Chapter Six: The Baroness of Cape Fliess
Lady Adelae was not famous for waiting. To be perfectly frank, Adelae wasn't famous at all, although her father, the rich spice merchant Curen Vara, was a notorious lecher, and Adelae's legendary poor judgment fueled rumor and gossip. Though no Lord himself, Curen purchased Lady Adelae's barony—a squalorish promontory with a crumbling lighthouse and scraggly, sour grapevines more suited for raisins than wine—to placate his daughter, who was envious for the masquerades and dances of Vanoor's elite, and barred entry through an accident of birth.
Though young Adelae coveted the title, she despised the domain, detesting the rocky beach crusted in kelp, the dusty larder strewn with cobwebs, and the lonely horizon that engulfed a vast sea. When she secluded herself in their coach for the duration of the transaction, Curen inspected the lighthouse for hidden gold, and after pocketing the stray heirlooms, hired a drunken keeper, so Adelae could collect the king's stipend attached to maintaining the lighthouse. That was how Adelae became The Baroness of Cape Fliess, and a day later, added absentee landlady to her titles, never returning nor thinking of her estate; this is also how the Iron Rose foundered, and its loaded wreckage sunk to the bottom of Cape Fliess.
Fortunately, when some condemned not the lighthouse's drunken operator, but the delegated dereliction of the Baroness, Adelae came into King Algus's favor, and blame turned into smiles. That said, a lighthouse is a meager provenance for an aristocrat, and when that disclosure threatened to undermine her impact on high society, she crafted an elaborate backstory, full of valorous uncles, grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and one author of histories; then she embellished her description of the lighthouse, adding nine more minarets, a forty foot wall, and a hundred servants. Her ornamental lies shattered when marketplace gossip uncovered her father's spicier transactions in the bordello. When disdain for her nouveau nobility spread, she divested herself of her rightful honorific, and styled herself only as The Lady Adelae.
With similar haste, Adelae acquitted herself of spinsterhood, for she could not become a wealthy dowager until she swallowed her pride and a husband's wealth, then spat out the husband. To be fair, she did not tire of the shopkeeper quickly, but after fourteen years, her heart moved on--to strapping lads, rich, wizened councilmen, and even perfect strangers who distinguished themselves with a flattering compliment. Though she cared not if her dependable husband knew, at first her discretion was a game, which then became long habit from using Gaspar as a crutch. Now she did not know what to do with a widow's freedom, for though she didn't feel over the hill, when her suitors' desire seemed to chill, and it was months since her last tryst, she felt stranded on the peak.
Since her cruel mind focused on the shortcomings of others, worrying came second nature to Adelae. After the first week, she wondered when Gaspar would place the orders. Surely he didn't expect her to do it? After a month, the clerk's shortcuts slashed the store's profits as well, and she wished, if not for Gaspar's return, for stocked shelves, a full till, and satisfied customers. After six months, when another shop opened down the street to gobble up her frustrated customers, and she lost ten pounds, she still didn't care if Gaspar was derelict or dead, but blamed him for being so, and began to appraise her male clientele as prospects.
When the bells chimed to admit a gentleman whose name she had forgotten, it was his familiar, welcoming, face—and smile forged just for her—that recalled the hour they shared in a shuttered coach.
"Hello, Lady Adelae," he said melodiously. "As I had heard you were in an abandoned state, it is a joy to see you as robust as ever." When he took her hand and bowed, he seemed to glide on coasters, as if his unctuous manner also oiled the carriage of his steps.
"Sir Stanton," she remembered, tittering. "Though I am glad the sight of me brings you joy, may this moment last longer. When last you hastened your pleasure, you claimed it was on my account."
"That is a jest, my love, for charity never moves me, only concern that a jewel should continue to be displayed in such a base setting, where any passersby might presume to admire it. Moreover, when Lord Andercruik inquired about your husband's misadventure with a peasant farmgirl, certain persons of interest turned up in several pieces—let's not mince words, they were headless. My Lady, if you pull up the capital you've invested in this front, you'll find me an amenable companion on our travels North."
"North? Nothing lies North. Though you tell the most delightful tales, Sir Stanton, when you treat rumors as fact, I believe you a fairy tale yourself, an ogre with a wasteland castle and a taste for flirty women."
"My lady, you will not find a more devoted adulterer, though your head is a pinwheel spinning for each man. Though I admit myself to be a double-dyed turncoat, and my heart is as reversible as yours, I won't let Leonidas turn you on a spit for the suspicion that you know the fate of, or care a whit for, your husband."
"Do you esteem me so low, Sir Stanton, as not to care for my Gaspar? Though never my life's blood, he was my fund of life; though never one to stir passions, he was my money-minded clay, which gave shape to my avarice. Would that my schemes were more worthy, for he would have supplied them all. Though he lives or dies without my love, I wish I had showed my gratitude."
"A fly does not show a corpse gratitude."
"You wound me! Am I to trust my life to one who disregards it?"
"My lady, though I worship you, I am an atheist of all illusions and know myself to be your diversion. And though my usual vice is to ornament the truth, the ugly facts are these: your life is in danger, and a shop is a paltry thing to die for."
"Are you in earnest? How has my blameless and boring Gaspar offended a lord? I don't believe it."
"My lady, if you do not believe me, you will die. If seeing will make you believe, hear my confession and live: though you were unfaithful to your shopkeeper and the idea of Sir Stanton, unbeknownst to you, your infidelity was pure, for you were unfaithful only with one."
"What do you mean, you ridiculous poet?"
"My lady, my many-colored love courted you in many guises. May I present the Viscount of Yoler, Bischoff the candy merchant, Valcuni the Klyrnish spy, Garrick the horse trader, and Melchion the lutenist." Sir Stanton took a very deep bow.
"You cad, you spied on me!" Adelae laughed with a thimbleful of hysteria and a bucket of scorn, but her sneer curled into an ugly moue when Sir Stanton's black stubble was split by the sprouting of a blonde beard and his brown eyes shimmered to azure blue. She backpedaled as his figure straightened and his shadow lengthened, and when his faded red velvet suit sizzled to sparks and ash, revealing the electric blue robes embroidered with golden griffins and silver dragons, she blew with all her might at a drifting magical ember, thinking the shape-changing might be contagious.
"Behold, the author of all your paramours," said the wizard.
"Even my clerk?"
He stroked his beard. "Two men, then. No need to quibble over details."
"What about Darrien the pig boy, who lives down the street? Or Mr. Blanok, who painted our shop nine years ago?"
"Three men then...and one pig-boy," He gritted his teeth. "How do I put it delicately? I can indulge your penchant for polyamory. Though I'm a wizard with an infinity of faces, my one heart beats for you."
"This isn't a rescue, it's a proposition! Not only am I a married woman, I still don't know your name."
When a beast's shrill cry echoed, then died in the streets, it reminded Adelae of a knight's lance tearing metal, which took her back to the king's tourneys, where she clapped enthusiastically at many jousts. Just when she recognized her frequent companion at those tournaments, his next words changed everything.
"That's our signal, Adelae," said Ilmar. "First, a few alterations." What followed was frightening gibberish, then like taffy pulled and twisted, she was stretched into a long-legged ballerina, her age spots smoothed by the blush of youth and skin so soft that though the chilly morning raised goosebumps through the sheer pink tutu, the lifelong coquette felt warm and wanton. When the wizard squashed, his nose ballooned, and his ostentatious robe became a clown costume tasseled with bells. Then the jester rushed the ballerina out the door.
"I can't be seen like this!" When Adelae bloomed early, the unhappily topheavy girl fantasized of a ballerina body like this one—until the eyes and hands of little lords grew into their manhood, and she had the more pressing concern of piling up smacks on groping hands and lecherous faces. Over the years, those slaps dwindled to nominal love-taps, followed by flinging open her store of ample womanhood. Her store, thought Adelae. "What about my clothes? My money!"
"Quiet." The wizard hastened through the crowd. "Bickering draws attention to the illusion. It was the first thing that came to mind—a woodcut in my favorite storybook. You're art come to life. You're welcome."
Normally, the market square clamored with robust haggling over the needs of the day, like vegetables, bread, livestock, herbs, medicine, and books, as well as supplies for the developing city, such as lumber, brick, stone, wool, and ore, but when they tried to pass unnoticed, the crowd's abrupt silence and sudden stillness made them stand out like cockroaches on a king's portrait.
Three armored horsemen on brawny destriers trotted through the hushed village, followed by a four horse wagon carrying longbowmen and halberdiers, a dozen footmen in all. All wore yellow tabards embroidered with an orange lion except for one horseman clad in a greenish brown hide topped with a splendorous red, blue, and green plumage—which Adelae envied instantly—as well as a freakish helmet no doubt made from the same creature.
A visor was bolted to the edge of a steel frame mostly concealed by the bird's scalp that had become both helm and headdress. Though the beast's face was cut away, the eyes lurking in the visor were no less monstrous, and when they turned from the wizard to Adelae, her stifled scream rattled in her closed mouth.
When the brightly feathered lord raised his hand, his entourage stopped. "One need not be a magician to have good taste or see through disguises, cousin. Moreover, I've read that stale fairy tale, as I am now a scholar of sorts."
"A scholar of sorts?" said the jester in a nasal falsetto. "Behold the professor of sortology, and his one ton dissertation on files, shelves, cabinets, laundry baskets, and sock drawers." Adelae laughed nervously, in spite of not getting the joke, feeling that she should be trying as hard as wizard what's-his-name...Aaron? Mark? Lars? Omar? All she remembered of him, other than driving off Gaspar with ridiculous threats, was that he saved her a seat at jousts, where he paid for the mulled wine and lemon iced muffins.
"Your act is stale, too," said the lord, whom she also felt she should know. Whereas Gaspar would identify the man by his shield or his servants' livery, heraldry was as incomprehensible as Klyrnish pictograms to Adelae. Moreover, she was never good with names or faces; in fact, she once awarded her favors to a criminal well-advertised on wanted posters because she liked his smile. She decided to keep that to herself, as a guillotined anarchist probably wasn't the wizard either.
As their true skins and clothes were more substantial than their slim illusions, when Adelae and the wizard seemed to balloon into their older and wider selves, it sent a ripple through the murmuring crowd. When the wizard beckoned with his left hand, the halberds burned red hot, and with a gesture from his right, longbows burst into flame, scorching sleeves as well. As the weapons clattered to the ground, embers set ablaze browning autumn grass, stray leaves, and shoes, and set the men by reflex to stamping out the flames. When the lord drew his sword, another finger-snap unbuckled the saddles, tumbling him and his knights to smack ignobly to the ground.
"Remember when we played at swords, and you said 'never use an ace when a deuce will do?'" Though the wizard looked proud, and the conflict seemed over, when the horsemen stood and the footmen stamped out the flames, Adelae nervously realized lynch mobs did not need horses or weapons.
At the wizard's shrill whistle, a gale wind stirred up dirt, ashes, and embers, shadowed market square, and caused the townsfolk to cover their eyes. Though many were blind to the wizard's steed, those that saw a griffin as long as a cart land in the square shouted and screamed, and the crowd stumbled over themselves in their haste to flee.
When the wizard boosted Adelae onto the griffin, it was instantly and abundantly clear that though he had removed her dress with many different hands, he still knew nothing of a lady's undergarments. As her cage petticoat rolled over the saddle, she draped half on one side and half on the other, her face buried in fur slick with cold sweat, and the red ruffled hem of her dress bounced a yard into the air by the steel crinoline hoops to disclose a diorama view of her nethers. As the wizard vaulted into the saddle, he whistled, and a rope darted from the saddlebags, snaked around her waist and under her armpits, and pinioned her on the griffin's rump. Her rage, humiliation, and fear that the monster might break wind were washed away when the wizard whistled twice more, and the muscular twitches of its wings waved to the ground, the men, the houses, her shop of long residence, then the roofs and the treetops that they narrowly dodged catapulting over Murnstead.
Enraged, the lord seized a red-hot halberd, bellowed, and hurled it. Adelae flinched as the halberd's whirling pole nearly whacked her in the head. When she felt a wetness on her cheek, she dreaded the beast had relieved itself mid-flight, but the back of her hand came away wet with blood. The red-hot blade nicked the griffin's neck in passing, and every down-stroke of its wings puffed more blood-mist on their faces and clothes.
Though the wizard whistled and coaxed the griffin, it continued to fly. The effort of upwards ascent widened the nick into an ugly gash.
"It's flying by instinct now," said the wizard.
"I think you meant insanity, or why is it still climbing?"
"It's going home."
"Home?" shouted Adelae. "Where's home? The moon?"
The wizard laughed. "Though your guess is poetically near, literally you're thousands of miles away." He shrugged. "Hundreds of thousands, actually."
"Wherever it is," said Adelae. "Will we make it?"
"I doubt it."
"Can you not fly us away?"
"My magic is sorely depleted. We must trust to my poor pet."
Adelae's last glimpse of Murnstead was of roofs, tree-tops, and the shimmying river, until the dwindling city was now only a brown and gray patch. The dizzying ascent was no scenic carriage ride, which was how she had imagined departing from Murnstead—with a handsomer, richer and more propertied prospect in hand.
Though they fled both from and to death, those threats did not seem real to Adelae, who lived by accumulating not worries but things. What really rankled was that her leave-taking was a farce—they would recall her not waving coquettishly and blowing a kiss to her admirers, but ignobly hogtied to a monster's hind-end, and her bouncing dress waving everyone in for a closer look. But what really chaffed was the brisk wind tearing through her hoops and ruffles.
When they crested a darkened cloud, Adelae's mouth fell open at the mindboggling sight of woodlands, ponds, and mountain peaks disappearing into the sky above, and when the griffin's climb was finally spent, so that its beak drooped, its wings flailed nervelessly, and it plummeted toward the grassy shore, Adelae fainted and knew no more.
Lord Andercruik was bothered less by his cousin's escape than by the nagging uncertainty of whether or not he hit the beast. When the clouds engulfed the griffin, and he could only take it for a miss, his idiocy fanned his rage. While his palm burned through its demi-gauntlet, the rest of the hand was a ball of fire; in its flight, the red-hot halberd had pulled skin from his blistered fingers.
Leonidas rounded on his men, snarling "loot and burn, boys," then smiled, as if withholding a punchline, and when they lit torches, the villagers' cries, pleas and riotous fleeing raised his spirits. He sighed. "Just the shop, of course."
Everything of value was taken from Gaspar's shop, not only his shelf of never-read books, but his numerous dog-eared ledgers, in the hope of finding hidden accounts. Adelae's dresses went in a fire sale to womenfolk still red-eyed from begging that their own property be spared from flames. Market day came early, as the shop's half-full shelves were emptied at cut-rate prices.
While two halberdiers managed the pre-arson liquidation, Leonidas sent the rest house to house to levy an emergency tax, to tell the authorized version of events, and to inquire about Gaspar. That no one contested the fable that Gaspar's shop concealed an absinthe bar and brothel, where Adelae was the madam, despite a conspicuous absence of absinthe and prostitutes, pleased Leonidas, for it meant they were so witless or terrified that he could do as he pleased. Incensed by this sense of power, but annoyed at their lack of information concerning the shopkeeper, Lord Andercruik drafted Murnstead's three able lads, telling the parents they were the king's conscripts.
After Lord Andercruik executed his sentence of arson on Gaspar's shop, he posted the new boys to watch the blaze, took his men sightseeing to Murnstead's actual drug dens and brothels, and with their numbers swelled by this new seamy element, ejected the owners of the most prosperous homes, where they feasted, reveled, and broke the beds.
The next morning, as they packed, fed the horses, and inspected their harness, an old man, pulling a black-haired woman roughly by the wrist, approached Lord Andercruik. Leonidas recognized Murn, the town brewer, who bought all of Gaspar's rye, potatoes, sugar, honey, charcoal, and wood. Though Leonidas did not recognize the young woman, he guessed it was yet another proposition. It never failed, he thought. Merchants always saw a lord as money on the table. Though the black-haired wench was not without charms, she was cut from too common a cloth.
But this proposition turned out more amusing than most.
Pointing at a soldier, the grizzled old man hissed, "He had my daughter." Like a stage whisper, this accusation carried far, and everyone in earshot became quiet, the better to hear Murn accost this Lord who was quick with torches.
"Had," Leonidas snickered, "He's younger. Didn't she have him?"
"She's always been slow, my lord. And since she's still under my roof, I appeal to the king's law."
"Sir," said the soldier, "while I was sleeping, she came to my bed."
"Her bed. Your men turned us out of our beds."
"I see," said Leonidas. "I am the slave of justice. What do you want?"
"I'd have his hand for my daughter, to make her an honest woman."
Whether the greedy brewer wanted a son-in-law that was at best a scoundrel and at worst a rapist so he might forego the dowry, or because he sought to marry off the spinster to lessen his overhead, Leonidas was grateful to the despicable old man for restoring his faith in the contemptability of the low born, no matter how rich. "That sounds reasonable," he said artlessly, "although I don't see how it will make her honest." He turned to the accused. "Soldier."
"Yes, my lord."
When Lord Andercruik's balled hand flew, the soldier cringed, thinking to turn his face from the blow, but Leonidas swung not a clenched fist, but his sword, drawn so fast it moved nearly unseen. When the swift slash parted the hand from the wrist, the dumbstruck young man gawked at the fountaining stump. Leonidas stooped to retrieve the bloody appendage, and then, with the most magnanimous smile he could muster, thrust it into the brewer's chest. "As promised."
When the soldier screamed, dropped to his knees, then squeezed the stump between his legs to stop the flow, Lord Andercruik ordered his men to leave. As they departed Murnstead, he bade them to shower a few handfuls of copper coins, which were gathered by children, elders; even some of the womenfolk, though wearing Adelae's imported fashions, stooped in the muck.