The Anomaly: Part Three
The village of Knightfield was generally unremarkable, but it had in fact one distinguishing characteristic; and that was, that the only son of the lord of the manor house was one of Meridell’s premier sorcerers. The Lockwoods owned the greater part of the land in and around the village, and while Mr. and Mrs. Lockwood had lived there, though they were liked very well by the gentry of surrounding provinces, they had understandably met with veiled dislike from many of the peasants. However, Mr. Lockwood had died some years ago and, after his son had inherited the property, Mrs. Lockwood had moved away. In fact the manor house was generally rather empty; for despite its commodious size and excellent situation, it was almost never occupied by its owner and only occasionally by his sister, Miss Cecilia Lockwood.
The villagers were also connected, less intimately, with another branch of the Lockwood dynasty: Reynard Lockwood, the Earl of Harcourt, and his family. This was a very direct consequence of the fact that Knightfield was part of the Harcourt earldom; but I am sorry to say that the people of Knightfield felt a great deal more allegiance to Mr. Harlan Lockwood than they ever did to the Earl.
The death of the Earl was, in fact, an event of some anticipation there – if nothing else, because the villagers felt that a nobleman from Knightfield must be infinitely superior to a nobleman from anywhere else; but also because Mr. Harlan Lockwood was relatively well-liked. Perhaps it is not fair to characterize the people’s affection for Mr. Lockwood solely in terms of their pride in his accomplishments. He was generally known to be courteous, clever, and quite astonishingly handsome; several of the villagers had even met him, so as to form a particularly accurate opinion; and if, some years ago, he had been considered slightly vain or idle by his servants, his faults had been for the most part quite forgotten.
As for their dislike of the Earl, it was entirely necessary, for it was a fact quite generally known that the current Mr. Lockwood’s father had very much disliked his older brother, Reynard’s father. There were three matters of grievance here. The previous Mr. Lockwood had despised Reynard’s father for his title; the previous Earl had despised Mr. Lockwood for his money, as Mr. Lockwood had connected himself extremely rich; and the current Earl had soon grown to despise the current Mr. Lockwood for the fact that he would inherit the earldom of Harcourt, even if the faults of his father were not inducement enough.
It is therefore altogether unsurprising that Lockwood was not at all eager to pay a visit to his cousin. In truth he would very likely have refused, had it not been for the little affair of the amulet. He had bought it off a servant girl in exchange for agreeing not to turn her in as a thief; and he suspected that Lisha, if and when she found out, would not be pleased. To begin with, the amount of money he had happened to have on hand had probably not been anywhere equal to the amulet’s worth; and furthermore, the amulet was an extremely magical heirloom which – had the girl only known it – would very likely have protected her for the rest of her life.
He did not feel any particular personal remorse, but he did not care to have Lisha angry at him for any length of time, and felt that a distraction of this sort was by no means undesirable. If she ever did discover the truth – and he had hopes that she would not – then she would at least be slightly mollified by his later behavior. As for the disagreeable business of visiting the Earl, Lockwood consoled himself with the idea that Cecilia also wished him to go, although it was a curious fact that in general he had only ever found it necessary to follow his sister’s advice when it corresponded with his own ideas.
Harcourt Hall was nearly as large and grand as Lockwood’s own house, and it had the added dignity of being both older, and a great deal more important. Lockwood observed it without any pleasure at all as he and Lisha made their way up its elegantly curving drive, and recalled how many years it had been since he had last met the Earl.
“Perhaps I might snatch this moment,” remarked Lockwood, “to ask exactly what constitutes ‘unlawful magic’?”
“I have no idea,” confessed Lisha. “I can only assume, of course, that it is dangerous dark magic.”
“So one would be inclined to think... or, of course, it may simply be magic on the part of the citizens which His Majesty does not like. I find it interesting how few sorcerers Meridell appears to boast – I am sure the gift is not as uncommon as it seems.”
Lisha was both intrigued and unaccountably ashamed by this point of view, which she had never considered; but at that moment they reached the house and she did not have the chance to reply. They were led in by a stately butler and both the Earl and Countess of Harcourt condescended to meet them in the parlor.
Reynard Lockwood was a tall, good-looking brown Lupe in his late thirties, and the Countess was a large silver Acara who had no doubt been a beauty in her earlier life, but whose disagreeable expression now rather spoiled her countenance. Both, however, seemed eager to give at least the appearance of welcome.
“It is very good to see you, Harlan,” cried the Earl quite jovially. “Still as handsome as ever, I see. And Lady Borodere, I am so excessively honored to meet you. King Skarl has told me so very much about you, and I am sure he holds nobody in higher esteem.”
The Countess languidly observed that all her friends would be wild to know that she had met Lady Borodere, and that Mr. Lockwood looked quite as well as when she had seen him last – his looks were not so very materially spoiled by the scar on his cheek, and his attire very nearly compensated for any defects of countenance.
Lisha found Lockwood’s relatives quite as intimidating as she had once found him, and fell quite uncharacteristically silent. Fortunately Lockwood suffered from no such reservation; having completed the introductions, he addressed the purpose of their visit and briefly described their experience.
“Ah yes,” said the Earl, with a rather sneering expression that reminded Lisha unpleasantly of Lockwood. “Mr. Daley. I confess myself surprised that His Majesty’s Royal Sorcerers would concern themselves with the actions of Mr. Daley – but what is it, exactly, that you wish to know? If you have come to apologize personally for his actions I assure you there is no need. I know better than anybody that one cannot be held responsible for the actions of one’s tenantry.”
“You are overwhelmingly kind,” replied Lockwood. “However, our principal reason for coming here was that we believe Mr. Daley may be telling the truth.”
Lisha did not much like, but she had to respect Lockwood’s nerve; the amused, outraged incredulity of the Earl and Countess was not something she would have deliberately provoked herself, and yet Lockwood did it as coolly as he did everything else.
“You cannot be serious,” said the Countess in her cold, sharp voice. “This is most shocking.”
“I assure you that I can, my dear Countess,” Lockwood answered pleasantly. “My absurdity knows no bounds. Perhaps you might condescend to humor me with an account of exactly what Mr. Daley did?”
The Countess fixed him with a thoroughly caustic stare, quite markedly disdaining to reply; he returned it with approximately equal ill-feeling and far greater coldness.
The Earl, recollecting perhaps the fact that his daughters would be entirely thrown upon the mercy of Mr. Lockwood in the event of his death, at least deigned to address his cousin. He explained that Mr. Daley had said a variety of extremely shocking things, which nearly brought upon his daughter Theodora a very violent attack; had addressed the maid in such a way as was not likely to be forgotten; had eventually resorted to crude vandalism of the side gardens. He had, in short, behaved totally unlike himself, and most alarmingly unassailable, until such time as the gardeners had succeeded in removing him.
Lockwood exchanged a glance with Lisha and remarked, “All of which strikes me as very unlike Mr. Daley.”
“I should certainly hope so,” said the Earl. “Nevertheless somebody must be to blame. It is a disagreeable business, but I cannot see how Mr. Daley can be acquitted.”
“It would be not only unwise but an absolute breach of our duty to refrain from administering punishment, immediate and severe,” opined the Countess.
“A very kind sentiment, and admirably expressed,” replied Lockwood with biting humor.
The Countess rose from her seat and held her hand out to the Earl to be escorted from the room. “I do not believe there is anything more to say here. Your father was never at all agreeable to Reynard’s family, and you evidently have taken a great deal after him. Lady Borodere – good day.”
“Peculiarly enough, my honored Lady Harcourt, you remind me a great deal of him yourself,” Lockwood replied sweetly.
“In that case I am doubly glad there is no relation,” she retorted, and, with a few doubtful backward glances and a slight, unwilling bow from the Earl, the pair quitted the room completely.
“Well!” said Lockwood. “That was quite successful, wouldn’t you agree? I now have the privilege of being despised by my relatives several times more than I was previously.”
Lisha, who had remained rather awkwardly silent during the unpleasant interview, had been discomposed by the conflict but also amused in spite of herself by Lockwood’s conduct. “I’m sorry,” she said as they took their leave. “That is, I am sorry to have gotten them angry, but I do not at all regret coming here on Mr. Daley’s behalf. And in any case, you could have been more civil.”
“Perhaps so,” he confessed. “There is simply something about the pair of them that gets under my skin. Relatives are, in my opinion, the most disagreeable things in the world. There is something peculiarly repulsive about being unconditionally connected to people for whom you have no regard and would rather never see in your life.”
Lisha suspected the truth of the matter was that Lockwood could not bear to be, as he put it, unconditionally connected to anything at all; he was a great deal too inconsistent to be suited to anything of the sort. And, calling to mind her own happy relationship with Jeran, she could not agree. “Well, either way, you were frightfully rude.”
“As were they! A charming exchange, taken all together. Now – I do not know what your preference may be, but I suggest that we request information from a somewhat more willing quarter.”
“Mr. Daley?” Lisha guessed doubtfully.
“No – not quite that willing. Let us challenge ourselves a little; – I had in mind the housekeeper.”
“Oh,” she said. “Yes. That isn’t such a bad idea.”
To be continued...