Hector tightened his grip on the reins, then relaxed it again and took a long, deep breath. There wasn’t anything to be nervous about. He shot a glance at Royer. They were both dressed well and wore cravats and waistcoats to top off everything. The only thing that suggested his profession was Hector’s revolver holster at his side. He had combed back his hair, left his hat at home and even trimmed his beard shorter than he usually cared for. One might almost think they were on their way to a funeral.
He hadn’t expected her not to take any notice of this, had he? Now that her son Wilhelm was on the board, it would be strange if Regina Rothenberg had not heard of Hector’s recent endeavour. He should have anticipated a reaction. Still, he had been a little surprised when he received a letter from her. And he had been more than a little surprised when she asked not only to see him, but to see Royer as well. She hadn’t insisted on meeting Peter when Hector brought him home. Hadn’t insisted on meeting anyone he ever talked about as an adult. The only person in his life in whom his aunt showed an interest was Louis. She had met him when he was a child and taken a liking to him. So why Royer? Perhaps she was simply curious. That could be it. Royer was special, and if Wilhelm had told her about his abilities, that could be the reason for her wanting to meet him. Well, it might not be a bad idea at all. If Regina Rothenberg was not afraid of Royer and even invited him for tea, others would be less nervous too.
Hector had found Royer a calm and kind mare so they didn’t have to walk all the way through Frankfurt, and the wolf man was doing alright in the saddle. He was more focused on taking in everything they passed on their way through the city than worrying about his precarious situation.
They turned away from the busy streets and down the avenue leading to the Rothenberg residence.
“Is that her house?” Royer asked. His eyes were wide.
“Yes,” Hector replied, “that is my aunt Regina’s house.” It was quite the colossus at the end of the avenue. The seasons would change around it, and once in a while it would be repainted, but always in the same colours. The mansion had looked the same for as long as Hector could remember.
They reached the cobblestoned courtyard, and a stable hand came towards them. Hector gave Roan’s neck a decisive pat, dismounted and signalled for Royer to do the same so the man could lead the mounts to the stable.
“Why are you nervous?” Royer asked.
Hector scoffed and straightened his back. “Nervous? I’m not nervous.”
“Yes, you are,” Royer said with a smile that suggested he knew better.
Hector shook his head, but before he could say anything else, the front door swung open and a footman came towards them.
“Hello,” the man greeted them in a polite but jovial tone. “And welcome, Mr Hector and Mr Royer.” He made a small bow. He was not a young man and Hector had the feeling that he had always been there. Like the house and like his aunt.
“Thank you,” Hector said and made a gesture for Royer to follow them inside. “Are you well?”
“Quite so, thank you. Did you have a pleasant trip?” the footman returned.
“We did, thank you.” Hector smiled reassuringly at Royer, but the wolf man didn’t seem particularly worried. Only slightly overwhelmed by the grandeur of the place.
The footman led them through the door to the large entrance hall. Royer’s breathing changed for a moment. Hector could certainly understand why. If the house looked big and imposing from the outside, it was even more ornate and rich on the inside. In the beginning, Hector had been in awe of the place and almost afraid to touch anything, but that sensation had disappeared at about the same time as he began to carry out his plan to slide down the banister as a boy. Royer fell into step next to him, and they followed the servant up the broad staircase.
So Regina was going to see them in her study. Hector wasn’t surprised. Apart from being one of her favourite places in the mansion to receive her visitors, it was also where she dealt with her paperwork. Despite her personal interest and curiosity to see Royer today, Hector knew that she also had a practical, financial motive. His expenses had frankly declared their independence to the budget these past few weeks. He was a grown man who took care of his own transactions, and he had a considerable capital, but his aunt still oversaw his books. She was involved in the books of all the hunters as a sponsor of the organisation, really, but her nephew could be held personally accountable.
Royer was still studying the surroundings. Compared to Regina Rothenberg’s home, the hunters’ headquarters were bare and frugal. Hector’s own room was no exception. It was a practical place to sleep when he was home and not an exhibition of earthly wealth or goods. How had Royer grown up? Hector was not certain, but he was convinced that Royer’s kind had not lived in houses like this if they lived in houses at all. His young companion was looking at the paintings on the wall so curiously that Hector almost wanted to stop and tell him the names of the people in them and his relation to them. He knew all that by heart. His heritage was one of the things Regina had made sure stuck to the inside of his head.
Royer turned his attention to the ceiling. It was high indeed, and a chandelier above their heads adorned the landing. The hunter readied himself to reach out and catch the wolf man in case he stumbled up the stairs, but despite Royer’s distraction, his footing was infallible.
They reached the end of the staircase, and the footman led them down the corridor to the study and knocked on the door.
“Yes,” called out Regina Rothenberg’s no-nonsense voice from inside.
The footman opened the door, and Hector and Royer stepped in. The smell of books and flowers wafted towards them.
The lady of the house had been sitting at her desk, but the moment they entered, she stood up. She had changed as little as the house over the years, Hector mused. She must have grown older, he certainly had, but in his mind, his aunt had always looked like this.
The footman introduced the two of them, and Regina asked him to have tea brought up. As soon as he had left, she turned to her nephew.
“Hello, aunt Regina. Thank you for the invitation,” he replied and inclined his head. Manners were important.
“And Royer.” She held out her hand towards the young man. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” So she really was not afraid of him. That was a good sign.
Royer shook her hand with a shy smile. It made Hector feel … What did he feel? It was a mixture of amusement because Royer looked a little taken aback and pride that he handled this so well. And perhaps a little bit of relief. “Thank you. It is a pleasure to meet you too, Mrs Rothenberg,” the wolf man said.
Regina’s eyes lingered on him as she smiled and gestured towards the armchairs in front of her desk. “Please do call me Regina. Have a seat, young men.”
Calling his aunt by her given name was a privilege reserved only a few.
They all sat down, Royer and Hector in the appointed armchairs, and Regina behind her desk. Hector retrieved a metal cylinder from his revolver holster and handed it to her. “I brought the document that you asked to see,” he said.
Regina opened the container, put on her reading glasses and began to skim the paper as she unrolled it. “Not quite as reckless as I feared,” she commented. “Especially your habits taken into consideration. Now …” She took off her glasses again, folded them and placed them on the table between them. “I have quite looked forward to meeting you, Royer. How are you? Are you settling in in Frankfurt?”
“I am, thank you,” Royer replied. “I have not been introduced to all the hunters yet, but Hector is very helpful.”
Regina nodded and leaned forward a little. “He isn’t getting you into trouble, is he?” she asked.
If anyone else had made such a suggestion, Hector would have protested or sighed loudly, but his aunt could clearly get away with anything.
“No, he is trying to do the opposite, I think,” Royer said. He looked at Hector and then back at Regina.
“You seem like a clever young man. I’m sure you will be fine …” Regina paused and looked up as another servant entered with a tray. She placed the teapot and the cups on the table.
“You must be something extraordinary,” Regina continued when the servant had poured the tea and left again. “Hector went out of his way to bring you to Frankfurt.”
Royer nodded. “Yes, he really did. He was hoping for my help.”
Hector ladled a couple of spoonfuls of sugar into his tea. He knew how to handle a rifle with great precision, but when it came to gilded china, he always felt a bit awkward. He did know how to operate it, but he wasn’t comfortable with that sort of equipment. It just wasn’t him.
“I have no doubt of that,” Regina said and caught Hector’s eyes for a moment before returning her gaze to Royer. “I can imagine that the doctors have a great interest in you. I understand,” she added without much of a pause, “that the circumstances of your meeting Hector were not happy. Regardless of how much we all appreciate you and your help, I am of course sorry to hear that you were torn away from your family in such a manner.”
No beating around the bush. Wilhelm must have related what Royer said at the board meeting. Hector felt catapulted back a couple of decades. This was exactly the practical kind of sympathy she had shown him as a child. She acknowledged the loss with sincerity, but no sentimentality or pity.
“I fully understand it,” Regina said in a different tone that made Hector realise that she and Royer had exchanged some words that he had not really noticed, “but naturally there will be no compensation for your own belongings despite the nature of the investment.”
Hector smiled. He had feared that she would make some snide remarks regarding his finances.
“And what will you do now? Do you intend to stay in Frankfurt?” Regina asked Royer. “Despite Hector’s methods of getting you with him, you are not their property.”
Hopefully she was not insinuating that Hector treated the wolf man as such. He opened his mouth to interject, but Royer was faster.
“No one has led me to believe that I am,” he said. “Peter is happy to have my help. He asks me a lot of questions and always makes certain that I am fine with it. And …” Royer’s eyes darted in Hector’s direction, then came to rest on Regina again. “And it seems that I may be able to help the hunters in their training. Hector thinks it would be useful given my abilities.”
Regina nodded and then looked at Hector, quizzically.
“I do not put pressure on anybody,” he said. “Royer is a skilled fighter indeed, but there would be a place among us no matter what.” He was speaking on behalf of headquarters, but certainly also from a personal perspective. He had made it clear to Royer how he felt, but just like Stephan would have respected his choice if he had married and left his position as a hunter, he would respect Royer’s choice.
Royer smiled. “I know. And I think that I do want to stay.”
“Very well,” said Regina and then, almost as an afterthought, “I can’t help noticing your necklace.”
Royer’s hand flew up to the silver leaf on the chain around his neck. “Oh yes. Hector gave it to me so that people can see I’m not allergic to silver.”
“Yes, I imagine he did,” said Regina. She gave Hector a look he couldn’t quite decipher. “It is a beautiful piece, isn’t it? Did you know it was once my mother’s.”
“Your … mother’s?” Royer asked. It was not strange that he was confused. “But Hector had it in a box …”
“I did wonder what happened to it after …” Regina let the sentence float between them.
Hector cleared his throat. Of course it must have been his grandmother’s before it had come into his mother’s possession. He hadn’t given it any thought that Regina would recognise it. “It has been in the family for a while and was given to my mother. She was the last person to wear it,” he explained.
Royer’s mouth opened slightly as his hand left the necklace. “I didn’t know that,” he said.
Regina smiled. “No? In any case, Royer, I think it is quite befitting. It suits you well.”
“Thank you,” Royer said and sent Hector a long glance.