A light-hearted Quinlan knocked softly on the Manors front door. Keya opened the door greeting him as he entered, “Sir Quinlan, Milady asked if you would care to wear another of Lord Wilfred’s outfits for tonight’s dinner?”
“Care to, or does she want me to?” Quinlan asked.
“I believe the later Sir Quinlan,” Keya smiled playfully.
“Then I am in your hands once again Keya.”
“Follow me,” She turned and headed up the stairs with Quinlan steps behind. Within his room, lying on his bed were some rather striking garments. The type Quinlan had only seen once before while stealing from a Warlord celebrating his third marriage while he witnessed the festivities from the rafters high above. The pants were dark black made from a light material, and the shirt of silk, just as black but with a slight sheen.
“Are you pleased?” Keya asked.
“Yes, these are quite to my liking.”
“I shall inform Milady. Please join her in the garden once you are dressed.”
Quinlan changed his apparel quickly, smiling as he did so. If they only knew who he happened to be, they never would have helped him choose such an outfit. Black as the darkest cave, he nearly laughed aloud, how easy it would be to slink from place to place, hiding in the shadows as he made his way to the riches hidden within the study. Feeling giddy at the upcoming activities of the night, he strapped his sword about his waist, instead of his customary position on his back, and slipped the tools of his trade, his lock-picks within his belt.
Prepared for the night, he strolled down the stairs as if he owned the Manor, and dressed in the former Lord’s clothes bothered him not. He had grown to like Lady Matilda, and although completely smitten with Julianna, it was Nola he would be leaving with. So many thoughts of beautiful women brushed aside as the idea of seizing the Heart of Silver Falls became his sole fixation.
Surprised to not see any of the Guild Lord’s had arrived yet, Quinlan strolled over to Lady Matilda. She had chosen to not wear the blue dress, but instead, she wore a crimson red one, one which showed her figure off rather stunningly.
“Good afternoon Lady Matilda.”
“Yes, it is. I believe everything is going to work out tonight,” Lady Matilda smiled and motioned to the seat across from her, “I have a little something I am hoping you could help me with.”
“Anything for you,” Quinlan took a seat adding, “after all, I did offer you my services.”
“Precisely,” She smiled and waved her hand to a nearby servant who poured a goblet of wine for Quinlan. “I have given much thought to tonight, and to what the various outcomes could be,” She stared at him for a moment, as if trying to decide what to say, finally she said, “I would like you to pose as my suitor.”
Quinlan nearly choked on his wine, “Milady, surely you jest?”
“No, not at all, I think if the other Lord’s believed I am spoken for, it would cause them to neither make advances toward me nor think Lord Wilfred’s trade routes are in jeopardy.”
“Perhaps, but would they believe that a woman of your grace and beauty would be with a man such as I, after all, there are far better men than I in Estroy,” Quinlan confessed.
“Whom I am with is none of their business. Thinking I am with someone is all that really matters,” Lady Matilda smiled and sipped her own wine.
“Exactly what am I to do?” Quinlan asked.
“Sit by my side at dinner, speak up only when absolutely necessary, and fawn over me,” Lady Matilda instructed, “Unless I am mistaken you have been doing just that since you arrived here.”
“I ask for your forgiveness Milady, I would never presume to make such a bold move,” Quinlan admitted.
“It is quite alright,” She smiled, “If anything, you should feel quite gracious for me even suggesting this little rouse, unless of course, you do not find me desirable?”
Quinlan regained his composure quickly, seeing only one flaw, his ability to move about the Manor freely tonight, “I will endeavor to be a man worthy of such a prize.” He cleared his throat, “Exactly how close are we to appear?”
“Not too close, I am a recent widow after all.”
“I see,” Quinlan drank down the goblet and held it out for another. At which point Lady Matilda laughed.
Unamused, Quinlan asked after looking around the garden, “Where is Julianna?”
“She is making sure the guards know their responsibilities for this evening,” Lady Matilda answered. Still amused she continued to smile at his discomfort.
“I may become jealous if you keep asking for all of my female staff.”
Quinlan cleared his throat, “I mean no disrespect Milady. I am merely concerned, Arietta appeared rather upset yesterday, and Julianna must be quite overwhelmed.”
“I see, and my proposal has nothing to do with your concern,” Lady Matilda smiled, enjoying this playful game she had contrived, “If you wish to go and check on Julianna feel free, I will not keep you any longer.”
Quinlan took the opportunity to beat a hasty retreat. Walking back into the Manor he quickly tried to formulate how to go about seizing the jewel before tonight’s activities. “Suitor, bah, what game are you playing Milady.” He grumbled over Lady Matilda’s comments, “She must think me a fool. She needs a suitor about as much as a sailor needs to know animal husbandry!”
Quinlan climbed the stairs in a hurry, if everyone stayed busy, this might be his best chance to steal the Heart of Silver Falls. He traversed the empty hallway and stopped before the study doors. Kneeling down he inspected the lock. Spying no traps he pulled his picks free and as fast as he was able manipulated the pins and tumblers, “click.” He smiled as the lock opened under his skilled fingers. Footsteps on the stairs alerted Quinlan to the possibility of detection, so he rolled on the floor and sprung up in front of his former room. Sliding in silently, he hurried to the bed and lay down.
The door opened, and there stood Julianna, “I did not figure you where the type of man to hide in his room,” She smiled and closed the door as she entered.
“I am not hiding, only wondering,” He admired her from toe to head once more until his eyes meet hers.
“Wondering what?” Julianna asked.
“Wondering how I managed to end up here, playing the part of Milady’s suitor when it would be you I would pursue,” He made no attempt to move as her blade rang out as she drew it from its sheath.
“How dare you presume…?” Julianna, at a loss for words, glared at Quinlan, especially as he wore such a lecherous smile.
Quinlan swung his legs off the bed, “Do you intend to run me through for stating the obvious. A man would have to be insane not to desire you. Your beauty outshines the sun,” He stood up and slowly opened his arms wide, “Run me through if my advances are too bold, for my heart would surely be better pierced then rejected by you.”
“If Milady did not need you tonight I would thrash you for such statements!”
“Exactly why I say them now, for tomorrow I may no longer be useful to Milady,” He smiled at her reaction, seeing he had stumbled upon Milady’s plan, “So I am right, she is just using me.”
Julianna stood unmoving, “Do you blame her. Tonight she risks everything.”
Quinlan lowered his arms and sat back down on the bed, “I do not blame her, and in fact, I admire her shrewd plan, even if I must play the part of a fool.”
Julianna sheathed her sword, “I do not know what to make of you. You are either the noblest man I have ever met or the most cunning.”
“Perhaps I am both,” Quinlan smiled and tapped the bed next to him, “Care to find out?”
“You go too far, Quinlan.” She sneered and spun about, and as she opened the door she glanced back, “I am sorry for Milady’s actions, but if you should harm her in any way, I will not stay my blade again,” She exited by slamming the door closed to emphasize her point.
Quinlan smiled, “Well that went better than I could have ever hoped for!” He was thanking the Maker it was Julianna who walked in, and not a guard. He figured he would be able to upset her enough to throw any suspicions she may have aside instead of questioning him as to why he had been upstairs. He waited a few minutes before venturing back into the hall. Unfortunately, Julianna stepped out of her room just as he did. Foiled, he followed her downstairs. She turned to head for the gardens, but he turned to the right and headed to the kitchens. With no one around he quickly moved to the cellar doors, seeing they were still bolted he slowly made his way back to the gardens. The time to play the lovelorn suitor of Matilda stood at hand. Try as he may, Quinlan could not really see a downside to playing the fool. After all, he had already acted clumsily about Julianna. “How much the fool they think I am, nearly falling on a broken door, and falling into a pool of blood. Ha, I could dance circles around them all on ice as thin as a single strand of Julianna’s blonde hair.”
Chuckling at his own analogy, Quinlan walked brashly towards Lady Matilda and Julianna. “Why not, they need me tonight, so I shall make them suffer for their little game. Nobles always feel as if they are the only ones who matter. As if the rest of us have no feelings to offend.”
“About tonight,” Quinlan said as he approached, noticing the scowl on Lady Matilda’s face could only mean Julianna had told her of their encounter upstairs, “what shall I call you?”
Lady Matilda’s eyes turned dark in anger, but she already knew the outcome to this conversation. She would need to submit, or have Quinlan killed outright! To merely send him from the Manor would bring her ruin as she felt confident he would inform the other Lords of all of the happenings. She would lose her trade routes, her honor and more than likely her Manor as well. “You should call me Matilda.” She said with the phoniest of smiles.
“Hmmm, Matilda,” Quinlan sat down and summoned a servant for wine. “I am not certain it is personal enough, but perhaps we should not press our luck.”
“Julianna thinks we should call off the ruse, she says the risks are too high,” Lady Matilda sighed, “I suppose it is too late, it may not have been my best idea, but I will stand by it. If I am to be the Guild Master for the northern trade routes, I am certain this may not be my last mistake,” She sipped her wine saying, “For whatever it is worth, I believe you will go far in this world Sir Quinlan.”
“Please, call me Quinn my dear,” Quinlan rose from his seat. “After all, your guests have started to arrive.”
To Quinlan’s amusement, the first guest to arrive was no other than the portly man who had so graciously paid for his stay. The coins taken from him had paid for food and boarding at the Golden Dragon Inn and purchased his first set of garments which began this whole caper.
“Lord Ancelm, lovely to see you again,” Lady Matilda said as she rose to meet him.
“Lady Matilda, I am so sorry for your loss, Lord Wilfred will be sorely missed,” Lord Ancelm said as he took her hands in greeting, “When I heard the news I could scarcely believe it.”
“Thank you for your sympathy, but it has been over two months since his passing, and it is time for me to move on. Fortunately, I have his work to keep me busy,” Lady Matilda stated, turning to Quinlan she added, “And may I introduce Sir Quinlan, who has helped me in these trying times.”
Quinlan smiled and with a minor bow said, “Matilda is too kind, I do what I can, but she is quite able to weather any storm without my measly help.”
“You are too modest. I simply have no clue what I would do without your support,” Lady Matilda said as she wrapped her arm around his.
The three of them went inside to the dining hall to await the other guests. Seven were invited in all, but only five were able to make the journey. Spring, after all, being the busiest time of the year for those in the merchants’ guild, two deemed it a profitless venture to travel so far to give solace.
Within the next hour, the remaining guests arrived, and soon the talk shifted to business. Quinlan lost interest but kept up his end of the bargain. Complimenting his “love” over this and that, and making sure she had whatever she desired. In the meanwhile, Quinlan kept an eye out for Arietta. She remained, for the most part, hovering about the dining hall or making trips to and from the kitchens. When she planned on opening the door for Hamen, Quinlan remained unsure, but she must make her play soon. His seat offered him a vantage point where he could just barely see the staircase. Of course, sneaking the casual glance was the only chance he had to spot Hamen. If an opportunity did not arise soon, Hamen could enter the study, steal the Heart and be gone without being noticed. He cursed himself for unlocking the door early, for it did nothing but give Hamen an unimpeded path to the treasure.
Just as he was about to find a reason to excuse himself, the conversation changed to the dismay of Quinlan.
“I simply do not understand why you keep your Manor within the walls of this thief-ridden city,” Lord Rawkin of Seagrove said, “I had a run in with a troupe of thieving performers just the other morning.”
“Really, what happened?” Lady Matilda inquired.
“I am staying at the Golden Dragon since the other Inns are not to my liking.” He took another drink and continued, “The Innkeeper had hired a group of traveling bards, and while a quite alluring girl danced another one tried to steal my coin purse,” He shook his head, “Such a shame such lawlessness thrives in Estroy, and from performers no less.”
“I hope you caught the thief!” Lord Ancelm said, “I too was robbed in the marketplace.”
“Caught her, we did, along with the whole troupe. By now they may be swinging from the gallows,” Lord Rawkin beamed.
Quinlan’s heart sank, but he did his best not to show it. He felt for certain he spoke of Nola’s troupe. He could only imagine how she must feel. He wished Nola was not foolish enough to try to help them escape. He would see what he could do after tonight deeds were complete.
Arietta came back into the room. Her overall demeanor seemed a tad off, so Quinlan surmised she must have opened the cellar door for Hamen. Their plan was in action as Quinlan’s were beginning to fall apart.