Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish,
To set before the king?
The well-tailored manservant cleared his throat, stirring up swirls of dust from some books that lay nearby on a table. Hastings frowned as he looked about the study, wondering where the ‘young master’ was now. He had recently returned from a long series of errands and been dumped unceremoniously back at the front building by the coachman, saddled with a rather clumsy number of baskets and things that Giles had apparently been ordered to retrieve.
A white-gloved hand emerged from behind a rather frumpy Empire styled chaise-lounge and waved distractedly.
“Sir,” the old man repeated, somewhat tersely. “My apologies for disturbing you, but that damnable coachman of yours insisted I bring this pie to you immediately.” He had not only insisted, but had wheedled compliance from the elderly butler by promising to share some of the precious liquor he had secured this morning from the lady by the roadside. Hastings was no fool. He accepted the offer.
The owner of the hand sat up with a large sigh. “Giles must be tormenting you again, Hastings. You know that I do not care for blackbird pie, or pork pies, or whatever else might be in the mysterious meat pie of the day from the town pub.”
“Well, I didn’t think it was your sort of thing, sir, but he did say it was some sort of mince pie.” Hastings wrinkled up his nose delicately, “Full of odd spices, I might dare say. He believed you might find its taste interesting.”
The Count swung his legs over the edge of the chair and put his book down on the surface of the chair in order to give the butler his full attention. What Giles found interesting usually proved to be worth noticing. “And the reason that he did not bring it himself?”
“Oh, that man wants to set off for Crossroads and investigate the road.”
“Giles is always reliable in that regard,” the Count gave a slight nod of approval. “Likely he will warn any others about the sightings of unfriendly creatures on the road.” Likely he would also be investigating the claims of Elanore Redley.
“Yes, as such, he took a fast horse and a few weapons. But he should return by nightfall.” Hastings added under his breath, “Assuming he finishes warning all the ladyfolk in Crossroads by then.”
Maximilian coughed, masking his amusement at Hastings’ remarks. The apparent rivalry between two of his more trusted servants was no secret in this household. “When he returns, please bring him to me.”
“And as for the pies?” Hastings’ expression had gone from mild distaste to utter loathing.
“Leave them here, along with the basket,” the Count stood. “I am afraid I need you to help supervise something else.”
“A project, sir?”
“Something like that, perhaps,” the younger man smiled neutrally. “You’ll see when you get to the kitchen.”
Hastings bowed and, with a certain amount of relief, deposited a basket of odd food items and assorted letters at his master’s table.
As he scurried away, his master pushed the light wooden cover of the basket aside to inspect the interior contents. There was a small number of food items wrapped in paper likely taken from some cast off Capestown newspaper. What had been casually discarded by one, however, was treated with much more respect by him. Gently, he removed the paper and set it aside for later inspection, before taking fork and knife to a pie.
The Count sliced through the pie with the utmost care and carefully sampled its interior contents. With a palate that had been sharpened by a long existence, he pondered the food for a long moment, before discovering a hint of spices from a faraway place.
His face changed, his pale eyes turning nearly murderous as long-repressed memories suddenly flooded to his consciousness and threatened to overwhelm him. He restrained himself from throwing the remainder of the pie into the roaring fireplace.
The Count walked heavily to the fireplace and gripped the mantel, clenching his teeth shut. There, he stood for a long time, trying to squash his feelings of helpless rage. He looked up at the silent portraits on the wall of his family that had long lived on this land. As his attention came to the portrait that was covered, he let go of the mantel, his fingers lingering on the cloth for a moment before he tore it down.
“What do you think of all this?” he demanded of the portrait.
It, of course, did not answer. It was no magic portrait or mirror inhabited by some mystical guide. It was simply an oddity his grandfather had picked up some time ago from a wandering minstrel elf of some disreputable fame.
Maximilian turned away from it and picked up the book that he had earlier tossed aside. It was an odd book of nursery rhymes and songs that his grandfather had once entrusted to him. It was the first book of many that his grandfather permitted him to view after he first arrived here so long ago.
There were no answers, of course, regarding the Unthings in this book. But he wanted to start somewhere in his thinking, and reading the book brought to mind his grandfather, a man who was more clear-sighted than any human he had ever known. It was his grandfather who had managed to finish this home, designed according to some mysterious logic that confounded even the elves that had helped him construct it.
It was the elves that had told him, long ago, that the Unthings were born near the beginning of the world – that the balance of things had necessitated their existence, and that they would disappear when rebalanced with the sacrifice of a living soul. It seemed rather bizarrely simple, and yet he now had observed for the second time in his life, something that did not quite agree with that explanation.
The longer he considered the events of the previous evening, the more uneasy he grew. He had spent many complacent years in the Northlands, and it was this place that had always been his harbor of safety since his grandfather had passed on and left it to his care. It was his duty to safeguard the knowledge contained in the thousands of books, scrolls and trinkets. But it also was an easy place to hide from the world.
Or so, he thought. There was no ignoring the lengthening of nights and the cold. His servants complained more frequently of the harsher winter and the rather unpleasant taste to the wind. As for the small things, the odd spices, the strange woman Elanore Redley, and the unwanted creatures – they were signs of a slow shift that was occurring, or perhaps a net that was drawing tighter about him.
He had always been told that here, this home, was the safest haven in the entire world for him. With the legacies left behind by the grandfather he had worshiped his entire life, the Wolfram heir was supposed to be untouchable. Deep down, however, he feared that this belief was inherently wrong.
Maximilian paced the floor, stopping again to contemplate the portrait by the fireplace that his grandfather had so often admired. As a boy, he had often stood next to him and listened raptly to the story behind it, of the woman and her six princely brothers, and the kingdoms that were saved through her utmost perseverance.
He frowned at the expression on the beautiful subject’s face: all-knowing, proud, and absent of the sort of uncertainty that hung over him at this moment. Abruptly, he covered the picture. He could not bear to look further. He did not measure up to her or to the grandfather that had worshiped her.
Turning his back away from the portrait, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a blue crystal.
He held it aloft, dangling it by a silver chain.
There were so many things he didn’t want to remember.