the heft and the edge 14/2/2019
This is a piece of writing from
The Twist Inside (Song of Ages V. 2)
This the chapter Indiscretion, from part 2 of the Twist Inside.
Angren, Sigrid and Terrance have arrived in Ripon, seat of Baron Harold Gumb, intent on visiting a neighbour of his. As a matter of courtesy, the Baron invites them to a formal dinner.
All you need to know in advance is that Angren’s first sight of Helen Travers, the Baron’s niece, was memorable. Something to do with manacles, and the lack of clothes. See Miss Travers and the Sorcerer, in part 3 of The Best of Men.
Angren climbed onto the viewing platform, a popular destination, apparently, for the people of Ripon though today he had it to himself. The view on one side took in the twist of the river, the towered houses of the town and the great forest beyond, but on the other, and more importantly, it revealed the snaking path that ascended the Hill of Powers, and the fourteen statues that stood like a crown circling its bald top. The statues seemed to be representations of giants, but he wasn’t close enough to make out their features. He studied the path. It was very odd. He could see at least twelve people labouring on their way to the top, but at intervals all the way up there were others standing still, or kneeling, or even lying down. The path was quite steep, but he didn’t think it was that difficult. Whether or not, he decided to give it a miss. Angren wasn’t too interested in sculpture, not enough to raise a sweat for anyway.
“Admiring our Gods?”
Angren started at the voice. He wasn’t normally so easily approached without knowing about it.
“Is that what they are?”
Alan Travers laughed. It was an annoying high-pitched laugh and had more to do with sneering than gaiety. “Well, so the fools believe. They ascend to bow to each of the monstrosities, every holy day and every other day some of them. You’ll notice a few are carrying flowers - the more pious garland their favourites. Ripon people are strange and sad folk.”
“I see some of them find it a bit of struggle getting to the top.”
“No. You misunderstand. Their journey is a prayer, a petition. Their posture of approach depends on the severity of the problems they face. Money worries and they stop to bow every fifty paces. A dying child and they’ll measure the hill with the length of their bodies.”
“They prostrate themselves at every step. It’s pathetic. Not as if they’re important gods, anyway, just local riff raff.”
Angren shook his head. He wasn’t particularly keen on religion, but he thought it impolite to discredit other people’s beliefs. “You really are a callous, arrogant youth, aren’t you Alan Travers? And I don’t expect you’ll change.”
“Fine words from a professional killer.”
Angren chose to ignore the comment.
“Out for a walk then, are you?”
“Not really, Mr Nielderson. I was sent to find you.”
“My revered uncle was wondering if you would like to eat at the hall tonight. Seemed to think there was some question about it. I told him it would depend on the availability of ale.”
Angren favoured Alan with a smile that had more to do with menace than pleasantry.
“Be careful, lad, boys shouldn’t bait bears.”
“You take offence easily – a bear-like trait, I admit.”
“I take offence when it is given.”
“And do you take advice when it is given?”
“Not from you. I’ve never bothered myself much with the advice of fools.”
“You’ll regret that insult. One day. But look her comes your friend, the leather bitch, and, surprisingly, my sister with her.” Alan reached out and pushed at Angren’s shoulder. “Just keep away from her, do you understand?”
Angren looked Travers up and down and then glanced over at the ladies.
“Difficult as it is to see, there is actually a strong family resemblance between you. She has a backside, and you are one, though as I remember it unclothed, hers is a lot prettier.”
Suddenly red in the face, Travers sputtered rather than spoke. Angren was pleased with himself. He smiled generously at Helen as she and Sigrid stepped onto the platform. But the look Sigrid returned was mistrustful and his smile disappeared.
“You look scared, Angren.”
Sigrid never backed off.
“Terrified, if you’ll believe me. I just saw a dolly-demon.”
“No, not you. Ugly looking thing, red in the face, vile as a Rat King, dim-witted as a wart-hog.”
Sigrid raised an eyebrow, unusually cautious, but Helen looked at Angren, and then looked at Alan, and was suddenly convulsed with laughter.
“Too much. Much too much,” she gasped, “It’s the red face and gangly limbs that does it.”
Alan took offence, very easily.
“Well, thank you, sister. I had till now thought it a pet name you gave me rather than an insult, but did you have to tell it to that oaf.”
“Oh behave, Alan. I never did—”
But Alan wasn’t listening. He walked off so quickly his hat blew off. He didn’t stop to retrieve it but clattered away down the steps.
Helen had stopped laughing. She stooped to pick up the hat. Angren himself felt very foolish.
“If I’d known, I’d never have—”
“No Angren. Not your fault. You didn’t know. And he is a pompous ass. However, he’s my brother and I should be kinder to him. I take it he was warning you off?”
“You could say that.”
“He had no right to attempt it, and he had no need. He thinks me vulnerable. I am not—”
“I am not interested in you, no matter your obvious charms.”
This time it was Sigrid convulsing in laughter, and Angren who became red in the face.
The Great Hall of the manse was impressive. Not so great as the hall of the ducal palace in Dyffily, with no dais, and no pillared galleries to the sides, but it was far more welcoming. Angren’s father favoured a military display of weapons and armour, with less than exuberant hangings, sparsely arranged – he never would listen to his wife’s suggestions when it came to rooms of state. But here was a room designed for comfort and entertainment. Big enough to house the two long Low Tables and a smaller High-table, but the oak panelled walls, the collections of ornament and sculpture, and the fine oil paintings all around, all lit by the three extravagant lanterns hanging from the high ceilings, conspired to give the room a familial feel.
At least forty people were present already, milling around and chattering in convivial fashion, waiting for the order to be seated. At the high-table Gumb was there to greet warmly his companions of battle. Alan Travers was there too, standing behind his chair, two places to Gumb’s right, silent and seemingly out of sorts. But other important members of the household, including the Baron’s Chief Lieutenant and his Chancellor, with their wives, were all keen to engage Terrance and Angren and Sigrid in conversation. Mostly they wanted to talk about the horror of the affair at Moreda and the catastrophe in Astoril. Angren tried his best to be polite.
Weaving through the guests, half a dozen page boys in livery brought trays full of glasses of Apian sherry, taken up delightedly by everyone present. And in one corner of the room two fine guitarists played pretty rondoncinos, and minuettos that even Agren recognized as Ravennese. Apian taste and culture were most fashionable just now and considered more refined than traditional Aegardean style. Baron Gumb was clearly determined to impress. Angren wondered about that. Was it because the Baron was now fully aware of his guests’ pedigree? Angren snorted loudly at the thought. Sigrid elbowed him.
He gave her a grin but didn’t bother to explain. Pedigree! What a joke. Lady Sigrid Althone was undeniably a Partian noble. But they were a different sort up in Terremark. Angren for one, anyway, never had any time for all that nobility stuff. Yes, his father was a Duke. But what did that mean? It was just a job like any other. Wasn’t it? Being born of a noble family doesn’t really make you any better than anyone else. And being the son of a Lord doesn’t make you a natural leader. So, maybe his father didn’t see it quite the same way. The last time they’d spoken, well, the last time they’d yelled at each other at least, Torgrim had raged on about Angren’s recklessness, his lack of responsibility, avoidance of duty, and most of all his denial of a birth-right. “Whether I like it or not,” he’d said, “you are heir to this Dukedom. Your place is to stay by my side, at this court, and to bloody-well learn how to govern. Don’t you care about who you are, who we are?”
Well, no, he didn’t. Governing Terremark was the last thing he wanted. Angren had learned to love a life on the road. He enjoyed his anonymity. He sought out adventure, though he didn’t always find it. He settled for variation. He settled for not settling. Sometimes he had found himself taking a job duller than deskwork, but at least he was always in a position to walk away and find something else. He absolutely did not want to be tied to duty.
It was perhaps a bad thing that he’d told his father where he could stick his duty. It was probably a bad thing he’d stormed out of the palace, out of the city, and out of Terremark entirely. But that was two years back and Angren tried not to have regrets.
Sigrid nudged him. “What’s the matter, Old Angren?”
“Nothing much. Feeling a bit homesick, perhaps. I miss my family, Dag and my mum.”
“And your father too?”
“Less of a problem.”
“That’s a shame. Most likely he’ll be missing you. You should always—”
“Can we drop it? Anyway, I think the show’s about to start.” He indicated a small commotion at the doorway. There a butler in his best regalia hit a silver gong with a silver hammer.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he announced, “Please be attentive for the arrival of Baroness Olivia Gumb, and her niece Lady Helen Travers.”
The announcement was code for “please get to your seats,” and after a brief bustle of activity in getting to them, the ladies walked in and processed up the aisle between the tables. The Baroness seemed in a jolly mood, calling greetings to friends all along the way. Helen was less so. She was nodding politely but unenthusiastically at the dignitaries on the side tables. She didn’t seem able to find a smile for anyone.
“Your new friend doesn’t look too happy.” Angren muttered.
“Well, she doesn’t really know these people yet,” Sigrid said. “And it was quite a trauma for her to get here, you’ll remember.”
When the ladies reached the high-table, Gumb ushered his wife to her seat at his left, and Alan Travers pulled out the seat between himself and the Baron for Helen to take. She stood unmoving for a long moment, but then looked over at Terrance on the far left of the table.
“Mr de Vere, would you very much mind if I come to sit by you this evening. We haven’t had chance to speak together yet, and I really must thank you for your heroic efforts at Moreda.”
Terrance was not slow to understand, or to respond. He stepped up quick and offered his hand.
“I would be honoured, my lady. Let me escort you to your seat.”
Sigrid gave Angren a quizzical look, and Angren noticed Gumb sharing a much more intense look with his wife. His wife shrugged.
“Well then,” said Gumb, “It seems we have an empty place here. Lieutenant Galsby, perhaps you would permit your lady wife to grace me with her company tonight. Thank you. Shall we all be seated now, I believe the kitchen staff are keen for us to begin.”
They were parcelled out among the High Table diners. Terrance was well blessed, of course, with Helen for company. Angren, opposite the Baroness, seemed satisfied enough, with Gumb’s wife a lively and humorous lady, perfectly happy to match the weapon-master glass for glass. Sigrid, unfortunately ended up sandwiched between the bereft Lieutenant Jørn Galsby, and Gumb’s Chancellor, Arnold Peasbody, and sitting opposite the morose and angry Alan Travers. Alan barely spoke at first, or even looked at her. Instead his envious gaze drifted time and again down the table to where his sister and Terrance were engaged in animated, and good-natured conversation. Meanwhile both soldier and administrator tried to outdo themselves in being polite and respectful to their guest. Sigrid found them utterly boring. And the questions they asked regarding her family and position revealed a staggering lack of knowledge when it came to the impact of the Massacre at Aristeth. Staggering at least to a victim and survivor. Once satisfied they had allowed their guest the briefest of replies they quickly turned to matters in Ripon and the wider forest. They were sure that she would be interested, the Lady Althone having been an important factor in the Battle of Moreda. This line of thought led them into speculation about the new balance of power in the region, given that the Morredans had been annihilated to a man.
“Plenty of women left, though,” was Alan’s first contribution, alongside his sly grin. “They say these Beltez girls make good wives. Very accommodating, apparently. Perhaps I might take one.”
Sigrid, for the sake of courtesy at Lord Gumb’s table, took a sip of wine before she trusted herself to respond.
“Will you continue in this unpleasant vein, Mr Travers? I think it might spoil the evening.”
He sniffed. “That would be Lord Travers to you, madam. Did you forget that my father was killed?”
“I did not. But on that point, I understood that primogeniture is not specifically held to in the Eastern Forest.”
“What would you know of our customs?”
Arnold Peasbody coughed to intrude a thought. “I do believe, ahm… Sir, that Lady Althone is to some extent correct. Though you are now of age, in both Ripon and Hartest the convention is to restrict the taking on of governance until the age of thirty-one is achieved. Until then the Council has the right to appoint an interim. I suspect that your father’s chancellor, Edric, will be given the task of rule.”
Alan gave him a venomous look. “Old Fatty Edric will do as I tell him.”
To punctuate this statement Alan downed his almost full glass of wine and signalled for another. The chamberlain was silenced and gave his attention to the last of his meat. But the Lieutenant was not so cowed.
“You will of course have some influence,” he said, “and rightly so, Alan, but not the final say, I would think.”
Alan rounded on him. “Who said anything to you? You’re just here because my uncle likes to play soldiers. Just because you taught me to use a sword when I was a boy does not give you permission to speak to me, still less use my given name. You’re a servant. Why don’t you go away and muck out my uncle’s horses?”
“Alan Travers!” Gumb had caught some of what his nephew had to say. Over in the corner the musicians faltered, startled, but then continued sedately. Gumb spoke more quietly. “While you are at my table, young man, you will endeavour to be courteous to those around you, both to your equals and your betters. Jørn, apologies for my nephew’s misunderstanding of his own importance.”
Alan refused to respond, staring at the tableware before him. After a few moments he took up his next glass of wine. The guitarists now picked up a lively tune, perhaps thinking the spat was over, but Gumb was not quite done.
“Perhaps, Alan, you should take lessons from your sister on how to behave in company.”
Though the rondoncino ran brightly between the guitars to entertain the hall, the High Table itself had fallen silent. Helen Travers was glaring at her brother, daring him to look up. Sigrid noticed only a sideways glance before the Heir of Hartest resumed a study of his dining plate.
“Lady Helen tells me you have some knowledge of our inventor friend?” Sigrid almost grinned: it was Terrance, riding to the rescue.
The Baron was happy to be distracted.
“Well, well. Gaston Zollerine eh? I was surprised when Angren came out with his name. He’s been living in Ripon a good few years now – whenever he’s not abroad seeing through his installations. Twenty years, I should think. I know him well enough. Backed a few of his projects too, along the way. Mostly good investments – mostly. Let’s say I’ve gained more than I’ve lost.”
“I believe his schemes are sometimes miraculous, is that right, Angren?”
“Good word for them, Terrance. How he comes up with things is beyond me. He’s a genius.”
Gumb pulled a face. “Don’t think I’d go that far – he doesn’t always get things right.”
Alan snorted extravagantly, and then clunked down his glass far too heavily and inaccurately, sending a fork spinning across the table towards Sigrid. She refused to react and instead decided to keep the conversation going.
“Financially, do you mean?”
“Well that too, Sigrid.”
“You’re not filling me with confidence, Harald. Can we trust him?”
Across the table Alan sniggered. “Trust that buffoon? Spends most of his time drinking, far as I can see. No wonder he’s a friend of Nielderson there.”
This time it was Helen who responded.
“Alan, please will you behave? You seem determined to cause trouble this evening. You do our name no honour.”
“What’s the matter, little sister? Don’t you like me talking about your puppy-dog lover?”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. You’re insulting our guests.”
“Not far off though, am I? What with lover-boy going around bragging about his conquest. Telling all and sundry what a fine arse you have – when it’s naked.” He looked out over the room. The music had ceased. “Yes, you all heard me. And it’s true: she does have a fine arse.”
“Alan, how could you?”
Cries of criticism, of surprise and confusion rang among the diners high and low, and bounced among the rafters. Helen bowed her head only for a moment before she pushed up and away from her seat, left the table, and left the room.
Sigrid glared across at Angren. “Have you been running off at the mouth again?”
Angren shrugged. “Alan was being an arsehole, as usual. I was just teasing him.”
“I told you!” cried Alan, smirking. “My sister the whore, and that dolt from the north—”
Gumb wouldn’t have it. “You will apologize, young man!”
The room fell silent.
“Who to? Not that uncouth bastard.”
“To your sister! Get out of my sight! Go on, I’ve had enough of your face for one evening.”
Alan smiled sarcastically at his uncle, and then chinned the air in defiance.
“I’ll go. I begin to feel not welcome here.”
And so, go he did, pacing down the aisle, heels clicking on the wooden tiles, looking neither left nor right. He barged through a cluster of waiting servants on his way. Several trays were upended, and bottles smashed on the floor. As the door slammed shut behind him, the room erupted.
Amid the furore the Baron got to his feet. Sigrid thought he looked weary of it all.
“Ladies and Gentleman, if you please!” The room subsided. “My apologies to guests, one and all,” and he looked pointedly at both Angren and Sigrid, “there was only one to blame for this evening. Please finish your wine at your leisure but do try to regain a sense of decorum. If you will excuse me now, I have something to attend to.”
As the hubbub resumed in a less forthright manner, Gumb left his seat.
“Lieutenant, Chancellor, if you would accompany me.”
Jørn and Arnold both rose promptly, stopping only to bow to Sigrid before they all marched off.
Sigrid watched them go, her hands gripping the cushion she sat upon.
“Well that was fun,” said Angren.
She was so furious with him she couldn’t speak. He flinched from her black look as she also got to her feet.
“Going somewhere, Sig?”
“Yes I am. And make sure you don’t follow me.”
Sigrid pounded along the corridors. Trust him to cause such a mess, she thought. It was all just a joke to him, and now look at it. How could he do that to Helen? “Never speak of this,” she’d told him, “Never!” But did Angren ever listen?
“Well, little sister. You didn’t quite escape your indiscretions, then? Did you think I would let it pass?”
Helen’s hand was on the handle of the door, her rooms and respite from this horrid evening just a step away. But she turned to face him down.
“I did think that you would never look to embarrass me among friends or strangers.”
“You embarrass yourself.” Alan came up close to her. “Did you enjoy it?”
“Alan, it was not my fault I was exposed, and not his either.”
“Really? I suppose he didn’t take the opportunity to have a good look then? And a feel? Did he let his hands wander a bit? Been a long time, sis, since I last saw you naked. Taking a bath, though you probably didn’t know I was watching. I haven’t forgotten.”
He pushed his face up to hers, lifted a hand to caress the nape of her neck, pulled at the pins to release her mane of hair.
“Always so beautiful, my Helen, always. How about a kiss for your brother.”
“Alan, stop it! You’re drunk.” She pushed at his chest, but he snaked an arm around her waist and held her tight.
“Drunk? Yes, I am. And it’s liberating. I think I could do anything right now and never even care about the consequences. And why would I?” He dipped to nuzzle his face up against her cheek. “You smell good, sis. Perfume and a little bit of sweat. Are you getting wet?”
“Get away from me!”
“Bet you didn’t say that to him.”
He grasped at her skirts and spun her round, pushing her face into the door.
“Now then, let’s just have look at that arse, shall we? The whole town’s thinking about it, I may as well have a go.”
She swung back an elbow and caught him full in the face. The shock gained her a few moments, and she scrabbled for the door handle, but he was back on her before she could get through. They both tumbled into the opening, Alan tearing at her skirts, his hands on her thighs…
But then she was free.
Alan screamed in pain as Sigrid slammed him up against the door jamb, her hands at his throat. Helen turned in time to see her brother release a knife from his belt. Sigrid saw it too.
“No, no, please don’t hurt him!”
Sigrid gave them both a withering look as she casually disarmed the youth and threw the blade across the floor. She punched him deep in the stomach to end the fight and Alan collapsed to the floor, groaning.
“He’s not worth the effort, Helen. Yours or mine.”
“Where the blethering hell is he?”
Harald Gumb was standing in the doorway of Alan Traver’s apartment, tapping a scroll of Rivelline parchment against his leg.
Jørn Galsby could see the impatience in him.
“By the look of it, he’s pre-empted you. Gone already. Changed into riding gear, apparently, grabbed his purse took off to the stables. He told the servants to send his clothes on to Hartest.”
“Did he, by the Gods? Well, at least that’s one shouting match I needn’t have.”
Jørn doubted that Gumb would have found an argument with his nephew too onerous. The Baron had sent him ahead to lay hands on the lad until he’d finished drawing up the papers of disinheritance.
“We’d better send these direct to Edric then. He’ll get nothing from my estate, and I’ll recommend he gets nothing from his father’s either. It’s about time they let a woman govern, anyway.”
“Helen?” Jørn was shocked to hear the suggestion. “But she’s too young. And what if she marries? It’ll be very problematic.”
“Not as problematic as having her brother take charge, I’d warrant. He was arrogant when he first came here, but how did he become so malicious? Strange though, for all his faults, I always thought he was devoted to her. Perhaps not in the right way.”
“Perhaps. What do you think he’ll do now?”
“Whatever he does it will not be good. You mark my words.”
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