Niles and the Minton Bird
Niles and the Minton Bird
"Psst... Hilary old man, are you awake?"
There is nothing, I maintain, that is more unnerving and surprising than being startled awake in the grey hours of the morning by someone who is doing his best not to disturb you. You can talk all you want about how shocking it is when someone comes leaping in and shouts "The bridges are falling! Run for your lives!" or something like that, but I say that no effect of man or beast is half so startling as when a well-meaning friend bends low over your sleeping form, presses his lips close to your ear, and softly whispers something like "Psst... Hilary old man, are you awake?"
My heart leaped about a foot into the air and, due to the fact that it is constrained within the old ribcage, my body followed. "What ho? What ho?" I stammered, stalling for time and preparing to make a dash for it, if need be. "Oh, alright then. Hello, hello!"
The beaming face of my old school chum Clifton Hedley stared down at me. "Hope I didn't startle you, old boy. I know you're a bit of a late riser, but the news simply couldn't wait. Oh Hilary, I have the most wonderful, glorious news!"
"Binky?" I asked still foggy. "Is that you? What in the name of the seven heavens are you doing bounding around my room at this ghastly hour?"
He had turned to the drapes at the far window. To my horror, he threw them back, loosing a barrage of streaming sunlight which attacked my eyes. "What a beautiful day! The air seems fresher than usual, don't you think? The birds are singing just a little sweeter, the sun shining with a little more luster."
"The sun does seem brighter, at least," I said grudgingly, shielding my eyes from the assault. I couldn't quite remember what it was I had done last night, but I had a throbbing headache and a fleeting recollection of elvish wine and Tartugan dancing girls.
He whirled on me. "Hilary, I want you to answer something, and be honest, will you? Don't you think Josephine is the most wonderful name ever invented?"
"Not particularly," I said, massaging my temples.
He seemed a little crestfallen. "You don't think it has a gentle glowing quality, like the whisper of archon wings?"
"Not really," I said, wondering what the blighter was getting at.
He gave me an exasperated look. "Well, what am I asking you for, anyway? You're just a bloody idiot, and everyone knows it."
Well, this was a bit much. Clifton and I go back a good way, but that's no excuse for coming storming into honest people's bedchambers, rousing them from their sleep at all hours of the a.m. to ask silly questions and hurl insults right and left. I was miffed, to say the least, and I felt that strong words were called for.
"Oh, I say-" I started, adopting an injured tone, but he cut me off with a dismissive wave.
"Never mind, old boy, never mind. You can't help it your head is filled with rocks. Not your fault. Stupid of me to ask."
Well, this didn't seem like quite the apology I was looking for, but it looked like it was the best I was going to get. "But look here, Binky," I said, "what I don't understand is how you got in here in the first place."
"Niles let me in of course," he said, giving me a look that said it should be obvious, even to a dunce like me. "That should be obvious, even to a dunce like you."
I made a mental note to give Niles a good talking to. Niles is my manservant, and generally a very good one. But this business of allowing Binky to come charging in at all hours of the morning... well, school chums are school chums, but there are limits.
"But you haven't heard the news yet," said Clifton, smiling again, and a strange look came into his eyes. "Hilary old man, brace yourself for a shock. I'm in love!"
"What, again?" I asked. "Bad luck, old fellow."
He shot me an exasperated look. "Did you hear a word I said? I'm in love, you ninny. It's the most wonderful thing that's ever happened to me, and you call it bad luck! And what do you mean by 'again'?"
"Well," I said, "you have been round the old rose bush a time or two before, Binky. And it generally does end pretty badly." It does, too. Binky is a good enough fellow in his way, but he is a bit daft when it comes to the fair sex. Once every two weeks or so he falls madly in love with some maiden or other, and disaster always ensues. It would be a subject for pity, except that he has the unfortunate tendency to drag me into the disaster with him.
"What?" he asked. "Oh, you can't be serious Hilary. Those were flings. Strictly schoolboy crushes. This is different, old boy. This is the real thing. A real soul-match. My heart sings at the thought of her, the very multiverse is sweeter for her presence in it. When I think of her lips-"
"Alright, alright," I cut in, trying to steer the thing back on course. Once Binky starts waxing romantic it's difficult to get him to stop. "You don't have to start spouting poetry. Who is this angelic beauty you speak of, and how did you come to win her heart?"
That brought him up short. "Well," he said, looking a little sheepish, "that's the thing. You see, I haven't won it actually, not yet. That's where you come in."
I was beginning to get a very uneasy feeling about all this. As I mentioned, Binky has the habit of dragging me into his love life, usually with the effect that I am landed right in the fish. "Me?"
"Her name is Miss Josephine Minton, of the Chipperfield Mintons," he explained, then shot me a nervous look. "You don't know them, do you?"
The name didn't ring any bells, so I shook my head.
"Splendid!" he said, looking relieved. "Now this is what I want you to do-"
"Now wait a minute," I broke in, considerably alarmed, "I don't see that I have anything to do-"
"Oh, it's simple really. Hardly even worth calling a favor. Don't worry about a thing, I've a plan that can't fail. You haven't got anything planned for the next couple of days, have you?"
"Good, then that's all settled. I can't tell you how much this means to me, old bean."
"Not at all, I expected no less of you, especially since we went to Academy together. No doubt the thought of refusing an old friend never entered your mind. But listen, will you, while I explain. I first ran into her three weeks ago, while lunching at the Hammer Club, and I knew right away she was the one. One thing led to another, as it will when fate brings two hearts together, and this morning, to my exquisite joy, she consented to become engaged to me."
"Ah, well then," I said, somewhat relieved, "you don't need my help then. I must have heard you wrong. Congratulations and all that sort of thing-"
He shook his head impatiently. "No no, you don't understand. Her family hasn't approved the match yet. That is... they don't really know about it yet."
I was a little confused. "You mean she hasn't told them she's engaged?"
"Well, no," said Binky. "Probably because she isn't. Engaged, I mean."
Now I was really confused. I had the feeling that somewhere along the way I must have missed something. "But I thought you said she agreed to the engagement."
Binky nodded. "She agreed to become engaged, but only if her parents approved the match. The trouble is, her parents have never cared much for me. Somewhere along the way they've gotten the idea that I'm a spendthrift and a wastrel."
I thought about this for a moment. "Don't take this the wrong way, Binky, but technically they're right. You are rather a bit of a wastrel and a spendthrift, really."
He sighed wearily. "You see my problem. But never fear, I've found a solution."
"You have?" I asked, mystefied. "What?"
"You," he said triumphantly.
"They don't know you; you said as much yourself. So when you arrive this evening to spend the weekend at the manor estate-"
"When I what?" I asked in disbelief.
"Really Hilary, don't interrupt. When you arrive and tell them all the wonderful things I've done and what a splendid upright fellow I am, why, they'll have no choice but to welcome their son-in-law with open arms and give their blessing."
"But Binky," I said. "You can't really expect me to do that?"
"Why not?" he demanded. "I'd do it for you. After all, we went to Academy together."
"Well of course," I admitted. "But there are limits... I mean, dash it all, I can't just go off to some stranger's house and expect to stay the weekend. It's just not done. Besides, I'm at least as big of a spendthrift and a wastrel as you. Why in the Abyss would they listen to my opinion?"
"Because you won't be you," he said patiently.
I had the feeling that I had missed something. "I have the feeling I've missed something," I admitted.
Binky smiled. "It's all part of my plan. Of course they wouldn't listen to you; everyone knows Hilary Woodshem is a perfect fool. But you won't be you. You're going to be someone else. In disguise, you see? And since they've never met you, then they will hardly recognize you."
"Traveling under an assumed name, then?" I asked. "But who will I be?"
"Why, Brendel Thornblade, of course."
He said the name as if I should recognize it. I didn't. "Brendel who?"
He sighed. "Thornblade. It's just a name I made up; I thought it sounded heroic. You see, Josephine's father Thomas is a retired adventurer of sorts. Had a bit of a rough-and-tumble youth, so to speak. I'm given to understand he respects a man who's skilled with a blade. So I've been telling them all about my own adventures with the legendary Brendel Thornblade. You know, slaying dragons and rescuing maidens and that sort of thing. I've told him what a hero you are, and how I'm your bosom companion. He's bought it hook, line, and sinker, and can't wait to meet you."
"But Binky," I protested. "I'm hardly an adventurer."
He waved it away. "You read those blasted dragons & dungeons adventure books, don't you? I've never met anyone who wasted their time on such mindless drivel the way you do. Just... plaguarize a bit. You know, make things up a bit. You won't have to do much. I've laid the groundwork for you. Don't you still have that sword your grandfather left you? Just buckle it on and there you go."
"If I can find it," I said. "It's probably moldering away in the attic somewhere, collecting dust. But I hardly know the hilt from the blade. What if they expect me to be able to use it?"
"Oh Hilary, do I have to think of every little detail? Just strap the bloody sword on and saunter down to the place before dinner. What could be simpler?" He scribbled something onto a scrap of paper and pressed it into my hand. "Look, here's the address, I've got to dash. Dinner is served at seven; Lord Thomas rather expects promptness. You'll score extra points with him if you're early. They have a wonderful chef, I'm certain dinner will be splendid. I shan't arrive until tomorrow, so you're on your own for tonight, but it shouldn't present any problems. Just remember to answer to 'Brendel' and you'll make out alright. And don't be a modron and forget to tell them how respectable and honorable and adventuresome I am!"
He had reached the door by the end of this speech, and before I could protest he had slipped out.
I sat there for a moment, my mouth working in silent protest, when he stuck his head back in.
"By the way, Hilary, you're a right old bean for doing this. Thanks ever so much."
And then he was gone again.
I glanced down at the piece of paper he had given me, hoping against hope that it would be blank.
225 Summer Way, Lady's Ward
I sighed. It looked like I was in for dinner with the Mintons.
There was a polite cough, so soft that for a moment it didn't register with me. Niles had returned, holding a silver tray laden with a kettle and various other instruments. "Good morning, sir," he said, setting it down on my lap. "I took the liberty of preparing you a pick-me-up, along with a light breakfast."
I did my best to scowl at him. "I don't know who you think you're fooling, Niles. You deliberately allowed Binky to come charging in here and rouse me from my bed. Hardly the actions of a devoted servant."
"I apologize, sir," said Niles. "Master Hedley was quite insistant."
"Well, Niles, due to your failure to block him, Binky has managed to land me right in the soup, so to speak. I do hope you realize that were it not for you, I should still be slumbering peacefully on, rather than being dragged kicking and screaming against my will into another of his hare-brained plots."
"The blighter's gone and fallen in love again, you know."
"Expects me to step in and facilitate the engagement."
"I'm to pose as a reckless adventurer, or something, and convince the girls parents that Binky is really a responsible sort."
I looked at him. "Niles, do you realize that you have the most irritating way of saying 'Indeed, sir'? It sounds as though what you're really trying to say is something closer to 'poor Hilary's got himself into a jam again and I'll have to help him out with great long-sufferering'"
He gave me an apologetic look. "I'm sorry sir, I hadn't realized."
"Well see that it ceases, Niles. It won't do."
That one almost slipped past me, so docilely did he speak. But we Woodshem's are reknowned for our quick wits, so it didn't. "Now look here, Niles, I know you're thinking I can hardly put on my own shoes without help, and that poor Hilary is going to need your assistance, but I assure you no help is necessary in this. Binky and I have come up with a top notch plan which makes his engagement a sure thing. Do you know what it is he wants me to do?"
"I imagine he wishes you to pose as the legendary adventurer 'Brendel Thornblade', sir."
"I'm to pose as Brendel... Niles, how on earth could you know that?"
He had turned to my wardrobe and was selecting clothes for me, laying them out on the bed. "I am acquainted with the Minton's cook, sir, and he has informed me that such a person will shortly arrive at the manor - he is a bit of a braggart, sir, and spoke to me of it at great length, repeating some of the stories he had overheard master Hedley telling the family concering some of Thornblade's legendary feats. Of course I am aware that there is no such person, at least that master Hedley is acquainted with. And his arrival this morning to beg a favor from you-"
"You never cease to astonish me, Niles. Was it fish?"
"Fish. You know, brain food. Did your mother feed you a lot of it? Is that what keeps the little grey cells leaping about?"
"No, sir," he said.
"Hmm. Well anyway, it's impressive. But I shan't need any of your guidance on this occasion, Niles. We've got a perfectly workable plan; all I need to do is whirl around to the place and give the old parents a bit of talking to; tell them how first-rate Binky is and all. Pack a few things; we'll be staying the weekend. And round up a carriage, eh?"
"Indeed, sir." He sounded a bit less than enthused at the prospect, but I imagined that was to be expected. Niles takes great pride in his ability to assist me when I've landed in a pickle, and generally he does a bang up job. It must have stung the old pride a bit to see that I had quite a clever plan already and needed no assistance.
Niles had lifted one of my shirts from the wardrobe and was holding it gingerly in two fingers as if it were a dirty rag. He set it down in a separate pile from the rest of my clothing.
"Just a moment, Niles," I said. "What do you think you're doing with my tabard?"
He gave me a quizzical look. "This, sir?" he asked, indicating the garment. "I had intended to burn it, sir."
"Burn it?" I said, aghast at the thought. "That's the tabard I purchased at the Sensate festival thursday last. I think it looks rather dashing on me - the puffy sleeves and whatnot."
"Indeed, sir," Niles said in his most disapproving voice. "I had thought perhaps it had slipped into your wardrobe by accident."
"Well, indeed not, Niles. It was placed there on purpose. No, there will be no garment burning today, Niles. In fact, pack it with my things. I think I shall wear it to dinner tonight."
"Indeed, sir," said Niles, sorrowfully including the shirt in the pile. His tone of voice was so distraught that I was almost moved to change my mind - but I held firm. Am I the master or the servant, eh? Sometimes one must put the foot, so to speak, down.
* * *
Niles makes the most wonderful concoction. I don't know what it's called or what it's made of, but it's practically a magic potion when it comes to hangovers. Tastes awful, of course - rather like something dragged from the slime pits of Carceri, I often imagine - but it does the trick. You just hold your nose and gulp it down, and the next thing you know you're lying on the floor with spots of light dancing in your vision - but any trace of a hangover you might have had has vanished completely, and you are left feeling full of bounce and good cheer.
So it wasn't long before I was on my feet again and feeling that the birds were singing sweetly, the gods were in their heavens, and all was right with the multiverse - or would have been, had not Binky dragged me into his awful love-life.
I quickly dressed and had a nibble or two of breakfast, then headed out into the late morning. Niles I gave the morning off, with the strict admonition that he return by five at the latest, prepared to drive me down to the Minton estate.
I then sauntered down to the club, and spent the rest of the morning into the afternoon there, happily engaged in a game of 'toss the potato into the bowl-shaped chandelier high above while lounging on your back on one of the couches' with my old school chums Spiffy Johnston and Edward Tailor. (The actual title of the game is something hotly disputed between several of us down at the club - I prefer Piddly-Pop-Potato myself - but in the interest of peace we often refer to it by its less-inventive but certainly descriptive longer name.) Binky didn't stop into the club all morning, and when I explained our little scheme to Spiffy and Edward, both were duly impressed at how first-rate it was, and the matter quickly passed from my mind. The long and the short of it was that I gave Binky's plight no more thought, instead spending the balance of the afternoon in deep philosophical discussion with the other members (the main debate centered on who would win between an Abyssal Lord and a Mt. Celestian Solar).
When Niles swung round at quarter to five to pick me up I felt rested and full of pip and good cheer, ready to take on these awful 'Mintons' of Binky's.
Niles had flagged down a hansom for our little journey, complete with a surly-looking driver and a tired-looking horse. I gave the driver the address and boarded, taking my seat next to Niles in the little carriage.
"Well, Niles, you are punctual as ever. And now it's off to do battle with these friends of Binky's, eh?"
"Yes, sir," said Niles. I saw that he held a long cloth-wrapped bundle on his lap.
"What's that, Niles?" I asked, my curiosity peaked.
"I took the liberty, sir," he said, gently unwrapping the bundle, "of bringing your grandfather's sword. I thought it would facilitate your charade."
"Niles," I said, genuinely touched, "you really are top notch, old fellow. You have saved me once again, for the whole idea had flown entirely from my mind."
"Indeed, sir," he said, looking pleased. (Which is to say the very corner of his mouth twitched slightly in the direction of a smile; Niles is not one given to great displays of emotion.)
The sword was a great lumbering thing nearly three and a half feet long. I nearly dropped it when Niles handed it to me, so heavy was it. The gigantic brass pommel and crossguard had been turned a rusty brown with age, and the whole of it was sheathed in a worn leather sheath which was attached to a thick leather strap with buckles.
I wrestled with the thing for a few moments, then asked Niles how in the Abyss I was supposed to wear it.
"I believe, sir, that is meant to be buckled over one shoulder and under the other so that the sword rides on your back, the hilt in easy reach over your shoulder."
"Oh, righto," I said, trying to fumble the thing into place.
"I would not advise putting it on just yet, sir, " said Niles. "Within the close confines of the carriage there would be some difficulty in doing so, and I should imagine that trying to sit while wearing such an article would be... somewhat uncomfortable."
I considered. "I think you're on to something, Niles," I said, wrapping the thing up as best I could and laying it on my lap. "Oh well. I shall simply have to put the beastly thing on once we arrive, eh? I hope they won't expect me to wear it long - it's heavy as a... well, heavy as something that's pretty dashed heavy."
* * *
225 Summer Way, Lady's Ward turned out to be one of those ghastly grey buildings you read of in one of those cheap horror-mystery novels. You know, towering grey walls, dark gothic windows, a steeply pitched roof of aging dark shingles interrupted by little turrets and arches, leering gargoyles at every corner of the mansion, a stone wall topped by ironwork which encircled all. The front gate, which stood ajar, was a massive and gloomy iron affair which had two squatting demon statuettes atop the stone wall on either side of it. Apparently these grotesque statuettes also doubled as lanterns at night, for someone had lit flames in each of their wide-open maws. All in all, it looked just the sort of place where Strahd Von What's-His-Name would feel right at home.
Twilight was just coming on as the carriage pulled through the gate and into the courtyard, swinging round so that we might debark at the steps leading up to the front door.
"Not a very inviting spot, eh Niles?" I said, climbing down and beginning to feel my first real doubts about Binky's plan.
"Hardly, sir," said Niles, exiting the carriage behind me. Quickly he helped me to buckle on the sword. It hung slightly askew despite his best efforts, and the weight of it threatened to tip me over to one side.
With his assistance, I managed to lurch up the steps to the front entrance and ring the bell.
A moment later the door was opened by a stuffy-looking older man in formal dress. He was bald except for some neatly combed white hair on the sides of his head, and fairly tall. He looked down his nose at us. "May I help you?"
"Oh, ah... erm, yes, actually," I said elegantly. "I'm Hilary... er, Brendel Thornblade... here for dinner, you know. Ah... may I assume I have the privilege of meeting Lord Minton?"
The fellow's expression of disdain did not change. "Indeed you may not, sir. I am Dentsbury, the butler. Dinner will be served in one half hour. If you will follow me, I will lead you to your rooms." And with a sniff, he led us into the manse.
Niles helped me through the door (the hilt of that awful sword somehow contrived to get itself caught on the doorframe and I was nearly knocked helter-skelter) and we entered the front hall.
The hall was a towering marble chamber, lit by a gigantic brass chandelier (which, despite its size, was somehow squat and ugly rather than majestic) dangling from a massive chain from the domed ceiling high above. There was a curved marble staircase immediately ahead of us, which went up to a landing and then split into two more slender staircases, curving upwards in opposite direction. There were also two archways to the right and left, leading off to other parts of the house. No sooner had the massive door closed behind us than a squat heavyset man emerged from the arch to the left, peering at us through a pair of spectacles.
He was a short man, broad-shouldered and with an extra bulge at the midsection. His face was a florid shade of pink and his eyes were so narrowed that through the thick glass of his spectacles they almost appeared closed. His hair was peppery black, shot through with streaks of gray, and combed meticulously over a bald spot on the top of his head (a few strands, though, had somehow escaped their proper place and were now extended out at a right angle to his head. In short, he was a goblin of a man, and I took an instant dislike to the fellow. He rather reminded me of my great uncle George, an unpleasant fellow who went around muttering "What, what?" while puffing out his cheeks.
"Oh, hallo," I said, as he stomped right up to us.
"What, what?" he muttered, puffing out his cheeks and stepping forward, and I felt a thrill of horror shoot through me at the sound. My knees went watery and my pulse grew weak, for I knew that surely and of a certainty the game, as it were, was up.
For this was indeed my great uncle George.
"Oh... ah, hallo... ah..." I said weakly, looking about for the nearest exit.
"Good evening, sir," Niles cut in quickly. "May I present my master, Sir Brendel Thornblade."
Great uncle George looked from me to Niles and back again.
"What, hey?" he said, peering at me. "You're that whelp Minton is constantly bragging about, what? Come to stay the weekend, what? Friend of that awful fellow Hedley, what?"
I should mention that great uncle George has the unfortunate habit of overusing the word 'what'. "Oh, yes," I said, doing my best to keep my profile turned to him. George has always had remarkably poor eyesight (he once mistook a guest for the family cat, and chased the poor fellow out of the house with a broom shouting 'Keep off the table, you miserable creature!'), and it occurred to me that the game might yet be saved. Thank the Seven Heavens for Niles quick thinking; if he hadn't stepped in I surely would have confessed all and begged for leniency.
He stared at me and made an unpleasant grunting sound. "Well I don't like you. Not one bit. Adventurers! Bloody idiots who've never done an honest day's work, what? Minton may like them, but I don't."
I smiled weakly. "Oh, yes," I managed. "Um, yes, I suppose you're right. But for me, adventuring isn't really a career... more of a hobby, really-"
"Hallo, hallo!" cried a second older gentleman emerging from the same arch great uncle George had. He was a tall thin fellow, with a shock of white hair that stood out in all directions, and he was dressed in evening wear. At his arm was an extremely plump and short woman, at least as old as he was, and both of them wearing pleasant smiles. He took my hand and pumped it fiercely in an iron grip.
"Hallo, hallo, hallo!" he repeated. "Hallo, you must be the famed adventurer, eh? We've been looking forward to this, eh? Hallo, hallo!"
"Oh, Jonas," said the stout lady, smiling prettily, "you'll overwhelm the poor lad."
"Oh," I said, putting on a weak smile. "Hello. How do you do?" The tall fellow was still pumping my hand vigorously, and my words sort of vibrated in time with his handshaking.
"Splendid, splendid!" said the man, still pumping away. "I can't tell you what an honor it is to have an adventurer of your stature in our little home. Eh, Agatha? Splendid, eh?" He finally loosed his grip on my hand and gave me a little wink. "You know, I did a bit of roistering in my youth. Nothing on the scale of the quests you've undertaken, of course, but I had an adventure or two." His grin widened. "I see you've brought your sword."
"Oh, yes," I said. "It seemed the thing to do."
"Splendid, splendid! It may come in handy, eh?"
I found that I rather liked the fellow. "Well, one never knows, eh? Be prepared, you know. That's my motto, really."
He barked a laugh. "Be prepared! Wonderful, I shall have to write that down somewhere. Be prepared indeed! I must warn you, we haven't had a fellow who can swing a sword here in some time, and there is every possibility that we shall put you to work-"
"Oh now, Jonas," broke in the plump woman, "the boy has hardly arrived and already you're pestering him with requests. Why don't you let him see his room and dress for dinner first?"
"Oh yes, of course you're right my dear. Why don't you follow Dentsbury on up." He grinned and winked at me again. "I've taken the liberty of putting you in the Tower. A bit drafty, and some of the staff have gotten the idea that it might be haunted, but after the stories Hedley told of you, I rather think that you would be more comfortable there. And if there are a few ghosts, well, that's nothing for an adventurer of your caliber, eh?"
My smile had frozen in place. "Ghosts?" I said.
He gave me a hearty clap on the back which very nearly sent me to the floor. "Oh, I know that sort of thing is nothing to challenge a fellow like you. Hedley told us you liked 'ruffing' it. There is probably nothing to the stories, of course, but I imagine a hearty fellow like you enjoys laughing at danger, and it was the only place in the house where I could imagine you wouldn't grow bored."
"Oh, that's me alright," I managed weakly, and I gave a sort of shrilling laugh. "I laugh at danger, alright."
He clapped me on the shoulder again. "Ha ha! A man after my own heart! Laughs at danger, indeed!" His face grew thoughtful. "You know, you're shorter than I would have thought, really. The way Hedley described you, I should have thought you were eight feet tall. Oh well, never mind. It isn't the size of your muscles, eh, but the skill of your blade."
"Jonas, you're badgering the poor boy," said the plump woman. "Let him go to his room. He'll hardly have time to change before dinner as it is."
"Oh, yes," I said, staggering toward the stairs. "Better get ready for dinner, you know. Niles, look smart."
"Yes, sir," said Niles.
"Wait a minute!" said great uncle George, and the tone of his voice froze me in my tracks.
He stepped forward, squinting at me suspiciously, and my heart nearly stopped at what he said next. "You remind me of someone. Can't put my finger on it, though. Some fellow or other, what?"
I gave a weak, tittering laugh. "Oh, yes, I can quite imagine... er, I mean, I have that sort of a face, don't you think?"
He grunted. "What sort of a face?"
"Um... my sort of a face. You know."
"What about your face?"
I was quickly becoming flummoxed. "Well... I don't know, really. What about it?"
"I don't like it, that's what. Reminds me of someone. Can't think who, but I don't like him." And with that, great uncle George gave a loud harrumph and turned his back on me, waddling away like a turtle standing on its hind legs, mumbling something about 'idiot adventurers' under his breath.
I glanced at Niles and hurried up the stairs after the butler.
* * *
'The Tower' turned out to be exactly that; a cylindrical tower which adjoined the left wing of this gloomy chateau and rose above it.
We followed Dentsbury up, and up, until somewhere near the top of this (fairly abandoned) tower, he showed us the room.
It was a big, dark room with a gigantic four-poster bed that looked like it hadn't been slept in since before the Faction War. There was a fireplace (unlit, though the room was freezing) to one side, an ancient writing desk covered in dust, and on the far wall, a perfectly awful painting of some old fellow with evil eyes leared down on us. The bathroom and servant's room were, I presumed, off to the side, through the half-open door which led to darkness.
There was a skritch-scratching sound from overhead, and I confess to being startled by the unexpected sound. "Good heavens!" I cried, shrinking back. "What is that?"
The butler, Dentsbury, looked down his nose at me (he seemed awfully good at that). "Rats, sir. The attic is just above." He proceeded to the ancient desk and bent to light the candle that stood atop it with the one he held. "Dinner will be served in one quarter hour. Lord Minton prefers his guests to dress. If you will excuse me." And with that the fellow strode out and back down the stairs, leaving us with our thoughts.
"Tulani protect us, Niles!" I said in some dismay, surveying the awful room.
"A bit gloomy, sir," said Niles helpfully, putting down our bags on the bed and moving to the lit candle on the desk.
"A bit gloomy?" I asked, feeling that he was understating the case. "Niles, it's practically the Tomb of Horrors! I should think we'll be frightfully fortunate if the roof doesn't cave in on us, unleashing the Abyss knows what horrors that are lurking above. How could Lord Minton ever think of putting a guest here? It's unfathomable!"
"Unfortunate, sir," said Niles, taking up the candle and moving to light an oil lamp set into the wall, "but not entirely unforeseen. In many of the descriptions of 'Brendel Thornblade' that master Hedley gave to Lord Minton, I gather that 'Thornblade' was often referred to as a rugged outdoorsman, sir, who preferred to sleep in the most hostile environment possible rather than beneath any sort of roof. Master Hedley also alluded to a certain contempt and enmity that 'Thornblade' reserved for all manner of undead. It is only natural that Lord Minton should place you here, sir, where he thought 'Thornblade' would be most comfortable."
"Hedley," I said, and from my lips the word was a curse. "Yes, he seems to have said a great many things, doesn't he? Well, it seems his mouth has landed us in unlivable chambers."
"I hardly think so, sir," said Niles. "The room could do with a good scrub-down, but is otherwise serviceable, I should think. As the poet Larsonus writes: 'there be no hearth so fouled to which the hardy hands may not yet reclaim-'"
"Not so much of that, Niles," I said, cutting him off. "This is hardly the time for quoting poetry."
Niles looked properly abashed. "Yes, sir."
"I don't care what the poet Larsonus says about anything."
"As far as I'm concerned, you may put the poet Larsonus where the monkey put the nuts."
"We're in a dire situations, Niles. The poet Larsonus doesn't enter into it."
I eyed him warily. Niles is an excellent fellow, and as I said, he's saved me from certain disaster not a few times, but he does tend to ramble on a bit when he's quoting poets, or literature, or contemperary greats. "Good, then. I need your help with the problem at hand, Niles. The situation has grown dire. You recognized, I hope, that great uncle George is here?"
"He knows me, Niles. He knows me and he doesn't bear me any love. It was I, at the tender age of thirteen, who dumped an entire bucket of rotten fish on him from an overhead window when he was emerging from the Yardley estate - it was an accident, of course, my true target was Gussy Henderson, a girl my own age. But do you think he forgave me? No indeed, Niles, he did not. He in fact bore a grudge against me which continues to the present day."
"And he will reveal my subterfuge the moment he realizes that 'Sir Brendel Thornblade' is actually Hilary Woodshem, and then all will be lost. No no, the game is lost. I'm sorry for Binky, I really am, but Hilary Woodshem has already gone beyond the bounds of friendship and loyalty. There are limits, Niles, and this is one of them. I've no desire to sacrifice myself on the alter of Binky's love-life. We need an escape route from this awful place, Niles, so bend your brain to that instead of the poet what's-his-name."
"Indeed, sir," said Niles. "I shall certainly think on it. However, I should be remiss in my duty if I did not point out to you that the danger is already past, at least for the moment."
"Past?" I asked. "What do you mean?"
"Your great uncle was leaving just as we arrived," said Niles, "or I am very much mistaken. His gentleman was in the process of purchasing the services of the driver in who's hansom we arrived in. I overheard the conversation while unloading our luggage. Apparently your uncle was warned that an 'adventurer' was coming to stay the weekend and consequently wished to be away."
It took me a moment to take this in. "You mean he's gone, Niles?" I asked.
"Then I've no fear of him recognizing me."
"Apparently not, sir."
"Then I may carry out the charade after all," I finished thoughtfully.
"Indeed, sir. Though it may chance that your uncle will return before the end of the weekend."
I shot the room another glance. "No chance of that, Niles. We'll stay one night; no more. After that, urgent business will call me elsewhere. You catch my drift."
"Indeed, sir. A wise decision."
Despite the awful chamber in which we'd been installed, my good humor was restored in some small measure by great uncle George's departure, and I quickly dressed for dinner, donning the tabard I had ordered Niles to pack.
He gazed at it mournfully and reproachfully as I put it on, but said nothing.
* * *
Most of the dinner guests had assembled in the drawing room before dinner (a dismal wood-paneled chamber with walls lined with the heads of learing beasts; no doubt trophies from Lord Minton's adventuring days. Aside from one small and sad gryphon which looked like it had not yet reached adulthood when Minton had 'bagged' it, none of them looked particularily ferocious to me. Oh well, at least the dashed room was warm; there was a lit fireplace set into the right wall which gave out flickering light and steady heat). I think I was surprised to find there were so many of them. I was certainly surprised to see Binky there, looking gloomy and forlorn as a kicked dog, to boot.
I had no time for introductions, for no sooner did I arrive then a serving girl announced that dinner was served, and the large group filed off into the dining room.
Binky caught my eye and hurried to my side, pulling me back a little.
"Binky," I said, "what on earth are you doing here? I thought you wouldn't arrive until tomorrow. And what's all this about convincing Lord Minton to put me in his worst rooms?"
He shook he head sadly. "Oh Hilary, thank heavens your here. Things have gone wrong, horribly wrong."
"You're dashed well right they have," I said, "did you know that my great uncle George-"
"We've quarreled, Hilary! There has been a breaking asunder of hearts. Oh, what a fool I am, to lose her over so trivial a thing! You must help me, old man, you simply must. Otherwise I shall end it all." He broke off, looking at me critically. "Good heavens, Hilary, whatever possessed you to wear a thing like that?"
"Eh?" I asked. "Oh, the tabard. Like it? I purchased it last thursday at the Sensate festival."
"It's perfectly awful. All those puffy sleeves and lace... you look like a player in that latest Gilbert and Solienne piece, The Pirates of Realmspace."
I was stung. "I rather think it makes me look dashing, really. More the part of an adventurer."
He shook his head. "You look a fool, but there's no help for that now. You've got to help me, Hilary. We've quarreled, and I can't live without her." He had spoken the last part wistfully, staring off into the distance with a despairing look.
"What do you mean, old fellow? Who's quarreled?"
"My angel, of course. My delicate flower; my rose. Josephine... radiant as an Elysium morning, she is, and my foolish tongue has betrayed me."
"Alright, alright," I said, trying to steer the thing back on track, "no need for poetry, old bean. What did you quarrel over?"
He looked on the verge of sobbing. "Fortune cookies."
There was a long silence after that. "Oh?" I said eventually. "How very interesting. Not the sort of subject that normally causes riots, of course, but I can easily understand how one could have... strong opinions, I suppose-"
"Oh Hilary, will you shut up and listen?" snapped Binky. "Sometimes I think you have no heart at all."
"Oh, righto," I said.
"We were dining at the Clockwork Nine - you know, that restaurant over near the Binge Club run by the modron fellow. Awful food, really, but Josephine had never been and insisited. Well, after suffering through the main course, the server brought out two fortune cookies." He shook his head ruefully. "Don't ask me why. We weren't eating Kara=Tur food, or anything, and I've always had the idea that fortune cookies were Kara-Tur cuisine. Anyway, Josephine apparently takes her fortune cookies rather seriously. She broke hers open and read it aloud. It was something about how 'brushing your teeth grows hair on your chest' and she was alright with that, but then... then came mine."
"Yours?" I prompted, as he lapsed into moody silence.
"Mine," he agreed mournfully. "It read 'food is your one true love'. Can you believe it, Hilary?"
Actually, I rather could. I had always thought fortune cookies were stuff and nonsense, but something like this made one rethink their position. Binky had always harbored a special softness for gourmet food... Fortunately, I was able to put on a shocked expression. "Well, old fellow, it does seem a bit beyond the pale."
"Beyond the pale doesn't describe it, Hilary!" he said bitterly. "It's an insult, plain and simple. I mean, honestly, you know that food isn't that important to me."
I managed to keep my face straight. "No indeed, old bean. Hardly you."
"Well I'm glad you know it, because apparently Josephine doesn't. She got this thoughtful look in her eyes when I read it to her, and then she said... well, never mind what she said. The up and the down of it is that we quarreled, Hilary, we quarreled bitterly. She called me an insensitive fathead and broke of the engagement then and there, telling me that she wouldn't ever so much as speak to me again, and that I wouldn't mind anyway, as I'm so fond of food."
"Terrible, old fellow," I said, aghast.
He clutched my sleeve in a desperate grip. "You must help me, Hilary. You simply must. Tell them of our adventures together, old fellow, so that I may win back her heart!"
"Adventures?" I began to ask, but about that time we were interrupted.
"Boys, boys," said Lord Minton's plump wife - Agatha, I later learned. "You're late for dinner. Come in, come in, or the chef will be insulted."
And before either of us could get a word in edgewise, she bustled us into the dining room. Binky gave me one last mournful look before being ushered to his seat at the table.
My own seat was a little farther down, and opposite.
"Everyone," said Agatha Minton loudly, as if making a proud announcement, "this is Hedley's friend, Brendel Thornblade, the great adventurer you've all heard so much about." About ten faces turned my way.
"Oh, hallo," I managed, giving a polite little wave.
"Come dear," she said, motioning me to my seat, "I'll introduce you to the other guests. First, the gentleman to your left is Lord George Woodshem, a great friend of the family's."
My blood froze in my veins. It was great uncle George. In the seat next to mine. "Oh, ah," I stuttered.
"George was going to go home tonight, but we persuaded him to stay after all," said Agatha.
Great uncle George peered up at me and snorted. "We've met. Adventurer indeed."
"Oh yes," I said weakly. "Hallo."
He began peering at me in that suspicious way again, and there is no telling what disaster might have followed, but fortunately Agatha Minton went right on with the introductions, interposing herself betwixt uncle George and myself. "Next, we have my son, Jonathan."
Jonathan turned out to be a beaming young fellow (probably not much older than me) who looked like a replica in miniature of his father: stick-thin, with a firm handshake and a ready smile, and with red hair that stuck out from his head in all directions. "Hallo, hallo," he said, eagerly pumping my hand (he had reached across great uncle George's lap to grasp it; poor George did not look entirely happy to have our elbows moving forcefully up and down beneath his nose), "you must be the fellow Hedley is always on about. Never met a famous person before, so I haven't. I'll bet you have a fair share of stories to tell, eh?"
"Well... yes," I said, freeing my hand.
"And of course you've already met Jonas," said Agatha. At the head of the table was Lord Minton, beaming at me as happily as ever. "Hallo again," he said cheerily.
To his right was a thirteen year-old boy who stared sullenly at his soup. Agatha introduced him as Guthrie, their youngest son. He was short and round, like his mother, and he looked like a perfect blighter; the kind of child that pulls the wings off of flies for fun. He didn't so much as look up as he was introduced.
And next: "This is our daughter, Josephine," said Agatha.
A dark haired girl of moderate good looks gave me a quick nod. I noticed that she took great pains not to so much as glance in poor Binky's direction. I thought she was pretty, though of course I wasn't so smitten as Binky.
There was an ancient fellow to her right, who Agatha introduced as 'uncle Theodore'. He was utterly bald, and shorter even than little Guthrie. So wizened and ancient was he that I wasn't certain he was even alive until he gave me a brisk nod.
Next of course was Hedley, who was glaring at me for some reason or other, and then at the end of the table was the place where Lady Minton (Agatha) would sit. To my right was one empty chair. ("Lady Silvia's," Lord Minton had said jokingly before being hushed to silence by his wife. "We always keep a place open for her, else her shade moans at night. She was hung in the tower, and tends to haunt there mostly. I suppose you'll see her soon enough, eh?" - This last didn't make me feel any better about my chambers.)
Great uncle George continued to peer at me suspiciously, but said nothing further, and I managed to stumble through the introductions.
Then two serving girls began bringing out the meal - and what a sumptuous feast it was. Bowls of steaming coquelle soup were served first, followed by Arcadian cheeses and a fruit dish. Then came piping oven-fresh bread served with exotic dishes of planar goose and Outland rice. It all looked and smelled wonderful.
The only problem, so far as I could see, was that everyone was being served but me. Time and again, the serving girls passed me by, and my place remained clear.
"I know what you're thinking," said Lady Minton with a smile in my direction. "You're wondering how you're ever going to eat our food, when you've got such a rigid diet you maintain, eh?"
"Er..." I said intelligently, "yes? I mean, yes. Yes, of course. That was, um, exactly my thought."
She beamed. "Well, we've got a little surprise for you."
At that moment, one of the serving girls put a plate in front of me with what looked like two discolored rocks on it.
"Field rations!" she said excitedly. "Salt biscuits and jerky."
"Hedley told us how keen you were on your diet," chimed in Lord Minton. "How you would only eat field rations, to keep yourself in peak condition, eh? Bet you didn't think to find field rations here, eh?"
"Oh, ah," I said, trying to sound cheerful. "Indeed not. They're quite... quite lovely." I lifted a fork experimentally and took a jab at the bigger 'rock'. I was unable to make a dent.
"Oh yes," said Hedley quickly. "Brendel only eats field rations and water. Claims anything else is for softer men."
"Softer men," I echoed weakly, looking mournfully at the heaping plates of the other guests. I shot Hedley a nasty look but he completely missed it.
"So, Thornblade," said Lord Minton, looking down the table at me, "that's really quite a shirt you're wearing."
"Yes, quite flashy," said Agatha from the opposite end.
"Looks like a bloody white peacock," grumbled great uncle George from near at hand, hardly glancing up from his soup.
"Oh, ah... why thank you. I purchased it from the Sensate festival last thursday."
Hedley shot me a look of horror.
"Sensate festival?" asked Lord Minton in some surprise. "I thought you despised Sensates. At least that what Hedley's always raving about."
I thought quickly. "Oh, yes, well I don't know if I should use the word 'despise', really. That's rather strong, I think. We don't get along, Sensates and I. Like I always say..." my voice trailed off, as I realized I hadn't the faintest idea what I always say about Sensates.
"They're soft," said Hedley, quickly leaping to my rescue. "That's what you always say, right enough."
"Oh yes, awfully soft, those Sensates." I said.
"Then why go to one of their idiot festivals?" demanded great uncle George.
"Well, one must... often in such instances, I mean, I find that..."
"Keeping an eye on them!" said Hedley bravely. "Be prepared, that's your motto isn't it, Brendel? You've got to keep an eye out."
"Of course!" I said, relieved. "Just like to keep tabs, you know."
Lord Minton looked thoughtful, then his smile reappeared. "Well, of course, of course. Never mind, it's only a shirt, and a rather extravagant one at that."
"I rather like it," said Josephine, glancing at be from behind coquettishly lowered eyelids. "It sets off your eyes somehow."
"Well-" I started, but Lord Minton talked right over me.
"You know, I also notice you aren't wearing your sword," he said.
"Oh, rather a bother to wear it to dinner," I said. "Thought I'd leave it in my room."
"Strange," said Minton, "Hedley talks as if you wear it everywhere."
There was a pause. "Um... well, normally yes. But just now I'm having Niles... polish it. Got to keep it polished, of course."
"Of course," said Lord Minton.
"Niles?" asked Josephine.
"My man," I explained.
"Well, Thornblade," said Lord Minton, "I know you're on vacation from your adventures just at the moment, but it occurs to me that we might have some use for a fellow with your skills at our estate just at the moment."
"Now, Jonas," said Agatha, "let the boy eat. You can tell him about the cockatrice after dinner."
"Cockatrice?" I asked, feeling a sudden chill ripple down the old spine.
Lord Minton scowled. "Nasty beast. Eight feet tall, they say. Seems the things gotten into the system of old storm drains just outside the estate, been eating dogs and things."
"We have an estate on the Outlands," said Agatha, "just outside Fortitude. We've a permanent portal that connects the manor with it. We mostly grow peas, of course, but-"
"It's not much a beast for an adventurer like you, Thornblade," said Lord Minton. "Hardly worthy of your skills, I should say, but we'd be ever so grateful if you'd go kill the thing for us... say, tomorrow, perhaps."
"Well..." I stammered, thinking about all the horrible ways there are to die and deciding that being rended to pieces by an angry cockatrice was not the way I particularily wanted to go, "that is to say... As you pointed out, I'm on vacation... and I'm not really sure..."
"Of course he'll do it," said Binky quickly. "He'd be only too delighted. Everyone knows Brendel Thornblade eats things like cockatrices for breakfast, eh Thornblade?"
"Er... yes," I said, miserably.
End of part 1