Chapter One: Home Again
Ailill covered his mouth with a kerchief as he supervised the servants as they began to remove the dustcloths from all the furniture. It would take weeks to put his townhouse in order.
His townhouse. It did not matter the number of years that passed–that he was past thirty and had been a Duke for a very long time–he would never grow used to being nobility. To having his townhouse, his country house, and whatever else he felt like acquiring.
The servants … and how had he acquired so many, anyway? The servants finished removing all the cloths from the library and began to fold them all up to carry them out. Ailill stared at the empty shelves, dull with dust and neglect. No doubt his housekeeper, one of the only servants he did recognize, would have some poor maid in the library for days dusting and scrubbing and oiling the shelves.
His real sympathy went to the footmen who would have to haul in the crates of books, and his assistant and the clerks who would have to catalog and shelve them. He didn’t sympathize enough to help with such a tedious chore, but he did feel bad enough he would probably overpay them.
“Your grace … ”
Ailill turned around and quirked one brow at the young man who had been following him around ever since he had returned to his estates. Well, that might be an exaggeration. But he had definitely been about whenever Ailill needed him–even before Ailill realized it. When Andre only remained silent, Ailil removed the handkerchief from his mouth and said, “Yes, Andre?”
“Your assistance is required in the kitchens.”
Kitchens? Plural? Why would a house need more than one kitchen? Ailill did not voice the question, however, because he was relatively certain his servants already regarded him as damaged in the head. He nodded and followed Andre from the library, through the halls of the house and into the back rooms.
Upon entering the kitchen–it looked like just one, so why the plural?–he immediately saw the problem. “What happened?” he asked, looking around at the debris littered about everywhere: leaves, sticks, animal carcasses, animal bones. The tools were beyond repair, and he relatively certain some sort of critter had made a nest of the stove. The other stove looked unfit even for rodents.
“It looks like someone broke in once,” said a tall, slender, muscular woman. A tiger, he would bet. Most of his staff seemed to be feline, but that was not unusual. Cats of all sorts would be drawn to him, and feel most comfortable working for him. “After that, it became … well, you can see the results, your grace. I’m only grateful the main door there was sealed up proper, or the whole house.” She bowed low. “I apology, your grace. I accept full punishment, as it was my mother who would have seen to the closing up of the kitchens and I have assumed her place.”
Ailill scoffed at that. “No house is absolutely sealed against robbers; they are known for their persistence, after all. I would say that it is thanks to your mother that the rest of the house was not breached. Please do not worry further upon it. Make a list of necessary repairs and replacements, and give the list to my secretary so he can draw the funds. Keep him apprised of the kitchen repairs. I will leave you to make suitable arrangements for meals until the kitchen is set to rights.”
The cook smiled at him, eyes wide, startled. The rest of the servants assembled in the kitchen just gawked. Ailill smiled hesitantly, then nodded and walked out again. Andre was close on his heels. “Do I actually have a secretary?” he asked.
“You have a number of interviews arranged this week so you might select one,” Andre said.
Ailill sighed. “I suppose that is not a decision I can tell someone else to make. Very well. When is the first of these?”
“Not for two days hence, your grace. Today the tailor is coming to take final measurements for your new wardrobe. Tomorrow you have errands about the city, mostly for goods for the house.”
“Thank you, Andre. I appreciate you taking my secretary’s role until I can obtain one. I am certain you would like to go back to doing … whatever is your proper post? And where did you come from?”
Andre drew himself up, looking slightly affronted but also faintly amused. “I was informed by a friend who has connections to the household that you required a valet, and inquired with the cook. She was satisfied with my references, and I did put them with your other papers–”
“Why is she only the cook if she is doing all of this? Do I have a housekeeper?”
Frowning, Andre pulled out a small notebook in which he seemed to jot down everything and regarded a list with only two measly items crossed out. “No, your grace. Several people were interviewed before your arrival in the city, but so far no one has suited.”
“Promote my cook, then, and find a new cook. I would imagine finding someone who knows how to turn out a decent pasta without burning down my kitchen would be easier to find than someone who can run a household.”
“Yes, your grace,” Andre murmured, and slipped away in his spooky fashion.
Ailill sighed and decided it was time for a strategic retreat. If he had to do anything else Duke-like that day, he was going to lose his mind. Eschewing hat and coat and gloves, he slipped out the unmanned front door and bolted down the steps and down the street, weaving his way through the city throngs, hoping he went largely unnoticed.
Unlikely, given he was all white against a backdrop of people who had plenty of color to them. He glanced at his pale skin, remembering when it had been fair, often red from too much sun, or tanned gold by it.
He wondered what his family was doing, far away on the farm where he had grown up. He wondered if they still considered him family. They had stopped replying to his letters years ago, but he still sent someone now and again to discretely check on them and see they were doing well.
Ignoring the streets that would lead to the shops and parks and other proper parts of the city, Ailill turned east and headed toward the seedier parts that would end in the harbors.
The smell of the sea called to him, made him ache. He longed to be free again, to …
Oh, who was he fooling. It was not the travelling he missed nearly as much as a certain fire child he had left behind. They’d had fun, him and Vanya–at least in small bursts, between very depressing rounds of trying to save the Vessels. Though, from what he had heard in the past two years, Pozhar was doing quite well under the unexpected return of their Holy Firebird. Never mind all the rumors coming out of Piedre and Kundou …
It gave him hope for Verde, though he tried not to let those hopes rise. But if the tragic cycle did finally break his time would be his own again. A selfish motivation, when his only concerns should be for his gods and the people of Verde.
But lofty goals were only so motivating, selfish or not. He did not know that Vanya would remember him after two years, and neither of them was the type for letters–even if he knew where to send one that Vanya might receive it.
Would Vanya remember him? A mercenary had little use for a noble, especially when that noble was a White Beast of Verde, no matter how reluctantly. He sighed again, and flicked back the braid that had fallen over his shoulder.
He paused at a street vendor’s cart and bought a small sack of roasted nuts. Eating them as he walked, he continued on toward the harbors. He wasn’t quite certain what he would do when he got there, but it would hardly be the first time in his life that he improvised.
Sometimes, he felt like he had been doing nothing but improvising ever since he had shifted and been revealed as the White Panther. It should not be so easy to go from ‘farmboy Ai’ to Lord Ailill le Blanc, Duke of Durant, but it had been. A matter of hours, in fact. Less than a day.
The smells of the harbor hit him first: rot and refuse, piss and cheap alcohol, the sea and the ships. It was not a pleasant smell, but there were too many fond memories attached to harbors for him to hate it. Ailill finished the last of his nuts and crumpled the paper sack that had held them, tossing it in a rubbish barrel as he ventured further in.