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Lord Draupaud was standing by the window of his room - one of the rare windows that was glazed. As Derron entered, he looked up and acknowledged his presence with a nod.

"I had guessed," he said quietly. "I wondered if I could accept the Septa's lies - but it seems matters have moved too far, and I must act."

Derron pursed his lips before saying, "So far, only Niko, Aerin and myself have heard a confession. The Septa suspected, which is why she claimed the blame." He paused, then added, "As weak as it may sound, he wants only your respect and affection. And if the Septa is willing to accept her fate..."

"Answer me this," said Lord Draupaud. "Now that my wife is dead, I intend to marry again. A wife that will be a helpmeet to me, a true Lady of Clearwater. Someome who will bear me children ... sons that will grow tall and strong.

"But when they lie in their cradle, little and helpless, would you trust Ranulf nigh?"

Derron frowned. "A fair question, Milord. And I'm afraid that when you put it that way, I think the answer is no. But that does not mean the boy must die. He could foster with one of your vassals. Or take the Black, though he may be a bit young for that."

"Agreed," said Lord Draupaud. "There's a village on the edge of the Ghost Fens by the far end of the Long Lake. I have holdings there. The boy could be sent there until he is old enough for the Wall - for there he shall go as soon as he is twelve. I shall send the sellsword with him, to guard and train him - and to take him to the Wall when the time comes. Four years, perhaps. He will need rewarding when he returns. Prinksett's daughter to wife, perhaps, and a grant of land."

He made a note on the parchment before him.

Derron's eyebrows went up, but he smiled slightly. No more killing was a good result he thought. Niko might not be happy about it, but with the promised rewards he might find it acceptable. Of course, young Aerin might fight it, but as far as he could tell, she got along with Niko. It might work out for all involved.

"Very good, Milord. Now, what would you have of me next?"

"We will need to make the arrangements for the funeral," said Lord Draupaud. "And for the boy's journey. I trust ... "

There was a knock at the door.

"Enter!" said Lord Draupaud.

Niko brushed a stray lock of hair back, and mentally prepared himself for whatever was to come. Then he opened the door and walked in, shutting it behind him.

Lord Draupaud nodded. "How is the boy?"

"Physically, he is confined to his room as ordered. I seconded two guards to search and secure the room and windows, then I checked behind them. They are there even now, guarding him," Niko said matter of factly. "Mentally, he is shaken and frightened. I attempted to give him some succor to forestall any more rash thoughts." He stopped there, unsure as to how far he should, or for that matter, could go. In the end, he fell back on one of his old commander's first lessons- if you do not know, ask.

"M'lord- permission to speak frankly?" He asked somewhat tentatively.

<Assuming the response is yes>

"Something troubles me about this whole sad scene," Niko said. He paused, considering his next words as his eyebrows drew together, though the frown indicated didn't reach his face. Finally, he sighed, and proceeded in a rush, "It seems to me that the death has become rather incidental, rather than the central issue. Though he confessed, your son shows no remorse for the act, nor any penitence, other than how it affects him." He paused, but more for air than anything else, he was beyond thinking about what he was saying. "And pardons if I overstep my boundaries, it seems that the son is only mirroring the father. He's not a bad lad, not by far. It is just as if something is - missing from him. And with that, he would be the model son." He fell silent, unwilling to go further until he could see if he should go further- whether it would even make a difference.

Derron stood silently, listening intently. He had a feeling that Niko was simply assuring his fate as the boy's guardian before joining the Watch.

"And what," said Lord Draupaud, "would you suggest that my son is missing? Apart from the simplest understanding of good and evil?"

Committed, Niko sighed, then with all of the conviction brought on by his own experiences in his voice he said, "The love of his father."

Before he could be interrupted, he plunged ahead, "For sure, the experiences with his mother have deeply affected him. But only a father can bring out the man in the boy. And for sure, he views you as more of an iconic figure than a father that has any interest in him whatsoever. This one can see that even in his manner of address- he never refers to you intimately, but only as your vassals do- as Lord Draupaud. Not father."

"This is what has created the boy that we see today," he finished, almost fully successful at keeping any hint of blame out of his voice. Almost.

Lord Draupaud smiled thinly. "Believe me, he refers to me with more respect that I referred to my own father, an all-too omnipotent presence. Until, of course, he sent me to the Dreadfort to toughen me up." He looked down again at his papers.

"If the boy needs affection, then it will be for you to supply it. He will no longer live here at Clearwater. As he is too young yet to make the journey to the Wall, he will live in exile from the Castle and my lands here, until he is of an age to make the journey north."

Niko lips parted, but quickly closed, as he for once watched his words. But he was deep in thought, the stillness of his face betraying nothing of the emotions he was feeling. "I ... see," he said. Then another pause, longer. Finally, in flat tones he asked, "When are you planning to send him away? And dare I ask about the Septa?"

"Soon," said Lord Draupaud. "And I see no reason to ... "

There was a knock on the door, and when it opened, in response to Lortd Draupaud's curt, "Come in!", Aerin and her father were revealed.

"How muchg have your heard?" asked Lord Draupaud.

"Enough, I think," said Tomas Prinksett.

Lord Draupaud nodded. He Was still seated at his desk, his hands folded before him, but the knuckles were white.

Niko was silent at the entrance, but he did notice Lord Draupaud's hands and the severe look on his face softened a little.

Derron's face remained calm, but he was wary of how Ser Tomas might react if Lord Draupaud made any pronouncements about young Aerin. The Captain was loyal, but also fiercely protective of the girl.

Aerin waited just outside the door of the office, behind her father and nearly out of sight. She waited silently, listening to what would be decided this hour. Without conscious thought her hand dropped to Shade's neck, rubbing the loose skin and fur there as she listened.

Aerin waited just outside the door of the office, behind her father and nearly out of sight. She waited silently, listening to what would be decided this hour. Without conscious thought her hand dropped to Shade's neck, rubbing the loose skin and fur there as she listened.

"As for the Septa," said Lord Draupaud. "She has confessed to murder. The word has spread through the Castle that she is guilty, and they accept it. If it were now to be known that it was my own son who did this deed ... "

He looked up at the other men (not, it seemed, noticing Aerin). "You know that I must hold this land for the King and impose his will here. You know how I have striven to be accepted - and how hard that road has been. If it is learned that my own son has done this ... to my crazed wife, his mother ... what price my authority then?"

Derron nodded. He said, "You'll have no argument from me, Milord, as to your decisions. I do not envy you your responsibility."

"These seem issues for Maesters and Nobles at first blush, but if milord asks in truth and not merely for solace, I would say that your question was answered by your first statement- you hold this land for the King and impose his will. I cannot say that I know much about the works of nobility, but it seems to me that to usurp that will- to step around the rightful law- for any purpose, is to undermine the King. Anything you do is in his name- false or true those actions be."

"You're young, boy," said Tomas Prinksett. "What meant ought to do and ought to believe very often goes contrary to their actions. More men are toppled with whispers than with the sword - or even when the sword topples them, off-times you'll find that whispers preceded the sword. It's a hard fight our Lord has here. If he deems this best, I'll not gainsay him."

He paused for a moment and then said, "But the Septa? My daughter has a fondness for her."

The man's words stung no doubt, but they rang of an ugly truth that deep within Niko already knew. So he held his tongue, even as he turned the words over in his head.

If Aerin was still there, she'd slipped around the corner of the door sill, out of sight of the occupants of Lord Draupaud's study.

"She confessed to murder," said Lord Draupaud. "And we all know, if she thinks it will save the boy, she'll hold by that confession. I have spared her life - what more can I do?"

Niko still held silent; he had no solutions to this ugly problem other than the truth. And apparently the truth was unwelcome here.

Lord Draupaud looked towards his steward.

Derron sighed with a deep rumble. He almost said this was simply His Lordship's decision, but since he had been the one to suggest Septa join the Silent Sisters, he was well and truly an advisor now.

Finally in frustration he said, "Well, maybe you should bring the boy in and let him hear how fates are decided. He still needs to learn every aspect of the consequences of his actions. Present him with options and ask what he would prefer."

"No," said Lord Draupaud. "No, the boy is no longer to make choices. The choice he made precludes all others." He paused, considering. "The Septa herself may choose. She may enter the Silent Sisterhood here, or go into exile with you at Marshend. If that is her choice, she is banished from Clearwater." He looked around the gathered men. "Which of you will tell her?"

Niko sighed, a subdued expression on his face. "I suppose if you are placing one portion of this in my care, it matters not if I have to perform both distasteful tasks." His words were very quiet, and though his expression was somber, his words were clipped as if he were holding some more volatile emotion within. "If it can be decided how he will be provided for, I think we will be leaving soon after. I think there is little left here at this point."

"Indeed," said Lord Draupaud. "Perhaps, Captain, you might make arrangements for an honour guard. Steward Thorne, we will need your aid in setting up an establishment in the village where they will live. It must be done with some measure of discretion ... perhaps you would accompany them on this first journey. Niko ... if you would see the Septa, please."

Tomas Prionksett bowed, his face troubled, and left the room ...

Derron nodded. "As you wish, Milord. I'll brief Linnel so he can run things in my absence. I will also start listing supplies for the journey. May I ask how...comfortable the quarters for Niko and Ranulf should be?" He clearly needed to know what sort of budget he should be spending.

"Strike a balance," said Lord Draupaud. "Niko pays little heed to such things, but the boy will need to be hardened and readied for the Wall gradually. That is, if the damp air of the marshes doesn't carry him off first." He smiled, grimly.

Derron nodded and stepped out to see Linnel. He simply said, "Back to the office. We have even more on our plates now. Um, what did you need to say to me, or His Lordship?"

"The funeral arrangements," said Linnel. "For the Lady - I have them all in hand."

Derron nodded and said, "You have both our thanks."

He rose, willing to walk along with Derron. "This relates to the Septa, does it? Word has spread that she confessed. Poor woman ... It must have broken her heart to see her Lady so crazed. That must have been her reason, don't you think?"

Derron spoke softly as he walked. "Must have been so. Now, the boy Ranulf has been very high-strung since this sad event. To give him some time to come to grips with it, and also see some more of things, he will be going to Clearwater to live. Niko will be his guardian while he is there. I am to go with them to arrange quarters and the like. You'll be in charge here." He paused to let that sink in. "I'm sure you'll do fine. If any of them chafe at your orders, just make a note and tell them I'll be informed of it when I return."

Linnel was silent for a moment, and then he nodded. "I'm honoured by tour trust, Steward Thorne," he said at last. "I shall do my best to live up to it."

Once they arrived and settled in the office, Derron dropped heavily into his chair. "I will also rely on you to begin fielding the offers of daughters, sisters and so forth for His Lordship to wed. Make note of dowries offered, and if you can, make note of which other lords would be angered by which choices and so on. I am sorry to drop all this on you, and I promise to return as soon as I possibly can. I do not relish this task, and intend to finish it quickly."

Linnel nodded. "Are there any local families you actively wish me to seek out? The Lord of Leaning Stone is closest, and he has a daughter of marriagable age - but ... well, he's a drunken sot, and 'tis said the girl's crazed. So ... farther afield?"

Derron had also heard some of the tales of Leaning Stone and its inhabitants. He sighed and said, "Yes, I should think so. Though since our Lord is in good standing with the King, I have no doubt many will seek to bring the subject of their daughters, and one or two sisters, to His Lordship's attention. Just make sure to take careful notes, and be non-committal. I want none of them claiming they were promised something in an attempt to extort this house."

Linnel nodded his agreement.

"And is there anything else you wish me to attend to while you're away?" he asked. "I suppose you'll be leaving after the funeral. Will Ranulf be standing vigil for his mother when his father does so?"

Derron shrugged. "I'll need to ask His Lordship about that. As for other things, there are probably several. But to be honest, this day has been so busy I can't recall a thing." He eyed the scrolls and parchment littering his desk. "Maybe if I look these over it will come to me."

"Yes Steward," said Linnel, and then indicated several of the more urgent ones. By and by he asked, "What preparations do you wish made for your journey?"

Derron sat back and thought. It had been some time since he had gone on any form of campaign. And back then, there had been a quartermaster to assemble supplies. As long as he had what he needed for his smithing, everything else had been provided by the army. "I guess food, a cart for it, and whatever clothes and necessities the boy and Niko own. I'll bring some of my tools, in case the place we find needs work. Hopefully I'll be able to find a carpenter there, but if not I can handle some minor repairs. We should probably also take a few soldiers. Might be bandits on the road. I'll ask Ser Tomas how many he thinks we'll need. And if we have a strongbox for the funds that would be good, too."

"I'll see it arranged," agreed Linnel. "How long do you expect to be away for?"

Derron mulled it over. "A few days travel each way, a few more for being there. Hopefully no more than a ten-day. As always, Linnel, thank you for your hard work. You're going to be a better steward than I ever will." He stood up and stretched. "I best speak with Ser Tomas about some escort. Then I should think a hearty supper would be my best remedy. Are you okay here, or is there anything else that desperately needs my attention?"

"Nothing that I cannot deal with myself," Linnel responded. "But ... a better steward than you? Not for many years yet, I hope."

Derron grinned and said, "Would that it were so. I yearn to be free of this position, and you have the knack of knowing what comes next, and being ready for the little details, better than I ever have. I'll return shortly." With that he left and headed for the quarters of Ser Tomas.

Page last modified on June 12, 2006, at 05:13 PM