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 Agreine wanted to be back in Ecthys, the bustling salons where well-dressed ladies gathered, the elegant men who knew all the dances, the witty light conversation about the doings of duchesses and princes, the bright lights from crystal lamps making the night bright as day, the private art collections that the nobles opened for public viewing, the newly popular opera houses where the audience was properly attired and sufficiently mannered.

She had attended a stage-play in the Sottolac Theatre once, in the first week after she arrived, and subsequently removed the woman who had invited her from consideration as a possible friend.

The audience around Agreine had actually been stomping their feet to the music and roaring the lines with the actors! There were females on the stage!

Such a vulgar display!

A woman who enjoyed such things was surely not respectable.

"This is the Lowpool," shrugged the wife of one of the town councillors. "They do no harm."

A few others nodded.

Why was that considered a viable answer? The standards of decency and morality were universal, and no tiny town could simply decide which moral tenet to follow or discard.

No harm? Such lack of decency in entertainment was corruptive! It spread like the plague.

Her attempts to discuss were treated as argumentative.

How unworldly of these people, who only lived in their small bubble of isolation.

Why did her mother talk constantly about this town with such fondness? Perhaps if Agreine grew up here, like her cousin Leraine, she would think as gracelessly as these people as well?

She shuddered.

And she thought after Leraine married a respectable man, a researcher who graduated from university, that her cousin was worth a cultivating a correspondence with. But no wonder the man ran away.

A cultured man, a university man, would surely be stifled in this place!

How many times had the words 'this is the Lowpool' been thought as enough to stop her attempts to inject culture into these small-town minds?

And another thing!

The name of the town was Sottolac. Sottolac! And yet, no one used it! No one, not even the mayor; how was that reasonable? Were they actually rebelling against the provincial governor?

She huffed as she walked down the street, her maid holding a parasol above her head.

A gaggle of laughing young men cut off her path, their cheer so concentrated on the fellow in their middle who was looking so exasperated but also proud that they nearly ran her down.

"You'll treat us tonight, eh? You're rich as a lord now!"

Agreine scoffed softly at their backs.

A lord?

If the mayor was not nobility, then with the looks of a few of the councillors, she might believe this place was a bandit town.

She was a wine-merchant's wife, a respected woman from the city. She had more money than half this town put together.

But in all her life, she had only experienced the feeling of being a noble once, when she rode in the Esquire Ducan's carriage.

A carriage!

Not even her husband, who sold wine to half the nobles in Ecthys, could afford the massive yearly expense of keeping a carriage and the two horses needed to pull one.

Even the cheapest carriage would cost ten gold solstices, the wood for its construction needed to be both flexible and sturdy for the comfort of the passengers. Otherwise what difference would it be from the jolting discomfort of a farmcart?

Such rare woods only grew near the bubbling salt lakes of the cold north.

And these brutes thought themselves the equal to a lord? Let them have their own carriage and stable, with lands worth at least six thousand silver crescents a year first. That was the least qualification for acquaintance with a lord.

Or did they think titles were simply picked up off the streets?

What connections would some farmer's son from a town that was barely a village have.

She though, even if her mother was from this town, she was from the city and had many acquaintances among the nobles now. She was even in the same room as a castellar and a baron the month before!

With Calor Ducan's help, her husband Mathys might even become an armiger. Or better yet, a patrician!

Yes, that was something to look forward to.

The taunts of some farmer boy meant little.

She scowled.

She had been certain dear Calor had said the boy had been caught up in a fatal matter with bandits. He had assured her the boy would not return and that she was free to purchase the house from the town hall.

Seeing the boy again had been a shock.

Why did she want to buy a house here again? She would likely be better served by acquiring land nearer the city, then she would never have to return here.

She sighed.

It was true however, that land in the mountains, land near a water source was richer in vitality than anywhere else. It was suited greatly for farmland. Unfortunately, she could not buy land near the major rivers, which was at premium prices.

Acquiring land here, in her mother's hometown, had been cheaper by far. By the gossip of the farmers' wives and the records Calor had acquired for her, the farms surrounding the Lowpool were uncommonly productive.

The reason was that there was likely a blessed land in the lake, where the sable crab laired, that added more vitality to the surrounding areas than usual farmland.

Because of that, the land in the Lowpool was an even more attractive purchase than land beside an ordinary river. Of course, this was also the reason no one was willing to sell their land. She was lucky the herbalist was greedy, and that there was actually land for sale in the town hall. The clerk informed her that there usually wasn't.

She still didn't know why the old couple sold their land to the boy. She had thought her offer was more than the land was worth.

It was impossible that the boy bought it himself. Possibly that woman Ferlen who suddenly became her enemy helped. Agreine had only pointed out that bringing her children to a corruptive place like the theatre was akin to destroying their future.

The woman could not see kindness where it was offered, then she would not waste her breath.

If their parents did not heed her words, perhaps she should speak to the children herself? A child should have proper moral influences in the formative years.

She nodded, then realized they were near to the house where she'd been invited for the afternoon, she motioned to the maid to go and knock.

She took up the light parasol as the maid went before her.

Madam Derie had been particularly insistent that she visit, and Agreine was gratified at the woman's encouragement.

Even if she had a few enemies in town, she had more who were eager to befriend her. She who lived in the city and could speak at length on culture and the sophisticates she met at various events. Against a small-town woman, who would choose their company over hers?

It did not matter.

A few detractors were the sign of having led a good life, her dear friend Calor had once said.

She could not deny that it was invigorating to win a debate with the small-minded women of this town.

That did not mean she wished to stay. Ugh, that herbalist's house smelled, and there was absolutely no entertainment other than farm gossip.

The more worldly inhabitants were at least tolerable. Madam Derie had even agreed to speak to the farmer boy about the Garge homestead and how it should be returned to a proper owner.

She was about to step on the garden path to Madam Derie's when she saw her maid look back at her in dismay and shake her head.

What?

Surely that did not mean she was not welcome? She had been invited personally by Madam Derie!

The maid hurried to her side.

"Madam, the hallkeeper said they were not accepting visitors for the day."

"What? What do they mean by that?"

"He said madam Derie's niece and nephew caught an illness."

"An illness? As if I would believe that! You were there when Madam Derie spoke, were you not?" Without waiting for a reply, she set up the garden path. "I will have an explanation."

"Madam!" The maid gaped. An explanation? Who directly asked for an explanation after their servant had been turned away from the door? Were they looking for the humiliation of being turned away in person?

She hurried after her mistress. "Madam, please let me ask again. I might have misunderstood."

But Agreine's hand was already on the bronze knocker of the door.

It opened. The hallkeeper paused at the sight of Agreine, then looked at the maid who hung her head.

"Forgive me, madam, the house is not accepting visitors for the day."

"I was invited by Madam Derie. By what right do you have to send us away?"

The hallkeeper blinked, but continued gently. "This is a house of illness, and it needs quiet. Madam, please return another time."

"I want an explanation."

"Madam," the maid tugged at her coat while looking around. "Perhaps we should return tomorrow?"

"Do you mean, that invitations given by your employer-"

"Darnet, who is it?"

"Miss, it is no one," the hallkeeper turned to smile. "Please return to bed. This exertion is bad for your health surely."

Agreine's face reddened at the hallkeeper's words.

No one?

"Who in the world is in bed at this hour? No wonder this town only has the sable crab to their name, if the people laze around like this."

The hallkeeper's face darkened. He put his body between Agreine and the interior of the house.

Even the hallkeepers are brutes at least provocation. At least her maid was silent.

"Darnet, don't block the door."

The hallkeeper moved aside reluctantly.

Agreine smiled smugly.

The woman behind the doorkeeper was young, with pale brown hair and large grey eyes. Her arm was swathed in bandages. Her lips were pressed into a thin line.

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