Failed NaNo Friday: Crooked Crown 2
The Thane’s hall was a hulking granite lump in the center of the oldest part of Old Tewett, an overgrown keep long since bedecked beyond any military usefulness with balconies, ballrooms, and colonnaded walks. Every few generations a more paranoid Thane would come into power and brick over the largest windows and wall in the balconies, but when the wind inevitably shifted the other direction the renovations always seemed to run to further additions, rather than remodels. The end result was a drafty, tortuous pile of hallways and rooms, many quite fine, that seemed to have been the result of some kind of civic implosion.
As Quick’s party approached, the Lamplighter guards parted, handing off their charges to the Thane’s civic guards, resplendent in their green and white livery. In addition to their normal kit, their halberds were decorated with small green ribbons–somewhat jarring on such obsessively honed weapons. The entrance designated for party guests was surrounded by shining crystals that made it impossible to see inside past a few feet. A page at the entrance took invitations from Quick and Naiden, bowed, and ran inside without a word. A few moments later he was back, motioning them into the hall. Quick let Naiden take the lead and formed a rear guard to shepherd Daire forward. In the relative darkness of the hallway, Quick found he could barely see well enough to follow his friends. He walked delicately, afraid he’d brush some display of exotic fragilia and cause an incident.
Just as his eyes were starting to adjust, Quick saw that they had arrived at a set of double doors. The sounds of music and conversation filtering through from the other side seemed to enter Quick’s ears and bypass his brain entirely, nestling in some more primitive pleasure center. He grinned as liveried servants stepped out of alcoves and threw the doors open. A senior servant inside, already informed of their identities, announced without looking “Master Naiden Agnithe. Master Daire Agnithe. Master Quinn Callan.”
As the three crossed the threshold, a sprawling multi-leveled ballroom spread out before them. In the center, couples whirled and spun to a rolling tune played by unseen strings, layered skirts and beaded breeches flashing in the dazzling light that seemed to come from everywhere. On raised galleries around the dance floor the dancers’ older relatives maneuvered in shifting patterns of their own, conversations forming and dissolving by some internal logic as the rich and powerful drifted in and out of private salons and each other’s orbits. Through it all, servants ghosted about with trays of food and drink, unseen except when needed.
Quick turned to Daire, prepared to extract the gratitude he was due for bringing his friend to such a fantastic party, but Naiden spoke up first. “Come, Daire, your father beckons.” The older Lamplighter put one big hand on his cousin’s shoulder and turned him in the appropriate direction.
And indeed Donel Agnithe, patriarch and unquestioned head of the Lamplighter clan, was beckoning his son and nephew from a small balcony across the room. In the two-and-a-bit years since Quick had last seen the old man, he hadn’t changed much. The dramatic crest of graying auburn hair, like rusty iron, still drew the gaze to his piercing gray eyes and beak of a nose. He still carried the stick Quick remembered being chastised with after a few memorable boyhood misadventures, a long irregular shaft of milky quartz with a single half-twist near the top, which glowed when its owner was angry (or, Quick suspected, when he wanted to appear angry). The changes came to Quick only on his second survey: perhaps a more defined stoop, which enhanced his raptorial mien; more iron among the rust in his hair; a darkening around the eyes, making them hooded and inscrutable.
“Well, by all means go and pay your respects, Daire, but do seek me out when you can. Family is family, but we must have our priorities, mustn’t we?” Quick grinned and clapped his friend on the back. Daire smiled back–a genuine smile, for a wonder–and turned to follow his cousin.
Quick turned, trying to decide between food, drink, and dancing (could he perhaps combine two of those?), but changed his mind when he saw a swirl of gray silk on a nearby balcony. There was a reunion to be had, and Quick grinned as he maneuvered through the crowd, snagging a pewter goblet of chilled punch from a passing servant. Between the door and the balcony the punch had been quaffed and its container placed on another passing tray. Quick took the steps up to his destination in one bounding stride and slipped between the heavy velvet curtains, half-drawn, that made an ersatz room of the small balcony. Sure enough, his eyes had not failed him. The slender girl–young woman now, surely–in a silvery gray silk gown, now turning and smiling with recognition, was precisely whom he’d thought.
“Quick, I didn’t know you were already back in town!” the young lady swept towards Quick, ornamental draping layers of her gown floating out like pennants with the motion.
Quick took her hand and swept a deep and flourishing bow around a courtly kiss on her knuckles, then rose and allowed himself to be drawn into a less formal but more friendly hug. Upon disengaging, he grinned and said “Ciara, my dear, I’ve barely had a chance to brush the road dust from my boots. I’d planned to call on you tomorrow, but luckily for me you’re here now!”
For some reason that brought a flash of irritation–or sadness?–to Ciara’s face, but her returning smile reassured Quick that it hadn’t been directed at him. She opened her mouth to speak, but a masculine voice at Quick’s elbow cut in “Duels have been fought over less familiar attentions, stranger.” It sounded like an observation, not a threat. Or not entirely a threat.
Surprised, Quick turned. He knew one of the two men that now faced him, but Ciara’s older brother Kai was not the speaker. That one was tall and broad, dressed in loose-fitting black and silver, with black hair cropped close on the sides, perhaps to showcase the scar that started at his cheekbone and ended at a notch on top of his left ear. Quick found his angular face frustratingly familiar, but couldn’t place him. Kai, his family’s traditionally pale and slender build unusually marked in contrast to his large companion, smirked and said “You needn’t fear competition from this quarter. My sister has known Quinn since they were both small, as have I. He’s harmless.”
Quick had been preparing an explanatory introduction, but let it die unspoken and simply raised an eyebrow at Kai. The silenced stretched for a beat before the stranger broke it “Ah, that would make you the young Callan, Turi’s son. I don’t know if we’ve met. I’m called Wolfgang.” He bowed slightly from the waist and did not extend his hand.
Oh. That one. Wonderful. Quick realized why Wolfgang looked familiar–he was usually standing somewhere behind the Thane at official functions, a dark-clad unsmiling man with no title and no House, but a lifetime’s worth of whispered rumors and suspicion. The Thane’s Left Hand, he was called–albeit only when he was clearly not present. Quick responded with a mere nod of the head, technically correct for a son of even a minor House like Callan to a Houseless freeman, but much less than Wolfgang usually received. The taller man’s lips twitched in suppressed amusement at the nuance. Quick decided it was past time to speak for himself, and said “I don’t believe we have formally met before tonight, good sir Wolf, but that seems to have been mended now. Am I to interpret the talk of competition as a clue to your intentions towards my friend here?”
Ciara had moved around Quick by this time, and spoke up “That’s what everyone says, but you hardly ever call on me lately, Wolfgang. One could think you were more interested in my father than me, given our relative time with you.” She was smiling, Quick was sad to see.
“Please, sister. Everyone knows the way to win a young lady’s hand is to win her father’s trust.” He playfully poked Wolfgang’s shoulder, but the gesture met no response. Indeed, Wolfgang seemed focused entirely on Ciara, clearly forming a response. He settled on something and opened his mouth.
“Speaking only for myself,” Quick interrupted, scowling befuddledly at his hand and wiggling his fingers slowly, “I find that my heart influences the disposition of my hand far more frequently than the converse.” He was gratified to be rewarded by a chuckle from Ciara, and a little surprised at an answering rumbling laugh, albeit a beat late, from Wolfgang.
Wolfgang shook his head ruefully. “I’m a simple man, and I take my tasks one by one. Can I be blamed for finding the patriarch of the Shroudweavers less intimidating than his beautiful daughter?” Ciara laughed again, and blushed.
I wasn’t supposed to set him up for a joke. Damnit! Quick’s inward musings on how to embarrass or entrap this oaf were cut short by Kai. “Sister, you must come with me. There’s a little family business that needs us.”
Ciara sighed and shook her head. “Bless my father, but he does not understand the purpose of a party. Very well, I’ll take my leave of you gentlemen now, and hope to see you each again soon.” She backed up a step and curtsied, flashing a cockeyed smile. Kai was already at the curtain, and she hurried after.
“Well, I suppose I’ll need to have extra fun to make up for–“
Quick was just turning to exit the balcony when Wolfgang’s hand closed on his shoulder. “Come with me, Callan, I need to talk to you.”
It didn’t sound like a request, so Quick let himself be steered toward a shadowed doorway leading away from the ballroom. The hallways deeper into the keep were quite dark after the party, and for the first few turns Quick was blindly following the hand on his shoulder. Soon enough, though, they arrived in a tiny bare room. Its irregular shape suggested it was a byproduct of other, more important structural features, and indeed it didn’t seem to have any use now, except possibly as a storage closet, if the dusty barrel in the corner was a guide. Wolfgang closed the door behind them, and the only light came from a crystal torch Wolfgang had picked up somewhere. He jammed that into a convenient crack in the wall and leaned back against the door, looking much more sinister than he had among the party guests.
“I note your father is not among us tonight.” Another observation, with no hint in voice or posture to his intent.
Quick stood in the middle of the room, confused. “He doesn’t often attend functions, so it’s not personal.”
“But you’re here. Just back in town, you said. At some private academy for the past two years, but now back and ready to take an active role in your family.” Wolfgang ran a finger absently along a scar on the palm of his left hand while he talked, seemingly to the air.
“Factually correct, if somewhat oddly slanted,” Quick critiqued, “so clearly you have no need of my input, and I should be going.”
Wolfgang continued as though he hadn’t heard anything. “Back to the city just when the old feud between the city’s two most mysterious factions looks ready to boil over into the streets. I understand that chaos and change go hand in hand. To a certain kind of person, possibilities might suggest themselves.”
“The major possibility that suggests itself in a war between the Lamplighters and the Shroudweavers is the destruction of Tewett, which I devoutly hope does not come to pass, as I live here.”
“There was a young man with you at the Academy, a Roan Killain.” Quick only nodded, unsure where this was going. “He did not complete the term. It was said that he returned home because of the death of his father, but it was also known that his family could no longer afford the tuition. There were whispers of scandal. His father, so the story went, had sought to improve the fortunes of his house by selling a large stockpile of grain when the price was high enough. To hasten that, in the rumor, he hired brigands to attack river vessels that hauled grain towards Tewett. People would become hungry, prices would go up, and the Killains would make a handsome profit on their secret hoard of grain.”
“I heard that rumor,” Quick admitted, “but I didn’t know whether to credit it.”
Wolfgang shrugged. “Who can say? Certainly there was an increase in river banditry last fall, especially towards grain barges, but rumors often weave coincidental events into their conspiracies. Certainly people did start to go hungry, but before the crisis point the banditry ceased and the market was flooded with cheap grain from an unknown source. It was about that time that the elder Killain was found in his study, the victim of a tragic suicide. Apparently–for reasons unknown to the living, as he left no note–he stabbed himself.”
“I hadn’t heard that was how he–“
Quick swallowed, thinking of some of the rumors he’d heard about this man. “That’s terrible, but I don’t see–“
“Just thinking out loud, about what happens when someone tries to arrange something that would be bad for my city but good for himself.” Wolfgang straightened and flashed his teeth in a mirthless grin. “I’ll leave you to your party, young Callan. Good evening.” Without waiting for a response he let himself out and strolled down the hall, door swinging behind him.
What in the three frozen hells was that?