Two Dozen Black Dresses: Part Four
Rain pounded at the windows of the stone chamber, begging to be let in. Thunder was its fist and lightning its tongue; the thin sheets of glass stood their ground, though, and kept the slippery foe at bay. With each resounding peal, the efforts seemed to redouble, and the small group of people inside the room glanced instinctively up each time the booming voice sounded.
One figure in particular, bundled tightly in a traveling cloak, winced measurably each time the brutal thunder announced its presence. It moved its chair closer still to the fire, having already been the closest by far, and turned its head towards another hooded member of the group. "Your guest chambers, Norheim... are they made up?"
Another hooded figure, the addressed Norheim, inclined his head in a gesture of assent. "The servants have all been notified that each of you may be persuaded to remain here overnight due to the ferocity of the storm. A room has been prepared for you all."
Mutters of gratitude emerged from the dark cowls. This thought had been at the forefront of their collective minds.
Norheim rose from his seat and slowly walked around the circle of assembled cloaks. "To return to the matter at hand. The garments for the Neovian initiation have been procured and plans shall proceed as discussed."
"The tailor?" The question was asked in the tone of one desiring to corroborate an already furnished answer.
"Ah." This seemed to satisfy the hood-muffled voice.
"Yes, he and his Mynci counterpart managed to sew the dresses quite to specification. Although there is a minor matter of a Kyrii apprentice to attend to."
A low hiss emerged from behind one of the hoods. It was a moment before it was generally realized that the noise was meant to be a laugh. "That vermin? He is hardly a bother. I should be quite surprised if he has ever even heard of the Sway."
An unseen eyebrow arched behind Norheim's midnight cowl. "Festerside. You claim to know the boy?"
"He delivered the dresses for me. A lackey if ever there was one, Norheim. He is as clueless as Inspector Landsdale when he popped around my shipping yard last week."
The aristocratic joke made few of the assembled chuckle. Festerside's role as a shipping magnate was well-understood and much resented. It was a coveted position. Norheim continued to stare at the hooded Blumaroo. "Then you will, of course, be able to explain why he was asking about the Duchess just the other day?"
The room, previously engaged in dying chortles and ghosted mutters, silenced instantly. Norheim's dagger pierced the Baron's arrogant shell, and the freezing of his heart was almost audible. "He asked... about...her?"
"Yes, Festerside. I thought you might have put a contingency plan into action already. Your nonchalant attitude had me in the mind that you simply must have already heard and had acted accordingly. Was I wrong?" The sardonic drip of the words was palpable.
The Baron had recovered himself and was prepared to fight tooth and nail against the vicious onslaught. "I assume you have proof, Norheim? This isn't another one of your conniving attempts to shame me out of the Sway, is it? I trust you remember how well it ended for poor Lady Worthington when you used her as a pawn."
"I have a letter from Prigpants stating that the boy asked after the Duchess not two days ago after having delivered the dresses for you. I can only assume, Festerside, that you let something slip."
"I said nothing to the boy! I would never betray the-"
"I have already spoken to the Duchess, Festerside. She agrees with my suggestion. You shall accompany us to the obelisk."
A collective gasp ran through the room. Of the higher-ranking members of the Sway, only the Duchess, Lord Norheim, and The Techo were to be sent to the obelisk. The rest of the boats were to be filled with the lower, more disposable members. Sending the Baron was a sign of quiet anger on the Duchess' part.
The Baron, who had been sitting in the chair nearest the fire, fell back suddenly and scattered the embers across the stone floor. With a hiss, he leapt to his feet and stamped out the hem of his now-burning cloak. The room stared at him as he drew himself up to his full height. "I am too important here for the Duchess to send me off. The deal with that cockamamie Lenny on Terror Mountain is about to go through, and without me to finalize details, we'll never-"
Norheim silenced him with a single hand. "The Duchess has arranged for the ice pops, Festerside. You are no longer required in that particular deal. Nor will you be required for the time that we shall be in Tyrannia. Your shipping yards will be quite taken care of, never you worry about that."
The sentence was crushing. The Baron had been stripped of nearly all authority. When he spoke, his voice was a Cobrall's warning. "You must tread carefully, Norheim. If one of us is replaceable, surely we all are."
This did not have nearly the effect he had hoped. Norheim seemed not even to hear him as he continued to walk around the room. "And something will, of course, need to be done about the boy. Withersby, how are the Mystery Island contacts?"
A cloaked Tonu, his garb far too small for his massive form, stood up and bowed before answering. "They're strong, Lord Norheim."
"Would they be able to perform a standard brainwash and relocation?"
"I believe they have all the necessaries, Lord Norheim. And the Tiki Tack Man is evidently in need of a new assistant."
"Good. That will do splendidly. Mystery Island is far enough away from our main efforts that he should be harmless."
A roll of thunder battered against the castle and the accompanying lightning slid its way in through the glass windowpanes. The shrieks of some terrible beast could be heard dimly through the pouring rain. "Is that all, Lord Norheim?" chimed a voice from within the crowd.
Norheim turned to look out the largest of the windows in the room, contemplating the flecked blackness beyond. "Yes. Good night, my friends. For the peace of the world..."
"The balance must sway." The response was intoned in unison. Norheim's lip curled.
"It's been a week, Mari! And no word about this Duchess, nothing else to do with that Baron, and there haven't been any more spoooky orders coming into the shop! I think we've hit a dead end."
Marius did not like to admit defeat, but Sal's blunt assessment of the situation was not far from the truth. After the episode involving Mr. Prigpants and the question of the Duchess, Marius had renewed his enthusiasm and began poking around as much as he could to find out more about this mysterious individual. Yet it seemed as though she only existed on that scrap of paper that had been so carelessly dropped.
"You're probably right, Sal. I feel as though all we've done is chase our own tails on a wild Meepit chase!"
"Ah, don't let it get you down! It was a fun week while it lasted. And who knows, maybe we'll find another clue somewhere down the line!"
Sal's unbridled optimism was infectious, and Marius found himself smiling despite himself. "You're a good friend, Sal."
"And you're a bit of a dreamer, Mari. Still got those mad plans for Mystery Island?"
"As soon as Mr. Prigpants and Mr. Swolthy decide that I'm worth more than pennies, I'll be buying that ticket!"
"Speaking of those mad hatters, don't you have to get to work?"
Sal spoke truthfully; Marius had barely noticed the time, so busy was he commiserating over the cold trail of the Duchess. "Goodness, you're right! I'll stop over after work!" With that, the young Kyrii turned on his tail and hurried down the street.
Mr. Prigpants was flummoxed. He was a tailor, a spy, and, at most, a turncoat. But what Norheim had requested of him was simply more than his capabilities allowed for. There was a problem in the form of Marius Finchley, and Mr. Prigpants had written to Norheim to say as much. But for the onus of action to return to his finely-clipped wings was staggering to believe.
"Prigpants, is that another order you have there? I say, if it's another order, our coffers will be fit to bursting! Bursting, my dear chap, positively bursting!" Mr. Swolthy's caterwaul groaned its way to Mr. Prigpants' ears from across the storefront.
"No no, just a... personal correspondence, my dear Mr. Swolthy. A family matter, most indelicately dropped upon me without a moment's notice."
The Mynci's face drooped into a comical frown. "Oh, I say, Prigpants, that's terribly dreadful. It's not a death in the family, is it?"
Mr. Prigpants shuddered inwardly. "I should hope not, Mr. Swolthy. The details have not yet sorted themselves out." A sudden flash of inspiration took the Lenny and his meager frame stood up a little straighter. "Er... Mr. Swolthy?"
"What is it, Prigpants? We've got to open soon and there's work to be done, oh yes, much work to be done."
"I feel a dreadful scoundrel for asking this, but... as a personal favor, might we close the shop for today? This news," he brandished the letter, "has shaken me quite fearfully and I wonder whether I would be fit to sell even the most modest of hatbands today." It was the gamble of a desperate man; Mr. Swolthy was reluctant to close the shop even on holidays.
"Ah, Prigpants... You know I detest, I say, detest closing the shop! But for a family emergency of such magnitude, how could I say no? I'd be a right monster to say no to you, a right monster indeed!" Mr. Swolthy slapped Mr. Prigpants magnanimously on the back. "I'll just pop off back home, then! The kettle should still be warm with even the smidgenest of luck!"
Mr. Prigpants watched the purple Mynci wobble his way out the door before returning to his letter. The ploy had worked. But now, a more unpleasant task beset him. Marius Finchley would enter the store in no more than ten minutes, and it was up to Mr. Prigpants to dirty his hands in a most detestable and certifiably ungentlemanly manner. It was truly quite a shame.
To be continued...