Master Vladimir Cordax
Adam and Cora enter the dining hall, which is decorated with huge canvases filled with what Cora guesses to be broken wine bottles, smashed to tiny pieces and forming a massive, intricate mosaic of something hard to make out.
“Coraleth Albrynn, lovely to meet you,” Cordax greets, grasping her hands warmly.
Cora is daunted by his sheer beauty. “And you, Master Cordax.”
“Milo?” Adam blurts out next to her. “What are you doing here?”
“He invited me to dinner,” Milo replies, rather timidly for her.
“Please, Coraleth,” Cordax continues, ignoring the siblings, “it’s Draven in this room, with these people.” He turns to Adam and takes his hand. The men eye each other squarely. “Adam Spruce. It’s been a very long time.”
“Not so long,” Adam retorts, still ruffled by Milo’s appearance.
“Have a seat, both of you. Drink some wine,” Cordax invites.
They do so, with Cora and Adam seated next to each other, and Cordax and Milo at opposite ends of the long, ornate dining table. So far, the only things on the table are bottles of wine, goblets, and a short centrepiece made of a strange bouquet of orange feathers, dark red strings, and white dollops of cream sprinkled with tiny red gems.
Cora quickly fills her goblet, also surprised by Milo, and hastily takes a sip.
Adam asks again. “What are you doing here?”
“Draven invited me, Adam,” Milo says again.
“I thought it’d be rude not to,” Cordax cuts in. “I did want both the Spruce siblings and their lovely friend here for tonight.”
“How did you know we were here?” Cora wonders, but Adam is talking over her, asking Milo where Rain is.
The colour noticeably leaves Milo’s face. “She’s exploring the city.”
“I knew you were here,” Cordax answers Cora, “because Milo was with me earlier today, showing her friend my Manor. She mentioned you and I pried and pried until I got enough information to invite you for dinner.”
“Why didn’t you invite Rain too?” Adam asks Cordax.
“I did, but she declined. She wanted to visit the Brier to see how their kitchens were run,” Cordax returns.
“How was your day, Coraleth?” Milo asks suddenly. “Did you enjoy the waterfall?”
“Yes,” Cora responds, a tad awkward. “Then we had special skewers at the butcher’s.”
“I heard what happened, and I’m very sorry,” Cordax says gravely. “Just awful.”
“What happened?” Milo inquires.
“They were attacked by a group of very sick-minded women.”
Adam and Cora blink in confusion. “How do you know?” Adam wonders. “That only happened a few hours ago...”
“The boy you saved told his friends, one of which works in my garden. He told my maid, and she told me. I tell my staff to let me know of any goings-on in the city. I like to be kept aware. But don’t be concerned about those ladies. I’ve tracked them down and they’ll be executed at dawn for what they did.”
Cora isn’t at all sure how she feels about that. Part of her grimaces at the thought of those human lives being taken, but another part is relieved that they’ll no longer be out there. She turns to Adam, who is taking a very slow sip of wine, and reaches for his hand under the table. She recoils when it burns hers.
“Something wrong, Coraleth?” Cordax wonders.
“No,” Cora replies quickly. “Nothing at all.” She wraps her hand around her goblet and the cool metal soothes the sting. Adam watches her with agony in his eyes.
The willowy maid, Dystella, enters the room then and stands next to Cordax.
“Ah, I’d forgotten. How is she?” the master wonders.
“She loves every inch of the place. I don’t believe she’d be opposed to living here instead of that plains-town,” the maid reports.
Adam and Cora look at each other, and Cora notices Milo stiffen in her chair.
“Who?” Adam asks, though he has an inkling of who it is. A coldness rushes through the room.
“A new kitchen maid I’ve hired. I hope she’ll get on well,” he answers dismissively. “Dystella, bring out the first course. I’m famished,” Cordax orders.
“Right away,” says the maid, and disappears to do his bidding.
“So, Adam, it’s been a little while,” Cordax says casually. “What have you been doing since I last saw you?”
“This and that. Travelling. Hunting.”
“And how is your father?”
Adam’s grip tightens on the goblet. “He’s fine.”
Milo snorts. “The smith is failing. Not enough business. Not enough help.”
“Is that true?” Cordax asks Adam.
With a cutting glance at Milo, Adam nods. “But he’s thinking of moving to Atherton to set up a forge there.”
“That little lumber town? Is it enough for him? I know it wouldn’t be for either of you. You might not be strictly related but I have a feeling you have grown to be very similar to Kaleb.”
Cora stares at Adam in question. Master Cordax knew? And why the jabs to Atherton? Something about the thought of Adam not feeling comfortable in Atherton makes Cora uncomfortable, though she doesn’t know why it does. She didn’t feel comfortable there those last weeks.
Adam fidgets in his seat. “He loves to work hard, and setting up a new forge in a growing town would supply him with work.”
“But aren’t men there already occupied with the sawmill? Would they have workers for the forge?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Wouldn’t you help them? Or are you still gallivanting the countryside, seeking adventure?”
Adam laughs as if Cordax was joking, obviously trying to lighten the tangible tension in the room. Cora joins in half-heartedly, then takes a large gulp of wine. It’s very strong and sickly sweet, drowning her mouth with saliva.
Dystella thankfully arrives, with a line of men and women behind her bearing great trays of food. They lay them on the table in rows and gracefully drift from the room. The procession didn’t even take thirty seconds.
“Thank the staff for me,” Cordax calls to Dystella, who alone remains at his side. “And enjoy your supper, my dear.”
“I will,” the maid says. “Ring when you’re ready for the next course.”
Cora notices the little bronze bell at Cordax’s wrist. Her eyes then move to the large plate in front of her, identical to the others lining the table. Strange food is set in circles that decrease in size toward the middle of the plate. Ribbons of very lightly cooked meat—beef Cora thinks—curl about the outer edge. Inside that ring is a mixture of raw carrot, potato, and celery sticks. In the next ring, laid on top of one another, are very thin slices of pink flesh—salmon?—laid on a bed of bright green leaves. From the aroma Cora guesses it’s mint. Then a ring of soft white cheese studded with brown and orange things, then another of beef. Finally, a huge round loaf of bread sits in the centre, hollowed out and filled with what looks and smells like melted cheese, sprinkled with parsley.
Cora gapes at the beautiful food. “Did you say that this was the first course?” she asks Cordax.
“Yes. And the next course contains my favourite. Just wait and see,” says Cordax excitedly.
They begin picking at the food. Cora doesn’t get her own plate, but she watches Cordax and he simply picks off the plate in front of himself, and so does Milo, so she does the same. Adam takes very little. He isn’t even drinking much wine. Something is bothering him.
“Adam, I recall, last time you were here, you were dealing with the affairs of a fairly noble lady from Imbrium. Did that all work out?” Cordax wonders.
Cora shifts uncomfortably.
“No. It turned out her husband left her nothing,” Adam replies.
“What was all that about anyway?” Milo wants to know.
I’d like to know myself... Cora thinks. And yet, she also doesn’t want to know.
Reluctantly, Adam answers, “Some time back, I met a woman at a tavern here in the city, drinking her troubles away. She told me she lost her husband, who was from the city, and she’d come to deal with the house he’d been renting out here. I helped her sort it. Come to find out, the tenants of the house had stripped it of everything worthy and left as soon as they heard of Bastian’s death. They hadn’t been paying regularly and wanted to be out before someone would come there to sort out his property and catch them. Idiots.”
“I just noticed,” Cordax chimes in, “that when Maria arrived to claim ownership of the house, we officials couldn’t do anything. Bastian had left her no written document that said the house was hers. That woman left here almost in tears.”
“Her wealth was taken when Bastian died,” Adam adds dryly. “She had no more support and no ownership of her late husband’s affairs. She didn’t have enough gold to buy the house back from the officials.”
“But she went back to Imbrium?” Cora asks.
Adam looks back at her, expression unreadable. “Yes.”
Coraleth stares at the designs carved into the table beneath her chin, her annoyance mounting. It seems Adam lived an entire life before he met her. Who knows how many women he made feel special? Who knows how many times he’s kissed a woman? Made love to them? Proposed to them?
“Was she beautiful?” she asks very quietly, very accidentally. She had thought it, but didn’t expect it to pass her lips. But pass, it had.
“What?” Adam asks.
“I remember her,” Cordax muses. “Her beauty almost rivalled yours, Coraleth.”
Cora looks up at him. His warm golden eyes so personally fixed on her causes her cheeks to burn, especially with the compliment mingling with anger in her gut. It was a mistake to come here tonight. She knows that now.