Sophia's first impression of him was that he was the sort of person one would expect to knock on your door on a dark and stormy night.
Yet it was late afternoon when he and his children arrived at the gates of Hallemaine Manor, and the late spring sun was shining blissfully, while a sweet-scented breeze wafted through the grass. They had only a small leather suitcase between the three of them, which the man carried with no apparent difficulty.
He was poised, and between his pale appearance and sharp black suit, he was the very image of elegance. So was the little girl, whose appearance was close to that of a porcelain doll, all pale skin wrapped in lace and ruffles. She had her father's eyes, a disconcerting red shade Sophia had never seen before. The little boy trailing behind them, frail and limping along in his crutches, was the only discordant element in this picture, his skin an unhealthy gray and his gaze downcast.
When she entered the parlor where they were waiting, Sophia did not have much time to analyze this family portrait too closely. The man took off his tricorner hat and gave a slight bow.
"Lady Hallemaine," he intoned in a neutral, but perfectly clear voice. "I see you are doing well."
Sophia Hallemaine raised an eyebrow at that. It was true, he could have known she was the head of the family by the collar around her neck, emblazoned with the family coat of arms, but there was something odd about his remark; he was acting too familiar for a stranger.
"I'm sorry, have we met?" she asked, self-consciously touching the collar.
The corners of his lips quirked slightly.
"We have a common acquaintance," he replied.
Sophia thought she could guess who-- there was one person in her household who attracted the oddest company imaginable-- but it would have been rude to assume.
"Yes?" she said instead, raising her chin in inquiry.
The man turned his head to the side slightly, his white hair making no sound as it silkily brushed his shoulder; she got the sense that he was surprised she hadn't voiced her guess, as they both knew very well of whom he spoke.
"You know him as James Tully," the man said instead, ageless patience in his voice.
"Ah, of course," Sophia nodded at the name of her secretary and right-hand man. "Society business?" she inquired as innocently as she could muster.
This time he truly smiled. It was slight and fleeting, but he seemed well and truly amused.
"I am the one here to see him, not the Society." The answer was exactly as cryptic as she'd expected.
"And who should I say is calling on Mr. Tully?" she asked, even though she was not a servant and had no intention of fetching him as if she were; but she was curious enough for a name to pose the question.
He paused for long a moment, staring at her with his amused smile, before he answered.
"Tell him Alistair is waiting."
Sophia was about to ask for a surname when another voice intruded upon the conversation.
"That won't be necessary. I'm already here," James Tully said gruffly as he leaned heavily against a cabinet by the door.
Sophia hadn't heard him coming and Alistair apparently hadn't seen him, because for an almost imperceptible instance, surprise cracked his aristocratic veneer. He recovered quickly, however, and strode towards James.
Now that they were facing each other, Sophia couldn't help note the differences between the two. Where Alistair was tall and elegant, well-groomed and finely dressed, James was slouching, with his dark hair cropped short and uncombed, his extravagant blue coat and turquoise shirt looking disheveled and his face unshaven. James had never been much for personal appearance, but next to Alistair, he looked like an eyesore.
"If Lady Hallemaine will excuse us," Alistair spoke without even looking at her, "we will take our leave and talk in private."
"Mm," James grunted. It was the sound he made when he had no opinion on an issue and didn't want to be bothered to form one.
"Ah, certainly," Sophia nodded, bewildered as she always was when old friends of James's came to visit. "I will... keep the children company," she offered.
Alistair nodded, then turned and bowed at her before leaving the room with James. She heard them walking down the hall towards James's office, their boots clicking on the polished floors. She stared at the door for a long time, unsure what to make of Alistair.
She was unsettled out of her reverie as she felt a shiver run down her spine. She blinked, unsure what had caused the unpleasant sensation, but brushed it off. She instead turned to the children.
The little girl was standing daintily with her hands clasped behind her back, a charming smile on her face. She was a lovely child, perhaps around ten years old, taking after her father in appearance and style of dress, but there was something frightfully un-childlike in that. The boy, with his hair split shockingly between white and black and his sickly gray skin, was staring as the ground in a manner that suggested resignation. It was an odd pose, considering how young he looked; certainly no older than seven.
"Ah, I am Lady Sophia of House Hallemaine," she introduced herself, curtseying slightly.
"A pleasure to meet you. My name is Charlotte," the little girl said, mirroring the curtsey. Her voice was delightfully pleasant.
Sophia then looked at the boy.
"I'm Gideon," he said, his voice sounding much stronger than he looked. He didn't bow or even look up as he said it, but Sophia couldn't fault him for the apparent rudeness; he did not look well.
"Forgive him, Lady Hallemaine, Gimpi isn't as mannered as Father and I are," Charlotte offered, her voice just as sweet.
Gideon did not seem to take exception to that or, indeed, react in any visible way. Sophia walked over to him. She gathered the skirts of her dark red dress and kneeled down in front of him, trying to catch his gaze.
"Gideon, dear, are you feeling ill?" she asked.
"Gimpi's always like this," Charlotte said huffily, apparently upset that she was not the center of attention.
Sophia barely heard her, as Gideon looked up slightly. His eyes were mismatched, one crimson and one blue, and that made his mournful expression all the more striking.
"I'm sorry we're imposing on you, Lady Hallemaine," he said softly. There was an unsettling mature quality to his words.
"Quite alright," she replied, unsure what else to say. She cleared her throat, changing the subject. "Would you like something sweet to nibble while we wait? I'll have the servants fetch something for you. And perhaps some tea? Or... or keldjuice, we've just had some brought from the Archipelago."
She gestured for them to sit down on one of the elegant sofas in the parlor and called for a servant, instructing her to bring pastries and refreshments, then sat down in a chair opposite of the two children. Gideon apparently had had no difficulty climbing on the sofa, and his crutches were perched against it, next to his legs. Charlotte was on the other end of the sofa, her hands primly folded in her lap.
"Well, here we are," Sophia mused. "What brings you around these parts?"
"Father has business with Mr. Tully," Charlotte replied.
"Ah, and I don't suppose this business has anything to do with the Society?" Sophia asked.
"We wouldn't know anything about it," came Charlotte's reply, perhaps a little too quickly.
Sophia had the notion that the little girl probably knew more about the Society than even she did. It would not have been hard, because all she knew about it was that James had once been a part of it.
"And will you be staying long in the area?"
"Indefinitely," Gideon answered this time.
"Will you be staying in town, then?"
Charlotte and Gideon exchanged a furtive glance.
"I am sure we will make do," Charlotte said.
Sophia found herself ill at ease, for some reason.
Pastries were already eaten and tea cups were nearly empty by the time Alistair and James reappeared in the parlor.
"They'll need a place to stay," was the first thing James said, looking quite unhappy about it.
"The guest house?" Sophia offered.
"That will be quite acceptable," Alistair said, inclining his head with a sedate smile. "Have the children been behaving?"
"Oh, yes," Sophia replied automatically.
They'd stuck mostly to pleasantries and idle talk, during which she'd gotten the impression that Charlotte was maybe a bit spoiled under that polite veneer of hers and that Gideon had a bright mind under his frail appearance, but once in a while, the conversation would skirt decidedly strange territory, following which one of them or both would promptly change the subject.
"They're delightful," she added, as Charlotte beamed proudly.
"I see," Alistair murmured, amusement radiating off him in waves. Sophia got the eerie feeling that he knew her hospitality had more to do with curiosity than any kind of magnanimity on her part.
"I'll have someone show you to the guest house, then."
"You have our gratitude."
She cornered James later that evening, after she showed the strange family to their guest house and had dinner sent to them.
He was drinking, quite heavily, though alcohol had no visible effect on him. She supposed it was the principle of the thing.
"How long are they staying?" was the first thing she asked, though it was not the question that was burning on her mind.
"Indefinitely," James replied, slumping in his desk chair and dragging the bottle of liquor towards him.
"Are they on the run from the Society too?" she prodded.
James grimaced unhappily.
"First of all, there is no Society. Second of all, I'm not on the run from them." He jabbed his finger at her pointedly with every word.
"Right. So, this Society that doesn't exist and you're not on the run from. Will they be causing us problems?" she continued her questioning, undaunted.
"Why would they?"
"Because of Alistair."
"Who?... Oh, him. No, I'm handling it." He took a swig right out of the bottle, not even bothering with a glass.
"So while you're 'handling it', are they going to be hiding out with us?"
"I didn't say they were on the run either."
"You didn't deny it."
"Well, they're not--"
"Too late now."
A long moment of silence followed, during which James glowered. Then, he burst into laughter and she followed soon enough.
"James, what in the hells are we even doing?" Sophia slumped into a chair, not minding that she was wrinkling her dress. "The expedition's in a month. We're supposed to be getting ready."
"We'll have to postpone."
"We can't postpone," she protested. "The financiers are going to riot."
James sighed. While House Hallemaine's main source of income had been trading, ever since Sophia's inheritance of the title, she'd reoriented the family enterprise towards surveys and explorations of new lands. Some people had been skeptical of the possibilities for success, but Sophia's sense of adventure and James's unerring guidance had brought House Hallemaine not only the necessary money to sustain itself, but also a small dose of fame among the Ledorian aristocracy. So far, they'd single-handedly mapped the entire east coat of the newest discovered continent, Decima, and they were planning inland expeditions. The expeditions, unfortunately, were just as costly as they were profitable and the money they got from selling the maps and surveys were usually immediately invested into the next one.
"I'll talk to them," he offered. "Make sure they manage money more tightly."
"A fine time for guests," Sophia huffed.
James rubbed his eyes tiredly. He always looked tired; it seemed like his permanent state of existence. Sophia was pretty sure the only time she'd seen him act with even a little vivacity was when they'd been in mortal danger.
"I'm handling it," James offered again, though without much conviction.
James must have left sometime during the night, because when Sophia searched for him the next morning, he was nowhere to be found.
She made for the manor's library. She had no study of her own-- she'd been loath to use the study that every other head of the house had been using for the past three hundred years because she felt oppressed by the presence of her ancestors in that room-- so she had a desk set up in a corner of the library, tucked behind bookcases, right under a window.
To her surprise, she was not alone there. A tall, finely-dressed figure stood by her desk.
Alistair closed the book he was holding as she stepped closer. He turned to look at her and inclined his head in greeting, his perpetually amused smile firmly in place.
"Good morning, Your Ladyship."
"Good morning, Mister... ah... Alistair? I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch your surname yesterday."
"I did not give one," he replied, once again sidestepping the issue. "I see Lord Hallemaine completed his collection of Thomas Reland first editions," he commented, holding out the book: 'A Treaty on the Functions of Complex Engines and Clockwork in Biological Constructs'. It was remarkably well-kept.
"He-- yes, I-- I'm sorry, you knew my father?"
He certainly didn't look that old-- maybe in his early thirties, at most-- but then, James looked like a scruffy forty-year-old and she suspected he was much older than that.
Alistair remained completely impassive.
"He was an unimaginative man, but fascinated with mechanics and gadgetry," he said in lieu of an answer. "I find his fixation on Thomas Reland... intriguing."
Sophia did not fully understand his remark.
"Oh?" She tilted her head questioningly. "May I ask why? I'm not at all familiar with Reland or his work."
"An obscure machinist who once apprenticed for a great man, but achieved no fame of his own, outside certain circles. Interesting parallel to your father's life. He never did match your grandfather's greatness, did he?"
"No," Sophia admitted, but even if it was true, she still felt a pang of indignation on her father's behalf.
"I suppose it sometimes... skips a generation." He smiled more widely and looked at her sidelong.
Sophia bit her lip and hoped her blush wasn't too apparent. The man had a talent for flattery, it seemed.
"I wouldn't know," she demurred. "Ah, but... may I help you with anything? Were you looking for something in particular?" She gestured towards the rows of bookshelves as she asked this.
"I am simply browsing. James Tully assured me I would be free to visit the library at any hour."
There was something strange in the way he said James's full name like that, as if it were unfamiliar. Sophia brushed off the thought, however.
"Of course," she nodded, even though she had no way of knowing if James truly gave him permission. Then again, if Alistair had been in any way dangerous, James wouldn't have left her side, or even permitted the family to stay.
"Wonderful," he murmured, placing the book back onto the shelf.
He left after that, but Sophia found herself too restless to sit down and do her writing. She left for the gardens, hoping a morning stroll would clear her head.
Charlotte was in the garden. She sat in the gazebo by the pond, holding a flower and gently rubbing the soft petals. As Sophia approached, Charlotte looked up and smiled charmingly as they exchanged greetings.
"The gardener gave it to me," she said with a cheerful lilt in her voice. "He said it was a pretty flower for a pretty girl. It smells wonderful."
"I'm glad you like it," Sophia replied, sitting down on the other side of her. "It's called Lady's Blush."
The flower was bright red, contrasting with Charlotte's pale hands.
"Are the flowers in Decima as lovely?" the little girl queried.
"Oh-- you've heard about my expeditions to the continent?"
"You dream of it," she said with self-assurance. She apparently had her father's knack for oblique replies which did not truly answer a question.
Sophia raised an eyebrow at this.
"How would you know what I dream about?"
"...Don't you?" Charlotte asked, tilting her head. The cascade of platinum-gray hair down her back rippled.
"I do. The flowers there are... interesting, to say the least."
"Oh, have you brought any back?" Charlotte asked with enthusiasm. "Can I see them?"
"Ah-- I suppose... yes, our botanist, Morril, did. I'll have to ask," Sophia smiled.
Days passed, as they were wont to do, and Sophia's contact with her guests was intermittent. James was still away and the three Hallemaine financiers were starting to stir again, coming to her one by one, casually inquiring as to the status of the expedition.
"It's postponed," she'd reply.
"For how long?" they'd ask.
And they'd slink off, only Sophia's title stopping them from complaining.
But there was a sense of uneasiness permeating the household. There was no real reason for it and she couldn't be sure her guests were to blame, but it had started after their arrival. Sophia found herself glancing over her shoulder for no reason and sometimes, when it was quiet, she listened intently, convinced she would start hearing footsteps at any moment.
And then the storms started. The gorgeous spring weather was replaced by dark, looming clouds, casting their shadow over Hallemaine Manor and filling the air with tension. Then, the clouds seemed to rip apart and rain came pouring down. The south tower, which had been repaired years before, once again sprung leaks through its roof. It was fixed, but the financiers were starting to grumble.
Alistair dropped by the library with clockwork precision each morning and each evening. He greeted her quietly and borrowed and returned books on subjects between which there was no readily-apparent relation: chemistry, gastronomy, mythology, romantic fiction, poetry, agricultural anthologies.
Then, one day, Sophia ran into Gideon in the library. The boy had been scarce and she'd only managed to catch a few glimpses of him or hear the steady beat of crutches behind corners.
"I'm sorry we're causing you trouble," he said, his head lowered as he tried to hide his blue eye behind the black tuft of his hair.
"I've said it before, it's no bother," Sophia replied, bewildered.
"But you've become afraid in your own home."
She blinked at this, unsure how to react.
"I'm not afraid," she said carefully.
Gideon nodded, but did not respond to her statement in any other way.
"Father is sorry as well, though he would never say."
"And Charlotte too, I suppose?"
"Lotte likes it here."
But it was still not a definite yes or no. Did the entire family have an aversion to giving clear answers?
At any rate, the conversation added another heavy stone in the back of her mind.
Things had to come to a head at one point. Alistair approached her one morning, on one of his trips to the library. He looked grave, his aura of constant amusement gone.
"Lady Hallemaine, a word if you will?"
Sophia looked up from her papers.
"I understand you are going into town today."
"I am," she confirmed.
She wrote a column that appeared in several news publications across Ledoris and once a month, while she was home, at least, she liked to make the trip to the nearby town of Haalston and deliver them to the post office herself. She liked Haalston. Its history was closely entwined with that of the Hallemaine family, so much so that one could not ascertain if the family or the town came first or which got their name from the other.
"May I accompany you?"
It was not a request she expected from him.
"I-- ah, you have business there?" she guessed.
"I merely wish to accompany you. The weather is quite harsh and I would be much obliged for the use of your carriage."
It was a perfectly understandable reason. And yet, Sophia could feel a twinge of apprehension.
But she acquiesced.
"Certainly," she said, smiling politely and wishing she truly were certain.
The skies were boiling gray and the rain fell with stubborn persistence. The carriage did not rattle on the muddy road, lending added weight to the silence between its two passengers.
Sophia had misgivings about this trip. For a moment, she even considered staying in and sending one of the servants to deliver the letters. But then she'd remain forever curious about Alistair's reasons for traveling to Haalston.
So she soothed her nerves by taking along the pistol. She was a poor shot, despite the gun's reliability, but so far, she'd only used it point-blank and the rate of success had been encouraging. She holstered it at the waist, in the sash of her dress, and pulled her overcoat closed to conceal it.
Now that she was sitting down, however, it jabbed her rather uncomfortably in the hip and she was beginning to feel foolish. Alistair either did not notice or ignored her discomfort, because he merely stared out the window with a forlorn expression.
"I find myself needing to thank you for your hospitality," he said suddenly, making Sophia flinch.
"There's no need, really," she shrugged.
"We will not be making it to Haalston," he continued, not taking his eyes off the window.
Sophia blinked, not quite understanding his meaning.
"Why not?" she asked.
No sooner were the words out of her mouth that a crack of thunder shook the carriage and a blinding flash of lightning lit it up. The carriage stopped. There was a complete silence, not a splatter of rain to be heard, despite the fact that she could still see the fat raindrops falling against the glass.
"It appears," Alistair spoke slowly, "that you should have obeyed your first instinct."
"My first instinct?" Sophia asked softly, taking out the pistol and loading it. She didn't understand what was going on, but she could smell trouble from six leagues away.
"I doubt you are going to accomplish much with that," he gestured with his chin at the pistol.
"Shows what you know," she replied, grinning wolfishly.
He quirked an eyebrow, but did not say anything. Instead, he nodded resignedly.
"It would be wise if you wait here, Your Ladyship."
"Yes. I suppose it would be." Her tone indicated clear enough that there was a difference between what would be wise and what she would actually do.
He nodded again, a flicker of amusement returning to his crimson eyes.
He opened the door and stepped out of the carriage, then politely helped Sophia down the steps. It was raining, but the rain did not touch them. It was eerily quiet and they were completely alone, the carriage's driver seat now empty.
"Is this supposed to be frightening?" Sophia huffed.
"I believe this is what is called 'the eye of the storm'," Alistair remarked, holding a hand out and watching the raindrops not hit his palm.
"I suppose you're not referring to the weather," she surmised.
"I could negotiate passage for you," he offered. "You are a neutral party in this affair."
"Nonsense. I'm your host. Your safety is my concern." She cocked the pistol as she said this, glancing around expectantly.
"Very well, Your Ladyship," Alistair chuckled, as if he were indulging her. "But I doubt there is very much you could do."
"That is true," a third voice intruded.
A small tawny-skinned woman walked around the carriage and stopped in front of them-- a woman at least a head shorter than Sophia, who was not exactly tall to begin with. She was dressed in a ridiculous blue and red checkered short frock that had obviously been tailored for a pubescent girl rather than a grown woman and she wore an inappropriately ostentatious hat decorated with dry flowers.
Sophia suddenly realized that she was dressed identical to a character in a well-known painting, "Elise", except that the girl's hat flowers in that image were fresh and the girl herself was fair-skinned and blue-eyed.
"Pardon, but you are in no way involved in this," the petite woman said, looking at Sophia almost apologetically. Her eyes were black and beady, making her look like a mean insect.
"Pardon, but I am," Sophia retorted.
"Madam, I assure you--"
The woman blinked, taken aback.
"You shall address me as 'Milady' or 'Your Ladyship' or 'Lady Hallemaine' if you wish," Sophia explained slowly. "Certainly not 'madam'."
"I think you don't realize the gravity of this situation," the woman said in a near-whisper, then added belatedly, "Milady."
"Hm." Sophia pointed the pistol to the sky and squeezed the trigger. There was a muted pop, much quieter than the sound it usually made, but a bright yellow flash shot into the air and dissipated, as immaterial as the rain around them.
"Was that supposed to be intimidating?" the woman asked, looking amused.
"No." She holstered the gun in her sash. "Now. This man is my guest."
"Do you claim him as part of your household?" The woman clasped her hands together as she asked this.
"Is that a trick question?" Sophia retorted.
"You can't answer one question with another," she scrunched her nose as a child would when her playmates do not respect the rules of a game.
"I just did, so obviously I can."
"The question is simple. Do you extend the protection of your name to include him?" She emphasized each word, Gesturing towards Alistair.
"I severely doubt the question is as simple as you're trying to make it seem," Sophia replied calmly.
"This is absurd," the woman sighed. "You. Have you nothing to say?" she addressed Alistair directly.
"Unnecessary," the man replied with a lopsided smile. "Lady Hallemaine has done a wonderful job of it on her own."
The woman's face twisted in confusion.
"A wonderful job of what?" she spat, exasperation bleeding into her voice.
"Delaying, my dear," came the reply as James Tully casually walked up behind the woman and swung an arm over her shoulders, like she was an old drinking buddy. "Got your signal," he nodded towards Sophia. "See? Told you a gun would be useful."
He took a better look at the woman and flash of recognition passed over his face. "Ah, Elise. They sent you?"
If Sophia had to guess, the look of sheer stark terror on "Elise"'s face was a good sign.
"I hope you've been behaving, at least," James continued, releasing her shoulder and starting to rummage his pockets.
"She has been asking questions of Lady Hallemaine," Alistair provided.
"That's not very nice behavior at all, tsk tsk," James clucked his tongue. Finding what he was searching for, he pulled out the flask and took a long swig.
"She-- She was the one who engaged it," Elise defended herself. Her eyes were wide and her hands trembled as she pointed to Sophia.
"A poor excuse, even if it's true," James shrugged, stoppering the flask and putting it back in his overcoat pocket. "And poor sportsmanship on the others' part, if they allowed it to happen."
"I believe they were only thinking of the dangerous the Hallemaine name poses to them and considered it an acceptable deviation," Alistair mused. "She was attempting to make Lady Hallemaine to extend the protection of her name to myself."
James looked at Alistair sharply.
"And you allowed this to happen?" James managed to sound outraged in his own, cranky way.
"I was curious as to the outcome. Lady Hallemaine is more cautious than I first assumed she'd be," Alistair explained, raising his palms in a conciliatory manner.
"Well..." James scratched his cheek thoughtfully. "So what do we do now? Elise is here and they're all watching."
Sophia felt a chill go down her back. There was nobody else visible across the empty fields but their small group, surrounded by the shimmering curtain of ghost rain, but deep down, she felt the truth of that statement. She felt an irritating tingle on the back of her skull, like someone's eyes boring holes through it. Elise, for her part, stood completely still, her gaze firmly to the ground, shivering slightly.
"We are still on Hallemaine lands," Alistair said and Elise looked up suddenly, panic in her eyes. "And Lady Hallemaine acknowledged me as her guest."
"If she did, then it's clear," James nodded. "The pistol."
He extended a hand towards Sophia. She stared at it for a moment, until comprehension dawned and she scurried to pull it out and hand it to him.
Elise took a step back.
James weighted it in his hands, brushing his fingers over the wood hilt and the Hallemaine coat of arms engraved on its side.
Elise took another two steps back.
James released the safety and cocked the gun.
Alistair clasped his hands behind his back, but remained otherwise impassive.
Elise turned around and broke into a sprint. A deafening blast sounded through the air and echoed. Elise fell to the ground and the flowers in her hat disintegrated into brown flakes. The storm stopped, but the clouds still hung morosely in the heavens.
James lowered the pistol.
Sophia watched all this in stunned, disbelieving silence. The entire situation up to this point had been surreal and she all but expected Elise to dissipate into smoke, like an apparition. Instead, blood pooled around her head, as red and as real as it would bleed from any mortal's wounds.
She worked her jaw, but no words came out; no words formed in her mind that could befit the deep sense of wrong she felt.
A warm hand touched her arm.
"Come on," James spoke softly, "let's go home."
Alistair and his children were leaving.
It took them less than an hour to pack and prepare, and in that time, Sophia found her words again.
"I don't understand," she said to Alistair as he was making his goodbyes.
The man smiled-- amused, always amused-- and placed his suitcase on the ground.
"Elise disobeyed the rules of trespass when she came after a guest in the host's own home," he explained.
"And she had to die for that?" Sophia retorted, though she could not muster any anger with that statement.
"There is great power in rules."
Sophia sighed, realizing she shouldn't have asked a question if she wanted an answer.
"If she knew how to... I mean, she had abilities... skills... that most other people don't..." Sophia licked her dry lips, unsure how to form her next statement. "Yet she died. From a bullet, just like any ordinary person would have."
"She did," Alistair agreed. "What you get from obeying the rules may be taken away once you break them."
Sophia's eyebrows rose. If she didn't know any better, she'd say that was almost an explanation.
"So that is what the Society does? Obey rules?"
"That is the assumption which led to the downfall of many people," came the reply.
Sophia sighed and shook her head. Back to cryptic answers and vague implications, just as expected.
"Still, there had to be some other way of resolving the issue. James-- she seemed quite frightened of James-- he--"
"Milady," Alistair interrupted, then hesitated for a moment. "Milady, you must realize that the power James possesses is granted to him by you."
"There is great power in names, as well. Especially in your family's name. That you've granted him the protection of the Hallemaines, the trust and confidence of your House-- it is what makes James the person he is."
"I don't understand, what kind of power does he have?" She frowned. She'd never seen James do anything more unusual than drink without getting so much as a little tipsy.
"Does it matter?" Alistair chuckled. "That he has it is enough."
Sophia shook her head.
"I'll never understand," she muttered.
"Do not give up so quickly, Milady," he said with a sly turn of his head. "Reaching the truth is only half as satisfying as chasing after it."
With this, he bowed to her a final time and put his hat on. Charlotte and Gideon made their farewells as well before following him out the door.
It was not a dark and stormy night when he came, and it was not one when he left. The skies were clear blue and the smell of after-rain freshness hung in the crisp air.