Everyone knew that The Lady Geneva Ambrisse threw the most elaborate parties, so it wasn’t surprising that the nobles of Keth traveled for miles around to take part in the merriment. It was the perfect time for gossip to be traded, alliances to be strengthened, tensions to be eased, and marriages to be arranged.
Swan’s retreat was situated in the northeastern borders of Ambrisse, so it was not surprising that its halls were filled with nobles from Dorvain and Belingard. Six of the seven ruling houses were represented, some more sparsely than others, though absent was House Kael, who was not invited. It was common courtesy not to invite Kael to anything.
Mertheladrias Gale had traveled long and far to partake of the evening’s festivities. A diplomat of House Gale, he saw it as his duty to strengthen alliances and form new friendships in Keth’s social circle. He spent the first part of his evening dancing with blushing noblewomen, playing his flute, and telling tales of the gallantry of House Gale, as well as singing songs that shared the juicy gossip that the nobles thrived on — some even decades old. It never got tiring! He was stalked throughout the night by The Lady Dorvain herself, rumored to have a healthy appetite for men other than her husband. Mert deftly avoided her, for the large part, much to the woman’s frustration.
Olaf of Belingard was not there to enjoy himself. As a peasant he would have never been invited, but it just so happened that his father held the family recipe for a sweet ale that was currently in vogue among the upper crust. As the only producers of the ale, Olaf’s father tasked him with the responsibility of delivering the thirty barrels that the Lady Ambrisse had sent for. As peasants often are, he was ordered about once he arrived at Swan’s Retreat, and found himself serving the swaggering nobles and refilling their glasses.
Banic Lemaine was the only representative present from House Lemaine. As a disinherited noble, it was not his duty to attend these sorts of events, nor did he seem to have much interest in the party. He had journeyed to Swan’s Keep to visit with his nephew, the son of The Lord Ambrisse’s first wife. His nephew wasn’t present, however, off courting the She-wolf of House Tamin. Banic lingered near the sweet ale, drinking disinterestedly as he made small talk with Olaf. Though he tried to remain inconspicuous, he quickly became the talk of the party in an unpleasant way. “The Bronze Tail” had impregnated the firstborn daughter of House Kael out of wedlock some fifteen years back, and the gossip was still flying.
Korisemte of Ambrisse flitted through the crowd of nobles, fairly unnoticed. Though she was of peasant stock, as the Lady Ambrisse’s dressing maid, she was allowed to attend the party and wear the House Colors. This was largely at the encouragement of The Lord Ambrisse himself, who was secretly employing Korisemte as a spy. The night was ripe for secrets, and Korisemte intended on learning them.
The festivities were in full swing when the heralds announced an unexpected surprise. Uninvited, an entourage from House Kael had decided to crash the party. The Lord Reginald Kael was accompanied with his daughter Lady Analisse Kael, as well as several other minor nobles and a bevy of servants.
The arrival caused quite a stir, several sour looks, and many whispers. House Kael was on friendly terms with few, and the gossip-mongers spread word that it was distasteful that The Lord Kael would bring the “wilted flower” here. Everyone who was anyone knew that Kael was trying to pass his daughter off on anyone who would wed her, even offering a fantastic dowry. At 31 she was an old maid, and though of extraordinary beauty, the loss of her virginity was ugly to the world.
Banic nearly choked on his ale. He hadn’t seen Annalisse for fifteen years, though he had sometimes trekked to Kael in secret to watch over his daughter, Merissa Hawk. He was even more surprised to see that Merissa was accompanying Kael as a servant, something that The Lord Kael surely would have never seen as proper… if he had known. Banic decided to do his best to avoid being noticed by Kael, knowing that The Lord spared him no love.
Tensions were eased with the arrival of The Lord Sandomar Ambrisse, who announced that he had arranged a contest for the midnight hour — a scavenger hunt in the castle’s hedgemaze, in which had been scattered about silver trinkets and other prizes, which the guests would be able to keep. Whoever found the most silver trinkets would win a kiss from his daughter Adella.
Mert quickly decided that he would like to win the kiss of the fair young maiden, and Banic decided that he had better try as well — after all, he had a “reputation” to keep. The guests were escorted outside, laughing, and at the stroke of midnight a silver ribbon was cut from the maze’s entrance, and the guests set to running about the tall winding hedges. Trinkets were snatched up quickly, along with embroidered handkerchiefs, lace-lined fans, silk bags of roasted almonds, candied figs, and spiced pears crusted with sparkling sugar.
Mert randomly ran this way and that, scooping up the tiny tree-shaped silver trinkets and foppish prizes, while Banic went into the maze with a plan. Using his woodsman’s skills, he set off to track the footprints of the servants who had placed the trinkets. It wasn’t long before he picked up a trail, which quickly led him to the center of the maze. Though he found quite a number of trinkets, Banic found a bit more than he bargained for when he tripped over something in the dark center of the maze. Feeling something liquidous with his hands, he tasted the metallic tang of blood when he drew his fingers to his lips. A body!
“Well, shit.” Banic couldn’t have put it better.
A bell announced that the scavenger hunt would be over in fifteen minutes. Mert began scrambling back for the maze entrance, as Banic picked up the limp body and began to run back the way he came. Just as Mert scrambled over a hedge and toppled down onto the grass below, to the laughter of the crowd, Banic burst out of the entrance holding the remains of Torrell Ambrisse, The Lord’s 14 year old son. A gasp arose from the observing crowd of nobles, and The Lady Dorvain even yelled out an accusation: “Murderer!”
“Shut up, whore.” replied Banic. There was another gasp.
The Lord Ambrisse looked on with stunned eyes, lost and full of grief. His eyes moved from the body of his son to the blood on Banic’s hands. When he finally found his voice, it was enranged. “BRONZE TAIL!!”
Banic explained his innocence to The Lord Ambrisse, who took some time to come to reason. The Bronze Tail swore that he would venture back into the maze to try and track Torrell’s killer. Mertheladrias saw the opportunity to win a favorable impression of House Gale, and volunteered to join Banic, along with his two personal guards, “Stye” (Estahve) and “Ned” (Nedric). The Lord Ambrisse insisted that Korisemte come along with two Ambrissian guards, and Banic decided that he didn’t want to go into the maze alone. Scanning the faces in the crowd, he recognized the large and muscular form of Olaf, and bade him come along as well. Banic asked the Ambrissian Lord if there were any other entrances or exits from the hedgemaze, and he revealed that there was a secret door hidden where a statue pointed its finger near the Northern edge of the maze.
As servants carried the body of the young Ambrissian noble into the castle, the party set off into the maze to look for his killer. Near the center of the maze, they discovered a section of torn cloth in the colors of House Kael. Locating the statue, Banic and Korisemte poked and prodded around the area, looking for secret levers. Olaf, a practical sort, simply pushed on the hedge where the statue was pointing, and found that a door easily opened into a stunning secret garden filled with flowers, a water fountain, and even peafowl.
Searching the garden, the party quickly discovered the body of a man dressed in Kaelish livery under a large bush, with a section of cloak missing that matched exactly the scrap that they had found. After further searching, a small vial of some mysterious substance was found on the ground near the body. Mert, a man who knows his poisons, quickly deduced that the man had been poisoned. But why? Was this man set up? Perhaps he was a decoy of some sort? Or was he just this loyal to his cause?
Whatever the reason, the party decided that they had best report their findings to The Lord Ambrisse. Upon exiting the maze they discovered that Ambrissian guards had placed Swan’s Retreat on lockdown, and that they were not allowing any of the guests to leave. Banic nominated Mert to speak with The Lord Ambrisse, and the others stayed behind.
Mert found the Ambrissian Lord in his bedchambers, sobbing over the body of his slain son alongside his wife. Glancing up at Mert over the body, the Lord wore a look of sorrow and helplessness as he awaited news of what had been found.
“It was Kael.” said Mert simply, holding out the green and black swatch of cloth that they had found in the maze. A look of rage found its way into the Ambrissian Lord’s face. Turning a violent shade of red, the lord rose up and strode forward, grabbing an ornamental sword off of the wall. He brushed past his wife and went storming down the halls toward the ballroom.
“REGINALD!” The Lord Ambrisse raged, his voice filling the large room. The Lord Kael turned his blue gaze toward the fuming man, quickly drawing his own sword to meet the coming attack. Swinging madly, Sandomar Ambrisse brought his sword down upon Reginald Kael. Screams erupted through the ballroom as guards from both houses moved forward to come to their respective Lord’s aid. Soon, the ballroom erupted into the chaos of a battle zone.
(To be continued… I need to save this so I don’t lose it! Not done yet!)