Firmly, he corrected his younger cousin. “I am not particularly concerned about the wishes of the clan at the moment. Rather I believe our very distant cousin’s presence would provide some needed assistance. She’s shrewd and knowledgeable.”
Giles smirked; the Count was implying he thought some of the clan members to be coquettish and frivolous like the foxes and troubadours they several had settled among. “I suppose she wouldn’t need babysitting like the other women.”
“Only a fool would attempt to suggest so,” Maximilian scolded his cousin. “She would not take effrontery into stride.”
In that way she was very much like his grandmother. By his father’s accounts, the elder Count’s wife was strong and independent, quite capable of leading on her own without his grandfather. Even his troublesome uncles had not dared to misbehave around her. Only his grandfather, as the head of the clan, dared tease her — provoking her into fierce displays of temper.
In spite of the passionate fights that would sometimes follow, they had been well suited for one another. His cunning and her strength resulted in many children while other clan mates struggled to repopulate their numbers after the last eclipse. So decimated was the clan that what few Wolframs had been scattered across the north had to foster outsiders as sons and daughters to augment their ranks over these past one hundred years.
Wolfram’s expression sobered while he stared into the fire, crackling merrily in the hearth.
His grandfather, as absurd or peculiar he might have been at times, was remarkably good at the task of living. He would be proud to think of this home, completed now, and soon to be overflowing with Wolframs. However, he would be likely displeased that his namesake had done little to contribute to the clan’s numbers.
Oblivious to his cousin’s brooding, Giles continued along in a light-hearted manner. “The only things really missing from this would-be reunion are a few barrels of scotch and a few dozen elves.”
“We have what they left behind.” The Count’s thoughts floated to the lions. “They are difficult to understand but powerful in their own way.”
“I’d prefer elves. Or elven women at least,” Giles muttered to himself. “Willful beasts, those lions. But at least they can’t turn on you.”
Wolfram narrowed his eyes, silently acknowledging the truth his cousin spoke. The stone creatures personified some of the purest aspects of the elves buried in this earth. They were loyal and could not be corrupted like creatures of flesh and bone, like his clan. He did not believe his clan would ever attempt to betray him, but total darkness could make them as unstable as Giles was after long periods of transformation.
“Any that did would have to be killed or cast into the darkness. Remind them of this–”
The servant responded with a look of surprise. Good tempered and lacking ambition, Giles did not understand the struggles for dominance that would occur once too many Wolframs inhabited a specific space. If no monsters emerged for them to fight, the clan could turn on one another out of frustrations borne of that instinct for blood.
The Count’s voice hardened as he continued his explanations. “There is a good reason why all of my uncles went their separate ways once they began to form families of their own. Once we engage in a fight, it is almost impossible to call it off.”
A thoughtful look crossed Giles’ face as he considered that piece of clan wisdom and the near altercation the previous evening. “I suppose I should be glad that all I received last night was a bruise.”
The Count nodded slightly. To say more would reveal too much. “Now, do you bring me any other messages from our clan?”
The coachman was still rather flustered as he reached into a pocket and withdrew a small, rolled-up piece of paper. But when he spoke his voice was calm and light. “I have a present taken from a bumbling traveler. Our cousins thought you’d find it entertaining.”
Wolfram took the document from him and rolled it open for careful study. He frowned as he inspected the paper, not entertained at all. It appeared that whatever had been on this message had been either obscured intentionally or obliterated through mishandling of the paper. All that remained were a handful of words:
Giles could offer little to change the expression on his master’s face. “No one can figure out if it was coded or not. Seems that every time the man tried to say something he would start to foam at the mouth. They thought he might be hexed by a magic user.”
Somewhat sharply, Wolfram disagreed. “You don’t need magic to have that effect. A person can be conditioned to do that — either through torture or continued suggestion.”
“I don’t think there’s any way to know now,” Giles spoke carefully. “He died before he could explain this scrap he carried with him. But I’m inclined to agree with you. I smell no magic on it.”
While Wolfram rolled the paper back up carefully, his mind searched distant memories, trying to think back to similar experiences that might help find a resolution to this particular message. “Perhaps an alchemist might be able to sufficiently restore what was here before.”
A raised eyebrow signaled Giles’ confusion. “A what?”
Wolfram sighed.He had forgotten that there had been no known alchemists around for some time. Alchemy was simply another form of magic — a form that had gone underground when the humans set foot on this land. “Consider that last comment to be irrelevant. I suppose we will simply have to ignore this particular mystery for now.”
“Well,” Giles scratched at his beard. “There’s a regular bookmaster in town. He would know a thing or two about damaged paper and inks. If it’s just ordinary paper, he might be able to help.”
Maximilian considered the logic; a man who was used to restoring and preserving books could resurrect a piece of paper ruined by human hands. He had not even considered this because of where his allegiances lay. “You propose I bring an outsider in the employ of the guild into our confidences?”
“You have brought a girl into our fold,” Giles shrugged. “And she keeps company with a man from the guild who is a decent enough boy. They can’t all be pig-headed brutes. And all of them will also be faced with this complete darkness.”
The coachman might have his share of personal weaknesses, but he was a pragmatic person whose trust of others rarely was unwarranted. Wolfram closed his eyes, acknowledging his point. He wondered if he was being selectively and unnecessarily cautious. After a moment, the Count returned the scrap of paper to the younger man. “Handle the matter as you see fit. Let the man know I will compensate him handsomely.”
With no small amount of surprise, Giles straightened up in his chair. “Does that mean you releasing me from my imprisonment inside this estate?”
The Count leveled a gaze at the other man. “Keep in sight of the lions, Smith, or Hastings, and I won’t limit your movements on these grounds or in town. But first you must see to the lions. They’ve unearthed what they believe to be animals spying on Miss Redley.”
The other man’s eyes flickered. “There was an owl there the previous evening– it disappeared sometime in the morning.”
“It seems that it returned the next evening,” the Count responded. “I suggest you ask for Lambegus and discuss this further with him. Her safety is my concern but until she agrees to be settled here, there is only so much we can do until our own numbers are strengthened. As for the bookmaster, if you choose to go to town to address him, make sure to go with Smith and return before dusk.”
“If I might, I’d like to go to the inn and look about for new faces. I have a theory about that owl.”
“Not tonight,” the Count interjected strongly, not willing to allow his cousin to push the boundaries much further. “You still require medicine on a regular basis. You shall dine with me this evening.”
The normally charming man seemed to wilt on the spot at that order. “You know how I hate ceremony. I’d rather continue eating with everyone else in the kitchen. I won’t have to wear those fluffy clothes.”
Wolfram tapped his cane on the floor several times, reminding the younger man that he was issuing an order, not a request. “Our cousins’ arrival means I must ensure you learn to observe protocol. You are my second in the eyes of the others and I will not allow them to hold your manners in contempt.”
Giles shrugged. “I will dig out my coat and even mend the buttons on it, I suppose.”
“It’s already been done by one of the maids,” the Count gave him a humorless smile. “Make sure you wear it to town this afternoon should you go. Find some shirts if you can. Hastings said you can’t wear any of mine.”
Giles snarled to himself at the idea of now having to also shop. He grumbled to himself for a bit before he resigned himself to a fluffy, frilly fate. “I suppose I’ll have to stop by the mercantile and bother the boy.”
The mention of Edmund Ormond resulted in another hard glance the coachman’s way. “The lion that talks has developed a rather peculiar obsession with the hunter that is Miss Redley’s companion. You should make a point to discuss him with them as well. I believe they know more than what they are saying.”
Giles scratched his beard while voicing his skepticism. “You forget that I tackled one the other day. I doubt they’ll take kindly to my questions and give me information that they refused to share with you.”
“They will not view you the same way as they view myself.” The relationship they had with him differed because he was their master first and foremost, not their companion. They were designed to assist him in his role, not befriend him. “But I believe they do like you. To them rough play is a form of affection and entertainment.” The Count’s mouth turned up slightly. “You might find they see you as their fellow conspirator. That said, before you approach them you should remind them you are ill from the effects of transformation. Otherwise you may be wrestling with them yet again if you’re not careful.”
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