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The carriage pulled in front of the grand manse of the Castellian family.  Augustus had never been separated from it for so long, as it had been almost four months since he left for the Maysian islands.  This was where he grew up, where he was raised by his tutors and his father.  His father, he thought to himself, was a great man, who would play the Senate like a board game.  Giovanni DeCastellian, the one who sent him on the voyage had said, “It’s important that you have some accomplishments that you can hang your name on.  Something people can say when you are introduced that isn’t ‘The son of Giovanni’.  ‘Augustus the explorer of the Maysian Isles.’”  The memory lingered in his thoughts, reminding him of why this situation came to pass.

“When the wagons arrive, don’t bother unloading them,”  Augustus said to the attendants waiting in the front garden.  “Marielle, we will need to change our clothes.  You will change into the family dress I gave you.  Heratio, while we meet with my mother, I would like you to go and recruit Gillivan as my second bodyguard.  When you are done, wait with him back here, in the carriage.”  Augustus held out four venti and Heratio snatched them up and sauntered off.

Augustus, Marielle and her two attendants entered the main entrance and he led them to a changing room, all the while noticing Marielle and her younger attendant Sara’s shocked faces.  The entrance was designed first and foremost to impress.  The tapestry of paintings showing the successive heads of the Castellian family and the ornate furniture, with it’s careful and detailed craftsmanship, the books, and the stained glass patterns under the railing, all were designed to simply say ‘we are the nobility of Venocia’.  Once led to the changing room, Augustus separated from the women to a different changing room where a house attendant waited to aid him in getting prepared.

It was Angela, one of Augustus’ nannies when he was just a toddler, now in her thirties.  “Hello, again Master Augustus.  I hope your travels treated you kindly.”

“They did.  You may rise, help me get into my house clothes.”  Angila rose from her bow and began preparing the clothes as Augustus undressed.  “Tell me, how has the house been for the past two months? How has my mother been?”

“Two months?  Oh, you must have heard already.”  She shook her head. “You know I can’t speak of your mother.  But I will say, I am glad you are back.  The house has been chaotic recently.”

Augustus knew she couldn’t speak too casually as she was in an awkward position.  She was close to his father, and his father would often turn to Angila for comfort at night.  Although Augustus never knew of it forming a rift between Angela and his mother, he imagined Angela would be particularly uncomfortable doing anything to raise the scorn of his mother.  Especially now.

Augustus finished changing and went to wait outside Marielle’s changing room.  He sat in the hallway patiently knowing, without a doubt, that Cressa would take her time to use the creams and lotions in the manse to doll up his wife.

In the lonely silence, Augustus' thoughts wandered.  He remembered when his father told him he wouldn’t be running for the Senate seat.  Instead, his brother Cladius who would be the candidate in his place.  “To serve as a senator you must stay in the city to vote.  The money spent on the bribes, required to ensure a favourable election, would be wasted on someone who was sent on a voyage,”  his father had explained.  “And, the absence would make the next election even more costly to win.”  Augustus’ father had decided instead of the valuable position of senator, Augustus should study to become a magistrate.  But still, being a senator was more prestigious, and gave a person access to vital Senate reports that could be used advantageously in business ventures.  Augustus kept wringing his mind over all the disadvantages that this turn of events had put him in.  He clenched his fist in pulses, having his nails dig into his skin.

The door swung open and through it appeared Marielle, looking even better than before.  Her skin fairer and smoother, and her lips redder.  “You look good,” Augustus said and Marielle brightened up a bit in response.  He waved over Angela and discreetly told her they were finally ready to have an audience with his mother, Julianna DeCastellian.  “Cressa, Sara, go wait in the carriage we came in.  You can find your way right?”  They both nodded.

“Let's go meet my mother.”

“Will your father not be joining us too?” Marielle asked, completely unaware.  Of course, she would want to meet the head of the family.  But Augustus had decided that would have to wait, as right now it was too dangerous.  He needed more information, he needed a plan, and most of all he needed more coin.

“No, he won’t be able to join us,”  Augustus said, leading her to the reception room.

The reception room, like the entrance, was designed to display wealth.  Here the theme was mirrors, the walls were lined with clear mirrors at great expense.  The floor was mosaic tiles depicting ships lined up at Venocia’s dock.  With the floor to ceiling windows, and all the mirrors the room was incredibly bright.  Augustus wondered what his mother’s response would be if he just broke all the mirrors and windows before she arrived, picturing the shocked look on her face as she turned the corner to see her son, triumphantly standing, amongst the shards of the priceless mirrors.

Castor stood there waiting.  “How did everything go at the magistrate and the temple?”

“It went fine.  The temple wedding will be the twelfth of Aurdos, in two weeks.”  Augustus replied.  “Castor, I would like you to wait in the carriage, the other attendants will be there.  I will make this a short family greeting, then we will be off to where we will spend the night.”

“We won’t be staying here?”  Castor said curiously.

“Either we will stay at a vacant family property, or we will stay at an inn.  Staying here is no longer an option.  I will explain in more detail later, but I ask that you trust me.  Wait in the carriage, we will be as quick as we can be.”

“As you wish.”  Castor walked off, slowly.  Castor didn’t need someone to guide him to the entrance, as he pretty much lived here through Augustus’ childhood.

Marielle gawked in a mirror. “You must compose yourself,” Augustus reminded her, pulling out a chair for her to sit in.  She sat, and he sat beside her, at the head of a long marble top table, and they both awaited the entrance of the lady of the manse.

Julianna DeCastellian entered the room escorted by two attendants, and the married couple stood to attention.  His mother wore the dress Augustus thought she would wear, which put his mind at ease, just a little bit.  At least she hadn’t been spending money flagrantly yet.  The dress was in the standard design for the family’s women, white with red and yellow accents, with the crest of the family on the chest.

“Welcome home,”  Julianna said as she moved closer to Augustus for an embrace.  It was a long warm embrace to be expected from his unusually long absence.

“It is good to be home.”  They untangled themselves from each other. “Allow me to introduce you to my wife, for the first time.  This is Marielle DeCastellian, formerly Marielle Jorel of Jorland.  Marielle, this is my mother, Julianna DeCastellian, and current matriarch of the Castellian family.” Augustus took a step back as they too embraced each other.

“Look at you.  You are so pretty,”  Julianna said to Marielle.

“You too. I am surprised that Augustus’ mother would look so young,”  Marielle responded.  They went about complimenting each other's clothing and hairstyle.  “This is a lovely home.  These mirrors are so clear, and the detail in everything is so fine, I’m afraid of moving freely, lest I might break something of unbelievable value.”

Julianna went around the table and sat across from where the married couple stood, by doing so giving Augustus and his wife permission to sit down, and they did.

“Well, you will need to acclimate yourself to this wealth then.  Don’t worry, although to your old family that mirror would be an irreplaceable expense, to us it is but a trifling.”  Augustus knew that his mother exaggerated.  Their finances were immense, but it wasn’t true that the broken mirrors wouldn’t cause that much of a fuss. “After all, you will be staying here until the wedding at the temple.”

“Of Co--” Marielle began.

“No,” Augustus interrupted, giving Marielle an intense stare.  Then turning back to address his mother.  “The Castellian family charter, which holds in trust the Castellian port businesses, dictates that a member of the main family will be provided a reasonable estate to live in, once he or she is married.”

“Yes, the Pantelli estate is vacant but will need to be prepared.  Besides, our family would only consider you two to be married once the ceremony is held at the temple of Aurelia,” Julianna responded with a broad smile.

“By the letter of the law in Venocia, once I handed the consummation documents to the temple of Aurelia, we were recognized as married in regards to any contracts or charters.  Trust me, I would know, after all those nights of studying to suddenly become a magistrate, when father, on a whim, decided I wouldn’t be running for the Senate.”

“Well still, we are family.  I hoped to have you two stay with me for the weeks leading up to the wedding at the temple.  Would you want to overburden yourselves with both settling into your new home and managing the logistics of your upcoming wedding? I will be invaluable--”

“Enough!” Augustus shouted while slamming his fist against the table, cutting off his mother and leaving her in an alarmed state.  “We won’t be staying here until the wedding.  We won’t stay here even tonight!  You will fulfill your duties as executor of the Castellian trust, or I will petition the magistrates and the Senate,”  Augustus bluffed.  He wouldn’t dare place a petition over something this petty, and although he needed to deal with the potential dangers that were directly ahead of him, he couldn’t allow himself to earn a reputation as a pestering litigant.

“You know that I am the executor? You’ve been told?”  Julianna averted her gaze in shame.

“Of course I’ve been told!  Father is dead!  I learned at the docks before I had even stepped foot off the ship!”  Augustus was furious.  “And not only did I learn that father is dead, but I also learned that a new head of the family had been elected.  In my absence!”

Marielle's eyes lit up in shock and her hand shot up to cover her gaping mouth.  Her eyes softened as she looked at Augustus.

“Yes well--” Julianna began.

“And Giovannus!  Of all people, is now the head of the family!  Father would view this as a complete disaster.  I was to be the new head of the family.  I was being groomed with achievements.  Isn’t that why I was sent on that voyage in the first place!”  Augustus threw his head back in exasperation.

“Yes, Giovannus...  I would have preferred to hold off on the election of the new head of the family until you got back.  But Giovannus objected, and he had the support of some of the branch families.  Believe me when I say that I did what I could, without risking my place as executor.  So I held the election, with you on the ballot.  During the family convocation, I allowed your father’s vassals of high regard to speak on your behalf.  But in the end, you lost, if only by a slim margin.  But a slim margin is all it takes.”

“Back to the matter at hand.  We will not be staying here tonight.  Either give us the estate we are due.  Or, if you force us to, we will stay at an inn until the estate is ready.”  Augustus began tapping his fingers on the table.  He noticed Marielle acting sheepishly in the corner of his vision, no doubt hopelessly confused.

“I would not be able to sleep thinking of you two sleeping in a dirty inn.  Of course, if you are so insistent, I will provide you with the Pantelli estate, although be warned of its current unkempt condition.”  Julianna's smile vanished, replaced with a pout.  “But, don’t be off so quickly.  Now Marielle, let's at least have some tea and biscuits.  I very much want to get to know my new daughter,”  she asked Marielle, because she knew what Augustus would say.

Augustus looked over to Marielle. It was her place to respond, but she just sat stunned in silence.  She looked back at Augustus to gauge what she should say as the silence lingered awkwardly.

“Yes, let us stay for some tea and biscuits.  But I’m afraid that’s all we can stay for.  As you said, this estate will need lots of work.  Our attendants will have their work cut out for them tonight, so we must make sure they have as much time as possible,” said Marielle.  Augustus looked at her as she said it, impressed, and smiled at this vital display of competency.  Marielle met his stare and smiled back, her cheeks turning a rosy red for just a moment.

“Excellent,” Julianna said while gesturing over one of the attendants, and discreetly gave her orders.  The attendant bowed and whisked herself off to quickly return with a cart.  Once the tea was poured and the biscuits placed, Julianna signalled for everyone to start eating.

“Sorry, but we haven’t performed the pre-meal ritual.”  Augustus pointed out.

“We don’t need to do that when it’s just our family.” His mother looked offended, putting her hand over her heart.

“I intend no animosity by it.  It’s just that Marielle’s family raised her to be unusually religious, at least from the perspective of a Venocian.  You know how farming villages can be.  If we were to skip the ritual, Marielle would not object out of politeness, after all, she is a darling. But in her heart, she would be quite shaken to go against her godly teachings.”  Augustus placed his hand on Marielle’s shoulder blade and rubbed.

“Yes.  If we don’t perform the ritual, then the gods would be displeased.  If we didn’t perform the ritual, I would enjoy the company, but I would not dare partake of any food or drink.”  She looked over to Augustus.  “And I fear, with Augustus being as kind-hearted as he is, would refuse to eat, in a sympathetic gesture for my sake.”

“It is true.”  Augustus nodded.

“Very well then.  It would just be simpler to perform the ritual then,” Julianna relented in an exasperated tone.

Augustus performed the ritual, eloquently and with enthusiasm, with Julianna.  It didn’t take that long since there were only two items to be taste-tested, the biscuits and the tea.  With that out of the way, the small talk customary with tea could begin.

“One day, before the wedding, you must come shopping with me.  We must get you a few more proper outfits.  My understanding is you only have the two acceptable dresses.”

“I would be so glad to, but I think we will be very busy for the next while.  The wedding, the new estate; and I’m sure Augustus will be busy too, having just returned to the city.  I will need to do everything I can to aid him in his business dealings, so he can lessen his workload.”  Marielle shook her head.

“Well, how about in a few days, after you’ve settled into your new home, we have a family dinner party.  I will handle all the arrangements, and invitations, it’ll take place right here at this table.”

“Julianna, we will just be so busy,”  Marielle said with a smile.

“Oh, please call me mother.  And I can’t take no for an answer on this.  You are a new addition to the family, you will need to be introduced to everyone!  Even his two older brothers.  I understand that you haven’t met either of them yet, correct?”  Julianna said firmly.

Marielle looked to Augustus, her parry had failed.  His mother was right though, turning down an introductory dinner stepped too far.  Besides, a large dinner party should be safe, he thought to himself.

One of the perks that being a magistrate offered, was that his death would be more scrutinized than a layperson.  In particular, because of the nature of being a magistrate, and having such a direct influence on the application of the law, the other magistrates would insist on an investigation into any other magistrate’s death.  A type of insurance policy, in a way, that helped ensure each other magistrate’s safety.  That meant no one should be so brazen as to just pull out a knife and slit Augustus’ throat.  But, it would be foolish also to think nothing could be done against him.  A determined killer simply had to make sure to kill any and all witnesses.  At a family dinner, however, that would be incredibly difficult.

“I’m sure if we try, we can make room for a family dinner.  Thank you for taking care of the details,”  Augustus said.

“It will be no problem, I am sure.  Say the third evening, after tonight?”  Julianna looked again to Marielle for a response.

“That night will be excellent.  I know you said it will be no problem, but at least know how grateful I am that you will be handling the preparations.  I wouldn’t know where to start.”  Marielle gave a polite smile as she finished off her tea.  Augustus, seeing that, finished his own in a big gulp.

“Well, that is some lovely tea.  I wish we could stay longer, but I’m afraid we have busy times ahead.”  Augustus stood up, which forced by the rules of etiquette, that Marielle stood up as well.

“Yes, that was splendid.”  Marielle gave a bow and Augustus grabbed her hand.

“Do you have the key to the estate?”  Augustus asked, and one of the attendants stepped forward to hand him the key, already prepared and present.  “Then we will be off.”

“It was so nice to see you again, my beloved son.  Farewell,”  Julianna said as Augustus led Marielle out of the room, hand-in-hand.  Marielle squeezed Augustus’ hand tightly as they walked through the veritable labyrinth that was the Castellian manse until they were finally through the ornate entrance.

Outside, the carriage waited.  Along with the wagons, filled with the crates and the chests that held their belongings. Heratio and Gillivan were there too, sitting on the perch of the carriage and holding the reins.  “Greetings Gillivan.  I take it, since you are here, you agreed to be my bodyguard alongside Heratio?”  Augustus said, raising his hand to wave his greetings.

“As long as I’m paid the same as Heratio.  That was the deal we struck.”  Gillivan said.  He was a bit taller, and a bit more muscular than Heratio. Same tanned skin and similar facial features too.  For all Augustus knew they were brothers, but he had never cared enough to ask.  Before they left for the Maysian ocean, Augustus would often see the two being friendly with each other, and so he had chosen him as the new addition in the hope that Heratio's loyalty would rub off on his friend, or perhaps, brother. 

“That would be room and board, plus three venti a week,” Heratio said.

 "Done.  We will be heading to the Pantelli estate," Augustus ordered, and then stepped into the carriage with his wife.  "We will be staying in the Pantelli estate for the foreseeable future."  He announced again to the people in the carriage.  Sara, Cressa, Heratio and Gillivan were live-in attendants.  Augustus knew they would be happy to know their permanent residence was secured.

The carriage started moving, but it wouldn't be a long ride.  All the 'estates' were smaller groupings of buildings of the larger Castellian estate.  They arrived, their carriage passing through the waist-high fence and gate, to the three buildings and garden that constituted the Pantelli estate.

Augustus stepped out of the carriage, as he did so absent-mindedly tugging Marielle along.  At that moment he realized that they had still been holding hands.  He gave her a hand a squeeze then let go.  "I want you to know, you did great with our mother," Augustus said, and Marielle smiled in response.

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