Interlude: The Absent Lords

“It won’t do, husband,” said Mrs. Bodling, housekeeper to the Prince. “It simply will not do. His Highness must come home.”

Firelight warmed the couple’s bedchamber in the high top floor of the celebrated palace known as the Merchantman House for the emblem of a golden ship under full sail that graced its facade. His Serene Highness, Peino Starhand Ereonis of the House of Ereon, referred to it as his “townhouse,” but it was much more than that. The entirety of modern Cherryrose Lane had been designed around its elegant lines and decorations, and it took up the space of five of the actual townhouses and lesser palatial residences that snuggled up against it on the densely built road overlooking the turquoise waters of the Bay of Plesz on the southern cliffs. It was the most desirable neighborhood in the capital of the Grand Navigators, not least for its proximity to the Prince’s house, which one might suppose was a boon to the city’s residency agents since the house had to stand in for its owner most of the year.

Prince Peino had taken the house for the ocean view and the strong salt winds that stirred the cherry trees and roses for which the district was named, but he wouldn’t set foot in it if he could actually be on the water instead. Even when he did pay a visit, conditioned as he was to the simple, constrained life aboard ship, he confined himself to the space of a single small house in one part of the palace — the part with the best view.

Not that the Merchantman House stood empty otherwise. His Highness’s brother, His Excellency the Lord Admiral and Protector, Ruili Windwolf, stayed often enough to keep his own suite, though he preferred to be nearer the theater district. And Their Graces, the Duke and Duchess, freely used their son’s home to house guests of the Duchy. The Merchantman House was constantly abuzz with foreign dignitaries and their staff and servants, as well as glittering lords and ladies of fame in the arts, sports, military, academia, and so forth.

Their care, comfort and amusement, the maintenance of the house and its treasures, supervision of the household staff, contracting and payment of tradespeople, and the management of the vast budget with which to do it all, fell to the housekeeper, Mistress Gladiola Bodling. Once upon a time, longer ago than she cared to think about, Mrs. Bodling had applied to an advertisement at the Guild of Keepers, Managers and Stewards, the special focus of which were those professions that gave service by means of control — the generals of the armies of domestic life, in other words.

She would never forget that advertisement. It had apparently been written by the Prince himself. It had read: “Via the Office of the Chamberlain of the Sovereign Duchy, desired: One Housekeeper for a gentleman’s residence. Type: Townhouse. Children: None.”

And here she was.

“It is simply not to be tolerated any longer, Mr. Bodling,” she said to her husband.

When the last of their children had grown and gone, Mr. and Mrs. Bodling gave their house in the Gnomish Quarter to their married eldest and moved into an apartment the Prince had made specially for them in the Merchantman House. Here they spent each night together in their cozy bed, snug by the fire to stave off the wind the Prince loved so much, to tidy up the last of their days’ business before sleep. As usual, the coverlet over their laps was weighed down with ledgers and journals on Mrs. B’s side, ship plans on Mr. B’s side (that gentleman was a master rigging engineer in the Plesz shipyards), and newspapers distributed equally.

“Is this about that valet business again, my heart?” said Mr. Bodling, looking up over his glasses.

“What prince goes about without a valet, I ask you, dearest?” Mrs. B exclaimed. “Do you realize that it comes to me to press His Highness’s shirts? That he turns to me for opinions about his cravats? What sort of work is that for a housekeeper? And if I do not do it, then who will? Certainly not those frippery little things that come fluttering about hoping for a high marriage any time the Daughter is in port, I warrant. And what of all the other things a valet does for a gentleman? The keeping of his appointments and whatnot. He, the Prince, does them himself.”

She slapped her small, gnarled hands over the newspapers in gentle frustration, as if flattening them out would resolve this unordered detail of her world.

“At sea, he is no better. I wormed it out of the Quartermaster, Mr. Grayboar, once that the only reason his Highness does not appear in dirty slops in every port of the world is because Mr. Grayboar assigns a steward to do for him, without being asked. Why not keep the steward on land, then, ask I.”

“Because a sailor is best used on the sea,” said Mr. B, repeating an oft-heard remark. He was well aware of all these things, and that the work of a valet was in no way the work of a housekeeper. The work of a fond mother whose own children had moved on to adult life and who had come over the years to turn her maternal eye upon the three sons of Ereon and the Prince in particular, however, was another matter.

He patted his wife’s hand. “His Highness has never been one for social convention, even less for luxury. He’s a true Selkie’s Selkie, they say in the yards. He’s happier with a hard bunk than a feather bed and riding a pitching deck than dancing on a parquet floor. They’re all that way.”

“Bah! His brothers are just as much Selkies as he, yet Lord Jeneyeru has a valet. I won’t say what sort, but he has one. And Lord Ruili at least makes shift with young officer candidates to train them up for the academy. His men may learn more to drink rum and dance with courtesans than maintain a gentleman’s dignity, but at least he appears in town attended as befits his station – much of the time. Prince Peino will be Duke someday, and then he will be seen to, whether he likes it or no. Better he choose a man of his own, than have one foist upon him by those schemers in the Chamberlain’s Office,” said Mrs. B.

“Each time I broach the subject, he promises me he will do it, only to run off as the day approaches. This time, I had seven likely candidates vetted and waiting upon his pleasure, and he said he would interview them as soon as he returned from the voyage to Aria. He said so.” She flipped through the letters of reference stuck into her large journal to prove it. “But what does he do? This!”

She jabbed at the Aeldreth Gazette with the front page headline declaring that the whereabouts of the noble Ereonis brothers were unknown following a pitched battle against bandits at the Temple of Flidais in Raurugia, after which victory, they and their companions had boarded a flying ship and departed in stormy weather.

“He promised me,” Mrs. B said. She pressed her hand against her lips and then set to cleaning her eyeglasses to avoid looking at the reports of bloody battle, and fighters killed, and secret missions, and monsters. “He must come home and choose a valet. He must.”

Mr. Bodling put his arm around his wife’s shoulders and said nothing. There was no point in reminding her that the brothers were experienced warriors who faced danger in the course of their allotted duties. A hen will worry over her chicks whether they be chickens or eagles.

— — —

The reports out of Raurugia sparked concern not only in the Bodling bedchamber, but also in the Great Hall of Villa Grippio. There had been no rest in the citadel since Jeneyeru had left in the Cairn Hawk for Sesus in response to Peino’s psychegraph message. Even less after the incident of the card beast in the city center and Ruili’s departure to catch up with his brothers.

The assassin had been interrogated aggressively, and the information gleaned — what little there was — forwarded on to the Floating Throne. The Duke and Duchess could only hope it would somehow find its way to their sons and be of some help. In the meantime, Duke Yirie’s booming voice, which had struck fear into countless hundreds of navy officers and sailors, now shook the pillars of the Great Hall as he marshaled every resource at his command. Spies communicated with spies. Local Raurugian officials were approached by foreign agents with questions. The newspapers were watched incessantly. A constant stream of messages flew to and from the Floating Throne via psychegraph. All on the same theme: “Where are my sons?”

Lady Olimea retreated from the tense atmosphere. She stood alone on a balcony above the sea. Behind her, she could hear her husband shouting demands and orders. Her ladies-in-waiting hovered silently some yards away and watched as she combed her fingers through her long, flaxen hair and sang to the wind and to the trail of the moon shining on the sea. She combed her hair and sang a song to send a wind to her boys to support them in their fight, and another to carry them home.

— — —

Meanwhile, in a waterfront tavern in Sesus, Tahain O’th’Farwind slammed his fist down on the table and then kicked a stool for good measure.

“Curse him!” he exclaimed.

The other officers of the Marsh King’s Daughter, hunched over tankards and newspapers, nodded morosely.

“This is typical of him, isn’t it?” he said. “The lot of them, in fact. It’s one thing to go off on a few days’ jaunt playing pirate, but this?” He picked up the Daily Sesan and threw it down again, atop the News of the Realms, the Gazette, and a dozen others, which they’d been collecting for days. “War in the mountains, and us left here to cool our heels and mend the ship while they go off for loot and glory. Arrogant sprats.”

Loot, glory, and the violent danger that came with them. The officers sank into the dark funk that had been annoying the tavern keeper for nearly two weeks, since they had been left behind by their captain with orders to get his ship ready to sail and not to worry.

Another fist hit the table, this time belonging to Vaet Longblade.

“Piss on this,” said the bosun. “The Daughter is mended, and we’re at liberty, are we not? The goal of this quest is to stop those accursed cards slipping out to the innocent public, is it not? Well, why should we sit and grow barnacles on our asses, reading these rags? Let’s join the quest.”

“How?”

“Well,” Longblade blustered a moment as he thought about it, “They say the cards bobbed up here in town, aye? It’s all well to fly up to the Wizards Guild to find out how they got here, but what if there are still some floating about? And what of the scurvy scum that have been trading them? I say we go hunt them down. Get them off the streets and into a keep and maybe learn something in the bargain. We’d be doing the captain a service, and maybe the guardians, too. What say you all?” He drained his tankard of ale and wiped the foam from his beard with his sleeve. “At any rate, I’m bored with getting drunk in this hole. I could do with a bit of skull cracking.”

The others looked at each other and shrugged and nodded.

“Where was it they had that fight with that gang?” said the navigator, Lariud Moonwood, poking through the papers. “It should be in one of these accounts. We could start there.”

Tahain, thinking about it, finally began to grin his accustomed, sharp-toothed grin. “All right then, mates,” he said. “Let’s go hunting.”

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