I hope you're enjoying everything so far. I wanted to note that the character of Lieselotte actually belong to my artist friend. She's the one responsible for all that lovely art of Reagan, Simon, and especially Katie over on the art page. It was a blast to play with her character.
This one's a little bit longer than some of the others have been, but it's good stuff! Hope you like it!
Be Excellent to Each Other
The gleaming alabaster brickwork of Castle Dupin sat upon an otherwise rocky mountain edge, flattened and cleared out over years by the hard working lower class of Archmond. It looked down upon the town, not unlike the nobility themselves, physically separated from the commoners by a deep and jagged gorge. The multiple towers and stained glass adorning the entrance overlooked an unnatural garden, likely also built on the backs of the townsfolk, that sprawled off to either side of the castle.
Lieselotte's footfalls echoed against the hardwood of the drawbridge as she neared the front gate. She had debated for some time whether it was prudent to bring her witch's hat, but knowing that a great deal of nobility and constabulary would be present eventually swayed her toward leaving it behind, along with the raven and her beloved Xaran who would mind the shop in her absence. Her short absence. She had no love for the ruling class, flaunting their wealth and imposing their will on those too weak to resist. She had dealt with them before, in other counties of course, but they were all the same. They'd come to her in the dead of night, unseen by the judgmental eyes of their peers, begging for the resurrection of a loved one, or perhaps a charming elixir to woo the object of their affection. Some even had the gall to demand elixirs of life to unnaturally extend their worthless existences. She took great delight in presenting each and every one of them with the stacks of paper the Council required for such matters (and usually burning them after they left empty handed).
Her attention was drawn back to matters at hand as the loud caterwauling of players at the gate welcomed her and the few other guests that were attending. A flute, a ragged tambourine, and what might pass for a mandolin in Archmond, she supposed. The voice, while not entirely awful, was still unwelcoming. It echoed from the lips of a woman near her own age, with tanned skin showing she spent a good portion of her day in the sun. Brown, lightly curled locks framed a sun kissed face which sported a sprinkling of freckles from cheek to cheek.
The woman lowered her instrument, though the band continued playing. She doffed her large cap and offered an exaggerated bow, obviously designed to placate the nobility, and welcomed Lieselotte to Castle Dupin. The witch raised a skeptical eyebrow and continued in, entering a large, verdant courtyard.
The Castle was, in her eyes, more a glorified manor. She'd certainly visited bigger, but none that tried so desperately to signal their importance and status. The trees that dotted the area were non-native, as her botanical knowledge informed her, and she could see where the groundskeepers were having difficulties in maintaining them.
"I wouldn't be surprised if they painted them green."
"We can check when no one is looking," offered an invisible voice.
"Absolutely not. I do not wish to be here a moment longer than necessary."
"You are terribly boring, you know that?"
Lieselotte ignored her spectral companion's words and moved to the open wooden doors of the Castle, presenting her invitation to an older gentlemen. He wore a gray mustache, well trimmed and thick enough to hide his mouth. His skin was pocked with age-marks, though she could tell he used some sort of makeup to conceal them. He fumbled with a monocle, scrutinizing every word of the invitation, as if uncertain. Lieselotte sighed inaudibly, waiting for his skepticism to be satisfied and taking some amusement in the shine of the setting sun reflecting off his largely bald head.
"Ah... yes. The, er... shopkeeper. I was ... informed about you. Welcome to Castle Dupin."
"Indeed," she snipped and stepped inside. At that moment, a large cacophony of metal, gears, and creaking wood echoed through the courtyard. Lieselotte turned on her heels, eyes darting to the slowly raising drawbridge. "They intend to lock us in?"
"Hardly, Madam," the steward replied. "Security of the family demands the bridge be raised when not in use. I assure you, we will gladly lower it when you're ready to leave."
Lieselotte ignored the man's curt tone and made her way inside, waiting until she was alone to comment. "Mustn't give the rabble a chance to approach them, I suppose." She walked in silence for several moments before looking around, waiting for Mr. Grin's response. Well, she supposed, if he wished to wander off, all the better for her.
It wasn't long before a familiar attendant approached her, head bowed. "You're the girl that loathsome guard was assaulting," Lieselotte reasoned. She hadn't gotten a good look at her in the dark, nor did she care to inspect her back at the mill. In all honesty, she had hoped the girl would return home without a word of Lieselotte's involvement, but, as the witch now stood in the halls of Castle Dupin, this was clearly not the case.
The girl's head was covered with a brown, silk scarf, obviously expensive and likely soft to the touch, but still lowkey and unassuming. This did little to hide the bright, blonde hair that draped down her back, bundled in a tight braid. As she raised up, her blue eyes and pale skin were visible, her pallor likely indicative of the appearance of her masters. "Many thanks," she said, her eyes refusing contact with Lieselotte's. "Forgive my impudence, but I cannot begin to express my gratitude for your actions."
"Think nothing of it," the witch replied. "Though I am curious what a small thing like you was doing that far from the castle in the dead of night."
The servant did not acknowledge Lieselotte's query, but instead gestured toward the hallway before them. "Mistress Dupin is awaiting your arrival."
Lieselotte grinned and followed behind the servant, taking in the decorations. The stained glass she had seen outside scattered a rainbow of colors onto the floors and walls and, near the dining room that was their final destination hung an incredibly large portrait of an older couple, the man wearing a decorated military uniform and the woman adorned in a fine gown with a large ruby hanging from her neck. Thinking back to the servant's complexion, she was pleased to see her theory proven correct. The artist likely crushed every oyster shell in the county to produce the proper tint for the couple.
"Who else was so blessed as to receive an invitation?" Liselotte asked.
"Four others, milady," the servant replied. "The Viscounts, here to pay respects."
"Only four? I would've assumed the entire county would be invited."
"Begging your pardon, but that... that is the entire county."
Lieselotte arched an eyebrow. She supposed the manor masquerading as a castle made sense now. "Such a tiny place attempting to stand so tall." The servant didn't reply.
A moment later the door to the dining hall was opened and Lieselotte shielded her eyes from the brightness. Candelabrum burned around the room, chandeliers glittered in the light, and nearly anything that could be adorned in gold was. It turned the witch's stomach.
The room was already filled with conversation and clinking of glasses as the nobility seemed to be at least a few glasses into their evening. She saw at the head of the room what must be the Dupin family. A man in his late twenties, light hair perfectly groomed, wearing a uniform that matched the one from the painting in the hall. Beside him, a slightly younger woman, as pale as the rest of the family, with piercing green eyes, dark hair, and gown that easily required a team of seamstresses to craft and cost enough to feed one of the families in the town below for year. Two empty seats sat, one to either side of the couple, and off to the woman's left was another exquisitely dressed lady. She looked very similar to the uniformed man, at least in the face, and her hair was pulled up into a tight but regal bun.
The rest of the nobility were seated across from them and Lieselotte quickly decided that she would take the seat furthest away. Unfortunately for her, the servant chose that moment to announce her. She felt like an animal on display as the nobles stared at her and her dark gown. The Viscounts seemed almost amused by her presence, though she could see the woman at the center of the table, whom she assumed must be the Countess-to-be, was more than displeased with her presence. She turned to the man, presumably the Count-to-be, and hurriedly whispered in his ear. He pulled away from her with practiced ease, trying to calm her. She turned and opened her mouth to address Lieselotte but was beaten by the other woman at the table.
"You must be our heroine!" Lieselotte forced a smile. "Please, I have a seat reserved for you right here," she continued, gesturing at the empty chair between herself and the Countess-to-be. She grinned widely as she repeated the insisting gesture. Lieselotte hesitated. She could see she was being made into a tool of irritation, and while she despised being used by anyone, she did find some enjoyment in the idea of annoying the Countess-to-be. With a nod, she approached the table.
Surprisingly, the Viscounts stood to acknowledge her presence, likely following the example of the woman urging her forward.
"It is a pleasure to meet you. I am Charlotte Dupin, Stewardess of Archmond," the woman said, giving only the slightest of bows.
"There is no such title," came the irked response of the other woman.
"Sariah!" The uniformed man stepped beside his wife. "Charlotte has acted in good faith as a stewardess of the county."
Lieselotte paused, hand rested on the back of her chair. Charlotte suppressed a chuckle and gestured toward the other two. "And these are Walter and Sariah Dupin, my brother and his wife."
"The Count and Countess of Archmond," Sariah added.
"In three days," Charlotte replied. "My apologies. We never did get your name."
"What need does a scullery maid have for a name?" Sariah spat before taking her seat.
Charlotte's demeanor dropped for a moment, but a brighter smile replaced it.
"Lieselotte," the witch replied, taking her seat. She turned to stare directly at the Countess, smiling.
"It's looking at me, Walther."
"Now, Sariah, my sister dear," Charlotte interrupted, "Lieselotte is a heroine. She prevented the assault on our precious Genevieve." Sariah seemed unconcerned with Charlotte's words, instead turning back to her glass of wine, trying to ignore the witch's gaze. "You know? Our dear servant whom you sent out? In the middle of the night?"
"I wanted grapes. Grapes, I might add, she failed to acquire."
"You... sent your servant out for grapes? In the middle of the night?" Lieselotte's grin dissolved into a sour expression.
"I don't believe I was speaking with you," the Countess replied.
"Ladies, please!" Walther slid into his seat, forcing a smile as he glanced out over the dining hall. "I think perhaps it is time we began our meal."
"Indeed. I'm through waiting for the child," Sariah said.
"Marie will join us when she joins us." Charlotte took her seat and lifted her glass. "There is little use in worrying, Sariah. It will only give you more wrinkles."
The Countess drew in her lips, fingers curling against the table cloth. Charlotte's smile returned at this sight and she signaled Genevieve to begin the meal.
The food was passable, though a bit rich for Lieselotte's tastes. She longed for the never-ending courses to reach their conclusion so that she might escape the bickering of the family and the boasting of the Viscounts. Halfway through the pheasant a young girl drifted in, no more than 18 by the witch's estimation. Her dress was fine, though slightly disheveled, as if she gave little care to her appearance. She looked like a miniature Charlotte, though her hair was longer, rolled down her gown, and was speckled with what Lieselotte could only assume were flecks of paint.
She took her seat next to Walther with little ceremony (though the Viscounts did stand). A plate was quickly placed in front of her and she reached out a blue-stained hand to partake.
"Marie, could you not be bothered to wash before dinner?" Walther asked in a low whisper.
"Oh, brother, I was entranced by the most generous of muses. I could not tear myself from the canvass." She paused her to take a hefty bite of the roast meat before her. "In truth, I would still be there if not for the rumbling of my tummy."
"Disgusting child," Sariah remarked.
"Are you an artist?" Lieselotte asked.
"Yes," she replied, "though not a very good one, yet. Hopefully, I shall become as good a Sir Martìn someday." Marie's gaze never left her food, nor did she bother to ask who the strange woman in the black gown sitting at her table was.
"She is a talented child," Charlotte added. "Though I wish she'd spend more time worrying about Archmond and her future."
"Those who desire to waste their future should be left to it," came the response from Sariah as she turned her own attention to the food.
"Do you believe art to be a waste, Countess Dupin?"
Sariah curled her lips as though Lieselotte's words were a foul taste stuck on her lips. She gave the witch only a glance before turning toward her husband. She glared at him, forcing the Count to look about for a distraction before clapping his hands.
"Summon the players. We should like some entertainment with our food."
"Traveling vagabonds are not proper entertainment," she complained. “Especially not the trollop," the Countess objected, stressing the final, biting word. Her husband took a deep breath and signaled for the troupe to be summoned once more.
Moments later the hall rang with music. The band wandered the hall, a lilting flute chirping as a deep drum boomed. The ragged tambourine rattled and the freckled woman strummed her mandolin as she serenaded the audience. She sang of a great king and queen cut down in their prime and the evil witch who usurped their throne. The only actual witch in the room stifled a laugh, watching as note by note the Countess grew more and more flustered with the song. Perhaps the evening would not be all bad.
Keep your eyes open for my debut novel, The Paladin.