The Gatehouse was not the most expensive of the City's inns, but it was the largest, and had a reputation for cleanliness, efficiency and good food. Porda, his knee stiff and painful again from sitting awkwardly braced in the carriage, hobbled along with no attention to spare for the sights and sounds of the inn, or the aromas wafting from the restaurant areas and the kitchens. He grimaced and squinted, forcing his left knee to bend at every step. His hands and forehead were damp with perspiration by the time he was shown into the private sitting-room that Carola Furnival had taken.
It was a large, airy space, supplied with every civilized comfort, yet possessing that impersonal blandness that characterizes the hired room. Melia and Dav withdrew at this point and coming toward him, smiling a greeting, was a woman who had to be Carola Furnival.
Lady Carola Furnival was a plain, dark-haired woman in her late thirties. She wore an elegant gown of blue watered silk with a matching lace shawl, but they did not suit her, only accentuated the masculine breadth of her shoulders and the sturdiness of her frame. Her features were prominent, again with a masculine cast. She smiled warmly however, and was sincere in her thanks.
"Please take a seat," she said. "I have already sent for tea. I'm truly sorry I disturbed you so late in the evening, but I have so much to attend to and only a little time. I know of your work of course. Your reputation is second to none! It is a very great pleasure, and an honour, to meet you."
Porda dared not risk a bow, but he inclined his head slightly and took the proffered chair. "The pleasure, and indeed the honour is all mine, I assure you." His chair was near the fire and he hoped the warmth of it would soon ease the distracting ache in his leg. He set his case down beside him on the richly patterned carpet.
"You are kind," she said. The expression in her brown eyes hinted at an astute and frank intelligence, but he could also feel her pity. He knew he had not been successful at hiding his pain, and was annoyed, both with her and with himself. It was not that he had made any great effort to dissimilate - his use of a stick made his infirmity plain to see - but he did not want to be pitied.
"You have studied history, my Lady?" Porda asked to avoid any enquiry about his health.
"I am fascinated by the subject," she admitted. "Your own specialty - the Laetic Era. I, I mean we, have read all your essays..." she paused. "I should explain."
"Wending, as you know, is very near Tullock, where the Laetic ruins were discovered ten years ago."
"The Westernmost outpost of their Kingdom," Porda nodded."A farmer, one Hort Gineson, ploughed land previously used only for pasture."
"Exactly so!" she said. "His Grace has always been interested in history, but this find awoke a positive fever for archaeology in the district. You of all people must know what an interesting subject it is - most enthralling. Under the guidance of His Grace, we formed a society; the Wending Laetic Society. His Grace has set aside rooms for our use at Dorellin House where we meet once a month. We have organized lectures and have even amassed a collection of exhibits. We are hoping to found a Museum, which will one day be open to the public." She paused as the door opened and tea was brought in.
"A very worthy ambition, my Lady," Porda said after the servants had gone. He sipped from his cup, and while she took a drink, attempted surreptitiously to massage his knee. The flesh there was knotted and tight, the muscles cramping. He wished he'd had the foresight to bring a sachet with him. He could have stirred the mixture into his tea. He noticed her watching him, again with that compassionate sorrow. "A very, um, worthy ambition," he repeated.
"Thank you," she said. "But I am keeping you. I will come to the point. His Grace has recently acquired some extremely unusual items. Though we have searched every relevant text we have found no information, and I am assured these items are rare if not unique!" She leant forward, flushed with excitement, her eyes bright. "One of the relics is especially fine. Indeed, I would say it is a treasure among treasures - beyond price. For these reasons we are desirous of the expertise of a specialist and his Grace at once decided that we should seek no other opinion - only that of your good self. Seeing that I was already coming to Albaston - on an unrelated matter - his Grace requested I meet with you. Professor Hoight, you are most cordially invited to Dorellin House. You will be his Grace's honoured guest, naturally. If you agree to study our collection and also make us privy to any conclusions you might draw, you will be handsomely recompensed."
Her eagerness made Porda uncomfortable. He'd met amateurs before, and they were often overly enthused. They demanded excitement, instant success and new discoveries every moment. True, dedicated study required endless patience, rigid method and a probing, scientific mind. Ancient history was not a recommended field of study for sensation seekers. He realized he had been silent too long. Lady Carola was waiting for a response.
"Hmm," he said. "New finds, you say? It sounds intriguing. If..." he paused too long.
"His Grace told me to say he would of course allow you to publish any findings."
"Well...um," Porda coughed. Lady Carola was anxious. She fidgeted, and clenched her hands tightly together until her knuckles showed white through her skin. He noticed, but ignored the uneasiness this made him feel. She was an amateur - over-excited. He thought of the phrase ‘handsomely recompensed'. He thought of the probable elegance and comfort of a Ducal Palace. There would be clean, crisp linen on his bed, wonderful meals and excellent staff. "How soon, exactly?"
Lady Carola gave a nervous laugh. "That is entirely up to you. As soon as is convenient. If you agree, you will have our eternal gratitude. Please say you will consider it?"
As Porda lay awake that night, he was hardly aware of the throbbing in his spine and knee-joint. He was thinking of the beds in Dorellin House and of servants who were not eccentric scribblers of unintelligible notes. He stared at the ceiling. It was bowed and gray, the plaster chipped and cracked like a relief-map of a mountainous country. He did not see it. Instead he saw shining chandeliers, an expanse of white cleanliness and gilded scrollwork. He also amused himself imagining the likely expressions on his assistant's face, when told the news. But just as he was dropping off to sleep the last images that came into his mind were of Lady Carola's worried eyes and flushed cheeks, and the stark white of bone pressed hard against skin.