~ Hexday, 11th of Aprilis, 11831 ~
“Why have I not received any correspondence?” Pierre asked, looking up from his journal as he finished writing down some figures that his advisors had given him. “Surely it was known when I was arriving.” He, along with Vivien, Jourdain, and Tibault, were in the room that Pierre had chosen to become his study. They were discussing the relations between the counties and the duchy as a whole. More discussion would be had another day, with the ruling comtes themselves, once Pierre was more situated, but he wished to be informed as quickly as he could about things.
Vivien coughed and seemed to blush, though it was difficult to tell behind his facial hair. “I was, ah, ordered by His Highness to wait several days before giving you anything tangible to work upon, Your Grace. He has said that you are to have some fun before you lose yourself in another project.” Well, that certainly sounded like his foster brother, so the statement was probably true. Pierre held back on trying to defend how much fun he had as opposed to work, that never helped.
Pluta, who lay on one of the high shelves observing them, sneezed a laugh. Tibault and Jourdain wisely stayed quiet.
“I want all of the letters from the past month that have been addressed to the ruler of Piques here as soon as possible,” the duc said. “With those addressed to me specifically on top. And any official unopened petitions that have come in since Aimé left marked as well.” Pierre was not quite certain if he could do much about the latter, he was not well informed enough yet to help, but he could at least begin to gather knowledge. And he did, after all, have his advisors here to advise him.
“Most of the official petitions have come upon my own desk, even while Aimé was ruling, Your Grace,” Vivien replied. “I confess I have not had much time to sort through them in the last week or so as we have been busy with your arrival, so I shall bring them and we can discuss them together.”
“Good, thank you.”
Vivien stood and went to gather the letters as well as check if anything new had come it yet. Tibault and Jourdain stayed in their seats.
Pierre returned to his notes, pulling a second journal closer. They were scattered thoughts, plans plotted out in vague terms that would mean little to those that neither knew his shorthand nor were privy to his information. Most in the new notebook from Lizzy were about Piques itself, what Tibault and Jourdain had confirmed and expressed about their counties, but some things about Faery were scribbled in the margins. Observations about Jourdain and why he or his father might want him dead were in the older journal, a few pages further back from where he had opened it.
Vivien returned with a stack that was almost too large to be carried by one man (Tibault made to stand and help him before the steward shook his head— that might just be the catalyst to everything ending up on the floor). It seemed word traveled fast in Piques. Pierre closed his journals and moved them to the far side to make room.
“The ones facing up are unread, addressed to you or to Piques. The others I have at least looked at, and replied to many,” Vivien said, placing everything down.
“Merci, dear steward,” Pierre replied. He ran a finger along the letters, found the ones that were all unread, and put them in a smaller pile. The stack looked less likely to spill now. “If you would be so kind as to leave me be for now? Lord Tibault, Lord Jourdain, you may also depart. It will take me some time to read through these and I do not wish to take up your afternoon. When I need your assistance I will send for you.”
“Of course, Your Grace.”
Pierre fanned out the smaller stack of letters as the other men left. One drew his eye right away and he smiled as he recognized Ophion’s handwriting. He took that to read with pleasure.
I have returned to the castle and see not only you gone, but Lady Elizabeth, my best student, and the girl he loves all missing as well. I can only fathom what you are planning, and I hope you understand it thoroughly. Do take care of each of them and most of all yourself. Be careful! The girl, Salome, has an advanced case of oncos, and I fear she will not live much longer. I could not cure her of it, but perhaps you might find a way.
I have also included a letter to myself from the comte of Bellotas expressing concern about Wolfram and Salome as neither have been in contact with the family in some time. Perhaps you know more, as he has never told me of any personal connection to Bellotas beside it being the land of his birth.
His Highness has informed me of your plans for the season. Unfortunately, it is a bit late to accompany you, and I have many duties to His Majesties, Eglė, and my new grandson—Gwythyr. Both he and your cousin are well, I took a shortcut through the woods and made it in time to aid his entry to the world.
Come autumntime if you return to the castle we shall speak further, or I may come visit you should time allow. For now, enjoy the summer.
Oncos. He grabbed the older journal and flipped through it to the page he had reserved for plans about Wolfram and Salome. The boy had never mentioned her illness by name, but perhaps Ophion had not told him. It could be a terrifying malady that was difficult to cure even in Clandestina. But by killing her he would also have killed the rapidly growing tumors as they had no host. Perhaps the soul could be returned to the body and the tumors left for dead? But then why had Ophion not done it already? Perhaps he could not bring himself to kill her even if it would make her well again, or merely did not have the skill. Pierre dared not ask in a letter, it may be intercepted after all, but he filed away the thought for a later time when they were together again. He wrote down his theory and tempered his excitement for the moment. Later tonight he would speak with Pluta and plan with Wolfram.
He would also need to speak to him about the connection to the ruling family of Bellotas, as that the boy had never mentioned them. Wolfram had only said that he was of Bellotas and lived there as an orphan at his lord’s pleasure before going to the capitol, but that did not usually mean such a close interest. The letter from Lord Bellotas, as Pierre read it, implied a familiarity that Wolfram lived with him, not merely on his land.
He put those letters into his jacket pocket for safekeeping and picked up the next missive.
These were the congratulations and well-wishes upon his return. He made note of the difference in how Bladeren and Feuilles penned their notes. The former seemed genuinely pleased that the duc would be back and Pierre found that even from just this letter he liked Lord Hadrian. His wife had even added her own thoughts as a post-script (given the small amount of space and hurried writing he was willing to believe that she added this without her husband’s knowing). The note from Lord Frederick was the bare minimum and strictly formal with few pleasantries. Perhaps because Spadille was in his county, and while Vivien and Aimé had been acting as a duc in some ways, Frederick had more claim to direct power. With a real duc returning some of that power would vanish. Or perhaps it was because Frederick had recently failed in trying to have him murdered?
As the letters went on the news only grew worse. Most were reports of the illness that had found Elizabeth, named differently in each area but always with similar symptoms. It was spreading, as doctor Hervé had warned, and was heading north. It would only be a matter of time before it found its way into the other duchies (though if Lizzy had caught it while at the castle, it may already be there). People were dying, so far in isolated areas, but villages became towns and then cities. One hurried note from a frightened maior was about a man whose grave was robbed after the illness had killed him, and the body had been taken. People were already beginning to panic.
The last plague had been almost twenty years ago and with a sinking feeling Pierre realized another might come soon. As good as the doctors and healers of Clandestina were, the spirits were not well controlled with only one ker and a handful of her chosen, and so once in a while chaos broke free. Whether Mora allowed these to happen because she, in her essence, was a spirit of pain, or if she alone could not do enough to control them was not something he knew.
And he could not ask because she still refused him.
The last of the newest letters was from doctor Hervé himself and thankfully held good news. He confirmed at least that some of his patients were surviving. He had asked blancmagi to stay by the sides of the afflicted and that, in addition to the medicines, met with success. The springtime helped as well.
Pierre replied his thanks first to Hervé, and then to the comtes, before beginning a pleasant letter to his uncle. He would write Aimé after he finished speaking with his advisors and ask what the prince knew and thought of this illness.
Vivien entered the room just as Pierre placed Ophion’s letter aside to dry, yet another letter in the steward’s hand. “This arrived a moment ago for you, Your Grace. I thought it best to bring it to you right away.”
“Thank you. And please, stay, I have questions. Allow me to read this and then we shall talk.” He would involve the two heirs after conferring with his steward.
The new letter was sealed with the county of Eichel’s insignia, though it was slightly altered. The seal a variation of the comte’s that he guessed meant was the heir’s, though Piers had never used it before. He hoped this did not mean more bad news. He broke the seal and began to read.
My dear friend, Pierre!
You had to do one better than I, didn’t you? I take my exams a semester early and you finish with a year to spare. And now you have taken my sister away for the summer?
I must, as is custom, warn you to treat her well and with the dignity befitting both your own and her station, or else I shall visit my wrath upon you! (And I wish you both my best as well, as I had hoped this would be the outcome when she took my place at your party).
In regards to that forgive me for not contacting you earlier. As I hope you know my darling wife has given me a son, and my days have been filled with work and joy.
Father says I cannot stall any longer and will be giving me the reins to the county soon. If only I had made a deal such as you with the dear prince. But even so, I am past my majority, and while father is not old, he wishes to retire.
Perhaps I can manage a visit to your lands before this happens?
Piers Francisque, To-Be Comte d’Eichel
By the end Pierre was grinning. He would write a reply later, giving Piers and his family an open invitation to whenever they wished to come along, and hoped it would be soon. He was beginning to know many new people here, but a familiar face—family—would help. He did not know how he would be coping without Elizabeth.
“Good news?” Vivien asked.
“Yes, a nice letter from family. Helpful, because the others did not hold such good things. What do you know of this illness?” He pulled out the opened letters that he knew Vivien had already read. “You are aware that Elizabeth suffered from it on the way here. Some call it consumption, others phthisis, but the common symptoms are all the same.”
“She seems fine, if a little underweight; I am glad she is well. I had not known it was survivable before now.”
He picked out Hervé’s letter and handed it to Vivien. “Blancræft and certain medicines keep the person alive long enough that it passes. It is not a cure, per say, but far better than nothing.”
“I fear that you already seem to know more than I, then. It has been reported in the south, starting near the border in autumntime and moving north as the seasons changed. I have not heard much as of late, and if this is correct, it is springtime that brings the aid. Perhaps by summer it shall eradicate itself?”
“I hope to try and find a better cure. There is no guarantee that it will end itself and it is spreading. What happens when autumn returns and it still lives but more widely?”
“I will inquire as to which doctors have the most knowledge of this and arrange a meeting with you. Along with those I know who practice blancræft. I do believe there is a letter in there already inviting you to see the local hospital soon.”
“Good, thank you. Have Tibault and Jourdain return so we may finish this meeting and I can write the summary to lord Elwin.”
“Before you go, I wish to show you something,” Pierre said to Wolfram. They had met and discussed Salome’s oncos after the meeting with the advisors. They concluded if she was brought back to life it was likely she would be healthy, or it could be made that way with a bit of skill because the tumors would be long dead and easier to deal with than while she had been alive. It also might be that the ritual of a familiar could override the illness if it would have otherwise returned.
“There are those who worry about you and Salome,” Pierre continued, passing Wolfram the letters he had saved. “Comte Bellotas has sent a message to keep him informed of your and her progress and health, mentioning specifically that the comtesse as well as his daughter, Viola, worry. Mind telling me why the family has such an interest?”
Wolfram for his part seemed uncomfortable. He glanced through the letters before folding them neatly and stuffing them into his own pocket. Suddenly not knowing what to do with his hands he put them into his trouser pockets and looked off to the side.
“We lived just fine together on the streets when we were younger,” he began. “Me and my brother, that is. Father died when we were too young to remember, and mother when we were about eight. After that it was an orphanage and then the streets when we did not like the caretakers there. So I am not used to having guardians and people looking after me, you see. We looked after each other and that is it. But lady Viola, the comte’s daughter, became our friend two years back. She opened her home to us. We actually managed to live there in secret for a month before anyone else was aware.” He grinned at the memory and his shoulders relaxed as he told the story.
“She fell in love with my brother and he with her. I believe they are betrothed officially right now, until they can wed in a few years. Since then the comte has become as a father to us, allowing us to stay with him openly, giving us clothes, educating us. Then I met Salome, and shortly after she became ill so I left with her to go find Ophion.”
“Ah.” It would have perhaps been a better idea for him to have known this before taking the boy, but it was not a matter that could not be resolved. Lord Aldefonse was of Piques, from Bladeren (the younger brother to comte Hadrien) as well as a doctor. He had in fact taught a class one semester that Pierre had taken and so they knew each other in passing. He would write him a letter and explain the situation and the hopes that everything would be well soon.
“Could Lord Aldefonse not have helped Salome?” Pierre asked.
“He tried. He even wrote to Lord Ophion. But before a reply came I… took her and left in the night. I don’t know why, exactly, but I felt that I had to leave and find him instead of him coming to us. Or maybe I felt uncomfortable there. Somehow Brother liked it and I far preferred…” He trailed off, looking down at his shoes.
“Did anything displease you at the comte’s?”
“Non, not at all! I was happy. I just preferred being alone, or at least not so looked after. Lady Suzanne wanted to foster us even. Wulfric liked the notion and I… did not. So I left with Salome. I found Ophion, and he took me in as his ward, but he left me alone more often than not. I preferred that. Being a student rather than a son. And you, you helped me, and also leave me be unless I want to help you.”
This was the most the boy had ever said about himself and his feelings. He now stood stiff, as if waiting to be rejected for wanting contact on his terms. As much as he wanted to be left alone he did not wish to in fact truly be alone.
“Are you keeping in contact with your brother?” the duc asked instead, offering a smile.
“Not lately, non,” Wolfram replied. “He does not know the cræft I am learning. I do not like lying to him and so I instead stopped contact. I suppose he became worried and asked Lord Aldefonse to write.”
“Write your brother and the lord. Do tell him that we are working on Salome’s illness and that you are well.”
“Oui, Your Grace.”
As Wolfram turned to leave Pierre remembered the reason they had met, him asking for Salome’s death with no real plan as to how to return her to life until a loophole was found.
“Wolfram… what had you intended to do if I had killed Salome at her request and there was no means of returning her to life?”
The boy, the young man, who was not used to relying on adults, looked back into his lord’s eyes. “I intended to write my brother and Viola, along with his and her lordship, and Lord Ophion, express my deepest apologies, and then take my own life.”