"I beg your pardon?" Lith was flabbergasted.
"Dad! How many times I have told you to start explaining things from the beginning, not the end!" Keyla rolled her eyes.
"Yes, yes, my dear. You see, when I was Jadon's age I got married.
It was an arranged marriage, with the purpose to join the resources of the Lark and Ghishal households, that back at the time were both in dire straits, to get out of the insane debts that our profligate parents had left us.
The financial side of the business was a success. Between our combined annuities and by selling some of the residual assets, I was able to have enough capitals to invest in the right businesses.
Long story short, our families went from almost broke to being again two of the richest of the dukedom. And that's when everything fell apart between us. My wife, Koya, have never been kind or lovely to me, we were just business partners.
We never shared a common interest or ideal, but until we got our money back, at least it was bearable. After that point, our marriage was purely for show, and aside from when she asked me to attend to my marital duties, we had no intimacy.
I got four children from her, after all, and even got them tested with Blood Resonance magic to be certain they were actually mine. I might be a little airheaded, but I'm not that naïve!"
Both Jadon and Keyla became bright red, up to their ears.
"Dad! Too much information! Stick to the facts, please. This situation is already embarrassing as it is, don't add oil to the fire."
Jadon said, but the Count was inflexible.
"To be able to help us, Lith needs to understand what kind of woman we are facing, or do you want to underestimate your mother again?"
At those words, Jadon lowered his eyes and sat back down. Lith was really interested in the Blood Resonance magic, but he kept the question for later. Things were already confused enough already.
"Where was I? Oh yes. Right after our households got back on their feet, Koya soon became restless. She was obsessed with us getting more titles, more annuities, more lands.
To the point that she took part in the Court's power games and intrigues, trying to make allies to weaken our neighbours and take over their lands.
But after working hard for more than twenty years, I was content with what I had. Four beautiful children, a rich and prosperous household, a thriving County.
I just wanted to slow things down and enjoy the life I had built, while expanding my power and influence through hard honest work instead of underhanded schemes.
Off course she was furious, all her plotting was useless without my consent. After all, I wasn't married into her family, she was married into mine. And being the one that did all the work I kept the biggest share of the profits.
At that point, somehow, our constant arguing and mutual spite started affecting my firstborns. I don't know if it happened because they were born when I was still too busy to give them the proper care and attention, or if they just got more from their mother's side rather than mine. Only the gods know.
My eldest son, Lorant, started taking for granted his status as my successor, neglecting his duties and doing nothing but drinking, gambling and chasing skirts. My second born, Lyka, had always been a problematic child.
She was never content with what she had, always wanting more toys, more dresses, more jewellery. Nothing was enough for her. As my constant fights with her mother continues, she became angry with everything and everyone, throwing fits of rage for the smallest things.
She started beating the servants almost on daily basis, I lost count of how many ran away from this house because of her. Between Lyka and Lorant, it was like there was a competition about who would make me monthly spend more money, trying to cover up their misdeeds and compensating their victims.
I tried sending Lorant to all the military academies I could find, hoping that some discipline would straighten him up, but he always managed to get dishonourably discharged in a few months, if not weeks.
My last resort was giving him the position of responsibility in the household, but he would either not attend at all, or show up dead drunk. But when I discovered that he had begun not only deceiving maidens with promises of marriage, but also taking them by force I decided that enough was enough.
I publicly disowned him, stripping him of his titles and annuities, leaving him enough money to live an honest life, if he quit gambling, off course. I also told him that the next time he defiled a girl he would be judged like any other scoundrel, and pay for it."
At those words, Lith thought about Orpal for the first time in over three years.
"That a*shole should be away for at least another couple years. Maybe if I decide to take part in this episode of 'Game of Spades' and we survive, I can have the Count trace and eliminate him for me. That would be nice. I hate loose ends."
After a short break for a glass of water, Count Lark continued his story.
"My wife was outraged, for her Lorant's crimes were just 'boyish pranks' that we should indulge and forgive. But it was the Lark household that he was dragging into the mud, he was throwing away my money with gambles and loan sharks.
Not to mention that my reputation had become that of a corrupt and profligate noble. Even if somehow I didn't have any decency or honour within me, how could I entrust my life's work to someone that would dilapidate it in less than a generation?
Have I ever told you why I appreciate magic so much? It's because mages and nobles are so similar and yet so different. They both hold a power that allows them to destroy or save lives with a single word, to influence their surrounding just by being there.
I consider magic superior, because a mage's might come from study and discipline, and that means that he knows and understand the values of his power and the consequences of his actions.
Nobles, instead, get that power as a birthright. They take it for granted, and some live their whole lives considering perfectly natural for them to be superior, a higher existence. That's why so many of us end up abusing our status and authority.
But I digress. After expelling Lorant from the family, Koya wouldn't listen to reason, and neither would Lyka. She really loved her brother, and after he was kicked out, she became even more angry and violent."
The Count's eyes turned watery, he had to remove his monocle to rub them with a handkerchief.
"Have you ever heard about all those stories about nobles killing and maiming commoners for trivial reasons? Well, she turned out to be the living embodiment of all those stories, and when I discovered what she had done, the body count was already over a dozen!
I had no choice but to disown her too, pleading the King for mercy and losing a lot of my accumulated merits in the process. Despite everything, she is still my daughter.
My wife was brought to the brink of insanity, saying that it was all my fault, and so she left the house for good, returning to the Ghishals. At first, I thought that being apart would allow her to regain her senses and come back.
After a while, though, I really enjoyed the peace and quiet, and hoped she would never return. But then I discovered that she had brought with her our disowned sons, breaching my trust with a blatant flaunting of the King's law.
At that point, I applied for the marriage to be annulled, otherwise after my death she could reinstate them as family members, if not even as heirs to the County.
The annulment process would take a while, but I was certain to have settled that matter.
In the following weeks, I started to feel weak and feverish, and despite all Genon's assurances, my personal magician, I could tell that something was wrong. No cold ever felt like that or lasted so long.
So I started skipping my meals in secret, eating only fruits that I picked up myself, and guess what? My symptoms faded away. Only then I remembered that Genon was from my wife's side of the family. She had hired him personally, and so she did for more than half our staff.
After firing everyone she had brought in the house, I hoped to be finally safe, but then even Keyla and Jadon fell ill. I would have never imagined she would harm her own children, just for not agreeing with her!
At that point I was in dire need of a magical aide, but who could I trust? Competent magicians are hard to find, and at this point I don't trust anyone anymore. Who knows who may actually be sent by my wife or one of her associates?
That's when I sent you the letter with the help of my personal secretary, a man that I know and trust from decades.
I couldn't call for Lady Nerea's help, without her the whole district of Lutia would fall apart, not to mention it would be a sign of weakness. Who would entrust a County to a man incapable of managing his own house?
Nana have more than once assured me that your healing skills are on par with hers, and having killed a magical beast, I'm pretty confident that you are already more competent than Genon, who graduated in a minor academy only thanks to his father's money."
Lith closed his eyes, trying to assimilate all that information at once to decide his next course of action.
"F*ck! I'm in a dead end." He thought. "If I say no and he survives I'll lose everything I built so far.
If I refuse and he dies, not only all my efforts for making him into my backer will be for naught, but this wannabe Sersi strikes me like someone that after getting rid of her husband, will wipe clean all traces of his existence, and that includes me!
Unless she is deaf, blind and dumb she is bound to know how much the Count has invested in me, that puts all my family in danger. And I definitely don't want this Lorant guy come any close to my mother and sisters."
Feeling cornered, he had only one doubt.
"I consider myself a good healer and hunter, your Lordship, but I don't see how can I help, except by keeping you safe and healthy for the time being, off course. But that would be just stalling for time. If you don't have a way to make your wife yield, it could go on for years."
"No, rest assured that it won't. As soon as the marriage is annulled, she will not be able to make demands anymore about the Lark household.
Unless I am sorely mistaken, by that time she will be knee deep in troubles caused by our disowned sons and for violating the King's law by bringing them into her family despite being marked as a living shame.
Her only way out is to get rid of me, Keyla and Jadon to make my will null and void, remain the only inheritor alive and restore Lorant and Koya status. I just need you to keep us alive until the King signs the annulment documents."
Lith's mind was spinning at full gear, consulting with Solus to make sure to keep all his bases covered.
"That can be done. But I have some demands that I would like your Lordship to agree with before accepting."
From their expression, it was clear they didn't expect such request, yet the Count nodded without hesitation.
"To be able to protect you, I need to move inside you house until the matter is resolved, right?"
"But off course! That's why you wear the family colours and crest. That dress identifies you with one of my personal aides, second in authority only to me and my children."
"Good to know," Lith thought. "That explains why me and Jadon have almost matching clothes."
"And I am deeply honoured for it, but if I agree to help you, your wife could target my family too in retaliation. If I move in, I might need for them to come along, for their safety, and someone has to take care of the farm, or they will have nothing to return to."
Count Lark facepalmed himself.
"Oh Lith, I'm so sorry for doubting your loyalty. For a moment I thought you were going to refuse. You are right, I missed this possibility. I will make them come here as soon as possible, they will be my honoured guests as well.
I will send my sharecroppers to tend to your farm until everything is settled. Anything else?"
"Yes. I need free rein within your household. If your wife still has insiders, if not spies still here, I will need to resort to unpleasant means to sort them out. We cannot expect them to confess out of the goodness of their hearts."
Count Lark took out a handkerchief, cleaning his already shiny monocle to ease his nerves.
"Do you mean torture and interrogations? Do we really need to resort to that?"
"As a last resort, but yes. Desperate times call for desperate measures. But it should not be necessary, I can easily disguise as your guest while keeping a low profile. After all no one knows who I am, except the butler."
The Count started coughing up loudly, Jadon and Keyla looked at each other, before turning towards Lith.
"Actually, everyone knows who you are." Jadon said with an awkward smile.
"Well, but that doesn't mean they know what I am capable of."
When he saw them exchanging another look, while the Count kept coughing non-stop, Lith felt compelled to ask: "They don't, right?"
Keyla cleared her throat before standing up, prompting him to follow her.
"A picture is worth more than a thousand words. I think you need to see how you are depicted in the Painting Hall."