Hidden 20 days ago Post by POOHEAD189
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"You! How dare you cut in line, and doing so in the presence of such a lady?" The courtier sneered ostentatiously. A light rain garnished the scene, the clouds bloated and picturesque above the Great Temple of Ulric. The aristocrats and their servants scattered as well-to-do merchants and squires moved to the edge of the street, revealing the belligerents in question. On one end stood a stately, albeit squat man, with muttonchops the envy of a fellow twice his age. He stood protectively before a golden haired lady of the court. On the other end stood a lean, stern man with a wolf pelt upon his shoulders and traveling clothes, his boots still stained with mud.

Clausewitz was a drunkard, but he was a fiend with a sword. He had reason to be arrogant, beyond his favor of Hausmeister Brugal, the Graf's tall and stately Chamberlain. The lady's honor meant little to him, it was clear. She was beautiful, but there was little in her Clausewitz saw as valuable save as an excuse. Kasimir did not even look at her, stepping away and clearing room to draw his sword. He knew he was the perfect target. He had the prestige of favor without the favor itself. The bastard's death, given in a legitimate duel, would grant Claueswitz fame without really offending anyone.

"I did not cut in line, Herr Heilwig. I was merely trying to enter the door of the esteemed temple. Let me buy you a drink after the service." Kasimir offered cooly, his calm words not quite reaching his wintry eyes.

"So not only do you call me a liar, but you do not even apologize to the lady!? What, you wish to placate me to save your own skin?" Clausewitz Heilwig laughed with an ironic wickedness. He drew his slim rapier, the freshly sharpened blade whistling through the air, its cup hilt gleaming in the soft light of the overcast sky. "Draw your sword, bastard! You will answer for this insult, and even Graf Todbringer will not be able to protect you from my blade."

The crowd gasped as Clausewitz lunged across the flagstones at Kasimir, aiming for his heart.



Thirty minutes later...

The Councilman's study was warm and comfortable, but spacious enough to play the part of a small library. The works of Detlef Sierck and Tarradasch were lined next to medical books from far araby and navigator's tales west of the Westerlands. Kasimir stared at one of the shelves, not deigning to look at the good councilmen as he aired what he felt were his more than minor grievances.

"What were you thinking!? Getting into a duel, and on the steps of the Temple, by Ulric's sake!?" Ulf Von Hammershaldt exclaimed. His mug of ale knocked to the floor and his hair disheveled. Kasimir imagined a better man than himself would feel guilt over the debacle, but he merely wanted to find a place he could rest from the road. Unfortunately he had been escorted straight to Von Hammershaldt's study as soon as the duel had ended. Apparently the good councilman was to be his 'handler' for the time being, which meant they sank or swam together. Kasimir had known the councilman as a small boy, and he remembered how kindly the man had been despite his prowess on the field. It seemed the stress of the high court of middenheim had prematurely greyed his hair and left him distraught over the smallest things. Granted, a dead courtier was not unimportant news.

"I had assumed the god of battle did not fret over such things." Kasimir remarked without passion.

"He might not, but anyone can spin this into a scandal!" Von Hammershardt warned, slamming his hands on his desk. A bottle of ink rolled off the well carved wood and fell to the floor. Luckily for the carpet, it did not spill open.

"A scandal for defending myself?" The bastard asked, finally turning to regard the man. Kasimir was not an unintimidating sight. As lean as a blade and fierce as a winter wolf.

"What matters in a scandal is how others perceive it." He reminded him, doing his best to calm down and play the part of a teacher. Kasimir was half his age, and the old soldier turned politician to realize that. He walked round the table, the firelight igniting the gold regalia cascading down his surcoat. "Whether you had cause or not will not make it less so, if everyone is already against you! I would have thought you would have learned of such things in your studies at Altdorf."

"I was not aware Middenheim was Altdorf's lesser twin."

Von Hammershardt's eyes widened in bewilderment and offense. "Careful boy! The fact of the matter is, you have been here one day and a prized courtier is dead, and witnesses are saying you attacked without warning and broke the rules of engagement! Even if it's not true, you must behave yourself. Your position is-"

Kasimir had finally had enough, cutting him off with a slice of his hand. "My position is what Graf Todbringer says it is. Nothing more, nothing less."

"Very true," The councilman temporized, but he grew notably quieter as he spoke his next words. "-but Graf Todbringer is not the one whom you should worry about. Not even he rules absolutely here."

Kasimir understood his meaning, of course. Every imperial court, no matter how strong, ruled by the consent of the nobles and wealthy merchants, just as the emperor ruled by the will of the elector counts. Boris Todbringer was an exceptionally powerful count, second only to Karl Franz many claimed, but he could not be everywhere at once. Kasimir knew the advice was sound, but he would not apologize for defending himself. "I am here to faithfully serve my count, and if anyone gets in mine or his way, I will go through them. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a few hours of rest before the grand ball tonight, and I plan on sleeping as soon as possible."

"Clothes will be brought to your quarters." The councilman said, and added as an afterthought. "And an armed guard."
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Hidden 19 days ago Post by Penny
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Middenheim. It was wet, it was cold, it was uncultured and there were all together too many trees surrounding it. Plus there were a lot of beards. Scratchy and uncoth things beards. The kind of thing these Northern Barbarians wore just to spite their betters. The woman calling herself Eleanor de Abervillé presumptive heiress to the county of Coucernne lamented. The chambermaid that Oderik Rothbard, her current patron and suitor had provided her, entered with two other female servants, carrying the dress she was to wear to this evenings ball.

Eleanor stood and moved to the center of the large central room which was the hub of her street. She stripped off her clothing till she stood naked before the servants. According to her patent of nobility, a very official looking document with many seals and much gold leaf, the de Abervillé had some Imperial marriage connections a few generations back. This, perhaps, went some way to explaining why the putative Countessa de Coucernne was buxom and broad hipped far beyond the slender frames more typical of Brettonian ladies. Perhaps too, this was the source of her luxuriant golden hair, rather than the darker hues more common in the heraldic kingdom far to the south of this mountain fastness. It could not be argued that Eleanor was beautiful, with a heart shaped face, fine cheekbones and large penetrating blue eyes that seemed to shine with the innocence and purity of maidenly virtue.

The servants liked her, she tipped well and was easy to get along with if a little eccentric, that almost made up for her being a forginer in their eyes. The lead servant, a seamstress with the unlikely name of Hildberta, gave the naked woman an envious look and then set about her work. First a corset of white leather and whalebone was laced so tightly around Eleanor's waist that her eyes nearly popped when Hildberta and her assistants heaved on the laces. Then a silken shift was slid into place and carefully pinned down so as not to obstruct the slice of bosom which was to be displayed. Given Eleanor's natural resources in this area it was probably rather more than the dressmaker had imagined, but Brettonian's were a strange folk and allowed a little more leeway than a proper Imperial lady might enjoy. Next she put on her dress, a dark green velvet affair with green silk paneling of a slightly lighter shade stitched around the waist. Finally a cummerbund of fine gold chains was wrapped around her waist and pinned to the underside of her bodice with considerable difficulty. Finally her hair was teased and brushed into an elaborate crown braid which was then carefully adorned with white roses in the Brettonian fashion. The entire procedure took over three hours, the only silver lining be that Eleanor possessed a fine completion which needed nothing in terms of make up or powders that another woman might have needed.

"You look quite stunning mademoiselle," Oderick said from the the doorway. Eleanor turned to smile at him. He was a handsome if slightly older man and a Knight Bachelor of the White Wolves, something declared by both his irritating beard and the impressive cloak of wolf fur he wore even over the doublet and hose more appropriate to the evenings festivities. In Reikland he would have been judged a boor for such crass references to his social station, but here everyone wanted to scrape acquaintance with Ulric somehow.

"Thank you mousier," Eleanor replied in accented Reikspiel standing up as her servants scattered around her to curtsey to their lord. She crossed to Oderick and lay a hand fondly on his arm.

"No jewelry? I assure you all you have to do is ask..." Oderik trailed off as Eleanor squeezed his arm.

"No cherrie, I have vowed I shall not wear such finery until my dear papa is released from his awful prison," she told him. When Eleanor de Abervillé had appeared in Middenheim in the spring, she had told the tale of how her father, and elderly knight and current Count of Coucerne, had been captured by a rival and held for either ransom, or Eleanor's hand in marriage. She had fled Brettonnia to escape her fathers knights, who might think marrying her off was cheaper for them then paying the ransom and had been trying to raise money abroad ever since. Several noble families in Middenheim had quietly contributed gold to her cause, usually in exchange for a quite assurance that trade rights or a marriage alliance might be forth coming when her father was freed and able to confirm her his sole heiress. The revenues from a distant and prosperous Brettonian Fief were very attractive to the younger sons of a had scrabble land such as this, and Eleanor had been happy to quietly entertain offers from both great and small. Oderik was definitely among the great in that respect, and had showered her with hospitality and money in an attempt to help her win her fathers freedom.

"No word from his captors yet?" Oderik asked sympathetically.

"Non," Eleanor replied, "and vith ze vinter coming... I fear it will be spring before letters are able to get through." Oderik nodded trying to appear glum but clearly not too broken up about the prospect of several more months of the company of a beautiful woman, perhaps with a chance to claim a county in Brettonia when it was all done.

"Well my dear, we shall keep you comfortable and safe until then, never fear," he declared, taking her arm and turning towards the door. When there was no chance anyone could see it, Emmaline von Morganstern, child of a potter from the Altdorf Cheapside, grinned.
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Hidden 18 days ago Post by POOHEAD189
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Sleep had fortunately not eluded him.

He had killed before Clausewitz Heilwig, though even his first hadn't riled him up more than a minute. He suspected he might not be what the sigmarite priests called a 'man of conscience.' He would dispute that, if he had the care to. The half a dozen men who had fallen to his blade had either tried to kill him, or were scourges the empire could do without. Fortunately, it seemed Clausewitz Heilwig happened to be both. The weariness of the road had worn off of him, and true to his word, Hammershaldt had provided clothes for the evening for after he had washed up.

His fears of being put in some ostentatious display were alleviated. He had been given a handsome black jerkin with embroidered patterns of ulrican wolves mirroring one another. His wolfskin cloak had been replaced with a gilded cape that swept about his shoulders, and the shirt beneath was colored light and made of satin, and his trousers were comfortable and loose fitting save for when the fabric met just above his ankles. His traveling shoes had been polished to the best of the court's considerable abilities, likely not having the time to find something else in his size on such short notice.

Once he donned the outfit and slid on a pair of belts, one to hold his hunting knife and the other for his sword, opened the door leading out of his chambers.

"There's no need for that."

Kasimir found himself standing face to face with what happened to be the captain of the guard, flanked by six men with halberds. He had a mustache that would make an ostermark man proud, and grey eyes that looked far too striking for his relatively mundane, aged face. He wore no helmet, but he had on armor and a surcoat that would be the envy of any imperial swordsman. Kasimir knew immediately he meant his own sword. The bastard glanced down at his hip, and then back at the captain.

"Have you been ordered to make sure I don't bring it?" Kasimir asked, wanting to be specific.

"Yes. I was told you would likely argue, but I want this to be as easy as possible. If you please..." After a moment's hesitation, Kasimir acquiesced. He unhooked the belt, and laid it across the bench next to the door, and stepped out into the hall. The nap had lasted for a few hours, as the windows showed the sun was now finally dipping low, the clouds having fled and Ulric blessing them with a red sky. As soon as Kasimir stepped out, the captain smiled. "If you please, sir."

"Let's not keep them waiting," Kasimir quipped, and the troupe marched north, leaving the southern wing of the Graf's palace. Kasimir strode at the head, acting for all he was worth like the captain himself, confident and fierce. They were making good time, as the grounds of the fortress were vast, until a pair of workmen hauling a large table stalled them, trying to manuever out of a chamber for some refashioning project to one of the rooms. Kasimir glanced out one of the windows. To fill the silence, the real captain spoke. "Have they told you of your responsibilities yet, herr Reinhardt?"

Down below, Kasimir saw an odd pair walking across the flagstones, followed by a small entourage of servants. The man was clearly a white wolf, broad shouldered and red bearded. With some chagrin, Kasimir noted he was armed. On his arm, walking with him was one of the most lovely women he had ever seen, pretty of face and curvaceous in every place a man dreams of. But she clearly was not from here, that was evident just by the way she moved. Her eyes flicked to every exit, glinting with some hidden secret, though perhaps he was imagining things. She smiled and seemed to be laughing at the man's jokes, but somehow it did not reach her eyes.

"Not specifically," Kasimir said, turning away. He had only taken a second to glance outside.

"That is because specifically you're to do what the Graf or Hammserhaldt tells you, or any other noble for that matter, unless they are superseded by one of the two. I know your position, and I don't envy it. I had one much like it, once upon a time." The older man said, and spread his mustache in a smile. "I am originally from Nordland, and I also found refuge in the court of Middenheim. Perhaps one day you'll have my job, or one like it. Or if you're lucky, you'll seduce some baron's daughter. Stranger things have happened."

"I appreciate the advice, but I've only been here a day. Let's not make ambitious plans just yet." The bastard replied, indicating they move forward now the hall was clear.
Hidden 16 days ago Post by Penny
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Like most things in the City of the White Wolf, the Grand Ball was tied to the Cult of Ulric. Apparently it celebrated Taal, the God of Forests and growth, turning over dominion to Ulric who among his other titles, was the god of Winter. There was, it was said, a meeting in the forests between a great stag and a mighty wolf that symbolized the whole celestial dance and everyone and their brother claimed to have witnessed it, or knew someone who had. Emmaline knew this deep theological lore not because she was either learned or interested in the Cult of Ulric, but because every bearded northman assumed she knew nothing about it and just couldn't wait to correct her ignorance.

"I saw the Wolf once when I was a lad," a jowly man who was some kind of a court functionary told her in a conspiratorial tone.

"Oh oui monsieur?" Emmaline replied with false enthusiasm.

"Yes quite right, I was deep in the forest on a hunting trip when I saw a great stag on a rise, naturally I crept towards it and then this great wolf stalked from the undergrowth not twenty feet away!"

Emmaline repressed a sigh with professional determination. Either this wolf really got around, or the countryside was teaming with an unmanageable number of the brutes. More likely the sightings had more to do with drunken braggadocio then lupine demographics however.

Whatever it's tenuous theological underpinnings, the ball was the social event of the season. The Great Hall was a magnificent sight. Its floor was polished stone, colder and more austere than the wooden floors that were the rage in Altdorf, but the chill was made up for by hundreds of banners which hung along its wall in shimmering silk. Supposedly every house that owed fealty to the Elector was represented in the display, and they ranged from ancient lineages to jumped up merchants who had purchased their titles in the last generation or so. Colorful glass lanterns were hung from strings tied high around the mighty pillars that supported the vaulted ceiling, glimmering down like varicolored stars. The pillars themselves had been wrapped with interwoven vines, half lush and green, half dead and withered, their symbolism obvious. Little copper emblems of stags were hung from the branches alongside small tin wolf heads. Upon arrival Eleanor had been gifted with a small golden hart pin, a symbol Rhya and apparently an indicator that she was unmarried. Other women wore similar charms, although the quality varied. The slight flicker of Charmon, the Golden Wind of Magic, betrayed which charms were real gold vs polished brass or copper to Emmaline's eyes. As always it was difficult not to stare, but there was enough jewelry around to mask her fascination.

The Great and Good of the city were in attendance. The phrase 'anybody who is anybody is at the Grand Ball' was repeated with almost the same monotonous regularity as the wolf and stag story, if that were possible. Ladies of all ages pranced in their fine silks, or handsomely embroidered linens, showing themselves off for all to see. Middenheim apparently lacked a formal debutant system, and the Grand Ball served the same function. Emmaline privately wondered if linking marriage with the inevitable decline into winter and death was a good idea, but it was easy to keep such speculation from her lips. The men were no less preening than the women, though they went out of their way to be a little less ostentatious about it. Cloaks of wolf skin were much in fashion, although only Knights of the White Wolf were permitted to wear the badge of their order. Half the men seemed to be dressed in military uniforms of some kind though Emmaline knew for a fact that half of them were merchants who had never been within leagues of a battle. The other half seemed to be wearing the same styles of doublet and hose which had been the fashion in Altdorf two or three years ago. The appearance of bearded northern rustics in such garment was vaguely ridiculous.

"Enjoying the ball?" Oderik asked, appearing at her side with two glasses of wine. He passed on to her and she sipped at it before smiling and letting out a little gasp.

"From Bourdeax?" she asked in delight. Oderik beamed apparently pleased that she had recognized the vintage. He would be less pleased if he knew that Emmaline couldn't tell a good wine from vinegar and that the source of her knowledge was a servant whom she had slipped a few Gelt to keep her informed as to what 'Dear Oderik' was up to under the cover of pretended jealousy.

"You like it?" he asked, smiling from ear to ear as she nodded enthuastically.

"Oui, a taste of home," she continued.

"Not to worry mademoiselle, by the spring your father shall be rescued and you will be free to return to him, though perhaps..."

Oderik was cut off by a small commotion near one of the doors. A young man was striding into the hall, the obvious displeasure of one of the older nobles who had tried to block his path. He seemed familiar and Emmaline narrowed her eyess.

"Is zat ze garcon who keeled that man earlieeer?" Emmaline asked, working her Brettonian accent for all it was worth.

"What? OH... yes Kasimir, one of the court bastards," Oderik responded, his face had a measuring almost respectful look to it.

"Not in the best odor after that little performance," the Knight continued sipping at his wine as he watched Kasimir.

"Heilwig was an ass, but a well connected one, it will cause problems for young Kasimir by the White Wolf," Oderik continued.
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"Fraulien," Kasimir greeted cooly, but the baroness Grimhausen did not seem to hear. In fact she seemed to steer clear away from him, turning from her original route across the floor to veer left. Kasimir sighed, not entirely surprised. A serving man walked by him with six glasses of stout being carried to the tables. Kasimir nabbed one with an effortless grace without the fellow noticing, downing half of its contents before a count of three.

Perhaps he should insist upon conversation with one of the many houses or well-to-do upstart nobles. Already he could see people watching him, whispering as he stood there. Every fit of laughter caused him to feel as if it was at his own expense, but he also noticed whenever he cast his gaze in a direction too long, the gossip grew quieter and the looks were less overt. Perhaps his duel with Heilwig was poorly timed, but he could use his reputation as a swordsman to his advantage. He had enemies yes, but he was also one of the few men here who were dangerous without household guards bolstering their confidence.

He sequestered that bit of philosophy to the back of his mind and waded into the crowd, past a congregation of portly, mustachiode men and their giggling wives. He found himself at the table of appetizers, and upon the cloak of one man, he recognized the sigil of house Boeslegar. The man was broad, but not overly so, with a brown beard that reached into his oaken hairline behind his ears. If the guard captain could be believed, the patriarch of the Boeslegar family, Ingvald had slain a beastman warchief in battle with his own spear.

"Pardon me," Kasimir said by way of announcement, reaching past the burly man to grab a small plate with honeyed ham and steamed bean, grabbing a fork while he was at it. "It would do my reputation even less service to bump into you, honored sir."

The man looked at Kasimir gravely for a few, pregnant moments. Then his face widened in a smile. He seemed to have the magnetism of a man used to leading in battle. "I believe I know you. You're Graf Todbringer's new pup, are you not?"

"I've not been called that to my face, exactly." Kasimir remarked, and Ingvald chuckled.

"I have no talent for rumor, be it by ear or tongue." Ingvald said by way of apology. "But it is good to meet you. The Graf has spoken of you, and not without some small measure of praise, which is hard to garner. Most usually have better luck finding good farmland in the Drakwald. But perhaps he had reason. You are one of the two most famous newcomers to the city, after today's killing." Kasimir tried not to make a face at the term. It sounded a bit too close to murder, for his liking.

"Who is the other?" Kasimir asked casually.

"Ha, well I suppose it is unsurprising you've not heard, as most men steer clear when a white wolf is guarding one, even a woman so beautiful as that." Ingvald replied, granting a nod across the table. Kasimir's wintry gaze passed a small winding opening in the pressed bodies to see a curvaceous woman standing there, smiling prettily up at the hulking white wolf guarding her. The two of them were speaking to another two aristocrats, one older and one at the cusp of youth, and a number of noble ladies. "-But we've a brettonian in our midst, and between you and me, she's got a pair on her as lush as a reikland field. Don't keep your eye on her too long, though. You've enough enemies as it is."

"Enemies, you say?" Kasimir wondered idly, watching the woman. Kasimir had to admit Ingvald's assertions of her beauty were right. The classical green dress and gilded girdle only enhanced her feminine charms. But there was something else about her that drew his attention. The Knight of Ulric handed her a second glass of what looked to be wine, which she graciously accepted. However, when her escort threw his head back in a laugh after the younger noble said something particularly crass, she swiftly poured the drink out, the wine falling into the soil of the potted plant next to her. Within a blink, she had her glass back to her lips, acting as if she had just drained it.

"Now as I said, I am not one for rumor. I only know of whispers, but if I were you, I would keep that sword on you. And try not to step on anyone else's toes." The Lord Boeslegar said, patting Kasimir on the shoulder, and taking his leave of the food table. One fat man eyed the table, but seemed frozen, his eyes going between Kasimir and the food. The bastard decided to grant him his wish, quickly finished the plate, and walked away to leave the man to his own dinner.

He dodged and shouldered his way through the crowd, sliding up to the small gathering beside the White Wolf and his prize. The golden haired woman giggled with the group, and Kasimir gave a small token laugh as well to act involved. Perhaps it was nothing, he thought. Perhaps his suspicion of...something, was just his attraction working into his mind.

"I hear your Athel Loren is as dangerous as our Drakwald, my lady." The older noble said, smiling to the woman graciously. The women went quiet and the men turned their eyes to her. She nodded emphatically.

"Oh oui monsier. Iz ver-ee dangeroos. Bit beauteevul."

"Might we hear a story or two of the place?" Kasimir added, and for the first time, it seemed the entire crowd had noticed he was there. Not the woman, of course. She had noticed as soon as he had arrived. "Or, I'm sorry, does the forest reach your province? I have forgotten."
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Emmaline was not best pleased with the new comer to her social circle but she controlled her irritation with practiced ease. The remainder of the small group were not so skilled. Oderick stiffened slightly and shifted his body to clear his sword arm. Some of the young court nobles glared at the man. The reaction from the women was guarded interest though they were obviously not keen for this to be remarked upon. She was familiar with the pugnacity of duelists, her friend Hannah, an infamous blade back in Altdorf, was forever leaping into situations where wiser people feared to tread. Certainly there was nothing good that could come from this sort crashing about in her schemes like the bull that bumped the beehive.

“I do not know you sir,” Eleanor responded with the chill of a slight offended aristocrat as she wracked her brain for where exactly Athel Loren might be in relationship to the county of Coucernne. A few of the hangers on tittered at the cut but unexpectedly Oderik spoke up.

“This is Kasimir Reinhardt my lady,” Oderik interjected, “he is one of the counts ba…err that is to say extended family.” A few of the courtiers snickered at Oderik’s slight hesitation but the smarter ones masked their reactions, unsure as to why Oderik would do the younger man the favor of smoothing over an awkwardness. They might be northern barbarians but at this level of society everything could be political.

“Kasimir, this is Eleanor de Aberville, Contessa Coucernne , a guest in our fair city,” Oderick went on. Emmaline smiled and extended her hand for Kasimir to kiss in the Brettonian fashion. Kasimir did so and then straightened.

“I am not truly ze Countessa,” Emmaline admitted, her eyes sparkling slight at the unexpected truth in her castle of lies, “not until my fither passes nes pa?”

“Long may that be delayed,” Oderik replied, perhaps slightly less than truthfully.

“And to your question Kasimir Coucernne is in the south east, not near Athel Loren,” Oderik continued, clearly please to be able to show off his Brettonian geography. Emmaline suppressed a sigh of relief, having been spared from having to make a split second decision on the matter.

“I ave zeen it as a trivillor only,” she amplified, forced now to invent a circumstance in which she might have viewed the famous forest.

“Of course ve did not rid into ze voods zemselves, that would be tres parilous but I saw it from afar,” she concluded. Emmaline decided that was enough detail for a polite anecdote to someone of lower station and moved on.

“You vere ze von who killed Cloose-o-vits were you not? ” Eleanor asked, her Brettonian accent struggling mightily to render the name of the dead courtier. The courtiers stiffened as she had known they would. She was using her supposed ignorance as a foreigner to put Kasimir on an awkward footing.
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Kasimir had learned long ago that his status as a bastard made things quite awkward. He had grown used to it, and so he put that into the next logical step of this undesirable situation and merely answered matter-of-fact, even though he had not quite expected someone to ask him about it to his face. "Word spreads quickly. I am he, regrettably."

"I hear yu attack't heem before he coot even draw hiss swerd." She said, looking at him with the most innocent eyes Kasimir had ever seen. He was about as convinced as all the rest, but it was a stark contrast to the sharp eyed looks she had cast both times he had seen her previously. A nobleman sucked in a breath at the abrupt statement, and the two aristocratic women shared concerned glances. Even Oderik glanced at Eleanor, though only out of unease for her own embarrassment. It was only a reflex however. Kasimir knew whatever she said on the incident, it was his reputation on the line, not hers.

"I can say with honesty that is just a rumor." Kasimir said confidently, gingerly inclining his head to the woman. He sighed, as if the whole thing were some tragedy. He did not have to pretend much. He did not care about Clausewitz, but the duel's aftermath had been a headache. "I tried to alleviate his grievances but he attacked me and I defended himself. I never attack first, if I can help it."

"Ah, I zee." She said, as if she had just been granted the meaning of a particularly troublesome riddle. "It iz funnee. You say zis, and yet you, vat iz ze verd, assult our conversay-zhun and place yourzelf at ze center?"

"I am certain sir Reinhardt had no such intentions," Sir Oderick remarked, placing a comforting hand on Eleanour's dainty fingers. Despite the assurance, Oderick gave Kasimir a look of warning. Kasimir subtly glanced at the others, and it seemed half of the small crowd looked morbidly curious on the affair, while the two men were taking the opportunity to oggle Eleanor while the brettonian was distracted. Kasimir's eyes met one of the noblewomen, and her gaze averted sharply with a light blush. He guessed his reputation was not entirely detrimental.

"If I offended you, I apologize." Kasimir lamented to Eleanor. "I believe my manners have fled me with my weariness. I have just returned, actually. I have spent the better part of three years in the south, mostly Altdorf."

One woman nodded and the other said 'ah,' as the men listened. Oderick took it as a bandaid for this entire disagreement.

Eleanor smiled. "Iz it beautiful? I haf never been."

Kasimir looked at her, turning his head slightly. "But mademoiselle, you had to have traveled through reikland in order to get here."

She opened her mouth, and then closed it. Whatever was going through her mind, it reasserted itself as quick as a whip crack. "Non, I took a sheehp. I landed in marienburg and travelled nurth from zere."

Kasimir kept his face a mask of congeniality, but he was not going to let it go. "My mistake. It is good you did not travel through the capital. A lovely city," He remarked, casting his gaze to those around him before settling back on Eleanor. "but I find the people arrogant, uneducated, and as plump as wine sacks."

There. For the briefest moment, he saw utter annoyance behind her eyes. She played it off well, however. Her gaze was disapproving, her full lips almost in a pout. "Zat iz a very root thing to say, monsier. Yu are quite uncouth."

"This is Middenheim, my lady De Aberville. We are nothing if not uncouth." He said, granting her a bow to hide his smile. "I am certain your man is familiar with such things, especially after a successful battle." Oderick nodded at the compliment, though he still seemed a bit uneasy about the direction this conversation had taken.

"And yit no von seems out uff plece, bet you." She replied, her laughter like angelic bells. It put the group at ease, and a few laughed with her. Eleanor gave a playful smile, even though he was certain she was attempting to be scathing. "Small vonder you did not appear here viz a voman."

Kasimir's mirth fled and he stiffened.

It was a sore subject for him. He had no trouble with his appearance, but he was constantly thrust into social situations where he was the lowest on the social ladder. He would be lucky to marry anyone at all, truth be told. Even if he took the noblewoman who had been eyeing him aside after the party, she would deny it the next day and likely have him caught in a scandal. There was a touch of victory in Eleanour's eyes, Kasimir imagined.

He gave a wintry smile. "I have my eye on one," He said as if to no one in particularly, however his second statement landed his gaze squarely on Eleanors. "-but I believe she is untrustworthy."
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“Pverhap zere are bitter uses for your teem zen watching aftour ze untrustworthy femme?” Eleanor suggested her tone unimpeachably innocent. She looked Kasimir up and down.

“And zen again, pverhaps not.” This comment bought a titter though the gathering which cased Kasimir to stiffen further. Further awkwardness was forestalled by the orchestra striking up a waltz. Oderick raised Eleanor’s hand and led her in the stately steps of the dance.


“You should not be so had on young Kasimir,” Oderick told her as they glided along, following the path of other couples in the great open space. Oderick was not a great dancer, but managed to avoid standing on her feet, which was really all she could expect from these unshaven brutes.

“He iz an uncouth boor,” she replied a trifle snippily. Oderick laughed with natural good humor.

“No doubt, but it is no easy thing being one of Todbringer’s bastards. Much is expected and no leeway is granted,” Oderick explained. Eleanor made a noncommittal sound and dismissed the man from her mind. Kasimir would never trouble her again.


“Ashante Lady d’Aberville,” Chancellor Teobald Henniker said as he took her hand at one of the partner changes. She had danced a half dozen with Oderick before it became apparent that a riot might ensue if he continued to monopolize her time. The stately waltz had given way to more spritely sarabans and roundels which owed much more the common people than the output of the cultural elites in Altdorf and Marienburg. Fortunately Emmaline was a quick learner and she had a wealth of prior experience. Dances were an excellent way to meet rich marks after all and she had spent a fair number of evenings with Brettonians learning how they did it to prepare to become Eleanor. They stepped off into the dance and it quickly became apparent that Henniker had far more talent for it than Oderick.

"I see you met young Reinhardt?" he asked as they twirled trough the other couples, the echoes of music cascading pleasantly around them. Eleanor frowned slightly, genuinely perplexed as to why this was coming up as well as a little irritated to be forced to deal with the bastard after she had put him from her mind.

"Oui a rather beerish young man," she sniffed. Henniker arched an eyebrow.

"Beerish?" he asked. Eleanor gave him a 'what can you do' smile.

"Beer, like the uncouth pig," she explained. Henniker nodded and smiled.

"Boorish, yes I see," Henniker agreed his eyes sharpening. It was an easy trick, to make a man feel superior to you and it worked nearly every time it was employed, the fake Brettonian accent was a wonderful opportunity to use it without seeming too bubble headed.

"So you do not all together agree with the Count and his party then?" Henniker asked, as though her words had given slip to some deep political intrigue.

"Ze only opiyon I ave of ze Duke is zat 'is bastard is a beer...boor," she repeated. Henniker was nodding as though they had just shared a confidence. The waltz turned, taking them close to the wall where Emmaline caught a glimpse of a stern looking man in the hat and coat of a witch hunter. Whether because of religion or occupation he stood alone among the Ulricans. His eyes seemed to search the crowd, but to her relief slid over her without showing any sign of interest.

"Perhaps we will speak more later mademoiselle," he told her handing her off to her next partner with a courtly bow.
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Kasimir found his way to a high top table easy enough, grabbing a drink on the way. The aristocracy either gave him a wide berth or watched him curiously until he stared back, and they would look away. He was in no mood for games, at the current moment. The ridiculous Eleanor of Coucernne was a conundrum to him, but it had also made him less able to act amicably amongst the courtiers and nobility, and decided to simply get more drunk than he had originally intended. On his second glass, a pretty woman with blonde hair tied up with lacquered pins approached him, wearing a delectable dress and a necklace of blue pearls.

"That's an expensive brandy in your hand." She said, glancing over her shoulder. No doubt to a party she had left to speak to the anomaly, and Kasimir wondered if he was now the butt of a private joke. He simply shrugged, taking another sip.

"The richest people in Middenheim all gathered in one place and everything is free anyway." He said with faux interest. "Isn't it wonderful to be noble?"

She swallowed, but pressed forward and tilted her head. "You didn't look too enthused when you were attacked on the street because of who your father was." The declaration was unexpected, and though he did not place his drink down, she had his full attention. After a closer look, he believe he recognized her. She continued: "And I don't appreciate being used as an excuse for said attack."

She had been the noblewoman whose 'honor' Clausewitz defended. He would have laughed were he in a better mood. He glanced to his right to see a few eyes their way, but scattered amongst the crowd, not in a concentrated area as he might have expected. "I suppose you wouldn't. To what do I owe this meeting, my lady?"

"Lady Janderbilt." She said by way of introduction. She did not have a drink, and the servants were elsewhere. She stood somewhat awkwardly, opening and closing her mouth. "I just wanted to tell you not everyone is aghast at your presence, though you do well to make yourself unlikeable. The Brettonian woman, Lady d’Aberville, seems to have particular disdain for you. What did you say to her?"

"I was just inquiring on her journey to the city. I made one myself very recently." He replied, giving at least a half truth for her. Before she could speak again, one of the pair of eyes approached. The crowd behind, they coalesced into a familiar face. A bit greyer of hair and a few more wrinkles, but still tall and fit and with a jolly smile.

"Ah, Kasimir. I haven't seen you since you were a pup." The bear-like aristocrat said, extending his hand to shake. The Lady Janderbilt decided to make her exit there, apparently not wishing to speak without some privacy. Kasimir could not begin to guess why. She certainly did not seem attracted to him. He gave his full attention to his old friend, however.

"Lord Hargulf, I almost did not recognize you. It does me good to see you are well." Kasimir said honestly.

"I am doing quite well, and I can see you're less so. You certainly have the temper of your father." The hairy baron shook his head. Were he not in such fine clothes, he might have looked like the aging cheiftan of a Norscan tribe beyond the Sea of Claws.

"I did not strike first." The bastard assured him.

"I believe you, but perhaps you should do your best to keep out of sight after tonight. I fear the hydra that is this court has not been sated of drama as of yet, and you're the prime prey." Baron Hargulf whispered conspiratorially.
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Eleanor would never have admitted that she didn't particularly care for dancing. Emmaline might have been able to articulate that she preferred the more ribald dances of the streets and taverns to the stilted formal dances of court but was unable to escape them. The evening wore on with successive rounds of dancing, drinking, and feasting. This last was accomplished by means of plates of food which were stacked on tables stretched between the outer pillars of the hall. These tables were colored in colorful linens whose arcane significance might have been related to the nobles who paid for the food, the tradesmen who provided it, or some other schema of which Eleanor was entirely ignorant. They were constantly piled with foods of all descriptions, steaming plates of roast meat, candied fruit, pies and pasties, cakes, poached fish, nuts, cheeses and wine and ale by the barrel. The Northerners ate and drank with sterotypical gusto, swilling down ale and scarfing down food in prodigious quantities. Fortunately the mood was good and despite the slight tone of drunkenness beginning to settle over the gathering, it had not yet produced any fights or duels.

Emmaline ate, and especially drank, conservatively, though she appeared to consume more than she actually did. Her natural impulse was to indulge but she couldn't afford the kind of mistakes that were likely to come from too much wine or an overfull belly. She was considering whether she should plead exhaustion and retire when she realized she had not seen Oderick in some time.

"He received a messenger a quarter hour ago my lady," one of the liveried servants admitted when she managed to corner one.

"Ahand he lift vithout moi?" Emmaline demanded, putting her hands on her hips and unconsciously emphasizing her impressive bust.

"Uhhh... he seemed quite agitated My Lady, I'm sure it was important," the servant stammered, clearly unwilling to get caught in the machinations of his betters. Emmaline made a sniff of dismissal and headed for Oderick's chambers. There was no reason that she should believe that Oderick's agitation had anything to do with her, but she couldn't help but assume the worst. Had he written to some friend in Brettonia and learned that the real Eleanor D'Abberville had died of a fever while visiting Marienburg last year? Had her 'father' been ransomed in some way and received word of her attempts to raise money in his name? It was never wise to panic, but knowing as much as she could might be the difference between taking a coach out of the city and winding up in a cell beneath it.

____

Oderick's chambers were on the far side of the palace, nearly a ten minute walk in uncomfortable shoes. When she reached the door she was surprised to find it open and slipped in quietly. The rooms consisted of a main chamber with a pair of bed rooms and a study set off to the sides. The stone walls were covered with tapestries, largely Ulricanan in nature, which softened the austere stone of the palace. Eleanor moved quietly but not furtively, looking first into the study and then into the bedroom. Oderick lay on the bear fur coverlet, staring sightlessly at the ceiling. He was still dressed in his finery, somewhat stained now by the prodigious amount of blood that had leaked from a wound in his chest. It looked to Emmaline like a sword had been thrust through his back as he stepped into the bedroom. Judging by the pallor of his flesh, he hadn't been dead more than an few minutes. Noticing something, she stepped to the bed and lifted a small tightly rolled scroll that had been partially concealed beneath the body of her former lover. The scroll was covered with indecipherable markings, perhaps some kind of code she thought. A sound behind her made her jump almost out of her skin and she realized that someone was in the main room.

"I cant believe you left the damn message," a male voice grated to another, "your lucky everyone is at the damn ball."

Emmaline felt her blood run to ice as she realized that this man, and his companion, must have been the assassins. She dropped the note back to the bed and looked around for a hiding place. There was none. Oderick was a soldier and he lived and austere life. He had no chests, little furniture and nothing to hide behind. Emmaline whispered the words of a spell and did the only thing she could. She stepped directly into the polished silver mirror which hung, full length on the wall.

"I heard something," one of the voices said, oddly distorted in Emmaline's ears. She was inside the silver of the mirror, held fast by Charmon. She couldn't see out into the room, not beyond wavy distortions on the interior surface and even sound caried strangely. She thanked Ranald that she had remembered the spell and held as still as she could to avoid overtaxing her mediocre spell craft.

"There is no one here," a second voice replied.

"I smell something too... perfume," the first voice persisted. The second man laughed coarsely.

"Just means he has been entertaining that big titted Brettonian piece, at least his last few days must have been fun," the second voice snickered. "She'd be a good convert if you know what I mean. Maybe we should find her as part of the clean up?"

"Stop joking around and get the damn scroll," the first man replied. After a moment the men retreated. Emmaline waited a good ten minutes before she tried to step free. To her horror she found that she was trapped behind the mirror, unable to escape. Cursing soundly she forced herself to be calm and cast her mind back over her spotty magical education. Eventually she remembered the words and spoke them stepping free of the mirror. The scene was more or less as she had left it, the scroll was gone and a bloody sword lay on the bed. Commending Oderick's soul to Ulric, Emmaline stepped quickly from the room and headed for her own chambers. She thought she might do a little packing this evening.
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