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Chapter Nine.
rowan tree
Chapter Nine

Even halfway across the house, Corialuna found that they didn't need Jura's help to find their way to dinner. When the scent hit them, Jura grinned, and leaving the smell as replacement for a guide, returned to the lower floor for the commoners' dinner. "See you later," the girl called as she disappeared down the stairs, and Cori was warmed by the casual statement.

A young servant was standing with the door open, his chin high and his eyes not meeting theirs. Cori watched him curiously as they approached – he was just barely of age, she thought, maybe a year older than Inarios, and he looked impeccable as a doorman, from the smooth fit of his livery to the shirt, even cut of his brown hair. They paused and gathered themselves before entering the room. The servant boy waited in silence, eyebrows arched slightly as though questioning the delay. Cori stepped past him first, with Mavignel and Tresselion flanking her – and she had to clench her jaw to avoid the sharp inhale that threatened. Lord Valexius and Inarios sat on one side of the table, both looking up blandly at them as they entered. Then at the end of the table, sitting in a high-backed wooden chair, was the woman in the grey dress.

They stopped short of the table, but the silence was brief. "Countess Shadowcross, I presume," Mavignel said smoothly, stepping forward into a sweeping bow.

"Of course," she answered with a nod, the motion and the fall of her dark hair obscuring her face and any expression it might hold. "And you're Mavignel Foster. And Corialuna, and Tresselion. Of course. Welcome at last to Crossheart Hall. Be seated, please." She smiled, welcoming but cool, her eyes indicating the three empty chairs to her left, and then looked up at the still-open door. "Sabell, you may go." The young man bowed out, and the door shut soundlessly behind him. The three exchanged glances, and Tresselion fumbled a little as he pulled out his chair and sat at the seat nearest the end. Cori kept calm as she chose the seat across from Inarios, although she felt fluttery, unsettled. Finally, Mavignel took on Lord Valexius' considering expression as he sat opposite the man.

The Countess exchanged glances with Valexius, and as if she had given him permission, he spoke.

"I trust your tour was pleasant? Jura gave you an adequate picture of your new home, your quarters?" His eyes flickered to the cloak over Cori's arm, the valise clasped in Tress' hand, and the line of his lips thinned almost imperceptibly.

"The tour was lovely," Corialuna answered swiftly. "Jura was a spectacular choice, Lord Inarios, if I may say so."

"You may," the boy replied, his eyebrows quirking up. He looked perfectly at ease, the tension and dislike that had been so plain in his eyes this morning entirely absent. His hands were folded on the edge of the table, and she could see Tresselion subtly glancing at the silver-and-ruby-encrusted buttons and cufflinks.

"It went so well," Mavignel said, a hint of dry amusement in his voice, "that we were occupied learning about the hall until the very moment dinner was called. Indeed, as you can see," and he looked across at herself and Tresselion briefly, "we haven't yet chosen rooms. Just as suitable a task for after the meal, perhaps. If the scent is any indication of the quality of the food, perhaps this final exploration will persuade us to take the suites closest to the kitchen." His smile was wide, ingratiating.

The Countess laughed, politely, but her own smile became a little warmer. Corialuna studied her face, trying not to be obvious about doing so. She had pale skin, but dusky, as though it was meant to be dark but had been denied enough sunlight to make it so, and she had high cheekbones and arched brows, not sharp but as steady and graceful as architecture. Her eyes were large and dark, and seemed to take in the color around them- a rich golden-hazel when she looked upward and her face was directly in light, and shadow-grey when she glanced downward at her dress. While she looked mature, she did not look old- only smoothed, like a stone or a piece of driftwood. Before she spoke again, she looked over at Corialuna, just briefly enough to leave the girl uncertain of what she'd seen, what she knew. She resolved quickly not to mention the disintegrated door unless someone else did first.

"Wherever you like, Mavignel," she said, smiling still, but her voice was serious. "Any of the empty rooms, except those that belonged to my daughters, are yours. Wherever you feel most comfortable." She paused a moment, her gaze flickering across the three of them. "I know that all of this is very strange to you. Certainly I am a stranger to you, and I do not expect you to think of me as family. At least, not yet. But I do want you to feel and think of this place as your home. Settle in tonight as best you can. Tomorrow, Valexius will speak to you about the rules of the house, and then begin your tutoring..."

Corialuna noticed, from the corner of her eye, that Inarios had suddenly tensed, and began to turn to look at him, when the elegant double-doors in the wall behind the Countess opened, and the first course of dinner arrived.

She noted, briefly, that it was the Sabell who was carrying out the first of the trays, and she wondered for a moment whether he ever got any sort of break. Then, the food was set before them. In the center of her plate was a bowl of thick, creamy soup, made from chicken stock and garnished with sprigs of green onion. Arranged around the bowl were half a dozen radishes, cleverly cut to resemble blossoming flowers, with some sort of bitter herb dressing brushed lightly onto them like dewdrops. There were rolled twists of bacon, fried in batter, and there were devilled eggs, and glasses of both cordial and wine.

It was the best thing she had seen, or smelled, or tasted in years; since before her family had died, and all of them at the table seemed to forget themselves in it for a time. The next course was easier to resist, at least for her- potted eels with gravy and bread stuffing. She watched Mavignel and Tresselion dig into them with gusto, and felt a little relieved when she noticed that the Countess wasn't touching them, either. When the third course came- redcurrant scones, butter and honey, and a salad full of more greens than she'd seen before, topped with a savory dressing that tasted of cheese, she thought for certain that she'd filled her stomach, and would have to miss the main course.

She was very, very glad to have been wrong. She thought, at first, that it was only roast boar, sliced and glazed in a sauce that made her stomach rumble to smell, even after everything she'd eaten, but in a moment Sabell returned with an enormous Turan man who had to be the chef beside him, holding up the other side of an immense silver tray. What was on it made her laugh out loud in delight- it was Crossheart Hall in miniature, with roast carrots for timbers, sliced celery shingling the roof, the rich smell of roasted potatoes coming from within, all of it brushed in melted butter.

"Welcome to Crossheart Hall, my young lords and lady," the chef said, with a smug lift of his eyebrows. "I hope that you will enjoy it."

"You've outdone yourself, Zhent," the Countess said with a pleased nod.

The chef beamed. Mavignel licked his lips and, when no one else reached for a slice, helped himself. "Home sweet home," he said, closing his eyes indulgently with the first bite, and Corialuna exchanged a roll of eyes with Tress, but soon she, too, was so involved with the meal she found that she had ceased to notice the company, that her nerves had entirely relaxed.

Some interminable time later, over dessert, the world seemed to resume. A bowl of frozen blackberries, drizzled with sugar and liqueur, sat in front of each of them, but Cori found that it was all she could do to run her finger over the spoon and lick the dark, sweet syrup off her fingertip. Tresselion was the only one still eating with a will, but his cheeks were flushed from too much wine- just as he'd cleaned every plate and bowl set before him, he'd had one glass with every course, probably without truly noticing. Mavignel was leaning back in his seat, practically purring, swirling his spoon slowly in his bowl. Inarios, having paced himself, took the occasional bite, managing to seem elegant and refined even while full-to-bursting. Valexius had politely declined dessert before it was offered to him, and the Countess...

Corialuna thought she could watch the Countess endlessly. It was obvious where Inarios had learned his composure. She'd eaten less than the rest of them – indeed, she had not even been served many of the heavier foods the rest of them had received, no doubt because Zhent was very familiar with her tastes. Now, she lingered over each bite of her dessert, making every spoonful seem a sensual, almost spiritual experience. Everyone else had set their dishes carefully to the side by the time she finished, and when she finally ran her thin finger around the rim and afforded the table a small smile, Sabell came forwards and in a time too short to believe, they had cleared all the dessert dishes from the table and vanished out the door again.

"Thank you," Tresselion said quietly, his eyes moving between the three original inhabitants of Crossheart. The Countess seemed weary of smiles and nods, and just blinked twice, and Valexius inclined his head in acknowledgement. Inarios opened his mouth for a split second, as if he were about to speak, but then turned his face towards first Valexius and then his mother and didn't speak whatever words had been on his lips.

She couldn't help but think how eager she was for the adoption process to be done – not least because she was eager for Tress to use his mind-magery and mess about with Lord Inarios' head. They all sat silent for a moment, leaning back contentedly in their chairs, and then Cori summoned a swell of courage and straightened. A jumble of words flitted through her head from all directions, but she slowed it to a pace where she could pick out a single thought, a single question, and ask it.

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