Irena bid a reluctant farewell to her parents as they climbed into Osrum de Postrem’s extravagant coach. Nairé, with whom Irena had stayed since early that morning, stood beside her, waving a dark-skinned hand out from under the umbrella.
The rain eased off as the horses pulled away, leaving the noble daughter, her appointed custodian and old Captain Gelba the only ones in the courtyard.
‘I say it’s too chilly out here,’ the man said, though his modestly overweight frame made it difficult to believe. ‘Care for tea, girls?’
The three of them wandered back to the house. In the entrance hall the Captain waved to a servant before swerving towards the parlour. Nairé left her umbrella by a marble pillar to help Irena remove her galoshes, looking out across the drive and the near gates. Outside the grounds, commoners would be waking up soon. The southerner could understand if Irena felt isolated. The lives of the newly rich seemed so sparse and unreal compared to the rest of Carpol’s bustling metropolis.
‘Perhaps we should visit the gardens today,’ she said. She patted her ward on the back. ‘I’m sorry that you weren’t invited.’
The rain redoubled its strength as if to put a kibosh on Nairé’s hopes and the girl gave a terse grin.
The southerner watched over Irena’s shoulder as the gates were drawn back again. A lanky figure carrying a lantern rushed up the drive. He arrived at the doors of the house dripping wet and the servant from before materialised nearby to help him out of his coat.
‘I would like to speak with Captain Gelba as soon as possible,’ he said, patting the rain out of his hair. The man was dressed in a tight undercoat and smart pants and holding a folder in his off hand. The servant, a man whom neither of the girls had learnt the name of yet, was much older and wore black and white. He had an exasperated air about him, quite rightly too as he had probably seen more people at the house in the last twenty-four hours than in his entire life until that point.
The servant took the visitor’s lantern. ‘Right this way.’
Irena, who had been silent throughout the proceedings, gave Nairé the kind of inquisitive, apprehensive glance that only children of her age could produce before stepping sideways to watch where the visitor was headed. She followed the two men into the parlour with Nairé tagging along. Somebody stood up and the Captain’s voice rang through the entrance hall.
‘Alright there, young miss? I’m sure Wulmer would be happy to take some sweets upstairs.’
Nairé entered the room to see Captain Gelba guiding the visitor through another door.
‘Business as usual,’ the Captain said, winking to the southerner. ‘If you could take Irena -’
The door slammed and the servant Wulmer shrugged.
‘If you’ll excuse me,’ he said. ‘Lady, Miss de Postrem...’
He took a plate of breakfast items from the coffee table and left them alone.
‘Irena, I think that the Captain would prefer if we weren’t here.’
The girl put her finger to her lips and smiled.
‘Irena -’ Nairé began softly, but trailed away. The girl tiptoed to the wall that joined the dining room with theirs. Nairé’s frantic body movements trying to get her attention went on unnoticed as Irena pressed an ear to the wall.
‘I don’t understand,’ the Captain said, voice low and muffled. ‘There should have been some indication. You can’t be telling me that the whole expedition was for nothing.’
‘Well, Captain, there was the mountain of treasure...’
The Captain briefly raised his voice. ‘I don’t care about treasure. We need to secure the other caches.’
‘With respect Captain, we should speak more softly. Besides, there’s always the one in Ceeyn.’
‘That infernal forest? You and I both know it’s a bust. If my granddaughter had shown any signs, maybe we could have tried it, but as far as I can tell Irena’s just a regular girl. Besides, we should talk about this somewhere else.’
Captain Gelba, grandfather? There was little time to digest the fact as the sound of a chair moving raised her heartbeat. She motioned to Nairé, mouthing ‘Go, go!’ The southerner pointed upstairs and walked away.
‘One last thing, Captain,’ the visitor said. ‘Just rumours and the like, but Keepers have been arriving in Carpol since last week, apparently for a meeting called by the Keeper in Yerz.’
There was a long pause.
‘It’s not of our concern,’ said the Captain.
'Yes,’ the visitor sighed. ‘Probably nothing.’
The dining room doors opened and Captain Gelba showed the visitor out of the house. In a corner of the parlour, Irena emerged from behind a large couch and hastily joined Nairé upstairs. The girl’s custodian was already planning for their day together as Irena planned to sneak into Gelba’s study that night.