“But for the want of an agreeable meal and a pleasurable woman, empires have been lost.” Emperor Leonardus VI
The food is excellent. The Lord Baron’s cook has outdone himself with a tender venison cutlet perfectly aged in a sweet-and-sour cranberry sauce, alongside seasoned carrots and potatoes, and a fresh green salad drizzled in walnut vinaigrette. For dessert there is glazed vanilla custard and fresh berries. The wine is of the best vintage. Rarely have some of these guests eaten so well.
Sitting at the head of the table is our host, Lord Baron Locke. To his right the guest of honor, visiting cousin and long time friend, Blaise McPherson. Next to Blaise sits his country rustic, yet surprisingly refined wife, Ruby. Across from Blaise and to the Baron’s immediate left is the officious and arrogant chancellor, Angus Filmore. To his left and across from Ruby is the extraordinarily beautiful and always charming Veronica, piano teacher and one of Lord Rush’s greatest treasures. At the other end of the table, opposite Baron Locke, is his son Simon. Vaush and Amber, who sit next to their respective mothers, flank him.
The conversation, save that of the chancellor’s, flows easily amongst most at the table. The cousins enjoy catching up and recounting old tales of shared summers past. Wherever there is a lull, the conversational skills of Veronica serve to spark renewed enthusiasm. It’s obvious to those who know how to look for it that she is playing to the male ego and its desire to dominate and impress. Ruby, not so much into her cups, easily recognizes this fact. Yet, rarely do the women speak directly to one another. It should be obvious to their male counterparts that there is little warmth passing between these two, but the Baron and Blaise are far too insulated in the heat of their own words and wine to take note. All the same, perhaps the feminine chill is what accounts for the general absence of Filmore from the conversation. Or maybe it is on the account of sitting so close to an inaccessible beauty that has caught his tongue.
In due course, Veronica asks how the Baron and Blaise are related and how they’ve come to possess such a strong bond. This is met with a long list of names and marriages, culminating in like great, great, great grandparents. It is also revealed that the two men enjoyed childhood summers together at Blaise’s highland village, where ever since the two have shared a life of good-natured insults and one-upmanship.
This reminiscence of days gone by eventually leads Blaise to offer up a similar experience for the na-Baron. By which, the two men conclude that this would be a good opportunity to “toughen-up” the young Simon. However, before Amber can stop him, Blaise also offers the same to Vaush, an offer that is quickly, but graciously refused by Veronica. Only later, when they’ve departed the castle and are in private conversation, does Veronica reconsider sending Vaush to the highlands for the summer. As Vaush puts it, “It may be a missed opportunity in not accepting the invitation.”
The following day, a formal letter accepting Blaise’ s offer is sent from the Rush Estates to Baron Locke. And as a result, Vaush’s training by Robert takes on a new urgency. So does that of Simon. Each is preparing in earnest for what they feel will be a life changing experience.
In the weeks of training that follow for our two young future adventurers, Amber McPherson and her mother, Ruby, slip away for a day of shopping in the city of Hartwich.
The two highlanders are certainly an oddity for the common folk, and as such, gain more than their fair share of attention. First of all, it is a rarity that any other than a knight should travel by horseback upon their city roads. The fact that one is a lady and the other her daughter only adds to the pedestrian curiosity. Lastly, there is the wonder of seeing a woman in possession of a sword and shield. Certainly these two are a sight worth taking note of.
In their search for goods to bring back to highlander friends and family, they find themselves dockside listening to the sound of music issuing from a recognizable net and candle shop. Entering, they meet up with Sarah and Lidia. The camaraderie between women and daughters is quickly established and conversation soon centers upon Sarah’s exceptional musical talents. Ruby cannot help but be drawn to Sarah’s strength of personality and independent spirit. They are all the traits she so much wishes to foster in her own daughter. In quick succession, plans are made to bring Sarah to the castle where she can experience a piano for the first time.
Arriving at the castle offers up somewhat of an unexpected pleasure for Ruby McPherson. It turns out that today is when Veronica and Vaush are attending music lessons. The pair is just leaving when the three ladies make their appearance. Vaush and Sarah are quick to acknowledge one another with a simple greeting. Unfortunately for Veronica, she is wearing the shawl crafted by Sarah who verbally recognizes her work. Vaush confirms her statement, purposely embarrassing his mother further for what he perceives as “petty lies.” But Vaush cannot let it stand there as he goes one step further, offering his mother’s services to tutor Sarah at the piano. Veronica storms off to the carriage, leaving the four to enjoy their social victory. For Veronica it is a slight she will not soon dismiss from memory.
With the encounter at the door behind her, Sarah quickly makes it to the piano. She is greatly amazed at the complexity and range of sound it is capable of. It is certainly the most wonderful thing she can imagine. Soon her and Amber are exploring the various means in which it can be played. For Ruby it is a bittersweet joy listening to the two girls plunk and tinkle at keys her friend Malinda once played with such heart. She sits and listens with no desire to intervene upon their innocent play. And hours pass without concern before Ruby must call a close to their fun. It will be getting dark soon enough and Sarah must be returned to her mother.
For Sarah it will be a night full of pleasant dreams and fanciful wishes to own such a beautiful instrument. And added to her delight is the promise by Ruby and Amber to bring her up to the castle once more before they make their return trip to the highlands. Sarah can hardly retain her excitement and bids her new friends a safe journey back to the castle with much gratitude for the wonderful time.