David felt himself relax when they crossed the border to Courtenay Barony. Lee, too, stretched in the saddle. Only Lane deLande was still looking around watchfully. They had had a run-in with a couple of clerics and their guards a few miles back. The only reason things hadn’t turned ugly was that the Mithrans hadn’t recognized Lee for what he was. They had known, though, that Lane and David served the two dukes, thus opposing the Church.
Word had spread fast, especially after the bishop had been forced to flee Eoforwic. David could only hope that Nathan and Greg had reached the city safely. Maybe there would be word from them when they reached Heron Hall.
His mother had guests when they arrived at the Hall, ladies from the neighbouring estates, landed gentry mostly. Lee hurried to get out of sight.
Lane rolled her eyes when the gentlewomen bobbed up and down in front of her but switched into the role of countess fairly easily. Mostly to request a bath.
David followed her example. He took his time and was a little disappointed when the ladies were still there, after he had gotten dressed. His mother threw him a look, so apparently, he hadn’t hidden his disappointment well enough.
“It’s most fortunate that you could join us,” Imani informed him and Lane brightly. “Our guests would like to learn more about werewolves and their abilities.”
David had to take a deep breath to force down his annoyance. They needed these ladies of good standing as their allies, he reminded himself. They were the mothers, and wives, and sisters of publishers and entrepreneurs, of merchants and aspiring politicians, but likewise of lords and peers, too. They lived right at the transition between nobility and the aspiring upper civic society. Patriotism was strong amongst them. Whoever reached for the throne would need their support, or at least their goodwill. And whoever wanted to normalize the standing of werewolves, too. It was the bourgeoisie who owned most of the new newspapers.
So David and Lane spent some time making nice with the ladies, to put them at ease, before David offered to introduce them to a real, living werewolf. Then he went to convince Lee to play along.
“He looks so human,” somebody said, as soon as they entered, and Imani smiled.
“Lee is entirely human, Colette,” she said. “Twenty-eight days out of twenty-nine.”
“But surely it’s that one night that counts,” said another woman sharply.
“Is it?” Imani asked, voice still bright. “Do you have an ice house on your lands?”
“Of course we do,” the lady huffed.
“Well then, you have everything you need to keep your family safe during that one night, Lady deTyss.”
“An ice house,” the lady repeated doubtfully. She had a nose like an eagle’s beak, pale skin, and blond hair going grey, covered nearly completely by an elaborate lace-bonnet. Her black dress on the other hand was prim rather than fashionable.
David hadn’t met Lady deTyss in years, and he was a little surprised to see her here now. In his memory, she was a stickler both for etiquette and for tradition, a thoroughly respectable woman, who would never be mixed up in anything as exotic as werewolf-taming.
“Or any basement with a trapdoor,” Lane added. “Or just a hole in the ground, provided it’s deep and steep enough.”
“How deep is deep enough?” someone else asked.
“Ten feet,” Lee said, making all the ladies jump.
“Ten feet? That’s not all that deep,” said Lady deTyss, who recovered quickly. “The old moat around our estate is deeper than that.”
“Make it fifteen feet, if it’s big enough for a werewolf to get a running start,” Lane said. “And the walls need to be nearly vertical. But yes, it’s that simple. Werewolves can jump far, but not very high. They can climb a little, but they are no goats. And on full moon, they have none of the human intelligence they possess any other day.”
“How far, Madame?”
“You said they can jump far,” the young girl sitting next to Lady deTyss repeated. David was fairly certain she was a daughter.
Lane shrugged. “We haven’t had a competition yet. But you have to keep in mind: A large deer can cross a road in one jump, that’s eight or nine yards, easily. You want to at least double that.”
“And do they swim?” the girl asked. She paused, glancing at Lee, and added: “Do you swim?”
“Yes,” Lee said. “A river is not good protection, even a fast-flowing one like the Torrent.”
“So they can jump across the moat, mother,” the girl said, turning to Lady deTyss. “But not out, once they’re down there. The Rot can, though.”
Lady deTyss pursed her lips and eyed Lee again thoughtfully. “So,” she said after a moment. “If one needed to hire someone like you, say just for a month or two, how would one go about it?”
“You don’t have a permanent Rot problem?” Lee asked.
“Her eldest daughter-in-law is with child,” Imani explained gently.
“I see,” Lee said. “How soon?”
“Three months,” the Lady said.
Lee grimaced and looked at David.
“What is it?” Lady deTyss asked sharply.
“There are very few sane werewolves left,” David said calmly. “And three months is not enough time to ascertain the state of mind of a newly-bitten one. We will swing by, and Lee can make sure the mother and child will be safe, but for the future, you might want to keep an eye out for anyone freshly turned. That way, you can have a – a home-grown werewolf, so to speak. They can keep fairly large territories safe, provided the Rot problem is mild.”
“What if the White Torrent goes to Rot, and the problem becomes worse?” Lady Colette asked.
“Oh, you don’t need to worry about the Torrent,” Imani said, smiling soothingly. “My husband, Abraham Feleke, has already discussed the issue with the Dukes Desmarais and Stewart. The river was protected by a werewolf until about last year, and both dukes agreed to find another one to do so.”
“What about him?” Lady deTyss asked, looking at Lee.
“If they don’t find anyone else, I could probably try,” Lee said slowly. “But they already have a better candidate. It’s basically just an issue of price at this point.”
“Of price?” the ladies asked shocked.
“George Louis got a claim on the werewolf in question,” David explained. “You all heard about her, she was the one who protected Eoforwic when Bishop Boyen tried to have the city destroyed. She’s exceptionally powerful, so naturally, he wants her for his railway, not send her away.”
“So why is she better a protector than you?” Lady Colette asked. “Or is this a female of the species sort of thing?”
“It’s an age thing,” Lee said, which of course only led to more questions. David, Lane, and Lee gave their best to answer them, and after a while, many of the ladies didn’t even seem to remember that they were talking to a werewolf. Some were still troubled, though, by the idea of having a werewolf around permanently, while they were all quite keen to have one close at hand in that crucial first month after a childbirth. Sorcerers claimed that there was magic in the act of giving birth, and it had to be true, David guessed. The Rot loved nothing more than babies and their mothers.
After a while, Lee walked out and returned a few minutes later as wolf. There were some shrieks of surprise, but nobody ran out.
“That went well,” Imani said, when the ladies were all either on their way home or retreating to their guest rooms. “You showed up at just the right time.”
David nodded tiredly.
“Nathan sent you a letter,” his mother went on and produced the envelope.
“Did you open it?” David asked.
“I did not,” his mother said with fond indignation. “All of our mail appears to have been opened.”
David sighed. They weren’t even subtle about it. He pulled out the letter and shook it open.
“Dear David,” it read. “You need to have a word with your ex, that dame is really getting out of line. If her head gets any bigger, she won’t fit through the door anymore.
But you courted her, so I guess you know that already. Anyway, if you do swing around Deva, Greg wants you to tell Mr. Higgins he misses the city and his lesson in Valoisian grammar.
Personally, I prefer the forest, but I suppose I can’t switch places with him right now. Might accompany him a little, though. So don’t be surprised if I don’t answer to messages.
The company has commenced operations on the line to Mannin right after new moon. They’re driving the men on like animals, so I’m sure work will be swift, even with the forest looming above them. Either that, or they’ll have a fight on their hands. I guess we’ll see soon.
I’ve written to Mum, like I promised, but if you see her, give her a hug from me, and tell her we’re all right.
“Well?” his mother asked. “What does he say?”
David read the letter aloud again.
“I don’t think I understand,” Imani said. “But I don’t like it anyway.”
“No,” David said softly. “I don’t like it, either.”
He scanned the letter again and cursed softly.
“Who is this ‘dame’ he writes about?” his mother asked.
“Duke George Louis,” David said. “And he wants me to talk to him about the way the werewolves are treated, especially Greg, of course. I’m just not sure if he’s threatening to start a strike, or if he is referring to a fight with the Valoise. George will be in Deva soon, I take it?”
“The Season has started,” his mother said. “I’m sure he’ll be there. Either to look for a wife or to conspire with the girls’ fathers.”
“Right,” David muttered. “Of course. I guess I’ll try and have a word with him. Not sure if it’ll do any good, but it’s worth a try.”
“Andrew and Bram will be there, too,” his mother informed him. “They wrote to me that Duke Desmarais will be hosting the usual events, and dragged them with him. I’d come, too, but I suppose it’s better if I stay here to hold down the fort.”
David nodded absentmindedly, still staring at the letter. Treating workers like animals. Werewolves certainly doubly so, oh yes. But what fight was Nathan talking about`? He was reckless enough to start a strike, and possibly even to talk the werewolves into abandoning their job – but there was no way Greg would leave Isaac and the rest of his friends.
Still, better if he reminded George Louis, and possibly later his werewolves, that a lot of people needed protection, and were willing to pay for it, too. Those werewolves who had proven themselves sane should have no trouble finding work elsewhere, so George better started treating them as assets, not like monsters.
“Court season, lovely,” Lane interrupted his thoughts. “I’ll need to swing around Wardshire, pack some dresses.”
David nodded. It had been years since he had been to the viceroy’s court at Deva Castle, not since he and George Louis had had their falling-out. He could pack everything he needed for a hunt literally in his sleep now. Going to court would require more thought.
Unless – he really didn’t need to carry anything from Heron Hall, did he? He could pick up what he needed at the Town House.
“You’ll need a couple of new suits,” his mother said as if she was reading his thoughts. “If you have them made in Deva, it’ll be faster, and they’ll be of the latest fashion, too. You could let Yamikani do your hair, though, while you’re here. She’s really good.”