Friday, December 3, 2010

Chapter 2: The Manor

        The LaDuce manor was an imposing building. Manor homes are frequently built that way, and in that sense it typified its purpose. It was large, made of stone, possessed numerous windows and a complex roof with peaks and towers, and it sat in the middle of a grand estate. Everything about its design bespoke power.
        What was unusual about it was its state of decay. Such homes were usually well-kept, but the LaDuce Manor had certainly seen better days. The other thing that might make an observer take note was the amount of noise and smoke that issued from behind the home.
        A black-laquered carriage with the insignia of the LaDuce family – a pair of waxing crescent moons with the one to the right side a bit larger than the other – shone silvery on the doors on either side. Behind the carriage came a plain wooden cargo wagon. They pulled to the front of the manor house, where a servant awaited their arrival.
        The servant was a tall man with slightly-ruffled black hair. He stooped slightly – the result of years of physical labor around the manor. He also had pale blue eyes and a distinctive hawk-like nose, which made him look serious, even when he wasn't. He was one of the two full-time servants still working at the LaDuce Estates, where dozens had worked in the past. He wore a threadbare black coat, emblazoned across the breast with the same double crescents as the carriage. He was known simply as Rikard.
        The driver stopped the carriage in front of where Rikard stood. The footman jumped down and handed Rikard several envelopes. He then turned and opened the door for the passengers, as Rikard perused the addressing on each of them.
        First out of the carriage came a very large, muscular man who looked uncomfortable in the finery he wore. Discernibly unaccustomed to the clothing of the upper classes: he was dressed in a formal shirt with a blue cravat and black jacket. His piercing blue eyes looked about him quickly, as if he expected physical violence at any moment, even here in this presumably peaceful setting. He also had the crooked nose of a man for whom this expectation had been learned through brutal experience.
        Next came a woman with flaming red hair. She was also dressed well, but seemed quite comfortably so. She wore a green and white garden dress with a matching bonnet and parasol. Her features were fine, but her nose was perhaps slightly oversized. Her eyes seemed to match those of the man who had preceded her, in that they were blue, and seemed to look for danger where none should be found. She accepted the footman's hand as she exited the carriage, but wore a small frown on her face as she did so.
        The third passenger was a shorter man with hair even blacker than Rikard's. He wore a cloak that faded from a pale blue at the bottom to to a darker blue in the middle and then black around the chest. It was embroidered with stars around the shoulders. He wore dark make-up around his grey eyes and he was very thin and pale. He looked unhealthy and in need of rest.
        The final passenger was a burly man with auburn hair and a long beard which were beginning to turn white with age. He was of average height, and wore a dark-brown traveling suit, with a proper tie. His dark brown eyes seemed to measure everything around him in a glance, and he carried himself with the upright bearing of a military officer.
        The footman turned again, and stepped towards Rikard. "Your Mistress's guests, sir."
        "Thank you," replied Rikard. He then addressed himself to the guests, bowing slightly. "Manservant Rikard, at your service. The Countess will greet you in the dining room, after you've been allowed to freshen up from your journey."
        Each of the male guests handed Rikard their card, except for the large muscular man, who handed him two cards: his own, and the lady's.
        "Thank you good sirs; ma'am." Rikard bowed to each of them. "If you'd please follow me?" He then led the small group to the top of the short stone stair where the footman, who had gone ahead, opened one of the doors for them.
        They entered a large foyer with a broad staircase that swept up from the center of the room to a balcony above. Rikard led them to the left of the stairs and down a hall, where there was another stairway which led to the upper west wing of the manor. The upper hallway was long and covered with faded floral wallpaper above a tarnished baseboard. Doors lined either side at regular intervals, with a large set of double doors at the far end, where another hall ran perpendicular to the one they were in.
        Each of the guests was shown to his or her room. Soon after, the wagon's team brought up all their trunks and other belongings.

        From around the corner at the end of the hall Jessa watched the arrival of the guests with great interest. It had been nearly ten years since they'd had guests at LaDuce Manor. That one must be Master Nandless, she thought to herself as she spied the burly man in the brown suit. Stories of his exploits, both in war and in hunting, were known far and wide. I wonder who the woman is. The sallow-looking fellow must be the Dreamer. That leaves the large one as the Lady's bodyguard, probably. He certainly doesn't look or act like a servant would.
        Jessa turned quickly and ran up the north hall to find her brother Jens. Where is that boy? She found him in the kitchen with Nansi, who was scolding him and immediately included Jessa in her reproach.
        "Where have you been, young lady?" Nansi squinted one eye at Jessa suspiciously. "Spying on the guests, I'd wager."
        Jessa lowered her head. "No I wasn't!"
        "You're lying girl, and don't think I don't know it when you do!"
        "No, I'm not! And I'm no girl. We'll be twenty-three this year. Just because Jens and I are small for our age doesn't make us children."
        Nansi arched her eyebrow at Jessa. "So you say, girl, but it's not size as makes you grown up. It's how you act. And right now you're acting like a girl. Stop your pouting and help your old Nansi. We've guests, as you well know, and I'll need a bit of help in treating them rightly."
        Jessa and Jens were small in stature, but both evinced all the traits of being adults. In just the last year Jens had grown a couple of inches. He was also more muscular, and had finally begun growing a bit of wispy blonde hair on his chin. Jessa had been late in beginning her menses – not until she was twenty, in fact – but seemed to have blossomed into full womanhood in just a year afterwards. In fact, they both appeared to be full-grown adults, but scaled down.
        Jens was only about Five feet and maybe three inches tall, where Jessa was only a hair higher than five feet. They shared most traits in common: honey-blonde hair, large green eyes, narrow and slightly pointed noses. They were also of slight build, even for their small stature.
        Nansi handed a large pitcher of water to each of them, and put some towels over their arms. "You need to get these up to our guests quickly. They'll be wanting to wash the road off of them. I expect you know where the Lady's room is, Jessa. You serve her first. Jens can go to any of the other three rooms, but you'd best both come back right quick for to serve the other two."
        Jens began, "But Nansi, we're no servants!  You can't tell us-"
        Nansi cut him off with a glare. "Servant or no, these are the guests of the Countess! Now look sharp, and no more of your tongue!"
        The pair of them hustled out of the kitchen, Jessa leading the way. She led her brother to the back hall and up the staircase. She pointed Jens to the door of the room with the Dreamer in it. Priests gave her the creeps. Let Jens deal with him! Then she went on to the Lady's room.

        At first she thought she'd knocked on the wrong door, as the large man opened it. Jessa hesitated.
        "Come in," came the woman's voice from inside. Jessa looked past the man and saw her standing near the back windows. She turned to Jessa and motioned her to come inside. "Mr. Insel may look like a beast, but I assure you he has the heart of a kitten."
        Mr. Insel gave her a smile that was missing a few teeth, and stepped aside. Jessa bowed her head briefly and entered the room. She then went to the washbasin and poured in half the contents of the pitcher. She sat the pitcher to the left of the basin, and the towels to the right side, all the while watching the two guests in the mirror in front of her.
        Jessa turned towards the woman and curtsied. "I'm Jessa. And to whom do I have the pleasure of addressing myself?"
        The woman suppressed a small smile. "My name's Elinge. Elinge Froske. And I see if you have any training it's as something other than a maid."
        Jessa blushed. "Apologies, Ma'am. I'm afraid I don't. It was wrong of me to introduce myself. Please forgive me."
        "It's quite all right. I don't expect you've received very many guests out here since the Count Passed into The Dream."
        "No, Ma'am. None that I can remember since I was ten. That was for Elinora's Passing. It seems we only have guests when something sad happens." She tilted her head to one side. "Has something sad happened again? Is that why you're here?"
        "Well, the impudence of your questioning a guest aside, I'm afraid I do not know." Elinge winked at Jessa. "My presence was requested by the Countess, but no explanation was forthcoming. Have you any ideas as to why the Countess would invite me or any of the others here?"
        "No, Miss. I have no idea. I expect she'll tell us at dinner. Did you all receive the same kind of request?"
        "Us, you say? Interesting. So you'll be dining with us, then? I suspected you were something other than a servant."
        "We usually do dine together. It's one of the rules."
        There was a knock at the door. Mr. Insel opened it to reveal Jens standing there with another pitcher of water.
        "Jessa," he began. "Nansi wants you back downstairs. Now."
        Jessa stiffened, and addressed Elinge more formally. "If you'll excuse me, Ma'am. Will there be anything else?"
        "No, Jessa. You may go."
        Jessa all but ran out of the room. Mr. Insel closed it behind her.
        "Just like you to leave me all the work, Jessa," complained Jens.
        "I'm sorry. She kept asking me questions."
        After another brief lecture by Nansi, Jess came back up with another pitcher and set of towels.  She left them in Mr. Insel's room, which was unoccupied for the moment. She then went to clean herself up for dinner.

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