”

“I don’t know yet; I’m copper. I want to see what I can.” This was the first time that the Ástfríður displayed anything but confidence. She looked down at the table and her eyes were seeing something far away for Whick. “For years now I’ve been traveling with sailors,” she coughed. “Seeing much of the coasts of Fayn, the coasts of Garcelon, of Sua—strange lot, those hell cats—, even as far away as Janeuq. But little of the lands.”

“So, where do you hope to travel next?”

She brought her hand to her chin, looking up. “I don’t know yet. That’s the thrill, isn’t it?”

“I guess,” Caitlin said, she’d never considered that the sporadic nature of pirates’ travels could be thrilling in their own right. “I’ve never traveled, or at least not much.”

“Would you like to change that?” The Ástfríður grinned, eyes alight, fire reflected from metal. An invitation, but Caitlin didn’t know how serious that invitation was.

“I have to run the business here. I can’t.”

“Is everything in your life about this business? What do you do for you?”

“I have a lot of responsibilities. It doesn’t leave much time for anything like traveling.”

The Ástfríður cocked her head and squinted at Caitlin. “It doesn’t have to be traveling. What do you do in your free time?”

“Ha!” Caitlin laughed.

“Why are you laughing? It wasn’t a joke.” She was serious, leaning over the table to get closer to Caitlin.

“I go over inventory, schedules for shipments, accounts, negotiations.”

Her shoulders sagged. “Why? Why do you do all of that? All?”

“My fathers trust me; who else would do it?”

“Anyone else! You can train others; you can delegate some of that responsibility.” Caitlin shifted in her seat and pulled at a stray thread in her sleeves. The Ástfríður back away. “Look, I’m sorry, Caitlin, I didn’t mean to get like that.”

“It’s fine,” Caitlin said.

“Do you play poker? I got a deck of cards on me.”

Caitlin laughed. “How much money are you willing to lose, Ms…?”

“Brenna. Just Brenna. And you have no right to be asking that, Ms. Mayor.”

Caitlin had learned how to play so she could entertain the crews of ships; hospitality went a long way to building favorable relationships. But Brenna was good.

“Another winning hand,” she said, scooping the coins from the center.

“Is this how you paid your way around?” Caitlin asked, setting her cider down. “How you fulfilled your obligations on that ship?”

She winked at Caitlin. “Sometimes I sing or dance, too. But for now, I want to see you win at least once. You don’t have to keep throwing your hands. I like you too much to have my pride hurt.”

Caitlin had been throwing a lot of them. She was exceptionally good at that sort of flattery; let the captains and crew think they had at least one thing over the person they wanted swindle.

Caitlin won the next four rounds. “That’s m’girl,” Brenna said. She looked directly into Caitlin’s eyes and smiled. “That’s m’girl, you don’t need to be so shy.”

“Alright then.” Caitlin grinned and raised an eyebrow. She sat taller. “Let’s keep going then.” She didn’t know where that came from, but something in Brenna’s eyes inspired a sort of confidence that has nothing to do with impressing clients for the sake of business, the conviction of negotiations. She was incredible at haggling, incredibly good at asserting herself to get the better deal, to impress a captain or crew. Caitlin wanted Brenna to like her, and like her for herself.

Several more rounds came, more pitchers and more people joining in, the table filling with crews and townspeople. Brenna out-drank them all and won more matches than anyone else. More than one person asked her to work on their crew or implied sharing a room that night. And when Mary came by and let the two know that the entire inn was full, no beds at all, they offered more earnestly.

“I have a guest room,” Caitlin said.

“Well, who can refuse that offer?” Brenna replied.

THE INVITATION HAD ARRIVED the following day, a garden party put on to celebrate some count’s birthday. Prince Cian thought Caitlin would be a perfect guest, as this Count had some interest in procuring goods from overseas, Callanessa or Garcelon or Janeuq. And wouldn’t it be nice to meet him? And it was in just one month.

She knew she needed to quickly study politics, to pay attention to more than just which nobles might be interested in purchasing. She needed to become fluent in the language of the upper classes. To learn to dress the part of a socialite and gentry, a different sort of formal than the kind she used to conduct business. To internalize the names of nobles and their compatriots committed to memory and who they quarreled with, if able.

And she knew only one person she could safely ask to help her with this.

The sign above the door engraved with the sigil of Andraste makes no sound as Caitlin pushes it open, finding the waiting room empty.

“Who is it?” Diarmuid calls from the back.

“It’s me!” Caitlin says, walking to the back to see him, happy that she isn’t interrupting anything.

He forces a half-smile and throws down a dirty towel to the table he had been clean. “I’m still swamped, you know.”

Caitlin looks back at the empty waiting room but doesn’t call him on his lie. “I just wanted to see you.”

“Really?” he scoffed.

“Yes, really. Diar, what is wrong?”

“You would not understand.” He slumps into one of the waiting room chairs.

“You’re my best friend; I hope you know you can tell me everything.”

He chuckles. “That’s just it, isn’t it?”


He looks up from the chair into Caitlin’s eyes. “You have more important people in your life than me.”

“Diar. Tell me.”

“You’re about to have new friends, anyway.”

“Is this about the party? Diar, I invited you to go to it with me. You said you couldn’t. You know I wanted you there.”

“And that invitation?”

“You know about… How… What about it?”

“How? The entire city knows. He wants the entire country to know that he has a new target. You’re about to have many people more important than me. How can the object of the Prince’s attention have any time for a physician?”

“I didn’t ask for this. I don’t want him. Oh, I could count the reasons I don’t, but that would take more time than you have.”

“You are strange, Caitlin.” He raises an eyebrow, rises from the chair, and storms back to the exam room, not even bothering to yell over his shoulder. “You’ve given everything to your fathers, to their business; why would you not stop at giving your hand to someone to further their business dealings? Not to mention your own desires?”

“Giving what?” She rushes into the exam room behind him, throat tight and hands balled into fists.

“What? And my fathers would never ask me to, even if that absurdly happened.”

“Oh, they wouldn’t? Was it my imagination, then, that you cried right in this room? Not even a week past? Because your fathers asked you to take over the business?”

Caitlin stares at him.

“That’s what I thought.” He grabs a cloth and wipes down instruments, turning his back on her.

She struggles to find words, to both deny his accusations and ask him for the comfort he had given her last week. She sat in the waiting room while he finished his last patient, and somehow he knew why she was there and had hot chocolate prepared. Her fathers had left her house, and she ran not far behind them, racing to Diar’s clinic, in such a rush that she did not even clear the table. He knew somehow that her dinner with her fathers would not go well. He held her while she cried and cried and cried. She never even told him what she was crying about. And yet. She wants that comfort again now. But she can’t ask for it from the Diar that is standing before her now. She swallows the lump in her throat. “You aren’t being fair.”

His head drops. “You’re right.”

“Glad we had this talk.” Indignant, she takes out her anger on the door to his practice. He thinks she wants the attention of the prince?

THE DICE CLINK ON THE TABLE, and Caitlin pulls the coins on the table towards herself. “Surely these dice are weighted,” Diarmuid says, frowning as he watches the silver pile in front of Caitlin double.

“I? A cheater?” Caitlin responds, grinning. “Never, absolutely never.”

“I’m sorry, what’s the correct terminology, then?”

“It is ‘lucky bastard.’”

“You lucky bastard, then.”

“Yes, I am, thank you!”

“You can be insufferable. I’m done with losing my money for the day. Why don’t I grab us lunch with my last bit of it?” He stands and offers her his arm.

Caitlin, glad that the awkwardness between them had slowly dissipated, accepts it.

Diarmuid leads them from her office and to a tavern that she had never noticed before, but Diarmuid seemed to know everyone there.

“Tomorrow, then, I suppose,” he says as he gestures for her to take a seat.

The topic that they had been avoiding. Caitlin shivers. The respite had been short-lived, it seemed.

“Tomorrow.” The reason they were there. She runs a hand up and down her sleeve.

The subject of their conversations since that day had carefully skirted the unwanted predicament Caitlin was in. The list of the Prince’s many love affairs and romances was a long one. Some lasted a few months, maybe a year. No one was placing bets on Caitlin being the one he would marry; not because of her lack of nobility, nor her background, nor even the fact that she was a widow. There was no point in betting at all anymore. He might keep up this game, this hunt, of ferreting out the most beautiful, or the most alluring, or the merriest, a woman until he could no longer put it off as the crown was now on his head. Many lamented the fact that his father most likely not be attending his wedding.

This is both reassuring and terrifying. Nobles have flung their daughters at him, hoping for a proposal. Or maybe hoping for maybe a few months of extreme favor. Soon they all realized what the game was, yet kept sending their daughters in. That daughter always later offered to a duke or a duchess as a consolation, still a most advantageous arrangement for families looking to rise in the ranks. Caitlin knew her fathers would never ask of her that sacrifice. They would not ask her to be a pawn, to be passed around in order to curry favor. If this Prince only treated women as a fad, he would grow tired of Caitlin. She was sure that she would be no more than that woman he tried to flirt with at a party. Forgotten within the month.

It will be easy to push him away as she had done at her fathers’ party. Doing so while not insulting the others at his garden party would be the hard part. Looking rude and uncultured would not be helpful in currying her own favor on behalf of her business. This garden party will be a business adventure, nothing more.

“MY ELUSIVE LADY,” the prince says as he approaches Caitlin at the arch entrance, leading her inside. “I am so glad you accepted my invitation.”

This is a new sort of diplomacy, a change from any of the varieties or tactics Caitlin previously employed with a customer, to barter, to complete a deal. This is a change from the sorts of people she needed to be diplomatic with before. There would be no bartering fabrics or ceramics; no discussing their weights, their worth. The currency here is intangible but perhaps far more valuable.

Those she dealt with in the past were no more ‘proper’ than she. Her peers, for all that you could be peers with captains and expeditionary, traders and travelers, never cared much for flattery.

The grass is almost too well kept to be real, the roses nearly too perfect in their blossoming. The fountains reflect rainbows onto the perfect walkways, and the tree branches create the perfect amount of shade. She usually has no opinion on decorations, interior or exterior. Though everyone else is spending much of their time airing their own opinions.

“Heir to Pedigree Shipping, I would never turn down an opportunity to talk business with those who wish to do business. Where is the Count of Honor today?”

His head tilts ever so slightly, his eyebrow-raising almost imperceptibly. But he quickly draws himself up. “A lady who is loyal to her family and does not shirk her duties. So, the rumors are true.”

Caitlin knows he is baiting her. Having no experience chasing men and, to her knowledge, being chased by them, she has nothing to go by to gauge his attempt. “I am a businesswoman through and through.” “And what does a businesswoman do in her spare time? Surely you must have some leisure time.” His hand slides behind the small of her back, and leads her away from the crowd, instead of toward it. More than a few words, none that a lady should know but the standard vocabulary of a sailor, clawed at her throat. “As you have said yourself, I do not shirk my duties.”

“Your responsibilities cannot be so great that you cannot enjoy time away from them.”

“And yet they are.” She closes her eyes, hoping she is playing this correctly. She was a hard-working woman; the upper classes would trust her to be the professional businesswoman they would happily transact with if her fathers—soon to be her—business was to grow. But plain enough that the Prince will drop her within the week.

“Ah, I see the weight of them on your shoulders. Gentle lady,” he stops and turns her to face him, his hand not leaving her back. Flinching away from his stare, his face too close, is not something can do, though she wants to slap him and run. She meets his gaze. “Gentle lady, I insist you take more time for yourself. You found time to be my guest here; surely you can find time to do so again.”

“I came here most selfishly, my lord. I came here on business.” Her years as the wife of a pirate taught quickly how to show no weakness, to keep a straight face while nervous. Though this is the first time in over a decade that she must put effort into this façade.

He takes a step away from her, his hand leaving her back, and throws his head back in laughter. It is not the polite chuckle of the nobility, the only thing Caitlin has to compare it to is the laugh of a captain after pulling a prank on his rival at a bar or winning a hand in a heated round of cards.

“You keep bringing it back to your business. Your fathers really should be proud; they would hand the business over to you even if you were not blood, I should think. Well, in any case. If you do not take time off yourself, I shall have to order you to. Next week we shall have fun; I shall teach you what leisure feels like.”

“My lord, I am quite serious—”

“You are very serious, yes. Overly so. If I, in all my royal duties, can find time to attend parties and go hunting and ride through the countryside, how can you not? It is a royal order.” He pulls her closer to him again and tilts her head up to face his. “You are so beautiful.”

Caitlin swallows as he holds her long than would be proper for any noble to court another. Smirking, his eyes hold the same mix of joviality and cunning as the captains' playing cards. But none of their camaraderie.

“My lord?”

“Ah, well. I suppose you will want to speak to the count.”

Cataloging inventory is easy—silks, spices, metals, clay, raw materials, or finished products. You barter what you can. It might sound hard, the ever-shifting contents of any given shipment, any given item in any of the storehouses. The names, the numbers, the weights, the worth of so many things, and tomorrow those numbers will change again.

Cataloging people is not. Though it may seem so, people are as unchanging in that their names stay the same, their relations generally remain the same, their residence and homelands and accents all stay the same. Surely it would be easier than keeping inventory. But meeting so many people in a few hours does not lend itself to accurate and comprehensive internal ordering.

He leads her to Count Seamus, and it is soon clear that the reason for the invitation was pre-textual. They find the count having a conversation with Duke Hern, the uncle of the prince. He excuses himself promptly. The count has a fascination with foreign oddities. Knick knacks and bobbles. He wants to purchase trinkets, if the business has any. He has heard we traveled most of the world now, and he regales her with many stories of his own travels and the baubles he purchased while there. This is not about commerce; it is an interest in the collectibles, same as he might express at a Sunday market.

He leads her to duchesses, to third daughters hoping yet to make a place for themselves, second sons who want to gain more favor to compensate for their lesser title. They eye her under hooded lids, assess the extent of her interest in the party—many asking about business but not paying any attention to the details. People hold less curiosity for recently found artifacts of gold and gems than they do for her. Caitlin is the rarity. Caitlin is the oddity, the reason for the party.

The prince’s presence at her side distracts anyone from actual conversations with her about trade deals, large transactions, and orders, everyone knowing now that her invitation was just a pretense for the prince to show off his latest interest. Caitlin leans into some of her other skills and eavesdrops where she can.

“I heard they were planning to raid—”

“Same men as last time—”

“—and no one knows how many got away—”

They speak in hushed whispers, and when they thought the prince could not hear them. Diar had told me little more since that night; people were unhappy that the taxes were too high, and they had little money to eat, to house themselves. And the upper classes exploited their labor, paying them little. Diar’s clinic was free, I had found out. He told me that too many would go with no health care otherwise.

“They need to learn their place.”

“They are lazy; they shouldn’t complain.”

“This is how it has always been; this is how the priests and priestesses tell us it should always be. They should realize they are insulting the gods.”

“If they want a rebellion, we will give them the defeat that comes with it.”

“The king is far too forgiving of them. Their children should watch every one of them hang.”

The wine now tastes like poison to her, and the cake like ash. She had been evaluating the monetary worth of the flatware and the plates. Calculating how much it could sell for, how much they paid for them. The figures in her head were based on material goods.

But these lords were calculating lives. The palace was far from Whick, far from any consideration Caitlin had to make previously; the only need for interactions with the government was sorting out incorporating a business, the buying the license to sell and trade. The paperwork to leave these shores and return to them. In all the business dealings, in all internal abstraction, never was a life considered collateral. Brenna. Her Brenna. Her wife. Her face in Caitlin’s mind, though this is not the place. This is not the place.

Prince Cian takes her hand, “You seem to have struck my guest speechless, Lord Seamus. Caitlin, you have never heard of stag hunts? Fox hunts?”

“Oh, oh. No, my lord. I haven’t.” She blinks and shakes her head.

“Ah! I know what we will show you on Saturday. Do you have anything sturdier? We will be outside; I would not want you to stain your gorgeous gown. For then, you might have to take it off.” He laughs at his own terrible joke.

“I have something that will suit.” There was no way out of this now, she sighs and looks away from him.


SHE WANTS TO GO HOME. If not home, to the house she lives in now. Somewhere that is comfortably familiar. But she knows she must see her fathers first. “Were you able to entice the count into a deal?” Pa asks.

“You know the answer to that, probably.” She slumps into a chair.

“And anyone else?” Pa continues.

“I tried my hardest, but people seemed only superficially interested.”

“And the prince? Has his impression changed?”


“This is quite the predicament,” Da says.

She crosses her arms and looks away. “I know.”

“But there is something deeper going on, it seems.” Da presses.

“Something came up. It reminded me of some things that I do not want to talk about.” Her fathers are the only people she cannot fool, her mask has never worked with them. Long ago, Brenna was counted among that small circle of people who always knew her thoughts.

“Ah,” Da says.

“He has invited me to another party on Saturday. I don’t know why.” She springs out of the chair and goes upstairs and tears off the fancy gown.

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