by Charles Matthias

Baerle and Kimberly were sharing some calamint tea when the Longs arrived at the Glen. Evening had settled upon the small town, bringing with it a quiet tranquillity that belied the palpable excitement that throbbed in every voice and limb. For the morrow would bring the equinox, and all in the Valley would celebrate on that occasion. The preparations were complete, and now each person simply waited in their own way for the sun’s next rise.

With Charles at the Glen’s only Inn helping to prepare the rooms for the Longs, Kimberly had been left alone with the opossum Baerle for company. Rarely was the gravid rat so talkative except when joined by the archer. As they sipped their warm tea, they spoke of many things, though inevitably the conversation turned to the children that Kimberly carried within her.

“So have you thought of names for them all yet?” Baerle asked, lifting her small cup to her muzzle, tongue darting out to lap a bit of the strong tea in.

Kimberly shook her head, holding her cup before her in both paws. It was obvious that she was pregnant now, it had only been a few weeks since they had discovered that she was with child, and only two since they knew how many children. Even so, Walter had already been asked to sew her several new dresses to accommodate the growing children within her. It had not yet impeded her daily routine, but she was beginning to feel the strain upon her back.

“No, not yet,” Kimberly admitted after a moment’s contemplation of her cup. The warm crackling of the fire was the only sound in their tree home. She smiled as she thought of the sweet little voices that would soon grace it. “Charles wants to wait until they are born. He says it is a tradition in the Southlands to name a child only after it is born.”

“Why do they do that?”

“Charles says that a name should reflect the soul, and you cannot see the child’s soul until you look into their eyes.” Kimberly sipped at her cup, eyes narrowed as if she disapproved of having to wait.

“And he’s insisted?” Baerle asked. The opossum smiled lightly, her long tail curling around one leg of the chair. “Will he let you name any of them?”

Kimberly nodded and favoured her with a conspiring smile. “Charles says it is tradition for the father to name the boys, and the mother to name the girls. He said that only a man can truly understand another man, and so on.”

The opossum laughed lightly and leaned back in the chair, sipping at her cup. The tea was strong and full. “That sounds like something a man would say. If there is any place where that is least true it is here in Metamor Valley.” Baerle paused then, a distant look crossing her features as her eyes strayed down to the hearth. The fire was still burning nicely, but it would need another log ere long. Even though Spring was imminent, it was still very cool in the Glen.

“So, what names have you picked for the girls?” Baerle asked at long last, her smile returning.

“Bernadette for the first,” Kimberly replied, smiling widely then. “You never got to meet her, but Bernadette worked with me in the kitchens at Metamor and has always been my friend.” The rat then began to blush in her ears, whiskers drooping a bit. “I’d like to name the second Baerle.”

It was Baerle’s turn to blush at that, her grip on the cup faltering slightly. “Oh that’s so sweet of you, Kimberly. But won’t Charles know you picked those names out before?”

Kimberly offered her a conspiratorial smile then, her composure once more reclaimed. “Well, by then it’ll be too late and he’ll have to live with it!”

“Are you sure you want to name one after me?” she asked in a quiet voice.

“Of course!” Kimberly nodded, smiling broadly. “You are so dear to me, I could do nothing else! You’ve been a closer friend than I can imagine.”

Baerle’s muzzle lowered, her body trembling as if from some blow that could not be accounted for. The rat could not fathom the change that came over her in that moment, watching as she withdrew, fighting some horrid battle that existed solely in her mind. And yet, it was short-lived, for Baerle became as always once again when the heavy knocking sounded upon the door.

“That can’t be Charles,” Kimberly mused, rising to greet the visitors. Baerle also stood, clutching the cup in her paws like a priest. When the lady rat opened the door, she was greeted with the exuberance of Misha Brightleaf sweeping inside and nearly lifting her off her feet in a warm embrace.

And then, the fox seemed to realize that it wasn’t Charles at the door. “Lady Kimberly!” Misha exclaimed, setting her back on her foot paws once more, stumbling backwards a bit startled, even as several of the other Longs who clustered their walkway laughed at the faux pas. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I thought you were Matt. It’s good to see you of course, my lady.”

Kimberly laughed then, the momentary surprise passed. “Oh, it is good to see you as well, Misha.” Her eyes slipped past the embarrassed fox to the otter standing just behind him in the doorway. “And you Caroline. She smiled at the other Longs that she could see, but the sun had already set and most of their faces were wreathed in shadow.

“You are looking good, Kimberly,” Caroline said, embracing the rat in a soft hug, much more restrained than the fox’s had been. “Hello Baerle,” Caroline said, smiling to the opossum. Baerle smiled back to the Long scout and returned the greeting.

Misha, scratched at the back of his head with one paw, still looking chagrined. “So, where is Charles? I thought he’d be here to greet us.”

Kimberly laughed a bit and walked further into her home, giving the various Longs a chance to fill up the spacious entry. Danielle and Finbar came in arm and arm, and even Meredith managed to squeeze through, though still a little unsteady on his feet. “Oh, he’s at the Inn preparing rooms for you. He should be back shortly. Can I get any of you something? Baerle and I were sharing some calamint tea, but I could heat up some more.” Her eyes went a bit wide as she saw that not all the newcomers were Longs. George the patrol master had accompanied them, as well had that raccoon Rickkter that Charles disliked so much. Nevertheless she smiled and waved them all in with her paws.

“That would be lovely, thank you, Kimberly,” the otter said, smiling as she took a few steps in.

Laughing, Kimberly patted Baerle on the arm. “Please sit, make yourselves welcome. Our home is your home. Charles’s friends are always welcome here.”

“Would you like some help with the tea?” Baerle offered then, smiling at the new comers as they trickled in, some shaking off the cool of the night air as they did so.

“Oh thank you, Baerle,” Kimberly smiled buoyantly before disappearing into the kitchen. As the Longs smiled and relaxed in the main hall of the Matthias home, their voices quiet but relieved. They too bore the repressed strain of excitement for what would come on the morrow. Although none of them had ever spent a Festival time at the Glen, they each knew what the ones at Metamor were like. They were all prepared to eat a great deal of food, drink a great deal of wine, and enjoy a great deal of dancing and games.

Even though it had been only two weeks since Misha had last set foot within the Glen, it still felt a great deal longer. The presents that had been brought for the baby shower had all been put away, and the house had a more lived-in look. Dust had begun to accumulate along the various shelves, and even one of the books had fallen on its side. Despite this, their home still appeared quite clean and well-taken care of. That alone tugged at the fox’s heart. He wished for Charles and Kimberly to return to Metamor once the Summer was upon them. Seeing them care for this home felt almost an affront.

But there were other matters that had made the last two weeks seem longer than a fortnight. And they were things that Misha would rather forget. He was glad that Charles had been spared them, but knew that his friend and fellow Long would inquire after them.

Sensing his distraction, Caroline slipper her paw underneath his. He smiled and gripped her paw tightly, and took a deep breath. They were here to celebrate after all, not ruminate. Now only if Charles would return so that they could!

Most of the buildings in Breckaris were built with wide porches and open windows, allowing the sea air to sweep in and greet them every moment of every day. The streets were narrow cobblestone affairs though, widening out only along the main thoroughfares. High walls marked off several sections of the city the palatial grounds of Earl Schanalein with their garden of exotic trees in the eastern half, and the Cathedral and its grounds where the bishop, the true power in Breckaris, lived.

So far, Zagrosek had been to neither of them. Instead, he’d spent the last several weeks gradually making the Innkeeper of The Dolphin’s Leap a richer and richer man. He hated to wait and do nothing, but there was little choice about the matter. He’d been told to wait until the messenger arrived. Agathe was with him, but she could provide little company, as her injuries prevented her from venturing where others might see her and shriek.

Thus it was that he sat out on the balcony as the sun continued its downward trek towards the western horizon when he saw a familiar banner leading a small procession. It was of the unicorn standing in a grassy field with blue sword upon one side. The heraldry for the house of du Tournemire. Zagrosek had been eating his evening meal in silence, staring balefully at the other edifices that lined the streets. Despite the coming warmth of the season, he was dressed in black breeches and tunic. His Sondeckis robes could be recognized in this land, and so he did not wear them.

And so, when he recognized the procession for what it was, that dark man, morose and taciturn those last few weeks, stood high upon that balcony and stared in amazement, a smile firmly planted upon his lips. The time had come for action once more. It felt like a succulent kiss upon his cheek. He could see the Marquis riding upon a large white stallion in the middle of the otherwise walking procession. Why had he come to Breckaris, Zagrosek could not help but wonder.

Nevertheless, the dark clad man wet down to the Inn’s commons, stopping only briefly to tell Agathe who had come. She only nodded her head and returned to her own meal. The commons for the Dolphin’s Leap was empty but for a few merchants taking their own meals. The chatter was lively though, and few paid him any heed. Zagrosek stood waiting at the foot of the steps for over a minute before one of the serving boys nearly dashed up to him, face exuberant, chest puffed out with some imagined importance.

“There’s a noble man on horseback wants to see you, master!” the boy chimed. “He’s waiting out in the street for you. Told me to come get you.” From the thrill that the captivated youth obviously felt, it was clear that nobility did not often tread trough the merchant districts of Breckaris, nor did they talk to serving boys at modest Inn’s such as the Dolphin’s Leap.

“Thank you, lad,” Zagrosek said, trying to keep the growl from his voice. That pretentious ass. Little surprise he wouldn’t come into the Inn. Zagrosek would have bet the rest of his gold that he was still mounted as well.

Stepping out into the street he found the small procession. Twelve guards dressed in the du Tournemire blue stood flanking a magnificent white Percheron, atop whom still sat the Marquis Camille du Tournemire. He was not a tall man, a few inches shorter than Zagrosek at least, but he had a long thick nose and wide set eyes. His face was smooth as if he’d only just shaved before entering the city. He was dressed in a silk brocade doublet and hose, sky blue in colour. Not even a speck of dirt flecked his sparkling boots. Deep blue eyes cast down from above as they caught sight of the Sondeckis.

“Marquis,” Zagrosek said, bowing at the waist respectfully. “I did not expect to see you in Breckaris.”

“I am not at your sufferance, Krenek,” the Marquis said frostily. “If I wish to go to Breckaris, I will. If I wish to go to Metamor, I will. My reasons are my own.” His eyes narrowed subtly then, and the horse lifted one fore leg and then set it back down again with a heavy tread. “Where is Agathe?”

Zagrosek swallowed and spoke more quietly. Standing out in the street as they were, they had begun to draw the attention of anyone who could see. Faces lined balconies and windows along either side of the street. “She was disfigured and does not wish to appear in public.”

“Very well, but I will see the both of you before I return to Marzac.” He reached into his doublet and produced a small scroll case. The lock featured the familiar yew tree of the Ecclesia. “Here is the message. Deliver it tomorrow. Send me a message courtesy of Earl Schanalein when you are finished. I shall be the Earl’s guest for a few days.”

Zagrosek took the proffered case, a silver device with gold trim along the edges, a comfortable weight in his hand. He stared at it for a moment before waving it once before it him. “What if he refuses this?”

The Marquis snorted as if he could not envision such a possibility. “Do nothing. I will handle him if he proves stubborn. Do not waste time in seeing him. Events are moving faster than you know.” The Marquis then made a dismissive motion with one hand, and returned his attention upon his company of soldier. At a single word, the procession started up once more, moving eastward through the streets.

Zagrosek watched them depart, slipping the scroll case within his tunic after a moment. Thieves no doubt would love to purloin such a precious item, but they’d find that terribly difficult. Even so, he saw no reason to entice them any further than he already had. He smiled nevertheless. Tomorrow at least he would have an opportunity to do something. With that thought in mind, he returned to the Inn to finish his meal.

Charles smiled and wiped his paws before him surveying the tables they’d helped arrange in the main room of the Inn. Jurmas the innkeeper was already expecting to have quite a bit of business as some of the Glenners who lived further to the South would come and spend the night. Yet now the deer was practically salivating at the thought of having all of the Longs as well. Charles didn’t blame them, but he had made sure that his friends were not going to be overcharged for anything.

It was not that Jurmas would do so, but merely a matter of courtesy. Smiling across the table he nodded to his friend James. The donkey worked at the Inn, and also occasionally worked for Charles too, doing odd jobs, helping out with the chores around his home when he couldn’t be there. In fact, Charles had forked over a few silvers to the Innkeeper so that James would not have to work during the festival, but could enjoy it just as much as everyone else. He’d not told the donkey of course, preferring to let him think that Jurmas had merely been kind.

“Well,” Charles said, resting his paws on his hips, nodding as he glanced across the tables, “I think that about does it. Shall we return to my home?”

One of James’s ears flicked back. “Well, your friends will be there. I don’t want to be in the way.”

The rat let out a pleasant laugh. “You are one of my friends too, James. Now come, I insist. We’ll have a nice evening in good company, and tomorrow will be even better.”

It did not take much more coaxing to convince him, and soon, the pair of them were heading back through the darkened clearing towards the massive tree that the rat’s home was built into. The night air was chill, even though all but the largest piles of snow had melted. A few flowers had already blossomed, their delicate fragrances barely distinguishable from the thick scent of trees and rocks, or other Glenners. One scent in particular made them both turn their heads, the sound of his footfalls muffled by padded boots.

“Lord Avery,” James said in surprise as the squirrel appeared out of the shadows and into the light of one of the flambeaux. He was dressed in his usual gray doublet, though it appeared he’d just recently brushed his fur, giving him a more refined look than he usually bore.

“Charles, James,” the squirrel said, nodding to both of them. “I just heard that the Long have arrived, and would like to greet them with you.”

Charles smiled widely. “Then by all means come and join us. Your wife and children are welcome in our home too.”

Brian’s tail danced back and forth behind him. “I’m afraid that I must decline your gracious invitation. I am honoured that you would think to invite me, but in my family there is a tradition of enjoying the night before festivals together. It is a tradition that I have grown up with, and it has never been abandoned. I will only stay to greet them and welcome them to the glen, and then I shall leave.”

“Of course,” Charles said, resuming his pace. James had fallen silent beside him, but he could still feel the presence of the large donkey.

Lord Avery fell into step beside them. There was a new quirk to his voice. “I hope that Jurmas has not tried to make too much money off of your friends this time.”

“Oh no, but he won’t be wanting for any money for a while either I expect.”

It was not a long walk to reach his home, and before Lord Avery could reply, they were on the path winding between the massive roots of the redwood to the rat’s door. Charles smiled as he gripped the handle and pressed inside, greeting a room full of familiar faces. “Welcome!” he called out in delight, anything he had rehearsed early in the day vanished from his mind in that moment. There was a leaping in his heart as he saw them, the Long Scouts, his family at Metamor, a leaping that blotted out his tongue.

The chorus of greetings was boisterous, and at least five or six managed to get in firm hugs before he was more than three steps inside his doorway. Somehow, Charles had become so distracted with seeing his companions, he failed to notice Lord Avery’s greeting and departure. The rat felt too good to care though. Even seeing that the Kankoran Rickkter was lurking in one of the shadows thrown by the lamps did not mar his spirit. He did wonder how Misha had convinced the raccoon to come, but the thought was soon out of his mind as well.

Before much longer, he was sitting down, smiling and laughing, sharing stories with his fellow Longs, even as Kimberly and Baerle brought in tea for everyone to drink. He made sure to tell them about what James and he had done to prepare them rooms, at which point the donkey tried to slink out of sight, but Misha was quick to thank him and direct him to a seat where he couldn’t hide. But mostly they all just talked of what they had been doing, what they had seen, and so forth in the last few weeks.

After his cup of tea had been refilled a second time, Charles noticed that many of the Longs had retired for the evening. Rickkter had been one of the first to leave in fact, something that did not terribly surprise the rat. Nor did he particularly mind. But after a while, as the night began to grow late, even James and Baerle felt inclined to leave. Kimberly made sure that she gave Baerle a firm embrace before she left, something that Charles had seen her do a great deal in the last month. He was not sure how he should feel about it, and so he mostly ignored it. Yet that night, he found himself watching the two of them keenly.

When he realized this and stared down into his cup, watching the golden liquid swirl about over the small leaves. After the door shut and the warmth of the hearth spread through the room once again, he looked up and saw that aside from Misha and Caroline, they were completely alone.

“Well,” Charles said at last, leaning back in his seat, smiling to Kimberly who sat just across from him. “I’m very glad that you made it.”

“As are we,” Misha said, his cup long since set down. Caroline was sitting next to him, her tail curled around his backside, forcing him to sit awkwardly. He looked rather comfortable though. “It’s good to get away from Metamor once in a while. Especially when you take all of your friends with you.”

Matthias nodded, hearing a darker tone implied in those simple words. Knowing that it would be impossible to avoid, he decided to bring the subject up himself. “We heard that the Questioners came to Metamor last week.” Misha nodded, his grey eyes gone very dark. “We have not heard yet about what they did.”

Caroline slipped one of her paws underneath Misha’s, gripping it firmly. The fox had become visibly tense, his ears folding back, eyes narrowing. Even the fur on the back of his neck had lifted, jowls pulling back to reveal far more teeth than either rat was wholly comfortable seeing. “Yes, they came to Metamor. Wanted to know what happened to the Patriarch.”

“And whether Metamor had anything to do with it,” Charles finished the unspoken thought. “I’ve never had the displeasure of meeting any Questioners before, but they are known in the Southlands too. They did not lightly tread within Sondeshara, and never in my lifetime, but they are known.”

Giving a single abrupt nod, the fox found his voice once more. “They treaded lightly within Metamor. I think they knew that they could not be heavy-handed with us. At least not after Raven went to see them. She forced them to sign some document that tied their hands, but that is all I know about that.”

Charles wished that Kimberly were sitting closer so that he could hold her paw as well. “Did they ask to see you?” Misha only nodded at that. “I’m sorry.”

“It was not your fault,” Misha said, though something in his voice told the rat to be very careful. What had happened that the fox did not want to say? And more pertinently, the rat realized, what did the Questioners discover?

“What did they leave with?”

“Not much. They decided that Metamor was innocent at least,” Misha said, his voice a low growl.

“Well, that is good, I think,” Charles said, leaning forward more in his chair. The crackling of the fire in the hearth was a disturbed counterpoint to the careful cadences of their speech. His tongue danced at the back of his teeth, clicking slightly. His chewsticks were off in their bedroom though, as they were not usually left lying about when company would be by. His teeth desperately wished for one though.

After a few moments listening only to the snapping fire and the ticking of the clock upon the mantle, Charles finally found his voice again. “Do you think we have anything to fear from what they will say to Yesulam?”

But the fox only shrugged. “I do not know. But I do not like that they came. There is something to fear, but we know not what.” He fell silent again and tightened his grip on Caroline’s hand. Charles let his eyes glance over to where Lady Kimberly sat, one paw resting upon her belly, as if she were trying to reassure the children within her that there was nothing to be afraid of. She caught his glance, dark eyes shifting to meet his, lighting and warming him slightly. The edges of his muzzle pulled back into a slight smile, and he waved his fingers slightly from where they lay upon his knee. Her own waved back; a slight thing, but one that he cherished.

And then, Caroline’s voice broke through the bitter stillness that lurked in their home. Her voice was crisp, forced slightly, but still welcome. “Oh, have you all heard about what Murikeer discovered in the eastern mountains?”

Charles shook his head, even as Kimberly smiled more broadly. “No, what did he find?” It had been a short while since he’d seen the skunk, and even then, he had been greatly changed from the reclusive young man he’d known and liked. Kimberly was quite rapt by news of Murikeer. Before the siege, the skunk had been teaching Kimberly a few minor magical tricks, ones that she tried to use regularly in fact. Often she would speak a simple word and breathe a flame upon a candle wick, much to Charles’s surprise. No matter how many times he saw her do that, it still impressed him.

Caroline smiled broadly then. “Well, nobody’s really sure yet what he did find, but I heard from somebody who went up there after him that he’s discovered a vein of mithril!” This last she said in a whisper, as if the word itself were too precious for others to hear. Misha’s one ear was cocked to the side in amusement, as if he was no too sure he believed that it was true. Charles’s eyes went wide, even as Kimberly’s whiskers twitched in curious fascination.

“Mithril?” Charles said, his voice exasperated. “How much did he find?”

The otter shook her head, long tail pulling tighter against the fox. “I don’t know. I only heard that it looked like a pretty good sized vein.”

“Well, if its only enough to make a single sword, it’ll still give Murikeer enough money to last him most of the rest of his life!”

“I think it will make more than a sword,” cautioned Caroline, “but I don’t know for sure. But it’s still very exciting to think about! Mithril at Metamor!”

“Very exciting!” agreed Misha with a sudden smile. “And I’m sure it will occupy him for a while.” And then, a strange sort of grin crept across his muzzle. His short red fur shifted subtly, as if several different breezes had passed through it. “Now, there is something that has been occupying me for the last few weeks.”

Caroline rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Oh no! Here it comes,” she said resignedly.

Misha’s smile only grew wider at that. “Have you found out yet what Lars’s special brew is? I’ve been eager to know!”

Even as Charles let out a hearty laugh, Kimberly rolled her own eyes much as Caroline had done. As had happened so many times before, the tension had fled the room fully leaving the four friends once more at ease. With a slow shake of his head, the rat said, “I am afraid he has not entrusted me with such knowledge. Would that he had! I am as eager as you to discover what concoction he has prepared for us all. But fear not, for tomorrow his secret shall be revealed and we shall know what deviltry he intends to call a libation!”

“And you have been hanging around with the bards too much!” Misha declared, waggling a finger in the rat’s direction. “You are starting to talk like them too.”

“Ah,” Charles said expansively, feeling the moment fill him. He spread his arms wide, winking once to Kimberly. “What better way to win myself a drink than to woo my lovely lady with sweet words as precious as wine?”

Kimberly returned his gaze, though hers was arched and sceptical, yet still bearing an amused smirk. Speaking as a mother to a beseeching child she said, “This time.”

He gave a quick bow from where he sat, sweeping one arm up behind him, whose fingers waggled playfully. “I thank you, my most kind and generous lady!” At this, Misha let out a loud guffaw, and even Caroline and Kimberly joined in the laugh. Charles sat back up with a smile, his own mirth quiet. It was going to be a wonderful festival, he could tell already.

Earl Friedrich Schanalein was a gracious enough host, inviting the Marquis to share a late dinner with him in one of their more elegant dining halls. They were joined by the Earl’s stately wife Gutreth and brackish teenage son Kurt. Through most of the meal, the Earl traded vapid pleasantries with the Marquis, inquiring of his own fiefdom Tournemire which was a week’s journey south along the coast, and also of his health. Like many a good noble wife, Gutreth remained quiet the entire meal, speaking only when spoken too, and in short pleasant phrases. Kurt often had to bite his tongue at a sudden glance from his father, but was also well behaved for one his age.

But these were of no concern to the Marquis, who enjoyed his meal with rigorous aplomb. The usual banter was a customary dance that he was well-acquainted with. The Earl had not yet asked him why he was in Breckaris, which meant that he already knew that he’d ventured into the merchants district upon his arrival. It was also likely that Friedrich was aware that he’d met with a dark clad man and shared a few short words before journeying to the Schanalein estate. It was not often that the Marquis du Tournemire would come a calling to Breckaris, though he sent monthly taxes to the Earl who was by all rights his liege lord in the Pyralian Kingdoms.

None of that mattered anymore.

“It is good to see you in Breckaris again, Monseigneur,” the Earl said, his voice smooth and light. He was only ten years the Marquis’s senior, though his white hair and lined face made him appear nearly twenty. Even so, the Marquis knew which parts of the dance he was going to take long before he made them. “Gutreth and I are always pleased to see you, so rarely do we have the pleasure of your company. Tell me, if I might be permitted to be so bold, what brings you to Breckaris at this time of the year. I would have thought you’d be more interested in overseeing the sowing of your many fields.”

Marquis du Tournemire smiled and gently held out his goblet to one side. A servant approached and refilled it from a silver carafe. After taking a small sip of the golden wine, he said “It is true that the season for sowing the fields is upon us. But it is for that very reason that I have journeyed to Breckaris. I have business that has brought me here, and it will be of great profit to the people of my demesnes.”

“Oh really?” Kurt asked then, giving him an uncertain stare. It was clear that the boy did not think the Marquis was here to buy grain of any sort. With a tightening of his eyes, the Earl silenced his son before turning to smile once more to his guest.

“Well, I hope that your soil will be fertile this year, Monseigneur.”

The Marquis allowed himself to smile widely then. “You honour me with your concern, your grace. The fields are quite fertile this year. I expect a bountiful harvest. Come the winter, we shall celebrate for our labours will be at an end.”

The Earl stared at him for a moment, trying to digest what the Marquis had meant by that remark. As he did, some of the servants, dressed in sky blues and wearing yellow sashes across their chests, came in and removed the plates from the table. The Marquis held his silver goblet between two fingers, swirling the wine as he watched his host with that incurable smile. “Of course, if I want to make sure that my fields are properly taken care of, I will have to return home shortly. I do wish I could stay and enjoy your lovely hospitality for a whole week, perhaps a fortnight, but I am afraid I cannot. If my crops do not come in, I will have to rely on your fondness of guests.”

He added this last with a slight laugh. Kurt appeared to want to scowl at him, but kept his own façade amicable to please his father. Gutreth smiled and laughed a bit weakly, drinking from her cup a little more than she would have normally liked. The Earl nodded then and smiled, holding his own goblet out to be refilled by one of the silent servitors. “So how long will we have the pleasure of your company, Monseigneur?”

Setting his goblet before him on the white linen table cloth, he could not hold back his smile. His deep blue eyes held the Earl’s, noting a strange diffidence in them that was closely guarded. “If you will have me, I would be honoured to stay in your beautiful home for two, no more than three days. My business here will be concluded by then, and I do not want to neglect my fields any more than I must.”

And then, a subtle change came over the table. It was small and slight, a tilting of the wine in their glasses that was barely noticeable. The crystal chandelier overhead spun slightly on its ropes, the tintinnabulation whispering and disquiet. The shadows thrown about the walls lengthened, deepening in places as they found the various crevices in the ornate sculptures and paintings. Even Earl Schanalein appeared to feel something, shifting slightly in his seat and sipping once at his goblet.

After setting it down, Gutreth rose from her seat, smiling primly to her husband. “With your leave I wish to retire for the evening.”

Both the Marquis and the Earl had stood with her and inclined their heads respectfully as she curtsied lightly. “Good night, my lady,” Friedrich said, his voice light, his smile genuine. The Marquis also smiled and wished her well.

Kurt left with her after saying his own farewells, the young teenager favouring his father with a smile, but the one he shared with the Marquis was merely perfunctory. After they had both left, the two men returned to their seats, contemplating their wine. With a heavy inhalation, the Earl spoke, “I hope that I am not keeping you from anything important, Monseigneur.” There was a faint hint of dismissal in his tone, but mostly it was simple politeness.

“Not at all, your grace,” he said, smiling more widely. “What business I do have in your lovely city can wait until the morning. I thought perhaps that we might share a game of cards together while we finished our wine this evening. That is unless I am keeping you from anything important.”

Earl Schanalein shook his head and smiled, leaning forward in his seat. “I think you for the offer, but I have no deck with which to play. Nor do I think I would present much of a challenge to you. I have heard the other lords speak highly of your mastery of heart, coin, sword, and spade.”

The Marquis laughed at that. “Do I detect a bit of a poet in you, your grace? Nevertheless, I have brought my own deck. I fashioned it myself I would have you know. Surely you would not deny me at least one match this evening?”

Appearing to mull the offer for a moment, Friedrich took a long sip of his wine. When he set the goblet down he was smiling and nodding. “Very well then, Monseigneur. Produce this deck of your own hands and I shall endeavour to see if you are every bit as talented as I have heard.”

Turning in his seat ever so slightly, he snapped his fingers. One of the servants was at his side a moment later. “Inform my man that I need my mahogany case. Bring it here unopened.” The servant nodded his head and rushed off to do just that. Smiling, the Marquis sipped at his drink. It would be a lovely game.

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