It was daybreak, and the countryside was barren and still. The dry grass glittered crystalline and white, the bare black trees silvered with frost. In some places, dead leaves or frozen clumps of bright red berries still clung to their branches. A light dusting of snow fell, the wind eddying flurries into drifts in the hollows and dells. A snowshoe rabbit paused in a clearing and sat up on its hind legs, ears erect, nose quivering.
Figures faded in from the snow and wind, bringing their sounds with them, shattering the silence with their voices and footsteps. The rabbit leapt into the air, spun, and fled back into the dense tangle of frozen briars, its white body melting into the undergrowth.
Christophe looked reproachfully up at the sky, turned his collar up against the cold, and pulled on a pair of gloves. Behind him, Alyssa was clinging to Clayton, eyes squeezed tightly shut. When she became sure of her footing, she raised her head, blinking as snowflakes caught in her eyelashes.
Clayton wore a blazer over a linen shirt and an undershirt, and he immediately shivered in the winter air. Alyssa did not fare nearly so well, dressed in a T-shirt and fatigue pants. She opened her bag and took out a jacket she had picked up at the airport in Edinburgh. It helped some.
“Please, mademoiselle, allow me,” Christophe removed his cloak and draped it over her shoulders in one fluid motion.
“Thanks.” The cloak was heavy wool and very, very warm. She pulled it tightly around herself and pulled the hood up. Immediately, the snow ceased falling on her. Surprised, she looked up.
It was still falling. Just not on her.
She looked down at the cloak, then over at Christophe, one eyebrow raised.
He did not appear to notice and, in fact, had already turned away. “Now come,” he said briskly. “This way to my villa where await you a hot fire and food, and I shall tell you of the tragedy that has befallen our fair Corbenic.” He gestured to the hills, perhaps a mile away, beyond a small forest where they could make out the soaring gables of a great manor house, its lights a glimmer on the pale horizon.
He set off through the trees. “Make haste!” he called over his shoulder. “I cannot be missed!”
There did not appear to be a trail, but it was evident from the pace he set through the dead undergrowth that he could maneuver through these woods blindfolded. He seemed to be leading them on a route that ran parallel to the hills. Dry branches snapped underfoot. In the trees, tiny dappled wrens fluffed their feathers against the cold, chirping sadly. They passed a frozen pond fringed with a low profusion of snow-capped evergreens, its coating of dove-gray ice smooth and absolutely pristine. A hawk glided by overhead, white-throated, russet and black, with a black-tipped beak, its red eye flashing before it disappeared into a copse of trees on the other side of the pond.
Alyssa turned her face up to the snow drifting out of the translucent sky. A silver circle marked where the sun was almost hidden behind a pearl-colored veil.
“It’s pretty here,” she said in a hushed tone, as if she were afraid of breaking some enchantment.
Clayton smiled. “It was spring when I was here last.”
“You have been to Corbenic before?” Christophe asked, surprised.
“I have had the privilege of seeing Four Mothers in springtime, monsieur,” Clayton replied.
“Ah, splendid, my friend, splendid,” Christophe said reverently. “With luck, you shall again.”
At last they reached an opening in the trees, where the forest was bisected by a road—a road of smooth black flagstones, blown over with snow. They followed it until they reached the bottom of the hill leading up to the villa.
The house was of some light-colored stone, with a roof of red shale. In addition to the gables, there were steeply pointed turrets, their outlines ghostly and stark, backlit against the quickening dawn. Dozens of windows with elaborate wrought-iron panes held gilded fleur-de-lis, egg-and-darts, ivy, hearts, doves. The windows themselves were arched, rimmed with dazzling stained glass patterns of flowers in red, blue, green and gold. The road curved in front of the house, leading off to the right where stables and a carriage house stood.
They began the long trek up the hill, heads down, the wind blowing in from the open fields to either side of them.
All three were shivering violently by the time they reached the heavy front door mounted on gold and silver clasps. Even the knocker was ornamental—thick, gold, carved with a flower design. The doorknob was gold, bearing a stylized symbol that was either a slender crescent moon or a bull’s horns.
Christophe produced a key, also gold. The door opened and a rush of warm air greeted them. They all breathed appreciative sighs as they stepped over the threshold, into the foyer.
The walls were papered in a soft ivory with gilded moldings. The floor was marble. Its pale coloring matched the exterior stone almost exactly, veined in gold, the slabs fitted together with interlocking diamonds of deep red carnelian like cloisonné, drawing the eye forward to a grand marble staircase with delicate gold railings, which held the same designs as the window panes. The risers and treads were inlaid with more carnelian, edged in gold. There were gold wall sconces that held not candles but crystals, their illumination reflecting the gold and cream-colored floors, filling the interior with a warm, almost buttery, glow. Every element had obviously been created in symphony with everything else. Clayton and Alyssa regarded their surroundings, impressed with the coordinated beauty, the painstaking design of the place.
There was a wooden door to the right of the stairway. It opened and an elderly man appeared, thin, slightly stooped, dressed in simple clothing—a homespun shirt, with wool slacks tucked into well-worn boots. “Master Christophe—is that you?”
He began to cross the narrow hallway to the foyer, then froze. His eyes grew wide as he took in his master’s appearance.
“Of course it is me!” Christophe replied impatiently. “Who else would you be expecting at this time of day, in this godforsaken weather? With a house key, no less!” Christophe took off his gloves and threw them at the old man, who caught them against his chest. “Now come! Take the lady’s cloak! We have journeyed far and we must eat.”
The servant started towards Alyssa, then paused in obvious dismay. “But Master—” he held out his hands, still clutching the gloves, in a gesture that was almost beseeching. “What’s happened to you? What’s happened to your--”
“What has happened?” Christophe interrupted. “Happened? Nothing, save that your lord has arrived with guests, tired, hungry, cold, and as yet, still unattended!”
Another servant appeared, an old woman in a faded gray dress and apron, her white hair tucked up in a kerchief. Her lined face had been alight with joy but promptly fell at the sight of her master, the hearty greeting she had been set to utter vanishing from her lips. She gasped and reeled backwards, her hand at her heart.
Quickly, Christophe stepped forward. “All is well,” he said kindly, patting her arm. “Just fetch me my dyes. Run along, now, Idelle.”
Obviously still in shock, she managed a curtsey. “Yes, Master Christophe!” She turned and scurried back through the door, where Clayton and Alyssa caught a glimpse of the kitchen beyond.
The old man, having recovered slightly, came over and took the bag and cloak from Alyssa’s shoulders. Seeing her attire, he paused.
She wore what appeared to be a boy’s trousers and boots underneath some sort of jacket, pale green, fitted almost like a sailor’s coat but shorter, with large buttons and wide, deep pockets. He removed that as well, and was even more taken aback when he realized that underneath, she wore what looked to him like some sort of thin undergarment, short-sleeved, black—nothing else could be so tightly fitted. Indeed, it clung to her like a second skin. He hastily averted his eyes. What in the world had happened to these poor people that the young lady had to resort to whatever ill-fitting garments were on hand to protect her modesty? Her hair was not even plaited, only pulled back from her face and left loose down her back.
As for the gentleman—well, here, at least, was something recognizable. It was a suit, a very strange suit -- there was no accounting for foreign fashion -- but it was nonetheless clean and well-cut.
After the servant had stowed everything away in a nearby wardrobe, he opened a door that led to the dining room, lit with candles as well as sconces. There was a table large enough to seat two dozen people easily, set with gold cutlery and crystal. There were platters and chafing dishes heaped with food.
Christophe pulled a chair out for Alyssa. She missed the cue completely. Walking around to the other side of the table, she pulled out her own chair and sat down. Christophe peered at her for a moment, shrugged, then pushed the chair back in.
Seeing Clayton’s look, she asked, “What?”
Christophe did not sit. He turned as Idelle appeared bearing a little silver pillbox and a glass of water. She also had a lap robe over her arm.
Christophe took the box and the glass. “Thank you.” He removed a white tablet and downed it quickly, his head back. Still holding the glass, he gestured to Clayton and Alyssa. “Serve them. Wrap something up for me. I shan’t stay.”
“But you only just got here!” Idelle exclaimed, and for the first time, Clayton and Alyssa noticed her accent differed slightly from Christophe’s, her manner of speaking less refined. “You got to rest! And you got to get something on your stomach or else--”
“Idelle,” Christophe said quietly. His voice was firm, but surprisingly gentle. “Stop fretting and see to our guests. My meal will set just as well if I eat here or on the road.”
She clearly disagreed, but went dutifully around the table to begin serving the food. First, however, she unfolded the lap robe and wrapped it gently around Alyssa’s shoulders, letting it fall to cover her front. “There you are, mon petite,” she said maternally, patting Alyssa’s arm. On the back of her hand was some sort of tattoo—Alyssa caught only the briefest glimpse of it before the old woman had moved away again.
Alyssa looked down at the robe, then at the two men, utterly mystified. Christophe shot her an amused glance before helping himself to a slice of buttered toast.
Idelle uncovered the gold dishes, revealing a whole slab of ham, a variety of sausages, pies, kippers, and steaks; egg dishes, porridge, tomatoes, biscuits, jellied pastries, currants, syrups, tea, milk. There was enough food here for a major league sports team, including coaches, referees and commentators.
Christophe, chewing his piece of toast, raised an eyebrow. “Idelle? Not that I am at all angry, but . . . did you not get my message? I thought I requested a simple meal, did I not?”
“Well, only it’s been so long since you been here last, Master Christophe. When Cook found out you was coming, we couldn’t stop her,” Idelle said apologetically.
Christophe shook his head. “Very well. I surrender myself to the inevitable.” Dispatching the last of his toast, he sat down to the plate she had prepared for him and unfolded his napkin with a snap. “Now leave us, please. We have much to discuss.”
Idelle finished filling their plates and cups and left in a rustle of skirts.
The door closed and there was a pause as Christophe listened to the sound of her footsteps growing fainter and fainter. When at last they disappeared altogether, he shifted forward in his seat. “As you may have surmised,” he began, his voice low, “our original plan revolved around raising an army. By which I mean more than two. Since that is obviously not going to happen, an agonizing re-appraisal is in order. I must go at once to make sure all is arranged for the arrival of your fellows-- undetected by our enemies and yours. You may stay the night here, but no more than a night, or we risk discovery. In the meantime, my staff has been instructed to outfit you with whatever you may require. Then you must make your way to Four Mothers. You will want to stay off the main roads to avoid Starry Wisdom patrols—at least, until you approach the Capital.” He hesitated as a new thought occurred to him. “Pardon my asking, monsieur, but you both can ride, can you not?”
“We can,” Clayton assured him.
“Good. Once you near the Capital, you and all your retinue will need appropriate papers. I will make the necessary arrangements. But you will need a Corbenese identity, monsieur. I suggest you become a lord.”
“I am familiar with Corbenic as Clayton Hornbeam,” Clayton replied. “So I can be Lord Clayton Hornbeam of . . . shall we say Gachelen?”
Christophe nodded. “I think that will suffice. . . Yes, that will suit our needs perfectly, in fact. Are the rest of your compatriots so well acquainted with Corbenic as you?”
Clayton shook his head. “Unfortunately not.”
“Pity. Then might I further suggest you pass them off as your servants?”
“I think that would be for the best.”
“In the meantime, try to draw as little attention to yourselves as possible. On the way, your people should have time to become at least somewhat acquainted with our customs here, as well as recent events. By the time you arrive, we should, with any luck, have composed a new, equally brilliant plan with the meager resources at our disposal. Present yourself to the Prince as any visiting lord should, and I will seek you later, wherever you end up staying.” Christophe sat back. “So. That I may send a message with any hope of reaching my friends in time, tell me: when do you expect your people to reach us, and where?”
“Dusk.” The response came from Alyssa, who did not even look up from the portion of ham she was cutting.
“Dusk?” Christophe echoed. “Can you be more specific, mademoiselle?”
“Got a watch?”
He took a silver watch from the pocket of his vest, unhooked it from its button hole and, with a slightly bemused air, passed it across the table to her.
She examined it curiously for a moment. It was square instead of round, set with rubies. When she pressed the catch, it sprung open to reveal a face with not twelve numbers but sixteen—four to a side. At least, she assumed they were numbers.
“Which one is one?” she asked.
“Ah, forgive me.” He pointed to the numeral in the upper right corner. “This is one.” He ran his finger clockwise around the rim. “It runs this way. An hour is sixty-four minutes.”
She studied it for a moment. “They’ll be here at 8:28 in the evening.” Closing the watch, she passed it back to him. As he re-pocketed it, he eyed her with new interest.
Clayton set his glass down. “So we know what time. Where?”
“Not far from here.” Alyssa looked back at Christophe distractedly. “Your hair’s darker.”
“Then the dyes are taking their effect.” Christophe glanced at Clayton. “I’m sorry, do you prefer older men?”
Clayton turned red. “We’re getting off the subject.”
There was a pause as Alyssa held Christophe’s gaze. At last, she said, “About four miles west of here.”
“There is a clearing there,” Christophe said. “And good conditions for a temporary gate.”
She nodded and absently dug out her pack of cigarettes, shook one out. No sooner had she touched the filter to her lips then a flame appeared to light it.
She looked at the lighter in Christophe’s hand, then to his face, and back again. Guardedly, she leaned forward to let him light it then settled back again, exhaling a plume of smoke. She gave him a small nod of thanks.
He smiled and stood. “As much as it pains me, I must depart. Eric and Idelle will see to your needs. You will certainly need some proper clothes. And--” he drew a large purse from his pocket and set it in front of Clayton. “Permit me, monsieur, but I am sure you do not have local currency.”
Clayton accepted the bag. “Thank you.”
Christophe turned and started towards the door, then turned back to them. “Oh, and one more thing,” he added, pointing his finger at them for emphasis. “Do not know me. When we meet at court, it will be as for the first time. Please understand, I am regarded as somewhat . . . infamous. A libertine, in fact. It is a reputation I have worked very hard to cultivate, and I trust you will do nothing to dispel it.” They nodded and Christophe smiled again. “Until then,” he bowed, “Adieu.”