If Hastings knew the reason for his master requesting Edmund’s presence, the old man would not hint as such. In fact, the servant did not speak to Edmund while they walked down a maze of hallways except to note places where the ceilings were low.
The young man entered through a nearly invisible door and found himself in a peculiar place. His eyes drifted to the glass windows, from where a faint, colorful light trickled inside.
The Count emerged unexpectedly from behind a sofa, holding a book near his face. Edmund could only pause where he was, somewhat alarmed, as the man welcomed him to his study.
Wolfram pushed all manner of books aside from his seat before he could join him. He appeared to be pleased that Edmund had stopped to consider a specific portrait. “This room initially belonged to that man. He was my grandfather, the second Maximilian Wolfram.”
The young man’s forehead crinkled as he studied the appearance of this other Maximilian. He had initially found himself intrigued by the knowing look on the man’s face. It was as if he held some secret that only the artist knew. Somewhat dryly, Edmund drew a comparison between the namesake and his grandfather. “You do not seem very alike.”
“No,” the Count acknowledged. “He was not a particularly serious man. At his mildest, he could best be described as a less sober version of Giles.”
Edmund coughed into his fist, stifling a laugh. He did not dare comment further on either Giles or the deceased lord and so openly turned his attention to the rest of his surroundings. “I have been through this room once. I came through here briefly while following Elanore around.”
The older gentleman paused as he considered when exactly this visit might have occurred. “It is not a place many pass through. While it is centrally located, this is a private room usually reserved by myself for sensitive discussions. ” His voice changed into a somber, more formal tone. “My lady has pointed out that I have not thanked you properly for your assistance the past few weeks. In particular, we are both grateful that neither you nor Miss Redley have told others the full details of what happened.”
“It isn’t the sort of thing you tell others,” the young man spoke as his eyes continued to study the stained glass. “Nor should you thank me when all I have been doing is following Elanore’s lead this entire time.”
The Count knew well enough to recognize the young man was trying to deflect any sort of credit owed him. While it was true that Edmund held no particular affection for the lord, he had proved a willingness to do the right thing.
But Wolfram could not praise him directly. “Then let me simply repay you. Mrs. Winchester informed me some time ago that there was an expectation that you and Miss Redley would be engaged and wed shortly. As I understand it, there are a few customs your townspeople observe including an exchange of rings. I asked and was told by your mother that you had one in the box which was unfortunately wrecked.”
The young man colored. “Yes, there was one. Nothing fancy, but a good ring.”
The Count retrieved something from his coat and placed it within Edmund’s hand. “ I hope this will do. It is simple but is sturdy and well made. Its bearer was a woman of great courage and love. It would do well for Miss Redley. ”
The young man looked at a simple band made of a clean white metal that reflected the soft morning light perfectly. “This is too generous.”
“No,” came the response from the man as he closed the young man’s fingers around it. “I think my mother would like it very much if it passed from you to a woman like Miss Redley . She would be pleased to know that a young couple would no longer kept apart for such trivial reasons as a lack of a ring.”
His words baffled Edmund. “It isn’t quite as simple as that. There are ceremonies to have — both religious and civil. A ring does not signify we are married in the sight of the church.”
The gentleman looked troubled. “I did not realize that there were so many steps. For us, we simply live together once we have decided.”
This was an oversimplification of how wolves handled their relationships, but the young man was struck by the contrast. “I see. Thank you. This is an enormous honor you bestow upon us both. I will gladly use this ring for ceremony and return it later.”
“It is yours,” Wolfram said firmly. “Or rather, hers.”
“It is your mother’s ring. It should have great importance for you.”
“Edmund,” the Count’s voice deepened as it grew stern. “Listen well. Years ago, Lady Selva had a child and believed the child to be lost to the Unthings. But I have now come to realize that it is possible to live through an encounter with them. Your guildmember did. I did twice. The child she lost… the child we lost could also have lived. And if he did, this ring would be his birthright.”
The fair-haired youth stared at the lord for a long, uncomfortable moment. His eyes darkened slightly as he grasped the meaning of the lord’s claim. “You imply that child would be me. And yet the friar swears he knew my birth parents and how I arrived here!”
His response surprised Maximilian. But he would not be dissuaded by the youth’s reluctance to accept the idea. The Count turned away to retrieve something from a shelf. “You see this?” He held out a familiar metal object to the younger man. “When I saw this the other day in your box, I was struck by its similarity to items I also possess. It may be conjecture on my part to state that it came from here, but it is not impossible.” If his companion had taken something from this place when she left, it was plausible it had ended up with her child. His child. “You have Selva’s hair and appear to have similar gifts for magic. You have my family’s eyes and an inherent talent with the estates’ guardians. But it is more than talent — the lions embraced you, as they would a lord of this estate. How can I not possibly consider that you are my son?”
Edmund’s light eyes met the Count’s own. “It is true that your wife calls me a kinsman but she has not called me her son.”
And so the young man hit upon a point that caused the Count to brood. After a moment, he had little he could argue. “She only told me of the child recently.What I could extract from her caused her great pain. I’m afraid to revisit this question with her right now would be unkind.”
If they were related by blood, one would not guess by how they each responded. The young man reined in his anger and spoke tightly. “Do I not merit some kind of similar courtesy? ”
In contrast, the older man was inhumanly calm. “You are the one seeking answers. She told me of her promise to you. The danger to her and you would be great. The lions have ventured out, only to find bad news beyond this immediate area. Should I let her go to help you knowing full well that your answers might be here?”
Edmund’s voice was flat. “You wish me to stay here.”
“Yes. Marry the girl and stay here.”
The young man furrowed his brow. “I have responsibilities.” More pointedly he stated. “And I have a family.”
“They would be cared for,” the Count continued logically. “The Ormonds are very frail. The store sounds to be a burden, for it is all they worry over while here. I could remove that burden and free all of you from the responsibility of maintaining it.”
Edmund turned away, hopelessly confused. He did not know what to make of this unexpected solicitude from the man who had initially treated him so poorly. That the man now wanted to embrace him as his son was unfathomable. He turned away from those grey eyes — from that of the man who claimed to be his father and from those in the portrait, staring at him just as intently. “I need more time.”
An edge of impatience crept into the Count’s voice. “Of all the people in the world, that is not something I’d have expected to hear from you. Surely you must consider all your options, but remember not all can wait. Even Miss Redley, as patient as she might be–”
“Of course not,” Edmund said somewhat sharply. “If I have learned anything from watching you, it is the mistake of letting someone you love slip away. Don’t presume that I am fated to repeat your life simply because you believe I am your son.”
The man bowed his head for a moment. “Indeed, that is exactly what I fear the most. But hear this. Miss Redley is being informed right now that her term of service has ended. She is not obligated to do anything beyond what she wishes as she is our guest. As she is now longer obliged to stay, one obstacle to your happiness has been removed. I suggest you act quickly.”
The boy clenched his hand, securing the ring within it.
“Knowing my lady, she has taken her to the library. I trust if you hurry you’ll find that Miss Redley still there, waiting to hear from you.”
Elanore knitted under her grandmother’s guidance, trying to complete the last of the promised scarves for the lions who often peered into the room from the outside.
Every so often her hands full of yarn would drift back to her lap as her attention would wander. She would look at Lady Tala, dozing a corner while her younger cousins held the twins, newly born and always awake. She would listen to Mrs. Ormond as she taught the small circle of children gathered around her their numbers and letters. She would fix her grandmother’s tea as the woman chatted amiably with her neighbor, Mrs. Reyes.
She looked upon this peaceful scene with all the idealism of youth. She saw the more than dozen women and believed it did not matter if they were Wolfram or townsperson. All worked in this room, united around similar tasks such as caring for their own. In her eyes, this was happiness.
The women’s attention shifted when Lady Selva floated into the room. The woman was not the sort of person who exuded warmth, but she had a charisma of her own. A line of servants followed behind her with tea and the routine of the morning was cheerfully disrupted. The women and children forgot their work.
The lady Selva appeared before Elanore with a plate of sweets in hand. “I should like to speak on a private matter.”
Elanore put her knitting down to join Selva in the library. A maidservant quickly set up the food before leaving them alone, drawing the door firmly shut behind her.
But they were not wholly left alone. Even in the library, the lions peered in from the outside.
“Persistent, aren’t they,” Selva shook her head before she bit into a strange pastry. Her eyes closed for a moment while she savored the filling.
“I think they are restless,” Elanore offered as she carefully inspected the dessert placed in front of her.
“You speak as if you sympathize with them.” Softly, the woman added. “Are you the restless sort, Elanore?”
“No and yes,” Elanore decided to take a bite of her share of this strange bread the other woman seemed to enjoy so much. It was some kind of meat seasoned with spices that hinted at far off places. She took another bite, trying to decide if it was enjoyable or not. “I don’t like sitting around doing very little, but I am not so foolish as to always run away from home looking for an adventure.”
“There’s a time for everything.” The woman placed her cup back down on the saucer and looked at the window. “A time to fight and to play. A time for things to mend and things to grow. And a time to love.” She smiled to herself before she reached to clasp Elanore’s hand. “Dear girl, my lord is releasing you from the promise that was made between him and your grandmother.”
Elanore felt suddenly alarmed. “Are you asking us to leave? Have we done something to offend?”
“No.” Selva propped up her chin in her hand as she studied the healer. “But the sun grows stronger every day and the main danger is gone. After all you have done for us, why do we keep you from moving forward with your lives? I’m sure Edmund waits for you to be free.“
Elanore ran her fingers across the large table. “He might be.”
“Oh?” The woman seemed puzzled by the non-committal response. “If there is no offer, then by all means stay here. I have observed your interest in magic and in the care of others. The lions love you. My lord approves of you. I know you are hungry to learn, This is a good place for you to grow and for me to teach.”
Elanore’s heart beat quickly at such a thought. “Would you really teach me?”
A smile quirked around Selva’s lips. “I would if it does not cause your young man further distress. I hear his step outside. Perhaps this is something to discuss with him before we speak of it again.”
Elanore thanked her earnestly before the woman trailed out of the room, plate of pastries in hand. She felt happy as one fair-haired creature exited and another entered, thinking of how to tell Edmund of this good news. But his expression confused her. “Whatever is wrong, Edmund?”
He sat beside her,not quite meeting her eyes as he spoke. “Life seems to be intent on casting me riddles.”
“Don’t be mysterious,” she told him plainly.
“I was summoned by the Count so he could tell me something that was on his mind.”
She could tell he was troubled deeply by his conversation with the man. Her fingers drifted across the table, looking to find his and to comfort him. “What can I do to help you?”
Her touch dispelled some of the gloom on his face. Edmund swallowed before he pressed something into her hand. “Stay with me. For as long as you wish.”
She looked down at her palm and saw a circlet of metal. Her heart skipped a beat as she realized what he was asking. Her fingers closed tightly around the band and she looked back at him, her eyes shining.
She shone, casting light upon the uncertain, shadowy areas of Edmund’s life. His face relaxed and the phantoms vanished. Everything about him was smiling again.
With a cry of joy, Elanore flew into his arms. “I wish it to be forever!”
* * *
For a long time after the boy left Maximilian sat in his chair pondering the wisdom of what he had spoken. But regardless of whether it was right or wrong, he refused to recant his words. If it was true that Edmund was his son, the young man would eventually discover that he could not run away from that truth.
What Edmund’s full truth happened to be he did not know. Wolfram rubbed the bridge of his nose, hoping that whatever the future brought that Miss Redley would be enough to overcome it.
Wolfram flipped through his grandfather’s book of tales, reminding himself to not discount his own power and influence quite yet. If anything, he still had the ability to watch him. He had time — to gamble, to maneuver and, most importantly, start over.
He corrected this book in his hand, using the pen the wily old bookmaster had gifted him. How Gregory had guessed his secret, he did not know. But the man seemed delighted, not horrified to learn that the rumors about elves and their longevity were true.
He flipped through many pages, coming finally to the story that Selva loved. He held Selva’s lovely face in his mind as he lingered over the words, reading it until he could imagine why she cherished it so. He guessed she saw parallels there to her life. Otherwise she would have stopped loving him long ago.
The story she had read could guide her no longer. This knowledge relieved him. He wanted her to believe that she and he would write a new tale together, one that had no template tied to it.
His eyes read past other fables and legends, pausing when he saw the tale of the girl with the red hood. Before he could change his mind he tore out the pages.
Wolfram felt a sense of satisfaction as he fed them to his fireplace. The flames licked at the paper and ink, erasing their contents. And with this new pen, he would scratch out a replacement. His version.
He placed the book on a table and turned to an empty page. And then he began to craft a new tale, one in which the parties would resolve their differences.
–A tale in which all, including the wolves, would live happily ever after.