Chapter 19: A Dart Frog Dinner

Autumn’s end had arrived. The town’s rolling hills were littered with naked trees, their leaves shed in withered piles of brown husks. The temporary lustrous bloom and richly fertile landscape faded as the days grew shorter and evenings colder. The fields of copper grass and muddy patches from the harsh autumn storms were only made drearier by the constant melancholy of grey skies.

One afternoon a rattler got into the stables, frightening the horses out of their wits. One stallion, half-mad with fear, broke free of the building and fled into the city, followed by every other horse in the baron’s possession. It took Baron Frankel and his men the better half of the day to round up the horses from the maze of streets and alleys. One by one they tracked them down and guided the spooked beasts back to the estate. The last they found was stuck in a mud sink near the far end of the property. It took three men and Kwado’s brute strength to get the stallion freed and brought safely to his stall.

Everyone around the estate was weary from the arduous task, and the baron and Kwado had just settled in for a late supper when there was an unexpected interruption. Barnabus, one of Butler Pousin’s footmen, popped his head into the dining room, waving frantically for the butler’s attention. Fire seethed from Pousin’s eyes as he stepped away from his post, appalled at having the dining service interrupted, though he attempted to mask it from the baron as he passed by the table.

“Yes, that’s quite enough,” Baron Frankel said to the footman still serving him as the man stared after Pousin, oblivious that he had already doled out three ladles of stew into the nobleman’s saucer.

“What is so important it could not possibly wait until after the second course, Barnabus?” Pousin hissed, trying to keep his voice low.

Kwado craned his neck, trying to pick up their conversation across the room. Barnabus murmured something rushed and swimming with nervousness that Kwado could not make out.

“They’re what?” Pousin’s voice went up an octave, so that Baron Frankel’s hand twitched, his spoon missing his mouth entirely.

The footman gasped and immediately fell to work trying to dab the stain the spilled broth left on the baron’s shirt. Frankel scowled and waved him away, but the footman was relentless, his eyes locked in horror on a very agitated Pousin heading back to their table.

Baron Frankel finally slapped the man’s hand away. “Would you please stop? That is quite enough. I am fully capable of cleaning my own mess, thank you very much.” The footman looked fit to faint, and Baron Frankel eased up, settling back in his chair and letting him off the hook by pointedly directing his gaze over to the butler. “Pousin, what in the goddess’s green gables is all the fuss? Can’t you see Vincent and I are trying to enjoy a nice quiet dinner?”

Pousin bowed low, but not before shooting Kwado a withering glare. He had made it quite clear in the past that he was not the troll’s hand servant and did not enjoy being lumped in as such by his lordship. “Please forgive the outburst, sir. It was just a bit of a surprise to discover that your niece and nephew were arriving for dinner. Had we known earlier, there would certainly have been more suitable arrangements made. But worry yourself not. I already have extra chairs and place settings en route.”

Baron Frankel frowned and smacked his lips oddly, like he had just tasted some sour milk. “My niece and nephew are here?” By the way he said it, Kwado took it the baron had no clue they were to have company.

“Ah, there is my good old Uncle Frankel,” a man said from the doorway.

Kwado turned to catch a glimpse of the baron’s nephew. How can he be so young with hair so white? Kwado wondered as the lean young man strode into the dining hall. He moved with the grace of a tiger, keeping one hand close to his waist, where his saber was secured to a leather belt, while the other extended in greeting. As he passed the table, the light of the chandelier revealed his hair to be more of a platinum color—still odd, but no longer holding Kwado’s fascination as his attention quickly shifted to the young woman in tow.

She was the most beautiful woman he had ever set eyes on. Unlike her brother, she sported a head of fiery red hair which was pulled back and held in place by gold ribbons. Her eyes gleamed like twin sapphires, cutting across the room to lock onto her uncle. When she threw on a wide smile, Kwado’s chest suddenly felt both tight and hot. One look at her, and he wanted to swallow his ridiculous wig and find a hole to hide his face inside.

Baron Frankel pushed away from the table and stood to greet his relatives. “Todrick, my, how you have grown,” he said, briskly shaking the young man’s hand before turning to his niece with arms spread wide for a hug. Kwado had never seen him look more fake. The girl moved in for a half-hug, lightly kissing cheek to cheek, after which the Baron pulled back to appraise her from head to toe. “And Margerite, what a fine young lady you have become. I see the stories Doland has told me are all true.”

“More than she’d wish you to know, I’m sure,” Todrick said, disarming the girl, who looked appalled yet did not deny his words.

“Still as fresh as ever, eh?” Baron Frankel said.

“Never mind him, Uncle,” Margerite said, feigning a pout. “Todrick has always been a bore toward the end of a long journey.”

“Can you blame me?” Todrick said, rubbing the small of his back. “Those last five miles were bumpier than a log ride down the Caltif River. Really, Uncle, I don’t know how you do it out here in the country.”

“I shall be sure to tell our laborers to halt their progress on the new windmills for the wheat granary and attend to the highways at once,” Baron Frankel said.

“Most excellent,” Todrick said.

Margerite giggled and knocked on her brother’s head. “Uncle is pulling your leg, silly.”

Kwado snickered.

All eyes turned to him, Todrick’s already laced with annoyance at his sister’s slight, but quickly shifting to shock. He leapt back, reaching for his sword while simultaneously sweeping his sister, who looked as if she might faint, behind him. Kwado did not miss the hint of a smirk under the baron’s thick white beard.

“Ah, where are my manners,” Baron Frankel said, as if nothing had happened. “Allow me to introduce to you my house guest, Vincent Vance, formerly of Westfall.”

The baron graciously waved his hand toward Kwado, who was suddenly painfully aware that he was the only one still seated. He cleared his throat, pushed back his chair, and quickly rose so he could bow in exactly the way the baron had instructed him, with both hands folded behind his back.

Margerite stuck her head out from behind her brother like a curious kitten, her momentary fright already a thing of the past.

“Good evening,” Kwado said. She yelped and disappeared again.

“It speaks?” Todrick said.

“Only when I’m not busy chasing villagers and grunting like a baboon,” Kwado said, trying to break the awkward tension with a little levity. Todrick looked as if he had just caught a whiff of a rotten egg, but Margerite tittered behind him.

“Uncle,” Todrick said, turning away from Kwado and putting an arm around Frankel’s shoulder. Kwado frowned. It was as if he were no longer in the room. “We had heard stories of your…pet, but never did I imagine they could be anything more than flights of fantasy spread from the mouths of drunkards like cantankerous rumors. Now that we are here, seeing your situation with our own eyes, I find myself deeply concerned for your mental state. Tell me, dear man, what has happened? Is it dementia? Do you ail so?”

Baron Frankel scowled and waved a hand like he was shooing away a fly. “Stop your nonsensical prattling, boy. You sound more like your father every time I see you. I assure you not a single member of this estate is a drunkard, and Vincent is not my pet. He is a guest of this house, a refugee from Westfall, a fine young man—”

“Troll,” Todrick corrected.

The baron’s eyes grew dark and his lips pulled to a thin line.

The sight of it made Kwado deeply uncomfortable. “Perhaps it would be best if I retired for the evening?” he offered.

“You will stay right where you are,” Baron Frankel said, without removing his eyes from Todrick. “Dear nephew, if you deign to interrupt me again, in my own house no less, then I shall be forced to give you a personal demonstration of exactly how acute both my mental and physical faculties are.”

Todrick closed his eyes and bowed low. Margerite scarcely bothered to hide her smirk at his discomfort. “Of course, Uncle. Please accept my humblest apologies. In matters of your health and welfare, I believe I have overstepped my boundaries.”

The hall door opened once more, and a pair of footmen came in with dining chairs in hand, trailed by some anxious members of the kitchen staff and another footman. They fell on the head table like a swarm of determined bees. In moments their dinners were replaced with a lavish feast and place settings for all. Even knowing Miss Hawfuk’s expertise, Kwado was impressed to see how quickly she had whipped up such a meal as would be suitable for a holiday celebration.

Baron Frankel, however, was not the least bit surprised, though he seemed to have moved past his irritation with Todrick. “Now then, why don’t both of you sit and join us for our supper? I am interested to hear what brings you so far West—and unannounced, at that.”

The footmen waited patiently for Todrick and Margerite to sit before pushing them in and laying fresh linen napkins across their laps. Steaming bowls of stew were set in front of the late arrivals. Kwado was astonished at how quickly their demeanor had shifted.

Margerite spoke first, leaning in toward her uncle. “There is trouble far to the north.”

“More goblin raids?” Baron Frankel said.

“That’s the least of their trouble, from what I hear,” Margerite said, spooning some of the stew into her mouth and swallowing it. Kwado caught himself staring at her lips and abruptly studied the contents of his own bowl. “Every day there have been more reports of wicked things happening all along the border.”

Baron Frankel raised an eyebrow. “Oh? If not the goblins then who?”

“You mean what,” Todrick said with a snort, pushing around his stew with the tip of his spoon. “Goblins, ogres, succubus, cave trolls, you name it…you know, monsters.” He paused, deliberately glaring at Kwado before turning back to his uncle. “All manner of savages have been coming down out of the mountains to attack the goodly folk of Malakar. Decent men and women trying to get by are living in constant fear these days. For months we’ve even been hearing rumors of travelers being attacked on the open road, and over the last couple weeks, it’s become worse, with new raids occurring almost daily.”

“Hmm, these are grave tidings indeed,” Baron Frankel said. “What word from the king? Has he dispatched an army to cull the invasion?”

“The king appointed twelve new knights,” Margerite said excitedly. “Todrick is to be Knight of the Ninth Garrison.”

That news caught the baron off guard. His eyes widened and his mouth shrank to a small hole as he eyed his nephew. “An appointment of leadership,” the baron said.

Todrick looked as smug as anyone could ever be. Pousin had his footmen gather up the stews and ordered for the roasted quall to be brought around. Kwado was happy for the distraction—anything to take his eyes off the awkward exchange. He used the serving spoon to take a small portion of the roasted veggies around the bird and nodded, satisfied.

The footman moved on to Todrick, lowering the plate for him. Todrick looked at the platter as if it contained dried vomit and intestines. He curled his upper lip and stared hard at Kwado. “I do not eat quall.” The way he said it made Kwado certain it was slang for dine with trolls.

The footman bowed and moved on to the baron, who was just finishing rolling his eyes. He purposefully took two helpings of the quall and motioned for it to go on to Margerite. She reached for the spoon, but Todrick loudly cleared his throat, drawing her attention to him from across the table. He shook his head curtly with pursed lips.

Margerite stared at him for a moment and hesitated, the serving spoon tapping against the side of the platter. Then she did something Kwado found most surprising. She shot her brother a wicked grin and took a thick meaty portion of the quall.

“So you’ve become a Knight of the Sunken Star?” Baron Frankel said, using his fork and knife to pull the tender meat from the bone.

Todrick nodded. “At King Necian’s decree. I’m on my way to Albminster Hill to parlay with Daman Brand. There is strong belief that Agamon is behind the recent troubles.”

Kwado did not know what a daman was, or if it was a higher rank than baron, but Frankel seemed impressed.

“And the king hopes Brand will have insight into his former colleague?” Baron Frankel asked.

Todrick nodded.

“Could the archmage truly have fallen so low?”

“We shall soon find out,” Todrick said.

“It is a long detour you have taken from the king’s highway to my doorstep,” Baron Frankel pointed out.

“Yes,” Todrick said, “well, as I’ve said, we heard troubling rumors of your monster here and, with everything that is going on, I thought it prudent to drop in and check on you and ensure all is well.”

“You mean you wanted to be sure your inheritance is still intact,” Baron Frankel said offhandedly. “Come to check if some big bad troll ate your dear uncle and stole your lands. Have no fear, Todrick. Everything is still in order, each spoon in its place and every horse shatting where they should. It’ll be a while yet before you can claim it, though. I’ve never felt so healthy.”

Kwado took a deep gulp of water as Todrick stewed in his seat.

“Don’t be such a bore, Uncle,” Margerite said, her mouth full of quall.

Todrick’s scowl broke into a dangerous grin. “Oh Margerite, can’t you see Uncle is just teasing me?”

Baron Frankel smiled and nodded. There was a foreign glimmer of mischief in his eyes. He’s actually enjoying picking away at this spoiled brat, Kwado realized. They finished their meal with no more idle chatter, only sounds of forks scraping china and drinks being poured by the footmen filling the dining hall.

After dessert was served, a toffee pudding in the shape of a snail shell which Margerite found deeply amusing, Baron Frankel had Pousin show his niece and nephew to their rooms. He waited until they left the dining hall before turning to Kwado. His face was grave and he spoke earnestly, in a low voice that belied the utmost seriousness.

“Stay away from those two, Vincent.” 

“Other than Todrick’s obvious dislike of me, they seem harmless enough.”

“They are like the dart frog clinging to the tree, bright and beautiful to your eyes, but toxic to the touch. Trust me in this, Vincent. Steer clear of them until they take their leave.”

Kwado bowed his head obediently. “I shall not even think their names.”

Baron Frankel seemed content with that and bid him good night, and they parted ways to head to their rooms. Kwado respected the baron greatly after everything he had done for him. So when he lay in bed that night, unable to sleep, replaying the memory of Margerite secretly slipping him coy smiles and long glares, he was filled with guilt.