Lute had never been to the top floor of the Lord Avatar's manor, but the suits of armour, ornate paintings and the entire family tree that decorated the walls up here at the highest point came as no surprise to him. The rough stone floor had been replaced by the most luxurious rugs and mats made of the furs of animals native to both these lands and those further up the river. Undoubtedly, some of these were even from across the great sea, but Lute was in no position to identify them. He only knew that no animal nearby had such luscious white fur as the rugs that he was walking over were presenting him with.
The candles on here were not kept by Wax, the servant in charge of replenishing light around the manor. Instead, the light streamed in through windows that led out onto the balconies of the three owners. At night, the personal attendants of each lord or lady would carry a candle by hand to illuminate the passage before their masters. Many a fire had been known to start up in these reaches thanks to the drunken lurches of the most illustrious members of the household, if the rumours that Lute had heard were true, and many an attendant had vanished because of it.
He was not given the chance to explore much farther than the first few metres past the set of marble stairs that led up to this level. Dress stopped, and with a motion of her hand, stopped him also, before a small and intensely polished mahogany door.
She looked him over with a piercing gaze, then sighed. You knew that you were coming to see Lady Sincerity, she told him, as though his brain was so small that he had obviously missed every word that she had uttered. I made this abundantly clear, and yet you still insisted on looking like your garden variety ruffian. Are you so badly misinformed that you believe a comb would in some way harm you? Perhaps tucking in your shirt does not agree with your preference of fashion, but I can't say that I'm one to care about it and nor shall my lady. Hurry up and put a little effort into your appearance for once.
He jumped to her command as soon as she had given it, not out of any sort of respect for or intimidation of the woman in front of him, but out of the firm belief that she would be quite correct. He would have to look his best if he was being pulled in front of any of the owners of the manor, especially when she was young, female and staggeringly beautiful. Dress would certainly be limiting to any charm that he attempted to use, but the chance to score a few stray points could not be easily abandoned.
Dress rapped smartly on the door before leading Lute in after a moment. There had been no call of confirmation or acceptance from lady Sincerity, so whether or not she was there remained a mystery for a while, which was not helped by the fact that Sincerity's sitting room seemed to be behind several layers of thin, colourful and somewhat translucent curtains. The entire room had a very exotic feel, exaggerated by the fact that so little of it could be seen. He followed after Dress, who navigated in complete ease as though they were actually in some sort of small maze.
Quite quickly, they came to a selection of heavily cushioned chairs set before a wide panelled window. There sat the lady Sincerity, dressed in fine white silks and looking him over expectantly. The look that she was giving him was not even remotely the sort of look that he was expecting. It was almost as though he was some small prey that she had cornered and now intended to rip to pieces. Her long, red-gold hair, cascaded down her back in waves behind her, creating a sharp contrast to the pure as snow white that she was wearing.
My lady, Dress offered immediately with a curtsey and a bowed head, might I present Lute of Truth side.
Aware of the propriety of the situation, Lute bowed before the lady of the manor. Technically, Lute, Harp and Bell all belonged to Truth, as he was the lord-in-waiting and had begun to inherit the household of his father. Any servants that were under Sincerity's name would have been gifts from Truth for the sake of her comfort.
Okay Dress, job done, disappear, Sincerity said abruptly. It was her first acknowledgement of Dress, but the attendant made no sign or remark to show that she was disappointed by it. She left, as instructed, and vanished behind another collection of coloured curtains. So, began Sincerity, drawing Lute's absolute attention, you were playing music underneath my balcony, which is an off-limits area, after hours and while I was having a personal conversation. Care to explain yourself?
I'd rather not if it's all the same, replied Lute with a smile. His heart was thumping against his chest so strongly that he could almost feel it's will to punish him for even daring to open his mouth. I don't think the explanation would end well for me.
Brave, Sincerity teased. You realise how much trouble you could end up in if I so much as opened my mouth in my brother or father's directions, right?
Oh, yes, Lute answered. A great amount of doom would descend upon my skull, but I'm hoping we might be able to come to some arrangement that involves you not doing that and me perhaps not ending up being found dead on a road somewhere.
You have such faith that you'd be found, said Sincerity with a small and neat smile. This effectively froze Lute in place as though a hunter's spear was pointed at his throat. He had never encountered the hunter's spear, but this was exactly what he imagined that it would be like.
Sincerity rose from her seat, the pool of fabric shifting so that it fell behind her and down so that the entirety of her body was covered. Her family necklace came forwards, the little round locket catching Lute's eye as it glinted in the sunlight. This was likely a good thing, as his eyes had been very strongly drawn to the fact that the outer skirts of her dress were ever so slightly see-through.
Here's the deal then, Lute of Truth, she began, striding up close to him and looking at him in a way that reduced him to the level of a small child, you have a schedule over the next few months that involves a lot of cleaning, a lot of rehearsing and a lot of being shown off to whomever is available for you to be shown off to. I'm going to change that I think.
Forgive me, my lady, interrupted Lute, though he was now very wary of saying anything that might offend, but I'm in the service of the lord-in-waiting rather than yourself. As much as I would enjoy serving you, I doubt that the lord-in-waiting Truth would allow me to be diverted from his own plans, especially considering that my associates would have to join me in that diversion.
The wonderful thing about being the older sister is that I know all of my brother's embarrassing secrets, so you will be doing exactly what I wish you to do rather than Truth, Sincerity answered. In the next few days, I have been invited down the river to meet a potential courtier. I am not a fan of boats, and I want some entertainment. Since you are obviously musically apt, I think you will have to do.
I get a little seasick, Lute lied quickly.
Then we shall have to find entertainment in your music rather than your voice, hadn't we? came the quite reply. I hope that you prove more talented at faking surprise when you are told about this than you are at finding reasons to escape it.
Who else will be coming then? he asked, hoping desperately that he would be able to turn this situation to his advantage. Harp and Bell were permanent fixtures in his life. Not being able to turn over during the night and complain about everybody else to them would prove incredibly disappointing for him.
My brother and father will be there for the return journey, but they have other things to be doing, Sincerity told him. The downright terrifying aura that she had just exhibited had vanished into a more relaxed and comfortable one, but Lute was still a little on edge. Otherwise it's just the usual processions of god knows who and god knows what. If you get seasick then I'm sure you will know just how intensely boring and mind-numbingly long a boat journey can be.
Well, since I'm being forced to do so, I would imagine that my friends and I will do everything in our power to ensure that there's a smile on your face for the entire journey.
And so you should, or I shall add your head to my collection. Now be a good boy and go away; I have to prepare myself for the day ahead.