Toikem saw his sister biting her lip, but he knew she wouldn’t say anything. They didn’t have a drop of noble blood. It would be a mistake to question the word of the Baron.
“Kayla and Toikem?” the bearded man asked without decorum. The siblings nodded synchronically. “My name is Aleander din Joitendre, Seneschal of Vertcol, and member of the Imperial Guard. I will evaluate you in Longval. If by the end of the week I believe you do not represent a risk for the security, morality or property of the courtiers, you will join the Imperial Court under my tutelage.” Despite his lame leg, small stature and hairy face, Aleander spoke more eloquently than Bertel.
“The message spoke of immediate danger, Seneschal,” Kayla explained. “I understand there is a protocol, but do you not fear there’ll be deaths?”
“There already have been, and we’ve received news of further fatalities since my arrival at Blue Tower. However, my lord does not wish to introduce new threats to the Court.”
“Can we at least know what happened, so that we may gather the proper equipment before we go?”
“As a matter of security, details of the Court habits cannot be divulged at the moment.”
“Be careful not to encase yourself in armor,” Kayla warned him. “We will try to undo the curse, if there is one, but we cannot bring back the dead.”
Aleander crossed his hands on the pommel of his sword, his eyes peering at the girl. “I find your flame commendable. But I will not even point you in the direction of the Court a moment before I’m confident you are the people I was sent to bring back.” He looked at Toikem. “If you want to hurry the process, we can start now. Courtesy forces me to allow you to settle in the day of your arrival, but if you wish, I’ll test your ability for combat right now.”
“I am the one who fights,” Kayla replied, stepping forward.
“I will have to challenge each of you, anyway.” Aleander stepped to the edge of the dais. “What say you? Want to give Bertel a show?”
She nodded and exited the room without further ado. Toikem watched the nobles while she did. He noticed the kindly smile of the seneschal and the lustful look of the intendant. Her calf-leather clothes didn’t emphasize her womanly curves, but they did not hide them either. She was a beautiful maid with not a scar on her skin despite her lifestyle. Toikem was not so lucky.
“She is a fiery one, your sister,” Aleander told him with no apparent disrespect. “How come you wear barbarian armor if you don’t fight?”
“It is because I don’t know the ways of war that I need it most, Seneschal,” Toikem explained.
“A costly suit,” Bertel remarked.
“And a perfect fit,” Aleander agreed. “I doubt you scavenged that, it was made for you.”
Toikem lowered his eyes on the dark steel plates that covered his forearms. They looked like murderous blades. The barbarian blacksmiths were not only good at forging steel; they made their warriors look as dangerous as they were.
“Are you of barbarian descent?” Aleander asked.
“No,” Toikem replied. “However, I did not pay for it.”
“So you will serve the Empire for the gold.”
Toikem looked calmly into the seneschal’s eyes. “We will not do it out of patriotism, but we hope for another reward. We will accept gold if that reward isn’t granted.”
“What reward is this?” Bertel asked with some mock in his voice. “Don’t tell me you’re trying to get a land title out of this!”
“Any recompense would sound pretentious before our work is done. Our usual price is silver. We expect gold from the Emperor. No more, unless the Court agrees to it.”
Aleander seemed satisfied with his answer. “You seem wise for a youth. How old are you?”
“I am twenty-one, Sir.”
Bertel chuckled. “You look five less.”
“He sounds thirty more, Bertel. Who’s ever said the same of you?”
The intendant frowned but looked away soon enough. Apparently, the intendant had no sway over the Imperial Guard – but he had resentment. The main doors swiveled again and Kayla appeared with her hands full. She gave Toikem a sword and round shield. Then, she received a surprised look from Aleander.
“An axe?” he asked.