The estate of Baron Carlyle was, in a few words, impressive. A large house overlooking a thick stone wall with ancient vines crawling along the stones where the stately stones seemed to dare the smaller residents around it to try and meet with the majesty of her central courtyard and the laid glass windows. Even in the moonlight, it shone with a kind of brightness and prosperity that the rest of the street was shamed by its very presence.
At the gate, Deacon pounded loudly and, a few moments later a man in a uniform peered through an opening crack between the doors, “Master Carlyle?” the voice sounded incredulous.
“Yes, Archibald, it is I. And some few friends. We are in need of respite from our exertions and bid entry.” Deacon smiled at the group as he gestured for Archibald to step out of the way.
“Of course, sir,” Archibald opened the door further, stepping to the side to admit the group. Archibald took everyone in stride until Choc. At Choc’s passage, his eyes seemed to erupt from his head. It was impossible to tell just from his expression whether it was her scent or her ramshackle clothing that he held in more disdain as he stared, helplessly, at his master, “You are certain of these…guests, sir?”
“Indeed Archibald. Please, see to it that they are given accommodations. For all of them. And supper. I’m quite famished.” Deacon continued, already striding toward the great pair of oaken doors that opened into the stone home, “They are to be treated with the utmost respect, please.”
“Aye…sir,” Archibald managed, still staring at Choc, “I’ve news for you. Your ears, at least.” Archibald managed, turning and locking the gate with a great iron key, “If I can borrow you for a moment.”
“Of course, Archibald,” Deacon replied jovially. He appeared to be much more at home now with the goblins gone and the familiar trappings of his home around him, “Friends, I must converse with my loyal man here for a few moments. Please, my home is yours. The kitchens are to the right. Please, take a few moments for repast while I discuss matters with Archibald here. Rooms will be prepared.” And with that, Deacon and Archibald moved off around a corner of the great building.
The rest of the group, exhausted from the ordeal with the goblins, moved in to the opulent home. The walls were decorated with sigil of House Carlyle, embroidered on silken banners, as well as pieces of fine art. The furniture was lavish, well cushioned and made of dark stained woods. They were brought a tray of meats and cheeses, as well as a fine wine in small goblets by a serving maid and informed that dinner was on the hearth and would be ready in the next hour.
Choc sprawled on a velvet lined divan, “This is nice.” She commented, a handful of cheese lying on her stomach within convenient reach. She shoved three of the slices in her mouth and continued, “Very kind of you Deacon.”
“Typical of the nobility,” Marigold replied though, Alista noticed, the inquisitor had filled a goblet with the fine wine and was nursing it close to herself.
“He’s earned it,” Vicor replied, “Or at least his father has. Assuming anything my father has told me of the man proves true.”
Greg simply stood in a corner ignoring the provisions.
Alista had to wonder what kind of richness allowed the Carlyle’s to afford this house. This was s not even the seat of their wealth. Torklad was a convenient port, but not the center of the Carlyle’s power. That lay in a coastal town to the south. True, the home they stood in now was not a match for Travenholm, Vicor’s ancestral castle within his family’s lands, but it was much better than any of the other holdings that Lord Traven kept.
She had moved to a shelf of books that sat beneath a great tapestry when Deacon made an appearance approximately a quarter of an hour later,
His face was slightly pale and he had a strange expression on his face, “Friends…” he began, “My father…will be here on the morrow. I would request that you stay and meet him when he arrives,” he coughed, “I am certain that he would find each of you fascinating.”
Alista glanced at the party. Choc still lounged on the divan, idly munching cheese. Her tattered wardrobe and filthy hair had not been improved by the sewers. In fact, each of them looked worse for wear. She felt exhausted and could still faintly smell the stench of the goblins on her clothing as she surveyed her own appearance. Her leather breeches and tunic would need a thorough scrubbing and time in the sun to be presentable. Vicor’s mail had a mixture of his own and goblin blood staining it while Marigold’s inquisitorial cloak was stained almost to her knees with what could only be sewer water and remnants. Only Greg appeared unchanged by their passage through the filth.
As if sensing her concerns, Deacon drew in a deep breath, “I have already sent Archibald to recruit seamstresses to outfit each of you with attire appropriate to the moment, They will be here early upon the morrow to construct garments for each of you at no expense.” he gave a small smile, “I would greatly appreciate your assistance in this matter, friends.”
“Will there be a meal?” Choc asked
“Of course, a fine display of luncheon.”
“Meh, sounds fun. I’ll see you then.” with that, she stood and headed for the door they had entered from.
“Where…where are you going?” Deacon asked, confused.
“To the courtyard, of course. I’ve gotta set up my tent.” Choc smiled and gestured as if this were the most natural thing in the world.
“You’re welcome to a room, friend Choc. I’ve more than enough space for you.”
“That’s all right, Deacon. I don’t want to be any trouble. Besides, it’s a nice night.” and, whistling a small tune, Choc proceeded to pass the human and back in to the moonlight beyond.
No one else however refused Deacon’s hospitality. Following the light supper, they were each escorted to comfortable chambers, complete with down mattresses and thick wool blankets to rest in. At her own insistence, Alista was given a chamber directly adjoining Vicor’s so that she would be nearby as the half-orc slept. With the arrangements complete, exhausted, the group slept.
The morning, however, came all too soon. With the dawn came Archibald and the rest of the house staff to rouse the group to breakfast. Alista snuck through the room that Vicor had occupied, careful not to wake him – she would leave that chore to the staff of the Carlyle estate. Her duty was to guard the man, not ensure his timeliness for social events.
Marigold and Greg were already in the dining room downstairs when Alista entered. There were several different fruits laid out, cut and prepared with what appeared to be light sugars and pitchers of crystal clear water. A maid servant, dressed in House Carlyle’s colors, stood in one corner, waiting for any kind of requests of the guests. Neither of the two already present appeared inclined to make use of the service.
She nodded and grabbed a few of the strawberries and bit in to the ripe redness, relishing the flavor of the berries. Deacon took that moment to enter the chamber, already polished for the morning, “I am glad we selected something you approve of,” he smiled, noting Alista’s reaction to the fruit.
“They are a rarity in Travenhome,” she replied, taking another bite, “I have not had many since I left the lands of my people.”
Deacon nodded, “I had been told of the elven love of fruit, but I have never seen such a sublime look on the face – human or elven – as yours.” his voice was sincere and Alista found herself grinning lightly inside. For a human Carlyle was, at least, a gentleman.
“Laying it on a bit thick, aren’t you, Carlyle?” Greg interrupted, “The fruit has her on your side. Isn’t that enough?” he chortled.
“Courtesy does not hurt anyone,” Deacon replied, still grinning, “And how do you find our fare?”
Greg belched, “Better the first time than the second,” he replied, not the least ashamed at his boorish behavior, “Personally I prefer something a little more red than fruit. Haven’t you got any real food to eat?”
“Ellen,” Deacon gestured to the maidservant, “Would you check with the kitchen and see if there is anything left of the venison from the other day in the cellars? Something suitable for our bloodthirsty friend here.”
“Best make that two, Carlyle,” Marigold prompted, “I assume that your Vicor will want something substantial to eat?”
Alista considered for a long moment, “Yes, most likely. As I said, these fruits are a rarity in Travenhome. Vicor will, at the least, be more comfortable with some meat.”
Deacon nodded to the maid, “Two cuttings, then. Have chef heat them up and put on some of the salts in the brown jars. You know the ones.”
The maid scurried from the room to heed her orders, “Choc will be joining us shortly. I assume Vicor as well?” he looked again to Alista.
“Vicor prefers his rest, but I am certain he will make an appearance. I can wake him if you so desire, Lord Carlyle,” Alista replied.
“Please, Deacon. We are all friends here.” he grinned again, sitting in one of the fine hardwood chairs with a stem of grapes, “I’d prefer all of you feel comfortable while you are my guests and I will not stand on formalities while we are together.”
“Yet you felt it necessary to summon seamstresses and re-clothe us?” Marigold questioned her expression blank.
Deacon looked uncomfortable, “That would be for my father. For him I prefer a more…pristine viewpoint be presented.” He plucked few of the grapes and placed them in his mouth as he finished the statement, looking expectantly at Marigold.
The inquisitor simply nodded her face still unreadable. Alista had to wonder precisely why the woman was staying as well. She had no reason to investigate Deacon. The goblins in the tunnel had not been expecting the party – though there was the odd noble that Deacon had denied the others access to. Alista was certain she had seen the young man at some point, but, for the life of her, she could not recall when. Regardless, the event was finished and resolved. It was incredibly unlikely that the goblins would stage such a daring stroke again, given their losses the night before.
There was quiet then, while the party dined on the fruit. As anticipated, Vicor and Choc arrived soon after and fell to consuming the fruits. The steaks of venison that Ellen the maid returned with turned out to be incredibly large and so they were divided among the group for consumption. Archibald, the servant from the night before entered as they continued the meal, “Lord Carlyle, the seamstresses have arrived.”
Deacon looked to his friends, “Who wishes to see them first?”
Alista peered around. Choc looked distinctly uncomfortable and Marigold’s face had taken on a resemblance to a storm cloud rumbling in the distance. She sighed and stood, “I shall, Lord Carlyle.” she replied. Deacon looked surprised, “On a condition.” she decided.
“That being?” Deacon asked.
“Your oath of Vicor’s safety.” Alista replied, “I cannot watch him and be properly fitted at the same time.” In all reality, there was little enough danger in the household, she knew, but it would not pay for her to show laxity in her duties for a few fancy threads.
“I shall see to it myself, Alista,” Deacon replied, “they are waiting in the parlor. Archibald will escort you.”
Alista nodded and followed the older man in his waistcoat through the halls of the house.
Alista had expected the seamstresses to be sour about rousing so early in the morning, but found them to be oddly entertaining. They chatted with her, remarking on her pale complexion and soft auburn hair. All three were humans and, if their chatter were to be believed, not a one of them had ever laid eyes upon an elf in their lives.
“Are all elves colored like you?” they asked.
“My family is,” she replied, not knowing how else to answer. How was she to speak for an entire people? “But the church was filled with many different souls.”
“You’re a servant of the church then?” they asked.
“I am,” she replied, “For the last 80 years.”
“I had heard of the long blood of the elves, but I had no idea…you are really eighty years old?”
“No, I am one-hundred and twenty,” she responded, smiling to herself. Humans often had this reaction when she mentioned her age. While they had matured, and reached the age of maturity at around twenty years, she was just entering her full maturity. The idea that she was one hundred and two was beyond the scope of a human lifetime, let alone to appear as young to them as she did.
That brought a short gasp of surprise. Most of the seamstresses looked to be in their late twenties and fell in to the usual conversation that she heard around such young woman. They chatted about a number of names that Alista had never heard of but, if the three women were to be believed, the very center of the universe. Alista nodded, listening for any words of threat toward herself or Vicor, but could find nothing among the chatter that stood out as dangerous.
After about thirty minutes of their chattering and comments, they at last pronounced to the young elf that they had all of the information that they needed to construct her a fine gown as Carlyle had ordered. There remained only one task that Deacon had left for her, “The colors miss. What do you want of them?”
Alista thought for a long moment, “The colors of House Traven are purple and gold. Those will do well, I think.” she replied.
“As you wish, ma’m.” they responded, making a notation of it in their ledger, “The finery should be ready soon enough. We’re to clear out for the next group.” the trio began to gather their materials and, with a nod of their heads, bid the elf farewell. Even as they were exiting, a fussy looking man in a waistcoat entered gesturing for Alista to leave.
She emerged just as Marigold came around the corner. The half-orc did not look in the slightest comfortable with being fitted and was glowering as she came to the door, “Idiots.” she muttered, her eyes trailing the women Alista had just finished with.
“It’s their job,” Alista responded, shrugging her shoulders, “We cannot fault them for that.”
Marigold scowled, “You are lucky, elf that I have not yet had the opportunity to report to my order. Were House Carlyle not so influential, I’d have had you in chains already.”
Alista nodded. She believed the invoker without question and had no doubt of the woman’s capability, “Perhaps I will do something remarkable or compassionate enough that you will not insist on pursuing my jailing.”
“Unlikely,” the half-roc responded, “You reek of magic.”
Alista shrugged, “You’ve no evidence, Marigold. I’ve done no magic before you.” At least not successfully.
The half-orc’s scowl became a feral grin, almost as though she had heard the thought, “You will.” and with that, she swept in to the chamber where the odd man waited to fit her for clothing suitable for such a gathering.
Alista returned to the breakfast chamber where Choc and Deacon stood in earnest conversation. Vicor was seated in one of the chairs, studiously examining a book from the shelves, the title of which Alista could not make out. Greg was nowhere to be seen. At her entrance, Choc smiled happily, “Welcome back!” she exclaimed, “Did you have fun?”
“It was a fitting Choc. I have done it before and have no doubt I will do it again.”
“Do all elves get fitted often?” Choc continued, almost as if she had not heard the reply, “Does it hurt?”
“Only if you wish to freely breathe in the gown they eventually assemble, Choc,” Alista was glad that the table had not been entirely cleared and poured herself a glass of water, “Otherwise, let them cinch in your waist all they want.”
“Why would I want to do that?” the look that Choc directed at Alista was so reminiscent of an owl that the elf could not help but laugh at the question, “Did I say something funny?” she looked at Deacon.
“I believe,” he replied. Alsita could hear the suppressed laughter in his voice, “That our elf friend is referring to ladies fashion and corsets.”
Alista nodded, still overcome with mirth at Choc’s confused face. For a moment, she thought that she may have finally gone too far and offended, Choc, but the half-orc grinned and began to laugh as well. The laughter, Alista realized, felt good. It had been a long time since she had simply allowed herself to laugh. When she had finally recovered, she found that Vicor was peering at her confused, “You get enough sleep, Alista?”
“Indeed, milord,” she replied, still smiling, “And thank you, Choc. You are a treasure.”
Choc grinned at the compliment, but made no reply.
It was at that moment Marigold stormed in to the room. Their laughter had covered the swearing that had, undoubtedly, heralded her approach to the chamber. She positively bristled with fury, “Carlyle!” she roared, “That was awful!” she thrust an accusatory finger in Deacon’s direction.
“I do apologize, Marigold,” Deacon began, “If the man did anything untoward, I shall have him stripped and charged.”
Marigold’s face twisted, “That was the most undignified moment of my life.”
Deacon nodded, all gaiety lost from his face as it assumed a settled expression of neutrality, “I see. I appreciate you’re managing to sit through it. I shall have to repay you somehow. Perhaps a donation to Pharasma? In the name of your suffering?”
Marigold continued to fume for several moments, then, spun on her heel and stormed back toward the chamber that Deacon had provided her. The door to the inner chambers slammed, sending vibrations through the wall.
“Wow!” Choc commented, “I’m not sure I wanna be fitted anymore, Deacon.”
“It isn’t as bad as all that Choc,” Deacon replied at her concern, “I’m certain you’ll look lovely in whatever the seamstresses prepare for you,” he gave her a charming smile, “And I thank you for your help.”
Choc’s face shifted subtly at the compliment, “All right, Deacon.” she replied, “But only because you asked so nicely.”
Alista returned to her room, taking the few hours before Deacon’s luncheon to study her tome and stances. She was halfway through her last set of stances, then, when there was knocking at the door. It was the maid Ellen. In her hands she bore a bundle wrapped in a thin bit of rope, “Master Carlyle told me to deliver this to you. He also said that I am to ensure that it fits properly and assist you in dressing, should you require it.”
Alista nodded, “As you wish,” she took the tied bundle from the woman. Somehow the seamstresses had managed to construct the dress over those few hours. She shrugged out of her tunic, moving quickly to untie the bundle. The dress itself was long, made from a quality of silk she had not seen in Travenhome. The color scheme of House Traven was not an easy one to work with, but the group of seamstresses had done an excellent job in working the colors together.
She admired the dress for a moment in the mirror and then shrugged out of her tunic and slid the dress over her head. She fitted it carefully, settling the fine fabric over her hips and adjusting the provided corset until it was in position before turning to the maid, “A little assistance, if you please? “ She gestured to the corset, as well as the silks.
“Aye, ma’am.” the young woman stepped up behind her and began to work on the laces of the corset. Alista grimaced as the tugging pulled the device against her stomach and waist. She heard the ties being drawn as the girl pulled at them, and heard the girl swear softly as she adjusted the knots and struggled to keep them there, one slipping free. It took a good five minutes, but Ellen finally stepped away, “There you go, ma’am. I’ve done what I can.”
Alista turned to the mirror again. The dress was fine silks, and well constructed, she decided, peering at the folds about her waist that then cascaded down her legs, accenting their length and the flow from her hips quite dramatically. The corset served to accent the same curvature. She was so used to her tunic and hose that the skirts, and the cold chill which accompanied them, was unfamiliar. The neckline, she realized, was a bit much as well. The corset served to accent the figure of most human women quite well, but her elven form was more slender than the human dressmakers were familiar with. It draped loosely across her chest and, even with the corset, she did not fill it in the way a human woman would have. Still, she decided, if she was to dine with nobility this would do better than her Calistrian garments.
It was certainly better than the formless dresses Lord Traven had shoved her in to on the few occasions that she had been forced to attend functions not in her normal leathers, “Thank you, Ellen.” she turned to the maid, “How do I look?”
Ellen considered her for a long moment, “You want my honest opinion, ma’m?” She asked.
Alista nodded, “We are both servants, Ellen. I’d appreciate your honesty.”
Ellen’s face shifted, “Really? I had assumed…what with your being next to the young man…and wearing his colors…”
Alista’s gaze shifted to the dress, “You’d assumed what, exactly, Ellen?”
Ellen blushed, “I’d assumed you were his…lover.”
Alista burst out laughing, “Vicor’s…what? His…his…lover?”
Ellen’s face took on a stricken expression, “You don’t have to be rude about it. If we are both servants, then why would not be a servant of his needs? Your room is connected to his, you follow him about, and now you have a silk dress and will sit at a meal with him and Master Deacon. What else am I to think?”
Alista managed to gain control of herself to reply, “I am his bodyguard, Ellen. You’ve seen my blade and tunic, my leathers. Were I Vicor’s consort, why would I wear leathers and a blade?”
Ellen’s blush deepened. From her stance, Alista could tell she was on the verge of becoming entirely too embarrassed to continue. Still, the maid pressed forward, “I know little of half-orcs. I had assumed it was for his pleasure that you wore such things. Perhaps he liked the smell of the leather or some such.”
Alista nodded, still holding in her laugh. That was understandable, particularly given the exposure the woman was unlikely to have encountered many half-orcs, “I see. And you thought an elf might submit to such a thing?”
The girl shook her head, “No, ma’am. I know of the pride of elves. It was…” she gulped loudly, unable to continue.
“It was what, Ellen? The way I followed him?” Alista probed.
“No,” she replied.
“The way we spoke?”She pressed again. She was curious to know the answer. If nothing else, she could change the behavior that had brought the girl to her confusion.
“No,” she replied again, her voice dropping in volume.
“The fit of my armor? The sword at my hip?” Alista felt a sense of unease that the girl would not speak, “What is it then, Ellen? You do not need to fear my reprisal. I just want to know.” she bent her ear close to the woman so that the servant could whisper if she so desired.
“It was the silks, ma’am. The yellow ones…in your pack,” came the soft reply
Alista pulled herself back. Had she really found her silks? “My what?”
“The yellow silks. The ones that mark you a servant…of Calistria.” she replied, her voice quiet, “In truth, those were what convinced me of your service.”
Impossible, Alista thought, taking a step away from the woman, those are hidden deep within my pack…at the very bottom. She could not have found them unless she had been going through my belongings. Her mind continued to process as she spoke “Why…why were you in my pack?” she asked, her mind whirling. She hoped, vaguely, the answer would buy her enough time to fix the situation.
“I was ordered to care for your room. It was while you were at breakfast and with the seamstresses. I was straightening, refilling the wash basin, when I had to move the pack. It was…heavier than I had anticipated and I dropped it. The contents went everywhere.” she gulped, “The silks came out. I recognized them immediately. I did not wish for my master, or yourself to be upset, and so I replaced them in the bag.”
Alista struggled for a moment, reaching through her mind for an appropriate response. Had it really been an accident, she wondered, or had Deacon ordered the girl to investigate his companions. He had proven shrewd enough, and his behavior in the tunnels following the rescue of the nobles was odd. Perhaps he had decided to side with Marigold and was looking for evidence of her magic. If that were the case, though, then why would they leave behind her tome? “So it was an accident?”
“Yes ma’m. I do apologize.” She appeared to be honest in her regret.
“Then I don’t see any reason why anyone else needs to know about this,” Alista decided. If Carlyle had really sent the girl to spy on her, he had chosen a poor enough subject to do it with. The girl was shaking where she stood, “I assume I have nothing to worry about in that regards.”
The girl nodded and then gulped, “Can..can I ask you a question then, ma’m?”
“What is it like? To live a life filled with passion and secrets?” Her voice was quiet, almost as if by staying low it could avoid being heard.
Alista considered the girls words. How to explain what she had done in a way that the girl would understand? “Let me ask you a something first then,” she began, formulating an idea, “Have you ever been with a lover?”
Ellen flushed red, “There was one, ma’m. A coach driver. When I was barely in to womanhood.”
“But you loved him, yes? And shared with him your thoughts as dreams?”
“I did,” Ellen nodded, “Much the same as you must have.”
Alista nodded at the first part and dismissed the second, “And you were physical with him, as well. As lovers?”
The flush grew even darker, “I was. Only don’t tell the master.”
“I wouldn’t,” Alista replied, “This is part of what I do in the service of Calistria. She is the lady of secrets and of passions.” She paused then, examining her words before she spoke them, “Passion and love are not the same. “
Ellen appeared to be thinking, and so Alista pressed on, “I have been with many men, Ellen. Human and elves. Calistria’s blessing protects me in many ways; their seed cannot bear fruit within me so long as I serve her and do not wish it nor can their sicknesses be passed on to me. That is the role of passion in the part that I play. But it is not love. Do not confuse the two.”
“But such a blessed life…”
“What you had with your coachman is far more valuable, I think,” Alista commented, “And far more worthy of rememberance. I doubt I could name more than a dozen of the men that I have seen in my time as a servant of Calistria, Ellen,” she grinned, “though I am certain that they remember me.”
“Then why hide yourself, and your road?” Ellen continued, “Were it me, I would wear my silks proudly as a mark of station.”
Alista’s mind blanked for a moment as she formulated a respons, “There are many reasons. There is little honor in what I do, Ellen. That is a concern. There are few enough willing to work as slaves of passion.”
The girl laughed, “Forgive me, my lady. I cannot see you as a slave to anything.”
Alista knew the comment was meant in earnest, but it was duty that had driven her in the first place “In name, I am no slave that is true. I chose to give myself to the goddess, and my servic is what I gave everything to, Ellen. I do not have even the freedoms that you possess here in serving Deacon.”
Ellen’s face fell, “I don’t understand.”
“It is..complicated, Ellen,” Alista sighed, “Let us leave it at that. I have much to do in preparing for this lunch and will need some time to meditate.”
“As you wish, ma’m,” Ellen bowed as she opened the door to leave, “My lady?”
“If it matters at all, ma’m, Master Carlyle is a good man to serve. He would offer you the same freedoms he does me, I am certain.”
“Thank you, Ellen. I am quite happy serving my Goddess,” Alista replied, “Make sure the door is tight when you leave.”