Chapter 18: The Life and Times of Vincent Vance, Gentleman Troll
Kwado found life in Baron Frankel’s estate quite enjoyable, though at first it seemed a dreary place, rife with old customs and outdated societal rules that were way over his head.
He worked hard to fit in, beginning by allowing the baron to have him bathed, a luxury Kwado had not experienced for three long months. An old cast-iron tub was brought up, and the maids filled it to the brim with soapy water and dropped in hot stones to work up a thick steam.
After he was cleaned off, they fitted him for new clothing—a posh loose-fitting collared shirt with tweed slacks and a vest that refused to button around his midsection. The baron’s footman took away Kwado’s ‘old rags’ at the end of a broomstick while a seamstress made the necessary adjustments to one of the baron’s summer outfits, adding fabrics she procured from a matching set. Kwado had never worn such fine fabrics before. They felt soft as lambs’ ears and tickled his skin when he moved. He did not mind the feel but thought it might take some time to get used to the shuffling sound the pants made as he walked.
The baron was especially concerned over Kwado’s hair. The maids worked it hard with a flat brush typically used on horse manes, straining to pry out the briars and untwist the knots. They even treated it with rosemary oil, which the head maid swore would make him look more like a regular gent. However, it only served to make his hair limp and greasy. In the end, they gave up, settling on a fitted blond wig parted evenly in the center.
The baron greatly approved of this look. “Hmm, I think he looks rather stately, don’t you?”
The house staff were quick to agree. Kwado thought it made him look like an ape with a mop on his head, but the baron seemed so pleased that he said nothing and ignored the way it itched around his ears and scalp.
Baron Frankel was an interesting man. He ruled over the entire northwest province of Malakar. On a daily basis he was forced to make decisions that impacted tens of thousands of citizens under his dominion. It was a difficult job, taking a certain resilience of spirit that Kwado had never known one could possess. Folk from all around flocked to the baron’s house daily, seeking answers to all manner of problems, ranging from a child naming to curing the blight from a much-needed fall crop.
But for all of that, the baron was a deeply lonely man. His wife had passed away some five years gone, and they had never conceived any children of their own. When Kwado asked the scullery boy how she died, he said, “The lady enjoyed them crème puffs a little too much, if you know what I mean?” This was finished off by a wink and an elbow nudge. Kwado smiled politely, but he had no idea what the boy meant. How could anyone die from a love of confectionary treats and maraschino cherries? Could she have been allergic to cherries? He thought if she was, it was awful cruel for the scullery boy to have served them to her and then make light of it after the fact. He decided to steer clear of the lad in the future.
While the baron had no children, there was no shortage of brothers and sisters in his family tree, which was embroidered and framed in the common room above the fireplace. Kwado liked to sit there at night, close to the fire with a book in hand, and he would stare up at it from time to time.
As the weeks dragged on, he began to feel quite useless, and it was not long before his thoughts turned to his Aunt Lobelia. It was time he was back on the road for Preaknot, to find her and explain what had happened in Westfall. That afternoon he managed to find the baron.
“Preaknot?” Baron Frankel said with a twitch of his mustache. “Why, that’s nearly two hundred miles from here.”
Kwado nodded. “Yes, sir, but my aunt…I must find her. She’s the only family I have left.”
The baron considered this thoughtfully. “And how will you get there?”
“I’ll walk,” Kwado said. “If you could be so kind as to give me a map, I will use it to find the way to her.”
Baron Frankel scoffed at that. “Walk? Two hundred miles on foot? Vincent, procuring a map would be no problem, but I shan’t think you would make it much more than a few leagues before someone roused a mob to chase after you.”
Kwado frowned. “Then I am a prisoner here?”
“Hardly,” Baron Frankel said. “Please don’t think as much. You are a guest in my home for as long as you would like. And if it is your desire that you be reunited with your aunt, then so be it. All that I ask is that you use your head. Before you can roam the countryside freely, you must establish some credibility among the common folk.”
Kwado could see the baron was only looking out for his well-being, and he was a wise man. It would do him well to heed Frankel’s words. If Kwado left now, he was sure to run into trouble sooner than later. But if he stayed in the baron’s estate for a while longer, perhaps he could make a name for himself, at least enough of a name to establish his credibility, as the baron put it. Though he knew it was the wisest course, it hung heavily around his heart. He hated the idea of waiting any longer to be reunited with his sole family member, but he swallowed the feeling and nodded.
“You’re right,” Kwado conceded. “But if I’m to stay here and make a name for myself, I’ll need to pull my weight.”
“What need?” Baron Frankel said. “The house is well tended and there’s naught that you could want for living here.”
“I insist,” Kwado said. “It’ll be honest labor for me. Then folk will see I’m not quite so different than they.” A light came into his eyes and he quickly grew excited. “Maybe I could start an onion farm! You’ve a great plot of land next to the estate that’s perfect for some walla wallas!”
Baron Frankel grinned at his enthusiasm but had to decline. “It would not do for the farmers to see me raising my own crops, Vincent. We wouldn’t want them thinking their leader was stripping their jobs away, would we?”
Kwado supposed not, but what else could he do around the house? After some brainstorming, they decided he would help out in the kitchen.
That idea was good for two whole days. However, on the third morning, he made the unfortunate mistake of reorganizing Miss Hawfuk’s spices by genus. He’d never seen anyone’s face turn quite that shade of purple before. That afternoon he swore he was fleeing the ten hounds of Hades, pressing the wig to his head and sprinting upstairs as fast as he could while the old cook beat his back with the bristly end of her broom. It took some doing, but eventually Baron Frankel was able to calm the distraught woman down, and Miss Hawfuk returned to her kitchen.
“Perhaps it would be best if you stay clear of the kitchen for a while?” Baron Frankel said.
Kwado could not agree more.
He decided to try his hand at some of the odd jobs Butler Pousin did around the house instead, the first of which was to mend a tear in Baron Frankel’s favorite night shirt. A troll’s fingers may be excellent for digging onion fields, but when it came to the delicate precision required for sewing, he was vastly out of his depth. Just threading the eye of the needle took at least thirty attempts.
“Yes!” Kwado roared triumphantly. His celebration was cut short when he heard the distinct sound of tearing fabric. He looked down to find the baron’s shirt in two pieces, torn straight down the center. Pousin fumed, his mouth becoming a spewing volcano of curses that would have made a drunken sailor blush, but Baron Frankel could not have been kinder about the accident. He took one look at the torn shirt and Kwado’s guilt-ridden face and waved his hand.
“Meh, it was time to replace that old rag anyhow,” he said.
The next few days Kwado wandered the property in search of a new job. There were some repairs being done to the roof of the horse stables, but he worried that he might accidentally knock a hole in a wall or, worse yet, bump a worker off the side of the roof.
He eyed some of the maids hanging the laundry out to dry. “Now there’s something I can’t mess up,” he said to himself.
Helping out with the laundry seemed an easy task, at first. Until he confused the falcum powder for the bleach and decorated the footman’s breeches with splotches of white. The seamstress salvaged what she could, shearing them around the knees and hemming them in neatly, but the footman could not have been more embarrassed.
Kwado was impressed by the ease with which the baron handled the situation. “My there, Robertson, are those shorts?” he asked as the footman delivered the afternoon tea to the baron’s office.
“Yes, sir,” the footman said. “There’s been a little accident with the laundry. I will be sure to have it all sorted out by Wednesday next.”
Baron Frankel studied Kwado, who sat across from him feeling quite glum. His mustache twitched and he bowed his head to the footman. “Well, I do say it is a rather sensible move on your part, Robertson. With the heat wave we are having these days, I wish I could wear shorts to work as well.”
Robertson left the baron’s office smiling from ear to ear, which was good, but still Kwado sank further in the chair and produced a drawn-out sigh.
“Chin up, Vincent,” Baron Frankel said, leaning forward in his seat. “It takes a while to discover your true talent, but you’ll get there in the end.”
Kwado frowned, setting his book on his lap. “It’s just…some days I feel it was easier slugging rocks all day long in the quarry.”
Baron Frankel somberly studied him for a few moments. “Life is a fickle goddess, Vincent. She is unyieldingly difficult to those who would try for something better than what they are. However, in my experience, nothing worth having comes without hard work and dedication.”
“Truly wise words,” Kwado said, “and they do settle my nerves a bit. But sometimes, when I think of how utterly useless I am around the house, it makes me want to pull my hair out.”
“Hmm, that would make your wig fit a little snugger…”
Kwado did not like the glint in Baron Frankel’s eye and quickly moved the conversation along. “Around the onion farm, I was always able to do my part, and I don’t like you to think I’m one for freeloading, sir.”
The baron tapped the end of his quill against his chin. “Well then…what did you do when you weren’t working the fields?”
“What did I do?” Kwado repeated.
“Yes. Like hobbies…did you have any hobbies?”
“I would help feed the livestock.”
“No, nothing like that. That’s just more work and not suitable for a guest in my home,” Baron Frankel said. “Think, Vincent—what was it you did when you had no other work to do?”
“But aren’t we trying to figure out what I can do for work?”
Kwado shrugged. “Not much. I mostly helped Ma with the cooking and read a lot of books.”
“Vincent!” the baron cried, startling the troll. “You can read?”
“Really, sir,” Vincent said rather defensively, “just because Westfallers are farmers doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy literature.”
“Amazing.” Baron Frankel chuckled, dismissing his guest’s insolence. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” He rose and snatched a book off the shelf. He circled the desk and handed it to Kwado. “Can you read some of this for me?”
Kwado shrugged and decided against pointing out that he had been reading in the Baron’s den just about every night since taking up residence or to the fact that he already had a novel sitting in his lap at very that moment. He accepted the tome, flipping to a random page. He laid the tip of his finger under the line of words and began to read to himself.
“Out loud, if you please,” Baron Frankel said.
“Oh, right.” Kwado cleared his throat and began reading.
“Yuuci of the Grey Ursula caught on splinters of moonbeams,
For a chance at flight,
This winged majesty of yore, limitless in virtue,
Singing to the heavens,
To breach the impenetrable veil of consciousness…”
Baron Frankel clapped his hands in delight. “Vincent, that is wonderful. You really can read. Well, that settles it. I have discovered just the job for you.”
“You have?” Kwado sat up.
“Without a doubt. From this day forth, you shall be my reader.”
“Your reader?” Kwado said. “Surely a learned man such as yourself has no need for someone else to read to you?”
“You could not be more wrong.” Baron Frankel returned to his seat behind the desk and leaned back in the chair. “I am an old man and my eyes, they are not what they used to be. By the end of the day they begin to fail me—the price of aging, I’m afraid. The world begins to look fuzzy, unclear, and if I try to read, I am plagued by headaches through the night. It has been some time since I was able to relish a good story or tantalizing verse. However, you can fix that for me, Vincent.”
“Surely. Each night, around the eleventh hour, come visit my study. There you can read aloud to me another chapter of my book.”
And so, after several failed attempts, Kwado had finally found his household duty. Each night he made his way to Baron Frankel’s study and, while the nobleman lay on his couch hanging on every word, Kwado read aloud from one of the baron’s weighty tomes.
For the first time in a long while, things felt right in the world. He had a good home surrounded by decent folk, with three solid meals a day and a new job as a reader. Soon he would establish that credibility the baron was talking about and be able to reunite with his aunt with his head held high. He began to think of the days of his imprisonment in the Gulag as something of a dream, a vague nightmare that surely could not have been true. He thought he must be the luckiest troll in the world.
Then the baron’s relatives came a-calling.