Chapter 12
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Gravel rumbles from below as our carriage crawls down the drive. The deep red cushions on which my friends and I sit are luxuriously soft and contrast richly with the black lacquered wood surrounding them. A mural painted above our heads depicts a single bright red rose blooming above two golden laurels- The crest of House Rynor.

Walter sits beside me, his hulking frame taking up the vast majority of the carriage bench. The burgundy suit I’ve selected for him is well-fitted and compliments the warm dark brown tone of his skin. All things considered, he cleans up very nicely.

Sidhion, on the other hand, refused my fashion advice and it shows. His outfit is his typical fair, a white linen shirt with puffed sleeves and plain brown pants. He’s seen fit only to decorate his austere attire with a brown vest which is very-nearly-but-not-quite the same shade as his pants.

The carriage slows to a halt as it joins a line of its brethren, each letting another esteemed banquet guest out by the front door of the manor.

Sidhion glances out the tiny window beside him and nods at Walter and me. “Right. When we get in there we’ll mingle for a while before we get to proper business. Make it look natural. Walter, I trust you can talk your way into the private wings and try to find evidence on Madam Ophelia without backup.” 

Walter nods resolutely, a sly grin crawling across his face. “And with this getup, I bet I attract the lady of the house herself.” He moves for a bombastic gesture and knocks his bowtie out of alignment. I sigh and lean over him to fix it.

Sidhion huffs. “Owen, I want you with me. Just.. Be yourself and I’m sure that’ll be enough distraction for me to confiscate any poisons.”

I turn up my nose at him and finish adjusting Walter’s tie.

Soon our Carriage makes its way to the front of the line. The elderly coachman pulls open the door and stands aside. As each of us step out into the fresh evening air, he announces, “Detective Sidhion Sundermane. Detective Owen Goldenfist.” Now he adds a drip of snark, “Captain Walter.”

Rynor Manor sits at the far end of the freshly manicured courtyard. It’s an old-fashioned construction, with architecture consisting of sensible rectangles nested within rectangles. Perfectly symmetrical rows and columns of simple-paned windows mark the manor as having three floors and many rooms. Lower-tiered constructions on either side of the main building suggest the presence of several distinct wings within the manor.

Standing several paces away from the carriage, ready to greet us, are two stately gentlemen. The shorter of the two steps forward first. His pale blue tailcoat is well-maintained despite its obvious age. From his frilled cravat to his bushy sideburns, this man has all the style sensibilities of about twenty years ago. Still, he smiles proudly and heartily extends a handshake to each of us. “Good evening, detectives! I do so regret not taking the time to introduce myself to you when you first arrived in town. I am Balric Rynor.” 

“Pleased t’meetcha!” Walter claps Balric on the shoulder. “Thanks for sending a carriage our way.”

“Of course! I would never let my esteemed guests walk up the drive.”

“Looks like you went all-out for this.”

“It’s only right. Everyone in Two Rocks owes you a great debt. I’ve invited every elite name in this town to ensure they pay their thanks.”

My ears perk at Balric’s words. “Does that mean you invited Katali from The Athenaeum?”

Balric’s brow furrows. “I’m.. Not sure..” He turns to the man standing at attention behind him. “Did we?”

The man’s face turns sour, like he’s just tasted a rotten lemon. His tone is dripping with venom. “She declined the invitation.”

“Ah! My apologies,” Baltic exclaims. “I didn’t introduce you. Detectives, this is my valet, John Libby. Lose my head if he wasn’t there to pick it up.”

John, pale-skinned and sleek, is much more stylish than his companion. His deep black frock coat contrasts with his silver-striped vest and pants. The vertical stripes only serve to exaggerate his tall, slender figure. However, in my experience, his lack of a hat would be the subject of many a salacious rumor. The shape of John’s face is familiar, though the color is not what I remember. He nods, “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

John shakes each of our hands in turn, stopping by me last. When he approaches, my senses are filled with the smell of clove cigarettes. I watch his plump lips curve into an inviting smile. My eye follows the curve up his aquiline nose, rounding his high cheekbones and landing on his dull brown eyes. His deep breathy voice is unmistakable. “I must admit, I was surprised to hear someone with a noble surname would be coming to our humble town.”

“And here I thought no one in this backwater would recognize it.” I feel a harsh nudge from Sidhion. His lectures about civility echo through my head.

John only chuckles. “I’m glad to impress, then. It would be horribly discourteous of me not to know the country’s leading sugar producers.”

I cannot contain a painfully bright smile. “As my uncle always says, ‘Now I’ve graced your home twice.’”

John pays me a mild laugh. My eye is drawn to a small tussie-mussie pinned to his lapel. Parsley sprigs decorate the space around a small gathering of snowdrops. I can’t help but remark, “Ah! I see you also dabble in the language of flowers. Hopeful celebrations, right?”

“I thought it rather fitting.” John brightens before glancing downward.

I finally notice my hand is still tightly clasping his. Quickly, I let go. “Sorry-!”

“There’s no need to apologize,” John coos. “Why don’t you three head inside? This party is for you after all.”

Sidhion firmly holds my arm as he pulls me up the front steps and into the manor proper. The foyer is brimming with people. Nigh everyone here is over the age of 40 and dresses like it. Even the few youthful faces I spot among the crowd are woefully dated by their style. 

Sidhion leans down and whispers in my ear, “You saw that, right?”

I nod.

“Saw what,” Walter inquires.

“That’s Diantha,” Sidhion hisses.

“Thought you said he was a fey-demon-thing.”

“A gancanagh. A love-talker. They twist the minds of their victims. Making them think they’re the most beautiful person they’ve ever seen.”

“He didn’t look special to me,” Walter’s brow furrows in confusion.

“Me either,” I quickly add.

“They use glamors to appear normal to everyone around them. The victim sees whatever they want to see.”

Walter ponders this. “Well ol’ Balric said he was a valet right? Maybe John’s attached himself to him.”

“It’s worth a look. Both of you keep an eye out for clues. In the meantime, Walter, you know what to do.”

Walter grins and tugs on the lapels of his jacket. “I was just thinking that lovely maid over there looks a bit lonely.” He disappears into the crowd.

“Ah, detectives,” A voice calls after Walter as he walks away. “Oh well, at least the two of you are here.”

“Kellerman,” Sidhion flatly announces.

Kellerman emerges from a crowd of people. His pudgy face is red and drenched with sweat. Frantically, erratically, he lunges for Sidhion’s hand, forcing him into an emphatic handshake. He announces, “I wanted to personally thank you for bringing Mister Alkane to justice! I had no idea someone so ghastly could be lurking in our fair city.”

Sidhion’s face contorts as his eyes meet Kellerman’s. He lets his hand fall limply to his side as it is released from Kellerman’s frantic grasp. “Well it was only through Owen’s power of deduction that we uncovered his operation.”

Kellerman’s eyes light up and he quickly snatches my hand. His palm is clammy and hot. Kellerman’s sleeve pulls backward as we shake. Two sunken, circular scars on his wrist blaze an irritable red. I wipe his sweat off my hand when he finally lets me go. 

Kellerman ignores my disgusted sneer. “Of course! Everyone here owes you a debt of gratitude. Rest assured that you’ll all be receiving a generous discount at my store from now on. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I see my wife over there.” He gestures in a random direction and flits off just as erratically as he appeared.

I lean on Sidhion and mumble, “Smells like a bribe to me.”

Sidhion looks down to me and huffs. He shoves something into my hand: a torn piece of parchment. It reads:

Come to the store tomorrow evening. I can tell you everything.

“Oh.” I roll my eyes. “So he wants immunity.”

“Seems like it,” Sidhion sighs.

“After he talks, mind if I..?” I wink at Sidhion and draw my thumb across my neck.

Sidhion’s frown tightens when he inhales deeply. “I’ll think about it.”


 

An elderly server paces in circles around Rynor Manor’s open-air atrium. He’s always the last one to emerge from the servants’ wing, holding aloft a tray of ever-rotating hors d'oeuvres. He slowly marches along the same circuit he’s done seven times in the last hour. From the servants’ door tucked behind an ivy-covered lattice, past a raised bed of perfectly pruned roses, rounding the central fountain, passing by the fence of a presently unused dueling pit, following the rear wall where a grand set of double-doors stand shut to keep visitors out of the banquet hall until dinnertime, all before retreating back to the hidden door to refill his tray. And all the while, wealthy guests pick at the treats he has on offer. 

Sidhion and I sit facing each other on the edge of the raised flower-bed. His eyes follow the elderly server as he passes behind me and disappears into the hidden door. “I was visiting the Silver Chapel the other day and the vicar told me this great anecdote.”

I feign annoyance. “Please, not another moralizing story from a slow old man.”

“No, no you have to hear this one. It’s funny.” Sidhions eyes still linger outside of the banal conversation. His eyebrows raise ever-so-slightly and he finally meets my gaze.

I grin, knowingly. “Fine, fine. I’ll listen to one more. But only if you get me drunk first.”

Sidhion shakes his head and restrains a laugh. “Deal.”

The pair of us get to our feet when the elderly server shuffles past the rose-bed. Casually, we pace behind the ivy-covered lattice and disappear behind the hidden door. A cramped, creaky staircase stretches down into the windowless servants’ wing. The soft rumble of distant voices and clattering dishes grows louder as we descend. The thin hallway at the bottom of the stairs appears to run the length of the manor and branches in several directions. 

The mouth-watering scent of hearty soups and glazed meats fills my nostrils. I close my eyes and focus on this smell. Though it wafts and fills the entire hall, it grows stronger as I turn my head to the right. I link my arm with Sidhion’s and pull him along toward the inviting smell. 

The kitchen laid out before us is rather spacious. Countertops overflow with dishes both empty and filled. Three cooks work feverishly, tending to pots, peeling boiled eggs, chopping vegetables and more. A halfling woman, bright-eyed and red-faced, stands on a stool which allows her to reach her cutting board. A scrawny orcish man stands beside her, focusing deeply on the egg shells he sends clattering onto a counter. A hunched elven woman is bent over a huge pot with her back to the door. 

The scraping of wood colliding with metal freezes as the halfling notices Sidhion’s and my presence. She hops off her stool and waves her arms, trying to shoo us away. “Oh! I’m sorry, you’re not supposed to be down here!” 

“Yes, yes, servant’s wing, it’s very sad down here,” I interrupt.

The halfling freezes and squints up at me.

“I’ve had to make the horrible trek down into your sad hovel because the drink selection upstairs is well below par.”

The elven woman turns toward us, revealing the ocean of wrinkles on her face. She waves the spoon in her hand like a queen with a scepter. “The servants upstairs’re taking drink orders. You,” she points to the orc, “Show ‘em upstairs.”

He shrinks under the elf’s fury and begins to rush in my direction.

“Excuse you,” I proclaim. “I’ll have you know I am the guest of honor tonight and I won’t be foisted off on some two-bit barmaid.”

The elven woman scowls deeply. Her tone is dripping with venom. “What do you want?”

“I need to be shown the wine-cellar. I’ve been assured by the lord of the manor that I am welcome to sample any and everything.”

The old woman bristles. “You’ll have to wait for-”

“I will do no such thing! Your employer surely instructed you all to see to my desires tonight, yes?”

The elven woman glares at me, surely imagining what it would be like to stab me to death. 

I let a sly grin crawl across my face. “That’s what I thought. Take me to the wine cellar.”

The elf reaffirms her command of the orc. “Go see that our.. Esteemed guest is made happy.”

“That simply won’t do! You, you and you,” I point at each of the three cooks, “All need to accompany me.”

“What?”

“I have exacting tastes and I cannot have any fewer than three somaliers to attend to me. Unless you’d like me to pay a visit to Mister Rynor?”

The elf throws her wooden spoon onto the counter. The force of it causes the thing to clatter to the floor. “Fine! But make it quick!”

The halfling and orc take the lead. They whisper conspiratorially. The elf stops at the doorway and stares daggers at Sidhion who has been abashedly watching this display. “You coming?”

Sidhion bows his head reverentially. “I’m sorry for my friend. I don’t want to cause you any extra trouble. I’ll stay here.”

The elf squints up at Sidhion and sniffs. “Fine. And stir that pot if it gets to bubbling.” She marches after us, leaving Sidhion to his work.

The wine cellar is dreadfully close to the kitchen. The doorway to one is visible from the other. The dark musty cellar sprawls with undusted shelves, overflowing with hundreds of vintages both young and old. The entire room is serviced only by a single, dim hanging oil lamp which dangles over an old, splintered table. Set into the wall is a shelf brimming with perfectly polished wine glasses. A rusty old bucket rests on the floor, ready to receive the refuse of a wine-tasting.

The old woman lingers in the doorway.

“I think I want to start with a few known quantities. Surely you’ve all sampled a few of these wines when you cook with them, yes?” The cold, dead-eyed stares I receive are not the answer I was looking for but I must press on. “I want to sample each of your favorites. Go on, find it for me.”

The orc and halfling exchange a look and quietly disappear into the farthest reaches of the cellar.

The elf scoffs and marches past me and around a corner. She quickly returns holding a dark green bottle and plops it heavily on the table. “There. Now if you’ll excuse me..” 

She tries to slip by but I step in front of her. “I haven’t dismissed you, yet. Pour me a glass.” I nod to the shelf beside me.

The woman huffs and storms back to the table, grabbing a glass and harshly dropping it beside the bottle. While she looks away, I lean my head out the door, hoping to see Sidhion waiting for me. Instead I’m met with an empty hallway and floating dust particles. I duck back in and watch the old woman finish pouring my glass. We’re soon joined by the halfling and orc, who have collectively selected a bottle overburdened by dust.

I can feel hatred-filled eyes boring into my skull as I slowly sip from the glass. The red, bitter liquid is tinged with a tart cherry undertone. I hold the near-empty glass aloft, aligning the rim with the ceiling lantern. Lifting the glass higher, I watch as the fire submerges itself in the sumptuous, dark wine. My mind becons my hand to tip the rest of the glass into my mouth. Instead, I dump it into the bucket. “No, this won’t do. It’s too woody. Find me something more mild.”

Wordlessly, the old woman marches back into the depths of the cellar. Now I lean in the doorway, facing down the hall. I turn my attention to the waiting pair of cooks. “Let’s see your offering.”

This next bottle is a white. It’s a sweet, thick liquid. The perfect pairing for a dessert cheese. I let my eyes fix on the glass, keeping my attention on the peripherals of my vision. Slowly, I swirl the glass, watching the pale liquid form legs as it slides back into the bowl. The old woman rounds the corner again, carrying another dark green bottle. I make a show of airing out the wine, taking small sips and pondering the flavor. 

Finally, a dark-haired face leans out of the kitchen door. I raise my eyebrows imploringly. Sidhion pats the pocket of his vest and nods. I turn to my captives. “You can put that bottle away. Your underlings chose an excellent vintage. Fine work.” I grin at the pair. 

The old woman scowls. “Can we get back to work now?”

“Yes, yes, let me get my fill and I’ll go.” I tilt my head back, emptying the glass in my hand. I step aside, allowing my captives to pass and return to their work. The orc lad gives me a strange look as he passes. 

I return to the tasting table, lifting the bottle of delectable red and filling my glass to the rim. Sidhion will like the white. I overpour a glass for him. 

Sidhion leads the way back to the stairs. He raises an eyebrow at me. “Won’t walking out there with two overfilled glasses look.. Improprietous?”

“You should have more faith in me! This one’s for you.”

“Getting drunk in a hive of cultists is the worst idea you’ve had yet.”

“Come on, you have the poison. Walter’s probably fine. The danger is over. Now we can just enjoy the party.” I raise the glass of white and wave it, tantalizingly, under Sidhion’s nose.

“Alright, I suppose one glass won’t kill me.” He takes the glass from me and sips from it.

A malevolent cackle rises in my throat, “That’s the Sidhion I know!”

“It’s a good opportunity to teach you to dance, anyway,” He grins.

“I’ve been to more parties than you’ve even heard of. If anything I’ll be teaching you.”

“We’ll see about that,” Sidhion chuckles. “You humans always dance so stiff.”

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