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 Agreine lost her smile. "I...I did not know you were injured."

The young woman brows creased. "Darnet was told to turn away everyone today. I apologize, was there something urgent?"

"I received an invitation for this afternoon."

The young woman blinked, then ran her eyes over Agreine appraisingly. "You are Agreine, from Ecthys, who wishes to acquire the Garge homestead?"

Agreine smiled. "I am. And I pride myself on never being late. Your servant needs a reminder to be polite to guests, perhaps?"

The young woman smiled back. "I'm sorry that you do not like the conduct of our hallkeeper. We prefer it, rather. Then allow me to rescind my aunt's invitation, that there may be no more conflict between us. Good day, madam."

The hallkeeper bowed politely, as the girl turned away, and shut the door in her face.

Agreine stared at the closed door, speechless.

Her eyes narrowed in indignation and she reached for the door-knocker again.

This hallkeeper stared at her stoically. "Madam, was there something you needed?"

She gritted her teeth. "I wish to speak to Madam Derie."

"Darnet." A voice came from inside.

The hallkeeper stepped back.

Madam Derie, one of the twelve councillors of the town, stood within the doorway. She frowned at Agreine. "I thought it was my nephew again, causing trouble."

"Madam, did we not have a meeting today?" Agreine could not put it off, not with the farmer boy back like an unfortunate relative that cannot be gotten rid of.

"My nephew and niece were injured in a recent clash against mercenaries. I will take care of them first."

"I apologize, but your niece closed the door in my face. It is obvious she did not learn her manners from her aunt." In the face of that, a half hour of time to speak about the Garge homestead would be allow Agreine to forget the rudeness.

Madam Desi smiled slowly. "You think so? She has lived in my household for most of her life, after all."

Agreine stopped, her senses suddenly wary. Something was wrong.

"Madam Desie, what has happened?"

"I too, have hoped that the Garge homestead was sold to another from the Lowpool, but that was not the case. The child Defi was only lucky to be there when Leraine made her decision. You know how she is. This is the reason I wished to help you. But not at this cost."

"Cost? What cost could there be? You said yourself that he is an outsider!"

"The Lowpool is a place of freedom, do you know? The first settlers were illegitimate children, outcasts. Five hundred years ago, the laws for bastards were not as kind as they are now. They saw this place as a place of choice, and grew it accordingly."

"This is about the children? They are only werefolk, children of some lord's dalliance in a brothel. They don't even have the same mothers. Returning them to their father is only right."

"That count is a very traditional man. Your mother never brought you back, and never told you the stories. The blood of the Lowpool is the blood of bastards, young woman."

"I am not bastard-born!"

"Perhaps that is the reason your mother never returned."

Agreine straightened up, outraged, head high. "Madam, if you are to speak slander instead of helping me, I will take my leave."

The two in the doorway watched her go.

The hallkeeper spoke, beard twitching as he controlled his smile. "The blood of bastards, madam?"

"I had to say something to make her leave. And isn't it the truth, Darnet?"

"It is. But a rather long view on truth, isn't it, madam?"

"You know what they say. This is the Lowpool. If that distant ancestor didn't take the long view, we'd never have been born."

*

Agreine made her way to Calor's rented manor house, thinking hard. The maid barely kept up with her speedy steps.

What had happened. The boy could not have done anything. It had been less than three hours since they met in the town hall, since he returned. That meant Madam Desie had been swayed by someone else.

Someone connected to the three orphans. The orphanage keeper? What clout did he have? Some exaggerated stories about fighting smugglers and nothing more.

One of the reasons people were hesitant to support her was the boy's seeming adoption of the three orphans and his friendship with some old woman from the uninhabited parts of the river who seemed to have some clout in the Lowpool.

Calor had given her the information to remove those obstacles. The children would be taken back to their father and the old hag would be discredited.

The boy would have no support.

How did things go wrong?

She went up to the door without gesturing to the maid to knock.

The door opened. Worrying, she said immediately.

"I wish to speak to the esquire. He will receive me."

"Will he?"

The voice was not of the hallkeeper that Calor hired. She blinked at the stiff military uniform. It looked impressive. The man was tall, thinner than any military man should be, and had his long hair and beard tied unkempt.

She frowned. Calor had always told his friends to let her in immediately. "I am Agreine, a friend of esquire Ducan. Is he not in?"

"He is not, but perhaps you should come in. Do you know him well?"

"Yes, we met some months ago. He came to look for land opportunities with me." She was about to say that the Lowpool was where her mother was born when she remembered that woman's words. Was she implying that Agreine was from a base-born line? Of all the things to say! It had been five hundred years ago, surely things like that would have been lost to time.

Yes, it could not be.

This place was truly vile, and so were its people.

"I see. You seem good friends."

She smiled in a strained manner at the man, but her heart eased a little. People should be like this man, gentle, cultured, polite. A true city-born cosmopolite!

She looked around and frowned. The house was empty. "Where are the servants?"

"You do not know?"

"Why would I know where the servants went?"

"Ah." The man nodded. "Perhaps you are not as close a friend after all."

Agreine inhaled. The house was without servants, the manor appeared empty. No, it could not be. "Where is the esquire?"

"He appears to have left, madam. Were you looking for him?"

The voice was good-natured, but it rang with something that made Agreine take a breath.

The speaker was a young man, his hair pale creamy blonde, his eyes deep and dark. Agreine realized were actually purple. He stood near the staircase, one hand on it, as if surveying a domain that was so naturally his.

"My teacher does not like introducing himself, so it must fall to me." The young man lamented, ignoring a sharp look from said teacher. He stepped forward to take Agreine's hand. "I am Cor Graem, and this is my teacher, Jorne, assistant inspector palatine."

Agreine paled. "In-inspector palatine?"

Her maid gasped, stared at the tall man, and fainted.

An inspector palatine was an investigator sent directly by the emperor to ascertain truth of various matters in the kingdom, most often the stories were of corruption or infighting between nobility and the government or various calamities were calmed by such inspectors. The most talked about stories of course, were those of treason.

They were given a wide range of powers, more than even a count or a provincial governor. Stories of families being wiped out, and entire cities evacuated and destroyed might see an inspector palatine behind them.

"You do not know where Calor Ducan is?" The assistant inspector intoned.

Agreine swayed.

The young man, barely a boy, laughed. "Ignore him, he's always like this. About the esquire, a minor matter, don't worry. He's just told me something about a book last year that would help my teacher with a current investigation."

Agreine took a breath. "He��he hasn't said anything about a book."

"How about why he came here?"

"He said he really liked the land. It was full of vigor."

"Have you ever seen this map before?"

The boy unrolled a leather patch, embroidered at the edges, and locations carefully rendered in colored ink.

She shook her head.

The boy smiled. "Then, it appears we are done with the place. Do you know where he went?"

"I...I see." She looked around again, truly lost. "I am...afraid I do not know where he went, or even when. I do not know what is happening today."

The boy directed her to a seat, with a glint in his eye. "Allow me to summarize then."

"My l..." The teacher suddenly coughed on a word and said, reluctantly. "...Cor."

"No, no, I do not mind." The boy Cor waved his teacher away, blithely. He tapped his chin with a finger, thinking. "You wished to buy a small piece of land, but there was already an owner. In order to make the owner leave, you targeted the people around him, that is to say, a hermit knowledgeable in the highest levels of mystic cooking and three children from the orphanage.

"A good strategy, I say. Unfortunately, you did not take note of three things: the audience, the setting, and the strength of the antagonist. The consequence of the first and second was the momentum turned away from you because the people here have some odd fondness for bastards. Ah, I might build a house here myself, this place is a gem!

"As for the third thing, do you know, mysteriously, just this afternoon, Defi's last will and testament were leaked. What is with the confidentiality in this town, oh my. It is very strange. His beneficiaries were that old hermit and those three children. It was also found that said the poisoning happened long after the hermit left the capital, and that the children ran away themselves to be saved from evil men by the gallant antagonist. Considering you, the protagonist, were just this morn attempting to declare him dead in full view of the public, the flow of opinion has now turned against you."

He lifted a brow. "Of course, there are people still on your side, and this ploy of the antagonist is but a stopgap. The protagonist can make a come-back!"

He threw his arms high, with a smile. Then he let his arms fall.

His voice lowered and his eyes sharpened. "But I suggest, madam, that you cease from attempting to acquire that tiny piece of land or going against its owner. The forces of light have fled due to a mysterious dragon and the protagonist is currently very alone."

He beamed at her. "What do you think?"

Agreine felt that there was a suffocating pressure pushing into her vision.

She could only nod.

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