“Here, give me back that drink and sit down,” ordered Caliburn firmly.
Rune sat on a sofa. The brown patterned fabric had signs of wear but it was soft enough for comfort and firm enough that she wasn’t going to keep sinking into it forever.
Caliburn sat down beside her and handed back her drink. “Now, have some of that.” While she obediently sipped he went on, “Connie, come and sit beside her – you’re her father, you can’t just stand off and make comments.” He paused. “Well you could, but from my observations it doesn’t work well.”
As Constantine made his way over to the sofa, Algernon said brightly, “We can have the Assembly check their database to see if your mother’s on file.”
“There’s no need for that,” protested Constantine, “I know who her mother is.”
“Yes,” agreed Algernon drily, “but you’re not sharing.”
While Sebastian got himself a drink, Caliburn gave his two older brothers a disgusted look before turning back to Rune and asking, “So what were you planning to do today before we burst into your life?”
“Go home to my flat, shower, eat some of the ham and pickled chicken I cooked yesterday, sleep, get up and go back to work.” Rune sipped some more of her plum cordial.
“We’ve cut into your sleeping time, haven’t we?” Algernon changed his focus with disconcerting speed. “If it’s no more of an inconvenience to you, you could sleep in one of our guest rooms after we eat – it would save you the travel time back to your flat. Caliburn could drop you back at work on his way to his thing he’s got on tonight.”
“I could,” agreed Caliburn readily, then added, “I’m certainly a safer driver than Algernon.”
“As is my chauffer,” concurred Algernon, “but really, if-.”
A man dressed in the same livery as the porter opened the doors to the room wide and announced, “Your Grace, the meal is ready.”
“Then let it be served man, let it be served!” Rune thought the exchange between the servant and Algernon was some sort of ritual, but then Algernon went on, “Krulhorn, please have one of the bathroomed guest rooms made up for Damma Greymalk to sleep in this afternoon. So she doesn’t have to dash home after eating to rest before going back on duty at six this evening.”
Yes, your Grace,” Krulhorn replied, “it will be done while you are at the table.”
“Thank you, Krulhorn.” Algernon smiled genially. “Come everyone,” he turned to his brothers and Rune, “let us go and eat.”
Algernon escorted Rune to the dining room, the two of them leading the way for the others. Runes suspected that they were progressing, as if they were in a historical novel, and thought it seemed sad for only five people. Five settings were arranged comfortably around the end of the long dining table. Algernon handed Rune into the seat on the right hand of the head of the table while he took the position of primacy. Constantine sat beside Rune while Sebastian and Caliburn sat opposite them.
The meal itself was in removes instead of courses and of traditional Solstice fare. The first remove was fish, all of it smoked, salted, fermented or dried. There were no soups on the table but there was pie, terrine, a kitchen-sill salad with tiny brined fish pieces and a whole, thinly sliced smoked salmon. When all of that was removed, the meat was brought in. Rune thought that whoever did the cooking was being frustrated with so few people to feed. When everything had been served there was baked ham, smoked venison sausages, corned beef, pickled chicken and pickled duck, all accompanied by root vegetables prepared in various ways and no less than eight jellies, preserves and sauces.
"Don't hold back if you want seconds," advised Algernon, "we'll be living off leftovers for most of the week, as you can see. Which accompaniment would you like with your ham?"
Rune was almost nodding off in her chair by the time the sweet dishes were brought in and she was so full she had to wave off anything more than a thin slice of apple pie and a spoonful of rice pudding.
"We'd better make good with that offer of a room," Sebastian observed from across the table.
"I'm sorry," Rune apologised, "I can't seem to keep my eyes open."
"You've been up all night," Constantine reminded her, "and now we've stuffed you full of good food. It's probably past time for you to be in bed."
"Krulhorn will get one of the maids to show you up," Algernon announced, pressing a call button under the table.
Krulhorn appeared almost immediately. "Your Grace?"
"Damma Greymalk is falling asleep in her seat," Algernon told him. "Please have one of the maids take her upstairs and settle her in so she can have that afternoon's rest we promised her."
"Certainly, your Grace." Krulhorn turned to Rune, "If you would care to come with me, Damma?"
"Thank you, yes," Rune went to stand up and found that Constantine had risen and pulled out her chair for her. "Thank you, sir."
"You could call me Father," he pointed out a touch sadly.
"I don't want to become familiar and even fond," Rune replied in the same tone, "and then find out I've only crossed and confused paths with the right girl."
"I am certain," Constantine said firmly. "I've had a number of years to confirm my opinion, after all."
"I haven't and I'm not." Rune looked up at him, firm rather than defiant.
"Later, children," Algernon intervened, "when Rune is rested and we have more time. Please my dear, go with Krulhorn."
Krulhorn led Rune from the room and handed her over to a maid at the bottom of the main staircase.
"I'm sorry to be taking you away from your Solstice feast," Rune apologised to the maid, whom Krulhorn had introduced as Beatrice.
"They're clearing the fish remove now," Beatrice smiled at her. "We had five sorts of herring alone, so it will take a while. Cook would like to put more dishes on the upstairs table, but there is a limit to how much the four gentlemen and yourself can be expected to eat. There are more of us downstairs - there's not just the gentlemen to look after but the house and the grounds too. Cook's still finishing off our gravies, so I doubt I'll miss out on anything."
Beatrice showed Rune to a room that was the size of her flat’s living room, eating nook and kitchen combined. The size of the room didn’t bother her, she’d been in larger hotel rooms and her own flat had been picked for convenience to public transport and an eye to building her savings. “The bathroom is through here.” Beatrice crossed the room and opened a door. “If you need anything washed so it’s clean to put on again when you wake, you can put it in this laundry bag,” she held up a cloth bag that could have held everything Rune was wearing, “and we can put it through the washer and dryer, and then press it for you before you wake up.”
Rune did a mental inventory and said apologetically, “There are a couple of things I’d love to have washed out actually...”
“There’s a bathrobe here for you, Damma, and wardrobe space for anything you want to hang up,” encouraged Beatrice.
Ten minutes later Rune was washing off under a hot shower, Beatrice was taking her socks and briefs downstairs to be washed and the rest of Rune’s clothes were hanging up in the wardrobe.
Fifteen minutes more and Rune was fast asleep in the oversized double bed.
Beatrice woke her, shaking her gently by the shoulder. “It’s five in the evening, Damma. You need to get up. Your breakfast is waiting for you.”
“Yes, right, of course,” Rune sat up, thrown by being woken up by a person, being in a strange bed and wearing a strange nightshirt. Then she remembered where she was and why.
‘Breakfast’ was a curious but delicious meal of leftovers, specifically ham with potato pancakes. Constantine and Sebastian sat with her while she ate, drinking coffee and making polite conversation. Algernon turned up just as she was finishing, asked her how she’d slept and then added, “I’ve been arranging a few extra details for the Assembly’s testing. Nothing that will concern anyone, unless they want to tamper with the samples.”
“You expect interference?” Constantine’s question and look were sharp.
“I think suitable precautions will remove the possibility of doubtful results, that’s all,” replied Algernon with an air of self-satisfied inscrutability.
Caliburn entered at that point, obviously dressed for a polite, civilian evening party. Algernon raised an eyebrow at him, as did Sebastian – but the opposite eyebrow. Constantine just smiled. Caliburn surveyed his brothers’ expressions and grinned back at them. “So, Rune,” he turned to her and she received a friendly smile, “Are you ready to leave?”
“Yes, thank you sir.” She stood readily and pushed her chair back before anyone could do it for her.
“Come along then,” Caliburn nodded, “I’ll get you to work on time. I warn you,” a wider grin, “Cook has packed a lunch box of leftovers for you.”
Caliburn’s private car was a sleek, low slung, dark green roadster. The way it handled, she was sure it was probably over-engined, the powerful headlights burning through the darkness. If Caliburn hadn’t been driving to the conditions Rune might have been frightened. Instead she tried to make conversation. “Thank you for dropping me at work. I hope I’m not taking you out of your way.”
“Not at all,” he smiled at the windscreen, “I’m grateful. It’d be even more nerve racking without your company. I’ve been invited along to a Solstice dinner to meet someone’s parents.”
“Oh?” Rune smiled encouragingly.
“I keep running through reasons they won’t like me in my head. I think ‘cradle snatcher’ is the one most likely to stick.” Rune made an encouraging noise. “Yes.” Caliburn flashed a smile at her while he checked his blind spot. “He’s only in his early forties, so that could be a valid complaint.”
That made Caliburn’s love interest about twenty years her senior and the Major General himself was about twenty years older than that... “That should make him old enough to know his own mind then, sir.”
“I hope so,” Major General Caliburn Sjeldnjar sighed as he cornered the car, “but parental opinion can be a powerful force.”
“So I’ve been told, sir.” Rune looked straight ahead through the windscreen.
“I’m sorry,” Caliburn apologised, “that may have been maladroit of me.”
“No, sir, I don’t think it was.” It was Rune’s turn to smile him. “I really don’t get the whole family relationships thing sometimes.”
“Then that’s something we’ll have to work on with you when the test results come back, won’t we?” They stopped at the last traffic lights before Run’s drop-off and he turned to give her a warm, avuncular smile.
In the privacy of her own mind, as she smiled back, Rune thought, “I hope he really is my uncle.”
The duty roving section of the security detachment that guarded the Royal Family in residence at Landislav’s Palace had a problem and it was getting worse.