The Remnant: Part Eight
Three days now had passed, since Lockwood and Jeran had ventured into the stronghold of Mr. Sly; two, since Lisha had been informed of their escapade. They had lately found themselves in a state of some indecision. Lisha believed that the other Royal Sorcerers should be told, while her former student and her brother dismissed this precaution as absolutely unnecessary; and while it was altogether probable that both were reluctant to disclose the part they had played, without approval from the king or from anyone else, the given reason was that they had as yet very little to tell.
There was no denying this, for, as Jeran pointed out, they had remarkably little idea as to what Sly actually intended to do. Moreover, they did not know the location of the castle, only what it looked like – as Lockwood explained, it had not been the kind of magic to reveal a precise or even a general location on a map. To this Lisha replied by asking, with a hint of suspicion, what kind of magic he had employed, and the conversation came to an abrupt end.
Tonight, in any case, all concerns of Mr. Sly and whatever nefarious thing he might be planning were rather far from Lockwood’s mind. A ball was being held at Meridell Castle, and the danger, while of course ever-present, really did not feel very immediate in light of the evening’s entertainment.
Lisha even had been prevailed upon to attend, though Sir Jeran had pleaded the excuse of an important training exercise; and, at the moment, she was finding the ball (as on a similar occasion some months ago) less tedious than might be expected. This was a pleasant surprise, as was the fact that Lockwood appeared uncharacteristically good-humored – a phenomenon which she had noticed quite frequently during the past few days, and which had met with her wholehearted approval. Perhaps, she dared to hope, he was at last beginning to appreciate the good luck of his circumstances. For, while he was often amused and always amusing, he had rarely before seemed truly contented.
Having finished talking to an old friend, Lisha went to find Lockwood, who was at the moment engaged in conversation with Lady Winters – a woman whom she knew by reputation as remarkably clever, but whom she had not met above once or twice.
“Ah, perhaps Lady Borodere will bear me up in my assertion!” exclaimed the red Kyrii as Lisha approached.
“Indeed you are mistaken,” replied Lockwood.
“I have had the pleasure of Lady Borodere’s acquaintance for quite some time now.”
“Why, let us settle the matter for once and for all,” cried Lady Winters, turning at last to Lisha. “We will ask her opinion. Do you not think it best, Lord Winters?”
To Lisha’s surprise – for she had not noticed the jovial red Tonu standing slightly to one side – the husband replied, “Aye, that will be best in every way. What say you, Lady Borodere?”
“I will be more than happy to tell you,” she replied in some confusion, “if I know the question.”
“Mr. Lockwood and I are discussing morality,” Lady Winters explained. “Our theoretical scenario is the most hackneyed imaginable. The question you see is this: a thief, owing to the unhappy circumstance of his starving family, enters the house of a rich nobleman and steals some silver. Are his actions morally reprehensible?”
“Of course they are,” Lisha replied at once, losing her uncertainty in the familiar and beloved subject of principle. “Stealing is wrong under any circumstances.”
Lockwood’s sly smile led her to understand that Lady Winters did not agree, and his speech confirmed it. “I told you she would not share your opinion.”
“I suppose I must gracefully concede defeat in that aim; I will persist, however, in maintaining my original argument.”
“So you are of the opinion that his actions are morally excusable?” hazarded Lisha.
“I am, and proudly too! Why should he not save his family? Clearly their need is greater than that of the nobleman from whom he steals. To rob the poor is inexcusable; to rob the rich, merely inadvisable.”
“But surely,” Lisha said incredulously, “Lockwood does not agree with me.” She could think of no alternative, if he disagreed with Lady Winters – but it seemed remarkably unlike him to take up a position of such inflexible morality.
“Oh!” exclaimed Lady Winters, laughing; “Mr. Lockwood, not suffering to follow in the footsteps of anybody else, has invented his own set of morals. He believes, if I understand him aright, that there is no inherent morality in the situation, and that every person involved is fully justified in doing whatever he pleases.”
How very like him, Lisha thought with disgust. “Your position, Lady Winters, I can respect,” she said with dignity. “Lockwood’s I cannot countenance in any way.”
At this Lockwood only smiled, not at all bothered by his colleague’s moral outrage.
“I believe we may impute some part of this ethical indifference,” said Lady Winters, “to Mr. Lockwood’s situation in life. Having enjoyed every possible advantage from birth, he cannot appreciate the need for any kind of order in society.”
“Indeed you surprise me. On the contrary, I would have speculated that my situation in life should lead me to value society’s order more than ever, since I have allegedly profited so well by it. However, waiving that point, perhaps you will explain to me these advantages that I have enjoyed? You refer I suppose to my family’s wealth and good name.”
“That I do, at least in part.”
“But your argument will not do – if you will forgive me my audacity in contradicting a lady.”
“And why is that, Mr. Lockwood?”
“Because we are in the company of some of the wealthiest inhabitants of Meridell. Do you postulate that all of them think as I do?”
Lady Winters smiled rather triumphantly. “Perhaps you are right there. Yes, I will allow you to carry that point. But you will recall that I conceded your wealth to be your great advantage in part only.”
“I am fully determined to deny you the satisfaction of making any inquiry.”
“Very well; I will tell you anyway. You are very handsome, Mr. Lockwood; – there! I have said it.”
There was a mix of coquetry and slyness in Lady Winters’ air, which Lisha found slightly confusing. She was reminded of a sensation she believed she had experienced before, though she could not place the occasion – the sensation that Lockwood knew Lady Winters rather better than she had suspected. But how could that be? The two had no particular connection, so far as she knew.
Lockwood meanwhile was maintaining his end of the argument, with as much lazy amusement as ever. “Once again this will not do. There are innumerable handsome young gentleman in the present company, and you yourself are, if I may take the liberty of so saying, a very handsome young lady. Do you not agree, Lisha?”
“I suppose,” she said, unwilling to flatter him, though not wishing to set herself up against Lady Winters either, “that it isn’t exactly remarkable to be handsome.”
“Perhaps not,” admitted Lady Winters, “but Mr. Lockwood is the exception, rather than the rule. I say without exaggeration that you might not meet one in a million, so handsome as he is. Nay, do not smile – I am not complimenting you. I am merely stating facts. There is no sense in denying it.”
Though Lockwood attempted to controvert the truth of this, he made no very extraordinary effort and seemed quite gratified by the compliment.
Lisha’s private thoughts ran along somewhat different lines. To her surprise, she found herself almost regretting the infliction of such a scar, on such a countenance – it was true of course that he was still very handsome, but he was not so handsome as he had been, or might yet have been. On a moral level, of course, it was absolutely satisfactory; but in every other way it was truly a shame. Simply looking at him gave her a purely aesthetic pleasure – entirely independent of his character, which was of course reprehensible.
She was startled from her reverie by a direct appeal from Lady Winters, who wished once again to be supported in her claims. “Do you not find Mr. Lockwood extraordinary, Lady Borodere? At the very least he must be extraordinary in denying it!”
Lisha hesitated, somewhat puzzled for an answer, wishing as before neither to compliment Lockwood nor to offend Lady Winters. “I suppose... I suppose he is somewhat unusual.”
“I see,” observed Lockwood, “that the question distresses our dear friend. Well, Lisha, I will tell you the truth of it: I am neither so extraordinary as you fear, nor so mundane as you would prefer.”
“That is no answer at all!” cried Lady Winters, and immediately began abusing him for his want of gallantry.
The conversation was all very well, but Lisha was beginning to tire of it; it was an argument in which she could have no substantial part, and in any case she found herself liking Lady Winters less than she had formerly. While she appeared natural and unaffectedly clever at first sight, Lisha thought that under this unstudied charm she was in fact rather disingenuous. This was an unpleasant revelation, and suddenly Lisha wished to be away.
She was prevented from so doing, however, by a voice beside her – a familiar voice, though one which she had not heard in quite some time. “Miss Colton!” she exclaimed, with a genuine smile.
It was indeed her acquaintance of several months ago, a pink Acara who, though only moderately pretty, by virtue of her starry blue eyes and secretive smile was perhaps more captivating than many conventional beauties. “You are making an absolute stranger out of me, my dear. Surely you remember my instructing you to call me Nicole.”
“Very well then! I haven’t seen you in far too long. Is your brother here?”
“Regrettably,” Miss Colton replied a little distantly, “he is not. But you are right,” she continued, resuming her usual tone in an instant, “that it has been an absolute age. I feel as though I could talk to you for hours, and still have a great deal more to say.”
“I am glad to hear it,” Lisha said eagerly, for she had always enjoyed Miss Colton’s rational conversation and natural delicacy. “I am sure I have a great deal to tell you as well.”
“And you must, my dear Lisha, for it would be infinitely cruel to keep me in suspense. But perhaps you will excuse me if I first exchange a word or two with Mr. Lockwood? I have news for him, you see, from Knightfield, which I must discharge before I forget it entirely.”
“Oh yes, of course.” It did rather strike Lisha that Miss Colton should depart half a minute after declaring that she could not bear the suspense of a moment in being told everything that had happened to her intimate friend – but she was willing, after a moment, to allow that giving tidings of Knightfield to Lockwood might constitute a reasonable claim upon Miss Colton’s time.
Lockwood, meanwhile, had now abandoned Lady Winters in favor of Miss Colton; the former, taking the hint, had departed with a reasonably good grace.
Miss Colton proceeded carefully, for it was not on the best terms that they had last met. “I am afraid I have not had the pleasure of visiting the Castle in an excessively long time.”
“That is true, though it follows that your presence will now be infinitely more appreciated than if you had been here just last week.”
“I have not seen your dear sister in a fortnight, but I left her exceedingly well.”
“I am very glad to hear it.” It occurred to Lockwood that his sister would surely have received his letter by now, and that he could most likely expect her at the Castle by tomorrow. The thought was a moderately pleasing one.
Miss Colton walked beside him in silence for a moment (for, without any particular destination or verbal agreement, they had begun to walk). Then she remarked, “That was Lady Winters with whom you were conversing, was it not? She is very handsome.”
“Yes, I suppose she is,” he replied. “She is generally reckoned so.”
The coolness of his reply, however, seemed to reassure her. “Perhaps we might find a more secluded spot.” She paused. “You see, in truth, I have something –”
But what it was Lockwood never discovered, for at that moment every lamp in the room was extinguished.
To be continued...