The doors slammed open and Ryner bit back her smile as the furious Sinnenodel came marching through. She’d come to recognize the unique flourishes associated with his current emotions. Door swings open calmly? He was here for a social visit. Door opened slowly for the first two inches then quickly the rest of the way? He was here to gloat. He was already through the door before it crashed into the wall? He was murderous.
The last one was her favorite.
“Look at that. My mages have finally adjusted to your childish behavior.” Ryner said as her secretary bowed and closed the door quietly. The first few times, they looked like they were on the verge of a panic attack. Now they just waved him through. It was probably more surprising that he had an appointment rather than just showing up. “So Count Sinnenodel, what can I help you with?”
“What can I help you with?” Varis repeated mockingly as he all but collapsed into a chair. Varis was tired. He’d stayed up trying to figure out where everything went wrong with Eris. Varis may have had the tiny, teeniest inkling Eris thought that maybe there could be more but Varis was never secretive about his stance on affections. The very concept left a distinctly bad taste in his mouth. Those emotions were fleeting and weak and would eventually collapse under the march of time. While they were fresh and fond, they were ammunition. Another point for enemies and tentative allies to drag you around with. Eris was an idiot for making it personal and the fact that Varis lost sleep over it was absurd.
And then of course, the idiot golden boy and his incessant demand for direction did little to soothe his irritation. Varis eventually gave in and sent him scuttling for a while just so he wouldn’t have to see the boy for a while. It irked the Sinnenodel―the boy’s performance certainly did not warrant any free time―but sometimes he had to consider his own mental health instead of the boy’s lack thereof. “Oh I don’t know, Princess. Maybe you could stop interfering with my personal agenda. What in the Queen’s name were you thinking?” Varis demanded, accompanied with a half hearted glare.
“Well, right now I think you skipped your morning routine. Unfortunately.” The words came out dryly as she returned to the folders in front of her. “I’ll need something more specific. I interfere with everyone’s personal agendas. It is quite literally my least favorite part of being next in line for the throne.” Varis scoffed and Ryner bit her lip to keep from laughing.
“Please, you love every second of it. You have an entire realm of subjects to choose from so why are you antagonizing me? Making Eris think I’m replacing him with a vampire dead 500 years ago? It wasn’t even subtle, Ryner.” Varis complained. “At least if you’re going to threaten my plans, please make it interesting. This is just annoying. I’ve never had to earn someone’s approval without resorting to underhand means and I wasn’t interested in trying now.”
“I knew nothing would come of it, Varis. I threatened your little pet in our meeting together and he nearly challenged me to a duel. I’m tempted to take him up on the challenge he did offer though. It’d be fun seeing how long he could handle me at my worst.” Ryner mused, laughing at Varis’ murderous look and waving it away. “Calm down, I’m just having a little fun. Court’s been surprisingly civil, my sister isn’t around to antagonize, and the Practical was a roaring success. I think I deserve to enjoy my night.”
Varis stared, dumbfounded, at Ryner. Could he understand sabotage for the sake of a reaction in stressful times? Of course. Every vampire indulged a little, even those inane Marivaldis couldn’t resist. Sometimes Varis would bring it up in casual conversation with whoever he backstabbed just to relieve the thrill. No. He was far too accustomed to working with Ryner for that to bother him. What stunned him was she genuinely believed the Practical was a roaring success. He leaned forward, closed the file she had opened, and stared at her straight in the eye for almost a full minute.
“My apologies, Princess, but I believe I misheard you.” Varis’ voice climbed an octave as he chuckled. “You claim that a noble stumbling around in the forest blind with a bumbling idiot who lacks all concepts of propriety is a success? You claim a noble digging around in the dirt a success? You claim sowing seeds of discord in your ally’s plans a success? You claim setting me on fire a success?” Varis screeched indignantly, the chair toppling over as he launched himself up, finger jabbing accusingly in Ryner’s face.
“Your little practical was an utter failure! I haven’t seen a worse excuse for a test in my life and I’ve suffered Eve classrooms.” Ryner winced at his complaining, rubbing her ear even though the amusement never left her eyes. “Where do you get off?!”
“Generally the bedroom.” Ryner replied without missing a beat, flipping the folder open Varis so rudely closed. His own name was printed at the top. “Normally, I commend you on your control over a conversation but when you’re upset, you devolve into a pattern. Makes it easy to figure out which buttons to press. I really should teach Aaron. Or make an offhand comment to Ella and her sisters. One of them will tell him.” She turned the folder and pushed it towards him. Varis flinched away from it like he was burned, rubbing absently at his ear.
“It was all scripted, Varis. I had a mage write it and I approved it. If I threw anything you could reason your way through, it wouldn’t have been much of a challenge. So I made it illogical. Aaron would never lift a finger to you, you had nothing to do with Ralmevik, Yvaine is the name of a legendary figure the mage once read about in a collection of poems, and the scene was nothing more than a silly creation meant to oppose everything you knew and believed in.” Ryner explained as Varis stared at the folder uneasily. It was a simple enough explanation and it made sense. He was in a sour mood already, on edge and frustrated, and what better way to keep him off balance than throw what he least expected at him? He went in expecting some sort of reason to the madness but there wasn’t any because the madness was the reason. It tied it all up in a pretty little present, bow and all.
So why didn’t it sit very well with him?
“But you aren’t really upset about the fire, are you?” Ryner brought him out of his thoughts. He narrowed his eyes at her sly look. “Maybe you were at the time but you’ve had time to process. You know Aaron would never raise a hand against you and even if he did, we are far more equipped to handle it than you were there. So if that’s the case, why was that the last one? Not the blindness, not the disorientation, not the public humiliation, which honestly I expected to be the focal point of this discussion, but it was the challenge. Why the challenge?”
“Because it was awful, that’s why.” Varis sputtered angrily, eyes darkening and fangs flashing at the Princess, which only made her grin more.
“Varis Sinnenodel, board member of the largest green energy company in the realm, the youngest heir to the Sinnendel Lordship ever, protector of the 3rd oldest Sinnenodel bloodline, biggest bookworm I’ve ever met and the greatest thorn in my side…” Ryner looked like a cat who got the cream, like Varis had handed her the greatest gift she’d even had in the past 7 centuries. “Is that fear I see? I’ve only ever seen that look once. I’m honored. I inspired fear in someone who I honestly believed couldn’t feel it for anyone other than Sybil Sinnenodel. You don’t even fear my mother.” Varis’ jaw clenched and Ryner giggled.
“Stop being a drama queen and sit down. Pick up my chair while you’re at it. Ryner rolled her eyes. “No, we didn’t see inside your, or anyone else’s for that matter, mind. It was simply a complex illusion that includes turning you invisible and intangible. Don’t worry, your century worth of family trauma keeps us out. No one wants to see all your daddy issues.”
Varis moved stiffly as he complied. He could see she wasn’t taking him seriously and it rankled. He didn’t understand why she was doing it though; she wasn’t stupid enough to think he wouldn’t see the side steps, the deflections, the misdirection so why was she making it so obvious? It didn’t make sense. She was more than capable of obfuscating her goals so unless she didn’t care if he found out, he couldn’t make heads or tails of this obtuse game she was playing. It was exhausting and frustrating. With time running out for Chaend, another meeting being called, Elloise sending messages about Nintrella, the mountain of paperwork he had to sift through, Eris, and the practical, Varis’ analytical capacities were a little tired. Maybe he could just let this one go and revisit it later.
“You need better hobbies.” Varis muttered as he sat, folding his arms, and scowled. Ryner just shook her head and laughed.
“I took a page out of your book, you know. If it’ll get you to stop pouting, I have some interesting news for you. Countess Mirelda, that barely independent Dutchess, offered me a favor for a late spot for one of her mages. I’ve never had one from her so what could I do but say yes. It’s another one for my collection.” Ryner smirked, handing him a document. “Which puts me one step closer to winning out wager.”
Varis took the document and, after sending her an unamused look, scanned over the page. Honestly, he wasn’t very well acquainted with Mirelda’s affairs; she fell under Sinnenodel purview because of a technicality and a trade deal but his Lady always handled her personally. He wasn’t even sure if he had access to whatever records were on file about their dealings. The mage was uninspiring. Better than that white haired atrocity but barely. Varis made a mental note to deduct an additional five points off her next assignment for making him think about her when she wasn’t in front of him.
“And why should I care, Ryner? If you’re expecting me to suddenly open up about this…” Varis peered at the girls name, nose wrinkled. Who had a name like Arva? Good gracious. If someone named him that, he’d treat it like his middle name and ignore it. “You’re going to be disappointed. I’ve given you plenty in the name of our little alliance. You’ll have to pay for it this time.”
“I thought as much. I’m willing to transfer that favor I earned to you if you get me what I want.” Ryner offered. Varis narrowed his eyes at her and looked back over the information. Name, age, gender, affinity, and a picture. It was rare she asked him for something like this so quickly. The Marivaldi’s were aligned with her politically and since they control the Council’s information network, it wouldn’t take much to pluck a few threads out of public view. He knew she was doing it too. She had him on his toes defending his Lady. He had a sneaking suspicion the attempt on his vaults was orchestrated by her but he didn’t have anything to prove it just yet. If everything went well with his asset in the royal castle, he’d have more than enough to blackmail her into submission.
“Really, a favor from a nobody dutchess is all I get? You can go running to the Marivaldi’s if you want to cheat me.” Varis considered exactly what he thought this was worth. It was hard to gauge given that he didn’t know what she wanted out of it but he knew it was valuable. “I want an Eve favor, specifically one from Countess Malvek, and the Dutchess favor or I’ll settle for one from Princess Nox and you can keep the Dutchess’.”
“One from Haldbrek Astorio and the Dutchess’ favor.” Ryner countered.
“Those and one from you.”
“Anika Patel and Wilfrid Harrington.”
“Malvek, Horvath, and Anika.”
“Absolutely no-” Ryner tilted her head in confusion. “What would you even do with a favor from Anika?”
“None of your business.” Varis replied smoothly, despite the fact he had no idea who Anika was. Ryner had only named people he either wanted something from or someone he could use against someone so he assumed it was useful. “Final offer Ryner: Malvek and Horvath and I’ll handle it personally. No mages, no middlemen. Just me.”
Ryner contemplated that for a moment, sitting back and watching him over steepled fingers. Varis maintained eye contact as she did. He knew handling it personally was a nice bargaining chip. It made him more vulnerable than he cared to admit but the favor from the head of the Eve modernist faction was too much to pass up. And Horvath’s would be a nice reprieve if he could get the meeting hosted in the vain Duke’s territory. Elloise had requested it last time they spoke.
“Agreed. I’ll have my mages update our little game and send out notices to the applicable parties.” Ryner pulled out a piece of parchment and began writing her letter. “If you wish, you may keep the document I gave you on her. One of my secretaries insisted I install a printer in here and now I can ask them to print things directly to this one over the airwaves! It’s so neat; I printed out so many photos a few nights ago. See?” Ryner waved around the room.Several of the art pieces she had had been taken down and replaced with various pictures of the royal vampires and the Starag mage family.
“That’s a waste of time and energy. At least use a printer for something useful.” Varis gagged at the pictures. Stupid but it did remind him he needed to use that correction method still hanging on the boy’s wall soon before the psychological impact wore off. He needed to start setting him up for the next fall. “What exactly am I looking for?”
“Anything. The girl’s records are completely sealed from me. Only my mother has permission to access them. And if that wasn’t enough, she isn’t the first one to favor her way into my school.” Ryner sighed, running a hand through her hair. “Duke Monfrello claimed the favor I owed him to bring his son into the academy. Nadir’s background is perfect. It accounts for almost everything, which is better than most, but the timing is so odd. They were barely a week apart. I have a bad feeling someone is bringing their politics onto my campus and I’m not going to tolerate it.”
Varis kept his thoughts to himself as he nodded along, considering the girl. Varis hated to agree with her but that was convenient which made him wary. Of course someone was doing something but with such an obvious method, he quickly came to the conclusion whoever it was, they wanted an investigation and Varis served himself up as the perfect bait. He would have to tread carefully. He hadn’t handled an investigation on his own in a little under two decades. He'd need to research.
“The school’s library should have more than enough to get a rough plan put together. After that, I’ll use the break to refine it.” Varis muttered to himself, considering his options already. He stood up abruptly, his frustrations behind him now that he had a new project to work on. “I’ll take my leave.”
Ryner watched him leave, the door closing calmly behind him. She laughed to herself and the smile didn’t reach her eyes.