So many people! Why does there have to be so many people? Oh, Bysha. Vin prayed as his blue eyes darted from one garishly clad reveler to the next. A bead of sweat tickled its way down the side of his face and a shiver caused already tense muscles to clench painfully tight. He was over reacting and he knew it but common sense held no sway among the jostling crowds that filled the streets of Fransco.
His eyes watered and stung as he tried to track every movement, watching for any sign of danger. The harder he strained the more blurred his vision became and the closer to panic he fell. He tried to draw in a deep breath of air to help steady his nerves and was immediately assaulted by the reek of human sweat, cloying perfumes, animal waste and what should have been the pleasant aroma of fresh cooked foods. The odors hit him completely wrapped together and seemed to crawl up his nostrils then ooze down his throat where they formed a lump making it impossible to swallow.
And of course with the crowds there had to be noise; the cries of vendors trying to make themselves heard over their competitors and the responses of their patrons, trying to barter for better prices. In the background were the sounds of metal clanging, pottery shattering, animals complaining, musical instruments being played badly, happy cries of greeting and angry shouts of thievery. It was too much. It was overwhelming. Choking, gasping for air, his eyes dazzled by unnaturally bright colors, his head pounding from the continuous racket, Vin wanted nothing more than to cover his ears and hide in the nearest, deepest hole.
The suffering tracker suddenly felt a strong hand grab his shoulder. Jerking free, he instinctively reached for his belt knife as he dropped into a defensive crouch.
"Vin! Vin, ease down."
Chris held his hands up and waited for his partner to recognize him. He silently cursed himself for not noticing sooner how the over crowded streets of Fransco was affecting the half-elf. Vin's nostrils were flared like a frightened colt's as his breath flowed in rapid, shallow pants. A fine sheen of sweat glistened on his pale skin as his blue eyes darted from one possible threat to the next. Finally they focused on the mercenary and Vins body noticeably relaxed. Seeing that the knife was going to remain in its sheath, Chris quickly scanned their surroundings, searching for some kind of temporary escape from the packed street.
"Chris! Over here!"
Looking over his shoulder, Chris spotted Buck's arm motioning to him over the heads of the milling crowd. He also noticed that where Buck was standing there appeared to be a gap between two shops. Waving an acknowledgment, Chris turned back to Vin and gripping his shoulder once more, gave him a firm shake to get his full attention.
"C'mon Vin. Come with me." Half-steering, half-dragging, using his own wide shoulders as a wedge, Chris got the tracker through the crowds and over to where Buck stood waiting outside a dark and narrow alley.
"Nathan spotted it and thought it might be a good time to rethink our strategy." While probably true, the concern in the fighter's eyes conveyed his understanding and the more important reason for the momentary escape from the festive throng that filled the citys streets.
Chris nodded his gratitude as he pushed the unnaturally docile and subdued tracker ahead of him into the shadowy recess.
Their other companions stood quietly waiting at the middle of the passageway. No one spoke as Vin joined their midst, giving the half-elf time to slow his breathing and calm his nerves. They all knew that the young man considered the city of Four Winds to be busy and often too crowded. The streets of Fransco, packed with both locals and visitors to the harvest fair, made their own small town seem like a temple for Bysha.
Silently, Nathan uncorked a small skin of wine and began passing it around. After his turn, Josiah held the bag in front of Vin's face and patiently waited for the offering to be noticed.
Vin blinked and finally drew in a deep, steadying breath before gratefully reaching for the wine. Tilting his head back, he let the tart liquid slide down his aching throat. The muscles across his shoulders gradually relaxed and he gave a small sigh as he passed the wine to Chris.
Watching Vin closely as he accepted the flask, the mercenary took a quick drink and handed it to Buck without taking his eyes from his partner's face. Chris vigilance was rewarded when Vin finally acknowledged his concern, giving him a slight nod and a rueful smile.
It was enough to reassure the older man and he cuffed the half-elf lightly on the side of his head. "Next time, say something."
"Next time " Vin gave a small shudder as he glanced toward the alley entrance where Buck stood blocking his view. "Yeah, guess we do have to go back out, dont we?"
"Mores the pity. Damn! Figured it would be crowded, but this " Buck waved his hand at the packed street that lay before him.
Chris moved up beside his old friend and frowned at the mass of people that clogged the wide, shop-lined street of the capitol city. Bright flags and banners decorated most of the businesses but they paled in comparison to the festive attire being worn by the celebrating inhabitants who seemed to fill every available space.
"Orrin combined the Harvest Fair with the signing of this new treaty between the human and elven kingdoms. I'm sure the merchants are loving every moment of it but it's going to make our mission even more difficult."
"You sure? Seems to me it will make it easier to go unnoticed."
"Yeah, but that works for the king's enemies as well. When we started this 'quest', our only goal was to deliver the Eventy Scroll. Now that we know there's a plot to assassinate Orrin, we can't just drop the scroll and run; now can we?"
Buck stroked his mustache, as he seemed to seriously consider the possibility. Chris nudged him none too gently in the ribs and motioned with his head back towards the alley.
"C'mon. Like you said earlier, weve got to rethink our plans. If we cant find a place to spend the night, we may have to go on to the castle after all."
When they had first arrived at Tylers home, the young wizard had attempted to describe the festive chaos that abounded in Fransco. His description had fallen far short of the reality. When he led the seven travelers from his small home to the nearest city street, the true scale of the celebration had quickly become apparent.
"Bysha!" Jaydee whistled in surprise when he saw for the first time the hundreds of people hurrying past. "There's more people on this one street than in all of Four Winds."
"Four Winds and Briar Cliff combined." Nathan agreed with the youth's appraisal. "I don't remember it being this crowded while I was at the Healer's Center."
"Lots of people in from other towns and cities." Chris divided his attention between the street and his friends' reactions. "Most are here for the fair but others will be wanting a glimpse of the elven ambassadors. Something to tell their grandchildren about while sitting in front of the fire."
"Are you sure you won't reconsider staying at my house? It might be a little crowded but no worse than anything else you'll find in the city and I'm sure my parents won't mind." Tyler made the offer standing at the end of the relatively quiet lane. While it was true that the young man's parents had stood guard over the two transport crystals for the first of the teleportations, they had seemed a little unnerved by the appearance of their son's new associates.
"Thank you but it will be safer for your family if we move on." Josiah politely declined the offer. "And remember, don't speak to anyone else about this. Especially other wizards. We don't know how many have sided with Wartolin."
Tyler nodded solemnly. "You have my word on it. Just hold on to my crystal and don't hesitate to call me if you need help again."
After shaking the young wizard's hand, the seven men made their way out of the narrow passage between the private homes and joined the crowd of revelers.
Entering the street, Chris had taken the lead once more followed closely by Vin and the rest. At Ezra's suggestion, the tracker had used a wide strip of blue material as a headband to conceal the points of his ears. Any elves roaming the kingdom during the celebration were bound to attract a great deal of attention, which was the last thing the men needed.
Their plan had been simple and straightforward; find rooms at an inn for the next couple of nights, use the days to scout the area and try to work out a timetable for the possible assassination. Buck and Chris would also attempt to discover who still served among the kings guard that they could trust and possibly get in contact with.
Unfortunately, it was now all too clear that the first step of their plan had been doomed from the start. There just wasnt a single room available. Not even a pile of straw in a barn. It seemed as if every nook and cranny was filled despite the outrageous prices being charged by the owners. Even the temples were full to overflowing and turning people away. Chris had been seriously considering Tylers offer when he had finally noticed Vins growing panic. Luckily, Nathan must have been paying more attention and had found the secluded alley just in time.
Now that they had a relatively quiet place to talk, they needed to decide what to do about lodgings. Nathan was the first to offer a suggestion.
"There are usually a few extra beds at the Healers Center. We could try there."
Josiah was quick to shake his head. "I was thinking the same thing about the Wizards Center but likely as not they are filled as well. Any out of town healers and wizards will go there first since they can stay for free."
"Well, why not go back to Tylers?" Jaydee shrugged his pack from his shoulders and wearily dropped into a crouch. The initial excitement of entering the capital city at festival time was gone, replaced by a strong but simple desire for a quiet place to eat and sleep. "It would only be for a couple of nights and besides, no one knows were here."
Once again, Josiah shook his head. He hated to be the crusher of hopes, but he knew the others would understand. "Dont be too sure about that. If those crystals in the orcs necks really do track the scroll, our enemies may have known the very moment we teleported in."
Vin remained silent as he eased down beside Jaydee. The last two marks had been harder on his nerves than any battle or scouting mission during the war and he didnt care where they wound up as long as they got there soon. Scrubbing his face with his hands, he unknowingly shared Jaydees silent wish for a quiet meal and a secluded spot to sleep. He was just to the point of suggesting they head out of the city entirely when he heard Buck mutter a low curse.
Not realizing he had been heard, Buck continued to stare out at the street, stroking his mustache thoughtfully. He finally gave a resigned sigh and turned to his waiting friends. "Well, boys, Im sorry its come to this, but I just dont see as we have a choice."
Chris eyed the fighter warily for a moment then groaned and turned to lean his forehead against the nearest wall. "Oh, Bysha. There has got to be another solution."
The rest of the team stared at the two men in confusion. Obviously Buck had an idea and one that Chris knew without having to be told. Equally obvious was Chris great dislike for the plan.
"Cmon, Chris. It wont be that bad. And it aint like weve got a whole lot of choices here."
The mercenary turned back to his old friend. "You do realize that we could be putting her in danger?"
"With the city this full? Its a great place to hide out. Well get lost in the crowd."
"Gentlemen," Ezra impatiently interrupted the argument. "Perhaps you would care to enlighten the rest of us so that we may express our opinions as well?" The minstrels voice held a note of irritation, which he tried to curb. He had been about to make his own suggestion and was immensely relieved at having someone else come up with a possible solution. He hoped that whatever Buck had in mind would work as he really did not want to have to offer up his own plan even though he knew for a fact it would be successful.
Ezra and the others waited anxiously until Chris rolled his eyes in surrender and finally signaled for Buck to explain.
"Well, how would yall like to meet the most well-known and respected business woman in all of Fransco?" Bucks wide grin made all of his friends hesitate before answering.
Sighing in exasperation, Ezra took the initiative once more. "I would assume that this remarkable woman has a name and a reason for giving seven strange men a place to stay?"
"Oh, shes got a name all right, its Manora. And as for a reason for letting us stay, well," Buck paused to give his mustache another quick stroke as he winked at Chris. "Lets just say she aint never been one to say no to a fine looking man."
"Im sorry Bucklin darlin, but the answer is still no."
"Honey, just look around you. I'm using every room I've got and even the hall closets. I just don't have the space."
Buck glanced over to where his six friends stood waiting in the main entryway to Fransco's largest and most popular pleasure house. He noticed that they were all staring at the crowd gathered in the social room where customers took the time to meet the employees and make their selections. Nathan and Josiah looked suitably impressed by the size and quality of the clientele while Ezra appeared to be completely bored. Chris was leaning up against an ornately carved wooden pillar looking like he was ready to pick a fight with anyone that came within reach while Vin and Jaydee were ogling the crowd like a couple of country bumpkins.
Looking closer at the tracker, Buck was glad to see that Vin was doing better despite their second venture through Fransco's streets. After leaving the alley, he and the others had formed a sort of protective ring around the half-elf, shielding him as best they could with their own bodies. It had still been rough on the young man and Buck didnt like the idea of dragging him back out into the city. Squaring his shoulders, Buck turned, ready to resume the argument but suddenly found himself pushed out the way by the owner of the House of Silken Pleasure, his mother, Mistress Manora.
"Now don't sulk, Buck. Introduce me to your friends and I'll have my cook fix you some dinner. I may have to turn you away but it won't be on an empty stomach."
"Gentlemen! Welcome to the House of Silken Pleasure." Manora spread her arms wide in a grand gesture of greeting before dropping into a graceful curtsey. Her elegant dress of green silk left much of her ample bosom uncovered and tightly hugged the rest of her shapely figure leaving very little to the imagination. If one dared to even imagine. A quick look at Buck's glowering face warned each of the men that this was one woman that was definitely off limits. Why she was off limits became quickly apparent.
"My name is Manora and any friend of my son's is always welcome to sample the delights of my house free of charge." As she offered her hands to each of the adventurers, Buck's mother carefully scrutinized the men with an eye trained from years of experience. She quickly regretted her rash decision at turning the six good-looking males away. Chris she recognized and gave an especially teasing smile before turning back to her scowling son.
"Really Buck, travel has done wonders for your taste in friends."
"You I mean youre Buck's but youre beautiful!?" Jaydee pointed from Manora to the fighter in open shock.
The others could understand his surprise. The woman had either had her son at a very early age or the turns had simply failed to take their toll. Not a wrinkle lined the beautiful face; not even besides the sparkling blue-green eyes. The thick, dark hair pinned and curled tightly to her head shone in the candlelight with a luster like a fine animal pelt. And her figure, well it spoke for itself.
"Jaydee " Buck's warning growl sent a blush across his young friend's face and set him back a half step.
"How sweet." Manora's rose colored lips curved into a pleased smile as she moved with an almost predatory glide to stand in front of the boy. "And so handsome. Maybe I was a bit hasty in telling my son I didnt have any free rooms. I mean, I might be able to find someplace for you to stay; provided of course you were willing to work."
Still blushing but encouraged by the complement and the seductive smile, Jaydee was quick to volunteer. "Oh, sure, I mean works no problem. Do you need wood chopped or water carried ?"
Manora's smile turned into a girlish giggle that she tried to hide behind a perfectly manicured hand. "Oh, dear, how wonderfully innocent."
Pushing past his laughing mother, Buck grabbed the young man by one shoulder and spun him around to face the social room. "That's the kind of work she means, Jaydee. And I don't think Casey would be too keen on the idea of you earning your keep that way."
Jaydee stared in confusion at the crowded room as Buck's words slowly sank in. Suddenly, he realized that not all the men present were customers and not all the finely dressed women employees. The scarlet in his cheeks threatened to outshine the sunset as he ducked his head in embarrassment. Naive he might have been but he wasnt that innocent. Even as he listened to his friends good-natured chuckling, he couldn't help but wonder what it might be like. And Casey wouldnt necessarily have to find out
"Seriously, Buck, you have found yourself quite a nice looking group of friends this time and you and Chris both know how to "
"No, thank you, mistress. Not this time." Chris' cold refusal and sharp warning glance quickly alerted Manora that something had changed since the mercenary's last visit. A quick scan from beneath lowered eyelashes revealed the truth to her knowing eye.
Sighing wistfully, she gave up any hopes of ever seeing either the mercenary or the slender young man to his left as either clients or employees in her house. Though a romantic at heart and truly happy for anyone that was lucky enough to find a partner, she was still a businesswoman with a keen mind for profit.
"Ah, well, I did offer. Im sorry gentlemen; I simply cannot give you rooms for the night. But as I told Bucklin, youre more than welcome to stay for dinner."
Bucklin? Jaydee looked at his friend in surprise as he silently mouthed the longer name. Bucklin? Thoughts of changing professions fled as he began contemplating this newest bit of information.
And Jaydee wasn't the only one learning something new. Vin openly stared at Chris who he could almost swear was blushing and avoiding his gaze. What exactly did both Chris and Buck know how to do and did he really want to find out?
Buck could tell that things would only get worse the longer they stayed in his mother's presence and quickly began ushering his friends toward the door. "Thanks but no thanks, mother. We've still got to find a place for the night so dinner is just going to have to wait."
"Buck," Manora laid a firm hand on her son's arm and for a moment just stared deeply into his eyes. Moving her hand up to gently cup his face, she rose up on her toes to give him a motherly kiss on the cheek. Balancing herself against his chest, she whispered softly in his ear, "Be careful my son. I see too little of you now but even a short visit every turn or so is better than none."
Taking a moment to really look at his mother, Buck suddenly became aware of just how much time had passed since he had last been to see her. The signs of age that the others had failed to see were plain to his eyes and for the first time he regretted all the missed opportunities when he had actually lived in the city and could have at least stopped in to pay his respects. Wrapping his arms around his mother's slender waist, Buck gave her a loving hug and returned her kiss. "I promise. And I'll drop by for a longer stay before I leave again."
"See that you do. And bring your friends, especially that youngling. I've got a girl here that would do wonders for his confidence."
"Well, gentlemen, that proved to be a great waste of time." Ezra pulled his cloak tighter about his shoulders as he scowled up at the quickly darkening sky.
"Yeah, well I don't see you coming up with any better ideas." Buck growled, jerking his own cape back into place as he joined his friends just outside the door to his mother's house.
"Because my solution is an absolutely last resort. Unfortunately, we do seem to be at that point." Smiling grimly, the minstrel started looking about the street as if getting his bearings.
"Ezra," Chris eyed the gambler closely, not liking the resigned look he saw in the man's eyes. It was the look one sometimes saw on a condemned man's face as he was being led to the gallows knowing that the Pits were waiting for his soul. "Whatever this idea is, are you sure it's something you want to do?"
"No, Chris, it is definitely something I do not want to do but at this point we do seem to be out of options." Ezras smile turned into a grimace of self-mockery as he finally admitted the truth. "You see, Buck is not the only one with a relative living in the city. Only, in my case, I happen to know that there will be ample room for us to stay."
If anything, Ezra's announcement seemed to annoy Buck more than please him. "So why in the Pits have we spent the whole day fighting crowds and wandering all over this damn city?"
Ezra merely shook his head. "You'll understand soon enough." Deciding on a direction, he turned and began leading the way further into the wealthy part of Fransco. Understand and hopefully, forgive me.
It wasn't the biggest house on the quiet, shrubbery-lined avenue but it was close. Ezra's steady pace never slackened as he pushed his way through the wrought-iron gate and continued up the brick-lined carriage path. Chris and the others did hesitate just outside the gate and swapped confused glances before following the minstrel right up to the front door.
Drawing in a deep breath and squaring his shoulders, Ezra grasped the large brass knocker and gave three sharp raps, paused, then added two more slightly spaced apart. No sooner had his hand returned to his side than the door was thrown open to reveal an elderly man dressed in a house-servant's uniform.
"Master Standish! Welcome home sir!" The servant bowed respectfully even as a broad grin split the wrinkles on his lined face. "It has been a long time."
"Not long enough, Giles. Not long enough by far." Ezra muttered under his breath as he stepped over the threshold into the brightly lit interior of his own, not so modest mansion.
If Giles heard the comments, he chose to ignore them as he stepped back to make room for the lord of the house and his associates. And what an odd assortment they were too. But not as bad as the last bunch and Master Standish had given the 'all clear' knock so they were men to be trusted no matter how threatening a couple of them appeared.
"Shall I alert the cook that there will be seven additional for dinner?"
"Yes and see to it that rooms are also prepared. We will all be staying here for the next few nights."
"Very good, sir, although we may come up one short. Unless of course one of the maid's rooms "
"No, that won't be necessary." Ezra glanced quickly at Chris and Vin then turned back to Giles. "Just prepare the five rooms on the floor with my own. I assume that mother is still using the rooms on this floor?"
"Yes sir. And I might add that she is entertaining tonight. Duke Redenow to be exact."
"That old gas-bag? What happened to Lord Willin?"
"Quite tragic sir. He and the Lady Standish were celebrating their pairing with a group of friends when he was struck down by a barrel of wine that rolled off a passing wagon. Horrible accident."
"Oh, quite horrible, I'm sure." Ezra was well aware of the stares he was receiving from his six traveling companions and knew the moment they were alone there would be a barrage of questions. And truth be-told he would rather deal with their interrogation then the confrontation he knew could not be put off much longer.
"Before we eat dinner, my friends and I would like to clean up a bit. After you show them to their rooms, provide them with robes and show them where the bathing pool is." Ezra finally turned and spoke directly to Chris and the others for the first time since leaving The House of Silken Pleasure. Oh, what he wouldn't give to be back there right now. He would even have been willing to 'work' for a room.
"Gentlemen, it may not be as grand as our last stop but welcome to Standish Hall." Ezra refrained from giving a bow and instead just waved a hand in the general direction of the curving, carpet covered staircase and then gestured to the servant. "This is Giles and he will show you to your rooms. He will then take you to the private bathing pool that lies beneath the house and I will join you there shortly. In the meantime, if you have any needs, don't hesitate to ask."
Taking in the shocked expressions on their faces, Ezra decided to forestall the questions and make good his escape. Quickly handing his cape to Giles, he turned on his heel and ducked through a curtained doorway to the left side of the staircase. Pausing just out of sight, he listened as his friends were led up the stairs to the vacant guestrooms. As the sound of their steps faded away, he let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.
The murmur of voices drew his attention to the doorway behind him. Sighing deeply, Ezra, Lord Standish, squared his shoulders and marched into the next room.
"Really? And the farms on either side as well?"
"Oh, yes my dear. I was able to purchase all of the land at a quite reasonable price once word of the new dam was leaked. Of course, as it turns out, those plans were changed at the last moment so the farms will not be underwater after all."
"You naughty man. How ever did you come up with such a clever plan?"
"He had help, I'm sure."
Ezra frowned in annoyance at the sight that greeted his eyes, even though it was one Giles had prepared him for. There, on a small couch by the fire sat his mother, the Lady Standish and her newest victim, Duke Redenow. And when Ezra had referred to the man as a gasbag, he hadn't been far off. The duke was as round as he was tall and his baldpate reflected the light from the oil lamps that hung over the room. His double chin and fat, red cheeks with his squinty little eyes only increased Ezra's repulsion and flamed his anger.
Ezra's pale eyes flashed as he met and held his mother's cool stare. "I just heard about Lord Willin, mother. My congratulations and condolences. Sorry I missed both the pairing ceremony and the funeral. Back-to-back were they? That's quick, even for you."
"What?! What is the meaning of this?! Who are you? How did you get in here?" The duke struggled to his feet and actually went so far as to lay a chubby hand on the hilt of his garishly ornate rapier. "Leave at once or I shall be forced to summon the guard and have you arrested."
"Really? You aren't going to take me on yourself and teach me my place? I'm shocked." Ezra turned his back on the raving duke and calmly poured himself a glass of wine from a crystal decanter. "Sorry to drop in unannounced mother but rooms are rather scarce at the moment, what with the fair and all. I hope you aren't too put out."
"Not at all, Ezra. This manor does, after all, belong to you. I am grateful that you allow me to continue living here for the time being." The Lady Standish rose to her feet and placed a calming hand on the duke's arm. "Duke Redenow, may I introduce my son Lord Standish, the master of this household."
"Son? I didn't you never said " The duke's anger quickly turned to bewilderment and confusion.
"Well, there never seemed much reason to mention it. He's hardly ever here, you see. He likes to travel and only stops in when he runs short of gold." Lady Standish shot a cold glare at her one and only son and received a raised wineglass in response. "But, obviously he is here for the fair so perhaps we should resume our meetings once he has left. As I am sure he will. Soon"
Duke Redenow allowed himself to be steered toward the door where Giles stood waiting with his cape and hat. "Yes, perhaps you are right. After the fair probably would be a better time to meet." The duke paused long enough to kiss the back of his hostess' hand before quickly escaping the silently threatening presence of Lord Standish.
Wiping her hand disdainfully on her full skirt, Ezra's mother waited until she heard the door close firmly behind the duke before turning to her son.
"How dare you?" She hissed through gritted teeth. "Bad enough you have to stalk in here looking like a hired killer "
"Yes, a look you are quite familiar with aren't you mother?" Ezra calmly moved over to the couch where he stretched out, resting his mud-covered boots on the embroidered cushions. "What? Are you worried that he won't pair with you now? If the long list of your previous partners hasn't warned him off I don't think my presence will deter him."
Maude Standish poured her own glass of wine which she tossed back in one swallow then quickly poured herself another before answering. "If I thought for one moment that you really believed I had any of those men murdered, I would pack my bags and leave this very moment. And get your dirty feet off the furniture. You're only making more work for the servants."
Ezra rose to a sitting position and finished off his own glass of wine. "And if I thought for one moment that you really would pack up and leave I would probably apologize."
Mother and son stared at each other in silence, both slightly shocked at the unexpected honesty in Ezra's statement. Dropping his head and rubbing his temples with one hand, Ezra groaned in weariness as he tried to re-gather his straying thoughts.
Bysha. How he always dreaded these meetings. The things left unsaid were almost as painful as the sharp words they threw at each other like knives. Had it always been this difficult to speak with his mother?
Maude closely studied her son. She was used to his sudden appearances and equally abrupt departures but she had a sudden feeling that this visit would be different. Something had changed Ezra, or maybe, someone? Sensing her son's distress, Maude gentled her tone of voice. "Ezra, are you in trouble again?"
"No. Yes. Sort of. Ah, Pits, I don't even know anymore." Leaning back on the couch, Ezra gazed off into the distance, a tired little smile curling his lips. "It does seem like I'm always either in trouble or causing it for someone else, doesn't it? But this time I suppose you could say I'm actually helping someone else that's in trouble. Very, very grave trouble."
Maude continued to scrutinize her only son. It had been many turns since she had seen him so... open so vulnerable. It brought back memories. Some pleasant, many more sad. Sighing softly, she picked up the decanter of wine and joined him on the couch, filling both their glasses one more time. Raising her own drink in a toast, she smiled warmly at Ezra as she spoke. "Then I am sure that this person will soon be out of trouble because he or she could certainly have no one better on their side."
Ezra blinked and stared at his mother for a moment before clinking his glass with hers. He took only a small sip before setting it aside. He could tell from his reactions that he was already starting to feel the effects of the wine. Alcohol on an empty stomach, body and mind weary from the long and dangerous journey, it was no wonder his guard had slipped.
Seeing that her son was preparing to leave, Maude set her own glass down and stood with him. "You are staying here, aren't you? For tonight anyway." Lifting her chin, she once more assumed the role of Lady Standish. "You at least owe it to the cook since thanks to your rudeness we are now one shy for diner."
Ezra gave his mother a roguish smirk, gratefully relaxing back into his more familiar role as well. "Actually, I've decided to give her a little challenge. Even with Redenow's departure she is having to stretch the meal to accommodate an additional six. Think she's up to it?"
"And for the next few nights all the rooms upstairs will be occupied."
"We'll try to keep the noise down to a minimum."
He finally took pity on his mother. "Theyre friends of mine. We're actually working together."
Maude still looked skeptical as she walked with her son to the entrance hall. "True friends, Ezra? Ones you can turn your back on?"
The lord of Standish Hall paused at the foot of the stairs and seriously considered his mother's question. He wasnt exactly sure what their reactions would be after learning the truth of his identity but based on the last few days, "Yes, actually, they are true friends. And not only can I trust them, they seem to be willing to trust me. At least, they did before tonight. I met them all in a small town called Four Winds. I doubt you've ever heard of it but I did find it a very interesting place."
"Well, you shall have to tell me all about it one day." Maude gave her son a small push to start him up the stairs as she spoke. "And I'm looking forward to meeting your friends at dinner. It should be ... interesting. Don't rush getting cleaned up, I'm sure the cook can use the extra time."
Maude watched her son make his way slowly up the stairs, each dragging step an ache of sadness in her heart. Had she ever told him how much she loved him or how proud he made her? Would she ever admit such feelings out loud? Could she, before time ran out?
Turning to her own rooms, the Lady Standish allowed herself a small smile of pleasure as she imagined what Ezra's expression would be if he ever found out just how much she did know about Four Winds and his time spent there. In fact, she was actually looking forward to dinner in hopes that some of the men present would match names that she knew.