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Chapter VII

The next evening as dusk wore on with fading shadows, Allen walked with Kilin toward the house his family kept in the city. The two of them had dressed simply in their uniforms, forgoing excess ornament with the appeal to military formality. Their blades hung by their sides, both as part of their uniforms and as signs of their duty to the kingdom and their obligation to keep the peace.

“Do you think your father will make too much of this evening?” Allen asked, as they passed a lamp-lighter raising his stick to the lanterns that marked the street.

“I’m sure he intends something lavish to impress you and any other guests, and to show exactly how valuable he considers my health. I am his only son and eldest child, or it might not be as notable. My sisters would do well with the inheritance, and if anything should happen to me it would pass to them, but father thinks it important that the title pass from father to son,” Kilin replied, glancing briefly toward the new lights that burned along the street.

“Have you had any word yet about the attack?” Allen asked. “It’s still a mystery to me.”

“Not so far. Father is apt to see it as a political attack against his interests—he thinks one of his opponents in the court arranged it as a warning to him.”

“Someone attacked you and he thinks of politics?”

“It’s not as bad as that,” Kilin assured him. “He truly is concerned for my health. It’s just that father cannot see anything without attaching some political motivation to it.”

“It’s going to be an interesting evening then. I wonder what he’ll make of me. I don’t know the first thing about politics.”

“I think you know more than you realize—just think of it as a melee; you’re good at those. You’ll do fine tonight—father’s promised it will be a small gathering: just the family and a few friends. But be careful what you say and don’t promise him anything; he’ll hold you to your word.”

“I’ll keep my mouth shut then.” The dances of politics were not something Allen wanted to embroil himself in.

A few minutes later, they reached the gate of the Vreis house: large, wrought iron portals folded back at the porter’s wave and two retainers dressed in the red and brown livery of the Baron Vreis stepped forward to escort them inwards.

Kilin tried to wave the guards off, but to no avail. “Sorry, sir, your father insisted that we accompany you inwards.”

It would have been a better idea if they’d accompanied Kilin two nights before, Allen thought. But knowing his friend, Kilin wouldn’t have permitted them to follow him around all the time, trusting to his uniform as safety enough.

Kilin sighed, and nodded at the retainers. They fell into step a few paces behind the lieutenants and followed them inwards along the straight, white-paved path that led from the gate to the main entrance. The path broadened into a small courtyard just before the steps of the door, with enough room for visitors to dismount from a carriage and let the driver turn around again.

Another set of retainers was waiting by the door, and when the group approached they turned and spoke a few words to someone inside. The double doors swung open.

“Dramatic nonsense,” Kilin muttered.

The retainers halted at the doors, and the two lieutenants entered alone, pausing in the doorway as they took in the scene beyond. The doors opened onto a straight, wide hall, with another door at the far end, bracketed by yet another pair of retainers. After their eyes adjusted to the brighter lantern light inside, they advanced again.

“Don’t you get tired of all the doors?” Allen asked. It was more than just the doors that he was referring to, and Kilin picked up on it.

“This is why I never visit unless my father directly requests it. Every time I come here it reminds me that I really don’t want to be the next Baron Vreis if I have to put up with this all the time.”

“Couldn’t you order them to stop?”

“You’ve never seen the look of wounded indignation on a steward’s face, I take it. If there’s one thing that a noble is eternally constricted by, it’s the formality of his servants. It’s like a contest to them; they try to see who can best preserve the ‘noble tradition of the family.’ Sometimes I think it’s the servants who are the real masters here.”

The inner doors swung open to reveal a dining hall stretching to the right and left. A long table was set down the center of it, and dozens of servants moved about the room carrying platters of refreshments and ewers for the guests, who were mixing idly.

“Oh good gods,” Kilin muttered as they stopped in the doorway and took it in.

“So much for a small gathering.” It wasn’t a small room, and the guests filled every available corner. There were easily more than a hundred of them.

“Father must have invited everyone he’s talked to in the last two days, and half the court besides.”

“Are there any good points?” Allen asked.

“Well, it’ll be easier to hide….” The two of them fell silent as the crowd noticed them, and another pair of retainers from inside the doors stepped up to flank them.

“Senior Lieutenant Kilin Vreis of the Northern Guard,” one intoned, to be followed a moment later by the other:

“And Guest of Honor, Junior Lieutenant Allen Delais of the Northern Guard.”

The room fell silent and the guests turned expectantly towards the two. As they did, Baron Vreis appeared from the center of the gathering and made his way toward them.

“Here we go,” Kilin muttered out of the corner of his mouth.

“Kilin, my boy!” Baron Vreis shouted as he approached. “Let us drink to your health!”

Servants around the room seemed to have been waiting for the cue and pressed goblets into the hands of all the guests who lacked drinks.

The baron stopped in front of the lieutenants still several paces away and raised his goblet. “To Lieutenant Kilin Vreis, healthy and whole,” he shouted, “May he stay that way forever!”

The guests cheered politely and raised their goblets to the toast.

“And to our faithful friend in need, Lieutenant Allen Delais, the mark bearer!” the baron shouted, and raised his goblet again.

There was another cheer from the guests. By Allen’s estimate, the two cheers had been so similar that the second seemed like an eerie echo around the room.

The baron turned back toward the guests, and raised his goblet again. “Now let us feast! In honor of the safety of my son and heir and in thanks for his deliverance from the dangers that beset the kingdom!”

A third cheer came from the guests, once again at exactly the same pitch, and servants began to direct the attendees toward their places at the table.

“If you would follow me, sirs,” an older servant with white hair said to them, as he appeared at Kilin’s elbow.

“Of course, Lothrik,” Kilin replied. “Lead the way.”

The man bowed slightly, and led them towards the head of the table, where he sat Kilin at the right of the head and Allen directly across from him, a position that mirrored the arrangement at Jaella’s house the night before.

The baron spared them another toast as he took his place at the head of the table and nodded to Lothrik to start the first course.

Servants filled the goblets of the guests at the table and platters began to arrive from the kitchen, bearing steaming dishes of marinated and steamed vegetables and cool olives from the south. As course followed course, the platters bore soups, fish, vegetables, roasted birds, grilled meats wrapped in pastry crusts accompanied by strong mustards and sauces, more vegetables and soups, and then platters of mixed cheeses followed by cakes and pastries, dark chocolates, and finally a strong and sweet cordial. Servants kept the goblets of the guests full throughout the evening, exchanging them with each course for different wines.

When the meal was reduced to abundant shreds, and the guests finally sated, more brandies and cordials were served along with dessert wines.

Early on in the meal Allen picked up the habit of passing on the majority of the courses from Kilin, who examined each as they came by him and then either accepted one or shook his head. The rest of the guests seemed to be doing the same, accepting a course here or there, but spending most of their time talking with their neighbors and drinking. The drinks were both hot and cold, many of them mulled with spices while others were naturally pleasing to the palate—not all of them were alcoholic, but the strong and sweet tastes concealed the potency of the constant streams poured from the ewers.

When the last course had been cleared and only scattered glasses and goblets sat upon the table, Kilin’s father stood up and offered another toast.

“To all our friends who have joined us here tonight in celebration, may Alyssa find you in peace and secure in your homes tonight, Corian bring you a fine year for the harvest, and Kaisa send you the luck to hold fast and prosper. Health to our king, health to our people, and health to all of you!”

“Health!” the guests cried, and raised their goblets and drank.

And with that, they stood from the table and began to mingle again and disperse. And Kilin nodded to Allen, indicating that it was time to slip out.

Before they could leave the table, the baron stopped them and shook Allen’s hand. “I had to make a display for the crowd, but now there is something I’d like to say to you. It was a lucky thing that you were there; the attackers might have returned to finish what they started, or some opportunist might have seen his chance to strike back at me and my family for perceived wrongs.”

The baron waved Lothrik over, who approached bearing a small case. The baron took it and opened it, offering it to Allen. ”I would like you to accept this gift, as a token of my thanks.”

The inside of the case was lined with black velvet and upon it lay a chain of gold links from which hung a dark, sparkling ruby. “It is only a small thing, but perhaps you will find some use for it,” the baron suggested.

“I thank you, Baron Vreis, but truly it is not necessary,” Allen replied, holding up a hand in protest. He had no interest in accepting gifts from Kilin’s father, and this seemed far too much. “Kilin is my friend, and I hold his safety as reward enough.”

The baron squinted at him, and frowned slightly, before he offered the case again. “Your friendship is a great thing to my son, and to me, and it has kept him safe to return to me. Please take this small token of my gratitude. I would be ashamed if you did not.”

Allen sighed internally and took the case from the baron, letting it fall closed again. It was heavy in his hands with the weight of the gold and jewel.

The baron nodded and smiled widely. “May it be of great use to you, as you have been to me.”

Kilin, who had been silent throughout the exchange, moved again to Allen’s side as his father turned back to the mingled crowd and disappeared. He glanced down at the case in Allen’s hands, and his cheek twitched, but he said nothing as he nodded toward the door and the two of them slipped out.

Once they were outside the final gate to the street, he broke his silence. “That bastard!” he shouted, throwing his arms up in the air.

Allen, slightly surprised, looked at his friend. “What’s the matter?”

“Don’t you see,” Kilin said, “he thinks he’s bought you off now. He couldn’t stand the thought of simple gratitude. What he said, ‘of some small use to you,’ and the way he looked. It was a business exchange to him!”

That wasn’t exactly what the Baron had said, but Allen didn’t comment on it. “What do you mean this gift is supposed to buy me off?” he asked. “Buy me off of what?”

“Of holding it over him. He thinks he’s paid you now and can call it quits, as if you were some hireling of his who had performed above expectations. I bet he’ll never mention this again, and he’ll probably try to forget your name as quickly as possible. This whole thing must have been an embarrassment to him. But oh, he still played on it didn’t he? Did you notice how he emphasized your mark when he toasted you? The glorious Vreis family, intimate with a marked Guardsman. Hah! It’ll be all over the social circles by dawn.”

“I was already friends with you,” Allen replied calmly. “What more of a connection is there now? And I could send this back.” He guessed it was worth more than he would make in the Guard in several years, but money wasn’t a concern of his. The Guard paid for most of his needs, and his other requirements were minimal. Money wasn’t going to get him home. He was pretty sure of that. He just wasn’t quite sure how. He sympathized with his friend though. He at least remembered his home as a comfortable one. Kilin’s seemed to be a pool full of self-conscious sharks. Maybe that was why the lieutenant was so outgoing. He never wanted to have to spend the night at home.

“No, definitely keep it,” Kilin said. “He would just send it back again, or something even more obvious, like a bank draft. And the cost of that thing will hang in his account books at least to remind him of what he thinks I’m worth.”

Kilin fumed the rest of the way back to the barracks, where Allen stored the case in the bottom of his wardrobe.

“Tomorrow, if you’re willing, we can take that to a gem factor I know and sell it, and I’ll help you arrange an account with one of the better banks in the city. It’s probably safe to leave it here, but it would still tempt anyone who found it.”

“All right,” Allen agreed. Petty theft wasn’t overly common in the barracks, but there wasn’t anything petty about the size of that ruby. “I wasn’t planning on doing anything with it, and that’s a better idea than leaving it beneath a stack of my underclothes.” It was a nice gem, but he would look ridiculous wearing it. It would be better off in some noble’s treasury, after they’d wrung enough crowns out of their lands to buy it.

His swordhand flexed almost of its own will. It’d be good to get back into the saddle again.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, July 19th, 2008 at 11:53 pm and is filed under A Northern Heart. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

8 Responses to “Chapter VII”

  1. Ryan Says:

    Well, that pretty much went according to predictions. If you were going to expand this chapter, you could flesh out some of the dinner conversation or have Allen move around the room talking to people. He might get an interesting perspective on things.

  2. Chad-Writtenfire Says:

    True enough. It would have been less predictable perhaps, if I had not written it when I should have been asleep.

  3. nabi al-raml Says:

    I agree, I was somewhat expecting poor Allen to get a trial-by-fire introduction to politics but I’m glad he was spared that. I do feel bad for Kilin. I’d never want to know the exact price my parents put on my life.

    Now, the narrative says: “The baron nodded and smiled widely. “May it be of great use to you, as you have been to me.””, but then later Kilin talking to Allen: “Don’t you see,” Kilin said, “he thinks he’s bought you off now. What he said, “of some small use to you,” and the way he looked. It was a business exchange to him!”

    Is that an error or Kilin’s view of him worth in his father’s eyes?

    I love, love the idea that the nobility is kept in its place by the expectations of the servants.

  4. nabi al-raml Says:

    *”his” worth, not him worth. Note to self: don’t type comments when tired.

  5. Chad-Writtenfire Says:

    Kilin is just blending together three comments his father made: “It is only a small thing, but perhaps you will find some use for it,” and “Please take this small token of my gratitude,” and “May it be of great use to you, as you have been to me.” He’s fixating on the word small, so that for him it dominates his father’s whole speech and refers directly to his father’s opinion of him.

    People do that sort of thing all the time in conversation, so it’s a deliberate thing on my part, but Kilin really remembers it that way, so it’s unintentional on his.

    The politics of the scene would have been a bunch of obnoxious nobles talking down to Allen, sucking up to the Baron, and doing something in-between whenever they talked to Kilin, meanwhile reminding him of his near-death and rescue by a peasant. I could add a few lines saying that, just to reinforce the idea of the unpleasant nobility that you’ve already seen in Count Thaesil and, to a lesser degree, in Baron Vreis here.

    Not all of them are bad, but they aren’t kept in check very well–they’re practically immune to retaliation except by the king or another noble in a feud–so they tend to be self-centered egotists and extremely rude to boot.

  6. anon y mouse Says:

    “Kilin tried to wave the guards off, despite their ill-concealed frowns and apologetic protests, but came up higher orders.” – but came upon higher orders, maybe? It sounds a little awkward to me as it is.

    “Don’t you see,” Kilin said, “he thinks he’s bought you off now. What he said, “of some small use to you,” and the way he looked. It was a business exchange to him!” – you might consider using single quotes inside the double quotes; I don’t know if it’s an official rule or if it’s just something that I think looks better.

    I don’t think Allen will have much choice about being embroiled in the dance of politics. If nothing else, his mark will likely drag him into it.

    It sometimes seems that Kilin is right; that the servants are the real masters. In some ways servants have more freedom. They can go places that their master can’t. And find out things that their master’s positions wouldn’t allow them to because of their visibility. People would be more likely to recognize the master than the servant.

    Maybe Kilin’s father thinks a hundred guests is a small gathering. 😉

    The cheers from the crowd reminded me of the half-hearted cheers in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “And the people rejoiced. Yay!” 😀

    That sure was an extensive meal. I wonder how much waste there is. Even if the servants didn’t make a dish for every person for every course, they have to make more then are likely to be chosen so that the host doesn’t look like a cheapskate. Are the servants allowed to eat the leftovers, or is that considered a bad idea because then they might be tempted to make more than they should? If the servants don’t get the food, does it go to the dogs (or other animals), or is it just thrown away? I could see different families having different policies on this; ranging from ‘we’ve got money, we might as well show it’ to ‘waste not, want not’.

    I have to admit, if I were at a party like that, I’d be tempted to try everything, especially if there were exotic dishes that I hadn’t ever had before. This could be bad for several reasons. If I tried to eat everything on the plate I’d probably make myself sick. If I didn’t I’d feel bad about wasting food. I’d also probably end up getting drunk, and I wouldn’t like that. Even though I’ve never been drunk, I can’t imagine it’s very fun. I could see myself getting a reputation for being a glutton and a lush. And that probably wouldn’t be a good thing.

    Poor Allen, being ‘bought off’ like that. I’m more sentimental, and would probably keep the gift anyway (probably in a vault somewhere); but it’s probably a good idea for him to sell it and put the money in the bank, especially since he thinks he’d look ridiculous wearing it.

    In response to the idea of adding politics to this chapter, I get the impression that we will be seeing enough of the politics later on. One that we already know about is Allen going to the dance (if he ever gets around to asking Jaella). So you don’t need to worry about putting too much of it here. A little bit might be interesting, though. I didn’t have a problem with the brevity of the meal overview, but that would be a good place to put some of it.

    -A. mouse

  7. Chad-Writtenfire Says:

    Those typos fixed. Single quotes is right, and there should have been an “against” in the “up against higher orders.”

    If you went to these parties all the time, you might get bored of them. These nobles and others have been attending similar parties their entire lives; the food and drink is just that to them, while the real meat is the political undercurrent.

    There’s a good deal left over, but the household is large; after the feast, the servants can eat their fill, and also there are donations to the temples and the poor to take care of the perishable items. Servants are kept in check by the steward and master chef, who won’t let them touch any of the delicacies before the feast. Sometimes it’s not good to be the servant. Food estimates are coordinated between the chef, steward, and head of the household, so the servants won’t make extra deliberately. After a lot of practice throwing these parties, they’re pretty good at the estimates.

    Thanks for the comment. Enjoyed it.

  8. anon y mouse Says:

    I thought my comment might be a little long winded. 🙂

    I was looking at the parties from a newcomer’s perspective (not necessarily Allen’s, but something like it). It makes sense for the rich to be blasé about it, but a newcomer might not be. I probably wouldn’t indulge in the impulse to eat everything, or, if I did, it probably wouldn’t last long enough to earn me a bad reputation 😉 ; but I was kind of making fun of myself because I’d want to try everything. I’m glad that Allen was able to figure out what to do. I hope I’d figure it out, too. Then again, if I’d been in that world as long as Allen, I’d probably pick up some of it anyway. It doesn’t sound like he’s been invited to a lot of parties, but simply living where he does has probably given him some insight into how things work there.

    I’m not surprised that the feasts are fairly well regulated, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the households had slightly different rules than each other. What one family thinks is impressive won’t be impressive to another. This might just be a special dish that is always served. Or it could be how something is taken care of. Like I said, there are several ways it can be done.

    The long time rich have procedures in place, but what about the nouveau rich? A merchant who makes it big or something. Or is the upper class basically static and doesn’t change much? What about smaller households? What about households on the lower edge of the high class?

    It’s nice to know how you deal with it, and it’s nice of you to share your insight. It helps me refine my understanding. Thanks for taking the time to share (both your story and how you handle different things in it).

    -A. mouse

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