As they sat in their tent, the group pondered their individual messages delivered by the morag Thorin. Lord Geoffrey Spaulding had received a most delightful note from his mother Deanna, who ran his house’s businesses so her son could remain blissfully unaware of where his money came from. Nan the Ess had received a short missive from Frogg. As for the stableboy Reed, he had received a sheaf of papers wrapped in a note translucent with old oils and smelling faintly of meat; so overwhelmed was he by his volume of correspondence that he seemed to lose the ability to speak in normal tempo, an affliction that would stay with him for some time.
“It is truly refreshing to receive mail from home,” said Spaulding, “no matter how mundane the news. Would you like to hear what my dear mother has to say? ‘My Son Lord-Captain Geoffrey Spaulding,”” he began without waiting for a response. “‘It is my hope that this missive finds you well and whole, and by whole I mean literally whole, as opposed to co-located across some heroic field somewhere. The House’s interests are doing well; the ombergraves are blooming majestically and the rinktinkling of the Jerossen Woo resounds.’ Huh.” He paused, head tilted in perplexity. “I don’t have any idea what that means. Oh well.. ‘You probably have no idea what this means, which is fine as a factual account of the family business would have exactly the same impression.’
“‘Your sister-in-law Jillian and your nephews Semyon and Niles had visitors several days ago, a human and a morag.’ Oh, that’s nice for them. ‘ They were so well acquainted that they found no occasion to use the front door. In the confusion of their arrival, I’m afraid one of our footmen must have tripped and gashed open his side on a visitor’s knife, and I’m afraid little Grackle found himself defenestrated from an upper-story window to his expiry.'”
At this last, Tookie frowned and busied himself with some armor-polishing as Spaulding continued. “‘Fortunately one of our guards was able to calm one with the aid of a truncheon, and I the other with a demonstration of the ladylike arts of shooting one through the thigh-muscle with a pistol.’ Hah, that mother of mine, always showing off for the guests! She continues, ‘I am told that after their departure, the both of them fell afoul of an unfortunate incident involving the town alderman and a misunderstanding over the interpretation of the term custody.'” Spaulding’s manner never changed, as he read the sarcastically-droll account of an attempted kidnapping or worse, and the resulting bloodshed, going on in a lively patter as his companions stared at him and each other.
“‘Never fear; I have just received the most wonderful invitation from Lady Janice Gossett! I’m sure you don’t remember her at all from her interest in our finances and your lack of issue. So taken aback was she by the news of our confusing visitation that she has invited all of us to stay with her at her House’s compound, where we might enjoy the sort of protection and welcome one might expect of even a mere client House. I thanked her most graciously, but alas, so distraught am I by this most recent turn of events, as well as these rumors of a cromen attack, that I find myself unable to travel for fear of swooning. I dare say it is all I can do to stay active and load every single firearm within our modest estate, particularly the ones I am wont to keep upon my person.’ Oh dear,” said Spaulding, pausing and looking concerned for a moment. Just as Reed was about to interject something relevant, Spaulding said, “I wonder why she doesn’t have a valet take care of weapons maintenance?”
“Ahem…” Sam Waits cleared his throat from the tent flap, where he had been brushing down the horses. Although there were additional servants and valets within House Spaulding, even discounting the wounded footman and the late grunty Grackle, Sam was the most adept at weapon-tending, an acquired skill honed over several years of Lord Geoffrey hauling him around armories during his tenure as a combat trainer, as well as a less than enthusiastic sparring partner.
Oblivious, Spaulding continued, “‘I do so worry about the boys and poor poor Jillian. Perhaps some time in the country would do us good. If you should happen across that delightful Lord Cyril Jameson, would you be so kind as to ask if we might summer at his keep?’ Oh… I suppose that might prove difficult. Hmm…”
Spaulding paused, unusually deep in thought; Nan whispered, “Awkwaaaaard.”
Reed, who had begun glowering at the mention of House Gossett, had been shuffling through his own correspondence, and now he finally spoke, albeit out of tempo. “I would not trust the Gossetts if I were you, Lord Spaulding.”
“Oh? Why is that?”
Reed sighed as his companions watched him, gathering his thoughts while humming terrible folk songs, perhaps as a way of focusing (although it seemed to have the opposite effect on his companion)s. “It’s perhaps worth mentioning that I have enemies in Cago, enemies who seem to have it in for Spaulding as well.” He riffled his notes. “One of the notes I received was apparently intercepted from a certain douchebag noble family in Cago that raised me. It reads in part, ‘Jameson possible acquisition. Plans under way for Spaulding. Tarth not a concern. Possible lead on Elding. His bloodline may be useful; making inquiries.’ That bit about your house, sir, may be of some concern.”
Nan said, “I don’t remember you mentioning your family before. I’m afraid I had assumed that you were an orphan, like so many other would-be heroic adventurers.”
“Drat,” muttered Spaulding, who had not yet achieved orphanhood.
Reed said, “Well yes, I am in fact an orphan technically; I was raised by douchebag nobles, the Gossetts specifically, and I’m afraid, Lord Spaulding, that their opinion of your house is… not good.” Reed placed as much emphasis on this last as possible.
“I see,” said Spaulding. “But the Gossetts are a moderately well-to-do House. Surely if there is some misunderstanding, it can be settled through debate? Or arbitration? Or a dance contest?”
“Well, no,” said Reed, still glowering. “They know you well, and would love nothing more than to sell you to the Cromen.”
“What?” said Nan. “Does it say that in there?”
Reed pursed his lips and shrugged. “It’s the subtext.” He was right, if the subtext was that Reed apparently hated the Gossetts to such a degree that any ill fate, from the loss of Cyril’s Rest to a burr in his horse’s coat, was in his mind directly attributable to the dark machinations of his adoptive family. “They’re scheming, prideful douches. Here: ‘Plans underway for Spaulding.'”
“Still,” said Spaulding, “would it not be better to attempt contact first?”
“Contact by setting their homes on fire maybe. Look,” said Reed, now so fully in the grip of Gossett-Hate that he seemed to forget his lowly station and spoke to Spaulding, and of the Gossetts, as if they were social equals, a faux pas that might have earned him a rebuke were the Gossetts present, or were Spaulding a bit less oblivious. “If they find me, they will take me and sell me into indentured servitude.”
“Surely not!” said Nan.
Sam cleared his throat again. “Pardon me, Lord,” he said; one of Sam’s qualities was an unerring recognition of the social structure and his place in it. “I find it unlikely that a House would stoop so low as to sell another to an outside entity, nor can I discern why Master Reed here would be of any interest at all in such affairs.”
Reed said, “I… uh… may have struck their oldest son in anger while working for him.”
“Oh…” said Sam, now stuttering as well. “In that case, maybe… uh… excuse me.” He exited the tent and resumed brushing the horses, while Tookie, also aware of the implications of Reed’s professed actions and attitude toward a Nat house, disappeared into the shadowed corners of the tent.
Reed continued, “You should probably know that I was not born a stable boy.”
“Of course,” said Spaulding. Reed stared at him in shock at his apparent perceptiveness. Spaulding continued, “It would be extremely difficult to tend to such duties as an infant, no?” And the world made sense again.
Reed said, “I was in fact born Nat, and noble, not human. Yes, it’s true,” he said at Nan’s querying look.
“A noble…” said Nan, “… so why did you have to borrow money from me?” The substantial loan taken by Reed some time ago had taken up until this point to pay back in full, and while Nan was glad to have the money, she seemed more distraught over her lack of a reason to hassle Reed on a daily basis about it.
“Alas, I have no inheritance,” said Reed. “My family had more debts than possessions when they were lost to a sickness.”
“Which one?” asked Nan.
Reed said, “Umm, black death? Dropsy? Jimmy legs? I was quite young.”
“Ah,” said Spaulding, “we might be able to discover the sickness if only we could find that mysterious doctor that hounds our steps.”
“Yes… uh…” said Reed. “In any case, I have a number of notes as well, some intercepted by the looks of them. I’d say the Gossetts are still a problem for me, or would be if they knew I was alive. They’re also a problem for you, Lord Spaulding, by the looks of things. If you happen to, at some point in the future, decide to confront them about anything, I would be glad to accompany you.”
“That hardly seems wise,” said Nan. “Wouldn’t they simply capture you in such a case?”
“Oh, uh, I suppose,” mused Reed. “Still, if you need a hand to help you negotiate, or maybe to set fire to them, I’m your man.”
“Well, then I suppose we’d better head to Cago…” said Spaulding.
“No,” said Nan. “I think we need to go to Frogg.”
“Really? Why?” asked Spaulding as Reed groaned; of the three, he was the least fond of the swampy hamlet. Some days he thought he would never get the taste of dried mudskipper out of his mouth.
Nan presented her own note, although the others could not read it. “It’s High Speech, from Falen,” she explained. “He believes that whatever lies under the swamp is extremely valuable… not just money-wise, but in terms of information. Maybe information that is vital to the future of everyone living here. We must be there to help him!” Nan had that hardened expression she used when she was fixed on a course of action, and for once it was not broken by strange tics and odd expletives said to invisible people.
“I see,” said Reed. “Aren’t they draining the swamp?” Nan nodded. “About how long is left in the dredging project?”
“Umm… a month or two maybe?”
Reed rolled his eyes. “Plenty of time then. Besides, we have to get the Jamesons to safety.”
“Oh, fine,” said Nan. “That’s all right; Falen also wants me to find some sort of language-machine in Cago anyway.” Nan went on to explain that Falen had some papers given to his safekeeping by Lord Sterling, but some were encoded. By whatever means the Ess used, he had determined that they were encoded in a cipher with a mechanical key. “It looks like a sort of… sextant? Someone named Cassius R. made it, but someone else named Grant lost it betting on fights.”
“Well,” said Spaulding, “I won’t pretend to understand what’s going on with you mystics, but at least we seem agreed in our direction. Let us retire and set out in the morning with the Jamesons. Oh, by the way, Reed,” he asked, “what House were you a member of?”
“House Reed,” said Reed. “My name was Elding Reed.”
After a moment of pondering, Spaulding said, “By the gods man, you have a remarkable gift for subversion! With an alias like yours, I would have never expected that! Have you considered a life of spying?”