The Contessa had a beautiful manor (from what I could see), set back from the road and half-hidden by the never-ending trees this area offered. The topiary guarding the path was the only indication I had to direct the horses on our new path, and I was lucky the night was bright enough to show me the way before I’d missed it entirely.

The path was narrow; two carriages traveling in opposite directions would require an incredible feat of driving and some very angry horses. I hummed as I drove, taking it all in. I missed the salty sea smell, but had to admit the ever-present trees were pleasant enough for all they were starting to make me nervous.

Where the trees were cut back to allow a view of the manor, lower gardens welcomed the Contessa’s guests. She had night-blooming varieties, which I took as a good sign. What was the point in planting something you never get to see, after all? I might not be turned away, despite the late hour and my unexpected arrival.

A circular driveway came all the way up to the steps before the manor’s entrance, so I reined in the horses as I’d seen others do. I was impressed with myself when the horses did stop. Granted, they had to be exhausted, poor beasts. I needed to get them fed and watered before anything else. When no one immediately appeared, I turned about in my seat to find indication of the stables. They wouldn’t be far if the Contessa was entertaining guests; servants needed to access them quickly and return to assist another.

As I stood to see better, I had to look down as a thud into the seat beside me showed a crossbow bolt without a hint of humor to it. I slowly raised my hands to my shoulders and waited. After a couple of tense minutes, the manor door opened to spit out two wary women. One of them held the freshly-loaded crossbow and a handful of bolts and the other had an unsheathed sword. I waited. Father had impressed upon me the importance of patience and I sent another prayer of thanks to his ghost.

“Who’s your charge?” sword-wielder asked.

“I haven’t one. It’s just me,” I answered.

She looked dissatisfied with my answer and stalked forward to circle the carriage. I noted that she didn’t bother to glance through the small openings; in this light she wouldn’t see anything, and if I was inside waiting to attack, I would definitely have taken the opportunity to stab her. While the crossbow-wielder kept her point on me, Sword looked over the horses.

“Why have you come so late?”

“It was my intention to arrive before dark, but I was waylaid.”

“By?”

The driver and a couple of his associates.”

“Where are they now?”

“I couldn’t say; I left them several miles back, each with an injury they’ll survive. They might have moved on by now.”

The women glanced at each other.

“Your name?” Sword asked.

“Don Gentillini.”

“Never heard of a Gentillini outside the story books,” Sword replied. “Don, huh? Why’s that?”

“I find it’s generally more acceptable to acknowledge my status without flaunting it.”

“So what’s your real name?”

Hands still at my shoulders, I bowed. “I would prefer to offer that to the Contessa before any others.”

“She’s asleep yet.”

“I expected. I understand your caution; would I be able to at least stable my horses? They’ve traveled much farther than they should have and they’re in dire need of a good comb and bag of feed.”

The women glanced at each other again and Sword nodded. “I’ll take them. Step down.”

I dismounted from the carriage. Crossbow had lowered her weapon, but it was still ready for use. I kept my hands visible. She gestured toward the manor, so I led the way inside. Before I could take in much more than an expensive view, she pointed and I followed her silent directions to the kitchen.

Late as it was, the enormous space was in use. Bakers were kneading dough, lesser staff was preparing fruits for canning, a butcher was carving an enormous sow, and two cooks were arguing good-naturedly about the largest cauldron of soup I’d ever seen. I imagined I could bathe in it quite comfortable, and probably with a partner.

They glanced at us when we entered, but no one seemed concerned about a late-night visitor and armed guard. We sat at a wooden table in an out-of-the-way corner. Crossbow moved a deck of cards out of the way and set her weapon on the table. It wasn’t aimed at my chest, but I wasn’t eager to lose the use of my arm, either. It was a small comfort.

Staff brought us each a glass of water. I sipped mine politely and Crossbow did the same. She was an older woman; lines aged her tanned skin and her hair was art in grays, noticeable even in a severe bun. I wondered what her usual position was here. Her hands were uncalloused, but I couldn’t imagine she shied from work, considering her easy comfort with the crossbow. She drummed her long and slender fingers against the table, occasionally blinking kingfisher-blue eyes. Blue eyes were rare on my island and they fascinated me.

I sipped my water. I was exhausted, but I didn’t want it to be obvious. I kept my posture and took in the sights and smells and movement around me. I had to assume we were waiting for Sword to return from housing my horses in the stable. It would take time to get them unharnessed and brushed, fed and watered.

Sure enough, in she came to claim the chair between Crossbow and me. She kept the sword on her lap and looked me up and down. “Don Gentillini.”

I inclined my head.

“What business do you have with the Contessa?”

“I expect that is between us.”

“My duty is to protect her interests. If you have nothing to offer, I am well within my rights to send you on your way.” Sword spoke without malice, which I appreciated.

“My primary intention is to make myself known to her.”

“You believe you would be of interest to her in yourself? Do you hold lands, contracts?”

“I do, though they are not yet within my possession.”

“Haven’t you reached your majority?”

“I have.”

“But not your inheritance.”

I smiled thinly. “I believe I have said enough. If the Contessa is still dissatisfied, I will have to continue to my next destination.”

“Which is where?”

I smiled again. “The Viscontessa Greco.”

“Starting a collection, are you?”

“Something like that.”

“Very well. Your room has been made ready. I will you you when the Contessa is ready to receive.”

“You are most gracious.”

We left Crossbow in the kitchen while Sword guided me through a confusing maze of corridors I was sure was a tactic to keep me confused and simultaneously impressed. It worked very well. My room was fashioned in a style to allow me to hold small court with a seating arrangement and space to take food. A drawing table was near the dark window and a tall standing screen hid the bed from view. I thanked Sword again and she left me.

My jacket was folded and hanging on the airer and my bag was on the bed quilt. With my limited wardrobe, I didn’t want to wrinkle what I was wearing so I stripped, folded my clothes and placed them on the airer was well. Weaving and half-blind with fatigue, I stretched out under the quilt and let sleep claim me at last.

April 13, 2021

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