A WEDDING AND A WARNING
The dominion of Ordefima thrived on eternal peace for seventeen centuries as documented in the mighty books held by The Tutelor of Annals. It was harmony driven by tradition, marked by ceremonies and festivals that continued a cycle of celebration and renewal. Each and every person had a role to play, and with hard work, the ongoing prosperity was assured.
Those who ruled did so by uncontested right of birth. Laws were made and the rare disputes resolved by the seven most learned figures in the land. They referred often to the words of past scholars. Everyone abided by their decisions. There was no need for an army or police, the threat of enemies having long since passed out of living memory.
It was all the more remarkable, then, that the fate of a stray bandit in the distant Bantum Lane, walking into a fatal trap, could have such an incredible impact in a land so secure. With savagery unseen and unheard of, the poor, unfortunate thief met a formidable foe. The screams alerted the others in his gang but all they found were his scattered remains and nothing was seen of his murderer. It was a gruesome incident that would bring so many deadly challenges from an adversary beyond the wildest imagination.
On the very same day, the marriage of Rupert Bellaquin, fourth son of the Marquis, to Caterina Asvonde, was performed on the Court Platform above the Festival Arena packed with as many as could fit and followed by a great procession to the Balaltura, the historic, palatial family home. The way was lined by trumpeters and accompanied by a chorus from the best singers in the land. All the bells that could ring were rung. There was much rejoicing by the people and it was agreed that the couple looked splendid. Their open carriage was pulled by large white horses decorated in coats of yellow to match Rupert’s birthstone and blue plumes to honour Caterina’s. Rupert grinned heartily, his teeth flashing white against his dark beard and tanned skin. He was a strikingly attractive man with sensitive brown eyes, eager to please. Caterina was, by contrast, very pale in her white dress. She had such beauty in her soft, round face that it hid the underlying insincerity of her smile.
The revelry unravelled in blissful unawareness of the shocking discovery made on the borders, as the wedding party settled down at huge round tables in the banquet room to a feast appropriately expansive for the occasion. The largest of the season’s hogs turned on spits over a roaring fire, sending smoke tinged with red up into the cavernous ceiling. Wine from their vineyards poured from casks to glasses, fresh vegetables were in abundance and rich sausage broths bubbled in sturdy pots. All about them bustled cooks and attendants, happy in their work and ever eager to serve, supervised by the head butler, Bozan, a suitably old and serious figure.
“I welcome each of you!” Rupert announced as he stood to address the gathering, his voice sincere despite its usual slightly mocking, nasal tone.
He stood tall, his black tunic and cloak edged with yellow. His manner was sincere as he scanned the room, trying to discern the thoughts behind the many blank faces. This was his moment, as youngest son, and he wanted to sound mature and majestic. The murmuring went silent to listen to his words.
“I am honoured that so many family, friends and leading figures of the dominion have come to celebrate with me this, the most important day of my life so far.” There was a roll of clapping. “It was indeed a moment of magic when Caterina agreed to be my wife and now we are joined together for life I have many people to thank. First and foremost, Caterina herself. For making me a happy man.”
She sat by his side, back straight, cradling her delicate chin on her laced hands, and blushed in discomfort at the sudden attention. But her voluminous eyes did not blink. This was, after all, exactly what she had desired. She shook her bowl of full, brown hair and accepted her significance.
“I’m grateful to her parents for allowing this to happen and doing such a sterling job at bringing up their daughter.”
They were at the table to the left, grinning like fools. In truth, few people knew them; they were simple folk with land who farmed amongst the Fields, following a rather dull routine. For most, it was a surprise they had produced such striking offspring.
“To my own parents, I have not the time or ability to do justice to the support and encouragement they have always given me. So I will merely ask you to stand and applaud them for being my mum and dad and such gracious rulers of our dominion.”
The applause was tumultuous. Leopold Bellaquin, the Marquis of Ordefima was used to this reaction. In the twenty seven years since his own father’s death, he had established a well respected position and ruled over another spell of peace and productivity. He was Master of the Fleet and had organised the building of several new vessels and the modernisation of the Yards. His satisfaction was obvious in his apple red cheeks with a smile set hard by a strong jaw. He soon grew tired of their clapping and banged both large hands on the arms of his big, wooden seat. The room settled back down.
His wife, sitting quietly at his side, sipped her wine and fluttered her fan. It was far too hot and noisy for her. She touched her hair, which was tied up perfectly with delicate flowers, to make sure she was still presentable.
Rupert continued. “The six tutelors of Ordefima have given me knowledge and guidance ever since I can remember. I hope to get round to see you each in person and if I fail, please accept my personal thanks now in recognition of you roles.
“I acknowledge also my four siblings. Each plays a crucial part in the family’s efforts to make Ordefima the special place it is to live in today. I’m especially pleased to welcome home my oldest brother, Isodor, who we do not see enough of.”
Isodor, who was facing Rupert, lay back in his chair and raised a glass of ruby wine before downing it in one. He too was large, like his father, and his full, long beard added to the power of his presence. His skin was darkened by much time under the sun on his many travels.
“And to Socha, my younger sister, I express endless gratitude for being the one I have been able to turn to for light. You have buoyed me ceaselessly since you were born with your inspiring free expression.”
It was notable that she was also seated on the main table with the bride and groom. She was small with a mass of dark, straight hair that seemed to float around her like a cape. Her features were fine and above a delicate nose was a brow that tended to knot, which it did now, cleared only by Rupert’s smile.
After this, the focus returned to another course of food. In honour of Leopold, his finest salmon was served, filling the air with an aroma of fish soaked in butter, dressed with delightful herbs grown by Lydia. The volume of the voices increased, cutlery clanked on wide plates and Lydia wished she was out in her garden tending to her plants, sensing the breeze fluttering through the leaves. Her uneasiness was about to get worst. Her husband stood to make his speech. She began to toy with her necklace, her lips pursed.
“Well I hope you enjoyed the fish,” Leopold began. “I could have sold that catch for a fortune at the market.”
A few laughed in uncertainty. Rupert rolled his eyes. Leopold wiped his chin with a large napkin and was ready for more.
“Some of you might have thought I would have opposed this early marriage. Should it not have been Isodor going first? I am keen, after all, to know my heir is fertile enough to produce one of his own.”
Isodor folded his broad arms and shook his head. His father held his eye before looking around to see what reaction he was getting. Most looked as if they were waiting for a punch line. Leopold grunted and nodded.
“I am very happy that Rupert has taken this sensible step. It shows he has awareness of the future. The rest of my sons seem very much absorbed by the present, enjoying a little too much the warm protection of privilege.”
Those to whom he was referring shuffled in their seats, unable to counter this suggestion, leaving the words hanging in the vast chamber.
“Rupert is loyal. He knows I have worried that he is lost in what he calls the wonders of nature. When he was younger it took the odd clip on the ear to keep him on track. As Master of the Mint he has a lot of responsibility that needs a level head. He has managed to do a good job and settling down can only make him more stable.”
Rupert sighed. It was nice to get some praise from the old man but it was clear he was still not understood by him. Rupert had no intention of becoming a homebound father with a tribe of children to add to the dynasty. There was much he wanted to do and see. Caterina was someone he had chosen to share that with.
“We are pleased to have so many of our family here. My wife in particular is thrilled, despite deciding this morning she was too ill to attend.”
Lydia’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. Leopold noticed this and then grinned at everyone. “I think I may have said the wrong thing!” Lydia squeezed her temples with eyes closed.
“So I hope you will all rejoice this day, wish the newlyweds every health and happiness, party and drink from the vats I have gifted for thee.”
The festivities roared on. When it appeared there was no more food to eat, the tables were cleared away and the people milled out into the many antechambers on both sides, each of which had a generous wide balcony that looked out onto the surrounding community below. A neat collection of wood and brick buildings, named simply, like most things in the dominion, the Town was the main settlement of Ordefima.
A band of musicians set up on the big stage inside and were soon thrashing out lively tunes that drew the guests back in throngs for the dancing. Formal garments were discarded as they weaved beneath the glowing torches; a hand would be caught, another dropped, a waist encircled and an arm ducked. Couples got parted and would see no more than glimpse of each other as the deep-rooted songs played. Some would take a break, seeking sustenance at the bar.
Rupert and Caterina, meanwhile, were welcoming yet more guests at the tall doorway, graciously thanking them for the gifts they had brought. Friends old and new, relatives from across the land, got sucked into the multitude. For the newlyweds, this was the most alive they’d ever be, the high point of their relationship. It was with mutual relief that they slipped away to a quiet room overlooking the hall.
The windows had been thrown wide open to draw in some cooler air. Rupert went out onto the balcony and took deep breaths while laughter bubbled up from below. The waning moon sat in isolated splendour over the busy houses below, smudged by a passing veil of cloud. Ordefima stretched out beyond, the dark countryside broken by the odd celebratory fire. Somewhere a bell was ringing.
“It’s going well,” he commented.
Caterina had already flopped down on a seat, looking exhausted and not pleased. “So many people to meet,” she moaned. “My arm aches from shaking all those hands.”
“Perhaps my wife needs a drink.”
Rupert liked using the word wife. She liked the idea of wine. He gestured to a waiter standing by the door who soon returned with a glassful for each of them. Rupert sat down beside her and caressed the fine white silk of her dress. The cool liquid eased his dry throat and he began to revive.
“It’s nice to have a moment to take it all in,” he said, with a glance around the ancient stone walls covered with tapestries depicting key stages from history. The one directly before them showed the laying of the first stone at the Temple of the Ancients. Some of the first men of Ordefima were straining under a leaden sky, surrounded by the dark domes of the Dolmens. This marked the end of the nomadic nature of the people and the acknowledgement of one ruling family. Rupert was very aware of his place on the time line.
“The Balaltura has seen some feasts,” he mused. “Now there’s one for us. I knew it would feel like a magic dream”
“No, I thought your father was going to ruin it for me with his speech,” Caterina countered.
“Have faith. He loves an audience, especially if he can ruffle some feathers, but he means well.”
“He’s too down on his sons, especially you.”
Rupert looked at her thoughtfully. Her face had that frozen grimace it often took on when everything wasn’t quite how she liked it.
“You’re missing the moment worrying about him. There’s a load of people out there waiting to talk to us.”
“I’ll finish my drink first.”
“Come on, we’ll have plenty of time to rest on our honeymoon.”
Despite a growl of disapproval she did as asked. They made their way out and down past a long line of well wishers who had spilled up onto the stairs to escape the melee of the dance floor.
“Linus,” Rupert said when he met his brother. “How are you?”
Linus rubbed his hands together, shaking his lean frame as he did so. His smile was only slight, like an apology. “It’s a lot of work and expense. But I guess the meat was tasty and the beer is good.”
“Well, you should know all about the hogs they roasted. You raised them after all.”
His flat face produced a grimace. “Bloody pain to keep fed. And two of my men ended up injured catching them.”
Rupert was used to his knack of undermining a happy time with irony. “Oh, well, excellent work all the same.”
“Not too sure the old man appreciates it.”
Rupert had to reach up slightly to pat his taller brother reassuringly on the shoulder. “He does.”
Linus grunted his doubt.
Rupert would not let anything spoil his day. “See you in a bit, got to mingle.”
Rupert and Caterina circled around the dancers. In the midst of them they could see Jankin, third son of Leopold and an uncanny likeness of his father, in a smaller form, with longer hair. He was dancing aggressively, fists clenched, his blue eyes fixed on a point only he could see. The dark scar he had acquired in a fall during childhood stood out his reddened cheek. His buddy, Bardolph was clowning around beside him, amusing a group of girls nearby with his silly antics and flashy grin. Jankin and Bardolph were rarely seen apart.
“Your brother Jankin, I’ve heard he gets like this,” Caterina said. She had not seen much of him during her period of courtship with Rupert.
Rupert twisted his mouth in memory of a few difficult moments from his childhood. “He frightens me when he’s that possessed. I sometimes try to see within him and I don’t know what is lurking there.”
Isodor spotted them and moved through the crowd to speak to the band leader. When the next tune started, everyone knew what it meant and stepped away to clear a central area. One of the band sang the ancient words used as a declaration of love and always at weddings for a new couple.
“Time to make fools of ourselves,” Rupert told Caterina as he swept her out into the open space.
“I was hoping we could avoid it,” she hissed, through gritted teeth.
“We’ll be fine,” he assured her.
And they were, clinging to each other and stepping neatly in time with the music. Those evenings practicing, which Caterina had hated, paid off. When the song reached its climax and spoke of eternity and truth, many other couples joined in and their collective smiles created a sense of certainty that only a beautiful, golden future could lay ahead for these two young hopefuls.
After many dances, Caterina held up a thin hand up in protest and they went to seek sustenance. More food had been laid out in the antechambers and was being eagerly consumed by the less energetic.
“There’s not enough,” Caterina observed, shaking her head. “I knew this would happen.”
Rupert squeezed her hand. “Don’t worry. The kitchens are still working. They won’t let anyone go hungry.”
When Rupert picked up a plate for each of them, she was perplexed. “We need to leave enough for the guests,” she insisted.
“Sorry, my love. This is as much our feast as theirs. Now let’s eat.”
He ignored her scowl and began choosing from the array of platters on offer. As he moved along he bumped into a girl. As he apologised he saw it was Florentia, who had come as Isodor’s guest. She was short, olive skinned, with mousy brown hair. Her appealing, even features were untouched by makeup and she wore a crimson robe that plunged noticeably at the front.
“Well, it’s an honour to be elbowed by a Master of Ordefima,” she laughed.
“Are you having a good time?” Rupert enquired.
“You bet. It’s a dream come true to be in this company.”
“And Isodor has been looking after you? There will be many people you won’t have met before.”
“I’ve hardly seen him since dinner. You know what it’s like. Everyone wants to hear about his travels.”
“But I can get by on my own. I’ll talk to anyone willing.”
Caterina appeared next to them; her scowl had deepened.
“Congratulations ,” Florentia said to her, with eyebrows raised. “You’ve bagged one of the most handsome men in the land. It must feel wonderful to know his deep brown eyes are only for you.”
“Yes, thank you, they are,” Caterina replied and pulled Rupert on along the table.
“See you,” Rupert called back and Florentia nodded.
“Honestly, that girl. She’s a menace,” his wife complained.
“She’s okay,” Rupert laughed.
“No, she’s common. And she loves an important man. She’ll do anything to get one.”
“You’re being unkind. All are welcome to the Balaltura.”
“She should stay in the Town where she belongs.”
Rupert wanted to point out that Caterina’s own upbringing was even more humble, on a farm beside the Fields. He judged it not to be quite the right moment as her frame was rigid when she pushed against him, a sign he recognised as one of an impending tantrum.
Over in the corner, the figure of a close friend was a relief. “Falcon!” he cried.
His pale face, intense and severe as ever, lit up instantly. Friends since their first times at the Home of Lessons, their handshake was as warm as any on that night.
“Well done, Rupert! Your bride looks sensational!” he gushed with a sweep of arms that emphasised his sincerity. Caterina did a swift curtsy in response.
“Are you enjoying yourself?” Rupert was keen to ask.
Falcon leaned in close. “Well you know me. I’m not one for these noisy affairs. I usually seek a quiet chair at home by this hour.”
“I saw you dancing, near that pretty girl,” Rupert teased.
“Girl? I never noticed her.”
Rupert would have dismissed such a denial from anyone else. But with Falcon it was certainly genuine.
“Someone must have caught your eye? There are some fine young ladies here.”
Caterina folded her arms in protest. Rupert choose not to notice.
Falcon shook his bewildered head. “I’ve seen no one special,” he admitted.
Rupert knew it was unlikely that Falcon would be a distraction for any potential suitor. His simply cut hair was thinning rapidly and what remained grew thick in a bowl shape. Too much time with dry paper, following the serious words of the decrees had turned him grave and insular; his poor skin was parched and flaky.
Rupert ceased his probing and slapped Falcon’s back in encouragement. “At least you’re getting involved.”
“Oh, I’ll always give things my best. I owe that to both of you on this special night.”
“Thank you, Falcon, you’re always so gracious,” Caterina said.
“I won’t be rude, you have to join in.”
They watched while a group of revellers staggered past, whooping as one by one they stumbled. The drink and the heady atmosphere were proving an intoxicating mix.
“But not with that sort of stupidity,” Falcon declared.
“Listen, when I’m back from honeymoon. I’ll come see you and we’ll make some plans. I need to get you out from behind that desk and into the sunshine. You were a lot more fun before you took that job.”
“Count on it,” Rupert promised, fixing him with a meaningful stare. “Look out for me.”
They both knew he meant it. With a reassuring pat on the arm, Rupert went to move on. At the door he turned. “Have you seen Loetus?” he asked.
“Not since we left the table. He was obsessing about some woman he wanted to meet, so he’s probably in bed with her by now.”
Since Loetus had come to prominence as Messenger to the Marquis, Falcon had been dismissive of him, never giving the man a second chance after he caused a small scandal having that liaison with a shopkeeper’s wife. Rupert also wondered if Falcon was jealous of Loetus’ wide ranging freedom and many friendships.
“I think I must check on him,” Rupert decided.
“Must we?” Caterina asked.
“He’s another like Salvor, you know,” Falcon warned, with a sweep of his bony hand. “Don’t blame yourself if he suffers the same fate.”
The problem was, Rupert did blame himself. Salvor’s excessive drinking had caused the accident but Rupert often thought he should have intervened sooner. If he had, Salvor might have been there tonight. He would have loved mingling with the pretty ladies. His absence reached out through the merrymakers and found the emptiness Rupert hid within.
“I won’t let another friend kill himself,” Rupert concluded and left with a powerful stride.
“Look after him,” Falcon urged.
Caterina set off in pursuit with a huff and a gait so stiff that not even her flowing dress could hide.
Loetus was discovered in the furthest chamber of the Balaltura’s banqueting hall, entwined with a rangy looking girl, stroking one of her long legs. Both were dishevelled. When Rupert and Caterina came in they made a swift attempt to recover some decency.
“This is Ayovo,” Loetus said, straightening his tunic. “Her father bred my horse.”
Rupert wanted to laugh. Was he supposed to believe they were busy discussing livery? Did it matter if they had any connection at all?
The girl twisted awkwardly on the spot, long arms dangling, wide mouth full of teeth. Loetus was built much more solidly, with a sweep of fine hair down to his shoulders and a substantial moustache dominating a thin face. Caterina gave them both a withering look.
“Why don’t you pop back to the party,” Loetus advised her. “I’ll catch up with you soon.”
“You seem to be getting along very well together,” Rupert observed, once Ayovo had departed.
“Is that not my business?” came the defensive reply.
“Oh, absolutely,” Rupert agreed, genuinely. “You did not need to dismiss her so readily.”
“I had to free myself for a while. I’ll join her again soon. Now I can offer you my personal congratulations.”
The two men hugged heartily. Caterina’s embrace was stiff and guarded.
“So when do you head for the Preserve?” Loetus asked, his eyes moving between them but settling on Rupert.
“We have two days to go through all the gifts and pack our trunks ready for the trip.”
“Wow. What a very special treat for a honeymoon.”
Caterina disagreed with Loetus’ assessment, as she often did. “It’s a very long way,” she stated.
“Not really,” Loetus countered.
Rupert was swift to interject. “You’re much more used to the distances, in your work.”
“True, I do travel many miles. I have a very sturdy horse.”
“My father has given us his carriage for the trip.”
“Only after your mother nagged him,” Caterina pointed out.
Rupert nodded and then shrugged. “That is what he’s like.”
“So once you’re back we can plan another adventure?” Loetus asked. “With your wife’s permission, of course.”
He bowed reverently, a gesture that felt as sarcastic as it was extravagant.
“Do I get a choice in this?” she demanded, facing Rupert with delicate hands on hips.
“We’ll discuss it later,” Rupert said.
“What I think won’t matter,” she decided.
“Of course it will. Let’s wait and see.”
The light that gave her beauty was no longer visible on her face, obscured by a dark cloud of menace. With a stamp of a heel under her expansive dress, she swivelled and marched away. Rupert turned back to Loetus to find him full of dread.
“Bad timing?” he gulped.
“Maybe. But she needs to learn what being the wife of a Master of Ordefima is going to mean. We’ll have our neat little home, just as she wanted, and I’ll have many things to do that will take me away.”
“She just doesn’t want one of them to be me.”
“It’s been a long day for her,” Rupert said, walking past his friend and out onto the balcony.
They sat up together on the ornate stone wall, facing the inside, unmoved by the large drop behind them. Rupert kicked his booted legs out alternatively.
After a time, Loetus asked, “what are you thinking, old boy?”
Rupert’s eyes narrowed on an unseen point before him. “I was wondering if I’d done the right thing.”
“Yes, mostly that.”
“Are you happy?”
“That’s your answer, then.”
“My motives have been nagging me. I’ve not told anyone this but I got so troubled with doubt that I wanted to see what Suky might find.”
“The Tutelor of Signs! She is only to be consulted on matters relevant to all Ordefima.”
“I know. But this felt like it warranted her attention. I can’t explain why. I just felt like something massive was going to come from our union.”
“Okay. And she agreed?”
“Yes. She arranged for me to visit her late one night when the moon was full. We waited until the stroke of midnight, she threw her cards into the air and the one that fell into the brightest beam that she had directed onto the floor, told me what to expect.”
“What did it say?”
“She wouldn’t tell me exactly. She just predicted that women were going to cause me great problems.”
“That’s true for all of us!” Loetus joked.
Rupert remained serious. “It was very specific. The deck has seventy eight different cards. I got that one.”
“You’ve always paid too much attention to Suky’s prophecies.”
“She is often right.”
“And frequently wrong.”
“You remember last year, when she warned about the storms and all that flooding. Many dismissed her. It was summer after all. And what did we get? Exactly what she promised. Good job the Court took heed or we’d have lost many crops and many farmers would have been ruined.”
“That’s just one time.”
“There are many more. She warned me about the bandit raid on the Temple of the Ancients. I was given the credit for rescuing the precious stones but it was Suky that gave me the details, all of them accurate.”
Loetus jumped down and faced him. “You can only deal with what you have in front of you. This is a great occasion. Enjoy today for what it is.”
Rupert remained hunched over, the fervour of the day draining away.
“Am I doing this for me or Ordefima?” he wondered. “As Master of the Mint with something to prove, as fourth son of Leopold who expects loyalty to the Dominion or as Rupert the man who wants a good life?”
“Listen, you didn’t ask to be born into such an important family. You should be proud of how you’ve adapted, what you’ve achieved and having a stable relationship, which is more than I’ve managed. My father despairs of me.”
“As has mine until now.”
Loetus’ shoulders dropped with conquered languor. “The price of expectation is high,” he sighed.
“You don’t think I’m too young?”
“You’re the best friend I could hope for. And as such I respect all that you do. Whatever happens, I’ll stand by you.”
Rupert lightened, his smile came with a slight shake of the head.
“Perhaps I’ve let the pomp of the occasion get to me,” he concluded.
“Don’t try so hard,” Loetus advised.
Rupert jumped down with a flourish before patting Loetus on the arm and heading inside.
“Come, we must rejoin the feast,” he called back.
“I’ll be right there.”
Except, Loetus did not follow. He had caught sight of a disturbance at the gate. There was much shouting and someone was demanding to see the Marquis. The sentinels of the Balaltura, recognisable by their rainbow coloured cloaks, were doing their job, holding back a small crowd. Loetus took it upon himself to run down instantly to investigate, taking the back stairs to avoid the mass of people inside.
Once he had descended and gone across the courtyard, he met with a most unusual, threatening scene. What looked like a gang of bandits had come to the gate with a horse drawn cart. They were highly agitated and barely restrained by a cordon of the Marquis’s men.
“What is the meaning of this?” Loetus demanded.
At the sight of someone official from inside, the frenzied pack calmed.
“Guards, stand down,” he commanded.
They recognised his status as Messenger to the Marquis and reluctantly stood back. One of the gang, who Loetus assumed was the leader, came forward. He was dressed in the thick animal skins typical of the wild men of Ordefima; his blistered face was marked by dirt. Years of malnutrition had bent his frame and he scuffed his feet as he moved. Most noticeable was the fresh blood covering his filthy hands. Behind him, his mob watched with intensity.
“I am Grobu. This is my company. We want revenge for this terrible crime. It goes against all laws.”
“To what do you refer?” Loetus asked, breathing deeply to maintain his composure.
“One of our family. Attacked.”
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
“I’ll show you.”
He gestured for Loetus to follow him. The gang moved to clear a path. Loetus was wary, fearing kidnap or robbery.
“Stick with me,” he said to the two nearest sentinels.
People of the Town had gathered on the other side, leaving their own celebrations to find out what had brought this exiled band to the heart of Ordefima. They were mostly plain in dress, though some had added bright ribbons to their clothes to mark the special day. Now something highly irregular had happened and the jollity had been killed stone dead. The tension was mounting.
“There is no cause for alarm,” Loetus told them, more for his own benefit.
The cart was covered in rough, hessian blankets showing more evidence of blood.
“If this is someone in need of attention, you should have gone to the Home of Medicine,” Loetus told Grobu.
He grimaced. “It’s far beyond their hands,” he said. “Something in this land, we don’t know what, has done this. Look.”
With a rigid motion he revealed what was causing so much distress; the mangled remains of a body. The distress heightened. The Townsfolk gasped. A woman began to scream. Someone threw up. Beside Loetus, the sentinels turned away to hide their revulsion.
Loetus was shaking. He put both arms behind his back in an effort to prevent himself falling forward under weakening legs. He had never, in all his ridings up and down the land, seen such a thing. Even the men crushed when a side of the Quarry collapsed a few years back were recognisable. Whoever this was had been torn to pieces.
“Cover it up,” he murmured. No one responded. “I said, cover it up!”
Eventually a few sentinels revived from the shock and did as he asked. Loetus stepped forward to address those from the Town.
“This is a matter for the Marquis to consider. I’m sure he will consult with all he sees as relevant. Please await further word from the Balaltura. Until such time, return to your homes and rest assured there is nothing to fear.”
They dispersed gradually under Loetus’ watchful eye, muttering amongst themselves. Once out of earshot, he turned to face the still angry mob of bandits.
“I want you to take the body down to the Home of Medicine. They will ensure all the evidence is kept safe. The Marquis will be informed.”
“How do we know that?” Grobu demanded, approaching the taller, straighter man with menace.
“I am Loetus, Messenger to the Marquis. It is my duty to pass on this information.”
Grobu’s hostility eased and he bowed his head, making his stoop even more pronounced. “We are fortunate to have encountered you so quickly. I will instruct my company to make camp on the outskirts of the Town and await word from the Marquis.”
“I thank you.”
Grobu had not finished and his black eyes did not leave Loetus slim face. “But be sure that if we are given any trouble from anyone we will react.”
“I can assure you that you will not be approached.”
“And if the life of one of my family is not properly acknowledged and a course of action taken, there will be more disorder.”
Loetus smiled thinly. “The Marquis will know best,” he said, and cleared his throat.
Grobu growled and waved his band away, the cart squeaking as the wheels engaged. The gates of the Balaltura were closed again with a resounding crunch and the sounds of merriment echoed around the surrounding stone of the courtyard. As Loetus prepared to go back inside, he closed his eyes to shut out the horror of the moment but could still see the violent red. The day would now be memorable for more than the marriage of his best friend.
In the main hall, during a break in the music, Rupert was trying to locate his wife. It was time for them to cut the mighty game pie as was the tradition and then share a piece with all present.
“Lost her have you?” his father asked, watching Rupert’s attempts to see through the throng.
“For the moment. There are so many people here.”
Leopold was stood, legs apart, arms folded, commanding his place in the room. “You need to keep tabs on them.”
Lydia, who was sat at a table just behind, ran the back of her hand over her wrinkled forehead. “Leave him be, Leopold,” she said.
“I’m just having a joke with my son. You can’t make your spouse happy if you can’t find her!”
He roared with laughter until he began to cough, ending up doubled over.
“A woman sometimes craves peace and solitude, as you can imagine,” Lydia commented, fixing her husband with a wilting stare.
“She can’t have gone far,” Rupert decided, although he did not sound convincing.
“I sincerely hope not,” Leopold said. “There are thirty of my best pheasants in that pie and she has to be the one to make the first incision.”
Rupert continued to weave and stretch on the spot in his search, stroking his beard with increasing regularity. People passed by, many keen to shake his hand. He grew less jolly with each distraction.
“You won’t trace her standing here,” his father commented.
“Thanks, dad,” he replied with irony, handing him his empty glass and setting off for another circuit of the chamber.
The pattern of effusive congratulations continued. It was as if everyone had left it until now to catch up with him. Rupert grew hot in his woven tunic and the great open fire burned ever brighter. Two of the waiters he had sent off to look for her came back shaking their heads. He was getting close to bursting with frustration.
“Look harder,” he told them.
The vision that was Socha appeared, hair glowing with orange highlights, drifting effortlessly on bare feet through the multitude. She reached up, placing a flat palm on each of his temples, and drew him down until their foreheads were touching.
She knew instantly that he was bothered. “Brother, what troubles you on such a glorious night?”
Beneath her creased brow, Rupert sank deep into lively brown eyes that blurred being so close. She was the perfect person to bump into now. Her touch cooled his boiling blood on the spot, her question brought perspective. The scent of delicate flowers surrounded him. His tension broke into a smile.
“I seem to have lost Cat, she went off in a bit of a sulk,” he admitted.
Socha fell back laughing, a sound like a waterfall of honey. “I saw her up by the stage. She was watching the band very intently. When they stopped she was talking to one of them. Why don’t you try the dressing rooms at the back? Could be she’s still chatting.”
Rupert patted her shoulder. “Thank you, sis. I think that sounds very likely.”
She stood on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek, resting her hand on his strong chest. “Go get her. And tell the musicians to come and play some more. I have not finished dancing yet.”
She bounded off, wired with energy, limbs twisting. Rupert was revived. He made his way to the curtain behind the scattered instruments and found his wife exactly as Socha predicted, in deep conversation with a fair haired guy who was sitting with a trumpet on his lap. Caterina was perched on a table next to him, touching his shoulder with her fine fingers, so fascinated by this fellow that she did not notice Rupert’s approach.
He spoke her name. She immediately let out a nervous giggle. Rupert was not amused.
“I’ve been looking for you everywhere,” he told her.
“I thought this was a private area,” the other man said.
Rupert gave him the merest of glances. “This is my family home.”
“My love, this is Thaddeus. I knew him when we were younger.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Rupert said.
When he held out his hand, Thaddeus did not get up. People usually stood in respect when meeting a Master of Ordefima. The shake that ensued was a languid gesture. Rupert withheld his distaste but could not disguise an irritated twitch.
“If you’ll excuse us, my wife and I are needed back in the hall.”
“Fine,” Thaddeus agreed, as if it was up to him.
Rupert stepped across and detached Caterina from the dressing table and Thaddeus to set her in motion. Only now did Thaddeus stir.
“You must come and watch us play again, Cat,” the trumpeter said.
“I will,” she assured him.
“Goodbye,” Rupert said stiffly.
“Are you happy now?” Rupert asked her as soon as they were out of earshot.
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t play the innocent. That was all because I wanted to speak with Loetus.”
“I was surplus, so I went and did my own thing,” Caterina retorted.
“I don’t mind,” Rupert growled through gritted teeth. “Just let someone know where you are. I was worried.”
“In case I cause a scene.”
He stopped and thought of continuing with a cruel or clever remark. They were back in public, standing on the boards of the stage. He slipped an arm around her small waist, feeling the gentle lace of the fabric.
“I’m sorry if you felt invisible. There’s a lot going on for us to adjust to. Our every action will be judged. We’ll need all our love to keep us strong.”
She lay her head against his shoulder and they both felt the stir of passion that had brought them this far.
“I want to get away from all this and make love,” she whispered.
“Soon,” he told her.
“Here comes the devoted couple,” someone said.
The crowd parted forming a remarkably even path to the main table where the golden pastry of the game pie shone in the flickering light. Applause began and reached a thunderous level when a knife was carried forward on a bronze tray. Caterina took it, Rupert lifted her clean off the floor, holding her steady while she plunged the blade through the crust. There was a delightful, crisp, crunching sound and the initial slice was cut.
Most cheered, some sang. Keen eyes followed the couple as they moved amongst them to hand out a small piece to every guest, a gesture that made their unison complete. They flew by quick exchanges that made little sense but spoke only of infectious joy.
“Where’s mine?” Lydia cried as they passed by.
“Here, mother,” Rupert said.
“You said you’d save me a special bit,” she reminded him, her hands clasped together in anticipation.
“I have.” He took some out of his tunic pocket. “Yours.”
She touched the back of hand as she took it. “I wish you all the love you hope for.”
The moment lingered. “You have the strength to overcome every obstacle,” she said, with her soft voice.
Leopold materialised between them. “Looking after your mother, I see. Well done, son.”
He clutched Rupert’s shoulders and shook him. This was his way of displaying emotion. Rupert was moved. The chance to bond with the old man was rare.
As the way before them thinned out, Rupert could see Loetus at the edge of the banqueting hall in an intense exchange with his brother, Isodor. He weaved across in their direction and saw them both jump back as he arrived.
“What’s the matter with you two?” Rupert asked.
Loetus looked to Isodor with strain pulling at his thin face.
“Nothing to concern you,” Isodor replied, his grin all too ready. “A slight disturbance in the Town. I think perhaps the party got a little out of hand. I’ll deal with it in the morning.”
Rupert frowned. “I hope my marriage hasn’t been the cause of anything undesirable.”
“Not at all,” Isodor assured him with an excess of sincerity that Rupert attributed to an overindulgence of wine. “Is this my piece of pie?” Isodor bit into the rich dark interior of his slice and immediately began making appreciative noises. “So good!” he exclaimed.
Rupert was pleased. Isodor was usually quite critical.
“My main man, Ranald, assures me you will want for nothing while you stay at his inn. You have the bridal suite with a grand view of the new pond he has had installed.”
“I am grateful to you for this gift.”
Rupert held the tray out to Loetus who seemed reluctant to partake. “I’ll eat it later,” he said, putting some on the table behind him.
“Not hungry?” Rupert wondered. “That’s unlike you. Hope you’re not sickening. You do look rather pale.”
“No, no,” he said, with a strange lack of humour.
“Indulged too much?”
“Yes, Rupert. I think that’s it. Too much for one night.”